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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Chapter 15 – ‘This devil,’

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                “Here we are,” Ayase said, grinning, “Thank you for choosing Midori Airlines for your inter-dimensional travel needs.” Lilly rolled her eyes as she took her hand off Ayase’s shoulder. Dork.

                One hour ago…

                A week since the conclusion of the Yoya Nouko case and Megumi’s article. Lilly and Ayase sat at their table in the club room, facing another girl. A second year. A bright hairclip holding back dark curls. She wore a worried face, and her forehead creased to show it. However, Lilly didn’t quite catch her name and felt too uncomfortable to try and ask for it a second time. Ui, Yui, was it Mugi? So she instead wordlessly listened as Ayase handled the consultation.

                “I understand your story, but do you understand our criteria? Nothing serious that involves the police,” Ayase held up an index finger.

                “I don’t want to trouble his parents if this turns out to be a false alarm. If you can’t find him by tomorrow, I’ll inform them and the police.” The girl ran her fingers along the edge of the table, totally serious about the matters of this case.

                Lilly flipped through a page in the book she was holding. The same book Megumi borrowed from the library that day. She lent it to Lilly and Rea as a belated present for joining the club. Lilly stared at a word, not really reading it. It’s nothing but sharp lines and edges. Fading in and out of concentration of Ayase and this girl, Lilly got the gist of the case. She didn’t like it.

                So, if I got this correctly, your boyfriend’s been missing for the past week, and you want us to find him. He’s a ‘bad boy’ type, thus his parents aren’t too concerned about him not being home every night. But he at least goes to school, but as you said, since he is missing, you’ve haven’t seen him at all for these past five days. Not including weekends. And if we can’t find him by tomorrow, you’ll have to get the police involved. That’s the long and short of it, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

                And you’re really coming to us about this? Are you crazy?

                She wanted to kick herself for doing so, but she used her power to see if the girl was telling the truth. She got through this time, but the sound was distorted, like a radio getting a bad signal. Lilly remembered the time with Yuki. This thing is faultier than I thought. It never works when I actually want it to. From what she could piece together, she knew the girl wasn’t lying. I still don’t like it.

                “That puts a lot of responsibility on our end, you know,” Ayase said, voicing both her opinion and Lilly’s. The girl shrunk in her chair. Ayase looked over to Lilly, who gave off a ‘I-just-want-to-home’ vibe. Megumi had cleaning duty after school, and Rea volunteered to help, so it was just Lilly and Ayase this afternoon. Maybe it’s for the best, we don’t want more people involved than necessary. The job wasn’t related to the occult, but this girl truly seemed concerned. She must have her reasons to come to the S.O.L.

                Lilly lowered her head, flipping another page. It was her way of saying, ‘Fine, let’s do it.’

                Ayase turned back to the girl again. “But, we’ll try our best.” The girl glowed.

                Bowing up and down fervently, the girl thanked Ayase and Lilly. As she left, Lilly slumped into her chair, thinking about the past week.

                For Lilly and the rest of the S.O.L., the past week was nothing if not tiring. Aside from homework that teachers all collectively decided to pile on to unsuspecting students, Lilly had to deal with constant pestering about the Yoya Nouko case. The S.O.L. was put on the school’s map, which meant Lilly was put on the school’s map. ‘Did you really see a ghost?’, ‘How scared were you?’, and ‘What are you guys doing now?’ drilled into Lilly for the first few days before class, during lunch and after school. The club room has never been more of a shelter for retreat.

                Lilly wondered if anyone would believe her if she mentioned what Ayase did in that shed.

                With a few words, Lilly was able to get most to leave her alone, but she could only imagine how the others were handling it. Rea was probably reveling in the attention, and Ayase would be more than happy to answer anyone curious enough about the Society of Occult Literature. Megumi, on the other hand, Lilly offered her condolences.

                The increased interest in the club overall also meant an interest in the ‘consultations’ the club provided. Most were silly pranks, like ‘my dog is acting funny’, or ‘a mysterious figure in one of the school’s restrooms is making people choose between red and blue paper’. Ayase took the job of screening them, rejecting all but this one. Considering what may be at stake, it made sense to Lilly.

                After the consultation, the two girls took a train into the city.

                “So, what’s the plan?” Lilly asked, looking around. Just five minutes ago, they left the bustling station towards an alleyway between a bar and video rental store, a place reported by the girl as a popular hangout spot of her boyfriend. Definitely a spot where delinquent types would spend their time. Lilly thanked god there was no one actually in the alley as they went into the gap of the buildings.

                Businessmen scurrying from one office to another made up a large portion of the people in the area, making the girls seem like ants by comparison. There were some younger people, however, like a girl hanging out with some other older teenagers in front of the video rental store, who caught Lilly’s eye from her angle. Looked to be in high school. Drinking a small juice box. But she flashed such a chilling smile to Lilly, she didn’t help in lightening the atmosphere. As Lilly thought, she wasn’t fond of being here.

                Otherwise, it was still early enough in the day that it wasn’t too dangerous for two girls to be visiting this part of downtown, but Lilly kept close to Ayase anyways. She doubted she could even do anything, but it helped her peace of mind.

                “Hmm, I see,” Ayase muttered.

                See what?

                “Eh, I hate to do this, but,” Ayase looked back at Lilly, “Looks like I have no choice.” There was some hesitation there.

                “I feel like you have plenty of choices,” Lilly countered.

                “Here, this is a good spot,” Ayase said when they got deeper into the alley, “Hold my hand.” She extended out her left hand for Lilly.

                “Wait, why?”

                “I’ll explain when we get there.”

                Get where? Lilly thought. She put her hand on Ayase’s shoulder. She felt it as Ayase shrugged.

                “Suit yourself.” She snapped her fingers. The noisy metropolis stopped in an instant, like someone paused a video. Lilly’s eyes were open, but only for a second, her vision fell into black before coming back, not quite right. The red brick wall on the side of the bar she was staring at was now a softer, greyish red. If someone wasn’t really paying attention, they might say it wasn’t red at all.

                After doing whatever it was she did, Ayase made her remark.

                And that’s how we got to where we are, wherever we are.

                Back to now…

                Lilly snapped back to focus when Ayase called out to her. “Miss Akiyama, please don’t lag behind!” She jogged a bit to catch back up with Ayase.

                Lilly continued observing their surroundings as they left the alley. What was once a clear sky was now grey and muted. No clouds to be seen. The sun was missing too, replaced with a weak glow from up above, not coming from anywhere in particular. The rest of the city was just the same, dark and empty. Lilly gave herself some time to let her eyes adjust. Only she when got a better picture of what she saw, was when she realized:

                There was nobody here.

                Not a soul in sight. Every person Lilly and Ayase walked by on the way here were all gone. As if they were never there in the first place. Even that girl and her friends by the video store’s entrance wasn’t there. Granted, with that look she got from her, Lilly didn’t want to admit that the girl being gone made her feel at ease.

                Lilly followed Ayase down the middle of a street, no real need to walk on the sidewalk. There were no cars either. The buildings overhead loomed like bad omens, she’d rather not be near them.

                “Count to ten?” Ayase suggested to Lilly, “In seconds.”

                “Okay…” Lilly said, confused. “One, two, thr-“

                Before she could finish saying ‘three’, Ayase cut in. “We’re in that breath you took. We’re in between time.”

                You’re saying that like it’s normal. “And what does that mean?” And what are we doing here?

                “Like light, which can be observed as either particles or waves, time can be observed as either fluid or static.” Ayase’s words rang clearly in this space. It wasn’t like the serene silence of Ayase’s Taschenraum, rather it was eerie. Like everything around them had this energy of wanting to get up and move, but couldn’t. Lilly was unable to put it into words. Just a quiet air of restlessness.

                “I’ll just stand here and pretend I know what you’re talking about,” Lilly said.

                “If we take the theory that time is static, like still frames, everyone and everything in the universe’s data is loaded from one frame to the next, constantly leaping forward to the next frame in order to stay in the present. Like a cartoon… I suppose. To simplify, we’re in between two of those twenty-four frames per second.” Ayase opened a pocket on the side of her school bag and took out an apple. She bit into it before continuing.

                “Because of that, we can slip between those frames and not be loaded to the present, well, I can, you can’t.” Ayase munched on her apple. She made sure not to talk while eating.

                “Scratch that. It’s not entirely true, there have been a few cases of people falling into random gaps of data and ending up in this dimensional fracture. But over the entire course of human civilization? I can count those on just one hand.” She held up four fingers.

                “Anyways, what I mean is, while the rest of the world is busy going along with their average Friday, the two of us are the only ones who are behind in time. Stuck in the past. Time doesn’t flow in this dimension, at least not in the traditional sense.”

                Okay, I get it… I think. “But wait,” Lilly ventured, “Us two? Are we not here because we’re trying to find that guy?” She didn’t bother to remember his name.

                “Sure, that’s what I meant,” Ayase said after she swallowed another bite. “Depends if we’re too late.”

                “Come again?”

                “It was simply a hunch to come by the place Harumi said was his favorite place to hang out, but the closer we got, I sensed it. The tear of data. Residual information from the hole he allegedly fell through to get here. Hastily covered up.” They crossed the street to the empty plaza, not even the fountain was running. Nor were the trees rustling from any wind. Any and all traffic lights were dead, almost completely dark. It really felt like a ghost town. There really is no one here. Maybe for hundreds of thousands of kilometers. This is too much!

                “But here’s the thing, the initial data gap was larger than what would naturally occur. And only those from my organization would know would how to make a hole that big. So that means he didn’t come here accidentally. Someone sent him here forcibly.

