033 – Required Strength

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It had taken up to three hours to make it to Katy’s place, from getting through the frenzy at the hotel, traffic, and making sure everyone was following and in step with the police escorts. Three hours.

Forty-five hours left.

Kristin dealt with the officers while Katy let us in.

The interior was dark, but it was no matter to me. I could have navigated this whole house blindfolded, I was that familiar with the place.

Her house was big, even for a two-story home. It had a modern design and chic to it that made it hard to believe it was in the same school district as mine. The whole neighborhood had that posh air, giving the impression that it was a safe place to be. Kristin insisted that we stayed together for the night, and this was the only place that could comfortably house everyone. I was itching to do more, myself, but maybe it was something we needed, after that ordeal.

Maybe it was something I needed.

Katy pointed to the slippers lined up by the door. “Should be enough for everyone. Try to make yourself at home.”

“Remind me to marry you, Katy,” Maria said. She made room for my mom to close the door. “I have got to get in on this.”

Katy responded, “How well can you cook and clean?”

“Once you taste my spicy fish tacos, you’ll be begging me to put a ring on it.”

This is the most anyone’s spoke since leaving the hotel, I thought.

Katy flipped a nearby set of switches, and the lights turned on throughout the house. We walked through the main hallway, Katy ahead of us. The stairs were to our right, and the kitchen opened up to our left. Katy stopped at the kitchen.

A gate was set up at the entrance. Plastic, about as high as my hip.

On the other side, a dog stirred.

“Annie, come here, come here,” Katy called in a high pitch.

“Ah, the legend herself,” Maria said. She’d heard all about Annie before, to the point that Maria had to demand that Katy never bring her up again, lest she lose the feeling in her upper lip.

Annie was a labrador retriever, the family pet, absolutely adorable, but she was getting up there in years. Her fur wasn’t as bright as it used to be, gray streaked her ears and the top of her head. She moved from her bed, sluggish.

She used to be so energetic and excited whenever guests came over. Now, she was more content with just sitting by their side in the living room.

But, she was still absolutely adorable, just looking at her made me feel a little better.

Katy folded the gate to let her pass, but the dog stopped halfway, seemingly confused. She tilted her head.

Katy ordered her again, “Annie, come here, let’s go outside.”

The dog didn’t budge, instead taking a more defensive stance.

Annie started growling. Baring teeth.

“Annie!” Katy had to snap at her, scold her. “Behave!”

Katy entered the kitchen, and grabbed Annie’s collar. She didn’t bite, but she did resist. Katy had to use actual force to tug her along.

Annie continued to growl as she went out of the kitchen. But, as she approached, she tried to break out of Katy’s hold, and lunge.

At me.

It was my mom, Maria, and myself, but I saw how Annie moved, where her eyes went, which person she attempted to get. The spring in her step, the sudden fire in her eyes. Even though I played and ran around the house with her when I was a kid, it was like I was a stranger to her, now.

No one seemed to notice that, however. Mom and Maria both backed up when Annie started trying to get on her hind legs, growling all the way. Katy had to hold her down.

“Agh, shoot. I think I’ll have to keep her outside,” Katy decided, her arms shaking from Annie’s movements, her gown getting stepped on by the dog.

Finally, after Katy’s repeated insistence, Annie complied, following Katy to the other side of the house. All by the collar, letting out a grunt or snarl on the way.

“Man, even the dog’s on edge,” Maria commented. I didn’t know what to think of that, myself.

The three of us continued into the living room. Large, the ceiling high with wooden beams, a wooden floor, white walls and white curtains. The farthest wall was essentially one big window. Katy was probably on the other side, with Annie.

The room and its furniture put recently built model homes to shame. Fancy, yet cozy was the best way I could describe it. Only a few spots here and there didn’t fit, didn’t mesh, and I knew enough to know that was Thomas’s doing. Knick-knacks from different countries, a doll from Japan sat one small table in the corner, beside two tribal African masks. If anything, it added character.

On every shelf and table, however, had picture frames of the Thompson family. Some had all three of them, but most were just Katy as a kid, running in a field, or playing on a playground. One family photo had them standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. There was another picture where Katy was playing with a smaller, younger girl. On first glance, you’d be forgiven if you thought they were stock photos. Just the shots, the lighting, the expressions, the general aura of the pictures, they were humorlessly generic.

Then again, I didn’t have lot of photos like that at my place, so who was I to judge?

My mom and I went to the sofa, Maria fell onto the loveseat. Her first time here, and she was already making herself at home.

A flat screen TV faced us. Huge, like a large chunk of the wall in front of us was simply missing, non-existent. Shelves at the bottom had the blu-ray player, and below that was a small cabinet with an extensive library of movies.

They had an extensive sound and lighting rig. But, the TV wasn’t on, the lights for the rig weren’t activated, either.

I could really go for a movie right now, I thought, but it didn’t seem appropriate, at the moment.

The silence was deafening. Not a single word was uttered.

I couldn’t sit still. I repositioned myself, crossed my legs, switched them, crossed my arms. There was more I could be doing, other than sitting here.

But what?

A clack, and a window at the farthest wall slid open. Katy stepped into the living room at the same time her mother did, coming from the hallway. They met us in the middle of the room.

Even with more people, the silence remained.

Someone… please…

Katy was the one to break it, a false levity, a nervous tinge, “Geez, everyone’s acting like someone died.”

“Too soon,” Maria said, moving around on the seat to be on her back. “No one’s died yet.”

“Stop that,” Kristin said, “No one here is going to die, and no one here is in any danger. I just spoke with the police officers outside, and they offered to do shifts and patrol the area for the night. And, I also just got off the phone with your father. He’s already done with his business at the hotel, and he’s on his way back home.”

She moved to sit by my mom, then putting an arm around her shoulder.

“Shiori? You and Alexis are more than welcome to stay the night if you’d like.”

“I’ve got some pajamas that should fit,” Katy added, “And of course y’all can sleep in my room.”

My mom looked at me for so long I thought she was considering against it. I almost wanted her to. But I didn’t have a way of projecting that without outright saying it.

I watched her closely, intensely. Every detail, I noted, I saw.

She then faced Kristin. “We’ll take you up on that, thank you,” my mom said instead.

Stuck here for the night, when the clock’s ticking. Fuck.

Kristin hugged my mom, and she received it warmly.

“Of course, the offer extends to you too, Maria,” Kristin said, getting up from the sofa. “You might want to contact your parents, first.”

“I left a message,” Maria said, in a way that came off as apathetic. “They’ll see it.”

Kristin was aware enough to leave that alone, and addressed all of us at once. “I’d try to explain more, but I’ll let Thomas handle that when he gets here. He’ll have more of the details. I’ll be in the kitchen, see if I can’t whip up something to eat.”

“I’ll help,” my mom said, leaving the sofa. “I want to make myself useful.”

“By all means. Katy, did you take the dog out?”

“Yup,” Katy said, as she dropped onto the seat Maria was in, nearly sitting in her lap if Maria hadn’t gotten out of the way in time.

“Okay, good. In the meantime, why don’t you set up a movie for y’all to watch?”

She left after making the suggestion, and my mom followed. And somehow, their absence sucked what little air was left in the room.

It was still… still.

Between my friends, especially these two, it usually wasn’t hard to find something to talk about. But none of us uttered a sound. Katy didn’t bother trying to turn on the TV.

The looming words of that bomber. Solace. I knew they were on the minds of everyone here. How much was it affecting them?

“The…”

Maria sighed, failing to get a sentence out.

Katy and I looked at her.

She fixed her position, sitting properly, and Katy had to scoot over to give her space. Maria undid her hair, letting it fall around her. It was hard to read her face.

“The Bluemoon really creeps me the fuck out,” Maria said, timorous. It sounded like an opener to something else.

“Some hero,” Katy said. She gave me a look. Fleeting. Was that to have me say something, too? Or was there another implication?

I felt my skin go clammy.

All this second guessing, always having to watch my step, watch my words. It was killing me.

I kept quiet.

“No, like, I really hope it gives itself up,” Maria said, stammering, “I really fucking do. I’m tired of… hearing about it all the time. Can’t it just go away?”

From across the room, her words stung. Eduardo must have said something to her about me. But what, exactly? What was the fallout like on her end? What went down?

And Katy. Did my friends really hate The Bluemoon that much? Blank Face? Me?

I wanted to read their thoughts so bad.

“Why does it have to exist?” Maria asked, her face in her palms. “Why does it have to ruin everything?”

Tears. Any more, and the last thing I would end up ruining was myself.

Katy looked my way again, and I was starting to get scared.

Please don’t look at me.

Before I could try to do anything, I heard the front door open, then close. It wasn’t long after until Thomas revealed himself, coming into the living room.

Everything about him looked down. His jacket was unbuttoned, his shirt untucked in some places. His hair was a mess, and he wasn’t standing straight.

“Hi,” he said, weary, exhausted, tired.

“Dad!”

Katy got up immediately, and ran straight to him, nearly tackling him into an embrace. I couldn’t blame her, a very small part of me wanted to do the same.

I stood, anyways, and Maria followed, fixing her hair. My mom and Kristin came up from behind Thomas, both wearing aprons.

Everyone was in the living room.

Katy stepped back, finally letting her father go. With how things were going recently, that grueling silence would have returned, but Thomas curbed that like it was nothing.

“Is everyone okay?” he asked.

There were nods all around.

Thomas looked pleased, relieved. He chose to believe us.

“How about yourself?” Kristin asked. She approached Thomas and kissed him on the cheek. He leaned down for an easy reach.

“I’m holding up. There was nothing more I wanted than to go home with you all,” he said, “But I had to give a statement, work things out with the police, not to mention handle the press and their incessant questions…”

“Then I hate to do this to you, Dad,” Katy said, “But you’re going to have to answer some more.”

He exhaled, then forced a smile. “I would rather answer a million from you than one from those reporters.”

Thomas gestured, and we all moved, taking positions. Mom and I returned to the sofa, with Maria joining us. Kristin and Katy sat together on the other seat. Thomas stood, in front of the TV.

“I’ll just run down through everything I covered back at the hotel. Easier that way. Basically, it’s still too early to know if this ‘Solace’ will follow through with the threat, but everyone is going to be treating it like he will. Police are already starting investigations as we speak, like tracing where Solace’s call was coming from, and going through and asking everyone involved with the planning and running of the dinner, to see if there isn’t a clue.”

“Meaning they’ll be knocking on our door, very soon,” Kristin said. “Asking for me.”

Thomas nodded. “‘Suspicion’ is a bad word to use, but they’re not looking at you in that way, hon. However, they will need your assistance on this.”

“And they will have it.” She wrapped her arm around Katy, and Katy leaned on her.

I only now noticed that my mom had her hand on my lap.

“Do they really have a list of all of the guests?” Maria asked, blurting out the question. “Are we all potential targets?”

Had to go and say it, I thought, but I knew it was a concern that needed to be addressed.

‘Concern,’ being a very severe understatement.

“Can’t say for certain,” Thomas answered. “Nothing on that man beside the bomb and his clothes, and nothing he said confirmed that he had a supposed list. It could’ve all been for show, a bluff…”

“Or he wants us to not be certain, and have all of us constantly doubt and fear what we don’t know,” Katy said.

“Katy!” her mom exclaimed.

Katy leaned away from Kristin. “Well, couldn’t that also be the case? They’re trying to get us afraid, to be scared as shit, all over some damn hero that can jump high!”

Visibly exasperated. Her voice uneven, shaking. She was already feeling it.

Thomas sulked, shadows over his eyes.

“That’s… also a possibility. Once again, too early to say.”

“And once we can say, it’ll be too late,” Katy said, soft. She wasn’t looking at anything in particular. Kristin hugged her, even tighter.

Maria looked at Katy, Kristin, then to Thomas.

“Can’t you ask the guy?” Maria asked, “The bomber man? Wouldn’t he know something?”

“He was immediately taken to the hospital for injuries he sustained from wherever the hell he came from. Medics had found signs of internal bleeding, multiple organ failures, the works. I overheard them having to consider to consider the possibility of a medically induced coma, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“But…”

“But, this ‘Solace,’ whoever he, she, or they are, they knew what they were doing with the bomber. If the bomb didn’t kill him, his injuries weren’t that far behind. As of now, he might live, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be useful.

