Interlude – Alexis

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The girl, lying there at the crossroads, bloody and broken, close to dying a dog’s death, stared up with a foggy gaze at the man in grey who stood above her. Blinking once, twice, eyes starting to glaze over. A miserable display, but there wasn’t much left for her to show.

No name, no self, not even any limbs to affect the world around her.

Not much left at all.

“You…” the girl said, or breathed, rather. A repeat of what she had just heard, or acknowledging the man in grey? Even the girl didn’t know for sure, she was losing her focus, her grasp on things.

The man in grey made a face. The girl couldn’t guess on what it conveyed.

He didn’t respond, not right away, not with words. He instead removed something from his coat pocket, a uniform with a neutral color. A device.

Clicking a button at the top, a light glowed, and he held it to the girl’s face. Her eyes, shining the light right into them.

The girl winced, blinking some more, but not closing her eyes. She was still in a daze.

“You can still see? That does not surprise me but it does… intrigue me.”

The man in grey spoke with a slight accent, but the girl couldn’t pin down where it might have come from. He continued to move the light from one eye to the other, examining her, studying her.

“Pupils respond accordingly, breathing has gone stable, infection rate is… You have become quite the host, haven’t you? The Red Queen has found quite the crown in you.”

She couldn’t understand these words, and she didn’t care to understand them. The only meaning she got out of them was fear. The fear. What she couldn’t understand, she had to instead be afraid of. A way of survival, preservation. And somewhere, deep into the very core of her being, still kicked and screamed as if there was a chance.

That instinct bubbled up within her, rising to the surface, manifesting as squirms and wriggles. Writhing in pain and using that sensation to further more movements, however limited.

She’d swim in that pain, even drown in it, if it meant getting to live a little longer.

But she couldn’t understand why she was fighting so hard, even now, and that scared her even more.

To swim in a circle. A spiral.

The man in grey clicked away the light, and returned it to his coat pocket.

“No no, we can’t have that. You see, it took all the running you could do, just to keep in the same place. Do you know that one? So the queen and the crown will be coming with us.”

That only made the girl swim harder.

“I don’t want to, I don’t want to. I want to go home, I want to go home! It’s almost midnight, she’s waiting for me, at home. Mother, my mother. I need to see her. Home. Need to see her. Waiting and waiting. Should have never went outside. Shit, I knew it. I knew it, shit… shit…”

She kept on until she was incoherent, muttering words that made sense to her and only her. Until they were almost like incantations to her, binding her mind into some sort of spell. Hypnotizing.

Standing straight, the man in grey continued to look down at the girl. At her efforts.

“Nolla.”

The Shape beside him moved in response. If that was an order or a name, the girl didn’t know.

Stepping in close, aising that weapon again, aiming it deliberately above her heart.

The girl froze, a chill running through her blood.

“You mustn’t make this so difficult,” the man in grey said, “For me, but especially for yourself.”

She snarled.

“Dignity, right?”

Then she stopped, lying flat again on the concrete.

“Shit…”

Her eyes started to well again.

Standing above her, the two lost their definite shapes as the tears fell like rain. She knew how terrible she looked, how ugly she felt, but this was beyond her, now. She had lost all control of the situation, and her grasp on herself was loosening as well. Falling like rain, falling to pieces.

It was all too much to bear.

She continued to sob, as if that meant something. She wept and mourned her own uselessness, wishing she could abandon it and herself, as she had always done before, when things have proved to be too difficult. To fragment, discard, and disassociate.

But she could no longer. Not here. Not when she was at the end of all roads, to the point that they began to intersect and weave and cross into one another, there was nowhere else for her to go.

Unable to run, unable to hide.

No more turning back.

The man in grey answered what truly was the girl’s sad display.

Wunderkind, there really is no need to fret. If you wish to see your mother again, then you are quite in luck after all.”

Hearing that enough to calm her for a moment. But only for a moment.

“Wha… what?”

The man in the grey nodded.

“Yes. She would be pleased to see you, I’d imagine. And, speaking strictly for myself, I know I am pleased to finally meet with you. Nolla tries not to show it too much, but a game of chase wouldn’t have lasted this long if there wasn’t any enjoyment to be had.”

The first form the girl had encountered, the Shape, Nolla, remained as still as ever. Still silent, still unmoving, and still seemingly without feeling.

The girl tried to take in a deep breath, but the air she sucked in was shaky, and was exhaled as a wheeze. She hiccuped again.

“Are you… calling this… a game?”

She asked, almost in disbelief.

“I am not trying to call this anything, little one, except, perhaps, a family reunion.”

“A… family…”

The girl didn’t finish that thought. Or couldn’t. Either way, it didn’t really matter.

“It may be a more… sentimental way of putting it, but I am a man of sentiment, so you will have to forgive me that. I hope you will.”

“I don’t understand,” the girl said, which was beginning to sound like a mantra. Or maybe it always was one. Either way, it didn’t really matter. Not anymore.

“That’s quite alright. You will in due time. I suppose we can make do with some informal introductions, since we will have to get a move on.”

The man in grey gestured to the Shape beside him, still aiming that thing squarely above the girl’s heart, which was beating at a increasingly rushed beat by the minute.

“This is Nolla, your… half-sibling. Yes, that’s about right. As for me, well, there’s not much to say about me at all. Ein Landarzt, perhaps, but you may refer to me as… your grandfather.”

The man in grey… Grandfather.

“Grandfather,” the girl said, the word slathered with as much venom and blood as she could spit, some of it actually dripping down her face, “You have no fucking idea how much shit you put me through…”

Various images came to her, flashing past her eyes. All the pain, all the hardship, the misfortune that was enough to fill over a dozen novels, all of them filled with pages and pages of torment and misery. If there was any happiness it was but a fleeting moment, a glimmer of light gliding across the surface of a waterfall that would only ever go in one direction. That sun and that water, they were two very physical, very separate things, and their meeting was only a transient experience.

This chase between a cat and a mouse…

Losing her gang and the few meaningful connections she had there…

Losing the life of a child she made herself responsible for in a demented roadtrip across a hellish landscape…

Losing her very self in a too-bright hallway, one of many steps in a spiral descent into destruction…

Grappling with her sense of purpose and identity in a pursuit of vengeance…

Losing her mind in place where she thought she would have been the most safe, a school…

Losing her best friend’s father…

Throwing her life and those orbiting it into chaos for some misguided sense of justice…

Hiding herself behind a mask, from a world which she knew would hate her, and did…

Seven days in Hell. Seven very long days.

That hour before midnight, at a time when she wasn’t even supposed to be out.

It shouldn’t have been like this.

But also…

It seems like it was always going to be like this, from the start.

A cycle.

“This is all your fucking fault,” the girl said, seething, but also knowing just how wrong she was.

Grandfather shook his head.

“While I am sympathetic to your situation, as anyone would and should be, I unfortunately cannot assume any responsibility to what you have done to yourself. I mean, look at you, you’re so thin. A shame to see a grandchild of mine having starved themselves to such a state. Meat, you know, all things have meat on their bones, why didn’t you take any?”

The girl only stared, hard, with hatred. For both herself, her grandfather, then that vision exploding to the world at large.

Grandfather only continued. He shrugged.

“Though, as someone who should, in theory, assume a parental role of some capacity, I do feel as if some blame can be shifted over to me. My apologies, sincerely.”

The girl was as silent as Nolla, now. She tried not to think of it as some shared trait between… between half-siblings.

“Because the truth is I have been watching you for quite some time. It was hard not to, considering how busy and very public you have been. I desperately wanted to meet with you and have you brought back as well, but as I mentioned, the spotlight stayed on you, and it was much too bright. So I waited. And now, it seems to have dimmed enough.”

Grandfather gestured to the night sky, hands together. There was a certain… meaning to it. Like a prayer.

“And now, here we are. I am sorry that it took me so long.”

Then, Grandfather gestured again.

Nolla didn’t move, their arm still frozen in place, despite holding something that looked to be rather heavy. It was the weapon that moved. Spiraling, the black tendrils charging with energy, humming and even crackling. The girl imagined it laughing at her.

Speaking over the low buzzing of the instrument, the plaything.

“Oh, and how inconsiderate of me. Enkelkind, I never got your name.”

“Name?”

The girl raised her head, brief, before dropping it again. Tired.

“Yes, little one, your name.”

Those various images hadn’t stopped running through her mind. Endless and repeating, looping, like a snake eating its own tail.

They repeated until they seemed real and corporeal, something she could retreat into. So she did. For she had nowhere else to go.

She searched for her answer there.

“My name is…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

been

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

before…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fields of dried vegetation, swaying in a light wind that also brushed against her face and hair. A dirt path that seemingly stretched forever.

The girl walked along this path. She didn’t care how long it would take her until she got to the end, or if there even was one. She walked.

A feeling in the pit of her stomach. Her heartbeat was steady. She couldn’t quite name it.

But she also felt as though she could figure that out if she kept walking.

So she did just that. She kept walking.

It was nighttime. She was fine with that. She was used to the dark.

She walked for long time.

Her perception of time seemed to have dulled, or maybe that particular sense had left her forever. She was fine with that too.

She kept walking.

The girl listened to the bristling leaves, the dirt shuffling underneath her feet as she dragged them slightly. The fields went by, she watched the scenery pass. Listlessly.

To the key of this, she listened.

Eventually, or maybe instantly, the girl wasn’t sure of which, the girl arrived at the end, because all things had one after all. There would be no exception here. Not for her, and certainly not for this.

At the end of the dirt path was a house. Or a mansion, to be more specific.

Imposing and harrowing, yet also hollow, a husk of an old life. One full of pain and sin and violations. All that was left for it now was to be left alone and die and decay.

She wasn’t sure if she had been walking to this place, or returning to it.

Either way, it was the perfect place to rest.

The girl let herself in.

The interior of the mansion appeared to be in better shape than what she saw outside. Not that it surprised her, but it wasn’t what she had expected. She expected old, dusty furniture, wallpaper peeling off the walls, faded colors and a musky smell, like old wet wood. Being inside now, she saw none of that. The opposite, in fact, was true. The place was clean.

Letting herself deeper into the mansion, she had a look around. There wasn’t anyone else present, and it was quiet. It was serene, actually, just having a chance to walk through the area and not be concerned with anything else. A certain… tension, that would usually hold a tight grip on her heart, but in this instance, it wasn’t there.

Strange. She wasn’t used to that.

Finding herself in a large common room, she immediately realized that she wasn’t alone after all.

Sitting by themselves, on a couch at the other side of the room. The light in here was limited, only a few stray beams, but the girl could see well enough. Leaning on one side, eyes closed, head back, they were asleep. Quiet, even calm.

Drawn like a magnet, the girl crossed the space without really thinking about what she was doing, or about to do. She didn’t want to disturb them from their slumber, but something about them… allured her.

About halfway, before the girl could ever reach out and touch them, they stirred. The girl stopped.

They got up on their own, waking, rubbing at an eye and scratching under their chin. They yawned, a graceless and inconsiderate sound, but they didn’t seem to know that they had to consider anyone else at all.

Pushing their hair away from their face, the girl confirmed that they were a she. Stirring some more, yawning again, the other girl blinked until she could properly take in her surroundings. It didn’t take long for her to notice that she wasn’t alone, herself.

About to stretch, she stopped, then covering her open mouth with a hand. Eyes darting away, she looked embarrassed. The first girl couldn’t help but feel endeared by it, which made her share in that embarrassment as well.

Then she blurted out a greeting.

“Hi!”

They stared at each other.

The first girl wanted to cover her open mouth too, but more just slap herself. She hated how stupid she sounded.

They stared at each other for some time.

It was the second girl who broke the silence. Her light bout of laughter filled the home. Tinged with nervousness, but she laughed anyways.

“Hi!” the second girl said back, still struggling to calm back down. She covered her face more.

Which only made the first girl more aware of herself, standing there, feeling like an idiot, because she felt that she probably was one, but it was made much more clear to her now.

“Can I at least take a seat?” the first girl asked.

Between those fits of laughter, the second girl patted the cushion next to her.

Still unsure of herself, but the first girl moved despite that. Taking a seat next to her companion.

The second girl finally managed to put her fluttered laughs in check, and the silence returned. But it was different silence. There was a new note to it. Somehow.

“Hi,” the first girl said, giving it another shot. Came out less awkward this time.

She got a nod in response. “Hi.”

Another pause. A beat.

“Sorry for waking you.”

“No you’re good, I probably shouldn’t have been sleeping for that long anyways. Uh, do you have a name?”

Odd, the first girl felt as if she had already been asked that. But here, in this place, with her, without any of the usual tension that gripped her, she found that she could answer that question, despite some initial consideration.

“It’s, uh, it’s V.”

“V?”

“Like the letter?”

“Is that like a nickname? Who names themselves after just a letter?”

V folded her arms, a bit annoyed at that.

“Well, there’s Wendy.”

“There you go, that’s a pretty name.”

V… Wendy unfolded her arms.

“I’d ask you yours, but I think I already know.”

The second girl nodded, slow, and when she did answer there was a lot less consideration for it.

“Alexis.”

The name hit her like a truck, but Wendy remained sitting, back straight. She had braced for that impact.

Wendy breathed.

“Well, Alexis, I’ve run out of lies to tell, so I’ll just come out and say it. We’re fucked.”

Alexis frowned.

“You couldn’t have put it some other way?”

“There is no other way to put it. We are fucked.”

Alexis grimaced at every utterance of that word. She held up a hand.

“Got it. Thanks.”

Seeing her here, being with her, it was almost overwhelming. No, not almost. It was.

She had braced for it, but that impact still hit hard.

Dots hit her lap, wet. Without realizing it, while she spoke to her, Wendy had been crying.

Her hands reached out, until they found firm shoulders. Wendy dropped her head down, and continued to weep.

“I am so… sorry…” Wendy said between bursts of sobs, “I thought I could be better than you… I thought I would have been able to surpass you if I just threw you away… But, in the end, I just made it all worse. I fucked it all up!”

In contrast to Alexis, Wendy was shaking, bawling hard at her own self-loathing. It was all too much to bear.

Then something touched her face. Wendy flinched.

Wiping away the tears, thumbing just underneath her eyes, Wendy felt her cheeks go dry. Fingers worked in holding and helping her, tender.

When Alexis spoke, it was with a certain sageness. A reserved wisdom.

“It’s okay, Wendy, it really is. You don’t have anything to be sorry about.”

“But, but…”

“But nothing. You did an amazing job, taking care of things while I was asleep here. You protected me, took all the heat when I wasn’t able to. You know, I should be the one apologizing, I put you to all that and you never asked for it. It’s my fault.”

Wendy shook her head, and kept shaking. She didn’t want to hear it. She didn’t want to be told that.

“That’s not true, it isn’t. I should have… I should have been better, I should have done more… I should have asked for help…”

“A lot of shoulds,” Alexis said, “But that’s kind of the conceit, isn’t it? You always find an easier way around things once you get a chance to look back and see how you went through it the first time… that was a clunky way of putting it, I’m sorry.”

Wendy shook her head again, nuzzling herself into her counterpart’s shoulder now.

“Don’t be, I know what you mean. Hindsight is a bitch.”

Alexis laughed a little.

“That’s it.”

They stayed there for what felt like the better part of an hour, but time was a forgone concept, now. It didn’t matter. Wendy even had the faintest of hopes that they could stay like this forever.

That hope was soon dashed, however, when she felt the slightest of nudges, indicating to straighten herself back up. Wendy did so, blinking away more tears.

Alexis still had her hands on Wendy, to wipe her eyes.

“You’re so much stronger than you think, Wendy, I’m sure you’ve been told this?”

“If I have, I don’t remember.”

“Come on, there was that… what was her name? Sarah?”

Wendy felt her cheeks go warm. She was scared that Alexis might feel that too.

“Her? Please, I don’t even know what that was.”

“That was real, Wendy, that was yours. I can’t take that from you.”

Wendy tilted her head, leaning more into one Alexis’ palms.

“But if you do want to get into it… what have you done, Wendy?”

Closing her eyes, Wendy thought about it. They came to her like dreams. And she spoke of them.

“What have I done? I left home. Your home, our home, I left it behind so I could try and make my own name for myself, my own sense of self. I found others, we joined together and made a gang. D, Lawrence, and yeah, Sarah. We took over a territory, and I wanted to make it in my image. But I still had to figure out what that image was. Who I wanted to be, that kind of person… I still had a lot to figure out.”

Taking in everything, listening with intent, Alexis closed her eyes for a beat, and then opened them again.

“Okay, and what have you failed to do?”

Eyes closing again, Wendy thought about that too. They came to her like nightmares. Her voice trembled.

“What have I failed to do? I took too long, I stalled. I didn’t go about things a certain way, or I deliberately avoided looking at certain things. Who I really was, what was inside… our true nature, our shared heritage. I lied and ignored it because I didn’t want it to affect me, even though I relied on its power. But that type of thing doesn’t just go away, and it threatened to swallow me up, and it even did, on several occasions. Chewed me up and spat me out, and I still turned a blind eye to it. In the end, that made me lose sight of myself.”

“You’re not defined by what’s inside anymore than I am,” Alexis told Wendy, “But yeah, I suppose that does hold some importance, doesn’t it? We should have been…  a lot more diligent, in that respect.”

It was Wendy’s turn to laugh.

“Yeah, we should have.”

“A lot of shoulds.”

Wendy raised her hands, holding Alexis by the wrist. She didn’t want Alexis to pull away.

Then they looked at each other, deep within each other’s eyes. A shared link. A newfound connection.

