*These are to be read right to left, then from top to bottom. Click them to see a larger version. Enjoy!
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
“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.
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-
A finger was faster than an arm.
The shot rang out.
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.
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.”
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.
I stirred, tossing and turning, pulling covers up over my head.
In another plane, I was on the move.
Benny was there, sprinting down the street. Running for dear life.
Her strides were long, her movements fast. It was impressive, in a relative sense.
Impressive for a human.
She ran, passing others, pushing them down when they got in her way. She wasn’t being very quiet about her trying to escape.
“Get out of my way!” she yelled, her voice straining, wild. “Get, get the fuck out of my way!”
Watching her like this, struggling to make distance, knowing that it was futile…
It was cute.
I spun, changing directions. I dropped from the ledge, heading down.
I landed in the middle of the street, where Benny tried to cross. She stopped, dead in her tracks.
She stared at me, and she looked like she was seeing a ghost. Her eyes were wide, red, her face drained of all color. She was tense, so tense that the slightest bit of movement caused her whole body to jitter in fits. She tested a step forward, reconsidered, and tested a step back, reconsidering again.
She knew. There was nowhere to go for her, nowhere to run. Try anything, and I’d simply find her again.
Sweat glistened off her cheeks. Her mouth was agape, lower lip trembling. Eyes focused straight ahead, at me. Tears streamed from the edges, mixing with the sweat.
There was no hope to be found in that expression.
That face, that face.
That was exactly the kind of face I wanted to see from her. The kind of face I was dreaming of.
I wanted to see it up close.
Savoring every second of that image, I took my first step towards her. Then the second.
Benny didn’t move.
There she was, and here I was. Finally. I had her. She couldn’t hide from me, or slip away like before.
She had no one to rely on, no one to save her in the last second. It was just me, and it was just her.
It was everything I ever wanted.
I opened and closed my hands, an attempt to focus myself. My pace hastened the closer I got.
So close, so close.
I could taste it.
I was walking forward, then I wasn’t anymore.
A hit, and I was sent flying the opposite way.
The wind was knocked out of me, my throat seized and locked up. I couldn’t get anything in, or out. I couldn’t breathe.
I tried getting my bearings, but the scene started to change. The night sky was cut off, a white plane rushing over my field of view, yawning and stretching until every speck of black was gone, and shining my eyes with light.
The surface folded at a right angle, moving right in front my path.
The back of my neck hit the wall, and I heard something crack. I slid down, collapsed on the floor. My arms fell close to my sides.
It’d be another thirty seconds before I could move my head, but I had a sinking feeling about where I was.
Against the tile were slow, steady steps. The situation was flipped. I was unable to move, and they were taking their time.
I saw legs come into my frame of view. Grey joggers, a blue jacket stopping right above the waist.
My stomach dropped.
They approached, until they were right at my feet. I only saw the legs, now.
They crouched, and I could their face. A blank face. The eyes were blacked out, the face cracked in places, like a broken doll. Head tilted, it studied me carefully.
Its lips didn’t move when it spoke.
“You think you can get rid of me that easy?”
Its voice was twisted and distorted, like it was being broadcasted through an old, busted radio.
I had my mask, but I smiled all the same, projecting an air of superiority.
“It was easy, and I can do it again.”
“Is that what you think? Don’t be so foolish. Look around you. Everything you have, everything you are, it’s all mine. You’re merely a co-pilot, and you still need me to guide the way.”
“I don’t need you,” I said, but even I knew how false that was.
“Don’t make me laugh. You feel it too, don’t you? You’re incomplete, and you draw on me as a resource. You and I both know that grinds away at you, and gives me that much more purchase. A stronger foothold.”
I drew my arms closer beside me, slipping my fingers out of sight. I felt the warm sensation wrapping around my neck. I was healing, but I didn’t dare move. Not yet.
I was also taking the time to formulate an answer. Something it couldn’t punch a hole through.
“You don’t have anything to say? No rebuttal, a refusal of the facts? How-”
Its head snapped back, black ooze spraying from one eye socket. The knife stayed in place.
My hand moved as a blur, from my side to its eye. I brought my hands back down to help myself up.
That was my answer.
It fell onto one side, hands shaking as they hovered over the knife. Wanted to pull it out, but the pain that followed would be significant. It hesitated.
Benny was gone. Taken away from me once again. And once again, it was all its fault. Her.
I lifted a foot over its face, over its hands.
