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

Interlude – Thomas

Previous                                                                                               Next

Peru – Sixteen years before present

The waves slid across the sand, white foam bubbling in its wake.

Thomas let the cool waters run across his feet.

Sunlight beat down on his face. Bright, hot. He was going to get a sunburn if he stayed like that for another minute.

I can’t remember the last time I was this happy.

A hand gently landed on his shoulder. Warm, comforting. Inviting. It was a touch he wasn’t quite used to, not yet, but at the same time, he didn’t want to lose that spark. That electricity. It was all so new to him.

Even with plenty of space on the beach, he still sidestepped to let his girlfriend stand beside him. They held hands.

They watched the waves come to them, then away.

They watched, then watched some more.

This was a moment, and they were in it.

“Already trying to go out and get cigarettes?” Kristin asked.

Thomas kept his eyes on the water. He smiled.

“You know I don’t smoke.”

“That doesn’t exactly answer my question.”

“I’m not going anywhere. Not now, not ever.”

“Is that so?”

“One hundred percent.”

Kristin bumped her shoulder against Thomas, only getting right above his elbow. She interlocked their fingers.

“Big words. Only time will tell.”

They were big words, but Thomas was up for it, up for the challenge. If not just to surprise himself, but Kristin especially. Scary? It was terrifying, down to the bone. Commitment was heavier than anything even Atlas could carry.

Thomas closed his eyes, seeing red from how bright it was out here. When he opened them again, he was staring right at Kristin.

At Kristin, and at her.

“Are we crazy for this?” Thomas asked, though he already knew what Kristin would say.

She kept her eyes to the ocean.

“We are crazy, and we get crazier with every passing day. Every passing month. We are long past the point of takebacks.”

A door closed, but Thomas didn’t think of it in that way.

“Good, good. I wouldn’t want to.”

She made a sound. A hum. Barely audible over the waves.

“You keep talking like that, I’ll start to think the opposite.”

Thomas put his hands behind his head, stretching. “What would it take to convince you, then?” He gulped. “A ring?”

Kristin made a face. A playful shock.

So cute.

“Slow your horses there, cowboy.” Kristin then shook her head. “But who am I to talk?” Delicately, she pressed her hand against her stomach. Through her shirt, a noticeable bump.

“Another day then?” Thomas suggested.

“Another day.” Kristin agreed.

He left it at that, satisfied.

Amongst the waves, Thomas watched her listlessly.

He didn’t know how many minutes passed when she finally noticed him.

She blushed.

“Stop.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop being such a loser.”

“If I’m a loser, then what does that make you?”

Kristin puffed out her chest.

“A winner. I’m the one who scored.”

Thomas almost snorted. What kind of logic was that?

“You certainly think highly of yourself,” Thomas said.

“I do. Get used to it, or you’ll be in for rough ride.”

Thomas rubbed his cheek with his free hand. “But, rough rides can be good.”

Kristin bumped him again, this time harder, more force.

He swayed one way, then back.

“Am I going to have to get used to that, too?”

“Keep getting smart with me, you just might.”

Chuckling, Thomas let go of her hand, and put his arm around her. He brought her close, tight, before falling to his side, bringing her with him.

She let out a high, shrill squeak as they dropped, water splashing around them.

Kristin was in the water, Thomas on top of her. Both wet.

“And you’re going to have to get used to that,” Thomas said. He couldn’t come up with a better comeback.

“Don’t do that!” Kristin said, scolding him. Salt water splattered from her lips to his face. “This isn’t some dumb movie where you can just do that!”

Smooth, Thomas. But Thomas was sure that a small part of her appreciated that kind of gesture.

I think.

Maybe it was a very small part of her that appreciated it.

“Now I’m wet,” Kristin said, complaining about the obvious. She propped herself up to get the water out of her hair. She groaned.

“That reminds me, Spacey wanted you back at the headquarters in ten minutes. You’re due an extra shift.”

Thomas grinned, almost vulpine. “He should know by now that if he sends you, we’re both going to be late.”

“Don’t joke about this. I can tell his patience with you is thinning.”

Thomas thoughts went to the boss, though he didn’t want them to. “I suppose I can’t fault him for feeling that way. A six-month volunteering program and I just… fooled around for most of it. Really, you did this to me.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yes, distracting me with your feminine ways.”

“I don’t think so, buddy. You don’t get to be absolved from this.”

“Oh, so I’m just a buddy to you?” Thomas asked. He mouthed various positions, moves, references. “Do you give those out to all your buddies like party favors?”

Kristin pouted. “Don’t be so base. I only do that for pals.”

Thomas frowned. “When you talk like that, it’s hard to tell if you’re serious or not.”

“Then don’t change the subject. And get off of me.”

Before he let her go, Thomas kissed the top of her head, then he moved, letting her free. Though, neither of them moved to leave the beach. They stayed, sitting in the water.

“I thought we were leaving now,” Thomas said.

“Yeah, but it did take a long time to find you, and it’s so damn hot. I think Spacey can wait while we cool ourselves off.”

Thomas didn’t object to that. They still had some weeks left of the program left, he’d pick up the slack then.

And, more time alone with Kristin was never a bad thing.

Never.

I’m so glad I met you.

“What do you want to talk about?” Thomas asked her, already lost in her eyes.

“We don’t have to talk about anything,” Kristin said, twisting her hair, getting water out. “We can just sit here.”

“We can, and while I agree that nothing’s more pure and beautiful than these silent, unspeakable memories, I like to talk.”

“That you do.”

Thomas took her hand, submerging it into the water between them. She leaned on him.

“I thought of a name.”

“You have?”

“Couldn’t help it. It’s a girl, right?”

“Right you are.”

“Since it’s a girl…”

“Wait, let me guess.”

He paused, tilting his head. Waiting.

“It’s Katy, isn’t it?”

He smile widened. “You are good.”

“Get used to it,” she said, melodically.

He could feel himself falling for her even more. Deeper and deeper.

“Can you guess why?” he asked.

“I’m not a mind reader. I may think highly of myself, but you’ll need to have more realistic expectations of me.”

“Ah, that’s no fun.” Thomas squeezed her hand. “I picked ‘Katy because, it’s like the ‘K’ from ‘Kristin,’ and the ‘T’ from my name. Also, ‘K.T.’ would be her initials, as well.”

His explanation hung in the salty air. A breeze cooling them.

Kristin didn’t offer up a response. She just snickered.

That snicker grew into a heartier laugh.

“Oh my god, you are such a loser!”

Dumbfounded, stupefied, and dismayed. Thomas hadn’t expected that response.

“Hey, if you hate it, you can just say so!”

In between her fits of laughter, Kristin tried to get words out. Her body was shaking.

“No, I don’t hate it… I love it.”

He felt like he was being thrown for a loop. “You what?”

“I said I love it.”

“Do you actually?”

Yes,” she said, now stern. “I had my own ideas for names, but I adore that reasoning. I really want to use it.”

Thomas sat back, shocked that he could even be more satisfied. Katy. The name rang in his ears like a bell. Clear and bright. Like the sky above him. Endless possibilities. But there would be two constants in his future, now. He felt unstoppable.

“Katy.” He said it out loud, to make the idea solidify even more in his mind. He was going to be a father.

“My folks are going to love you,” he said.

“Of course they will. I’m me.” She pressed more of her weight onto him, leaning on him more. Relying on him more.

He couldn’t stop smiling like a big dumb stupid idiot.

“I love you,” he said to her, for the hundredth time.

“I know,” she said to him, for the hundredth time.

Stephenville – Ten years from present

Thomas stood tall, firm. Confident. And he exuded that confidence because he knew. He had all the facts, the statements, and the jury would be eating out of his hand once he was fully through with him. This wasn’t going to end well for the other guy. Or the other guy’s other guy.

It wouldn’t be easy, but Thomas would have been disappointed if it was.

The homestretch.

He was going to have some fun.

