Back to Square One
an illustrated narrative
Alex felt much better today than she had yesterday. She had had a good cry on Sunni's shoulder, and at least they were still alive, if minus some negligible trinkets. All in all, she couldn't complain. They could always buy more knick-knacks, but life was precious.
There was one unfinished matter, still, and that was giving Darian back his notes, even if he didn't seem to be too keen on being her friend. It was the polite thing to do, regardless.
She waited anxiously in the courtyard, hoping she hadn't missed him. She had gotten up earlier specifically for this reason, and it would've been a shame to miss her chance, since they didn't share a class today. As the beginning of first session drew nearer, she became edgy, worrying that he wouldn't show or that she had already missed him.
From out of the corner of her eye, Alex saw someone striding hastily towards the mathematics building. Unlike his tidy demeanor in the previous days, his hair was tousled and shirt untucked, but it was him.
He froze in midstep, looking around for the source of her voice. She ran up to him like an eager puppy. "Alex?" he asked, surprised.
"I wanted to give you back your notes," she said, thrusting the pages at him. "They're really well-organized. Danke schön!"
He blinked his reddened eyes at her for a moment, as though having been snapped out of a trance. "Oh... okay," he said, accepting the notes. "I'm glad they were helpful... bitte."
"Are you okay?" she asked, concerned.
"Oh, y-yes," he stuttered, catching himself. "I'm, uh... peachy."
"What's the matter?"
"N-nothing, really," he stammered. "I'm just... I couldn't wake up this morning. I had a really bad dream. That's all. Really, it is."
She could tell he was lying. "Is there anything I can do?" she prompted.
"Alex," he chided impatiently, "I'm serious. This is my own problem, and I have to deal with it myself."
"Aha!" she exclaimed. "So you do have a problem!"
"Guh!" Darian cried in frustration, frowning at her. "Yes, I have a problem, but it's my problem. I can't talk about it, and I have to work it out for myself."
"That's nonsense. It's always better to talk about your problems with someone else."
"Not this one," he insisted. "Look, as much as I appreciate your help, I can't involve anyone else. I mean it, please."
Alex glared at him stubbornly. "Are you always this unfriendly to people?" she scolded.
He paused, staring back at her coldly. "Yes."
A tense moment passed before Darian continued on wordlessly. Alex's expression was that of a deer caught in headlights.
A much longer moment passed before she realized she was going to be late to class. "Eep!" she cried, hightailing it to the science building.
"--following our next test. Alex?" Coolly, Mr. Rapp wrenched his attention away from the dayís lesson schedule as he noticed her entering the classroom. "I know you're new, so this is a fair warning that class begins promptly on the hour. Three tardies results in a point off your final grade."
Adding to her embarrassment was the feeling of all eyes in the classroom being on her. "I'm sorry," she mumbled, taking her seat.
Mr. Rapp continued amicably. "Today we'll be doing a lab on harmonic resonance, found on page 89..."
Alex sat in Physics with her attention everywhere but. What problem could a person possibly have that was so out of reach of everyone else that he couldn't even talk about it with someone? Was he in serious trouble? ...or was it that he simply didn't like her and was making excuses to get away from her?
The latter thought made her feel uncomfortable, particularly since she didn't know how else to befriend others, but the first was even more unsettling. If he was in trouble, she wanted to help, even if only in some small way, but she couldn't unless he told her everything, and he wouldn't do that unless he trusted her.
Then there was the matter of that sound she had started hearing once they arrived in X Two, though she couldn't discern the source of it. She would almost swear that it was more resonating in Darian's presence, which only made her more interested in talking to him, but she had to remind herself that that was probably just wishful thinking and not actually based in fact.
"Everyone have their partners?" Mr. Rapp called. "Then let's begin."
Alex snapped back to attention. "Wait!" she cried, raising her hand. "Who was I paired with?"
"Alex..." He glanced at his lesson plans again, slightly cracking a smile as he did. "Ah! You're with Kotaro."
"Thanks." She turned and looked at the rest of the class. Who was Kotaro, again?
"You're Alex, then?"
She jumped as the voice from behind her caught her off-guard. "Yes," she said, turning around. "Could you... not do that anymore?"
"Sorry," Kotaro said, smiling widely. "It's a habit I have."
"Well, it's not very polite," she scolded him.
