Interlude – Lawrence

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Lawrence blinked blood, sweat, and a single tear from his eye.

Everything hurt. Everything.

His head, his face, his neck, his chest, his stomach, his side, his legs, his feet. Everything.

He let himself collapse onto the tile. It wasn’t a very soft landing. He would have howled in pain if he could draw in the proper air into his lungs.

Not so much, right now.

Of everything that was hurting, his neck had the worst of it. He could still feel Granon’s grip, his heavy and huge and rough fingers wrapping around him, choking him. The very real possibility that he was going to die.

He had retreated, the pain fading, turning it into a white noise that buzzed throughout his entire head and body. A certain, very specific kind of numbness.

The kind of numbness that would have made him complicit in his own death if he submitted to it, did nothing.

Fuck that shit.

He’d do what he had to. And in that, the buzzing, he found the last remaining slivers of strength, and used it.

Fight or flight, and Lawrence had chosen the former.

But now, he didn’t have the strength to pick either option, if he had to do it again. He was spent.

The buzzing continued. His head pounding, his vision fuzzy. If he were to somehow slip away, now, after giving everything he had to survive

He would have laughed. Somehow. He’d find a way.

Now, he just had to make it to the next minute. And the next one. And the one after that.

His part was done.

It was all up to her-

A shot rang out. Lawrence flinched, and all the pain in his body ratcheted up again. Flaring, searing. Screaming.

It would have been so easy to just fall back and sleep. To give in, and just let the natural flow of things take him and drag him away into nothingness. Into the gloom.

Hell fucking no.

Rolling off the momentum of the flinch, the pain, Lawrence used to that to keep moving, dragging himself over the Granon. Granon’s body.

The man was huge, like a wall of muscle, vaguely shaped as a human body, the outline wide. The strength of a bull, and just as stubborn. A pain in the ass, really. Of all the problems Lawrence had in the twenty-something years of being on this planet, Xander L. Granon was absolutely the biggest one. Figuratively and literally.

And Lawrence had just taken care of that problem.

Granon was still, unmoving. His head was tilted to one side, his arms and legs spread out around him. Eyes half-open, the tip of his tongue sticking out. If he wasn’t dead, Lawrence would have died from shock, himself. It would be like if Goliath had gotten up after David struck him with a rock and a sling. All that effort would have been made meaningless.

He didn’t move, though, to Lawrence’s relief. After all the boasting and gloating, after all the condescending, Granon was still human. And humans were so very fragile.

Shots continued to fire, and Lawrence continued to move over to Granon’s body. He needed cover, and, even on his back, Granon was big enough that Lawrence could use him as a shield.

All the chaos and bloodshed of a war zone, condensed into a single, small hallway. Confusion, disarray, violence. Lawrence’s part was over, but he still wasn’t safe. The battle continued.

Lawrence got closer to the body, his arms and sleeves getting soaked in the blood and other junk. He could sense the stench of it hit his nose, making his stomach jump in revulsion. It made him want to throw up again.

He couldn’t believe he had to stoop so low. That he had to play dirty in order to win. But, he did what he had to, and Lawrence wasn’t ashamed that he had to pull that card. It was…

The fact that the situation even called for a play so dirty, so low.

He would have never predicted his life ever getting to this point.

As if to punctuate his thoughts, another shot was fired.

Lawrence got into position, taking cover behind Granon. His body ached with every heavy beat of his heart.

The shots continued, but the gap between each one began to widen. More sporadic, random. What filled the spaces in between were screams.

No, not screams. Shouts.

Pleading, begging.

On both sides of Lawrence and Granon, people ran by, passing them. Granon’s. They didn’t seem to care that they were leaving their boss behind, and the man that might have very well killed him, in the most unfortunate and humiliating manner.

More of them ran past Lawrence, screaming.

Something else had taken over. Their focus wasn’t on regaining the upper hand, anymore, it was something more primal. Like what he had experienced, just now.

Fight or flight. And they chose to flee.

Then Lawrence saw what they were trying to flee from.

It came by in a flash. Not to his left, or his right, but above. Jumping over Lawrence and Granon’s body.

It landed, head down, on all fours. Shoulder blades stuck out of its back, as if it would break through the skin itself. The visual reminded him of a tiger, or some other creature.

It pounced before Lawrence got a longer, better look at the thing. Diving, then crashing into the group of Granon’s men, several of them falling down with her.

Her. The realization dawned on him.

The crash left only a few standing, those on the outside of the group managing an escape by stepping over their comrades and staying close to the walls. They broke into a run as soon as they had the clearance to, then turning the corner to run down another hall. They were gone, leaving their boss and their friends behind.

The less fortunate were at the mercy of her. And she didn’t seem to be in the mood.

From the pile of fallen, bodies started to fly. Thrown with abandon, only stopping when they slammed into the wall, or the corner where the wall met the ceiling. Bodies landed funny as they hit the floor, assuming awkward positions, not moving afterwards. Broken bones, if they were lucky. Anything worse, and they might not ever get up again.

Others tried. The ones who hadn’t gotten thrown crawled and grabbed for purchase, anything that could get them back up to their feet. They were fighting each other as much as they were fighting her.

It was a mess, in every sense of the word. From the blood and junk, to the weeping, to the gnashing of teeth. It was hell.

A body was thrown. It a direct crash into the ceiling, knocking out a light. A shadow was cast on the panic and disorder.

Back on all fours. She was above them. One hand on someone’s head, keeping them down. Her feet were at different angles, pressing into two different bodies in the pile. Her other hand…

Her other hand kept going up and down, back and forth from her chin to something in the pile. It was hard to tell. Her back was to Lawrence.

The trail that would follow as she raised her hand up made Lawrence want to hurl again.

This is who she really is.

Lawrence had seen it when he arrived. He still couldn’t believe it.

All the damage, the destruction.

He’d never seen so much blood before.

It divided the hallways, from her side to his. The victims were on her side, not moving, Granon included. Dead or alive, he wasn’t sure at the time.

And there she was.

She had been out of it, in a daze, staring at him as if she had no idea what the hell she did. Maybe she didn’t.

That still didn’t excuse how horrific it all looked.

The streaks of red had length to them, stretching and splashing out to every portion of the hall. Walls, floor, ceiling. There was a general path to the color, too, a sort of loose line that extended out and down the hallway, until it trailed off at the end. A spiral.

There was still more to it.

The cuts and scrapes that clawed into the different surfaces of the hall, scratches that had carved lines, breaking the tile and the brick and some of the light fixtures. There wasn’t anything in her hands when he found her. Lawrence couldn’t even begin to guess where the marks came from.

Had she even noticed? The daze she was in, the lack of response and her inability to speak properly when he questioned her made him think she was in shock over something. Something had happened, and she might be as lost as he was.

Do I even want to know?

A graphic scene, with graphic details. They wouldn’t ever leave Lawrence’s mind.

Neither would this.

The damage had continued, the destruction still being wrought.

Some got a second chance of luck, one finding themselves able to break free and run around the corner, while others ran back the way they came, passing Lawrence one more time. ‘Run’ and ‘ran’ were inaccurate words, however, as none of them could manage a full sprint. Every one of them were comprised or hurt in some way.

One that chose to book it for the corner turned, looking back at her, still over his comrades. He lifted his arm. He had a gun.

He fired the second another person ran past him, bumping into him in the process.

She was thrown back, sent spinning off the people she had pinned below.

That was the reason why the shots started being less frequent. It was dangerous and idiotic to fire any guns in such a narrow space, with a lot of people, in close range. She had gotten in close, when what they needed was distance.

One of them got that distance, and was idiotic enough to give it another try.

Lucky you, Lawrence thought.

The screams turned into shouts, more organized in their message, though it was still simple. Run.

Those who could get up, did, and those who could not were either never moving again, or they stayed there, playing dead, praying she would not return to investigate.

She returned.

Everyone who could scatter, scattered.

She was standing, now, though she leaned to the side, massaging a shoulder. She gave her hand a hard shake, like her arm had gone asleep, and then stretched both arms. She was fine.

A bullet had merely given her pause.

She turned, facing Lawrence.

His own blood ran cold.

She was looking right at him.

From the nose down, her entire face was red. Not in being flustered, but of blood. He saw that she’d gotten kicked in the teeth, when Granon inexplicably stood back up, but her teeth were red, too. That was recent, that just happened right now.

Lawrence didn’t know what to expect, and what he got still horrified him. He would have never expected that.

Clothes torn, hair wild. Her glasses were crooked, bent at an angle. Her eyes, not a human’s eyes. Animalistic, primal.

But, then why is she crying?

Her expression was the opposite of blank. Even with his vision not being what it should be, he could still see how her face was screwed up, scrunched, forehead and space between the eyebrows creasing. Clear lines ran down her cheeks, washing some of the red liquid. The way she was shaking, hiccuping.

She was crying.

Like she’s coming down from her high.

Lawrence had seen that before, those symptoms, but he wasn’t sure if the same principle applied, here. This was too alien, too foreign for probably anyone to understand.

She lumbered forward, a single step, and Lawrence started to feel a panic grip him.

Fight or flight. He had to choose again.

I don’t have have the energy to.

She continued to stumble towards him, shaking her head, hitting her head with the palm of her hand.

Delirious, insane.

This isn’t real.

Both of her hands were brought up to her face, now, covering them. Still trembling. In her distraction, all of Granon’s men who were capable had made their escape. It was just Lawrence, now.

He tried to move, but found himself too exhausted, too heavy. He could barely move his legs, or lift his arms. His throat was still on fire, no sound was coming out.

Couldn’t move, couldn’t scream for help. Lawrence was helpless.

Snapping her head back, she yelled. The noise was rough, raw, frayed at the end. An inhuman sound.

Twisting, writhing, it was like something was right under her skin, trying to dig its way out. And she was suffering for it.

She swung an arm, hitting the wall. She left a dent, chunks of brick flying out.

Her hands went back to her face, her raw howl filling Lawrence’s ears.

Someone, please, help me. Help her.

Then, she turned, back in Lawrence’s direction. He was still frozen.

She moved to him again, but she didn’t falter. She headed straight to Lawrence. Faster.

No.

No no no fuck no no fuck fuck no no shit fuck

She dropped to her hands, getting into a position. Pushing with her feet, she jumped over to Lawrence.

She threw Lawrence against the wall, a sharp edge jabbing into his back.

He opened his mouth make a sound, but that only gave her more of an opening.

Her lips pressed against his, and he felt her tongue. He didn’t have much a choice expect to push back with his own.

They stayed in the moment for a while, until Lawrence was able to convince himself that he enjoyed it.

She was pretty, she smelled nice, and she was making all the right moves. Nibbling at his lip, making small noises, running her fingers through his hair, pulling at it ever so slightly. It was good. Good.

It was a good distraction.

“El!”

Torn away, too fast, sudden. Her tooth clipped the underside of his lip.

Ah!”

Lawrence jolted, letting out a harsh grasp. Then again, as his back was jabbed again.

“Fuck!”

Charlie was the culprit, the one who had spoiled the moment. Very firm, she moved the girl away from him, and pushed her back into the crowd of people. The girl didn’t seem all that bothered by the interruption, though, as she simply moved on, going elsewhere, soon disappearing into the mass of dancing and partying.

Lawrence shot a quick glare at Charlie, who only rolled her eyes.

“I was in the middle of something,” Lawrence told her.

Charlie shot back with a look of her own.

Long but wild hair, sharp eyebrows, and a dash of freckles across her face, Charlie had a unique look that made her expression more defined. She knew how to make Lawrence feel like shit, as if he actually did something wrong.

But, Lawrence had gotten that look enough times that the effect had diminished.

He rubbed the corner of his mouth, licking his lips.

“Man, you’re killing my vibe,” he said, shrugging it off.

“We’re not here to party, El, we have a job to do. I thought you were going to take this seriously.”

“I am taking this seriously. I’m fucking nervous as shit, Charlie, I need a distraction.”

“What are you so nervous for?”

Lawrence scratched his arm, then pushed himself off the wall. He felt what was poking him earlier. The side of a drawer.

That’s what that was.

“This is our first drop off,” Lawrence said, “And our first real meeting with the big guys. So of course I need something to take my mind off that. And you ruined it by kicking her out. I kind of liked her, you know.”

Charlie didn’t look impressed in the slightest.

“What’s her name?”

Lawrence grinned, sly. It only prompted a harder eye-roll from Charlie.

“You are an ass,” she said.

“Whatever, I’m back in the now, no thanks to you. Let’s just count up the funds, did we reach the quota?”

“I’m one-thousand percent sure we did, but I want to get the others first, so we can pile everything up into a final count. I’ll go grab them?”

Lawrence nodded. “Por favor.”

Charlie nodded back, and left Lawrence, and the kitchen, to go grab the others.

Lawrence put himself back against the kitchen counter, being careful, so the drawer wouldn’t jab him again. He crossed his arms and waited.

Everything was going according to plan. It should. The plan was rather simple.

They were at a house party, in the suburbs. It wasn’t their house, but they brought the party.

Drugs. Not the hardcore stuff, but moderation was always a good policy for anything. Weed, molly, xannies, anything these kids needed to make a good time better. They were to sell the whole stash, and make a profit when they return to their bosses. Maybe recruit a few who might be interested, in the process. Some more muscle.

A lot of work, being a part of a gang. But it was easy work, and it was even fun work.

If I’m going to go to these parties and make out with girls, I might as well get paid while doing it.

An easy gig. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

For now.

The lights were dim, the music boomed, and more people filled into the space to dance closer together. They were in the kitchen, of all places. Couldn’t they get hyped up somewhere else?

But it was nothing to Lawrence. He liked how crazy it could get, at one of these parties. Anything could happen, and it never got boring, if done right. Lawrence knew how to do it right, or at least pick the right parties to go to.

From where he was in the kitchen, Lawrence could see into the living room. A television was playing an old Kung Fu flick. It was a classic, one of Lawrence’s favorites.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Good taste.

Stoners were on the couch across the screen, watching, enraptured with the fights. Lawrence was right there with them.

The moment he saw what was on the screen, he knew this would a good party, for both fun and for funds. Turned out he was right.

Lawrence watched the movie, passing the time while keeping close to the stash. A duffle bag on the counter behind him. One of the straps was wrapped around his arm.

“Yo!”

Lawrence turned, then realized he had to move his line of sight down.

A girl. A kid.

Much younger than anyone else here, but she wasn’t out of place with her styling. A short bob, eyeliner and lipstick. A loose cream cardigan sweater and denim shorts, with black tights covering her legs. She had a choker around her neck.

It was odd, seeing someone seemingly on the younger side here, dressed like that. It was more odd that she had to be standing so close.

Close. Uncomfortably close, even with all the people hanging out and dancing. There was enough room that she could stand a foot away, if she wanted to. She apparently didn’t want to.

Pressing up, close, looking up, smiling. A full set of teeth.

“Mind if I light it up?”

The odd girl asked him an odd question.

Lawrence tilted his head, unsure if she meant what he thought she meant.

“Like, you looking to score?”

The odd girl gave a shrug, non-committal.

“Sure.”

Lawrence squinted at her. Something wasn’t right, here.

“Do you live here?” he asked.

“No. Why?”

“I mean, I’m just trying to think of any reason why you might be here. Are you… a cop?”

She laughed. Sincere, but loud, for her size. She touched his arm.

“I’m not cop, silly! I can’t go to parties to have fun? Isn’t that what parties are for?”

“I suppose.”

“What’s your name?”

Another odd question.

“Um, my friends call me El.”

I’m not about to give anyone here my real name.

The odd girl dropped her jaw, an exaggerated gesture. She hit him in the arm.

“El? That’s kind of like my name!”

I don’t know what that means.

“Are you looking to score or nah?” Lawrence questioned. “I’m about close my shift, if you know what I mean, and I can’t accept any more payment after I’m done. It fudges up the numbers when people do the audit, later.”

“Wow, sounds like a lot of work.”

“It’s not my job, but I don’t want to make it harder for the next guy. It makes it harder for me, later, and then I can’t reap the other benefits as much.”

“What other benefits?”

Like making out with hot girls.

“Being able to get paid while chilling with friends,” Lawrence answered. “But, you know what, I’m closing up shop, now. I’m not about to do business with a kid, sorry. Not like this.”

The odd girl pouted. She really did come off as disappointed.

“That so? Ah, too bad. I am looking to score, by the way.”

“Sorry, maybe you can try your luck with my other buddies, but not me.”

She shook her head.

“No. I think I like you, so I’ll give this another shot later.”

Later?

Gentle, she put her hand on his arm, brushing it up. Lawrence flinched, backing up even though he couldn’t, allowing himself to get jabbed again.

The odd girl brought her hands back, giggling. She retreated into the crowd.

“You’re funny. Bye, El.”

She was gone before he could make any sense of it.

Fuckin’ weird.

He did his best to forget about it, hoping no one else saw that interaction. He spent the rest of his time waiting, watching the movie over in the living room.

A sharp whistle hit his ears. That pitch.

Lawrence noticed Charlie motioning for him. She had gotten the others. It was time to count up the funds. He gave her a gesture in acknowledgement.

Time to get ready.

They were coming, and he’d meet them soon.

He braced himself for the meeting.

No strength, no will to fight. Lawrence closed his eyes and prayed that his end would be a swift one.

He wasn’t particularly religious, but he prayed.

And prayed.

And prayed some more.

The end wasn’t coming.

Slow, unsure, Lawrence opened his eyes again.

She wasn’t here.

Lawrence darted his eyes around, surveying the scene.

He didn’t see her. She wasn’t here.

Where?

A noise, coming from behind, where he couldn’t see. A bang. Several more.

That wild, frenzied scream again, fried yet raw at the end.

Then, a sharp decrease in intensity and volume. The scream began trail, losing steam, until all he could manage to pick up was a low moan, and that trailed off as well.

Until he couldn’t hear anything. It was silent. Lawrence almost considered that he’d gone deaf.

Almost. Heavy boots hitting the tile, hitting liquid, dashed those concerns.

But now he had more.

The steps went around him. With only his eyes, he followed the man as he strolled around, stopping in front of Lawrence, looking down at him.

Lawrence managed to find the breath to produce a sound in response to the presence above him. A word. A name.

“Styx.”

Styx smirked. It unsettled.

“Pale as a ghost,” Styx said, before letting out a deep, warped chuckle.

Much to Lawrence’s confusion, the man bent down, and extended a hand. In his other a hand was a handgun, a distinct lengthy attachment at the end of it. Lawrence was too tired to piece together what it was, exactly, and what that meant for the situation as it stood.

Couldn’t stay here forever, though. His hand was forced, and he had to muster up the strength to lift his arm.

They shook hands.

Lawrence broke away from the man, wanting to wipe his palm on his jeans. He hated that he was sweaty. Nervous, knees weak. Arms heavy.

It took all of his effort to come off as calm and ready. It was all surface level, though. Just appearances.

The man, Roland, scanned the rest of them with a very careful eye.

They were all present and accounted for, standing outside on the expansive lawn of the suburban home. The party had spilled outside of the house, so a group of people situated in a circle was nothing out of the ordinary, here. There were other, smaller circles around as well, the occasional puffs of smoke billowing out like chimneys.

“I see our customers are making quick use of our products,” Roland said.

“They are,” Lawrence said, trying to hide the dry, scratchy tone in his voice. Short sentences helped. “It’s been easy.”

“Good,” Roland said, scratching his chin. Cool.

He was the best dressed of anyone here, of ravers and gang members alike. A nice dress shirt, the brand was probably some Italian name he couldn’t pronounce. Thin wire glasses that gave him a more sophisticated touch. Beige, slim khakis. He looked more like he was ready to present at a conference than meet with some low-level thugs.

A handsome, but still chiseled look. Rugged and tough. He could fit right at home on the front cover of a magazine. Lawrence could admit that much.

It contrasted against Lawrence’s own outfit. A basketball jersey over a baggy white shirt and baggy jeans. Lawrence made a mental note in his head. To use him for inspiration, one day.

As good as he looked, he also wasn’t a guy to mess with. Lawrence wouldn’t dare try.

“Has it been easy for everyone else?” Roland asked.

Everyone else. It was all the new guys, and the even newer ones.

Standing in a circle. It was Lawrence, Charlie, Jonathan, and the most recent members Melissa and Eduardo.

Melissa had a strong resemblance to the girl Lawrence had just been blowing off some steam with. She wasn’t a ten, not even an nine, but she could be a strong eight on a good day, and today was a good day. Straight brown hair, hazel eyes, and a tight shirt that showed her rather large chest. Lawrence actually preferred them on the smaller side, and he was more of a waist and butt guy, but he could see himself make an exception when it came to her.

But, she shot him down rather quickly, and he accepted the rejection with grace. She simply wasn’t into guys like that.

Eduardo, however, was on the opposite end of the spectrum. Something about him bugged Lawrence. He was tall, lanky, awkward in his gait. Hair combed back, the sides shaved. With the denim jacket he wore, and the way he kept checking the house behind him, he couldn’t be across as any more of a punk if he tried.

That, and his face looked a little punchable.

He wasn’t used to being in a gang, yet.

He wasn’t used to being in this country yet.

Charlie was the one to answer his question.

“It’s been a profitable night, sir, these kids really think they need this stuff to have a good time.”

“To be fair,” Jonathan said, “They do.”

“It helps,” Lawrence offered. “Helps us, helps them as well.”

Roland nodded, taking it all in.

“Did we recruit anyone?” he asked.

Everyone shook their heads. Though, Eduardo casted another glance at the house.

Roland was willing to accept that.

“Not a problem, and Charlie? No need for the sir, we’re still small, so we’re trying to build a close, familiar dynamic between us and you. Though, that form of respect will still need to apply to my boss, should you ever address her directly. La Señora.”

“Oh, okay, um, Roland. Thanks.”

Roland grinned.

La Señora. Benny. Lawrence hadn’t gotten a chance to meet her, but it was a goal to reach, one day. He’d wanted to be in the upper echelon, one of the big guys. Going to these parties, making bank, it was good, enjoyable work. Fun and games. But it was just that. Fun, and games. This kind of life wouldn’t sustain him forever. Lawrence knew that he had to look and plan ahead, and that meant he couldn’t be on the lower rung forever.

Money. It was all about the green.

He wanted to find a way to get noticed by Roland, by Benny. To impress them.

One day.

He had to step it up.

“We just finished counting the revenue, matching it with the product sold. We didn’t sell everything, but it all adds up properly, and we’re in the green, too. It’s all good.”

“That’s what I like to hear… Lawrence, was it?”

“Right, sir, I mean, just Roland, right.”

Lawrence shook his head, feeling like an idiot.

The group, minus Lawrence and Roland, erupted in laughter.

Lawrence rolled his eyes, trying to keep a relaxed expression. He could roll with the punches, he was good at that.

The laughter didn’t last long, and it wasn’t even really to bully or humiliate him. It was a playful sort of teasing.

“Another for ‘L’ for El,” Eduardo commented.

