Throughout the night Apricot tosses and shifts in her bed. Eyes shut tight hoping to forego the heavy muffled whispers and suggestions crawling through her mind. In fact, she’s convinced the voices aren’t her thoughts but come from every corner of her bedroom. By subtle glances she swore to herself she met creatures gazing at her hidden beneath the twilight umbra.
Fingers gripping at her sheets slither over drawing lines on her legs. The image of a complex eternal sunken pit of shadows rests heavy upon her concerns. The pit rose from an old ruined city built with the wrong geometry. Doors without stairs, and openings in walls. Rods hanging off the faces of architectures and in the skies standing towers drifting towards the ground. Daggers of ice and stone raised over them. That demonic world swirled in the dark’s vortex. A nature far, far different from her own and the countless beings who wandered in that place gaze back toward her. Deep in her soul, she knew she was not alone in her desolate room.
“Quite the daredevil are we Miss. Apricot?” Miss. Akagi’s booming roar echos inside the large empty lecture hall rattling Apricot’s bones. She supposes anyone outside the room can pick up every single word. Miss. Akagi’s stern finger wags as a bludgeoning rod, her brown eyes shifts along with the digits bob. “You are to report the current events, my dear, not become part of one.” Miss. Akagi stops her tongue lashing, straightens her posture, adjusts her glasses with one hand while holding Apricots paper in the other. Apricot dug her nails into her thigh while the stabbing silence had no sign of ending. With an inhale, Miss. Akagi continues “Though, I must commend you for the piece. It is rather enchanting.” she shifts her back toward Apricot walking to her podium. “I would imagine it’s a thing of fiction if not for that strike against you. Entering a crime scene unauthorized is a very serious charge missy.” Apricot shrugs her shoulders in defeat without repose as Miss. Akagi’s scalding words blew flames from her lips. “I should expel you,” the words hung heavy choking Apricot. “But rarely do we have anybody so daring? I will stand for it, this once!” she emphasizes with a raised eyebrow. “Do not make this a habit however or else you will deal with a job in the private sector. The foundation will not permit such fervent disregard for law. Luckily for you the Bureau of education has allowed it for me to decide your punishment.”
“Yes, Mam.” Apricot stammers holding her head in shame.
“Good. Now as for your paper.” Apricot looks up to a calm smirk. “It is a somewhat thrilling story considering you are a junior journalist. Would be a dishonor to let it pass to waste, wouldn’t it miss Apricot?” she bows in agreement. “Tell me, could I present your story before an actual journal?”
“A journal!” Apricot jumps. “Really? A real journal, like a state paper.”
Akagi smirks at her reply. “Hm no,” A slight cackle follows in the proper place to appear as an ace snob. “Not a state paper but not the undergraduate journal either. I believe this kind of publicity is for independent papers. A weekly. Will you sell me the piece? I can see if I can get it published.”
“Sell you my story?” she asks feeling an urge to drop her jaw. “I would love to.” A smile grows across Apricot’s face.
“Good, good,” Akagi sang flipping through the pages of Apricots report. “Keep it up and you may pass Apricot, that is, if you can remember to come to class.”
“Yes, Mam.” She agrees while a lively blush fills her cheeks.
The center is full of entertainment. Apricot and her friends walk through the lively streets of the downtown metroplex. The day’s events flash away as she loses herself in the amusement. Windowshopping through the many side stores, stopping for delicious grilled chicken skewers at a famous street stand called Oorudo Chiifu, and a round of go carting marked the more memorable moments. While riding up a large glass elevator Apricot’s friend’s conversation fades as she overlooks the city. It is the largest elevator in Blue Ash belonging to a tower known by the locals as Big Tower. Roughly 2/3rds of the population worked in Big Tower and is home to several thousand businesses. Big Tower’s not only a place of business but where Okabe runs most it’s government.
This sight is normally marvels Apricot. Today she saw the city more like a labyrinth. A place she fears because of what dwells in strange places. In that sprawl of timbers the deep streets become a shadowland of untold dangers. She could not help speculate somewhere out there in that concrete jungle something is waiting for her.
She forces herself to look from the daunting image of untold horrors. Her gaze meets Solonne dressed in her cute blue and white striped sleeveless hoody. The black shirt under her hoody has an obscured tan logo. When she is off duty one would never guess she is an officer. Solenne looks like a doll while tucked in her boyfriend’s muscular arms. He is best described as having a body like a bear. Arjun is Aslanian immigrant from a country called Stezyl. A place Apricot came to understand is horrible and ruled by an authoritarian dictatorship.
Still the window calls to her, she turns her glance back towards the streets. “The city below, so distant.” Apricot considers.
“What do you think Apricot?” asks Solenne jarring her out of her trance-like state.
“It’s scary.” She mumbles.
“Huh?” Machi barks scrunching up her face. “How is it scary?”
“No, I mean… notice how high up we are. Imagine if this just, broke, like if a bird flew into the tube. At this height, I bet the air pressure would suck us out and we would fall to our deaths.” Apricot turns from the glass to see Arjan smirking while Solenne’s expression fills with concerne.
