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You Have Been Exposed
A ray of morning light lit up the living room bay window. Breakfast comprising rice topped with beans and poached egg, scrambled eggs and chicken with mayonnaise, cold tofu stacked with scallions and black sauce, and four small bowls of onion soup sat atop their living room table. Apricot’s mother, Winifred, rarely came home in the mornings, but when she did, the event usually turned into a celebratory one. Apricot always longed for mornings like these. Aside from having her mother with her, the large spread also became a tradition. Taking in the savory aroma, she eyed her healthy portions. Jasper commented while helping himself to the rice, “I am worried about my test.”.
“Have you been studying as you should?” She teased, as all older sisters do.
With a swift glance, Jasper thrust his chopsticks towards her. “I know you’ve seen me carrying my textbooks around! My whole life is about studying.”
“Jasper.” Winifred snapped, and he quickly lowered his chopsticks once more to his food.
Jasper defended himself by saying, “I was just saying.”
“If you study, you should do just fine.” Apricot continued to tease, leaning onto his back and wrapping her arms around him.
As Jasper poked at his food, he looked up at his parents. “What subject is causing you trouble?” Apricot’s father inquired.
“History. Nobody’s name makes any sense to me. All of it is confusing and boring, so it doesn’t matter. All the people are dead. What’s the point of feudal wars? They’ve been over for decades.” Jasper pouted.
Apricot’s father said, “Hmm, I wasn’t a fan of history when I was your age either.”
“Is it all right with you if I let you watch the house for a couple of nights?” asked her mother.
Apricot shrugged reluctantly. “It’s no big deal.” She lied. “They sent you on another long trip?”
“Yes, the plane is going around the globe in a full circle. We’ll stay in Castor for a few days. It will be nice to be home for a change.” Winifred replies.
Apricot’s father raised an eyebrow. “Wow, all the way over to Castor?“ A small demon sat atop Apricot’s head, hearing about her mother’s fortune. This demon was called jealousy. Too often it visited. She yearned to walk the stoney streets again. It was a beautiful place to be in Castor with the calm, peace, and nature all around. Unlike this island. Even what little nature they had is now a captured entity, surrounded by the city and its modern appeal. “My news is interesting as well.” Her father added. “They selected me to work on a new project.”
Jasper’s eyes glowed as Apricot watched them. “So, what’s the project?” Jasper asked.
“My role at the Uchellian space department will be to design an atmospheric elevator. For supply shipments, we will suspend a hydraulic rail system reaching to the space station.” Apricot could see her father’s announcement utterly blew Jasper’s mind. He seemed to burst at the seams with excitement. Jasper’s jaw dropped as their father elaborated with techno-jargon that eluded her. At Jasper’s reaction, she couldn’t help but chuckle. Whenever technology is discussed, he’s a nerd, and that’s a defining characteristic of his personality, she figured. It was clear to see that she had the same impression as her mother. Her father and Jasper are carbon copies of each other.
She wondered if she was more like her mother? She could have described flight attendants as adventurous, similar to journalists. In some ways more than in others. Apricot believed they balanced each other out. They both had an element of uncertainty.
A palm stroke from Ms. Signa cut off Apricot’s father’s rant. “Apricot, you received a message from Fukugata. They are interested in interviewing you about your story.”
Chopsticks fell from Apricot’s hand. “How is it you forgot to mention that? It should have been the first thing brought up today.” Apricot thought.
“Yes, quite a few people have read that story. I think it’s a good one.” her father said. Her cheeks flushed at his statement. It hadn’t occurred to her it had been widely distributed. When the technological department was talking about it, this meant that it had become mainstream. The department’s employees had little time to spare.
Winifred nodded. “I hope you don’t do anything so reckless again.”
Almost unable to believe what she just heard, Apricot shook her head. “You said Fukugata!” Fukugata is a local news network, but because it is the primary source of news in Blue Ash, it reaches most people in Okabe. Apricot mused to herself, what a great opportunity this is.
“Wo, guys!” Jasper quaked, pointing at the television. Apricot turned and watched the broadcast. Medical personnel and police block off the scene on screen. It is too quiet for anyone to hear the news reporter speaking. Along with the ticker, it said, “Roe Okabi jumps off the roof of the Rinjioh Shrine and commits suicide.”
“And there goes a legacy,” Apricot remarked to herself.
The subway’s clangorous wheels create a constant rolling ambiance. This morning, Apricot noticed the cart was much less full. It drew her attention to a man lying rudely on the backbench as he scanned the few people riding the cart. Apricot gripped the overhead rail tightly as she made her way toward the black-haired man wearing tattered clothes.
He raised his head from the seat. “Ah, damn,” he murmured under his breath. The man sat upright on the blue seat as he pressed his arm into it. The man rested his hand on his forehead and glared down at his feet. “Whatch’ya want, reporter girl?”
“Do you still have that camera you were trying to sell?” Apricot asked, unable to place a name.