“Good morning,” Thomas said, apt. He stayed at the podium. Weren’t supposed to move around and make a show of things like in shows or movies. These proceedings were usually slow, laborious. A lot of patience, waiting, and listening. For the audience, anyway. For Thomas, he might as well be skydiving.

“Morning,” the witness said back, with no life at all. She was in a suit of her own, drab colors, sitting at the stand. Her hair was tied, but it was done poorly, strands sticking out. There was a microphone situated in front of her, but she was sitting away from it. She didn’t look like she wanted to be there.

Who did?

Thomas started.

“Ms. Jessica Quinn, how long have you been the CEO of Tate and Mono Construction?

“Seven years, give or take.”

“So, relatively new at the job?”

“Relatively, yes.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Just double-checking for myself, I apologize that I’ll have to continue like this for a few more questions. Feel free to relax while I gather my thoughts.”

Jessica didn’t relax. Thomas continued with his questioning.

“Okay, Ms. Quinn, you spearheaded the construction projects in King District, am I correct?”

“Yes.”

“For how long, and what were the projects, exactly?”

“Different housing projects, apartments, homes, offices. My men loaded stuff, dumped stuff, put the hammer to the nail. The whole shtick. And about six months.”

She answered the questions, just not in the right order.

I see.

“And thank you for giving me the whole shtick. Now, as well all know, the reason why you are called up there today is because your ‘whole shtick’ hasn’t gone through the usual procedure, disturbing many residents and businesses, and some of those resident and business happen to be our clients.”

Thomas tapped his fingers on the podium.

“They filed a complaint to you, and not much has been done in the wake of that. Now, here we are.”

Quinn didn’t react to anything Thomas was saying. And he was loving it.

“Ms. Quinn, what was King District like, before Tate and Mono came to do its business?”

“Decent.”

“Decent? Do you mind expanding on that?”

“I can’t explain it, it was just decent. That’s not too hard to grasp.”

“I’ll need a proper answer if only to get a better picture of the situation.”

“Fine, it was fucking Candy Land.”

Some in the audience behind him found that humorous. Thomas, not so much.

“Permission to treat the witness as hostile?”

Judge Edgar Brown hardly gave it a thought. “Granted.”

Thomas kept questioning, but now he could ask leading questions. “Streets were clean, people were friendly, a little rough, but what neighborhood doesn’t have an issue or two? Would you say that’s an accurate description of King District, Ms. Quinn?”

She yawned. “Yeah.”

He glanced at Phillips, Quinn’s lawyer, who was biting the end of his pen.

Cool it, Thomas. Don’t get too excited.

“And what was King District like during Tate and Mono’s time in the area?”

She didn’t say.

“Streets weren’t as clean, the people were hesitant to go outside, rougher overall. Would that be accurate to your experience there?”

“I guess.”

Thomas nodded. “One particular bad apple started making roots around that time, right? The Path, a branch of a Japanese mafia group. The Yakuza. Their men have been causing quite the ruckus in the district since Tate and Mono started their construction, with reports that the Path’s men have been coming and going through buildings your company were responsible for, is that correct?”

“Objection,” Phillips said, “That’s speculation.”

“All the evidence is here, sir,” Thomas pointed to his stack of papers at the folder, “Numerous arrests close to these buildings, drugs, weapons found nearby. This is all written down and documented stuff, and this is more than just some noise complaints. I thought you knew this, Phillips?”

“Alright Thomas, enough,” Judge Brown said. “Do you have a point?”

“One I’m eager to make.”

With little enthusiasm, the judge said, “Overruled.”

Thomas tapped his fingers again, faster. “Ms. Quinn, among noise complaints, have these other more, serious grievances have been brought to your attention?”

Thomas could see her neck glisten under the fluorescent lights. Sweat?

“Keep in mind that you are under oath, Ms. Quinn,” Thomas said, reminding her.

“They have,” she answered.

“And what has been done about it?”

“We never encountered any issue with any outside party or the like, and our construction sites were clean of any illicit materials or contraband.”

“So, nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Thank you, Ms. Quinn. To switch gears here, you’re still a small company, relatively speaking. This is a big project you’ve undertaken, who’s employed you for these buildings?”

A noted lapse.

“Ishida Hitoshi,” she answered.

“That’s a big name, a big name for a big company overseas.”

Quinn didn’t comment or respond.

And now, the clincher.

“That’s also I name I recognize as part of a big controversy in Japan, with rumors that he has very strong connections with the Yazuka, and-”

“Objection, this is hearsay!”

Phillips leaped out of his chair, furious. “That has nothing to do with this case.”

“I think it has everything to do with this case,” Thomas argued. “If those connections are true, it lines up with what we’re hearing about the buildings Tate-”

Judge Brown stopped them. “Both of you, here.”

They both approached the table. Thomas was ready for what was to come, what could come.

The judge leaned closer, whispering, “Thomas, what are you trying to pull?”

“I’m simply raising an important detail that should be relevant in this case. If Ishida Hitoshi is in league with the Yakuza, people should be looking into what the hell he’s doing in Stephenville.”

If,” Phillips nearly spat the word. “If that’s true, but any claims about that here are unsubstantiated, you have no evidence, and it’s not relevant, and you didn’t submit any of this. You’re making a mockery of this court and this case.”

“It is relevant, Phillips. The writing’s on the wall, yet no one is willing to read it, and I’m left wondering, why? And if you want evidence, look to the countless victims that have been coming forward in the last three years. Also, I can bet you Randolf and his boys can find a connecting thread if they decided to show some initiative. The only one making a mockery of this court is that woman on the stand.”

“Shut it, Thomas,” Judge Brown said. “I’ll be the one to decide if there’s any mockery here. Thomas, let’s say this is looked into, and what you’re saying is true, then this whole case turns into something else entirely, and you are out of here. Is that what you want?”

Thomas was beaming on the inside, but he couldn’t show it, not here. “Criminal activity is a factor here, and I want that recognized. I’ll throw the Hail Mary, someone else can score the touchdown.”

Phillips was fuming. “This is unnecessary.”

Judge Brown wasn’t looking pleased with Thomas. “You better know what you’re doing, or this is it for you. Go back.”

They left the judge. Thomas did know what he was doing, because that probably was it for him.

Stephenville – A week after Loving v. Tate and Mono Construction

“Thomas.”

A man stood next to him, holding a beer. James Gomez. Shorter than Thomas, more stout, but with more muscle than him. A head full of hair, a thick mustache. Both were in fashionable, yet casual wear.

“Thanks for coming,” Thomas said.

“Thanks for… inviting me.” James had to duck when a ball flew too close to his head. He was more concerned over not spilling a drop than he was about the kid who threw said ball. “I’m not a huge fan of children’s birthday parties, though.”

“I invited you, you knew what this was, and you showed up, regardless.”

“At this point, I’ll take anything to get out of the office.”

“Even to arrest me for malpractice?” Thomas asked. “A two-for-one deal? I give you a beer, and you give me handcuffs.”

“No, I wouldn’t do that, but I should. That was a dumb stunt you pulled back there. I heard about it through the grapevine.”

“My bosses are breathing down my neck, drowning me in mindless work. Death threats, many of which are written in Japanese. An earful from the wife, which was the worst of it.”

“God damn,” James said, his voice lowered. There were kids around. “You gonna be okay? With your wife and kid, you have to look out for them, too.”

“It’s nothing but big talk on the gang’s part. They do anything, it’ll implicate them, and then the Path is done for. They’ll keep their distance.

“You sound rather confident about that.”

“I have to be. I’ll admit, it was dumb, but it’ll be worth it soon enough?”

Thomas said it like it was a question.

“I can’t give any details,” James said, “But we’ve traced the money. You were onto something.”

Thomas let himself show the emotion inside him. Gratification. He was beaming.

“But why’d you have to go about it that way?” James asked. “You could have just sent in a tip, or better yet, tell me.”