Lawrence couldn’t help but be bothered by that.

We’re not friends, Eddie.

The laughter kicked back up again, to Lawrence’s chagrin. He was that much closer to putting some hands on the punk.

Roland raised a hand, and that was enough. The group was silenced.

“Levity is fine, but let’s stay on the task at hand.”

Eduardo answered for them, as if he was allowed to speak for Lawrence.

“Okay, and sorry, El.”

Don’t fucking call me that.

Roland gestured. “May I see the money?”

It was Charlie that had the bag. She walked over to Roland, breaking the circle of people, to hand the money over.

A light in Lawrence’s eye. He blinked, and started shaking his head.

The bag was black, so why was there red and blue bouncing off it it?

It hit Lawrence.

Someone else called it out.

“Pigs!”

Everyone bolted.

It wasn’t even a matter of being organized in their escape. It was about survival. Move somewhere that wasn’t here.

Lawrence ran, and didn’t get three steps before he was interrupted. Someone had bumped into him. There was a second of panic before he saw that it was Charlie.

“Faster!” she yelled.

You don’t have to tell me that.

The sentence would have came out if he had the time to ask. Instead, confused, he breathed out, hard, and kept running towards the house. It was the only place he could think to go, or at least to go through.

The house was big, multiple stories, but the number of ways getting in were limited. The front door was wide open, but the entry way was choked, with number of people all having the same idea as Lawrence and Charlie. Pushing, yelling, general panic.

Lawrence stopped, and brought an arm out to stop Charlie. He stole a quick glance back. The cars, the lights, the men in uniform chasing after the kids.

Shit,” Lawrence whispered.

“Why are we stopping?” Charlie said, “They’re coming this way!”

Scanning, thinking, Lawrence replied. “We’re going to get stuck among all those people if we run right into it now. We can’t get stuck.”

“Where then? Around to the fence?”

“Can you jump?”

“I can try, but-”

“We don’t have time to try, Charlie, we have to do shit.”

“Then no go on jumping the fence. Plus, I have some added weight, literally.”

Lawrence looked at what Charlie was talking about. The strap around her side.

“Why do you have the bag?”

“Fuck, they’re coming this way, El, here.”

Charlie moved without giving Lawrence a proper answer. They weren’t going through the group at the door, they went around.

Windows at the front of the house, as tall as they were wide. When Lawrence first arrived at the house, he was able the see the dining room, the tables and silverware on the other side. Now, something was blocking the view. Something murky.

It almost gave Lawrence pause from wanting to go in.

“Sure about this?” Lawrence asked.

“Nope,” Charlie said, “But we’ve got no choice. We’re deep in this shit, now.”

Charlie grabbed a rock from a border of a small garden at the base of the window. She grabbed another, crushing flowers and leaves as she went back over to hand it over to Lawrence.

“Shit,” Lawrence said.

No more words, just an agreement on what they had to do. Lawrence was willing to go that far.

They threw the rocks.

Struck home, hitting the base and perimeter of the windows. It shattered, making an opening for them. The edges were jagged, but they were covered up well enough.

Grey smoke blew out of the hole.

Shit,” Lawrence said, with emphasis.

“Too late to back down now,” Charlie said. “Come on!”

They ran, before anyone else had caught on to what they just did.

Lawrence covered his mouth with his shirt, squinting hard, eyes watery and lungs irritated. The effect was immediate.

Too late to back down now.

Escaping into the darkness, Lawrence let it envelop him.

Lawrence coughed out, hard. Everything hurt again.

It was dark when he went in, but the sudden light filling in the room felt like an assault on his existence. He lurched, groaning again from the harsh movement.

He would have fallen over if he wasn’t already sitting, being rolled into the room.

Lawrence couldn’t fight back, even if he wanted to. He was entirely at the mercy of Styx. Which was worse than being helpless.

“Take it easy, lil’ boy,” Styx said. His voice was unnatural for him. Soft, sympathetic. Understanding. Lawrence had dealt with Styx before, back when it was just him and his Ghosts, he’d never heard Styx sound like this. It was unnatural.

Lawrence couldn’t see him, with Styx pushing him as he sat in the wheelchair. Only being able to hear his voice, while still being at the whim of where Styx wanted to take him, while not being able to see Styx, made for an odd, out of body experience.

Maybe it’s a metaphor for everything that’s happened in this fucking hotel.

Blinking, Lawrence started getting a better picture of the room he was a rolled into.

A conference room, not for guests, but for the staff and management related to the hotel. Only accessible by going through the back parts of the building, where guests weren’t allowed. It wasn’t as fancy or as decorative, compared to the other parts of the hotel he’d seen. More particular, utilitarian in design. Bland, brown walls with nothing on them, a long conference table, enough for at least twenty people, judging by how many chairs there were.

An ambient light had dimmed to a low settling, seemingly on its own. Lawrence could see himself falling asleep here.

Could. With Styx here, Lawrence couldn’t afford to get any shut-eye.

Even though his body and spirit were begging more rest, Lawrence had to keep going. Keep staying up.

Pushed along, Styx moved him to the end of the conference room, the other end of the table. Styx stopped there, turning Lawrence around, then pressing the locks at the wheels. Lawrence wasn’t able to move, regardless, but Styx just wanted to make sure.

Styx put his attention on the chair itself, moving himself over to it.

It was a simple thing to do, to just pick a chair and move it. Styx apparently thought that ‘simple’ was too boring.

He kicked, and the chair was sent sliding, skidding, until it fell over and collided with the wall. A violent crash.

Lawrence startled, and he was wracked with pain yet again.

Styx chuckled.

There it was, Lawrence thought, That’s the Styx I know. The one I’m familiar with.

Familiar didn’t exactly mean better, though, not in this case.

Leaving the chair fallen over, Styx rearranged more stuff. He put Lawrence’s wheelchair in place of the old one, and Styx himself grabbed a seat at the closest chair next to him, to Lawrence’s right.

He fell into it, staring at Lawrence. His eyes were wide, and a little wild.

Leather jacket, no shirt, black skinny jeans. The whites of Styx’s eyes, the yellow of his teeth, contrasted against the melanin of his skin. He wasn’t her, but he looked like he could eat him at even the slightest provocation.

Lawrence was stuck in a room with this man.

The bewilderment, the disorientation, was reaching new heights.

Styx smiled at him. Lawrence was starting to hate that look.

“Hi,” he said.

Lawrence responded with a blink.

“Quite the day, isn’t it?”

Lawrence wanted to throw up, but there was nothing in his stomach, now.

Styx crossed his legs, settling into his seat. He looked as comfortable as Lawrence wasn’t.

“Hi,” Styx said again.

Lawrence wasn’t sure how to respond. Styx greeted him a second time.

The man crossed his legs the other way.

“Hi.”

The third time. As if Lawrence needed any more stress.

Styx sneered.

“You’re Lawrence. I bet you’re wondering how you got into this situation. The choices you took that led you here, the thoughts in your head that made you make certain decisions, molding you into the person you are today. Were they the right thoughts? Did you end up where you wanted to go? Was it worth it? Would you do it all over again?”

A specific, ugly emotion was beginning to stir and rise to the surface. One that he’d tried not to think about or consider for years. Lawrence pushed it down, harder, farther than before. It hurt.

“What do you want, Styx?” Lawrence asked. It strained, but he couldn’t just be a passive actor in this.

“That, right there. That face. Faces.”

“What?” Lawrence breathed the question.

“I wanted to see your face, how you look at your lowest moment. I want to savor whatever it is that brings those expressions out, for the world to see. It makes me vibrate.”

Sickening. It was twisted.

“Fuck you, Styx,” Lawrence said, even though it was probably the single worst thing he could say, at this juncture.

Styx’s expression didn’t waver.

“You’re welcome. And you look great, by the way.”

Lawrence wanted to move, to leave, to figure this out another time, to get back with his crew and be back at the territory, his apartment, his bed. All he needed was rest.

But he couldn’t. Helpless.

It probably showed on his face. The face that Styx was delighted to be able to see.

It just served to make Lawrence that much smaller.

Before Lawrence ventured further into dangerous emotional territory, the doors opened with a burst.

“Styx! Styx!”

Lawrence knew that voice. It was a very specific pit in his stomach.

Styx fell back into his seat, leaning over, turning somewhat to face the new party.

“Yeah?”

D stomped over to them, but she directed herself to Styx.

She smacked Styx on the arm. Not a playful hit.

Styx had little to no reaction. He just shifted around to have her in view.

“Yes?”

“How many rounds did you pump into her?”

“Enough.”

“I told, you just needed one. I put in the appropriate dosage for you ahead of time. I gave you the extras as a precaution.”

“Everything about handling this was a precaution.”

“You didn’t need to hit her with everything!”

“I was being ‘pre-cautious.’”

She started wailing on him, punching him in the same spot on the arm. Styx didn’t flinch or try to defend himself.

“You jerk, you big dummy! Idiot! Loser!”

After the tenth punch, Styx finally made a move. He used his other arm to grab D by the shoulder. He threw her off him with a single push. She was just a little kid, after all.

“For your information, I was being careful for her sake. I loved it, truly, the image she painted with Xander was exquisite, but the others don’t appreciate that kind of art. You do, but not them. If I let it get out of hand, then it becomes a problem for me, okay? So I put a stop to the shitshow.”

D put her hands on her hips, sticking her tongue out at Styx. Styx, of Styx’s Gang, the leader of the gang that had connections and relations with every major player in Stephenville.

“Dummy,” she said.

Lawrence had been through enough shit that he could actually believe what he was seeing.

I swore that I’d come up with something, the next time I saw you. But I don’t even care about that anymore.

Lawrence tried sitting up in the wheelchair, but he was too weak to move. The chair creaked and wobbled a bit, and that got their attention.

D and Styx turned to look at Lawrence.

“Explain,” Lawrence said. “Now.”

D inhaled, making it deep. D exhaled, and walked over to Styx’s chair. She sat on the armrest, her own arms folded.

Lawrence hadn’t seen her for over twenty-four hours. He had been worried about her disappearance, paranoid over what she could possibly be doing.

Getting a call by the girl herself, it confirmed his fears. In a frenzied tone, she told him to run down to the casino. Wendy was in trouble, and he couldn’t just stay holed up in the hotel suite and do nothing. It added to his fears. How did she know that Wendy needed help? How did she know that Lawrence was still in the room?

And then he found Wendy, in that hall. Granon. Everything that followed.

Lawrence learned that his paranoia was wholly, completely justified.

D explained.

“When Granon first came on to the scene, and started nudging into our territory, I did what I usually do. Research. You can never be too careful. In this case, if there’s a new gang in town, the first person who’d know anything about it would be Styx.”

She gestured over to the man in question.

D continued.

“Granon was just one branch of his employer’s organization, but we all knew this wasn’t a feud that we could just drag out. We’re still new, relatively small. If we got stuck on dealing with the People’s Hammer, or if it got messy, it wouldn’t present the best image of us if we were able to move forward after that.”

D breathed in, taking her time.

“So I called in another favor with Styx.”

There was a particular word in that sentence that Lawrence didn’t like.

Another?”

D nudged the floor with her foot, causing her to sway a bit on the chair. Styx moved as well.

“Back when we were just starting our alliance, while we were still hunting Benny, I knew what we were doing was super duper messy, blowing up gangs and their bases with the weapons I found. It sort of fudges up what Styx had taken decades to set up. So I let him know what we were up to, as a courtesy. And Styx offered to do some damage control after the fact, so nothing unforseen can blow up in our faces, later.”

“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Lawrence said.

D shook her head.

“I’m not kidding, sorry El.”

Lawrence was shaken to the core.

“And this?” he asked. “How exactly does Styx fit into this?”

“I came to him for help, and, using his connections, pulled some strings and gave you and Wendy a reservation to stay at the Lunar Tower, with fake IDs so the staff will know that you’re legit and that the room’s already covered.”

“You’re welcome,” Styx said. He couldn’t have sounded anymore pleased.

Lawrence needed a moment to compose himself, gather his thoughts. He gave himself that moment.

When it came time to speak his mind, the result was still disorganized.

“Why Styx? Why me and Wendy? Why like this? Why… why?”

Just why?

“Styx and I… we go way back.”

Styx gave D a look, though D didn’t turn to give him one.

Lawrence wasn’t about to pick apart that answer with a ten-foot pole.

“And about this setup itself, it was Styx’s idea. He-”

“-wanted to get something out of giving this little rascal and her super friends a handout. I gave her conditions that made it interesting for me. One, she couldn’t help you directly. Two, it had to be done in this hotel, and three, you were supposed to handle the bulk of the work done here.”

Styx pointed at him.

Stunned. As always.

“Me?”

“Yeah, bitch. As I understood it, you’re supposed to be the face of this group, and I know the kind of muscle that girl brings. You were supposed to handle business with Granon like how everyone else handles their shit here. With class, and diplomacy. Instead, you spent most of your stay up in that room, and when you do confront Xander on his bullshit, you vomit on his shoes. Though, I fuckin’ loved it, so thank you for that.”

Speechless.

“It’s something I learned very quickly,” Styx said. “If you want to be in this business, you can’t just do whatever you want, and think you can get away with it. I can, of course, because I earned the right to do whatever the fuck I want, whenever the fuck I want, however the fuck I want. But you? No. Delegating is good, but it’s better to stick your own neck out, sometimes, show bitches you mean business. You wanted to prove yourself to me, and to the rest of the gangs? This performance doesn’t cut it.”

D kept shaking her head, tugging at her choker.

“I win this round,” Styx said, looking at the back of D’s head. “Better luck next time.”

Styx stood from his seat. D jumped to get out of his way.

“That’s three favors, D, now it’s my turn. Three for three. I’ll be coming by to collect the first one,” Styx said, ruffling D’s hair. She reacted, pushing him off to fix it.

Styx continued. “It’ll be sooner, rather than later. Could be tomorrow, the next day, or the next week, so I suggest you get yourself together before then. Show me you’re as promising as D pitched you to be.”

Styx started to take his leave.

“It’ll be fun, I promise. I’ve got plans for all of you. D? Thanks for stopping by to visit, you really do have a talent for making things interesting. Do come by again. You know, this body’s getting older, man, I need more excuses to relieve some fucking stress. And, one more thing, don’t worry about the mess, we’ve got guys for that.”

Lawrence or D didn’t respond as he left, the door clicking as it closed. A heavy silence hung in the air.

When Lawrence broke it, it felt palpable.

“What was the third favor?” Lawrence asked.

For a third time, D shook her head.

“Alright, fine, another question. Why the fuck didn’t you tell us any of this beforehand?” Lawrence asked.

D was able to answer that.

“It was part of Styx’s conditions. I couldn’t help you directly. But I was watching, and things weren’t going the way they were supposed to. Wendy was out, and you were there, taking a nap. And when Wendy was being followed, I panicked, and I thought I had to do something. I broke one of the conditions.”

“Fuck,” Lawrence said, “Fuck. I was going to insist that I’d help, do my supposed part, but Wendy wanted me to stay up there, she wanted me to rest. How was I supposed to know I had a bigger part to play?”

“I don’t know. I thought it would work out a different way. I know you aren’t the kind of guy who likes to stand still. Even if you had gotten hurt from your first fight with Granon, you’d push yourself to do more, after that. You’ll do anything to take that next step.”

“Wendy didn’t want me to do that. She would have rather pushed herself.”

“And look where that brought us,” D said. “Fudge.”

D dropped herself into the seat that Styx had just occupied. She brought her feet and legs up, and she hugged her knees.

“What’s next?” Lawrence said, wanting to get to it.

“Either I, or someone from the medical staff will give you a proper checkup, clean your wounds and make sure nothing broken or permanently damaged. Then, you can rest, for real this time. Still supposed to be out of the room by noon, though.”

“That’s enough time to take it easy.”

“You never needed much,” D said. “And after that, we put this mess behind us.”

Lawrence put his hands into his lap, making fists, feeling each cut.

“Speaking of messes,” Lawrence said. “Where is she?”

D had paused before answering.

“I was looking after her, earlier, making sure she was still breathing and had a pulse after being filled up with pentazemin. She up in the room, now, out cold.”

“Pentazemin. Isn’t that a muscle relaxer?”

“Benzodiazepine class. Antidepressant. It’s easy to get if you know what you’re looking for.”

“How’d you know that would work?”

D shrugged.

Lawrence made a noise, the aches and pains coming back to haunt him.

“Dammit, D,” he said. “I wish you told me. Not just about this, but about her, too.”

“I wish I could,” D replied. “But my hands were tied. I tried to have some fun with it, giving you signs that I was around, that I was helping, but I guess it only served to make it worse.”

D looked genuine in her remorse.

“And, about Wendy, I don’t think anyone knew what happened there. I don’t even think she did. Darn, it wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

“It got messy,” Lawrence said. “Maybe it wasn’t public, but there’s blood on our hands now. She mutilated people, ruined them. I killed someone.”

“He has a pulse,” D said, “Not like he’s getting up any time soon.”

Lawrence no longer had the will to be shocked.

“Same difference.”

Lawrence wanted to say more, but the hurt was getting to him more, now, making its presence known. He couldn’t just fight past it forever.

“Wheel me over to get checked up on. If you know what you’re doing… I don’t mind if it’s you, I guess.”

D seemed to brighten up a little, hearing that. “Really?”

“Don’t make me regret it.”

“You won’t, promise. I know what I’m doing.”

“Alright. Then, we deal with the rest of this tomorrow, or whenever she wakes up. We need to be in sync, if we want this group to continue and thrive, having her go off on her own and try to do everything herself isn’t that. We can’t just hit her with antidepressants forever. It might even make things worse in the long run.”

“I don’t want that,” D said.

“Me neither.”

D threw her head back, making a croaking noise. She stared at the ceiling.

“Uuuugh, this sucks.”

“Might not be the best word to use.”

D looked back at Lawrence.

“How about you? How you handling this?”

Lawrence gave his thoughts.

“This is fucked. We’re fucked. Everything about this is fucked.”

Lawrence would have added more, but he didn’t want more smoke in his lungs. He was close to coughing them out.

They were in the clear, for the moment. Out of the smoke, out of sight of anyone who might be looking for them.

Charlie had given him the rundown, and the bag. Roland had shoved the bag in Charlie’s arms, forcing her to take care of it. So there was nothing that could pin him down, Charlie had guessed.

But now it was Lawrence’s responsibility. There was another meeting point they had planned, just in case, a couple blocks away. No specific order was given to meet there, but that was why they had designated a location in the first place. This was that case.

The spot itself was fine. It should be. It was getting there that was the problem.

Smoke, everywhere. The house was trashed, more so that Lawrence had realized. And they were sitting still, while there might be cops right outside the room and hall.

And they had a bag of money and drugs. It was all collected into one bag when they counted everything up. Made for easy transport, but if they got caught, then it was all over.

Couldn’t let this be over.

Lawrence had convinced Charlie to let him carry the bag. He was faster, and if it came down to it, more willing to do what have to be done. For survival, he’d shoulder that burden for the both of them.

“How is it?” Charlie asked, keeping to whispers, keeping it short.

Lawrence peeked through the crack of the door. He tested his luck a bit by sliding his hand over, opening it some more.

“No one,” he answered, voice low. “But that could change in any second.”

“Right,” Charlie said.

They had heard footsteps earlier, rushing in this bedroom to evade any potential pursuers. Nobody followed, but that didn’t mean they were in the clear. They weren’t familiar with the layout of the house, they didn’t know what the situation was in either the backyard or the street past that. They had to leave, but rushing without thinking would be an even bigger mistake.

“Let’s give it a few more seconds, then we move over to that room on the other side of the hall, and check out the window. There.”

“I can’t see it from this angle, El.”

“Oh. Uh, it’s over there. Just follow me when it’s time.”

“Alright.”

Lawrence raised a hand. With the other, he widened the opening a little more, inch by inch.

He threw his hand down.

Now!”

Lawrence got to his feet and booked it. Charlie was right behind him.

It was a rush, from both the adrenaline coursing through his veins and the speed at which he crossed the hall. There wasn’t anyone around to catch him, but, if there was, he would have liked to imagine himself like a ninja, slipping away at the last second. The image fit, somewhat. Mouth covered with his shirt, bag slung over his back. Like a modern reboot of those movies he watched all the time.

The door had been cracked open on the other side, as well. It made for an easy escape out of the hall, and back out of sight, into the safety and shadows.

Charlie closed the door behind them, but not all the way. She kept low, staying next to it, blocking it, in case someone else tried to get through.

Yes!” she said. She lifted her hand, and Lawrence returned the favor with a high five.

“Almost there,” Lawrence said. He kept moving, putting his back on the vanity set across the room, away from the door.

“Move,” he said. “We can still hide if anyone wanders in. If the door gets blocked, then they’ll know for sure.”

“Good point.” She listened, crossing the room. She didn’t hide right away, though, instead checking through the window, facing the outside world.

“What’s it look like out there?”

“Promising. Los policías are mostly busy dealing with all the kids outside. Gathering them up, making sure they’re away from the house and out of trouble.”

“Is it everyone?”

“I… don’t see Jonathan or Melissa, or Eduardo. Definitely don’t see Roland.”

“We might be the only ones in here, then. Which is a good thing.”

“Might be. Keep in mind we’re the ones stuck in a burning house.”

A burning house.

“About that,” Lawrence started.

“What?”

“Don’t you think this seems all… off?”

“Meaning?”

“There’s smoke, but it’s not killing us, and it’s thinned the deeper we got into the house. And, haven’t you noticed that we never came across anything that was burning?”

“This was all staged,” Charlie said, her eyes wide, mouth agape. “Someone set up some smoke and called the cops?”

“Do you see firefighters out there?”

Charlie checked out the window again. “I don’t.”

“They’d be here by now if this was legit.”

“So if it’s not a fire, then what?”

“That, I can’t answer. Right now, the main concern of the police is just getting everyone out of the house, and they sort it out from there.”

“What if we’re stuck in this house and there’s a bomb.”

“There’s no bomb,” Lawrence said. He considered it. “There’s no bomb.”

“Should we just ditch the bag and go outside? We might not get in trouble. There’s so many kids out there, we can just slip away and meet with the others.”

Again, Lawrence considered it.

“I want to try,” Lawrence said. “If we get out of this, with the money and drugs, Roland’s going to know we’re the real deal.”

He’s going to know I’m the real deal.

Very little time to argue, and there was no doubt in Lawrence’s voice. Charlie went with it.

“Sure, okay, let’s try.”

Gracias, Charlie. Now get over here.”

Charlie crossed the room again, meeting with Lawrence. She got on her knees.

“We’re close to the back,” Lawrence told her. “We’re so close I can almost fucking taste it. Past the backyard is that service road. They can block it, but not without fucking up traffic there, and with the majority of the smoke coming from the front of the house, that’s where they’ll focus their attention on. As long as we can get to the back and make sure things are quiet, we’ll be alright.”

“Alright, I like that. Taking advantage over someone else’s scheme. It’s great.”