Rolling his eyes, the man looked away. “Heh,” he replied, slumping back on the bench. “Don’t suppose you’re interested in purchasing it from me.”
Apricot’s soft smile spread across her face. “Well, yeah!”
He lowered his head to stare her in the eyes. “You should have bought it a few weeks ago.” He fumed at the girl. “I already sold the damn thing.”
“Oh, that’s a pity. I needed it.” Apricot groaned.
“Well, too bad I haven’t got it.” She frowned as she turned away. As her first steps were taken, her hair stood on end as he gripped her wrist. As she turned back, she saw the scruffy man standing up. He shoved his hand into her stomach while placing something in her arm. “I don’t need your sympathy,” he growled with a sneer.
Apricot glanced at the camera resting in her arms. “I don’t?” Apricot was quickly cut off.
“I know what you are doing,” he said with a down-turned glare. Rather sarcastically, he said, “Those mean men always beat Cortez up. He needs help. Well, I’m not looking for charity from you. I just want you to keep your hands off of me.”
“I ah…” Apricot held out the camera for him to take.
A grimace covered Cortez’s face as he spat into the air. “Keep the damn thing,” he said. “I don’t want it.” He immediately started running. Hissing loudly, the door closed behind him. The tightness in Apricot’s throat soon subsided, as she realized she would repay Sato.
Brick palaces stretched far into the distance, along the hall of buildings. Apricot walked the long street in the quiet city, almost as if it were still. A pair of headphones clung to her ears, cutting the cool breeze against her uniform of a tight red button-up short-sleeve shirt, yellow apron, and yellow shorts with a yellow stripe down the side. “Nothing is stronger than love.” Apricot sang along with the music. “Troubles that surround me, all go away when you are here.” She had a slight skip in her walk. “When you need me, baby, nothing keeps me away.” Hips swaying with each stride. “Oooo ahhhh!” she chirped, laughing at her absurdity.
In a stiff embrace, the chill swept through the air. A plume of warm breath came gushing from her mouth as she raised her pale hand to her rosy lips. The vapor encircled her fingers as it dispersed into the frigid air. “That’s odd,” Apricot observed. Her eyes scanned the road behind her to see all the street lights were out. A shiver ran down her spine.
“Nothing stronger than our love. Nothing stronger than our love. Nothing stronger than our love.” She took the player out of her pocket. The multi-touch display flickered, rewinded to the spot, played, and repeated. She pulled her headphone cord out in a swift motion. Apricot watches the screen, silently, as it continues to glitch. Despite the eeriness, she returned the player to her apron, continuing her stride.
The streetlights produced a flicker of light. In the blink of an eye, she saw a burned-out bulb fading to a dead tube. Another step forward, the next light goes out, and the next after that, and the one after that. As this strange event continued, her stride turned into a sprint. Apricot’s heart couldn’t keep going after three blocks. She grabbed her knees with both hands.
Her fatigue eased with a deep breath. Her surroundings brighten naturally. Turning to the strobe-like lights ahead, her heart thumped. “It’s a power outage.” She mumbled to herself. “It must be something like that.” Apricot stood up as she contemplated the idea of anyone witnessing her embarrassing panic attack. Even though there was no one around, she still observed the abandoned alleyway. Checking her surroundings one more time, she went on her way.
Placement of products on shelves had always been Apricot’s least favorite task. As she continued to restock shelves with no end in sight, she found the boxes to be overly colorful. On the front, cartoon characters were featuring various animals that brought back memories of her early childhood. Getting up before school in the morning, scarfing sugary flakes down before heading out the door.
Taking a step back, Apricot eyed the row of boxes to make sure they were evenly spaced. She glanced over to her left in time to spot a man staring at the light fixture. He was mumbling to himself, but it was too quiet for her to hear. Grabbing another box from the stack, she ignored the strange behavior of the man.
While placing the next box on the shelf, the man whispered. “Why are you staring at me?” Apricot glanced toward him. She ignored him, hoping he would leave. As she reached for another box, the man swiveled his head to stare directly at her. “Why are you staring at me?” he screamed.
The hollering surprised her, causing her to jump. As she gathered herself, Apricot placed a hand on her chest. “I am sorry, sir. I did not intend to look at you. Is there anything I can help you with?”
“Stop looking at me!” the man yelled at her again. She turned away from him, clutching the cereal box. He fixed his stare on her as he let out a low growl. Her eyes widened. The man barked with bladed words, “Don’t look at me.” Taking several steps away from the man, Apricot kept her eyes on the ground.
“Why are you looking at me?” the man yelled again, letting out a loud, audible gag. His mouth spilled liquid onto the floor. Apricot rounded on the man with fluid running down his face.
“Are you okay?” she gasped, reaching for him.
“It’s too much to look at me!” the man howled, gagging once more. A set of long-fingers grabbed the sides of his mouth. Apricot froze, unable to comprehend what she saw. The hands pulled on his jaw, unhinging it. Red blood gushed out of its open face as its muscles tore. His throat split open as it released a mucus-like fluid. Upon opening, a wad of ripped tumorous flesh emerged from the dark cavity. She could see a sideways mouth in the middle of the flesh. The opening revealed teeth and a long tongue that resembled a snake. The hands pulled further, revealing a slimy, slime-coated body.
