105 – Check

Previous                                                                                               Next

James Gomez was a lonely man. Only the shadows greeted him as he came in, but even then it was a cold and uncelebrated greeting. The shadows were wordless, and Gomez was wordless, too.

He sauntered in the dark. He didn’t even bother to go for any light. He seemed to know his way around without it.

The little light that did break in filtered through blinds, cutting into thin horizontal lines that sat across the living room.

He was as quiet as the place was dark, leaving nothing disturbed, with only the sounds of steps and breaths coming through, as faint as the light was thin. The walk of a dead man. Either that, or the world was dead to him, and he was just floating through it.

Gomez descended deeper into the dark, blending into it, haunting it. A familiar haunt, as he went straight towards the couch and sat at one end, slumping into the cushion. He slipped into the seat like how a hand might a glove.

Still in the dark, still keeping himself there. He did, however, let a little light come in.

Searching through his pockets, he procured for himself a lighter and a cigar. He took one to the other, and a soft orange glow cut a hole in the black around it, glowing brighter as he inhaled his first, slow, long drag. A trail of smoke left his lips, swirling into the air in front of him.

Time stretched, this single moment sat there with Gomez and stayed there with him, taking in the smoke that he let out. However, it wasn’t a depressing scene, Gomez didn’t sulk in the dark, he didn’t seem to curse it. In all actuality, it was exact opposite. This was where he seemed to be the most comfortable, where he could be the most at ease. This was his world. Where he knew where everything was, where everyone would be. Even in the dark, this was where he had the most control, even the light had to bargain with him, only a little bit at a time was allowed.

If anything were to intrude upon this desolate home of hopelessness, he would have known it. Past the heavy cigar smoke, he would have sniffed it out, and enacted a certain swift justice to snuff it out. He was a policeman, after all, he had the means to strike with a hammer and invite a sudden bang, a flash of light as fast as hitting the switch, then back to blackness with the same relative ease. It was his domain, where he had the most jurisdiction. Because the world outside refused to give that to him.

The moment passed, time having stretched as far as what was allowed, until it could stretch no more. Something, eventually, had to give. It would have to snap.

It snapped.

With a motion much more smooth and fast than when he went for his lighter and cigar, he drew a pistol and had it ready to fire a glow much brighter than any orange. He had the pistol aimed, pointing to a far corner of the living room, where the light didn’t cross, but he saw all the same. This was his domain, his one true territory.

I stepped out of the shadows, letting the horizontal lights fall on me.

“James Gomez,” I said.

“Get the hell out.”

No pleasantries at all.

“You’re not going to ask how I got in here?”

“Doesn’t matter. You’re not the first person to break in and threaten me in my own home… but there is a good chance you might be the last. But, I won’t take that chance, not tonight. So get the hell out.”

“You’ve got all wrong, Gomez, I’m not here to threaten you.”

Gomez made a noise, not unlike the smacking of lips or the clicking of the tongue, but that seemed too childish of a behavior for a man his age. It was his gun, then, that answered for him.

His gun clicked at me, its spittle as intense as its bark. And it was ready to bark.

“I’m not going to grace you with a third and final warning,” Gomez said. “I’ll just shoot you, dead.”

That, in and of itself, was his third and final warning, but he hadn’t yet fired. He was being graceful.

I couldn’t take advantage of it too much.

“You speak of warnings, but I had given you mine, first. You came back to the territory, I had eyes on you, last night. Did you already forget?”

“I have a job to do, a role to play. A duty I keep to. Do you seriously believe that my job is to just stay to the side and bow whenever you gangsters walk on by? Are you that arrogant?”

“Arrogant? Maybe, when I first started, but I got that knocked out of me. Eventually. Although, I suppose I’m still needing of a reminder, every now and then.”

Gomez didn’t respond. His gun didn’t, either.

I took that as him allowing me to continue.

Starting with a move, I craned my head, observing the room, my eyes peering through my mask.

“No wife, no kids. Or at least, you’ve been very smart not to put pictures of them around your own home.”

“You wouldn’t,” Gomez said. His arm was still up. His gun still pointed.

I cocked my head to the side.

“You’re right, Gomez, I wouldn’t. Would be the standard gangster thing to do, but I’m not your standard gangster, am I?”

I watched the gun, carefully. The hand that commanded it. Any slight movement, any indication.

Nothing.

An answer. It wasn’t loud, it wasn’t a bark. Gomez himself.

“I don’t know what the hell you are, Blank- V. You’re not the standard anything. I’d go as far as to say you have no standards.”

I forgave that near slip of the tongue. “I’ll take that. Not like I have much of a choice, granted, but it works all the same. But, with that being said, I’m not actually here about that. I’m not so petty.”

“Well, good for you.”

“The riot at Wellport, Gomez, what do you have on it? What can you tell me?”

A dry but low grumble. Wasn’t from the gun. It was something.

Gomez replied, “I can tell you very little, if I wanted to.”

“You’re a lonely man, James Gomez, if there’s nothing else I know about you it’s that. You might want to help but you can’t. Not by yourself. So you can help me, I’ll see if some of that goodwill can get back to you.”

“Goodwill. At this venture? Did you pick up a sense of humor the last time we spoke? Did you already forget, V? I know that was you, back at the Pupil. Campbell. Don’t even know what you did to him, because you broke more than just his collarbone. There were some other complications, but he didn’t want me to know. Imagine that. My best officer, and he doesn’t want me to see him. He doesn’t want me to bear the sight of him, not until he can walk on his own two feet again. Now tell me, where do you see me giving you goodwill? Tell me!”

I didn’t tell him.

Smoke filled the room. A soft orange glow.

Brighter. More smoke.

“People are dead, more are injured, but every single one of them bled. Their blood is soaked into the dirt and cement of my territory. It’s still wet in some spots, too, so you might want someone to clean your floor once I’m done here-”

“Stop, V-”

“I don’t want another mess, Gomez, I don’t want another mess. Things have gotten messy enough, and now people are bringing their own mess into my territory. My territory. And while that sucks for me, do you really want that to spread to the rest of the city? That mess?”

Mess, huh? Sounds like it’s not all tea parties in your little criminal wanderland.”

I gave him a pointed look, but my mask blocked his view of my stare.

“It’s never easy, and that’s just a general truth to life. But you don’t need me to tell you that, Gomez.”

I had to tell him something else.

“No, you don’t,” Gomez said.

“What happened at that park can’t happen again. We have less than twenty-four hours, maybe less than twelve, but if we let those hours slip by without doing anything, more blood might, no, is going to get spilled. We can prevent that.”

“I can prevent that by myself, V, it’s you who seems to have a habit of introducing this insanity in the first place. First, it was when you came to me about Solace, and I ultimately decided to help you then. And then Thomas Thompson died. Next, you come to me talking about wanting to get back at Benny. Remember that?”

“I do.”

“I knew better, or at least I thought I did, and I declined you then. Next thing I know East Stephenville is up in flames, and I can only imagine who was standing there, poking that pit. Then there’s the Thunders and Royals, and now look at us. Some new masked clown is doing his level best to bring this city down with a riot, disguised as a war.”

“Tiger,” I said. “He was wearing a tiger mask.”

“That’s not the goddamn point! Ever since you came onto the scene, everything has been getting worse, it escalates. Temporary solutions to a much bigger problem, and there is a breaking point, V, and we’re heading to it in a mad dash, faster and faster. I tried to stop us from getting to that point. But even then, you managed careen us closer to the edge. So, no. If I help you, that’s it. Past the point of no return, where it all breaks. If I help you, that point gets pushed behind us. Because luck just seems to run like that, in Stephenville. It runs out.”

So many points, but they all meant the same thing.

“I want to hear it from you, directly. If you’re not going to be of any assistance in this, tell me.”

Gomez’s arm had to be tired by now, forcing it up to hold the gun. It didn’t waver.

His breath blew out a puff of smoke. It dragged.

“Part of me will tell you no.”

“And the other part?”

“Still no.”

I grimaced. That, through the thin lines of light, he could see.

“We both want the same thing, Gomez. Our interests align more closely than you’d think.”

“No. They couldn’t be farther apart. Standing here, watching how you’ve changed, watching how everything changed, you want destruction. I wanted things to go how Thomas envisioned, before he saw you and twisted that vision. Bet he even took a mask for himself. But I bet if you weren’t ever in the picture, he would have still found his way there. Because that seed had always been planted in his mind. You’re just shit, V. Fertilizer. Maybe it’s all bullshit, this entire time.”

Harsh words from an angry, older man. Maybe I could understand where he was coming from. But they weren’t words I needed to hear at the moment. They wouldn’t help me get anywhere, achieve anything.

“That’s quite a shame,” I said. “But it’s no surprise, so I suppose I can’t fault you. Just know, when blood sheds again, and you show up too late, being reactive, that you could have been there before it happened. You could have helped stop the blood from being shed in the first place.”

“I have a role to play,” Gomez said, “A job to do. And that… that comes with the part. In other words… I’m just a piece on the board. I don’t have a say in where or how I get moved. I just get moved. And maybe… it’s the same for you.”

“I am trying to do something,” I said, snapping back, still aware that there was a gun pointed at me. “I’m the one in control, here.”

“Sure, Bluemoon, you are. Let me ask you something. What happened with Natalie and Oliver, was that you?”

“What?”

“Was that you, what happened with Natalie and Oliver?”

My single word question had been directed at Gomez’s first statement, but I was made to answer his second.

“I could ask you the same question.”

No answer. It said everything.

“Okay,” I said. “If that’s how you want to play this. Let me tell you what I know, then. The riot at Wellport? We have reason to believe that it’s orchestrated by a gang known as the Flood, when translated to English. Dong-Yul is the leader’s name, mostly likely the guy who was wearing the tiger mask, getting everyone riled up. We’re doing our own investigation right now, putting eyes on bases we know of, see if we can’t find any others, or where Dong-Yul’s hiding and what he has planned next. Proactive.”

Gomez was silent. Smoke circled him, a small dot of orange hovering at an angle above his mustache.

Stubborn, like how everyone seemed to be, lately.

I added, “If you had agreed to play ball, in other words, I could share with you the locations of those bases, and maybe you can go take a look for yourself. Get a warrant, do some searching and seizing of your own. A tip.”

Still. Nothing.

Still nothing.

“Last chance, Gomez. Or are you that lonely? Lost? Are you so far gone that you’ve given up completely? Not me, Gomez. Not me. Because, in the end, I know we both want the same thing. To solve this problem. But I haven’t given up, I’ll keep trying, I-”

Gomez, finally, answered. No warning.

Loud, able to split ears. Not from his mouth.

He fired at me, at the shadows. But, by the time the bullet spat out to the dark, I had already vanished.

I had wanted to apologize to Lawrence, for having made a move without him after all. But we needed to get something going, or we’d end up on the backfoot. And standing still was the worst thing we could do at the moment.

I wanted to apologize to Lawrence, but I couldn’t.

D twiddled with her thumbs, her legs swinging freely. Her hair was disheveled, sticking to her face in places, outlining and framing her cheeks. Made it rounder than usual, made her look young, or maybe as young as she had really been this whole time. It was quirk of hers, then. Stress didn’t age her. The opposite was true.

“Everything will be fine, D.”

I had to give her something. Even if I didn’t necessarily believe it myself. Not everything would end up fine. That was an impossible undertaking. Our job, then, was to save what we could. As much of it as possible.

We would try.

D kicked her legs together. She hummed. A minor melody.

“It better, or I’m gonna punch him! I’ll punch him really really hard.”

My eyes found their way to Sarah. How easy, it was, to let my gaze wander and to immediately spot her. Really made me believe that everything might be okay.

Then I opened my mouth. Sound came out, vibrated the air, and my ears picked it up. Reality.

“Sarah?” I called out.

“Yes, Voss?”

The look on my face must have said it all.

“Wendy.”

I smiled.

“Any word from Reggie?”

“Not yet. Still searching.”

“Jordan?”

“Still searching.”

Tone?”

“Still.”

Sarah punctuated that with a shake of her head. Which meant that anything I’d ask her would only get returned with the same answer.

Not everything was fine.

Lawrence hadn’t been seen or heard from since he left.

I still couldn’t wrap my head around that.

The Redhouse. Afternoon. Or so after the afternoon that, outside, the sun would be pressing right against the horizon, digging into it, digging deep and breaking through, the force of the impact breaking and scattering an insane expanse of burnt orange across the entire sky, leaving tinged clouds and facades of buildings and cars and other things with a coating of embers. The light had spread into here, the main lobby, with the wide windows fracturing the spectrum to make it, for that instance, almost blinding. It was combustion, standing in the middle of an explosion on pause.

The world on fire.

There wasn’t a lot of us in here. Just a small handful of the Fangs, the leaders and those who were allowed to stand close to that circle. We needed a place to convene that was out of the way, and the gang wasn’t so attached to. The Redhouse was both those things, now. By the time D, Lawrence, and I had secured our own bases, there was less of a need for this spot, now that we had moved a lot of the armory and cargo and equipment out to other places. We could have went to my base, first, but the church had seen too much heat in too many recent instances. Had to cool off somewhere else.

“Damn.”

A word. I wasn’t sure who said it, I wasn’t sure if I said it. My mouth was still open, though.

Summed it all up pretty well though. Everything.

“Hey,” D said, admonishing me, admonishing someone. Her legs were still kicking.

“We’ll hear from him, in time,” I said to her, said to everybody. “In time.”

D’s legs swung like a pendulum.

“Yeah.”

Sarah again. Couldn’t keep my eyes off of her.

“You’re sure you saw him get back to his place?”

“I’m positive, Wendy. Reggie and I followed him the whole way there. Straight. He didn’t waver, stop somewhere else, or get distracted. From D’s base to his place. Promise.”

It wasn’t that I didn’t believe her, it just wasn’t the first time I had asked her. Not the second or third, either.

“I believe you, Sarah.”

I just wanted her to know that.

“I know.”

This normally wouldn’t have been an issue, but nothing about any of this was normal.

Dong-Yul, or whoever it was in that tiger mask, hadn’t shown up again since the first initial riot, but it almost didn’t matter. Their presence was being felt all throughout Stephenville.

Smaller bouts, skirmishes that began to blip all over different parts of the city. People rising up, it seemed, against injustices they had been subjected to, and wanted to retaliate. Fighting fire with water. But people were getting burned.

They had started in the morning, after I had met with Gomez. Less than twenty-four hours, and even less than twelve. Didn’t take long. People were that pissed off.

None of the more recent outbreaks of violence were on our territory. No. Just the first and worst one. They didn’t last nearly as long, too, not nearly as bloody. Those smaller uproars weren’t for us to silence, but they did keep me up throughout the day. I hadn’t gotten any sleep since the last night.

I shut my eyes, hard, then peeled them open. Didn’t help. My eyes stung.

“When night falls, I can go out looking for him,” I said.

“Reggie and Tone and Jordan are out there doing just that,” Sarah said. “Most of the Fangs are. They’ll find him.”

Sarah glanced at D. “They’ll find him.”

D eyes were elsewhere. Down.

“I can search past the territory,” I said, looking at D, “I’ll keep a mask on, keep in the dark.”

Sarah replied. “That’s appreciated, and I’m sure the rest of the gang feels the same way, but we need you to be where you need to be. And that’s here.”

“We?” I questioned.

Sarah gave me a certain look.

“Me more than anyone else, Wendy.”

She wanted me to know that.

Over to D, she said, “I need you here too, D. So nothing crazy from you. At least, not the usual crazy.”

I tried to not get jealous over that.

D knocked her feet together. She had sat herself up on a counter in the lobby, with a forlorn expression on her face. She hadn’t gotten much sleep, either.

“Yeah,” D said. A small voice.

Her attention had wandered, seeming to be somewhere else. Not distracted, but tired.

I walked on over. Part of it was just to move, feel like I was getting somewhere. A larger part of it was to be next to D.

Getting to the counter, I leaned my back against it. I was close enough to take D’s hand, holding it. I did just that.

“Long day,” I said.

Ouais.”

“Are there any new leads?”

She shook her head. Very slow.

“Uncle J doesn’t want to help, and I couldn’t find anything at the restaurant club place Dong-Yul took y’all to. They dumped that joint the second they were able to. If they are behind this, they’re not the Flood. They’re something worse. Bigger.”

“A deluge?”

“Something like that.”

I breathed, looking out through the windows around us. The light dazzled.

“If anything goes down tonight, maybe I can do something. Keep the mask off this time, step into the light a little bit. Maybe I can find that Jasmine girl there. Get in that way.”

“You’re not getting in anywhere!”

Sarah called from across the lobby. I couldn’t help but take pleasure in her jealousy.

“I want to find Ellie,” D said.

There wasn’t much levity as it was, but D brought it down by a new notch.

“Lawrence can wait.”

Leaning up, still holding D’s hand, I looked from across the counter.

“Hey,” I said.

Isabella was there, resting against the counter on the other side. Looking bored, looking impatient.

“Lawrence can wait,” Isabella repeated. “People are out there now, flipping cars and breaking glass, and they’re doing it in other gang’s territory. You should be taking advantage of that, helping them cause a little more damage. Introduce some more anarchy.”

“We do any more, unprompted, we might bring everyone on our heads. The police, those gangs, and even Mrs. Carter and Styx. D’Angelo. Inez.”

“I’m not saying we need to, like, beat up anyone to find him! I just want to find him!”

I turned to D, “And I didn’t mean to say we’re going to give up on him. D… I need a break, girl, I’m admitting that now before anything else happens. It’s been a long day, and from everything I’ve seen the night is going to get longer so… we came here to regroup, while we can. Let’s just… let’s just do that, okay?”

D didn’t say anything. Then I turned to Isabella.

“Lawrence is waiting for us. The Fangs are out there looking for him and locking down the rest of our territory in the meantime, so what happens at Wellport doesn’t happen again. We should secure what we have, get our ducks in a row. Get a grip.”

“Get a grip, get a grip, get a grip.”

Isabella droned on and on.

“This is the start of everything you were working towards. This is it. Now, Wendy, now. This is the opening you need. You’re already at the table. If you let this get bad enough, if you nudge things so it gets that way, they’ll all get together, and you’ll be there, too. Maybe even Mister himself, if this gets to a certain point. Then, you go for blood. Right then and there. Don’t make it quick, either, make it slow, make it worth it. Make so you never need for another sip for the rest of you life.”

“Let’s not…” I started.

“Why not?”

It was D who asked that.

“Ellie’s been missing for an entire day, almost an entire day. One person shouldn’t be gone for that long. We can do more!”

Then Isabella took her turn.

“Let’s not what? Why are you waiting? Why do you need to delay when everything is right there, ready for you? The enemy- the enemies are out there, and when they stumble you need to be there, ready to strike! There’s no need to be clever, you’ve already done enough planning and scheming. Just do. This can be all over when you want it to be. Isn’t that what you want? What are you so afraid of?”

This can be all over when I want it to be.

What was I so afraid of?

I searched for answer, something that might sound appropriate. But whatever I would have came up with, it would have sounded like a lie.

An answer never came.

The doors bursted open. A commotion through everyone gathered like a conflagration.

It was Reggie. It was Lawrence.

Or the bloody, beaten, bruised, very ruined shape of Lawrence.

“Ellie!”

D’s voice broke with a crack. A deep crack that could split a girl in half.

We all converged on the two.

Lawrence had an arm around Reggie. It was a move to help him propped and standing, but from how he stood, that stance, there was no strength in it. More like he was being dragged by Reggie, who also didn’t want to get any of the blood and dirt to fall on his clothes or face.

However, it was too late for that.

Reggie started working to lower Lawrence, slow, cautious, as not to subject him to any more pain. Sarah got there first, helping Reggie.

D was crouched to his right, I was by his left.

This was sudden, this was scary. I needed a moment to process this.

What was I looking at? Who?

A bloody, bruised, beaten man. That man was Lawrence. He was still wearing the same clothes from last night, but they were soiled, dirty with grime and cut. His shirt was stained by a deep crimson. His face was cut across one cheek, swollen in the other. One eye was shut, too much blood for him to peer through.

When Reggie set him down, a long line of blood stretched and connected the two men, until it cut and the half-tendrils smacked and soaked into each of their shoulders. Then I saw why there was so much blood there.

I asked.

“Where’s his ear?”

Reggie looked as shocked and scared as I was.

“I found- I found him like that. At the… at an alleyway. No wait. I came over and I got him to-”

“Reggie, calm down.”

How Sarah was even able to say those words with that level voice, it gave me enough distraction from Lawrence that I could feel something that wasn’t fear. A longing.

And I saw Lawrence, and it was back to fear again.

“Lawrence… When I found him he was by an alley, leaned up against a dumpster. At the territory. Freaked me out, man, Lawrence, he-”

Reggie couldn’t gather his thoughts well enough to explain a proper thing.

No. Shit. That didn’t matter. Not now.

Now. We had to check on Lawrence.

D was already on it.

“I can barely feel a pulse.”

Her hands were on his, clasped together, fingers on his wrists. Feeling. Shaking.

“Is he responding?” I asked.

D was choking up.

“No. Barely. I can’t tell!”

“D…” Sarah said, in that same, level voice.

“He’s too weak,” Isabella said. “He’s not going to make it.”

“He’ll make it,” I said, snapping at her. I looked at D. “He will make it.”

D didn’t look convinced, but she was still clinging onto something. What bit of hope we have left for him.

Lawrence was clinging on, too. His hands were around D’s. Whether it was because of compassion or weakness, I didn’t know.

“He won’t,” Isabella said. It was like she tried to personify my paranoia. My despair.

Lawrence was gasping like a fish out of water. Pained intakes of breath, getting softer each time.

The breaths had a curve to it, however, trying to hit the ear.

“Hold on,” I said, “I think he’s trying to say something.”

Everyone went silent.

We listened to Lawrence as he hurt.

“Phil… Phil… Phil…”

Phil? Or fill?

“Lawrence, who is that?” I asked. I had to make my words clear, I said them slow. “Is that who did this to you?”

He wouldn’t answer, or perhaps he couldn’t. He just kept asking for that word, or that name.

“Please, Lawrence, who is-”

“It’s not a name.”

Everyone turned to D. She was clutching her choker, eyes welling up.

“He’s asking for pills.”

Lawrence, for his part, acted like he was responsive, breathing that word out more, harder.

“Phil, Phil, Phil…”

He couldn’t even say the word right. His jaw wasn’t closing right.

Breathing out the word.

“Does anyone have any?” I asked.

Reggie answered, “Searched his body and pockets already. Nothing.”

Lawrence threw out the last few pills he had. If he had any, would he be able to ride out the pain of a bit longer?

“Could we take him to a hospital?”

“I don’t know,” Sarah answered. “If we wanted to get him to one it’d have to be now. Like we’d have to be there already. With everything that happening in the city, the hospitals are going to be packed and busy. He might… he might not…”

Even Sarah couldn’t finish that.

“No! No no no!”

D yelled, squeezing Lawrence’s wrist. His one visible eye cringed.

“We can get something for him! I know where we can find a gang doc! He’ll make it!”

“Get a grip,” Isabella said.

“He doesn’t look good enough to be moved,” I said. “We’d have to bring someone here.”

“I can do that! I’ll get the van!”

“They’d have to be here already,” Sarah said, soft. Sorry.

Lawrence’s breathing was only getting worse.

“Phil… Phil, Phil…”

His light gasps of air were subdued. D’s sobbing began to mask them. Mask her hearing them.

It was starting to settle in, just how bad this was, just what exactly this meant. Seeing Lawrence like this.

When I breathed, it was shaky.

“I think… we have to look for a good place for him to… rest.”

D smacked me in the arm.

“No! No! We have to do something, try anything! Can’t you turn him, make him like you? There has to be a way!”

Looking down at Lawrence, I saw how his body had been broken, unable to support itself. How open and exposed his throat was. How, despite the ugliness, the aroma wafted into my nose.

Would it work? Could I even do that?

The possibility was there, but I didn’t know if that was how that worked. For all I was aware, I could simply end Lawrence’s life, right then and there. His blood on my hands.

No going back. Isabella’s earlier question echoed in my head.

D smacked me again. Smacked me back to reality.

“Wendy! Come on!”

I paused, despite myself and everything.

“D-”

Fuck!”

The word. I couldn’t place its owner, but the meaning was all too clear.

It was the sound that came first. Followed by the fury.

Glass shattered, a certain bark. Several. Something I had been hearing a lot of, lately.

Everyone was crouched over Lawrence, but we all ducked when we heard everything break around us.

A torrent of bullets tore through the Redhouse.

I took a quick glance to the entrance. A haze of lights, shades of people, standing in a line. As the glass broke and fell, I caught glimpses. Animals.

“You were followed?” I yelled into Reggie’s ear. “You were followed and you brought him here!”

Barely could hear his response. No or know.

Didn’t know?

Didn’t matter.

“Move!”

Everyone moved.

We were caught off guard, completely unaware. Fight or flight kicked in, and we weren’t equipped to do the former.

I scooped up D and started running. She wouldn’t stop kicking and screaming.

“Lawrence, Lawrence!”

I didn’t have the breath to argue, for several reasons. One, because a wasted breath meant wasted energy, and two, because my right shoulder blade spat out a bullet, and my teeth were grinding together, shut.

That didn’t stop D from fighting back.

“Lawrence! What the h-”

“Cars!”

I somehow threw out my voice. Sudden, raw. Am angry noise.

Yet, somehow, someone picked up.

“Back!”

I followed the voice, like how easy it was for my eyes to find Sarah. To the back hall. Exit there.

Everyone went that way. I hoped everyone did. I couldn’t keep eyes on us all.

Had D, heard Sarah. Reggie, for a brief but loud second. Isabella?

Lawrence.

My eyes were hot and streaming, but I kept running.

Then the-

Colors vibrant and hotter and more sudden than anything I had ever personally known. White and orange and red. Combustion, an explosion unpaused. The world was on fire.

The blast wasn’t too close, it didn’t knock me off my feet. Some did get knocked, though, as I saw their shadows pass before my eyes.

I ran, I ran.

Run run run run run run run run run run run run

My sight was violated, but it was my hearing that had gotten shot. A high and thin line, a tea kettle singing. I couldn’t hear anything else.

I couldn’t hear anything else, but the echo of a dying beggar.

Phil.

The building crumbled in places behind us. The word looped and consumed itself, like a snake eating its own tail. It consumed me in much the same way.

A whole gang of us gathered. But I never felt so stranded. Alone.

Dozens upon dozens of eyes, peering through me like how bullets could. Some were wet, many were bloodshot.

D’s eyes were the most wet.

Most of the Fangs were here, a lot of people. And yet, the shared silence between them all was eerie. The sounds were of D’s muffled sobbing, her face buried into the fuzzy back of a teddy bear.

Most of the Fangs were here. It was a lot of people, but it wasn’t everyone. This gathering was equal parts a funeral service, and just getting together to figure out what the fuck we we’re going to do next.

Maybe it was fitting, to do this at a church. Maybe it was one big fucking joke.

But when I looked at the faces, when I heard D’s soft sniffling, I knew there wasn’t anything funny about this.

“I’ll just get right to it,” I said, then I startled. Was that my voice?

One more time.

“Right… Get right to it. Lawrence is dead.”

I paused. I gave the moment and the man in question the levity they deserved.

Then I picked it back up.

“But what he started isn’t. What he built. This gang, the Fangs will continue to spread and grow, with more teeth and bite than he would have ever imagined. And I will…”

My eyes roved over the crowd.

I saw the many Fangs that scowled, the anger that shaped the line between their lips. I saw D, the waterworks still pouring. I saw Sarah, and how much I hated to see that kind of sadness on her face. I saw Tone, I hadn’t seen him since he decided to take a hiatus from Fang activity.

I didn’t see Reggie, however.

I had to pause, or else I’d break down again. I wanted to be right there with them, but I couldn’t.

“D and I will continue where Lawrence left off, and… I…”

This was too hard.

