030 – Fragile Ego

epy arc 5 look

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“Alexis!”

I raised my head, squinting. Head rush.

Ms. Powers stood at the head of the classroom, displeased.

Delayed, I made a sound in response. “Hmm?”

That didn’t help any.

“I’d be less offended if you spent my class on your phone the whole time, rather than sleeping.”

But I don’t care what you have to say.

Sleepily, I pulled a strand of hair out of my mouth, pushing some back behind my ear. I rubbed my thumb right under my eye.

“Sorry, didn’t mean-”

The bell cut me off.

Everyone started getting up, gathering their belongings, chatting amongst themselves. I followed, sweeping up my binders and journals into my arms, keeping them close to my chest. I got out of my chair, and started leaving the classroom, looking for Brittany. I wanted to walk and talk with her as we headed to our next class.

“Alexis.”

I stopped, then turned. Ms. Powers was at her desk, sitting. She motioned for me. She looked stern.

Not now.

Reluctantly, I walked up to her, I clutched my school stuff tighter, closer.

“Yeah, Ms. Powers?” I asked, my pitch a bit higher.

She took a look past me before saying anything. Waiting until everyone has filed out of the classroom?

Ms. Powers put her hands together, resting them in her lap. “What’s going on, Alexis?”

I answered her like I did before. “Hmm?”

She pressed her lips to a line, and tilted her head to the computer beside her. “You’ve missed several homework assignments in the last few weeks, you haven’t done very well on the last few quizzes, and you’ve been out of it in that time, too. We have a test coming up, do you know that?”

“I do, yeah.” I vaguely remembered Ms. Powers mentioning something like that, but I was pretty confident that it wasn’t for another week or so. I’d study later.

She had an eyebrow raised at me. “There’s a lot of material there that I don’t think you have a grip on, yet. Are you going to be okay?”

I considered my chances. I could make a passing grade on it, possibly. Worst case scenario was that I’d have to beg Katy to help and tutor me, even though she might not be entirely familiar with the material. She was taking a more advanced class.

“I think I will be.”

Her accusatory expression remained. “We’re only in the first half of the school year, so you have time to turn things around, but, if you don’t get a handle on this soon, it’s going to be a lot harder on you later.”

Are you already saying that I’m going to fail this class?

“I’ll make sure that it doesn’t come to that,” I said, trying to remain cheery. We only had five minutes for a passing period, and it took three minutes to get to my next class. I’d end up being late if Ms. Powers didn’t end this soon.

“I’m asking if there’s anything you’re having trouble with. I have after school hours, so I can help with whatever you’re having trouble on. Some students from the math club show up, too, so you can get help from your peers if you’re uncomfortable with me over your shoulder.”

I wanted to roll my eyes, but there was no way I could get away with it. Plus, she was actually being reasonable. I’d feel awful if I kept up an attitude.

“Sure, definitely. I’ll swing by if I need it.”

I wasn’t sure if I meant that. I’d still prefer Katy helping me out.

Ms. Power’s whole, rotund body relaxed some, like I had just let go of holding mochi, and was watching the snack slowly return to its original shape.

“I’d really recommend it,” Ms. Powers said. “You were a good student, Alexis, you just need to get your priorities straight.”

Oh, I know.

“Is it because you’re in the middle of volleyball season?” Ms. Powers asked. “Is Coach T running you too ragged to study at home?”

I drummed my fingers on my binder, four quick successive taps. “It’s not volleyball. It’s something… more personal.”

Ms. Powers made a face. Concern, I recognized. “Oh, alright then.”

I could hear them behind me. Kids from the next class coming in to take their seats. The bell would ring again soon, and I’d get a tardy.

“Uh, Ms. Powers? I gotta head to my next class. Otherwise…”

Her eyes widened, slightly. Ms. Powers rocked back in her seat, then forward, using the momentum to get to her feet.

“I apologize for keeping you. Go, go.”

I turned.

“But don’t forget what I said!” She called out as I left the classroom.

“Sure thing!” I said back. With seconds on the metaphorical timer, I rushed to my next class.

Valerie had her elbows on the table. She whined.

“Man, this is terrible. I wanna go out for lunch.”

“Can’t,” Eve said. “Staff and teachers have upped their game during lunch hours. They’ll check anyone walking outside, asking for a school ID. I’d rather not take that chance.”

“Right?” I agreed, “These new rules are such ass.”

“Watch what you say,” Jenny said, grinning. “Someone might be listening.”

I agreed with her. Sometimes, being secretive was more important than any ounce of honesty. I glanced around in the bustling cafeteria.

The school’s atmosphere had changed in recent weeks, a certain electricity in the air that made everyone antsy. The new rules, the stricter policies, stricter teachers, and the addition of another school cop made for a particularly new environment that the student body hadn’t quite adjusted to just yet. I could almost say there was a sense of paranoia, if I wanted blow things out of proportion.

All because of one person.

I would have found it interesting, if I didn’t have to keep watching my back.

“You gonna be okay with just that?” Eve asked, pointing to the apple I had in front of me. I hadn’t taken a bite out of it, for reasons known only to me.

“I’m not hungry right now, so I’m gonna save this for later, probably during Mr. Richard’s class.”

“That’s your prerogative,” Eve said, “But you’ll turn to dust if you keep up with that diet. You actually have to settle and stop, you know?”

“I do know.”

“Coach is going to get on your case about it, too, if she hasn’t already.”

“If I’m not at practice, it’ll be harder for her to do that.”

Brittany cut in, this time. “You’re not coming today?”

I put my hand on my notebooks, set beside the apple. “I have to start super studying for tests and stuff, especially math. If I don’t, I won’t have a practice to go back to.”

I was sitting in a group of my volleyball teammates, but, if this cafeteria wasn’t so full of people, and was also a lot smaller, I would’ve felt like I was suddenly being interrogated.

Not that I didn’t love these girls, but I couldn’t find Katy and Maria in time. My teammates found me first.

“It’ll be alright,” I said, both lying and deflecting. “Pretty soon, I’ll be back to warming the benches for you.”

