Naito and Airi had turned their heads in the direction of the staff room. Jin-woon was lying on the ground, wearing a horrified expression on his face, having his arms in front of him, covering his body in a defensive position.
“What’s with him?” asked Airi, unable to figure out what all the fuss was about.
Naito looked at Jin-woon and then around the corner, to see if there were any customers hiding or bullying him. Some of them were regulars, and they were playing pranks to the staff or to each other, treating the manga-café like a kind of playground. There was even one time, when a female employee had to call the police to get rid of the troublesome customer, who was trying to hit on her by making a fool of himself with jokes and tricks, and following her around the café while she was working.
He went closer and examined the area where Jin-woon was looking. He checked on the left side, behind the back bookshelf, and then to the right. Then he stopped moving.
First he turned to look at Jin-woon, who was still terrified and was breathing like a scared rabbit, and then turned to Airi.
“It’s here.” said Naito with a lowered and muffled voice.
“Well. ok...but….hey, you. What do you see?” asked Airi.
Jin-woon swallowed with a dry throat and without moving his head or blinking, put all his might to reply.
Airi looked at Naito, completely puzzled.
“I know it’s a lot to ask, but calm down. It’s not going to hurt you.” said Naito and kneeled next to Jin-woon, looking into his eyes.
“Look at me. Don’t look at it. Everything is ok. There’s nothing to worry about.”
The words were coming out of his mouth very confidently, but at the back of his head, he was so unsure about what he was saying at that moment. It’s not that he was feeling secure or confident. He was just saying what he wanted to believe. The only thing he was trying to avoid was a bothersome situation, with Jin-woon having a panic attack and him calling ambulances and rushing to the hospital with him. No, no, no.
It would be even more troublesome to explain how the hell Jin-woon got a panic attack. Not only would he expose all three of them, making them seem like lunatics, but it would also create problems at work. Naito didn’t want any trouble to arise in his working environment, and have to deal with uneasy situations with the other employees and the higher-ups. The last thing he wanted was to lose his job.
One more time it is confirmed that social relationships lead to trouble. I was right not getting involved with people so far...Oh I am so going to regret this.
Airi finally decided to do something about the situation and not wait for Naito to deal with it alone. She moved towards the thing and tried to make it follow her. The shadow seemed to notice her immediately, but didn’t make any motion. While she was trying to get its attention, Naito was keeping Jin-woon’s eyes locked on his, repeating deep breaths with him. He was calming down slowly. In the meantime, they had to do something about the shadow. Then, they had to explain to him what was happening - if he would believe them was a different story.
Since Airi couldn’t make the shadow move, Naito tried to lift Jin-woon up, and take him inside the locker room.
“Try to keep it here, but don’t leave the reception stall unattended.”
They walked inside the locker room. Naito checked that they were not being followed, and then he helped Jin sit on a chair. He gave him a glass of water and waited until he drank some.
He tried to explain the situation as simply as he could. Jin was listening, dazed and troubled. His face looked more like the face of a puppy, rather than a human one. After some minutes of complete silence, he finally talked.
“I thought you were talking about a game or something..”
“What? What do you mean?”
“When Airi came, you were chatting in the reception stall.. You said that the shadow can follow you in your dreams and stuff.. I thought it was about a game.. I wanted to ask you which game you two were playing...and then this ….thing appeared in front of me like black smoke..”
Naito’s thoughts were moving like electrons inside his head. He came very fast to a realization, thanks to Jin-woon. It was too late to hide anything, so he turned to the door to look for Airi.
“Wait! I’ll come with you. I don’t want to stay alone.”
Ffff.. at least it’s not his fault. I should just get it over with and accept it.
“Just be calm. It just floats around, it doesn't do anything else.” I hope.
“Airi. There’s a reason why Jin can see the shadow. It’s for the same reason I can also see it.”
“Don’t talk in front of it, the more it knows..”
“It’s futile. It already knows. Don’t you get it? It’s visible to anyone who is aware of its presence. He heard us talking about it. He saw it after hearing about it. You also talked to me about it, and even if I couldn’t see it in the manga-café or when I was meeting you, I was able to after I heard about it, when you left my house. You had no way of realizing it, since you were the only person who knew about it. You hadn’t talked about it so far.”
“Not nobody.. I talked about it to Hiroshi…”
“The occult creep...”
Airi and Naito looked at each other.
“That’s weird. When did you tell him about the shadow? Was it before you met him? What time did you meet him?”
“I don’t remember, don’t ask me so many questions at once.”
“Well, you have to remember, this is no children’s play. You got us into this, so you have to deal with it full-hearted.”