Lawrence felt a hint of pride, hearing that.

“Whoever got the ball rolling on this knew what they were doing. I’d be impressed if it didn’t actively fuck up our night.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah,” Lawrence said. “Okay. Get ready. Same thing as before, except now, we head straight for the back.”

“Right behind you.”

As silent as possible, Lawrence crawled over to the door. He opened it.

Clear.

Lawrence made the appropriate gesture.

They ran for it.

The path was unobstructed. All clear. Clear.

They passed the TV, the movie was still playing.

No distractions.

Ears pounding, muscles aching, heart beating heavy in his chest, but it didn’t matter. Lawrence saw the way forward. It was right there. He could make it.

They were so close.

“Hey! El, El!”

It took several seconds for Lawrence to switch mental tracks. In the meantime, he turned his head.

Eduardo, and a girl he’d never seen before in his life.

“Where you going?” Edurado asked.

“Where the fuck else? Meeting the rest at the safe spot!”

“Are the rest there?”

We will be!”

“Sounds good.” He looked to the girl, grabbing her hand. “Come!”

The girl only ran, keeping up with the rest of them. She looked too puzzled to make a proper response.

You better not be dead weight.

The backyard. The sliding glass door was already opened, and there was a pool just ahead. They’d have to go around, but the coast looked clear.

So close.

Lawrence picked up the pace, running harder, faster. Charlie didn’t lose any speed.

They formed a line out the door. Lawrence, Charlie, Eduardo and the girl.

A crumble and shouts.

“El!”

Lawrence turned. It took him several seconds to figure out what exactly he was looking at.

Blue, and long. Wispy in quality. A vague, human shape, bending and twisting in unnatural ways. Like it was trying to break out of itself, but it struggled, trapped by its blue and glossy skin.

Lawrence wanted to slap himself.

It wasn’t a monster. Monsters weren’t real.

It was the girl that Eduardo brought with her, wrapped in what looked like a pool tarp.

She shouted some more, tried moving some more, before falling to the ground. She kept fighting all the way, but it only made her more stuck in the thing.

“Maria!” Eduardo shouted. He ran over to try and get her out.

He tugged, but the tarp was heavy, and the girl kept moving too much. It wasn’t a good combo.

Eduardo looked at Lawrence, Charlie. His eyes were pleading.

“I need help!”

“Okay!”

Charlie went over without any hesitation.

In contrast, Lawrence was still.

They both worked together to get the girl out, but they weren’t making much progress.

Eduardo called out for Lawrence again.

“El! Get over here!”

“Who is she?”

“She’s… she needs help!”

“Are you recruiting her?”

“I… maybe?”

Maybe?

“Just help me get her out of here! The tarp is huge, and if it gets in the water, it might drag her in!”

“The pool is right behind me! It’s not going anywhere near her!”

“Just help!”

Eduardo was freaking out more than the girl was, and if he didn’t shut the fuck up…

Lawrence went to them.

He put his hands on the tarp, yanking it, coordinating with the others so it would end up being worse.

A lot of moving, jostling around. The bag slipped over his shoulder, bumping into him and Charlie, Eduardo.

It was getting in the way.

“Fuck!”

Lawrence threw the bag off his shoulders.

There, he had more to move. To breathe.

It was easier, now, to get the tarp off the girl. It slipped out faster, not going taut as much. It was working. Lawrence was able to see parts of her face as they continued.

“Whoa, hey, wait!”

The cry came from Charlie. It was angry, confused, and pointed.

It got Lawrence’s attention, and he turned to look.

Someone was running off with the bag.

The drugs. The money.

Lawrence immediately left the rest behind to give chase.

Around the pool, to the grass, over the goddamn garden gnome. The fence.

Fuck, Lawrence thought.

He was too late.

Not that he was too slow, but she had gotten too much of a head start.

She was sitting on the stone fence, legs hanging over on the other side. The bag around her shoulders.

The odd girl.

Lawrence was still running, and she had time to monologue.

“Told you I’d come back to get my score. See? Nothing a few online tutorials and a little improv can’t solve.”

He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but he was losing the breath, and he was just at a loss of words.

So close to the fence.

“Oh, I like that expression, it’s nice. You’re fun, you know that? I might come around to see you again. But for now, so long, El… boy!”

She ducked, and disappeared from behind the fence. Lawrence’s blood was hot and pumping. He kept running-

More shouting stopped Lawrence in his tracks.

Charlie’s, and Eduardo’s.

Lawrence wheeled around.

Cops had made it to the scene, forcing them both back. Charlie had her hands up, and so did Eduardo. They backed away, slow.

None of the cops looked as if they had any attention to shoot, but no one was going to give them a reason to. All control of the situation was deferred to the cops, now.

One got down on a knee, over the tarp. The girl – Maria – still hadn’t got out yet.

Lawrence fell down on his own. On his knees.

He lost.

Charlie and Eduardo saw Lawrence, and a cop followed their gaze. He stalked over to Lawrence.

Lost.

That odd girl had run off with the bag, so the three of them were nothing but kids at a party, now. No different than the rest that were here to drink booze and smoke some pot. They’d get escorted out, and like Charlie had suggested, they’d slip away from the scene.

But there was more to it than that.

They had a job to do, there was a responsibility that Lawrence shouldered, but he failed. He couldn’t do it. He had let down Roland, Benny, the rest of El Carruaje.

What’s going to happen to me now?

He might as well be done.

Lawrence met Eduardo’s eyes, and pushed with hatred, seething with it. Eduardo broke away from the glare.

He’ll pay for this. Someday, somehow. That fucker.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. He wasn’t supposed to lose. He wasn’t supposed to be the small fry.

Cops were approaching him. He didn’t care. He had emotions, and he needed release.

Frustrated, livid, Lawrence raised both fists and-

-gently placed them at the foot of the bed.

Lawrence looked over Wendy as she slept.

Back in the hotel room. Dark, but the hour was sometime in the morning. Lawrence wasn’t sure of the exact time.

He hadn’t gotten much sleep. He’d like sleep, and he knew he needed sleep, but it wasn’t in his nature to rest when there was other shit to deal with.

Still in the wheelchair, but he could move on his own. It was a slow process, but he could manage. He just had to be careful in his pushing, or he’d ruin the stitches and bandages that wrapped his body up. Funny, in a way. He was still alive, but he felt entombed.

Lawrence had to shift his whole torso to turn. He had a basic, soft neck brace on. A precaution.

“Who in the fuck are you?” Lawrence asked her, his voice barely above a whisper.

Wendy didn’t respond. Well, she couldn’t.

Lawrence couldn’t help but find it a little funny. Must be the late hour.

“I thought I asked you something.”

Wendy kept sleeping.

She was tucked in the bed, the same one she had offered to Lawrence, but he didn’t mind. She needed it more than he did.

Glasses off, folded on the nightstand beside her, dressed in pajamas that she had brought herself. D was the one who helped her on that front. She was already like that when he arrived, just a few minutes ago. No one else was allowed access to her, or even be in the same room.

After wheeling Lawrence in, D had taken some more numbers from her, mostly beats per minute. Everything seemed to have stabilized, whatever that meant for someone like her.

She explained that Wendy had a powerful regeneration ability. Lawrence had seen it firsthand. There was a chance that the antidepressant would run its course faster than normal, and that she would be getting up soon.

Lawrence didn’t care either way.

Then, D left, and it was just Wendy and Lawrence.

He continued to watch her sleep, unsure of how to feel about this. Unsure about everything. Himself.

“Forgive me for coming off as creepy, right now, I get it, but I wanted to see you. I want to see if you’re still the same Wendy and V I thought I knew. Who knows? I might see you as someone completely different once you wake up.”

Wendy didn’t stir or respond.

“To be fair, out of all us, you are the creepiest motherfucker. Ever.”

Silence.

“I wonder if you remember the first time we crossed paths. I definitely do. You were the Bluemoon, then. Crazy, how things changed.”

He gripped the blanket, feeling some resistance from the bandages on his fingers.

“You were trying to protect me, weren’t you? I saw it, in that hall. Styx was there, but I couldn’t see him, and, in whatever fucked up headspace you were in, you deemed him as a threat. But not me.”

Lawrence paused.

“At least, I’d like to think of it that way. It’ll make tomorrow easier, and the next day.”

A flutter of the eye. Lawrence thought that she’d awaken, but a minute passed, and there was no other activity.

It was a stark contrast, from what he’d seen before. Wendy looked so peaceful, in her sleep. The soft breathing, the relaxed expression. The fact that D had washed her body, getting her cleaned up. The full treatment, and she was asleep throughout all of it.

The setting of the room, the fancy and beautiful design. It made him think of something like a movie. His mind went those flicks he liked, then to fairy tales.

Must be the late hour.

Was she the sleeping beauty, waiting for the prince to save her? No, didn’t seem right, didn’t seem to fit. Not for her.

Then, was she the evil queen, with the power to turn into a dragon, only resting after expending so much strength?

Lawrence wasn’t sure.

If she was, then he wondered where he fit into all of that. If he was supposed to even fit in at all, or if he just stumbled into something he had no business being a part of.

Charlie and Jonathan and Melissa were gone, leaving the Ghosts after V and D officially joined. It had gotten to be too much for them, the stress of always watching their backs, it wasn’t the reason why they got into this life in the first place. It had gotten too hard.

Now it was just him. The normal one. Stuck with the Styx’s and D’s and the V’s of the world. The creepy and the crazies.

He used to think that the sacrifice was worth it. That the glamour and power that came with this life was a good goal to strive towards. Being one of the big guys. Thinking about it gave him pause, now.

But it was too late for that. He was too deep into this shit.

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Interlude – James

Previous                                                                     Bonus

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s no problem.

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

“Thank you, Jim.”

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

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

Bones creaked and joints popped.

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

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

I wonder if he ever felt like this.

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

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

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

Campbell stepped inside.

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

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

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

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

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

His mind was wandering again.

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

“My condolences,” Campbell said.

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

“Maybe you have something you want to say.”

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

Campbell flinched. “Sorry, Chief.”

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

“Come on,” James said, “Let’s go.”

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

Together, they left the conference room.

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

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

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

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

Someone should be doing… something.

“Campbell,” James said, needing another distraction.

“Yes, sir?”

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

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

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

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

“And that was, what, five years ago?”

Campbell laughed.

“It was ten years ago, sir.”

“Color me shocked.”

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

“No need to apologize.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, wandering.

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

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

“Um, yes sir?”

“What’s your take-”

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

“What’s your take on Blank Face?”

“Blank Face?”

James noted Campbell’s hesitation.

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

“It’s not that sir, it’s just…”

That hesitation again.

“It’s just what?”

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

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

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

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

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

Campbell took his sweet time in formulating an answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Before?”

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

“And the twist was?” James asked.

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

Campbell’s voice was just a bit tight.

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

Campbell shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

He coughed, the camera bag shaking a little.

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

“I know,” James said.

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

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

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

“Yeah, food for thought.”

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

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

A ding.

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

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

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

“Honor to hear that.”

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

The workings of the interior felt farther away.

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

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

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

A ding.

James got out of the elevator.

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that, and another more peculiar thing.

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

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

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

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

As he waited, he looked around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pathetic.

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

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

John Cruz. The new district attorney.

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

James stopped reading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beside him was-

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

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

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

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

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

He almost laughed.

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

No answer, but James wasn’t expecting one.

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

He stared at nothing, and got nothing.

It wasn’t always like this.

It was James’ job to keep the peace.

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

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

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

James grinned to himself.

Good job, me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He opened his mouth to shout again.

“Everyone, please back-”

“James, James!”

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

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

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

“Thomas,” James said.

Thomas Thompson smirked upon hearing his name.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man took it, shaking it. Firm.

“John Cruz,” the man said.

“James Gomez.”

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

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

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

“Helps with the late nights.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas laughed. “Does it, now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fresh crime scene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas nodded, looking proud of himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas gave the coffee back to John.

“Someone might like that.”

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

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

“They don’t.”

Between the two friends, they shared a small chuckle.

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

“Him? John?”

“Yes, of course John, who else?”

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

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

“Why?”

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

James paused, and then he sighed.

“Thomas,” he said.

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

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

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

“You really see something in him?”

Thomas shrugged. “I might.”

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

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

He pointed in John’s general direction.

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

Thomas met James in the eye.

“But I digress,” Thomas said.

“But you digress,” James echoed.

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

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

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

“Turner? Of Turner’s Moving Company?”

“The very same.”

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

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

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

“Thanks, pal.”

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

“But you still object to him.”

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

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

James had to explain himself.

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

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

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

James struggled to find the words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will, I will.”

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

He got to the point.

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

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

“We keep it between us.”

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

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

“Jealous?”

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

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

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

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

“Get away from me!”

“Thomas, James.”

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

“Welcome back. Learn anything?”

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

“What does that even mean,” James commented.

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

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

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

James and Thomas didn’t say anything.

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

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

“Now what does that even mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

James knew that Thomas hated that. Being small.

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

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

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

Thomas had never sounded so sure in his life.

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

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

This never gets any easier.

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

“Kristin,” James said as the door opened.

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

James didn’t blame her.

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

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

“May I-” James started.

“Please,” Kristin said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He heard a dry laugh come from Kristin.

“I try.”

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

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

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

Kristin ended up filling in the blanks for him.

“James, this is Shiori.”

Shiori. The name sort of helped.

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

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

James had to approach this carefully.

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

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

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

Then it clicked. He remembered that.

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

Again, Shiori only nodded.

James felt an awkward silence about to settle in.

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

“Coffee would be great, thanks.”

“I’ll be right back.”

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

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

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

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

Was she ill? Did she lose her voice?

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

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

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

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

How does she do it? James wondered.

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

“James, can you help me in here?”

James got up without any protest or objection.

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

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

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

“Down, Annie, down!”

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

“Now go to your bed.”

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

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

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

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

“What’s up?” he asked.

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

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

Kristin nodded.

James shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

James was an experienced enough cop to piece things together.

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

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

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

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

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

James felt his heart drop.

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

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

James felt his heart drop even lower.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not with this. He still failed.

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

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

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

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

“It’s the worst possible time.”

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

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

Kristin hiccuped.

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

“That bad?”

“I’m exaggerating, but it is bad. She needs to be here, so she can be reminded that there are people around that love her and want to see her back on her feet, with Alexis in her arms and in her home. And I was praying that you had something to lift her spirits up.”

Every word Kristin said was like a kick to James’ own spirit. He did what he could, but he still came up short, disappointing Kristin, Shiori, himself… and him. What would he think, if he were around? Would he have thought of him as pathetic, too?

Maybe.

“I’m out of apologies, and excuses,” James said. “There’s not much I can do after that. I can’t tell Shiori anything if I have nothing, that’ll only make it worse for her.”

“Okay,” Kristin said.

“How long were you expecting to have her stay here?”

“As long as she needs, I don’t care. I’ll pay for her apartment if I have to.”

“I don’t recommend going that far, but do help her to get back on her feet. I’d say your doing a great job now. You told me she wasn’t eating when you invited her over, but I didn’t see a sign of malnutrition on her face. That’s good. You’re making her eat.”

Kristin stayed quiet.

“It’s great that you’re willing to take care of her, too,” James said. “Keeping yourself busy, helping others in the face of your own loss. I admire that.”

She looked up, meeting James in the eye.

“You lost him, too.”

There were no words to respond to that. He opened his arms, and gave Kristin a hug. Kristin accepted the gesture.

They stayed like that for a second longer. A hug between good friends.

When they broke, James said, “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll go through everything again, and I mean everything, and give this another shot. I’ll come by if I have any updates, and you work on helping Shiori, and yourself. You have family, you know. You need to be there for them, too.”

“Shiori is family, and you are, too. You take care of yourself, too.”

“I am, by doing this. Even when I’m overworked, I need more work.”

More distractions.

“I’m sorry for being hard on you,” Kristin said.

“I deserve it,” James said. “I’m not doing good enough by you. And you’re a good person, one of the few I know left.”

“Thank you, James. Can I ask you for one more favor?”

“Anything.”

“Can you check on Katy?”

“She’s here?”

“Upstairs, in her room. Just knock. I’m sure she’d appreciate you swinging by.”

“Hope so, but of course.”

James didn’t leave right away. Kristin moved to step out of the kitchen, putting a hand on James’ arm as she left. James gave himself a break to drink his coffee.

Bitter.

He finished his coffee, placing the mug in the sink, and left the kitchen. From across the hall, he saw Kristin and Shiori.

They were on the couch. Shiori hadn’t budged since he left, and Kristin was sitting closer to her than he had been. The TV was on this time, judging from the angle Kristin held her head at, she was looking at something. Shiori, however, had her head down, silent.

If James had the power to save everyone, he’d do it in a heartbeat. But he didn’t, and he was still given that task. And it had broke him down years ago, back when the police chief at the time offered James the position, back when he took it, and back when the chief took him out to meet with the gangs that ran the city. Mrs. Carter, who was there to represent Mister.

Styx was there, too.

They told him he would have no real power at all. That all he had to do was play the part of a competent chief, while making sure the real checks and balances were in place. He was blocked before he ever had a chance to start.

His best friend was disappointed then, furious, frustrated. And he had used that frustration to go even harder with his campaigning, and it led to him finding Blank Face… leading to everything else.

James went up the stairs before his thoughts could beat him down any more. He still felt like he was being beat down, though, the aches were making themselves known as he moved. He hated that.

It was easy to find Katy’s room. He’d been up there before, when he was asked to babysit her during her kindergarten and elementary school years.

He knocked.

Katy wasn’t the one who got the door.

A girl, a teenager. Hispanic. Her hair was colored a lighter brown, and she was wearing a coat. It looked trendy.

“Hello,” James said.

“Hello,” the girl repeated.

Then, as if it was a delayed reaction, he remembered.

“Oh, you’re… Maria, am I right?”

“I am,” Maria said.

No mention of what she was doing here, or where Katy was. James recalled her being this flat during the questioning of what happened at the restaurant. She answered properly and honestly, but James recognized a innate distrust for police when he saw it.

“I,” James started, but he was interrupted by another voice.

“Uncle James, you can come in.”

That voice, he knew. Maria stepped to the side, and James took about three steps into the room. He was still close to the door.

The room hadn’t changed much since he last saw it. Then again, all girls’ rooms looked the same to him. An inherent girliness, that he didn’t quite understand.

Katy. She was sitting on the floor, by the coffee table in the middle of the room, phone in one hand, and a chess piece in another. Like Maria, she was also dressed for the outside.

James examined the board. There were more black pieces in play, but the white ones that were left were the tough ones, that could do more than just move up one square. The way the pieces were situated suggested that the white side was on the offensive, with black pawns in place to block the path of the white queen. But, it didn’t seem like the white pieces were after the opponent’s king. They were all being directed to another, specific piece.

“Did the rules change since I last played?” James asked. “I don’t recall taking out the queen being the way to win.”

“I’m just figuring something out,” Katy answered. With the chess piece she was holding, she flicked away a black piece, and placed that instead. A white bishop, four diagonal spaces away, with a direct path to the black queen.

As Katy took a picture of the board on her phone, she asked, “What brings you in, Uncle James?”

‘Uncle James’ answered. “Just checking in on everyone, like usual. I see that Shiori’s staying with you guys.”

“Yeah, it’s been fun.”

Her tone was so dry, he wasn’t used to that. If Katy hadn’t inherited her father and mother’s intelligence, her charisma would have brought her straight to the cheerleading captain position. But, life had other plans for her.

And that spark of life, he didn’t see it in her, and he didn’t hear it, either. She still looked down.

Still coping, dealing, with the greatest loss in her life, only for another, equally difficult loss to strike when she was at her lowest. Her father, and her best friend. James understood exactly how that could suck the air out of someone.

“Any good news?”

It was Maria that asked. She was standing over Katy, now, looking at James.

“None, I’m sorry. I already got it from your mom, Katy, but I deserve to get it again.”

“No, I can imagine my mom made you suffer through that for the both of us.”

James couldn’t tell if there was anger behind her words, lashing out at him.

“She did,” he said.

“I saw you on TV,” Katy said. “The other day.”

“Did you now? What’d you think?”

“Terrible. I don’t know why they keep inviting you.”

“I can count the number of times I’ve been on with one hand. It’s not like I get practice for that stuff.”

“Not that. I’m saying you should have been harder on Blank Face. Fuck Blank Face.”

Maria made a face, cringing at what Katy had said.

James wasn’t going to get into it, now. That wasn’t what he came up for.

“Okay, I’m just going to make this short, so you can go back to your game.”

“It’s not a game,” Katy said.

“Okay, I just wanted to see you all again. I’ll see you later, Katy, and it was nice seeing you again, Maria.”

“Come back when you have good news,” Maria said.

That was definitely the atmosphere, James could feel it thick in the air. He wasn’t wanted.

“Bye,” he said quietly, turning to leave. He reached for the door-

“Leave the door open.”

James turned back again. Katy’s focus was still on the board, rearranging the pieces, putting them back in their starting positions.

“We’ll be heading out after you,” Katy said, still moving pieces around. “So leave the door open.”

“Heading out?” James asked.

“Yes.”

That was all James got in regards to an answer. He recalled seeing another car out on the driveway. A teal Honda. Probably Maria’s.

“I’ll leave the door open. Bye, ladies.”

He got no response as he left the room, and went down the stairs. He felt the aches again.

He ran into Kristin as he reached the final step.

“How were they?” she asked.

“Didn’t want to give me the time of day, but they’re still young, going through things most adults can’t handle. If they need space, I’ll give it to them.”

Kristin’s expression seemed like she was expecting that answer. The girls had been like that for some time, now.

James couldn’t blame them for that.

“Are you leaving now?” Kristin asked.

“I think I will. Thank you again for the coffee.”

“Anytime.”

Kristin gave him a quick hug before he left the house. It was a gesture that showed that he was always welcome to come back and visit.

But, by the next time, he had better have fucking something to show.

The air was thick with a pungent smell. James almost tripped over himself, something sliding out from under him.

So many bullet holes, so many bullet casings, so many bullets.

James took one, slow walk around the perimeter, trying to take it all in. It was hard. Decades on the force, and he had the gall to assume that he had seen it all. Apparently, he hadn’t seen shit.

Morning, early morning. So early the sun hadn’t considered getting up yet. The basketball court in a neighborhood on the west side. Neutral territory between the Thunders and the Royals.

Nothing neutral about it now.

Chunks of concrete were torn out of the ground, debris thrown haphazardly across the court. Bullets were stuck in the ground, embedded in both the grass and dirt around the court and the court itself. Even the backboards were riddled by bullets, there were more holes than metal. It was like an actual warzone.

Around the court and the surrounding perimeter, everyone was working to collect as much info as possible, and clean up as much as possible. Wherever James looked, there was someone picking up bullets and casings to put into a bag, someone helping the injured into an ambulance, or someone trying to fix where the tall fence around the court had fallen over. Parts of the fence were torn and crushed, like it was trampled on by a stampede of elephants.

