Interlude – V

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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 that 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 and 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.

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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, breath in.”

Mrs. Phan breathed in.

“And breath 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 a 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.

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031 – Demon in the Closet

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“Hold still,” my mom said, as she lifted my bangs away from my eyes. She cut.

I had my eyes shut tight.

We were on the balcony of our apartment. We both had aprons on, to not get hair on our clothes. I was faced towards the edge of the balcony, the railing, with the city in the distance. The wind was soft, brushing against my cheeks. We were in the shade, but still warm from the time of day. Calming, if not for the fact my mom was here, essentially in my room.

Don’t open the closet, please don’t come up with a reason to open the closet.

Everything was in there. Everything. Tucked under boxes of toys, old clothes, blankets, just any old junk I could use to hide my Blank Face stuff. And all of that was tucked into the bag that came with my new costume, which was supposed to be as inconspicuous as anything else. Mom had no prerogative to go snooping around my stuff, but I couldn’t stop myself from being tense.

The scissors being so close to my eyes only added to my anxiety.

My mom snipped some hair, and some fell onto my face. I crinkled my nose.

I had to prepare my room for when she’d come in. Bags of chips at my computer desk, some opened, some empty. The apple from school was there, too, a chunk taken out to make it look like a bite mark. In reality, it was all smoke and mirrors, a few chips and scraps flushed down the toilet to give the image that I was snacking at my computer. To her, it looked like I was eating, right?

It had better look like that.

“Your coach called me again, yesterday,” my mom said, out of the blue. We were doing just fine, being here without words. Now she wanted to converse.

“What about?” I asked.

“She was asking about why you haven’t been coming to practice.”

“What did you tell her?”

“That you were going to focus on your studies for a while. I hope I wasn’t lying to her.”

“No, you weren’t. I’ve had to skip in order to catch up with some stuff.” I intentionally kept it vague, sparring a few details in order keep a straighter story. Divulging more than I needed to wasn’t necessary.

Plus, it would be easier on my conscience.

“Are you looking for colleges yet?” my mom then asked. I guessed it was some tangent from what she brought up earlier, about Couch Tilly. The connecting thread being school.

“I’m kind of starting,” I said, fudging it. “Haven’t really looked into much, yet, but…”

“Do you know where you want to go?”

Honestly, in this moment, I was putting more thought into this now than I ever did in the past months combined. “Um, maybe somewhere local? Or at least in-state. I probably won’t be able to get into any of the big universities, though. Actually, who knows? I could get lucky.”

Rambling. Pretty much telling her I haven’t thought about it at all.

“How about your friends?”

The truth was easier to tell, there. Funny how that worked. “Katy’s probably going to one of the big universities here, but I don’t think she’s against the idea of going out-of-state. Maria, the girl you met the other day, I’m not sure, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have an idea. She likes to keep things to herself.”

Like I have to, now.

My mom cut some more hair, and brushed. “You’re not worried about not seeing them after you’re done with high school?”

“We’re still juniors, Mom, and graduation is over a year away.”

My mom exhaled, or maybe she scoffed? “Time moves by faster than you think. I wouldn’t take anything for granted.”

The way she said that, her tone. There was a weight to it, that made me consider her words.

She cut, and I was quiet.

The rest of the haircut went by uneventfully. Peacefully, really. There wasn’t a lot we had to talk about, and not a lot I had to offer, myself. I only wanted to get this over with. I still had to test my makeup.

And, I was still concerned over the stuff in my closet.

“Here,” my mom said, indicating to me that she was done. She combed my hair, and brushed my neck and shoulders. She handed me a mirror to look for myself.

It looked good. Of course it did. Mom was mom. I didn’t really trust anyone else to get so close to me with scissors.

I twirled my hair, tucking a lock behind my ear, checking how it looked from every angle. I noticed something.

My mom had trimmed my hair, so it brushed the top of my shoulders rather than going a touch past them, and my bangs sitting right at the top of my eyebrows. Upon closer scrutiny, it made me look a year or two younger. I looked more like a kid than ever.

Also, my mom had cut my hair in a way to better frame my face, to hide that I had been losing weight. Had I not been the one going through this, I would’ve been fooled, myself. My mom knew to do that, it was in the back of her mind. My weight loss had become apparent enough for her to do something about it, to make her own workaround.

I could probably style my hair in enough ways to better look my age, but even considering that my mom had to do this…

Blank Face was affecting my life in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

Have to be more perceptive.

