On the low wooden table is a a full bowl of rice topped with beans and a soft poached egg, four small bowls of onion soup, a dish of chicken and eggs layered with mayonnaise and a dish of cold tofu stacked with scallions and a black sauce. The Signa family with chopsticks in hand served themselves from the common dishes. Morning light shines in through the wide bay living-room window.
Apricot’s Mom, Winifred is rarely home in the mornings but when she was, the event had a pseudo celebration of sorts. Apricot always longed for these mornings most. Not only for having her mother’s presence but the vast spread became a traditional treat. As she eyed her healthy portions, she took in the savory aroma. “I am a little worried about my test.” Jasper comments.
“Have you been studying like you should?” she teases like all older sisters do.
With a sharp glance he points his chopsticks stabbing towards her. “You have seen me with my text books! All I do is study.”
“Jasper.” Winifred snaps at which Jasper brings his chopsticks back to his food sheepishly.
“I was just saying.” He defends.
“If you studied you should do fine Jasper.” Apricot states leaning over to give him a slight hug.
Jasper pokes at his food glancing over at his parents. “What subject are you struggling with?” Apricot’s father asks.
“History. I don’t understand the names of anyone. It’s so confusing and boring, none of it matters anyway.” Jasper pouts.
“Hmmm, I know I was not much a fan of history myself when I was your age.” Mr. Signa remakrs.
“Apricot, would you mind watching the house for a couple of nights?” Ms. Signa asks.
Apricot shakes her head. “It’s not a problem. They got you flying out on a long trip again?”
“Yes, the plane is hitting a full circle around the world. We will stop in Castor for a few days. It will be nice to be home for a change.” Winifred replies.
Apricot’s Dad raises an eyebrow. “Wow, all the way over to Castor? I have some interesting news myself.” he adds. “They selected me to work on a new project.”
Jasper’s eyes light up, “What kind of project?”
“I will design an atmospheric elevator for the Uchellian space department. We will suspend a hydraulic rail system reaching to the space station for supply shipments.” Her father‘s news blows Jasper’s mind as he elaborates with a techno-jargon that completely evades Apricot’s understanding. She couldn’t help but snicker at Jaspers reaction. He is always a geek when technology is the subject but that’s his defining personality trait. She beams over at her mom who clearly thought the same thing. Her Dad and Jasper are carbon copies.
Ms. Signa raises her palm interrupting Apricot’s father’s rant. “Oh Apricot, you got a message from Fukugata. They want to do a broadcast interview of your story.” Apricot drops her Chopsticks.
“Yeah, quite a few people have read that story. It’s a good one.” her father chimes.
Ms. Signa nods. “I hope you do nothing so reckless again.”
Apricot shakes her head hardly able to believe what she had just heard. “You said Fukugata!?” Fukugata is a local news network but being the primary source of news in Blue Ash it reaches the mass majority of people in Okabe. This is a big break Apricot thinks to herself.
“Wo, guys look.” Jasper quakes pointing to the television. Apricot turns her head to set eyes on an emergency broadcast. An image of an medical crew and police blocking off the scene is on screen. A news reporter is speaking but the volume is too low for anyone to hear it. Along the ticker announces “Roe Okabi Commits Suicide by jumping off the Okabi building.”
The clangorous wheels of the subway creates a constant rolling ambiance. Apricot notes that the cart is far more empty this morning. Searching through the few people on the cart she spots a man lying on an entire bench. Gripping tightly to the overhead rail, Apricot makes her way towards the black-haired man dressed in tattered clothing.
His head rises from the seat. “Ah, damn,” he mumbles under his breath. Pressing into the blue seat with his arms the man sits upright. He rests a hand on his forehead and leers over his feet. “Whatch’ya want reporter girl?”
“Still have that camera you’re trying to sell?” Apricot asks not being able to place his name.
The man rolls his eyes “Heh,” he slumps back into the bench his face turned up toward the ceiling. “Don’t suppose you want to buy it from me.”
He still has it to her relief. A soft smile spreads across Apricot’s face. “Well, yeah!”
“Listen, girl, you should have bought it the other day,” the man fumes before lowering his head to stare at her in the eyes. “I already sold the damn thing.”
“O’, that’s a shame. I needed to buy it.” Apricot groans.