He pouted dramatically. "Geez, you're as much of a stick-in-the-mud as Darian is."
Her eyes lit up. "You know Darian?"
"Ah, a link!" Kotaro exclaimed. "How do you know him? You have a class together?"
"Just the one, yes."
"Ah..." he mused interestedly, scratching his chin dramatically. "Is this why he keeps bailing out of our group activities, he's sneaking out with a girl?"
Alex blushed. "No, no, I just moved here. He's not very friendly with me."
"Okay, that sounds more like Darian," he said, laughing heartily.
She frowned disapprovingly. "Why is he so unfriendly? I just want to get to know people, and he brushes me off like I'm some kind of freak."
Kotaro looked her up and down with mock determination. "Well, except for the wearing sunglasses indoors, and maybe your hair, I don't see anything freakish about you."
"Oh... is something wrong with my hair?" she asked, blushing more strongly.
"Well, it's odd to see skin-brown hair in someone around these parts. Most people have a more natural colour, like mine." He shook his shaggy purple mane proudly, hair flopping in his face as he did so.
Alex grew quiet. "I see..."
"Why are you wearing sunglasses inside, anyway?"
She blushed again. "I'd rather not show you..."
Kotaro shrugged. "Suit yourself. I'm as flexible as the grass in the wind."
Secretly, she envied him. It would be nice to be as carefree as he seemed to be.
"Are you doing anything this evening?"
The question caught her by surprise. "What?"
"The gang and I were going to hit a movie, and you wanted to make friends, right? Did you want to come along?"
Alex smiled sincerely. "Sure!"
"There's one catch, however," he added, winking. "You have to have a date."
Her face fell. "Huh?"
Kotaro's smile was distressingly wide. "Don't worry about that, though, I'll fix you up."
Darian trudged through the hallway, not only upset over the matter of the fresco and the bizarre mystery surrounding it, but also for having told off Alex that morning--just another thing thrown onto the overwhelming pile of guilt he had to bear. That was the icing on the cake of his having been violently ill again that morning... just how many more things he could take before it broke him was simply a matter of time, he supposed.
He felt a pair of arms grab him, pinning him into the lockers.
"KOTARO!" he screamed angrily. "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!"
"You're coming with us to the movies, that's what!" He maintained a surprisingly strong hold on Darian, though it certainly helped that Kotaro was half a head taller and over a stone heavier. "I won't take no for an answer--you're coming, and that's that!"
Darian didn't feel like fighting in the hallway, though he would if it came to that. As he felt himself being lifted into the air, he was cognizant of all eyes on him, most of them laughing at the sight. Whether they were laughing at Kotaro or him, he wasn't sure, though it didn't make him feel any better about his situation.
Additionally, it really hurt, though he didn't want to let on as much. "I don't have time for this, you freak!" he shouted, furious. "Let me down!"
"No way, you and Alex are going to have a great time, compliments of me!"
Suddenly, he stopped struggling. Kotaro was trying to set him up?
He cringed angrily--there were many more things he needed than that, like a bullet through his head. In fact, the thought had entered his mind in many a miserable night, but he never had the courage to go through with it, as though a voice in the back of his mind was calling out to him, I want to live...
...and he did want to live. He wanted desperately to go out and watch movies with other kids and just enjoy life. He wanted to have really good friends like Kotaro and Alex. He wanted normal, loving parents like everyone else's.
He wanted to give in...
Kotaro clearly felt him go lax. "Hey, you okay, D?"
"I feel sick," he said, which wasn't far from the truth. His eyes were tearing up from the surge of emotion, but also from the searing pain running through his arms. "Please, let me down."
"No prob... I'll put you down at my folks' place. How's that?"
So much for that plan. He tried to fake vomiting, which was relatively easy to do with all the jostling he was getting, but that didn't phaze Kotaro. In fact, he had started carrying Darian down the stairs, which really started to get his stomach churning and his head pounding, between the motion and the pain. Pretty soon, he wouldn't have to fake it...
"Ko, put him down!"
Darian looked up--or down, he couldn't figure out which--and saw Alex, staring furiously at them.
"Hey, Alex! I--"
"Put him down, NOW."
Kotaro relented, lowering him gently to the next landing. Darian immediately collapsed and put his head between his knees, breathing deeply.