“I don’t want to disappear,” Wendy said. Admitting it. Saying it out of nowhere but she meant every bit of it. “I thought I did, but I really… really don’t. I’m so scared. I don’t want all my effort to go to waste.”

“I know,” Alexis said, a warm tone, a hint of melancholy. “I’m in the same boat as you.”

“And that boat is sinking,” Wendy said.

“I know,” Alexis said again. “But that’s just how it goes. We take, and we get taken from. Drink, and be drained. Rinse and repeat until it’s over, and then it starts all over again. But… it wasn’t all bad. Some good things happened too. Like-”

“I know,” Wendy said for herself. “Like kicking butt in paintball?”

“Or playing games with D?”

“Jumping over rooftops?”

Alexis smiled.

“I was going to say the same thing.”

“Beat you to it,” Wendy said, smiling now too.

It was easy to sit here in this moment and be absorbed in it, the experience sublime. Forever, to stay in here and never venture out there again. Here, things seemed actually okay, and that was the greatest surprise.

Then, what little light was in this space vanished, winked out of existence. Something outside interfered, as if to eclipse this moment.

Wendy watched Alexis.

Her smile dropped, her lips forming a line. Stoic.

She had a feeling on what was about to happen. If time mattered here, it would have been designated as midnight.

Moving in conjunction, in consideration with one another, Wendy and Alexis both set their arms down. But their hands remained clasped together, fingers intertwined.

“Your hands are cold,” Wendy said.

“Mom always told me that. Do you remember?”

“Yeah, I do.”

Another beat. There was already so many.

Alexis got up from the couch.

Wendy refused to let her go.

“But I have to,” Alexis said. Her eyes weren’t on Wendy anymore, instead to the door, on the other side of the space. To the outside.

“Don’t,” Wendy said. She pleaded. “Stay here. Alexis. Please. You can go back to sleep.”

Alexis shook her head, hair swaying slightly.

Weny continued, begging now.

“I don’t want to…”

Her voice broke.

Alexis’ did, but she spoke anyways.

“I know you don’t. But you… we won’t. At least, I don’t think so. Not for some time. Eventually, at the very, very end, we all become ash, picked up by the wind. To dust we shall return. In time we’ll all be forgotten, but that’s okay. In our time, our time, we did what we could, we affected the world around us. We gave it our all. We fucking tried. You can’t say that we didn’t, right?”

“Right,” Wendy said.

“It was all too much to bear, huh? But I didn’t have to do it by myself. I owe you so much, Wendy.”

“Isn’t that what this is still?”

Alexis shrugged. And slight, silly laugh.

“Oh well. When you say it, you become it.”

“A monster?” Wendy suggested.

“I was going to say fool.”

“Close enough.”

Alexis looked from Wendy to the door, again, and again. Now it was her turn to have tears in her eyes.

“I’m glad I got to talk with you. It was sad, but it was sweet too.”

Still sitting on the couch, Wendy tried to come up with something else to say. Anything, to make her stay a little longer.

“I want… fuck… now-”

But all words were failing her. At this critical moment.

Alexis took the lead again. Wendy let her go.

Raising a hand, raising her index and middle fingers, Alexis waved.

“V for victory?” Alexis asked, as if to make sure.

Mustering the last of her courage, Wendy returned to Alexis the same gesture. The same symbol.

“Peace,” Wendy said. She could tell Alexis liked that answer.

There was nothing else to say. Nothing else that could be said.

Alexis set her hand down, and turned. She started walking, heading to the door.

“Funny…” she then added, like an afterthought.

“What?”

“We never did learn how to drive.”

Wendy tilted her head, and when she did, she regretted it, as a sudden weariness began to overtake her. Or, there was a chance it had been there the entire time, and she was finally allowing herself to submit to it. She leaned more into the couch.

“And you never learned how dangerous it is to walk alone at night!”

Her final protest.

It was met with a laugh.

“Yup, I never learn!”

Then Alexis was out the door, passing that threshold, her image blending into the dark, dissipating.

And then she was gone.

Wendy blinked, and when she did, she regretted it, as her eyes were steadily becoming heavier and heavier. Head too. Entire body.

She leaned over all the way, until she had fallen on the couch, taking the place of the girl who was just here moments ago. Sleeping.

And now it was her turn to sleep.

Wendy let her eyes close shut, and then she dreamed dreams, until she drifted like ash, and returned to the dust.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

be

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

back

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

again…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She found her answer.

“Alexis… My name is Alexis.”

The man in grey, the one who called himself grandfather, took in that answer and acknowledged it.

“Alexis… do you know what that name means?”

“I don’t.”

“It has its origins from Greece. From the Greek alexo, meaning to defend, or to help.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Do you believe that name to suit you? Names are very important, if you did not know.”

“I do,” Alexis said, “But I couldn’t say for sure, if that name really suits me. I could barely defend or help anyone, much less myself.”

She breathed.

“But I’ll wear that name. I never chose it… it was given to me, but I’ll wear it all the same. I’ll shoulder the burden… all I have are my shoulders anyways. I won’t draw up a blank anymore, and I won’t be reduced to a letter. I’m done playing make believe. This isn’t a game anymore.”

Grandfather nodded, as though he understood, but she couldn’t give damn whether or not he did. Those words were never meant for him, Alexis knew. This was never about him.

The tears had stopped falling. She had stopped crying some time ago, but she had been made into such a mess that it was hard to tell the difference. Red as an apple. But that was fine. She accepted that unsightly version of herself, too.

Grandfather then righted himself, glancing sideways to Nolla.

“Yes, I agree. Once the children are done playing they must return to home. And your mother is terribly sick and deathly worried about you. I am certain that, once you two are reunited, she will start to feel much better. All because of you.”

Alexis kept silent.

Still looking at the half-sibling, Grandfather tilted his head towards Alexis.

“Now if you please, let us begin the journey back.”

Nolla’s only indication that the order was recognized was the spiraling of the weapon, the tendrils moving into place again.

Over the humming, she heard a faint whisper, a dreamlike murmur before falling completely into a slumber.

To die will be an awfully big adventure.

It would be, and it had been.

Alexis moved.

Rolling onto her stomach in what she guessed to be the last second, she just narrowly dodged the impact that had been deliberately aimed for her heart. Instead it clipped her in the back, obliterating her shoulder blades.

It burned her, but she was numb to the pain now. Or rather, it was inconsequential to her. This was temporary, it would soon be over.

She didn’t see Grandfather’s reaction, but she did hear it.

“Nolla! You aim right or there is no going back!”

No going back.

Exactly right.

Alexis heard that instance again, that thin static before the thunder. It was about to boom again.

She propped herself up with her half-arm, her half-leg, readying herself.

Her back to the weapon, she knew it was spiraling again, trying to hit a specific piece of Alexis. Maybe Nolla could get a clean shot from the back. Alexis wouldn’t let Nolla get that chance.

Her eyes were wide open now. Level, focused.

Then she spun around, pushing herself up with that ruined arm and leg. Even with those limbs, she still had some significant strength stored within them.

Enough to send her entire body flying.

It was only by a few inches, but it was all she needed. Enough to mess with Nolla’s aim.

Alexis felt the thunder, hitting her full-body.

The fire encompassed her, burning from the inside out, until she was of ash.

And as she returned to the dust, Alexis had but a single, already passing dream.

Always making the same mistakes. Stumbling in the same spot, every time. No matter how many times I do it again and again. I’m such a mess.

I bet if I started from the beginning again, I’d end up right back here.

But…

I think it was worth it.

I think it was worth the trouble.

Because…

Through my bruises, the blood, being beaten black and blue…

Something bloomed.

Something I could have learned to love.

Something that, given time, would have grown and become beautiful.

So, yeah…

If given the chance to start over, I wouldn’t change a thing. Not one thing.

So yeah.

I guess that’s about it.

Good night!

And so it was.

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105 – Check

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It snapped.

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

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

“James Gomez,” I said.

“Get the hell out.”

No pleasantries at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t take advantage of it too much.

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

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

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

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

I took that as him allowing me to continue.

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

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

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

I cocked my head to the side.

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

“Well, good for you.”

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t tell him.

Smoke filled the room. A soft orange glow.

Brighter. More smoke.

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

“Stop, V-”

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

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

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

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

I had to tell him something else.

“No, you don’t,” Gomez said.

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

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

“I do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Part of me will tell you no.”

“And the other part?”

“Still no.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“I could ask you the same question.”

No answer. It said everything.

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

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

Stubborn, like how everyone seemed to be, lately.

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

Still. Nothing.

Still nothing.

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

Gomez, finally, answered. No warning.

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

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

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

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

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

“Everything will be fine, D.”

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

We would try.

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

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

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

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

“Sarah?” I called out.

“Yes, Voss?”

The look on my face must have said it all.

“Wendy.”

I smiled.

“Any word from Reggie?”

“Not yet. Still searching.”

“Jordan?”

“Still searching.”

Tone?”

“Still.”

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

Not everything was fine.

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

I still couldn’t wrap my head around that.

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

The world on fire.

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

“Damn.”

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

Summed it all up pretty well though. Everything.

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

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

D’s legs swung like a pendulum.

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

“I believe you, Sarah.”

I just wanted her to know that.

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D eyes were elsewhere. Down.

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

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

“We?” I questioned.

Sarah gave me a certain look.

“Me more than anyone else, Wendy.”

She wanted me to know that.

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

I tried to not get jealous over that.

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

“Yeah,” D said. A small voice.

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

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

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

“Long day,” I said.

Ouais.”

“Are there any new leads?”

She shook her head. Very slow.

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

“A deluge?”

“Something like that.”

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

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

“You’re not getting in anywhere!”

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

“I want to find Ellie,” D said.

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

“Lawrence can wait.”

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

“Hey,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get a grip, get a grip, get a grip.”

Isabella droned on and on.

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

“Let’s not…” I started.

“Why not?”

It was D who asked that.

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

Then Isabella took her turn.

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

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

What was I so afraid of?

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

An answer never came.

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

It was Reggie. It was Lawrence.

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

“Ellie!”

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

We all converged on the two.

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

However, it was too late for that.

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

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

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

What was I looking at? Who?

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

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

I asked.

“Where’s his ear?”

Reggie looked as shocked and scared as I was.

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

“Reggie, calm down.”

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

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

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

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

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

Now. We had to check on Lawrence.

D was already on it.

“I can barely feel a pulse.”

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

“Is he responding?” I asked.

D was choking up.

“No. Barely. I can’t tell!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone went silent.

We listened to Lawrence as he hurt.

“Phil… Phil… Phil…”

Phil? Or fill?

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

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

“Please, Lawrence, who is-”

“It’s not a name.”

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

“He’s asking for pills.”

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

“Phil, Phil, Phil…”

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

Breathing out the word.

“Does anyone have any?” I asked.

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

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

“Could we take him to a hospital?”

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

Even Sarah couldn’t finish that.

“No! No no no!”

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

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

“Get a grip,” Isabella said.

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

“I can do that! I’ll get the van!”

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

Lawrence’s breathing was only getting worse.

“Phil… Phil, Phil…”

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

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

When I breathed, it was shaky.

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

D smacked me in the arm.

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

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

Would it work? Could I even do that?

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

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

D smacked me again. Smacked me back to reality.

“Wendy! Come on!”

I paused, despite myself and everything.

“D-”

Fuck!”

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

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

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

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

A torrent of bullets tore through the Redhouse.

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

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

Barely could hear his response. No or know.

Didn’t know?

Didn’t matter.

“Move!”

Everyone moved.

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

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

“Lawrence, Lawrence!”

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

That didn’t stop D from fighting back.

“Lawrence! What the h-”

“Cars!”

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

Yet, somehow, someone picked up.

“Back!”

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

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

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

Lawrence.

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

Then the-

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

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

I ran, I ran.

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

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

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

Phil.

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

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

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

D’s eyes were the most wet.

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

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

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

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

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

One more time.

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

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

Then I picked it back up.

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

My eyes roved over the crowd.

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

I didn’t see Reggie, however.

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

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

This was too hard.

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

No one said anything.

Uncomfortable, clumsy. Couldn’t stay here.

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

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

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

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

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

“How are they taking it?” I asked.

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

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

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

“Course not, Wendy.”

I didn’t feel better, hearing that.

“D,” I said, seeing her.

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

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

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

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

I really hated seeing them like this.

“This is bad,” I said.

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

D hiccuped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

“What’s their problem?”

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

“Not now,” I said.

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

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

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

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

Isabella laughed.

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

Enough!”

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

That didn’t stop Isabella.

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

“I said enough, Isabella.”

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

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

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

“You are not getting another warning!”

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

We both turned to the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you talking to?”

Previous                                                                                               Next

104 – Chessboxing

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I was trapped in a flood of total anarchy, very nearly drowning in it. I had to keep my head up, keep my breathing steady, and wade through the rising tides of turmoil.

There was a lot going on.

People were rushing past and against me like a current, impeding my progress towards the park. Yelling, screaming, panicking, the only shared impulse in the mob was to get out, find safety elsewhere.

Me? I was running straight into the smoke and gunfire.

That probably said something about me, but I wasn’t allowed the luxury to figure that out.

Into the smoke and gunfire I went.

More shots popped off as I continued forward, slipping between the crowd as they passed. Some were more willing to let me by than others, some even tried to knock me back, force me off my path and get swept away by the undertow.

Arms hit my shoulders, ribbing me in the sides. I twisted and even spun in a circle as I kept squeezing myself through. And with everyone who wasn’t a cop going in one direction, running for their lives, they weren’t so kind to anyone who might be an obstacle.

I was like a pebble in a fucking river, it was so easy to get lost in the flow of things, the opposing pressure working to crush. If I didn’t have even half of my enhanced strength, I would have sank right down, lost in the bottom. Exactly the place I fought to avoid.

Head up, breathe steady.

I pushed through.

The more I fought, the more that current fought back, pushing harder. Stronger. People who were in the back had to work that much more to move down the stream, turning frantic as the bullets were louder, flying closer.

I was getting closer.

Clawing and thrashing their way out, like animals trapped in rushing waters. It really felt like that.

Then, a surge of activity, and it happened in a wave.

Something wet hit me in the face. A splash. Sweet, as a mist of it sprayed across my lips.

The crowd around me roared, and I turned to see why.

A crack of fire exploded, somewhere up ahead, but I immediately felt the result of it.

People- bodies fell, tumbling down, over one another. Limbs splayed out, catching others and throwing their weight, sending the living down with them. And with the rush of people kept coming, kept crushing, the living wouldn’t be the living anymore.

So loud. So fucking loud.

Something slammed me in the shoulder, and my foot slipped, balance gone. And as exactly as I had feared, the second I lost my footing, the current would come in and try to take me away.

The momentum had been building, stacking as the bodies stacked, people scrambling over one another to get ahead. Pushing, forward, forward.

I wasn’t very tall, and everyone around me were either my height or taller, and I had to reach out with my arms to find anything I could use to pull me back up. Anyone.

The paper had long slipped out of my hands. Didn’t matter. There was still plenty of them fluttering overhead. Watching. Mocking.

Laughing as I drowned.

No. Fuck.

Couldn’t think about that. Them. Her.

My hands found a hold and I worked my way out, getting my head above the surface of the panic.

It wasn’t unlike swimming, I had to keep myself afloat and push other stuff down. Kicking, doing everything in my power to stay up.

But what I was swimming through wasn’t water, and that was what made the whole thing fall apart from something natural to pure disorder.

Blood and fire and fucking madness.

People were falling over, because of others, because of a bullet, or because of me. Rendered unable to escape this hell.

Damn me. I couldn’t save them, couldn’t get them back to their feet. All of this was happening in my territory, riddling it with holes.

I had to find out who was doing this. I had to stop them, even if it took as many bullets as they used, here.

The bodies kept piling on. It wasn’t pretty, despite what my nose was sensing. A certain aroma lifted into the air, mixing in with the smoke and paper scraps. My heart bled for every drop spilled, enough to satisfy my own quench for the night.

As I went more upstream, everything more rough. The pushback. The violence. Everything.

I stepped, and again my foot slipped. I couldn’t see what caught my balance, but I was already being plunged into darkness.

Fuck. No.

A voice growled right by my ear, raging.

“You bitch!”

Hands dove for my throat, choking me out, stealing my breath at a moment when I needed it most.

I struggled, kicking, trying to scream, but no sound came out. Not even a gurgle. And, even if one did, one one would be able to hear it.

It was a man, judging from how heavy and thick the hands were. The face was too hard to see, with it being so dark. Not because I couldn’t see when it was dark, but because my eyes were straining, and I was seeing more red than black.

I couldn’t breath, or keep my head up.

Everywhere, I felt the stampede as it crashed by us, but I wasn’t slipping away. The opposite, in fact. I was pinned, and I couldn’t even scramble for any purchase. He bent and twisted me into an awkward position, and he leaned his weight into and over me. Even if I had the strength, he caught me and threw me into a situation where I couldn’t use it.

The red overwhelmed the black, and I could feel the last bit of air being squeezing out of me. I fell under, submerged, and I was drowning.

Then a crack of fire, and I was buoyant again, filled with air and floating right back to the top.

I gasped.

I was about to throw the man off of me, but I didn’t have to. He fell, instead, trading places with me. Unmoving, unresponsive as feet stepped over and even on him.

I looked.

Smoke trailed upward. There was enough space between me and the gun to see who was holding it.

A girl. Wearing a leather jacket with studs down the sleeves, a black skirt and boots like that looked more fit for a soldier. Her hair was long, swept to one side. She was Asian.