                Lilly gulped. Someone who knows about this kind of stuff, and is willing to use that knowledge on those who are essentially civilians?

                “Why? What’s to gain from doing that?” Lilly forced herself to ask. Whatever this was about, it couldn’t be good.

                “I guess that’s what we’re here to find out now. Want a bite?” Ayase offered Lilly her apple. There were only a few bites left.

                “Um, no thanks.”

                “Alrighty then.” Ayase finished the apple, and tossed the core above her. It left a trail of dust behind before disintegrating entirely in midair, not getting a chance to arc downwards. The dust doesn’t even waft away from an atmosphere, it just floated in place as the two walked away.

                I don’t even want get into asking how that makes sense.

                “Anyways, let’s make it quick.” Lilly pulled out her phone. The screen lit up the entire street as they left the plaza and headed down a large intersection. She wiped her eye as it started to itch, probably from the sudden phone light.

                Hmm, it works here. 4:30. It was 4:30 thirty minutes ago.

                “I don’t want to waste any more time here, I’ve got places to be,” Lilly said. Only when that sentence left her mouth does she realize how dumb it was. A low buzz began in surface under Lilly’s consciousness, unknown to her.

                Ayase chuckled a bit. “I agree. Fortunately for you, here he is. What’s left of him, anyways.”

                Lilly looked ahead. Her eyes widen. “What, what is that?”

                Not that, but those. What looked like to be fifty of these things, these creatures that defied any logical existence.

                ‘Grotesque’ wasn’t even close enough to describe them.

                They were about eighty centimeters, or half of Lilly’s height. They looked humanoid in shape, but in the lack of good lighting made it hard to tell. Also, they had no definitive outline. Edges of their bodies phased like smoke, like they were about to fade out of existence at any moment. Slits for eyes, nose, and mouth, their faces had no hair on their pale skin, along with the rest of their wrinkly, naked bodies. Though with that last point their gender, if they had one, was undistinguishable. Just a smooth surface.

                Anatomically, they looked like scrawny, malnourished babies, their heads too big for their bodies, and while their legs were shorter than they should be, their arms seemed to make up for it by being longer than they should be. It’s obvious that nothing about them looked right. Their hands, however, were a different story. As big as baseball gloves, with three long, pencil-thin fingers, including the thumb, which extended out into large sharp claws. They snarled, and when they did they exposed their jagged, equally sharp teeth. The way their sunken chests didn’t move showed that they weren’t breathing, but their twitching and the high shrill sounds they made suggested they were alive. If one could call whatever these things were doing as a state of living.

                About fifty of them, spread out throughout the otherwise deserted street. They stood in place, unmoving aside from their unnatural twitching, and facing random directions. Some were even looking directly at the girls. But they didn’t react upon seeing them. As if they didn’t notice. Or care. These creatures simply stood there. Unmoving. Fear slithered down Lilly’s spine.

                “Don’t worry,” Ayase said coolly, handing Lilly her bag before stretching her arms and legs. “They won’t attack anything that doesn’t provoke them first.” Ayase pointed to a traffic light at the end of the street behind them. “You can go over there. That should be a good distance.”

                “Hold on!” Lilly interrupted, “What’s with all this ‘provoking’ business?”

                Ayase grinned, bouncing on the balls of her feet, clearly itching for action. “Like I said, don’t worry.”

                She lifted her right hand, and formed a pretend gun with her fingers, extending out her index finger and folding the others inward to her palm, while her thumb pointed upwards. Using her other hand she supported the pretend gun as though it was a real pistol. She spread out her legs a bit. The corners of her mouth folded into a mischievous sneer.

                “Let’s jam!”

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Chapter 14 – ‘This naivety,’

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                The sky is a very bright blue today. I don’t normally take notice of things like that, but today’s an exception. The vivid color flickers between buildings as they pass by. You tend to forget that trains go fast, especially when you take them all the time. I guess it’s one of those things that get taken for granted. The train stops on time – it always stops on time – and I get off at the first stop into the city. It’s starting to get chilly now, so I made sure to bundle up a little with a scarf. I like how warm it makes my neck, it’s nice.

                Now, even if it’s the weekend, I wonder what a middle school student like me is doing going into the city by myself, I mean, not that it’s weird for a middle school student to go into the city by themselves. Actually, it is weird because if I go downtown, I often take the train alongside Rea. But she said she was busy again and had to go on ahead, so it can’t be helped. Also weird because I’m going into city. I’m not against it, per se, but I don’t do it too often. (Close to never on my own volition.) Last time was when I begrudgingly went to the arcade, and now it’s for a more academic reason.

                Research. Ouch.

                Thanks to a certain student council president, the club I recently joined was tasked to investigate alleged ‘hauntings’ taking place in an abandoned shed at the school. Through some… events I wish I didn’t get wrapped up in, we found a photo buried deep amongst the mess in that shed. We found the name, and really that should be enough to wrap things up, at least in my opinion, I’m kind of done with this whole thing already. But curiosity kills the cat, and Ayase has brought her pride – that is, the rest of the S.O.L. – out for the slaughter. She wants to learn more about the girl in the photo, of which I must come to the unfortunate conclusion that she is in fact, dead. Well, truth be told, I’m kind of curious too. Never mind. Why does it feel like I’m going to regret this? Man, if I have to ask… Ow.

                Boryumu station is super crowded on weekends, but I manage to find my group pretty quickly. Darn. Looks like I was the last one to show up. I hate when that happens. Oof! Some businessmen in the middle of a conversation. It’s so crowded I accidentally bump into one of them. I would say they shouldn’t stand around like that, but that’s exactly what my friends are doing. I pass them, and I can see the full lineup:

                Haruko Rea, my best friend of ten years, and unknowingly connected to the stuff that’s been happening around me lately. And there’s Midori Ayase, a ‘super-powered journalist’ who honestly scares me a little, considering how much she seemingly knows about the world and what she’s capable of. And there’s Hinata Megumi, god I hope you’re not a multi-dimensional entity! And then there’s me, Akiyama Lilly, a supposed-to-be-normal girl who’s capable of telepathy and other things I really, really don’t want to think about. My head hurts doing so. If you were to take that order and line us up, we’d look like a split apart matryoshka doll. Height-wise.

                We’re all junior high girls. Can it be any more silly?

                Finally, I catch up. I massage the sides of my head. This headache has been bothering me the whole trip downtown. Maybe I shouldn’t have come.

                “You’re finally here! Hey, you okay?” Rea’s words were wet with worry.

                “No, I’m fine,” Lilly said. As if she commanded it with those very words, the headache subsided. Oh, I feel better now.

                With the S.O.L. now complete, the group saw it fit to start with the first activity, lunch. It’s noon after all. A nine minute walk from the station was a particular café recommended by Rea, so they head there.

                “Tch! You two again? And you brought friends?”

                The waiter was as fiery as ever. Rea had no problem doubling the heat.

                “What do you mean? You should be happy we brought new customers, Annie!” Rea’s sly demeanor hit him exactly where she wanted.

                Irritated, but he’s on duty. Annie took their order: tea and a salad for Ayase, nothing for Megumi, a coffee for Rea, and a water and meal for Lilly. Rea struggled with trying to remember what she ordered last time, so she settled with two servings of what Lilly got. A burger and fries. He scribbled the order, and with the vein on his head as red as his hairclip, he strolled into the kitchen.

                “Ah, that was fun! We should come here more often.” Rea soaked in every second of her delightment. Lilly recalled the last time they were there.

                The drinks came right away, and their food soon after. Unlike the others, Ayase scarfed down her meal, unbefitting of her stereotypical girly image. If it were Rea, maybe not so much.

                “I’m too excited, I think I’ll head to the library first,” Ayase places down some money on the table, “Megumi, care to join me?” Megumi was the second to finish, mostly quiet as they ate, and was now adjusting her headband. She nodded, one so slight the untrained eye wouldn’t notice. The two depart, leaving behind Lilly and Rea. “Miss Akiyama, Rea, come meet us at the library when you’re done!”

                Lilly and Rea sat inactively for a moment. It’s brief.

                “Hey, tell me what he’s thinking!” Rea bumped Lilly with her elbow. She points to Annie, taking care of another table.

                “Why should I? Besides, I know he doesn’t think too fondly of you.”

                “C’mon! Just try, pleeease!” Tugging on her sleeve, Rea rocked Lilly around.

                “Eeeh? Alright, alright, just let go!” Lilly folded her arms, and stared at the back of Annie’s head. As she expected, she can hear what he’s thinking.

                Lilly leaned back. “He’s trying to memorize the order, and planning what I think is a date with his girlfriend.”

                “Girlfriend? A date? Like what? What are they gonna do?” Rea got all the more excited.

                “Stop that, I don’t want to intrude anymore!”

                Rea whined, and as compromise, convinced Lilly to try another person instead. She halfheartedly complied. They played that game on a few more people. Some thoughts were kind of entertaining, some were downright sobering. After a few rounds, Lilly has had more than enough.

                “There! She’s the last one, I’m done now,” Lilly sulked more in her seat.

                “That’s super cool though, you can mind read anyone you see!” Rea said, as impressed with it the first time as she was now.

                “Well, not always, sometimes I get this weird radio buzz and I can’t get anything,” Lilly remembered the few times it’s happened, “so it’s not perfect, I guess.” She remembered another note. “Also, I feel like I can’t do it when I’m in your body. Like the switch isn’t there, but there was a switch, ha ha.” Rea pretended to not hear that awful joke.

                “Huh, that’s news to me.”

                There’s a lot that’s news to you, Rea.

