Are You Real?
“Don't you think it's kind of beautiful?” Ai asked, her face lit by the shimmering blue just across the glass.
Kiro nodded with his reply, staring on with her. “Yeah. Kind of reminds me of a living rainbow.”
The two teenagers pressed themselves closer to the massive tank to watch the long, oil-sheened Oarfish pass. In the dark of the aquarium chamber around them, the only light came from the many azure windows peering into the peerless blue. Spotty shadows danced out across the floor, cast by the placid plodding of the captive wildlife. As a native environment aquarium built below sea level, the only sunlight that filtered into the building did so as aural sparkles lighting the night sky-themed floor.
It was dark, quiet, and best of all, private. The perfect, last-second location for a date when being asked out on a whim. Especially since Kiro had to constantly mind his angle when facing her due to the hastily covered-up bruise on his face. Having to contend with his father's rockstar makeup and none of the experience needed to apply it, he just felt lucky that she hadn't noticed it yet.
“You know, I'm really glad that you brought me here,” Ai said. “I forgot how much I liked all kinds of animals.”
Kiro held his tongue for a second. Then, he smiled.
“And here I thought you only like cats, haha.”
She shot him a sour, yet cheeky look. “As a prominent scholar in the field of monstrous studies, I resent that.”
But we were talking about animals.
… Was what he wanted to respond. Instead, he just gave her another smile and turned to watch the glass. Kiro didn't really look at anything in particular, as none of it could catch his attention. He was too busy wrangling the thorny, oblong sensation in his gut. Nothing felt more appropriate than to watch the little particles of dust floating in the currents. If not for the rays of light filtering through, they would have been totally invisible.
“What's the matter, Kiro?” Ai asked, laying a hand on his. “You seem a little bit quieter than usual.”
Kiro rubbed his eyes for emphasis. “Just a little tired, I guess. Semester projects and finals are coming up and all.”
Ai's lips pursed up for a moment, before she started pulling him by the hand.
“Come on, let's take our mind off of things,” she said in a soft, saccharine whisper. “I hear a pack of seals migrated in earlier today.”
Kiro followed her along the windows until they approached the one that had arguably the largest crowd around it. He was a little hesitant to plunge right in amidst them and get a look, but Ai was remarkably unfazed. Indeed, as they slipped their way between the shadowy bodies, her optimistic expression remained unchanged.
“Look!” She gasped. “They're like little sea puppies!”
Kiro stared blankly at the acrobatic little shadows zipping through the water before them.
"Very cute," he said.
The next exhibit was much the same story.
"Don't the jellyfish look kind of like plastic bags? The way they just float there, I mean."
"I suppose so."
And the next.
"Hey, those two sea anemones kind of look like us, don't they? That one over there is wavy and reddish, and the one right next to it is long and blue."
"All these deep sea fish look really weird. They're like, aliens or something, right?"
At this point, Kiro's replies had devolved into nods.
He stared out into the depths of the first truly artificial environment in the aquarium so far. It was much, much darker here than anywhere else, with the glow in the dark wave patterns along the floor and railings being the only lights. The creatures that lurked out past the glass were almost invisible, vanishing from site but an arm's length from the boundaries of their manicured world.
That was, until a small, circular shadow bloomed out of the void.
Ai tugged on Kiro's sleeve, directing his attention to the growing blob. It was no more than two times the size of their heads, and it was approaching right at eye level. The first feature that became apparent was a small little stock that dangled off of the top of its head. It stopped just before the glass—almost close enough that they could make out its scales. From its saucer-like, bulging eyes, to its mangle of spiny, irregularly placed teeth, the anglerfish truly looked like something that could have only come from an alien world. And yet, it was staring at them, as if its vacant eyes implied a world within.
"Wow. Doesn't it just look freaky?" Ai asked.
Kiro simply maintained the staring contest between himself and the creature. And then, it shook in place. Just as he thought it would dart back into the depths, never to be seen again, the angler on its head began to glow.
It was a strange kind of light, ethereal and beautiful. Harsher than the pale green of the glow in the dark decorations around them, and yet, far mellower than the pure white auras of the sun that they left behind. Its presence far outshined the amount of light that it put out, in a way that seemed to illuminate the profound depths around it.