“Tips are too slow. You’re good, James, but your position isn’t. You’re still new, like me. You don’t have the pull to launch an entire investigation. I saw the circumstances, saw my chance, and I took it. Putting it out like that really got things moving, didn’t it?”

“At the cost of your credibility and reputation?”

“If you’re good at what you do, you can get credibility back, and I’m great. And my reputation is with the people.”

“Why be a corporate lawyer then? If that’s the way you think, you’d be better off in the DA’s office.”

Thomas watched the kids play.

“Big companies mean big money, and big money means more for the little guy. I’ll come down, when the time’s right.”

“When? When I’m police chief?”

Thomas nudged him. “Probably.”

“Whoa there, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

“Why not? Dream big, do bigger. You’ll be the new police chief, and I’ll be the new district attorney. Together, we’ll rule Stephenville as…”

“Friends?” James ventured.

“I was going to go with pals.”

James didn’t get it, taking a swig of his drink, instead.

“Could be interesting,” James said.

“Could be real,” Thomas said, correcting him. “This city means a lot to me, you know that more than anyone else. It kills me every time someone asks why I haven’t left yet, why I haven’t packed up and moved. I want them to see what I see in it. It’s not perfect, but I can help, I know I can.”

James drank some more, then said, “Real powerful words there, pal, but don’t beat yourself up over it. You’re not a hero, you can’t put all that weight on your shoulders.”

Thomas agreed, “You’re right, I can’t. I’ll need people. People like-”

“Daddy!”

Katy came running to him, her face twisted up, and she was wailing.

“Yes sweetie?” He had to crouch to meet her at eye level. The way she was acting, it was unbecoming of her pretty pink dress. He had to get to the bottom of this, pronto.

“Alexis took my gun and she keeps shooting me but I told her to stop but she keeps doing it and I’m-”

“Hey hey, hey there.” Thomas had to rub her back, calm her down. She was hiccupping.

“I’ll have a talk with her, I’m sure she’s just gotten too excited again. She doesn’t mean anything by it.”

Katy was shaking her head, rubbing her cheeks with fists.

“I wanna get her back, I wanna get that gun back.”

Where do kids come up with this stuff?

Thomas massaged her again. “That’s not what I’m trying to instill in you. Go get some cake, and you’re making up with Alexis. No one gets that toy gun until this party’s over. Understand?”

She hiccuped. “Understood.”

“That’s my girl.” He let her run off to get cake, and he stood, his back hurting a little.

“Kids these days,” James said.

“You’re telling me,” Thomas said. “Sorry about this, James.”

“Go do your thing, I’ll go have another one of these, and I should be up to hear about Kristin’s summer in India one more time.”

“Make sure she mentions the story about the”

“The Yamarāja. I know, I know.”

He shook hands with James, then excused himself.

Stephenville – Three weeks from present

“Car chase going into Williamson Avenue. It’s red, and the only one going that fast. Police might lose it if this goes for any longer. What do you think about lending a helping hand?”

I’m thinking I’m done with the warm ups. Time for some real action.

Hleuco grinned to himself. He liked it whenever Blank Face showed some enthusiasm, even if it was behind a layer of playful arrogance. It meant that she was getting something out of this. And it meant that she wasn’t completely doom and gloom.

He shifted in his seat, moving away from the complicated connected system of scanners and laptops, to the wheel in front of him. The van started.

With the different channels yelping into his ear, he got out of the parking garage, and drove.

The equipment was outdated, but it was functional, and it served a purpose. Gifts from Gomez. Whenever new stuff came in, the old stuff had to be taken out to make room. And James knew how much he liked antique trinkets.

The van was old, too. Unmarked, bought with cash, kept away in a location disclosed only to Blank Face. He knew the city, the ins and outs. Learned from the best, and the worst, when it came to hiding things. It was a bitch to have to walk to every night he needed to use it, but its purpose was well worth a little pain in his legs.

His foot was heavier on the gas pedal than usual, and not because he was too sore to lift it up more. He needed to keep up with the car, and keep up with Blank Face, so he could be in a good position to pick her up and make a getaway. It was imperative that they kept things as simple as possible, as clean as possible. They weren’t attempting to save the world, they were just attempting to make it nicer. Even if by a margin.

And the girl has school tomorrow, can’t let her be out too late.

“Update, please,” Hleuco asked.

Can’t see it yet, but I do see the cars tailing it. Fuck me, they’re fast.

Please don’t say ‘fuck me,’ Hleuco thought.

“Can you get to it?”

Yeah, if it would turn to the right, I could intercept it from up top.

Hleuco kept an ear out for anything interesting. Anything new.

He relayed what he was hearing.

“Police are setting up a blockade, it can’t make a right anymore.”

Fuck me.

Hleuco shook his head as he drove, knowing she couldn’t see him.

Shut up.

“They’re attempting to trap the car on Williamson. They’re mobilizing faster than I thought.”

What does that mean for me?

“Seems to me they might actually have this one under control now. I’m impressed.”

Great. So all I did tonight was just get some exercise?

“Don’t sell yourself short. Mrs. Azikiwe wouldn’t be sleeping soundly right now if you hadn’t gotten her cat out of that tree.”

I won’t stop selling myself short.

Hleuco took the comment in stride. He sped down the street he was on, still mindful of the speed limit, other cars, and lights. It’d slow him down in getting to Blank Face, but she could make up for that with her own speed and mobility.

The fact that she even had that type of speed and mobility…

He was still having trouble wrapping his head around it. Blank Face had powers, strength beyond compare. No one had seen anything like it, ever. The world was still reeling from the revelation, what it meant, what was to come. How, and why.

It was a day that wouldn’t ever fade over time. It had become something of a pop culture lexicon. A meme, as the kids put it. ‘Where were you when the first superhuman made themselves known?’

Hleuco, Thomas knew. He was in his office, watching the whole thing unfold. Watching the potential.

A hero, here, in Stephenville of all places.

And he was able to work with her on this. On being an actual hero. Providing guidance. He would have felt privileged about the partnership, if the sheer coincidence didn’t shake him to his core.

With something so big, they had to take small steps. That meant limiting her shifts to more manageable times throughout the week, picking and choosing what petty crimes she’d handle, and monitoring police activity so they wouldn’t be in her hair as much. All to help instill the idea that her great power should be married with a greater sense of duty.

To better steer her in that direction, establishing rules was important.

Exercise extreme caution. Avoid overextending power for oneself or unto others.

Constant communication is necessary. Updates should be regularly provided and orders must be promptly followed.

Anything else was common sense.

He thought those rules were simple enough when he came up with them, but establishing them early was crucial. This had never been done before, there was no precedent. Blank Face was strong, and by her own admittance, already stabbed someone. Accident or not, that needed to be curbed, avoided in the future. He worried that she might want to escalate if things weren’t in check.

Which was why he also invested in precautions. He prayed he never had to use them.

There were many kinds in Stephenville. Those who were good, those who weren’t so, and those who turned and became lost. He only wanted Blank Face to be the former.

Thomas didn’t want another one in that last category. Not again.

Hey, Hleuco, you still thirsty for an update?

Her voice brought his conscious attention back to the road. He clicked the left turn signal, then turned.

“Always.”

I’m on Williamson now, but the car keeps tearing through blockades.

He tuned his ear to the police broadcasts. She was right.

“The car’s modified?”

It’s going fast as fuck, everyone’s jumping out of the way since it’s just plowing through everything. Cars and vans. I think the front’s been reinforced.

“Where are you right now?”

I’m ahead of everyone, so I’m seeing it all, it’s just…

A pause.

Fuck!

“What’s wrong?”

It broke through the last blockade. A… a bus is coming from the left at an intersection. A school bus.

“At this hour?”

Anyone could be in there! Shit, at this rate they’re going to collide.

Again, a pause.

I’m going.

Hleuco almost stomped on the breaks, but there were others around him. He had to keep driving.

