073 – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Lady

Previous                                                                                               Next

It didn’t take long for us to get together and get coordinated. We were all primed to get going, itching to make some progress. To get shit done, basically. No time to waste time, and no rest for the weary.

Or the wicked, if I was still ruminating on Fillmore’s words.

Which I wasn’t.

More important things to focus on. Other, loftier goals that I’d rather put my energy towards. Set my sights on the horizon. Forward.

Ironic, in a sense, since my head was down, my eyes were closed, and we were moving backwards.

Though, in reality, the vehicle was moving in the right direction, and my perspective was skewed, thanks to where I was seated.

I had never been in a limo before.

We were going around, no real destination in mind, driving just to drive. It wasn’t something I considered very often, but I wondered how much gas we were using up, meandering so aimlessly. All those resources that were being wasted. Time, gas, money.

I could judge, but I couldn’t complain. It wasn’t up to me.

We were the guests.

From across the limousine, a man clapped his hands.

“I’m really, really glad you decided to take our invitation, despite our… disagreements, the other day.”

“Yes,” Lawrence said, “Despite.”

I kept an ear out, listening to the conversation, but not actively participating. I’d let Lawrence handle the bulk of the conversation, since it was supposed to be part of his responsibilities as the ‘face’ of the gang. I would have considered that as me not shouldering everything, but I’d imagine D having some words about that.

But, no use in putting mental stock on an imaginary conversation. Had to focus on the one going on now, in the moment.

“You really surprised me, when you came to visit. I thought you were a goner for sure. With everything that went down with The Chariot, and the Ghosts were never on an even keel, I would have suspected you’d go down. It would have been in a blaze of glory, but you’d go down.”

“There was a blaze, but something else came up from those ashes. Don’t count me out just yet.”

“Lesson learned.”

“And don’t forget, the Kung Fools came to me for help. Don’t act so high and mighty now.”

“Hey now, you know I had nothing to do with that, I wasn’t in charge at that time. And we’re rebranding, too, I’m sure you understand that.”

“I do, but it doesn’t matter. You’re in charge now, it’s still debt you inherited. Now it’s time to pay up.”

“Ever diligent, aren’t you? I have to say, you’ve changed from the last few times we’ve met. You’re much more uptight, now.”

“Am I? I’d say you changed too. I remember you being much more… meek. This… show? It’s more something I’d could see Bruce setting up, not you. You don’t even go by Donnie, anymore.”

“It’s not a show, Lawrence, I guarantee you it’s really real, out here. I have to do what it takes to survive. I’ve got people to protect, now, a war to get prepared for.”

“Do girls and expensive clubs count as surviving?”

“It’s all about image, Lawrence, if I show that I have everything under control, which I do, people will believe me, and believe the rest of my brothers and sisters aren’t to be fucked with. It may not look like it, but it is important.”

“I suppose I understand. I still want my money.”

“That diligence, again. I can see how you got to be the leader of your own gang so fast, but I did manage to catch up, didn’t I? You might even say I’ve surpassed you.”

“And what did I just say about being cocky? You just got lucky. People have a legitimately good reason to join your gang.”

“I wouldn’t call that me being lucky. Bruce got caught up in the undercurrent of hate and anger in the city, and he couldn’t keep his head above the water, so to speak. Drive-by, three months ago, to the day. Still fucking freaks me out that he’s gone.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

“It’s alright. I’m sure you felt something similar after what happened with your boss?”

“I… wasn’t as close to her as you were to yours. In the end, we weren’t really family.”

“I see, still a shame then. I rather liked Benny. Smart, strong, and not to mention, hot as fuck. I was kind of pulling for her, you know? That maybe one day, our groups would have had a better work relationship.”

“That’s why you should wipe the slate clean by paying this debt. Depending on how this goes, we can still succeed where our predecessors couldn’t. Together, we can build what they were unable to.”

