It was still the middle of September, yet Halloween was inching closer with each passing day in the eyes of the townspeople.
A new breath of fresh air breathed into the town's life — truly a place that thrived on gloom. Everille School had busy weeks ahead of it, and despite the decrease in numbers of students and staff as of late, there were a lot of them coming back all of a sudden. No one would miss a festive event no matter what it was after all.
Everyone wore masks of joy on their faces as they roamed the entirety of the school back and forth, fulfilling their tasks to bring the spooky holiday into life. The halls were filled with all types of colorful festive decorations, with the most prominent colors being orange and black. Pumpkins were placed at every classroom door. It was strangely endearing for a high school as gloomy as this to shift into the life of an elementary school. The school finally took a change for once.
It was all as if a child's wish had suddenly come true.
Everything changed. Everyone changed; everyone but Zachary.
It wasn't that he was still carrying that monotonous feeling everywhere he went like he used to — he utilized Lauren's lessons as best he could. He simply wasn't a holiday type of guy, be it Halloween, Easter, or even Christmas. Gaining a new perspective on life could still not soothe his heart from viewing these bright occasions as shallow.
As everyone went about with their day, he stood alone in an empty hallway. He did not particularly search for the emptiest hall. He was interested in taking a look at the trophy showcase nestled right in front of him. After the setback that was the book conference and a little bit of encouraging words from Lauren, he thought a while for himself on what the next step should be. He and Lauren were no longer exactly on the same step as he thought. Fear blinded him, but not her.
And so, he ended up here, in the hallway of honored students — of champions, as some call it — gazing at shiny objects and simple names that attained victory one day.
There was an award for "Best Football Player"; for "Honorary Student of 19XX"; for "Culture Festival Winner"; for "Writing Competition Winner," and for several other things. All of these trophies with names, dating back decades upon decades ago, once belonged to people. But where were they now? Not a single name gained recognition afterward. They lived (and died) with their names on a decrepit shelf being the only fame they got.
"Chase your dreams… You'll get there someday…" Zachary chuckled wryly, mocking the words that were once and would be told to him if he were to ever give up.
He found this awful reality as just a twisted joke. Maybe what happened to him was not so bad, he wondered. But even so—
「Not everything is said and done yet.」
He believed he had something these other "successful" people did not, something that would steer him away from being "just another name on the shelf." He knew the end of it all, what lies after the chase was over.
The solution lied in knowing the outcome. He had the end result no one did in his grasp, like a time traveler with knowledge of impending doom and aiming to avert by changing the past. If that analogy was of any semblance to him, then he needed to stop moping around and start moving. This was the "past" that needed to be changed.
"I finally found you!"
And in came the voice of reason, Lauren, with a wide smile persisting on her face like usual.
It had been a weird period ever since he met Lauren.
Despite its one low, it felt too good to be true when it came to its happier moments. The day she left after stopping by his house felt like the first and last day he would ever see her. He was confident she would never return or talk to him with all that she had seen of him. Yet on the next day, she rushed right in front of his desk after classes were over to talk about her day like someone who hadn't seen their best friend in a while.
"Are you still upset about the other day?" She broke through his trance. It was a usual thing for her to disturb his thought process, he wasn't annoyed or shocked at it anymore.
"Oh?" He pondered over her question for a moment, "No, I am okay, over the moon, in fact. I'm simply… trophy-watching."
"Trophy… watching?" She raised an eyebrow, and slightly curled her lip at the ridiculousness of the term, "Like… these trophies?" She pointed at the glass shelf beside them.
"Precisely!" He snapped his fingers.
Thanks to some of Lauren's influence, he had become a little more open in his conversations with her — perhaps even delving into the excessive area.
"Enough about me though," He attempted to change the subject, "You seem livelier than before. Enjoying the spirit of the death holiday?"
"W-wha? I swear you come up with some of the weirdest terms. How do you say them so casually?" she snorted, "But no, I'm not really into it at the moment. It feels a little weird."
She was right.
It was bizarre how not only everyone in school but in town, had suddenly awakened this desire for this holiday an entire month and a half before the supposed date.
"If you're talking about how everyone is having the time of their lives while we sulk around like this, then yes, I guess it is a little weird."
"Right?" Lauren widened her eyes in surprise, "I never imagined they'd celebrate it. Whenever I ask someone about it, they just smile and tell me they're too busy, or just ignore me altogether."
They both felt comforted by the fact that they shared the same feelings for this strange occurrence. Zachary, in particular, had that feeling of being an outcast be slowly stripped away, or rather he wasn't the only outcast anymore.
He cleared his throat, "This is the result of the government's efforts to expand the capitalist system."
"Who-with-the-what-now?" She rapidly blinked, she was dumbfounded by his sudden claim.
"I don't know. It just came to the top of my head for some reason."
Perhaps openly speaking his thoughts was not always the best method, she thought.
"The point is, the town has been thrown into a trance."
Lauren looked at Zachary with skepticism. The people in the town weren't the only ones that went through a weird shit in behavior.
Something seemed off about Zachary as well. It wasn't that he was on the same level as everyone else. It almost seemed to her that he was forcing himself to speak. There was no doubt in her mind that the influence of the other day was still affecting him.
However, before she can speak—
"That's exactly what I was thinking of!"
A voice echoed from behind Lauren and a boy emerged, approaching the both of them with a smile on his face. He stood at an average height, a bit taller than Lauren but still shorter than Zachary as he stood beside him.
Just who was this guy to talk to them all of a sudden like he was a friend who needed no introductions or greetings? Zachary raised an eyebrow at his audacity, not even he was as blunt as that guy was — not that he would easily approach anyone with his nature. He looked at Lauren to expect a similar expression from her, but she seemed strangely all right with the guy approaching them.
