Chapter 38:

Book 2, Ch. 13: Dangerous Friendships & Dogged Righteousness

ANNO DOMINI ~Allium~ [Beta version]


***THANKS FOR READING!***Bookmark here

Greetings, everyone! I apologize for the later-than-usual update, as I've been busy with work and struggling to find time and energy to devote to my story. But enough with excuses!Bookmark here

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BOOK 2, CHAPTER 13: DANGEROUS FRIENDSHIPS & DOGGED RIGHTEOUSNESSBookmark here

Tiredness of the muscles is a common and familiar experience, but the sort of tiredness Chris and Bret were feeling was entirely different. A spiritual fatigue was placing a limit on the so-called limitless energy they had been granted.Bookmark here

The boys, much like the shadowy wickedness they faced, were slowing down.Bookmark here

As the rate at which the tree of bleakness grew and branched dropped considerably, the speed and force behind its strikes diminished. Although the vile entity was in no way like a living organism, the constant severing of its parts seemed to be detrimental to its representative of “vitality.” In effect, it was possible that it was dying, or at least becoming worn out.Bookmark here

“I think we’re doing okay,” Chris managed to say while chopping through another oncoming tentacle.Bookmark here

“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Bret grunted, eyeing a shifty branch that swayed with unknown motives. “It’ll be okay when it’s over.” He lunged forward and grabbed the shifty branch, tearing it in two. “My hands are all roughed up. I don’t know how long I can keep doing this without Sandra’s help. But I’ll go until the end, because she can fix us!”Bookmark here

“If you need healing, go now,” Chris told Bret. “I’ll stay here in case this thing tries to heal, too. No telling what else it can do.”Bookmark here

“I ain’t worried!” Bret sneered, shaking the blood from his hands and wrists. “I’ll get healed after we win!”Bookmark here

The two boys remained back-to-back, observing the surrounding threats. Oddly, the attacks stopped, and the pause of action was both relieving and unsettling.Bookmark here

“They stopped.” Bret kept his fists up as he watched the enemy’s movements.Bookmark here

“I wonder why,” Chris said, clutching his phone sword with both hands.Bookmark here

“Is it giving up?”Bookmark here

“Excalibur,” Chris said, “how’s the enemy look to you?”Bookmark here

“It is emitting a much smaller energy signal,” Excalibur said from the smartphone that served as the sword’s grip. “However, I believe it to still be rather formidable, so stay on guard.”Bookmark here

“Is it healing?” Chris asked.Bookmark here

“It has not had one instance of energy increases or regeneration,” the app replied.Bookmark here

Bret grinned. “So, we’re whoopin’ it, then.”Bookmark here

Even so, Chris was skeptical as he scanned the stationary, shadowy appendages. He wanted to be certain of the foe’s actions.Bookmark here

“Bret, you realize we’ve only been fighting half of this thing.”Bookmark here

“Huh?” Bret glanced behind him at Chris, and he noticed the other arm-like formation. “Wait…that’s been there the whole time, that thing that looks like a hand.”Bookmark here

His mind too full and alert to comment any further, Chris saw the razor-whip branches of darkness do something else unexpected: they retreated.Bookmark here

“What is this thing doing?” Chris wondered out loud.Bookmark here

The shadowy appendages, no longer blooming or growing, extended into the air. Their movements became synchronized and organized for the first time during the skirmish, and they created a patterned construction that resembled a rotating kaleidoscope image, elegant and sophisticated. If the boys didn’t know better, they would have thought it to be appealing, possibly pretty.Bookmark here

Robbie, Al, and Sandra saw this display from afar, a major deviation from the previous chaotic movements and shapes.Bookmark here

“What is that?” Sandra asked, both bewildered and unnerved.Bookmark here

“No idea,” Al replied shortly. “Whatever it is, keep on your toes. What happens next is going to be pivotal! Be prepared for anything!” She took the binoculars from Sandra and attempted to peer through them, but the broken lenses obstructed her view. “Hey…they broke…”Bookmark here

The branchy wickedness soon entered a passive state—fixed, structured, and rigid. Its rotating web of patterns locked itself in place above Chris and Bret, and didn’t move.Bookmark here