                Rea reclined on Lilly. “Hey, we haven’t done anything like this in a while.”

                “Like this?”

                “You know.”

                “Ah,” Lilly got what Rea was referring to. “But we know what happened back then.” I’ve been apprehensive about that ever since.

                Rea scratched her nose. If Lilly didn’t nudge her she might have clawed it right off. Ultimately, she changed the subject. “You know, you’ve been getting pretty close with that Midori girl lately. Calling you ‘Miss Akiyama’ and stuff.” Her voice trailed off with those last words. “What’s up with that?”

                “What, are you jealous?” Lilly joked, taking it at face value.

                “…” Rea doesn’t say anything, but there was no need.

                “You’re neither confirming nor denying it.”

                Get outta my head, Lilly.

                “Oh, you don’t like it when I do it to you? How selfish.” Lilly joked again.

                “Grr…” Rea actually grr-ed. Lilly pushed a plate of fries closer to Rea.

                Her annoyance was obvious, so Lilly does her best to alleviate it. “She’s just being nice, you could learn a thing or ten from her really, and plus…” Lilly couldn’t find the words to explain where Midori Ayase actually stands in this whole situation. Honestly, I don’t want to find the words. If things are fine now, best leave them that way.

                “In any case, it won’t hurt to not to get too friendly with her. Besides, you’re… you’re…” Rea mumbled incomprehensibly.

                “I’m what?”

                “…” She mumbled again.

                “Huh?”

                “YOU’RE MINE!!”

                Eyes shut, face red, Rea yells in the center of a crowded café. Her high voice squeaked into the air. Everyone turns and stared. Rea’s embarrassment is contagious, and immediately transferred to Lilly. They both look away from each other.

                “Hey! If you’re gonna do that, take it outside!” Annie is heard from the kitchen. A few customers laugh at the innocent scene.

                The two allow that to be the end of their café stay, and after finishing off the remainder of their meals, they proceed to the library. There were two in the city, but one was under construction. Ayase never specified, but it doesn’t take a genius to guess which one she was in. They guess correctly, Lilly finding Ayase nose-deep into an old newspaper, the paper stained a light yellow. She was standing, disregarding the many empty chairs and tables around her.

                “Hi, we’re here,” Lilly whispered, “where’s Megumi?”

                “She’s off in the horror section, she just… floated over there.” Ayase doesn’t once take her eyes off the newspaper.

                “Alright, then what are you doing?”

                “I’m going through the oldest papers in the archives, starting from the 1960s. If something happened to Yoya Nouko back then, it should be in here somewhere!”

                How very detective of you. Lilly pulled her shoulder away. Rea was clinging to Lilly’s scarf from the café to the library. Rea get off!

                Rea lets go, looking around in the library like a lost child. Ignoring her, Lilly goes and grabs a newspaper out of a stack by Ayase. A sharp sense of sympathy hit Lilly; to think, Yoya Nouko’s ultimate fate, whatever it may be, reduced to a game of detective by a bunch of junior high girls. Yoya Nouko, I promise to appease your spirit! For Yoya Nouko’s sake, Lilly utilized that thought to strengthen her resolve. In reality it was for both. To make her feel better about playing this game. There really aren’t wholly selfless acts.

                1962, 1965, 1969, 1970. Nothing, nothing, nothing, and will you look at that? Nothing. Lilly rummaged through piles of print, the old scent starting to give her a headache again. Even for someone who has an affinity for reading, Lilly was approaching her limit. While Lilly and Ayase were the more diligent in their investigating, Megumi periodically popped in every now and then to help, and then went off elsewhere again. Rea was nowhere to be found.

                “I’ve got it!” Ayase kept her excitement to a hush tone, but it’s hardly contained. “Miss Akiyama, go get the others! Go go!” You’re a little too happy that you found it. Lilly turned to the rest of the library. It’s not too impressive in size, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t big. She almost took out her phone when she remembered; ‘No cell phones!’ Then how am I going to –

                “WAAAAH!”

                Lilly found herself in Rea’s body. Again. That falling sensation, not unlike the first time this happened. It looked like Rea took a nap in some off corner. This is starting to get a little too convenient. Lilly only now noticed Rea’s outfit. Short denim shorts and light red long sleeves. Is she not cold? Her right wrist adorned a Hello Kitty bracelet. I haven’t seen this in a long time. A Doraemon picture book rested face down on her lap. She found some relief that people still cared about Doraemon. She tapped her cheeks. They’re lightly damp. Must have been a really deep nap.

                When Lilly yelled awake, a few people frowned and hushed her. Lilly mouthed her apologies and left her cushioned seat.

                At least that solves that. Now where’s Megumi? She wisely started in the horror section, but it’s fruitless. Searching around the adjacent sections were to no avail as well. It wasn’t until Lilly got to the front desk – funnily enough in the center of the library – did she find Megumi. Also, when did I get so used to running about in Rea’s body? I wonder if Rea’s used to mine now too…

                “Gumi! Hey, over here!” Lilly imitated a certain redheaded energetic short girl. Whispering.

                Megumi perked up as she heard her name, and saw Lilly, in Rea’s body. Of course, she doesn’t know that. But she’s trembled, as if cornered by a hunter and she was but a fawn. Whoa, Megumi, are you alright? Lilly observed the scene, and understood. A long line wraps around the front desk, full of people wanting to check out a book. Megumi was close to the end of the line, but not in it, and shivered while holding her own book. Lilly put the two and two together.

                “Megumi, did you want to check that out?”

                “Uh… um.”

                “Come here, I’ll help you.”

                Lilly takes the book from Megumi, getting in line. Despite its length, the line moved smoothly, Lilly and Megumi soon get close the front. Megumi tried to protest for some reason, but Lilly doesn’t listen.

                “I’m sorry, but this book is already checked out,” the librarian apologetically says, as though the loud bleep after Lilly tried to scan the book wasn’t enough. I’m not sure if I should be surprised by this.

                After that little situation, Lilly and Megumi made it back to Ayase. To be more precise, Lilly felt like she was escorting Megumi. Lilly was by Ayase when they switched, so Rea was also in sight.  She waved like nothing was out of place. When they regrouped, Ayase finally got going. If she noticed that Lilly and Rea switched, she didn’t comment on it.

                “Now, see here, 1973!” Ayase set the newspaper on a nearby table for the rest to read. Lilly coughed up a bit of dust. “July 11th, junior high student Yoya Nouko was found…”

                “…”

                Lilly, Rea, and Megumi waited for Ayase to continue, but she stopped dead in the middle of her sentence. They completely forgot that the option of reading on their own was available to them.

                Ayase swallowed. “… found dead inside a storage shed in the newly founded Shouai Junior High. She was found with numerous cuts on her wrists. Yoya Nouko was…”

                Ayase kept going, but the details go muffled and became white noise. This was like opening Pandora’s box! I knew something happened to Yoya Nouko, I knew she died, but to read that it happened in this way is… is…

                Lilly thought all this in a span of four seconds.

                Ayase fell silent, which was a signal that she finished reading. However, judging from the looks from the other S.O.L. members, she was forced to read it again. Was this some sort of punishment game?

                “Ah, alright, okay…”

                Yoya Nouko. Aged 13. A second year student who was thrown into isolation during her first two years in junior high. Apparently the bullying got worse with each passing day. From simple ignoring to fully despicable acts not specified in the article. It’s tough for any of them to fully grasp the severity of her time spent in that school. Then one day mid-July, a teacher making their afterschool rounds, found the shed doors open, and when they went to look…

                If it’s too much for us just to read, I can’t imagine what exactly she went through… Lilly thought of something else. After investigators and police were done with the shed, could it be possible that we were the only people to properly look inside since?

                “Oh here,” Ayase mentioned, “since it was the first and only incident of anything like this at the school, and because the school was still new, they allowed the parents to take back all personal information and records the school had on her, and only kept the name for student lists and archiving purposes. After that, the school just fell into a hush. So, I guess that solves… that.”

                We got what we came here for, yet this feels so empty. This was certainly not fun.

                “Wait, there’s more,” Ayase said, slowly. Lilly stomach sank.

                “The bullying got worse after rumors began spreading that she was in love with another girl.” Ayase read that line coldly and methodically. “I guess that was what it was like, back in the day.”

                A gut punch. Closer to a knock out. Lilly glanced over to Rea. Seeing her own face contort to an expression of dread, or any other, will never not be something to get accustomed to.

                Silently, mutely, Ayase took a photo of the article. Newspapers are among the few things that couldn’t be borrowed from the library. Right afterwards the S.O.L. called it in, and promptly left. It’s around 2 PM now. Thankfully – the type of thanks a newly incarnated snake god would exhibit after receiving a hefty donation from an otherwise stingy conman – a more easygoing atmosphere managed to settle in. It was in the back of their minds, but they felt somewhat better when they got to the station.

                “I’ll send you the picture, do you want to do it?” Ayase asked Megumi.

                “M-hmm, sure,” she responded. The protocol to follow after ‘solving’ a ‘case’ would be to write up a summary of the case’s completion, and submit it to the school newspaper, where they would be more than willing to publish it. It has definitely been a while since the club submitted a summary.

                From the station they went their separate ways. Ayase and Megumi both had other matters to attend to, so Lilly and Rea head back together. That train back was wordless. Somewhere along the way, they switched back to their respective bodies.

               “That was so sad, don’t you think?” Rea finally said something on the walk home, summing up the long day.

               “Yeah, it was, you okay?” Lilly asked.

               “Of course! I just wish it didn’t end up like that.”

               “Well, sometimes that’s how it ends up.”

