The sun pierced through broken windows, visible rays coming down onto the rotunda.
I’m still up. I’m still doing this.
Too exhausted, I wasn’t registering the swarm of people here as people, merely obstacles. Getting in my way, preventing me from moving forward. At this rate, I’d be stuck. At this rate, I’d lose them.
I’d lose him.
I continued to press onward, shoving more people out of the way. Sound and noise stacked upon one another, the shouting and the ruckus of things breaking and shattering filled what was essentially a huge echo chamber. It disoriented, threw me off course, whenever my focus momentarily slipped.
A man turned, facing me directly. Me. He wanted to impede my progress.
I swung my hand, despite the little space allowed. It was cramped.
The back of my hand struck his cheek, and he flew, spinning into more people behind him. His tumbling down led to a chain reaction, clearing a path for me.
I took it, before the sea of people could swallow up the space again, like waves after an impact.
The blasts and crashes, it buzzed in my head, and I could hardly hear my own thoughts. Not that I needed them, I was being driven by only one goal, by a singular objective I needed to complete. Everything I was doing went towards that goal’s fulfilment.
Go go go go go go get get get get get get.
Another person. Another thing in my goddamn way.
My foot moved without a conscious thought controlling it. I hit her square in the chest.
She got sent back, delivered elsewhere. More followed, more of a path made.
I was in a crowd of many. I almost blended in. Too much was going on for any one person to pay any attention to one small, masked girl among a large number of others. A needle in a haystack. I could work without largely being noticed.
I continued on, stepping over bodies and debris, trying not to get my foot caught on anything, trying not to get slowed down. Though, I couldn’t do the first without compromising the second.
More pushing, more pulling. The masses pushed, and I had to push back.
An endless fight.
Finally, finally, I made it out of the crowd. There were still many here, but they were in scattered clumps, groups fighting amongst themselves. Here, I had room to move without bumping into anyone, or anything else.
So I moved.
I went to where I saw them last, heading into the large corridor on the east wing. The noise didn’t lessen since leaving the rotunda. Instead, it seemed to get worse, the sound more free to travel throughout the more empty space.
I shook my head, then immediately regretted it. Dizzy. Hurt.
I looked again, trying to find them.
Fuck, no, fuck.
I tried again, checking around.
A group, moving up the large marbled stairs that zig-zagged to the next floor. The second floor. I lost visual when they went up high enough for the ceiling to block my view.
I moved, as swiftly as my weary legs would take me.
I took the stairs by three, before I almost tripped. My hand reached for the wooden railing for support.
Hasty, so hasty.
Could jump all the way, skip the first flight of stairs and middle landing entirely, and work my way up the second flight instead. But I was so fucking heavy. Exhausted. Tapping into empty reserves. A shell of a person, moving only with the purpose that was last in its mind before the mind had shut down completely.
A zombie, in a very scarily real sense.
I took the stairs a step at a time, sometimes two, when I felt daring enough. I turned when I reached the middle landing, then turned, taking the stairs as painfully slow as before. I moved someone out of the way, where they were resting their back on the railing, juice flowing from their sides.
Juice, red, red juice, yes.
No. Him first.
I want him first.
Finally, finally, I completed my trek, and ascended the stairs. I was on the second floor, in another large, grand hall.
Here, there was much less in the way of obstacles, but the sound was only marginally dampened. The hall led back to the center of the building, the rotunda. The chaotic cacophony carried here, too. I couldn’t escape it.
Left, right, I looked both ways.
Not that way, back to the rotunda, that way.
Down the hall, into a room.
I saw them move.
The door closed before I got to it. Big. Two, three times my size. It looked heavy.
I pressed, arms straining, and the door opened, swinging.
Six in here. Five, excluding him. The one I wanted so bad it was killing me.
They all turned to the door. To me.
All of them had some kind of blunt instrument in their hand, looking like they were more than ready to strike, and they did.
They ran at me.
Still up, still doing this.
I got into a crouch, ready to jump.
Get over their heads, change up our placement on the field, make things easier on me–
My legs had another idea.
Instead of tense, potential energy ready to turn and propel me upward, I continued, and fell down onto my knees.
On my knees.
Oh no no no no no.
My chin depressed into the space between my collarbone, I was leaning forward. I had pretty much spent all that I had, all that I was.
Body failing me, betraying me.
I was completely open.
The first hit struck home, a club to my temple.
My ear touched my shoulder.
I went one way, having to catch myself by throwing my hands to the floor.
I shifted, crawling, but I could not get away from the next hit.
A swift kick to the stomach.
I choked, and my body contorted, falling onto my back.
Everything was going wrong so fast, I barely had the time to process what was happening.
Mind running slow, body not moving how and when I wanted it to.
It was an attack on all fronts. Externally, internally.
Another person took their turn, striking. I lifted an arm to block my face.
The knife went through me like I was butter. Hot, through cold.
Piercing. The pain shot through my body, jolting my brain awake. I saw the blade stick out through my arm, through the sleeve, crimson soaking the fabric.
My breath was cut short, reduced to fits and starts, and I was twitching, trying to get away. But I was pinned, my limbs felt like jelly from the shock of it all.
With me being stunned, the others took that as an opportunity to continue their assault, hitting and clubbing me, giving it all they had. The knife stayed in my arm, the owner of it having stepped back to give the others more room. I would have turned into a bloody mess, had it not been for my healing, but I did have my limits. And I was about to meet them.
Not healing fast enough.
