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“Max?!” Eliza couldn’t hide her surprise. She thought it was her mother, doing her usual evening routine of checking up on her unmarried daughter. But girl, she was wrong.

“Yea, it’s me. So how’s my sister?” Max went straight to the point. He dried his hair with a towel and sat on the edge of his bed. “Oh, that,” there was a disappointment in her voice. “I’m sorry, Max. But I’m at home and tomorrow’s my day off. So I can’t really check up on your sister. But!…” her voice raised a bit. “I can go to the hospital a bit and look around,” Eliza said. Instant regret followed through as she realized what she just said. “And I’m doing this because the hospital is along the way for dinner, so it won’t be a bother.” She tried to do her best in saving herself from utter embarrassment, but the regret was already swallowing her up.

“Nah, it’s fine,” Max said. He thought about things for a while and came up with something. “Hey, you mind if I tag along?”

“Yes... I mean, what?” She heard it, but not properly. She hoped she didn’t mishear him. “I’m asking if you up for dinner, together.” Eliza was speechless. Her mouth gaped, and she didn’t know what to say. “Um, why exactly?” She quickly closed her mouth as she couldn’t believe what she just said. She winced while punching herself in the thigh, mad at herself for being an idiot.

“Because eating together feels better than eating alone?” Max wasn’t sure what he just said. He was prepared for training but not for pop-quiz. The question she asked came out of nowhere, and he wasn’t ready for it. He was just hungry, and hearing she was having dinner prompted him to ask. Is this a bad idea? Max thought. “I’m sorry, this probably a bad idea,” Max said.

“No, no!” Eliza hurriedly objected. “I mean, I’m okay with it, if you’re okay with it,” she facepalmed herself. Max, on the other hand, didn’t quite understand what Eliza was trying to convey here. Right now, he could only guess. “Okay. So, pick me up at eight?” The biggest reason he was hoping for this to happened was that he was too lazy to drive.

“I’ll pick you up at eight,” Eliza said. She was smiling from ear to ear as she kind of missed something. “Cool. I’ll text you my location,” Max replied. He put down the phone and went to his computer.

Eliza stared at her phone with glee. Her feet went tippy tappy as she couldn’t restrain her anticipation, but then she realized something. “Wait, am I picking him up?” If it was a date, it should be the other way around. But Eliza shrugged it off. She danced around her room, feeling good about the date… “Wait, it’s a date? I’ve got a date! What should I wear?” Eliza panicked. She went into her closet and searched for whatever was proper.

Meanwhile, Max slouched in front of his computer. He scrolled down a subreddit that was exclusively discussing the Rupture. Anno Monstrum? Year of the Monsters? That’s pretty good. He found his answer to Anno Monstrum. One of the posts explained that it was a change of an era, and for such a change, it was appropriate to change the year itself. The government hadn’t approved of it, but the netizen took the first step. It had gone viral on social media, and soon the change might be in the making.

Yet, one particular post caught his eye. It was a new one, and it was a post regarding Game-like hallucination. The title was misleading, but the content was different. This is the ninetieth time he posted? Man, that’s some dedication. He crossed his arms, staring at the post. And it seems the government hasn’t changed. Well I did went cold for nine months, and it’s not like they’ll change that quick. But I guess they are really trying their best to censor this thing from going out to the public. And from the look of it, even the netizens aren’t buying it. Most of the comments are pure condemnation, and the downvotes are really showing it. I bet it’ll be gone within a few hours or so.

The Reddit post was publicizing the fact that people should go inside the Rupture and received the Game-like ability. With the tagline of becoming the hope of countering against the Rupture threat. It sounded foolish, and most netizens were cussing at the original poster, saying he read too much manga and went brain dead. But a few others supported his claim. From the look of it, Max had a hunch that a minority of people had explored more into the Rupture, and the game-like phenomenon for the past nine months.

He smiled as he found something interesting. He opened a link and found himself in a discord channel. It was bustling with users, despite the young age of the channel. But the contents were pretty rubbish. It didn’t make any sense to him, but he had a feeling that it wasn’t as simple as that. Yet one of the users did something that he shouldn’t do. A new Rupture in some town in Arizona. Whoever that posted it went dead silent right after. That lone post described the experience of the user. He or she battled against creatures similar to a raccoon, and from the mention of his level, Max could see that the user’s grinding went pretty well. Level 5? I’ve got to hand it to him, he’s pretty diligent.