“It is more shameful to distrust our friends than to be deceived by them. Confucius, or at least, that’s what an online search claims he said. I had disagreed with you before because I wanted to do you one better. I believe in goodwill, Lawrence, especially in these trying times. And you’re right about working together, I’ll need all the friends I can get. And I think I know the way to win you over, for good.”

“If you believe in goodwill as much as you claim, you’d stop wasting my time, and give back the money you owe us.”

“Oh, Lawrence, that’s why I brought you and your girl out here, tonight. I do have a surprise for you.”

There was a noticeable pause, on Lawrence’s part.

“You do?”

“Now you’ve made go and ruin it! Oh well, fuck it. I know, I didn’t come across as very… generous, when you came by after so long, but, I was able to see the potential benefit of having a group like yours on our side of this fight. It took some convincing, but I was able to come around. I get the final word, but my people are allowed to have a say in the matter.”

“How benevolent.”

“I do try.”

The limo slowed as it prepared for a turn. I swayed, and I had to set my hands down beside me to catch myself from tipping over.

“And it’s exactly because I try, that I can be so… benevolent, as you so eloquently put it. You see, Lawrence, I didn’t want to just give you your money and be done with it, there’s no good business in that. But, if I treat you and your lovely plus-one to dinner at one of the most famous club and restaurant in town, get more acquainted with one another, and then give you the money with interest? I can’t think of a happier ending to your night than that, and you get to bring that bombshell with you back home.”

“It’s not like that. Wendy is a very valuable member of our team, and she carries as much authority as I do. I would highly advise you to not get on her bad side, trust me. Hell, it makes me uncomfortable, just having to bring it up.”

“Does it? Then that makes it even better, then. I almost envy you, having a beautiful, fierce woman like her at your side.”

“Again, it’s not like that. Really.”

“Like I said, I almost envy you. Why have one when you can have two?”

I heard Lawrence grumble something, but I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be for me or not.

Either way, I lifted my head, opening my eyes by fraction. Glaring.

“Ah, the beauty awakens!”

My line of sight snapped to the source of the boisterous voice. Kim Dong-Yul.

A young man, around Lawrence in age, give or take a couple of years. Hard to pin down, exactly, it could get like that with Asian people, sometimes. His hair was styled in a trendy fashion, an undercut with the top part combed back, dyed blue. His clothes were just as flashy, a bright red jacket that was zipped up all the way. Though, I wasn’t sure if ‘zipped’ was the right word, I saw more straps and latches across the thing than an actual zipper. On the whole, it resembled a straitjacket. Experimental.

If I had to be subjected to wearing that myself, I would have purposed it as the grail piece, something the rest of the outfit revolved around. Dong-Yul didn’t seem to agree.

His pants were track pants. Neon green, with white stripes running up along the side. Brighter, yellow sneakers that made me think he was walking on two suns. Every piece was loud, every article of clothing fought and clashed against one another for attention. It was an eyesore, and the limo’s interior lights were dimmed. I wanted to close my eyes, again.

He was beaming as he looked me down, head cocked, his grills glistening even in the low light, cast in orange. His arms were around two girls, one on each side of him. They were both dressed similarly, both Korean in their features. Hats, blue hoodies, opened, showing off tank tops that exposed their stomachs. Grey, baggy sweatpants. Uniform enough that it had to be deliberate. Nobody wore those clothes with those colors without invoking a specific image.

Dong-Yul looked as if he was very pleased with himself, an air of self-satisfaction that was almost a put-on. At the very least, he seemed to be having the time of his life.

He had addressed me, and I was inclined to respond.

“Or you stirred a beast,” I warned.

“Oh, you are fierce, I like it.”

He didn’t take the hint.

“Glad you could finally join us, Miss Wendy,” Dong-Yul added. “I was worried that you weren’t into this arrangement, or even worse, bored.”

He flashed a wide grin, showing off the grills.

He spoke like someone who thought they held all the cards. A high level of confidence that bordered on arrogance, which brought to mind what Lawrence had said about him after the first, initial meeting.

