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Hollow Lives

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Man, it’d suck to be murdered here.

 

There’re a lot of places where it’d suck to die. Volcanos. Convenience store bathrooms. Zoos. 

 

But there’s just no dignity in the bowling alley. Dying in rental shoes? Next to the cheap-but-not-cheap-enough-to-be-affordable gachas? Bleeding out on carpet patterned with confetti and Saturn? Imagine if you got blood inside a cabinet, or in a bowling-ball’s holes. Last impact in the world, adding to the nasty crust inside either of those locations. At least there wasn’t a rat.

 

But Ame certainly wouldn’t mind the colorful esoteric carpet design being the last thing she saw. Not that she planned to, but if she kept getting banned from building after building, then a bowling alley might be the only place that’d allow her in all her life. 

 

She was already banned from the town's main arcade, and the grocery store. She’s pretty sure the librarian doesn’t ever wanna see her again. Not to mention no one’s even letting her get near city hall after what she did.

 

The alley at least had games. Games that made Amelia feel alive. ...well, a little alive. The shooters, the pac of mans, the space things, they’re all well and good, but she wondered. Where were the puzzles? The narratives? Did anyone ever try to do something besides shoot the things, eat the things, bounce the things into things, stack things?

 

Thinking about it, she wondered why all the games felt so dated and old. Surely there was something a little more interesting then these cabinets.

 

“Oh...yeh, Ame, there isn’t anything.”

 

“Yeah there is!”

 

“No, there...really isn’t. I’ve asked,” Ina responds, adjusting her silly hat. “According to my manager, our arcade’s a little close to top of the line. We still don’t have Dragon’s Lair, Punch-Out!!, or Spy Hunter though.”

 

“Punch-Out with two exclamation marks?” 

 

“Yeh.”

 

“Why not three?”

 

“Technology has yet to reach the point of three exclamations.”

 

That got a chuckle out of Amelia, it came at a bad time though as the pizza she was eating then got caught in her throat and she choked horribly. 

 

Ina pounded her on the back...well, as much as Ina could. “Aw jeez, no need to get so choked up about it Ame.”

 

“I’m dying--” Amelia devolved into another choking fit. “And all...you have...’s puns?”

 

“It’s your pun-ishment!”

 

Amelia hacked, coughed, and finally hiccuped as the pizza crust finally dislodged itself. “Don’t punish me, I’m already goin’ downstairs if I die.”


“If?”


“You never know!”

 

“...Watson, you are going to die someday.”

 

“Hmph, death is gonna have to catch me first.” Amelia flashes her usual Watson smirk. Her eyes wander to the Pac-Man machine in the corner of the room; a fitting metaphor, and back on track. “Anyways! How do you know that stuff about those games? Is there some kinda ledger? How do you know the forbidden games.”

 

“I uh, read magazines that come my way. Plus I know you like that kinda stuff so I checked some of it out.”

 

“Magazines?” Amelia slams her hands on the table. She looms towards Ina, asking, “Can I see ‘em?”

 

Ina would be lying if she said she didn’t flinch, “Um, sure? I’ll see if I can get them to you anytime soon.”

 

“Yes! Then...” 

 

Amelia trailed off, stammering, and hiccuped.

 

She didn’t actually... know what came next. Something in her just felt like she wanted to...learn why .

 

“Then I can investigate!”

 

She always wanted to be a mystery...doer... mysterator? Was that the word? Person who investigates...things...yeah, mysterator’s right. And this was her chance!

 

---

 

The library was a problem. They didn’t quite like her there, which was unreasonable considering all she ever did was try to deal with the temperature. They shouldn’t keep the building so gosh-darned chilly if they didn’t want patrons burning logs. 

 

As unfortunate as it was though, Amelia was only human and couldn’t just walk in while she’s banned. She had to sneak.

 

The infiltration started alright, sure, thanks to an elaborate and definitely-not-rushed disguise, but...there were librarians who'd recognize her somewhere here. And her dad's card wasn't going to pass too much muster. She had to act fast, catch people unawares, ask nobody nothing. 