The table laughed.

The other girls went off into their own conversations with each other, and I decided to look into my notebook. Maybe I’d try to get some studying done, for once.

“By the way, Alexis, how were things with Brandon, before…”

Or not.

Valerie, sitting across from me, had asked that unfinished question. But that was enough to get the attention of the others here.

“What even happened there, anyways?” Eve asked.

Jenny answered, “Got caught with armed robbery, along with other accomplices that belong to the same gang. That’s more than enough to get him expelled, but, even if it wasn’t, I don’t think we’ll be seeing him anymore. Not for the rest of the school year.”

“God damn, you seem to know a lot about this, Jenny.”

Jenny flipped her hair. “What can I say? It’s juicy stuff. I even heard that The Bluemoon helped catch him.”

There were gasps from everyone at the table.

I tried to mimic their shock as much as I could, but I was more concerned over the fact the conversation moved to that topic.

“Yeah, Alexis, didn’t you go on a date with him, just before that?” Valerie asked, bringing that topic back to me. Which I feared.

Word spreads, doesn’t it?

As much as I didn’t want to answer that question, I’d earn some unneeded suspicion if I refused to address it.

“We did, I guess, but it really didn’t feel like a date, to be honest. It was more like two friends hanging out.”

“Ouch. The friend zone?”

That was a small revelation. Oh, it so totally was that, wasn’t it? That blows.

I let it a fake chuckle. “Yeah, that exactly. It… just didn’t work out. Simple.”

Not the full truth, but the general strokes were there. I didn’t mention Jillian.

“But did you know he did gang stuff?” Valerie asked.

“That was a surprise to me,” I said. That part, was the complete truth. “He didn’t seem like that kind of guy.”

“Ah, what could’ve been. Such a tragic love.” Valerie stuck her tongue out.

I recalled the time I saw Brandon. It was the first time Hleuco and I worked together. What luck. I was floored when I saw him, couldn’t quite process it. I freaked out, and I ran, unintentionally leaving him hung out to dry. Maybe I thought I gave him a good enough chance to make his own escape, but I could have been guessing under my own metrics. A personal price, a personal consequence, for being Blank Face. It was hard to get over, but I wasn’t going to let something like that stop me so soon.

As awful as that thought was.

“It was never going to work out, looking back at it now,” I said, “But it’s still heartbreaking, hearing about what happened.”

Valerie then looked deflated, “Man, stop trying to make me feel bad for wanting to joke around.”

Everyone at the table laughed again, but it was more downplayed, this time.

The conversation continued, but over another subject. It wasn’t before long the bell rang, and everyone had to leave for class.

My group split apart, saying goodbye, then we went to our respective classes.

Before I got to the stairs to reach the second floor, I came across the scene.

Two teachers, and a cop, were in the middle of stopping a student who was also leaving the cafeteria. They were talking to him, and he had a serious expression on his face. Upset that he was caught? He might as well have painted a target on his back.

Most students minded their own business, and kept moving, but a few watched as the teachers led the boy down the hall, in the opposite direction of where he was originally going. He looked forward, and I saw in detail why they had stopped him. Everyone did.

He was wearing a blue hoodie.

The school had rules that prohibited wearing colors that might insinuate gang affiliations, but what could you do if the whole spectrum of the rainbow was used for colors? It was never the most well-enforced rule, but recently, the school had updated the dress code. No one color was allowed to dominate an article of clothing. It had to either be all-black, or have some design or pattern that allowed another color to be incorporated. No blank shirts with strictly one color, pretty much. A hard rule to follow, honestly, it made a third of my wardrobe unwearable at school. Today, I had to wear a black school sweater, with the school mascot across the chest. A bat.

In the face of that rule, another update to the dress code was that you weren’t allowed to wear blue hoodies.

The Halloween Riots were still going, after all, and the school didn’t want any reference or image of that appearing in the building. Why? I wasn’t sure. Maybe the administrators didn’t want a possibility of a riot breaking out here, but that seemed unlikely to me.

Maybe it was an extension of the gang affiliation rule.

Either way, this student broke a rule, now he was being reprimanded for it.

He passed me, and he broke his forward gaze to glance at me.

I felt a spike in temperature, however slight.

He doesn’t know, of course he wouldn’t.

Impossible, absurd, didn’t make sense.

But I was still about to sweat.

The cop was following behind the teachers, and addressed me as he walked by.

“Nothing to see here, go to class.”

I stuttered, “O-okay.”

I hurried along, like a good student was supposed to.

With each step up the stairs, my paranoia increased. If that was what the school wanted, then they passed with flying colors.

The bell had sung its last tune for the day. Every student did their best to try to make it out of the building as fast as they could, and be free… until the next morning. I was more lax in my step, walking at a pace that the elderly would have been annoyed by.

My last class of the day had me in the back of the school. Because of that, the gym wasn’t far, not much of a walk. But today, I wasn’t going that way.

After getting to my locker, and stuffing all of my belongings into my backpack, I took one of the side doors, leading outside. Figured I’d get some fresh air while I wrapped around to get to the front of the school.

Crossing the back parking lot, I passed some kids standing around, smoking cigarettes. I turned the corner, and nearly bumped into someone who was absentmindedly standing too close to the turn.

Harrian Wong.

“Oh, Harrian, hi,” I said.

“Hello,” he responded, as despondent as ever. He was in black, too, but his clothes were baggier, his hair covering his eyes. He reminded he of a grim reaper. If he actually was one, though, I’d suspect there would be even more people on Earth. Not a lot of energy or pep in his movements.

“Watchu doing here?” I asked. “Waiting to be picked up?”

“I, um, I’m meeting with those two guys?” He phrased his answer weirdly.

“Those two guys?” I asked back. I tried a guess. “Eric and Evan?”

Slowly, he nodded.

“Neat, how’s that going? Do you hang out with them a lot?”

“Sometimes.”

Doesn’t exactly answer the question.

“But you’re going to go chill with them today, right?”

Harrian shrugged. “I guess so. Eric just ask me to come here after school ended, today.”

