041 – Wake

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The sun pierced through broken windows, visible rays coming down onto the rotunda.

I’m still up. I’m still doing this.

Too exhausted, I wasn’t registering the swarm of people here as people, merely obstacles. Getting in my way, preventing me from moving forward. At this rate, I’d be stuck. At this rate, I’d lose them.

I’d lose him.

I continued to press onward, shoving more people out of the way. Sound and noise stacked upon one another, the shouting and the ruckus of things breaking and shattering filled what was essentially a huge echo chamber. It disoriented, threw me off course, whenever my focus momentarily slipped.

A man turned, facing me directly. Me. He wanted to impede my progress.

No.

I swung my hand, despite the little space allowed. It was cramped.

The back of my hand struck his cheek, and he flew, spinning into more people behind him. His tumbling down led to a chain reaction, clearing a path for me.

I took it, before the sea of people could swallow up the space again, like waves after an impact.

The blasts and crashes, it buzzed in my head, and I could hardly hear my own thoughts. Not that I needed them, I was being driven by only one goal, by a singular objective I needed to complete. Everything I was doing went towards that goal’s fulfilment.

Go go go go go go get get get get get get.

Another person. Another thing in my goddamn way.

My foot moved without a conscious thought controlling it. I hit her square in the chest.

She got sent back, delivered elsewhere. More followed, more of a path made.

I was in a crowd of many. I almost blended in. Too much was going on for any one person to pay any attention to one small, masked girl among a large number of others. A needle in a haystack. I could work without largely being noticed.

I continued on, stepping over bodies and debris, trying not to get my foot caught on anything, trying not to get slowed down. Though, I couldn’t do the first without compromising the second.

More pushing, more pulling. The masses pushed, and I had to push back.

An endless fight.

Finally, finally, I made it out of the crowd. There were still many here, but they were in scattered clumps, groups fighting amongst themselves. Here, I had room to move without bumping into anyone, or anything else.

So I moved.

I went to where I saw them last, heading into the large corridor on the east wing. The noise didn’t lessen since leaving the rotunda. Instead, it seemed to get worse, the sound more free to travel throughout the more empty space.

I shook my head, then immediately regretted it. Dizzy. Hurt.

So sleepy.

I looked again, trying to find them.

Not here.

Fuck, no, fuck.

I tried again, checking around.

No…

A glimpse.

A group, moving up the large marbled stairs that zig-zagged to the next floor. The second floor. I lost visual when they went up high enough for the ceiling to block my view.

I moved, as swiftly as my weary legs would take me.

I took the stairs by three, before I almost tripped. My hand reached for the wooden railing for support.

Hasty, so hasty.

Could jump all the way, skip the first flight of stairs and middle landing entirely, and work my way up the second flight instead. But I was so fucking heavy. Exhausted. Tapping into empty reserves. A shell of a person, moving only with the purpose that was last in its mind before the mind had shut down completely.

A zombie, in a very scarily real sense.

I took the stairs a step at a time, sometimes two, when I felt daring enough. I turned when I reached the middle landing, then turned, taking the stairs as painfully slow as before. I moved someone out of the way, where they were resting their back on the railing, juice flowing from their sides.

Juice, red, red juice, yes.

No. Him first.

I want him first.

Finally, finally, I completed my trek, and ascended the stairs. I was on the second floor, in another large, grand hall.

Here, there was much less in the way of obstacles, but the sound was only marginally dampened. The hall led back to the center of the building, the rotunda. The chaotic cacophony carried here, too. I couldn’t escape it.

Left, right, I looked both ways.

Not that way, back to the rotunda, that way.

Down the hall, into a room.

I saw them move.

I followed.

The door closed before I got to it. Big. Two, three times my size. It looked heavy.

I pressed, arms straining, and the door opened, swinging.

Six in here. Five, excluding him. The one I wanted so bad it was killing me.

They all turned to the door. To me.

All of them had some kind of blunt instrument in their hand, looking like they were more than ready to strike, and they did.

They ran at me.

Still up, still doing this.

I got into a crouch, ready to jump.

Get over their heads, change up our placement on the field, make things easier on me

My legs had another idea.

Instead of tense, potential energy ready to turn and propel me upward, I continued, and fell down onto my knees.

On my knees.

Oh no no no no no.

My chin depressed into the space between my collarbone, I was leaning forward. I had pretty much spent all that I had, all that I was.

Body failing me, betraying me.

I was completely open.

The first hit struck home, a club to my temple.

My ear touched my shoulder.

I went one way, having to catch myself by throwing my hands to the floor.

I shifted, crawling, but I could not get away from the next hit.

A swift kick to the stomach.

I choked, and my body contorted, falling onto my back.

Everything was going wrong so fast, I barely had the time to process what was happening.

Mind running slow, body not moving how and when I wanted it to.

It was an attack on all fronts. Externally, internally.

Another person took their turn, striking. I lifted an arm to block my face.

The knife went through me like I was butter. Hot, through cold.

Piercing. The pain shot through my body, jolting my brain awake. I saw the blade stick out through my arm, through the sleeve, crimson soaking the fabric.

My breath was cut short, reduced to fits and starts, and I was twitching, trying to get away. But I was pinned, my limbs felt like jelly from the shock of it all.

With me being stunned, the others took that as an opportunity to continue their assault, hitting and clubbing me, giving it all they had. The knife stayed in my arm, the owner of it having stepped back to give the others more room. I would have turned into a bloody mess, had it not been for my healing, but I did have my limits. And I was about to meet them.

Not healing fast enough.

Never drank blood, instead losing it. I was seeing stars, losing my sense of self.

Lost in a sort of black emptiness.

Hit. Pain. Hurt. Cut.

I was meat, being tenderized. Served up.

A hand grabbed for my face, balling itself into a fist. My goggles and ski mask were starting to come with it as it pulled away.

Can’t let that happen.

Both of my hands went in front of my face, gripping the arm that had my mask by the wrist. I gripped as hard as I still could, then twisted.

Bones cracked, then shifted out of place.

A cry. It should have been close, but it sounded farther off.

I felt hands come off of me, a momentary lapse of inactivity where I wasn’t being hit or attacked. I was blinded, my mask and goggles scrunched up over my eyes, but I used that as my chance to find my way to my feet.

I still had their arm in my grasp, I wouldn’t let go.

Anger, and but a blip of energy left to express it.

I spun, their body flailing around me, and I released them at the top of my turn. The pained cries of others, the crashing of flesh onto wood. I must have thrown hard enough to slam a number of them back.

Over the crying, I heard an exchange, but I missed the first part of it.

“Why is it beeping?”

“It’s beeping?”

“I thought we were supposed-”

“Fuck, everyone get out! We’re leaving him!”

“What about-”

“Benny! You waste the time to do it now, you’ll be blown sky-fucking-high. Let’s go.”

Squeaks of sneakers on marble, then steps on carpet, then nothing.

My back hit a wall behind me, and I pushed my legs to prop myself up, getting myself to stand. I fixed my mask and goggles with my right hand as I did so.

My vision was blurry, but it was better than nothing. I could make out the room.

Wider than it was tall, it was like an office space that had been cleared out for future use. It had a regal look to it, that matched the marble and Roman architecture of the rest of the building. The only light in here was natural, coming in from the windows on one side of the room.

I glanced across the floor. My eyes fell upon a vest, sliding across the floor, and the man who threw it.

Thomas.

Jacket was off, tossed behind him. He was by the corner on the opposite end, fallen over.

I looked back at the vest. The beeping vest.

My body moved before I could make sense of it all. Before the danger actually settled in. Like something else has taken over.

I threw everything I had into one last sprint. One last go. One last chance to get something right.

Everything blurred together. A whirlwind of heat and sound.

I crossed the room as everything fell apart.

One hour ago

I had to lift a goggle lens away from my eye if I wanted to rub at it. I wanted to, but the police officers squished beside me prevented me from taking that course of action.

I sat in the back of a police van, rubbing shoulders with others stuffed in here. Stuffed, because I couldn’t move, couldn’t rest. Tilt my head either way, I’d end up resting my head on an officer’s arm. Lean forward, I’d bump into James Gomez.

Considering everything that had happened in the past few hours… this was really awkward. Super awkward.

The van was stuck in traffic. We weren’t even close enough to be considered close, but long stretches of cars kept us from moving an inch. Honking horns blared randomly, sometimes in spurts, other times all at once into one huge wall of sound. Even if I had the room to rest my head and sleep, the sound kept me up.

It had been like this for at least for an hour and a half. Progress hadn’t been good.

I was becoming twitchy, despite my weariness. We were supposed to have the upper hand, but we weren’t moving fast enough to make any use of it, and that advantage was slipping away with every passing second.

It grated, and it must have been the same for Gomez, too.

I could tell because I saw it.

He had kept checking his wristwatch to the point that I had lost count, and opened his phone just as many times. Irritated.

He shook his head.

“You, you, and you,” he said, pointing to a select few, including the two officers beside me. But not me. “We won’t make it in time like this. I want eyes on the field. Get out and run.”

They followed his order without so much of a ‘yes sir,’ opening the metal doors to make it out of the van. I turned away from the opening to better obscure myself, hide my visage.

I did notice how the light changed, through the front window. The sun was rising.

They closed the doors behind them, and I was left alone with Gomez, and one other police officer, sitting to Gomez’s right.

That didn’t make things any less awkward.

The van inched some, the most progress we’d made in minutes.

Gomez handled most of the questioning, but there wasn’t anything else we got out of Linda Day that was terribly useful. She was a lackey, apparently forced to pay some kind of debt. A debt that was big enough to warrant faking her death. Either way, her circumstances weren’t helpful to us stopping the planned riot on city hall.

Gomez then ordered his men to be split up into groups. One to keep an eye on Linda and the other two henchmen, and the weapons they stole back from police. Another would have to keep tabs on Edgar Brown. The final group had to go to city hall… just to see what could be done, if anything. We were stretched thin, by that point. At most, it would have to be damage control.

I was included in that final group.

I sat in thought, trying to come up with a way to foil Solace’s plan that didn’t involve total anarchy, given how stacked things were against us. Nothing.

“Ah!”

A feeling like I was falling, my whole body jolted. I jumped in my seat.

I had drifted too far forward without realizing it.

Gomez and the other cop both looked at me.

“Tired?” he asked.

I nodded, sleepily.

“I’ve been at this all night, I had hoped that this would be over by now. Guess not.”

“Almost there, almost.”

I would have agreed, except this whole ordeal wouldn’t just magically fix itself overnight. Even if we got Thomas back, Solace was still a very real threat that still needed to be taken head on. Even this was a distraction, a detour, towards the real goal.

I made some sort of gesture.

Gomez cleared his throat before saying, “Law enforcement officers have a sworn duty to protect and serve their citizens, that means a lot of late nights, early mornings. That’s something one should expect, going into this, and it’s something one gets trained for. You… you weren’t trained for this, were you? You didn’t expect this?”

I put my head back, glancing away.

“No, I wasn’t. If anything, it’s more like I was thrown into the ocean without having ever learned how to swim. And the ocean’s on fire. And full of sharks. And my hands were tied behind my back.”

“Your analogy lost it’s focus at the end there, but I see what you mean. I think. You’re new to your… powers?”

“More than you know. I’m not an alien, or a super… whatever. I’m…”

I trailed off.

“You’re what?”

I exhaled.

“I’m just very unlucky.”

A glance back, and I saw Gomez on his phone again, typing away.

“Well, you’re young, younger than anyone would realistically guess, I’m surprised you even managed to manage,” he said, eyes still on his screen, “I wonder how well I’d hold up, if I were in your shoes.”

I would have rolled my eyes, if my eyes didn’t feel so hot, as though they were overheated. Why was I talking to him, why was I engaging? It didn’t seem to fit with what had happened not too long ago, when I was berating him for not jumping at the gun to cooperate.

I wanted to distract myself some more, pass the time. At least, I had to keep myself mentally pacing.

But my only option was to keep talking with Gomez.

“Any updates?” I asked. I sounded like Hleuco, there.

He continued typing on his phone, and a slight frown formed on his lips. “They’ll let me know when they get there, give it a minute.”

“That’s why I suggested to go down there myself, by rooftop. I could find a bird’s eye view of things, see how things are, and I can direct you guys from there.”

Gomez grunted, and it was prolonged, as though he was actually irritated by my suggestion.

“It’s too risky, and there are a lot of eyes at city hall already. Granted, those eyes aren’t mine, but we know the situation enough that throwing you in there would be like throwing a bull in a china shop.”

“I can hide,” I said, “I’m not even wearing my usual costume.”

He eyed me. “Somehow I doubt your ability to be inconspicuous. You heard Linda Day, people have been camped out there, waiting for the mayor to come out and speak. And, considering how fast word gets out nowadays, more must be coming out in droves to see what’s going to happen. Reporters, bloggers, activists, actual protesters, the morbidly curious…”

He tapped his foot, before adding, “By itself, that’s enough cause for concern. A riot might very well break out on its own, and that’s before considering both you and Solace. I don’t want fuel to the fire.”

“You don’t trust me,” I said.

“I don’t know you, but I suppose that does extend to me not trusting you completely. You’ll have to understand that I’m coming at this from a police officer’s point of view. There’s still a lot we don’t know about you, both in your true nature and your true intentions. The less of a factor you yourself play, the better.”

I gritted my teeth. Being benched, at such a crucial hour? Hell no. I didn’t spend the whole night tearing the city apart to find Thomas, just to hand it off to others. Why was I brought along, if I’d end up being stuck in here?

I tried balling my hands into fists, but I found there was some missing strength, there, too much effort for such a weak grip. I looked at Gomez head on, asking him something I probably should have made clear before I got into a van full of policemen.

“So you are going to arrest me, after all this. Is that why you want me out of the way, keep me close so I don’t escape?”

Gomez traded a quick look with the cop sitting next to him. Campbell, now that I tried to put effort in remembering his name.

“Right now, we’re aligned by mutual interests, but there’s a fine line, here. I will tolerate you being here, so long as you don’t give me a reason to change my mind. But, right here, right now? I’m more concerned about damage control, and getting Thomas back.”

I took note of that word, ‘tolerate.’ I kept that in mind.

I turned to Campbell, curious about his thoughts, too.

“And you? Do you agree with him?”

He looked at me straight in the eye. Or the goggles.

“If the Chief is willing to go along with it, then I’m in no position to complain. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I’d like to think they’re of the same mind.”

I huffed through my nose, and I felt it heat up my face.

“Speaking for myself, though,” Campbell said, “There were times where you’ve been there to help, and we weren’t, or you’ve provided assistance at a critical moment. I was there when you stopped that car with your bare hands. That was impressive.”