Apricot screamed, backing away from the monster. People gathered at the end of the aisle, watching in horror as this abomination emerged from the pulpy mess. In its attempt to escape the cocoon, it is stuck like a snake with half-swallowed prey. After a bloody burst and a groan, the creature ripped the body in half, exposing its bloody carcass. The creature clutched half of the corpse in each of its hands. The abomination gazed at the soggy curtain of tissue. After shifting its head toward Apricot, the creature hurled the flesh wad at her. Apricot landed on the ground covered in gore after being struck by the slab of meat.
She shrieked as she tried to remove the remains from her skin. Apricot kicked away her feet and twisted her body to prevent the sight of the creature. Anything she could to escape the abomination. As she jumped to her feet, she slipped on the blood-stained floor and landed on her knees again. It hurt, but it’s not her biggest concern at the moment. It drew her gaze to a man smashing a glass bottle onto the thing’s back. She saw the monster turn around, Apricot could see that several pieces of glass protruded from its back. After turning towards the man, it grasps his head with its fleshy fingers in a fluid motion. The man started screaming. She saw it rip off his head with a pop, as if ripping off a blossom. She could see part of his spine because it had ripped the tethers of his neck off. “Holy shit!” Apricot shrieked, jumping to her feet and running away as fast as she could.
Then she rounded the corner and ran through the aisles to the produce section, where the warehouse was situated. Suddenly, her eyes were drawn to the shelves avalanching like dominoes. It startled her when the creature leaped over the shelves towards her and vaulted, like some kind of feral animal. Sprinting as fast as she could, Apricot dives past carts of vegetables and fruits as she heads towards the warehouse. In the middle of the produce’s middle section, a young boy stood frozen in terror.
As she swooped in, Apricot grasped the boy in arm like a bird. She yanked him along with her, belting, “Come with me.” At first, the boy hesitated, but soon he ran next to her. After entering the warehouse, they ran past several iron shelves as they headed to the back of the room. Several others have already joined her, including a few of her colleagues.
“What the hell is that thing!” cried one of her coworkers.
He breathed heavily as Apricot held him in her arms. She reassuringly stroked his head. “It is ok.”
As Apricot takes a deep breath, she hears a voice entering her head, “They hast not to lend mortal folly Apricot. Thou can save those folk. Giveth to the powers, I hast given thou.”
Her eyes remained fixed on the entrance for the longest time. The screaming and crying did not improve her mental condition one bit. Her gaze remained dazed as she watched the men grabbing objects to protect themselves. Apricot let go of the boy and clenched her fist tightly. There was a deep sense of dread in her voice as she whispered, “It will be fine soon, kid.”
“Hie, fight!” commanded the reaper in her head. Faced with neon flames, Apricot takes a measured step forward as a surge of fire runs down her arm. It was as if her heart was drumming like an ancient tribal war song. Almost as if her fear of death was burning into a blaze inside of her.
In an instant, a bizarre parasitic creature charged through the entrance, its mouth wide open and its claws like bone extended, charging at Apricot. A strike from a metal pole lanced the creature in the chest, just as it was going to impact her. Awed by the sound of the creature’s wet scream, Apricot’s adrenaline rushed to a halt. The snapping creature was being held by one of her colleagues. “Get back!” he yelled. While waving its tongue, the monster emitted a strange hiss as it grabbed hold of the man’s neck with its tongue.
The butcher passed Apricot with a knife as she stepped back with a step. In a burly slicing motion, the knife slices through the tongue, freeing her co-worker. He tumbled to the floor, trying to get away from the monster. In response, the creature turned its head to the man, letting out a roar. But the pole jabbed in its chest buries itself deeper as the coworker twists it, letting out his roar.
In a rage, the abomination swung its arms at the man holding the metal pole straight in front of him. The claws of the beast just missed the man’s face. A flash of light appeared out of Apricot’s corner of the eye as she saw the door to the warehouse flash open. As soon as two officers entered the room, they fired several shots into the beast’s back. White flashes pierced through its body. Suddenly, the creature burst into static before fizzling out like dying embers, releasing one last cackle before dying. When the metal bar fell to the floor, it was as if it had never been there.
As Apricot watched the events unfold, her mouth hung open. A boy next to Apricot whispered something into her ear. “I don’t like your friend very much.” She turned her head to look at him, but he had run to the back of the room and out of the fire escape.
“Everyone stay calm.” said one of the police officers. “We can get everyone out of here if everyone complies. You have been exposed to a hallucinogenic substance. Please come with us so that we can administer the antidote.” Apricot turned to see several other officials in white hazard suits walking into the room.
“That was not a hallucination. That was real.” Apricot said to herself.
The reaper was observing Apricot from a dark corner of the warehouse. “Thou hast become a shameful disappointment.”
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