“Another reason why Solace might be a credible threat.”

I spoke, the first real words I said in hours. Everyone directed themselves to me.

But that was all I had in me to say.

Thomas agreed, “The nature of their announcement, the bomb, the fact that it could be remotely deactivated, the fact that the bomber could even get close enough to grab the mic away from me-”

He stopped himself, pinching the bridge of his nose. He maintained that position for a time, and I could hear the seconds ticking away in my head. The hours.

Thomas stayed that way, but he said, “Regardless, telegraphing the threat like that can actually work to our advantage. We know the scope of the threat, and we have a time limit to formulate a plan and start getting things in order so nothing happens when Solace’s supposed timer hits zero.”

He paused, taking another second, then put his hand down, looking at us individually, in the eyes.

“The number one priority is keeping everyone safe. Each and every one of you. All those good police officers and law enforcement aren’t going to rest until this situation is handled and dissolved, and I don’t plan to, either. Nothing is going to happen to you.”

No one said anything. I wasn’t sure if anyone believed him.

“What do we do in the meantime?”

My mom asked.

Thomas put a hand in his pocket, and took out a phone. It was ringing. He silenced it.

“Terrorists want to instill fear and disturb the minds of good people. The best way to undermine their efforts is to not let that fear get to you. We have to continue, heads held high, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. To show them that we’re made of tougher stuff, and that we don’t fold to such pressure.”

A last ditch effort to instill some confidence, I guessed, Putting on a show. I just want to find that fucker and…

What exactly, would I do if I got my hands on him?

Maria raised her hand. “Uuum, does this mean we still have to go to school tomorrow?” she asked out of the blue.

Weak, short laughs all around, me included. Even Thomas managed to find humor in the timing.

“Yes, Maria, I advise you should all go to school tomorrow,” Thomas said, with a tad more energy. “You shouldn’t use this as an excuse to skip a few classes.”

“Would you blame me if I did?”

“No, I guess I wouldn’t.”

“And The Bluemoon?” Katy mentioned, and immediately she brought the mood crashing down. “This would all be over if it gave itself up.”

It. Itself. No one ever used a gender pronoun towards The Bluemoon. Katy or Maria didn’t use it, and neither did Solace. Hardly anyone did. They truly didn’t think of me as one of them. A person.

I hung my head.

“Things would certainly be easier if he does,” Thomas said. “However, The Bluemoon is most likely operating on his own agenda, we can’t assume or trust that he will come forward. We’ll have to plan as if that’s not going to happen.”

He was answering for me. How accurate that answer was, I was beginning to have my doubts.

More and more second guessing.

It never ended.

I heard Thomas’s phone. Ringing, again.

“They don’t know how to leave a man alone. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll have to take this. I’ll be in the backyard.”

“Oh, Annie’s out there,” Katy said.

“All the more reason to go outside. I’ll be back shortly.” Thomas started making his way to the backyard.

Kristin called out to him as he left. “‘Each and every one of you’ includes you, too. Don’t push yourself, you’re not even officially the new DA yet.”

He waved without turning, and went outside. My mom and Kristin both left to go back into the kitchen.

That silence.

I can’t be here, with Katy or Maria. Not like this.

“I’m going to the bathroom,” I muttered. I left the sofa, then the living room.

Then to the stairs we passed earlier, and then up.

I found the bathroom easily, locking the door behind me. I was facing the mirror, hands pressed against the marble sink, but I couldn’t look at myself.

I saw it, I saw it all. From subtleties in my mom’s expression, to how Maria went from joking to morose and back again, to Katy’s trouble state. She showed it the most.

They were scared.

Anyone would be. It was understandable. Expected, even. But all I ever felt this whole time was anger. The fire to do something to get back at Solace. It was a war he started, and it would be a war I wanted to bring. I wanted to go back to my apartment, I wanted to get my costume and go out there. But…

But…

What good would that do?

I saw them all. How down they looked, the gloom that held them. Was this the only thing I’d ever provide as Blank Face? Fear, and people willing to capitalize on it? Did I do any good as Blank Face? I’d crippled a gang, stopped some crimes, fought against the cornerstone of the city’s underworld establishment, all for what? Who saw it that way? Who cared to look at it from that perspective? Or would everyone really prefer to have me gone, out of the picture?

My family, my friends, others. Their lives were at stake, now. Because of me.

Would it be better if I did give myself up?

Without looking at myself, I washed my hands. I was up here for too long, already. And thinking like this all the time… I’d lose my mind.

I turned off the faucet, and dried my hands, using a fancy towel on the rack beside me. I left the bathroom, and found Thomas waiting for me outside.

“AK,” he said, calling me by that nickname again.

“T-Thomas,” I said, unexpectedly. I patted my backside, and fixed my dress. My hands were still wet. “Everyone’s downstairs?”

“Yeah, Katy’s preparing a movie.” Thomas blinked, but he let his eyes stayed closed for a while. He had a shoulder on a wall, propping himself. He looked so done that he’d flop onto the floor if he didn’t have something to help him stay upright. “I’ve got more business to handle, so I’m heading into my office.”

“Okay.”

“How’re you feeling?” he then asked.

I answered honestly. “Keeping it together. Trying to, anyways, but I feel like I’m going to explode in any minute. I would say I’m drained, but you look the part more than I do.”

Thomas either nodded, taking in my answer, or he was already drifting elsewhere.

“That,” Thomas said, “But also, how are you feeling? Thirsty? Hungry? Stomach pains?”

“Oh, I’m getting to be a little thirsty, I guess. A small itch in the back of my throat. You… I was able to manage for the whole week.”

“That’s good. I suspect it won’t be that way for much longer.”

“No.”

“I’ll have to put that on my list of things to do. I tried thinking of possible ways I could get you blood, but nothing came up that wouldn’t automatically raise flags, of course. Can’t just go through the process of donating blood and ask to bring it home with you. Can’t just walk into a blood bank and ask for some, either. I’m more than aware of ‘gang doctors,’ but that’s underground, black market territory, so we’ll probably have to cross that out, considering our modus operandi. I’m really sorry.”

“No, I really appreciate you trying to help in that. You’ve almost put more thought into it than I have.”

And I don’t want to keep having you give up more and more of your blood to me.

I could see the timer ticking in my head, imagining what it would be like when it got to zero.

Thomas spoke when my imaginary timer reached ‘one.’

“I wanted to talk with you the most, about all of this,” Thomas said, “And yet, you ended up being the last in line.”

I didn’t know how to take that.

“Everything I said earlier still applies. What I didn’t mention is that the police will be doubling down on their lookout for you. This might be enough for the National Guard to make a move, too.”

I swallowed. Even more complications. Even more players in this sick game.

“This is gang related, right?” I asked. “Couldn’t Styx’s Gang be involved in this? They were the ones I revealed the Blank Face name to. The last thing Solace said, that ‘blank face in the crowd’ line. It has to be connected to Styx, somehow.”

“It’s a good assumption, very likely a correct one, but considering Styx and his gang, they’d only disseminate that information to others. I wouldn’t put this past them, but they might not be the true masterminds. Could be someone else.”

Even more complications. Even more players in this sick game.

I swallowed, again.

All of it was weighing down, crushing me. It wouldn’t take more for me to give out, entirely and completely.

I wanted to curse, but I didn’t. Thomas knew how I was, now. Part of me felt weird about it.

I was at a loss of what to say.

Thomas picked up my slack. “What do you want to do?”

What do I want to do?

I was just asking that, myself.

“What… What do I do?” I asked, voice unsteady. “People could die, all because of me. What am I supposed to do, if I don’t reveal myself?”

Thomas considered his response. He closed his eyes.

He opened them.

“You maintain. You maintain, and endure. This is what Blank Face has to be about. Unwavering, even in the face of threats and danger. Tougher stuff.”

I reiterated, “People could die, and it’d be all my fault. I don’t want that on my hands. I want to get Solace and stop him myself, but… I don’t know where to start. I wanted to go home, get my costume, but I’d be running blind. And I saw everyone’s reaction and… I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t know if I can endure this. Maybe I should just give myself up, I-”

I had to force myself to stop my rambling.

Thomas was watching me, intently, and put his hand on my arm. He squeezed.

“Don’t you dare think for a second that you’re not worth existing. No matter what anyone says, no matter what anyone does, you belong. It might be hard for people to see it, but you’ve done good. At a sufficient minimum, you’ve done good by me. And if everyone gave up just because others didn’t think they belong, we’d be living in a much sadder, much scarier world.”

I was shaking my head the whole time, my eyes getting wet, my makeup starting to run. My normal life was already ruined, there was no getting out from this unscathed, personal life or just my person. Solace challenged me, and dragged along everyone else in order to do it. Even if Hleuco and I stopped Solace, the ramifications would last, linger. People would hate and fear Blank Face even more, and everything we had done against the gangs would be wasted. Even if Solace’s threats were just empty promises, irreparable damage was already done.

What could I hope to gain?

“Alexis, listen,” Thomas said. He pushed himself off of the wall and put his other hand on my other arm. “Don’t you dare think for a second that you’re alone in this, either. I’ve told you that much already. I’m here to help, I will help, and police will be indirectly helping you, too. They want to stop Solace just as much as you do. We’re going to get through this, together.”

I nodded. It was all I could do.

“Are we good?” Thomas questioned.

“Not good,” I answered, “But better.”

“You’ve got this, Alexis, just take it a day at a time.” Thomas let go, and walked past me, going deeper into the hall. “With that being said, I won’t be able to join you as Hleuco, not for the time being. Not with insisted police protection, press, and general preparations as the district attorney-elect.”

I figured as much, but I felt like choking, regardless.

“I can still contact you, feed you information so you’re not in the dark about how the investigation is going. Plans, too, if I think there’s something you can do. I’ll do the same about your blood situation, and if I can find anything about your true nature, but that last bit’s will have to really be in the back burner.”

“I don’t know if I could repay you for everything you’ve done,” I said, feeling guilty. “Out of everyone here, I’ve put you in the worst position.”

Thomas shook his head. “Back when I first met you as Blank Face, I was the one to approach you. I encouraged you to do more with your powers. If we really want to play the blame game, I gave myself the biggest cross to bear.”

He continued, “When you get up to my age, you end up with a lot of regrets, a lot missed chances and overlooked opportunities. Your only options are to either forget about them, or work harder to not add another regret to that list. I will not turn you into a bullet point on that sad list.”

He slouched one shoulder, and rested on the wall again.

In my head, and for as long as I knew him, Thomas was nothing if not a pillar. Standing, never faltering to pressure, tension, stress. An absolute. Someone to look up to, and even admire.

Tonight, I saw a crack in that pillar.

“Good night, Alexis,” Thomas said, faintly. “Enjoy that movie, get some sleep, and when tomorrow comes, keep your chin up. I’ll be in touch.”

His office was at the end of the hallway, and I watched as he retreated into it. The door didn’t make a sound as it opened and closed.

I wondered how much of what he said was for himself, too.

With gradual, heavy steps, I went back down the stairs, back into the living room. The lights were a contrast from earlier. Everything was off except for the lights for the TV, and the TV itself. Everyone was around the TV, a light rom-com playing. A movie I’d seen before. Only Katy and Maria were up, eyes glued to the screen, eating popcorn. They didn’t acknowledge me coming in. Which was for the best, I didn’t want to show my face.

I sat next to my mom, praying she wouldn’t snore and bother the rest. I placed my head on her arm, and I focused on her breathing, the rise and fall of her chest. The television went blurry, and I closed my eyes, the sounds muffling.

A small bit of peace, a calm before the storm. I just wanted this moment to last, even for a second longer.

The time was displayed on the blu-ray player. I had checked it before I dozed off.

Forty-three hours left.

Previous                                                                                               Next

032 – Invitation

Bonus                                                                                               Next

We moved as a squad, fresh as we could possibly be, ready to have a blast.

The ballroom opened up before us, and, speaking for myself, it took my breath away.

The room was wide, expansive. Intricate gold patterns weaving throughout the walls and ceiling. Even the carpet was nice to look at, red and gold fractals. A chandelier shined above our heads, glistening from every angle. The room was more wide than it was high, but that was its only limit, being in a five-star hotel.

Still the prettiest room I’d ever been in.