Arrogant asshole.

Hearing him for myself, it sounded about right.

I gave a faint smile, more just to be cordial. For politeness sake.

“Bored? Never. I’m just taking advantage of the ride you’ve provided us. Just a little tired, is all.”

“And why might that be?”

I took note of the slight prodding.

“A lot of late nights, a lot of working. You know how it is, running a gang.”

Dong-Yul gestured in a way that I took as dismissive. He looked to the girls beside him, and nudged them to lean in closer. After a delay, they did.

“Maybe, but that’s why I have subordinates, let them do all the work. I don’t like getting my hands dirty.”

That… didn’t sit well with me.

“You’re in the wrong business if you’re unwilling to do what might be necessary,” I said.

He cocked his head again.

“CEOs don’t clean and mop the floors. They sit at the top, calling the shots and making others move in their stead, you dig? I make the buildings they clean. People have been coming to me, now, flooding over in droves, to join together and fight for me. Who am I, if I’m not the one at the top, giving the orders? I can’t mingle with them, or even entertain that pretense, otherwise we all get lost. I have the vision, and they’re the means of making it real. I can’t do everything, so why even pretend that I can?”

I blinked.

In my heart, I had the feeling that he was wrong, but in my head, I couldn’t pick the proper words to say why. And I didn’t really want to put forth the proper effort and get into it. Not for him, not with him.

“Agree to disagree,” I said.

He clicked his tongue before answering, “Interesting.”

The limo rolled, steady. Music with deep bass and dark synths played in the background, the rapping too mumbled for me to make out or understand. It was easy to ignore and it was overall unobtrusive, but it did add to the atmosphere inside the vehicle. A subtle effect. With the smoke, the music, and the dim, it reminded me of the lounge in the Lunar Tower. The sort of relaxed, but privileged ambience that only a select few could enjoy. But it had been twisted, to fit Dong-Yul’s bargain version of that concept. The smoke was of weed, the music was commercial, and the lights periodically faded from one color to another.

And the limo, it wasn’t a fancy, luxury type. A cheap rental. The floor was carpeted, a little sticky, the seats vinyl, the limo itself wasn’t allowed much actual room for stretching. I could have seen myself being forced to ride in one for prom, if I ever stuck around at the school long enough for that event to come around. Well, not me. Her.

Dots. I’d need more if I wanted to connect them, and come to a conclusion.

“So, Miss Wendy, I’ve been meaning to ask, what are you exactly?”

Multiple ways I could have interpreted that question.

“You’re going to have to be more specific.”

“Race. Chinese, Vietnamese? I’d offer Korean, but I’m fairly confident I can rule that out.”

“Oh. None of the above, even including the one you ruled out. I’m Japanese, but even then, I’m only half.”

“That’s cool, that’s cool. There’s not a lot of people repping glorious Nippon in Stephenville, but there are a lot halves and mixed of different kinds, even among my people. It can be cool.”

Can be.

“Cool,” I said.

“Which side?” Dong-Yul asked. “Mom or Pops?”

More prodding.

“Mother’s side,” I breathed.

Dong-Yul seemed… disappointed, hearing that. His expression dropped for a split moment.

“I’m guessing you were born here?” he asked, his mixed reaction gone, as if it was never there to begin with.

“I was.”

“And your mother? Moved over from the motherland, right?”

“I suppose she did,” I answered, careful to not reveal too much about myself. The conversation had shifted over to me, in a way that made me wary. Not uncomfortable, but cautious.

“May I ask where? I apologize if I’m coming across as pushy, but getting to know my fellow brothers and sisters… it’s an interest of mine. You know how it is.”

I actually don’t.

“I wouldn’t know. I never found out.”

“You didn’t? Why not?”

I felt my glasses slip down my face. I fixed them.

“I never really… cared, I guess, about that sort of thing. It was never a concern of mine to find out.”