“This is it!” Bret hissed to Chris. “You can use Gunnhildr!”Bookmark here

Chris clenched his teeth and summoned his strength. The radiant powers surged through him despite his spiritual fatigue, and time seemed to slow around him. A communication with the environment, unspoken and intuitive, linked Chris to his surroundings.Bookmark here

Taking his phone sword in his left hand, he wrapped his fingers around Gunnhildr in his right.Bookmark here

However, behind Chris and Bret, unbeknownst to them both, the shadows had already made their next move. Robbie, Al, and Sandra saw exactly what was happening, and were terrified as they watched the giant arm finally act.Bookmark here

The dismal fingers and hand, resembling that of a massive human’s to a shocking degree, curled backward in a most unnatural way. What resulted was a fist unrestrained by conventional joints and bones, yet still solid and offensive. When the arm swiveled in a manner betraying the limitations of angular momentum (more forceful than it should have been), it geared up for its own abominable mimicry of a punch…yet stronger and undeniably fatal.Bookmark here

“Robbie!” Al shouted. “Now!”Bookmark here

“Rrraaahhhh!”Bookmark here

With painful deliberation, Robbie adjusted his massive Ball Protection barrier from afar as he attempted to reposition it and protect Chris and Bret from the gigantic oncoming attack. Once in place, he strained with all of his spiritual might to enforce the shield to its maximum ability, making it glow brighter.Bookmark here

Chris and Bret noticed the large orange shield had moved, and turned around just in time to see the enormous, deformed fist clobber the barrier with enough kinetic energy to roll an army tank. The surprise nearly knocked them off their feet…fortunately, surprise alone was all that hit them. Robbie’s shield stopped the attack, and the sound of the impact was gutturally deep and could not be recreated using any other two “objects.”Bookmark here

Al exhaled with relief, looking at Robbie. “You did it!”Bookmark here

“Just barely,” Robbie muttered, still maintaining his tiring position to uphold the energy shield; the fight wasn’t over.Bookmark here

Chris and Bret stumbled back from the shock.Bookmark here

“What just happened?” Chris watched the giant shadowy arm slowly recoil; it no longer resembled a human body part, but was a deformed mass from the impact.Bookmark here

“Robbie had our backs, I’d say,” Bret sneered. “We’d be goners now if not for him.”Bookmark here

Although one deadly blow had been avoided, the two boys were now without shelter against the horde of ghastly vines from above. The patterned formation of dark branches was already acting, unraveling from order and collapsing into excited disarray.Bookmark here

“Oh no.” Al could see something was about to happen. “Chris! Bret! Look out!”Bookmark here

As the ropes quaked and rustled, Bret rushed toward the point where the branches converged, leapt up, and latched on, wrapping his arms and legs around every shadowy appendage at once before they could spread out. A bitter chill ran through his body while he hugged the writhing darkness.Bookmark here

“Get it, Chris!” Bret shouted, holding on tight to the expanding foe. “I can’t hold it forever!”Bookmark here

I don’t have time to find the enemy’s wavelength with Gunnhildr, Chris thought, dismissing the handgun.Bookmark here

He filled his phone sword with glorious energy, took aim, and called the name of Eden’s Lance. His shining beam struck the foe just below Bret, severing all of the remaining tentacles in one go.Bookmark here

Bret found himself with nothing to hold onto as the malicious entity dissipated without a trace, and he fell back to the ground, landed on all fours, and looked at the painful wounds covering his hands, arms, and legs. His clothes were torn, and their wetness indicated the various other bleeding injuries all over his body.Bookmark here

“That was really reckless!” Chris yelled, lowering his phone sword. “Look at how hurt you are.”Bookmark here

“Don’t give me that. Look at how hurt the enemy is now.”Bookmark here

What remained of the tree-like appendage were just severed stumps protruding from the ground, unmoving and slowly decaying.Bookmark here

In response to the critical injury, the former arm-shaped shadow rumbled and jiggled violently, stretching upward at an alarming rate. As it emerged from the ground, its severed half was pulled under.Bookmark here

“Looks like we pissed it off,” Bret said with a mocking smirk.Bookmark here

Chris gripped his phone sword in both hands, watching the enemy’s actions. When the malevolent creature exited the ground and revealed its entirety, everyone could see how large it was, even though much of it had been cut off.Bookmark here