An immense pressure pressed on my arms. The sensation came back to me. A memory.

“Um, thanks, I guess,” I said.

“But I’m just speaking for myself,” Campbell reiterated. “Maybe the others feel the same way, or they despise you all the same, but they trust in the Chief’s judgement enough to, like he said, tolerate you being here, without handcuffs.”

Tolerate.

“You know, if I can stop a speeding car with my bare hands, handcuffs won’t be enough to keep me down.”

Gomez put his phone away. “I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could get away quite easily. How far you’d go, that’s a different matter, entirely.”

An uneasy feeling stirred inside me. A rocky truce between me and the police, that only existed in the now. How things would play out in the near future, was unclear.

It might help to make a good impression, in the meantime.

The van inched once more. I was scared that we wouldn’t make it in time.

“Do we, or, you, not have any allies that can help us there?” I asked, switching topics. “Police that are already stationed at city hall?”

“If anyone’s already stationed there, that means they’re there on someone else’s orders, not mine. It might be fine if I show my face, but I have to be careful not to tip anyone off about what we know.”

“You’re the police chief, are you really that powerless?”

Campbell looked over at Gomez, but Gomez had his eyes on me. They held something deeper than disappointment.

“I have authority over my men, don’t get me wrong. I can tell them where to go and what to do when they get there. Generally speaking. But, quite a number of them are in the pocket of someone else, for any number of reasons. And for some of them, reasons I can’t fault them for. So, under normal circumstances, they’ll listen, and they’ll entertain me, but I know where their loyalties lie.”

I almost had a sense of pity for Gomez. What did it mean to be at the top, when you weren’t allowed to exercise the power that came with that position? I could imagine someone becoming jaded over time, as the frustration gave way to a reluctant acceptance.

This world…

“I’m… sorry,” I decided to say. That last word was especially difficult. I wasn’t sure I meant it, it just felt right to say. “I called you inept… and a motherfucker.”

Gomez chuckled at that, surprising me. “Oh, that? I already forgot about that.”

“She called you that, sir?” the officer beside him asked.

Gomez shrugged, “It’s nothing. I’ve been called far worse things by good friends of mine. But let’s not concern ourselves with something so trivial, let’s focus on getting Thomas back.”

That, we could all agree on. If only the traffic would let us through.

The van moved along again, but not by inches, this time. It was slow, but we were moving.

“Looks like traffic’s being directed away from city hall now,” Gomez explained. “That should speed things along.”

“Are we going to make in time?” I asked.

“We might miss the first part of the mayor’s speech, but we’ll get there.”

I grumbled, but I was unable to do anything about it. I just sat, and waited for the van to take us there.

Fifteen minutes ago

They benched me, after all.

Fuck this.

Gomez and Campbell – even the driver – hopped out of the van as soon as we arrived at city hall, disappearing into the crowd of people. There was a scary amount of people here.

I looked out from the front windshield of the van.

City Hall. The building was big, expansive. Modeled after the U.S. Capitol building, sans the giant dome that topped it off. White, with columns across the front, stairs leading up to it. A symbol of democracy.

I had been here once before, on a school field trip back in elementary school. It was big then, and it seemed even bigger now, especially with all the people here.

So many people.

The van was parked right past the large front gates that served as the official entrance to the premises. Past the gates was a field that was about the size of a football field, if not bigger. It was more like a park, though, with pathways for a stroll and trees to have a picnic under the shade. Not a bad place to do some sightseeing, and enjoy the weather.

However, right now, there was so many people I could hardly find a patch of green, just heads, other vans, picket signs, raised fists. It was as if a popular rapper decided to hold a concert here.

And the sheer volume, from the chanting to the cheering, to the random person shouting their own manifesto, I only made out a few words from Mayor Scott, who was standing at the head of the crowd, above them on a makeshift stage, in front of city hall. Pretty much a dot, from here.

He spoke into some mics attached to a podium.

“Blank Face, and this terrorist… not be tolerated… justice will be…”

I can’t understand what he’s trying to say.

I grabbed the walkie-talkie by my side, the only consolation Gomez lent me. I spoke into it.

“What’s the deal?” I asked, “Did you find him yet?”

Now I’m the guy in the van.

The device produced a burst of static before I heard Gomez.

Nothing yet. I’m approaching the stage, trying to get close to the mayor, but I’m not seeing anything on my way there. There’s too many people, and a lot of them are dressed like you, by the way.

“I can see that from here. Guess I wouldn’t be much help here, either. It’s like the whole ‘needle in a haystack’ thing.”

Or maybe a ‘haystack in a pile of needles.’ I’ll keep my eyes peeled. The others will, too.

“Yeah,” I said, and I left it at that. Powerless.

I was getting twitchy. I was here, but Thomas was nowhere to be found. So close, but he was constantly yanked from my fingertips. I wanted to get him so bad.

I went back to watching the mayor, trying to catch every other word, watching whether that dot or that dot was suspicious or not. My vision was swimming, from both the difficulty of it, and simply exhaustion and overwork taking its toll.

The mayor continued.

“We will see to it that-”

A dot moved across the stage. To the podium.

The mayor’s speech was interrupted. He was thrown to the floor.

Cries of surprise swelled over the crowd like a wave, starting from the front, and coming all the way back here.

I gripped the walkie-talkie.

Someone else was at the podium. Someone new. They were far away, but I saw the outline of a blue hood over their heads. Two other dots stood behind them.

They spoke, and they were somehow much more audible than the mayor.

“This is Thomas Thompson, District Attorney-elect for the city of Stephenville, and I stand in support of Solace.”

Another wave of surprise. I felt it, too.

There he is.

I immediately went to the walkie-talkie. “Are you getting this?”

No answer.

Hey!”

Again, nothing.

Thomas was the middle of his speech. I turned my eyes to him, again.

“In just a short amount of… time, the villain known as The Bluemoon has terrorized the good people of Stephenville, including me and my family. I had to turn myself to Solace in order to protect those that I love, and go into… hiding. But, it wouldn’t have been for long, because I want this city to be rid of this evil, and the only way to get back our sense of comfort in these… hard times, is to side with Solace!”

I pressed the button on the walkie-talkie, but my throat was dry.

Nothing he was saying made sense, none of it. He had to have been coerced into saying these things, like that guy back at the dinner party. The real Solace had to be speaking through him, spouting nonsense.

But, even if that were true, hearing Thomas say those things…

It cut, and it cut deep.

I need to stop him.

“Solace is not the enemy, rather our liberat-”

Someone interrupted Thomas, crossing the stage and slamming into him.

The panic was bubbling, now, and I saw it boiling throughout the crowd that was gathered here.

Then, a pop.

And all hell broke loose.

The crowd expanded out into every direction, as if to get as far away from the building as possible. But another group within that crowd made their play, too.

One out of every ten in the crowd were dressed like me, like Blank Face. Blue hoods, white masks. Some were carrying signs, others were clumped together, but they all dropped what they were doing to add to the chaos. The anarchy of it all.

They shoved into others, preventing them from getting away easily. Fights broke out, panic spreading like fire. A crush of people ran past the van, trying to go through the gates behind me.

Oh no.

I turned, and the walkie-talkie finally buzzed.

Blank Face, this is Gomez! I tried to tackle Thomas but… agh!

“What’s going on now?”

There’s a group with him, and they got away, taking him along. They’re fleeing into the building, and rioters are going in with them. I can’t follow anymore.

“Why not?”

The mayor’s hurt, I have to stay with him, keep him secure. And, I’m in no condition to give them chase. But you can.

I was drowsy as fuck, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

“I’m on it!” I said, and I tossed the walkie-talkie behind me. Needed both hands for this one.

I opened the back doors of the van.

The first thing I saw was that the gates were closed, people rattling them. They weren’t closed before.

Shit, I had to leave that behind, couldn’t help there. How were we supposed to control this damage?

Need to get to Thomas.

I stepped out of the the van, and was immediately flushed into the horde of masses. Not people, obstacles.

Barely budge, barely move, I had no agency here.

The city hall was a whole football field away. How was I supposed to get there in time?

I had to fight my way through.

I fought.

Present

The dust settled after the rubble.

The vest had exploded. Exploded. With far more force and energy than I would have ever realistically expected. I wasn’t a soldier, I hadn’t grown up in a war-torn area of the world. This was never something I had to anticipate. The shock, the sound, the impact, it rocked my very soul.

And the floor.

The explosion tore the floor to pieces, as if there was an anger to it, and it was lashing out at everything it came into contact with. Which was mostly everything in this wide room. I was instantly enveloped in heat, then smoke, before the floor broke from under me. I reached in front of me, feeling fabric, the weight behind it.

I pulled him toward me as we were tumbling down.

Glass, rock, wood. Everything had moved, the impacting tossing us every which way. It added to the disorientation, the dizziness of it all. I spun, and my head continued to spin. I tried with all my might to keep straight, to keep Thomas close. And, as everything crumbled and broke all around us, to not get him crushed.

I’d dropped before from far higher heights, but this was a whole other level. This was a fall, a descent. We were on the second floor, and we were headed to the first.

Thrashed around, like I was a rag in a dryer. It didn’t last, but it felt like forever.

The dust settled after the rubble.

Everything ached. Everything hurt.

I coughed, but found that my chest and back wouldn’t expand properly to let out any air. I sputtered, instead. My fast and short breathing heated up my mask, my face. Stuffy.

Down on my hands and knees. I felt like I was sinking into the earth.

Dark, cloudy, could barely see. Ears ringing.

An immense weight sat on me, threatening to crush me flat if I gave in to the pressure. Couldn’t, wouldn’t.

“Ah! Aaaah!”

With the dust, hysteria also settled in.

“H- help, help! Somebody help! There, there are p- people down here! We’re trapped here! Please someone come get us! Help! We’re down here! He-”

I coughed, again. Harder to get my breath this time. Wheezing. My arms shook, and that was enough for the rock that had me pinned to find more purchase, pushing me down. A rumble of other rocks shifting. I had to straighten my arms again, and sharp pang reminded me of the knife that was still in my arm.

Okay, no screaming, or we’ll be even more stuck down here.

Couldn’t let this fucking boulder crush me, wouldn’t.

Because Thomas was right under me, on his back, in between my arms.

In the gloom, I could make out his features. He’d seen better days.

Soot and dirt smeared his forehead, down to his right cheek. His hair was messy, sticking up in some places, reddened in others. A gash that traced his left temple to his nose, bad enough that he couldn’t open his left eye. Blood colored the left side of his face.

Whatever Styx had done to him, it didn’t include his face. That was hardly a relief, for my part.

Alive, but barely. But I had him.

I just had to find a way to get us out.

“Thomas,” I said. It was a struggle to say anything, but I wanted to say something to Thomas. I finally had him. After everything I’d been through, I had him.

“Are you hurt?” I asked.

He moved his head side to side, painfully slow.

It was obvious he was hurt, I could see it, I could infer, thinking back to the bloodied chair I saw back at the warehouse.

You don’t have to lie to me, Thomas.

“Kept you waiting, huh?” I asked instead.

Somehow, or perhaps miraculously, Thomas found it within himself to smile. It was weak, and I could tell it strained him, but he smiled.

“Took you long enough,” he said, nearing a whisper. “The wait was killing me.”

Despite everything, I cracked a smile too, though just as weak.

“I got your message,” I whispered, “But… But…”

“How? It was a precautionary measure. I figured Solace would be coming for me the moment he made himself known at the dinner party.”

He took a second to breathe. Several.

“Your pager. I had a text queued, timed to whenever Solace’s timers would reach zero. If I was okay, I could simply set it back twenty-four hours. If not…”

“I get the message,” I said.

“Precisely. If something were to happen to me, I wouldn’t be able to send you where I was exactly, or where I would be taken. They ended up taking my phone, anyway. My best bet was to send you to James, and you could work with him.”

I winced, my back… just my back. It fucking hurt.

“Sorry to break it to you,” I said, “But Gomez wasn’t willing to play along at first. He was harder to bring on board than I would’ve liked, but even then…”

His expression changed, disappointment.

“Shame.”

Shame on Gomez, his best friend, or shame on me, the supposed superhero? Shame that we couldn’t work together sooner to find him? Or maybe shame on himself, for having not seen this coming?

I was projecting, had to put my priorities elsewhere. Like keeping myself up.

The boulder was getting heavier with every second. Losing strength, strength that I needed, strength that I required.

I still managed to tell him more. “I was turning this city upside-down to try and find you. You have no idea what my night was like.”

Another frail smile from Thomas.

“Same.”

I couldn’t keep it up anymore, I frowned.

“I can’t hold on for much longer,” I said, in between short breaths. “I’m losing it… This thing is fucking heavy.”

“You’re doing great, Alexis.”

Alexis. That was it, right, my name? Hearing it made me feel better. By a small, almost negligible margin, but better.

“I think I can hear people,” Thomas said, “Checking over the debris.”

“Really?” I tried to hear, but it was impossible for me, now. It was as if my heart was in my head, pounding in my skull. Nothing but an intrusive, arrhythmic pounding.

“Really. I’d hate to put even more pressure on you, but if you can get this thing off…”

I shut my eyes, the beginnings of tears wetting the corners of my eyes.

“I can’t, I can’t, it’s taking everything I have just to stay in this pose. It’s too heavy.”

“You have to try, Alexis, believe in yourself, for once.”

The air in here was thinning, I couldn’t repeat myself.

I shut my eyes, tighter, and tensed all the muscles in my body. I tried to push, to find my way to my feet, to get this chunk of rubble off of me.

No. There was nothing there. It wouldn’t budge. I wouldn’t budge.

The attempt left my arms wobbling for a second, and the rock pushed on me even more. Thomas shuddered, but it wasn’t like he could go anywhere. I did what I could to straighten my arms again, to stop its progress in squashing us. It stopped, but I was closer to Thomas, now, my arms straining two-fold.

I gasped for air that wasn’t there. That was enough to show Thomas that it was hopeless.

I was burnt out, completely empty. Impossible, to do this on my own, with the resources I had available, with the resources I had within me. I needed something more, I needed more than I what I was.

Thomas met my eyes, and I stared back. I was so close to saving him, yet it had to be like this.

This isn’t fair, the world isn’t fair.

Thomas whispered softly. Barely audible, drowned out by the pounding in my head.

“What?”

“My blood, Alexis, drink my blood.”

My own blood ran cold.

What?”

“I’m giving you my blood to drink, Alexis, use it. Anything to get you back on your feet.”

I flinched, a particular jagged edge driving into the back of my shoulder. The rock pushed down on me again, pushing me closer to Thomas’s face.

He shifted, bringing his arms up. I could see the effort it took, how much it hurt him to do so.