Alex rushed to his side. "Are you okay? You look sick."
Surprisingly, once he got his bearings, he started to feel much better. "Yeah, I'm fine. I was just hyperventilating there for a minute."
"Kotaro," she scolded, "you have to stop doing wild things like that! You're going to hurt someone if you're not careful!"
He raised his hands in defeat. "Hey, I was just doing what I knew would work on D. He's really stubborn about sticking to verbal agreements, you know."
"I want to go," Darian whispered.
They hushed. "What was that?" asked Alex.
"I... really do want to go with you guys..."
"Hey, that's great!" cheered Kotaro, slapping him on the shoulders, oblivious to Darian wincing as he did so. "We'll pick you up--"
"--but I can't," he finished.
"Why not?" Alex prodded. "Why won't you tell us what's going on that you can't go with us to a simple movie?"
Darian struggled with his dilemma. He was almost certain that the gang would do something to hurt one of his friends if they knew they were his friends, but he was tired of being their minion. If they had just let him grow up like a normal kid... but that wouldn't have been possible, would it? There was simply no way for him to live this double life, and the life he wanted wasn't the one they would let him have.
"Please tell us," pleaded Alex, staring deeply into his eyes through her shades.
...which brought up another question. "Why do you wear those shades, Alex?" he whispered.
She blushed suddenly, apparently taken aback from having been put on the spot. Truly, it did feel as though all eyes were on them, which was certain to provide a lot of material for the rumour mill, but he didn't care right now. What he wanted was something to prod him in one direction or the other, to effectively make his choice for him.
"...I'll tell you if you come to the movies with us," she said hesitantly.
He was afraid she would say that, because it meant he would agree. "Okay."
"Yes!" Kotaro cheered, helping Darian to his feet.
"What are we seeing, anyway?" he asked meekly.
"Bloodsucker Five is opening tonight!"
"What!" shrieked Alex, smacking Kotaro with her notebook. "You wanted to set me up with a date for a gore flick?!"
This is going to be great, Darian mused.
The three ended up meeting at the burger palace on campus, as the theatre was only a street away. Kotaro brought his current girlfriend Eloisa as well ["So much for this 'gang' of his Iíve heard him talk about so much," Darian thought], and the four of them enjoyed a leisurely meal before the movie, though Darian had to force himself not to cringe while forking over seven times what he was used to ever spending on a meal--surely the others didn't consider the expenditure to be breaking the bank, and he as a supposedly spoiled brat should behave no differently.
Nevertheless, he kept his ears perked and, with his usual paranoia, periodically looked over his shoulder at every turn, but nothing particularly alerted him.
"Daddy, can I get an ice cream?" asked a small child.
"We've got ice cream and cake at home," chided the child's father. "Besides, I bet they don't have the kind you like, do they?"
In the booth behind them, a family of three was celebrating what Darian assumed was the child's birthday. It was something he witnessed with envy, as he had never had a birthday party of any kind even once in his life.
The mother glanced at the menu. "Look, Rod," she said coolly. "Mint chocolate swirl--they do have it."
"See!" whined the child. "Can I get it, huh? Huh?"
"Well... uh..." muttered the father.
"So much for knowing your own offspring," the mother said, strangely devoid of emotion.
The conversation struck Darian as unusual. Casually looking up, he noticed that the woman was pale-haired with her hair in a tight bun, tiny glasses precariously balanced at the end of her nose. She was facing away from him, but even at that angle he was certain of it--that was the woman from Level 6. It was unusual actually seeing her again, but moreso with a small child, as she hadn't looked at all like the type to have children.
She didn't act like the type to have children.
His ears twitched worriedly as he wondered whether she was spying on him... no, that would be silly, because the child would just slow her down if she was.
"Darian," Alex prompted. "Is something wrong?"
He blinked, realizing he had frozen during his observation. "No, I'm... fine," he muttered. "I just thought I recognized someone."
"Who?" she asked, glancing around.
"Nobody," he said quickly, looking intently at his food. "It wasn't her after all. My mistake."
Alex stared at him for a moment before turning her attention elsewhere. He wondered if she believed him or not.
At Eloisa's insistance, they saw Morning of the Shadow instead, an action/romance film. To his surprise, Darian found himself staring when they entered the theatre proper, as if he had entered another world. It took a tremendous amount of effort to draw himself out of his trance and act normally, as mystified as he was by even the mundane processes of buying tickets, presenting stubs, and being reminded during the previews to turn off mobile phones.
