Chapter 17 – ‘This ,’

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                I’m hungry. That thought looped in Rea’s mind over and over, like a broken record. So much so that Lilly inadvertently caught it. They locked eyes from across the table. Lilly knew Rea wanted to leave soon.

                I thought you didn’t want to be in my head, Lillychi! She heard Rea think.

                “Like I can help it!” Lilly snapped back. It was louder than she had wanted. The others shot a look at her. She wanted to shrink away.

                Another day, another club meeting, which meant Lilly knew that Rea was sitting bored while the others talked about a random book off the shelf. Rea hardly cared to learn what title of the novel was. If it was any consolation, she brought a horror action manga. She was on the part where the main character had to protect his best friend from a serpent-like monster.

                Rea’s stomach grumbled, loud enough to be audible, but luckily the others were too busy to hear. She rested on the table, one hand gripped on her stomach and her manga half-open in the other. I’m really hungry. Burgers, cupcakes, ramen, and pie floated in her imagination, but none of them were quite what she desired. She wanted to scream out to the world, to let the universe know – down to its very fiber – the extent of her famishment. Her stomach grumbled again. She would give it another five minutes before she made a suggestion to eat. It’s the best she could manage.

                Those thoughts radiated from Rea so strongly Lilly thought she was getting hungry too.

                Lilly continued reading the book Megumi had lent her. After everything that happened that last Friday, she had been hopeful for a peaceful, uneventful week. So far, so good. To take her mind off those recent events, she delved deeper into the book.

                Megumi and Ayase conversed about one particular scene, although Ayase was doing most of the talking. Lilly flipped through the pages of her copy to find the part they were discussing. The protagonist is going into a police station… He runs into a colleague… Okay, okay… He’s offered… um…

                “Weird,” Lilly said.

                Megumi looked to Lilly. Either she had a feeling Lilly was trying to get her attention, or she just wanted an out from Ayase’s conversational grasp.

                “This page here, is it supposed to be missing a word?”

                Lilly handed Megumi the book, her finger on the page. Megumi scanned it over. She was right. A space where a word should be was simply blank. In fact, there were several of these blanks of the same page, all of the same length. Like it didn’t print that one word. Megumi came to that conclusion.

                “Misprint?” she said softly.

                “But you’ve read it before, obviously. Do you remember what was here?”

                “Yeah… I- It was… it was…” Megumi lightly grazed her forehead with her finger. How anyone had gone this long without noticing her intrinsic cuteness was beyond Lilly’s guess. And as quick as lightning, her eyes widen, if only a little.

                “I don’t remember.”

                That’s weird, Lilly thought. It isn’t improbable that Megumi just simply forgot what the word was, but she does a meticulous eye for detail when it comes to horror novels. She wouldn’t forget something like that so easily.

                “It’s probably just coincidence then,” Lilly said.

                Now curious herself, Megumi turned to the page Lilly was referring to in her own copy, skillfully getting in one try. Lilly was silently impressed. Megumi ran her finger down the page, following the sentences.

                “It’s not here either,” Megumi said. Lilly didn’t need her word for it, since she could see for herself. There were several blanks throughout the page, and they were placed in the same spots as in Lilly’s copy. And from the context between what the characters were talking about, it seemed to be only one word was victim to vanishing.

                “I guess it really is a misprint,” Lilly said.

                Shrugging it off, they both sat back in their chairs, the minuscule excitement that detour brought having ran its course. Ayase turned a page. Hearing a sound of a pencil writing on paper, Lilly turned to Rea.

                “What are you doing?”

                “I’m bored, so I started doodling here,” Rea said as she did so, now holding a pencil and drawing in a notebook. Her head still hasn’t left the table. When Lilly got a better look at her, she realized it was Megumi’s pencil and notebook.

                “Hey! Are you sure you’re allowed to do that?” Lilly scolded, “Those are Megumi’s things!”

                “It’s fine, it’s fine,” Rea said, waving Lilly away with one hand. Lilly checked with Megumi for confirmation. She gave a meek nod before going back to her book, fixing her glasses with a free hand. The expression was hard to read, but Lilly guessed that meant she really was okay with it.