               Rea said something under her breath, but Lilly didn’t catch it. She played the story back in her head, despite her best efforts not to think about it anymore. Ah, it’s just so tragic, it’s giving me another headache. 

                “Alright, that should conclude this week’s meeting. Good work everyone.”

                Suzuki Yuki was the last the leave the classroom. Also among the last few to leave school, as always. The time to sigh has long passed; she should be used to it already.

                She stepped out into the hallway, lit only by sunlight spilling through the windows, and was surprised to see a familiar face.

                “Yo,” Yuki said to greet a waiting Midori Ayane.

                “Yo,” she said back.

                “What are you doing here? I thought you’d be home by now,” Yuki lifted her shoulder to fix her bag.

                “I read the occult club’s article in the school paper,” Ayane said, her green eyes glow in the natural light. “I just wanted to thank you for earlier. You really helped me out.”

                Yuki exhaled. “Whatever. What was up with that anyways? Making me go down there with some B.S. story about a haunted shed. They ended up coming back to me with a history lesson about a ‘Yoya Nouko.’ Sure it was sad, but I got dragged into that more than I wanted to. You should be held responsible for all of this.” She took out a box of Pocky from her bag and chomped on a stick.

                “Well, that’s what I’m here for,” Ayane walked up to Yuki and bit off one half of the chocolate-cover snack, still in her mouth. Yuki hardly reacts. “And as to ‘why,’ I wanted to make something clear to Ayase.”

                “‘Make something clear?’”

                “Yup.”

                She was going to respond, but Ayane moved in until she was two centimeters from Yuki’s face. Gently with one hand, she pushed away Yuki’s bangs, exposing her forehead. And with the other, just as gently, she tapped said forehead. For an instant, Yuki goes lightheaded. Whoa whoa.

                “Damn, this mental barrier against her was trickier than I thought,” Ayane murmurs. Even so close, Yuki couldn’t pick that up. She was more concerned as to what Ayane was doing being this close in the first place.

                Lightly pushing Ayane away, Yuki’s stuttered with her mouth full. “I-If you wanted to play with your little sister and her club, you could’ve done so by yourself.”

                “No, it wouldn’t have worked out the way it did, that’s why I needed you.” Ayane winked. I hate when she does that, Yuki thought.

                Against her better judgment, she decided to keep butting in. “May I ask why you made me go through all this trouble? I deserve that, don’t you think?”

                Ayane flipped her hair. “Yeah, you do.” Her expression shifted from lighthearted to serious. “In short, she won’t listen to me.”

                “Huh.”

                “I wanted Ayase to know where she stands. She acts like she knows everything. In reality she’s naïve.”

                Naïve? Whatever. Which that vague answer, Yuki opts to drop the subject. She’s never concerned herself with the Midori sisters’ relationship before, and there was no need to do so now. “And she’ll get all that from a little ghost story? You guys sure are weird.”

                It wasn’t the first time Yuki said that to Ayane, so she smirked. “Weirder than you think. How about it, let’s get some scones. My treat.” She clapsed her hands with Yuki’s.

                Yuki takes her hand, but tilted her head to look away, a little shy. I hate when she does that too.

                “…Whatever!”

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Chapter 13 – ‘This zipper,’

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                Lilly woke. An alarm clock diligently beeped its high ringing note. 6:00 AM. She rubbed her eyes. Thin beams of light cast upon the wall across her window. She rubbed her eyes again. Getting up, Lilly brushed a long strand of hair out of her face. She rested a hand on her cheek.

                In single word she expressed her full feelings of doing anything outside of her comfort zone.

                “Why?”

                When Lilly left the house, it was notably windy. Taking her usual route to Rea’s place, she already saw that Rea was in front of the gate of her home, waiting for the millionth time to walk to school together with Lilly. Ponytail done proper, glasses fixed and straight, blazer tied snug around her waist: Rea was fresh for a new school day. Her mind must have been sharp and alert for when Lilly came around the corner.

                A gust of wind, on occasion, can be quite mischievous, and today, decided Lilly’s skirt was a suitable target. Rea’s eyes dilated.

                0:01 White. 0:012 Upon closer inspection, there’s lace and ribbons, like a bow on a present. 0:24 The way the fabric sits on her delicate white skin… I could cry! 0:33 Wait a second, I think I’ve seen them before. That’s right! I picked them out for her when we went shopping a while back. Lilly was so embarrassed about it, it was so cute! 0:50 Guh… I could stare at them forever. 0:75 Stare… 0:87 Stare… 0:99 Stare… Bah! What am I doing?

                One second.

                Lilly reached the front of the house, Rea uneasily shuffling around in place as she got closer.

                “Good morning.”

                “Lillychi! Hey!”

                “You all right today?”

                “Yeah I’m all white, I mean right!” Rea stuttered. Lilly eyed her suspiciously. A light hum buzzed in the back of her head.

               “Pervert.”

                Their arrival to the school was swift, and so was the school day. Lilly and Rea head up to the club for another afternoon, greeted by Ayase and Megumi. The stay isn’t long, since Ayase skipped with anticipation in her step as they got there. “Let’s go get Yuki!” she says as she darted out the door past the pair, leaving the rest of the S.O.L. behind in confusion. That’s not true, I knew what this was about.

                “Come on guys, I think Ayase wants us to meet back at the old shed,” Lilly said.

                The girls do just that, standing by the shed, waiting for their enthusiastic junior. I wish I weren’t back here so soon though. From a corner of the building, Ayase trotted towards them, Yuki right behind her.

                “I’m glad you have something already, but make it quick,” Yuki said, clearly disinterested.

                “Alright, then I’ll get right to the point,” reaching into her blazer, Ayase took something out of her pocket.

                It’s a Polaroid picture. A profile of a girl. Lilly flashed back to the day before.

                Ears ring. It’s probably been quiet for a good minute now, but Lilly had no idea. Tap. Hmm? Tap tap tap. What? Lilly looked up to see Ayase, hand outstretched. She takes it, and is helped up from the corner of the shed. “You alright?” Ayase asked, her concern genuine.

                She answered in between coughs. “Uh… yeah, don’t worry about it.” Using the light from her phone, she found her discarded blazer, tossed in another corner, covered in dust. Picking it up, she tried to clean it off. Ayase opened the door in the meantime, finally letting in some light. They both move about in silence. Lilly noted her lack of any real reaction after that event. It made sense in Ayase’s case, she probably dealt with this sort of thing every day. That ear-splitting scream still echoed in her head, yet she doesn’t bother to respond in any expected manner. It was not like it was frowned upon to do so. Lilly coughed.

                “Sorry, I didn’t warn you about the noise beforehand, but I made sure to soundproof the shed when I closed the doors… hehe…” Tensely, Ayase fixed her hair. She’s like a dog that knew it did something wrong.

                Way to be considerate about literally everyone else besides me. Luckily for you, I forgive easy.

                “Oh here, check this out.” Ayase bent over to pick up something. It rested on top of a pile of an undistinguishable mess. After all that shock, the shed that took a little over a half hours’ work to clean up and organize was now disheveled and demolished. Like an aftermath of a tornado. Great. Ayase handed Lilly the item in her hand.

                “It’s a picture.” Lilly stating the obvious.

                “I know, it must have been buried under all this stuff. Probably got kicked back up from all the commotion of trying the close the time rip.”

                That’s what you call it? Lilly reexamined the picture. The dusty film wore its age more than the shed, the picture itself almost faded and rendered useless as a token of the past. I think I can make out a person on it though. A girl. Definitely a girl. If the fact it was on such an old photograph wasn’t evidence enough, her hairstyle, glasses, and uniform were a lot older than a girl her age would be wearing nowadays. Other than that, there were no striking descript features about her. A shame really, since she wasn’t bad looking at all. Just that everything about her was painfully average, so much so she almost stood out in how much she didn’t. But not really. Lilly gave the picture back to Ayase, after which the clues snap in place.

                “I’m guessing whatever was going on in here has to do with this?”

                “Looks like it,” Ayase aptly said, “I’ll look into it myself, shouldn’t take long.” She repeated that phrase, Lilly holding on to those words as a sign to finally conclude this day. “I’ll go clean up and give back the key, you can head out now,” Ayase said, relieving Lilly from her duty of ultimately doing nothing.

               Ayase shook her head.

                “Ahh… that’s what she meant by this? What a joke.” Ayase’s irritated words cut into the air, not really directed at Lilly. A pang of guilt hit Lilly either way, not wanting to leave a junior to clean up this nightmare of a mess by herself, super-powered or not. She volunteered to help, it was the least she could do.

                Yuki studied the photo for only a second before giving it back. “Okay, who is this?”

                Ayase’s lip twitched in nervousness. “I was, um, hoping you could help with that.”

                “How?” Yuki said sternly.

                “The girl in the photo definitely was from this school, I recognize the uniform being the ones used before the school switched to our current ones. See the insignia on the blazer here? It’s a bit different, and even the design of jacket and skirt are different. It’s subtle.” Ayase placed her finger on various points on the picture. The ones that were still distinguishable, at least.

                “And you want me to see if I can find a record of this student in the old archives, based on this shoddy picture?” Yuki briefly summed up Ayase’s idea.

                “If you could please?” Ayase asked, her voice high and hand clasped together. Yuki too was a third year, but Lilly noticed how differently Ayase treated the both of them. Considering Yuki’s position, it made sense, but come on…

                Reluctantly, Yuki accepted. “Fine, I’ll see what I can do, since I’m still here.” She takes back the picture, gripping it tight. “You can head back to your club room, I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Turning on her heels, she clicked her tongue and walked away.