Dong-Yul quirked an eyebrow. “You guess? You have to know, Miss Wendy, or rather you should know. It’s an important thing, your heritage. Being part of a larger culture.”

“It’s only half of my heritage, less than half if I consider other things. Like this.”

I gestured at the interior of the limousine. The smoke and music and lights. The gang members.

“And there’s more important things to worry about than where someone came from,” I said. “For me, it’s irrelevant.”

I heard Lawrence grumble again.

“That is interesting,” Dong-Yul said. “I do agree, on one hand, your background doesn’t define everything about you, but on the other? For some, it’s all they have, and they can’t run away from home. I’d  agree that you can’t either.”

Dong-Yul shifted, finally removing his arms off the girls. I felt relieved for them.

“Pisses you off, doesn’t it?” he said, serious, leaning forward with his hands together. “I know you’re only half, but it’s not like they care, so you can relate. The struggle is still real.”

“Relate to what?”

Dong-Yul looked at me, shocked.

“All this shit, the injustice that’s been going on to a big chunk of the population in this city. Robbery, assault, murder, other stuff I don’t even want to say, it’s that bad. Literal hate crimes. It’s been happening, more and more, faster and faster, and nobody cares. Nobody gives a shit. Cops don’t, or they’re so slow with it that they might as well not even try, and all the media does is point and shake their heads, but they spin it as an unfortunate consequence of something else. A fucking bullet point of what they think is the much larger issue. No, all they really care about is the fucking Bluemoon.”

The two girls traded looks, unknown to Dong-Yul. He was hunched over, hands together, staring at me right in the face.

“It doesn’t get you heated?” Dong-Yul asked, watching me very closely.

I knew I had to pick my words, very carefully.

“Of course it does. It’s fucked up, and it’s just plain wrong. Even in our territory, I’m doing what I can to protect the people there, and I’d do the same if I was in your position, race and skin color aside.”

I couldn’t discern any reaction from Dong-Yul.

“Interesting,” he said.

The real answer was much more complicated.

The racial tensions bubbling in the city were reaching the point of boiling over and exploding, and it wouldn’t be long before another incident escalated the situation up another notch. People from a specific portion of the population were getting targeted, hurt and maimed. It was true that there wasn’t any justice to be found, and if left unchecked, it could lead to another disaster, something not unlike what happened at the school. What happened with Harrian.

More complications.

D had advised that we shouldn’t stir the pot, and yet here we were. Here I was. I had exploited these tensions before, and we were going to exploit it one more time. But, Lawrence had a reason for wanting to put this gang back on the list, after meeting with Dong-Yul the first time.

Dong-Yul continued, without any further provocation.

“This is America, you feel? They never cared about us. They ignored us, kept us in the margins. And for a minute, we were even cool with it, we just kept our head down and we made our money, and so did they, even if it was a buck off our looks, and sometimes, our culture. And now, with all this shit coming out about Harrian Wong, and the Bluemoon, motherfuckers want to take us out as if it’s our fault? When we didn’t do nothing? Fuck that with chopsticks in both holes.”

The lights switched in color again, casting everyone in a soft red.

“These kids, they’ve been coming to me, wanting to be a part of something. Something bigger, that can fight back for them, protect them, when they can’t protect themselves. It’s us versus them, now, and I’ve got to do what I can to raise an army, make connections. It took some work, some attitude adjustments, but I think I’m getting somewhere, and it’s something I can be proud of. I’m done with people thinking we can be forgotten, or stepped on, or stolen from without any regard. It’s about time everyone hears us, and we’ll make them listen.”

His hands were shaking, his teeth clenched after concluding his monologue. Then, he moved, stiff, as if he was forcing himself to sit back and relax.

The limo waited at a light. The music, and the hum of the vehicle filled my ears as the silence lingered.

Tension.

His arms went back around the girls.

Lawrence had a reason for wanting to put this gang back on the list, and I was starting to see why.

Dong-Yul laughed, half-hearted.

