Interlude – Shiori

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「継続は力なり。」

That was what Shiori thought.

It had grown to be a bad habit, especially within the last few years, but she couldn’t help but think that may no longer be true. It helped with meeting the next day, sure, but when would things start coming to pass? How long would she have to wait?

The only way to find the answer was to keep going.

「毎日頑張ったら、大丈夫ですわ。」

The lights flickered above, or did she just blink?

Another quiet day at TRF Hair Salon. Shiori liked quiet days. Although, it was her turn to close up shop. Shiori wasn’t too thrilled about that.

Especially today.

Sirens, people shouting, a gunshot. The bland, generic pop music did little in overpowering the natural sounds of downtown Stephenville. Shiori swept some hair into the corner, to be collected and thrown away later.

Everyone else had gone home already. As much as she liked her coworkers, she did prefer to be on her own. She didn’t quite connect with them like they did each other, which, over the years, was something she learned to not be so concerned about. Besides, they were more comfortable speaking to each other in their own language, she never took the time to learn Vietnamese. Also, perhaps it spoke to something within her own personality. She was better off on her own. Something she didn’t think she shared with her own offspring.

Although, there was a safety in numbers, and it was getting late.

She checked the clock. And again. An hour until closing.

The front door opened, the metallic clinking that followed signaled a new customer. Shiori turned. She smiled.

“Welcome. Ah, hi, Thomas.”

Thomas Thompson. A prominent lawyer who owned a prominent firm located at the heart of downtown. Handsome, in the traditional sense, despite being well into his middle-aged years. Fit, too. The suit he had on was form-fitting, and it was clear that he exercised regularly. The only signs of his age were the small, thin crinkles by his eyes, an olive green. His hair was a little unruly, which could explain his being here. A subtle pompadour, slicked back by gel.

Attractive? Absolutely. It was an opinion that Shiori wouldn’t be shy about sharing to the man himself. She did not, and would not, of course, because that would be rather odd. To clarify, it was strictly an opinion of a platonic manner. Like describing a rose as red. Obvious, plain as day. But more importantly, other than stating a simple adjective, Thomas was married. And Shiori was good friends with Kristin, too.

Also, he was the father of Katy Thompson, her daughter’s best friend.

Thomas replied back, calm. “Hi, Shiori.” He walked through the front waiting area and towards Shiori’s chair. “Mind if I get a quick trim this late?”

Shiori shook her head. “No problem at all.”

Thomas sighed, relieved. “Thank you.” He sat down.

Shiori began getting her equipment ready, taking out her scissors and combs. “Just the usual?” she asked as she wrapped a gown around him to cover his suit.

“Just the usual.”

She started with the spray bottle, spritzing Thomas’s hair with water. She combed through his hair to get out the product, and to get started with the cutting.

“Busy on the weekend?” Shiori asked.

“Absolutely, otherwise I’d come tomorrow. In fact, it’s a good thing I happened to catch you at this time.”

“Good thing.”

“What about you? Busy this weekend?”

“Yes,” Shiori said, as she snipped away some hair. “I am. It’s my daughter’s birthday, tomorrow.”

Thomas scratched his chin. “Oh, that’s right. Katy said something about that. She seemed to be looking forward to it, herself.”

She trimmed a little more off the top.

“Yeah, she said something about planning a party for her tonight.”

She cut again.

「うるせっ。」

“I asked Alexis to come home early today.”

“I was probably wrong, then. Maybe she meant the weekend?”

Shiori continued cutting. Earlier in the morning, she had asked Alexis, her daughter and only child, to come home immediately after school ended. She had plans of her own towards celebrating her daughter’s birthday.

Against her own self-control, she went ahead and gave Alexis her birthday gift early, a black wristwatch. A simple but sleek design. A relic of a past she wished she could forget. But she wouldn’t tell Alexis that. Not yet. Maybe when she was older. And memories only meant something to those who had them. An item was simply an item. For now, she could just enjoy the gift as it was.

Next, was the meal she had planned. Fried chicken and miso soup. Those were Alexis’s favorite foods, back when she was younger, but Shiori hadn’t made that particular a meal in quite some time. She thought it would be a nice surprise, and a way for the two of them to spend some legitimate, quality time together. All throughout the week, she’d been visiting different farmer’s markets and Asian supermarkets, picking out the best ingredients to make the best versions of her daughter’s favorite dishes. A chore, but absolutely worth it.

To be honest, she was actually looking forward to it herself.

She just wanted to get home.

Thomas kept on the subject. “So, how old is she turning? Sixteen?”

“Sixteen this year.”

“Wow. Time flies. I remember when playing outside was enough to satisfy her and Katy. Now, it’s phones phones phones.”

Shiori chuckled. It was certainly true.

“It’s unbelievable,” Thomas said. “Now, they’re already getting ready to go to college. Does Alexis know where she wants to go, yet?”

Shiori paused. She too wanted an answer to that question. It wasn’t like she hadn’t asked, but the darting eyes, the mumbled words, the general unsure demeanor was much to be desired. Shiori decided not to push, for now, but things would have to get going on that front eventually. Alexis wasn’t going to be a little girl forever. Youth was valuable thing, but so loosely grasped by those who had it.

「もうわかてるよ。」

“She’s still trying to decide,” Shiori said, answering for her daughter.

“Still keeping her options open, then, not bad,” Thomas said, “Katy’s in the same boat, she’s looking at some of the Ivy League schools, and I’m fine with that, but it’d be nice if she stayed in-state. Certainly cheaper,” he said, before smiling, eyes closed. Shiori saw him in the mirror.

「おめでとうございます。」

Sirens, people shouting, this time closer, louder. Shiori glanced out to the windows by the entrance. Waiting if the fire of a gun would follow. But it was too dark to see outside. The bars protecting the window didn’t help either. So she waited, anxious.

Nothing.

Her body relaxed. Somewhat.

“Crazy town,” Thomas commented, picking up on what just transpired. His tone was light, despite everything.

“Should you really be coming around this part of town, anymore?” Shiori asked, concerned. “Too dangerous.”

“I should be saying that to you,” Thomas replied. “Besides, that’s exactly why I do what I do. These gangs and cartels think they can hold control in the city forever? Don’t think so.” Thomas sharply inhaled through his nose. “Got a pretty decent case tomorrow.”

“Is that so?”

“Certainly is so. We finally nailed one of the upper guys from the Colombian Cobras. If all goes well, and I hope it does… Honestly, it will only momentarily slow things down, but it’s something. The whole thing’s being televised, so, can’t mess this up. Because, if we can secure a win on this, that will help me get a win in the long run.”

Shiori nodded, silently, trimming away at more hair. She wasn’t terribly keen to the particulars about the rampant gang violence that plagued the city, like the different names and factions and leaders and how they were all related. She only knew what she needed to know. Keep your head down, and don’t stay out longer than you need to.

Every day, it seemed, there was something on the news about the latest in Stephenville’s crime epidemic. A drug bust gone wrong, a drive-by claiming both innocents and those not so, or just simple, random acts of depravity with no connection to anything greater except as a symptom of the setting. It was to the point that it became background noise, something that was easy to accept as a part of daily life. Thankfully, Shiori hadn’t experienced anything like that personally, but the thought was always in the back of her mind.

「他の場所に引っ越しましたら、いいだろうな。」

If it only wasn’t so damn expensive. Also, there was Alexis’s own personal feelings to consider. Her roots dug much deeper into this city than hers ever did, for good or for ill. Alexis would not be so fond about that proposition. She might act out, protest in her own way. And things…

「本当に、ダメよ。」

Shiori refocused on trimming Thomas’s sideburns. Now was really not the time to be dwelling on personal matters. That could come later.

“Good luck, and do your best,” was all Shiori said on the matter.

“Thanks,” Thomas replied, with a hint of cautious optimism.

Silently, Shiori continued her work, making sure each cut was made with precision, every trim clean and kept things symmetrical. She took the occasional step back, making sure things were even, eyeballing it. It was funny, in a sense. Years ago, people spent hours on her hair. Now, she was the one who was meticulously mulling over each strand on someone else’s head.

She slowly spun Thomas around in his chair, seeing how his hair looked from every angle.

「いいかな?まあ、いいじゃん。」

She took a towel and started brushing Thomas’s ears and neck, a signal that she was almost done.

Finally, she handed him a mirror, and let him see for himself.

“Okay?” she asked.

Thomas gave a careful inspection of his hair as well, running his fingers through his damp scalp, putting it up, imagining what it would be like with gel. He took his time.

He looked up at Shiori, and smiled. “Looks great.”

She grinned back, satisfied at his satisfaction. “Good. Would you like gel on now?”

“No, I’m fine,” he said, taking off the gown and getting out of his chair. “I should be getting home, honestly.”

“Okay.”

「私も。」

Shiori followed Thomas to the register, both taking their respective sides. She tapped on the register, inputting the cost of a single haircut.

“Nineteen ninety-five,” she said, “Cash or credit?”

“Cash,” Thomas stated, pulling out a wallet from his pocket. He handed her a bill.

“Fifty is all I have,” he said, almost apologetically.

“No problem.” She had to hide her envy that he could treat fifty dollars so casually. She punched in more buttons to calculate the change.

“Actually,” he said, stopping Shiori. “You can keep the change. Tell Alexis ‘happy birthday’ for me.”

It quickly became harder to mask her envy. “Oh, thank you very much.”

“No, thank you,” Thomas said, “For you service.” He turned, and faced the door that lead outside to Stephenville. “I’ve got it from here.”

“Good luck, again.”

“I appreciate it. ‘Walk straight with Thomas,’” he said, almost abashedly. “Wander no more.”

“See you again,” Shiori said, finally, then waved as he headed out the door. Clinging followed as it closed.

Shiori stood there, in the middle of the salon, tired yet excited. There was still quite a bit left to do, in terms of closing up shop. Checking inventory, cleaning up her station, sweeping… Her plate was full of things to do. And there was still dinner that she needed to prepare. It’d be a little late, but it would be worth it, she’d make sure of that. A quick check of her phone hadn’t shown any messages from Alexis, saying she was home. She should have made it clear to text her. She was a little worried, but not concerned. It would all be fine. She would go home, cook dinner, and they would enjoy a nice, peaceful meal between the two of them.

「それが、いいだね?」

That was what Shiori thought.

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008 – Mal

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An hour before midnight, and I was wrapped in a strange sense of déjà vu.

My back was stuck to the wall, alongside a painting, swaying back and forth to the music. There weren’t as many people, so I had some room to move. The music was louder as well, the rumbling bass filling up my ears, scooping out anything else until that was the only thing existing in my capacity of hearing. Not even my own thoughts were audible. Other than the tight space, it was the standard fare. The dim lighting, the bright neon flashes, questionable dancing. Consummation of various liquids and substances.

In other words, I haven’t felt more at ease in a long time.

A slurred voice, and a smack on the shoulder caught my attention.

Katy. With Maria.

Katy stumbled onto me, her hand running against the wall for balance. For a party, she was dressed pretty comfortably, wearing a very baggy grey sweater, with a checkered green button-up layered under it, as seen from the collar peeking out. Her jeans were slim but not tight, the only thing tight about her was her pinroll game.

Maria went for a different approach, but she still looked good. A plain white shirt, tucked into her black jeans. Simple, but classic. I really needed to take tips from these two. My shorts and ugly long sleeves weren’t going to cut it. I did have my watch, though.

“Hey guys,” I said, “How’s this place looking?” As a bit of compromise, I agreed to go out with the two, only if we went elsewhere. Katy didn’t mind making that concession, since, according to her, she had the connections to find other parties around the neighborhood. We tried a house before this one, but we didn’t last ten minutes before Maria shooed us out the door with no explanation.

Maria answered, “We’re staying here. Not like we have a choice.” She showed me what she had in one hand. I counted three bottles.

“Katy,” I said, letting my tone show. “Little early for that, isn’t it? We just got here.”

“Whatever,” she slurred back. Giving up all hope on standing on her own, she fell towards me. Her hands grabbed for my chest.

Her state of being was funny to see. “H-hey!” I laughed, trying to fix her arms and set them by her side. To keep her still, I put an arm around her.

“And I could say the same to you, too,” I said to Maria.

“Not really,” she said back, curt. She was never one for words.

I wasn’t about to argue with her. This past week had been the most abnormal week I’ve had… ever. A week ago, I couldn’t do an inch of things I was capable of now. And it had left me more than a little winded, mentally and emotionally. Maybe not physically.

I almost couldn’t believe that I made it through this week at all. On top of worrying about ‘normal’ things, like homework, volleyball, boys, I had all of this to deal with. Still do. There was still so much I had to consider and think about. Fun.

So, yeah, I decided to let myself take it easy, this time. I deserved this.

Katy began stirring in my grip. I had to adjust to keep her from falling over me.

Katy’s next words, I managed to make out. Barely. “You’re not… going hard enough,” she said, breathing out every word. You could cut her breath with a cleaver. It was thick with the smell of alcohol.

“I think you’re going hard enough for the both of us,” I said. “For all three of us.”

“No… more…” She put a red cup to my face, seemingly out of nowhere. That smell, like an unwanted friend. My stomach churned. I never wanted rum less in my entire life.

“I’m here, but I’m definitely not drinking anything tonight.”

“C’mon, just one…”

“What did I just say?”

“We haven’t done your birthday yet.”

“What does that even mean? Actually, where’s the cake, even?”

“It’s… somewhere here.”

“Good work, Katy.”

She exhaled again. “Just… one… drink… and… done…” Somehow, she lost her footing, and almost brought me down with her. Almost. I leaned us against the wall to stop us from slipping any more.

“Damn, girl,” I said, astonished at the level of inebriation she’d managed to achieve so early.

“Come… on… just…” She closed her eyes, her hands floating in front of her, searching for what I assumed was another drink. There was no way she’d listen to me like this.

“I’m trying to my keep myself in line here” I said, still trying to reason with her. “I mean, you still haven’t told me whose house this is.”

And more importantly, I don’t even think I can handle alcohol anymore.

“I did tell you! It’s… it’s… Par…”

Who?”

I looked to Maria, who smiled with a hint of sympathy.

I tried one last time, to appease Katy and to get her to slow down. “One drink, okay? And then you are the one who’s done.”

She nodded, sluggishly. I couldn’t tell if that was her agreeing to my terms and conditions, or that she trying to keep herself up.

I had to repeat myself to make sure she got it. “Just one drink. Just one. Then you’re done, ‘kay?”

She nodded, but she was nodding the whole time I was talking. Did she really hear me?

Damn, I told myself, I’m so gonna regret this. I checked the clock on the wall of the living room. Eleven o-nine.

Shit, I thought so.

All sense of time was robbed from me, and my head felt like someone was spinning it on a stick. Even when sitting as still as possible, I was spinning. You’d think I’d learn.

If I could be fair to myself, I did manage not to go as overboard as last time, I didn’t even drink half as much as before, like that made a tangible difference. I still felt awful. Surprised I could even drink any alcohol at all, given the taste of anything else besides water and… other things. Actually, it had tasted so bad anyways, I might not have been able to tell the difference.

I had to fight my own body in order to stand myself up, my movements slogged and heavy. Every inch of me creaked, aching with a pounding soreness. I hated myself every time I ended up like this, but at the same time, it was fun its own way, trying to function in this state. Like a game.

But, I ultimately succeeded, getting up on both feet. Katy was nearby, sleeping on a couch like a log. Down for the count. She wouldn’t get up until the morning. She should be fine, but she’d better not blame me if anyone were to draw on her face. I fixed her into a better position, just in case.

I hobbled through the house, passing people I didn’t know, and found myself in the kitchen. It was just me, but the place had already seen some destruction of others. Scraps of food, plates and cups, empty bottles were all over the floor and countertops. I was just glad this wasn’t my own home. Someone else could deal with this.

On a table, I found what was left of my cake. A single slice of double chocolate, up for grabs. Dang, missed my birthday cake again. I couldn’t eat it, but I felt my heart long for that decadent flavor.

Oh yeah. I remembered that Katy wasn’t the only one I came to this house party with. Mary… um… Maria. She should be around here somewhere. It had been a while, I should check up on her.

I turned back to the living room, and found the first person I bumped into. I stumbled through my question.

“Oh, her? I think she went outside with…” I didn’t catch what that last word was supposed to be, but it gave me the idea of stepping outside. At least it saved me the trouble of having to check the large house.

My face tensed up with effort as I pushed through the dancing crowd, holding on to every shoulder I passed. I made it to the door, and escaped outside.

Greeted yet again by the night chill that I hated. I’ve always been a summer person, and not just because of the lack of school responsibilities around that season. The sunlight on my face, the light sweat that gets worked up from just a few steps outside, I actually liked that sensation.

This was the complete opposite.

A rough wind ruffled trees and leaves on the lawn. I faced the rest of the neighborhood, and much like the party from a week ago, there was no one here. However, maybe from the street lights that dotted the cul-de-sac, all the cars that parked in a semi-circle along the perimeter, and the music that could be heard even out here, it didn’t seem that lonely.