She was holding a gun, pointing it at me. I froze, and found that I was able to. The rushing crowd had parted around us.

Then the girl approached.

I felt my blood pumping faster, ready to attack, as if to make up for not being able to fight back against that other guy, just before.

But the girl had set her gun down, taking a hand off of it.

She shouted at me.

“Hey! You okay!”

I wasn’t sure what to say. My voice came out hoarse when I tried.

“You shot that, you shot that guy?”

A girl made a face. It somehow didn’t match the scene around us.

“He was trying to kill you. I’m not about to let some fat slob snuff out one of our own.”

Our own?

Was she a vamp-

Wait, no.

I had to think a step removed. Not that. Something more in her face.

“Right,” I said, not at all confident or right. “Thanks, then?”

She took another step to me.

“You got a gun?”

“I… no?”

“Here.”

She stuffed the gun into my hands. It was still hot.

“You can take mine, come on!”

She took off, in the other direction. The direction I needed to go.

Glancing down, I was able to see what caused me to slip, what let that man get a hold on me.

A single sheet of paper. Alexis Barnett’s face, looking up at me. Mocking me.

Fuck all of this.

I looked to find the girl making distance.

If she knew a good way into the park, I had to follow.

I followed.

“Wait!” I yelled, having to push through more people. It was a good thing I got D and Isabella out of here, or they would have gotten stamped into the ground if they tried to come with me.

I fumbled with the gun in my hand, but I still held onto it. I was aware of where it was hot, where it wasn’t.

The girl turned to check on me and grinned.

“Don’t worry about me, I have another one!”

She showed me as soon as she mentioned it. Tucked behind her jacket and skirt, she equipped herself with another piece, and then proceeded to blow it in the sky.

The crowd around us scattered.

The girl used the opening she just made and ran through it.

“Keep up!”

No other choice, if I wanted to get into the park and find that guy in the mask. She was making the way for me.

I kept following her.

We ran up the rapids of the chaos, and I could see where it was all coming from. The entrance of the park.

Cops were retaliating, different groups doing different tasks. Protecting those who were trying to escape, and fending off the mob. They didn’t have the sheer numbers, and they were caught off guard, but it wouldn’t take much longer for the cops to turn this around. They had the equipment, they had the training, and, given enough time, they’d have the numbers.

Shots zipped by, some overhead, some much, much closer to my head. It made me shudder and shake, the volume of it was enough to make my skull ache and want to split.

The girl kept yelling at me, another tether I could use to hold onto and follow.

“Let’s not get caught in the middle of that! What say you?”

My voice came out hoarse again.

“I think we already are!”

The girl laughed. Of all things, she laughed.

“This way!”

She went another direction, away from the entrance. It had become a bottleneck, now, the cops focusing on that area.

Sirens began to blare, piercing the air. Reinforcements were coming, and they’d hit that spot first, close it off. Then they’d surround the park and find other means of getting in, forcing every offender into a huddle, cornering them. Find where the water was coming from, and plug that hole.

But I’d get to it first.

The girl turned us to the side of the park, over to a fence. There was hole, with nothing spilling out.

She squeezed in first, and I was next.

Stepping into bedlam. The Wellport Skate Park proper.

“Over here!”

The girl beckoned for me, waving with her gun. Still with that grin on her face, she led me over to a small group, hunched behind a raised portion of a cement wall. They were all Asian.

“Shit, thought you died,” one of them said, looking at the girl. He had a gun in his hands, too. A semi-automatic rifle.

“Not yet, dude,” the girl said, still wearing that grin. Still. She looked at me, and gave me a nod. A knowing nod, it seemed like, but I probably didn’t know what she thought I knew. “Found her out there, being choked out by some asshole.”

“That so? She wasn’t here when we started?”

Everyone in the group directed their attention to me.

“I got here late, then everything went to shit and I couldn’t make my way over to the park,” I said. I gave the girl a nod. “She saved me.”

If I wasn’t good at anything else, I was good at lying.

“Cool,” the guy replied. “Cool. She gave you a gun, too?”

The gun. I lifted it between two fingers, pinching it, as if it had a smell. And not a good one.

“Never used one,” I said. “I’m more liable to get myself killed with this thing.”

Another lie.

“Fair,” the guy said.

Now that I had a chance to catch some of my breath, I had a look better at these people.

They weren’t kids, they were probably older than me, but they were way too young to be involved with any of this. At least I had my powers to keep me going. D had always been an outlier, and Isabella was removed enough from the action. This? These people had thrown themselves into this. Diving head first into the waters.

The girl crouched, her shoulder bumping into mine as she got down. Different from the other bumps and crashes, even if this one felt intentional, too. A tender touch, somehow, but not in a way that reminded me of Sarah. A knowing gesture, a supposed shared connection.

Comrades in arms, a sisterly feeling.

I knew it was that, because a deep, vestigial thing buried within me shuddered at the mere suggestion.

But I wasn’t one of them, not in any real capacity.

The girl moved, checking the corner around the wall, before popping out to fire off some shots. Sudden noise among sudden noise. It still made me jump.

“Fair,” the guy said again, after seeing my reaction.

For a moment, when I looked back at him, and the wall behind him, I thought I saw a chalkboard, fluorescent lights of a classroom. Those flashes of lights were gone a second later, as fast as a bullet from a gun.

What I saw instead was a twisted version of my own face, tagged in graffiti.

I shook my head, hard.

Didn’t need to waste time here.

“Hey,” I said. I wasn’t particularly loud, but someone heard me. Another girl, a few years older than the one who brought me here.

She looked my way and I talked to her.

“How did you find your way to the park?”

“Me? I got invited by a friend of a friend. It was kept real low, but I felt the energy, you know what I mean? People really came through for this one!”

“People are shooting at the police and innocent civilians! Isn’t this going too far?”

I pushed it, just a little. To prod some info out of them.

“They started it,” the girl replied, in all seriousness. “I didn’t ask for this shit. But I’m here, now, and I’m going to take it into my own hands. Our hands.”

I lifted a hand, to try and placate her.

“Fair,” I said. “What about the guy in the mask? Is he around?”

“He just got down from the platform.”

It was the guy from just earlier. He pointed across the park.

“Do you know where he is now? Who he’s with?”

“Why are you asking? Are you with us or not?”

“Stop that!”

The girl with the swept hair went back for cover. She admonished the guy.

“She’s here, isn’t she? Don’t give her shit, not everyone is ready to make this kind of commitment. But she’s here, in solidarity, and that matters.”

The guy glanced at me, then to her.

“Alright,” he said.

This isn’t working.

If I was going to get any real details, I’d have to uncover it myself, get to the source. And the only lead I had to that source was there that guy pointed, a general guess of a direction.

I had to go.

“I have to go,” I said, and the girl spun around, to me.

I had to add, “Thanks again for, you know, saving my life. I really owe you.”

The girl grinned, and that somehow made me feel relieved.

With her free hand, the other still clutching her gun tight, she extended a hand. Without any real reason in my head, I shook it.

“You don’t owe me shit, dude. Just promise me that I’ll see you again.”

“Sure, hopefully under less… sucky circumstances.”

“Certainly. Jasmine, Vietnamese.”

Jasmine. Oh. That was her name?

“Wendy,” I said. “Half-Japanese.”

Entirely something else, though.

“That’s cool, yeah. All of us, all of us? We have to stick together now. So I’ll see you around, Wendy. And cute glasses.”

Jasmine grinned.

“I… you too.”

Fuck.

It’s ‘I’ll see you around, too.

I left before I stumbled to correct myself. Whatever.

The park was less packed than I had expected, probably because most of everyone who was here were now storming out the floodgates that was the park entrance. Those were still here held down the fort, so to speak, shooting at the cops who just wanted reintroduce some semblance of peace.

But then I remembered D’s words. How peace was a pipe dream.

I hoped it really wasn’t.

I hoped all I had to maneuver through were people, but no. There was more than that. Glass as thin as splinters, smoke as wide as a cloud. Bullet casings, blood, and papers, seeping with red and stuck to the ground.

People fell. For some, it was their bodies, for others, it was their minds, as they allowed themselves to descended to this level, one that gave them the ability to send bullets through the backs of innocents.

I hoped I could stop this at the source.

Bullets continued to zip by, pinging off metal or getting embedded into cement, or worse, flesh. I saw the platform come into view as I crossed the distance of the park.

I saw people in masks leaving the park.

A small group of them, five of them, faces all covered. I was close enough to notice the details, now. They were all wearing animal masks.

Another appropriate metaphor, for all of this.

It was easy to spot the leader, or at least the one who handed this crowd lead and had them dive off the deep end. His clothes were bright but not gaudy, the fashion was more streetwear. And his mask. It wasn’t cheap, flimsy plastic, it covered the whole head. From the back, from the color and the stripes, I could tell it was a tiger.

Though, for all the strength that image would have invoked, the man needed support from the others around him. He didn’t walk so much as tumble, letting himself fall while his aides guided him, preventing him from actually hitting ground.

I knew that tumble, recognized it. It was the same kind of tumble Lawrence had, when the only things that were keeping him on his feet were his height in pills and other drugs.

They were already at the fence on the other side of the park, ducking through a hole cut out from the wire. An alley between some buildings. The park was really an abandoned construction sites, with skeletons of structures all around. If they had set up an escape route before this all started, they could slip away, easy.

I can’t let them.

In the instant I brought my foot out to start a running stride, a weight threw itself onto me. Another body. Blood coated the back and made the leather slick right off of me.

But that bought the animals enough time to escape the pen.

Too many metaphors, but that was how hectic this thing was becoming. Enough so that the perpetrators were able to make an escape.

As I went across the park, I watched them leave, the last of the animals getting under the fence. The rest were well ahead, helping the tiger walk.

Could get them, considering the scope of my speed and strength they were well within my reach. But I didn’t have my mask, was it a good idea to become an animal, here, when things were already this bad?

I had my territory to consider. I needed this contained, first and foremost, and the cops were working on that.

I had my gang to consider. I needed everyone to get together, figure this out, not just have one person make a hot-headed decision, especially in the heat of the moment. Better to handle this with a level mind.

I had myself to consider. I needed to stay sane, whatever that meant for me now, and not do anything that could get me killed, or worse, get everyone here killed. Now was not the time to overestimate my capabilities. Or underestimate, depending on how this could go.

The words I yelled at D rang out to me, loud as a gun.

I wouldn’t be long, I wouldn’t be stupid.

I wouldn’t do either.

I stopped.

Amongst the mob, deep in the waters and animals… no. It was more like mud, if I was mixing all those metaphors together. I supposed it fit, in a sense. So much shit was happening, with this inclement weather of smoke and bullet-fall

And Alexis Barnetts.

Her face continued to fall from the sky, so many of them. Some looked down on me, and while others were facing up, they weren’t looks of admiration. It was smiling, carefree, as if not a single fucking thing that would happen to her didn’t matter. As if it didn’t apply to her. That someone else would shoulder that weight.

Fuck all of that.

I had to go.

The sky was falling. And in that moment, it really felt like the world was ending.

“You have got to be motherfucking kidding me.”

“Language, Ellie.”

Lawrence gave D the most searing look.

D frowned, but then ran. She hopped, arms low between her legs, and threw them out when she landed.

“Agh!”

She sent the ball down the lane.

Strike.

“Yes!” she cheered, hopping again in place. Her frown was now upside down.

In the background, the machine worked, eating the pins and ball, preparing to spit them out for another round.

D kept celebrating her win.

“You only got that because those little wall things are up,” Isabella said, sounding bored.

“Yeah, it doesn’t really count when you have to bend the rules in order to win,” I said.

“Blah blah,” D said. She stuck her tongue out at us. “A win is a win, and I won!”

“If you say so,” Isabella said.

“You are kidding me?”

Lawrence watched his language that time, but D still frowned at him.

We were at the Electric Place, or the Electric Palace, now that D had finished her renovations. She finally put back that second ‘A.’

Royalty in their palace. But their land was on fire.

Lawrence sat back, or he tried. The plastic seats that faced the bowling lanes were almost as slick as the lanes themselves, and he had to flatten his feet on the floor to stay in place. That usually wouldn’t be a problem for someone, if that someone’s body was in a decent shape. Lawrence wasn’t out of shape, not exactly, but what was shaping him… it wasn’t anything natural.

He coughed when he talked, and it sounded like it hurt.

“This isn’t good. Not a single bit of it.”

“That’s the only way I could think of putting it,” I said, “Yet it still feels like you’re underselling it.”

“Not a single bit of it,” Lawrence reiterated. “The place, the timing, the people.”

“They started a war and used our territory as ground zero,” I said. “The police are doing what we can, but we need to find our own way to stop it. If we leave it all to the police and other authorities, they might use that as a way to get a foot on our turf. And that isn’t good, either.”

“We need to find out who they are,” Lawrence said. “Setting this up, here, of all places. It has to be deliberate. It has to be fucking Inez!”

“Hey!”

We all turned to D.

She was picking up another bowling ball as she said, “Language, sheesh, and it’s not Inez. That wouldn’t make any sense.”

“I can’t think of anyone else who would want a problem with us, and Inez made herself clear.”

“She isn’t exactly our number one fan, but a vote is a vote. Everyone made their decision, and the result still put us there. And you talked to her yourself, Ellie, she was pretty upfront about her, uh, displeasure. And from what I gathered, what happened at the park isn’t her style.”

“Enough with the fucking nicknames, D.”

D frowned again, she looked like she wanted to cry.

I had to step in.

I got up from the seat next to Lawrence and literally stepped in.

I asked D, “You were saying?”

“Well, given the makeup of the people who went to the park, like… demographically, and what that guy in the mask was talking about, my best guess would be… Dong-Yul.”

Lawrence flinched. I was sure he would have gone for a more bodily reaction, if his body could actually allow it.

“What? Fucking Donnie?”

D hugged her bowling ball. It didn’t look comfortable, but she did it, anyways.

“Are you sure?” I asked, “I thought Styx told him to back off from that particular plan of his.”

Well, not ‘thought’ exactly, since Styx did more than just tell Dong-Yul, he literally beat it into him.

Lawrence, too. That I remembered. Even more vivid.

Poor guy.

D shrugged.

“It’s my best guess, considering what just happened. Of course, I’d hate to generalize, but yeah. Maybe Dong-Yul decided going against Styx was worth it.”

“Or maybe Styx wanted Donnie to start this, and they’re all fucking in on it! Shit!”

Lawrence waved his arm as he shouted, then cursed. Put too much strength in moving his body, it seemed like.

It seemed like he was getting worse. The problem was escalating, and it was exponential.

And the problems keep piling on and on.

“Lawrence, please, thinking like that… it isn’t healthy.”

“What we do isn’t healthy, but here we are. A little paranoia goes a long way.”

“Sure, but when it starts to get compounded with other stuff, it becomes a downward spiral, and we don’t need that right now.”

Lawrence either growled or coughed. Either way, it didn’t sound good.

I tried my best to steer the conversation.

“So what’s the plan? If Dong-Yul is responsible for this, we need to know what he’s really after, and see if we can either stop him from getting it, or at least do it off of our property.”

“You spoke with him, that one time at the club,” D said, “So did Lawrence. You know what he wants. Violence against the violence that was done against those who look like him.”

“Revenge, then.” I sighed. “That’s such a… I’m surprised he managed to get so many different people to go along with him.”

“Hate to generalize, again, but I guess there’s some solidarity to be found when they get generalized and attacked and harassed for it. Even if I can’t feel that, I get how that’s frustrating.”

Solidarity. Frustrating. I heard that word, felt that energy.

“If it is Dong-Yul finally playing his hand, we’ll have to play ours,” I said. “He knew that this is our territory, he knew what he was doing, bringing all those people here, bringing those cops. And if there’s anything we do know, it’s that he’s in the city, somewhere. At the very, absolute least, we need to find him.”

“I can find him, and I can talk to him, too.”

Lawrence tumbled out of his seat, both legs just barely catching him before it became a fall.

“I can talk to him.”

“El,” D started, then paused, “Lawrence-”

“You really think that’s a good idea?” I asked. I felt bad for interrupting D, but I didn’t want Lawrence to snap at her again.

“Y’all don’t know Donnie like I do,” Lawrence said, “We came up together, more or less. He was willing to meet with me when I wanted to talk about money.”

“He was willing to fuck you over, remember? If D and I hadn’t been there…”

I didn’t finish the sentence, but it was clear that he picked up on it. Lawrence grimaced.

“We cannot let what happened at the park happen again. Not in our territory.”

“I get that, Lawrence, seriously, we all do. That’s why we’re here. We need to be smart about this. We need to work together. Why does this feel like a lesson we have to learn all over again?”

“Stubbornness,” I heard Isabella say, “But it’s worked for you. It can work again.”

“Let’s not get our heads clouded, alright?”

I addressed the whole bowling alley with that. Lawrence, D, Isabella, myself. Even Sarah and Reggie, who had been sitting by the arcade the whole time, eyes on every entrance and exit.

Everyone needed to hear that. I needed to hear that.

He stayed still, slanted in his stance. Lawrence didn’t look any more at ease, just the opposite.

He looked like how I’d probably look if I was starved. Except the cravings were very different.

He breathed heavy.

“We have a fucking lot to figure out. What do you propose we do?”

Doing this for as long as I had, now, I learned that I wasn’t the ideas person. But, I had something to suggest, this time.

“When I was in the mob, I ran into someone. Jasmine. I think she likes me.”

“Very nice,” Lawrence said. “Who gives a fuck?”