                “At least draw something decent,” Lilly said, trying find something to chastise Rea over. “What is that?”

                “A giant monster, lookie here, a skeleton that can shoot fire!” Rea swiped her final pencil mark across the paper and then showed it to Lilly. It was a rudimentary sketch, with the amateurish scribbles of an outline of a skeleton, and some other lines that Lilly couldn’t make out.

                “What are these supposed to be?” she asked, tracing her finger over some of the lines. The graphite smeared on both the paper and her finger.

                “Fire, it’s coming out of its body!”

                What an imagination.

                “Ah! I’m starved!” Rea exclaimed, suddenly changing the subject on a dime. Anyone less experienced with Rea would have gotten whiplash. “Let’s go get some snacks now!” Rea straightened her back, stretching. She almost hit Lilly right in the face, who instead dodged it skillfully.

                Ayase clapped once. “I agree, I think now would be a good time to call it in. Why don’t we all go somewhere?” She put down her book on the table. She looked to Megumi, who appeared uneasy.

                “It’s not every day we get to do something like this, don’t you think?”

                Megumi drooped her head.

                Rea absentmindedly pointed to Ayase. “Yeah what she said c’mon!” She packed her school bag and was out the door before she finished her sentence.

                Ah. Lilly stretched. I could go for a snack.

                Leaving the school, the group took a stroll through the neighborhood, passing by convenience stores and smaller shops before settling on a French-style corner bakery in a shopping district. It was an appealing, pristinely designed establishment. The theme was ‘old and wooden’. Jazz manouche played in speakers in the corners of the ceiling.

                “Django Reinhardt,” Rea pointed out.

                A voiced peeped out from behind the counter and register, into the kitchen. It sounded female. “Welcome! Sorry about the case, we’re a bit short of stock right now, but I’m working on it!”

                Inspecting the display case, Lilly saw that it was indeed empty. Not even any labels to inform future customers what should be there, should they decide to come back at another time. Seeing menus by the register, she grabbed a few for the others.

                Ayase bought an apple-flavored crêpe, Megumi declined to eat, and Lilly bought a blueberry muffin. And after much, much deliberation, Rea got two of the same thing. Lilly could tell it wasn’t even close to her third choice.

                “If you wanted to, we could have gotten ramen instead, if you’re that souper hungry,” Lilly said, completely serious.

                Rea punched Lilly in the arm. “That was so bad I could see your pun.” She downed her first muffin whole in one ferocious bite, like a chain-chomp who saw red.

                “You can ask her you know,” Lilly said, referring to the baker, “If they have what you want in the back.”

                “But that’s the thing,” Rea said, “I can’t remember. It’s on the tip of my tongue, shit!”

                Watch your language, Rea!

                Thinking it over, Rea decided to give it try. She scurried over to the counter to get the baker’s attention. “Miss! Hey! Hey!”

                Rea what are you thinking?!

                The baker came out from the back. She was young, maybe late twenties. Her cheeks were smeared with dough. Definitely the budding, passionate, entrepreneurial type. “Yes?” She smiled when she saw it’s just a kid.

                “Do you have anything else back there? Like what was supposed to be on display?” Rea pointed to the empty window case.

                She scratched her head. “Actually, I’m coming up with some new recipes to showcase. I’m trying to recall what we used to have here. We’re newly opened you see, ha ha.”

                Is that an excuse for forgetting? Lilly assumed. How do you not know?

                “I do see,” was all Rea said.

                Ayase finished taking a picture with her crêpe, and turned to the rest. “Let’s go find a good place to eat!” The others nodded in unison.

                The bakery had some tables and chairs in front of the store, so it was a good a place as any. They munched along contently. Ayase offered Megumi a bite of her snack, but she refused. Megumi was like a wary kitten, challenging anyone who tried to lower her defenses.

                “Here Megumi, want a piece of mine?” Rea gave it a go.

                Her fingers twitched ever so slightly, but Rea noticed. Megumi wanted a piece of Rea’s muffin. She wanted to eat some. Taking off a sizable portion, Rea fed Megumi herself. Rea snorted haughtily. She counted that as a one up on Ayase, not that Ayase cared.

