It had taken up to three hours to make it to Katy’s place, from getting through the frenzy at the hotel, traffic, and making sure everyone was following and in step with the police escorts. Three hours.
Forty-five hours left.
Kristin dealt with the officers while Katy let us in.
The interior was dark, but it was no matter to me. I could have navigated this whole house blindfolded, I was that familiar with the place.
Her house was big, even for a two-story home. It had a modern design and chic to it that made it hard to believe it was in the same school district as mine. The whole neighborhood had that posh air, giving the impression that it was a safe place to be. Kristin insisted that we stayed together for the night, and this was the only place that could comfortably house everyone. I was itching to do more, myself, but maybe it was something we needed, after that ordeal.
Maybe it was something I needed.
Katy pointed to the slippers lined up by the door. “Should be enough for everyone. Try to make yourself at home.”
“Remind me to marry you, Katy,” Maria said. She made room for my mom to close the door. “I have got to get in on this.”
Katy responded, “How well can you cook and clean?”
“Once you taste my spicy fish tacos, you’ll be begging me to put a ring on it.”
This is the most anyone’s spoke since leaving the hotel, I thought.
Katy flipped a nearby set of switches, and the lights turned on throughout the house. We walked through the main hallway, Katy ahead of us. The stairs were to our right, and the kitchen opened up to our left. Katy stopped at the kitchen.
A gate was set up at the entrance. Plastic, about as high as my hip.
On the other side, a dog stirred.
“Annie, come here, come here,” Katy called in a high pitch.
“Ah, the legend herself,” Maria said. She’d heard all about Annie before, to the point that Maria had to demand that Katy never bring her up again, lest she lose the feeling in her upper lip.
Annie was a labrador retriever, the family pet, absolutely adorable, but she was getting up there in years. Her fur wasn’t as bright as it used to be, gray streaked her ears and the top of her head. She moved from her bed, sluggish.
She used to be so energetic and excited whenever guests came over. Now, she was more content with just sitting by their side in the living room.
But, she was still absolutely adorable, just looking at her made me feel a little better.
Katy folded the gate to let her pass, but the dog stopped halfway, seemingly confused. She tilted her head.
Katy ordered her again, “Annie, come here, let’s go outside.”
The dog didn’t budge, instead taking a more defensive stance.
Annie started growling. Baring teeth.
“Annie!” Katy had to snap at her, scold her. “Behave!”
Katy entered the kitchen, and grabbed Annie’s collar. She didn’t bite, but she did resist. Katy had to use actual force to tug her along.
Annie continued to growl as she went out of the kitchen. But, as she approached, she tried to break out of Katy’s hold, and lunge.
It was my mom, Maria, and myself, but I saw how Annie moved, where her eyes went, which person she attempted to get. The spring in her step, the sudden fire in her eyes. Even though I played and ran around the house with her when I was a kid, it was like I was a stranger to her, now.
No one seemed to notice that, however. Mom and Maria both backed up when Annie started trying to get on her hind legs, growling all the way. Katy had to hold her down.
“Agh, shoot. I think I’ll have to keep her outside,” Katy decided, her arms shaking from Annie’s movements, her gown getting stepped on by the dog.
Finally, after Katy’s repeated insistence, Annie complied, following Katy to the other side of the house. All by the collar, letting out a grunt or snarl on the way.
“Man, even the dog’s on edge,” Maria commented. I didn’t know what to think of that, myself.
The three of us continued into the living room. Large, the ceiling high with wooden beams, a wooden floor, white walls and white curtains. The farthest wall was essentially one big window. Katy was probably on the other side, with Annie.
The room and its furniture put recently built model homes to shame. Fancy, yet cozy was the best way I could describe it. Only a few spots here and there didn’t fit, didn’t mesh, and I knew enough to know that was Thomas’s doing. Knick-knacks from different countries, a doll from Japan sat one small table in the corner, beside two tribal African masks. If anything, it added character.