“Between the two of us, we’ll decide the Fang’s next move, while considering Lawrence’s intentions. For just now, though, I suggest we all take some time to have him in our thoughts. Thank… thank you.”

No one said anything.

Uncomfortable, clumsy. Couldn’t stay here.

I wasn’t sure of what else to do but bow, slight, and take my leave.

Didn’t stay inside the church. I retreated to the back annals of the building, going into the halls, down another, and entering an office room.

My office. It was supposed to be, anyways, but I hadn’t much to keep in here. It was empty, no real tether. That scared me. But I didn’t have anywhere else to go.

The door opened just as I sat down at the single desk at the far end of the room, lights turning on. So much for being alone in the dark.

Sarah and D. D’s teddy bear. Isabella.

“How are they taking it?” I asked.

Sarah answered. “Not well, obviously. I heard some of them talking amongst themselves. Some of them blame you for it.”

I frowned, my eyes stinging again. I adjusted my glasses. They slipped back down from the sweat and soot.

“Suppose I can’t blame them for it,” I said. “Do you? Blame me?”

“Course not, Wendy.”

I didn’t feel better, hearing that.

“D,” I said, seeing her.

Her head was still down, her bob of hair in her face.

“I know you’re mad at me for… I’m not so happy with myself, either, but…”

“I’m not mad,” D said, voice still weak and hurting. “I’m just sad.”

Sarah put a hand on her head. D let her. “I know, sweetie.”

I really hated seeing them like this.

“This is bad,” I said.

It was stupid, it was obvious, but it still needed to be said. Recognized.

D hiccuped.

I spoke. “Something happened to Lawrence, and somebody out there is responsible. And the only person who might know anything isn’t… here anymore. But, I saw who showed up at the Redhouse. People in masks. Same kind as the ones that were Wellport. That’s twice, now. During all this chaos, that’s twice they’ve done something against us. We can’t let them get us a third time.”

And that’s not including them using Alexis Barnett’s face and name.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on the news,” Sarah said. “There were similar attacks around the same time, in places suspected to be owned by gangs. It could be coordinated.”

“It could be coordinated, or it could be convenient. I don’t want to inherit Lawrence’s paranoia so soon, I have my own as it is, but we can’t let what happened to us stand. If this is Dong-Yul’s work, then he shouldn’t have signed it. We’ll find him, and make him regret it.”

“Wendy,” Sarah said. That was all she said.

“Can we not talk about stuff like that right now?” D asked. “Can we just… not?”

Another breath. If I was a smoker, it would have swirled the entire room by now.

“Sure.”

The silence lived within the shadows. Nothing else was in this room. Nothing else to discuss.

They left. Probably to process this by themselves. I needed to process this by myself.

“What’s their problem?”

Isabella turned from the door when it closed. It didn’t even close all the way, maybe Sarah and D were low in spirit that they could hardly manage that.

“Not now,” I said.

“But D knows what kind of world we operate in. This happens. It is what it is. Stick your neck out, you risk getting slashed there.”

“What happened to Lawrence… he didn’t deserve that. If we were harder on him, intervened more and made him give that stuff up earlier… maybe…”

“You were always going to use the Fangs as a stepping stone to tearing this city down. That includes Lawrence. Includes Sarah, too. D was helping you with that goal, if you really believe her. So she knew what that would mean for the rest of them.”

“We would have figured something out, when we’d get to that point. We’re just not there, yet.”

Isabella laughed.

“Why not? When will you ever? What’s the delay? Someone, if it’s not Dong-Yul, is out there right this second, fucking shit up and doing everything you claim you want. I say join them! You’re not going to get a better opportunity than this!”

Enough!”

I slammed a fist on the table. The surface cracked.

That didn’t stop Isabella.

“If you wanted this so bad, you’d be out there already. But you’re not. So why? What’s stopping you?”

“I said enough, Isabella.”

“Or is it that you want something else, instead? Something you can truly and honestly call yours and yours alone?”

I balled up a fist for another strike, threatening to break the table.

“What changed, Wendy? Or… maybe nothing changed at all, that’s why. Because you talked to Natalie, and saw her face all around you. That, no matter what you do, you can’t escape it? Her? Even after all this time?”

“You are not getting another warning!”

Before Isabella could learn her lesson, the door cracked open. Wider.

We both turned to the door.

It was D. A short break, so she wasn’t looking any better.

Her teddy bear was hanging from a hand. She wasn’t hugging it.

She wore an expression on her face. Concern, her brow furrowed, head tilted. Anxious. Apprehensive.

“Yes, D?” I asked. I set my arms on the table, trying to hide where I hit the surface.

D didn’t speak right away. She needed a moment to formulate her words. Consider them carefully.

And after some consideration, she asked a question. The words struck me like hot lead, through my ear then out the other side of my brain.

“Who are you talking to?”

Previous                                                                                               Next

Advertisements

Interlude – Sarah

Previous                                                                                               Next

The car was parked outside the apartment. It was running, kicking up in fits and starts, coughing out exhaust that trailed out a slow, hazy path. It was an old thing, but it still worked, which was just about the only reason why she was here. If it finally had the sense to die, she could have had an excuse, and she’d have no way of showing up.

Sarah shivered.

“Cold?”

Sarah looked over to her left. She smiled, nervously.

Hazel eyes stared back at her. They were usually so… mischievous, not unlike a cat about to pounce on an unsuspecting mouse, or even a ball or yarn. It bugged her to see them filled with such concern.

Sarah glanced ahead to the street. The break from her gaze didn’t last long, the urge to meet it again became too alluring.

Black hair, parted down the middle, exposing her forehead and reaching just past her neck. Lips just a dash deeper than pink, the color only really noticeable when contrasted against her pale complexion.

Not exactly goth, but goth inspired. A lot of black and even more accessories, but still presentable to those weren’t as fashion conscious. A thick grey flannel, a shirt sporting a metal band’s logo, with sharp, branching lines that extended out in every direction, and loose denim pants with rips in them.

Sarah would have preferred if she had went without the fishnet stockings, peeking just past the rips. But… whatever. They were here already.

She looked into those eyes again. No, that look was still too much for her. She searched around them, instead. The round frames of her glasses, the thin line of maroon that gave her eyes a deeper definition. All the more alluring, all the more unlikely that she could contain herself and not reach for her and-

Sarah swallowed.

“Freezing, Celeste,” Sarah finally answered. “I’m freakin’ freezing.”

Celeste gave a grin, her eyes shifting to match the expression. Smug. Mischievous. That feeling like she was being pulled along by a string. She tried not to mind that feeling so much.

“If you ask nicely, I can warm you up.”

Sarah raised an eyebrow.

“How nicely?”

Celeste made a purring noise. Along with the running engine, it made for a sensation that Sarah could feel.

The engine sputtered. A reminder that this thing might not last for much longer.

“If you have to ask,” Celeste said, still playful, “Then there’s nothing I can do for you.”

Sarah pouted. She wanted to play along.

“There’s always such a thing of being too nice. I just want to know where that bar is set.”

That only made Celeste double down, pulling on that string between them.

“Why don’t you take a guess?”

A challenge. She was up for that.

If it means not having to go outside just yet.

Sarah answered that challenge, not with words, but by leaning over the console between the seats. Tilting her chin up by an fraction. If she lost her balance and fell into Celeste, she didn’t care. Part of her kind of wanted that to happen.

Sarah inched closer, almost too close, almost too nicely. She pushed it, just a little bit more.

Celeste didn’t budge, keeping that smugness about her. One way or another, Sarah was going to get that look off her face.

She aimed for her lips.

“Whoa!”

Sarah jerked back, shaking her head. A hot gust of air struck her on the right side of her face.

Celeste took her hand off the knob, just below the car radio.

“Nice enough,” Celeste said.

“God, don’t do that,” Sarah said, rubbing her cheek. She reached over to adjust the knob again, so it wouldn’t keep blowing out hot air. “It’s going to fuck up the whole thing.”

“I thought you were freezing?” Celeste asked, already forgetting about it.

“Yeah, frozen in fear,” Sarah answered.

“What? Why?”

Sarah shot a look at her.

“You know exactly why. I haven’t seen my folks in two years. Haven’t talked to them for even longer.”

Since I left for college.

It was a touchy subject that she didn’t delve into a lot. She hadn’t even let Celeste in on all the details, just the broadest of broad strokes. She probably should have, now that Celeste was here, but part of her hoped that it wouldn’t have come to this, at all.

Even then, even now, she still didn’t want to talk about it. She didn’t even want to think about it. Maybe, if she was careful, everything would go smooth, and there wouldn’t anything to explain.

Sarah sighed.

Celeste crossed one leg over another, so her knee was sticking out from the rip that was there. She circled her finger around the hole, picking at her stocking while she was at it.

“Is that the only reason?” she asked, her eyes down.

Sarah frowned, but Celeste wouldn’t have seen it. She didn’t.

“Me and my family, I mean, of course I love them because of course. I sort of have to. But… that doesn’t mean we can’t have, um, disagreements, and that definitely doesn’t mean that those disagreements can’t get in between us and keep that distance, um, there.”

“But there’s a reason why you’re here, now, right? To try and close that distance?”

Sarah made a face.

“The only reason why I’m here is because you wouldn’t stop begging to come with me. And, because you were willing to drive my shitty car over here.”

“Oh, is that so?” Celeste laughed, but she sounded a little hurt, having heard that. Sarah immediately regretted saying it like that. “I just wanted to meet them, is that so wrong?”

“It can go wrong, if you’re not careful.”

“So I’m a problem?”

Another regret. Sarah fixed her hair, tucking it behind an ear.

“No, you’re…”

She couldn’t find the word. It seemed like anything she could say might come across as an insult.

“A disagreement?” Celeste offered.

Sarah sighed again.

“No,” she said. “You’re my roommate.”

Celeste mouthed that last word, not actually saying it. She looked out to the window past Sarah, over to the apartment complex. It wouldn’t even take a minute to get there from the car, but that was enough to make it feel like an eternity.

“Ugh,” she sounded, not much of a pur. “Sure, I get it, I really do. It’s fucking hard as shit to come out like this, doubly so if you haven’t been home in a couple of years. But… yeah, I guess I shouldn’t have expected anything.”

Sarah felt that invisible string between them loosen. Celeste wasn’t tugging on it anymore.

“You’re not wrong to have expectations, I think. Ugh, I wish I had your parents. They’re cool.”

“The coolest,” Celeste said, eyes still to the window. “But they weren’t the coolest for the longest time. It took a little. But now… they’re cool, and that’s cool.”

“Cool,” Sarah said.

Celeste turned, facing Sarah directly. Her lips curved at the corners. It reminded her of a cat.

“But if we actually did have the same parents, there’d be a lot more we’d have to explain, and I don’t think they’d be cool about that.”

“I bet,” Sarah said. She smiled, still nervous. “But I love Rosa too much to make the switch.”

“She’s great, but you can keep her. Being an only child can have its perks.”

“In what ways?”

“You know, you get doted on, you get all the presents. You get your own room.”

“I wouldn’t know about any of that,” Sarah said. Having a sibling meant having scarce amounts of privacy, if any. She had no time to herself, and growing up when forced to share space with someone just a few years behind made those growing pains ache that much more. It was equal parts living with a best friend, and living with an actual monster.

But Sarah didn’t bring any of that up.

Celeste flashed another one of her trademark smirks.

“Now though? I much prefer having someone to share a room with.”

Sarah felt a warmth in her face. It wasn’t from the car.

“Definitely different from sharing one with my sister.”

“Again, a lot harder to explain if we had the same parents.”

“Can we not go in that direction again? Please?”

Celeste laughed. Completely genuine.

Sarah loved hearing Celeste’s laugh.

This… This wasn’t so bad. Sitting here, warmed up, just the two of them. It was all she really needed. It was all she really wanted.

It was the outside world, them, that she wanted to avoid. They were the others. Mom, Dad, if she let them inside, she was certain they’d break something. Somehow.

The car hiccuped yet again. Sarah sighed for the third time.

“What if I told you that a little bit of happiness leaves your body every time you do that?” Celeste said.

Sarah stared at Celeste. She opened her mouth and groaned, exaggerating it.

“And I thought I was the gloomy one,” Celeste said.

The car continued to rumble, continued to cough on occasion. It was as if the old thing was in its death throes.

“We’re still in here,” Celeste observed. “You want to keep choking the planet?”

Sarah had to fight the urge to sigh again. She didn’t want to make a habit out of it.

“It’s cold outside,” Sarah said.

“That’s not a good excuse to stay inside forever.”

“It kind of can be.”

“That wasn’t a real sentence.”

Celeste tapped the wheel, keeping her hands on it.

It would have been so easy – too easy – to ask Celeste to drive away, and Sarah could make up something on the way back home. Car broke down, the weather got too, the roads turned slick.

Celeste let her hands drop into her lap. Sarah felt her heart drop, too.

“It’s freezing outside,” Sarah said.

The hollow reverberations from the car was like static in the air.

“I know it’s hard,” Celeste said. “Believe me, I’ve been there. I totally, hundred- thousand percent get it. If it’s something you think they won’t be able to accept, then it can wait.”

“What if it never happens? What if this is the final thing that makes it, um,…”

It was hard to find the word right away. She hesitated.

Final,” Sarah said, finishing the thought.

“Then that’s their loss, and they can go fuck themselves about that.”

Celeste didn’t apologize for her vulgarity. Sarah wouldn’t ask for it.

“I appreciate the sentiment. The mental image I can do without, though.”

“What I’m trying to say… it’s all up to you, Sarah. Your call. Whatever you choose, I am absolutely and unequivocally here for it.”

She always seemed to know the right thing to say, the right buttons to push. Sarah almost loved her for it, if it didn’t come so easy for Celeste. It made Sarah feel like she was just a toy to her, something that could be pulled by a string and be moved along, accordingly. A kind of connection that only really went in one direction. A feeling she didn’t mind so much, but…

It was there.

It was a thought she only had in passing, but it was there. It came and went. And sometimes, it gave her pause.

Not today, though. Today, she liked that someone else was with her, in this. Someone else could hold her down. Pull her out if it got too bad.

It wouldn’t be fair to her family, it wouldn’t fair to her if she didn’t even try.

The window by her side fogged up. She had looked in the other direction without realizing it.

Another breath, another bit of happiness gone, according to Celeste’s theory.

Sarah talked, listlessly, “You’re awesome, you know that?”

“Oh, I know, but it’s nice to hear that without you screaming it in my ear for once.”

Sarah turned, jaw dropped, and reached over to smack Celeste in the arm.

“Oh my god, fuck you!”

Celeste gestured over to the general direction of the apartment.

“Sure, but your fam is expecting you, and these things aren’t tinted.”

Her jaw dropped lower. One more smack to the arm for good measure.

“Ow,” Celeste said.

“Freak,” Sarah said, but she might as well be speaking to a mirror, in that sense. And she was done with the self-deprecation, the self-harming.

Closure. That was why she was here. With or without Celeste, she’d get that. One way or another.

She held her breath.

The door cracked open. A chill crept through her.

Celeste turned the key in the ignition. The car was finally allowed to rest.

“Let’s not keep Rosa waiting,” Sarah said.

“Yes!” Celeste cheered, opening the door on her side.

They both stepped out, the cold folding around them like a hug they didn’t want.

Sarah looked to the apartment complex.

Celeste went around the car. Sarah wandered over to her side.

“Lucky,” Sarah said, “You’ve already graduated. If they weren’t pitching in for my tuition, I wouldn’t be here.”

“Keep feeding yourself bullshit,” Celeste said, bumping into Sarah, “No one’s going to want to ever get close to you.”

Sarah couldn’t help but smirk. If she tried to fight it, she’d probably look really stupid.

Instead, she rested her head on Celeste’s shoulder. Their fingers intertwined.

A split-second decision, but it didn’t feel wrong. Far from it. And if it didn’t feel wrong here, it might not be so bad there.

Right?

Sarah hoped.

“It’s a good thing I have you, already,” Sarah said. She squeezed Celeste’s hand, giving a soft sway. “You can’t go anywhere.”

“Ha. Don’t tell me you’ve gotten comfortable. Never forget, I have you.”

To illustrate her point, Celeste shifted her hand, fingers still together with Sarah’s. With her index, she traced some letters across the palm of Sarah’s hand. ‘I’ and ‘U.’

The sensation wasn’t unlike electricity going up one arm, bursting through the rest of her body.

Point taken.

“Yup,” Sarah said, resigned, not minding it as much as before. “By a string.”

As a pair, they started walking into the direction of the apartment. The walk was made a little easier, now that Sarah had someone she could lean on.

The door swung open, revealing several people that had already gotten started. Standing around, relaxing, beers in hand.

“Sarah’s here!”

She waved, pushing herself off the edge of the door frame she was leaning on. She came by herself.

“I am!” she said, cheery as she usually presented herself. She stepped into Casa Martinez, taking a quick scan around.

It didn’t take Sarah long to find who had called out to her.

Reggie and Tone were hanging around by the bar in the back of the restaurant. Reggie waved back, and Sarah started to make her way over there.

There was a small gathering of people between her and her friends, but she maneuvered through them without a problem. There wasn’t a reason to expect anything different. The overall vibe was pretty chill.

“Hey,” Sarah said, as she joined Reggie and Tone.

“Happy New Year,” Tone said, flat. “Do people actually say that?”

Tone passed Sarah a beer, sliding it across the bar to her. She caught it, taking a sip. Bitter, but refreshing.

Sarah let out a breath, smiling a little.

“You can say that,” she said.

“Still got a couple minutes before it’s official,” Reggie said.

Leaning against the bar itself, propping her elbows up, Sarah took another sip.

“God, hard to believe another year is about to pass.”

“Hard to believe we even made it through this one,” Reggie said. “Feels like this year was the start of the end times.”

“I take back my previous statement then,” Tone said, “Next year is probably going to be a lot more shitty.”

“Always the optimist,” Reggie said.

Sarah took yet another sip, tipping the bottle back a little higher.

“Damn, how fucked up are you trying to get before the year ends?” Reggie asked.

Pulling the bottle away from her lips, Sarah inspected the bottle, swirling the liquid inside. Three of what she considered to be sips, and there was only a few drops left.

She shrugged it off.

“I’m just trying to catch up to you guys,” she said. “Got here late.”

“Not that late, and this is still my first one.”

Reggie raised his bottle, showing that he only downed about half of it.

Tone interjected. “To be fair, this is my second.”

Sarah pointed at him. “See?”

“Yeah, but his girl can pick him up,” Reggie said. “And I arranged a ride for myself, too. How are you getting home?”

“I…”

She drove over here, parked in the back. She didn’t have that beaten up old thing, anymore.

The thought sobered her.

“I can take a taxi,” Sarah said, almost sluggish.

“Nah, how about we get this settled now before we forget about it later. Oh hey, we can talk to him about it.”

The trio all turned to where Reggie had indicated, watching as an imposing figure approached them.

Wearing a suit, but without the tie, the overall look was casual but still holding on to an air of authority. Standing somewhere between Reggie and Tone in height, he didn’t loom, but he definitely wasn’t someone to fuck with.

“What’s up?” Lawrence asked. He sounded somewhat distracted, as if he wasn’t expecting to be talking to the three of them. Then again, Reggie called him out as soon as he spotted their boss.

“Not much,” Reggie answered. “Great party by the way.”

“I’m not looking to bring the house down,” Lawrence said. “Mrs. Martinez will be coming in early to prep for the new year. So I don’t want anyone to get too crazy.”

“I wasn’t being sarcastic,” Reggie said.

Lawrence blinked. “Oh, right.”

“Anyway, we were just talking about rides. Sarah came without having designated a driver.”

Lawrence looked at Sarah. “You drove here by yourself?”

“Well, I mean…”

She couldn’t but feel like Lawrence was judging her.

Instead, he pointed to the people behind him.

“It’s fine, I accounted for that. I’ve got a few people here who are willing to drive anyone who gets too shitfaced for the wheel.”

Sarah set her bottle down. “Whoa, sir, I did not plan to go that far, tonight.”

Lawrence didn’t seem convinced. “Either way, you have options, and I suggest you take them.”

“How very responsible of you,” Tone commented.

Lawrence fixed his hair, slicking it back more. “Yeah, well, last thing I want is for any of you to get in trouble, or worse, get the police involved. The Ghosts are finally on an upswing, so the less chance of anything getting in the way of that, the better.”

“You’re really thinking ahead.”

“Call me paranoid, whatever, I don’t care. Just behave yourselves, and that goes for everyone.”

“Damn, we will,” Sarah said. “But, keep that up, and you won’t be able to enjoy your own party.”

“This is all for you guys, not me.”

Lawrence turned, his eyes searching across the restaurant. To the front door, it seemed like. No one was there, though.

“I’ll be around, if you still need anything from me,” Lawrence said, focus still somewhere else.

“And yeah, I’ll take one of your drivers,” Sarah said. “Don’t worry about me.”

“Alright,” Lawrence said, nodding. “There should actually be one more coming in soon, but… shit, I hate when people are late.”

“Definitely sucks!”

Lawrence nodded again, but he didn’t say anything. He just left, disappearing into the crowd.

“Interesting guy,” Tone said, then went back to finishing his beer.

“You’d have to be, in order to be in a position like his,” Reggie said.

“Somehow, I feel like he thinks he’s one of us,” Sarah observed. “Just a regular person.”

Tone laughed, setting his bottle down beside him. “Look where we are, Sarah, what we’re doing. We’re standing on the polar opposite of regular.”

Sarah and Reggie laughed along with him, but it wasn’t as spirited. As if to deflect and change the subject, Sarah smacked Reggie on the arm.

“The heck?” Reggie questioned, now massaging his elbow.

“Why’d you have to call me out in front of the boss?”

“I wasn’t calling you out, I was just looking out for you.”

“I would have been fine,” Sarah said.

“No, you’ll be fine now because we got it sorted out early. But, come on, do you really want to end the year with an argument, of all things?”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

Reggie grumbled, rolling his eyes a bit.

“I think you know exactly what I mean.”

It was Sarah’s turn to grumble. Another thing she didn’t want to recall. It was still ringing in her ears, like tinnitus. It had been that loud, that destructive. The growing emptiness that threatened to swallow her apartment… no amount of bottles or spliffs could ever attempt to fill it.

She turned, signaling the bartender for another drink. Taking it from a shelf behind him, the bartender then popped the cap and slid the bottle to her. Sarah caught it, swinging it up to her lips, smooth.

She would have argued with Reggie on that point, but she drowned those words with another swig.

“Fine,” she said, “I’ll let you off the hook this time.”

“I appreciate your benevolence,” Reggie said.

“So, y’all have any resolutions for next year?” Tone asked. Another change in the subject. “Do people actually make those?”

“They do,” Sarah said. “Whether or not they keep it is another matter, entirely.”

“Good point.”

“Resolutions,” Reggie mused. He was actually putting some thought into this. He set a hand across his belly. “Maybe I should work on cutting this down.”

“That’s a classic one,” Tone said. “Also the hardest one to keep. Good luck.”

“I did say maybe. What about you, then?”

“Me? I ain’t even bother with that shit. No point.”

“Good to know you haven’t changed in…” Reggie pretended to check a watch on his wrist that wasn’t actually there, “Ten minutes.”

Tone sipped and finished his second bottle. Sarah was about to catch up with him.

“You?”

Sarah breathed. She felt her breath getting thick and heavy.

“Sarah?”

Sarah looked at Reggie. “Huh?”

“You have any resolutions for next year?” Reggie asked.

A question she didn’t have an immediate answer to. Trying to form one was like wading through a haze, made more clouded by the added, seeping mist of drink.

Reflecting on the past year. Having to extrapolate on everything that happened and finding what she could do better.

But that meant sorting through memories she wasn’t ready to face, opening wounds that hadn’t fully healed yet. She had showed up tonight to try and get her mind off all that shit, not focus on it more, magnifying it with a glass full of alcohol.

And what’s the lesson to be learned, anyways? Don’t get cut like that again? Don’t put myself in a position to be cut so deeply?

No. Through the haze and miasma of the past year, one thing began to solidify. Something she could hold, control, pull and manipulate on her own.

Sarah finished the rest of her drink. It didn’t clear her mind, but it did give her something to say, and hearing it out loud might break through the ringing in her ears. Might make it real.

“I want to take control of something,” Sarah answered. “I don’t even care what that something is. Maybe my own damn self, finally grow up and take that back. I just hate either running away from connections or getting twisted up in ones that’s pointed in every direction that isn’t coming from me. For once… I want to be the one that’s holding the strings.”

“That sounds like a tall order,” Reggie said. “You up for it?”

“Honestly? I have no fucking idea on what I just said.”

“Then you need to slow down by a lot. There, that’s my resolution. To not be the one that’s dragging your drunk ass back home every time we go out.”

“Hey, I can handle my shit.”

Sarah tilted away from Reggie’s incredulous glare.

“I can learn how to control it,” she said.

His glare didn’t break. “Prove it by not having another drink, tonight.”

Her bottle slammed down when she went to set it aside. Harder than she intended.

“I give you the same challenge then!”

Reggie shrugged, a relaxed air about him. “My sobriety isn’t the one being questioned here, but sure.”

He set his bottle down. He still had only a few drops left.

“I’ll match you,” he said, cool.

She had nothing else to say to that. The only way to win this now was to beat him at this game of his.

There was stress in trying to win, though, and Sarah hadn’t come here to add more on her mind. As far as this night was going, it wasn’t, in a manner of thinking.

But, if she couldn’t even do this, then she’d might as well drink herself under the table now, render herself unable to get up to greet the coming year on her two feet. It would almost be fitting, letting the weight of the past year continue to drag her down. The top of the year introduced the cuts, the middle let those wounds run deeper, even tearing off completely in some parts, and now, if she chose to, Sarah could let herself crumble from growing imbalance. An emptiness she couldn’t find what to fill it with.

She could feel herself wanting to reach out, her hands waiting to brush against something, to grab it and pull it in, close. The bottle was right there.

Breathe in, breathing out was much less easy.

“You guys really know how to keep the party going,” Tone said. As though to taunt them, Sarah especially, he called over his third drink, and guzzled down the length of the bottleneck. He breathed out, satisfied.

“It was his idea,” Sarah said, pointing with both hands to Reggie. She paused, suppressing a burp. “I honestly don’t have a problem that’s worth addressing.”

“Well, if it’s really not a problem, then you’ll have no problem getting through the rest of the night without another drop.”

Reggie said that with a joking kind of inflection.

“You really are just fucking with me, aren’t you?”

Reggie was smiling, now. “Guilty as charged.”

It was Sarah’s turn to glare at him, but she couldn’t help but smile, too, even if it felt dumb.

She still have every intention to beat Reggie at this game. She could control it. Prove it to him, prove it to herself. That she was holding the strings on this.

Wanting to toss in another topic of conversation, Sarah was about to say something, but in a second all sound was stolen from the room.

The whole crowd inside the restaurant shifted, turning in one particular direction. Reggie and Tone did, too. Sarah was almost compelled by a universal force to turn as well. To be pulled as well.

At the front of the restaurant. Two people had come in. All eyes were on them.

One stood out immediately. A little girl with her hands around a box half her size, totally comfortable with where she was right now. Short hair framed her already small face, like the painted head of a doll. Choker around her neck, a heavy bomber jacket a few sizes too big, almost hanging over the hem of her skirt. Black leggings and boots covered her legs and feet.

That girl, Sarah knew. Or she knew of her. Her pranks and antics had sewn chaos among not just the Ghosts, but several other gangs that were within their weight class. Lawrence had made his disdain for her well known, he nearly lost his mind over it.

But, she was here, now. For once, her penchant for panic managed to help and turn things around for Lawrence and the Ghosts. By nearly blowing up East Stephenville into the sky, but it somehow worked out.

She was here, and her reputation was more than twice her height. It preceded her. And everyone was hit by a sudden tenseness that gripped them tight.