He pulled up on my mask, freeing my lips, my nose. He was uncomfortably close.

“Do it, it’s okay,” he said. “In fact, consider it an explicit order.”

“I… can’t,” I said back, “It’s too…”

I trailed off.

“This is a matter of life… and death, Alexis, we can’t let something like that stop us now.”

I grimaced at the thought of it, but the desperation in me told me he was right. I might be able to get some strength back to get this thing off of me, but even then, I’d never pushed myself that hard before.

Thomas hacked out a cough, and spurts of blood flew from his mouth.

“Alexis, we need to get out of here. You… know, I managed to get some stuff on Solace. You were right about Benny, but she’s nothing but a hired gun, not unlike Edgar, and Linda. And Styx…”

He coughed again.

“I want to share my… notes, with you. You need to get us out of here.”

Impossible, it was impossible.

I blinked more tears away, the water collecting at the bottom of my goggles.

Damn me.

“Please, Alexis, it’s okay,” Thomas said, soft. “The search party might go away soon. If you can at least move the rock, you can get their attention, and they might find help on their end.”

My arms, my entire body, twitched from the weight of the burden. I nodded once.

“Take off my goggles,” I said.

I had my eyes closed when he did so, setting them above my eyebrows. I put my thoughts elsewhere, to the other times I drank blood. Blood from Thomas’s cut finger, blood spilled onto Styx’s bike, blood from when I stabbed Benny…

Blood from that rabbit.

Animal, I had to think of this like taking from a mere animal.

“Okay,” I said, defeated, “Okay.”

I opened my eyes, and saw Thomas working on unbuttoning his shirt, exposing his collar, the skin underneath.

Oh, right. How else was I to do this? Lick the wounds on his face? Not enough blood, there, to get anything substantial, I could tell by some twisted instinct. I had to go a more direct way.

“I’ve never really done it that way, before,” I said. The situation was too grave to be embarrassed at the wording.

“Let’s set a rule first,” Thomas said, leaning his head one way, until his forehead pressed against rock. “I’ll lift myself to you as much as I can, so you don’t have to lean down any more. I’ll have to determine when you’ve had enough, and, if and when we get to that point, I’ll pat you on the back. Do you understand?”

I nodded again.

“It’s going to hurt,” I said. I was sure it would.

“I can deal, let’s do this. Good luck.”

Thomas pushed himself up, and I felt his body heat get hotter as it approached my lips. My breathing got even heavier, as I realized what I was about to do.

I opened my mouth. My lips pressed against the top of his shoulder, then my teeth. My tongue tasted of sweat.

I closed my eyes.

I bit down.

I expected a resistance, where the skin would be hard to pierce. And there was… at first. It was a lot like biting an apple. A small instance of difficulty, putting more effort than what was probably needed, then juice spilled forth.

And it did.

Thomas drew in a quick breath. I felt muscles briefly tighten around my teeth.

It seemed easier than it should have been, biting him, and getting him to bleed. I didn’t think on that now, I only drank.

Drinking only brought attention to just how thirsty I was, how drained I was of sustenance. How I deprived myself of such a delectable flavor.

It was good. So good that I couldn’t think.

Tasting it again, I was at a loss of words, other than ‘sweet.’ It summed it up perfectly. Short, sweet, to the point.

I swallowed, and it reinvigorated. A surge that washed over me, leaving me with more power than I had felt in years.

With every gulp, I felt like I was gaining something. Yet, at the same time, I was giving up an essential part of myself in exchange.

It took me a while before I came back to my senses.

A smack, a slap against my neck. I made a sound in response.

“I think that’s… more than enough,” Thomas said, weaker than ever. “I feel like I’m about to faint.”

I made another sound. Had I gone too far? Would I have even stopped, if I wasn’t prompted?

Dangerous, nearly lost myself there.

I pulled away from Thomas, a trail of blood still linking my lower lip and his marks, dotted in red. A clear imprint of teeth was left behind.

Thomas fixed his shirt back into place, hiding it. He moved his arm, wiping my chin with his sleeve.

I didn’t thank him, I didn’t waste any more time.

I just fought my way back to my feet.

It was like there was a second wind under me, I could move without being completely hindered. I pushed up, by my back, and the rubble gave way.

It was still massive, and that jutted edge pressed more into my shoulder blade, but I was making progress.

The aches and pangs came back and stronger, screaming at my body to stop, to give up. I screamed in return.

I kept pushing, and the rubble was being lifted higher. I was almost about to think that I’d make it. That it was feasible. Escape.

The rubble was high enough that I was able to finally change positions. I shifted my feet so my soles were flat on the ground, and I was crouched. My hands no longer had to work to keep me up, and I pressed them against the rubble. My forearm that had the knife flared up in pain as I lifted.

I was working to a standing position, now, and to get this off of me.

For me, for Thomas. For Mom. For Katy, for Kristin. For Maria. Even for Gomez.

For everyone.

Heavy, my muscles stiffening, but I was still getting somewhere. Getting to my feet.

I heard the distant falling of other rocks. Rubble that was stacked on top of the one that had me pinned. It had added to the weight, but with excess sliding off, it was becoming much easier, now.

I howled, and I pushed.

More pain meant more progress, and I was on fire.

I was standing, but I was hunched over, and light was rushing in between slits and cracks. I was able to hear what Thomas was talking about earlier, the search party. They were here, and I had their attention.

One more, Alexis, just one more, and we’re out of here.

One more solid push, and I’d get this thing off of me, and out of my life.

One… more…

I mustered everything I had into one last effort. One last throw.

Everything went white. I was yelling, but I didn’t hear it. I was pushing, but my body didn’t feel it. I just did.

And then it was over.

When I came to, I was standing, and huge chunks of rubble were being flipped over, falling around behind me.

I was free. I felt like I was about to float away.

There was a moment of stillness, like even the world itself couldn’t believe what just transpired. Even I couldn’t believe it.

I stared at Thomas, and he stared back, eyes wide, mouth open.

Stunned as I was.

His mouth moved, but it was lost on me. I tilted my head, then turned.

The ceiling was completely gone, having collapsed into the room below. The explosion also left behind a huge, gaping hole in the wall, light pouring in. People were coming up the pile of rock and rubble, by way of the hole. Paramedics.

A few circled around me and Thomas. They went right to taking care of Thomas.

One of them faced me, his mouth moved. I didn’t quite understand, but it had something to do with my arms.

I looked at them. The knife, through my sleeve and my arm.

I shook my head once. I pulled the knife out, and tossed it away. My arm went right to taking care of itself, but my sleeve covered up the process.

Other paramedics were here, forming a larger circle around us. We were standing in a pile of debris, the footing uneven. I’d be taking up space if I stayed here, loitering around. I had to leave Thomas to the professionals. I didn’t need to be looked after.

I began to take the path of least resistance, where I could step without risking a tumble all the down. If I fell, I probably wouldn’t get up again.

Slow, cumbersome, but I managed, and I ended up essentially coming back the way I came. I stood in the wide and tall corridor, in one of the wings of city hall.

Arms by my side, stiff, and I had a slouch. I was more zombie than human, right now.

I want to sleep so bad.

Others were in the hall with me, mostly police. Some began to approach when they noticed me.

If I tried to run, I’d most likely fall over, and that’d be the end of it. I stayed put, readying myself for yet another fight, prepared to bite back, if I had to.

One other cop, originally standing by himself, jogged to intercept the incoming cops. He stopped them, waved his arms. Talking with his hands?

Then, the incoming cops turned around, and went elsewhere. The single cop approached, in their stead. I didn’t relax.

“I won’t lie, you saved my ass, up there. That was truly something.” He then drew out a long breath. “He should be in good hands, now.”

His voice, his face. I was familiar with it, I was supposed to recognize it, but I had trouble connecting the dots. Maybe it was the bloodied nose, mucking everything up.

It took a minute.

His face changed.

“You okay, do you need to be checked out?”

His name is James Gomez, he’s the police chief of the Stephenville Police Department. Thomas’s friend.

“James Gomez,” I said, like I was learning to read for the first time.

“I can’t see your face, but I know when someone’s out of it. Do you need to be checked out?”

No, you’re fine.

“No, I’m fine,” I said.

“Are you sure?”

Yes, you are.

“Yes, I am,” I said.

Gomez checked behind him before asking, “Can you walk?”

You can.

I nodded, and took a step. Gomez accepted that as an answer, and proceeded to lead the way, heading to the stairs.

“Things are still pretty bad,” Gomez said, as we went down. “Dozens injured, including the mayor, but thankfully no casualties. Yet, maybe. There’s still spurts of fighting here and there, but when the explosion happened, everyone cleared out of the building in an instant. Little did I know that you and Thomas were down there. Guess I was lucky to come, anyway.”

I had to hold onto the wooden railing to keep my balance. I was much slower going down, Gomez had to accommodate for me.

My throat wasn’t dry, but I had no energy to waste on words. I’d only speak when I really had to.

Gomez continued, “If things weren’t already bad, this happens. A massive explosion in a government building. I think the only thing that was bigger in recent memory was, well, you. I bet Solace didn’t see this coming.”

We turned, and continued down. The whole area was a stark contrast from before. Only our footsteps made any sound as we descended, and there wasn’t another soul on the lower floor.

“But, it’s not all bad,” Gomez said. “We prevented Solace from fully accomplishing whatever it is they had planned, and we got Thomas back. We didn’t net a win, but at least Solace suffered a loss.”

A win, a loss? There was a massive explosion in a government building. That was bad, no matter how you slice it. Solace played with fire, there, and maybe it was supposed to be a bluff, but it ended with everyone else getting burned. He’d pay for that, and I’d see to it, myself.

After I get some sleep.

“This way,” Gomez said, turning another way. “And pick up the pace.”

I did my best to follow as he led me behind the flight of stairs. A metal door was situated underneath. He opened it.

“Hurry,” he said, going through it. I was a step behind.

More stairs, leading down. The space was small, made of stone, lit by bulbs hanging above us. The stairs spiraled.

The explosion still had me in shock, I still hadn’t really processed anything that happened after it.

At the end of the stairs was another metal door, and Gomez pushed through. We both stepped into a lower level of the building. It looked to be like a underground bunker of sorts, a tunnel.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“Underground tunnels connecting different facilities, even offices that are located under city hall. Secret, but not really, this one in particular funnels to a kind of mini-mall, full of gift shops and knick-knacks, shit like that.”

Gomez walked again, and I followed.

“And?” I asked.

“Don’t make me admit that I’m invariably helping you slip away,” he said.

“Huh?”

“After the explosion, we set up a perimeter around the entire building. No one gets in or out. But the mall wasn’t included in that perimeter, it wasn’t considered. And it’s still early in the morning. Other than some shopkeepers opening up, no one’s going to be there.”

“You’re escorting me out?”

“I’m not going to go that far, I’m just showing you the way.”

I wasn’t about to question him if he was handing me an escape route on a silver platter. I walked.

We continued until we reached what seemed to be the end of the corridor. Larger metal doors, and I felt a draft coming from under it.

Gomez took a step back, gesturing towards the door. “The mall’s that way, and you can go from there. Wash your face, or get a fresh set of clothes if you can. Once you’re out those doors, you’re on your own again. Get caught, that’s on you.”

He then reached to his side, and whipped out a gun. He pointed it at me. He clicked it.

I tried raising my hands, but they were lifeless, by this point.

If I had to, though, I might be able to take him…

“Mind explaining this?” I asked.

“I found you, tried to take you in by myself for the credit,” Gomez said. “To get some more clout and pull in my own force again. But you fought, you got away.”

“Is that the story you’re going to tell others?”

“It’s the story I’m going to tell myself. Blank Face, or the Bluemoon, didn’t technically make an appearance at city hall, did she?”

“Guess not.”

“Call me crazy, but I do want to believe you can do more good out there than locked up. No matter what Solace says. Or, maybe I just don’t want Solace to get their way. Ha, I guess I am crazy.”

There was a compliment in there, somewhere, but I was too out of it to want to look for it.

I’d rather give him less of a reason to change his mind.

“Do you want some good? Thomas said that he has some dirt on Solace, it might be useful. Can you see what you get from him, and actually use that info?”

Gomez nodded once, slowly.

“Don’t make me regret this.”

Later, then.

I would’ve smiled, but my face hurt.

“Regret what? I fought you, I got away.”

Gomez didn’t drop his gun, but he moved it to the side, pointing to the door.

A mutual understanding.

Without a word, I turned to the door, and stepped through it. A cold air met me, and I moved on to my next goal. Getting the fuck home.

I sat in a chair in the corner, curled in a ball.

Through squinted eyes, I watched everyone as they handled the news.

Kristin had her arms around Katy, and they were both still bawling. Maria was sitting two chairs down, leaning forward, hands around her stomach. My mom was standing, an island of her own, quietly taking everything in, too. She must have been a wreck, as well.

I didn’t make it home in time. My mom had gotten the call while arriving at work, but turned right around to pick me up. But I wasn’t there yet. She found me crossing the parking lot, dressed in clothes she hadn’t seen before. I gave a weak explanation, that I decided to skip school and go for a walk. Even I wouldn’t believe me, if I was in my mom’s shoes.

Didn’t matter. She ushered me in the van, and she drove. I’d be trouble another time.

Gomez called Kristen, and Kristen called my mom. I texted Maria.

They found Thomas. He was in critical condition, but he was hospitalized, now, and he was being worked on. We all rushed to the hospital he was at.

We sat in the waiting area, doing the only thing one could do in such a place. It had only been an hour, but I suspected we’d be here for many more.

Even here, I had to wear a mask. I had to lie to my mom about where I was, I had to pretend I was hearing about Thomas for the first time, I had to act like an ‘Alexis’ that never played a part in this. But that concept, that identity, had been gone for quite a while.

Again, another mask.

Everyone was absorbed in their own emotions, a mix of relief and fear. And I was wrapped up in that, too, but I was too exhausted to express anything.

We have him, I thought to myself, These are tears of happiness. Solace can wait, just for now. God, let me have this, let me revel in the comfort of that.

I let my eyes close. Leave it to being in a hospital, where I was allowed to rest in peace.

Previous

037 – Vicious Circle

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I pushed and pushed Solace’s announcement out of my head. Oh, I tried. I didn’t see it. I didn’t hear it. It didn’t happen. I did everything in my power to block it out of my head.

Block it out, block it out.

But, if I could, then why would I be crying, hiccuping?

Okay, Alexis, let’s try to get ourselves together, then. Let’s try to think straight.

How the fuck was I supposed to get myself to do that?

Nothing was making sense, nothing was connecting. Thomas? Solace spoke about him when he hijacked a TV station’s signal again. Said his name. Thomas, right? My Thomas? Both first and last names were used. Thomas Thompson. His name was uttered by Solace, filtered through their digital hiss.