On every shelf and table, however, had picture frames of the Thompson family. Some had all three of them, but most were just Katy as a kid, running in a field, or playing on a playground. One family photo had them standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. There was another picture where Katy was playing with a smaller, younger girl. On first glance, you’d be forgiven if you thought they were stock photos. Just the shots, the lighting, the expressions, the general aura of the pictures, they were humorlessly generic.
Then again, I didn’t have lot of photos like that at my place, so who was I to judge?
My mom and I went to the sofa, Maria fell onto the loveseat. Her first time here, and she was already making herself at home.
A flat screen TV faced us. Huge, like a large chunk of the wall in front of us was simply missing, non-existent. Shelves at the bottom had the blu-ray player, and below that was a small cabinet with an extensive library of movies.
They had an extensive sound and lighting rig. But, the TV wasn’t on, the lights for the rig weren’t activated, either.
I could really go for a movie right now, I thought, but it didn’t seem appropriate, at the moment.
The silence was deafening. Not a single word was uttered.
I couldn’t sit still. I repositioned myself, crossed my legs, switched them, crossed my arms. There was more I could be doing, other than sitting here.
A clack, and a window at the farthest wall slid open. Katy stepped into the living room at the same time her mother did, coming from the hallway. They met us in the middle of the room.
Even with more people, the silence remained.
Katy was the one to break it, a false levity, a nervous tinge, “Geez, everyone’s acting like someone died.”
“Too soon,” Maria said, moving around on the seat to be on her back. “No one’s died yet.”
“Stop that,” Kristin said, “No one here is going to die, and no one here is in any danger. I just spoke with the police officers outside, and they offered to do shifts and patrol the area for the night. And, I also just got off the phone with your father. He’s already done with his business at the hotel, and he’s on his way back home.”
She moved to sit by my mom, then putting an arm around her shoulder.
“Shiori? You and Alexis are more than welcome to stay the night if you’d like.”
“I’ve got some pajamas that should fit,” Katy added, “And of course y’all can sleep in my room.”
My mom looked at me for so long I thought she was considering against it. I almost wanted her to. But I didn’t have a way of projecting that without outright saying it.
I watched her closely, intensely. Every detail, I noted, I saw.
She then faced Kristin. “We’ll take you up on that, thank you,” my mom said instead.
Stuck here for the night, when the clock’s ticking. Fuck.
Kristin hugged my mom, and she received it warmly.
“Of course, the offer extends to you too, Maria,” Kristin said, getting up from the sofa. “You might want to contact your parents, first.”
“I left a message,” Maria said, in a way that came off as apathetic. “They’ll see it.”
Kristin was aware enough to leave that alone, and addressed all of us at once. “I’d try to explain more, but I’ll let Thomas handle that when he gets here. He’ll have more of the details. I’ll be in the kitchen, see if I can’t whip up something to eat.”
“I’ll help,” my mom said, leaving the sofa. “I want to make myself useful.”
“By all means. Katy, did you take the dog out?”
“Yup,” Katy said, as she dropped onto the seat Maria was in, nearly sitting in her lap if Maria hadn’t gotten out of the way in time.
“Okay, good. In the meantime, why don’t you set up a movie for y’all to watch?”
She left after making the suggestion, and my mom followed. And somehow, their absence sucked what little air was left in the room.
It was still… still.
Between my friends, especially these two, it usually wasn’t hard to find something to talk about. But none of us uttered a sound. Katy didn’t bother trying to turn on the TV.
The looming words of that bomber. Solace. I knew they were on the minds of everyone here. How much was it affecting them?
Maria sighed, failing to get a sentence out.
Katy and I looked at her.
She fixed her position, sitting properly, and Katy had to scoot over to give her space. Maria undid her hair, letting it fall around her. It was hard to read her face.
“The Bluemoon really creeps me the fuck out,” Maria said, timorous. It sounded like an opener to something else.
“Some hero,” Katy said. She gave me a look. Fleeting. Was that to have me say something, too? Or was there another implication?
I felt my skin go clammy.
All this second guessing, always having to watch my step, watch my words. It was killing me.
I kept quiet.
“No, like, I really hope it gives itself up,” Maria said, stammering, “I really fucking do. I’m tired of… hearing about it all the time. Can’t it just go away?”
