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The blackness of the city’s shadow obscured the expression of something grotesque that coughed, “You.” The sludge slowly invaded a street light and emerged as an inky black puddle of remains. “You promised, why? Why have you done this to me?” The sludge monster choked and wheezed as it breathed.
In an alleyway, a proud male voice echoed “I warned you.” as slow deliberate steps reverberated through against the walls. “It was not the right time to make yourself flesh, but you had to make yourself flesh when we were not ready.”
The stack of fluids thundered, “Bastard!” With a clang, the man lowers the tip of his cane into the pond’s face.
The man shrugged his shoulders and snickered. “You poor eager soul.”
A puddle of necrotic, meat-like material rises out of it with skeletal appendages dripping melting flesh. The creature extends its arms toward the legs of the man. It hissed, “Don’t mock me!”
His rod snapped at the creature, causing its body to burst back into an unformed pool. “Hush, it’s not all lost.” He said, walking away from the insidious mess. “You must consume the meat of others to build fiber for a body.”
“Don’t wander off!” the puddle commanded. “I’m not done with you yet.”
On his heels, the man stood, scuffing his shoe against the bricks. “I suppose you are not,” he chuckled before returning to his gate. He continued, walking away from the creature, “Find me later, or maybe I’ll find you when you are born into this world.”
From the pond, two arms emerged. It dug its boney fingers deep into the solid road, clawing its way deeper into the darkness of the alley. “Later you say.”
In Ichigari Grocery’s ambiance, the low buzz of shoppers, the sound of ringing registers, and computers beeping became the norm. The aisles were stocked with foods of every kind. Apricot leaned on her knees as she stacked milk cartons on a refrigerator shelf. “I’m in so much trouble. The Bureau would surely kick me out if Miss Akagi reported what I had done to them,” she thought to herself.
Her eyes scanned another carton of milk as she watched slight condensation drip from the white cardboard. This time, the carton was heavier. “I won’t amount to anything.” she moaned. “I will stock shelves for the rest of my life, and that rotten Jasper will become a famous engineer or something, and he will always rub it in my face! When Mom and Dad discover the truth,” stopping mid-thought, she finds herself panicking. “I have to concentrate on the good things. I got one of the best scoops of the year. I witnessed a robbery firsthand, and I survived. I would be dead right now if not for those officers.” Apricot trapped in her mind kept stocking shelves. “I nearly died today, in fact.” With a clenched jaw, she pinched her lips together. “You would think that being a hostage would be enough to get off work.”
Apricot nearly jumped out of her skin when a hand rested on her back. Her eyes focused on the pitted face of a middle-aged man. With his leg pressing against her cheek, he bent over and grabbed a gallon of milk off the shelf. “Thank you for shopping at Ichigari Grocery,” Apricot said in a friendly tone. The man grinned broadly at her.
She assumed he would move on afterward, but he just stared at her. Apricot wondered, “What the hell is this guy up to?” after continuing to ignore the odd behavior. As she replaced the gallon of milk that he had taken, she reached for another.
The man bleated “And…” with a low tone as he tapped his foot.
Taking a deep breath, she grumbled and screamed internally. As she flashed wide blue eyes and a huge grin across her face, she said, “Have a nice day!” Putting his milk into the cart, the man continued along the aisle. She shook her head in disbelief. “This is what I have to look forward to for the rest of my life. I want to die! Ugh!”
She heard the distinct clop of her boss’s shoes traveling from behind. Whether he did this to irritate others or just by accident was unclear. At least she had a sign he was approaching. Her eyes rolled, knowing from past events that he wanted to give her new chores. Whenever he appears happy, he’s looking for something. Her theory is that the illusion of joy is him being as stretched like a wire; he may snap at any moment. As she turned her head toward the older man, she saw him dressed in a button-up shirt and black pants. The usual.
“Apricot,” he said, ending his speed walk in front of her.
“Hello, Mr. Kyabetsu. How are things?” she said, raising her pitch to sound excited.
His feet are constantly tapping as he moves them, like he had to pee or something. “Oh, I’ve gotta go, I’ve gotta go! I’ve gotta go, I’ve got to go!” His balding head is smeared with a fake smile. A few times, he pokes at his clipboard with a pen. He asks, “Is your project going well?”