Sarah was more curious than anything else.

Lawrence was the one to approach the pair, being able to move while everyone else was frozen stiff. Maybe because he was getting to be on the same wavelength as them, now? He did agree to work with them, and that offer extended to this point in time. They weren’t just Ghosts, now, they were leading the rest. And it wasn’t like anyone could get a say in it.

The three of them were too far to catch anything Lawrence and the girls were saying. Lawrence pointed to the box, and she pushed it into his arms, fluffing up the bow on top. She laughed with little regard to who was watching her. A gap in her teeth.

Lawrence set the box down by the door, out of the way and mostly out of sight. Didn’t seem like it was a set up for a prank on an already suspecting crowd.

They continued conversing, and it soon became clear that they weren’t here to cause trouble, not directly. Everyone else, the normal people, did what they could to settle back to the equilibrium that they had before the pair’s intrusion. They didn’t get it quite right, but they could still find some way to relax.

“So that’s really them,” Reggie said, eyes still on them. “Crazy.”

Sarah’s eyes were still locked on them, too, but they found another target.

The other girl. Taller than D, older, yet less certain of her place, here. And from how she held herself, standing behind D, one arm folded over another, glancing around the rest of restaurant. She looked more like a lost kid than the actual kid who actually looked out of place.

Her hair was cut short. Black, reaching just past her jawline. Skin whiter than… Sarah would have connected it to snow, but it didn’t snow here much. Pale like… a wound that finally healed into a scar. A faint line. An old, faded thing.

Dark clothes, jeans that weren’t super skinny. It was a simple outfit, but it was more wearing her than the other way around. Like she still had to work on being conscious on what her style was going to be, in terms of fashion.

Still, though, she still looked cute.

“Is that…” Sarah started, but she didn’t need to finish. The others caught on.

“I think it is,” Reggie said. “The Bluemoon herself, or V, whichever she goes by now.”

Sarah watched V with even more intensity. The world’s first superhuman, having once been a superhero, was now going to join their gang as a leader? And that was what she looked like under that mask?

She felt her lips dry. She needed something to drink.

“I’m shocked that she can show her face here,” Tone said.

“Why not?” Reggie asked.

Tone brought his voice to a whisper. “She’s the reason the Chariot fell apart and why the Ghosts were struggling for a minute.”

“She’s also the reason why the Ghosts are starting to turn things around, now. Sure, I get it, but do we have a choice? And now that we know what she looks like under that mask, it’ll be harder to walk away. It’s like we signed a death clause the moment we saw her eyes.”

Her eyes. The girl was still blinking, taking everything in. Sarah wondered how she might look in glasses.

“What’s her name?” Sarah asked, still transfixed.

“I… don’t know actually.”

That’s fine. Should be easy to get.

“How old is she? Looks kind of young.”

“Don’t ask me. I think she’s Asian, and I don’t want to make it into a thing where I guess because I’ll just come across as-”

Reggie stopped.

“Sarah? Sarah no.”

She looked from V to Reggie. “What?”

“I know what you’re thinking, and let me be the first to tell you… it would be the worst idea you ever had.”

Sarah put her hands up. “I wasn’t thinking of anything.”

Reggie’s glare didn’t break. It went back to bearing into her.

“That’s our boss, now, Sarah. I’m telling you right now to just stop and set your sights somewhere else.”

She took a more defensive position, situating herself away from the bar. She moved her arms, forming a ‘X.’

“Hey, hey, enough with the presumptions. I was just curious, can I not be curious about our new super overlord?”

“Curiosity was what got you into your last mess,” Reggie said.

Hearing that was like a hit to the stomach. The instinct to grab her drink and finish it came back, hard.

She didn’t, though.

“Don’t bring her up,” Sarah said, a warning tone. “Don’t.”

“Alright, okay,” Reggie said. He slouched a bit, as though it was a gesture, a half-bow. “Just promise me you’ll leave this well alone.”

“I will,” Sarah said, rushed, not really considering her own words. “Gosh, is that how you really see me? I don’t pounce on every girl I come across.”

“That’s obvious, Sarah, I know that. I’m just looking out-”

“Well don’t, okay? Not now. Fuck, this isn’t how I wanted the year to end.”

“Good thing the year ended already.”

Sarah and Reggie both looked at Tone.

He met them with a bored look on his face.

“It’s past midnight. Happy new year.”

They both checked their phones. He was right. How did they lose track of time?

Sarah turned, her eyes somehow found her again.

V was with D and Lawrence, conversing about matters Sarah would never know the particulars of. V looked so… adrift, like she didn’t have a legitimate anchor to hold her down. There were no strings attached to her.

Sarah could feel a compulsion to reach out, her heart beating at the prospect, solidifying harder from a thing to a resolution. A hard pull.

But this time, the strings could be in her hands.

The car parked in front of an apartment. It was running, the engine humming a low tone. No troubles with this one, it was working fine, with a promise to last much longer than that old, broken thing she had before.

Sarah stretched her hands out.

“Thank you,” Wendy said.

“Of course,” Sarah said, like it was part of a routine. But it still came from a genuine place. As genuine as anything else.

She had followed her directions, turning where Wendy had indicated, heading to wherever she wanted. As if she was pulling the strings.

It wasn’t quite like that. It wouldn’t be. Not allowing some give would be too constricting, the balance wouldn’t be right. She had to give room for some slack, some room for things to breathe. Because if she didn’t, any added stress might cause too much tension, too quickly. It might snap.

Wendy asked her to take her to this place. Wendy, in very many senses, was her superior, but Sarah wanted to think that she had this one over her. This string. That she let her pull it.

But, it wouldn’t have gotten this far if that connection wasn’t real, tangible. And, from what Sarah gathered from all the hints and flirts, she wasn’t being pushed away or shut down. She was here, sitting in her newer car.

That had to account for something.

It made her heart race faster than the drive that got them here.

Sarah caught herself taking another look at Wendy. She couldn’t stop herself.

As cute as ever, maybe even more so, if not very fatigued. But that was understandable. She had probably run herself ragged in executing this operation, among other… things. Sarah wasn’t there for the grittier details, she had been allowed to excuse herself.

She did have her involvement, though. Being there, in the crowd, while Lawrence put on his performance, Sarah acting as a spectator. In one sense, she really was one. She was able to watch these three as they worked together, observing from the sidelines as they concocted these plans and games, schemes. Plotting like how mad geniuses or villains would.

It was… funny, even, to see someone like Lawrence in their ranks now.

Lawrence had changed, and Wendy did, too. Or at least, Sarah was able to see the different sides of Wendy. Sides that no one else had gotten to see, maybe even sides of herself that Wendy might not be aware of. But that wasn’t a detraction, Sarah didn’t think any less of her. Rather, the opposite was true. It added to that attraction, the string that connect her to Wendy.

The thread that was becoming more red.

A loose sweater, jeans that had a hole across one knee, but that looked more from actual wear and tear, rather than being bought or made like that.

Wendy had glasses now. It served to make her look even more attractive.

Sarah would have kicked herself for seemingly having a type. But there was a difference, now. She was the older one, the taller one. She was the one with experience.

Sarah had her hands on the wheel. She was the one driving this time.

Sarah watched, entranced, as Wendy cycled through different motions. Fidgeting with her glasses, rubbing her hands and arms, licking and biting her lips. Looking up, looking down. Agitated. Nervous.

“Cold?” Sarah asked.

All Wendy did was nod. It took some time before she could say, “I am, actually.”

“I can fix that for you.”

Sarah fixed that for her, reaching to adjust the knob, and the temperature. It was slight, but the interior of the car heated up.

Wendy seemed to appreciate that. She wasn’t fidgeting as much, not being as anxious in her movements. Her eyes betrayed her, though, as they remained locked on a specific point up ahead, somewhere past the windshield.

There had been a dash of hope, that Wendy was inviting her over to spend the night, but as the drive continued and got farther away from the city, that possibility became less likely. Wendy wouldn’t have lived that far from the gang and the territory. She seemed the type to want to keep everything important close at hand, and distance having to travel meant time that could go to waste.

A small smile formed across Sarah’s lips. She liked that she was even able to venture a guess on Wendy’s thought process.

Setting her hands in her own lap, Sarah tried to follow Wendy’s gaze. Too many apartments, she could narrow it down but it wasn’t exact.

She decided to ask.

“So, where are we?”

Wendy bit her lip. Pink, with a subtle streak of red across the bottom. The contrast colors was made more apparent against how pale her skin was.

Sarah bit her own lip.

She had to wait for an answer. Having gotten closer to Wendy in recent weeks, and being sincere in learning every bit of what made her tick, she was starting to get an understanding of the different tells. The slight crease between her eyebrows when was deep in thought, the rapid blinking when she was put on the spot. She’d heard from Wendy before, how she wanted to be seen as a monster, but having seen those small, rare moments, it just made her so much more human.

Finally, Wendy did answer.

“Do you… remember when I mentioned that I wasn’t a fan of my past self? Who I used to be?”

Sarah answered, “You’ve brought it up, once or twice.”

Wendy rubbed her arms again.

“That’s it. There’s where that past self came from.”

Sarah tried searching through the gloom. It was late, and there were so many apartments it was hard to figure out which one she was indicating, exactly.

“Not sure I follow,” Sarah said. “I thought you got your powers at that barn we visited.”

“No, not that. Here. The apartment there on the left. That’s… that’s where I used to live.”

There, the apartment on the left. Wendy pointed it out and Sarah found it.

“That was the home of Alexis Barnett.”

“Alexis Barnett…”

The name wasn’t a familiar one, sounding foreign as it crossed Sarah’s lips. How it hit her ears, it didn’t make any sense at all. Who was Alexis to Wendy?

“This is where you came from?”

“In a sense,” Wendy said, despondent.

This was obviously a touchy subject, a sore spot, a raw wound that would burn at just the slightest brush of contact. Better avoided, if possible. Sarah wasn’t a stranger to that concept.

She waited some more, until Wendy was better able to approach that wound properly.

Wendy attempted her approach.

“While you and D kept an eye on Lawrence, I had a talk with Natalie Beckham. I tried to find out what she knew about John Cruz, on us, but she was more interested in revealing what she knew about her. Or, me.”

The fracture between those pronouns. That obvious division. It didn’t go over Sarah’s head.

“Natalie knew about this, too? But, hold on, I’m a bit confused on who-”

“Alexis Barnett was, she was an old name, an old self,” Wendy said, stammering through her explanation. “She was Blank Face, but after a time… it was something I knew I needed to get away from, because that wasn’t working. It was too… I can’t find the word.”

“Constricting?” Sarah suggested.

“That works.”

“What was Alexis like?”

“I…”

Wendy was fumbling. Her overall disposition, and as her hands dug into her pockets. She took out her phone, hands shaking as swiped her password, typing on the screen.

“That’s the thing,” Wendy said. “I had done my level best, trying to avoid an answer to that question, but I knew I wouldn’t be happy with anything I’d have to say… but…”

Wendy passed Sarah her phone.

Taking it, squinting as the screen was too bright, Sarah read the words on the screen, the spelling of the name. A short article about the girl.

A picture was attached in the article. She looked just like Wendy, which wasn’t surprising, she supposed. Her hair was longer, though, wearing a smile that was bigger than any she’d seen on Wendy. More often than not, her smiles were reserved ones, belying what she was really feeling on the inside. Which was as alluring to Sarah as it was disappointing, that Wendy couldn’t feel like she could be that open.

Sarah skimmed through the article. It was all news to her. She picked out a few details, how she was a student, that she played in the school’s volleyball team, quotes from her old coach and teachers. Her mother. How Alexis was a cheery girl, sociable, bright and kind to anyone she met.

She sounded so normal.

Sarah set the phone down. She stopped reading before the image in her head could shift and warp any further.

Wendy was the real one to her. It was her, that Sarah’s strings were attracted to. Wanting and working to be attached to.

“Now everyone can know,” Wendy said, voice cracking.

“This was just published?” Sarah asked.

“Right before Natalie… It was her final move. Her way of trying to put me in checkmate. Didn’t work.”

“I didn’t see any mentions of Blank Face or V or the Fangs. Just, um, Alexis.”

“Yeah. She knew all of that but she kept it out of the story. But I don’t know why. She refused to give that up.”

“No,” Wendy added, shaking her head. “She mentioned why. She was setting up for something, and it didn’t require her being here to set it off.”

“You sure about that? I only scanned it, but I didn’t see any mention of Blank Face in the story. From the looks of it, this is probably going to be forgotten in a week. The news cycle moves fast. Too fast, sometimes.”

“I’m certain of it,” Wendy said. “She was willing to die to put this out, before anything else. We might have taken them out as an immediate threat, but I don’t think this is the last time we’ll hear of their movements.”

“If you say so.”

She wasn’t going to question that line of thinking. That was Wendy’s job, to consider all those options, when enemies were everywhere, in the light and in the shadows.

But, that kind of thinking could break a person, the stress of it all weighing to heavy on the mind. Sarah worried.

“But what brings you here? What’s brought you back?”

There was a long pause from Wendy.

“I don’t know,” Wendy said. “It felt like I had to see it for myself, again. When she brought it up, it all came crashing into my head, like rush of water I was trying to hold back. Dammit. She asked me if all of this was worth it. I spend so much effort to make my own name and she keeps finding some way to intrude. Over and over. Fuck!”

Wendy put her hands into her face, rubbing her eyes. She had to adjust her glasses when she finished.

Sarah got it. She totally did.

“You came back, to see if you could walk away from it, still resolute. If you’ve grown from this place. I get it.”

Closure, Sarah thought.

“Part of growing up is being able to come back, right?”

The last time she tried that. Going home and taking Celeste with her. That terrible, terrible dinner. The first of the cuts that began to run deep, enough to snap a string into two.The worst Thanksgiving break of her life.

“It is,” Sarah said. “But you don’t have to force it. Everyone has their own pace. Rushing it can… it can lead to a mess.”

Holes you can’t fill.

“Maybe. You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m so tired.”

“Remember what Lawrence said? You don’t have to apologize.”

Wendy just kept shaking her head.

“You always know what to say, Sarah.”

Brief, but Sarah reminisced on another, earlier time.

“You have to hear it first before you can repeat it to someone else. Live it.”

“Could… I ask you another favor?”

“Anything,” Sarah said, meaning it.

“Could you just knock on the door? I want to see who answers.”

“You want me to do what? It’s pretty late.”

Wendy sighed, sounding jittery.

“You’re right, shouldn’t have mentioned it. I-”

“I mean, I can,” Sarah said, unbuckling her seatbelt, hand on the door. “Can’t promise if anyone will show up.”

“That’s fine, I just want to see.”

“Should I say anything?”

“You don’t have to.”

Sarah considered it. Didn’t take her long.

Keeping the key in the ignition to keep the car warm, Sarah got out of the car.

The walk was quick but uncertain. She couldn’t shake off the feeling that she was out of place. Because she was. But it was a feeling she’d have to fight.

She had the apartment in mind as she went up the stairs, able to find it when she reached the top level. She was sure this was it.

Quick but uncertain. She had to do this for her. She had to put some slack in again. To let the hook sink in.

Sarah knocked.

The wait was long. No surprise, it was late.

Sarah could sense where her car was parked, behind her. Wendy sitting inside. The pull of a string.

The lock tumbling out, first. The creaking of the door. Louder as the noise echoed into the night sky.

A woman stood before Sarah.

Short, shorter than Wendy. Uncanny. Disturbing, somehow, almost like seeing a vision of her, many years later. After all the stress and heaviness of life began to take its toll, leaving a broken constitution that no power could really keep up forever. For all her strength, that only meant that Wendy was pushing herself more than anyone should ask of themselves. Her body might be super, but her mind and spirit was human. It would have to be.

The woman’s shoulders were inward, her posture shrunk in, her hair long and disheveled, eyes red and baggy, carrying tears that had to have been wiped away just before the door was open. A bundle of blankets were draped over her, making her look even smaller.

There was still a beauty to her. It had to have been gotten from somewhere.

Sarah knew that pain. Deep, almost naked in its intimacy. She knew who this woman was.

Blinking, slow, laborious, the woman raised her head to look at Sarah.

Sarah had already considered her words. What she’d do.

It was what she should have done, that day.

Sarah took a step back, at an angle from the doorframe. So she wouldn’t be blocking the woman from being seen from outside.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Sarah said, having to play another part tonight. “Looks like I got lost, I’ll find my own way.”

The woman didn’t reply, probably still discombobulated from having been roused out of bed at an ungodly hour.

Sarah kept the act going, already backing up some more.

“I’ll leave you alone, have a good night.”

She lingered a second longer than she needed to, just so the woman could linger at the door a second longer.

This was the home she left behind. And that was what happened to it in her absence.

Sarah understood that.

Then, Sarah left. Slow, but certain, she went back to her car. The apartment door and the car door closed at about the same time.

Sarah returned to a different scene. A different side of Wendy.

Her face was buried in her hands. Body trembling, shoulders sinking in, folding into her emotions that were now rushing forward, overpowering her.

She was weeping. Maybe it wasn’t born from regret, but rather acceptance of a loss she felt she needed. A wound she was finally tending to.

Letting it out.

Sarah understood that, too. She wished she could have had that at a much earlier time in her life.

But, now, all she could take back was control.

Broken people, doing broken things to try and fix themselves. Jagged edges that rub against each other, as if they could smooth it all over. They’d try, they’d hope.

Like a strings reaching to finally tie them together, Sarah threaded her fingers around Wendy’s, lifting them up.

Gently, Sarah moved them away from her face. She leaned over, her lips brushing barely past hers.

Then she pulled, ever so slightly, until Wendy was pressed into her.

Light, enough to make one faint.

Wendy trembled again, but it was different, a more shocked reaction. This was fine. Sarah knew how to work with that. Sarah moved her hands so she could remove Wendy’s glasses. Tossed somewhere, she already forgot.

Soft touches passed like moments, momentary. They stole Wendy’s breath, letting Sarah get a better hold on how things were to go, on Wendy herself.

Tongue, a barely felt nibble. Lessons exchanged.

Sarah’s hands moved elsewhere, lower, over fabric. She was sensitive. She knew how to hold it in her hands. It had been a lesson exchanged, once before.

Wendy arched her back, surprising herself that she could even react like that. Sarah was craving for moments like that. She was wanting for something to drink.

Needed more.

They shifted, a little clumsy from the lack of space. Sarah managed to fit her knee between Wendy’s legs. Placing it there, firm, insistent, intent to teach.

Like a connection that was getting stronger, Sarah felt Wendy angle her hips.

A part of her was already satisfied. Everything she wanted, what she thought she needed. To be the one in this position, this time. To be able to lead, to have the strings and pull. To play.

A much larger part of was thirsty for much more.

Wendy continued moving her hips, Sarah kept her leg in place for her. The car didn’t cough, hiccup, burp, sputter. The sound that filled inside was a delicate moan, that Sarah promptly stole from Wendy with another kiss.

A moment was coming. No. Not here, it wasn’t enough. Not yet.

Sarah pulled back, and smiled as Wendy leaned forward, still wanting for more. Her tears had already dried. A trace of salt graced Sarah’s lips as she then licked hers.

Her fingers traveled down Wendy’s arms, to her hands and fingers, leading them down between her legs. She drew the letter ‘O.’

Wendy shuddered as she tried to make sense of everything. Everything.

“I don’t… I don’t know…”

Sarah stole that, too, taking her breath with yet another kiss.

“It’s okay,” she replied. “Let me lead the way.”

With just a nod, Wendy let her.

Then, by a thread, Sarah led the way.

Previous                                                                                               Next

086 – Dead End

Previous                                                                                               Next

This was him. Styx. I was face to face with the man who was connected to the Solace conspiracy, how Benny fit into all of that, and Mister.

He had been active in trying to take Blank Face out, and had a hand in Hleuco’s disappearance. That, I would never be able to forget.

And yet he was also the man who pulled strings to get us into the Lunar Tower, giving us a direct line to Granon in order to stop his group

Styx, Solace, Mister. The girl at the center of it all. Not everything from the list was checked off

How was this possible, how was this happening? How did Benny manage to find me, and find me here, of all places, when I wasn’t able to get to her? Was she doing this as a part of Solace? Another one of those ‘games’ like from before

I thought about what I had in mind. Start by going back to Braham Barn, looking for anything I missed. If I had to tear the thing down, plank by plank, literally, then that was what I had to do. I probably owed Gomez another conversation, even though I intended to retire the Blank Face shtick. See where he stood, what else was left to do in that regard. If Solace had somehow dissolved into a non-issue, I needed to know for sure. If not

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

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

And what was I, in all of this? The antivirus? Then, what was Solace, a developed resistance

The names Solace said…

Edgar Brown… Linda Day…

Thomas Thompson

Solace was Benny.

She had to be

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

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.

I blinked away tears, feeling water seep into my mask. Stinging. Hurting.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. But, I really couldn’t believe much of anything, anymore.

This man, Remus, Victor… he was Solace this whole time.

Him. That man over there. Him.

Shaking, trembling, I tried for a motion of my volition and I couldn’t.

Couldn’t swallow, couldn’t breathe. I was reduced to the very concept of struggling.

So many memories and connections were hitting me, all at once. Moments, flashes and glimpses of another life. Small, brief pieces of a larger picture, but they came at me as surge, overwhelming me. I was losing myself to the sheer amount and intensity of the torrent of emotions, drowning in it. That I was becoming undone, my very self being washed away, with another self being exhumed. Another, older mask.

I am Wendy, I am V. Me. My name is my name. Me. Wendy. I. Me.

It took all I had, all that I had left, to keep myself together.

I fought against the struggling, pushing back, standing my ground. I wouldn’t let myself unravel because of this, I wouldn’t let it be so easy.

I moved my hands, putting them up to my head. It was almost a natural instinct to just start wailing, letting everything out until my body had become a hollow husk. Skin, ready to be worn by another creature.

As if I was bottling up the bubbling, frenzied emotion, my hands clenched into fists, pulling at my hood. My legs drew towards my body, knees close to my chest. My jaw was set, hard, teeth clattering so hard they were cracking and aligning themselves back into place.

Barely restrained words were thrust between my teeth.

“You’re… lying. Shut up. That isn’t him, that isn’t Solace.”

I got an answer before I could steel myself for one.

“Why don’t you ask the man himself?”

Thrown back at me, forced to confront the issue myself. To face my demon that had haunted me… us. He was in the flesh. He was right there.

My hands went to my face, over my eyes. I peeked between the gap between my fingers. Fear was what had me moving in increments, sad, pathetic twitches.

One look was all I needed.

He was had that expression, that grin that now made me sick to my stomach. His lips were curled upward, more towards a sneer, with enough teeth showing to make it all the more biting. His hands were up, over his head, but still managed to come off as relaxed. When he was just as much a captive as I was, or the rest of the passengers, he was sitting, legs crossed, hunched over, next to no tension being displayed in his posture. He was fine.

He was Solace.

“You look like you have your answer right there,” Solace said. His grin grew wider.

It didn’t make me feel any better.

My body started to rock, and it took a while before I realized that it wasn’t me.

Sarah. She was still holding me, tighter than before, wrapping me deeper into her embrace. It was warm, comforting in a way that I couldn’t properly articulate or even understand. But it was useless to even try. Pointless. I didn’t even want to get it.

She shifted her grip, so her hands were resting against mine, fingers interlocking between the gaps I was peeking through. I felt her squeeze, pulling a bit, easing up where there was some resistance. Pulling again when there was more pull to be found. Inch by inch.

It took some doing, but Sarah was able to get me to move my hands away from my face, pulling them down and away, until they were in my placed into my lap. Settling them there, she locked her fingers again with mine, firm. I couldn’t move them unless I applied strength that I couldn’t find, not internally.

It was still bad, and it wasn’t really any better, but I wasn’t worse. I could feel my breathing ease up, and the shaking and trembling not as painful.

I was still in that state of being, just… lesser. Just enough for me to come to grips with everything. Myself.

It was like cold water to the face.

I shifted around, extending my arms and legs, taking back control of my body, as much as I was able, at least. Sarah relented, letting me go.

Leaning forward, I got myself into an upright position, leaning more so I didn’t have to rely on Sarah.

I was sitting, now, in the dirt. Slouching, but I was being supported by my own body. My own power. I was very aware of the others that were around us that had been watching, maybe even judging. Alessa, her animals, my passengers, Sarah, Tone, Isabella… him, but I didn’t really care. Well, a tiny, shriveled up part of me did, but it wasn’t like I had the will to act on it. Not really.

Still bad, not really better, but not worse.

I lifted my head, heavy, and I made eye contact with Solace again. His expression remained. So did mine.

You.

“It… really is you,” I said, sounding hoarse.

“Was it ever going to be anyone else at this point? I wouldn’t say I believe in destiny, but I do think there are reasons for why things come to be. Like this, like now.”

“And what are those reasons?” I asked.

Solace glanced at Alessa.

“Not sure if it’s within my ability to say more, right now. My arms are getting tired, by the way.”

He still had his arms up.

Alessa crossed hers, glaring at Solace.

“Good. Keep them there, I don’t care how tired you get.”

Solace frowned. “Can’t keep them there forever.”

“Then my men will shoot you the second your hands get lower than your head.”

“Harsh.”

This… was all so wrong. Solace was here, the remaining minutes of his life determined by how long he could maintain that pose, but he didn’t appear stressed in the slightest. Alessa even seemed somewhat spirtless in how she was handling this situation, despite her threat of death, and despite the amount of damage Solace and I had brought onto this town-

Oh fuck, fuck me.

Solace and I worked together. He was the one to help me, when I needed it most.

The realization of that was like a punch to the stomach, making it harder to keep bottled emotions down. I was so ready to explode.

Kill him, kill him.

“I…” I started. I noted everyone’s gaze fall back on me.

“I don’t understand, any of this.”

I admitted it for a third time.

But, after hearing myself say it out loud, in three different instances… it was almost liberating. That I was no longer beholden to standards that were constantly being raised and escalated, and that, for this one moment, I didn’t have to keep trying to stay one step ahead of everyone, I didn’t even have to catch up. I was already behind, I had already lost.

Though, I didn’t give up, getting here. I fought, I tried, but I still ended up here. Despite my best efforts, given the circumstances, I had come up short. El Paso was still so far away.

So now, I was done, maybe even done for. What next?

I could laugh.

“If it’s any consolation to you, Bluemoon, I’m a bit lost as well,” Alessa said. “I’m not fond of uninvited guests, especially when they come in and begin to make a mess of things. It’s just rude.”

“Oh yeah? But I prefer being the uninvited guest. Makes things interesting. Especially if I bring gifts.”

Alessa turned back to Solace.

“This place is a home for many, and it’s also a place for prayer. This is sacred ground, Vic.”

Solace scoffed, “Oh, fuck off with the act, Alma. You don’t have to play it up because you have other guests around. It’s me. Cut the crap.”

“It’s my town, my circle, and you are within its influence. You, too, will abide by the rules I have set, or would you like your sacrifice to come early?”

Solace shrugged, grunting as he did so.

“You, agh, haven’t given me much time to abide by those rules, anyway.”

He wagged a finger, hands still above his head.

“Harsh,” he said again.

I caught a passing glance from Alessa. She grinned.

I could vomit.

I threw up something else, instead.

“How do you two know each other?”

The question came out of me like a reflex. Getting info like an addiction, a thirst that needed to be quenched. It couldn’t be helped.

Then, it was Alessa’s and Solace’s turned to share a look, seconds passing, and then some, as if one was waiting for the other to provide the answer. It was such a small moment, but I had never felt so disconnected, so out of the loop, than in those extra seconds. I had never felt so consciously other.

Alessa was the one to speak, because of course. She was the only with any real power, here.

“I don’t know Victor, really. It’s more accurate to say that I’m familiar with his work. I used to hold some territory in Stephenville. An expansive section on the south side. But that was years ago, well over a decade by now. Wow, time flies.”

