Interlude – Isabella

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“You’re positive you didn’t forget anything?” The man eyed her carefully. She felt like she was being judged for a crime, waiting for a verdict.

In a way, she was. She wasn’t supposed to be here.

“Just myself,” Isabella answered.

The man, the driver, didn’t avert his hard gaze.

“The trip is eight hours, are you sure you’re going to be okay without any anything to bring? Not to mention, you have to purchase a ticket online.”

Isabella stared up at the driver, and he stared her down. He was more like a pig than a man, overweight, large nose, balding. Not the most friendly appearance.

Her chances of getting on the bus weren’t looking good.

She knew she had to start making haste. She already made the call, so she’d be finished if she stuck around for whatever the aftermath would turn out to be. Like a fire under her butt.

She had to go.

‘No one will ask any questions if you can cough up enough dough.

The words of that lady, Wendy, came to her. The lady that saved her.

No use trying nothing.

She reached into her back pocket, and took out a small brick of cash. It was but one of four. The most amount of money she’d ever seen in her entire life. She flipped through it, pulling out two fifty dollar bills.

Isabella stuck out her hand, holding one hundred dollars.

“Is this enough for a ticket?”

The man’s eyes softened to those of wonder, then confusion. Then, a glint in his eyes.

He didn’t take too long to think it over, however. He moved his head.

“You sit in the back, and you don’t make a sound,” he said. Isabella took that as a sort of warning.

Wordlessly, Isabella got on the bus, taking the few steps to reach the driver. Smoothly, she slipped him the money, and he accepted it with a nod.

Gringos must really be easy to pay off.

Isabella moved down the bus.

The bus wasn’t full, she had her pick if the driver hadn’t given her stipulations. But, it wasn’t empty, there were people here she probably could not pay off.

A man in his late fifties, wearing a suit, talking on a phone. A teenage girl, fiddling with her phone. A boy with his mother, both already napping. There was another girl here, too, closer to her age, but she actually had luggage to bring. The rest started to blend together, the features starting to look too familiar. Unless they were famous, Americans all looked the same to her.

No one paid her any mind as she passed by, going down the aisle to get to the very back. The seats here were unoccupied, and she was able to make herself comfortable, lifting up the armrest in the middle so she could rest her legs.

The bus started, thrumming with life, then drove off.

Isabella leaned her head against the window beside her, watching the city pass.

At least I got a view this time.

She had barely just started getting used to things in Stephenville, and already she had to relocate. It was sudden, too, and now she was going to step foot in a new city, empty-handed. Again.

Well, she did have nine hundred dollars to her name this time.

Though, maybe she would have better chances if she moved elsewhere. The gang and cartel situation here was only marginally better than the one back home, but Stephenville still had way too much baggage attached, and it wasn’t very friendly to outsiders. Southern hospitality was as foreign a concept as she was.

All that, she learned in a week of being here.

Part of her did wish she could stay longer, though. She wanted to see the local celebrity one more time. La luna azul.

Isabella’s stomach grumbled. She massaged her shoulder.

Relocating might have been a good idea, but it was one she hadn’t planned for. That ‘Wendy’ practically pushed it on her. Nine hundred dollars might pull her through the next week, but there were so many other things to worry about. Like, where would she stay? What were the gangs like there? The cops? How would she make money? She was underage, no official papers on her. Illegal, in multiple senses of the word. Not many places would want to take her in, or they might get in trouble, too. Maybe an orphanage?

See, how am I to survive without a gang? They can provide for me, kind of.

The word ‘orphanage’ struck her again.

Her chest welled up. She probably was one by now, if she wasn’t already. It was why she had to flee, they were going to come for her next, and string her up. Isabella had given up hope on seeing her parents ever again, before any of this began. A harsh reality.

Isabella closed her eyes. There were no more tears to shed.

A lot to handle, more than she was reasonably capable of. But, it would have to come later. In eight hours, approximately. She’d deal, then. She would have to. Or she’d never survive.

For eight hours, she would rest. She needed it. To make the most of an unexpected, and shitty, situation.

The bus stopped.

Isabella half-opened her eyes.

That was fast.

She heard the other passengers. Whispers, questions. They weren’t in the know.

Meaning we’re not supposed to stop.

Other voices came into the mix. Outside, yelling, barking orders. Coming from her side of the bus. She checked the window.

She quickly ducked under her seat, cursing under her breath.

Lawrence.

He, and a small crew of his Ghosts, were circling around the bus. Tapping at the windows, tapping at the door. Searching, looking for something. Isabella could only think of one thing they’d want.

Me.

She cursed under her breath again. She made the call like Wendy asked, and told the operator on the other end everything the Ghosts were doing. The skirmishes for territorial expansion, the attempts to get their own slice of the drug trade, the screwed up initiation games for the newbies. And which studio apartment Lawrence was running the whole thing in. She told them everything. Everything she knew. And, through one way or another, Lawrence found out. Fuck.

From what she had seen from the window, she was barely out of the downtown area. Still in the city. Double fuck.

And she saw that the majority of the Ghosts had guns. Triple fuck.

Surrounded. Trapped. Isabella was the fish in this particular barrel. Even so, her mind still went to ways she could make it out of here. As alive as possible.

There was a restroom in the back, but they’d definitely check there, and that would make her a sitting duck, and another analogy. The emergency exit above also wouldn’t do, not with all the Ghosts still ‘haunting’ the area around the bus. The window beside her wouldn’t open, the most it could do was let a little air in. And there was still there issue of multiple hostiles outside. And their cars.

She was stuck here, through and through.

Quadruple fuck.

And with being stuck, it was better to be hidden than to escape and be instantly caught. Luck was all she had.

She stayed put.

If this was a setup by Wendy… she was gonna be pissed.

The yelling and knocking then ended, only because the door was opened.

Footsteps rushed in.

“Thank you, sir.” Isabella heard Lawrence thank someone, probably the driver. No brainer. If Isabella could convince the driver with some cash, there was nothing that said that Lawrence couldn’t.

Pudrete en el infierno.

She tried pressing herself closer to the floor, shimmying under the seats. Sticky, all around icky. Not a pleasant experience. And, while she was small, the space was smaller. Not much in the way of cover.

Isabella held her breath.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Finally, a passenger spoke up. Probably the old man.

“A not-so-routine inspection,” Lawrence responded, “But we won’t take too much of your time. We know you all have places you need to be, and you still have a long trip ahead of you. Ah, the door, please.”

The door closed, squeaking as it shut. Isabella cursed for a fifth time.

Lawrence continued with his orders. “Check every person, every row. Be thorough. We ain’t letting that bitch get away.”

She could hear them get to work, walking down the aisle and harassing the other passengers. Zippers were opened up, things dropping to the floor. Isabella wasn’t that small.

They’re taking advantage of those poor folk, all because of

“Yo!”

Isabella moved her head, shifting her gaze.