                As Yuki left, the girls do as she suggested, and returned to the club room. Ayase filled in Rea and Megumi on how she found the photo, how she decided to go back and have a second look in the shed. She left out the detail of both the anomaly and Lilly accompanying Ayase during the outing. Lilly figured it was for Rea’s sake. Rea wasn’t all too concerned by this, and immediately changed the subject.

                “Hey, I’m kinda hungry… I know! We should all go get some, um, dammit I can’t remember!” Rea repeatedly tapped her fist on the table.

               Hey, watch your language,” Lilly said, not appreciating Rea’s choice words.

               Rea was clearly not paying attention to what was being told to her, nor to what she was saying. “Damn, damn, dammit, maybe it was fish?”

               “What are you, Lord Jabu-Jabu?”

               Megumi chuckled at Lilly and Rea.

                With Lilly wanting to switch topics, the conversation somehow moved to some new metal album Rea recently bought. A one-sided discussion, however, since neither Lilly or Megumi had ever heard of the band Rea was going on about, and simply decided to nod along as she rambled. Yuki, not gone for too long, walked in to interrupt. “Here, all I managed to find is a name, see for yourself.” She handed back to Ayase the picture and a paper, with the only the name printed. “Yoya Nouko. I doubt it rings any bells.”

                “It doesn’t, but thanks again!” Ayase analyzed both clues with glee. “If we can learn about who this is, and why there isn’t any other information on her, maybe we can appease whatever spirits are in that shed!”

                “Heh, maybe.” Yuki scoffed. Lilly eyes her. I’m not too fond of all this too, but you are the one who gave us this case. What’s up with you?

                And now, Lilly knew of three crucial things regarding the girl in the timeworn Polaroid picture. Her name was Yoya Nouko, she was a student at this school, and she was very much dead.

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Chapter 12 – ‘This haunting,’

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                A week had passed since Lilly and Rea’s induction into the Society of Occult Literature (shortened to S.O.L. by Lilly and S.O.O.L. by Rea, much to Ayase’s chagrin), and already the initial novelty of the club has faded, and even that became routine.

                In that first week of fleeing to the third floor of the club facility building into the ancient club room, the itinerary consisted of sitting in silence to read the books off of the dusty bookshelf, and maybe hold the occasional discussion on what they have been reading. This time, Megumi toiled away at her stationery and book, Lilly and Ayase read some ghost detective novel from the club’s personal collection, and Rea either sat bored, played with Megumi or Lilly, or if it got really bad, attempted to catch up on homework.

                Even the supernatural happenings were handled in a timely and orderly fashion; Lilly’s mind reading hasn’t gone out of hand since that day on the hill, and if Lilly and Rea body swapped, they were in the same room anyways, safe as it can be. Yes, it was the closest thing to ‘normal’ Akiyama Lilly and Haruko Rea have experienced in a long, long time. Perhaps it was well deserved.

                That is, until she walked in.

                Unbeknownst to the new members, due to the niche nature of the S.O.L., in order to fit into a criteria of being a school club, the club needs to partake in activities that ‘enrich the academic atmosphere of Shouai Junior High.’ Apparently weekly book discussions amongst academic peers weren’t enough. They’ve got to get the bookworms up and moving somehow. Because of this, one of the club’s activities was to take on cases provided by other students. However, even that has its own criteria to follow.

               1. IT MUST NOT be something serious that involves the police.

               2. IT MUST be solvable within the week the case was given.

               3. IT MUST be something relating to the paranormal or the occult.

               4. IT MUST also be understandable that some cases are, from the start, rendered unsolvable due to the tricky subject of relating to the paranormal or the occult.

               5. IT MUST be fun.

                With these five points, the S.O.L. never received anything their way, the offer of the activity instead acting as a placeholder to get the school policy off their backs. Megumi once told a story of how a boy came by last Halloween for a particularly interesting mystery, but that was to entertain the seniors of the club at the time. They were all in on the joke. Regardless, no ever came in for consultation, nor was there any real need to do so.

                That is, until she walked in.

                A third year. Her face wore zero concern, and her voice held that same note. Long black hair with the bangs straight-cut. She carried a mature air of authority, warranted since it’s Suzuki Yuki, the student council president. Sitting at the rectangular table, Ayase sat across from her, deciding to see what business the student council president had with the Society of Occult Literature.

                “So,” Ayase started, “what have you come here for?”

                “It… Your club posters said you do investigations.”

                “Considering the type of club we are, I can accurately guess what type of matter is at hand?”

                Yuki didn’t answer, instead observing the club room. If a stranger didn’t know any better, they wouldn’t think this room housed a club like this. Besides the common thematic thread the books on the shelf shared, there were no decorations or ornaments to suggest an occult club resides here. Not even a plastic skull.

                Lilly, Rea, and Megumi stand by in the corner of the room, watching the two talk, ever curious to what this could be about. She seems oddly calm, but is this a prank? And if it isn’t a prank, what the heck are we getting ourselves into?

                “Alright, continue.”

                “I’ve been getting complaints about a haunting at the school.”

                The club members’ ears perked. This was interesting. And terrifying.

                Ayase leaned in. “You’re going to have to be more specific.”

                “It’s the old storage shed, just right by this building.”

                By the building? Please don’t suggest we’ve been neighbors to a haunted room this whole time!

                “Okay. What’s the story?”

                “During after school meetings with the rest of the student council, we read out reports received from the rest of the student body, and depending on how serious, how we decide to go about handling them. Lately we’ve been receiving more reports about supposedly paranormal events that are taking place at that old shed. Like tennis racquets and soccer balls moving on their own, and voices.”

                “What do these voices say?”

                “‘Play with me, play with me.’”

                Lilly and Rea exchanged glances. At least I’m not the only one freaked out by this. Megumi however began to grow ecstatic. Ayase prods on for more information.

                “How do you know it wasn’t some of prank?”

                “We thought that as well, but there’s been one too many reports about this, and nothing is gained in terms of pranking with just a large pile of written testimonies.”

                “Hmm?”

                “Obviously I don’t believe it. I had another student council member go out there yesterday, and they said they saw a shadow move inside. Of course, I doubted him.” Yuki’s tone sounds like an actor reading off a script.

                Rea scratched her head. Lilly also was confused at the whole thing, what did the student council president herself expect a club like this to do? An exorcism? A supernatural battle? Some kind of TV special?

                Miss Akiyama, Miss Akiyama. Try to see if she’s telling the truth.

                Ayase’s voice intruded into Lilly’s head, a buzzing sensation accompanying it. Lilly saw Ayase turn back in her chair and look at Lilly, expectantly. Are you serious? Uh… Fine! Lilly scanned Yuki more closely.

                Radio interference.

                Lilly had accepted that as a natural weakness of her power, so she shrugged, and Ayase drooped in her seat. It made a skid noise. The only option was to take Yuki’s word for it.

                “Okay, then, what would you like us to do?” Ayase questioned.

                “I honestly don’t expect you to do anything, but the student council is very busy this time of year, we don’t want to waste our own time over something like this.” So you’d rather us waste our time? Lilly argued in silence. Then why come to us at all? This whole thing seems off.

                After her hearing, the girls leave the club room to inspect the storage shed, Yuki going elsewhere to attend to other work. But not before leaving them the key. In a blink they’re in front of the shed. Like the old school building it accompanied, age has not been kind to this sad structure. Yuki’s story fresh in their minds, the shed doors were as eerie as a gate to a crypt.

                “Um… I’m gonna open it now,” Rea said, holding the key.

                “Yes please, Rea.” Ayase replied.

                None of the girls wanted to admit it, but the hair on the back of their necks stood straight. Who knew what sorts of terror could possibly lie behind those doors? Rea’s fingers twitched as she inserted the key, her heart beating faster as the knob creaked when slowly turned. She was sure Lilly was reacting in the same way. A hard push, and the door creaked louder and louder. Some light from outside filled the shed, but not much.

                Please don’t be a ghost, please don’t be a ghost, please don’t be a ghost!

                The door swung its full arc, a still silence meeting them inside. Nothing. A letdown it was. But the girls stay on guard, cautiously walking in. It’s old in here. A dust filled time capsule of a year long gone. Smaller on the inside, sports equipment filled the interior, with hardly any room left for the four girls to stand around comfortably. Lilly almost tripped over a tennis ball.

                “Alright, um, let’s look around here and see what we can find,” Ayase ordered.

                The four get right to work. Being so old, there was no light switch to illuminate the shed, so Lilly squints in trying to find whatever it was they were looking for. What exactly are we doing?

                Supposedly, the task was to find anything suspicious or out of the ordinary, but no one knew what that entailed. Well, if we knew what to look for, it wouldn’t be suspicious, Lilly guessed. Not wanting to be deadweight, she snuck glances at the others. Rea and Megumi were attentively sifting through deflated basketballs and dirty baseballs; Lilly a tad disappointed there.

                Ayase, on the other hand, reclined on a clean portion of an otherwise dusty wall, like she’s already finished up and found something. In truth, she probably has. Lilly picked up an old soccer net. It’s covered in cobwebs. Gross.

                Forty minutes pass, nothing of note. Ayase, silently appointed by the others to be the leader of this operation, called it a day. On the bright side, the shed is significantly more organized. Receiving the key from Rea, Ayase volunteered to bring it back to Yuki. The rest are among the last few students who haven’t left, and thus they hurry along. Leaving the school, they split to their respective abodes.

                Rea is dropped off at her home, and Lilly has her hand on the doorknob to hers. Zzzt. Zzzt. Her phone vibrated.