“Don’t be stupid,” I said. “Or, at least don’t blind yourself by your stupidity. I draw upon you to get a better sense of myself, and I know what I want, now. I’ll prove that I don’t need you, or any of your connections.”
I slammed my foot down, pushing her hands into the handle of the knife. The blade sinked deeper.
I spoke over the screaming.
“Don’t forget, you put yourself here, at the bottom. You wanted this. Stay where you belong, stay down.”
Above even the screaming, a larger, louder noise began to blare. Enough that it was tearing apart the classroom. The walls cracked, the ceiling falling into pieces-
I woke up in a frenzy.
I threw the covers away from my head, gasping for air. I blinked, and water dripped down the sides of my face.
I winced. Light was in my eyes, and an alarm sang in my ears.
Holy fuck, fuck, fuck that.
That was a nightmare, a dream, but it was so vivid. My heart was racing, and I was still in bed. I searched for something I could use to realign myself, bring my mind back to here, this room.
Nothing here was mine.
I changed position, pushing my head into the pillow. I had to will myself to calm down. My hand drifted to find the alarm, on the small table by the bed. I had to feel my way towards it, but I eventually pressed the button.
The silence that followed was somehow louder than the beeping alarm.
I stirred, tossing and turning, pulling the covers back over my head. I tried forcing myself back to sleep, but it was useless. I was awake.
But I elected to stay in bed for a while longer.
In trying to cool my head, I thought back to the night before. The early morning.
The meeting went on for another hour before it we wrapped it up, and we called it a night. Or rather, an early morning. I declined D’s offer to take me somewhere closer to home, for obvious reasons. I went off on my own, over a few streets and rooftops, and found a bus back, instead.
Mother… Shiori was fast asleep when I returned to the apartment, and she would be gone, should I check right now. She’d have to go to work.
And I had things to do, too, but ten more minutes in bed wouldn’t hurt.
I tossed and turned again, trying to feel where the coldest part of the bed was. Trying to find the most comfort.
It was such a fight, just to find comfort in sleep. A struggle. As if I was forced to put in effort to take it easy, to relax. My mind and thoughts were already way ahead of me, and I had to reign it back to the now.
Now, I couldn’t stop thinking about later tonight.
I was anxious in a way that electrified my body, screaming at me to get up and do something. A nervous energy that was begging to be burned. Not unlike my thirst, but this was asking for something else.
Torn between a want and a need. I wanted it to be night so I could go out and join the others, but I needed rest. I had to gather as much energy as possible, so I could be alert, aware, and awake, even in the later hours. The night that Alexis – Blank Face – was looking for Thomas… I wasn’t looking for a repeat of that, for myself.
I’ll succeed where she couldn’t. I have to. I have to.
I repeated the words in my head, like counting sheep, hoping to soothe my restless mind, and get an extra bit of sleep. It didn’t really help.
There were so many other factors to consider. So many ways this could go.
Anything could happen, tonight. A miscalculation here, a bad guess there. A minor slip-up early on that spirals into disaster. Simple bad luck. Should something happen, I had the ability to be flexible, but if too many cogs spun out of control, if too many things went wrong…
Would I be able to bounce back? Regroup, and try again? Maybe, but it’d be difficult, and it might even be too late, once I got my ducks in a row again. Benny might be gone.
It had to be tonight, and it had to be a success.
Yet, it all hinged on a motley crew of sorts.
I wondered how strong the truce really was, especially between D and Lawrence. There was a troubled history, there, and that meant friction, temporary ceasefire or no. Especially on Lawrence’s part. And I couldn’t say for sure whether or not that friction would eventually rub him the wrong way.
One of the reasons he even agreed to work together was so he could kill D if he saw fit. He practically jumped at the chance. I had to watch out for him.
And there was the girl herself. D.
She was an anomaly, I even told her that myself, but that still made her hard to pin down. Who was she, really, and how did someone like her end up in a situation like that? What did the letter ‘D’ even stand for? She stole Thomas’s van, dealt drugs to petty gangs, and when the deal went south, she was willing to risk everything to save herself.
I almost admired her tenacity.
But, she also agreed to help me. She even offered. Why?
Could she really be trusted? Could she really prove herself?
There was only one way to find out.
Tonight, it was her idea. She pitched it. We’d see if it worked out.
I flipped myself on my back, my arm over my eyes. Blocking the light.
A motley crew. A gang, a girl, and me, whoever that was.
But, in working towards the same goal, that should be enough to keep everyone in line. Probably. Hopefully.
