Are You Real?
That was the only thing he felt as his tiny hands pressed against the hardwood. Then, the burning from the back of his head.
Just like the tears that stained his face and fogged his vision. Between dizzy glimpses while laying on his stomach, all he saw was the back of a tall figure’s leg.
As if his mental fog turned real, the dim lighting of the hallway made it impossible to make out anything else. Stinging pain rapidly sapped at his strength, evolving into a dull numbness.
“Mama!” his voice called out on its own.
The front door opened with a dull creak, revealing nothing but blackness past it. The figure shifted, lapsing into the dark and leaving nothing but a trail of afterimages. He outstretched his arm. But he was too impossibly small, and too thoroughly paralyzed.
The third time his name was called, something stirred within him. His hand shot forth, reaching out of its own accord. The only problem was, this was the arm holding up his chin.
“Wuh-?” was the only remarkable response his semi-conscious brain made, before-
Kiro's forehead smashed against the center of his desk. The impact was loud enough to hear from the floor below.
A wave of snickering and chittering rose up all around him. Kiro rubbed at his fresh bruise. The commotion grew louder, with individual clicks and chirps becoming more distinct. For a painfully long moment, he was the center of attention. Again.
“Kiro,” the deep and familiar voice repeated from the front of the room, “Are you alright?”
Even though Kiro’s hearing recognized the speaker, his blurry sight fell behind. Wiping his wet eyes, he tried to speak. But the only thing denser than the lump on his head was the one in his throat; all that came out was a dry cough.
The classroom erupted into full-blown laughter.
“Alright, settle down. Settle down,” the voice from up front spoke again. “Kiro?”
“I’m fine, Professor Lovecleft.” Kiro’s words came out too sharp, like a jab. “Sorry.”
“M’kay.” Lovecleft maintained a veneer of respectful indifference in his tone. “As we were discussing, the author chose to employ Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in their passage. Could you explain what the cave itself represents in this diagram?”
Like a boomerang, Kiro’s vision snapped back to him. He was greeted by an elaborate, though amateurish, mockup taking up almost the entire blackboard. His pupils darted around, absorbing the image:
Person in cave. Rays of sunlight. Reflection of outside on wall.
A patchwork of enough thoughts can eventually become a collage. Instinctually, they pieced themselves into his answer:
“Correct,” replied Professor Lovecleft. “As The Cave itself represents the world, the prisoners who inhabit it are meant to be its people. Presumably, what you see in the cave…”
A mottled green tentacle hovered over the diagram, a stick of chalk aloft in its grasp. The shoulder-length tendrils under Lovecleft’s nose jiggled as he spoke.
“... isn’t exactly the true form or idea of what everything is.”
Lovecleft glided back to the center of the room, flapping his pair of vestigial wings poking out the back of his chalk-stained, navy blue blazer. He pushed up the round spectacles over his soft, crimson eyes.
“See me after class, Kiro.”
Kiro sank into his seat. The bottom-half of his face burrowed itself into his gray sweater. “Ugh…”
This is my world.
The class responded with an encore of snickers.
Everything seems normal enough, except for one complication.
In front, Bat-Girl’s long, brown ears twitched, as if she could understand everything Lovecleft was saying without looking away from the window once. Kiro felt all three of Alien-Chick's eyes stare right through him, their sights set on Ant-Boy to his right. Ant-Boy, of course, was too enraptured in passing lewd paper doodles to Alligator-Jock to notice the paper airplane zipping straight for the back of his head. And then it struck him.
Everyone’s a monster…
Kiro closed his eyes, far too accustomed to the menagerie of judgmental stares to care about them.
… except for me.---
The second the bell rang, it unleashed a flood of skittering, clopping, and squelching feet. Kiro scrunched himself between his classmates, trying his best to make like a pebble in the current.
“And where do you think you’re going?”
Lovecleft’s cloyingly gentle voice stopped Kiro dead in his tracks. Kiro turned as if he were on a rusty hinge, his body still doubled over in a stealthy crouch.
“Lunch?” Kiro’s nervous laugh came out as a yelp. “Th-the bell rang and stuff. Can’t miss out on Taco Tuesdays!”
From behind his teacher’s desk, Lovecleft pleated his hands over his face, his thumbs boring into his cavernous temples. “It seems I’ve underestimated your wit. But you shouldn’t underestimate my memory, Mr. Lane.”
Kiro grimaced. That “Mister” means war.
Kiro edged himself towards the hallway. “A-actually! ‘Mister Lane’ is my father! And uh, seeing as how he didn’t show up to class today-”
Lovecleft motioned towards himself with a tentacle. Kiro dragged his feet towards his teacher, like he was walking in lead shoes.
“Kiro,” Lovecleft said. “Are you okay?”
Kiro let out an exasperated sigh. “You asked like, a bazillion times. I’m fine.”
“No.” Lovecleft shook his bulbous-head. “I’m asking seriously now, without the peanut gallery. Are you okay?”
For some reason, the stress Lovecleft put on the “you” made Kiro briefly avert his eyes.
