Interlude – James

Previous                                                                     Bonus

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s no problem.

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

“Thank you, Jim.”

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

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

Bones creaked and joints popped.

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

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

I wonder if he ever felt like this.

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

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

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

Campbell stepped inside.

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

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

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

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

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

His mind was wandering again.

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

“My condolences,” Campbell said.

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

“Maybe you have something you want to say.”

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

Campbell flinched. “Sorry, Chief.”

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

“Come on,” James said, “Let’s go.”

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

Together, they left the conference room.

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

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

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

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

Someone should be doing… something.

“Campbell,” James said, needing another distraction.

“Yes, sir?”

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

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

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

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

“And that was, what, five years ago?”

Campbell laughed.

“It was ten years ago, sir.”

“Color me shocked.”

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

“No need to apologize.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, wandering.

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

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

“Um, yes sir?”

“What’s your take-”

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

“What’s your take on Blank Face?”

“Blank Face?”

James noted Campbell’s hesitation.

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

“It’s not that sir, it’s just…”

That hesitation again.

“It’s just what?”

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

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

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

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

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

Campbell took his sweet time in formulating an answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Before?”

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

“And the twist was?” James asked.

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

Campbell’s voice was just a bit tight.

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

Campbell shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

He coughed, the camera bag shaking a little.

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

“I know,” James said.

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

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

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

“Yeah, food for thought.”

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

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

A ding.

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

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

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

“Honor to hear that.”

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

The workings of the interior felt farther away.

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

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

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

A ding.

James got out of the elevator.

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that, and another more peculiar thing.

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

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

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

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

As he waited, he looked around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pathetic.

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

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

John Cruz. The new district attorney.

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

James stopped reading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beside him was-

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

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

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

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

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

He almost laughed.

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

No answer, but James wasn’t expecting one.

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

He stared at nothing, and got nothing.

It wasn’t always like this.

It was James’ job to keep the peace.

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

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

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

James grinned to himself.

Good job, me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He opened his mouth to shout again.

“Everyone, please back-”

“James, James!”

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

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

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

“Thomas,” James said.

Thomas Thompson smirked upon hearing his name.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man took it, shaking it. Firm.

“John Cruz,” the man said.

“James Gomez.”

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

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

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

“Helps with the late nights.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas laughed. “Does it, now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fresh crime scene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas nodded, looking proud of himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas gave the coffee back to John.

“Someone might like that.”

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

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

“They don’t.”

Between the two friends, they shared a small chuckle.

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

“Him? John?”

“Yes, of course John, who else?”

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

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

“Why?”

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

James paused, and then he sighed.

“Thomas,” he said.

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

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

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

“You really see something in him?”

Thomas shrugged. “I might.”

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

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

He pointed in John’s general direction.

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

Thomas met James in the eye.

“But I digress,” Thomas said.

“But you digress,” James echoed.

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

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

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

“Turner? Of Turner’s Moving Company?”

“The very same.”

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

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

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

“Thanks, pal.”

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

“But you still object to him.”

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

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

James had to explain himself.

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

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

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

James struggled to find the words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will, I will.”

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

He got to the point.

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

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

“We keep it between us.”

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

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

“Jealous?”

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

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

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

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

“Get away from me!.”

“Thomas, James.”

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

“Welcome back. Learn anything?”

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

“What does that even mean,” James commented.

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

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

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

James and Thomas didn’t say anything.

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

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

“Now what does that even mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

James knew that Thomas hated that. Being small.

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

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

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

Thomas had never sounded so sure in his life.

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

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

This never gets any easier.

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

“Kristin,” James said as the door opened.

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

James didn’t blame her.

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

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

“May I-” James started.

“Please,” Kristin said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He heard a dry laugh come from Kristin.

“I try.”

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

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

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

Kristin ended up filling in the blanks for him.

“James, this is Shiori.”

Shiori. The name sort of helped.

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

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

James had to approach this carefully.

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

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

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

Then it clicked. He remembered that.

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

Again, Shiori only nodded.

James felt an awkward silence about to settle in.

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

“Coffee would be great, thanks.”

“I’ll be right back.”

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

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

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

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

Was she ill? Did she lose her voice?

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

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

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

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

How does she do it? James wondered.

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

“James, can you help me in here?”

James got up without any protest or objection.

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

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

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

“Down, Annie, down!”

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

“Now go to your bed.”

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

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

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

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

“What’s up?” he asked.

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

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

Kristin nodded.

James shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

James was an experienced enough cop to piece things together.

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

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

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

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

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

James felt his heart drop.

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

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

James felt his heart drop even lower.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not with this. He still failed.

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

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

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

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

“It’s the worst possible time.”

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

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

Kristin hiccuped.

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

“That bad?”

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

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

Maybe.

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

“Okay,” Kristin said.

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

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

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

Kristin stayed quiet.

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

She looked up, meeting James in the eye.

“You lost him, too.”

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

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

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

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

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

More distractions.

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

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

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

“Anything.”

“Can you check on Katy?”

“She’s here?”

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

“Hope so, but of course.”

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

Bitter.

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

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

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

Styx was there, too.

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

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

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

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

He knocked.

Katy wasn’t the one who got the door.

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

“Hello,” James said.

“Hello,” the girl repeated.

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

“Oh, you’re… Maria, am I right?”

“I am,” Maria said.

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

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

“Uncle James, you can come in.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, it’s been fun.”

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

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

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

“Any good news?”

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

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

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

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

“She did,” he said.

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

“Did you now? What’d you think?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not a game,” Katy said.

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

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

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

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

“Leave the door open.”

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

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

“Heading out?” James asked.

“Yes.”

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

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

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

He ran into Kristin as he reached the final step.

“How were they?” she asked.

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

Kristin’s expression seemed like she was expecting that answer. The girls had been like that for some time, now.

James couldn’t blame them for that.

“Are you leaving now?” Kristin asked.

“I think I will. Thank you again for the coffee.”

“Anytime.”

Kristin gave him a quick hug before he left the house. It was a gesture that showed that he was always welcome to come back and visit.

But, by the next time, he had better have fucking something to show.

The air was thick with a pungent smell. James almost tripped over himself, something sliding out from under him.

So many bullet holes, so many bullet casings, so many bullets.

James took one, slow walk around the perimeter, trying to take it all in. It was hard. Decades on the force, and he had the gall to assume that he had seen it all. Apparently, he hadn’t seen shit.

Morning, early morning. So early the sun hadn’t considered getting up yet. The basketball court in a neighborhood on the west side. Neutral territory between the Thunders and the Royals.

Nothing neutral about it now.

Chunks of concrete were torn out of the ground, debris thrown haphazardly across the court. Bullets were stuck in the ground, embedded in both the grass and dirt around the court and the court itself. Even the backboards were riddled by bullets, there were more holes than metal. It was like an actual warzone.

Around the court and the surrounding perimeter, everyone was working to collect as much info as possible, and clean up as much as possible. Wherever James looked, there was someone picking up bullets and casings to put into a bag, someone helping the injured into an ambulance, or someone trying to fix where the tall fence around the court had fallen over. Parts of the fence were torn and crushed, like it was trampled on by a stampede of elephants.

That was a good way to put it, in terms of animals. What had happened here, happened between animals. A raw, deep force that craved violence and rage. It had consumed the hearts of the people, and they didn’t see each other as people, anymore. Not as their fellow man, not as brothers. Humans couldn’t have done this, it had to have been some other cause.

Right?

James watched his step, careful to not slip again. There were too many things here that could catch him off guard. Debris, bullet casings, pools of blood. He kept a flashlight at his feet, to keep an eye on what was directly ahead. Normally, there would have been fixtures that lit up the court, but the power was out around the spot. It hadn’t come back on, yet.

Campbell followed him as he tried to get a sense of the whole situation.

“They’re going to want me on TV to talk about this, aren’t they?” James asked.

“Media’s starting to come in, but they’ve actually been a bit slow in getting here. Journalists aren’t used to coming down here.”

“That’s because they don’t have a reason to. They’ve gotten every story they could possibly get out of places like this. They squeezed it dry, and left it to rot in the sun. They’re only back now because, as it turns out, there’s still a little bit of juice left to sell.”

“Well, the perimeter’s about two blocks around the court. They’re not getting in here.”

“Let’s push it back another block, just to be safe, before the first few shoe-stringers get here.”

“Roger that, chief.”

Campbell reached for a walkie-talkie to relay the Chief’s words to the others. All around James, he heard the cries of affirmation, and the action afterward. Neither of the gangs had any relevance to the ones that had teeth in James’ police force, so James got to be the leading authority. Right now, for now, James’ men were his. They listened and reported to him, and they had no other bosses to answer to.

If only it was like that the whole time. His best friend would have loved that for sure.

James stopped his walk around the area, and headed straight to the middle. The middle of the court.

There was a shout, somewhere in the far back. “Power’s coming back!”

Small cheers sounded throughout, immediately hushed when the lights switched on, shining a harsh light on everything.

James squinted. For more than one reason.

He saw the edges of it before, but not a full view. This… This was harsh.

There were two bodies. Cut up, beaten, and bruised. Reduced to a bloody pulp, their bodies defiled and tampered with. The result was something less than human.

They were completely naked, cut skin touching the hard and cold concrete. They were situated, placed in a specific way, moved after whatever happened to them… happened. James noted the streaks of blood beside them, how they were dragged and then set to achieve the intended effect.

Arms and legs together, their feet meeting at a point. One body was on one side of the court, the other body was on the opposite side. What looked like larger brush strokes of blood were marked beside their appendages to make it read better.

It looked like a giant red ‘V.’

The men? The leaders of the relevant gangs. Darius and Marcus Jackson.

“God, who could’ve-”

Campbell stopped, or rather the scene was too visceral that he lost the words. He turned on a heel, so it was to his side, and he was facing James, instead.

“How can you even look, sir?”

“Part of the job,” James answered. He was looking at it, head on. Others were, too, collecting photographs and getting vitals on the bodies. A man bent down to get a pulse from Darius, another checked for signs of breathing on Marcus.

“But, even if you put it like that, this is just too much.”

“My job is to face the ugliest of humanity, and do what I can to put a stop to it. Clearly, humans are capable of much more ugliness than I ever thought, but the job stays the same.”

Campbell turned again, putting his back to the scene.

“I don’t know which is worse. This, or the school.”

“The school, unfortunately.” James looked at the medical staff working on EZ and Krown. They both gave him a thumbs up. A miracle.

“At least no one died, here,” James added.

“Sure, but we have dozens injured and two critically injured, and plenty aren’t going to walk away from this with all their limbs attached. Fuck, some literally will not be able to walk away.”

“Yeah.”

“I can’t look at this, I have to go.”

Campbell started to walk away from the scene. James couldn’t help but feel let down at Campbell’s weakened resolve. Everyone had a breaking point, and it seemed that this one was his.

James addressed the men in front of him.

“You have your pictures, so scoop these two up and get them into a hospital. Yesterday. And I want every gangbanger present to be accounted for, you know what that means.”

His men sprung to action, and James left them to work.

He caught up with Campbell as they left the court.

“What does that even accomplish?” Campbell questioned. He walked away, but his thoughts were still fixated on that. “Who would do something like that?”

“Either it’s a message,” James said, “Or a cruel joke. Either way, we’ll get to the bottom of it.”

They walked into the grass, James feeling the metal of the bullets and casings under his shoes, but they were walking on dirt, easier to step through bumpier terrain, here. James wasn’t afraid of slipping and making an ass of himself, needing Campbell to help him back up. He could do without an embarrassment.

James saw a tree by a concrete trail that would have led into an intact basketball court. The trunk was splintered and split open by bullets.

James saw someone approach, running out of the dark.

“James Gomez?”

He didn’t stop walking.

“James Gomez?”

He kept going.

“James!”

Not once did James break his stride.

A woman fell in step with him. Brown hair, thick rimmed glasses, beige coat and black tights. She looked like she was in her thirties, now. Time really did pass.

I really am getting old.

James didn’t want to admit that.

“I wanted to ask you some questions, James,” Natalie asked. “Actually, I don’t have anything to ask you, I have the answers, I just wanted some confirmation.”

Natalie Beckham. She was one of the top writers of the Stephenville Impact, the city’s number one news organization. Was. She had covered the local crime scene, back in the day, but the last time James had seen her around was almost seven years ago. He heard something about her moving to New York.

For whatever reason, she was back, now, and that only meant more complications.

James saw the cup in her hand. He wasn’t interested.

He didn’t entertain her. He just kept walking, Campbell on his right, Natalie on his left.

“I caught some of the gang members here as they tried to recount the events. The Thunders and the Royals had previously been operating in good faith in regards to a pact, but after too many incidents between the two groups, came here to settle the score. Is this true?”

James didn’t answer.

“And I heard that, right before the initial confrontation, there was a starting gunshot in the distance. Would you know that to be true?”

James didn’t answer.

“After that, was when the power began to cut out. In the dark, I’ve got multiple reports and a mysterious figure, cloaked in red, attacking members from both gangs. Could you confirm this?”

Red? Not blue?

James didn’t answer.

“Both gangs stopped their fighting and tried to go after this figure instead, but it was only striking in the dark, and they only had brief glimpses about its location during the seconds the power did come on. It was as though someone was toying with them.”

James and Campbell kept walking.

“When it was somehow established that this figure had gotten to both gang leaders, and when it proved fruitless to land a hit on this figure without shooting or stabbing someone else, everyone who could run, did.”

That was a decent summary of the events, but James wasn’t about to confirm that with her.

“Now, this part’s off the record since I don’t really like to speculate, I prefer facts, but given the recent activity in Stephenville, but do you believe this mysterious, cloaked figure could be related to the vigilante known as the Bluemoon?”

“Natalie,” James said.

“Finally, some life from the old man.”

“You’re not supposed to be here. The perimeter extends more than two blocks.”

“You think that’s going to stop someone like me?”

She had a point.

“No, but I am going to just leave you with a warning. I don’t want to see you around here again, and I’m done with questions.”

“I’m sad to hear that, James, you used to be so helpful before. What happened?”

That question, he would answer.

“I got old.”

He gestured to Campbell, and Campbell went over to Natalie’s side. He whisked her away, with her offering very little protest.

At least she could honor him on that. Natalie knew that she had what she needed, she just needed confirmation, for formalities.

What a good little journalist.

James continued until he reached the lot, seeing all of the men perform their proper duties. He’d probably give the whole area one more sweep, to see if he had missed anything.

Maybe get some info on this cloaked figure, as well.

His phone rang. He stopped.

James fished it out of his pocket, bringing it to his ear.

“Gomez,” he said, answering it.

Art studio, top floor. Eastern window facing the court. Come alone. Someone wants to see you.

He recognized the voice. It was that of a little girl.

Her?

“D,” James said, hard. “What the fuck do you have to do with this?”

The call ended.

James thrusted a hand in his pocket, putting his phone back. He hurried.

He was already facing the east, if this art studio had a clear view of the court, then it would be on the street just across from the court.

She said to come alone. Would he? Was it another trap, or one of D’s pranks?

Couldn’t be. Either D started getting bored of the same old tricks, and started escalating on her own – a dangerous notion – or she was a part of something else. Something bigger.

Did he need backup?

James slipped past some tape and his men. Everyone was too preoccupied to notice their chief pass them by.

He needed backup, but he had learned that particular lesson when he started this job. Bringing others in situations like this, when expressed not to, would only ever lead to disaster. James wouldn’t sacrifice good men like that.

