“Ryuuko, what’s wrong?” Asumi asked when she noticed I wasn’t eating.
“N-nothing, I’m fine.” I hastily replied.
It was already afternoon and we were on the school rooftop, eating lunch.
“You’re not eating. Is it not to your liking? Or could it be that you’re on a diet?”
“When have you ever seen me dieting?” I replied with a smirk.
“Oh you. Flaunting that body of yours again.”
“Somebody is jealous~” I sang playfully.
“Muumuu…” she mumbled as she went back to eating. “You and your perfect body. You’re truly an enemy of anyone who worked hard to get to where they are.”
“Heh heh… that reminds me. Remember that one summer you gained weight from eating all those mooncakes and desperately tried to diet before school could start?”
“W-w-why are you bringing that up?! I thought we agreed to never, ever speak of that again!” She cried.
“That time you even tried to-“
“LA LA LA LA! I can’t hear you!” She screamed while covering her ears, trying to drown out my voice.
I burst out laughing as she puffed her cheeks out in frustration.
“Oh, will you just eat your lunch already? Hmph!”
I stared at the boxed lunch Asumi had prepared for me. Fried chicken, sweet egg rolls, and rice with pickled radish on the side. All my favorites.
“What is it now?”
“Can you…do you really not notice it? My right arm?” My lips quivered as I asked her.
She tilted her head in confusion. “Your right arm? What about it?”
It was no use.
“Umm…my arm hurts. So, I’m unable to pick up my food.”
“Really? Everything looks fine to me.”
“Yeah. I hurt it while reading last night.”
“Only you, Ryuuko. Only you.” Asumi shook her head. She suddenly moved closer and picked up my boxed lunch.
“What are you doing?” I asked as she held a piece of chicken to my face with her chopsticks.
“You said your arm hurts and you can’t pick up any food, so I’ll feed it to you instead. Say Ah!” She replied with a warm smile.
“T-that’s embarrassing. I still have my left arm, you know.” I moved my left arm to grab my boxed lunch, but she swiftly pulled it away.
“Say Ah!” A sadistic smile spread across her face.
Darn it. Her switch went off again and there was no way to stop it. I was a fool to say it would be embarrassing. That’s what she finds “the most cute” about me. I sighed in resignation and opened my mouth, waiting to be fed.
But nothing came. When I opened my eyes, I saw Asumi barely able to contain herself with laughter.
“Why are you such a terrible person?” I asked, my face turning bright red.
“Oh, there, there. I’ll feed you for real this time, m’kay?” She was patting my head, like an owner would do with a pet.
“I’m real sick of this type of S-play of yours. Watch as my left hand finally let loose and – MMHPH!”
The delicious taste of meat melted in my mouth. A mix of spice and sauce fried to perfection with a delectable crunchy outer shell, yet the inside was so soft and tender. A flavor out of this world wrapped around my tongue with every bite. All my anger washed away the moment it smoothly went down my throat, leaving behind a wonderful aftertaste.
“Were you saying something?”
“Please feed me more, madam.” I requested with my mouth wide opened. “And please cook for me every day for the rest of my life.”
“I’ll think about it.” She giggled.
The sun hung over us, its warm rays shining down over the school as we sat in the shades trying to relax. A cool breeze blew through our hairs and the air was filled with sounds of people on their lunch breaks below. Asumi and I stared up at the endless blue sky, watching as the clouds slowly drifted by. It was a beautiful day…
“I wish every day was like this.”
Asumi’s sudden words startled me.
“Peaceful, perfect days.”
“It’s only midday. It could easily take a turn for the worse within an hour.” I shrugged.
“Oh, Ryuuko you.” She said with a sigh yet was still smiling. “You’ve got to have a positive outlook on a beautiful day like this.”
“R-right…” My heart sunk. Knowing the truth yet, could I tell her? Would there even be a point? After all, she didn’t even noticed my arm or, rather she couldn’t.
“S-say, Asumi…” I stuttered as I gathered my courage to speak. “What if, hypothetically…”
“What if I told you; everything…everything is fake?”
“What do you mean?”
I stared at the ground in silence, avoiding Asumi’s eyes as she awaited my response.
“Have you been influenced by a new story?” She asked.
“Getting strange ideas again from reading. That’s just so like you. Such a simple-minded girl.” She snickered.
“You’re the last person I want to hear that from.” I snapped back.
We giggled as we went back and forth on our exchanges.
“Everything is fake. What a strange thing to say. What does that even mean?”
“I’m saying, what if…what if the world we live in is not the real world?” I sighed.
“Not the real world?”
“Yes. Like, we’ve been brought into some fake reality, and we don’t even know it. We’re here, but this here isn’t our world. It’s our world, but a fake. A copy. Not our real world.”
Asumi suddenly got close and placed her hand on my forehead.
“It doesn’t seem like you have a fever. Could it be some other problem? Are you going senile at the age of 16? Oh my!”
The thought of smacking this girl across the neck came to my mind.
“It’s all good to get invested in a story but you have to learn to separate reality from fantasy. Not everything you read is real, you know.” She said woefully.
