Interlude – D

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A loose circle had formed around the gathered gangsters. Loose, because not everyone showed up, leaving very little yet very noticeable gaps in the lineup.

A certain little girl attempted to fill one of those gaps, but it was still too wide, the space around her still too noticeable. She stuck out like a really really really sore thumb. But, with it being her, who had a unique tendency to stand out as it was, her presence alone was enough to raise both questions and eyebrows.

A man, Arthur, asked, “Who the hell is this?”

Showtime.

“Yo! Mind if I disrupt- I mean interrupt?”

D grinned, mouth open, showing off her own gap. The one between her teeth.

The man was perplexed to the point of being offended. He looked across the loosely formed group and questioned the whole thing.

“Please tell me you ain’t serious with this, Mrs. Carter.”

The woman, standing across from her, at the opposite end of the not really circle, stared D down hard behind horned spectacles. D wasn’t nervous. In fact, it gave her a thrill that she craved. She couldn’t get enough.

Like bubble gum or lollipops or cotton candy or jelly donuts!

The woman, Mrs. Carter, kept staring.

“I’m very serious, Arthur, but I don’t know what this is. Or rather, who.”

D watched the woman’s movements, or the seeming lack thereof. Nothing obvious, very subtle. The slight angle of her chin. Up, eyes lowered by a fraction. Fingers tensed, grip tight on the binder she was clutching. Shoulders raised in a straight line, her back perpendicular. Poised, but there was an energy behind it. Ready to charge, needing just the exact provocation.

Everyone had a breaking point. D knew that all too well. And, after spending her smaller and small and formative years doing this, being this, D knew just how to tease it out. It was something she could intuit.

She knew now, though, to not reach for that impulse so… impulsively. If this was a year ago, she totally would have. She had learned some self-control. But not now. This was too important.

From her smaller to small years, to now.

Maybe I am growing up.

The thought freaked her out a little.

“I’m D,” D said, as though to reaffirm herself as well, “Like the letter!”

It was like a routine, by this point. A series of certain words and actions that brought out certain reactions, reactions she could use. Like playing a piano, pressing certain produced certain notes.

And, for what it was worth, D was a pretty decent musician.

She watched with a keen eye, and got exactly what she expected. Mrs. Carter and the other gangster’s guards were up, but not by much. They were wary of her, but they were underestimating, and she knew it was because of her age and stature. Nobody ever took her seriously, and she liked that. Knowing that was as comfy as a big warm sweater, or a fuzzy teddy bear.

She didn’t have one on her now, but D wished she did.

She wasn’t nervous at all.

“Reduced to nothing but.”

A dry chuckle followed after those words. A noise that grated. A sound that echoed from a not too distant past, but it haunted all the same.

Shuffling next to Mrs. Carter, Styx crept up to the circle, filling in another gap. He was slouched over, his arms hanging limp by his side. His eyes were wide, as he took everything in, darting around like he was on something. But he wasn’t on something, Styx wouldn’t be that dumb. Manic, but not dumb.

When he locked onto D, his eyes were wider, somehow, his mouth yawned to an exaggerated smile. That chuckle emanated out of him again as though it was possessing him. But, nope, it was Styx that was in control. Always.

It was something she admired about Styx. It was also something that freaked her out a lot.

He really found all of this funny.

Mrs. Carter remained as still as a statue.

“Would you know anything about this, Styx? Her?”

Styx stretched, his limbs groping and twisting through the air around him like the legs of a spider. Feeling for the webs he had spun, long ago.

With an odd pitch that spiked up, Styx’s laughter crescendoed, then stopped. A shrill noise that unnerved everyone in the circle, D excepted, maybe Mrs. Carter, too. But for D’s part, it was a song she had heard before.

Styx finally spoke.

“It’s a surprise to me, but very welcome one. She’s free to be here.”

Styx had spoken. No one would dare challenge him on that.

Which gave D the chance for her to rub it in. Styx totally gave that to her.

She’d take it though.

“Yup, I’m with the Fangs,” D said. “Hello again!”

Another one from the loose circle said their piece. A woman, this time. Hayden.

“Never seen her before. Weren’t there other Fangs? What happened to them?”

That last question in particular almost pierced through D. Almost. She plastered a goofy looking expression on her face. Not really a frown, but she opened her mouth and showed off the gap in her tooth again. Sulking in a way that only a kid could.

Wearing the expression like a mask.

D answered.

“Same thing that happened to D’Angelo, or Edward, Gary or Inez.”

That answer rippled through the others in a similar way, hitting them, but they weren’t as good at hiding it. Worried looks were cast, concern falling over everyone, oppressive like the dark that surrounded them.

Everyone except Mrs. Carter and Styx.

“No, no! I refuse to fucking believe that this little girl is coming here to announce the end times. Not for a fucking second!”

“Nothing is ending, Cassius. You will be fine.”

Mrs. Carter sounded so cool. Calm.

Cassius sounded rather uncollected when he bursted out again.

“Don’t give me that crap! How could you look at the situation we’re in and not be even a little concerned? Shit, I mean- Inez is dead, Gary is dead! Fuckin’ D’Angelo! And now we can put those two new fuckers on that list!”

With each name bellowed, their respective absence among the group was made painfully and painstakingly clear. Little gaps, but they were there. And for D in particular, the gap at each side of her felt as wide as a canyon and as deep as a cliff. There was no avoiding the feeling it gave her. Right there, a knot in her tummy.

“They had names,” D said, mimicking Mrs. Carter’s tone of voice. “Lawrence and Wendy.”

“Cassius is right, if I may be so bold.” That had come from Hayden. “Too much is happening, and too quickly at that. Several of our own are dead. We couldn’t even rendezvous in our usual location. We have to move here, to a place hardly more elevated than a garbage lot. I’m not asking you to lie to us, Mrs. Carter, but at least pretend that some alarms need to be raised.”

“And where the hell is Mister?” Brian asked. “This ain’t important enough for him?”

Mrs. Carter didn’t crack, however, her composure still composed, maybe even detached. The only thing alarming was how much Styx seemed to enjoy watching the scene unfold.

“What would you say then, Hayden, if I did indulge in your wishes for panic? Would you feel more at ease if I succumbed to fear like all of you seem to have? I have no time for such things. I’d much rather hold this meeting to achieve something tangible. If you would all prefer a therapy session, please, do so at your own time. But not mine.”

No one seemed to have any objections to that. No one said anything.

“Good,” Mrs. Carter then said, as though she was pleased with that response, or lack thereof. She then continued, and took back control of the space.

“With that being said, I do understand where you concerns are coming from. They are legitimate, but not cause for panic. As long as you stay here, you are safe. None of you have any obligation to stay here, however, and you are permitted to come and go and see to your respective gang’s activities. Just take the usual precautions, do not be followed. Does that sound agreeable?”

No objections. There were nods all over.

“And, as for Mister, he is well aware of the situation, and hopes that we can bring this to a satisfying resolution. Now, shall we have a proper discussion, then?”

“Please,” someone said. It wasn’t a voice within the circle.

Everyone turned. D did, too, following the act.

From the dark, two figures emerged. Covered completely, even wearing masks. A raven and a clown.

They approached the circle, moving like they belonged. They didn’t.

Everyone who wasn’t D or Styx or Mrs. Carter reacted with alarm. Tensed up.

“Who the fuck are you?” Arthur growled.

The masked pair stopped. The raven raised her hands. A gesture, before things could heat up.

“We are Machiavélique,” one of them said. Came from the raven.

“And how the fuck did you get in here?”

“That shouldn’t be a concern.”

“Well I fucking think it should be. I thought this place was supposed to be cool.”

“It is,” Mrs. Carter stressed. She looked over the masked pair. “Consider yourselves fortunate that I haven’t had you immediately shot for trespassing. Explain yourselves.”

“You came here for a discussion. We would like to participate. We believe our interests may align.”

Mrs. Carter was silent. A sign for Machiavélique to continue. The raven continued.

“As you all are aware, there have been some… complications that have popped up in the last few days.”

“Understatement of the fucking century,” Arthur said. “The city is on fucking fire, and, because this bears repeating, nearly half of us are fucking dead because of-”

“I’d advise you to check your math again, Arthur,” Mrs. Carter said.

“That’s one way to put it,” Machiavélique said, “But it carries the appropriate weight. Complications. The riots all over the city, and V.”

“V?” Forest asked.

“The Bluemoon,” Machiavélique corrected. The clown.

From the gestures and ticks, D observed as a chill looped through the circle.

“Well then,” Forest said. It was all he could say.

“The problems aren’t separate from one another, but let’s peel away the layers a bit. First, the riots. They’re tearing into the city, they’re growing in magnitude, and they’re believed to be targeted. Several of you have reported attacks on your own bases and buffer zones, is that correct?”

Everyone nodded, D included.

“In regards to your own equipment, manpower, your capacity to fight back, this shouldn’t be an issue, but with the very… politically charged nature of them, it makes the situation quite, again, complicated. Volatile. They are a minority, but they are a loud minority, and they are, at the end of the day, civilians. When they hit, they think they’re fighting against a world that has wronged them. A system. If you hit back, it shows the world that they’re right. That the system exists and needs to be addressed. And that will mean a larger response, and a brighter spotlight, on all of you.”

“Meaning?” Forest asked.

“Meaning that, once you go out to defend yourself, you also put yourself out there as a problem that needs solving. What those riots are really about exists on a deeper, fundamental level, a black thread that has stitched itself through the fabric of society itself. It can’t truly be cut or washed out. However, through either military intervention, or increased media coverage, the second any one of you gets pinned as a potential scapegoat, it’s over. Everyone that isn’t a part of your industry will be against it, and they will not be satisfied until you’re liquidated of all of your assets. The underlying problem would still persist for these people, but for that fleeting, pitiful moment, they will be satisfied. We assume that you’d all be against that.”

“What do you suggest we do, then?”

Mrs. Carter asked.

Everyone waited for Machiavélique’s answer. Even D was curious… at how Machiavélique would word it.

Machiavélique, the raven, raised her head, then her hand. A victory sign was made with her fingers.

“Layer two. V.”

Those chills again. D liked watching them squirm. It was funny.

“During the chaos of all the riots, she’s been targeting you, too. In the past few days, she’s already taken out a decent chunk of this group, here.”

Machiavélique didn’t have to mention their names again. Their lack of presence was felt. The lack at D’s sides.

Names she couldn’t bear saying again.

“The super villain thinks she’s being clever, taking advantage of the widespread panic she’s partly a cause of, but she doesn’t realize that she’s putting herself out in the open, too. You can’t really fight mass hysteria, but you can take down one person, even if they have powers. Prop V up to be the scapegoat, take her out, and the fires will quell.”

“And you truly believe that will work?” Mrs. Carter questioned, “That it will be that easy?”

“Might not be easy, but it is simple. If we all work together, I think we can accomplish something very special.”

The gangsters conversed with one another. It wasn’t an immediate rejection.

Mrs. Carter continued to stare at Machiavélique.

They’re doing well, D noted. It was kind of scary.

Forest had a question.

“Why should I believe any of this? Why should we believe you? I left Las Estrellas because of a similar incident, and that was damn near twenty five years ago. Now it’s happening all over again, except now you have these masked fools running around, taking bigger, messier shits. I heard some other fool in a mask is leading the riots. A gang going after other gangs.”

“The Flood, Dong-Yul being their leader. From what I’ve heard, he’d have the motive.”

Forest spread his arms, as if to say ‘I hecking told you so.’ D thought that in her head.

“But Dong-Yul is human. He’s only human. If he gets taken out, it won’t change anything. You’ll need to go after someone bigger. A monster. V. She is the beast you need to slay.”

“And you know how to slay this beast?” Hayden asked.

“We have a plan,” Machiavélique answered.

“Why? You two come out of nowhere, making this proposition. I don’t think you’re in a gang. So what’s your stake in this?”

Machiavélique paused, considering.

“No stake. Just… it’s just. Now, will y’all consider helping me?”

D observed with a keen eye. They were all considering it. Mrs. Carter, for her part, was allowing the discussion to continue, and Styx was having the time of his life. About to crack up. Ready to hear the great punchline of it all.

D didn’t find it funny, though, but she didn’t have a choice but to consider it, and go along with it. She didn’t have a choice at all.

D was no longer free.

“Break it down, I guess. Reduce it, right down to the letter.”

“Okay.”

Doris followed the instructions, right down to the letter. She was good at that, good at listening. And she liked that he liked that she was so good at following instructions.

Dad ruffled her hair, leaving it messy.

“Very good. You need anything else?”

Doris shook her head, both as a gesture and also to get her long hair out of her face.

“Nuh uh. I think I’ll be okay.”

“That’s my girl. I’ll be over in the living room. If you need me, just holler.”

“Okay!” Doris hollered.

That prompted Dad to ruffle her hair again, leaving it even more messy.

Giggling, Doris had to put the homework on pause to get some bunched up hair out of her eyes. Her pencil went flat on the table, her hands and her attention elsewhere. It took her some time, because she was so uncoordinated, and her hair was so long. It went past her lower back, as long as it was nutty brown.

She finally got everything sorted out, pushed back, and she was free from her tangle to get back to the homework.

Simplifying functions. Easy stuff.

Doris saw a lot triangles and X’s and tiny twos that liked to hang out in the upper right of the letters. Divided and separated into fractions. Doris knew fractions, she learned that in Ms. Gibbons’ class.

She went to work, doing it like how Dad showed her. She was just following after the steps, but it still came easy to her, she could feel that it was all coming together, everything either being broken down or reduced. She just had to keep plugging at it.

Crossing out X’s, canceling stuff that looked the same. Taking out those tiny twos when she didn’t need them anymore.

And… there. Just a two and a ‘X’ standing together like buddies.

She found the derivative.

Down to the letter!

It was easy to feel proud of herself. Dad said this kind of thing was hard, but she did it just like that. Well, she needed instructions, but even Dad admitted that he didn’t really understand this stuff, he was just reading words off of the page. But she still figured it out, and she liked to think that Dad had a hand in that.

Smacking her pencil down again, a loud clack, Doris pushed her chair away from the table. Her chair rolled back.

“Dad!” Doris hollered.

She didn’t hear an answer. Weird.

He said he’d be in the living room, right?

“Dad?”

Again, nothing.

Doris hopped out of the chair, gathering her pencil, paper, and textbook. She hugged them into her arms and stalked her way out of the kitchen.

Before she could step out on her own, a heavy hand guided her.

“Come on little one, this way.”

“Hey!”

A bit of fear rose within her, but that was nipped in the bud, after having realized who it was.

“Dad!”

She could only go for one word responses.

“Go to your room and stay in there for now.” Her dad took a pause. “And no, you’re not in trouble.”

Doris was rushed down a hall to her room, her bare feet barely keeping up with her dad’s longer strides.

“Why?”

“Nothing to worry about,” Dad said, but with the way he was acting, how he was hurrying, it made her worry anyways.

“But-”

They got to her room. Her dad opened it for her, nudging Doris inside. Not a push, but the implication was there. She felt it on her back.

Doris spun around, her things shaking in her arms.

“I finished your homework!” Doris said, louder than she had meant it to.

Dad smiled. It was something in his eyes, the corners of them. A little sad.

“That’s my girl. Thank you. Now just stay here. Go read something.”

Dad closed the door before Doris could get even another word in.

Frowning, Doris turned around and looked at her room.

It was a simple room, but Doris and Dad had always lived by simple means, and there was nothing bad about that.

The walls were a soft yellow, the sun as it filtered through the shutters made it brighter. A bed and some stuff animals in one corner, a dresser with maybe five different combinations of outfits in another. No closet in here.

Along one wall was a shelf, filled with books of different types. Dictionaries in different languages, encyclopedias, biographies of prominent anarchists, and coloring books. Not a lot of fiction stuff, Dad didn’t want her head to be filled with ‘fantasy crap.’ Doris didn’t really get it, but she wouldn’t complain over what they didn’t have. She knew better.

She had more books than clothes, and she was fine with that. More than fine, really.

Doris moved along to the shelf, setting her things there. Pencil, paper, and textbook. Her dad’s textbook.

It was Dad’s idea, but she wanted to help where and when she was able. Doris was more than happy to do it.

Dad had just went back to school, a local community college. Studying… Doris wasn’t sure exactly, but Dad needed to go through the core subjects first. That included stuff like math, stuff Dad wasn’t so good at.

Doris was a willing learner, and a fast one at that. So Dad let her in on it. Whatever he couldn’t wrap his head around, he’d try to teach her and have her take a crack at it. And then, he would get a good grade and pass and Doris would get an early and free college education.

It was a good idea, and it made sense to Doris. She just wondered if Dad was learning anything.

She picked up voices on the other side of the door.

This apartment was her home, but it was more like a tenement, to borrow from one of her dictionaries. The walls were thin, and someone didn’t have to be very loud to be heard. Doris was well aware of that.

Moving back to the door, she sat with her own back resting on it. She listened.

“… from his office. Nothing big, a quick meeting. How are you holding up, Carl?”

She didn’t know that voice. A man, maybe around Dad’s age, but it was hard to tell from voice alone.

“I’ve been doing everything you’ve asked. Twiddling my thumbs.”

That was her dad. Carl.

“You’ve been calm during this whole ordeal. That’s good. That’s, um, you’re doing a great job, I can say that much.”

She heard good, she heard great. That had to be a good thing, right? Maybe they were talking about planning a surprise birthday party for Doris or something.

Doris reconsidered. But her birthday wasn’t for another few months.

“I don’t like how you’re talking there, though.”

“I… it’s not good, Carl.”

Oh no. Not good wasn’t good. It was not good.

She heard her dad make a noise. Something like a moan or a groan.

“Damn- come on, man, I thought you said you’d help me out, here!”

Dad tried to keep his voice low, but it didn’t work.

“Like I told you the first time, Carl, I’m doing what I can, but what I can’t do is promise you anything. I talked with the company that’s looking to buy the building, Tate and Mono Construction. They’re pretty adamant about getting this property, and several others, for their planned, shall I say, aggressive expansion. And, this was supposed to be between me and their lawyers, but they are putting together a deal, a payout to anyone who is willing to leave by a certain date.”

“Payout? How much?”

“Ten thousand.”

“Each?”

Doris didn’t hear the answer, but she definitely heard the response to that.

“I can’t take that! That’s bull- that’s peanuts to the peanuts I’m making now! If I take that, where else am I gonna go? I- We can’t afford to live anywhere else.”

“And I understand that, Carl, but there’s only so much I can do. I’d love to take you on as a client and go after these bastards, but there’s the whole matter of…”

“I can’t afford you?” Dad asked.

“As you are, the firm I represent doesn’t see a need to take you on. Me? You can always come to me.”

“I’m coming to you now, please. If I have to beg, then I’ll beg.”

“There’s no need, but this is all I have for you. Any more and it becomes a thing, and you know how it is. My firm is rather selective with its clients, and… well, the more I talk the more I’ll demoralize you, so I’ll stop right there.”

There was a long pause. Doris almost thought that she had lost her hearing.

Then the man spoke again.

“I’m not officially your legal counsel, so I won’t advise to take the money, but as a friend, I’d think about it.”

“My daughter won’t have a home-”

“Think about it. In the meantime I can start looking for some other places for you and Doris. Public housing. The programs haven’t been properly funded for some time but I’ve been getting to know the people who run it. They’re good folk, they’ll set you two up and make you comfortable.”

Another lengthy pause.

“That still doesn’t give me a lot of time. And, it’s not like I want to stay here, but, I can’t go anywhere else, man. You know what I do, what I did. I’m trying to get out of that game, but I leave now they’ll… I just need some time. And money, but if I have time I can get money, and I want to do it the right way, do it clean. I’m just… I want to do things right by her, cause I know I ain’t do squat for her mother.”

Her mother. Doris felt a breeze run through her. A large and noticeable hole that she had grown to live with, but sometimes, she’d feel that cold, how it touched the edges. She shivered.

Dad continued to plead. Beg.

“Please, man, I’m not going to ask you for money but please just buy me some time.”

A third, much longer pause. She really thought she went deaf that time.

“I’ll tell you what,” the man then said, “Something about those lawyers at Tate and Mono, they were serious about securing this spot for them. I don’t know why, no offense Carl, but it isn’t exactly prime location for a large overseas company, looking to dig some roots into American soil.”

“Thanks.”

“What I meant was, Tate and Mono are desperate to get their footing in Stephenville. I can only guess as to why, so I’ll have to do some more digging. But, their lawyers did briefly mention that they were looking into some other buildings in the area as well, buildings my firm’s clients happen to own. I’ll keep an eye on this, and if they try to make a move on another building, and it lines up, I can encourage them to take action, and your testimony will help when it comes time to that.”

“You’d do that?”

“I’ll try. Until then, just sit still, twiddle your thumbs for a bit longer. I’ll get you the time you need. No promises, though.”

“Ah god, thank you, seriously. Thank you, Th-”

The door cracked and bent off the hinge. The door, the whole apartment, was old and rickety, and Doris had leaned on it for too long.

She fell back into the hallway, making a dumb sounding grunt as she did so.

Hurrying, Doris jumped back onto her feet, her hands going to the door to fix it. Shake the hinges back into place so she could close it, but that only made more noise. Loud, so super duper obvious noise.

“Doris?”

She froze.

Turning to look down the hall, she saw her dad, staring back at her. He wasn’t mad, but he was confused, maybe a little embarrassed.

She saw the man standing behind him.

Tall, wearing a suit. Handsome, fit. Dark hair, slicked back. He looked nice. The opposite of Dad. Except the nice part. Dad was nice, too.

But looking at that man, Doris felt her face get all warm. Definitely more than a little embarrassed.

She forgot about the door. She ran back into her room, diving onto her bed, her tiny arms being greeted by fuzzy ones. She hugged a huge teddy bear. The only thing she had could come close to filling that hole that had always been there.

Doris hugged it tight, eyes shut just as heard.

Still though, she couldn’t help but listen.

“That her?”

“It is.”

“Cute kid. Hey, if she wants to make a new friend, I know someone who would love to get to know her.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Sure, why not? It might make my next visit less depressing, depending on how things go. And if anyone deserves some good, it should be her, right?”

“Right, exactly.”

Doris only hugged the bear tighter.

She wasn’t quite sure what they were talking about, she didn’t understand it. She got that last part, though, that she might make a new friend. Or someone closer than friends. Like family.

It was hard for her to get along with the other kids in class, and she didn’t know why. Maybe it was because she was too short, or they didn’t read the same books as her. But maybe someone new would like her, someone different.

Doris wasn’t so worried anymore. In fact, she was thinking of some encyclopedias to recommend right now.

The old but grand building stood tall in the distance. A hangar in an airstrip, once passed between corporations, it was now owned a single, sole, private entity. In any case, it was away from the city. it was secluded, it was safe.

Even then, D still felt like they’d be fish in a barrel.

Them, not me.

Get far enough out of the city, the sprawling cityscape would give way to something more sparse, rolling hills and long stretches of road. The hangar on the very edge of that. Far enough to escape the heat, but the smoke was still very visible from the rearview mirror.

D drove down the long road. She was by herself. She had been used to that for some time now, but, ever since she returned to Stephenville, she became very busy. That meant meeting new people, making new friends. Even new family. Not a lot of time to be on her own, anymore.

But, for the moment, for this drive, she was alone. A brief respite.

Time alone, time to think.

The van sped along, speeding, really. D wasn’t concerned over any cops or other drivers. It was that late, or it was that early, depending how one considered it. It was a weird time. It was a weird time for everybody.

D took a glance at the mirror, checking the road behind her. The city was but a small dot in the back. It glowed, though, stinging if she looked at it for too long.

Her eyes stung.

She blinked away coming tears. Dangerous, being on the road. Doubly so if her mask cracked during the meeting. She’d have to get a grip on herself, now. D was good at that, and being alone helped, but it had gotten harder, since she came back.

Everything had gotten harder since came back.

D could remember a time when it was easy, when it was fun. When it was all about doing whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. Pranks and just scraping by to do more pranks. And if she fell or failed, it wouldn’t matter, because nothing did. No one would have missed her.

Now, it sort of did kind of mattered. There was people she missed, now, so the inverse had to be true. Now, if she fell, the descent was slowed, the inevitable crash hurting all the more.

No longer instantaneous.

Don’t think of their names. Don’t even say them.

In the instant that thought flashed in her mind, a light flashed behind her.

D checked the mirror.

A pair of lights. Bright. They hadn’t been there before.

Not a cop. No color. Just white.

Blinking. Hazard lights. Signaling.

D looked ahead, and saw a tree off to the side of the highway. Secluded, safe.

The van skipped as it changed terrain. In the back, a pile of teddy bears fell out of their seats. Tires had to work harder to climb up the slight incline, dirt kicking and sliding out under the rubber, but she managed to get up there.

On her tail, the lights followed.

D put the van in park, turning her hazard lights on for a second.

The other car’s lights got cut. Then D’s.

She hopped out of the van. She was able to see the car now. A teal Honda.

Without breaking a stride, D walked, calm, over to the tree. The hangar, the meeting place, was still way over there.

D turned. She didn’t want to think about that now.

Leaning against the tree, she watched doors opened on each side of the teal car. Two figures emerged.

They approached, walking in step with one another.

The moonlight was dim, but D could see their faces. Or rather, she couldn’t. They were already wearing their masks. One more closely resembled a human face, with colors and shapes painted across it like a clown. The other looked like a raven with more eyes than it needed.

D wasn’t perturbed. Just a little cold.

Ça fait longtemps, dis donc,” D said, lively. Any other negative emotion was kept locked down, it wouldn’t be allowed out, kept below her choker.

Neither replied.

Quoi de neuf?” D tried.

The clown and the raven stopped. They stood in a triangle.

D and Machiavélique.

“If you have to ask, then you’re not taking this seriously.”

Quothed the raven.

D shrugged. Acting cool, staying cool.

“I’m taking this very serious. For real.”

If any of those eyes could react, they would all be squinting at her. They remained wide and open. All-seeing, but not all-knowing. That was what D was for.

“Is that it?” Machiavélique asked. The clown half. “The huge building building over there?”

There was only one huge building around.

“Yup yup! Meeting’s moved to the outskirts. Precautions. You can imagine why.”

D would have punctuated that with a laugh or giggle, but she didn’t want to push it. A simple crack, or if she got the delivery wrong, would have given away everything.

Getting a hold of herself. The real test would be in there.

“God damn,” the clown said. “This is getting out of fucking hand.”

“It’s been out of hand for a long time now,” the raven said. “But that’s what we’re here for, to take it back. To set things right.”

“Be prepared for it to get a heck of a lot worse right before it gets better,” D said. “That’s how stuff like this usually goes. That’s how everything goes, always.”

“We’re ready,” the raven said, answering for both halves of Machiavélique. “You came alone?”

“I did. I thought Sarah might try to come, since she was there for the other meetings, but she dipped, instead. Didn’t like how things were going. What the other Fangs wanted to do.”

“So it’s really just you now?”

“It really just is.”

“That doesn’t scare you?”

It was the clown that asked her.

D shrugged again, exaggerating it on purpose.

“Nah. What does scare me is the responsibility. I was used to staying on the side, doing the fun stuff for the gang, but now I have a bunch of underlings who they have to take orders from. And while I like them a bunch, I know they don’t like me. They prefer me on the side, and I work better from there, honestly. I don’t belong on the stage. I’m more like the stagehand, I rig things.”

“You won’t be on stage for long,” the raven said. “And you shouldn’t have to worry about the other Fangs. Play these next few moves right, this should be over very soon.”

D thought about the prospect of that. Reaching endgame, even if Machiavélique didn’t like to think of it as that. A game.

Yet there were moves to make.

“My Fangs are already down, so if you can manage to get everyone in there to work together, then you might be right,” D said. She looked up, gauged the position of the moon, its light dancing between the gaps in the leaves. “Let’s get going, everyone else should be there by now, and I don’t like to keep Styx waiting. Really don’t like to. Leave your car here, and I’ll sneak you in with the van. I stuffed like the biggest pile of teddy bears in the back, so you can hide among all of them if they decide to do a search through.”

“You and your bears,” the raven said.

D grinned, gap showing. That was genuine.

“Yeah, let’s go,” the clown said. “I’m shaking as it is, and it’s not because it’s cold.”