Sandra wrapped her arms around herself and shuddered.Bookmark here

“Errr…it’s really big.”Bookmark here

“Yeah, it is,” Al said bleakly as the vile entity soared into the air. “And it defies gravity, even in a physical form. Nothing special, but annoying.”Bookmark here

Judging the foe’s movements was no easy task, but Robbie found it especially difficult to constantly alter the angle of his large Ball Protection shield from such a distance.Bookmark here

“It’s…hard…to find a good position,” he grunted, adjusting the force field around Chris and Bret, “and hard…to move.”Bookmark here

“Wait for it to attack again.” Al instructed Robbie calmly, despite her pounding heart. “If you can block it, then it should be vulnerable.”Bookmark here

“I’m placin’ my bet on that,” Robbie muttered, moving the energy barrier; to say it had substantial “weight” would be misleading, yet somewhat true. “Chris has that Gunnhildr gun, and one shot with it should take care of that damn thing.”Bookmark here

Biding their time, Chris and Bret stayed close together, moving in correspondence with Robbie’s orange force field between themselves and the enemy. The dark fiend was acting erratically, but held its form tightly as a shapeless blob of airborne goo. There was no telling if it was looking for a chance to strike, or mindlessly gallivanting about.Bookmark here

“I have an idea,” Chris said quietly to Bret, keeping a close eye on the target.Bookmark here

“Say it.”Bookmark here

Gunnhildr appeared in Chris’ right hand as he gripped his phone sword in his left.Bookmark here

“Let Robbie block another attack, then I’ll counter with an absolving bullet. I just need time to focus. It’s not easy…but I need to.”Bookmark here

“It’s worth tryin’.”Bookmark here

When the floating mass of defilement swirled into itself, it quickly took the form of a giant hand again. As before, its fingers curled in a manner unlike a human’s and became another crude fist. Robbie watched and adjusted the energy shield accordingly.Bookmark here

Like a rubber band, the fist-shaped foe snapped at Chris and Bret, its speed and aim so lightning quick that nobody noticed it had happened until it slumped against the orange shield, dazed and stunned. Afterward, the group of five teammates each felt a chill down their spines, and they all knew Chris and Bret would have been utterly pulverized if not for Robbie’s shield, all in the blink of an eye.Bookmark here

The powerful strike had an instant effect on Robbie’s shield, and he felt a rush of fatigue. His knees and ankles gave out, and he collapsed to the ground. The large orange energy shield flickered out and disappeared, leaving Chris and Bret fully exposed.Bookmark here

In no time, Sandra had her hands on Robbie’s chest.Bookmark here

“Hey, are you okay? Heal.” She directed her powers into Robbie’s body, but an indescribable dullness told her there was nothing to heal. “What? It’s not working?”Bookmark here

“I’m fine.” Robbie pushed himself into a sitting position, and Sandra and Al helped him to his feet, wobbly but able to stand. “I don’t think I’m hurt.”Bookmark here

“Your power was used up,” Al told him. “Whatever particular energy model that shield required, it reached its limit to block that attack. No surprise…it was a nasty hit.”Bookmark here

Robbie smiled, looking at the stunned blackness he had successfully guarded against.Bookmark here

“But I blocked it.”Bookmark here

“There it is!” Bret hollered at Chris as soon as Robbie’s shield was down. “Shoot it now!”Bookmark here

Chris pointed Gunnhildr at the grumbling bleakness that puddled on the grassy ground. The sensation of unifying his spiritual wavelength with the enemy guided his aim, and the location of the entity’s essence was made clear. With the foe stunned, it more readily offered Chris the blueprints to its spiritual wavelengths.Bookmark here

He squeezed the trigger. Time slowed down, ceased to exist, and was forgotten about. There was no time…only absolution.Bookmark here

The silver beam that was an absolving bullet, announced by a delicate puff sound from the holy handgun, moved as fast as the eye could see. Yet, the foe had unpredictability on its side and altered its shape at the last split second.Bookmark here

Millimeters—that was the distance at which the malevolent being had dodged the absolving bullet. When the silver beam crossed Seward Park and hit the front of a building without a mark, Chris understood to the fullest that he had missed.Bookmark here