If it was just him, just his life at stake, he was fine with that.

James found the art building, and checked the front door. It was unlocked.

Turning his flashlight on, he found the staircase on the side of the first floor. There were elevators, but James would rather take the stairs. At least to prove he still had a body he could use.

As he ascended, James made sure he had all of the essentials. Walkie-talkie, phone, and gun.

Check, check, and check.

James reached the fourth floor.

Art supplies, paint cans, canvases hanging on the wall. James wasn’t sure what he was expecting, perhaps another clue or body, but nothing here immediately stood out to him.

He saw the window. Light crept through the glass, lighting up a square shape on the floor of the art studio. He began to approach.

Slowly, carefully. James pulled his gun out, ready to fire. He kept his head low as he got closer to the glass. Last thing he wanted was to get sniped through a window.

James got in place. For long, agonizing seconds, he scoped out the scene below.

People working, collecting data from the basketball court and surrounding grass, helping victims into ambulances to send them off to the hospital, cleaning up wherever they could.

At the court itself, James saw that Darius and Marcus Jackson had been moved, but the blood remained. The broad strokes, and another pool that James didn’t notice before. A period. It was a message.

V.

“Thoughts?”

A voice from behind. James recognized it.

He turned around, his gun prepared.

From the shadows, a figure emerged.

A hood covered their head, but where the moonlight touched their face, James could only see the lower half, the mouth and chin. Everything from the nose up was covered. Flecks of blood dotted the figure’s mouth.

The rest of the figure’s shape was hard to make out. He couldn’t see its arms, the material draped over their body in such a way that it was difficult to make sense of it. They were wearing some sort of cloak or long robe, made of a flowy but heavy material.

From top to bottom, the cloak was red. The only other colors on the figure were the black shadows masking their face, the black pants they wore, and the snowy white skin of their mouth and chin.

A ghost, or a phantom, covered in blood. Or perhaps the Devil himself. Either way, James felt like he was being haunted. Cursed.

The only thing that was familiar about this figure was its voice.

“Blank Face?” he asked.

The figure twitched, as if offended by the suggestion.

“I wrote it out there for you to see,” the figure answered.

“V, then.”

“Yes.”

“But you were the vigilante known as Blank Face, am I correct?”

There was a pause.

“I was, unfortunately. Those days are behind all of us, now.”

James wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean.

He asked.

“When you said you were rebranding, I wasn’t expecting this.” James put his arms to his side, including his gun. “Not exactly coming across as heroic with this new image. It’s a little too macabre.”

Another pause.

V spoke. “I’m only meeting with you now to give you a brief update on where things stand. This is probably the last time we’ll ever speak, like this.”

You ignored my comment.

James let that be.

“And you’re sure of that,” he said.

“I am.”

“Fine then, continue.”

“The Thunders and the Royals are out of the picture, now. I gathered them all here, and made a show of their leaders. While I had the majority of their numbers distracted, I had all of their assets and territories and cash seized. There are survivors, and they’ll probably want to retaliate, but they’ll find that they have nothing to go back to. It’s all been snatched out from under them.”

“That’s quite the workload for one person.”

“It certainly wasn’t easy.”

“I’m more inclined to believe that you had help. The call I got earlier, and with her reputation… Are you telling me a new gang is already moving in?”

The idea of that little girl working with a gang… It almost made James shiver. Before, she had always been something of a free agent, working by herself, enacting her own whims. Her irreverence for any structure or systems actually prevented her from being a legitimate threat. If she was content with being independent, she was actually easier to handle.

But to focus that destruction, aiming it with purpose? And throwing Blank Face – V – into the fold? James had already seen the results, out there on the court. It would be devastating.

“I’m telling you to stay away,” V said. “Let the dust settle where it does. You can clean up here, but after that, you’re done. I don’t want to see you in this territory again.”

He’d heard those words before, or something to that effect. Being ordered by the leader of a cartel or gang, by the enemy.

“You’re telling me what to do?”

“Yes, I am. You’re used to that sort of thing, aren’t you, being the puppet that you are.”

James was stunned.

Something must have snapped, in that mind of hers. She was but a child, just a kid.

“What the hell happened? Last time we met, you were asking me to help you find Benny.”

“And you refused, and I found her anyways. You’re useless, Gomez.”

“Then the fires on Eastside, that was you?”

A pause.

Ignored again.

“V,” James said. “Blank Face-”

V twitched.

“When you first came to my window, and we met on that roof, and you were asking me about finding Thomas, I knew then that you were the one he was working with. You see, Thomas never told me about his activities with you, but I knew him like a brother. He saw something in you, and he wanted to cultivate that. Shape you, despite himself. Part it was stress relief, since our plans weren’t going the way he wanted.”

V didn’t respond.

“So, I just want to ask you a few more questions, before you go, and I officially consider you as the enemy. Do you think Thomas would be proud of what you’ve become? What does ‘V’ stand for, to you? Vengeance, vendetta, villainy?”

V stood there, her head pointed to James. He couldn’t see her eyes, so he could only guess that she was staring at him.

For the third time, V ignored his questions.

“Don’t get in my way, or if you do, get a new office. You don’t want a third visit from me.”

With that final line, drawn in the sand, V took a step back, returning into the shadows.

James ran after her.

“Blank Face!”

He reached for his gun and flashlight. He pointed both around the room.

Nothing, no one, nowhere. V was gone.

“Shit!”

James turned back, going to the window. He watched the scene again, looking at the red letter that faced him, taunted him. ‘V’ was out there, free, and he was the one confined to these walls.

A cycle, revenge was. A vicious circle that turned good people desperate and cruel. Thomas had become desperate, and Blank Face had become cruel.

The number of good people in this city was getting smaller by the day.

James knew, now. It had always been like this, and they were doomed to fail from the start. And now, he was all alone, with nothing to show for his efforts.

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Omake.03 (Bonus)

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4koma interlude 3 part 1

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Interlude – V

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Everyone was already talking by the time the girl got inside.

Darn, the girl thought.

She shuffled over to her seat. It wasn’t her seat, exactly, there was no assigned seating. But that was the funny thing about getting to choose their own seats, everyone ended up sticking with the same ones. Easy, to settle into a routine of sorts.

Three long tables, placed together to form three-fourths of a square, the opening faced a whiteboard at the head of the room. The girl grabbed her usual seat at a corner of the makeshift shape, closest to the board, and farthest from everyone else.

No greetings as she settled in, everyone was too busy to notice her.

About three minutes left before things got started. The girl tried to find a conversation, an opening for her to jump into. She didn’t find any.

Darn.

Jasmine sat right next to her, but she was deep in a discussion about a movie that just came out. The girl hadn’t seen it yet, Mom didn’t get the chance to take her to the movies on Saturday. Money was always tight around this time of year.

She could try with Andrew, but he still had his headphones on, nodding to whatever he was listening to. Probably some rock band she’d never heard of.

Emily was closer, but she was way too preoccupied with Justin, who kept picking at her hair and joking about her height… even though they were all sitting down. Like their seat arrangements, it was routine for them, too. The jokes never got too bad, or mean-spirited, it was more like teasing. Maybe Justin was letting on more than he intended with the constant pestering.

Maybe.

The girl looked around, but there were no good openings. Everyone was too busy for someone like her. She resigned to staying quiet, keeping to herself.

She hated keeping to herself. She hated having nothing to do. She’d even settle for reading a book.

There was a bible within her reach. Was she that bored?

Yes, she was, but the boredom didn’t last long. Mrs. Phan entered the room, and a hush followed. Everyone was quiet.

“Good morning, class,” Mrs. Phan said, accent heavy. “And Merry Christmas.”

The class answered in unison. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Phan.”

None of the levity from earlier was present, the same levity the girl wanted to get in on. It was instead replaced by a heavy feeling of anxiety. If one fell, the girl could hear a pin drop, and the floor was carpeted.

Mrs. Phan was short, about the same height as the girl, but her presence stood well above the rest. Her hair was long but done up, styled and kept in place with hairspray, with a swoop across her forehead. A retro look, but it aged her.

Her sweater was a bright red, with snowflakes and reindeer knitted on, with black pants and shoes to finish the look. The end result was tacky, but it was fitting for the season.

If it was Mrs. Phan’s intention to look this way, to lighten up the mood, the effect was marginal. Everyone’s lips remained sealed. They were waiting for her.

Mrs. Phan then started off the discussion for the hour.

“So, what week are we on in this Advent season?”

“The third week,” the class answered, all at once.

“Correct. And what color is the candle on the wreath?”

Mrs. Phan pointed to a corner on the whiteboard. A wreath was up in the corner, crudely drawn in marker.

“Pink.”

“Correct again, but Lilly, I didn’t hear you there, speak up next time, okay?”

A squeak, from the table opposite the girl. Lilly. She was quietest person in class, second only to the girl herself. Not that she wanted to be in that position. It was a reluctant quiet.

Mrs. Phan went on with the review. “So that means it is the third Sunday of the Advent season, and next week is Christmas, the birthday of Jesus.”

A small ‘woo’ came from one of the kids. Mrs. Phan turned to try and find the culprit, but no one was caught. Even the girl couldn’t find who was responsible.

Mrs. Phan went back to the board, and continued writing.

“Alright, this season is a very important time for us as Catholics. In fact, the season doesn’t end until well into January. Does anyone know what else happens during Christmas time?”

She put a pause in her writing, and looked back to the class.

“How about… ah, Alexis?”

The girl felt a pang of panic. Her name was up.

The girl… Alexis, examined the board for a hint. Nothing. Mrs. Phan’s handwriting wasn’t the best, and it was most likely just an itinerary for the hour.

She looked to the other kids for help. No luck there. They looked either too bored or too disinterested to offer an answer, or whisper anything. Most weren’t even looking her way. Not even Jasmine, and she was right there.

Alexis was completely alone.

She turned back to Mrs. Phan, hoping the expression on her face would be enough, that she had no idea what the answer was. Didn’t work, Mrs. Phan still looked expectant.

Darn.

The question was vague, the correct answer unclear. Alexis thought back to last Sunday, but she couldn’t remember that class very well. She hadn’t paid much attention.

Something about… God, and Jesus… and giving.

No hints, and her friends weren’t going to help. Alexis was on her own in this.

She ventured a guess.

“Um… Santa comes and gives gifts to all the good boys and girls?”

Mrs. Phan raised an eyebrow, then raised it some more, as if to inject ire in a neutral, at most curious expression.

She wasn’t satisfied with that answer.

Here and there, kids snickered. They were silenced as Mrs. Phan asked, “Would you like to give that another try, Alexis?”

Ugh.

She was going to make her try again? Alexis really didn’t know, and putting her more on the spot wouldn’t do anyone any favors. It was a waste of time.

Alexis was a waste of time.

But, she made the others laugh a bit. That was worth it, in part.

And if she didn’t know the answer… might as well have some fun.

“Yeah,” Alexis said, leaning back into her seat, “Santa’s gonna come and give everyone presents. And because Jesus was born on Christmas, and he was extra good, he got like, three presents that day!”

Alexis held up three fingers to accentuate her point.

The joke landed, sort of. Not necessarily by execution, but rather by how inappropriate it was, and Mrs. Phan’s reaction. Her face twisted, opening her mouth wide, and yelled.

But it was drowned out by laughter. The joke sort of landed, after all. The other classmates were tittering and giggling, and looking at Alexis. She wasn’t sure if they were laughing with her or at her, but they were laughing all the same.

Looking her way, smiling, showing teeth. Giving her attention.

It filled Alexis with a strange sense of satisfaction.

Mrs. Phan continued to yell, but the sound was farther, now. The laughter overtook it, and filled the girl’s ears.

Then, the scene collapsed, with only the faint ringing of laughter remaining, and the pieces changed, new actors and props moving onto the set.

A new scene was being recalled.

An intimate one, but also equally not so.

The girl… and a boy. Already the details were muddy.

There was Alexis, but the boy’s name wasn’t recalled. His face was blurry, too, smeared like an oil painting, damaged by water.

Even the setting was nondescript. Four walls, a window, a door. A bed.

Alexis sat on the bed as the boy made sure to lock the door.

His name and face were lost, the details maybe even dropped on purpose. It could have been anyone. But the context rooted this moment and gave it meaning.

Alexis had only met the boy a few weeks ago. The tall, athletic type, that much was certain. They were in the same class, and their desks were right next to one another. It helped that the teacher allowed the class to work in pairs…

They had gotten to talking, going from mere acquaintances… to something more. Not boyfriend and girlfriend, but the awkward step before that.

The boy didn’t even have to do much, and what he did do hardly impressed her. Some lame jokes, some corny compliments.

But she was in the mood for lame, for corny. And she was looking for what the boy had provided in spades.

Attention.

She wasn’t getting it from the kids at Sunday school, part of the reason why she ditched them. There was a barrier, a subtle but effective wall around them that she couldn’t get over. And she had a hunch as to why.

She was too different from them.

Something like that didn’t matter at her school, though. She’d found friends, and activities she could do with those friends. Like sports. Partying.

Other stuff. Stuff she’d never done before.

The boy turned, facing Alexis. He approached her, slow in his steps, giving her time to take off her shirt.

The fabric flew over her eyes, and the boy was much closer, now. He leaned in, and she met him head on.

The scene collapsed before anything more could happen.

New actors, new props. Everything was moved around.

Another recall.

The new scene started with an explosion.

“God, it’s like you’re looking for a reason to be pissed off!”

The words spat out of the girl’s mouth before she was fully conscious of them.

Her mother’s face twisted, turning sour. The feeling churned in the girl’s stomach. She stood her ground though. Tried to.

They were in the kitchen, arguing over something. Emotions were too high, now, too hot for either of them to remember what exactly this argument was about. Something about the spilled coffee on the table, maybe? Maybe, but it seemed too trivial, too trite.

This was a long time coming, then, for both sides. Bubbling tempers, the lids shaking, needing only a spark for everything to blow up.

And blow up it did.

Her mother took a second to formulate a response, words to throw back at her daughter.

“I would not be like this if you did just listened to me the first time.”

She wasn’t yelling, but she matched Alexis in intensity. Holding back just enough to let Alexis know that there was more to come, should she push her there.

Alexis pushed.

“I was just about to get around to it, if you could have just waited like one second!”

She saw her mother open her mouth to respond, and threw out more words before she could.

“That’s your thing, you’re impatient and you jump the gun, all the time! Can’t you just cool it, for like a minute?”

She saw a twitch, a small delay in her mother’s movements. Riled, blinded, she took that opening.

“Maybe that’s why that guy left you, right?”

Stinging. Burning. Like a grenade that went off too early. Friendly fire.

Everything stopped. The weight of her words brought their world to a screeching halt.

Her mother… it was as if all life was drained from her. Her skin was white, her eyes had a dreary look to them. Hollow.

Alexis was stunned. The regret was immediate. But it always seemed harder to take it back, especially when emotions flared.

She was moving before her mother could attempt another word, trying to get out of the kitchen. Her mother was closer to the faucet, so the path wasn’t blocked. A stroke of luck.

She left the kitchen, fleeing to her room, the door slamming behind her.

She leaned, and found herself on her side, down. It hadn’t registered to Alexis that she fell.

Tears started streaming, not down her face, but across the bridge of her nose, past one ear.

It wasn’t true. Not one word she said was true.

Her mother could be uptight, but Alexis knew she was patient, how forgiving she was to her daughter. She could cool it, for much longer than a second.

And that guy didn’t leave her… he left them. He never came back. She never got the chance to learn his name.