Never drank blood, instead losing it. I was seeing stars, losing my sense of self.
Lost in a sort of black emptiness.
Hit. Pain. Hurt. Cut.
I was meat, being tenderized. Served up.
A hand grabbed for my face, balling itself into a fist. My goggles and ski mask were starting to come with it as it pulled away.
Can’t let that happen.
Both of my hands went in front of my face, gripping the arm that had my mask by the wrist. I gripped as hard as I still could, then twisted.
Bones cracked, then shifted out of place.
A cry. It should have been close, but it sounded farther off.
I felt hands come off of me, a momentary lapse of inactivity where I wasn’t being hit or attacked. I was blinded, my mask and goggles scrunched up over my eyes, but I used that as my chance to find my way to my feet.
I still had their arm in my grasp, I wouldn’t let go.
Anger, and but a blip of energy left to express it.
I spun, their body flailing around me, and I released them at the top of my turn. The pained cries of others, the crashing of flesh onto wood. I must have thrown hard enough to slam a number of them back.
Over the crying, I heard an exchange, but I missed the first part of it.
“Why is it beeping?”
“I thought we were supposed-”
“Fuck, everyone get out! We’re leaving him!”
“Benny! You waste the time to do it now, you’ll be blown sky-fucking-high. Let’s go.”
Squeaks of sneakers on marble, then steps on carpet, then nothing.
My back hit a wall behind me, and I pushed my legs to prop myself up, getting myself to stand. I fixed my mask and goggles with my right hand as I did so.
My vision was blurry, but it was better than nothing. I could make out the room.
Wider than it was tall, it was like an office space that had been cleared out for future use. It had a regal look to it, that matched the marble and Roman architecture of the rest of the building. The only light in here was natural, coming in from the windows on one side of the room.
I glanced across the floor. My eyes fell upon a vest, sliding across the floor, and the man who threw it.
Jacket was off, tossed behind him. He was by the corner on the opposite end, fallen over.
I looked back at the vest. The beeping vest.
My body moved before I could make sense of it all. Before the danger actually settled in. Like something else has taken over.
I threw everything I had into one last sprint. One last go. One last chance to get something right.
Everything blurred together. A whirlwind of heat and sound.
I crossed the room as everything fell apart.
One hour ago
I had to lift a goggle lens away from my eye if I wanted to rub at it. I wanted to, but the police officers squished beside me prevented me from taking that course of action.
I sat in the back of a police van, rubbing shoulders with others stuffed in here. Stuffed, because I couldn’t move, couldn’t rest. Tilt my head either way, I’d end up resting my head on an officer’s arm. Lean forward, I’d bump into James Gomez.
Considering everything that had happened in the past few hours… this was really awkward. Super awkward.
The van was stuck in traffic. We weren’t even close enough to be considered close, but long stretches of cars kept us from moving an inch. Honking horns blared randomly, sometimes in spurts, other times all at once into one huge wall of sound. Even if I had the room to rest my head and sleep, the sound kept me up.
It had been like this for at least for an hour and a half. Progress hadn’t been good.
I was becoming twitchy, despite my weariness. We were supposed to have the upper hand, but we weren’t moving fast enough to make any use of it, and that advantage was slipping away with every passing second.
It grated, and it must have been the same for Gomez, too.
I could tell because I saw it.
He had kept checking his wristwatch to the point that I had lost count, and opened his phone just as many times. Irritated.
He shook his head.
“You, you, and you,” he said, pointing to a select few, including the two officers beside me. But not me. “We won’t make it in time like this. I want eyes on the field. Get out and run.”
They followed his order without so much of a ‘yes sir,’ opening the metal doors to make it out of the van. I turned away from the opening to better obscure myself, hide my visage.
I did notice how the light changed, through the front window. The sun was rising.
They closed the doors behind them, and I was left alone with Gomez, and one other police officer, sitting to Gomez’s right.
That didn’t make things any less awkward.
The van inched some, the most progress we’d made in minutes.
Gomez handled most of the questioning, but there wasn’t anything else we got out of Linda Day that was terribly useful. She was a lackey, apparently forced to pay some kind of debt. A debt that was big enough to warrant faking her death. Either way, her circumstances weren’t helpful to us stopping the planned riot on city hall.
Gomez then ordered his men to be split up into groups. One to keep an eye on Linda and the other two henchmen, and the weapons they stole back from police. Another would have to keep tabs on Edgar Brown. The final group had to go to city hall… just to see what could be done, if anything. We were stretched thin, by that point. At most, it would have to be damage control.
I was included in that final group.
I sat in thought, trying to come up with a way to foil Solace’s plan that didn’t involve total anarchy, given how stacked things were against us. Nothing.
A feeling like I was falling, my whole body jolted. I jumped in my seat.
I had drifted too far forward without realizing it.
Gomez and the other cop both looked at me.
“Tired?” he asked.
I nodded, sleepily.
“I’ve been at this all night, I had hoped that this would be over by now. Guess not.”
“Almost there, almost.”
I would have agreed, except this whole ordeal wouldn’t just magically fix itself overnight. Even if we got Thomas back, Solace was still a very real threat that still needed to be taken head on. Even this was a distraction, a detour, towards the real goal.
I made some sort of gesture.
Gomez cleared his throat before saying, “Law enforcement officers have a sworn duty to protect and serve their citizens, that means a lot of late nights, early mornings. That’s something one should expect, going into this, and it’s something one gets trained for. You… you weren’t trained for this, were you? You didn’t expect this?”
I put my head back, glancing away.