“Oh no!” Chris’ hand shook as he held the temporarily useless handgun.Bookmark here

Robbie immediately panicked.Bookmark here

“He missed! He can’t use Gunnhildr for twelve more hours!”Bookmark here

Al clenched her fists, realizing their trump card had just been wasted. Sandra covered her mouth with her hand, having nothing to say.Bookmark here

“Let’s run away!” Robbie told Al. “Get Chris and Bret out of there!”Bookmark here

“No,” Al replied, shaking her head. “It’ll follow us. We’ve already provoked it, so it’ll likely hunt us down.” Looking at Robbie with a hopeless expression, she added, “If we run, we’ll be in danger for sure.”Bookmark here

Blood dribbled down Bret’s injured hands as he glared at Chris.Bookmark here

“Dammit, you missed, Chris!”Bookmark here

“Don’t blame me!” Chris shot back, dismissing Gunnhildr so he didn’t have to look at the worthless object. “You can still get it, Bret. It’s our last chance!”Bookmark here

Amorphous voids of lightlessness dripped crudely upward from the grass. Bret watched the shadows congregate in midair, and his mind raced as he remained indecisive.Bookmark here

Chris got right in Bret’s face, giving a close-up view of the urgency in his sharp eyes.Bookmark here

Bret!”Bookmark here

“I know!” The delinquent pushed Chris back. “You know what happened last time I tried doing that.” He balled his bloody fist tightly, holding it inches from Chris’ nose. “I almost lost this hand!”Bookmark here

Understanding Bret’s hesitation, Chris told him, “I know why you’re scared. It’s okay, Sandra can help.”Bookmark here

“Let me get beat to shit, then put me back together?” Bret’s anger managed to muster up an ironic chortle. “Is that what you mean?”Bookmark here

“That’s what you said you’d do.”Bookmark here

The delinquent glared at the recovering foulness, now a tangle of long, boneless finger-ropes. He didn’t need to look at Robbie, Al, and Sandra to know they were watching. He didn’t need anybody else to say any more.Bookmark here

“I hate you,” he growled at Chris, trembling with anger.Bookmark here

“That’s okay. Just do what’s right.”Bookmark here

Reluctance permeated within Bret’s mind, but he pushed it out with a steady increase of his inner power, becoming more in tune with the movement of the malicious shadows. If he couldn’t walk away without bearing the risk of a possible failed core extraction, then he’d make sure to be morbidly violent and merciless toward his enemy.Bookmark here

“I’ll attack it first,” Chris said as his warm aura covered his phone sword.Bookmark here

Each step toward the wicked foe was deliberate, and Bret graced himself with the sensation of weightlessness in his legs and feet. The shadows tangled and wound themselves tighter, appearing to acknowledge Bret’s direct confrontation.Bookmark here

A center of diverging energy waves echoed through Bret’s soul, giving away the precise location of the foe’s core. Gulping down his skepticism, the boy locked onto his bullseye and readied himself for the leap.Bookmark here

Eden’s Lance!”Bookmark here

The beam gouged out a portion of the black mass, and Bret leapt forward in that instant. His fist, caked with blood as the many wounds split from the tight clenching, punched straight into the foe’s gouged rift, then sank into the fabrics betwixt nothingness.Bookmark here

With his arm on autopilot, convulsing and acting against Bret’s control, he eventually experienced his fingers and palm clutch a rubbery, watery mass. Twisting his body with all his strength, he yanked so hard that he growled furiously.Bookmark here

And yet, the empty organ did not budge.Bookmark here

“No! No! No!” he roared.Bookmark here

Al watched what Bret was doing. This unexpected act of punching through an impermeable wall was not impressive to her, but was highly disturbing.Bookmark here

“What the hell?” she whispered to herself.Bookmark here

Her teachings were strict and militant, serving to educate her in all things useful…and all things taboo and disgraceful. To identify what she was now witnessing, she did not need the augmented magical powers granted by her bandalores, but only her knowledge and training.Bookmark here

Sandra and Robbie were too concentrated on Bret’s actions, and they did not see Al bare her teeth with contempt.Bookmark here

Flashbacks ripped through Bret’s memories. He was remembering the horrors of having his hand frozen. However, his arm was no longer his own to command.Bookmark here