“Let’s,” the raven replied, and that word got them all to move. They went back, all heading to D’s van. A new van. The old one with some sentiment value had been sacrificed. A worthy cover.

D felt something well up in her throat, under her choker. Pressure boiling, punching against a lid. She knew she had to relieve some of it, or she might burst at the wrong time.

She spoke, only for the raven to hear.

“You say I don’t need to worry about the Fangs, but I quite like them. I like those two, too. Liked.”

“I know you do,” the raven said. “I also know that you recognize that they cannot be allowed to continue. Her especially. We take her down, and this madness ends.”

Or you finally get your petty, selfish revenge.

But D managed to keep that thought down, below the choker. She knew better than to talk back to an elder. Besides, D was still here, she was still helping.

And that choked her up inside.

Tugging her choker, relieving some of that pressure, D replied with only a soft, “D’accord.”

“Nor… Nordisk, no disc family book, what?”

The older girl inspected the book with a mild curiosity, but the expression on her face was mostly confusion.

Nordisk familjebok,” Doris said, without the trace of an accent. “It’s an encyclopedia from Sweden. That one is the Uggleupplagan, or the owl edition, because there’s an owl on the cover.”

The older girl ran her hand across the cover. She never cracked it open, though, instead sliding it right back into the shelf. Her hand floated through the other options, ready to pick out a new one like fruit.

“You don’t have any book series or anything,” the older girl said, a little disappointed.

Doris pointed, her arm and finger fully straight. “Noooo! There in the corner! The complete history of motorcycles, from the Reitwagen to the right now!”

The older girl laughed.

“Noooo,” she said back, imitating Doris. “I’m talking about book books, with characters and stories. Things like that.”

“Oh,” Doris said, a little disappointed. “My dad doesn’t want me to read those kind of books. Book books.”

Book book books.

“Why not?”

“I dunno. He says I should read to learn so that’s why we have all these.” Doris motioned across her shelves.

“That’s crap, you can learn from anything you read. Say, would he get mad if I got you something, as a gift?”

As a gift? Doris thought about it.

“I don’t think he’d get mad. He also says you should never not accept a gift.”

“Cool.” The older girl smiled. “I’ll bring something next time.”

“Next time?”

That smile grew brighter. “Sure.”

Doris squeezed her fists, shaking them a little. This girl just got here, and she was already talking about a next time. That made Doris super duper excited.

With even more awe in her eyes, Doris watched as the girl perused her humble library and its offerings.

The girl was older than her, as Doris kept noting, and while it was only by a fistful of years, the older girl already looked so much more mature than her. Taller, her darkish blonde hair done up, her outfit more stylish than Doris had ever seen in a magazine or TV.

She looked cool, and she seemed cool because she was nice. Doris appreciated that.

“What kind of books do you like?” Doris asked.

“I like… um,” the older girl took out something and skimmed the pages. A French dictionary. She stopped at a page and gave the book to Doris, leaving a finger on the thing.

“Those kind,” she said.

Doris followed to where her finger pointed. She read the word with ease.

“What’s noir?” The dictionary definition by itself didn’t make any sense.

“Crime stories. Pulp fiction. Cops and robbers and detectives and the like.”

“Oh. Cool.”

Doris knew what those things were but she didn’t see the appeal in them.

“My dad is a lawyer so it’s like the same thing. Well, not actually but I still like it.”

“Oh. But that is cool. Like actually.”

Doris didn’t want to be misconstrued.

“Thanks,” the older girl said, a funny tone. Like she meant it, but she was also joking somehow. It was weird.

“Why do you like it?” Doris asked. She really wanted to know more about her.

The older girl leaned a bit, eyes to the ceiling. Thinking.

“Why? That’s a weird question.”

“Is it?”

“Kidding. I’ve just never been probed on why I like a thing, before. Not weird, just different.”

Not weird. Different.

“Why do I like them? Uh… I dunno, I like bad guys when their just desserts. But, I guess, in those kinds of stories the main character isn’t usually such a great person, either.”

“So what happens when there aren’t any good guys?”

The older girl put some serious thought into it.

“In that case, you just have to go with the lesser of two evils.”

The lesser of two evils.

“So you like it when the bad guy is beat? Or the bad bad guy?”

“Worse than beat. When they’re beat so bad they can’t run away and do more bad.”

“Oh,” Doris said.

“Anyways, let’s not get into that,” the girl said. She took the book back and set it into its proper place on the shelf.

“Why?”

“It’s depressing, and I’m not about to mess up a little kid I just met.”

“Okay,” Doris said, accepting that answer. “But promise when you come back you’ll bring me a book you like.”

“Hmmm. I shouldn’t make any promises, but sure.”

Doris made little fists again.

“For now though,” the older girl said, “Wanna play a game?”

“Yeah!”

Crawling a few feet across the floor, she reached over for a small purse. She pulled out a tablet.

“Um, do you know how to play chess?”

“Yeah!”

The older girl tapped on the screen, setting the game up, and then placed it on the floor between them.

Doris hadn’t gotten a lot of chances to use a device like this before, her family never had one, but she figured it out fast.

The older girl went first. She was white, then it was Doris’ turn.

Pieces started moving around. They talked as they played.

“So, uh…”

“Try to remember it, will you? Name’s-”

“Can I call you Big Sis?”

A pause.

“That’s another weird question.”

“Is it?”

“Kidding again. Um, alright, why not?”

Yes, Doris thought.

“Big Sis. Your dad is a lawyer?” Doris asked. Pawn to C5.

“Yes ma’am,” was the answer. Knight to F3.

“Is he going to help my dad?” Knight to C6.

“As much as he can, I guess.” Pawn to D4. “Do you know what he needs help with?”

Pawn over to D4. Pawn taking pawn. Knight to D4. Knight taking pawn.

“No,” Doris said, down. “I’m scared that he needs help because he’s a bad guy.”

“Why would you say that? Do you think he’s a bad guy?”

“No,” Doris said.

Pawn to G6. Bishop to E3. Bishop to G7. Pawn to C4.

“I know we just met, so it might not mean anything, but, if my dad is willing to help yours, then he can’t be such a bad guy.”

“Okay,” Doris said.

“Those are just stories, they’re not like real life.”

“Okay.”

More pieces moved. Pieces taken.

“Not bad,” Big Sis said.

“I want to help him but I don’t know how.”

The words blurted out of her mouth.

She couldn’t stop thinking about it, though. Dad and her dad were out there, in the living room, talking about matters that Doris couldn’t fully understand. It was grown up stuff. But Doris could understand that Dad got really stressed, that he lost lots of sleep and wouldn’t be able to finish his homework by himself. Dad got sad a lot, and that made Doris sad. Kids and adults could understand that feeling.

Doris wanted to help Dad like how her dad was, but she didn’t know how.

Big Sis’ turn. Rook to F5.

“Hey,” she said. “You’re a kid, so you shouldn’t worry about it so much. But hey, I say that, but I worry about my dad, too.”

“How?”

“He really wants to get this… your whole situation straightened out, and he hates that he isn’t in the right position to make the right moves. He talks about this with my mom after dinner. He thinks I can’t hear him but I do. My dad’s the type to give it his all to his work, so when something doesn’t work out…”

Big Sis paused. Doris was quiet too.

It was Doris’ turn. Pawn to rook. F5.

Big Sis’s turn again. Bishop to F7.

“… he gets frustrated.”

Doris couldn’t quite place the feeling in the air with a word, but it was probably not what either of them intended for this playdate.

Doris was stuck. On what to say and on what move to make. Her king was stuck in a corner.

Doris tried, though.

“Maybe, if we can have fun today, would that be enough for them?”

Queen taking pawn. B2.

She looked at Big Sis.

Big Sis smiled.

“That could work.”

Then, she made her move. Bishop to F8.

Doris let her mouth open so long it got dry.

Check and mate.

Big Sis smiled even wider. Doris knew the word for that one for sure. Smug.

Doris smiled back.

“Who are you talking to?”

D was worried. It was a genuine concern. No smiling here.

Wendy had her arms flat on the desk in a vain attempt to cover up something, but D could see how the table bent inward, like there was a crack down the middle. Wendy was never very good at hiding things. Not at all.

But this was different. This was concerning.

Wendy was talking to someone, but D didn’t remember leaving anyone else in the room with her. And she sounded mad.

Clutching her teddy bear, D took stock of the office. Right. No one else in here.

No. Wait. No one else in here. That wasn’t right. That was so very wrong.

Wendy stared at D, and it was almost like looking back at the abyss. There was simply nothing within those pools of wide blackness.

Her mouth dropped open, and an hollow sound echoed out.

“Huh?”

It wasn’t even a word.

D was good at hiding what she felt, deep down. She could keep it from sounding out when she spoke, disguising it as something else. Chipper. Hyper. Nothing would go above the choker she wore.

Crying was different. That was real, and it fit, made sense for this situation.

But now, a certain emotion threatened to bubble up and burst out of her mouth. One she didn’t want to show. Fear.

Had to suppress it when she asked again.

“Who are you talking to?”

The lights never seemed more harsh and oppressive, the glare catching Wendy’s lenses and glazing over the eyes themselves.

Then, Wendy moved her head slow, almost like how an old person would, and they had forgotten where they were or how they got there. Her arms, resting on the desk, had relaxed.

“Isabella,” Wendy said, looking off to some far distance, somewhere D couldn’t see. “She’s right there.”

D looked. But, no. Try as she might, the corner, the walls, the ceiling. Nothing there.

She was scared to report that.

D didn’t risk it. Stayed quiet.

But that only made Wendy more dazed.

“You alright?”

D wasn’t sure if Wendy was talking to her or not.

But she didn’t answer regardless.

Wendy closed her eyes, then opened them again. A slow blink?

“D?”

So much was happening, so much had happened. D was reeling from one thing, already. Lawrence was dead. She wasn’t prepared for this.

“Yeah?” she asked, getting ready to take a step backwards, to the hall. She already regretted coming back in here.

“You… alright?”

Wendy’s speech slurred there a bit.

This… D couldn’t save this.

She couldn’t bear to answer. She couldn’t say.

D bit her tongue.

Wendy broke her stare from D, and looked into the distant nothingness again.

“It’s not up to me, we have to come to a decision together.”

D only hugged the bear tighter. If it could breathe, she was strangling it.

She still couldn’t say anything.

Wendy looked back at D, and blinked again. Blinked some more. And blinked. Blink blink blink.

D was scared. But she couldn’t say that.

“Isabella asked you something.”

A knot went up into D’s throat.

Have to say something.

D nodded, glancing to a vague direction within the room. Leaning back.

Choking, D said, “I’ll have to get to back on you with that… Isabella.”

Wendy motioned for D. “Hey-”

An arm was lifted off the desk, and there was nothing to hold it together anymore. The desk was split into two, dropping into place and making a thud.

But it might as well have been a crash.

D leaped, despite herself, and like an animal that hunted for its food, Wendy didn’t respond well to that.

Wendy jumped up, too, away from the collapsed desk. Her head and eyes darted around, searching for something, hunting for it, until the gradual realization came down like the setting sun. That nothing was there.

And then something rose. Something much darker.

D couldn’t stick around to find out.

She bolted out of the room.

Down the hall, a corner, a corner, then-

The quick panic made her temporarily lost. Dark. Couldn’t see.

No delay, but fear had her. Delay.

Pause. Panic.

Turn.

Run.

So much running.

Crash.

Disoriented, D shook herself off. She found herself on the floor, on top of Sarah. It was Sarah.

“Sarah,” she said. Glad to see her.

She was on the floor too, having been knocked into by D. She grunted.

“You alright?”

“Please don’t ask me that, we need to get out of here.”

“What-”

What followed wasn’t Wendy herself, but her howl, the moon just outside.

D picked her and Sarah up, rushing her.

“We need to get everyone out of here.”

Sarah snapped to action, but she still wasn’t sure of what was happening. Then again, neither did D.

But it almost didn’t matter. It immediate goal was simple enough to understand.

Leave.

Both getting to their feet, they ran together down a hall. D let Sarah take the front, because she was older and because she was faster overall.

The howl grew in both intensity and volume, seeming to bounce off the cold steel walls around them. Imprisoned by metal and sound. More crashes and bangs.

“… going on?”

Sarah yelled out maybe less than half a question, but D got the meaning.

“I don’t know, Vivi’s having another episode!”

“Again?”

More howls and crashing answered that for her. Louder. Closer.

“There isn’t anything we can do for her?” Sarah asked.

“For her? That’ll have to wait. Now? Gotta-”

D could have sworn she heard metal snap.

“Go!” D finished.

They ran, and D’s legs were already hurting. The Redhouse had been blown up only two hours ago, and now she was fearing for her life again. Wendy carried her to safety that time, now they were running from her.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

The doors.

Bursted open.

“Every-”

D couldn’t finish the word.

Wood splintered and cracked and fell apart. Somewhere above her.

She couldn’t even begin to consider how, but Wendy had gotten out another way, crawling out from somewhere that led back to the main area of the church. A sizable hole was left in a wall above where the priest would have sat, dirt and debris dropping down.

D looked, and saw the moonlight frame the girl. More shadows than anything else. The outline vaguely human.

The vague outline that was supposed to be her new big sis, and Sarah’s new partner, leapt from her post and into the crowd. Her fangs met her Fangs.

Chaos ensued. More than D had ever seen or caused.

Everyone rushed to get out of there seats and aisle, spilling out to the sides, trying to find an exit. Screaming things too rude for D to repeat.

This wasn’t good.

She wasn’t considering that these were her own men. She was going through them, taking them down, one by one by one by one. She would leap into the air, landing on top of them. D lost visual on them as they fell behind one of the wooden seats.

She’s going to tear them apart.

And we led her right to them.

D had to come up with something. Couldn’t let this last any longer.

Too dark, too crazy in here. Her voice was too small to direct them to proper exits.

D took a quick scan of the church. Wendy’s base. Probably not her base anymore.

“Don’t go into the crowd yet!” D yelled to Sarah, “Stay out of the way.”

“But Tone-”

“Stay out of the way!”

D shoved the teddy bear into Sarah’s arms and ran.

Over to the other end of the church. Exactly where D told Sarah not to go.

The crowd was dispersing, being cut down to size. D couldn’t make out the scope of the destruction. Just screams and people bigger than her running for their lives. It was hard to squeeze through, but she had to move.

Too much was happening to the Fangs, one after another. The riots starting at Wellport, and then Lawrence… they couldn’t even give him a proper burial. And now this. Wendy snapping and lashing out at the nearest things around her.

So much pressure had been building up, and now it was blowing up.

D couldn’t let the Fangs fall apart. She still needed them.

Had to keep it together. For the endgame.

Someone knocked into D. She would have fallen over, if she hadn’t knocked into someone else. She pushed and kept going.

Another super loud sound. Shots. People were trying to shoot their way out now.

Or at her.

Keep running keep running keep running.

There. She could reach it now.

On a wall in a small pocket by where the choir would play. A panel that controlled the sound equipment.

D went right to work crossing wires and plugging things in. Power still ran through here. She could use it.

She heard a static click of a speaker turning on.

Spinning around, she searched for a mic. There, on a chair. It was dusty and old but it would work.

She grabbed for it, fumbled with the wire, then yelled.

“Exits to the side, not just the front!”

The roar of the crowd dampened at the sudden sound, but there was no clear response. D did see, however, Fangs start directing themselves to where D had indicated. The chaos was still there, but it was beginning to thin out.

But Wendy was still there, too.

Blood and splatter arced through the air. D wasn’t able to count how many of her own teeth Wendy was pulling out.

I have to stop her.

D yelled again.

“Vivi!”

A head popped up. Tilted and bent and crazed and covered in blood.

There were no words. Just anger and aggression.

D clapped her hand against the mic, making another loud sound. She tapped it.

The speakers were at the head of the church. Less people there. If D could direct it- her-

Wendy, Vivi, Sis

It jumped, soaring through the air, towards the front of the church.

D was almost disappointed at how easy that was. But that wasn’t Wendy right now. Something else had taken over.

Shots followed after Wendy, missing, but they kept trying. They kept shooting at their own Voss.

Wendy landed on top of the altar, on all fours. She stumbled and staggered when the occasional stray bullet tagged her, but she didn’t fall.

She didn’t go after D, just the sound of her voice, coming from somewhere else. All D had to do was keep Wendy away from the rest. Then, how to get the heck out of here.

Shots continued to zip by. Most of them missed. But not all of them were aiming for her directly.

Some of the Fangs were working together, now, shooting above Wendy, what was overhead. And what was overhead was a crucifix, held suspended in the air by old cables.

One stray bullet wouldn’t do. Several hitting the mark could. And then it did.

“No!”

D’s scream reverberated throughout the whole church, then swallowed by the crash. Nails to teeth.

She saw how the sudden weight tore through her new big sister. A beam of wood caught her at the shoulder, severing the arm. Crossing her, cutting her, the weight sliced the limb.

It-

D recalled a conversation with Wendy. What had happened in the Lunar Hotel against Granon. Lawrence saw the aftermath there. She had seen it for herself, too, when they visited Braham Barn on a rainy day.

A spiral of destruction.

Then, now, D finally was able to witness the leading suspect.

A burst of mass and blood. Black and slick and huge. Lengthy, it stretched and twisted of fibers and muscles. Sinew.

Obsidian tendrils whipped around in a circle, taking out everything in its path. The crucifix had its turn to be cut in two, and many more pieces.

Long and powerful, the tendrils sprouted from the place where her arm was supposed to be. They had reach.

Spinning out of control, they sliced and slashed the poor unfortunates who tried to take the side exits D had pointed out. Some still made it out, some were able to turn back, the rest weren’t able to do either.

Lucky bullets hit a long black target. It was like steel. Bounced off.

Just more destruction. A spiral of it.

Moving on its own volition. This was that something else.

The screams spun around D. It was a blur and a rush.

Then, the whirlwind stopped, the debris allowed to settle in place.

It happened fast. Or, it took long for D to realize that it was over.

From behind a chair in the choir section, D climbed back up to her feet. She didn’t even remember ducking for cover.

A church was in disarray. People picking each other up. Less than before. Some got out. But not everyone did.

Wall, ceiling, wall, floor, wall, ceiling, broken window. D could follow a path of destruction, of self and otherwise. But she wasn’t here anymore.

Horror show. Horrible.

D walked to the altar. Sarah was there, standing up, by the broken wood and metal and marble. She was still holding the teddy bear.

No one was at the altar. No arm, but D was certain it had been lobbed off. She found a torn piece of cloth in the wreckage. A sleeve.

Sarah was speechless, all words robbed from her. D was just as broke now, too. But she’d need the words soon, because it was time to make that call. That move.

The queen had moved into position. The beginning of the endgame.

Doris was scared, and she couldn’t do anything.

Scared for herself, scared for Dad.

A voice taunted on the opposite side of the door, across the hall. Menacing.

“Should have taken the money right then and there, Carl man. You see, those good people need this property. For good reasons. Good for my business.”

“Please, don’t!”

“And your testimony put a stop to that. You and your lawyer friend. That’s not ace.”

“God, please!”

“No, Carl, no deities here. I could take you to them, though.”

“Stop!”

She tried to cover her ears with her teddy bear.

Tried, but the walls were thin, Doris heard every struggle, every strained scream. Her dad’s. The other voice was like nails on a chalkboard.

Blocking her hearing didn’t work, her only line of defense now was staying under her bed.

“Shh, shh, it’s okay, don’t move. Here, here. When you go see the doctor for this, tell them you took a trip down the stairs as you were moving out of here.”

“No, no, stop, please, no-”

Dad scream was so loud it scared her. But it was the laughter over it that terrified her.

It was all so sudden. Doris couldn’t even remember what she was doing before it happened. Probably something mundane. Probably reading the newest book her big sister gave her.

Dad’s descended to a whimper. Doris couldn’t hear him anymore.

She heard nails on a chalkboard, though.

“Search the rest of the apartment. Take anything they don’t need. Lighten the load for when they leave.”

Footsteps. Up and down the hall. Things breaking.

Hinges squeaking.

The footsteps were closer now. In her room.

Boots walked to the foot of the bed, stopping there. Unmoving for a time.

Then, they turned, but instead of walking away, rusty bed springs bent and creaked together. They were sitting on the bed, right on top of her.

“Hi.”

Doris kept every emotion and word in her throat.

“What’s your name?”

No escape. Stuck here. No choice.

She looked at the man’s boots. Boots with sharp things coming out the bottom of them.

“Doris…”

“Hi Doris, I’m Sticks.”

“Sticks?”

“Like the river. Anything I can get you? Thirsty?”

Salty tears were already streaming down her face. She wasn’t in need for water.

“Styx, did you hurt my dad?”

“I did. He wouldn’t listen otherwise.”

“Are you going to hurt me?”

“Not up to me. Offer still stands.”

Doris didn’t, couldn’t get another word out, even though her throat was dry.

“Well,” Styx said, “Just so you know, the offer will always stand. Always. No matter what. If you need me, for anything, just come and find me, and we’ll figure something out. And in fact, I insist. Please. Do me that favor, from you to me.”

He then chuckled.

Doris didn’t really get it, at all. She was still too scared to connect any thoughts.

“Why are you doing this?”

That was the only question she could think of, her confusion like a haze in her mind.

“Why? Because I can. I can do whatever I please. I didn’t have to do this, but I felt like it this time. Seems to me like it was worth it.”

“So you’re a bad guy?”

Sticks, Styx paused.

Dumb question. Stupid. Stupid. But she wasn’t really thinking.

“Bad?” Styx asked back, “I do what I want in a system that allows me that freedom. I’m free, in every sense of word and existence. Is that so bad?”

Doris didn’t have an answer for that.

“Tell me, Doris, do you feel free here?”

Through the haze, Doris thought about it. Here, with Dad, doing his homework, playing with big sis whenever came over, she was content, hardly sad, but free? Within these walls? Maybe not. But that had never been a detriment, something that Doris complained about, under her breath.

“No,” Doris answered.

“Oh wow! Doris! You should really try it sometime! Most people go their whole lives, letting themselves get shackled to things. But true freedom is liberating, it’s honest, it’s real. And that, my Doris, is a very good thing.”

Somewhere deep in the core of her, where she wasn’t or would ever be conscious of, those words struck like a bell, and rang throughout the rest of her being.

She sounded, “Oh.”

“I’d best get going then. Remember, offer. Favor. See you then.”

The bed springs retracted to their neutral positions, creaking along the way. Styx’s boots walked their owner out of her room.

Her heart was in her throat. Pounding. That sensation reached her head.

She’d always wanted to help Dad. She even thought she was helping by playing with her big sis, having fun, being happy. But Dad still got hurt. She couldn’t do anything at all.

Her heart was pounding so hard it was breaking. That sensation matched what was happening in her mind.

It didn’t work. Nothing she had tried worked. Now, those feelings of wanting to help that broken whimpering man kept her down. Very much like shackles.

Freedom didn’t sound so bad.

The van had slammed into a sudden stop, and D’s bones were rattling. She couldn’t even shake it off, because of how hard the impact thrummed through her body.

Nothing broken, so go me. Yay.

D still felt as if her atoms were splitting apart though.

Testing, she moved an arm, and found that she could. A huge relief, that she was able to move over some of the stuffed teddy bears. Stuffed with stuff. Made for a decent cushion.

Her head rattled, and so did her thoughts. She took a second to collect them, remember what just happened.

Oh, right. She was being chased. A car chase, except she was driving a van. And she was being chased by a taxicab, of all things.

And then someone climbed out onto the top of the taxi while it was speeding down the street, she definitely remembered that. It was like a stunt from a movie.

Then they jumped over onto her van.

D did what she could to shake them off, but their grip was like steel. Impossible.

Then a crash happened, somehow, and D forced the van to a halt.

Cracks ran across the windshield like a web. Hard to see through, but she could still drive with it like that. It’d just be really really hard.

Rearview. The taxi was there, lights on. No movement.

Before D could check the windshield again, the door to her side flung open.

Middle of the road, but D didn’t crash into another vehicle. Not even the taxi. She was too good of a driver for that.

Something else had stopped her, someone.

A person crashed her van to a skidding stop.

That person.

Shorter than D had expected, but still taller than her. Covered from head to toe, even the face was hidden behind a mask.

A red phantom. Not a blue moon, but the phenomenon was just as rare.

It has to be you.

Their head was tilted as they inspected the van’s interior. The reaction was expected, everything was. Staking out the factory, waiting. The chase, the run-around, the van and the teddy bears, all to throw them off and make them not suspect a thing. Her.

My new big sister.

All D could do was smile, big and wide. Goofy, but only because she was so excited.

“Yo!”

“Dad says you’re moving out soon.”

Doris moved a bishop. No word.

“He also said you can sleep over in my room in the meantime, while he helps your dad find a new place. I’m totally cool with that, by the way. I don’t have to keep bringing my board and pieces here all the time.”

A rook. Still no word.

“Do you, do you wanna sleep over at my place?”

Pawn. Doris said nothing when she let a pawn go.

“Hey, you listening? You’re not even playing-”

Wordless, D only replied with chess moves. Putting her heart and thoughts into each one. Her intent. Things she couldn’t bear to say, but had every sense to follow through. She hoped her sister would understand.

She did. Replying with counters, responding by the certain placement of a certain piece. A developing language, spoken only on the board, the message only fully fleshed out by the final position of the remaining pieces.

Doris had sacrificed her black queen early in the game for an opening. A risky move, but it played out well in the long run. Queen’s gambit.

Checkmate.

Doris had it. With but her king and bishop left, and putting as much distance between the pieces as possible, she was able to finally beat her big sister.

She won. She’d be free. She almost wished she wouldn’t be.

Her eyes were hot, wet in the corners, her throat locked up again.

Words failed her big sister, too, because it was too late. Nothing she could do or say would stop her now.

“Got your message, sis.”

D sat atop of an impressive height of teddy bears, almost like a throne. Looking down. Her smile was gapped.

Three of them total. Two people at the bottom. One response.

“You ran away from family but you’re still calling me that?”

“All of the fun but none of the work. It’s great!”

She had paused. Looking up and down the pile again.

“A lot of bears. How heavy is the weight?”

“Enough,” D said, “These gang leaders need better number crunchers. I’d offer my services, but… it’s work.”

“Katy, this is crazy.”

The other girl spoke up. Maria, her sister introduced her as. A new big?

No, she doesn’t seem into the idea.

How disappointing.

Maria was ignored.

“Doris,” her sister called out, “Get down here!”

She complied. She’d only be allowed to tease her for so long.

Slipping out, D slid down the pile. The friction on her legs was warm and fuzzy.

She reached the bottom and fixed her skirt. It had been a minute since she last saw her sister. They had all gotten taller.

“I think you’re asking for someone else,” D said, “But… mais je divague.”

“Here.”

D cupped her hands. Something dropped into it.

A black queen.

D started tossing it up into the air, catching it. Playing with it.

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know who it is exactly, but I know the name it’s using. Alexis Barnett.”

“Alexis. Ah-leck-sis.”

D giggled.

“Keep an eye on her for me. Doesn’t matter how. Follow her, befriend her. Be her personal bodyguard for all I care.”

Maria spoke, “You’re seriously just a kid. Katy, she’s just a kid. Do you know what you’re asking of her?”

“That’s all I need for now. Give me constant updates. Don’t let her go too far.”

“Can’t promise that last part,” D said.

“Then if she does, we’ll go from there. Just be my eyes and ears.”

“Sounds like a lot of work. Responsibility. What’s in it for me?”

Her older sister gave D a look.

“You’ll have someone new to play with.”

D shivered when she heard that, starting from the very bottom of her spine, shooting up.

Spinning the chess piece between her fingers, D grinned, excited and silly. She didn’t have to say any more.

“Doris.”

Knock.

“Doris?”

Knock knock.

“Got some math problems for you. They’re a little out of my league. Want to take a crack at it?”

Nothing.

Nothing.

Her mouth was full, her tummy fuller.

D for donuts.

The car spun wildly out of control, music blasting from loud speakers and open windows. Hard to hear anything else, except when the back parts collided into the other cars in the lot. She’d skid a bit, then she’d kick the engine back into full gear.

Spin spin spin.

A loud and distinct blare. Police.

D let the car collide into another to get to a stop.

Music down, windows up halfway. She waited.