“No, I wasn’t. If anything, it’s more like I was thrown into the ocean without having ever learned how to swim. And the ocean’s on fire. And full of sharks. And my hands were tied behind my back.”
“Your analogy lost it’s focus at the end there, but I see what you mean. I think. You’re new to your… powers?”
“More than you know. I’m not an alien, or a super… whatever. I’m…”
I trailed off.
“I’m just very unlucky.”
A glance back, and I saw Gomez on his phone again, typing away.
“Well, you’re young, younger than anyone would realistically guess, I’m surprised you even managed to manage,” he said, eyes still on his screen, “I wonder how well I’d hold up, if I were in your shoes.”
I would have rolled my eyes, if my eyes didn’t feel so hot, as though they were overheated. Why was I talking to him, why was I engaging? It didn’t seem to fit with what had happened not too long ago, when I was berating him for not jumping at the gun to cooperate.
I wanted to distract myself some more, pass the time. At least, I had to keep myself mentally pacing.
But my only option was to keep talking with Gomez.
“Any updates?” I asked. I sounded like Hleuco, there.
He continued typing on his phone, and a slight frown formed on his lips. “They’ll let me know when they get there, give it a minute.”
“That’s why I suggested to go down there myself, by rooftop. I could find a bird’s eye view of things, see how things are, and I can direct you guys from there.”
Gomez grunted, and it was prolonged, as though he was actually irritated by my suggestion.
“It’s too risky, and there are a lot of eyes at city hall already. Granted, those eyes aren’t mine, but we know the situation enough that throwing you in there would be like throwing a bull in a china shop.”
“I can hide,” I said, “I’m not even wearing my usual costume.”
He eyed me. “Somehow I doubt your ability to be inconspicuous. You heard Linda Day, people have been camped out there, waiting for the mayor to come out and speak. And, considering how fast word gets out nowadays, more must be coming out in droves to see what’s going to happen. Reporters, bloggers, activists, actual protesters, the morbidly curious…”
He tapped his foot, before adding, “By itself, that’s enough cause for concern. A riot might very well break out on its own, and that’s before considering both you and Solace. I don’t want fuel to the fire.”
“You don’t trust me,” I said.
“I don’t know you, but I suppose that does extend to me not trusting you completely. You’ll have to understand that I’m coming at this from a police officer’s point of view. There’s still a lot we don’t know about you, both in your true nature and your true intentions. The less of a factor you yourself play, the better.”
I gritted my teeth. Being benched, at such a crucial hour? Hell no. I didn’t spend the whole night tearing the city apart to find Thomas, just to hand it off to others. Why was I brought along, if I’d end up being stuck in here?
I tried balling my hands into fists, but I found there was some missing strength, there, too much effort for such a weak grip. I looked at Gomez head on, asking him something I probably should have made clear before I got into a van full of policemen.
“So you are going to arrest me, after all this. Is that why you want me out of the way, keep me close so I don’t escape?”
Gomez traded a quick look with the cop sitting next to him. Campbell, now that I tried to put effort in remembering his name.
“Right now, we’re aligned by mutual interests, but there’s a fine line, here. I will tolerate you being here, so long as you don’t give me a reason to change my mind. But, right here, right now? I’m more concerned about damage control, and getting Thomas back.”
I took note of that word, ‘tolerate.’ I kept that in mind.
I turned to Campbell, curious about his thoughts, too.
“And you? Do you agree with him?”
He looked at me straight in the eye. Or the goggles.
“If the Chief is willing to go along with it, then I’m in no position to complain. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I’d like to think they’re of the same mind.”
I huffed through my nose, and I felt it heat up my face.
“Speaking for myself, though,” Campbell said, “There were times where you’ve been there to help, and we weren’t, or you’ve provided assistance at a critical moment. I was there when you stopped that car with your bare hands. That was impressive.”
An immense pressure pressed on my arms. The sensation came back to me. A memory.
“Um, thanks, I guess,” I said.
“But I’m just speaking for myself,” Campbell reiterated. “Maybe the others feel the same way, or they despise you all the same, but they trust in the Chief’s judgement enough to, like he said, tolerate you being here, without handcuffs.”
“You know, if I can stop a speeding car with my bare hands, handcuffs won’t be enough to keep me down.”
Gomez put his phone away. “I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could get away quite easily. How far you’d go, that’s a different matter, entirely.”
An uneasy feeling stirred inside me. A rocky truce between me and the police, that only existed in the now. How things would play out in the near future, was unclear.
It might help to make a good impression, in the meantime.
The van inched once more. I was scared that we wouldn’t make it in time.
“Do we, or, you, not have any allies that can help us there?” I asked, switching topics. “Police that are already stationed at city hall?”
“If anyone’s already stationed there, that means they’re there on someone else’s orders, not mine. It might be fine if I show my face, but I have to be careful not to tip anyone off about what we know.”
“You’re the police chief, are you really that powerless?”
Campbell looked over at Gomez, but Gomez had his eyes on me. They held something deeper than disappointment.
“I have authority over my men, don’t get me wrong. I can tell them where to go and what to do when they get there. Generally speaking. But, quite a number of them are in the pocket of someone else, for any number of reasons. And for some of them, reasons I can’t fault them for. So, under normal circumstances, they’ll listen, and they’ll entertain me, but I know where their loyalties lie.”
I almost had a sense of pity for Gomez. What did it mean to be at the top, when you weren’t allowed to exercise the power that came with that position? I could imagine someone becoming jaded over time, as the frustration gave way to a reluctant acceptance.