Tossing, turning. I pulled the covers away from my head, and I gasped for open air again. Being so lost in my thoughts, I nearly forgot to breathe. Sweat lightly soaked the back of my shirt, sticking skin to fabric.
That nightmare was still fresh in my mind, and the anxiety of tonight was killing me.
I shifted one more time, pushing my eyelids open to stare at the ceiling. I could feel it in the muscles of my eyes and the aches in my body. I slept okay, but another hour or two wouldn’t hurt. I just couldn’t find it within me to get anymore rest. I was too agitated.
Taking heavy breaths, I crawled out of bed. I left the room, trying to clear my throat.
It took me a second, having to place the voice to a name, and realizing a voice was here in the first place.
It was Mother. Shiori.
She was in the kitchen, sitting at the table in the middle. She wore a silk, velvet bathrobe, a white towel wrapped over her hair. Her hands were around a mug, a finger tracing around the open lid.
“Morning,” I said back, confused. “What are you doing here?”
“Am I not allowed to be in my own home?”
“You know what I mean. Why aren’t you at work?”
This complicates things, you being here.
“Not going to work. Going to the church.”
“There’s still stuff to do, and I plan on helping.”
“What about work?”
Shiori spun her mug around, her fingers going around the handle. “My co-workers are coming with me.”
At least she was leaving the house. Not as complicated as I feared.
Satisfied, I continued into the kitchen, towards the cabinet. I started getting myself a glass of water.
“Do you want coffee?” Shiori asked.
“No,” I said. “Can’t have it.”
“I have coffee when I was your age. Not like everyday, but sometime.”
You mean ‘had coffee,’ and ‘sometimes?’ How long have you lived in this country?
I filled my glass with water from the refrigerator. I drew out a long gulp. Cold. Exactly what I needed.
I was about to leave, bring my glass with me, but Shiori stopped me again.
Oh come on.
I didn’t want to respond to that name, or play that role so early in my day. But Shiori was giving me no choice.
“Your friends stopped by earlier.”
“From the church, Justin and Emily.”
Oh, them. I had already forgotten about them. It didn’t feel like it was only yesterday. Felt like weeks ago, honestly.
“Okay?” I said.
“They invited you to go with them and watch movie, and eat lunch. But you were still sleep, but maybe you can meet them later.”
Trivial. Not interested.
“Sure,” I said. “Might be fun.”
I had to go out, grab a few things before tonight, but that wasn’t Shiori’s business. If she thought I was out with friends instead, I was fine with that.
“I’ll go get ready then,” I said, about to leave the kitchen.
“Stay right there.”
Tension coursed through me. I froze, wary.
Shiori got up from the table, and walked to me.
I recalled the dream I had earlier. In my hand was a glass of water. If I struck the counter beside me, I’d have something much sharper.
I halted that particular thought process.
I let Shiori approach.
She stopped at less than an arm’s length away, and looked deep into my eyes. Her gaze remained there.
It was disconcerting.
“Look,” Shiori said. “I’m taller than you again.”
She had to tilt her head up to look at me.
Shiori raised her hand over the towel bundled up over her head. She moved her hand, half a foot over the top of my head.
“I’m taller now.”
Was that supposed to be a joke?
I could feel my time being wasted away. I wanted out.
“That doesn’t count,” I said.
“I’m your mother, it counts.”
I made a face.
“Do you still have your watch?” Shiori asked, out of nowhere.
Shiori made a face.
“The one I got you for your birthday, don’t tell me you lost it already.”
The watch. I had a vague recollection over what she was talking about. I tried not to press my mind towards getting a clearer picture.
“I didn’t lose it,” I said. “It’s around, somewhere.”
Shiori mumbled something in Japanese. The meaning was lost on me.
“Uh,” I said, finding an excuse to leave. “I’ve got to shower if I want to meet up with Justin and Emily. Gotta get going.”
Shiori’s eyes continued to peer into me, like she was searching for something. She blinked, looking away.
“I remember when you were so small. I had to keep reminding you, over and over, to stop tugging at my pants. You never wanted to leave my side.”
Somehow, that prompted a connection, and I couldn’t stop it. It hit me, harder than any truck or van could.
The memories, the relationship with this woman. I recognized point A, and saw point B for what it was. Now, her looking in my eyes actually meant something.
My heart was tugged one way.
“People change,” I said, voice wavering. “They grow up.”
Shiori, Mother, nodded. “But you didn’t have to grow up so fast.”
A piercing strike. I would have doubled over if I wasn’t already moving, heading back into my room.