The officer approached the car. Driver’s side.

“Do I have to tell you why-”

He lost his remaining words. She was good at that.

“Yo!” D said, giving the office a full smile, showing all her teeth. Bits of jelly dripped out a corner of her mouth.

The officer looked so stunned, and his huge mustache made him look so funny. She’d never had an uncle, but this guy kind of looked like one.

Before he was able to find those words again, D spoke up first.

“Mind if I practice my driving here? I’m still getting the hang out it. Better yet, how about a race!”

D stood up from her seat, stomping on the gas.

The car tore through the parking lot, leaving the cop and his car behind in head start.

The window was half open. She felt the wind in her hair as it flew around. Free.

Finally.

It was time.

From one life to the next.

Doris stood at the edge of the hall. Her room behind her. Nothing but the clothes on her back, and her favorite teddy bear.

She hadn’t packed anything else. There was nothing to bring.

She was supposed to go to school today. She instead waited at the corner of the bus stop, and waited some more. The bus left without her.

Dad should be at work by now, thirty minutes late after having to hobble there in crutches. A while to get there, a while to get back.

Time alone, time to think.

This was it. A hurdle to step over, and then there was no coming back here.

Doris started walking.

The hall, where the walls were etched in crayon but Dad never got mad. The living room, where they would sit on the couch and watch public access television, or run around the rickety coffee table in a game of tag.

The kitchen, where she would sit and do her homework as fast as possible so she could move on to Dad’s.

The apartment was mostly empty, now, everything had been packed and ready to go. The plan was for them to move into the project housing by the evening. Mr. Thompson would come and pick them up and take them there.

That was their plan. But she had other plans.

Doris went to a drawer, and drew out a big knife.

Silent, she moved over the dining table. Where she’d do their homework. Where she tried to help and make her Dad happy. Where, even if she got every problem right, there was one she wasn’t ever able to solve.

And she was done solving problems.

Frustrated, she kicked one of the legs, and her foot hurt. Feeling worse, she pushed the table around until it fell over, and she pushed it some more until she got it halfway across the living room.

Kick. Kick. Kick.

Doris was useless, Doris couldn’t do anything. She wasn’t free at all.

But I will be.

Her arms seemingly moved on their own as she brought the knife to the underside of the table, carving into it. The table was old, bought secondhand or thirdhand from somewhere. Other people before her had left their mark. Most of them were mean messages. But Doris wasn’t writing something mean, it was something true.

She poured what was left of her heart and self into the blade tip, leaving them there, leaving it here, within these walls.

She got up to inspect her work, pushing her wild hair out of her face. No good. She’d have to get it cut.

The inscription, the epitaph.

Doris is here.

Doris would stay here, like she always did. Trapped. And now, she was free to go.

And she knew just who to see first.

D turned around and never looked back.

Previous                                                                                               Next

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Interlude – James

Previous                                                                     Bonus

No, Mr. Gomez, I’ll tell you what she is. She is a parasite, feeding off of the blood, sweat, and hard work that your officers lay down their lives for every day. She throws a wrench in your efforts, undermining the whole system you have in place. And how do you claim to know what Blank Face’s true motives are? Have you spoken to Blank Face? Are you in regular contact with her?

“I have never had any contact with Blank Face, nor do I claim to know her true motives. I am merely providing my comments on the issue, as I was asked to do when I was invited to your show.”

So you believe that Blank Face is providing a service to your city? Because, and correct me if I’m wrong, but if Blank Face is the hero you claim she is, then why have large-scale riots and displays of civil unrest increased by sixty percent since she’s showed up, why have assaults against Asian Americans skyrocketed by seventy percent since she’s showed up, and why has her presence introduced a new wave of themed vigilante and gang activity, as well as her being challenged by terrorists whose capabilities are unprecedented, and, need I remind you, are still at large? And, those statistics are only representative of what is happening in Stephenville, it’s about half, spread throughout the rest of the country. What do you have to say about that?

“I say that’s a lot to throw at me. Again, Jim, I don’t claim to know what’s in her heart. She’s here, she’s fighting criminals and gang members. As the police chief, and as a citizen, I oppose of her methods and vigilantism, but Blank Face has attempted to stop evil when she encounters it. I do believe that says something. But, whether or not her attempts have proved to be of any benefit… that’s a whole other debate.”

You’re right, that’s a debate for another time, and I hope I can have that with you very soon. Sorry gentlemen, there’s still so much to talk about, like the state of Stephenville in the face of these continuing and escalating issues, and the fact that the last public sight of Blank Face was almost two months ago, but my time is running out. Dr. Paltro, I apologize for losing you at the end, there.

“It’s no problem.

Alright. It was good having you two come on the show. Thanks again.

“Thank you, Jim.”

The camera feed was cut off. James started blinking at the bright blue screen.

“Ah, fuck,” James muttered, reaching for his collar. He removed the tape and microphone, wrapping the wire around his fingers. He placed the coil on the table in front of him, and got up to stretch.

Bones creaked and joints popped.

“Ah fuck,” James said. He was getting older.

It was something he avoided thinking about, he didn’t want to admit it to himself. But he felt it, as he went about his day to day. That much harder to get up, that much harder to move around. The aches in the morning, the soreness as he crawled back into bed. He wasn’t that old, but he was getting up there in years. The work, pressures, the stress… it all piled together, and that combined weight was starting to slow him down.

I wonder if he ever felt like this.

No. That was another thing he wanted to avoid thinking about, as much as possible. But it proved to be a significant challenge, even in this brief moment of being calm and quiet and alone. If left to wander, his mind wouldn’t, couldn’t stop from going in that direction. The wound was still too fresh, still too deep, not want to dwell on it.

But he knew he couldn’t, he had to distract himself, keep his mind busy. Later hours in the office, longer hours in meetings. Meaning more work, more pressure, more stress.

James stalked over to the door, turning the knob, pushing it open. He waited.

Campbell stepped inside.

“Did it go well?” Campbell asked, stepping past James to collect the camera, and turn of the television.

Young, caucasian. Well-built and tall. Reliable. Still held onto the belief that there was good in this world, and that it would somehow prevail, in the end.

James wasn’t so jaded as to call it stupid, no, he admired the fact that people like Campbell were around. That people were still willing to try to leave this world a better place than they found it.

James tried. Now, it wasn’t so much to try and save the world, but just save what little of his own world he had left. Hold it close, hold it tight.

Even then, it’s as if everything’s slipping away.

His mind was wandering again.

James finally answered. “As well as it could have.”

“My condolences,” Campbell said.

“I don’t know why I keep agreeing to these whenever I get invited. I make an ass out of myself every time.”

“Maybe you have something you want to say.”

“Ha. You have a job, Campbell, you don’t have to kiss my ass.”

Campbell flinched. “Sorry, Chief.”

It was like flicking a dog on the head. It was just wrong.

“Come on,” James said, “Let’s go.”

“Right behind you,” Campbell replied, having finished wrapping up the wires, turning off the camera, and placing it back into the bag. He picked it up, and zipped it closed.

Together, they left the conference room.

The halls weren’t bustling, leaving James and Campbell plenty of room to walk side by side. Everyone was either out on patrol or at their desks, working all the same. It wasn’t busy, but it wasn’t lifeless. It was just another day at the Stephenville Police Station.

Even with the chaos and turmoil going on in the city, just beyond this building, the atmosphere seemed lax. People were working, but there wasn’t any sense of urgency. It was wartime, to be dramatic, yet everyone seemed content on laying back, only getting up when they were prodded hard enough. James wanted nothing more than to kick them in the ass and get them moving, but he knew better. Or rather, he just knew. He had no power to exert over his own men.

The halls were clean. James hated that. It meant that the janitors and cleaning ladies had the time to clean thoroughly, that his men weren’t running the place ragged.

There should be more being done, here. People should be tearing their hair out, trying to set this city straight. People should be working together, hand in hand, to rebuild what was broken and creating sturdier foundations.

Someone should be doing… something.

“Campbell,” James said, needing another distraction.

“Yes, sir?”

“How long have you been on the force, now?”

“How long? It’s been, wow, five years already? Certainly doesn’t feel like it.”

“Time flies when you’re having fun. You… you’re not from around here, right?”

“I’m not. I moved here while I was still in highschool.”

“And that was, what, five years ago?”

Campbell laughed.

“It was ten years ago, sir.”

“Color me shocked.”

“But, actually, I still call Chicago my home. Sorry, Chief.”

“No need to apologize.”

“Not that I don’t care about this city, I was just saying that-”

James interrupted him, reassuring him. “I know what you mean, son.”

They walked down the halls, passing by other conference rooms, offices, broom closets. They were in the administrative section of the old building, located on the third floor. The Stephenville police department had two separate buildings, a smaller, newer facility, and the larger, historical main base.The newer building, nicknamed ‘the Pupil’ by those who had the privilege to be able to work there.

The Pupil housed the high-tech labs, with state-of-the-art equipment for forensics and other data analyses, and keeping the higher-grade firearms for emergency use only. He’d seen a lot of those arms be used in recent weeks.

Nice, clean, innovative. A bastion of hope for the city. James had to hear it all through the grapevine.

The building was finished five years ago, and he had yet to take a step inside.

He was there, though, at the grand opening. Cameras pointed at him, smiling that wide, fake smile while holding that stupid, oversized pair of scissors. He cut the ribbon, everyone poured in, and James stayed back and watched.

The memory was still clear in his mind. The meeting, on a trail under the southern bridge at the Peace Phoenix Plaza. The dead of night. Styx had informed him that the Pupil was constructed, in large part, thanks to dummy corporations that Mister owned. The tech was legit, the facility was functional, but all of it was to stay out of James’ reach. He was not granted permission or jurisdiction over the equipment within.

“Looks like you’re blinded,” Styx had told him, before he cracked a wild grin, and chuckled. The sound perturbed, and it only served to cement that moment in James’ mind even more.

Again, wandering.

James scratched his face, running his fingers through his hair, using more force than he needed. To keep him here, instead of being lost in his thoughts for hundredth time that morning.

“Campbell,” James said, finding himself reaching for another distraction, even though he recognized that continuously relying on Campbell for that was probably not the best of ideas. He didn’t work at a high school, but rumors did form, and they would spread.

“Um, yes sir?”

“What’s your take-”

James closed his mouth as they went around a corner, running into another pair of officers. They all exchanged greetings as they moved to pass each other, and James waited until he was certain they were out of earshot before he tried again.

“What’s your take on Blank Face?”

“Blank Face?”

James noted Campbell’s hesitation.

“You can speak your mind around me, son, it’s alright.”

“It’s not that sir, it’s just…”

That hesitation again.

“It’s just what?”

“I’m not sure what to think, it’s all so complicated, maybe even needlessly so.”

“That’s not a bad answer, see, it is complicated. How about this, then. You’ve met her, right?”

“Yes, I did. Back at the warehouse while we were looking for Mr. Thompson, and Solace, and I sat with you and her on the way to city hall.”

Even just hearing his surname, it was like a punch to the gut. Dealing hadn’t gotten any easier.

“So… I, then, what was your first impression of her?”

Campbell took his sweet time in formulating an answer.

“I think, and this is going off a very brief, very hectic interaction from months ago… I have the impression that she was tired.”

“We were all tired back then, Campbell, that was a hectic time. Hell, it still is hectic, and I’m still tired.”

“I know, I just can’t find the right word for it. Maybe exhausted, drained? I didn’t see her face, of course, but I can read body language okay. From what I can remember, she’s young, isn’t she?”

“Just a kid,” James ventured. It was something the media or the public had only picked up in recent weeks. Nothing more than a theory – a rumor – that had spread to be accepted as fact. From the mad ramblings of a domestic terrorist, during one of the most heinous attacks on American soil, at the newest peak of paranoia over the Bluemoon, it was no wonder that people grabbed onto the loudest unsubstantiated claim they had. Even if it wasn’t confirmed, even if it acting on that impulse to believe was unwise and dangerous

People were desperate, and people had stakes to burn. Everyone was looking for even the tiniest flicker to set their hate ablaze.

Granted, James and Campbell knew the truth, but the people didn’t. They just wanted a witch to hunt.

“Just a kid,” Campbell repeated, as if he couldn’t believe it, himself. “Yeah, the way she was standing, how she held herself. I’d hate to assume, but it reminds me of what I’ve seen before.”

“Before?”

“My mother. She… how do I put it? She was a hard worker. She had grown up poor, so she forced herself to work to the bone for her family. It paid off, in a sense. The company recognized her, rewarded her accordingly, and she kept working hard to impress them even more. Always pushing herself, she was.”

“And the twist was?” James asked.

“I’m not sure if you can call it a twist, nothing surprising happened. Looking back, it was almost unavoidable. Something must have snapped, or the wrong set of wires was crossed, but she took her work ethic and made it… not ethical. It turned into an addiction, working herself so hard that she became bone. How files were organized were more important than if anything was in her stomach, or if she was getting enough sleep, or if she saw her husband and two sons for more than ten hours a week. And then… the three of us moved here.”

Campbell’s voice was just a bit tight.

“You don’t have to get too deep into it, if you feel uncomfortable,” James said. “We’ve veered off the main topic, anyway.”

Campbell shook his head.

“It’s not that, I was trying to get to my point. What I mean to say is, I’ve seen that. The restlessness, even when exhausted, making you twitchy, making you lash out at when the slightest thing goes wrong.”

James remembered back to that time in the warehouse, when they encountered Linda Day. Twice, Blank Face had assaulted her, at the slightest provocations. Would Blank Face had killed her, if he wasn’t in the way? James couldn’t say for sure.

Campbell had continued while James was pondering. “-when they’re at the frayed ends of sanity. That’s never healthy. She, my mother, subjected herself to all that stress, and she let it consume her. Multiply that stress by ten, a hundred fold, and put that on a kid, and a kid like her…”

“Something’s bound to snap,” James said, finishing the thought.

“And considering that we haven’t seen her in so long, it’s weird, I actually feel a little concerned for her, and not in the obvious, ‘super-powerful-vigilante-has-gone-missing’ kind of way.”

He coughed, the camera bag shaking a little.

“You know what I’m trying to say, sir?”

“I know,” James said.

James had a thought he wanted to share with Campbell, but they had gotten to the elevators. James pressed the button for the both of them. Different floors, but the same direction. Up.

Campbell spoke as they waited for the elevator. “But hey, it could just be me not remembering things right, and my mind ended up going there. I’d bet money that I’m wrong.”

“No,” James replied, eyes forward. “It’s not a bad assumption. If anything, it’s food for thought.”

“Yeah, food for thought.”

As if it was responding that point as well, the elevator dinged, the doors sliding open. They went inside, James pressing the appropriate buttons, and the doors closed.

They stood in silence as the elevator worked itself up. James listened to the hum of the machines, the cables and gears, focusing the small bumps as the three thousand pound metal box was being pulled up.

A ding.

The doors slid open. It was Campbell’s floor.

“Thank you again for letting me set up the meeting for you,” Campbell said as he walked out.

“I’m no good with all that stuff, and you’re the only one I can trust.”

“Honor to hear that.”

The door closed before James could get another word in. The elevator continued.

The workings of the interior felt farther away.

That last thing he had said to Campbell, how sad was it, for that to actually be the case?

An exaggeration, but there was some truth to that. Campbell was there with him when he traced the signal that led them to the warehouse. He watched the door while James worked. And he was there, helping James assemble the crew he needed to get a leg up against Solace. Of the crew that James knew he could work with, Campbell was the one he knew he could trust.

And in a building full of people who were supposed to be his men, his officers, that feeling was like finding a drop of water in the desert.

A ding.

James got out of the elevator.

His body moved on its own, he knew his floor better than anyone ever would. And he had better, no one spent as much time on this floor as much as James did.

He passed someone in the hall. Detective Harvey. Forest’s man.

Harvey smiled, and James tried to smile back. He picked up the pace back to his office.

James’ office. He had always wanted a space on an upper floor, with a window that faced the city. There was a sort of dignity to it that appealed to the six year old James during job day. Back then, he knew what he wanted.

What he got was a bit of a compromise. He got that office space high up, but the window faced an alley, a brick building was all he could see out that window.

Well, that, and another more peculiar thing.

Two scraps of paper were taped to the wall, with an arrow drawn in marker pointing from one to the other. The marks were on the other side of the glass. James hadn’t bothered to erase them. Somewhere within him, he was wanting to put up another scrap of paper.

Others had seen it, but no one had made mention of it. Either they thought that was just another quirk of the police chief, or, more likely, they just didn’t care.

James walked through the stacks of boxes, full of files of cases and other investigations and potential leads. So many files that he had to empty out his bookshelf and start stacking files using that. Some stacks went up to his chest in height. Getting past it all was cumbersome, there were simply a lot of boxes.

He finally made it to his desk on the other side of the room. He slumped into his chair, righted himself some, and booted up his computer.

As he waited, he looked around.

Not that he had less stuff in his office, now, it was just that all of his stuff had been replaced by files and boxes. Photos and trinkets, precious mementos and superficial awards. All moved out for files and boxes. Even his desk, there was a pile of names and cases that took up all the real-estate, and then some. Things he could actually work on, and need legitimate attention by the police.

A serial murderer who had used the Halloween Riots as cover for his killings. Patrick Goldstein, a convicted felony who fled into the city to join one of the many growing gangs. No one wanted him, so now he was stuck, and the police had to find him. Solace, but he had stopped getting regular updates about that.

A missing persons case. There were so many as it stood, but James was asked to put it on the top of his desk. A personal favor.

Blank Face. The official order to bring down the vigilante. Her stack was the tallest in the room. The amount of offenses they stuck on her was almost comical.

Work, pressure, stress. His own office was no longer a haven for him.

Sitting here, he already wanted to go up to the roof and have a smoke. Funny, he had already quit smoking. But all this work, pressure, and stress, it brought him right back.

What would have six year old James thought, should he see this? Disappointment? Would he cry?

Pathetic.

The computer finished waking up. James moved the mouse to click and check through his emails.

Several. A dozen, to be exact. But one caught his eye.

John Cruz. The new district attorney.

It was a proposal about a new bill that he was going to support, and was suggesting that James back the bill, too. Nothing concrete was put to paper yet, but it would use-

James stopped reading.

He looked away from the computer screen, wanting to shut down the computer, wanting to throw the whole thing out the window.

The wording, the formality of it, that James saw it as callous. An offense that James took personally.

Fuck you, John. You shit-drinking, piss-eating bastard. I don’t know how you eat piss, but I’m sure the devil would love to get creative when he meets you. Fuck. You.

Finding a distraction, his eyes went to a portrait, instead.

It was the only memento that kept its rightful place on his desk.

Three people. No, four. James almost didn’t see little Katy there, wrapped up in a bundle, held by Kristin.

Beside him was-

He had to look away again. Not his mind’s eye, this time, it was more direct.

But he kept it there, James never removed the portrait. He needed it there.

But he lost the will to even look at that, too.

James got out of his seat, and went to the window.

Nothing but a brick wall. All he could see. A block to his vision.

He almost laughed.

“We were supposed to do this together,” James said, his words reaching no one. “I got here first, waiting for you to catch up. Now you’ve left me hanging. Was this your plan all along, to set me up as part of a big joke?”

No answer, but James wasn’t expecting one.

James stared at the brick wall in front of him. He got so far, but he was never even close. The whole time, he was impeded by something that he had no control over, and he had learned that lesson way too late.

He stared at nothing, and got nothing.

It wasn’t always like this.

It was James’ job to keep the peace.

Red and blue lights illuminated his face and back as he stood, arms spread out. The colors enveloped, giving him more of a presence. He tried using that to his advantage.

“Stay back people! Please stay behind the tape!”

The people listened, backing up some, giving those closer to the tape and James more room to breathe.

James grinned to himself.

Good job, me.

The scene was still fresh, the last gun shot still ringing in his ears. The last time he had checked, the last time he took a glance behind him, the scene still wasn’t pretty.

James didn’t even want to see it in full. So why would all of these people gather to take a look?

Vultures. I bet they don’t even see them as human. Just another spectacle to indulge themselves in.

For their sakes, and for his, he tried to push them back even more.

“I’m gonna have to ask y’all to back up one more time! One big step back, please!”

His portion of the crowd listened again, but they weren’t backing up as much as he would have liked.

He opened his mouth to shout again.

“Everyone, please back-”

“James, James!”

He heard his name getting called. Not from behind, but in front. Someone in the crowd.

James saw as people were moving out of the way. Had he not asked for more room, there probably would have been more objections, more shouting at the people squeezing through. There wasn’t, though, which James liked. The people here were behaved.

The last line of defense broke, and James saw who the offenders were.

“Thomas,” James said.

Thomas Thompson smirked upon hearing his name.

It was well past any reasonable hour, but Thomas was still clean and proper, looking like the lawyer he was. Dressed in a fitting, expensive looking grey suit, his hair combed back, with the only sign of disheveledness was how wild the strands were at the ends. He needed a haircut, that was for sure.

He walked with a swagger, like he didn’t just know what the next move was, but the one after that, and so on. Like it was all part of a grand plan, and all Thomas had to do was go through the motions of that plan, and everything would fall into place.

Some would have called that arrogance, but James recognized it as Thomas just being that damn confident.

“Why am I not surprised?” James asked as Thomas approached. Thomas stopped right at the tape, and Gomez had to take a step to close in the distance.

“Because you’re looking for something to do, my friend,” Thomas answered. “And I’ve got just the thing.”

“Or, man,” Thomas then said, correcting himself.

He gestured to the man standing beside him. Younger, just a hair shorter than Thomas. White, though the features in his eyes and jaw suggested that he might be part Hispanic. Dressed similarly. Though, unlike Thomas, he had a bag strapped around one shoulder, and had a cup of coffee in one hand. Another lawyer, if James had to guess.

He was dressed the part, but he looked new to the job. His top buttons of his shirt were undone, the tie loosened. His dark brown hair was much more of a mess. He wasn’t used to the late nights, not yet.

“Hello there,” James said, going first. He extended a hand.

The man took it, shaking it. Firm.

“John Cruz,” the man said.

“James Gomez.”

“John’s still paying his dues, cutting his teeth as a public defender. He’s the guy you get if you can’t afford a guy.”

“I’m cheap, but I’m good,” John said, rolling with it.

“You have a sense of humor,” James said.

“Helps with the late nights.”

“Alright then. But, what brings you two here?”

James asked them both, but the question was mostly directed to Thomas. If he was here, James knew he wanted something.

“I wanted to say hi, give an old friend some coffee to get through the warm night.”

Thomas nudged John with an elbow, and John lifted the cup to James.

“You didn’t even have the decency to give it to me yourself,” James said, berating his friend. He took the coffee anyway, letting the cup warm his hands.

“I’m showing John the ropes, how to establish a good rapport with other good guys. But we don’t need the formalities, do we James? We’re closer than that.”

“We may be, but I still like coffee.” He took a sip. “Skipping formalities can taste bitter, sometimes.”

Thomas laughed. “Does it, now?”

“It does. Alright, I know what you’re here for.”

James turned, and raised his free hand. He flagged another cop over.

“Mind if you handle this?” James asked, “I need a coffee break.”

The cop nodded, understanding what a ‘coffee break’ really meant.

They swapped places, and James signaled for Thomas and John to step over the tape.

Now the objections and shouting came forth. The trio walked away as the cop who had taken James’ place yelled over the crowd’s complaints.

They moved over to the middle of the street, closer to the actual ‘scene.’ There were more cars and people now, cops and gangbangers alike. People were giving statements, people were being taken away. Everyone was too busy to care about a rookie cop and some no name lawyers.

“Did the chief say anything about this?” Thomas asked.

“Nothing we haven’t seen before,” James replied.

They got close, but they couldn’t get too close. James pulled them to the side, standing beside one of the many cop cars on the street. Out of the way, but they still had a visual of what was going on.

“So, what’s going on?” John asked. He was looking at something just past James. There was only one thing here that would have grabbed his attention. James didn’t need to see for himself.

Several blue tarps, laid out in different places across the street, with red stains pooling out from underneath, spilling onto the road. The cops that were closer had to watch their footing as they maneuvered around the area.

A fresh crime scene.

James answered. “Two new gangs on the scene, trying to establish presence in their neighborhood.”

“I think they did too good of a job, if you ask me,” John said.

“Yes,” James said. He couldn’t bear to look, which was why he offered to take care of the perimeter, instead.

The thought of taking another sip of coffee wasn’t so appetizing, anymore.

“John,” Thomas said, “If it stuck out to you like that, why do you think that is? Use your brain.”

“It’s much more than just establishing presence. These two new gangs, even if they’re rivals, it shouldn’t have gotten this bad, this soon. Am I right, assuming that?”

“Sense of humor, and you’re smart? I can see why you brought him along, Thomas.”

Thomas nodded, looking proud of himself.

James addressed John directly. “Yes, you’re thinking in the right direction. Those two gangs are actually two broken halves of an older group.”

Thomas thought aloud. “If we’re in this neighborhood, opposite of Eastside… The Koninkryk?”

James nodded. “They’re split in the Thunders and Royals, now. We have both leaders in custody. So John, they’re not just rivals, they’re brothers.”

“Oh, shit,” John said. “So it runs deep.”

“Apparently so. I heard a bit of it during the initial ‘questioning.’”

James used his free hand to make air quotes around the word ‘questioning.’

“It was more like they were screaming their heads off at each other while we restrained them, and we ended up getting some info in the doing. Something about a girl named Lucy?”

“All over a girl,” Thomas commented. “Fleets of ships and armies were sent out over them.”

“Not like that, I don’t know how to describe it, but it didn’t come across that way. Maybe this Lucy was their mom or aunt or something?”

“All this, over a mom?” John asked, eyes still trained to the work being done behind James.

“You don’t mess with people’s mommas,” Thomas said.

“Sorry I don’t have much to tell you,” James said. “I left before I could get any of the juicier details. I… I guess I’m still not used to seeing so much blood.”

“It’s no problem, James,” Thomas said. “You’re doing what you can, out here. I admire that.”

“And even if I did have anything, this is still an active crime scene. I shouldn’t be telling you two shit. So no buttering me up, it won’t work.”

James handed the cup back to John. Thomas intercepted it.

“Another lesson for you,” Thomas said. “Not everyone’s receptive to the coffee trick. Personalize it, find out what they like ahead of time. I’ll give you a hint for James, for next time. It starts with ‘box of,’ and ends with ‘Partagás.’”

“Hey, that’s top secret,” James said. “And potentially above his pay grade.”

“I’ll manage,” John responded, “For next time.”

John fixed his shoulder bag, gripping the strap. “Actually, you think I can get a closer look? I want to know more about what’s happening, maybe see if I can get those juicer details.”

“Stay low, and stay out of the way,” Thomas told him. “Don’t talk to anyone unless you know for sure you’re going to get a real answer. Listen. And here.”

Thomas gave the coffee back to John.

“Someone might like that.”

John took the coffee, and went off, passing Thomas and James to get a closer look at the scene.

“I sipped that, you know. John knows.”

“They don’t.”

Between the two friends, they shared a small chuckle.

“So,” Thomas said, after they cooled a bit. “What do you think of him?”

“Him? John?”

“Yes, of course John, who else?”

“He’s decent, I suppose. Curious, doing his best to learn. A couple minutes and a cup of coffee doesn’t really give me much to work with.”

“I know, but I wanted to hear what your initial thoughts were, however small.”

“Why?”

“I’m thinking of having him join us, as part of our team of pals.”

James paused, and then he sighed.

“Thomas,” he said.

“Just hear me out, and I know I’m jumping the gun by bringing it up now-”

“Jumping the gun? This is running up to the factory that makes the guns.”

“I know. I’m just saying he has potential, and I wouldn’t want him to waste it because we didn’t steer him in the right direction. Our direction.”

“You really see something in him?”

Thomas shrugged. “I might.”

“That’s a strong foundation to build from.”

Thomas leaned back, rolling his shoulders. “I met John at a cafe I frequent about three weeks ago, usually I take my breaks there, drinking coffee, reading up on the news. That’s actually where I got that coffee.”

He pointed in John’s general direction.

“Cafe Sharktooth. It’s trendy, but I highly recommend it.”

Thomas met James in the eye.

“But I digress,” Thomas said.

“But you digress,” James echoed.