“I’m… sorry,” I decided to say. That last word was especially difficult. I wasn’t sure I meant it, it just felt right to say. “I called you inept… and a motherfucker.”
Gomez chuckled at that, surprising me. “Oh, that? I already forgot about that.”
“She called you that, sir?” the officer beside him asked.
Gomez shrugged, “It’s nothing. I’ve been called far worse things by good friends of mine. But let’s not concern ourselves with something so trivial, let’s focus on getting Thomas back.”
That, we could all agree on. If only the traffic would let us through.
The van moved along again, but not by inches, this time. It was slow, but we were moving.
“Looks like traffic’s being directed away from city hall now,” Gomez explained. “That should speed things along.”
“Are we going to make in time?” I asked.
“We might miss the first part of the mayor’s speech, but we’ll get there.”
I grumbled, but I was unable to do anything about it. I just sat, and waited for the van to take us there.
Fifteen minutes ago
They benched me, after all.
Gomez and Campbell – even the driver – hopped out of the van as soon as we arrived at city hall, disappearing into the crowd of people. There was a scary amount of people here.
I looked out from the front windshield of the van.
City Hall. The building was big, expansive. Modeled after the U.S. Capitol building, sans the giant dome that topped it off. White, with columns across the front, stairs leading up to it. A symbol of democracy.
I had been here once before, on a school field trip back in elementary school. It was big then, and it seemed even bigger now, especially with all the people here.
So many people.
The van was parked right past the large front gates that served as the official entrance to the premises. Past the gates was a field that was about the size of a football field, if not bigger. It was more like a park, though, with pathways for a stroll and trees to have a picnic under the shade. Not a bad place to do some sightseeing, and enjoy the weather.
However, right now, there was so many people I could hardly find a patch of green, just heads, other vans, picket signs, raised fists. It was as if a popular rapper decided to hold a concert here.
And the sheer volume, from the chanting to the cheering, to the random person shouting their own manifesto, I only made out a few words from Mayor Scott, who was standing at the head of the crowd, above them on a makeshift stage, in front of city hall. Pretty much a dot, from here.
He spoke into some mics attached to a podium.
“Blank Face, and this terrorist… not be tolerated… justice will be…”
I can’t understand what he’s trying to say.
I grabbed the walkie-talkie by my side, the only consolation Gomez lent me. I spoke into it.
“What’s the deal?” I asked, “Did you find him yet?”
Now I’m the guy in the van.
The device produced a burst of static before I heard Gomez.
“Nothing yet. I’m approaching the stage, trying to get close to the mayor, but I’m not seeing anything on my way there. There’s too many people, and a lot of them are dressed like you, by the way.”
“I can see that from here. Guess I wouldn’t be much help here, either. It’s like the whole ‘needle in a haystack’ thing.”
“Or maybe a ‘haystack in a pile of needles.’ I’ll keep my eyes peeled. The others will, too.”
“Yeah,” I said, and I left it at that. Powerless.
I was getting twitchy. I was here, but Thomas was nowhere to be found. So close, but he was constantly yanked from my fingertips. I wanted to get him so bad.
I went back to watching the mayor, trying to catch every other word, watching whether that dot or that dot was suspicious or not. My vision was swimming, from both the difficulty of it, and simply exhaustion and overwork taking its toll.
The mayor continued.
“We will see to it that-”
A dot moved across the stage. To the podium.
The mayor’s speech was interrupted. He was thrown to the floor.
Cries of surprise swelled over the crowd like a wave, starting from the front, and coming all the way back here.
I gripped the walkie-talkie.
Someone else was at the podium. Someone new. They were far away, but I saw the outline of a blue hood over their heads. Two other dots stood behind them.
They spoke, and they were somehow much more audible than the mayor.
“This is Thomas Thompson, District Attorney-elect for the city of Stephenville, and I stand in support of Solace.”
Another wave of surprise. I felt it, too.
There he is.
I immediately went to the walkie-talkie. “Are you getting this?”
Thomas was the middle of his speech. I turned my eyes to him, again.
“In just a short amount of… time, the villain known as The Bluemoon has terrorized the good people of Stephenville, including me and my family. I had to turn myself to Solace in order to protect those that I love, and go into… hiding. But, it wouldn’t have been for long, because I want this city to be rid of this evil, and the only way to get back our sense of comfort in these… hard times, is to side with Solace!”
I pressed the button on the walkie-talkie, but my throat was dry.
Nothing he was saying made sense, none of it. He had to have been coerced into saying these things, like that guy back at the dinner party. The real Solace had to be speaking through him, spouting nonsense.
But, even if that were true, hearing Thomas say those things…
It cut, and it cut deep.
I need to stop him.
“Solace is not the enemy, rather our liberat-”
Someone interrupted Thomas, crossing the stage and slamming into him.
The panic was bubbling, now, and I saw it boiling throughout the crowd that was gathered here.
Then, a pop.
And all hell broke loose.
The crowd expanded out into every direction, as if to get as far away from the building as possible. But another group within that crowd made their play, too.
One out of every ten in the crowd were dressed like me, like Blank Face. Blue hoods, white masks. Some were carrying signs, others were clumped together, but they all dropped what they were doing to add to the chaos. The anarchy of it all.
They shoved into others, preventing them from getting away easily. Fights broke out, panic spreading like fire. A crush of people ran past the van, trying to go through the gates behind me.
I turned, and the walkie-talkie finally buzzed.
