(Author's Note: There are many things about this story that are true. There are also many things about it that are false. The part that may surprise you is which things are which.)
"Did you just say we're all ghouls?"
Instead of the fear, perhaps even disgust, which should rightfully accompany this question, her tone of voice made it clear that she was, in fact, excited by this possibility.
"No, I said we're all fools for unquestioningly believing in the reality of the world around us." Why was I trying to explain solipsism to her? I didn't believe in it myself (although it is interesting to pretend from time to time), and she clearly wasn't interested. Besides, she wouldn't stop going on about various works of that peculiar brand of Japanese literature - whose name I will not glorify by printing here - and referenced them constantly. I braced myself for the inevitable explanation of her remark.
"Sorry, I was thinking of this manga I like called Tokyo Ghoul."
This name seemed familiar somehow. I tried to think of when I had heard of this franchise before. I remember seeing an advertisement for it tucked away in the corner of the ad section of a magazine. I hadn't thought much of it at the time, because back then I hadn't known what exactly a "ghoul" was. Ah, how things have changed…
I also remembered this. I saw a copy of it for sale at a large department store. There was only one left, lying forlorn on a cold metal shelf. The cover featured this unusual illustration: The face of a boy, probably about 15, with one normal eye… and one eye that was fully black, with a red pupil. I remember shunning the tome, not wanting to be in its presence, for I am a Christian and thus feared it was demonic.
I finally thought back to the time I had stumbled upon it at the library. I had not known back then of even the existence of that peculiar type of Japanese book. I was walking through the confusingly linked passages in the basement, trying to find my way to the "Oversized Books" room at the deserted far end of the floor. During the course of my search, I ended up walking past a shelf stuffed with hundreds of brightly colored paperbacks, replete with extravagant illustrations and unusual, exotic-sounding titles. I had picked one up to examine - by chance, it had been one of the volumes of Tokyo Ghoul. I noted its backward printing and odd, pictorial nature with interest, but decided to reshelve it; it was not what I had been looking for.
At this point, my reminiscences were cut short by a description of what the series was.
"See, there's this guy named Kaneki, and he lives in a world where there are these things that look like people called Ghouls, but they can only eat coffee and human flesh. So the government tries to hunt them all down, which is easy because when they get hungry or excited, their eyes turn black and they grow a tentacle they can use to kill people. That's how the government finds them. So Kaneki goes on a date, but then it turns out his girlfriend's a Ghoul, so she tries to kill him, but then she dies. But he needs some organ transplants, so the doctors just take his girlfriend's organs and give them to him. That ends up turning him into a Ghoul, and then he has to hide from the government while going on exciting adventures and killing people!"
I carefully considered how to respond to this. I knew next to nothing on this subject, and I was clearly talking to an expert. But then, on the other hand, I considered myself the foremost authority on ghouls in the state, for I was one of the few who actually knew several. I decided to repay what she had exposited with a description of what ghouls were really like:
"No, what you just said is completely wrong. I've met ghouls before; I've seen them, and I've gone into their dwellings. It's not pretty. First off, they don't have any distinguishing marks - that's what's so dangerous about them. For all intents and purposes, they are impossible to distinguish from normal humans - except under certain circumstances. Second, they don't eat flesh because it's all they can eat; they're just addicted to it, hopelessly addicted." I paused for a second, remembering one particularly unfortunate incident. "They also don't try to kill people, unless somebody wanders into one of their dwellings uninvited, in which case they will if they know they can get away with it. They usually eat bodies that are already dead. And finally, you don't turn into a ghoul by getting an organ transplant, or any other such physical nonsense. You turn into one… well, I'd rather not say. I don't think it would be wise to spread that knowledge - someone might attempt it voluntarily, and then…"
Her excitement had been visibly growing since the first sentence of my explanation, and when I almost mentioned the method for becoming a ghoul, she looked as though she had enough of it to propel herself to the moon and back. After a brief, stunned silence, she spoke:
"Wait - you actually know a real-life ghoul? This is amazing! You have to tell the Anime Club about this!"
At this, I groaned. The Anime Club was a worthless organization dedicated to idolizing the works of certain Japanese artists far beyond the bounds of healthy enjoyment. There was, understandably, something of a stigma against its members at our school, one of the few stigmas that remained even in spite of nonstop efforts from the liberal Massachusetts state legislature to "expunge" them from society (as we were always told by the state-sponsored guest speakers who held an assembly for us roughly once a month). There were certain slurs often used against them, including one particularly infamous one beginning with the letter W, and anyone who discussed any of their topics of interest was generally assumed to be among their number, leading to the peculiar genres of Japanese entertainment becoming something of a taboo topic for individuals who were at all socially active.
