I hear a sound… coming… from above the waves…
“Dude, wake up! Dude… damn, dude, are you OKAY?”
I manage a few syllables…
“C-Cleo… ah… Cleo…”
“Shit, dude, you are down ATROCIOUS! We gotta get you home… screw that, actually we might oughta head to the doctor’s!”
“No… I… hate… doctors…”
“It’s life or death, man! I’ve seen guys fall low before, but never to this degree! You’ve got it BAD, man!”
“I’ll live… live to see… Cleo… again…”
“That’s right, you better! Now quick, let’s head to my place!” Kirk shouts, hoisting me up in his arms as we hastily retreat from the residence of my sacred idol and one true love. Everything around me’s just a blur as he sprints full speed down the sidewalk-absent road, the summer sky positioned right in front of me as my head hangs vertically off his left elbow.
This can’t be real… my absolute most favorite Vtuber in a flooded market of entertainers, my oshi… she’s real, and lives right by me… Not only that… she knows my name… I know her name… and I’ve even been in her house. I don’t feel creepy or strange anymore. The euphoria of this dreamlike reality has now completely set in, overpowering my anxiety and numbing my rationale…
At this exact moment, I decide I will one day marry Cleo.
There was no process leading up to this thought. It was the absolute truth, and I had merely chosen to realize it. I suppose this is what they call “love at first sight,” isn’t it… How beautiful… maybe… life ain’t so bad…
“Shit, we’re losing him! Roscoe? Roscoe!”
Take me away, Cleo…
The hum of a cheap old light buzzes above me. Smelling a thick layer of dust, my eyes slowly open as I’m greeted by a sort of orangey, dingy yellow color encompassing my entire view. Strange… alien, yet, a place I know I’ve been before at least once or twice, long ago in the days of my youth…
“Morning, Romeo.” Kirk stares down at me- smiling, but clearly concerned for my well-being.
“Ohayo…” I let out.
“He’s speaking total nonsense… dammit, he’s gone mad! What do I do, what do I do…” He panics above me. Weird… I just accidentally spoke horrible, broken Japanese to my normal, socially adjusted friend… and yet… I don’t feel embarrassed at all…
“Roscoe, can you hear me? Gimme a sign!”
I hold up my hand, trying to do “peace,” though my arms are still mostly numb and I think I may actually be flipping him off.
“Oh thank god. Here, I got you a Dr. Redmond. Now come on, drink!” I don’t really like soda, but I don’t tell him that. I just sip the fizzy elixir and try to calm myself down from all that’s happened. Kirk’s looking at me with a smile as I drink.
“Haha… to think, you of all people, my best friend, head-over-heels for an older woman… never thought I’d see the day…”
“Didn’t think you could fall in love. Just figured you were too shy or something. Suppose it goes to show. No matter how different people may seem at times, we all like someone at the end of the day.”
“Ha ha… I can’t believe it either… ….Kirk… what’s your crush like? You got one?”
“Hmm… Well, uh, there’s this one girl at my work… She’s got brown hair, just short enough. Cute eyes. Hands so delicate you’d think they’d shatter like glass if you held ‘em, yet so precise she could bag a million razor blades without getting cut… She’s a tad short, ‘round your height, and her sense of style is… well, I guess she just wears the uniform every day… but I’m sure it’s great. ‘Course, I guess none of that really matters. Point is, I think about her like that ‘cause she gets me.”
Kirk looks up to the ceiling.
“When we started talking, some… weird science shit or something went off in my brain, and I started to care a real hell of a lot about her. When we talk, it’s like… our bodies kind of melt away, and we just become one being, understanding each other so deeply, and yet… also finding so much joy in exploring the few things we struggle to communicate to each other. Ever since I experienced that… well, it’s like my image of her enhanced into some kinda 8K vision… like she took over my whole brain… you know?”
I decide to stare up at the ceiling too.
“For me… I don’t even… have to do that. I already know… I love Cleo. Because… Well, really, I think I always have. Even before I met her… no, even before I heard her voice… I think we were destined to end up together.”
“You say you… heard her voice before you met her?”
“That’s right… she… I knew her from WebTube, you see… she was a… Vtuber, and..”
“It’s like… she streams, and, instead of her face, she uses… like… an anime… model…”
“It’s like… I dunno… it’s enjoyable. I… like it. I can’t explain that…”
“Well I don’t get it, but okay. Moving on.”
“She was like… my favorite one, and…”
“Hold up wait wait wait. You mean to say there’s more than one of these “Vee-Toobas?”
“W-well, uh… yeah, it’s like… kind of a thing now… uh… there’s ones that operate independently, and… ones like Cleo, who work for an agency of sorts, like an idol…”
“N-nevermind. Can I just… explain my story?”