She glanced over at the milk crates for a moment, knowing full well he would ask more of her. She hoped Mr. Kyabetsu would remember her schoolwork. “Well, I still have this left after that, and then I need to clean up. I have an important article for tomorrow.” She said.
“Good. Good. Good. Ah, so you’re about done. Hey, one more thing. Can you mop the sidewalks?” He walked away before she could answer. He replied, “Great, I appreciate that.”
Apricot sighed, looking at the two boxes of milk. Suddenly she cried, “I’m not even supposed to work today. Please let me leave on time just once!”.
The shine of fluorescent lights filled hollow streets. Its glow painted the gray sidewalk faint orange around the edges with a kaleidoscope of greens, purples, blues, and reds. Apricot’s black slacks and white button-up shirt were stained with grease and soda. “Mop that parking lot before you go… it should not take too long,” she fumed under her breath. An empty dented soda can clanked by. Its roll reminded her of troubled laughter; an odd thought, she admitted. “At least it’s over now,” she said, glancing at the vast cityscape, the path ending at an enormous staircase.
She stops for a moment to take in the sight from the high vantage point. The city really is pretty at night, she thinks to herself. The twinkle of the high-rise buildings, the bright colors of all the advertisements plastered upon every open space. On its own, it is annoying, but when taken in like a mosaic, it is art.
In mid-tread, Apricot felt something slam into her leg. She is airborne, in a free fall over the stairs flailing her arms letting out a wail. As her foot hit a step with a loud crack, she cried out in shock. Pain surged up her left leg as the ground fast approached. She slammed her eyes shut, not willing to see her inevitable ultimate demise played out.
Apricot squealed again, yet did not receive the jolt. After several moments, she opened her eyes to see the pavement in front of her face. Apricot attempted to squirm, but could not. “What?” she dully cried. “What is happening?” Apricot raised her head to meet a pair of pointed black boots in front of her. “Who…”
“Tis time for thou to make a choice girl. Doeth thou wish to die or wilt thou choose life?” expressed an honorable male voice.
“Who are you?” Apricot gasped. “What do you mean?”
The man tapped his foot twice unpatiently. “Thou find yourself moments before thous curtain call. I hast stood in the way of that death to give thou a choice. Doth thou choose life or doth thou choose death.”
“You’re speaking all weird. What are you trying to tell me?” Apricot yelled at the man. She attempted to struggle but finds herself paralyzed.
“Haply ‘tis thou that speaks the stranger’s tongue. Nonetheless, ye are running out of time to make the choice. Doth thou wish to live or die? I tender life as a gift for thou, choose wisely as a serpent.” His words were muddled to Apricot, but what alternative did she have?
“I choose life!” she yelped. Apricot slammed into the ground with a violent impact, knocking the air out of her. She opened her eyes to catch she had slid several feet. She forced herself up with a considerable strain on her chest. “I must have hit my head.” She shifts to gaze up the staircase to watch a shadow staring at her. “What the hell is that thing?”
“Mineth dear, that wouldst be a phantom. Thy trial is not over. Feareth not, though. You hast the tools to defeat such a fearsome foe.” said the alien-looking man. Her sight gazed up at a long-nosed mask that reminded her of a beak. His clothing is like a jester’s. Two long striped lilac and red horns crown his head and his fists are like metallic claws. He stayed with a very prominent stance that appeared weightless and is six and a half feet tall by Apricot’s estimation. “I wouldst suggesteth thou doth something yarely before that creature notices ye art still alive. I hast left thy power within thou to defeat the phantom. How it manifests is up to thou.” He gestured his bladed claw toward the shadowy creature.
Apricot widened her eyes and shrieked in pain. With a flash, two white eyes appeared on the sliding shadow. After splashing on the ground, the blob spilled over the stairs. Despite her protests, the gentlemanly stranger beside her did not flinch as he watched her, folding his arms. As the stalker rose out of the stairs, several dripping arms were exposed. Apricot counted eight arms arriving from the creature’s back before turning tail to flee. As she looked over her shoulder, she saw an arm slash toward her face with a blade. The arm was segmented too many times to be considered a human arm, Apricot notes.
She dodged the attack, lunging away, raising both palms up to her face, and her back towards the wall. “Feast of flesh!” the centipede-like creature howls, bearing many knives as it ascends from its pond of black. Its silvery eyes cut through the blackness with blinding might.
