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. He was on his hands and knees. Between dizzy glimpses, all he could see was the back of a tall figure. He latched onto the figure’s dangling dress in desperation.
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, leaving behind a dull numbness.
It hurts. It hurts. It hurts.
“Mama!” his voice called out on its own.
The front door creaked open, 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, too thoroughly paralyzed.
The third time his name was called, something stirred within him. His hand shot forth on its own accord. Unfortunately, this was also 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 be heard from the floor below.
A wave of snickering and chittering rose up from all around. 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 ears recognized the speaker, his blurry eyes lagged behind. Wiping his face, 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 hollow, dry cough.
The class 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.”
“Very well then.” Lovecleft maintained a veneer of respectful indifference. “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 different thoughts can eventually become a collage. Instinctually, he pasted the thoughts together, forming a cohesive picture:
“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 freckled green tentacle hovered over the blackboard 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 on a pair of vestigial wings poking out the back of his chalk-stained, navy blue blazer. Then, 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.
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 used to the collection of judgemental stares to care about them.
… except for me.
The second the bell rang, it unleashed a flood of skittering, clopping, and squelching feet out of the room. 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 voice was paralyzing in how gentle yet firm it was. Kiro stopped dead in his tracks, turning as if he were on a rusty hinge.
“Lunch?” Kiro’s nervous laugh came out as a yelp, his body still doubled over in a stealthy crouch. “Th-the bell rang and stuff. Can’t miss out on Taco Tuesdays!”
From behind his teacher’s desk, Lovecleft folded his tentacles over his face, the tips boring into his cavernous temples. “It seems I’ve underestimated your wit. But you shouldn’t underestimate my memory, Mr. Lane.”
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 like he was walking in lead shoes.
“Kiro,” Lovecleft said. “Are you alright?”
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 alright?”
The stress Lovecleft put on the “you” was mildly uncomfortable.
“One hundred percent,” Kiro said, looking at the ground. “Thanks, really. I’m totally fine.”
“How are things at home?”
Kiro brushed a tuft of auburn hair away from his eyes. “Everything’s good.”
After staring 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. Like writing a book. Climbing a mountain. Becoming 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.”
Kiro's hands went up, as if he was facing a loaded gun. “Wait, why? Isn’t that class full of delinquents?!”
“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 can highlight the 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.
Thankfully, the second bell rang before he could give an answer. How have they 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 and angular. One could almost expect to look out the window and see the vast expanse of space stretching out into a cosmic infinity.
That is, if it weren’t for the dripping-fresh graffiti sprayed 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 their escape, rumbling 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 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 are beautiful days like this wasted with school?
Upon emerging from the grandiose main entrance, Kiro’s attention was caught by a Kirin-Cheetah pair. They stretched their legs, revealing 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. “Pasta’s Pizzeria. Wanna go?”
“You sure?” the Kirin asked. “I can’t be late to chem again.”
“We’re good. It can’t be too crowded.” 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?”
An uncomfortable feeling welled up inside Kiro as he watched them gallop and pounce away. He tried to meditate on the speed of their flashing limbs, 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 shout snapped him out of his trance and made him realize he had walked an entire two blocks away from school. The voice came from an alley he had just passed. Slowly, Kiro peeked his head around the corner.
A multi-spined, purple beast in a bomber jacket faced deeper down the alleyway, flanked by an antlered, golden creature in a miniskirt. Even with their backs to him, Kiro could identify 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!