Chapter 1:

Dream of a Black Mask

REWIND: How To Commit Genocide in 48 Hours

The Exam grants a Wish. Anything you want will be yours, anything that exists or has ever existed. At the time, we didn't even know that - we only knew pain. And all we had was the will to survive. Some of us didn't even have that much.
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Anything you want will be yours. You just have to die a thousand times to get it.Bookmark here

Look, I didn't want to see the earth go up in molten flame before fizzling out like a firecracker in the toilet.Bookmark here

I didn't want to see it happen, so I did it myself. That was my Wish.Bookmark here

Spoiler alert: the world ends in this one.Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

The worst thing about life is that it goes on. At least that's what Yuuki liked to say.Bookmark here

“Take this moment, for example. Here we are, relaxing and talkin’ about life, smoking some cigarettes-”Bookmark here

“I’m not smoking.”Bookmark here

“-and tomorrow, we’re gonna traipse right back into that classroom and sit our sorry souls down for another mind-numbingly long school day. Why, Kurosawa-kun? Tell me.”Bookmark here

"I don't know."Bookmark here

"Bo-ring!"Bookmark here

I said I didn’t know, but I had a few theories. Theory number one: expectation. If you’re not where adults think you should be, you’ll never hear the end of it. Whether it’s being tardy or not showing up for club activities or not getting into the right school, adults levy expectations at every turn. Probably because their own lives have gone so off the rails that they think they can repent for it all by fixing up some kid like me.Bookmark here

Theory number two: comfort.Bookmark here

Sunlight flowed freely into the classroom, illuminating Aiko-chan’s hair like a golden firefly. I sighed and leaned into my hand, thanking the powers that be for letting me see such a beautiful sight on this otherwise normal day. Yes, this was why I was here. Amidst all the buzz and activity, there were still minor comforts that perhaps justified doing the same thing every day.Bookmark here

Yuuki plopped down in the seat next to me. “Kurosawa-kun. Mirror.”Bookmark here

Without even looking at him, I turned on my phone camera and faced it in his direction. He examined his earrings and ruffled his perfectly fine dyed blond hair for no good reason. I guess he pleasured himself on looking like he just fell in a wind tunnel. Yuuki didn’t have a phone for multiple reasons, none of them good. The main reason is that he was an absolute delinquent.Bookmark here

Yuuki said, "You sure you don't want to look in the mirror yourself? That's a nasty black eye."Bookmark here

"Really?" I rubbed my face and felt the sting. I'd grown numb to it over the years, at least physically. "Another late birthday present from my dad."
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 Me? I had awful bags under my eyes and an unkempt mop of black hair, but other than the fact that I was failing most of my classes, I didn’t believe in things like smoking and stomping and untucking my shirt or whatever delinquents like Yuuki do. I only believed in two things: the bell that dismissed us at the end of every long day, and the power of Aiko.Bookmark here

“Yuuki-kun, is it just me or does Aiko-sama look better every day?”Bookmark here

“It’s just you, man, and stop drooling over her like that before you land both of us on some kind of registry. Anyways, why are you here today? I thought you said we were ditching.”Bookmark here

“I didn’t actually do it because I knew you wouldn’t, which is proven by the fact that you’re sitting here using my phone as a portable mirror!”Bookmark here

“You saying I wimped out, Kurosawa?”Bookmark here

“Maybe I am.”Bookmark here

He stood up and slammed his fist on the desk. The class fell silent and all eyes looked our way. Which meant that the glorious Aiko was also looking my way. My face went scarlet as I tugged on Yuuki’s uniform jacket. “Not here, Yuuki-kun!”Bookmark here

“Come with me, Kurosawa!”Bookmark here

Yuuki dragged me out of the classroom and I kicked and screamed the whole way. Onigawa-sensei tried to stop Yuuki, but he plowed right through him like a freight train until we had left the school grounds. I didn’t know it, but that was going to be the last trip Yuuki and I ever went on.Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

Which brings me to theory number three, which is my final theory for now: danger. You might find it in the most unexpected places, at the most unexpected times. For me it was that day, the day that changed everything. The beginning of the end.Bookmark here