“Blank Face, this is Gomez! I tried to tackle Thomas but… agh!”
“What’s going on now?”
“There’s a group with him, and they got away, taking him along. They’re fleeing into the building, and rioters are going in with them. I can’t follow anymore.”
“The mayor’s hurt, I have to stay with him, keep him secure. And, I’m in no condition to give them chase. But you can.”
I was drowsy as fuck, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.
“I’m on it!” I said, and I tossed the walkie-talkie behind me. Needed both hands for this one.
I opened the back doors of the van.
The first thing I saw was that the gates were closed, people rattling them. They weren’t closed before.
Shit, I had to leave that behind, couldn’t help there. How were we supposed to control this damage?
Need to get to Thomas.
I stepped out of the the van, and was immediately flushed into the horde of masses. Not people, obstacles.
Barely budge, barely move, I had no agency here.
The city hall was a whole football field away. How was I supposed to get there in time?
I had to fight my way through.
The dust settled after the rubble.
The vest had exploded. Exploded. With far more force and energy than I would have ever realistically expected. I wasn’t a soldier, I hadn’t grown up in a war-torn area of the world. This was never something I had to anticipate. The shock, the sound, the impact, it rocked my very soul.
And the floor.
The explosion tore the floor to pieces, as if there was an anger to it, and it was lashing out at everything it came into contact with. Which was mostly everything in this wide room. I was instantly enveloped in heat, then smoke, before the floor broke from under me. I reached in front of me, feeling fabric, the weight behind it.
I pulled him toward me as we were tumbling down.
Glass, rock, wood. Everything had moved, the impacting tossing us every which way. It added to the disorientation, the dizziness of it all. I spun, and my head continued to spin. I tried with all my might to keep straight, to keep Thomas close. And, as everything crumbled and broke all around us, to not get him crushed.
I’d dropped before from far higher heights, but this was a whole other level. This was a fall, a descent. We were on the second floor, and we were headed to the first.
Thrashed around, like I was a rag in a dryer. It didn’t last, but it felt like forever.
The dust settled after the rubble.
Everything ached. Everything hurt.
I coughed, but found that my chest and back wouldn’t expand properly to let out any air. I sputtered, instead. My fast and short breathing heated up my mask, my face. Stuffy.
Down on my hands and knees. I felt like I was sinking into the earth.
Dark, cloudy, could barely see. Ears ringing.
An immense weight sat on me, threatening to crush me flat if I gave in to the pressure. Couldn’t, wouldn’t.
With the dust, hysteria also settled in.
“H- help, help! Somebody help! There, there are p- people down here! We’re trapped here! Please someone come get us! Help! We’re down here! He-”
I coughed, again. Harder to get my breath this time. Wheezing. My arms shook, and that was enough for the rock that had me pinned to find more purchase, pushing me down. A rumble of other rocks shifting. I had to straighten my arms again, and sharp pang reminded me of the knife that was still in my arm.
Okay, no screaming, or we’ll be even more stuck down here.
Couldn’t let this fucking boulder crush me, wouldn’t.
Because Thomas was right under me, on his back, in between my arms.
In the gloom, I could make out his features. He’d seen better days.
Soot and dirt smeared his forehead, down to his right cheek. His hair was messy, sticking up in some places, reddened in others. A gash that traced his left temple to his nose, bad enough that he couldn’t open his left eye. Blood colored the left side of his face.
Whatever Styx had done to him, it didn’t include his face. That was hardly a relief, for my part.
Alive, but barely. But I had him.
I just had to find a way to get us out.
“Thomas,” I said. It was a struggle to say anything, but I wanted to say something to Thomas. I finally had him. After everything I’d been through, I had him.
“Are you hurt?” I asked.
He moved his head side to side, painfully slow.
It was obvious he was hurt, I could see it, I could infer, thinking back to the bloodied chair I saw back at the warehouse.
You don’t have to lie to me, Thomas.
“Kept you waiting, huh?” I asked instead.
Somehow, or perhaps miraculously, Thomas found it within himself to smile. It was weak, and I could tell it strained him, but he smiled.
“Took you long enough,” he said, nearing a whisper. “The wait was killing me.”
Despite everything, I cracked a smile too, though just as weak.
“I got your message,” I whispered, “But… But…”
“How? It was a precautionary measure. I figured Solace would be coming for me the moment he made himself known at the dinner party.”
He took a second to breathe. Several.
“Your pager. I had a text queued, timed to whenever Solace’s timers would reach zero. If I was okay, I could simply set it back twenty-four hours. If not…”
“I get the message,” I said.
“Precisely. If something were to happen to me, I wouldn’t be able to send you where I was exactly, or where I would be taken. They ended up taking my phone, anyway. My best bet was to send you to James, and you could work with him.”
I winced, my back… just my back. It fucking hurt.
“Sorry to break it to you,” I said, “But Gomez wasn’t willing to play along at first. He was harder to bring on board than I would’ve liked, but even then…”
His expression changed, disappointment.
Shame on Gomez, his best friend, or shame on me, the supposed superhero? Shame that we couldn’t work together sooner to find him? Or maybe shame on himself, for having not seen this coming?
I was projecting, had to put my priorities elsewhere. Like keeping myself up.
The boulder was getting heavier with every second. Losing strength, strength that I needed, strength that I required.
I still managed to tell him more. “I was turning this city upside-down to try and find you. You have no idea what my night was like.”
Another frail smile from Thomas.
I couldn’t keep it up anymore, I frowned.