I closed the door, harder than I intended.
I was breathing hard. I clutched my chest, and my heart was beating as if I had just spent the whole morning running.
This isn’t good, this isn’t good.
I wished Shiori had left by the time I got out of bed. It would have made this so much easier.
Between that, and the dream I just had, it only added pressure for tonight. No matter what, it absolutely had to be a success. Or I’d lose more than Benny.
I’d lose myself.
I placed the glass by the table at the bed, next to the alarm. I moved into the closet.
Opening my bag, I sorted through my costume. The red windbreaker, the dark joggers, the mask, no longer blank, painted over by my own efforts.
This isn’t good.
Nothing here was truly mine. It was borrowed, taken, repurposed. Sure, I picked out these clothes myself, modified them in my image, but it wouldn’t be enough. I couldn’t genuinely claim anything here.
And there was a certain danger, to that.
Being here, in this apartment, the memories and connections came in small but continuous intervals, like a being feed through an IV drip. Eventually, it would build, and my sense of self would be washed away.
We can’t have that.
I put down my stuff, hiding it for later. I got back to my feet, feeling very conscious over my body, aware of every inch of movement, and the seed of doubt, if I could claim this vessel as mine.
I’d have to, if I wanted to continue.
I started undressing, getting ready for a shower, tossing the pajamas into a corner of the closet.
Tonight was a step towards that affirmation I needed. I had to prepare for it.
That preparation involved getting some items for D. Stuff she apparently needed. Stuff like firecrackers.
The light gave way to night, and I never felt more centered.
This was it, right here. The moon, the handful of glimmering stars above, the countless lights below. Cars, buildings, streetlights. The business of it all. There was a pulse, a rhythm to how everything and everyone moved. A certainty.
And standing over it all, outside of that pulse, that certainty, that system. It was liberating.
My own pulse quickened as I continued to observe the city’s skyline.
Footsteps, coming from behind. Not one, but several. My eyes stayed on the city.
They stood at either side of me. To my left, Lawrence. To my right, D. Hleuco was in the skies, enjoying the open air.
Lawrence had a new set of bandages over his face. His expression was stern, making him look older than he was. He had on a denim jacket, a white turtleneck underneath. Denim pants, leather boots. If he was trying to go for a classic gangster look, it wasn’t a bad attempt.
D was dressed similarly from last night. An oversized biker jacket, a choker around her neck. She was wearing a skirt, but with striped tights, this time. If it was anyone else, it’d seem like they were playing dress up, but she sold her look pretty well.
I was in costume. Mask on, hood up, bag strapped around my back. Very aware of how none of it was mine. V’s.
“Ah, the classic ‘brooding vigilante looking over rooftop bit,’” D said. “I like it.”
I didn’t entertain her with a response. I wasn’t in the mood.
“Everyone’s getting ready, and we’ll all be in position within the hour,” Lawrence said. “I like the uniforms, it’s a good touch.”
“Right on schedule,” I commented.
“We can move fast when we have to.”
“Good to hear,” I said, eyes down to the street below. Two vans and a car were parked in front of the Mexican restaurant. People were going back and forth from the restaurant’s entrance and the vehicles, loading boxes and other equipment.
“Speaking of,” D said, “Here.”
She poked my shoulder, and my eyes went from the street to her hand. She opened up her palm, revealing the earpiece in her palm.
“We each have one,” she said, tilting her head, pushing her hair over an ear. She was already wearing her own. “This should be good in keeping tabs with one another. But don’t talk too much, I don’t need to be updated on every second of your life.”
I nodded, and I took the earpiece. I fit it into my right ear, adjusting my hood once it was in place.
I pressed it, turning it on.
“And Lawrence will be communicating with his group, and relaying anything relevant back to us. That way, there aren’t a million voices in our heads.”
I would have commented, there, saying that it wasn’t that hard to parse through it all, but I didn’t.
I glanced in Lawrence’s direction, curious at how he was taking everything.
He was watching his crew below, his head down, some hair over his eyes. I only had a good view of one side of his face, but I could sense the general vibe. His lips were set in a line, his eyebrow slightly furrowed. As though he was holding onto some tension without realizing it.
“Second thoughts?” I asked.
There was a delay, and then he turned his head, noticing me. His eyebrows furrowed even more.
“Hell no, I don’t back down from nothing. Fuck that.”
Then I saw his expression change. It was slight.
“I want to know, is this something you expected to happen?”
“Expected what to happen?”