A band was playing on the stage at the head of the room. A singer, a guitarist, a pianist, a bassist, and a drummer, all in suits, performing smooth jazz. It added to the ambiance.

All in all, it was actually kind of neat.

Round tables were set up throughout, with fancy glasses and fancy utensils. People were already eating the food and enjoying themselves.

Everyone was dressed up for the occasion. Fancy suits for the men, lovely dresses and gowns for the ladies. Even the waiters and servers were gussied up, in black button-ups and white bowties, matching aprons. The people here looked so good it was intimidating, present company included, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have butterflies in my stomach, but I’d have to get over it.

I had to.

Katy was wearing that blue gown, because of course she was. I had to swallow my words, though, because was she was actually rocking it. Her hair was styled into a side-swept dutch braid, not tightly tied, but loose and natural. Her makeup wasn’t heavily applied, going for more subtle touches. The only daring application made was her lipstick. Cherry red.

She had all the other game show hosts beat, in my opinion.

Maria, on the other hand, went for the opposite approach. She had on a black lace dress. Simple, but there was elegance there that I typically didn’t associate with Maria. It was a nice fit, showing off a figure I was jealous over. Her hair was tied back, a clean look. Compared to Katy, Maria’s makeup was more heavily applied, but tastefully done, highlighting her eyes and cheeks, her lips a deeper red.

Maria promised that she had ‘dope shit’ to wear. I believed her, and she delivered.

Me? I could only tried my best to keep up.

A red dress. Nothing fancy, but with my matching heels, it elevated me to Katy and Maria’s level.

Well, close enough.

A low, square neckline, scoop back, with the length of the dress reaching my mid-thigh. As for me, my makeup was even more minimal than Katy’s, but I did have some added blush on my cheeks. It wasn’t much, but it was more pronounced that it should have been, my mom explaining that it was because my skin had gotten so white, recently.

Had it?

If I had a better phone, I’d take more selfies to compare.

I fixed my hair, a curled bob.

Ogling the sights, we all moved to find our table. It was in the middle of the room, equal distance to the food and the band. Not far at all, if I was hungry.

Which I was, just not for what was served here.

“And here we are,” Katy said, leading us to our table. A card was placed on top, with all of our names on it. “It’s a prime location. Food’s right there, and all eyes are on us.”

“Great, exactly what I need,” Maria said. “Everyone can see me as inhale my dinner.”

“More bang for their buck, then,” I added. “People get more entertainment for the night.”

Maria ribbed my side, and I laughed, hiding my own concern about being easily seen. Being out in the open.

Really have watch my back, here.

“Feel free to start the show early, if you want to, Maria,” Katy said, “I’m probably going to get something right now.”

“I’ll come with,” Maria said. “I don’t give a f… I don’t mind.”

“Alexis?” Katy turned my way.

“I’ll just sit for now,” I said, shaking my head a little, “I’ll get food later.”

“You better. The oysters here are to die for.”

“Oh, I’ll start with that,” Maria said, and they both went off, dipping into the mass of people moving about.

My mom and I took seats at the table.

I listened to the sounds around me, the music just barely over the hum of people conversing. Mom hadn’t said a word since we got into the hotel and met up with Katy and Maria, and she still had nothing to say for herself. She sat, back straight, her eyes wandering around, occasionally looking back at the band.

I noticed she would look at the singer, specifically.

I waved my hand to get her attention. “Ma, what do you think?”

“It’s big,” was all she said.

Of course it is.

I wasn’t too perturbed by her seemingly nonexistent enthusiasm. If any excitement was there, she was keeping it inside. Keeping it to herself. I was sure of that. No offense was taken or intended. That was just how she was wired. The type of person she was.

I went to looking over the people around us. No one I knew. Everyone was from social or political circle that I simply was not aware of. I caught small instances of the passing conversations. The weather, a court hearing, how the housing project up in Malibu was going. And I could’ve sworn I caught a muttered mention of ‘The Bluemoon.’

So, no one was talking about anything I was terribly interested in.

I noted a few people buzzing about, flashes of light periodically blasting whatever direction they were looking. Photographers.

Really, really, had to watch my back.

Following my mom’s example, I decided to watch the band perform, the pianist’s fingers floating over the keys, the bassist being the unsung foundation the song was building from. The drummer keeping time.

The singer… was decent.

I checked my watch. The one my mom gave me for my birthday. Four minutes had passed.

“We’re back,” I heard Katy say in a sing-song way. I scooted my chair to my left to make room for her. She sat, and so did Maria.

And so did Katy’s mother and father.

“Shiori, Alexis, I’m so thrilled you two could make it,” Katy’s mother said. Kristin.

Unlike my mom and I, you could tell that Kristin was Katy’s mother. That wasn’t to say she wasn’t pretty herself, she pulled off her white dress nicely.

Between Katy’s mom and dad, I wasn’t sure where she got her smarts. Probably from both of them. Kristin occasionally taught Language classes at universities, flying out to speak at seminars. Regarding knowledge in general, Kristin was a source. Not to mention the connections she had to plan this thing.

The Thompson were one power family. Seriously.

My mom nodded, “Thank you for inviting us. This is quite the event.”

“Don’t say that, this was the best I could do on such short notice,” Kristin responded, clearly minimizing the effort. “All I hope is that you enjoy yourself.”

“We will,” my mom said.

“Kristin, honey, I wish you had less time to put this together,” Thomas said, “I’m not used to all these old people congratulating me.”

Kristin lightly smacked him on the shoulder. “You’ll be working with those ‘old people’ soon enough. They’re part of the community, too, you know.”

“Yes, but, can’t they be more interesting?”

She hit him on the shoulder again. Thomas grinned.

He looked the same as ever, maybe more tired. But, his suit was nicer, and he still found it in him to be cheery.

“Leaving that aside,” Thomas said, “Hello, ladies.” He gestured to my mom, me, and Maria.

The three of us returned our own form of ‘hello.’

“How are you, Thomas?”

“Hi.”

“What is up?”

Thomas nodded. “Shiori, I wanted to stop and swing by for another haircut before all of this, but I couldn’t the time.”

“It’s understandable,” she said.

“Alexis,” Thomas then said, looking at me right in the eyes. “Any updates?”

My heartbeat upped in tempo, and I almost broke eye contact.

“Trying to keep it together,” I answered.

“Good to hear, really good to hear,” he said, with far more concern than he should have let on.

Idiot, I thought, You’re not Hleuco right now. Don’t talk like that while we’re here.

I ended up glancing away when he started speaking with Maria. I folded my arms, rubbing an elbow. This was not ‘keeping it together.’

“And you must be Maria,” I heard Thomas. “Katy’s told me a lot about you.”

“Oh, I really hope not,” Maria said.

“Please tell me Katy’s been a good friend to you, I’d hate for her to be giving you trouble.”

“I wouldn’t say ‘good,’ but she tries. And you wouldn’t believe the trouble she gets us into.”

A gurgled, choking sound, followed by a hacking cough.

“Maria!” Katy berated.

Abrupt and heartily, Thomas cracked up. I looked back up, and saw Thomas wipe an eye with his thumb. He still a bandage around it. Back at the church, after our conversation. From when he pricked himself with my knife. A temporary, improvised solution.

My makeup amplified the flush of red coming to my face.

A man walked to Thomas, putting a hand on shoulder for his attention. Thomas stood, they shook hands, and got to talking.

Thomas turned his attention back to the table. “It appears I’m needed elsewhere,” Thomas said, “I’ll be back whenever these people feel like giving me mercy. Hon, Katy, I’ll see you, Shiori, always a pleasure to see you again, and Maria, it was my pleasure meeting you. And Alexis…”

My heart started racing again.

“Keep keeping it together.”

He took his leave, following the other man towards another group, it looked like.

Leaving me red as an apple.

Idiot.

Unintentionally, I looked down, to hide behind my food. I reached for my fork and…

Right. I didn’t have food. Couldn’t have food. Almost forgot.

Fuck.

To my left, my friends were eating. To my right, my mom and Kristin were still conversing. I was left with nothing to do. Nothing to do with all my restlessness.

I just sat there, trying to maintain my composure, keep it together. I picked up on the conversation my mom and Kristin were having.

“… reminds me, and I know this would be asking a lot of you, but I think would be absolutely delightful if you could sing for us. I can arrange something with the band.”

“Oh, no, I can’t,” my mom said, “I’m out of practice, too.”

“For someone like you, I bet it’s like riding a bike.”

“Hold on, you sing?” Maria interrupted from across the table, from my mom’s point of view.

Sang,” I said, deciding to put myself into the conversation, and to answer for my mom. “She was a singer before she came here. I thought I told you this already?”

“You probably did, doesn’t mean I heard it. Or cared to remember.”

“Nice to know you put so much stock in what I have to say.”

“You betcha.”

“That was a long time ago,” my mom said, looking at the band again. Something in her eye.

I saw it.

“Aw, at least I tried. I’m sure Thomas would love it,” Kristin said, “I know I would.”

Mom lowered her chin, ever so slightly.

It wasn’t entirely true, what my mom had said. She wasn’t out of practice completely.

She did sing, still would. While she was cooking or cleaning, cutting my hair. Humming to herself, too. She was good. Really good. Despite a distinct rasp, there was a soft, soothing quality to her voice, but a power to it when she wanted to reach for a higher note. She liked to sing, I knew. Somewhere, deep down inside, she still had a passion for it. I just knew it.

Which made me wonder why she had put such a restriction on herself. About singing in public. When Mom first met Kristin and Thomas years ago, she wasn’t shy about sharing what she used to do, before coming to America. But, she didn’t share everything. Even to me. Even when I’d ask about her past, being in Japan, she didn’t share much. I barely even knew my grandparents. Over time, I just learned not to bring it up.

Sometimes, my brain would bring that conundrum back to me, and I’d be annoyed to no end. Like an itch I couldn’t get. Why did she stop singing?

I had some theories of my own.

Perhaps, my being born had something to do with it.

Or maybe… it was his fault.

The timid emotion within me immediately warped into something more rotten. Duller, though, after some odd years.

A… Alexis, neither time or place. You’re at a party, right now. Act like it.

It was no struggle to realign my feelings from that. Set myself straight. Years and years of practice.

I brought myself out of my head, and back into the moment. Katy and Maria were just about finished with their food, exchanging words as they ate. Kristin had already left, and so did my mom. Probably hungry, now.

I looked at my watch, before speaking up.

“Dressed up like this, doesn’t it feel like prom?” I asked Katy and Maria.

“Prom? No way,” Maria said, in between a bite of a steak. “It’s just people here… existing. And there’s not enough people our age. And it’s not trashy enough.”

“You’re idea of prom is a trashy one?” Katy questioned.

“All I’m saying is, prom will be better. Trust.”

Prom wasn’t until next semester, yet it felt so far away. With every day being its own battle, it was hard to believe I could even make it that far.

Maybe I should make it a goal, something to look forward to.

I know the old Alexis would be excited for that.

“Let’s have the trashiest prom ever, then,” I said, turning the thought in my head into a pact.

“Hell yeah, girl,” Maria said, tapping her fork and knife together.

Katy looked just as thrilled, if not more so. “Sounds like a grand old time. I’m down. Especially since my dad won’t be there.”

We all looked at each other, and we shared an air of something playfully sinister.

Maria creased an eyebrow, pointing to the fork in front of me. “When you gonna get food? Katy was right, I could kill for another oyster. Good thing I don’t have to.”

I gave it some thought. “I guess it’s time to grab a plate. You coming?”

“Nah, I still have plenty left.” Maria motioned over her plate. She’d been eating this whole time, but I still couldn’t see the white of the plate, underneath the food.

“You can get seconds,” I said, “It’s not like they’re going to run out anytime soon.”

“These are my seconds.” Maria pointed to another part of her plate, “And these are my ‘firsts.’ So, when I get up, I can get thirds, see?”

“Barely. Okay, I’m going.”

“Right behind you,” Katy said, “I’ll come with.”

I didn’t mind, the more the merrier. We left the table, and crossed the room. My mom opted to stay.

The line of food stretched, a length down one wall that could feed a small village. And it looked expensive, with dishes and ingredients I couldn’t name. The smell, however, I could attribute a single word, easy.

Revolting.