“Man, I did not intend to get into a whole thing about it right now. It’s just, every new recruit I get, I have to hear their stories, how all these riots and offenses have been fucking them over, and their stories become my stories. My burden. What about you, Lawrence? It wasn’t always like this for you, right? It used to be okay.”

Lawrence nodded.

“I remember. No one gets into this life because they want to. I did, because it was easy, and I needed to survive. And then it becomes a little bit harder, responsibilities stack, and other stuff catches up to you. It’s a lot to wrangle. And then, all of a sudden, if you managed to survive long enough, you’re at the top, wondering how the fuck you’re going to keep it up, and keep it together.”

I gave a glance to Lawrence. Dong-Yul had said he had changed from the last time they met, but I didn’t have that frame of reference. Did he?

He didn’t look any different. Hair neat, clothes sharp, ready to go. He was the same Lawrence as I came to know him. But, he was still nursing some injuries, but it didn’t show. He was good at that.

Maybe he answered in that way to win some sympathy points with Dong-Yul? To appeal to his concerns, and make him think he still held the cards?

Either way, it worked. Dong-Yul seemed to relax some more, holding the girls tighter.

“I like that, Lawrence, I really do. It’s a shame we didn’t get to be proper partners back when we were still greenhorns. I think we could have worked well together.”

“Nothing’s impossible,” Lawrence said.

“Truly.”

I looked between Lawrence and Dong-Yul. In the moment, they looked like seasoned veterans, trading war stories, talking about how this life had changed them, and not necessarily for the better. I wondered how much going down this path would change me, and how much it had already. It would be impossible, and perhaps arrogant, to assume that I hadn’t changed at all. I had some hope that there was some good in there, though.

“But,” Dong-Yul said, glancing out the window, “We can discuss this further over dinner. We’re here.”

We were here.

The limousine slowed to a crawl, then stopped. The music outside drowned out any other sound inside.

Dong-Yul leaned out of his seat to get the door, opening it. He left, and the girls followed.

Followed by me and Lawrence.

We exchanged looks as we hopped out of the limo. Lawrence nodded, and I took that as a sign that the plan was still on. His hunch had solidified into something more concrete.

I nodded back, reaching for my phone.

Taking the occasional glance down to type, I read the neon sign flashing across the face of the building.

The Gonnishi.

Shaped like a Japanese temple, the roof was curved, extending past the building itself to function as a veranda. The bright, blinking lights caught the underside of the roof, revealing an intricate design of flowers and dragons etched into the architecture. It was a detail that would be probably go unnoticed by most, but it had somehow caught my eye.

The building itself was like a fusion of modern and traditional stylings. The outline and feel of the building resembled that old-temple look, but the actual design of it was sleek and minimalist in nature. Dark, smooth glass surfaces, metal fractals that spread out to resemble falling flowers. Cherry blossoms, mostly likely.

It would have been easy, to appropriate the architecture and style and come out with something tacky. But they didn’t. Whoever designed the place knew what they were doing.

And after being subjected to Dong-Yul’s ramblings, I could see why he picked this place to hold the meeting proper.

A long line snaked around the entrance of the Gonnishi, people waiting hours upon hours to get in. We bypassed the whole thing, Dong-Yul waving to the bouncers, and they let us in without a word being exchanged.

I sent a text, put my phone away, and walked into the building. I passed Lawrence a bit.

The inside of the Gonnishi was not unlike the outside, it even reminded me of the limo. Dark, with changing hues of primary colors. Pounding music, dancing people. It was a crowd, bustling, brushing up against each other as they moved to the music, or moved to get drinks.

Everyone stayed close as we walked, staying close to the edge.

I had caught up to the two girls that were with Dong-Yul, who was at the head of the group, leading the rest of us.

Too far, and too loud to hear me, even if I raised my voice.

“Hi,” I said.

They both turned, saw me, and made room for me to squeeze in between them. Compared to them, I was a dwarf, I realized.

“What’s up?” one of them asked. The girl to my left, now.