Someone also dropped to the floor, a row over. Facing Isabella. A leather jacket, light jeans, a choker. Short brown hair. Deep blue, almost indigo eyes, and something about them carried a feeling of mischief, not concerned in the slightest. Gringo.

The other girl her age.

She whispered, but excitedly, like she was sharing a secret she wasn’t supposed to, but telling someone was more fun.

“Mind if I steal from you? I’m lucky I made it here before he opened the door, or I woulda been a goner. Man, can’t go three steps without running into some trouble, am I right or am I right?”

Isabella blinked. Who…

The girl nodded fast. “Another good idea. We’ll communicate using nonverbal cues instead. Smart. Let’s do that.” She flashed a toothy grin, though a front tooth was missing.

Isabella blinked twice more.

The girl whispered again, already breaking her own rule. “Roger roger. Can’t be back here forever, since they’re about to find us. Mind if you follow my lead? I can take it from here. Oh, I wanna apologize now for the trouble. The Ghosts wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for me.”

… ¿Qué haces?

Isabella blinked one more time. For good measure.

Things just took a weird turn.

The Ghosts were after her? This girl? But that didn’t seem right at all.

What did she do?

The footsteps were nearing them, louder, sounding like a stampede. More than one person, more than just Lawrence. To Isabella, she was as good as caught, maybe even dead. This was very much it.

I shoulda taken the money and went back to Lawrence in the first place.

Isabella was about to curse for the sixth time, but she looked over to the girl hiding with her. The girl’s face hadn’t changed. Her toothy grin stayed.

She winked.

The girl then flipped onto her back. Isabella couldn’t see what she was doing, but she could hear it. A prolonged hiss.

It became louder, almost becoming something like a warning. The gang members noticed, asking about it.

Louder, then louder again.

It came to a crescendo.

“Now!”

The girl got out from her hiding spot. Isabella saw her feet. She was standing.

She jumped back.

Everything exploded.

One big bang, followed by crackling and popping. Also very loud. Screams, cries. Even Isabella shrieked. A bomb had definitely went off, and that girl was involved in a way.

Bomb. Girl. Loud. Ringing.

Pull.

Isabella was being pulled.

Forced onto her feet, moving towards where the blasts were coming from. Too disoriented to resist.

“Push them forward, not down!” the girl called out, making herself known. “Make it snappy.”

Isabella followed, but she didn’t follow. She lagged behind as the girl let her go and worked, pushing the Ghosts, backing them up. Few tried to fight back, but they were in the midst of the explosions, stunned, susceptible to being pushed around. They stumbled backwards, the girl moving them like cattle.

Only one other Ghost was unaffected.

“I’ll skin you for that!” Lawrence bellowed, though quieter from Isabella’s ears. “And for last time!”

“You need better hobbies, L-Boy!” the girl said back.

Lawrence started getting ready for his move. His counter.

“You’re up next!” the girl ordered, as she pressed on more bodies. “Get that last guy!”

Isabella woke right up. “I, I can’t do that! And he has a gun!” She hushed herself on that last word, as if she was trying not to remind Lawrence of the weapon in his hand.

“You’ll be fine!”

Is this girl freaking insane?

“Just go! I’ll back you up!” She sounded serious this time.

Reluctant, Isabella sprang to life.

She never considered herself to be agile, but she could move when the situation called for it. She could run. She hopped, pulling herself above the seats by the overhead bars. Putting her feet on the seats, she maneuvered over everyone.

“Get down! One more!”

The girl yelled.

Isabella dropped down, putting herself between the girl and the Ghosts, and Lawrence. He was a good three feet away.

She saw it fall in front of his face. Red cylinders, attached by a string, hissing. She’d played with those before, back in Mexico.

Firecrackers.

She didn’t see them go off.

It was loud, if not louder than before. But she was ready for it this time, she had turned and covered her ears. It crackled, popped.

Lawrence, however, wasn’t as prepared.

As soon as she was certain the firecrackers were done, she spun, then rushed to Lawrence. Isabella knew she wouldn’t be stronger than him, but the element of surprise was well in her favor.

Her shoulder rammed into his side. His ribs.

He cried out. More pain than she had expected. Sensitive? A previous injury?

As if severe burns weren’t sufficient.

Lawrence buckled, but Isabella held onto him so he wouldn’t fall. By the hair, she dragged him toward the front of the bus. He didn’t fight back.

They got to the front, and Isabella turned and kicked, and Lawrence tumbled down the steps. The top of his head hit the door.

Oh Dios mío that felt so good.

She looked at the driver, and he was drenched in sweat, bug-eyed. She wanted to hit him, too.

“Incoming!”

The girl joined Isabella, bringing the remaining Ghosts with her.

“Out of the chair, fatso!” the girl said.

Isabella took the initiative, putting her hands on the driver, pulling him up. Despite his heavy weight, he was out of his seat with ease.

“Move!”

The girl pushed past Isabella and grabbed the driver by the collar. She threw him down the same steps, atop a pile of sore bodies. The driver, the various Ghosts, then Lawrence.

Surprising strength.

We actually beat him…

“Nice!” The girl lifted a hand, and on instinct, Isabella gave her a high-five. “We’re on the same wavelength after all.”

“Ha, maybe.”

“But next comes the really really really fun part. Keep an eye on the Ghosts, and try to calm the other peeps.”

She fell into the driver’s seat, and started moving stuff around, like she knew what she was doing.

Isabella questioned her. “Exactly what-”

The bus sped off.

Isabella grabbed for a metal bar, preventing a fall. The other passengers jerked forward.

“What is she doing?” one of them asked. The woman, the mother. She tried standing, but the bus did a sharp left, then righting itself. The ride was bumpy.

“Just stay seated, everything is fine!” It wasn’t true, but it was the only thing Isabella had to say.

Things just took another, actual weird turn.

What is she doing?

Gripping the bar, holding on for dear life, Isabella shouted her question at the girl.

“What’s the deal?”

“I’m taking us out of here.”

“Do you even have a license?”

“I’m not old enough for one, you dummy.”

Some of the others in the bus caught that. They raised their voices, protesting.

“Stop the bus! Stop the bus!”

“Why is a little girl driving?”

“Jesus, please, someone else take the wheel!”

The bus swerved, harshly getting on another street.

“Pipe down!” the girl shouted. “I’m not taking us super duper far!”

“Then where?” Isabella asked. The whole bus was shaking from the speeds they were reaching.

The girl paused, eyes on the road. She took a right, and a deep breath.

“Hmm… oh, how about a little window shopping?”

“What-”

The bus veered again, but the girl didn’t correct the vehicle. Instead, it stopped very suddenly.

It crashed.

The opposite of slow motion. Everything happened so fast.

Glass crashing together. Metal and tires screeching. Deafening. A hard jolt, everything thrown forward. Violent. Too fast and too sudden to truly process. It just happened.

Isabella was standing when it just happened.

The abrupt stop made her ragdoll, and it was a rough fall to the floor, glass landing on and around her.