Strangely, Alex retained her sunglasses even once the movie started, but he was too excited to care. It was the first time he'd ever been in a movie theatre, much less with friends, and it thrilled him in such a way that he found himself crying in the middle of the movie.
"Uh, Darian?" Alex whispered.
"Hmm? What is it?"
"You're crying at an action sequence. Is something wrong?"
He smiled at her for the first time, perhaps for the first time in his entire life. "I'm really happy."
Alex paused, then broke into a quiet laugh. "That's wonderful. That's much better than your mopey self."
"I hope we can do this every week," he replied.
As the movie drew to a close, Darian felt sad, for a number of reasons. Despite how smoothly the evening had gone so far, he couldn't dismiss the feeling of something bad looming over them before they went their separate ways.
"That was nice," commented Eloisa. "It wasn't too violent, and I really felt for the characters."
"Yeah," Alex agreed, "and the hero was cute!"
Darian rolled his eyes as the two girls giggled.
"Hey, I've got a great idea!" Kotaro interjected. "Let's hit the game centre!"
"Game centre?" Alex asked, puzzled.
Darian looked somewhat interested. "It's a little place upstairs where they have video games."
"Oh, you're in for a ride," Kotaro cheered. "Let's go!"
They followed casually, arriving to find Kotaro standing in line for a two-player dance game, where two players were already having a go at it.
"No one can beat me!" said the first--a large bully Darian recognized as a schoolmate of theirs named Mason. "I am the Grand Master of Dance!" Sure enough, the second player started missing steps, finally stepping down in exhaustion.
"Nevermind," said Kotaro. "This guy's already hogging it."
"You only want to play that game!" whined Eloisa. "Let's play something else."
"But I want to dance!" he pouted, though with his demeanor he still seemed pretty amused.
"Hey, you!" Mason called. "Dare to challenge me?"
"No way!" called Kotaro. "I wanna play with my friends!"
"What about you?" he said, pointing at Alex.
She blushed fully. "Me? I don't even know how to play!"
"It's easy! Watch the demo--there are directions you have to step on in synch with the beat. The direction arrows scroll up the screen to show you which steps you need to do next, and you hit them when they reach the mark at the top of the screen. The closer to the beat you step, the better your score! Here, I'll even fix the settings for you!"
Alex stepped up hesitantly, putting in a coin. "Well, I'll try--"
"Don't play with him, Alex!" Kotaro whined. "I bet he'll make you play on Hard!"
"No, I won't! See, look!" With that, he set Alex's settings on the hardest difficulty and entered her selection so she couldn't change it.
"Don't worry," Mason grinned. "She'll do fine... right?"
Alex didn't have time to think as the game flashed into play. Her feet raced like mad, much to everyone's astonishment--including Mason's. She stepped perfectly to each note, not missing even one, though her expression was one of utter terror... as though one misstep would cost her her very life.
"What the--" Mason cried as he missed a step.
Kotaro cheered excitedly. "Go, Alex!"
As the song ended, Mason grumbled angrily--her score was a Perfect to his A-. Alex wiped the sweat from her brow, breathing heavily. "Yay!" screamed Eloisa.
"This is a game?" Alex wheezed, exhausted. "I feel like I've run through Hell!"
"You lose, bully!" Kotaro jeered. "Step down!"
"Just one more challenge," said Mason. "His turn!"
Darian raised his eyebrow. "Me?"
"Yeah, and I'll even make it easy for you--we'll do the same song, since you already know it now."
"But I've never played before, either."
"The steps are exactly the same! You won't have any trouble!"
He grimaced but relented, stepping up. "Fine."
"Oh, but check your settings so they're the same--" With that, he changed Darian's settings to something else and finalized his selection.
"What?" Kotaro groaned loudly. "That makes the arrows invisible!"
Darian froze momentarily, then relaxed, closing his eyes. "I'm ready."
To Mason's dismay, Darian managed each step correctly, even if not perfectly, despite the fact the screen was not displaying which arrows he needed to step and when. This psyched him out so seriously that he misstepped several times from a combination of fear and fatigue.
Kotaro hooted energetically. "Big D! You're the Grand Master!"