                Lilly read the message once and again. The peaceful end to the day waited for her just past that door, like a dog patient for its master. And in spite of that, an odd feeling beckoned her to turn right around and comply with the message. Curiosity? Maybe. Either way, Lilly decided to give into that desire for once. She sent her reply.

                A brisk walk. Ten minutes tops. Ayase stood by the still-open gates. The entire school grounds had an evening glow. It’s like a whole new school.

                “Took you long enough,” Ayase said, greeting Lilly. “Actually, I did invite you, so I’m no position to criticize your punctuality.”

                “Yes, so you were better off saying nothing at all,” Lilly swung back. “Rather, if you were to say something, you should tell me why you called me back here.”

                “That’s fair,” Ayase said, “we’ll talk and walk.”

                “Hey!” Lilly pointed a finger at her to interrupt. “Don’t you wink at me.”

                They head back to the old facility, their true destination coming into view.

                “Do the teachers know we’re still on campus? Aren’t some of them walking around the school for people like us right about now?”

                Ayase replied. “I let them know beforehand, as long as we’re done in an hour, we’ll be fine.”

                She let a second pass.

                “It shouldn’t take long.”

                Now they reached the shed once again. Ayase fumbled pulling out the key, and inserted it into the lock.

                “Before I open the door, let me ask you something.”

                “Hmm?” Lilly hummed.

                “How much energy does it take for a human being to stay alive?”

                I’d rather not think about it.

                “Like, joules?” Lilly said. “Watts? Calorie? Are we talking about food?”

                Ayase snickered. “It takes a lot.”

                That was lame.

                Ayase took her point and begins to run. “Anyways, it takes a surprising amount of energy to properly maintain the functions and general operation of the human body. Not even talking about the brain. That’s why we eat, sleep, and such other. Now, what happens to all that energy if the body dies?”

                I’d rather not think about it.

                “It decays. Generally, when someone dies of natural causes, the body’s energy will dissipate at a constant and gradual rate. Nothing special. So then, what happens if someone were killed violently, and-or instantly?”

                I’d especially rather not think about that! And wait, why did you call me out here again!?

                Ayase lightened her tone. “Don’t worry, you’re fine. It’s a rhetorical question. If the aforementioned situation were to occur, we get something interesting. Usually. If the aforementioned situation were to occur, that body’s energy would decay at a significantly faster rate. Essentially instantaneous. Instead of a slow burning candle, it’d be similar to detonating a pack of TNT.”

                “And what’s your point?” Lilly said, probing for one.

                “The point is, due to that instant surge of energy, it can affect the general area of incidence. And if the right conditions are met, it can affect the very flow of space-time in that area. We get an anomaly.”

                I don’t know where you’re going with this, and I’m not sure I like it.

                “If someone were killed or died suddenly, it can cause this anomaly. A small tear in the space-time composition. As more time passes between the past and the present, that hole can grow larger, and begin to cause problems in the present.”

                “Like what?” Lilly offered to take the bait.

                “Well, it’s not like time travel, rather a time glimpse. A thin overlap between the past and the present. Using that distinction, those in the present can look back to and hear – or see – things that took place in the past. If the energy decay rate is strong enough, it may even affect the present directly. If someone picked up or moved something in the past, that energy may transfer and move something in the present. That includes disembodied voices, shadows moving in the corner of your eye, or…”

                “Tennis racquets and soccer balls being thrown by themselves,” the concept clicks in Lilly’s head.

                “Exactly! Most will come to the conclusion that after a tragic death, the results are ghosts or hauntings, but as you can see, it’s a bit different.”

                “What about the voice that Yuki mentioned? ‘Play with me, play with me?’”

                “Her reports said it the voices came from within this shed. You don’t think, at one point in the last – oh I don’t know – twenty years, no one said those words anywhere in there?”

                A sepia tone scene of two girls rummaging through sports tools for something to play with ran in Lilly’s imagination. I guess that isn’t out of the question. “So you’re telling me all of this because…”

                Ayase shrugged. “Just so you know, since you came along. You make a good duck.”

                “A what?”

                “Anyways, I actually knew about the shed already, but it’s another low level one, so I didn’t bother with it.”

                “Then why deal with it now?”

                “The student council president asked us to.”

                Concluding her lecture, Ayase turned the key. They enter the dark shed, the doors closing behind them.

                Per Ayase’s orders, the plan was to sit and wait… for whatever, Ayase left out that detail. The shed’s contents keep the space cramped, and they were forced to huddle together on a box. Due to the lack of a light switch, Lilly and Ayase’s faces glow from their phones, surrounded by darkness.

                Anxiety kicked in.

                Sweat slides down Lilly’s brow. What if someone came in here, seeing two girls next to each other in a dark shed? This was what Lilly was worried over, which was to say she didn’t have any real concerns being in there. Whatever did happen, Ayase at least acted like she knew what she was doing, Lilly found some comfort in that. But, it was dark. Even a wild boar has some qualms about what it can’t see, doesn’t it?

                “Can’t we leave the door open? It’s getting too hot in here.” Lilly removed her blazer and starts unbuttoning her shirt. This would really look bad now.

                “We can’t risk having a random bystander coming by at a wrong time. Relax, it shouldn’t be long now.”

                Alright, fine. Lilly fanned out her shirt to cool down. Hold on. If the anomaly is based on sudden and-or violent deaths like Ayase said, then… then!

                And as if on a schedule, a spectacular event began to show its face. A wild scream emitted from nowhere. Things flew through the air. Everything within the shed rattled to produce a violently orchestrated uproar. As intense as an earthquake. It is loud. Loud. Loud loud loud. Ear drums weren’t meant to handle a sound of this magnitude.

                Lilly figuratively jumped out of her skin; thankfully the laws of reality bound and tethered her to her human shape. She ducked to a corner and covered her head. To contrast, Ayase got up slowly, keeping her cool. She stretched like a jogger would when they warmed up.

                “Yosh, it’s time!”

                Using her finger, she pressed three points in the air into a triangle, leaving a rippling effect. Suddenly the points glow, growing in intensity and submerging the shed into a white light. Whatever Lilly did – shutting her eyes, covering them – white engulfed everything she could see. Wind and chaos picked up in strength all around her. She knew if she yelled she wouldn’t hear her own voice. What’s happening, what’s happening, what’shappening what’shappeningwhat’shappening!!

                Before this calamity began, even in the dark, Lilly swore she saw a shadow move in the corner of her eye.

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Chapter 11 – ‘This month,’

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<– side story 1

                “Are you sure it’s okay?”

                “Yes, yes, please come in!”

                “We don’t want to intrude…”

                “You’re not, I promise. I’m the one inviting you!”

                The club room sat in a separate facility away from the main school building. Occupied mostly by clubs that don’t require a specialized room or equipment to store. Pretty much anything that wasn’t a sport. And that included the club Lilly and Rea were invited to visit now after school.

                “I didn’t know you were in a club. The room… is a bit…”

                ‘Old,’ Rea. The word you’re looking for is ‘old.’

                It’s an accurate description. A few cracks along the ceiling and walls were but a small piece of evidence regarding its age. Every step produced a creak on the wooden floor. The sparse décor made the room look even larger. The only things that seem to be in regular use were the long rectangular table, metal chairs, and a bookshelf, but even the shelf has its own small private collection of dust. To be fair, there was a large extension of the room that housed what appeared to be gardening equipment. A few pots hang from the ceiling, and soil scoop shovels litter the desks in that area. But it looks like it hasn’t been touched in years.

                “Oh that? That’s from the old Botany Club, but they disbanded a long time ago. Apparently they used to take care of the flowerbed in the back of the school,” Ayase explained.

                She stepped forward to the center of the room, and does a spin while stretching out her arms.

                “Welcome to our Refuge of Recluses! Our Center of Chaos! The Headquarters of Hell! This is the Society of Occult Literature!” Ayase wore her pride in the dingy club room like a badge.

                “S.O.L.?” Lilly asked.

                “Or S.O.O.L.” Rea added.

                “It doesn’t matter,” Ayase flatly retorted. “Ah, here’s the club president now!” She pointed to someone behind Lilly and Rea, directing their attention to them.

                “H-hello,” Megumi said. Wait, Megumi is in a club. And she’s the president?

                “What a surprise, Megumi, I didn’t know you were into this kind of stuff,” Lilly said.

                “M-hmph.” Megumi walked past the three others and had her seat at the table, a window letting in orange sunlight gave her an ambient glow. There it is, Lilly thought, I thought the room was missing something. “P-please don’t mind me,” Megumi said as she took out a stationery and book. ‘Ghosts and Ghouls and Where to Find Them.’ Who would have thought?

                Rea joined Megumi at the table. “Wow, you never told me about this!” She proceeded to strike up a conversation with the shyer girl, one-sided as it is. They simultaneously pushed their glasses up with their finger. Cute.

                Lilly talked to Ayase. “You too, I never pegged you as the occult-loving type.”

                “Naturally,” said Ayase, “for me, it comes with the job description. Although, it is like knowing the answer to a riddle before it’s given to you.” There was that wink again.

                Lilly exhaled an ‘hmph’ sound and folded her arms. Don’t be so smug about it.

                The door behind them swings wider open, and then a loud knock. Everyone followed the sound.

                Their brown hair sat at shoulder length. Curves and proportions well set and in all the right places. Green eyes like jade marble. A thick mature aura exuded from them like armor. If this happened to be a time traveling Ayase from the future, everybody in the room would believe it, but in reality there’s a simpler explanation for the identity of the beauty who descended upon this lowly club room.