Blunt force and sharp stings. Pain of every variety, surpassing any known threshold. Inconceivable.

Isabella didn’t feel like moving. Couldn’t even twitch a muscle.

Couldn’t even question if she was still alive.

But it wasn’t her call to make.

“Dang, you’re still alive.”

Heard that voice before. Recently.

“People will be coming soon. Cops, more Ghosts. Can you stand?”

I can barely think.

“No go, huh? Here, I’ll help. I’d say we should take our time, but we can’t afford the luxury.”

Isabella felt hands on her, and she gasped. The stings. The pain. Intensified.

“Oof, okay. Looks like we’re gonna do this the hard way. Don’t hate me too much for this.”

The hands came upon her again, and grabbed. The pain reached newer and newer heights, and Isabella let herself block out what followed.

By blacking out.

Waking up was a long, nebulous process. She didn’t come to, not immediately. Instead, it was a long stretch of soft breathing, followed by the realization that she was indeed alive, and awake.

And with that realization finally becoming clear in her mind, Isabella opened her eyes.

Nowhere she knew. An old brick factory, somewhere. Was this still Stephenville? Streaks of dawn spilled through the cracks in the walls and ceilings. How long had it been?

Right. Lawrence. The bus crash. The girl. Help.

Even the stuff with Wendy. That felt like another lifetime. Was that all really the same night?

Oddly enough, it didn’t feel like this was the first time her brain had run this particular lap.

Isabella nearly did so herself, but her whole body seemed to scream in pain. Though, it was like a dull knife, now. Still hurt, but a bit of the edge had been taken off.

Standing was a great ordeal, but she had to do it. She was on her feet… after a minute.

No one. Nothing. Isabella was alone.

She checked her body. So very sore. Nothing broken, but scratches all over. It hurt. Small cuts across her arms and legs and face. And one really painful one on her forehead. From the way the skin was pulled, she could tell it was stitched up.

She was wearing a leather jacket, she didn’t have one before. Her shirt underneath, when she checked it, was more blood than white.

Oddly enough, she didn’t feel shocked about what she saw.

Lawrence. The bus crash. The girl. Wendy.

Piecing things together was hard, nearly impossible. She was worried that she was completely abandoned. It might have been quiet and calm in here, but she didn’t know what dangers might be lurking right outside, ready to screw her over once she stepped outside. She wasn’t sure what her first move should be.

Her stomach grumbled.

Maybe I should start with some food, first.

She started to leave, but she stepped on something. It was soft. Squishy. She stopped, and checked.

A teddy bear?

She picked it up, the pain coming back. She fought through it, because there was another thing there that caught her attention.

A note was attached, tied to the bear’s hand by a red string.

She undid the string, then opened up the note. She noticed how pretty the handwriting was.

Isabella read it.

To whatever your name is… sorry that I forgot to ask!

You can call me D, like Deep Throat, get it?

Isabella didn’t get it. Perhaps it was a reference of some kind.

She kept reading.

Anyways, sorry again for the whole bus thing, I was actually on my way out of the city to wait for things to cool down. I know I cause too much trouble for my own good okay, I just get bored sometimes!

So it was her fault that Lawrence came? Isabella still couldn’t believe it, her 9-1-1 call had to play a part, somehow.

Any-anyways, I crashed the bus into some clothing store to get the Ghosts off our trail. But nobody got hurt! Well, except you, Lawrence and those Ghosts, and the driver. I didn’t have time to check on the passengers so…

‘D’ drew a face. A sad face.

You were bleeding pretty badly, but thankfully there was nothing serious. I didn’t have time to bring my stuff, but I did my very best to patch you up. A cut on your forehead was the worst of it. And you were pretty responsive while I worked on you, so that’s good! Whew! Other than that, you’re all golden. Just don’t bathe with any lemons!

Isabella didn’t find that very funny. Everything stung.

So yeah, sorry about everything. I wanted to help you because you’re cute, and being a Ghost doesn’t fit you to be honest. You can keep the jacket as a gift, my way of making it up to you. Hope you dig it, it was originally Styx’s, if you know who that is.

She did. How did she get a jacket from him? Who was this anomaly?

And… cute? And she knew Isabella was a gang member?

Like Isabella needed another reason to think this girl was something else.

Well, the jacket’s not uncomfortable, Isabella thought. She’d might as well hold on to it.

Okay, now here’s the sucky part. I know this is going to sound bad, but I still need to lay low in another zip code for the time being, and I left all my stuff and money on the bus…

¿Qué?

Alrighty, this is goodbye! I don’t know if you’ll be staying in Wanderland, but I’ll definitely be back. If you’re ever in the area, come chase me down. Let’s play again sometime!

¿Qué? ¿Qué?

Love, D.’ She drew a smiley face.

Isabella immediately jammed her hands into her pockets, dropping the bear. Front pockets, then back pockets. Nothing. Empty. Nada.

That bitch…

She robbed me.

Isabella swore for the sixth and seventh time.

Quintuple fuck.

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011 – Bird Forced to Fly

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Eddie continued to plead with the men, perhaps to keep them stalled. It worked out for me, since I was still trying to prepare myself.

Qué haces? Leave her out of this!”

“She’s been a bitch to my boys, too. Leading us on, Jordan’s hand got broken because of her, from what I’ve heard. So yeah, I don’t think I’ll be leaving her out of anything.”

There was so much I didn’t know, so much I had to deal with, right now. Why were these guys here? What were they trying to get out of Eddie? Why did Maria need to be involved with this?

I held the mask in my hands.

This mask, I had found it at a store selling party goods. To be more specific, Maria found it, and showed it to me, telling me how creepy it looked. It was.

It was blank. A white face, holes for the eyes. A simple, plastic mask meant for a costume party, not to legitimately conceal my identity. The way it seemed to look back at me was unsettling, in an uncanny valley sort of sense. I ended up getting it, mostly because I thought I could use for Halloween this year.

Not today, not now.

I put it on.

My breaths were hot and heavy. Loud, too, since there was no hole for the mouth, just indentations where my lips could fit in to. My breathing filled my ears, and I was worried someone could hear me. I tried to calm myself, slow down, but it didn’t really work.

“Maria, how about you get to the car?” Eddie asked, his voice shaking as much as I was.

“Hell no, I ain’t letting these shitheads fuck with me, or you. Not anymore.”

I silently admonished her. What? Maria, now is not the time to be tough!

Eddie spoke for the both of us. “Maria, please!”

“Or you can come with us,” another one of the men said, “You’re gettin’ a ride either way.”

“Fuck you.”

I took a peek out through the window, looking as Maria stomped her foot and crossed her arms. I knew she was stubborn, but this was a whole new level.

I thought back to what Katy said. Idiot.

I sifted through my sports bag some more. I put on my old blue windbreaker, and put the hood up. Next was a pair of grey joggers, which I put over the shorts I was already wearing.

What was left in the bag were the things that were supposed to be in there. My uniform and towels.

