109 – We are Innocent

epy arc 16 vamp

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The cat and the mouse.

One chasing the other. One being chased by the other.

An endless game. A constant loop. A part of nature.

A cycle.

For a little bit there, I was the cat. The one doing the chasing. Needing food. Always needing more. Taking what they took from me.

What did they take from me?

Everything.

My name. My sense of self. My ability to just stand still and be okay.

Those were the crimes I was accusing them of.

But.

Didn’t I end up taking those things from myself as well? In my chase, I invariably lost things along the way.

What were the crimes against me? Who committed them to who? Or was it just another cycle in an endless loop?

I threw myself into this. The world is, so therefore the outcome remains the same. No matter what.

No matter what.

Stick a hand in fire, it will burn. Each and every time.

In chasing after mice, I threw myself into the world. The fire. I burned.

But so does everyone else. In chasing after their own mice.

So what did I gain? What did I manage to take back for myself? Or did I have more to lose?

The world is spiraling into entropy, and all of us are just along for the ride.

No matter how many times the world turns, the cycle is all the same. Some may shuffle around to new positions, but it is always the same result. Every choice, every path, it seldom will change so it will always lead to this. From the beginning, it was always going to bring me here. All of us.

If I hadn’t gone outside that day.

No.

Because it was me, because it was that day, and all those previous days were those previous days, I would always step out into that cold night, walking on the path that would inevitably bring me here.

Each and every time. Like starting over a novel from the beginning. The cycle would loop back to here.

Here and now.

A car crash. A chase. The mice had set their own trap. The same cycle, but now the positions had shuffled.

So now I was the mouse.

And it

Was like coming out from a haze, a dream. A nightmare. But the terror was still very present, and very real.

Nauseous, discombobulated, dizzy. All over again.

Water splashed into my face and I choked, screamed, choked again. The water was hot.

“She’s up. Look at her, she’s shaking.”

There was laughter, a sickening note in the air.

My jaw was tight, teeth grinding, skin sizzling, and that voice was right, I was shaking. From both the heat and the suddenness of my coming to.

Feverish to the point of boiling. Then I was splashed again.

I heard other sounds now, outside of my gurgle and the laughter that surrounded me, taunting me. The tinny and tiny clattering of metal, distinct, and the hard knocks of wood, grating and skidding and screeching across a surface.

Harsh gasps for air, spitting and sputtering out hot water, dripping down my face and my hair, my clothes were soaked.

I couldn’t wipe my face.

My hands.

As the heat started to subside somewhat, blinking away water and now tears, I could start to feel the restraints.

Shackles and chains.

Locked into a wooden chair, my limbs framed across the arms and legs and tied so tight I couldn’t budge a finger. Enhanced strength wouldn’t amount to anything when I had zero room to move. The sheer weight on me was too much to bear, discouraging me to even try.

I spat more water, feeling some drool down the corner of my mouth, trailing off my chin. My tongue felt as heavy and dry as a brick.

Thirsty.

I was thirsty. But, it shouldn’t have been that long since the last time I-

Convulsing, trembling, hurting. Laughing and clattering and knocking and grating and skidding and screeching. The cacophony peaked again for a third crescendo.

I was panting and shaking like a wet dog, steam probably coming off my body, if I could see. Hair was starting to stick and poke into my eyes now.

Screaming, shivering harder. White hot. Blinded by pain and agony of which did know bounds, because I was it, and it encompassed me.

Couldn’t move an inch, aside from the chair skidding across the floor, slick with water, but not enough for me to spill over. I stayed sitting, steaming.

There was no cooling down from this. I couldn’t. As water dripped and soaked into my clothes and skin, I really felt as if I was melting.

Blood boiling.

“You’re up. Welcome back.”

I sucked in some air, some water coming with it. A vain attempt for a drink.

No sound came out from me. Nothing voluntary, anyways. A few wheezes. The rattling of chains.

“Need a little more? Here.”

I blinked again, and my vision cleared enough that I could catch the image of a rabbit standing in front of me, winding his arms back, holding a bucket. Water swirling inside, piping hot.

Hoarse, panicked, and even pitiful, I forced out a scream.

“No, no, please no!”

The rabbit stopped, swinging the bucket down but not spilling out the contents a fourth time. The rabbit set the bucket. Then someone else moved to collected it and positioned themselves where I couldn’t see.

My head was hanging, low, hair that wasn’t sticking into my face and eyes were pointing straight to the floor, dripping wet. There wasn’t a part of me that was dry. Breathing like a fish out in the open, exposed, dying.

I coughed again, and my whole body pounded. Hard.

Jaw hanging open, a long string of saliva stretching down, swinging slightly as I shook.

That voice called out to me again. A song. Sounded so far away, even though it probably was not.

“You ain’t thirsty? You’re call. We’ll be here a loooong time. To talk. So let’s talk.”

It was fucking near impossible to get my bearings on my surroundings, my self, much less how I even got here. Not even a blur. More like a smear, memories blending together, turning a once-blank canvas into something messy. Sloppy. Couldn’t even venture a guess at what the full image conveyed. Didn’t even want to. It was too ugly.

I closed my eyes instead. Focus on anything else but that.

Here. How to get the hell out of here.

“Wha… aaaaa…”

“She can’t even talk. How about squeal? Can you squeal, little mouse?”

It wasn’t laughter this time, or, there was a possibility that I was losing the ability to comprehend. The voices echoed around and even in my head. Ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing some more.

“Alright, I was going to give you the courtesy of going first, but you’ve seemed to want to concede things to me. Fine by me. I’ll start.”

My eyelids felt like they were wired shut, now. Opening them was akin to digging hands into the earth and splitting it in half from there. A monumental task for someone, something, so miniscule.

“A question. Just one. You into Chinese?”

I breathed. It came out hard and hoarse.

“We had some time so I had Toby Wong get some takeout for everyone. Isn’t that right, Toby?”

“I did, I did.”

“And what, exactly, did you bring back?”

“Fried crispy pork chop, deep fried pork intestine, beef with broccoli, kung pao beef, sizzling steak with black pepper but it stopped sizzling a while ago, sauteed shrimp, sesame chicken, moo goo gai pan, roast duck, and lo mein. Oh, hot and sour soup, too.”

“Hot and sour too, sounds like a mouthful.”

“That’s because it is. Got a lot of mouths to feed, apparently.”

“You’re right, Toby. Apparently we do.”

“What are you hungry for? I’ll let you have the first pick.”

“Um, let’s see here… I’m partial to lo mein myself.”

“Then lo mein it is.”

Other sounds. Crinkling plastic and popping of cardboard. Footsteps.

“What’s in it?”

“In it? It’s lo mein.”

“Like chicken, beef, shrimp, what are we, ah, here we are.”

“Got it all. Combination.”

“Went all out, very nice. Here, get me that.”

“Here you are.”

“Smells good.”

“Smells fucking good.”

“But, I think we should have our esteemed guest of honor take the first bite. What do you say?”

“Sounds like a great idea to me.”

“And the rest of you, what do y’all say?”

There were cheers and claps all around.

Then it got quiet. Short of my own haggard breathing.

Footsteps.

A sharp stabbing into my face that broke past my lips into my teeth going through my tongue down my gullet choking me and choking me and choking me and choking me-

-Something else was shoved down my throat. Intestines. Fish guts. Slime. Pig shit. Bugs. Snails. Dirt. Fingernails. Glass. Dust. Mud. Grime. Bile. Blood. Blood. Blood. Blood. Blood. Blood-

It was my blood.

I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t fight back. I couldn’t do anything except suffer.

I suffered.

I fought, or tried, but I was too tired, my restraints biting into my arms and legs.

Hair pulled back, neck exposed with trash continuing to be forced down into it like clogged a chute. Couldn’t take any more.

Completely involuntary, I threw myself forward, folding up. I moved faster and harder than whatever had me by the hair had anticipated, and a handful of it tore out from the roots.

I started hacking the stuff out, or tried, but it was all too much. Overload. Nothing came out, or I didn’t feel it. Every one of my senses had hit red. Nerves raw.

More than just saliva was hanging from my lips now. A strand of something. Bits of others. And they all had a foul, worse than foul taste to them.

Moaning, dry heaving. Suffering.

“I don’t think she likes Chinese all that much.”

“No, Toby, I don’t think she does.”

It wasn’t even registering to me, what anyone was saying. Where I was. How I got here. Who I was.

“Hey, look at me when I’m talking to you.”

Head pounding, face like it was splitting open, skull throbbing so hard it might crack.

“Have some dignity. For your sake. It would be better that way.”

I lifted myself. Somewhat. I angled my head towards the direction of the voice, but that was the best I could do. That was about all I could do.

“Can’t… see…”

Which was true. Everything weighed on me.

“Oh? How about another wash?”

I screamed like it was a reflex. Jaws tearing apart.

“No anything but that no!”

Didn’t even sound like me. Didn’t know who that was.

“Then open your fucking eyes.”

It was work. But I managed. As if by a miracle. But there was no good fortune to be found here.

The lights were low, but they were blinding to me. Hard to see, near impossible. So I didn’t try.

Blinking tears and other things.

The voice spoke. Somewhere in front of me.

“God damn, you’re still alive. So it really is you.”

“Whatever… I am, sure, it’s me.”

“I want to hear you say it.”

“What…”

“Say it.”

“V.”

“The hell is a Vee?”

Defeated, I corrected myself. I didn’t want to get into it now. “Bluemoon.”

I couldn’t see, but I could feel a certain stillness run through the space of where I was, wherever I was. But that constant threat of violence was still there, hanging over me. It sat around me like a fog.

“Isn’t that a relief. And do you know who I am?”

“No…”

“Good, because it doesn’t fucking matter who I am. What matters is that we have you, and we stand to get a lot out of that.”

“I don’t have anything. Wherever you found me, you already took everything I had.”

“No, not everything. Because I wanted to make certain. I’m a careful sort, you see, I need to know what I have, when I have it. Nothing worse than having the rug swept out from under you. I’m sure you can imagine.”

“Yeah… I can…”

“When I found you, half of your body stuck in a gutter, in a pool of blood but with no visible wounds, I had a feeling. A small feeling, that I didn’t recognize at the time. But it grew, oh yes, it grew, until I could no longer ignore it and I had to tackle it head on. And that’s what I’m doing right now. Tackling it head on.”

I didn’t really have a response to that. I couldn’t even guess at what the voice’s real intentions were. If there were any.

“The others, they lasted about as long as you’d expect. Redness, irritation. Swelling in some parts. Even blisters, but that’s to be expected when you’re going for full. Do you know what full is?”

I didn’t answer.

“Full, as in full-thickness. There are four categories. Superficial epidermal, which affects only the outer layer. Redness, swelling, the usual. Superficial dermal, which reaches down the second layer. Nerve endings and blood vessels practically pop. Then there’s deep dermal or partial-thickness, which gets pretty bad, this is where you see the blisters. Heard you might not even feel anything at all. Looking at you, though, that didn’t seem to be the case. And then there is full-thickness. The most serious of skin burns.”

Breathing went hard again, feeling a chill. I was feeling a chill the entire time.

“It’s basically a third-degree burn. It can turn the skin to leather. Wax, even. Red to black, as the burn melts away the skin and deepens the color of your tissue. Most of them don’t even make it past a partial without passing out, later unable to sit or lean against anything because there are too many of those damn blisters. You, though? You. You just sat there and went through three washes hot enough to burn a man to a crisp. From the top of his head, to the tip of his dick.”

A sharp stabbing into my face that broke past my lips into my teeth going through my tongue down my gullet choking me again.

Again.

That sharp force went to my arms, where the chain were. From underneath, I could feel the sleeves being pulled away, sliding between skin and restraints, the water having made things slick.

“I don’t see a fucking bubble on you! Where? Nowhere, that’s where! I can’t find one, I don’t see any!”

I was being rocked in my chair. Hard. A weight completely overtaking me.

Then I fell over. The floor had been made slippery, after all.

This was sloppy. This was a mess.

“Stop!”

“Let go!”

“Please!”

No one would listen.

Or maybe I wasn’t able to actually say anything at all.

Struck across the cheek. Stuff flicked out of my mouth.

“Get me the bucket!”

I started seizing again.

“The other bucket!”

Pulling against my restraints, not breaking them, but I was able to make my hands a little more free. I could wiggle my fingers. I wiggled them.

“I want you see this, too, because this is really something. This when I knew I really had something.”

The weight was taken off my body. Footsteps and other sounds, circling me.

“Open your eyes!”

I opened my eyes.

Still unable to see, but I could feel. My sense of touch had been ratcheted up to heights previously thought inconceivable.

Tiny dots, hitting my face. Like someone was flicking me with pebbles.

“Open them!”

“I am!”

“Do you see this?”

More pebbles. I twitched with each bit of contact. And they were numerous.

I had to will my vision to come back to me. The fog around me finally solidifying into… something. Something terrifying.

Hazy doubles formed back together into show me creatures. A dog, a monkey, even a horse. The one standing over me, the one who I knew was doing all this to me, was the rabbit.

Reaching into a bucket, grabbing a handful and tossing them at me. Peppering me with small white dots.

More and more.

“You know what these are?”

He wouldn’t stop.

“They’re yours!”

I flinched as they hit me. Then he dumped the rest of the bucket over me.

They fell like heavy snow.

Now that I was in a pile of them, it was easy to register. I screamed again.

Teeth.

Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Me.

I was buried in a pile of incisors and canines and premolars and molars.

All of them were mine.

I wouldn’t stop screaming. The girl, tied to the chair that had been tipped over, among a sizable collection made of her own teeth, would not stop screaming.

“They wouldn’t stop popping back out, no matter how many I took out, no matter how long you were out. Couldn’t fucking believe my eyes. They just kept coming and coming and coming, over and over, isn’t that crazy? Isn’t that fucking insane?”

The bucket was thrown down, hitting me at one temple and when my head whipped back the other temple hit concrete. I wasn’t seeing teeth now just stars.

“So we’re going to be here for a long, long time. Got enough food for all of us to have our fill and keep going. Got enough for you, too, even if you have enough fucking teeth to fill over a hundred fucking mouths!”

I was dizzying enough to throw up. So I did.

“Christ… You’re allowed to take a break.”

“Not now Toby.”

“I’m just saying, Dong-Yul was offering up a lot of dough for the Bluemoon. Dead or alive. More alive.”

“Dong-Yul can go get his fucking dick boiled, okay? I don’t give a fuck what that fucking gook has to say.”

“Alright man, it’s your call. Whatever you say.”

“God damn right it is. And what I say is, we’re not done with this little mouse. She threw all of us into this shithole, we’re taking her even deeper with us.”

“One call, they’ll be here in a minute, and we get to walk away millionaires. All I’m saying.”

“Another word from you like that and I’m putting you in that chair next.”

“All I’m saying.”

“That’s three, maybe three and a half. Fuck it. Help me get her up.”

In the haze that clouded my mind, I was only able to gather a few details. Few, but crucial.

They would be here any minute. They. Dong-Yul, maybe even Mrs. Carter and Styx too. The others at the table.

Could finish them off here, but I was reduced to something even lesser than dirt.

Had to get out of here and recuperate.

I felt hands on me, on the chair by my restraints. I did what I could. I moved my fingers.

Even as they lifted me, I moved my fingers.

That was all I had. Moving my fingers. That was my only available option towards an escape.

How pathetic. How sad. So pitiful I could laugh.

So I did.

I started to laugh.

Laughed so hard I cracked.

“The hell is wrong with her?”

“If you have to ask, Toby… Set her down there.”

They set me upright, but there was nothing up or right about me. I kept laughing, my fingers wiggling like worms.

“Hey, what the fuck are you on?”

A strike across the face. I didn’t even. I didn’t care about anything.

Laughter.

I couldn’t help it anyways, much less myself.

Another strike. Then a third.

“Who said you can find this funny? Who?”

Laughing. Fingers. Worms.

“How about this then, huh?”

The rabbit reached for one of my fingers and pulled it back. So far back that the fingernail was an inch close to my wrist. Eyes widened and I started crying.

“We cut your fucking finger off, how do you like that? Or maybe your whole hand even? Lord knows you’ll get it back. How does that sound!”

A cold fine point pressed into the finger, right above the knuckle.

I didn’t like the sound of that, but I also kind of liked the sound of that.

I was nothing but hysterical.

A cold fine point pressed deeper into the finger, right above the knuckle.

Then it cut right through.

And then it all was wrong.

Pain. Fire. Excruciating.

Screaming. Crying.

Not just me.

All wrong.

Again.

It got everywhere. Over everything. Blood and guts and gore and arms and legs and heads.

I saw sliced through the matter. Cutting the air itself.

Obsidian tendrils out of where my middle finger was supposed to be. Slinking, slicing, cutting through the air like a snake.

A snake with more than head.

They moved in spirals. Cold, in touch and indifference, leaving things in bits and pieces.

There were screams. Some didn’t last very long. Others never seemed to end.

I watched as the blood fell like rain.

And then it was over.

It happened fast.

Eyes wider still as the snakes, blacker than the shadows, spiraled and hit against something, somehow absorbing it. The finger that had been removed. Mine.

Then the tendrils retreated, slinking back where they came from.

I saw my finger return to me. Black for a second but then the color returned, as if it was being filled by something.

The force of everything was strong enough to knock and break the restraints there, and that arm was free.

Rain still seemed to fall in here when I worked on the rest of my bindings.

Then I was free. Or at least, I wasn’t in that chair anymore.

I looked around.

The dead and the dying. Bodies stacked from the floor to the ceiling. My eyes were hurting and bleeding but I could see that much. My eyes wouldn’t deceive me now.

Animals. Dogs, monkeys, horses, a cat and a mouse. rabbits. This place had been turned into a slaughterhouse. Sounded like one with the squeals, smelled like one with the blood.

I rubbed at my wrist, then hands. All ten fingers were accounted for.

I stared at each of them. Long enough that ten almost became twenty. Then thirteen. Twelve. Thirteen.

I knew I had to get out of here. I heard there were others coming.

But I was so thirsty.

I stumbled over to one of the bodies. The rabbit.

Removing the head, I saw its face. It kind of looked like me. Some of the others who didn’t look like animals looked like me. But only on a superficial epidermal level.

Animals. Had to try and think of them as animals.

I bit into one of the rabbit’s puffy cheeks. Juices spilled out as if I was squeezing a fruit instead.

Fruit.

Something told me to do more than just have a drink. I listened.

I clamped down, teeth going deeper until it broke past the skin and the underlying muscle. The meat.

Half of the rabbit’s face was in my stomach by the time I was full. Replacing all the dirt and trash that had been stuffed in there earlier.

Now I felt so much better…

The bodies bloomed and became like the equinox. A passing thought. That I wanted to become as beautiful as them. To become anything. Something.

The thought passed, and there was nothing else. Nothing that needed to be understood, nothing that needed to be made clear to me. Because I knew now. I saw it for myself. The snakes. The animals.

With something nice and filling in my stomach, my throat washed with a sweet drink, I began my march. My march into darkness.

But I tripped first. Slipped on something.

Blood and guts and teeth. I picked myself up and marched onward.

I found my way outside. Wherever I was. Feeling a light rain continued to fall. All around my body, I felt a slight buzzing, as though something was swimming or slithering, right beneath the surface.

Outside. Wherever I was. I wasn’t lost, because I had no place to go, or a goal in mind.

I just had to go. Didn’t matter where. Didn’t matter how. It made no difference to me.

No difference to me.

No difference.

I walked the streets. It was dark, so it was either late or early. No difference to me. No difference.

My feet were bare, heels scraping along the pavement. Where I walked was segmented and changed color. One foot on black, the other on white. I turned a street and I was soon walking across a checkerboard.

I was getting thirsty again. I was getting… hungry again. I’d need more.

I would have taken more, too, if I hadn’t left that place so early. Why did I leave so early?

Oh, they were after me. They. All of them.

Misses Sticks and Carther. There were more too but I couldn’t name them. I just knew they were after me. They. All of them.

I could take them. I knew I could. But I wasn’t in a good position. I had to get somewhere else. I had to take stock of things. I had to rest.

Vision wandering like I was. I saw the moon.

Pale and round and swollen and beautiful. Like a single, unblinking eye. Watching over me. Watching over everyone. It saw all and it understood all. So high up. I was envious of the moon.

I tripped again.

Picking out bits of teeth and other matter out between my toes, I got up and started again.

I thought about who the moon would be watching.

Everyone. People. People I knew. Parts of faces. Parts of words. Letters.

D. I wanted to see D again. I was sure she’d know what to do. She was so small but she was so smart. She always had an answer. Even if it was smart one.

Who else?

Isabella and Lawrence weren’t here. I wouldn’t be able to see them anymore.

Sarah. I’d never be able to see her again. I felt cold.

Someone else. Their name on the tip of my tongue. Almost clear…

Claire.

She wanted something from me. For me. Hard to recall it now.

Until then, I’d keep on this path. Wherever this one led.

There were others that were coming to me. But they weren’t for me. Someone else. But their image kept getting caught in the glint of my shattered, fractured mind.

Turning to another corner, a foot catching on something and I fell.

Get up, you can’t let it end here.

I got up, but not before spitting out a fang. I had hit the ground funny and laughed. A new one grew back in.

Walking like this, on a seemingly endless path though I knew there would be an end eventually, I felt the closest thing to what I could ever consider to be peace. Wandering like this, with only wanting to take the next step, one bare foot ahead of the other. I was free. Free to live. Free to die. But a voice was telling me to keep trying.

Keep trying.

I would. For their sake. As if I had been hardwired, this entire time, to do just that. Resigned to that.

Thank you. We’re almost there. Just a little more.

Just a little more. Almost there. Welcome.

Didn’t stop moving. Not even when the concrete began to gnaw on the soles of my feet, turning them red and raw, bleeding and healing with every step.

No other ugly, disgusting wounds on me. I walked, and was the closest to okay I had ever felt in a long time.

As long as I kept walking, I would be okay. Or at least the closest thing.

I looked again. Saw the moon. Watching me. Like the other times I checked. Thought it was something else but it was just the moon. Like always.

Then the moon shed a tear.

Dropping from the sky like rain, it landed there. There, on the street. An open area in a city desperately trying to get some sleep for the night.

A form.

Someone was standing in the middle of the space.

I saw them, and they saw me.

And it was as if a piece fell into place, in a puzzle I would never be able to step back from and take in entirely. But a piece did fall into place. A partial piece.

Just from seeing them alone. Just as I was alone.

My salvation.

They had been following me this entire time. For this moment. For me.

Muscles tensing, the bubbling and buzzing within me festering stronger.

Without thinking, I moved myself a tad closer. I began to hunch over on all fours, crouching like I was about to pounce. Step by step, I inched forward while keeping my eyes on them.

I shivered. But it didn’t.

Tried saying something, but it came out wrong.

Kehkehkeh…”

Didn’t sound human.

But I’d listen to the voice. I would not perish here. I didn’t want to die like the animal I had become, the monster I had always been. This would be my final defiance.

I would have my fill.

The form moved. Pointing. They weren’t any taller than the little girl who apparently had reduced herself to but a letter.

An instrument. A plaything. In their hand it opened up like an umbrella. Obsidian.

Among the rainfall, there was a rumble. Far away. Like a single instance of a boom of thunder.

I fell over.

That wasn’t supposed to happen a fourth time.

I checked where it hurt. It started to hurt so much.

My right arm, from around the elbow.

Everything below.

It just simply wasn’t there.

I waited for the tendrils to come back and help me. Save me. But they never came. Instead, black, charred flakes scabbed over the fresh wound. Nothing was coming out.

Nothing was coming out. Nothing was coming out.

Nothing was coming out.

Those four words.

I did not heal.

A wave of despair washed over, and a squealing pierced the night sky.

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Interlude – Claire

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The worn-down taxi cab was twice older than Caleb and Willem, seven and five respectively. As familiar with this hunk of junk as she was her own children. The air freshener – now stale – that was hanging from the rearview, shaped like a pinetree. The paper dragon that Caleb cut and taped together, resting lopsided on the dash. A tiny, tiny chunk of vomit by a windshield corner she couldn’t reach, from when she had no choice but to bring baby Willem for a day. Now, thank god for Kim.

A place more familiar to her than her own apartment. When she sat, hands on the wheel, she was in her own little world. A home she could take with her to see the world, or in this case, Stephenville.

People would come in, sitting in the back, bringing with them their own stories, their own worlds. She would get to travel, and, for a brief moment, get a glimpse at all those different worlds, all from the comfort of her own. To make a decent living out of it… wasn’t such a bad deal.

Claire sat in her own little world, bathed in the dark of an alley. Waiting, silent.

She was never a fan of sitting in silence. It meant shutting out the world, or at least a part of it. She didn’t want that. She wanted to be here, be there, be present. To be able to drive through it.