She didn’t want to. Fuck that. Fuck that guy.

She knew she’d have to go back out there. She’d have to apologize. She wanted to.

But…

She didn’t have power to stand up now. She’d stay down, keep herself down.

Here, at the bottom.

I’m a terrible person.

As the tears fell, so the scene, collapsing all around the girl.

But, a new scene wasn’t being recalled. The stage was left blank.

It was just the girl, in an ever-expanding expanse of darkness.

She opened her eyes, and looked at her bare arms and legs. Her bare torso.

Scars, enough to outline her entire body. Bruises marked her skin, colored it, like blotches of paint on a canvas.

She wasn’t embarrassed, or ashamed of the blemishes. They defined her, gave her a shape.

All that she was, and all that she would be.

Here, there was no Alexis, no other labels. Just the core underneath it all. The scars.

The girl tested her voice, and it carried in the darkness, echoing forever.

“I don’t get it. Why show me that, all that ugliness. Is this your idea of a stronger foothold?”

No voiced answer. The darkness emitted.

“Oh.”

The darkness swam, forming faint, weak images. As if being seen through static.

Less ugly scenes, scenes that were less taxing to share. Playing on a playground, running on a track, helping in the kitchen. Pleasant, but the grainy filter distorted the images, making it impossible to get a proper view.

The darkness relented, and the scenes dissipated.

“You want the same things I do, huh? Alright, I get it now.”

The voice echoed, reaching into the darkness, affecting it. The darkness rippled in response.

The girl managed a smile.

“I guess I’m capable of understanding, I managed with Benny. Okay, you… no. There aren’t really winners and losers in this, are there? Not me, not you.”

The girl breathed after what felt like an eternity, and it rejuvenated.

“It’s us.”

Spoken as an objective fact. The truth.

The darkness reacted.

It slinked, moving over arms and legs. The scars and bruises were being washed away. A warm sensation hit the core. A healing that was long overdue.

“It’s not going to be pretty, I’ll tell you that right now. But we’ve gotten used to it, haven’t we? The ugliness.”

An absence was now starting to settle in, spaces where darkness once occupied. White. It began to solidify, taking its own shape.

A checkerboard.

“Take a deep breath, because it’s as close to a heaven as we’re going to get. It’ll get much hotter from here on out.”

The darkness pulsated, as if it understood. An agreement.

It finished, and the scars and bruises were gone. Not one mark was left.

The arrangement was simple, clean. Some darkness remained, keeping the checkerboard pattern.

Under her own power, the girl stood.

“Let’s burn it all to the fucking ground.”

“Hey, Alexis?”

V responded. “Yeah?”

“You’re kinda spacing out there. You okay?”

V smiled, warm. “I’m okay.”

Justin gave her another look over, but he sat back, letting it go.

Emily jabbed him in the arm. “Stop looking at her like that.”

“Ow, what’d I do?”

Too late, the damage was done. Emily turned up her nose, and looked away from Justin. Where she was irritated, he was equally confused.

V found the whole thing amusing.

They were in a Vietnamese restaurant. Phở Nam, at the Asian market, somewhere in the edge of downtown, away from the bigger buildings. A nice change of pace, to not have buildings towering above.

Justin and Emily had reached out again, to hang out with Alexis. Grab some lunch, maybe catch a movie later. Spending a day with the OG Francis Xavier youth group… except the rest of them couldn’t make it. V wasn’t particularly surprised, or disappointed.

The couple felt that three wasn’t enough of a crowd, though. They heavily suggested that Alexis could invite anyone, bring them along. V immediately knew who to reach out to.

Katy was on her phone, and Maria sipped from a small bowl of soup. They were all around a table, waiting for their food.

It was a calm scene, the atmosphere lowkey. Nothing to worry about, nothing that would ruin their day. They could just sit, and be okay.

V checked her watch.

“Emily, babe, I wasn’t actually…”

Justin kept trying to explain himself to Emily, but he was badgering her by this point. She looked like she was having none of it, but the gesture was exaggerated. She was teasing him.

“If you get me a molten lava chocolate cake after this,” Emily said, her voice high, “I might be able to look the other way.”

Justin scrunched up his face. “You’re just toying with me, aren’t you?”

“I dunno, am I?”

His concerned expression dropped, replaced by a grin.

“Ah, fuck you,” he said, then took a sip from his own bowl of soup.

“How long have you two been together?”

It was Maria that asked.

Emily dropped her act to answer. “Oh, couple years, I think. Beginning of high school.”

“Last day of school, actually,” Justin said, wiping his lip with a napkin. “But it was during freshman year. I asked you out right by your locker.”

“That’s right, but does that really count? I remember saying no, then.”

Maria gave a look of shock.

“You said no?”

Justin looked hurt. “You weren’t supposed to tell people that.”

“But it’s true, and she asked. I can’t just, you know, lie.”

“Fine. But hey, she did say yes about a week later, so who really won in the end?”

Justin pointed two thumbs in his direction.

“This guy!”

Emily rolled her eyes, groaning at him. She seemed to mean it, that time.

“Babe, I was kidding, I was joking…”

Maria laughed at Justin’s expense. Justin seemed annoyed, but he rolled with it. All in good fun.

V checked her watch again.

“It’s alright,” Katy said, finally off her phone. “We still have time for a movie, if you haven’t crossed that out, already.”

“Oh, um, right.”

V had to tell herself to stop checking.

“Speaking of,” Justin said, “Is there anything good out right now?”

“There’s that Water… Shape… something movie,” Emily said. “That looks interesting. But, man, that’s too recent. I’m not very fond of crowded theaters.”

“Same, girl,” Maria said. “I’d rather wait until I can stream it at home. That way, I can stay in bed and watch a movie with my own damn popcorn.”

“That sounds like a dream.”

Emily lifted a hand, and Maria matched her, a solid high five.

They’re getting along, V noted. That’s good.

It wouldn’t be perfect, but it could be good.

V tapped a finger on the table, downing half her glass of water.

Katy asked, “Something on your mind, Alexis?”

V spun her straw around the lid of the glass.

“Nothing really. Just waiting.”

“Just waiting?”

“Yup.”

Katy proceeded to make a comment, but V couldn’t quite catch it. The tone was odd, though. Not accusatory, but it was pointed.

“Damn, it’s loud,” V said, her voice raised in turn.

“It is pretty busy,” Justin said, looking around the restaurant. “Even at this hour.”

“Ever since, uh…” Emily stammered, eyes darting around. “Ever since he… did the things, people have been flocking to these places. It’s been rough couple of weeks.”

“Like a kind of refuge?” Maria asked.

“Kind of, I guess.”

Just from listening, it was easy to tell the place was busy. People were talking, conversing, shouting in Vietnamese across tables to call waiters. Noon during the holiday season already made things hectic, but another factor added to all the activity.

Harrian was the he, and him attacking a school were the things. A big incident like that meant big ramifications, and they stretched far and wide. A whole subsection of the city’s population were thrusted into the public consciousness, and neither were used to it. People who were already used to being hidden in plain sight, and a light that was too sudden, too harsh, and too bright. It lead to a push and pull from both sides. It lead to friction.

Here, it was Katy and Maria who were in the minority. The rest of them were those who wanted to find a place to feel at ease. To hide in plain sight. Refuge.

It was either this, or another riot. And this city had already seen more of its share fair of those. The cage was being rattled one too many times.

Here, there was peace, as relative as it was.

“I’m, dang, sorry guys,” Emily said. “I didn’t mean to bring that up. I’m not trying to be a downer.”

“It’s alright,” Katy said. “It’s not nothing, but it’s alright. That kind of thing affects a lot of people. We’re not that special in that regard.”

“But you,” Emily started, but she had the decent sense to not press that point. She shut herself up.

“Happy thoughts, guys,” Maria said, filling the dead air. “Happy thoughts.”

Katy threw in another comment before that dead air could come back again. “Saying it like that makes it more awkward.”

The group chuckled, trying to lighten the mood. V had joined in to keep appearances.

With everyone distracted, she stole a glance at her watch for a third time.

Maria gave it another try. “Emily, the reason why I thought you two were so funny earlier was because I kind of did the same thing, too.”

“What thing?” Emily asked.

“When my boyfriend asked me out, I didn’t give him a yes until like, six months later.”

Emily gave a her own look of shock.

“Holy shit, six months?”

“It’s a long story, obviously, but yeah, it took a while before I realized I was being dumb, and then I went to him. I’m still baffled at how he didn’t get another girl at that time.”

“Oh. Handsome guy?”

“Oh yeah,” Maria said, sounding proud.

“Aw, sounds like he was hoping you’d change your mind.”

“That’s what I tell myself.”

“Geez, I think I’d kill myself if I ended up waiting six months,” Justin commented, out of the blue. “Or, maybe I would have found someone else by then?”

Emily made a grunt.

“Please, you’re lucky that I gave your ass a chance!”

Justin looked physically pained to hear that, with Maria and Emily laughing at him again, sharing another high five.

“How about you two,” Emily said, turning to V and Katy. “Single?”

V and Katy looked at each other. V gestured for Katy to go first.

“I am,” Katy said. “And I’m not exactly looking for a guy, either.”

“Fair.” Emily looked at V, moving her eyebrows up and down. “And you?”

V brought her glass close, drinking more of her water.

“Same here,” V said. “Not interested at the moment.”

“That, I don’t believe. You’re hiding it, but you’re practically glowing.”

Glowing?

“I am not,” V said.

Emily’s eyebrows hadn’t stopped going up and down. “Don’t lie, we’re all friends here. I have a good eye for stuff like that. Something happened, and it was recent. Come on, spill the tea, girl.”

The sudden attention on her was more than she needed. V had to fight herself from checking her watch again.

She settled for drinking more water.

“No no,” Emily said. “Don’t hide behind your water. I wanna hear the details.”

A bubbling sound. V had ran out of water, her straw getting more air now than anything else.

“You must be seeing things, then,” V said. “Because you’re wrong. There are no details, and even if there were, and there aren’t, I’m not up to sharing.”

Emily pouted. “Ah fine, I’ll let you off the hook.”

She shot V a look though, the corners of her mouth folding up. She resembled a cat.

“For now.”

“She’s just being shy,” Katy said, giving V a sidelong glance. “Usually you can goad Alexis into sharing a few stories. She actually has some good ones. Remember the lake?”

V didn’t even try, but she knew there was a barrier, there. A mental block.

“I do,” V lied. “But I still don’t want to get into it.”

Katy’s glance lingered, but she then dropped it, moving on. V briefly squinted at her.

“We can talk about other stuff,” Katy said. “Like Maria’s boyfriend. This is the most I’ve heard of him… ever. I’m actually kind of shocked.”

“I’m full of surprises,” Maria said.

“Keep surprising me. I want to hear all-”

A shout had cut into everything. Katy talking, the restaurant bustling.

“You fucker! I been waitin’ for thirty goddamn minutes! When am I getting served?”

A man, standing up from his table, his chair sliding back away from him. It was cold out, somewhat chilly in here, but he had on a baggy white shirt and jeans. A bandage over one hand.

Mexican, just from his face alone, and he was probably the tallest one here, mean mugging anyone who was looking up at him.

He had a crew with him, sitting at the table. Dressed in a similar fashion. They didn’t seem disconcerted about their friend’s behavior. Unconcerned, maybe even disinterested.

The man yelled at the nearest waitress.

“You speak English?”

The waiter struggled to get out a word.

The man yelled some more.

“Fuck, speak English! We’re in America. I’m here, you’re here, speak some fucking real words!”

He spread his arms, fast and hard. He almost swiped at the waitress, who backed away, hitting a table. Water and tea were spilled all over.

“Fuck!” he yelled again, arms high. It was as if he was being mad just to be mad. Like putting a show.

“What a dick,” Emily said, under her breath. It was certainly one way to put it. Everyone’s lunch was ruined, the atmosphere spoiled.

Sitting in her seat, Katy looked tense, unsure of what was to come next. Maria retreated into herself, trying to appear smaller.

V checked her watch. She waited.

“Sir, please calm down.”

A woman walked to the angered man, hands in a placating gesture. Vietnamese, probably the manager.

The man’s face contorted.

“Calm down? How I can fucking calm down? We be waitin’ for a fucking hour by now!”

“Sir, you said thirty minutes.”

The man just yelled.

“See? No fucking wonder everyone’s been beating on you squity-eyed fucks! You’re all the same.”

Words mattered. They affected people. And they riled up the crowded restaurant.

Everyone began to voice their protest.

Yelling, shouting, it all mixed into a cacophonous wall of sound. Even Justin heated up for a moment, yelling out a profanity, then sitting back in his chair.

The man didn’t care. He was looking around, egging people on, getting a rise of them. He took his time, staring down each and every person.

He was facing V’s table when others started getting up, too. From the other tables, looking to pick a fight with the man.

“I think it’s time for you and your friends to leave,” one of them said. Another man.

“I agree,” another said. A girl.

The man clearly did not agree.

“Sit your flat-ass down, or I’ll make you.”

He lifted one side of his shirt, revealing a holster he had on his hip.

V got up from her seat.

“Alexis?” Katy questioned.

“Hey, dick,” V said. She ignored Katy.

The man turned. He wasn’t that far, and she was loud enough.

He took a second longer that needed to get a look at her face, as if he was studying her.

“Fuck you doing here?” he asked.

“If you’re really going to harass a girl, you really shouldn’t do it in a restaurant with a lot of people. Someone might catch you.”

V had thought over her words.

The man chuckled.

“Bitch, you stay outta this!” He lifted his shirt move, reaching for his gun.

Everyone moved. Everyone jumped out of their seats. Most ran away from the man. A select few dared to run towards him.

V was among that select few.

“Alexis!”

She heard Katy from behind.

“Damn you, don’t!”

V ignored her for the last time.

She was fast, faster than anyone else here. She got to the man first.

But his hand was faster. He was already holding the handgun.

V swung with her arm, aiming for-

No.

A finger was faster than an arm.

The shot rang out.

V dropped.

She could have gotten back up, sprang back to her feet, but she didn’t. She stayed down. Her ears ringing. Head aching.

Past that were the sounds of more commotion. Screaming, shouting. Fighting.

She wasn’t hurt, no bullet had even grazed her, but V didn’t get up.

V played dead.

Loud. Tables being flipped over. Metal on tile. Some water dripped on V’s head as stuff got thrown around. She didn’t move.

V felt hands on her. Then, she felt the floor move away from her.

She was being lifted.

She tried moving her arms, her legs. Budging just a little. Nothing. She was being held tight.

“We’re moving out!”

The man. He sounded close.

Bobbing. Rough. They were running, and she was being taken with them.

Cold. The door has swung open, exposing her to the weather outside. She felt a chill.

The men didn’t break stride. Another shot rang outdoors.

A hard stop. She heard the rumbling of an engine.

“No! Put the others in the back, this one stays here, alone!”

The man was barking orders.

Footsteps, moving fast. Doors sliding open and closed. Fast. They were working with haste.

V was tossed, landing on leather.

Tires screeched as the door slid closed.

The van was at top speed as it pulled away, leaving the restaurant behind.

V clenched her hands, making fists. Counting down from ten. Getting her focus back. Loud sounds really did get to her.

The van sped through corners, making the turns tight. V was jostled around, and it was hard to make herself upright.

She felt more hands press into her body, keeping her steady. Small.

“Almost there! If we can make it to that back road, we’re in the clear!”

A yell, but the voice was small. Young.

The ride was fast, then bumpy, speeding along anyways. It continued for several minutes.