“Sounds fun,” I said, with not a lot of fun inflected in my voice, admittedly. I should probably move along, but something compelled me to stick around for a little longer.

“You went to the barbeque, right? How was that?”

“Good. There were games and food and stuff, a lot of the Asian kids from here went to it.”

“Oh? Who went? Jasmine, Mary?”

“I only recognized their faces.”

“Okay,” I said. “Did you do anything there?”

“I volunteer. Help out at different booths, and organize different events.”

“Wow, that’s actually really impressive.”

“I was so tired, I thought I was going to die.”

I almost laughed at the statement, but I didn’t, even though I was sure it was a joke. “Been there, almost done that.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“I was trying to say to that I’ve been so tired I thought I was going to die.”

Harrian paused, in thought.

“Oh no, isn’t that a big deal? People die every year from overwork, especially in Japan.”

“Wait, no, that’s not, that’s not what I was getting at.”

“No? Because it’s an issue that doesn’t get talked about a lot. Did you know, according to the Japan Times, that 23 percent of 1,743 Japanese companies surveyed said that they have employees who worked more than 80 hours of overtime a month? And twelve percent said that some employees work more than 100 hours? And that last year, 96 people died from brain and heart illnesses linked to overwork? Other countries across the world have a similar issue, too.”

I frowned, “And the two of us, talking here, isn’t going to help solve it.”

He actually frowned in return. “No sadly.”

A second, then several, passed.

Wait…

How did we go from a barbeque to the overwork epidemic plaguing Japan?

Is he just dense, or a genius?

The conversation was losing air, and I wanted to abandon it. I had other things to get to, after all.

“I have to go, I’ll see you around, Harrian,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to keep you from the boys when they get here.”

I moved to leave, but Harrian had begun to speak, and that gave me pause.

“… zài jiàn.”

I scratched my head. “Didn’t catch that, exactly.”

“I just wanted to say ‘see you later.’ In Mandarin.”

“How nice of you,” I said, genuine.

“What’s ‘good bye’ in Japanese?”

Put on the spot. I didn’t have a response prepared. My knowledge of Japanese was pathetically sparse, despite all the years of my mom trying to teach me.

I searched in the recesses of my memory.

I put my hands in my pockets, and I tilted my head.

“The only word I can think of is ‘sayonara.’ But I think people don’t typically say that. It implies a sort of finality. Don’t quote me on it.”

Harrian accepted that. “Good enough.”

He stood, almost in anticipation.

Did you actually want me to say it?

If I say that, will you let me leave?

I tried not to look fazed. I’d entertain him, for the moment.

“Sayonara, Harrian.”

He waved, and I left, going towards the front of the school.

Harrian was an odd guy, with an odd way of speaking and with an odd way of presenting himself. But, he seemed well-meaning. In only a few minutes, I had the oddest conversation I would ever have ever. And somehow, I doubted it was going to be my last one with him.

“How does this look?” Katy stepped out of the changing room, wearing a dark blue gown, black heels. She struck a pose.

I laughed until I started coughing. Maria cackled.

Katy puffed out her cheeks with a pout, turning red. “I’m being serious, here.”

“I’m being serious here, too,” Maria said, “You look like a host for a game show.”

“Katy, sorry, but I’m with Maria,” I said, “But I am ready to take that cruise to the Bahamas.”

Between the two of us, we made even more of a racket. Women from other changing rooms poked their heads out to stare, but we hardly cared.

Katy, however, was not so enthused. “Screw you guys. I like it, I’m buying it.”

She went back into the changing room.

“Wait, wait,” Maria said, trying to catch her breath. “Did you even check the tag, it’s not on sale.”

“I don’t know the price, and I don’t care to know,” she said from inside the changing room. “I’m buying it, screw you guys.”

Through our pointed teasing, we pleaded with Katy to not buy the dress. She didn’t listen. She left the changing room, storming past us to get to the register. After she purchased that extravagant piece of fashion, we exited the pricey store from the upper end mall known as the Realm.

Instead of taking me straight home, Katy took us here. Maria agreed to tag along.

The Realm wasn’t strictly a part of the upper districts that made up a richer part of town, but it was a start, a sort of hub where the upper middle class citizens liked to spend their time, and where the upper class would go to kill theirs, when there was nothing else to do. The stores here were nice, the employees were nice, everything looked nice. It was a good place to be. To be. Purchasing anything was another question entirely if you were just a normal working person.

We continued to walk around, Maria and I took in the glitz and glamour of the stores and pretty people. Granted, we were probably taking things too seriously, but it wasn’t like we got to be here every day, much less right after school. For myself, anyways, I tried to enjoy my time here.

I was following advice given to me.

“Now we need to find dresses for you two,” Katy said, pointing to me and Maria.

“Why?” I asked, “And like we can afford anything from here. As if.”

“We can find what you like, and we’ll look for cheaper alternatives elsewhere.” Katy tapped her head. “Trust me, I got this.”

“What is this for, again?” Maria then asked. We stood in a line to take an escalator down.

“My mom’s planning a small gathering on the weekend,” Katy explained, almost coming across as tired.

“I’m not willing to believe anything your mom does as ‘small,’” I said.

“It’s for my dad, Mom wants to celebrate.”

I had a feeling she was understating things.

We reached the fourth floor, and checked out other stores, here.

“Celebrate what? Their anniversary?” Maria asked.

“No, it’s lamer than that.”

“Doesn’t sound like any party I want to go to.”

“Shut up. I want you to go, Maria, consider this your invitation. You can’t refuse either, Alexis, my mom’s already invited your mom.”

“Wasn’t planning on it?” I said in a funny way. I had a feeling I knew what Katy was referring to, and if I was right, that could really screw me over.

Part of me wanted to refuse.

“But what is it?” Maria asked, more adamant.

Katy looked reluctant to share, but she couldn’t withhold details forever. Through an uncharacteristically bashful look in her eyes, Katy explained.

“My dad’s been running for public office for the better part of the year, now, and the day for voting on it is about to come up. My mom is so confident that he’s going to take it that she’s been planning the whole thing ahead of time.”

“Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse?” Maria asked.

“My mom won’t stop talking about the polls, and I’ve seen it myself. It’s pretty dismal for the other guy.”

“If that’s so, then congrats. What’s the job?”

“DA. District attorney.”

“What do they do?”

“In the case of this city, he’s going to go up against the gangs. Personally.”

Maria looked like she just got shot. “Oh shit. Good thing I’m…”

Maria stopped, but she didn’t know what Katy and I already knew.

“Why’d you never bring it up before?” Maria asked instead, grilling into Katy at this point.

“It wasn’t relevant to bring up, and I didn’t think he’d actually get this far.”

We continued towards another store, checking the options inside.

I could see why Katy was so apprehensive about bringing this stuff up. She knew all too well about her dad’s public efforts over fighting the crime in the city. Officially making himself a public figure would complicate matters even more, and give him a wide scope of enemies and detractors to deal with.

If she only knew what else Thomas was up to, in the midst of this.

More than twenty-four hours since the attempted ambush of Styx’s Gang, and I was trying to follow Thomas’s advice, to help myself before I could help out others. I was… working on it. In my time as Blank Face, I had neglected some personal stuff that I should have been on the ball about. School, friends, my personal life, they were all put on hold while I tried to figure out these powers… and this thirst.

Things were starting to fall apart, and if it wasn’t for Thomas’s intervention, it was liable to get worse.

In the end, we all have secrets we want to keep.

“Anyways,” Katy said, disappointed with what this store had. “It is what it is, now. Let’s keep checking around.”

We took another escalator down. We checked a store, the name Italian, and the prices made the dresses not desirable at all. Not that they weren’t pretty – they were – but they were so unobtainable.

Even with the money Thomas had paid me for my nights as Blank Face. I felt guilty for accepting it before he knew, guiltier still after he did know. I offered, but he refused to take it back.

Right now, despite it being in cash, I couldn’t use it now, not with Katy and Maria being curious. Especially Katy.

Which had raised another concern I didn’t know I should have had.

Does Katy know I’m Blank Face?

Thomas admitted to figuring out who I was the second he saw me in person. Was there a similar case with Katy? She was smart, she could have pieced things together as the weeks passed. Dammit.

I was afraid to ask, afraid to find out. Because if I tried, and I was wrong, then I would have inadvertently spilled the beans before I was ready.

Thomas was a unique case as far as revealing my identity went. We went through a considerable amount in a short span of time, more than anyone should go ever through. And, in more ways than I could imagine, Thomas had saved my life.

Even if they were my friends, even if they were my best friends, I wasn’t ready to just tell Katy and Maria everything. Not yet. Once I got a grip on the other stuff in my life, the stuff I had been neglecting, then I’d consider it.

Katy was smart, insightful, and Maria had a way of surprising me. For now, I’d have to be wary of them.

As shitty as that was…

“Katy, let’s call it a day, we still have time to find a dress,” Maria said eventually. She pointed to the window roof, where the sunlight peeked through. An evening glow.

“Fine, we can head out,” Katy said, caving in. “I refuse to believe you’ll find anything that works.”

“Fuck you, I already have dope shit at home, believe that.” Maria sounded confident, and I could bet she had every reason to be. “It’s her you should be worried about.”

She directed that to me. I had to defend myself.

“Hey, I can clean up nice when I want to. Don’t you fret, Katy, I saw some decent pieces here, I’ll use those for inspo for finding something later.”

Katy huffed. “You two better be smoking when I see you there.”

Maria and I almost synced up. “I’m insulted that you’d question that.”

With that, we decided to make our way down to the first floor. Our way out to a parking lot was through a large department store. Of course, we had to at least look at the clothes they had, and smell the perfumes they had available. Worth it.

After some time, we took to leaving the Realm, getting outside.

A girl was standing outside, around the doors, trying to get people’s attention.

“Any information on the Bluemoon, please! We’re looking for any information about Stephenville’s watchful protector! Any help is appreciated!”

She was trying to hand out fliers, papers of differing, bright colors. Hardly anyone took them.

“Crazies,” I heard Katy mutter. I wasn’t willing to go that far, but to think there were fanatics just as much as there were detractors.

As if she could hear us, the girl came our way, stopping us. She held out a flier to us.

“If you have any information, please don’t hesitate to contact us!”

‘We’re?’ ‘Us?’

Is this some kind of organization?

The girl wasn’t any older than the three of us, though strangely familiar.

“Not interested,” Katy said, handling it quickly. She stepped past the girl, and Maria followed. I was a step behind, looking at the girl, still curious at her curiosity about the Bluemoon. As I passed, I took the flier from her hand.

Her glance to me turned into a hard, intrusive stare. Then, a wide-eyed stare. She looked me up and down.

She grabbed my hand.

“I know you!”

My heart sank.

I looked at this girl again. Loose denim jeans, striped shirt, with each stripe a different color. But I recognize her hair. Dyed a deep purple, cut into a bob that bounced.

Shit.

The girl from Braham Barn, from when I went back after discovering my powers. I scared off her and her friends. They saw me. I didn’t have a mask, back then. I wasn’t Blank Face yet.

Stephany? Her name was something like that.

Shitty shit.

Her hold on me was tight. If I tried to be forceful, it might cause a bigger scene.

“Yeah, oh my god, it is you! I can’t believe I finally found you!”

I looked back. Katy and Maria were staring back, confused.

Oh shit.

“Come with me, just for a second,” Stephany said, tugging at my arm, “I just want to talk. It’s really you, the-”

I couldn’t let her continue.

Everything would come to an end if I let her. Everything.

I didn’t have a lot of cards to pull, except one.

“Hey, excuse me!” I said, getting her attention, and stopping her.

“I don’t know you, and we’ve never met. We don’t all look the same, you know. If you have an Asian friend, that doesn’t mean you can pick on anyone else and say you know them. That’s messed up.”

Stephany’s face turned as red as a tomato. Others were looking at us as they went on with their day.

