Chapter 3:

Eye to Eye

Are You Real?


The two of them stood there, the silence far heavier than their measly three-word exchange. Though the reflection of the midday sun glimmered in their eyes, it was hard to believe it wasn’t the tail end of an evening full of swapping life stories.

Unblinking, the formerly-horned girl reached out towards Kiro with both hands.

Pinch!

“Ow!” he yelped, swiping her arms away. “What was that for?”

“Skin,” the girl mumbled, before locking eyes with him once more. “You have skin.”

“Of course I do!” Kiro rubbed his cheeks. “What, does my face look that weird?”

“I mean…”

Agh!

Kiro clutched his chest as if his soul pressed the eject button. His eyes wandered, noticing the dark green stains on her sweater vest.

The girl tilted her head to one side. Her pupils followed his, then pulsated. She dropped into a crouch, her knees to her chest.

“My clothes,” she whimpered.

“Sorry. I should've spoke up sooner against Mad Dog’s goons.”

Her face snapped upwards. “You’re the one behind that terrible Lovecleft impression?!”

Kiro blushed, but then his eyes lit up.

“Wait, you’re from V.I.A.S. High?!”

The girl’s shoulders arched backwards as she averted her gaze. “...Yeah.”

“That’s awesome!” Kiro’s smile soon twisted in confusion. “Weird. Why did it take so long for us to run into each other, then?”

“M… Monster?” She raised her index finger towards him. “What's that thing you're holding with the word ‘Monster’ on it?”

“Oh, this?” He clutched his sketchbook closer to his chest. “I like to draw other people as… cartoon characters.”

She shot to her feet, her face looking as if she’d just been slapped. “You mean you draw them?”

Kiro’s nervous grin melted as he shared her shock.

“You… see them too?”

A gentle breeze blew between them. The girl turned towards the sparkling city across the river, placing her hands on her chest. Her hair billowed like ink in water, obscuring the vast, rusty suspension bridge in the distance.

Kiro’s pants were wracked with a vibration so powerful that they almost fell off. After digging around in his pocket, he withdrew the thickest smartphone that she had ever seen. He squinted his eyes to read the message between the spiderweb of cracks on the dim screen:

“Where are you?”

Kiro jumped in place. And then he ran.

“Wait!” She called after him. “Where are you going?”

“Meet me at the cafeteria tomorrow at school!” Kiro yelled over his shoulder.

“Tomorrow-?!”

Her voice didn’t reach Kiro as he disappeared into the greenery of a leaf-dappled path. She tightened her shaky fists.

“At school…”

---

Considering that the majority of his free time was spent hunched over a piece of paper, it was safe to say that Kiro wasn’t exactly the athletic type. And never was that more obvious than on the last stretch of the mile-long dash back to school. His hair was dishevelled and his sweater was soaked. The graphite stains on his hands had long since migrated to his brow with every passing wipe.

At this rate, I’m not just cutting class. I’m eviscerating it!

The central spire of V.I.A.S. High came into view over the horizon. Like a rocket mounted on its launch platform, the eight-floored, opalescent structure stood sleek and elegant. Far more elegant, at least, than either of the three brownstone annex buildings connected to it by a grounded hall and a skyway each.

Approaching the main steps, Kiro was shrouded in the shadow of a familiar silhouette standing in front of the school. An eighteen-foot tall marble astronaut served as a welcome bit of shade and a good place to catch his breath.

Or at least, it would have been, if it weren’t for a low, clicking purr.

Kiro glanced around, but saw no one. Then, an orange and black flash. Kiro found himself dwarfed by another shadow.

This time, it was that of Mr. Pebblestone, the Tiger Gym Teacher. He had his hands on his hips and a smirk of eminent self-satisfaction.

“Th-that was an excellent surprise attack, sir.” Kiro gave him a shaky thumbs-up. “Very good pouncing form!”

Mr. P bared his mouthful of knife teeth, set beneath a pair of perpetually closed eyes that always seemed to be smiling.

“Thinkin’a playing hooky, son?” he asked, in a thick, elongated drawl.

“No, sir!”

“Then is there any reason you’re thirty minutes late, boy?”

Shaking, Kiro adjusted his collar. “To… fifth period?”

“Your ‘paw’s been waiting for you. Keeps yammerin’ about some appointment.”

“R-right!” Kiro saluted the gym teacher military style and started running. “I’ll be off then, sir!”

Dashing across the schoolyard plaza and up the grandiose stadium stairs, Kiro arrived in the atrium. Panting like a dog in a sauna, his sweat froze in the unseasonably strong air conditioning. This invisible blizzard, though, wasn’t the reason why the boy felt a sudden chill.

Kiro shrank into himself, perfectly still as a pair of heavy footsteps began approaching from behind. They started slow, methodical. Then they began to pick up steam. The ground shook as the hulking beast closed in on its target. With a deep, braised voice, it let out a warcry:

“Heya, champ!”

Bounding up like a six-foot golden retriever, the big ball of fuzz caught his son in a strangulatory bear hug. Kiro yelped, struggling to break free. But soon, he accepted the inevitability of swallowing a few clumps of crimson fur.

Richard Lane was the kind of person who still wore clothes from two sizes ago. The only thing keeping his white, button-down shirt and his pair of beige slacks together were two suspenders that bulged at the fuzzy outcropping of his gut. Packed head to toe with dense, dark-red fur, his face and forearms puffed out to look twice as big as they actually were.

Richard gave Kiro one final squeeze before letting him fall back to his feet. Freshly-warmed by red-hot embarrassment, the boy barely had a chance to catch his breath before his dad asked:

“You look a tad roughed up there, bud. Did something happen?”

“Nah-” Kiro stopped himself.