I walked off the porch, and onto the front lawn. Grass brushed along my ankles. As I gazed above me, I had to try and remember why I stepped out here.

Finding Maria, right.

There was another sound out here, that wasn’t stuttering hi-hats. Different. More concerning.

A shout.

It came from around. A tad curious, and plenty worried, I lugged myself over to the source.

As I got more into earshot, what I heard wasn’t pretty.

“-said he’d be here, but he ain’t, so what we gonna do about that?”

“Guh, let go! Fuck, stop!”

What’s going on?

Even in the dark, I was able to make them out. It wasn’t hard. Two people. From the tightly tied back ponytail, heavy makeup, long eyelashes, I recognized it as Maria. Her expression, however, was one I didn’t recognize on her. Partial anger, some frustration, wholly fear. She was fighting back someone standing between me and her. A guy. But because I had no intrinsic talent for knowing people from their backs, I had no idea who this was, at all.

I shouted out at them. “Hey! What are you doing?” My voice left me faster than my rationality.

What was I doing?

He turned to me. A Latino-looking guy. His face contorted to a mean look. A large white shirt went down past his waist, almost to his knees. His pants were clownishly baggy as well. I didn’t know there were people who still dressed like this.

Maria had mentioned a boyfriend before, but I’ve never met him. She was always a little deflective whenever we brought up the subject of us meeting him. Two years of being together, and we’d never even seen a picture of the guy. Not even a name. It’d struck me as odd, but I didn’t want to upset Maria by continuously prodding her about it. She looked happy enough when she did talk about him, it seemed like.

But was this guy him? No, something was off, aside from the obvious abuse. Maria was the type when, if hit, she’d hit back three times harder. Of course, that meant little to a guy who could just hit back six times harder.

So then, who is this guy?

“Fuck you doing here!” he shouted back, his accent thick. Cartoonishly thick, like he embellished it for show.

“If you’re really going to harass a girl, you really shouldn’t do it next to a large house with a lot of people. Someone might find you.”

I really should think over my words first.

“Bitch, you stay outta this!” He pushed Maria down, slamming her to the ground. He then came towards me. Uh-oh.

If he was capable of doing all that to her, then doing any worse to me wouldn’t be below him. He threw a fist.

Weird, I saw him move so slowly. It didn’t even look like a punch, more like he was just leisurely stretching his arm out. Just a step to the side would have been enough. But my balance and coordination were more than compromised. I simply watched as the fist connected with my torso.

“Aah!” My eyes wanted to jump out of their sockets. I immediately curled up, grabbing my stomach, and bowled over.

I went down on my knees, coughing all the way. My insides were swirling around me, wanting to jump back up my throat. I covered my mouth to try and suppress that urge.

“Yeah, thought so,” he taunted. For good measure, he swung his foot upward, kicking me in the cheek. What was up with this guy? I knew I was supposed to recognize all of this as pain, but rather, everything felt muted and far away. I got sent one way, and fell back down.

He backed away, and was walking back to Maria, who still hadn’t gotten back up. Shoot. The situation had already escalated, and there was no way I could let this guy go back to her now. I reached out, and managed to get a hold of his ankle.

He stumbled, but didn’t fall over. It didn’t take much for him to shake off my grip.

“What do you want now, fucker!” he yelled, pulling me back up by my hair. If nothing else, I didn’t appreciate my hair being treated like that, I had spent some time on it.

When my feet got a good hold on the ground, I pushed him away. Had I pushed any harder, I might have fallen back down again.

He grunted, and lunged after me, throwing another punch. Naturally, being punched in the stomach and kicked in the face doesn’t suddenly make me awake and alert, and I was left standing in its path, watching as another punch came for me.

But dodging did not have to be my only option.

Carefully, I brought a hand out in front of me, the palm open to catch his fist. Seeing it all come together was odd, like we had rehearsed it beforehand, and I was just waiting for him to come to position. Good thing too, since it gave me some time to figure out which of his three fists was the real one.

Eventually, he did hit my palm, and I wrapped my hand around his. In my head, clouded by rum and whiskey, an idea came to me.

What if I just closed my hand completely?

With no conscious agreement, I adhered to that whim. I closed my hand. It was as easy as squeezing a rice ball.

“Fuuuaaaaaah!”

A bloodcurdling yell, and he fell to his knees. Incomprehensible, he blubbered and screamed while tugging at his wrist, trying to get away from me. A second, and then another when it finally clicked that I had just crushed this man’s hand.

Stunned, I let go, and he collapsed completely. He was reduced to a whimpering pile of clothes, with how baggy his shirt and pants were. He huddled over his hand, and I couldn’t see the extent of the damage.

Crap, I fucked up.

I backed away, trying to remove myself from the scene. Hopefully, with it being dark enough, and Maria knocked down and disoriented, she wouldn’t have realized that I was here. I turned around, and made my leave.

But my stomach had other plans.

A hot, distinctive liquid rushed up my gullet, and out my mouth. I vomited right there, only getting enough sense of myself at the last second to not mess up my clothes. In reality, it wasn’t that bad, considering what happened moments ago, it was inevitable.

No, what really worried me, was what I vomited.

The instant I felt my stomach churn, I expected a clear stream of liquid, and the smell of alcohol to fill my nose. I hadn’t eaten ‘real’ food in a few days, and as such, there shouldn’t have been any solids. Instead, a thick, dark mass of a runny substance came pouring out, and I was left in shock and horror.

I was throwing up blood, and a lot of it.

I stood there, letting this all take place, my ears filling with the mushy sound of liquid hitting soil and my own gagging voice. I knew I had to get out of here ten seconds ago, but all movement was seized from me, like my body thought it should prioritize doing this, above all else. Running away be damned.

When I did stop, I was standing in a puddle of black filth. So much for keeping my clothes clean. I hopped twice to get out of it while wiping my mouth and chin of any loose strands of drool. I mouthed the word ‘shit,’ and it certainly tasted like it. That, I had to say, woke me right up.

I gripped my stomach again, rumbling like the inside of a washing machine. I nearly doubled over in pain.

In exchange for a full stomach, it was replaced with an overwhelming thirst and hunger. All of the symptoms came back like a cancer. I was sweating bullets, and a chill electrified my skin. It was enough to forget about the soft throbbing of my face and my scalp.

I needed to curb this, pronto.

I looked back at the scene behind me. Maria clung to the wall, using it to get up. She wasn’t looking my way. Her not-boyfriend, whoever it was, was still curled on the ground, screaming and wailing in pain. Someone inside was bound to hear him and come this way. I needed to be gone by then.

Stomach twisting, and I stared at the helpless man. I let my mind wander.

No! Hell no!

I booked it, leaving the scene. Nothing mattered besides getting out of here.

Stop, Maria!

I immediately stopped right where I was, despite every bit of me wanted the exact opposite.

I couldn’t abandon my friend, not like when she was like that. But I couldn’t have her see me like this.

For a moment, I stood, struggling between running to find a rabbit to feed on, or run inside the house to alert others, yet risk people seeing me as I am.

Before I could make a decision, I was seized by the wrist, and yanked back.

Another man. He was in similar attire to the other guy, expect he had on a dark shirt. Equally baggy. A bandana covered his forehead.

A friend of that guy? Certainly no buddy of mine.

“You!” he yelled. He turned around, then looked back at me. “The hell you do?!”

My answer for him was a grunt, followed by a slap across the face. He let go as he fell, landing onto the dirt, a distance farther than any normal-strength slap would allow. Confused, but I was already used to that.

The aches spiked again, and with that, I fled the scene.

I got about halfway down the cul-de-sac before I tripped, my vision swimming and starting to fade. I groaned.

More sounds came from behind me. Yelling, the slamming of a door, a car starting. I was suddenly cast in a light.

Get up, get up, get up!

Thinking that was easy enough, performing that task was a whole other challenge. I staggered to my feet, and I had to concentrate on my next few steps. But the still-constant commotion from behind spurred me to move faster.

I glanced back. A car was facing me, revving up.

It sped ahead. And so did I.

I ran down the street, the car followed.

Shit, shit! They’re gonna kill me for this!

I turned to go another way, but the car sharply veered to keep up, accelerating faster.

It didn’t take long for the car to catch up.

I wheeled around. Nearly blinded by the incoming vehicle, I jumped, with no real plan of anything after that.

The car just missed the tips of my toes.

My landing was in no way graceful. I fell, hard, my shoulder taking the brunt of the fall. Couple that with the screaming agony in my stomach, I wouldn’t be far from passing out, now.

But the car, my pursuant, was delayed. Albeit briefly.

Once again, I was slow to my feet. I had to get going, the car was already starting to turn around.

Think outside the box. Where can’t a car go?

I looked around. It wasn’t hard, after giving it a few seconds. I ran towards a house, jumping onto the roof.

More shouting from behind. Whoever was chasing me must have saw. Oh well. Go.

I crossed the top of the house, and hopped down into a backyard. I went over a fence into another home’s backyard, and from there, made my way back onto a proper street. For now, those guys – whoever those guys were – shouldn’t be a problem.

I kept running like a madman, trying to find just one. A single rabbit. Down one road, turned onto another. Nothing. I saw them all the time, there had to be one around here somewhere. My stomach was yelling out, any more of this and I might go insane.

Briefly, I entertained the idea of crawling into a storm drain, searching for rats. Didn’t have to be rabbits, right? Stray cats, stray dogs. I’d deal with the potential case of rabies later, something had to satiate me in this very instant.

A car drove in my way when I got to an intersection. Alarmed, I leaped out of the way, the car swerving at the sudden movement. I continued running.

In every which direction, I ran pell-mell, trying to find anything that could help me. I abandoned any sense of direction a while ago, I was already long lost.

Finally, something dashed in the corner of my vision, and I hurt my neck in turning too fast. It was sitting idle in the middle of an intersection.

Found one. Pure black. I went straight for it.

Not even once breaking my stride, I reached down and snatching it by the neck, not even giving it a chance.

I’m so sorry, bunny, but you have to understand.

Somewhere isolated. Gotta find a place around here like that. I wasn’t familiar with this neighborhood at all.

Have to find a place, come on, come on. I kept running as I racked my brain to find a place.

Running like this, so sporadically, wasn’t doing me any favors. I stuck to one street, and sprinted down the length of it, animal in hand.

The road led to the edge of the neighborhood, turning into a small bridge over a stream. I could dip under there. Perfect. With the animal struggling under my clutch, I headed for it.

I dropped down five or six feet down into the running stream. My shoes immediately got drenched, but I paid no mind. In fact, I was probably better off for it, letting the water run between my toes. I rubbed them together to get some of the other gunk out.

I was completely shrouded in the dark as I walked under the bridge, but my vision was not compromised. Nothing here beside some rocks and trash. Colorful graffiti marked the concrete underside of the bridge. No sound beside the lightly running water.

My thirst roared out again, and I flinched. Stop wasting time. I gotta get this over with. The rabbit flailed around, but my grip was stronger. I wasted no time with pleasantries. I brushed back as much fur as I could, and bit into its neck. I drank like I hadn’t had water in days.

I didn’t know what was worse. The taste, or the horror of the realization.

“G-gwuah!”

Black streams sprayed like geysers through the cracks between my hand and mouth. My stomach once again shook and shuddered ferociously, as though it was trying to escape from my insides. Intestines felt like they were slithering and banging against the inside of me, and every inch of movement brought forth a pain that was previously unimaginable. All things considered. I took my hand away from my face, and against my own wishes, I vomited again.

Like an entire arm went down the esophagus, grabbing any bit of slimy meat it could, and pulling out with all of its might. It was very much like that.

I collapsed into the stream. My clothes steadily getting more wet as I stayed down. The water wasn’t particularly cold, but I was shivering. In contrast, the rabbit beside me would never move again.

Why, why? Why did that taste so horrid? The one time before wasn’t all that amazing, but it didn’t have to be. It just had to be good enough. Enough to tide me over until the next time. There had to be a reason for this.

Maybe this one was old?

Yeah. That had to be it. It was probably just old, and wouldn’t taste as decent as usual. That would explain why I was able to catch it with little trouble. Too old to move fast.

Yup, that had to be it.

I brought myself onto my knees. It took another concentrated effort to stand. Not standing straight, mind you, I was hunched over in an agonizing discomfort. But a proper posture was the least of my current worries.

Leaving the rabbit there, I walked out from under the bridge, trying to find my way back up. There were roots of a tree that extended from the base of the stream back to the side of the road. I wiped my hands on my clothes so they wouldn’t slip. I climbed up, getting back onto road.

No thoughts, just move. I ran down every street, turned every corner, hunting for anything. I only turned heels and went the other way whenever I saw someone on a midnight stroll or a car come my way.

Turned a corner, ran down a street. Turned a corner, ran down a street. Turned a corner, ran a street. Again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again.

Sweat and dirt water rolled down my neck. My breath got cut shorter and shorter as I rushed to find anything to drink, my thirst enflaming my throat, controlling my actions.

There. Another rabbit. I homed in on it.

“…”

“Ah.”

It ran away. I watched it go.

I was too tired. Too exhausted to take another step. It hurt too much to move.

I stood on the sidewalk. A car pulled up beside me. The opening and slamming of doors.

Allí estás!”

I turned. The guy before. The one I bitch-slapped from earlier. His bandana was wrapped around his mouth. He charged at me.

He yelled again, but I couldn’t understand it this time. He got right up to me, and his hands went around my neck.

I choked.

He pressed harder, and everything started to go black. Cold, wet, uncomfortable. I faltered back, but his hold remained. He shook me, and the darkness seeped into my vision even faster. Whatever the threshold was for handling such abuse, I had long surpassed that by a mile.

The only thing that seemed to cut through everything was a faint, sweet aroma. Perfume? Cologne?

Neither.

I opened my eyes, fully. I thrust my hand out, and my palm smacked against the man’s nose.

He flinched, faltered, and fell backwards. His fingers around my neck loosened, but I still collapsed with him.

We hit the pavement, my hand going for his throat as we descended. We shifted roles.

He opened his eyes, fully. Fear. “Stop! What you are-!” He choked, squelched a bit. He was muffled by his bandana.

I could imagine why he was so afraid.

All sorts of fluids leaked from my face. Snot from my nose, a mixture of blood and spit from my mouth, and tears streaming out my eyes and down my cheeks. I didn’t even shake from crying, I just let the tears run. Because I was so consumed with anxiety, anger, frustration, depression. For only a few days, I thought I had beat the system. The system that was thrust upon me, forcefully. Gamed it, in a way, to prevent myself from falling down a particular path I feared. I hated this week. A living nightmare. A personal Hell. I just wanted it to end. Because I didn’t want to live a life that wouldn’t let me eat. Forced me to consume something I didn’t want to. I felt like a prisoner to my circumstances, jailed by my thirst.

“I just want something to drink.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

007 – To Eat a Jackrabbit

Previous                                                                                               Next

The smell as I came in, it was no longer tempting. A shame, since it was what I now recognized as rice and soy sauce. It emanated from the kitchen, where I saw my mom, her back to me, hunched over the sink. She was washing dishes, and because she liked to work with background noise, the TV in the living room between us was on. She hadn’t heard me come in.

I pushed the door closed, harder than usual to make my entrance louder.

She didn’t budge. Was I already that deep in the red?

“Ma,” I said, raising my voice over the TV. Still nothing.

Ma,” I said again, this time louder. I hoped it didn’t seem like I yelled at her.

She finally turned to face me. She had no discernable expression.

“How was school?” she asked.

I shrugged. “It was good.”

She didn’t react.

“Sorry,” I continued, “We had a game today. We won.”

“Good,” she said. She let a short pause settle in, the sound of the TV coming in between us. Some cop show. “Have you eaten yet?”

“We went out to eat after the game.”

“Who were you with?”

“Katy… and some people from the team,” I made sure to neglect bringing up Brandon.

“Okay.” Another pause.

I took that as an opportunity. “Alright. Tomorrow’s Friday, and I still have a lot of homework, so…” I made a move for my room, walking through the living room, passing the TV.

“Come here,” she said, catching me off guard. I hesitated.

“I’ve really got a lot of-”

“Just come here.”

I set down my stuff, my sports bag and backpack. I walked into the kitchen, and found my mom facing me, water no longer running from the sink.

I was about to sweat. Worried about what could come next. A stern talking-to over this past week and weekend? Would I get grounded? From what, though? That shitty-ass phone? I guess I had my computer, but-

My mom extended her arm out to me, motioning me to come closer. “Come here.”

Really don’t want to. “What’s up?” I asked, trying to stay calm, casual. Wary, I got closer to her.

Her arm went around my shoulders, and she pulled me even closer. Tight. My chin brushed against the top of her head.

“You give me hug when you come home,” she said, completely serious. “You know already.”

About half of the worry fatiguing my body was instantly tossed away. But I didn’t show it on my face.

“Sorry,” I said.

