033 – Required Strength

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

Forty-five hours left.

Kristin dealt with the officers while Katy let us in.

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

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

Maybe it was something I needed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other side, a dog stirred.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annie started growling. Baring teeth.

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

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

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

At me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what?

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

Even with more people, the silence remained.

Someone… please…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kristin hugged my mom, and she received it warmly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was still… still.

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

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

“The…”

Maria sighed, failing to get a sentence out.

Katy and I looked at her.

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

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

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

I felt my skin go clammy.

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

I kept quiet.

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

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

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

I wanted to read their thoughts so bad.

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

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

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

Please don’t look at me.

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

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

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

“Dad!”

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

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

Everyone was in the living room.

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

“Is everyone okay?” he asked.

There were nods all around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Concern,’ being a very severe understatement.

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

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

“Katy!” her mom exclaimed.

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

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

Thomas sulked, shadows over his eyes.

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

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

Maria looked at Katy, Kristin, then to Thomas.

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

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

“But…”

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

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

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

But that was all I had in me to say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do we do in the meantime?”

My mom asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would you blame me if I did?”

“No, I guess I wouldn’t.”

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

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

I hung my head.

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

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

More and more second guessing.

It never ended.

I heard Thomas’s phone. Ringing, again.

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

“Oh, Annie’s out there,” Katy said.

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

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

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

That silence.

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

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

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

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

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

They were scared.

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

But…

What good would that do?

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

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

Would it be better if I did give myself up?

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

“How’re you feeling?” he then asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

Thomas spoke when my imaginary timer reached ‘one.’

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

I didn’t know how to take that.

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

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

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

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

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

I swallowed, again.

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

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

I was at a loss of what to say.

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

What do I want to do?

I was just asking that, myself.

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

Thomas considered his response. He closed his eyes.

He opened them.

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

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

I had to force myself to stop my rambling.

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

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

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

What could I hope to gain?

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

I nodded. It was all I could do.

“Are we good?” Thomas questioned.

“Not good,” I answered, “But better.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tonight, I saw a crack in that pillar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forty-three hours left.

Previous                                                                                               Next

032 – Invitation

Bonus                                                                                               Next

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

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

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

Still the prettiest room I’d ever been in.

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

All in all, it was actually kind of neat.

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

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

I had to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, close enough.

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

Had it?

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

I fixed my hair, a curled bob.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really have watch my back, here.

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

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

“Alexis?” Katy turned my way.

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

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

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

My mom and I took seats at the table.

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

I noticed she would look at the singer, specifically.

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

“It’s big,” was all she said.

Of course it is.

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

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

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

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

Really, really, had to watch my back.

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

The singer… was decent.

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

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

And so did Katy’s mother and father.

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

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

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

The Thompson were one power family. Seriously.

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

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

“We will,” my mom said.

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

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

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

She hit him on the shoulder again. Thomas grinned.

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

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

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

“How are you, Thomas?”

“Hi.”

“What is up?”

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

“It’s understandable,” she said.

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

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

“Trying to keep it together,” I answered.

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I really hope not,” Maria said.

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

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

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

“Maria!” Katy berated.

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

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

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

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

My heart started racing again.

“Keep keeping it together.”

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

Leaving me red as an apple.

Idiot.

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

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

Fuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You betcha.”

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

I saw it.

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

Mom lowered her chin, ever so slightly.

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

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

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

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

I had some theories of my own.

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

Or maybe… it was his fault.

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

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

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

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

I looked at my watch, before speaking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know the old Alexis would be excited for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Barely. Okay, I’m going.”

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

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

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

Revolting.

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

Katy followed after me, getting her own food.

“What was that, just before?”

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

Not so merry, after all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, part of it was.

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

“Alexis,” Katy said.

I couldn’t face her. “Yes?”

“Can’t you tell me what’s going on?”

Fuck, fuck.

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

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

Oh, fuck.

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

I can’t let that happen.

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

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

“Uuuh,” I started, thinking.

A loud, but muffled tap sounded throughout the room.

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

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

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

Thomas. His voice took command of the whole room.

We turned around.

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

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

Several laughed, from what now was an audience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas paused, to space out his speech.

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

People applauded.

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

People chuckled.

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

The lights cut out for a second.

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

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

“Don’t touch him, he has a bomb.”

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

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

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

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

Then, I saw exactly why.

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

And we’re already too late.

Five.

Four.

Three…

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

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

And it started going down again.

Twenty-nine.

Twenty-eight.

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

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

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

Fuck is going on?

And am I supposed to do something?

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

How did this guy get in here?

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

The timer went to ten before he spoke again.

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

So, that was the situation.

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

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

That timer can not go down to zero.

It can’t.

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

I was ultimately powerless.

He had to keep talking.

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

Fifteen on the timer.

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

Twenty-five.

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

Many squirmed in their seats.

Nineteen.

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

Twenty-one.

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

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

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

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

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

Nine.

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

Five.

Four.

Three.

Two.

One-

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

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

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

No. You wouldn’t.

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

As for me, I was already shaking.

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

A cold shiver down my spine, electric.

Twenty.

Sixteen.

Eight.

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

But it didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom, Maria, Kristin…

Thomas.

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

Because they knew. Solace knew.

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

This was gang-related.

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

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

Inside me, that fear was shaping into something else.

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

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

Bonus                                                                                               Next

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.

Previous                                                                                               Next

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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022 – Wrong Foot Forward

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This bitch wasn’t getting on my nerves. She was trampling on them. Like a fly that wouldn’t stop bugging you, no matter how many times you swatted it away. It’d buzz in your ear, you’d try to move elsewhere, but it’d keep following you, until you either went crazy, or you killed it.

Summarily, I could confidently say that I hated her, and I barely knew her.