“I like it, thanks Ma,” I said, having to fudge the truth again. I did like it, but I also felt like I needed a new backpack with a cartoon character on it.

Maybe I was exaggerating, but it was my gut reaction.

“That will be twenty dollars,” my mom said.

I returned the mirror. “Can I just work it off?”

My mom fixed my hair again. “I suppose that works.”

“How about I throw in a hundred massages, and a hundred backrubs?” I asked sarcastically, before getting to work, helping my mom clean up the balcony from my excess hair and her supplies. Between us, it didn’t take long to get things back in order. My mom took the aprons, she’d put them away in a hamper in her room.

We walked back inside, going through my room to return to the living room. I knew there wouldn’t be anything that would compel her to suddenly go through my closet, but I still held my breath.

“Don’t eat in your room,” my mom said, looking at my desk. “You’ll leave crumbs, even if you’re careful.”

Without a word, I collected the trash as I walked passed it, throwing it away when I got to the trash can in the kitchen.

Success. We left my room, with no real incident.

Knock, knock. Before I could go for a glass of water, someone had knocked on the door.

“I’ll get it,” I said, changing course. Mom continued to her room.

Opening the door, I saw a face I hadn’t seen in years.

Scratch that, make that two.

“Mrs. Phan,” I said, taken aback.

Mrs. Phan hadn’t aged a day. I thought there was a glitch in the universe.

She was somewhere between me and my mom in terms of height, give or take an inch, but I already felt my presence shrinking away. A tough lady, no doubt about it, and from just standing at the door, I knew that time hadn’t chipped away her edges.

She stood, firm, but still friendly. White blouse, and loose jeans, Mrs. Phan looked like she could be anyone’s mother, but instead, she decided to take care of St. Francis Xavier. For as long as I knew her, she was in charge of the administrative stuff for the church, also organizing events, coordinating Sunday school and youth groups, even handling the funds. If it was allowed, she’d probably want to hold mass, too, do the homilies.

Mrs. Phan was pretty hardcore.

With her was Justin, a boy I used to go to church with. He stuck around, I supposed.

He was Vietnamese, like Mrs. Phan, but they weren’t related. His hair was curly, unlike Mrs. Phan, and he was more lax in his posture. If Mrs. Phan had a kid of her own, I couldn’t imagine she’d allow them be so loose.

“Hello there, Alexis, nice to see you after some time,” Mrs. Phan said, kindly. “You’ve grown.”

“You think so?”

“I know so, just one look at you is all it takes.”

One look?

“Anyways, uh, what’s up?” I asked the both of them.

“Is your mother home, I’d like to speak with her,” Mrs. Phan said. She then beckoned for Justin, who bent to pick up a cardboard box that was beside him.

“You can,” I heard my mom say, before I could answer for her. She had come to the door. “Hello, Linda.”

“Shiori. Mind if I come in, I won’t be long. I brought some food, it’s for you.” Mrs. Phan tapped the top of the box Justin held. He made a pained face, his arms straining. How heavy was that box?

“We’re not a charity,” my mom said, deadpan.

Ma, hold on.

My mouth went agape, as if I was about to apologize for my mother’s brazen rejection.

Mrs. Phan was unfazed.

“Of course not, Shiori, but can I not visit and bring something to offer as well?”

I was still fixated on Mrs. Phan’s unchanging, warm visage. I didn’t see my mom as she took her time deliberating.

“Come in,” she said, clearly after thinking it over.

“Thank you,” Mrs. Phan said. I stepped to the side, to let them both in. They both removed their shoes. My mom led the way, bringing them both into the kitchen, where Justin set the box on the table.

I shut the door, unsure of what to do next. Was I supposed to be around for whatever Mrs. Phan had to say to Mom? Or could I just retreat into my room for now?

Justin left the kitchen, crossing the apartment and heading my way.

“Wassup,” he said, casually. “It’s been a minute.”

“Definitely more than a minute,” I said.

With a hand, he gestured to the two behind him. “She said it won’t be long, but it will be. Do you have somewhere we can kill some time?”

In the apartment, the only viable option was my room, if we wanted to be away from my mom and Mrs. Phan. But I couldn’t have that. The farther away he was from my room, my closet, the more at ease I’d be.

Besides, my room was a tad messy. I didn’t want any boys poking their heads around while it wasn’t at its best.

Somewhere else, then.

“Wanna go for a walk?” I suggested.

“Fine by me.”