“I didn’t, that’s not what I was trying to get at,” Stephany said, distressed. Her grip loosened. “I thought-”

“Oh, you thought. Clearly not enough thought went into what you just did.”

Someone else came up to us. A mall cop.

“Is there a problem, here?”

“No, officer,” I said, “I was just leaving.”

I pulled, and my arm went free. I walked away, leaving the girl and the cop behind. I returned to my friends.

“What was that about?” Maria asked, half-grinning.

“Mistook me for someone else,” I explained. “Happens all the time.”

“Hah, I feel you.”

We continued down the parking lot. My heart beating like it was about to jump out of my chest.

Such a small encounter, but that was still too close of a call.

I checked the flier I took from her. Bright orange. ‘The Bluemoon Fan Club’ was printed across the top, followed by an address, contact information, and meeting times.

“A bunch of crazies,” Katy commented, seeing that I was reading the flier. “Following a bigger crazy.”

I folded the paper, and put it in my back pocket. Might have to deal with this later.

“Man, I ain’t gonna lie,” Maria said, “The Bluemoon freaks me the fuck out.”

We’re still on that subject?

“Yeah?” Katy said.

“I mean, yeah, but… don’t really want to get into it right now. Just wanted to say that.”

She trailed off. She had another point, but she didn’t want to say.

Couldn’t press her on it.

“I can see where you’re coming from,” Katy said. “That Bluemoon proved that two plus two equals five. Nothing makes sense, anymore, and people are still trying to cope, however they can.”

“If you think two plus two equals five, Katy,” I said, “Never mind about asking you to help me with my math class.”

“Ha, ha,” Katy said, flat, “What did you need help with?”

“What do you know about Algebra Two?”

“Enough to write the book on it.” Katy grinned. “I can help, just tell me when.”

“Cool, thanks.”

Good, the conversation went elsewhere, away from myself, essentially. Maria’s car was parked closest to the mall, so we split up with her first, before heading into Katy’s car. We started the drive back to my place.

A whole day, working towards getting my life back together. A whole week without the mask. Somehow, it felt like it was going to be harder than anything else I had ever done.

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016 – Culture Shock

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

A piercing whistle followed.

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

“Yes Coach!” we all responded.

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

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

“Yes, Coach?”

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

“I can feel it.”

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

“I hear you.”

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

“Sorry.”

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

“Look me in the eyes.”

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

“Sorry,” I said again.

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

I nodded. “Sure thing.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I agreed. “It does.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I froze. “What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In what capacity?

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

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

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

Ah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An unfortunate consequence, but it was necessary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I greeted her. “Yo.”

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

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

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

“You okay there, Katy?”

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

“I… I probably should, shouldn’t I?”

“Not ‘probably,’ absolutely.”

“Right.”

She started the car, and we sped off.

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

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

Space.

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

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

I was forced to leave it be.

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

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

“Most definitely.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Truly the darkest timeline,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“Better than starting a riot.”

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

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

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

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

“You know what I mean.”

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

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

Already?

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

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

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

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

“What for?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you remember Mrs. Phan?”

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

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

“And we’re going?”

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

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

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

“Go do your homework.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three… Three, three, two, one.

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

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

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

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

The thought made me shiver.

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

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

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

Yeah. The key word was try.

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

Oh well.

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

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

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

Previous                                                                                               Next

006 – Soiled Veil

Previous                                                                                               Next

The screaming of Coach Tilly tore me out my daze.

“Barnett! You’re up!”

I shifted on the bench. Normally, I was cool and collected at a time like this. Now, a mixture of emotions churned within me.

It was loud. People cheering from every corner of the gym. Names, numbers, words of inspiration all crashed together to form an irritating cacophony. Signs were thrashed around, shaken back and forth too fast for anyone to read it and be motivated by whatever was written there. Everything kicked up to a sensory overload. And it was Coach that got through to me.

“Huh?” I responded. Coach caught my attention, but her words barely registered.

“I said you’re up! Eve got injured!”

And as it turned out, she was right. Coach was helping Eve get to the bench, her arm hung around Coach’s shoulder. Even with that much, she still limped on the way.

“Whoa, you okay?” I asked, immediately feeling dumb after doing so. I sometimes wondered why people asked that when it was clearly evident that things were not okay. But at the moment, I couldn’t help it.

Eve grunted as a way of answering my question. She sat at the open seat to my right. Looked like a sprained ankle, possibly from a bad fall.

She had scraped her arm, too, as evident by a bit of floor burn. A miniscule amount of red glistened on her elbow. From even that, I hated how my nose flared, how I swallowed. Stop.

I reached to my side, and swigged the fifth sip of my sixth cup of water.

“Get moving!” Coach barked.

Dang, my number was up, I thought. Forty-eight, to be exact, which was the number on the front and back of my uniform.

“Uh, I,” was all I stammered out. I got up so fast my head rushed. Just anywhere not here was good. I murmured something of a ‘Feel better’ as I hurried to position.

Left corner, close to the net. The fifth and final set, and while we were down one, a few more good plays would give us the fifteen points necessary. That constituted a win.

I concentrated on my breathing, sizing up the team that Saint Augustine High had brought as our opposition. Their blue and white uniforms clashed against our red and black. I could do this. I hoped. Honestly, I had very little confidence in how much I could accomplish without seriously freaking someone out, myself included.

Having scored the previous point, Augustine got to serve again. I kept my eye on the ball.

The whistle blew, and everyone sprang into action.

The ball bounced back and forth between the two sides. I largely stayed unmoving, meticulously focused on every movement of my muscles. I could’ve easily swooped in for the kill, but I didn’t want to be too risky. Something inside me kept me from moving, something I hadn’t felt on the court since middle school.

Nervousness.

Finally, the ball was set up perfectly, practically asking me to be aggressively spiked. I could do this. My muscles tensed. With a step forward, I moved in.

The cheering of twenty-something girls echoed into the night sky.

I was standing right outside the school. Not waiting for anyone, or anything in particular, more like I was trying to delay the inevitable. Even though I had worked up a bit of a sweat after the game, the fall air did quick work in cooling me down.