I exited the school building, going the opposite way of the gym. I headed straight for the Strip. My pace was fast, hasty.

“Alexis, wait!”

Eric was following me, Evan and Harrian a few steps behind. They were closing in. “What are you even going to do?”

“I’ll find out when I get there,” I said, eyes forward.

“Then I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m not about to let you get hurt.”

“No one’s about to get hurt, and I can take her.”

“I’m not saying you can’t, just, Alexis-”

My arm was pulled back. I stopped.

Eric had me by the forearm. From the angle of the sun and where we were standing, I was cast in his shadow.

He looked where he was holding me, and immediately let go.

“Didn’t mean to do that, but I need your full attention,” he said. “Tell me exactly what you intend on doing.”

I came up with something on the fly. “Just gonna talk.”

“It doesn’t sound like that’s all you want to do.”

“If it goes there, and I’m not saying it will, but if it does, I can handle it. She’s nothing.”

Eric set his jaw square. He didn’t speak for some seconds. I quickly added a few more words before he could.

“You don’t have to come.”

I was speaking to all three of them. Others didn’t need to be around for this. Wasn’t necessary. I wasn’t even sure why Eric followed. Evan would go anywhere the other went, and Harrian was still a mystery to me.

Eventually, Eric spoke. “If she really was nothing, you wouldn’t be acting like this. Clearly, she’s pushed your buttons before.”

I looked at him, almost amazed. “You’re sharper than you look.”

He flashed a smile. “I get that a lot.”

While he was still in that mood, that headspace, I spun on my heels, and walked away.

“I’ll be okay on my own,” I said as I left.

“H-hey!” I heard from behind me. Eric.

They kept following me. By this point, I was beginning to get frustrated with them, too. I had already told them to buzz off.

For the final time, I spun back around. Eric stopped, with the other two right behind them.

I could feel the muscles of my face contort into an unfamiliar expression. Like a scowl. My lips set in a line, my eyes holding a strong, penetrating stare. If only I had a mirror.

“I’ll be fine on my own,” I said.

Eric started to open his mouth to argue, but he changed his mind, zipping it. He turned, and walked past Evan and Harrian.

“Let’s go,” was all he said.

I didn’t watch them go. Didn’t have to. My message was clear. I got through to them.

Now, it was time to get through to her.

Like I had said, I was only going to talk.

I made it to the Strip. Others were here, skating, or otherwise loitering around.

It wasn’t difficult in finding her. Even among her kind, the slackers and the stoners, she stuck out like a red, pulsating thumb, gushing with pus and other bodily juices.

She was standing in a circle, with others, her back to me. I recognized two of the girls that accompanied her during my date with Brandon. Somehow, I didn’t find it in me to be mad at them, my anger was too focused, too narrow.

Jillian.

I went straight for her.

“Jillian,” I said, trying to get her attention. She didn’t respond. Or maybe she wouldn’t. I knew she could hear me, and I was advancing closer.

I’d give her one thing. She had a knack for egging me on.

Jillian,” I said again, stressing the three syllables that made up her name.

She finally looked my way, and her expression almost made me pause.

There was no sense of recognition, no look of acknowledgement. As if she was looking through me.

As if she hadn’t the faintest clue to who I was.

“Yes?” she asked, like she was talking to a child. A condescending tone. It grated.

I disregarded the nuance. “I need to speak with you, can we move somewhere else?”

Her expression didn’t change. No response.

Patience, she’s just testing you.

I tried again.

“I won’t take too much of your time, don’t want to humiliate you in front of your friends.”

There, poked the lion enough.

That got the attention of the others, and seemed to get a rise out of Jillian, too. She stepped forward, breaking away from the group.

“Move,” she said, dryly.

I moved, even though doing so made it seem like I was following her order, but I couldn’t be bothered to care. I wanted to be done with her as soon as humanly possible, and get back to my own life.

We went around a corner. I took the both of us to the back of the long building chaining together some of the businesses here. Nothing here besides some dumpsters. Fitting, I thought.

We positioned ourselves to face each other. Maybe I shouldn’t have led the way. My back was to the wall, and where Jillian stood prevented me from returning the way we came. I could just simply walk the other way, down the length of the building to get back, but that wasn’t necessary. It’d be a sign of weakness in front of her, too.

I set my bags down. My backpack, too. Time to get right into it. Compared with talking to someone like Benny, this was nothing. A walk in the park.

I went first.

“I don’t know what the hell your problem is, but it stops now,” I said. “I don’t want you going around with my name in your mouth. It’s… freaking weird, and weird is not what I need more of at the moment.”

Again, standing there, no reaction. Was it her way of allowing me to continue?

I did, regardless.

“I’m willing to look past what you did on Sunday, at the paintball place. As fucked up as what you did was, I’ll look past it. I won’t even go one another date with your cousin, anymore. I’ve decided to cancel it. So there. I’ll cut my ties, leave him alone, and you can go do… whatever it is you want to do. I don’t care. I just don’t.”

Again, nothing, but I was about to wrap things up, anyways.

“I’ll leave you guys alone, all I’m asking is that you do the same for me. Okay? Just leave me alone, and we can go about our lives never seeing each other again.”

Jillian stood there, looking completely disinterested. It took a moment before she opened up to speak. Finally.

“No.”

‘No?’

“No?” I repeated, turning the word into a question.

Loudly, Jillian exhaled, drawing out the sound until it became a low moan.

“You don’t really get it, do you? You can marry Brandon for all I care, I don’t give a shit.”

She spoke, but the words didn’t make sense to me.

“Why?” I asked, honestly perplexed. “Why are you doing any of this? Why waste the energy, the breath? You’ve done way more shit to me than I ever done to you at this point. It makes no sense.”

I was beginning to think she had some sick obsession with me, or at least a personal vendetta. If what she had just said was true, this would be going way past the point of reason. And I had to know why.