He sighs. “Yeah well, too bad I ain’t got it.” A frown emerges on her face as she turns away. Within her first steps her hair stands on end as a hand grabs her wrist. She turns back to meet the scruffy man standing up. He shoves his hand into her stomach while he places an object on her arm. “I don’t need your pity,” he growls with an upturned lip.
Apricot glances to identify the camera resting in her arms. “I don’t?” Apricot frowns.
“I know what you are doing!” the man says with a down-turned glare. “Poor Cortez needs help cause the mean men beat him up,” Cortez sarcastically states to her. “Well, I don’t want your charity. Just stay the hell away from me ok.”
“I ah…” Apricot holds out the camera for him to take back.
Cortez glowers at the camera and spits at the air. “Keep the damn thing I don’t want it anyway,” Cortez growls. Striding towards the divide he opens the sliding door and steps through to the other cart. With a loud hiss the door closes behind him. Apricot observes the camera with a tightness welling in her throat. It soon blows over to her relief knowing she can repay Sato.
The hall of buildings stretches on to the horizon of brick palaces. The city is quiet, seeming almost still as Apricot walks the long road. Her headphones snug over her ears cutting the cool breeze against her uniform; a tight red button-up short-sleeve shirt, yellow apron and yellow shorts with a white strip on the sides. “Nothing is stronger than our love.” Apricot sings along with the music. “Troubles that surround me, all go away when you are here.” She has a slight skip in her walk. “When you need me, baby, nothing keeps me away.” Hips swaying with each stride. “Oooo ahhhh!”
A chill comes creeping through the air and snugly wraps her in the cool embrace. She raises her pale hand up to her rosy lips rolling a plume of warm breath out of her mouth. The vapor floats around her fingers like a cloud dissipating into frigid air. “That is strange,” Apricot comments. She scans the road behind her to observe all the street lights are out. A shiver crawls across her spine.
“Nothing stronger than our love. Nothing stronger than our love. Nothing stronger than our love.” She takes the player out of her pocket. The multi-touch display flickers, rewinds to the spot, plays and repeats. With a swift tug, she pulls out the headphone connection. In silence Apricot stairs at the screen watching it continue to glitch. She returns the player into her apron continuing her stride.
The glare from the streetlights flicker. She spots a bulb burn out with a bright flash fading to a dead tube. A few more steps ahead and the next light burns out, and the next light after that, and after that. Her stride turns into a full sprint as the strange event continues. After three blocks Apricot’s heart won’t take her any further. She stops grabbing her knees with both hands. A measured deep breath eases her fatigue. The lights behind her flicker to life anew. Her heart thumps as she turns to the lights ahead flashing like strobes at a concert. “It’s a power outage. It’s got to be something like that.” Apricot stands up prospecting the idea of anyone witnessing her embarrassing little panic attack. She sees no one around the abandoned empty alleyway but still. After one last inspection of her surroundings then continues her walk to work.
Placing products on shelves has always been one of Apricot’s least favorite chores. She regarded the boxes to be overly colorful and restocking shelves with no end in sight made for a long day. Cartoon images of various animals appearing on the front brought back memories of early childhood. The morning bustle before school started, scarfing the sugary flakes down before running out of the house.
Apricot draws a step back to inspect the row of boxes to make sure they are evenly placed on the shelf. She glances over toward her left to spot a man staring at the fixture she had arranged. He is mumbling to himself about something she could not make out. She grabs another box out of the cart and continues disregarding the man’s strange behavior.
As she places the next box on the shelf, the man becomes more audible releasing a whisper. “Why are you looking at me?” Apricot glances toward the man. She considers the man may have a mental condition and decides it’s best to ignore the man hoping instead he would just leave. As she reaches for another box, the man swivels his head to gaze directly at her. “Why are you staring at me!” he shouts.
She jumps, the hollering startling her. Apricot puts her hand on her chest gathering her self. “I am sorry sir, I was not looking at you. Is there anything I can help you with?”
“Stop looking at me!” the man yells at her. She turns her head away from the man clutching the cereal box. He continues gawking at her releasing a low growl. Her eyes glance. “Don’t look at me.” the man barks. Apricot turns away taking several short steps.
“Why are you looking at me!?” the man yells again releasing a loud audible stomach turning gag. Fluid spills out of his mouth onto the floor. Apricot twists back to the man. “Are you all right sir?” she yelps reaching for him.
