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 own thoughts but come from every corner of her bedroom, from between the layers of wallpaper and sheetrock; from below the floorboards and the places on the edge of sanity. Her room is no longer attached to her house but raised up in a hanging evil. By subtle glances she swore to herself she met creatures gazing at her hidden beneath the twilight shadows.
Terror boils up from her stomach as the slithering fingers gripping at her sheets draw lines on her legs. The image of a complex eternal sunken pit of shadows haunts her dreams. The pit rises from an old ruined city built with the wrong geometry; doors without stairs, and openings in walls where they should not be, rods hanging off the faces of architectures and in the skies standing towers drifting towards the ground. That demonic world swirls in the dark’s vortex. A nature far, far different from her own and the countless beings who wander in that place gaze back toward her. They call for a king in the shadows and whisper secrets of when they would cross. Their eyes are cutting deep in her soul, and she knew she was not alone in her desolate room. Something deep in her told her, those dreams are just on the other side of the looking glass.
“Quite the daredevil are we 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. Her instructor’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.” She stops her tongue lashing, straightens her posture, adjusts her glasses with one hand while holding Apricot’s paper in the other. Apricot digs her nails into her thigh while the stabbing silence gave no sign of ending. With an exaggerated 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 blew the scalding words from her lips. “I should expel you,” the words grip hard, choking Apricot’s throat. “But rarely do we have anybody so daring? I will stand for it, this once!” she emphasizes raising her eyebrow. “Do not make this a habit however or else you will have your state license revoked and have to contend with a job in the private sector. The foundation will not permit such fervent disregard for law. Luckily for you the Ministry has allowed 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. It’d be a dishonor to let it pass to waste, wouldn’t it miss Apricot? 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.”
“Good, good,” Akagi sang flipping through the pages. “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 as flashing holograms of advertisements and their accompanying jingles pollute the busy city. 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 cart racing marks 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 of its 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 metal and concrete timbers the deep streets become a shadowland of untold dangers. She could not help but speculate somewhere out there in that modern jungle something is waiting for her, some form of primate horror, or perhaps something so alien it could never be understood. Something entirely unwelcome. The thought urges her to peel hear fingernails away. Her teeth bite at the tips as they saw away at the ends causing jagged edges to arise from unevenly split nibbles.
She forces herself to look from the daunting image of untold horrors to avoid any further damage to her kept nails. Her gaze meets Solonne, one of her closest and longest running friends. She’s dressed in her cute blue and white striped sleeveless hoody. The black shirt under her hoody has an obscured tan logo. Her fashion has always been Apricot’s envy even if she would never admit it to Solonne. It is hard for her to believe her petite Solonne is an officer. She looks too much like a doll while tucked in her boyfriend’s muscular arms, an Arslanian immigrant from a county called Stezyl, a place Apricot came to understand is ruled by a horrible authoritarian dictatorship. He is name is Arjun and his body lived up to his namesake, the great bear.
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.
She is not entirely aware of the conversation’s direction or really how to respond without letting everyone know she was not even listening. Instead she decides to go with honest, exactly what she thought. “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 concern.
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 y’as feeling the same. 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 the large silver screen with a semi 3d hologram display. She tries to eat her popcorn without disturbing anyone with its jarring crunch. Why was popcorn handed out in theaters anyway, Apricot considers? It’s one of the loudest snacks you could have. The crinkle of pieced candy wrappers also echos. Food, one thing meant to be quiet, and yet they discovered a way to find the loudest treats. She is drawn back into the movie as 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 from the other side. The screen focuses on his clean shoes.
Apricot winces assuming that a jump scare is about to happen. She glances over at Machi who’s face is milk white in the screen’s 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 streetlight to show his eyes are 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 man’s face.
At this moment Machi shrieks 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. She pouts as she smalls into her chair. Apricot notes a visible rosy pink color paints her face. “Sorry.” She whispers. Apricot pets her hand as she stifles a snicker.
“Gee you scare the shit of me Machi,” Arjan teases over the hubbub of electronic chatter. He rests against the board of an arcade machine while his leg press into another modeled to look like the nose of a fighter jet.
Machi glances over her shoulder as she piloted the digital plane. “Shut up, I was not scared it’s just… that thing looked so weird.“
Arjun snickers. “Isn’t what scared is?”
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.
“Alright, 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 yah 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.
“Those two.” Apricot says under her breath to Solenne.
“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 a hint of curiosity seating itself in her mind.
“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 talk about this but there have been murders left and right. Not to mention that bank robbery the other day but you know all about that already.” Apricot could sense her cheeks growing warm. Solenne 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 knot. “Someone chews your face off.” grunts a deep 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. If the movie was not bad enough, now you are telling us that people are being poisoned to eat each other. Thanks there Solenne.” Machi whines.
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 need a ride home, you can call me or Arjan and we can get you,” Solenne says.
“Why do you say that?” Apricot laughs to cover the growing sense of tension.
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 felt the fears in her welling again. Like some pot of black sludge boiling over, tarring her inside. Solenne must have noticed, her firm arms grip 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 and behind them there 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 alongside 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 announces.
“Sure, need a ride home?” Arjun asks.
Apricot can’t take her eyes off the shadows. “Nah, I should be fine walking home. My train is not too far from here.“
“Mom, Dad, I am home,” Apricot hollers while she kicks off a pair of red and white sneakers. She runs up the stairs into her safety and salvation, her bedroom and closes the door behind her. Flipping open her laptop she sits at her desk. “Now let’s see about the murders. Solenne you have me curious.”
She discovers most of the articles are restricted or removed by the government. It seems that someone is manually censoring the forums in real time. As soon as a topic on the subject pops up, they are immediately taken down or edited blank by the user who posted the topic. 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.”
Going to the park this late at night fills Apricot with dread, although, 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 from every 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. “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. “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 in a cute tone hoping to mask the utter horror embracing her.
“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 want to 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.
Bonni smirks. “Before I go, I should tell you. I heard more from those SDP police. That lady, the other day. They said bullets bounced off her because of some kind of spectral anomaly. That they had not seen that before.” Her blood froze. “That is why they had that mech. They needed a projectile large enough to overpower whatever protected her. I know it is silly to listen so closely on their conversations but Apricot, they are hiding something. I just thought you should know.”
“Why me?“ Apricot asks.
“Not too sure. I just got the feeling. Call it intuition or maybe superstition.” Bonni softly says. “Well, it is really late. We should get out of here before we look suspicious.”
Apricot waves before they both head their separate ways down the dark park road. Apricot lifts her sights towards the starless sky. “This is all getting real. Too real,” she says to herself the haunting suspicion of being followed coming over her.