"I don't think that's a very good idea," I replied. "This isn't a comic book -"
"Manga!" she interjected suddenly and without warning.
"Okay, this isn't a" - I struggled to make myself pronounce the word - "manga, nor is it a game of any sort. You may think ghouls are 'cool,' but they're anything but. They're actually kind of pathetic. Basically, they spend their lives dissatisfied, trying to loot bodies to eat to satisfy their addiction, then transforming into murderous abominations after devouring their so intensely sought-after human flesh. They're almost never happy, except in the moments just before they eat, or when they have visitors they can try to trick into being eaten."
"I don't care! You have to tell the Club!" she commanded. I realized then that if I didn't tell the Club, she would do it herself, and then, armed with the crucial knowledge that there are ghouls in the general vicinity of eastern Massachusetts, the Club would go to any lengths necessary in order to find them, probably putting themselves in danger of being killed - or worse.
Therefore, I made up my mind to tell the Club about the true nature of ghouls, in order to drive them from the subject once and for all. I followed her into the school's library and prepared myself for the worst.
Before going on with my story, I feel it would benefit you to tell you of the reason why I claim to have such authority on the subject of ghouls, and how I first came to possess it. I remember it all starting when I developed a taste for silent films. The first one I watched, I believe, was Chaplin's The Pawnshop - a classic, of course, and it sparked my interest in the genre. I proceeded to watch through several of Méliès' longer short films before going to the library - the real one, not the school one, which has no videos of any kind - to see if I could find any more that looked interesting. Instead, what I found was The Call of Cthulhu.
There were several things wrong with this movie which, if I had known them, would have caused me to discard it without watching it. The first of these was that it was a modern production, only filmed in the silent style as a publicity stunt for whatever production house made it (all I remember is that they specialized in Lovecraft adaptations, and that their motto was "We thought it would be fun"). This brings me to the second issue: It was a Lovecraft adaptation. My father had warned me since I was old enough to read about the "dangers of the Necronomicon" or similar things. When I had asked him what it was, he would always tell me it was the Satanists' equivalent of the Bible. Now, having read several of Lovecraft's stories for research purposes, I can safely assert that my father was mistaken; the Necronomicon does not exist, and is a fictional book (even according to Lovecraft's own epistles) of which only sparse quotations and paraphrases were ever written.
Notwithstanding my current knowledge of his stories, however, had I known back then that the movie I was about to watch was a Lovecraft adaptation, I probably would have attempted to burn it. I was indeed surprised when I played the disc after getting home. Expecting goofy slapstick comedy, or maybe a clever and surreal plot, what I instead received was a vague sense of dread. My status as a Christian shields me from the existentialist horror present in most of Lovecraft's works, as it gives me clear answers to many of the questions whose uncertainty commonly plagues other people, but I still feared that such a scenario as the one portrayed in the film could be possible, if the titular character were demonic. Given its appearance, this did seem at least plausible. Because of this, I was on the lookout for several weeks after for any corrupt or evil things, so that I could get rid of them before they created a situation like the one I had just witnessed.
Now I remember that the most important detail to me that was given in the film was that cult activity increases every year during late March, as a result of dream-waves which transport sleepers to distant and alien realms and convince them to… well, I won't say here. But anyway, I had coincidentally watched the movie in late March. Thus, the stage was perfectly set for me to believe that I or someone around me had had some sort of supernatural dream in the past several days. This is where Jacob figures into the story.
Back when this all started, I was only thirteen, and therefore very gullible. Even more so than usual, in fact, because I held (and, to a degree, still hold) the philosophy that if there's no proof against the existence of something, it's just as likely to exist as not. Jacob, on the other hand, was the exact opposite. He was a cynic, but also something of a trickster. He enjoyed pranking people, usually by lying to them and seeing how far he could get before they caught on. In my case, he must have gotten around the world at least twice.
Two days after I had watched The Call of Cthulhu, Jacob approached me and told me that the previous night, he had had a strange dream. He had awoken in his bed to see the shadow of what appeared to be a dragon (from what I was able to gather, it must have been a wyrm hatchling) silhouetted against his bedroom door. He then saw a faint red glow coming from outside the door, causing him to get out of bed and attempt to follow it. Upon pursuit, he had discovered its source to be a light red orb, about a foot in diameter, floating just beyond the threshold. When he had attempted to touch it, it had disappeared, and he had gone back to bed without seeing much else.