“It does,” Solace said, interjecting. “Inez is still holding things up pretty well. But I’m not surprised about that anymore.”

“As am I. We keep in touch.”

“That’s good to hear.”

Stop it stop it stop it.

More memories and connections were leaking in, drip-fed between cracks in broken pipes. Fuzzy television screens, distorted voices. Proxies, coded language and doublethink. Solace had been built up to be a very specific entity in my head, in her head. Always at distance to taunt, provoke, then slip back into the shadows, staying right out of our grasp. No matter our efforts, we couldn’t catch him. Solace had ceased activities, but only because he chose to stop, it seemed like.

But now, in broad daylight, the man himself was present, sitting there before me, captured as well. Nowhere to run or hide.

And there was nothing I could do about it.

Putting a face to the name, and even a voice, it further distorted the image I had of Solace. Now he was a person, talking with others, having worked with me, he was familiar.

I felt more ill.

Options. Did I have any? Not really. I was down, in every sense, and if I tried to get back up I’d just get shot back down. It wouldn’t even be hard for them. And it wasn’t just me. Sarah, Tone, Isabella, the rest… they were here, too, and they weren’t any better off. The threat wasn’t implicit, I knew what would happen if I, or anyone, tried anything. There was no clean way of getting out of this. I had failed in my end of the deal, in saving them.

Nothing I could do now.

“How would you have known that he was Solace?”

I asked another question. Grasping for straws, gasping for air.

“For a captive, you are awfully chatty,” Alessa said. “Like I mentioned, I’ve kept an ear to the streets in Stephenville, and I’m familiar with this man’s work. Well, his work and Styx’s. Build up a framework, and then use it as a playground. Like the web of a spider, feasting on whoever gets trapped in its bindings. And it seems like you were but another bug, Bluemoon.”

“Please, Alma, you’re more than familiar, you’ve practically lifted my framework wholesale for this place. I will say that I’m impressed by the implementation, not so much the… execution, to put a word to it.”

“I thought Mister was supposed to be the metaphorical spider,” I said. I thought back to how Benny explained things to me. Another memory, but at least that one was mine.

Solace faced me. “It’s the general idea she was going for. Metaphors can be tricky like that.”

My eye caught a twitch in the corner of his lip, and I could guess what direction it would curl. I blinked, timing it so I wouldn’t have to see that expression again. I kept my eyes closed for an extra second, just to be sure.

“If we want to make it trickier, you could say that I’m in the business of selling webs to spiders.”

I blinked again.

It wasn’t exactly a secret that Styx had a hand in how Stephenville’s underground developed. Styx’s gang was one of the oldest, able to take advantage of the groups and cartels that started coming in after the failed manufacturing boom left behind a gutted industry and plenty of empty factories, warehouses, and the accompanying equipment, having a say in who got what and where they’d set up shop, setting in the place the systems that would shape the city into what it was today. At least, that was the story Hleuco, D, and Benny gave me, the commonly known beginnings of Mister’s criminal empire.

What was kept secret, then, was that he had help. Or at least, he was working from someone else’s notes.

And Alessa used those same notes to make Fuckington.

I was beginning to understand, but I didn’t like what was coming together.

“But that doesn’t-” I started.

“Enough.”

All eyes were back on Alessa.

“This might be the time, but this isn’t the place for questioning. I’ve got people to move and buildings to inspect. Can’t sit out here forever.”

She gestured, and the animals moved, the circle breaking a bit to prod us along, as if we were the cattle.

I sensed movement, watching as the people around me were forced into smaller, tighter groups. I saw Sarah pass, pushed into a separate group from Tone, Isabella separated from everyone else. I heard the panicked and hushed whispers, glimmers going out one by one as people realized they were being shuffled around again. Going through the same song and dance, their lives in the hands of others. Another gamble.

I was still on the ground, so was Solace. They hadn’t touched us yet.

Please,” I said, pleading, noticing just how frail I sounded, “Leave these people alone, let them leave. You can take him… me, if you really want to, but they need to go to-”

Alessa cut me off.

“El Paso, right? You don’t think I haven’t caught on to that? It’s all anyone wants to say to me. El Paso this, El Paso that, ‘please let us go I want to see my family again.’ Are you transporting people or broken records?”

Solace let out a dry laugh. My emotions bubbled again.

Alessa looked over the animals at her side. The horsemen. She tilted her head, and they got moving. To us.

“Don’t you worry. I have something planned you, him. Everyone. It might even work in your favor.”

A horseman went around me, to my back, and I felt hands on the back of my jacket. He pulled up, and I got to my feet. I could have thrown him off like getting dust off my shoulder, but it wasn’t just my life at stake, here. There were up to a hundred others, the real headcount just shy of that number, probably.

I thought of Olivia and her family.

Another horseman went over to Solace, grabbing him.

“Tie his hands together,” Alessa instructed, “His arms stay over his head.”

Solace grinned, and I saw it, but I noticed some strain in his expression.

“Harsh as ever,” he said.

The horsemen pushed us forward, so we were right in front of Alessa. She gave us hard, threatening looks before turning around and walking.

One more push, and we had to follow. People were being sent in direction differents, and it didn’t take long more me to notice that we were being led away from everyone else.

“What is this, where are you taking us?”

Alessa answered. “I can’t exactly have this proceeding go on like this, out in the open, we’ll have to move this to a more appropriate forum.”

“I don’t… What do you mean?”

Alessa raised her head, half-turning to look at me. She… grinned.

“We will gather a congregation, and we will gather at the facts as they are presented, and from there, we will lay out a sentence. Long, or short. Today is judgement day.”

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

I was still up. I was still doing this.

I could hardly recall that last few minutes leading up to being here. Stuffed into vehicles, the sunlight being cut by the roof over my head, and then I went dark. It wasn’t until natural light broke past my eyelids, and heavy hands shoved without care or cautious, stirring me awake and alert.

I had shaken myself up, scatterbrained and rattled at the sudden movements. I could recall jitters and twitches, but that was from me, and I was still exhibiting them now.

It was cold.

Taking a quick look around, it looked like I had been taken into the middle of an arena, at the bottom of a pit with others watching from above. From humans to horses to pigs to wolves and vultures. There were several levels to it, rings of eyes staring down at me.

I looked away.

More eyes here, too, on the ground level. But, I wasn’t exactly in a position to avoid these gazes.

Alessa was facing us, a distance away, with her usual horsemen by her side. She stood, robes flowing, hood raised, imposing in her presence, not so much watching as she was overseeing. It seemed like she had modes, going from a cartel leader she really was, to the cult leader she was trying to come off as.

She was in the latter mode, for this part.

Alessa spread her arms, wide, addressing everyone here, in this expansive space.

“Wise ones, I have gathered you all today to the town hall for this congregation, because, in our presence, we have two transgressors who have tried to lay waste to our bountiful and holy land. Their breach into our borders has caused near irreparable damage to our property, and more egregiously, has harmed others from our congregation. This cannot stand.”

The gathered congregation cheered, the voices amplified by the acoustics of the room, bouncing and making it stack and echo. The noise was ringing in my ear, disorienting me even more.

I wanted to throw my own voice into the mix, to scream that it was because of them, that we were here. But, my throat was burning, my will was weak, and my hands were tied. I was well aware of the heavy piece that pressed against my lower back. Enough to tear me to shreds.

Maybe I could push him off and make a run for it, but what good would that do? I was surrounded, and stuck in the middle of a foreign, almost alien town. There was nothing holy about this place. I wouldn’t make it three steps before I’d find myself in a worse position than this, or dead. And even if I survived to make the fourth step, I might not make it, anyways. Not me, not V.

I stayed still.

Alessa raised her arms higher, hands open, then closed, and silence took over. The last bit of sound echoed out, before fading away.

“Bring the sinners forward,” she commanded.

The gun dug into the small of my back, jabbing me. I winced, but I took a step, then another as the force from behind kept pushing.

I saw something come up from my right, the corner of my vision. I turned to look, letting whoever was handling me guide me forward.

It was Solace.

Being guided by animals as well, shoved to get closer to Alessa. His hands were also tied, but they were resting on the top of his head, still forced to maintain that position. He was staggering, and he would have fallen over if there wasn’t three wolves making sure that he didn’t. I’d imagine the same amount of security was placed on me, or more, most likely.

One of the wolves reached out and grabbed Solace’s shoulder, firm, stopping him in place. After another jab from behind, I was in step with him, too.

Another wolf had a gun to his head. It was just a pistol. I could sense that they had something much heavier for me.

Ha. Being pinned by a canine. The imagery wasn’t lost on me.

When we were in place, Alessa dropped her arms to her side, and looked at us directly. When she spoke, she spoke for us.

“This proceeding will be a simple one. I will ask the questions, and you will answer with the truth as you know it. From there, I will determine your sentence, whether it be a long or short one. My congregates above may provide their own input, but my word is final. I’ll try to make this quick, since I have other business to attend to, no thanks to you two.”

“It was my pleasure,” Solace said.

“Yes,” Alessa said. She held onto that last word for so long it somehow rang out as menacing. “It would be in your favor to abide by these standards, do you understand?”

“Of course,” Solace said. I blinked and looked at Alessa.

“I do,” I said, meaning it. For this one moment, I understood completely.

I was fucked.

If the previous conversation between Alessa and Solace was anything to go by, they were already familiar with each other. Alessa would have little reason to throw Solace under the bus in exchange for me, the only active person with powers on the planet. If anything, they’d conspire to take me out. It was Solace’s plan from the beginning, why wouldn’t he jump at another chance to accomplish that?

The chance that I would leave this town alive… they weren’t in my favor at all.

I understood that, now.

Alessa spoke, having taken in our responses. “Smart. Now, oh, before I begin, I’m not sure about you, Bluemoon, but I won’t take any chances with him around.”

“It’s not like I can do much now,” Solace said. “You got me with my pants down, fair and square. I’m completely vulnerable.”

“And thank you for that mental image,” Alessa replied. “But, no. As much as I’d like for this to conclude already, I won’t let myself slip up. Right now I’m wired up, on a call with others of my group with the rest of yours.”

Alessa pointed to me, then continued her explanation. “With just one word, or if our line to each other gets disconnected, they open fire, and the proceeding ends, just like that.”

She snapped her fingers at that last word, punctuating them.

“And we will go see what remains of them, together.”

Dry vocal cords scraped against each other. It hurt.

I nodded, slow.

Alessa took her time with her next move. She drew out the moment, and the anticipation pushed me closer to the edge than her animals ever did.

“Again,” Alessa said, the one word sounding like a warning. “I’d rather not play this safe. Just to make sure you understand my words.”

She lifted a hand, and snapped her fingers again. More movement.

They came around from behind her. A wide corridor on the other side.

Horses, pigs, and goats. It was like a reverse herd. The animals leading the people.

Sarah and Tone… and Isabella.

They were being sent into the rotunda, the courtroom, but they instructed to stand at the sidelines. Not at the center like me or Solace. They were being made to witness.

“This is how you’ll know I’m serious, Bluemoon. It didn’t take me long to figure out that these two are a core part of your team, and this operation. Let me make this incredibly clear. You try anything, and I get more dolls to hang outside for the rain.”

My gaze was stuck them the whole time Alessa talked, her voice in the distance. Sarah. I hadn’t noticed how disheveled her appearance was before, her clothes dirty and wrinkled, having been pushed around for the better part of the day. Her hair was a mess, parts of it covering her face, making it hard for me to see her whole face, but I didn’t miss that scowl. So bad, did I want to run over to her and fix her hair, be close to her. Tone, from a glance, had gone through a worse hell, with the nicks and cuts, and one going from the forehead to the the temple, dried blood caked and smeared down his face. His hands were placed in front of him, his expression stoic. I couldn’t gauge it from where I was, but it looked as if one eye could be swollen, too. Would he even be able to drive?

Isabella, though, hadn’t been touched. That was a relief to see. Staring daggers at Alessa and Solace, playing with her hair.

Tone, Sarah, and Isabella. Their lives were being dangled in front of me, yet again.

“Don’t… touch them,” I said, through gritted teeth.

“Don’t give me a reason to.”

Fuck this, and fuck Alessa. She had effectively gutted me, then pulled me at my arms and legs until I was split, torn down the middle. Here, in this moment, I was powerless.

Fuck me.

Then, Alessa brought her arms up and together, clasping them. The sleeves of her robes flowed with the motions.

“Now, let us begin,” she said. Above, the animals roared again.

Fucking finally, I thought. I didn’t know that I’d be so ready for the end to come. And now, it was near.

As easy as it was for them to get riled up, Alessa was able to cut them off with another motion, her arms spread.

“Victor,” Alessa said, turning to the person in question. “Or Solace, as better known to the opposing party. I know of you, but the congregation does not. Please explain your position and the accompanying duties.”

Solace tried to straighten himself, but the awkward position he was forced into, and the heavy hand that held him made that attempt futile. He settled for a slouch.

“Well, if you want to be accurate, I don’t have much of a position now. I’m retired. Though, I suppose creatives can’t keep themselves out of the game for long.”

He made a face like he thought what he said was funny.

“Okay. Second question. Why-”

“That’s it?”

Hundreds of pairs of eyes fell on me.

If I could move, I would have kicked myself for interrupting. But I knew that this was a game of sorts, and I’d have to play in order to win. Alessa didn’t say this was against the rules, though.

Silence for several more seconds. Was Alessa letting it be my turn?

I had to take it.

“He didn’t even answer the question properly,” I said, explaining myself.

“I will get the final say in what is ‘proper,’” Alessa answered. “I gave my question, he chose to answer it in that way. That is how he decided to represent himself in this proceeding. Unless he would like to elaborate?”

“I’m quite satisfied by my answer,” Solace said.

“There. That was two questions, so I’d like to direct things to you, Bluemoon.”

From bubbling up to boiling. My blood burned.

Dammit. Solace was treating this as a game, too. He knew I couldn’t help but get any details out of him, now that we were physically in the same room. Playing it so I wouldn’t pick up anything. And with how Alessa was conducting this hearing, it didn’t leave me with much of an advantage. It was probably intentional. To screw me over.

Even now, when he was right there, he still found a way to stay out of my reach.

Fuck this, fuck Alessa, and fuck Solace, now, too.

Teeth clattered and cracked.

“The first question will be of a similar vein. Please provide me and the congregation a better picture of who you are, and your position.”

No choice. Had to play this one straight.

I answered.

“I am V, publically known as the Bluemoon, but at that time, I was actually operating under the name Blank Face.”

It sucked, that I had to attach those names as being a part of me, in order to properly answer the question. It wasn’t exactly the truth as I knew it.

I continued.

“Now, though, I’m a leader of Los Colmillos, or the Fangs, a reformed splinter group of El Carruaje. The Chariot. If it wasn’t obvious by now, we’re based in Stephenville.”

I felt that there was more I could have delved into, elaborated on, but anyone could just read a recent headline for that. It was the other stuff, the specifics on what I was, that I was still in the dark on. Information I didn’t have…

Information I was putting off.

A distraction.

I bit my tongue.

“Second question. Why have you come here?”

“I wasn’t my intention to come here. I was on another job, overseeing a transport to El Paso. One hundred and three people. Due to a… complication, earlier in the day, I had gotten split up from the transport. I… tracked a signal, and it lead us here. And then you and your cult attacked us. And here we are. If it was up to me, I would have never known about this town and its stupid name.”

Alessa visibly reacted, like I had slapped her in the face. If I really did, her head would be sent clean off its body.

She directed herself back to Solace, instead.

“Third question, which was originally going to be my second. I think I can venture a guess, but I would like to hear it from your mouth. Why did Styx send you here?”

Styx. He did have a hand in this.

At least it was a question I would have asked, myself. The real question was if Solace was going to answer it properly.

“Bringing him into this? Alright, I’ll play ball. I was getting ready to leave Stephenville, it’s easier to keep your head down in a country where the authorities aren’t actively hunting for you, after all. I was commissioned, did my job to the best of my ability, achieved satisfactory results, and it was time for me leave. But, before I would leave the country, Styx asked me one last favor. To pay you a visit. Oh, and he did say hi, by the way. Before I forget for good.”

“Elaborate.”

Not a question, but a command.

“Styx has been keeping an eye on you and your commune for some time. You may be a separate element, but things have a funny way of spiraling out of control, sometimes. A new paradigm shift is coming to Stephenville, and Styx wanted to see to it that you aren’t a part of that, remaining separate.”

Alessa glared.

“And apparently, that involved attempting to crush me and my people under my own building. You would have been better off leaving me alone. Now I’m tempted to retaliate in some way.”

Solace’s arms were raised over his head, but he shrugged.

“The plan was admittedly slapped together, suggested on a whim. Styx finally found a way to send me off with a bang. He always wanted to.”

I didn’t like how Solace looked at me as he said that.

“Two birds, one bomb and a malfunctioning boiler room. I had all the pieces, all I needed was a way to put it together. Program a application that sends out a rather enticing signal, lure you out to my location, and have your congregation take back the truck you find at those coordinates.”

Solace grinned. I winced.

He was trying to get me killed too, to die under the crumbling mess hall, except the building didn’t quite fall apart, and people managed to evacuate, save some who got injured or shot during my assault.

But, that was why Remus was so vague on the details of the plan, why he wanted me out of the boiling room and into that fire. He was trying to cast me into it. Because he was Solace, and that was his goal ever since he introduced himself at that party, all those months ago. It hadn’t changed.

And I helped him in that.

More and more boil.

Alessa spoke to that.

“You failed, Victor. Now I’m tempted to go back to Stephenville for more than just to visit family. My next, and then my final question. What’s happening in the city that Styx doesn’t want me to be a part of? And why did you do such a terrible job in trying to kill me? It’s not fair to me, nor is it fair to Styx.”

Solace did that half-shrug again, and with how silent he was in the minute that followed, I was afraid that would be all that he’d offer.

Then, he grinned and offered more.

“Styx asked me to play it loose, to be free for one, final time. He’d work with whatever the outcome was, here. If it all went well, or if it all went wrong. He was ready to push.”

“You didn’t answer the other question,” I said.

“I’m sure you’ll find out soon enough,” Solace said. “You won’t need me to answer that.”

Damn him.

I tried to speak, but I coughed instead. “So, this all was just a big joke?”

“Setup for the punchline,” Solace said.

That must have pissed off the congregation, too, because they erupted again. Howling and squealing. Clamoring for his death. On the inside, I was right there with them.

“Enough!”

Back to silence. Like flipping a switch.

Alessa took back control of the room.

“I’ve heard enough. V, you asked a question of your own, so I will count that as you forfeiting your turn. The proceeding has concluded.”

What.

No, no way.

“Hey,” I started. I felt resistance, someone holding me back. “That’s not fair, you can’t just change the rules and-”

Alessa threw her hand up to my face, her middle finger and thumbs touching. Ready to snap.

I didn’t say another word.

Alessa brought her hand back down, relaxing. She pulled back.

“It’s now time for the sentencing hearing. I’ve heard everything, and taking circumstances into consideration. There are only two possible sentences. Long, or short. Exile, or death.”

The congregation cheered again. But they knew to stop before Alessa spoke again. They were already intune with her timing.

This was it, the verdict. Alessa and Solace were both playing this game against me, cutting off questions and accepting half-answers. I was never going to be able to explain myself, or argue to let us go. They were out to kill me from the start.

Alessa opened her mouth, and I was sweating through my mask. I realized that I still had it on.

Her voice echoed throughout the rotunda.

“For the Bluemoon, the sentence is exile. And for Solace, the sentence is death.”

People moved, animals cheered, and I was somewhere else entirely. My headspace.

Sounds and images faded and murky shapes swam over my eyes, distorted voices stuffed my ears, until I was in a daze, confused. So… so tired.

Stunned.

When those sounds and images crystallized again, my brain catching back up, I saw myself standing over a man. Solace, down on his knees, hands tied together over his head. As for my hands, they were untied, but a heavy piece sat in my palms.

Still in the rotunda, still in town hall, the ‘courtroom.’

Still up, still doing this. Still alive.

So dizzy.

“Do you understand?”

“I… don’t,” I admitted.

Minutes passed, and it was quiet yet again.

Alma repeated herself, the sound crystal clear.

“Your sentence is to be exiled, to leave this place and never come back again. His is death, by execution. I have decided to offer you and everyone you are responsible for a guaranteed, safe passage out of my town, on the account that you play the role as the executioner.”

“Creatives do love to talk about their process,” the man said. Solace.

“We do.”

The heavy piece. A sizable handgun. Alessa wanted me to kill him.

Crystal clear, but I didn’t like picture given to me.

“I…”

I didn’t know what to say, was there anything I could say?

“What’s wrong, Blueballs? You’ve caused so much destruction and pain to so many people, but you hesitate to take a life?”

Solace was on his knees, sentenced to die, and he was taunting me.

“I didn’t know a monster like you operated on the morality of humans.”

I breathed.

“No… it’s not like that. It’s not…”

“Like what? What?”

The question repeated in my head. Like what? It was through terrible and ugly circumstances, but one of the things I wanted for so long, was to have Solace in my grasp, to have the chance to get back at him for everything he had done. It was because of Solace, that her life was sent into further turmoil, it was because of Solace that Thomas died. It was because of Solace, using Benny and her resources to push her so far back into a corner, that she’d snap and attack a school.

It was because of Solace that I was here, today. V. Wendy.

Strained connections, broken promises. Lies and painful memories. So many of them were caused by the man before me, his hands tied, unable to escape. Completely vulnerable.

“You’re human,” I said, hardly above a whisper. “You’re still a person.”

“Is that supposed to make me see you in a different light? I thought you dropped the hero act already. A monster glows in the moonlight, becomes beautiful, and you’ve been basking in it for some time now. I meant it when I said that I was impressed by how you’ve grown. I might have had my doubts in the beginning, but I’ve been watching your progression even after that town hall incident. I’m so proud of you, Voss. I’m glad things worked out the way it did, Styx putting us together. You made me truly happy.”

“Shut up, shut… up.”

“There’s only one way to do that,” Victor said.

I lifted the gun, the metal pieces clacking from how much I was shaking. Seconds felt like minutes, and minutes felt like decades.

This wasn’t fair.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

“Hey!”

My head snapped up. Sarah jumped at how sudden I stared at her, as if she wasn’t expecting it. My eyes moved a little to the right.

Isabella.

“Why are you shaking? Isn’t he responsible for all of this? Think of all the shit he put you through, he didn’t lose a damn thing! That’s the enemy, your enemy, and he’s here on his knees!”

Her voice didn’t ring out throughout the rotunda, instead ramming into me, like a blunt force. Aware of the rings of eyes, hounding at us, desperate to see blood. Blood that I had to spill.

“But…”

“I’m growing impatient,” Alessa said. “Waste any more of my time, and I will sentence you and everyone you came here with to death. Do not make me change my mind.”

I was sweating bullets.

My gun shaking harder, I turned to Solace.

“There was so much I wanted to ask you, why you did what you did in Stephenville, how, or anything else I could think of. I would have wanted to put time in that. This… this is just laughable.”

Solace smiled, and, on some level, I took comfort in that.

I took in a deep breath. Shaky. My finger went around the trigger. I had never fired a gun before. I had never intentionally killed another person before.

A flicker in my eye. I shut both.

The gun nearly flew out of my hand from the recoil, and I had to see to catch it again.

I missed.

“No!” I yelled, for different reasons. Denial, confusion, that I had to look the enemy in the eye when I killed him.

I threw the gun back into place, squeezing the trigger again.

Not a clean shot. The man fell with juice pouring out his abdomen.

I panicked and fired again.

No!”

I threw the gun down when I knew it was empty. I didn’t hear it clatter against the marble floor, the animals having went back to wailing and gnashing.

Then I dropped, too, my knees becoming soaked in juice as it continued to spill forth.

Everything torn away from me, forced by my own hand. As if the universe itself didn’t want me to hold onto anything for very long. Satisfaction was a fleeting feeling, peace was an impossible goal.

Bubbling, to boiled, to eruption.

I looked up, light in my eyes, blinding me, like I was cast into fire. I opened my mouth, and joined in on the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Previous                                                                                               Next

085 – Last Laugh

Previous                                                                                               Next

“Her name’s Alessa, that’s the name of the one who runs the organization. At least, that what I’ve gathered.”

“I’ve heard that name.”

“Yeah. She’ll be who you want. If you can get her hands on her, then that’s like putting the ball in our court. We would be in a much better position to negotiate. Hell, we’d actually gain a position in which we can negotiate.”

“If.”

I gave Isabella a look, for having to point that word out. I had my doubts, but I’d rather focus on the positive and build from there, instead of constantly questioning every single step.

Formulating a plan. More progress. Getting information and applying it towards our goal. It put a light on everything I had run into since I got into this town.

It was sort of ironic, then, that we were hashing out details in near complete darkness.

I wasn’t having any trouble, but Remus was taking it slow, walking through the wide passages of the sewer. There was enough room that we could have walked side to side, but Remus lagged behind, watching his footing. The ground was slippery here, one wrong step and today would go from… well, it was already bad, but it would truly be a tragedy.

I had my phone out, lighting the way, more for Remus and Isabella than for myself. It was a struggle, to want to hurry but still keep the way lit for the others, and not step in any damp spot or puddle or other matter. It made me walk with a sort of tense energy, like I had weights tied to my ankles.

Anxiousness.

“What does she look like?” I asked, “Did you ever get a visual on her?”

Remus answered, “I did. It’s… yeah.”

I glanced back. “Yeah what?”

“She’s got the whole cult thing going on. The hooded robes, the silver and gold ornaments, the markings, the booming, condescending holier-than-thou tone. She’s one more Halloween away from turning into an actual witch.”

“Seriously?”

I heard Remus cough. It echoed.

“What, no, of course not. Like I mentioned, it’s all an act. She just postulates in that way in order to drive home a certain image. Don’t forget that she’s the leader of this particular branch of a cartel. If all that was happening here was just a bunch of cultist nutjobs holding hands in a circle trying to summon the devil, then they wouldn’t have gotten very far with this town. Faith alone won’t put food in people’s stomachs.”

“Hey, maybe they were onto something,” Isabella said, “Because you’ll give them hell to pay. Right, V?”

I would have snorted, hearing that, but I really didn’t want to breathe in anything. The smell could bring tears to my eyes, if I wasn’t already wearing a mask over them.

I did comment, though.

“That is so lame,” I said.

“The theory is sound, they just decided to execute it in that fashion, in that act. Can’t say I’m a fan of what they’ve done here, but it works.”

“I wish it didn’t. I wish we could drive these guys out, completely.”

“Let’s keep our heads on straight, okay? We’re trying to get out of here, sooner rather than later, and we’ve already been here for too long. No need to stick around and do more than what is absolutely necessary. You need to get that cargo back, and get back on the road to El Paso.”

El Paso. It felt so far away and so long ago, that destination. We were supposed to be on track to getting there, but now we had taken a long, winding detour to a rabbit hole that sent us down and then lower. And we were still spiraling down, or at least I felt that I was, with everything that happened and everything I encountered. My head was pounding, my eyes dry but stinging, my nose suffocated by the offending odors that swirled around me. It all compounded to make me feel even more like the hinges were coming off, mentally. Near delirium, if I wasn’t there already. The twists, the turns, the bumps and rough spots, the time wasted, every obstacle that got in my way took a piece of me, affecting me, at the very core of my being. I could feel myself whittling away, and there would be a point of no return. I couldn’t help but wonder… what would happen, then? What was there when every layer was ripped and peeled back? That core. Me? Or… was there someone else, at the very bottom. Something else. Just underneath the skin, the psyche that was supposed to define who I was. The very idea made me go cold, my skin clammy, my breathing short and my eyes-

“V, can’t see.”

Remus spoke, and my head darted up, peering into the dark. Oh. I had lowered my arm, tilting the angle I was holding my phone.

I fixed it, moving the light back up, forward. I checked on Isabella, but she seemed fine. She walked forward with her eyes up, looking ahead, as if she wasn’t worried about where she was stepping. A couple of seconds without any light didn’t seem to faze her, I supposed.