“This. With your whole ‘hero thing,’ picking a fight with almost every gang in the city, Solace, Benny, did you ever expect to be working with someone like me, and someone like her?”
He gestured towards D, then to the crew below.
“Did you ever expect to agree on a plan as insane as this?”
Lawrence to my left, D to right, Hleuco soaring in the skies above. I recalled what I thought about this lineup, earlier. A motley crew.
I didn’t look at Lawrence when I answered, “Did you?”
I heard a small noise, the brushing of denim when he folded his arms.
“Course not. I ask, because I was thinking to back before all this started, when I joined El Carruaje. Back then, I was just a dumb kid, chasing highs. I wanted the easy life, and a gang like that seemed like the way to go.”
Another small noise, this time coming from D. I caught her expression. Apologetic. Like she’d heard this story hundreds of times, and now I had to be subjected to it.
That was probably exactly it.
Lawrence continued. “Even just two years ago, El Carruaje was different. There were no schemes, no hidden plans, at least, not that I was aware of. It was just a bunch of kids selling drugs, and bunch of kids taking them. The parties, the access. It was all there, and it was all easy to consume.”
He lowered his head, looking down again.
“But then I met the rest of Benny’s crew. I saw the power they wielded, the command in their voices. They gave orders, and we listened. Suddenly, the weed and parties weren’t as exciting anymore. That was where the real high was. That power.”
“And that’s why you wanted to join Benny’s crew?” D asked, like she was reading from a script.
“That’s why. I wanted that for myself. To command, to give orders and have people listen.”
“Then, congratulations,” I said. “You finally got what you wanted.”
Lawrence didn’t move, but a sharp exhale escaped from his nose.
“Maybe, but now it’s a matter of defending that position, or proving myself to others. It’s never just the one thing, it’s everything that comes with it. All this time chasing highs, eventually the lows are going to hit you.”
I struggled to find the point in this, why he was giving me his life story. There was a reason why I came up here by myself.
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. “Are you trying to talk yourself out of it?”
Lawrence scoffed. “Hell no, I’m in this all the way. I’ll do what I have to. I’m just saying, it’s funny how things fall into place sometimes. Tell me two years ago that I’d be here, in this position, I’d call you crazy.”
The word repeated itself in my head. Crazy. That was one way to put it. Maybe it was even funny, when looking at it from another angle. Life was unpredictable, and it had a way of dealing out bad hands. It was why people hated being asked where they saw themselves in five years. Impossible to answer, and a good answer just meant satisfying whoever asked.
No one truly has a way of knowing. Was Alexis able to predict this?
No, she wouldn’t.
And all the better for it.
Some time passed, with no one adding anything else to say. Lawrence stepped back from the roof’s edge.
“I’ll be heading out now,” he said. “Shouldn’t be too long before we’re all in order. I’ll give the signal, and I’ll concede the play to you. It’s your call.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Anything else? Do you have a gun?”
“Don’t need one, I have my knife.”
“Is that enough?”
I turned away from my view of the city, and faced Lawrence.
“I’m more than enough,” I said.
Lawrence looked amused at that answer. “Suit yourself. Well, I’m off. Good luck, V… D.”
“Good luck!” D said for the both of us.
“This better fucking work,” he told her, grim.
“It will, and if it doesn’t, we can laugh about it later.”
Lawrence narrowed his eyes.
“Watch yourself,” he said, but he took his leave, and I went back to looking over the city.
They seem to be getting along, if I can call it that. Could be worse, though.
“Don’t mind him,” D said, as Lawrence was heading back down, unable to hear her. “He’s just psyching himself up.”
Couldn’t fault him for that. This was a big move, a power move, and that meant risks.
Even pawns can be nervous.
“What about you?” I asked. “Anything you want to say?”
D lifted her shoulders.
“Um, not really. I said that I was going to help you, and I intend to do exactly that. I’m excited.”
“You even got the stuff I asked for,” she added.
“Is this like your version of putting a magnifying glass to an anthill?”
D snapped her fingers. “Yeah! That’s a great way to put it!”
Her enthusiasm over what was to come forced a laugh out of me.
“You’re like the funhouse mirror version of youth,” I said.
“Matter of perspective. Everything distorts when you put it through a looking-glass.”
I chuckled. Funny, that I felt more like myself, here, even when among complete strangers.
Hleuco flew overhead, and I saw the moon. I moved my wrist, checking the time.
“You should get going,” I said. “It’s almost time.”