And it spelled disaster.

I wracked my brain some more, clutching the mask even tighter. The mask he gave me.

Now, things were starting to connect, but I still couldn’t make sense of it. I didn’t know why. I didn’t know how.

Dead.

Thomas was dead. Dead. He wasn’t here anymore. He wasn’t available. He couldn’t help. He wasn’t an option.

I kept telling myself that, yet I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. I was too shocked. Too rocked to my core. I felt like I was coming apart, the whole world crashing around me at the most minute level. As if the fundamentals of what made this world tick were changing, shifting, and I was forced to get my bearings and recontextualize everything, again. This was as bad than that night, when I got hit by that truck, and watched my body pull itself together… after I drank blood. It broke any logical convention I was aware of, yet it happened, and I had to wrap my brain around it, and accept this.

But I can’t accept this.

I can’t.

How could he do this? How could this happen? Before we could do anything decisive. Before we could strike back. Before we could meet and properly plan.

I coughed, and it was a punch to the chest. Hurt, pain. But that was a good thing, it brought me back to the here and now. It helped center me.

In the gloom, down, curled in a ball. I put effort into regulating my breathing. Slow, didn’t know how long I took, but I took my time.

Time to center myself.

I almost let myself be mad at him, for abandoning me at such a critical time. For abandoning me here and now.

But I didn’t.

I still had a sense of self-awareness to not place any fault on Thomas. Something had happened. Something bad. Something out of either of Thomas’s or my control.

And it was up to me to figure it out.

I put everything back the way I found it. Mask, bag, boxes, and clothes on top of that.

I had very little strength left in my legs. I crawled out of the dark closet, back into my dark room. I didn’t need the light.

Getting onto my bed was embarrassingly difficult, mostly because I was making it hard on myself. I labored, I crawled, I pulled on the sheets until I sat at the foot of the bed, hair falling around my face.

I was so lost.

Lost at what to do, lost at where to start. An eerie quiet, I could hear my ears ringing. A clock ticking, my mom talking behind the wall to the living room. I let more time slip by without thinking much of anything.

The passing time brought attention to how thirsty I was, now. That breakfast really did a number on me.

A knock. At my door. Limp, a soft push that pressed the door against the frame. My mom.

“Can I open the door?” she asked.

I pushed my hair away from my face, hastily cleaning myself up.

“Sure.”

She opened, and from just one look, I could tell that she was taking this as bad as me. We looked about the same.

Terrible.

She flipped a switch by the doorframe. I winced.

“How are you feeling?” she asked. She stayed by the door.

With everything that was running through my head, all I had for her was a measly shrug.

She lifted a hand, and I saw she was holding a phone.

“I have Kristin right here, I wanted us to go over to their house, but she wanted us to stay here.”

Kristin. Katy. Right. How could I be so selfish? Thomas was a husband and a father. Someone else’s dad. He had a role in other people’s lives. Not just mine. And they were more important roles, too. How could I let myself forget?

“How’s Katy?” I asked, though, I probably already knew. Worse than me.

“I can’t say, Kristin says she has locked herself up in her room.”

Her too?

“Can I talk to her?” I wanted to know how she was doing, above all else.

My mom had no expression I could put to a word or two. Just… a sense of struggling. She entered my room, and handed me the phone. She brushed my cheek with the back of her hand, and I felt a bit of moisture wipe against her skin and the bottom of my eye. I thought I had gotten that.

Without another word, my mom left, closing the door behind her.

I put the phone up to my ear.

“Hello?”

“Shiori?” It was Kristin.

“It’s Alexis.”

“Oh, hi.”

The phone wasn’t the best, so it was hard to tell if her voice was actually hoarse, or if it was the fuzzy sound quality.

“I’m so sorry about…” I stopped. Sorry about what? That I was part of the reason why Thomas was gone? How could I say that now?

I left that sentence hanging.

“Did you want to talk to Katy?” Kristin ignored my condolences, or maybe she refused to acknowledge it, wasn’t ready to accept it. I know I wasn’t.

“Yes please.”

Moments ticked away, there was distorted sounds on the other end, but nothing I could make out. I sat in the dark, waiting.

“Alexis?”

Muffled, indistinct.

“Katy?”

“Sorry, Alexis, but she’s locked her door, and she can really be stubborn when she wants to be…”

I had guessed so, but it pained me all the same. She was taking it worse than me.

“That’s fine,” I said. “She needs space, I understand that. There’s no offense taken, there.”

“I do think she needs someone to talk to, though,” Kristin said. “You know how she can be, and…”

There was a pause, and it wasn’t brief.

“Maybe text her? Or try calling her on her cell?”

Not bad ideas, but I was beginning to second-guess talking to Katy. I didn’t trust myself enough to talk or think straight.

“I can text her,” I said, “And I can look after her during school, tomorrow. You can count on me.”

I tacked that last part at the end, but I had doubts about that. Was I someone who could be counted on?

“Thank you, Alexis,” Kristin said. “I’ll talk to you and your mom soon.”

Kristin hung up right after. I set the phone beside me. The ticking clock came back to my attention.

I couldn’t talk to Katy, and she wouldn’t talk to anyone. Yet, even with only her mother to exchange some words with, I wasn’t as down as I was right when I heard the news… on the news. Still down, but not totally and completely out. This was, in no small way, a step back, but if I could even get an inkling of where to go from here, I’d turn that next step to a leap, then a bound.

Text…

My cellphone was on my desk. I could start with writing out a draft to send to Katy, at least.

I moved to go get it, dragging my feet.

The phone felt heavier in my hand as I started typing.

I stared at the letter ‘H.’

‘Hey,’ ‘hi,’ ‘hello,’ ‘how are you holding up?’

Shit, I didn’t know where to start. I had known Katy longer than I didn’t, but this was uncharted territory. Anything I say could hurt more than it helped. I didn’t want that on my plate, didn’t need a bigger rift to form between me and Katy. Maybe she did need some space? I wasn’t about to take that away from her.

I put the phone down. The news just broke out, the wound was at its most raw. If anything, it could wait until later tonight.

Fuck…

I was standing over my desk. Going back to bed now would mean that I wouldn’t get up until tomorrow afternoon. Principal Kirk’s offer was looking a lot more enticing, now.

I just didn’t want to be alone, in my head, drowned in my thoughts. There had to be something I could do. Anything, a simple step forward, and I’d try and turn that into progress.

As if on instinct, I reached down to a drawer to the side of my desk. It was old, rickety, and it jammed easily. Some people would give up after a single tug, most would be afraid they’d break it after another, harder tug. It was hard to open, sure, but it wasn’t impossible, you just needed to know how to work it, and it required some strength.

I wiggled the handle, feeling for the inner-workings, then pulling when I was sure I got it.

The drawer slid open.

There wasn’t much in here, two notebooks stacked on top of each other, my knife tucked beside that. Extra batteries were piled here, too. But that wasn’t what I was going for. I removed the two notebooks.

The pager was waiting for me. The one Thomas had provided when we first started this thing.

My eyes widened.

I had just wanted to look at the pager, as another memento of Thomas and Hleuco, but something caught my eye.

A light, beeping and beeping.

A light that would only be on if I had received a message.

I snatched it out immediately, the notebooks and knife and other miscellaneous items falling in its place.

I was having trouble trying to make out the words, my hands were shaking, and my eyes were getting watery, again.

But, I read it.

‘Go to Gomez.’

I had to rub my eyes in order to believe whatever the fuck I was reading was indeed real.

A message… from Thomas?

This can’t be right.

But what other conclusion was there?

Thomas was the only one who had access to this thing, he was the only one who knew the number this pager was connected to. He sent out a message? When?

I checked the pager again, this time reading the time that was stamped by the message. My skin began to prickle from sweat.

It was around the same time as Solace’s new announcement.

This can’t be fucking right.

Now things were making even less sense. What the fuck was this supposed to mean? Thomas was alive? Alive?

There might be a chance he was. Thinking it over, none of Solace’s victims were ever confirmed dead. No bodies were found, and all we had to go on was Solace’s word. Could this have all been one big bluff?

I inspected the pager again, spinning it around in my hand.

There was no keyboard, I couldn’t send a message back. Could I just use my phone?

Cool it, Alexis.

I forced myself to take a step back. Physically, and my thinking process.

There was a message, here. Instructions. But was it from Thomas?

This could have meant any number of things. The last thing I wanted to be right now was cynical, but what I was looking at could be too good to be true.

It could be a trap.

Would that be feasible? Unfortunately, it might be. The only thing I knew for a fact was that Thomas was missing. If he was okay, I wouldn’t be the first person he’d contact. He’d let his family know, first and foremost, and we probably wouldn’t be in this situation. Meaning, something else was at play, here. He needed me.

Or someone who had access to his phone and knew this number wanted me. Wanted Blank Face.

Solace?

The message itself was vague, too. Too vague. Go to Gomez? To do what? Coordinate with him, in place of Hleuco? Would he be willing to cooperate, even, considering how fucking terrible the past seventy-two hours have been? I wouldn’t bet on it.

And why not just message me with a location? Wouldn’t that have been more straightforward?

Too many questions…

But I didn’t have any other leads.

This was the closest thing I had to making any headway. If this really was Thomas sending out an S.O.S., then I was on the right track. If not… then I had to keep on my toes, not catch myself slip. Exercise extreme caution.

I dropped the pager beside my phone, and I dropped myself onto my bed.

It’s up to me, now. Solace is forcing my hand.

Might not be the worst idea to pay Gomez a visit, he was a good friend of Thomas, after all. Having him on my side of the court would net me a huge plus. And, I had some choice words to give him about his subordinates.

The countdown had started over. Twenty-four more hours. Solace would be announcing three more names by then. Three more victims.

Now was the time for action, I thought, I just have to not make Solace read my name by the end of this.

It bugged me, just how at ease I felt with my mask on again.

Was I already that used to it?

I adjusted the straps behind my head, making it fit snugly.

The hood then went over my head, to finish the look.

I was even wearing the pants that Thomas provided me, when he gave me the updated costume. I was complete.

If I had to list one thing I was missing, it was probably my own way to and from downtown. Couldn’t keep taking buses forever.

Already, I was missing what I would have liked to dub the ‘Hleuco mobile.’

It was late, but I had little doubt that James Gomez was still in. From what I had heard from Thomas, Gomez was among the few friends he had in the Stephenville Police Department. If he was anything like us, Gomez would take as many late nights as needed to beat Solace. He would want to beat the bad guy just as much as we did.

Also, I could see him from the window.

The building wasn’t hard to get close to. Situated in a cluster, between other buildings, I managed to maneuver up and across roofs and gaps to get a good position to watch. Gomez was sitting in his office, at his desk, either writing or taking phone calls. His back was to the window, he didn’t see me climb up the fire escape to approach him, and I knew to be quiet. I was unnoticed.

Time to get at it.

I opened a side zipper of my backpack, and drew a marker, popped the cap off the top. I wrote in large letters, all caps, right to left, backwards. I had to do it slowly, so the marker wouldn’t squeak on the glass. I put back the marker, then reread the message, mirrored from my perspective.

ROOF COME ALONE.’

I tapped the window, then scaled the rest of the fire escape. Metal rattled with every step, but it wasn’t enough noise to draw attention from anyone else. I reached the roof in a few breaths.

I moved to get atop the roof access door, perched above the cement enclosure. I waited. Tense.

I wasn’t used to doing these types of things on my own.

Unsurprisingly, the door didn’t open until my legs were aching. Gomez took his time.

The stress of the job, and just aging in general, had gotten to this man. Balding, his hair more grey than black. He had a brown overcoat over his suit, but his physique still showed. Not fat, but he looked like the type of person to call himself ‘big boned.’ Even from the back of his head, I could see the ends of his mustache curl down.

He walked forward, looking around, probably puzzled. No one came with him, it seemed, the door was able to close without being interrupted by another person.

I dropped as soon as the door was shut, announcing my presence. Gomez turned.

“Chief James Gomez,” I said as I faced him, blocking his way back. “I believe a formal introduction has been long overdue.”

I looked for a reaction, any reaction, so I could judge how this meeting would go. He didn’t provide one. Nothing discernible.

“One word,” Gomez said.

I didn’t move, respond, or provide a reaction, myself. I simply kept waiting.

“One word, one press of a button, and I finally have you, and I can finally wipe my hands of this mess,” he said.

I noted his use of the singular. He had a personal stake in this, too.

I kept still.

“But,” Gomez said, “If you’re here, it must be really good, so I’m willing to hear what you have to say.”

“You don’t suspect I’m here for anything… not really good?” I asked. Probably a dumb question, but I wanted to be clear on where we were standing, in terms of this conversation.

“As I said, one word, one press of a button, and you’re done. And if you were here for something more nefarious, you would have done so, already. But I don’t think that’s your style.”

“My style?”

Gomez nodded. “Somewhere in that messed-up head of yours, you actually think you’re the good guy, right? The hero?”

My feelings were mixed. On some level, he understood, he got what we were trying to do, but he was also belittling me. Even with all my strength, my power, he was still taking me for some kind of fool.

“You can put it like that,” I said. “I’m here about Solace, and Thomas.”

That garnered the biggest reaction out of Gomez so far. He squared his shoulders, and inched forward, to me.

“Thomas, huh? That’s the name that brings you to me, after all this time? I was right, this is good.”

I couldn’t get a good reading of this guy. He probably wasn’t corrupt, or on the take, but he seemed to be getting some kind entertainment out of this. Like this was one big game.

Could I trust him? Could I let him in on what was going on between me and Thomas? Or was this a trap all along? A way to get at the both of us?

When in doubt, Blank Face, exercise extreme caution.

“Solace already went too far with Edgar Brown, but I can’t do this by myself. I’ll need your help, your assistance, your resources.”

“And you wanted to come to me? I’m flattered.”

Dammit, old man. Work with me, here.

“People out there have a high regard for you,” I said, “Can’t see why, myself.”

Somehow, he chuckled. “People, huh? Alright, I’ll drop the pretense. It’s been a long night, and it’s about to be even longer, now. What is it you want from me, Bluemoon?”

“It’s Blank Face, actually,” I said, “But never mind that. I… received, Solace’s message earlier tonight, but I have reason to believe that the victims haven’t been killed. There’s a possibility that they might still be alive, and we can save them.”

Gomez wasn’t particularly moved by that chance.

I had to move the conversation along. Get the basics, first.

“Before that, do we even know anything about Solace? Who he, or she, or they are? How they’re even managing anything they’ve been doing?”

Gomez brushed his mustache once. “Nothing concrete.”

You’re kidding.