I turned back to address Remus.

“Sorry,” I said, shaking my head, trying to force myself to be more aware, more awake. It was way too easy to slip, especially at this juncture, and especially being down in a sewer passage. I was low enough, I didn’t need to get any lower.

I looked to the light, using it more for myself now. I could see, but the shadows were starting to become more like gaps, with my brain trying to fill them in. I had to walk while trying to avoid eye contact.

“Anything else I need to know?” I asked, talking just to talk. “Like, the layout of the building they’re in. Other than coming in from a generator or boiler room, we don’t have a real angle to attack with. My usual method is that I strike from above, people generally don’t think to look up, at least in my experience. Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury this time.”

“People don’t think to look down, either. That’s why landmines are such an effective tool of war. Not only can they decimate a single target when triggered, they can dismantle a community when left alone. The accidents, the victims, the fear. If you can make someone become afraid of their next step, then you have something powerful. It may not be what you’re used to, V, but there is some merit to our approach.”

“I guess you have a point there.”

“And as for the layout, it’s rather simple. Unless something drastic happened and they were forced to move over one hundred people into another facility, they should be in the mess hall on the east side. It’s the only building the fort has that can comfortably fit that many people in one space.”

One space. So it would be a more open area, with not a lot of spaces to hide, probably. With the town and the cartel already on alert for us, for me, it would be that much harder to try and sneak in.

Remus added, “And since we are coming from the underneath the building, we’ll probably be entering through a basement, and moving up from there. I couldn’t tell you the exact floor plan, though.

It wasn’t exact, but, once again, it was something. I had scrounge up whatever I could get.

“And you’re sure that everyone is there, my passengers and this Alessa?” I asked.

“I am as sure as I was the first three times you asked me. Yes, that was where they had taken us when they took over the truck. Once we got there, they started splitting the cargo into groups. While I might not be sure of the specifics, you can probably venture a guess what they had planned.”

I could, but I didn’t want to steer my thoughts into that direction. A path I didn’t want to go down.

I kept talking.

“Any ideas on how to get back into mess hall?”

“Some ideas, it’ll depend on how close we can get through these passageways. My guess is that we can get pretty close, if not directly under it. We’ll just have to keep going. Honestly, I’m not very good at thinking on my feet, so having to do things like this… it does gives me doubts on how well this will go.”

“Then I’ll work hard to pick up the slack. Thinking on my feet is all I know.”

“You balance each other out,” Isabella said.

“But I’m not going to stand here and say it’s done me a lot of good,” I added. “I just get backed into a lot of corners.”

Touché,” Remus said.

I paused for a moment, mulling over his words.

Remus had his doubts, but I couldn’t let his stack on top of mine, as well. I had too many, already, and I didn’t need any more. It was bad enough, oppressive as the dark that surrounded us, only able to cut through with a little bit of light. Nothing more than a simple glimmer. That was all we had to go on.

“Speaking of corners, I am astonished that you managed to get this far.”

Remus spoke, filling the space in the conversation I left behind.

“How so?” I asked.

“I’m just musing out loud, considering everything, and how hostile this place has been, you’ve been lucky to survive for as long as you have. You really have proven to be no pushover.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

“I don’t like how he said that,” Isabella commented.

“Not now,” I said.

Remus spoke again. “You’re right, now is not the time for idle thoughts.”

Right. Better to put our thoughts on this, and if I was going to talk, it had to be for something constructive.

I started up again, because I needed to. I fixed my arm to readjust the light.

“In case we get split up, do you have any way I could contact you? Like how you did with the walkie-talkie?”

“I do have a phone, but I’d like to refrain from using it from here on out. Sending that broadcast for that long has drained more battery than I would have liked, so I want to preserve what little I have left.”

“This would be an important time to use every resource we have,” I said. “What’s left of these people’s lives are in my hands, our hands, we have to… pull out all the stops, I guess.”

“Sorry, V, but my phone doesn’t have enough to last another call. It’s only going to cause more complications if we get cut off in the middle of a call. We’ll just have to plan around that. We stay close, or I can stay close to whatever room they have that keeps the power running. Keep tabs on each other that way.”

“That sounds like he just wants to hide somewhere while you do all the work,” Isabella said.

“Yeah,” I said, “That doesn’t give me much confidence to hear that part of the plan involves you keeping your head down, staying out of sight.”

“You don’t trust me?” Remus questioned.

“It’s not really a matter of trust. I don’t get to choose who offers help, especially when they’re capable.”

“Then I don’t see the issue, here. I will tell you that I work better in the background, from the shadows, even. And this is the only thing I can think of, as far as my involvement in this plan is concerned.”

I wanted to sigh, but I couldn’t even do that. Breathing out too hard would mean a stronger intake of air, and the air here was horrid.

The draft of this plan wasn’t dissimilar to what I would do with D, we had even worked out a plan like this while we were up against Dong-Yul’s gang. And that was on the fly, as well.

Dong-Yul, now that felt like an eternity ago.

Was I just questioning Remus because I was questioning everything? Unsure of what I was seeing, hearing, feeling? Thinking? When I didn’t even want to look at the eyes staring back from the dark?

I tried to blink, and I walked several steps before I was able to open them back up. My eyes were so heavy.

“Never mind then,” I said, noting how deflated I sounded. “Forget I said anything.”

“No worries, I do understand.”

We walked for some time without another word exchanged. The light caught something in the distance.

“The path splits from here,” I said. We were coming up to a wall.

“So it does,” Remus said.

“Do you know which way it is?”

“If we’ve only been going straight, which puts us east. If memory serves, the mess hall is more north.”

“So, left?”

“That’s a good guess.”

Left it was, then. I turned, and we continued in that direction.

Being down here, in the dark, where every one of my six senses were being violated in some way, where I traversed a winding path, I was being twisted, in multiple meanings of the word. Even if I got back up to the surface, even if I managed to save everyone, even if I got to El Paso and back to Stephenville and back to a proper bed… I had already been changed by this experience. My form was altered. I had already become warped.

“If.”

I smiled at the humor of that.

More walking, not as much talking. I was ready to find the exit.

“Stop.”

I did as I was told.

Turning to Remus, I saw him by the wall, by a door. There wasn’t any markings on it, and there was no handle to grab for. Just a small hole for a key, which we didn’t have.

I approached him. “What is it?”

Remus gestured. “This is it.”

“Here?”

“If not here, then close enough. We are right beneath the feet of Alessa and the rest of her organization. Right now, we’re a landmine.”

I got closer to the door. Remus stepped out of my way.

I kicked.

The impact crashed down the sewer passages, ringing and echoing. It jolted me awake, and gave me a sharp fear that someone could have heard us.

Dust and silence settled, and we remained still. No one came to investigate.

And we were free to go through the door, and leave this sewer.

Isabella went in first, and Remus followed behind me. A narrow corridor of stairs took us up. Gates of metal fencing were to our left and right, past them were gauges and pipes and other mechanisms. Remus wasn’t lying, after all, we were approaching the underbelly of whatever facility this was. If we were lucky, we were just beneath the mess hall.

We continued up, until we reached the end of the stairs. Another door, but it would much easier to get through, this time.

Isabella shuffled to the side so I could get the door.

The heat greeted us with a wave, hitting me in the face. We stepped into steam and sweat.

“I think we’re here,” I said, as I read one of the signs posted on the top of a metal box. ‘Mess Hall maintenance staff only.’ We were lucky.

“I think you’re right,” Remus said, coughing again.

We spread out into the room, looking for another door. My phone went back into my pocket, now that there was some decent light in here. Remus did have a point about battery life, mine would need a good charge pretty soon.

Isabella and I found the next door out of here, and Remus found what he was looking for in the room. The dials and knobs and metal meant nothing to me.

“This all looks so… breakable,” Remus said. He grinned. “This could work.”

“Good,” I said, grabbing the front of my jacket. I aired myself, to no avail. “I doubt you can last, being holed up in here. You’ll melt.”

“One thing at a time, V. Depending on how much damage I do, I might not be able to hide out in here. I recognize that, now. Maybe another room, in another part of the building.”

“Smells funny in here,” Isabella said.

“Is it supposed to be like this in here?” I asked.

“Maybe, probably not. Could be some sort of leak. They have been here for some time, but that doesn’t mean they have the properly trained people to come take care of everything. There’s a whole town’s worth of stuff, and there’s only so much of them.”

“So what does that mean for us?”

“It means we’re going to really bring that landmine metaphor to life.”

“Risky,” Isabella said.

“You better know what you’re doing,” I said.

“I do, no worries. It’ll be a distraction, not a decimation. This should work out in our favor.”

More doubts, more concerns, but I didn’t have time to voice them. I wanted to scout out the rest of the building, find the rest of the passengers, find Tone and Sarah. Leave.

But there was one key target I had to secure, first. Alessa, a leader of this cartel disguised as a cult.

Fuck me, none of this felt real.

“Then I’ll leave you to it, we have to get this thing rolling already.”

“I’ll do what I can. Go.”

I went for the door, the one that would lead me into the mess hall proper. Cracking it open, I peeked through the steam that rolled out. I saw a hallway, lit bright. Empty. No more eyes on me.

“I’m going,”  I said. “When you set off whatever it is you’re working on, I’ll take out whatever animal… guard that comes by to check it out, and we’ll get some info out of them.”

“No need. Alessa’s location is already confirmed, she shouldn’t have moved. She’s up there in that mess hall. Just get over there, and wait.”

“You better be somewhere I can find you easy, once I’m done here,” I said.

“If we manage to get that far, everything else will fall into place just fine.”

“I’ll need a signal for whenever you make the distraction.”

Remus set his bag down in front of him, opening in. He grinned when he replied.

“Oh, you’ll know, believe me.”

I noted the look Isabella gave him, it was a look that I could imagine I was wearing, too, underneath my mask. Her brows were furrowed, her lips pressed into a straight line. The lack of any glimmer in her eyes. Genuine apprehension, a sense of foreboding over what was to apparently come. Doubt.

“Hey,” I said, and got Isabella’s attention. I gestured to the hall on the other side of the door. She gave me a nod.

Then, we ran, leaving Remus behind, heading to get back what was taken from us. From me.

We didn’t have an exact layout of the mess hall, but I had thought back to what Remus had said earlier. If I couldn’t find my way out of a basement, then there were much larger issues at hand.

“You good?”

I glanced to my side.

Isabella. She was now pointing that particular look to me.

“Good is such a… nebulous metric, by now,” I said.

“You’re limping.”

Was I? I couldn’t stop to check. I couldn’t feel anything in my legs, or the leg I used to kick the door down. Or maybe that was the problem?

Too late to deal with it now. I kept at it, kept going, kept pushing myself. I’d claw my way out and up, if it ever came to that.

We took a turn to another hall, seeing an exit at the end. I bolted for the door and threw myself at it, into a spiral staircase.

I climbed, leaping over entire flights, scaling the walls and railings instead, only really using the steps to spring back up when gravity pulled me back down. The stairs didn’t go that high up, but I was able to shave precious seconds off my time.

Two sets of doors. One went back into the building, the other was an exit. I opted for the latter.

Open, untainted air. I was back outside.

A quick look around showed that I was alone, save for Isabella, but I might not be for long.

“Around the corner,” I heard Isabella say as she caught up, “Could be a car or truck or something.”

“I hear it, too. How about we move to a better vantage point,” I said. “Never a fan of staying low, anyways.”

“Sure.”

I took Isabella and leapt again, grabbing for holds in the metal that I could use to push myself even higher. Judging from the dimension of just one wall and how high up I had to go, the mess hall seemed to be pretty sizable. I reached the top and got myself over.

No one around, we were still in the clear. This was going almost too smooth

My feet skidded on gravel, and I had to keep running to try and maintain balance. I skidded again, and almost tripped over myself.

“So clumsy,” Isabella commented.

I groaned, but that was probably what she meant by my limping. But I just had to power through it.

At the middle of roof, a skylight. It was exactly what I needed. Remus could be the landmine if he wanted to, but I’d take the other approach.

I went to the skylight. I looked through the glass.

I saw everything and everyone.

So many people down there. With how they were displaced, how several were grouped together, it was easy to figure out who was who. Who I needed to save, and who I needed to hurt.

A large group sat in the middle of the mess hall, or cafeteria, the area where everyone would have gathered to eat. The tiled floor was white, and with only seeing the tops of heads, it looked like a black void, having eaten up the color that was once there.

A hole.

Smaller voids surrounded the larger one, then dots. Remus had mentioned that they were being divided. Were they more passengers, being guarded by people from the Order?

Among them, Alessa had to be there. Somewhere.

I had a mental picture of what she might look like, based on the description that Remus had given me, but I couldn’t pick out anyone who might fit that image. I was too far up.

But, they were there. Remus was right. I’d have them, soon enough.

I looked for a latch to open one of the glass panels.

Finding it, I unlocked with a finger, then using both hands to test it. I managed to lift it.

“Now we just wait for Remus,” Isabella said.

“Yeah. I’m praying this works.”

“Appropriate wording, or not. I’m not sure.”

I wasn’t sure either.

We waited for some time.

“He’s really taking a while,” I said, grumbling.

“Just give it some more time.”

“We don’t have that.”

With every second that passed, until I was sure it had been a minute, it allowed my thoughts to wander, when I didn’t want them to.

“About that Remus guy…” Isabella started.

“What about him?”

“Isn’t he kind of like an odd man out?”

“It’s not like I could pick and choose who would be able to help us.”

“Yeah but, I mean that literally too. Don’t you think it’s weird where you found him, in that room, separated from the rest?”

I turned to Isabella.

“How-”

A low rumble, deep.

And then the whole building started to shake.

Big. In every sense. The sound was loud, the vibrations strong, the reactions from the people below were panicked and frenzied. The voids began to spread out, overtaking the white.

I felt it under my feet, I felt it in my bones.

It really seemed like the building was close to crumbling into dust.

I threw the glass panel open.

“Get out of here!” I yelled.

No thinking, just act.

With the building still reverberating, I descended into the voids.

I didn’t feel the ground as I landed, instead using that numb feeling to bounce back and survey the room. People, cartel members and passengers were struggling to get their bearings, plenty of them on the tile or crouched over, on their knees. The building continued to shake, rumbling, like a giant beast was grumbling as it was awakened. Creaks and echoes and booms and snaps, sounds and noises crashing together until it was deafening. I couldn’t hear my own thoughts, but I wasn’t trying to think, anyways. I had to act. Do something.

Remus had given me a distraction, and now it was my turn.

These guards were wearing masks. Easier to think of them as animals.

I started with the animals that were still standing, with their attention divided, between coordinating with their partners, corralling the passengers back into their groups, and simply trying to remain standing. A simple drop from above took the first of them out, easy. They didn’t know to look up, yet.

These guards weren’t stupid, though. They were members of a cartel, they expected a fight, it pretty much came with the job description. After my third drop, my next jump took me away from the action as the guards got back enough composure to yell and fire.

I had to go by sight to dodge. I didn’t want to land close to or by a group of passengers, but with the general chaos that was consuming the inside of this mess hall, it was like maneuvering through a stampede. No room to stretch or breathe.

“Outside!” I yelled, at the top of my lungs. “Follow the exits!”

No use. It was all drowned out. Me, the yelling, the gunfire. I couldn’t hear myself laugh or scream.

Air again. Had to look for Alessa, or find someone who knew where she was.

I saw a few more sparks in the corners of my vision, guards that were trying to pick me out of the air. They all missed, and I noted that there were less sparks than before, that initial volley. The guards didn’t want to risk shooting their partners or their prisoners.

I could stay in the crowd, then, hide among the other blank faces.

I landed back down, and slipped in between people pushing each other to get through, to get out. I let the flow of the crowd control my movements as I waited for another opportunity to continue my search.

I coughed, hard.

The mess hall was descending deeper and deeper into madness. I had blinked, but the light didn’t come back quite right. The lights had been cut, the only source now was piercing through glass, visible rays coming into the mess hell.

And I was still up, and I was still doing this.

I was barely registering the people here as people, now, passengers and guards alike. They were starting to lose their form, like everything was, melting as the sun beamed above. I was melting, too, feeling myself swimming within the current, being swayed by every wave of movement. Getting in my way, preventing me from moving forward. At this rate, I’d be stuck. At this rate, I’d lose them.

I’d lose them all.

I solidified myself, getting enough of my shape back so I was separate, so I could influence the pool around me. I had went downstream far enough.

I pressed onward, shoving people out of the way. Sounds and noises stacked upon one another, the shouting and the ruckus of things breaking and shattering filled my ears, and echoed, echoed, echoed. It disoriented, threw me off course, whenever my focus slipped.

Alessa the demon worshipper. The witch. I had to burn her.

But I couldn’t find her. I couldn’t find her anywhere.

I stumbled, but I didn’t fall. Many around me did.

The building was rocked a second time.

I didn’t even know what was happening anymore, I wasn’t in on the plan. Remus was doing something else entirely, and I was forced to play catch up with him while still trying to stay on track with my original goal.

Lawrence. I thought of him, it was sudden. What would he say when we got back? If?

If. If.

Ha.

Ha ha ha.

I was grinning ear to ear as I stood above weak, frail animals who were unable to stand under their own power. Crawling, feeble, towards one another for support and balance. My viewpoint shifted slightly as one leg dragged behind me. But I didn’t have anyone to go to for those things. Not here, not now.

I wanted Sarah. I needed to get back Tone. I had to save the rest of those being transported, because I couldn’t bring all of them back anymore. I had already failed. Failed.

I couldn’t do this by myself.

It was getting harder and harder to distinguish faces, just vague, blurry me-shaped things. My head was pounding, so hard that it was like my skull would crack and split open.

I stumbled again. A wolf jabbed into my side. That, I felt. Cold, staying there. Stuck.

Using my remaining ounces of strength, I pulled the cold, lengthy metal out of my stomach, and gave it back to him. By putting it through the wolf’s paw.

He howled, and I disappeared back into the void before any other animal could come and hunt me.

The sheer amount of things began to overtake, just by brute force alone. Everyone was trying to leave the building before it crumbled onto our heads. The screaming, the panic. The line between predator and prey were gone, now, it was just pure survival.

Useless, to try and help anyone now. No one to save if they were under rubble.

I had to change course again.

My shouts joined the rest, the building creaking, with a bass to it like thunder. It really seemed like the building was going to collapse.

No more fighting, just escape.

Push, push. Everyone was pushing to get out. A crush of people.

Not everyone was going to make it.

Being so close, pressed together, it was easy to tell whenever someone had fallen, immediately crushed by the waves of people rushing over them. I couldn’t reach down to pick them up, all I could see was last glints of glimmer get snuffed out like a candle.

I screamed.

More people fell like dominoes, up ahead. Animals crawled over them to reach the exits. The doors were there, open, solid white rectangles. Light.

Like insects, we all scurried to the light.

The mess hall was designed to hold a lot of people, there were various exits and key points throughout the building. I had taken note of them during my initial assault. It wasn’t impossible for the hall to be completely cleared out in good time. It was improbable that every single person would manage to get out.

Cracks in my skull, strain in my heart. Pounding.

Then, I was enveloped in light.

The mass of people broke apart somewhat, giving me space. Feeling constricted, choked by the roots, I fought to get away. I jumped-

I got to the air, but my path wasn’t what I had anticipated. I floundered, only getting about half the distance and height I wanted, gravity pulling me down soon than I wanted.

Crashing, flipping over.

Whisps left my lungs. Finally, I had fallen, and I was too exhausted to work myself to my feet.

Useless, useless, useless.

Even with assistance, I still couldn’t do this. I still failed.

I’m such a mess.

I let my eyes close, slow, ready to go back to dreaming.

I’m no different than her.

“Wendy.”

A gentle, warm whisper tore me from my slumber. I’d get no slumber, it seemed.

I opened my eyes.

A woman. With the sun above her, light dancing along her outline. Radiant.

Only one person…

“Sarah,” I whispered back, my lips and tongue dry.

“Yeah. You got it ma’am,” Sarah said, her intonation rose at the end.

Endearing, but I couldn’t comment or think on it. Too god damn tired.

Sarah crouched by me, raising my head. She took my hand into hers. Wet.

“You smell,” Sarah said. She gave me a smile. Sympathetic.

I returned one of my own, but it was just pathetic.

“You’re bleeding,” I said.

“Just my hand. I clipped myself on the way out, I’m fine.”

“Are you? Is anyone?”

“I am. So is Tone. But-”

Sarah’s voice broke.

“I’m so sorry about-”

Before she could go any further, I stopped her.

“Olivia, her dad. The others we lost. I… know. We’ll just have to make do.”

Sarah just shook her head, looking down.

I looked around. Sarah was telling the truth. I saw Tone, arms crossed, looking like he had been through hell and back. I could relate. Beside him, I saw Isabella, twirling one of her pigtails with a finger. I could relate to the expression on her face, too.

“Can I see your hand?” I asked, turning back to Sarah.

Sarah moved, adjusting her hold on me. She brought her hand closer to my face.

I pressed my fingers where I felt the blood, I heard Sarah sharply inhale.

Slow, I drew the tip of a finger to my lips.

“Oh…”

I couldn’t even feel better about the fact that I felt better. I had gotten myself trapped with everyone else. We were still surrounded by animals, a crumbling building behind us.

“Help me up?” I asked.

Without a word, Sarah helped. I was able to get into a sitting position, and I was able to find the energy to stand if I needed to.

I felt my body become warmer.

My leg. The reason why I had tripped when I tried to jump. Why my limp had worsened. I had gotten shot again without ever feeling it.

Again, I watched my leg force out the foreign object. Tissue and muscle squirming to push the thing out, flicking it out like how a tongue would spit out junk that got stuck in teeth. The bullet fell into dirt beside me.

I pressed into Sarah’s palm again, so she’d wince, facing me.

My leg warmed until it was hot, then cooled off when the bullet was gone. Then I was healed, the wound closed, as if it had never been there.

It was still freaky.

“Ah. You must be the one called V.”

I looked up.

Another woman, but the aura around her was much more grim. A black robe, with blue lining on the sleeves and edge of the hood. Various gold and silver chains that adorned her neck. Symbols were stitched into the fabric, winding and coiling around her outfit like snakes. She stood tall, with horsemen on each side of her.

She moved with grace, walking as if she was floating, instead. She removed the hood off her head in one smooth motion, revealing her face.

Tan, which I didn’t expect. Given previous descriptions, I had thought she would be more pale, maybe even sickly in skin tone. Her features were rounder, softer. Her hair was short, almost shaved, as black as her robes. She looked matured enough to be someone’s mother. But with the outfit, the animals at her side, and the inscriptions tattooed all across her neck until they creeped over to her chin and cheeks… that image was dashed a little.

She raised her arms, gesturing, and more people mobilized. Animals.

They surrounded us, gathering and throwing others in the circle they formed. There were more of them, I knew, but they wanted to contain me. The guns kept me sitting down.

Dark circles around her eyes. She stared me down and I swallowed, firm.

“Or am I wrong?”

No point in hiding it. Even my mask was its own identity. If I didn’t want to be recognized, I would have used something else.

“You’re not,” I answered.

“Then it is a pleasure to meet you. You may call me Alessa.”

Alessa. There she was. Except I didn’t find her. She found me.

I spoke, despite the strain in my voice.

“I’ve been looking for you, you know.”

“Oh, I do. I’ve been looking for you, as well. As you may know, we are not kind to visitors, esteemed as they may be. We punish those who trespass, and use them as warning for those on the outside.”

“Except we didn’t trespass. You took the people I was supervising and brought them here.”

“You drew us out, and we acted in turn. An action and equal reaction.”

It was like we were speaking two different languages.

“I didn’t draw you out, I didn’t even know this place existed! You’re fucking insane!”

Alessa lifted her chin, moving her head to the side.

“Insane? No. In fact, things have never been so clear to me now.”

She motioned with her hand, and one of the horsemen moved to throw another into the ring.

Remus.

He collapsed into the dirt about a yard away from me and Sarah. He got up fast, though, turning around, his hands raised when he saw the guns.

“So close,” he said. It was just him, he didn’t have his bag or any other tool, but he didn’t look or sound concerned at all.

“Don’t try to take one of my trucks then.”

“Worked the first time.”

“I don’t understand,” I said, more as an admittance than anything else.

“You will, in time,” Alessa said. She turned to Remus. “I do not appreciate being played, Victor, especially when the move is so sloppy. It’s unbecoming of you, and it insults me.

Remus answered. “Don’t blame me. It was his idea. We only had one opportunity at this, and I’m not great at coming up with something on the fly.”

“Well, you tried for sure. I can’t exactly use my mess hall for some time, now. If it becomes condemned, then it really fucks us over, Vic.”

Remus… Victor, Vic? The man grinned.

“The pleasure has been all mine, Alma.”

“I don’t understand.”

I repeated the words like it hurt, and it did. I didn’t want to admit it a third time.

Alessa turned, looking down at me. I hated that expression. That know-it-all look.

“Looks like you were played, too, V. Or, may I use your previous name? It gets too confusing.”

“Previous name?”

“Yes, Bluemoon.”

The name hit me like a truck.

While I was reeling, Alessa kept pummelling me with information.

“I’m not as au courant with the latest developments in Stephenville, but I do have my connections-”

“Familial,” the man said.

“Silence, Vic, I’m the one with power, here. Excuse me, as I mentioned, I do keep an ear to the outside world. It’s just a good habit to keep. During those days when the Bluemoon name was most active, I recall reading headlines about a particular mastermind that caused quite a bit of trouble for you.”

My eyes widened.

It was right there, right under the surface, even between the cracks, that live connection that was just waiting for a spark. It was as instant as it was horrifying. Recognizing it, realizing it.

I whipped my head to look at the man, feeling a rush. A new light.

The man was looking at me as well, but he was as calm as I was not. He grinned, wider than ever before, as if I had finally caught on to what had been painfully obvious this whole time. Maybe it was, and I was too frayed at the ends, too blind to see it.

Who is he?

I had my answer.

Remus, Victor, Vic… Solace.

Previous                                                                                               Next

078 – Big Dipper

Previous                                                                                               Next

I only needed a few steps to walk over to Isabella, but that felt like its own journey, getting there. Each step was harder, the second guessing getting stronger.

“Hey Isabella.”

No turning back now.

I sat across the table. With a particular slowness, she moved her eyes from the window to me. She put the chocolate bar into her mouth.

“Hi Wendy,” she said, mumbled.

She bent her chocolate bar until a piece snapped off, remaining in her mouth. She chewed and ate it, eyes trained on me. She set the rest of her snack down when she finished.

“If that’s even your real name.”

“It is,” I said, somewhat amused by her immediate confrontation. “Is the candy good?”

“It’s alright.”

“Just alright?”

“I’ve had better.”

“When? Where?”

Isabella glanced back outside the window.

“Back in Mexico. That’s why I’m going back.”

“Must be really tasty, then.”

Isabella blinked, then kept blinking. Her eyes glimmered.

“It is,” she said.

That tug got even stronger. Constricting. Almost suffocating.

“Any other reasons why you’re going back? If I may ask?”

It was hard to ask, I could hear my voice get tight.

But it was probably harder for Isabella to answer.

I watched as she tried.

“After you saved me from the Ghosts, and that long but not really long story with that bitch and that bus, I finally got out of Stephenville. Things didn’t really get better from there.”

“No?”

“I went to other cities, even hitched a ride to other states, where it was supposed to be better. It wasn’t really. Places wouldn’t take me because of some new rule I never heard of, or they didn’t want to risk it, or maybe they didn’t like the color of my skin or whatever. It sucked, trying to do things the right way when the world treated me like I wasn’t supposed to be on it, that it was wrong for me to exist.”

“Been there, felt that,” I said.

Isabella faced me, her stare turning more intense, into a glare.

