Are You Real?
Kiro’s view through the leaves was hardly better than through an old, staticky television. And yet, he was transfixed. Ai bit her lip, her eyes on him instead of up front.
Any notion of “noble observation” faded as the competitors in the pit came at each other, swinging like maniacs. Matching each other jab for jab, then straight for straight, the two contestants burned through time without letting up for a second. Block, blow, return. Blow, block, blow. Their rhythm was far from that of two newbies.
By the time the bell rang, both were entirely out of breath. Among the crowd, the air was charged like a battery off the sheer momentum of brute forces.
“These two gave it their all for the full three minutes!” called the Jackalope. “Looks like they’ve broken even this time, but next round will be critical!”
From what the bushbound spectators could see, both contestants took their seats for the full duration of the break. But Stone Face Ollie slumped down deeper, his ragged breathing given away by dramatic oscillations in his ridiculously wide shoulders.
It seemed as soon as the break began, the bell rang once more.
Back on their feet, the two contestants returned to blows. This time, though, it was Lou that gained the advantage. Hammering Ollie with a series of jabs, the Werewolf managed to push the Gargoyle to the ropes, or rather, the steep incline at the walls of the pit. The most Ollie could do was dodge around half of the punches coming at him—a fact that did not go unnoticed with the loudest members of the crowd.
“Get ‘im, Lou!”
“You’ve got him now!”
“A hook, you idiot! Throw a hook!”
Amid the chaos of furred arms flying, Kiro saw Ollie’s massive shoulders twitch. Then, a gray flash. The Werewolf stumbled back, the momentum of his blitz utterly shattered.
“Did you see that?!” came the Hodag’s voice. “An awesome hook from Ollie brings him back into the fight!”
Backed by a resurgence of cheers, Ollie pressed his advantage. He took Lone Wolf Lou two steps from the ropes before his attack began to falter. It was more obvious now than ever, but the Gargoyle was running out of steam.
With what felt like an eternity left on the clock, Stone Face Ollie was soon back on the ropes. As meaty thwaps echoed across the amphitheater, the crowd’s one-sided cheers lapsed into focused silence. His entire body shaking with every taken blow, it looked as if Ollie was about to collapse.
White clouds gathered above them, quickly turning the same shade of sullen gray as the Gargoyle’s skin. Ollie’s back twitched, and Kiro held his breath. Ai clutched her skirt.
Ollie’s fist hung in the air, two inches from his opponent’s snout.
“What a round!” cried the Jackalope. “The champ hangs on by a thread as Lou takes it by storm!”
Uproars shuddered throughout the crowd for the entire break, their voices lost entirely in the excitement. Kiro clenched his teeth—he couldn’t help but root for the struggling champ.
When the round three bell sounded, Ollie had to stumble forward to face his opponent. The sky was a twisted muck by the time the boxers started the round with a staring contest. Sharp, dark shadows carved into their bruised faces with the waning of the light.
“What are you two, in love?”
“Knock him out!”
While Ollie had taken enough hits to sink a warship, it seemed that Lou remembered far too well what happened the last two times his opponent was on the ropes. Lou charged—Ollie slipped past the opening one-two punch.
Against all odds, the hulking champ worked his way to the Werewolf’s side. His footing tied up in the change in direction, Lou didn’t have time to put up a proper block. Ollie’s back twitched, but this time there was no delay. In one flawless motion, that gray cinderblock of an arm met fur.
The crowd went utterly silent as Lou fell back, crumpling tail-first into the ground.
A collective, deafening roar sent a hair-raising current through the air. Sally struggled to announce a winner over the commotion, and even Mad Dog’s howl couldn’t quell the upset. Cheers and jeers filled the air, as did a dozen thrown objects. Curses and skateboards went flying in every direction, including straight towards a particular bush on the periphery of the park.
Ai tugged Kiro back into safety by his sleeve, allowing the skateboard to bounce harmlessly off the leaves and branches. Before he could thank her for helping him avoid his umpteenth injury of the day, a shadow fell upon the bush. Evidently, one of the spectators had come to reclaim their board.