“Then, something abstract? What do you know about Benny? Of El Carruaje infamy.”

Gomez brushed his mustache again. “Ah, the no-name you took down in your first viral video? How is she relevant?”

“She may have something to do with all of this, with Solace. But, it’s funny, last time I saw her, I left her with your men.”

Gomez was back to being unreadable.

“It’s an interesting theory, I’ll give you that, but no, I never got a record of her arrest. I always assumed she died on the way to the hospital. If I remember correctly, you did assault her with a deadly weapon.”

I held back. Both myself and my tongue.

“How did Edgar Brown go missing?” I asked instead. I needed something I could use. Anything.

For his part, Gomez managed to answer that. “A group, no more than five people, broke into his home, and they took him. They seemed to know the layout of the house, the placement of my men. They slipped away, like it was nothing.”

His jaw clenched at that last word.

That can count as concrete, you know.

I pressed on. “And Linda Day?”

“The details on that are still coming in, or rather, they haven’t come to me. But yes, it’s a similar situation. She was taken from her home.”

“None of them were killed in their own homes? Their bodies haven’t been found?”

“No to both,” Gomez said.

Then there’s a chance they’re alive.

“What about Thomas?” I asked, “I think we know that he wasn’t taken from his home.”

He raised an eyebrow. “And how do you know that?”

“People,” I said. “It’s easier if we just leave it at that.”

Gomez went silent for a time, before saying, “So you know what I know, congratulations. What else do you want, Blank Face?”

I had thought long and hard about what I wanted, and how I was going to get it.

I asked for it.

“So, you have to believe me when I say I know that Thomas’s phone was used at the same time as Solace’s announcement earlier tonight. You must know it personally. I want you to trace it, and tell me where it was last used.”

This was the key, this was what Thomas wanted me to put into place. I was to go get Gomez, and take down Solace together, the entire police force in tow.

But, Gomez had no words to say, no expression to make. He was just there.

“You seem to have a lot of faith in me,” he said, “And a lot of it is unfounded. I can’t get access to that.”

I couldn’t feel my eyes straining from widening. “How could you not have access? Are you fucking inept?”

“You clearly don’t know how things work around here.”

I almost laughed. “I think I know exactly how things are, here. You’re on someone’s payroll, or some shit like that. You motherfucker.”

He wasn’t defending himself. He just stood, his hands now in his pockets.

This wasn’t going well in any stretch of the imagination. Panicking. I started to grab at any branch that could provide me leverage, any path that could still mean forward.

That, or I was about to seriously hurt Gomez.

I demanded, “An officer named Jeffery was the last person to be with Thomas before his disappearance. If nothing else, I want Jeffery.”

Gomez lowered his head.

“You want one of my men? To do what?”

“One way or another, he’s involved in Thomas’s disappearance, maybe even the others. I just want to have a talk with him. Because if I can find where they took him, I might be able-”

I heard the door knob turn, behind me. My whole body moved without thinking, jumping and flipping back behind the roof door enclosure.

A sudden burst of adrenaline.

The door swung open.

“Chief, what’re you doing out here?”

Another person. Fuck.

“I’m out here for a smoke,” Gomez answered.

“You don’t have anything on you.”

“I’m about to have a smoke.”

An audible sigh.

“Well, when you’re done with your smoke, Barry wants you.”

“Another meeting? I’m starting to feel like a prisoner in my own building.”

“It is what it is.” I heard a footstep. “That was it for me, so…”

“Um, any word from Jeffery, yet?”

A lump in my throat.

I crouched.

“Jeffery?”

“Jeffery Robinson,” Gomez clarified.

“He hasn’t called in.”

“Isn’t that a problem? He was assigned to Thomas.”

“I know that, I’ll get a guy on it.”

Didn’t sit well with me, how dismissive the other cop sounded.

“Also, could you bring Sumeet up here? There’s something I’d like to discuss with him.”

Sumeet?

“Uh, sure, Chief, I’ll give him the word.”

The other cop left, and the door closed.

“You can come back out, now,” Gomez said.

Cautiously, I did, reemerging from the shadow. I went around the door, standing in front of Gomez, again.

“You think I don’t know what goes on in my own police force?” Gomez asked. “It runs deep, it’s systematic. Keep an eye out for someone, and they won’t try and find a reason to gouge out yours. The only way to survive out here is not have any ties with anyone, or they will find it, and they will cut it. The gangs will stomp out anything that tries to upset their little world, their order of things. I may be the chief of police, here, but that doesn’t put me in a position of power. That was one of things Thomas was wanting to fix, when he finally became DA.”

I thought back to Thomas, whenever I saw him in the past week. His anger, his frustration, his weariness. He had said something of regrets. Was this what he was trying to fighting this whole time? This… system?

“So you really can’t help?” I asked. “Even if you wanted to?”

“I’m saying I can’t help you directly, or I’m dead.”

“Thomas is dead! Isn’t he your friend?”

Shit, I raised my voice.

But how could I not be angry? How could this man let his hands be tied?

I knew I was being irritable, irrational, but the anger came, anyways.

Gomez nodded, as if he understood where I was coming from.

“Thomas is a very good friend, and I’m already helping you, more than you probably deserve.”

“What?”

In short, I was confused.

“I’m helping you with every second I don’t call in about you standing on this roof. Honestly, it’d be easier if I did, and maybe this bullshit can stop for just a day. But, I’ll give you this one chance, because it looks like Thomas has given you one, already.”

I didn’t know what to say. That was what he called a chance?

“Sumeet is coming up here soon, he runs with Jeffery. He might know something, but I’m not planning on being around when you have your talk with him.”

Gomez walked, then passed me to get to the door. His back was to me.

“That’s all I can offer you,” he said. “That’s all I have.”

I had to instruct myself to unclench my fists. “It’s a start,” I said.

His hand on the door, now. “Still want handouts? I give you any more, and someone like Mister might pick up on what I’m doing.”

Mister. Something about that name seemed familiar, but it was very foggy.

“Who’s Mister?”

Gomez’s expression changed.

“You really don’t know anything? There, that’s my last freebie. Ask at your own discretion, but unless you know with an absolute certainty that he has a part in this, that’s not a fight you want, even with your fancy hopping around.”

“Who is he?”

He left, ignoring me, his exit unceremonious. I was left alone on the roof.

I gathered my thoughts as I returned to wait above the door.

That did not go how I wanted it to.

Nothing on Benny, nothing about Thomas and the other victims, and the last cop Thomas was with was missing. All I had to go on was Gomez’s lack of cooperation – which was somehow a form of cooperation – Sumeet, and the name ‘Mister.’ How did any of this fit?

So many questions, and I had nothing but frustration.

It didn’t help that this might all be a trap. A setup.

My blood boiled.

I waited, and kept low. I touched a pocket by my thigh, where I kept my knife.

The door cracked open, a man in a cop uniform came running out.

“Chief, sorry I’m late! What was it you wanted?”

Sumeet.

I dropped, hitting the roof running.

It was like a tackle, my shoulder ramming into his stomach when he turned, but I kept going. Until I got to the end of the roof. I leapt, carrying him all the way. The night kept us relatively obscured as I traversed the roofs.

He wasn’t screaming, probably from how hard I hit him with the initial hit. Keeping a hold on him as I ran and jumped wasn’t difficult, I hugged his torso with enough strength to crack some bones, but not break him in half.

I crossed streets, alleys, until I was comfortable with the distance I managed. I let go of him as I landed on another roof, his body crumpling.

I didn’t give him a break. Not a break of that kind. I grabbed him by the collar, dragging him until I had him over the edge, his feet dangling.

Anger moving me, frustration flowing. I needed something to direct it to.

He was light, and I was strong. Holding him was like holding a doll.

“Sumeet,” I said, seething, pushing the words through my teeth. “You’re going to tell me everything.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

036 – On One’s Own

epy arc 6 rest

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Physically, mentally, emotionally spent. I was at the end of my rope. And the rope was on fire.

I was burned-out.

I didn’t get the gift of sleep. I was on the floor, unmoving, eyes to the ceiling, my mind running, until daylight started slipping through the windows. Everyone woke up before the alarm, and I woke up with them. Or got up, rather. Though, I couldn’t imagine anyone else getting a wink, not after what happened last night.

Judge Edgar Brown. I had never heard of the name before, but he was at that party, he was targeted, and now he was dead. Didn’t know anything about him, what he was like, his hobbies, what his kids were like, what he liked to do with his family. But he was a person, the center of his own world and universe, and we failed in stopping the destruction of that world. Gone. No more. Dead.

The guilt slowed my steps down the stairs, until I was falling behind.

I failed to think about anything else, but I kept trying. I lumbered into the kitchen, joining everyone for breakfast.

My mom was already up, helping Kristin prepare the food. Kristin herself was on the phone, talking while cooking bacon. The smell wasn’t appetizing.

“I won’t apologize this time, Sumeet, what’s keeping him? Don’t give me that! He can’t spare a second just to say a word? Where’s Jeffery?”

Dang, Kristin was going in on that Sumeet guy.

I grabbed a seat at the table, Katy and Maria on the other end. The dog was outside.

“What’s that all about?” I asked as I rubbed in one eye. Crust stuck to my hand when I moved it away. Ew.

Katy explained, “Dad hasn’t back home yet from last night, so she’s been freaking out. I don’t think she went up to her room.”

“She’s been down here all night?”

“Seems that way.” Katy fixed her disheveled hair, tying it up. It flew apart at the ends.

“I’m worried too, but this isn’t the first time my dad’s pulled all-nighters, they’ve even ramped up in the last month or so. He can get pretty absorbed with his work when he wants to. There were times when I didn’t see him for a couple of days.”

She put her fork in her mouth, but there was no food, there. She was biting on the metal.

Maria picked up her own spoon, then put it down. “It might be the norm for you guys, but considering what’s been going down, you can’t blame your mom.”

Katy set her fork to the side. “I’m not, and I won’t.”

Now I was beginning to worry.

Thomas wasn’t the type to go a length of time without informing someone of his activities. During our outings, he demanded updates from me, and I could expect the same from him. It was a mutual respect that I appreciated, coming from the one person who saw Blank Face as something other than a monstrosity. It meant a lot to me, and it wasn’t a notion I expressed to him as often as I would have liked to.

So, if Thomas isn’t even contacting his wife…

I put myself in check. Couldn’t be thinking that way, or I’d come apart, completely.

“Maybe he’s just asleep at his desk, or stuck in some absurdly long meeting,” I said, “We’ll probably see him tonight.”

It felt like I said that mostly for my own sake.

“We better,” Katy said, with no energy.

I watched my friends as they picked at their utensils, spinning them around. We never had a sleepover with the three of us before, but I always thought it would have been fun. We’d sit and chat over boys, watch a movie, maybe get into the stereotypical pillow fight, for kicks. Maybe even try and squeeze a game of chess out of Katy and her strange chessboard.

We did some of those things, but…

I never expected it to be like this, under these circumstances.

“Don’t talk with that tone,” my mom said, coming to the table. She set down different dishes for us to eat. “Not that you are rude, but it’s discouraging.”

“Sorry then,” Katy said.

“Don’t apologize, just eat.” My mom then went to putting food on all of our plates. Eggs, bacon, and an extra helping of rice for me. I was so out of it that I didn’t even protest.

Though I should have.

Kristin stepped out of the kitchen, continuing to rant on the phone. I had no one to bail me out from my breakfast. Not even Solace.

The food looked delicious, though, I couldn’t say much for the taste.

The bacon glistened in oil and juice, the eggs a bright golden color. The rice was steaming, fluffy. To think, my mouth would have watered at the sight of it, maybe over two months ago.

And the smell coming from the food did the opposite of reinvigorating me. It drained, leaving me even less willing to face the rest of the day.

And it served as a reminder that I was becoming thirsty, again.

I tried not to show it on my face. I tried not to act. It was like walking on eggshells, letting any tells slip now would be a certain and complete disaster. Had to stay calm, had to maintain my composure.

I pushed my plate away.

“Maria, do you want like, half of my food?” I asked. “I’m not too hungry.”

Maria’s look was telling. She would have rather had me eat. But, she still agreed to take a load off of my shoulders, reaching across the table for my food. “This is only because I want to eat food your mom made.”

Maria took some food, then took some more.

“Maria, that’s more than half,” Katy said.

Maria glowered at Katy. “Look, Ms. Barnett looks like she’s a good cook, okay? Can I live?”

“But my mom helped cook, too…”

She took until there was about enough for three big spoonfuls. She wasn’t about to make things easy.

How delightful.

My mom went over the sink, moving on to washing pots and pans. “You eat, Alexis, you need energy. But hurry, we will be late if we don’t leave soon. I will be taking you all today.”

Ah, that’s right, I thought, We still have school.

The food was like a void, and it was staring right back at me. Three bites. If I ate this, it’d help in quelling some of the worries my mom and my friends had. It wouldn’t be by much, but it was something.

And that was all I needed for now.

Especially after ‘promising’ to tell my friends everything, after Solace was defeated.

I gathered some food with my spoon. A little bit of everything. Rice, bacon, egg. I knew a day like this would come.

I swallowed, before food even entered my mouth.

It was considered rude, but I placed my left elbow on table, resting my head in my hand. I situated myself away from everyone, facing downward. Discreet.

With my right hand, I took the first bite.

For Edgar Brown… rest in peace.

The rice and egg had the consistency of mud, the bacon was like cardboard.

Harder to chew, harder still to swallow.

But I did, and it burned.

I almost gagged.

I gathered the second bite, the spoon much heavier, now.

I put it in my mouth, like I was force-feeding myself. Well, I was.

For Thomas, Hleuco. Together, we can take Solace down.

Leftover rice was starting to cling to the insides of my mouth, as if I had eaten dirt, and bits of soil were stuck. The egg tasted rotten, somehow reminding me of a skunk. Dead, on the side of the road, decaying and smelly. The smell, condensed to a taste.

I almost threw up, right then and there.

I took a minute to stop myself from trembling. From shaking.

The third and final spoonful. The most daunting one of all.

And for myself. I wish it would all end, already.

I went right into it, sliding it between my lips.

If my arm wasn’t propping my head up, I would have slammed my chin onto the edge of the table, passing out.

I couldn’t describe this one. It made my mind go blank, hurting me on every front. Physically, emotionally, mentally.

It was just fucking awful.

Every bit of me was screaming to run. My mind going cloudy. Chewed, then swallowed, doing all that I could to keep it down.

The next part was critical to everything. I had to get up, and leave.

But, could I?

I powered through it, had no choice but to. Dropped the spoon, stood, then shuffled along the perimeter of the kitchen. My hand ran along the counter and wall for balance.

I tried to enunciate as clearly as possible.