From across the room, her words stung. Eduardo must have said something to her about me. But what, exactly? What was the fallout like on her end? What went down?
And Katy. Did my friends really hate The Bluemoon that much? Blank Face? Me?
I wanted to read their thoughts so bad.
“Why does it have to exist?” Maria asked, her face in her palms. “Why does it have to ruin everything?”
Tears. Any more, and the last thing I would end up ruining was myself.
Katy looked my way again, and I was starting to get scared.
Please don’t look at me.
Before I could try to do anything, I heard the front door open, then close. It wasn’t long after until Thomas revealed himself, coming into the living room.
Everything about him looked down. His jacket was unbuttoned, his shirt untucked in some places. His hair was a mess, and he wasn’t standing straight.
“Hi,” he said, weary, exhausted, tired.
Katy got up immediately, and ran straight to him, nearly tackling him into an embrace. I couldn’t blame her, a very small part of me wanted to do the same.
I stood, anyways, and Maria followed, fixing her hair. My mom and Kristin came up from behind Thomas, both wearing aprons.
Everyone was in the living room.
Katy stepped back, finally letting her father go. With how things were going recently, that grueling silence would have returned, but Thomas curbed that like it was nothing.
“Is everyone okay?” he asked.
There were nods all around.
Thomas looked pleased, relieved. He chose to believe us.
“How about yourself?” Kristin asked. She approached Thomas and kissed him on the cheek. He leaned down for an easy reach.
“I’m holding up. There was nothing more I wanted than to go home with you all,” he said, “But I had to give a statement, work things out with the police, not to mention handle the press and their incessant questions…”
“Then I hate to do this to you, Dad,” Katy said, “But you’re going to have to answer some more.”
He exhaled, then forced a smile. “I would rather answer a million from you than one from those reporters.”
Thomas gestured, and we all moved, taking positions. Mom and I returned to the sofa, with Maria joining us. Kristin and Katy sat together on the other seat. Thomas stood, in front of the TV.
“I’ll just run down through everything I covered back at the hotel. Easier that way. Basically, it’s still too early to know if this ‘Solace’ will follow through with the threat, but everyone is going to be treating it like he will. Police are already starting investigations as we speak, like tracing where Solace’s call was coming from, and going through and asking everyone involved with the planning and running of the dinner, to see if there isn’t a clue.”
“Meaning they’ll be knocking on our door, very soon,” Kristin said. “Asking for me.”
Thomas nodded. “‘Suspicion’ is a bad word to use, but they’re not looking at you in that way, hon. However, they will need your assistance on this.”
“And they will have it.” She wrapped her arm around Katy, and Katy leaned on her.
I only now noticed that my mom had her hand on my lap.
“Do they really have a list of all of the guests?” Maria asked, blurting out the question. “Are we all potential targets?”
Had to go and say it, I thought, but I knew it was a concern that needed to be addressed.
‘Concern,’ being a very severe understatement.
“Can’t say for certain,” Thomas answered. “Nothing on that man beside the bomb and his clothes, and nothing he said confirmed that he had a supposed list. It could’ve all been for show, a bluff…”
“Or he wants us to not be certain, and have all of us constantly doubt and fear what we don’t know,” Katy said.
“Katy!” her mom exclaimed.
Katy leaned away from Kristin. “Well, couldn’t that also be the case? They’re trying to get us afraid, to be scared as shit, all over some damn hero that can jump high!”
Visibly exasperated. Her voice uneven, shaking. She was already feeling it.
Thomas sulked, shadows over his eyes.
“That’s… also a possibility. Once again, too early to say.”
“And once we can say, it’ll be too late,” Katy said, soft. She wasn’t looking at anything in particular. Kristin hugged her, even tighter.
Maria looked at Katy, Kristin, then to Thomas.
“Can’t you ask the guy?” Maria asked, “The bomber man? Wouldn’t he know something?”
“He was immediately taken to the hospital for injuries he sustained from wherever the hell he came from. Medics had found signs of internal bleeding, multiple organ failures, the works. I overheard them having to consider to consider the possibility of a medically induced coma, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.”
