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Elys: Heaven Is What You Make It – Chapter 0: The Escape
It was an old photograph which haunted Lucas. Each morning before school, those brown eyes would bore into him. Condemnation behind a smile frozen in time. Lucas would stare back. The fading light in those eyes would be rekindled in exchange for his own. This was his penance.
Lucas felt the weight of his bag pressing into his back. He smiled. Final exams may be next week, but come hell or high water there’d still be time to get lost in whatever stories he could find at the bottom of the bookstore clearance bin. He’d even scraped together enough to afford a few volumes of a new manga everyone online was talking about.
“Lucas, my man, where you been?” The familiar voice stopped Lucas in his tracks. An arm was slung over his shoulder, and he was nearly knocked over as Victor crashed into him.
“Hey, Vic,” Lucas choked out.
Victor loosened his death grip. “Sorry, dude. But look, it’s been forever since you’ve said a word to anyone! Chel doesn’t wanna tell me anything, but it’s pretty clear she’s pissed.”
Lucas averted his gaze. “It’s… it’s nothing.”
“Bullshit! C’mon, walk with me.” Victor dragged him along toward the school building. Vic had always been pushy, but Lucas couldn’t comprehend why he was still trying so hard after four months. “So, what have you been up to?”
“Ah… You know. Reading stuff.” Lucas pulled his bag closer.
“Oh yeah, you told me about that one about getting trapped inside a video game. What was it called?”
“It… it had a really long name. I don’t remember.”
“Oh well. You know I’m not much of a reader myself. More of a movie guy.”
“I haven’t really seen any movies lately.”
“That’s a shame. Let’s fix that, shall we? Friday, we can go catch whatever’s playing.”
“I don’t know if-“
“You can even ask Chel if she wants to come with!”
“Not a chance.”
“I think it’s a great idea!”
“I mean it, Vic. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Well you’re gonna have to talk to her at some point. How about we go find Chel and sort this out right now?”
“How about no?”
“Oh c’mon, you’re not gonna win her over if you never talk to her!” Lucas shot him a murderous look. Victor quickly let go. “Okay, okay. Then just tell me what’s going on with you two.”
Lucas sighed. “You really want to know? Alright. I asked her out, back in February. And she said no.”
“And what? That’s all there is to it.”
“You stopped talking to her because she turned you down?”
“But you’d been talking to her since October.”
“I was too nervous.”
“And now you don’t want anything to do with her anymore?”
“What else am I supposed to do? I’m not gonna hang around her forever, hoping for something that isn’t going to happen.”
“Alright, fine, I get it. But even if you don’t see her as a friend, she thought of you as one. So… I dunno. I think you should at least clear that up with her. Better than just leaving her in the dark.” His seemingly permanent grin fell away for a moment. He quickly regained his composure and started off towards a group of guys at the gate waving him over. “Anyways, I’ll catch you later.”
As Lucas entered the school grounds, his shoulders tensed. A sea of students, faces he probably should recognize but didn’t, names he must have heard before but couldn’t place. Here, everyone talks or thinks about someone else. Is anyone talking or thinking about him? What would they say or think? Lucas tried his best not to let these questions gnaw away at him. But he already knew the answer; the picture on the wall always reminds him of what he is.
Lucas clutched his bag close to his chest as he pushed through the masses of students down the halls. He had chosen his first period seat at the beginning of the year as a kind of joke. But it turned out to be more trouble than it was worth. Too many heads in the way of seeing half the board. A nasty glare on his eyes from the sun. And nobody got the joke.
Classes came and went, each agonizing second longer than the last, until it was free period and the whole thing was just a tiny blur in the past. Lucas trudged to the library and planted himself at his usual table near the corner. The ideal was to be alone, but his company these past few weeks was a few students silently death-marching to finals or watching something unsavory until their headphones inevitably fail them. It was an acceptable second.
Lucas was lost in the world before him. Starships and planets could be vaporized in a moment on this battlefield, but the young hero who was cryogenically frozen millennia ago bravely fought on. He may not be the most engaging protagonist, but the idea of having an entire space fleet ready to launch into action at command was enough to keep Lucas turning the pages.
“What’s that you’re reading there?” a girl’s voice called out. Lucas jumped in his seat. The girl sitting across the table stifled a laugh. Lucas’s eyes darted left and right, hoping no one else in the library had seen that.
“It’s, um… It’s a story about a war in space.”
“Judging from the giant robot on the cover, that sounds about right.” The girl returned to her own reading. On the cover was a character Lucas didn’t recognize.
“What’s that one about?”
“Hmm. Well, it’s another one of those stories where the characters are stuck in a fantasy world that resembles an RPG, but this one is a comedy about how the heroine doesn’t understand any of that stuff and confuses everyone by using real-world logic.”
“That sounds like an interesting concept.”
“I actually picked it up because the protagonist reminds me of someone I know.” A stern-looking girl marched up and tugged on her arm. “Speak of the devil.”
Lucas recognized this new arrival. Nikki. To say she was bossy was the understatement of the century. Nikki had a reputation for using her popularity to get what she wanted out of anyone too naïve or insecure to refuse. Vic had even mentioned rumors that some students are blackmailed into her schemes.