“I just wanted to say hi,” I repeated. “Dong-Yul never introduced you guys when you picked us up, and it kinda became awkward after that.”

“Oh, hi then.” The girl smiled. “I’m Jess.”

“Yuri,” the other girl said, to my right.

“And I’m Wendy,” I said, “But I’ve already mentioned that, but not to you guys.”

“I appreciate it,” Jess said.

“Is he always like that?” I asked. “Dong-Yul. I’m not going to lie and say it didn’t bug me, just a little, but something about it seemed… off. Calling me ‘beautiful’ and ‘fierce’ and all that crap, and the way he had you sit next to him. I don’t know, and maybe it isn’t my business, but it was just something that came to mind.”

Jess looked ahead, to Dong-Yul.

“No, he wasn’t. I’ve known him back when his brother was the leader.”

“Leader. That Bruce guy?”

“That Bruce guy. It’s kind of a sore spot for Donnie, which isn’t surprising, so we don’t really bring it up. But yeah, Lawrence was right, his death changed him. It was like whiplash.”

Yuri cut her off. “We probably shouldn’t be talking about this behind Donnie’s back, Jess.”

Jess frowned. “Right. Sorry, Wendy.”

“No, I’m sorry for asking, I was just curious.”

“It’s alright. Oh, restaurant’s this way.”

We changed directions, turning onto a set of stairs, going up. Dong-Yul walked up first.

The stairs were a bit narrow, so I fell back to let Jess and Yuri have room to move. Lawrence caught up to me.

“What was that about?” he asked.

“Nothing you don’t already know.”

He gave me a look.

“It’s true,” I reiterated. “It’s food for thought. If it’s any consolation, you were right about him. Them.”

“I was?” Lawrence scratched his head. “Not sure how to feel about that.”

“You should feel proud you managed to catch this in time. Now come on, let’s eat.”

For a third time, Lawrence grumbled.

The stairs led up to a second level, a balcony-like area that overlooked the dance floor. It was its own separate section, though, with windows that closed each part from one another.

Another bouncer let us through.

The bouncing music and heavy bass immediately gave way to silence. It wasn’t a complete absence of sound, it would have been impossible with the booming club below, but there was a certain stillness that made me not want to speak above a whisper.

The restaurant part of the Gonnishi.

Of the modern and traditional dichotomy that made up the club, the latter had won out here. It looked like a fancy Japanese restaurant, with soft, padded mats and an earthy texture and color to everything. Wooden tables, bamboo stems that ran up the wall, as if they supported the ceiling.

No one else around, I noticed. Either this place was exclusive, or Dong-Yul had strings that he could pull.

Dong-Yul was talking with a server, and had them take us to our booth. The smell grew stronger, and more foul, as we approached.

It was as every bit appetizing for humans as it was not for me. I had to fight my instincts on wanting to avoid it and run the other way. Every step was harder than the last.

Like rotting, melting cow guts.

The meat glistened on the hot metal surface, and we took our seats around the grill.

“This is teppanyaki. Best of the fucking best. I made sure they started prepping before we got here,” Dong-Yul said, “So now we don’t have to wait. You’re welcome.”

“Thank you,” Lawrence said, eyeing the food. I could tell he was actually looking forward to having a taste.

Me, on the other hand? Not so much. I’d cut off my own finger.

The cook on the other side of the grill handed each of us a plate, utensils, and a bowl of rice. With his different sets of spatulas, he slid the meat around, cooking it, making sure it looked alright.

It looked… alright, I supposed.

I steeled myself.

One by one, everyone started getting their pick of the meat, setting it on the rice and blowing on it to cool down. Dong-Yul, Jess, and Yuri used chopsticks. Lawrence was stuck using a fork.

“Ah man, Lawrence, please tell me you’re kidding!” Dong-Yul joked.

“Shut up. I never got around to it.”

“Holy shit, you’re really not kidding.”

“I said shut up!”

Lawrence was keeping Dong-Yul, which was good.