I called to my mom. “Ma, we’re going to go for a walk, is that okay?”

She looked at me from the kitchen. She was already sitting at the table, Mrs. Phan was taking food out of the box, putting them into a refrigerator.

“Do you have your phone?” she asked.

“I do,” I said, remembering my shit-tier flip phone. If I could, I’d buy a new one with my Blank Face money.

“Then, be careful, watch where you’re going. Both of you,” she said.

“We will,” I said, speaking for both me and Justin.

I was dressed warm enough already, wearing my mom’s old sweatshirt and shorts. I grabbed my shoes by the door, putting them on, and Justin went for his, too. Then, we went outside.

We strolled into the nearby neighborhood, suburban houses surrounding us. It was so different from downtown, a whole different energy. I felt like I could walk without having to watch my back.

Sometimes, a car would pass, or we’d stop to say hi to an old person watering their lawn, but otherwise, Justin and I could have a conversation, largely undisturbed.

“Still there at the church, huh?” I said to Justin.

“Yup, mostly for the youth group. It’s something to do on the weekend. We’re all still there, actually, the whole gang.”

“No way, even Emily?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Damn, now I feel super guilty, it’s like I ditched you guys. It’s gonna be lonely when I’m the only one in Hell.”

Justin smirked. “Nah, you’re good. We don’t do much but hang around and play games. Sometimes we help around, do volunteer work.”

“Like driving Mrs. Phan around?” I asked.

“Hey, it’s easy work, and it beefs up my résumé.”

“Smart.”

We walked, continuing down a sidewalk. I hadn’t seen Justin since my middle school years, but it didn’t seem like time created too big a gulf between us. I could talk comfortably, I just had to watch my words, pick them with care, and not share anything too personal, or revealing.

“So, how are you holding up?” Justin asked. “I don’t follow you on social media, so you’ll have to catch me up the old school way.”

“The old school way? That’s doable. I just got into volleyball around the time I stopped going to the church, and just focused on that this whole time.”

“Gave up one thing for another?”

“It’s not quite like that. There were other factors. Like my mom had picked up a second job at that time, and I had to pick a new extracurricular thing that didn’t involve driving out of our way every weekend and using up gas.”

And, personally, I never felt like I fit in completely, there…

Like I’d ever say that out loud.

Justin responded with a sound. “Hmm.”

“Hey, it was my mom’s reasoning.”

“Like I said, you’re good. I’m not going to hold anything against you.”

“So thrilled to hear that.”

I stepped onto a small pile of leaves. There was an audible crunch. Fall really was here.

“Ha, you’re just as sarcastic as I remember,” Justin commented.

“Really?”

“Oh absolutely, I recall you used to make Mrs. Phan go ballistic because you kept talking back. It was really funny.”

I tried to recall, but my memory of that specific instance was foggy at best. “I can barely remember, but I somehow feel proud of young me.”

“Glad to know you’re still the Alexis I remember. Like, even though it’s been forever, you’re still the same height. It’s like you never grew up.”

Hey, Mrs. Phan said I grew!”

“She was just being nice, Alexis.”

“Then that hurts, that really hurts. I don’t think I could ever properly heal from that.”

“You’ll get over it.” He looked at me, at the top of my head. “Maybe not.”

“Stop it, if you keep saying stuff like that then I’m really not going to get any taller.”

“But, after so many years of volleyball, you think you’d gain an extra inch or so. All that jumping around and stuff.”

“Don’t tell me you came seemingly out of nowhere just to bully me?”

“No, I originally came here to beef up my résumé, remember? This is just a little something for myself.”

Without thinking, I playfully punched him in the arm.

Justin grabbed his arm, nearly bowling over. His path went uneven, and he had to put a foot ahead of him, off the sidewalk, to catch his balance.

Whoa, ow, now that’s a hit.”

I drew back, berating myself in my head. “My bad, I wasn’t trying to-”

“No, you’re good, you’re good, I just… wasn’t expecting that. That’s all.” He massaged his arm, letting out a deep breath. And he kept doing it.

I realized he was just fucking around by this point.

“Now you’re just being a little bitch,” I said, lightheartedly. “I might just go back and tell everyone you were beat up by a girl, if you keep overacting like that.”

Justin countered, harshly. “Hey, it’s whatever year it is, girls are tougher than ever. I can bitch however much I want.”

I smiled, glad that I had found some levity in this situation, this circumstance. It was a good break from everything. Without being aware of it, Justin was helping me out. More than he’d know.