 

This made the search for books hard though, as she kinda just...had to hope they had 'electronics', 'technology', 'game', or 'video' in the title. Or in one case, had a really weird cover with some kind of rat robot... Amelia dallied maybe a little too long just looking at whatever the heck that could be before she was faced with the obvious answer: The library's computer.

 

Big, yellowed, clunky, and capable of only a few functions, it was basically top of the line for their small town. Black screen and green text --why green text? The arcade machines were capable of other colors, does it take such a big thing to manage blue?-- lit up menus of the filing database. She wasn’t entirely familiar with working with the thing, but she’s sure she could figure out enough to find the books of technology. It was a computer, how hard could it be?

 

The sound of a chair moving behind her caused Amelia to jump, but when she whipped around there wasn’t anyone looking her way. 

 

At least...not anyone she could see .

 

Amelia attempted to get back to the computer, scrolling to the...card...catalog? That...that sounded right, sure. She wished she could just google it. 

 

What a funny word, google. 

 

Her thoughts are interrupted by the bizarre realization that she didn’t know what a google was...was it something like ogle? That meant... looking ... maybe it was something like, look up? Search for? Hunt down but with eyeballs instead of weapons? Go and ogle a thing.

 

That made enough sense for her to stop thinking about it at the moment.

 

And think a little more about the footsteps behind her.

 

Amelia froze. 

 

Something slapped against a chair, still behind her, to her left. The footsteps didn’t have weight to them, they were soft and deliberate. 

 

She waited for them to pass.

 

After holding her breath for what seemed a solid minute Amelia was pretty sure whoever’s haunting her was gone again.

 

And then it returns, on her right. 

 

Something’s circling her.

 

“What’cha doin’ here, Watson?”

 

“Gyah! Gura? Don’t sneak up on me,” Amelia hissed. The circling predator was just good ol’ Gura. It was a relief to see a familiar face, even if they... weren’t on the best of terms.

 

“I thought’cha were allergic to learnin’!” She said, with the smarmiest of grins.

 

Oh that stung. She looked smug as always, in her fancy navy blue hoodie with those fancy sharp teeth and fancy looking pretty blue eyes. Bleh, it should be illegal being that fancy. 

 

Amelia flicked Gura’s nose. “Important, uh, detect--nah, just, uh important, business? Important things. That I’m doing.” She reached up to adjust a hat she hadn’t brought, and brushed some hair aside to save face. “And I’ll...I...” Amelia trailed off as a storm of hiccups bubbled up her throat. “ Heck.

 

“Hey! No fucking swears in the library!” 

 

“I mean, no me in the library, uh, technically I can’t be here.”

 

“I’d ask if you gotta reason, butcha never do, so--”

 

“Not this time! Amelia Watson’s got a quest! An investigation! A mystery!”

 

“A wha?”

 

“A mystery: Technology!”

 

“There’s manuals for that, stoopid.” The words hung in the air for a second, then Gura flinched, and she zipped up her coat more. “What I mean is. How’s that a mystery?”

 

“Welll we’ve got all this technology from, what, the seventies, eighties, blahdeblah some time ago? Why hasn’t it gotten better?” Amelia slapped the book she was holding; The Unauthorized History of Charles Entertainment Cheese . “We’re decades past that, so why hasn’t it developed? Don’tcha find that weird?”

 

For a moment, Gura’s brows furrowed.  “Nah. Never thought about that.”

 

“Well you should!” Amelia crossed her arms and hiccuped. “All of the stuff we’ve developed, like, scientifically, computorically, as, as a technology thing, it all stopped...at some point!”

 

“You’re suuure? What point?”

 

“...see, that’s part of the problem!” Amelia held up the book for a moment. “Hold on, Gura, let-- give me a bit.”