Claire turned the dial and let a little bit of the world in.

“-continues to ravage the streets of Stephenville as the city enters another calendar day of civil unrest.

You’re pretty kind to just be calling it civil unrest, Slims.

Is ‘protests’ a better word?

Maybe.

But what are they protesting?

It’s a whole thing down there with the Asian American community. A whole damn thing. They’re tired of all the abuse and discrimination that’s been brought down against them lately.

But we’re seeing everyone on the streets, and I mean everyone. Asian, Black, Caucasian, we’ve got the whole A-B-C all the way to Z of people just painting the town red. It’s unreal.

It’s real enough for us to talk about it.

So we’ve got all those people, just tearing up what they can… you know what gets me?

And what’s that?

What gets me is all the theatrics around it. Some of these outbursts are planned of and some of the other outbursts are just chain reactions from the first category of outbursts. But the first category… you see all these people with masks. It’s a mob, really, a whole gang of fools just doing these coordinated attacks. Did you hear about a string of car bombs, blowing up major roads into the city?

No I haven’t.

Ever since that superhero started coming on the scene… the Bluemoon, right?

Yeah. Heard it was a girl though.

Ever since the Bluemoon started coming on the scene, now everyone’s trying to get a piece of that blockbuster weekend superhero spectacle action, except now it’s not stuck to being in the movies, it’s happening out there in real life with real lives at stake. It’s only going to get worse, and now the National Guard is going to have a harder time getting in because of the roads!

I heard the government is considering labeling the city as uninhabitable. Turn it into a No Man’s Land type of situation.

Well, let’s hope it doesn’t get to that point, Jimbo.

It was a channel Claire had grown to be very familiar with. Late 94 with DJ Slims and Big Jim, or Jimbo for short, even though it was the same amount of syllables. They weren’t exactly the brightest bulbs that illuminated her night drives, but they were entertaining, and that was enough to be better than silence.

Claire continue to listen in on the old men’s banter.

And to speak on theatrics, Jimbo, you never did answer my question.

Which question?

What word would you use to describe the situation over in Stephenville?

The situation over in Stephenville? Actually, it reminds me a whole lot of the situation we once had here in our own backyard.

You… ah, that’s right.

Back in the-

When cellular phones were still referred to as cellular phones, I can recall.”

It was a whole thing back then too. A whole damn thing.

Oh yes, it was. Didn’t last as long nor was it as bloody.

Well, we’ll have to see about that first part, Jimbo. The second part I can agree with.

Still pretty bloody though.

Oh yes, still pretty bloody.

Over the old men bickering, Claire heard a heavy thump somewhere behind her taxi. She took a look through her rearview mirror, but it was too dark into the alley to see anything.

Another sound, right after. A passenger side door opening, and the boss sliding in.

Claire waited for the order.

“Drive!”

That was the order.

Claire drove out of the alley and into the street.

She turned the dial and let a little bit of the world out.

“Never did answer the question,” she murmured to herself.

“Yeah?”

“Yes boss?”

“Oh, thought you were asking me something.”

Eyes on the road, watching traffic and for any other potential obstacles, like the police or black vans or a bike or everyone, Claire drove. Her hands were steady on the wheel.

When she started, she was competent enough as a driver, but everyone started out that way. Then she got better, and over time she got better than the other drivers she had started out with. And then, she got to be rather good at her job.

And now, all those years, that learned skill and experience, were all being put to the test. All on the account of the young woman sitting in the backseat of her taxi.

Boss.

Claire could recall the first time this young woman took that seat and told her to drive. She could recall what she had on her mind that night. Making enough to make ends meet for that month. Rent and other bills and Willem’s birthday coming up. She was listening to Slims and Big Jim then, too.

The night that followed, and every subsequent night that followed whenever she got that call, and had that young woman sit in the back of her cab, had branded themselves into her memory. Searing, hot. Forever leaving an impression.

And impressed she was, or was it fear? Or even something else? Because, when Claire had the young woman not in her cab, but sitting across from her in her own apartment, she didn’t see what everyone else wanted to see. The superhero, the supervillain, the monster, or whatever shape people needed in order to fit a specific context or understanding.

She saw a teenager, a child. Someone even younger than the young woman who sat in her cab for the first time, shrouded in darkness. And for those minutes, sitting in her kitchen, basked in the stark, artificial light, she saw someone as they really were. Presented in their entirety.

A girl, tired, sleepy, hair frayed at the ends and sticking up and out in parts. Eyes low and baggy, hiding behind glasses that caught the light, as if in attempt to obscure that part of her, to not reveal too much about herself. But it was too little, too late. The mask was already off, in a sense. Perhaps without being conscious of it herself, she wanted to show something of herself to someone, even if she couldn’t help but put a wall up, here and there.

And it spoke to something within her nature, despite her nest being rather full. But Claire couldn’t just take the money and walk away now, if it meant leaving this young woman behind.

“How did it go?” Claire asked. She asked as if she really cared, because she really did.

The taxi rolled along, the ride smooth. Claire was able to peek through the rearview again.

The boss stayed in the back, leaning so her face remained traced in shadow. Her mask was off, her hood down, but she still felt a need to hide somewhat.

She seemed to be working at something, her arms moving back and forth.

“Went about as well as you’d expect,” was her answer.

“I didn’t have any expectations, aside from you making it out okay.”

“Oh, well, thanks then. At least I managed that.”

“You didn’t burn the place down like last time. I’d consider that a step up.”

“Oh yeah. I wouldn’t do that Santino a second time. But there are plenty others who still need their turn. So let’s not waste another second.”

“Going as fast as I can, boss.”

Fast as she could, but not too fast. Still had to stay inconspicuous. Claire checked behind her again through the mirror, and caught a bright light. She blinked, and it was gone. But it was never there.

The Panorama in flames. That image had burned itself well into her mind.

“Are you planning to set fire to every place you go tonight?”

“I have my plans. Your job is to take me to where I have to be to execute those plans. Don’t you worry about what I do or do not have planned when I get there.”

But I can’t help but worry when I look at you.

Claire didn’t dare voice that.

Her eyes were back on the road, she signaled for a turn. She already knew where their second stop of the night was.

The radio droned. Slims and Jimbo were still prattling on current events like how older people tended to do. Better than silence, but not good enough.

She heard lips licking together. A sound of metal hitting or going into something. When Claire checked, a quick glint caught her eye.

Better to keep her eyes to herself.

“Actually, boss, I guess I could ask you this question, if you don’t mind?”

“Depends, but I’m up to hearing it.”

“Once this is all over, and I hope I’m not prying too much, boss, but once you’re done here, what’s next?”

A long, drawn beat of radio drone and the hum of road.

“What’s next…”

“Any plans?”

“I don’t think I have plans that go that far.”

It sounded like it an admittance more than anything else, a confession.

“I’ll have to figure that out if I get there. But I can’t even afford to have that in my mind right now. This is what matters. Right now, right here. Tearing, burning down as much as I can. Until I get through everything and everyone, or if I get stopped first.”

“Seems to me you don’t mind too much if it’s the latter.”

“Claire?”

“Yes boss?”

“You are prying too much.”

Hearing that, somehow, it stung.

“Allow me to apologize,” Claire said.

A soft breath from behind. It lasted long enough to sound shaky, falter, then ultimately shatter.

“It’s just… yeah. Let me do my thing, and you help me to do that thing. And let’s just leave it at that, alright?”

There was a tension in the air that Claire was more than familiar with. Like the moments after Caleb had thrown a fit over not getting thirty more minutes of a cartoon before going to bed, the harsh quiet that soon followed when he’d have to understand that he wouldn’t get what he wanted, a lesson he had to learn night and night again. She had the patience for it, but that tension was still there, and every night, that rubber band would be pulled.

It sat heavy in the air like static from a radio. Except in here, it had been dialed up to eleven.

The young woman was sitting back there, working on her own business, and ordering Claire to mind hers. And Claire was more than able, even when every maternal instinct within her was telling her to reach out and… not push, but pull. Bring her in. Her own nest was full, but that inclination was still there. She couldn’t deny it.

But she would have to ignore it. In this cab, she wasn’t a mom, she was a driver.

And isn’t that just a shame.

Claire took another turn, going down another road. Not another word was uttered until they arrived at their destination. The second stop of the night.

“Alright,” she said. The word felt heavy in her mouth.

Claire put the taxi in about the same place as before. By the sidewalk.

The door opened and shut without so much as a ‘see you later.’ Not this time. She was already on the move. Which was disappointing.

Claire went back into the flow of traffic, back to silence.

She raised the volume again.

“-long until this coalition begins to, what’s a good word for it, devours itself.

How you figure, Slims?

Happened last time. The Koreans were mad as hell because the police were down at Little Tokyo, not Koreatown, because all the city centers bordered there. Things weren’t so pretty between them Asians once it all settled back down.

Things weren’t so pretty with everyone.

Point is, Jimbo, Stephenville doesn’t have a Koreatown, do they?

Don’t have a Little Tokyo neither.

Oh boy. That’s not going to bode-

Well, there’s still time for things to simmer down. We can see how it plays out then.

And that, we shall. I think it’s time to take some late night calls. We got one here from, oh, our hometown of West Vineland. Welcome to Late 94 with your host Slims and my buddy Jimbo…

Claire missed the rest of the call. She would have kept listening, but a faint yet more pronounced noise stole away her attention.

In the thin sliver of mirror, a pinetree dangling off from it, a plume of smoke started billowing into the night sky. Another one. Far too late to consider these as isolated, incendiary incidents. They have long since been a trend.

Way down the street, Claire could see the building. Morricone’s, the Italian restaurant they had visited earlier in the day.

A rumbling rocked the building. Claire thought she felt it through the tires.

The red brick building kept breathing out the smoke. Claire inhaled, gulped, and breathed out too.

Ragged and threadbare, the driver’s seat safety belt had ran through the loop by Claire’s head so many times that it was near paper-thin. Wearing a shirt or a bra, she was that used to it around her body. Never before had it pressed this hard into her chest, digging that far into it. Her foot on the pedal, flat on the floor.

“Shit!”

Later in the night, and it wasn’t silent anymore.

The taxi tore through the street, following the action. Chasing after it. To be more precise, chasing after the the black muscle car thirty feet away.

Sharp, a right around a corner. No warning. The black muscle car flexed its stuff and turned on a dime. Smooth, almost gliding across the pavement, before the tires gripped for traction and bursted into a line again.

Tires and brakes squealed when Claire turned.

She rounded the corner. It wasn’t sharp or even right at all. No amount of coins could cover the difference. Thirty feet became fifty.

Rough, skidding and skipping, kicking up bits of concrete. Nowhere near as graceful.

But that wouldn’t be enough to slow down Claire.

She fixed her hands on the wheel, holding them firm, in place. She played with the brake and gas pedals, switching between them to at least ride it out instead of spinning out. All things considered, Claire didn’t spin out.

Gas to the floor again, and she was going straight, narrowly missing a separate vehicle. Wrong place, wrong time. The light was red the whole time.

The chase continued.

Claire was still on the tail of the black muscle car, but she had lost any purchase on them she might have had. Fifty was becoming sixty. At this rate, she would have lost them completely.

Wind whipped through a window in the back.

“We’re losing them!”

Her voice was almost whisked away from how fast they were going.

Claire gripped the wheel harder, knuckles going white.

Her own voice could be heard just fine.

“You want me to drive? I’m driving!”

She couldn’t believe she was doing this a second time. Or, maybe she could, but her mind was on about a hundred other things at the moment.

Like catching up to that black muscle car, like the fact that they were facing oncoming traffic, like how she had to swerve between vehicles, hearing them honk as the zipped past. Like how the taxi was rattling as the speedometer steadily tilted more and more to the right. Like how she was doing this a second time.

Like the fact that she was also getting shot at.

“Boss!”

Claire tried to scream that, anyway. Wasn’t sure if it came out as a word or just a general shriek.

She got a reply regardless.

“Yeah!”

Then the young woman fired shots of her own.

Claire screamed again. Not a real word.

She didn’t have a gun before. Did she? Claire didn’t remember a gun being a factor last time. The last time she had to race through the streets of Stephenville. But there was one now. There definitely was one now.

The ringing in Claire’s ears were testament to that.

A high pitch that pierced through her hearing, but she kept her focus on her focus, just so she could continue to charge ahead while still avoiding every obstacle coming at her. Some very large, others not so much.

The taxi veered to the left, dodging a truck and more bullets.

“Keep to the left, they’re taking the turn!”

Claire adjusted while her boss continued to fire.

Her boss was hanging out the side of the open window, mask and all. Gun in hand, popping off in the direction of the black muscle car, and other perceived threats. For the latter, Claire would have to let her be the judge of that. She didn’t like leaving that up to someone so young.

Hard to remember how they got here. Too hectic, too sudden. The boss got back into the taxi after Morricone’s, said something about an Inez being served their last meal, then they were off to their next stop and then-

A bullet pinged off the windshield. Didn’t break, but a line like lightning cracked along one edge of the thing. Claire screamed again.

That.

And then that.

It was a bumpy transition to the next street. The taxi clipped the corner, hitting a trash can, contents flying out. People dove out of the way.

People who were way too close.

Claire yelled. “You have to stop them already! We can’t keep going-”

“-Faster! Just a little more!”

Claire yelled again, but her foot was back to being flat on the floor.

Thing was, the money really was that good. Yet the price was seeing a world too seedy for her comfort.

Or was she considered a part of it, now?

No time to think on that.

The taxi gained, somehow, the black muscle car swerving, more wild than before. A popped tire? The boss kept firing.

“There!” she called out into the wind. “Got the tire! Peace Phoenix Plaza! Pick me back up-”

But she had already left.

The boss jumped out of the speeding taxi, going well over seventy miles an hour. Claire kept on going straight, finding it easier now. There wasn’t a body hanging off the side of the taxi, and she was going the correct way down the street, now.

Rolling off the momentum from all the action, she got ready to steer. The black muscle car was slowing down.

From above, a figure landed on the hood of the car. An impact hard enough to dent, hard enough to pin the car in place. After a hard bend off the road, knocking into another car and the pole on the way, the black muscle car was finally put to a stop.

Claire slowed down some, steering around the crash, slipping by before anyone else could. Putting as much distance between her and that as possible.

By the impact, another car screeched to a halt, people getting out. A second black muscle car.

She was being chased too?

That thought hadn’t even occurred to her. Was the boss firing rounds to keep them at bay?

Before she could consider the answer, the first black muscle car, the one they were chasing, burst into a great ball of flames. Claire could feel the sweat trickle down the back of her neck.

She turned and got away.

Putting several roads and a mile between them, Claire knew where to go. Peace Phoenix Plaza. It wasn’t that far from here.

Claire started heading in that direction. With the police presence spreading thinner and thinner, once she got the taxi in flow with normal traffic, near other taxis, she was able blend back into the background, as if she had never stood out. The chase couldn’t have lasted more than several minutes. But that was enough to age her. She couldn’t afford that loss of time, though, she still had a whole motherhood ahead of her.

As she drove, Claire fixed Caleb’s paper dragon on the dash, setting it upright.

She arrived at the Peace Phoenix Plaza, the park close to the area considered the Eye. The word ‘plaza’ still applied, because it was built as one, it still was one. ‘Phoenix’ fit, now than ever. When Claire looked in the distance she saw the namesake statue on fire. Police were blocking off the entrance, redirecting anyone who happened to pass by.

So much for ‘Peace.’

Claire turned the taxi around, setting in park at loop where other taxis would wait for any possible passengers. Close enough.

She waited.

Time to breathe, time to think. Didn’t even want to listen to Late 94 right now.

She remembered having to race people to airports, or even runs to get people out of the city. But it was nothing like this. Or the last time she had the young woman in her taxi.

Claire also remembered that time, that last chase. A van. No guns, but just as insane. Because the driver of that other van was a little girl. Where was that girl now?

She only had a glimpse of that world, but it was so ugly, so wrong. Yet, there she was.

From inside, she inspected the damage to the taxi. The hairline crack on the windshield, a few dents across the hood. She couldn’t see if there were any bullet holes punched into the vehicle, but she didn’t want to go outside and check. She was too scared to, as if something worse would happen if she ventured outside.

At least in here, she was in the comfort of her own world.

Claire checked a switch by the center console. Still off. The sign on top wouldn’t light up. She wasn’t available for any other business. The business she was in now was too crazy.

No, not business, trouble.

At least the sign is still up there, this time.

She just wanted to get home and back to her kids.

Time ticked until the ticking became unbearable, and Claire turned the ignition to save gas. The taxi went still, the rumbling rust bucket wheezing no more.

Was the boss even coming back? How long was she expected to wait? They didn’t have any line of communication outside of maybe her phone. But everytime she called, it was through a different phone.

Her bag was still in the back, with all kinds of heat Claire didn’t want to be stuck with. Someone else had better take it, because it wasn’t hers.

She ran her fingers through her hair, fixing it.

Christ.

The door open and someone threw themselves in a hurry.

Claire turned the key and was back on the road before a young woman tell her to-

“Drive!”

They left the general area of the park, the flames of the Phoenix finally being extinguished. Claire checked.

“You alright boss?”

She had to check on her, too.

The young woman was going through her bag while she answered, her thoughts seemingly elsewhere.

“You mean in an existential sense?” She paused. “Sorry. We’re fine. There’s no heat on us. Can’t say the same for Edward and Gary.”

Who the hell was Edward and Gary?

Now, the only way she’d be able to sleep tonight was if she could really believe these people deserved, whatever the hell her boss did to them. Claire didn’t put her thoughts there.

“I meant,” Claire said, “Are you alright?”

“What, yeah, me? I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”

Claire pressed her lips together, firm, before speaking again.

“When you’re doing the things you do, and I’m watching you do them, makes it a lot harder not to. At least when I’d drop you off somewhere, you go off and I try not to think about it. But now…”

She trailed off, unsure what she was trying to say, or what she was getting at.

“Now what?”

Claire drove, not answering, now just pretending as if she didn’t hear.

“Is that all for tonight? It’s getting late, and I wouldn’t want you to push your luck. Or, maybe you’re done now?”

That last question came more from wishful thinking.

“Nowhere near done. Got a whole list left.”

Claire felt her heart sink.

“But we don’t have to run through it all tonight.”

Sinking deeper.

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough? That you made your message clear?”

The young woman zipped up her bag, holding something smaller. An orange streetlight filled the interior for a quick second, and Claire looked away. Back to the street.

“There is no message, and I’ve nowhere near had enough. I’m sorry Claire, but I’ll need you for one more night.”

“One more-”

“These stops took longer than I had anticipated, especially that last one. It worked out in the end, but that was a lot of time lost. But you’re right, shouldn’t push our luck. So, one more night.”

Now with a new destination in mind, Claire now drove with more purpose. Home.

“You can’t just spend your nights throwing away your-”

The young woman reached across to the front of the taxi, tossing a heavy wad of wrapped bills.

“I’ve got a few thousand to spend and throw away right here.”

Claire would have said more, but the young woman was busy with something else now. Apparently taking a drink of something.

Claire took the wad, feeling the weight. Buying her silence, buying her cooperation. But there had to be a cost, somewhere, from both sides, that couldn’t ever be recurred. Sinking.

The taxi rolled on, going through the world, a world on fire, a world Claire was no longer familiar with. And in the taxi, there was another world she felt she had some responsibility to at least… do something. She thought of Caleb and Willem.

But the cost? A few thousand she might end up throwing away.

Claire set the money in the seat. It was a price she was willing to wager.

The steering wheel itself was loose, when left alone it leaned a tad to the right, which made going straight a bit of a hassle. Claire remembered when she first reported it to Bill, her real boss, and he had her send it in for a repair, among other things. It came back worse, but enough other stuff had been fixed that Bill couldn’t justify sending it back for the one issue. She learned to deal with it.

Claire prepared to make a right, loosening her grip on the wheel. She let it slide out of place before turning it all the way.

The sun went up and down, a half-circle across the sky. Now it was moon’s turn, hovering above them.

Another turn, another night.

Claire drove while the young woman sat in the back.

If there was any consolation, it was in that there wasn’t much to do during the day. For Claire, anyway, her boss had gone out after… after breakfast, and didn’t return until the sun began to set. Her kids had come home from school and were already in bed, but not with countless question on if their guest would be joining them for dinner, and why she wasn’t at dinner, and why wasn’t home for bedtime, because it was way past bedtime. Claire had ran out of answers by the time the young woman got back.

And now they were back, back out on the streets, on the prowl. Claire hoped this would be the last time she’d have to do this. For her own sake, and for the young woman.

A sharp hiss.

“Yes boss?” Claire asked, by reflex.

The young woman looked at her through the mirror, momentarily confused.

“Oh, it’s nothing. I think.”

“If it’s not nothing, then I might need to know about it,” Claire said. “Might have to chase after it. Or get away from it, apparently.”

The young woman grinned, small. For now, her mask was off.

“It’s really nothing. I just keep seeing things,” she said. “I think.”

“You get enough sleep?”

“Not really.”

“This a regular thing? I hope it’s not a bad habit.”

“Oh it is,” the young woman said, almost laughing. “It most certainly is.”

Claire frowned. She couldn’t help it.

She spoke like she was talking to either Caleb or Willem. “That’s no good. Everyone needs rest, and sometimes they need it more than they need food, or, you know, whatever it is you had for breakfast.”

“I know. But there’s no rest for the wicked.”

“Wicked. Is that how you see yourself?”

“It’s how I see myself sometimes.”

“And other times?”

“Could you turn down the radio there?”

“Oh.”

Claire turned it down, she hadn’t realized it was on that loud. She had gotten so used to DJ Slims and Big Jim’s voices that she could tune them out, easy.

But Claire also noticed that the young woman didn’t answer the question. How much of that was intentional, she didn’t know.

Would she let that go?

Even if she did, she still had something she wanted to say.

“Boss…”

“Claire.”

“I think it would be good for you to start thinking what you want to do after you’re done here.”

There was a long beat. Nothing. Not even Late 94 to brush away the silence.

All the young woman said was, “Prying.”

“I know I am,” Claire said. She was terse. “But I think it’s important for you to have some goal or priorities in mind that aren’t… this.”

“Too late for that,” was what she got. “Too late for me.”

Claire shook her head, still watching the road.

“No it’s not, it’s not. It’s never too late. There’s always a way, you just have to want to find it.”

Another, longer beat. Then the young woman spoke.

“Claire, I have a lot of respect for you. Now more than ever. You’re reliable, you’re kind, patient, and all those other wonderful things. Maybe you hear that a lot, maybe you even think they’re just normal, but trust me, from what I’ve seen and the people I’ve met, that’s a real rarity. Lying and cheating and stealing, that’s what it takes to survive in the world I’ve been in, but that means people will try and to do the same thing to you. So I can’t go back to normal, or all those other things, because I’ll always have to watch my back. Even now, I have to keep low in case any of those people are plotting things that I’m not aware of. Part of the reason why I was gone all day.”

“I hope you won’t bring any trouble to my home, then,” Claire said. “Whatever happens to or around this taxi, fine, this is its own world, but not there, not my home.”

“I won’t, and I didn’t.”

“But,” Claire breathed, “That’s not the point. You sound so… you’re not even going to give it a try? Finding something that isn’t this?”

“This is all I know.”

“You can learn!”

Claire stopped the taxi, parking it to the side. The young woman’s back straightened, sitting up.

“Hey, we don’t have time to waste.”

Claire turned around to face her. The young woman.

A teenager, a child. Whatever life this child had led to get here, in the back of her taxi, probably enough to fill over a hundred chapters in an opus, Claire might never know the details to, but she still saw the youth in her. She hadn’t been completely soiled. Or in that soil, there was still a chance for roots to grow, become something new.

Something that wasn’t this. Revenge and blood and fire. There had to be more to her world than that.

“What’s your name, boss? Not the mask’s name, yours. I noticed you never told me.”

The young woman’s lip curled up, slight.

“Call me Vee.”

“Vee?”

“Like the letter.”

“Okay, V, what I’m trying to get at is, I refuse to believe that there’s nothing else for you. I’m just choosing not to believe it. And while I hate to bring up that I have more years on you, because you probably have a lot more packed into yours, but I’ve seen my fair share, too. Redemption. I’ve taken people to as many drug dens as I have hospitals and rehab centers. Sometimes it’s the those same people for both. And sometimes, they truly do get better. I’ve seen it happen, is what I’m trying to tell you. From the lowest and darkest places, to even just a few rungs up, but it’s not nothing.”

The young woman, V, listened. Not that she had any choice to.

Claire watched for any sign, as intently she would her own child. A brow, a lip, the flutter of an eye, to indicate that she’d at least listen.

She got one of those things.

“Has it gone the other way?” she asked. “From rehab back to the drug dens.”

Claire frowned again.