“I know that! I’m just-HMPH!” I puffed my cheeks in frustration as I tried to calm myself down. As I thought, it was useless. “Never mind, forget what I said.”
“Hahaha, you’re so weird Ryuuko. But that’s what makes you so adorable.”
Asumi’s laughing only made me madder.
“But, even if all this is fake, it’s not too bad.”
Asumi stared up into the blue skies.
“No worries, no problems. Just peaceful days we could spend together. Isn’t that wonderful?” She said with a somber smile.
She suddenly got up.
“Where are you going?” I called to her as she made her way to the stairs.
“I’m going to buy some drinks. Be right back.”
“Buy you the cherry drink, right?” She smirked.
“I was going to ask you to get me a chocolate roll, but yes. Make it two please!” I requested.
“You-…!” She placed her hands on her hips. “You better be paying me back for all those. I mean it this time!”
“Yes, yes, yes. Hurry up.” I waved to her nonchalantly as she stormed out of the roof in a huff. Watching her disappear down the stairs, I let out a sigh.
“No worries, no problems. Just peaceful days, she said.” I quietly repeated Asumi’s words as I stared off into the distance. If only it could be so.
“It sounds good to be able to live out such an illusion, doesn’t it? Unfortunately for you, you don’t have that luxury anymore.“
I jumped from the sudden sound of another voice. That voice, I’ve heard it before! I immediately swung around and met with the appearance of a familiar silver-haired figure, standing on the edge of the roof’s railing. The moment our eyes collided, the figure casually waved to me.
“Hello, Takatora Ryuuko. It is good to see that you’re doing well.” Alma said, a sinister grin spread across their face. Meeting those soul-less eyes again, the terrible yet familiar feeling of anger and fear washed across my body like a wave.
Alma leapt off the railing and came towards me. Like a specter, they slid across the roof without a sound. Cautiously, I backed away but Alma moved at such speed they were right next to me before I could even take a step back.
“What’s wrong? Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten how to talk? Impossible, only one part of your body should’ve been consigned and that was your right arm. Your vocal chords should be intact.”
As he spoke, I felt my legs shaking uncontrollably and I was struggling to even stand upright. My throat felt hoarse and no words could come out of my mouth. In my mind was only scared thoughts, all telling me to run away but my legs would not respond.
“Speak. It’s rude to not give proper greetings, especially to a friend.” Alma’s voice was playful, but I could also sense from it hostility.
“Wh-what are you doing here!?” I finally managed to choke out.
“Ah, so you can speak. I’m glad. But what a silly question to ask among so many others. Tsk, tsk.” Alma shook their head in what looked like a show of disappointment.
Alma’s suddenly placed their face right in front of mine. The abrupt action caused me to lose my footing as I immediately fell back from the shock.
“AAH!” I screamed as I fell but Alma’s hand shot out and caught my left arm. A terrible pang of coldness spread throughout my body, as if I was touching ice. Alma’s grip had not a drop of warmth as they dangled me a few meters away from the floor. I was suddenly pulled up with great force and came face to face again with those terrible eyes. It was so close; I could almost feel my very soul being sucked into them.
“I came for you of course, Takatora Ryuuko.”
“What?!” I squeaked, my voice trembling.
“I wanted to check up on you. I was very worried.” Alma replied with a voice sounding like venom.
“L-liar! What do you really want?”
Alma let out another frightening smile and released me. Pulling back my arm, I immediately backed away and kept a safe distance. Their grip left a red mark on my arm and a pained feeling not unlike frostbite as I hastily rubbed it for warmth.
“It hurts that you don’t believe me. But if that is the case, then let us just get down to business.”
Alma snapped their fingers. I felt a sudden vibration from my pocket and pulled out my cellphone. On it was a strange application I’ve never seen before with an icon of a golden apple.
“What is this?”
“That club with those boys, what did they call themselves? The “Artificial Research Club”? Heh…how ridiculous.” Alma scoffed while scratching their chin. “Takatora Ryuuko, tell me, have you decided to join them yet?”
I remained silent as I tried to hide my surprise. How does Alma know about them…?
“Those boys are more interesting than I thought. To figure out so much on their own. But unfortunately, they are still a far reach from the truth.” Alma mused while playing with their silvery braid. “Takatora Ryuuko, don’t you want more answers?”
My eyes widen. More answers?!
Alma’s smile got wider from my face giving away my desires.
“I have given you information and specific coordinates into Eden, the paradise outside of this illusion. There, I await you, with all the answers that you seek.” Alma spoke slyly. I could feel my heart beating rapidly the moment their tempted words entered my ears. Answers… could what they be saying be possible?! More answers to all of this madness, could it be?
Vigorously, I shook my head as I pulled myself together. I can’t! I mustn’t let myself be swayed by their venomous words.
“It would also be best if you came alone. I can’t guarantee the safety of others, but I do not mind. The more the merrier.” Alma giggled ominously. “Don’t worry, you could easily share what I’ve given you with everyone.”
I flipped through my phone and look through the strange app. It showed a map of a place I’ve never seen before and on it was a single blinking spot.