“Kiro, are you really okay? You’ve been awfully quiet this whole time.”
“Yeah. Like I said, I’m fine.”
Ai sighed. Then, she snapped her fingers.
“Oh!” She put a smile on her face. “So you ever wonder why we see animals like animals, and not like monsters?”
Kiro’s eyes stayed on the tank. “Honestly, I don’t think about them that way anymore.”
Ai’s expression turned into one of surprise. “What? Animals?”
He couldn't help but keep staring, and neither could Ai. But she wasn’t staring at the anglerfish with a profound look of realization. Rather, her eyes were locked on Kiro, and more specifically, on the dim blue splotch that had become apparent in the strange, alien light.
"What happened to your face?" She asked.
Kiro tore his gaze from the glass and gave her a confused glance.
"That's a bruise, isn't it?" Ai continued, bringing a hand to his cheek.
She pressed on it, gently but firmly, and he couldn't help but yelp. As soon as he could make out her concerned expression, all Kiro could do was shrink into his turtleneck.
Kiro tried to turn away from her. "It's not a big deal. You know how I am. Always bumping into things."
Ai pursed her lips again. He could feel by the tingle in his neck that she was seeing the half-truth for what it was.
The temperature of her gaze plummeted.
"Someone hit you."
Kiro stepped back. "What?"
"You promised," Ai said, her voice still low. "We were going to be transparent and honest with each other about everything."
"There's nothing to be transparent or honest about," Kiro replied, unable to hold back a twinge of resentment in his tone. "It has nothing to do with anything between the two of us."
"Really?" Ai put her hands on her hips. "Then I guess it wasn't Mad Dog that did this to you?"
Kiro's mouth hung open.
Ai raised an eyebrow. "Well?"
"You don't know what you're talking about."
"I already told you, this has nothing to do with you."
Kiro's words were coming out as if he was struggling for air.
"Doesn't it now?" She asked, leaning in closer.
"Ai. Please." Kiro pleaded. "Back off."
At some point, the anglerfish had left, and the darkness had closed in around them. Somehow, without being able to see each other, it was as if they were even more suffocatingly close to one another. As if they were cheek to cheek.
"Kiro. I'm going to give you one, final chance-"
Kiro's voice boomed across the silent, endless void around them. A faint glimmer of light revealed their terrified faces to each other, along with some curious bystanders nearby.
"I…" Kiro took a step back. "I need to go."
It was hard to make out anything in front of her, so when Kiro hurried off, it seemed as if he had just vanished. Ai was left grasping at the bubbling shadows like a deer locked in a car's headlights. She strained to make out which dark splotch was his or a monster's, but her whole body was too paralyzed to move. In that moment, she could feel the invisible, monstrous masses shift their attention onto her.
Then came the whispers.
Kiro stepped out of the aquarium’s domelike shell, huffing and puffing. Red-faced and violently green in the stomach, his mind went blank and his eyes were watering. In a move of divine providence, the buzzing static filling his head was drowned out by the percussion of rain beginning to fall.
The sky shone a cold, indifferent gray. Droplets from the clouds mixed with his tears as he ran down the streets.
“Ugh, this sucks,” Maia grumbled under her breath.
The sky was gunmetal gray and the clouds that gathered were as dark as black powder. Any moment now, that natural powder keg would burst. To make matters worse, the bus stop right outside of work was closed for construction, and now she had to hoof it all the way back home.
A droplet of water pittered off the top of her head. Then another. And another.
The downpour didn’t give her a spare second to prepare herself. No umbrella, no jacket, no hope of not catching a cold after this. She pressed forth into the dreary squall, keeping underneath as many store awnings as possible. As she reached the halfway point between downtown and Duketown though, the awnings grew sparser.
Without the luxury of covered ground, Maia took her time standing underneath the very last awning in sight. The weather was bad, but few days could be as miserable as the day before. She watched the puddles forming along the road, taking comfort in the rhythm of the rain at the very least. In some way, she felt it was fitting, as if the sky could cry for her. In every other way, she shoved the feelings back down her throat like a fist making room in a backed up trash can.