                “Anyways,” Ayase said, moving the conversation along, “Miss Akiyama, I’ve always wanted to say, you really do have lovely hair. I’m jealous of the color.”

                Lilly felt everyone’s eyes lay on her. She coyly brushed her hair and pushed a lock behind her left ear. “Th-This? It’s nothing.”

                “That’s not true. Have you ever thought of cutting it short? I think it’d suit you.” Ayase played up an example by running her own hair through her fingers.

                “No way!” Lilly waved, rejecting the very idea. My hair already makes me stand out, cutting it would only attract more attention. “I like it long, it’s better if I keep it this way.”

                “Aww, that’s too bad.”

                It was minute, but Lilly thought she saw Megumi nodding in agreement. Are you saying I look better with my hair long, or the point about standing out?

                Rea flicked her ponytail. “Yeah, we have our own long-hair club! Just the two of us!” She put an arm around Lilly and sneered.

                “Ugh, whatever,” was the most Lilly could get out.

                “If you say so,” Ayase said. She sat back in her chair, and bit into her crêpe. The others did the same for their own food, Rea also feeding Megumi more of her muffin.

                Conversation died down for a minute before Ayase brought it back up again.

                “Can anyone say ‘toy boat, toy boat’, five times fast?”

                “Toy boat?” Lilly repeated.

                “I can say the plum and peaches one!” Rea proceeded to fumble over her words.

                “Toy boat, toy boit- peh! Toy boy, toit boy- ack!” Lilly accidentally spat out a piece of muffin. Rea almost choked in laughing too hard.

                “Toy boat, toy boat, toy boat, toy boat, toy boat…” Megumi said, once again too quiet for anyone to hear. They all laughed at the absurdity of their game. After a while, their shadows began to lengthen, informing them that it would be dark soon.                                        

                “Will yah look at that!” Rea shouted, “The S.O.O.L. snack time has now concluded!”

                “Now now,” Ayase said, trying to hide her annoyance, “We really don’t need to keep calling ourselves that.” Rea chortled away anyways. Lilly thought it was kind of funny.

                As they finished up their food, they threw away any loose paper and wrappings. When they were all done cleaning up, the girls went their separate ways. Megumi and Ayase went down one way, Lilly and Rea the other.

                “Ah,” Rea said, patting her stomach, “That was good…” Her tone at the end suggested uncertainty.

                “You didn’t like it?” Lilly asked.

                “I did, but,” Rea placed her arms behind her head, “It didn’t quite hit that spot.”

                “Really, what did you want then?”

                Rea closed her eyes to focus, and Lilly pulled her towards her to avoid running into a light post. “Be careful, geez.”

                “Hehe, sorry.” Rea knocked her head and stuck out her tongue.

                “Don’t try to act cute.”

                Rea gave a robotic laugh in response. “Ha. Ha. Ha-ha.”

                “Come on, try to remember,” Lilly continued, restating her point, “Maybe we’ll get it tomorrow.”

                “Yeah, maybe tomorrow I’ll remember.”

                Rea stroked her ponytail, and adjusted her glasses.

                “Either way, you still owe me for ditching me last week!” Her tone was light, and she softly pushed Lilly to accentuate her teasing.

                “Eh? I didn’t ditch, I got held up with club stuff,” Lilly tried to keep out as many details from that day as much as possible.

                “How do you get held up with talking about books? Or did you have too much fun looking into her eyes?”

                “I wouldn’t call that fun.” A part of Lilly wanted to tell Rea about Ayase, and how much she really knew what was going on between herself and Rea. Another part of her just wanted this to all go away. Before she knew it, they were already at Rea’s place.

                “See you tomorrow,” Lilly said.

                “Buh-bye.”

                As Lilly returned home, the first thing she did upon arriving was wander into her kitchen. She opened the pantry. Scanning over the different snacks it offered, she discarded most of them without a second thought, mumbling along the way.

                “Hm? Lilly, what are you doing? Are you just getting home?” Her father entered into kitchen after her. He was halfway through the process of getting out of his jacket. You’re home early, Lilly noticed.