“Right. I met him there, working on a case, getting really into it. Like, really into it. So into it that I went over to talk to him. It was another one of his public defense cases, but he was getting deep into the files of the case, making sure he got everything straight. We exchanged cards, and when I see him the next day, he already knew everything about me. I mean, not everything, but he did his research. I knows what I’m after, and what I want for this city. So, we got more acquainted, and I offered to help him out on that case, unofficially, providing insight where I could. His questions were good, too. He wasn’t asking just for tips on procedures, but about the culture. What the gangs are like, how each one operated, and how to use the defendant’s circumstance with the case’s relevant gang to appeal to the jury.”

“Doesn’t sound like you, Thomas. You want to save this city, and you’re helping a guy get off?”

Thomas raised a finger. “Ah, but if you looked at the case, you would have known something was up. I saw it immediately, and John was able to catch it, too. Turns out, they found him innocent, and Miles Turner can drive another day.”

“Turner? Of Turner’s Moving Company?”

“The very same.”

“Hm, not too shabby, then. Though, one would argue you should check more closely if you’re carrying four hundred kilograms of cocaine in your truck halfway across the country.”

“James, please, we already worked so hard to win that argument, I’m tired just thinking about doing it again.”

James grinned. “I’ll spare you, this one time.”

“Thanks, pal.”

“But,” James said, crossing his arms, “I’ve give you this, that John of yours is legit fellow, and that he’s smart, and he wants to learn more about this culture so he can better fight against that. He’s an angel, I get that.”

“But you still object to him.”

James shook his head. “I’m objecting to you.”

The expression on Thomas’ face had changed, but it was too hard to read, being in the dark. His jaw was set, his stare penetrated.

James had to explain himself.

“Before you start blowing steam out your ears, just know I’m still one hundred percent behind our plan, I really am. You kick ass all the way up to being the district attorney, and my dumb ass will somehow become the new chief of police.”

“And we work together in tandem to clean the streets,” Thomas said. “For good.”

“Yes, and I’m still there for that, I want that. But…”

James struggled to find the words.

Thomas questioned him. “What are you so concerned about?”

“But, you shouldn’t try to recruit anyone into this holy war of yours. Between us, we know what the stakes are, the risks we’ll run into along the way. Don’t bring anyone into this, and for god’s sake, don’t groom them into being the ideal pawn. People aren’t just assets, Thomas, and if you’re seriously considering going in that direction, I’m not going to follow you.”

Thomas threw his hands into his pockets. He didn’t answer for some time.

When he did, he said, “Don’t call it a holy war, and especially don’t call it grooming.”

“I’m exaggerating for effect. I know you’re not actually that radical, Thomas, otherwise you’d be taking more extreme, more stupid measures right now.”

“Like wearing a mask, and punching criminals in the face?”

“Like that,” James said, to bring another percentage point of levity into their conversation. “Like that exactly.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice, though? It’d certainly relieve some of tension on my mind. Playing the long game takes its toll.”

“Keep it in your fantasies. Last thing I want to do is detain you for something stupid.”

“I will, I will.”

James had a point he wanted to get to, a point he felt like Thomas needed to hear. A point he should have heard sooner.

He got to the point.

“I’m only telling this to you because you have a tendency to want to see yourself in others, so you want to raise them to your level. Not everyone can handle that kind of pressure, not everyone can reach the same heights as you, and certainly not everyone will be as committed to this as you. Except for, you know, me.”

“Alright, I understand. We’ll keep this between us. I’d still like to keep in touch with John in case he becomes useful in the future, but, as far as our plan goes…”

“We keep it between us.”

James gave Thomas a hand, and they shook on it. For the second time, the first was when James heard the initial pitch.

“Or,” Thomas said, as he let go, “Maybe you’re just saying that because you’re jealous?”

“Jealous?”

“You don’t want another man coming in between our sacred union.”

Everyone around was busy, but James still checked his surrounding.

“God damn, man, there are people here, with ears. And you have a wife and a kid.”

“Come on, man, love is love. Now give me a hug, you fool.”

“Get away from me!”

“Thomas, James.”

Jogging to them, John returned before the bantering could go any further. James noticed that he didn’t have the cup.

“Welcome back. Learn anything?”

John nodded. “I learned that all this escalated from a game with dice and cash. I learned the names of the two leaders, Darius and Marcus Jackson, EZ and Krown of the Thunders and Royals, respectively. Their feud is over a woman, and it is their mother, or rather, over whose mother is the real one.”

“What does that even mean,” James commented.

“Their father was out of the picture, so they were raised by a single mother. They have something of a deep reverence for her, so the brothers constantly argued over who would take care of her when she got old. But, for whatever reason, she never got a chance to grow old. Things kind of went out of hand from there.”

“That’s one fucked up family dynamic,” James said.

“And, that’s not all,” John said. It was dark, and yet his face practically beaming as he said, “They’re not even worried about incarceration. The whole ‘knows a guy who owes a guy a favor’ scenario, and they’re hooked up with some lawyers who can get them back on the street in a week, no hassle.”

James and Thomas didn’t say anything.

“What?” John questioned, looking at the both of them. “It’s something I should know about, isn’t it? Shouldn’t we look into it?”

“There’s nothing to look into,” James said, shaking his head. “They’re set, now.”

“Now what does that even mean?”

“It means they have connections with game lawyers, or lawyers in the pocket of one of the gangs at the table. The big boys. If you can afford their services, then you have nothing to worry about. Ever.”

James added, “You could kill a man in the middle of the business district in broad daylight, and those damn lawyers would find a way to spin it, and sell that the other guy deserved it.”

“Then why aren’t we doing something about it? Expose them, or something?”

James looked at Thomas, and Thomas was looking down at his shoes.

We are, it’s just further down the long game.

“Don’t poke at beasts you’re not prepared to slay,” Thomas said, eyes still low. “That’s your next lesson. Those lawyers demand exuberant prices, and it’s not always money. Shaking them up is shaking up who they represent, and we can’t afford to bring that on our heads. Not while we’re still so small.”

James knew that Thomas hated that. Being small.

“Exuberant prices, huh? Wow, I just thought this seedy shit went deep, I didn’t know it went up, too.”

James didn’t like the look on John’s face.

Thomas spoke, as if to derail whatever train of thought John was on. “Anyone worth their honest salt ends up getting a call like that, at some point in their career. A promotion, if you will. It’s not worth it, I guarantee it. You’ll never get exactly what you’re after.”

Thomas had never sounded so sure in his life.

James wondered if they would ever get what they were after.

He sat for about ten minutes before he got out of his car. He walked up the driveway, up a few steps, and approached the front door.

This never gets any easier.

James knocked on the door. Two heavy, slow knocks. He didn’t wait very long.

“Kristin,” James said as the door opened.

Kristin smiled, though it was a weary, forced one. Out of good manners than anything genuine.

James didn’t blame her.

She didn’t look like she had somewhere to go, but she had touched up some. An oversized sweater, with black pants and slippers on her feet. Her hair was tied up, but it wasn’t combed. She had applied some makeup around her eyes and cheeks. Not for him, and not for anyone else but her. That was just the kind of person Kristin was. If she looked good, she felt good. And here, she wasn’t feeling terrible.

The sweater, James noticed, was of Thomas’ alma mater.

“May I-” James started.

“Please,” Kristin said.

She let him in, and James entered into the Thompson household. He wasn’t dressed in his uniform, and he didn’t take his police car to get here. He wore a polo shirt, a coat, and pair of slacks, and he took his old, beat up sedan. He wasn’t here for business, it was personal.

James took a glance around as he followed Kristin down the main hall. She hadn’t taken down any of the picture frames hanging on the wall. He could only focus on the edges of the frames themselves, the actual pictures were too much of a reminder of what was missing. Not just the man himself, but the role he filled in the house. Husband, father. Best friend.

If it was hard for him, then he couldn’t imagine what it was like for Kristin, having to live with constant reminders all day, every day. And she chose to keep those reminders up, no matter how much they might have hurt.

Maybe the pain of remembering is better than the release of forgetting.

“How’ve you been?” James asked, hoping Kristin would provide the distraction he so desperately needed.

“Been better, but I haven’t had a bad day for at least a week. That has to count for something.”

He was his best friend, but James was able to get more acquainted with Kristin over the years. James first met her back when they arrived together at the airport, after the volunteering program. He first met Kristin and Katy that day. It was quite the surprise. James was only expecting to carry one person’s bags.

From then, to now, James had grown to consider Kristin a good friend. They had developed their own connection outside of the common thread that they first met with. Now, even with that thread cut, James was still willing to reach out and support her, support a friend.

“You’re doing way better than me, then,” James said.

He heard a dry laugh come from Kristin.

“I try.”

They went by the kitchen. Annie, the dog, had smelled and heard him, and was by the gate on the other side. She saw him, and got excited. Too excited, instead of barking, she kept huffing, instead.

“Hi Annie,” James said, giving her a pat on the head, and then he walked on by.

Kristin brought him into the living room. Sitting on the couch, was someone he had seen before, but he couldn’t quite place his finger on where, or why.

Kristin ended up filling in the blanks for him.

“James, this is Shiori.”

Shiori. The name sort of helped.

She was sitting down, her feet up on the couch, legs pulled close to her body. On the table in front of her was a cup of tea.

She… did not look as well as Kristin did. She looked over at the mention of her name, and James could see it on her face. Exhaustion. Wrecked. Her clothes were dark and baggy, and she looked like she had just woken up, her eyes and cheeks a little puffy, her messy hair pushed back by a headband. Her eyes were red, wet at the corners. She’d been crying, and she’d been crying for a long time.

James had to approach this carefully.

“Hello, Shiori,” James said, measured. “I’m James.”

Shiori only offered a nod. She remained silent, remained sitting.

“She was at the service for Thomas. She sang.”

Then it clicked. He remembered that.

“Oh, that’s right. You have a lovely voice, Shiori.”

Again, Shiori only nodded.

James felt an awkward silence about to settle in.

Kristin spoke, recognizing it as well. “Did you want anything, James? I got tea for Shiori, but maybe you want some coffee?”

“Coffee would be great, thanks.”

“I’ll be right back.”

Kristin left to go into the kitchen, leaving James with Shiori. Not that he particularly minded, but he had to approach her with the utmost care and sincerity.

Slow, he moved over to the couch, finding a seat, but making sure to keep a respectable distance. He stayed on the edge of the cushion.

“It’s a good thing I was able to run into you again,” James said. “I meant to compliment you for your singing at… the service, but I must have lost you while the crowd was moving back outside. I’m glad I was able to get another chance to tell you.”

Shiori didn’t move or verbalize a response. She only nodded.

Was she ill? Did she lose her voice?

It was obvious that there was something wrong. Chances were good that it wasn’t his business to ask, and he wasn’t about to try and touch upon something still raw. He had to be sensitive.

James took out his phone from his pocket, and browsed the internet. He didn’t hear much outside of the work being done in the kitchen, Annie still huffing, and the occasional sniffle by Shiori.

She only moved to reach for a box of tissues by her cup of tea. She took a few, and used them to rub her eyes. She crumpled them, and placed them by her side, away from James.

Shiori wasn’t even watching TV. It was off, the black screen facing them both. There was nothing to distract her from whatever was on her mind. She was just sitting there, being like that.

How does she do it? James wondered.

Before James could try to think of an answer, he heard a voice from the kitchen.

“James, can you help me in here?”

James got up without any protest or objection.

“If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be right back,” he said to Shiori. He got the typical response.

Maybe it was rude, insensitive, but he hurried to the kitchen.

James stepped over the gate and into the path of a dog. Annie really was excited to see him.

“Down, Annie, down!”

The dog listened to her owner, stopping in her tracks, and sitting.

“Now go to your bed.”

Annie whined, but went to her bed. She spun twice before sitting back down.

“Sorry, Annie, maybe next time,” James said.

The dog was getting older, but she still had those puppy eyes. It was hard to resist.

But, he had to. He turned to Kristin, who was standing by the sink, holding a mug of coffee. James saw the other mug beside her on the counter. Black.

“What’s up?” he asked.

Kristin whispered, very deliberate. “How does she look to you?”

James matched her in volume. “She as in Shiori?”

Kristin nodded.

James shrugged.

“Quiet, reserved. Maybe shy, but she didn’t seem to have a problem performing to a crowd.”

It was obvious she was going through something, but James wasn’t going to mention it outright. It was a shared understanding.

“Shiori’s been staying with us for the past two weeks,” Kristin explained. “We’ve been taking of her, looking after her, making sure she’s okay. It was my idea, and she was hesitant at first, but she came around. I’m glad she did.”

“Okay, then that explains why I didn’t see her the last time I was here. This is a new thing?”

“It is. I invited her over after her daughter-”

Kristin’s voice cracked. She looked away, putting a hand close to an eye. A preemptive measure, in case her makeup started running.

James was an experienced enough cop to piece things together.

“She’s Alexis Barnett’s mom,” James said.

Kristin had to nod to confirm it. She cleared her throat before she could speak again.

“I’m not going to go into the details, you already have them.”

“I do,” James said. “It’s still on my desk.”

“Is there anything you can tell her? Anything at all?”

James felt his heart drop.

“I’m sorry, Kristin, but I don’t really have anything worth telling. It’s been more than difficult, with all of the shit that’s been happening in Stephenville, and it all keeps piling on. You should see my office.”

“You don’t have anything,” Kristin said. She sounded so disappointed.

James felt his heart drop even lower.

“Do you know how many reports I get about violence against Asian Americans in the past month? Dozens, if not hundreds, every day. You know the situation with me and my men, but we do legit work on stuff like that. But we’re being spread way too thin. If our attention is in one place, then something else happens and we’re too late to respond to that. Stuff falls through the cracks, or we can’t give everything the proper attention it deserves.”

Kristin snapped. “Dammit, this deserves attention, James! Shiori deserves attention, and Alexis deserves attention. This is close to me, and I want it to be close to you. You have to, you know, fucking do something!”

She managed to hush herself halfway through her outburst, but the anger was still there, the frustration. It came out so easy. That was something he liked to say to James every now and then. The only thing free in life was frustration.

“I did do something,” James said. “I followed up. I asked around, I went back to the restaurant on multiple occasions. No one could give me anything concrete. It all happened so fast, or they were firing at the crowd. There was a single bullet hole in the ceiling. Everyone’s stories conflict with one another. Even your daughter’s.”

Kristin was shaking the whole time, rubbing her arms together, as if the temperature had dipped below zero.

“I wish I had something, I really, truly do. But I gave it the best shot I could, with the resources I have available and most amount of focus I could put into it at this time… and I still…”

James couldn’t bear to say it. That he did everything he could and he still failed.

He didn’t even have the time to meet with Shiori when the kidnapping first happened. He had been called away to three other active scenes, with three successful arrests. He actually made progress, that day.

But not with this. He still failed.

“I can’t have that,” Kristin said, low. “I can’t accept that answer. I want Shiori to have her daughter back, James. Shit, I want Alexis back. She was taken, not killed. She has to be somewhere.”

“I know that,” James said. “But it did happen so fast, at the worst possible time. I’m so, so sorry.”

It’s like they knew what they were doing. Everyone’s preoccupied with the riots and the assaults and Blank Face, and they took advantage of our scattered attention.

“If this was any other time, I promise you we’d have her back by now,” James said, meaning it. “It’s just-”

“It’s the worst possible time.”

Kristin didn’t say anything for a while. She wasn’t just his best friend’s wife, she was his friend, and he had let her down.

“I was hoping you had something,” Kristin whispered, eyes down. “An update, a lead, anything. Something to give to Shiori so she could have hope. She doesn’t even have that, right now.”

Kristin hiccuped.

“Because, you know, he… Thomas is gone, but I’m not alone in this house. Katy’s here, and hell, I have you. But Shiori? She sits in her apartment, alone, being constantly reminded of what’s missing. That’s not good, for the mind, body, or soul. When I went over to invite her, she had lost so much weight that I thought she needed an IV drip instead of actual food.”

“That bad?”

“I’m exaggerating, but it is bad. She needs to be here, so she can be reminded that there are people around that love her and want to see her back on her feet, with Alexis in her arms and in her home. And I was praying that you had something to lift her spirits up.”

Every word Kristin said was like a kick to James’ own spirit. He did what he could, but he still came up short, disappointing Kristin, Shiori, himself… and him. What would he think, if he were around? Would he have thought of him as pathetic, too?

Maybe.

“I’m out of apologies, and excuses,” James said. “There’s not much I can do after that. I can’t tell Shiori anything if I have nothing, that’ll only make it worse for her.”

“Okay,” Kristin said.

“How long were you expecting to have her stay here?”

“As long as she needs, I don’t care. I’ll pay for her apartment if I have to.”

“I don’t recommend going that far, but do help her to get back on her feet. I’d say your doing a great job now. You told me she wasn’t eating when you invited her over, but I didn’t see a sign of malnutrition on her face. That’s good. You’re making her eat.”

Kristin stayed quiet.

“It’s great that you’re willing to take care of her, too,” James said. “Keeping yourself busy, helping others in the face of your own loss. I admire that.”

She looked up, meeting James in the eye.

“You lost him, too.”

There were no words to respond to that. He opened his arms, and gave Kristin a hug. Kristin accepted the gesture.

They stayed like that for a second longer. A hug between good friends.

When they broke, James said, “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll go through everything again, and I mean everything, and give this another shot. I’ll come by if I have any updates, and you work on helping Shiori, and yourself. You have family, you know. You need to be there for them, too.”

“Shiori is family, and you are, too. You take care of yourself, too.”

“I am, by doing this. Even when I’m overworked, I need more work.”

More distractions.

“I’m sorry for being hard on you,” Kristin said.

“I deserve it,” James said. “I’m not doing good enough by you. And you’re a good person, one of the few I know left.”

“Thank you, James. Can I ask you for one more favor?”

“Anything.”

“Can you check on Katy?”

“She’s here?”

“Upstairs, in her room. Just knock. I’m sure she’d appreciate you swinging by.”

“Hope so, but of course.”

James didn’t leave right away. Kristin moved to step out of the kitchen, putting a hand on James’ arm as she left. James gave himself a break to drink his coffee.

Bitter.

He finished his coffee, placing the mug in the sink, and left the kitchen. From across the hall, he saw Kristin and Shiori.

They were on the couch. Shiori hadn’t budged since he left, and Kristin was sitting closer to her than he had been. The TV was on this time, judging from the angle Kristin held her head at, she was looking at something. Shiori, however, had her head down, silent.

If James had the power to save everyone, he’d do it in a heartbeat. But he didn’t, and he was still given that task. And it had broke him down years ago, back when the police chief at the time offered James the position, back when he took it, and back when the chief took him out to meet with the gangs that ran the city. Mrs. Carter, who was there to represent Mister.

Styx was there, too.

They told him he would have no real power at all. That all he had to do was play the part of a competent chief, while making sure the real checks and balances were in place. He was blocked before he ever had a chance to start.

His best friend was disappointed then, furious, frustrated. And he had used that frustration to go even harder with his campaigning, and it led to him finding Blank Face… leading to everything else.

James went up the stairs before his thoughts could beat him down any more. He still felt like he was being beat down, though, the aches were making themselves known as he moved. He hated that.

It was easy to find Katy’s room. He’d been up there before, when he was asked to babysit her during her kindergarten and elementary school years.

He knocked.

Katy wasn’t the one who got the door.

A girl, a teenager. Hispanic. Her hair was colored a lighter brown, and she was wearing a coat. It looked trendy.

“Hello,” James said.

“Hello,” the girl repeated.

Then, as if it was a delayed reaction, he remembered.

“Oh, you’re… Maria, am I right?”

“I am,” Maria said.

No mention of what she was doing here, or where Katy was. James recalled her being this flat during the questioning of what happened at the restaurant. She answered properly and honestly, but James recognized a innate distrust for police when he saw it.

“I,” James started, but he was interrupted by another voice.

“Uncle James, you can come in.”

That voice, he knew. Maria stepped to the side, and James took about three steps into the room. He was still close to the door.

The room hadn’t changed much since he last saw it. Then again, all girls’ rooms looked the same to him. An inherent girliness, that he didn’t quite understand.

Katy. She was sitting on the floor, by the coffee table in the middle of the room, phone in one hand, and a chess piece in another. Like Maria, she was also dressed for the outside.

James examined the board. There were more black pieces in play, but the white ones that were left were the tough ones, that could do more than just move up one square. The way the pieces were situated suggested that the white side was on the offensive, with black pawns in place to block the path of the white queen. But, it didn’t seem like the white pieces were after the opponent’s king. They were all being directed to another, specific piece.

“Did the rules change since I last played?” James asked. “I don’t recall taking out the queen being the way to win.”

“I’m just figuring something out,” Katy answered. With the chess piece she was holding, she flicked away a black piece, and placed that instead. A white bishop, four diagonal spaces away, with a direct path to the black queen.

As Katy took a picture of the board on her phone, she asked, “What brings you in, Uncle James?”

‘Uncle James’ answered. “Just checking in on everyone, like usual. I see that Shiori’s staying with you guys.”

“Yeah, it’s been fun.”

Her tone was so dry, he wasn’t used to that. If Katy hadn’t inherited her father and mother’s intelligence, her charisma would have brought her straight to the cheerleading captain position. But, life had other plans for her.

And that spark of life, he didn’t see it in her, and he didn’t hear it, either. She still looked down.

Still coping, dealing, with the greatest loss in her life, only for another, equally difficult loss to strike when she was at her lowest. Her father, and her best friend. James understood exactly how that could suck the air out of someone.

“Any good news?”

It was Maria that asked. She was standing over Katy, now, looking at James.

“None, I’m sorry. I already got it from your mom, Katy, but I deserve to get it again.”

“No, I can imagine my mom made you suffer through that for the both of us.”

James couldn’t tell if there was anger behind her words, lashing out at him.

“She did,” he said.

“I saw you on TV,” Katy said. “The other day.”

“Did you now? What’d you think?”

“Terrible. I don’t know why they keep inviting you.”

“I can count the number of times I’ve been on with one hand. It’s not like I get practice for that stuff.”

“Not that. I’m saying you should have been harder on Blank Face. Fuck Blank Face.”

Maria made a face, cringing at what Katy had said.

James wasn’t going to get into it, now. That wasn’t what he came up for.

“Okay, I’m just going to make this short, so you can go back to your game.”

“It’s not a game,” Katy said.

“Okay, I just wanted to see you all again. I’ll see you later, Katy, and it was nice seeing you again, Maria.”

“Come back when you have good news,” Maria said.

That was definitely the atmosphere, James could feel it thick in the air. He wasn’t wanted.

“Bye,” he said quietly, turning to leave. He reached for the door-

“Leave the door open.”

James turned back again. Katy’s focus was still on the board, rearranging the pieces, putting them back in their starting positions.

“We’ll be heading out after you,” Katy said, still moving pieces around. “So leave the door open.”

“Heading out?” James asked.

“Yes.”

That was all James got in regards to an answer. He recalled seeing another car out on the driveway. A teal Honda. Probably Maria’s.

“I’ll leave the door open. Bye, ladies.”

He got no response as he left the room, and went down the stairs. He felt the aches again.

He ran into Kristin as he reached the final step.

“How were they?” she asked.

“Didn’t want to give me the time of day, but they’re still young, going through things most adults can’t handle. If they need space, I’ll give it to them.”

Kristin’s expression seemed like she was expecting that answer. The girls had been like that for some time, now.

James couldn’t blame them for that.

“Are you leaving now?” Kristin asked.

“I think I will. Thank you again for the coffee.”

“Anytime.”

Kristin gave him a quick hug before he left the house. It was a gesture that showed that he was always welcome to come back and visit.

But, by the next time, he had better have fucking something to show.

The air was thick with a pungent smell. James almost tripped over himself, something sliding out from under him.

So many bullet holes, so many bullet casings, so many bullets.

James took one, slow walk around the perimeter, trying to take it all in. It was hard. Decades on the force, and he had the gall to assume that he had seen it all. Apparently, he hadn’t seen shit.

Morning, early morning. So early the sun hadn’t considered getting up yet. The basketball court in a neighborhood on the west side. Neutral territory between the Thunders and the Royals.

Nothing neutral about it now.

Chunks of concrete were torn out of the ground, debris thrown haphazardly across the court. Bullets were stuck in the ground, embedded in both the grass and dirt around the court and the court itself. Even the backboards were riddled by bullets, there were more holes than metal. It was like an actual warzone.

Around the court and the surrounding perimeter, everyone was working to collect as much info as possible, and clean up as much as possible. Wherever James looked, there was someone picking up bullets and casings to put into a bag, someone helping the injured into an ambulance, or someone trying to fix where the tall fence around the court had fallen over. Parts of the fence were torn and crushed, like it was trampled on by a stampede of elephants.

That was a good way to put it, in terms of animals. What had happened here, happened between animals. A raw, deep force that craved violence and rage. It had consumed the hearts of the people, and they didn’t see each other as people, anymore. Not as their fellow man, not as brothers. Humans couldn’t have done this, it had to have been some other cause.

Right?

James watched his step, careful to not slip again. There were too many things here that could catch him off guard. Debris, bullet casings, pools of blood. He kept a flashlight at his feet, to keep an eye on what was directly ahead. Normally, there would have been fixtures that lit up the court, but the power was out around the spot. It hadn’t come back on, yet.

Campbell followed him as he tried to get a sense of the whole situation.

“They’re going to want me on TV to talk about this, aren’t they?” James asked.

“Media’s starting to come in, but they’ve actually been a bit slow in getting here. Journalists aren’t used to coming down here.”

“That’s because they don’t have a reason to. They’ve gotten every story they could possibly get out of places like this. They squeezed it dry, and left it to rot in the sun. They’re only back now because, as it turns out, there’s still a little bit of juice left to sell.”

“Well, the perimeter’s about two blocks around the court. They’re not getting in here.”

“Let’s push it back another block, just to be safe, before the first few shoe-stringers get here.”

“Roger that, chief.”

Campbell reached for a walkie-talkie to relay the Chief’s words to the others. All around James, he heard the cries of affirmation, and the action afterward. Neither of the gangs had any relevance to the ones that had teeth in James’ police force, so James got to be the leading authority. Right now, for now, James’ men were his. They listened and reported to him, and they had no other bosses to answer to.

If only it was like that the whole time. His best friend would have loved that for sure.

James stopped his walk around the area, and headed straight to the middle. The middle of the court.

There was a shout, somewhere in the far back. “Power’s coming back!”

Small cheers sounded throughout, immediately hushed when the lights switched on, shining a harsh light on everything.

James squinted. For more than one reason.

He saw the edges of it before, but not a full view. This… This was harsh.

There were two bodies. Cut up, beaten, and bruised. Reduced to a bloody pulp, their bodies defiled and tampered with. The result was something less than human.

They were completely naked, cut skin touching the hard and cold concrete. They were situated, placed in a specific way, moved after whatever happened to them… happened. James noted the streaks of blood beside them, how they were dragged and then set to achieve the intended effect.

Arms and legs together, their feet meeting at a point. One body was on one side of the court, the other body was on the opposite side. What looked like larger brush strokes of blood were marked beside their appendages to make it read better.

It looked like a giant red ‘V.’

The men? The leaders of the relevant gangs. Darius and Marcus Jackson.

“God, who could’ve-”

Campbell stopped, or rather the scene was too visceral that he lost the words. He turned on a heel, so it was to his side, and he was facing James, instead.

“How can you even look, sir?”

“Part of the job,” James answered. He was looking at it, head on. Others were, too, collecting photographs and getting vitals on the bodies. A man bent down to get a pulse from Darius, another checked for signs of breathing on Marcus.

“But, even if you put it like that, this is just too much.”

“My job is to face the ugliest of humanity, and do what I can to put a stop to it. Clearly, humans are capable of much more ugliness than I ever thought, but the job stays the same.”

Campbell turned again, putting his back to the scene.

“I don’t know which is worse. This, or the school.”

“The school, unfortunately.” James looked at the medical staff working on EZ and Krown. They both gave him a thumbs up. A miracle.

“At least no one died, here,” James added.

“Sure, but we have dozens injured and two critically injured, and plenty aren’t going to walk away from this with all their limbs attached. Fuck, some literally will not be able to walk away.”

“Yeah.”

“I can’t look at this, I have to go.”