It was the slightest twinkle in the corner of the nearest puddle, but she could have sworn that she saw something shift behind her. Turning around, she saw nothing, nor anyone. Shrugging off the strange feeling, she dashed out into the rain. As the blocks went on, though, the unnerving sensation remained.
Maia knew better than to distrust her own judgment. After falling into a very regular trot for around half a block, she veered suddenly into a nearby alleyway. When she kept her head ready to peek back around the corner, her suspicions were confirmed. All Maia could see was a singular, wide-framed figure, as the heavy rain made it difficult to make out much. It rapidly tried to close the gap in distance between them before ducking behind the nearest storefront’s outcropping.
Weird. Way too weird.
Maia looked around the alley—there was a way out to the street on the other end. She made a break for it, and peeked behind herself once more. The figure entered the alley, stowing themselves behind a dumpster. Neither of them moved, until Maia withdrew from the alleyway as slowly and calmly as possible.
Around the corner, she broke into a full sprint.
Alleyway to alleyway, street to street, she forged an increasingly erratic course. Left, right, left, left, right, right. She didn't even care that she was getting lost—there was no way in hell that she was going to lose her edge and get jumped by some coward.
And yet, as she exited out onto a quiet, industrial street, she saw another shadow down one end of it. They were differently shaped than the last figure, the silhouette of their head both shallower and sharper. But when they ducked behind the nearest cover at the sight of her, there was no more room for doubt.
I'm being hunted by a whole pack.
Maia glanced around the street for options. But without any residential buildings lining the road, there were no fire escapes and no more alleyways left to duck into other than the one behind her. Between dashing down the unknown path behind her and standing still, her options were bleak.
Prompted by a flash of lightning, Maia ran off towards the right, the only direction that was yet free. As the street lamps passed her by, Maia took the time to pull the phone out of her backpack. She put it on battery saving mode and turned on location tracking in the family locating app. Then, she silenced it and stowed it in her bra. Without time to slow down and fire off a text, the most she could do was hope against the odds. And judging by how the figures were gaining on her, she could feel them slimming by the second.
Mercifully, the road, drenched in the shadows of behemoths' industrial shells, finally gave way to an intersection. The path to the left and the path ahead led to dead ends, so she turned right. But there too was a figure, standing in the middle of the narrow lane. Turning on her heel, Maia picked the dead end with the lowest fence that cut the road off from the factories residing on it.
Looking over her shoulder, she could see all three figures now running after her in the open. She tossed her backpack over the nearest fence and kept heading straight for the end of the road. The curb cut off just before the entrance of an abandoned factory, its gate rusted open. Maia picked up pace. Then, she stopped.
A fourth figure came out of the darkness of the factory exit.
She frantically looked between the quartet closing in on her. “What the hell do you want with me?!”
A flash of lightning illuminated the otherwise dim street, granting her a glimpse of their strange visages. The four figures took off their hoods to reveal rubber animal masks, the cheap kind that can be found at any costume store. A chicken, a tiger, and a horse in front of her, with a bull at her back. Their dead, plastic eyes bore into Maia's as she readied her fists.
Like a gunshot, thunder boomed in the distance.
From the trio standing in the street, the chicken mask was the first to lunge at her. With a well-placed uppercut to the chin, they went flying off to the side. Maia sidestepped the bull mask coming from the factory behind her, but she was unable to avoid the tiger and the horse in time. Their shoe and fist sunk into her side respectively, and she stumbled, tripping over the sidewalk. The bull closed in, but a kick to the groin managed to send them packing to the concrete.
The tiger and the horse came at her in a second wave, sending her crashing into the fence across the sidewalk. She tried to push herself up, but her ragged breathing and her rage weren’t enough to overpower the two built figures coming at her, let alone the other two that were picking themselves up again.
She was tackled to the ground amid a flurry of kicks. This wasn't the boxing ring. There were no rules, no rounds, and no fairness. It could only end one way.
The barrage let up only when one of them stopped to ask:
“What do we do with her?”
Through blurry eyes, Maia could barely make their forms out anymore. She saw the tiger turn to the bull.
“Send her to the ER,” came the tiger’s response.
A hand grabbed her by the back of the head. The last thing that she recalled was the impact of her face hitting the ground and everything going black.