When I was younger I used to dream of another world parallel to ours. I dreamed that there was someone watching me, but I never saw what they looked like, because the dreams were always from their perspective. They would watch me from windows, from behind fences, from inside trash cans. Once or twice they were perched up on a power line, and I started to wonder if my dream-stalker was a bird. I’ve told this to Yuuki before, and he brushed it off like he usually does with anything that doesn’t involve girls or being badass. But what I didn’t tell him was that those dreams used to haunt me. No, not dreams - they were nightmares. Or at least that’s what they became. At first it was just like looking at footage of myself from a security camera, but the images got much more personal. Closer. A person in a crowd following me. A hand reaching out from under my bed. There was a period of a few weeks when I barely slept at all.Bookmark here

But it ended abruptly when my parents divorced, and eventually I got over it. Like Yuuki says, life goes on. In that case it was a relief. I bring this up now because for the first time in my life, I saw them.Bookmark here

I didn’t say anything to Yuuki as we walked down the empty rows of houses eating our shaved ice, him talking about his latest hookups and me nodding intently. And it happened so fast that for a few seconds I questioned if I’d seen anything at all. A tall figure, dressed up in a pure black suit. And the strangest thing was the mask. A black mask, even darker than the suit, so dark it absorbed shadow like a black hole.Bookmark here

I stopped walking and Yuuki turned around. “What’s wrong?”Bookmark here

“Nothing..."Bookmark here

Only then did I notice that I’d crushed the shaved ice between my fingers, and it was leaking out all over the place. Yuuki raised an eyebrow.Bookmark here

“It doesn’t look like nothing to me. You alright, bro? Might be heatstroke.”Bookmark here

“Nah, I’m fine, I swear-”Bookmark here

“Let’s get back to school. Free A/C sounds good to me, and P.E. is the only class I’m good at-"Bookmark here

"There they are!"Bookmark here

A group of kids who had beef with Yuuki had spotted us. We dipped behind a vending machine and sprinted back to school, shouts echoing close behind.Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

Spoiler alert: I am not good at physical activity.Bookmark here

Sure, I could become good if I tried, but what’s the point in that? I haven’t done much exercise since I was a kid. Now that I think about it, I stopped exercising right around the same time I started having those dreams.Bookmark here

With that in mind, I was grateful when I reached P.E. on time for the daily laps, only to discover that Onigawa-sensei wanted to pull me aside. He told me to head to the main office. I’m embarrassed about what happened next, so to make a long story short, I was to have daily detention after school to address my "deteriorating academic performance" and "recent behavioral troubles".Bookmark here

“Kurosawa-kun, do you have anything to say for yourself?”Bookmark here

“If I have to be there every day then wouldn’t I have to drop out of the art club?”Bookmark here

He sighed and sifted through his papers. He pulled out a picture of a stickman in a wheelchair that had taken me about forty seconds to draw. He had me in checkmate.Bookmark here

“You haven’t shown up to art club in two weeks, and when you do you draw things like this. The club president was very upset when she came to me with this. She says you scare the rest of them. Maybe some after school discipline will straighten you out.”Bookmark here

“Maybe she should straighten out the stick up her-”Bookmark here

“Kurosawa-kun. Don't. And what about the incident with our two freshman?"Bookmark here

"They were throwing rocks at a sick bird. And - and I never even hit them or anything. I just protected it."Bookmark here

"Involving yourself in a fight on any grounds is reason enough for suspension. But I'll go easy on you."Bookmark here

I wanted to "involve myself" in another fight and knock that stupid haughty look off his face, that As an adult, I know best look. I couldn’t say that the reason I was so bad at school was that my Dad beat me nearly every day, so I nodded and smiled and said thank you before I walked out the door. Hey, I might have a bad mouth sometimes, but Mom always told me to treat others the way you want to be treated. Which I did. Usually.Bookmark here

Detention was about as boring as one would expect, and when I left the halls were virtually empty except for a few sparse club members cleaning up for the day. The sun was setting so it wasn’t as blazing hot as earlier, but I still unbuttoned my shirt a bit to let in the breeze. Cicadas buzzed on and off like car alarms when I heard the footsteps behind me. The man in the black suit flashed through my mind and I spun on my heel, ready to run for my life.Bookmark here

“K-Kurosawa-san?”Bookmark here

No way. Aiko-sama stood before me in all her glory. Her bowtie was tilted to the side, and her face was hidden behind her hands. Her pink knees were shaking. No way.Bookmark here