Campbell started to walk away from the scene. James couldn’t help but feel let down at Campbell’s weakened resolve. Everyone had a breaking point, and it seemed that this one was his.

James addressed the men in front of him.

“You have your pictures, so scoop these two up and get them into a hospital. Yesterday. And I want every gangbanger present to be accounted for, you know what that means.”

His men sprung to action, and James left them to work.

He caught up with Campbell as they left the court.

“What does that even accomplish?” Campbell questioned. He walked away, but his thoughts were still fixated on that. “Who would do something like that?”

“Either it’s a message,” James said, “Or a cruel joke. Either way, we’ll get to the bottom of it.”

They walked into the grass, James feeling the metal of the bullets and casings under his shoes, but they were walking on dirt, easier to step through bumpier terrain, here. James wasn’t afraid of slipping and making an ass of himself, needing Campbell to help him back up. He could do without an embarrassment.

James saw a tree by a concrete trail that would have led into an intact basketball court. The trunk was splintered and split open by bullets.

James saw someone approach, running out of the dark.

“James Gomez?”

He didn’t stop walking.

“James Gomez?”

He kept going.

“James!”

Not once did James break his stride.

A woman fell in step with him. Brown hair, thick rimmed glasses, beige coat and black tights. She looked like she was in her thirties, now. Time really did pass.

I really am getting old.

James didn’t want to admit that.

“I wanted to ask you some questions, James,” Natalie asked. “Actually, I don’t have anything to ask you, I have the answers, I just wanted some confirmation.”

Natalie Beckham. She was one of the top writers of the Stephenville Impact, the city’s number one news organization. Was. She had covered the local crime scene, back in the day, but the last time James had seen her around was almost seven years ago. He heard something about her moving to New York.

For whatever reason, she was back, now, and that only meant more complications.

James saw the cup in her hand. He wasn’t interested.

He didn’t entertain her. He just kept walking, Campbell on his right, Natalie on his left.

“I caught some of the gang members here as they tried to recount the events. The Thunders and the Royals had previously been operating in good faith in regards to a pact, but after too many incidents between the two groups, came here to settle the score. Is this true?”

James didn’t answer.

“And I heard that, right before the initial confrontation, there was a starting gunshot in the distance. Would you know that to be true?”

James didn’t answer.

“After that, was when the power began to cut out. In the dark, I’ve got multiple reports and a mysterious figure, cloaked in red, attacking members from both gangs. Could you confirm this?”

Red? Not blue?

James didn’t answer.

“Both gangs stopped their fighting and tried to go after this figure instead, but it was only striking in the dark, and they only had brief glimpses about its location during the seconds the power did come on. It was as though someone was toying with them.”

James and Campbell kept walking.

“When it was somehow established that this figure had gotten to both gang leaders, and when it proved fruitless to land a hit on this figure without shooting or stabbing someone else, everyone who could run, did.”

That was a decent summary of the events, but James wasn’t about to confirm that with her.

“Now, this part’s off the record since I don’t really like to speculate, I prefer facts, but given the recent activity in Stephenville, but do you believe this mysterious, cloaked figure could be related to the vigilante known as the Bluemoon?”

“Natalie,” James said.

“Finally, some life from the old man.”

“You’re not supposed to be here. The perimeter extends more than two blocks.”

“You think that’s going to stop someone like me?”

She had a point.

“No, but I am going to just leave you with a warning. I don’t want to see you around here again, and I’m done with questions.”

“I’m sad to hear that, James, you used to be so helpful before. What happened?”

That question, he would answer.

“I got old.”

He gestured to Campbell, and Campbell went over to Natalie’s side. He whisked her away, with her offering very little protest.

At least she could honor him on that. Natalie knew that she had what she needed, she just needed confirmation, for formalities.

What a good little journalist.

James continued until he reached the lot, seeing all of the men perform their proper duties. He’d probably give the whole area one more sweep, to see if he had missed anything.

Maybe get some info on this cloaked figure, as well.

His phone rang. He stopped.

James fished it out of his pocket, bringing it to his ear.

“Gomez,” he said, answering it.

Art studio, top floor. Eastern window facing the court. Come alone. Someone wants to see you.

He recognized the voice. It was that of a little girl.

Her?

“D,” James said, hard. “What the fuck do you have to do with this?”

The call ended.

James thrusted a hand in his pocket, putting his phone back. He hurried.

He was already facing the east, if this art studio had a clear view of the court, then it would be on the street just across from the court.

She said to come alone. Would he? Was it another trap, or one of D’s pranks?

Couldn’t be. Either D started getting bored of the same old tricks, and started escalating on her own – a dangerous notion – or she was a part of something else. Something bigger.

Did he need backup?

James slipped past some tape and his men. Everyone was too preoccupied to notice their chief pass them by.

He needed backup, but he had learned that particular lesson when he started this job. Bringing others in situations like this, when expressed not to, would only ever lead to disaster. James wouldn’t sacrifice good men like that.

If it was just him, just his life at stake, he was fine with that.

James found the art building, and checked the front door. It was unlocked.

Turning his flashlight on, he found the staircase on the side of the first floor. There were elevators, but James would rather take the stairs. At least to prove he still had a body he could use.

As he ascended, James made sure he had all of the essentials. Walkie-talkie, phone, and gun.

Check, check, and check.

James reached the fourth floor.

Art supplies, paint cans, canvases hanging on the wall. James wasn’t sure what he was expecting, perhaps another clue or body, but nothing here immediately stood out to him.

He saw the window. Light crept through the glass, lighting up a square shape on the floor of the art studio. He began to approach.

Slowly, carefully. James pulled his gun out, ready to fire. He kept his head low as he got closer to the glass. Last thing he wanted was to get sniped through a window.

James got in place. For long, agonizing seconds, he scoped out the scene below.

People working, collecting data from the basketball court and surrounding grass, helping victims into ambulances to send them off to the hospital, cleaning up wherever they could.

At the court itself, James saw that Darius and Marcus Jackson had been moved, but the blood remained. The broad strokes, and another pool that James didn’t notice before. A period. It was a message.

V.

“Thoughts?”

A voice from behind. James recognized it.

He turned around, his gun prepared.

From the shadows, a figure emerged.

A hood covered their head, but where the moonlight touched their face, James could only see the lower half, the mouth and chin. Everything from the nose up was covered. Flecks of blood dotted the figure’s mouth.

The rest of the figure’s shape was hard to make out. He couldn’t see its arms, the material draped over their body in such a way that it was difficult to make sense of it. They were wearing some sort of cloak or long robe, made of a flowy but heavy material.

From top to bottom, the cloak was red. The only other colors on the figure were the black shadows masking their face, the black pants they wore, and the snowy white skin of their mouth and chin.

A ghost, or a phantom, covered in blood. Or perhaps the Devil himself. Either way, James felt like he was being haunted. Cursed.

The only thing that was familiar about this figure was its voice.

“Blank Face?” he asked.

The figure twitched, as if offended by the suggestion.

“I wrote it out there for you to see,” the figure answered.

“V, then.”

“Yes.”

“But you were the vigilante known as Blank Face, am I correct?”

There was a pause.

“I was, unfortunately. Those days are behind all of us, now.”

James wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean.

He asked.

“When you said you were rebranding, I wasn’t expecting this.” James put his arms to his side, including his gun. “Not exactly coming across as heroic with this new image. It’s a little too macabre.”

Another pause.

V spoke. “I’m only meeting with you now to give you a brief update on where things stand. This is probably the last time we’ll ever speak, like this.”

You ignored my comment.

James let that be.

“And you’re sure of that,” he said.

“I am.”

“Fine then, continue.”

“The Thunders and the Royals are out of the picture, now. I gathered them all here, and made a show of their leaders. While I had the majority of their numbers distracted, I had all of their assets and territories and cash seized. There are survivors, and they’ll probably want to retaliate, but they’ll find that they have nothing to go back to. It’s all been snatched out from under them.”

“That’s quite the workload for one person.”

“It certainly wasn’t easy.”

“I’m more inclined to believe that you had help. The call I got earlier, and with her reputation… Are you telling me a new gang is already moving in?”

The idea of that little girl working with a gang… It almost made James shiver. Before, she had always been something of a free agent, working by herself, enacting her own whims. Her irreverence for any structure or systems actually prevented her from being a legitimate threat. If she was content with being independent, she was actually easier to handle.

But to focus that destruction, aiming it with purpose? And throwing Blank Face – V – into the fold? James had already seen the results, out there on the court. It would be devastating.

“I’m telling you to stay away,” V said. “Let the dust settle where it does. You can clean up here, but after that, you’re done. I don’t want to see you in this territory again.”

He’d heard those words before, or something to that effect. Being ordered by the leader of a cartel or gang, by the enemy.

“You’re telling me what to do?”

“Yes, I am. You’re used to that sort of thing, aren’t you, being the puppet that you are.”

James was stunned.

Something must have snapped, in that mind of hers. She was but a child, just a kid.

“What the hell happened? Last time we met, you were asking me to help you find Benny.”

“And you refused, and I found her anyways. You’re useless, Gomez.”

“Then the fires on Eastside, that was you?”

A pause.

Ignored again.

“V,” James said. “Blank Face-”

V twitched.

“When you first came to my window, and we met on that roof, and you were asking me about finding Thomas, I knew then that you were the one he was working with. You see, Thomas never told me about his activities with you, but I knew him like a brother. He saw something in you, and he wanted to cultivate that. Shape you, despite himself. Part it was stress relief, since our plans weren’t going the way he wanted.”

V didn’t respond.

“So, I just want to ask you a few more questions, before you go, and I officially consider you as the enemy. Do you think Thomas would be proud of what you’ve become? What does ‘V’ stand for, to you? Vengeance, vendetta, villainy?”

V stood there, her head pointed to James. He couldn’t see her eyes, so he could only guess that she was staring at him.

For the third time, V ignored his questions.

“Don’t get in my way, or if you do, get a new office. You don’t want a third visit from me.”

With that final line, drawn in the sand, V took a step back, returning into the shadows.

James ran after her.

“Blank Face!”

He reached for his gun and flashlight. He pointed both around the room.

Nothing, no one, nowhere. V was gone.

“Shit!”

James turned back, going to the window. He watched the scene again, looking at the red letter that faced him, taunted him. ‘V’ was out there, free, and he was the one confined to these walls.

A cycle, revenge was. A vicious circle that turned good people desperate and cruel. Thomas had become desperate, and Blank Face had become cruel.

The number of good people in this city was getting smaller by the day.

James knew, now. It had always been like this, and they were doomed to fail from the start. And now, he was all alone, with nothing to show for his efforts.

Previous                                                                     Bonus

Interlude – V

Previous                                                                     Bonus

Everyone was already talking by the time the girl got inside.

Darn, the girl thought.

She shuffled over to her seat. It wasn’t her seat, exactly, there was no assigned seating. But that was the funny thing about getting to choose their own seats, everyone ended up sticking with the same ones. Easy, to settle into a routine of sorts.

Three long tables, placed together to form three-fourths of a square, the opening faced a whiteboard at the head of the room. The girl grabbed her usual seat at a corner of the makeshift shape, closest to the board, and farthest from everyone else.

No greetings as she settled in, everyone was too busy to notice her.

About three minutes left before things got started. The girl tried to find a conversation, an opening for her to jump into. She didn’t find any.

Darn.

Jasmine sat right next to her, but she was deep in a discussion about a movie that just came out. The girl hadn’t seen it yet, Mom didn’t get the chance to take her to the movies on Saturday. Money was always tight around this time of year.

She could try with Andrew, but he still had his headphones on, nodding to whatever he was listening to. Probably some rock band she’d never heard of.

Emily was closer, but she was way too preoccupied with Justin, who kept picking at her hair and joking about her height… even though they were all sitting down. Like their seat arrangements, it was routine for them, too. The jokes never got too bad, or mean-spirited, it was more like teasing. Maybe Justin was letting on more than he intended with the constant pestering.

Maybe.

The girl looked around, but there were no good openings. Everyone was too busy for someone like her. She resigned to staying quiet, keeping to herself.

She hated keeping to herself. She hated having nothing to do. She’d even settle for reading a book.

There was a bible within her reach. Was she that bored?

Yes, she was, but the boredom didn’t last long. Mrs. Phan entered the room, and a hush followed. Everyone was quiet.

“Good morning, class,” Mrs. Phan said, accent heavy. “And Merry Christmas.”

The class answered in unison. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Phan.”

None of the levity from earlier was present, the same levity the girl wanted to get in on. It was instead replaced by a heavy feeling of anxiety. If one fell, the girl could hear a pin drop, and the floor was carpeted.

Mrs. Phan was short, about the same height as the girl, but her presence stood well above the rest. Her hair was long but done up, styled and kept in place with hairspray, with a swoop across her forehead. A retro look, but it aged her.

Her sweater was a bright red, with snowflakes and reindeer knitted on, with black pants and shoes to finish the look. The end result was tacky, but it was fitting for the season.

If it was Mrs. Phan’s intention to look this way, to lighten up the mood, the effect was marginal. Everyone’s lips remained sealed. They were waiting for her.

Mrs. Phan then started off the discussion for the hour.

“So, what week are we on in this Advent season?”

“The third week,” the class answered, all at once.

“Correct. And what color is the candle on the wreath?”

Mrs. Phan pointed to a corner on the whiteboard. A wreath was up in the corner, crudely drawn in marker.

“Pink.”

“Correct again, but Lilly, I didn’t hear you there, speak up next time, okay?”

A squeak, from the table opposite the girl. Lilly. She was quietest person in class, second only to the girl herself. Not that she wanted to be in that position. It was a reluctant quiet.

Mrs. Phan went on with the review. “So that means it is the third Sunday of the Advent season, and next week is Christmas, the birthday of Jesus.”

A small ‘woo’ came from one of the kids. Mrs. Phan turned to try and find the culprit, but no one was caught. Even the girl couldn’t find who was responsible.

Mrs. Phan went back to the board, and continued writing.

“Alright, this season is a very important time for us as Catholics. In fact, the season doesn’t end until well into January. Does anyone know what else happens during Christmas time?”

She put a pause in her writing, and looked back to the class.

“How about… ah, Alexis?”

The girl felt a pang of panic. Her name was up.

The girl… Alexis, examined the board for a hint. Nothing. Mrs. Phan’s handwriting wasn’t the best, and it was most likely just an itinerary for the hour.

She looked to the other kids for help. No luck there. They looked either too bored or too disinterested to offer an answer, or whisper anything. Most weren’t even looking her way. Not even Jasmine, and she was right there.

Alexis was completely alone.

She turned back to Mrs. Phan, hoping the expression on her face would be enough, that she had no idea what the answer was. Didn’t work, Mrs. Phan still looked expectant.

Darn.

The question was vague, the correct answer unclear. Alexis thought back to last Sunday, but she couldn’t remember that class very well. She hadn’t paid much attention.

Something about… God, and Jesus… and giving.

No hints, and her friends weren’t going to help. Alexis was on her own in this.

She ventured a guess.

“Um… Santa comes and gives gifts to all the good boys and girls?”

Mrs. Phan raised an eyebrow, then raised it some more, as if to inject ire in a neutral, at most curious expression.

She wasn’t satisfied with that answer.

Here and there, kids snickered. They were silenced as Mrs. Phan asked, “Would you like to give that another try, Alexis?”

Ugh.

She was going to make her try again? Alexis really didn’t know, and putting her more on the spot wouldn’t do anyone any favors. It was a waste of time.

Alexis was a waste of time.

But, she made the others laugh a bit. That was worth it, in part.

And if she didn’t know the answer… might as well have some fun.

“Yeah,” Alexis said, leaning back into her seat, “Santa’s gonna come and give everyone presents. And because Jesus was born on Christmas, and he was extra good, he got like, three presents that day!”

Alexis held up three fingers to accentuate her point.

The joke landed, sort of. Not necessarily by execution, but rather by how inappropriate it was, and Mrs. Phan’s reaction. Her face twisted, opening her mouth wide, and yelled.

But it was drowned out by laughter. The joke sort of landed, after all. The other classmates were tittering and giggling, and looking at Alexis. She wasn’t sure if they were laughing with her or at her, but they were laughing all the same.

Looking her way, smiling, showing teeth. Giving her attention.

It filled Alexis with a strange sense of satisfaction.

Mrs. Phan continued to yell, but the sound was farther, now. The laughter overtook it, and filled the girl’s ears.

Then, the scene collapsed, with only the faint ringing of laughter remaining, and the pieces changed, new actors and props moving onto the set.

A new scene was being recalled.

An intimate one, but also equally not so.

The girl… and a boy. Already the details were muddy.

There was Alexis, but the boy’s name wasn’t recalled. His face was blurry, too, smeared like an oil painting, damaged by water.

Even the setting was nondescript. Four walls, a window, a door. A bed.

Alexis sat on the bed as the boy made sure to lock the door.

His name and face were lost, the details maybe even dropped on purpose. It could have been anyone. But the context rooted this moment and gave it meaning.

Alexis had only met the boy a few weeks ago. The tall, athletic type, that much was certain. They were in the same class, and their desks were right next to one another. It helped that the teacher allowed the class to work in pairs…

They had gotten to talking, going from mere acquaintances… to something more. Not boyfriend and girlfriend, but the awkward step before that.

The boy didn’t even have to do much, and what he did do hardly impressed her. Some lame jokes, some corny compliments.

But she was in the mood for lame, for corny. And she was looking for what the boy had provided in spades.

Attention.

She wasn’t getting it from the kids at Sunday school, part of the reason why she ditched them. There was a barrier, a subtle but effective wall around them that she couldn’t get over. And she had a hunch as to why.

She was too different from them.

Something like that didn’t matter at her school, though. She’d found friends, and activities she could do with those friends. Like sports. Partying.

Other stuff. Stuff she’d never done before.

The boy turned, facing Alexis. He approached her, slow in his steps, giving her time to take off her shirt.

The fabric flew over her eyes, and the boy was much closer, now. He leaned in, and she met him head on.

The scene collapsed before anything more could happen.

New actors, new props. Everything was moved around.

Another recall.

The new scene started with an explosion.

“God, it’s like you’re looking for a reason to be pissed off!”

The words spat out of the girl’s mouth before she was fully conscious of them.

Her mother’s face twisted, turning sour. The feeling churned in the girl’s stomach. She stood her ground though. Tried to.

They were in the kitchen, arguing over something. Emotions were too high, now, too hot for either of them to remember what exactly this argument was about. Something about the spilled coffee on the table, maybe? Maybe, but it seemed too trivial, too trite.

This was a long time coming, then, for both sides. Bubbling tempers, the lids shaking, needing only a spark for everything to blow up.

And blow up it did.

Her mother took a second to formulate a response, words to throw back at her daughter.

“I would not be like this if you did just listened to me the first time.”

She wasn’t yelling, but she matched Alexis in intensity. Holding back just enough to let Alexis know that there was more to come, should she push her there.

Alexis pushed.

“I was just about to get around to it, if you could have just waited like one second!”

She saw her mother open her mouth to respond, and threw out more words before she could.

“That’s your thing, you’re impatient and you jump the gun, all the time! Can’t you just cool it, for like a minute?”

She saw a twitch, a small delay in her mother’s movements. Riled, blinded, she took that opening.

“Maybe that’s why that guy left you, right?”

Stinging. Burning. Like a grenade that went off too early. Friendly fire.

Everything stopped. The weight of her words brought their world to a screeching halt.

Her mother… it was as if all life was drained from her. Her skin was white, her eyes had a dreary look to them. Hollow.

Alexis was stunned. The regret was immediate. But it always seemed harder to take it back, especially when emotions flared.

She was moving before her mother could attempt another word, trying to get out of the kitchen. Her mother was closer to the faucet, so the path wasn’t blocked. A stroke of luck.

She left the kitchen, fleeing to her room, the door slamming behind her.

She leaned, and found herself on her side, down. It hadn’t registered to Alexis that she fell.

Tears started streaming, not down her face, but across the bridge of her nose, past one ear.

It wasn’t true. Not one word she said was true.

Her mother could be uptight, but Alexis knew she was patient, how forgiving she was to her daughter. She could cool it, for much longer than a second.

And that guy didn’t leave her… he left them. He never came back. She never got the chance to learn his name.

She didn’t want to. Fuck that. Fuck that guy.

She knew she’d have to go back out there. She’d have to apologize. She wanted to.

But…

She didn’t have power to stand up now. She’d stay down, keep herself down.

Here, at the bottom.

I’m a terrible person.

As the tears fell, so the scene, collapsing all around the girl.

But, a new scene wasn’t being recalled. The stage was left blank.

It was just the girl, in an ever-expanding expanse of darkness.

She opened her eyes, and looked at her bare arms and legs. Her bare torso.

Scars, enough to outline her entire body. Bruises marked her skin, colored it, like blotches of paint on a canvas.

She wasn’t embarrassed, or ashamed of the blemishes. They defined her, gave her a shape.

All that she was, and all that she would be.

Here, there was no Alexis, no other labels. Just the core underneath it all. The scars.

The girl tested her voice, and it carried in the darkness, echoing forever.

“I don’t get it. Why show me that, all that ugliness. Is this your idea of a stronger foothold?”

No voiced answer. The darkness emitted.

“Oh.”

The darkness swam, forming faint, weak images. As if being seen through static.

Less ugly scenes, scenes that were less taxing to share. Playing on a playground, running on a track, helping in the kitchen. Pleasant, but the grainy filter distorted the images, making it impossible to get a proper view.

The darkness relented, and the scenes dissipated.

“You want the same things I do, huh? Alright, I get it now.”

The voice echoed, reaching into the darkness, affecting it. The darkness rippled in response.

The girl managed a smile.

“I guess I’m capable of understanding, I managed with Benny. Okay, you… no. There aren’t really winners and losers in this, are there? Not me, not you.”

The girl breathed after what felt like an eternity, and it rejuvenated.

“It’s us.”

Spoken as an objective fact. The truth.

The darkness reacted.

It slinked, moving over arms and legs. The scars and bruises were being washed away. A warm sensation hit the core. A healing that was long overdue.

“It’s not going to be pretty, I’ll tell you that right now. But we’ve gotten used to it, haven’t we? The ugliness.”

An absence was now starting to settle in, spaces where darkness once occupied. White. It began to solidify, taking its own shape.

A checkerboard.

“Take a deep breath, because it’s as close to a heaven as we’re going to get. It’ll get much hotter from here on out.”

The darkness pulsated, as if it understood. An agreement.

It finished, and the scars and bruises were gone. Not one mark was left.

The arrangement was simple, clean. Some darkness remained, keeping the checkerboard pattern.

Under her own power, the girl stood.

“Let’s burn it all to the fucking ground.”

“Hey, Alexis?”

V responded. “Yeah?”

“You’re kinda spacing out there. You okay?”

V smiled, warm. “I’m okay.”

Justin gave her another look over, but he sat back, letting it go.

Emily jabbed him in the arm. “Stop looking at her like that.”

“Ow, what’d I do?”

Too late, the damage was done. Emily turned up her nose, and looked away from Justin. Where she was irritated, he was equally confused.

V found the whole thing amusing.

They were in a Vietnamese restaurant. Phở Nam, at the Asian market, somewhere in the edge of downtown, away from the bigger buildings. A nice change of pace, to not have buildings towering above.

Justin and Emily had reached out again, to hang out with Alexis. Grab some lunch, maybe catch a movie later. Spending a day with the OG Francis Xavier youth group… except the rest of them couldn’t make it. V wasn’t particularly surprised, or disappointed.

The couple felt that three wasn’t enough of a crowd, though. They heavily suggested that Alexis could invite anyone, bring them along. V immediately knew who to reach out to.

Katy was on her phone, and Maria sipped from a small bowl of soup. They were all around a table, waiting for their food.

It was a calm scene, the atmosphere lowkey. Nothing to worry about, nothing that would ruin their day. They could just sit, and be okay.

V checked her watch.

“Emily, babe, I wasn’t actually…”

Justin kept trying to explain himself to Emily, but he was badgering her by this point. She looked like she was having none of it, but the gesture was exaggerated. She was teasing him.

“If you get me a molten lava chocolate cake after this,” Emily said, her voice high, “I might be able to look the other way.”

Justin scrunched up his face. “You’re just toying with me, aren’t you?”

“I dunno, am I?”

His concerned expression dropped, replaced by a grin.

“Ah, fuck you,” he said, then took a sip from his own bowl of soup.

“How long have you two been together?”

It was Maria that asked.

Emily dropped her act to answer. “Oh, couple years, I think. Beginning of high school.”

“Last day of school, actually,” Justin said, wiping his lip with a napkin. “But it was during freshman year. I asked you out right by your locker.”

“That’s right, but does that really count? I remember saying no, then.”

Maria gave a look of shock.

“You said no?”

Justin looked hurt. “You weren’t supposed to tell people that.”

“But it’s true, and she asked. I can’t just, you know, lie.”

“Fine. But hey, she did say yes about a week later, so who really won in the end?”

Justin pointed two thumbs in his direction.

“This guy!”

Emily rolled her eyes, groaning at him. She seemed to mean it, that time.

“Babe, I was kidding, I was joking…”

Maria laughed at Justin’s expense. Justin seemed annoyed, but he rolled with it. All in good fun.

V checked her watch again.

“It’s alright,” Katy said, finally off her phone. “We still have time for a movie, if you haven’t crossed that out, already.”

“Oh, um, right.”

V had to tell herself to stop checking.

“Speaking of,” Justin said, “Is there anything good out right now?”

“There’s that Water… Shape… something movie,” Emily said. “That looks interesting. But, man, that’s too recent. I’m not very fond of crowded theaters.”

“Same, girl,” Maria said. “I’d rather wait until I can stream it at home. That way, I can stay in bed and watch a movie with my own damn popcorn.”

“That sounds like a dream.”

Emily lifted a hand, and Maria matched her, a solid high five.

They’re getting along, V noted. That’s good.

It wouldn’t be perfect, but it could be good.

V tapped a finger on the table, downing half her glass of water.

Katy asked, “Something on your mind, Alexis?”

V spun her straw around the lid of the glass.

“Nothing really. Just waiting.”

“Just waiting?”

“Yup.”

Katy proceeded to make a comment, but V couldn’t quite catch it. The tone was odd, though. Not accusatory, but it was pointed.

“Damn, it’s loud,” V said, her voice raised in turn.

“It is pretty busy,” Justin said, looking around the restaurant. “Even at this hour.”

“Ever since, uh…” Emily stammered, eyes darting around. “Ever since he… did the things, people have been flocking to these places. It’s been rough couple of weeks.”

“Like a kind of refuge?” Maria asked.

“Kind of, I guess.”

Just from listening, it was easy to tell the place was busy. People were talking, conversing, shouting in Vietnamese across tables to call waiters. Noon during the holiday season already made things hectic, but another factor added to all the activity.

Harrian was the he, and him attacking a school were the things. A big incident like that meant big ramifications, and they stretched far and wide. A whole subsection of the city’s population were thrusted into the public consciousness, and neither were used to it. People who were already used to being hidden in plain sight, and a light that was too sudden, too harsh, and too bright. It lead to a push and pull from both sides. It lead to friction.

Here, it was Katy and Maria who were in the minority. The rest of them were those who wanted to find a place to feel at ease. To hide in plain sight. Refuge.

It was either this, or another riot. And this city had already seen more of its share fair of those. The cage was being rattled one too many times.

Here, there was peace, as relative as it was.

“I’m, dang, sorry guys,” Emily said. “I didn’t mean to bring that up. I’m not trying to be a downer.”

“It’s alright,” Katy said. “It’s not nothing, but it’s alright. That kind of thing affects a lot of people. We’re not that special in that regard.”

“But you,” Emily started, but she had the decent sense to not press that point. She shut herself up.

“Happy thoughts, guys,” Maria said, filling the dead air. “Happy thoughts.”

Katy threw in another comment before that dead air could come back again. “Saying it like that makes it more awkward.”

The group chuckled, trying to lighten the mood. V had joined in to keep appearances.

With everyone distracted, she stole a glance at her watch for a third time.

Maria gave it another try. “Emily, the reason why I thought you two were so funny earlier was because I kind of did the same thing, too.”

“What thing?” Emily asked.

“When my boyfriend asked me out, I didn’t give him a yes until like, six months later.”