D whined and stomped her foot.

“Meaning,” I said, “She wants me to see her again, so that gives me an in. I slip into their ranks, figure out where they’re being deployed, and we can set them up there.”

“Donnie knows you, too, Wendy,” Lawrence said. “He might even know too much. If he really is running this thing, and he gets even a hint that you’re in close, it’s over.”

“It won’t get to that point. It shouldn’t. You want to talk to him? I never intended to deny you that. Just give me and D an avenue to give you support, because the way you were talking earlier made it sound like you wanted to go off on your own. And we can’t have that, not now.”

It wasn’t lost on me, how the three of us were standing. Me, closer to the shadows, where the limited power of the bowling alley didn’t reach. Lawrence, in the light, a bead of sweat running down one side of his face. D, still hugging that ball, giving both of us worried looks.

We had just gotten exactly where we wanted to be. Then why did it feel like we were all in our own separate corners?

Lawrence was the first one to move, or slant the other way in his corner.

“Not a bad proposal. We could start things in that direction.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Fuck. I need sleep.”

D groaned.

“Been there,” I said. “Not fun.”

“I need something to help me sleep.”

Bringing his hands to his head, he ran fingers through his hair, even tugging on it. He fell back into his seat.

“Fuck,” Lawrence said, “Fuck. I hate what this is doing to me, I hate that I need this shit. I thought I’d have everything under control by now, like everything, but I don’t. I feel like shit. I feel like shit but I need shit to make me feel less like shit but I makes me feel like shit all the more. Fuck.”

Now Lawrence was tugging at his hair.

“I don’t know what’s happening. I’m not like you, Wendy, I don’t have powers, and I’m not whatever D actually is. I’m not as capable as you two, I’m just normal. I feel like I’ve been falling behind, and I need this shit just to keep up. But now, more shit keeps happening and I need more shit for that shit.”

The curses were making him sound more and more vague and detached, but I felt him all the same.

“Oh, Ellie, you’re not normal!”

“D,” I said, almost as tired as Lawrence. Almost.

She stepped forward with bowling ball.

“I’m serious!” she said. “You’re better than normal, you’re way more awesomer! You’re the face of the Fangs! And you have really good movie tastes and you can laugh at some of my jokes now and you liked whenever I came over to check on you and baked pusties!”

She took a step with every exclamation.

I looked at him. “Is this true, Lawrence?”

Lawrence either chuckled or coughed again. Hard to tell.

“Fuck off. Like I’d admit it.”

Somehow, despite everything, a smile passed my lips.

“Face it, Lawrence, you’re just like us now.”

Lawrence chucked, dry.

“God, don’t say that. That sounds so harrowing.”

It was the closest thing to levity we had between the three of us. I used it to pivot to another point. For Lawrence’s sake.

I spoke.

“We need rest, but you especially, Lawrence. And you need to seriously start tapering off on those drugs.”

He nodded and shook his head. Mixed messages.

“Yeah!” D shouted. “Before we split up I want to you empty pockets, sir!”

Languid, but still responsive, he put a hand into his pocket, and took out a tiny plastic bottle. Shining off the faint light of the bowling alley, there were only a few pills left.

Moaning, he then mumbled, “Never wanted to get high off my own supply, yet here I am. Fuck me.”

He opened the bottle and tossed the whole thing into a dark corner. The pills spilled out and clattered underneath chairs and racks.

“I’ll have the janitors get that in the morning,” D said. She sounded momentarily satisfied.

Lawrence had to fight to get back to his feet. In this moment, he won out.

“Anything else we need to talk about?” he asked. “Or anything we have to get done tonight?”

We don’t have to talk about Alexis Barnett.

“That should be it,” I said. “If you want to leave and get back to sleep, then please, I’d actually recommend it. D and I will stick around for a bit, but we won’t do anything concrete without your knowing.”

“I might actually listen this time. It’s late. I’m about to die.”

“You’re about to go to bed and have the best sleep ever,” D said. “Goodnight Ellie!”

Lawrence waved, weak, but it was a genuine effort. He turned, and started to walk.

I watched his back, shaded by shadow, more gloom covering him as the distance grew. When he got to the exit and went out the door, the dark took him in completely.

I searched for Sarah, and found her easily. Still by the arcade. I was so glad she was safe.

I beckoned for her. Reggie too.

They came over.

“So, Jasmine?” Sarah immediately asked. “What she like?”

“What?”

“Er, nothing. Yeah, Voss?”

“Could you guys look after Lawrence, follow him back to his place? Just to make sure he gets back alright.”

Reggie answer, “We can do that, Voss, sure.”

“Thank you,” I said, as Reggie started to turn. Sarah went to follow, but not before having her hand brush against mine.

The only amount of physical contact we had all day. And she wouldn’t be coming over tonight.

I watched her as she left, going into that dark. I longed.

Then it was just me and D. Isabella too.

“This is a mess,” I said.

“Tell me about it,” D replied, “Usually I’m the one who makes them, not cleans them up! It’s super lame.”

Still holding the bowling ball, she went back to her lane, preparing to toss it in.

“Better to make a mess of them before they come back and do it again. That’s more to clean up.”

Isabella wasn’t up for playing, preferring to watch and make the occasional comment. Sometimes it helped. Other times, it felt like she was getting me to do something else.

“Before we go and do anything crazy and equally messy,” I said, “Are there any other bases we need to cover? Mrs. Carter? Styx?”

“I kind of don’t want to see either of them,” D said. “Mrs. Carter would want us to handle this by ourselves, and Styx would just use this as an opportunity to cash in his third favor or something. So, no thank you.”

“Okay, I get that. Anyone else? Gomez, maybe?”

“Uncle J?”

D hopped and dropped the ball. It rolled, bouncing between the bumpers that prevented the ball from falling into the gutter. It continued that way until it reached the pins. They crashed.

“Aw! So close!”

A seven-ten split. Only two pins were left standing.

D set her hands on her hips and faced me again. Upset, but she was playing it up.

“Uncle J would work. We could see if he knows something.”

“Cool. I owe him a visit now for him sticking his nose back into our territory, might as well get him to talk. But, we should wait for Lawrence in the morning, when he’s in a better headspace.”

“Maybe not.”

I glanced at Isabella.

“Lawrence is weak. He’s always been weak, and now he’s getting weaker. It won’t be long until all strength has left his body and he ends up as deadweight.”

“Maybe…” I said, but I didn’t finish the thought.

I was worried about Lawrence. I was worried about everything. But most of all, I was worried that Isabella might be right.

D made a sound. “What was that?”

“No. It’s… it’s nothing.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

103 – Meltdown!

Previous                                                                                               Next

Lawrence was sweating. Granted, there were several factors as to why that was the case, but still. Having to host, being presentable, and attempting to make a good impression on a senior who might have had a reason to not like us. I could see how that was cause for stress.

But still…

His skin was clammy, he tumbled over his words on occasion, and how he walked was too deliberate, having to think over every step, every movement. Again, he could just be trying to consider the guests, but still.

But still.

“And you’re proud of this collection you have here?”

Inez had her nose turned up while she asked. Incredulous. She walked in step with Lawrence, but her pace was more measured, almost like she was the one leading the way. Lawrence struggled to keep an even stride with her.

The whole thing was hard to watch. Where I had the sharp teeth and bite, Lawrence was supposed to have a tongue of silver. What did it say, when the face of the gang looked so unwell?

“We might not be at the Mazzucchelli, but we do have several pieces that would be worthy of such a place. Take this piece, here.”

Lawrence raised an arm, pointing to the specific piece he had mentioned. The last one down this hall, in the East wing of the museum. A painting.

Wasn’t any artwork I’d seen before. Must have missed it during my one and only proper visit to the gala.

It was a quaint, reserved work of art. One that wasn’t trying to be flashy with its colors or technique, but rather creating and capturing a mood that one had to sit with and contemplate. It didn’t strike so much as it did stir.

A portrait of a man. Elderly, with a soft expression on his face. A few, small brushstrokes reflected a certain sadness in his eyes, but he didn’t look particularly troubled. It didn’t consume him, it didn’t swallow him. There was a distinct line between his lips, turned up, so slight. There was a gloom that the man had lived through, but he learned to live through it, live with it.

Quick dashes of violet hues shaped the man’s face, shoulders, upper body. His hands were clasped together, in his lap, one resting on top of the other. The coloring was kept simple, monochromatic, focusing more on forming things through lighting and shading. The presentation had a surrealness to it, but the overall sentiment was so very real. Despite the torrent behind the man’s eyes, and maybe behind the painter themselves, there was a calm that permeated the piece. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, myself, aside from a strange mixture of longing. And dread.

If I had come across this while I was going through the gala, I probably would have given it a pass. It was too real, it hit too close. The eyes looked through me, too deeply.

I stayed back as Lawrence waited for Inez and her crew.

“Not would be,” Inez said, “It has been. I’ve seen this piece before. You just stole it from their walls.”

“We all work in the same industry,” Lawrence said, “Is crime not our craft?”

Inez turned to get a better look at the painting. I only had the back of her head to work with, now, but I could read her body language. She wasn’t being very subtle about it.

Her shoulders stiffened, lifting them up. She rolled them back, and as she relaxed again, Inez angled her head. Turning her nose upward, over Lawrence. With heels, she towered over Lawrence, and he was already taller than me.

I could only imagine the look she had in her eyes. I wasn’t envious of Lawrence at all.

“I deal, young man. I make offers and then others take them. Power, wealth. That is how I build these things. Respect. I do not need to resort to simple thievery like the common thug.”

Ugh. She wasn’t even addressing me directly, and she still got me heated. I knew why, though. Because it was my gang she was putting down. My people, and that included people like Sarah.

Lawrence was rankled, too, but I saw him work to keep his composure. Lawrence laughed. It was a nervous one. Not a good look.

Shit. At this venture I’d be doing a better job than him.

No, wait. Fuck that. If I was in Lawrence’s position, this would have turned into a bloody mess, quick. Literally.

And the last thing we needed right now was a mess.

My hand closed into a fist as I watched Lawrence struggle.

“You could say we had set the stage to play the role of the common thug. But even so, would the common thug be able to rob the biggest art museum in the city, on the night it would be the most guarded, occupied by the rich and the elite? Most, if any at all, wouldn’t even make it to the front steps of the place. We managed all of that, and it was but one part of a grander plan.”

Lawrence hoped that would be enough to impress her. Hell, I did, too.

Still facing the direction of the painting, her back to me. Nothing in her posture suggested that at all.

“By grand plan, do you mean running into the smoke of a convenient fire?” Inez questioned.

God, she was as bad as Mrs. Carter, maybe even worse. At least Mrs. Carter was able to congratulate us, give us our props. She even welcomed us. Inez, though? What was her fucking problem?

But, that was why we invited her here, to the museum that Lawrence made his base. It was just that the process was like pulling teeth.

Something I wouldn’t have been opposed to inflicting upon our… esteemed fucking guest.

Lawrence took a noticeable second to provide a response.

“Smoke and mirrors, Lady Inez, deception is one of the most important tools we have at our disposal, and I think we showed a good display of that, on that night. If you believed that fire to be a convenience, then we did our job better than we expected, and we more than earned our seat at the table.”

Inez straightened out her back. As if she wasn’t tall already.

“Not a fire, then, but a hellblaze. And if you’re the one who lit the match and threw it, young man, then it proves just how reckless and hot-headed you really are. By throwing caution to the wind with this stunt to impress the panel, you risk causing a fire you had no control over.”

“Doesn’t everything come with a bit of risk? Given the circumstances, we did well enough to win over the panel, did we not?”

“Hm.”

Inez had folded her arms, squared her shoulders, judging from her outline. Most of her body was covered by a dark brown long coat, with a texture that suggested it could have been skinned from an animal. What kind? I had no guesses, there.

In this exchange of words, it was Inez’s turn, and she was taking her time. She stared ahead at the painting, deep in thought. Seemingly. I did not envy Lawrence in the slightest.

I stayed back, closer to the shadows. Right where I belonged.

Keeping watch until something went wrong. Which it might.

I willed Lawrence to get his head back in the game.

If it wasn’t so clouded with pills.

Then, finally, Inez spoke.

“This painting, it’s a very particular piece. A relatively obscure piece from a relatively obscure artist, only recognized by critics due to his storied past and the people he influenced. Either you only happened to pick this by chance, or you actually have some developed taste.”

Lawrence faced the painting. I saw him fix his posture. Not completely straight, but straighter.

“The latter,” Lawrence said. Breathy, but it was with the most confidence I’d heard from since Inez’s group got here. “LIke I suggested, I do know what I’m doing, and that extends to my gang, too. You’re right, this man’s work isn’t well known or appreciated by the general public, but I did come across some his paintings while digging into other stuff. Movies, and then documentaries. Some of them talked about his art during his time in East Asia. It was only for a brief time, but if you compare-”

“Yes. I am aware. After his visit, his art moved from the idyllic portrayals of landscapes, to almost exclusively self-portraits. His style shifted as well, veering away from his more picturesque attempts at realism to this more abstract, yet stark approach. The art and subject matter had changed so intensely the few peers and friends he had refused to believe it was his work.”

“It wasn’t so much what he decided to paint, it was how. They weren’t prepared to see how the man saw himself, when he returned.”

The two conversed, on a level that seemed more even for Lawrence. He was able to keep up, or she was letting him keep up. But if that was the case, than he had already lost ground, here.

And we would have wasted time inviting someone over, only for them to insult us in our own home.

That was the last fucking thing we needed, right now. We got here, we earned our spot. We were riding that wave up. We didn’t need anyone to come and knock us down.

Lawrence, please.

Inez’s turn. Again.

“It’s been suggested that he’s always had that particular view of himself. From personal journal entries, to accounts by those who could only stand to be with him for more than a few minutes. Manic, self-destructive, obsessed with the idea of creating something that he perceived to be worthwhile and would last. To be one of the greats. That was his fuel, but it burned him on the inside. And flames have a habit of wanting to burst, escape into the open air.”

Turning again to Lawrence, she continued, no longer willing to give him any space to speak. Like I figured, she was playing him. Us.

“Do you know how he died?”

Lawrence was sweating. More from nervousness than anything else in his system. I’d bet.

He was about to answer, but Inez cut him off. Toying with him.

“He died a young man. Got into opioids during his time in the East. Overdose.”

I could see the look on his face. I could bet I had the same look when Natalie gave me Alexis’ name. Like we had seen a ghost.

Fear.

Lawrence was too out of it now to give a proper response. Too shaken.

Inez toyed with that, too.

“This artist thought he could be more than what was around him, and then, more than his own self. That was why he painted what he painted. He wanted a legacy that would last well after he was gone. And in the end, maybe he got that. I do wonder if this was what he had in mind, exactly. As I mentioned, relative obscurity.”

This conversation was going off in a totally different direction, with Inez at the lead. Not at all how I would have liked for this thing to go. But here we were, because of her.

Lawrence, finally, managed to get enough of his bearings back to say something.

“I wouldn’t be able to speak for him, but I suppose it would almost be fitting, that he’d be disappointed.”

Inez paused, brief.

“Yes. That’s one thing we can agree on.”

Lawrence shifted in place. He looked as if he’d need assistance just to keep standing on two feet.

Dammit. He insisted that’d he be fine. And we all let him go out there, like that. Part of that was on us, now. On me, on D.

I was starting to sympathize with Lawrence, though. He had to have felt the exact same way when dealing with me. Dammit.

Lawrence spoke, and it wasn’t with much spirit. If anything, it sounded like he had little left.

“But, yes, as hopefully you now see, I- the Fangs, we know what we’re doing, and we wouldn’t have gotten that seat if we hadn’t-”

A clear sound rang throughout the wing. Inez shifted to face Lawrence straight on. Her heel struck the marble floor, producing a note that resonated through everyone. It made me freeze and want to recoil, and I was already hanging as far back as I could.

Being as close to the epicenter as he was, Lawrence shook, needing a step back, stumbling that made me scared that he’d take a fall. He didn’t. But he could have.

And I was getting scared that I’d have to insert myself into this.

Inez made herself clear.

“Really, young man? You play with fire and steal the painting of a man who did the very same? Did you already forget his ultimate fate, or is this another sad facet of his tragic legacy?”

Lawrence stammered, but nothing came out.

Inez took his turn, and pushed the game further.

“I know why you invited me here, today, and I have no problem telling it to your face, young man. Yes, I did cast a vote against the Fangs.”

By this point, it wasn’t a surprise, anymore.

Taking it in, Lawrence made himself stiff, bracing himself for more. Because more was coming.

“I can’t and won’t tell you how others voted, but I can give you my reasons. Mrs. Carter was right, changes are happening in Stephenville, and a gang like yours represents that very clearly. However, I disagree that these changes needed to be embraced. Much like fire, your gang is unpredictable, wild, liable to destroy everything in your path, turning it all to cinders. Do we really need a group like that, at the table? Do I?”

You’re not that far off, I thought.

Lawrence, though, looked as if he didn’t have a single thought in his head. Struggling wasn’t the right word, because that would have suggested an attempt, an effort. There was no such struggle in Lawrence, no fight. Not anymore.

He had completely given up that this would go well.

I did, too.

Poor Lawrence.

Inez then turned, her sharp eyes piercing through me like daggers. The hair at the back of my neck stood at the ends, and I was aware how I was standing. Leaning towards her, slight, needing just a brush of wind to push me and make me lunge right at her.

I balled up my fist, doing everything I could just to keep standing, keep myself staying here.

We didn’t need that, we didn’t need that mess.