The tension in the air, I could cut through it like butter. Things were about to escalate in a way that benefited no present parties, actually present or otherwise. I adjusted my mask, stroking the flimsy string that wrapped around my head.

The man Eddie referred to as ‘Lawrence’ laughed. But there was nothing funny about this. “Guess that’s how you wanna do it.” He started advancing towards them.

What do I do? I was all dressed up, but I had no plan of action. I was here, but now what?

Without realizing it, I put my hands on the car.

I nearly shrieked in surprise at the sudden car alarm.

A few of from that gang did yell, and Eddie, too. “Maria, run!”

I took that as my cue, as well.

I dashed out of my hiding spot, leaving everything else behind.

Move fast, catch them off guard. The car alarm was still going off, so all eyes were on me as I moved.

Five people, excluding Eddie and Maria. Maria finally got around to doing the sensible thing, and was running away. Three of them were already reaching for their waistbands. If that meant that they had weapons, I couldn’t give them that chance. I went for them first.

Animals. I had try and think of these guys as animals. Like rabbits. They were going to hurt Maria.

Oh, and Eddie, too.

But, I couldn’t just go all out. I didn’t even want to know what ‘all out’ meant for someone like me. I had to also be careful.

The middle ground was something I’d have to discover on my own.

I ran up to the closest guy, a man in an oversized shirt. I placed my hand on his chest, and pushed him back. He stumbled, and ditched his effort in getting a weapon. I continued his momentum with a kick to the groin. He groaned and fell, hard.

The second man already whipped out a knife. I felt my blood quicken even more.

He struck first, thrusting at me with a jab. But I had time to process his movements, and I had the chance to grab at his wrist with my free hand.

With my other hand, I-

“Agh!” I shouted.

I was pulled back, enough to let go of the man I was engaged with. My arms were restricted, and something pressed against my lower back. I couldn’t move.

Fuck, shit, fuck!

The guy in the red polo, Lawrence, stood right in front of me. With a gun pointed to my face.

“Who in the fuck are you?” He had to bellowed over the car alarm, spit flying out of his mouth.

I didn’t bother to answer. I squinted as I stared him down. Though I was curious if he could see that through my mask.

“I thought I asked you something!”

Again, I didn’t answer.

It was me, Lawrence, and the three men who held me in place. One man on each side, seizing an arm, and another behind me, the metallic clicking confirming to me that it was indeed a gun.

Because of course it’s another fucking gun.

Eddie stood not too far from Lawrence. Maria was well away from the scene. At least I had that going for me.

The only other concession made on my side was that I had taken out at least one guy. He was writhing on the ground, hands on his crotch.

My body was being yanked between fight or flight, but the gun pressed against my back kept me glued to the spot. Coursing with adrenaline, my energy instead went to my thoughts, the incessant car alarm simulating what was going on in my head. What could I do, what could I say, that could get me out of this? Right now, all I had was a disappointing nothing. And just because I had good healing, that didn’t mean I was willing to risk a bullet searing through my insides before I did heal. Until a viable, bright idea would miraculously descend upon me, I stood still.

I wanted to kick myself until I broke my leg, healed, and do it again. I should’ve brought my knife.

Lawrence interrupted my mental sprint. “Don’t wanna talk? Don’t make me skin you.”

I was in Lawrence’s – and his gun’s – sights, and me keeping quiet wasn’t easing him up any. He looked to the guy to my right, who had a hold of my right arm, and said something in Spanish. My B-minus wasn’t enough to know exactly what he said, but I heard the word máscara, and I doubted he was talking about taking the time to dolly themselves up right now.

The man beside me grunted in response, and took one hand off my arm. I knew he was about to reach for my mask.

This really was not going my way.

“Wait!” I shouted, my voice carrying over the car alarm.

The guy going for my face stopped, or must have, since my mask wasn’t removed yet, after some time. Lawrence faced me again, and straightened out his arm to me, holding his gun.

“The hell you want?”

I did my best to speaking calmly, hoping my mask would muffle the shakiness in my voice. “I just wanted to say, probably not a good idea to shoot that gun.” The silent, tough act wasn’t doing me any favors, so I tried something different.

“Why’s that?”

I scoffed, even though I was in no position to do so. “Are you an idiot? We’re standing in the middle of a parking garage, filled with cars, and a car alarm that won’t shut up. And you’re about fire a gun? It’s like you’re asking to get caught, literally red-handed.”

“Yeah? I think my finger and our feet are fast enough. Like right-”

“Whoa whoa, wait! Wait!” My knees went weak, but the two men’s grip on me was firm. I didn’t fall. Couldn’t.

Lawrence sounded a step past irritated. “What?”

“You’re holding your gun funny. Arm’s too straight. You’ll hurt yourself with the recoil.”

“You an instructor? You came here to lecture me on gun safety?” He was sneering, but he fixed his arm as he talked.

Don’t let him get back on task of shooting me. Keep talking.

But what could I say? Jokes? Stuff like that didn’t come to me naturally, and that would probably get me killed even faster. No jokes.

Doesn’t even have to make sense. Say something!

I thought back to the conversation earlier, when Lawrence interrupted Maria and Eddie, picking out any details I could recall.

“The boss. He, he sent me. Just in case.”

Lawrence tilted his head. “In case of what?”

“In case you fucked up, which you clearly are right now, since I had to come onto the scene.”

“Nice try. What’s the boss’s name?”

“He’s gonna be pretty mad when he hears about this. You can’t just do a simple thing? An easy task? A straightforward chore?”

“You didn’t answer the question!”

I don’t need to make sense, I just need to waste your time.

“So, yeah. Can you tell your boys to get off me? I don’t need this, the bossman’s gonna be pissed. Eddie, you told them, right? That I’m here to help you out.”

Eddie made a face and mouthed a word. ‘What?

Lawrence laughed. Too hard and too sudden to be genuine. Almost immediately, he stopped and spoke, too quickly for me to get another word in. “You know what? Fuck it, it’s too obvious you lying. I’m done with you now, bitch.”

My whole body tensed, probably popping a vein in the process. “Hold-”

A scream, loud and over the blaring car alarm. Eddie crouched, and lunged into Lawrence’s hip, knocking him over before he had a chance to react.

This was the best chance I was ever going to get.

With all my strength, I swung my right arm forward, throwing off the guy holding me. I underestimated my strength, since he let go and was flung away. I thought he’d crash into Lawrence and Eddie, but they were rolling on the ground, fighting over the gun. He flew through the windshield of a car instead, and another car alarm went off. The lopsided rhythm and the differing pitches only made things more hectic.

I wasted no time on the guy constricting my left arm, doubly so, since I still had a gun behind me to deal with. Moving my hand so I had a hold on his arm, I spun around. If he was the hour hand of a clock, he’d have moved from the nine position to the six position, clockwise. He slammed into the man behind me, knocking his gun away. I effectively moved fast enough to catch them both off guard. They slid a distance away, grunting in pain when they stopped. I hoped that was enough to keep them down. To be safe, I went and kicked the gun, sliding it under a car farther down the parking garage.