Emily gave a her own look of shock.

“Holy shit, six months?”

“It’s a long story, obviously, but yeah, it took a while before I realized I was being dumb, and then I went to him. I’m still baffled at how he didn’t get another girl at that time.”

“Oh. Handsome guy?”

“Oh yeah,” Maria said, sounding proud.

“Aw, sounds like he was hoping you’d change your mind.”

“That’s what I tell myself.”

“Geez, I think I’d kill myself if I ended up waiting six months,” Justin commented, out of the blue. “Or, maybe I would have found someone else by then?”

Emily made a grunt.

“Please, you’re lucky that I gave your ass a chance!”

Justin looked physically pained to hear that, with Maria and Emily laughing at him again, sharing another high five.

“How about you two,” Emily said, turning to V and Katy. “Single?”

V and Katy looked at each other. V gestured for Katy to go first.

“I am,” Katy said. “And I’m not exactly looking for a guy, either.”

“Fair.” Emily looked at V, moving her eyebrows up and down. “And you?”

V brought her glass close, drinking more of her water.

“Same here,” V said. “Not interested at the moment.”

“That, I don’t believe. You’re hiding it, but you’re practically glowing.”

Glowing?

“I am not,” V said.

Emily’s eyebrows hadn’t stopped going up and down. “Don’t lie, we’re all friends here. I have a good eye for stuff like that. Something happened, and it was recent. Come on, spill the tea, girl.”

The sudden attention on her was more than she needed. V had to fight herself from checking her watch again.

She settled for drinking more water.

“No no,” Emily said. “Don’t hide behind your water. I wanna hear the details.”

A bubbling sound. V had ran out of water, her straw getting more air now than anything else.

“You must be seeing things, then,” V said. “Because you’re wrong. There are no details, and even if there were, and there aren’t, I’m not up to sharing.”

Emily pouted. “Ah fine, I’ll let you off the hook.”

She shot V a look though, the corners of her mouth folding up. She resembled a cat.

“For now.”

“She’s just being shy,” Katy said, giving V a sidelong glance. “Usually you can goad Alexis into sharing a few stories. She actually has some good ones. Remember the lake?”

V didn’t even try, but she knew there was a barrier, there. A mental block.

“I do,” V lied. “But I still don’t want to get into it.”

Katy’s glance lingered, but she then dropped it, moving on. V briefly squinted at her.

“We can talk about other stuff,” Katy said. “Like Maria’s boyfriend. This is the most I’ve heard of him… ever. I’m actually kind of shocked.”

“I’m full of surprises,” Maria said.

“Keep surprising me. I want to hear all-”

A shout had cut into everything. Katy talking, the restaurant bustling.

“You fucker! I been waitin’ for thirty goddamn minutes! When am I getting served?”

A man, standing up from his table, his chair sliding back away from him. It was cold out, somewhat chilly in here, but he had on a baggy white shirt and jeans. A bandage over one hand.

Mexican, just from his face alone, and he was probably the tallest one here, mean mugging anyone who was looking up at him.

He had a crew with him, sitting at the table. Dressed in a similar fashion. They didn’t seem disconcerted about their friend’s behavior. Unconcerned, maybe even disinterested.

The man yelled at the nearest waitress.

“You speak English?”

The waiter struggled to get out a word.

The man yelled some more.

“Fuck, speak English! We’re in America. I’m here, you’re here, speak some fucking real words!”

He spread his arms, fast and hard. He almost swiped at the waitress, who backed away, hitting a table. Water and tea were spilled all over.

“Fuck!” he yelled again, arms high. It was as if he was being mad just to be mad. Like putting a show.

“What a dick,” Emily said, under her breath. It was certainly one way to put it. Everyone’s lunch was ruined, the atmosphere spoiled.

Sitting in her seat, Katy looked tense, unsure of what was to come next. Maria retreated into herself, trying to appear smaller.

V checked her watch. She waited.

“Sir, please calm down.”

A woman walked to the angered man, hands in a placating gesture. Vietnamese, probably the manager.

The man’s face contorted.

“Calm down? How I can fucking calm down? We be waitin’ for a fucking hour by now!”

“Sir, you said thirty minutes.”

The man just yelled.

“See? No fucking wonder everyone’s been beating on you squity-eyed fucks! You’re all the same.”

Words mattered. They affected people. And they riled up the crowded restaurant.

Everyone began to voice their protest.

Yelling, shouting, it all mixed into a cacophonous wall of sound. Even Justin heated up for a moment, yelling out a profanity, then sitting back in his chair.

The man didn’t care. He was looking around, egging people on, getting a rise of them. He took his time, staring down each and every person.

He was facing V’s table when others started getting up, too. From the other tables, looking to pick a fight with the man.

“I think it’s time for you and your friends to leave,” one of them said. Another man.

“I agree,” another said. A girl.

The man clearly did not agree.

“Sit your flat-ass down, or I’ll make you.”

He lifted one side of his shirt, revealing a holster he had on his hip.

V got up from her seat.

“Alexis?” Katy questioned.

“Hey, dick,” V said. She ignored Katy.

The man turned. He wasn’t that far, and she was loud enough.

He took a second longer that needed to get a look at her face, as if he was studying her.

“Fuck you doing here?” he asked.

“If you’re really going to harass a girl, you really shouldn’t do it in a restaurant with a lot of people. Someone might catch you.”

V had thought over her words.

The man chuckled.

“Bitch, you stay outta this!” He lifted his shirt move, reaching for his gun.

Everyone moved. Everyone jumped out of their seats. Most ran away from the man. A select few dared to run towards him.

V was among that select few.

“Alexis!”

She heard Katy from behind.

“Damn you, don’t!”

V ignored her for the last time.

She was fast, faster than anyone else here. She got to the man first.

But his hand was faster. He was already holding the handgun.

V swung with her arm, aiming for-

No.

A finger was faster than an arm.

The shot rang out.

V dropped.

She could have gotten back up, sprang back to her feet, but she didn’t. She stayed down. Her ears ringing. Head aching.

Past that were the sounds of more commotion. Screaming, shouting. Fighting.

She wasn’t hurt, no bullet had even grazed her, but V didn’t get up.

V played dead.

Loud. Tables being flipped over. Metal on tile. Some water dripped on V’s head as stuff got thrown around. She didn’t move.

V felt hands on her. Then, she felt the floor move away from her.

She was being lifted.

She tried moving her arms, her legs. Budging just a little. Nothing. She was being held tight.

“We’re moving out!”

The man. He sounded close.

Bobbing. Rough. They were running, and she was being taken with them.

Cold. The door has swung open, exposing her to the weather outside. She felt a chill.

The men didn’t break stride. Another shot rang outdoors.

A hard stop. She heard the rumbling of an engine.

“No! Put the others in the back, this one stays here, alone!”

The man was barking orders.

Footsteps, moving fast. Doors sliding open and closed. Fast. They were working with haste.

V was tossed, landing on leather.

Tires screeched as the door slid closed.

The van was at top speed as it pulled away, leaving the restaurant behind.

V clenched her hands, making fists. Counting down from ten. Getting her focus back. Loud sounds really did get to her.

The van sped through corners, making the turns tight. V was jostled around, and it was hard to make herself upright.

She felt more hands press into her body, keeping her steady. Small.

“Almost there! If we can make it to that back road, we’re in the clear!”

A yell, but the voice was small. Young.

The ride was fast, then bumpy, speeding along anyways. It continued for several minutes.

“Wakey wakey.”

That was directed to her. V opened her eyes, slow, finding that she screwed them tight.

She needed time to get her bearings.

A girl was watching her, looking after her with care. Her arms were out, holding her, as the drive jerked them around. Neither were of them were wearing seatbelts.

She saw V come to, and gradually moved her hands away. She was smiling as V managed to sit properly.

V pushed her hair back, fixing loose strands.

“How are we doing on time?” the girl asked, still watching V. She had a phone in her hand, now, taking only small, needed glances. Her eyes were on V, otherwise.

Someone else answered. The driver.

“Good on all counts. Decoys are in place, and everyone’s moving on their assigned routes with no trouble.”

“Awesome.”

V was blinking, checking her watch. A simple but sleek design, an all-black face with no numbers or markings, with gold hands. It was a quarter to one.

She had this watch during the Eastside raid. She had it with her.

I really am a sentimental one.

She looked up and saw D, with her trademark grin. She gave her a nod.

“You’re late, Dor-,” V said.

“That’s my grandmother’s name,” D said. “Operation was a success, we’re off to Wanderland, now. We can do whatever we want. Play chess all day, feed our curious appetites, whatever. We never have to grow up. So sit back, relax, and enjoy yourself, it’s about to get extra fun.”

D smiled wider.

“Or, would you rather have something to drink?”

She looked pleased with herself for making the various references.

The girl managed to return one of her own, deciding to indulge her. It didn’t feel forced.

“Something sweet, please,” Wendy said.

Previous                                                                     Bonus

048 – Balancing Act

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“Can’t remember the last time I was up here,” Katy said, flat. She rested her arms on the railing, feeling the wind in her hair.

I tapped my foot.

“Shit, I’ve never been up here,” Maria said, joining her. “Hey, and the view isn’t too bad. Do you come out here often, Alexis?”

I crossed my legs, and my arms.

I was sitting in a chair beside Maria, farther from her than she was to Katy. Behind bars, I saw the city.

“Every now and then,” I answered. During my time as a ‘hero,’ I used the balcony as my way of going in and out of the apartment.

But, there was no reason to bring up that bit of info.

Our volunteering at the church ended around noontime, and aside from giving our condolences to Mrs. Phan and Justin one more time, we left without a fuss. I didn’t bother to seek out those other kids to say farewell, either.

Mother offered to cook lunch back at the apartment, since we were already all together. Katy and Maria were up for it. I wasn’t, but I couldn’t exactly voice that sentiment. I had to go along with it, with everyone. Reluctantly.

She prepared miso soup and fried chicken. It was apparent that I used to have some kind of connection to those particular dishes. The extra company of little girls that sat with us at the table, lounging on the couch, eating their own fill, each with their faces scraped away…

At least, it made it easier to keep my head down, be quiet, and eat.

The food tasted awful, of course, but I had learned how to hide it. It sat like a weight in my stomach. I’d have to throw it up later, when I had time.

Which was the problem I had, now.

Time.

Lunch was over, Katy and Maria got what they came here for. Why were they still hanging around?

I remembered those kids back at the church.

Licking wounds. Pity.

My foot tapped, my legs crossed and uncrossed. I sat back and leaned forward.

Please, let the sun set faster.

“How’d you even get this deal, anyways?” Maria asked, ripping me away from my thoughts and planning. “Getting the master bedroom all to yourself is quite sweet.”

She was talking to me. I’d rather not, but it was unavoidable.

I looked away from the city to see into the glass door, my room. I saw a girl a few years my junior, in her bed, typing away at her phone. Giggling.

I looked elsewhere, back, on the balcony, and saw brief flashes of a toddler, tightly hugging her mother, delighted over something.

The images drilled, and it actively hurt to try and look at. Like staring at the sun.

“Shi- My mom, she let me have this room, back when we moved in.”

“Really? She just gave it to you?”

My head ached the more she forced me to put thought into it. “Yes. She prefers smaller spaces, I guess.”

“Your mom’s from Japan, right? Did she grow up in a apartment there, too?”

If I tried to reach that far back, that hard, for such an insignificant detail, my head would split open.

“I really don’t know,” I said.

A sound, not from Maria, but from Katy.

“You don’t know where your mom grew up?” Maria asked.

“She’s never shared much about her time there. She’s never brought it up, and I just learned not to ask.”

That didn’t require strenuous brain power to say. As if it was a lesson that truly left a mark on my very being.

“I can give you that,” Maria said. “No diss, but she does seem kind of… standoffish?”

Even I could see it. Clear. The description fit.

“No diss,” I said. “That’s about right.”

“But, like, don’t get me wrong, Shiori’s awesome, she just also has this side to her, you know, like, I can’t get her mad, no matter what, or she’d fucking kill me, or worse.”

I smirked, almost in spite of myself.

“That’s what Asian parents are like,” I said.

Then, right there, a moment came and went. An opening to continue the conversation, but no one took it. Maria didn’t.

A breeze gently passed, and hair brushed into my face. I briefly had the thought of getting it cut.

Maria clicked her tongue, seemingly out of nowhere.

“Hard to believe it’s already December,” Maria said. “Barely feels like it.”

She’s forcing it.

This time, Katy answered her, her tone as dry as ever. “It’s because it’s been so warm. It’s only ever really chilly in the morning, other than that you’re good with a jacket. We can’t even get a proper winter.”

“I bet it’ll get colder later, probably around Christmas or New Year’s,” Maria said. “Hey, do you guys have any plans for the holidays?”

No answer, from me or from Katy. Enough time passed that it should have meant something.

Maria fixed her hair, removing a strand that flew into her mouth.

“Same,” Maria said, breathing out the word.

I had enough awareness that I could see what she was trying to do, but I just didn’t have the will or care or investment to play along. They were friendly, and the connection between me and them existed, but it was becoming frail, nearly vestigial. I couldn’t claim it as my own.

Doing so would be lying to myself.

But, I also recognized that I couldn’t neglect that part of my life altogether. It was a chore, but it was a necessary one. A role I had to play, a mask I needed to wear.

In a perfect world, I would have no need to be here. I would have no need for this.

Yet, here I was.

At least for now, I’d have to act as Alexis Barnett.

“I legit don’t know what I’ll be doing around that time,” I said, throwing Maria a bone. “Hopefully I’ll just be chilling, getting some peace and quiet.”

“Yeah, some of that would be nice,” Maria said. “Things just keep happening. I need a damn break.”

“Snowball effect,” Katy said. She didn’t say anything more than that.

“What do you mean?” Maria asked.

Katy remained silent for a time.

“Nothing,” she finally said.

Maria fixed her hair again, then looked at me. I noticed her stare. It was a very specific kind of stare. Was I supposed to know what she was thinking? Reading between the lines?

A sort of mutual understanding, but I couldn’t deliver on my end. That particular meaning was lost on me.

I broke eye contact, and I gave a half-hearted shrug. An empty gesture, but it should’ve been enough for Maria. She could ascribe her own meaning in that.

My foot started tapping again, and I leaned back, observing the other two. Katy had her phone out, her attention focused there. Maria was taking in the view of the city, doing her best to keep up a brave face. She tried, but I somehow managed to see the cracks.

This wasn’t working. At all.

None of us were up for talking, and none of us could face each other for any meaningful length of time. Even for me, at a distance from it all, it was blatantly clear. Katy was still reeling from the death of her father, and Maria had to stand at the sidelines if she wanted to support her. And I, on principle, preferred that distance to maintain.

On top of everything else, the attack at the school was still fresh on everyone’s minds. That alone would force any normal person to retreat inward.

It wasn’t unlike trying to push together magnets of the same end. There was bound to be a resistance, from every side.

And if you push too hard, what would happen when you suddenly let go?

“All the pieces fly away,” I said to myself.

“Did you say something?” Maria asked. Must have heard me.

“Um, nothing,” I said. I sounded like Katy, there.

Maria grumbled, then turned around, her back against the railing. “Man, you people need to stop with the subliminals. Freaks me out.”

“My bad,” I said.

“Sorry,” Katy said.

We spoke at the same time.

“Sorry,” I said.

“My bad,” Katy said.

We did it again.

An awkward pause followed.

Maria was the one to break, laughing at our expense.

She kept laughing.

Then some more.

“I’m okay,” Maria said, between fits. Oddly pitchy. “It’s okay, see, it can be okay, just laugh at something whenever, it can help. Just fucking saying.”

She rubbed, massaged at her eyes using her sleeve. When she pulled away, her eyes were red.

“Ugh, fuck,” she said. “I am so fucking lame.”

The connection between us, I felt it shoring up. Despite me. A tug at my chest that I couldn’t explain.

I used the new, more intense awkward pause, and retreated into it. No one said any more.

We all retreated.

I wasn’t sure how much time had gone by when Mother came to check in on us.

“Hi,” she said, soft, stepping onto the balcony, door left open. She had a tin bowl in her hands. “I cut up apples, please help yourselves.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Barnett,” Maria said, immediately going for them. “They’re great.”

Katy went next, taking her arms off the railing, phone falling back into a pocket.

“Thanks,” she said, dry.

And that meant I had to have a turn.

“Thanks, Ma,” I said. I would’ve fumbled if I had to say more than one and a half words.

I grabbed two slices, and ate them. I chewed fast, then swallowed like I was drinking water.

Mush, wet. Like grounded-up fish guts. It repulsed. Mother had washed the apples before cutting, which did help, it made them easier to bring down.

And it would make them easier to bring back up.

“Tastes good,” I lied.

“I leave them here for you?” she suggested.

“Actually,” Katy said, after wiping her mouth. “I’ll have to get going, now. Mom called, and I’ve got some errands to run.”

“Are you sure?” Mother asked.

Katy cast glance at the two of us. At Maria. At me.

“I’m sure,” she said.

“I guess,” Maria said, unsure of herself, “That’s it for me, too. Don’t wanna overstay anything.”

“It’s no problem,” Mother said. “Of course you’re welcome.”

“But, I loved the food, though,” Maria said, as if to save face. “I’ve never had authentic Japanese before. It was delish.”

“It was,” Katy added. “Thanks again, Shiori.”

Katy started, passing Mother to leave. I got out of my seat. It was only proper, when guests were leaving.

“Bye,” I said, watching Maria follow, as they both left.

“Bye,” Katy returned, without turning back. However, I noticed Maria steal a glance.

They crossed my room, leaving through the other door, into the living room. From there, the front door was their exit.

“You won’t see them off?” Mother asked, facing me.

My hand went over my stomach.

“I really need some fresh air. But I’ll see them again.”

That last bit sounded more like a premonition than a blessing.

Mother lifted the bowl of apples to me. “Do you still want?”

I took a slice.

“You can leave the rest in the kitchen,” I said. “I might get some more, later.”

Mother nodded, then left the balcony, and I got the door for her. I spun back, and rested my arms on the railing.

I looked back at the city, uncaged.

I tossed the apple away, the slice falling into grass below.

The wind picked up again, and I took a deep breath. The headache was starting to subside.

I didn’t like reaching into older, useless connections. It diluted my thinking. Making me less me, and giving purchase to another thing. Her.

Granted, some connections, memories, were necessary, like my time as Blank Face. Others, if I could, I’d drop them immediately. Trim the fat, as the saying went.

In a perfect world, I would have no need to be here.

It was another reason why I was pressed for time. The last thing I wanted was to doubt myself.

Which was why tonight was so crucial.

If I was to do this again, I had to make some serious changes. I had to do this right. No more blindly jumping about, grasping at straws. I needed to go about this with a plan in mind.

If I wanted to play for keeps, I needed to prepare a hand to play.

Now this was more like it.

Standing on the edge, the thrill of being so high up. Overseeing everything, the city completely unaware. The cold, beaten only by the rush of adrenaline pumping through my veins. The sight and sounds were present, but far away. From up here, everything seemed so small.

The feeling of plastic on my face.

This was true freedom.

My costume underwent some more changes. It was all makeshift, I’d have to make do with what I had for just a little longer.

I ditched the blue. Better to distance myself from that image, than risk more trouble by dressing as the blue demon everyone was hunting. Better yet to ditch that identity entirely.

Functionally speaking, however, I was still married to the idea of wearing hoodies and windbreakers. I couldn’t seem to get myself away from that concept. On that front, all I did was swap the blue for red.

The mask I had on was my old one, the first one I ever used. It was simple, and barely identifiable. It worked. But I did make some changes to its look. I darkened the sockets around the eyes and the edges of the mask, to shape it more like a human face. As an added touch, I applied some red paint onto the lips. Following the phantoms that wandered around my apartment, I managed to find old, forgotten material, and used it to touch-up my mask.

After that were the smaller essentials. Bag, extra clothes, cash, gloves, knife.

The final result, with everything working in tandem, with mask on and hood up, I didn’t look like someone wearing a mask. I looked like a whole new person.

Not a costume, but a form to call my own. I wasn’t Blank Face, I wasn’t the Bluemoon, and I especially was not Alexis Barnett. I’d need a name, but that could wait.

Standing above the city, I was me.

We’re just us.

Precisely.

Then, I moved.

It was exhilarating, refreshing. A much needed opportunity to stretch my legs and really extend my abilities. I had to keep focused on the path ahead, watching out when I had to jump higher to reach the next building, and bracing myself when the drop was that much lower. It kept my mind running, as much as my body.

I crossed gaps, careful not to overextend and lose my footing. I knew how to maneuver over obstacles, the vents and air conditioning units. Ducking, sliding when necessary.

You’ve gotten better at this, I told myself. The thought alone was liberating. From my old self, old limitations.

I checked the sky as I moved through the air, and he passed overhead.

Hleuco.

He had feathers, a beak, it wasn’t that much of a leap for him to have wings, too.

Coming out from his back, his wings were as large as they were long, to support something of his height and weight. Jet black. It was hard to make out in the night, but he was gliding more than he was actually flying. One flap of his huge wings was enough to go a long distance.

When he passed the moon, the light pierced him for a moment, and he’d vanish, only to materialize as he left that sphere of influence.

I fought the urge to cheer as I soared through the air a final time. I stopped, landing right before our destination.

Hleuco was already there, perched on the roof of the adjacent building. It took four flaps for him to beat me to the police station.

Here we are.

Back again.

I kept low, stalking to the edge of the roof to check the windows of the next building.

There he was, just like last time. Working at his desk.

James Gomez.

A visual was all I needed, and I moved again, dropping down to the fire escape that was mounted to the wall. I had become light enough to not make too much noise when I landed.

I went up to the window of his office, and something caught my eye.

Blank Face’s message was still here from the last time, etched with a black marker, but bits of the letters were reduced to mere smudges. Probably from the rain we had gotten recently.

He had covered up the original message with a scrap of notebook paper, taped from his side of the window. And when the rain came and went, he forgot to take it down.

There was something humorous in that, and it almost gave me pause. I had to remind myself not to laugh and give myself away.

Focus.

Yeah, yeah.

Good thing I had come prepared. I slipped out another marker from the side of my bag, and wrote out a new message on the window. I finished by drawing an arrow, pointing to the scrap of paper.

‘COME CLEAN!’

I put the marker back, then knocked on the window. In the next breath, I was already ascending up the remainder of the fire escape. As I drew in another, I already was up on the roof.

I didn’t situate myself atop the cement roof enclosure, over the roof access door. Not like last time. I just stood at the door, arms folded. Waiting.

Hleuco was gone, leaving me with time to concentrate. I shut my eyes to regain certain connections to better prepare myself for the meeting.

Waiting.

My foot began to tap.

Waiting.

He was really taking his sweet time.

The door creaked when it finally opened, and I opened my eyes, ready. I saw Gomez as he stepped onto the roof. The door shut on its own as he approached. He saw me, and I saw his hand move slowly toward his side. His hip.

“It’s me, Blank Face,” I said, to reassure him.

Even though I don’t care much for that name, anymore.

Gomez’s hand stopped, instead going into a pocket. He bobbed his head in a nod.

“Rebranding, are we?” he questioned. “I think I’ve only ever seen you with your proper costume once, and that was the first time you showed up here.”

“Rebranding is a good way of putting it,” I said.

Gomez’s expression changed, his heavy mustache accentuating his frown.

He looked drained, beaten down by recent events. His cheeks a little sunken in, what little of his hair left frayed at the ends. Add on top the decades of wear, tear, and stress a job like his dished out…

He looked like a husk of James Gomez, Chief of Police of the Stephenville Police Department.

His voice reflected that, too, when he spoke. Hoarse.

“A lot has happened since the last time I saw you, and dare I say, a lot has happened because of you. You’re very popular, if you weren’t aware. Lot of people want to get their hands on you, yet you come to visit me. Can’t tell if I should be grateful.”

He took a step towards me. Then another.

“Maybe I should call it in, it’d be so easy. Like I mentioned the last time you were up here, one press of a button, and you’re done. I have you. And I put all of this bullshit behind me and finally start seeing a therapist. God knows I need one.”

He wouldn’t actually turn me in, would he? I’d probably be able to get away if he did, but it’d be an inconvenience, a door shut in my face.

I stood, tense, watching his every step, every twitch or movement. If he was going to pull something, I could stop him, break his arm, send him off the ledge.

I could, but I shouldn’t.

I had to actively tell myself no. That wouldn’t do me any good.

Let’s save the energy for someone else.

Gomez continued, interrupting my thoughts.

“You’ve been awfully quiet. Tell me, do you still think you’re the good guy? The hero?”

It was that question that derailed my train of thought. What did this have to do with anything? How was that relevant?

Behind my mask, I looked at Gomez right in the eye.

No, he was being serious.

I bit my tongue.

I had to answer him, and I had a feeling that there was a right answer to his question. Piss him off, and I’d lose the point of being here in the first place.

I gave him my answer.

“I’m after the bad guys, the people responsible for this whole mess. Solace, Styx, Benny, they’ve gone too far without having lost anything in return. I want them to pay, and I want to take from them the equivalent of what they’ve taken from everyone else.”

What they’ve taken from us.

Gomez blinked, slow, taking in my response. His eyebrow furrowed.

“Eye for an eye, don’t you know what happens when the whole world operates like that?”

I had no answer, there, and I was running out of patience.

“We’re getting sidetracked. I came here because I need your help. I’m looking for Benny. If she’s still in the city, I’m going to find her.”

“Just Benny?” he asked.

“She’s a start. Is she still here?”

Gomez removed a hand from his pocket, and rubbed his mustache, fixing it.

“She could be. Honestly? I’m inclined to say yes.”

Yes.

Exactly what I wanted to hear.

“How do you know for sure?” I asked, almost excitedly so.

“I don’t know for sure, but given what I know of this city and the situation, she won’t get too far without getting caught. Border’s even more tight, now, thanks to her own actions, and considering the… culture, here, there’s a nice price on her head.”

“Meaning,” I offered.

“Meaning everyone’s going to want to cash in. Gangs… and some of my own men, with secondary loyalties.”

“It’s a manhunt from all sides,” I said, summing it up.

“Precisely, and if every movement might get you sniffed out, then the best bet is to stay put, and pray for some miraculous opening. If she’s smart, she’ll have holed herself up, wherever she is.”

I nodded, taking it in.

Those were good odds, but it came with the added challenge of everyone being a player in the game of finding her.

It wouldn’t be easy, but it could be done.

“That’s reassuring,” I said. “We find her, and we have a very big piece of the Solace… conspiracy, for want of a better word. From the weapons found back at that warehouse, we know that The Chariot was involved. If she can’t give us anything, fine, but we still have the person who led the attack at Stephenville High School.”

“Stephenville High School,” he repeated, and it came with a harrowing note. “You know she was behind it?”

“I know some of her crew were brought into custody.”

He fixed his mustache again.

“I see. Is that why you’re looking for her, because it’s personal?”

I could almost see the scenery change around me, and I was back in that bloody, messy, classroom. Where I woke up.

“Thomas was personal,” I said, bringing myself back. “This is another matter. She called me out, and people, kids, suffered for it. This is…”

Personal in a different way. Therapeutic, using your own words.

But I just trailed off, instead.

I couldn’t gauge Gomez’s exact expression, but it wasn’t pleasant.

“Don’t bring up his name, not like that, not here. His funeral wasn’t that long ago. Maybe you were there?”

The mention of his name brought back Hleuco. He stood by Gomez, head cocked, like observing prey.

“In spirit,” I said, glancing at the shadow figure. “But we’re getting sidetracked again.”

If I wasn’t getting what I needed out of Gomez, I was wasting time. “I know that not everyone of Benny’s crew made it out of the school, some were left behind. If you have them in custody, I’d like to pay them a visit. Any one of them will do.”

“Ah.” He bobbed his head, again, then said, “They’re not here. We don’t have them.”

“They’re not what? Where are they?”

Gomez explained. “They attacked and destroyed a public school, and terrorized the students and staff inside that school. We arrested them, but we had to hand them over. They’re in a federal prison, now. They might even end up being deported, but it’s too soon to tell.”

Fuck. I hadn’t considered that, I didn’t see that coming.

“You’re saying I can’t get to any of them?” I asked.