As the song ended, Mason scowled viciously--Darian had an A- to his C. His was the lowest score possible without breaking the chain, but he had managed it even without having ever played before in his life.
"Damn," he mused sarcastically, "Alex got a better score than I did. Guess I'll have to practice."
"I changed my mind," Kotaro said, slapping Darian on the back--much to Darian's visible discomfort. "I couldn't possibly follow that excellent performance! Let's go try the shooters instead!"
As the four walked away, oblivious to anyone else but each other, Mason stared after them, half in astonishment and half in anger.
"Hey, you gonna play?" grumbled another player. "If not, let us have a round."
Mason stomped away bitterly.
Afterwards, Kotaro made a none-too-subtle hint that he and Eloisa would go their own way, leaving Darian and Alex alone. They said their goodbyes and parted amicably.
"Can I walk you home?" Darian asked, not eager for the night to end.
"Well, I guess," she said, "but I live kind of far from here. I have to take the bus every morning."
With a start, he remembered exactly where she lived, though she didn't know that he knew it. It seemed strange that it wouldn't have occurred to him earlier.
"How 'bout to the bus stop, then?" he suggested. "That's not too bad a walk. Besides, you owe me a story about your shades."
Alex hesitated, blushing. "It's not really much of a story," she said, her voice quiet. With that, she dropped her sunglasses just enough for him to see her vibrant brown eyes.
"Your eyes are brown?" he asked.
"Apparently people are weirded out about me being the same colour all the way through," she moaned. "I don't get it. Back home, this is normal, and blue and purple hair is weird."
"I think your eyes are pretty," Darian commented.
She seemed surprised by the comment. "Really? They're the colour of dirt."
"They're warm and inviting... not cold, like mine."
Alex blushed again, looking away. "I like your eyes. They remind me of the sea. Your hair, too, it's like a rainy day."
There was an awkward silence as both of them seemed to want to say something but was afraid of interrupting the other.
From out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement, but in that moment, he already knew it was too late. One of the pack leapt at them--he couldn't tell who, but he recognized the uniform all too well. The dark figure lashed out with a knife aimed at Alex's chest.
She looked up just in time to see her assailant, shrieking in fear as the knife met its mark and blood spurted across the pavement. Darian rushed to her side immediately, intent on dying with her if it came to that, but--to his surprise--the attacker similarly collapsed. He wasted no time on him, grabbing ahold of Alex and laying her down carefully. Her eyes were in tears from shock.
"Shh, don't talk," he instructed, frantically running his hands over her midsection. To his astonishment, however, there wasn't a single mark on her--not even a drop of blood.
"You're okay," he said, struggling to calm her. "He missed you. There's no wound."
She hyperventilated for several moments, absolutely certain she was near death. Slowly, she began to breathe more deeply as her fear subsided. "I felt it," she insisted. "He stabbed me--"
"He missed. You just thought you were stabbed, so you felt pain."
Alex examined herself carefully, doubtful of her own health. "I know I felt something pierce my heart..." she said, shivering. "It was creepy."
"You're fine," he insisted, helping her up.
Her eyes fell to the attacker, who was still collapsed as though from shock. "What about him?" she asked. "If I wasn't hurt, where did this blood come from?"
That was a good question. Darian leaned over him and examined him for wounds--nothing. Neither he nor Alex had been stabbed in any way...
He stooped down and touched one of the red spots, feeling its texture. It was definitely blood.
"Let's go," he said, grabbing her arm.
"What about him?"
"We can't do anything for him."
"But we can't just leave him there, can we?"
Darian paused, looking Alex in the eye. "He just tried to kill you. Even if we could help him, all he would do is turn right around and try to kill you again, if not both of us. Do you want to risk that?"
She hesitated. "Yes."
"I can't take that chance."
With that, he dragged her away before she could protest further.
They arrived at the bus stop without saying another word the entire way. Alex merely seemed pensive, but Darian reverted to his usual cold shoulder.
"I'm going to have to ask you never to talk about this to anyone," he interrupted, bitter. "This is what I didn't want to happen. If they knew who my friends were, they wouldn't hesitate to hurt them, just to hurt me."
Alex frowned in confusion. "But... why?"
Darian merely shuffled in one of his pockets, withdrawing something in his fist without looking at it. "By the way... your mother's ring... could you describe it for me?"