So much for making this quick.

I tried, one more time.

“I’m trying to be decent, here, and this is what is you give me?”

She made a face, like I was speaking in another language. Complete nonsense.

“Wow, how super of you. Do you want a prize?”

I clenched my fists.

Jillian shrugged, taking a moment before talking again. “Do you really want to know why? It’s because there’s something about you that’s off.”

In a second, I became confused, and concerned.

Did she know?

“And that something is?” I asked, worried about the answer.

Jillian answered. “I saw the look in your eyes, that day. I can’t explain it, but it scared me. Actually scared me. It was like looking into the eyes of an animal that was about to eat you alive. Eyes that looked at you like you were less than human. Like prey. For days, I couldn’t get it outta my head.”

I gulped. What was she going on about?

“And I fuckin’ hated it. I hate being looked down upon. Especially by someone as short as you. I don’t give a shit about what you do, because one day, I’m going to make you feel like how I did, that day. I’m going to make you feel small, I’ll look at you like you ain’t nothing but shit.”

She was that insecure. Over a look. How rattled was she over something I never even considered?

This much, apparently.

But I wasn’t going to let her damaged psyche push me around. Not today. Not ever.

I spoke. “And you want to bully me over your frail sense of self? I don’t think so. What else are you gonna do, stuff me in a locker, ambush me in a bathroom? You got lucky once, but I promise you that’s all you’re going to get. I was more than capable of dropping this entirely, but I’m not about to let you walk all over me just so you can reaffirm your place in the world. Fuck off, bitch.”

I picked up my bags, my backpack, and walked in her direction. I knew she would stand her ground, but I continued. We were going nowhere, talking like this, and I didn’t want to be in her presence any longer.

“Out of my way,” I said, sensing a threatening undercurrent in my words.

Finally, she did move, but not to make way for me. Instead, she rushed forward, to me.

Oh, yes yes yes.

My bags flopped on the ground. I let them go.

I stepped back to give me some space between me and her, and for me to evaluate what her move would be.

She swung her right arm. A wide swing, no technique or skill in her attack, just blind hope for it to connect.

It wouldn’t.

I blocked. I reached out, and stopped her with my hand. Her arm was in my grip.

Fluid, with no delay, I pressed, tightening my hold. A similar trick from when I first encountered Jillian. Like that time, her eyes widened, fearing I might actually break it. I wouldn’t go that far, even if I felt like she deserved it.

I stepped back again, and pulled, throwing her off her balance and tugging her to me.

With my other hand, I guided her, pushing her past me as she fell. I let go. Jillian went into the ground. Using my momentum from pushing her, I returned to my bags and swept them up in one swift move.

It was that easy.

“There,” I said, “Back where you belong.”

I put my back to her, feeling sickly smug yet undeniably satisfied. I probably made it worse, but I had put her in her place. It felt good.

I started walking away. I’d have to deal with her again, but at least I had this over her. A win.

I heard a shuffling behind me, a patter of steps. Jillian had gotten up and started running to me again. I could applaud her tenacity, but that would require a level of respect that simply was not there.

Once more, I faced her, the weight of my bags swinging my arms slightly. I felt like taunting her.

“You not going to-”

Uck!

My bags dropped again.

A piercing in my stomach, my lower abdomen.  Sharp. Unexpected. Cold.

My lower lip trembled.

Jillian had stabbed me in the stomach.

You really did that.

Her body was pressed against mine, so I couldn’t see what she had thrusted into me, but the cold metal narrowed down my options.

A knife. She had pulled a knife on me.

Where did that come from? No, didn’t matter right now, because right now, it was in me.

I winced, water collecting in the corners of my eyes, the pain rushing through me. I couldn’t speak, say anything. My breaths were stunted.

So much for just talking.

I couldn’t speak, but I could move.

My hands immediately went for her shoulders, gripping tight. I saw her struggle, from both my strength and coming to terms with she had just done. Now wasn’t the time for second guessing.

I considered that for the both of us. No second guessing.

I pulled my head back, winding up, then I brought it forward, slamming my forehead into the bridge of her nose. I headbutted her.

The impact forced her back, and Jillian was falling again. I felt the blade slide out out my stomach, it’s uneven path slicing the roof of my intestines. Scrambling. I could vomit.

The weapon dropped out her hand, landing beside us. It was red. It was a knife.

Oh, no no no.

She had drawn blood from me, but I got her, too. Jillian’s nose was bleeding, flowing red. It smelled so good.

My hand went to her face, pressing into her mouth and nose. She tripped over herself, leaning back too far. She went to the ground again.

I looked at my hand, drenched in red. I moved to Jillian, looming over her. Blood had gotten into her eyes, and she was whimpering in pain, her hands to her face. She couldn’t see me.

“You’re officially a psychopath,” I said, noting the irony.

I licked my fingers.

Damn this taste.

Too delicious.

I feel like I actually could get used to this. The clarity is addicting.

I brought a finger to my midriff, feeling around. Nothing. My stomach was already stitching itself up, healing, but the scene here was already a mess. Jillian was still bleeding, I had a hole in my shirt, streaked in red, and there was still the knife here to deal with. People might come to investigate soon, especially with the racket Jillian was raising.

Come up with something. Think.

I sprung into action. I bent down, opening up my sports bag, and took out a tall bottle of water. I popped the top off, and began spilling some of the water on the knife, washing away most of the blood. I made sure to conserve enough water, but I managed to clean it off. Any blood that was still here would be Jillian’s.

I spilt more of the water around us, around me, and I sat down next to my sport bag. Using the last of the water, I splashed it on my abdomen and shorts. I put the empty bottle back in the bag, and zipped it closed.

I let myself fall onto the ground, onto the wet cement. My clothes were wet, now, my hands too, and I wiped my mouth.