"It's like someone just flipped a switch or something," the boy laughed and Lauren laughed right after.
"You're right. I guess holidays do have a little magic to them like they used to say," she chuckled, "By the way, I'm glad I saw you now. Did you manage to fix my watch?"
The two of them spoke together as if Zachary was but a stand-in happening to be there. Multiple thoughts went through his head, the kind that he had desperately tried to push away after so long. But he knew better than to succumb to his ridiculous thoughts like always this time.
「No no, stop being a brainless idiot and leave me alone. That boy's just a friend.」
"Yep, I told you I'd manage to do it," the boy placed both his hands on each side of his spine and put on a prideful face like a hero who just came to the rescue, "No problem can go unsolved as long as I'm here!"
"Really?!" Lauren's face lit with joy.
After being done with delivering the good news to her, the boy looked at Zachary with a friendly look on his face. "Hello there! How are you doing?"
It seemed the boy was not just a halfwit who lacked manners and thought it'd be prudish only to talk to Lauren without acknowledging Zachary's existence.
However, it was Zachary himself who lacked the courage to speak up. He came to the realization that he was completely alright with being ignored. To his luck, Lauren was still caught up with her own matter.
"Do you have it with you right now?" She interrupted.
"Oh, no actually, but I left it in my bag. I was heading to the gym right after hanging those flyers, they need me for something," he pointed at the flyers on the bulletin board right beside the trophy shelf, "But then I spotted you and thought I'd do a quick stop to notify you. I can give it to you after school though."
"They really are pushing more and more stuff on you with this event, huh. But oh well, what can the school and students do without you."
"I'm just a simple errand boy. Lending a helping hand when I can, otherwise, I'd just stay in bed and sleep all day."
Lauren smiled before glancing at Zachary with a slight firm look, urging him to join in on the conversation. She, of all people, understood him well, despite knowing him for a short period so far. But he felt fine being stuck to the expression game with her at that moment, and so he replied back with an oafish expression, raising both his shoulders upwards to signify his distress on what to do exactly.
Naturally, the boy caught wind of their little game, and he knew better than to stick around. "Well, I better get going then. I'll meet up with you later?"
"Um, sure!" Lauren smiled and waved at him.
The boy paid no heed to Zachary and walked away.
Just as he was completely out of their sight, Zachary immediately jumped to the question. "Who was that guy?"
"I don't actually remember his name," She slightly narrowed her eyes and gave an awkward smile, "I think it was Ashworth something?"
"That's my surname…" He gave her a look of displeasure.
"Whatever. He's just known around school for helping people, and I heard he fixes things so I thought I'd have him fix my grandmother's watch. He does it all for free, after all."
"He's… quite… quite multi-talented." He was dumbfounded.
The school was known for having many talented students. But this boy seemed to reign above most from a variety of different aspects. He was quite literally the perfect "errand boy." Zachary thought it was impossible for someone like him to simply do what he did out of goodwill without a price, and yet that someone was just standing here a few moments ago.
"And he's only a first-year, believe it or not." She tilted her head forward and then back again, letting out a wry smile as if she felt proud for singing the boy's praises in a discreet manner.
"A first-year?! No wonder he's so optimistic."
Oddly enough, two students passed right beside them as they were running the halls with costumes on.
Zachary and Lauren turned their heads back at each other, with estranged looks at the scene they had just witnessed. It looked like a lot of people already had the holiday spirit in them — to the extent of just wreaking havoc like children.
"Not as optimistic as everyone else as you can see," he said as he scoffed.
Will all worries fade away if he adapted to the same mentality as everyone else? He wondered. Perhaps their eyes observed the world that he longed for. Thinking about that was enough to wear him down further on how he was missing something that seemed so magnificent to the others.
「But I'm not alone.」
"Hey…" Lauren placed her hand on his shoulder. Her face carried a warm look of content, but then she wrinkled her eyes and her lips opened, revealing her sparkling teeth, causing her face to beam with joy. "Maybe all we need right now is a little bit of that optimism!"
An indication of reassurance, that was what this was.
This girl had enchanted him a long time ago. Nothing she would ever do could rile him up. Everything about her eased his mind. It was amazing how close they've gotten and come to understand one another over one shared interest. One interest sparked this adventure.
"Here!" She reached for her pocket and dropped a gold coin into his palm.
It was the same gold coin from the other day, decorated with the same design as the hanging man. The fact that she had it on her at that moment greatly bewildered him.
"You carry that around everywhere?" He was astonished.
"Yeah, it's my good-luck coin."
"Why are you giving it to me?"
"I just told you, it's my good-luck coin. So… you know, good luck!"
She pushed herself away from him and walked backward.
"Keep it with you till the results come out. You'll need it!" She winked and formed a finger gun before pointing it at him. "Catch you on the flipside."
And like that, she left just as she came. Sudden farewells from her were not much of a surprise anymore. She was the type of person who would get straight to the topic to get their point across and then be done with it.
Yet still, it left sombreness in Zachary's heart.
"Right…" He smiled, although that smile conveyed ambivalence rather than joy.
He wished those short moments with each other would prolong, he wished for it ever since that day they went out to the Old Pier. That day still remained as the longest he had spent with her, and nothing ever came close to it once again. It was as if she had given him a forbidden fruit that he completely devoured and then stripped it away from him when he desired more.
「You're really cruel, you know that.」
A sigh escaped his breath, followed by a smile.
Despite everything, they were still going to be together. Their path was merely starting.
There was still hope.