“I’m not going to lie to you and say that doesn’t happen. It’s not realistic. But that’s-”

“Not your point. I know. I hear you.”

Claire’s lips formed more of a straight line now.

“But why do you care?”

Claire smiled. That was easy.

“Looking at you, someone has to.”

V went silent, and Claire would have to wait. But that was a silence Claire could sit through.

“Okay,” V then said, “Fine. I can… Maybe it’s worth a shot.”

“More than you know,” Claire said, smiling wider now, “I can help you too, if you’d like. Look up some stuff, find some options. Schooling, if you’re interested. If you don’t want to be in a system or record there are plenty of libraries that hold classes to teach basic trades, not to mention-”

V raised a hand. Claire stopped.

“Hold it. I still have my plans. And you still have a job to do.  All that can wait until after tonight. Alright?”

Claire nodded. It would have to do.

“Alright. After tonight. We can do it.”

V then gestured. “Then please.”

Nodding again, Claire put the car on drive, adjusted the steering wheel, and moved on once again.

“So, Irving Street, as nostalgic as it is, we didn’t visit it yesterday. What’s there?”

For whatever reason, Claire was feeling more chatty now.

Through the rearview, V started getting to work with her bag. Mask and guns and knives.

“No need to know.”

“Considering how your plans changed last night, especially with that chase scene, I’d like to know what I’m getting into this time.”

V sighed.

“Heard something while I was out today. Did some scoping. Apparently the leader of the gang that’s spearheading these riots, is using the warehouse on Irving as a base of operations.”

“That place seems to switch hands quite often.”

“Apparently. Worth a check now that it’s dark and I can drive.”

“I’m driving.” Claire smiled to herself. “But that’s okay. We’re coming up on it now.”

“Yeah.” V had her mask halfway down her face, over her eyes.

Across the street, a cement truck with the large cylindrical tank crossed the intersection, perpendicular to them. The truck was slow, and Claire had to slow the taxi as a consequence.

“You want me to put the taxi in the same place as before?”

Claire never got the answer to that question.

A harsh suddenness, a certain violence that encircled them and took away all control.

The world, spinning out of control.

The steering wheel leaned far more to the right than ever before, nearly a complete revolution. Useless. So were the brakes and the gas.

Her body went slack, limbs flailing, unable to take back their own volition. Just noise and pain and crash and broken glass and twisted metal.

Violence, suddenness, harsh. Over as soon as those things happened.

Coming to was a whole other thing. A whole damn thing.

Claire coughed herself awake, a sharp pain all around her.

Hanging by the ragged and threadbare belt. She was hanging upside down. Arms over her head, but to the ground.

Coughed again. The pain sharper. Something was broken.

Her vision was filled with colors that ran together, but she could make out some details. Not something, everything.

The pinetree was hanging the wrong way as well, the paper dragon lost. The thin crack of the windshield had burst into a spiderweb.

Complete and total silence. The heavy ringing and the blood flowing the wrong way made it hard to hear.

In a very real sense, her world had been turned upside down.

“V?”

Came out muffled, but she could make out her own voice.

“Anyone?”

No answer for either question.

Vision still murky, Claire looked through the glass of the rearview. It was broken now. But through the shards, she couldn’t see the young woman she had as her passenger and boss. In fact, it looked like the door to the side had been opened.

Claire moaned.

Then the door to her side opened.

Claire saw feet. Shoes. Upside down. Right-side up.

The legs then bent. She saw not a face but… a clown? Now Claire was the one seeing things.

“Got the driver here. Still alive, though barely. If anyone has a gang doc on hand we could help her out.”

Claire groaned, trying to indicate something. Anything, by this point.

Another pair of feet entered the frame. The beak of a bird swooped down and was pointed at Claire. It swooped back up.

“Forget about her. Where’s V?”

A third pair now. They didn’t check inside the taxi but they sounded young. Younger than the young woman.

“They’re after her right now. Told you she’s fast.”

“But still… shit. The block was fucking locked down, too.”

“She’s out in the open now, that’s what matters. We just need to keep her moving, never rest, and she’ll fall into someone’s hands. Either ours, or the police, I can see the helis in the distance. When that happens we’ll pick her up.”

“Better be soon. Last thing I need is for someone else to get a hold of her. I want to see her. Look at her right in the face. I want her to know it’s me.”

“You know, there’s a chance she might not recognize us at all. And come on, can someone get her out of there?”

“D, tell Mrs. Carter and Styx we’re moving up. I am not letting her get away.”

“No big, Big Sis!”

Claire was starting to lose consciousness again. Unable to understand anything, it was almost better to fall back to sleep, and hopefully wake up somewhere else, somewhere safe.

She thought about her kids. She thought about Kim. She thought about V.

Hers was full as it was, but she was willing to nest another egg. The egg being V’s world. But now, it might be close to being cracked and destroyed.

And there was nothing she could do about it now. Claire was stuck, in the worn-down taxi cab.

Previous                                                                                               Next

108 – Friendly Fire

Previous                                                                                               Next

I got up.

My eyelids flashed open, fast and strained. I panicked at the suddenness of it and woke up frenzied.

“Agh!”

A jolt passed through me, sending my body up and tumbling. Too early to be conscious of who I was, where I was, or what was happening, I was already falling-

Agh!”

It wasn’t a long descent.

Something stabbed me, right between the ribs, and my breath was stolen from me. I gurgled, and flipped over to pull the thing out of my side. In my haste, the back of my head hit another something.

I growled, not even a real sound that could be formed or understood with letters. The underlying and growing emotion was still there, though. Irritation.

Going for another tactic, I just stayed still instead. I waited, and waited, so things could settle. My head cleared and I was able to get a grasp of myself again. Relatively speaking.

Claire’s head popped up from the top of the couch.

“You alright?”

She had a look on her face that she’d might have given to her own kids. Concerned, but not terribly concerned.

I groaned.

Working back to my feet, my brain catching up to my surroundings. I tried to talk through it.

“Had a… I woke up weird and fell off the couch. This thing… I landed on this thing.”

I kicked the toy truck away. It slid under-

“-The table there, hit my head against that. It’s…”

“Wow,” Claire said, her head nodding. “Talk about a rude awakening.”

I had to pull my hand out of a bundle. I just realized I was wrapped in a blanket.

I started to massage the back of my head. “I could go without this particular discussion, actually.”

“Are you usually that clumsy, or is spastic a better word?”

“Clumsy? No, or I hope not. It’s more a cosmic thing. As for being spastic? I really hate that I’d have to give you that.”

“Maybe it was just that bad of a dream, then.”

After giving the back of my head a good enough massage, I fixed up my hair.

“If it was… I don’t remember. But, whatever, let’s just forget about it. I know I already have.”

“Fair enough boss.”

Looking past Claire, at the rest of the living room and the kitchen behind her, I asked, “Is it just us now?”

“Yes ma’am. Kim took the kids already and then went to work, herself. But work for her started even earlier, Caleb and Willem really wanted to meet you.”

“They did?”

“They were pretty excited about the idea of someone sleeping over. But she had to get them dressed and packed up and out the door, and they’re old enough now to know that it’s rude to bug someone while they’re getting their rest up.”

“If Kim had to work so hard, where were you in all of this?”

Claire pointed towards the kitchen.

“Getting breakfast ready. You want some? Made enough for everyone, and that includes you. Room and board, I suppose. Might as well get your money’s worth.”

There was a small but awkward pause, probably only ever felt by me. I broke the silence but that feeling remained stuck to me.

“I’ll go without, this time.”

“You better be sure about that, boss, we’ve got a long day ahead of us. You should get something to eat before we head about.”

“I’ll manage. Trust me.”

“No no no,” Claire said, already moving back to the kitchen. She started getting together a plate of eggs and bacon, with a croissant on the side. A glass of orange juice on the other side.

I was beginning to feel a little cornered.

“You’re not staying at a hotel. You could have, but you didn’t. You’re staying with us, and one of the many rules under this roof is… you have to have breakfast. You might be able to skip breakfast at a hotel, but you cannot here.”

She then added, “Sorry, boss, that’s just how it is.”

“You’re a strict parent.”

“Someone has to be.”

“How detailed is this rule, though? Do I have to eat what you’ve cooked, or am I allowed to have some… um… leftovers I brought with me.”

“Breakfast is breakfast, and in my domain, you must eat. But, if you happened to bring something, then feel free to help yourself with that instead.”

“I’ll do that then.”

Tossing my blanket to the couch and making my move into the kitchen, I kept an eye on Claire. Not because I had any reason to be wary of her, but I was hesitant on how I’d approach the topic, if I would even have to approach the topic at all. Preferably, I wanted to avoid it.

Claire was still getting the food together. I wasn’t sure if that plate was still for me.

But her back was to me, her attention somewhere else.

I inched to the fridge.

Then I froze.

“You’re positive you don’t want anything here? The bacon is a little overcooked but I do have some pride in my eggs. I can cook them in my sleep. You might say they’re over easy for me!”

“Did you?” I asked. “Cook them that way?”

“Sunny side up,” Claire answered. “Good morning, boss, by the way.”

“Morning,” I said, still watching her back. I inched forward again. “And… I’ll have to pass on the fresh food, not that I don’t believe you.”

“Suit yourself. Might as well go for seconds. It’ll be a long day, right?”

“Could be,” I said, and I finally made it over to the fridge. Slow and laborious, with more strength than I’d ever need because I was trying to be cautious about it, I opened fridge door.

The door popped open without a sound, but I soon learned it was impossible to bypass the low but ever present hum of the cold machine itself. As if it was mocking me with its flat tune, jaws wide open with food, breathing out but never inhaling. It exuded a bad attitude.

Claire turned partway to me. I froze again, and felt frozen as the fridge continued to breathe on me.

“Yeah?” I asked, after a beat of nothing happening.

“I…” Claire started, but she then hopped to another train of thought. “I was going to say something but the eggs again, but now I’m just looking at you leaving the fridge open for too long.”

“Oh, um…” I looked inside the fridge itself. My stuff was untouched, exactly where I had left it. Paper bags with packs of blood inside.

I had just woken up, and my first challenge of the day was breakfast.

No choice but go for it. I had to reach for one of the bags, all while being seen doing it.

“Bit early for a drink,” Claire commented, a frown forming on her face, “In time and in age.”

“It’s um… it’s not alcohol. Well, the effect might, more or less, be the same but… it’s not what you think it is.”

“What is it then?”

The one question I didn’t want to be asked.

“Uh…”

“If you didn’t want to have breakfast with me, you can go have yours on the couch. Watch a little TV. Just don’t spill anything.”

“Oh…”

“Could you close the fridge please, boss?”

“Oh.”

I closed the fridge, shutting the thing up.

“Well, I mean,” I started, but I still wasn’t sure on what I would say, or if I really wanted to say anything. Was Claire giving me an out to just be on my own for the moment, or was it better to be upfront about this, now?

“Yes boss?”

I sighed, holding the paper bag close to me.

“Just so you know, I’m not trying to, uh, freak you out or anything, and I probably should have given you the heads up last night, but it looks like there wasn’t any issue this morning, so that’s good, but the last thing I want is for an incident to happen especially with your kids around so-”

“Boss?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re rambling.”

I sighed again.

Pinching open the bag, I titled the thing to Claire. Not too far open for her to peek inside, though, the true contents were obscured in shadow.

“It’s blood,” I told Claire, “Human blood.”

Claire stood there, still turned partway. She didn’t move… but it seemed as if her eyes widened by a fraction.

And… there it was. Several fractions. Now it was noticeable.

“Blood…” she repeated with a breath, “Like… red liquid that flows through living things?”

“Yeah.”

“And this blood… it’s from people?”

“Yeah.”

“And you drink this blood, like a, um, vamp-”

“Whatever word you’re thinking of, that’s the one I’ve been using. It’s more of a placeholder, though.”

Claire nodded, slow.

“Okay.”

She turned back to her food. My eyes her to the back of her head again.

“Storing it in my… is that a biohazard?”

“Judging from prior experiences, it hasn’t been an issue.”

“Okay.”

Another long, drawn out beat.

“Hey, boss?”

“Yes?”

“I think I lost my appetite, would you mind buying me a new one?”

“Sure, Claire, I can spring for that.”

“Thanks, boss.”

She was still, I moved. I went for my bag, and pulled out some more stacks of cash. Within the ballpark of a thousand dollars. Give or take. I set them on the table for Claire, and I made my way back to the couch. I found the remote and turned the channel to the news.

On the inside, I felt like an idiot and wanted to slap myself silly, but I kept myself alert as I worked my pack. The pack with my breakfast in it.

It was a plastic bag, with my juice filled inside. There was a small zipper at the top, one that could be sealed and resealed, leaving it airtight when closed.

I tilted the bag so the juice would collect at one end, until I was able to zip the bag open without worrying about a spill. I was careful when I brought the opening to my lips, taking small sips.

Tasted as sweet and fresh and delicious as ever. Which compounded the guilty feeling in my stomach that grew as it filled. Something this good and sugary couldn’t have possibly been healthy for me.

Yet, there I was, sitting on this couch, drinking it as easy as water. And needing it just as much.

“That is just a show, isn’t it?”

I coughed, leaning forward and covering my mouth with a hand, strategically placing it under my chin so I wouldn’t splatter or spill. My face was as flushed as the juice I was drinking when I said, “What, what? I didn’t-”

“It’s still just as crazy as it was last night, or this morning, rather.”

Oh.

After a check quick for any mess and finding none, I looked back up and saw the TV.

That’s what she was talking about.

The news.

A program was on, a live feed of the different… incidents that were flaring up and down the city, spreading like wildfire.

Riots in the streets, people ransacking stores and other business, traffic held up because of literal fires, grey smoke reaching up to white clouds, snuffing them out. There were only so many in the police force to handle the ever-increasing violence, and it was easy to imagine Gomez again, sitting in the dark of his home, his only sanctuary with a semblance of control, except maybe he was losing even that, now, given how dire and fucked up this situation was getting.

But, part of that was brought on himself. I had offered him assistance, and he tried to spit a bullet in my face.

“Definitely a shitshow,” I said, swallowing, tasting a bit of sweet, the flavor dancing across my tongue and teeth.

“And we’re going straight into that.” There was a noticeable pause that followed, the only sounds were of ceramic tapping, utensils across a plate, probably.

“We are,” I said.

“You know, boss, you never actually mentioned what you’re set out to do. I know I have to drive you around and all, but for what?”

Another pause, but that was more for myself. Knowing that Claire was looking in my direction, now, I finished up my breakfast, cleared my trash, and stood up, wiping a lip.

I looked at Claire.

“Might be easier for everyone if I don’t give you the particulars on that. For now, just drive.”

I saw that Claire was in the middle of a bite of eggs. Fork halfway between her plate and her mouth. She dropped the fork back down.

“Worse than the blood thing?”

I gave her another stack of cash for that.

“May I use your shower?” I asked, a total non-sequitur.

Claire took the extra stack, and flipped through the bills. I saw her nostrils flare up as she brought the money a tad closer to her nose.

“Down the hall, first door on your left. I’ll go get you a towel after I finish up my eggs here.”

We were all packed and ready to go. Claire was fresh out of the shower after me, and had everything she needed for the day. I did, too.

The cold bit at us as we stepped out of the apartment building, as if it wanted us to stay inside, wanted me to stay inside. No fucking way. I’d fight against the weather, too, if I had to.

Claire led us over to where she had parked the taxi. It wasn’t very close, mostly for precaution, tucked in a corner alley between a general store and a local bookstore. She had to duck a lot of her calls from her actual boss, demanding to know where she was, but more importantly, his cab.

Before we headed out on official business, I had offered her a suggestion, and it seemed to do the trick, in that Claire’s phone went silent right after.

A slight variation of the truth. That she had picked up a passenger who asked for an extended trip to the nearest river, and had paid the fare with an obol. She would be returning promptly upon completion of this journey.

It worked. As I figured, it wasn’t the first time something like this happened. Which was more sad than anything else.

But it was one less thing to worry about, and we were able to continue.

We got into the taxi, and Claire peeled us out of the corner, and we were on our way.

Onto our first stop.

Claire’s apartment was farther away from the Eye. We’d spiral towards the center, hitting different stops as we went. Get info where I could, strike where I saw an opportunity. Then we’d spiral outward, hitting any places I might have missed, or where I now saw openings. Repeat and repeat again. A continuous spiral. An endless loop. A snake eating its own tail.

Watching the city fly past me, a pane of glass being the only thing separating me and the total turmoil right outside. We toured through the jungle as the fire consumed and fueled the natural state of things.

Enough of the city had been broken and that things weren’t beginning to work, anymore. The streets coiled, we were unable to go straight to our first stop. Detours. Maybe it spoke to something grander about how things were. Maybe it was yet another setup to yet another joke.

But I wasn’t here to listen, and I wasn’t in the mood to be humored.

I saw the fire, I saw the smoke. I saw those who were holding the matches. I saw those who were looking to snuff out the flames. I also saw the flames reaching something like an intense sunburst, out of control. It made me wonder if, or how long until, those fires would turn around and begin to eat each other. And what that would even look like.

It was like racing against a fuse. I had to beat the heat, in a manner of speaking.

“We’re coming up close, boss.”

My hands went to my things, as if for security.

“Took us long enough.”

“I’m sure you’d understand why.”

“I do.”

“How far did you want-”

“Here’s good.”

Claire slowed the taxi as we approached. The blended colors of the portrait past the glass began to separate and take their own forms.

A block up ahead, its own building. Made of red and brown brick, stacked to look like an old factory, it probably was one, many decades ago. Now, it was an Italian restaurant by the name of Morricone’s.

I knew of it because of D’s briefing on the territory, once before. Back when I was still with the Fangs, when we had D get as much info on those other gangs as possible, the ones at the table. How did that already feel like a lifetime ago, though? Probably because it was.

I prepared myself as Claire put the taxi to a stop, putting us by the curb. A block between us and the restaurant. I would have to walk the rest of that distance by foot.

I had my hands on my bags for reassurance, but I knew that I couldn’t bring them with me. Not inside, and not with how I was getting in.

I got out, and poked my head back into the taxi.

“Shouldn’t take too long,” I told her, “But if it does…”

“I’ll wait for you boss,” Claire replied. “As long as it takes.”

All I could do then was give her a nod, smiling. Maybe my feelings on her were a little misplaced, given how bright her eyes would get in the sight of money, but I didn’t want to put those feelings anywhere else.

I stepped away from the taxi, and for now, we took different paths. Claire to the street, and I moved to the sidewalk, going right into Morricone’s.

The place was expensive. From the sights to what I heard and smelled. The architecture was stark, with plenty of room for people and atmosphere. There was a minimalistic sense to the interior design, only going for rustic pieces, tables and chairs, lights that were kept low for the ambiance. Where the eye didn’t have much to appreciate, it was left to the other senses to add. Light jazz music swung overhead and through our ears, and the smell of the food, wafting from all the plates and from the kitchen somewhere, seemed to somehow justify the exuberant prices the menus would be willing to set. I knew the place smelled expensive by how much I hated what attacked my nose.

Trash and decay. It offended.

The line through the waiting area… there wasn’t one. But the place wasn’t empty, not by any long shot. No physical line, then. The people who could eat here, they’d wait through a reservation. Weeks in advance.

I was able to get right to the front. A server was watching me approach the whole time, curious that someone could even think to just… walk in here.

The server spoke up before I got to him. “We only accept those who have a reservation.”

“And if I have one?”

“We’re not expecting anyone else half past noon. It’s noon.”

“I could be here early.”

“If you’re putting it like that, then you don’t have a reservation at all.”

“Could I not just be given a seat and have a meal?”

“Again, if you’re putting it-”

“-Putting it like that, right. But I have money?”

“Money doesn’t buy you everything.”

“Are we really having this conversation right now?”

“Do you really have any business with us?”

I blinked, the first heavy pause since walking into the restaurant.

I could recognize the effect D had on me during our time together. That irreverence. It was a tangible thing.

“I was wondering if I can get a job here.”

The man’s face screwed up to a tight expression. Holding back a laugh, I suspected.

“We’re not hiring.”

“Are you the manager?”

There was a pause on his end before he said, “No, I’m not.”

“Then you really can’t speak to that, can you?”

Another pause. Another beat.

“May I speak with them?” I asked. “The manager?”

“The manager isn’t in right now.”

“Could I swing to the back and leave a note by the door?”

“If you have anything to say to him, I can make sure to pass it on.”

Somehow, I didn’t believe a word of anything he just said.

I didn’t want to pull this card, but now I might just have to.

“Well, if he’s not in now, could you tell him that D’Angelo sent me?”

The server looked taken aback.

“Did you say…”

“D’Angelo? Yeah. He said the manager here would have something for me if I asked and mentioned his name.”

The more I stood here and spoke, the more at a loss the server looked.

“May I… may I get your name?”

“I could just come back and catch the manager another time.”

The server shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe a word of anything I just said. But, unlike me, he relented.

Motioning over to another server beside him, he pointed to me, then jerked a thumb in some general direction behind him.

Looking back at me, he said, “Consider yourself lucky.”

Another server began to lead me away, I walked and shrugged at the first server.

“Been forced to make my own luck.”

And with that, I was led through the restaurant. The server made us stick to the side of the main dining area, probably so there would be less eyes on me. To be fair, I wasn’t quite dressed for the occasion, only wearing a heavy grey sweater and the skirt I had quickly stashed when I left my apartment in a hurry. A far cry from the formal attire that was implied.

We reached the back, going past the kitchen and farther into the building. The smell of the cooking insulted my nose.

I was grateful when the server managed to get us out of there, taking me to a door at the end of the hall. A name on the label, made of gold.

Ronaldo Morricone.

The server knocked.

A voice came from the other side of the door. “Yes?”

“Got someone here for you. Looking for a job. Said they were sent by Mr. D’Angelo.”

A beat.

“Come in!”

The server looked at me before he left. If I had any more to lose, I would have considered it to be a warning.

I went through the door.

A small office, but it wasn’t cramped. Simple, clean, with a natural and slick look from the oak desk and shelves.

Contrast that with the man at the desk. Large, he looked fat but something to me suggested it was all muscle. An expensive looking suit, probably worth more consider he would have had to have it tailored to him.

Soft trails of smoke floated around us. He pulled a fat cigar out of his mouth, his voice gruff.

“And the fuck are you? Should got you wiped off the face of the earth for speaking D’Angelo’s name without the proper permission.”

“I’ve more than earned the proper permission. And it’s Wendy, by the way. Or was. But that’s the name that has the most use for me in this case, anyways.”

Ronaldo Morricone stared at me, hard, his brown forming a thick, solid line.

“He’s mentioned me.”

“The name ain’t unfamiliar. He continues to be impressed with you.”

So word hasn’t spread about…

“I don’t see why, personally, but I am flattered.”

“What can I do you for, then? If you know my cousin, you have no need for a job.”

I put my hands in my pockets.

“I’m in the middle of looking for work.”

I scrunched up my nose. I hadn’t noticed it at first, with how heavy the cigar smoke was. But now I saw it.

“Looks like I caught you during lunch. Sorry about that. What is that?”

He nudged the plate to the side. “Carbonara, fresh from the kitchen.”

“Sounds good. How’s the taste?”

“If you got business with me, little girl, I suggest you make it quick. Now, take your hands out of your damn pockets and address me properly.”

I shrugged. “I was just curious.”

“Curiosity’s a bitch and a killer. Don’t waste my motherfucking-”

The desk rattled and skidded. Food kicked up and spilled into a mess. The plate had cracked in half.

And all I did was take my hands out of my pockets.

Things settled around us, but nothing rested easy.

I was standing on top of the desk, now, lifting the heavyset man by the collar. The plate at his desk was split down the middle, the meal spilling across the surface, the sauce smearing.

Ronaldo Morricone was choking, coughing up bits of food, completely taken by surprise.

“You fuck- If you got a direct line to my cousin, what do you need me for?”

“I don’t need him, not yet. He can wait. I need you, and you better cooperate, or I’ll cut out every bit of fat from your body, set it on your carbonara and feed it to you.”

He gurgled, but he didn’t say no.

“Inez,” I told him, “I know she comes here quite often. That she even has reservations for tonight, like she does every week. A personal favor for continued business with your cousin, is that right? Blink if I’m right.”

He blinked.

“When she comes, and I’m not asking for much, but when she comes, all I’m asking is that you lock the doors and walk away. Can you do that?”

I shook him.

“Blink if you can do that for me!”

He blinked.

I dropped him. He collapsed onto the floor, gasping for air and clutching his neck.

“Now don’t try anything funny,” I said, “Because I’ll know. And not only will I do exactly what I just threaten you with, but I would have had time to come up with more. Now do you understand me?”

He didn’t have to, but he blinked for a third time.

“Good, see you tonight, Morricone. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to make a call. Direct line.”