It was like running into a burning building. I took a plate, and started putting some food down, without thought or care. I didn’t get too much, I still had to figure out how to get around actually not eating this.

Katy followed after me, getting her own food.

“What was that, just before?”

Under her breath, Katy asked me a question. She was leaning towards me.

Not so merry, after all.

“What was what?” I asked back, scooping up half a spoonful of mashed potatoes.

“When my dad was at the table, you were acting all weird while he was talking with you.”

I went straight to denying it. “Was I? I didn’t think I was acting weird. Who’s acting weird?”

“You are. I’m not kidding around, Alexis. Honestly, it’s not just that. You’ve been weird for longest time, and it’s not only me. Maria’s noticed, too.”

Fuck. Have they? Was all my work and effort been for nothing?

A pit in my stomach, and it wasn’t from the food.

Okay, part of it was.

Without a word, I continued down the line of food, picking up something here and there.

“Alexis,” Katy said.

I couldn’t face her. “Yes?”

“Can’t you tell me what’s going on?”

Fuck, fuck.

“There’s nothing to say because there’s nothing going on,” I said, like it was as clear as day.

“Don’t do this to me, Alexis. Remember when you and I went to find Maria to confront her about avoiding us? Now it’s me and Maria, trying to get through to you. Why do you think we stopped by your place, the other day? This was something we wanted to go over for a long, long time.

Oh, fuck.

If everything fell apart, right this second, at this juncture, it’d mean the end of me, and everyone I cared about. People were after me, protesting and rioting in the streets, all due to me existing. Even if I trusted Katy and Maria about keeping a secret, what about Thomas, what about Kristin? What about my mom? So many variables, so many places where something could slip out, and I didn’t want them to become a target.

I can’t let that happen.

But my friends were already suspicious of me. Been suspicious. I had to assuage their worries if I wanted to protect them.

Which meant I had to lie through my teeth. Again.

“Uuuh,” I started, thinking.

A loud, but muffled tap sounded throughout the room.

Reach, reach. What could I use, instead? What was a plausible enough excuse that I could use? What was acceptable?

My grades. Volleyball. Coach T. That could work, I just had to spin it well enough. Enough to be convincing.

“-uum. Okay,” I said, “The truth is, I’ve been working with-”

Thomas. His voice took command of the whole room.

We turned around.

Thomas had taken his place at the head of the room, in front of the stage where the band was. He had a mic in his hand, tapping it. The sound reverberated across the room.

“Hello, everyone. I wanted to say a word or two. Actually, my wife wanted me to, so here I am.”

Several laughed, from what now was an audience.

Katy whispered to me. “We’re not done here, what were you going-”

“-wanted to thank my beautiful wife, Kristin, for arranging this extravagant party and her tremendous support, and my even more beautiful daughter, Katy, for all her support throughout my campaign.” From even that far away, Thomas could still point out his daughter, raising a hand to wave at her.

Dropping away all the tension from before, she waved back, beaming. Everyone had turned to either see her or Kristin, then went to applaud. Pictures were snapped. I turned to have my back facing them. I poked at some food. Since Katy wasn’t looking, I started inching away.

After the clapping died down, Thomas continued. “A lot, and I mean a lot, of my friends and colleagues had some very choice words for me when I announced that I was running. None of which are worth repeating here, otherwise this becomes a therapy session, but I noticed an underlying tone from those words, all coming from the same place. Fear.”

Utensils kept hitting the bottoms of plates, from what I could hear. Some weren’t paying attention to Thomas. But I couldn’t see who, I was still facing the other way.

“Fear of what?” Thomas asked, though rhetorically. “Fear for my well-being? A fear of something greater? Considering the city I will be operating in as the next district attorney, their concern may be understandable, but that’s exactly the reason why I decided to run in the first place. Because this city never got its chance to shine, never got a chance to put its best foot forward. People from the outside looking in, they don’t know what this city truly has to offer, the loving and kind folk that truly make up the core community. A community that, unfortunately, hasn’t had a chance to raise their voice and say, ‘we exist.’”

Thomas paused, to space out his speech.

“I was born and raised in Stephenville, my parents owned a small pharmacy out on the city limits. They didn’t have much, but they helped, when and where they could. My father gave his free time to the local schools and churches, my mother organized and ran food drives, among so many other things. They loved their community, and the community loved them back. And I’ve tried my best, my whole career, to accomplish a percentage of what they’ve done. I want to be a voice for those who don’t have one. Change. It will be a long process, it will be more than tiring, and change can be slow, I know. I might not get to see what this city becomes, when it does blossom. But I want to be its best foot forward.”

People applauded.

“Those who don’t truly know this city, they call it the ‘Wanderland of the South.’ Which was where I got my slogan from. ‘Wander no more.’ Yes, it is corny, I’m not afraid to admit that.”

People chuckled.

“But that’s why I chose it, because it’s so important that-”

The lights cut out for a second.

Noise over the speakers. Grunting. Struggling. I spun around.

A man had wrestled the mic out of Thomas’s hands, shoving Thomas out of the way. Before Thomas could rush at him, the man spoke into the mic.

“Don’t touch him, he has a bomb.”

I could see the fear sweep over everyone. I could feel it in myself.

Thomas stood, hunched, not moving. Security personnel at the sides of the room were stopped, too, unsure of what to do.

For me, I dared not move, but I was tense.

The man moved again, this time unbuttoning his shirt with one hand. He seemed to be in a hurry, fumbling with some of the buttons.

Then, I saw exactly why.

He took off his shirt, revealing a vest underneath. Wires extended across his torso, plugged into different metallic cylinders and boxes. A large timer was across his chest, ticking down the numbers.

And we’re already too late.

Five.

Four.

Three…

“Good evening,” the man spoke into the mic.

In that instant, the timer jumped up. To thirty seconds.

And it started going down again.

Twenty-nine.

Twenty-eight.

“I would like for things to r-run smoothly, while I have the floor,” the man said, and the timer reset again, “I wouldn’t want to make a m-mess of this kind, poor volunteer. Alright, fine, he’s not a volunteer.”

He went still, and nobody moved. The timer went back down, past nineteen.

The more he talked, the more I realized that English was a second language to him. He had a Hispanic accent.

Fuck is going on?

And am I supposed to do something?

The man’s face was swollen in the eyes, with wounds down his neck, and down his arms, visible from where I was. There were probably more under his vest. He looked tortured.

How did this guy get in here?

He walked forward, slow, closer to the center of the room. People tried to back away, but they were restricted to their chairs, their tables. No one knew what would set him off, in a very real and grim sense.

The timer went to ten before he spoke again.

“Here are the rules. You let this man speak, and the timer doesn’t go all the way down. You touch him, you in any way interfere with him, you call for help, I let the bomb go off. And this thing’s quite the firecracker. Do not test me.”

So, that was the situation.

We were at the mercy of this bomber, forced against his will by an unknown third party. He moved his head, and I saw a wire go from his ear, into his a device on his vest. An earpiece. He was being fed words to say, repeating after someone. Thirty seconds on the clock, and we’d all die if it reached down to zero. The only thing standing in the way of that was that man. He had to keep talking.

My mom, Maria, Thomas. I found Kristin on the opposite end of the room, back to the wall, hand over her mouth. They were all closer to the man than Katy and I.

That timer can not go down to zero.

It can’t.

I wanted nothing more than to spring into action, and bring them all to safety. Or stop that man, somehow. But even I wasn’t faster than an explosion. I couldn’t get to them in time, I wasn’t faster than the push of a trigger. I couldn’t do anything.

I was ultimately powerless.

He had to keep talking.

Please, I don’t care what you say, keep talking.

Fifteen on the timer.

“All this talk about community, yet you ignore the loudest voice,” the man said. “The ones most afraid, the ones most in need, and o-ones who need reassurance that all is still right in this world. I will be the one to lead this city to a true glory. Call me… Solace.”

Twenty-five.

“This city has been… infested by a monster. A real monster that preys on the i-innocent with their very being. More real than any supposed evil that corrupts this city. The Bluemoon.”

Many squirmed in their seats.

Nineteen.

“There have been no answers, only disturbing questions. Where did it come from? Why does it attack? Who is under that m-mask? The people have spoken, with their impassioned actions, but I bring their word.”

Twenty-one.

“And yet, you all sit here, consuming delectable food and drink, ignoring the rest of us? How dare you. You all deserve to d-die.”

His words filled the room, and it there was such a disconnect with what he said and how he said it. Scared, faltering, it didn’t fit with the ‘for the people’ tone the words of his speech were going for. It resulted in a jarring, harrowing atmosphere.

He didn’t speak, but the timer continued. Was it the third party, this Solace, purposefully letting the time go by?

I was sweating, cringing every second he was silent. Twelve.

The only sound over the speakers was the man’s whimpering, sad and desperate.

Nine.

People were crying around me. I couldn’t bring myself to look for Katy, my eyes fixated on that timer.

Five.

Four.

Three.

Two.

One-

“S-so I come w-with an ultimatum!” The man weeped.

The crowd cried more, all at once. The timer jumped back up to thirty.

“The Bluemoon must reveal themselves, and take off that mask in public. If it does not comply… I kill a random person in this room, for everyday you don’t come forward. I have a list of those who were invited.”

No. You wouldn’t.

The hysteria increased tenfold, but many forced themselves to stay in their seats. Though most were already at the edge of them.

As for me, I was already shaking.

Mom, Maria, Katy, Kristin, Thomas. Myself. Even if we made it out of here, we weren’t safe. They had our names. Without being aware, this Solace already had Blank Face’s civilian name.

A cold shiver down my spine, electric.

Twenty.

Sixteen.

Eight.

I had gotten so numb that I almost wanted it to go all the way down.

But it didn’t.

“Y-you have forty-eight hours, for our message to reach you, Bluemoon, and for you to act. Then I begin my hunt. The people have spoken, and they demand a penalty from those who failed to act on their behalf. And, one last word, that must absolutely get out. Whoever you are, you are not human, and you are not one of us. You will never be a blank face in the crowd. Goodnight, and Godspeed.”

The timer turned off, the number vanishing, followed by a high beep, descending in tone. The man collapsed, hitting the floor, and everyone lost it all at once. People yelling, screaming, crying, running. Security loudly ordering people to vacate the building, police surrounding the downed man, yelling for a bomb squad.

I stayed put. I was incapable of movement. I could barely keep it together.

It was the hard yank of my arm that forced me to drop everything and move.

“Come on, Alexis!” Katy shouted, “We have to get out of here!”

I followed, almost limply. I searched over the hectic swarm of people.

Mom, Maria, Kristin…

Thomas.

I found Thomas, staring right at me, circled by his own posse of police. A hard, angered stare. I look I had never seen before.

Because they knew. Solace knew.

His last words. ‘A blank face in the crowd.’ He couldn’t have said it like that without a reason. Solace knew my real name. And it was enough of a clue for me to know what we were up against. And Thomas was aware of that, too.

This was gang-related.

“Everyone’s leaving! We’ll meet them outside!”

Katy pulled me along, and I was consequently torn from Thomas’s icy stare. I had to work in pushing through a crush of bodies trying to get to the exit, everyone exploding in trepidation. Fear.

Inside me, that fear was shaping into something else.

That Solace. He or she came here, threatened my friends, my family, and simultaneously called out both me and Thomas. Blank Face and Hleuco. While I didn’t know how, I was going to make sure they’d regret that. Terribly.

Solace might have won this battle, but the war had just begun.

Bonus                                                                                               Next

031 – Demon in the Closet

Previous                                                                     Bonus

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

I had my eyes shut tight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It had better look like that.

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

“What about?” I asked.

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

“What did you tell her?”

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

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

Plus, it would be easier on my conscience.

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

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

“Do you know where you want to go?”

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

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

“How about your friends?”

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

Like I have to, now.

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

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

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

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

She cut, and I was quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have to be more perceptive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scratch that, make that two.

“Mrs. Phan,” I said, taken aback.

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

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

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

Mrs. Phan was pretty hardcore.

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

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

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

“You think so?”

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

One look?

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

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

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

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

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

Ma, hold on.

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

Mrs. Phan was unfazed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Definitely more than a minute,” I said.

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

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

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

Somewhere else, then.

“Wanna go for a walk?” I suggested.

“Fine by me.”