Her stare was like a dagger, because it was short, cold as ice when it passed through me, and left me in a startled yet readied state, ready to retaliate. She pulled back, though, pulled the blade out of me.

“And I’m concerned with the kind of fire you have at your disposal. I’ve read the official reports by the police, but everyone has. Explosives, thermite. But what truly worries me and the others who voted against you is what the police didn’t report, what’s being whispered in hallways and back corners, because we have ears, there. We listen. And we heard something about the Bluemoon, or someone very similar to them.”

Lawrence replied, it surprised me that he did.

“The Bluemoon is gone, probably dead. No one has seen them last year.”

“Last year wasn’t that long ago, young man. Solace did have a part in waning the Bluemoon, but none of us really know what we’re up against, with that. It can always rise again, it might even take on another shape, another phase.”

Inez sounded so pleased with herself, as if she was the only one who had cracked the code. In truth, she wasn’t so far off, but that arrogance rubbed me the wrong way. Raw. Red.

If she found out, if it came out…

Well, it’d be too late for them to do anything, wouldn’t it? We were already where we needed to be. The timeline of things would just be moved up a little.

Still, using Lawrence’s words, deception was one our most important tools.

“If you’re suggesting that the Bluemoon has been back and working with us,” Lawrence said, “Then you would be mistaken.”

Mistaken on a technicality.

Lawrence continued, “Rumors are just that. Unsubstantiated. Shapes lurk in the shadows, and when the human eye can’t make out what’s there, it fills in the blank for you. That’s how you get monsters, the things you can’t really touch, so you fear it. Like changes.”

That prompted the first, genuine reaction from Inez. She unfolded her arms, her hands moving onto her hips instead. The crew she had with her reacted, too, getting more tense, stirring. As though they were an extension of her.

All Lawrence had for an extension right now was me. I hoped that would be enough for him.

Inez kept that pose, a new sort of defense for Lawrence to try and penetrate. But he wouldn’t have the strength to do it. He was too out of it, out of sorts.

He was sweating.

“I fear nothing, young man,” Inez answered, “But as I said, I do know why you invited me, today. You want to win me over, change my mind? If nothing else, this day won’t be a complete waste if I can get some entertainment out of watching you try. Come. Show me if you Fangs really have teeth.”

And then Inez left, or took down towards another corner of the wing. Her crew went with her, leaving Lawrence behind.

With me in the distance, in that brief moment, it was me, Lawrence, and that painting. How it gazed, content with the chaos in his life, but ultimately doomed to it.

Lawrence looked away from the painting, to Inez, and I looked at Lawrence.

I watched him wipe his brow, and follow. For him, this was far from over.

For all of us, really.

I was about to follow, too, take a step, when my phone vibrated.

Giving the message a quick read, I walked, but not in Lawrence’s direction. I went other way, leaving Lawrence to his own devices, at a time when his own devices weren’t working so well for him.

Sorry, Lawrence.

Poor guy.

I maneuvered through empty halls, displays and other paintings were my only company as I turned onto the path back to Lawrence’s office.

Pushing through the weighty doors, I returned.

Sarah, D and Isabella. They were all doing their own thing, but they all shared a collective air of anxiety. One I drew breath from, too.

D was sitting in Lawrence’s desk, her face illuminated by the open laptop in front of her. Her face was screwed up in a tight expression, studying whatever was on her screen, fretting over something. Isabella sat in the corner, in the shadows, not really doing much of anything.

Sarah.

Sarah. Sarah. Sarah.

Just seeing her, it lifted me, made me flutter. Repeating myself was lame, but it was either that, or tumble over my own words. And after watching Lawrence, I’d spare myself the effort.

“Hi,” I said, addressing the room. There wasn’t much else to say.

Sarah was already looking at me. She smiled, but it was dampened somewhat but the surrounding circumstances. Couldn’t blame her.

D was next, popping her head up from her screen.

“You’re back!”

“Only because you asked me, too.” I lifted my phone. I dropped it into my pocket. “Lawrence isn’t doing too hot. And that could be seen as joke, considering how hard he was sweating it out there, but there isn’t really anything funny about it.”

D frowned. She looked legitimately upset, but there wasn’t anything she could do about it. Knowing her, she would have already had things in motion.

“He won’t listen to a thing I say.”

“He’s not listening to anything anyone says,” I rebutted. “I’ve come to learn he can get pretty fucking stubborn.”

“We all are,” D said. “You, Vivi, and me especially. Maybe even Sarah.”

She pointed at Sarah using her lips.

Sarah shrugged, a slight smirk on her face.

“That could be a fair assessment. Stubbornness has gotten me this far.”

She eyed me as she said that.

Lame.

I smirked back.

“It’s gotten us here, sure, but it’ll only take us so far,” D said. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” I asked.

“I-”

D massaged her neck, tugging at her choker.

She then sighed. “We’ll need more than this if we want to keep the momentum going.”

“Like what? Any ideas?”

Shaking her head, D’s hair whipped around her face.

“I dunno. I’m tired.”

If D of all people couldn’t think of anything, then we had a problem. But, expecting so much from someone so young…

It was reckless.

“More fire, more burning things,” Isabella said, from her little corner in the dark. “Like Inez.”

“Inez is giving us exactly what we needed from her. Lawrence, no, we just aren’t giving her what she needs. If we can’t show her why we earned our place… it sets us back, but not by much. We’re already here, and they can’t call for a vote to get rid of us so soon, right?”

Then I considered it.

“Right?” I asked, a little less sure.

“I don’t know how Mrs. Carter does things. Maybe? We probably in some grace period at the moment, but we shouldn’t push, it probably won’t last long.”

“We shouldn’t push it… but we are. I hope Lawrence… I hope we can get our shit together.”

“You’ll figure it out,” Sarah said. “I believe in you.”

From anyone else, I would have taken those a hollow sentiment. But from Sarah, it made me able to stand a little taller.

“Start by turning Inez into ashes,” Isabella said. “Burn her and her operation down.”

“For the next meeting, let’s go with someone who actually likes us,” I said. “My ego doesn’t need another beatdown.”

“Probably for the best,” D said, “But I think we should move on to something else. For the time being.”

She flipped the laptop around, showing me the screen. I walked closer to the desk to get a better read on it.

“You got this from Nathan again?” I asked, reading the message.

“Yeah, can you believe that? He’s been really helpful, lately. He’s the best.”

“I’m sure he didn’t have a choice but to help you. So, anyways, what is this? Something about a meeting?”

“Ah, right, not a meeting, actually, more like a gathering, or… what’s a good word for a lot of people coming together for a party but it’s not really a party like they’re not going there for fun and the cops might be there because there’s probably to be a lot of trouble?”

“Um… sounds like a riot to me,” I said.

D nodded. “Riot! Right. It’s going to be a riot.”

I could feel the energy in the air. A tension that reached. Reaching for the night sky, wanting to pull the moon and stars down to earth, crashing it all around us.

D wasn’t wrong about this. Where there was tension, there was the risk of a snap. And the risk was high. It reached.

A lot of people at the Wellport Skate Park. Kids, adults. Protesters and police.

Enough had gathered that this could get real ugly, real fast.

The entire park was packed, everyone standing shoulder to shoulder. No room to push through, unimpeded, on a skateboard.

There were several rings of people, surrounding the entrance of the park itself. Sort of like the bottom half of a target, if I had pulled back and up, looking from a roof.

Kids and younger adults in the park, doing everything they could, given the little room they had to work with. They still managed a lot.

Cheering, yelling into the open air, over loud music. Rocking back and forth to the beat. The bass boomed, contrasted by the higher shrills. Different groups in the crowd were chanting different things at different intervals, so it was hard to discern what the actual message was. The feeling, however, was made as clear and bright as the moon.

Frustration.

The first ring around the park and its entrance were the cops. Police cars were parked in wait, lights flashing, spinning through strong red and blue hues. Unlike those in the park, they were more stationary, communicating with other at intervals, getting the occasional update, making sure this wouldn’t get out of hand. As much as I wasn’t fond of a police presence in my territory, they were doing a decent job on keeping an eye on things.

Doing most of the work for us.

The second ring were the onlookers, those who were here just for the spectacle of it. Watching, taking videos, wasting their time. It bugged me, seeing them here, seeing everyone here. Too many eyes on my territory. Too much scrutiny and pressure. Pressure that could burst.

Then the last ring, the one farthest back, was us. The Fangs, watching everything and everyone, making certain that the situation wouldn’t get any worse.

In that way, I hoped D was wrong about this becoming a riot.

“I don’t like this,” I said out loud. I shared my sentiments with D.

“Me too me too,” D said. She hopped a few times, trying to get a better look, but everyone around was too tall for her. She made a growling sound.

If we watched from rooftops, we’d immediately get spotted by the police. We needed to keep a low profile, here.

D immediately casted that aside as she scrambled to the top of the van, standing on it. She put her hands to her eyes, pretending to hold binoculars.

“Wow, that’s a lot of people!”

“D!” I hissed, “Get down from there!”

We were at the edge of the action. Too far to be noticed, but close enough to get a sense of things.

But there was still a sizable group around us, and it wasn’t just our Fangs. Some I could categorize as part of that second ring.

Some stared as D acted out. Stood out.

I hissed again, between sharp teeth.

D!”

Groaning, D hopped to the ground, dusting herself off. Exaggerating.

“I saw Uncle J,” D said, just under her breath, as if the man in question could somehow hear her, over all this noise.

“Gomez?”

“Over there!” D pointed and hopped, but she wasn’t indicating any specific direction. I knew to look for him now, though.

“I didn’t like this before, and now I’m worried,” I said. “Everyone’s coming out tonight, makes it seem like something big is about to happen.”

“Something big is happening right now.”

I looked to my side. Not at D.

Nathan stood, hunched over with a lean, hat and then hood over his head.

“And shit is about to go down,” he added.

“And if you know what that shit is, now would be a good time to tell us,” I said.

“I don’t,” Nathan said, shaking his head. “I just know about this.”

“I appreciate you giving us the heads-up, though. But, are you going to be okay, standing around us like this?”

“It’s cool,” he said, cool. “No one knows I’m here, and it’s not like anyone really cares where I’m at, anyways.”

“I care!”

That was from D.

“You’re always free to join us,” I told him. “We could offer you protection, whatever that means to you. D brought up that you’ve been a help, lately. Again, I appreciate it.”

“Nah,” Nathan said, shoving his hands into the pockets of his hood. “Not my thing, this street shit. I’m just here because I’m here, you know? I didn’t ask for this.”

“Fair enough,” I said.

Up ahead, the crowd roared. I checked, but there wasn’t any new changes.

“Whatever happens here, it’ll fuck me up,” Nathan days, looking ahead. “So I have to let someone know, and the cops sure as shit won’t do anything about it.”

“In their defense, they’re here now.”

“Yeah, well, I still don’t trust them.”

Looking back into the crowd, I saw some of the cops, keeping everyone in the second ring at a distance. James Gomez was there, somewhere. Here in my territory. Even though I had given him my warning.

The park was stewing, the police keeping on a lid, but if pressure got to a boiling point…

“Let’s hope they won’t have to do anything but stand there,” I said. “D, any ideas?”

“I think… we should just see what happens.”

“You don’t think there’s a way to de-escalate this?”

“You’re asking the wrong person for that, Vivi. Our best bet would be that everyone leaves on their own, peacefully. But, knowing people, peace is kind of a pipe dream.”

It was disappointing, hearing that as a forgone conclusion.

“There’s only one way for this end. For everything.”

Isabella was leaning against the van, hanging farther back, hands tugging at her backpack.

Between D, Nathan, and Isabella, I felt somehow ancient. Sarah wasn’t here, having been sent out with the rest of the Fangs, extending our reach across the park and the surrounding streets. Lawrence was also absent, but he was sitting this out, entirely. After that performance in front of Inez this afternoon, he finally agreed to take the rest of the day off.

And as soon as we got settled, we could work on him, work on us. Me.

The constant running back and forth between different things. Taking care of the territory, meeting with the other gang leaders, and everything that was going on within the Fangs. Lawrence.

While I could sympathize with him wanting to push forward, he had his limits. He was human. I, however, was not.

“And let’s hope you’re wrong about that,” I said, to D and Isabella.

Before either of them could get a chance to respond, the crowd roared again, but it was more uniform, in response to something.

“My fellow soldiers!”

Heads everywhere turned. Mine included.

Off in the central area of the skate park, on top of one of a cement wall that repurposed into a ramp, someone was standing.

A man, from the overall build, but their face was obscured.

A mask?

Couldn’t tell what the exact design was, from here. They were too far.

And as if to directly contrast the mask, their outfit stuck out like a light in the dark. A bright neon green coat that reflected hard spotlights that hit him. The beams moved in coordination with one another, to keep the masked man in focus as he sauntered around, yelling into the megaphone.

The amount of planning just to set that up, it didn’t sit well with me.

“How- how is the energy tonight!”

The crowd at the park cheered, loud. I saw some of the cops tense up.

“Someone had to bring them all here,” I muttered.

“And he’s getting them all riled up,” D said.

“That sounds amazing! Fucking fierce!”

Once more, the crowd responded in turn.

“Before we begin, I want to thank our sponsors, for allowing us this space to freely express the hurt, and the injustice, that has been brought down upon us as a people!”

The voice sounded familiar, but the megaphone distorted it, masked it. I couldn’t pin it down.

“What’s he talking about?” I asked. “What people?”

“You didn’t notice?” Nathan questioned. “Or maybe I’m just not used to seeing that many Asian people all at once. Not in this neighborhood, anyways.”

I tried checking the crowd again, but like D, I wasn’t tall enough.

“No,” I said, “I didn’t pick up on that.”

The man was still saying his piece. Yelling it.

“These past weeks, these months, have been nothing but torture for us. The assaults, the violence, all because of a few, certain individuals. Harrian Wong, and the Blue-fucking-moon!”

The crowd shouted. The cops started communicating amongst each other.

I tensed.

“They said the Bluemoon was one of us, looked like you or me, but what does that justify? What does that suggest? That we’re monsters? That we’re something to be feared? Is this what America thinks of us? Huh?”

Several people got up on the platform the man was standing on. Each were holding briefcases and heavy bags. Several were getting them open.

“Well fuck that noise! If they want to give us smoke, we’ll hit them like a fucking flood!”

“D…” I said.

“I know.”

One of the people by the masked man handed him a briefcase. He raised it into the air. The others started tossing stuff out into the crowd. I couldn’t see what it was from where we were.

But the cops were winding up. Tension.

“Countless victims, brothers and sisters who aren’t getting the protection they need. They’ve had to come to me for that shit!”

The briefcase fell upon, releasing the contents into the air. Paper, stacks of them, getting caught by the wind, carried far across the park and the rings of people.

The man kept lecturing while the papers soared.

“No more, yeah? We’re taking our shit back! I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time, and now, I am finally allowed the means. My own Helter Skelter.”

A crowd, a gathering, but it wasn’t a party. Loud pops blasted into the air like firecrackers.

This isn’t a party.

Screams, roars. From everyone.

I felt the people around us falter, get pushed back.

Guns.

Snap.

“They were handing out guns into the crowd,” I said.

“Not just they,” D said, “I think it’s-”

A gunshot stole that last word from D’s mouth. It was close, loud.

The panic was spreading out, far and wide. The crowd was rushing out from the park, continued to be egged on by the masked man. Firing, shooting at the rings of people surrounding them.

I pulled D on instinct, hugging her close, retreating back to the van.

“It was a trap, for everyone!” I yelled, “We have to get out of here!”

“Shit!”

I turned and saw Nathan, already running away, getting submerged into a wave of people, rushing out from the park.

Police were already taking action, firing back, but they didn’t have anything lethal, just standard equipment to handle a riot, which this now was.

No, worse.

This was so much worse.

A literal, bloody mess.

I pushed D into the van, I left the door open for Isabella to get in.

“Close it!” D yelled.

I closed it.

The window was kept up, so I had to yell to coordinate a quick plan.

“Get the other Fangs! Make sure they’re okay, leave containing this to the cops!”

Make sure Sarah’s okay, I thought.

“What about you?” D yelled. More shots rang out, louder. They were coming closer.

With my thoughts still on Sarah, I answered.

“Maybe I can find the guy in the mask!”

Vivi-”

“I won’t be long, I won’t be stupid! Go!”

The van started, moving in reverse. It didn’t move very fast, now that there was a lot of people trying to get through.

I turned.

I faced the crush of people. Chaos and confusion gripped the scene and brought everything and everyone down with them.

I swatted at something close to my face.

Papers had scattered all throughout the place. Descending like gentle snow, which contrasted against the simultaneous and sudden hail of bullets.

My fingers wrapped around the paper, clutching it. As more flew around me, I-

I only meant to get a glance, but what I saw caught my eye. Stole it, really.

Standing stock-still, I watched the weather around me swirl. Snow and hail.

Etched into the elements, engraved deep with the color of an apparition, hundreds of Alexis Barnetts drifted past, dispersing into the open air.

Previous                                                                                               Next

102 – Wings of Wax

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Wind brushed through my hair, sweeping it past one ear. Sarah was right, my hair had gotten long.

I fixed it myself, brushing a loose strand away from my face. A nibbling want in the back of head was asking for Sarah to do it for me.

And I could have. She was right there.

Seemed like it would have been too much, though.

The sun shined without a single cloud to block its rays. A week had passed since the rain and clouds greyed the skies. Now, it was a clear blue that pierced through.

Outside, sitting by the storefront of a cafe. I was exposed to the elements, but it was something I could weather.