The rest of the team was being celebratory, as expected. Even if we didn’t get any farther than this, at least we won this game. My teammates were either surrounded by their boyfriends, or other friends and family who came to congratulate us on our win. I would normally be mingling among that crowd right about now, but I had other things on my mind that currently distracted me.

“Sup, bitch.”

I turned at the greeting. Katy, sporting a short red dress, her heels helping her dwarf me even more. A cute outfit, but a little much for a high school volleyball game, I felt like.

“Woof,” I replied.

“Let me be the first to say ‘congrats.’ For the little bit you were out there, you did good.”

“Thanks.”

“Everything’s in the car already. Backpack, sports bag. Your smelly clothes.”

“Thanks.”

“You all right? You’ve been off all day.”

That, was true. I skipped school yesterday, and while I did go to school today, I hardly paid any attention during class or whenever I was with my friends. My pencil stayed in my backpack, my eyes were stuck glued to a corner of the classroom, my mind elsewhere whenever someone tried to ask me something. I might as well have been absent.

All of my energy was going to not passing out at a growing ache, enflaming my esophagus.

“Wasn’t feeling good,” I said, dryly.

“You just played a game.”

“Um…”

Katy shrugged, accepting that non-answer. She stepped a little closer, a little too close, ready to change the subject.

“Aren’t you coming?” she asked, already wrapping her arms around mine and pulling me one way. “We were all planning on going out for pizza. Oh, Maria can’t make it. Said she had something else to do.”

I looked the other way, avoiding eye contact. “That’s fine. Maybe I should head home this time, too.”

“Why’s that?”

“Ever since I got back from the hospital, things have been awkward between me and my mom. Doesn’t help that I missed curfew on Tuesday, and stayed in my room literally all day yesterday.” I told the truth about Tuesday, partial as it was, and completely lied about yesterday.

“Next time remember to charge your phone,” Katy said. “Or remember to remind me to pick you up. And your mom can’t hold it against if you needed to take another day off. You had just gotten out of a hospital.”

“I guess, I think my mom understood when I told her that. But if I don’t go home now, she might think I’m avoiding her.”

“From what it sounds like, that’s exactly what you want to do.”

I really didn’t have a retort.

Katy took that as an opportunity to tug at my arm again, harder. “Then, isn’t that a good reason to come chill?”

“What awful reasoning,” I told her, “Come on, let go already. Plus, I said I don’t feel good.”

“What are you gonna do then? Walk home?”

“Um. Maybe.”

“Nuh-uh. I’ll take the blame for not picking you up on Tuesday, so I’m not letting you out of my sights. Especially with your currently weakened constitution, as you said. And plus, I’m your ride.”

I grumbled.

“Just tell your mom that I had to run some errands or something, and your place wasn’t on the way. Whatever. We can come up with something.”

I grumbled again, this time louder. She tugged my arm again, this time harder. And, like a light bulb, she brightened up, her face beaming. I never liked that look. That meant she had something up her sleeve.

“You know what? I wasn’t going to tell you this, but I’ve got some clothes in the back of my car. We’re getting you into something better than that, and you are coming with me, Alexis.”

“And why should I?”

“Because, he’s going to be there,” Katy said.

“He? He who?”

He.”

“Like I said, he-” A light bulb went up for me, too. “Oh.”

“Yeah.”

I knew it was against my better judgment, but I gave myself a second to think about it. I really don’t want to go home, though, I thought. Katy gave me her most nefarious grin when I met her eyes.

“Fine, let’s go.”

She led the way, taking me to her car. Her own car, not one of her father’s prized possessions. A red Mercedes. With her only mentioning ‘getting pizza’ to go off of, I assumed that would we were probably going to go the Plaza. While not exactly downtown, it was a pretty sizable outdoor shopping center, enough to even be referred to as the Plaza. Like Braham Manor, it was a good place to chill out with friends.

I sat in the back seat, changing out of my clothes into a deep blue spaghetti strap and a pair of black jeans. My bare shoulders were covered with a leather jacket. Katy didn’t have any shoes in my size, so my not-too-bad fit got knocked down twenty points thanks to my tennis shoes.

“What is with all this stuff?” I asked, fishing through the other clothes she had in the back, “Did you plan for this?”

“What? Did you say something?” Katy asked back.

I playfully smacked the side of her face. She briefly jerked on the road.

“Dammit, Lexi,” Katy said. We laughed.

When we got there, a decent line was already peeking out of the door of the restaurant, an Italian restaurant known as Poggio’s. And here I thought we were early. We recognized some friends from school, so we had no problem sliding somewhere in the middle of the line.

“Stay here,” Katy ordered me, before leaving her spot. She went up and down the line, and I lost sight of her as she turned a corner to go further back. In the meantime, I killed time by talking to other friends that happened to be beside me.

Katy hadn’t returned when I got to the front desk, the waiter asking me for a name and a number of the party, putting me on the spot with no answer.

“Party of four,” I heard Katy say, slapping my lower back as she came up from behind. She winked at me.

“Uh, yeah,” I said. I checked the group Katy brought with her. There were two others. Valerie, another one of my teammates. A tall, lanky brunette whose height made her movements a little awkward. Made for a hell of a volleyball player, though, her reach was amazing.

The other one, was someone I was expecting, but still not ready for. On the drive here, I also spent some time trying to psych myself up. I wanted to be able to talk to him without looking like a complete idiot.

“Alexis, hi,” he said. His perfect white teeth were literally shining when he smiled. Literally. An all-white outfit of a shirt and skinny jeans contrasted his dark skin. Two gold chains clanged together when he walked up to me. He was about a head or two taller than me, and I strained my neck to look up at him. Handsome, muscular, clean-cut. The perfect boy, the type I’d want to take home to my mom. Except she would have a heart attack if she saw a six-foot black guy walk into the apartment.

Okay, he wasn’t that tall, but he might as well be. With Valerie here, and Katy in her heels, I felt like a bug.

“Buh- Uh,” I coughed, and blushed. My gaze went straight to the floor. I murmured, “Hi, Brandon.”

You idiot.