“I can give you the address, but breaking into a heavily-guarded, federal prison is more trouble than any of them are worth. You’d be better off asking random strangers on the street, but I rather you not do that.”

I glanced away, thankful for my mask. Gomez couldn’t see the anger behind it.

Dammit, dammit. I needed them to get to Benny, and Gomez was someone I could actually turn to. Sofia, Samuel. Any of the others I incapacitated. If they were being treated, they were probably under watch, too. Alone, I couldn’t get to them, and Gomez was right. It wouldn’t be worth it.

I clenched a fist, forcing myself to calm down, and I addressed Gomez again.

“I need anything you have that can lead me to Benny. Please. One of your men, they’d have to know something. Just give me a minute with them, I’ll get what I need out of them.”

Gomez stepped away, walking to one end of the roof. “I’m not in the business of handing over police officers for you to dangle and drop down multiple stories.”

I followed him, but I didn’t move too close to the edge. Didn’t want to be seen from up here.

“You gave me Sumeet,” I said, reminding him.

“I gave you a chance, at a time when my hands were tied. And when you were out, setting the city ablaze, I was able to gather enough intel and men to come back and help you. And we got pretty damn close, too. We had him, we got Thomas back.”

His head dropped a fraction.

“In the end, it wasn’t enough, but it was something,” he said. “It was a decent, even good, effort, to save something tangible.”

“How is that any different from now?” I asked.

“Now? This time, with Benny, the damage has already been done. You finding Benny isn’t going to save anyone, or bring anyone back. Not all of the perpetrators were caught, but some were. And the kid that took lives, along with his own… It goes without saying that he’s not around anymore. With or without Benny, people are going to find a way to heal from that.”

“What about bringing Benny to justice?”

Gomez laughed. It took me by surprise.

“Nothing of what you told me tonight has convinced me for a second that you want to turn her in.”

Turning, he jabbed a finger in my direction.

“From what I’ve gathered, you’re not looking for justice, are you? You’re looking for revenge.”

Revenge. The word resonated within me.

Was that what I was looking for? Was that what I wanted?

No, it wasn’t the ends. But the means?

Again, the word resonated.

“You’re really not going to help me?” I asked, disappointment showing in my voice.

Gomez walked back from the end of the roof. He passed me.

“I can’t, and I won’t,” he answered. “Not like this. I really must be crazy, because I still have some respect for you, and I’m not about to be complicit in whatever you’re going to do to Benny, if or when you do find her. I’m giving you a chance to walk away and just let this be. Let proper authorities do their jobs.”

He continued walking, heading to the door. I started moving to stop him.

“And what if I can’t?” I asked.

Gomez stopped right at the door, hand on the knob. He moved his shoulders to get a decent look at me.

“Then that wouldn’t be very super of you, would it?”

I set my jaw, my teeth gritting. Even Hleuco made a gesture. Feathers raised, chest puffed out.

“Dammit, Gomez. Work with me, here.”

“This is the part where I’m supposed to say ‘I’m sorry,’ but I won’t. Goodbye.”

He opened the door, and he left, leaving me alone on the rooftop. Dry.

Fuck. Dammit. Shit.

I wheeled around, and stormed off. I jumped to another rooftop and ran.

Damn Gomez, damn him. And damn me for not being able to convince him. He was my best bet on getting my hands on someone who could lead me to Benny, and now I had nothing. Not having custody of her crew was one thing, but actively trying to talk me out of pursuing her?

A myriad of different words flew through my head. Hypocrite was one of them.

I vaulted up to a taller building, and kept going. I was running to let off steam. Cool my head.

It wasn’t working.

What I needed was Benny, to find her and hurt her. To make it even. To make it fair.

Blank Face had tried to find her. Now, it was my turn. How hard is it to locate one fucking woman?

A shrill screech stopped me in my tracks. With a foot near the edge of the roof, I peered into the alley below.

A woman, running, chased by three men. Crossing from one street, hoping to escape to the other. But the men were faster, catching up on her.

She screeched again.

I almost responded as reflex, lifting my foot to prepare for a descent, but I stopped myself.

Police cars sped to the end of alley, cutting them all off. Lights on, the sirens sounding off. The woman threw her last remaining effort into a short, hard sprint, and she fell into the arms of an officer, already getting out of the car.

I heard the shouting and commotion below, the cops telling the attackers to freeze, get down, hands behind their head. They froze, and complied, and the cops moved in. The situation ended as soon as I happened upon it.

Too bad, I needed an outlet. Blood would do me some good, too.

The world really doesn’t need a Blank Face, does it?

It didn’t.

I watched as the cops cuffed the men, taking them into the cars, illuminated red and blue. Thinking.

If Gomez wasn’t going to hand me over any cops, should I just pick them out myself? I might find someone who knew a thing or two. A clue.

No, I dismissed the idea. More trouble than it was worth. Do that, and I’d end up in a similar situation to that night. The night I set the ‘city ablaze,’ as Gomez put it. Running about, wildly, leaving behind a smoke trail of chaos.

Another approach, then. Couldn’t do this like before. I had to think laterally.

I looked ahead, and saw Hleuco, perched on the roof of the building across from me. Seeing him gave me an idea.

Head over, without anyone following, and I’ll meet you there. Out.

Of course.

It might not be the most efficient way of going about things, but it was a start.

I leapt again, crossing the gap. Hleuco unfurled his wings, taking to the air at the same time.

I knew where I needed to go, and how to get there. But it wouldn’t be by rooftop.

I would need to make a call. But, to do that, I’d have to find a payphone. And learn how to use one.

Previous                                                                                               Next

047 – Latae sententiae

epy arc 8 bite

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The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky. Somewhat fitting, considering how blue the atmosphere was.

St. Francis Xavier had been trashed.

Windows broken, statues dented and graffitied over. Crosses knocked and flipped around. The east wing was burned to the ground. Papers got caught in the wind, flying around, pews had been thrown outside and ripped apart. Paintings, too, tossed out and cut open. The church and offices had been gutted, its innards laid out to rot in the sun.

The church itself was no cathedral, but it was a temple, a place of worship. It was sizable, large enough to house a decent number of people. A symbol.

And it had been reduced to a shell of its former glory. As it stood now, it couldn’t serve its core purpose.

All this, in just a matter of days.

Shiori, Mother, went first, leading the way, maneuvering through the damage. I was behind her, followed by the two girls who wanted to accompany us.

Katy and Maria were their names.

All around us, others were picking up the pieces. Cleaning up, doing what they could to help. Mostly those from the church’s community, but others offered their help after news broke out. Outsiders.

A few squads of police were here, supervising the crews and volunteers, sometimes giving out their own orders. Firetrucks and firefighters moved to the burnt wing of the church.

A lot of people, a lot of moving parts, but weather itself was serene. Cool. Mother and I had to wear a light jacket to keep warm. Maria needed only a fitted sweater, and so did Katy, though she was wearing all black.

We entered into the gathering space just outside the church’s front doors, wide open and dented in places. Mother led us to a group being addressed by a short woman. Not elderly, but almost there. The woman noticed us, and dismissed the group with a word.

“Shiori, it’s good to see you,” the woman said. She looked sullen, with little energy to her words. She didn’t appear to have gotten much sleep, recently. “And you too, Alexis.”

That was me. I needed a moment to respond, but the situation didn’t call for me taking my time.

That’s Mrs. Phan.

Mother answered for the both of us. “Good to see you, too, Linda. It is a shame that it has to be under these circumstances.”

Mrs. Phan nodded, then she glanced around. She frowned.

“It happened at night, I was already asleep. I woke up to so many calls and messages, but it was already too late, and I couldn’t do anything. I was powerless.”

Again, she looked around, then back down. As if there was a faint hope that, if she were to check one more time, this would all seemingly go away, never to have happened. That hope was immediately squandered.

“Maybe if I was here, I could have done something, stopped them somehow. But I was slacking. Maybe this is my fault, my faith wasn’t strong enough. Maybe this is what happens when your faith isn’t strong enough. This happens.”

Mrs. Phan was just talking to herself by now. Repeating herself, rambling, looking as if sleep was a foreign concept to her…

I could imagine her completely breaking, if rebuilding the church was simply not an option. What would happen to her, then? How would she rebuild herself?

I was curious.

Mother put a hand on her shoulder. Firm.

“You are plenty strong, Linda, this is not a strike against you. Let’s go, tell me what we can do to help, and you take it easy the rest of the day.”

“But,” Mrs. Phan said.

She would’ve said more if Mother didn’t cut her off. “If nothing else, I will make sure you take a break today. Now, breathe in.”

Mrs. Phan breathed in.

“And breathe out.”

Mrs. Phan breathed out. It wasn’t much, but some tension did leave her body. The effect was visible.

She moved her hand, removing Mother’s hold off her shoulder. She stood straighter, now.

“Thank you, Shiori, and God bless you,” Mrs. Phan said. She cleared her throat, then handed out proper orders. “Shiori, I’ll have you come with me, I’ll need your help with the moving group. And Alexis?”

“Yes?” I said, responding to that name.

“You and your friends go to Justin. He’s leading the youth group and watching over their efforts in cleaning up. You can help there.”

“Alright,” I said, and I had to stop myself there.

I didn’t want to ask who Justin was.

But another question might serve me better.

“Where is Justin?” I asked.

Mrs. Phan pointed to her right, a small field. A sizable group of kids my age were there, sorting through junk, pushing and moving carts and wagons.

“He should be there,” she said.

“Alright,” I said again, and I headed out, Katy and Maria following me. Mother went with Mrs. Phan, to provide her own support.

“Is it just me, or did that lady give me a funny look?” Maria asked. Providing a comment.

“Just you, I don’t think she saw us at all,” Katy said.

They talked amongst themselves, but I continued. We reached the field Mrs. Phan specified.

What exactly was here, I couldn’t tell, it was beaten until it became unrecognizable. No section of the church’s premises was spared, it seemed.

Chips of wood, broken beams, tattered cloth. And a fuck ton of mushy gourds.

We watched our step, but we stayed at the edge of the mess, watching kids go back and forth to clean up.

“Alexis!”

I was the only one to be addressed, but all three of us turned.

A boy, jogging our way. White shirt, brown shorts, and yellow gloves. A bandana on his forehead, damp with sweat.

He stopped just short of colliding into me, breathing hard. He took a second before he spoke up again.

“Wassup,” he said. “It’s been a minute, hasn’t it?”

Justin.

“Definitely more than just a minute,” I said, as though on autopilot.

“Man, when was the last time you were here?” he asked, while removing a glove. “Must be forever.”

“Probably,” I said.

“Oh, and you brought some extra hands, that’s nice.”

I stepped aside, and Katy and Maria moved in.

“Katy.”

“I’m Justin, nice to meet you.”

They shook hands.

“I’m Maria, sorry to hear about your church.”

“Justin, and yeah, it’s pretty bad.”

The two of them shook hands, too.

Justin put his glove back on again, and crossed his arms. “It’s bad, but it was way worse earlier, so we’ve been making progress, which is good. People have been coming and going throughout the day, too, helping whenever they have the time. A lot of them don’t even come here, so, if anything, it’s definitely moral support. Just seeing you lovely ladies lifts the spirit.”

The sun was getting in my eyes, so I couldn’t see Katy or Maria’s reaction. For my part, I didn’t have much of one.

Justin cleared his throat

“But anyways, yeah, there’s still a long way to go, but we’ll get there. You guys ready to do some work?”

We all answered simultaneously.

“Yeah.”

“For sure.”

“I am.”

Justin nodded, satisfied. “Sweet. Come with me, and I’ll get you some gloves.”

He started back the way he came, and we came with. The table wasn’t far, placed on the same field where all the kids worked, and was topped with gloves, tools, and a cooler with energy drinks and bottles of water.

“Here you are,” he said, handing each of us our own pair of gloves. “Help yourself to the drinks if you’re feeling lightheaded, or need a breather. You’re volunteering your time, and as long as you’re here, you’re being a big help in one way or another. Do you know how long you’ll be here?”

The three of us exchanged looks. Something told me that Katy would have taken that, but this wasn’t her ballpark. Not here.

And it wasn’t mine, quite frankly, but the fact remained.

“As long as you need us for.” I gave a non-answer, but Justin looked like he accepted it.

“Awesome, maybe I’ll take advantage of that.” He snickered, but no one ended up played along.

He cleared his throat again.

“Right, um, let’s get started. Katy and Maria, can you join that crew with the carts there, and Alexis, you up for some lifting?”

I nodded. “Sure.”

“Then let’s break. Thanks again, guys.”

Maria glanced at me, then to Katy, but she was already leaving. Maria looked like she was about to say something, considered, then left to join Katy.

It was me and Justin, now. Together, we headed out.

We wrapped around to the other side of the ruined field. A snapped wooden beam on its side, in the grass. This piece was about seven or eight feet, making me wonder how tall the whole thing was. I stopped at the closest end, and Justin went to the farther part.

“We’re moving this off to the concrete there,” Justin called out, facing the nearby lot for emphasis. “Along with all the other wood parts. It’ll be picked up later.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Careful, it’s heavy.”

“Okay.”

He lowered himself, squatting down and squaring his shoulders. He grabbed the beam with both hands.

I did the same, but I just bent down.

“On ‘three,’” Justin said. “One, two, three!”

The beam lifted, but my end went up much faster. Justin nearly lost his balance.

“Holy- Alright then, let’s go.”

We moved as a unit, I walked backwards, and Justin made sure I didn’t bumping into anyone or anything. I looked, and saw Katy and Maria doing their own jobs, picking up mush and dropping into carts to be sent away.

“Here,” Justin said, and I was brought back to this particular instance.

We were on the lot, near a stack of wood. Not very neatly arranged, maybe more like a pile.

Justin counted to three, and we dropped the beam into the clump. Dust was thrown in the air.

“You’re really stronger than you look,” Justin said. “It wasn’t heavy for you?”

“To be fair, you’ve been out here all day, I guess, you’re more worn out. I just got here,” I said.

“Oh yeah, I guess you’re right.”

We stepped out the way for another pair with their own bits of wood to come in, and we headed back to do it all again.

“What was this supposed to be?” I asked. I couldn’t step over orange mush again and not get curious.

“The church was selling pumpkins and squashes, stuff like that. The youth group was running it.”

“But it’s not Halloween anymore.”

“I know, but people were still buying them. Like, Thanksgiving just passed, so I guess people wanted their pumpkin pies. Have you ever had pumpkin pie?”

“I haven’t.”

“Me neither. And I guess you can’t get one from us, anymore, not for a while.”

Justin chuckled to himself, but it sounded forced, uneasy. It didn’t last.

Dammit,” he said at the end.

The next few trips back to the pile of wood were wordless, other than Justin occasionally warning me about bumping into someone. We fell into a rhythm, and the work flew by without a hitch, even without any chatter. We crossed paths with Katy and Maria every now and then, but we were getting too tired to exchange any words.

We dropped the last wooden beam, and then we were done. With that part of the process, at least.

There was still smashed pumpkins and squashed squashes to get to, and pieces of the tattered tent to pick up.

Nowhere near done, but progress was made.

Justin removed his bandana, and wiped his brow.

“Thanks a lot, Lexi, really means a lot for you to be here and help out. Especially since you haven’t been around for a bit.”

“It’s nothing,” I said, just to say it.

“Man, I’m ready to take a break. Wanna come get a drink with me? I think the others are around, you should come say hi. We’ll all catch up.”

The others?

“I’m not sure if I’m up for that,” I said, trailing away at the end.

“Ah, come on, I know it’s not the best circumstances for a reunion, but I bet they’ll be down to see you again. It’ll be interesting, at least.”

At least.

That, I could agree with.

I searched among the other kids working, for Katy and Maria. Couldn’t find them. Did they run off somewhere?

Even considering everything between me and them, I caught myself looking for them.

But they weren’t here.

I looked back at Justin, who was waiting, eyebrow raised.

“Sound good to you?” he asked.

Reluctant, I answered, “I suppose.”

With that being the decided factor, we went to the tables to put back the gloves. Justin got an energy drink for himself, and I took a water. Justin gestured and moved, and I was forced to tag along.

“Should be this way,” Justin said. “If they aren’t lazing around, color me shocked.”

We walked across one of the parking lots, going around an office building. As we headed towards the front of what looked like the church’s event center, I saw them.

A group of teens, chatting away. Smoke flew away from some of their heads, and some had their own drinks taken from the cooler. They were dressed in trendy, fitting streetwear.

They immediately noticed us. Me. There were cheers.

“Alexis!”

“Holy shit, it’s you.”

“Wow, long time no see.”

“Hey, looks like the dead can come back, after all.”

My eyes roved over the people, smiling, happy at the sight of me. Obviously, connections were supposed to be here. I blinked.

I have no idea who any of you are.

The circle opened up somewhat, giving us room to slip in.

The faces. The eyes. The smiles. They were all being wasted on someone who wasn’t present.

“Hi guys,” I said, trying to inflect some emotion, but I was already regretting being here. This might not go well. I needed to be cautious.

“Want a hit?” someone beside me asked. A girl. I looked down at what she had in her hand. A vape.

“No, I’m good,” I said.

She shrugged, and took a puff of her own. Smoke dissipated into thin air.

“How’s it been with you, Alexis? Doing okay, considering everything?”

Another from the group. A boy, taller than the rest. For the life of me, I couldn’t pin down his name.

“Considering everything,” I said, “I’m doing what I can to be okay.”

“Super duper,” the boy said. “You can say we’re all doing the same.”

There were nods all around. More puffs of smoke as another gesture of assent.

“I can’t believe people went out of their way to do this,” another girl said. “All because another asshole kind of looks like us, kind of.”

“To think, the dicks that did this were less than half the people coming to help clean up now, and it’ll take the whole day to finish, if not longer.”

“Maybe if you guys got a move on, we’d finish faster,” Justin said.

The group laughed, as if they knew he was actually joking. Dismissing him.

“Hey Alexis, you gonna be here all day, or do you have to go school later? We all ditched our classes to be here.”

The tallest boy addressed me again.

I didn’t know how to answer without making things awkward.

I just had to go right ahead and tackle it directly.

“They shut down my school for a while,” I said. “And with how it’s already December, they threw in the towel and called this the early start of the break. Like this place, the school needs time to pick up the pieces.”

The boy’s eyes widened, and then he looked away, scratching his head. Embarrassed.

“Right, fuck. I forgot you went… I’m sorry.”

“Nice going, Andrew,” a girl said.

“And thank you for rubbing it in, Jasmine.”

Justin interjected. “Yeah, you didn’t mean it, Andrew, don’t worry.” He then turned to me and said, “Sorry to hear what happened at your school, by the way. I can’t even comprehend what that must have been like.”

Images flashed in my mind’s eye. Clear. The clearest of any memory I had access to.

It was a good thing, too. I needed them to be clear. I needed to remember.

“Hectic,” I said, putting the entire experience to a single word. It certainly was that.

“Did you know him?” a girl asked. The one that berated that ‘Andrew.’ Jasmine.

She lowered her voice to a near whisper when she specified a name.

“Harrian?”

The general atmosphere of the group changed. Everyone tensed up, averting gazes, shifting in place.

The fact that his name carried such a weight to it…

Jasmine still had her eye on me, waiting for an answer. I had to bring my thoughts back to that day.

I only ever had one memorable interaction with him. Anyone else was either so inconsequential I couldn’t recall, or a connection to those particular memories were simply gone.

But, I did see him that one time, at his most extreme, his most focused. He knew what he wanted, and he knew what the cost was, the consequences. Yet he continued in the face of that.

I barely knew Harrian Wong, yet, and the same time, I knew more about him than most ever would.

“We weren’t friends, if that’s what you’re asking,” I said. “I never really knew about it until after it happened. We ran in different circles.”

Jasmine looked relieved to hear that. “Good, good, you’re not associated with a freak like that.”

“Don’t say that,” a boy said. Not the tallest one. “He went to Francis Xavier. Sure, all he did was sit in the back and not talk to anyone, but we probably knew him better than Lexi did.”

Jasmine looked torn to hear that. “But, I was just saying, and…”

She didn’t finish her sentence, just stopping right there. She rolled her eyes and looked away.

The girl next to me passed her vape to Jasmine, and she helped herself.

Justin took a swig of his drink, then exhaled, loud. He put his arm around a girl on the other side of him, and kissed the top of her head. His girlfriend?

Justin spoke. “The last two days have been, like you said, hectic. Granted, it pales in comparison to what you’ve been through, but still. After the media caught wind of Harrian, it’s like we inherited a bit of that negative press, too. The looks we get when we walk in the halls, the way people walk around us, it’s as if we did it, we had something to do with this.”

“Yeah, and it’s not just us, the ones who actually come here,” Andrew said. “A friend of mine, he doesn’t come here, but he goes to the same school as me, he got jumped on the way to his car. Some Mexican gangbangers wanted to pick a fight with him, all because he looked like Harrian. And you know what’s funny? He’s not even Chinese, he’s fucking Korean, for fuck’s sake.”

Justin added, “People are already calling this the worst thing to ever happen on school grounds, and on top of the terrorists that started the whole thing, and the rumor that the Bluemoon is a student at Stephenville High School, and is an Asian-American too…”

“All of us get targets on our back,” Jasmine said, in between a puff of smoke, “Without ever asking for it.”

The group’s mood changed again, this time more morose. I had a feeling they came here, not to just ditch school, not just to help fix up the church, but to lick each other’s wounds. And the only thing they were getting in return was pity.

I wouldn’t have guessed that the aftermath of the incident at school could affect a whole population of people. But it was a minor setback, in the grand scheme of things.

Behind a mask, it wasn’t going to matter what my race was.

“Hey, Alexis,” the girl at Justin’s side said, getting my attention. “Does the Bluemoon go to your school?”

The ears of everyone else perked up. They all looked at me, again.

I knew the conversation would move to this, in some way. I wanted to avoid that by not being here.

I had to answer how a regular person would. Like Alexis.

I took a sip of my water, then answered, “I wouldn’t know, and even with what happened, I wouldn’t think so. If the Bluemoon really did go to my school, they wouldn’t have let something like that happen, right?”

There were various gestures all around.

“Maybe.”

“Yeah, right.”

“That’s probably true…”

In their haze of uncertainty, I took a step back, taking myself out of the group.

“It’s been great seeing all of you again,” I said. “But I should probably get back. I came with other people, and they might be looking for me if I’m gone for too long.”

Jasmine made a sound. “Aw, I was hoping you’d come chill with us for a bit longer. We were going to go and get phở in about an hour. It’d be nice if you could join us.”

“I agree,” Andrew said. “There’s some new guys, but it’ll be like the whole gang’s back together. The OG Francis Xavier youth group. It’d be lit as fuck.”

“Definitely,” another said.

This was the part where I was supposed to consider the offer, but the will to do so just was not there.

You never fit in with them back in the day. You were the only Japanese kid there, and the only one who was half-anything. Mom didn’t make as much money as their parents, and they teased you over the clothes you showed up to bible school in. Maybe they didn’t mean it, maybe it was only in jest, but you stopped coming the second you didn’t have to.

The thought spilled into my head, slow, like hot magma. Intrusive, and it felt like holes being seared into my brain. New connections.

Memories I had, memories that I had to be told about. Forced to remember. And it came with pain.

I absolutely had no intention of coming along with these people, but now I had another reason not to.

“We’ll see,” I said, my head lowered an inch, from the coming aches. “I’ll still be here for the next hour or so, I’ll just play it from there.”

All lies.

“Fair,” Justin said. “And the rest of you, break time’s over. Back to work, before Mrs. Phan woops y’all herself.”

The rest of the group spoke all at once, most of it a jumble from all the different voices. But they all started to disperse, going elsewhere, in pairs or groups of three.

“See you, Emily,” Justin said to the girl by his side. “I’ll walk with Alexis.”

You’ll what?

“Hmph, do anything funny, and it’s gonna be the end of you. Not us, you.”

The girl, Emily, warned him.

“Don’t be crazy, I won’t do anything funny, I’m not even much of a funny guy. Isn’t that right, Alexis?”

Justin and Emily both looked in my direction.

“Um, yeah, it’s true, he’s not funny at all,” I said.

They both laughed, but I didn’t see the humor in what I said. I just told it as I saw it.

“Okay then, I’ll catch you two later,” Emily said. “It was good to see you again, Alexis. Hope to see you soon, and under better circumstances.”

“Same. Good to see you all again.”

Then, before I could take another step back, Emily opened her arms, and approached me.

I was wrapped into a hug before I could do or say anything about it.

Restricted, frozen, stuck in the moment. I didn’t need this, right now.

I wedged my arms between us, and nudged, prompting her to stop. She did.

“Bye,” I said, waving. I turned before anything else could happen. Justin followed.

We started heading back the way we came.

“See, that wasn’t so bad,” Justin commented as we walked. “Just like old times.”

Was it like old times? I wouldn’t have known.

We returned to the field, and some progress was made in our absence. Nothing significant, but noticeable.

I couldn’t find Katy and Maria. They weren’t here.

Still?

We reached the table with all of the gloves and tools. We both threw away our drinks. Justin started removing his gloves, and I copied him.

“Before we get back to work, mind if I show you something?” Justin asked.

“Show me what?”

“Don’t worry, it’s nothing that’ll freak Emily out, I just wanted to take you inside the church.”

“Oh, okay. Fine.”

“Cool, let’s head.”

Justin took the lead, and we changed course, heading to the church itself.

Every door was broken into, the glass panels gone. We stepped through the door, rather than opening it.

The light from outside immediately gave way to the dim, hollow interior.

If the outside was bad, the inside of the church received the worst of it. Smeared with dirt marks and graffiti, and other streak of stuff with a smell that made my imagination do the rest.

Justin continued.

“Watch your step, no one’s cleared this place out yet. To be honest, we’re not supposed to be in here, more qualified people will take care of this place, but the rest of us got to go through here, and I wanted you to see it, too.”

“Why me?” I asked.

“Because you’re one of us,” he said.

I didn’t respond to that sentiment. Even when my thoughts were laughing otherwise.

Justin led us to the main, central area of the church. Aisles and pews were either knocked down or missing, some even charred. Stained glass windows at the sides were shattered, the walls carrying a red and blue and green hue wherever pieces of glass reflected the light elsewhere. There was supposed to be a table in the middle of the room, where a majority of the service would take place, but it was gone. Nowhere around.

The place had such an emptiness to it. Uncanny, even for me. If this was the house of God, then he had already moved out.

As we moved, Justin pointed to the head of the room, the chamber. He lifted his finger up.

“Look there,” he said.

I looked, and saw what he was referring to. Larger than life-sized effigy of Christ, arms splayed, legs together. Nailed to a wooden cross. The crucifix. It was untouched, unsullied by the damage surrounding it.

“This whole place got fu- messed up, and yet they couldn’t touch that,” Justin explained. “It didn’t get messed with. Isn’t that, I don’t know, kind of cool?”

“That’s because it’s so high up,” I said. “Who could reasonably touch that without wasting time? If you wanted to cause damage before anyone could stop you, you’d be better off getting what’s immediately around you.”

“Man, you’re such a spoilsport,” Justin said, frowning. He looked back to the figure. “I know I’m the head of the youth program and everything, but I’m not like the Pope when it comes to stuff like this. Even then, I couldn’t help but feel something when I saw it, you know? I showed the others, and they said the same. They said it helped. I don’t know, I just thought you might feel the same way.”

I looked again, and saw the bloodied corpse of a man nailed to wood. The figure itself wasn’t defamed or damaged, but, in a sense, it was already ruined. The man himself.

“Maybe,” I said.

“Well, at least you saw it.”

“No, I, uh, I appreciate the sentiment.”

I couldn’t tell if that was a lie or not.

“You’re welcome, oh hey, I’m surprised to see you here.”

Justin turned when he finished that sentence, and I realized he wasn’t talking to me. I turned, as well.

Sitting at the front aisle was Katy and Maria, both looking our way as we reached them.

“There you are,” I said.

“Here we are,” Katy said back, monotone.

“Who let you guys here?” Justin asked. “Not that I mind, but right now it’s kind of off-limits.”

“The priest did,” Maria said. “We were asked to go help fix up the offices, and he was there, and noticed Katy. Apparently, um…”

Maria stopped.

“He used to know my dad,” Katy explained, a somber look in her eyes. “He was a supporter of his back when he ran for DA.”