Lawrence and Eddie were still going at it, but Lawrence was getting the upper hand. He was on top, wrestling the gun out of Eddie’s hands. One good yank might have been enough to turn the favor to Lawrence, and I knew I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want that.

They weren’t too far, but I broke into a run. I headed for Lawrence, and prepared to kick, like running to kick a soccer ball. I hit him in the ribs. I felt something give way to my foot, then snapping. He howled in pain, and crumpled over to his side. That should be enough for him.

If they were moaning and groaning over their injuries, the two car alarms were too loud for me to hear them. None of them looked like they were in any position to be a threat again, so it seemed like I was in the clear. I fixed the string that held my mask in place, and adjusted my hood.

As I was doing that, Eddie was getting to his feet, taking apart Lawrence’s gun and tossing the pieces away. He was taking deep breaths, like a huge weight was finally taken off his chest, and he wanted to test his breathing.

I could sympathize. That was too close of a call, and my head was pounding from the adrenaline.

I really wanted to let this go, be done with this situation. But I couldn’t walk away, I wasn’t done here, yet.

I looked at Eddie. This was the guy who put Maria in this position. And for some reason, at the risk of her own life, she was willing to stand up for him. This guy. I couldn’t see why.

Noticing me, he started to say something to me, but between my pounding head and the two alarms, it just looked like he was mouthing to me again. If he wanted to talk, I’d have to move us to a better spot. The alarms might attract others, too.

Using too much force than I intended, I grabbed Eddie by the collar. He started to scream, struggle, but one easy lift off of his feet was enough to make him comply. With my hands still on him, I moved us to the side of the parking garage.

We were high up enough that I could see the roof of a building across an alley. It wasn’t that low a drop, but from my vantage point, it still looked terrifying. By myself, I was confident I could make that gap. Carrying another, though…

I propped a foot on the short wall that normally separated cars and a bad fall. I took a hand off of Eddie, just one, and pointed a finger at him.

“Wanna live?” I asked, “Hold tight.”

Eddie went from confusion, to sheer terror, to thrashing to get away from me. All in the span of a few seconds. But I proved to be too strong, and he couldn’t escape. To secure him better, I wrapped an arm around his torso, and twisted the fabric where I had him by the collar. In that time, Eddie probably had an opportunity to get out of my grasp and run away, but the implicit threat that came come standing so close to the edge made him compliant.

I leapt out of the building, with Eddie by my side.

A one-second drop at most, but Eddie wailing did not let up the entire time, blasting my ear with a deafening cry. On top of the wind rushing past, it was definitely loud.

Carrying Eddie came with the disadvantage of not being properly balanced when I landed. I hit the roof funny, Eddie weight forced me down, and I fell on top of him. I rolled off of him as soon as I realized where I was.

He was on his back, coughing, not trying to get on his own two feet. I had no issues on that front, but getting here wasn’t as hard on me as it was on him. To be fair.

I grabbed him yet again, and picked him right back up. I ignored his cries of protest, his yelling in Spanish.

“Ah! Aaaah!” he kept going.

Man, you will not shut up.

“Yo! Heh-low-oh?” I sang, drawing out the word.

“What are you doing?!”

“No, it’s more like what you’ll do for me. You’re going to tell me the backstory for everything that just happened, now.”

“Fuck, no, I mean, what the fuck are you doing?”

I brought him closer, slightly. “I don’t follow.”

“That’s it? You just want information? Even if you weren’t holding me like this, I’m still stuck on a roof with you! You have complete control of the situation! There, there’s no need to threaten me like this!”

Behind my mask, I looked like I just got slapped in the face. I felt dumb.

“Oh,” I muttered.

I let him go. He immediately collapsed onto his knees, heaving for air.

Why did I keep defaulting to some kind of tough guy act? It wasn’t doing me any favors. This thin, plastic mask was making me scary.

I stood over him, watching as he composed himself. He didn’t stand this time, though, he only sat, his head in his hands.

I gave him another minute to settle.

He spoke up, weakly. “I took a chance on you, because you said something about helping me out. But, shit. Did the boss really send you?”

“You should know by now that nothing I said back there was true. I was only trying to buy some time. You actually helped me out.”

Though I hate to say it.

He gave me a look. Bewildered? Like everything that just happened as finally settling in. “I guess, one some level, I thought so. But, who are you? What the hell are you? I’ve seen some crazy shit, but not that, people don’t move like that. What’s your deal?”

I still really don’t know. “Don’t worry about that,” I said.

“And what’s with the mask? You a superhero? An actual superhero with actual superpowers?”

Superhero? Superpowers? That was one way to look at it, maybe. And, while that was how I got this idea, I didn’t feel like a hero, and calling these new changes to my body as superpowers was sugarcoating it somehow. It didn’t sit well with me.

“Uh, I’m no superhero. I just happened to swing by.”

“Why’d you intervene, then?”

“Wait a second, wasn’t I supposed to be the one asking the questions? We’re getting off topic.”

Eddie put his head down, almost defeated.

“Alright, I told you enough. Now it’s my turn. That little conversation you just had with, Lawrence, was it? Give me the details.”

Eddie sighed. “Sorry to ask another question, but why?”

I ignored his inability to follow simple directions, and instead thought about Maria. “Let’s just say I’m tired of innocent people getting caught up in stuff that they don’t need to be caught up in.”

“Huh, in a weird way, you’re kinder than I thought.”

I don’t mean you, asshole.

But all I said was a tough, “We’re off topic. Again.”

He nodded while massaging his head, like he was rubbing a magic eight ball for answers. “Okay, um, what do you want?”

I started simple. “Who’s that Lawrence guy? Why was he coming after you?”

He ran his fingers through his hair. “Lawrence is part of El Carruaje. The right hand man of the boss, or at least he wants to be.”

“And you’re a member, too, aren’t you?”

He looked up, at me. Right in the eyes. “Yeah, but that’s the thing. I’m trying to get out.”

I didn’t expect him to say that.

“But as you saw, ain’t that easy. El Carruaje isn’t one of the bigger gangs in the city, but lately, they’ve been working to remedy that, and start performing operations deeper in the Eye. I wasn’t about to take part in that… expansion. It’s not why I joined.”

“Then why did you join?” I questioned him.

Eddie touched his chin, and looked away. “I was new to the area when I joined. It’s one of those situations where you have to know someone in order to survive. They were my ‘someone.’ It was also easy money, but that’s another story.”

I hated to ask, but I had to know. “And the girl? Is she also part of the gang?”

“My girlfriend? Like, yeah.”

My stomach dropped. Eddie really was Maria’s boyfriend, and she really was a member of a cartel.

“Why did she join? Did she tell you?”

He gave his answer some thought. More than I expected him to. “No, she hadn’t told me. We met through another, um, co-worker.”

Typical. Thanks, Maria. I had to move to another question take my mind off those confirmations for now.