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

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

“Do you have your phone?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No way, even Emily?”

“Oh yeah.”

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

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

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

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

“Smart.”

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

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

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

“Gave up one thing for another?”

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

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

Like I’d ever say that out loud.

Justin responded with a sound. “Hmm.”

“Hey, it was my mom’s reasoning.”

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

“So thrilled to hear that.”

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

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

“Really?”

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

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

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

Hey, Mrs. Phan said I grew!”

“She was just being nice, Alexis.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Without thinking, I playfully punched him in the arm.

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

Whoa, ow, now that’s a hit.”

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

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

I realized he was just fucking around by this point.

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

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

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

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

A change of pace towards something familiar.

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

I bit my lip.

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

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

This too, I had to fight past.

“No objections,” I said.

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

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

“Why do you ask?”

“Do you remember Zoey?”

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

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

The Barn. Braham Barn.

I didn’t even consider it for a second.

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

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

I looked at him. “No way, you two?”

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

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

“Shoot.”

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

Confused, he asked, “How come-”

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

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

He continued to cry, and they continued to run.

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

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

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

“I’m sure it’s just kids being kids.”

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

I can’t leave this be.

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

“Back me up, or no. I’ll stop them.”

“You can’t just do that!”

“And why’s that?”

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

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

One of the bullies was a girl, I noted.

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

“Get away from him!”

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

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

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

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

Are you insane?

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Christ, what shit kids these are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weird.

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

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

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

I blinked again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I faced him, then nodded.

We returned to my place.

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

I bit my lip.

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

It was Mrs. Phan that opened the door.

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

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered.

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

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

“Me too,” I said. “See you, Justin.”

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

They left, and I closed the door.

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

I shrugged. “Around.”

“Just around?”

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

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

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

“Are you?”

“I told her I think on it.”

“Are you, though?” I asked.

“Maybe.” She looked pleased with herself.

I wonder if that’s all they talked about.

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

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

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

“Cool.”

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

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

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

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

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

Which ‘me’ was me? Who was I, really?

Previous                                                                     Bonus

024 – Ice Cream Cake

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I took a seat at the table. I yawned. Yawned again. I balled up my hand, and rubbed my eyes.

I yawned again.

“I should not have to ask you to help,” I heard my mom say, the clattering of plates and utensils following right after. “You’re old enough, already.”

“Blegh,” I sounded. Not a word, just a sound. I was too tired to produce a word. With just a sound, I tried to portray my exhaustion to my mother.

All I heard in return was a harsh whisper, unintelligible Japanese, but my mom continued to set the table, regardless.

I felt bad about it, but what was I to say? She’d hardly accept whatever excuse I had to offer, however menial.

And the truth would be much harder to swallow.

A few thumps hit the table, and I knew that was the food. I stopped rubbing my eyes, blinking fast to bring back my vision.

The smell came before my sight did. Terrible. Like rotten fish guts, set out in the sun for over a day. I instantly wanted to bowl over and retch and gag. Anywhere else would be better than in front of this. I’d rather be out, dealing with bad guys, than eating this.

But, I fought the urge run to away. Had to.

I had to blink again before I could see what was producing that stench. Rice and tonkatsu.

A strong sense of nostalgia almost overwhelmed me, if I wasn’t currently focused on staying composed. I loved tonkatsu when I was younger, especially my mom’s. It was up there with her fried chicken and miso soup. Just looking at the light brown, crispy breaded skin, the soft wisps of steam that floated from the meat, made me lament a taste that I would never experience again. I could feel my eyes get a little hot, a little wet.

No, I reminded myself, Not now, and not in front of Mom.

“Looks great,” I said, staring at the food, not daring to show Mom my face. I meant it, but I said it mostly just to say it. To give her some recognition for the work she had to put into this dish.

Because my taste buds were certainly incapable of appreciating it.

“Hmm,” my mom hummed. She pulled out her chair, and sat across from me. She clasped her hands together. I followed her.

Silently, we prayed. Though, I wasn’t thinking much of anything in that time.

Mom finished soon after, as did I. She got started on getting her food.

“Feels like forever since we’ve done that,” I commented, as my mom set rice on her plate.

“Feels like forever since you had dinner here.”

Without missing a beat.

She hit me right in the core of my very being.

Thanks, Ma.

“Had a lot of homework,” I said, defeated. It was all I had for explanation. True for sure, but partial.

“Okay,” was all she said. What she did, however, was start putting rice and meat on my plate. More than I would ever need. Or ever want.

“Ma, Mom!” I exclaimed, pulling the plate away before she could add another portion of rice. “That’s way too much!”

“You need to eat, and grow.” I heard a hint of irritation, there. “You got too thin, and in so short time. I hardly seen you eat since you left the hospital. For your height and age, you shouldn’t look like that.”

I reclined in my chair, putting my plate back on the table. Was I thinner? I hadn’t checked my weight in some time, was it obvious? But what could I do about it? The only thing that could sustain me now was a certain liquid.

My mom sat back down, and went to cutting into her first slice of meat. “There’s still leftover barbeque, so you eat that, too.”

“How much did Mrs. Phan let you take?” I asked.

“Enough.”

Was that an answer, or was that her way of telling me to shut up and eat? Either way, I said no more.

I faced my food. This was an opponent I couldn’t best.

I can still smell it.

But, even though I hated it, even though I legitimately wanted to run away, I knew that this was a long time coming. I had avoided coming to dinner for too long, ever since I got out of the hospital a little over a month ago. Ever since these powers were forced upon me at the cost of my sense of taste and appetite. My mom let me off the hook, cut me some slack, but I knew it would be temporary. Only a matter of time before her kindness would spoil and turn into suspicion. I had to make an appearance at the dinner table eventually, and that time was now.

Especially with the fallout from Jillian, I had to give her a reason I was okay. A reason not to worry about me.

I gazed at my food, and it seemed to gaze back.

I swallowed.

I tried to think strategically, how could I appear to eat food without having to actually eat? I poked the meat with my fork, and scooped up a bit of rice with my spoon. Took a sip of water from my glass, went back to poking the meat.

This is taking forever.

What else could I do? I looked back to my mom, who was halfway through a bite of food. No expression on her face, I couldn’t tell if she enjoyed her own food or not.

I had to find a way to stall, to waste time. To prep myself, mentally.

“How was the barbeque, anyways?” I asked. “You never really told me how it went.”

Eat,” she said, stern.

Shoot, I thought.

I leered at my food. Leered at it. My mom could have served me literal trash, and it would have amounted to the same thing.

Small bites, take it a bite at a time.

I lifted up my spoon. A small piece of meat, some rice. Even with super strength, the spoon felt like a thousand pounds.

I could feel my eye twitch.

Just one plate, just one. All I had to do was finish one plate, and I could excuse myself and leave. Lock my doors, and I could throw it up in peace. I had looked up how to do it online, and while it wasn’t the prettiest solution, or even the safest, I was betting on my healing to pitch in, there.

A long road traveled started with one step. A plate of food eaten started with one bite.

I just had to start.

I brought the spoon closer, I opened my mouth. My stomach growled, as if it was already rejecting the food.

I planned the steps in my head. Hold my breath, put it right in my mouth, swallow without chewing. Slide it right in there. Dammit.

Closer, the spoon went. I had to start eating now, otherwise my mom would start asking questions.

Now or never. No delays.

But this spoon is so heavy.

The door knocked.

“I’ll get it!” I said, hurriedly, my utensil practically slamming back onto the plate. I got up from my chair, and headed to the front door.

I ended up running away again. I rationalized it as taking a small break, it wasn’t like I was done at the table.

For now, I opened the door.

“Katy,” I said, when I saw her. “Maria,” I said, when I saw her, too.

“Surprise!” Katy said, both as a greeting and an answer.

“Hey Alexis, nice place,” Maria said from where she was. She was standing behind Katy, at an angle.

“Hey, but, what’s up?” I asked, actually surprised at them being here. Saved me in the nick of time, I thought.

“Can we come in?” Katy asked instead, ignoring me.

“I, um.” I stepped to the side of the doorframe, putting my friends into view. My mom could see them from the table.

“We’re eating,” my mom said, in a way that certainly wasn’t an invitation.

“We won’t be long,” Katy said in return. “We come bearing gifts.”

“Gifts?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Maria huffed, stepping forward. I saw that she was carrying a white cardboard box. “Can we please come inside? This is surprisingly heavy, and I’m starved.”

“But we ate on the way here,” Katy pointed out, “How is a double cheeseburger and extra large fries not enough for you?”

“Don’t forget the large shake, too,” Maria mentioned. “But sorry, don’t know what else to tell yah. Anyways, Mrs. Barnett, may we intrude on your night?”

Judging from my mom’s face, I was almost about to close the door for her.

“Come in,” she said instead.

Oh.

“Thanks, Shiori-san.” Katy exaggerated the honorific, pronouncing it like ‘sand,’ without the ‘D.’ Katy knew better, and she did it anyway.

Way to poke the lion in her cage.

Katy and Maria entered, and I had to advise them to take their shoes off and leave them by the door. We moved back to the dinner table, and Maria set the box on the only available space. A corner of the box hung off the edge of the table.

“Hi, I’m Maria González,” Maria said, after wiping her hands on her pants. She extended a hand to my mom. She took it.

“Wow, you’re prettier than I expected,” Maria said plainly, with no filter. It came out of nowhere.

My mom humbly returned her compliment with small bow, and returned to her food.

“What did you expect?” Katy asked, moving into the kitchen. She opened up a cabinet above the stove, where we kept more plates.

“I don’t know, but all I’m saying is, why didn’t Alexis get any of it?”

Savage,” I said, holding back the actual curse words I wanted to spit at Maria. “I appreciate you.”

“You got it!”

The three of us laughed. Katy had come back with some smaller plates and forks. And a large plastic knife.

“Really though, what are you guys doing here?” I asked, trying to pry the truth out of them.

“This is a long time coming, to be honest,” Katy said, “We should have gotten to this sooner.”

She set the plates down in a stack, with the forks and knife on top. She opened the box.

It was a cake.

“A cake?” I questioned. “You came all the way here just to deliver a cake?”

“Not just any cake,” Katy pointed out, “It’s an ice cream cake.”

“Vanilla, chocolate, honey, with a cherry on top.” Maria pointed to the different layers of the cake, and the sweet drizzle and fruit that topped it off. “It’s a real crowd pleaser.”

Fantastic, I thought.

“Third time’s a charm,” Katy said. She handed me a plate and fork. “It was Maria’s idea.”

“Happy belated birthday, bit-” she looked to my mom, and refrained from completing that last word.

“Don’t you think the window of time has long passed us by this point?” I asked, somewhat nervous. They wouldn’t have brought a cake here if they weren’t going to make me eat it. I had a hard enough time trying to eat in front of my mom, and now my friends were here, too?

This is actually a problem.

I tried to come up with a reason to refuse. “Like my mom said before, we’re still eating dinner. We can’t just stop to eat cake.”

“There’s no universal law that prevents us from doing so,” Katy said, “Besides, we’ll be in and out. Just blow a candle and take a small bite, then we’re gone.”

“Candle?”

“That’s right.” Maria came in between me and Katy, and set a few candles on top of the cake, circling around the cherry. They were the thin stick kind.

“You didn’t even bring sixteen of them?” I questioned. “Or even just a ‘one’ and a ‘six’ at least?”

“Shut up,” Maria snapped, “This was all I could fit into my pocket in such short notice.”

“What? I can’t even-”

Katy stopped me. “You can’t even, and you don’t have to. We won’t take long, promise.”

“I, but,” I wanted to know what my mom had to say, but she just kept to herself, eating her food. Was she mad? This was one of those time when I couldn’t tell. She had a way of keeping things to herself.

But, she didn’t object. In fact, she was the one who let them in. On some level, she had to be fine with this.

I’m really going to have this cake and eat it too, aren’t I?

“Here, I’ll do it for you, sheesh,” Maria said. She took the plate from me and grabbed the knife from the table. She proceeded to cut me a piece of cake.

Too bad eating it was anything but.

Maria thrust her hand back into her pocket and pulled out a lighter. She lit the one candle that sat atop my slice of cake. The subtle smell of burning wax masked the cake’s rotten odor. She gave it back to me.

I don’t want to eat this.