                “I’m just looking for some snacks,” Lilly answered distractedly, putting away a box of cookies. Crap, now I’m hungry all of sudden again. This isn’t good.

                “Don’t we have anything else?”

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Chapter 16 – ‘This duck,’

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                With a bang, from both her hand and the fact she actually yelled out ‘bang’, a thin bright light emanated from her index finger, blasting one of the creatures who was glaring right at her. A continuous beam of light that only disappeared the second it pierced the creature’s head. It didn’t explode into a pool of blood and guts like Lilly expected, that expectation probably stemming from one too many of Megumi’s horror novels, but instead it ballooned up, popping after a second. It left behind a trace of dust, the same effect as the apple from earlier. It only scattered away when creatures nearby sprang into action, leaping right towards Ayase.

                In an impossible feat of strength, Lilly watched as Ayase jumped forward, straight into the air. While soaring she took a few more shots at some of the creatures who just descended upon her previous position, and those who jumped to intercept her course. She flew through dust as she took them out.

                In two seconds she’s landed on top of an office building overlooking the street. She’s leaped two stories.

                Who in the world is this! ran through Lilly’s head as she got into the position Ayase specified.

                Ayase crouched at the edge of the roof, shooting more that try to come up to her. The creatures’ shape betrayed their leaping prowess, jumping as high as she did. Ayase proved her good aim, hitting the mark and destroying them with only one shot. However, they seem to explode no matter where they got hit. Face, hands, feet, one shot anywhere was enough. Numbers started becoming a problem when more of the creatures began climbing up the building, like a swarm of a white, child-sized spiders. Ayase stood, and bent her legs a little.

                “Hah!” she breathed as she jumped before they could get to her. Like before, she shot midair at ones that still climbed up the side of the building and the ones that were now soaring towards her. She crossed paths with a creature who had gotten too close, and twisted her body to kick. It popped, and Ayase fired off some more shots before landing on another building that was across from the one she just leapt from.

                It all looked like a fireworks demonstration, Ayase’s laser beams zipping in different directions, briefly illuminating the gloomy air, and from where Lilly was standing, the creatures exploding sounded like popping bubble wrap. It was all very surreal.

                Lilly was at a loss of what to do, not that there was anything she could do. So she silently cheered on Ayase, who seemed to be under complete control of the situation. She wondered if it actually helped any.

                As Ayase landed on the fence of a hotel roof, her balance impeccable, she removed the hand she used to support her finger gun and extended both arms out in front of her. She stretched out her fingers, all ten pointing towards the creatures that congregated on the roof of the building across from her, and were starting to head in her direction.

                Every tip of her fingers glowed briefly before a beam of light shot out of each of them. They hit their mark, terminating multiple of these things at once. One particular beam grazed past one of the creature’s head, Ayase seemingly misjudging her aim due to their hazy outline. She tilted her head to the right, and the beam spun back around and penetrated its head from the back. As it burst into dust, she tilted her head again, and the beam continued to shoot through five in a row, including two that just got airborne, outlining a jagged path.

                As they closed in again Ayase sprang up, flipping and flying over the swarm of monsters that were now scaled every building and leaped across the whole block. Her movements rivaled those of Olympic gymnasts and acrobats. She waved her arms and twisted her fingers to direct all ten beams of light to hit their various targets. The lights zigged and zagged at every angle, turning tight corners and spiraling around to get a hit.

                Falling downwards back to the middle of the street, she found herself in the center of the swarm. She started tucking in her legs to start somersaulting. Strategically spinning her arms as she does so, the beams flew through the air and struck every one of the creatures, creating a large yarn ball-like visual. After one last front flip does she finally land on the street in a three-point stance.

                A cloud of dust shrouded her, making the already dimly-lit Ayase that much harder to see. She breathed in slowly. Strands of brown hair stuck to her face.

                But she wasn’t done. Not even close.

                There was at least fifty of them when she started, and after that recent aerial attack she took out at least that many. But now she was surrounded by about a hundred more. Although she thought she was observant, Lilly failed to notice that they had been multiplying, or that they were smaller than before.