“Don’t look at me!” the man howls, gagging again. A set of long-fingers grabs the sides of his mouth. Apricot freezes unable to disregard what she beholds. The hands push unhinging his jaw. Its face rips open bleeding red streams as the stretching muscles tore. He continues to gag as his throat splits open. Out of the open maw, a wad of tumorous flesh rises from the ripped cavity. In the wad’s middle is a sideways mouth. It spreads open revealing teeth and a long snake-like tongue. The hands pull further revealing a slimy mucus covered body.
Apricot screams backing away from the creature. At the end of the aisle people from around the store gather watching in horror as this abomination crawled out of the pulpy mess. The creature is stuck as it attempts to escape the cocoon like a snake with half swallowed prey. With a groan and a bloody burst, the creature rips the body in half exposing the rest of it’s bloody carcass. Clutched in each of the creature’s hands is half of the corpse. The abomination regards the soggy curtains of tissue in hand. It shifts its head towards Apricot and throws the flesh wad at her. The slab of meat slams into Apricot knocking her to the ground covered in gore.
She screams while she kicks her feet away from the pile of flesh and twists her body from the creature. Apricot leaps to her feet slipping on the blood-covered floor landing on her knees. It hurt but at the moment the pain is the least of her worries. She watches a man smashing a glass bottle on the back of the thing’s head. Several shards of glass stick out. The creature turns towards the man. It grabs his head in its fleshy fingers. He screams before the creature rips off his head as if plucking the blossom of a flower. “Holy shit!” Apricot screams running as fast as she can away from the thing.
She rounds the corner and runs past the aisles towards the produce section where the warehouse is located. A crash directs her sights to the shelves avalanche like dominoes. The creature runs over the shelves towards her vaulting like some kind of feral animal. Sprinting as fast as she can Apricot heads towards the warehouse diving past carts of various vegetables and fruits. A young boy stands in the produce’s middle section frozen with fear.
Apricot grabs the boy’s hand “Come with me.” she belts, yanking him along with her. The boy drags for a moment before he runs beside her. Once inside the warehouse, they run past several iron shelves. To the back of the room. Several other people had arrived including a few of her co-workers.
“What the hell is that thing!” one of her coworkers yells.
Apricot holds the boy in her arms as he breathes heavy. She strokes his head. “It is ok.”
A voice enters Apricot’s mind saying “They hast not to lend mortal folly Apricot. Thou can save those folk. Giveth to the powers, I hast given thou.”
Apricot keeps staring at the entrance the screaming and crying not helping her mental state. She stood dazed watching the men grabbing objects to protect each other. Letting the boy go, Apricot clutches her fist. “It will be ok kid,” she whispers a sense of dread welling up inside her.
“Hie, fight!” commands the voice in her head. Apricot takes a measured step before she a surge of fire running down her arm. Her head down turns as she steps in front of the group. The drumming of her heart is like a ancient tribal war-song.
The creature comes rushing through the entrance charging towards Apricot with its strange parasitic mouth open, claws like bone extended. Right before it impacts her a metal pole lances the creatures chest. It lets out a scream, breaking Apricot out of her adrenaline rush. Her co-worker holds the snapping creature in place. “Get back!” he yells. A hiss escapes the monsters strange mouth as its tongue launches out wrapping onto the man’s neck. Apricot takes a step back as the butcher passes her with a knife, with a berly slice the knife glides through the tongue releasing her co-worker. He tumbles to the floor. The creature turns its head to the man letting out a roar, but the pole jabbed in its chest buries itself deeper as the co-worker twists it letting out a roar of his own.
The abomination swings its arms at the man who holds the metal pole in place. Its claws just miss the man’s face. Out of the corner of Apricot’s eye, flashes light the entrance to the warehouse. A pair of officers shoot several shots into the creature’s back. Bright white flashes burst through its body. The creature lets out one last cackle before bursting into static fizzling out like dying embers. The metal bar drops onto the floor as if nothing was ever there.
Apricot’s mouth hung open as she watches the events unfold. The boy next to her whispers in her ear. “I don’t like your friend very much.” She turns her head to face him but he had run to the back of the room and out the fire escape.
“Everyone stay calm.” dictates one of the police officers. “We need everyone to be compliant and we can get everyone out of here. You have been exposed to a hallucinogenic agent. If you will please come with us, we can administer an antidote.” Apricot turns her head to recognize several other officials in white hazard suits walking into the room. “That was no hallucination. That happened.” Apricot says to herself.
In a dark corner of the warehouse, Apricot could see the reaper observing her. “Thou hast become a shameful disappointment.”