Night had fallen. And others would soon follow.

That was the plan anyways.

Starting with footfalls. Claire and I got out of the apartment one more time, and walked the path to the taxi. It was starting to be familiar, now that we had gone back and forth, and now we were going back again. It wasn’t yet an all the way, worn down path, but it was familiar enough that my eyes and mind were able to wander as we walked.

Trailing upwards, I gazed upon something, or at least I thought I did.

By the roofs, closer to the moon, the smoke blurring away the edges of that flat circle of nighttime. A strange figure.

I tried to lock in on it, my stare lingering on that point in space. Then the image fuzzed out, and other senses stole my focus from me.

“You’re about to hit that pole, boss.”

“Oops,” I said, moving out of the way. I readjusted my bag.

“What are you staring off for?”

“I… nothing. It’s nothing. Thought I was seeing things again.”

“Again?”

“Nothing. Again. Complicated.”

I straightened myself. My path and my bag. Couldn’t get distracted so easily.

“What if you did?” Claire asked. “Or were?”

“What does that mean?”

“What if you did see something, or what if you were seeing things again?”

I looked up one more time. In that direction. More a glance than a stare, now. I wasn’t even sure what I saw, then.

“Then that would be terrifying in either case.”

“How about we go for the third, unspoken option?”

The silence that walked with us the rest of the way back to the taxi served as a decent substitute, in lieu of a spoken answer.

We left the silence outside as we got in the taxi once again, and we drove off into the night.

But we weren’t done yet. Nowhere near close. The night had just begun.

I made myself more in tune with the moment. Forced myself to. If I let myself wander now, I might not be able to set myself straight.

Focus.

This was something I had to do. Not because I enjoyed it. But I wasn’t even sure what I enjoyed, anymore, or if that was something I had ever actually felt.

I’d imagine it would be too late to dwell on it, now.

The drive wasn’t long, as we returned to the Eye. We passed a few of the stops we had taken on our initial trip. The order wasn’t based on location, now, it was priority. We were going to start with the easy ones first.

Easy, yet it would somehow be the most difficult.

It was a somber ride as the taxi rolled on.

“We’re here,” Claire said, with a bit of patience. “A street over, like you asked.”

Either I had focused too much, or I ended up wandering, despite my efforts. The drive wasn’t as long as I expected. I clutched my bag tighter.

“Do you want me to stay right here?” she asked, “I can keep the blinkers on.”

“No,” I said, “Somewhere else, like last time.”

“Like last time. I still remember that day.”

“Me too.”

This time, I grabbed my stuff and hopped out of the taxi. We separated again, coordinated. Planned.

I walked, my head tilting up.

Even in the distance, the building towered above us.

Panorama.

The nightclub was bouncing and glowing with life, very different from when I last left it, burning to death. The place had time to spring back up. I even felt happy for him.

That fleeting feeling then dashed away as I ran into an alley.

I went right to work, not a second to waste. Opening my bag as I moved, I changed into my costume, getting my weapons and putting my mask on last. When I was ready, I began my ascent up the urban jungle, prepared to leap.

And I leapt.

The rooftops, the movements, they were all so familiar, and I was almost gliding over the surfaces and the gaps, maneuvering through and over things with the ease of riding a bike. Smooth, fast. I had gotten better at this.

As the wind ran through my hair, the fact that I was so high up over everything or everyone… that never got old.

I supposed there was something I enjoyed, after all.

As soon as I had that realization, I had arrived at my destination. The first stop of the night.

I looked down at the club.

Just as I had remembered it, many months ago. A hazy sense of déja vu.

The glass ceiling of the Panorama. The flashing neon lights, the different levels and floors, people dancing and trying to have a good time. The namesake panoramic wall of lights. They still kept that damn thing.

If this went well enough, I wouldn’t have to go in there. I had made enough of a mess the first time.

I traced the side of the building, walking on the edge. To scope out the rest of the club, first.

The back half was still there, maybe it was remodeled in some places, but it looked about the same as before.

A private loft. Open air, complete with a pool and a bar and a few patrons looking to enjoy the night.

There weren’t as many people as last time, same with the club. I could imagine why. Not many would want to go out when the night sky was thick was smoke and pierced with screams.

And there I saw him.

Sitting at a table, not too far from the pool. Surrounded by a few of his personnelle. Not too many, but they were there. He was having a meal by himself.

Not for long.

I took a moment to steel myself. It was a necessity.

I closed my eyes, breathing in, then out.

I took to the air. High as my legs would allow.

Up, then down.

So much easier than last time.

My feet didn’t crash through glass, and I wasn’t reduced to a heap when I landed. It was a solid landing, meaning my presence had a proper introduction, and all the attention was on me. Attention I’d intend to use.

I moved forward with my momentum, leaping over the pool and to the table where he was. The first target.

But I had to clear the ones he had around him, though.

The first one crashed when I pounced on top of him, folding like a chair. It reminded me of how I landed when I first broke into the Panorama.

The second had the good sense to react, reaching for a gun. Still crouched over, I dug into a pocket and flung my arm out. The knife appeared right between his collarbone, and he went down, choking. I had aimed for his shoulder.

The third now had the time to go for his gun and fire. I was knocked back. I didn’t know what he intended to hit, but my shoulder exploded with pain.

My jaw was tight as I fought through, wound already healing. Leaping again, I slammed him down, and crushed the bones in his hand for good measure. He wouldn’t be firing that gun ever again.

The rest, I didn’t worry about, they hadn’t even entered my mind. The civilians lounging in the bar and the pool were already springing for the exits, screaming and panicking at the sudden gunshot and the fight that had broken out. The only one who didn’t move at all was him.

“D’Angelo,” I said, staring at him from behind my mask. “Don’t move. Don’t call for help.”

D’Angelo had remained sitting at his table, some food still hanging from his mouth. He fixed himself then said, “You.”

“More than you’d know.”

“What is it you want? I do have an appointment.”

“I have an appointment, too. May I have a seat?”

Sitting back now, D’Angelo gestured for the chair. I took my seat.

It was just us, now, minus the downed guards around us, but they weren’t a factor, anymore. The music bumped through the club across from me.

“Help will be coming,” D’Angelo said, “Or some for of it. You let people leave. They’ll tell someone, and they’ll come investigate. And if it comes to it, they’ll retaliate.”

“You don’t need to worry about what they will or will not do,” I said. “You worry about yourself. And your meal. Please, keep eating. Wouldn’t want your dinner to get cold.”

Cool, tempered, D’Angelo spun red, thick noodles around a fork. He ate.

I asked him, “How’s it taste?”

“You seem to have a penchant for showing up whenever things are most hectic. Like a sign, or a symbol of what’s to come.”

No answer, I asked instead, “And what is to come?”

He swallowed a bite. He stared me right in the eye.

“Death. Destruction. The Devil himself, looking to enjoy the fruits of his labor.”

“I don’t know if I’m getting any enjoyment from this. It’s just more something I have to do.”

“And the other two?”

“I’d have to give you that.”

D’Angelo reached to the side of the table. I tensed.

He lifted a cane, the same cane I’d seen him walk with before. He rapped the edge of the table. A clang rang out.

“You seem to take, that’s all you can really do. And we’ve had a lot of trouble trying to fight back, as I’m sure you know. To me, you are the embodiment of entropy, and it seems like the only way not lose any more is to have less to lose. And even then… you would find a way to reduce.”

“Goes both ways.”

“How so?”

“I didn’t come here to talk about me.”

“What did you come here to talk about, then?”

He was looking at me, and I was looking at him. Staring into my eyes, or in the general direction of where they would be.

I slid the mask down my face.

His eyes widened.

“Wendy?”

“You gave me your card, remember? The first time we met?”

“Yes, I remember.”

I breathed, then spoke, clear and without hesitation.

“I don’t have much time left, and you, D’Angelo, you’ve got even less. Figured I might give something to you before this came to an end.”

“But you still want something from me. You’ll still take something.”

“I’d apologize, but I have a feeling you wouldn’t take to it so well. Just know that, if I did, it would be genuine.”

“How thoughtful.”

“Tell me about Mister. Is he even fucking real?”

“I know a man we called Mister. That’s about as real as it gets.”

“Dammit D’Angelo, please. Where can I find him?”

“Good luck. Haven’t seen the man we called Mister since before all this started. Before you ever showed up. And by this point, why would you ever expect him to come back?”

I squared my jaw so hard it started to grind.

“Mrs. Carter.”

“You don’t find her. She finds you. Same with Styx.”

“So if I raise enough hell, they’ll come crying to me?”

“Everyone will be coming to stop you. Just try to pick them out of that mob.”

“I might just try that.”

“Haven’t you raised enough hell, Wendy? Haven’t you done enough?”

“Either everything burns, everything, or I burn out in the process.”

D’Angelo continued to eat. I was impressed that he still had an appetite.

“How far back were you planning something like this? I’m curious.”

“Your cousin said something about curiosity.”

“I know he did. Indulge me.”

“The first time we met.”

“At the hotel?”

I corrected him.

“Here.”

“Ah.”

D’Angelo wiped his lower lip with a napkin. Poised, with a bit of grace and dignity.

“There’s nothing else I can tell you. Nothing you wouldn’t already know, I’d suspect. All I have left now is to finish this meal.”

“May I stick around until then?”

“Of course. If it means anything, I’m still very impressed by you. I don’t think that’ll change.”

“Thank you, Santino.”

He took another bite. Only a few left.

“Morricone’s cooking has only gotten better with time.”

“That’s good to hear. I bid you goodnight, Santino, before I forget.”

“Yes, it’s a good night indeed.”

The air was cool, and for a moment, it was even calm. I sat with Santino D’Angelo until he was finished.

Previous                                                                                               Next

107 – Power Up

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Having stripped away everything, all that I was, it didn’t give me a lot in the way of people I could go to for help. Friends or those I would have considered family.

Couldn’t go to D. Wouldn’t. She’d have her hands full with the Fangs, and, according to Sarah, they weren’t so fond of me, to put it lightly. If I stuck my neck out anywhere near her, D’s hand might be forced to strike me down. I wouldn’t put her in that position. I wouldn’t put myself in that position.

I’d leave her alone. Probably for the best.

The fact remained, however, that my options were limited. But they weren’t zero.

I would just have to make my own luck.

Stalking the streets of the city, I searched for stress and strife.

Trash and debris drifted by my shoes and several feet away, like tumbleweeds. The wind itself breathed a hollow note, ringing in my ears. It gave a musical quality to the rhythmic crunch and crinkling of glass under each step.

There were other noises, farther into the distance. Sirens, screams and shouts, even a shot. I was seeing the aftermath of that disorder, the smoke rising above rooftops with no chimneys. The city was seething all around me, letting out yelps and barks, as if to warn anyone who might try and come closer. I heeded the warning, but I continued onward. I had left myself no other choice.

Until then, though, I was alone with my thoughts. And not the illusory kind.

I kept myself on high alert, eyes and ears open, watching and listening for anything that moved, anything that could make a noise. Extending my reach much farther than what my physical wingspan would suggest.

And after pulling all that in, everything gathered and taken stock, I was made starkly aware of my situation.

That I was alone, but I wasn’t by myself. Not quite.

More my ears than my eyes. In front, there wasn’t anything to keep my guard up for, aside from the very principle of just being in the city. Trash and debris here, smoke there.

Not ahead, then. Behind.

Listening, I picked up on faint but perceptible sounds. They weren’t too defined, too shapeless to be honed in on, but they were there, and they told me enough. That they were deliberate, that they were trying to dampen any audible clue of their approach but they could only do so much. One person would find it easy to blend into city’s ambiance, but several? Not as much, and that proved to be a setback.

And, it also told me that they were certain their numbers would make up for their lack in covertness. They were confident.

They were a crowd, they were coming up on me, fast, and they didn’t want me to be aware of them just yet.

Too late.

I maintained my stride, though, in keeping with the act, except I was an active participant in it, now. I walked down the road, paved by anger and frustration and retribution against ill intentions. It was a familiar path, so I walked with purpose, able not to dwell too much on the distractions around me. No more detours.

The street was long, with a lot of forks to the side. Alleys. A foggy, muted memory drifted into the gaze of my mind’s eye, clouding it for a moment, before being blinked away.

Something, not unlike this, had happened before. At that time, Alexis Barnett had gone down one of the alleys. Now, it was my turn.

The street turned at a corner. The light was red.

I stopped there and waited.

The shapeless sounds behind me stopped where they were and waited.

Still looking ahead, I almost smiled to myself.

Keeping my eyes on the light and my ears focused in the other direction, I considered the identity of my potential pursuers.

The Fangs were my first thought, it wouldn’t have been so far-fetched that they had found me already. Even if I was nowhere near their territory. They would be racing, like I was, to find the one who had wronged them and take them apart, piece by piece. And I did a lot wrong.

In my case, I had more than one that I was after, and I had to get to them before the Fangs got to me.

Whoever it was behind me, I’d have to shake them off.

I mentally checked and double-checked everything I had brought with me. The bag strapped around a shoulder.

Was there anything I could take out right away to defend myself? I knew where everything was, even though I had packed them all in a hurry. The knives I had grown to be rather familiar with, the guns less so. I could still go for either to arm myself, though.

Was there a chance I could take them without arming myself, going with just my bare knuckles? There was, but it wouldn’t be smart. A group was following me, and while I probably had the collective strength of all of them, I’d learned better now than to take those kinds of chances.

Something in hand, I knew I’d need that much, but to instigate? Not here, not with these guys. Wouldn’t be worth the time it would take to kick them to the curb. Nope, I had places to be and people I needed to find, and doing both required time. Something that was slipping between my fingers. I knew that much.

Time starts now, V, it’s ticking already.

As it went.

But I stayed there at the light, waiting. When the light turned, I’d just keep walking, and let them make the first move. If they were wanting to start something, anything, only then would I look to end it, for their sake.

The light turned.

I walked, and kept walking. The sound behind me picked up again. I wouldn’t dare turn around.

Listening still for the creeping stalk, I directed myself towards other sounds, the sirens, the screams and shouts, more than one shot, now. I was headed there anyways, but if I was being followed, I might be able to deter them from going any further, or farther. Scare them off.

Keeping straight, going where things would be warmer.

They didn’t stop.

Louder. Hotter now.

They continued.

Closer.

Hot.

I-

“Get the fuck back, skinhead.”

-Turned, and saw who had been on my tail.

People, as I had figured, but not quite what I was expecting.

One person. White, bald, skinny, but considering how he went with a sleeveless denim vest even in this weather, I could see that he was fit, or he’d been working on getting there at least. Tattoos crept down his arms and fingers, reaching up to his neck and jawline. Younger or older, it was hard to tell, his face looked like it had seen too many fights, blurring his natural features. Either it aged him, or the callouses kept things in place. In a sense.

Mean looking guy, overall.

One person. The only one here who matched that description. The rest weren’t mean, but stern.

The ‘skinhead’ wasn’t facing me when I had turned, not directly. Instead, he had positioned himself to the edge of the sidewalk, his back to the road, so he could get a view of the opposition he had on each side.

And the one across from me.

A group. About the stark opposite from the skinhead. They all had hair, for one.

For the rest, however, they were all Asian. Different in size, in build. Trying to be conspicuous about the firearms they had at their sides, but not really. I could see them, and the skinhead could see them, too.

“Farther than that, asshole.”

Someone else from the group across from me.

The skinhead, the asshole, gave the group a hard stare, then at me, then back again. Keeping a mean looking attitude, as if he wasn’t deterred after having been followed himself, and now cornered. His feet were planted firm into pavement, his chin was level, and his head seemed cool.

He didn’t move.

I just watched.

At the head of the group, a guy called him out a third time.

“Crazy time we live in, huh? Never had to ask a cracker motherfucker if they know English or not.”

No budge.

Several clicks and arms motioning at the skinhead’s direction. Firearms.

“You understand this? You’ve got three seconds to walk into middle of the street and let a car drag you across the pavement. Change incoming traffic for the rest of them.”

A few laughed at the small joke, but they were still dead serious.

Not a lot of seconds left-

The skinhead backed away a step, then another, and turned at the third. Hands in his pockets, seemingly still coolheaded, he walked towards the middle of the street, then passed it, crossing the whole thing.

Before he could step onto the other side, a crack rang out into the open air, and the skinhead hit the ground, his lips and chin splitting open as it kissed the curb. Blood pooled onto the street and sidewalk itself, where he dripped from the hip and face, respectively.

My chin, my jaw had to picked up from the ground, too. At least I was able to. Even I hadn’t expected that.

The group then formed a loose circle around me. Not to threaten, but almost like a protective barrier.

“You okay sister?”

The crack of the gun was still ringing in my ears.

“Beg your pardon?” I asked.

It was the guy at the head of the group who was addressing me.

“Skinhead there was tailing you for about a block or two. Good thing he was dumber than shit, or he would have noticed us sneaking up on him, sneaking up on you. Lucky us, lucky you.”

“Lucky lucky,” I said, mostly just to test my own hearing again. And, as if to test my sight and make sure I wasn’t under any spell or illusion, “You still shot him down.”

“Hey, I told him to go to the middle of the street and wait for a car to hit him. He went past the middle, and he didn’t wait. He asked for it.”

He isn’t moving anymore.”

The guy put his gun away, tucking into the back part of his jeans. The rest of the group remained on guard.

“Don’t tell me you feel bad for him? Trust me, sister, that asshole was going to do much worse to you if he got his hands on you. Part of the reason we started putting together groups, doing patrols. Lookouts. We have to start watching each others backs, because ain’t nobody else gonna to it for us.”

This guy sounds a lot like Dong-Yul, a voice told me.

I didn’t disagree.

“Hard to drum up sympathy for him,” I said, “But I would have been fine if he really was stupid enough to pick a fight with me. Not that I didn’t appreciate you stepping in when you did, though.”

The guy motioned to the group. “What’s done is done, and it’s better to move in a crew, anyways. Where you headed?”

I fixed the bag around my shoulder, feeling the shifting weight of my guns and knives and costume inside. “Anywhere there’s trouble, but it looks like it found me instead.”

The guy laughed. “Maybe! Hey, now that I think of it, you look familiar. We met before?”

I paused, wary.

“Don’t think so,” I answered, careful.

He snapped his fingers.

“Shit, we have for sure! Wellport, remember? A girl, Jasmine? She brought you over, she commented on your glasses. A lot happened during that crazy fucking night, but I can remember that.”

My glasses now were a crushing weight on the bridge of my nose, feeling like it would split my entire face in half.

“I can remember that, too,” I said. “Definitely a… crazy night.”

“What was your name again… Wendy, right?”

Somehow, I found myself nodding, calm, and not in a fake way. Like the calm someone might have felt if they jumped off a building. Except, in my case, I’d survived more than once.

And after the first time, nothing else mattered anymore.

I nodded again, more assured.

“But that’s something of a government name,” I said. “And right now, I’m a bit of an anarchist.”

The guy laughed.

“Andrew, by the way, and good! Because we’ll need some of that right about now. Hey, why don’t you run with us? Before our detour here, we were on our way to a… demonstration, I guess you could call it. I got a truck, and room for one more in the back. Jasmine will be there.”

He brought her up as if that would entice me. It… somehow sort of did.

I gave the guy, Andrew, my answer. A third nod.

“Wendy!”

Jasmine gave me a hug. A hug from the side, since I still had my bag with me.

“Didn’t know we were there already,” I said, pulling away. Faster than I probably needed to.

What would

A certain someone flashed in my mind, couldn’t help it. I dismissed the thought, just as quick.

“We’re all fam here, you know, we have to be.”

“I see you with the rhetoric, you don’t need to convince me.”

Jasmine grinned, I recognized that expression.

“Well, it’s good practice, for those who still need convincing.”

I grinned back.

As if on a general principle, I was beginning to gain an understanding on what fueled these people, now, and that particular understanding was running thicker than water. Anger and frustration, a need for blood. Those things fueled me, too.

A certain pressure had been made to boil under a certain population in Stephenville, and they were now finally jumping out of the pot, and they weren’t very happy. They were ready to turn around and kick the pot over, spilling everything out and setting the whole thing on fire. On principle, I was right there with them.

I was in the group with Jasmine and Andrew now, and that was group just one of many others.

A huge crush of people flooded the streets of Stephenville.

Too many to count, and yet there were even more who hadn’t gathered, doing their own damage elsewhere. Part of the bolstered numbers were because of the fact that not everyone here was a part of that certain population, but they showed up regardless, probably just to raise more hell than to stand and march in solidarity, but I’d imagine that their help would be otherwise appreciated.

Cheers and chants scraped my ears, and there was no rehearsed direction or plan to this parade. Being here, acting like a part of the procession, I was at the mercy of the crowd, meaning that I was at the mercy of random chance and chaos. It was definitely a demonstration. A demonstration in disorder, but a demonstration nonetheless.

With my hearing and the rest of my sense working overtime, I thought I heard Alexis Barnett’s name in that chorus, among others. But I didn’t focus too much on it, I wouldn’t let that affect me, now.

I hugged my bag, tighter.

“Should have left that at the truck,” Andrew said, raising his voice into my ear. Still wasn’t a fan of loud, but I had no choice but to deal.

“Better safe than sorry!” I replied back.

“What’s in there anyway?”

“You hear about Andrew shooting a guy on the way here?”

I raised my voice into Jasmine’s ear. She seemed alright about leaning over to catch it.

“I didn’t shoot him on the way here, I shot the motherfucker before we got in the truck to get over here.”

“Same difference!” I said to Andrew.

“I heard!” Jasmine replied. “You don’t know him yet but he’s trying real hard to be hard ever  since this thing blew up! Wants to prove himself!”

“I don’t have to prove shit!”

“Then why are you trying so hard?”

Jasmine grinned again, and gave Andrew a playful smack across the arm.

I watched these two, I’d seen them before. Back at Wellport. Jasmine had to kill someone to save me, and Andrew didn’t bat an eye. And now, it was Andrew’s turn, but he didn’t have to go that far for me this time, but he did. They were so cavalier about it.

Not that I was any position to cast judgement, myself. I wasn’t. But it had still given me pause, each time, I could still feel it take a toll, a heavy note that rang through me, clear as a bell.

It made me wonder, brief, what had led them to that point. What was the path that brought them here?

Then I remembered mine, and how much it didn’t really matter. Not in the long run.

Something to take away from them, I supposed.

I kept talking so Andrew wouldn’t inquire any more about my bag.

“You know who started this whole thing?”

“You mean the parade?” Jasmine asked.

“Not what I’d call it, but sure.”

“What would you call it then?”

I thought about it.

“A stampede,” I answered.

“Stampede? That does carry the appropriate weight, to it.”

“The kind of weight that tends to crush.”

“Hell yeah, dude. But actually, I couldn’t tell you who put this thing together, only because I really don’t know. Shit like this goes through a grapevine, and I’m too low on the thing to really know where it came from. I just go where I’m needed, and do what I need to do.”

“Sure, I understand that. Doing the same thing, myself.”

Jasmine gave me another half-hug, her arm staying there for seconds longer.

“Dude! I knew we’d click the second I saw you.”

I felt warm. The crowd around us, pushing, and clothes I had to wear for the weather. The season still had some time before things started springing up again.

A certain someone flashed in my mind again. The connection was cut, but the feeling was still there, exposed and raw. Had to dismiss it again, even faster.

Warm, but I was still cold on finding what I was after. Or rather, who.

As a contrast to my limited options in terms of help, my list of targets was long, and it was only a matter who I’d get to first.

Styx, Mrs. Carter, Dong-Yul, all of the gangsters with a seat at the table. D excluded. Maybe. Probably. It was still a good policy to stay clear of the Fangs.

But with D excluded that still included a lot of people. People with their own people, protecting them, a force I shouldn’t underestimate. Would Jasmine and Andrew be able to help? They were neither friends nor family, just a convenience. But were they a convenience I could use?

Somewhere ahead of us, the crowd roared.

I replied to Jasmine.

“And I was thinking you might be right,” I said. “Hey, what are your plans after this?”

“After this? Getting the fuck out of here and making sure pigs don’t come following us and bringing their shit with them. Why? Thinking of coming with?”

“I was thinking about it. If you’ll have me. I wanted to meet with whoever was spearheading these, um, demonstrations. The guy at Wellport, with the tiger mask.”

“Oh, Helly and Skelly?”

“If you want to call them that, I’m not stopping you.”

“I do, actually, thank you very much. But, actually, I haven’t seen him up close, or any of the masked dudes, much less seeing them without.”

“So you’ve been following orders from people who haven’t shown you their face? What if they look nothing like you? Or us, rather.”

Jasmine was about to answer, but the crowd roared again. Still somewhere up ahead, but closer. She had settled for a simple look in the meantime.