“I can’t hold on for much longer,” I said, in between short breaths. “I’m losing it… This thing is fucking heavy.”
“You’re doing great, Alexis.”
Alexis. That was it, right, my name? Hearing it made me feel better. By a small, almost negligible margin, but better.
“I think I can hear people,” Thomas said, “Checking over the debris.”
“Really?” I tried to hear, but it was impossible for me, now. It was as if my heart was in my head, pounding in my skull. Nothing but an intrusive, arrhythmic pounding.
“Really. I’d hate to put even more pressure on you, but if you can get this thing off…”
I shut my eyes, the beginnings of tears wetting the corners of my eyes.
“I can’t, I can’t, it’s taking everything I have just to stay in this pose. It’s too heavy.”
“You have to try, Alexis, believe in yourself, for once.”
The air in here was thinning, I couldn’t repeat myself.
I shut my eyes, tighter, and tensed all the muscles in my body. I tried to push, to find my way to my feet, to get this chunk of rubble off of me.
No. There was nothing there. It wouldn’t budge. I wouldn’t budge.
The attempt left my arms wobbling for a second, and the rock pushed on me even more. Thomas shuddered, but it wasn’t like he could go anywhere. I did what I could to straighten my arms again, to stop its progress in squashing us. It stopped, but I was closer to Thomas, now, my arms straining two-fold.
I gasped for air that wasn’t there. That was enough to show Thomas that it was hopeless.
I was burnt out, completely empty. Impossible, to do this on my own, with the resources I had available, with the resources I had within me. I needed something more, I needed more than I what I was.
Thomas met my eyes, and I stared back. I was so close to saving him, yet it had to be like this.
This isn’t fair, the world isn’t fair.
Thomas whispered softly. Barely audible, drowned out by the pounding in my head.
“My blood, Alexis, drink my blood.”
My own blood ran cold.
“I’m giving you my blood to drink, Alexis, use it. Anything to get you back on your feet.”
I flinched, a particular jagged edge driving into the back of my shoulder. The rock pushed down on me again, pushing me closer to Thomas’s face.
He shifted, bringing his arms up. I could see the effort it took, how much it hurt him to do so.
He pulled up on my mask, freeing my lips, my nose. He was uncomfortably close.
“Do it, it’s okay,” he said. “In fact, consider it an explicit order.”
“I… can’t,” I said back, “It’s too…”
I trailed off.
“This is a matter of life… and death, Alexis, we can’t let something like that stop us now.”
I grimaced at the thought of it, but the desperation in me told me he was right. I might be able to get some strength back to get this thing off of me, but even then, I’d never pushed myself that hard before.
Thomas hacked out a cough, and spurts of blood flew from his mouth.
“Alexis, we need to get out of here. You… know, I managed to get some stuff on Solace. You were right about Benny, but she’s nothing but a hired gun, not unlike Edgar, and Linda. And Styx…”
He coughed again.
“I want to share my… notes, with you. You need to get us out of here.”
Impossible, it was impossible.
I blinked more tears away, the water collecting at the bottom of my goggles.
“Please, Alexis, it’s okay,” Thomas said, soft. “The search party might go away soon. If you can at least move the rock, you can get their attention, and they might find help on their end.”
My arms, my entire body, twitched from the weight of the burden. I nodded once.
“Take off my goggles,” I said.
I had my eyes closed when he did so, setting them above my eyebrows. I put my thoughts elsewhere, to the other times I drank blood. Blood from Thomas’s cut finger, blood spilled onto Styx’s bike, blood from when I stabbed Benny…
Blood from that rabbit.
Animal, I had to think of this like taking from a mere animal.
“Okay,” I said, defeated, “Okay.”
I opened my eyes, and saw Thomas working on unbuttoning his shirt, exposing his collar, the skin underneath.
Oh, right. How else was I to do this? Lick the wounds on his face? Not enough blood, there, to get anything substantial, I could tell by some twisted instinct. I had to go a more direct way.
“I’ve never really done it that way, before,” I said. The situation was too grave to be embarrassed at the wording.
“Let’s set a rule first,” Thomas said, leaning his head one way, until his forehead pressed against rock. “I’ll lift myself to you as much as I can, so you don’t have to lean down any more. I’ll have to determine when you’ve had enough, and, if and when we get to that point, I’ll pat you on the back. Do you understand?”
I nodded again.
“It’s going to hurt,” I said. I was sure it would.
“I can deal, let’s do this. Good luck.”
Thomas pushed himself up, and I felt his body heat get hotter as it approached my lips. My breathing got even heavier, as I realized what I was about to do.
I opened my mouth. My lips pressed against the top of his shoulder, then my teeth. My tongue tasted of sweat.
I closed my eyes.
I bit down.
I expected a resistance, where the skin would be hard to pierce. And there was… at first. It was a lot like biting an apple. A small instance of difficulty, putting more effort than what was probably needed, then juice spilled forth.
And it did.
Thomas drew in a quick breath. I felt muscles briefly tighten around my teeth.
It seemed easier than it should have been, biting him, and getting him to bleed. I didn’t think on that now, I only drank.
Drinking only brought attention to just how thirsty I was, how drained I was of sustenance. How I deprived myself of such a delectable flavor.
It was good. So good that I couldn’t think.
Tasting it again, I was at a loss of words, other than ‘sweet.’ It summed it up perfectly. Short, sweet, to the point.
I swallowed, and it reinvigorated. A surge that washed over me, leaving me with more power than I had felt in years.