“And you want to leave? But you can’t, because that would be some form of betrayal?”

“Pretty much. And with what the boss has been planning, and with how small we are, it’s an all hands on deck type of thing. I think, I know they know about my doubts, and they’re trying to beat the loyalty back into me.”

“And that just makes you want to leave even more?”

Eddie didn’t say anything, but it wasn’t difficult to gather what his answer would be.

After a little while, he uttered, under his breath, “I don’t know the exact details, but the boss is planning something. Something big. Whatever that means, I just know I can’t have Maria be in that sort of danger, I just can’t.”

Something big. I didn’t like the sound of that.

I looked at the man. Maybe man wasn’t the right word, he only looked to be a few years older than me. Disheveled, tired, but most of all, genuine. He seemed to mean what he said, that he wanted to leave. There was a hint of hope, there.

I asked my last question. “Is this girlfriend of yours, Maria, is she willing to leave with you?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Hmph,” I grunted. I straightened myself, then walked closer to Eddie. He stiffened.

“Do you have a plan? About how you’re going to ditch that gang?”

Eddie shifted where he sat. “Not really, no.”

“Then, I’ll help.”

He snapped his head back up, staring right at me, mouth agape. “What?”

“I said that I’d help you out, didn’t I?” I said. “I don’t have much of a plan either,” I clarified, “But I want to help you two leave that shit behind. If you’re serious about this, that is.”

“I am,” he said, serious, calm.

“Good,” I replied. I hastily asked another question. “Do you have an email? Any way I can contact you without having to meet in person?”

“Yeah, sure.” He told me the proper information, and I committed it to memory.

It certainly didn’t escape me, how much I was interfering with Maria’s life without her knowing, but there had to be some justification, here. Maria’s life was threatened, on multiple occasions, within days of each other. This couldn’t continue. Even if this, too, was dangerous, the alternative would be even more so.

This was for Maria.

But, this guy here? I still couldn’t shake off my anger at him, for attracting this type of risk towards Maria. Hell, I was starting to get mad at Maria, too, for even being a part of this at all. But she wasn’t here right now. Now that I thought about it, I didn’t know where she ran off to.

I turned, my back to him, and walked to the edge of the roof, facing the parking garage. Was it just in my head, or were the car alarms still going off? No, it was definitely both.

“Where are you going?” Eddie questioned me.

“Have to go back. That girl is still up there, and there are still five assholes there, too. Down for the count, sure, but they’re still around. I’ll go check on the girl, make sure she’s alright, and I’ll keep an eye on her until you get back. Then you go and take her somewhere safe, wherever that means to you. I’ll contact you later.”

And my bags are still up there, I thought, I hope nobody came across it.

Eddie didn’t say anything in response.

“Hurry,” I said. “I’m sure you can find your way down from the roof.”

“You’re leaving me here? Just like this?”

There was an irritation within me, poking at me every time he spoke. I couldn’t explain why, and I knew that it was completely irrational, but I felt it, despite myself. A feeling like I wanted to get back at him for something. Like he wronged me, personally.

“You weren’t a fan of dropping down here, right? You can find your own way down.”

“And what if I can’t?”

“Your problem, not mine.”

Eddie grunted, and if my back wasn’t to him, I would’ve imagined him flipping me off.

My body tensed, getting ready. “Just hurry before anyone else comes.”

“Dammit, stop, one last thing!” Eddie hurriedly slurred, stopping me before I could jump. “We should use some kind of code word, so that I know that it’s you when you contact me.”

“Wouldn’t me contacting you be enough?”

“Let’s not take any chances. Give me something. Like, for example, a name. Yeah, what in the world do I even call you?”

A name? I didn’t think that far ahead, and now I was put on the spot. I just thought of the first thing that came to me. I thought of my mask.

“Blank… Face…” I answered, with a lack of certainty, before leaping back up to the fifth floor with a hard push of my legs.

Previous                                                                                               Next

010 – Hate and Separation

Previous                                                                                               Next

El Carruaje?”

“They’re a branch of a Mexican cartel that set up shop in the city a few years back. My dad has dealt with them a few times before, in one way or another.”

“Fantastic. A cartel? What kind of luck is that?”

“I’m oddly conflicted, though. This is going to sound really bad, but I’m actually kind of relieved.”

“Relieved? How?”

“Yeah, they’re a cartel, but they’re relatively miniscule as far as operations go. Tiny fish in an unfortunately large pond. They’re not running anything terribly serious.”

“Are you hearing yourself? Did you already forget about that night? This is terribly serious.”

“And I get that. All I’m saying is that we know how bad it is, now. It’s bad, but not as bad as I initially feared.”

“Bad is still bad.”

“Acute observation, Alexis. It’s the difference between a knife… and a missile. If this was the Cobras, or even AZ-Tec, I’d be sweating a lot more than I already am.”

“I see what you mean, kind of, but is Maria right? Is there really nothing we can do about this?”

“What can we do? There’s a myriad of reasons why someone would join a gang. Anything we try to do, we’re liable to make things worse.”

“So we just do nothing?”

“For now, we can keep a closer eye on Maria. As close an eye as she’ll let us.”

“That’s hardly reassuring.”

“There is no reason to be hitting anywhere close to that particular beehive. It won’t end well for anyone.”

“But we can’t just leave it at that, can we?”

“As of right now, we have to. Does it suck? Totally, but we have our own wellbeing to worry about, too.”

“…”

“Ah, gotta go. Oh, El Carruaje means ‘The Chariot,’ by the way.”

“No shit. I am taking Spanish, thank you very much.”

“No problem! Tomorrow we can… I don’t know what we can do, to be honest. Talk in circles again? I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Bye.”

Katy hung up.

I folded my phone, closing it came with a soft, plastic clap. I set it beside me, and closely studied the details of my ceiling.

I didn’t want to get out of bed.

I thought back to all the times Maria had ignored texts, declined invitations, or bailed on us at the last minute because she had ‘something else to do.’ What was she doing, exactly? Why?

Thinking stuff like that wasn’t doing me any good.

“Alexis!” I heard from the door. My mom. She sounded strained.

Tossing those thoughts aside, I hurried to my feet, and left my room.

My mom was fine, curled up the couch, knees to her chest. She really was the most comfortable in the most uncomfortable positions. A phone in one hand, and a remote in the other. The TV was on, but it was muted.

“What’s up?” I asked, as I entered the living room. She didn’t answer right away, but her attention was still focused on the silent television. I wasn’t offended, she just got easily enraptured with her dramas.

I waved, and that got her attention. She took the phone away from her ear.

“I’ve been calling you,” she said.

“Oh. I was on the phone, too.”

She held the phone towards me.

“Hospital called. They want to know a good time for check-up appointment.”

I swallowed. There already were plenty of things I didn’t want to deal with, and doctors were one of them. A simple visit to a doctor might end with a total lockdown of the whole hospital, doctors and nurses in a frenzy, trying to get more out of me after they find out what I’ve become since my last visit down there. I didn’t want to put myself in a situation in which they’d find out about my body.