This should be convincing enough.

I screamed, and footsteps followed.

The place wasn’t hard to find. Getting there was the challenge.

The buildings here were tall, but they were office buildings, with brightly lit windows and people working. Someone could spot me if I wasn’t careful, even if it was this late into the night.

The city bustled below, cars sounding off, people just as loud. They had no idea.

I told myself I wouldn’t do this again, and yet, here I was.

I had everything on. Grey joggers, blue windbreaker, the mask. The wind was strong up here, serene, and it separated me from the noise below.

Soothing.

I checked the windows of the building across from me again. Everyone looked distracted enough. This was my chance.

It was an old building, quite a few floors, with a few windows on each floor really being an entrance to a balcony overlooking the street below. I was aiming for a balcony on the thirteenth floor, which was set lower than the building I was on. It was also one of the few windows that had no light shining through it.

Once I make the plunge, I thought, There’s no going back. You know that, right?

I asked myself that.

I do.

I leaped.

After a solid thud, I landed perfectly. I had crossed the street, successfully. I was sure of that. No use standing out in the open, though. Briskly, I walked to the window.

I wasn’t going to delude myself, I still didn’t want to do this, but she had opened my eyes. Jillian. There really was a fucked up world out there, full of people who had no business freely being around others. Capable of harm, capable of much more. I had seen a bit of it when I went against El Carruaje, but they were an organization, a group of people working towards something bigger. Too hard, too dangerous to tackle on my own, and I didn’t. I had help. I needed it.

But Jillian? She was one person, a psychotic individual. Her, I could handle. People like her.

If it wasn’t me, it would’ve been someone else. Jillian would’ve gotten to someone who didn’t have powers like I did, and they’d be seriously hurt, with lasting consequences. I’d make it my job, to stop people like that, before they got to anyone else. Because I could take it, whatever they threw at me.

Bring it on.

I got to the window, and found it hard to peek through. I knocked four times.

The seconds were tense. And after ten, the window clicked, and opened outward. I saw him.

Thomas.

He had the faintest expression of amusement. An ‘I told you so’ kind of look.

“I’m glad to see you again, and so soon,” he said.

“Likewise,” I said sarcastically.

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018 – Opening Statement

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This is what I get for trying to help.

There was a lesson here that I really should have learned by now.

Stupid, stupid Alexis.

Thomas was standing before me, hands in his pockets. He wore a crisp designer suit, light grey, dark blue tie. Typical of a lawyer of his caliber. His dark hair was clean cut, slicked back. He looked good.

But you shouldn’t be here.

I stood, unprepared to be standing in front of a family friend. I still held the pipe, the steel bent at my own power.

How much did he see?

He wasn’t moving, not reacting in any way. He simply looked.

Did he already have me figured out? Shit.

I was completely and totally screwed.

Thomas opened his mouth, slow, like he was thinking about what he was about to say.

“I see… so you’re…”

My fingers tightened around the pipe, the steel squishing slightly.

“A girl.”

That’s enough. I’m out of here.

I was fast. He’d never see me leaving. Never mind the bottles, I’d have to leave them.

I backed up, twisting around to-

“No!”

It wasn’t a yell, but a loud, yet even tone. Like I was being berated for doing something wrong.

The word, and who it came from, got the better of me, and I went still.

I repeated the word in a form of a question. “No?”

“I don’t have many acquaintances left in the SPD, but the ones I do have are on speed dial, and even without that, the entire department cannot wait to get their hands on you. I can have this whole block locked down before you can get off this street.”

I cursed under my breath. Shit. There was no way he was serious.

Thomas continued. “Or, you could come with me, and we can have a chat.”

“A, a chat?”

“Yes, I wasn’t anticipating to have you in front of me so soon. Perhaps I should consider myself lucky.”

And I definitely consider myself not.

“So, you can make this easy on yourself,” Thomas said. He eyes went down, to what was in my hands. “Drop that, if you could be so kind.”

He must have seen me bend the pipe with my own two hands, yet he was talking to me like I was any normal person. He really thought he had me.

Hell, he probably did.

Fuck this.

I dropped the pipe, the metal clattering on cement. The corners of Thomas’s lips curled upward. He took his hand out of his pockets, and fixed his cuffs.

“Thank you. Now, I believe proper introductions are in order. I’m Thomas Thompson. And you must be The Bluemoon.”

The interior was dark. Thomas’s leg bumped into a pile of bricks that I managed to avoid. The bricks knocking onto the floor sounded throughout the empty space.

Thomas didn’t say anything or complain about it, but I had a feeling he wanted to. He was one to care about his appearances, keeping things tidy, and getting dirt on his expensive dress pants was one way to seriously soil his day. I remembered a time when I was younger, I had drawn in crayon on the walls of Katy’s room. He forced me to clean it off. My mom had approved of the punishment.

Today was an exception, apparently, so he said nothing.

We were on the top floor of the building Thomas’s car was parked in front of. The entire building was devoid of life, trash bags piled in corners of rooms and under stairs, graffiti and deep scratches marked the walls. Whatever this place used to be, it had been a long time since it served that purpose.

Thomas led the way into what looked to be the remnants of an office space. A filing cabinet was on its side, drawers open, contents spilled. Some light had creeped into the room through an open window and cracks in the wall, allowing Thomas to move around more confidently. The only other thing in this space was a round, wooden table, no chairs. He walked to the window, looking out.

“Feel free to sit wherever you can,” he invited, still admiring the view.

I could’ve rested on the table, but the surface was too dusty, and black splotches of something deterred me from even wanting to stand next to it.

“I’m good,” I said. I had to place the bottles by my feet. I’d feel less at ease, otherwise, holding them while we had this conversation.

Thomas turned to face me, his back to the window. A thin light outlined the upper half of his body.