“I can’t let go!” Bret hollered, struggling to no avail. “Grr! Fine! If I can’t let go, and if one hand ain’t enough…” he twisted his torso to swing his free left hand, puncturing through the barrier his eyes couldn’t see, “then I’ll just use both hands!”Bookmark here

His determination was a message, relayed by his powers, to have his left hand be commandeered by something outside his understanding. Not needing permission, Bret’s other hand swam through ambiguous distances, crossing equivocal cosmos, and joined the efforts of the right hand.Bookmark here

Fully grasping the center of the defiled entity, he heaved with brute force. A deluge of energy, its origin unknown, powered the boy, and he knew the exact moment when the sought-after dislodgement occurred. At last, the binding elements that housed the dark organ were overthrown.Bookmark here

Seconds later, the malevolent being was no more. Bret was standing on the ground, trembling from fatigue and adrenaline. His hands were positioned as if holding something the size of a small beach ball, yet he held nothing now; dried blood on his arms was wetted by fresh open wounds.Bookmark here

“You did it!”Bookmark here

Chris grabbed Bret’s shoulder and gave a large, but weakened smile.Bookmark here

“Shut up,” Bret grunted, letting his hands down…there was nothing left for him to hold for now, after all.Bookmark here

“Holy moly!” Robbie shouted as he ran up to Chris and Bret. He tried not to laugh from relief. “That…was close!”Bookmark here

Bret looked at Sandra when she approached. She smiled gently—a stiff and challenging expression due to being shaken from what had happened—and Bret scowled and rolled his eyes.Bookmark here

“I guess you can help me,” he muttered, displaying his injuries, “again.”Bookmark here

“Don’t worry,” she said rather flatly. “I don’t mind.”Bookmark here

The young woman reached out to Bret. However, her attempt was promptly swatted away.Bookmark here

“I can’t let you.” Al swiftly barged between Sandra and Bret.Bookmark here

“Huh?” Sandra was taken aback, and quickly became angry. “What do you mean?”Bookmark here

“I can’t let you heal him!” The blonde girl spun around to face Bret. Her gaze was scathing.Bookmark here

Chris and Robbie had never seen Al display such an intense, foreboding attitude. This particular behavior was something different than stubbornness or annoyance. This was blunt doggedness, a pure resolve stemming from lifelong duty—to die for, lest live with unforgivable dishonor.Bookmark here

“Al,” Chris was quiet, but firm, “tell us what you mean.”Bookmark here

Sandra stepped back, seeing Al’s childlike mannerisms were totally absent, replaced with the temperament of a person raised and cultivated by a society of militant secrecy, unafraid of justified belligerence, yet terrified to defy the teachings responsible for such a cultivated demeanor.Bookmark here

“You,” Al directed her potent glare at Chris, “get away from him.”Bookmark here

“Not until you tell me what you mean,” Chris told her, not moving from his spot next to Bret.Bookmark here

“That boy is evil!”Bookmark here

Al’s shouted words rang throughout the empty park, leaving an aftertaste only the ears could accrue. The accusation was startling enough, but unsurprisingly more effective on Bret.Bookmark here

The delinquent, battered and worn out, scrunched his face into a wrathful glower. His breathing was audible, huffing with deliberation.Bookmark here

“Say that again.” He spoke clearly and slowly, filling the space between his words with hostility.Bookmark here

Not swayed by Bret’s provocation, Al said, “You all just saw it. He did something only possible with negative energy. A forbidden use of forbidden powers.”Bookmark here

Sandra and Robbie, riddled with confusion, stared at Bret. Certainly, it was easy to see how such an unscrupulous troublemaker could possess the very element of evil incarnate.Bookmark here

“No way,” Robbie whispered, stepping back from Bret. “Is it true?”Bookmark here

“Go to Hell, Robbie!” Bret snapped. “What, you believe this goddamned kid?”Bookmark here

“I can confirm Aleph-Naught’s statement,” Excalibur added indifferently as Chris held his phone with the sword blade still extended. “Negative energy has unmistakably been detected from Bret Taurus in the past, as well as recently.”Bookmark here

Robbie and Sandra bombarded Bret with revulsion as they stepped farther away. Al remained confrontational, shaking with disgust.Bookmark here

