I wake up early the next morning. Not that I remember going to sleep. I must’ve been super tired after yesterday… I feel like I’m forgetting something again. Why am I on the ground?
Oh well. I have better things to do than wrack my brain for stray thoughts. My computer is off, but I’m right near it. Maybe if I turn it on, I’ll figure out whatever I did last night. I try starting it up, only to find it’s been unplugged. Maybe I tripped it? I insert the prongs back into the wall and see that I was watching Anata. Stream’s been over for a good long while now. There’s still some other people staying on the finished stream though. I smile a little at that.
So I was just watching Anata last night. Makes sense.
Oh, now I remember.
Sumire Anata moved in next to me.
SUMIRE ANATA MOVED IN NEXT TO ME?
“OH MY GOD!”
“Shut up, weirdo! Calm the hell down in there.”
I silence myself as Mylie’s voice peeks in from just outside my door. I don’t have time to be embarrassed. This is a one-in-a-million chance. Unless…
Could this be too good to be true?
Is this really happening?
I have to make sure it’s her.
I have to prove to myself that everything that happened last night wasn’t some stupid coincidence or fandom-induced hallucination.
I slip new clothes on and rush downstairs to the door. My dad’s waiting in the same room.
“Woah! Careful there. Whatcha doin?”
“I am going outside. Father.”
“Huh? What’s the occasion?”
I can’t just say I’m going to hang out with Kirk again, can I? I just did that yesterday… oh, man… I was outside the day right before yesterday. Going outside multiple times a week, in the spam of just a few days? That’s incredibly suspicious for a guy like me. How could I explain this? “I’m going to see if our neighbor is my favorite Vtuber?” I don’t wanna explain what a Vtuber is, much less insinuate I’ll be talking to a girl! Uh, Uhm…
“I’M TAKING OUT THE TRASH!”
“Huh? Trash is empty. And you don’t have the bag anyway.”
“I’M TAKING OUT EVERYONE ELSE’S TRASH.”
“Uh… Well, have fun I guess.
Without thinking about it, I bolt out the door. The entire neighborhood is open to me. I’ve never felt like this before. As I run down the driveway, the thought of staying indoors at a time like this leaves me entirely.
Why would I do such a thing?
Why would I hide myself and what I love from the world?
I completely forget ever having such a notion.
There is absolutely no logical reason why one should live in any way other than in absolute emotional freedom and peace, unafraid of themselves or the perceptions of others.
Then I see him, and it all comes back.
The well-dressed young man looks into me with eyes I myself can’t read. He walks as straight as a person could walk, his blue jacket hardly wrinkling as he steps up to me. I hated that face. I had almost forgotten that face. I swallow hard.
“Roscoe... something’s wrong, isn’t it?”
“No. I- actually feel fine.”
“You say that, but the lines on your face are the same as always. It’s as if you were born sad.”
I can’t stand how he’s smiling. I can’t stand how he’s standing. What does he care? Why is he in my life? This guy has nothing to do with me. But he’s there, and I can’t do anything about it.
“Can you leave me alone?”
“That made you mad? You’re quick to anger then. My first impressions of you were all correct.”
I had the misfortune of meeting Elias last year, during school. As Club Registration Advisor, it’s his job to help sort people out and get them to participate in school activities. Apparently he’s held similar positions all throughout school. Last year, he abruptly came to me asking about clubs. I was sitting at my desk, scribbling some picture of a Vtuber- I actually think it wasn’t Anata that time- and then he just came right up to me, propping his palm on my desk and leaning in.
“Roscoe Fletcher, isn’t it?”
“You’re worrying us.”
Instantly pushing a vague blame on me, he had me in a vice grip from the start of the conversation- a grip he would keep hold of long after it ended.
“W-what’d I do?”
“It’s not what you did, it’s what you didn’t. Roscoe, you are the only student in this grade who has forgone all club and fundraiser activities.”
“O-Oh. I’m sorry, I’m just not interested in participating in events right now...”
“Roscoe, these clubs and events are the social pillars that hold up this school’s ecosystem. By choosing not to participate, you’re kinda hurting everyone else.”
“That isn’t my intention...”
“Your intentions don’t matter. Listen… Advice. You’ll never get a job, a lover, or even a bit of happiness the way you are now. You need to learn to grow up and think beyond yourself. I’m worried about you.”
And just like that, he walked off. Standing in front of me outside of school, it’s as if he’s a ghost. Even though I knew he lived here, I’d never seen him because I always stayed in. He feels like an invader in paradise. Really, it might be the risk of running into people like him that keeps me inside most of the time.
“You look flustered. You’re up to no good, aren’t you?”
There’s nothing I can do about this guy. Might as well go home and daydream. I dunno what I even expected to accomplish out here. Then, I hear that familiar voice from behind me.
“Hey! Elias? What’s goin’ on?”
Kirk! What a lifesaver.
