The beat of her heart vibrated through Lexi’s entire body as she jumped to her feet. It took a moment for the world to come into focus around her. When it did, she looked up at the balcony — Tala wasn’t there.
A curtain moved in a window on the first floor and a woman looked through. As soon as she noticed Lexi staring back, the curtain was yanked shut.
With blood-stained fingers, Lexi lifted the bottom of her shirt and wiped the blood from her nose. When she touched her nose it cracked again, back into place. Providing instant relief.
She ran her tongue along the back of her teeth. A molar was loose, she wiggled it a couple times before finally, that moved back into place too. Awesome.
While inspecting her teeth, a bullet made its way into Lexi’s mouth. She spat it out into her hand and closed her fist around it. Blood covered her face, her neck, and her shirt. But she couldn’t stop smiling. I am alive.
She turned her head. Jesse, her best friend, was standing on the sidewalk not far from her. His face had drained of color and his grey eyes were wide.
“We need to get you inside before somebody else sees you like this,” he said.
“Right. I just need to make sure she’s gone first.”
Lexi didn’t bother letting him finish, she took wide steps rushing toward the door. As soon as she entered the building another door swung open and Emma stepped out. She must have been who was watching.
Emma had long blonde hair that was tied up in a messy bun. She looked like she just woke up from a nap.
“Did you fall off the balcony?”
“Yeah, I was trying to fill the bird feeder. But I’m totally fine. It looks worse than it really is.”
Lexi tried to go up the steps to walk away from Emma, but the small woman blocked her path.
“You look horrible,” Emma said. “I should call an ambulance”
“No, no, no,” Lexi said. “I don’t have insurance. Really. I landed on my face, but it really is fine.”
Lexi put a hand on Emma’s shoulder and pushed her aside, leaving blood on her shirt.
Emma groaned and stayed out of Lexi’s path. She pulled at the sleeve of her shirt and her lips curled downward.
“If you don’t die from a concussion then you owe me a new shirt,” Emma said.
“Fine. Just go back to bed,” Lexi said.
Emma huffed an annoyed sigh and went back into her apartment, slamming the door behind her.
Lexi rushed up the stairs. The halls on the second floor were empty. She wasn’t worried about running into anyone else. The apartment across from hers was vacant. The other two apartments had people that worked long hours and were never home.
When she got to her front door, she stopped. The door was slightly cracked and there was a note stuck to the front of it.
She plucked the note of the door and carried it inside, leaving the door open behind her. Milkshake ran toward her and planted himself at her feet. Lexi nodded, acknowledging the cat, but kept her attention on the apartment.
The note was placed on the kitchen counter. Lexi put the bullet she’d spit out earlier next to it as well.
Out of an abundance of caution, Lexi checked her bedroom, then Jesse’s, and finally the bathroom. Tala really was gone. She walked out onto the balcony and looked down at Jesse. He was waiting, just like she’d told him to. Lexi caught his attention and waved him up.
Milkshake brushed himself against Lexi’s legs, gave a soft meow, and then jumped up on the balcony railing and into the nearby tree.
“Thanks for your help,” Lexi said.
Milkshake hopped down from the tree and trotted off into the shadows.
Lexi turned and walked inside. When she tried to close the sliding glass door there was a wave of pain that ripped through her shoulder. Another bullet. She used her good arm to close the door and then paused to look at her shoulder. She rolled back her shirt as far as it would go and found the wound.
Another wave of pain hit her as she dug her finger into the wound and fished out the bullet. It sat flat in her hand as she watched the wound stitch itself back up.
“Damn,” Jesse said.
Lexi looked up as Jesse stepped into the apartment. He pulled the door shut behind him and locked the door. He looked around the room, eyes lingering on the bloodstains.
“I can explain,” Lexi said.
Lexi sighed and sat down on the edge of the sofa.
“Not really. I can try though.”
She rolled the bullet around the palm of her hand.
“You were shot,” Jesse said.
Jesse sat down next to her. His expression was full of concern.
“Once in the shoulder and-”
“Once in the head,” Lexi said. “I came back from the dead.”
“She must have known you’d come back.”
“She did leave a note that says ‘welcome back.’”