“You must be annihilated,” she asserted toward Bret.Bookmark here

“Do it!” Bret stomped toward the blonde girl, his bloody fists already poised and teeming with powers. He saw red, and was willing to see deep crimson in the form of Al’s blood. “Bring it on, right now!”Bookmark here

Chris immediately got in front of Bret, physically halting him with a sturdy shove.Bookmark here

“Just stop it.” Gentleness merged with authority in Chris’ speech. Exactly like his shove that had halted Bret, Chris’ words were both subtle and insuperable.Bookmark here

“You are going to move,” Bret growled at Chris.Bookmark here

“No, I won’t. You know why?” His eyes dug into Bret’s. “Because I don’t have to, and I shouldn’t.”Bookmark here

“Kill him, Chris!” Al snarled. “He’s the enemy!”Bookmark here

Be quiet!”Bookmark here

Right then, Chris moved—indescribably, against reason and possibility, without needing to be understood, his second time ever doing so toward the blonde girl. Al didn’t see, know, nor question how Chris had appeared in front of her so quickly, his momentous expression being so impactful that it repelled her backward.Bookmark here

But that was not all that had caused Al to hold her tongue and cower away. There was another reason, one that everyone else around could feel, securing them to the ground and demanding their attention; Chris suddenly overtook the entire vicinity with nothing more than presence, in which the very atmosphere was part of his mental state.Bookmark here

Even Bret, who had been seething with wrathful, violent intent mere seconds ago, felt instantly more docile, albeit shuddering with rage.Bookmark here

This presence Chris possessed was similar to Lavi’s, although loaded with humanly characteristics, angry and imposing.Bookmark here

Chris and Al locked stares.Bookmark here

“Al, I’m sure you have good reasons for what you’re saying. Even so, I refuse to allow senseless violence among friends.”Bookmark here

“‘Friends’?” Al felt utterly insulted. “Saying we’re all friends is stupider than saying I’m committing ‘senseless violence’!”Bookmark here

My friends, Al.”Bookmark here

Al flicked her eyes at the delinquent. “Wiping evil creatures out from the world is hardly senseless violence. It’s righteous! And your moronic values of friendship and shit…it’s standing in the way of righteousness.”Bookmark here

Expecting a harsh retort from Chris, the blonde girl was caught off guard by Chris’ meek and downcast smile.Bookmark here

“I’m sad you think that way,” Chris replied quietly. “Valuing friends probably is just moronic bullshit, but I know for a fact that by doing so…by feeling such a deep relationship with everyone here…that I am upholding righteousness in its most raw form.” With a pause, Chris looked at Bret, then back to Al. “Give Bret a chance. That’s all I’m saying. Trust me when I say his situation brings him grief. He doesn’t understand why his powers are the way they are, and if given the chance, he’d do anything to fight the shadows in his own heart.”Bookmark here

Chris turned to face Bret with undeniable warmth.Bookmark here

“Isn’t that right, Bret?” he asked.Bookmark here

A brand new sensation arose within Bret Taurus at that moment. It was a sensation totally unrelated to any sort of special abilities and mysterious energy. What Bret felt for the first time in his life was the sheer compassion from another person, a genuine human-to-human connection wrought by the heart.Bookmark here

Usually, such a display of kinship from another person would make Bret uneasy, like too much sugar on a rotten tooth. But that was the wonder of this particular moment; no part of the rough-and-tough teen could reject the thoughts and feelings Chris was projecting unto him.Bookmark here

Bret cast his eyes down. Was he ashamed? Flattered? Those words were inaccurate and inadequate. Not even he himself knew, and because he didn’t know, he failed to answer Chris’ question.Bookmark here

“You have a point,” Al said steadily to Chris, “but what if you’re wrong?” She sighed, easing back on her confrontational stance. “What if you make friends with the wrong people? I’ve seen it before…when those closest to someone betray trust. What if that happens, huh?”Bookmark here

Giving it a moment of thought, Chris came to his conclusion.Bookmark here

“If that happens,” he said, “I’ll take full responsibility.”Bookmark here

Al stared at Chris, a studious and judgmental stare. As much as she didn’t want to admit it, she could not find a single chink in Chris’ confidence and resolve, for another dogged and ruthless pursuer of the ill-defined and much-debated concept of “righteousness” stood before her. Chris was matching her studious and judgmental stare with a face and eyes shaped much better for such an expression.Bookmark here