“I was just having a small chat with Roscoe.”
“Cool. Well, me and him were going to the park. So if you could let us be...”
“Of course. Do as you please. I’m glad to see you’re helping him.”
Elias just walks off. Five different weights lift off my chest. I’m almost panting as I turn to Kirk.
“Kirk- thanks for that.”
“Hey, no problem. I dunno what was happening, but it seemed off to me. That Elias guy looks like a good kid and all, but the way he talks unnerves me. Why’s he always tryna sound like an adult?”
“I dunno... all children try to do that at some point. Maybe he’s still just playing house.”
“Do you actually wanna go to the park, by the way? It’s a good day.”
“I’m... actually kind of busy right now...”
“What is it, a girl?”
“How did you know?”
“Wait, really? I was just trying to get a rise outta you. Who’s the lucky gal? This doesn’t happen every day.”
“Well, uh, it’s complicated...”
“Wait... could you be talking about the lady that moved in next to you?”
“No. Yes. I-in a way, yes. But- you can’t tell anyone!”
“I wouldn’t do that. You’re my friend.”
“But I will tease you! Isn’t that chick like, twenty?”
“Okay, okay, I’m done. So what’s your plan?”
“Oh... actually, I dunno. I was just kinda hoping I would randomly run into her I guess.”
“Good luck. I’m outside basically 24/7 and I haven’t seen her leave the house once. Does she even have a job? I’ve only heard her basic information from gossip.”
“She works from home.”
Kirk slowly, slowly gives me this very strange look.
“H-how do you know that, but not her name?!”
“N-no time to explain! J-just- you gotta give me some advice, Kirk! What do I do?”
A man walks out of the door to the house closest to us. I recognize him as Seth, the one from the park.
“What the hell are you kids on about? I was trying to get ready for work when I was distracted by your incessant yelling...”
“Hey, buzz off! I’m trying to help my friend get with the new girl!”
“Who, Cleo? Don’t bother.”
“Wait, you know her?”
“Dated her a few years back. Wasn’t any fun. Besides, isn’t she a bit old for you?”
I don’t know why, but I speak up.
“Wouldn’t she have been a bit young for you?”
“H-huh? You’re gonna backtalk me now? God, what a pain... get outta my sight.”
He walks back inside…
“Ross! That was so cool, dude!”
“I-I don’t even really know for sure how old either of them are... now I feel bad...”
Kirk wraps his arm around my shoulder.
“Nah, dude, you did great! That confidence gives me an idea!”
“W-what kind of idea?”
“If you wanna meet her, why not just go right up to her door and introduce yourself?”
“What? No, I can’t just...”
“Don’t lie to me! I saw that courage inside you! Let’s go!”
I scream a bit as my friend runs, pulling me forward like a raft attached to a motorboat all the way to Anata... Cleo’s house.
Her front door looks huge. Even with Kirk beside me, I feel frozen. I’m so scared, I almost hold his hand. I want to do this so bad. And yet, no matter what, I don’t want to do this. I can’t. I can’t do this.
“Kirk… are we really doing this?”
“Nope, just you!” Kirk runs off the porch and jumps into the bushes. Not ‘cause he’s scared, but because he wants me to do this on my own. I know this well. But… Oh, god… How do I even… do this? I guess I know how to start…
I swallow, and ring the doorbell.
The next few seconds feel like hours. Why the hell did I come here? Is she even home right now? I’ve been standing on this mat so long I think I’ve soaked it in my sweat. I almost ring it again. This was a bad idea. I flew too close to the sun. I just wanna go back to watching her streams now. This was a huge mistake. The doorknob starts to turn. I’ve made a mistake. I’m sorry, god. It’s time to get the embarrassment I deserve... Anata, save me…
I look up to see that the door is open.
“Who the hell are you?”
I look up. I do not have time to process the woman in front of me. I do not consider or even perceive her appearance at all. I just know she is there. And she is talking to me. Oh, god, she’s talking to me.
I swallow again.
“Roscoe Fletcher! I love next door! L-Live next door!”
She pulls a cigarette from her mouth and releases a thin line of smoke from between her lips. My vision is coming back.
“Well, my name is Cleo. Didn’t expect to be greeted into the neighborhood like this... nice to meet you, I guess?”
“Nice to meet you. Nice to meet you…”
I nearly die right there.
“Are you okay, kid?”
“I-I’m intensely okay!”
“So, uh... why’s it someone like you greeting me and not some soccer mom or something? Don’t you have... I dunno, better things to do?”
No no no no no no no-
“I mean… ahem. This is what I have chosen to do with the time I have been able to spare today.”
“Yeah… Well, if that’s all, I’ll be going back in now. Thanks, kid.”
She goes to close the door.
She stops moving. “Yeah…?”
“I-I need to ask you something!”
She doesn’t respond verbally. She just looks at me with her cold, beautiful eyes, awaiting whatever I have to say.