                The creatures wasted no time, tackling after her like a pride of lions on a weakened zebra. But Ayase still had a lot of fight in her left.

                She threw out her hands, and the beams came back. Whipping them in every direction, she slashed at everything daring enough to test her. One by one, the creatures dropped like flies. As their numbers increased, Ayase began dodging their attacks. She spun and contorted her body with tremendous flexibility, and managed to counter-attack at the same time. None stood a chance to touch her.

                Under her breath, Lilly was thankful that no one else was around to see this. Ayase, you’re jumping around too recklessly! Your skirt is… um! She reexamined the monsters up ahead. She is right though, none of these things notice me. Her knuckles go white as she gripped the traffic light, enthralled at the spectacle of Ayase’s fight. Maybe it was from their piercing gaze, but she couldn’t shake off the feeling of being watched.

                Soon, hundreds became thousands, and the mass of bodies began homing in on Ayase. She kept up her dodging, but it’s no longer sufficient, and they start cornering her. Her expression dropped a bit.

                One got a good hold of her leg, and that was enough for them to pile on. So many of them, in fact, that she became lost in a mountain of creatures. The top of the hill rivaled the buildings around them.

                “Ayase!” Lilly yelled.

                A hush fell onto the street, only the growls of monsters could be heard. For an agonizing minute, Lilly watched with horror as Ayase is nowhere to seen.

                Then, from the base of the pile, a light seeped through small gaps between the monsters. It grew in intensity until Lilly is forced to squint, and a large beam fired straight into the sky. An intense column of light, taking up most of the block. It light up the entire horizon for a short instant before dissipating. A loud boom is heard simultaneously as thousands of creatures are decimated all at once. Lilly turned away as the light gets too hard to face directly, her hands covering her head.

                And then nothing, like time was stopped.

                Lilly had to will herself to look back at the scene.  No creatures, no cloud of dust. The city was back to being empty as a wasteland. All that stood on that dark street was Ayase’s silhouette. She dusted herself off, patting her sleeves and adjusting her skirt. She hardly looked tired. Seeing Lilly, she smiled and waved.

                Lilly exhaled. I’m glad you’re safe. “Good job, Urameshi Yusuke!” she shouted out.

                Suddenly, Ayase flinched, and yelled. “Watch out!”

                At the same time, Lilly’s buzzing surfaced. It was somewhere to her left. Not exactly a human sound, but more warped and harsh. Lilly wheeled around to see one of the creatures charging right at her. By now it was half of its original size, and yet judging by its speed, no less dangerous.

                A fight-or-flight moment.

                Lilly shut her eyes. Balancing herself with a school bag in each arm, she swung her leg forward.

                She felt her leg stop for a bit, hitting something, and then continuing its momentum following the now too-familiar popping sound.

                Lilly actually fended off a monster.

                “Great job, Miss Akiyama! I almost missed that one,” Ayase said as she jogged to Lilly.

                Would it kill you to be more careful then?

                “My apologies, I got caught off guard and didn’t see it coming for you,” Ayase explained. “Although…” Ayase brought a hand to her chin. She didn’t say any more.

                Looking for a distraction, Ayase pointed behind Lilly. “Down that way, there he is.”

                Lilly indeed saw him. The missing boyfriend. The whole reason why they broke the laws of physics to visit a dimension in between time. He was lying unconscious on his back, arms and legs sprawled out on the street.

                Ayase walked up to him and checked his pulse. “Still alive,” she dropped his wrist, resting it on his stomach.

                Lilly got closer to see him. He looks like a delinquent. She saw his uniform, and grimaced a little. High school? Lilly’s opinion of this particular teenager was rapidly turning sour. He’s at least a second year, what a creep. She shook her head. Maybe I shouldn’t judge.

                Ayase dragged the boy to the sidewalk, and propped him up on her back, his arm swung over her shoulder. With their difference in age and body size, Ayase was diminutive by comparison. Lilly followed Ayase to a good spot off the street.