“DA?” Justin repeated.

“District Attorney.”

“Oh, yeah. Oh, your dad was…”

Justin managed to stop himself before he said something completely stupid. But he was already too late. He hit that sore spot, and it showed on Katy’s face.

That, I could recognize.

Justin scratched the back of his head, clearly ashamed of himself. “Sorry, I wasn’t trying to-”

“I know,” Katy said, curt. “Anyways, Father Chris wanted to show us this, probably for the same reasons you brought her.”

She didn’t look at me when she said that. ‘Her.’

“Where’s Father now?” Justin asked.

“He left to do more work. Said we could be here as long as we wanted. We were just talking.”

Talking about what?

Justin sniffled, wiped his nose.

“Okay, but we probably should go. We might get in trouble if we overstay our welcome. It is off-limits for a reason, the building’s not exactly up to code.”

Katy and Maria traded looks.

“Sure,” Maria said, and they both got up and left, passing us without another word.

It was clear they were on the same page about something. If it had anything to do with me, I had to be ready. Even now, they were obstacles.

We have to watch our backs around them. Around everyone. You know this.

I did.

Justin moved to catch up. Before I did the same, I glanced back up at the figure above.

A pained expression, but a resigned one. If anyone were to help him, he wasn’t expecting it, and it would have to be of their own accord.

To try and rebuild the peace that was once here, or to find a new peace for myself. I had already tried the former, numerous times.

Checking again, I had noticed something else, too.

By the front, where the choir would be situated, a young girl sat in one of the chairs. Her face scratched out.

Unsightly.

What do you want to do?

I heard that voice ask.

“What do I do?” I started, as if on autopilot, but I corrected myself. “I know exactly I want to do. Let’s just pray we don’t run out of time.”

I could imagine the taste on my lips. Sweet.

Perfect.

I turned my back, and saw the shadowed-Hleuco standing before me. Between me and the others.

His feathers ruffled, even though no wind could affect him here.

I smiled.

I stepped forward, joining him, and we left the church.

Previous                                                                                               Next

043 – Revealing Bell

Previous                                                                                               Next

August 25, 2014

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

This line needs to move faster.

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

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

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

It was hardly fun.

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

Ugh.

This is so freaking lame.

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

Like a really hot boy, whatever.

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

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

If this line would only move faster.

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

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

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

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

Speaking of Katy…

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

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

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

That would be like… super duper bad.

“Hey!”

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

“Eep!”

A lame sound just squeaked out of me.

Woops.

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

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

“Katy!” I exclaimed excitedly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know right?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Katy’s was better.

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

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

“Thanks, I half-try.”

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

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

Whoa.

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

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

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

“Then, I’ll see you in a little.”

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

“Barnett,” I said.

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

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

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

She stopped short before I could grab for it.

“You look familiar.”

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

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

Her eyes were intense. Studying me.

An adult.

“Do I?” was all I had to say back.

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

Something clicked in my head.

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

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

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

Not that I could just say that, could I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they all looked like adults.

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

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

High school.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katy and I exchanged looks. A mutual agreement.

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

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

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

“World Geography.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh-huh!”

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

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

November 28, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m good,” I lied.

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

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

If only it were that easy.

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

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

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

A dull haze.

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

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

Either me, or this.

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

I flipped it open.

I couldn’t understand any of it.

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

At least some things hadn’t changed.

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

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

And quiet.

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

“Alexis?”

More seconds, ticked away.

Alexis.”

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

Ms. Powers was looking right at me, stern.

“Yes?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stopped.

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

“Are you stuck?” Ms. Powers asked me.

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

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

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

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

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

Ms. Powers sighed.

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

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

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

Aww fuck.

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

I couldn’t even do that.

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

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

You got that right.

I closed my eyes.

When I opened them again, class had ended.

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

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

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

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

I stifled a giggle.

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

No answer.

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

Again, no answer.

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

I shrugged. “Okay. Been managing.”

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then again, who was?

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

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

Then I was up.

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

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

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

She hung up the phone, and finally addressed me.

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

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

“What is this for?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, if you’re in a team, then yes.”

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

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

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

I went the other way. The coaches’ offices.

Voices.

Wait.

I listened.

Not my own, and clearly from other sources.

But, for a moment, I felt trepidation.

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

Coach Tilly was with them.

I knocked on the open door.

They turned.

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

“Hey,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I bit my lip.

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

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

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

I couldn’t find the words so easily.

“There’s been what?”

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

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

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

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

Vague, but whatever.

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

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

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

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

“Where’s Katy right now?” she asked.

Good question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was it?

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

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

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

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

“Yup.”

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

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

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

Good luck to him.

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

The thought of that made me reconsider it all.

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

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

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

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

“What’s this?”

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

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

“Neat,” I said.

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

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

Nothing but a dream, now.

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

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

“I think that’s it,” I said.

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

“Hm?”

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

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

“Alexis, hi.”

It was Eve.

“My gosh, hey,” I said.

“Are you coming back?” she asked.

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

“Just the opposite,” I said.

I saw her expression change.

Like ripping off a thousand bandaids.

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

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

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

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

I looked at Coach, she shrugged.

“If she thinks she can… Maybe?”

“Hey!” Eve exclaimed.

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

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

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

“We’ll just see about-”

A siren.

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

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

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

I covered my ears as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, it stopped.

It just stopped.

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

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

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

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

Previous                                                                                               Next

042 – Empty Head

epy arc 7 fail

Bonus                                                                                               Next

The service ended early in the evening. It was dark, and it would only get darker.

Thomas didn’t make it.

Time of death, four forty-five in the morning. Cause of the death, severe bodily injury below the neck, various infections, multiple organ failure, complications during surgery…

Severe blood loss.

He died in his sleep. They tried, the doctors said, but his condition was too grave by the time he reached the hospital.

Maybe if he arrived a second sooner, maybe if an entire night wasn’t wasted in trying to find him.

A lot of maybes.

Apparently, Thomas had already made plans for his family to be taken care of, in the event that something were to happen to him. Not that they particularly needed it, Kristin was as much a breadwinner as her husband was, but the gesture was there. It was in writing.

As for him, he would have wanted to donate his body to science. Cremation was the second option. Given everything that happened to him, a choice had to be made. His family discussed it, and decided to do the latter.

The memorial took place a week after he passed. Enough time for family and friends to come into town, fly in from another state.

Even James Gomez showed up.

It was still a small gathering, relatively speaking. Kristin preferred it to be a private service, and that was what she got.

Everyone had something to say, to give their piece about a man they cared about. Preaching to the choir, perhaps, but it was a way to vent, to cope with the news. Everyone needed it. To give a eulogy, and to hear one.

Mom sang. She was great.

We all did our best to try and celebrate the life of Thomas Thompson, rather than mourn his death. But it was like a heavily overcast day. The sun was out, but the clouds colored our perception of things.

It was quiet when the memorial started, it was quiet when it ended. Everyone filed out of the funeral home, with hardly a word being whispered.

Dark, heavy clouds hung over our heads. A static feeling that sat in the air. It was going to rain, and it was going to rain hard.

In the crowd of people, I found Katy, and I drifted towards her. She didn’t get off the porch right away, instead sitting on one of the porch swings. I joined her.

Her feet were planted flat on the floorboard. My big toe grazed it.

It was just her profile, but it was the best look I had of her all week.

Her hair was done up nicely, curls lightly moving in the wind. She had on makeup, but the edges of the one eye I could see were fudged a bit, the eye itself irritated and red. Her cheeks puffy, the edge of her mouth would occasionally tremble, the more I looked at it. She wore a dress. Black.

She was dressed well. Of course she was. To slack off now would be an offense to her father’s memory. I was sure she thought about it like that. I was sure she was right.

Silence yawned as neither of us said a word.

Minutes came and went, nothing.

“Hey,” I finally said, though it was more of a sound than it was a word.

Katy didn’t move.

“Hi,” she said back, seemingly out of breath.

Silence started settling back in.

I could imagine what she was feeling. ‘Bad’ was probably a good guess. ‘Sad’ was another. But there was very likely other emotions thrown in the mix, each with their own potency, and how Katy would respond to those emotions would be completely unique to her.

I had to really be careful if I wanted to talk with her.

But it was hard, coming up with anything to say.

“Hey,” I ended up saying again. It was the best I could come up with.

“What do you want, Alexis?”

Her tone struck a raw wound in my heart. Cold.

But, it was a start. A question I could answer.

“I just want to sit next to you, is all. Maybe talk, if you’re up for it.”

I mentioned sitting next to her, but there was noticeable space between me and Katy. Another person could sit there comfortably.

Katy breathed, and it was shaky.

“What else is there for me to say that I hadn’t already said back there?”

Her standing at the podium, by a large portrait of her father. He was smiling in that picture, she was much less energetic. She took her time with her eulogy, making sure every word was delivered clearly, with intent. Clearly, it had taken a lot out of her.

It also showed just how strong Katy truly was.

“It was really good,” I said, summing it up in four words. But, in no way did it represent the full weight her speech had on everyone. How heavy and suffocating it was on my chest.

“I tried,” Katy said. “I’m trying.”

In a way, her own four words to sum everything up.

“It’s been a… weird week,” Katy said. Her gaze kept forward, looking out, languid. A car drove across the street ahead, but it was hardly noticeable.

“I can… imagine,” I said, choosing my words very, very carefully.

“Nearly lost my perfect attendance streak. I’d oversleep sometimes, he liked to call from work to wake me up.”

Again, heavy.

“And dinner at home is awkward now. It’s not that we haven’t had nights where he was late and we had to eat without him… but, I’ve just been eating in my room, recently.”

Something welled up in my throat, preventing me from even uttering a sound to acknowledge that I heard her.

“And yesterday? It was early in the morning, but I woke up because Mom was… You know, too hard and all. I found her in his office, his study. Hadn’t, it hadn’t been open since… There were pieces of trash, crumpled paper, used tissues and clippings and stuff. Coffee rings on his desk. Is it weird, that, I almost didn’t want to throw it away, or clean it up? Is that weird?”

Every word, felt like a punch to my windpipe. But I had to get it out, somehow.

“No, it isn’t.”

That was all I could manage.

“I just, it…”

Katy’s voice cracked.

“It’s just that-”

Cracked again. Her eye twitched.

“I’m, I’m ready for the punchline. I’m ready for the rug to be pulled out from under me again, and this is just one elaborate, cruel joke. He’ll come out from under some curtain I forgot to check, he’ll smile mischievously, and we’ll all have a big laugh. I’m ready to be played the Fool. Capital ‘F.’”

I could only speak in whispers, as if all the wind was knocked out of me.

“I feel the same way.”

That was when she turned. She stared me down, dead in the eye.

Ice. A shiver went through me. Behind her eyes, there was only a glimmer of life and energy. Normally there would be so much more. Cold, now.

“Maybe I’ve been played the fool this whole time.”

This conversation had been going so slow, the awkward pauses were starting to become the norm.

Was that directed at me? At another topic?

Katy sighed, her shoulders dropping. Her gaze wandered elsewhere.

“I was still asleep when that stuff at city hall took place. I had to hear about it online, before Uncle James called us. Everyone pretty much concluded that he was a terrorist, or at least he was involved…”

“That’s just straight up incorrect, and you know that,” I said. I felt like I had to interrupt, there, even though it should have been obvious to everyone who showed up. Or anyone with a brain. “He was taken and set up. Mr. Gomez held a conference saying that was the case, and he had Edgar Brown and Linda Day publicly make statements to back that up. Nobody actually thinks that he was…”

“But people did, even if it was just for a second. That can taint a reputation, like when you’re convicted of murder, and it turns out, years later, that it wasn’t you. It sticks like gum in hair, and he… Dad doesn’t deserve that.”

“If people can’t understand that, then they aren’t the kind of people you want to hear any opinions from,” I said. “I almost want to say that it’s obvious, but that’d be too much, right now.”

The corner of her lip twitched, ever so slightly. Up.

“I need the obvious to be made out to me, actually. It helps, well, I don’t know how it does, but it does.”

I couldn’t take my eyes off of Katy. Every minute movement, every twitch of the muscle. How she tried to keep still. She was barely keeping it together, hanging by her last thread.

It ached, to watch her like this.

A flicker in my eye, and I rubbed at it.

Maybe trying another topic? Something less of a touchy subject?

“Um, well, I missed you, you know, I haven’t seen you for a week,” I said. “What have you been up to?”

I nearly flinched at my own wording. Something told me that I could have asked that better.

Katy didn’t seem to react to that, but she wasn’t really reacting much to anything.

“Playing chess,” she finally answered.

“With who, your mom?” I asked.

Katy turned.

“What are you trying to do, Alexis, huh? Why are you talking to me?”

That threw me off.

“Like I said, I just want to talk and catch-”

“Talk about what? About how Dad is gone and I’ll never see him again? About how I heard about him being killed… twice? About all the stuff he wanted to do that he can’t anymore? He so desperately wanted to be district attorney, and he got elected, only to not be able to do anything with that position. And, also, he was thinking about a family vacation after I graduated high school. He was hinting at wanting to go to Japan, actually, saying how it’d be nice to invite you two, you and Shiori. But it can never happen, not anymore, not like that.”

Speechless. I couldn’t say any more, even if I wanted to. I never knew that last point, and it only served to add to the weight of it all, how much of a hole Thomas had left behind. In all of our lives.

But Katy, she continued.

“I was trying to be nice and entertain you, Alexis, but I can’t, alright? I can’t. I don’t want to talk. Not about me, or your whole fucking thing, okay, nothing. I’m not, I’m not there yet. Maybe I’ll be there one day, and I’ll call you and we can talk all the livelong day, until our lips bleed and fall off of our mouths. You can get what you want then, tell me whatever, but not now. Not now.”

Her words hung in the air, and it numbed me. I’d never heard her talk that way before, though, she’d never been in this kind of situation. This was uncharted territory, emotionally.

Had to frame it that way. Couldn’t blame her for being short with me, after all she’d been through this past week. I understood where she was coming from, in a sense. We were all suffering the same loss, but we had to take it in our own, individual way.

If she needed a punching bag, I was willing to take the hits. I deserved it.

I hung my head, and looked out ahead. Nothing but empty blackness, if I chose to ignore the street and cars and houses. I did, and I was in the center of it all.

A void.

Neither of us shared a word after that.

A hand settled on my shoulder. I looked.

Maria.

“Can I sit?” she asked, behind a weak, almost pitiful smile. Like she read the atmosphere, and was trying to see what she could do.

“Be my guest,” Katy said, but she got up, and left, disappearing into a group of stragglers who were just now leaving the funeral home. They noticed her and got out of the way.

Maria took her place, sitting beside me. Relatively speaking. She was about an inch or so closer.

“Ouch,” Maria said, but her voice was still light. Sympathetic. “I was hoping I could talk to her… guess not?”

“Yeah,” I said, “Guess not.”

“I guess I can settle for talking with you, then.” Maria smiled softly again, and bumped my arm with her elbow. “How are you?”

I was willing to talk… and tell, but that feeling was directed to Katy. I wasn’t ready for a conversation with Maria.

I was, however, willing to do what I could.

“I’m not sure how to put it into words,” I said. “It’s a whole bunch of feelings that clash together, individually they’re sharp, distinct, but blending it with everything else muddles it, blunts it, until it just ends up being a numbed… nothingness.”

What the hell did I just say?

“Wow,” Maria said, taking half a minute to process whatever the hell I just said, “I don’t think I’m qualified to take all that apart.”

That actually managed to prompt a small laugh out of me. “Don’t worry about it. It’s something I can just bottle up inside and drink down.”

Maria nodded. “Certainly not the best idea, but I’m with you, there.”

“Yeah, but enough about me. How’ve you been holding up?”

“Doing good… everything considered. I don’t have to go to school at least, so I can just sit at home and do whatever I want, without having to worry about that… other stuff. So that’s neat.”

“That’s right, you took the offer,” I said. “I’m actually considering it myself, now. I was going to tell Katy, but, I couldn’t find a way to bring it up.”

“You can bring that up another time, no big deal.”

“I don’t want her to think I’m abandoning her,” I said, “Or something.”

“I doubt she’d take it like that,” Maria said, reassuring me.

“Hope so.”

Maria leaned into the bench, and we started swinging. “It really is sad, and I really feel for Katy, too, but it’s also kinda… weird, for me. I was surprised when Katy texted me the invite.”

“Really?”

“I mean, who do I know here outside of you and Katy? Yes, Thomas, obviously, but I didn’t get the chance to know him that well, sadly. I’m not family, or even a family friend. I’m pretty sure, out of everyone here, I knew him the least.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” I said. “It’s not like it’s a contest to see who can pay the most respect.”

“I suppose,” Maria said. She pushed against the floorboard to keep us rocking back and forth. “I just rationalized that I’m here for Katy, and to just see the damn girl. Haven’t seen her all week.”

“Same here. Good luck trying to talk to her though.”

“I bet, she’ll need her space.”

The bench swung forward, and I felt my feet leave solid ground, just for a second. I felt like I was about to fly away.

I rubbed at my eye again. A flicker.

Intrusive thoughts.

I rubbed until I started seeing things. Brown blobs.

“You good there?” Maria asked.

I put my hands away from my eyes, blinking.

“It’s like a bug got in there,” I said.

“It has been hot, lately,” Maria said. “It’s going to suck when it rains.”

I rested my hands beside me, still blinking. We were swinging slowly, and it gave me a chance to get my thoughts back in order.

“What are we going to do?” I asked.

“About what?”

“About Katy. Maybe you caught a bit of it before you came over here, but, I’m afraid she might not be herself for a long time.”

The bench swung back, and I felt that singular moment where we were about to go forward again, and my legs felt the heaviest.

Maria stuck her feet out, and we stopped.

“There’s nothing we can do about it, not exactly. Katy’s taking it how she’s taking it, and she needs to let those feelings ride out, and take her wherever they take her. And she has a good head on her shoulders, she wouldn’t let herself do anything drastic. She’s way smarter than me, at least.”

Maria laughed to herself. It was delicate.

“People are used to the status quo, right, they hate change. Even accepted, natural changes, we spend a huge amount of time planning and preparing for it. Like graduating high school, and going to college. So big, crazy, sudden changes? People hate those the most. Because everything tends to change along with it, and people get caught off guard, and then they don’t know how to react. So they overcompensate, they get more intense than what might be necessary, they freak out. Panic. There’s going to be bumps along the way when they try to right themselves again, and get used to the new status quo.”

Briefly, Maria paused.

“If anything, yeah, you and I will just have to be there to soften the bumps for Katy.”

Those words settled within me.

“That’s… incredibly poignant of you,” I said, amazed. As amazed as one could be at a time like this.

Maria smiled, but there was a hint of sadness, there, that I hadn’t noticed before.

“No matter how many times… It never gets any easier.”

Before I could respond, or react, I heard someone calling for me.

“Oh, that’s my mom,” I said, “Looks like we’re heading out. Text you later?”

“Definitely.”

We both got up from the bench, and we hugged. A prolonged hug, and the longer it lasted, the more it actually helped.

But, we couldn’t stay like that forever. We broke away, walking off the porch together, then going our different ways. I joined my mom, Maria went to her own car.

Maria and I left the conversation on that note, and that note rung into the open air.

My mom and I took our time getting to the van, which was parked at a lot a block away. We were stopped twice by others who were going the same way, people who wanted to compliment my mom on her singing. I had to stand by, waiting until they were done providing their accolades.

We eventually made it to the van. We got in, but Mom didn’t start it up right away.

“Something the matter?” I asked.

“No, it’s nothing.”

She started the van, and proceeded to take us on the road, the funeral home behind us.

The ride was quiet, the radio kept off.

I decided to say something.

“Um, Ma, maybe it doesn’t mean much since you’ve already heard it like a million times, but you were good.”

Mom’s face was still largely neutral, but I was sure she appreciated the comment.

“I could have done better. I didn’t get enough time to practice.”

“Well, you unprepared is better than some stuff I’ve heard on the radio.”

“Now you’re just patroning me.”

“It’s ‘patronizing,’ Ma, and I’m not. I mean it. It was cool that other people got to hear you sing, since you don’t do it much, out in public.”

“No, but now I sort of regret not doing it before.”

“Why? Because they’ve asked to hear you before?”

Mom didn’t answer, or she was too focused on making a turn to provide one.

“Kristin seemed to like it,” Mom then said, after the turn. “At least there is that.”

Mom then turned on the radio, a radio host talking about some bible verse. I started to tune it out, lazily dragging a finger across the face of my watch.

My thoughts went to what Katy said. A vacation. A dream that would never come true. I wanted to bring it up to Mom, but it seemed like it would be in bad taste. I finally zipped it.

Turning to face the window on my side, I watched a single droplet of water hit the glass. Then, another. Then more.

The rain came down harder by the time we got back home, but I had a feeling that it’d only get stronger throughout the night. We rushed inside for refuge from the weather. We forgot to bring an umbrella.

We each went into our own rooms, Mom turning on the TV beforehand. Knowing her, she liked to let the TV run even if she wasn’t actually planning on watching. She liked using it as background noise to not make the apartment feel so lifeless.

I went into my room, making sure to close the door behind me. In doing so, my eye flickered yet again.

The lights were still off, but a shape passed from one corner of my room to the other. A deeper black.

After turning on the lights, I rubbed my eye, moving to check that corner.

Nothing there. Just the edge of my computer desk, with nothing but wires and plugs underneath. No bug or rat.

Great, I was seeing things.

I returned to my original course of action. I stepped inside my walk-in closet, and got undressed.

I slipped into an oversized white shirt, and turned to look for some pajamas. My eyes wandered over to the pile of my old ‘hero stuff.’

I breathed out, hard, but it came out shaky, instead.

I bent down to inspect the pile, the bag, then opened it.

My old blue windbreaker, my old grey joggers. A bag of dirty clothes I hadn’t gotten around to cleaning yet.

My old mask, a blank face that stared back at me.

After it was all said and done, this was all I had left of that time. Most of the things that he had given me had gone up in flames. It might as well have never existed.

But, that costume did exist, and the events that took place while I wore that costume still happened. And I had to face that truth.

Thomas was gone.

And I had a part in it, if not being completely responsible.

My fault, one way or another.

If only I hadn’t accepted Thomas’s offer in being a hero, if only I had done more in trying to find Thomas faster that night. I replayed it all, in my head. Where I could have done better, all in all.

But, it was all just speculation. Wishful thinking.

I had failed. And, above all else, I was a failure.

If only I wasn’t me.

I was all cried out, already, there weren’t any more tears to squeeze out of me. So I moved to other modes of expression. But it wasn’t enough, maybe it would never be enough. Through the cuts, the peeled skin, the burns, the eating, the insomnia, it was all I could do in order to feel something. And no amount of powers or healing could fix a very particular, pointed wound.

The only thing left was to quit, entirely. Give up.

Katy needed space, and so would I.

Solace hadn’t made a move since the riot at city hall. No announcements, no hijacked television stations, nothing. It made for the days following the riot more tense than they were already, but nothing came of Solace afterward. I hoped that remained the case.

Nothing but more questions, but I didn’t want to be in the business of finding those particular answers.

This was a hit that landed too close to home, and that meant that things were closing in on me. Katy, Maria, Kristin, Mom, they all deserved an explanation, and as much as I wanted to give them one, who – or what – I was, was still up in the air. Too many distractions made my focus stray elsewhere. Dealing with my changes, the gangs, Solace, it all stacked too quickly for me to get any foothold on my new place in the world.

They all deserved an explanation, and I needed to start gathering the pieces so I could give them one, one day.

The National Guard came into the city to help clean up after the big riot, and announced a short-lived presence in the city to help restore and maintain peace. The FBI even announced that they were going to launch an official investigation against Solace and Blank Face. All the more reason to stop sticking my neck out.

And that was the end of it. Just like that.

No more Hleuco, no more Solace. No more Benny, no more Styx. No more Gomez. And I didn’t have a spare fuck to give about a ‘Mister.’

I was done.

Finished. Over. I was out of the game. Tonight, much like how Thomas was reduced to ashes and buried, I had done the same to Blank Face. The Bluemoon had set.

A flicker.

Alexis, any updates?

A voice. In a flash, I threw the mask and the bag back into the corner of the closet, then spun. My mom? Did she see me? Was she calling?

Again, nothing. The closet door was open, but there wasn’t anyone outside.

Odd.

The voice sounded real, like someone else was here. But, no one was around. If there was, there’d be a problem.

I rose to my feet, carefully stepping out of the closet. Just me, standing in my own room. Actually, as my eyes did a once-over across my room, it was feeling less and less like my own room. Like I was sleeping over at someone else’s place.

It was an isolating feeling, one that-

Do you feel like quitting?

I almost jumped out of my skin.

There it was, that voice. Except it was much clearer this time, but much less distinct.

It sounded like my own, except a few notches deeper, with a masculine tone underneath it all. It sounded deformed.

And it didn’t seem to come from one source, or one direction, it seemed to be coming from every direction.

Everywhere.

Surrounding me.

Oh my god.

“Who’s there?” I asked out loud, unsure of what answer I’d get, if I even wanted an answer. Getting one could mean any number of things.

Then, quiet. It extended for some time, until there was a light ringing in my ears, having to stand there and try to focus on any sound that wasn’t rainfall.

My eye flickered again, and-

I’m a lawyer, not a doctor.

My head whipped in one direction, and I was looking at the sliding doors that led out to the balcony.

No one was there. No one.

But there was.

A shadow, standing outside. Not completely solid, there was an idea of a shape.

A man.

Water hit the glass doors. It wasn’t hitting it.

Nothing there, there was no face, but I looked and it stared back.

What do you want to do?

“What, what do I do!” I screamed out, without thinking, as though it was an automated response to my own thoughts.

No, these weren’t my own thoughts. Couldn’t be.

I screwed my eyes shut, and dropped to my knees.

Raw, fire. My throat felt like I was drinking acid.

Hands fell upon me. I squirmed.

I jerked away, and I felt my arms hit against something. I collapsed to the floor, but I fought to get to my bed, struggling all the way. I grabbed the blankets, then spun across my bed so I’d get wrapped in them. Faster than trying to get under.

I was face to face with my mom. She was white.

“What’s wrong? Why are you screaming?”

My mom’s mouth moved. Words came from them. Real words.

I was screaming?

My heart was still racing, like I had just finished a hard set of volleyball. Gasping for breath, it was hard trying to get out my own words.

Bug.

“B- bug, thought I saw a bug,” I lied.

My mom gave me a look. Disconcerting. Disbelief.

“Where?”

Under the bed.

“A cockroach, u- under the bed, I dropped something, and it just came out of nowhere. Scared the living hell out of me.”

Everything, except for that last part, was a lie. But, I had a feeling that the one part that was true, I was really selling it.

My mom’s body posture said it all. She had relaxed. She took a step to me, and I shifted to back away. My body posture said it all.

She looked sad at my reaction.

That’s promising. That says something about you, that others seem to be glossing over.

Stop talking to me.

“Stop-” I almost started, but I put a hand over my own mouth, shutting myself up.

My mom had gone stiff, again.

The both of us were frozen in time. Neither of us moved, waiting for the other to give in.

It was my mom who gave in first.

“I go to heat up tea,” she said, at a careful whisper. “It will be ready in fifteen minutes. You have some, and you sleep early.”

I couldn’t move, but nothing I did or said now would have changed her mind.

My mom took to leave my room, closing the door.

And I was alone again. Ears ringing, drenched in sweat, hair on ends.

Alone.

Seemingly.

Every alarm in my head was blaring to not look back at the glass doors again, but I did anyway, turning at a snail’s pace.

Still there.

No.

Yes.

The shape was still there, irregularly defined. Staring.

No.

I looked again, but this time, I looked at the rain.

And then it disappeared.

The darkness, the rain hitting the glass. Dots. My brain was filling those dots to form a shape it wanted to see.

Why it wanted to see it though…

It was beyond me.

A cruel joke. My mind playing tricks on me.

I had been in a burning building, and I was sweating even more, here.

What the hell was that?

I pulled the covers over my head, and I curled into a fetal position. My eyes were opened wide.

“What’s happening to me?” I asked aloud. It came out hoarse, rough, choked up at the end.

My question was answered with silence, and that silence was as telling as it was deafening.

And haunting!

Bonus                                                                                               Next