“Imma try shower…”

Tried.’

Only my mom responded, Katy and Maria were eating their own food, Maria even going for seconds. “Collect your clothes and sleeping bag, I can get them later when I come back.”

I nodded once, sluggishly, then I left. I didn’t move any faster up the steps, or into the bathroom.

I stripped, entered the shower, and let the water run.

In the gloom, all alone, I had the freedom to let everything out.

Katy, Maria, and I all met back at the kitchen, cleaned up and ready to go. I had my backpack, Katy had a purse, and Maria had nothing at all.

Kristin and my mom were sitting at the table.

“I cannot believe this,” Kristin said. She had hung up the phone. “All I want is to talk to him.”

My mom consoled her. “He’ll be back, Kristin. He’s passionate about his work, and we have to do our part too.”

Kristin nodded, sleepily.

“And you also need rest. We don’t want Thomas coming back and you’re not awake to greet him, do we?”

Kristin nodded sleepily, again. She snacked on a piece of bacon while she talked. “No, we don’t. Speaking of which, will you and Alexis be spending the night with us again?”

My mom glanced at me, and I tilted my head towards the front door.

“I appreciate the offer for us to intrude for another night, but I think it is best for us to start staying at our apartment. We can’t be here forever, and I do not want to be a burden.”

“You two are anything but a burden,” Kristin said. “You’re welcome anytime, and you can stay for as long as you need. If you want, you and Alexis can move in and live with us. Maria is also welcome.”

My mom gave her a look. “That’s not reasonable. I still have work, and we can’t leave the apartment unattended for too long.”

“Same here,” Maria said. “Don’t wanna overstay my welcome.”

Kristin responded with a weak smile. “That was my poor attempt at a joke. You go do what you have to, Shiori, Maria. I can arrange for an officer to come by and check on you guys every now and then, if you’d like.”

My mom offered a similar expression. “I will be sure to let you know.” She turned to the three of us. “Let’s get going.”

Kristin dropped the other strip of bacon she was about to eat. “Shiori, let me take them. You’ve already taken credit for cooking breakfast.”

That made my mom give her a sterner look. “No, you stay here, eat, and then you sleep. If I come back and you’re still up, I will put you down myself.”

Maria whispered to us, “Damn, your mom is giving orders to your mom.”

“Mom, let Shiori take us,” Katy said, out loud. “We’ll really be late if we don’t leave now, and Mom? I have a feeling Shiori might make good on her word.”

Kristin sat back, and started chewing on bacon again. “Not might, will. Go, I’ll take a nap.”

My mom accepted that, then left the kitchen, then the house. The rest of us had to hurry to catch up, or she’d somehow leave us behind. We all managed to hop into my mom’s blue van in time.

The drive to school was rather uneventful. I would have liked for some meaningless chatting to come and pass the time, but no one offered up anything to start with. Solace must have been weighing on everybody’s mind.

My mom drove us up to the front of the school, and we filed out as soon as she stopped.

“Thanks for the ride, Ms. Barnett,” Maria said. “You’re the best.”

My mom made a small gesture. “I will be back here when school ends. Alexis, I get your stuff together, and we go back home after I drop off Maria and Katy.”

I needed a second to realize she was talking to me. Still out of sorts.

“That’s cool,” I said, mildly. In truth, I was itching to be back home. I wanted to have easy access to my Blank Face things again.

“Bye,” my mom then said, and she went off.

The three of us moved as a group, entering the school. Loud as ever, with kids bustling and hurrying to their classes. Some gave us looks. I knew that had some effect on Katy and Maria.

But, there was no time to relax, we had to start our day.

Before we could go our separate ways, we were approached by a woman.

“Katy Thompson, Maria Gonzalez, and Alexis Barnett?” She listed us off, wording it like a question.

Cautiously, we nodded.

“Good morning, you three,” she then said, as kindly as one could.

“Good morning,” Katy said back. She had delegated herself to speak for us. I was cool with it.

“Principal Kirk would like to see you.”

The woman’s name escaped me, but I was not unfamiliar with her. She was one of ladies who ran the front office. A secretary.

“Right now?”

“It won’t take too much of your time, you’ll be done before your first class ends.”

Maria interjected, “Are we in trouble already? We just got to school.”

The woman didn’t take it as very funny, answering her directly. “I assure you, you’re not in trouble. All three of you, please come follow me.”

The three of us exchanged some looks, but there wasn’t really much of a choice in the matter.

We followed her towards the front office.

The number of students out in the hall were thinning, giving us room to walk without bumping arms.

I caught sight of Harrian from across the hall.

He didn’t notice me, and I only noticed him because of how hard he was trying to not be noticed. Decked in all black, head down, hands in his pockets, and if he was any faster, he’d get called out by a teacher. He seemed to be in a hurry.

Harrian turned my way, but he still didn’t see me. I got a better look at his face. Haggard. He was skinny, but I could tell that he hadn’t been eating, even from a distance. Shadows were cast on his eyes and cheeks, and his mouth hung open, like he didn’t have enough energy to lift his jaw. He looked weak.

He didn’t come any closer. His eyes went wide, then he spun on his heels, returning the way he came.

Okay… that happened.

If I wasn’t so out of it myself, and if I wasn’t headed to the principal’s office, I would have let myself be more curious as to what that was about. But, from my handful of interactions with him, he was always a bit odd, and I did have my own business to take care of, as both Alexis and Blank Face. Harrian would have to be a lower priority.

Still following the woman, we went around a corner, going towards a side entrance of the front office. The hallway was nearly empty, now.

“Coming up behind you!”

“Let me get that for you, ladies.”

Eric and Evan. Right before the woman hold put her hand on the knob, the duo passed us and opened the door.

“What are you two doing here?” Katy asked as we continued inside. Faculty and some students were here, busy with differents tasks and errands. A lively atmosphere. We passed the front counter, heading into the faculty area.

“Student aide,” Eric answered, “Printing papers, stacking papers, filing those papers, and sometimes, go around school to give people pink slips. They don’t seem to like those.”

“Sounds fun.”

“It’s a blast,” Evan said.

“You two are involuntary student aides,” the woman added, “Don’t act like you want to do this.”

“Aw, come on, Mrs. K.” Eric slouched his shoulders and hunched forward, but he still towered over all of us. “We’re liking it now, promise!”

Evan nodded along, agreeing with Eric.

“What are you in for?” I asked.

“It’s either that or detention,” Eric said. He didn’t offer any more, but he didn’t sound too bummed over it, either.

“This way,” the woman said, going another way in the office, down a smaller hallway where the principal and assistant principal’s offices were.

“It’s nothing, but I can explain some other time,” Eric said.

“I don’t really care,” Katy said, straightforward. Normally, she’d play along with their fooling around, but she wasn’t having it, this time. “Like how we have our own thing.”

“Fair.” Eric started going in the opposite direction, another hall. “We’re this way, got more papers to print.”

“Then stack, then file,” Evan said.

“Yup, and it is fun, Mrs. K!” Eric’s voiced boomed across the halls, but ‘Mrs. K’ didn’t respond. She was standing, hands resting behind her back, facing us. In front of Principal Kirk’s office.

We split up without a proper ‘see you later,’ the boys going to do menial work, and us girls going to do… another thing. I still didn’t know what this was about.

Mrs. K waited until all three of us entered the office before closing the door. She didn’t come in with us.

It wasn’t my first time coming in here. At least I wasn’t alone, this time.

Principal Kirk’s office was like any other principal’s office. Neat and tidy, muted colors, with a few personal touches to make it his own. Namely, a picture frame of his family, and a Van Halen record on his wall. Signed.

The principal himself was typing at his computer. Average looking, he looked nice in a suit, but he wasn’t Thomas. For someone his age, he sure didn’t show the signs of his number. His hair was still chestnut brown, neatly combed back. He had circular framed glasses, but they didn’t look old-fashioned on him. Stylish, in fact.

He stopped what he was doing when he heard Katy pull at the first chair.

“Ah yes, here y’all are, feel free to take a seat,” he motioned to the chairs in front of his desk.

He was prepared for us to come. Three chairs were set, normally there would be only two. Two of the chairs were supposed to be here, they kept in line with the general aesthetics of the room. Wooden, with cushions on the seat. The third chair was clearly pulled from another room. A metal folding chair. It didn’t match with anything in here.

Katy and Maria took the cushioned seats. I settled for the metal folding chair, dropping my backpack beside me.

“How are you all today?” he asked, sounding chipper. It bothered me, or maybe that was a testament to how fucked up I was, mentally and emotionally. It was coloring how I perceived others.

“We’re trying,” Katy said, answering for us again. It wasn’t even much of an answer. We were just… trying.

Trying to do what?

“It’s better than not giving up,” he replied, his tone still the same. I couldn’t argue with him, there.

Principal Kirk came across as the kind of guy who would have been popular when he was in high school, he had that air, that charisma, about him. Maybe he was even a captain of the football team. Though, looking at it another way, it was like he never left high school.

He closed the monitor of his computer, then he gave us his full attention, resting his elbows on the desk, putting his hands together.

“I’ll try to make this snappy, and let you go about your day. Now, from your parents, I’ve heard about the… ordeal, that y’all are going through, and it truly tears me apart that you girls have to go through something of this magnitude.”

I didn’t need to see my friends’ faces to confirm for myself, I could already guess what they were thinking.

Nothing but empty words.

“But,” Principal Kirk said, as if to counter my line of thinking, “Luckily for me, I don’t have just my condolences to give.”

I blinked, the extent of how much energy I was willing to spend. I fought back a yawn.

“I haven’t run this through your parents yet, but I’ve spoken with your teachers, and they’ve all agreed to let you continue your courses from home.”

Katy fixed her seat, briefly lifting herself up so she could scoot her chair forward. She was curious.

“You’ll have to elaborate,” she said.

“The school has a duty and responsibility to provide a safe environment for our students to feel comfortable in. However, given that this is a… special circumstance, we, the school, are willing to overlook your attendance on campus for as long as you need.”

“You’re saying we don’t have to come to school?” Maria asked.

If you feel safer spending the day in the comfort of your own home, the school will not penalize you for doing so. Of course, you will still have schoolwork. The school will email you the lessons, notes, assignments, and reviews for all of your classes, put together by your different teachers. It’ll be in one big file. You complete it from home, send it back, and your teachers will grade it.”

“What about tests or quizzes? Don’t we have to come to school to take those?”

“We will accommodate you on that as well. It’s up to your teachers, but they might change the format, making it multiple choice, or depending on how well you do on your assignments, they might forgo tests, entirely.”

Maria fell back into her chair. Obviously, she was into this.

“Of course, this is all up to you,” the principal said, “Well, it does require your parents’ consent, but this is your decision. Whatever you feel is best for you, we’ll go with that. Want to go home? No problem. Want to come to school? More power to you. This is all about what makes you comfortable.”

The effort Principal Kirk was putting in to get that idea through our heads was admirable. He wanted us to be taken care of, he wanted us to feel safe. Did it suck that the Solace situation had gotten so out of hand that it was affecting the school administration? Sure, but they were trying, and doing their part, too. It might have been a small gesture, but it was going a long way. A small light in an ever-consuming darkness.

“Do we have to make that decision now?” Katy asked.

Principal Kirk shook his head. “Not now, not this instance, though you can, if you’ve come to a decision already. Just let me know anytime, and I’ll make the necessary preparations. All I ask for now is to talk to your parents about this, and give this some serious thought.”

It was an alluring option, I wouldn’t lie. Time away from school could be a big help, it meant time away elsewhere. Mom would be out of the apartment, and I would be free to-

“I’m in.”

We all turned to Maria.

“You’ve already made your decision, Maria?” Principal Kirk said. “You don’t need to discuss this with your father?”

“He won’t mind. It might actually be better. Yeah, I’m sure.”

The principal nodded. “Understood, stick around after we’re done here, and I’ll get things going for you.” He then faced me and Katy. “I don’t suppose either of you have already decided?”

Katy spoke first. “I really appreciate the offer, I do, but I’ll decline. I can tough it out here, at school.”

So Katy decided to stay? Does this have something to do with Thomas talking about not folding to pressure? Tougher stuff?

Principal Kirk sat back, his hand still together, resting on his lap. “I’ll respect that decision, too. We do have extra officers on campus for some added security. I can promise you, you are as safe here as you are in your own home.”

His eyes then went to me. It was my turn.

I want to discuss this with Thomas, too. See if we can’t meet or plan during normal school hours. Maybe even some Blank Face action in the afternoon.

I put my finger to my chin. My eyes went elsewhere.

“I’ll have to talk with my mom about this. She’d want to be in the know before I make a decision.”

Principal Kirk accepted that, too. “That’s just as fine with me. And remember, this is an option that will always be available to you. Katy, if you happen to change your mind, I’ll be more than willing to move in that direction. And Alexis, just let me know either way, after you’ve spoken with your mom.”

“Will do,” I said, “Thank you, though, you didn’t have to go that far.”

“Oh, we do. It wouldn’t be right if we stood here and did nothing. Like I mentioned, it’s our duty and responsibility.”

Duty and responsibility. The words repeated and looped in my head. Somehow, it was reassuring.

Principal Kirk changed his position, tapping a key on his keyboard. His computer woke up.

“I know it’s not a lot of fun for me to have called you down here and talk about boring tests and quizzes, but it is important. Is there anything else you’d like to say to me? Any questions?”

The three of us exchanged looks again. I got the general impression that we were just about done, here.

“I think we’re good,” Katy said, speaking for all of us. “Thanks again.”

“Then that settles it,” Principal Kirk said, getting back onto his computer. “Hope to hear from you soon, and I hope this situation gets resolved as fast as possible, as safely as possible. Maria, stay right there, and we’ll get started. You’ll need to bring back a permission slip for your father to sign.”

“Guess I can’t leave with you,” Maria said to me and Katy. “See you later?”

“Yeah, see yah,” Katy said.

“We’ll text you when we’re out of school,” I said. We got up, taking our stuff with us.

“Oh, Katy, tell your dad the school has his back,” Principal Kirk said.

“Sure,” Katy said, “I’ll let him know as soon as I see him.”

I kept to myself for that one.

Katy and I left the principal’s office, Principal Kirk and Maria getting right to work. We took the same path back of the office, and we were back in the hallways of the school. We didn’t run into Eric and Evan on the way.

The hall was empty. Not even a kid walking around with a hall pass. Somewhere in between going to the front office and conversing with Eric and Evan, the bell rang, but I never heard it.

“Maria’s really gonna stay at home?” I asked. We moved to the front of the school. My locker was on the other side of the building.

“I don’t fault her for that,” Katy said, “Deep down, I think she’s the most freaked out by the whole thing.”

