Chapter 7:


Are You Real?

Ai winced. Even after lowering her hands, the brush stayed put in her hair. In the mirror, it looked as if her head had been impaled by a frying pan. She sighed.

Must it always be this way?

Everything around her was both fluffy and functional. The bed was a bloated mountain of plushies, laid atop a tall, plain frame whose mattress spilled over the sides. Though clean, the floor’s spotlessness came at the expense of any space left beneath the bed. On either side of it, the valleys of the room were drenched in darkness by the sheer heft of the dark gray blinds covering the windows on the far end. In fact, more light came into the chamber from the hall, as her door’s hinges were practically rusted open.

After all, what’s the point if no one’s ever home anyways?

Glancing towards the corner of the room, she spotted a navy-blue canvas bag. Blanketed in a dainty film of dust, it slumped over into itself. On the topmost pocket sat a luxurious leather label with all of its letters scratched out.

Do I really have to take that thing?

If she was going to bother showing up, she knew that she should at least load up on all the work she missed. But still…

The feeling of Kiro gently pulling her hand away was still fresh in her mind.

“I’m not putting you in danger again.”

And so was his voice.

Ai’s cheeks went beet-red. She stared at her reflection. Using one part sheer willpower, two parts breathing exercises, and a dash of self-judgment, her face returned to its usual, paler complexion.

Come on. You can do this, Ai. Just-!

She forced down the brush, fighting to keep a straight face as her hair snapped back. When she was done, numerous strands haphazardly stuck out of the brush, but her hair was finally as straight as it needed to be.

Ai pulled out her phone, rereading the same message she had sent last night for the umpteenth time:

“Hey, are you okay?“

Still nothing, not even a read receipt. Before the anxiety bubbling in her stomach got any worse, Ai pocketed her phone again. She took a deep breath.

It’s okay. He’ll be there today.

Amid the dim light, a neon-blue glow caught her eye. Those cat-eared headphones were the last present she’d ever asked for. Gingerly, she took them up in her hands. Ai traced a finger along the small, dark-gray piece of duct tape wrapped around the crown. It was all that was holding the two halves together.

How strange.

This little crack that devastated her was now a memento of hope.

In well-rehearsed motion, Ai covered her ears with them.

I need to go.


If there was one thing Ai learned best from school, it was that staring at the patterns of the hallway’s white tiles made her a walking obstacle. As she walked, the melodies in her headphones formed a bubble of hypnotic soundscapes. And yet, the alien world outside made its ingress.

One creak of the floor at a time. The groaning shuffle of a giant’s shadow as it passed. Warbling. Deep, wet, and somewhere perpetually behind her. The dozens of malformed and legs dragging themselves ahead turned her own legs gelatinous.


Ai shrieked as she bumped into something hard, sharp, and hairy.

“Where are you looking, you-!”

The high-pitched buzz that was the creature’s voice suddenly stopped. Ai’s curiosity made her want to look up, but fear kept her head down.


Ai’s eyes went wide. She squeezed the strap of her bag with both hands.

That voice.

It was unmistakable. The additional pair of thin, segmented feet that wheeled around to face her only confirmed it.

“Hi,” Ai hesitated on the rest of her simple sentence. “Victoria.”

“It’s been years!” came Victoria’s high, buzzing voice. “I never knew you went to V.IA.S.! Well, not that I knew you were even capable of coming to school.”

“Yuh-huh,” Ai replied, thoughtlessly. “Nice to see you again.”

“Yeah,” Victoria added, not even registering Ai’s response. “Maybe if you stopped staring at those horrible little saddle shoes, you would’ve figured out your way here sooner.”

Ai could clearly make out half a dozen buzzing snickers break out ahead of her.

“Victoria, stop,” one of the insectoids behind her chirped between giggles. “You’re scaring her!”

“Oh, I know,” Victoria said, breaking out from her group. “She was just like this in middle school too. A little pussycat that hissed at the wrong person one day.”

Victoria leaned in close. So close that one of her antennae dangled right in front of Ai’s line of sight.

Remember, Ai?”