My mom pointed to the food at the counter, placed in containers. “Why don’t you eat more?” She asked. “There’s still some soup and chicken.”

“Really, I’m good,” I answered, my voice scratchy. I coughed a bit. She was too close for comfort. Her neck was right there.

“Are you sure? You should eat more.”

“I’m sure,” I said as I broke away from the hug, and began sifting through the overhead cabinets for a glass. “I am a little parched though.”

As much fun as this was, I’d prefer to be back in my room. I got my glass of water, and headed out of the kitchen to get my bags and seek refuge.

“Alexis.”

I stopped, with doorknob right there. So close.

“Yes?”

“Is everything alright?” I had already passed the kitchen, so I couldn’t see her anymore. I only heard her voice.

“Everything’s fine,” I replied. Despite the very clear fact that everything happening to me at the moment was absolutely not fine, I didn’t want to get into that right now. I’d deal with it myself. “Everything’s good.”

I retreated to my room.

That actually went a lot better than I expected.

But, could that mean a really bad lecture later down the line? I didn’t know. Definitely wasn’t looking forward to that. My vocal cords scraped together with yet another cough. Like a reflex to that fear.

Just have to take it easy, if that’s even possible.

To take my mind off of the past few hours, I settled with doing my homework. I was actually looking forward to doing it.

Although settling in was easy, it turned out that doing my homework was arduous. Not the work itself, just some pointless math worksheets and Spanish vocabulary, but just having to bring myself to do it. Something kept nagging at me, the feeling of needing to do something else.

I dropped my pencil, and took a swig of water. After a deep breath, I went for my computer.

Sure enough, I found it online. Footage of me, on that night of the accident. If I had never seen this before, I definitely would’ve called bullshit. I could see why Brandon thought it was faked somehow. The person in this video, they moved too quickly, like some kind of creature.

The dash cam, however, was positioned in a way that the image cut off at the roof of the truck. You couldn’t actually see me jump away. The rest though, me knocking away the officer, pulling myself up and leaping to the roof of the truck. That was all there.

There was no real upside. Nothing I could pull away from this that would make me feel better. I found the website of the local news program that ran the story, an online written version. An interview with the EMS officer I had dealt with. Girl this, female that. He kept confirming that it was indeed a girl he dealt with. Even if the video was taken at night, even if it was a little hard to see, the words were right there, for everyone to read. No room for speculation. Awesome.

On the other hand, he wasn’t be able to identify her, thanks to the dark and that she was wearing a hood.

Alright, there was one upside, I thought to myself, Just one.

I reclined in my chair. My thirst and hunger were nagging at my consciousness even more, now, to the point that it had to be addressed. Like an alarm clock that I couldn’t turn off. I tried drinking more water, only to find that I had but a few sips left. Already?

I wanted more water – as if that would help – but I didn’t want to bump into my mom, in case she was still out there. Was that a pathetic thought? Absolutely, but I also wanted to avoid any conflict as much as possible.

How frustrating.

My head went to rest in my hands, and from the prickling feeling at the back of my neck, I knew I was about to heavily perspire. It was bad when I woke up this morning, getting worse and worse throughout the day. I had managed to fight through it for school and the game, but now, it was feral and impatient, clawing at my insides until it had been relieved of a certain, particular desire. All day, I tried to push it away, tried to ignore it. But I didn’t have that option anymore.

Dammit. I can’t take it. 

Alexis. Slow, deep breaths. Try to stay cool, calm. Collected.

I couldn’t.           

When I raised my head, and checked the time, thirty minutes had passed.

Dammit. I literally cannot even take it.

A knock on my door. I tensed.

“Alexis?” It was muffled from behind the door.

“Mom?” I sounded hoarse.

“I’m going to bed. I left the soup out.”

“Oh, okay, thanks.”

“Good night.”

“Night.”

A handful of seconds passed with silence. Did mom head to her room already?

I don’t care.

Without hesitating, I grabbed for a hoodie and my phone, and went out to the balcony. I secured a grip on the railing, and vaulted over.

I walked until I was deep into a suburb. It was a neighborhood I wasn’t unfamiliar with, just from simply living in the area for so long. Being so late and all, I was all alone as I roamed. Back when I was younger – a little younger – us kids used to play around at even this hour, but now parents were calling their children to come inside earlier and earlier as the years went by.

Every few steps, I was basked in the artificial light of a street lamp above me. After a few more, I was back in darkness. The more I walked, the tighter I hugged my midriff. A type of ravishing pain that could only come about from a few days of improper eating. I hunched over to try and wind down the grumbling. Had anyone seen me, I’d probably be mistaken for a bumbling hobo.

I inhaled a deep breath, but coughed as I exhaled.

I wanted to go for a walk to clear my head, but I only confused.

The very thought, the concept itself was something I despised having to just think about. The fact that this was something I had to seriously consider and wrap my head around. I clenched my fists, infuriated, remembering what happened back at the restaurant. Back at the game, with Eve. Back at that truck, when I discovered the woman. This awful realization.

Regular food sucked now. And the only thing that seemed to whet my appetite was…

I clenched again, even harder, until my fingernails dug into my palm.

Blood.

Blood. A bodily fluid that runs in humans and animals, transporting nutrients and oxygen to cells, giving them what they need to properly function in a living body. A fundamental necessity for life.

Unbelievable.

What was I, some kind of vampire? I didn’t even want to use the word vampire, since even that sounded more ridiculous than the situation I was currently having to deal with. And, didn’t vampires have an aversion to sun and stuff? I haven’t melted in the sunlight. Not yet, for all I knew. All food sucked now, and that would include garlic. What else? Anyone would die from a stake to the heart, and anyone would die from a bullet, whether or not it was made from silver. A shadow? If I didn’t have one, it would have been among the first things I’d notice. Counting rice? I used to count spare rice on my plate when I was bored at the dinner table. But that was due to me being a hyperactive kid, not due to any sprung-upon supernatural OCD.

The only similarity here was that I needed blood.

And even if I was a vampire, how was I supposed to get sustenance? Going after people was out of the question. I’d rather just starve to death instead. The day that happens would be the day I no longer considered myself a person. But then what? What were my alternatives? Maybe I could still technically eat regular food, but it was just really bad. Could I last a week eating like that? Could I last the rest of my life eating like that? I recalled the smell of food, now. The answer was a hard ‘no.’ But then what?

As though to answer my question, a shape moved in the dark. What I assumed was the dark, anyways, since it was sitting in the middle of the road, outside the range of the streetlamps.

A rabbit.

Walk around for long enough, whether it was an apartment complex or a suburb, it was almost guaranteed that you’d eventually come across one. Annoyingly common. I used to chase them all the time as a kid, but naturally, they were always too fast to catch. Dumb but agile creatures. Cute, though.

A bodily fluid that runs in humans… And animals.

I didn’t like the direction my thoughts were going, but the idea came to me regardless.

I stepped onto the street. There shouldn’t be any cars at this hour, but I was still careful. Making sure every step made no noise, I walked closer to the animal. When I was about eight feet away, the rabbit’s ear twitched.

It immediately broke into a run, scurrying left, off towards a house. By now, I’d just let it run off, but that would defeat the purpose of me being here. I straightened my back, preparing myself.

I too broke into a run, attempting to intercept it as it went directly to a bush. I surprised myself, as I already made it in between the rabbit and its escape route.

“All righty,” I said, talking aloud for whatever reason.

I threw out my arms, hoping to catch it. It shifted directions instantly, juking me to get to a fence past me. It slipped under a small hole in the wood, and got to the other side.

“Tricky bastard.” But I wasn’t going to give up so easily. My stomach had already begun to twist into knots. I blinked away tears as my thirst spiked in pain.

“Fuck.”

I jogged to the fence, and performed the smallest hop I could. I recalled the time at the barn. And the truck.

“Agh!”

This time, I underestimated it. I did get over the fence, but my foot got caught at the top, and I toppled over, my body thumping on dirt and grass.

Will I ever get the hang of this?

I got up, and dusted my clothes off. I was in the backyard of someone’s home. If I wanted to catch that rabbit, now was the time.

Searching the surprisingly small perimeter, I found it, still in a far corner. It probably calmed down, thinking it escaped me. Sorry, buddy, not this time.

I ran to its position, staying light on my feet, carefully observing the animal for any tells for where it would run.

It didn’t even look at me, but from the way it twitched, I knew it was going to go left.

I moved in accordance to it, shifted my weight properly, and crouched down, my knees pressed against my chest. From that position, I dove to intercept it.

“Gotcha!” I announced with some pride, feeling fur enter into my open hands.

I stayed on the ground for a moment, securing my hold on the animal. It wriggled and squirmed around, wanting to get free.

When I was sure I had a good hold, I stood up.

It continued to struggle in my hands, but I wasn’t going to yield so easily. “Ow!”

A sharp prick on my right hand. It bit me. I moved my hand away, and secured my grip elsewhere on its body. I watched as the small mark by my thumb disappeared.

What I had planned, I definitely couldn’t do in someone’s backyard. I leapt over the fence, properly this time, and returned to the neighborhood proper. I thought of where to go. I scouted over the different routes in my head.

The park. The only place that came to me. Not too far from here, and plus, there wouldn’t be anyone there. Shouldn’t.

Perfect.

Securing the rabbit in my arms, I jogged over there.

The park’s setup was simple. A simple playground, with a swing set on one side, and a playhouse made up of climbers and swings on the other. But I wasn’t here to play. I was more interested on what was past the playground. As I crossed the playground, woodchips crumpled under my feet.

I didn’t know whose bright idea was it to build a playground near a ditch, but there it was. The slope was steep enough that a wooden railing was built on the side that faced the playground to prevent kids from falling in, not that I ever heard of that happening. Like whoever put it here did it only to get any complaining parents off their back, and thought, ‘Good enough.’ The ditch itself was wide, and was filled with tall grass and a single tree. No one would see me here.

The railing went only up to my hip, so getting over wouldn’t be an issue. But I did have to brace myself when I landed on the slope, running to prevent a fall. I slowed down when I got into the waist-high grass.

When I was sure I was all good, I held the rabbit out in front of me. It still squirmed around, but it was more sluggish now.

“Tired?” I asked the rabbit. Why did I ask that?

I took a better look at it. It was so cute, with its fluffy white fur, and its round shape. There was some black on it, a splash of dark fur across the left shoulder. Other than that, it was wholly white. How it twisted and turned, looking for a way to escape, it broke my heart. But when another fine pang of pain almost caused me to bowl over, I remembered why I was here.

“Sorry,” I said, stroking its head. “I really am.”

While I stroked it, I brushed its fur, exposing what should be its neck. I stalled for a moment, watching as it no longer protested, and it just stayed still, breathing. It gave me second thoughts.

Was this even sanitary? I could heal from cuts and broken bones, but that didn’t necessarily mean I was immune to disease. I grimaced.

The now-constant pounding all throughout my body served as a decent reminder. I’d take the risk.

“Here I go.”

I bit into its neck. Immediately, my mouth was filled with blood and fur. I had to fight the urge to back away and spit it out, because, if I backed down now, I couldn’t bring myself to do it again. Plus, it was just gross. The feeling of the rabbit’s body writhing for a second, and then going limp, relenting all control, I’d never forget that.

I brought the rabbit away from my face, being careful to not get blood on my face or hoodie. I was now holding a dead animal. Probably a good idea to get rid of this.

Going further into the grass, I placed it down, setting it down in its final resting place. Silently, with all my heart, I thanked it for its sacrifice.

Walking back up the slope, I picked at my tongue, trying to get out every strand of fur. Some blood dripped down a corner of my mouth. A chill soothed the back of my neck. I was significantly less on edge than when I got here. I kept thinking back to the taste of that rabbit.

“Not bad.”

Like a thick raspberry jelly, few days old. Not exactly the best thing ever, but by god, it was better than literally everything else I had all day. All week. It disturbed me, just how much I was mulling over this. How good it tasted.

But I could drink it. That was the golden takeaway from all of this. I had an alternative. What a fucking relief. I nearly buckled down to my knees.

A vibration in my pocket. I went for the phone, checking the message. I read the message from Katy.

“How bad was it?” she texted.

Both hands were necessary to reply. I hated how I needed to press a number multiple times in order to cycle to the letter I wanted. Accidentally press it one too many times, and you’d have to cycle through it all again. It made texting slow and frankly, not fun. A simple reply that I could knock out in a second took me thirty times as long.

“Wasn’t bad, maybe bad later. L-O-L,” I said as I typed it, not bothering with punctuation and capitalization.

A reply already. “Good. Think you can take it easy?” I read.

A word was certainly easier than a sentence, my response coming much faster this time.

“Yes.”

Katy left it at that, no longer responding. I put the phone away.

Elated. My thoughts went back to my newfound discovery. An alternative. I had an alternative.

I wiped the blood, and the smile, that was smeared across my face.

“Alexis, Lexi!”

“Hey, vámonos.”

A smack to my arm almost led to me smacking my chin against the table. I caught myself in time, but it woke me up to where I was. Lone Star Chicken. Around lunch time.

“Get up, girl, we ‘bout to head out.”

“Huh, what’s going…” I mumbled. I faced the blurry images sitting in front of me. I pressed my wrist against my eyes, but that didn’t help at all.

“I said c’mon, I can’t afford another tardy no more.” From the Hispanic accent, I could tell the blurry shape to my right was Maria.

“I agree, let’s go.” And by process of elimination, the one on my left was Katy.

“Yeah, sounds… sounds good,” I said, still drowsy from my short nap. They both started coming into focus.

Katy was the first to voice her concern. “You okay? I’ll get you something.”

I raised my hand, the palm facing her. “Not hungry.”

“That’s not good. You can’t keep skipping lunch, you’re gonna get thinner.”

“Really, no need to worry.”

She pursed her lips, but arguing with me would be futile. After how many years, she should know that by now. She knew I was stubborn. Katy huffed out of her nose, and got up from the table, putting away her tray.

After we cleaned up, we headed out. When I got outside, I grabbed the sunglasses clipped to my sweater, and put them on. Maria drove us back to school.

Friday. As for now, my thirst, and appetite, had largely been curbed. I still got thirsty from time to time, but I could tell it was thirst for water, and not the ‘other’ thirst. Just somehow, within me, they were distinct sensations. And, I’ve also noticed that my other thirst was, in one way or another, tethered to my hunger for food. I was honest when I told Katy I wasn’t hungry. I hadn’t been at all since last night. Since I had rabbit for the first time. I did wonder how long until I had to feed again, though.

If I had known that I could never eat my favorite chicken sandwich ever again, I wished had I savored my last one a little longer.

We got to school in time, slipping into the mass of bustling students and making it into our respective classrooms. Just as the bell rang, I slipped into my seat, and put away my sunglasses. Made it by the skin of my teeth.

Thoughtlessly, my pen jotted down whatever it was my teachers said.

Classes ended one after another, with little homework for the weekend, which I liked. I didn’t want any more on my plate at the moment. The school day ended, and I left my English classroom with Katy, the bell ringing in the background. Between the two of us, we couldn’t look any less alike. She had on tight jeans and an even tighter red sweater, while I wore shorts, and a green and white striped long sleeve sweater. She had only her purse and a notebook, and I had my binder and my backpack slung over one shoulder. By looks, we were so mismatched.

Being on the second floor, it was always a hassle getting down, having to move with the mass of people who want to escape from the school and fall into the warm embrace of the weekend as soon as possible. It was Friday, after all.

“By the way,” Katy said, sparking up conversation, “Let’s go down to Braham this weekend. You never got to eat your birthday cake.”

I just kept looking forward.

“Sorry, maybe not this time.” I wasn’t ready to go back there again. Not so soon, anyways.

Katy pretended to stumbled on the last step of the stairs. “Whoa, that’s not the Lexi I know.”

I rolled my eyes at her, and elbowed her in the arm. “And who is the Lexi you know?”

“The Lexi I know would have jumped at the chance to go anywhere, do anything.”

“I’m not that carefree. And what if I said I had some homework over the weekend? I still haven’t finished my project for Goldstein.”

“A paper and model representation of chemical bonding can wait.”

“What about my mom?” I brought up.

“What about her?”

“She’s not going to let me out the house that late. Not anytime soon.”

“You still have your rope, don’t you? We’ll go after she falls asleep. And we’ll be back before she ever wakes up. It’ll be fine.”

“You really thought this through, didn’t you?”

“Sure did. We don’t even have to invite Brandon this time around, keep your mind off of making a mess of yourself in front of him.”

“Wow, holding that over me?”

“Come on, it’ll be fun. Even more fun since we’ll be careful this time. I’ll hire a bodyguard, my eyes and ears.”

“You’re joking.”

“Between me and Maria, not even germs will be able to touch you. Maybe we can even get Maria’s boyfriend for some extra muscle.”

“You’re definitely joking.”

Katy shook her head. “Speaking of which…” she trailed off, and let the conversation die.