Max assumed that these raccoons were lower in level compared to the Green Wolf. He knew the hardship of going against them, and he doubted that anyone could go against it in a one-on-one battle. He even resorted to using one of his second-life skills, cindering it to death. On the other hand, if he added guns to the list, killing Green Wolf would be possible. But he had a theory that the Rupture kind of banned the existence of firearms. He noticed it from Kate’s issue with her Glock, and yet he still wasn’t sure. He hoped these people might know something, and a simple search in Reddit led him to his answer. The Rupture fucks up my Second Amendment. Well, that’s definitely a click-bait title. Max opened up the post and read through the whole thing.

Some guy in Kansas found a Rupture in the middle of his cornfield. He armed himself from top to bottom and readied for a gun-blazing adventure. Yet the moment he jumped into the Rupture, he found himself naked. Well, not naked-naked but gun-naked. His guns, shotguns, and bandolier of bullets were all gone, vanished into thin air. But at least he still had his bulletproof vest and his collapsible pitchfork. Yes, collapsible pitchfork was a thing, and Max knew not to question that idea. Who knew what existed in this world of his, besides the Rupture and a collapsible pitchfork. It was an interesting piece to read and the latter part was mostly cursing, which consist of fuck, more fuck, and the occasional Samuel Jackson’s famous quote: You mother- Well, let’s move on. The important thing was, the comments down below were a collection of mocking for being psychotic and the minority of supportive comments. It seemed Max’s theory was right. Guns were not allowed inside the Rupture. The ban probably making sure not to make it too easy. Using a gun is hard for beginners, but it's easier to get a hang of it when compared to swinging a pitchfork at a monster.

“That was fun,” Max said. He closed the discord chat as well as the Reddit page. He had enough of intelligence gathering at the moment. They were too many bad words and insults that he determined that it wasn’t good for the soul. He had his fair share of insults back in his second life, but nothing beat cuss words from his original world.

***

An old two thousand two Mini Cooper parked in front of Max’s house. Its red color was a bit dull with the passing of times. Nonetheless, the Mini still worked. Max walked down the front lawn with his baggy clothes paired with his old sneakers. He definitely didn’t know what he was getting into. “A mini cooper, cute.” Max knocked on the window. He stooped down and saw the woman in the driver’s seat.

She smiled, and so did he. He heard a click as he pulled the door open. He jumped shotgun seat and said, “you look lovely.” He eyed Eliza from top to bottom, and despite the lack of light, her visage was enough to tell him that she looks more prepared for just a casual evening.

“Thanks, I mean thank you.” Eliza glanced away with her head down at the steering wheel. Rather than butterflies, she thought she had moths in her stomach. No, Eliza. Don’t freak out. You can hold it in. Just hold your tiny bladder until we reach the restaurant. Eliza fought her urge.

“Are we going to a drive-through?” Max popped the question. He pointed at the road since the car wasn’t moving. “Oh. Yes, yes. Sorry about that.” Eliza released the handbrake and drove down the road. It was a silent ride, and both had nothing to say much. One was thinking too much, while the other was thinking about whether he should jump into another Rupture.

“Let’s play some music in the house,” said Eliza, and she regretted her decision for spouting such words. She wasn’t really good with what young people called these days hip words. The pop melody rang through the car. It was her own playlist. She was embarrassed by it, and the dark covered her blush. “Let’s change to something with a beat,” Eliza said. Her hand reached out to change it but stopped. “No, it’s fine. I love the song,” Max said.

“Oh, you love Rihanna? I absolutely adore her…” for the first time, Eliza found her groove. She talked about her favorite singer with the music in the background. It was those early hits back in the late 2000s that even Max recognized the tune. Eliza knew all about her, a testament of a true fan. While Max could only nod and smile. It was the only thing he could do. He didn’t want to cut off Eliza’s moment, and at least he spared himself from the awkward silence.

“Um, can you pull off by the side,” Max pointed at the hospital. Eliza steered to the side and found an empty parking spot. “I’m going to pay my sister a visit,” said Max.

Eliza unhooked her seat belt, flustered by the sudden turn of events. “You want me to come along?”

“No, it’s fine. It’s not gonna take long,” Max said.

Max got off, and with a bit of walking, there he was, in front of Kate’s ward. He came inside and met eyes with his sister. “Max!” Kate shouted. She turned away from her evening meal. The bland taste didn’t suit her palate. “See what you did to me,” Kate said.