For my part, I grabbed the chopsticks, and picked up a piece of charred beef.

I hadn’t used these before, not me. I let my hands move on their own, operating on muscle memory.

Her memory.

I gulped.

“So, Lawrence, what do you think?”

“Tastes great, Dong-Yul, thank you for the treat.”

“Anytime, my man.”

“Actually…”

“Yes?”

“You mentioned earlier about raising an army, and making connections. Preparing for war. Is that just rhetoric, deterrence, or do you really mean to go all the way?”

“Everything is everything, Lawrence. I want to build something that shows everyone that we can’t be pushed around and stomped down anymore. If it means having to throw some weight around to show I mean business, then I’ll do that. If it means striking before we get struck again, then fine.”

“All without getting your own hands dirty?”

“Someone has to call the shots, and someone else has to follow through. But we’ll all be cleansed of this, soon enough. I’ll bring in the tsunami, raise the tides, and all the boats we came in on. Everyone else can get caught in the undertow.”

“Dong-Yul, Donnie, I say this as a colleague, that kind of approach won’t-”

I coughed, choking.

All heads turned to me.

“Wendy!”

I sputtered, gagging. Shaking as I hacked food out from my mouth, making a mess of the surface in front of me.

The meat was terrible, I could barely call it food. More like burnt rubber, and it wasn’t even dry. It was covered in slime and a mucus that made the thing slide down my throat, only making it that much easier for it to slide back up.

I grabbed from a napkin while I was still convulsing, trying to wipe some spit and slime from my mouth. I got some of it.

Crap, taste like crap.

“Wendy, you okay?”

A girl’s voice, sounded like Yuri?

I shook my head, still shaking.

I tried to vocalize, but the taste had arrested that ability from me.

I felt hands grab for me.

Didn’t fight as I was brought to my feet, my seat pulled away from me. The hands were for support.

I forced my eyes to open. Lights hurt a bit as they came in.

Lawrence.

He was holding me up, looking at me with a concern I wasn’t used to.

“Hey, you alright?”

Time passed before I could reply.

“Choked,” I managed to strain out.

“Find a restroom, clean yourself off. Hey Donnie, there a restroom here?”

“There’s one on the bottom floor.”

“Don’t you have something up here? She can’t go down there by herself.”

“Why not?”

Lawrence had brought his voice down, but Dong-Yul would have been able to pick it up.

“She’s not even eighteen.”

“Lawrence, what? Wait, wait, I think we do have one up here. Yeah? Yeah, they’re saying we do.”

Lawrence took his hands off me, leaving me to stand on my own. I managed.

“I, I am so sorry,” I said, legitimately feeling embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to…”

“No big,” Dong-Yul said, “You can excuse yourself if you have to.”

“Yeah,” Lawrence said. “Go, and come back once it’s sorted out.”

“Okay,” I said, blinking, nodding. A signal.

Taking another napkin with me, I turned to go, leaving Lawrence with Dong-Yul, heading through a door across the restaurant by someone who looked like they worked there.

I stumbled out, finding myself in a hall in the back of the club. The music was loud again. I was reminded of the Lunar, which gave me a sinking feeling, but not by much. The walls were black, here, marked by stickers and phone numbers written in chalk. Names of people who were here before.

The door clicked behind me. I looked to see another bouncer. An Asian guy, well over six feet.

“I’ll let you in when you come back,” he said. “There’s another longue area here that connects the club and the restaurant, but you can’t come in unless you came out through here.”

“Got it, thanks for letting me know. Um, where’s the lady’s room?”

“Down the hall, take a right, it’s at the back of the lounge.”

“I… I was told there was a private one.”

I showed him the napkin.

“I kind of need the privacy. Dong-Yul said it was okay.”

The bouncer took a breath.

“Down the hall, take a left. There’s a number pad, but just keep pressing the ‘one’ key until it unlocks.”

I bowed, slight.

“Thank you so much.”