“But, this ‘Solace,’ whoever he, she, or they are, they knew what they were doing with the bomber. If the bomb didn’t kill him, his injuries weren’t that far behind. As of now, he might live, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be useful.
“Another reason why Solace might be a credible threat.”
I spoke, the first real words I said in hours. Everyone directed themselves to me.
But that was all I had in me to say.
Thomas agreed, “The nature of their announcement, the bomb, the fact that it could be remotely deactivated, the fact that the bomber could even get close enough to grab the mic away from me-”
He stopped himself, pinching the bridge of his nose. He maintained that position for a time, and I could hear the seconds ticking away in my head. The hours.
Thomas stayed that way, but he said, “Regardless, telegraphing the threat like that can actually work to our advantage. We know the scope of the threat, and we have a time limit to formulate a plan and start getting things in order so nothing happens when Solace’s supposed timer hits zero.”
He paused, taking another second, then put his hand down, looking at us individually, in the eyes.
“The number one priority is keeping everyone safe. Each and every one of you. All those good police officers and law enforcement aren’t going to rest until this situation is handled and dissolved, and I don’t plan to, either. Nothing is going to happen to you.”
No one said anything. I wasn’t sure if anyone believed him.
“What do we do in the meantime?”
My mom asked.
Thomas put a hand in his pocket, and took out a phone. It was ringing. He silenced it.
“Terrorists want to instill fear and disturb the minds of good people. The best way to undermine their efforts is to not let that fear get to you. We have to continue, heads held high, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. To show them that we’re made of tougher stuff, and that we don’t fold to such pressure.”
A last ditch effort to instill some confidence, I guessed, Putting on a show. I just want to find that fucker and…
What exactly, would I do if I got my hands on him?
Maria raised her hand. “Uuum, does this mean we still have to go to school tomorrow?” she asked out of the blue.
Weak, short laughs all around, me included. Even Thomas managed to find humor in the timing.
“Yes, Maria, I advise you should all go to school tomorrow,” Thomas said, with a tad more energy. “You shouldn’t use this as an excuse to skip a few classes.”
“Would you blame me if I did?”
“No, I guess I wouldn’t.”
“And The Bluemoon?” Katy mentioned, and immediately she brought the mood crashing down. “This would all be over if it gave itself up.”
It. Itself. No one ever used a gender pronoun towards The Bluemoon. Katy or Maria didn’t use it, and neither did Solace. Hardly anyone did. They truly didn’t think of me as one of them. A person.
I hung my head.
“Things would certainly be easier if he does,” Thomas said. “However, The Bluemoon is most likely operating on his own agenda, we can’t assume or trust that he will come forward. We’ll have to plan as if that’s not going to happen.”
He was answering for me. How accurate that answer was, I was beginning to have my doubts.
More and more second guessing.
It never ended.
I heard Thomas’s phone. Ringing, again.
“They don’t know how to leave a man alone. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll have to take this. I’ll be in the backyard.”
“Oh, Annie’s out there,” Katy said.
“All the more reason to go outside. I’ll be back shortly.” Thomas started making his way to the backyard.
Kristin called out to him as he left. “‘Each and every one of you’ includes you, too. Don’t push yourself, you’re not even officially the new DA yet.”
He waved without turning, and went outside. My mom and Kristin both left to go back into the kitchen.
I can’t be here, with Katy or Maria. Not like this.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” I muttered. I left the sofa, then the living room.
Then to the stairs we passed earlier, and then up.
I found the bathroom easily, locking the door behind me. I was facing the mirror, hands pressed against the marble sink, but I couldn’t look at myself.
I saw it, I saw it all. From subtleties in my mom’s expression, to how Maria went from joking to morose and back again, to Katy’s trouble state. She showed it the most.
They were scared.
Anyone would be. It was understandable. Expected, even. But all I ever felt this whole time was anger. The fire to do something to get back at Solace. It was a war he started, and it would be a war I wanted to bring. I wanted to go back to my apartment, I wanted to get my costume and go out there. But…
What good would that do?