Cold air nipped, but it didn’t bite. I could still feel the tip of my nose, my face as it got warm when I looked. Outside, but I hadn’t gone numb. Just the opposite, really. I was in a flutter.

“Is this a good spot?”

I was already looking at her when she asked.

A bright red hat, or a beret, whatever she called it. It was petite in size, and it didn’t look goofy when she wore it. I could imagine it looking stupid on me.

She had round shades that framed her face, a scarf that bundled around her neck. A black sweater and coat made her outfit even more trendy and chic. She didn’t have to go all out today, but she did, but it was hard muster any disappointment when she looked that good.

A pair of jeans had completed the look, but I couldn’t see them from where I was, across the round metal table chair we were sharing. But I had already stolen a glance or several on our way over here.

Oh right. There was a question I had to answer.

“Should be,” I said, finally getting to it. “It’s not like we can move now. You already got a coffee.”

“We can move,” Sarah said. “Do you want to move?”

“We don’t have to. This can work.”

“But it can be better. If you want to, we can go somewhere else.”

“I said it’s fine.”

“I want to do what you think works best.”

I glanced up at her, trying to wear the most annoyed expression on my face. Trying, because it was only an attempt.

Sarah was across from me, holding her cup, covering her mouth with it, as if she was hiding behind it. From how her eyes crinkled at the corners, I could tell she was wearing a knowing smirk. It immediately broke through any facade I had.

As I thought, it was only an attempt.

Me. Sarah. The very idea that we could even fit in the same sentence. Sarah and I.

A week, and I still couldn’t wrap my head around it.

That slow day had been extended into seven more, marked with late nights and later mornings, waking well after the sun had already gotten up. It was a routine of sorts, and I wouldn’t have minded if it actually became routine. I could absolutely get used to the pattern we were falling into.

It did leave me with a nagging thought, however, like how fragile everything was, or how fragile I perceived everything to be, and how that affected my approach in things. This. The longer this went, the more scared I was that this could get ripped away from me. My whole existence, I felt, was a shaky and tumultuous one, not exactly the best foundation to start building… anything. At the very end, it might be akin to stacking a house of cards. It would be easy, for this to crumble.

I didn’t want this to crumble.

It made me second-guess myself. Just how serious was I supposed to take this? Was this a real thing, or was this just the current state of affairs?

Where did Sarah stand? Did it matter? Did I want it to?

Why was I always overthinking things?

I looked at Sarah again, like a habit, a routine. I thought it would a certain effect, but I found the opposite. My heart raced even faster.

From behind that cup, I could see the edges of her expression, the corners of her lips, turned up. So bright that there needed to be something to block it. Couldn’t be faced straight on.

But, at least in this very moment, those concerns seemed to melt away. There was only this, and if I could get myself to sit here and enjoy this, I might be able to relax.

It was a promising dream.

Sarah placed her cup back into the saucer. It was a smooth, practiced movement. Cool. Something I could never hope to replicate, myself.

What wasn’t cool, was when the wind tried to intrude on us again, blowing stray strands into my eyes. I had to fix my hair and glasses both.

“Let me get that.”

A hand reached for me, fingers brushing into my hair, pushing it to one side. It didn’t seem to help much, as the wind came back to try and undo most of the work. Maybe Sarah had the right idea, wearing a hat today.

I wasn’t about to complain. I didn’t even have to ask, that time. I’d let her take the lead. A small part of our routine.

Finally, the wind relented, and Sarah could start making some progress on me. Or my hair, rather. I angled myself forward, so she could have an easier time with it. It was only a few stray, but she fussed over it for much longer than she really had to.

Again, no complaints there.

“There,” Sarah said, seemingly satisfied with the results. She sat back into her seat. I was still sitting forward, lingering there, with something on the tip of my tongue, that nibbling want returning. I was hoping she would get that, too.

She didn’t, but I couldn’t fault her for it.

It hit me, where we were again. Outside, sitting at a cafe, people watching. Meaning that there were people around us.

Was I being too obvious?

I sat myself back, feeling a touch flustered over it. Stupid.

“Wendy.”

She was watching me, now. Or maybe she had been, this whole time.

“Yes?”

“Enjoying yourself?”

I could answer that honestly.

“Of course I am. Of course.”

I touched my hair. Then I realized it was the third time I had done that.

“But?” Sarah ventured.

I let out a breath.

“It’s not, it’s not any one thing, there’s just a lot on my mind, right now. But hey, isn’t everyone like that?”

“Sure, but you are not everyone. You are you.”

“I guess I am. But there’s more to it than that. I, um, sorry, I’m not trying to be lame right now.”

“We have time for lame.”

I really wasn’t trying to get into this now. But, we did have the time, I supposed. And we had to fill it with something. I supposed.

Sarah knew how to draw this stuff out of me. It was a dangerous power.

I started with a question.

“How does it taste? Your coffee?”

Sarah’s reaction was crucial. I watched for it.

There wasn’t one. Too muted and understated. She took it completely serious.

I found some comfort, in that.

Another part of our new routine. Whatever she tasted, she would share with me. We couldn’t exactly share a meal, so this was the closest thing we had.

Sarah lifted her chin, slight, lifting a finger to tap a steady rhythm as she thought. She was playing it up, I knew that much, even that was crucial to me. Sarah wanted me to know that she was putting in that effort. And that said so much to me that I couldn’t even begin to translate it. I knew how it made me feel, though. It made my eyes all watery.

Good nights, better mornings.

“Well, according to the menu, these beans were from South America. Columbia. So it has a tendency to be more sweet, not so acidic. But, it can have a nutty hint to it.”

A soft chuckle. “Nutty, huh? Sounds nutty.”

That prompted something similar from Sarah. “Sure is.”

“What else?” I asked. “You added, like, sugar and cream, right?”

I wanted to know more, demanded it. I wanted to savor every detail she could give me, I wanted to be selfish.

She said we’d have the time. She would have to indulge me.

“I did. There’s a natural sweetness to it, but, coffee is coffee. It’s always going to be bitter by itself. I had to punch it up with some sugar, some cream. Not too much, though, I didn’t want to spoil its original taste.”

“Can’t have that,” I said. “But I know how much of a sweet tooth you have.”

“I guess you do,” Sarah said. Then she smiled. “Am I describing it right? Or am I just boring you?”

“Not at all,” I replied. “I can’t get enough, really.”

“You are you,” she said, as if it was a matter of fact.

“And coffee is coffee,” I said, in much the same way. “Thank you so much, Sarah. I probably wouldn’t have been able to make it through this week if it weren’t for you.”

Sarah’s smile was warmer than the weather.

“I think you’d do just fine. But you know, not as fine if I wasn’t around.”

Her smile turned into a smirk. That effect had yet to diminish on me.

“I will not disagree with you there,” I said.

Our surroundings stirred, passing us by. People, cars in the distance, the wind. But there wasn’t anything to be concerned over. Not for a little while longer. It was just us, sitting here, stationary and completely in the moment. It was almost like nothing else mattered. That I could just… be here, and do this. With Sarah.

This, this right here? It wasn’t for V, and it sure as hell wasn’t for Alexis Barnett. This was mine, and mine alone. Wendy.

I knew it would be fleeting, and would escape from my grasp like sand from an hourglass. But for now, I’d use every ounce of my enhanced strength and hold on for as long as inhumanly possible.

“Once things start picking up again, it’s going to get harder to slip some time in during the day,” I said, “For stuff like this.”

“You’re right,” Sarah said. “It will be a hassle. But I doubt it’ll turn into a mess.”

“I hope not.”

“Which means I probably shouldn’t be coming over as often.”

I frowned at the prospect of that.

“That doesn’t sound fun at all.”

Sarah frowned, too, but it was a sympathetic one.

“I know, but there’s fun and there’s being realistic. People are starting to ask questions.”

“People? Who?”

She lifted a shoulder, nothing too committal.

“I’m kidding. Well, Reggie, even Tone. There’s only so many times they call me up for drinks and I’m not available, and I’m running out of excuses.”

“Just say work has been holding you up or something.”

“I don’t think that will fly so far when we all work for the same boss.”

“Well that sucks,” I said, plainly. There was a bit of sadness in those words that I didn’t expect, and I hoped they didn’t ring out, clear enough for Sarah’s ears to pick up.

I wanted her, I wanted this. And it sucked how fragile and how easy this could slip out of my hands. Or like it could get yanked away by a string.

I pressed my lips together and huffed. Hard enough to mess up my bangs, my hair.

I was overreacting.

“We’ll just have to pace ourselves,” Sarah said. As though she knew what was on my mind. “I’m still coming over tonight.”

I tried to stop myself from showing something on my face, but I didn’t have a cup to block Sarah’s view of me.

Darn.

From what she showed on her face, she saw. Darn. But whatever. I didn’t really care.

“Sweet,” I said.

“It is.”

This… I could have spent the rest of the day doing this. Another thirty minutes here, just chatting, then we could go to the Realm and look at clothes, maybe do some shopping. Then we could either go for dinner at the food court there, or a nearby place, or just take something and bring it back to my apartment. We’d watch a movie, maybe two, and just hang out until it got too late for Sarah to try and drive back home.

And then we would…

We’d do other stuff.

Thoughts crystallized in my head as they came to me. Too much to say out loud.

Before either of us could say something else, though, a new scene arrived. Not to pass us by, but to interrupt.

A car squealed as it swerved around a corner, music booming out of the open windows. Loud enough to turn heads, even ours, and I recognized it in an instant.

The gears turned in my head. Like I had put on my mask. The objective reason why I had come out, today.

“They’re here,” I said.

I remained seated, only watching as the car straightened onto the new street. The street the cafe was on. It was a silver muscle car, with black stripes running along the edges of the machine. It sprinted down the length of the street, squealing again as it came to a halt. The front of a general store on the other side.

The muscle car sat in park for a minute, rumbling with power, as if to flex what it had. They definitely weren’t shy about their presence.

Other people started to move on, going about the rest of their day. For me and Sarah, this was part of our day.

Doors on each side opened, people getting out. Four of them, not the driver, the car was still rumbling, alive.

They circled around, going into the store. It was a small detail, hard to see from a distance, but I saw it. A sign on the store’s entrance flipped to ‘closed.’

“I hate those guys already,” Sarah said. I heard her fingernail tap against her cup, irritated. “Cutting into our date like that?”

“Don’t worry,” I told her, kind of happy to hear Sarah call this a date, “If anything, we’re the ones that’ll do the cutting. We were waiting for them.”

“Figured that much, but what should I look out for?”

“You don’t have to do anything. We’re just here to confirm things.”

“And that’s it? Just for that?”

Sarah had raised the pitch of her voice. It made my face get all warm and dumb.

“And our date, of course,” I stammered.

“That’s all I wanted to hear.”

“Lame,” I said. “So so lame.”

We both shared a small laugh.

I kept my watch on the car ahead, though, the store. Nothing we could glean from this position, but we weren’t here to find out what they were up to. We just needed to know that they were here in the first place. Our territory.

According to D, who had gotten it from Nathan, some of youth who happened to live within our borders were becoming more and more… displeased with the changes happening around them.

Looking at it from their perspective, I could see it. The Thunders and the Royals had been rooted in the community, they had grown from it. And, from somewhere in the dark, those roots were ripped out, and another group moved in to fill in the cracks and gaps. How we operated was different than how they worked, pushing different weight, tagging different tags, and stamping out threats in different ways. My way.

It would make sense for the younger ones to want to rebel. With everything that was going down in the city, not unlike a downward spiral, their home was the last the place they wanted to start breaking apart, not making sense. They’d work to take it back, or they’d try, at least. I could give them that.

But that was as much as I’d give them.

Whatever it was they were planning, they wouldn’t get far. The Fangs were already onto them, ready to bite. We just had to keep an eye on them, wait until they were about to make a move, then we’d would go and pay them a visit. Give them a good enough scare as V so they wouldn’t try anything again.

It was a simple plan, but this was a simple problem. Just part of the process of holding onto a territory. Mundane, in all honesty.

I looked at the sign above the store and tried to read it. Tried, because I couldn’t read those characters.

Chinese, definitely not Japanese. But it was a store owned by someone from the Asian community.

A small detail, but it was too early to draw any conclusions with that.

For now, I’d watch. With Sarah.

“Any thoughts so far?” Sarah asked.

“Thoughts? I think we’ll be able to handle this. It just some unruly kids. Nothing I haven’t dealt with, myself.”

I thought of D when I said that. Not so much Isabella.

“I can imagine,” Sarah said.

“Yeah, and it looks like you picked a good spot for us, after all. We have an eye on them, and we’re at a safe distance. And I can hear all about your delicious coffee.”

“You still haven’t had enough?”

“I am always up for more.”

“Well, you know, I’m just trying to do my part.”

She sounded pleased with herself.

“And you’re doing great,” I said.

“Are you referring to anything in particular?”

“Everything,” I said.

It was a moment that ultimately came and went, but I managed to get a hold on it, if only for a short moment.

The moment passed, and then it was back to work.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. I kept my eyes on the store and the car as I got it out, only glancing to check the new message.

My heart skipped a small beat.

“Done with your coffee?” I asked Sarah.

“Just about,” she said. “Why? We’re heading out?”

“Just about,” I answered. “Got a text from Lawrence. Looks like the committee has come to a decision, and they’re ready to tell us.”

“Meaning?”

“We’re about to see if we’ll get a seat at the round table, and be among the leaders of the biggest gangs in Stephenville.”

“That’s exciting.”

“If it works out, sure,” I said. “Lawrence must be freaking out over it.”

I am, too, but I can’t tell you about it.

Pangs of guilt. There had been one when I considered Lawrence, but now…

I hated the thought of hiding this from Sarah. My real plan with the city and the Fangs. She was in the dark about all of it, and it hurt.

Was there a way of getting her out, before it was too late? Bring her with me? Would she even want to be there, when it all fell down? At my side?

It hurt, thinking about it.

There was still this, though, this moment. If I could hold it…

“We should get ready for when Lawrence calls for us again,” I said, “No need to stick around anymore.”

“We got what needed from here?”

“We did.”

The two of us prepared to leave, gathering our belongings, and for my part, gathering my thoughts.

The Fangs, the table, Lawrence, Sarah. When all was said and done, what would be left? Who would still be around?

The thought of being alone, it froze me cold. Worse than the weather around us.

“So the rest of our day is put on hold?” Sarah questioned. Disappointed.

I was, too.

“Doesn’t have to be,” I said. “We should have some time before then.”

Sarah looked relieved to hear that, in a way that set me at ease.

“Then let’s not waste any more time.”

I nodded, unable to suppress a coming grin. I’d let it get plastered on my face, even if it looked stupid. Because with Sarah, it was the only time I could show some stupidity, without any real consequences.

“If it’s you,” I said, “I don’t want to waste a second.”

“You’re right on time.”

Mrs. Carter didn’t sound impressed as she addressed us.

“Not a second late,” Lawrence said. “Wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

This was it. The moment of truth.

Ironic, since we had to cover up the truth to get here.

We were back at the table. It was round, yet Mrs. Carter somehow managed to find the head of the table and position herself there. Part of the effect could have been attributed to the fact that she was standing, angling herself so she looked down on everyone, even Styx, but I figured it was more simple than that.

She just commanded presence.

Everyone was on edge. Or, it was either that, or I was so on edge that I projected that onto everyone else. Every scratch, itch, cough, shake of the head. Every low chuckle from Styx.

I could feel my stomach twist into knots. Knots into knots. The tension was so tight that it might snap.

It probably would, if this went on for any longer-

I nearly jumped out of my seat.

Something tapped my leg, by my thigh. Stiff, I looked in that direction.

Sarah passed me a glance. It was only through her eyes, there were too many others on us for anything else to be shared.

I’d take it, though. It helped.

My eyes went back up to Mrs. Carter, and I scrounged up the confidence needed to just shut up and let Lawrence do the talking.

Lawrence did the talking.

“So should we move along with the… with the proceedings? It would be naïve of me, us, the Fangs, to assume that this is the most important part of your night. This meeting.”

“Naïve, yes, but this does deserve the appropriate weight. To not do would be rather… ignorant of us.”

Styx chuckled again, from his far corner. Off to the side, but his presence was still known. It seemed fitting. His voice had a harrowing note to it.

Lawrence nodded. It was shaky, uncertain.

“Then, what’s the verdict? The suspense is, uh, killing me.”

“It’s not suspense that’s going to kill you, boy!”

Styx hollered from across the space. The crackling noise rattled my very bones.

Mrs. Carter remained cool and calm. It was wonder that they seemed to work together, that she even tolerated him at all. They were the polar opposites, representing the different parts of the crime that gripped Stephenville. From the grime of Styx’s domain, to the upper echelon that I could associate Mrs. Carter with. And yet, there wasn’t any friction, not from what I could see. Then again, I didn’t exactly have a good view on things. Not from this seat.

She let Styx settle before she took back control of the room again.

“What he is implying, is that we operate in a volatile world, where nothing is guaranteed. This whole time, you’ve only had a taste of just how changeable it really is. Complacency is the enemy of survival. Even I believe you all need a reminder of that. Everyone at this table.”

Everyone at this table exchanged looks. Not to us, though. Everyone who was here to represent the Fangs were too frozen to move.

Mrs. Carter was still facing forward, eyes trained on us.

“But, it’s a lesson we will all learn. As part of this table.”

There was a pause. Lawrence was supposed to say something, but he didn’t.

He let the moment hang. The appropriate weight.

“As part of this table?” Lawrence repeated.

