I glance over my shoulder as I walk farther down the ramen aisle. He's still there, staring at me with a dumbfounded expression. I wonder why. I turn my head and walk a little faster, eager to escape his stare. For some reason, I feel like I recognize him, like a sense of déjà vu. But that is impossible. I hadn't left the underground studio for six years, and from what I know, everyone Above died because of the Takedown.
I pay for some food that I grabbed at the self-checkout, seeing that there is no cashier. Twenty-five lunae.
I step out of the store, the floorboards creaking under my feet as I walk over them. A dark object looms in my peripheral vision, and I look at it on impulse. The sight makes me freeze. That feeling of familiarity is stronger now, more powerful. I blink confusedly, and the world around me darkens. My eyes flutter shut as I stumble into the darkness.
When I open my eyes again, I'm no longer in front of the store.
A forest surrounds me, humming with life. The sunlight filters through the branches, creating a dappled pattern on the ground. I see a young girl, perhaps six years old, run around. Something about the way she moves seems familiar, and with a start, I realize she is me from nine years ago. She crouches and takes a flying leap, and when she lands, she twirls. I smile slightly, watching her brown waves bounce as she dances. Children are really so simple, finding joy in everything.
The shock has worn off slightly and now I take the time to really look at everything. There is a tree, large and lush with leaves. Its branches hang low, swaying gently in the breeze. In the soft light, its small leaves shine slightly silver. It's beautiful, yet somehow familiar. At the sight, a thought comes to me: Willow.
Just then, a face pokes out of the curtain of leaves. A small boy looks down from his perch from the branch, looking for something. He too is familiar. He smiles slightly, then yells my name. "Ashe!"
Little-me halts in her tracks and whips around to face the tree. At first, she looks surprised, but her expression quickly morphs into a glare.
"Kyre! You know you're not s'posed to be there. Get down this instant." Her voice is bossy, even though "Kyre" looks about a year older than her. He obliges, grinning widely now, and hops down from the low branch. I decide at that moment that I like little-me. He pushes his dark hair off of his forehead and proceeds to lift her up and spin her around.
"Put me down, we gotta go to school!" Little-me wriggles in his grasp, and when Kyre puts her down, she runs at full speed, right past me.
"Last one to that brick box is a pixelated glitch!"
Pixelated glitch? I crinkle my eyebrows in confusion.
Kyre chases her, and--I note with satisfaction--although he is taller and has longer legs, little-me is faster. Granted, she had a huge headstart, but I'm still proud.
As I watch the two kids disappear into the distance, the world around me shifts again.
I stumble forward, holding my arms out for balance. My fingers brush something and when I look at them, there is black dust on them. A tree is in front of me, a destroyed tree. Its charred trunk has a large gash down the middle, splitting it in two. I take a couple of steps back to really see it, and what I see makes me go cold.
It's the tree. The one Kyre was climbing. Its branches have gone dry and brittle, its trunk is in two halves that seem to be held together by an invisible force, and its surface is charred and coated with ash, but I'm sure.
It's the same tree.
I look around, but there are no other trees. There is no forest. Above me, clouds have come in. There is no sun.
I think back to my vision. Was it even real? Am I hallucinating because of the sudden change in my surroundings?
One thing's for sure, though.
Something happened here.
I pull my hoodie around me and take a sharp left. It's getting colder; what was before a warm breeze is now a cold wind. The sky above me is darkening, and I have a feeling that when night comes, I won't survive the cold.
I wander aimlessly, looking for a place to stay. Absently reaching up to adjust my messy bun, I continue pondering about the vision and the store. As sad as it seems, right now, my only companions are my thoughts. I'm glad I thought to buy food with what limited money I had. Three packs of instant noodles sit in my pack, along with my meager supplies, blacked out laptop, and now dead flashlight. But now I only have a hundred lunae left, not enough to rent a place--if there are any left. I may need to sleep outside tonight, cold as it is.
That boy in the vision, Kyre, looked familiar. He looked like a younger version of the guy I'd bumped into at the store. The more I thought about it, the less it made sense. Kyre and I seemed like childhood friends. If we really were so close, why didn't I remember him? I didn't remember much about the Above, but a bond that strong can't be forgotten that easily.
A particularly strong wind throws off my balance, and I falter in my steps. I think I see something, and when I look up, and my jaw pops open.
A mansion towers over me in its white-stoned glory. My breath catches in my throat as I take in the wonder. High stone pillars rise up from the ground, connecting at impossible heights in graceful arcs. They are carved, not intricately, but in a way that speaks of timeless beauty. Large stained-glass windows glow softly with light from the inside. A large, imposing ebony door is set at the front, contrasting severely with the pale stone that surrounds it.
Taken by its beauty, I step closer, almost as though in a trance.
Above me, the clouds rumble and the sky darkens.
Much to my surprise, drops of water fall from the sky. The temperature drops, and I shiver, burrowing my hands into my hoodie's pockets. The rain falls harder now, and I know that I'll need to find shelter soon. I contemplate my options. If I leave now, I'll need to find a place to stay in, which is unlikely. This area feels forsaken and lonely, and I'll be completely drenched if I try to make my way through.
My other option is to knock the mansion's door. I apprehensively look at the large obsidian knocker, but I reach towards it anyway. The worst that could happen is that I get kicked out. It's worth a chance.
I lift the knocker with both hands and let it thud against the wood. I stand there, dripping with rainwater, for what feels like an eternity. Finally, the door opens. An old lady stands there, leaning on a stick and wearing a nightgown. She looks me up and down, and, to my relief, opens the door wider.
"Dear, do come in. You look absolutely lost. You can dry off by the fire, and I'll get Kyre to give you some of his ramen." She steps aside to let me in, and I gratefully accept.
"Thank you, ma'am. I really appreciate it."
She looks pleased. "And you're polite, too! Kids like there are so rare... By the way, you can call me Boss." She points me in the direction of the fireplace and then walks away to her "virtual koi pond."
I start in the direction Boss pointed me to, mulling over her words. Is Kyre a real person? And if he is, was that hallucination real too?