Oh. Oh, wait. Oh no. I can see her now. She’s so pretty. Oh god. Her hair is long and blonde. She’s taller than me. Her legs are strong and slender. Her posture is powerful. I feel so weak. I have to say something. Wait.
What do I have to say?
To her, I’m just some random kid! I have no reason to be here! I want this to go on for as long as it can- But I can’t just confess to knowing she’s a Vtuber, right? Half the reason most people take up the occupation rather than standard streaming is due to the better privacy it grants… For all I know, that could be why she moved to a random town in the middle of nowhere in the first place! But I have to think of something- anything!
“D-do you know a guy named Seth?”
I clearly caught her off guard. Her eyes narrow. Oh, no. Now I sound even more like a stalker. I’m terrible. But there’s no turning back anymore. If I’m gonna be a stalker, that means I can’t be a coward, too.
“I-I’m... loosely acquainted with him, and one time he mentioned you, I think.”
“You’re telling me that prick lives here too?”
“I-I don’t know for how long, but yes, Seth lives in this neighborhood...”
“Goddammit... what are the chances...”
“You have no idea…”
“Hey! What was that, kid?”
“Heh, I’m just messing with you. Don’t sweat it.”
I can’t help but laugh nervously.
“So, would you mind coming in and telling me more about this whole Seth situation?”
“Would I what?”
Wait, is this working?
“Would you wanna visit for a minute and talk about Seth? Geez, you oughta clean those ears out. Hahahahoo!”
“I can stay as long as you like!”
“Uh… okay, good to know. Come on in.”
Oh my god, oh my god. What’s even going on?
Am I entering the residence of Sumire Anata?
She doesn’t act much like her on the surface… hell, she doesn’t even sound like her. But… subtle things about her… that goofy laugh… how she draws you into a conversation… That's Anata. For sure.
How did I get here?
Is it because I lied to dad and met Seth at the park yesterday?
How can things be so… easy?
Before I know it, I’m inside.
“Welp, this is my home. The walls seem kinda thin, and I don’t have heat yet, but otherwise it’s pretty nice, don’t you think? I haven’t unpacked much of anything but my computer yet, so you’ll have to excuse all the empty space.”
No kidding. It’s the complete opposite of my poster-ridden bedroom. It's so white and empty. It’s a nice living room, though. I’m sure she couldn’t afford the biggest house or anything, but what she got seems pretty nice. She sits on top of a cardboard box and crosses her legs, picking up a can of soda she had presumably started on before I came in. It’s a Sunshine Sour Lemon soda, the exact brand she always talks about on stream.
I feel like a creep. We’ve only just met, but I know so many things about her. And to make matters worse, she has no idea. She alternates between puffing the cigarette and taking sips as she starts talking to me again.
“So… My ex is living in this neighborhood too, huh?”
In one-on-one conversations like this, I never know when to respond and when to stay silent. But… good things seem to happen when I do things, so I guess I’ll just respond as much as I can.
“Y-yeah. He is. I’m sorry.”
“Hey, it’s not like it’s your fault or anything. Do you know the guy well at all?”
“No… we just happened to meet by chance recently. My friend chewed him out at the park for littering or something.”
“Ha! Sounds like him. Say, is that the same friend who was hiding in the bushes outside my house when you rang the bell?”
“You two aren’t trying to prank me or something, are you? Haha! Wait a minute… two teenage boys showing up at my house unprompted… if you’re not pranking me, what are you doing?”
“W-well, uh… geez! You caught us! Guess we can’t go through with our plan, then…!”
“Peh. I don’t buy it. You don’t look like the type to prank some new lady moving in near you. So why the hell did you come here?”
“I’m just- I’m just- uh, you know! I’m just the kind of person who always greets new neighbors, haha.”
“And yet you’re this shy…? Something’s not adding up here. Unless…. You don’t know, do you?”
Sweat drips from my brow.
“W-w-what do you mean?”
Her eyes shift a bit.
She leans back.
“Oh well. I guess it doesn’t really matter why you came here. Thanks for the heads-up about my ex. It’s good to know, at least.”
Built-up tension releases out of my lungs.
“Y-you’re very welcome!”
Her smile is cuter here than on her virtual avatar.
“Oh, by the way- can I... um...”
“Can I maybe... come here again... sometime?”
“Well… Yeah, sure, I guess. Just... I have certain times when I’ll be busy, so you’ll have to know those...”
“I-it’s fine, don’t worry. I promise you won’t have to worry about me whenever you’re busy.”
“Hahahahoo... well, if you’re so sure you won’t, I’ll hold you to it. See you, Roscoe.”
She closes the door.
How long have I been back on the porch?
It doesn’t really matter.
The sound of her voice speaking the two syllables of my name rings in my head like an explosion.
“See you later, Roscoe.”
I think I’m addicted.