Ai forced her way past them, clutching the canvas bag so tightly that her knuckles turned white. Despite keeping her gaze as low as ever, she could still feel it.

They’re staring.


Ai didn’t know how long she had been sitting around for. If it wasn’t for the aftertaste of nail polish remover, the minutes would have been whittling away at her nails and not just her composure.

All she remembered was hurrying to her seat at the back, hopefully too fast for anybody to notice. Class must have started at least half an hour ago. The shadow of the sun on her desk hadn’t budged, so it was hard to tell. She felt for something, anything inside her desk to help distract her. But it was as empty as the first day of school.

They gave up on giving me my work.

The thought was somehow louder than her headphones' music on full blast.

“... lady!”

Ai could’ve sworn the faintest voice bled through into her little world. Before she could brush it off as a figment of her imagination-


The female voice at the front of the room was too clear to ignore now. Ai lifted one of her earmuffs away from her head.

“Take it off!” the teacher yelled.

Her hands trembling, Ai lowered the headphones around her neck. The sudden sensation of almost everyone’s attention on her came at full blast. Scribbling pencils fell silent. Chairs screeched on the floor as their occupants turned to face the sight. Chittering whispers arose as if they had always been there. Her stomach didn’t quite tighten as much as it looped into itself like a klein bottle.

The teacher let out a low huff. “Young lady. If you’re going to finally show up, you at least need to take those off.”

Ai didn’t meet her teacher’s eyes. She couldn’t.

“I’m sorry…”

“What’s your name?”


“Ai?” Her tone went soft in recognition. “Suzuyoku?”

Ai meekly nodded.

“Alright then. Miss Suzuyoku,” The teacher tapped the blackboard with her stick of chalk. “Could you solve this for us?”

Ai weaved her vision past anything that could move, focusing entirely on the board. Letters and mathematical symbols were scrambled all around a triangle tattooed with various markings.

Oh. I’m in Trig.

She had seen and solved this problem a dozen times already. Ai looked back at her desk as she spoke.

“Twenty-seven degrees.”

“That’s… correct.”

Of course it’s correct. It has to be correct.

Another wave of chitters washed over the class. It took all of Ai’s strength not to put her headphones back on.

“As impressive as it is that you solved that in your head,” the teacher continued, “your participation leaves something to be desired, Miss Suzuyoku. You shouldn’t rely solely on your high test scores to carry you to graduation.”

You don’t know what it’s like.

“I’m sorry,” Ai offered in surrender.

The whole class went quiet. Only when Ai heard scribbling on the board again did her shoulders relax. But only by so much. Her palms sufficed in place of her headphones as she slouched onto the surface of the desk.

The instant the bell rang, Ai whipped her headphones back on. She flew out of the room ahead of everyone else, canvas bag in hand. A small part of her was sure someone was calling her name as she left. The rest of her ignored the possibility.

Breathe. Breathe.

The thoughts made her lose her inhale-exhale rhythm. Shoving herself through the door leading into the ladies’ room, Ai barely made it to the sink. The only thing that kept her standing were her arms and the chilly, solid porcelain in their desperate grip.

Ai looked up at the mirror. Her green-tinted reflection stared back, equally panicked but also the slightest hint disappointed. Once more, her hair was becoming a mess. She shook her head to herself.

Come on. You can make it through. It’s not that bad, just keep looking down.

She turned the sink on at full force, cupping her palms with water. Ai splashed her face. Once, twice, three times—too loudly to hear the door open behind her.

When she looked back at her reflection, a figure hovered over her shoulder.

Ai gasped, her back slamming into a nearby bathroom stall. She looked down again, seeing three pairs of legs: one bare and scaly, one in a skirt and jeggings, and the last wearing jeans ripped in a way that was both crude and fashionable.

“You-” came Mad Dog’s voice. “Always at the wrong place at the wrong time, aren’tcha?”

Ai was paralyzed.

“Heh, you’re so cool, Mad Dog,” the Hodag said, laughing, “She already looks like she’s going to cry.”

Mad Dog gave her goon a single, angry yip. “Don’t interrupt me when I’m taking care of business.”

