By Lim Tze Dean (18J13)
It was as if Kouhei had stepped into another dimension. All around him, flashy buildings adorned with anime and idol posters battled for his attention. Lively chatter buzzed in the air as vast throngs of people milled about.
“Wahaha! We’re finally here — the holy otaku Mecca! How could we have only visited now, after twenty years spent walking the earth?” A grin spread uncontrollably over his face.
Gawking all around, Kouhei could not help but feel overwhelmed by the sheer awesomeness of it all.
“I didn't think you'd agree to come with me, given your…extremely introverted nature,” he turned to glance at his friend.
“The mythical lands…” Ishigami’s voice trailed off in deep reverence. He looked at Kouhei.
“As much as I despise human interaction, it’s a worthy sacrifice for this experience,” he pivoted on his heels, “this is a completely different world from the rest of Tokyo.” He dabbed exaggeratedly at his eyes.
“What? You crying?” Kouhei asked.
“I’m crying for my wallet. By the way Kouhei, you had better guard your wallet around this tourist spot,” Ishigami warned.
“No worries, pickpockets wouldn’t be able to get through my anti-theft bag,” Kouhei replied.
“It's not about guarding against thieves. It's about guarding against yourself,” said Ishigami, defeated.
Puzzled, Kouhei peered closer. Then he saw it — a Gintama pop up sticker, pasted on Ishigami’s bag. It was not there two minutes ago.
“Ishigami! We just arrived like two minutes ago and you've already run to the gatcha machines?”
“On the bright side, I got one for you too,” Ishigami said, slapping a Hunterxhunter sticker on Kouhei’s bag.
“At this rate you're going to go bankrupt before dinner.”
“Then it's lucky for us that I packed bananas as emergency food,” Ishigami replied swiftly.
“That's not the point,” sighed Kouhei, strolling towards the crowd, “we only have $1000 between both of us. You had better control your spending.”
Ishigami never saw the three new keychains stuffed into Kouhei’s side pocket.
Looking at the bustling street before him, Kouhei wiped his brows. This journey would be the greatest test of willpower — the final boss wave. He swore that if his wallet managed to crawl out alive, he would cry tears of joy.
Juxtaposed against the rapidly darkening sky, the flamboyant neon lights of Akihabara seemed to make the place come alive.
Kouhei and Ishigami walked stiffly towards a nearby bench, $1000 worth of loot in toll.
“Have a banana,” offered Ishigami.
Kouhei bristled. Had he not been mourning the death of his wallet, he would have bashed Ishigami's head in. How he act so nonchalantly despite busting our budget! To think I’d meet a more unhinged shopaholic than myself. So the legends were true: only bring as much money as you are willing to spend.
“Hmm, since we’re resting while having dinner here” — Ishigami patted the bundle of bananas — “Don’t you think the K-on shirts we’re wearing are so matching? In fact…”
Kouhei disconnected his sense of hearing. Now was not the time for Ishigami’s ramblings. Suddenly, a flash of white on Ishigami’s bag — mixed with vibrant lights cast by the buildings — caught his eyes. Furrowing his brows, he leaned closer to inspect it. It was…a barcode?
He snickered. “Hey, do you like stickers so much that you even pasted a barcode on your bag? I can't believe I didn't see that earlier.”
Frowning, Ishigami pulled off his bag. There it was, a proud rectangular barcode, pasted audaciously over his Gintama sticker. Ishigami froze. His rambling abruptly halted mid-sentence. A dark foreboding gloom swept over him. Eyes widening, he looked straight at Kouhei.
Kouhei felt his heart rate jolt. He knew those eyes — those were the same eyes a man gives when he realises his wallet did not have a single yen left. Something was wrong.
“Masaka…” Ishigami breathed. “The Sticker Man. We were his targets this time.” He cradled his head, muttering in tongues under his breath. “The end is near…”
“Hold up. What’s going on? Talk to me!” Kouhei shook him out of his stupor.
