Chapter 11:

First Contact

Are You Real?

Goodbyes are the worst.

Kiro had never agreed with that sentiment more than five minutes after he waved her goodbye. The boy’s phone let out a chirp. He sighed.

Just earlier that very day, he had made the clever move to differentiate his contact notifications. No longer would his entire body shake from a message from both Ai and his father. The former was now a meow, and the latter…

Kiro thumbed his way past the password screen. Immediately, he gagged.

Taking up half the screen was a photo framed by the moldy corners of his bathroom floor. More pressingly though, was the pressed form of an entire roll of toilet paper. Out from under each end were antennas and legs bent out of shape. Kiro physically recoiled, shotgunned point-blank with the strangest sense of deja vu.

“Long story… BIG roach…” said the text.

Yeah, I see that, Dad.

Another chirp.

“Could you fetch a roll on the way back? I ordered more, but that’ll take two-to-three business days and we’re fresh out.”

Kiro groaned.

“Sure thing, pop.”

Just as Kiro was shoving his phone away, it chirped once more.

“Shouldn’t you be calling me rock?”

That doesn’t even warrant a response.

Kiro slapped a laughing emoji on the message and practically threw his phone into his carry-bag. With one final sigh to exorcize the pun demons from his brain, Kiro took a look at his surroundings. Having walked Ai to her bus stop, the city around him had changed drastically. The pedestrians and idiosyncratic cafes of the shopping district had made way for the soulless repetition of cars and chain stores sprawling across every square inch of the block. Kiro turned in the direction of his stop and started walking.

Gradually, both the traffic and the buildings thinned. He was looking for something that he found when he dismounted from the bus earlier that day. If he recalled correctly, it was roughly at the middle of the transition between the suburbs and the city. And there, past the dividing shadow of a defunct highway in the process of deconstruction, he found it:

A small mom and pop store by the name of 6 Dimes. It was one of a kind, at least relative to the dime-a-dozen 6/10 convenience stores that it not-so-subtly ripped off.

Kiro swept into the store with the enthusiasm of a comatose zombie. Groaning down the isles, he found the items he needed and stumbled into line for the register. Monster by monster, the line shrunk as he busied himself with housekeeping his team in Packetman: Grow. It wasn’t until he came up to the register that anything stirred in his mind.

Placing his two purchases onto the counter, everything was going smoothly until he looked up. Kiro’s brick of a phone made a disastrous clatter as it dropped onto the counter.

As little as five feet and five seconds ago, Kiro would never have thought of this outcome. And yet it, or rather she, was staring right back at him with the exact same sentiment of bewildered embarrassment. She may have been disguised in a black employee’s apron and cap, but it was unmistakable. That look of resentment in those violet-bagged eyes and the scowl of her burgundy-furred muzzle. A small name tag on her chest bore the paradox of a full name scrawled sloppily across:

Maia Park.

Staring back at Kiro from across the register was none other than Mad Dog herself. Her first instinct was to drop her eyes to the counter and play it cool.

“Is that all, si-”

Kiro saw Mad Dog visibly recoil. On the counter was a singular roll of toilet paper. And a box of large condoms.

Keano’s smiling visage came to mind through Kiro’s sudden flatline in mental processes. The Anglerfish-Boy’s voice echoed as he said his goodbyes at the Undersea Cafe:

“Don’t forget to use a protection spell, my brave Kironius!”

Kiro remembered craning his neck and laughing in the moment. But then Keano’s face grew sullen and serious.

“Okay, for real though dude. Wear protection.”

Keano’s voice evaporated on the boiling stovetop of Kiro’s forehead, leaving the auburn-haired boy naked in the biting winter of Mad Dog’s gaze.

Kiro reached into his pocket and slapped down a bill without looking. “Keep the change.”

He scooped up his goods and speedwalked out the door, leaving Mad Dog staring at the disproportionately-large denomination of currency before her.

Kiro hung a sharp right away from the windows of the convenience store. He stopped to take what must have been his first breath in the last two minutes. Once he had enough sense in him to pat his pockets, Kiro groaned.

Great. There goes this month’s allowance.”

His spine still wracked with the chilling plunge into an ocean of awkwardness, Kiro focused on the one thing that could reasonably distract him at this time:

There’s gotta be a Packetman stop around here somewhere.

To his surprise, and especially to his delight, there was one right on this block. And best of all, it was conveniently located… right across the street from his bus-stop.

Kiro groaned. The catches today better be good for all the buses he’s gonna miss.

Indeed, the haul wasn’t half bad. It took well over ten minutes, but he caught both a Level 27 Thintlesplatch and a Level 43 Kerhankery. And he only missed one bus! By the transit schedule app, he had twenty more minutes to fish for a Level 50+ before the next bus. He basked in the golden afterglow of victory, caressing with a finger the bizarre half-parsley, half-baboon abomination that was a Thintlesplatch. And then his screen flickered.

Kiro stared in disbelief as his phone died at 43% battery right before his eyes. He hadn’t managed to get past the “confirm capture” menu...