“Will you…”Bookmark here

No way.Bookmark here

“...go out with me?”Bookmark here

In a split second my mind had raced through every possible future we had together, and I knew where our dream home would be. Suddenly every color around me had its own taste, and there weren’t just a few colors like red and blue and green, but an infinitesimal amount of sensations between them, like an all-you-can-eat buffet for the five senses, and maybe even the sixth.Bookmark here

“Are you serious?”Bookmark here

She nodded meekly and bit her lower lip.Bookmark here

“Serious.”Bookmark here

“Then… yes… I will.”Bookmark here

“Oh… I’m glad!”Bookmark here

She laughed and covered her face again, and the colors that sprung from that laugh were so vibrant they could have kept me alive in a wasteland for a thousand years. An oasis, a paradise.Bookmark here

Aiko-sama, who was ranked one position above Jesus.Bookmark here

If only I had known.Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

I got home and tiptoed past Dad, who was unconscious on the couch and surrounded by a mound of beer. As soon as I closed my door I jumped in circles for minutes. When I was done I tripped over the tatami mat and flopped down on my bed, smiling at the ceiling like an idiot.Bookmark here

My celebration was short-lived, however, when Dad busted into the room and whipped me until he tired out. I guess he got in some argument at work and needed to blow off some steam. I pieced that story through the grumbles he tossed in between every smack of the belt. A few minutes later he came back into my room and apologized, moping back and forth the way drunks do.Bookmark here

Dad: "I'm so sorry, mah, boy... never again..."
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Me: "Okay."Bookmark here

Dad: "...sorry, so, I'm gonna quit this time, swear to God... I'll never drink again..."Bookmark here

Me: "Okay."Bookmark here

Apparently whichever God he swore to was booked up on miracles for the week, because he went right back to clinking bottles and popping cans the next day.Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

For the next few weeks Aiko and I texted back and forth, and when we saw each other at school we exchanged glances like forbidden lovers. We didn’t talk much in the real world as I knew it would damage her reputation to be with a guy like me, but I was content. Even Yuuki had noticed something was up.Bookmark here

“What’s with that smug look on your face, Kurosawa-kun?”Bookmark here

“Huh? Me? Ehhhh… nothing…”Bookmark here

He punched my shoulder.Bookmark here

Ow!”Bookmark here

“Spill it.”Bookmark here

“Okay, okay. I got a girlfriend. Aiko-sama.”Bookmark here

I had expected him to throw his hands up and scream and maybe run in circles like an idiot just like I had, but he just stared at me.Bookmark here

“Liar.”Bookmark here

“I swear on it!”Bookmark here

“Who asked who out?”Bookmark here

“She asked me! Can you believe it?”Bookmark here

“Nope. Admit you asked her and I’ll consider believing it.”Bookmark here

It didn’t matter to me if he believed it. She was mine, and I was all hers. I started skipping class less often, and my grades improved, all for her. After all, this was the only place I could see her, and if I was going to buy us a house and have kids, then I needed to be able to financially support her. Life was beautiful. Yuuki was skipping more than usual, though, so I found myself pretty lonely throughout the day. My only respite was texting her all the time, and I didn’t even notice that the only other person I really talked to besides her was Dad. Onigawa-sensei stopped me when I was leaving the classroom one day.Bookmark here

“Kurosawa-kun! Let’s talk.”Bookmark here

“Yes, Onigawa-sensei?”Bookmark here

“What’s with the sudden improvement? You’re showing up now, and… well, your grades are doing a whole lot better. Your old man finally whipped you into shape?”Bookmark here

“Heh, something like that.”Bookmark here

“Well, keep up the good work. I expect to see you here bright and early for those extra study sessions, okay?”Bookmark here

“Yes, sensei!”Bookmark here

The next few months passed like cherry blossom leaves in the spring, and before I knew it, summer had come.Bookmark here

I usually looked forward to summer, because it was the perfect opportunity to stay up late at night gaming and watching anime. But that semester it was an obstacle. I had to work up the courage to ask Aiko-sama out to see the fireworks, but when I finally did and she responded with a ‘Sure!’ I knew my purpose in life had finally been achieved. I could die happy. We could all die happy. The world could’ve ended the day after our date and it would’ve been okay.Bookmark here

But it didn’t.Bookmark here

My world ended a day sooner.Bookmark here

It all came together. Yuuki. Aiko.Bookmark here

And the man in the black mask.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.