The blonde girl threw her sweatshirt hood over her head, turned her back to Chris, and crossed her arms.Bookmark here

“Whatever, fine.” Al huffed. Turning around to face Chris again, she added, “Just keep in mind that I’ll hold you to your word of taking responsibility.”Bookmark here

Chris smiled. “I hope that you will hold me to it.”Bookmark here

“She’s right, ya know?” Bret stepped toward Chris, eyeing him threateningly.Bookmark here

Chris could see hints of hostility from the Hispanic boy.Bookmark here

“About what?” he asked firmly.Bookmark here

“What a piece of work you really are, Chris.” Bret continued to size up the taller boy. “Acting like this is nothing serious.”Bookmark here

“If you think I’m not serious about this,” Chris said, squinting at Bret, “then you’re dead wrong.”Bookmark here

“Then what about all that ‘let’s have a monster hunt’ shit you said?” Bret thrust a finger toward Chris. “Actin’ like this was a video game. Is that what you thought this was, all of you?” Bret addressed everyone at once, waving his bloody fists at them. “You all thought this was a fucking imaginary adventure for kids?”Bookmark here

Everybody shared an unspoken acknowledgement, knowing there was nothing to be said.Bookmark here

Bret removed his crushed pack of cigarettes from his pocket. He only had one left, and it was ripped, so he tore it in half and lit it, smoking in silence. As he gazed mindlessly across Seward Park, someone approached him.Bookmark here

“Hey,” Sandra said softly. Bret said nothing, only glanced at her. “Heal.”Bookmark here

In no time, all of Bret’s wounds were healed without a scar. He looked at her blankly, his half of a cigarette already about down to the filter.Bookmark here

“Deciding to trust me, huh?” he muttered, smoke rolling out of his mouth along with his words.Bookmark here

“What’s wrong with that?” Sandra asked mockingly.Bookmark here

Bret spit the cigarette butt at Sandra’s feet. The young woman huffed at the boy’s rudeness and glowered at him.Bookmark here

“You need to learn how to be grateful,” she snapped. “Whatever shred of good inside you has been recognized.”Bookmark here

“Woohoo.”Bookmark here

Robbie watched Sandra mutter under her breath and stomp away from Bret. He turned to Chris and Al.Bookmark here

“Do you guys…really think we can do this?”Bookmark here

“What do you mean?” Chris asked.Bookmark here

“Well,” Robbie scratched his head, “be a team, ya know? Just look at us. We’re already against one another.”Bookmark here

“It’ll be hard,” Chris replied sincerely. “Trust is key.”Bookmark here

“Easier said than done,” Al told him dully. “Your lecture worked this time, but…”Bookmark here

“I’ll do my best,” Chris said with a nod. “I’ll do whatever it takes to hold this group together.”Bookmark here

He felt a tap on the shoulder, and turned to find Sandra behind him.Bookmark here

“That’s a good attitude,” she said, trying to get a grip on her own confidence. “I agree, nothing good can come from being against each other.”Bookmark here

“Thanks, Sandra.”Bookmark here

“Don’t mention it, kiddo. But I need to be real with you.”Bookmark here

“Okay,” Chris said, “I’m listening.”Bookmark here

How can I say this? Sandra wondered, looking at Chris. What can I possibly say to this kid now after what had just happened? He’s just a high schooler, though.Bookmark here

“You need to be careful when you choose your words,” she told him with much seriousness. “Using words like ‘righteous’ and ‘friends’ can be dangerous if you just throw them out there.”Bookmark here

Chris felt confused. “What do you mean?”Bookmark here

“Well,” Sandra replied, thinking about her answer, “It’s good to have your attitude and whatnot, but it’s also a good idea to slow down and think about things. Use your head sometimes, not just your heart, because your heart can be deceiving.”Bookmark here

My heart can be deceiving…Bookmark here

“Oh.” Although Chris knew what Sandra was saying, the concept was hard to wrap his head around for the first time.Bookmark here