I continued on, down the hall, taking a left. I walked, and kept walking. The hallway was long. Passing employees, keeping my head down, I found the door to the private restroom.

I pressed the one key. After four presses, a light turned green, and a mechanism fell into place.

I let myself in.

The restroom was pretty big for just one person. The walls and floors were clean, the mirror without any spots, and the smell wasn’t as bad as the food.

Wiping my mouth again, suppressing the urge to vomit, I walked straight over to the mirror.

I washed my face, rinsing my chin, cleaning myself off. Trying to wash that taste out of my mouth.

Crap. I knew it would taste bad, but it was even worse than I ever expected. My stomach was shuddering, twisting and turning, as if it had its own volition, trying to get out of me. I put my thoughts away from that as I grabbed for more paper towels to dry myself.

I dabbed on spots on my face, making sure I didn’t make a streak across my glasses. Some of it was guesswork, as I tried to avoid looking directly at my own face, my own eyes.

I heard something shift. Above me.

I turned and looked up.

“Yo,” I said.

A panel had been taking out of the ceiling, and a face was staring back at me. There was little to no lighting up there, so the shadows made the image creepier than it actually was.

Though, having a face staring from above, while in the restroom… Definitely creepy.

Point taken.

“Yo,” D said back, whispering a bit.

Her face retreated into the dark, but only for a moment. From the hole in the ceiling, feet popped out, and the rest of her followed as she dropped down.

“Oof!” she sounded, involuntary.

She bounced back to her feet, fixing the strap around her.

“It’s about flipping time you showed up. Do you know how gross to be sitting up there, waiting until you came over. People coming in, doing one of two things. Ew. Gosh.”

“There’s other stuff you could have been doing,” I said. “Like scoping out the rest of the club.”

“I did that, but there’s only so much I could get done without sticking my neck out too much.”

“Did you find anything, um, interesting?”

“I did, yes. I don’t hate to admit it, because I get to be proud of my L-Boy, but yeah, his hunch was right, it’s definitely a thing.”

I thought back to what Dong-Yul had said, his piece on fighting and armies and war, making everyone listen.

“Definitely a thing,” I said.

“It’s not just that, either. I checked around, and found… well, here.”

D took off the bag, giving it to me. I took it, feeling the weight of it. It gave a me a certain comfort.

With her hands free, D had her tablet out, flipping through it as she talked.

“You know in those martial arts movies, where one guy goes into a room and takes out, like, a hundred other guys?”

“Yeah?” I asked.

D stopped flipping through the tablet, and flipped it around, making it face me.

I looked at the picture, at D, the picture, and back to D.

She was completely serious.

“Yeah…”

Previous                                                                                               Next

Advertisements

016 – Culture Shock

epc arc 3 hero.png

Previous                                                                                               Next

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

A piercing whistle followed.

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

“Yes Coach!” we all responded.

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

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

“Yes, Coach?”

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

“I can feel it.”

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

“I hear you.”

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

“Sorry.”

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

“Look me in the eyes.”

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

“Sorry,” I said again.

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

I nodded. “Sure thing.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I agreed. “It does.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I froze. “What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In what capacity?

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

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

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

Ah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An unfortunate consequence, but it was necessary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I greeted her. “Yo.”

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

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

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

“You okay there, Katy?”

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

“I… I probably should, shouldn’t I?”

“Not ‘probably,’ absolutely.”

“Right.”

She started the car, and we sped off.

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

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

Space.

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

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

I was forced to leave it be.

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

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

“Most definitely.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Truly the darkest timeline,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“Better than starting a riot.”

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

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

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

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

“You know what I mean.”

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

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

Already?

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

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

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

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

“What for?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you remember Mrs. Phan?”

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

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

“And we’re going?”

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

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

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

“Go do your homework.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three… Three, three, two, one.

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

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

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

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

The thought made me shiver.

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

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

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

Yeah. The key word was try.

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

Oh well.

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

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

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

Previous                                                                                               Next