                “Hello, Sis,” Ayase greeted her sister.

                “Hey,” said Ayane, her tone indicating that she was here for business. “Showing your seniors your club?”

                “Mmm,” Ayase submissively nodded. Her body language folded inward. It was like Ayane flipped a switch on Ayase. Frightening for sure, to have such power over one’s little sister. Wait… if Ayase works for that organization thing, then does Ayane…

                As if she heard that thought, Ayane directed herself to Lilly. Keeping that cold glare. Lilly froze.

                “Has my sister been of any trouble to you?” Ayane asked.

                “Eh? Um, n-not at all!” Catching Lilly off guard, she stuttered her reply. Was she ever this scary?

                “I see. That’s good.” Ayane lightened up, letting her shoulders loosen. If one used a magnifying lens they may see a hint of a grin. “I just wanted to check on all of you, that’s all.” Satisfied, she left the room, but not before strictly telling Ayase to not stay out too late, despite having club activities. And also not before giving Lilly an assuring nod. Whatever that meant. And just like that, Ayane left as quickly as she entered.

                Ayase uneasily laughed, trying to brush away the odd exchange. Megumi had already lost interest and went back to what she was doing, whatever it was, and Rea continued to talk her up a storm. Lilly felt a tap on the shoulder.

                “So, what do you think of our humble little club?”

                “What? Yeah, sure.”

                “It’s quiet since it’s just me and Megumi, but that can be fun on its own too.”

                “Yeah I bet.”

                “For the next festival, we wanted to do a haunted house. It’d be a tough undertaking since it’s such a big project and we don’t have very many members.”

                “Oh, good luck then.”

                Ayase, exasperated, took it in stride.

                “You know, I was hoping you’d come to asking to join our club on your own. You’re not attuned to picking up on hints are you?”

                Huh? “Why?” Lilly said, not meaning to be rude, just simply out of curiosity.

                “The club could use a few more members. There is a vice president, but he never comes to meetings. I think it’d be good for Megumi too, since you guys are good friends. Plus, it’d be easier to keep track of you two.” It would be redundant to mention she winked again, but she did. What kind of underclassman is this?

                “Hmm, I’m not sure.” As a proud member of the Going Home Club, everyday Lilly looked forward to retreating back home after that school bell rang. Also it’s October, it’d be so late into the year to join a club now. But the idea of a literature club did seem enticing, especially since the members were all people she already knew. Anticipating her hesitation, Ayase motioned over to the bookshelf, and started advertising the different books on display with several ‘Ooos’ and ‘Aahs.’

                Ignoring her bit, Lilly called out to Rea, still at the table. “What do you think, Rea? Do you want to join this club?”

                Rea put a finger on her lip and thought it over. A bit of a wasted gesture since she came to her answer immediately. “If you do it I will! Plus Megumi’s here too!” For emphasis, she hugged Megumi like a newly won carnival prize. Megumi reacted like how Megumi would.

                “I guess that’s that,” Lilly said to Ayase, who was delighted by the results. “We’ll take advantage of your offer, please take of us.” Lilly bowed. “In the context of the club, you’re our senior, right?”

                Ayase waved her hand to dismiss that idea. “No, that’s not necessary! Moreover, I’m happy you’re going to be members! I have a feeling this will be an interesting year.” In no way could Lilly disagree with that sentiment.

                And with that, a week from the arcade incident, Lilly and Rea submit their resignation from the Going Home Club, and right away became new members of the Society of Occult Literature. A month passed since their joining. And what happened in that month was nothing short of unbelievable.

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<– side story 1

Chapter 10 – ‘This anomaly,’

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                                                                                                                                                                side story 1–>

                If you were to open up a dictionary and look up the word ‘anomaly,’ it would give you… “Deviation from the normal order, form, or rule; abnormality. Something unusual, irregular, or abnormal.” ‘Abnormal,’ huh? I guess so. You know, I don’t really monologue to myself all that often – I mean, who does – but is it too much to ask for someone like me to stay in the background and mind my own business? I mean, come on, that sentiment lasted me this long, and it was pretty good up until now. I don’t mind sitting back and letting others be more outgoing, I can enjoy myself by just watching. I don’t need to expend all that energy, in fact it gets too tiring to do so. But now all this stuff is happening… It’s something I didn’t realize I took for granted. Being normal. I’m not that anymore. Oh but I still want to be… I’m sorry if I’m coming off as too overdramatic, but you may not understand where I’m coming from. Or maybe you do and you still want me to shut it. Sorry then. But… I suppose there is a bright side. You’re here with me, right? You’ve always been here, for these last ten years. If I can remember that, then maybe one day I’ll be okay with being ‘abnormal.’

                My little ray of light…

                Ayase snapped her fingers again, and a stone bench materialized in front of her. Literally out of thin air. She walked over and took a seat on one half of the bench. It’s so silent here, and her footsteps ring out into the empty space. “Care to join me?” she asked Lilly.

                “Uh…” Lilly was at a loss of words. What was there to say if you were in an arcade and then suddenly transported to some mysterious area? Nothing but sky in every conceivable angle, like an empty snow globe. Even the ‘floor’ they were on was invisible. Considering her surroundings, Lilly could have ran in any direction, until Ayase and the bench were just a dot, and she would most likely not encounter anything else but more clouds. Left with little choice, Lilly sat next to Ayase.

                Upon closer inspection, the bench had an intricate Victorian design, a leaf motif and flower pattern that was as inviting to sit on as it was comfortable. But it was a design that existed exclusively in a closed off section of a park, known solely by two people.

                “How do you know about this bench?” Lilly asked while sitting down.

                “I don’t know about it myself, but using psychoanalyzation I determined what would be the most suitable design for you to be at ease with. Is it not to your liking?”

                “It’s creepy. If you wanted it to be suitable, we would still be in the arcade.”

                “Fair enough.” Another snap, and the bench morphed into a generic wooden bench, a replica of the ones at their school. “But it’s important we stay here, I don’t want to risk any interruptions.”

                Interruptions from what? Where are we? Endless blue skies surrounded Lilly and Ayase. It’s so bright here, but there was no sight of the sun or any other source of light. Like this place simply enveloped the essence of ‘dazzling’ and ‘clear.’ A beautiful sight to behold, the disturbing means of getting here aside.

                Lilly spoke without thinking. “So where are we, exactly?”

                Ayase answered with a hint of pride. “We’re in a Taschenraum. Normally you aren’t granted access to create your own so early, but I guess I’m lucky!”

                Yeah, that makes sense, thanks. Lilly sat in wait for an actual explanation.

                Ayase spoke up again after a pause. “I guess I’ll go first. And then I’ll answer any questions you may have. What do you say?”

                Lilly wore her sarcasm on her sleeve. “You know what? That sounds like a great idea.”

                Ayase laughed. “Good to know!” She took in a deep breath to indicate a shift in tone, and began to make her case. “Things happen in this world, Miss Akiyama. Things that most people wouldn’t have the mental capabilities of understanding. Sometimes they’re inconsequential and pose no real danger. Sometimes they can threaten the whole universe. Either way, that’s where we come in.”

                We? Lilly repeated.

                “I belong to an Organization that deals in those matters. We’re like journalists,” Ayase said, winking to Lilly. “We report and keep record of the various ‘irregular’ occurrences happening all across the world. And then some. What that means specifically is hard to put into terms for humans like you to understand.”

                Is that some sort of insult? Lilly raised a thick eyebrow.

                “But what does that mean for you? Hmm… well, I’ve been assigned to oversee you and your development. You are what we refer to as an ‘anomaly,’ or a ‘phenomenon.’ A very interesting one actually. Do you know why all these things have been happening to you lately? To put it simply… you’re the source of it.”

                Now that was a shock. “How, how is that possible?!” Lilly rushed her words in disbelief.

                Ayase still spoke with a calm demeanor. “That maintains a mystery. I don’t know how it came about yet. But what I do know is this, the first report of data regarding your status as an ‘anomaly’ was recorded about three weeks ago, sometime early September. We refer to that as the ‘ground zero’ of an anomaly.”

                Three weeks ago in September? That had to be my birthday! The revelations continued to pile upon Lilly. She was lucky she was already sitting down to properly take in all this information. “Okay… what else?” She hesitated to ask, nervous to what the answer may be.

                “What else? Like I said, you’re the source your own powers. Although, you actually share a unique causality relationship with one other person. That in and of itself is an irregularity. Can you guess who it is?”

                “…” I couldn’t imagine.

                “Haruko Rea.”

                The name echoed in Lilly’s head. A clear image of Rea’s face came to her. And suddenly some pieces fell into place. That’s why I’ve only been switching bodies with her! And why she can tell if I read her mind! But why is this all happening in the first place? What exactly is a ‘causality relationship?’

                “Haruko Rea seems to have an insurmountable influence over your developing powers, despite having not once displayed any of her own,” Ayase continued, “to make a comparison, it’d be like a dam controlling a river’s flow.” She peeked at Lilly’s face. Still confused, huh? She kept going.

                “Her state of being is strongly tethered to your powers, more than yours are for sure. What that entails exactly has not yet been fully observed. Allow me to guess, you have limited control over some powers but none for others, right? Are you getting all of this?” Ayase talked to a blank Lilly, staring off at a cloud floating by.

                “Yeah… I mean… yeah…” was all Lilly managed to mumble. Are you kidding? This is getting harder and harder to follow!

                Ayase smiled. It really is a lot to take in in such a short amount of time. “I’m sorry if this feels like overload,” she said. “I have a colleague who was much colder. No one would believe her when she tried to explain-”

                “Are you done?” Lilly now rubbed the palm of her hands together, as if she too can create some sense of normality out of nothing. All things considered, it might not be out of the question.