No talk of The Bluemoon, no mention of any crazy gang nonsense. It was refreshing, relaxing.

A change of pace towards something familiar.

We continued on our walk, aimlessly as we chattered. There was nowhere particular where we wanted to go. We were approaching a park, the line of houses beside us ending at a trail leading up to it. I knew this park, I had been here before. A handful of times when I was younger, and another time in early October, when I was very, very thirsty, and very desperate.

I bit my lip.

“Kinda tired of walking,” Justin said, pointing down the trail. “Wanna sit on the swings, like real kids?”

I probably could’ve gotten away with refusing, but for what purpose? That park was already starting to bring back painful, sad memories, but I’d live an even more painful and sadder life if I avoided every place that triggered something in me.

This too, I had to fight past.

“No objections,” I said.

We went to the park, getting to the playground proper. We weren’t only ones here. Four kids, dressed like they were in middle school, were running around, chasing each other with plastic swords of various neon colors. Justin and I each took to our own swing, watching them as they ran and yelled.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” Justin asked, as we listlessly looked forward.

“Why do you ask?”

“Do you remember Zoey?”

“Black hair, brown eyes, a gap in her tooth that she used to stick bits of corn in between? Definitely.”

“Hardy-har. It’s her birthday, and we’re doing a get together. Maybe you can come, see the old crew again. We might even go down the Barn, later.”

The Barn. Braham Barn.

I didn’t even consider it for a second.

“I can’t,” I said, “I already have plans for tomorrow. My mom just cut my hair for it.”

“Agh, that’s too bad. I’m sure they would have liked to see you again. And, by the by, Zoey doesn’t have that gap anymore, and she’s dyed her hair. She’s fine, now.”

I looked at him. “No way, you two?”

He nodded, looking so smug it bothered me for a second.

“Good for you,” I said, meaning it, “Tell her I said ‘happy birthday.’ And can I give you guys a piece of advice?”

“Shoot.”

“Don’t go to the barn, tomorrow. Literally do anything else.”

Confused, he asked, “How come-”

Ahead of us, one of the kids yelled. It didn’t sound like an exclamation of fun, or enjoyment, but rather one of help.

Each kid had their own different colored plastic sword. The one with the bright red sword was crying, trying to run away from the other three. He wasn’t as fast as they were, and when they closed in, they swung, hard and fast. Audible from where we were sitting. A sweep of the leg, the back, and he was on the ground. The other kids waited until he got up, and made some distance before chasing him again.

He continued to cry, and they continued to run.

“Aren’t they playing a little too rough?” I asked Justin, “Where are their parents?”

“I don’t see any cars parked. Probably just walked in like we did.”

“They’re practically beating him up. That’s fucked.”

“I’m sure it’s just kids being kids.”

“No, that’s too far. Come on.” I left the swing.

I can’t leave this be.

“Alexis! Where do you think you’re going?” Behind me, I heard a chain jangle. Justin was following me.

“Back me up, or no. I’ll stop them.”

“You can’t just do that!”

“And why’s that?”

Justin didn’t have a rebuttal. He just grunted, and came with.

We crossed the playground, through the playhouse, and to where the kids were running on the field. The boy was on the ground, curled in a ball, the other kids no longer waiting for him to stand. They beat him with their swords.

One of the bullies was a girl, I noted.

They hadn’t noticed us coming. I shouted when I was about four feet away.

“Get away from him!”

They turned, ceasing their volley of attacks on the boy. He kept crying for a father that wasn’t here.

“What for?” It was the girl that spoke, speaking to me like I was dumb.

“For roughhousing your friend, though, I’m not sure you’re legally allowed to be friends, anymore.”

“But he’s the bad guy,” another kid said. A boy. In that same tone like he was talking to a slower person. “Don’t you see his saber? We’re the good guys because we have lighter colors.”

Are you insane?

“Does it look like I care? You’re only playing a game, don’t get carried away.”

“Bleh, we are playing, you just don’t get it,” the girl said.

“The only thing I ‘get’ is that you don’t understand the concept of simple empathy.”

“Get outta here.” It was the other boy. “Why don’t you go and suck that guy’s dick?” He puckered his lips toward Justin, who was standing to my left.

The kids snickered like they were about to piss themselves. Like the idea of saying bad words was still novel to them.

Jesus Christ, what shit kids these are.