When the uproar died down enough, she responded with, “Doesn’t really matter to me. We’re out here, now, we’re making noise and best of all, they can’t ignore us. That’s all I give a shit about.”

Not much else I could say about that beside a quick, “Fair.”

The uproar rose back to life, louder and more present. It took my attention and centered it towards itself.

Jasmine and Andrew and the rest of the group looked ahead as well.

“What’s going on over there?” Andrew asked.

“Don’t know,” Jasmine said, “Why don’t you check? You’re taller than me or Wendy.”

Andrew listened right away, starting to pushing between people. Despite how cramped and crowded it was, people gave him room to slip through.

The parade continued, crawling down the streets like a centipede.

A wave of sound hit, it was loud, and then the physical equivalent came. Threatening to crush.

Forward momentum was lost. People started falling back. The uproar was getting closer and reached a higher pitch.

Something was wrong.

Jasmine was already turning. She looked right into my eyes.

“Flood’s coming this way, start swimming!”

I spun, or more like I was yanked the other way. Jasmine had pulled on the strap of my bag, and I almost lost my footing.

“Hey!”

She refused to let go, instead pulling even harder, taking me with her.

“No room to push back here, we have to move!”

‘My bag-”

“Come on!”

She kept pulling, forcing me to move along.

Not everyone had their wits about them, being more interested in yelling and raising some kind of disturbance. Once the tide turned in the other direction, they hadn’t been focused enough to adapt accordingly.

People had been falling back, and now they were falling. Crushed by an incoming stampede.

I pushed through the crowd, keeping in step with Jasmine. If she tripped while still holding onto me, I would be the only one who could even get back up.

“I’m with you, just let go already!”

She finally did.

Andrew managed to catch up with us, but not without having to knock someone else over. He went and answered the question before Jasmine and I could save a breath to ask it.

“Cops coming in to shut things down! Riot gear, rubber bullets. Choppers!”

“Choppers? Like-”

Copters. Helicopters!”

It was getting so loud that it was hard to catch everything Andrew was saying, and he was right there.

“Back to the truck!” he yelled. I heard that.

The group that Andrew had with him, and I had tagged along with, already dispersed into the rushing crowd, lost or maybe even flattened. I was only aware of Andrew and Jasmine, and I’d need at least one of them if they were going to be useful in getting me close to at least Dong-Yul.

With each step we ran, however, the prospect of that seemed to diminish, like I was getting farther away from that goal.

“Try over here!”

Jasmine grabbed for my bag and pulled again, but only to steer me in another direction. She soon released me.

The three of us pushed to the edge of the stream. I followed as Jasmine led us into an alley.

“Keep running!”

We kept running.

The alley was wide enough to accommodate the three of us, running side by side. Some others were starting to get the same idea, now, the stampede starting to spill out to the sides of the street.

We weren’t the only people who had that idea, apparently.

A block of metal rolled out to the other end of the alley. An armored vehicle. People started spilling out of that.

Jasmine skipped to a halt, turning on a heel.

“This way!”

She spun us around again, but instead of heading back to the street, there was another path perpendicular to the one we were on. She had us turn onto that.

I ran with them, and had to watch my speed. I didn’t want to make myself stand out.

We made it out, but from what I heard coming from our backs, we were lucky. The street opened up and we had much more room to move.

Andrew started to take the lead, taking us over to where he had parked the truck.

Again, he wasn’t the only one with that idea.

Over at the lot, a block away. More armored vehicles, beams of light illuminating the ground, gliding over everything. A quick check upward revealed the source, the helicopters Andrew had mentioned earlier.

“Fuck! They’re cutting us off!” Andrew shouted.

“Can we make it on foot?” That was from Jasmine. “It’s not like they can catch everyone!”

“Not far!”

They started running, past the block where Andrew’s car had been parked, the armored vehicles and police cars being right there. Cops were standing in formation like soldiers.

I ran with them, and saw more cars coming our way, the tops of them bursting with red and blue lights.

This won’t last, I realized, It’s already running out of gas now.

We changed directions, moving onto another street. More people here, cops and rioters alike, as the latter started to spread out more evenly to blocks around the initial demonstration. The police worked to introduce their idea of peace.

They started firing into the crowd.

People fell. I didn’t see or smell blood, but people were being rendered immobile, thrown flat to the ground. None of them were made to be as bloody as the skinhead from before.

Andrew spun, arms flailing, face to the pavement. He had gotten hit.

Then I tripped.

A hard punch to the back, in an area not any larger than a dime. I felt my spine crack with pain, and my legs turned to jelly.

I had the sense to turn, so I wouldn’t land on my bag and accidentally pop the packets of blood open.

My shoulder rammed into the side of something sturdy. My healing worked to set my back straight again. I hadn’t fallen over completely.

Jasmine was already pulling me back up.

“Dude, you okay?”

Beside me, something beige in the night. A taxi parked next to the sidewalk. No one inside, and the windows were cracked, stray rubber bullets making targets of other things.

But I did see a number printed on the side of the vehicle, and that had gotten my mind running again, pulling me out of the daze of having been shot.

“Andrew? The truck?” I asked.

“Lost him, it’s too hard to find him in this. His truck is stuck with a bunch of cops!”

“You have a car?”

A bitter and impatient expression crossed her face.

“Parked in the same lot. Come on Wendy, we can still get out of here on foot!”

“You have a phone?”

I had lost mine at the church, and I didn’t have another one to pack at my apartment.

Not that I would tell her that.

“Why?” she asked, but she was getting it out for me. She helped pull me up too, from the side of the taxi.

She handed me the phone, and I took off.

Another street close by. More cops heading to block the stampede off.

I ran harder, crossing an intersection. The police cars came in between me and the other two.

“Wendy!”

I didn’t stop.

Not for the cops, not for Jasmine or Andrew. I abandoned them and their uselessness.

It wouldn’t have worked, not with them, but they did manage to give me another idea.

Still running, I dialed the number that had come to me out of that daze, and made the particular arrangements, tossing the phone soon after.

Never before did the mundane stand out to me by such a large margin. The hum of rubber on road, the mechanical clicks of a turn signal, the white noise chatter of a jumbled radio chatter.

My blood was still pumping hard, so hard that it thrummed in my veins, and I found it difficult to sit still and relax, even if there was nothing threatening about my immediate surroundings.

Just a strange sense of déjà vu.

“Gotta say, boss, I never thought I’d hear from you again.”

“Funny how it all works out,” I said, as if on instinct.

The taxi rolled across the street.

I was sitting in the back, shoulder against the door. Half-open eyes watched as the scenery past the window sped by, the colors of the city smearing together, painting an even more chaotic image than before.

Anarchy, on the other side of that glass. Which made the relative quiet of the taxi’s interior all the more deafening.

I tried to kill some of that monotony. When I spoke up again, I almost thought I was screaming.

“How have you been, Claire? Last time I saw you I… I guess you could say it was a lifetime ago.”

Claire kept her eyes on the road as she crossed the lights and made the turns. The meter climbed up and up.

“Nothing worth reporting. Found myself keeping an eye on the news more often now.”

“Oh yeah? What do you see?”

“The shit I’m seeing right now.”

I chuckled, dry a bit.

“You boss?” she asked.

I shrugged, not knowing if she would have caught that or not through the rearview. “Been giving you something to watch, I guess you could say.”

It was Claire’s turn to chuckle. Just as dry.

The taxi continued its snaking path around the city, the meter running just as long. The ride itself was smooth, so smooth that it had become a noticeable thing. The more Claire drove, the less traffic seemed to get in her way.

“Have you been busy tonight?” I asked.

“Very,” she answered, “Ever since the riots broke out across the city, everyone’s taking any opportunity to leave while they still can. That includes us cab drivers. Been getting like six or even seven people crammed into the back at a time, all begging me to get as far away from the Eye as possible, no matter how costly it got. Haven’t been getting this much action since the city allowed rideshares… or the times I had you as a passenger, actually.”

I grinned at that.

“Suppose this time won’t be any different?”

Then I dropped that grin.

“Let me ask you something, Claire,” I said.

“Sure boss.”

“You call it action, but, I’m sure you’re aware of the danger as well. You’ve been taking people out of the city, driving past and through all the crazy… might not be long until it’s officially considered a warzone, from what I’ve seen. Anyways, it’s real, and it’s present. You haven’t thought about leaving as well?”

The ride was quiet for another moment.

“Of course I thought about it, but I also see an opportunity, here. Being busy means having had more customers, which means the pay’s been better than ever. And as far as danger, I know how to drive. You’d know by now.”

“I do,” I said, feeling more certain. “Your family still doing okay?”

“They are.”

She had left it at that.

The drive continued with that relative silence. The meter ticking like a clock, but only in one direction, never wrapping around.

“Hey boss?”

“Yes?”

“You hopped in and said ‘drive’ but, you never said where.”

“About that,” I said, “I actually want to leave it up to you. Where is the safest place you can think of, or the place you want to be the most?”

“The most? Um, maybe Sicily? I haven’t had a vacation in over ten years.”

“Somewhere your taxi can take us,” I said.

“There’s a diner at the edge of town. Are you hungry?”

“A little thirsty, honestly, but that can wait. Where else? I’ll need somewhere I can return to, rest up and stay low for an hour or two if possible.”

“How long are you expecting to use my services?”

“For as long as I need you. I’ll do my best to not take too much of your time.”

“I have to return the cab at the end of my shift, you know. That’s in a few more hours.”

Reaching into my bag, I pulled out a fraction of the money I had taken with me. It was only fraction of my total funds, but it more than covered the current fare.

I passed to Claire, who weighed it in her hand. She didn’t flip through it, the stack’s thickness indicated to her all she needed to know.

“Sorry Claire, but your shift has gotten a lot longer.”

“I can see that now, boss.”

The door swung open, creaking, light from the hallway creeping in. Claire flipped a switch somewhere inside the foyer, and the rest of the apartment opened up.

“Make yourself home, boss. For now.”

I brought my bag in with me. I was about to slip off my shoes, but Claire gestured, suggesting that I didn’t have to.

Following her deeper into the apartment, I looked around. Not a lot of room, and sparse of decoration, but it did looked lived in. Toys were strewn in places on the floor, and uneven lines of what looked like crayon and markers were scribbled across the wall, none them reaching higher than my hip.

Claire led me to the kitchen. Plastic tupperware and plates were collected on one side of a sink, and unfinished bowls of macaroni and cheese were left on a counter. Three glasses of milk filled at different levels had been left at a table.

Lightly tapping a toy car away with her foot, Claire went to the table, collecting the glasses of milk and setting them by the sink. She moved on to the fridge, opening it.

“Go ahead and take a seat. You said you were thirsty, and looks like we have…”

“Milk?” I asked, taking a seat.

“Orange juice. Fresh out of milk.”

“I’m fine, but thanks. Uh, do you happen to have brown paper bags? Like something to pack a lunch with?”

“I have kindergarteners, of course I have those.”

“Mind if I borrow a few? And some space in your fridge to store some stuff?”

Claire looked at me, eyes filled with suspicion, but she moved across to the pantry. She handed me several folded baggies. More than enough.

“Thank you,” I said.

Claire, for her part, had gotten a glass of juice for herself, and went to sit across from me at the table. She took a sip, and sighed when she finished.

An awkward beat.

“Never seen your face before,” Claire then said, barely below a normal speaking volume, probably as to not disturb the kids. “You usually have the mask, right? Or a hoodie, if I remember correctly.”

“And?”

“You’re young,” she said, breathing the word ‘young,’ “You’re older than my kids, obviously, but you’re still so young.”

I didn’t get offended over that. If anything, I thought she would have commented on another aspect of my appearance. Part of the reason why those riots were happening in the first place.

“Is that going to be a problem?”

Claire shook her head.

“No problem, no, but… I’m sorry if this is too personal a question, do you have parents?”

I felt something kick, somewhere in my heart.

“I do. I did.”

Claire frowned a bit. Not disappointed, but sympathetic.

“I know this isn’t my place to say, then, but I can’t imagine how they might feel, if they’re still around to feel anything. As a mother, it would break my heart to see any of mine being out there, getting into trouble like you tend to do.”

“What are their names?” I asked, a little too quickly, “Your kids?”

“Caleb and Willem.”

“Where are they now?”

Claire lifted her chin, pointing down a hall to my right.

“Their room. Sleeping. Or they should be.”

I went for my bag, opening it. On the table, I placed more stacks of cash. More and more until there seemed to be more green than there was the brown surface of the kitchen table.

Claire watched, more than astonished.

“Well, Claire, if you help me, you will be guaranteeing that little Caleb and Willem will never have to get into my kind of trouble, or any other kind.”

Still eyeing the money, I saw the glint in her gaze. Also the concern within.

“But the price for that guarantee… you’re inviting me into that world of trouble.”

“It’s only for a day, maybe even less than that. I just need someone who can drive me around, and a place for me to recuperate. That’s all.”

“That’s all? That’s a lot.”

“I’m hoping what’s on the table can cover any inconveniences.”

Another silent beat. Claire roved the money with a curious, hungry eye.

I talked.

“There’s more where this came from, if you need it. Just say the word. It was a lucrative business, having led a gang, and even if my connections aren’t what they used to be, I can still get you more. I know where things are stashed, how you can sell them. After tomorrow, you never have to work another day again.”

“That is a lot of money, Claire.”

We both turned.

From the hall that Claire had pointed to earlier, a woman had leaned against the wall. An Asian woman, about Claire’s age, maybe mid-thirties, wearing pink pajamas with white dots.

Watching us watching her, she then moved to the sink, picking up one of the glasses of milk. She started finishing it.

“Did I wake you?” Claire asked.

The woman finished the drink, moving onto the next one.

“I’m a light sleeper,” she said, taking a sip, “Ah, but I usually stay in bed with my eyes closed if I wake. Heard the door, used to that. But then I heard talking, and a voice I hadn’t heard before.”

She looked at me when she said that, drinking her milk.

“Sorry then,” Claire said. “This is… my boss, for the next twenty-four hours or so. Still working that out. And this is Kim. She’s my-”

“Partner?” I offered.

“Roommate,” Claire said. “Just a roommate.”

“Pleasure,” Kim said. She reached over for my hand to shake. I gave it to her.

Her hand was cold. It sent a shock through me. Eerie to the point of nearly pushing away my concentration and filling me with anxiety, instead.

“You felt that too?” Kim asked.

“Not sure what that was,” I said.

Kim let go, finishing her second glass. “Curiouser and curiouser.”

“Kim works in social services, and other jobs around the city. Though she has never been super specific in what she does.”

Kim gave Claire a look. “It’s money on the table, less chunk of rent you have to worry about.”

Claire nodded. “You’re right about that.”

“Speaking of, you want to explain what’s all this about?”

Claire drank more of her juice. Now I was starting to get thirsty for my own drink.

“My boss here is asking me to be her personal chauffeur for the next day. Might be a whole day thing, but she says she’ll try to make it less.”

“I understand the sudden burden I’m bringing you and your family, and Kim as well, so I’ll do what I can to make it quick.”

“What are you thinking, Claire?”

She turned to Kim.

“Money is money, and this might almost be worth it. Boss, how early did you want to start?”

“Early as possible, but I’d still want us to get as much sleep as possible tonight.”

“Kim? You mind taking the kids to school tomorrow before you do… whatever it is you actually do?”

“Sure, no problem.”

Claire took another moment, taking in all the money again. There was a lot here, and I was willing to offer more for the trouble.

She turned to me.

“Then I’m in, boss. We’ll start as early as possible.”

A relief surged over me.

“Thank you so much, Claire.”

Kim had already finished the last glass of milk, setting them all into the pile on one side of the sink. She yawned.

“I’m heading back to bed. I’ve got the kids, Claire, no worries. And Ms. Boss? It was nice seeing you, and I hope I’ll see all of you again in another time.”

Waving at me, Kim then went back down the hall, disappearing behind a door. The door shut.

“She’s…”

I started to say, but I stopped.

“Will she be cool?” I asked instead.

“She will be,” Claire said. “She’s someone I trust. Someone I trust enough to let live with us. Kim moved here from Las Estrellas a couple years back.”

“Las Estrellas?”

“Yeah. She was telling me about the riots that took place there back when she was a kid. Seems like this kind of stuff happens in cycles. First it was her, now you.”

“There were riots back then? Like the ones now?”

“Well, I’d say we’re living in crazier times, but she’d know more about that than I would. You would have to ask her.”

“That can wait, then.”

Claire sighed.

“It definitely can. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go check on my kids. Feel free to use the couch. I’ll be back to get you some blankets.”

“Thank you again, Claire.”

“You can thank me when this is over. See you in the morning, boss, I’ll be ready when you are.”

Claire got up and did as she had said, going to check on her kids first. Now that I was alone, I took the paper bags and stuff my blood packs into them, sliding them into any free spots I could find in the fridge.

Then, I crashed on the couch, too tired to change, not that I packed the clothes for it.

I set my glasses on a nearby coffee table, readjusting myself when I felt something sticking into my lower back. A toy truck, this time.

Crash was an appropriate word for things.

In one night, my whole life around me crashed down. I salvaged what I could, and now I had to work with what I had.

It wasn’t much, but it was something.

And if there was anything I was at least decent at, it was getting back up again after a crash.

Previous                                                                                               Next

106 – Mate

epy arc 15 burn

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When I came to, I was alone. Dizzy, discombobulated, nauseous. Then, there was the gradual realization that I was upside down.

I moved a leg, and discovered that I couldn’t. It was stuck, tangled in something, and I couldn’t even wiggle a toe.

Hand? Tight. Struggling against another something, couldn’t figure out what. I was able to wiggle a finger, but not by a lot, and it wasn’t like I could reach or grasp anything.

Both hands. Both arms. Pressed together, crossed, squeezing against my chest in a big ‘X.’

My whole body. Couldn’t move, and couldn’t feel much outside of a tight knot in the pit of my stomach. I was very aware that my feet were above my head. Upside down.

Head?

Could move that.

I looked around, squinting, trying to peer through an oppressive dark. Too tired, my vision still swimming through the murky waters of fatigue. There was some light, but it didn’t break past that gloom.

Where the hell was I? Was this hell?

That…

I shook my head. Had to. Too ridiculous to seriously believe. But, no other possibilities were coming to me. My thoughts weren’t catching up to me fast enough.

Where then?

How did I get here? Why? When? Where am I, again? What the fuck?

Who am I?

Didn’t know.

Didn’t know. Didn’t know. Didn’t know. Didn’t know. Didn’t know.

I didn’t know my own name.

A name wouldn’t form, not even a letter to guess. No matter the question, I kept drawing up blanks.

It was worrying, but I had just woken up, blood was probably flowing to my head for minutes too long, and I was fucking upside down. My thoughts and answers were probably scattered somewhere below me, down there. I needed to get down there, I needed to get grounded.

I kept shaking, feeling the restraints. Digging into me like claws or talons. I shook my head, the only part of me that was free.

Something slipped off my face.

It spun in the air, catching a fleeting glint of light, and I recognized it as mine. A pair of glasses.

They fell, or rather they seperated from me, as if, they too, were frustrated by my lack of progress.

I tried listening, as if my glasses could tell me anything on the way down, like how long the drop was.

They said nothing.

Which brought with it its own message, but I didn’t like what I heard.

Nothing.

I stopped struggling, shaking. I reconsidered my options, as few as I had. If I managed to break out of whatever it was that that tied me up- upside down, I might just fall into something worse. There was nothing but a deep blackness below, or was it above me? Hold on, no, below me, for sure, for sure.

Nothing but a deep blackness below, and if I got myself free, I wouldn’t be free for long, only plunging after my glasses into a literal abyss, I probably didn’t need sight, where I’d end up.

Or down.

Now wasn’t the time for jokes.

But what else could I do?

I screamed.

The sound seemed to stretch in every direction. Fading out, not even a faint echoed returned to me.

I screamed again. Harder, louder.

Even my own voice wanted to leave me, never to return. My own voice.

I laughed until it became a scream again. Raw. Painful.

Was I dead? Or some kind of limbo? Maybe there was no abyss above or below me, because I was already within it, suspended in the middle of the bottomless pit. Gloom and dark all around me, I had already been swallowed.

Sickening, if I wasn’t dead I was sick, with an agony longer than the chains that had me bound.

Hold on. Hold it. Bound.

Chains?

I shook myself again, shimmying, and heard a distinct rattling, a small clink of metal. I craned my neck, saw them for myself.

Snaked all around my body, coiling around my limbs and torso in a deathgrip. Glints of light had been caught, too, making it easier to see the outline. Chains.

I couldn’t look up too far, I’d have to bend my body for that, and that was impossible. I didn’t know how far the chains extended away from my person, or what I was attached to. But, nothing about where I was seemed real, so a very possible answer could have very well been… there wasn’t anything at all.

But I couldn’t…

I refused to stay here, like this. There was no peace to be found in a place like this, by myself, with not even a letter of a name to attach my thoughts to. Just an ever growing, ever present madness.

So fuck that. And fuck me if I couldn’t get myself out of here.

I fought. I struggled, but I fought.

The chains clinked and clanged together as I squirmed within their confines, tugging at them, trying to find some purchase I could use to buy my freedom.

I pulled my arms out, links of metal digging into the cloth of one arm, flesh in the other. I winced as they pinched and bit into skin, but I kept going. Even if it was mad for me to do so. There wasn’t much room for anything else, in my mind.

My muscles tensed, my body ached. Fighting, struggling.

Purchase.

Hearing more than some jangly clinks, I heard cracks. Metal against metal, tugging and pulling in both directions so hard as to compromise their structural integrity. I didn’t know I had it in me. I didn’t know I was that strong.

I’d use it, anyways. I wasn’t about to let that go.

The pains small but sharp, but I didn’t care. I kept going until I cracked. Until the chains cracked, until I heard a crack.

I heard a crack.

Somewhere along the length of chain, there, closer to my arms. Getting looser, giving me more room to dig in a little more.

Few more cracks, even more room. I started shaking hard, near convulsing, putting my legs and back and even my hips into it. Until I’d burst into scraps of metal.

Gritting my teeth, I either heard more cracks of chain, or it was from something in my jaw. I didn’t stop.

There, I could move an arm, not by much, but better than I was able to before. I pulled and tugged even harder.

Then I yanked.

Intertwining metal fingers finally splayed open, breaking, releasing their grip on me. I wasn’t wholly free, but my arms were, and-

I fell. Plunged.

But I wasn’t completely free of my bindings, I broke the chains around my arms, but my legs were another story.

I had figured by how I was bound, that the snake around my legs and feet would keep me suspended in its coil. No such thing. Instead, the snake seemed to take offense to my attempted escape, and decided to take itself down, me with it.

Not a straight descent, an arc. In a spiral, but I was also swinging down, like a pendulum.

I was falling and falling fast, even though the chain was still taut. Swinging and swinging, lower and lower, faster and faster. Descending yet it felt like I wasn’t heading in any particular direction. All sense of time and placement had escaped me, like my glasses and my voice, so I was spinning for what seemed like hours, descending and ascending several times. Spinning out of control, not that I ever had any in the first place.

Couldn’t even scream, and I wanted to.

Couldn’t laugh, and I would have even went for that.

There was no sound when it all finally stopped, and I hit rock bottom.

All breath left me as I crashed, life and soul. It was a flat drop, no momentum to lessen the impact, just one hit, all focused into one point.

I heard more than the chains break. Bones, too.

In my last few moments of clarity, I noticed how my chin had settled onto the ground, or rather how it didn’t.

My nose wasn’t buried into dirt or surface. Rather, open air, the sweetest of scents meeting my nostrils, a punch compared to intense sensory deprivation I’d been subjected to since being reborn in the dark.

A shiver colder than chains grabbed and shook me. Hard.

There’s a deeper drop than this.

Then, one more dizzying spin of confusion, and my consciousness was the last thing to abandon me.

“Eyes open, wanderer. Or have you lost your sight, too?”

I opened my eyes.

Blackness. In a way, it wasn’t nothing.

But, in all actuality, there was nothing.

Without a breath to respond, arms and hands groped out, feeling ground to push up from. I had found ground, I realized, a surface to start getting my bearings from.

I slipped, landing on my shoulder. I wheezed, deflated.

“How sad. I’m disappointed.”

I felt that my eyes were open, but I couldn’t see.

A voice, I had my ears. I followed that.

“Is this all you really are, when you’re alone? Crawling like an insect?”

I continued to crawl. I had no other means to move.

The voice was talking to me, taunting me. Goading me for a response, though it probably was aware of my general lack of ability, as much as a discarnate voice could even be aware.

My dry tongue sat limp in my mouth, closing it for a second, I tasted a warm, sweet coating against the back of my teeth.

I crawled a pace faster. I clenched my jaw.

“How pitiful, just stop. Trying harder only makes it that much more pathetic.”

I spat my words out, venom flying out between my teeth.