That was a good way to put it, in terms of animals. What had happened here, happened between animals. A raw, deep force that craved violence and rage. It had consumed the hearts of the people, and they didn’t see each other as people, anymore. Not as their fellow man, not as brothers. Humans couldn’t have done this, it had to have been some other cause.

Right?

James watched his step, careful to not slip again. There were too many things here that could catch him off guard. Debris, bullet casings, pools of blood. He kept a flashlight at his feet, to keep an eye on what was directly ahead. Normally, there would have been fixtures that lit up the court, but the power was out around the spot. It hadn’t come back on, yet.

Campbell followed him as he tried to get a sense of the whole situation.

“They’re going to want me on TV to talk about this, aren’t they?” James asked.

“Media’s starting to come in, but they’ve actually been a bit slow in getting here. Journalists aren’t used to coming down here.”

“That’s because they don’t have a reason to. They’ve gotten every story they could possibly get out of places like this. They squeezed it dry, and left it to rot in the sun. They’re only back now because, as it turns out, there’s still a little bit of juice left to sell.”

“Well, the perimeter’s about two blocks around the court. They’re not getting in here.”

“Let’s push it back another block, just to be safe, before the first few shoe-stringers get here.”

“Roger that, chief.”

Campbell reached for a walkie-talkie to relay the Chief’s words to the others. All around James, he heard the cries of affirmation, and the action afterward. Neither of the gangs had any relevance to the ones that had teeth in James’ police force, so James got to be the leading authority. Right now, for now, James’ men were his. They listened and reported to him, and they had no other bosses to answer to.

If only it was like that the whole time. His best friend would have loved that for sure.

James stopped his walk around the area, and headed straight to the middle. The middle of the court.

There was a shout, somewhere in the far back. “Power’s coming back!”

Small cheers sounded throughout, immediately hushed when the lights switched on, shining a harsh light on everything.

James squinted. For more than one reason.

He saw the edges of it before, but not a full view. This… This was harsh.

There were two bodies. Cut up, beaten, and bruised. Reduced to a bloody pulp, their bodies defiled and tampered with. The result was something less than human.

They were completely naked, cut skin touching the hard and cold concrete. They were situated, placed in a specific way, moved after whatever happened to them… happened. James noted the streaks of blood beside them, how they were dragged and then set to achieve the intended effect.

Arms and legs together, their feet meeting at a point. One body was on one side of the court, the other body was on the opposite side. What looked like larger brush strokes of blood were marked beside their appendages to make it read better.

It looked like a giant red ‘V.’

The men? The leaders of the relevant gangs. Darius and Marcus Jackson.

“God, who could’ve-”

Campbell stopped, or rather the scene was too visceral that he lost the words. He turned on a heel, so it was to his side, and he was facing James, instead.

“How can you even look, sir?”

“Part of the job,” James answered. He was looking at it, head on. Others were, too, collecting photographs and getting vitals on the bodies. A man bent down to get a pulse from Darius, another checked for signs of breathing on Marcus.

“But, even if you put it like that, this is just too much.”

“My job is to face the ugliest of humanity, and do what I can to put a stop to it. Clearly, humans are capable of much more ugliness than I ever thought, but the job stays the same.”

Campbell turned again, putting his back to the scene.

“I don’t know which is worse. This, or the school.”

“The school, unfortunately.” James looked at the medical staff working on EZ and Krown. They both gave him a thumbs up. A miracle.

“At least no one died, here,” James added.

“Sure, but we have dozens injured and two critically injured, and plenty aren’t going to walk away from this with all their limbs attached. Fuck, some literally will not be able to walk away.”

“Yeah.”

“I can’t look at this, I have to go.”

Campbell started to walk away from the scene. James couldn’t help but feel let down at Campbell’s weakened resolve. Everyone had a breaking point, and it seemed that this one was his.

James addressed the men in front of him.

“You have your pictures, so scoop these two up and get them into a hospital. Yesterday. And I want every gangbanger present to be accounted for, you know what that means.”

His men sprung to action, and James left them to work.

He caught up with Campbell as they left the court.

“What does that even accomplish?” Campbell questioned. He walked away, but his thoughts were still fixated on that. “Who would do something like that?”

“Either it’s a message,” James said, “Or a cruel joke. Either way, we’ll get to the bottom of it.”

They walked into the grass, James feeling the metal of the bullets and casings under his shoes, but they were walking on dirt, easier to step through bumpier terrain, here. James wasn’t afraid of slipping and making an ass of himself, needing Campbell to help him back up. He could do without an embarrassment.

James saw a tree by a concrete trail that would have led into an intact basketball court. The trunk was splintered and split open by bullets.

James saw someone approach, running out of the dark.

“James Gomez?”

He didn’t stop walking.

“James Gomez?”

He kept going.

“James!”

Not once did James break his stride.

A woman fell in step with him. Brown hair, thick rimmed glasses, beige coat and black tights. She looked like she was in her thirties, now. Time really did pass.

I really am getting old.

James didn’t want to admit that.

“I wanted to ask you some questions, James,” Natalie asked. “Actually, I don’t have anything to ask you, I have the answers, I just wanted some confirmation.”

Natalie Beckham. She was one of the top writers of the Stephenville Impact, the city’s number one news organization. Was. She had covered the local crime scene, back in the day, but the last time James had seen her around was almost seven years ago. He heard something about her moving to New York.

For whatever reason, she was back, now, and that only meant more complications.

James saw the cup in her hand. He wasn’t interested.

He didn’t entertain her. He just kept walking, Campbell on his right, Natalie on his left.

“I caught some of the gang members here as they tried to recount the events. The Thunders and the Royals had previously been operating in good faith in regards to a pact, but after too many incidents between the two groups, came here to settle the score. Is this true?”

James didn’t answer.

“And I heard that, right before the initial confrontation, there was a starting gunshot in the distance. Would you know that to be true?”

James didn’t answer.

“After that, was when the power began to cut out. In the dark, I’ve got multiple reports and a mysterious figure, cloaked in red, attacking members from both gangs. Could you confirm this?”

Red? Not blue?

James didn’t answer.

“Both gangs stopped their fighting and tried to go after this figure instead, but it was only striking in the dark, and they only had brief glimpses about its location during the seconds the power did come on. It was as though someone was toying with them.”

James and Campbell kept walking.

“When it was somehow established that this figure had gotten to both gang leaders, and when it proved fruitless to land a hit on this figure without shooting or stabbing someone else, everyone who could run, did.”

That was a decent summary of the events, but James wasn’t about to confirm that with her.

“Now, this part’s off the record since I don’t really like to speculate, I prefer facts, but given the recent activity in Stephenville, but do you believe this mysterious, cloaked figure could be related to the vigilante known as the Bluemoon?”

“Natalie,” James said.

“Finally, some life from the old man.”

“You’re not supposed to be here. The perimeter extends more than two blocks.”

“You think that’s going to stop someone like me?”

She had a point.

“No, but I am going to just leave you with a warning. I don’t want to see you around here again, and I’m done with questions.”

“I’m sad to hear that, James, you used to be so helpful before. What happened?”

That question, he would answer.

“I got old.”

He gestured to Campbell, and Campbell went over to Natalie’s side. He whisked her away, with her offering very little protest.

At least she could honor him on that. Natalie knew that she had what she needed, she just needed confirmation, for formalities.

What a good little journalist.

James continued until he reached the lot, seeing all of the men perform their proper duties. He’d probably give the whole area one more sweep, to see if he had missed anything.

Maybe get some info on this cloaked figure, as well.

His phone rang. He stopped.

James fished it out of his pocket, bringing it to his ear.

“Gomez,” he said, answering it.

Art studio, top floor. Eastern window facing the court. Come alone. Someone wants to see you.

He recognized the voice. It was that of a little girl.

Her?

“D,” James said, hard. “What the fuck do you have to do with this?”

The call ended.

James thrusted a hand in his pocket, putting his phone back. He hurried.

He was already facing the east, if this art studio had a clear view of the court, then it would be on the street just across from the court.

She said to come alone. Would he? Was it another trap, or one of D’s pranks?

Couldn’t be. Either D started getting bored of the same old tricks, and started escalating on her own – a dangerous notion – or she was a part of something else. Something bigger.

Did he need backup?

James slipped past some tape and his men. Everyone was too preoccupied to notice their chief pass them by.

He needed backup, but he had learned that particular lesson when he started this job. Bringing others in situations like this, when expressed not to, would only ever lead to disaster. James wouldn’t sacrifice good men like that.

If it was just him, just his life at stake, he was fine with that.

James found the art building, and checked the front door. It was unlocked.

Turning his flashlight on, he found the staircase on the side of the first floor. There were elevators, but James would rather take the stairs. At least to prove he still had a body he could use.

As he ascended, James made sure he had all of the essentials. Walkie-talkie, phone, and gun.

Check, check, and check.

James reached the fourth floor.

Art supplies, paint cans, canvases hanging on the wall. James wasn’t sure what he was expecting, perhaps another clue or body, but nothing here immediately stood out to him.

He saw the window. Light crept through the glass, lighting up a square shape on the floor of the art studio. He began to approach.

Slowly, carefully. James pulled his gun out, ready to fire. He kept his head low as he got closer to the glass. Last thing he wanted was to get sniped through a window.

James got in place. For long, agonizing seconds, he scoped out the scene below.

People working, collecting data from the basketball court and surrounding grass, helping victims into ambulances to send them off to the hospital, cleaning up wherever they could.

At the court itself, James saw that Darius and Marcus Jackson had been moved, but the blood remained. The broad strokes, and another pool that James didn’t notice before. A period. It was a message.

V.

“Thoughts?”

A voice from behind. James recognized it.

He turned around, his gun prepared.

From the shadows, a figure emerged.

A hood covered their head, but where the moonlight touched their face, James could only see the lower half, the mouth and chin. Everything from the nose up was covered. Flecks of blood dotted the figure’s mouth.

The rest of the figure’s shape was hard to make out. He couldn’t see its arms, the material draped over their body in such a way that it was difficult to make sense of it. They were wearing some sort of cloak or long robe, made of a flowy but heavy material.

From top to bottom, the cloak was red. The only other colors on the figure were the black shadows masking their face, the black pants they wore, and the snowy white skin of their mouth and chin.

A ghost, or a phantom, covered in blood. Or perhaps the Devil himself. Either way, James felt like he was being haunted. Cursed.

The only thing that was familiar about this figure was its voice.

“Blank Face?” he asked.

The figure twitched, as if offended by the suggestion.

“I wrote it out there for you to see,” the figure answered.

“V, then.”

“Yes.”

“But you were the vigilante known as Blank Face, am I correct?”

There was a pause.

“I was, unfortunately. Those days are behind all of us, now.”

James wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean.

He asked.

“When you said you were rebranding, I wasn’t expecting this.” James put his arms to his side, including his gun. “Not exactly coming across as heroic with this new image. It’s a little too macabre.”

Another pause.

V spoke. “I’m only meeting with you now to give you a brief update on where things stand. This is probably the last time we’ll ever speak, like this.”

You ignored my comment.

James let that be.

“And you’re sure of that,” he said.

“I am.”

“Fine then, continue.”

“The Thunders and the Royals are out of the picture, now. I gathered them all here, and made a show of their leaders. While I had the majority of their numbers distracted, I had all of their assets and territories and cash seized. There are survivors, and they’ll probably want to retaliate, but they’ll find that they have nothing to go back to. It’s all been snatched out from under them.”

“That’s quite the workload for one person.”

“It certainly wasn’t easy.”

“I’m more inclined to believe that you had help. The call I got earlier, and with her reputation… Are you telling me a new gang is already moving in?”

The idea of that little girl working with a gang… It almost made James shiver. Before, she had always been something of a free agent, working by herself, enacting her own whims. Her irreverence for any structure or systems actually prevented her from being a legitimate threat. If she was content with being independent, she was actually easier to handle.

But to focus that destruction, aiming it with purpose? And throwing Blank Face – V – into the fold? James had already seen the results, out there on the court. It would be devastating.

“I’m telling you to stay away,” V said. “Let the dust settle where it does. You can clean up here, but after that, you’re done. I don’t want to see you in this territory again.”

He’d heard those words before, or something to that effect. Being ordered by the leader of a cartel or gang, by the enemy.

“You’re telling me what to do?”

“Yes, I am. You’re used to that sort of thing, aren’t you, being the puppet that you are.”

James was stunned.

Something must have snapped, in that mind of hers. She was but a child, just a kid.

“What the hell happened? Last time we met, you were asking me to help you find Benny.”

“And you refused, and I found her anyways. You’re useless, Gomez.”

“Then the fires on Eastside, that was you?”

A pause.

Ignored again.

“V,” James said. “Blank Face-”

V twitched.

“When you first came to my window, and we met on that roof, and you were asking me about finding Thomas, I knew then that you were the one he was working with. You see, Thomas never told me about his activities with you, but I knew him like a brother. He saw something in you, and he wanted to cultivate that. Shape you, despite himself. Part it was stress relief, since our plans weren’t going the way he wanted.”

V didn’t respond.

“So, I just want to ask you a few more questions, before you go, and I officially consider you as the enemy. Do you think Thomas would be proud of what you’ve become? What does ‘V’ stand for, to you? Vengeance, vendetta, villainy?”

V stood there, her head pointed to James. He couldn’t see her eyes, so he could only guess that she was staring at him.

For the third time, V ignored his questions.

“Don’t get in my way, or if you do, get a new office. You don’t want a third visit from me.”

With that final line, drawn in the sand, V took a step back, returning into the shadows.

James ran after her.

“Blank Face!”

He reached for his gun and flashlight. He pointed both around the room.

Nothing, no one, nowhere. V was gone.

“Shit!”

James turned back, going to the window. He watched the scene again, looking at the red letter that faced him, taunted him. ‘V’ was out there, free, and he was the one confined to these walls.

A cycle, revenge was. A vicious circle that turned good people desperate and cruel. Thomas had become desperate, and Blank Face had become cruel.

The number of good people in this city was getting smaller by the day.

James knew, now. It had always been like this, and they were doomed to fail from the start. And now, he was all alone, with nothing to show for his efforts.

Previous                                                                     Bonus

Interlude – V

Previous                                                                     Bonus

Everyone was already talking by the time the girl got inside.

Darn, the girl thought.

She shuffled over to her seat. It wasn’t her seat, exactly, there was no assigned seating. But that was the funny thing about getting to choose their own seats, everyone ended up sticking with the same ones. Easy, to settle into a routine of sorts.

Three long tables, placed together to form three-fourths of a square, the opening faced a whiteboard at the head of the room. The girl grabbed her usual seat at a corner of the makeshift shape, closest to the board, and farthest from everyone else.

No greetings as she settled in, everyone was too busy to notice her.

About three minutes left before things got started. The girl tried to find a conversation, an opening for her to jump into. She didn’t find any.

Darn.

Jasmine sat right next to her, but she was deep in a discussion about a movie that just came out. The girl hadn’t seen it yet, Mom didn’t get the chance to take her to the movies on Saturday. Money was always tight around this time of year.

She could try with Andrew, but he still had his headphones on, nodding to whatever he was listening to. Probably some rock band she’d never heard of.

Emily was closer, but she was way too preoccupied with Justin, who kept picking at her hair and joking about her height… even though they were all sitting down. Like their seat arrangements, it was routine for them, too. The jokes never got too bad, or mean-spirited, it was more like teasing. Maybe Justin was letting on more than he intended with the constant pestering.

Maybe.

The girl looked around, but there were no good openings. Everyone was too busy for someone like her. She resigned to staying quiet, keeping to herself.

She hated keeping to herself. She hated having nothing to do. She’d even settle for reading a book.

There was a bible within her reach. Was she that bored?

Yes, she was, but the boredom didn’t last long. Mrs. Phan entered the room, and a hush followed. Everyone was quiet.

“Good morning, class,” Mrs. Phan said, accent heavy. “And Merry Christmas.”

The class answered in unison. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Phan.”

None of the levity from earlier was present, the same levity the girl wanted to get in on. It was instead replaced by a heavy feeling of anxiety. If one fell, the girl could hear a pin drop, and the floor was carpeted.

Mrs. Phan was short, about the same height as the girl, but her presence stood well above the rest. Her hair was long but done up, styled and kept in place with hairspray, with a swoop across her forehead. A retro look, but it aged her.

Her sweater was a bright red, with snowflakes and reindeer knitted on, with black pants and shoes to finish the look. The end result was tacky, but it was fitting for the season.

If it was Mrs. Phan’s intention to look this way, to lighten up the mood, the effect was marginal. Everyone’s lips remained sealed. They were waiting for her.

Mrs. Phan then started off the discussion for the hour.

“So, what week are we on in this Advent season?”

“The third week,” the class answered, all at once.

“Correct. And what color is the candle on the wreath?”

Mrs. Phan pointed to a corner on the whiteboard. A wreath was up in the corner, crudely drawn in marker.

“Pink.”

“Correct again, but Lilly, I didn’t hear you there, speak up next time, okay?”

A squeak, from the table opposite the girl. Lilly. She was quietest person in class, second only to the girl herself. Not that she wanted to be in that position. It was a reluctant quiet.

Mrs. Phan went on with the review. “So that means it is the third Sunday of the Advent season, and next week is Christmas, the birthday of Jesus.”

A small ‘woo’ came from one of the kids. Mrs. Phan turned to try and find the culprit, but no one was caught. Even the girl couldn’t find who was responsible.

Mrs. Phan went back to the board, and continued writing.

“Alright, this season is a very important time for us as Catholics. In fact, the season doesn’t end until well into January. Does anyone know what else happens during Christmas time?”

She put a pause in her writing, and looked back to the class.

“How about… ah, Alexis?”

The girl felt a pang of panic. Her name was up.

The girl… Alexis, examined the board for a hint. Nothing. Mrs. Phan’s handwriting wasn’t the best, and it was most likely just an itinerary for the hour.

She looked to the other kids for help. No luck there. They looked either too bored or too disinterested to offer an answer, or whisper anything. Most weren’t even looking her way. Not even Jasmine, and she was right there.

Alexis was completely alone.

She turned back to Mrs. Phan, hoping the expression on her face would be enough, that she had no idea what the answer was. Didn’t work, Mrs. Phan still looked expectant.

Darn.

The question was vague, the correct answer unclear. Alexis thought back to last Sunday, but she couldn’t remember that class very well. She hadn’t paid much attention.

Something about… God, and Jesus… and giving.

No hints, and her friends weren’t going to help. Alexis was on her own in this.

She ventured a guess.

“Um… Santa comes and gives gifts to all the good boys and girls?”

Mrs. Phan raised an eyebrow, then raised it some more, as if to inject ire in a neutral, at most curious expression.

She wasn’t satisfied with that answer.

Here and there, kids snickered. They were silenced as Mrs. Phan asked, “Would you like to give that another try, Alexis?”

Ugh.

She was going to make her try again? Alexis really didn’t know, and putting her more on the spot wouldn’t do anyone any favors. It was a waste of time.

Alexis was a waste of time.

But, she made the others laugh a bit. That was worth it, in part.

And if she didn’t know the answer… might as well have some fun.

“Yeah,” Alexis said, leaning back into her seat, “Santa’s gonna come and give everyone presents. And because Jesus was born on Christmas, and he was extra good, he got like, three presents that day!”

Alexis held up three fingers to accentuate her point.

The joke landed, sort of. Not necessarily by execution, but rather by how inappropriate it was, and Mrs. Phan’s reaction. Her face twisted, opening her mouth wide, and yelled.

But it was drowned out by laughter. The joke sort of landed, after all. The other classmates were tittering and giggling, and looking at Alexis. She wasn’t sure if they were laughing with her or at her, but they were laughing all the same.

Looking her way, smiling, showing teeth. Giving her attention.

It filled Alexis with a strange sense of satisfaction.

Mrs. Phan continued to yell, but the sound was farther, now. The laughter overtook it, and filled the girl’s ears.

Then, the scene collapsed, with only the faint ringing of laughter remaining, and the pieces changed, new actors and props moving onto the set.

A new scene was being recalled.

An intimate one, but also equally not so.

The girl… and a boy. Already the details were muddy.

There was Alexis, but the boy’s name wasn’t recalled. His face was blurry, too, smeared like an oil painting, damaged by water.

Even the setting was nondescript. Four walls, a window, a door. A bed.

Alexis sat on the bed as the boy made sure to lock the door.

His name and face were lost, the details maybe even dropped on purpose. It could have been anyone. But the context rooted this moment and gave it meaning.

Alexis had only met the boy a few weeks ago. The tall, athletic type, that much was certain. They were in the same class, and their desks were right next to one another. It helped that the teacher allowed the class to work in pairs…

They had gotten to talking, going from mere acquaintances… to something more. Not boyfriend and girlfriend, but the awkward step before that.

The boy didn’t even have to do much, and what he did do hardly impressed her. Some lame jokes, some corny compliments.

But she was in the mood for lame, for corny. And she was looking for what the boy had provided in spades.

Attention.

She wasn’t getting it from the kids at Sunday school, part of the reason why she ditched them. There was a barrier, a subtle but effective wall around them that she couldn’t get over. And she had a hunch as to why.

She was too different from them.

Something like that didn’t matter at her school, though. She’d found friends, and activities she could do with those friends. Like sports. Partying.

Other stuff. Stuff she’d never done before.

The boy turned, facing Alexis. He approached her, slow in his steps, giving her time to take off her shirt.

The fabric flew over her eyes, and the boy was much closer, now. He leaned in, and she met him head on.

The scene collapsed before anything more could happen.

New actors, new props. Everything was moved around.

Another recall.

The new scene started with an explosion.

“God, it’s like you’re looking for a reason to be pissed off!”

The words spat out of the girl’s mouth before she was fully conscious of them.

Her mother’s face twisted, turning sour. The feeling churned in the girl’s stomach. She stood her ground though. Tried to.

They were in the kitchen, arguing over something. Emotions were too high, now, too hot for either of them to remember what exactly this argument was about. Something about the spilled coffee on the table, maybe? Maybe, but it seemed too trivial, too trite.

This was a long time coming, then, for both sides. Bubbling tempers, the lids shaking, needing only a spark for everything to blow up.

And blow up it did.

Her mother took a second to formulate a response, words to throw back at her daughter.

“I would not be like this if you did just listened to me the first time.”

She wasn’t yelling, but she matched Alexis in intensity. Holding back just enough to let Alexis know that there was more to come, should she push her there.

Alexis pushed.

“I was just about to get around to it, if you could have just waited like one second!”

She saw her mother open her mouth to respond, and threw out more words before she could.

“That’s your thing, you’re impatient and you jump the gun, all the time! Can’t you just cool it, for like a minute?”

She saw a twitch, a small delay in her mother’s movements. Riled, blinded, she took that opening.

“Maybe that’s why that guy left you, right?”

Stinging. Burning. Like a grenade that went off too early. Friendly fire.