“Yes,” Mrs. Carter said. “Everyone here, me and Styx excepted, have already taken their vote. Those seats you’re sitting in now? You’ve earned them. Congratulations.”

We heard that word, that confirmation. It still didn’t feel real.

I almost couldn’t believe it.

“We’re in?” I asked. The first words I’d spoken since walking into this building.

“Yes. Of course, there’s still a significant discrepancy between yourselves and the rest, but nevertheless, you now share common ground.”

You now share common ground.

I noted the distinction. Separating herself from everyone else at the table. Mrs. Carter wasn’t seated, she was looking down at us. On us.

But I could forgive that. Because we got it, we were here. The Fangs were now considered among the top gangs of the city. The snake was allowed among the rats.

“That, well, that’s… that’s good news,” Lawrence said, breaking his own silence. His own voice broke a little.

“Don’t let the new height you’ve reached make you dizzy,” Mrs. Carter said. It sounded like something of a warning. “As I mentioned, there is a difference in might between you and the rest here, and it is very real.”

“We’ll keep that in mind.”

“And you were put here on a vote. And it wasn’t unanimous. In fact, it results were more narrow than the initial one.”

That was worth noting. I looked at the faces around us. D’Angelo. Arthur. Inez.

Of everyone here, D’Angelo seemed the most pleased about this development. Could we have counted on him to have voted in our favor, again?

Wait. D’Angelo had helped in swinging the vote our way, last time. It couldn’t have gotten more narrow than that. If we had somehow cut it that close, then who had broken the tie, this time?

Styx chuckled, low. It was like he thrived on keeping me on my toes, unsettled.

No, not like. He absolutely did.

“Then we still have a lot of work ahead of us,” Lawrence said.

“Yes, you do,” Mrs. Carter said. “We all do.”

“I don’t suppose those results are confidential? We were here for the initial round of voting.”

Mrs. Carter gestured, spreading her arms.

“You’re here now, aren’t you? As a word of advice, I would just focus on that work you ahead. Work produces its own results. Use that.”

“I suppose we will. Is there, is there anything else you need from us?”

“At this juncture, I do not. For now, just work on getting yourselves in good standing and position here, and I can handle the rest.”

What ‘the rest’ was, Mrs. Carter didn’t share. If I wanted things to go my way, we would have to get ahead of her, too. Find out what her plans were.

Added to the pile of work ahead of us. But the results would be worth it.

“We can definitely do that,” Lawrence said. It was the most certain he had sounded all night.

“Good. Then the only word I have left to say is… welcome.”

With another gesture, and a step back, Mrs. Carter was done. She relinquished control of the room, and the whole table was free to move about.

People got up from their seats. Some went to chat with each other, mingling, while others kept their focus on us, guarded, as if we were liable to strike at any moment.

We would, just not in any way that would be clear to them.

Lawrence stood. Sarah and I joined him.

“Shit,” Lawrence gasped. He exhaled the word. He leaned away when he scratched the side of his neck.

“Shit,” I said.

Sarah commented. “What you guys said. You did it.”

“You had a part in this too, Sarah,” I said. “Don’t count yourself out.”

“I guess I can’t then.” Sarah smiled. “Shit.”

I would have smiled, too, looking at her, but the pangs were even sharper, now that I was getting so close.

“I think I’m about to have a panic attack,” Lawrence said.

We had gotten good news, the best turn our gang had taken since getting started. Upward mobility, as D had mentioned once, a long while back.

Good news, and Lawrence looked like he had been told that a close friend had passed.

He was sweating, his forehead glistening, dots of white reflected from the lights above us. For his part, he was smiling, but it was weak, underselling how relieved he must have really been on the inside.

Lawrence was dressed sharp, but he still wasn’t looking his best. It had been a week since he gave us a scare, and he didn’t seem to like like he had improved. He was going through his own pangs.

“Next thing on our list is going to be an intervention,” I said. I had to keep my voice low. “You can’t keep going like this, Lawrence. This isn’t healthy.”

“I can manage,” Lawrence protested. He coughed, despite himself.

“That is a dangerous game you are playing, Lawrence. You said it yourself, you hate half-hearted bullshit. You loathe it, to use your own words. You have to put in the proper effort, or we might end up losing everything.”

“Yeah? Like how I asked you to keep digging into the source of your powers? What’s inside you? How is that going?”

Those questions were like a slap in the face. Too stunned to give a proper reply.

But Lawrence continued.

“Just as I thought. Motherfucker. Unless you have a real answer for me, I really don’t want to hear it.”

Sarah pleaded. “Guys, not now.”

Lawrence didn’t stop.

“And you know, you’re so certain that it was someone else who gave you your powers. Another monster, another vampire. Where are they now? Did they fuck off and go into hiding? Or did they get hunted? What if someone got to them? And what happens when that someone decides that it’s your turn to be hunted? It would only be a matter of time, Wendy.”

“Lawrence!”

Sarah hissed at him.

“This isn’t the time, and it definitely isn’t the place. So please, just leave it be.”

Sarah was sticking up for me. I couldn’t even speak for myself.

The idea of being hunted…

Lawrence stared at Sarah. There was a mad look in his eye, like he had to process the fact that she was even here at all.

He wanted to say more, I could see that, too, but we were interrupted.

“Wendy!”

D’Angelo was as flamboyant as ever, walking with his cane, using his limp to give more swing in his stride. As he grinned, I could have sworn it was brighter than lights reflecting off Lawrence’s skin.

“Yes sir,” I said, not wanting to show any hint of the previous argument. No one needed to hear that.

“I just wanted to personally congratulate you all for passing the test. You did good work, and it you were rewarded for those efforts.”

“Thanks. Feels like we barely made it, though.”

“There’s nothing else to feel at the moment but pride.”

Can I really be proud over having seen to the deaths of two journalists?

I’d let that question remain a passing thought. The pangs were sharp enough as they were.

“Would it be safe to assume that you casted your vote for us?”

Lawrence went straight to it.

D’Angelo laughed, a hearty timbre.

“You would be, but I’d rather not speak for anyone else. Trust is a rare commodity, in our line of work, and betraying that is akin to a death sentence.”

“Noted,” Lawrence said.

Tapping his cane, D’Angelo pointed in the direction of others.

“Why don’t you ask them yourselves? You are one of us, now.”

I examined the faces across from us. Arthur and Brian were conversing with one another, Cassius, Edward, Forest and Gary were holding their own discussion as well. Hayden was on her own, and Inez was, too, looking right at us. Firm.

None of them looked particularly… inviting.

Lawrence lowered his head, seemingly bowing at Inez, and she turned to Hayden, saying a word to her.

From here, it was hard to tell who voted which way. But I could venture a guess for some of them.

“We’ll introduce ourselves on our own time,” Lawrence said. “I’m more interested in what it means to have a seat at the table. Mrs. Carter didn’t exactly make that clear.”

“To help maintain an equilibrium,” D’Angelo explained. “Crime, like business, is a fine art, and is supported by many people who not only work for their own interests, but for the longevity of the game. There’s a reason why feuds can be dangerous, they can threaten the whole system that’s been set in place. Are you aware of a Xander L. Granon?”

“Still in my nightmares,” Lawrence said. “Our gang had gone up against his. We beat him, somehow.”

“So I’ve heard. See, Mr. Granon tried to muscle into our arrangement by violence and force. He wanted to come in and crash everything around him, and rule over the debris. You, on the other hand, have certainly made an impact, but I find your approach more… respectable.”

“I appreciate the kind words,” Lawrence said.

D’Angelo gave him a nod. “So, with Mrs. Carter and the likes of Styx, we officially maintain the delicate balance that keeps this city standing tall.”

“And Mister?” I asked. “Are we ever going to meet with him?”

D’Angelo smirked.

“That would be for him to decide.”

So close, yet he kept us at a distance. We’d- I’d need Mister, in order to fully and completely destroy that balance we now had some responsibility to maintain.

“Hopefully it’ll be soon,” I said.

“For your sake, maybe,” D’Angelo said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll have to take my leave. And once again, congrats.”

“Thanks again,” I said. “Really appreciate it.”

D’Angelo tapped his cane again, and gave us one more smirk before taking off.

Of all the gang leaders that I’d come across, D’Angelo seemed to be the most eccentric, yet the most… agreeable. It was almost a shame, that I’d have to bring him down, too.

It was back to the three of us. We reconvened.

“Well, we got what we came here for,” I said. “We ready to head out?”

“I am,” Sarah said.

“Sure, I think,” Lawrence said. “Any ideas on our next move?”

“Wendy and I had plans to watch one or two if we had some time left. I wasn’t aware you wanted to join us.”

Lawrence looked at Sarah.

Sarah’s eyes went wide.

“Oh. I thought you said movie.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Hey,” I said, voice back to being low, “Let’s… not. How about this? We’re at the table, but we still need to establish an individual rapport with each of them. D’Angelo? He’s a good start.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Sarah said.

I continued. “Not everyone voted for us to be here, so we should find out who they are, see if we can’t convince them that we’re the real deal.”

“Do you think that’ll work?” Lawrence asked.

“It’s better than them continuing to doubt us,” I said.

And it gives me an idea on who to go after, first.

“Okay, I don’t hate that.”

“Good. So we’ll catch up with D, gather all the info she got on each of these guys from the past week, and we’ll go from there.”

“Okay,” Lawrence said.

Wary, I looked up at the ceiling, past that lights. I wore that expression, made it obvious.

Then I saw Styx, watching him watch me.

By the huge windows that overlooked the city, where water had cascaded down the glass the last time we were here. For someone who could stick out like a blade in my back, Styx could blend into the background just as well. A ghost in the shadows.

His face twisted up, and I could hear that sound in my head. A low cackle.

He looked up, too, at the ceiling, then back to me. He brought a finger to his lips, face still twisted. Still cackling.

No one else saw that. It was for me only.

Me only, because D wasn’t actually here. Like we’d risk putting her in the same position as last time. I had to learn from some of my mistakes.

D got what we needed from our first visit here. It was time to use that information.

We’re at the table. Finally. Now we had to prep the fire.

Previous                                                                                               Next

101 – Morning Star

epy arc 14 game

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Sunlight streamed through the windows, filtered by curtains. It was lightest alarm anyone could have asked for.

And yet, I woke up in a frenzy.

Consciousness came like a quick and sudden hit, a jolt of lightning that sent a shock through my whole body.

I shuddered, and the regret came just as fast.

“Ow…”

Groggy, sore in places I hadn’t been aware of until just recently. Cricks in my neck, joints popping and aching. I felt old, or worn out at least. An overwhelming sensation that thrummed through my entire body in waves.

I figured my healing might take care of this sort of thing, but apparently not.

While my body felt like it was hit with a shock, my mind was the opposite. A haze, pieces of things coming at me in slow, languid movements.

Mentally walking through a fog. Very little was clear to me.

I blinked, squinting as the light intruded into my vision. I shifted around, feeling sheets roll over my body.

Direct contact on my skin.

That started to clear the fog.

I shifted again, pushing myself up. The sheets were bundled together in some places, falling off me as I threw them to the side.

The sun was on me, but I immediately felt a chill.

I wasn’t wearing anything.

The realization wasn’t embarrassing so much as it was confusing. I sifted through the haze of my memories, searching for anything that could-

Oh.

I grabbed the sheets and covered myself up again.

Oh.

One by one, the pieces started falling into place, until the puzzle formed a better picture. I could barely keep the image in my mind’s eye, though, because I hadn’t the faintest idea on how I’d begin to approach what happened last night.

A moment that came and went in a flash, bang, but the impression of it had seared and left me dizzying and stunned.

I could feel my face warm up, sunny as the light that was on me. Trying to think back on it… it was still too bright to face directly. I instead worked on the edges, taking in the detail on the peripherals.

The bed was in disarray, the sheets folded over and stretched flat in different spots. Pillows weren’t where they were supposed to be, one at the foot of the bed, a few others seemed to be missing.

This was my bed, at least. I knew that much. I was back in my apartment. How I got there or what happened as soon as I got here… it was fuzzy.

Oh god.

I had to put my focus on something else. Anything else.

Couldn’t stay in bed forever, couldn’t not be clothed, either. That, I could work on.

The sheets fought with me as I tried to get out of their grasp. Everything was in a tangle, snaked around my arms and legs. It took actual work, more effort than I would have normally wanted to put forth, especially with it being so early in my day, and especially with my body feeling like I had sprinted an entire marathon. Sore in so many different places.

I groaned as I climbed out of bed, the blankets and sheets finally relinquishing their hold on me. The light chill had its turn, instead, but I wouldn’t let it keep its grip for much longer. I went right for my closet.

My foot brushed past something, and I was jumpy that it made me do just that. Almost tripping over, I had to catch myself by setting a hand back on my bed.

Clothes, piled on the floor. Not just mine.

I flicked at it with my foot, not strong or hard enough to be a kick. I separated the clothes, from mine to…

I considered…

I couldn’t, no. Needed new clothes.

Bending down, I collected what was mine, and set the rest at one corner at the foot of my bed. There were still some other clothes strewn about, but I could work on that later. I just wanted to have something on me.

My closet was like a haven when I retreated into it. A smaller space, easier to take in, with everything set in place and organized.

I dumped the clothes in a basket by a corner, and went to searching for what to wear. I wasn’t trying to be picky, but I was at a loss on what I wanted to wear, exactly.

Why was I thinking about it so hard?

I started with the easy ones. I found some underwear, then put on a pair of shorts. A loose oversized shirt with long sleeves was next. I decided to go without bra because… just because.

It was a wonder, just how much having a shirt on put me in a clearer headspace. Just a little bit of weight on my body went a long way. Something that kept me… tethered. It wasn’t unlike the feeling I got whenever I had my mask on.

I saw the box would be, tucked under other baskets and clothes. All my V stuff, and old Blank Face stuff I hadn’t thrown away yet.

No need for that stuff, not now. It was too early for that.

Feeling satisfied enough with my clothing choices, I came out of the closet. Blinking, I shuffled around to other parts of my room. Walking a lazy path, with only a blurry idea of what I wanted in my head.

I… couldn’t find my phone. I couldn’t find my glasses.

There wasn’t much else I could gather from wandering around my room. Aside from the very, very obvious fact that my room was a mess.

Really had to get out of here.

I shambled like a zombie as I entered my living room. Groaned like one, too. I felt like I had died and come to life. And, in a really weird way, it wasn’t even the first time.

“You’re up.”

A voice called out to me like a siren. Loud, with my ears still being attuned to the concept of waking. I followed it.

I rubbed at my eyes before I saw her. She noticed me before I ever had a chance to.

Dressed in what seemed like just a shirt, but it wasn’t several sizes too big like mine was. Her hair was tied up, but it wasn’t done very neat, just enough to keep her face and eyes clear as she reached up into a cabinet, grabbing for a plate.

I wasn’t sure of what to make of anything, as I saw Sarah in my kitchen, setting plates and utensils together. She looked at me again once she had everything settled. She smiled.

“You kept me waiting, wondering when you’d get up. Got some hotcakes prepared if you’d like.”

She indicated to a countertop in the kitchen, a stack of fluffy cake things set and ready to be eaten.

I sniffed the air. The smell wasn’t as fresh as the stack looked, but it was easy to ignore.

“I didn’t know I had stuff to make… hotcakes,” I said. I rubbed at my eye again. “What time is it?”

“Not too late. About ten.”

“Ten?”

“Relax, you’re allowed to do that you know,” Sarah said. She smiled. Bright, yet somehow shy.

There was a sharp sensation in my chest. Under any other circumstance, I would have recognized it as pain, some type of hurt or ache. But this wasn’t really that. Not really.

“I can give it a shot,” I said, almost at a whisper. “Relaxing.”

“Awesome,” Sarah said, still smiling. “Now come on, sit with me.”

She grabbed a seat at the center counter in the kitchen, taking her fork and knife and helping herself with some… some hotcakes.

I didn’t go straight there, as much as I wanted to just right to Sarah. I went to go get a cup of water for myself. Sarah had set out glasses, but they were filled up with orange juice.

Guilt struck, and it struck me hard. She put in all that work while I was out, and I couldn’t even properly accept her efforts.

“I can sit,” I said, as I filled my cup with water from the sink. I paused, then said, “Not very hungry, though.”

“You can’t eat, or won’t?”

I frowned as I said, “Bit of both?”

Sarah smile faltered by a fraction. But it didn’t break completely. It was too bright for that.

“Ah, that’s right. More for me then!”

She added a few more to her plate. She ate them with fervor.

“I… um…”

I wasn’t sure of what to make of anything.

I finally joined her at the counter. Sitting across from her, I propped my elbows on the surface, resting my chin in the palms of my hands. I stared at her. Long, longing.

“A lot happened last night,” I said. It was more of an observation. Trying to take a step back and assess everything. But it was hard when I was still very much in the thick of it.

Sarah had to finish chewing and swallowing before saying, “Certainly. You did great though.”

“That could be referring to anything.”

“I’m referring to everything.”

I got warm again. Sarah had opened up the windows in the living room, too, letting light spill out all over the place.

“You are so lame,” I said. Her dumb smile was stupid. Contagious, too.

The moment was so still, quiet. Even with the occasional word and clanking of metal on ceramic. There was a calm, here, that I wasn’t used to or aware was possible. It resonated on a deeper level.

I could call this peace. Solace. Maybe. I was wary on crossing that line, making it definitive. Making that commitment.

If there was anything I had learned, being a leader of a gang, it was that everything was fragile. I wouldn’t want to push my luck and risk breaking something.