“And what should I do? We met in the afternoon, but I don’t remember when I told him about it.”
“Do you at least remember if it was around you when you met him?”
“Please, think harder.”
“I… I don’t think so.. We met outside the Big Arcade Playroom, the one close to the park.. We had set a date via email…It was my first time going there.”
Naito was trying very hard to come up with an explanation that combined all the information he had up to that moment. Then Jin-woon’s voice sounded after quite some time.
“What if.. The thing must hear something about the person too, to see them? I mean.. I heard you talking about it, so I saw it...” said hesitantly.
“It’s true that I never referred to Hiroshi out loud before I met him. I also didn’t know his true name until we met…”
“And you said that it was the first time you went to that street, right? So the thing couldn’t follow you, except if you had set the date and named the place out loud. But you emailed the guy, so the location was never pronounced.”
“Sounds right, yes.”
“So its awareness of things, like places or people, gets activated when it hears about them. And there’s something else….All this time that .. you could see it..” he looked at Jin intensely, “it hasn’t looked at you not even once… I think that even if you can see it… it cannot see you..
We haven’t called your name in front of it yet..”
This has to be it. The shadow has been standing in the middle of the corridor all this time, with his attention fully concentrated on Airi. Sometimes it would just tilt its upper body slightly to look at me. Not even once has it looked at Jin.
Naito turned first to Airi and then to Jin. He was trying to be sure they had enough time to digest and understand the meaning behind what he was saying.
“I hope you both get what I mean. Airi, don’t refer to him with his name. It’s better to touch him or shout a keyword if we want to talk to him. For his own safety.”
Airi seemed to have gotten a hold of the situation and nodded.
“What keyword would that be?”
Naito and Airi looked at each other.
“Let’s call him Rookie for the time being, since he just started work.” said Naito to get rid of the unnecessary hassle over this.
“How uninterested can you be. You’re so simple-minded. But oh, well. We will not waste our whole day on this matter.” replied Airi.
“So lame…” complained Jin. “What am I supposed to do now with this thing hovering around my head? Is it dangerous?”
“It hasn’t done anything upsetting...yet. We aren’t sure about the reason behind its existence, we are still trying to figure it out.”
“Is there something I can do to help?” Jin looked at them full of anticipation. Naito was already regretting this. Seeing Jin getting excited because he had the chance to get closer to becoming their friend was disturbing him.
“We are sorry we got you into this, but you have to understand this is not a game. We are dealing with something we know nothing about. Behave like you never saw it, and you never experienced what happened today. It’s for your own good to stay out of this. We will find a way to solve it somehow. Go home for now, and try to get it out of your mind.”
“You are being insensitive, Naito.” sounded Airi’s voice after a long pause. “Rookie, you already have my number. If anything happens, send me a message immediately. Don’t think twice.”
“I got it. Thanks, guys. I’m sorry I’m a bother to you now. I hope I can help you.” He stood up, looked at them, took his backpack which was laying on the ground, and walked towards the glass door that opened automatically to let him exit.
“And now what?” asked Airi.
“Now we find a way to send the shadow back.”
They were interrupted by the incident with Jin and Naito never had the chance to fully explain to Airi what he had on his mind. Having new information about the situation, he had to re-examine it.
“We don’t have so much time until the café gets busy. I’ll tell you what I was thinking yesterday night, and then we can decide if it’s a good idea or not.”
Airi nodded, showing her approval in silence.
“As I was saying before we got interrupted, I am almost persuaded that the shadow cannot follow you in your dream if you are already inside it.”
Naito took a glance at the shadow behind them, still floating in the air like an ominous black cloud of heavy rain. It wasn’t the most comfortable situation to talk about it, but he had an idea.
“You told me that the shadow can hear whatever you say and keep information about you and what you do. Since you already said my name in front of it, I suppose it is aware of my presence. And from the looks of it, I can tell if it observes me too. I am not sure if it can hear me though. I want to try something, to check if you are the only person it can hear - since it is a creation of your subconscious.
My current thoughts are the following: Maybe the shadow hasn’t realized that it can follow you at specific times in your dreams. I want to test this hypothesis. I will tell you more about the way I have in mind.
Second, I want to be sure of what the shadow can actually hear. There is a possibility that it can also hear me, because it is aware of my presence, and it can use me for information too.
So maybe I can try to tell you how it can enter your dream and during which time, to check if it can hear me and follow the information it got from me, and in this way we can check if my hypothesis about the specific Sleep Stage that it can enter your dream.
We will end up hitting two birds with one rock.”