“What’s pathetic, is expecting something out of nothing. How sad is that?”

“If you could only see yourself now.”

I can’t, I thought, but I had ran out of breath to say that. I carried on.

Crawling for some miles, or a foot out in front of me. I didn’t even know anymore, the effort felt all the same, and the progress seemed meaningless.

I continued, despite all nonsense and logic, dragging myself through a cold absence, a cryptic abyss. I was tired, but the voice persisted.

“If this is the best you can do, the most you can come up with, than I suggest you give up now. Actually, you know what, please, please just stop. It physically makes me cringe to see you keep going-”

I shrieked and clawed forward, like a wild and dirty and disgusting and sick animal and I thrashed and gnashed my teeth like it meant something but it didn’t mean anything because I reached for nothing and got nothing.

Collapsed to the ground.

Laughter. Wasn’t mean.

“Come on, get up.”

The words were said like it was easy. But the words were friendly, not at all menacing or demeaning.

Easy. Matter of fact.

Up.

I reduced the sentence down to its very essence. The intention. Struggling, fighting, dying, I pulled myself up, leaning a bit, my head bobbing a bit. I was on my butt.

And it finally just occurred to me that I wasn’t in chains anymore. Still didn’t have my glasses.

But I looked.

“Isabella,” I breathed.

The little girl smiled.

I saw her in full view, her black hair, tied into pigtails, the tan skin, the jacket several sizes too big, the backpack that she always kept on her back, hands gripped on the straps like she was about to go on a ride.

She was crouched over me, looming, despite her stature, her head cocked to the side, curious, like I was stray cat that had approached her.

Maybe a part of that was right. Being astray.

I, we were in complete darkness, yet I could see her clear.

My hands moved on their own, to my face, wiping my eyes, slapping myself across the cheek until it stung.

When I looked again, she was still there. This was all real. Somehow.

“Where are the hell are we?”

Back to the first question.

Isabella shrugged.

“Is that really the most important question?”

A moment to catch my breath.

“Feels like it an important thing to establish,” I said,

Isabella shook her head, pigtails swinging. “Nope.”

“No?”

“When do you think you can start walking?”

“What?”

“Moving forward, there’s still quite the distance for you to go. Quite the distance.”

“I can barely stand, you just asked me to sit.”

“Can’t stay here forever. Unless you want to, but that wouldn’t be exciting, would it?”

“Try me,” I said. “I’m serious.”

“I’m being serious, too.”

“How the hell did we get here?”

Question two.

“You really don’t know anything, do you?”

“I’m working on it.”

“Work harder.”

I grunted.

“You don’t remember?” Isabella asked. Asking the obvious. She cocked her head the other way. Swaying slight, back and forth. “Because I do.”

I stared at the girl, for so long she almost became unrecognizable. I blinked, and it was Isabella again.

“You mind sharing?” I asked of her.

“Nope.” She continued sway. “I don’t mind one bit.”

Glaring at her, I started, “Could you not-”

“You attacked them. Killed some of them, too.”

Attacked and killed. Those words froze me, still.

“Who-”

“You know who. Well, I know, but the lines have gotten pretty blurry now.”

“The Fangs,” I said, as though I didn’t believe it, myself. “But that doesn’t make any sense.”

“What does, really, when it comes to someone like you?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Of course you don’t. You open yourself to distractions so you get distracted. It’s simple, honestly. Hard to grasp for someone like you but it is simple.”

“You’re saying I attacked them… because they were distracting me?”

“You killed them because you kept wasting time with things that didn’t matter. And somewhere, deep in the back of your mind, something was telling you that enough was enough.”

Isabella raised a finger, but tapped the side of her head.

“And you finally listened.”

“That doesn’t make any fucking sense,” I said.

Isabella frowned, then pouted like how a kid would.

“But saying it was stress or guilt is too boring! I’m trying to help you here!”

“You call that help?” I questioned, my head feeling heavier by the second.

“It’s something,” Isabella said. She smiled again. “I’m trying. We’re trying.”

I looked at her. That girl. Isabella. So small and young.

There was a hard tug in my chest, seizing my heart tight and threatening to tear right out of my body and leave me dead, if this wasn’t some kind of afterlife already.

Her smile was as real as anything here, which gave me reason for doubt to enter and fill the cracks of my shattered mind.

Stress. Guilt.

Tug.

“Isabella,” I said, just to say it, and frame her in both my mind’s eye, and my actual sight. “You died because of me.”

The girl flinched. I saw a pang of sadness right before she composed herself again.

“There were very many factors. You… were one of them, but not the sole reason.”

“You died because of me.”

I repeated it. I felt like it needed repeating.

“Don’t blame yourself for what happened to me-”

“You died because of me.”

There was a pause. Silence and darkness. Emptiness.

Isabella’s lips were set in a straight line.

“You’re wasting your time, talking about this,” she said, voice tight. “That’s not what’s important, here.”

“It can be, Isabella, it should be. I was responsible for you, and for so many other people. And I wanted you to stick even closer, as if that’d make you safer. At the end of the day… I couldn’t save everyone, and that included you.”

Isabella breathed, shaky. “It doesn’t matter.”

“I am so sorry, Isabella, I really-”

“The fuck is this pity party?”

Isabella turned. It wasn’t my voice.

I turned, too.

Out from the shadows, walking with his back straight and his head high. His hair was slicked back and his suit prim and proper. He walked with a cool confidence he normally wished he had.

“Lawrence,” I said.

He gave me, us, a nod. He stopped about a foot away from Isabella. Closer to her, but farther from me.

Lawrence was standing, Isabella was crouching, and I was sitting.

I said his name again, sounding like I was out of breath.

“Lawrence…”

A grin went across his face, yet he didn’t seem pleased.

“Better than calling me by a fucked up nickname.”

“You liked them and you know it,” Isabella said.

“You don’t know shit.”

“I know as much as you, maybe even more.”

“You don’t know shit.”

“Nope,” Isabella said, smirking.

I watched them bicker, a normal moment during a strange time, which only made it even stranger.

“I am so sorry, Lawrence.”

I gave him those words, too. As I was, here, now, it was all I had to give.

Lawrence glanced at me from the side. “What do you have to be sorry for?”

“It was my fault, too, that you…”

That particular wound was still too fresh. Hurt, to even consider.

“And Reggie…”

All the other Fangs I had pulled out of my mouth.

“Oh that?” Lawrence questioned. Cool, smooth, he reached into his pocket and popped something into his mouth.

No. I knew what that something was.

“Don’t give me that bullshit,” he said, crushing the pill between his teeth. “Not for me, anyway. I don’t need to hear it.”

“Sounds like someone does need it.”

Lawrence shot a harsh look at her, but left it at that. Isabella didn’t seem fazed by it.

“I guess I’m as good as dead, too.”

They both turned their eyes to me.

“What makes you say that?” Lawrence asked.

“Well,” I started, “You’re gone, and Isabella…”

“That don’t mean fucking nothing, okay?”

“If anything,” Isabella said, “You’ve never been more alive, more free.”

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“You keep saying that but that’s not the issue here.”

“Then what is it?” I asked. “The issue?”

“We need to get you sorted the fuck out,” Lawrence said. “Because, as you are right now, you’re a fucking mess.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“So don’t worry about me, and don’t about this little girl or any other, and can you forget about the Fangs and all that shit too. We’re all… superfluous. We’re distractions.”

“And you’re planning to do… what then?”

Lawrence smiled.

“Distract you for a bit longer.”

He positioned himself in front of me, Isabella to the side. Feet flat, shoulders and back straight, head down, facing me. There were no shadows in the contours.

He popped another pill into his mouth, and then, clasping his hands together, spoke to me.

“Let’s get started.”

I wasn’t sure what we were starting.

“How are you?” he asked.

I leaned to the side. It was slight.

“How am I? What does that have to do with anything?”

“How are you?” he asked again.

“What? I don’t know, I’m fine.”

“How are you feeling?” Lawrence asked.

“How am I- fuck,” I said, several touches irritated. “I don’t know. Irritated, angry. Frustrated.”

“Do you think before you act?”

“Do I-”

I was about to talk back again, but I felt like I could guess as to what his response would be.

“Generally,” I answered instead.

“Do you spend your leisure time wisely?”

“I don’t really get to have leisure time.”

“Do you have a tendency to act before thinking?”

“I… probably more than I’d like to admit. Generally.”

“Have you failed more when acting on impulse than consideration?”

“Probably the former, I guess. I haven’t really kept score.”

“Would you say you have failed more times than you have not?”

“I wouldn’t so far as to say that. Like I said, haven’t kept score.”

“Do you enjoy spending your time on long car rides?”

“Don’t know how to drive. No.”

“Do you define yourself by your success?”

“I don’t have much else. Sure.”

“Do you often dwell on your failures?”

“Dwell… Can’t say I don’t.”

“Do you often dwell on your failures?”

“I already answered that.”

“Do you often dwell on your failures?”

“Fuck… Yes, I do.”

“Are your failures a source of frustration for you?”

“Yeah, they are.”

“Does this all seem familiar to you?”

“To me? Not particularly. Look, Lawrence, I don’t see how-”

Isabella, this time.

“Still don’t see?” She looked to Lawrence. “Keep going.”

“Keep going- what the fuck are we-”

“For the next series of questions please answer as quickly as possible, while making them as short as possible,” Lawrence said. “Do you feel like you have purpose in your life?”

I frowned and growled, yet I felt compelled to follow along. A tug.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Do you believe a higher power will save you?”

“No.”

“Do you believe you are worth saving?”

“No.”

“Do you believe you can save yourself?”

“Working on- by myself… No.”

“Are you true in your intentions?”

“Yes.”

“Do you see through your own lies?”

“Maybe. I really don’t understand that one.”

“You do. Yes you do.”

“I don’t. That’s to you and the question.”

“Are you afraid of dying?”

“I’m afraid of disappearing.”

“Have you ever taken a life?”

“I have.”

“Who?”

“Too many.”

“And do you regret this?”

“Some of them. You and Isabella. My own men. Reggie. Thomas Thompson… Memory’s fuzzy.”

“Is that what you believe?”

“It is.”

“Would this regret serve as cause of frustration for you?”

“I’d say it would.”

“Would you describe yourself as paranoid?”

“Very-”

“Are you easily distracted?”

“-paranoid. But only… what? I was still thinking about the last question you asked.”

“Are you slow to anger?

“Uh, no.”

“Are there things you would like to change about yourself?”

“Yes.”

“What are they?”

“Everything.”

“Examples?”

“My attitude. My appearance. My ability.”

“Are you constantly picking up new hobbies?”

“Don’t really have any hobbies to begin with.”

“Are you overwhelmed by your work?”

“Yes.”

“Are you stressed by your work?”

“Yes.”

“Do you ever feel like quitting?”

“Yes.”

“Will you quit?”

“I won’t.”

“Even if you break down?”

“No.”

“Even if you suffer all the more?”

“No.”

“Even if you burn out?”

“No.”

“Even if you find something or someone else?”

“I… Quitting isn’t an option.”

“Aside from work, does anything else matter to you?”

“Yes. Not anymore, I guess.”

“Are you willing to burn out?”

“Yes.”

“Are you willing to burn?”

“If that what it takes.”

“What are you after?”

“Peace.”

“For yourself?”

“Yes.”

Lawrence paused. For what seemed like an eternity, for so long that I could go mad and wrap back around to sanity, he was still. Still. Still he was still.

Then Lawrence asked the next question.

“And who are you?”

I opened my mouth, but no sound came out.

“What is your name?”

Several different names came to me, but none of them felt too honest to say.

“I don’t think I have one,” I said, uncertain.

“Yes you do. What is your name?”

“I don’t know.”

“What is your name?”

“I don’t know.”

“What is your name?”

“I don’t know.”

“What is your name?”

“I don’t know.”

“What is your name?”

“I don’t know!”

“Tell me your name.”

“I don’t know which one to pick!”

My hands went to my head, fingers getting twisted into hair. I fell forward, on my knees, my forehead pressing into the cold ground. With no answer to give, I screamed instead.

Raw, pain, the anguish. The yelps of a dying animal. Sad.

“No more distractions,” Isabella said, “Keep it simple.”

“I… I…”

My fingers gripped tighter on my head, as if I was pressing down on a lid, the contents inside boiling and bubbling, about to burst. But my skull was throbbing, feeling heavy, and there was only so much pressure I could take.

I couldn’t stop boiling.

Names kept driving into my head, hitting me over and over, each with the force of a truck. More names than any one person needed.

Letters assembling and reassembling, words being flipped and taken apart, falling between my grasp like sand.

A… Lexis… Wen… V, V… D…

“I can’t, I can’t pick, so many letters, so many so many so many-”

“Hey.”

Hands on my face. Not mine.

Lifted.

Isabella.

Her face close to mine, her hands trailing to mine, until she pulled them away and placed them into hers, setting them between us.

She hushed me quiet. Trying to calm me.

I calmed, in fits and starts. I hiccuped and choked up, but I wasn’t shaking as hard.

“It’s okay, here, it’s okay…”

“I don’t… I can’t…”

“It’s okay, that’s what we’re here for, that’s what you’re here for. We’re sorting you out, one more time. Let’s hope it’s the last.”

I swallowed, hard, a taste of something sweet in my mouth.

“Get rid of everything that doesn’t matter. You’ve don’t it once before, haven’t you? Friends, family, Fangs. No more. But you still need people, though, of course, but let’s stay simple. Their function, what they can do for you, how they move on the board. And you are on that board, too, so we should make you simple too. Break you down, reduce you to the essential parts and the essential parts only.”

“Alexis?”

“No.”

“Wendy?”

“Too many connections now, too. Simpler.”

“V…”

“Better, that’s so much better. Good job!”

“What is your name?”

“V. My name is V.”

“Good. V, there is something inside you. Deep down you know this. Deeper still you’ve seen it. Maybe you want to call it a monster, a parasite, maybe you want to call it something else. But that doesn’t matter either. What matters, is what you’ll do with it. You might not know what you are, but you know who, right?”

“Yes. V.”

“So the question isn’t how you got here, or what you are, or any of that bullshit… It’s, what are you going to do next?”

What am I going to do next?

“I’m going to burn everything. This city, this world is fucked up as it is, so I’ll just fuck it up some more and force everyone to rebuild from the ashes.”

“Least you have an answer. Think we’re done here.”

“We are.”

“Come on, get up.”

Isabella helped me to my feet.

“Time starts now, V, it’s ticking already. Not a luxury you have, so you’ll have to get right to it. You’ve called yourself a queen, but the game can still be played without her.”

“So our suggestion is, make the moves you can while you’re still able. It’s your gambit now.”

“I understand.”

“Perfect.”

“You might want this.”

Isabella handed me something. When I raised it and inspected it for myself, I saw that they were my glasses.

A small crack had formed along the edge of one lens. Barely perceptible, but it was there.

I wiped some of the dirt and blood off with a sleeve, the one sleeve I had. Doing the best I could, all I could do, I cleaned the lenses.

Then I put my glasses back on. Blinking. Seeing again.

“Thank you,” I said, with more clarity than I ever had before. There was a fire had that been lit within me. The fuse felt short, but until then, I’d move before the boiling and the bubbling gave way to the actual explosion.

“Don’t mention it. Now come on, we’re losing precious time.”

“We are,” I said, and it was as if our voices we’re coalescing into one, along with all the others who had a hand in getting me here. Us.

And then Isabella was gone. Lawrence too. Just the darkness that surrounded me. V.

And with them gone, the dark descended in pitch, swallowing me up even more. The opposite of what was happening inside.

But that was fine.

I walked through the valley of the shadow… knowing very acutely what could come for me, and soon.

It was still dark when I let myself in. The sun would be rising soon, so I’d have to take my leave before then.

Looking through the glass, I didn’t see anything out of place. Sliding it open, I introduced a soft breeze. A few papers on a nearby table fluttered with the light wind, but nothing got too disturbed. I stepped out from the overhang and let myself in.

Not through the front, no, too risky to try that. Had to get by other means. Just in case. Paranoia had walked in, wearing my skin.

My apartment. Though, I supposed it wasn’t my apartment anymore.

I moved through it with a supreme familiarity, gliding to where my room would be, when I still claimed ownership of this place.

Grabbing everything I needed, grabbing everything I would ever need, stuffing it into a bag that I could carry on one shoulder. Costume, mask, weapons. Guns and knives. An extra set of clothes for good measure. I found a skirt that I was hazy on if it was actually mine, but in my rush I shoved it in, anyways. I still had the room.

I made sure to cram in stacks of cash. Being the leader of a gang had resulted in a decent cash flow.

Leaving my closet and room, and moving right along to the kitchen. The fridge.

Packets of blood, squeezing the remaining space in my bag with them. No reason to leave any behind, I took them all.

Zipping up the bag, I put the strap around my shoulder, giving it a pat. For any other person, they would have had trouble walking with the weight, let alone running and jumping. But I wasn’t any other person. I’d manage just fine.

I started to take off.

“Wendy?”

I spun around, already on edge. I was ready to strike.

Not out from the shadows, rather a light went on. A lamp illuminated them and their soft features that I had come to be intimately familiar within the past week.

I didn’t say anything when I saw Sarah.

“I know it’s you, Wendy, it really can’t be anyone else.”

Everything and everyone inside me was shouting for me to just leave right away. My feet were flat on the floor.

“It’s not,” I said, “Sorry.”

It was Sarah’s turn to be silent.

I saw the phone in her hand, how a finger hovered over a bright screen.

“Did D ask you to wait for me here?”

“I volunteered.”

“Are you going to call it in?”

“I don’t know.”

Her finger stayed in place.

“D is looking after the Fangs herself,” Sarah said. “Trying. The rest… they aren’t so happy with what happened, how it happened, and how fast it happened. They want to go after you, and I don’t think D has the power to stop them.”

“And you doubt you have the power to convince them otherwise, too.”

Sarah nodded.

“Do you agree with them? That you want to go after me?”

Sarah shook her head.

I breathed. More stable than I had expected, but there was a slight tremor.

“Then this is your last chance, Sarah. Leave now, and don’t look back. Because if you do, and I see you again out there, I can’t and I won’t guarantee your safety.”

Sarah looked particularly hurt, hearing that. It hurt me, too, seeing that.

“So this is it?” Sarah questioned. She dropped her phone, arms hugging her body. “You’re really going to do it like this?”

“It is,” I answered. I took a step towards the window. “I am. I have to.”

“Can I-”

Sarah had stepped forward after me, arms unfolding, wanting, reaching.

But my eyes weren’t on her anymore. They were on the city, with the pale dots of fire and thin drawn lines of smoke in the distance.

I was reminded of two paintings. The one I had caught a glimpse of while in my apartment. The false idol, the lie I had bought into, thinking I could make it real for myself.

The other, through watery eyes as the height and descent got to me, looked a lot like what I was seeing now. The one from the Mazzucchelli. A city on fire.

Stephenville was my canvas, and I had my tools. And now, after stripping everything else away, I was ready to paint my masterpiece.

Previous                                                                                               Next

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

Interlude – Lawrence

Previous                                                                                               Next

Lawrence blinked blood, sweat, and a single tear from his eye.

Everything hurt. Everything.

His head, his face, his neck, his chest, his stomach, his side, his legs, his feet. Everything.

He let himself collapse onto the tile. It wasn’t a very soft landing. He would have howled in pain if he could draw in the proper air into his lungs.

Not so much, right now.

Of everything that was hurting, his neck had the worst of it. He could still feel Granon’s grip, his heavy and huge and rough fingers wrapping around him, choking him. The very real possibility that he was going to die.

He had retreated, the pain fading, turning it into a white noise that buzzed throughout his entire head and body. A certain, very specific kind of numbness.

The kind of numbness that would have made him complicit in his own death if he submitted to it, did nothing.

Fuck that shit.

He’d do what he had to. And in that, the buzzing, he found the last remaining slivers of strength, and used it.

Fight or flight, and Lawrence had chosen the former.

But now, he didn’t have the strength to pick either option, if he had to do it again. He was spent.

The buzzing continued. His head pounding, his vision fuzzy. If he were to somehow slip away, now, after giving everything he had to survive

He would have laughed. Somehow. He’d find a way.

Now, he just had to make it to the next minute. And the next one. And the one after that.

His part was done.

It was all up to her-

A shot rang out. Lawrence flinched, and all the pain in his body ratcheted up again. Flaring, searing. Screaming.

It would have been so easy to just fall back and sleep. To give in, and just let the natural flow of things take him and drag him away into nothingness. Into the gloom.

Hell fucking no.

Rolling off the momentum of the flinch, the pain, Lawrence used to that to keep moving, dragging himself over the Granon. Granon’s body.

The man was huge, like a wall of muscle, vaguely shaped as a human body, the outline wide. The strength of a bull, and just as stubborn. A pain in the ass, really. Of all the problems Lawrence had in the twenty-something years of being on this planet, Xander L. Granon was absolutely the biggest one. Figuratively and literally.

And Lawrence had just taken care of that problem.

Granon was still, unmoving. His head was tilted to one side, his arms and legs spread out around him. Eyes half-open, the tip of his tongue sticking out. If he wasn’t dead, Lawrence would have died from shock, himself. It would be like if Goliath had gotten up after David struck him with a rock and a sling. All that effort would have been made meaningless.

He didn’t move, though, to Lawrence’s relief. After all the boasting and gloating, after all the condescending, Granon was still human. And humans were so very fragile.

Shots continued to fire, and Lawrence continued to move over to Granon’s body. He needed cover, and, even on his back, Granon was big enough that Lawrence could use him as a shield.

All the chaos and bloodshed of a war zone, condensed into a single, small hallway. Confusion, disarray, violence. Lawrence’s part was over, but he still wasn’t safe. The battle continued.

Lawrence got closer to the body, his arms and sleeves getting soaked in the blood and other junk. He could sense the stench of it hit his nose, making his stomach jump in revulsion. It made him want to throw up again.

He couldn’t believe he had to stoop so low. That he had to play dirty in order to win. But, he did what he had to, and Lawrence wasn’t ashamed that he had to pull that card. It was…

The fact that the situation even called for a play so dirty, so low.

He would have never predicted his life ever getting to this point.

As if to punctuate his thoughts, another shot was fired.

Lawrence got into position, taking cover behind Granon. His body ached with every heavy beat of his heart.

The shots continued, but the gap between each one began to widen. More sporadic, random. What filled the spaces in between were screams.

No, not screams. Shouts.

Pleading, begging.

On both sides of Lawrence and Granon, people ran by, passing them. Granon’s. They didn’t seem to care that they were leaving their boss behind, and the man that might have very well killed him, in the most unfortunate and humiliating manner.

More of them ran past Lawrence, screaming.

Something else had taken over. Their focus wasn’t on regaining the upper hand, anymore, it was something more primal. Like what he had experienced, just now.

Fight or flight. And they chose to flee.

Then Lawrence saw what they were trying to flee from.

It came by in a flash. Not to his left, or his right, but above. Jumping over Lawrence and Granon’s body.

It landed, head down, on all fours. Shoulder blades stuck out of its back, as if it would break through the skin itself. The visual reminded him of a tiger, or some other creature.

It pounced before Lawrence got a longer, better look at the thing. Diving, then crashing into the group of Granon’s men, several of them falling down with her.

Her. The realization dawned on him.

The crash left only a few standing, those on the outside of the group managing an escape by stepping over their comrades and staying close to the walls. They broke into a run as soon as they had the clearance to, then turning the corner to run down another hall. They were gone, leaving their boss and their friends behind.

The less fortunate were at the mercy of her. And she didn’t seem to be in the mood.

From the pile of fallen, bodies started to fly. Thrown with abandon, only stopping when they slammed into the wall, or the corner where the wall met the ceiling. Bodies landed funny as they hit the floor, assuming awkward positions, not moving afterwards. Broken bones, if they were lucky. Anything worse, and they might not ever get up again.

Others tried. The ones who hadn’t gotten thrown crawled and grabbed for purchase, anything that could get them back up to their feet. They were fighting each other as much as they were fighting her.

It was a mess, in every sense of the word. From the blood and junk, to the weeping, to the gnashing of teeth. It was hell.

A body was thrown. It a direct crash into the ceiling, knocking out a light. A shadow was cast on the panic and disorder.

Back on all fours. She was above them. One hand on someone’s head, keeping them down. Her feet were at different angles, pressing into two different bodies in the pile. Her other hand…

Her other hand kept going up and down, back and forth from her chin to something in the pile. It was hard to tell. Her back was to Lawrence.

The trail that would follow as she raised her hand up made Lawrence want to hurl again.

This is who she really is.

Lawrence had seen it when he arrived. He still couldn’t believe it.

All the damage, the destruction.

He’d never seen so much blood before.

It divided the hallways, from her side to his. The victims were on her side, not moving, Granon included. Dead or alive, he wasn’t sure at the time.