Five seconds from dropping to his knees and letting out a dramatic cry, the boy saw something shift in the black mirror in his hands. His sharp eyes shot right to their target, which froze like a deer in headlights.

More accurately, Mad Dog hid her snout in her fresh change of street clothes and hoped that Kiro’s vision worked like a T-Rex’s. But that signature pocket-handed slouch and those ears that flopped right out from under her black baseball cap were unmistakable.

Kiro’s jaw was agape as the options ran through his head. Against his better judgment, his litany of past experiences, and most of his instincts, Kiro started walking. He got within kicking distance when Mad Dog stuck out a fist, stopping him in his tracks.

Kiro gulped. Her fingers unfurled, revealing the exact change for his purchase.

“Do I really look like that much of a charity case?” she asked, her tone grim.

“N-no!” Kiro whimpered reflexively.

Her arm distended with the flashy speed of a signature piston punch. Instead of an impact, though, Kiro relaxed his flinching posture only to find the cash back in his hands.

Mad Dog shoved her fists back in her pockets. “Later.”

She took one long stride in the opposite direction.

“M-Mad Dog, wait!”

Only to be stopped midway by Kiro’s sudden cry. She spun around, baring her teeth at him.

“Again with the ‘Mad Dog’? Dude, we’re in front of my job.”

The image of a full name sloppily crammed onto a nametag flashed through Kiro’s mind.

“Sorry. Maia.” Kiro rubbed the back of his neck. “I just wanted to tell you something.”

“Spit it out.”

He cleared his throat and looked her dead in the eyes. Tilting his head in a display of gratitude, he said, “Thank you. For returning the Monsterpedia.”

Mad Dog’s fuzzy brow furrowed. “The sketchbook?”

Kiro nodded.

Tsk. Lovecleft told you, huh?” Mad Dog rolled her eyes. “D’you think I’d rip it to pieces or something? I have my own respect for the arts.”

“You do?” The words slipped out of his mouth.

“Anyone ever tell you the way you talk is bound to get you smacked?”

“N-no, that’s definitely a new one.” Kiro raised his hands, but stood his ground. “But I want to know what you meant. About the arts and stuff.”

Mad Dog took one sharp step towards him. Against all odds, he didn’t flinch.

“If I tell you, will ya leave me alone? Forever?”

Kiro gave her a slow, unsure nod. She lunged forward, stopping with her face towering over his. Her crooked, canine teeth glinted in the fresh evening light.


She said it so casually that Kiro swore he misheard.


With the swoosh of a jacket over her shoulder, Mad Dog cleared ten feet before Kiro even realized that she turned away.

Kiro stepped towards her. “That’s really cool, you know!”

Mad Dog stopped in her tracks.

“I mean it,” he added.

She muttered into her shoulder. “Sh-yeah. Sure you do.”

“You know. My dad sucks at cooking.”

Mad Dog spun on her heel and glared at him. “Cooking isn’t baking.”

A slight peak in her tone betrayed the odd sensation of sincerity.

The corners of Kiro’s mouth couldn’t help but twist into a grin. “Is it now?”

“Typical newbie,” Mad Dog threw her jacket over her other shoulder. “They’re way different.”

“Wish my dad thought so.” Kiro shrugged. “I mean, take one look at his french toast and you tell me if you can see the difference.”

Mad Dog groaned. “I bet he’s not using enough oil. That, or the smoke point’s too low.”

Kiro put a hand to his chin. “Yeah, funny you mention that. I think he doesn’t use oil at all. How’d you know that?”

What.” Mad Dog’s fist shot out and hung in the air. “Are you trying to piss me off?”

“No, I’m serious! My dad is a terrible cook! Probably an even worse baker though.”

“Oh.” Mad Dog coughed into her fist. “Guess I’m lucky. I learned everything about baking from my mom.”

“That’s nice.” Kiro’s eyes wavered, then drooped to the concrete. “My mom, uh…”

Mad Dog stood stock-still. She cleared her throat.

“Listen, I get it. When I was little, my dad-”

Where he trailed off, she sharply cut her words just short.

Kiro tilted his head. “Your dad?”

“We’re done talking.” She snarled. “I’m too tired for any more of this. Bye.”

Kiro’s head perked up in last-second realization.

Ai! We didn’t talk about what happened with Ai!

“Wait! Mad Dog-!”

In a flash, Kiro found himself falling onto the pavement. After landing on his rear, he looked up, seeing her wearing an uncharacteristic smile on her face.

“Your name’s Kiro, right?”

His back straightened in surprise. “Uh… yeah?”

“How would you feel if I called you, ‘Weirdo Artist-Boy’?”

Kiro sat completely frozen, his mouth agape. He watched her turn around once more and disappear into the distance with rapid, swaggering strides. He was left with nothing but his dead old phone, a pocket full of change, and the sound of the seven-thirty bus departing from its stop across the street.

Today, for the first time, Kiro met Maia Park.

Pope Evaristus
Steward McOy