Naturally, given the near-perfect match this story bore to the one I had been subconsciously expecting because of the movie, and because (and this is very important) I had not yet told Jacob about the film, I received his narrative with open arms, as it were, explaining to him as a justification the claims made by the movie. This seemed to please him, and when, before he went, I exhorted him to tell me if he had any more strange dreams, his face contorted for half a second into an almost sinister smirk.
Over the coming weeks, Jacob's nightly revelations began to coalesce into a definite message: He was apparently the "chosen one" in an alternate universe where people used dragons as pets, as livestock, and as combat mounts, and it was his job to "cross over" into the dream reality, leaving this one behind, in order to close a link between the two realms that threatened to destroy the fabric of time and space. I believed in this embarrassingly wholeheartedly, to such an extent that I must have rivaled even Cotton Mather in my acceptance of "spectral evidence." Jacob kept me in this hold for two whole months. Eventually, he must have felt sorry for me and my gullibility, because after that time had passed he simply told me it had all been a hoax, as if I had ruined the fun of it, not by refusing to play along, but for doing so better than he himself could.
But if he had felt sorry, he quickly overcame that emotional state. Several weeks later, he was telling me a yarn about how he had visited "the realm of the ghouls" in his dreams, and how he had encountered their ruler, Richard Upton Pickman, painting a portrait of some of them. He had told me of their terrible appearance, of their hideous canine jaws, their grossly elongated snouts, and their malevolent eyes, and I had marveled at what he described. I am sorry to say that I had not learned anything from my previous encounter with Jacob; I believed him once again…
In an attempt to corroborate (not discredit!) Jacob's claims, I looked up the name Richard Upton Pickman, thinking that if he were real, his name should be recorded at least somewhere. Doing this, I discovered that he was a character in Lovecraft's short story "Pickman's Model." I had some reservations against reading it, but decided to put them aside in the name of scientific inquiry. And indeed, what I learned from that text, while not completely accurate, was important in helping me make my own discoveries… But I'll finish this story later. For now, I'll get back to the first one I was telling, about… Hold on a minute…
I apologize for my oversight; it seems I never introduced the girl to whom I was speaking. Her name is Haruhi, I think; at least that's what she goes by, though I highly doubt it's her real name. I had been rather forcibly introduced to her on the first day of school, when I was assigned a seat next to her in algebra class. She immediately started spouting off random facts about various Japanese shows, only stopping to ask me how to do certain of the math problems we had been assigned. She didn't seem capable of sadness or, indeed, even of anger (although it is rare to see anyone at a school become angry); I have never seen her be anything but content, and slightly cheerful at that.
Now the only reason I talked to Haruhi at all was because nobody else next to me would talk to me, although they were more than happy to talk to the other people next to themselves. I remember the first time I attempted to force my way into one of Haruhi's conversations. She was talking about some show where a kid has to purify spirits or something, but that didn't really matter to me, so I took advantage of a brief cease-fire during which she was gathering her thoughts to change the subject. After little thought, I decided to discuss geography, resulting in the following bizarre exchange:
"Do you know what state El Paso is in?"
"It's in Texas, but the weird thing is that it's right in the corner. You know how Texas has that chimney-looking thing, and then if you go west there's that rectangular indent made by New Mexico? El Paso is jammed up against the southern border of New Mexico."
"I think it's there because it was important during the Mexican-American War."
"Yes, but the strange thing is that there's no good land access from the rest of the US because it's in the Rio Grande valley, which has mountains on both sides. The best you can do is come south from Roswell."
"Yes, but can't you drive there?"
"Well, I was talking about before most people had cars. You know, like during the Mexican-American War. Now, of course, we got the Gadsden Purchase soon after, but back during the war you wouldn't have been able to get there except through Roswell. Or you could have sailed down the river from Albuquerque, but that's difficult to get to as well because it's in the middle of a plateau. You know, most of New Mexico is on top of a giant plateau."
"I thought Colorado was the state on the plateau. Isn't it called the Colorado Plateau?"
"No, I'm pretty sure it's New Mexico. Santa Fe is actually a few thousand feet above sea level. I think that's why the Spanish first settled there. And speaking of that, do you know why Roswell still exists today?"