Everything stopped. The weight of her words brought their world to a screeching halt.

Her mother… it was as if all life was drained from her. Her skin was white, her eyes had a dreary look to them. Hollow.

Alexis was stunned. The regret was immediate. But it always seemed harder to take it back, especially when emotions flared.

She was moving before her mother could attempt another word, trying to get out of the kitchen. Her mother was closer to the faucet, so the path wasn’t blocked. A stroke of luck.

She left the kitchen, fleeing to her room, the door slamming behind her.

She leaned, and found herself on her side, down. It hadn’t registered to Alexis that she fell.

Tears started streaming, not down her face, but across the bridge of her nose, past one ear.

It wasn’t true. Not one word she said was true.

Her mother could be uptight, but Alexis knew she was patient, how forgiving she was to her daughter. She could cool it, for much longer than a second.

And that guy didn’t leave her… he left them. He never came back. She never got the chance to learn his name.

She didn’t want to. Fuck that. Fuck that guy.

She knew she’d have to go back out there. She’d have to apologize. She wanted to.

But…

She didn’t have power to stand up now. She’d stay down, keep herself down.

Here, at the bottom.

I’m a terrible person.

As the tears fell, so the scene, collapsing all around the girl.

But, a new scene wasn’t being recalled. The stage was left blank.

It was just the girl, in an ever-expanding expanse of darkness.

She opened her eyes, and looked at her bare arms and legs. Her bare torso.

Scars, enough to outline her entire body. Bruises marked her skin, colored it, like blotches of paint on a canvas.

She wasn’t embarrassed, or ashamed of the blemishes. They defined her, gave her a shape.

All that she was, and all that she would be.

Here, there was no Alexis, no other labels. Just the core underneath it all. The scars.

The girl tested her voice, and it carried in the darkness, echoing forever.

“I don’t get it. Why show me that, all that ugliness. Is this your idea of a stronger foothold?”

No voiced answer. The darkness emitted.

“Oh.”

The darkness swam, forming faint, weak images. As if being seen through static.

Less ugly scenes, scenes that were less taxing to share. Playing on a playground, running on a track, helping in the kitchen. Pleasant, but the grainy filter distorted the images, making it impossible to get a proper view.

The darkness relented, and the scenes dissipated.

“You want the same things I do, huh? Alright, I get it now.”

The voice echoed, reaching into the darkness, affecting it. The darkness rippled in response.

The girl managed a smile.

“I guess I’m capable of understanding, I managed with Benny. Okay, you… no. There aren’t really winners and losers in this, are there? Not me, not you.”

The girl breathed after what felt like an eternity, and it rejuvenated.

“It’s us.”

Spoken as an objective fact. The truth.

The darkness reacted.

It slinked, moving over arms and legs. The scars and bruises were being washed away. A warm sensation hit the core. A healing that was long overdue.

“It’s not going to be pretty, I’ll tell you that right now. But we’ve gotten used to it, haven’t we? The ugliness.”

An absence was now starting to settle in, spaces where darkness once occupied. White. It began to solidify, taking its own shape.

A checkerboard.

“Take a deep breath, because it’s as close to a heaven as we’re going to get. It’ll get much hotter from here on out.”

The darkness pulsated, as if it understood. An agreement.

It finished, and the scars and bruises were gone. Not one mark was left.

The arrangement was simple, clean. Some darkness remained, keeping the checkerboard pattern.

Under her own power, the girl stood.

“Let’s burn it all to the fucking ground.”

“Hey, Alexis?”

V responded. “Yeah?”

“You’re kinda spacing out there. You okay?”

V smiled, warm. “I’m okay.”

Justin gave her another look over, but he sat back, letting it go.

Emily jabbed him in the arm. “Stop looking at her like that.”

“Ow, what’d I do?”

Too late, the damage was done. Emily turned up her nose, and looked away from Justin. Where she was irritated, he was equally confused.

V found the whole thing amusing.

They were in a Vietnamese restaurant. Phở Nam, at the Asian market, somewhere in the edge of downtown, away from the bigger buildings. A nice change of pace, to not have buildings towering above.

Justin and Emily had reached out again, to hang out with Alexis. Grab some lunch, maybe catch a movie later. Spending a day with the OG Francis Xavier youth group… except the rest of them couldn’t make it. V wasn’t particularly surprised, or disappointed.

The couple felt that three wasn’t enough of a crowd, though. They heavily suggested that Alexis could invite anyone, bring them along. V immediately knew who to reach out to.

Katy was on her phone, and Maria sipped from a small bowl of soup. They were all around a table, waiting for their food.

It was a calm scene, the atmosphere lowkey. Nothing to worry about, nothing that would ruin their day. They could just sit, and be okay.

V checked her watch.

“Emily, babe, I wasn’t actually…”

Justin kept trying to explain himself to Emily, but he was badgering her by this point. She looked like she was having none of it, but the gesture was exaggerated. She was teasing him.

“If you get me a molten lava chocolate cake after this,” Emily said, her voice high, “I might be able to look the other way.”

Justin scrunched up his face. “You’re just toying with me, aren’t you?”

“I dunno, am I?”

His concerned expression dropped, replaced by a grin.

“Ah, fuck you,” he said, then took a sip from his own bowl of soup.

“How long have you two been together?”

It was Maria that asked.

Emily dropped her act to answer. “Oh, couple years, I think. Beginning of high school.”

“Last day of school, actually,” Justin said, wiping his lip with a napkin. “But it was during freshman year. I asked you out right by your locker.”

“That’s right, but does that really count? I remember saying no, then.”

Maria gave a look of shock.

“You said no?”

Justin looked hurt. “You weren’t supposed to tell people that.”

“But it’s true, and she asked. I can’t just, you know, lie.”

“Fine. But hey, she did say yes about a week later, so who really won in the end?”

Justin pointed two thumbs in his direction.

“This guy!”

Emily rolled her eyes, groaning at him. She seemed to mean it, that time.

“Babe, I was kidding, I was joking…”

Maria laughed at Justin’s expense. Justin seemed annoyed, but he rolled with it. All in good fun.

V checked her watch again.

“It’s alright,” Katy said, finally off her phone. “We still have time for a movie, if you haven’t crossed that out, already.”

“Oh, um, right.”

V had to tell herself to stop checking.

“Speaking of,” Justin said, “Is there anything good out right now?”

“There’s that Water… Shape… something movie,” Emily said. “That looks interesting. But, man, that’s too recent. I’m not very fond of crowded theaters.”

“Same, girl,” Maria said. “I’d rather wait until I can stream it at home. That way, I can stay in bed and watch a movie with my own damn popcorn.”

“That sounds like a dream.”

Emily lifted a hand, and Maria matched her, a solid high five.

They’re getting along, V noted. That’s good.

It wouldn’t be perfect, but it could be good.

V tapped a finger on the table, downing half her glass of water.

Katy asked, “Something on your mind, Alexis?”

V spun her straw around the lid of the glass.

“Nothing really. Just waiting.”

“Just waiting?”

“Yup.”

Katy proceeded to make a comment, but V couldn’t quite catch it. The tone was odd, though. Not accusatory, but it was pointed.

“Damn, it’s loud,” V said, her voice raised in turn.

“It is pretty busy,” Justin said, looking around the restaurant. “Even at this hour.”

“Ever since, uh…” Emily stammered, eyes darting around. “Ever since he… did the things, people have been flocking to these places. It’s been rough couple of weeks.”

“Like a kind of refuge?” Maria asked.

“Kind of, I guess.”

Just from listening, it was easy to tell the place was busy. People were talking, conversing, shouting in Vietnamese across tables to call waiters. Noon during the holiday season already made things hectic, but another factor added to all the activity.

Harrian was the he, and him attacking a school were the things. A big incident like that meant big ramifications, and they stretched far and wide. A whole subsection of the city’s population were thrusted into the public consciousness, and neither were used to it. People who were already used to being hidden in plain sight, and a light that was too sudden, too harsh, and too bright. It lead to a push and pull from both sides. It lead to friction.

Here, it was Katy and Maria who were in the minority. The rest of them were those who wanted to find a place to feel at ease. To hide in plain sight. Refuge.

It was either this, or another riot. And this city had already seen more of its share fair of those. The cage was being rattled one too many times.

Here, there was peace, as relative as it was.

“I’m, dang, sorry guys,” Emily said. “I didn’t mean to bring that up. I’m not trying to be a downer.”

“It’s alright,” Katy said. “It’s not nothing, but it’s alright. That kind of thing affects a lot of people. We’re not that special in that regard.”

“But you,” Emily started, but she had the decent sense to not press that point. She shut herself up.

“Happy thoughts, guys,” Maria said, filling the dead air. “Happy thoughts.”

Katy threw in another comment before that dead air could come back again. “Saying it like that makes it more awkward.”

The group chuckled, trying to lighten the mood. V had joined in to keep appearances.

With everyone distracted, she stole a glance at her watch for a third time.

Maria gave it another try. “Emily, the reason why I thought you two were so funny earlier was because I kind of did the same thing, too.”

“What thing?” Emily asked.

“When my boyfriend asked me out, I didn’t give him a yes until like, six months later.”

Emily gave a her own look of shock.

“Holy shit, six months?”

“It’s a long story, obviously, but yeah, it took a while before I realized I was being dumb, and then I went to him. I’m still baffled at how he didn’t get another girl at that time.”

“Oh. Handsome guy?”

“Oh yeah,” Maria said, sounding proud.

“Aw, sounds like he was hoping you’d change your mind.”

“That’s what I tell myself.”

“Geez, I think I’d kill myself if I ended up waiting six months,” Justin commented, out of the blue. “Or, maybe I would have found someone else by then?”

Emily made a grunt.

“Please, you’re lucky that I gave your ass a chance!”

Justin looked physically pained to hear that, with Maria and Emily laughing at him again, sharing another high five.

“How about you two,” Emily said, turning to V and Katy. “Single?”

V and Katy looked at each other. V gestured for Katy to go first.

“I am,” Katy said. “And I’m not exactly looking for a guy, either.”

“Fair.” Emily looked at V, moving her eyebrows up and down. “And you?”

V brought her glass close, drinking more of her water.

“Same here,” V said. “Not interested at the moment.”

“That, I don’t believe. You’re hiding it, but you’re practically glowing.”

Glowing?

“I am not,” V said.

Emily’s eyebrows hadn’t stopped going up and down. “Don’t lie, we’re all friends here. I have a good eye for stuff like that. Something happened, and it was recent. Come on, spill the tea, girl.”

The sudden attention on her was more than she needed. V had to fight herself from checking her watch again.

She settled for drinking more water.

“No no,” Emily said. “Don’t hide behind your water. I wanna hear the details.”

A bubbling sound. V had ran out of water, her straw getting more air now than anything else.

“You must be seeing things, then,” V said. “Because you’re wrong. There are no details, and even if there were, and there aren’t, I’m not up to sharing.”

Emily pouted. “Ah fine, I’ll let you off the hook.”

She shot V a look though, the corners of her mouth folding up. She resembled a cat.

“For now.”

“She’s just being shy,” Katy said, giving V a sidelong glance. “Usually you can goad Alexis into sharing a few stories. She actually has some good ones. Remember the lake?”

V didn’t even try, but she knew there was a barrier, there. A mental block.

“I do,” V lied. “But I still don’t want to get into it.”

Katy’s glance lingered, but she then dropped it, moving on. V briefly squinted at her.

“We can talk about other stuff,” Katy said. “Like Maria’s boyfriend. This is the most I’ve heard of him… ever. I’m actually kind of shocked.”

“I’m full of surprises,” Maria said.

“Keep surprising me. I want to hear all-”

A shout had cut into everything. Katy talking, the restaurant bustling.

“You fucker! I been waitin’ for thirty goddamn minutes! When am I getting served?”

A man, standing up from his table, his chair sliding back away from him. It was cold out, somewhat chilly in here, but he had on a baggy white shirt and jeans. A bandage over one hand.

Mexican, just from his face alone, and he was probably the tallest one here, mean mugging anyone who was looking up at him.

He had a crew with him, sitting at the table. Dressed in a similar fashion. They didn’t seem disconcerted about their friend’s behavior. Unconcerned, maybe even disinterested.

The man yelled at the nearest waitress.

“You speak English?”

The waiter struggled to get out a word.

The man yelled some more.

“Fuck, speak English! We’re in America. I’m here, you’re here, speak some fucking real words!”

He spread his arms, fast and hard. He almost swiped at the waitress, who backed away, hitting a table. Water and tea were spilled all over.

“Fuck!” he yelled again, arms high. It was as if he was being mad just to be mad. Like putting a show.

“What a dick,” Emily said, under her breath. It was certainly one way to put it. Everyone’s lunch was ruined, the atmosphere spoiled.

Sitting in her seat, Katy looked tense, unsure of what was to come next. Maria retreated into herself, trying to appear smaller.

V checked her watch. She waited.

“Sir, please calm down.”

A woman walked to the angered man, hands in a placating gesture. Vietnamese, probably the manager.

The man’s face contorted.

“Calm down? How I can fucking calm down? We be waitin’ for a fucking hour by now!”

“Sir, you said thirty minutes.”

The man just yelled.

“See? No fucking wonder everyone’s been beating on you squity-eyed fucks! You’re all the same.”

Words mattered. They affected people. And they riled up the crowded restaurant.

Everyone began to voice their protest.

Yelling, shouting, it all mixed into a cacophonous wall of sound. Even Justin heated up for a moment, yelling out a profanity, then sitting back in his chair.

The man didn’t care. He was looking around, egging people on, getting a rise of them. He took his time, staring down each and every person.

He was facing V’s table when others started getting up, too. From the other tables, looking to pick a fight with the man.

“I think it’s time for you and your friends to leave,” one of them said. Another man.

“I agree,” another said. A girl.

The man clearly did not agree.

“Sit your flat-ass down, or I’ll make you.”

He lifted one side of his shirt, revealing a holster he had on his hip.

V got up from her seat.

“Alexis?” Katy questioned.

“Hey, dick,” V said. She ignored Katy.

The man turned. He wasn’t that far, and she was loud enough.

He took a second longer that needed to get a look at her face, as if he was studying her.

“Fuck you doing here?” he asked.

“If you’re really going to harass a girl, you really shouldn’t do it in a restaurant with a lot of people. Someone might catch you.”

V had thought over her words.

The man chuckled.

“Bitch, you stay outta this!” He lifted his shirt move, reaching for his gun.

Everyone moved. Everyone jumped out of their seats. Most ran away from the man. A select few dared to run towards him.

V was among that select few.

“Alexis!”

She heard Katy from behind.

“Damn you, don’t!”

V ignored her for the last time.

She was fast, faster than anyone else here. She got to the man first.

But his hand was faster. He was already holding the handgun.

V swung with her arm, aiming for-

No.

A finger was faster than an arm.

The shot rang out.

V dropped.

She could have gotten back up, sprang back to her feet, but she didn’t. She stayed down. Her ears ringing. Head aching.

Past that were the sounds of more commotion. Screaming, shouting. Fighting.

She wasn’t hurt, no bullet had even grazed her, but V didn’t get up.

V played dead.

Loud. Tables being flipped over. Metal on tile. Some water dripped on V’s head as stuff got thrown around. She didn’t move.

V felt hands on her. Then, she felt the floor move away from her.

She was being lifted.

She tried moving her arms, her legs. Budging just a little. Nothing. She was being held tight.

“We’re moving out!”

The man. He sounded close.

Bobbing. Rough. They were running, and she was being taken with them.

Cold. The door has swung open, exposing her to the weather outside. She felt a chill.

The men didn’t break stride. Another shot rang outdoors.

A hard stop. She heard the rumbling of an engine.

“No! Put the others in the back, this one stays here, alone!”

The man was barking orders.

Footsteps, moving fast. Doors sliding open and closed. Fast. They were working with haste.

V was tossed, landing on leather.

Tires screeched as the door slid closed.

The van was at top speed as it pulled away, leaving the restaurant behind.

V clenched her hands, making fists. Counting down from ten. Getting her focus back. Loud sounds really did get to her.

The van sped through corners, making the turns tight. V was jostled around, and it was hard to make herself upright.

She felt more hands press into her body, keeping her steady. Small.

“Almost there! If we can make it to that back road, we’re in the clear!”

A yell, but the voice was small. Young.

The ride was fast, then bumpy, speeding along anyways. It continued for several minutes.

“Wakey wakey.”

That was directed to her. V opened her eyes, slow, finding that she screwed them tight.

She needed time to get her bearings.

A girl was watching her, looking after her with care. Her arms were out, holding her, as the drive jerked them around. Neither were of them were wearing seatbelts.

She saw V come to, and gradually moved her hands away. She was smiling as V managed to sit properly.

V pushed her hair back, fixing loose strands.

“How are we doing on time?” the girl asked, still watching V. She had a phone in her hand, now, taking only small, needed glances. Her eyes were on V, otherwise.

Someone else answered. The driver.

“Good on all counts. Decoys are in place, and everyone’s moving on their assigned routes with no trouble.”

“Awesome.”

V was blinking, checking her watch. A simple but sleek design, an all-black face with no numbers or markings, with gold hands. It was a quarter to one.

She had this watch during the Eastside raid. She had it with her.

I really am a sentimental one.

She looked up and saw D, with her trademark grin. She gave her a nod.

“You’re late, Dor-,” V said.

“That’s my grandmother’s name,” D said. “Operation was a success, we’re off to Wanderland, now. We can do whatever we want. Play chess all day, feed our curious appetites, whatever. We never have to grow up. So sit back, relax, and enjoy yourself, it’s about to get extra fun.”

D smiled wider.

“Or, would you rather have something to drink?”

She looked pleased with herself for making the various references.

The girl managed to return one of her own, deciding to indulge her. It didn’t feel forced.

“Something sweet, please,” Wendy said.

Previous                                                                     Bonus

048 – Balancing Act

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“Can’t remember the last time I was up here,” Katy said, flat. She rested her arms on the railing, feeling the wind in her hair.

I tapped my foot.

“Shit, I’ve never been up here,” Maria said, joining her. “Hey, and the view isn’t too bad. Do you come out here often, Alexis?”

I crossed my legs, and my arms.

I was sitting in a chair beside Maria, farther from her than she was to Katy. Behind bars, I saw the city.

“Every now and then,” I answered. During my time as a ‘hero,’ I used the balcony as my way of going in and out of the apartment.

But, there was no reason to bring up that bit of info.

Our volunteering at the church ended around noontime, and aside from giving our condolences to Mrs. Phan and Justin one more time, we left without a fuss. I didn’t bother to seek out those other kids to say farewell, either.

Mother offered to cook lunch back at the apartment, since we were already all together. Katy and Maria were up for it. I wasn’t, but I couldn’t exactly voice that sentiment. I had to go along with it, with everyone. Reluctantly.

She prepared miso soup and fried chicken. It was apparent that I used to have some kind of connection to those particular dishes. The extra company of little girls that sat with us at the table, lounging on the couch, eating their own fill, each with their faces scraped away…

At least, it made it easier to keep my head down, be quiet, and eat.

The food tasted awful, of course, but I had learned how to hide it. It sat like a weight in my stomach. I’d have to throw it up later, when I had time.

Which was the problem I had, now.

Time.

Lunch was over, Katy and Maria got what they came here for. Why were they still hanging around?

I remembered those kids back at the church.

Licking wounds. Pity.

My foot tapped, my legs crossed and uncrossed. I sat back and leaned forward.

Please, let the sun set faster.

“How’d you even get this deal, anyways?” Maria asked, ripping me away from my thoughts and planning. “Getting the master bedroom all to yourself is quite sweet.”

She was talking to me. I’d rather not, but it was unavoidable.

I looked away from the city to see into the glass door, my room. I saw a girl a few years my junior, in her bed, typing away at her phone. Giggling.

I looked elsewhere, back, on the balcony, and saw brief flashes of a toddler, tightly hugging her mother, delighted over something.

The images drilled, and it actively hurt to try and look at. Like staring at the sun.

“Shi- My mom, she let me have this room, back when we moved in.”

“Really? She just gave it to you?”

My head ached the more she forced me to put thought into it. “Yes. She prefers smaller spaces, I guess.”

“Your mom’s from Japan, right? Did she grow up in a apartment there, too?”

If I tried to reach that far back, that hard, for such an insignificant detail, my head would split open.

“I really don’t know,” I said.

A sound, not from Maria, but from Katy.

“You don’t know where your mom grew up?” Maria asked.

“She’s never shared much about her time there. She’s never brought it up, and I just learned not to ask.”

That didn’t require strenuous brain power to say. As if it was a lesson that truly left a mark on my very being.

“I can give you that,” Maria said. “No diss, but she does seem kind of… standoffish?”

Even I could see it. Clear. The description fit.

“No diss,” I said. “That’s about right.”

“But, like, don’t get me wrong, Shiori’s awesome, she just also has this side to her, you know, like, I can’t get her mad, no matter what, or she’d fucking kill me, or worse.”

I smirked, almost in spite of myself.

“That’s what Asian parents are like,” I said.

Then, right there, a moment came and went. An opening to continue the conversation, but no one took it. Maria didn’t.

A breeze gently passed, and hair brushed into my face. I briefly had the thought of getting it cut.

Maria clicked her tongue, seemingly out of nowhere.

“Hard to believe it’s already December,” Maria said. “Barely feels like it.”

She’s forcing it.

This time, Katy answered her, her tone as dry as ever. “It’s because it’s been so warm. It’s only ever really chilly in the morning, other than that you’re good with a jacket. We can’t even get a proper winter.”

“I bet it’ll get colder later, probably around Christmas or New Year’s,” Maria said. “Hey, do you guys have any plans for the holidays?”

No answer, from me or from Katy. Enough time passed that it should have meant something.

Maria fixed her hair, removing a strand that flew into her mouth.

“Same,” Maria said, breathing out the word.

I had enough awareness that I could see what she was trying to do, but I just didn’t have the will or care or investment to play along. They were friendly, and the connection between me and them existed, but it was becoming frail, nearly vestigial. I couldn’t claim it as my own.

Doing so would be lying to myself.

But, I also recognized that I couldn’t neglect that part of my life altogether. It was a chore, but it was a necessary one. A role I had to play, a mask I needed to wear.

In a perfect world, I would have no need to be here. I would have no need for this.

Yet, here I was.

At least for now, I’d have to act as Alexis Barnett.

“I legit don’t know what I’ll be doing around that time,” I said, throwing Maria a bone. “Hopefully I’ll just be chilling, getting some peace and quiet.”

“Yeah, some of that would be nice,” Maria said. “Things just keep happening. I need a damn break.”

“Snowball effect,” Katy said. She didn’t say anything more than that.

“What do you mean?” Maria asked.

Katy remained silent for a time.

“Nothing,” she finally said.

Maria fixed her hair again, then looked at me. I noticed her stare. It was a very specific kind of stare. Was I supposed to know what she was thinking? Reading between the lines?