“One hundred percent,” Kiro said, still looking at the ground. “Thanks, really. I’m totally fine.”
“Everything alright at home?”
Kiro shooed a tuft of auburn hair away from his eyes. “Everything’s good.”
After studying his student for three painfully awkward seconds, Lovecleft lifted a stack of papers from his desk and let them drop even.
“Do you have any dreams?”
“You mean, like… when I fall asleep?”
“No. Not like the ones you have in class. Write a book. Climb a mountain. Become President.” Lovecleft’s mouth-tentacles went up in counting order. “Dreams after high school.”
“Oh.” Kiro’s face turned a slight shade of pink. “Uh… maybe something with art, I guess?”
“I’m putting you into my special study hall, Kiro.”
Not Lovecleft’s remedial classes!
Kiro's hands went up, as if he was facing a loaded gun. “Wait, why? Isn’t that class full of delinquents?!”
“I think you have the wrong idea. Not all of them are who you think they are.”
“B-but it’s not like I’m failing or anything. And besides, I’m an Arts Major, not a Language Arts Major.”
“Art and Language aren’t so different. They’re leaves stemming from the same branch of expression. Weaknesses in one may be insightful as to strengths in the other.” Lovecleft looked at him again. “You understand, don’t you?”
Understand your fortune-cookie metaphor about keeping me hostage afterschool? Not particularly, no.
The second bell rang before he could give an answer.
How have we been at this for FIVE minutes?
“Listen, Professor? This is super nice of you and all, so I’ll definitely think over it! And, uh, maybe we can save this chat for later?” With every few words, Kiro took a big step back towards the hallway, until he had a foot out the door. “‘Kay-thanks-bye!”
Kiro dashed away at Mach-speed. Lovecleft sighed.
The school’s halls were sleek, angular. One could almost expect to look out the window and see the vast expanse of space stretching out ad infinitum.
That is, if it weren’t for the dripping-fresh graffiti emblazoned onto the otherwise pristine walls. The tusked culprit dashed away, leaving behind a crudely drawn animal’s head with text reading: Madd Dawg. Mediocre CloudSound mumble rap covered the sound of their escape, emanating from the portable speakers of an Albino Rhino shambling by with his pack of Harpy groupies.
Two Hydras in thrice that many berets argued about the principles of thermodynamics as they rode an escalator. Above them, a pair of Flying Fish fumbled to catch their precious canister of heavy-duty glitter. They failed, and a sparkling rain descended upon a nearby thunder of Dragons as they stared down a pack of Werewolves.
Taking it as a signal to start their breakdance battle, the two parties erupted into a brawl for the ages, one that didn’t fret about making a few casualties out of a troupe of orchestral Sasquatches. A horde of insectoid cheerleaders in full war gear chanted, “V.I.A.S. High” for lack of a rival school to rally the students against.
The commotion’s echoes followed Kiro as he crossed the vast nexal atrium. This central building of the school held the arena-style main entrance, the gymnasium, as well as the ringed lunchroom mounted above the other two like a colosseum’s spectator stands.
Warm sunlight poured into the halls from the school’s main entrance. Kiro shielded his squinting eyes with one hand. With the other, he gripped a rainbow-colored sketchbook by his side. In-between the loud hustle and bustle of students, he could make out the faintest hint of birdsong from the reddish-orange treetops.
Why do beautiful days like these have to have school?
Upon coming out of the grandiose main entrance, a Kirin-Cheetah pair of students caught Kiro’s attention. As they stretched their legs, Kiro read the lustrous bronze text on the back of their navy-colored jerseys:
V.I.A.S. Track Stars!
“There’s a new pizza joint near here,” the Cheetah told the Kirin. “Wanna go?”
“You sure?” the Kirin answered. “I can’t afford to be late to Chem Lab again.”
“We’re good. It can’t be too crowded yet.” The Cheetah took a running pose. “Quick, 30-minute in-and-out?”
“Screw it.” The Kirin did the same. “What’re we on the track team for?”
Kiro watched as they galloped and pounced off. An uncomfortable feeling built up inside him as he stared. He tried to meditate on their speed, as if that would help him escape Lovecleft’s clutches next time.
A sudden, chilly wind made him rub his arms. Kiro started his usual, lone walk.
Maybe Dine-N-Dash? Nah, I’ve had enough of their soggy fries. Bartsuck’s? Too far for the pricey coffee…
“What’d you say?!” came a growling, loosely-feminine voice.
The shouting snapped him out of his trance; he had walked an entire two blocks away from school. The voice came from the alley he had just walked past. Slowly, Kiro peeked his head around the corner.
A multi-spined beast in a bomber jacket and some kind of antlered creature in a miniskirt stood, both facing deeper down the alleyway. Even with their backs to him, Kiro could make out the former’s long, bedraggled tusks and the latter’s rabbit ears. A Hodag and a Jackalope.
Kiro involuntarily tightened his grip on his sketchbook.
Birch and Sally- Mad Dog’s lackeys!