“Kouhei…it's too late…”
“Too late for what?”
“Too late to undo the curse of the Sticker Man. Don't you know about the legend of the Sticker Man? The moment he marks you with a barcode, it's only a matter of time before your worst fear comes true,” Ishigami said.
“You mean that urban legend? Come on, it's just some random guy lurking around Akihabara playing pranks on people,” Kouhei laughed. “Besides, there are two conditions before this ‘Sticker Man’ will come to get you. You've got to be at least twenty years old and buy something from the gatcha machines in Akihabara.”
It was the moment he finished speaking when the gravity of the situation finally dawned on him. Swinging his arm violently around, he tapped the side pocket of his bag. The three key chains were still there.
He chucked unsteadily. “This is absurd. You expect me to believe some urban legend?”
“Hello! We’re really love your shirts! Can we interview each of you for a vlog we’re working on?”
The duo jumped, spinning around. Behind them, a gathering of people loomed. How did such a large group suddenly get so close? Kouhei watched as the group walked closer. Move it!
Something primal within him screamed at him to run. His heartbeat rapidly increased. Perhaps it was the stiffness of their gaits. Or maybe the way that the bright neon lights contorted their faces. Or just the eerie atmosphere clawing at him.
He turned to Ishigami, who had morphed into petrified wood. Trembling petrified wood. “Ko-kou-Kouhei…he-help…m–” Cardiac arrest seemed imminent. With growing dread he remembered, Ishigami’s worst fear was meeting a large group of strangers.
Snapping to his senses, he grabbed Ishigami and their bags — both equally immobile — and made a mad dash away.
“What's wrong?” He heard someone in the group call out, but he just kept running.
Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. The Sticker Man…could it really be more than a legend?
A man crashed into them, sending their bags of goods sliding across the pavement. “Hey, watch it,” Kouhei grunted, glaring at him. In the dim lighting, he could not see past the shadows of his hood. How was that guy still walking so smoothly? He was barely affected by the collision.
“Ah quick, gather our goods before someone steals them.” It seemed that the impact had shaken Ishigami out of his shock. Sweeping aside his thoughts, Kouhei bent down to assist him. “You've recovered?” he asked.
“Mostly,” Ishigami replied, then jabbed Kouhei indignantly, “I told you, the Sticker Man is real. He's no myth.”
Chuckling shakily, Kouhei said, “Good thing he didn't get me then.”
“Oh no. Now you've done it. You've raised the red flag,” Ishigami dropped his voice several octaves.
“Hah, you think we’re characters in a story or something? Red flags don't work like this in real life. We’re not in some horror-comedy light novel. Besides, what kind of author would be so sadistic to put both characters through th–”
“Oh great author-sama, please spare my good friend Kouhei from his impending suffering,” Ishigami chanted, flailing his arms around as he beseeched the heavens.
“Argh! Stop it, you're embarrassing us…” his voice creaked to a stop. He felt it — the cool, waxy touch of plastic beneath his palm. Beneath his hand, he could feel his heartbeat spike. The darkest recesses of his mind knew, but he would not let himself think of it. A deep, visceral chill ripped into him. Time slowed. His vision darkened. Suddenly he was all alone, right hand on his chest.
He lifted his hand off his chest. Had his hand always felt like a thousand tons of lead?
The unmistakable glimmer of white crammed with black stripes. There it was — a barcode, brandishing itself in all its glory, ablaze in a halo of soft neon.
There was no dramatic music.
Kouhei swore his heart stopped for a beat. “Ba-bakana…” he dropped to his knees.
Ishigami had been watching all this while. He knelt down beside him and stared dead into Kouhei’s eyes.
“Kouhei. Tell me right now. What is your worst fear.” Already, death bells were pealing in his head.
Please, please…author-sama, make it something that we can deal with.
Kouhei laughed. There was no humour behind it.
An intense rumble shook the earth.