Machi shakes her head. “Are you sick in the head Apricot? Who talks like that?”
“O’, sorry I…” Apricot rubs her arm turning her back to face Machi who gave her a stabbing glare.
“Don’t worry, I was feeling the same thing. I always do on these. It’s… mile up the least right.” Arjun’s voice is thick. His Rs roll too long. His mastery of Uchellian language is lacking but one could forgive that.
“It’s not even half a mile!” Machi yells throwing her arms to her sides. “Stop talking crazy! I don’t need to think about stuff like this.” Apricot snickers and soon Arjun and Solenne join seeing Machi’s eyes nearly fall out of her sockets. “You are all horrible.”
The clicking of a man’s steps echo in the darkened alleyway. “Damn it, they can’t keep doing this.” He says. Apricot jolts as Machi wraps around her arm. The theatergoers are silent watching. She tries to eat her popcorn and not disturb anyone with its jarring crunch.
The screen pans away from the man giving a shot of his back showing the long dark alleyway. Shadows obscure a man while he approaches. The screen focuses on his clean shoes.
Apricot winces assuming that a jump scare is about to happen. She glances over at Machi whose face is milk white in the screens glow. She could have guessed as much from the nails digging into her arm.
“T-Tobei, is that you?” the young man stutters. From the dark, the man stops walking. “Tobei thank God.”
Tobei’s grinning face passes through the shadow into the street light to show his eyes were that of hooked and toothed greasy holes and his mouth opens just as the man screams releasing a long tapeworm looking horror that latches onto the other mans face.
At this moment Machi releases a shriek so loud it overshadows what is on screen after which half the room joins in her yelp. Apricot’s hair stood on end in a near panic. Machi shut herself up once she realized what she had done. Machi pouts as she smalls into her chair. Apricot notes a visible rosy pink color paints her face. “Sorry.” She whispers. She pets Machi’s hand as she stifles a snicker.
“Gee you scared the shit out of me Machi,” Arjan teases over the hubbub and electronic chatter. His back presses into the board of an arcade machine while his leg presses against another modeled to look like the nose of a fighter jet.
Machi looks over her shoulder as she piloted the digital plane. “Shut up, I was not scared it’s just… that thing looked so weird.” With the click of a button, the screen flashes as a combine of rockets shot into a plane burning it down. From the other side of the arcade system, a man shouts “Ah, damn it!” which made a sly smile crawl over Machi’s face.
“All right, Machi!” Apricot cheers. Solenne and her are both leaning over the back of Machi’s seat watching her expert maneuvers.
Arjan spits a short puff of air. “Think you hot Machi? Bet you can’t beat me.” Arjan growls.
“Arjan, she is enjoying her game let her be.” Solenne shuns Arjan provoking an eye roll from him. He slumps over the arcade machine raising both of his arms.
Machi lets out a modest chuckle. “If I did, you would be a disgrace to the military. It would also ruin my sense of safety knowing they let in people that can’t even compete in arcade games. I don’t wish to do either of those two things to you or give that stress to myself.” Solenne sighs at Machi’s childish retort.
Apricot smirks before saying under her sigh to Solenne. “Those two.”
“I know you would expect after this much time they would be used to each other.” Solenne smiles. “ I was busy with filing reports. It’s like this city is going crazy.”
“You don’t say?” Apricot asks.
“Yeah, my poor baby been coming home late much night this week. Someday she doesn’t even get home.” Arjan explains wrapping his arms around Solenne’s waist giving her a peck on the cheek. “Leaves me lonely.”
Solenne nods. “Yeah, it’s true. I am not supposed to communicate about this but there have been murders left and right. Not to mention that bank robbery the other day.” Apricot could sense her cheeks growing warm. Solenne then pauses her eyes narrowing and softening at the same time. “But something disturbing happened. So, in our reports this morning we got one about a singer who got her face chewed off by some of her fans backstage. The photos were terrible. The report made no sense, it was like something possessed them or something. We got the kids who did it in custody. They act like animals. Rumors in my department suggest it might be some Arslanian biological or something.”
Apricot’s stomach turns in a naught. “Someone chews your face off.” grunts a disembodied voice. “Was I the only one who heard that.” Apricot thought to herself. “That’s terrible.” she mumbles.
“You said it. I don’t expect I will sleep tonight. Thanks there Solenne.” Machi whines to her.
Arjun shakes his head. “Don’t worry, just war hysteria. Fact is Arslana cannot release biologicals here. That is not good weapon, anyway.”
“Arslana and Castor’s war has caused issues even in Uchella,” Apricot murmurs gazing toward her feet on the red carpet of the stained arcade floor.
“Which reminds me. Apricot you should change your route home for a while.” Apricot lifts her gaze to meet Solonne’s concerned eyes. “If you ever lack a ride home, you can call me or Arjan and we can get you,” Solenne says.
“Why do you say that?” Apricot laughs.
Arjan shrugs. “You listen, all right.”