“Then I’ll get started,” Thomas said. “There’s quite a lot that needs to be said.”

“Hold on, hold on, I want to stop you real fast,” I said, interrupting. I purposefully lowered the pitch of my voice, with the purpose of disguising myself further. “How can you even be sure I am who you think I am? I could just be a normal person with an abnormal grip strength. I could’ve been another car thief.”

Thomas lifted a finger, pointing. “First of all, no, a girl of your stature shouldn’t be able to do that. But more importantly, I called you by a specific moniker, and you responded in a manner that suggested you knew who that moniker would refer to. You moved without protest or confusion. Also, your height matches with what I saw on the news broadcast.”

He breathed in, before concluding with, “I could go on, but I do have other appointments, and I didn’t exactly have this in my itinerary. From what I can see, it’s much the same for you, too, so I’ll have to try to make this quick.”

I shifted my weight a slight fraction. I relented somewhat. “The least you could do is call me ‘Blank Face.’”

“Blank Face? Is that your official name?”

“It’s the one thing I got to choose for myself, from all of this.”

“No objections there. Blank Face it is,” Thomas said, seriously.

Seriously, fuck.

It was almost comedic, this current situation. I was in a rundown building with my best friend’s father, wearing a paper bag over my head. On the surface, it was kind of funny, but the reality of this was much more sobering. This could be the end of everything, before I had a chance to start.

I didn’t show it, but it took everything I had to not lose my cool. Was Thomas about to confront me about being Blank Face, The Bluemoon, the world’s first public superhuman?

What did he have to say?

“I said I wanted to have a chat,” Thomas started, “But really, I just wanted to give you a suggestion.”

I folded my arms. “A suggestion?”

Thomas nodded. “Whatever it is that you were doing, that day,” he said, “Keep doing it.”

That was awfully vague, I thought. What was he getting at?

“Keep doing what, exactly?”

“To put it in an idealistic way, keep being a hero.”

I had no reaction or gesture. I just waited for him to say more.

“I was in my office. My secretary had to drag me out to see it. It was like time had stopped. Everyone was glued to some screen, watching you.”

He pointed at me, but it felt like a punch to the gut.

“I, like everyone else, was amazed at what I saw. The kind of thing you only saw in movies, except in our own backyard.”

And it’d be a terrible flick, to boot.

“But, for the next few days, it was clear that I had seen something different. People were protesting, angry, at another’s existence. I was puzzled.”

He had to have a point, somewhere. Get to it, please.

Thomas asked, “You were trying to take on the gangs, too, weren’t you?”

I stared at him. “In that one, specific instance, you could say I was.”

“That’s promising,” Thomas said, “That says something about you, that others seem to be glossing over.”

I would’ve went to cross my arms, but I was still doing that. “And that is?”

“That you have these… capabilities, and you chose to do good with them.”

I put a hand up to stop him. “Whoa, whoa. And you seem to be placing a lot of confidence in someone you don’t know. I had a reason for doing what I did back then, and now I have seven billion reasons for never doing it again. I’m not a full-time hero.”

Thomas brought a hand to his chin, thinking. “Then I’m confused. Is stopping car thieves just a hobby of yours?”

I tried to defend myself, to argue. “Th-that was an exception. I just happened to be…” I trailed off.

“To be?” Thomas asked.

I murmured, “Swinging by.”

“What an interesting observation,” Thomas said, like he was lightly mocking me.

I had to clear my throat. “Whatever hopes you have pinned on me, whatever you think I am, don’t bother. I’m not so altruistic.”

Thomas frowned a little. “I didn’t mean to suggest that you go on a one-man crusade against the Cobras or the Crips, but rather, lend a helping hand to the little guy. Like me.”

“I am not you,” I said, meaning it both literally and figuratively.

Thomas lowered his chin, and a long exhale was drawn out of him. “I will say, I’m not terribly shocked, but it’s still sad to hear.”

Sad to hear. Why was he so interested in me? What was his stake in this?

I wanted get out of this situation, but I now had questions of my own. “Why do you care, anyways? Why have this ‘chat’ with me?”

Thomas didn’t take the time to formulate an answer, instead going right into it. “I’m a corporate lawyer, I deal with big businesses, but I like to keep an eye on the little guy, from time to time. I consult on criminal cases that pique my interest. Not as an official attorney on the case, but as a favor. A helping hand, if you will, holding a blade to stick into the belly of the city’s underground.”

“Okay,” I said, a little lost at the sudden change of topic. I was already aware of his reputation as a consulting attorney, garnering attention for being a Good Samaritan. Naturally, he should have attracted enemies, but, as far as I knew, that wasn’t the case.

Or maybe I was just ignorant on that front.

Before I could dwell on that any further, Thomas’s speech was a higher priority. I kept listening.

“After I watched you, how do I put it, take out Benny, I immediately called James Gomez, the police chief and an old buddy of mine, to see if they had anything on you. There was nothing, of course, but he did tell me about a certain report.”

I scrunched my face, my tongue pinched between my teeth, but the expression would be lost on Thomas.

“A warehouse of Irving Street. A stockpile of weapons that had the potential to seriously light the fuse that ran under the feet of all the gangs in the city. Pistols, semi-automatics, bombs. And plenty of them.”

The word ‘bomb’ stood out to me. I never got to look inside those crates, myself. It was that bad, according to Thomas, and I stepped right into the middle of it, without knowing the full consequences.

All the more reason to never do that again.

Thomas continued, “And you prevented The Chariot from doing anything with them. Good job.”

“Didn’t feel like a good job,” I said, truthfully. “That was messy, if anything.”

“If anything,” Thomas said back, “You brought a gang to its knees. Crippled it. That’s something I’ve wanted to accomplish for a long, long time. And, you prevented a gang war from breaking out. That is commendable work, as messy as you claim it was.”