My forehead’s bruised from my desk, my clothes smell like an alleyway, and my cheeks look like I got in a fight with a goose- And lost.

Kiro feigned ignorance in a well-practiced tone. “Aren’t we late for the optometrist?”

“Rats!” Richard snapped his fingers. “I knew I was forgetting something! What are we waiting for then, champ?”

---

The optometrist’s office smelled like bleach and lollipops, while its halls resounded with the echoes of children’s laughs. If it weren’t for the walls chock-full of anatomical posters and the hulking forms of intricate machinery, Kiro would have assumed there was a kiddie pool around the corner.

“Sorry again, Dr. Rhettna,” Richard said, rubbing the nape of his neck. “We got caught up in traffic.”

“You’re a bad liar.” The doctor kept the high-collared back of his white coat to the father-son pair. “But an excellent father.”

Richard’s face contorted into a goofy smile. “Ah, geez. Thanks, Ranjit.”

Dr. Rhettna turned around to face them. In lieu of a head, there was a singular, massive eyeball whose veins pulsated as he spoke.

“I mean it, Rich. Not many fathers, or parents for that matter, take their kids for a checkup thirteen years in a row without missing a single one.”

“Ah, well, you know-” Richard cut himself off with a laugh.

While it was nearly impossible to tell when his dad was flustered by his dandelion of a mug, that pattern of engine-startup chuckles never failed to give everything away.

Kiro cleared his throat. “Gee, doc. Thanks for today. It’s always good to know nothing’s wrong with my eyes.”

“You have excellent vision, my boy,” Dr. Rhettna’s hands, composed of tightly-woven red-blue blood vessels, held a magnifying lens to his singular, massive pupil. “I’m sure for an artist like you, that provides great peace of mind.”

Kiro said nothing in reply.

“I suppose we’ll be going, then,” Richard said. “Sorry again for being late.”

“Don’t mention it,” Dr. Rhettna replied. “Besides, all that means is the next round’s on you.”

The father and son excused themselves with a series of awkward exchanges, shuffling out of the office and onto the street. Packed into a beige coupe barely twice the size of Richard alone, they puttered off down the street.

“So, uh,” Richard grunted as he cranked the driver-side window open. “Where to, champ?”

The buildings by Kiro’s window flashed into view, slowing their blooming crawl only once they were either far ahead or far behind.

“Home, I guess,” Kiro said, before feeling guilty enough to add, “and thanks for the ride.”

With the window open, Richard could finally sit straight, his massive forearm hanging almost entirely out of the car. “Gotcha. Do ya not have any classes left today, kiddo?”

Kiro murmured affirmatively. “My only test was during second period. And all my homework gets done online.”

“Oh.” Richard gave the boy one of his massively-toothy grins. “You know, back in my day, if we missed class, we had to call the school and pretend to be our parents. Got real good at imitating my old man.”

Kiro couldn’t help but snort. “Yeah, as if my voice is deep enough for that.”

“You’d be surprised,” Richard replied, wiggling his eyebrows into the rear-view mirror. “My voice was way higher than yours when I was your age. I’m talkin’ plane-in-the-sky high. Had to speak through a fan and an oven mitt, and I still got detention a couple of times.”

Kiro stared out the window. “You’ve told me that before, dad.”

“Well, what about the time I got suspended?”

“No.” Kiro perked up in his seat, meeting his father’s eyes through the rearview mirror. “Not that part.”

Richard let out a deep laugh and slapped the side of the car door with a resounding THWACK.

“Oh, let me tell ya. So this one time, I cut school to go on a date with this one girl, but she stood me up. Turns out, the whole thing was a prank by my buddies! Played D&D for the first time that day and we all got suspended at the end of it all. Good memories.”

“You… sound very optimistic about it.”

“Hey, don’t go underestimating your old man! I knew how to have fun!” Richard continued. “Oh! Did I ever tell you I used to be in a rock band back in college?”

“Dad, you never not tell me about it.”

Richard waved his free arm. “Fine, fine, I get it. Trust me, I was a teen too way back when. Anyways, if you like, I could tell you a couple stories from the rock days. Me and Carol used to get into so much trouble...”

Carol?

Kiro’s jaw clenched. After two blocks with no response, Richard tried to catch his son’s eyes in the rearview mirror again.

“Something the matter, bud?” he asked.

Kiro buried his face in the collar of his sweater.

“Yeah. I’m fine.”

The silent streets rolled on.

---

For the rest of the ride, Kiro distracted himself by imagining an invisible man running along the sidewalk next to the car. By the time he carried his father’s work bags through the door, the entire trip home was little more than a dull ache in the brain, to be left at the gate of sleep and never prodded again. Moments later, he was blissfully alone in his room.

Having the lights off and blinds closed helped a bit. Nothing mucked up misery like a bright blue sky and a smiling sun. And yet, amid the suffocation in the shade, Kiro’s eyes wandered to the luminescent cover of the sketchbook on his bed.

Monsterpedia.

Acting on instinct, he reached for it and pulled the pencil from his ear. After cracking open the blinds just the slightest bit, he started with the broad strokes. Outlining her gaunt form. Shading in the flowing fabric of her skirt. Cross-hatching the folds of her sleeves and the fuzz of her sweater-vest. The waterfall of her hair as she stared up at him. It was as if he was printing his memories straight onto the page.

But when it came to her face, he drew and erased it over a dozen times and still couldn’t get it right.

Figures. What did I expect? I haven’t drawn a person in-

Kiro stared at the graphite swamp where those piercing, blue eyes should have been. The pencil fell from his hands.

Her name.

Kiro’s hands met his cheeks with a resounding clap.

“I didn’t even ask her name!”

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