“Maybe if I didn’t keep your promise to stay away from gangs, I would have had a better chance of living here, maybe even thriving. I tried to do right by you, Wendy, but… You didn’t even do right by yourself.”

She was lashing out. It reminded me of D.

“I disappointed you,” I said.

Isabella put her hands on the table, picking up her chocolate bar again. She spun it around between her fingers, careful to only be touching the wrapper.

She muttered something in Spanish before switching back to English.

“Yeah, duh, you did. That promise was always in the back of my head, no matter where I went or what I was trying to do. It was the only thing I had that gave me any real direction. I try to remember stuff my padres told me, but it gets fuzzier, and with each day that passes, and the more I have to use English, the more my whole life back in Mexico feels like a hazy dream. It doesn’t seem real.”

Isabella tapped her chocolate on the table. Tapping it some more. A nervous twitch?

“If I stayed away from the gangs, maybe karma would help me out and make things right again. But, no, everything and everyone kept telling me they didn’t want me. And all I can do now is go back. It sucks.”

She had repeated herself, in a roundabout way, but it served to make her frustrations clear. Isabella probably hadn’t gotten a chance to talk to anyone about anything. She wanted to – needed to – vent, I’d give her that outlet. It was the least I could do.

“It certainly does suck. I’m sorry to hear that, Isabella.”

Snapping off a piece of chocolate, Isabella tossed it into her mouth. She spoke while she chewed.

“I ain’t wanna hear it from you.”

I just had to let it roll off my back.

“So, you’re going back to Mexico. What’s the plan when you get there?”

Isabella tapped her chocolate again.

“There’s nothing for me here, it didn’t work out, so I don’t have a choice but to go back. I recently got into contact with a relative. Mi tío. Coca farmer. He’s farther south than my old place, but it was something. So I went back to Stephenville, with no real plan in mind on how to get back, until I find out about this transport. Now I’m here.”

“Well, hey, farming isn’t too bad. Work off the land, start of a new life. At least you get to eat some tastier chocolate.”

Isabella gave me a look like I was stupid.

“It’s coca, not cacao. Leaf, not beans. And I’m not starting a new life, I’m going back to the one that forced me to run away in the first place.”

I was a gang leader, my people sold drugs, yet I was still slow on that world and lingo. It clicked now, though.

“I never knew you put so much consideration into that promise,” I said. “Staying away from that life.”

Isabella went back to playing with her food. When she spoke, it wasn’t muffled.

“Of course I did, what else could I do? Ever since I came into this country, you were the only one who ever gave me a helping hand, or at least did it without expecting something in return. No one else ever gave me a chance. And… I did all that I could with that chance, and…”

Isabella smacked the chocolate bar back onto the table. More pieces broke off.

“And all I ever got was some fucking shitty candy.”

What followed was only the droning of tire on road, Isabella as she sniffled, periodically. Her eyes continued to have that shine to it. That glimmer. Isabella was doing all she could to keep her emotions in check, but I could see the cracks. She’d break, one day, and everything would come out and overflow.

It was like looking at an old photo.

I glanced away, keeping my eyes down.

“If, if you’re still worried about having disappointed me, don’t be. You haven’t done anything wrong, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up over falling into shitty circumstances. Stuff just happens sometimes, things fall into certain places, and you have to pick it all up from there. And how you go about doing that, that defines you. So, do you know what I see?”

“What?”

“I see someone strong. Hell, stronger than me. It takes so much to fall into this world and not completely lose your head.”

I heard a huff. An empty laugh.

“Ha. Heard that one before. Sorry to say, Wendy, I’ve already lost it. I’ve already lost.”

Then, Isabella let out a long, drawn breath.

“I have a headache,” she said, seemingly out of nowhere.

She sounded so sad.

That tug went taut, until I felt a sting.

“Stephenville,” I started, “This world, it’s…”

“It’s fucked,” Isabella finished.

I smiled, slight.

“Exactly.”

The RV continued down the road. After a minute or two, I checked out the window, wanting to see the view again.

It looked even better, now that we were farther from the city. The stars were brighter, larger in numbers. Tracing shapes and lines across the sky.

I started talking while the stars shined back.

“Can I ask a weird question?”

“We’re in a weird time, sure.”

“What, um, how did I come across to you, when we first met?”

“How did you come across?”

“Like, what was your impression of me, if you can remember. I know it was a while back.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. That day is fucking seared into my brain forever. I was, I was with Georgie and Bronson and some others, and I had to get one thousand dollars as initiation to join the Ghosts. Anything went, as long as I got my one thousand by the end of the week. I didn’t have much of a choice, I was new to the country, alone, and I needed protection… but, I didn’t make much progress. So they took me along to make the difference.”

I kept quiet, letting her talk, but I was anticipating her answer. The destination, rather than the journey.

“They made pick random people to rob. And the first person I happened to pick was you.”

“That’s some luck,” I commented.

“It, I remember you being really amazing, honestly,” Isabella said. “I only saw bits of it, but you took them out and you made it look easy. Pushing them around, tossing them like it was nothing, all sorts of crazy shit. It was everything I wish I could do, wish I could be.”

“You are,” I whispered.

It set me back, hearing that. To think Isabella held her in such a high regard, after only one encounter. That Isabella spent the next few months trying to live up to a standard that was set by someone else. And that Isabella was beating herself up over not meeting that expectation.

All because of Alexis, yet Isabella knew me as Wendy.

Was ‘Wendy’ just a mask for Alexis, back then?

And what about

I felt my heart drop at the thought of a follow up question to that. I screwed my eyes shut, and turned away from the window.

Isabella asked, “How’d you even learn to fight like that?”

Yes, good, more of that. More distractions.

I answered with my eyes still shut. Seeing blank.

“I never learned, and I don’t even really operate on instinct. I just have a leg up on everyone else. On people.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m, I’m not exactly human.”

I didn’t see Isabella’s reaction, but the long pause that followed gave me an idea. Shock, surprise, maybe fear.

“You, you are-”

Her voice was shaking.

“I am,” I said.

I felt several hits on my arm. I forced my eyes open. I saw Isabella, leaning across the table, repeatedly tapping me, punching me as she got more and more worked up.

“Wendy, wake up, what? Excuse me? That’s too vague, you better tell me what that means. That better not mean what I think that means!”

I nodded, shaking a bit from Isabella’s continued assault.

“It does,” I told her.

Isabella stopped, and slinked back into her seat, slouching. Her eyes glued to me.

“No fucking way,” she said.

“Please try to lay off the cursing.”

Isabella nodded back, her eyes huge. She breathed.

“No fucking way.”

I gave Isabella some time to take it all in. It was a lot to take in.

She was blinking, the lower lip shaking, and when she had the constitution to speak, the words were trembling.

“So this whole time, you were… La luna azul. The one everyone is so afraid of. The world’s first…”

She didn’t finish, but I knew what she was going to say.

“Super, isn’t it?” I asked.

From behind me, but at the front of the RV, Sarah called me out.

“I thought you were sleeping!”

“In a minute!” I answered back. I wouldn’t leave her hanging.

Isabella, though, was still trying to process what I had just told her. She was staring back out the window, but it didn’t look like she was focusing on anything in particular.

“Why?” she questioned, “Why tell me this now?”

Because I wanted to move the conversation to something else.

“Thought you might want to know. And to see that you shouldn’t try to compare yourself to anyone, because you’ll always find something that isn’t up to par, or at least you perceive it to be that way. If nothing else, build yourself up, and trust in your own strength. Don’t dwell on your limits, but know your capabilities, and do better.”

Isabella raised an eyebrow.

“So you’re telling me to believe in myself?”

“Is that not important?”

“Now you sound like my-”

Isabella closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, they glimmered.

“Never mind.”

There was a kind of rhythm in our conversation. An ebb and flow. We’d talk, reach a point that was either too sore or sour to press further on, and we’d stop, cooling off before starting it up again. We had just flowed, and now, we were on the ebb again.

A lot to pick apart, from what Isabella told me, and while the connections weren’t clicking, they did tug.

And flicker.

“So you were a hero,” Isabella said, sounding hollow, deflated. “You were my hero, since you saved me, that day. Ever since I came into America, and even after I left Stephenville, I wondered what the Bluemoon was up to. There was a period of time where nothing happened. No sightings, no activity, nothing. It was like you just… disappeared. Even people in South Tucson were worried that something went down, and what that could mean. To think you were doing this, all this time.”

A buzz, as I heard Sarah coordinate with Tone, who was still tailing the RV. Sarah called the update. We were still good.

Good.

“Being a hero isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be,” I said. “And it certainly isn’t realistic. You can’t save everyone. And with this, I can help more people in one day than I ever did as a hero in one night. You can’t break the system from the outside, but you can put it into your favor from the inside. Walls are built for invaders, right? So take the opposite approach. If you want to kill something, do it from the inside. Like a parasite.”

I added, “And it’s not like I’m not wearing masks anymore.”

Isabella huffed again, as if she had found something amusing in what I had said.

“Parasite is a good word, it describes the people you work with so well.”

A not so slight jab at my colleagues. I could taste the venom.

“I can tell you’re not a fan,” I said.

“Can you blame me? I used to be a member of Lawrence’s gang, and that was the beginning of my hell, here. It was probably his idea to make me do that last minute run with Georgie and those guys. And that bitch? I can still hardly believe you work with her, now.”

“She has her… moments,” I said, wording it in a specific way. I knew who she was referring to. “But when push comes to shove, she has your back.”

Isabella shot a look at me.

“She has my back,” I said. “And she might have yours, if you decide to be on her side.”

“Are you asking me to join your gang?”

I didn’t mean to go in that direction, but I wasn’t against it, either.

I shrugged.

“I mean, if you want the protection, we can provide it. A roof, a bed, clothes, food. No strings attached, too, if you want to be excluded from doing any work related to Los Colmillos, just let me know and we can set that up as well.”

Isabella’s expression switched between doubt and curiosity. It had turned out to be an intriguing offer for her, after all. I saw her consider it.

“Are you serious?” Isabella asked, “You bring this up now, after we just left the city?”

“You can always just take the return trip with us. The people on the other side of the border are expecting a certain number of their precious ‘cargo,’ but I doubt they’ll miss someone who changed their mind.”

Isabella sat back, fixing her posture. She reached for her chocolate again, and took another bite. I noticed that she had the energy to grab it in the first place.

She spoke with her mouth full. “I’ll… think about it. I feel like, my whole life, I’ve been going from place to place. Always traveling. I can’t ever have somewhere to call my own. It would be nice to have… that, for once. I’ll think about it.”

Weary, exhausted, drained. She had come across as someone who was much older than she actually was.

I suppressed the urge to grin.

That, somehow, lightened my mood. The tug getting less constricting, feeling more like an embrace.

The prospect of having Isabella around didn’t feel like a bad one.

“We’ve got time,” I said. “You can make your final decision once we get to El Paso.

“But, still, if I do swing that way, you’re going to have to keep that bitch away from me.”

“D’s been good, I promise.”

“No, not to protect me, but her. Who knows what’ll happen if we’re in the same room? I’m ain’t going to be responsible for what mess is made after.”

“You really do have beef with D, don’t you?”

“Damn right I do. I can’t just forget that, and I sure as hell won’t forgive it. Do you know the first thing she ever said to me?”

“You remember that much?”

“Yes, I do. Just as clear as ever. It was a question, too. She asked me permission to steal from me, and then proceeded to crash a bus full of people and steal the one grand you gave me.”

One grand. Alexis really did just toss away cash, just like that.

That’s one thousand dollars I could put into the gang, right now.

I could imagine why Isabella remembered her so fondly. Or, at least, it was part of the reason why.

“I just don’t see myself being relaxed with her around, that’s all I’m saying.”

“If you think that’s going to seriously be an issue, and I can make some arrangements so you never have to meet her again. It might cause some complications later, in case you even needed to see me. She likes to hide in my shadow, and I usually let her stay that close. Usually.”

“That sounds like crazy talk. Wendy, you’re just asking for her to stab you in the back one day, and all for a joke. No, actually, you’re giving her permission to do just that.”

Whatever happened on that bus, it really fucked with Isabella. It was understandable, but…

“You are really waiting for the other shoe to drop, aren’t you? Believe it or not, but this isn’t the first time I heard about this bus incident. We can’t take back what went down, but D’s apologized for it before, and again with you, and I can apologize for a third time on her behalf. You don’t know D like I do. She may go about things in her own way, but that’s what makes her a valuable piece on the board.”

“Maybe she wants you to think that,” Isabella said, with an ominous tone. “Maybe she’s been lying to you this whole time.”

I’d need to set these kids up on a playdate or something.

When we get back.

“Sleep on it,” I said, scooting over to the edge of the seat. “Either way, I’ll respect your decision. But, if it means anything, I won’t let you down this time, Isabella. I promise.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Isabella said. She finished up the remainder of her chocolate bar. “In a minute, though, I’m not even tired.”

I slid out of the seat, getting up. Isabella wasn’t looking at me, anymore, staring off into the distance with her jaw hanging open. She scrunched up her face. Stifling a yawn?

Me too, I thought.

“I’ll check up on you again, let me know if you need anything.”

Isabella yawned for real, this time.

“Sure, thanks, I guess.”

It was an uncertain, vague note, but I’d leave it at that. I crossed the RV again to another seat, farther in the back, where my belongings were. Sitting back down, propping my legs up, I tried to make myself comfortable. The sound of the road filled my ears.

There was so much to consider, now

Talking with D, then Sarah, then Isabella. And even Lawrence had a point. I wasn’t used to being put under a microscope like that. Alexis felt a compulsion to help out a girl she hardly knew, and I was willing to do the very same. What did that say about me, about us?

And it wasn’t just that.

D wasn’t very happy with me overseeing the transport by myself. At first, I had chalked it up to her being too attached, or maybe even because of my prodding about her past with Styx. But no, I saw that it was a symptom of a larger issue.

There was a very large, and very significant part of my past that I had routinely ignored for some time.

That time in Braham Barn.

Of all the connections that I had held on to, that one was the most clear of them all. That night. That girl. Much like Isabella, it was a night that was burned into memory, into history. Alexis had gone through that hell, but I was the one being burned.

I put my thumb on my middle finger. Right hand. I cracked the knuckle. I didn’t feel anything.

This couldn’t be ignored forever.

I groused, as if to react to my own thoughts. I’d have to start making in strides in that direction, as well. It wasn’t just about moving forward. To do that, I’d have to learn where I came from. Look to the past. Visit that barn.

I’d have to grow up.

It was a scary idea, that. And the desire to turn back and change my mind ran deeper than taking a look back to see where I had come from.

I wasn’t sure. It was hard to be sure of anything, now. I was at a crossroads.

As my eyelids grew heavier, I thought about what D’s reaction might be. Would she be happy? Relieved? The possibility of that made me want to get this trip over with even faster. And throwing Isabella into the mix, it made for a picture that was easier to look at.

It was hard to look at Isabella’s face. Blurry, too close. The expression didn’t seem all that light.

“Wendy, get up.”

“Uhn,” I sounded. I fixed my glasses. My neck was sore from how I was positioned on the seat. I hadn’t napped right.

Wait. I took a nap?

Shit.

I rallied my will and stood up. Half-thoughts floated in my head, some dream from right before my eyes had closed. I pushed them aside to focus back on the present. On Isabella.

Isabella stepped to the side. She had been tapping me to wake me up, and she was still doing it, now.

I brushed her hand away. She stopped.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“The lady up front, she wanted you.”

“Sarah?”

“Her, yeah.”

Sarah wanted me? I wouldn’t want to keep her waiting.

“Alright,” I mumbled, as I crossed the length of the RV. I walked a little faster for Sarah’s sake.

I noted that Isabella was following right behind me.

“I’m here,” I said, as I reached the front of the RV.

“Hey Voss,” Sarah said, “Sorry to wake you from your nap.”

“I wasn’t napping, I just gave my eyes a little break.”

Sarah let out a small chuckle. I didn’t respond to that.

“Anyways, I’m guessing we have a situation?”

“We do, and it’s my fault.”

My stomach dropped.

“What kind?”

Sarah took one hand off the steering wheel. She pointed ahead.

“That kind.”

I looked ahead.

We had gotten off the interstate while I was taking a little break. We were on a much smaller road, two lanes, with no cars directly ahead or behind us. It was still dark, I wasn’t out for very long.

But I saw the town we were approaching. It wasn’t on the horizon, but I could make out the short brick buildings and shorter, stocky lamp lights that gave the place some signs of life. A small town for sure. The road we were on would turn into the main street that divided the town into two halves, and from the distance we were at, I could see the entire scope of the town. Small.

A town, seemingly forgotten in time, so anything modern stuck out like a sore thumb.

There were several of those things.

“Slow down,” I ordered.

The RV began to slow in its approach, but we didn’t stop in our tracks. We’d crawled forward, stalling. Buying time.

Figuring out how we were going to get through this. Literally.

The small dots remained small, being in the distance. It wasn’t going to be like that for long.

I counted up the tally of obstacles.

Two trucks, blocky, like metal boxes on wheels, situated at either side of the entryway into the town, a larger truck to the right. Four people, standing on the road itself. Two of them were holding onto a line that connected them and an even smaller dot.

The RV got closer, and I realized those were lines were leashes. They had dogs.

“Border patrol?” I questioned, “Here?”

Isabella reacted. I couldn’t see her, with her at my back, but she did make a small noise, and I felt a tug on the sleeve of my hood.

“Seems like it,” Sarah said.

Shit, fucking shit.

I was expecting them, we had made plans with them in mind, but I wouldn’t have expected to run into them so soon. Going on a detour was a preemptive measure, but for them to have us beat?

“Two armored vehicles, a bigger truck, four guards and two dogs. Anything else I’m missing?”

“I don’t think so,” Sarah said, “The checkpoint doesn’t look very well put together. Seems improvised.”

“You think they saw us coming?”

“I don’t think so,” Sarah said again. “The next turn onto the highway isn’t for another few miles past the town, so they’d have to see us coming from even more miles away to set up something, and given the force they brought out, it wouldn’t be sufficient to catch all of us, if they knew we were here.”

“Then, they’re as surprised to see us as we are to see them?”

“Precisely. I’m sorry, Voss, I should have seen this coming, I should have expected this.”

“It’s no one’s fault,” I said, wanting to reassure her.

No one’s fault, but there was still a problem, here. It could have been worse, but it was still bad.

“Where’s Tone?” I asked.

“A mile behind, no else on the road between us.”

So border patrol wouldn’t see the truck, yet.

“Pass me the walkie-talkie,” I said.

Sarah handed over the device. The RV continued forward, slow. Isabella still had a hold on me.

I pressed a button on the side.

“Tone.”

Voss?

“I’m cutting right to it, we’ve got BP coming up pretty soon.”

A pause.

Shit.

“Don’t think they’ve seen you, but it’s too late for us. Are you able to turn around and make it back to the highway?”

I can. There’s no one around, so I have room. Just the road and open fields.

“Okay, do that then. Just pass the town that way. The detour was to see if anyone was tailing us, and it doesn’t seem like that’s the case, is it?”

It’s not, Voss.

“Good to hear. Alright. Let’s do that. We’ll catch up with you on the highway, or you can stop somewhere safe and wait for us. Keep us posted- oh, and let D and Lawrence know about this. Tell them we’ll going to be alright.”

Got it, Voss, turning back.

And with that, I gave the walkie-talkie back to Sarah.

“Let’s go,” I said. “We’ll meet them head on.”

“Got it, Wendy,” Sarah said, echoing Tone. The RV accelerated.

“Wendy.”

I turned.

Isabella made her concern clear. The kid who survived lonely, cold months in different cities and states, and evading these exact kind of people, she became just that, a kid. Someone who just wanted peace.

I sympathized.

“I’ll help you find a place to hide,” I said.

“Where? There’s nothing here. If they come up here with those dogs I am so fucked!”

“I promised I’d protect you, wouldn’t I? I intend to keep it.”

Isabella was still anxious, still clutching my arm, but I caught the tiniest smidge of relief in her eyes. The idea that we’d get past this and continue to El Paso.

I’d have to live up to that expectation, that standard.

“Follow me,” I said. “Sarah?”

“Wendy?”

“Keep going, I’ll be back in a second.”

Sarah nodded, silent. I didn’t need a response, just her acknowledgement. Her foot stayed on the pedal.

Again, I went to the back of the RV, with Isabella.

I looked through everything in the RV, anything that Isabella could hide behind or under. There was a restroom, some cabinets and shelves, but those were too obvious, too easy. She’d get sniffed out in no time.

Something unconventional? To buy us some time?

I checked the ceiling. Plastic panels. But they were bolted in. I had the strength to tear them out and make a hole for Isabella, but I didn’t have the tools to set them back in. And I didn’t have the time.

Tables, the seats…

I made it to the very back of the RV. Without a full plan in mind, I grabbed my bag, zipped it open, and unpacked everything.

“Stuff everything in the cabinet and drawers,” I said, unloading stuff. “You don’t have to be clean or careful about it, in fact, it might look better if it’s strewn about. Makes the place looked more lived in.”

I kept going, taking things out, picking them one by one as the bag was becoming more empty. I hadn’t brought much with me.

There. The bag was empty.

I turned. Isabella hadn’t moved or done anything. Her hand was hovering over one of my delicates that had landed on the floor, like she was scared to touch it, even if this situation could be life or death.

Move!” I said, hating that I had to be stern with her.

Isabella jumped.

“Wait but, why-”

I passed her, picking that small pile of clothes, stuffing them in an overhead cabinet.

“They’re clean,” I said. “I don’t have any weird stuff, so just move.”

I heard activity from Isabella as I continued moving stuff.

“What’s this then?”

I looked.

Small, black, with straps.

“That’s my mask,” I said.

Isabella froze, as though I told her she was holding a bomb, instead.

I flicked her on her forehead. She flinched, snapping out of it. Her pigtails swung.

“Move,” I said, more kindly this time. “You can just put that under something. If they find it, it’s not like they’ll know what that is, anyways.”

Isabella finally got with the program and moved.

With her help, we put all my stuff away.

Turning, pointed Isabella to the direction of my luggage bag, now empty.

“Get in,” I said.

I could sense the hesitation, but we had ran out of time for her to voice any of it. Isabella stepped inside, sat down, and curled into a ball.

She was small as it was, and now she was smaller. I zipped the bag back closed, stopping briefly before I covered her head.

Staring at me, anxious. That fear was back, stronger now. It gripped her.

“You’re stronger than me,” I said to her. “Never forget that.”

Isabella blinked, it was all she could do.

I closed the bag, and very, very carefully, I slid it under one of the tables, where I had my talk with Isabella, only an hour or so ago.

I returned to Sarah’s side. I sat in the passenger’s seat. Those dots weren’t small anymore.

Brief, Sarah and I shared a look. Silent, but a lot was exchanged in that moment.

The patrol readied their guard, and we were ready to meet them head on.

And then we met them head on.

Previous                                                                                               Next

068 – Upward Mobility

Previous                                                                                               Next

Hair neat, chin up, back straight, feet together. Hair washed, glasses clean, clothes fresh. Makeup applied. I was trying not to go overboard, but I wasn’t even sure where that particular line had been set. Had I gone too far, not far enough? What image, exactly, was I supposed to present, here?

Fuck me, I’m nervous.

My heart was pounding with anticipation. One false move, one wrong step, and this would be over before we could ever start.

We walked as a pair. I let him lead, let him take point.

Did I trust him? It didn’t really matter. He just needed to get the job done.

The weights behind us dragged.

I was wary of the eyes. The people watching, noticing. Even if they were mere glances, even if I didn’t register in anyone’s attention, I was still here, being seen. I wasn’t used to this. I preferred staying in the dark, keeping to the shadows.

The chandelier shined bright above. Exposing me, attacking me as if it was my natural enemy.

He stumbled. I stuck my hand out for support. And to lessen the chance of him falling, but it resulted in getting even more eyes on us, the stares lingering even longer.

All I wanted was to get in, and get out. It was all I had to do. For now. The hard part would come a little later.

For now, I just had to get through this. And this was not where my strengths were applicable.  He was the face, and I was the muscle. I had no use here.

Hair neat, chin up, back straight, feet together…

Fuck me.

We approached, and he stopped. I took my hand off of him. He was fine, now.

The lady smiled. Her hair was tied back, tight, not a single strand of hair was loose or out of place. Her cheeks were a rosy red, her lips cherry. Her makeup was better than mine. It looked professionally done.

And her eyes.

There was a thin, ashy black line that ran around her eyes, accentuating her lashes and giving her a fuller look. Pretty seemed like an understatement, and beautiful seemed overdramatic. Somewhere in between.

Appealing, then.

She asked us a question. He answered.

“May I have a name?”

“Lawrence Vazquez.”

She looked at me. I froze.

“And name?”

I felt my cheeks warm up by a significant degree. Rosier than hers.

Fuck me.

I answered.

“Wendy Vazquez.”

-had better knock him the fuck out.

Again, I found myself agreeing with him. We couldn’t drag this thing with Granon out any more than was appropriate or allowed. Doing so would paint the wrong image. That we couldn’t handle situations as they came up, however minor or pressing. Intruders, deals, relations with residents in territories. Word spreads, and anything negative or damaging could ruin our reputation. And our reputation was still developing. It had to be nurtured, helped along the way. If we fucked it up now, it could disrupt everything.

Seeds and roots. It all went back to that concept.

“I’m with you on that,” I said. “Any potential ideas?”

Not at the moment. That’s not my department.

I frowned, even though I was on a call.

“Not mine, either.”

But we both knew whose department it was, though. And they weren’t here, and they weren’t responding to our attempts to reach them.

The silence was disconcerting.

“I could try,” I said. “Worked out okay for me, just now.”

Tone turned his head, slow, giving me a prolonged stare. He still had a hand on Sarah, keeping her steady.

His look wasn’t one of contempt or distaste. It was a response, his way of bringing attention to what I had just done, or said. He seemed to have a way of getting a lot across with not a single word spoken.

“It… worked out,” I said, amending my previous statement, staring back at Tone.

Repeat that? I can barely hear you.

The rumbling to the back of us was getting louder. I had to speak up.

“I said we could try to come up with something, ourselves.”

Lawrence responded, but the rumbling overtook the first part of his sentence. I tilted back, getting ready to check behind us, after I concluded my call.

-so helpless without her, but we could use her input, too. Which requires her being here. Dammit. Still nothing?

“I’ve been talking with you this whole time. Nothing’s changed. I can try and give her another call after I hang up.”

Okay then, do that. I’m, ah fuck, still hurting here. Head back to the theater and we can sort things out.

“Will do,” I said. “Bye.”

I hung up.

I opened my mouth to give out another order, but the rumbling behind us swelled, and I could hear it move around us, to the side.

A vehicle, then. An engine?

I turned.

I could see him on the other side of the window. A man and his motorcycle. If I could even call him a man, and that thing a motorcycle.

The biker and his bike matched in color. A dark, smoky grey. It would have been black if the sun wasn’t out, beaming, letting the subtle shade show.

The color was all the same, but it was the form that twisted and snarled.

The bike itself had mechanical parts that twined together, running together, parts meeting and flowing into one another like sinew on muscle. Exhaust flowed out of the tailpipe, billowing out, to the point that no one could drive behind the bike without losing the ability to see. I checked the lane behind him, and it had thinned out. No one was following him.

Not a machine, it looked like a beast.

It wasn’t any normal bike.

The biker, too, had an aura about him that bordered on the fantastical.

Covered completely. Helmet, gloves, shoes. All matching in color and design. The rider was as sleek as the beast was not. Where the bike thrummed with power, rumbling, the biker was still, showing no sign that riding the thing was easy. Showing no sign at all. The face was obscured, only a black plate staring back at me.

With every inch of his body covered, it stripped away his identity, the person underneath. What remained was a new image, portrayed for the world to see. The rider and the beast.

No ordinary biker, and no ordinary bike.

I had a feeling I knew what was being portrayed. Or who it represented.