The girl held by Nikki looked to Lucas, silently pleading for a way out. Lucas opened his mouth to speak, then closed it and bit his lip. And just like that, Lucas was once again alone at his table. I never even got her name, he thought.
Putting this strange little encounter behind him, he turned his eyes back to his book. But he couldn’t focus. In the back of his mind was a familiar irritation. A place under his skin that damned picture crept into and made a home. The home for memories of Victor, of Chelsea, of every time he put into practice the life lesson that in reality, to be a hero is to invite more pain into your world. After all, if there were no heroes, there would be no villains to stand in their way… right?
The doors burst open, and students spilled out. It was controlled chaos. Lucas found himself caught in the current, hardly aware of time’s passing. Something rammed into him from the side. Victor.
“Are you ready?” he asked, flashing his teeth.
“Are we really doing this?”
“Duh, of course we are! You’re not getting out of here until-“
“Hold on.” It was her. Down by the gate. Lucas pushed past the crowd, unsure of exactly what he was doing himself.
“Lucas? Lucas! Don’t run away from this!” But Victor’s words fell on deaf ears.
Then Lucas stopped. He had no plan. He didn’t know what to say. Maybe if I just turn back, she won’t even notice… Dammit, she’s looking right at me.
She smiled. “Oh, aren’t you the guy from the library?”
“Yeah. I remember you, too.”
“Listen, I’m so sorry about having to leave so soon. I just had a few errands to run, that’s all.”
“Nikki has you running around for her?”
“I transferred here this spring, so I didn’t really know anyone. But she introduced me to all her friends. Isn’t she great?”
Nikki suddenly appeared as if on cue, for the second time. She handed her ‘friend’ an envelope, shot Lucas a dirty look, and disappeared. Lucas couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow.
“Looks like she needs me to take this to the address. Oh, I know where this is!”
“Why not just put it in a mailbox?”
“I asked her that, too. She just told me it’s easier this way. And I get paid for it, so it’s a win-win situation!”
“And you’re not even a little suspicious about what you’re delivering?”
“Don’t worry, Nikki is my friend. I don’t suspect her for anything. She even showed me what was inside for the first few times. Birthday cards, letters, CDs, normal stuff.”
Lucas shook his head. “Whatever you say. Do you have to go now?”
“I don’t know. She seemed kind of serious. I’d really rather not keep her waiting. I guess I’ll see you later...?”
“Lucas,” he answered.
She started through the gate. Lucas wondered just what kind of trouble Nikki was stirring up. For her to be completely silent during that entire exchange was… unsettling. He wondered whether this was his justification for following after Maki.
“Huh? What is it?”
“Can I,” his face was burning. “Can I come with you?”
Maki’s eyes lit up. “Yeah, that would be great!”
Lucas felt someone’s eyes drilling into him from behind. He turned his head. Froze. Chelsea was shooting daggers at him. He tore away and followed after Maki.
The two of them strolled down into the busier parts of town. Lucas couldn’t help but feel relaxed. For what felt like the first time, he could talk with someone else face-to-face about his hobbies without feeling embarrassed. He learned that Maki’s father had a job that required their family to move often, even overseas. She was used to having to leave an old life and start again somewhere new.
“It’s kind of like being in one of those isekai stories,” she said. It was meant to be a joke, but she couldn’t hide the sadness in her voice.
“Sometimes… no, every day, I wish I could just go somewhere else. If I had the chance to leave everything behind and get a brand new start? I’d take it, no questions asked.”
“Are you sure? You probably have plenty of things you wouldn’t want to lose.”
“No,” he said flatly. “There’s nothing here for me.”
Maki said nothing.
Lucas wished he hadn’t said that. He wanted to break this awkward silence. But with each second, it became more and more impossible to find the resolve to say anything.
At last, they reached the address on the envelope, an unremarkable brick building. Maki knocked on the door. No response. She looked back to Lucas, who shrugged.
“Lucas, you don’t have to stay. This could take a while.”
“I don’t mind waiting here.”
“Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“How bad could it be?”
Two hours later, Lucas once again found himself regretting his words. The sun was setting, the air was cold, and still no one was showing up. He finished the manga from this afternoon, and was determined to hold off on the others for today. He’d had enough of sitting on the curb, anyway. Maki had been trying to contact Nikki and her friends to figure out what was going on. Nobody would respond.
Maki yawned. “I’m just about ready to call it a day. If even Nikki isn’t going to pick up, then it just can’t be helped.”
“Yeah, I really don’t feel like sticking around here for much longer. I never liked this part of town, and now it’s getting dark and there isn’t a soul in sight.”
“Do you want to get something to eat before heading home?”
“Great, I know this place not too far that has- huh?”
Maki strained her eyes to see something behind Lucas. Lucas turned, and saw a silhouette in the distance. The approaching figure became the outline of a man. The setting sun reflected off of black, sleek metal.
“Maki, let’s go,” he whispered, pulling her away.
“We’ve gotta get out of here!”
“No. Lucas, listen to me!”
Lucas turned back around. The gun was pointed at them. His blood ran cold. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t think. He grabbed the envelope and held his hands up
“You want this, right? We don’t even know what’s in it. Here, take it.” He tossed the envelope to the ground between them. The man stepped back and looked at it. Lucas saw his chance. He turned to cover Maki.
Her eyes widened in shock. “Kai? No, don’t-“