Ai and Kiro froze in place. As the spectator leaned down to pick up the board, they paused in front of the bush. Thinking purely on instinct, Kiro nudged Ai as if to say:
You run. I’ll make a ruckus.
Nodding as gently as a falling leaf, Ai silently retreated from the bush. As the spectator stared into the shadow-laden greenery, Kiro took a deep breath. With all his might, he shook the branches all around him.
In the deepest, Lovecleftian voice he could muster, Kiro proclaimed:
“You there, pupil. What do you think you are doing?”
The spectator dropped their board and ran back towards the crowd. Kiro began breathing a sigh of relief. Then, the spectator screamed, causing Kiro to choke on it.
“IT’S MR. LOVECLEFT! SCATTER!”
Clacking boards and panicked screams erupted from the makeshift arena. As thunder crackled overhead, Kiro bolted out of the bush. Nicking himself on no less than half a dozen branches, he tried in vain to follow the dark blue blur in the distance.
How is she so inhumanly fast?!
By the time that Kiro caught up to her back at the V.I.A.S. High campus, Ai was standing there, having fully caught her breath. Despite how still she was, her pupils were wracked with the slightest twitching tick. The clouds roiled above.
Her lips parted to speak. “Kiro…”
“I’m… sorry,” he panted in reply. “It’s my fault, agh- for dragging you into that.”
“That’s not it-”
“Really,” he added, his face drooping between his knees, “I’m so sorry.”
“Kiro.” Ai’s tone was as sharp as a tack.
He craned his head to meet her gaze.
“Where’s your Monsterpedia?”
Kiro’s hands sprung to his chest, feeling instinctually for the large, hard cover that was always pressed to it. He patted his pockets, just in case. He turned around, his pulse racing. He jumped up and down, craned his neck in every direction.
But there was only the brown of the buildings at their backs, the leafy greenery rolling ahead as far as the eye can see, and the deep, dark ash of the sky above.
Kiro gripped at his temples. The growing tightness in his chest knocked his knees off balance. A sudden sensation jolted him back to reality. When he looked up, Ai’s hand was on his shoulder.
“Slow down.” Her blue eyes bore into his. “Take it one breath at a time.”
His fists clenched in concentration. The heaving of his chest leveled off.
“Good. Just, let’s-” The words felt heavy in her throat. “We’ll put our heads together and find it, okay?”
Kiro nodded. Once. Twice. Halfway through the third, he paused. The oxygen rushing back to his brain, a detail emerged from the mental mist:
Her hand’s trembling.
The tightness in Kiro’s chest returned. He gently lifted Ai’s hand off him with his own.
“No.” Kiro gritted his teeth to smile. “This is my fault. I’ll go back alone.”
“I’m not putting you in danger again.”
“Are you sure?”
“It’s my sketchbook, not yours.”
Ai pulled her hand back, fingers half-curled. Her face lit up.
“Give me your number,” she said, already in the process of pulling her phone out. “If anything happens, call me. Okay?”
Droplets of water hit the screens of their phones as they quickly did so. The wind picked up speed, sapping the warmth out of the air.
Phone still in hand, Ai could only watch as Kiro ran off.
Benches and trees blurred past on either side. Kiro focused on nothing but what was in front of him, even ignoring the burning in his lungs. Puddles started to form on the ground—his shoes took on water by the second. Over a row of bushes, the skate park amphitheater came into view. The dreary drizzle was already evolving into a full-blown storm. Raindrops burst diagonally off of every jutting, concrete surface.
Kiro dashed up to the one he recalled hiding in. Jumping into the shrubbery, he probed every prickling corner with his hands.
It’s not here!
Kiro thought back along the path he ran. But he didn’t see a trace of the sparkling cover on his way here. His breathing accelerating, Kiro jumped out from the safety of the bush and back into the pouring rain. He looked around.
But it was too hard to see or think. A hundred pages of painstakingly crafted drawings flickered through his mind as rainwater slapped at his eyes. The downpour made the ground indistinguishable.
Kiro fell to his knees. Exposed to the water-laden air, the boy’s nest of auburn hair melted onto his face. In this weather…
Even if it was here…
The Monsterpedia was gone.