It was a uniform.

“Um.”

Reggie spoke, breaking the relative silence. The rumbling had only gotten louder now that the biker was riding in tandem with us.

“Should we do something?”

A good question. Were we supposed to engage, respond?

“He’s not doing anything,” Tone said, changing his gaze from eye to the biker. To the ferryman. “He’s just… looking at us.”

The ferryman stared, only taking the occasional glance ahead to keep himself steady. His helmet blocked our view of his face.

It felt odd, not being able to see what was usually so common. Another person’s face. We couldn’t figure him out, couldn’t parse why he would be here. Did other people feel that way towards Blank Face, V?

I didn’t appreciate having that feeling be directed back at me.

“Voss?” Reggie asked.

“Yes?”

“How’d you want to take this?”

Various things to consider. Was he here to sabotage us? Was he hostile? The longer we drove, the less likely that seemed. We were going down the highway, surrounded by other cars, many of them being the ones that were backed up by the blockade earlier. Getting into a conflict now would lead to an even bigger pile up.

We continued to drive, and so did the ferryman. If he had something planned, he would have done it by now.

But he didn’t.

Then, why was he here?

“Keep driving,” I said, careful. “I don’t think he has ill intentions.”

“Are you certain about that?” Tone asked.

No, but what else can we do?

“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah.”

Reggie kept the van at a steady speed, steering slightly as the highway curved. The ferryman kept up with us as we went along.

I was more curious than worried, now. Well, I still harbored a little concern. Having Styx’s Gang make a sudden appearance at this juncture could only lead to more complications. And we were trying to make things with Granon simple, and quick.

The ferryman raised his arm. I tensed, putting my phone away, watching him with a cautious eye.

Not to his side. He wasn’t reaching for anything.

Helmet gazing back, a hand off of the coiling metal handlebar. The beast crawled forward at a brisk speed.

He gestured.

“What’s he doing?”

It was Sarah that asked. She hadn’t turned to look, or perhaps she couldn’t, the impact of a van crashing into two cars was finally starting to get to her.

I really felt for Sarah. I wished I had come up with another plan, one that didn’t put her in danger.

I kept my eyes on the ferryman.

“Is he flipping us off?” Tone asked, angered.

I looked again.

It wasn’t that, the gesture was wrong. Unless he meant to flip himself off.

He lifted the other finger.

“Peace,” I said. But I had my own interpretation.

Victory.

That prompted a few ideas to formulate in my mind.

“Find a place to park,” I said, still watching him. “Somewhere out of the way.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Tone said.

“He’s not here to pick a fight. Otherwise, he’d have tried something by now, and I’d personally see to it that he fails.”

“So, what?” Reggie asked.

“There’s something he wants, whether it’s from us or for us. Let’s find out what that is. Take the next exit.”

Reggie gave me a nod, and signaled that he was about to make a turn. The ferryman acknowledged us by slowing down, maneuvering around until he was back to tailing us again. Smoke trailed us as we made it off the highway.

In taking the time to decide what our course of action should be, we had gone a considerable distance. We were well beyond the scope of our territory, entering into another part of town I had never visited before. Another neighborhood, but there were more shopping centers and restaurants around.

I let Reggie pick where we’d stop. I wasn’t familiar with the area, and I figured that I needed to learn how to delegate. It was an important skill in being a leader, one I couldn’t lack. I’d get in the practice when and where it was possible.

We moved, and the ferryman followed.

The back of a strip mall, between two trailers that were unloading inventory. No one was around.

Reggie stopped the car, and I heard the rumbling finally stop, as well. The ferryman was here, too.

I got the door for myself. I glanced back, and saw that Tone was still tending to Sarah, going the extra mile to make sure she was okay.

They could stay, I wasn’t going to push them any further.

I got out of the van. Another set of footsteps joined me.

Reggie. I wasn’t shocked to see him here, but I did appreciate it. Every little bit would help.

So many problems, happening and presenting themselves one after the other. Granon, those girls, the blockade, and this, with the ferryman. Not to mention that D had simply disappeared on us, leaving us with nothing but silence.

A lot on our plate. A lot of work, running a gang.

We walked, and so did the ferryman. We met at a middle point.

I was the first to speak.

“Here we are. What do you want from us?”

The ferryman looked between the both of us. Or, to be more precise, his helmet faced me, then Reggie, then back to me. He hadn’t taken the damn thing off.

Not a word came from him. As if the contrast the rumbling of the beast he rode in on, he was exercising complete silence.

You’re making this harder for me.

I tried another question.

“What does Styx want from us?”

That elicited a response, if I could even call it that.

A tilt of his head, directed at me. His hand went to a pocket on the side of his leather jacket.

I waited, cautious.

It wasn’t a gun, or a knife. An envelope.

It could still have something dangerous inside.

He brought the envelope forward. To me.

There was a delay before I realized I was supposed to take it.

I took it.

I looked it over, flipping it around. Looking over my shoulder, Reggie was observing the envelope, too.

No markings. It was just paper, plain and white. I shook it, and felt weight redistribute inside. Something solid, thin.

I looked back up to the ferryman.

“I suppose you won’t tell me what this is?”

The lack of an answer was expected.

I had learned more about Styx, his gang, and his ferrymen as I sunk deeper into the gang side of things, deeper into the underworld. A neutral party in most respects, only in that they worked with every gang. Moving drugs, delivering supplies and messages, making sure everyone was playing by the rules. If our gang managed to grow, it would lead to us working with Styx’s Gang. It was a part of the process. It was how things worked.

But, we were still new, not established. Styx’s Gang had no business working with us yet. Which, with this ferryman being here, naturally begged a lot of questions.

And he doesn’t seem interested in answering any of them.

But I tried, regardless.

“Am I supposed to open this now?”

No answer. Of course.

Putting my other hand on the envelope, I pinched my fingers together. I breathed in, then out, slow.

“Take a step back,” I told Reggie. “Just to be safe.”

Reggie didn’t protest or question me. He took a step back.

No hesitation. I couldn’t show a sign of weakness.

I tore open the envelope.

Stuff fell out, I caught them out of the air, the shredded pieces of paper were lost in the process. They flew away, drafted by the wind, and I didn’t see the need to chase after them.

I got what I needed, however.

Four cards, split into sets of two. I flipped through each of them.

I saw Lawrence’s face. I saw mine. I did a double take.

Fake IDs.

Weird.

I already had one. Though, it was as real to me as the sky being blue. Look it up, and the information on that card would appear. It was as legitimate as it needed to be. For my part, I believed the information on there to be true. I was not lying to myself, there.

This card, the one in my hand, was a fake. Only slight-

A couple of details hit me all at once.

The photo itself. Identical to the one used on my actual ID. The exact same. How did Styx even get access to that photo in the first place?

The last name. Wasn’t my last name.

Vazquez.

I flipped to the card for Lawrence. I’d never seen his real card before, so I could only guess if his picture was the same. Probably was.

I read the name.

Lawrence Vazquez. Wasn’t his last name.

The fuck is this?

I turned my attention back to the ferryman.

“The fuck is this?” I asked.

I actually got something this time.

It was another gesture, though. The ferryman raised his hand to point.

The other set of cards.

I rearranged the cards to get a better look at them.

White. Black stripes at the bottom of one side. An arrow. The logo and name and number on the other side helped in piecing things together.

They were keys for a hotel room. Keys for the Lunar Tower.

My attention went back to the the ferryman, a curious expression on my face. Not confusion, but curiosity, I had an idea of where this was going.

“Why?” I asked, already knowing it would be useless. “Why are you giving this to me? Why is Styx helping us?”

Or, is he setting us up?

Nothing. He was starting to piss me off.

Could I beat the information out of him? Until he answered in squeals? It was possible, and I wouldn’t be above doing that, if it was absolutely necessary.

Possible, but not viable. If this gang were to continue and grow, we had to establish a decent working relation with Styx and his gang, and bringing harm to one of his own was a great way to have that not happen.

I couldn’t touch the ferryman, and he knew it. He could push me as far as he wanted, with no repercussions, not unless I wanted to ruin my own gang.

I didn’t want that. We had a good thing going.

A metallic clang, a distance away. We all turned in the direction of the noise.

A man, standing by one of the long trailers. Dressed like a trucker. He had a panicked look on his face.

A civilian, who had walked in on something he had no reason being around. Unsure if he should run, or if he even could.

With a hard jerk of his body, he decided to run. He disappeared behind the long trailer.

A small distraction. We returned to the business at hand.

“Thanks,” I said, putting the cards away. “We’ve got it from here. Tell Styx he doesn’t have to worry about us. We’ll prove our worth.”

The ferryman bowed his head. The most movement I’d ever seen from him.

He brought himself back up, and turned to go. I took that as my sign to leave, too. Had to wrap things up early after getting interrupted. That trucker might come back with other, even more unwanted guests.

Reggie and I returned to the van, the ideas starting to solidify.

I didn’t like the conclusions I was coming to.

“Shit,” I said, “Shit.”

“What did he want?” Tone asked. He was sitting back in his seat, now, next to me. Sarah was leaned back as well, the seat reclined. Her eyes were closed.

She was breathing, I could tell that much, and she didn’t appear to be in pain. I chalked it up to her just resting.

Reggie started up the van again as I talked.

“I think… This isn’t just between us and the People’s Hammer. Not anymore.”

“Elaborate, Voss.”

“Styx’s Gang literally gave us the keys to go straight to Granon. Considering how well connected they are, there’s a chance that there might be other eyes on us, now, other parties interested in how this unfolds.”

“You really think so?” Reggie asked.

I stuffed the cards into a pocket of my hoodie, switching them out for my phone.

“It’s one possibility. I’ll admit that it’s just a guess. What this does mean is that we’re in a fight that we can not lose.”

“As if we were going to lose at all,” Tone said. “This doesn’t change anything.”

“You’re right,” I said, nodding.

But this does make it complicated.

I dialed my phone, bringing it to my ear.

No answer from D.

Figures.

I had a sneaking suspicion, that D had something to do with this. And I was only able to consider that connection, because this wasn’t the first time a similar set of circumstances occurred.

That night, it felt so long ago. The night we burned down East Stephenville to find Benny. Another ferryman had made an appearance while I was making my way back to the restaurant, square one. That ferryman had made the same symbol too. Victory.

I would have questioned it more if things weren’t so hectic, if we weren’t in a rush to get Benny back. Now, it was starting to be a more pertinent issue. Not as pressing as Granon, but with these cards in my possession, I couldn’t just let it go, anymore.

Dial tone. She still wasn’t picking up.

D goes missing, and a few hours later we get a visit from Styx’s Gang, giving us access to where Granon is staying. And only one person could possibly get a hold of my ID. Hell, she was the person who made my new one.

I was starting understand Lawrence’s paranoia towards D.

I put my phone down, flipping through the address book to find Lawrence. I’d have to call him about this.

My finger was over his name, ready to call.

I put my phone away.

I’d give him an hour. Spare him the immediate stress.

It would help me, too. Instructions weren’t included in that envelope. Styx gave us the cards, but wasn’t going to tell us how to play them. That was for us to figure out.

An hour. I’d take an hour to think and plan on my own. Then I’d let Lawrence in the know.

And then I’ll find D and strangle her for not letting us in the know.

The door swung wide. I let Lawrence go first.

“Dammit, it’s gorgeous,” Lawrence said.

“I hate that I keep agreeing with you,” I said.

The room did look amazing. Better to call it a suite, in all honesty. Or maybe something even sweeter than that.

Not curtains, but drapes. Not just lamps, but candelabras, and another goddamn chandelier. The suite could be defined by having everything a normal room would have, but better. Fancier. Gaudier.

A blue and gold color palette gave the room a lax but extravagant feel. Unwinding in style. The couches and chairs had cushions that looked more fluffy than pillows, patterns of flowers on the walls and furniture gave everything a softer, natural touch. Silver grooves and engravings, to give just an extra dash of extravagance.

Otherworldly, almost. Surreal, in just how out of place I felt. This felt like a room for royalty. On the board, I was the queen, but being here stretched that definition.

Speaking of…

“They even have a chessboard here,” I said, pointing it out on the long, rounded table, with leather legs and raised gold dots at the edges. “And it’s made of glass.”

“So what?” Lawrence asked, walking more into the room, bringing his luggage with him. “We don’t have time for games.”

I shot a look at him, but his back was to me. I grabbed my bag and entered the suite.

“I know that, I was just thinking along those lines and I just saw it and I wanted to… You know what? Never mind.”

The board isn’t even set up properly.

I passed Lawrence, who had elected to fall into one of the couches, groaning as he went down. Every bit of movement must have ached, for him.

For me, I was just happy to be out of the lobby, and out of sight. I couldn’t get that lady’s face out of my head. How she watched as I tried to act like I belonged. If this institution really had a reputation of being a neutral ground for gangs, then she probably saw right through me.

Fuck me, this is why I wear a mask.

I headed to the double doors in the back of the suite. Wooden, but with gold wrapping around the edges of the frame like vines.

Had to be here.

I pushed the doors open. I blinked, an eyebrow raised. I blinked again.

“Ah hell.”

“What?” Lawrence asked, from behind.

For a second, I was lost on what to specify.

Keep it simple.

Fine.

“There’s only one bed,” I said.

What!”

I heard a rush of pillows and bags and chairs being knocked over.

Lawrence rushed past me, into the bedroom.

He groaned, probably both from the pain he was still recovering from, and the most recent discovery of this strange, strange situation we had found ourselves in.

“Ah, hell.”

The bedroom was its own section of the suite, but it was no less impressive.

It matched with the rest of the suite with its aesthetics, blue and gold, fancy light and decorations. And the bed itself was the crown jewel.

Framed by drapes, with a renaissance-style painting right above the head of the bed, mounted on the wall. The plant and flower motif continued in here, too, painted vines twisting along the wall and the side of the bed, smooth lines flowing around in an almost random fashion, like how I’d imagine actual plants to grow when left on their own. No one pattern or design was repeated, but nothing clashed or hurt the eyes. It was all so… relaxing.

Relaxing, yet somehow a slap in the face.

Something was waiting for us on the bed.

An oversized teddy bear, placed between the pillows. It was holding a box, shaped into a heart, probably filled with chocolates.

That confirmed my suspicions.

Still a slap in the face, though.

Only one bed, and there was only one night on the reservation. We had until we checked out at noon tomorrow to finish this.

Those were the rules of this game.

It did make things easier, in a sense. Having a deadline snap at the heels had a tendency to make a person run faster.

But, still…

“This is a joke right?” Lawrence asked, summarizing my own thoughts. “This has to be a joke.”

“It most definitely is,” I said, leaning one shoulder against the doorframe. “In a strange way, we can probably take comfort in that. The fake IDs, giving us the same fake surname, the fact that it starts with a ‘V,’ the single bed, even the chessboard and… the fucking teddy bear. This has her style written all over it.”

“Her…” Lawrence said, seething, the word sliding between gritted teeth.

“D,” I said, finishing his thought for him.

I saw Lawrence twitch, his head jerking around, as if looking for a fly that buzzing around him, or avoiding the gaze of the stuffed animal.

“You think she’s here?” he asked, gaze still darting, “Listening in on us?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” I said, though I couldn’t help but wonder, despite myself. “Just think of this as another one of her pranks.”

“Pranks, right.” He trudged over to the bed, putting a hand on it for balance. “As if I needed to be pranked by her again. I thought that shit was behind me, now.”

With a sudden motion, he pushed the teddy bear out of the way and over the other side. He fell onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling. Another chandelier.

“Shows just how much I know,” he said, breathing out, barely audible. “I can hear her laughing, somewhere. It’s echoing. Constant. Ha, ha. Ha.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Don’t get so worked up over it,” I said. “Wherever she is, she’s just trying to help. It just so happens that she has a very particular idea of what ‘help’ means.”

Lawrence mumbled.

“Did it have to be like this, though?”

I took my shoulder off the frame, moving to get my bag out of the way of the door. “Like I said, stressing out over it isn’t going to benefit you any. You’ll never be able to get any rest, doing that. Just… you can take the bed.”

Lawrence sat right up, but he couldn’t stifle an aching groan.

“Huh?”

“I’m not about to share it with you. I can take the couch or floor or whatever, if we even get time to sleep.”

I was moving as I talked, setting my bag next to the couch. I didn’t bring a lot with me, I didn’t even have a lot to bring. An extra set of clothes, the necessities like a toothbrush and comb, my glasses case, and my costume… In case it would ever come to that. A small part of me hoped it wouldn’t have to come to that.

Though, would bringing it mean that I was expecting to wear it?

I nudged the bag, letting it roll an inch or two away.

I told myself that I would bring it as a precaution, but using it would probably make things worse. Not just for us and the People’s Hammer, but for everyone. And nothing good could be salvaged from that.

Maybe I brought it for security? That I had something to fall back to if this goes south?

I knew I was out of my element, here. I couldn’t resort to my old tricks, I couldn’t fall on old habits. Had to draw upon other stuff. Stuff I normally lacked.

I couldn’t doubt myself.

I opened my bag.

“I think I’ll head out,” I said, digging through my luggage. “Take a look around. Get a better sense of the building, and see where else it earns its five stars.”

Lawrence replied, shouting from the bedroom. He still sounded far away.

“Are you sure?”

No, but what choice do I have?

“Yes,” I said. “Though, actually, I would have you come with me, but the last thing I want is for you to bump into Granon. We know he’s staying somewhere here, but we don’t know where, exactly. They didn’t exactly make this easy on us.”

“They led us right to him, but bringing us here, where so many representatives of other gangs stay and rub shoulders… If we get into a fight, that’s not going to present the right image to everyone else.”

I nodded, saying, “It’s pretty much forcing us to try and cut a deal with Granon. Not a lot of elbow room to start swinging.”

“But Granon already tried to cut a deal with us, and we said no. How is it going to look if we go back on that?”

“Not good, but remember, the same thing applies to him. If he wants a spot in this city, he can’t make a mess of this place.”

There was a moment’s pause. The only thing I heard from Lawrence’s end of the room were bedsheets being tossed around.

“Do you want to cut a deal with Granon?” Lawrence asked, settling back in.

I was going to do my thinking aloud. “I don’t. Not if it means him being in our territory. The blockade alone was enough to show that he doesn’t care about the place or the people. The only thing he cares about is the growth of his own gang, and that means having a hold in this city, one way or another. He couldn’t get it through Mister, his proposal was rejected by his secretary, and I’m thinking there might be a reason why.”

“Like how we’re controlling what products are being sold in our territory? Tailoring our clientele?

“Something like that. Considering how little we interacted with Granon, and how volatile he proved to be in that short amount of time, if we didn’t want him, then the higher ups that run this city probably don’t want him, too.”

“We’re thinking like the big guys,” Lawrence commented. “I’m not sure if I should be happy about that or not.”

I found my knife, and stuffed it in a pocket on my side. I had enough room.

“It means,” I said, getting up, “That we have what it takes to be one of the higher ups, one day. The big guys. With Granon, the People’s Hammer does not. And that’s why we’ll be the ones to stop them from swinging. Remove any nails they might have.”

“Um, is that you being literal or what?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Okay,” Lawrence said, and I could hear him trying to get up from the bed, and then succeed after another try. “Hold on.”

I was standing back up, too, stretching my back, feeling and hearing it pop. Lawrence was walking out of the bedroom, meeting me by the couch.

“What is it now?” I asked. I was itching to get out and do something, even if it meant going through the lobby again, being out of my element.

Lawrence jammed his hands into his pockets, looking at me, but not making eye contact.

“I’m sure I’ve made it clear by now, but in case you haven’t caught on… I don’t like this, any of this. I don’t like how Granon is trying to muscle in, I don’t like how D is missing, I don’t like how convenient it is that a fucking ferryman gives you the keys to the Lunar, and I especially don’t like how I’m included in this shit. I don’t know what me being here even accomplishes. I mean, no one’s watching the territory. Fuck, I’m useless, here.”

If I was doing an okay job at hiding my anxiety about everything, then Lawrence was on the opposite end of the spectrum. He knew what him being here would – and did – accomplish, and he knew he wasn’t useless. He still felt the need to say that, regardless.

And I had to settle him down. It would better settle me down, too.

“Did you see the lady at the front desk? She would have snuffed me out in an instant if I tried to come in by myself, even if I had a reservation. I just don’t fit in with this kind of scene, or at least, I’m not used to it yet. Not used to having a lot of money or interacting with those who do. Nouveau riche, I guess you can say.”

I pointed a finger, setting it on Lawrence’s chest.

“You, from what I’ve seen with Granon and the lady, can act the part of a poised gangster. I’m… not quite there. You’re the face of the organization, I’m just the muscle. We each have a part to play. You had yours, and now it’s my turn.”

I flicked my finger. A gentle movement, from my perspective, but it was enough to knock him on his ass. He landed on the couch.

“So take a damn break. I can tell you’re still hurting from Granon’s beatdown, yesterday. I’ve got it from here. And about the territory, I trust that Reggie and Tone can keep things together for a night. And… As for D, and how Styx fits in this, let’s just take the convenience as it is, and we can move on to that after we’re through with the People’s Hammer.”

Lawrence adjusted his posture on the couch, getting himself in a better position.

“I guess a full twenty-four hours is too much to ask.”

I smiled. Slight, sympathetic.

“It is.”

Turning, I moved to leave the suite.

Lawrence called out. “You have your knife? Keys? Phone?”

“I do,” I answered. All three were in the pockets of my jacket. A dark blazer, a white buttoned shirt under that, and a dark skirt and dress shoes. They were the only pieces in my closet that wouldn’t put me out of place with the other guests and staff of this hotel. Coupled with the makeup, I never felt so awkward.

I could imagine Alexis wearing this outfit like a second skin. Me? Not so much. It was another costume.

“You have your wallet?”

I stopped at the door.

“I… do, why?”

“Get me something to eat. I want to taste that fifth star, if you know what I mean.”

“I’ll see what they have,” I said.

“And get yourself something while you’re at it. I’ve been meaning to bring it up for a while, now, but I haven’t seen you take a bite of anything, ever.”

Calling me out directly, was he?

“I can’t eat,” I said, turning the knob. “A drawback of my powers.”

“You can’t eat? Then what-”

“Good night, Lawrence,” I said, firm, opening the door. “Stay inside and rest. Call me if you need anything, or I’ll call you.”

I shut the door before Lawrence could reply.

Finally, I thought.

I was standing out in the hall. A warm glow from the lights above, a soft carpet with a constellation and moon imagery, and so many doors I almost felt dizzy. I had the key to the room, so I couldn’t get lost. Floor forty, fourth room. I’d never been in a building with so many floors, before.

And in one of these many floors, was Granon, and so many other gangs. Like looking for a needle in a needlestack. I couldn’t get myself, and by proxy, my gang, be riddled with holes as I search for him.

No big deal.

And, I couldn’t punch him when I see him.

Great.

Hands in my pocket, I started walking, heading to the elevators.

A lot of work, running a gang. And with how hard it was getting, I hoped that meant we were finally moving up in the world.

Previous                                                                                               Next

067 – Girl, You Gotta Carry That Weight

Previous                                                                                               Next

I walked into the Redhouse, a faint echo following every step I took.

No one was home. We still laid claim to the place, but we were able to move a lot of our inventory out to the new territory, our neighborhood. There was still some stuff in storage, either stuff that was too big to move, or not important enough that it needed to be close at hand. Extra funds, spare guns, and drugs we weren’t looking to deal. Once we were more settled, the plan would be for people to take shifts, essentially squatting at the location so it could remain within our jurisdiction. More territory meant more power, and we needed all the terrority we could get. But, for now, we needed everyone at the neighborhood, to help bolster our numbers and cement our presence there. Chances were good that we’d drop the place entirely, if we expanded even further, and found someplace better.

No, not if. When.

I needed to think along those lines, that we would succeed. If there was even a hint of uncertainty, then that could plant seeds in the mind. Seeds of doubt. And any setback or obstacle or difficulty faced, however minor, would only allow for those seeds to grow, the roots digging, until a final, decisive moment came, and I would be unable to act upon it, those roots already having me tied down.

I couldn’t afford that. I couldn’t afford failure.

And I wasn’t going to ever think that I could.

I walked into the Redhouse, the echoing growing louder.

Maybe this wasn’t the best place to…

To do what?

I looked around, even though I knew it was empty. Why had I come here, exactly? If I needed some time to think, I could have done it on the way to reconvening with D and Lawrence, and I needed to go somewhere secluded, having Sarah take me there would be defeating the purpose. I was wasting time and energy, going out of my way to come here.

And yet, here I was.

I wandered, each step less certain than the last. I scratched my head, played with my hair, fixed my glasses, straightened my hoodie, zipped it down, only to zip it back up again. I was wandering.

Going in circles.

My head was spinning, feeling dizzy for reasons I couldn’t explain or properly dissect. It all mixed together into a soupy mess, I couldn’t tell where one feeling ended and the other began. And trying to isolate any one thing brought a mess of other stuff with it. A mixture.

Fuck. I wanted to punch something.

“Did you find it?”

I turned to the door, startled.

Ah.

Sarah. She had followed me inside, the door closing as she came in.

It was the most complete view I had of her. From head to toe.

Her hair was a light brown, an even lighter shade as she stepped into the light, the sun coming from above. Her skin was tanned, from having spent so much time outdoors and it simply being her natural complexion. To contrast, she had on a white sweater that hugged her body snug, leaving only one shoulder exposed. Her jeans were black, slim, but loose by her ankles, with boots to match.

If it weren’t for the gun that was strapped behind her, Sarah looked like she could be a model.

There was a maturity to her looks that I could never hope to ever match or develop. Which only made the displacement of power between us all the more noticeable. She was a few years my senior, yet she answered to me. I told her to take me here. I gave her an order, and she listened. I was the leader, and she was my subordinate.

That’s how it’s supposed to be.

“Find?” I asked.

Sarah looked confused.

“Did you find what you were looking for?”

I remembered, now. I already forgot?

“Uh, no, I just got in.”

Sarah nodded, accepting that answer. She glanced around as she crossed the lobby, approaching me.

I had given a flimsy excuse when I told her to take me to the Redhouse, and I’d come up with something better by the time we got here. It didn’t happen, apparently, my thoughts were drifting elsewhere the whole trip.

Even now, I still felt…

I wasn’t sure how I felt.

Distracted? Listless?

Fuck.

I set my hoodie straight again, even though it was already fine. I was very aware of how the cloth of the jacket brushed against my stomach, the cold of the zipper touching me whenever I breathed.

Sarah spoke, breaking the spell of silence.

“At the risk of repeating myself, are you alright, Voss?”

“You are repeating yourself,” I said.

Sarah shrugged. “You didn’t answer me the first time I asked, so I had to follow up.”

My gaze went down to her boots.

“Give me a second to look around,” I said.

I moved, walking across the lobby, to the counter. I put my elbows on the surface, and leaned over, as if I was actually searching for something.

“You’re upset,” Sarah said.

A very pointed statement, that.

I didn’t turn to face her when I responded.

“I don’t think upset is the right word to use, here.”

“What is the right word, then?”

That was where I was stumped.

I set my lips into a line, staring at nothing in particular.

Fuck, I thought, for the third time in less than the same amount of minutes. I was starting to regret coming here, I wasn’t getting anything out of this. I didn’t even know what I had come here to get. Why, and for what reason? As though I was operating on some instinct that hadn’t been called on in so long, that it had forgotten how to function, and how to express and release that building… tension? Pressure? Whatever it was, exactly, it was spreading, growing, putting a strain on other stuff as it pressed against it, adding stress.

A broken connection, being forced to carry an impulse. A burden it might not be able to handle.

If I wasn’t careful, something could break.

I felt like I was about to have a migraine.

I breathed, remembering that I had to.

What is happening?

“It’s those girls, isn’t it?”

Sarah questioned, my back still to her.

Another pointed statement. Sarah seemed to have a talent for hitting right where it stung.

But, did it sting?