“That’s a big no, Blank Face. You’re going to come back here right now.”

And let people die? I can stop the car, there’s still time.

Hleuco threw caution to the wind, listening to the police and getting a better sense of where to go.

He stomped on the gas.

“Blank Face, if you’re even thinking about it-”

I don’t have time to argue. I’ll update you in a bit.

He passed up a car, crossing a red light. The city flew past him.

“Blank Face!”

He kept driving, and the police kept blabbering on. He punched the button to shut them up. He only wanted to hear Blank Face.

But there was no one on the other end.

Fuck me, Hleuco thought.

With another turn, he was close as he could get to Williamson Avenue. The police blockades worked both ways. He drove down a street that ran parallel.

Sweat dripped down the steering wheel. His heart beat so hard it hurt.

The machines beside him whirred, the van’s tires rolling down the concrete. A screaming sound.

Silent.

He drove.

Quiet.

Still no answer.

It was maddening.

Hleuco started slowing down.

Not another one…

Not another regret.

He moved a finger to turn on the police-

Hleuco? I’m at-

Hleuco went to a full and complete stop. The van and everything inside it rocked. Cars honked as they passed.

He ran his hand through his hair, nearly pulling strands out from the root. He was so happy he was mad.

“Repeat that, Blank Face?”

I’m at an alley over on Baxton, by a pharmacy. Is it a good pick-up spot?

That was a block down, secluded enough. It worked.

“It works,” Hleuco said slowly, “Stay there, don’t move. Be there soon.”

I hear you.

Now you hear me, he thought. But he drove to get her.

His chest wouldn’t ease up.

Before he got to the spot, he reached back to the seats behind him. He put on his mask as he went. A memento from his time in Europe.

He needed an identity too, some gesture to make Blank Face feel less alone in her role as a hero. Hleuco. From the name haliaeetus leucocephalus. The bald eagle.

He needed a mask, too. She couldn’t see his face as it was now. Not now.

The door slid open. Blank Face stepped in. They left.

“I’m back,” she said. It was good to hear her voice without the mechanical filter. That was what he wanted to hear.

“Count your blessings,” he said, “You’re lucky you made it out of that okay. But don’t push that luck.”

“I’m with you on that.” She was breathing hard, panting. Whatever she did took everything out of her. “My arms are killing me.”

How strong are you, Alexis?

The van rolled on, and Thomas was ready to call it a night.

Present

He checked to see if he had everything on him. He did. Wallet, phone, keys.

Thomas got into the car, Jeffery closing the door for him.

The vehicle pulled out of the driveway, and they went.

Jeffery was usually more talkative, but he was mute, now. Thomas wasn’t that lively, either.

Solace got Edgar. He’s dead.

He was at his wit’s end, but he was too sick of everything to exert effort for a reaction.

He just sat.

Solace got Edgar, and he was dead. Because Blank Face and Hleuco pushed too hard, pushed the gangs too far, too fast, and Solace was born from their desperation. He thought he calculated it right, he thought they were disrupting just enough that it would not come to this.

Thomas was cognizant of the fact it would have been an uphill battle. Public opinion of Blank Face was plummeting, and they hadn’t yet reestablished her name as being Blank Face.

Uphill, but he didn’t expect it to become this steep.

No, these criminals are superstitious, cowardly. Especially in the face of an actual threat. I should have taken that into more consideration.

His thoughts poured over every detail, every bit of information in the past forty-eight hours. What connected, what made sense, what was a legitimate clue?

Thomas made a fist with each hand.

He had to give it up to Solace, they were thorough. Nothing came up when they investigated the event staff, and of course nothing came up when they went to Kristin. The only lead was the apartment they traced the signal back to. Nothing but bricks and wood.

Except a message to Blank Face.

Blank Face – Alexis – was positive the message was directed to her, by the leader of El Carruaje, a now-defunct gang, and Blank Face’s first foe. When she informed him of this, he tried to inquire about the woman who ran that gang, Benny. Her record, whether or not she was actually incarcerated.

Of course, everyone was scrambling over Solace. Of course, they were too busy to look into a small fry.

Thomas wasn’t the district attorney, not yet. He could only do so much as he was. No one answered to him, they would only consider what he had to say.

After forty-eight hours, all any of them could do was try and prevent this. But it didn’t work.

Lost in his thoughts, Thomas caught a glimpse of an intersection as they passed it. The sign.

Gomez’s office isn’t this way.

“Jeffery, are we meeting with Gomez elsewhere?” Thomas asked.

Jeffery kept driving.

“Jeffery? I-”

The officer whipped his arm back, pointing a gun to Thomas.

Thomas backed up as far as he could, which was hardly at all. His hands went up.

“Just, just be quiet, or I’ll shoot. Not another word. And if you do anything else except sit there and keep those hands up, I’ll shoot.”

Thomas didn’t try him. Jeffery’s finger was already on the trigger. Thomas put his hands above his head.

Behind the car, a resounding, deep grumble rocked Thomas’s ears. He would have liked to turn and investigate, but there was no need to set off Jeffery.

Looking wasn’t even needed. He could see from the rear view mirror, and that distinct tone of that sound.

It was Styx’s bike. Styx was here.

So this was how…

And he considered Jeffery a pal, too.

He was fucked.

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

029 – Heart to Heart

Previous                                                                                               Next

Eldritch in nature, but the pathos was universal.

A terrifying creature, masquerading as something that made sense. As an image that could be fathomed, but there was a far greater horror that existed beyond its corporeal existence.

A concept, an idea. Symbols. It had a form and it could consume.

Its physical construct tore into another. A smaller, more base shape. Humanoid. Soft, fragile, delicate.

To assign an identity to the lesser being would assign a level of importance. It needed no such thing.

The greater being made shreds of the lesser. Curved, twisted teeth, from the mouths of the seven heads. It ate, swallowed, but not for nourishment. Rather, to ravage. A spiteful, terrifying creature.

It lurched, and another head took over. A familiar face, a distorted version. Once conjuring warm, nurturing sentiments, only now served to service a stronger mental agony to the lesser being. The inner organs of the lesser spilled out from its abdomen, and from the teeth of the greater.

With a wide movement, a shift of parts, the greater switched visages. A perverted, curled variant of a friendlier guise. A string of organs was torn away as the switch was made.

The lesser being felt a certain betrayal. Familiar faces in an unfamiliar context. It ate at its spirit, as much as the greater being did. Whittling down, but never to zero.

The process repeated. Five more heads. The world. It ate at the lesser being.

And the lesser being could do nothing but endure.

Chained to a mountain, with the curse of forever life. This state of being was forced upon the lesser one, with no choice but to suffer.

The greater took, and the lesser restored itself, and the greater took again.

Life. A cruel act of kindness.

I came to. Awake, but not alert. Groggy, really.

A dream. Judging from my breathing, the initial panic when I woke, it was more like a nightmare. But, when I tried reaching, trying to recall what exactly it was, it only pushed the images away further. Then, it was gone, forever forgotten. A phantom memory. Only the feeling lingered.

And I was free to try and figure out where I was.

It was dim in this small, cramped space. I was sitting on a wooden seat, built into the wooden compartment. Looking straight ahead, there was an elaborate pattern of crosses in the upper half of the wall in front of me. The crosses were actually holes​, and I should have been able to peek through, but a dark screen prevented me from doing so.

I couldn’t stretch my arms or legs out all the way. It was that cramped.

I exhaled, trying to stay calm. A hushed sound.

I soon came to the realization that I still had my mask on.

I was still in costume. Fanny pack, and when I patted my jacket, the baton, too, was still on my person. I had everything on me.

My hood was down, strands of hair sticking to the back of my neck. It was stuffy, in here.

Where…

Upon inspecting again, the wall to my right was actually a small door. I’d have to hunch to get through. It didn’t appear to be locked. Could I just leave? Was this a trap?

Worse yet, was I kidnapped?