"Even though it's in the middle of a desert and should have been abandoned long ago, there was a UFO sighting there in 1947, and now the entire town is basically just a tourist attraction for alien hunters. Even though the US military was doing tests in New Mexico - you know, like the atom bomb test they did that made all the trinitite - that radioactive green glass they sell as a souvenir at Roswell that comes from Trinity, New Mexico, where they did all the tests - people still think it was a UFO. I say it was a stealth plane."
Neither of us spoke for about ten seconds, until Haruhi started back up with something about this guy who goes to a high school for superheroes but does really badly. If I remember correctly, it was called something something Hero Academia. All I could think about was this awful Disney movie - Sky High, I think it was - that had the same premise. But that's all besides the point. What matters is that we became friends, I think… I'm not really sure, actually. We would talk at each other, sure, but I'm not sure we ever actually talked to each other. I never learned that much about her until she brought me to the Anime Club and - I've done it again, haven't I?
Back to the story, for real this time. We walked into the library together, and she led me through the cramped and narrow aisles into a large open space in the back, which was furnished with several cheap particle board tables and a few monolithic plastic chairs, made out of that kind of plastic with a rough surface that you can scratch with your fingernail, making it peel off in thin, weak strips. Seated at one of the tables were the other members of the Anime Club. I had never seen any of them before, and, sensing this, Haruhi promptly introduced them to me.
There were three other members of the Club (which, technically, therefore lacked the requisite members to be an "official" club, although in practice it didn't make any difference). The first of these was a boy named Kyon - although, again, I highly doubt that's his actual name. I think all the club members go by aliases they got from some show they all watch. But anyway, Kyon was of that sort of people who always complain about things, not because they dislike those things, but merely for the sake of complaining. At present, he was trying to get me to concur with his hatred of Dragon Ball GT, whatever that was. (I don't think Haruhi told any of the others I wasn't actually joining the Club.) There was little else to note about him at the time, except that he had this weird obsession with swords.
Actually, I think that point deserves some elaboration. I don't know how, and I certainly don't know why, but Kyon had somehow gotten some kind of saber into the library. I hadn't noticed it at first because it had been sheathed within a scabbard - yes, a real leather scabbard - that he had apparently been wearing diagonally across his back, under his shirt. I only noticed it when he unsheathed it and started to tell me about how it was a "genuine forged blade, not some mass-produced assembly-line garbage." From what I could gather, he seemed to have made it himself. Again, I don't know how or why; I'm just telling you what he told me.
The next of these three other members was another boy, who claimed to be named Ichigo. Now here was a true character! He was delusional beyond anything I have ever seen, before or since. He repeatedly tried to tell me that he had been chosen by the gods for some kind of celestial mission. The scary part is that he believed every word that came out of his own mouth. Naturally, being a "chosen one," he was pompous, arrogant, irascible, and impulsive, with few mitigating qualities. However, when not discussing his supreme destiny, he was tolerable enough, at least compared to Haruhi and Kyon, because he was actually capable of holding a normal conversation.
I think it is a requirement for joining the Anime Club to be skilled in the use of at least one lethal weapon. Ichigo, therefore, carried with him a small crossbow, mercifully unloaded. (If any of these people ever accidentally drop or otherwise show their weapons, even for a second, I guarantee you they'll go straight to prison.) I must admit I was somewhat afraid upon discovering this, because a bow capable of killing in one shot and an impulsive, irascible archer are never a good combination. However, I soon discovered that Ichigo was delusional enough to believe that the gods had forbidden him to kill any person except in an official duel, and my fears were mostly alleviated.
Now the last member, Sakura, although far and away the most "normal," was somehow… not right. She was laconic in the highest degree, not speaking unless spoken to except when there was a matter of great importance to discuss (and even then, she spoke reluctantly, as though doing so depleted some hidden store of energy). In an attempt to comprehend her personality, and therefore to know whether or not she was as strange as the rest, I did indeed speak to her, simply asking her to tell me about herself. Here is what she said:
"I am Sakura, master of the five elements. I bend reality to my will. I have no business with you, uninitiated one."
I decided to ask her what her weapon of choice was, thinking she might drop her attitude of superiority to tell me about her handmade sword, or divine crossbow, or some other analogous item with the zeal demonstrated by the other two members. Instead, I received this disquieting remark:
"I have no need of weapons. I bend reality to my will. If you cross me again, I will see to it that you are punished, uninitiated one."