A minor wound, one that-

No, no. Thinking, picking apart my thoughts, alone. Going in circles. Wasn’t getting me anywhere.

I let my eyes close, and I opened my mouth.

“Not them, not entirely. I, it’s, more complicated than that.”

“You want to talk about it?”

I screwed my eyes tighter.

“That’s what I was trying to do.”

“Sorry, Voss, I didn’t mean to push you. Please, take your time.”

I took my time, trying to think of a decent place to start.

“Wendy,” I said.

“Yes?”

“It’s Wendy. Don’t call me Voss, not right now.”

There was a pause.

“Oh. Okay.”

“Yeah.”

That was a start.

“It’s not those girls, but they… I think I’ve realized something, about myself.”

A bit of time passed. I was expecting a response from Sarah, but I didn’t get one. Was she still wanting to give me space? Time?

It forced me to continue.

“I’m lacking, as a leader,” I said, matter-of-factly. “And I’m afraid that might reflect in other places, too.”

It felt as if I wasn’t even talking to her anymore. I was just talking aloud, and she happened to overhear.

Sarah responding diminished that feeling, though.

“I don’t understand.”

I wouldn’t expect you to.

“It happened with EZ and Krown,” I said.

“EZ and Krown? The Thunders and Royals?”

I nodded, but I still wasn’t facing her. “Before all this started, us moving into the neighborhood, D and I had gone ahead to check things out. We did some minor surveillance of the leaders of both gangs, on their turf, to get a sense of who they were and how they operated.”

“And something happened?”

I nodded again. “But, they knew we were outsiders, and they got the upper hand on us. On me. They lead me on, toyed with me, and made me look like a fucking idiot. I fell right into their tricks, and I had no idea I was being played.”

“And that made you upset,” Sarah said.

“More than upset. I was livid. I took that anger, that frustration, and focused it back at them. And look where they are, now.”

“Sounds like you did a pretty good job at turning things around.”

“But, that’s not my concern.”

Another few seconds of silence.

“What is your concern, then?” Sarah asked. She probably recognized that she was stepping on the time she had let me use to think. Probably not out of any disrespect, but to help guide me along to my point.

That was what I wanted to think, at least.

“My concern is… That, by myself, I’m not good enough, or well-rounded enough, to lead a gang. Twice, now, I’ve encountered a situation I wasn’t prepared for, or I wasn’t expecting, and I couldn’t… handle it.”

“You’re counting what went down with those girls as one of those situations?”

“I am. And what makes it worse is that they’re not even targets. I have no reason to seek them out again and make them pay. Nothing would come from it, nothing tangible.”

“I won’t ever say you’re wrong in feeling what you’re feeling, but you’re not alone. You’re not even alone as a leader. You have D, you have Lawrence. You have… the rest of us.”

I shook my head.

“I can’t keep relying on others. That time with EZ and Krown, I had D. This time with those girls, I had you, of all people. Strike one and strike two. What happens the third time around, when I’m at a critical juncture, and I fail? And there’s no one to help? Everything falls on me, and I won’t have the strength to keep it all up.”

“When you talk like that, you’re already assuming that you will fail. So stop that. And second, no one is asking you to carry that kind of burden, especially all by yourself. No one, even with super strength, can handle that. You can’t expect yourself to be bigger than life, all the time. No one is, and everyone has their shortcomings. That’s why people reach out, and rely on others in the first place.”

I slapped my hands on the counter, and turned.

I was facing Sarah, now, standing straight, feet planted firm.

Say it, become it.

“I know what I am,” I said. “I am bigger than life. I am a monster. I’ve done monstrous and ugly things, and I’ll continue to do monstrous and ugly things to get what I want. I have a power that no one else has, and I need to recognize that it puts me above, well, people.”

An arrogant thing to say, but, on a fundamental level, it was true.

But, I thought.

I spoke. “I am capable of so much more, and if I can’t reach those heights I know I can reach, then what am I good for? I can’t keep relying on others. Someone, a while back, had likened me to a gun, that others can use to point and fire. They direct me to where I need to strike, and they shoot. I can do that, I can be good at that. But that can’t be everything. There’s three of us, but we can’t stick with just our individual strengths and abilities. I know where I’m lacking, and that’s something they can’t help me with. It has to be me. I have to better than… this.”

Another silence. It lingered.

I brought my hand up, brushing my fingers through my hair. I adjusted my glasses.

“Am I even making any sense?” I asked.

I saw Sarah smile. Small, sympathetic.

“Not really, but that doesn’t mean what you’re feeling isn’t real. If that’s what you feel like you need to do, then do you, girl. Nobody can stop you. I’d love to see you grow and become a real leader. And, if it means anything coming from me, I think you’re doing a pretty good job right now.”

A warmth hit me. Not exactly like the one before, from my encounters with those girls. It wasn’t uncomfortable, awkward, or otherwise distressing. It was reassurance.

Which, in and of itself, sort of made it awkward.

“I… appreciate the sentiment,” I said, looking away. “You sound like you’ve done this kind of thing before.”

“I originally had gone to university to be a therapist. But, as I’m sure you know, life has a way of making things not go the way you want. And this ended up paying more, faster.”

She shrugged, spreading her arms.

“No big,” she said, smiling lightly.

I walked back across the lobby, heading to Sarah. My footsteps seemed to echo less than before.

“I’m sorry for taking up your time,” I said. “I didn’t actually have any real business here.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Sarah said, giving me a wink. Even that had a different effect from the wink I had received earlier. “I hope you found something worthwhile, anyways.”

“Maybe,” I said.

Sarah spread her arms again, wide.

“Do you want a hug?” she asked.

I considered taking a step back.

“I’m fine,” I said.

Sarah lifted her arms an inch higher.

“You sure?”

I considered.

But, I thought again.

“I’m fine. At the risk of repeating myself, I, um, appreciate the sentiment.”

Sarah replied. “You are repeating yourself, Voss.”

We both smiled.

Sarah dropped her arms to her side, and I took that as a signal to leave. But, before I could take a step, I got a call.

I grabbed my phone out from my pocket.

“Hey,” I said.

Where have you been?

Lawrence. Sounding as strained as ever.

“Sorry. I… took a detour.”

Took a detour? Where are you now?

“I’m at the Redhouse.”

What the fuck are- whatever, never mind. Look, we’ve got a situation.

I looked at Sarah. She must have noticed my expression. It was serious.

Lawrence sounded serious.

“What kind of situation?” I asked.

Granon’s making a move.

I felt my heart pound faster, my pulse quicken.

“Already?”

Yeah. On Boseman and Jordan. All I know right now is that there’s some traffic disturbance, and the People’s Hammer are involved.

That was right in our neighborhood, if not right at the edge of it.

Shit.

“You want me over there?” I asked.

No fucking shit. I’d, ow, shit, I’d come over there myself, but I’m still too fucked up to be of any use. I’m going to need your muscle on this one.

“I can do that.”

Then hurry. Hey-”

I was about to hang up, but I heard more from my phone.

“What?” I asked. “I missed that last part.”

I was asking if you’ve seen D.

If I’d seen D?

“Not since setting up at the theater,” I answered. “Why? I thought she was with you.”

She went out, she didn’t explain why, and she’s not picking up. I thought she went over to where you were.

Lawrence was right, this was a situation. Granon was taking action, in our territory, and D was not accounted for. She was our strategist, and she would have been useful in handling this. She would have planned something, and she would have made a game of it.

But, she wasn’t around, and we couldn’t afford to wait for her. Wherever she was, she had better show up, and soon.

Lawrence, too, was unavailable. Out of commission, still reeling from his one-sided fight with Granon. He could barely move, and I wouldn’t want him to. He had to be benched. He’d need to rest.

It was all up to me, now.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “D’s not here, but I can take care of it.”

Good luck. Bye.

“Bye,” I said. I turned to Sarah.

“What’s up, Voss?”

I blinked, feeling the pressure, like a weight on my chest. It was suffocating.

“This might be strike three,” I said.

I was running headlong into danger, knowing there was a chance that someone could get hurt, or worse, get killed.

So why did it feel like I was running away?

My feet stepped from road, to sidewalk, grass, sidewalk, and road again. I had turned corners, cut through alleys, and over gates. Past bystanders and onlookers.

I finally found a place to stop. Or, perhaps, more accurately, I let something stop me.

On the road, a car. People standing around it. Mine.

“Move!” I yelled.

They moved, out of the way, and right on time.

The side of my body collided with the car.

It absorbed most of the impact, stopping me and keeping me in place. The car skidded a foot to the side due to the hit.

Everyone shouted. Shocked, surprised at my sudden entrance.

“Holy-”

“Shit!”

“You dented my car!”

I pushed myself out and away from the car. A bone broke, but it had already mended by the time I settled everyone down.

“Guys, cool it! It’s just me!”

I had my arms up, hands high, as if physically making myself appear larger helped.

The initial confusion dissipated, and everyone’s focus was back, and on me.

I saw Reggie and Tone among the gathered group. I looked at them as I directed my questions.

“Any updates?”

It was Reggie who answered.

“Nah, it’s been like this for almost an hour, now. They’re still up there, blocking the access road.”

“Shit,” I said, barely hearing myself. Not just from all the running, but everywhere around us, every car was honking.

It was so fucking loud.

“Cops haven’t come in to move them yet?” I asked.

“You want them here? That’s asking for even more trouble. It’s not that bad, not yet.”

And I have to not let it get to that point.

Shit. Time was running out, and so were my options. I had to think, but I barely had any time for that, either.

Cover your bases, what’s going on right this second?

A lot of things.

Traffic stretched, going back several blocks. The People’s Hammer were situated right at the access road that merged into a highway. It was a major road for this part of the city, and in many respects, for a lot of people, it was their only way out of the neighborhood. People had jobs elsewhere, or they were looking to find some respite from the stresses of living here.

And Granon’s men were blocking everyone trying to get through.

To make things worse, the access road only went one way. Anyone who got stuck here was unable to turn back. A chokepoint.

The longer Granon’s men stayed in place, the longer the traffic became. It wouldn’t be long before the growing pressure bubbled, then boiled, only for everything to blow up in our faces. If we…

If I couldn’t deal with this, then we couldn’t continue as a gang at all.

Within me, the pressure started to bubble.

“Where’s Granon?” I asked. “Is he here?”

Tone turned to look, but Reggie answered.

“Haven’t seen him.”

Tone turned back. “Doesn’t rule him out of being here, though.

Reggie nodded.

“Anything else?” I asked. “Any fights that broke out, or any shots fired?”

Reggie shook his head.

“They’re just standing there, holding everything and everyone back. They’re probably strapped, though, with a few more in the trunk.”

“And you’re sure about that?”

Reggie shrugged.

“I just know that’s what I would do.”

I stepped to the side, to look past Reggie and Tone and the others, past the cars and other drivers who got out to get a look for themselves.

They were small dots from where I was standing, but I saw the black cars, and the black suits standing around them. Granon’s men. The People’s Hammer. I didn’t see Granon himself, but, if he was ever out here, I couldn’t miss him.

“At least they’re not actively doing any damage,” I said. “But they are making themselves known, here.”

“And they’re being annoying as fuck,” Tone said.

“Yeah,” I said, “That too.”

I let a few seconds pass as I stared off into the distance, looking at Granon’s men.

“You got any ideas, Voss?”

The question took me out of my thoughts. I looked between Reggie and Tone, trying to figure out who asked that.

“Thinking,” I said.

Tone spoke. “Well, think faster, Voss, this stalemate can’t last forever. Something’s gonna give, and it ain’t gonna be us.”

There were murmurs of assent around us, barely audible over all the car horns.

Not a lot of time to think, and I was being pressed to hurry.

What should I do?

Move in to attack, try to mitigate the damage done? Possible, but potentially messy, especially with all of the civilians around.

Move in to talk, get them to stand down? Less probable, but stranger things have happened. If I could appeal to them, somehow, drive home just how bad things could go if they stuck around? If I tried to be diplomatic?

The more I considered it, the more that idea seemed far fetched. They were here for a reason, and they’d only leave if they had anything worth reporting back to Granon. If they found anything useful, like a weakness in our group, or if they’d somehow managed to secure a win.

Right now, they were testing us, and it was a test we couldn’t fail.

Couldn’t engage, but words might fall on deaf ears.

Something in the middle, then?

“Spread out,” I said. “I’ll need eyes from as many different angles as possible. Let’s find an opening we can approach this from.”

I looked at everyone as they looked at each other.

“Spread out,” I said again, much firmer.

There was another slight delay before people started moving, going in different directions, going by themselves, in pairs, or smaller groups.

They listened, but they had to consider it, first. I didn’t have the command over them like Lawrence did. Not with everyone.

“Want us to come, Voss?” Reggie asked. He was still here, but he looked ready to move at any second.

“No,” I said. “No offense, but you won’t be able to keep up. Besides, I’ve got Sarah.”

Tone gave me a look of confusion.

“Yeah, wait, where is she, anyways?”

“She’s around,” I said, moving a foot forward. “Get going, and keep your phones at hand!”

I broke into a sprint, leaving them behind, heading to the blockade of Granon’s cars and men.

Dammit. I hated that I had to be on my own on this.

I didn’t have the capacity for scheming like D, and I didn’t have authority that Lawrence held, and I couldn’t do my usual thing, to boot. Brute force wasn’t the key, here, and I was forced into a position at playing the parts my colleagues usually handled.

Dammit.

Had to play it by ear, I figured I was pretty decent at doing that. I’d put the pieces on the board, get a layout of where the enemy was, and go from there.

It’s what D would do, but it would be my version of that approach.

Running down the street, between people and over cars, I got closer. I was moving fast. Fast enough to draw attention, but not fast enough to draw suspicion.

A crowd had formed near the blockade itself. Dense, packed with people, and I wouldn’t be able to get through unless I used a conspicuous amount of strength.

I found a nearby car, and climbed on top to get a better look.

Three black cars, six of Granon’s men. At least. There might be more on the other side of the cars’ tinted windows. Better to be paranoid and prepare for the worst, than to assume everything was okay and be blindsided.

Ten would be my conservative guess.

The cars were parked in a line, grill to bumper, blocking the opening into the highway. Granon’s men were also in a line, standing, making it very obvious that they were not to be messed with or approached. They were strapped, armed with rifles.

The guns weren’t aimed or directed at anyone in particular, but they were there. By their side, ready at a moment’s notice. Couldn’t let it get to that point.

Some of them noticed me, but they didn’t recognize me. I was standing out, literally.

I attracted the attention of some others, too.

“Hey! Get off my car, you asshole!”

Someone, from the gathered crowd that surrounded the cars and men, had turned and saw me. He left the crowd, me being where I was had become more pressing than the armed mobsters keeping him and dozens of people in place.

“I said get the hell off my car!”

I gave the man a cursory glance, and then it was back to the blockade.

Tools. I had my bag, my stuff inside. Knife, earpiece… costume.

Couldn’t use that. Bringing V into this would be like throwing gasoline where there was only cinders. A guarantee for disaster.

Had to do this as Wendy. Which was starting to feel like an impossible task. I ran all the way here, and I still hadn’t come up with anything.

I felt the roots dig.

I wish D was here. Lawrence. Sarah. Fuck, I’ll even take Reggie or Tone. Someone to-

“Hey, you!”

I looked down. It was that guy, walking faster to me.

“Are you stupid? Get off-”

It was enough for him to shut up.

I had made a face, twisting my expression. Teeth showing, eyes widening. A scowl, nearing a snarl. I stared hard, focusing my gaze into a single point on his neck. I wasn’t even looking at him as a person. Or perhaps, I was looking at him as a person, but something had changed from my end. My perspective.

The man stopped in his tracks.

“Fucking wait,” I told him, expression unchanging.

He waited. Standing there, staring back, mouth slightly agape. Perplexed, stunned. Unsure of what to do, or what he could do, next.

An odd exchange, but I’d take it.

He was disoriented for the moment, and I used that to get back to the task at hand.

Concentrate.

I couldn’t tackle this directly. I had to go about it in an oblique way.

From behind, then.

It was something.

I hopped down, feet on the ground, phone in my hand.

I walked to the crowd, about to walk through it.

I passed the man, his eyes still on me, still locked into whatever compelled him to stare.

Someone else was at his side, now. Someone new.

A woman, mid-thirties, she looked like. She had a yellow sweater, with a black cap on her head. Thick rimmed glasses. In her hands were a pad of paper and a phone, the phone was pointed and directed in a way that made me apprehensive.

“Oli, who’s that?” she asked, as I put them behind me.

The man barely got out a word as an answer.

“Nat, I…”

His breathy tone was drowned out by the continued shouting and horn honking. It seemed to get louder, more intense, more pissed off. As if it was a gauge on how much patience the people here had, and how much time we had left.

And we were running out on both.

I put my phone out in front of me as I started moving through the crowd. I was small, short, and I was able to find the small gaps between the people here, however small.

I started typing as fast as I could, getting out as many messages as possible.

Please let this work.

The phone went back into my pocket as I made it past the crowd. I was met with some protest, but a harder nudge from my direction made them give. Easier than I expected.

And then I was facing the blockade. Granon’s men.

They noticed me again, all of them facing me. Did they recall me from before, when I was standing on the car?

I continued forward.

I walked at an angle, so I was heading to the car on the far left rather than going to them directly. They positioned themselves to keep me in their sights. I saw their hands lower, to their weapons.

I raised my hands, stopping by one of them. He was dressed like his boss. All black, long coat, a wide brim hat. The spitting image of a mobster.

“Hi,” I said, putting my hands to my side.

“And you are?” he asked.

“Just a concerned citizen. I don’t mean to be rude, but you and your friends are in the way. The people here are trying to get through.”

“That is precisely why we are here. To be a thorn in this community’s side.”

At least he admitted that he was being an asshole.

“Well, congratulations, you guys are pricks. You think you can pack it up now?”

He glowered at me. His shoulders were straight, his hand physically on his gun. He must have made some other signal or gesture, because the other men started coming our way.

“We are here under explicit orders, little girl,” the man said, assuming a more assertive tone. “You do not get a say in what happens, here.”

“Yeah, and those orders are from Granon, right?”

The mere mention of his name gave them each a bodily reaction. A twitch, a shudder, a gesture in some way.

I had gotten right to it.

They closed in even more, now, all of them with their hands on their guns. Their rifles.

I’d considered it, perhaps getting them to run off with just a look, alone. From the looks they had, though, and the weapons they held, I had a distinct, gut feeling that it wouldn’t work.

Had to hit them from another direction.

The man who had been entertaining me spoke again. “You are lucky we did not shoot you as you came here. It would be easy.”

“Yeah, and thanks for not doing that,” I said. “Appreciate it.”

He grimaced.

“Are you playing us, girl?” he questioned.

Trying to.

Someone else from the group spoke, addressing the man I had been talking to. It was a language I’d never understand.

They conversed, briefly.

They all faced me again.

The man spoke again.

Leave,” he said, that one word carrying with it an accent that gave his demand even more weight. “I do not know who you are, but I will give you one chance to go, with no harm done to you as you turn your back. You have my word.”

“Wow, a gangster with honor, never thought I’d see the day. But, here’s the thing, I can’t leave, I sort of help run the place. And with you being here, doing what you’re doing, it’s not helping me take care of the neighborhood. So, yeah, I’m going to have to be the one that asks you to leave. All of you. Go back to Granon and tell him you’re no longer welcome or tolerated here.”

“And,” I added, “If I ever see any of you again, I’ll make it so you never see again.”

That got a reaction out of them.

They didn’t bellow or scream like their boss, but they fell back on his tendency to belittle and downplay.

“We are going to stay, just to show you what little power you really have,” the man said, speaking for his group. “And then, we are going to take over, just to make sure you know.”

“Big words for adults who don’t know how to park their cars,” I said.

The man glared.

“That was your last chance for mercy, child. I can surmise that you work for Lawrence, who I believe is still nursing wounds from our boss. Continue to run your mouth and waste our time, and I can see to it that you meet a similar fate.”

The group muttered amongst each other.

While they were briefly preoccupied, I glanced at the road behind the blockade of cars. I gulped.

“No need to get so pissy,” I said. “I’m going. And you will, too. Call it similar fates.”

“What are you-”

It happened in a sequence. First, the crowd, crying out as they saw it coming. Confused, Granon’s men tried to look at the crowd.

Then came the crash.

Thousands of pounds, sixty miles at least. A big block of metal on wheels.

A van barrelled through the blockade.

I’d put some thought in it. Where I stood, where Granon’s men was positioned. Where the van would be coming in from.

We were standing close to the bumper of the car on the very left, the grill of the car in the middle. There was a small gap, there, that the van forced itself through.

Everything and everyone jumped at the impact.

I did, hopping a step back to gauge the changing situation by the millisecond. Some of Granon’s men did, too, trying to get out of the way. Some didn’t make it.

The van slammed into them, and they flew, tossed a distance into the road or the dispersing crowd. The man I had been talking to was one of them.

The cars, too, skidded out from the impact of the van, providing more of an opening. An opening I could make wider.

The car closest to me continued to drift my way, and I hopped to get over the trunk to the other side of the vehicle. I leaned back until I fell, my shoulder blades pressing against the back tire, my feet pressed hard into the ground.

I pushed.

The car moved even more, until it was facing the direction it was supposed to, the grilling facing the highway. I pushed some more, until it settled into position.

I ran across the road, stepping over one of Granon’s men, crossing the gap to get to the other car. The one that had previously been in the middle of the blockade. I put my hands on the side of the vehicle, by a front tire, and pushed.

It moved, until it was situated properly on the road. It was facing the wrong direction, the road was only one way, but I was fine with that. It would do.

The gap widened. Enough so that people could get through.

And they did.

Cars immediately started going through the gap, taking advantage of the sudden opening. Not civilians, though.

Mine.

I caught a glimpse through the window of one of the first cars to pass.

Reggie. Not his car.

It was one of the orders I sent by text. An opening would be made, and with so many people out of their cars to go and yell at the People’s Hammer, they wouldn’t be prepared for any sudden and violent developments.

Get into any car near that opening, and get the ball rolling.

They wouldn’t steal it, that wasn’t their orders. Just to show the other people here that it was safe to go, to drive and go about the rest of their day.

I saw Tone pass by in a muscle car, close enough that my hair whipped past my eyes and into my glasses. Like Reggie, he’d have to stop and park the car on the side of the road, before the highway. The real owners of the vehicles could pick it up then.

I watched as others that weren’t in my gang start to get the idea. They got into their cars, and went through, before Granon’s men could get back up and try something again.

If they even could. About half of them weren’t getting up.

I edged along the side of the car I had just pushed, trying to avoid getting clipped by an oncoming truck. I made it out, and ran without missing a beat.

I went to the van that caused all this to happen in the first place. It was on the curb, a foot away from colliding with a light pole. It had stopped just before bigger disaster could take place. The van seemed to be intact, all things considered. There was some cracks the edges around the windshield, but that wouldn’t stop a van from running.

I opened a door on the side.

“Sarah! You okay?”

I heard a moan.

“Okay barely covers it.”

I saw her sitting in the driver’s seat, bent in a weird way, slouching over to one side. She responded and sounded okay, but I still feared the worst.

“Can you move?”

She moved an arm, to her side, where I couldn’t see. She moved her arm again.

She was holding a bear.

“We still have a bunch of these in here,” Sarah said, sitting straight. “They make for a great cushion.”

Yes, I thought, and I let myself breathe.

It was another order, another text I sent. The traffic was so bad that Sarah couldn’t take me all the way to the blockade itself, she dropped me off and I ran there. But I had her go around, find another way we could tackle this. It was just, at that time, she didn’t know that she would actually be tackling this directly.

I gave her that order, and she listened. She was willing to go that far.

“Thank you,” I said, getting in the van, sliding the door closed. I was in the row behind the driver’s seat. “I hate to ask, but can you drive a little more?”

“I think so,” Sarah said, but she groaned out the words. “I can try.”

“Okay, we just need to turn the van around and get out of here. We swing by to pick up Reggie and Tone, they’re just up ahead. We pick them up, and I can have them take the wheel from you.”

“I can manage that much, hold on.”

The van started to back up, getting on the road again. There was a bit of a wait, until someone let us get through the opening we made.

Two of Granon’s men were finally getting on their feet, scrambling to collect their colleagues and drag them away from the rush of vehicles. Their rifles were dangling, loose, at their backs. They wouldn’t, couldn’t use them now, or the situation would escalate too far for them to make an escape. They were the ones blocked from doing anything, now.

I can’t believe that actually worked.

It was messy, ugly, and all improvised, but I managed to cobble together a plan that diffused the situation. No one got seriously hurt, except for those who probably deserved it.

I zipped my hoodie down about halfway, feeling the heat from expending all that effort and strength.

The van drove up the access road, slowing and drifting to the side. I slid open the door.

We didn’t stop, but we had slowed down enough for Reggie and Tone to hop inside. The door was back to being closed as Reggie and Sarah shuffled around, switching places, as Tone helped Sarah settle into the passenger’s seat. The van meandered forward a bit as the switch was made, but Reggie got full control by the time we had to merge into the highway.

And then we were free. The blockade was opened, Granon’s men were humiliated, probably mutilated, and there were still some of my people staying behind to make sure the situation would remain all clear. And we would wrap around to double check.

I really did it.

“Ow, oh, ow,” Sarah muttered, as Tone aided her in getting the seat belt around her body. “Careful.”

“I am,” Tone replied. He wasn’t looking at me, but I could feel his words hitting me as he said, “Fuckin’ nuts, you’re fuckin’ nuts.”

I couldn’t look at Sarah properly. I felt bad for using her like that, like a pawn, especially after she had helped me to try and get my thoughts together back at the Redhouse. I’d have to find a way to make it up to her.

But, before I could think of how I’d go about that, I had to make a phone call.

I got my phone out and dialed. An immediate answer.

Yes?

“Lawrence,” I said. “Hey. It’s covered. Granon’s not going to be happy about it, but we were able to get him back before the day even ended.”

That’s not terrible news. Thanks, Wendy.

“Speaking of terrible news, have you heard from D?”

I noted the pause.

I haven’t. I was hoping you’d have something new to say about that.

I started tapping my foot.

“I don’t. Fuck.”

Dammit, where the fuck is she?

“Aw, sounds like you miss her,” I said.

Not a fucking chance in hell. It’s bad enough when she’s right next to me, but a D that I don’t have eyes on? That’s potentially a whole mess of shit I try not to think about. It keeps me up at night.

“You have to learn how to chill,” I said. This wasn’t the first time we had spoke on something like this. “Being on guard is one thing, but letting fear make you irrational? That’s what we’re trying to do to our enemies, not to each other.”

You say that like it’s as easy as flipping a switch.

“I told you she’s trying, Lawrence, you need to have some faith in her, if you want this to work.”

Sure, that’s all well and good, but can you tell me you’re not the least bit worried about her not being around right now, that there might be something else going on in the background that we’re not aware of? She’s gone, and she’s not answering, who knows what she’s up to?

I could hear it in his voice, even though he was on a phone. D had clearly done a number on him, in the past, and he was still finding it hard to shake off that fear.

But, I could sympathize, even if it was just a little.

The mere mention of a possibility like that made my heart skip a beat. There were few things I hated more than not being in control. To have some other plot run along concurrently with ours, with the potential to interfere and disrupt, made me want to question everything and everyone. It made me scared.

Better to be paranoid, and prepare for the worst.

But trust went a long way, as well.

The van rolled along, down the highway, and I heard a rumble grow louder from behind.

I said my thoughts aloud.

“We know D, we work with her, and she’s only been gone for a few hours. If she’s off doing something, it’s probably for our benefit.”

It had better be,” Lawrence said, “Because, as much as I hate to admit it, we need her. We need everyone. Granon isn’t going to take what just happened lightly. He’ll want to strike back, but we need to strike again before he gets that chance. And that next strike had better knock him the fuck out.

Previous                                                                                               Next