“Hi to you too. You look great by the way. Want me to sign your arm or something?” Max said. “It’s not a cast, they’re bandages.” She gave Max a stony stare. She was so done with her brother. “Technically speaking, it's the wolf’s fault, not mine, and you did jump inside the Rupture on your own choice.”

Kate’s nose twitched, and as she tried to cross her arms, the pain made her stopped. “So, what happened?”

“What happened, what?” He questioned back. “Hey, you want that? I’m starving.” Max reached out for the unfinished carrots on Kate’s plate, yet Kate slapped Max’s hand away. “Ow, that hurts.”

Kate pointed at her bandaged arm. It was enough of a statement that she was in a higher position in terms of being in pain. “Okay, I get it. I’m sorry I’m not fast enough to save your arm,” Max said. Kate grabbed the carrot and threw it at Max. A nice sidestep and Max dodged it well.

Kate calmed herself down with her nose still flaring up. She remembered it from back then. She was in shock and saw the wolf suddenly being burn. “What did you do, Max? And what’s…” she turned silent. The text panel she saw made her questioned whether she was turning psychotic or was it real. She didn’t want to tell her brother, not now. Not inside of a hospital.

“Kate, try to say Character Status,” Max said. Her eyes narrowed. “Why?” She was suspicious. Max raised up his hands. “Well, up to you. I’m just trying to help.”

“Fine, Character Status…” her eyes fell into a daze. She stared at the empty air, and Max could see where this was going. “See that thing floating around? Well, congratulation, you’re now a game character,” Max said with nonchalance.

“Max, tell me what’s going on,” Kate said. “Well, we got inside the Rupture and there it was. Boom. We turned into game characters,” Max explained. “Do you really think that makes any sense?” Kate questioned. “And does a hole in the ground which transfer you to a world full of monsters makes more sense?”

Kate pouted. She knew she was wrong but she just didn’t want to admit it. But she was restless. She wanted to know what was happening to her. “But what for?” she couldn’t resist asking.

“The simple explanation, a way to fight the monsters and…” Max made a motion, flicking his wrist as he glanced at his wrist. “I’m late. Sorry, Kate, I’ve got dinner, and she’s waiting downstairs,” Max said. “You don’t have a wristwatch, and since when did you have a girlfriend?” Kate saw through his clumsy bluff. “See you tomorrow,” Max smiled and left. He heard the echoing shout of his name from behind, and as he closed the door, it receded in volume. Meanwhile, Kate sat there on her bed as she finally knew how the soldiers were fighting against these monsters. She came across a few dubious blogs that told of how people were fighting against the monsters, but she couldn’t believe it. Not until she saw it with her own eyes. In the dim light of her room, she clenched her fist as she was determined.

***

“Hey,” Max got back inside the Mini Cooper. “Hey,” Eliza replied. “Sorry, I’m late. You know, sister being fussy,” Max said. “Is she okay?” Eliza asked. “She’s fine. So dinner?”

“Right,” Eliza throttled down with relief. She too had her own business at the hospital, relieving some butterflies in the stomach. They reached Newark and found themselves parking in the lot for a big-name restaurant. “We’re here,” Eliza said, smiling. She unbuckled her seat belt while Max had other thoughts in mind. This is definitely not burger and fries. He got out and followed Eliza from behind. The sparkling light and chandeliers were visible from the outside. An industrial-themed eatery with a flare of luxury. He got inside and took a quick look over the interior. “It’s great isn’t it,” Eliza said. She turned around with a smile and Max witnessed the beauty of this nurse from head to toe. By the grace of the chandelier’s light, her beauty shined. Her auburn hair was like burning scarlet fire and her eyes twinkled like jade, captivating and calming. The deep blue skinny jeans hugged her legs, hanging on her waist. Her brown jacket complimented the light pink silk camisole underneath. The ruby necklace was the final touch as if Max looking at a potential winner for Miss Universe.

Max smiled. Her beauty made him remembered someone. Someone that he should bury in his heart. “You look beautiful,” Max said with earnest in his eyes. Eliza looked at Max, biting her lower lip a bit, delighted over the sweet words. “Shall we?” Max asked. He offered his hand to Eliza. She didn’t answer. Yet she took his hand and interlocked with his fingers. They entered side by side and Max definitely knew he wasn’t dressed for the occasion. To hell with it. I’ve got a date.

 

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Eldwurm

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