I quickly decided that Sakura (unlike the others, I think that may actually be her name) was the most insufferable of all, as she pretended to be a "master of the five elements" without ever actually demonstrating her "powers" (if they existed), and refused to acknowledge her equality with anyone else unless they had been "initiated" (which, as I later discovered, involved a most undesirable process). However, I later found out that there was a material basis for this "mastery" over the five elements. Sakura carried with her, at all times, five small tanks containing water, air, iron filings, wood shavings, and incendiary chemicals, and apparently used these when fighting. What any of these members had ever "fought" prior to my arrival, I was never able to learn.
Now that all the introductions were finished, Haruhi gathered together all of the other three members of the club and started the meeting.
"Hello again everyone, and welcome to this week's meeting of the Anime Club! Today, we have a special guest here to tell us about an amazing experience he recently had: He actually saw a real-life Ghoul!"
After she said these words, there was a general cheer, and then an attentive, impatient silence. I realized I was supposed to speak, and so I made this announcement to the Club:
"Yes, it is true - I have seen a ghoul. Many of them, in fact. But I must urge you all not to go looking for them. They will try to kill you. There are no 'fun' adventures waiting for you beneath the subways of Boston. In case you're wondering, the government doesn't even know they exist. They look and act just like normal people, except that they live in squalid and cramped huts and turn murderous every time they eat. Please, if you value your lives, stay away from ghouls at all costs."
Then Ichigo spoke: "So ghouls live 'beneath the subways of Boston?'"
I suddenly realized my mistake, but by then it was too late. There was no way now I could hide the location of the ghouls' main dwelling from these zealots, who I could plainly see would seize upon the hint I had given them and perform a search of the entire Boston subway system unless I told them outright where it was. Better to tell them than to let them suffer the injury I knew they would receive if they searched.
"Yes, they do," I said reluctantly, "specifically beneath North Quincy Station, on the Red Line."
"Better than the Grand Line, am I right?" joked Kyon. I only remember his saying this because to this day, I have been unable to decipher its meaning. Nevertheless, the remark caused a veritable laughing fit to erupt from the other members of the Club.
After the laughter died down, I continued. "The way to access the city -"
"Wait a minute! I thought they lived in a giant spiral-shaped building!" yelled Ichigo indignantly, as though I, the one who had actually seen the city, was objectively wrong about what it looked like. I was already starting to get tired of his comments, and he had only made two of them so far.
"Have you even been listening?" I replied. "This isn't a comic book -"
"Manga!" shouted Haruhi, similarly to how she had shouted it the last time I had said "comic book" in front of her. I took note of this seemingly reflexive reaction in case it became useful later. I particularly thought that, should the ghouls overtake us, I would be able to whisper "comic book" just loudly enough for Haruhi to hear - the ghouls wouldn't hear it, they'd be too busy trying to eat us - and she would scream "Manga!", drawing them all to herself and allowing the rest of us to get away. Then I realized that I had been interrupted again, and that I should probably continue speaking.
"Whatever. This isn't like Tokyo Ghoul or whatever you've been reading. Do you really think the author of that series took the time to visit the ghouls' dwellings and see what they were like?"
"Yes?" responded Kyon, somewhat nervously.
Taken aback, but by no means surprised, I continued talking. "No, Kyon, no they didn't. Listen - do you want me to tell you how to get there or not? This is your final chance."
Hearing me say the words "final chance," Sakura suddenly deigned to join the conversation. Granted, all she said was "Yes, go on," but that was the first and only time she ever said anything during my presentation.
"Well then, everybody pay attention and don't say anything," I commanded. "The way into the city is through a hatch at the right end of the station's outbound platform. It's wooden and roughly circular, and it's locked from the outside by a deadbolt. There's normally some sort of large, heavy object on top of it (although exactly what that object is changes every few weeks), so people usually don't mess with it. Here's the thing, though: Once you go in, if someone locks the deadbolt on top of you - or worse, replaces the heavy object - the only other way out is by submarine. Yes, the city has submarines; after all, it is underground and by the ocean. Not real submarines, though; they're more like escape pods. I don't think you can steer them, although I've never had to go out that way before because nobody's ever shut me in. Then again, I've only ever gone down there for no more than two hours at a time."
Everyone was silent while they processed the information I had just told them. I thought that Haruhi was about to put together a plan to visit the city, and that she was going to try to get the other members of the Club to join her on her expedition. Instead, to my relief, everyone just left, each in a different direction. I wandered back through the shelves until I reached one of the exits to the library and walked contentedly out of it.