I agreed with her by saying, “I don’t fault her, either.”

“And you?” Katy asked.

“Me?”

“Are you going to end up taking Principal Kirk’s offer?”

Not even deep down, I was definitely considering it. “It depends on what my mom has to say about it. She’ll probably want me to keep coming to school, but I might be able to convince her if I really wanted to.”

“Do you really want to?”

Again, she asked me. She really wanted a direct answer.

“I do. It’d be nice if I could. It’s just that, if my mom says no, that’ll be the final word.”

Katy nodded, slow. It almost looked like she was shaking her head, too.

“Bye, Alexis.”

And that was the final word between us for that morning. We split to go to our classes, located at different ends of the building.

On my way, I stopped to take a sip at a nearby water fountain. The sips turned to gulps, as I was spending more time there than I should.

I tried getting myself back into the mind of being just a student, to being just Alexis, but other things were too prominent, too heavy.

I wish things could go back to the way they were.

I remembered when all I had to deal with were due dates and test grades. And now, I was handling deadlines of the most literal kind.

Because, in less than twenty-four hours, if nothing happened, we would be going through the same thing all over again.

No, no no no, no no no no no no no.

No.

This was the same thing all over again.

I staggered into the closet. My mom left me alone, letting me retreat into my room.

I clawed through piles of clothes and boxes. Bits of dust had settled in my absence.

Ripping open the bag, I found the mask. I yanked it out, hugging it close.

I collapsed to the floor, I curled up into a ball.

My chest was pounding, my heart was sinking.

My whole body, my very being, felt like it was on fire.

The end of my rope.

Solace came back, on the TV, posturing like he or she always did. They listed off more names, and they rattled in my head, echoing and echoing and echoing and echoing.

I wasn’t able to do anything. Not in time. Even if it was just another pair of eyes, it was enough to keep me locked up in my apartment. Like a bird in a cage.

I couldn’t cry, couldn’t tear up. I shook, I trembled.

Please, no.

A wide range of emotions, that I wasn’t sure what to call it. Anger? Horror? Panic? Dismay? It was everything, all at once, until it wrapped back around and became nothing.

A certain sadness.

The names Solace said…

Edgar Brown… Linda Day…

Thomas Thompson.

Previous                                                                                               Next

035 – Last Promise

Previous                                                                                               Next

“Don’t touch that!” Katy smacked Maria’s hand before she could move a piece. Maria pulled back, and massaged the back of her hand.

“Damn, it’s just a chess piece.”

“I said don’t touch that.”

My eyes moved back to my magazine. I flipped through some pages without reading it.

Thomas and Kristin wanted us together when the forty-eight hours were up. I couldn’t think of a more mindless way to pass the time.

But what choice did I have? Sneaking out and gathering more intel would be impossible, my mom would want to keep an eye on me all night.

At the very least, I could keep tabs on everyone that was close to me. My mom, Maria, the Thompsons. They wouldn’t slip from my grasp. Solace wouldn’t get to them.

Despite the certainty, there was still a palpable tension, an anticipation, that wouldn’t go away. Not until this was resolved, if that was even possible.

I tried not thinking about it. Tried.

Because we only had about an hour left.

“Can’t you listen for once in your life? Step away from the board.”

Uh-oh. Katy was pissed.

“Holy shit, I’m just sitting here.”

“You’re near it, and you’re driving me up the wall because of it. Just, here. Come here.”

I heard a shuffling. I closed the magazine, and tossed it beside me, on Katy’s bed. I watched Katy forcefully move Maria away from a coffee table in the middle of the her room. A chessboard placed on top.

That chessboard had always been something of an oddity. Some pieces were missing, for one, and the pieces that were on the board were placed on seemingly random squares. A white queen had no business being near a black pawn, especially since the rest of the white pieces were placed properly. The white king was nowhere to be found, and the only the black king remained of the black pieces, backed into a corner. Nothing about it was right.

But that wasn’t exactly why the chessboard was so odd to me. It was because I couldn’t count on one hand how many times I’d seen that chessboard set up properly, because that never once was the case. I couldn’t even lift a finger.

Every time I came over, the board was set up differently. Previously missing pieces returned, then others were gone, placed randomly across the board.

Seemingly.

“God, ow, let go.” Maria winced under Katy’s hard grip.

“It’s better if you don’t ask,” I said. “She’ll never tell you. She’s anal about that for whatever reason.”

“You don’t say.”

The pair only stopped when Katy moved Maria far enough from the chessboard, far enough so that Katy could be comfortable. Her room was large enough to warrant walking for a time with no interruptions. Almost as big as my room.

“Here, you sit by my bed and you stay,” Katy ordered.

“Am I a dog, now? Am I going to be sharing my meals with Annie?”

“It means you’re going to be staying outside if you don’t get your act together. My room, my rules.”

Maria breathed out loud, then folded her arms, but she sat. The added tension didn’t last long, though, Maria picked up the magazine I had put down, and flipped through it herself.

For a short while, we kept to ourselves. Katy sat at her computer, Maria with her magazine, and I responded to the few texts I received in the past thirty minutes. Nothing important, but it helped in taking my mind off things, if only for a little bit. I had gotten used to having to tap multiple times to get different letters and characters, and I was almost as fast as being on a regular smartphone. If just for myself, I’d chalk it up as something to be proud of.

Three girls, lounging around in pajamas, relaxing the night away. The scene would have been comfy, if it weren’t for the waiting, waiting for whether the news we’d be getting was good… or terrible.

I wondered how the others were managing. The others at the dinner party. Were they pretending like everything was fine, or were they afraid?

I couldn’t recall the last time I prayed for another person, and meant it, but I set my phone down, and lied down on the bed. I clasped my hands together, interlocking my fingers, and rested them on my stomach. I stared at the familiar ceiling.

I prayed. I prayed, hard.

“Let’s do something,” Maria said.

Katy didn’t respond. Neither did I.

“Hey, I’m bored,” Maria said.

“It’s hard to want to entertain ourselves under this kind of stress,” I said, still looking up.

“But we shouldn’t just sit here and do nothing. At least I shouldn’t. I’ll end up dying from waiting.”

“Quit it,” Katy said. I heard the clicking and clacking of a mouse and keyboard. “I don’t want to hear anything like that.”

“Fine, fine, but my point remains, I’m bored.”

I sat up, legs crossed, and Katy clicked one more time before turning.

“Did you have anything in mind?” Katy asked.

With all seriousness, Maria answered.

“Chess.”

“I am so done with you.”

Katy went back to her computer. I snorted, trying to contain my laughter.

“I’m kidding, kidding! God, you people can’t take a joke.”

“I need worthier jokes,” Katy said. “Step your game up if you want to entertain me.”

Maria scoffed, flipping the bird to the back of Katy’s head.

In her own little way, Maria was trying to make us feel better. And in a strange way, it was working.

Katy typed out a string of characters, ending with loud slap of a key. Guessing from the rhythm and sound, she was typing out a web address.

She spun in her chair, her elbow resting on her desk, her fingers pushing her hair up.

“What do you guys think?”

“About what?” I asked.

“Do you think Solace is really going to make good on their threat, tonight?”

“I see how it is,” Maria said. “When I mention it, I get berated, but it’s fine if you bring it up.”

“You were making light of things, I’m being real here.”

“You are so-”

“Cool it, ladies,” I said. Had to break them up somewhere, or someone would end up saying something they’d regret, and no one needed that one their plate. “Now’s not the time to be getting into it.”

Katy sank more into her chair, and Maria climbed up into the bed next to me. The waiting was taking its toll on them, I knew, and things were about to either end in sweet relief, or continue to tumble down.

I knew, because I was feeling the exact same way.

It was only a matter of minutes.

“I want to ask again, if I may?” Katy asked, looking to Maria, as if her permission was necessary.

Maria cut through her question, going right into answering it, instead. “I shouldn’t have a reason to think that Solace will. You know what your dad said, there was no evidence of any guest list being leaked out, and everyone who is on the list has to report to a nearby cop, every hour on the hour, until this thing is over, and so far nothing’s happened. We even have cops sitting outside the house right now.”

“Nothing’s happened because there’s still some time left. And there were over two hundred people at the party, not including staff. That’s a lot of variables, and with the police force as spread as thin as it is, there are no guarantees.”

“Katy, everyone’s still present and accounted for, trying to get at someone now would be asking for failure. And it’ll be the same in like… forty-eight minutes.”

Katy didn’t move a muscle. She wasn’t being convinced by Maria’s attempts to soothe her worries.

I chimed in.

“I totally get how you’re feeling, Katy,” I said, “But you’re just going to have to put some faith in your dad and the police, they’re doing the best they can, under the circumstances.”

And so am I.

“And remember what he said the day before yesterday? Giving us forty-eight hours turned out to be a big help, and we had the time to plan, to be prepared. The likelihood of something happening has significantly decreased. It has to.”

“Us? We?”

Katy’s face was scrunched up.

“Uh, you know what I mean.”

She clicked her tongue, twirling her hair. “You’re right, everyone’s working their ass off. I’m just running in circles by this point. It just sucks, being completely helpless. As if there was anything I could even do.”

“Yeah, just leave it to the big boys,” Maria said. “They got this.”

Katy raised her chin by a fraction.

“They better.”

They better. I shared that sentiment.

I sympathized with Katy, or maybe I even empathized with her, too. The stress of the past two days, dealing with pressures at school, and then this. Feeling helpless, unable to do anything, at this hour. Even with what I had discovered last night, not a lot of progress was made with that revelation.

Solace was Benny.

She had to be.

It was her message I found at that apartment, it was her old territory that the apartment was in. That had to be a message for me. It had to be her, or she had to be involved with Solace in some way. It made less sense if she wasn’t. The question left, then, was how.

I relayed my findings to Thomas as soon as I could, but I hadn’t had a chance to get back with him to see what had been done, or what the new game plan should be in general. Despite having to spend the night under his roof for the second night in a row, I couldn’t get a hold of him for a detailed discussion. I might be able to sneak one in later tonight, once everyone was asleep. I was certain that he wanted to talk with me, too.

If there was a way to ask Maria about Benny, without outing myself…

No news was not good news, in this case. The police might be able to prevent a death tonight, but Solace was still out there, and the threat extended until I revealed myself as The Bluemoon, or until we put a stop to it. Tomorrow, and the next day, were as crucial as this moment.

No, more crucial.

“Agh.” Maria made an odd noise, before putting her head on my lap. She coughed, thoughtfully covering her mouth.

“Looks like The Bluemoon’s not going to take off its mask,” Maria said.

I winced, turning away.

“Looks like.”

“How selfish. If it’s trying so hard to be a hero, wouldn’t giving in save more lives?”

The thought made me bite my tongue.

Would it?

That was one way of saving everyone, but it’d be my last. I still wanted, needed, to prove myself as a superhero, and giving up would be shooting myself and everyone I care for in the foot. Besides, I’d be letting Thomas down.

We’d been over this already.

“The Bluemoon could be working on their own plot to find and catch Solace,” I said, “Independent of the police or proper authorities.”

“Pfft, good luck then, because we’re all gonna need it.”

I knew this was her being sour, biting, but it still left me with a bad taste in my mouth. It reminded me that luck probably had a big part to play in this, and having to leave something this big to chance was scary. Really scary. As if I needed any more reminders.

News flash. I didn’t.

Katy returned to her computer. She put on a song, a hazy, atmospheric hip-hop track. It played in the background.

Nothing to do except sit here and wait. And the wait was killing me. Us.

Maria moved her head, and I felt her hair brush against my leg. She looked right up at me.

“You’ve really gotten super skinny.”

A chill ran through me. Deep. Cold.

We’re not getting into that now, are we?

“About that,” Katy whipped back around, and the song was paused, and time seemed to pause with it.

“Let’s talk about that for a little.”

“I’m game,” Maria said. She sat upright, and stared at me intently. “Sorry, Lexi, but you don’t get a say.”

Blindsided. Should have seen this coming. Should have been more careful.

Alarms were ringing in my head. Red. I was on alert.

“This doesn’t seem like a good time…” I started, doing all I could to come up with a way out of this, a way to move to another topic.

“It’s a great time for it actually,” Katy said. She held her hands up, a placating gestures, like she didn’t mean any harm. “There’s not a lot I want out of you, not right now. Think of this as a mini-pseudo-intervention. Some planning, but I think it’s good if we can get into this now, if only for a small exchange.”

The look in her eyes, she wouldn’t be so easily swayed this time around. She wanted a talk, and Maria was going to be her backup.

There’s no running away from this, is there?

I thought.

And as if a switch was flipped inside me, an odd sort of peace swelled within me. Like a train, or a truck, was about to hit me, and all I could do was accept it.

I gave Katy a look of my own. Tranquil. A certain ease.

The biggest lie I ever gave to my best friend.

That was how I saw it.

“What is it you want from me?” I asked.

She watched my expression change. Briefly, Katy struggled with her words, almost flummoxed.

“One, one question. All I ask of you, for now, is to answer one question.”

“I can manage that,” I said, knowing that it was very possible that I might not manage that. But the façade remained.

Katy cleared her throat.

“Have you been eating? Like, at all?”

Technically, you just asked two questions, but okay.

That was a question on everyone’s minds, I knew, and I couldn’t leave it unaddressed forever. I knew they wouldn’t. To pretend like I’d never be called out on it would be foolish. Especially since I already had, but I couldn’t worm my way out of this one.

And I wasn’t exactly planning to. Not this time.

As calmly as I did before, I gave Katy an answer.

“I have.”

Katy shifted her gaze. She didn’t look satisfied. Maria wasn’t exactly pleased, either.

I sighed, trying not to shiver.

“Look, I know you guys have been concerned for me, and you have every right to be so, because… because things haven’t been really good for me, lately. I’ve been dealing with a lot of shit that I’ll still not comfortable talking about. And that’s not including all of this stuff with Solace. It’s… overwhelming, and I know it’s selfish of me to say that since everyone’s going through their own stuff, they have their own problems…”

I trailed off. I was losing focus on what I meant to say.

I tried one more time.

“I feel like my head’s going to be a lot… clearer, once Solace is no longer a thing that’s in our lives. I’ll feel better, then. So, once that happens… I’ll tell you everything. I promise.”

I looked into Maria’s eyes, then Katy’s, as though I meant every word I said.

My heart kept pounding.

Katy nodded, saying, “I’ll hold you to that.”

“Me too,” Maria said.

With some relief, I replied, “Good.”

We sat in silence.

There was a knock on Katy’s door. It opened.

It was my mom.

“Everyone come down. It is almost time.”

We all nodded, then we moved as a group. Downstairs.

I was in the back, feeling like I just did ten-mile sprint.