And there she was.

She had been out of it, in a daze, staring at him as if she had no idea what the hell she did. Maybe she didn’t.

That still didn’t excuse how horrific it all looked.

The streaks of red had length to them, stretching and splashing out to every portion of the hall. Walls, floor, ceiling. There was a general path to the color, too, a sort of loose line that extended out and down the hallway, until it trailed off at the end. A spiral.

There was still more to it.

The cuts and scrapes that clawed into the different surfaces of the hall, scratches that had carved lines, breaking the tile and the brick and some of the light fixtures. There wasn’t anything in her hands when he found her. Lawrence couldn’t even begin to guess where the marks came from.

Had she even noticed? The daze she was in, the lack of response and her inability to speak properly when he questioned her made him think she was in shock over something. Something had happened, and she might be as lost as he was.

Do I even want to know?

A graphic scene, with graphic details. They wouldn’t ever leave Lawrence’s mind.

Neither would this.

The damage had continued, the destruction still being wrought.

Some got a second chance of luck, one finding themselves able to break free and run around the corner, while others ran back the way they came, passing Lawrence one more time. ‘Run’ and ‘ran’ were inaccurate words, however, as none of them could manage a full sprint. Every one of them were comprised or hurt in some way.

One that chose to book it for the corner turned, looking back at her, still over his comrades. He lifted his arm. He had a gun.

He fired the second another person ran past him, bumping into him in the process.

She was thrown back, sent spinning off the people she had pinned below.

That was the reason why the shots started being less frequent. It was dangerous and idiotic to fire any guns in such a narrow space, with a lot of people, in close range. She had gotten in close, when what they needed was distance.

One of them got that distance, and was idiotic enough to give it another try.

Lucky you, Lawrence thought.

The screams turned into shouts, more organized in their message, though it was still simple. Run.

Those who could get up, did, and those who could not were either never moving again, or they stayed there, playing dead, praying she would not return to investigate.

She returned.

Everyone who could scatter, scattered.

She was standing, now, though she leaned to the side, massaging a shoulder. She gave her hand a hard shake, like her arm had gone asleep, and then stretched both arms. She was fine.

A bullet had merely given her pause.

She turned, facing Lawrence.

His own blood ran cold.

She was looking right at him.

From the nose down, her entire face was red. Not in being flustered, but of blood. He saw that she’d gotten kicked in the teeth, when Granon inexplicably stood back up, but her teeth were red, too. That was recent, that just happened right now.

Lawrence didn’t know what to expect, and what he got still horrified him. He would have never expected that.

Clothes torn, hair wild. Her glasses were crooked, bent at an angle. Her eyes, not a human’s eyes. Animalistic, primal.

But, then why is she crying?

Her expression was the opposite of blank. Even with his vision not being what it should be, he could still see how her face was screwed up, scrunched, forehead and space between the eyebrows creasing. Clear lines ran down her cheeks, washing some of the red liquid. The way she was shaking, hiccuping.

She was crying.

Like she’s coming down from her high.

Lawrence had seen that before, those symptoms, but he wasn’t sure if the same principle applied, here. This was too alien, too foreign for probably anyone to understand.

She lumbered forward, a single step, and Lawrence started to feel a panic grip him.

Fight or flight. He had to choose again.

I don’t have have the energy to.

She continued to stumble towards him, shaking her head, hitting her head with the palm of her hand.

Delirious, insane.

This isn’t real.

Both of her hands were brought up to her face, now, covering them. Still trembling. In her distraction, all of Granon’s men who were capable had made their escape. It was just Lawrence, now.

He tried to move, but found himself too exhausted, too heavy. He could barely move his legs, or lift his arms. His throat was still on fire, no sound was coming out.

Couldn’t move, couldn’t scream for help. Lawrence was helpless.

Snapping her head back, she yelled. The noise was rough, raw, frayed at the end. An inhuman sound.

Twisting, writhing, it was like something was right under her skin, trying to dig its way out. And she was suffering for it.

She swung an arm, hitting the wall. She left a dent, chunks of brick flying out.

Her hands went back to her face, her raw howl filling Lawrence’s ears.

Someone, please, help me. Help her.

Then, she turned, back in Lawrence’s direction. He was still frozen.

She moved to him again, but she didn’t falter. She headed straight to Lawrence. Faster.

No.

No no no fuck no no fuck fuck no no shit fuck

She dropped to her hands, getting into a position. Pushing with her feet, she jumped over to Lawrence.

She threw Lawrence against the wall, a sharp edge jabbing into his back.

He opened his mouth make a sound, but that only gave her more of an opening.

Her lips pressed against his, and he felt her tongue. He didn’t have much a choice expect to push back with his own.

They stayed in the moment for a while, until Lawrence was able to convince himself that he enjoyed it.

She was pretty, she smelled nice, and she was making all the right moves. Nibbling at his lip, making small noises, running her fingers through his hair, pulling at it ever so slightly. It was good. Good.

It was a good distraction.

“El!”

Torn away, too fast, sudden. Her tooth clipped the underside of his lip.

Ah!”

Lawrence jolted, letting out a harsh grasp. Then again, as his back was jabbed again.

“Fuck!”

Charlie was the culprit, the one who had spoiled the moment. Very firm, she moved the girl away from him, and pushed her back into the crowd of people. The girl didn’t seem all that bothered by the interruption, though, as she simply moved on, going elsewhere, soon disappearing into the mass of dancing and partying.

Lawrence shot a quick glare at Charlie, who only rolled her eyes.

“I was in the middle of something,” Lawrence told her.

Charlie shot back with a look of her own.

Long but wild hair, sharp eyebrows, and a dash of freckles across her face, Charlie had a unique look that made her expression more defined. She knew how to make Lawrence feel like shit, as if he actually did something wrong.

But, Lawrence had gotten that look enough times that the effect had diminished.

He rubbed the corner of his mouth, licking his lips.

“Man, you’re killing my vibe,” he said, shrugging it off.

“We’re not here to party, El, we have a job to do. I thought you were going to take this seriously.”

“I am taking this seriously. I’m fucking nervous as shit, Charlie, I need a distraction.”

“What are you so nervous for?”

Lawrence scratched his arm, then pushed himself off the wall. He felt what was poking him earlier. The side of a drawer.

That’s what that was.

“This is our first drop off,” Lawrence said, “And our first real meeting with the big guys. So of course I need something to take my mind off that. And you ruined it by kicking her out. I kind of liked her, you know.”

Charlie didn’t look impressed in the slightest.

“What’s her name?”

Lawrence grinned, sly. It only prompted a harder eye-roll from Charlie.

“You are an ass,” she said.

“Whatever, I’m back in the now, no thanks to you. Let’s just count up the funds, did we reach the quota?”

“I’m one-thousand percent sure we did, but I want to get the others first, so we can pile everything up into a final count. I’ll go grab them?”

Lawrence nodded. “Por favor.”

Charlie nodded back, and left Lawrence, and the kitchen, to go grab the others.

Lawrence put himself back against the kitchen counter, being careful, so the drawer wouldn’t jab him again. He crossed his arms and waited.

Everything was going according to plan. It should. The plan was rather simple.

They were at a house party, in the suburbs. It wasn’t their house, but they brought the party.

Drugs. Not the hardcore stuff, but moderation was always a good policy for anything. Weed, molly, xannies, anything these kids needed to make a good time better. They were to sell the whole stash, and make a profit when they return to their bosses. Maybe recruit a few who might be interested, in the process. Some more muscle.

A lot of work, being a part of a gang. But it was easy work, and it was even fun work.

If I’m going to go to these parties and make out with girls, I might as well get paid while doing it.

An easy gig. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

For now.

The lights were dim, the music boomed, and more people filled into the space to dance closer together. They were in the kitchen, of all places. Couldn’t they get hyped up somewhere else?

But it was nothing to Lawrence. He liked how crazy it could get, at one of these parties. Anything could happen, and it never got boring, if done right. Lawrence knew how to do it right, or at least pick the right parties to go to.

From where he was in the kitchen, Lawrence could see into the living room. A television was playing an old Kung Fu flick. It was a classic, one of Lawrence’s favorites.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Good taste.

Stoners were on the couch across the screen, watching, enraptured with the fights. Lawrence was right there with them.

The moment he saw what was on the screen, he knew this would a good party, for both fun and for funds. Turned out he was right.

Lawrence watched the movie, passing the time while keeping close to the stash. A duffle bag on the counter behind him. One of the straps was wrapped around his arm.

“Yo!”

Lawrence turned, then realized he had to move his line of sight down.

A girl. A kid.

Much younger than anyone else here, but she wasn’t out of place with her styling. A short bob, eyeliner and lipstick. A loose cream cardigan sweater and denim shorts, with black tights covering her legs. She had a choker around her neck.

It was odd, seeing someone seemingly on the younger side here, dressed like that. It was more odd that she had to be standing so close.

Close. Uncomfortably close, even with all the people hanging out and dancing. There was enough room that she could stand a foot away, if she wanted to. She apparently didn’t want to.

Pressing up, close, looking up, smiling. A full set of teeth.

“Mind if I light it up?”

The odd girl asked him an odd question.

Lawrence tilted his head, unsure if she meant what he thought she meant.

“Like, you looking to score?”

The odd girl gave a shrug, non-committal.

“Sure.”

Lawrence squinted at her. Something wasn’t right, here.

“Do you live here?” he asked.

“No. Why?”

“I mean, I’m just trying to think of any reason why you might be here. Are you… a cop?”

She laughed. Sincere, but loud, for her size. She touched his arm.

“I’m not cop, silly! I can’t go to parties to have fun? Isn’t that what parties are for?”

“I suppose.”

“What’s your name?”

Another odd question.

“Um, my friends call me El.”

I’m not about to give anyone here my real name.

The odd girl dropped her jaw, an exaggerated gesture. She hit him in the arm.

“El? That’s kind of like my name!”

I don’t know what that means.

“Are you looking to score or nah?” Lawrence questioned. “I’m about close my shift, if you know what I mean, and I can’t accept any more payment after I’m done. It fudges up the numbers when people do the audit, later.”

“Wow, sounds like a lot of work.”

“It’s not my job, but I don’t want to make it harder for the next guy. It makes it harder for me, later, and then I can’t reap the other benefits as much.”

“What other benefits?”

Like making out with hot girls.

“Being able to get paid while chilling with friends,” Lawrence answered. “But, you know what, I’m closing up shop, now. I’m not about to do business with a kid, sorry. Not like this.”

The odd girl pouted. She really did come off as disappointed.

“That so? Ah, too bad. I am looking to score, by the way.”

“Sorry, maybe you can try your luck with my other buddies, but not me.”

She shook her head.

“No. I think I like you, so I’ll give this another shot later.”

Later?

Gentle, she put her hand on his arm, brushing it up. Lawrence flinched, backing up even though he couldn’t, allowing himself to get jabbed again.

The odd girl brought her hands back, giggling. She retreated into the crowd.

“You’re funny. Bye, El.”

She was gone before he could make any sense of it.

Fuckin’ weird.

He did his best to forget about it, hoping no one else saw that interaction. He spent the rest of his time waiting, watching the movie over in the living room.

A sharp whistle hit his ears. That pitch.

Lawrence noticed Charlie motioning for him. She had gotten the others. It was time to count up the funds. He gave her a gesture in acknowledgement.

Time to get ready.

They were coming, and he’d meet them soon.

He braced himself for the meeting.

No strength, no will to fight. Lawrence closed his eyes and prayed that his end would be a swift one.

He wasn’t particularly religious, but he prayed.

And prayed.

And prayed some more.

The end wasn’t coming.

Slow, unsure, Lawrence opened his eyes again.

She wasn’t here.

Lawrence darted his eyes around, surveying the scene.

He didn’t see her. She wasn’t here.

Where?

A noise, coming from behind, where he couldn’t see. A bang. Several more.

That wild, frenzied scream again, fried yet raw at the end.

Then, a sharp decrease in intensity and volume. The scream began trail, losing steam, until all he could manage to pick up was a low moan, and that trailed off as well.

Until he couldn’t hear anything. It was silent. Lawrence almost considered that he’d gone deaf.

Almost. Heavy boots hitting the tile, hitting liquid, dashed those concerns.

But now he had more.

The steps went around him. With only his eyes, he followed the man as he strolled around, stopping in front of Lawrence, looking down at him.

Lawrence managed to find the breath to produce a sound in response to the presence above him. A word. A name.

“Styx.”

Styx smirked. It unsettled.

“Pale as a ghost,” Styx said, before letting out a deep, warped chuckle.

Much to Lawrence’s confusion, the man bent down, and extended a hand. In his other a hand was a handgun, a distinct lengthy attachment at the end of it. Lawrence was too tired to piece together what it was, exactly, and what that meant for the situation as it stood.

Couldn’t stay here forever, though. His hand was forced, and he had to muster up the strength to lift his arm.

They shook hands.

Lawrence broke away from the man, wanting to wipe his palm on his jeans. He hated that he was sweaty. Nervous, knees weak. Arms heavy.

It took all of his effort to come off as calm and ready. It was all surface level, though. Just appearances.

The man, Roland, scanned the rest of them with a very careful eye.

They were all present and accounted for, standing outside on the expansive lawn of the suburban home. The party had spilled outside of the house, so a group of people situated in a circle was nothing out of the ordinary, here. There were other, smaller circles around as well, the occasional puffs of smoke billowing out like chimneys.

“I see our customers are making quick use of our products,” Roland said.

“They are,” Lawrence said, trying to hide the dry, scratchy tone in his voice. Short sentences helped. “It’s been easy.”

“Good,” Roland said, scratching his chin. Cool.

He was the best dressed of anyone here, of ravers and gang members alike. A nice dress shirt, the brand was probably some Italian name he couldn’t pronounce. Thin wire glasses that gave him a more sophisticated touch. Beige, slim khakis. He looked more like he was ready to present at a conference than meet with some low-level thugs.

A handsome, but still chiseled look. Rugged and tough. He could fit right at home on the front cover of a magazine. Lawrence could admit that much.

It contrasted against Lawrence’s own outfit. A basketball jersey over a baggy white shirt and baggy jeans. Lawrence made a mental note in his head. To use him for inspiration, one day.

As good as he looked, he also wasn’t a guy to mess with. Lawrence wouldn’t dare try.

“Has it been easy for everyone else?” Roland asked.

Everyone else. It was all the new guys, and the even newer ones.

Standing in a circle. It was Lawrence, Charlie, Jonathan, and the most recent members Melissa and Eduardo.

Melissa had a strong resemblance to the girl Lawrence had just been blowing off some steam with. She wasn’t a ten, not even an nine, but she could be a strong eight on a good day, and today was a good day. Straight brown hair, hazel eyes, and a tight shirt that showed her rather large chest. Lawrence actually preferred them on the smaller side, and he was more of a waist and butt guy, but he could see himself make an exception when it came to her.

But, she shot him down rather quickly, and he accepted the rejection with grace. She simply wasn’t into guys like that.

Eduardo, however, was on the opposite end of the spectrum. Something about him bugged Lawrence. He was tall, lanky, awkward in his gait. Hair combed back, the sides shaved. With the denim jacket he wore, and the way he kept checking the house behind him, he couldn’t be across as any more of a punk if he tried.

That, and his face looked a little punchable.

He wasn’t used to being in a gang, yet.

He wasn’t used to being in this country yet.

Charlie was the one to answer his question.

“It’s been a profitable night, sir, these kids really think they need this stuff to have a good time.”

“To be fair,” Jonathan said, “They do.”

“It helps,” Lawrence offered. “Helps us, helps them as well.”

Roland nodded, taking it all in.

“Did we recruit anyone?” he asked.

Everyone shook their heads. Though, Eduardo casted another glance at the house.

Roland was willing to accept that.

“Not a problem, and Charlie? No need for the sir, we’re still small, so we’re trying to build a close, familiar dynamic between us and you. Though, that form of respect will still need to apply to my boss, should you ever address her directly. La Señora.”

“Oh, okay, um, Roland. Thanks.”

Roland grinned.

La Señora. Benny. Lawrence hadn’t gotten a chance to meet her, but it was a goal to reach, one day. He’d wanted to be in the upper echelon, one of the big guys. Going to these parties, making bank, it was good, enjoyable work. Fun and games. But it was just that. Fun, and games. This kind of life wouldn’t sustain him forever. Lawrence knew that he had to look and plan ahead, and that meant he couldn’t be on the lower rung forever.

Money. It was all about the green.

He wanted to find a way to get noticed by Roland, by Benny. To impress them.

One day.

He had to step it up.

“We just finished counting the revenue, matching it with the product sold. We didn’t sell everything, but it all adds up properly, and we’re in the green, too. It’s all good.”

“That’s what I like to hear… Lawrence, was it?”

“Right, sir, I mean, just Roland, right.”

Lawrence shook his head, feeling like an idiot.

The group, minus Lawrence and Roland, erupted in laughter.

Lawrence rolled his eyes, trying to keep a relaxed expression. He could roll with the punches, he was good at that.

The laughter didn’t last long, and it wasn’t even really to bully or humiliate him. It was a playful sort of teasing.

“Another for ‘L’ for El,” Eduardo commented.

Lawrence couldn’t help but be bothered by that.

We’re not friends, Eddie.

The laughter kicked back up again, to Lawrence’s chagrin. He was that much closer to putting some hands on the punk.

Roland raised a hand, and that was enough. The group was silenced.

“Levity is fine, but let’s stay on the task at hand.”

Eduardo answered for them, as if he was allowed to speak for Lawrence.

“Okay, and sorry, El.”

Don’t fucking call me that.

Roland gestured. “May I see the money?”

It was Charlie that had the bag. She walked over to Roland, breaking the circle of people, to hand the money over.

A light in Lawrence’s eye. He blinked, and started shaking his head.

The bag was black, so why was there red and blue bouncing off it it?

It hit Lawrence.

Someone else called it out.

“Pigs!”

Everyone bolted.

It wasn’t even a matter of being organized in their escape. It was about survival. Move somewhere that wasn’t here.

Lawrence ran, and didn’t get three steps before he was interrupted. Someone had bumped into him. There was a second of panic before he saw that it was Charlie.

“Faster!” she yelled.

You don’t have to tell me that.

The sentence would have came out if he had the time to ask. Instead, confused, he breathed out, hard, and kept running towards the house. It was the only place he could think to go, or at least to go through.

The house was big, multiple stories, but the number of ways getting in were limited. The front door was wide open, but the entry way was choked, with number of people all having the same idea as Lawrence and Charlie. Pushing, yelling, general panic.

Lawrence stopped, and brought an arm out to stop Charlie. He stole a quick glance back. The cars, the lights, the men in uniform chasing after the kids.

Shit,” Lawrence whispered.

“Why are we stopping?” Charlie said, “They’re coming this way!”

Scanning, thinking, Lawrence replied. “We’re going to get stuck among all those people if we run right into it now. We can’t get stuck.”

“Where then? Around to the fence?”

“Can you jump?”

“I can try, but-”

“We don’t have time to try, Charlie, we have to do shit.”

“Then no go on jumping the fence. Plus, I have some added weight, literally.”

Lawrence looked at what Charlie was talking about. The strap around her side.

“Why do you have the bag?”

“Fuck, they’re coming this way, El, here.”

Charlie moved without giving Lawrence a proper answer. They weren’t going through the group at the door, they went around.

Windows at the front of the house, as tall as they were wide. When Lawrence first arrived at the house, he was able the see the dining room, the tables and silverware on the other side. Now, something was blocking the view. Something murky.

It almost gave Lawrence pause from wanting to go in.

“Sure about this?” Lawrence asked.

“Nope,” Charlie said, “But we’ve got no choice. We’re deep in this shit, now.”

Charlie grabbed a rock from a border of a small garden at the base of the window. She grabbed another, crushing flowers and leaves as she went back over to hand it over to Lawrence.

“Shit,” Lawrence said.

No more words, just an agreement on what they had to do. Lawrence was willing to go that far.

They threw the rocks.

Struck home, hitting the base and perimeter of the windows. It shattered, making an opening for them. The edges were jagged, but they were covered up well enough.

Grey smoke blew out of the hole.

Shit,” Lawrence said, with emphasis.

“Too late to back down now,” Charlie said. “Come on!”

They ran, before anyone else had caught on to what they just did.

Lawrence covered his mouth with his shirt, squinting hard, eyes watery and lungs irritated. The effect was immediate.

Too late to back down now.

Escaping into the darkness, Lawrence let it envelop him.

Lawrence coughed out, hard. Everything hurt again.

It was dark when he went in, but the sudden light filling in the room felt like an assault on his existence. He lurched, groaning again from the harsh movement.

He would have fallen over if he wasn’t already sitting, being rolled into the room.

Lawrence couldn’t fight back, even if he wanted to. He was entirely at the mercy of Styx. Which was worse than being helpless.

“Take it easy, lil’ boy,” Styx said. His voice was unnatural for him. Soft, sympathetic. Understanding. Lawrence had dealt with Styx before, back when it was just him and his Ghosts, he’d never heard Styx sound like this. It was unnatural.

Lawrence couldn’t see him, with Styx pushing him as he sat in the wheelchair. Only being able to hear his voice, while still being at the whim of where Styx wanted to take him, while not being able to see Styx, made for an odd, out of body experience.

Maybe it’s a metaphor for everything that’s happened in this fucking hotel.

Blinking, Lawrence started getting a better picture of the room he was a rolled into.

A conference room, not for guests, but for the staff and management related to the hotel. Only accessible by going through the back parts of the building, where guests weren’t allowed. It wasn’t as fancy or as decorative, compared to the other parts of the hotel he’d seen. More particular, utilitarian in design. Bland, brown walls with nothing on them, a long conference table, enough for at least twenty people, judging by how many chairs there were.

An ambient light had dimmed to a low settling, seemingly on its own. Lawrence could see himself falling asleep here.

Could. With Styx here, Lawrence couldn’t afford to get any shut-eye.

Even though his body and spirit were begging more rest, Lawrence had to keep going. Keep staying up.

Pushed along, Styx moved him to the end of the conference room, the other end of the table. Styx stopped there, turning Lawrence around, then pressing the locks at the wheels. Lawrence wasn’t able to move, regardless, but Styx just wanted to make sure.

Styx put his attention on the chair itself, moving himself over to it.

It was a simple thing to do, to just pick a chair and move it. Styx apparently thought that ‘simple’ was too boring.

He kicked, and the chair was sent sliding, skidding, until it fell over and collided with the wall. A violent crash.

Lawrence startled, and he was wracked with pain yet again.

Styx chuckled.

There it was, Lawrence thought, That’s the Styx I know. The one I’m familiar with.

Familiar didn’t exactly mean better, though, not in this case.

Leaving the chair fallen over, Styx rearranged more stuff. He put Lawrence’s wheelchair in place of the old one, and Styx himself grabbed a seat at the closest chair next to him, to Lawrence’s right.

He fell into it, staring at Lawrence. His eyes were wide, and a little wild.

Leather jacket, no shirt, black skinny jeans. The whites of Styx’s eyes, the yellow of his teeth, contrasted against the melanin of his skin. He wasn’t her, but he looked like he could eat him at even the slightest provocation.

Lawrence was stuck in a room with this man.

The bewilderment, the disorientation, was reaching new heights.

Styx smiled at him. Lawrence was starting to hate that look.

“Hi,” he said.

Lawrence responded with a blink.

“Quite the day, isn’t it?”

Lawrence wanted to throw up, but there was nothing in his stomach, now.

Styx crossed his legs, settling into his seat. He looked as comfortable as Lawrence wasn’t.

“Hi,” Styx said again.

Lawrence wasn’t sure how to respond. Styx greeted him a second time.

The man crossed his legs the other way.

“Hi.”

The third time. As if Lawrence needed any more stress.

Styx sneered.

“You’re Lawrence. I bet you’re wondering how you got into this situation. The choices you took that led you here, the thoughts in your head that made you make certain decisions, molding you into the person you are today. Were they the right thoughts? Did you end up where you wanted to go? Was it worth it? Would you do it all over again?”

A specific, ugly emotion was beginning to stir and rise to the surface. One that he’d tried not to think about or consider for years. Lawrence pushed it down, harder, farther than before. It hurt.

“What do you want, Styx?” Lawrence asked. It strained, but he couldn’t just be a passive actor in this.

“That, right there. That face. Faces.”

“What?” Lawrence breathed the question.

“I wanted to see your face, how you look at your lowest moment. I want to savor whatever it is that brings those expressions out, for the world to see. It makes me vibrate.”

Sickening. It was twisted.

“Fuck you, Styx,” Lawrence said, even though it was probably the single worst thing he could say, at this juncture.

Styx’s expression didn’t waver.

“You’re welcome. And you look great, by the way.”