A sort of mutual understanding, but I couldn’t deliver on my end. That particular meaning was lost on me.

I broke eye contact, and I gave a half-hearted shrug. An empty gesture, but it should’ve been enough for Maria. She could ascribe her own meaning in that.

My foot started tapping again, and I leaned back, observing the other two. Katy had her phone out, her attention focused there. Maria was taking in the view of the city, doing her best to keep up a brave face. She tried, but I somehow managed to see the cracks.

This wasn’t working. At all.

None of us were up for talking, and none of us could face each other for any meaningful length of time. Even for me, at a distance from it all, it was blatantly clear. Katy was still reeling from the death of her father, and Maria had to stand at the sidelines if she wanted to support her. And I, on principle, preferred that distance to maintain.

On top of everything else, the attack at the school was still fresh on everyone’s minds. That alone would force any normal person to retreat inward.

It wasn’t unlike trying to push together magnets of the same end. There was bound to be a resistance, from every side.

And if you push too hard, what would happen when you suddenly let go?

“All the pieces fly away,” I said to myself.

“Did you say something?” Maria asked. Must have heard me.

“Um, nothing,” I said. I sounded like Katy, there.

Maria grumbled, then turned around, her back against the railing. “Man, you people need to stop with the subliminals. Freaks me out.”

“My bad,” I said.

“Sorry,” Katy said.

We spoke at the same time.

“Sorry,” I said.

“My bad,” Katy said.

We did it again.

An awkward pause followed.

Maria was the one to break, laughing at our expense.

She kept laughing.

Then some more.

“I’m okay,” Maria said, between fits. Oddly pitchy. “It’s okay, see, it can be okay, just laugh at something whenever, it can help. Just fucking saying.”

She rubbed, massaged at her eyes using her sleeve. When she pulled away, her eyes were red.

“Ugh, fuck,” she said. “I am so fucking lame.”

The connection between us, I felt it shoring up. Despite me. A tug at my chest that I couldn’t explain.

I used the new, more intense awkward pause, and retreated into it. No one said any more.

We all retreated.

I wasn’t sure how much time had gone by when Mother came to check in on us.

“Hi,” she said, soft, stepping onto the balcony, door left open. She had a tin bowl in her hands. “I cut up apples, please help yourselves.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Barnett,” Maria said, immediately going for them. “They’re great.”

Katy went next, taking her arms off the railing, phone falling back into a pocket.

“Thanks,” she said, dry.

And that meant I had to have a turn.

“Thanks, Ma,” I said. I would’ve fumbled if I had to say more than one and a half words.

I grabbed two slices, and ate them. I chewed fast, then swallowed like I was drinking water.

Mush, wet. Like grounded-up fish guts. It repulsed. Mother had washed the apples before cutting, which did help, it made them easier to bring down.

And it would make them easier to bring back up.

“Tastes good,” I lied.

“I leave them here for you?” she suggested.

“Actually,” Katy said, after wiping her mouth. “I’ll have to get going, now. Mom called, and I’ve got some errands to run.”

“Are you sure?” Mother asked.

Katy cast glance at the two of us. At Maria. At me.

“I’m sure,” she said.

“I guess,” Maria said, unsure of herself, “That’s it for me, too. Don’t wanna overstay anything.”

“It’s no problem,” Mother said. “Of course you’re welcome.”

“But, I loved the food, though,” Maria said, as if to save face. “I’ve never had authentic Japanese before. It was delish.”

“It was,” Katy added. “Thanks again, Shiori.”

Katy started, passing Mother to leave. I got out of my seat. It was only proper, when guests were leaving.

“Bye,” I said, watching Maria follow, as they both left.

“Bye,” Katy returned, without turning back. However, I noticed Maria steal a glance.

They crossed my room, leaving through the other door, into the living room. From there, the front door was their exit.

“You won’t see them off?” Mother asked, facing me.

My hand went over my stomach.

“I really need some fresh air. But I’ll see them again.”

That last bit sounded more like a premonition than a blessing.

Mother lifted the bowl of apples to me. “Do you still want?”

I took a slice.

“You can leave the rest in the kitchen,” I said. “I might get some more, later.”

Mother nodded, then left the balcony, and I got the door for her. I spun back, and rested my arms on the railing.

I looked back at the city, uncaged.

I tossed the apple away, the slice falling into grass below.

The wind picked up again, and I took a deep breath. The headache was starting to subside.

I didn’t like reaching into older, useless connections. It diluted my thinking. Making me less me, and giving purchase to another thing. Her.

Granted, some connections, memories, were necessary, like my time as Blank Face. Others, if I could, I’d drop them immediately. Trim the fat, as the saying went.

In a perfect world, I would have no need to be here.

It was another reason why I was pressed for time. The last thing I wanted was to doubt myself.

Which was why tonight was so crucial.

If I was to do this again, I had to make some serious changes. I had to do this right. No more blindly jumping about, grasping at straws. I needed to go about this with a plan in mind.

If I wanted to play for keeps, I needed to prepare a hand to play.

Now this was more like it.

Standing on the edge, the thrill of being so high up. Overseeing everything, the city completely unaware. The cold, beaten only by the rush of adrenaline pumping through my veins. The sight and sounds were present, but far away. From up here, everything seemed so small.

The feeling of plastic on my face.

This was true freedom.

My costume underwent some more changes. It was all makeshift, I’d have to make do with what I had for just a little longer.

I ditched the blue. Better to distance myself from that image, than risk more trouble by dressing as the blue demon everyone was hunting. Better yet to ditch that identity entirely.

Functionally speaking, however, I was still married to the idea of wearing hoodies and windbreakers. I couldn’t seem to get myself away from that concept. On that front, all I did was swap the blue for red.

The mask I had on was my old one, the first one I ever used. It was simple, and barely identifiable. It worked. But I did make some changes to its look. I darkened the sockets around the eyes and the edges of the mask, to shape it more like a human face. As an added touch, I applied some red paint onto the lips. Following the phantoms that wandered around my apartment, I managed to find old, forgotten material, and used it to touch-up my mask.

After that were the smaller essentials. Bag, extra clothes, cash, gloves, knife.

The final result, with everything working in tandem, with mask on and hood up, I didn’t look like someone wearing a mask. I looked like a whole new person.

Not a costume, but a form to call my own. I wasn’t Blank Face, I wasn’t the Bluemoon, and I especially was not Alexis Barnett. I’d need a name, but that could wait.

Standing above the city, I was me.

We’re just us.

Precisely.

Then, I moved.

It was exhilarating, refreshing. A much needed opportunity to stretch my legs and really extend my abilities. I had to keep focused on the path ahead, watching out when I had to jump higher to reach the next building, and bracing myself when the drop was that much lower. It kept my mind running, as much as my body.

I crossed gaps, careful not to overextend and lose my footing. I knew how to maneuver over obstacles, the vents and air conditioning units. Ducking, sliding when necessary.

You’ve gotten better at this, I told myself. The thought alone was liberating. From my old self, old limitations.

I checked the sky as I moved through the air, and he passed overhead.

Hleuco.

He had feathers, a beak, it wasn’t that much of a leap for him to have wings, too.

Coming out from his back, his wings were as large as they were long, to support something of his height and weight. Jet black. It was hard to make out in the night, but he was gliding more than he was actually flying. One flap of his huge wings was enough to go a long distance.

When he passed the moon, the light pierced him for a moment, and he’d vanish, only to materialize as he left that sphere of influence.

I fought the urge to cheer as I soared through the air a final time. I stopped, landing right before our destination.

Hleuco was already there, perched on the roof of the adjacent building. It took four flaps for him to beat me to the police station.

Here we are.

Back again.

I kept low, stalking to the edge of the roof to check the windows of the next building.

There he was, just like last time. Working at his desk.

James Gomez.

A visual was all I needed, and I moved again, dropping down to the fire escape that was mounted to the wall. I had become light enough to not make too much noise when I landed.

I went up to the window of his office, and something caught my eye.

Blank Face’s message was still here from the last time, etched with a black marker, but bits of the letters were reduced to mere smudges. Probably from the rain we had gotten recently.

He had covered up the original message with a scrap of notebook paper, taped from his side of the window. And when the rain came and went, he forgot to take it down.

There was something humorous in that, and it almost gave me pause. I had to remind myself not to laugh and give myself away.

Focus.

Yeah, yeah.

Good thing I had come prepared. I slipped out another marker from the side of my bag, and wrote out a new message on the window. I finished by drawing an arrow, pointing to the scrap of paper.

‘COME CLEAN!’

I put the marker back, then knocked on the window. In the next breath, I was already ascending up the remainder of the fire escape. As I drew in another, I already was up on the roof.

I didn’t situate myself atop the cement roof enclosure, over the roof access door. Not like last time. I just stood at the door, arms folded. Waiting.

Hleuco was gone, leaving me with time to concentrate. I shut my eyes to regain certain connections to better prepare myself for the meeting.

Waiting.

My foot began to tap.

Waiting.

He was really taking his sweet time.

The door creaked when it finally opened, and I opened my eyes, ready. I saw Gomez as he stepped onto the roof. The door shut on its own as he approached. He saw me, and I saw his hand move slowly toward his side. His hip.

“It’s me, Blank Face,” I said, to reassure him.

Even though I don’t care much for that name, anymore.

Gomez’s hand stopped, instead going into a pocket. He bobbed his head in a nod.

“Rebranding, are we?” he questioned. “I think I’ve only ever seen you with your proper costume once, and that was the first time you showed up here.”

“Rebranding is a good way of putting it,” I said.

Gomez’s expression changed, his heavy mustache accentuating his frown.

He looked drained, beaten down by recent events. His cheeks a little sunken in, what little of his hair left frayed at the ends. Add on top the decades of wear, tear, and stress a job like his dished out…

He looked like a husk of James Gomez, Chief of Police of the Stephenville Police Department.

His voice reflected that, too, when he spoke. Hoarse.

“A lot has happened since the last time I saw you, and dare I say, a lot has happened because of you. You’re very popular, if you weren’t aware. Lot of people want to get their hands on you, yet you come to visit me. Can’t tell if I should be grateful.”

He took a step towards me. Then another.

“Maybe I should call it in, it’d be so easy. Like I mentioned the last time you were up here, one press of a button, and you’re done. I have you. And I put all of this bullshit behind me and finally start seeing a therapist. God knows I need one.”

He wouldn’t actually turn me in, would he? I’d probably be able to get away if he did, but it’d be an inconvenience, a door shut in my face.

I stood, tense, watching his every step, every twitch or movement. If he was going to pull something, I could stop him, break his arm, send him off the ledge.

I could, but I shouldn’t.

I had to actively tell myself no. That wouldn’t do me any good.

Let’s save the energy for someone else.

Gomez continued, interrupting my thoughts.

“You’ve been awfully quiet. Tell me, do you still think you’re the good guy? The hero?”

It was that question that derailed my train of thought. What did this have to do with anything? How was that relevant?

Behind my mask, I looked at Gomez right in the eye.

No, he was being serious.

I bit my tongue.

I had to answer him, and I had a feeling that there was a right answer to his question. Piss him off, and I’d lose the point of being here in the first place.

I gave him my answer.

“I’m after the bad guys, the people responsible for this whole mess. Solace, Styx, Benny, they’ve gone too far without having lost anything in return. I want them to pay, and I want to take from them the equivalent of what they’ve taken from everyone else.”

What they’ve taken from us.

Gomez blinked, slow, taking in my response. His eyebrow furrowed.

“Eye for an eye, don’t you know what happens when the whole world operates like that?”

I had no answer, there, and I was running out of patience.

“We’re getting sidetracked. I came here because I need your help. I’m looking for Benny. If she’s still in the city, I’m going to find her.”

“Just Benny?” he asked.

“She’s a start. Is she still here?”

Gomez removed a hand from his pocket, and rubbed his mustache, fixing it.

“She could be. Honestly? I’m inclined to say yes.”

Yes.

Exactly what I wanted to hear.

“How do you know for sure?” I asked, almost excitedly so.

“I don’t know for sure, but given what I know of this city and the situation, she won’t get too far without getting caught. Border’s even more tight, now, thanks to her own actions, and considering the… culture, here, there’s a nice price on her head.”

“Meaning,” I offered.

“Meaning everyone’s going to want to cash in. Gangs… and some of my own men, with secondary loyalties.”

“It’s a manhunt from all sides,” I said, summing it up.

“Precisely, and if every movement might get you sniffed out, then the best bet is to stay put, and pray for some miraculous opening. If she’s smart, she’ll have holed herself up, wherever she is.”

I nodded, taking it in.

Those were good odds, but it came with the added challenge of everyone being a player in the game of finding her.

It wouldn’t be easy, but it could be done.

“That’s reassuring,” I said. “We find her, and we have a very big piece of the Solace… conspiracy, for want of a better word. From the weapons found back at that warehouse, we know that The Chariot was involved. If she can’t give us anything, fine, but we still have the person who led the attack at Stephenville High School.”

“Stephenville High School,” he repeated, and it came with a harrowing note. “You know she was behind it?”

“I know some of her crew were brought into custody.”

He fixed his mustache again.

“I see. Is that why you’re looking for her, because it’s personal?”

I could almost see the scenery change around me, and I was back in that bloody, messy, classroom. Where I woke up.

“Thomas was personal,” I said, bringing myself back. “This is another matter. She called me out, and people, kids, suffered for it. This is…”

Personal in a different way. Therapeutic, using your own words.

But I just trailed off, instead.

I couldn’t gauge Gomez’s exact expression, but it wasn’t pleasant.

“Don’t bring up his name, not like that, not here. His funeral wasn’t that long ago. Maybe you were there?”

The mention of his name brought back Hleuco. He stood by Gomez, head cocked, like observing prey.

“In spirit,” I said, glancing at the shadow figure. “But we’re getting sidetracked again.”

If I wasn’t getting what I needed out of Gomez, I was wasting time. “I know that not everyone of Benny’s crew made it out of the school, some were left behind. If you have them in custody, I’d like to pay them a visit. Any one of them will do.”

“Ah.” He bobbed his head, again, then said, “They’re not here. We don’t have them.”

“They’re not what? Where are they?”

Gomez explained. “They attacked and destroyed a public school, and terrorized the students and staff inside that school. We arrested them, but we had to hand them over. They’re in a federal prison, now. They might even end up being deported, but it’s too soon to tell.”

Fuck. I hadn’t considered that, I didn’t see that coming.

“You’re saying I can’t get to any of them?” I asked.

“I can give you the address, but breaking into a heavily-guarded, federal prison is more trouble than any of them are worth. You’d be better off asking random strangers on the street, but I rather you not do that.”

I glanced away, thankful for my mask. Gomez couldn’t see the anger behind it.

Dammit, dammit. I needed them to get to Benny, and Gomez was someone I could actually turn to. Sofia, Samuel. Any of the others I incapacitated. If they were being treated, they were probably under watch, too. Alone, I couldn’t get to them, and Gomez was right. It wouldn’t be worth it.

I clenched a fist, forcing myself to calm down, and I addressed Gomez again.

“I need anything you have that can lead me to Benny. Please. One of your men, they’d have to know something. Just give me a minute with them, I’ll get what I need out of them.”

Gomez stepped away, walking to one end of the roof. “I’m not in the business of handing over police officers for you to dangle and drop down multiple stories.”

I followed him, but I didn’t move too close to the edge. Didn’t want to be seen from up here.

“You gave me Sumeet,” I said, reminding him.

“I gave you a chance, at a time when my hands were tied. And when you were out, setting the city ablaze, I was able to gather enough intel and men to come back and help you. And we got pretty damn close, too. We had him, we got Thomas back.”

His head dropped a fraction.

“In the end, it wasn’t enough, but it was something,” he said. “It was a decent, even good, effort, to save something tangible.”

“How is that any different from now?” I asked.

“Now? This time, with Benny, the damage has already been done. You finding Benny isn’t going to save anyone, or bring anyone back. Not all of the perpetrators were caught, but some were. And the kid that took lives, along with his own… It goes without saying that he’s not around anymore. With or without Benny, people are going to find a way to heal from that.”

“What about bringing Benny to justice?”

Gomez laughed. It took me by surprise.

“Nothing of what you told me tonight has convinced me for a second that you want to turn her in.”

Turning, he jabbed a finger in my direction.

“From what I’ve gathered, you’re not looking for justice, are you? You’re looking for revenge.”

Revenge. The word resonated within me.

Was that what I was looking for? Was that what I wanted?

No, it wasn’t the ends. But the means?

Again, the word resonated.

“You’re really not going to help me?” I asked, disappointment showing in my voice.

Gomez walked back from the end of the roof. He passed me.

“I can’t, and I won’t,” he answered. “Not like this. I really must be crazy, because I still have some respect for you, and I’m not about to be complicit in whatever you’re going to do to Benny, if or when you do find her. I’m giving you a chance to walk away and just let this be. Let proper authorities do their jobs.”

He continued walking, heading to the door. I started moving to stop him.

“And what if I can’t?” I asked.

Gomez stopped right at the door, hand on the knob. He moved his shoulders to get a decent look at me.

“Then that wouldn’t be very super of you, would it?”

I set my jaw, my teeth gritting. Even Hleuco made a gesture. Feathers raised, chest puffed out.

“Dammit, Gomez. Work with me, here.”

“This is the part where I’m supposed to say ‘I’m sorry,’ but I won’t. Goodbye.”

He opened the door, and he left, leaving me alone on the rooftop. Dry.

Fuck. Dammit. Shit.

I wheeled around, and stormed off. I jumped to another rooftop and ran.

Damn Gomez, damn him. And damn me for not being able to convince him. He was my best bet on getting my hands on someone who could lead me to Benny, and now I had nothing. Not having custody of her crew was one thing, but actively trying to talk me out of pursuing her?

A myriad of different words flew through my head. Hypocrite was one of them.

I vaulted up to a taller building, and kept going. I was running to let off steam. Cool my head.

It wasn’t working.

What I needed was Benny, to find her and hurt her. To make it even. To make it fair.

Blank Face had tried to find her. Now, it was my turn. How hard is it to locate one fucking woman?

A shrill screech stopped me in my tracks. With a foot near the edge of the roof, I peered into the alley below.

A woman, running, chased by three men. Crossing from one street, hoping to escape to the other. But the men were faster, catching up on her.

She screeched again.

I almost responded as reflex, lifting my foot to prepare for a descent, but I stopped myself.

Police cars sped to the end of alley, cutting them all off. Lights on, the sirens sounding off. The woman threw her last remaining effort into a short, hard sprint, and she fell into the arms of an officer, already getting out of the car.

I heard the shouting and commotion below, the cops telling the attackers to freeze, get down, hands behind their head. They froze, and complied, and the cops moved in. The situation ended as soon as I happened upon it.

Too bad, I needed an outlet. Blood would do me some good, too.

The world really doesn’t need a Blank Face, does it?

It didn’t.

I watched as the cops cuffed the men, taking them into the cars, illuminated red and blue. Thinking.

If Gomez wasn’t going to hand me over any cops, should I just pick them out myself? I might find someone who knew a thing or two. A clue.

No, I dismissed the idea. More trouble than it was worth. Do that, and I’d end up in a similar situation to that night. The night I set the ‘city ablaze,’ as Gomez put it. Running about, wildly, leaving behind a smoke trail of chaos.

Another approach, then. Couldn’t do this like before. I had to think laterally.

I looked ahead, and saw Hleuco, perched on the roof of the building across from me. Seeing him gave me an idea.

Head over, without anyone following, and I’ll meet you there. Out.

Of course.

It might not be the most efficient way of going about things, but it was a start.

I leapt again, crossing the gap. Hleuco unfurled his wings, taking to the air at the same time.

I knew where I needed to go, and how to get there. But it wouldn’t be by rooftop.

I would need to make a call. But, to do that, I’d have to find a payphone. And learn how to use one.

Previous                                                                                               Next

047 – Latae sententiae

epy arc 8 bite

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The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky. Somewhat fitting, considering how blue the atmosphere was.

St. Francis Xavier had been trashed.

Windows broken, statues dented and graffitied over. Crosses knocked and flipped around. The east wing was burned to the ground. Papers got caught in the wind, flying around, pews had been thrown outside and ripped apart. Paintings, too, tossed out and cut open. The church and offices had been gutted, its innards laid out to rot in the sun.

The church itself was no cathedral, but it was a temple, a place of worship. It was sizable, large enough to house a decent number of people. A symbol.

And it had been reduced to a shell of its former glory. As it stood now, it couldn’t serve its core purpose.

All this, in just a matter of days.

Shiori, Mother, went first, leading the way, maneuvering through the damage. I was behind her, followed by the two girls who wanted to accompany us.

Katy and Maria were their names.

All around us, others were picking up the pieces. Cleaning up, doing what they could to help. Mostly those from the church’s community, but others offered their help after news broke out. Outsiders.

A few squads of police were here, supervising the crews and volunteers, sometimes giving out their own orders. Firetrucks and firefighters moved to the burnt wing of the church.

A lot of people, a lot of moving parts, but weather itself was serene. Cool. Mother and I had to wear a light jacket to keep warm. Maria needed only a fitted sweater, and so did Katy, though she was wearing all black.

We entered into the gathering space just outside the church’s front doors, wide open and dented in places. Mother led us to a group being addressed by a short woman. Not elderly, but almost there. The woman noticed us, and dismissed the group with a word.

“Shiori, it’s good to see you,” the woman said. She looked sullen, with little energy to her words. She didn’t appear to have gotten much sleep, recently. “And you too, Alexis.”

That was me. I needed a moment to respond, but the situation didn’t call for me taking my time.

That’s Mrs. Phan.

Mother answered for the both of us. “Good to see you, too, Linda. It is a shame that it has to be under these circumstances.”

Mrs. Phan nodded, then she glanced around. She frowned.

“It happened at night, I was already asleep. I woke up to so many calls and messages, but it was already too late, and I couldn’t do anything. I was powerless.”

Again, she looked around, then back down. As if there was a faint hope that, if she were to check one more time, this would all seemingly go away, never to have happened. That hope was immediately squandered.

“Maybe if I was here, I could have done something, stopped them somehow. But I was slacking. Maybe this is my fault, my faith wasn’t strong enough. Maybe this is what happens when your faith isn’t strong enough. This happens.”

Mrs. Phan was just talking to herself by now. Repeating herself, rambling, looking as if sleep was a foreign concept to her…

I could imagine her completely breaking, if rebuilding the church was simply not an option. What would happen to her, then? How would she rebuild herself?

I was curious.

Mother put a hand on her shoulder. Firm.

“You are plenty strong, Linda, this is not a strike against you. Let’s go, tell me what we can do to help, and you take it easy the rest of the day.”

“But,” Mrs. Phan said.

She would’ve said more if Mother didn’t cut her off. “If nothing else, I will make sure you take a break today. Now, breathe in.”

Mrs. Phan breathed in.

“And breathe out.”

Mrs. Phan breathed out. It wasn’t much, but some tension did leave her body. The effect was visible.