I had no intention of telling them the truth. But, just for a while, I bought myself some time. Time to think, plan, and sell Katy and Maria different story. A believable one. Until then, they wouldn’t bother me about it, they wouldn’t push. They’d back off, leaving me to handle Solace. With Hleuco.

Maybe I’d change my mind once all was settled with Solace, but…

We’ll see when I get there.

At a bare minimum, my friends deserved something.

We went to the living room, Thomas and Kristin were standing in front of the TV, watching closely to a news broadcast. The broadcast had the courtesy of having a graphic of a giant timer play out behind the newscaster.

“Almost here,” Thomas said, his eyes not breaking away from the screen. He looked restless, but he also looked like he needed a full week’s rest. His dark eyebags were just one testament to that. Worse for wear, on all fronts. He still had on his suit, loose and hanging off his body.

The countdown continued.

There was only a minute left.

… and with no appearance of The Bluemoon, will the terrorist known as Solace strike once the timer concludes? The whole city is watching with bated breath.

The seconds were ticking down. Everyone was stiff. Thomas held his wife’s hand, tight. Katy was by his side. I was with my mom, her arm over my shoulder.

Maria was by herself. I pulled her in to bring her closer.

This was it. The moment of truth.

I almost wasn’t ready.

But time waits for no man.

Five.

Four.

Three.

Two.

One.

Zero. The timer behind the newscaster went to zero.

And there was nothing.

None of us moved.

And it seems that we are now five minutes past, and nothing has occurred, which is of course a good thing,” the reporter said. “We are now waiting on reports from SPD about the current situation.

“Ah hell yeah!”

Maria cheered.

We all immediately relaxed. Katy hugged her parents, and my mom patted my shoulder.

We did it, we actually did it.

Everything fell into place, and it worked.

I almost forgot that we still had to catch Solace, I was so relieved.

I looked to Thomas, and he was already looking at me. We shared a smile. We had this. This.

Let’s enjoy this moment, this victory. Tomorrow, we can

Breaking news-

Everyone stopped.

We’ve just received a report from police that judge Edgar Brown is not accounted for and is likely to be considered missing. The report comes-

“Damn!” Thomas hissed the word. He slammed a fist at the sofa. The trepidation and fear came back, except multiplied, greater.

“How!”

I watched, deeply hoping that this was a grand prank, and we were being played the entire time. I’d settle for total humiliation than the alternative, which was a death of a human being.

Please, let this be a prank.

We were back to watching the TV, unable to look away.

Now we’re hearing that local stations are receiving-”

The picture cut.

It was replaced with static, and a single word, in an old-style font.

Solace.

Good evening, to the so-called hero known as The Bluemoon.

The voice was distorted.

The forty-eight hours I allotted you have now run out, and you have failed to reveal yourself and remove your mask. And now, others will pay the price, all due to your choice.

The sound was filtered with high and low pitches, and I couldn’t discern the gender. It grated, since that could have been the real Solace speaking, but I couldn’t get anything out of it, couldn’t make it out. So close, so far.

And one, already, has paid that price. Edgar Brown was a father to three, a devoted husband for fifteen years, a man of good virtue. Of course, he was also a pillar of this corrupt city, one of the very few left. Now, a few good men must mourn the loss of a great one.”

I was breathless.

Solace continued.

But that matters not to you, does it, hero? You believe yourself to be above the law, attacking downtrodden, troubled citizens, and forcing your twisted brand of justice unto others. Edgar Brown’s death must be something of a convenience, isn’t it? As the pillars fall, something new can be built to replace them. Something of your own sick design.

I had to force myself, to remind myself, to breathe.

Solace continued.

If so, I propose a change. Come this time tomorrow, if you have not complied, I will kill two people, then three the following day, and so forth. Perhaps this is enough to spur a change of heart within you?

My fingernails dug into the inside of my palms. My jaws clenched together, grinding. A leap past furious.

I took a glance at Thomas. He was still, not doing much of anything.

I’m looking forward to seeing you tomorrow. Until then…

The screen cut back to the news. The newscaster was sitting there, confused as the rest of us, but we weren’t paying attention, anymore.

“You have got to be kidding me!” Maria’s voice neared a shriek at the end. Kristin was massaging her forehead, and Katy had to take a seat. My mom followed, sitting elsewhere.

More knocks. At the front door, this time, and more like bangs. Thomas went to get it.

Everyone else was busy coping. I needed to talk to Thomas. Still needed to, and even more, now.

I followed him to the door.

He opened it.

“Jeffery,” he said.

One of the officers who was assigned to watch over the house.

“Gomez wants to see you. It’s important, obviously.”

Thomas took a look back, and noticed me. He looked lost at what to do.

I didn’t move. Or I couldn’t?

He went back to Jeffery.

“My family… Gomez needs me now?”

“He’s just calling for you. Can’t say for sure how long it’ll take, what I can say is that I can escort you there and back. We’ve got Percy and Sumeet if you really want to be careful.”

“Thomas? What is it?”

The rest came to the front door. Kristin passed me and moved a step behind Thomas.

“Gomez is asking for me. Probably to strategize about Solace, now that they’ve changed the game.”

“You can’t go now, you don’t know what’s going to happen, we need you here. I need you here.”

Thomas paused, then started putting on his shoes, retying his tie. He hugged his wife.

“Honey, hon, it’ll be okay. Jeffery’s escorting me both ways, so you know I’ll be safe. I’ll come up with a better plan, and I’ll put an end to this. I promise. And I promise I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

He gave her a kiss.

“Dad!”

Katy pushed through everyone for a hug.

Thomas kissed the top of her head.

“Love you both, I’m sorry it ended up like this. See you soon.”

He hugged Katy one more time, then went outside, following Jeffery.

“Thomas!”

I called out.

He turned, while still moving forward. We shared a look. Determination. At that moment, I wasn’t Alexis, and he wasn’t Thomas.

I was Blank Face, and him Hleuco.

And we weren’t going to let this stand.

A mutual determination.

“Bye,” Thomas said.

That was good for now. It was confirmation that he wanted to talk and plan with me, after Gomez, and all the more that we shouldn’t give up.

We weren’t giving up.

That was a promise.

Thomas nodded, like he was actually seconding my thoughts, and he went off, to the cars and cops. Safe hands.

Kristin closed the door, then we backtracked to the living room. It was as though the wind was knocked out of all of them. No one was feeling very talkative.

“It’ll be okay,” I said, though I couldn’t muster a lot of conviction. “It’ll be okay.”

No one responded. It was disheartening. I looked at my hands, and they were shaking, despite me.

Who was I trying to convince?

Previous                                                                                               Next

033 – Required Strength

Previous                                                                                               Next

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

Forty-five hours left.

Kristin dealt with the officers while Katy let us in.

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

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

Maybe it was something I needed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other side, a dog stirred.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annie started growling. Baring teeth.

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

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

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

At me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what?

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

Even with more people, the silence remained.

Someone… please…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kristin hugged my mom, and she received it warmly.

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

“And your boyfriend,” Katy added.

Maria gave Katy a sidelong glance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was still… still.

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

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

“The…”

Maria sighed, failing to get a sentence out.

Katy and I looked at her.

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

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

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

I felt my skin go clammy.

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

I kept quiet.

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

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

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

I wanted to read their thoughts so bad.

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

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

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

Please don’t look at me.

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

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

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

“Dad!”

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

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

Everyone was in the living room.

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

“Is everyone okay?” he asked.

There were nods all around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Concern,’ being a very severe understatement.

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

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

“Katy!” her mom exclaimed.

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

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

Thomas sulked, shadows over his eyes.

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

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

Maria looked at Katy, Kristin, then to Thomas.

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

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

“But…”

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

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

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

But that was all I had in me to say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do we do in the meantime?”

My mom asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would you blame me if I did?”

“No, I guess I wouldn’t.”

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

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

I hung my head.

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

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

More and more second guessing.

It never ended.

I heard Thomas’s phone. Ringing, again.

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

“Oh, Annie’s out there,” Katy said.

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

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

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

That silence.

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

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

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

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

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

They were scared.

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

But…

What good would that do?

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

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

Would it be better if I did give myself up?

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

“How’re you feeling?” he then asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

Thomas spoke when my imaginary timer reached ‘one.’

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

I didn’t know how to take that.

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

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

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

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

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

I swallowed, again.

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

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

I was at a loss of what to say.

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

What do I want to do?

I was just asking that, myself.

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

Thomas considered his response. He closed his eyes.

He opened them.

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

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

I had to force myself to stop my rambling.

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

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

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

What could I hope to gain?

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

I nodded. It was all I could do.

“Are we good?” Thomas questioned.

“Not good,” I answered, “But better.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tonight, I saw a crack in that pillar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forty-three hours left.

Previous                                                                                               Next

032 – Invitation

Bonus                                                                                               Next

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

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

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

Still the prettiest room I’d ever been in.

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

All in all, it was actually kind of neat.

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

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

I had to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, close enough.

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

Had it?

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

I fixed my hair, a curled bob.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really have watch my back, here.

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

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

“Alexis?” Katy turned my way.

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

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

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

My mom and I took seats at the table.

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

I noticed she would look at the singer, specifically.

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

“It’s big,” was all she said.

Of course it is.

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

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

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

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

Really, really, had to watch my back.

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

The singer… was decent.

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

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

And so did Katy’s mother and father.

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

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

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

The Thompsons were one power family. Seriously.

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

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

“We will,” my mom said.

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

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

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

She hit him on the shoulder again. Thomas grinned.

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

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

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

“How are you, Thomas?”

“Hi.”

“What is up?”

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

“It’s understandable,” she said.

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

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

“Trying to keep it together,” I answered.

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I really hope not,” Maria said.

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

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

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

“Maria!” Katy berated.

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

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

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

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

My heart started racing again.

“Keep keeping it together.”

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

Leaving me red as an apple.

Idiot.

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

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

Fuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You betcha.”

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

I saw it.

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

Mom lowered her chin, ever so slightly.

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

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

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

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

I had some theories of my own.

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

Or maybe… it was his fault.

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

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

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

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

I looked at my watch, before speaking up.

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

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

“Your idea of prom is a trashy one?” Katy questioned.

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

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

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

I know the old Alexis would be excited for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Barely. Okay, I’m going.”

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

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

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

Revolting.

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

Katy followed after me, getting her own food.

“What was that, just before?”

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

Not so merry, after all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, part of it was.

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

“Alexis,” Katy said.

I couldn’t face her. “Yes?”

“Can’t you tell me what’s going on?”

Fuck, fuck.

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

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

Oh, fuck.

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

I can’t let that happen.

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

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

“Uuuh,” I started, thinking.

A loud, but muffled tap sounded throughout the room.

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

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

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

Thomas. His voice took command of the whole room.

We turned around.

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

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

Several laughed, from what now was an audience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas paused, to space out his speech.

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

People applauded.

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

People chuckled.

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

The lights cut out for a second.

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

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

“Don’t touch him, he has a bomb.”

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

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

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

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

Then, I saw exactly why.

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

And we’re already too late.

Five.

Four.

Three…

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

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

And it started going down again.

Twenty-nine.

Twenty-eight.

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

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

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

Fuck is going on?

And am I supposed to do something?

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

How did this guy get in here?

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

The timer went to ten before he spoke again.

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

So, that was the situation.

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

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

That timer can not go down to zero.

It can’t.

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

I was ultimately powerless.

He had to keep talking.

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

Fifteen on the timer.

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

Twenty-five.

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

Many squirmed in their seats.

Nineteen.

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

Twenty-one.

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

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

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

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

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

Nine.

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

Five.

Four.

Three.

Two.

One-

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

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

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

No. You wouldn’t.

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

As for me, I was already shaking.

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

A cold shiver down my spine, electric.

Twenty.

Sixteen.

Eight.

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

But it didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom, Maria, Kristin…

Thomas.

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

Because they knew. Solace knew.

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

This was gang-related.

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

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

Inside me, that fear was shaping into something else.

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

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

Bonus                                                                                               Next

031 – Demon in the Closet

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

I had my eyes shut tight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It had better look like that.

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

“What about?” I asked.

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

“What did you tell her?”

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

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

Plus, it would be easier on my conscience.

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

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

“Do you know where you want to go?”

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

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

“How about your friends?”

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

Like I have to, now.

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

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

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

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

She cut, and I was quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have to be more perceptive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scratch that, make that two.

“Mrs. Phan,” I said, taken aback.

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

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

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

Mrs. Phan was pretty hardcore.

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

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

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

“You think so?”

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

One look?

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

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

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

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

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

Ma, hold on.

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

Mrs. Phan was unfazed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Definitely more than a minute,” I said.

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

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

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

Somewhere else, then.

“Wanna go for a walk?” I suggested.

“Fine by me.”

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

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

“Do you have your phone?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No way, even Emily?”

“Oh yeah.”

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

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

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

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

“Smart.”

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

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

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

“Gave up one thing for another?”

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

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

Like I’d ever say that out loud.

Justin responded with a sound. “Hmm.”

“Hey, it was my mom’s reasoning.”

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

“So thrilled to hear that.”

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

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

“Really?”

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

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

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

Hey, Mrs. Phan said I grew!”

“She was just being nice, Alexis.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Without thinking, I playfully punched him in the arm.

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

Whoa, ow, now that’s a hit.”

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

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

I realized he was just fucking around by this point.

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

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

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

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

A change of pace towards something familiar.

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

I bit my lip.

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

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

This too, I had to fight past.

“No objections,” I said.

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

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

“Why do you ask?”

“Do you remember Zoey?”

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

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

The Barn. Braham Barn.

I didn’t even consider it for a second.

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

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

I looked at him. “No way, you two?”

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

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

“Shoot.”

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

Confused, he asked, “How come-”

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

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

He continued to cry, and they continued to run.

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

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

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

“I’m sure it’s just kids being kids.”

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

I can’t leave this be.

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

“Back me up, or no. I’ll stop them.”

“You can’t just do that!”

“And why’s that?”

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

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

One of the bullies was a girl, I noted.

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

“Get away from him!”

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

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

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

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

Are you insane?

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Christ, what shit kids these are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weird.

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

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

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

I blinked again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I faced him, then nodded.

We returned to my place.

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

I bit my lip.

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

It was Mrs. Phan that opened the door.

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

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered.

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

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

“Me too,” I said. “See you, Justin.”

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

They left, and I closed the door.

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

I shrugged. “Around.”

“Just around?”

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

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

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

“Are you?”

“I told her I think on it.”

“Are you, though?” I asked.

“Maybe.” She looked pleased with herself.

I wonder if that’s all they talked about.

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

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

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

“Cool.”

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

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

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

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

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

Which ‘me’ was me? Who was I, really?

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