“I’m not claiming anything! The entire world wants my head, the gangs, the police, they’re all after me. Tell me that isn’t a mess.”

Thomas answered me, calm, like my paranoia was completely unwarranted.

“They’re after an image of you. A false image. If they want you so bad, you should show them something good. That’s what I’m asking of you.”

My eyes met the floor, my arms went to my sides. “I can’t.”

You don’t understand.

I then sighed. There was more I wanted to say, but the words weren’t going to come. What he had asked of me, I didn’t want to do. Simple as that. I declined. I could go, now.

My phone vibrated, a reminder of the outside world. I got a text.

Thomas started up again before I could do anything, taking advantage of the silence in our conversation. Dang.

“The reason why I wanted to meet with you, and say my piece, was because of what I saw that day, and what was confirmed to me, right outside. You may deny it, but you want to help, you want to do good.”

“How can you be so sure?” I asked, dreading what the answer might be – because he already knew Blank Face’s true identity – but I didn’t like how he was speaking to me, with so much confidence and certainty. I wanted to stop him from having that impression of me, even at the cost of my own self-image.

Thomas’s reaction wasn’t subtle. He lifted his chin slightly, and loosened his shoulders. He grinned, and it was the unique kind of grin that I had seen before. I could see where she got it from.

“Just a feeling.”

He loosened his tie. There was no air conditioning in here, so it was humid, stuffy.

And, on the drop of a hat, Thomas switched his demeanor to something more impersonal. He walked away from the window, and towards me.

I stood my ground, ready for anything.

He approached me, and fished out a small slip of paper out of his pocket. He handed it to me.

I took it.

“Looks like I’m not going to win you over,” Thomas said. “I hope I do, one day. And if that day comes, that’s my card. You wouldn’t be doing this alone, you know. I have resources I can offer. I can help you, as much as you’d be helping this city.”

I put it in my back pocket, looking back at him, saying nothing. Thomas kept on speaking.

“The whole world is watching you, Blank Face, and first impressions matter. I’m not asking you to be anything super, I’m just asking you to try doing something decent. Think about it.”

I took a step away from him. “Does this mean I can go?”

Thomas puffed out a breath, but he didn’t sound exhausted or frustrated. “You’re not old enough to vote, I’m guessing, so there’s no need to give you that spiel. You’re free to go, thank you for your time.” Thomas turned around, facing a corner of the poorly lit room we were in.

“I’ll stay up here for ten minutes,” he said, his back to me. “You can go, take off that silly bag, and go about the rest of your day. You can trust that I won’t intrude upon your privacy.”

I took him at his word, picking back up my bottles, and turning to leave, but I had to check back to see if he was still facing the other way. He was.

“Go,” he reassured me, still looking away. “Notice that I never asked about your origin, or how you came to be, if you’re the only one or the first of many, because frankly, it matters not to me. It could be anyone under that mask, but my words would be the same.”

I had enough trust in him to know that he was telling the truth, and I had some relief to know that he didn’t care to know who I was. I left, getting out of the building. When I got back on the sidewalk, the wind blew my bangs away from my face, the bottles were back in the paper bag.

Was that a close call?

I couldn’t say for sure.

I certainly didn’t see it going down the way it did, though.

I barely did anything besides stand around and talk, but my chest was pounding like I had been traversing rooftops. Thomas was a good guy, cool too, in a ‘dorky dad’ kind of way, as evidenced by many of Katy’s birthday parties, and from general interaction over the years, but today was a first. That was probably the most I’d ever spoken to Thomas, one on one, in my entire life. He showed me a different side of him. Fighting the gangs, encouraging me to be a hero, he was serious in all of that. To join him in his ‘noble cause,’ I supposed.

It was a lot to take in, bewildering.

A part of me was also mad at him. At the bare minimum, he had to have gathered that I was just a teenager. Why would he have asked me to purposely risk my life on a regular basis? I already managed to do enough of that on my own, lately, but that was another issue, entirely.

He read me wrong, off the mark ever so slightly. I had my reasons for doing what I did, they weren’t entirely selfless. I’d save a friend, over the faceless masses. And I was fine with that, but sticking my neck out again like that would be suicide. No thank you.

Sorry to have disappointed you, Thomas.

I walked, returning to the shopping center. The woman and her dog were long gone.

I remembered that my phone had vibrated. I reached for it to check up on any updates.

A text. I read it.

That was what Katy was talking about, a few days ago. ‘Your welcome,’ my ass.

With this, my lazy weekend was out the window, leaving me with mixed feelings. Earlier this month, I would have been excited, ecstatic. Now, anxiety gripped me in its talons, ready to swallow me whole.

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017 – Rookie

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Nevertheless, this was no dream, and what was happening was reality.

It wouldn’t be very smart of me to deny that fact.

None of my problems would be solved if I stayed holed up in my room, never stepping out to see the light of day. None of them would disappear on their own. Though, it would be nice if they did.

I had to drink blood. Human blood. It was a necessity. The sooner I could accept that, as ghoulish as it was, the sooner I could do something about it.

What that ‘something’ was, I struggled to figure out.

How was I supposed to get blood? Going after people… had to be the last of last resorts. What about criminals? Gang leaders? The idea did come to me. Maybe I should spend my nights running around, giving bad guys bloody noses with one hand while holding a towel in the other. Could I just do that? Maybe being a superhero was for me, after all.

Maybe a better word was vigilante.

Bad guys, bad people do exist. Would anyone really care if someone gave them their just desserts? Briefly, I remembered Eduardo. He was a gang member, but he wasn’t a bad guy. He did rub me the wrong way at times, and I would admit for my part, it was undeserved, but he wasn’t evil, or malicious in any way. He had his circumstances for joining a gang. Which meant that others did, too.