 

Gura leaned against a chair, wordlessly, as Amelia flipped through pages of pizza diagrams, some guy named Nolan Bushnell, rat-based animatronics, and--

 

There. A timeline.  Amelia slapped the book right next to Gura’s face and pointed. 

 

“1983. It stopped in 1983. That...matches two of the other books in my dad’s office.”

 

“That’s... seven, seventeen or, hold on lemme...” Gura scratched her chin for a moment. “...That’s twenty years ago. Holy sh-- holy mackerel that is weird.”

 

Amelia nodded so fast she could see through the universe. 

 

“I almost wanna help on that, that’d be...kinda fun, instead’a just...” Gura cast her eyes towards her own stack of textbooks, and Amelia could already feel the back pain. 

 

She snickered. “No takebacks.”

 

“Hey man, I didn’t say I would! I mean it’d be fun, but I wouldn’t do much anyway.”

 

“Nah, you would! You’ve got some words in that bonehead.”

 

“Hardy har. It’d still take more.”

 

“More what?”

 

“People. Whatcha gonna do, Watson? Get the band back together?”

 

For a moment, Amelia could kiss Gura. Right smack on the lips. Right there. Mwah.

 

Getting the old group back together! She knew where Ina was, she could guess how to find Calli and Kiara, pitch the mystery to them, get them to agree, get their help and their new phone numbers, and then they’d all be friends again, and then...

 

And then.

 

And then someone’d talk to her without yelling. And then someone’d listen to what she had to say. And then someone’d spend time with her, by choice, by a volition not caused by her wrenching the world into something that could maybe fit her for just a few minutes more.

 

And then Amelia Watson wouldn’t be so horribly alone.

 

(Take responsibility, you’ve taken everything else!)

(Let's tako later, okay? I'll call you.)

(It’s not like that anymore, I’m busy. Whatever time you pick, Watson, I’m busy. Please don’t call me again.)

(You aren't my sunshine anymore, Watson, you're just a pain.)

 

A clock ticked. Tick, tock, tick, tock, went mechanical hands, mechanical moments, the artificial expression of time. She heard the gears inside. They needed oiling. 

 

Something plinked against the ground. Water? In a library? Gura seemed to have brought it. It was all over her face. Amelia reached over, sleeve ready, and Gura flinched away, teeth bared. Amelia opened her mouth. Nothing came out.

 

Gura wiped her face and broke the silence. “Yeah, nevermind, heh. That wouldn’t...heh, funny huh?”

 

Amelia didn’t laugh, but a sound came out when she opened her mouth. It wasn’t really a word, more something quiet and hurt, something that died in the back of her throat. She coughed, and tried again. “...so, you uh. You did offer to help, though, then?”

 

It hurt, still. But Amelia could stuff that down, shove it away. Because...because she missed her. She missed their talks, she missed their jokes, she missed sitting on Gura’s rooftop until someone shooed her down with a broom. 

 

“I’m kinda busy with...y’know.” Gura gestured at her books. “Studying. Heard of it?”

 

“Ehhhh I’ve got more important stuff to deal with!” Amelia shrugged off the issue.

 

“You suuure?” Gura leaned to the side, resting her chin on the back of a chair.

 

“Yeah. Very sure. This is vital! A vital investimagation to our lives and all that stuff! I just know it!”

 

She didn’t really expect a yes. She didn’t expect anything aside from a maybe, really, and Amelia definitely didn’t expect an “Okay, Watson, I’ll help.”

 

Amelia Watson blinked. 

 

Gura snapped a finger into the air. “On one condition!”

 

“I hate conditions,” Amelia griped.

 

“That’s why your hair’s like that, y’know.”

 

“Can it.” Oh, something was coming back.

 

Gura closed the difference between the two of them, stomped up to her and grabbed her arms. “My condition is! Come to a few classes. A week. Just...come with me and learn some stuff. Please?”