“Wakey wakey.”

That was directed to her. V opened her eyes, slow, finding that she screwed them tight.

She needed time to get her bearings.

A girl was watching her, looking after her with care. Her arms were out, holding her, as the drive jerked them around. Neither were of them were wearing seatbelts.

She saw V come to, and gradually moved her hands away. She was smiling as V managed to sit properly.

V pushed her hair back, fixing loose strands.

“How are we doing on time?” the girl asked, still watching V. She had a phone in her hand, now, taking only small, needed glances. Her eyes were on V, otherwise.

Someone else answered. The driver.

“Good on all counts. Decoys are in place, and everyone’s moving on their assigned routes with no trouble.”

“Awesome.”

V was blinking, checking her watch. A simple but sleek design, an all-black face with no numbers or markings, with gold hands. It was a quarter to one.

She had this watch during the Eastside raid. She had it with her.

I really am a sentimental one.

She looked up and saw D, with her trademark grin. She gave her a nod.

“You’re late, Dor-,” V said.

“That’s my grandmother’s name,” D said. “Operation was a success, we’re off to Wanderland, now. We can do whatever we want. Play chess all day, feed our curious appetites, whatever. We never have to grow up. So sit back, relax, and enjoy yourself, it’s about to get extra fun.”

D smiled wider.

“Or, would you rather have something to drink?”

She looked pleased with herself for making the various references.

The girl managed to return one of her own, deciding to indulge her. It didn’t feel forced.

“Something sweet, please,” Wendy said.

Previous                                                                     Bonus

053 – Fugue

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I stirred, tossing and turning, pulling covers up over my head.

In another plane, I was on the move.

Benny was there, sprinting down the street. Running for dear life.

Her strides were long, her movements fast. It was impressive, in a relative sense.

Impressive for a human.

She ran, passing others, pushing them down when they got in her way. She wasn’t being very quiet about her trying to escape.

“Get out of my way!” she yelled, her voice straining, wild. “Get, get the fuck out of my way!”

Watching her like this, struggling to make distance, knowing that it was futile…

It was cute.

I spun, changing directions. I dropped from the ledge, heading down.

I landed in the middle of the street, where Benny tried to cross. She stopped, dead in her tracks.

She stared at me, and she looked like she was seeing a ghost. Her eyes were wide, red, her face drained of all color. She was tense, so tense that the slightest bit of movement caused her whole body to jitter in fits. She tested a step forward, reconsidered, and tested a step back, reconsidering again.

Benny froze.

She knew. There was nowhere to go for her, nowhere to run. Try anything, and I’d simply find her again.

Sweat glistened off her cheeks. Her mouth was agape, lower lip trembling. Eyes focused straight ahead, at me. Tears streamed from the edges, mixing with the sweat.

There was no hope to be found in that expression.

Yes.

That face, that face.

That was exactly the kind of face I wanted to see from her. The kind of face I was dreaming of.

I wanted to see it up close.

Savoring every second of that image, I took my first step towards her. Then the second.

Benny didn’t move.

There she was, and here I was. Finally. I had her. She couldn’t hide from me, or slip away like before.

She had no one to rely on, no one to save her in the last second. It was just me, and it was just her.

It was everything I ever wanted.

I opened and closed my hands, an attempt to focus myself. My pace hastened the closer I got.

So close, so close.

I could taste it.

I was walking forward, then I wasn’t anymore.

A hit, and I was sent flying the opposite way.

The wind was knocked out of me, my throat seized and locked up. I couldn’t get anything in, or out. I couldn’t breathe.

Stunned.

I tried getting my bearings, but the scene started to change. The night sky was cut off, a white plane rushing over my field of view, yawning and stretching until every speck of black was gone, and shining my eyes with light.

The surface folded at a right angle, moving right in front my path.

The back of my neck hit the wall, and I heard something crack. I slid down, collapsed on the floor. My arms fell close to my sides.

Cold tile.

It’d be another thirty seconds before I could move my head, but I had a sinking feeling about where I was.

Against the tile were slow, steady steps. The situation was flipped. I was unable to move, and they were taking their time.

I saw legs come into my frame of view. Grey joggers, a blue jacket stopping right above the waist.

My stomach dropped.

They approached, until they were right at my feet. I only saw the legs, now.

They crouched, and I could their face. A blank face. The eyes were blacked out, the face cracked in places, like a broken doll. Head tilted, it studied me carefully.

Its lips didn’t move when it spoke.

You think you can get rid of me that easy?

Its voice was twisted and distorted, like it was being broadcasted through an old, busted radio.

I had my mask, but I smiled all the same, projecting an air of superiority.

I replied.

“It was easy, and I can do it again.”

Is that what you think? Don’t be so foolish. Look around you. Everything you have, everything you are, it’s all mine. You’re merely a co-pilot, and you still need me to guide the way.

“I don’t need you,” I said, but even I knew how false that was.

Don’t make me laugh. You feel it too, don’t you? You’re incomplete, and you draw on me as a resource. You and I both know that grinds away at you, and gives me that much more purchase. A stronger foothold.

I drew my arms closer beside me, slipping my fingers out of sight. I felt the warm sensation wrapping around my neck. I was healing, but I didn’t dare move. Not yet.

I was also taking the time to formulate an answer. Something it couldn’t punch a hole through.

You don’t have anything to say? No rebuttal, a refusal of the facts? How-”

Its head snapped back, black ooze spraying from one eye socket. The knife stayed in place.

My hand moved as a blur, from my side to its eye. I brought my hands back down to help myself up.

That was my answer.

It fell onto one side, hands shaking as they hovered over the knife. Wanted to pull it out, but the pain that followed would be significant. It hesitated.

Benny was gone. Taken away from me once again. And once again, it was all its fault. Her.

I lifted a foot over its face, over its hands.

“Don’t be stupid,” I said. “Or, at least don’t blind yourself by your stupidity. I draw upon you to get a better sense of myself, and I know what I want, now. I’ll prove that I don’t need you, or any of your connections.”

I slammed my foot down, pushing her hands into the handle of the knife. The blade sinked deeper.

I spoke over the screaming.

“Don’t forget, you put yourself here, at the bottom. You wanted this. Stay where you belong, stay down.”

Above even the screaming, a larger, louder noise began to blare. Enough that it was tearing apart the classroom. The walls cracked, the ceiling falling into pieces-

I woke up in a frenzy.

I threw the covers away from my head, gasping for air. I blinked, and water dripped down the sides of my face.

I winced. Light was in my eyes, and an alarm sang in my ears.

Holy fuck, fuck, fuck that.

That was a nightmare, a dream, but it was so vivid. My heart was racing, and I was still in bed. I searched for something I could use to realign myself, bring my mind back to here, this room.

I struggled.

Nothing here was mine.

I changed position, pushing my head into the pillow. I had to will myself to calm down. My hand drifted to find the alarm, on the small table by the bed. I had to feel my way towards it, but I eventually pressed the button.

The silence that followed was somehow louder than the beeping alarm.

I stirred, tossing and turning, pulling the covers back over my head. I tried forcing myself back to sleep, but it was useless. I was awake.

But I elected to stay in bed for a while longer.

In trying to cool my head, I thought back to the night before. The early morning.

The meeting went on for another hour before it we wrapped it up, and we called it a night. Or rather, an early morning. I declined D’s offer to take me somewhere closer to home, for obvious reasons. I went off on my own, over a few streets and rooftops, and found a bus back, instead.

Mother… Shiori was fast asleep when I returned to the apartment, and she would be gone, should I check right now. She’d have to go to work.

And I had things to do, too, but ten more minutes in bed wouldn’t hurt.

I tossed and turned again, trying to feel where the coldest part of the bed was. Trying to find the most comfort.

It was such a fight, just to find comfort in sleep. A struggle. As if I was forced to put in effort to take it easy, to relax. My mind and thoughts were already way ahead of me, and I had to reign it back to the now.

Now, I couldn’t stop thinking about later tonight.

I was anxious in a way that electrified my body, screaming at me to get up and do something. A nervous energy that was begging to be burned. Not unlike my thirst, but this was asking for something else.

Action.

Torn between a want and a need. I wanted it to be night so I could go out and join the others, but I needed rest. I had to gather as much energy as possible, so I could be alert, aware, and awake, even in the later hours. The night that Alexis – Blank Face – was looking for Thomas… I wasn’t looking for a repeat of that, for myself.

I’ll succeed where she couldn’t. I have to. I have to.

I repeated the words in my head, like counting sheep, hoping to soothe my restless mind, and get an extra bit of sleep. It didn’t really help.

There were so many other factors to consider. So many ways this could go.

Anything could happen, tonight. A miscalculation here, a bad guess there. A minor slip-up early on that spirals into disaster. Simple bad luck. Should something happen, I had the ability to be flexible, but if too many cogs spun out of control, if too many things went wrong

Would I be able to bounce back? Regroup, and try again? Maybe, but it’d be difficult, and it might even be too late, once I got my ducks in a row again. Benny might be gone.

It had to be tonight, and it had to be a success.

Yet, it all hinged on a motley crew of sorts.

I wondered how strong the truce really was, especially between D and Lawrence. There was a troubled history, there, and that meant friction, temporary ceasefire or no. Especially on Lawrence’s part. And I couldn’t say for sure whether or not that friction would eventually rub him the wrong way.

One of the reasons he even agreed to work together was so he could kill D if he saw fit. He practically jumped at the chance. I had to watch out for him.

And there was the girl herself. D.

She was an anomaly, I even told her that myself, but that still made her hard to pin down. Who was she, really, and how did someone like her end up in a situation like that? What did the letter ‘D’ even stand for? She stole Thomas’s van, dealt drugs to petty gangs, and when the deal went south, she was willing to risk everything to save herself.

I almost admired her tenacity.

But, she also agreed to help me. She even offered. Why?

Could she really be trusted? Could she really prove herself?

There was only one way to find out.

Tonight, it was her idea. She pitched it. We’d see if it worked out.

I flipped myself on my back, my arm over my eyes. Blocking the light.

A motley crew. A gang, a girl, and me, whoever that was.

But, in working towards the same goal, that should be enough to keep everyone in line. Probably. Hopefully.

Tossing, turning. I pulled the covers away from my head, and I gasped for open air again. Being so lost in my thoughts, I nearly forgot to breathe. Sweat lightly soaked the back of my shirt, sticking skin to fabric.

That nightmare was still fresh in my mind, and the anxiety of tonight was killing me.

I shifted one more time, pushing my eyelids open to stare at the ceiling. I could feel it in the muscles of my eyes and the aches in my body. I slept okay, but another hour or two wouldn’t hurt. I just couldn’t find it within me to get anymore rest. I was too agitated.

Fuck me.

Taking heavy breaths, I crawled out of bed. I left the room, trying to clear my throat.

Thirsty.

“Good morning.”

It took me a second, having to place the voice to a name, and realizing a voice was here in the first place.

It was Mother. Shiori.

She was in the kitchen, sitting at the table in the middle. She wore a silk, velvet bathrobe, a white towel wrapped over her hair. Her hands were around a mug, a finger tracing around the open lid.

“Morning,” I said back, confused. “What are you doing here?”

“Am I not allowed to be in my own home?”

“You know what I mean. Why aren’t you at work?”

This complicates things, you being here.

“Not going to work. Going to the church.”

“Again?”

“There’s still stuff to do, and I plan on helping.”

“What about work?”

Shiori spun her mug around, her fingers going around the handle. “My co-workers are coming with me.”

At least she was leaving the house. Not as complicated as I feared.

Satisfied, I continued into the kitchen, towards the cabinet. I started getting myself a glass of water.

“Do you want coffee?” Shiori asked.

“No,” I said. “Can’t have it.”

“I have coffee when I was your age. Not like everyday, but sometime.”

You mean ‘had coffee,’ and ‘sometimes?’ How long have you lived in this country?

I filled my glass with water from the refrigerator. I drew out a long gulp. Cold. Exactly what I needed.

I was about to leave, bring my glass with me, but Shiori stopped me again.

“Alexis.”

Oh come on.

I didn’t want to respond to that name, or play that role so early in my day. But Shiori was giving me no choice.

“Yes?”

“Your friends stopped by earlier.”

What friends?

“Who?”

“From the church, Justin and Emily.”

Oh, them. I had already forgotten about them. It didn’t feel like it was only yesterday. Felt like weeks ago, honestly.

“Okay?” I said.

“They invited you to go with them and watch movie, and eat lunch. But you were still sleep, but maybe you can meet them later.”

Trivial. Not interested.

“Sure,” I said. “Might be fun.”

I had to go out, grab a few things before tonight, but that wasn’t Shiori’s business. If she thought I was out with friends instead, I was fine with that.

“I’ll go get ready then,” I said, about to leave the kitchen.

“Stay right there.”

Tension coursed through me. I froze, wary.

Shiori got up from the table, and walked to me.

I recalled the dream I had earlier. In my hand was a glass of water. If I struck the counter beside me, I’d have something much sharper.

I halted that particular thought process.

I let Shiori approach.

She stopped at less than an arm’s length away, and looked deep into my eyes. Her gaze remained there.

It was disconcerting.

“Look,” Shiori said. “I’m taller than you again.”

“What?”

She had to tilt her head up to look at me.

“See?”

Shiori raised her hand over the towel bundled up over her head. She moved her hand, half a foot over the top of my head.

“I’m taller now.”

Was that supposed to be a joke?

I could feel my time being wasted away. I wanted out.

“That doesn’t count,” I said.

“I’m your mother, it counts.”

I made a face.

“Do you still have your watch?” Shiori asked, out of nowhere.

“What watch?”

Shiori made a face.

“The one I got you for your birthday, don’t tell me you lost it already.”

The watch. I had a vague recollection over what she was talking about. I tried not to press my mind towards getting a clearer picture.

“I didn’t lose it,” I said. “It’s around, somewhere.”

Shiori mumbled something in Japanese. The meaning was lost on me.

“Uh,” I said, finding an excuse to leave. “I’ve got to shower if I want to meet up with Justin and Emily. Gotta get going.”

Shiori’s eyes continued to peer into me, like she was searching for something. She blinked, looking away.

“I remember when you were so small. I had to keep reminding you, over and over, to stop tugging at my pants. You never wanted to leave my side.”

Somehow, that prompted a connection, and I couldn’t stop it. It hit me, harder than any truck or van could.

The memories, the relationship with this woman. I recognized point A, and saw point B for what it was. Now, her looking in my eyes actually meant something.

My heart was tugged one way.

Fuck, fuck.

“People change,” I said, voice wavering. “They grow up.”

Shiori, Mother, nodded. “But you didn’t have to grow up so fast.”

A piercing strike. I would have doubled over if I wasn’t already moving, heading back into my room.

I closed the door, harder than I intended.

Oh, shit.

I was breathing hard. I clutched my chest, and my heart was beating as if I had just spent the whole morning running.

This isn’t good, this isn’t good.

I wished Shiori had left by the time I got out of bed. It would have made this so much easier.

Between that, and the dream I just had, it only added pressure for tonight. No matter what, it absolutely had to be a success. Or I’d lose more than Benny.

I’d lose myself.

I placed the glass by the table at the bed, next to the alarm. I moved into the closet.

Opening my bag, I sorted through my costume. The red windbreaker, the dark joggers, the mask, no longer blank, painted over by my own efforts.

This isn’t good.

Nothing here was truly mine. It was borrowed, taken, repurposed. Sure, I picked out these clothes myself, modified them in my image, but it wouldn’t be enough. I couldn’t genuinely claim anything here.