“How are you?” His voice was deep, but had a comforting sooth to it. It only made me feel more jumpy than a trampoline.

“Good,” I lied.

“I watched you guys, by the way. Good job at the game.”

My face was on the verge of melting away. “Thanks.” For now, I could only manage one-word answers. One-syllable answers.

“Come on guys, we’re going,” Katy said, gesturing to the waiter who had our menus. She saved me from any more embarrassment.

The waiter walked us to our seat, a booth in the far corner of the restaurant. The restaurant tried to go for a casual dining style, with walls covered by 1950s era-themed pictures and paraphernalia. Grainy photos of Italian families, posters of the Godfather movies. It only accomplished the opposite effect, making the place seem cluttered instead. Not calm or casual at all.

“I don’t think I can do this,” I whispered into Katy’s ear on the way. The back of my spaghetti strap was sticky and wet, and it wasn’t from the sweat I worked up from the game.

“Stop worrying,” she whispered back, “Or do, doesn’t change the fact you’ll be sitting next to him.”

“You…”

“Is that a ‘You’re welcome?’”

Didn’t want to entertain her any more. I backed away.

We were led to our booth, and we took our seats, Brandon scooting in before patting the space beside him. I couldn’t meet his eyes as I sat nearer to the edge of the seat, keeping some distance between us. Did he notice? Valerie and Katy sat on the other side, with Katy directly across from me.

“Man, I’m like, so hungry,” Valerie breathed, leaning back. She fixed her hair, and flipped back and forth through the menu, ready to strike at any food item worthy of her appetite. It was only a matter of choice. Katy was less animalistic in her hunt, holding her menu in one hand, and putting her attention to her phone in the other.

I glanced around absentmindedly, unable to settle down.

“You alright?” Brandon asked. My throat went dry. When was the water getting here?

“I’m good, just…”

“Tired?”

“More than.”

“I hear you,” he said. “At least tomorrow’s Friday.”

“Me too.”

“I’m sorry?”

I twitched from a horrible realization. “No, I thought you said… you were also tired.”

Oh my god. I wanted to die already.

He went quiet, not saying anything for what felt like forever. I still couldn’t find it within me to look at his face, resorting to reading the description of the bruschetta crostini one more time.

I had been wondering how he was, since that Friday night, my birthday. Between the two of us, we shared a rather memorable night, but for ultimately different reasons. Was that why he seemingly distanced himself from me for the past week? The girl he spent part of his night… idly chatting with, making the news shortly after. That had a lot of eyes on him, I figured. I was lost on how to interpret that. Was he an asshole for doing that? Or did he intend to give me some space? I’d recently come out of the hospital, after all.

Part of me felt grateful for it. I couldn’t let him learn about what really happened to me, or what I had become. Under any circumstances. His avoiding me turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

So, should I really be here, right now?

I wanted to say more, and save this sinking ship of a conversation, but I was interrupted by the waitress, who came back with cold tap water in a cup. I leaned in to chug a half of it down before she even finished distributing the rest to the others. My thirst didn’t get any better.

We ordered. I only got a salad, really wasn’t up to eating anything. The others agreed on sharing a meatball and mushroom pizza.

“You sure you’re not hungry?” Katy asked, having raised an eyebrow when she heard my order.

I shrugged in response.

“Maybe you can have Brandon give you an extra slice?” she teased.

“No, I can’t do that.”

“I don’t mind,” Brandon interjected. “If it helps, really.”

“No, really,” I said, “It’s cool.”

“Hey,” Valerie said, cutting in, “If anyone’s getting an extra slice, it’s me.”

Brandon laughed, “Oh, it’s on.”

They left it at that. It didn’t feel all that great, having to turn Brandon down like that, but the longer I sat here, the more I regretted being here. An endless loop. Needed to be home, but didn’t want to deal with my mom. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Sitting here – even if a part of me wanted to – wasn’t doing me any favors.

Mercifully, the food came quickly, or my attention to what was going on around me had slipped completely, and the time in between just disappeared. Either way, it temporarily rescued me from my thoughts. A large pizza, and because I had no appetite to speak of, they were free to take what would have been my portion. I didn’t care.

The others tore right into the pizza, like vultures to a carcass. These guys were ruthless. I put a slice on my plate, just to keep up with appearances.

“Oh wow,” Valerie said, with a mouthful of pizza, “Look at that.”

Katy looked to her left, off in the distance. “That’s not real, is it?”

Brandon and I turned at the same time.

Near our table was an old television, bolted to the corner. It played the local news. Dash cam footage from a police car. The scene of a terrible car accident. A truck, more specifically. An EMS officer attempted to restrain a victim, who was critically injured. The victim managed to get out of the officer’s grasp, knocking him back, and the victim made their escape by bounding on to the roof of the truck, and disappearing from the shot.

“Oh… my… god…” I said, flabbergasted.

“Everyone’s been talking about it, but I think it’s fake,” Brandon said, “Look at how that thing moves, too freaky.”

Thing,’ ‘freaky.’ The words stung.

“E-excuse me,” I called out to a waiter was passing by our table, “Could you put on subtitles, please?”

The waiter noticed me, and nodded. He went for the TV, and pressed a button on the side.

The image of a middle-aged, overweight white woman appeared on the screen, her son tightly hugging her. His faced buried into her side, and he was hugging her, but he couldn’t fully coil his arms around her. I didn’t need to see the kid’s face, but I could assume.

I read the subtitles.

-Billy was crying and crying when I got here, talking about a girl who saved him. I’m just glad he’s okay.”

A reporter, off camera, asked a question. “Would you want to thank whoever saved your son?

The mother smiled, “Sure, I would.

It cut to the reporter, a man in a suit. “Also, the police have confirmed that the driver of the truck was texting while driving. The driver has sustained serious injuries, but is currently in stable condition.

The program then cut to other people at the site of the accident, but I stopped reading any more. I got the gist of it.

“You really think it’s fake?” Valerie asked, bringing me back to the table. Back to reality.