And, although I was certain the government didn’t do secret experiments on their own citizens, I wasn’t about to give them a reason to start.

“Um, do I need to go?” I asked.

“Do you not need to?”

I thought up of as many possible excuses as I could. Any would be good enough.

“It’s already been over a week, and I’m fine. So…”

She didn’t give any physical cue to my answer.

When she spoke again, I felt dumb for not realizing that she was talking to the phone sooner. “Alright, won’t be necessary. Yes, yes. Yes, she’s sure. Thank you.”

She hung up. She pressed a button on the remote, and sound came back to the TV. She hugged her legs closer to her.

“What in the world are you doing?” I asked her.

“I am watching TV,” she said, serious.

I turned to look at exactly what she was watching, trying to make out the standard definition picture the television was providing, listening to the fuzzy sound.

I somewhat recognized it. A major summer blockbuster. I saw the trailers a while ago, but I never went out to see it for myself. It was already on TV?

“Is it any good?” I asked her.

“It’s corny, but it’s on,” my mom replied.

“You can change the channel.”

“No. You can if you want.”

I chuckled. “Alright, I’m going back to my room.” I turned.

Before I could leave, she stopped me with a question. “Are you sure you don’t need to go?”

“I’m sure,” I said, facing her. It would be trouble if other people found out about me. For the moment, I’d be better off keeping this to myself.

“Are you hungry?” my mom asked, all of a sudden.

“No,” I lied, “I ate out again, with Katy. After practice.”

My mom shifted her arm, and scratched her leg. “You can’t keep doing that. I only make so much.”

I opened my mouth, but I didn’t answer. I couldn’t tell her that I hadn’t been eating at all. I definitely couldn’t tell her why.

I simply returned to my room.

I kept the light off, throwing myself onto my bed. Eyes back to the ceiling, I let my mind run over everything that happened today.

Like I hadn’t done that enough, already.

There had to be something I could do to help Maria. To help her leave that type of danger behind. How defeated and helpless she looked back then, that image didn’t mesh at all with how I normally thought of her. Partial anger, some frustration, wholly fear. Maria should never make that face again.

Tossing and turning in my bed, I finally rested on my stomach, with my cheek in the pillow.

I stared at the closet, across the room. I briefly thought of the movie my mom was watching.

Would that even work in real life?

Perhaps, perhaps not, but I thought it.

Katy said there was nothing we could do, and Maria said the same thing, but that was due to their own limitations of their human capabilities. Me? Those limitations were hardly relevant.

I caught Maria at the parking lot.

“Maria, wait up!”

She stopped, and looked back at me. She grimaced.

“What are you doing here?”

I briskly walked to her, my bags bouncing around me.

“Hi,” I said, getting closer.

“Didn’t answer me,” was her response.

“I know you’re doing the whole ‘ignoring me and Katy’ thing, but hey, it’s just me, see?”

She made a face, like I told her a lame pun, instead.

“Funny,” she said, “What is it?”

I would’ve made some sort of placating gesture, but with only one free hand, I wouldn’t resort to any half-measures. “Can’t remember the last time it was just us. Want to go somewhere?”

“You’re too obvious.”

“See? Now, we’ve already removed any and all pretense. I think I know a place you’d like to go.”

“Where?”

“Flash,” I suggested, referring to the boutique Maria mentioned wanting to go to, some time ago.

“You crazy? That’s on the other side of the city, and I don’t have my car.”

I thought about what that meant, her not having her car. She was going to be picked up again today, too.

“Bus?” I suggested.

She tapped my forehead, her nail poking my skin. “Takes even longer. Think.”

“Alright, maybe next time.”

Maria took her finger off of me, and I read her body language before she took any conscious action.

“What about the mall? It’s only fifteen minutes by bus.”

She blew into my face, and she messed up my bangs as it fell into my eyes. I blinked my hair out of the way.

Her posture slumped. “Why are you doing this?”

I cleared my throat, preparing to deliver a real answer. “I want drop the whole act, already. You doing this whole ‘keeping distance’ thing isn’t going to make anything better. Let’s just be friends.”

She didn’t anything for a little bit. I let her take her time.

“Does Katy know you’re here?” she asked.

“Nope.”

Another, longer pause.

“Don’t you have practice?” she asked.

I smiled. “I’d skip it for you, babe.”

She slouched again, giving up. “Just for a little bit.”

And with that, I actually managed to get through to Maria. We walked to the nearest bus stop, and caught it just in time.

The bus rumbled as it made its way towards the edge of downtown. Maria sat down beside me, engrossed in her phone. I was envious, but I was starting to get used to not having a smartphone pass the time. Because I had the window seat, I watched as cars and buildings passed us by. I counted the different graffiti that littered walls of buildings and windows, noted the shoes that hung from powerlines. One particular symbol, tagged on a sidewalk, caught my attention before disappearing out of sight as the bus took a turn.

An incomplete circle, a chunk missing so to form a letter ‘C.’ Lines extended inward towards the center, meeting at a not incomplete circle. Like a broken wheel of a chariot.

El Carruaje.

We made it to the mall. Highmount Mall, a decent-sized shopping center. There were bigger, cooler malls in Stephenville, but we didn’t have that type of time. Tomorrow was still a school day.

We walked in, and even though it was the middle of the week, a sizeable crowd moved through the different stores and major chains. As a pair, we strolled around.

“Want me to hold your bag?” Maria offered, reaching for my sports bag. “There’s a lot of people around.”

“No, no no. It’s good.” I switched hands, so she couldn’t grab it.

“Okay,” was all she said about that, and we kept going.

Good.

As far as checking out clothes, we started at an urban apparel shop. Pop punk music played in the background as we searched through what they had to offer.

I picked up a black t-shirt, emblazed on the chest was an exploding cat’s head, shooting lasers out of its eyes. “Cool, huh?”

She smirked at the imagery. Anyone would, considering how silly the shirt was. “Not my thing, but you could rock it.”

Gracias, but this isn’t ‘morning mist’ enough for me.”

I set it down, and we moved out, going to another store.

The second we entered, I knew we wouldn’t be staying for long. The way two of the workers looked at us, it bugged me. A lip, curled in distaste, before twisting to into fake smile. An instant switch, but I noticed.

We looked around, parsing the different items they had, comparing sizes, color, and prices. A worker approached us as I tossed some undergarments back into a pink basket.

“Can I help you two?” she asked, high-pitched.

Maria answered for us. “Just looking,” she said, facing her and being polite.

“Alrighty, you can let me know if you need anything. And ma’am, the smaller sizes are down the aisle, that way.”

She gestured, and I caught her glancing at Maria’s chest, and mine.

“Thanks,” Maria responded with a more neutral tone, but still appreciative of that information, nonetheless.

“Actually, I’m curious about something,” I said, getting the saleswoman’s attention.