And there was a certain danger, to that.

Being here, in this apartment, the memories and connections came in small but continuous intervals, like a being feed through an IV drip. Eventually, it would build, and my sense of self would be washed away.

We can’t have that.

I put down my stuff, hiding it for later. I got back to my feet, feeling very conscious over my body, aware of every inch of movement, and the seed of doubt, if I could claim this vessel as mine.

I’d have to, if I wanted to continue.

I started undressing, getting ready for a shower, tossing the pajamas into a corner of the closet.

Tonight was a step towards that affirmation I needed. I had to prepare for it.

That preparation involved getting some items for D. Stuff she apparently needed. Stuff like firecrackers.

The light gave way to night, and I never felt more centered.

This was it, right here. The moon, the handful of glimmering stars above, the countless lights below. Cars, buildings, streetlights. The business of it all. There was a pulse, a rhythm to how everything and everyone moved. A certainty.

And standing over it all, outside of that pulse, that certainty, that system. It was liberating.

My own pulse quickened as I continued to observe the city’s skyline.

Footsteps, coming from behind. Not one, but several. My eyes stayed on the city.

They stood at either side of me. To my left, Lawrence. To my right, D. Hleuco was in the skies, enjoying the open air.

Lucky.

Lawrence had a new set of bandages over his face. His expression was stern, making him look older than he was. He had on a denim jacket, a white turtleneck underneath. Denim pants, leather boots. If he was trying to go for a classic gangster look, it wasn’t a bad attempt.

D was dressed similarly from last night. An oversized biker jacket, a choker around her neck. She was wearing a skirt, but with striped tights, this time. If it was anyone else, it’d seem like they were playing dress up, but she sold her look pretty well.

I was in costume. Mask on, hood up, bag strapped around my back. Very aware of how none of it was mine. V’s.

“Ah, the classic ‘brooding vigilante looking over rooftop bit,’” D said. “I like it.”

I didn’t entertain her with a response. I wasn’t in the mood.

“Everyone’s getting ready, and we’ll all be in position within the hour,” Lawrence said. “I like the uniforms, it’s a good touch.”

“Right on schedule,” I commented.

“We can move fast when we have to.”

“Good to hear,” I said, eyes down to the street below. Two vans and a car were parked in front of the Mexican restaurant. People were going back and forth from the restaurant’s entrance and the vehicles, loading boxes and other equipment.

“Speaking of,” D said, “Here.”

She poked my shoulder, and my eyes went from the street to her hand. She opened up her palm, revealing the earpiece in her palm.

“We each have one,” she said, tilting her head, pushing her hair over an ear. She was already wearing her own. “This should be good in keeping tabs with one another. But don’t talk too much, I don’t need to be updated on every second of your life.”

I nodded, and I took the earpiece. I fit it into my right ear, adjusting my hood once it was in place.

I pressed it, turning it on.

“And Lawrence will be communicating with his group, and relaying anything relevant back to us. That way, there aren’t a million voices in our heads.”

I would have commented, there, saying that it wasn’t that hard to parse through it all, but I didn’t.

I glanced in Lawrence’s direction, curious at how he was taking everything.

He was watching his crew below, his head down, some hair over his eyes. I only had a good view of one side of his face, but I could sense the general vibe. His lips were set in a line, his eyebrow slightly furrowed. As though he was holding onto some tension without realizing it.

“Second thoughts?” I asked.

There was a delay, and then he turned his head, noticing me. His eyebrows furrowed even more.

“Hell no, I don’t back down from nothing. Fuck that.”

Then I saw his expression change. It was slight.

“I want to know, is this something you expected to happen?”

“Expected what to happen?”

This. With your whole ‘hero thing,’ picking a fight with almost every gang in the city, Solace, Benny, did you ever expect to be working with someone like me, and someone like her?”

He gestured towards D, then to the crew below.

“Did you ever expect to agree on a plan as insane as this?”

Lawrence to my left, D to right, Hleuco soaring in the skies above. I recalled what I thought about this lineup, earlier. A motley crew.

I didn’t look at Lawrence when I answered, “Did you?”

I heard a small noise, the brushing of denim when he folded his arms.

“Course not. I ask, because I was thinking to back before all this started, when I joined El Carruaje. Back then, I was just a dumb kid, chasing highs. I wanted the easy life, and a gang like that seemed like the way to go.”

Another small noise, this time coming from D. I caught her expression. Apologetic. Like she’d heard this story hundreds of times, and now I had to be subjected to it.

That was probably exactly it.

Lawrence continued. “Even just two years ago, El Carruaje was different. There were no schemes, no hidden plans, at least, not that I was aware of. It was just a bunch of kids selling drugs, and bunch of kids taking them. The parties, the access. It was all there, and it was all easy to consume.”

He lowered his head, looking down again.

“But then I met the rest of Benny’s crew. I saw the power they wielded, the command in their voices. They gave orders, and we listened. Suddenly, the weed and parties weren’t as exciting anymore. That was where the real high was. That power.”

“And that’s why you wanted to join Benny’s crew?” D asked, like she was reading from a script.

“That’s why. I wanted that for myself. To command, to give orders and have people listen.”

“Then, congratulations,” I said. “You finally got what you wanted.”

Lawrence didn’t move, but a sharp exhale escaped from his nose.

“Maybe, but now it’s a matter of defending that position, or proving myself to others. It’s never just the one thing, it’s everything that comes with it. All this time chasing highs, eventually the lows are going to hit you.”

I struggled to find the point in this, why he was giving me his life story. There was a reason why I came up here by myself.

“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. “Are you trying to talk yourself out of it?”

Lawrence scoffed. “Hell no, I’m in this all the way. I’ll do what I have to. I’m just saying, it’s funny how things fall into place sometimes. Tell me two years ago that I’d be here, in this position, I’d call you crazy.”

The word repeated itself in my head. Crazy. That was one way to put it. Maybe it was even funny, when looking at it from another angle. Life was unpredictable, and it had a way of dealing out bad hands. It was why people hated being asked where they saw themselves in five years. Impossible to answer, and a good answer just meant satisfying whoever asked.

No one truly has a way of knowing. Was Alexis able to predict this?

No, she wouldn’t.

And all the better for it.

Some time passed, with no one adding anything else to say. Lawrence stepped back from the roof’s edge.

“I’ll be heading out now,” he said. “Shouldn’t be too long before we’re all in order. I’ll give the signal, and I’ll concede the play to you. It’s your call.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Anything else? Do you have a gun?”

“Don’t need one, I have my knife.”

“Is that enough?”

I turned away from my view of the city, and faced Lawrence.

I’m more than enough,” I said.

Lawrence looked amused at that answer. “Suit yourself. Well, I’m off. Good luck, V… D.”

“Good luck!” D said for the both of us.

“This better fucking work,” he told her, grim.

“It will, and if it doesn’t, we can laugh about it later.”

Lawrence narrowed his eyes.

“Watch yourself,” he said, but he took his leave, and I went back to looking over the city.

They seem to be getting along, if I can call it that. Could be worse, though.

“Don’t mind him,” D said, as Lawrence was heading back down, unable to hear her. “He’s just psyching himself up.”

Couldn’t fault him for that. This was a big move, a power move, and that meant risks.

Even pawns can be nervous.

“What about you?” I asked. “Anything you want to say?”

D lifted her shoulders.

“Um, not really. I said that I was going to help you, and I intend to do exactly that. I’m excited.”

“You even got the stuff I asked for,” she added.

“Is this like your version of putting a magnifying glass to an anthill?”

D snapped her fingers. “Yeah! That’s a great way to put it!”

Her enthusiasm over what was to come forced a laugh out of me.

“You’re like the funhouse mirror version of youth,” I said.

“Matter of perspective. Everything distorts when you put it through a looking-glass.”

I chuckled. Funny, that I felt more like myself, here, even when among complete strangers.

Hleuco flew overhead, and I saw the moon. I moved my wrist, checking the time.

“You should get going,” I said. “It’s almost time.”

“Sure,” D said, and she backed away from the edge. “Keep an ear out. L-Boy will give you his confirmation, and so will I. After that, we’ll be waiting on you to give us the go-ahead.”

“I’m ready when you are.”

“Now we’re talking, I’ll catch you later.”

D left, going back the way she came. Her footsteps weren’t paced at a steady rhythm, one foot following the other. There was a beat to it. She skipped her way to the exit.

She was so calm. How? Even if it was her idea, it wasn’t unnatural to harbor concerns. Yet she seemed cool, calm, and more collected than any of us.

An anomaly for sure.

I, in contrast, was restless. Itching to go, ready for action. I was centered, and I was prepared to push that energy outward. I was alert, aware, and awake.

A good sleep had done me some good.

I stayed still, unmoving from my spot on the roof, watching the city. I saw Lawrence’s crew finishing up their work, getting into their vehicles. They started up, and drove off. The vans went one way, the car went another.

For the remaining time I was waiting, Hleuco swooped low, landing by my side.

He’d been quiet lately, I noticed. I wondered if that meant anything.

In wait, observing the buildings and the farther skyline, Stephenville took on other qualities. Cars drove by, not rushing to go anywhere. People walked, usually by themselves, hurrying to get indoors. There was activity, but it wasn’t busy. It was akin to a slumbering giant.

Imagine poking that giant with a hot spike.

Before my thoughts wandered even more, a voice buzzed in my ear. Mechanical.

This is Lawrence, everyone’s in position. Ready to go.

I didn’t answer right away. I kept waiting.

Another minute came and went before I heard anything from D.

Sorry, sorry I’m late! Had to check up on some last minute things. But I’m good now, ready to go.”

Two confirmations. One remained.

There was certain pressure, having the final word, knowing that there was no going back once that word was uttered. But, I was ready to make that move. I wasn’t lying when I said it.

This is it. This is my move. The hand I’ll play, to use another metaphor.

The pawns were in place, the bishop already in position. It made me wonder where I was on the board.

If I may be so bold, I would liken you to the queen.

Queen. I wasn’t sure I liked that label. Compared to the king, the most vital piece, the queen could be disposed of. It could be sacrificed.

But, it did fit, in another sense. The queen wasn’t bound by the same rules as the other pieces. Pawns could only move forward, one at a time. Bishops, though less limited, could only move in a specific fashion.

Queens, however, had the least limitations. The most important piece, second only to the king. They could move. Forward, backward, sideways, diagonally. They had power, and they had freedom.

I inhaled, deep, and exhaled just as strong.

“Ready to go,” I said, firm. “Payback time.”

My heart started beating faster. I was waiting for a response.

And then, the response came. Not from Lawrence or D. It wasn’t verbal.

The response was heard, felt, then seen.

I heard the booming, I felt the soft rumble, I saw the smoke.

This was why I was so fixated on the skyline. I wanted to see the before, and the after.

Plumes of smoke rose from various points, blending into the night sky. Flickers of orange and red flared, gnawing to take a piece out of the oppressive black. Sirens sang, and people screamed. The pulse of the city quickened, the beast startling awake.

This was my play.

D had suggested smoking Benny out. But how would we accomplish such a feat?

Easy.

We used fire.

Previous                                                                                               Next

048 – Balancing Act

Previous                                                                                               Next

“Can’t remember the last time I was up here,” Katy said, flat. She rested her arms on the railing, feeling the wind in her hair.

I tapped my foot.

“Shit, I’ve never been up here,” Maria said, joining her. “Hey, and the view isn’t too bad. Do you come out here often, Alexis?”

I crossed my legs, and my arms.

I was sitting in a chair beside Maria, farther from her than she was to Katy. Behind bars, I saw the city.

“Every now and then,” I answered. During my time as a ‘hero,’ I used the balcony as my way of going in and out of the apartment.

But, there was no reason to bring up that bit of info.

Our volunteering at the church ended around noontime, and aside from giving our condolences to Mrs. Phan and Justin one more time, we left without a fuss. I didn’t bother to seek out those other kids to say farewell, either.

Mother offered to cook lunch back at the apartment, since we were already all together. Katy and Maria were up for it. I wasn’t, but I couldn’t exactly voice that sentiment. I had to go along with it, with everyone. Reluctantly.

She prepared miso soup and fried chicken. It was apparent that I used to have some kind of connection to those particular dishes. The extra company of little girls that sat with us at the table, lounging on the couch, eating their own fill, each with their faces scraped away…

At least, it made it easier to keep my head down, be quiet, and eat.

The food tasted awful, of course, but I had learned how to hide it. It sat like a weight in my stomach. I’d have to throw it up later, when I had time.

Which was the problem I had, now.

Time.

Lunch was over, Katy and Maria got what they came here for. Why were they still hanging around?

I remembered those kids back at the church.

Licking wounds. Pity.

My foot tapped, my legs crossed and uncrossed. I sat back and leaned forward.

Please, let the sun set faster.

“How’d you even get this deal, anyways?” Maria asked, ripping me away from my thoughts and planning. “Getting the master bedroom all to yourself is quite sweet.”

She was talking to me. I’d rather not, but it was unavoidable.

I looked away from the city to see into the glass door, my room. I saw a girl a few years my junior, in her bed, typing away at her phone. Giggling.

I looked elsewhere, back, on the balcony, and saw brief flashes of a toddler, tightly hugging her mother, delighted over something.

The images drilled, and it actively hurt to try and look at. Like staring at the sun.

“Shi- My mom, she let me have this room, back when we moved in.”

“Really? She just gave it to you?”

My head ached the more she forced me to put thought into it. “Yes. She prefers smaller spaces, I guess.”

“Your mom’s from Japan, right? Did she grow up in a apartment there, too?”

If I tried to reach that far back, that hard, for such an insignificant detail, my head would split open.

“I really don’t know,” I said.

A sound, not from Maria, but from Katy.

“You don’t know where your mom grew up?” Maria asked.

“She’s never shared much about her time there. She’s never brought it up, and I just learned not to ask.”

That didn’t require strenuous brain power to say. As if it was a lesson that truly left a mark on my very being.

“I can give you that,” Maria said. “No diss, but she does seem kind of… standoffish?”

Even I could see it. Clear. The description fit.

“No diss,” I said. “That’s about right.”

“But, like, don’t get me wrong, Shiori’s awesome, she just also has this side to her, you know, like, I can’t get her mad, no matter what, or she’d fucking kill me, or worse.”

I smirked, almost in spite of myself.

“That’s what Asian parents are like,” I said.

Then, right there, a moment came and went. An opening to continue the conversation, but no one took it. Maria didn’t.

A breeze gently passed, and hair brushed into my face. I briefly had the thought of getting it cut.

Maria clicked her tongue, seemingly out of nowhere.

“Hard to believe it’s already December,” Maria said. “Barely feels like it.”

She’s forcing it.

This time, Katy answered her, her tone as dry as ever. “It’s because it’s been so warm. It’s only ever really chilly in the morning, other than that you’re good with a jacket. We can’t even get a proper winter.”

“I bet it’ll get colder later, probably around Christmas or New Year’s,” Maria said. “Hey, do you guys have any plans for the holidays?”

No answer, from me or from Katy. Enough time passed that it should have meant something.

Maria fixed her hair, removing a strand that flew into her mouth.

“Same,” Maria said, breathing out the word.

I had enough awareness that I could see what she was trying to do, but I just didn’t have the will or care or investment to play along. They were friendly, and the connection between me and them existed, but it was becoming frail, nearly vestigial. I couldn’t claim it as my own.

Doing so would be lying to myself.