 

Amelia hiccuped, tapped her foot, considered her options. On one hand, studying. Suffering. Fuss and misery. Useless info she can never focus on. On the other hand...help. Gura. Assistance. Gura. An extra hand in the investigation, an extra eye in the search. And, most importantly, Gura. 

 

“You drive a hard bargain. But...for the investimagation, I’ll do it!” 

 

And for you , she refused to admit.

 

---

 

Caffeine. Coffee. Coffee coffee coffee. Kiara Takanashi’s next shift started soon. She need-need- needed as much coffee as she could get.

 

There’s one near her work, less cozy than any other cafe in town, not even a proper cafe but a step up from the canned coffee at the convenience store. At least it was warm.  

 

She brushed some snow off her shoulder and shoved her way through the door. There wasn’t really a line to the register, thankfully just one person ahead. The pungent stench of coffee overwhelmed her nose as the space in front of her opened up. 

 

“Welcome to Pete’s Coffee, something something blah whatever, what’s your order?”

 

Their eyes met.

 

Kiara's...and hers.

 

There was a time when the young Takanashi, all acne-covered and sweaty-palmed and burning up with her own young lesbianic thoughts, would meet those eyes and combust with joy. With longing.

 

Instead, the present-day Kiara Takanashi merely winced.

 

Calliope Mori, longtime-crush-of-her-life Calliope Mori, the woman she used to fawn over even back when Kiara was the scruffy-haired new kid in town, dirt under her nails and feathers in her hair, and Calli was this sunken-eyed skeleton of a girl with a mouth full of rude words and “evil” plans.

Her eyes had sunken back since Kiara last saw her. They looked dead, for a moment, then opened wide. “GUH!”

 

Kiara tilted back her hood. “Oh heyyyy Calli! What a surprise!”

 

“It’s, uh, a surprise to see you too. You got an order?”

 

“Black coffee. Uh, three of them.”

 

“...you suuure, Kiara? You hate black coffee.”

 

It was true. She couldn’t stand the taste. But her hourly didn’t exactly pay for flavors. 

 

“I’ll put some chocolate in--”

 

“No. Just the coffee.”

 

“I’ll totally cover it. It’s a treat, on me. Kay?”

 

Free chocolate in her coffee. Tempting. Very very tempting. She’d take the chocolate, sure, maybe treat Calli to something later on down the line. But why?

 

Was this a gesture of friendship? Or pity?

 

Calli’s hands, shoving aside a bouquet of roses and spider-lilies. Her voice, harsh, almost hurt. We're hardly even friends, Kusotori, you don't even know me.

 

She could take her own words, Kiara decided. 

 

“We aren’t friends anymore, Calli.”

 

“W-well, duh, I know that. I...” Calliope’s face adopted her usual expression; strange, detached panic. “I mean, we could be again?”

 

It took everything in Kiara to not immediately accept. She fought the smile off of her face, but its spark lingered, dancing deeper into herself. The prospect of friendship, even after what she said, after what she did.  “I thought you didn’t have time.”

 

“...yeah, I...don’t...” Calliope trailed off.

 

Neither did Kiara. Between their jobs, even if everything was at its best, even without having to pay most of the rent, they had to work enough to eat, to afford the basics, to keep their houses warm. If Calli still even had a house. 

 

“I...don’t either. Except for now.”

 

“So.” Calliope coughed. “How’s, uh, how’s the family?”

 

The spark dies. 

 

Words came from Kiara before she even thought about it. “You were at the funeral.”

 

Pink irises contracted to pins and darted around the room. 

 

She wanted to shove the words back into her mouth.

 

Mori looked anywhere but Kiara. 

 

At this point, she shouldn’t care.

 

Maybe there never was a spark.

 

“Can I please get a coffee?!”

 

They both flinch; a line had formed behind Kiara, a really big line. Residents from all over town, oh god one of her coworkers.

 

She sunk into her hoodie.

 

The barista spoke up once again. “...Kiara, your--”

She turned away. “Uh, bye... Mori.”

 

Kiara’d pick up some energy drinks from the gas station from now on.