“You mean, like, be careful who you trust?” Robbie chimed in.Bookmark here

“Yeah, for the most part.” She saw Chris and Robbie were listening to her intently, and she sighed, shaking her head. “Honestly, I just met you yesterday. In all respect, you’re still strangers for the most part.”Bookmark here

“I know what you mean,” Chris said with a smile.Bookmark here

“But…” Sandra sighed again. “Gah, why do I have to be the adult here? Ya’ll are just kids.”Bookmark here

Al rolled her eyes, saying, “You said it, lady. I hate having to babysit.”Bookmark here

“I’m referring to you, too.” Sandra checked her phone. It was almost midnight. “It’s getting late.”Bookmark here

“What are we gonna do next?” Robbie asked.Bookmark here

“Probably call it a day,” Chris said.Bookmark here

“Yeah, I agree,” Al said. “But, before we split up, let’s find a private place to talk.” Her face lit up as she had a thought. “Oh, let’s go to Saint Baptiste. You should all meet Father Buck Dood, and we can discuss things with everyone.”Bookmark here

There was a mutual silence. Al’s suggestion was the obvious action to take, but the shared tiredness was a powerful pest.Bookmark here

Robbie sighed, saying halfheartedly, “How far is it from here?”Bookmark here

“Not very far,” Chris replied, looking at his phone’s map app, “but it might take a while to walk there.”Bookmark here

“I think the public transit is done for the day,” Sandra said. “Could we take an Uber? It’s easier and typically cheaper than a taxi.”Bookmark here

Chris shrugged. “Probably. Excalibur, can you get us an Uber ride for five passengers?”Bookmark here

“I can.”Bookmark here

The phone opened the Uber ridesharing app on its own, and Chris watched the process of ordering a ride without having to do anything himself.Bookmark here

“What’s this Uber thing?” Al asked, peeking at Chris’ phone.Bookmark here

“It’s a type of taxi service you can use from your phone,” Chris told her.Bookmark here

The blonde girl grimaced. “Ugh, taxis…”Bookmark here

“I have completed your request,” Excalibur said. “Please review your ride information.”Bookmark here

“Looks good,” Chris said.Bookmark here

“You have money to pay for that?” Sandra asked Chris.Bookmark here

“Yeah,” he replied, “my parents set me up with a debit card for things like this, but I don’t use it often.”Bookmark here

“Must be nice being privileged,” Sandra muttered. “My mom didn’t do anything like that for me.”Bookmark here

Chris’ phone rang in his hand as he received a call from, coincidentally, his mother. Not answering right away, he knew what she was calling for.Bookmark here

“Hi, Mom,” he said unenthusiastically.Bookmark here

Everyone around could hear Chris’ mother through the phone, despite not having the speakerphone on.Bookmark here

“Chris!” She sounded upset. “Where are you? It’s midnight.”Bookmark here

The boy looked at his companions, feeling a lump in his throat from the lie he was about to vocalize.Bookmark here

“I told you before I left. I’m at Drake’s house.”Bookmark here

“Are you staying the night?” His mother persisted. “The buses don’t run this late.”Bookmark here

“Yeah, I’m staying the night.”Bookmark here

“I really wish you’d have told me before you left, or at least called or texted and not waited for me to call at midnight.”Bookmark here

“Sorry, it wasn’t planned.”Bookmark here

Bret snickered softly as he listened.Bookmark here

“He sucks at lying,” he whispered to Robbie.Bookmark here

When Chris wrapped up the phone call, Sandra looked at him with a blank expression.Bookmark here

“Is that your mom?” she asked him.Bookmark here

“Yeah.” Chris nodded.Bookmark here

With a slight smile, Sandra told him, “You’re lucky to have parents who care about you.” Her tone was tainted with sorrow, however.Bookmark here

Forcing herself to uphold the role of the adult in the group, Sandra used her Heal on Chris to seal his cuts. To avoid a cleanup fee from the Uber driver, she ordered Chris and Bret to brush off their clothes as best as possible, and wash themselves clean of the dirt and blood in the Seward Park water fountain on the corner of West Division and North Orleans.Bookmark here

Traffic slowly trickled through the intersection as the neighborhood once again filled with other citizens, and several people questioned the sight of two teenage boys using the fountain water to clean themselves before entering an Uber-certified Honda Odyssey with three other young passengers.
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