But, I also recognized that I couldn’t neglect that part of my life altogether. It was a chore, but it was a necessary one. A role I had to play, a mask I needed to wear.

In a perfect world, I would have no need to be here. I would have no need for this.

Yet, here I was.

At least for now, I’d have to act as Alexis Barnett.

“I legit don’t know what I’ll be doing around that time,” I said, throwing Maria a bone. “Hopefully I’ll just be chilling, getting some peace and quiet.”

“Yeah, some of that would be nice,” Maria said. “Things just keep happening. I need a damn break.”

“Snowball effect,” Katy said. She didn’t say anything more than that.

“What do you mean?” Maria asked.

Katy remained silent for a time.

“Nothing,” she finally said.

Maria fixed her hair again, then looked at me. I noticed her stare. It was a very specific kind of stare. Was I supposed to know what she was thinking? Reading between the lines?

A sort of mutual understanding, but I couldn’t deliver on my end. That particular meaning was lost on me.

I broke eye contact, and I gave a half-hearted shrug. An empty gesture, but it should’ve been enough for Maria. She could ascribe her own meaning in that.

My foot started tapping again, and I leaned back, observing the other two. Katy had her phone out, her attention focused there. Maria was taking in the view of the city, doing her best to keep up a brave face. She tried, but I somehow managed to see the cracks.

This wasn’t working. At all.

None of us were up for talking, and none of us could face each other for any meaningful length of time. Even for me, at a distance from it all, it was blatantly clear. Katy was still reeling from the death of her father, and Maria had to stand at the sidelines if she wanted to support her. And I, on principle, preferred that distance to maintain.

On top of everything else, the attack at the school was still fresh on everyone’s minds. That alone would force any normal person to retreat inward.

It wasn’t unlike trying to push together magnets of the same end. There was bound to be a resistance, from every side.

And if you push too hard, what would happen when you suddenly let go?

“All the pieces fly away,” I said to myself.

“Did you say something?” Maria asked. Must have heard me.

“Um, nothing,” I said. I sounded like Katy, there.

Maria grumbled, then turned around, her back against the railing. “Man, you people need to stop with the subliminals. Freaks me out.”

“My bad,” I said.

“Sorry,” Katy said.

We spoke at the same time.

“Sorry,” I said.

“My bad,” Katy said.

We did it again.

An awkward pause followed.

Maria was the one to break, laughing at our expense.

She kept laughing.

Then some more.

“I’m okay,” Maria said, between fits. Oddly pitchy. “It’s okay, see, it can be okay, just laugh at something whenever, it can help. Just fucking saying.”

She rubbed, massaged at her eyes using her sleeve. When she pulled away, her eyes were red.

“Ugh, fuck,” she said. “I am so fucking lame.”

The connection between us, I felt it shoring up. Despite me. A tug at my chest that I couldn’t explain.

I used the new, more intense awkward pause, and retreated into it. No one said any more.

We all retreated.

I wasn’t sure how much time had gone by when Mother came to check in on us.

“Hi,” she said, soft, stepping onto the balcony, door left open. She had a tin bowl in her hands. “I cut up apples, please help yourselves.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Barnett,” Maria said, immediately going for them. “They’re great.”

Katy went next, taking her arms off the railing, phone falling back into a pocket.

“Thanks,” she said, dry.

And that meant I had to have a turn.

“Thanks, Ma,” I said. I would’ve fumbled if I had to say more than one and a half words.

I grabbed two slices, and ate them. I chewed fast, then swallowed like I was drinking water.

Mush, wet. Like grounded-up fish guts. It repulsed. Mother had washed the apples before cutting, which did help, it made them easier to bring down.

And it would make them easier to bring back up.

“Tastes good,” I lied.

“I leave them here for you?” she suggested.

“Actually,” Katy said, after wiping her mouth. “I’ll have to get going, now. Mom called, and I’ve got some errands to run.”

“Are you sure?” Mother asked.

Katy cast glance at the two of us. At Maria. At me.

“I’m sure,” she said.

“I guess,” Maria said, unsure of herself, “That’s it for me, too. Don’t wanna overstay anything.”

“It’s no problem,” Mother said. “Of course you’re welcome.”

“But, I loved the food, though,” Maria said, as if to save face. “I’ve never had authentic Japanese before. It was delish.”

“It was,” Katy added. “Thanks again, Shiori.”

Katy started, passing Mother to leave. I got out of my seat. It was only proper, when guests were leaving.

“Bye,” I said, watching Maria follow, as they both left.

“Bye,” Katy returned, without turning back. However, I noticed Maria steal a glance.

They crossed my room, leaving through the other door, into the living room. From there, the front door was their exit.

“You won’t see them off?” Mother asked, facing me.

My hand went over my stomach.

“I really need some fresh air. But I’ll see them again.”

That last bit sounded more like a premonition than a blessing.

Mother lifted the bowl of apples to me. “Do you still want?”

I took a slice.

“You can leave the rest in the kitchen,” I said. “I might get some more, later.”

Mother nodded, then left the balcony, and I got the door for her. I spun back, and rested my arms on the railing.

I looked back at the city, uncaged.

I tossed the apple away, the slice falling into grass below.

The wind picked up again, and I took a deep breath. The headache was starting to subside.

I didn’t like reaching into older, useless connections. It diluted my thinking. Making me less me, and giving purchase to another thing. Her.

Granted, some connections, memories, were necessary, like my time as Blank Face. Others, if I could, I’d drop them immediately. Trim the fat, as the saying went.

In a perfect world, I would have no need to be here.

It was another reason why I was pressed for time. The last thing I wanted was to doubt myself.

Which was why tonight was so crucial.

If I was to do this again, I had to make some serious changes. I had to do this right. No more blindly jumping about, grasping at straws. I needed to go about this with a plan in mind.

If I wanted to play for keeps, I needed to prepare a hand to play.

Now this was more like it.

Standing on the edge, the thrill of being so high up. Overseeing everything, the city completely unaware. The cold, beaten only by the rush of adrenaline pumping through my veins. The sight and sounds were present, but far away. From up here, everything seemed so small.

The feeling of plastic on my face.

This was true freedom.

My costume underwent some more changes. It was all makeshift, I’d have to make do with what I had for just a little longer.

I ditched the blue. Better to distance myself from that image, than risk more trouble by dressing as the blue demon everyone was hunting. Better yet to ditch that identity entirely.

Functionally speaking, however, I was still married to the idea of wearing hoodies and windbreakers. I couldn’t seem to get myself away from that concept. On that front, all I did was swap the blue for red.

The mask I had on was my old one, the first one I ever used. It was simple, and barely identifiable. It worked. But I did make some changes to its look. I darkened the sockets around the eyes and the edges of the mask, to shape it more like a human face. As an added touch, I applied some red paint onto the lips. Following the phantoms that wandered around my apartment, I managed to find old, forgotten material, and used it to touch-up my mask.

After that were the smaller essentials. Bag, extra clothes, cash, gloves, knife.

The final result, with everything working in tandem, with mask on and hood up, I didn’t look like someone wearing a mask. I looked like a whole new person.

Not a costume, but a form to call my own. I wasn’t Blank Face, I wasn’t the Bluemoon, and I especially was not Alexis Barnett. I’d need a name, but that could wait.

Standing above the city, I was me.

We’re just us.

Precisely.

Then, I moved.

It was exhilarating, refreshing. A much needed opportunity to stretch my legs and really extend my abilities. I had to keep focused on the path ahead, watching out when I had to jump higher to reach the next building, and bracing myself when the drop was that much lower. It kept my mind running, as much as my body.

I crossed gaps, careful not to overextend and lose my footing. I knew how to maneuver over obstacles, the vents and air conditioning units. Ducking, sliding when necessary.

You’ve gotten better at this, I told myself. The thought alone was liberating. From my old self, old limitations.

I checked the sky as I moved through the air, and he passed overhead.

Hleuco.

He had feathers, a beak, it wasn’t that much of a leap for him to have wings, too.

Coming out from his back, his wings were as large as they were long, to support something of his height and weight. Jet black. It was hard to make out in the night, but he was gliding more than he was actually flying. One flap of his huge wings was enough to go a long distance.

When he passed the moon, the light pierced him for a moment, and he’d vanish, only to materialize as he left that sphere of influence.

I fought the urge to cheer as I soared through the air a final time. I stopped, landing right before our destination.

Hleuco was already there, perched on the roof of the adjacent building. It took four flaps for him to beat me to the police station.

Here we are.

Back again.

I kept low, stalking to the edge of the roof to check the windows of the next building.

There he was, just like last time. Working at his desk.

James Gomez.

A visual was all I needed, and I moved again, dropping down to the fire escape that was mounted to the wall. I had become light enough to not make too much noise when I landed.

I went up to the window of his office, and something caught my eye.

Blank Face’s message was still here from the last time, etched with a black marker, but bits of the letters were reduced to mere smudges. Probably from the rain we had gotten recently.

He had covered up the original message with a scrap of notebook paper, taped from his side of the window. And when the rain came and went, he forgot to take it down.

There was something humorous in that, and it almost gave me pause. I had to remind myself not to laugh and give myself away.

Focus.

Yeah, yeah.

Good thing I had come prepared. I slipped out another marker from the side of my bag, and wrote out a new message on the window. I finished by drawing an arrow, pointing to the scrap of paper.

‘COME CLEAN!’

I put the marker back, then knocked on the window. In the next breath, I was already ascending up the remainder of the fire escape. As I drew in another, I already was up on the roof.

I didn’t situate myself atop the cement roof enclosure, over the roof access door. Not like last time. I just stood at the door, arms folded. Waiting.

Hleuco was gone, leaving me with time to concentrate. I shut my eyes to regain certain connections to better prepare myself for the meeting.

Waiting.

My foot began to tap.

Waiting.

He was really taking his sweet time.

The door creaked when it finally opened, and I opened my eyes, ready. I saw Gomez as he stepped onto the roof. The door shut on its own as he approached. He saw me, and I saw his hand move slowly toward his side. His hip.

“It’s me, Blank Face,” I said, to reassure him.

Even though I don’t care much for that name, anymore.

Gomez’s hand stopped, instead going into a pocket. He bobbed his head in a nod.

“Rebranding, are we?” he questioned. “I think I’ve only ever seen you with your proper costume once, and that was the first time you showed up here.”

“Rebranding is a good way of putting it,” I said.

Gomez’s expression changed, his heavy mustache accentuating his frown.

He looked drained, beaten down by recent events. His cheeks a little sunken in, what little of his hair left frayed at the ends. Add on top the decades of wear, tear, and stress a job like his dished out…

He looked like a husk of James Gomez, Chief of Police of the Stephenville Police Department.

His voice reflected that, too, when he spoke. Hoarse.

“A lot has happened since the last time I saw you, and dare I say, a lot has happened because of you. You’re very popular, if you weren’t aware. Lot of people want to get their hands on you, yet you come to visit me. Can’t tell if I should be grateful.”

He took a step towards me. Then another.

“Maybe I should call it in, it’d be so easy. Like I mentioned the last time you were up here, one press of a button, and you’re done. I have you. And I put all of this bullshit behind me and finally start seeing a therapist. God knows I need one.”

He wouldn’t actually turn me in, would he? I’d probably be able to get away if he did, but it’d be an inconvenience, a door shut in my face.

I stood, tense, watching his every step, every twitch or movement. If he was going to pull something, I could stop him, break his arm, send him off the ledge.

I could, but I shouldn’t.

I had to actively tell myself no. That wouldn’t do me any good.

Let’s save the energy for someone else.

Gomez continued, interrupting my thoughts.

“You’ve been awfully quiet. Tell me, do you still think you’re the good guy? The hero?”

It was that question that derailed my train of thought. What did this have to do with anything? How was that relevant?

Behind my mask, I looked at Gomez right in the eye.

No, he was being serious.

I bit my tongue.

I had to answer him, and I had a feeling that there was a right answer to his question. Piss him off, and I’d lose the point of being here in the first place.

I gave him my answer.

“I’m after the bad guys, the people responsible for this whole mess. Solace, Styx, Benny, they’ve gone too far without having lost anything in return. I want them to pay, and I want to take from them the equivalent of what they’ve taken from everyone else.”

What they’ve taken from us.

Gomez blinked, slow, taking in my response. His eyebrow furrowed.

“Eye for an eye, don’t you know what happens when the whole world operates like that?”

I had no answer, there, and I was running out of patience.

“We’re getting sidetracked. I came here because I need your help. I’m looking for Benny. If she’s still in the city, I’m going to find her.”

“Just Benny?” he asked.

“She’s a start. Is she still here?”

Gomez removed a hand from his pocket, and rubbed his mustache, fixing it.

“She could be. Honestly? I’m inclined to say yes.”

Yes.

Exactly what I wanted to hear.

“How do you know for sure?” I asked, almost excitedly so.

“I don’t know for sure, but given what I know of this city and the situation, she won’t get too far without getting caught. Border’s even more tight, now, thanks to her own actions, and considering the… culture, here, there’s a nice price on her head.”

“Meaning,” I offered.

“Meaning everyone’s going to want to cash in. Gangs… and some of my own men, with secondary loyalties.”

“It’s a manhunt from all sides,” I said, summing it up.

“Precisely, and if every movement might get you sniffed out, then the best bet is to stay put, and pray for some miraculous opening. If she’s smart, she’ll have holed herself up, wherever she is.”

I nodded, taking it in.

Those were good odds, but it came with the added challenge of everyone being a player in the game of finding her.

It wouldn’t be easy, but it could be done.

“That’s reassuring,” I said. “We find her, and we have a very big piece of the Solace… conspiracy, for want of a better word. From the weapons found back at that warehouse, we know that The Chariot was involved. If she can’t give us anything, fine, but we still have the person who led the attack at Stephenville High School.”

“Stephenville High School,” he repeated, and it came with a harrowing note. “You know she was behind it?”

“I know some of her crew were brought into custody.”

He fixed his mustache again.

“I see. Is that why you’re looking for her, because it’s personal?”

I could almost see the scenery change around me, and I was back in that bloody, messy, classroom. Where I woke up.

“Thomas was personal,” I said, bringing myself back. “This is another matter. She called me out, and people, kids, suffered for it. This is…”

Personal in a different way. Therapeutic, using your own words.

But I just trailed off, instead.

I couldn’t gauge Gomez’s exact expression, but it wasn’t pleasant.

“Don’t bring up his name, not like that, not here. His funeral wasn’t that long ago. Maybe you were there?”

The mention of his name brought back Hleuco. He stood by Gomez, head cocked, like observing prey.

“In spirit,” I said, glancing at the shadow figure. “But we’re getting sidetracked again.”

If I wasn’t getting what I needed out of Gomez, I was wasting time. “I know that not everyone of Benny’s crew made it out of the school, some were left behind. If you have them in custody, I’d like to pay them a visit. Any one of them will do.”

“Ah.” He bobbed his head, again, then said, “They’re not here. We don’t have them.”

“They’re not what? Where are they?”

Gomez explained. “They attacked and destroyed a public school, and terrorized the students and staff inside that school. We arrested them, but we had to hand them over. They’re in a federal prison, now. They might even end up being deported, but it’s too soon to tell.”

Fuck. I hadn’t considered that, I didn’t see that coming.

“You’re saying I can’t get to any of them?” I asked.

“I can give you the address, but breaking into a heavily-guarded, federal prison is more trouble than any of them are worth. You’d be better off asking random strangers on the street, but I rather you not do that.”

I glanced away, thankful for my mask. Gomez couldn’t see the anger behind it.