Lawrence wanted to move, to leave, to figure this out another time, to get back with his crew and be back at the territory, his apartment, his bed. All he needed was rest.

But he couldn’t. Helpless.

It probably showed on his face. The face that Styx was delighted to be able to see.

It just served to make Lawrence that much smaller.

Before Lawrence ventured further into dangerous emotional territory, the doors opened with a burst.

“Styx! Styx!”

Lawrence knew that voice. It was a very specific pit in his stomach.

Styx fell back into his seat, leaning over, turning somewhat to face the new party.

“Yeah?”

D stomped over to them, but she directed herself to Styx.

She smacked Styx on the arm. Not a playful hit.

Styx had little to no reaction. He just shifted around to have her in view.

“Yes?”

“How many rounds did you pump into her?”

“Enough.”

“I told, you just needed one. I put in the appropriate dosage for you ahead of time. I gave you the extras as a precaution.”

“Everything about handling this was a precaution.”

“You didn’t need to hit her with everything!”

“I was being ‘pre-cautious.’”

She started wailing on him, punching him in the same spot on the arm. Styx didn’t flinch or try to defend himself.

“You jerk, you big dummy! Idiot! Loser!”

After the tenth punch, Styx finally made a move. He used his other arm to grab D by the shoulder. He threw her off him with a single push. She was just a little kid, after all.

“For your information, I was being careful for her sake. I loved it, truly, the image she painted with Xander was exquisite, but the others don’t appreciate that kind of art. You do, but not them. If I let it get out of hand, then it becomes a problem for me, okay? So I put a stop to the shitshow.”

D put her hands on her hips, sticking her tongue out at Styx. Styx, of Styx’s Gang, the leader of the gang that had connections and relations with every major player in Stephenville.

“Dummy,” she said.

Lawrence had been through enough shit that he could actually believe what he was seeing.

I swore that I’d come up with something, the next time I saw you. But I don’t even care about that anymore.

Lawrence tried sitting up in the wheelchair, but he was too weak to move. The chair creaked and wobbled a bit, and that got their attention.

D and Styx turned to look at Lawrence.

“Explain,” Lawrence said. “Now.”

D inhaled, making it deep. D exhaled, and walked over to Styx’s chair. She sat on the armrest, her own arms folded.

Lawrence hadn’t seen her for over twenty-four hours. He had been worried about her disappearance, paranoid over what she could possibly be doing.

Getting a call by the girl herself, it confirmed his fears. In a frenzied tone, she told him to run down to the casino. Wendy was in trouble, and he couldn’t just stay holed up in the hotel suite and do nothing. It added to his fears. How did she know that Wendy needed help? How did she know that Lawrence was still in the room?

And then he found Wendy, in that hall. Granon. Everything that followed.

Lawrence learned that his paranoia was wholly, completely justified.

D explained.

“When Granon first came on to the scene, and started nudging into our territory, I did what I usually do. Research. You can never be too careful. In this case, if there’s a new gang in town, the first person who’d know anything about it would be Styx.”

She gestured over to the man in question.

D continued.

“Granon was just one branch of his employer’s organization, but we all knew this wasn’t a feud that we could just drag out. We’re still new, relatively small. If we got stuck on dealing with the People’s Hammer, or if it got messy, it wouldn’t present the best image of us if we were able to move forward after that.”

D breathed in, taking her time.

“So I called in another favor with Styx.”

There was a particular word in that sentence that Lawrence didn’t like.

Another?”

D nudged the floor with her foot, causing her to sway a bit on the chair. Styx moved as well.

“Back when we were just starting our alliance, while we were still hunting Benny, I knew what we were doing was super duper messy, blowing up gangs and their bases with the weapons I found. It sort of fudges up what Styx had taken decades to set up. So I let him know what we were up to, as a courtesy. And Styx offered to do some damage control after the fact, so nothing unforseen can blow up in our faces, later.”

“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Lawrence said.

D shook her head.

“I’m not kidding, sorry El.”

Lawrence was shaken to the core.

“And this?” he asked. “How exactly does Styx fit into this?”

“I came to him for help, and, using his connections, pulled some strings and gave you and Wendy a reservation to stay at the Lunar Tower, with fake IDs so the staff will know that you’re legit and that the room’s already covered.”

“You’re welcome,” Styx said. He couldn’t have sounded anymore pleased.

Lawrence needed a moment to compose himself, gather his thoughts. He gave himself that moment.

When it came time to speak his mind, the result was still disorganized.

“Why Styx? Why me and Wendy? Why like this? Why… why?”

Just why?

“Styx and I… we go way back.”

Styx gave D a look, though D didn’t turn to give him one.

Lawrence wasn’t about to pick apart that answer with a ten-foot pole.

“And about this setup itself, it was Styx’s idea. He-”

“-wanted to get something out of giving this little rascal and her super friends a handout. I gave her conditions that made it interesting for me. One, she couldn’t help you directly. Two, it had to be done in this hotel, and three, you were supposed to handle the bulk of the work done here.”

Styx pointed at him.

Stunned. As always.

“Me?”

“Yeah, bitch. As I understood it, you’re supposed to be the face of this group, and I know the kind of muscle that girl brings. You were supposed to handle business with Granon like how everyone else handles their shit here. With class, and diplomacy. Instead, you spent most of your stay up in that room, and when you do confront Xander on his bullshit, you vomit on his shoes. Though, I fuckin’ loved it, so thank you for that.”

Speechless.

“It’s something I learned very quickly,” Styx said. “If you want to be in this business, you can’t just do whatever you want, and think you can get away with it. I can, of course, because I earned the right to do whatever the fuck I want, whenever the fuck I want, however the fuck I want. But you? No. Delegating is good, but it’s better to stick your own neck out, sometimes, show bitches you mean business. You wanted to prove yourself to me, and to the rest of the gangs? This performance doesn’t cut it.”

D kept shaking her head, tugging at her choker.

“I win this round,” Styx said, looking at the back of D’s head. “Better luck next time.”

Styx stood from his seat. D jumped to get out of his way.

“That’s three favors, D, now it’s my turn. Three for three. I’ll be coming by to collect the first one,” Styx said, ruffling D’s hair. She reacted, pushing him off to fix it.

Styx continued. “It’ll be sooner, rather than later. Could be tomorrow, the next day, or the next week, so I suggest you get yourself together before then. Show me you’re as promising as D pitched you to be.”

Styx started to take his leave.

“It’ll be fun, I promise. I’ve got plans for all of you. D? Thanks for stopping by to visit, you really do have a talent for making things interesting. Do come by again. You know, this body’s getting older, man, I need more excuses to relieve some fucking stress. And, one more thing, don’t worry about the mess, we’ve got guys for that.”

Lawrence or D didn’t respond as he left, the door clicking as it closed. A heavy silence hung in the air.

When Lawrence broke it, it felt palpable.

“What was the third favor?” Lawrence asked.

For a third time, D shook her head.

“Alright, fine, another question. Why the fuck didn’t you tell us any of this beforehand?” Lawrence asked.

D was able to answer that.

“It was part of Styx’s conditions. I couldn’t help you directly. But I was watching, and things weren’t going the way they were supposed to. Wendy was out, and you were there, taking a nap. And when Wendy was being followed, I panicked, and I thought I had to do something. I broke one of the conditions.”

“Fuck,” Lawrence said, “Fuck. I was going to insist that I’d help, do my supposed part, but Wendy wanted me to stay up there, she wanted me to rest. How was I supposed to know I had a bigger part to play?”

“I don’t know. I thought it would work out a different way. I know you aren’t the kind of guy who likes to stand still. Even if you had gotten hurt from your first fight with Granon, you’d push yourself to do more, after that. You’ll do anything to take that next step.”

“Wendy didn’t want me to do that. She would have rather pushed herself.”

“And look where that brought us,” D said. “Fudge.”

D dropped herself into the seat that Styx had just occupied. She brought her feet and legs up, and she hugged her knees.

“What’s next?” Lawrence said, wanting to get to it.

“Either I, or someone from the medical staff will give you a proper checkup, clean your wounds and make sure nothing broken or permanently damaged. Then, you can rest, for real this time. Still supposed to be out of the room by noon, though.”

“That’s enough time to take it easy.”

“You never needed much,” D said. “And after that, we put this mess behind us.”

Lawrence put his hands into his lap, making fists, feeling each cut.

“Speaking of messes,” Lawrence said. “Where is she?”

D had paused before answering.

“I was looking after her, earlier, making sure she was still breathing and had a pulse after being filled up with pentazemin. She up in the room, now, out cold.”

“Pentazemin. Isn’t that a muscle relaxer?”

“Benzodiazepine class. Antidepressant. It’s easy to get if you know what you’re looking for.”

“How’d you know that would work?”

D shrugged.

Lawrence made a noise, the aches and pains coming back to haunt him.

“Dammit, D,” he said. “I wish you told me. Not just about this, but about her, too.”

“I wish I could,” D replied. “But my hands were tied. I tried to have some fun with it, giving you signs that I was around, that I was helping, but I guess it only served to make it worse.”

D looked genuine in her remorse.

“And, about Wendy, I don’t think anyone knew what happened there. I don’t even think she did. Darn, it wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

“It got messy,” Lawrence said. “Maybe it wasn’t public, but there’s blood on our hands now. She mutilated people, ruined them. I killed someone.”

“He has a pulse,” D said, “Not like he’s getting up any time soon.”

Lawrence no longer had the will to be shocked.

“Same difference.”

Lawrence wanted to say more, but the hurt was getting to him more, now, making its presence known. He couldn’t just fight past it forever.

“Wheel me over to get checked up on. If you know what you’re doing… I don’t mind if it’s you, I guess.”

D seemed to brighten up a little, hearing that. “Really?”

“Don’t make me regret it.”

“You won’t, promise. I know what I’m doing.”

“Alright. Then, we deal with the rest of this tomorrow, or whenever she wakes up. We need to be in sync, if we want this group to continue and thrive, having her go off on her own and try to do everything herself isn’t that. We can’t just hit her with antidepressants forever. It might even make things worse in the long run.”

“I don’t want that,” D said.

“Me neither.”

D threw her head back, making a croaking noise. She stared at the ceiling.

“Uuuugh, this sucks.”

“Might not be the best word to use.”

D looked back at Lawrence.

“How about you? How you handling this?”

Lawrence gave his thoughts.

“This is fucked. We’re fucked. Everything about this is fucked.”

Lawrence would have added more, but he didn’t want more smoke in his lungs. He was close to coughing them out.

They were in the clear, for the moment. Out of the smoke, out of sight of anyone who might be looking for them.

Charlie had given him the rundown, and the bag. Roland had shoved the bag in Charlie’s arms, forcing her to take care of it. So there was nothing that could pin him down, Charlie had guessed.

But now it was Lawrence’s responsibility. There was another meeting point they had planned, just in case, a couple blocks away. No specific order was given to meet there, but that was why they had designated a location in the first place. This was that case.

The spot itself was fine. It should be. It was getting there that was the problem.

Smoke, everywhere. The house was trashed, more so that Lawrence had realized. And they were sitting still, while there might be cops right outside the room and hall.

And they had a bag of money and drugs. It was all collected into one bag when they counted everything up. Made for easy transport, but if they got caught, then it was all over.

Couldn’t let this be over.

Lawrence had convinced Charlie to let him carry the bag. He was faster, and if it came down to it, more willing to do what have to be done. For survival, he’d shoulder that burden for the both of them.

“How is it?” Charlie asked, keeping to whispers, keeping it short.

Lawrence peeked through the crack of the door. He tested his luck a bit by sliding his hand over, opening it some more.

“No one,” he answered, voice low. “But that could change in any second.”

“Right,” Charlie said.

They had heard footsteps earlier, rushing in this bedroom to evade any potential pursuers. Nobody followed, but that didn’t mean they were in the clear. They weren’t familiar with the layout of the house, they didn’t know what the situation was in either the backyard or the street past that. They had to leave, but rushing without thinking would be an even bigger mistake.

“Let’s give it a few more seconds, then we move over to that room on the other side of the hall, and check out the window. There.”

“I can’t see it from this angle, El.”

“Oh. Uh, it’s over there. Just follow me when it’s time.”

“Alright.”

Lawrence raised a hand. With the other, he widened the opening a little more, inch by inch.

He threw his hand down.

Now!”

Lawrence got to his feet and booked it. Charlie was right behind him.

It was a rush, from both the adrenaline coursing through his veins and the speed at which he crossed the hall. There wasn’t anyone around to catch him, but, if there was, he would have liked to imagine himself like a ninja, slipping away at the last second. The image fit, somewhat. Mouth covered with his shirt, bag slung over his back. Like a modern reboot of those movies he watched all the time.

The door had been cracked open on the other side, as well. It made for an easy escape out of the hall, and back out of sight, into the safety and shadows.

Charlie closed the door behind them, but not all the way. She kept low, staying next to it, blocking it, in case someone else tried to get through.

Yes!” she said. She lifted her hand, and Lawrence returned the favor with a high five.

“Almost there,” Lawrence said. He kept moving, putting his back on the vanity set across the room, away from the door.

“Move,” he said. “We can still hide if anyone wanders in. If the door gets blocked, then they’ll know for sure.”

“Good point.” She listened, crossing the room. She didn’t hide right away, though, instead checking through the window, facing the outside world.

“What’s it look like out there?”

“Promising. Los policías are mostly busy dealing with all the kids outside. Gathering them up, making sure they’re away from the house and out of trouble.”

“Is it everyone?”

“I… don’t see Jonathan or Melissa, or Eduardo. Definitely don’t see Roland.”

“We might be the only ones in here, then. Which is a good thing.”

“Might be. Keep in mind we’re the ones stuck in a burning house.”

A burning house.

“About that,” Lawrence started.

“What?”

“Don’t you think this seems all… off?”

“Meaning?”

“There’s smoke, but it’s not killing us, and it’s thinned the deeper we got into the house. And, haven’t you noticed that we never came across anything that was burning?”

“This was all staged,” Charlie said, her eyes wide, mouth agape. “Someone set up some smoke and called the cops?”

“Do you see firefighters out there?”

Charlie checked out the window again. “I don’t.”

“They’d be here by now if this was legit.”

“So if it’s not a fire, then what?”

“That, I can’t answer. Right now, the main concern of the police is just getting everyone out of the house, and they sort it out from there.”

“What if we’re stuck in this house and there’s a bomb.”

“There’s no bomb,” Lawrence said. He considered it. “There’s no bomb.”

“Should we just ditch the bag and go outside? We might not get in trouble. There’s so many kids out there, we can just slip away and meet with the others.”

Again, Lawrence considered it.

“I want to try,” Lawrence said. “If we get out of this, with the money and drugs, Roland’s going to know we’re the real deal.”

He’s going to know I’m the real deal.

Very little time to argue, and there was no doubt in Lawrence’s voice. Charlie went with it.

“Sure, okay, let’s try.”

Gracias, Charlie. Now get over here.”

Charlie crossed the room again, meeting with Lawrence. She got on her knees.

“We’re close to the back,” Lawrence told her. “We’re so close I can almost fucking taste it. Past the backyard is that service road. They can block it, but not without fucking up traffic there, and with the majority of the smoke coming from the front of the house, that’s where they’ll focus their attention on. As long as we can get to the back and make sure things are quiet, we’ll be alright.”

“Alright, I like that. Taking advantage over someone else’s scheme. It’s great.”

Lawrence felt a hint of pride, hearing that.

“Whoever got the ball rolling on this knew what they were doing. I’d be impressed if it didn’t actively fuck up our night.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah,” Lawrence said. “Okay. Get ready. Same thing as before, except now, we head straight for the back.”

“Right behind you.”

As silent as possible, Lawrence crawled over to the door. He opened it.

Clear.

Lawrence made the appropriate gesture.

They ran for it.

The path was unobstructed. All clear. Clear.

They passed the TV, the movie was still playing.

No distractions.

Ears pounding, muscles aching, heart beating heavy in his chest, but it didn’t matter. Lawrence saw the way forward. It was right there. He could make it.

They were so close.

“Hey! El, El!”

It took several seconds for Lawrence to switch mental tracks. In the meantime, he turned his head.

Eduardo, and a girl he’d never seen before in his life.

“Where you going?” Edurado asked.

“Where the fuck else? Meeting the rest at the safe spot!”

“Are the rest there?”

We will be!”

“Sounds good.” He looked to the girl, grabbing her hand. “Come!”

The girl only ran, keeping up with the rest of them. She looked too puzzled to make a proper response.

You better not be dead weight.

The backyard. The sliding glass door was already opened, and there was a pool just ahead. They’d have to go around, but the coast looked clear.

So close.

Lawrence picked up the pace, running harder, faster. Charlie didn’t lose any speed.

They formed a line out the door. Lawrence, Charlie, Eduardo and the girl.

A crumble and shouts.

“El!”

Lawrence turned. It took him several seconds to figure out what exactly he was looking at.

Blue, and long. Wispy in quality. A vague, human shape, bending and twisting in unnatural ways. Like it was trying to break out of itself, but it struggled, trapped by its blue and glossy skin.

Lawrence wanted to slap himself.

It wasn’t a monster. Monsters weren’t real.

It was the girl that Eduardo brought with her, wrapped in what looked like a pool tarp.

She shouted some more, tried moving some more, before falling to the ground. She kept fighting all the way, but it only made her more stuck in the thing.

“Maria!” Eduardo shouted. He ran over to try and get her out.

He tugged, but the tarp was heavy, and the girl kept moving too much. It wasn’t a good combo.

Eduardo looked at Lawrence, Charlie. His eyes were pleading.

“I need help!”

“Okay!”

Charlie went over without any hesitation.

In contrast, Lawrence was still.

They both worked together to get the girl out, but they weren’t making much progress.

Eduardo called out for Lawrence again.

“El! Get over here!”

“Who is she?”

“She’s… she needs help!”

“Are you recruiting her?”

“I… maybe?”

Maybe?

“Just help me get her out of here! The tarp is huge, and if it gets in the water, it might drag her in!”

“The pool is right behind me! It’s not going anywhere near her!”

“Just help!”

Eduardo was freaking out more than the girl was, and if he didn’t shut the fuck up…

Lawrence went to them.

He put his hands on the tarp, yanking it, coordinating with the others so it would end up being worse.

A lot of moving, jostling around. The bag slipped over his shoulder, bumping into him and Charlie, Eduardo.

It was getting in the way.

“Fuck!”

Lawrence threw the bag off his shoulders.

There, he had more to move. To breathe.

It was easier, now, to get the tarp off the girl. It slipped out faster, not going taut as much. It was working. Lawrence was able to see parts of her face as they continued.

“Whoa, hey, wait!”

The cry came from Charlie. It was angry, confused, and pointed.

It got Lawrence’s attention, and he turned to look.

Someone was running off with the bag.

The drugs. The money.

Lawrence immediately left the rest behind to give chase.

Around the pool, to the grass, over the goddamn garden gnome. The fence.

Fuck, Lawrence thought.

He was too late.

Not that he was too slow, but she had gotten too much of a head start.

She was sitting on the stone fence, legs hanging over on the other side. The bag around her shoulders.

The odd girl.

Lawrence was still running, and she had time to monologue.

“Told you I’d come back to get my score. See? Nothing a few online tutorials and a little improv can’t solve.”

He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but he was losing the breath, and he was just at a loss of words.

So close to the fence.

“Oh, I like that expression, it’s nice. You’re fun, you know that? I might come around to see you again. But for now, so long, El… boy!”

She ducked, and disappeared from behind the fence. Lawrence’s blood was hot and pumping. He kept running-

More shouting stopped Lawrence in his tracks.

Charlie’s, and Eduardo’s.

Lawrence wheeled around.

Cops had made it to the scene, forcing them both back. Charlie had her hands up, and so did Eduardo. They backed away, slow.

None of the cops looked as if they had any intention to shoot, but no one was going to give them a reason to. All control of the situation was deferred to the cops, now.

One got down on a knee, over the tarp. The girl – Maria – still hadn’t got out yet.

Lawrence fell down on his own. On his knees.

He lost.

Charlie and Eduardo saw Lawrence, and a cop followed their gaze. He stalked over to Lawrence.

Lost.

That odd girl had run off with the bag, so the three of them were nothing but kids at a party, now. No different than the rest that were here to drink booze and smoke some pot. They’d get escorted out, and like Charlie had suggested, they’d slip away from the scene.

But there was more to it than that.

They had a job to do, there was a responsibility that Lawrence shouldered, but he failed. He couldn’t do it. He had let down Roland, Benny, the rest of El Carruaje.

What’s going to happen to me now?

He might as well be done.

Lawrence met Eduardo’s eyes, and pushed with hatred, seething with it. Eduardo broke away from the glare.

He’ll pay for this. Someday, somehow. That fucker.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. He wasn’t supposed to lose. He wasn’t supposed to be the small fry.

Cops were approaching him. He didn’t care. He had emotions, and he needed release.

Frustrated, livid, Lawrence raised both fists and-

-gently placed them at the foot of the bed.

Lawrence looked over Wendy as she slept.

Back in the hotel room. Dark, but the hour was sometime in the morning. Lawrence wasn’t sure of the exact time.

He hadn’t gotten much sleep. He’d like sleep, and he knew he needed sleep, but it wasn’t in his nature to rest when there was other shit to deal with.

Still in the wheelchair, but he could move on his own. It was a slow process, but he could manage. He just had to be careful in his pushing, or he’d ruin the stitches and bandages that wrapped his body up. Funny, in a way. He was still alive, but he felt entombed.

Lawrence had to shift his whole torso to turn. He had a basic, soft neck brace on. A precaution.

“Who in the fuck are you?” Lawrence asked her, his voice barely above a whisper.

Wendy didn’t respond. Well, she couldn’t.

Lawrence couldn’t help but find it a little funny. Must be the late hour.

“I thought I asked you something.”

Wendy kept sleeping.

She was tucked in the bed, the same one she had offered to Lawrence, but he didn’t mind. She needed it more than he did.

Glasses off, folded on the nightstand beside her, dressed in pajamas that she had brought herself. D was the one who helped her on that front. She was already like that when he arrived, just a few minutes ago. No one else was allowed access to her, or even be in the same room.

After wheeling Lawrence in, D had taken some more numbers from her, mostly beats per minute. Everything seemed to have stabilized, whatever that meant for someone like her.

She explained that Wendy had a powerful regeneration ability. Lawrence had seen it firsthand. There was a chance that the antidepressant would run its course faster than normal, and that she would be getting up soon.

Lawrence didn’t care either way.

Then, D left, and it was just Wendy and Lawrence.

He continued to watch her sleep, unsure of how to feel about this. Unsure about everything. Himself.

“Forgive me for coming off as creepy, right now, I get it, but I wanted to see you. I want to see if you’re still the same Wendy and V I thought I knew. Who knows? I might see you as someone completely different once you wake up.”

Wendy didn’t stir or respond.

“To be fair, out of all us, you are the creepiest motherfucker. Ever.”

Silence.

“I wonder if you remember the first time we crossed paths. I definitely do. You were the Bluemoon, then. Crazy, how things changed.”

He gripped the blanket, feeling some resistance from the bandages on his fingers.

“You were trying to protect me, weren’t you? I saw it, in that hall. Styx was there, but I couldn’t see him, and, in whatever fucked up headspace you were in, you deemed him as a threat. But not me.”

Lawrence paused.

“At least, I’d like to think of it that way. It’ll make tomorrow easier, and the next day.”

A flutter of the eye. Lawrence thought that she’d awaken, but a minute passed, and there was no other activity.

It was a stark contrast, from what he’d seen before. Wendy looked so peaceful, in her sleep. The soft breathing, the relaxed expression. The fact that D had washed her body, getting her cleaned up. The full treatment, and she was asleep throughout all of it.

The setting of the room, the fancy and beautiful design. It made him think of something like a movie. His mind went those flicks he liked, then to fairy tales.

Must be the late hour.

Was she the sleeping beauty, waiting for the prince to save her? No, didn’t seem right, didn’t seem to fit. Not for her.

Then, was she the evil queen, with the power to turn into a dragon, only resting after expending so much strength?

Lawrence wasn’t sure.

If she was, then he wondered where he fit into all of that. If he was supposed to even fit in at all, or if he just stumbled into something he had no business being a part of.

Charlie and Jonathan and Melissa were gone, leaving the Ghosts after V and D officially joined. It had gotten to be too much for them, the stress of always watching their backs, it wasn’t the reason why they got into this life in the first place. It had gotten too hard.

Now it was just him. The normal one. Stuck with the Styx’s and D’s and the V’s of the world. The creepy and the crazies.

He used to think that the sacrifice was worth it. That the glamour and power that came with this life was a good goal to strive towards. Being one of the big guys. Thinking about it gave him pause, now.

But it was too late for that. He was too deep into this shit.

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