“Blank Face. Good morning, again.”

A disembodied voice spoke from the other end of the screen. I couldn’t see who it was coming from, but I didn’t have to. I could do place it, no problem.

“Hleuco,” I said, rasp. “Thomas.”

“Rise and shine,” he said, with no particular emotion behind his words. “Try not to move too much, you don’t want to fall and hurt yourself. Stay still.”

“Where, where are…” and I trailed off. Hard, coming up with words and how to say them. Still out of it.

“Where are we? We’re somewhere safe, I can tell you that. Try to help yourself, and get your brain going again. Can you guess?”

I wanted to complain, to whine, but I probably needed to get my bearings on my own. It’d help me be more alert, faster, and I would be able to talk properly.

Fuck, but I’m so sleepy.

I took my time, looking around, despite the space allowed, despite how unresponsive my body was being. The setting was not unfamiliar, albeit a little anxiety-inducing. I’d been in spaces like this, before, though the situation was quite different. Usually it was much more oppresive. I laid my eyes on the pattern of crosses in front of me, again.

“A confessional?” I asked.

“Good job, you’re correct,” Hleuco confirmed. “St. Elizabeth, to be exact.”

I bobbed my head, aware that he couldn’t see. I’d been here once or twice, years back. A small cathedral. I knew my home from here, I could walk if I had to.

But, could I? I was still too drowsy to do much of anything, except sit here.

In a sense, I was trapped.

“How… What…” So many different questions I wanted to start with, but I didn’t know which to commit to. Which avenue of thought to pursue first.

“Take your time,” Thomas said. It didn’t sound like he had his mask on. “There are a lot of bases to cover, and there is no need to rush.”

His reassurance almost served to make me even more on edge, but I took his advice. Start simple, and go from there. What was the most pressing thing I wanted to know, right this second?

“What… happened?”

“A lot, so you’ll have to be more specific. What do you remember?”

I tried to think. “I was… dragged by my neck, no, before that, ambushed by Styx’s Gang, then… that first thing. Everything after… it’s all too blurry, right now.”

It was hard to try. Only pieces of images came back to me, and so vague that I couldn’t find the words to articulate those images. What was potent, however, were the feelings they brought back. Pain. Panic. Desperation. It was enough for me to stop trying, completely.

I blinked.

“No, that’s good enough,” Thomas said. “You don’t have to strain yourself. But, you’re right. Styx’s Gang managed to get the upper hand, and they took you out of the trailer yard. I wasn’t that far from where I dropped you off, so I saw them as they passed by. My deepest apologies for having not stopped them in time, I had to drive around, guess their route so I knew where to come in and cut them off. It wasn’t the best of plans, considering how I stopped them, but we were in a bit of a pinch, there.”

Quietly, I agreed.

Thomas continued, asking, “You really don’t know what happened past that, do you?”

I sighed. “No.”

“You had your earpiece, I knew that for a fact. I tried communicating with you, telling you where we could rendezvous and make a proper retreat. And you were talking, just not to me.”

“What?” I looked to the dark screen in front of me.

“I’m not going to make any assumptions about you, or your mental state, but you weren’t taking in anything I was saying to you, and you… went off to do your own thing.”

I could tell from his words, his tone, he was stepping around something. I was drawing up a blank. Was it that bad?

“Through your… aimless chatter,” Thomas said, “I was able to find you. You were alone, in the bottom of a drained pool, and unconscious. I feared the worst, but I brought you to the van, regardless. Thankfully, you were coming in and out of consciousness, which said enough, to me. Going all the way back to the factory would have made us sitting ducks if someone managed to follow us all the way out there. Too out in the open, with no other places to hide. And I wanted to check on you as soon as possible. This church was secluded enough, with all the backroads and corners. Abandoned, too. Even God left this place behind.”

The cloud surrounding my brain was clearing up some, but not by much.

“Was anybody hurt?” I found myself asking, not really sure why.

A small pause, but I took notice.

“No.”

A small bit of relief, but I took it. It helped. I relaxed somewhat, pressing my back to the wall behind me.

“So, what now?” I asked. My relief was abruptly cut short. “Wait. Did you say ‘morning,’ a bit ago?”

Another pause.

“It’s a quarter until seven,” Thomas said.

My stomach did a flip. I was going to be late for school, if not miss it altogether. Right now, I was fighting sleep, but I’d probably crash as soon as I was safe at home. On a normal schedule, my mom usually had work before I even got up, so there would be no issue, there, but Katy might be peeved if she came by to pick me up, and I wasn’t… available.

Aside from the night before my birthday, this would be up there as one of the worst nights I ever had. Ever.

I brushed aside the time factor for the moment. “Yeah, what next?”

“I think we’ve waited long enough. If anyone, gang, police, or otherwise, were to come in and get us, they would have done so already. We’re in the clear.”

I let the relief sink in. At least I could call this night officially over.

“But, I was hoping you and I could have another chat, if you don’t mind?”

My relief was snatched away, again.

“About what?” I intoned, trying to accentuate my tiredness, expecting him to take the hint.

“You.”

I didn’t offer another word.

Thomas picked the conversation back up. “It didn’t matter much to me, your origins, or how you came to be. I know I’ve said that before, but I’ve come to realize how shortsighted that was.”

My continued silence was an opening for him to go on.

“In your, how should I put it, heightened state, you were mentioning wanting to drink something. I forgot to bring it up before, but, after I found you, you were mumbling similar musings in the van, in your brief periods of lucidity. You may not remember, but, tell me, what was this ‘juice’ you were talking about?”

I felt a chill, my blood running cold. I was potentially being called out on the one thing I didn’t want to talk about. For the life of me, I couldn’t recall saying anything about ‘juice,’ but it wouldn’t take a genius to figure it out, on my end.

“Juice?”

“You said the word on multiple occasions. I’d normally not put so much attention on such a word, my own daughter has outgrown the need to pester me about wanting some, but it seemed so important to you. I have my own suspicions, but I’d like for you to tell me, yourself.”

I lifted a hand, and I thought about opening the door and leaving the confessional. I didn’t want to talk about this, not now, not ever. I couldn’t let that particular secret get out, or else I’d be even more fucked. People were already rioting about the fact that I existed, what would happen if they learned that I needed blood? What then?

Honesty isn’t your only policy, I thought.

“I’m just as stumped there, too,” I lied. “I don’t know what that could possibly mean.”

Seconds passed. Quiet seconds, with my hand towards the handle of the door.

“That’s bullshit,” Thomas said, blunt. I had never heard him curse in my life. “Give me the truth, Blank Face.”

My hand grabbed the handle, and it twisted with a click, but I didn’t open it, not yet.

“You’re antagonizing me,” I said, just as bluntly, “That’s not cool.”

“If that’s how you choose to see it, Blank Face, then okay. But, you know what I mean, don’t you, you’re just refusing to say. But, hey, I’m not holding you hostage, all I want is a simple answer to a simple question. Go ahead, run if you want to, but I’ll know that you’ll fold at the slight presence of fear. I’ll know that you’re a coward. And that’s not cool.”

I inched the door open, letting a draft slip into the booth, cooling my neck. I realized how slightly dry my throat was. I was becoming more alert, now, more aware, and that allowed me to finally have enough strength to be angry.

How dare he.

I looked at my hand, watching how it went in and out of focus.

“You don’t fucking know me,” I told Thomas, the family friend. “You don’t know what I’ve fucking been through. Don’t you dare call me a coward.”

“Then show me you truly aren’t one. Or instead, tell me. You’re willing to go out, night after night, taking on criminals, but you’re scared of a little, tiny word? Even I know you’re better than that.”

Out of impulse, I screamed, rasp. I threw myself back, my shoulder hitting the wall opposite the door. The door went back to being closed.

He was prodding me, egging me on, and I let myself fall right into it. I wanted to hate him for being so obvious, but I’d hate myself more if I had let him think he was right.