Dammit, dammit. I needed them to get to Benny, and Gomez was someone I could actually turn to. Sofia, Samuel. Any of the others I incapacitated. If they were being treated, they were probably under watch, too. Alone, I couldn’t get to them, and Gomez was right. It wouldn’t be worth it.

I clenched a fist, forcing myself to calm down, and I addressed Gomez again.

“I need anything you have that can lead me to Benny. Please. One of your men, they’d have to know something. Just give me a minute with them, I’ll get what I need out of them.”

Gomez stepped away, walking to one end of the roof. “I’m not in the business of handing over police officers for you to dangle and drop down multiple stories.”

I followed him, but I didn’t move too close to the edge. Didn’t want to be seen from up here.

“You gave me Sumeet,” I said, reminding him.

“I gave you a chance, at a time when my hands were tied. And when you were out, setting the city ablaze, I was able to gather enough intel and men to come back and help you. And we got pretty damn close, too. We had him, we got Thomas back.”

His head dropped a fraction.

“In the end, it wasn’t enough, but it was something,” he said. “It was a decent, even good, effort, to save something tangible.”

“How is that any different from now?” I asked.

“Now? This time, with Benny, the damage has already been done. You finding Benny isn’t going to save anyone, or bring anyone back. Not all of the perpetrators were caught, but some were. And the kid that took lives, along with his own… It goes without saying that he’s not around anymore. With or without Benny, people are going to find a way to heal from that.”

“What about bringing Benny to justice?”

Gomez laughed. It took me by surprise.

“Nothing of what you told me tonight has convinced me for a second that you want to turn her in.”

Turning, he jabbed a finger in my direction.

“From what I’ve gathered, you’re not looking for justice, are you? You’re looking for revenge.”

Revenge. The word resonated within me.

Was that what I was looking for? Was that what I wanted?

No, it wasn’t the ends. But the means?

Again, the word resonated.

“You’re really not going to help me?” I asked, disappointment showing in my voice.

Gomez walked back from the end of the roof. He passed me.

“I can’t, and I won’t,” he answered. “Not like this. I really must be crazy, because I still have some respect for you, and I’m not about to be complicit in whatever you’re going to do to Benny, if or when you do find her. I’m giving you a chance to walk away and just let this be. Let proper authorities do their jobs.”

He continued walking, heading to the door. I started moving to stop him.

“And what if I can’t?” I asked.

Gomez stopped right at the door, hand on the knob. He moved his shoulders to get a decent look at me.

“Then that wouldn’t be very super of you, would it?”

I set my jaw, my teeth gritting. Even Hleuco made a gesture. Feathers raised, chest puffed out.

“Dammit, Gomez. Work with me, here.”

“This is the part where I’m supposed to say ‘I’m sorry,’ but I won’t. Goodbye.”

He opened the door, and he left, leaving me alone on the rooftop. Dry.

Fuck. Dammit. Shit.

I wheeled around, and stormed off. I jumped to another rooftop and ran.

Damn Gomez, damn him. And damn me for not being able to convince him. He was my best bet on getting my hands on someone who could lead me to Benny, and now I had nothing. Not having custody of her crew was one thing, but actively trying to talk me out of pursuing her?

A myriad of different words flew through my head. Hypocrite was one of them.

I vaulted up to a taller building, and kept going. I was running to let off steam. Cool my head.

It wasn’t working.

What I needed was Benny, to find her and hurt her. To make it even. To make it fair.

Blank Face had tried to find her. Now, it was my turn. How hard is it to locate one fucking woman?

A shrill screech stopped me in my tracks. With a foot near the edge of the roof, I peered into the alley below.

A woman, running, chased by three men. Crossing from one street, hoping to escape to the other. But the men were faster, catching up on her.

She screeched again.

I almost responded as reflex, lifting my foot to prepare for a descent, but I stopped myself.

Police cars sped to the end of alley, cutting them all off. Lights on, the sirens sounding off. The woman threw her last remaining effort into a short, hard sprint, and she fell into the arms of an officer, already getting out of the car.

I heard the shouting and commotion below, the cops telling the attackers to freeze, get down, hands behind their head. They froze, and complied, and the cops moved in. The situation ended as soon as I happened upon it.

Too bad, I needed an outlet. Blood would do me some good, too.

The world really doesn’t need a Blank Face, does it?

It didn’t.

I watched as the cops cuffed the men, taking them into the cars, illuminated red and blue. Thinking.

If Gomez wasn’t going to hand me over any cops, should I just pick them out myself? I might find someone who knew a thing or two. A clue.

No, I dismissed the idea. More trouble than it was worth. Do that, and I’d end up in a similar situation to that night. The night I set the ‘city ablaze,’ as Gomez put it. Running about, wildly, leaving behind a smoke trail of chaos.

Another approach, then. Couldn’t do this like before. I had to think laterally.

I looked ahead, and saw Hleuco, perched on the roof of the building across from me. Seeing him gave me an idea.

Head over, without anyone following, and I’ll meet you there. Out.

Of course.

It might not be the most efficient way of going about things, but it was a start.

I leapt again, crossing the gap. Hleuco unfurled his wings, taking to the air at the same time.

I knew where I needed to go, and how to get there. But it wouldn’t be by rooftop.

I would need to make a call. But, to do that, I’d have to find a payphone. And learn how to use one.

Previous                                                                                               Next

047 – Latae sententiae

epy arc 8 bite

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The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky. Somewhat fitting, considering how blue the atmosphere was.

St. Francis Xavier had been trashed.

Windows broken, statues dented and graffitied over. Crosses knocked and flipped around. The east wing was burned to the ground. Papers got caught in the wind, flying around, pews had been thrown outside and ripped apart. Paintings, too, tossed out and cut open. The church and offices had been gutted, its innards laid out to rot in the sun.

The church itself was no cathedral, but it was a temple, a place of worship. It was sizable, large enough to house a decent number of people. A symbol.

And it had been reduced to a shell of its former glory. As it stood now, it couldn’t serve its core purpose.

All this, in just a matter of days.

Shiori, Mother, went first, leading the way, maneuvering through the damage. I was behind her, followed by the two girls who wanted to accompany us.

Katy and Maria were their names.

All around us, others were picking up the pieces. Cleaning up, doing what they could to help. Mostly those from the church’s community, but others offered their help after news broke out. Outsiders.

A few squads of police were here, supervising the crews and volunteers, sometimes giving out their own orders. Firetrucks and firefighters moved to the burnt wing of the church.

A lot of people, a lot of moving parts, but weather itself was serene. Cool. Mother and I had to wear a light jacket to keep warm. Maria needed only a fitted sweater, and so did Katy, though she was wearing all black.

We entered into the gathering space just outside the church’s front doors, wide open and dented in places. Mother led us to a group being addressed by a short woman. Not elderly, but almost there. The woman noticed us, and dismissed the group with a word.

“Shiori, it’s good to see you,” the woman said. She looked sullen, with little energy to her words. She didn’t appear to have gotten much sleep, recently. “And you too, Alexis.”

That was me. I needed a moment to respond, but the situation didn’t call for me taking my time.

That’s Mrs. Phan.

Mother answered for the both of us. “Good to see you, too, Linda. It is a shame that it has to be under these circumstances.”

Mrs. Phan nodded, then she glanced around. She frowned.

“It happened at night, I was already asleep. I woke up to so many calls and messages, but it was already too late, and I couldn’t do anything. I was powerless.”

Again, she looked around, then back down. As if there was a faint hope that, if she were to check one more time, this would all seemingly go away, never to have happened. That hope was immediately squandered.

“Maybe if I was here, I could have done something, stopped them somehow. But I was slacking. Maybe this is my fault, my faith wasn’t strong enough. Maybe this is what happens when your faith isn’t strong enough. This happens.”

Mrs. Phan was just talking to herself by now. Repeating herself, rambling, looking as if sleep was a foreign concept to her…

I could imagine her completely breaking, if rebuilding the church was simply not an option. What would happen to her, then? How would she rebuild herself?

I was curious.

Mother put a hand on her shoulder. Firm.

“You are plenty strong, Linda, this is not a strike against you. Let’s go, tell me what we can do to help, and you take it easy the rest of the day.”

“But,” Mrs. Phan said.

She would’ve said more if Mother didn’t cut her off. “If nothing else, I will make sure you take a break today. Now, breathe in.”

Mrs. Phan breathed in.

“And breathe out.”

Mrs. Phan breathed out. It wasn’t much, but some tension did leave her body. The effect was visible.

She moved her hand, removing Mother’s hold off her shoulder. She stood straighter, now.

“Thank you, Shiori, and God bless you,” Mrs. Phan said. She cleared her throat, then handed out proper orders. “Shiori, I’ll have you come with me, I’ll need your help with the moving group. And Alexis?”

“Yes?” I said, responding to that name.

“You and your friends go to Justin. He’s leading the youth group and watching over their efforts in cleaning up. You can help there.”

“Alright,” I said, and I had to stop myself there.

I didn’t want to ask who Justin was.

But another question might serve me better.

“Where is Justin?” I asked.

Mrs. Phan pointed to her right, a small field. A sizable group of kids my age were there, sorting through junk, pushing and moving carts and wagons.

“He should be there,” she said.

“Alright,” I said again, and I headed out, Katy and Maria following me. Mother went with Mrs. Phan, to provide her own support.

“Is it just me, or did that lady give me a funny look?” Maria asked. Providing a comment.

“Just you, I don’t think she saw us at all,” Katy said.

They talked amongst themselves, but I continued. We reached the field Mrs. Phan specified.

What exactly was here, I couldn’t tell, it was beaten until it became unrecognizable. No section of the church’s premises was spared, it seemed.

Chips of wood, broken beams, tattered cloth. And a fuck ton of mushy gourds.

We watched our step, but we stayed at the edge of the mess, watching kids go back and forth to clean up.

“Alexis!”

I was the only one to be addressed, but all three of us turned.

A boy, jogging our way. White shirt, brown shorts, and yellow gloves. A bandana on his forehead, damp with sweat.

He stopped just short of colliding into me, breathing hard. He took a second before he spoke up again.

“Wassup,” he said. “It’s been a minute, hasn’t it?”

Justin.

“Definitely more than just a minute,” I said, as though on autopilot.

“Man, when was the last time you were here?” he asked, while removing a glove. “Must be forever.”

“Probably,” I said.

“Oh, and you brought some extra hands, that’s nice.”

I stepped aside, and Katy and Maria moved in.

“Katy.”

“I’m Justin, nice to meet you.”

They shook hands.

“I’m Maria, sorry to hear about your church.”

“Justin, and yeah, it’s pretty bad.”

The two of them shook hands, too.

Justin put his glove back on again, and crossed his arms. “It’s bad, but it was way worse earlier, so we’ve been making progress, which is good. People have been coming and going throughout the day, too, helping whenever they have the time. A lot of them don’t even come here, so, if anything, it’s definitely moral support. Just seeing you lovely ladies lifts the spirit.”

The sun was getting in my eyes, so I couldn’t see Katy or Maria’s reaction. For my part, I didn’t have much of one.

Justin cleared his throat

“But anyways, yeah, there’s still a long way to go, but we’ll get there. You guys ready to do some work?”

We all answered simultaneously.

“Yeah.”

“For sure.”

“I am.”

Justin nodded, satisfied. “Sweet. Come with me, and I’ll get you some gloves.”

He started back the way he came, and we came with. The table wasn’t far, placed on the same field where all the kids worked, and was topped with gloves, tools, and a cooler with energy drinks and bottles of water.

“Here you are,” he said, handing each of us our own pair of gloves. “Help yourself to the drinks if you’re feeling lightheaded, or need a breather. You’re volunteering your time, and as long as you’re here, you’re being a big help in one way or another. Do you know how long you’ll be here?”

The three of us exchanged looks. Something told me that Katy would have taken that, but this wasn’t her ballpark. Not here.

And it wasn’t mine, quite frankly, but the fact remained.

“As long as you need us for.” I gave a non-answer, but Justin looked like he accepted it.

“Awesome, maybe I’ll take advantage of that.” He snickered, but no one ended up played along.

He cleared his throat again.

“Right, um, let’s get started. Katy and Maria, can you join that crew with the carts there, and Alexis, you up for some lifting?”

I nodded. “Sure.”

“Then let’s break. Thanks again, guys.”

Maria glanced at me, then to Katy, but she was already leaving. Maria looked like she was about to say something, considered, then left to join Katy.

It was me and Justin, now. Together, we headed out.

We wrapped around to the other side of the ruined field. A snapped wooden beam on its side, in the grass. This piece was about seven or eight feet, making me wonder how tall the whole thing was. I stopped at the closest end, and Justin went to the farther part.

“We’re moving this off to the concrete there,” Justin called out, facing the nearby lot for emphasis. “Along with all the other wood parts. It’ll be picked up later.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Careful, it’s heavy.”

“Okay.”

He lowered himself, squatting down and squaring his shoulders. He grabbed the beam with both hands.

I did the same, but I just bent down.

“On ‘three,’” Justin said. “One, two, three!”

The beam lifted, but my end went up much faster. Justin nearly lost his balance.

“Holy- Alright then, let’s go.”

We moved as a unit, I walked backwards, and Justin made sure I didn’t bumping into anyone or anything. I looked, and saw Katy and Maria doing their own jobs, picking up mush and dropping into carts to be sent away.

“Here,” Justin said, and I was brought back to this particular instance.

We were on the lot, near a stack of wood. Not very neatly arranged, maybe more like a pile.

Justin counted to three, and we dropped the beam into the clump. Dust was thrown in the air.

“You’re really stronger than you look,” Justin said. “It wasn’t heavy for you?”

“To be fair, you’ve been out here all day, I guess, you’re more worn out. I just got here,” I said.

“Oh yeah, I guess you’re right.”

We stepped out the way for another pair with their own bits of wood to come in, and we headed back to do it all again.

“What was this supposed to be?” I asked. I couldn’t step over orange mush again and not get curious.

“The church was selling pumpkins and squashes, stuff like that. The youth group was running it.”

“But it’s not Halloween anymore.”

“I know, but people were still buying them. Like, Thanksgiving just passed, so I guess people wanted their pumpkin pies. Have you ever had pumpkin pie?”

“I haven’t.”

“Me neither. And I guess you can’t get one from us, anymore, not for a while.”

Justin chuckled to himself, but it sounded forced, uneasy. It didn’t last.

Dammit,” he said at the end.

The next few trips back to the pile of wood were wordless, other than Justin occasionally warning me about bumping into someone. We fell into a rhythm, and the work flew by without a hitch, even without any chatter. We crossed paths with Katy and Maria every now and then, but we were getting too tired to exchange any words.

We dropped the last wooden beam, and then we were done. With that part of the process, at least.

There was still smashed pumpkins and squashed squashes to get to, and pieces of the tattered tent to pick up.

Nowhere near done, but progress was made.

Justin removed his bandana, and wiped his brow.

“Thanks a lot, Lexi, really means a lot for you to be here and help out. Especially since you haven’t been around for a bit.”

“It’s nothing,” I said, just to say it.

“Man, I’m ready to take a break. Wanna come get a drink with me? I think the others are around, you should come say hi. We’ll all catch up.”

The others?

“I’m not sure if I’m up for that,” I said, trailing away at the end.

“Ah, come on, I know it’s not the best circumstances for a reunion, but I bet they’ll be down to see you again. It’ll be interesting, at least.”

At least.

That, I could agree with.