“Yes?” she said, and faced my way. Everything about her seemed artificial, from her wide eyes to her smile and voice. I felt like I was being talked down to.

“Your line of colored contacts, do you know if those would be on sale anytime soon?”

“Oh, those are one of our many specialty items, those don’t go on sale. And, I don’t mean to be rude, but I wouldn’t recommend them. For someone with your particular eye shape, you might have some trouble getting them in.”

Maria and I traded looks. She opened her mouth wide, and closed it.

Woooow.

I looked back to the saleswoman, and thanked her. “I appreciate the heads-up, then,” I intoned, an octave higher.

She smiled one last time, and walked away. Maybe it was what they wanted, but that was a battle I had no intention of fighting. We promptly left, it wasn’t like either of us needed bras, anyways.

Maria led the way this time, taking us to the food court on the second floor. She went to get a smoothie for herself, and I found a place for us to sit. It didn’t take too long for Maria to come back.

“Is it more sad that it happened, or that I ain’t surprised?” she asked as she sat across from me.

“I’m already trying to forget about it.”

“What’s their fuckin’ beef, you know? Shit, I shoulda kicked that bitch’s ass.”

“White people,” I commented, in jest, “Am I right?”

“And c’mon, you work at the fuckin’ Highmount, like you couldn’t suck good enough make it at the Realm.”

“That might give ‘Flash’ a whole new meaning,” I said.

We both snickered.

“Speaking of white people,” Maria added, “Katy annoyed me too, yesterday.”

“I saw that.”

“And it’s not even fair. Why isn’t she getting all up in your business? You were straight up gone when… when I got back to the house. Katy was freaking over you, now she’s only freaking out over me.”

“I was passed out in the upstairs bathroom,” I said, “She didn’t find me until later.” I let that half-truth spill out from my mouth.

“It’s so typical. I hate that attitude of hers. Like she knows everything.” Maria gripped her smoothie harder, and I was afraid she might crush it in her hand, her drink spilling everywhere.

“Don’t beat her down, not when she can’t defend herself. She wants to look out for you. She wants you to give her the opportunity to. We both do.”

Maria put the smoothie down, which gave me some relief, and she traced her finger around the lid, instead. “Never mind. I don’t wanna think about it.”

The tone of her last word ushered in a sense of finality, and neither of us could find anything else to say.

But I tried.

“S-see? This is fun,” I joked.

She smirked again. “It sure is.” She brought the smoothie to her lips, taking a sip. She then passed it to me. “Want? It’s strawberry banana.”

“No, I’m good.”

“Hmph, thought you’d say that. Maybe it’s because I haven’t really seen you in a few days, but you’ve been looking-”

She didn’t get to finish that sentence.

“Maria!”

A boy came to our table. Tall, lanky. Hispanic. His hair was slicked back, the sides shaved. I didn’t recognize him by face, but the jacket he wore gave me all that I needed to know.

“Eddie!” Maria gasped, completely shocked. She stood up, the chair skidding behind her.

“You weren’t answering your phone, and all you said was you were going to be at the mall. How was I supposed to know where?”

Maria looked between me and the boy, completely at a loss. Another new side to Maria I hadn’t seen before. It was obvious that this was the last thing she wanted to have happened.

“Alright,” the boy – Eddie – said, “We need to go. I parked at the parking garage nearby. Did you get anything?”

She held the smoothie. “Just this.” Her voice was soft, confused.

“Alright. Let’s go,” he took her wrist.

“Whoa,” I said, standing up, my chair skidding back. “If she doesn’t want to go, then she doesn’t have to.”

Eddie gave me his attention, finally noticing I was here. “Hey, sorry about this, but we’re leaving.”

I thought back to yesterday, when Maria fled into this guy’s car, and he drove off.

I repeated myself. “If she doesn’t want to go, then…”

Maria shook her head. “It’s cool, Alexis. I should get going.”

“But…”

“Think you take the bus back home?”

I was confused. “Are you okay with this?”

She bobbed her head, signaling to me that she somehow was.

“If that’s the case, then cool.” I jabbed a finger in her direction. “You better be at lunch tomorrow. Katy’s been missing you.”

She gave me a peace sign. “I will.”

Eddie tugged, and she willingly came along. They walked off, leaving the food court and taking an escalator down. Standing at the table, I watched them go.

Everything about that was sketchy.

I grabbed my backpack and sports bag, and followed them.

I definitely felt like a creeper, hiding in the crowd and maintaining a distance from them as they left the mall. But my conscience couldn’t let me leave this alone. Not with things ending the way they did.

I watched them head into the parking garage, adjacent from the main parking lot. They got into a nearby elevator. Shoot, I had no way of knowing where Eddie parked. I changed course, going into the parking garage, but towards the stairs beside the elevators.

I ascended the stairs, by two or three steps, trying to get to the next floor before their elevator would, and waiting by the doors to see if I got the right floor. I was confident I could flee and hide before the door beeped and opened.

The elevator had beaten me to the fifth floor, it must have caught up while I waited up to ten seconds on each level. They were already walking down the garage, towards Eddie’s car. That, too, I was already familiar with.

Everything looked okay.

Alright, this is good enough, I thought. Maria was with Eddie, now, and I could only assume that he was going to take her home. I had no way of following them, anymore. Maria’s safety was now in Eddie’s hands. That was it.

Was this all I could do? Try to hang out with Maria as much as possible, to help mend the rift between us? And watch from afar, keeping Maria safe from a distance? A temporary solution, until Maria squared up and broke up with the guy. I hoped for that. Let her cut ties with him and that gang all on her own. She wouldn’t need my help, then.

I took a step back to the stairs, ready to leave.

But suddenly, I saw them.

Five men got out of a car, and started tailing the couple.

God please, no.

They hadn’t noticed me, since I immediately crouched low upon seeing them. I stayed far back, hiding behind the closest car. I couldn’t risk it and move any closer.

Conveniently, the car window wasn’t tinted, allowing me to keep an eye on the scene while still keeping myself hidden.

“Imma have to ask you to stop, homes,” one of the guys said. He was wearing a red polo shirt, buttoned up all the way.

Maria and Eddie wheeled around, Maria staying firm by Eddie’s side.

Eddie spoke, his voice now higher pitched. “Lawrence, now’s not the right time or place.”

“But I finally got a hold of you. The boss hasn’t appreciated you being so hard to find, you know.”

“The boss sent you? I don’t believe that.”

“You don’t have to. Boss wants you, and I’m here, now.”

“Please, you can’t do this, not now. Porfis.”

“I got a good idea, then, how ‘bout you come with me, and I’ll have my boys keep an eye on your girl.”

Word of agreement were exchanged between the other men. They sounded enthusiastic.

No.

I crouched lower, away from the window. Slowly, as not to make any noise, I set my bags down in front of me.

It was supposed to be a fluke, a dumb idea I concocted out of the blue. The last of my last resorts. Not only did I not expect to be actually doing this, but to actually be doing it so soon.

I opened the bag, and the mask was already staring back at me.

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