“I don’t understand. Why are you doing this? What does it have to do with us? Why me?” I asked, completely bewildered.
“You don’t have to understand anything. What use is that for monsters, as you have called yourself.”
Alma’s response took me by surprise.
“I…I’m not a monster!” I protested angrily, my voice shaking.
A sudden mocking laugh came in response.
“Of course, if that is what you now believe.”
My body trembled from anger and fear. I was speechless as I did not know how to respond. How did they know all this? Have they been watching me this entire time? And if so, how dare they laugh at me!
“It does not matter. Why not just do as I say? This is a request from one friend to another.” Alma smirked.
Friend? What is this person saying? After all they have done to me?! I clutched my fist and felt my nails digging into my palm. I took a deep breath as I mustered all my courage to speak.
“And what if I refuse?” I demanded. My voice was shaking but I refused to give in. It was all because of them that my life have been destroyed, yet for them to even request anything from me brought about such a spiteful feeling I’ve never felt before. I was scared but I was also angry, my anger easily overtaking the shaking of my body.
“Is that so?” Alma’s voice lowered. “How disappointing then.”
Although the expressions on their face haven’t change, I felt a sudden chill from those words. Did I make them mad? My body instinctively tried to back away, but I fought to stand my ground.
“Did those boys tell you? About the passages to Eden? What did they call them…“Channels”, was it?” Alma suddenly asked.
I froze as I began to listen closely.
“What…what are you talking about? You mean the door that I went through before? The one you tricked me into? What does that have to do with anything? Tell me!” I kept my voice just below a shout as I demanded answers from them. My emotions were running wild despite my struggle to keep myself in check.
“You and that cute little club of yours aren’t the only ones able to use them. Anyone, if they are led to, can go through them to reach paradise and back.”
“Huh? What are you…where are you going with this?” Hearing those words, another chill went through my body. No way I would have known such a thing, so why would they bring this up? What are they trying to imply?
“By now you should know, the people in this world are real. Everyone, an actual person and very much alive. There aren’t any death within this illusion, only because there aren’t any external factors that could cause it. Ah, oh my. Have I said too much?” Alma giggled.
A sudden jolt ran through my body like electricity through a wire the moment I finally realized where this was going.
My only reply was a terrifying smirk.
I struggled to breathe.
“Y-You’re insane! You’re actually threatening the lives of the people?!” My voice broke as I cried out in surprise. Now understanding what they were trying to do, a feeling of utmost fear enveloped me.
“On the contrary, I am doing no such thing. I am only just stating the facts that you should’ve already known. All I’m hoping to do is help you, Takatora Ryuuko. I’ve given you coordinates to head towards and offered you answers in exchange that I would see you there. Have I not helped you before? When you were begging for your life to be saved that time? Do you still not consider me a good friend?” Alma asked coyly.
I gritted my teeth as I did not know what to say anymore. Anger was boiling inside of me, now overcoming my fear. The only things that floated through my head were curses for this psychopath.
“My, you’re a selfish girl. Tsk, tsk. I guess in your eyes, the other people, they do not matter. Very well then.” Alma sighed, turning away to leave.
“Wait!” I screamed out in protest. “We’re not done talking here!!”
Thoughts of inflicting violence upon them rushed through my mind. They’re not so far away from me and wouldn’t this the best possible time to strike? It would be fine, wouldn’t it? After all, if I can prevent everything right here and now, would that not be the best course of action?
Yet, as I was contemplating my options, on Alma’s face remained a sickening smirk. Almost as if they could read my mind. My body was shaking so much, I could feel every fiber of my muscles tightening as conflicting emotions swirled violently within me. Part of me wanted to act from anger, yet another was holding me back due to fear.
Then, I saw it. The mouth on Alma’s face began to twist in a unnaturally frightening manner to a shape of a horrific grin, barring all their teeth.
“Ah, yes of course. It’s about that friend of yours. She sure is an interest person, isn’t she?”
An intense flash of rage overcame me the moment those words reached my ears as I swung my arm at them with all my strength. But before my arm could even land its mark, Alma vanished into thin air. I stumbled and fell to the floor violently.
Quickly picking myself up, I feverishly searched for them but Alma was nowhere in sight.
“YOU’RE A MONSTER!!” I cried out.
“Good, use that anger. It will serve you well. Hahahaha!” Came a mocking laugh in response. “Three days. I’ll see you then, Takatora Ryuuko.”
And then, everything was silent. I fell to my knees, all the energy drained from my body. I could feel cold sweat pouring from my head, and I was choking as I struggled to catch my breath. Anger. Fear. Despair. All of those emotions were strangling me as I tried to grasp what has transpired in these mere moments.
The sound of a door opening from a distance broke the silence as I turned to see Asumi returning with a bag of juice and chocolate rolls.
“Ryuuko, what’s wrong?” Asumi rushed towards me with concern.
I immediately threw my head on to her chest and hugged her tightly.
“Wah! W-what happened?” She cried out, startled by my sudden embrace.
I did not respond. I only hugged her tighter.
For just a brief moment, everything felt peaceful as Asumi gently stroked my head.