I searched among the other kids working, for Katy and Maria. Couldn’t find them. Did they run off somewhere?

Even considering everything between me and them, I caught myself looking for them.

But they weren’t here.

I looked back at Justin, who was waiting, eyebrow raised.

“Sound good to you?” he asked.

Reluctant, I answered, “I suppose.”

With that being the decided factor, we went to the tables to put back the gloves. Justin got an energy drink for himself, and I took a water. Justin gestured and moved, and I was forced to tag along.

“Should be this way,” Justin said. “If they aren’t lazing around, color me shocked.”

We walked across one of the parking lots, going around an office building. As we headed towards the front of what looked like the church’s event center, I saw them.

A group of teens, chatting away. Smoke flew away from some of their heads, and some had their own drinks taken from the cooler. They were dressed in trendy, fitting streetwear.

They immediately noticed us. Me. There were cheers.

“Alexis!”

“Holy shit, it’s you.”

“Wow, long time no see.”

“Hey, looks like the dead can come back, after all.”

My eyes roved over the people, smiling, happy at the sight of me. Obviously, connections were supposed to be here. I blinked.

I have no idea who any of you are.

The circle opened up somewhat, giving us room to slip in.

The faces. The eyes. The smiles. They were all being wasted on someone who wasn’t present.

“Hi guys,” I said, trying to inflect some emotion, but I was already regretting being here. This might not go well. I needed to be cautious.

“Want a hit?” someone beside me asked. A girl. I looked down at what she had in her hand. A vape.

“No, I’m good,” I said.

She shrugged, and took a puff of her own. Smoke dissipated into thin air.

“How’s it been with you, Alexis? Doing okay, considering everything?”

Another from the group. A boy, taller than the rest. For the life of me, I couldn’t pin down his name.

“Considering everything,” I said, “I’m doing what I can to be okay.”

“Super duper,” the boy said. “You can say we’re all doing the same.”

There were nods all around. More puffs of smoke as another gesture of assent.

“I can’t believe people went out of their way to do this,” another girl said. “All because another asshole kind of looks like us, kind of.”

“To think, the dicks that did this were less than half the people coming to help clean up now, and it’ll take the whole day to finish, if not longer.”

“Maybe if you guys got a move on, we’d finish faster,” Justin said.

The group laughed, as if they knew he was actually joking. Dismissing him.

“Hey Alexis, you gonna be here all day, or do you have to go school later? We all ditched our classes to be here.”

The tallest boy addressed me again.

I didn’t know how to answer without making things awkward.

I just had to go right ahead and tackle it directly.

“They shut down my school for a while,” I said. “And with how it’s already December, they threw in the towel and called this the early start of the break. Like this place, the school needs time to pick up the pieces.”

The boy’s eyes widened, and then he looked away, scratching his head. Embarrassed.

“Right, fuck. I forgot you went… I’m sorry.”

“Nice going, Andrew,” a girl said.

“And thank you for rubbing it in, Jasmine.”

Justin interjected. “Yeah, you didn’t mean it, Andrew, don’t worry.” He then turned to me and said, “Sorry to hear what happened at your school, by the way. I can’t even comprehend what that must have been like.”

Images flashed in my mind’s eye. Clear. The clearest of any memory I had access to.

It was a good thing, too. I needed them to be clear. I needed to remember.

“Hectic,” I said, putting the entire experience to a single word. It certainly was that.

“Did you know him?” a girl asked. The one that berated that ‘Andrew.’ Jasmine.

She lowered her voice to a near whisper when she specified a name.

“Harrian?”

The general atmosphere of the group changed. Everyone tensed up, averting gazes, shifting in place.

The fact that his name carried such a weight to it…

Jasmine still had her eye on me, waiting for an answer. I had to bring my thoughts back to that day.

I only ever had one memorable interaction with him. Anyone else was either so inconsequential I couldn’t recall, or a connection to those particular memories were simply gone.

But, I did see him that one time, at his most extreme, his most focused. He knew what he wanted, and he knew what the cost was, the consequences. Yet he continued in the face of that.

I barely knew Harrian Wong, yet, and the same time, I knew more about him than most ever would.

“We weren’t friends, if that’s what you’re asking,” I said. “I never really knew about it until after it happened. We ran in different circles.”

Jasmine looked relieved to hear that. “Good, good, you’re not associated with a freak like that.”

“Don’t say that,” a boy said. Not the tallest one. “He went to Francis Xavier. Sure, all he did was sit in the back and not talk to anyone, but we probably knew him better than Lexi did.”

Jasmine looked torn to hear that. “But, I was just saying, and…”

She didn’t finish her sentence, just stopping right there. She rolled her eyes and looked away.

The girl next to me passed her vape to Jasmine, and she helped herself.

Justin took a swig of his drink, then exhaled, loud. He put his arm around a girl on the other side of him, and kissed the top of her head. His girlfriend?

Justin spoke. “The last two days have been, like you said, hectic. Granted, it pales in comparison to what you’ve been through, but still. After the media caught wind of Harrian, it’s like we inherited a bit of that negative press, too. The looks we get when we walk in the halls, the way people walk around us, it’s as if we did it, we had something to do with this.”

“Yeah, and it’s not just us, the ones who actually come here,” Andrew said. “A friend of mine, he doesn’t come here, but he goes to the same school as me, he got jumped on the way to his car. Some Mexican gangbangers wanted to pick a fight with him, all because he looked like Harrian. And you know what’s funny? He’s not even Chinese, he’s fucking Korean, for fuck’s sake.”

Justin added, “People are already calling this the worst thing to ever happen on school grounds, and on top of the terrorists that started the whole thing, and the rumor that the Bluemoon is a student at Stephenville High School, and is an Asian-American too…”

“All of us get targets on our back,” Jasmine said, in between a puff of smoke, “Without ever asking for it.”

The group’s mood changed again, this time more morose. I had a feeling they came here, not to just ditch school, not just to help fix up the church, but to lick each other’s wounds. And the only thing they were getting in return was pity.

I wouldn’t have guessed that the aftermath of the incident at school could affect a whole population of people. But it was a minor setback, in the grand scheme of things.

Behind a mask, it wasn’t going to matter what my race was.

“Hey, Alexis,” the girl at Justin’s side said, getting my attention. “Does the Bluemoon go to your school?”

The ears of everyone else perked up. They all looked at me, again.

I knew the conversation would move to this, in some way. I wanted to avoid that by not being here.

I had to answer how a regular person would. Like Alexis.

I took a sip of my water, then answered, “I wouldn’t know, and even with what happened, I wouldn’t think so. If the Bluemoon really did go to my school, they wouldn’t have let something like that happen, right?”

There were various gestures all around.

“Maybe.”

“Yeah, right.”

“That’s probably true…”

In their haze of uncertainty, I took a step back, taking myself out of the group.

“It’s been great seeing all of you again,” I said. “But I should probably get back. I came with other people, and they might be looking for me if I’m gone for too long.”

Jasmine made a sound. “Aw, I was hoping you’d come chill with us for a bit longer. We were going to go and phở in about an hour. It’d be nice if you could join us.”

“I agree,” Andrew said. “There’s some new guys, but it’ll be like the whole gang’s back together. The OG Francis Xavier youth group. It’d be lit as fuck.”

“Definitely,” another said.

This was the part where I was supposed to consider the offer, but the will to do so just was not there.

You never fit in with them back in the day. You were the only Japanese kid there, and the only one who was half-anything. Mom didn’t make as much money as their parents, and they teased you over the clothes you showed up to bible school in. Maybe they didn’t mean it, maybe it was only in jest, but you stopped coming the second you didn’t have to.

The thought spilled into my head, slow, like hot magma. Intrusive, and it felt like holes being seared into my brain. New connections.

Memories I had, memories that I had to be told about. Forced to remember. And it came with pain.

I absolutely had no intention of coming along with these people, but now I had another reason not to.

“We’ll see,” I said, my head lowered an inch, from the coming aches. “I’ll still be here for the next hour or so, I’ll just play it from there.”

All lies.

“Fair,” Justin said. “And the rest of you, break time’s over. Back to work, before Mrs. Phan woops y’all herself.”

The rest of the group spoke all at once, most of it a jumble from all the different voices. But they all started to disperse, going elsewhere, in pairs or groups of three.

“See you, Emily,” Justin said to the girl by his side. “I’ll walk with Alexis.”

You’ll what?

“Hmph, do anything funny, and it’s gonna be the end of you. Not us, you.”

The girl, Emily, warned him.

“Don’t be crazy, I won’t do anything funny, I’m not even much of a funny guy. Isn’t that right, Alexis?”

Justin and Emily both looked in my direction.

“Um, yeah, it’s true, he’s not funny at all,” I said.

They both laughed, but I didn’t see the humor in what I said. I just told it as I saw it.

“Okay then, I’ll catch you two later,” Emily said. “It was good to see you again, Alexis. Hope to see you soon, and under better circumstances.”

“Same. Good to see you all again.”

Then, before I could take another step back, Emily opened her arms, and approached me.

I was wrapped into a hug before I could do or say anything about it.

Restricted, frozen, stuck in the moment. I didn’t need this, right now.

I wedged my arms between us, and nudged, prompting her to stop. She did.

“Bye,” I said, waving. I turned before anything else could happen. Justin followed.

We started heading back the way we came.

“See, that wasn’t so bad,” Justin commented as we walked. “Just like old times.”

Was it like old times? I wouldn’t have known.

We returned to the field, and some progress was made in our absence. Nothing significant, but noticeable.

I couldn’t find Katy and Maria. They weren’t here.

Still?

We reached the table with all of the gloves and tools. We both threw away our drinks. Justin started removing his gloves, and I copied him.

“Before we get back to work, mind if I show you something?” Justin asked.

“Show me what?”

“Don’t worry, it’s nothing that’ll freak Emily out, I just wanted to take you inside the church.”

“Oh, okay. Fine.”

“Cool, let’s head.”

Justin took the lead, and we changed course, heading to the church itself.

Every door was broken into, the glass panels gone. We stepped through the door, rather than opening it.

The light from outside immediately gave way to the dim, hollow interior.

If the outside was bad, the inside of the church received the worst of it. Smeared with dirt marks and graffiti, and other streak of stuff with a smell that made my imagination do the rest.

Justin continued.

“Watch your step, no one’s cleared this place out yet. To be honest, we’re not supposed to be in here, more qualified people will take care of this place, but the rest of us got to go through here, and I wanted you to see it, too.”

“Why me?” I asked.

“Because you’re one of us,” he said.

I didn’t respond to that sentiment. Even when my thoughts were laughing otherwise.

Justin led us to the main, central area of the church. Aisles and pews were either knocked down or missing, some even charred. Stained glass windows at the sides were shattered, the walls carrying a red and blue and green hue wherever pieces of glass reflected the light elsewhere. There was supposed to be a table in the middle of the room, where a majority of the service would take place, but it was gone. Nowhere around.

The place had such an emptiness to it. Uncanny, even for me. If this was the house of God, then he had already moved out.

As we moved, Justin pointed to the head of the room, the chamber. He lifted his finger up.

“Look there,” he said.

I looked, and saw what he was referring to. Larger than life-sized effigy of Christ, arms splayed, legs together. Nailed to a wooden cross. The crucifix. It was untouched, unsullied by the damage surrounding it.

“This whole place got fu- messed up, and yet they couldn’t touch that,” Justin explained. “It didn’t get messed with. Isn’t that, I don’t know, kind of cool?”

“That’s because it’s so high up,” I said. “Who could reasonably touch that without wasting time? If you wanted to cause damage before anyone could stop you, you’d be better off getting what’s immediately around you.”

“Man, you’re such a spoilsport,” Justin said, frowning. He looked back to the figure. “I know I’m the head of the youth program and everything, but I’m not like the Pope when it comes to stuff like this. Even then, I couldn’t help but feel something when I saw it, you know? I showed the others, and they said the same. They said it helped. I don’t know, I just thought you might feel the same way.”

I looked again, and saw the bloodied corpse of a man nailed to wood. The figure itself wasn’t defamed or damaged, but, in a sense, it was already ruined. The man himself.

“Maybe,” I said.

“Well, at least you saw it.”

“No, I, uh, I appreciate the sentiment.”

I couldn’t tell if that was a lie or not.

“You’re welcome, oh hey, I’m surprised to see you here.”

Justin turned when he finished that sentence, and I realized he wasn’t talking to me. I turned, as well.

Sitting at the front aisle was Katy and Maria, both looking our way as we reached them.

“There you are,” I said.

“Here we are,” Katy said back, monotone.

“Who let you guys here?” Justin asked. “Not that I mind, but right now it’s kind of off-limits.”

“The priest did,” Maria said. “We were asked to go help fix up the offices, and he was there, and noticed Katy. Apparently, um…”

Maria stopped.

“He used to know my dad,” Katy explained, a somber look in her eyes. “He was a supporter of his back when he ran for DA.”

“DA?” Justin repeated.

“District Attorney.”

“Oh, yeah. Oh, your dad was…”

Justin managed to stop himself before he said something completely stupid. But he was already too late. He hit that sore spot, and it showed on Katy’s face.

That, I could recognize.

Justin scratched the back of his head, clearly ashamed of himself. “Sorry, I wasn’t trying to-”

“I know,” Katy said, curt. “Anyways, Father Chris wanted to show us this, probably for the same reasons you brought her.”

She didn’t look at me when she said that. ‘Her.’

“Where’s Father now?” Justin asked.

“He left to do more work. Said we could be here as long as we wanted. We were just talking.”

Talking about what?

Justin sniffled, wiped his nose.

“Okay, but we probably should go. We might get in trouble if we overstay our welcome. It is off-limits for a reason, the building’s not exactly up to code.”

Katy and Maria traded looks.

“Sure,” Maria said, and they both got up and left, passing us without another word.

It was clear they were on the same page about something. If it had anything to do with me, I had to be ready. Even now, they were obstacles.

We have to watch our backs around them. Around everyone. You know this.

I did.

Justin moved to catch up. Before I did the same, I glanced back up at the figure above.

A pained expression, but a resigned one. If anyone were to help him, he wasn’t expecting it, and it would have to be of their own accord.

To try and rebuild the peace that was once here, or to find a new peace for myself. I had already tried the former, numerous times.

Checking again, I had noticed something else, too.

By the front, where the choir would be situated, a young girl sat in one of the chairs. Her face scratched out.

Unsightly.

What do you want to do?

I heard that voice ask.

“What do I do?” I started, as if on autopilot, but I corrected myself. “I know exactly I want to do. Let’s just pray we don’t run out of time.”

I could imagine the taste on my lips. Sweet.

Perfect.

I turned my back, and saw the shadowed-Hleuco standing before me. Between me and the others.

His feathers ruffled, even though no wind could affect him here.

I smiled.

I stepped forward, joining him, and we left the church.

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046 – Supernova

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I was fast, I could overtake people with just my speed alone. It was one of my assets when it came to being a superhero. It gave me an advantage, it gave me value.

People had guns, but I was faster than those people. Even if they had a tool to level the playing field, more often than not, I still had them beat. I was still much faster than they were.

But, in the most critical of critical moments, I wasn’t faster than this finger, this pulled trigger. The bullets that followed.

Flown into a barrage of metal and destruction.

I was torn to ribbons, and then the others. I lost the breath needed to vocalize the pain.

Oh.

My head whipped back, cracking.

Eyes rolled in the back of the sockets. I was thrown back, along with the splattered blood and the picked-apart meat.

In a very real sense, I was killed.

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