“You seem to be taking all this pretty well. You don’t think I’m crazy?”
Jesse clenched his jaw. Something he only did when he was very stressed. He’d been doing it a lot more lately.
“Lexi, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“What’s going on?”
“Last month. we were house-sitting for Gary and John. You slipped, hit your head, and fell into the pool…”
“Yeah. You saw it happen from the kitchen window. You pulled me out right away. Everything was fine.”
Jesse shook his head.
“I don’t know how long you were down there. I- it could have been up to fifteen minutes. When I pulled you out, at first, I thought you were dead. But I hadn’t even started CPR yet and you started breathing. Now, well, I wonder if you were dead.”
Lexi stayed silent.
“Part of me wondered if you knew and weren’t telling me for some reason,” Jesse said.
Lexi stared down at her blood-covered hands. A reminder that she still needed to clean herself up.
“I’ve never seen you cut yourself. I’ve seen you fall, hard, and nothing. You’ve never needed stitches. You’ve never broken a bone. I’ve never even seen you bruise.”
Lexi stood and walked across the room and into the kitchen.
“I just thought I was lucky.”
Lexi turned on the kitchen sink, tested the water until it was warm enough, and then washed her hands with soap and water. Then she rinsed off her face.
Lexi replied when she was finished washing the blood from her face.
“If I died in the pool then why didn’t I go to the place I went this time.”
“You went somewhere?”
“Yeah. I met a woman, named Claire. She called it Oblivion.”
“Maybe Claire didn’t want you to remember.”
A shiver ran up Lexi’s spine.
“That’d be fucked up.”
Lexi dried her hands on a nearby hand towel.
“She said someone would find me. Or maybe, that she’d already found me. Someone named Marceline.”
“Who’s Marceline?” Jesse asked.
Lexi’s phone was sitting on the kitchen counter and it started vibrating. She spun it to get a better view of the screen.
“Blocked number, but it’s a video call,” Lexi said.
Lexi picked up the phone and slid the answer call button across the screen.
The woman on the screen had brown eyes that were framed by thick glasses with black rims. Her hair was cut above her shoulders, it started out black on top and then faded to a light blue.
“You must be Marceline,” Lexi said.
Lexi exchanged a glance with Jesse.
“Perfect timing,” Jesse said.
Lexi turned the phone so Jesse was on screen with her.
“You must be Jesse,” Marceline said.
“How do you know me?”
“I was sent some information.”
“Claire said you’d have answers for me,” Lexi said.
Marceline furrowed her brow, she looked off-screen again, then back at the camera.
“You met Claire?”
“She’s trapped in the place I went when I died. You knew that I died, right?”
“Yes. And I’m not the only one who knows,” Marceline said. “That’s why I’m calling. You’re going to have to trust me.”
“We’re listening,” Lexi said.
“In about five minutes three men will be at your front door. You don’t want to be inside your apartment when they get there. Devi is sending a car for you. It’s black. The interior lights will be on and there won’t be a driver.”
“What’s wrong with my car?” Lexi asked.
“They know which car is yours. It’s not safe.”
“Okay. I’ll pack a bag,” Lexi said.
Marceline chewed on the bottom of her lip.
“You have three minutes. You need to be out of the building before they pull up. You don’t want them to see you leave.”
“We’ll be fast,” Lexi said.
She nodded at Jesse and he took off toward his room. Lexi walked to hers. She kept Marceline on the phone but set it face down on her bed so she wasn’t in view of the camera.
Lexi pulled her bloody clothes off first and tossed them into a pile on her floor. She pulled on a t-shirt, a jacket, and a fresh pair of leggings.
She put a couple shirts, another pair of pants, a sports bra, and socks into her backpack. She was throwing some underwear into the bag when she heard Marceline mumble something over the phone.
She picked it up and the first thing she noticed was how stressed Marceline now looked.
“You’re out of time,” Marceline said. “You need to go now.”
Lexi grabbed her phone charger and her wallet and put them in the bag before she walked back out into the living room. Jesse was waiting there for her.
“I was wrong,” Marceline said.
“What do you mean?” Lexi said.
“It’s too late. Devi has eyes on them. They’re already approaching your building. You need a plan to get out of there.”
