CHAPTER 1: The Beginning of the End

“Phew…”

I let out a sigh of relief upon stowing away the mop and bucket inside the utility closet. Now that the work day was nearing its end, I could feel the full weight of my fatigue crashing down on my shoulders.

Do I really have to shower tonight? I’m beat!

As if reading my mind, the manager calls out to me from across the room. Dale and his wife, Diana—owners of the local convenience store—are behind the counter by the cash register, tallying the day’s earnings. I stop flexing my arm and turn to meet his wrinkled gaze.

“You mind grabbing the trash?” he asks.

“Sure thing, Mr. Robinson.”

“Daisuke,” Mrs. Robinson calls out next. “We can handle the rest ourselves. It’s been a long day; why don’t you head home and get some rest after taking care of the trash?”

Her suggestion, of course, is music to my ears, but I still find myself asking, “Are you sure it’s okay?”

“Bah!” Mr. Robinson exhales nosily. “We may not be young whippersnappers anymore, but we still have enough energy to get things done. Isn’t that right, dear?”

He nudges her provocatively with his elbow.

“Oh you~” Mrs. Robinson giggles softly, the gentle folds around her cheeks turning bright pink with embarrassment.

I can’t help but cringe at the scene that happens more frequently than I would like. Agh! Gross! Please don’t flirt while I’m here!

As I hurry for the trash to make myself scarce, a radiant smile spreads across my lips. The Robinsons, true to their nature, are very warm and compassionate individuals; one doesn’t need to be an acquaintance for them to shower you with kindness.

They aren’t quite aware of it, but they are the closest semblance of family or friends in my life. My parents met a tragic end five years ago in a car accident, and life has steadily spiraled downward ever since. The house and car were repossessed, university became a distant dream, and the absence of familial ties meant I faced my struggles alone, with no helping hand extended.

Yes, I am alone.

I never knew the world to be so cold and terrifying.

However, just as I was about to fall into complete and utter despair, I was saved by the Robinsons. They are my proverbial life vest in the turbulent sea of life. When everything around me sinks into a watery abyss, they keep me afloat by offering a job when no one else would.

And, since they weren’t able to have any kids of their own due to medical complications, they treat me like their very own grandson. I’m eternally thankful for that. Being with them gives meaning to my lowly existence.  

To be completely honest, the pay here isn’t really that great, and I’m pretty sure the constant flirting has killed off a significant portion of my brain cells. Yet, the reality is, I wouldn’t exchange this job for anything else in the world.

However, let’s not paint an overly rosy picture here. There are aspects I’d trade away in a heartbeat. And as I muse over this inconvenient truth, the very nightmare I alluded to begins to take shape, like clockwork.

“Hahaha!” an eerie laugh reverberates through the air, reminiscent of a scene from a scary movie. “The hour is nigh. Your doom approaches.”

My heart skips a beat.

The bone-chilling voice came from a Lyrebird that the Robinsons keep as a pet inside a birdcage. Lyrebirds, renowned mimics, can effortlessly replicate any sound, and this particular one has decided to transform my time at the store into a scene from a horror film.

Following the high soprano voice, the bird begins simulating an ominous melody that could serve as the background theme in the aforementioned genre of films. However, the Lyrebird is the least of my concerns.

Breaking into a sweat, I nervously scan the surroundings. Nighttime has fallen, the store is closed, and the aisles are void of people. The Robinsons are occupied at the front, but another lifeform lurks in the building.

As thoughts of the creature race through my mind, a memory surfaces: the sensation of my foot accidentally squishing a toy catfish belonging to a giant snapping turtle, the anguish it displayed, and its expression transforming into scorn and malice.

That’s right, for the past few weeks, I’ve been hunted by a monstrous predator out seeking revenge for its toy plushy, and the Lyrebird is just along for the ride—sensationalizing each episode and bringing my next appointment with the therapist that much closer.

PLOP!

I snap my head to the side at the sound of something falling from a low shelf, but there’s nothing there. Regardless, I don’t stay still; I move around, looking for the enemy. Again, I hear something fall on the other side of the shelf. I swallow, inching around the shelf to take a peek. There, on the floor, is a bag of rice.

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Am I just being paranoid? I ponder to myself. Maybe I’m actually getting a break from this madness today.