“Has to be, you tripping if you think it’s real,” Brandon said, “Look at how the camera is cut at the top of the truck. They say the person jumped above the trees, but we can’t see it. They probably just hopped off, where the camera couldn’t see.”

“But did you see how the truck nudged back a little? Some strength has to be needed to move a truck like that, right?”

“I don’t know, maybe it’s hooked to something?”

“What? Now you’re tripping!”

The two bickered back and forth, casual banter than anything legitimately confrontational. But it was of no matter to me, because I was slowly starting to disassociate from everything. Sounds going distant, faded. I felt lightheaded, nauseated. Wobbly. I drew a long breath, but I heaved instead.

“You okay?” Katy asked. “You’re a touch pale.” Katy was the only one to notice as I stared down at my plate, poking my salad, and sipping water from my straw. Her level of perception could be fearsome, sometimes.

I uttered a guttural noise, less than a non-committal answer.

“Come on, take a bite,” she picked up her pizza, “Here. I’ll feed you.”

The cheese on the pizza smelled awful. I leaned away, faltering. “Stop it.” Barely above a whisper.

“Don’t do that, it’s your favorite!” She pushed it more into my face. I leaned away more.

Any farther, and I’d fall out of the seat.

“Hey, I said stop!”

My upper body was already leaning too far over the edge, and I was about to fall. I brought my hand to the table to stop myself. But from the loud slam and the clatter of ceramic, I had a feeling I didn’t just calmly grip the wooden surface.

Moreover, I didn’t stop myself fast enough. A waiter carrying his order crossed my path, and my back bumped into his arm.

In cartoons or movies, this type of situation would’ve normally resulted in the food in question being thrown high into the air, before inevitably crashing back down. The more ridiculous the height, the funny it would be. Here, it was no laughing matter.

The waiter’s tray slid, the food soon falling after. Two pasta dishes and three drinks. An unbelievable mess, should all that food hit the floor. And I was about to fall into it.

I had leaned too far out, and salvaging my landing was all I could do. As I fell, even that seemed to take some time, everything slowed to a crawl.

But, it was too late. I twisted to face the floor in an effort to find a decent place to crash. I didn’t get the chance.

As soon as I turned, a blunt force struck my chin and neck. Hot and heavy. The waiter backed away, and I collapsed afterwards. I landed on hot plates. A distinct crack. A sting in my palm. A slushy, hot mess.

The whole restaurant fell into a hush.

“Dang it,” I said as I stood, summing it up. I opened and closed my mouth, testing my jaw. It throbbed. I pulled my shirt away from me to inspect the mess. “Dang it,” I repeated.

One of the orders was a plate of fettuccini alfredo, and it went all over my front. The white sauce clumped into globs around my chest, and some dripped from my chin onto the jacket’s collar, from when the plate hit me in the jaw.

Really? In front of Brandon?

“Lexi,” I heard from Katy. She got out of her seat to bring me a wad of napkins and a cup of water. “Let’s get you to the restroom.”

“Don’t.” I took the napkins, balling them up in my hand. “Don’t follow.” I turned away from her, and left in a hurry.

We were sat in the back, the restroom not even twenty steps away. But it was hardly a consolation. Others may not have seen it, but they certainly heard it. I went into the restroom.

It was rush job, trying to get rid of the sauce. When I ran out of the napkins, I used the paper towels from the dispenser beside the sink, soaking them in water, and dabbing it on my top and jacket. I repeated that process until the front was near see-through. After standing around, patting at it again with dry paper towels, it got dry enough until it was the bare minimum of being presentable. There were still dull-white stains streaked across, but it was good enough. The jacket proved easier to clean.

After I finished cleaning off my face, I rubbed the palm of my hand in the running water. One of the plates broke when it crashed onto the floor. It cut into my hand when I landed on it. There was no cut now, but I couldn’t afford to let Katy learn of a cut in the first place.

I looked over myself in the restroom mirror again, eyes red, head thumping. The beginnings of a headache, coming with force of a freight train. How many times was I going to be close to tears, thanks to this fucking week? How many times was this week going to fuck me over? Was this like some kind of divine comedy, a way for the universe to laugh at my expense?

No…

I fought the tears back, both for myself and in case someone else was in here. Two of the stalls were closed. I checked myself one last time, and zipped up my jacket.  

When I returned to the table, I had been gone long enough for the mess to be cleaned up, and generic chatter settled back into the restaurant. A ‘wet floor’ sign was placed where the mess used to be. Like a tombstone.

“Hi,” Katy said, giving a frail smile, “I am so sorry, Alexis.”

I shook my head. “It’s nothing. Not your fault.” I quickly glanced at Brandon, and back to Katy. “Could you just take me home? Sorry Val, Brandon.”

“It’s all good,” Valerie said, chewing into her fourth slice.

“Same here,” Brandon said, “Go on ahead. I’ll talk to you later, or something?”

“Yeah, or something,” I said. “See you guys.”

Katy got up from the table, fishing out a twenty out of her purse to leave on the table. Brandon and Valerie waved as we left. We got into Katy’s car, and she took me home.

Unlike the trip here, the whole drive back was dead silent.

We got back to my apartment at around nine-thirty, a quick check from my phone informed me. With my bags in hand, I got out of the car. I had changed back into my old clothes, and a cold draft touched the back of my now exposed neck.

“Thanks again for the ride,” I said to Katy. “Sorry about your clothes.”

Katy called out from the car, responding. “It’s nothing. You gonna be all right?”

I faced forward, unmoving. “No. But whatever.”

“‘Kay, I’ll let you be overdramatic for now. I’ll text you later?”

“Please?”

And with that, she took off. Her car was so quiet, I had to turn back around to check if she even left.

I walked to my apartment building, and had a foot on the first step on the stairs. A light shone through the windows. I knew they would be on, but that didn’t alleviate any concern. My pulse quickened.

The idea to sneak in did cross my mind, via the balcony, but that wouldn’t do me any good. I’d have to face the music eventually. Accept that the other shoe was about to drop.

No… this week isn’t even half-over.

Taking my keys out of my bag, I unlocked the door to the apartment, letting myself in.

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