Laughter rang out from a few houses down, kids screaming as they chased each other in a meaningless game of tag. The air was light, hopeful in a way Carmen hadn’t experienced for a long time. It was wistfully reminiscent of a distant celebration she could barely recall. Smoke filled air, the heavy scent of ribs and burgers being cooked on a grill. She could still imagine impatiently waiting her turn in line with a paper plate and a cup of kool-aid. V.I.L.E. didn’t often waste money on frivolous parties, but every now and again someone would feel a bit generous. Normally it was Coach Brunt who cracked under the pressure of Black Sheep complaining that nothing interesting ever happened. Besides, it was good for team bonding and a great opportunity to pickpocket unsuspecting classmates.
That, however, was in the past. Even the upbeat atmosphere and blaring music couldn’t wipe the grimace off Carmen’s face. What was she going to do? Obviously sitting behind this old building wasn’t getting her anywhere. It was just her luck that she’d run into Paper Star while in the middle of a parade. V.I.L.E. might like to do things quietly, but Paper Star followed her own rules. Carmen couldn’t dodge every hit, not unless she wanted civilians to get hurt. Paper Star was ironically and tragically right, it was lucky she wore all red. No one would question the blood.
She licked her lips, but it hardly helped since her whole mouth was dry. As much as she wanted to blame it on the July heat, she found herself shivering in her trench coat. An unsteady hand was pressed against her abdomen, another was absentmindedly holding one of the numerous cuts on her arm. Carmen couldn’t bring herself to stand, a sort of tired had seeped into her bones and made itself at home in her. It would be dangerous to fall asleep, though it was tempting. There was no way her cuts were that bad, right? It was just paper. She hadn’t gotten hit that many times…
It took a bit of wiggling, but she peeked around the side of the building she was sitting behind, watching the street beyond the alley way. People were talking loudly, many shouting or singing. Completely unaware of the hunched figure in red who could only watch from a distance. If she asked for help she was bound to get questioned for her injuries, she couldn’t risk that. Her only stroke of today luck seemed to be the fact that the sun had already set, casting her normally bold colored outfit in shadows.
Reluctantly, she pulled out her phone, clicking her emergency contact. It rang once before Player was yelling in her ear, “What happened? One minute everything is fine and the next thing I know your ear pieces are out of commission and I can’t-”
His voice was reassuring in a way she couldn’t quite place. As much as her brain would love to dissect that thought, anything to distract itself from the millions of cuts that ached all over, she knew better than to get off topic.
“Good to hear you too, Player,” She gave a halfhearted laugh, before groaning as the movement caused the deeper cut on her side to burn. He didn’t have to speak for her to know what he wanted to ask. “Let’s just say Paper Star saw me first,”
“I’m sending back up in now, just hang tight red,” There was the distant sound of typing and Player saying something to Zack and Ivy. What he said Carmen couldn’t be sure, it was too hard to focus anymore. Whether from the thrumming pain or growing fogginess of her thoughts, she could only guess.
“How ya feeling?” His voice was louder now, as if he’d leaned in closer to his mic. Hesitantly she assessed herself, slowly prodding at her legs and arms to figure out just how many cuts there were- just how deep they were. It was hard to see with how dark it had gotten, there was only one measly light behind the building and it did little to aid her.
“Carm?” She almost didn’t hear him this time, but she managed to clear her throat to respond, “It doesn’t look good Player, I don’t think…” Think what? That she’d make it? Carmen wasn’t sure she had it in her to tell him that. Not yet. Even if Player had been with her since the beginning, even if she spoke to him about her nightmares and insecurities, to tell him it was over?
The lump in her throat made it hard to breath, much less speak, but she knew she had to ask. “How long till they arrive?” It wasn’t the answer he was expecting, she could tell, and the silence that ensued was tense. “... About twenty minutes, tops.”
They weren’t going to make it. Her vision was already blurry from blood loss, and sleep was tempting her with hushed promises.
“Hey Player?” She didn’t bother waiting for him to respond, “What day is it?”
“It’s July fourth. I think there'll be-” She couldn’t hear the end of his sentence as a loud pop startled her, a myriad of colors illuminating the night sky. Fireworks, vibrant and eye-catching, many were her signature red.
“Independence Day,” She hummed, watching as another three fireworks shot off. “How appropriate.”
It was ironically beautiful that she’d die on a day that represented freedom. How fitting. It wasn’t such a bad way to go, even if she couldn’t see all that well, the fireworks looked radiant and she could still hear people talking- laughing. It was… nice.
She only had one regret.
“Carmen?” There was a tremor to his tone that hadn’t been there before. She hated that she’d done this to him, that she’d caused him such anxiety- she hated knowing that his fears would soon be true, too.
“I have a secret, Player,” By some miracle she kept her voice from breaking as she spoke.
“Of course you do, you’re Carmen Sandiego , known world-wide as the most elusive- ” Her eyes burned as she bit back tears. She knew what he was trying to do. He didn’t want to hear her say her ‘final words’. He was trying to distract her, trying to evade the topic. Because hearing her say goodbye would mean accepting that she would die.
She didn’t have time for this.
She didn't have much time left in general.
“Player,” For a moment the only sound was the fireworks, still exploding in and out of rhythm. She allowed herself to breath, finding the words she knew she needed to say, “I have a secret. Something I never told Zack, never told Ivy, and… and that I never told you .”
It was hard to keep her grip on the phone, she couldn’t feel her fingers anymore- couldn’t feel anything- but she needed to finish. She needed to be honest, she needed to tell him the truth. “I always knew I’d die sooner than you guys. I throw caution to the wind and put the mission ahead of myself I- I knew that... “
The lump in her throat was too much, too big to talk around. It hurt to try, but it hurt even more knowing she might die with things left unsaid. “And I was a coward. I was so scared of opening up, because then- then it would hurt you more when it happened and I didn’t-” She took a painful breath of air, trying to hold herself together, “I didn’t want that. I never wanted to hurt you guys.”
Drained physically and emotionally, she sighed. She felt herself slipping, relaxing into herself, “But I always wanted to be closer,” it was a barely audible mumble, but she managed to say it nonetheless. And that was what mattered-
“I love you,”
It was said with urgency and grief, she listened to him trip over himself as he tried to keep her awake, “You can’t die, you won’t. Not until you can say that to Zack and Ivy yourself- not until you can see me again in Canada- not until you’re ninety years old with five kids who always visit on the weekends- Carmen.”
She didn’t respond. She couldn’t. The phone had already slipped from her fingers, down her shoulder, and into her lap where it lay open.
Belatedly she regretted not saying goodbye properly and hanging up so Player didn’t have to listen to the silence that death brought with it. She also felt bad for the two pairs pounding feet that she could hear rushing down the alley towards her.