We got to the front hall of the school, but we couldn’t make our way out. From the other side of the hall, two boys in letterman jackets came running towards us. We stepped one way, and they stepped to block us. We stepped another way, and they blocked us again.

“Let’s just leave through another hall?” Katy suggested. I agreed.

“Hey hey! Hold on now!” one of the boys said. Eric.

“Lexis, Katy, sup!”

Katy raised her shoulders, crossing her arms as she did so.

“Hi.”

I gave the boys my own message with my body language, throwing my hands into my pockets, smiling.

Eric ignored my intended meaning, and winked my way. He was more brick wall than man, and I didn’t expect anything to get through his thick skull, anyways.

The thin, spindly blond beside him, Evan, nodded with a coy look. Whenever I saw those two together, something was about to go down. Those two were probably known more for their pranks than their actual performance on the football team.

“What is it this time?” Katy asked. Her voice was higher than usual. She raised her chin and tilted her neck.

Eric answered Katy with another question. “Either of you have cash?”

“How come?”

“Oh, nothing,” he said in a sing-song voice. It sounded off with how deep his voice actually was.

“You want money? You’ll have to earn it somehow.”

Evan spoke up. “We’re putting something together for Harry. Something of a little gift.”

My mind focused on the name ‘Harry.’

Harrian Wong. Some sophomore who had been in the sights of those two troublemakers for the past few months. Why exactly was he subjected to their practical jokes, I didn’t know. Was it because he was a foreign exchange student, just coming in from China? Maybe, but considering my being half-Japanese, they didn’t bug me about that.

They bugged me in other ways.

But, other than his ethnicity, I didn’t know much else about the guy. I only really knew him from his association with Eric and Evan. Meaning that this conversation wasn’t about anything good.

“What are you two planning this time?” I asked.

Eric winked. “Stick around, you’ll find out.”

I broke eye contact with him. “Nah.”

“Either way, I don’t have any money on me, sorry,” Katy said, her tone playful on that last word.

“Aw, I bet you can spare me something, babe,” Evan raised an eyebrow, reaching to stroke Katy’s hair.

Katy slapped his hand, but giggled anyways. On occasion, she still scared me.

“How about you?” Evan asked me, acting in much the same manner. Not that I didn’t want to play along, but I just wanted to go home. Coach let us off the hook for our performance at the game yesterday, allowing us a break. The stream of people leaving the school had already thinned out. These two were getting in my way.

“I’m with Katy. You’re not getting a cent if you don’t tell me.”

Evan dropped his shoulders, and his act. “We’ve been messing with Harry for a bit, and we wanted to make it up to him.”

Eric jabbed a thumb at Evan. “Yeah, that. We realized we were being assholes, we thought we were just joking around, but nah.” He shrugged.

“What is this so-called ‘gift’?” I probed. This seemed more like an interrogation than a casual conversation.

The boys glanced at each other. “That’s really between us,” Evan said, with no trace of any mischief. As he spoke, the bell rang. The last bell of the day, meaning that any students who had no legitimate business still being in school, academic or otherwise, they’d better get lost. Meaning I should already be out of the building.

Evan continued. “We’re only talking to you ladies since you were close. It’s really nothing if you don’t have nothing.”

I looked at the two of them, surveying them carefully.

They seem genuine enough…

“Ugh, here,” I fished into my backpack for my wallet, taking out a dollar and some cents. I held the money over Eric’s already outstretched hand.

“Hold it,” I said, pulling my hand away just as he was about to reach for it. “I don’t really get it, but I swear you better be serious.”

“No worries,” Eric said. “Cross my heart, hope to die, and all that shit.”

“And one more thing,” I said, pulling my hand away even more.

“What?” Eric asked.

“Brandon, has he said anything?”

Eric tilted his head. “Anything? About what? You?”

I was too embarrassed to say more.

“Hate to say it, babe, but no. Haven’t seen him around lately.”

I grunted, eyed him suspiciously, but the clock in my head began to tick louder. Wanna go home. I dropped the money into his grasp. Eric and Evan fist bumped, and they ran back down the hall, turning a corner, and they were gone.

Katy sighed. “Those two are just asking for something crazy to happen.” She turned to me, dropping the previous mask she wore for the boys. “And you. You’re coming with us to a party. This weekend.”

I exhaled. “We’ll see.”

“You mean we’ll see you there?”

“You’re delusional.”

She clicked her tongue. “Shut up. Saturday, Sunday, whatever, I’m going to pick you up, we’re going to get a cake, and we’re meeting up with Maria and we’ll party it up. This is happening.

Previous                                                                                               Next

006 – Soiled Veil

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The screaming of Coach Tilly tore me out my daze.

“Barnett! You’re up!”

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

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

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

“I said you’re up! Eve got injured!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Get moving!” Coach barked.

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

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

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

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

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

The whistle blew, and everyone sprang into action.

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

Nervousness.

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

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

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

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

“Sup, bitch.”

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

“Woof,” I replied.

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

“Thanks.”

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

“Thanks.”

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

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

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

“Wasn’t feeling good,” I said, dryly.

“You just played a game.”

“Um…”

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

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

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

“Why’s that?”

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

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

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

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

I really didn’t have a retort.

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

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

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

“Um. Maybe.”

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

I grumbled.

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

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

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

“And why should I?”

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

“He? He who?”

He.”

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Fine, let’s go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You idiot.

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

“Good,” I lied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You…”

“Is that a ‘You’re welcome?’”

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

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

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

I glanced around absentmindedly, unable to settle down.

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

“I’m good, just…”

“Tired?”

“More than.”

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

“Me too.”

“I’m sorry?”

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

Oh my god. I wanted to die already.

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

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

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

So, should I really be here, right now?

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

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

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

I shrugged in response.

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

“No, I can’t do that.”

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

“No, really,” I said, “It’s cool.”

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

Brandon laughed, “Oh, it’s on.”

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

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

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

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

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

Brandon and I turned at the same time.

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

“Oh… my… god…” I said, flabbergasted.

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

Thing,’ ‘freaky.’ The words stung.

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

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

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

I read the subtitles.

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

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

The mother smiled, “Sure, I would.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Now you’re tripping!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, I said stop!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The whole restaurant fell into a hush.

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

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

Really? In front of Brandon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

No…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please?”

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

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

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

No… this week isn’t even half-over.

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

Previous                                                                                               Next

005 – Wet Feet to Flood

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“Ma! Mommy!” I called out. “You can thee everything from here!” I tried to echo out.

Mommy stepped out to where I was, on the balcony. I heard the glass door slide shut behind her.

“Yes, you can,” she responded.

The view was awesome, with the McDonald’s right over there. Mommy should walk with me over there one day. And there were so many buildings. Big buildings that could reach the moon. There were big malls too, I wanted to go down there and see what cool stuff they had. But then that would mean me missing the big buildings. And the wind here that felt nice and it was sunny and it felt good and awesome and we were so so high up so I never wanted to go back down.

I gripped the railing even tighter, and shouted again. Mommy lightly tapped my head to get me to stop.

“Stop that.” She didn’t say it meanly, so I guess I was okay.

I jumped up and down, trying to get a better look above the railing, but I was too short. I hate being short.

Mommy stroked my hair hard but that felt good, getting my bangs into my eyes. I shook my head to get it out of the way, and let go of the railing to tightly hug mommy’s leg.

“Since you like it so much,” she said, “How about we choose here?”

I knew what she meant, but I still looked back up to her anyways.

“Threally?” My excitement whistled through my missing front tooth. I remember this girl I played with at the park last week, she said my teeth looked like a checkerboard. What’s a checkerboard?

“Thank you, mommy! Thanks!” I had said, my voice muffled into her thigh.

I heard her laugh. Quiet, but I heard it. “Much better than the old place?”

“Mm! Mm!” I agreed, not letting go. I nodded, but it amounted to rubbing my forehead against her shorts, and my nose to her skin. “Muth better!”

“Ah!” she then laughed, and made some space between us so she could pick me up. After she had a good hold on me, we looked out, together. I hugged her neck, being careful not to be too rough.

Mommy hummed a tune. I nestled in closer to feel it too.

“This balcony’s part of master bedroom. You can have it.”

I rocked back and forth so hard I was nearly thrashing. Mommy held me closer and made a peep in shock.

“Really! Theally!” My excitement splattered spit onto mommy’s cheek. She chuckled as she wiped it away.

She set me down, but she couldn’t stop me from not being glued to her side. I squeezed her, harder, with the hugest smile. The big room? The big room, that was a big deal, the biggest deal in the whole wide world. I couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t wait to live here now. A hundred massages, a hundred backrubs, whatever, I would thank mommy every day for the rest of my life.

After settling down some more, together, we looked out far away. I was super excited. Every day I could play with new friends and stuff, when I go to my new school. We would live in a new place, and I wanted to stay up here and see all the new cool places I could explore. And best of all, I get to sleep every day in a big bed. It was the best news ever. I was so super duper excited.

I couldn’t wait!

I stood in front of my apartment building, sweaty and tired. The lack of light at the window clued me in to what the situation was inside. Frankly, that my mom had gotten tired of waiting for me, and went to bed. Also known as the final nail in the coffin on how truly screwed I was today.

A brief thought went into my head, a memory. I banished it immediately. No distractions.

Deciding on a different approach, I headed around the side of the building. Going up the stairs, and right through the front door might have woken her, and I was trying to avoid that. Some worry over their dog when they sneak back in their own house. Me? I had my mom. I’d rather deal with her in the morning, when I had to.

My room had a sliding glass door that led into a balcony, and while that was my only promising alternative, it was also two stories high. A week ago, the only way I considered that a possible escape route was when I would take out some rope I kept hidden in my closet, tie it to the railing, and climb down, with Katy waiting for me at the bottom. It wasn’t a method I used all too often, only being viable when it was late enough that I knew my mom wouldn’t be awakened by any noise, being the heavy sleeper that she was. And even that was a gamble, since I would have to keep the rope tied so I could climb back up later. To keep it out of plain sight, I had to tie it to the railing that ran alongside the wall of the building, and just hope that no one came around there. Generally, no one did, but it was still dicey. Too many variables.

Overall, a very risky strategy that required a specific set of circumstances to even have a slim chance of working. But regardless, that was for sneaking out. How the hell was I supposed to use the balcony as a means of getting in? I had no rope this time.

I took a chance. I positioned myself right under the edge of the balcony, and took two steps back. I bent my legs. With a hard push, I jumped.

The longer I stayed in the air, the harder it got to maintain my composure. Luckily, I still had enough wits about myself to grab a hold of the railing when it came within reach. With another thrust of my arms, I got over that particular barrier.

“Oof!” I sounded as I landed square on the balcony. I slapped myself in the mouth for making a noise. For a minute, I stayed still. Nothing. I sighed, shoulders dropping all tension. As I removed my shoes, I decided to leave them outside.

Sliding the door open, I stepped into my room, patting myself on the back for always leaving it unlocked. The light switch was off, so the room should have been completely dark, yet I could see as though it was bright. Testing myself, I checked the time on the digital clock on my desk. The faint light displayed a red eleven-thirty. It hadn’t been like this before, did something trigger some sort of night vision?

Night vision, just add that to the list of things I was now capable of. Like being able to jump two stories. And making it out a crash unscathed. Well, physically unscathed.

But I digress.

I set down my backpack, and ventured out of my room.

Making sure I was safe, I peeked into the living room. I figured if my mom was trying to set up an ambush on me in case I did go through the front door, she would be asleep on the couch on the far wall, facing the television set. She wasn’t there, which meant she was in her room. I sighed again.

Thirsty for water, I went to the kitchen, making sure to be dead silent the whole way. But every heart-pounding step was like walking on a mine field. One wrong move, and I’d activate a bomb onto my night. Like it needed any more. I managed to procure a glass, and ran tap water into it.

My trip was a success, and I made to the kitchen and my room in a flash. Didn’t make it any less nerve-racking, though. I set the glass on the nightstand by my bed. While I was at it, I pulled out a drawer from my dresser, and took out my pocket knife. The one my mom gave me a while back for ‘safety.’ I’ve never had a use for it.

Curious, I smelled my hair and my clothes. They reeked of dirt and sweat and blood. I couldn’t go to bed like this.

Deciding that the risk was worth it, I took off my clothes, from hoodie, shorts, down to my underwear, and wrapped them in a trash bag I kept in my closet in case I ever needed to hide clothes I couldn’t wash with my mom around. I doubted they could even be washed in this state, or how would I even get away with it, but I’d deal with that later. Going back to my nightstand, I chugged my water, savoring every gulp. After putting the glass down, and the hiding trash bag back into the corner of the closet, by a pile of thick rope, I entered the bathroom that connected to my room, the door leading to it was across from the bed. I took the pocket knife with me.

I took a towel off of a nearby rack, and hung it over the shower door as I slid it closed. I set the knife down in a corner of the shower floor.

I played with the water settings until the showerhead drizzled a stream that was strong enough to clean, but not too strong so that it would be too loud. When I was sure I had it to a good setting, I started my shower.

Strangely, I was able to relax. Kind of. As I washed my body, I finally had the mental freedom to go over the events of what transpired in the past three hours or so.

The accident. My laundry list of injuries and broken bones. My escape from the scene by leaping over trees and ending up in the middle of the woods. How I healed from everything.

Thankfully, I didn’t jump too far into the trees, I just jumped high. By following the sounds of cars passing, I made it back to the road with no hassle. Making sure I was far enough away from the scene of the accident as possible, I left the woods and took a detour through the neighborhood, in an attempt to avoid any police or anyone else who may have recognized me. And just to clear my head, if anything. If there was any consolation, I had my hood up from truck to home.

I had walked around for about an hour, until I got far enough so that it would take me another hour to get back to the apartment. Quite the trip, to be honest. A blank, quiet trip. Only one thought came and bothered me like a fly.

What the hell is going on?

I rinsed my hands, and the dried blood washed away, coloring the shower floor. Massaging my palms, I saw nor felt the injuries that littered them just before. It was the same for the rest of my body as I applied soap.

I was looking forward to washing my hair the most, so I saved that for last. I finally let the cold water run down my hair, a soothing calm washed through me even more as I watched the dirt and guck slide down the drain. Adding shampoo made it that much better.

And just like that, I was clean. Ready to go to bed. Tomorrow, I’d have to wait for the other shoe to drop, but for now, I could sleep.

But there was one last order of business I needed to take care of.

I bent down for my pocket knife, and flipped the blade out. My breaths were deep as I psyched myself up.

Maybe, just maybe, this was all in my imagination. I didn’t know why I was trying to delude myself this much, but despite knowing better, a part me wished this was all a dream.

A deeper breath, then I brought the knife to my arm. The left wrist.

Not that I ever done this before, or anything, but it took some effort to actually get the knife to cut through my skin.

Blood rushed out of my wrist, and the floor was filled with red once again. I winced as the cold metal glided off my skin, exposing it more into the air, cold water getting into the cuts. This wasn’t for a rush, or for any desire for self-harm, I just wanted to see it again. What I’d do.

What would happen.

As I feared, I didn’t bleed out for very long. As I worked thin red lines across my wrist, the skin would close up right behind the knife’s edge, following any cut before it got too bad. I lifted the knife away, and washed off my arm. The blood fled down the drain, and I was left with nothing on my wrist.

I stood there, silent, just letting the water hit my scalp. If I cried, I didn’t feel it run down my cheeks.

After some time, I got out of the shower, and dried myself off. I didn’t think the water was too hot, but I must have been in there long enough to fog up the large mirror attached above the sink. I wiped it off to better look at myself.

Brown eyes that weren’t as slanted as my mother’s, but enough so that other kids liked to poke fun at them during elementary school. My lips were fuller than hers, too, enough so that the boys liked to make rude remarks regarding them during middle school. My figure, if allowed to brag, was slender yet fairly lean, thanks to years of volleyball, but I had curves where it mattered. Well, except for my chest, but I abandoned all hope about that long ago. My dark hair, normally a little past shoulder length, was stuck to my scalp and neck, from not properly drying off yet.

Whatever I got from my father, I didn’t know. Didn’t care to know.

I stared at my reflection, painstakingly inspecting every inch of my face and body, until the image started to distort from not blinking. On just a surface level view, there was nothing wrong here. Nothing. Just a girl who admittedly got into more trouble than need be. But still, a normal girl nonetheless.

Again, surface level.

But, now, there was a new absolute betraying what I saw. Something that could not be disputed. I was no longer Alexis Barnett, normal high school girl. I was no longer me. Humans aren’t capable of this. Should we follow the logical nexus after that, we had to conclude that I was no longer human. I had become something else entirely. What that was exactly, I didn’t want to say. Couldn’t bring myself to say. Wouldn’t dare to say. Like a twisted version of that motivational tactic. Say it, you become it.

Baring my teeth, I looked at my canines. Were they always that sharp? I balled up my fists, and went to punch the mirror. To break it. To bleed out from the sharp edges. But I held myself back at the last second. How could I break it, without alerting her? So instead, there was a weak tap. A cockroach grossly skittered across a corner of the mirror. This made me feel smaller than even that. I sniffled, watching as my reflection lost its shape and distinction, like watching it through a waterfall.