She was taken aback by the question, but answered nevertheless, suspicious. "It was a plain jade ring, about size 7... more green swirls than brown. On the inside is inscribed, O'MALLEY."
He smirked cryptically. "You wouldn't believe me, but..." With that, he opened his hand to reveal the very ring in question.
As though frightened, Alex took it carefully, turning it over in her hand and examining it. "HOW DID YOU GET THIS?" she screeched at him, her hands clenched into tight fists. "Were you one of the robbers?"
Reflexively, Darian held his hands in front of his face. "I told you you wouldn't believe me! I know... bad people."
She stared at him with a look of utter bewilderment. "Why do you know bad people? Do they make you steal things?"
"Sometimes, but it goes deeper than that. I can't say any more."
"Why do you stay with them?"
He scowled. "It's not by choice. They forced me to join them."
"Why don't you leave?"
"How?" he shouted. "My parents are dead. I have no 'real' guardian, and no way to earn a living since I'm still a minor, especially without a birth certificate or any of those legal papers I need to prove I can work. Most people who see me think I'm in middle school and wouldn't believe I was of age even if I was! Without money, I can't do anything. The money I spent tonight was a year's worth of savings, that's how little they give me!"
There was a silence so dense, it was like a wall that had formed between them.
"Come with us," Alex said. "You can run away with us and escape! We just moved here, so it wouldn't be much to move again--"
"It's not that simple," he interrupted. "They have a network all down the coast. One person is going to have a hard enough time disappearing from their radar, much less two or more. It's going to take a lot more resources than you have, and I wouldn't ask you to do that for me."
"Are you always this uncooperative?" she sighed.
"No, just realistic. In fact, I recommend you and Kotaro stop trying to be my friend--better yet, move away before they try to attack you again."
Tears formed in her eyes, visible in the dimming light even through her shades.
"Your bus is here," he said tersely. "You're going to miss it."
She stood in place, refusing to budge. "I'm not leaving until you answer me, Darian. Why won't you let me help you?"
"ALEX, GET ON THAT BUS."
Without a further word, he turned and walked angrily away.
Darian darted in and out of alleys, backtracking often and regularly looking about as though he suspected he was being watched. It was amusing, in a sense, but it also seemed to be the natural reaction especially for someone who had been through what he had just experienced. If he had been just a little more careful than he was being, though, he would have realized someone was following him.
The walk took nearly an hour, perhaps because he was blowing off steam. Once in a while, he would kick a trash can and mutter something to himself. At one point, he even paused, grabbed a stick, and started hitting a tree with it for quite a while. At lengths, however, he got tired of that and moved on.
The house he eventually stopped at was fairly large, made of stone, but he didn't go in the front door, instead walking around to the back and entering there. The back door was nearly invisible, blending in fairly well with the wall, and disappeared almost completely once closed. Even a close examination in daylight would take quite a while to find any knob or keyhole, much less in the dim evening light.
After a few moments passed, a light turned on in one of the second-story windows, the beam filtering weakly through a tattered curtain made, possibly, out of an old blanket. The random tears in the curtain were just large enough to allow visibility from a close range--meaning eye to the window--and just small enough to avoid being seen from the other side.
The light came from a plain bulb with pull cord hanging from the ceiling, about the most primitive lighting fixture in the world. No one was in the room. Perhaps he had left? No... shouting, some of it piercing, but the words indistinct through the thickness of the wall. Suddenly, the door slammed, and Darian was inside, alone.
Staggering, he collapsed onto a couch--the lone piece of furniture in the room, from the look of it--leaning over the armrest and trembling, as though in pain. A faint groan resounded even through the wall, and he pushed himself up, kicking angrily at things around the room before slumping down on the couch again and tearing at his hair. There he remained motionless for several minutes, shuddering slightly every once in a while.
At lengths, he got up, wiping his face and walking somewhere out of view. Through another tear, he was visible again, digging through a pile of clothes for something... a wallet? He opened it and counted the contents--obviously not enough, from the look on his face--then replaced it under the pile. Finally, he disrobed, changing into long-sleeved sleepwear before flopping back on the couch and turning off the overhead light.
"I should have suspected as much," whispered the watcher, climbing silently back down from the window sill. "Problem is... now what?"