I shook my head, then walked forward. Despite their big words earlier, they let me through. I went to the boy on the ground. Shaking, sobbing.

I sat by him. “Hi, hey, don’t worry. They’re going home, now, they won’t be bothering you anymore. After they leave, you can call whoever you need to call, and get this sorted out. You can borrow my phone, if you need to.”

The rustling of grass, the stamping of feet. From behind.

“We’re not going anywhere! You can’t tell us what to do!”

I stood, spinning around when I heard something cut through air. The girl was swinging down her green sword, straight for my head.

I caught it in my hand easily, at the same time blocking the boy’s blue sword when he tried to strike my right side.

The other boy’s purple sword, he never tried to attack. I simply looked at him, and he was frozen.

Easy.

I flicked my wrist, and flipped the girl’s sword out of her hand. It flipped again, and I caught it by the hilt. I still held the blue sword by the plastic blade.

I pressed the girl’s sword against her clavicle. I glowered at all three of them, my expression twisting.

Justin was still here, astounded. I kept my voice low, but so the kids could still hear me.

“There’s a dead rabbit at the bottom of that ditch. Unless you want something similar, scram.”

From their quivering mouths, I knew they wanted to cry now, too, but they summarily scrammed, running back down the trail, away from us. From me.

I blinked, as if I was coming back to my senses. I was in a different mode there, for a bit. A different headspace.

Weird.

I dropped the swords at my feet. The boy with the purple sword was the only one who got to keep his.

Justin approached, slow. Unsure what to say, judging from his face. He didn’t​ rush himself.

“Damn, that was… pretty hardcore. Are you really Alexis?”

I blinked again.

“Yes, of course I am. That was nothing.”

“‘Nothing’ my ass. I think you gave those kids nightmares for life.”

I had to shake myself out of it. Go back to being Alexis.

“Never mind that,” I said, “Help me out real quick.”

Justin came closer, aiding with getting the bullied boy back on his feet. We checked if he was okay, checked for any bruises. None, it seemed, which was a relief. I had the boy call for someone to come pick him up. He didn’t need to borrow my phone, he had his own.

And it’s better than mine, if I may add.

We waited with him, until a car sped into the parking lot across the field. His father, it seemed like, came running for him. The father thanked us before questioning his son for what happened, and for names. We didn’t stay for that part, I had a hunch they’d get it sorted out.

“Let’s head back,” Justin said, “They’re probably done by now.”

I faced him, then nodded.

We returned to my place.

I wanted to say something, offer up another conversation, but there was a certain air to Justin, now. I could sense that he wasn’t up for it.

I bit my lip.

We got to the door, and I knocked. I didn’t bring my keys. They wouldn’t be going anywhere.

It was Mrs. Phan that opened the door.

“Alexis, I was just leaving. Are you ready, Justin?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered.

Mrs. Phan and I switched places, with her stepping out of the apartment, and me going in.

“Hope I see you two soon,” Mrs. Phan said, behind her never-changing, friendly demeanor. She bowed her head. I returned the favor with my own.

“Me too,” I said. “See you, Justin.”

Justin bobbed his head, and made a peace sign. But he didn’t say anything.

They left, and I closed the door.

“Where did you go?” my mom asked, as I came in. She was washing dishes in the kitchen.

I shrugged. “Around.”

“Just around?”

“Like, we went to the park, I guess. Oh, what did Mrs. Phan want to talk about?”

A ceramic clink, and my mom was finished with the dishes. She dried her hands, then brought a hand to her chin.

“She was asking if I wanted to come back, join one of the committees.”

“Are you?”

“I told her I think on it.”

“Are you, though?” I asked.

“Maybe.” She looked pleased with herself.

I wonder if that’s all they talked about.

But, I wasn’t going to put too much thought into it. That was my mom’s decision to make.

“I’ll be in my room,” I then said, heading towards it.

“Okay. We have food for dinner now. Just… heat it up whenever you’re hungry.”

“Cool.”

I went into my room, going straight for my closet.

I sifted through everything, until I found my mask. I held it in my hands.

The party was tomorrow. So many people, maybe even media. If I wanted to make it out in one piece, I had to put a better effort into being Alexis. Because, clearly, there were still visible cracks on that front.

I moved the mask into another angle, and saw my reflection in the lenses.

Why was it, that it felt like ‘Alexis’ was another mask to wear in front of others? No matter what, it seemed like there was always something I needed to hide.

Which ‘me’ was me? Who was I, really?

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