Was my judgement of character good enough to decide who was worthy of a good punch in the nose? Maybe. Probably not.

I’d be better off volunteering at a blood bank.

As I debated with myself, going over everything in my head, I jogged.

It was the weekend, and I was free. Like, free. No parties, no big projects to worry about, nothing. It was still up in the air whether my mom and I would go to the church or not, but other than that, I had a significant block of time in which I could focus on myself. A free weekend. Liberating, really.

I got on another block, and continued, paying attention to every strain of my muscles, the rhythm of my breathing, the speed I ran.

Doing physical activities would seem counter-intuitive, since I’d become thirsty sooner, but I needed some actual practice with my super-enhanced body. I needed finer control, so I wouldn’t go around carelessly breaking things that I wasn’t physically supposed to break, or flying through volleyball nets. I had to keep things on the down-low, and knowing exactly how my body works was a step in the right direction.

A precaution, was what it was.

I ran down another block. I saw a telephone pole that was covered in sheets of paper. Multi-colored flyers of low-resolution images of me as Blank Face. ‘Wanted,’ they said. Not actual wanted posters, just printed papers from angry citizens.

I started slowing down.

God damn, it’s only the middle of October.

Everything, and I meant everything, happened so fast. It was almost inconceivable that it all took place within such a short time frame. It felt like seventeen weeks’ worth of events, really. I was astonished that I managed to keep it together to get this far. If you could call this keeping it together.

The wind brushed against my face. Chilly. I made a good call in putting on a sweater today.

I slowed to a stop once I started realizing the buildings around me were getting taller. Without being conscious of it, I ended up in the heart of downtown. From my place, where downtown began was ten miles, give or take. How long was I running again? I checked my watch. Noon. I started about forty minutes ago.

I really need to learn how to dial it down.

Since I was in the area, walking around wouldn’t be such a bad idea. I could take a break, regain my energy. As for getting home, I could take a bus if I really had to, but it’d be easier on my mom’s wallet if I could avoid that.

Or would Katy like to pick me up? Nah.

Not surprisingly, that run made me thirsty. Not for that, not yet, but for water. There should be water at a corner store, somewhere.

I checked around to see what I could find.

After going farther along, I found my way into a small shopping center, in the shadow of an office building. There were few people out and about in the area, making things easier on me. I didn’t find a corner store, but there was an Asian goods store. Good enough.

Metal clanged on glass as I pulled the door open. Door chimes.

I entered, and immediately the smell violated my nose. A pungent, putrescent stench. Bags on bags of rice, stacked neatly right by the entrance. I almost considered turning back around and going elsewhere, but this was another thing I needed to get used to. ‘Regular people’ food no longer had an appetizing aroma, and it was a requirement that I could stomach certain smells and odors, or risk being outed.

I’d also have to learn how to eat in front of people, too. Fake it enough to be convincing. ‘Dieting’ wouldn’t be an acceptable excuse forever.

Red and gold colored the interior of the store, various oriental snacks and knick-knacks were neatly displayed in aisles. It wasn’t just a store, I learned, there were a few tables at the other end of the space, and a menu above the counter. It was a restaurant, too.

It was my first time in here, but there was a certain familiarity about this place. Even the smell, while warped and distorted, brought me back to a younger time, a tinier me.

Already, I wanted to go back to a time like that.

The place was small, so finding the drinks wasn’t difficult. In refrigerators located at the back of the store, there were plastic bottles of green tea and water. I took a bottle of each. My mom might like the tea. There was nothing else I needed, so I went straight to the counter.

No one here. Now that I thought about it, no one greeted me when I came in. Was this place even open?

“Um, hello?” I called out to no one. “Got water, money too, if you like that.”

There was a clock by the register. A cat with a fat belly, the clock itself serving as the creature’s midriff. The second hand made three rotations before anyone came out to take care of me.

A skinny Asian kid in a white shirt passed through a curtain from behind the counter and met me at the register. Skinny, and I could’ve said mal-nourished if I wanted to be rude. His shirt looked like it was hanging off him rather than being worn. He had a deadpan expression as he tapped on the buttons.

“Hi,” he said, lifelessly.

If I’m a vampire, then you’re a zombie, dude.

I bobbed my head once, and gave him the bottles. He scanned them. He lifted his head.

Either he looked at me, or he gave me a look. I couldn’t tell from his sunken, reddened eyes. I straightened my back.

“You, Alexis?”

I gave him a look of my own. “Do you know me?” I asked, while simultaneously confirming my identity.

“I seen you around. At school.” He pressed another button. “Harrian.”

Harrian Wong. The kid Eric and Evan liked to tease. If using the word ‘tease’ put it lightly or harshly, I didn’t know the particulars to say for sure.

This was him.

“Oh, hey then. I didn’t know you worked here,” I said.

“My Aunt own the place. I help on weekends.” His accent was thick, but it was still easy for me to understand.

“That’s neat.”

His operating of the cash register was painfully slow, like this was the first time he was doing this. That might actually be the case.

“How did you find here?” he asked, looking over the buttons.

“I was in the area. Running.”

He tapped another button. “Do you like running?”

“I don’t hate it, but it’s something I have to do.”

“Oh.”

Harrian’s hand hovered over the machine, deciding what button he should be pressing.

Without being aware of it, he was pressing all of mine. He was so slow.

My mind went to where my wallet was. In the pocket of my shorts. I was willing to pay more for this to end already.

“Are you going to the church tomorrow?” he asked as he made his choice.

“Church?” I said, breathing out the word. He didn’t pick up the hint, my tone.

“The barbeque.”

“Oh, my mom and I haven’t decided yet. It’d be the first time we went in at least five years.”

“That long?” His eyes went to me, and back to the register, again. “Sorry.”

“For what?”