“I hate this.”

I decided to skip school today. Add that to the list of good decisions made by yours truly.

It was mostly a string of excuses, but I had to be fair to myself. How could I expect myself to be able to attend school after what happened the night before. Now, I had to be careful. I had no idea exactly what I was capable of. The thought of something happening at school because of me was unbearable. It was a miracle that nothing happened on my first day back.

When I woke up that morning, it was the best sleep I had in years. At the very least, I had that going for me. The alarm rang its annoying tone for an hour past its set time. From just that much, I knew my mom had left for work before it went off, and that I was home alone. Katy was supposed to pick me up again today, I wondered how long she waited until she had to go to school herself. Did she call?

I remembered that the phone was still in the pocket of my shorts, so I had to dig them out of the hidden trash bag. It smelled worse than ever. I made a mental note to find a way to get rid of these soon. Very soon.

Of course, phones don’t magically recharge overnight, and mine was already dead when I left school last night. If Katy had called, I wouldn’t have known. I plugged it into the charger by my desk, and left it as I went to get myself breakfast.

As per my morning routine, I fixed up bowl of cereal with colorful marshmallows. Couldn’t start my day without them. Especially today, since I wanted to start the day with some sense of normalcy. Normal was good. Routine was good. And somewhere deep within me still clung to the chance that this was all just a really bad dream.

I nearly spat it out. The cereal itself was the consistency of wet paper, and the marshmallows tasted like rotten fish. The milk was the worst, like it was two weeks past its expiration date, but the date on the carton told me otherwise. I had to force myself to finish it, which I never do.

Tastes like ass. That pretty much summed up my breakfast experience.

I spent the rest of my morning on my desktop computer, waiting for my phone to fully charge. It bothered me more than I wanted it too, but sitting here, alone in my room and my thoughts, gave me a weight of worry in the pit of my stomach. By practically slapping the keys of the keyboard, I googled ‘barham barn.’ The website fixed my misspelling.

A few online articles came up about the incident that Friday night. Friday night? That felt so long ago, already. It hadn’t even registered to me yet that I was no longer fifteen. I cracked a knuckle as I scanned through the first result.

It was a short, but not concise, summary of events. Too light on detail. A girl was discovered in the abandoned barn, covered in various bodily fluids, but no scratches or injuries on her. They didn’t release my name, which I was pleased with. The privilege of still being a minor, I guessed. But there was nothing here that I could use. Nothing that was helpful.

The next three articles were just as bad, in terms of information. Statements from the police saying that while the incident seems strange, it was most likely a prank by some dumb kids. I recalled Katy’s joke from yesterday. Even that felt forever ago.

The final article had some choice words for me in the comments. Some ‘xhangman47x’ said I was just a ‘dumb slut’ who probably deserved it. I exhaled. Fine, if you say so. But being a dumb slut did not put me in that barn.

No, one measly comment didn’t upset me. What did upset me was how much this was not adding up.

I knew someone attacked me, brought me there. Some thing. But that was the extent of my knowledge on the matter. These articles reported that I was found unharmed, unscathed. Definitely dirty, definitely smelly, but not hurt. Forcing myself to think back to that night, I knew that wasn’t the case. The exact, clear details weren’t there, but I was pretty confident that I didn’t make it out of there in one piece. If there was something off about me when I was found, it would have to have been reported on, surely.

The only option I could come up with now was to go back to the barn myself.

I said it out loud. “Great.”

A beginnings of a cold sweat prickled the back of my neck. “I guess I could go, today. But…” I leaned back into my chair.

What did I expect to find?

Whatever it may be, probably nothing at all, the thought of going was worse than the second before descending a rollercoaster. The thought tied the pit in my stomach into knots.

I closed the tabs, and reopened a new window. I didn’t do much else past watching some random videos of top eleven hidden details in movies that would blow my mind. They didn’t blow my mind.

Finally, my phone was done charging, and saw the icons indicating two missed calls and quite a few texts from Katy. I opened up the messages first, reading them aloud in a monotone.

“Outside. Where are you? ‘Kay bye.” Checking the timestamp on the messages, they weren’t even a minute apart. Thanks.

I stumbled through my text for her. ‘Still feel under weather. C u tmrw’

I got a response right away. ‘K’

Setting the phone aside, it had gotten to be around lunchtime, had I went to school. Normalcy. Routine. Trying to stick to that as much as possible. Let’s eat.

I went to the fridge in the kitchen, to see what we had.

Still, leftovers. One piece of fried chicken, barely a serving of rice, and barely a bowl left of miso soup. How nostalgic. Back in the day, my mom cooked fried chicken and miso soup with rice all the time.

But none of it looked appetizing. Was it really worth it? I closed the refrigerator.

I rushed back into my room, changing into an old blue windbreaker and some jeans, with rips lining down the side of my thighs. Emptying out my backpack, which was tracked with mud, I found that most of my journals were intact. The large binder I used for my schoolwork was cracked along the front, but that could easily be replaced. I took everything out, save for a notebook, and put in my phone and wallet with some extra cash from my closet. I placed the plastic bag of dirty clothes in there, too.

And with my bag slung over one shoulder, I headed out.

There was a bus stop at the end of the street, past my apartment. I waited there, the bus coming a minute or so later. I got on.

It was lame process of having to ask the bus driver what route took me where, them taking me as far as their route would allow, move on to the next bus stop, ask the new bus driver as I got on what route took me where, ad infinitum. One of the bus stops dropped me off somewhere on the nebulous border of Stephenville that divided the ‘somewhat nice’ parts and where the drug cartels roamed openly. Police sirens blared in the background, and the bus I waited for there was delayed. Not shocking at all, if the two were related.

There was never a moment where I didn’t long for my old phone.

A long, lame, arduous process, a late or slow bus here and there, but I eventually crossed the city to get to my destination. In about an hour.

Braham Barn.

The final bus stop wasn’t right at the entrance of the abandoned plantation, and it was a long walk from the edge of the city to the front gate. The scenery changed from dilapidated street corners to fields of grass and tumbleweed in almost an instant. Passing the gate, I made sure to be wary of any coyotes this time.

I soon stood at the crossroads of a long, winding path of dirt and rocks. Tall plants swayed in the soft breeze. A blue sky above, and the sun beating down too brightly on me. It reminded me of how much I liked sunny days.

Keep walking forward, I’d get to the manor. Go right, I’d hit the decrepit grain silo. Standing here, in the middle of the day, with everything in my sights. Super surreal.

I took a left.

The doors were already open, or perhaps no one had bothered to close it. There were no lights inside the barn, but broken windows and slits in the roof above were large enough to fill the interior with some light. Either way, something like that didn’t really matter anymore.

Calling this a barn suggested it maintained a semblance of its old life. Better off calling it a ruins. A corpse of its former self.

The inside of the barn was gutted, the stables and the loft wholly removed, leaving the space even more sparse and empty. A tractor sat in a corner by the entrance, the back half missing, and only one tire attached. A stack of bricks were arranged beside it. Some barnyard equipment rested on the hay-covered floor, and I had to kick away a rake to avoid stepping on it. What had used to be a barn now used to be a place for hoedowns.

Nine or ten picnic-tables were randomly strewn about across the area. There was a gap between the cluster of tables that split them up down the middle. Not the result of someone moving them around, no, some tables were too close together to scoot in to a seat. It was like someone got violently thrown into the tables, their limp body parting them away.

Does not feel good to be back, I thought.

“Can’t believe I’m here,” I breathed. This was too strange, too much to try and make heads or tails of. I had come here with no real goal in mind, but after remembering what happened here, I couldn’t help not entertaining the curiosity that nibbled at the back of my conscience.

And since I was skipping school anyways, I didn’t see any harm in checking things out.

A quick look around confirmed that there was no one else in here. It did little to ease my anxiousness.

I’d be the first to admit that I was no detective, but there should be some clue here that could provide of some help. Just anything, anything to go off on. Anything that could steer me in the right direction.

Dropping my backpack, I walked towards one of the tables, dusty and knocked over. I noticed that one end was blackened and charred, like it had been briefly been set on fire. Grabbing it by the end of one of the long seats, I nudged it to judge its weight. Pretty heavy. I secured my grip on the seat, being careful not to touch any gum that might be under there.

I bent my knees, keeping my back straight. My muscles tensed as I lifted it above my head and tossed it behind me.

“Yagh!” I yelled.

A loud crash behind me, wooding slamming and cracking against wood. I made a face at how loud it got, echoing in the barn.

I turned to observe the aftermath. The table I threw was cracked down the middle, one of the seats splintered off. Dust kicked up into the air, tiny particles dancing in the little light that came in here.

That’s… actually pretty rad.       

Itching to try something else, I combed the barn for something to lift, throw, crush, or tear apart.

“Holy shit! You hear that?”

I spun around. A voice?

“Yeah! I think it was from over there!”

Voices. Crap.

On instinct, I ran to the back of the barn, clearing the distance in a flash. I vaulted over the tables with little difficulty, nearly soaring over. I went to go hide behind a wooden pillar.

From across the barn, I saw three people enter in.

“Where did that come from?” one of them asked. A boy. Didn’t look that much older than me. He pushed his ragged hair out of his eyes as he shined a flashlight down the building. It barely illuminated the back wall.

“Over that way,” another responded. A girl. She definitely looked to be my age. She wore an oversized pink sweater, which hung over a bare shoulder. Black boots complemented her black skirt that sat just above her knees. Her hair was dyed a deep purple, cut into a bob that bounced as she moved. She jogged over to where the picnic table landed, broken and splintered. “Damn, this thing got messed up.”

“Look, there’s a bag here,” the first one said, casting a backpack in his light. My backpack. I bit my tongue.

“Uh…” he wanted to say more, but he didn’t. He sounded a touch apprehensive.

“Maybe someone’s here,” a third said, clearly joking. Another boy. Wearing a backpack of his own. He tossed a lighter up and down in one hand, and took a selfie with his phone in the other. He stuck his tongue out for the photo.

“Think this is a good spot?” the girl asked, already forgetting about the table and the abandoned backpack. She pointed somewhere towards the entrance.

“Nah, let’s go more back,” the boy with the flashlight said, flashing the light closer to my direction. I hugged the beam, taking cover from his sights. “Safer that way,” he said.

“No one’s actually here, brah,” the other boy said, his tone exaggerated. “Doesn’t make a difference.”

“It does make a difference, Michael, might as well,” the girl said. “Good call, Robby.”

A deep, goofy laugh, probably coming from that ‘Robby.’ Peeking to steal another look might mean getting caught, and I did not need that.

“You’ve got it, right?” I heard Robby ask.

“It’s only the tenth time you’ve asked,” Michael replied.

“Just making sure.”

“You’re neurotic.”

“Fuck off.”

“Alright, fine,” Michael conceded, “If it makes you feel better, let’s go farther back.”

There was a pause before he spoke up again. Maybe in thought. “Here, if it makes you feel even better, I’ll close the doors.”

Fuck.

I hit the side of my leg in frustration, the loud creaking of the barn doors mocked me and any chance for a clean getaway. The light spilling from outside significantly dimmed until near nothingness, the only significant source now coming from the flashlight. It still didn’t get to be pitch black, but that helped them more than it helped me.

Fuck fuck fuck.

The girl said something, but it was mumbled, like she had a lollipop in her mouth. The boys laughed at whatever she said.

With only bits of their conversation to follow, I had no way of knowing what they were here for exactly. Or why they had to come now, of all times. But, now that I thought about it, I’ve only ever come to Braham at night, it never occurred to me that others would come during the day. I guess Braham had a use for people during the day, too.

Their approaching footsteps startled me out of my thoughts.

“Ah, I shoulda brought, like, some speakers or something,” the girl said, sounding much closer than before. “Coulda listened to some music, while we were at it.”

“No,” Robby said, “That’ll just attract more attention.”

“Nobody is fucking here, dude!” Michael said, raising his voice, booming inside the barn. After a second or two he spoke again. “See? Calm down.”

I heard a faint thump, Robby punching Michael in the arm? Or the other way around?

“Shut up, I’ll calm down after I take a hit.”

“Good, you need it,” the girl said.

They were getting closer, and I was getting more worried. They weren’t headed directly towards me, but I would for sure be noticed when they get all the way back here. There weren’t a lot of other options, too, the space back here was scarce with things for that I could use for cover. The only benefit was the darkness, but Robby had a light on him.

I backed away from the pillar to size it up. It led up to support beams that traced the ceiling, maintaining the shape of the barn. The skeleton of this decaying structure.

The pillar had to be about forty feet high or so. I gulped.

Fingers firm on the pillar, and with a foot also propped on it, I pressed up to scale the entire height.

Robby yelled, startling the others.

“Did you hear that?”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“There, it went up that way!”

Robby’s light hit the ceiling, but I had already moved to a good position.

I kept low on all fours, going across a beam that ran from the back of the barn towards the entrance. Every bit of movement was a gamble, since putting too much weight on the wood might creak and give me away, and not to mention the risk of me falling forty feet. But not moving might make it easier to be bathed in light.

I couldn’t focus on the three below, anymore, all my concentration went to not falling.

“Robby! What are you looking at?” shouted a girl’s voice, far away.

“Mike, Steph, don’t tell me you didn’t hear that!”

“We haven’t even taken anything yet and you’re already seeing shit,” Michael said.

Robby groaned, loud. I heard it from up here.

I eventually found a decent enough spot to sit, my legs dangling while I had an arm hooked around a bit of wood that connected the beam I sat on to the ceiling proper, attached at an angle. I sat on the other side of the barn, well out of their sights.

There was little to do now except keep an eye on them.

“Stop freaking out already,” Michael told Robby, “Jesus.”

“Something definitely moved, I heard it,” Robby said in protest.

The girl, Steph – Stephany? – put a hand on his back. “Probably a stray cat, nothing to worry about.”

Robby put down the flashlight, shining his feet, and looked right at me, his eyebrows furrowed. My heart dropped for a split moment, until I realized it was just a coincidence. He didn’t react like he saw me.

With some time to think, I had a few options. The easiest one was to simply sit and wait. Just perch up here for long enough, they’d have to leave sooner or later. I took the time to keep eavesdropping. There was nothing else to do.

“…Maybe? I swear I saw it, too. Too big to be a cat. You know what- Fuck, I don’t know, I don’t know about this anymore.” Robby dropped the flashlight, and ruffled his hair with both hands. “Why did you have pick this place, anyways? Didn’t someone die here, recently?”

Intrigued, I leaned forward an inch, still being mindful of where I sat.

“The gangs don’t come around here anymore, dude,” Michael said, “Too obvious. And people been saying this place has been haunted for a minute, now. If you want to see the living dead, I suggest hurrying up and taking something.”

Robby grumbled, seemingly agitated. “Maybe we should just get outta here.”

“Huh? No way,” Michael said, picking up the flashlight, and handing it to Steph. “We’re already here, let’s smoke.”

Robby stood there, frozen, clearly weighing the different options in his head. Steph massaged his shoulder, while Michael started sifting through his backpack, ignoring the two. Finally, Robby drooped, and brought a hand out to Michael.

“Hit me.”

Their exchange gave me a chance to catch a breath. Dry, parched already. It hadn’t hit me yet, how high up I was until now. Did I really climb like this, so precariously? Ignoring the cobwebs settling into my hair, I adjusted my hold on the wood. Innuendo aside.

Michael took out a plastic baggie from his backpack, whose contents I couldn’t make out from here, but choice words from their conversation gave me a good enough guess. He dropped it into Robby’s hand, who began to open it. Turning to Steph, he gave her the lighter from before. She brought to her lips, lighting what I had to assume was a joint.

Robby popped a pill, and briefly hesitated, looking to Steph, who had her hand out, expectant. He flashed her a weak grin, and took another before handing the plastic bag to her. All three each took out small white circle, dropping it onto their tongue.

A class act of kids.

They stood around, quiet, waiting for the hit. Did they have little to talk about except getting high?

Robby fixed his hair, scratched his arm. He took the flashlight from Steph.

“I’m going to look around.”

Steph coughed before she spoke. “Wait, how come?”

“Just cause.”

Robby moved the light, lighting the beam I used to climb up here. He walked, the light lazily trailing the ceiling, and I had the terrible realization that I was about to be discovered.

I shifted into a stand, a hand still on a beam. Long rafters connected from here to the opposite wall, and I prepared myself to run across should Robby’s light come closer.

White. A sharp white in my vision. I covered myself with my free arm.

“Hey! Something’s up there!” I heard Robby scream.

Of course.

I sprung forward, onto the rafters.

“Robby! What are you looking at?” Steph shouted voice, far away.

“Are you seeing that!? Mike, Steph, are you seeing that?”

“Stop shaking it, I can’t see! Robby!”

I couldn’t make it even five steps across the rafter. My foot went down, but missed, and I completely lost my footing. My shoulder slammed down, an audible thump, and I slipped off.