You have no idea what I’ve been through.

A pointed ache pierced my stomach.

I didn’t speak for some time. Thomas didn’t, either.

Damn me, damn you, Thomas, and damn this whole world.

I opened my mouth, partly.

“Blood.”

I said it, drained of all life. Exhausted. My posture wasn’t straight, my shoulder on the wall beside me, my arms dropped on my lap. I stared down, staring at the prayer card that had fallen to the floor. Our Father.

Telling the truth had sucked all the life out of me.

What was Thomas’s reaction, on the other side? Shock, fear, hatred? I would never know.

A minute passed. The longest one ever.

“Blood?” Thomas repeated, finally saying something, and it was an encouragement to go on.

Defeated, I did. “I can’t eat normal, human food. I need to drink blood. A package deal with these powers. And I really need it. I guess, if I go too long without properly feeding, I tend to lose myself to the thirst. It… what’s the word? It sucks.”

“And, until you showed your powers in public, you’ve lived all this time without attracting any attention?”

“No. I haven’t lived with this, for that long. I’ve only had my powers for about a month now.”

“I see. How did you get them, then, if I may ask?”

That entire night flashed before my eyes. In order to avoid choking up, or tensing up just thinking about it, I had to remove myself from that memory. Report it, as if I was speaking about another poor soul.

“Attacked, by an unknown assailant. Mangled, ripped apart. Left for dead. But…”

“But you survived,” Thomas said.

“If you could call it that,” I said.

I heard from the other side of the confessional, where Thomas was. A single wooden tap.

“You’ve seen fear, Blank Face. You met it head on. It may have… gotten to you, but it didn’t defeat you. From what I’ve seen, from what you’ve proven to me, you had gotten right back up, and you wanted to use that experience to help others, when they couldn’t help themselves. At a bare minimum, you are a survivor, and you are braver than anyone I know.”

I hiccuped, fighting back tears. No, Thomas, you’re wrong.

Thomas spoke again, despite me. “To branch off what you said earlier, does that mean there’s another one like you, out there? More of you?”

I had to keep my answers short, my emotions getting the better of me. “No. Don’t know.”

“Did you ever try to investigate, try to find out?”

“No, kind of, little bit.”

“How come?”

“I went back, to where it happened. Nothing. Then, after that, I, I…”

“‘I,’ what?”

“Been busy ever since.”

I heard a shuffling on the other end, shifting. An exhale.

“Do you even know what you are, exactly?” Thomas asked.

“No… I’d call myself a vampire, but that’s not quite right. I’m not too sure.”

Another exhale.

“I have a feeling this was a conversation you’ve needed, but never got,” Thomas said. “Am I wrong?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Thought so. Let me tell you this, then. As you are, you may very well be the only one of your kind, vampire, ghoul, whatever. But that does not mean that you are alone. Do you understand me? It may be hard, it may even seem impossible, but there are people out there who can and will lend a helping hand. You just have to find them, you just have to try.”

For a moment, I let words resonate.

Another quiet minute, though it felt less grueling.

“Did I make any sense, there?” Thomas asked, getting to me. “Was I clear?”

I was unmoving, still in that slumped position.

“Yeah.”

“Good. Now, for some less important matters. Our next order of business. I propose we hold off on our masked activities for a time.”

Putting my arms on the seat, I situated myself back to an upright position. “What?”

“I have some last-minute campaigning to do this coming week, and I want to dig more into what you found at the trailer yard. And to do both, I need time. Truly. Something was off about those people you found. Styx’s Gang isn’t known to deal in human trafficking, and there were no drugs or guns in there, too. I’ve already come up a theory. Not people, but a specific individual, hiding amongst a group of normal, illegal aliens.”

“Who? Why?”

“That’s why I need time. I still want to do a more honed in, focused approach against the gangs, so I’ll need time to research and better plan ahead for our next outing. If you truly want to, you can go back to dealing with random, petty crimes in the meantime, but I suggest you take a break, too. Some time off will serve us both well.”

“What about the riots? Or us trying to establish a new image?”

“People lose interest over time. It’s human nature to become bored. The riots will eventually decline to manageable level. As for image, we have all the time in the world to get the public to change their minds, once we strike the gangs more strategically.”

“It feels like running away,” I said. “Like we’re cowards.”

“There’s nothing wrong with the act of running way,” Thomas said, “If it’s a means to survive. Just make sure you can hit back twice as hard when you come back, later down the line. And that’s what we’re going to do. Hit back, twice as hard.”

I leaned back. I do like the sound of that.

“Or, I can it put it this way,” Thomas said. “In the bag I gave you, the one that had your new costume, there’s one thousand dollars, the standard payment. I’ll throw in another grand. I’m paying you to take time off.”

I was hit with a wave of mixed, turbulent emotions. Gratitude, guilt, embarrassment, disgust, but some relief, too. Like a weight was lifted, that I had been carrying for so long that I had forgotten about. I told someone, another human being, about my true nature, and I was still here, living and breathing. It wasn’t the end of the world.

A test, barely passed. But barely passing was still considered good enough.

I was going to take it.

“Sure,” I said, “I can sit still for a while.”

“Alright,” Thomas then said. I heard rustling from his end, a door opening. “I think we’ve been stuck in here for long enough. Let’s get a move on. Unless…”

He trailed off.

“Yeah?” I asked.

“Unless you have anything else to say. We are in a confessional, after all.”

I considered it. Seriously considered it. But my heart was pounding, aching. Would I be pushing my luck? Taking things too far? Would it become a burden to him, if I told him now, after everything he got out of me? Presumptuous, to put it into words.

But the words he just said came back to me.

‘There are people out there who can and will lend a helping hand. You just have to find them, you just have to try.’

Another test, the final one of the night.

Despite myself, I couldn’t form the words, couldn’t articulate them. They were too heavy. I simply went for taking off my mask.

I opened the door, and got out. My heart was beating, hard.

I faced Thomas, who had his mask in his hand, too. He didn’t have his suit jacket or his tie, his sleeves rolled up to his forearms. His hair was unruly, and he looked about as weary as I probably did.

He smiled. A soft, understated one. Like I had told him a bad joke he’d heard before.

“Alexis,” he said, and it was all I needed to hear.

“You knew,” I said, too tired to find any more anger in me. “For how long?”

“I knew the second I saw you, to be perfectly honest. It wasn’t the best disguise. Come on, a paper bag? And I’ve chaperoned you and Katy on countless Halloweens. I know what your voice sounds like in a mask.”

If I had the energy, I would have died from laughter. “Then why didn’t you tell me?”

“You were clearly still trying to get your bearings on the whole thing,” Thomas said. “I didn’t want to throw you off when you were still on such shaky ground. I was willing to wait, until you were more prepared, more certain in yourself, and then I’d let you come to me, whenever you were ready. I’m sorry I kept you in dark about this, I’ll have to beg for your forgiveness.”

I did manage a chuckle, this time. “I can’t fucking believe this.”

“No cursing,” he said, behind a tired grin.

I stepped forward, and immediately my leg buckled under me. Still too drained to do much of anything.

Thomas came right before I could collapse, and caught me, wrapping his arms around me in an embrace. Both our masks dropped to the floor of the dark cathedral.

We stayed like that for a time. We were both in an odd standing position, leaning into one another for each other’s support, and we were both too spent to move. Didn’t want to fall.

And, for me, it was something I didn’t know I needed.

My face was buried into his shoulder, and I could smell the sweat that overpowered his aftershave.

“How are you holding up, AK?” Thomas asked, referring to an old nickname he gave me, back when I was a kid. I wasn’t the biggest fan of it, then. “Feeling okay?”

I wasn’t sure if he could hear me, but I spoke into his shoulder. “I feel so frustrated.”

A soft laugh. His body swayed.

“The only thing free in life is frustration,” he said.

I believed him.