She moved her hand, removing Mother’s hold off her shoulder. She stood straighter, now.

“Thank you, Shiori, and God bless you,” Mrs. Phan said. She cleared her throat, then handed out proper orders. “Shiori, I’ll have you come with me, I’ll need your help with the moving group. And Alexis?”

“Yes?” I said, responding to that name.

“You and your friends go to Justin. He’s leading the youth group and watching over their efforts in cleaning up. You can help there.”

“Alright,” I said, and I had to stop myself there.

I didn’t want to ask who Justin was.

But another question might serve me better.

“Where is Justin?” I asked.

Mrs. Phan pointed to her right, a small field. A sizable group of kids my age were there, sorting through junk, pushing and moving carts and wagons.

“He should be there,” she said.

“Alright,” I said again, and I headed out, Katy and Maria following me. Mother went with Mrs. Phan, to provide her own support.

“Is it just me, or did that lady give me a funny look?” Maria asked. Providing a comment.

“Just you, I don’t think she saw us at all,” Katy said.

They talked amongst themselves, but I continued. We reached the field Mrs. Phan specified.

What exactly was here, I couldn’t tell, it was beaten until it became unrecognizable. No section of the church’s premises was spared, it seemed.

Chips of wood, broken beams, tattered cloth. And a fuck ton of mushy gourds.

We watched our step, but we stayed at the edge of the mess, watching kids go back and forth to clean up.

“Alexis!”

I was the only one to be addressed, but all three of us turned.

A boy, jogging our way. White shirt, brown shorts, and yellow gloves. A bandana on his forehead, damp with sweat.

He stopped just short of colliding into me, breathing hard. He took a second before he spoke up again.

“Wassup,” he said. “It’s been a minute, hasn’t it?”

Justin.

“Definitely more than just a minute,” I said, as though on autopilot.

“Man, when was the last time you were here?” he asked, while removing a glove. “Must be forever.”

“Probably,” I said.

“Oh, and you brought some extra hands, that’s nice.”

I stepped aside, and Katy and Maria moved in.

“Katy.”

“I’m Justin, nice to meet you.”

They shook hands.

“I’m Maria, sorry to hear about your church.”

“Justin, and yeah, it’s pretty bad.”

The two of them shook hands, too.

Justin put his glove back on again, and crossed his arms. “It’s bad, but it was way worse earlier, so we’ve been making progress, which is good. People have been coming and going throughout the day, too, helping whenever they have the time. A lot of them don’t even come here, so, if anything, it’s definitely moral support. Just seeing you lovely ladies lifts the spirit.”

The sun was getting in my eyes, so I couldn’t see Katy or Maria’s reaction. For my part, I didn’t have much of one.

Justin cleared his throat

“But anyways, yeah, there’s still a long way to go, but we’ll get there. You guys ready to do some work?”

We all answered simultaneously.

“Yeah.”

“For sure.”

“I am.”

Justin nodded, satisfied. “Sweet. Come with me, and I’ll get you some gloves.”

He started back the way he came, and we came with. The table wasn’t far, placed on the same field where all the kids worked, and was topped with gloves, tools, and a cooler with energy drinks and bottles of water.

“Here you are,” he said, handing each of us our own pair of gloves. “Help yourself to the drinks if you’re feeling lightheaded, or need a breather. You’re volunteering your time, and as long as you’re here, you’re being a big help in one way or another. Do you know how long you’ll be here?”

The three of us exchanged looks. Something told me that Katy would have taken that, but this wasn’t her ballpark. Not here.

And it wasn’t mine, quite frankly, but the fact remained.

“As long as you need us for.” I gave a non-answer, but Justin looked like he accepted it.

“Awesome, maybe I’ll take advantage of that.” He snickered, but no one ended up played along.

He cleared his throat again.

“Right, um, let’s get started. Katy and Maria, can you join that crew with the carts there, and Alexis, you up for some lifting?”

I nodded. “Sure.”

“Then let’s break. Thanks again, guys.”

Maria glanced at me, then to Katy, but she was already leaving. Maria looked like she was about to say something, considered, then left to join Katy.

It was me and Justin, now. Together, we headed out.

We wrapped around to the other side of the ruined field. A snapped wooden beam on its side, in the grass. This piece was about seven or eight feet, making me wonder how tall the whole thing was. I stopped at the closest end, and Justin went to the farther part.

“We’re moving this off to the concrete there,” Justin called out, facing the nearby lot for emphasis. “Along with all the other wood parts. It’ll be picked up later.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Careful, it’s heavy.”

“Okay.”

He lowered himself, squatting down and squaring his shoulders. He grabbed the beam with both hands.

I did the same, but I just bent down.

“On ‘three,’” Justin said. “One, two, three!”

The beam lifted, but my end went up much faster. Justin nearly lost his balance.

“Holy- Alright then, let’s go.”

We moved as a unit, I walked backwards, and Justin made sure I didn’t bumping into anyone or anything. I looked, and saw Katy and Maria doing their own jobs, picking up mush and dropping into carts to be sent away.

“Here,” Justin said, and I was brought back to this particular instance.

We were on the lot, near a stack of wood. Not very neatly arranged, maybe more like a pile.

Justin counted to three, and we dropped the beam into the clump. Dust was thrown in the air.

“You’re really stronger than you look,” Justin said. “It wasn’t heavy for you?”

“To be fair, you’ve been out here all day, I guess, you’re more worn out. I just got here,” I said.

“Oh yeah, I guess you’re right.”

We stepped out the way for another pair with their own bits of wood to come in, and we headed back to do it all again.

“What was this supposed to be?” I asked. I couldn’t step over orange mush again and not get curious.

“The church was selling pumpkins and squashes, stuff like that. The youth group was running it.”

“But it’s not Halloween anymore.”

“I know, but people were still buying them. Like, Thanksgiving just passed, so I guess people wanted their pumpkin pies. Have you ever had pumpkin pie?”

“I haven’t.”

“Me neither. And I guess you can’t get one from us, anymore, not for a while.”

Justin chuckled to himself, but it sounded forced, uneasy. It didn’t last.

Dammit,” he said at the end.

The next few trips back to the pile of wood were wordless, other than Justin occasionally warning me about bumping into someone. We fell into a rhythm, and the work flew by without a hitch, even without any chatter. We crossed paths with Katy and Maria every now and then, but we were getting too tired to exchange any words.

We dropped the last wooden beam, and then we were done. With that part of the process, at least.

There was still smashed pumpkins and squashed squashes to get to, and pieces of the tattered tent to pick up.

Nowhere near done, but progress was made.

Justin removed his bandana, and wiped his brow.

“Thanks a lot, Lexi, really means a lot for you to be here and help out. Especially since you haven’t been around for a bit.”

“It’s nothing,” I said, just to say it.

“Man, I’m ready to take a break. Wanna come get a drink with me? I think the others are around, you should come say hi. We’ll all catch up.”

The others?

“I’m not sure if I’m up for that,” I said, trailing away at the end.

“Ah, come on, I know it’s not the best circumstances for a reunion, but I bet they’ll be down to see you again. It’ll be interesting, at least.”

At least.

That, I could agree with.

I searched among the other kids working, for Katy and Maria. Couldn’t find them. Did they run off somewhere?

Even considering everything between me and them, I caught myself looking for them.

But they weren’t here.

I looked back at Justin, who was waiting, eyebrow raised.

“Sound good to you?” he asked.

Reluctant, I answered, “I suppose.”

With that being the decided factor, we went to the tables to put back the gloves. Justin got an energy drink for himself, and I took a water. Justin gestured and moved, and I was forced to tag along.

“Should be this way,” Justin said. “If they aren’t lazing around, color me shocked.”

We walked across one of the parking lots, going around an office building. As we headed towards the front of what looked like the church’s event center, I saw them.

A group of teens, chatting away. Smoke flew away from some of their heads, and some had their own drinks taken from the cooler. They were dressed in trendy, fitting streetwear.

They immediately noticed us. Me. There were cheers.

“Alexis!”

“Holy shit, it’s you.”

“Wow, long time no see.”

“Hey, looks like the dead can come back, after all.”

My eyes roved over the people, smiling, happy at the sight of me. Obviously, connections were supposed to be here. I blinked.

I have no idea who any of you are.

The circle opened up somewhat, giving us room to slip in.

The faces. The eyes. The smiles. They were all being wasted on someone who wasn’t present.

“Hi guys,” I said, trying to inflect some emotion, but I was already regretting being here. This might not go well. I needed to be cautious.

“Want a hit?” someone beside me asked. A girl. I looked down at what she had in her hand. A vape.

“No, I’m good,” I said.

She shrugged, and took a puff of her own. Smoke dissipated into thin air.

“How’s it been with you, Alexis? Doing okay, considering everything?”

Another from the group. A boy, taller than the rest. For the life of me, I couldn’t pin down his name.

“Considering everything,” I said, “I’m doing what I can to be okay.”

“Super duper,” the boy said. “You can say we’re all doing the same.”

There were nods all around. More puffs of smoke as another gesture of assent.

“I can’t believe people went out of their way to do this,” another girl said. “All because another asshole kind of looks like us, kind of.”

“To think, the dicks that did this were less than half the people coming to help clean up now, and it’ll take the whole day to finish, if not longer.”

“Maybe if you guys got a move on, we’d finish faster,” Justin said.

The group laughed, as if they knew he was actually joking. Dismissing him.

“Hey Alexis, you gonna be here all day, or do you have to go school later? We all ditched our classes to be here.”

The tallest boy addressed me again.

I didn’t know how to answer without making things awkward.

I just had to go right ahead and tackle it directly.

“They shut down my school for a while,” I said. “And with how it’s already December, they threw in the towel and called this the early start of the break. Like this place, the school needs time to pick up the pieces.”

The boy’s eyes widened, and then he looked away, scratching his head. Embarrassed.

“Right, fuck. I forgot you went… I’m sorry.”

“Nice going, Andrew,” a girl said.

“And thank you for rubbing it in, Jasmine.”

Justin interjected. “Yeah, you didn’t mean it, Andrew, don’t worry.” He then turned to me and said, “Sorry to hear what happened at your school, by the way. I can’t even comprehend what that must have been like.”

Images flashed in my mind’s eye. Clear. The clearest of any memory I had access to.

It was a good thing, too. I needed them to be clear. I needed to remember.

“Hectic,” I said, putting the entire experience to a single word. It certainly was that.

“Did you know him?” a girl asked. The one that berated that ‘Andrew.’ Jasmine.

She lowered her voice to a near whisper when she specified a name.

“Harrian?”

The general atmosphere of the group changed. Everyone tensed up, averting gazes, shifting in place.

The fact that his name carried such a weight to it…

Jasmine still had her eye on me, waiting for an answer. I had to bring my thoughts back to that day.

I only ever had one memorable interaction with him. Anyone else was either so inconsequential I couldn’t recall, or a connection to those particular memories were simply gone.

But, I did see him that one time, at his most extreme, his most focused. He knew what he wanted, and he knew what the cost was, the consequences. Yet he continued in the face of that.

I barely knew Harrian Wong, yet, and the same time, I knew more about him than most ever would.

“We weren’t friends, if that’s what you’re asking,” I said. “I never really knew about it until after it happened. We ran in different circles.”

Jasmine looked relieved to hear that. “Good, good, you’re not associated with a freak like that.”

“Don’t say that,” a boy said. Not the tallest one. “He went to Francis Xavier. Sure, all he did was sit in the back and not talk to anyone, but we probably knew him better than Lexi did.”

Jasmine looked torn to hear that. “But, I was just saying, and…”

She didn’t finish her sentence, just stopping right there. She rolled her eyes and looked away.

The girl next to me passed her vape to Jasmine, and she helped herself.

Justin took a swig of his drink, then exhaled, loud. He put his arm around a girl on the other side of him, and kissed the top of her head. His girlfriend?

Justin spoke. “The last two days have been, like you said, hectic. Granted, it pales in comparison to what you’ve been through, but still. After the media caught wind of Harrian, it’s like we inherited a bit of that negative press, too. The looks we get when we walk in the halls, the way people walk around us, it’s as if we did it, we had something to do with this.”

“Yeah, and it’s not just us, the ones who actually come here,” Andrew said. “A friend of mine, he doesn’t come here, but he goes to the same school as me, he got jumped on the way to his car. Some Mexican gangbangers wanted to pick a fight with him, all because he looked like Harrian. And you know what’s funny? He’s not even Chinese, he’s fucking Korean, for fuck’s sake.”

Justin added, “People are already calling this the worst thing to ever happen on school grounds, and on top of the terrorists that started the whole thing, and the rumor that the Bluemoon is a student at Stephenville High School, and is an Asian-American too…”

“All of us get targets on our back,” Jasmine said, in between a puff of smoke, “Without ever asking for it.”

The group’s mood changed again, this time more morose. I had a feeling they came here, not to just ditch school, not just to help fix up the church, but to lick each other’s wounds. And the only thing they were getting in return was pity.

I wouldn’t have guessed that the aftermath of the incident at school could affect a whole population of people. But it was a minor setback, in the grand scheme of things.

Behind a mask, it wasn’t going to matter what my race was.

“Hey, Alexis,” the girl at Justin’s side said, getting my attention. “Does the Bluemoon go to your school?”

The ears of everyone else perked up. They all looked at me, again.

I knew the conversation would move to this, in some way. I wanted to avoid that by not being here.

I had to answer how a regular person would. Like Alexis.

I took a sip of my water, then answered, “I wouldn’t know, and even with what happened, I wouldn’t think so. If the Bluemoon really did go to my school, they wouldn’t have let something like that happen, right?”

There were various gestures all around.

“Maybe.”

“Yeah, right.”

“That’s probably true…”

In their haze of uncertainty, I took a step back, taking myself out of the group.

“It’s been great seeing all of you again,” I said. “But I should probably get back. I came with other people, and they might be looking for me if I’m gone for too long.”

Jasmine made a sound. “Aw, I was hoping you’d come chill with us for a bit longer. We were going to go and phở in about an hour. It’d be nice if you could join us.”

“I agree,” Andrew said. “There’s some new guys, but it’ll be like the whole gang’s back together. The OG Francis Xavier youth group. It’d be lit as fuck.”

“Definitely,” another said.

This was the part where I was supposed to consider the offer, but the will to do so just was not there.

You never fit in with them back in the day. You were the only Japanese kid there, and the only one who was half-anything. Mom didn’t make as much money as their parents, and they teased you over the clothes you showed up to bible school in. Maybe they didn’t mean it, maybe it was only in jest, but you stopped coming the second you didn’t have to.

The thought spilled into my head, slow, like hot magma. Intrusive, and it felt like holes being seared into my brain. New connections.

Memories I had, memories that I had to be told about. Forced to remember. And it came with pain.

I absolutely had no intention of coming along with these people, but now I had another reason not to.

“We’ll see,” I said, my head lowered an inch, from the coming aches. “I’ll still be here for the next hour or so, I’ll just play it from there.”

All lies.

“Fair,” Justin said. “And the rest of you, break time’s over. Back to work, before Mrs. Phan woops y’all herself.”

The rest of the group spoke all at once, most of it a jumble from all the different voices. But they all started to disperse, going elsewhere, in pairs or groups of three.

“See you, Emily,” Justin said to the girl by his side. “I’ll walk with Alexis.”

You’ll what?

“Hmph, do anything funny, and it’s gonna be the end of you. Not us, you.”

The girl, Emily, warned him.

“Don’t be crazy, I won’t do anything funny, I’m not even much of a funny guy. Isn’t that right, Alexis?”

Justin and Emily both looked in my direction.

“Um, yeah, it’s true, he’s not funny at all,” I said.

They both laughed, but I didn’t see the humor in what I said. I just told it as I saw it.

“Okay then, I’ll catch you two later,” Emily said. “It was good to see you again, Alexis. Hope to see you soon, and under better circumstances.”

“Same. Good to see you all again.”

Then, before I could take another step back, Emily opened her arms, and approached me.

I was wrapped into a hug before I could do or say anything about it.

Restricted, frozen, stuck in the moment. I didn’t need this, right now.

I wedged my arms between us, and nudged, prompting her to stop. She did.

“Bye,” I said, waving. I turned before anything else could happen. Justin followed.

We started heading back the way we came.

“See, that wasn’t so bad,” Justin commented as we walked. “Just like old times.”

Was it like old times? I wouldn’t have known.

We returned to the field, and some progress was made in our absence. Nothing significant, but noticeable.

I couldn’t find Katy and Maria. They weren’t here.

Still?

We reached the table with all of the gloves and tools. We both threw away our drinks. Justin started removing his gloves, and I copied him.

“Before we get back to work, mind if I show you something?” Justin asked.

“Show me what?”

“Don’t worry, it’s nothing that’ll freak Emily out, I just wanted to take you inside the church.”

“Oh, okay. Fine.”

“Cool, let’s head.”

Justin took the lead, and we changed course, heading to the church itself.

Every door was broken into, the glass panels gone. We stepped through the door, rather than opening it.

The light from outside immediately gave way to the dim, hollow interior.

If the outside was bad, the inside of the church received the worst of it. Smeared with dirt marks and graffiti, and other streak of stuff with a smell that made my imagination do the rest.

Justin continued.

“Watch your step, no one’s cleared this place out yet. To be honest, we’re not supposed to be in here, more qualified people will take care of this place, but the rest of us got to go through here, and I wanted you to see it, too.”

“Why me?” I asked.

“Because you’re one of us,” he said.

I didn’t respond to that sentiment. Even when my thoughts were laughing otherwise.

Justin led us to the main, central area of the church. Aisles and pews were either knocked down or missing, some even charred. Stained glass windows at the sides were shattered, the walls carrying a red and blue and green hue wherever pieces of glass reflected the light elsewhere. There was supposed to be a table in the middle of the room, where a majority of the service would take place, but it was gone. Nowhere around.

The place had such an emptiness to it. Uncanny, even for me. If this was the house of God, then he had already moved out.

As we moved, Justin pointed to the head of the room, the chamber. He lifted his finger up.

“Look there,” he said.

I looked, and saw what he was referring to. Larger than life-sized effigy of Christ, arms splayed, legs together. Nailed to a wooden cross. The crucifix. It was untouched, unsullied by the damage surrounding it.

“This whole place got fu- messed up, and yet they couldn’t touch that,” Justin explained. “It didn’t get messed with. Isn’t that, I don’t know, kind of cool?”

“That’s because it’s so high up,” I said. “Who could reasonably touch that without wasting time? If you wanted to cause damage before anyone could stop you, you’d be better off getting what’s immediately around you.”

“Man, you’re such a spoilsport,” Justin said, frowning. He looked back to the figure. “I know I’m the head of the youth program and everything, but I’m not like the Pope when it comes to stuff like this. Even then, I couldn’t help but feel something when I saw it, you know? I showed the others, and they said the same. They said it helped. I don’t know, I just thought you might feel the same way.”

I looked again, and saw the bloodied corpse of a man nailed to wood. The figure itself wasn’t defamed or damaged, but, in a sense, it was already ruined. The man himself.

“Maybe,” I said.

“Well, at least you saw it.”

“No, I, uh, I appreciate the sentiment.”

I couldn’t tell if that was a lie or not.

“You’re welcome, oh hey, I’m surprised to see you here.”

Justin turned when he finished that sentence, and I realized he wasn’t talking to me. I turned, as well.

Sitting at the front aisle was Katy and Maria, both looking our way as we reached them.

“There you are,” I said.

“Here we are,” Katy said back, monotone.

“Who let you guys here?” Justin asked. “Not that I mind, but right now it’s kind of off-limits.”

“The priest did,” Maria said. “We were asked to go help fix up the offices, and he was there, and noticed Katy. Apparently, um…”

Maria stopped.

“He used to know my dad,” Katy explained, a somber look in her eyes. “He was a supporter of his back when he ran for DA.”

“DA?” Justin repeated.

“District Attorney.”

“Oh, yeah. Oh, your dad was…”

Justin managed to stop himself before he said something completely stupid. But he was already too late. He hit that sore spot, and it showed on Katy’s face.

That, I could recognize.

Justin scratched the back of his head, clearly ashamed of himself. “Sorry, I wasn’t trying to-”

“I know,” Katy said, curt. “Anyways, Father Chris wanted to show us this, probably for the same reasons you brought her.”

She didn’t look at me when she said that. ‘Her.’

“Where’s Father now?” Justin asked.

“He left to do more work. Said we could be here as long as we wanted. We were just talking.”

Talking about what?

Justin sniffled, wiped his nose.

“Okay, but we probably should go. We might get in trouble if we overstay our welcome. It is off-limits for a reason, the building’s not exactly up to code.”

Katy and Maria traded looks.

“Sure,” Maria said, and they both got up and left, passing us without another word.

It was clear they were on the same page about something. If it had anything to do with me, I had to be ready. Even now, they were obstacles.

We have to watch our backs around them. Around everyone. You know this.

I did.

Justin moved to catch up. Before I did the same, I glanced back up at the figure above.

A pained expression, but a resigned one. If anyone were to help him, he wasn’t expecting it, and it would have to be of their own accord.

To try and rebuild the peace that was once here, or to find a new peace for myself. I had already tried the former, numerous times.

Checking again, I had noticed something else, too.

By the front, where the choir would be situated, a young girl sat in one of the chairs. Her face scratched out.

Unsightly.

What do you want to do?

I heard that voice ask.

“What do I do?” I started, as if on autopilot, but I corrected myself. “I know exactly I want to do. Let’s just pray we don’t run out of time.”

I could imagine the taste on my lips. Sweet.

Perfect.

I turned my back, and saw the shadowed-Hleuco standing before me. Between me and the others.

His feathers ruffled, even though no wind could affect him here.

I smiled.

I stepped forward, joining him, and we left the church.

Previous                                                                                               Next

042 – Empty Head

epy arc 7 fail

Bonus                                                                                               Next

The service ended early in the evening. It was dark, and it would only get darker.

Thomas didn’t make it.

Time of death, four forty-five in the morning. Cause of the death, severe bodily injury below the neck, various infections, multiple organ failure, complications during surgery…

Severe blood loss.

He died in his sleep. They tried, the doctors said, but his condition was too grave by the time he reached the hospital.

Maybe if he arrived a second sooner, maybe if an entire night wasn’t wasted in trying to find him.

A lot of maybes.

Apparently, Thomas had already made plans for his family to be taken care of, in the event that something were to happen to him. Not that they particularly needed it, Kristin was as much a breadwinner as her husband was, but the gesture was there. It was in writing.

As for him, he would have wanted to donate his body to science. Cremation was the second option. Given everything that happened to him, a choice had to be made. His family discussed it, and decided to do the latter.

The memorial took place a week after he passed. Enough time for family and friends to come into town, fly in from another state.

Even James Gomez showed up.

It was still a small gathering, relatively speaking. Kristin preferred it to be a private service, and that was what she got.