I saw them all. How down they looked, the gloom that held them. Was this the only thing I’d ever provide as Blank Face? Fear, and people willing to capitalize on it? Did I do any good as Blank Face? I’d crippled a gang, stopped some crimes, fought against the cornerstone of the city’s underworld establishment, all for what? Who saw it that way? Who cared to look at it from that perspective? Or would everyone really prefer to have me gone, out of the picture?
My family, my friends, others. Their lives were at stake, now. Because of me.
Would it be better if I did give myself up?
Without looking at myself, I washed my hands. I was up here for too long, already. And thinking like this all the time… I’d lose my mind.
I turned off the faucet, and dried my hands, using a fancy towel on the rack beside me. I left the bathroom, and found Thomas waiting for me outside.
“AK,” he said, calling me by that nickname again.
“T-Thomas,” I said, unexpectedly. I patted my backside, and fixed my dress. My hands were still wet. “Everyone’s downstairs?”
“Yeah, Katy’s preparing a movie.” Thomas blinked, but he let his eyes stayed closed for a while. He had a shoulder on a wall, propping himself. He looked so done that he’d flop onto the floor if he didn’t have something to help him stay upright. “I’ve got more business to handle, so I’m heading into my office.”
“How’re you feeling?” he then asked.
I answered honestly. “Keeping it together. Trying to, anyways, but I feel like I’m going to explode in any minute. I would say I’m drained, but you look the part more than I do.”
Thomas either nodded, taking in my answer, or he was already drifting elsewhere.
“That,” Thomas said, “But also, how are you feeling? Thirsty? Hungry? Stomach pains?”
“Oh, I’m getting to be a little thirsty, I guess. A small itch in the back of my throat. You… I was able to manage for the whole week.”
“That’s good. I suspect it won’t be that way for much longer.”
“I’ll have to put that on my list of things to do. I tried thinking of possible ways I could get you blood, but nothing came up that wouldn’t automatically raise flags, of course. Can’t just go through the process of donating blood and ask to bring it home with you. Can’t just walk into a blood bank and ask for some, either. I’m more than aware of ‘gang doctors,’ but that’s underground, black market territory, so we’ll probably have to cross that out, considering our modus operandi. I’m really sorry.”
“No, I really appreciate you trying to help in that. You’ve almost put more thought into it than I have.”
And I don’t want to keep having you give up more and more of your blood to me.
I could see the timer ticking in my head, imagining what it would be like when it got to zero.
Thomas spoke when my imaginary timer reached ‘one.’
“I wanted to talk with you the most, about all of this,” Thomas said, “And yet, you ended up being the last in line.”
I didn’t know how to take that.
“Everything I said earlier still applies. What I didn’t mention is that the police will be doubling down on their lookout for you. This might be enough for the National Guard to make a move, too.”
I swallowed. Even more complications. Even more players in this sick game.
“This is gang related, right?” I asked. “Couldn’t Styx’s Gang be involved in this? They were the ones I revealed the Blank Face name to. The last thing Solace said, that ‘blank face in the crowd’ line. It has to be connected to Styx, somehow.”
“It’s a good assumption, very likely a correct one, but considering Styx and his gang, they’d only disseminate that information to others. I wouldn’t put this past them, but they might not be the true masterminds. Could be someone else.”
Even more complications. Even more players in this sick game.
I swallowed, again.
All of it was weighing down, crushing me. It wouldn’t take more for me to give out, entirely and completely.
I wanted to curse, but I didn’t. Thomas knew how I was, now. Part of me felt weird about it.
I was at a loss of what to say.
Thomas picked up my slack. “What do you want to do?”
What do I want to do?
I was just asking that, myself.
“What… What do I do?” I asked, voice unsteady. “People could die, all because of me. What am I supposed to do, if I don’t reveal myself?”
Thomas considered his response. He closed his eyes.
He opened them.
“You maintain. You maintain, and endure. This is what Blank Face has to be about. Unwavering, even in the face of threats and danger. Tougher stuff.”