Ai saw the pair of legs in the jeans step forth, its shadow creeping just inches from hers. The two of them walked backwards until Ai’s rear hit the cold tiles of the bathroom wall.

“Hey,” Mad Dog said as she closed the gap. “I just want to talk to you, eye to eye.”

Half expecting to be pinned at any second, Ai clutched her bag. Her saddle shoes clacked together at the toes as they quivered.

“Gah!” Mad Dog growled.

Ai saw one of the canine’s legs go up as if she was going to kick the nearby stall, only for her to lower it.

“Look,” Mad Dog said. “I don’t want any trouble.”

Ai remained silent.

“Ya hear me?!” The fists at Mad Dog’s sides clenched. “I mean it. You stay out of my business and I’ll stay out of yours. In fact-”


Mad Dog’s fists released, then moved to motion behind her. The Hodag stepped forth. One of Ai’s nails chipped against the bunched-up fabric.

“Do I have to?” asked the Hodag.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

“Just get it over with, Birch,” the Jackalope said.

Amidst their side-conversation, the trio of monsters failed to realize Ai was hyperventilating.

“Fiiine,” the Hodag replied, groaning. “Listen. I’m only gonna do this, cuz Mad Dog told me to. But, nothing per-”

Ai burst past them, even faster than when they met in the alleyway.

“Wait! I’m not done w-!” the Hodag yelled.

But all that was left of that strange girl was the afterimage of her skirt. Even that was wiped away by the swinging door.


Kiro sighed.

She didn’t show up today.

Without a single window in the entire chamber, he couldn’t even tell how much of this season’s precious golden hour had already elapsed. Somehow, it was harder to zone out in the absence of warm, natural light. Though, the fact that the basement was both lit and decorated like an underfunded prison chapel certainly didn’t help.

And if Kiro was in the back row of the pulpit, then Professor Lovecleft was the stalwart preacher. His voice omnipresent by echoes, the teacher quoted a heavily-vandalized language bible that was at least a decade his senior. In lieu of a vast blackboard diagram for the lack of any boards, Lovecleft had concocted a diorama of a town by a riverside out of discarded milk cartons and blue, sparkling cheer streamers.

“As you can see,” Lovecleft continued, motioning to his little exhibit. “Our protagonist would have nowhere to go in case of a flood. When faced with the possibility, their only choice was to abandon their hometown before the dam broke.”

Lovecleft paused, scanning the room. As usual, the sparse population of his afterschool program had spaced themselves out in clusters, with two notable exceptions. There was, of course, Kiro, no doubt trying to doze off in the back by himself. And on the opposite side of the room, in both the front and center, a three-by-three square of desks was left entirely to itself. But that was all according to plan.

Satisfied with his census of the room, the tenacious teacher’s mouth tentacles stirred. The only thing that stopped Lovecleft from springing a question on the sleepy, auburn-haired boy was the sound of the phone in the hall. Ancient and incomprehensibly piercing, the racket forced the teacher’s tentacle hands to the dents where his ears would be.

“I’ll be right back!” Lovecleft called above the din. Knowing full well that there were only thirteen students in the room, his last words were, “Break out into pairs and discuss the themes of the passage.”

The first few moments after the teacher’s departure were silent. Then, students of all sorts shuffled and groaned as they split and joined their respective groupings. For some reason, they all did what they were told. Except for Kiro, who suddenly realized that he was the odd one out.

This is the worst. I don’t even have the Monsterpedia to doodle in.

Before he could bury his face in his arms, the classroom door flew open.


One leg clad in torn jeans hung in the air as all the chatter cut out. Then, it dropped, and Mad Dog entered the room.

Head slumped forward, hands in her pockets, and leaning her body into every step, the girl arrived before the three-by-three of empty desks. She tossed her backpack right into the middle seat. Then, she scanned the room. Despite Kiro’s best efforts to turtle into his turtleneck, Mad Dog’s gaze locked with his.

Within seconds, she was right in front of him. Her fists crashed down on his desk.

“We need to talk.”

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