“You sure you can’t eat anything?” Sarah said, pushing it. More of a nudge, to be fair.

“I’m sure, I think. I haven’t had the craving to eat anything, I just get, uh, thirsty.”

“You were looking a little thin, though.” Sarah looked away from me. “Around the… sorry, couldn’t help but look.”

“It would be weird if you didn’t.” I looked away too. “I guess.”

The thought did come to me, brief as it was. What would I eat, anyways? The only things my body would accept were blood and water. What were the next logical steps from that?

I dismissed the thought as soon as it began to take form. Avoided it.

This was what I wanted, right now. This moment. Sarah. I knew how fragile this was.

“What kind of… what did you call them?”

“Hotcakes.”

“Hotcakes,” I repeated, “Never heard of them.”

“It’s what it said on the box. Tastes sweeter, fluffier. But, what, you don’t know what’s in your own pantry?”

She had a teasing tone in her voice that rang like a bell. I was compelled to follow.

“I have some idea,” I said, “But it’s mostly D who stuffs it herself. She likes to bring snacks whenever she comes over.”

“How often does she come over?”

“Dunno. Often.”

Sarah took another bite, then a sip of juice. She was clearly enjoying herself.

“That explain all the teddy bears you’ve got around here.”

“It does,” I said.

“But, I do hope she doesn’t come over today. Wouldn’t want to be interrupted.”

She smiled at me. Dammit. It was getting too bright and warm in here. It also made me wonder just how long she was expecting to stick around. Not that I wanted her to leave or anything. I was just…

I was just what?

I wasn’t sure of what to make of-

Yeah, I know.

“How does it taste?” I asked. I changed the subject.

“Hmmm?” she sounded, she slid her fork out from between her lips.

Her voice had a melody to it.

She knew exactly what she was doing.

Damn her. I hated it.

Yeah, yeah.

“I thought you couldn’t eat, well, eat this stuff?”

Teasing me again.

“I can’t, but, I still want to know. Describe it to me.”

Sarah licked her lips, cutting out another piece of her breakfast. As if it was gliding up, she brought the food to her mouth, taking a bite. Her eyes lowered a tad, an eyebrow raised ever so slightly, furrowed in concentration. She was really putting thought into this.

Fuck, she looked so fucking cute.

“Fluffy,” she said. “Sweet, even more sweet with syrup.”

“I know sweet,” I said.

“Sweet!”

“Tell me more though,” I said. I didn’t want this to end. I wanted to make this things last for as long as I could possibly could. If I could reach in and use my own physical strength to stretch out this moment in time, I absolutely would.

Sarah still had a lot of her breakfast left. We still had a lot of time.

She went for another piece of hotcake. It was easy for her.

“Chewy, and I put in a little chocolate extract but I can taste it. Oh, I sprinkled in some powdered sugar so I can really taste that.”

“You really do have a sweet tooth,” I said.

“I was just using what I found. You said D stocked everything here, right?”

“Yeah, and she has a sweet tooth. But you didn’t have to everything she brought in.”

“I didn’t use everything. Just a lot of it.”

I gave her a look.

Her smile turned into a smirk. It had the same effect on me.

I fixed my glasses, until I realized I wasn’t wearing them. I nearly poked an eye out.

Why am I being so weird about this?

“You know where my glasses are?”

I had a feeling she might know.

All Sarah had for response was a glance elsewhere, stuffing her face with more food.

“Don’t,” I said. I set my hands on the countertop, propping myself so I could reach across and hold her wrist. I pulled the fork out of her mouth, still being careful. Her mouth was still stuffed.

She got me there. I’d have to wait until she finished.

I’d keep holding her wrist while I waited, though.

“Can’t remember,” Sarah said, once she was free to talk. “Think I tossed it somewhere in my car?”

“They better not be broken.”

I tried a teasing tone, myself. I doubted I sold it as well.

“I don’t think I did,” Sarah said.

Yeah. She was much better at it than me.

“You’re lucky I don’t actually need those to see,” I said.

“You don’t?”

“It’s just an accessory. People do that sometimes, right?”

“They do. Sometimes.”

I let go of her wrist. Almost having to peel my fingers off.

Sarah didn’t seem to mind, though. I hoped that was the case, anyways.

“Your hair’s gotten long.”

I fixed my posture in my seat.

“My hair?”

“Yeah.”

Setting her fork down, it was Sarah’s turn to reach across the counter. Instead of my wrist, her hand went to my face.

Grazing just past my cheek, her fingers found their way around some strands behind my ear. Light, I could feel what she was doing. She pulled.

I suppressed a small noise from escaping my lips. It took more effort than anything else.

Her fingers brushed from the base of my ear to somewhere near the middle of my neck. Several inches.

I tilted my head where she pulled. If she kept going, I would have fallen out of my chair, completely.

She wasn’t that cruel. She released her hold on me. But even that felt like a temporary thing. She wasn’t that kind.

“It’s gotten longer since I first saw you,” Sarah said.

I could only speculate when she first saw me, because I had the notion that she saw me first. She got to me before I ever knew what was coming. I never had a chance.

My own fingers filled the space Sarah’s hands just left, and I almost felt them, as if they were still there.

I fixed my hair and shook my head.

“Has it?” I asked.

Talking just to talk. Sarah was doing what she could to extended this moment out, too. I found some comfort in that.

“I think so. Reminds me of the picture you showed me.”

“Picture?”

Then, I remembered.

Sarah must have seen something in my reaction or expression, because her smile faltered by an even larger fraction. Was I frowning that much?

I coughed, as if the deflect things, and looked away.

“Maybe I should get another haircut,” I said, a touch hollow. “I guess it has been a while.”

“It’s all up to you,” Sarah told me. “I think you’d look good no matter what.”

I clicked my tongue. “You’re just saying that.”

“Am I, though?”

“You’re also insinuating that it wouldn’t matter what I do with my hair because you’ll just say you like it anyways.”

“Insinuating?” Sarah’s smile returned to grace her lips. “That’s a pointed word.”

“I’ll point as much as I want since I know I’m right.”

“You’re getting heated. Are we having our first fight?”

I hesitated.

“Fight? No, we’re not fighting. Why would it be a fight?”

Sarah’s smile broke by more than several fractions. She laughed, hard.

“I’m just messing with you!”

Sarah was teasing me again. I grimaced.

All I could do was stare at her, unamused. That only made her laugh harder.

Watching her… I couldn’t keep it up.

I grabbed my cup and took a sip. Mostly just to hide my face. I wasn’t about to give her the satisfaction of seeing me crack a smile, too.

Cold water cooled me as I drank it.

We both managed to get settled again. The moment became still again. Still.

I had zero complaints about that.

She ate, and I just watched. I was nervous, had been awkward about things, and probably looked as dumb as I felt.

But that was okay. More than okay.

Sarah set her utensils to the side. I had put my cup down as well.

“Did you, um…”

Sarah met me in the eyes. Direct. She wasn’t smiling.

“I wanted to know if you found what you were looking for, last night.”

Last night.

If one part of last night was a dreamy haze, another part had a razor edge to it that cut.

Going back to her apartment. Alexis Barnett. Seeing the woman that had the single most connections to her, the ones that could still pulse with life whenever I was in close proximity. One of the many reasons I knew I had to leave in the first place.

Seeing that woman again… it brought back a flood of memories that I couldn’t call mine, but they were there. They hit me, anyways.

Dinner at the table in the kitchen, eating her favorite meal. Chicken and some type of soup. The name was lost on me but the attachment was still there. It pulled.

Seeing her, blank and down and at a loss, it gave me a pang that I didn’t want to put a finger on, because it would take that and make it real. It was like whenever I looked at Lawrence now, but on a deeper level. Past the surface to and a core that I thought had buried itself at the very bottom. But apparently not.

Natalie Beckham had dug at it, throwing the dirt into my eyes. It irritated and made them red, but I had to face all of that again, if I wanted to put it back into the ground.

I went back to bury it again. But this time, I caught myself in mourning.

Rubbing at an eye, I gave Sarah the best answer I could.

“I think so. It helped, or I at least got something out of it. And, uh, in one case, I got way more than I would have ever expected.”

I made sure to look into Sarah’s eyes as I said that last part. I made sure she saw me.

“I think it was worth it,” I said.

The smile I saw as it came back, it was like a beacon.

“I’m glad to hear that,” Sarah said. “Very glad.”

“Yeah,” I said.

We sat near, and in near silence. Time passed, and by those minute degrees, the room got warmer and brighter, and I was able to just sit and soak all of that in.

I could almost see the future being brighter, too, and not just by fire.

A knock broke the moment. I knew it. So fragile.

“I can get it,” I said, hopping out of my seat, going to the front door.

“You definitely can,” Sarah said. “Sorry.”

“What?”

“I mean, should I put this away now? Or go somewhere else?”

Sarah was leaning partway, out of her seat, hands near her plate and stack of hotcakes she hadn’t yet finished.

“You should be fine,” I told her. “I’ll check who it is, first.”

There was another knock. I hurried over.

I heard the lock tumble out of place, the door cracking open. I hurried faster and put my hands on the door.

Behind me, I heard Sarah scramble to clean up the kitchen.

“Hey!”

On the other side of the door. I heard a small voice.

“Let me in!”

“You were just about to let yourself in, D.”

I looked over to Sarah. We exchanged looks.

It was hard to gauge how we wanted to go about this. We only a few seconds away before things got even more awkward.

“I knocked and knocked again and I didn’t hear anything so I was going to check if you were okay.”

“There are other ways to check on me. Barging in is not one of them.”

“I was not- okay but I knocked twice and waited-”

“You barely gave it a second, D-”

“Let me in please!”

I pursed my lips. I checked how Sarah was doing.

She had worked rather fast, the kitchen was close to clean, save for some silverware in the sink, but that could be ignored. Or not. D had good eyes.

But, did it really matter?

I gave Sarah a shrug. From across the kitchen, Sarah noticed me and shrugged back.

Turning to the door, I asked, “Is it just you?”

“It’s just me that wants to come in. Why? What’s going on?”

I let out a breath. I didn’t hesitate, but I did pause.

Then I let the door open.

D barged in.

As the door swung the full arc it was allowed before breaking off its hinges, D shattered any semblance of peace and quiet, bringing instead her own unique brand of chaos.

“What took you so long to-”

It was like D’s words entered the room first, then D herself. It meant that she needed an extra second to assess everything once she was fully inside.

Maybe a second more, it looked like.

She craned her neck to me, over to the kitchen, back to me again.

“You ate without me,” D said.

“It’s past ten,” I said. “You haven’t had breakfast?”

“I am always down for hotcakes.”

“They’re still fresh,” Sarah said from across the apartment. “Warm enough to make the butter soft when you put it on.”

D looked towards the kitchen. It was so obvious she wanted some.

“Okay!”

She booted her boots off and slipped into the slippers I had gotten her. They squeaked, rabbit ears flopping as she skipped her way into the kitchen.

I half-turned, and noticed Isabella sidling into the apartment before the door closed on her.

She looked up at me and shook her head, her pigtails swaying. She adjusted her backpack.

“D wouldn’t have listened even if I said anything.”

I responded with an understanding look.

“I know.”

D was already off in her own world, helping herself in getting a plate and fork and some breakfast. Or near brunch, I supposed.

“You did cook using my supplies,” D said, taking what was once my seat. “Without asking, to boot. So I get to judge if it was worth the thievery.”

“By all means, go ahead.”

Sarah sounded confident.

I returned into the kitchen, and Isabella followed. From where I could see, Sarah had sat back down, using an apron to cover her legs. At least she found something to make her decent.

Checking on Isabella again, I was about to ask if-

Isabella raised a hand, as if to physically block the suggestion itself.

It was actually funny, just how different those two were.

D went right to devouring her food. Through the butter and syrup, I could have sworn I saw some powdered sugar puff up into the air.

Licking her lips, D was deep in thought. She tapped her fork against the plate.

“Not bad,” D said, sitting back. “I can accept this.”

Sarah put her hands together, a light clap for herself.

“That makes me so happy.”

D folded her arms.

“Well, don’t get all supercilious about it.”

“I’ll try not to, whatever that means.”

D made a sound. A loud hum.

“So, D, what brings you over?”

I had to ask, because if I could deal with D now, she could leave sooner.

Not that I didn’t want D around… but I didn’t want D around.

Not usually. Not this time.

Sorry, D.

D went to cutting her another bite of her breakfast.

“I brought over some of the paintings we, eh, procured last night. I thought maybe you wanted to get some decorating done today.”

“You had decorating in mind for today?” I asked.

“Why not? Why? Are you busy with something else?”

Or someone else.

I stopped myself from looking at Sarah. I noticed D hadn’t commented on the fact that Sarah was here in the first place. Not even Isabella.

“Nothing in particular,” I answered. “I figured you’d have some other work on your itinerary for today.”

“She just wants to play,” Isabella said. “She always does.”

“Or, yeah, did you just want to goof off?”

D took a bite, talking while she chewed.

“I do not just want to goof off. Well, truthfully, I do, but still.”

The gap in D’s teeth whistled out the word ‘truthfully.’

But D continued. “We can do the stuff Lawrence suggested last night, but we aren’t exactly in a rush to do that. We can take a day off.”

A day off. That was exactly what I wanted.

Sarah.

If I could, I’d take a whole week off.

“If you think that’s a good idea, sure,” I said. “We could afford a day to take it slow. Not easy, but slow.”

There was a metric ton of things to consider, now that the journalists were out of the picture. Like Mrs. Carter, if we had earned a seat at the table, looking after the territory, and waiting if there would be any fallout following the Alexis article.

Natalie wasn’t sure of my end game, I had to tell her. But she had to know that there was one, because she tried to throw a wrench in things, regardless. Releasing that article on Alexis was only a part of it. They wouldn’t give up the full picture, Natalie or Oliver, rather taking it to the grave.

The whole thing was tricky, because it was a hard situation to address in direct manner, not without directing more attention to it. Lawrence wasn’t aware, he didn’t know about Alexis Barnett. D and I would just have to keep an eye on how it all unfolds.

It wouldn’t be easy, but we could take it slow.

“Cool,” D said, chewing and talking. “Then after I’m done we can go down and pick out what you want. I was able to fit most of it into the back of the van, but I had to be really careful not to rip anything when I was rolling it up because I was taught to always take care of my stuff and-”

“I already told Sarah which painting I’d take for the apartment,” I said. “And please stop eating with your mouth full.”

“You did?” D completely ignored my last sentence. “When? Why didn’t you tell me?”

Because you would go out of your way to make it weird with Sarah and I didn’t want to make it weird with Sarah.

“Because you had more important things to worry about last night,” I said, trying to put it as lightly as I could.

“Oh. Okay then.”

She returned to finishing her hotcakes. She seemed to enjoy them.

It occurred to me, how I had never been able to share a proper meal with anyone. Not with D, not even with Lawrence, and now, not with Sarah. That soured my mood a little, and I couldn’t even taste sour.

“All done!” D exclaimed. Her fork hit the plate with a long clang. “Let’s go!”

“Put everything away first,” I instructed. “And how about you just go down and pick out the painting. I don’t need to be there for that.”

“But I don’t know which one you wanted!”

“It’s the pop art looking thing. Bright colors. A woman’s face.”

“Oh, that one? I actually liked that one. Good taste.”

Sarah added her voice. “That’s what I said.”

“You would like anything I picked out.”

“Maybe,” she intoned. Teasing.

“But why can’t you come down?” D questioned, whining really.

“I’m not, what’s the word, decent? I hadn’t changed or even taken a shower yet.”

“It’s just right outside, we’re not going anywhere! Unless you want to? Do you want to?”

“No, I,” I stuttered, scratching my neck, where Sarah had her hand before. “We can discuss that once we’re done with this.”

“Boo,” D said, protesting, but she managed to find it within herself to listen. She scooted out of her chair, hopping back down.

“Dishes,” I said.

“Boo!”

D collected her stuff and brought them over to the sink.

“Have you heard from Lawrence, though?” I asked.

“Not since last night.”

“If you’re wanting to take it easy today,” Isabella said, “Maybe we should give him a break, too.”

“Right, let’s try to not bother him. I have a feeling he’ll need his space for now.”

“Wow, what a diva,” D said. “That’s the Ellie I know.”

D washed her plate and fork and put them away. Her footsteps squeaked again as she hopped back to the front door.

“I’ll be right back!”

“No need to rush,” I said. I saw Isabella, still standing there.

A look was all it took for her. She did roll her at me before she followed D out the door.

Kids these days, I thought.

I turned to Sarah. But it was more like I let myself get pulled to her direction.

“Sorry about that,” I said, as if by instinct.

“What do you have to be sorry for?”

Sarah stood, setting the apron on the seat. She walked to me. I gulped.

“You know, getting interrupted, work beckoning like always…”

“That’s just who you are, the nature of what you do. If I’m not able to keep up, then I don’t deserve walk beside you.”

“Is that where you are now? At my side?”

“Can I be?”

Sarah positioned herself. Exactly as she had mentioned.

“Can’t say anything about it now,” I said.

“You can’t, or won’t?”

Having Sarah stand right next to me, it made the height difference all the more glaring. How much more mature she was than me, how little in experience I actually had.

But, being inexperienced might not be so bad, if it meant getting taught a thing or two by her.

Sunny. So bright that I could burn if I tried to fly higher. But, that wasn’t even a concern right now.

“Bit of both,” I said, before having to stand on the tips of my toes, my lips reaching for hers, wanting for hers. Sarah met me the rest of the way.

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 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 him. 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.

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