“Sure,” D said, and she backed away from the edge. “Keep an ear out. L-Boy will give you his confirmation, and so will I. After that, we’ll be waiting on you to give us the go-ahead.”
“I’m ready when you are.”
“Now we’re talking, I’ll catch you later.”
D left, going back the way she came. Her footsteps weren’t paced at a steady rhythm, one foot following the other. There was a beat to it. She skipped her way to the exit.
She was so calm. How? Even if it was her idea, it wasn’t unnatural to harbor concerns. Yet she seemed cool, calm, and more collected than any of us.
An anomaly for sure.
I, in contrast, was restless. Itching to go, ready for action. I was centered, and I was prepared to push that energy outward. I was alert, aware, and awake.
A good sleep had done me some good.
I stayed still, unmoving from my spot on the roof, watching the city. I saw Lawrence’s crew finishing up their work, getting into their vehicles. They started up, and drove off. The vans went one way, the car went another.
For the remaining time I was waiting, Hleuco swooped low, landing by my side.
He’d been quiet lately, I noticed. I wondered if that meant anything.
In wait, observing the buildings and the farther skyline, Stephenville took on other qualities. Cars drove by, not rushing to go anywhere. People walked, usually by themselves, hurrying to get indoors. There was activity, but it wasn’t busy. It was akin to a slumbering giant.
Imagine poking that giant with a hot spike.
Before my thoughts wandered even more, a voice buzzed in my ear. Mechanical.
“This is Lawrence, everyone’s in position. Ready to go.”
I didn’t answer right away. I kept waiting.
Another minute came and went before I heard anything from D.
“Sorry, sorry I’m late! Had to check up on some last minute things. But I’m good now, ready to go.”
Two confirmations. One remained.
There was certain pressure, having the final word, knowing that there was no going back once that word was uttered. But, I was ready to make that move. I wasn’t lying when I said it.
This is it. This is my move. The hand I’ll play, to use another metaphor.
The pawns were in place, the bishop already in position. It made me wonder where I was on the board.
If I may be so bold, I would liken you to the queen.
Queen. I wasn’t sure I liked that label. Compared to the king, the most vital piece, the queen could be disposed of. It could be sacrificed.
But, it did fit, in another sense. The queen wasn’t bound by the same rules as the other pieces. Pawns could only move forward, one at a time. Bishops, though less limited, could only move in a specific fashion.
Queens, however, had the least limitations. The most important piece, second only to the king. They could move. Forward, backward, sideways, diagonally. They had power, and they had freedom.
I inhaled, deep, and exhaled just as strong.
“Ready to go,” I said, firm. “Payback time.”
My heart started beating faster. I was waiting for a response.
And then, the response came. Not from Lawrence or D. It wasn’t verbal.
The response was heard, felt, then seen.
I heard the booming, I felt the soft rumble, I saw the smoke.
This was why I was so fixated on the skyline. I wanted to see the before, and the after.
Plumes of smoke rose from various points, blending into the night sky. Flickers of orange and red flared, gnawing to take a piece out of the oppressive black. Sirens sang, and people screamed. The pulse of the city quickened, the beast startling awake.
This was my play.
D had suggested smoking Benny out. But how would we accomplish such a feat?
We used fire.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My foot began to tap.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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.
“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.
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.”
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?”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.
“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…”
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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 stepped forward, joining him, and we left the church.
I was fast, I could overtake people with just my speed alone. It was one of my assets when it came to being a superhero. It gave me an advantage, it gave me value.
People had guns, but I was faster than those people. Even if they had a tool to level the playing field, more often than not, I still had them beat. I was still much faster than they were.
But, in the most critical of critical moments, I wasn’t faster than this finger, this pulled trigger. The bullets that followed.
Flown into a barrage of metal and destruction.
I was torn to ribbons, and then the others. I lost the breath needed to vocalize the pain.
My head whipped back, cracking.
Eyes rolled in the back of the sockets. I was thrown back, along with the splattered blood and the picked-apart meat.
In a very real sense, I was killed.
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.”
“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.
“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.
Neither of us shared a word after that.
A hand settled on my shoulder. I looked.
“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.
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.”
“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.
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 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?”
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 state 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.
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.
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.
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.
Water hit the glass doors. It wasn’t hitting it.
Nothing there, there was no face, but I looked and 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.
“B- bug, thought I saw a bug,” I lied.
My mom gave me a look. Disconcerting. Disbelief.
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.
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.
The shape was still there, irregularly defined. Staring.
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.