Apricot took a heavy breath as the creature lurched towards her, dripping onto her face as its body extended. A warm light inside Apricot’s arm grows stronger, urging her forward. She lept, missing another knife aimed at her face. The image was overwhelming. She huddled up, covering her face with one arm, and with the other outstretch she yelled “Stop!” A glow burst from her open palm, igniting the creature in a purple beam of light. The creature let out a wet screech of pain. Apricot’s eyes grew wide, watching the purple flame blaze from her palm, dancing in the wind. She shivered. “What is happening!”
“You bitch!” the creature roared before spreading out many more arms as it dived into the air. Apricot threw her arm, allowing the flame to slash through the torso of the creature. It splattered into burning pieces, raining ash onto the ground. The parts fizzled and rolled at Apricot’s feet until nothing but small orbs of light floated into the open air. Apricot held her burning arm out, observing the impossible sight. The fire in her hand extinguished as the last few wisps disappeared. “I don’t believe this is happening,” she said as she grasped her palm.
“Splendid! The ritual is finished.” the masked man whispered.
She blinked, unable to believe what she had just seen. “I had to have hit my head.” She turned around and walked away from the masked man. “None of this can be real.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the man floating as if wading in water. “You’re not real!” Apricot yelled as she scuffled ahead.
“Tis true thou hit thy mazard, but ye art not seeing things. Thou hast defeated the first of many phantoms. Thy method of manifesting thy power was rather unorthodox, but it accomplished thy task nonetheless.” he said with no inflection.
Her footsteps echoed around the empty road before coming to a stop. She turns toward the stranger. The blue light from an LCD screen advertising beer colors Apricot’s medium-length fiery brown hair purple. A few papers carried by a breeze shuffled by. “I want to go home after having a long day at work. You expect me to believe you’re real. I just killed a monster by shooting a laser fire thing out of my hand.” She raised her hands to her mouth. “Oh God, I am crazy. I hit my head and now I am crazy. I am talking to a clown in the street at night.”
The masked man floated in front of her and landed on the ground, blocking her path. He placed his hands on her shoulders, looking into her blue eyes. Apricot couldn’t see his eyes through the shadowed mask holes. There is something, a slight reflection, maybe glasses, though she could not be sure. “Thou ramble like a daw. Thou hast work to be done. The power I hast given thy is not for free. Nay, I hast a task for thou.”
“A task? What task?” Apricot asked.
“Thou shalt mortal arbitrament the phantoms from the city.” Apricot tried to walk through him. With a powerful thrust, he pushed her back onto the ground. “Doth thou still believe me to be a vision?” he snapped.
Shaking uncontrollably, she took a painful breath. Apricot wipes the street dust off her nose and looks up at him with tearing eyes. “I don’t know what you want from me. Leave me alone!”
“I gave thou that power to hurly-burly with the phantoms from thy city. Tis mine task to remove them from thous ordinary before I can return to mine home.” In a flash, the jester was before Apricot, extending his clawed hand to her.
As her soft fingers touched the metal fingers, they clasped around her hand, gently assisting Apricot to her feet, careful not to cut them with their sharp edge. Something she did not expect. “What is hurly-burly?”
“To kill the phantoms,” he said in a bitter voice.
“What if I don’t?” Apricot replied to him.
He snapped her in close to his face; his painted wooden nose poking her cheek. “Then I shall taketh thy soul as the collection for giving thou those powers.”
Apricot scrunched up her face and squints her eyes at him. “You can’t do that?” With the flash of his eyes, Apricot went limp and saw the world tumble. She looked up at the strange figure before her. The world’s color was sucked away, the air is full of arctic chill. She looked to her feet to see her body drooling out a thick foam, mouth gasping; eyes rolled back to the whites as she convulsed. The being’s hand opens, and she felt herself go back into her body. Her vision became her own again. She rolled on her side, spitting up a heavy flow of bile.
“Thou will doth the task I hast given thou. Thou made thy choice. Thou chose life. Anon ‘tis time to pay the toll of salvation, Apricot.” he said in a firm tone.
“How do you know my name? I never gave it to you!” She screamed at him.
He turned towards her. “A reaper knows all names. Goeth, rest for in time thou shalt be called upon to doth thy duty.” Apricot blinked her eyes to see she was the only one standing in the street.
“There is no way any of that could have been real.” She looked up to see a hazed, starless sky obscured by the streetlights. “I need to get home.”
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