With every gulp, I felt like I was gaining something. Yet, at the same time, I was giving up an essential part of myself in exchange.
It took me a while before I came back to my senses.
A smack, a slap against my neck. I made a sound in response.
“I think that’s… more than enough,” Thomas said, weaker than ever. “I feel like I’m about to faint.”
I made another sound. Had I gone too far? Would I have even stopped, if I wasn’t prompted?
Dangerous, nearly lost myself there.
I pulled away from Thomas, a trail of blood still linking my lower lip and his marks, dotted in red. A clear imprint of teeth was left behind.
Thomas fixed his shirt back into place, hiding it. He moved his arm, wiping my chin with his sleeve.
I didn’t thank him, I didn’t waste any more time.
I just fought my way back to my feet.
It was like there was a second wind under me, I could move without being completely hindered. I pushed up, by my back, and the rubble gave way.
It was still massive, and that jutted edge pressed more into my shoulder blade, but I was making progress.
The aches and pangs came back and stronger, screaming at my body to stop, to give up. I screamed in return.
I kept pushing, and the rubble was being lifted higher. I was almost about to think that I’d make it. That it was feasible. Escape.
The rubble was high enough that I was able to finally change positions. I shifted my feet so my soles were flat on the ground, and I was crouched. My hands no longer had to work to keep me up, and I pressed them against the rubble. My forearm that had the knife flared up in pain as I lifted.
I was working to a standing position, now, and to get this off of me.
For me, for Thomas. For Mom. For Katy, for Kristin. For Maria. Even for Gomez.
Heavy, my muscles stiffening, but I was still getting somewhere. Getting to my feet.
I heard the distant falling of other rocks. Rubble that was stacked on top of the one that had me pinned. It had added to the weight, but with excess sliding off, it was becoming much easier, now.
I howled, and I pushed.
More pain meant more progress, and I was on fire.
I was standing, but I was hunched over, and light was rushing in between slits and cracks. I was able to hear what Thomas was talking about earlier, the search party. They were here, and I had their attention.
One more, Alexis, just one more, and we’re out of here.
One more solid push, and I’d get this thing off of me, and out of my life.
I mustered everything I had into one last effort. One last throw.
Everything went white. I was yelling, but I didn’t hear it. I was pushing, but my body didn’t feel it. I just did.
And then it was over.
When I came to, I was standing, and huge chunks of rubble were being flipped over, falling around behind me.
I was free. I felt like I was about to float away.
There was a moment of stillness, like even the world itself couldn’t believe what just transpired. Even I couldn’t believe it.
I stared at Thomas, and he stared back, eyes wide, mouth open.
Stunned as I was.
His mouth moved, but it was lost on me. I tilted my head, then turned.
The ceiling was completely gone, having collapsed into the room below. The explosion also left behind a huge, gaping hole in the wall, light pouring in. People were coming up the pile of rock and rubble, by way of the hole. Paramedics.
A few circled around me and Thomas. They went right to taking care of Thomas.
One of them faced me, his mouth moved. I didn’t quite understand, but it had something to do with my arms.
I looked at them. The knife, through my sleeve and my arm.
I shook my head once. I pulled the knife out, and tossed it away. My arm went right to taking care of itself, but my sleeve covered up the process.
Other paramedics were here, forming a larger circle around us. We were standing in a pile of debris, the footing uneven. I’d be taking up space if I stayed here, loitering around. I had to leave Thomas to the professionals. I didn’t need to be looked after.
I began to take the path of least resistance, where I could step without risking a tumble all the down. If I fell, I probably wouldn’t get up again.
Slow, cumbersome, but I managed, and I ended up essentially coming back the way I came. I stood in the wide and tall corridor, in one of the wings of city hall.
Arms by my side, stiff, and I had a slouch. I was more zombie than human, right now.
I want to sleep so bad.
Others were in the hall with me, mostly police. Some began to approach when they noticed me.
If I tried to run, I’d most likely fall over, and that’d be the end of it. I stayed put, readying myself for yet another fight, prepared to bite back, if I had to.
One other cop, originally standing by himself, jogged to intercept the incoming cops. He stopped them, waved his arms. Talking with his hands?
Then, the incoming cops turned around, and went elsewhere. The single cop approached, in their stead. I didn’t relax.
“I won’t lie, you saved my ass, up there. That was truly something.” He then drew out a long breath. “He should be in good hands, now.”
His voice, his face. I was familiar with it, I was supposed to recognize it, but I had trouble connecting the dots. Maybe it was the bloodied nose, mucking everything up.
It took a minute.
His face changed.
“You okay, do you need to be checked out?”
His name is James Gomez, he’s the police chief of the Stephenville Police Department. Thomas’s friend.
“James Gomez,” I said, like I was learning to read for the first time.
“I can’t see your face, but I know when someone’s out of it. Do you need to be checked out?”
No, you’re fine.
“No, I’m fine,” I said.
“Are you sure?”
Yes, you are.
“Yes, I am,” I said.
Gomez checked behind him before asking, “Can you walk?”
I nodded, and took a step. Gomez accepted that as an answer, and proceeded to lead the way, heading to the stairs.
“Things are still pretty bad,” Gomez said, as we went down. “Dozens injured, including the mayor, but thankfully no casualties. Yet, maybe. There’s still spurts of fighting here and there, but when the explosion happened, everyone cleared out of the building in an instant. Little did I know that you and Thomas were down there. Guess I was lucky to come, anyway.”