Lexi looked around the room. She felt the adrenaline kicking in. She ran over to the balcony and pulled open the sliding door. Maybe they’ll think I jumped out.
“Jesse, do you still have keys for the apartment across the hall?”
“Yeah. Ricky made a copy for me when he had me water his plants.”
“Cool. We’re going over there. Until we can think of a better idea.”
“Hurry,” Marceline said.
Lexi hung up the phone, looked around the apartment, and fought back a pang of regret. She’d lived there with Jesse for three years. And now, she wasn’t sure if she’d ever come back. Lexi made eye contact with Jesse, nodded, and they moved toward the door.
When Lexi opened the door she heard heavy boots thudding up the stairs. She didn’t recognize the footsteps and she knew everyone who lived in the apartment.
“He’s coming,” she whispered.
Lexi softly shut the door behind them and then darted across the hallway to the other door, Jesse at her side. She turned so her back was to the door and kept her eyes on the hallway.
Jesse already had the keys out. He opened the door without any trouble and they both stepped inside.
Lexi stepped backward into the apartment after Jesse and closed the door in front of her as quietly as she could.
She didn’t realize it at first, but she was holding her breath as she pressed her cheek up against the door. She couldn’t get a very good look at the man through the peephole. But she could tell that he was tall, had broad shoulders, and his hair was cut short. He knocked on the door. Lexi wondered why he bothered knocking. Unless he didn’t know Tala had gotten there first.
He tried the door handle next. Shit. They hadn’t locked the door. He seemed to pause for a moment. He probably noticed the blood. It wouldn’t take him long to find the bullets and the note Tala left. He moved his jacket and reached for a gun that was tucked into the back of his pants. But then changed his mind.
“Tala has been here,” he said.
Lexi only heard silence as the person he was talking to responded. The man stayed still at the threshold to her apartment.
“No body. Just blood. I don’t think she’s gone far. Blood’s still pretty fresh.”
The man stepped into the apartment and Lexi carefully padded backward away from the door. She was afraid she would breathe too loud and get caught.
She felt her phone vibrate in her pocket. She grabbed it as fast as she could, fumbled for a moment, and then dragged the answer call button. The caller ID was blocked.
“Lexi, it’s Marceline.”
“Good timing,” Lexi whispered. “What should we do?”
She made eye contact with Jesse and nodded toward the door. He went to look through the peephole. Lexi walked over to the balcony. It occurred to her how strange it was that this apartment was exactly like hers, but inverted. And empty.
“There’s a black car across the lawn, can you see it from the balcony?’
“Yes,” Lexi whispered.
“Good. That’s your way out of here. It will take you right to my cabin. Can you jump off the balcony?”
“I can if I want to break my nose again, or my legs. Jesse can’t.”
“It might be your only option,” Marceline said.
“Devi can hack into technology, right? Are there limits?”
Lexi looked up at the ceiling, eyes wandering to the sprinkler system. A voice Lexi hadn’t heard before came across the phone. It must have been Devi.
“What are you thinking?”
“We block how they’re communicating and set off the fire alarm and sprinkler system.”
“I can do that. But you’d lose contact with us too,” Devi said.
“Where are the men now?”
“One still in your apartment. Two at the exits.”
Jesse stepped back from the door and mouthed, he’s in the hall.
Lexi grabbed Jesse’s bag from him, opened the balcony door, and threw it out onto the lawn. She tossed her own next to his.
“Do it now, Devi.”
She hung up her phone and shoved it into her jacket pocket, before zipping the pocket shut. She’d never been happier to have had a men’s jacket. Deep pockets. Zippers. Very useful when she was expecting to have to fight.
The fire alarm went off first. Lexi looked through the peephole. The man was in the hallway and turned so his back was to Lexi. This was her chance.
She hoped the gun was where she saw it last. She waited until the sprinklers started and made her move as quickly as possible.
The water from the sprinklers made it hard to see. It was coming down faster than Lexi expected. She pushed his jacket aside and her fingers made contact with the cold metal of the gun. This is actually going to work. Then a hand grabbed her wrist and the man spun around.