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025 – Play for Keeps

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Dark clouds stretched above me. Heavy, like it could rain at any moment, the threat literally hanging over my head. Huge, too, and I distracted myself by imagining what it would be like if they were really huge floating islands, and a civilization of people had been living up there for centuries, completely separate from us land-dwellers. What kind of food would they eat? How did they travel from cloud to cloud?

I’m wandering.

I heard Hleuco approach up from behind. I didn’t turn or react, I simply looked ahead.

The city was nothing like New York, with the iconically tall buildings and the sheer amount of them, but Stephenville had a skyline of its own, scraping its own name into the sky. The center of my line of sight held a higher concentration of buildings, taller too. An area colloquially referred to as ‘The Eye,’ the roughest part of town, and where the more prominent gangs held the most influence and power. Even with my powers, I was still an ant, compared to the bosses within those towers. Impossible, to do anything about them now. Not like that was what we were working towards, or anything. Our aspirations were a lot smaller.

I looked, once again feeling a sense of self-doubt, second guessing myself. Should I really be doing this?

Hleuco took a position a few feet away from the roof’s edge. As for me, I was sitting, my legs hanging. It was chilly up here, even with a windbreaker.

We were on a roof of an abandoned factory, in an older district. The ‘hood,’ if I wanted to put a label on it. It was the closest thing to a headquarters we had, not that we had done any refurbishing or renovations towards making it a base of operations. More of a meeting place, I supposed, far enough off the grid that no one besides crackheads and their dealers would enter.

However, that meant that I had to travel pretty far to make it here. Forty-five minutes, walking when two buses took me as far as they could.

I need to learn how to drive, and soon.

Actually, first, I need a car.

“You could’ve told me you were already here,” Hleuco started, breaking me away from my thoughts.

“I came up from another way,” I explained, dryly, “The roof here is big, so I thought I’d stay in one place.”

“You have your earpiece, don’t you?”

“I needed a breather.”

“I said it was urgent for a reason.”

“Kept you waiting, huh?” I asked, not concerned.

“Only a few hours, but it’s not as if time is of the essence.”

“That’s a relief, then,” I said. I didn’t care how late I was. I had to wait for my mom to go to bed before I could head out. That was a drawback he’d have to learn to deal with. Not my fault I was the only superhuman available at his beck and call.

I didn’t apologize, nor attempt to justify my tardiness. Was not in the mood.

“In any case, there’s a lot we need to discuss, and now there’s not much time,” Hleuco said, taking my small wisecrack in stride. “But this is something we need to address.”

I heard a cushioned drop of what sounded like clothes onto concrete, then the crinkling of paper while he talked.

“Thanks to the so-called ‘Halloween Riots,’ the people are asking for a real witch trial out of you.”

“How reassuring,” I said. Lightly, I kicked my legs out in front of me, letting them swing.

Hleuco continued to explain the situation, a situation seared into my consciousness for the last few days. “Public perception was wary at least, fearful at most. But now?” The crinkling paper came back, and he paused. He exhaled, before saying, “They want to burn you at the stake. Not the best foot forward when you just started being a superhero.”

“I didn’t do this to be loved,” I said, nonchalantly. “Not a concern.”

“Perhaps it’s not a concern in a personal sense, but it’s a concern nonetheless. If these riots continue into the next few days, the governor is considering sending in the National Guard to come after you.”

That got to me. I wasn’t aware of that potential measure. “You’re kidding, right? Tell me you’re kidding?” I looked at him for my answer.

I frowned.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

What I heard from Hleuco was him tearing into a bag. He was suited up, and had his mask on, but not on properly. It was lifted up, the mouth-beak section over his eyes, and he was eating a burger.

“You were late, so I had time.”

“But right this very second, though? You’re mixing signals.”

“I still have some leftovers, want a few?” he offered, showing me the greasy paper bag.

Again, my stomach did a flip.

“Um, I’m good,” I said.

“Hmm, more for me.” He dug into some french fries, left in the bottom of the bag.

Without realizing it, he was rubbing it in my face.

“Tasty?” I asked, harshly.

“Very,” he answered, his mouth full.

“Okay, can we get back to the point, now? You were the one complaining about wasted time.” I set my sights back on the city.

“Sure.” The paper bag rustled some more. I heard him set it down.

“Nothing confirmed,” Hleuco said, “It was only reported earlier this morning. The governor’s considering it, but that’s enough for us to have to seriously change how we do this moving forward, assuming of course, we want to move forward.”

“Meaning?”

“I’m just going to get this out of the way now, so I don’t have to waste any more time. Do you feel like quitting?”

That question came at me from nowhere. It was a big question, too, one that I had to take seriously. I pushed myself away from the lip of the roof, and stood, facing Hleuco.

“Why are you asking this, now? Didn’t we just start?” I asked.

Hleuco had fixed his mask in the meantime, and looked at me front and center. A big duffel bag was by one foot, and crumpled litter by the other.

“I ask because the gangs are already retaliating,” Hleuco said. His mask’s beak cupped over his mouth, carrying it, making it sound bigger. “No civilians are dead, but plenty have been injured from being caught up in a riot. And it’s not just those riots. You saw it with the bank robbers. They were using your image while committing a crime. Doesn’t stop there, and it hasn’t. Crimes all over the city are reported being committed by those in blue hoodies and grey pants. Robbery, arson, home invasion. The riots have continued, too, though smaller and faster to be stomped out than that first one on Temple Street. Isolated incidents, but connected by a single, blue thread. It’s clear what’s going on, here.”

Behind my mask, I hid my concern. And the occasional flinch of pain whenever my throat or stomach ached.

I pressed further. “Would you care to be more clear?”

Hleuco drew in a breath before explaining, saying, “Let’s go back to the initial riot on Temple Street.”

“I’d rather not.”

Listen. Several were apprehended and arrested, all from various gangs. From Axel, the Thirteen-Dogs, even leftovers from The Chariot. Not one gang, but several. You were partially right, before, when you asked if a gang was behind it. Turns out there were more.”

That was exactly what I needed to hear at the moment. More complications. I never wanted to be more wrong in my life.

I flinched again. My stomach.

“And it wouldn’t even be a hard collaboration to organize, I’d imagine,” Hleuco said. “Just show up in one place, in dress code, then go to town. Even if they lose people in the process, the gangs did their damage. And the people they did lose? At least they went down for a cause. People like to think that.”

Hleuco reached back behind his head. He was undoing his mask, removing it, revealing the man behind it.

Thomas Thompson.

He set his arms beside him, his mask in one hand. His eyes were baggy, dog-tired, but he stood straight, his posture firm. He fixed his hair with his free hand.

“So I want to ask you again, do you want to quit?”

The question struck me in an odd way. The way he laid out those particular cards, the way he was dealing this out, it made it seem like he wanted me to call it quits.

Again, mixing signals.

I called him out on it, instead of answering. “You were the one who encouraged me to do something with my powers, to do more to help others. Now you’re asking if I want to walk away, after only a week or so doing this?”

Thomas shook his head. “I’ll never not encourage you to help people with your abilities, all I’m asking is, with these circumstances, are you willing to move forward? No one could have anticipated this, and having to tackle this issue will be asking more of you than you initially offered to put on the table. How did you put it, when you just came through my window, back then? ‘Go after the small fries?’

“Not exactly how I said it.”

“Semantics. I stand by what I said when we first met, but I’m not dumb. I recognize how young you really are, the life that mask is trying to protect and hide. I only gave you my proposal because I knew you were aware of the danger, you dealt with it, and you walked away unscatched. You have potential, you have promise, and I want cultivate that. But, this isn’t your main responsibility, and it never has to be. You don’t owe this city anything, and you’re too young to owe this city your life. You don’t have to go that far. If you’re going to fight, you’ll need to come up with your own reason.”

The words rang clear within me, but they were like a ringing alarm that would wake me up every morning. I’ve heard it before.

“You’ve mentioned this already,” I said, “When I came to see you. You’re retreading.”