Everyone had something to say, to give their piece about a man they cared about. Preaching to the choir, perhaps, but it was a way to vent, to cope with the news. Everyone needed it. To give a eulogy, and to hear one.

Mom sang. She was great.

We all did our best to try and celebrate the life of Thomas Thompson, rather than mourn his death. But it was like a heavily overcast day. The sun was out, but the clouds colored our perception of things.

It was quiet when the memorial started, it was quiet when it ended. Everyone filed out of the funeral home, with hardly a word being whispered.

Dark, heavy clouds hung over our heads. A static feeling that sat in the air. It was going to rain, and it was going to rain hard.

In the crowd of people, I found Katy, and I drifted towards her. She didn’t get off the porch right away, instead sitting on one of the porch swings. I joined her.

Her feet were planted flat on the floorboard. My big toe grazed it.

It was just her profile, but it was the best look I had of her all week.

Her hair was done up nicely, curls lightly moving in the wind. She had on makeup, but the edges of the one eye I could see were fudged a bit, the eye itself irritated and red. Her cheeks puffy, the edge of her mouth would occasionally tremble, the more I looked at it. She wore a dress. Black.

She was dressed well. Of course she was. To slack off now would be an offense to her father’s memory. I was sure she thought about it like that. I was sure she was right.

Silence yawned as neither of us said a word.

Minutes came and went, nothing.

“Hey,” I finally said, though it was more of a sound than it was a word.

Katy didn’t move.

“Hi,” she said back, seemingly out of breath.

Silence started settling back in.

I could imagine what she was feeling. ‘Bad’ was probably a good guess. ‘Sad’ was another. But there was very likely other emotions thrown in the mix, each with their own potency, and how Katy would respond to those emotions would be completely unique to her.

I had to really be careful if I wanted to talk with her.

But it was hard, coming up with anything to say.

“Hey,” I ended up saying again. It was the best I could come up with.

“What do you want, Alexis?”

Her tone struck a raw wound in my heart. Cold.

But, it was a start. A question I could answer.

“I just want to sit next to you, is all. Maybe talk, if you’re up for it.”

I mentioned sitting next to her, but there was noticeable space between me and Katy. Another person could sit there comfortably.

Katy breathed, and it was shaky.

“What else is there for me to say that I hadn’t already said back there?”

Her standing at the podium, by a large portrait of her father. He was smiling in that picture, she was much less energetic. She took her time with her eulogy, making sure every word was delivered clearly, with intent. Clearly, it had taken a lot out of her.

It also showed just how strong Katy truly was.

“It was really good,” I said, summing it up in four words. But, in no way did it represent the full weight her speech had on everyone. How heavy and suffocating it was on my chest.

“I tried,” Katy said. “I’m trying.”

In a way, her own four words to sum everything up.

“It’s been a… weird week,” Katy said. Her gaze kept forward, looking out, languid. A car drove across the street ahead, but it was hardly noticeable.

“I can… imagine,” I said, choosing my words very, very carefully.

“Nearly lost my perfect attendance streak. I’d oversleep sometimes, he liked to call from work to wake me up.”

Again, heavy.

“And dinner at home is awkward now. It’s not that we haven’t had nights where he was late and we had to eat without him… but, I’ve just been eating in my room, recently.”

Something welled up in my throat, preventing me from even uttering a sound to acknowledge that I heard her.

“And yesterday? It was early in the morning, but I woke up because Mom was… You know, too hard and all. I found her in his office, his study. Hadn’t, it hadn’t been open since… There were pieces of trash, crumpled paper, used tissues and clippings and stuff. Coffee rings on his desk. Is it weird, that, I almost didn’t want to throw it away, or clean it up? Is that weird?”

Every word, felt like a punch to my windpipe. But I had to get it out, somehow.

“No, it isn’t.”

That was all I could manage.

“I just, it…”

Katy’s voice cracked.

“It’s just that-”

Cracked again. Her eye twitched.

“I’m, I’m ready for the punchline. I’m ready for the rug to be pulled out from under me again, and this is just one elaborate, cruel joke. He’ll come out from under some curtain I forgot to check, he’ll smile mischievously, and we’ll all have a big laugh. I’m ready to be played the Fool. Capital ‘F.’”

I could only speak in whispers, as if all the wind was knocked out of me.

“I feel the same way.”

That was when she turned. She stared me down, dead in the eye.

Ice. A shiver went through me. Behind her eyes, there was only a glimmer of life and energy. Normally there would be so much more. Cold, now.

“Maybe I’ve been played the fool this whole time.”

This conversation had been going so slow, the awkward pauses were starting to become the norm.

Was that directed at me? At another topic?

Katy sighed, her shoulders dropping. Her gaze wandered elsewhere.

“I was still asleep when that stuff at city hall took place. I had to hear about it online, before Uncle James called us. Everyone pretty much concluded that he was a terrorist, or at least he was involved…”

“That’s just straight up incorrect, and you know that,” I said. I felt like I had to interrupt, there, even though it should have been obvious to everyone who showed up. Or anyone with a brain. “He was taken and set up. Mr. Gomez held a conference saying that was the case, and he had Edgar Brown and Linda Day publicly make statements to back that up. Nobody actually thinks that he was…”

“But people did, even if it was just for a second. That can taint a reputation, like when you’re convicted of murder, and it turns out, years later, that it wasn’t you. It sticks like gum in hair, and he… Dad doesn’t deserve that.”

“If people can’t understand that, then they aren’t the kind of people you want to hear any opinions from,” I said. “I almost want to say that it’s obvious, but that’d be too much, right now.”

The corner of her lip twitched, ever so slightly. Up.

“I need the obvious to be made out to me, actually. It helps, well, I don’t know how it does, but it does.”

I couldn’t take my eyes off of Katy. Every minute movement, every twitch of the muscle. How she tried to keep still. She was barely keeping it together, hanging by her last thread.

It ached, to watch her like this.

A flicker in my eye, and I rubbed at it.

Maybe trying another topic? Something less of a touchy subject?

“Um, well, I missed you, you know, I haven’t seen you for a week,” I said. “What have you been up to?”

I nearly flinched at my own wording. Something told me that I could have asked that better.

Katy didn’t seem to react to that, but she wasn’t really reacting much to anything.

“Playing chess,” she finally answered.

“With who, your mom?” I asked.

Katy turned.

“What are you trying to do, Alexis, huh? Why are you talking to me?”

That threw me off.

“Like I said, I just want to talk and catch-”

“Talk about what? About how Dad is gone and I’ll never see him again? About how I heard about him being killed… twice? About all the stuff he wanted to do that he can’t anymore? He so desperately wanted to be district attorney, and he got elected, only to not be able to do anything with that position. And, also, he was thinking about a family vacation after I graduated high school. He was hinting at wanting to go to Japan, actually, saying how it’d be nice to invite you two, you and Shiori. But it can never happen, not anymore, not like that.”

Speechless. I couldn’t say any more, even if I wanted to. I never knew that last point, and it only served to add to the weight of it all, how much of a hole Thomas had left behind. In all of our lives.

But Katy, she continued.

“I was trying to be nice and entertain you, Alexis, but I can’t, alright? I can’t. I don’t want to talk. Not about me, or your whole fucking thing, okay, nothing. I’m not, I’m not there yet. Maybe I’ll be there one day, and I’ll call you and we can talk all the livelong day, until our lips bleed and fall off of our mouths. You can get what you want then, tell me whatever, but not now. Not now.”

Her words hung in the air, and it numbed me. I’d never heard her talk that way before, though, she’d never been in this kind of situation. This was uncharted territory, emotionally.

Had to frame it that way. Couldn’t blame her for being short with me, after all she’d been through this past week. I understood where she was coming from, in a sense. We were all suffering the same loss, but we had to take it in our own, individual way.

If she needed a punching bag, I was willing to take the hits. I deserved it.

I hung my head, and looked out ahead. Nothing but empty blackness, if I chose to ignore the street and cars and houses. I did, and I was in the center of it all.

A void.

Neither of us shared a word after that.

A hand settled on my shoulder. I looked.

Maria.

“Can I sit?” she asked, behind a weak, almost pitiful smile. Like she read the atmosphere, and was trying to see what she could do.

“Be my guest,” Katy said, but she got up, and left, disappearing into a group of stragglers who were just now leaving the funeral home. They noticed her and got out of the way.

Maria took her place, sitting beside me. Relatively speaking. She was about an inch or so closer.

“Ouch,” Maria said, but her voice was still light. Sympathetic. “I was hoping I could talk to her… guess not?”

“Yeah,” I said, “Guess not.”

“I guess I can settle for talking with you, then.” Maria smiled softly again, and bumped my arm with her elbow. “How are you?”

I was willing to talk… and tell, but that feeling was directed to Katy. I wasn’t ready for a conversation with Maria.

I was, however, willing to do what I could.

“I’m not sure how to put it into words,” I said. “It’s a whole bunch of feelings that clash together, individually they’re sharp, distinct, but blending it with everything else muddles it, blunts it, until it just ends up being a numbed… nothingness.”

What the hell did I just say?

“Wow,” Maria said, taking half a minute to process whatever the hell I just said, “I don’t think I’m qualified to take all that apart.”

That actually managed to prompt a small laugh out of me. “Don’t worry about it. It’s something I can just bottle up inside and drink down.”

Maria nodded. “Certainly not the best idea, but I’m with you, there.”

“Yeah, but enough about me. How’ve you been holding up?”

“Doing good… everything considered. I don’t have to go to school at least, so I can just sit at home and do whatever I want, without having to worry about that… other stuff. So that’s neat.”

“That’s right, you took the offer,” I said. “I’m actually considering it myself, now. I was going to tell Katy, but, I couldn’t find a way to bring it up.”

“You can bring that up another time, no big deal.”

“I don’t want her to think I’m abandoning her,” I said, “Or something.”

“I doubt she’d take it like that,” Maria said, reassuring me.

“Hope so.”

Maria leaned into the bench, and we started swinging. “It really is sad, and I really feel for Katy, too, but it’s also kinda… weird, for me. I was surprised when Katy texted me the invite.”

“Really?”

“I mean, who do I know here outside of you and Katy? Yes, Thomas, obviously, but I didn’t get the chance to know him that well, sadly. I’m not family, or even a family friend. I’m pretty sure, out of everyone here, I knew him the least.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” I said. “It’s not like it’s a contest to see who can pay the most respect.”

“I suppose,” Maria said. She pushed against the floorboard to keep us rocking back and forth. “I just rationalized that I’m here for Katy, and to just see the damn girl. Haven’t seen her all week.”

“Same here. Good luck trying to talk to her though.”

“I bet, she’ll need her space.”

The bench swung forward, and I felt my feet leave solid ground, just for a second. I felt like I was about to fly away.

I rubbed at my eye again. A flicker.

Intrusive thoughts.

I rubbed until I started seeing things. Brown blobs.

“You good there?” Maria asked.

I put my hands away from my eyes, blinking.

“It’s like a bug got in there,” I said.

“It has been hot, lately,” Maria said. “It’s going to suck when it rains.”

I rested my hands beside me, still blinking. We were swinging slowly, and it gave me a chance to get my thoughts back in order.

“What are we going to do?” I asked.

“About what?”

“About Katy. Maybe you caught a bit of it before you came over here, but, I’m afraid she might not be herself for a long time.”

The bench swung back, and I felt that singular moment where we were about to go forward again, and my legs felt the heaviest.

Maria stuck her feet out, and we stopped.

“There’s nothing we can do about it, not exactly. Katy’s taking it how she’s taking it, and she needs to let those feelings ride out, and take her wherever they take her. And she has a good head on her shoulders, she wouldn’t let herself do anything drastic. She’s way smarter than me, at least.”

Maria laughed to herself. It was delicate.

“People are used to the status quo, right, they hate change. Even accepted, natural changes, we spend a huge amount of time planning and preparing for it. Like graduating high school, and going to college. So big, crazy, sudden changes? People hate those the most. Because everything tends to change along with it, and people get caught off guard, and then they don’t know how to react. So they overcompensate, they get more intense than what might be necessary, they freak out. Panic. There’s going to be bumps along the way when they try to right themselves again, and get used to the new status quo.”

Briefly, Maria paused.

“If anything, yeah, you and I will just have to be there to soften the bumps for Katy.”

Those words settled within me.

“That’s… incredibly poignant of you,” I said, amazed. As amazed as one could be at a time like this.

Maria smiled, but there was a hint of sadness, there, that I hadn’t noticed before.

“No matter how many times… It never gets any easier.”

Before I could respond, or react, I heard someone calling for me.

“Oh, that’s my mom,” I said, “Looks like we’re heading out. Text you later?”

“Definitely.”

We both got up from the bench, and we hugged. A prolonged hug, and the longer it lasted, the more it actually helped.

But, we couldn’t stay like that forever. We broke away, walking off the porch together, then going our different ways. I joined my mom, Maria went to her own car.

Maria and I left the conversation on that note, and that note rung into the open air.

My mom and I took our time getting to the van, which was parked at a lot a block away. We were stopped twice by others who were going the same way, people who wanted to compliment my mom on her singing. I had to stand by, waiting until they were done providing their accolades.

We eventually made it to the van. We got in, but Mom didn’t start it up right away.

“Something the matter?” I asked.

“No, it’s nothing.”

She started the van, and proceeded to take us on the road, the funeral home behind us.

The ride was quiet, the radio kept off.

I decided to say something.

“Um, Ma, maybe it doesn’t mean much since you’ve already heard it like a million times, but you were good.”

Mom’s face was still largely neutral, but I was sure she appreciated the comment.

“I could have done better. I didn’t get enough time to practice.”

“Well, you unprepared is better than some stuff I’ve heard on the radio.”

“Now you’re just patroning me.”

“It’s ‘patronizing,’ Ma, and I’m not. I mean it. It was cool that other people got to hear you sing, since you don’t do it much, out in public.”

“No, but now I sort of regret not doing it before.”

“Why? Because they’ve asked to hear you before?”

Mom didn’t answer, or she was too focused on making a turn to provide one.

“Kristin seemed to like it,” Mom then said, after the turn. “At least there is that.”

Mom then turned on the radio, a radio host talking about some bible verse. I started to tune it out, lazily dragging a finger across the face of my watch.

My thoughts went to what Katy said. A vacation. A dream that would never come true. I wanted to bring it up to Mom, but it seemed like it would be in bad taste. I finally zipped it.

Turning to face the window on my side, I watched a single droplet of water hit the glass. Then, another. Then more.

The rain came down harder by the time we got back home, but I had a feeling that it’d only get stronger throughout the night. We rushed inside for refuge from the weather. We forgot to bring an umbrella.

We each went into our own rooms, Mom turning on the TV beforehand. Knowing her, she liked to let the TV run even if she wasn’t actually planning on watching. She liked using it as background noise to not make the apartment feel so lifeless.

I went into my room, making sure to close the door behind me. In doing so, my eye flickered yet again.

The lights were still off, but a shape passed from one corner of my room to the other. A deeper black.

After turning on the lights, I rubbed my eye, moving to check that corner.

Nothing there. Just the edge of my computer desk, with nothing but wires and plugs underneath. No bug or rat.

Great, I was seeing things.

I returned to my original course of action. I stepped inside my walk-in closet, and got undressed.

I slipped into an oversized white shirt, and turned to look for some pajamas. My eyes wandered over to the pile of my old ‘hero stuff.’

I breathed out, hard, but it came out shaky, instead.

I bent down to inspect the pile, the bag, then opened it.

My old blue windbreaker, my old grey joggers. A bag of dirty clothes I hadn’t gotten around to cleaning yet.

My old mask, a blank face that stared back at me.

After it was all said and done, this was all I had left of that time. Most of the things that he had given me had gone up in flames. It might as well have never existed.

But, that costume did exist, and the events that took place while I wore that costume still happened. And I had to face that truth.

Thomas was gone.

And I had a part in it, if not being completely responsible.

My fault, one way or another.

If only I hadn’t accepted Thomas’s offer in being a hero, if only I had done more in trying to find Thomas faster that night. I replayed it all, in my head. Where I could have done better, all in all.

But, it was all just speculation. Wishful thinking.

I had failed. And, above all else, I was a failure.

If only I wasn’t me.

I was all cried out, already, there weren’t any more tears to squeeze out of me. So I moved to other modes of expression. But it wasn’t enough, maybe it would never be enough. Through the cuts, the peeled skin, the burns, the eating, the insomnia, it was all I could do in order to feel something. And no amount of powers or healing could fix a very particular, pointed wound.

The only thing left was to quit, entirely. Give up.

Katy needed space, and so would I.

Solace hadn’t made a move since the riot at city hall. No announcements, no hijacked television stations, nothing. It made for the days following the riot more tense than they were already, but nothing came of Solace afterward. I hoped that remained the case.

Nothing but more questions, but I didn’t want to be in the business of finding those particular answers.

This was a hit that landed too close to home, and that meant that things were closing in on me. Katy, Maria, Kristin, Mom, they all deserved an explanation, and as much as I wanted to give them one, who – or what – I was, was still up in the air. Too many distractions made my focus stray elsewhere. Dealing with my changes, the gangs, Solace, it all stacked too quickly for me to get any foothold on my new place in the world.

They all deserved an explanation, and I needed to start gathering the pieces so I could give them one, one day.

The National Guard came into the city to help clean up after the big riot, and announced a short-lived presence in the city to help restore and maintain peace. The FBI even announced that they were going to launch an official investigation against Solace and Blank Face. All the more reason to stop sticking my neck out.

And that was the end of it. Just like that.

No more Hleuco, no more Solace. No more Benny, no more Styx. No more Gomez. And I didn’t have a spare fuck to give about a ‘Mister.’

I was done.

Finished. Over. I was out of the game. Tonight, much like how Thomas was reduced to ashes and buried, I had done the same to Blank Face. The Bluemoon had set.

A flicker.

Alexis, any updates?

A voice. In a flash, I threw the mask and the bag back into the corner of the closet, then spun. My mom? Did she see me? Was she calling?

Again, nothing. The closet door was open, but there wasn’t anyone outside.

Odd.

The voice sounded real, like someone else was here. But, no one was around. If there was, there’d be a problem.

I rose to my feet, carefully stepping out of the closet. Just me, standing in my own room. Actually, as my eyes did a once-over across my room, it was feeling less and less like my own room. Like I was sleeping over at someone else’s place.

It was an isolating feeling, one that-

Do you feel like quitting?

I almost jumped out of my skin.

There it was, that voice. Except it was much clearer this time, but much less distinct.

It sounded like my own, except a few notches deeper, with a masculine tone underneath it all. It sounded deformed.

And it didn’t seem to come from one source, or one direction, it seemed to be coming from every direction.

Everywhere.

Surrounding me.

Oh my god.

“Who’s there?” I asked out loud, unsure of what answer I’d get, if I even wanted an answer. Getting one could mean any number of things.

Then, quiet. It extended for some time, until there was a light ringing in my ears, having to stand there and try to focus on any sound that wasn’t rainfall.

My eye flickered again, and-

I’m a lawyer, not a doctor.

My head whipped in one direction, and I was looking at the sliding doors that led out to the balcony.

No one was there. No one.

But there was.

A shadow, standing outside. Not completely solid, there was an idea of a shape.

A man.

Water hit the glass doors. It wasn’t hitting it.

Nothing there, there was no face, but I looked and it stared back.

What do you want to do?

“What, what do I do!” I screamed out, without thinking, as though it was an automated response to my own thoughts.

No, these weren’t my own thoughts. Couldn’t be.

I screwed my eyes shut, and dropped to my knees.

Raw, fire. My throat felt like I was drinking acid.

Hands fell upon me. I squirmed.

I jerked away, and I felt my arms hit against something. I collapsed to the floor, but I fought to get to my bed, struggling all the way. I grabbed the blankets, then spun across my bed so I’d get wrapped in them. Faster than trying to get under.

I was face to face with my mom. She was white.

“What’s wrong? Why are you screaming?”

My mom’s mouth moved. Words came from them. Real words.

I was screaming?

My heart was still racing, like I had just finished a hard set of volleyball. Gasping for breath, it was hard trying to get out my own words.

Bug.

“B- bug, thought I saw a bug,” I lied.

My mom gave me a look. Disconcerting. Disbelief.

“Where?”

Under the bed.

“A cockroach, u- under the bed, I dropped something, and it just came out of nowhere. Scared the living hell out of me.”

Everything, except for that last part, was a lie. But, I had a feeling that the one part that was true, I was really selling it.

My mom’s body posture said it all. She had relaxed. She took a step to me, and I shifted to back away. My body posture said it all.

She looked sad at my reaction.

That’s promising. That says something about you, that others seem to be glossing over.

Stop talking to me.

“Stop-” I almost started, but I put a hand over my own mouth, shutting myself up.

My mom had gone stiff, again.

The both of us were frozen in time. Neither of us moved, waiting for the other to give in.

It was my mom who gave in first.

“I go to heat up tea,” she said, at a careful whisper. “It will be ready in fifteen minutes. You have some, and you sleep early.”

I couldn’t move, but nothing I did or said now would have changed her mind.

My mom took to leave my room, closing the door.

And I was alone again. Ears ringing, drenched in sweat, hair on ends.

Alone.

Seemingly.

Every alarm in my head was blaring to not look back at the glass doors again, but I did anyway, turning at a snail’s pace.

Still there.

No.

Yes.

The shape was still there, irregularly defined. Staring.

No.

I looked again, but this time, I looked at the rain.

And then it disappeared.

The darkness, the rain hitting the glass. Dots. My brain was filling those dots to form a shape it wanted to see.

Why it wanted to see it though…

It was beyond me.

A cruel joke. My mind playing tricks on me.

I had been in a burning building, and I was sweating even more, here.

What the hell was that?

I pulled the covers over my head, and I curled into a fetal position. My eyes were opened wide.

“What’s happening to me?” I asked aloud. It came out hoarse, rough, choked up at the end.

My question was answered with silence, and that silence was as telling as it was deafening.

And haunting!

Bonus                                                                                               Next

041 – Wake

Previous                                                                                               Next

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.

No.

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.

So sleepy.

I looked again, trying to find them.

Not here.

Fuck, no, fuck.

I tried again, checking around.

No…

A glimpse.

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.

I followed.

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?”

“It’s beeping?”

“I thought we were supposed-”

“Fuck, everyone get out! We’re leaving him!”

“What about-”

“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.

Thomas.

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.

“Ah!”

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.

“You’re what?”

I exhaled.

“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.”

Tolerate.

“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.

This world…

“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.

Fuck this.

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?”

No answer.

Hey!”

Again, nothing.

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.

Oh no.

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.

“Why not?”

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.

I fought.

Present

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 impact 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.

“Ah! Aaaah!”

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.”

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.

“Same.”

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.

“What?”

“My blood, Alexis, drink my blood.”

My own blood ran cold.

What?”

“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.

Damn me.

“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.

For everyone.

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.

One… more…

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?”

You can.

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.

“Huh?”

“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?”

“Guess not.”

“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.”

Later, then.

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.

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