“Well, whatchu waiting for?” Katy asked, “Make a wish.”

“And make it a good one, too.” Maria added.

I don’t want to eat this, I don’t want to eat this.

I stared at the cake, trying not to tremble. I remembered when I tried eating normal food, how off it tasted. How it got worse the more I kept trying. Repulsing, vile. Dirt, trash.

Please.

I don’t want to eat this I don’t want to eat this I don’t want to eat this I don’t want to eat this I don’t want to eat this I don’t want to eat this I don’t want to eat this-

“Lexi, are you okay?”

Katy asked me.

“You look whiter than I do, you good?”

I absolutely am not.

I lifted up my head, facing Katy and Maria. I faced them, but I tried to control my emotions, trying not to show.

No running away now. Piece of cake.

“No, yeah, um, I’ll take a bite.”

I picked up the fork, cutting out a smaller piece.

“Blow out the candle first,” Maria said, amazed that I’d forget such an obvious step one.

I laughed to myself, feeling tears threatening to flow if I didn’t hurry. “Duh, of course.”

I made a wish.

I wish I never became whatever I am.

In one fast breath, I blew out the candle.

Next, I opened my mouth, repeating the steps I had in my head earlier. Hold my breath, put it right in my mouth, swallow without chewing. Slide it right in there.

I held my breath.

I put it right into the back of my mouth.

I swallowed without chewing.

Slid it right in there.

Immediately, my body wanted to eject the food out. A violent chemical reaction, thrashing the inside of my stomach. Rioting to remove the foreign object.

I scrunched my eyes and face, failing to maintain any composure. Had to fight through this, my mom and my two closest friends were watching me. Couldn’t let everything go to waste now. Not like this.

Not over a piece of cake.

I reached for my glass of water, reaching past Katy and Maria and swigged the whole thing as fast as I could. I sighed when I finished.

“That’s good,” I lied. My voice sounded like I chain-smoked for a year straight.

“Is it?” Katy questioned me. “I’m not sure what to call, whatever it was you did, right there.”

I cleared my throat. “No, it’s good,” I said. It came out a little better that time.

I promptly went back to my chair, falling into it rather than taking a seat. “I can eat the rest later, though.”

Katy and Maria exchanged a look.

“Actually, I know we said we wouldn’t be long, but we were kind of hoping to stick around, chat and eat some cake, but I see you two are still busy so,” Katy stopped there.

“We can head out now,” Maria said. “Happy birthday, Alexis, belated as it may be.”

“Thanks,” I said, honestly. “Want me to get the door?”

“We can see ourselves out,” Katy said. “Thanks again for letting us come in, Shiori. It was good to see you.”

My mom nodded. “Good to see you too, Katy. Tell your parents I said ‘hi.’ And your dad, ‘good luck.’” She sounded genuine, legitimately happy to see Katy, despite her intrusion. It was good to confirm that she wasn’t mad about it.

Katy nodded back. “Will do.” She then put a hand on my shoulder, patting me. “Dewa mata, Alexis, we can talk later.”

“Okay, tomorrow.”

They took their leave, heading out the door. Maria closed the door behind her, all the only proof of their being here was the cake they left behind.

And an upset stomach.

I had to refocus on not wanting to throw up.

It was another loss I had to take. Another crack in the facade I had of being human.

But I did it anyways.

“Mom, I know I barely ate anything besides the cake, but may I please excuse myself from the table? I had a big enough lunch at school, and I’m not hungry.”

I asked her.

She eyed me carefully. She took so much time that I wondered if she had forgotten what I initially asked.

Finally, without saying anything, she took my plate – my first plate with the rice and tonkatsu – and proceeded to clean the food off onto her own plate.

She put the plate back in front of me.

“You clean this off and put it away. I don’t want you doing anything else but homework. No playing around on your computer.”

“Yeah, alright.”

I did just that, getting up from the table, taking my plate with me. I rinsed it in the sink, and put it in the dishwasher nearby. After I finished, I went straight to my room, locking the door behind me.

I took off right to my bathroom. Didn’t bother to turn on the light.

“Guh- gwuaaah!”

I didn’t even have to force it out. It was like taking a lid off of a shaken can of soda. It just exploded out.

I puked out the ice cream cake.

I leaned over the toilet, gripping the sides of the bowl. My lower back was already damp, sweat dripping down my neck and arms, my hand slipping away from me twice. I continued to heave.

I knew it. I can’t hold it down. I can’t even try. Fool.

My bathroom was far enough in the apartment that, even if I was loud, and with an echo, my mom wouldn’t be able to hear me. I was free to throw up, here, free to dispel food that was supposed to be tasty. It tasted like mud, a slimy texture that surged out of my gullet.

Why was this happening again?

I threw up until the liquid in the toilet was an inch away from overflowing. Putrid, the smell was. Swampy. But I was done. I lost strength in my arms, and I fainted, my cheek slamming against the edge of the bowl when I fell.

My stomach still convulsed, pumping like a broken engine. It hurt.

I was less ready than I thought I would be.

Time definitely passed while I was down. Weakly, I lifted my arm, pushing the lid down. It slammed closed. After I heard the sound, I felt around, searching for the handle to flush. I pressed it, and the toilet went to work.

On the bathroom floor, completely out of sorts, and my throat was in flames.

It had gotten worse, my aversion to normal foods. How was I supposed to blend in with others if I couldn’t hold down a single piece of cake? Just avoid any and all social events that involved eating out with others? Impossible, if I still wanted to be Alexis.

Did Katy and Maria take notice? Did Mom? I had no way of knowing, at the moment. Only time would tell, and I dreaded the wait.

My hate for myself, my situation, could not be overstated.

I took it in small steps. Slow. I flipped onto my stomach. I got on my knees. I put my arms on the toilet to help myself up. Even more slow. Everywhere, my body ached.

The sink was close. I went to wash my face. Gargle. It helped.

I decided to check my face in the mirror in front of me. My appearance really did change.

My cheekbones stood out, and they were never a prominent feature of mine. In exchange, my eyes looked more sunken in, like I hadn’t slept in years. My skin was whiter, too, like I hadn’t seen the sun in years.

However, my skin looked great.

It wasn’t exactly obvious, but my mom noticed. Others would, too. I wanted to do something about this, but what? As it was, there was nothing I could do, besides dwelling on it.

With my face still wet, I stalked over to the other side of my bathroom, grabbing my towel from the rack. Drying my face and my hair, I returned to my room.

I blinked, looking around. I hadn’t turned the light on in here, too. Which made seeing the blinking pager on my desk easier to find.

I went to check it. I fumbled with the buttons. Still not used to using such archaic technology.

Only one person would message me through this. Only one person could.

Hleuco.

‘Urgent. Come by to factory when convenient. If not, come regardless.’

I was panting, from both exhaustion and how my night seemed to be going. I was already worn out, and now I was being asked to exert more effort. Rough, I massaged the back of my neck. I probably did need to go out, though. That cake took a lot out of me. Chances were I wouldn’t make it through tomorrow if I didn’t feed properly.

It was somewhat amusing, that I got this message now. The Thompsons really had a way of messing up my nights.

Previous                                                                                               Next

016 – Culture Shock

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The ball struck the gym floor, bouncing behind me. I had moved a second too late, and the ball passed me by.

A piercing whistle followed.

“Alright girls! We’re calling it a day!” Coach Tilly yelled.

“Yes Coach!” we all responded.

The volleyball team split apart, quickly disorganizing. Some went straight to the lockers, others sat down to rest at the bleachers, and others grouped together to socialize. As for me, I stood at my position on the court, watching Coach Tilly approach. I’ve had a truck slam into me, guns pointed at me, and it was Coach that made my heart quicken with every step that brought her closer.

“Alexis,” she said as she arrived, intruding a little too much into my personal space than I would’ve liked. I resisted the urge to back away.

“Yes, Coach?”

“This is what happens when you don’t come to practice everyday. You’re slacking off, you’re slower to get the ball.”

“I can feel it.”

“Honestly? All of you girls are good players, some are even great, but I watch y’all play, practice, and most will reach a level their satisfied with, and just stay there. I’m a coach, so I have to push y’all, but kids your age… Their skulls are thicker than I’d like them to be.”

“I hear you.”

“As I was saying, with the next game coming up so soon, I’d really like to see you try and improve before then. I was looking forward to having you play more aggressively. You were doing so good, before.”

“Sorry.”

My eyes went to the floor, looking at her shoes. “I know it’s unacceptable to be-”

“Look me in the eyes.”

My eyes snapped back up, meeting her intense gaze. I was taller than her, but it certainly didn’t feel like it. And the way she said that sentence brought my attention to her accent. Not too prominent to be a stereotypical drawl, but enough so that I noticed. I’d usually not even think about it, but here, every word she uttered came with a certain edge.

“Sorry,” I said again.

“You have nothing to be sorry over. We already talked about that yesterday. Don’t worry about it, just work on it. No one’s mad at you, no one’s going to hate you over this, just keep moving forward.”

I nodded. “Sure thing.”

While I replied, Coach looked me up and down, “And eat a burger while you’re at it. You can’t improve on an empty stomach.”

“I’ll be sure to do that,” I said, rubbing my chin.

“Good, then see you tomorrow,” Coach said, giving me a good slap on the shoulder, and she left the gym. I had just stopped sweating before she talked to me, but now I felt like a waterfall. It was hardly a long conversation, yet I wanted to curl up in my bed, and sleep until winter.

Before I had the chance to go and take refuge in the lockers, I was stopped again by Valerie and Eve.

“Alexis,” Valerie started, “Sucks to be you.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “It does.”

“Aw, Valerie’s just bitter,” Eve said, “Coach was chewing her out yesterday over screwing up the drills.”

Valerie elbowed Eve in the side, and Eve laughed in response. “Hush up! She didn’t need to know that.”

“Not my fault you can’t hit for shit.”

Valerie bumped her arm into Eve, and Eve had to fix her stance, favoring a leg.

“Hey, Eve, how’s your ankle?” I inquired.

“It’s okay. Needs a little rest, is all. But it blows, all I can do is sit around and watch.”

“But you actually have a good reason to skip practice, don’t you?” I asked.

“I can still help around and stuff. I’m trying to be useful.”

“Good girl Eve,” Valerie said, “But she can’t keep her mouth shut.”

Eve took that as an opportunity to elbow her back, and Valerie staggered. “So, Lexi,” Eve said, looking back at me, “We hadn’t asked you yet. Where were you last night?”

I froze. “What do you mean?”

“You know, like, I was doing PT, and Valerie was out eating dinner.”

“Breakfast tacos at 6 P.M., it was great,” Valerie said, patting her stomach. “And I picked the food out with the daggers Coach spat at me.”

Eve reiterated, ignoring Valerie, “Lexi, what about you?”

Alarms would have been ringing in my head, but I could safely assume what she was talking about.

“Oh, I see what you mean. I was out, too. Jogging. Didn’t see it until I got back home.”

“Ah. But didn’t that blow your mind? I can’t believe we live in a world where people like that exist.”

“Really?” Valerie asked Eve, “I think it’s freaking terrifying, the more I think about it.”

“Don’t think about it too hard, then,” I said.

“Right? You’re just jelly, Val,” Eve said.

“In what capacity?

“Jelly that you don’t have hops like that.”

“That’s exactly it, Eve. Nail right on the head.”

Eve would have cracked up, she made the motions for it, tilting her head back, but she instead inhaled, sharply, lifting up a foot.

Ah.”

“You need to go sit down,” I suggested.

“That’s probably the smart thing to do,” Eve said. “Alright, see you tomorrow, Alexis.” Eve waved, turned, and Valerie followed.

“Buh-bye,” I said back, and they left.

That could’ve been a close one, I thought.

I fanned myself off with a hand, and I went to take a shower.

While the water ran down my body, I thought about what Coach Tilly said to me, and I tried working out a balance between her expectations and my actual capabilities.

It wasn’t that I had gotten worse since my absences, in fact, if I was allowed to be cocky, I could wipe the floor with my whole team, on my own. But it wouldn’t be due to any mastery of techniques or anything like that. I was simply better. Stronger, faster, in every way. I was capable of things that would break anyone who tried. I had yet to test where exactly my upper limits were, but they had to be a hell of a lot higher than anyone I knew. I didn’t train to be better, I just became it.

