Cara took out her phone to check her list, but she couldn’t go past the lock screen. She was so surprised by what she saw that she could only stare at her phone wide-eyed, saying, “Ummm…”

Mia glanced at her sister’s phone. “Woah! What the…?” Curious, she checked her own phone and made the same discovery Cara had. “Wait. What?!”

“What’s wrong?” Sakari asked the sisters.

Regaining her voice, Cara asked, “Are you guys seeing this too?”

Everyone took out their phones. “What? When did this show up?” Sakari reacted.

“Okay. This is new,” Nico said.

The eight gathered in a circle between the train’s doors. They held their phones in the center of the circle so everyone could see.

All of their lock screens were now solid black. The date and time were still there as normal, but something new had appeared on each of them. Their names were printed in bold white letters in the center of the screen. Most of the phones displayed their owners’ full names, but curiously, David and Sakari’s phones only displayed their first names. Below each name was a set of three numbers. Cara, Mia, Rianne, and Sakari had “000” on their phones. Nico and Shavonne’s phones read “002.” Bern and David had “001.”

“We sure as hell didn’t have anything like this last time,” Bern said.

“We couldn’t use our phones at all,” Rianne added.

“All they were good for were those mission texts,” Nico remarked.

“Mission texts?” Mia asked. She wondered if the mysterious texter would contact them again. Were they and Kesa Industries around whenever this “last time” was?

David turned to Nico. “Do you still think I’m behind this?”

“Finish explaining. Then I’ll decide,” Nico told him.

“But what do these numbers mean?” Sakari asked.

Cara unconsciously slipped her sleeping cell phone back into her purse. “Random question,” she replied. “Those animals – Gibberish, yes? How many of them did each of you kill?”

Shavonne noticed a large shadow pass in front of the subway train windows. It was a pterodactyl Gibberish that, thankfully, didn’t seem to be paying the train any attention. Shavonne followed the pterodactyl with her eyes as long as she could as it glided between buildings.

Answering Cara’s question, Shavonne said, “I don’t remember. It was kinda hard to tell.”

Sakari thought out loud. “There were six of them, right? Between all of us, the numbers work out.” A realization dawned on him. “Wait. Cara, is that –?”

She confirmed Sakari’s suspicions. “Yep. I think these numbers are our kill count.”

“You think our phones are keeping track of how many Gibberish we kill?” Nico asked.

Cara nodded yes.

“So if we want to get on the board…” Mia began.

“We have to… kill?” Rianne asked, growing visibly worried.

“But assists count too, right? They gotta count.” If this game, as Nico called it, was anything like the games she and Cara played, then there had to be an alternate way for a healer like Rianne to increase her number.

Cara replied, “If that were true, wouldn’t Rianne be way ahead of all of us right now?”

“So I have to kill?” Rianne asked again, holding her glittery pink phone to her heart.

Bern insisted, “Nuh-uh. Nobody’s forcing you to kill Gibberish.” He shot an accusatory glare at David. “Right, pretty boy?”

“Why are you looking at me? I don’t know anything about this,” David answered.

“Ha!” Nico laughed.

“I know who you are. You can’t not know,” Bern argued.

Sakari remembered. “You said that before. What do you mean? David, what is he talking about?”

“Simple. He’s –”

”– a voice of experience,” David interrupted. “Just like him, Nico, Shavonne, and Rianne.”

“Yeah. No,” Rianne said.

“I’m getting skeptical too,” Mia added.

Ignoring the girls, David continued answering Sakari’s question. “What matters is that I know a thing or two about what’s going on. Things I promised to share over dinner.”

Nico commented, “Funny. I didn’t hear you make that promise. Now I bet you’re gonna use that to skate around telling the truth.”

David closed his eyes. “I will tell you what I know. All in due time. Let’s just get to Silver Arches, okay?” He felt like he’d been cornered. He hated being cornered.

“David, what aren’t you telling us? Why can’t you tell us?” Sakari asked.

Why must Sakari’s sincerity make David feel worse?

Cara said, “The only situation where I fault a man for keeping his cards to his chest is when he’s about to stab somebody in the back. Not like he’d honestly tell us whether he was planning to or not.”

“Believe me, Cara. It’s not in my best interest to deceive you,” David replied.

“I really doubt that,” Shavonne countered.

Cara continued, “Based on how I’m reading the room, it’d also be in your best interest to do what you say you will, lest you find the ice thinning with all of us.” Turning to the rest of the group, she added, “It’s also in your best interest to pause the needling until after dinner. Besides, didn’t one of you say you were starving?”

Bern crossed his arms and grumbled, “God damn both of you straight to hell.”

Rianne rubbed her brother’s arm, trying to soothe him.

Cara heard Bern’s complaint but chose not to pay him any attention. “Speaking of dinner, I’d like some help with the grocery shopping. Mostly because of the Gibberish.” She picked the first two people her eyes landed on. “Sakari, Nico, wanna come?”

“Sure,” Sakari happily agreed.

Nico sighed. “Alright.”

“Maybe I should come too,” Shavonne volunteered.

“Are you sure?” Rianne asked her.

“I’m fine, Rianne. You helped a lot. It’ll take more than one hit to remove me.”

Cara nodded in agreement. “Sounds like a plan, then.”

As everyone returned to their seats, Cara met David’s eyes. They shimmered with gratitude. He opened his mouth to speak, but Cara stopped him. “Thank me by keeping your word. Anything you say now is pointless,” she told him in a firm whisper.

David replied with a smile and a nod yes.

©2022 Joyce Lewis. All rights reserved.