“All right. I will be sure to.”
“Well, did you see anything or hear anything last Ventaro?” Solenne asks.
A lump slip into her throat. It was Ventaro that she encountered that weird thing. “Ah, no, why do you ask?”
“Several people reported… things and well, some bodies showed up.”
As the words left Solenne’s mouth Apricot got scared. Solenne must have noticed, her firm arms gripped against Apricot’s back embracing her in a hug. “It’s ok hun, I realize you been through a lot with that robbery. Like I said. Anytime you need a ride just call us ok.”
Apricot looks off beyond Solenne, through the crowd of people playing arcade machines, she watches people pass by and a shadow that stood in the dark. It moves across the wall. Its long twin horns bent in several directions as a flowing cloak waved along beside it. “Yeah sure,” Apricot comments as the shadow passes disappearing among the crowd.
“Does anyone else feel like it’s hot in here?” Machi asks stepping out of the machine’s cockpit.
Arjun nods “Thought I the only one thinking that.”
The thing went missing, gone. It has passed her by this time. Maybe because of the crowd she guesses. That thing is observing her for sure. Her heart pounds. “Well, it is getting late. So I should head home guys. Thanks for the awesome day out.” Apricot continues to follow the shadows as the group says their goodbyes and part.
“Mom, Dad, I am home,” Apricot hollars while she kicks off a pair of red and white sneakers. She runs up the stairs into her bedroom closing the door behind her. Flipping open her laptop she sits at her desk to see if any reports on the murders Solenne mentioned were public yet.
She discovers most of the articles are restricted or removed by the government. A burring of her phone diverts her attention. She grabs the black slab and flicks it with her finger revealing a message from Bonni. “Hey, girl wanna meet up at the park. I got something to offer you.”
Apricot fills with dread at the idea. The park does not bode well with her but if Bonni were to find out she was with her friends earlier, it might hurt her. Against her better judgement she texts back “Sure.”
The park is a shadowed nightmare. Apricot looks at every tree where light prevails. She twitches with each sound until she spies Bonni sitting on a distant bench. “Bonni,” Apricot calls out as she picks up pace towards her. “I am so glad to see you. The playground is creepy at night.”
Bonni crosses her legs resting a magazine on her lap. Apricot could not make out the cover image with Bonni’s fingers splayed over it but, she could see the title, Eerie Truths Monthly. She would have rolled her eyes but after the events that played out last week she found herself curious. She sat next to Bonni releasing a sigh. “It’s nice to get a seat. With the train being out it takes a little longer to get to this side of town.”
“I know right. It is a pain. I would show up at your place but I could not figure out how to get over there so I texted you instead.” Bonni lifts the magazine. “So I wanted to show you this,” her fingers flip through the wagging pages. “I know, I know, this is a weirdo magazine but,” she chirps stopping at a page she has folded. “This is what I was talking about.”
The page is filled with poorly taken photos from low-resolution cameras. Bonni points to one photo of something jumping off a building. The image struck Apricot as a fake. “Bonni, I appreciate,” a finger interrupts her sentence.
“Wait, before you say anything.” Bonni flips the page. A high-resolution photo shows the silhouette of something that looks very much like the reaper she saw, floating over the city. Her heart stops. “See what I mean. That is not normal. This thing is seen all over the place. They call him Claw fingers.” Apricot’s mouth shuts tight. Her mind races for what to say. She could not let Bonni know she has seen that thing. “They have reported him to offer people powers in return for servitude.”
“Bonni, these stories. How long have they been around?” Apricot asks.
“Only a few months. I’ve been reading this mag for years and it got first mention two months ago. Something else that you may find even creepier is the string of murders that happened last week.” Bonni turns several pages ahead to a bent page. As she unfolds it, the header reads “The Ikijoji Street Murderer.”
“Bonni!” Apricot shouts standing up from the bench. “Stop it!” She grips her fists scowling at a now wide-eyed Bonni. “You need to get away from these fantasy stories. If you will believe in this thing, don’t include me in it.” Apricot screams. Her fears swallow her sinking heart.
Bonni lowers her gaze folding the magazine. “I thought you would be interested in this stuff too,” she moans with a sullen tone.
“It creeps me out,” Apricot croaks folding her arms. “I walk down that street almost every night and don’t want to hear about someone butchering people around there.” Apricot took a few short breaths. “I’ve got enough on my plate with work and school. I can’t be worried about some imaginary spooks.”
There is silence. Bonni gets up off the bench with a faint smile. “Well, I can tell this all got you scared. Tell you what Api, I won’t bug you about it anymore. However, if you want to talk about imaginary spooks, I am always here to listen to you.”
“Ah, sure Bonbon. Catch ya later I guess.” Apricot utters. “I am sorry, but you’re right. It scares me. I don’t like it.” Bonni nods and gives her a shallow hug. Apricot waves before they both head their separate ways down the dark park road. Apricot lifts her sights towards the sky. “This is all getting interesting. Too interesting,” she says to herself the haunting suspicion of being followed coming over her.