Before I can breathe a sigh of relief, I hear a shuffling noise behind me, like a sack of sand being dragged along the floor. A chill runs down my spine. My head hesitantly pivots around like a creaking door, but there’s nothing there.

In the corner of my vision, I notice the Lyrebird cocking its head and throwing its voice across the room to create these auditory distractions. Before my fear can dissipate, swelling into rage instead, I sense an evil presence and catch a blur of movement.

Behind me, Oscar—the pet snapping turtle that resembles a small dinosaur—extends its neck robotically and catches the hem of my pants.

“Finish him!” the Lyrebird announces.

I blanch, and in a whimper, I plead, “Please don’t.”

But my sniveling only seems to add fuel to the flame. Oscar’s eyes flash menacingly before he spirals into a death roll, similar to what crocodiles and alligators do to shred their food. I cry out as my body spins like a top before slamming into the hard ground.

Then, the Mortal Kombat voice rings out again, “Fatality!”

“Is everything all right back there?” Mr. Robinson calls out.

Oscar spits out the large section of my pants he ripped away, his eyes narrowed challengingly as he slowly backs away, daring me to fight back.

“E-Everything’s fine,” I respond back like a defeated coward as Oscar continues his victorious retreat, his eyes lit like laser beams.

“Your hell has only just begun,” the Lyrebird declares in a thick, dark accent reminiscent of an older century.

“What are you, a translator now?” I snap back, only ever having the gall to challenge the bird.

From my place on the floor, I look up at the Robinsons and release a long sigh, contemplating whether I prefer getting my brain cells fried or enduring consistent bullying and torment from animals.

Honestly, I don’t like either.

I’m pretty sure a few more weeks of this would have landed me in a straitjacket and admitted into a loony bin.

But what could I do?

Although the Robinsons’ choice of pets is beyond bizarre, I genuinely enjoy their company. As an expression of my gratitude, I try my best to manage the workload so they won’t strain themselves too much. Ideally, at their ripe old age, they should have long retired, but the stubborn old bags are sadly a pair of hopeless workaholics.

“Be careful not to strain yourself now,” Mrs. Robinson cautions as I consolidate all the trash into one and test its weight.

“Che~” Mr. Robinson playfully clicks his tongue. “In my prime, I lifted twice the weight; don’t spoil him, Ma. A young lad like him should be finding a nice lass instead of flexing his muscles on trash.”

“A girlfriend on my wage?” I glare at him with mock humor. “Don’t make me laugh, Old Man! If you want me to break free from being a hopeless bachelor, then loosen those purse strings a bit!”

“No way,” he murmurs in response, his cheeks puffing up like a pufferfish. “Find a girl first, then we’ll talk.”

“Not gonna happen!”

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“If you need money to find yourself a good girl, then you’re probably not looking in the right place, dear,” Mrs. Robinson suggests with a smile.

“Oh Ma,” Mr. Robinson bends a knee and gallantly cups his wife’s hand, his eyes gleaming like lanterns. “Your words of wisdom and ravishing beauty are like a gentle breeze across an open meadow in spring.”

“Oh Dale!”

“Oh Diana!”

PUHSHHH!

The Lyrebird mimics the sound of the ocean crashing against a cliff, followed by a soothing chorus of bird calls that adds a romantic ambiance to the scene.

I can feel my brain cells writhing in agony as I watch this dramatic scene unfold. Refusing to entertain this insanity any longer, I make a swift escape.

The door chimes as I exit the store, the trash bag slung behind my back as if I’m a homeless bum. Inhaling deeply of the crisp, smog-filled air, I’m greeted by the distant sounds of cars humming and sirens wailing—a symphony of the metropolis that had become all too familiar. My gaze shifts toward the towering monuments of steel that punctuate the dark night sky, their lights casting a glow on the urban landscape.

A stray cat scurries off into the alley as I approach the dumpster. I scrunch up my face at the unpleasant odor, hastily ridding myself of my load. Taking a moment to reflect on Mrs. Robinson’s words, I find myself unable to decipher her meaning.

Before I can turn to leave, I hear a familiar voice that makes my heart sink to my toes.

“Well, well, well… now isn’t this a pleasant surprise!”


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