I had to hold onto the wooden railing to keep my balance. I was much slower going down, Gomez had to accommodate for me.
My throat wasn’t dry, but I had no energy to waste on words. I’d only speak when I really had to.
Gomez continued, “If things weren’t already bad, this happens. A massive explosion in a government building. I think the only thing that was bigger in recent memory was, well, you. I bet Solace didn’t see this coming.”
We turned, and continued down. The whole area was a stark contrast from before. Only our footsteps made any sound as we descended, and there wasn’t another soul on the lower floor.
“But, it’s not all bad,” Gomez said. “We prevented Solace from fully accomplishing whatever it is they had planned, and we got Thomas back. We didn’t net a win, but at least Solace suffered a loss.”
A win, a loss? There was a massive explosion in a government building. That was bad, no matter how you slice it. Solace played with fire, there, and maybe it was supposed to be a bluff, but it ended with everyone else getting burned. He’d pay for that, and I’d see to it, myself.
After I get some sleep.
“This way,” Gomez said, turning another way. “And pick up the pace.”
I did my best to follow as he led me behind the flight of stairs. A metal door was situated underneath. He opened it.
“Hurry,” he said, going through it. I was a step behind.
More stairs, leading down. The space was small, made of stone, lit by bulbs hanging above us. The stairs spiraled.
The explosion still had me in shock, I still hadn’t really processed anything that happened after it.
At the end of the stairs was another metal door, and Gomez pushed through. We both stepped into a lower level of the building. It looked to be like a underground bunker of sorts, a tunnel.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“Underground tunnels connecting different facilities, even offices that are located under city hall. Secret, but not really, this one in particular funnels to a kind of mini-mall, full of gift shops and knick-knacks, shit like that.”
Gomez walked again, and I followed.
“And?” I asked.
“Don’t make me admit that I’m invariably helping you slip away,” he said.
“After the explosion, we set up a perimeter around the entire building. No one gets in or out. But the mall wasn’t included in that perimeter, it wasn’t considered. And it’s still early in the morning. Other than some shopkeepers opening up, no one’s going to be there.”
“You’re escorting me out?”
“I’m not going to go that far, I’m just showing you the way.”
I wasn’t about to question him if he was handing me an escape route on a silver platter. I walked.
We continued until we reached what seemed to be the end of the corridor. Larger metal doors, and I felt a draft coming from under it.
Gomez took a step back, gesturing towards the door. “The mall’s that way, and you can go from there. Wash your face, or get a fresh set of clothes if you can. Once you’re out those doors, you’re on your own again. Get caught, that’s on you.”
He then reached to his side, and whipped out a gun. He pointed it at me. He clicked it.
I tried raising my hands, but they were lifeless, by this point.
If I had to, though, I might be able to take him…
“Mind explaining this?” I asked.
“I found you, tried to take you in by myself for the credit,” Gomez said. “To get some more clout and pull in my own force again. But you fought, you got away.”
“Is that the story you’re going to tell others?”
“It’s the story I’m going to tell myself. Blank Face, or the Bluemoon, didn’t technically make an appearance at city hall, did she?”
“Call me crazy, but I do want to believe you can do more good out there than locked up. No matter what Solace says. Or, maybe I just don’t want Solace to get their way. Ha, I guess I am crazy.”
There was a compliment in there, somewhere, but I was too out of it to want to look for it.
I’d rather give him less of a reason to change his mind.
“Do you want some good? Thomas said that he has some dirt on Solace, it might be useful. Can you see what you get from him, and actually use that info?”
Gomez nodded once, slowly.
“Don’t make me regret this.”
I would’ve smiled, but my face hurt.
“Regret what? I fought you, I got away.”
Gomez didn’t drop his gun, but he moved it to the side, pointing to the door.
A mutual understanding.
Without a word, I turned to the door, and stepped through it. A cold air met me, and I moved on to my next goal. Getting the fuck home.
I sat in a chair in the corner, curled in a ball.
Through squinted eyes, I watched everyone as they handled the news.
Kristin had her arms around Katy, and they were both still bawling. Maria was sitting two chairs down, leaning forward, hands around her stomach. My mom was standing, an island of her own, quietly taking everything in, too. She must have been a wreck, as well.
I didn’t make it home in time. My mom had gotten the call while arriving at work, but turned right around to pick me up. But I wasn’t there yet. She found me crossing the parking lot, dressed in clothes she hadn’t seen before. I gave a weak explanation, that I decided to skip school and go for a walk. Even I wouldn’t believe me, if I was in my mom’s shoes.
Didn’t matter. She ushered me in the van, and she drove. I’d be in trouble another time.
Gomez called Kristen, and Kristen called my mom. I texted Maria.
They found Thomas. He was in critical condition, but he was hospitalized, now, and he was being worked on. We all rushed to the hospital he was at.
We sat in the waiting area, doing the only thing one could do in such a place. It had only been an hour, but I suspected we’d be here for many more.
Even here, I had to wear a mask. I had to lie to my mom about where I was, I had to pretend I was hearing about Thomas for the first time, I had to act like an ‘Alexis’ that never played a part in this. But that concept, that identity, had been gone for quite a while.
Again, another mask.
Everyone was absorbed in their own emotions, a mix of relief and fear. And I was wrapped up in that, too, but I was too exhausted to express anything.
We have him, I thought to myself, These are tears of happiness. Solace can wait, just for now. God, let me have this, let me revel in the comfort of that.
I let my eyes close. Leave it to being in a hospital, where I was allowed to rest in peace.