“I’m reaffirming,” Thomas said, correcting me. “Our original plan of going after petty criminals isn’t going to hold water when they’re tossing molotovs. We will have to change our game plan, not terribly so, but it is in order.”

“What an argument,” I commented. “It’s like you actually want me to walk away from this.”

“I won’t reiterate, otherwise we’ll be going in circles. I’ll simply wait for an answer.” He checked a watch on his free hand. “Though, if we wanted to get to the other thing I had planned, you’d need to be quick.”

My mask hid the slight smile I had. I was amused. “Putting me on the spot, then.”

“Waiting.”

I turned away from him, my eyes again on the city. I went all the way out here just for this? My whole neck and torso were hurting, stinging, and I had already mentally prepared myself to do some superheroing tonight, even if I’d end up falling asleep in class the next day. I needed an outlet, something to take my mind off of that disaster of a dinner.

And I actually needed dinner, too. Not that Thomas had to know that.

He was right, though, I had to give him that. This wasn’t what I signed up for. I had agreed to do work like this as long as it was simple, an easy engagement, with monetary compensation. Two or three times a week, depending on my schedule, I’d ride in a van, or run along rooftops, stopping whatever crime or wrongdoing I’d come across. Hleuco would relay whatever information I needed, usually the movements of the police, all from some complicated police scanner he’d managed to procure. It was as straightforward as you could get, an avenue to not be myself for a while, to assume another identity. As Alexis, my powers – my thirst – hindered and interfered with my day-to-day life. A source of stress. As Blank Face, I could at least direct my strength towards something that wasn’t myself. The thirst was still a problem, though, hanging over me like the dark clouds above. Agreeing to be a superhero was equal parts for myself, and for whoever I could help. But, according to Thomas, those parts were already becoming disproportionate.

Already, we had to change things up.

On the other hand, I didn’t sign up for any of this at all. But, I should have come to terms with that some time ago. Honestly? Still working on it.

I still needed an outlet, a recreational channel for my powers. And, as a more pressing, immediate matter, I was still thirsty. I needed to be out right now. I just had to find a way to slip that minor detail past Thomas.

With my answer, my mind made up, my resolution steeled, I looked across to Thomas. He was still, waiting. Still waiting.

“I’m still in,” I said, after thinking it over.

“Oh?” he asked, sounding like he didn’t expect that.

“I’m saying you’re right, but I won’t quit just yet. We just got started. Let’s show them something good.”

“So, you’re telling me we’re on the same page on this?”

I clicked my tongue. “Looks like it, but don’t point it out like that. It makes me want to take back what I said.”

Thomas smirked, like he was entertained, or relieved. “Then I say no more, just take this.”

He bent down, picking back up the larger bag at his feet. The way he lifted it suggested that its weight was pretty hefty. He tossed it at me, swinging it underhand.

It crashed at my feet.

“And this is?” I inquired.

“Your new costume.”

“New costume?”

“The gangs and riots are smearing your image, and it’s working. The public will hate you, if they don’t already. It’ll be difficult continuing this if they associate you as another element of the rampant crime in the city.”

“But don’t people out there realize that this is a scheme on the gangs’ part? A trick?”

“Some might see through it, but it’s easier to want you out of the picture now, then want to see you maybe achieving some good in the future. Audiences love to hate.”

I tugged at the hem of my jacket. “And you think a new costume is going to change it.”

“It’s a step. This is less imitable, harder to come by. And, if I might add, it’s more striking, too. It’s enough to differentiate yourself from the fakes. Visually speaking. You may have been working on a new one on your own, but I took the liberty of piecing together my own version. I hope you don’t mind.”

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t put much stock into my ‘costume’ when I first came up with it, but I couldn’t deny that I’ve developed some attachment to my current getup. It became familiar, recognizable, comforting when I was out doing uncomfortable things. It was admittedly strange to feel this way towards some clothes and a mask, but if old army veterans could maintain a sense of pride in their old uniforms, I could hold that sentiment towards a beaten-up windbreaker and joggers.

But, I was curious at what Thomas had come up with.

I tapped the tip of my foot on the ground, fixing my shoe. I breathed audibly.

I got down on my knees, and zipped open the bag. I peeked inside.

“This is what you came up with?” I asked, still investigating.

“I’ve left some other stuff in there for you, but just try it on. No worries, I’ll look the other way.”

Thomas didn’t expect or wait for a reply from me. He moved, walking away, his back to me.

I had thought about why he was seemingly so disinterested and uncaring about my true identity. The best friend of his only daughter. Considering how I was, what I had become – whatever that was, exactly, – wouldn’t anyone want to know who was under this mask? Yet, he seemed to want to respect that. Was there a reason why? I couldn’t stop myself from putting that train of thought into motion.

Could it be that he already knew?

No, I thought. Wouldn’t make sense. I knew Thomas, he would’ve immediately said something the second he found out. He wouldn’t have let me get this far. He simply wasn’t interested, I had to suspect. There were more important things on his mind, other motives. Like he said, it could be anyone under this mask, but his words would be the same.

That, I knew.

When Thomas got farther away, I changed into what was in the bag. I removed my windbreaker, then my fanny pack with my knife and pepper spray, but I kept my joggers on. I wasn’t willing to expose myself that much, not while outside, and definitely not while Katy’s dad was right there, back to me or not. Not my style.

Hastily, I removed my mask, and swapped it with the one in the bag. I adjusted it to fit my face, and fixed the different straps that wrapped around the back of my head. I tried to clean off the right lens with my hand, but it smudged, leaving a mark, and I left it at that.

Next came the parka, and I zipped it up, snapping the metallic buttons together once I put back on the fanny pack. The parka went past my waist, stopping right at my butt.

Last came the gloves, which I found next to an unattached handle of a thing. Black leather gloves. I put them on.

The only thing I didn’t wear were the pants at the bottom.

I stood, flipping the hood up.

“Um, I’m ready!” I called. My new mask distorted my voice even more than my old one. It sounded deeper, even more muffled. “Ready!” I called again, to account for it.

Thomas came back, fixing the straps around his mask, too. I couldn’t see his expression when he checked me out.

“You didn’t change into the pants,” was what he said.

“I thought we were trying to stop crimes, not be involved in our own.”

I couldn’t see his expression, his reaction, but a pause was all I needed.

“Not what I intended,” Hleuco said.

“Fucking around,” I said back, “Just fucking around.”

“Alright. That aside, I think it works. You look good, or rather, you look proper.”

I shifted in place. The jacket was heavier than I was used to, and the mask covered my face entirely, and it would be harder to take off. This was going to be an issue if I was planning on finding blood tonight. Which I was.

A small complaint which I couldn’t raise.

“I tried keeping the silhouette of your original look,” Hleuco explained. “While making it more utilitarian, built to last. Truth be told, I was quite fond of the rough draft of a costume you had at first, so I just wanted to build upon it, improve it.”

“No, I, you’re right. This is better,” I said. There was a certain nervousness, there, that I didn’t expect. This really did feel like a costume, like effort was made to be and dress the part of a superhero.

This is better, but it’ll take some getting used to.

Hleuco concurred, “Great. Now, we head out. We’re behind as it is, and this took longer than I anticipated. Come along, I’ll explain on the way.”

He moved again without any confirmation on my part, and I had to follow, stuffing my old mask and windbreaker into the bag as I went.

“So, what’s next?” I had to ask. “A new costume couldn’t be the only thing you had in mind.”

“No, it isn’t,” he said as we left the roof, going through a door that led us down some stairs. The added echo of our steps and his masked voice made me really have to listen. “We were going after the smallest of fries, the game that didn’t matter. That’s fine and well, but that means no gang has any incentive to take us seriously. And they don’t, otherwise they wouldn’t be playing dress up. If we want to make an impact, we will have to show them that we are serious, and that we mean business. No more picking up what we can. Now, we play for keeps.”

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