Of course, I couldn’t let Coach know that.

And why should I? Coach would focus even more attention on me, and I’d be found out almost immediately. If there was a way to capitalize on my superpowers and make an extra buck or two, I would be down, but as things were, the risk was too high, the benefits paling in comparison. It meant having to let Coach down, but I had to keep things on the down low, and attract as little attention to myself as possible. Now more than ever.

An unfortunate consequence, but it was necessary.

I finished my shower, letting the hot water drip down my body. It had gotten hot enough for steam to billow everywhere around me.

“Hey, Alexis!” I heard from a corner of the shower. It sounded like Tiffany, another teammate. A freshman. “It’s smoking in here! Isn’t that the Devil’s Mouth?”

The Devil’s Mouth was a nickname of a particular showerhead, notorious for being broken, splashing out water that was way too hot, no matter the setting. I must’ve been too lost in my own head to notice that had I walked under it. I looked at my arms. There were red marks all over my forearms and chest, but they were vanishing at a fast rate, and they were gone by the time I turned off the shower and spoke.

“I was just testing it. It’s still hot!”

Good work on the whole ‘attract as little attention to myself as possible’ thing.

Tiffany didn’t bother to question any further, and she left. I toweled myself dry, changed, and left the locker rooms with all of my stuff. I met up with Katy at the front of the school, waiting for me in her car.

I greeted her. “Yo.”

Katy was too busy on her phone to respond properly, giving a non-committal grumble instead.

I got in the car. “You ready?” I asked.

She tapped twice more on her phone, not looking at me. “… a cherry on top.”

“You okay there, Katy?”

Katy put her phone away. “Uh-huh. You should really get your license, already.”

“I… I probably should, shouldn’t I?”

“Not ‘probably,’ absolutely.”

“Right.”

She started the car, and we sped off.

“Any updates on Maria?” I asked, as we passed by the Strip, recalling the incident that happened there.

“Not since lunch, but I’m not too nonplussed about it this time around. I’ll give the girl her space.”

Space.

Space was something I was willing to give to Maria, but I couldn’t help but worry in the meantime. Did Eduardo tell Maria about me, about Blank Face? Did he take my advice and split up with her? What did Maria know, now? So many things I needed to know, but I couldn’t press Maria too hard and accidentally tip my hand. I already played with fire a little bit by telling Eduardo what I knew about Maria, and I needed to know how much that burned me, if at all.

If it was any consolation, Maria was fine during lunch, as lively and bubbly as ever. She didn’t say or suggest anything that I could use as a hint for any of the questions I had for her, sadly enough, but no news was good news, right? Was I okay in assuming that?

I was forced to leave it be.

I only seconded Katy. “Giving her space is probably for the best.”

“She’ll be fine. She’s tougher than she looks, and she already looks tough.”

“Most definitely.”

Halfway down the street, traffic forced us to a stop. There was a light up ahead, but it was green. Cars around us were honking, trying to get things moving again, but it was useless. A crowd of people were blocking the way, marching down the intersection. They were shouting, carrying signs. Police were on cars and horses, guiding the line of people along.

Katy drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. “Dang, I thought I checked all the roads. People will protest over anything, nowadays.”

I frowned. It’s already begun, I thought.

I knew my public appearance would cause quite the stir, but I never expected the world to collectively lose their mind over it. The world. This made international news. It was the only thing anyone ever talked about all day. Even the teachers couldn’t stop talking about it, instead joining in the student’s speculation and general craze. A level of hysteria that I’ve never seen before. The atmosphere walking through the school was electric, and, even though phones weren’t allowed to be out, everyone was breaking that rule, looping the footage of me from every possible angle, trying to find that one flaw in my disguise that could potentially reveal my identity.

And all it took was a flimsy, plastic mask from preventing this from being a complete disaster. And my body shape, too, there was debate on the masked person’s gender. That helped in throwing any suspicion away from me.

Also, the world decided to give me a name without my permission. I was being referred to ‘The Bluemoon,’ a name even dumber than Blank Face. The reasoning behind it was because I was wearing blue that night, and a person with superpowers was an impossible, ‘once in a blue moon’ type of thing. I supposed.

A lot of excitement, and a lot of fear. As accidental is it was, I did stab a person on national television. People saw. And they wanted my head for it.

All of this fanfare, all of this fanaticism, from just a series of short video clips.

Imagine having to live with it. All day, everyday.

“‘Hashtag first contact,’” I said, referencing humanity’s summed up, viral thoughts on the matter, “‘Hashtag ‘where were you.’ What a time to be alive.”

“It’s like a modern-day witch trial,” Katy said, “Expect the witch is actually real.”

“It’s ridiculous. There’s nothing to gain by doing this. What do they expect, that he’ll suddenly show up and say hi?”

“We have proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that superpowered-people walk among us. Apparently. Couple that with the footage of that girl a few weeks back, that’s enough evidence for people to believe that we live in some kind of comic book world now. To them, we’ve been living in a world either fantasy or science fiction this entire time, and we never knew it.”

“Truly the darkest timeline,” I said.

“Now, people are confused, scared, and if not that, angry. The whole world’s flipped upside down. Anything’s possible, and that frightens people, because the rules have been thrown out the window. And if you live in a democratic society, and you’re feeling any or all of those emotions, is there anything better than getting together with like-minded individuals who feel the same way, and air out your grievances in a civilly disobedient, but peaceful, manner?”

“You can always make memes on the internet and call it a day.”

Katy nodded, sagely. “Yeah, I guess you can.”

I massaged the side of my head. “It’s been less than twenty-four hours, and the world has lost all reason.”

“Better than starting a riot.”

“But you don’t think they’re overreacting, even a little?”

“There’s no precedent for this. You can’t make that call either way.”

“They’re chanting ‘death to the mask’ and ‘tear off their face.’ That’s hardly civil, or peaceful.”

“I did say ‘civilly disobedient,” Katy said, putting emphasis on that last word.

“You know what I mean.”

“Cool down, Alexis, it’s not like they’re protesting you.”

I held my tongue, and I noticed how dry it was.

Already?

We sat in wait, watching the parade pass. The noise had risen to annoying levels, and they weren’t even shouting anything comprehensible anymore, just various mindless obscenities. The signs they held were making less and less sense the more we tried to read them, from religious quotes to doomsday proclamations. One particular sign said ‘When’s the movie coming out?’ and Katy and I thought that was actually pretty funny.

Katy decided to wait them out by playing some music. Old school rap from the nineties. I wasn’t too familiar with the group, but the constant references to a specific type of sword style allowed me to guess with confidence. Katy started from the top of the album, and by the time we were told to ‘let our feet stomp,’ the last of the protesters cleared the street, and we were free to go.

We got back to my apartment just in time, despite the heavy setback. Curfew wouldn’t be beating me today. I thanked Katy for the ride, and proceeded to get out of the car.

“Before you go,” Katy said as I was getting out, “Keep your phone close, and actually be attentive to it for once.”

“What for?”

She winked, “You’re welcome.” She neglected to say more, and she drove off.

Cryptic for sure, but I was sure I’d find out what she meant soon enough. With no more chances for distractions, I went up the stairs, and to my apartment door.

I entered. My mom was already here, taking a nap on the couch. The TV was still on, repeating the events of last night. My blank face on the standard definition screen. I couldn’t escape that here, either.

I took off my shoes, leaving them by the door, and walked up the cocoon of blankets that was my mom. I tapped her on the shoulder to wake her up.

“Hi, Ma,” I said, greeting her with a kiss on the cheek. “You’re home early.”

“Yes,” she said, sluggishly, “Lucky me. How was school?”

“Alright. You can keep sleeping, I’ll just go do some homework and stuff.”

She made a sound, almost like she was purring, but she laid back and closed her eyes.

“This weekend. Do you want to go to the church?” she asked.

“I hadn’t thought about that place in years,” I said. St. Francis Xavier was a church my mom and I used to frequent back when I was younger, but we fell out of going over time. Other things in life popped up, and we learned that it wasn’t as high as a priority as we thought it was. Even without us, the church was still famous for being a hub for the Asian American community in Stephenville, hosting festivals all throughout the year that showcased the different cultures that made up that population. I still kept in semi-regular contact with some of the kids I went with back in the day, but that usually amounted to the occasional liking of a status update, or leaving a comment. Nothing too substantial.

But it had been so long since I was reminded of that place. Naturally, my mom bringing it up again had piqued my interest. “What brought that up?” I asked.

“Do you remember Mrs. Phan?”

“Ma, you’re killing me with all these nostalgia bombs right now.”

“She came in for a trim. She tell me they’re doing a barbecue, and she invited us.”

“And we’re going?”

“Maybe. She say we can take whatever’s left over back home.”

“That does sound like a good enough reason to return to the light of God,” I quipped.

My mom moved around on the couch, turning her back to me.

“Go do your homework.”

I stuck my tongue out, all in good fun, but I otherwise left my mom alone. Before I went into my room, I had to go into the kitchen to get myself a glass.

My mom would keep on sleeping, but I locked the door, just to be safe.

I cast my stuff aside, and went straight to my closet, opening it to get to a plastic bag. The plastic bag that had my dirty clothes, the ones I had yet to care of. I never threw them away. That might have labeled me as a hoarder, but I felt that I was justified by my circumstances. I found my old socks, soddened in blood, and my ruined black hoodie, a sweet fragrance lingering even now. I pushed them to the side. They were too old, now, too musty. They were begging to be cleaned, and I was aware that I had to find a way to do it soon. But, as for right now, they were to be ignored one more time.

I found the bandana, picking it out of the bag.

It was a token from an event I otherwise wanted to forget. The bandana from that guy who was chasing me through the neighborhood. His nose had been bleeding into the cloth, and I took it from him.

With only the bandana and the glass, I moved on to my bathroom, turning on the light.

I placed the glass right under the faucet of the sink, a little too hard, and I worried that I had cracked it. Stay calm, no need to rush, Mom’s asleep. I twisted the knob halfway, controlling the flow of water into the glass, so I didn’t accidentally spill anything.

I was way more manic the first time I did this, way more frantic, so there was a moment’s hesitation when I held the bandana right by the running water. I actually had time to consider what I was about to do. I wasn’t in a rush, knees wet in a gentle stream, hands cupped. However, I couldn’t let my hesitation prevent me from what I had to do. No way I could sugarcoat this – it was gross, disgusting – but it was better than nothing. I had to start brainstorming other possibilities, other methods, but until then, this would have to do.

I submerged half the bandana into the water, twisting it until some of the blood drained into the glass. I switched off the faucet just before the water was about to flow out.

The end result was an unappetizing concoction. I held the glass up to the light. It was a murky, sordid liquid, muddied with blood, sweat, and whatever else that got tracked into the cloth. Something moved in the pit of my stomach, threatening to jump out of my mouth, just by looking at what swam in the liquid. It wasn’t pretty, wasn’t ideal, but at the moment, I had little choice. Germs, disease, it couldn’t matter. I couldn’t afford to think how unsanitary this was.

Three… Three, three, two, one.

I took the glass like a shot, downing it in one gulp.

I didn’t know what was worse, that I had do it again within a week or that it didn’t taste that bad.

To be exact, it wasn’t as bad as it should have been. The taste was like drinking a sports drink that had been out and opened for a few days. Sweet, but you didn’t want to know what had gotten in there in the meantime.

The world was freaking out over what I could do, what would happen if they learned of what I had to drink?

The thought made me shiver.

I kept still for some time, focusing on keeping my ‘drink’ down. Really didn’t want to go through this again. Not so soon. I only stepped back into my room when I was sure I was okay to move.

My bed offered a warm respite, and I took it, throwing myself on top of the blankets. I decided to follow my mom’s example, and try to take a relaxing nap for myself.

How about if I sleep and forget all of this nonsense?

Yeah. The key word was try.

Those chants were echoing in my ears. Over and over and over. It was, in a strange way, both suffocating and exhilarating. Me, they were screaming over me. Because of me being whatever it was I was. They were freaking out, demanding answers, all from just a couple of minutes of me being out in public as Blank Face, or The Bluemoon, whatever they wanted to call me. They weren’t the only ones who wanted answers, but like me, those chances were looking slim.

Oh well.