                “His data composition was deteriorating to match this area. Those monsters were the result of that phenomenon,” Ayase answered the question Lilly was about to ask. “Yūrei, or at least, he was about to be one. If we were too late, they would have multiplied and gotten smaller until there were trillions of them and nanoscopic. After that, he’d have disappeared completely. Taking them all out before that happens can reset his data, so that’s why he’s here now.”

                “You saved his life?” Lilly summarized.

                “You helped, Miss Akiyama, don’t sell yourself short,” Ayase shifted to better hold the boy. “Goodness he’s heavy.”

                “Now what?” Lilly questioned.

                “Now we hurry and make our exit. If we spend too much time in here, we’ll end up suffering the same fate. I know I don’t have a concerned girlfriend who would go to the ends of the earth to find me.”

                Lilly strained her eyes rolling them. But a new fear seeped in. “Then… we have to leave now! I still feel like they’re looking at me. So yeah, let’s go.”

                “Absolutely. Hold my hand?” Ayase repeated the same gesture from before.

                Lilly grabbed on to her shoulder. Using her free hand, Ayase snapped her fingers, the sound echoing throughout the blank city.

                Unlike how they arrived, which was swift and easy, the trip back was another experience entirely. Her vision was the first to go. Then her hearing. Lilly felt her body being pushed through a barrier. It had the texture of gelatin, her body pressing along this substance. Soon it broke, giving way for her to be absorbed in deeper. All senses went dull.

                Eventually, Lilly could hear again. It was faint, but she heard the sounds of cars and people passing by. Soon after, she was able to make out the shapes of those cars and people. The image of a city full of life began to appear, but very blurry. Like an old computer trying to load a high-res picture, it took what felt like an eternity for everything to come back.

                The sound slid from muffled to clear, and the image went from blurry to perfect. A warmth enveloped her body. Lilly blinked, and saw that she’s standing in front of a convenience store in the middle of downtown. More specifically, in an old phone booth in front of a convenience store. She tried to move her legs with no success. Did something go wrong? I can’t move, I can’t breathe, someone please help!

                “Miss Akiyama, the handle is right there, could you get that? It’s cramped,” Ayase’s voice was subdued in the booth. Fitting three people into such a small space is no small feat. Lilly thought up a retort. I’d prefer a police box next time.

                They managed getting out, and Lilly handed Ayase back her bag before adjusting her own.

                “So, we’ve encountered a time rip between the past and the present, and we literally just got back from being in between time. Is actual time travel possible?” Lilly asked. By this point, there was no point in being not curious.

                “Absolutely. But I’m not authorized to do that yet,” Ayase replied, “Limits.”

                “Good to know,” Lilly said. She prayed that was something she wouldn’t have to worry about.

                Ayase grunted when she spoke, still carrying the boy on one shoulder, her bag on the other.

                “I’ll handle returning him. You can head home now, Miss Akiyama. In the meantime, I’ll have to figure out who was behind all this.” Ayase racked her brain in thought, her face scrunching up.

                For no real reason or any sort of concrete evidence, Lilly thought of the video-rental-store girl. No, I’m being ridiculous.

                “Actually, I’ll be-“ Lilly checked the sky above her. The sunset had almost passed, with night time close at hand. The moon peeked out from behind some buildings. Lilly grabbed for her phone again. “7:30?! But how?!”

                “It’s like how I said before, the rest of the world kept going while we were stuck back in time. All I can do is send us forward to the present.”

                Lilly’s chest fell. I was supposed to get snacks with Rea two hours ago. She’ll kill me!

                “Well, I’ll see you next week, Miss Akiyama. Thank you for accompanying me today. I think I got a lot more data to report on now. That’s always exciting.” Ayase nudged forward a little. It was best bow she could pull off. “Also, for obvious reasons, I don’t think we need to drum up a club summary for this one, what do you think?” She winked.

                “Yeah…” Lilly huffed. Time travel, disturbing monsters, and girls who play with fundamentals of physics like a ragdoll. Lilly has had more than a full day. She offered to help in carrying the boy. Either way, she’d missed her date with Rea, and would be late home anyways. Ayase accepted.

                I’ll have to make it up to Rea somehow. I know! I’ll get her favorite flavor of… what was it again?

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