She thought about it for some seconds, trying to understand the logic behind it, but still looking like she was agreeable with his theories. She had experienced many uncomfortable situations with the shadow until now, but although she kept lots of information about it, she was never able to come up with these deductions. This could actually work. She didn’t want to let her feelings get the better of her, and tried to remain composed.
“I think what you’re saying makes sense. But I have one hesitation.. If you are right, and the thing can actually hear you, don’t you have a problem with letting it get information from you and your life?”
“Well, I don’t think it matters anymore. I mean, if it can actually hear me, it already collects information from me.”
“Oh.. I guess you’re right…”
Her facial expressions were clearly giving away emotions of guilt. She felt very responsible about the situation, and even if she wanted to put an end to her restless nights and horrifying waking, the fact that she got another person into this was weighing her. Naito noticed it right away; this girl was so obvious. He wasn’t good at dealing with other people, especially when it came to emotional support. People’s feelings was a very complicated matter to him, and as long as he could remember, he was trying to avoid uncomfortable situations like this one, and the only way to achieve it was to never get close to anybody. The best he could do for now was to be realistic, as he always did.
“I don’t have anything to protect or be afraid of. Don’t be so concerned about it.” He looked briefly at her, and when she returned the look, he turned his head to face the wall next to him.
“Ok. I hope we find a way through this. Let’s try your plan.”
“We have to be very careful of what we say, so that we can be sure of the reliability of our conclusions. I usually keep notes. I will try to be as clear and distinctively I can, so that in case it can hear me, it can understand what to do.
I think that in order to enter a dream from the outside world, is to be near the person when the person sleeps. It is not possible to enter one’s dream, if the dreamer has already reached the last Sleep Stage. The best time to try to enter one’s dream is some minutes after they fall asleep. To be sure, you have to be in the same room as the person who sleeps, to enter their dreams.”
“I think that was clear enough.”
“We will know very soon.”
“There is also something else that concerns me..”
“What is it?”
“Let’s say that it can hear you, and it gets the information correctly, and actually manages to enter my dream. That will automatically mean that it will be able to do it anytime it wants…..”
“Correct. But I thought of my plan having that already in mind. We have to take it somewhere, where we can deal with it. I believe that since this is not its world, we cannot interact with it in any other way. Let’s just take one step at a time. After we get more information on its behavior, we can think of our next move.”
“I understand. We have no other choice anyway. When do you want to try your plan?”
“The sooner, the better.”
“I am working the night shift.”
“So what? I am the one who will have to sleep.”
“You will not be alone in the room.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have to be there when you sleep.”
Airi looked at him with complete condemnation in her eyes.
“You can’t be serious.”
“I’m always serious.”
“Why must you do that?”
“I need to be there to observe the shadow. I want to be sure that it heard me and actually followed you home, and it stayed until you fell asleep. Also I want to see how it enters your dreams.”
“You are going to be in my room when I sleep! How am I supposed to sleep like this? It is my own personal space, and you will be violating it. How will I be able to feel comfortable?”
“So being alone with the shadow makes you feel more comfortable? Please don’t take everything so personally. If you want my plan to work, you have to cooperate.”
She put her hands on her face and made an almost agonizing expression.
“Do as you wish……”
“I hope you understand. If you didn’t want me at your place, I would suggest that you sleep at mine. But I don’t think you would feel more comfortable sleeping in another person’s house. Furthermore, I don’t want the shadow to follow you to my house. As far as we know, it still isn’t aware of its existence or location. Maybe now that I referred to it, it knows of its existence.
Send me your address later, and I will come after work. Don’t sleep until then, and try to have your mind to the shadow. It has to be around you when you sleep.”
“Uhm..I will try to..but.. Where is it now?”
Naito turned his head around. The shadow was not there. He stood up, checked behind the bookshelves next to the reception stall, inside the locker room, across the corridor. The shadow was nowhere to be found. Airi stood up too. She started looking for the shadow as well.
“I wonder where it went.. It was there some second ago, I could see it floating behind you all this time. I’m not sure at which point it vanished..”
“Great.. I hope it returns soon. Otherwise we will have to look for it. Thankfully, the places where we will have to look are not so many, since it only keeps information of places you refer to. There’s nothing we can do for now. I have to work until 14.00. Go home, send me your address and wait for me without sleeping. Don’t drink any coffee or energy drink - I think these are obvious but I still insist. I will stop at my house to get my notes and change, and I will come straight to yours. I will text you when I am in the neighborhood.”
“Ok.. please try to be discreet and don’t let many people see you..”
Naito looked at her annoyed. He exhaled, trying to keep his patience and remain composed. How can a person, of their social status and their neighbors, being in such a situation? Unbelievable.
“I got it already. If anything new happens, text me.”
“Sure. See you in a few hours.”