Not liked it mattered. I had no plans on going out like that ever again. El Carruaje should be functionally dissolved, I parted ways with Eduardo, and I had faith that Maria would bounce back from this by a week’s time. Being Blank Face again was begging for more trouble. I had to keep a low profile, and start focusing on my personal life again.

I’m no superhero, and I have no need to go back out there again.

So, let them scream until they choked. I didn’t care. It all fell on deaf ears.

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010 – Hate and Separation

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El Carruaje?”

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

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

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

“Relieved? How?”

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

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

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

“Bad is still bad.”

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

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

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

“So we just do nothing?”

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

“That’s hardly reassuring.”

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

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

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

“…”

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

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

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

“Bye.”

Katy hung up.

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

I didn’t want to get out of bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve been calling you,” she said.

“Oh. I was on the phone, too.”

She held the phone towards me.

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

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

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

“Um, do I need to go?” I asked.

“Do you not need to?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it any good?” I asked her.

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

“You can change the channel.”

“No. You can if you want.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I simply returned to my room.

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

Like I hadn’t done that enough, already.

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

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

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

Would that even work in real life?

Perhaps, perhaps not, but I thought it.

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

I caught Maria at the parking lot.

“Maria, wait up!”

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

“What are you doing here?”

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

“Hi,” I said, getting closer.

“Didn’t answer me,” was her response.

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

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

“Funny,” she said, “What is it?”

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

“You’re too obvious.”

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

“Where?”

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

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

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

“Bus?” I suggested.

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

“Alright, maybe next time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope.”

Another, longer pause.

“Don’t you have practice?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

El Carruaje.

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

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

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

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

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

Good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woooow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We both snickered.

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

“I saw that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I tried.

“S-see? This is fun,” I joked.

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

“No, I’m good.”

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

She didn’t get to finish that sentence.

“Maria!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But…”

“Think you take the bus back home?”

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

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

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

She gave me a peace sign. “I will.”

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

Everything about that was sketchy.

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

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

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

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

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

Everything looked okay.

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

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

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

But suddenly, I saw them.

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

God please, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Shiori

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「継続は力なり。」

That was what Shiori thought.

It had grown to be a bad habit, especially within the last few years, but she couldn’t help but think that may no longer be true. It helped with meeting the next day, sure, but when would things start coming to pass? How long would she have to wait?

The only way to find the answer was to keep going.

「毎日頑張ったら、大丈夫ですわ。」

The lights flickered above, or did she just blink?

Another quiet day at TRF Hair Salon. Shiori liked quiet days. Although, it was her turn to close up shop. Shiori wasn’t too thrilled about that.

Especially today.

Sirens, people shouting, a gunshot. The bland, generic pop music did little in overpowering the natural sounds of downtown Stephenville. Shiori swept some hair into the corner, to be collected and thrown away later.

Everyone else had gone home already. As much as she liked her coworkers, she did prefer to be on her own. She didn’t quite connect with them like they did each other, which, over the years, was something she learned to not be so concerned about. Besides, they were more comfortable speaking to each other in their own language, she never took the time to learn Vietnamese. Also, perhaps it spoke to something within her own personality. She was better off on her own. Something she didn’t think she shared with her own offspring.

Although, there was a safety in numbers, and it was getting late.

She checked the clock. And again. An hour until closing.

The front door opened, the metallic clinking that followed signaled a new customer. Shiori turned. She smiled.

“Welcome. Ah, hi, Thomas.”

Thomas Thompson. A prominent lawyer who owned a prominent firm located at the heart of downtown. Handsome, in the traditional sense, despite being well into his middle-aged years. Fit, too. The suit he had on was form-fitting, and it was clear that he exercised regularly. The only signs of his age were the small, thin crinkles by his eyes, an olive green. His hair was a little unruly, which could explain his being here. A subtle pompadour, slicked back by gel.

Attractive? Absolutely. It was an opinion that Shiori wouldn’t be shy about sharing to the man himself. She did not, and would not, of course, because that would be rather odd. To clarify, it was strictly an opinion of a platonic manner. Like describing a rose as red. Obvious, plain as day. But more importantly, other than stating a simple adjective, Thomas was married. And Shiori was good friends with Kristin, too.

Also, he was the father of Katy Thompson, her daughter’s best friend.

Thomas replied back, calm. “Hi, Shiori.” He walked through the front waiting area and towards Shiori’s chair. “Mind if I get a quick trim this late?”

Shiori shook her head. “No problem at all.”

Thomas sighed, relieved. “Thank you.” He sat down.

Shiori began getting her equipment ready, taking out her scissors and combs. “Just the usual?” she asked as she wrapped a gown around him to cover his suit.

“Just the usual.”

She started with the spray bottle, spritzing Thomas’s hair with water. She combed through his hair to get out the product, and to get started with the cutting.

“Busy on the weekend?” Shiori asked.

“Absolutely, otherwise I’d come tomorrow. In fact, it’s a good thing I happened to catch you at this time.”

“Good thing.”

“What about you? Busy this weekend?”

“Yes,” Shiori said, as she snipped away some hair. “I am. It’s my daughter’s birthday, tomorrow.”

Thomas scratched his chin. “Oh, that’s right. Katy said something about that. She seemed to be looking forward to it, herself.”

She trimmed a little more off the top.

“Yeah, she said something about planning a party for her tonight.”

She cut again.

「うるせっ。」

“I asked Alexis to come home early today.”

“I was probably wrong, then. Maybe she meant the weekend?”

Shiori continued cutting. Earlier in the morning, she had asked Alexis, her daughter and only child, to come home immediately after school ended. She had plans of her own towards celebrating her daughter’s birthday.

Against her own self-control, she went ahead and gave Alexis her birthday gift early, a black wristwatch. A simple but sleek design. A relic of a past she wished she could forget. But she wouldn’t tell Alexis that. Not yet. Maybe when she was older. And memories only meant something to those who had them. An item was simply an item. For now, she could just enjoy the gift as it was.

Next, was the meal she had planned. Fried chicken and miso soup. Those were Alexis’s favorite foods, back when she was younger, but Shiori hadn’t made that particular a meal in quite some time. She thought it would be a nice surprise, and a way for the two of them to spend some legitimate, quality time together. All throughout the week, she’d been visiting different farmer’s markets and Asian supermarkets, picking out the best ingredients to make the best versions of her daughter’s favorite dishes. A chore, but absolutely worth it.

To be honest, she was actually looking forward to it herself.

She just wanted to get home.

Thomas kept on the subject. “So, how old is she turning? Sixteen?”

“Sixteen this year.”

“Wow. Time flies. I remember when playing outside was enough to satisfy her and Katy. Now, it’s phones phones phones.”

Shiori chuckled. It was certainly true.

“It’s unbelievable,” Thomas said. “Now, they’re already getting ready to go to college. Does Alexis know where she wants to go, yet?”

Shiori paused. She too wanted an answer to that question. It wasn’t like she hadn’t asked, but the darting eyes, the mumbled words, the general unsure demeanor was much to be desired. Shiori decided not to push, for now, but things would have to get going on that front eventually. Alexis wasn’t going to be a little girl forever. Youth was valuable thing, but so loosely grasped by those who had it.

「もうわかてるよ。」

“She’s still trying to decide,” Shiori said, answering for her daughter.

“Still keeping her options open, then, not bad,” Thomas said, “Katy’s in the same boat, she’s looking at some of the Ivy League schools, and I’m fine with that, but it’d be nice if she stayed in-state. Certainly cheaper,” he said, before smiling, eyes closed. Shiori saw him in the mirror.

「おめでとうございます。」

Sirens, people shouting, this time closer, louder. Shiori glanced out to the windows by the entrance. Waiting if the fire of a gun would follow. But it was too dark to see outside. The bars protecting the window didn’t help either. So she waited, anxious.

Nothing.

Her body relaxed. Somewhat.

“Crazy town,” Thomas commented, picking up on what just transpired. His tone was light, despite everything.

“Should you really be coming around this part of town, anymore?” Shiori asked, concerned. “Too dangerous.”

“I should be saying that to you,” Thomas replied. “Besides, that’s exactly why I do what I do. These gangs and cartels think they can hold control in the city forever? Don’t think so.” Thomas sharply inhaled through his nose. “Got a pretty decent case tomorrow.”

“Is that so?”

“Certainly is so. We finally nailed one of the upper guys from the Colombian Cobras. If all goes well, and I hope it does… Honestly, it will only momentarily slow things down, but it’s something. The whole thing’s being televised, so, can’t mess this up. Because, if we can secure a win on this, that will help me get a win in the long run.”

Shiori nodded, silently, trimming away at more hair. She wasn’t terribly keen to the particulars about the rampant gang violence that plagued the city, like the different names and factions and leaders and how they were all related. She only knew what she needed to know. Keep your head down, and don’t stay out longer than you need to.

Every day, it seemed, there was something on the news about the latest in Stephenville’s crime epidemic. A drug bust gone wrong, a drive-by claiming both innocents and those not so, or just simple, random acts of depravity with no connection to anything greater except as a symptom of the setting. It was to the point that it became background noise, something that was easy to accept as a part of daily life. Thankfully, Shiori hadn’t experienced anything like that personally, but the thought was always in the back of her mind.

「他の場所に引っ越しましたら、いいだろうな。」

If it only wasn’t so damn expensive. Also, there was Alexis’s own personal feelings to consider. Her roots dug much deeper into this city than hers ever did, for good or for ill. Alexis would not be so fond about that proposition. She might act out, protest in her own way. And things…

「本当に、ダメよ。」

Shiori refocused on trimming Thomas’s sideburns. Now was really not the time to be dwelling on personal matters. That could come later.

“Good luck, and do your best,” was all Shiori said on the matter.

“Thanks,” Thomas replied, with a hint of cautious optimism.

Silently, Shiori continued her work, making sure each cut was made with precision, every trim clean and kept things symmetrical. She took the occasional step back, making sure things were even, eyeballing it. It was funny, in a sense. Years ago, people spent hours on her hair. Now, she was the one who was meticulously mulling over each strand on someone else’s head.

She slowly spun Thomas around in his chair, seeing how his hair looked from every angle.

「いいかな?まあ、いいじゃん。」

She took a towel and started brushing Thomas’s ears and neck, a signal that she was almost done.

Finally, she handed him a mirror, and let him see for himself.

“Okay?” she asked.

Thomas gave a careful inspection of his hair as well, running his fingers through his damp scalp, putting it up, imagining what it would be like with gel. He took his time.

He looked up at Shiori, and smiled. “Looks great.”

She grinned back, satisfied at his satisfaction. “Good. Would you like gel on now?”

“No, I’m fine,” he said, taking off the gown and getting out of his chair. “I should be getting home, honestly.”

“Okay.”

「私も。」

Shiori followed Thomas to the register, both taking their respective sides. She tapped on the register, inputting the cost of a single haircut.

“Nineteen ninety-five,” she said, “Cash or credit?”

“Cash,” Thomas stated, pulling out a wallet from his pocket. He handed her a bill.

“Fifty is all I have,” he said, almost apologetically.

“No problem.” She had to hide her envy that he could treat fifty dollars so casually. She punched in more buttons to calculate the change.

“Actually,” he said, stopping Shiori. “You can keep the change. Tell Alexis ‘happy birthday’ for me.”

It quickly became harder to mask her envy. “Oh, thank you very much.”

“No, thank you,” Thomas said, “For you service.” He turned, and faced the door that lead outside to Stephenville. “I’ve got it from here.”

“Good luck, again.”

“I appreciate it. ‘Walk straight with Thomas,’” he said, almost abashedly. “Wander no more.”

“See you again,” Shiori said, finally, then waved as he headed out the door. Clinging followed as it closed.

Shiori stood there, in the middle of the salon, tired yet excited. There was still quite a bit left to do, in terms of closing up shop. Checking inventory, cleaning up her station, sweeping… Her plate was full of things to do. And there was still dinner that she needed to prepare. It’d be a little late, but it would be worth it, she’d make sure of that. A quick check of her phone hadn’t shown any messages from Alexis, saying she was home. She should have made it clear to text her. She was a little worried, but not concerned. It would all be fine. She would go home, cook dinner, and they would enjoy a nice, peaceful meal between the two of them.

「それが、いいだね?」

That was what Shiori thought.

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