In the meantime, the others were thoroughly freaked out, yelling various obscenities.

As it turned out, falling from that height actually had an upside. I could adjust my position, and not land on my nose. Wind rushed past my ears, and I shifted again, favoring a shoulder. I rolled as soon as I touched ground. Not as bad as I expected, and didn’t hurt as much.

Didn’t mean it didn’t hurt.

I bounced back onto my feet, not wasting time to wallow in the pain. I took cover by the half-tractor.

“I told you!” I heard Robby scream amongst the chaos. He and Michael ran to investigate the source of the sound. “Steph! Get the door!”

Fast. Think fast.

A blanket was bundled in the seat of the tractor. I reached for it, then dashed into the dark, covering myself as I went.

“There! Look!”

The light kept following me, no matter where I moved. Behind tables, boxes, other beams, Robby had a good hold on me. Fucking Robby.

“It’s not budging!” Steph yelled.

“Mike, go help her!” Robby barked at Michael.

A weight hit my side, softened by the blanket. I staggered, slowing to not trip. Was he throwing bricks? Really?

“Stop, stop that!” I attempted to yell, but my voice strained. Dang, I was already found out. Had to end this now.

I fixed how the blanket wrapped around me, only my face showing. I twisted on a heel, and leaped up to evade another brick. Landing on a picnic table came with a muted thud.

All three of them were in view, gawking at me with wild eyes. Pupils close to dilating.

Mike and Steph had succeeded in opening the door, and I stood in the sunlight, the blanket catching the sun. Robby held a brick like a pitcher, ready to throw. Despite me completely out of the shadow, the flashlight continued to get in my eyes. I lowered my head.

“What, who, who are you?” Robby asked, frail. The question hung in the air.

My voice cracked. “I, uh, I forgot my backpack…”

Steph was the first to scream. I blinked for a second longer at how loud she shrieked. Mangled and warped, not resembling any words I could distinguish or understand.

They cried out as they scurried away, tripping often, but never turning back. I looked on as their backs got smaller, bursting through the dirt path to get off the premises. I giggled at the image.

A bad trip, figuratively and literally.

I dropped the blanket, the fabric falling around me. I patted dust off of my clothes.

Steph’s face, shouting and crying, still in my head. God that was funny.

Perhaps, I thought, Some fun could be had here.

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004 – Die Verwandlung

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The crunch of bone. The crushing of metal. A sharp, enveloping pain.

A good ten, fifteen, feet. I was sent flying that far, at least.

I skidded on the road, my back hit and slid against the pavement. I only stopped when my shoulder slammed against the curb.

“Uff!” I cried out.

My head swam. Eyelids as heavy as pool tarps. When I eventually could open my eyes, a considerable challenge, all images that came back to me were meaningless. Pink and purple flashes floated in my vision as I blankly gazed upward.

Eventually, things did come back into focus. There was something calming about the starry night that twinkled back at me.

I couldn’t say the same about the pain.

It hurt. A lot. A burning sensation wrapped up my entire body, thrumming in waves. Every individual muscle, joint, tendon, stung like I was on fire. The desire to just stay here, lie down and star gaze was insurmountable. I just didn’t want to move. I continued to get pounded by a quick, rhythmic ache.

I had regretted not taking a shower back at the locker room, having been so sticky and tired. Now, it no longer mattered. I was even more sticky, even more tired.

My right arm kept shifting. Something kept burrowing into my chest, getting it damp. There were muffled groans. Oh yeah.

I was still holding onto the kid.

It took an extensive effort to move my arm, with my fingernails digging into my side. When I did release him, he fell over beside me, his crying piercing my ears.

“Aaaah! Maaaaa! Maaaah!”

It didn’t look like he was severely injured. If he was, he wouldn’t be so damn loud. As I pushed him away from me, I thought that would give me a good opportunity to take a deeper breath, but nope. I only managed a light gasp. Dry.

Instead, I patted my body down. First, my chest. That dampness from earlier, not blood. Good. Just that kid’s tears. Couldn’t blame him. Then, my left arm. A whole new, razor sharp pain shot through me. I flinched in response. That wasn’t good.

In terms of my bearings, I knew I was still on the road, close to the sidewalk opposite from where I was originally. I was probably okay here, maybe, but I didn’t want to risk another car not noticing me or the kid as we were collapsed here. I needed to get up.

My mind began to fight against my desire to stay down. I knew I had to concede to those thoughts. As I cursed at myself from under my breath, I turned over onto my stomach, pushing myself up with my right arm and right leg.

I got myself to a decent balance, my weight largely resting on my right leg, I tried stepping with my left.

“Fuck!” I screamed.

I hobbled forward and fell back down, my cheek hitting the asphalt. No coherent thoughts this time, I just mindlessly tried getting back up again.

Now knowing better, I kept myself leaning, favoring my right side. I looked down at my leg.

“Fuck,” I whispered.

It was shattered. Utterly broken and completely useless. It bent in ways a human leg shouldn’t ever bend. Blood trickled down my calf, staining my shoe, and small droplets dripped onto the road. It was closer to a bendy straw than a person’s leg.

I began to panic. “-God, oh my god, ohmygod-”

I brought my hand to my face, using it to cover my eyes as I bit my lower lip, until it throbbed and threatened to bleed. I had to bring out what little strength I had left to shut up and keep conscious. Trying not to think too much about my leg. But I couldn’t help it. The sight was too ghastly.

I saw the femur and fibula sticking out.

Recalling how much my left arm hurt just before this revelation, I had a feeling the case was the same there, too. The sleeve of my hoodie prevented me from seeing for myself. And I didn’t have the heart to roll it up.

My breath quickened as I continued to inspect the damage I took. Everything from minor scratches to broken bones. How the hell was I standing?

I had to stop myself. For the moment, I couldn’t afford to look at my leg for too long, with the fear of passing out at the sight of it. I had to keep going, find something else to concentrate on. I put my arms to my sides.

I wanted to drop my backpack, but from what I felt a few seconds ago, moving more than I needed, than I wanted to, was not very viable. So it stayed, stuck to my back, like a vestigial organ.

Repeating over and over every curse word I knew, I decided to limp towards the kid. As I did, I got a better view of my situation.

The whole street looked undisturbed, save for us two, and the truck just past us. It had swerved off the road, and slammed into a tree at the edge of the woods. Chipped remnants of a skateboard littered the road. I expected my notebooks and school supplies to be right along with it, but from the weight on my back, I knew that wasn’t the case.

With the kid’s collar in my right hand, I dragged him to the sidewalk. He was still a blubbering mess. I plopped him down, and my attention went back to the truck. A sweet smell. No, I was being distracted. I kept focused on the truck itself in order to concentrate on making complete thoughts again. It suddenly came to me that there was a person behind that wheel. Perhaps others.

Were they alive? Did they have a phone? Mine was dead, so it was a no-go there. I wasn’t even sure if it worked anymore. Where was it, even? If, for whatever reason, the driver didn’t have a phone, then maybe someone in one of the nearby houses heard, or seen, the collision. Maybe they already gave out the proper call. I had betted on that.

I was beginning to worry for the driver, and anyone else who might’ve been in there. If they were okay, they would’ve gotten out of the truck by now. I shrugged my shoulders, shifting my backpack strap. Immediate regret. A new surge, not unlike putting a fork into a socket, enflamed my whole existence.

If you fall now, you’re not getting back up.

I operated on that. Might as well check on the driver while I was still miraculously standing. That, and the fragrant smell that seemed to come from the wrecked vehicle. Did they spill syrup or something?

Hop, hop, hop. What should normally be an easy task stretched into an arduous ordeal. I had trouble maintaining my balance with each hop, but I was lucky to just be seeing straight. The scent got stronger as I got closer.

It was so… sweet.

With every step, my foot got more drenched in the red liquid, right down to the sock, seeping into my shoe. I shuffled passed the sidewalk onto the dirt. Tall grass brushed against my broken leg and the exposed bone, feeling like someone was beating the ends of nerves raw. I stopped briefly to wipe away the water accumulating in the corners of my eyes, and my cheeks. An attempt to breath deep was met with a hiccup. One more good hop, and I would at the door to the driver’s side. Come on.

Hop. I was there.

I placed my only usable hand on the door’s handle, lessening my unsteadiness.

My voice was weak, raspy, but I tried anyways. “He- Hello, anyone in there? I mean, you okay?”

No answer. I swallowed.

Gripping the handle until my knuckles were white, I opened the door.

“Oooh f-!”

The interior lights turned on as the door swung wide, and I was given a front row view to the intense scene.

A female. Definitely. I thought. Too bloody to tell. Too mangled to tell.

The inside of the truck was smashed into itself; a human body couldn’t fit into a space so small by simply getting in. The windshield fractured into tiny, but sharp pieces, sticking into skin. Splinters of wood stuck to her face, like the bruises and blood twisting her expression into something grim wasn’t enough. Glancing down at the red-soaked cell phone in her hand, I pieced together everything in an instant. In response to everything, I could only mouth ‘fuck’, for the millionth time. Gut-wrenching. No way were they alive. No way.

I tried looking for a silver lining; at least no one else was inside.

However.

Despite that.

Nevertheless.

That wasn’t the worst of it. Not by a longshot.

Because the smell.

The smell.

The smell was the worst of it. In that it was so wrong.

It blasted my face as the door opened, overwhelming my nose with an odor sweeter than any perfume Katy had ever worn. I almost forgot about the immeasurable pain I was still supposed to be experiencing. Reminiscent of a freshly baked pie, the smell was. It completely contrasted the gruesome sight right before my eyes.

But, I caught myself watching as pieces of metal and wood, the one that stabbed the driver’s body, continuously trickled with blood.

Try it.

What?

Lick it.

What am I-

Taste it.

Stop-

You know you want to.

I scanned over everything again. The red color painted the entirety of the truck’s interior. It did look… kind of appetizing. Like a strawberry jam. I could put it over bread. The way it glistened in the moonlight, it called out to me. Enticing. I licked my lips. My tongue wasn’t dry anymore. Salivating?

I reached my hand out towards the body, coated in jam.

Maybe, one taste wouldn’t be so bad.

Try it. Lick it. Taste it.

Wait, what the hell was I thinking?

A whole new fear crept deep within me. The fact that I even actually considered that was frightening. Why? What was going on, here?

My hand was suspended there, half-extended, fidgeting as I fought the craving to keep reaching forward.

You know you want to.

I shut my eyes tight, until dark brown shapes clouded my vision. I thrust my hand forward until I met a warm, wet feeling. I leaned deeper into the truck, tilting my head back as I inhaled in hard, using my nose.

You know you want to.

Somewhere deep inside, a voice of reason rushed out of my throat.

“Shut up!” I yelled to no one.

“Ma’am, please back away from the truck!”

Or not.

I turned back. I hadn’t seen that the truck’s body was catching a flicker of red and blue light.

A stronger light suddenly flushed into my eyes, and I flung an arm to shield myself, offsetting my balance.

“Please let go of whatever you’re holding, and back away from the truck.”

A voice. Male. A cop? Did he think I was stealing something?

He continued to talk. “Ma’am, I see that you’re injured. Please take a seat by the curb so we can take a look at you and put you in the ambulance.”

An ambulance? Here? Already? When?

The blinding light stunned, getting more intense as he got closer.

He grabbed for the arm I used to shield my eyes, tightly holding my wrist.

The thought crossed my mind in a second. Huh? It’s not like I was gonna steal anything.

Unless.

I panicked.

“What! Wait! I didn’t mean- I wasn’t going to-!” I cried, hastily descending into incoherence.

“Ma’am, calm down, I’m trying to help you stand!” His voice squeaked rather than anything commanding, which didn’t help as an attempt to settle me down.

With more force than necessary, he pulled me away from the truck. My left hand reached into the truck to grab a hold of something, to not let him take me.

“Ah! Aaah!” I shouted, forgetting that I shouldn’t have moved that arm. Coupled with the fact that my hand slipped every time I tried to grab the seatbelt, the handle, and then the edge of the door, I never managed more than a light touch.

I writhed. I didn’t want this guy to take me anywhere. He fought against my struggling, getting more agitated with every second.

“What’s wrong!? Stop – ugh – resisting!”

Delirious. Not thinking straight. Or at all. But I didn’t have much faith in this guy believing whatever story I had to yet come up with as to why I was so bloody. Or why I was even there to begin with.

He screamed out something, and not even a second later did I feel another pair of hands on me. My struggling increased.

In me fighting him – them – off, more strength than needed was used against me. Arms around my waist, he lifted me up in the air, and tried to carry me. Either I was heavier than he expected, or that I hadn’t stopped wriggling around, he dropped me.

All the pain from earlier came back and amplified when I hit the ground, landing on my bad shoulder.

“Shit!” I heard him curse, having not yet realized the full extent of my injuries.

Every inch of me felt so wrong, so off, that I was on the edge of throwing up in delirium. A swarm of voices, faded and far away, came to my attention. The neighbors, I guessed, being a little more curious than I would’ve liked. The kid’s cries for his mother could still be heard in the background. Red and blue lights bathed the blurry scene, coating my vision to only primary colors.

Lying here, fighting to stay conscious, senses dulling by the second. The night sky above me. Certainly, I had been in a situation like this before. It all seemed uncanny in how familiar it was.

I don’t like it.

Once again, I flipped onto my stomach, and had to give myself time to try and stand back up.

“Uh-!”

Somone pulled me up from my backpack, setting me square on my feet. An intense sting shot back up my left leg.

“Please stop moving so we can get you inside!”

I surmised that ‘inside’ meant the ambulance mentioned before, but I was in no mood to be taken anywhere outside of my own volition. As limited as it currently was.

I felt arms about to go around my waist again, and I took that as my opportunity.

It was a plan that had little forethought. I was going to anyways, so I let myself drop somewhat, throwing off the person’s hold on me, and as I gritted my teeth, I pushed back up again to headbutt their chin.

“Affhh!” they cried. It sounded like I clipped their tongue.

“Aoow!” I cried. I had to stop putting weight on that leg. Everything considered, it was nearly unbelievable that I could manage this much right now.

There were also some surprised gasps around us. We’ve must have started to attract a crowd.

Meaning I needed to leave. Now.

Blinking away tears from the pain, I looked for a way of escape. The woods. The woods were right over there, I could make it. How? I couldn’t even walk.

Don’t care. Go.

As the person staggered back, I took that to my advantage. I fell forward, toward the truck bed. It was about an arm’s length away, I hoped.

My hand, my only good one, got a hold of the tailgate, and with a swift motion, I pulled myself up to get over and inside the truck bed.

“Hah-!”

Didn’t know how, but I went over the length of the truck bed, landing clumsily on the roof of the vehicle.

“Hey! You get down from there right now! You-”

Someone yelled something, but I didn’t care to hear. I didn’t even care to be here. The woods were right over there, I could make it. How? I can’t even walk. Didn’t care. Go.

I crouched on the roof, hanging what remained of my left leg off the edge. I readied my right leg. Not wanting to slip off, I took a second to get some equilibrium.

The woods. Right over. I could make it. Possibly.

Another shout from someone, voice cracking. “Hey! Get down from there!”

I jumped.

A fusion of terror and amazement swelled in me, taking my breath away. Nothing would truly prepare you for suddenly being thirty feet in the air.

The emergency responders, the wrecked truck, the crowd of onlookers, the crying kid, all long gone as I seemingly floated. Instead, there were nothing but trees. Trees immediately below me. Trees behind me. Trees in my view of the horizon. The only thing that weren’t trees was the dazzlingly stunning night sky above me. I thought I could actually reach the brilliant stars above me. They felt so in reach.

That thought quickly fell flat, almost as fast as I did.

I crashed through branches and leaves. You’d think they would slow you down, but when you were already in that much pain, it hardly made a difference. They tore through my skin and clothes.

In an effort to break my fall, I grasped at anything I could feel. A cutting sting sliced up my hand. Not a smart move. I let go.

All wind was wholly knocked out of me as I crash landed.

I didn’t even make a sound. Just a low thud.

Pain, everywhere. Everything hurt. Even thinking of breathing was impossible. The backpack prevented me from fully lying on the dirt, bending me into a more difficult position.

Okay, Alexis, get your bearings, I ordered myself, Where are you?

In a clearing in the woods. Tree branches obstructed my view of the sky. Again, familiar.

Enough about the sky. How are you right now? Gimme a number.

On a scale of one to ten, a solid ‘stop playing with numbers and someone start helping me the fuck out already’.

Alright, alright. Try to focus on anything, anything to stay alive.

I focused on the pain. It was the only thing that could keep my mind alert and awake. Going to sleep would not be ideal. No guarantee of waking up.