“I only ask because you, you’re Asian, I just assume you go to the church, too.”

“No biggie, people have asked me that before.”

Another button pressed.

Mine, and the register’s.

“What are you?” Harrian asked, like it was on purpose, what he was doing.

The question made me stiffen up. “In what way are you asking that question?” I asked back, cautious.

“Vietnamese? Chinese? Taiwanese?”

A deep breath, calming me. “Right. I’m Japanese, actually. If you want to be specific, I’m half.”

“Half?”

“White.”

“Ah. Were you born in Japan?”

“No, I was born and raised here. My mom moved from Japan a while back.”

“What about your da-”

I firmly set my hand down on the counter, rattling spare change and other loose items on the surface. Harrian jumped.

“You’re very curious about me,” I said, my voice hard. “Am I allowed to ask why?”

Harrian’s face changed to something readable for the first time since this exchange. Sheepish.

Harrian had nothing to say.

That was what I wanted, but now it bothered me.

“Is everything alright?” I asked.

When he did speak, his voice was brought down to a low tone. “I was just trying.”

“Trying?” I repeated.

He didn’t shake his head, or make any gesture. “Here.”

Harrian finally finished ringing me up, putting my bottles in a paper bag. I would’ve pursued this further, but this sad attempt of a conversation left me mentally drained and physically ready to leave. I handed him the cash.

“You can keep the change,” I said.

He gave me the paper bag, with my drinks inside.

“I’ll see you at school,” he said as I took the bag.

“Bye,” I said, trying to maintain my courteousness.

I left the store, the chimes ringing again as the door closed.

That kid was the definition of awkward. I can see why Eric and Evan would give him a hard time.

But, whatever, he’s harmless enough.

The farther away I got from the store, the more I tried to forget about it.

I still had some time to kill before I needed to head home, so I decided to check around the shopping center some more. See what was around.

Not a lot, from the looks of things.

There were a few points of interest, however. A jewelry store, a bookstore, a pet supply shop, all right next to each other. Points of interest, but not interesting enough for me to walk in.

A woman was walking her dog, coming my way. The dog was tiny, a cute little maltese, but upon approaching me, its face turned sour, and started barking. I didn’t expect it, and I backed away in surprise. I wasn’t even close enough to pet it.

“Shush, Coco,” the woman said in between her dog’s high-pitched yelps, clearly embarrassed. “She is never like this.”

“No worries,” I said, not thinking about it. I kept going, and went another way.

With the shopping center behind me, I soon came into a seedier part of town. I would have had no qualms about turning around and going back the way I came, but that was before I saw it.

Cars were parked along a sidewalk across from me, and one particular car was much nicer than the others. Someone else must’ve noticed, too, because they were huddled by the driver’s side door, working the handle.

A car thief? In broad daylight?

I looked around. No one else was nearby, and he didn’t seem to notice me. Should I stop him?

I had the power to, but was it my responsibility?

The car was black, and I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly, but something about the car seemed familiar to me. I didn’t know why.

I checked my surroundings once again. People either were not around, or they didn’t care to intervene. This city was decayed in a way I had never known before.

I know what I said before, but leaving now would turn me into an accomplice. Crap.

If I made this fast as possible, it shouldn’t a problem. Scaring him off shouldn’t be that hard.

Eh, and it’s a nice car. It’s not his to take.

I’ll do it.

But I didn’t bring my mask, since I had never planned on wearing it again. I had to improvise.

I bent down, and took out the bottles of the paper bag, setting them down, and poked two holes into one side. The bag went over my head, and I fixed it so I could see through the holes.

There, now I had a mask. I felt as stupid as I looked.

I gathered my bottles, one in each hand, and went to approach the man.

“Good day, sir,” I said when I was sure he could hear me.

He wheeled around, startled. Clearly, he was on edge. He spoke, testing his words.

“This one’s already taken, man.”

“Hunh?”

“This is my score, you better look somewhere else.”

I tilted my head, the paper bag I wore crinkling.

“Do I look like I’m here to help?”

He paused, the realization settling in. “Yes?”

I shrugged. “Is it the bag?”

He nodded.

“Figured.”

I was about to close in more to engage him, but I reconsidered. Things weren’t dire, like the other times I went up against bad guys. I could take him on my own. And I should probably try to not break him, too.

“Go,” I said after thinking it over.

Go?” he repeated back to me, saying it like it was a whole new word to him.

“I’m giving you a free pass. You can go, you just can’t take the car with you. Is that fair?”

“You lettin’ me walk away? Not gonna call the cops?”

“I’d hate for the cops to be here, even more than you would. Just go, and try not to steal anything else on your way out, okay?”

His eyes went one way, to his feet. A steel pipe.

He swung his arm down, picking it up and bringing to my head in one motion.

Ah, yes. Just what I wanted on my lazy weekend. A fight.

I didn’t even try. I caught the pipe with one hand, stopping him. The bottle I was just holding hit the ground after I blocked it.

I yanked the pipe away from him. Candy from a baby, and all that.

“Not cool,” I said.

I dropped the other bottle, and gripped the other end of the pipe. With some effort, I pressed inward, and bent the pipe in half.

The man watched, shaking.

“You, you’re,” he spluttered.

“I did warn you,” I said, “Go, or you’re getting a bloody nose.”

He listened this time, running like he had a tail between his legs. He was loud, incoherent as he bolted away from me. I should have probably went after him, in case he directed others to my presence. Or, I could just leave, too.

I looked at the pipe in my hands. I had bent it into a right angle.

My strength still found ways to leave me astonished.

Alright, I need to go.

“Hello there.”

A male voice.

I looked back.

That was why the black car seemed familiar.

A black BMW.

Katy’s black BMW.

More precisely, her father’s black BMW.

Thomas was standing right there. Like, right there.

That’s not good.

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