I reiterated, “People could die, and it’d be all my fault. I don’t want that on my hands. I want to get Solace and stop him myself, but… I don’t know where to start. I wanted to go home, get my costume, but I’d be running blind. And I saw everyone’s reaction and… I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t know if I can endure this. Maybe I should just give myself up, I-”
I had to force myself to stop my rambling.
Thomas was watching me, intently, and put his hand on my arm. He squeezed.
“Don’t you dare think for a second that you’re not worth existing. No matter what anyone says, no matter what anyone does, you belong. It might be hard for people to see it, but you’ve done good. At a sufficient minimum, you’ve done good by me. And if everyone gave up just because others didn’t think they belong, we’d be living in a much sadder, much scarier world.”
I was shaking my head the whole time, my eyes getting wet, my makeup starting to run. My normal life was already ruined, there was no getting out from this unscathed, personal life or just my person. Solace challenged me, and dragged along everyone else in order to do it. Even if Hleuco and I stopped Solace, the ramifications would last, linger. People would hate and fear Blank Face even more, and everything we had done against the gangs would be wasted. Even if Solace’s threats were just empty promises, irreparable damage was already done.
What could I hope to gain?
“Alexis, listen,” Thomas said. He pushed himself off of the wall and put his other hand on my other arm. “Don’t you dare think for a second that you’re alone in this, either. I’ve told you that much already. I’m here to help, I will help, and police will be indirectly helping you, too. They want to stop Solace just as much as you do. We’re going to get through this, together.”
I nodded. It was all I could do.
“Are we good?” Thomas questioned.
“Not good,” I answered, “But better.”
“You’ve got this, Alexis, just take it a day at a time.” Thomas let go, and walked past me, going deeper into the hall. “With that being said, I won’t be able to join you as Hleuco, not for the time being. Not with insisted police protection, press, and general preparations as the district attorney-elect.”
I figured as much, but I felt like choking, regardless.
“I can still contact you, feed you information so you’re not in the dark about how the investigation is going. Plans, too, if I think there’s something you can do. I’ll do the same about your blood situation, and if I can find anything about your true nature, but that last bit’s will have to really be in the back burner.”
“I don’t know if I could repay you for everything you’ve done,” I said, feeling guilty. “Out of everyone here, I’ve put you in the worst position.”
Thomas shook his head. “Back when I first met you as Blank Face, I was the one to approach you. I encouraged you to do more with your powers. If we really want to play the blame game, I gave myself the biggest cross to bear.”
He continued, “When you get up to my age, you end up with a lot of regrets, a lot missed chances and overlooked opportunities. Your only options are to either forget about them, or work harder to not add another regret to that list. I will not turn you into a bullet point on that sad list.”
He slouched one shoulder, and rested on the wall again.
In my head, and for as long as I knew him, Thomas was nothing if not a pillar. Standing, never faltering to pressure, tension, stress. An absolute. Someone to look up to, and even admire.
Tonight, I saw a crack in that pillar.
“Good night, Alexis,” Thomas said, faintly. “Enjoy that movie, get some sleep, and when tomorrow comes, keep your chin up. I’ll be in touch.”
His office was at the end of the hallway, and I watched as he retreated into it. The door didn’t make a sound as it opened and closed.
I wondered how much of what he said was for himself, too.
With gradual, heavy steps, I went back down the stairs, back into the living room. The lights were a contrast from earlier. Everything was off except for the lights for the TV, and the TV itself. Everyone was around the TV, a light rom-com playing. A movie I’d seen before. Only Katy and Maria were up, eyes glued to the screen, eating popcorn. They didn’t acknowledge me coming in. Which was for the best, I didn’t want to show my face.
I sat next to my mom, praying she wouldn’t snore and bother the rest. I placed my head on her arm, and I focused on her breathing, the rise and fall of her chest. The television went blurry, and I closed my eyes, the sounds muffling.
A small bit of peace, a calm before the storm. I just wanted this moment to last, even for a second longer.
The time was displayed on the blu-ray player. I had checked it before I dozed off.
Forty-three hours left.