All the pain came back and intensified exponentially, like it was trying to get revenge on my body for having pushed it so far. I had cuts all over, now. The few places left that hadn’t sustained an injury were now without mercy, and every previous injury was laid waste to a good slicing and dicing.  Every cut I sustained from my fall got more concentrated and sharp over time, as though someone was soaking lemon juice into each individual wound. The occasional branch had tugged at the jutting bones of my leg, pulling it out further and scraping deep grooves into the bone itself. My left arm lay lifeless by my side as well, impossible to move. Would it even be accurate to describe the left side of myself as a ‘body,’ I wondered. Half of me was ruined, broken.

Half-dead.

My thoughts went back to just a couple minutes ago. Why was I here again? Oh yeah. Stupid. Of course that guy wouldn’t think that. I wasn’t going to take anything. I wasn’t going to drink anything. Stupid.

Trying to get rid of all the sweat on my forehead, I wiped my brow, and that sweet smell returned. I brought my hand in front of my face, and even though I was collapsed in the middle of a pitch black woods with no notable source of light, I saw perfectly fine.

A deep gash tore out a sizable chunk of my right palm. If I wanted to, I could probably force a finger through it, poking out the other end. Disgusting thought aside, I was at a loss on what to do. Here, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees? Cold, hungry, thirsty, alone. Was this where I would die?

Stretching out my hand, caked with blood, I stared at it for the longest time. An appetizing aroma whiffed from my fingertips. My heart sank.

My gut told me that the blood wasn’t my own, and that my hand must have slipped on it earlier. Also, my gut began to rumble. The inside of my throat rubbed together like sandpaper.

In your lowest moments, you start to think the craziest things. What if I actually licked my fingers?

I answered myself. “Please, stop.” It was hardly audible.

I winced as I spoke, my body’s way of telling me I only had a few breaths left. My throat was dry. So dry. Focusing on the pain was no longer doing me any good, I was already feeling sleepy. This was it. The end. This sucked, I had just gotten out of the hospital, too. Why was I in the hospital, again? I couldn’t remember.

My arm was getting fatigued, I probably shouldn’t hold it out for so long. The blood from my wound had already went down to my tattered sleeve, seeping in a red coloring. There wasn’t a single bit of my hand that was the color of flesh.

You’re going to die here, Alexis, might as well…

I dropped my arm to my chest, and I felt the wet of the hoodie there. The kid tears. It’d have been nice if we switched places, I briefly mused. I traced a hole the branches had cut on the front of my hoodie. I pressed down.

My hand froze.

It wasn’t this soaked before. The kid didn’t cry that much onto my chest. But a delicious scent emanated from my clothes. And then it all clicked. Must have gotten it wet when I leaned too far into the truck. My head went limp on the ground and the dirt, leaves getting tangled in my hair. Eyelids growing heavy again, I let them close this time.

No more thoughts.

I tightly gripped my chest, catching as much fabric into my hand as I could. So sodden, that I could wring out blood. I brought the clump of cloth to my mouth. Digging my teeth into it, I squeezed and brought out as much liquid as I could. I sucked.

Whooooaaaaaa.

My entire tongue was electrified. A burst of flavor overtook me. I arced my back.

Eyes strained as they rolled into the back of my head. If I didn’t die from the pain, I’d end up dying from how good this tasted.

Sweet. A word that was too simple, betraying how good it really was. But at the same time, it captured the essence of what I meant in a short and succinct manner. A universal understanding. No need for million dollar words. A shiver down my spine. The curling of my toes. The smile on my face. One couldn’t be blamed for acting this way when the taste was this sweet. Sweet, like a strawberry jam.

And as if to turn on the heels of my high, I was met with another new experience.

That numb feeling of a foot falling asleep, but expanded out to my whole body. My broken arm, my broken leg, and my gashed hand felt the brunt of it.

Confused, I dropped the wad of cloth out of my mouth, and again took a look at my hand. My bloodied hand, torn open from trying to rely on a tree branch to break my fall. Except the gash was getting smaller.

It was getting smaller.

It shrank at a gradual rate, the flesh meeting together and closing up. I rotated my hand around, observing the other cuts. They were also following suit, soon disappearing without a trace.

I may have been close to failing biology last year, but I knew that the human body didn’t heal that easily.

“Uhn,” I grunted as I sat up straight. To think I could still do this much. I slipped my backpack off my shoulders. So much for doing any homework tonight.

Making a joke at a time like this, I wanted to slap myself.

Wait, I realized I could move my left arm. Rolling the sleeve up the elbow, I checked on the state of that particular limb.

Not a scratch on it. Odd, considering that it hurt to just touch it, let alone move it. And now, I was able to make a fist. It was definitely broken beyond use just before, how had it healed all by itself?

And my left leg answered that for me, as I saw it for myself.

The bones weren’t protruding out as much as they did initially. Instead, they were retreating back into the leg, like it was the most natural thing it the world. The muscle and skin closed up behind the bones as they fully withdrew. I actually felt the bones mending together inside my leg. Like putting pieces of a puzzle together. Except that things were not making any sense.

And just like that, the numbing subsided, and I was left fully healed. I patted myself down again. Nothing scratched, nothing broken, no waves of pain, nothing. Ignoring the dirt, blood, grime, torn clothes, messy hair, and overall weakened constitution, it was like I never got in an accident. Never got hit by a truck.

A cold sweat ran down my body. I had no clue how the hell I survived something like this in the first place, but from what I just witnessed, whatever the answer could be horrified me.

Despite having confirmed that I had zero injuries, I was still apprehensive about standing. So I took it slow, crawling backwards and dragging my lower half until I bumped against a tree. Turning so I could press against it, carefully, I propped myself up with my legs, keeping myself steady with my hold on the tree. I got up without incident.

“Is that it?” I said, fully standing but propped against the tree, face in my sleeve. It sounded more like a cry for air. A cry for help.

“Ha… ha ha… So that’s that…” I croaked.

That’s right.

Screaming soon filled the air. Loud. Some birds flew out of the trees above. I was probably close to hyperventilating, yet I kept screaming. Because I remembered. I remembered what happened to me that night.

My birthday. My walk that night. That encounter. That girl. That thing. It all came back to me. Everything came back and hit me harder than any truck ever could.

So I kept screaming. And screaming. Screaming until it hurt. Until I gripped my sides and fell on my knees, heaving for air, eyes watering and throat dry. But I kept screaming. Screaming until it sounded like I was laughing. Until I was mostly coughing. Until I threw up.

“Ha… haha… haaaah…”

I didn’t know long that lasted, but I eventually did calm down. At least enough to get a better sense of where I was. Literally not out of the woods just yet. And, even if I did make it out of here, I’d still have to deal with the possibility that I may not be even human anymore.

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003 – Performing Magic

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October fourth. Three days since my birthday. Also my first day back to school.

Needless to say, I was a little tired.

I stood right outside my place, a light fall air nipping at my face. My backpack was slung over one shoulder and my sports bag sat leaning against my leg. It was a routine I had grown used to in the past year. Every day, by eight-thirty, I would be picked up to go to school. Or that was supposed to be the plan. By now, I had known better, stepping outside at that time.

After ten minutes, I was tapping my foot. Was she testing me?

Typical.

A black BMW rolled up in front of me. Huh, I guess she kept herself well-behaved over the weekend. Funny, the last time I saw her she was a shot away from blacking out. Really, her dad was too easy on her. Opening up my phone, I looked at the time. Eight-forty-five.

“Right on time,” I said, as Katy rolled down her tinted window. “You look cute.”

She was prepped up in a clean white button-up, tucked into a black skirt. Her strawberry blonde hair was tied back into a neat ponytail. She lowered her designer sunglasses, revealing her olive green eyes. She shot me a look.

“Of course I do. But I can’t say the same for you.”

I tugged at my black hoodie, then adjusted my denim shorts. “Shut up, we’re going to have a last minute practice today.”

“Whatever, get in.”

I got in.

Katy looked left, right, and left again as she got back onto the road. She snorted when she noticed the phone in my hand.

“Ha, your mom really did get it.”

I thrust the phone into my pocket. I didn’t want to use it, or even look at it, as much as possible. “It’s lame.”

“Like, the fuck is that? You could build houses with that thing!”

“Very clever.”

“For really though, what can that even do?” she asked.

“I dunno, for such a thick and blunt object, it’s a pretty big thorn on my side.”

“I can see why you didn’t want to text back!”

Katy let herself laugh for another second before settling down. She inhaled deeply, indicating a shift in tone.

“Jesus though, what happened that night?”

I wish I knew. I stayed quiet.

“Hey, at least you’re okay. I was so worried when you didn’t show for your cake, and I looked everywhere for you. I thought something happened. Then an ambulance and a bunch of cops came by, and everyone freaked out and tried to dip. I went down to the wine cellar.”

My nose flared, amused at the imagery. A drunk Katy, taking refuge in a fortress of wine and fine spirits.

“I didn’t find out you were in the hospital until Sunday. I’d thought you’d got alcohol poisoning, or something.”

“Me too,” I replied.

“Hunh?”

“Nothing.”

“Anyways, I’m just glad you’re okay. How are you right now?”

I kept silent for some time. I really didn’t know exactly how I felt. Confused, angered, bewildered, frustrated, and any other synonyms of those two feelings. A little scared, too, I supposed. But how was I supposed to put that swirl of emotions into words?

Rubbing the back of my neck, I broke the silence. “I’m fine.”

“What about big mama? When I called, she sounded so pissed I thought I needed to check myself in for serious burns.”

I grinned slightly at the nickname. “You already know.”

“Got the silent treatment?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Damn, that bad?”

“Got that right.”

As we talked, I kept my head down, not looking out the window on my side. A bright pink nail poked my cheek.

“We can talk about something else.”

“Sure.”

“Like how everyone’s talking about it.”

“Thanks,” I said under a breath.

“I mean, it’s true,” she paused so she could turn a corner. “Okay, I exaggerate, but you know what I mean.”

It was vague, what she meant by ‘everyone.’ I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant.

“How bad then?” I asked.

She hummed as she thought, trying to summarize the past few days.

“Nothing too big. Of course people talked about it online and stuff. My dad showed me a quick snippet of it on the evening news, in between yelling my ear off.”

“My mom talked to your dad?”

She nodded.

“How are you allowed to drive your dad’s car, then?”

My car is still broken down, and I still need a way to get to school. And please, my dad has much cooler cars I’d rather be driving.”

“Your dad’s way too easy on you.”

She grinned, like it was all part of a grand scheme. “I know.” But she dropped it immediately. “But seriously, I feel bad about what happened. We shouldn’t have planned to go out there.”

“No,” I said, “Throwing blame around isn’t gonna help.”

“Good point.”

“So, I’m on the news?” I asked in order to move the topic elsewhere. “Everyone’s talking about it?”

“You could say that, but,” the corners of Katy’s lips couldn’t mask her slight smirk.

“But you’re not white, and your mom isn’t exactly someone who would do well in front of a camera. They didn’t make it that big of a deal.”

The thought of my mom either giving cold, one word answers to a reporter, or exploding into a tirade on how I needed to grow responsibility over my unconscious body – not in English, to boot – sprang to mind. It didn’t sit well with me.

“Thanks,” I said.

“You betcha, you’re ‘see page four-B,’ not front page material.”

“That’s not fair. I’m half-white.”

“Fine. You’re definitely scrolling at the bottom of a news ticker, then.”

“Is that your four-inch, or six-inch heel that you’re using to kick me while I’m down?”

We both cracked into a giggle, some tension being alleviated.

But that wasn’t my main reason for asking, although it should have been.

“Brandon?” I asked.

“Hmm?” she sounded, checking her side-view mirror.

“Did he say anything?”

“Ah,” she responded. Tapping a finger on the steering wheel, she gave herself some time to think. “I don’t know. I don’t know him that well.”

Means he doesn’t care. I raised my eyes to peek at the road ahead.

“Don’t jump to conclusions just yet, Lexi, just because I didn’t hear anything doesn’t mean-“

“Red.”

“Huh?”

“Red!”

Katy slammed the brakes. We both jolted forward, the seatbelts properly doing their jobs. The light at the intersection showed red. Two other cars were waiting ahead of us. The school was right around the corner, too.

“Geez,” I teased. “At least tell me when you’re gonna kill me.”

She rolled her eyes.

Driving into the parking lot, I took in a good view of the main school building. ‘Stephenville High School’ was spelled out in blocky metallic letters above the entrance of the building. The typical public high school that anyone’s seen before. Maybe a little older, a little dingier.

Getting out of the car, I grabbed my backpack, and wrapped my sports bag around one shoulder. Katy only had a purse with her. Walking alongside her towards the school, I shielded my eyes yet again.

“You good?” Katy asked.

“Yeah, you should let me borrow those sunglasses.”

“Nice try.”

We entered through the front doors. Seeing as classes were about to start in five minutes, we went our separate ways. Not before confirming plans to meet up for lunch, of course.

The bell sounded off as soon as I stepped into the classroom. I didn’t have the time to put away my bags.

The first class went about how I expected it to go. Tuesday, B-Day, thanks to block scheduling, meant my first class was US History. First order of business was to hand the teacher a doctor’s note for Monday’s absence.

“Thank you, Alexis,” Mr. Richards said as he accepted the small paper. He eyed me for a quick second while he went back to his desk.

Okay.

Leaving it at that, I went to my seat. All the desks faced one way, towards the chalkboard, and I was as middle as middle could get.

Dead center.

“Hey,” I said, alerting a small congregation of people around my desk to my presence. Classmates. Acquaintances.

“Hey,” one of them said back, a boy with dark, neatly combed hair. Mattie. “Happy belated birthday.”

“Thank you,” I said sweetly, meaning it.

As part of a normal routine, I usually had some time to converse with some friends I had in class before the teacher would take back control of the room. Today instead, I passed through the small group, exchanging hellos, sat down, and Mr. Richards began talking about the Reconstruction Era.

In reality, I only missed one day of class, but it felt like I had been gone forever. Whatever happened up until the party on Friday was but a distant memory. A blurry picture.

The classroom experience, though, was all too familiar.

Not two minutes since Mr. Richards began his lecture, and I was bored. I dug into my pocket for my phone.

I felt an unusual shape, an odd texture, and then remembered.

I wanted to cry.

I had to resign myself to actually taking notes today.

The class period went longer than I had hoped, or felt like it, with Mr. Richards’ words falling upon deaf ears. My pen lightly etched across my notebook, at a glance, it still looked blank.

I failed to stifle a yawn.

Thirty minutes later, a tap behind me, on my shoulder. Instinctively, I slowly brought my free hand behind my chair, keeping it low. A piece of folded my paper fell into my palm.

I brought it back to my desk, not turning to acknowledge the sender. Got to keep it low key, a teacher’s all-seeing eye was a force to be reckoned with. I had to unfold it four times to reveal the message.

‘Yo. How are you? the party, gimme deets! J.’

Three seats back, and one over, to my right. Jenny. She was at the party. That, I could remember.

I jotted my response quickly, and brought my hand back down to return it to where it came.

‘I’m fine. And I don’t have deets to share!’ was all I wrote.

A normal hour-long class was bad enough, but since the school moved to block scheduling for this year, every class was now an hour-fifteen. Hell, truly.

Finally, finally, the bell rang to excuse us. A five minute walking period was wedged between classes, and that was barely enough time to get to the next class.

I greeted anyone I knew as we students crisscrossed each other to get to our destinations. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was mostly trying to scan for a particular face. Couldn’t find him. Had I did, I would’ve been more willing to put up with second period.

But, nope. There was still another hour-fifteen minutes until lunch. And it was pre-cal.

The only thing standing between me and satiating my growing hunger, and thirst.

“Here you go, Ms. Powers,” I said, handing the note to the short, stout, fifty-year-old woman.

“Hmph,” was all that came out of her when she took it. She didn’t stand up out of her desk, or even look my way.

Kind of.

It was very small, very understated, but she did scan me from the corner of her eye. A look of disgust, like I had come in without showering for a week, and she could smell me a mile away. Her lip even curled up by a hair. Subtle, but she shouldn’t underestimate my eye for that type of stuff.

With my lips set into a straight line, I nodded once and turned to go to my desk, in the way back.

What a bitch.

“Alexis! Oh my god, how are you?”

Brittany, a good friend and a teammate, intercepted my way with a hug. She was tough, the force of her kindness nearly knocking some wind out of me.

Like the force of a car, if I could be overdramatic.

“I’m fine, I’m fine, now get off me!” I said, almost laughing as I tried to push her away. She was close enough to smell what I guessed was her perfume, a strangely citrusy scent.

“Are you sure, I heard all about it,” Brittany said, before leaning into my ear. “What happened? I heard people saying it was some prank.”

That’d be one theory, I thought. All I did was raise my shoulders. “No clue, it’s all fuzzy.”

She pouted, and bumped me in the arm. “Aw, sorry to hear that. Happy birthday, again. See you at practice?”

“No worries. And thanks, again. And yeah, you will.”

She let me go to my seat, and I got ready to zone out again.

My mind began to wander right about the time Ms. Powers was going over polynomial and rational functions for the n-th time. I wasn’t trying to think about that Friday, but no one else got the memo, apparently.