                “Not yet,” the brunette gave a meek smile, like a waitress trying to apologize for a long wait. “Please bear with me.” Another second to find the words. “Oh yes. The reason why you, and by extension Rea, are so intriguing is that you’re indeed human. Anomalies typically consist of dimensional vortexes or time dilation improbabilities – you know, the usual – but it’s extremely rare that one would manifest as a human. It’s… interesting, to say the least.” The complicated jargon flew over Lilly’s head, into a cumulonimbus.

                Lilly was about to interject, “…ah-”

                “However,” (Lilly shuts her mouth), “you’re still classified as low level. Low level anomalies are only observed and hardly dealt with. In addition, and because of that, they’re actually quite difficult to erase.” That answered one of Lilly’s questions; are you going to help me get rid of this? “So you pose no threat to the universe at large. You’ve got that going for you, which is good.”

                Lilly shifted in her seat. “Awesome.” She racked her brain a little more. “What about you then? What’s the difference between you and me? I mean, you’re the one who brought us here, to this Ta-, Tasch-, Tack-, place! Aren’t you an anomaly too?”

                Ayase fixed her hair. “You have a good eye! It may be construed as such, but there is a distinct difference. To study and report on all the phenomena that occur, the Organization grants me and my colleagues ‘access’ so we can manipulate what we need to in order to properly do our job. Producing a Taschenraum is one of those accesses I’m allowed. These powers aren’t my own. I have limits in place. You, on the other hand, are not bound to anything.”

                “Then what are you? An alien? A time traveler? Some sort of slider or esp-”

                Ayase giggled. “I guarantee you I am also human. You… can check me if you want to.” She says this while blushing.

                “That… won’t be necessary.”

                A few clouds drift over the girls’ heads, blocking some invisible light source and shading the two. This small, delayed moment gave Lilly some odd seconds to wrap her head around the situation. She hated to admit it, but it was gorgeous in how surreal it was. She entertained the idea of showing Rea this place, what would she think of it? Speaking of which…

                Lilly rapid fired her remaining questions.

                “So you really can’t do anything about this?”

                “I’m sorry, but there’s not much I can do for you in that regard. My job is to observe and report on the both of you. And on the other hand, even if I could do something, I can’t observe an anomaly that no longer exists, haha.” She made that weak, apologetic smile again.

                “But this is just a phase, right? It’ll go away right?”

                “Who’s to say? The good news is, low level anomalies tend to deal with themselves, and dematerialize on their own, but…” She looked away. “There may be a chance it will go away by itself. Or not. Just being realistic.”

                “Hah!” Lilly exhaled. Absolutely fantastic. Scratching her cheek, she thinks of anything else to ask. Oh right…

                “Have you told Rea?”

                Ayase swung her feet, looking down towards more sky. “The thing is, you’re only a low level anomaly right now because she doesn’t know. It’s unclear what effect it would have on the phenomena surrounding you should she be aware of them. My reports conclude that informing you won’t yield the same risks though. If you want to tell her, I won’t stop you, but it’s just a warning. I think it’s best if we left her out of it for now.”

                “Taking the heat off of yourself in case the universe ceases to be, huh? Nice move.”

                “You know, you’re very sarcastic when you get troubled about something.”

                “N-! No way!”

                Lilly coughed. Ayase found this all funny, in one way or another. Lilly was not fond of Ayase’s just-another-day manner of speaking. Like this was all normal for her. Though her in case, it was. She pondered more on what to ask about, might as well milk as much info as I can.

                She expressed a fear she’s held since coming to this enigma of an environment. “Why tell me all of this then? Are you trying to recruit me to fight aliens, or pilot a robot, or…” she gulped, “be a magical girl?” Lilly shuddered at the thought of a frilly pink dress and heart-shaped wands. Ayase had a confused face before laughing even harder.

                “Ha ha ha! Of course not! What a strange concern, Miss Akiyama!” Now a little embarrassed, Lilly asked again.

                “Well?”

                Ayase regained her composure. “I’m telling you this because you, at least, deserved to know. It must have frustrating to deal with all of this in the dark. My reports concluded that, unlike Rea, giving you all this information won’t run the same risks, and judging from the fact that you and I are still intact, that conclusion is correct.” She stands up, walking on air a few paces away from the bench, and stretched, her back facing Lilly. Thinking aloud all the while. “Uwah! I was so nervous! I actually wanted us to talk way earlier, but I guess Rea never did deliver you my letter. At least it worked out anyways!” Naturally, Lilly has no clue what she’s talking about.

                “… Then what?” was all Lilly had the will power to say by this point.

                In return, she received a smile brighter than anything in recent memory. There was even a dimple on the left side. The cloud passes over, the light hitting her face. Maybe that was what was illuminated this place this whole time. “We’re all young, right? Try to enjoy it if you can. Don’t worry, it’s my job to make sure nothing gets too out of hand. And who knows, maybe you’ll learn a thing or two about yourself!” Ayase’s cute wink was like icing on a cake.

                Lilly leaned back onto the bench. Somehow, that helped in easing Lilly into all of this. Maybe, just maybe, being an anomaly won’t be such a bad thing. Who knows how long until that backfires? she thought.

                Ayase did a little wiggle with her index finger. “Hmm, I think that’s enough for today! I don’t mean to keep you away from your girlfriend for too long!”

                “My g-! What?! I mean, she not, well- It’s like, you see-!” Lilly almost fell out of her seat.

                “Don’t tell me you two just have a causality relationship!” Ayase teased.

                Ayase snapped her fingers once more. Glass-like shards emerged from the clouds and began to form and fuse around Lilly and Ayase, reconstructing the image of the arcade. Soon the shards finished their job, and they’re back exactly where they were standing beforehand. The noisy atmosphere came back as well. It’s as if they never left.

                It was Ayase who leaves first. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep it to myself!” she said as she passed Lilly. Lilly herself perturbed by that tongue-in-cheek tone. Ayase’s image of the cute and docile underclassman was destroyed entirely. “Oh, and give it another ten seconds before you head out too!”

                Huh? Lilly thought, and with that, Lilly was alone. She didn’t see any tangible reason to not trust Ayase by now, so she starts to count in her head. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine

                “Lilly? Where are you?”

                Rea appeared soon after, her deduction regarding Lilly’s whereabouts successful. “Why are you still holed up in here?” Judging from her actions, they must not have been gone for too long. Certainly felt like they were.

                “I have a headache,” Lilly truthfully answered, “so I’m staying here for a bit.”

                Rea grabbed Lilly’s hand, and tugged her along. “Well come on then! We haven’t played together yet!”

                She stumbled forward from Rea’s pulling. “Alright alright!” After everything that just happened, maybe a game or two won’t hurt.

                The rest of the day unfolds peacefully. Lilly kept a close eye on both Rea and Megumi, although those worries were unheeded. Everything turned out okay. Even Saori was manageable enough. And even Lilly and Ayase got a game in together.

                After the arcade they went out to grab some lunch and crêpes, Lilly and Rea splitting one between them. They concluded their afternoon excursion right after, the party of six going their separate ways back home. Lilly and Rea took Megumi back to her home, and Lilly dropped Rea off at hers. The sun has set by the time Lilly returned to a home cooked meal, courtesy of her father. All in all, a simultaneously very hectic and very relaxing day, strangely enough.

                In the end I never did tell Rea about everything. Maybe I’ll tell her when I think she’s ready.

               Can’t I just pretend that all this never happened? That’d be nice.

                Night came sharp on time. Lilly lies down in her room, drifting in and out of a state of wake and sleep, her body gripped in a dreary embrace of rest. She waited for the darkness of her room to swiftly carry her to the next morning. The phrases ‘anomaly,’ ‘phenomenon,’ insurmountable influence,’ and ‘relationship’ hop over fences in her head instead of sheep. Zzzt. Zzzt. Lilly picked up her phone by her desk. The light from the phone forced her to squint. It’s a message from Rea.

                R: “U up?”

                L: “Yes. Barely.”

                R: “LOL!!”

                Whatever this was about, Lilly hoped it was important enough to warrant the blinding hit to her vision.

                L: “Did you need anything?”

                R: “Did u have fun today?”

                Lilly decided if she should tell the truth or spare her feelings.

                L: “Beside another instance of body snatching, I did.”

                R: “YAAAY! i’m happy 4 u!”

                L: “That’s sweet.”

                Carefully typing and choosing her characters, Lilly figured she asked Rea about something that’s been on her mind the whole day. They were both up anyways.

                L: “Hey.”

                R: “???”

                L: “When we switched bodies today, I saw you acting weird with Haru. Is everything okay?”

                A response-less minute slogs by.

                R: “Oh”

                L: “Is there anything bothering you?”

                R: “Nothing, really. It’s hard for me to talk to guys when they think I’m you. It’s sooo annoyinggg!! >__<”

                Wait a minute, if Haru was talking to Rea thinking it was me, then does he…

                L: “And that’s it?”

                R: “that’s it… u don’t have 2 worry about me! K – goodnight! !

                The informal text convinced Lilly that she really was fine. Wishing back a sweet goodnight, Lilly put back the phone and honed back in on the dark ceiling. Huh, I never knew that. Her eyelids start to weigh a ton. She thought about the words Ayase told her in that sky-filled chamber. ‘Who knows, maybe you’ll learn a thing or two about yourself!’ They resonated a clear tone.

                “How much do I really know about everyone, I wonder?”

                Sleep finally drifted her to the next day.

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