Lexi struggled enough with him and managed to get the man’s back turned toward the door again. She was counting on Jesse for this one. He didn’t fight anymore, but she knew he used to.
Jesse stepped out of the apartment and with one blow to the back of the head he knocked the man unconscious. Lexi fell to the ground, landing underneath the unconscious man.
The weight of him made it hard for her to breathe. Jesse grabbed him and helped Lexi roll him away from her.
Lexi rolled up onto her feet and grabbed the man’s gun. She made sure the safety was on and then set it aside before rummaging through his pockets. She found a wallet, a cell phone, and an ID badge. The ID listed him as an Assets Acquisition Officer for a company called NeuriTech.
She left the cellphone but took his wallet, ID, and gun. Lexi stood and pocketed the items, except for the gun which she tucked into her waistband.
“You should leave the gun,” Jesse said.
Lexi shook her head, pretending she couldn’t hear him over the sound of the alarm.
Jesse looked to the right, and to the left. It wouldn’t be much longer before the other men leave their posts to find their buddy unconscious. Lexi stepped over the man’s body, deciding to take their chances with the exit to their right.
Nobody else was in the hallway. Lexi checked behind them one last time before she headed for the other set of stairs. The other three people who lived on the floor must have been out for the night. Sorry for ruining your stuff.
She turned back around and headed for the stairs. She took them two at a time, Jesse not far behind her. The sprinklers shut off by the time her foot hit the bottom floor.
She burst through the door and bumped into another man in a suit. He tried to grab her but she jumped away, just out of his reach. She walked backward, flashing him the other man’s ID.
“You should go check on your buddy,” Lexi said. “Unless you want to cause a scene.”
Emma was out on the lawn, screaming about her new TV. Her husband was trying to calm her down. People from other apartment buildings were stepping outside to find out what was going on.
“You can’t hide from us,” the man said.
“Maybe you ought to be hiding from me,” she said.
The man stayed silent for a moment and then walked into the apartment building. Lexi took this opportunity to grab Jesse’s arm and pull him around the corner.
They grabbed their bags and then rushed to the car that was waiting for them across the lawn. Lexi hopped into the driver’s seat. Jesse got into the passenger seat.
She was about to shut the door when Milkshake jumped up onto her lap. He meowed and then jumped into the backseat of the car.
“Guess he’s coming with us,” Lexi said.
She shut the door and reached for the gear stick. Lexi hadn’t touched anything yet, but the car started rolling.
“Oh, shit,” Lexi said.
Devi’s voice came through the speakers.
“It’s doing what it’s supposed to,” they said. “You’ll be at Marceline’s in two hours and fifteen minutes.”
“Thanks,” Lexi said.
She looked over at Jesse.
“You didn’t happen to pack a towel, did you?”
“I wish,” he said.
Lexi emptied took off her jacket and tossed it onto the floor in the back of the car. She reached across Jesse and put the gun in the glove box.
“Why’d you take the gun?” Jesse said. “They’re nothing but trouble.”
“I might have to defend you,” she said.
“That’s not how guns work. I wish you’d left it,” he said.
“Too late now.”
Lexi sighed and looked out the back window. No headlights. So they weren’t being followed. That was a relief.
“That seemed pretty easy, right?” Lexi said.
“Too easy,” Jesse said.
Jesse tapped her teeth together, thinking. She looked out the back window again.
“I don’t think we’re being followed,” Lexi said.
“You’re not being followed,” Devi said. “They had orders to let you go if you weren’t making it simple.”
Jesse looked over at Lexi.
“You were still there?”
“I wasn’t trying to listen. When they realized Tala had been there. That changed things. I didn’t find out until just now,” Devi said. “They still want to bring you in. But you knowing what you know, it changes things.”
“I don’t know anything,” Lexi said.
“Marceline will tell you everything when you get there,” Devi said.
“Can’t wait,” Lexi said.
“You have to. Just another two hours and five minutes,” Devi said.
“It was — never mind. Will you be there?”
“No,” Devi said.
“Got it,” Lexi replied.
“I’ll leave you alone now,” Devi said.
“Sorry I dragged you into this, Jess.”
“You’d do the same for me.”
Copyright © 2021 k.c. statler