I was starting to get a good grasp of what Katy meant by ‘everyone.’

As a grateful contrast to how the previous class went, this class and the next passed with a blur. With my backpack and sports bag always close in hand, I was ready to go.

And by ‘go,’ I meant ‘leave.’

When the bell finally sang its merciful tune, letting us off for lunch, I went down from second floor, practically floating on the stairs, and returned to the front hall where I split up with Katy earlier.

She was already there, along with someone else.

“Hey,” Maria said, waving a heavily nail-polished hand. Her bracelets clang together as she did so.

I nodded my head when I saw her. “Hola.”

She stuck out her tongue, but I saw her smile.

“How are you? Katy told me what’s up.”

“You know, you’re the first person to ask me that.” I made sure to be extra obnoxious.

Maria clapped her hands together. “Bitch, you’re fine!” She then slapped me on the back.

“So, where do y’all want to go first?” Katy asked, interjecting in the conversation.

“I wanna go to Flash,” Maria said, referring to the new boutique that just opened. The one that was so uppity, expensive, and pretentious that its logo could spell both ‘Flash,’ and ‘Fresh.’ And it ended with a period. It was that type of establishment.

“I’ve been dying to go down there,” Maria added.

“That’s all the way in downtown,” Katy responded. “That’s too far.”

Maria frowned, tilting her head and clicking her tongue. She looked to me, like I had some power of convincing Katy.

I wouldn’t have minded going, personally, even if it would take up the second half of the school day. I didn’t mind. And we all agreed to go one day. But sitting in an hour of traffic, both ways, was no fun.

Not worth it.

“I agree,” I said, taking Katy’s side. “We should just go and get something to eat for now, school food sucks dick.”

Maria puckered her lips and used them to point in my direction. “That ain’t the only thing.”

I glared at Katy. Damn you.

She shrugged, her smug expression showing that she wasn’t sorry in the slightest. Such a good girl, she was.

“Okay, pal,” I said to Maria, raising my hands. “Let’s just get out of here.”

They both laughed.

To get off campus, we had to take Maria’s car, a 2004 teal Honda. Not the most comfortable ride, but it was a lot more inconspicuous than a black BMW. Only seniors were allowed off campus during lunch hours, after all. We juniors had to be a bit more creative about leaving.

Maria drove, and comparing driving skills between her and Katy, especially today, Maria was a much safer driver.

We opted for Lone Star Chicken, a local chain. We would have picked a closer location, but we didn’t want to risk running into any teachers who thought they were being clever by staking out the more popular hangout spots. There was no one else there when we came in, which was a good sign. That meant that we were safe.

Katy ordered a chicken salad, Maria got a fried chicken basket, and I chose the chicken sandwich combo. My personal favorite. With my throat parched, my stomach rumbling, I was looking forward to this all day.

We sat by the back exit, our eye on the front door. I stared down my sandwich, it looked as good as it tasted. I really was looking forward to this all day.

I bit into it. Katy noticed my reaction.

“Doesn’t taste good?”

“It’s okay,” I said. I held up the sandwich to eye level, inspecting it carefully. Two fried pieces of chicken, squished between their ‘world famous’ bread rolls. The secret sauce glistened. If we were in a cartoon, the sandwich would have sparkling lines coming off the top.

“Tell ‘em if it ain’t,” Maria said. “Shit, like I’d let ‘em fuck up my shit.” Her mouth was full of chicken, muffling her words. She stuffed in another piece.

I have a million comebacks for you right now, Maria…   

“Nah, it’s fine,” I answered. Hoping it would somehow taste better with a second try, I bit into it again. No Bueno. All the ingredients tasted like it was a week old, so stale and dry. It sat in my mouth like rubber. It took considerable effort to swallow.

Trying to wash down that taste with a large cup of sweet tea didn’t help any. Wasn’t sweet at all. To be precise, it was like drinking clam juice. I fought the urge to gag or make a funny face.

I didn’t want to lose said face in front of my friends, however, and if I wanted to find a something good to say about it, was that it at least the bare minimum of being considered edible. I managed to keep eating.

“Hey hey,” Katy said, dropping her plastic fork into her bowl, finishing her meal. “Lexi, show Maria your phone.”

“Oh yeah!” Maria brought a greasy hand to me, a chicken crumb sticking to a nail. “Lemme see.” Her voice was still stuffed by food.

“Uhh, no way.” I wiped my chin and skidded away from them an inch. “I don’t even wanna see it. Plus it’s in my backpack. In your car.”

A low groan that came from Maria, and she finally swallowed a whole mouthful. “Beach.”

“Oh, okay,” I said back.

“You can tap out if you want to, Lexi. You’ve gotten enough of a beat down for one day,” Katy said.

“Sure,” I said. “Only if I get to slug one to Maria.” I directed myself to her, and plucked a fry out of her hand before she could eat it.

“You said we would finally be able to meet your boyfriend at the party,” I said. “He never showed. What’s the deal?”

Maria cleaned her hands with a napkin. “That’s your slug? You can do better than that.”

“You’re deflecting,” Katy said. “She right. You said he’d show. I was kind of looking forward to meeting him, honestly.”

Maria clicked her tongue, and looked away from our gaze. “Don’t worry about it. I said he might come, but he couldn’t. No big.”

Katy kept pressing on. “Come on, together for two years, and I’ve never seen him once. I don’t even know his name. It’s getting pretty-”

“Drop it, okay?” Maria said, disrupting Katy, “Don’t worry about it.”

A singular huff from Katy. She dropped it. I wasn’t too bothered by that little bout. It was nothing new by this point.

We continued eating. I tried to eat more, but none of it was good.

There wasn’t much else to do after we finished our food, besides discussing other gossip Katy and Maria brought to the table. Nothing substantial, but it was fun to talk about. Katy brought up wanting to go somewhere else, but we were already pressed for time. Within the immediate vicinity of the school, the only places worth visiting were food chains like this. With that disappointment hanging over our heads, we concluded that going back to school was the best course of action. We left the restaurant. With only an hour for our lunch period, we made it back with three minutes to spare. We exchanged hasty see-you-laters before splitting off to our separate classes.

If you asked me, an hour wasn’t long enough for lunch.

The remainder of the day fared just the same as the first half. I gave my teachers the doctor’s note, and they let me be on my way. Mrs. Goldstein, my chemistry teacher, did allow me to extend the due date of my project, which was merciful of her. Some classmates I was acquainted with fussed over me, and the teacher having to calm them down. My pen glided over my notebook as I absentmindedly took notes, not really paying attention to anything my teachers were saying.

I had other things to worry about.

To release me from my boredom, the final bell sang, like music to my ears. At the beginning of the day, it was screaming at all of us to congregate into the building. Now, it was telling us to get lost.

I wasted no time getting to the gym.

“Barnett! Welcome back!” Coach Tilly boomed. A fit brunette in a track suit. Despite being so short – hell, even I was taller than her – that made her no less intimidating. “You good for today?”

“I’m fine!” I barked back.

“Good! Hurry it up!”

“Yes Coach!”

On the other side of the gym were doors that lead into the locker room. I ran along the edge of the court, passing my teammates. They were already doing their stretches and warm ups. None of them paid me any mind.

Having been on a volleyball team since middle school, I’d say it was my favorite activity to do after school. It’d be even more accurate to say that I came to school for the sole purpose of being able to play volleyball. To me, it was fun. Plain. Simple. Some people played video games, hunted, smoked weed. I played volleyball. I wouldn’t say I was particularly good at it, well, good enough to be on the team. Barely good enough to make varsity. But, I enjoyed playing. It helped clear my mind.

I went in and out from the locker room in a flash. A quick switch into my uniform, a combo of a red top and black shorts, I returned to the gym.

After everyone had gathered, about thirty of us or so, we officially started practice. Starting with stretches, a quick one and a half kilometer run across the gym, and then right into intensive setting and hitting exercises. Hard work, but I didn’t hate it.

Today particularly, it felt kind of easy.

Coach Tilly was especially grilling into us today, criticizing every tiny detail about our form. Not surprising, while she always got riled up right before a game, she especially would be around this time of the year.

Thursday, we’d be going up against Saint Augustine High, a formidable team from our district. Maybe the sixth or fifth best in the whole state. Every year, Stephenville and Augustine would be matched up around early October, and every year, Coach Tilly would not get off our asses about it. I didn’t know why she was so hell bent on beating her alma mater, but that was her own personal matter. If it meant that we had to play harder, then so be it. I was ready.

Three sharp whistles pierced the air in an odd rhythm, and we all knew what that meant. Time to ‘spar.’

Coach picked out our positions for the first match, and those who weren’t picked had to stand by and study our performances and figure out how to improve their own. I was picked for the first set, my position being the outside hitter. I was on the front-left, close to the net.

Our side was to set first, so I was on guard as the ball soared between the two halves of the court. I concentrated on every little movement of the other team, every twitch of a muscle of those around me. As expected, Brittany had a fantastic defense. Ah, I had to make sure I didn’t forget about the ball, too.

A lot to process.

But…

The flicker of Brittany’s eye, the angle of Taylor’s hitting wrist, the way Coach Tilly put her hand on her hip as she shouted instructions at us. I was able to focus on every tiny thing for far longer than I could, normally.

And the ball, flying way longer than it should. Had it always moved that slow?

Suddenly my muscles tensed. The ball was hit towards my general direction, and judging from the minute, miniscule movements from the girls around me, they were going to let me take it. This ball was my responsibility.

Don’t fuck it up.

A quick scan of the ball’s position gave me enough information. I could definitely spike that. I was far enough from the net to give myself an ample distance to run. The defense was looking a little thin on the other side. I could take advantage of that.

Alright then. Let’s go.

First, build momentum, keeping my arms forward. Next, I’d accelerate, swinging my arms back, my palms facing upward. As I closed in on the net, I’d convert my forward energy to vertical, arcing my hitting arm to a good ready-position, raising my opposite arm for midair balancing. By now, the ball should be in the perfect strike zone. I’d slam my hand down to the ball, using my core muscle and proper shoulder rotation to maximize power to the spike. Lastly, the satisfying smack of the ball to the floor, bouncing away as the defense scrambled behind, having failed to stop it.

I had done this thousands of times. This was nothing.

I took my first step forward. I built momentum, keeping my-

“Whoa!”

The sound of wind cutting past my ears, and I was immediately constricted. I crashed onto the floor. More noise of clanging metal, and cries of shock.

“Ah, what the heck?” I muttered. I couldn’t move, my arms and legs constrained in netting. I felt like a trapped animal.

“Calm down! Barnett, calm down!” Coach Tilly yelled. Eventually, I did, and some girls who were on standby ran to help me get untangled.

On my hands and knees, I crawled away to the wall. Turning back around, I was met with the tomato-colored rage that was Coach Tilly’s face.

“What the hell is that!” she shouted, pointing behind her.

“What the what is what?” I answered stupidly. With her taking up most of my view, I had no clue as to what she was referring to.

Her eyes widened, but she stepped to the side. I looked on with surprise.

The net was completely destroyed, limp on the floor with no chance of being reattached to the poles. Speaking of which, the upright poles which held up the net itself were ruined, bent at the floor sockets.

“Did… I do that?” I pointed at myself, feeling like an idiot.

“Yes you did, you jumped right into the net and ruined our set up! Do you call that a spike?!” She straightened herself up, looking back at the scene of the destruction. “That was the only net we had, repairs for the poles won’t be done until… Crap.

She stood there, silent, in a vain attempt to cool off. She scanned the gym as she did so. After some time, Coach blew her whistle. “Alright! That’s it! Go home and get your rest! Thursday, we kill that game!”

“Yes Coach!” the rest of the team cheered. All eyes were on me as the rest went back to the locker room. I felt my stomach churning. Must be that sandwich from earlier.

“Ah, I have to make some calls,” Coach whispered. “Should of let you rest, coming back from the hospital so soon…” She headed out the door, leaving the gym. Before the door closed behind her, she called out to me again.

“Hey, Alexis, sorry about that. Don’t beat yourself up over it. I’ll see you Thursday.”

The door closed behind her. The sound reverberated throughout the empty gym. I forgave her temper, we all knew she could get too worked up.

That swirl of emotions came back, but one in particular was more potent.

Confusion.

I stayed sitting on the gym floor, my back against the wall.

What… in the world?

My chest rose, and lowered as I let out a rough groan.

Before long, some of the girls started coming back into the gym, having left the locker room. A voice from across the space called out to me.

“Urkel, you alright?”

That sounded like Eve. I liked her. She was nice. Well-meaning.

“I’m fine,” I said, my two most-repeated words all day. But I kept my eyes down. I didn’t hear anything back, Eve seemingly taking my words at face value. Without looking at my face. I didn’t care, I wanted to be left alone, anyways.

I waited until the last of them left the gym, until I was sure I would be the only one in the locker room. I got up slowly, staggering into the room to change.

There wasn’t anything worth mulling over anymore. Changing slowly, I left behind my gym clothes and stuffed the sports bag into the metal locker. I’d wash it another day.

After I was done, I exited the near-empty school building, and checked the sky above me. I cursed under my breath.

Nighttime.

And I forgot to text Katy. Shoot.

I checked my phone, fumbling with the buttons to turn it on. It wouldn’t light up. Crap. Just how terrible was this thing’s battery life?

Or did I forget to charge it?

Awesome.

“And I have curfew too…” I said aloud. Remembering that I had a watch on me, I checked the time. Doing the math in my head, it would take me about forty minutes if I picked up the pace. I’d barely make it home on time. Public transportation was not an option either, there was no direct bus route from the school to my place, and I didn’t have enough money for the detour.

“Uhh, I’m so tired…” I complained out loud. Not that anyone would hear.

Figuring that to be my best – and only – plan, I began my walk home.

After I got a fourth of the way, I was walking down the sidewalk, heading towards a suburb. Houses to my right, a thick collection of trees lined up to my left, across the street. As I settled into my pace and the course set in my head, only now did I take notice on how cool the night sky looked.

Black and blue streaks painted the sky, making up the night colors. The stars vibrantly glittered on the dark canvas, so bright and intense, they were more like light bulbs than tiny white dots. Also, there was a lot of them. I’d have to go out to the wild, or to Braham’s, in order to see that many stars. The night seemed to bristle with life, in no way like the black, dead, nothingness I usually associate with this hour. It was the spitting image of that famous painting that my world history teacher last year wouldn’t stop obsessing over. What was it called again?

Something about a van going somewhere… I dunno.

Cars and trucks periodically darted down the road as I kept on my path, my hair getting into my face as they passed me. After about the tenth time of spitting out loose hair out of my mouth, I put my hood over my head. That was better.

Coming up from behind me, there was a rhythm clacking of wheels and wood. It was getting louder. I didn’t have to turn around to know it was a skateboard. As the sound closed in, I moved off to the side. That should’ve given them enough room. Didn’t stop the rider from being an asshole.

“Outta my way!”

He had no real reason to, but he knocked into my side as he passed. Some blonde kid riding goofy. Chubby. I noted the words ‘I Got Swag’ printed across his black shirt.

You probably do, kid, but that doesn’t excuse poor manners.

I didn’t say it, though. No need.

Fixing my backpack strap, I observed his skating. Coming from someone who had never skated, even I could tell that he was awful. His flabby physique threw off his balance, making him off-kilter, wobbling around as he stood on the thin wooden board. It was like he just got it the day before, and he never heard of what a skateboard even was. A fish out of water; a chubby blonde on a skateboard.

Pathetically, he attempted to ollie off the sidewalk and onto the road. How he thought he could pull it off, with that lack of balance, I’d never know. He didn’t kick it up, he kicked it away. The outcome was what you’d expect.

The board flew out from under him, but his legs kept moving as though it was where it was supposed to be. As such, he tripped over himself as he descended, faltering a few steps before falling face first on the other side of the road, hard. I held back some laughter. The whole sequence was viral video worthy. Didn’t color me surprised if his shirt now said ‘I Swag.’

“Hey, kid, you alright?” I decided to speak up. I knew if I were him, it’d be better than being ignored entirely.

Moaning, he rolled over onto his back. Not used to taking falls, I supposed. His body began to be cast in a white light. For a split moment, I thought of something stupid. Like aliens, or something. But of course that wasn’t right.

It was a lot worse than that.

A pickup truck was coming in from the distance, towards the kid. But it was closing in rather quickly, with no sign of slowing down. It must have not seen him. Meaning this would get really, really, bad.

“Hey, hey! Get up!” I yelled. No use, he wasn’t budging. Was he as smart as he was athletic?

Dammit.

“Get the hell up!” I yelled again. He didn’t move.

The truck zoomed closer. There were seconds until a disaster.

It’s no good, Alexis, you have to do something.

Do what?

Dammit!

Without thinking, I stepped onto the road. Without blinking, I was already in between the kid and the truck. My right arm grabbed a hold of the kid, holding him close to my body. I extended my left arm. The Heisman trophy had nothing on me.

My arm folded under the weight of the collision. So did the grill of the truck.

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