“Sure man, go ahead.”
I slowly get up and prop myself against the thinly-papered wall of Kirk’s room, right beside his well-stocked shelf of soccer trophies that ironically very much reminds me of my own shelf full of anime figures.
“So… she was my favorite one of these streamers… and then out of nowhere, shows up in my very own neighborhood… crazy, huh? I mean, it’s gotta be fate…”
“You might just be right, Roscoe. That’s pretty incredible. So what do you plan to do from here then?”
“I gotta marry her…”
“D-dude, what? Are you hearing yourself? You like, just met this chick! Not to mention it’s a bit early in life to think about-“
“It ain’t gotta happen now… or in five, or eleven years… just… before I die… I have to marry her. I have to marry Cleo.”
“You’re really serious about this, huh… Well, in that case, as your loyal friend and trusted wingman, it’s my duty to help you get there!”
Kirk poses like some kind of hero, the orange glow of the light casting his powerful shadow over me.
“Roscoe… I sure as hell can’t guarantee you’ll end up with her. But… I’ll do EVERYTHING I can to try and make it happen. Seeing you step out of your shell like this so dramatically… it fills me with burning, manly passion!”
“I-Is that a good thing? I mean… I don’t wanna fill you with my burning, manly passion if you don’t want me to…”
“IT IS A GOOD THING!”
Kirk shouts a bit too loud for the room we’re in.
“Listen, Roscoe… honestly, I’ve felt pretty low lately. Like no matter how hard I try to improve myself or the people around me, things always end up getting harder.” Then, he leans in close. “But YOU…! Despite it all, you stand above the rest as a pillar of certainty and pride! You inspire me, Roscoe! And I intend to ride out that inspiration ‘till you’re wed and happy!”
For the first time in awhile, me and Kirk share a hearty, sincere fist bump. It almost feels like our very friendship’s been rekindled over this girl. Just then, a woman’s voice echoes from outside the room.
“Kirk, honey! Time for lunch! And bring your sweet little nerd friend.”
“You got it mom! Come on, let’s eat! Your dad won’t mind, will he?”
I doubt it. Unless he has more repair work for me… then again, I hate repair work. He can do it himself.
I enter Kirk’s family’s dining room/kitchen, as I’m greeted to all of them at once, all ready to eat. Serving our dishes, Kirk’s mother is a superbly kind woman, though one just as mysterious and intense as he is. I suppose Kirk takes much less after his father, who sits at the head of the table already, silently preparing for his meal as he stares me down without so much as looking at me. And walking in last, a very little boy much younger than my own sister, Kirk’s bizarre kid brother “Data.” I sit opposite him, beside Kirk and in-between the two heads of the family. The meal is fried rice. A crowd-pleaser for sure, and one I’m particularly fond of, though I’ve never tasted Kirk’s mother’s interpretation. She gets me a bowl, and I sit down. I’ve done this sort of thing before, but today’s different. It’s like I’ve found… my purpose in life.
“So you spent all morning running around town again, Kirk?” My friend’s father recites, his eyes resting on his food.
“Well- yeah, it’s summer.” Kirk replies.
“It’s summer, dad!” Data adds.
“It’s the summer of your junior year of high school. You ought to be preparing for college at this time of day. Have you even looked into any schools?”
“That’s- I mean, weren’t we gonna do that… together? I didn’t know I had to-“
“This is exactly the problem. Take some responsibility for once.” Kirk clearly wants to say something, but he’s not doing it. I’ve never seen him this way before. It’s not like I’m brave enough to speak myself. I haven’t even thought of college or my future or anything, other than my recent yearning to be a husband. Though, I suppose it’s less of a desire to be a husband, and more of a want for a wife. Then again, it’s not like a wife in general is what I want. I just like the idea of being married to Cleo. What does that even mean? Being married? I’m not quite sure, but I want it anyway.
“Would you like seconds, Roscoe?” Kirk’s mom is leaning over to me. I hadn’t realized that my bowl was already empty. Guess I’d better start growing if I wanna be a good husband someday. I turn to face her.
I stop myself.
The environment around me suddenly starts to set in.
This house is… terrible.
Their only TV is a CRT.
Only half the lights I’ve seen work.
The wallpaper is peeling off in this room.
There are multiple windows that would be broken if not for a bit of tape.
This place is practically falling apart. Kirk’s never talked about it, but… by the looks of it, his family’s about as poor as one with a house could be.
And I’m eating all their food?
What am I doing?
“N-no, no! It’s fine! I’m full already! Phew! You really ought to save some for-“
“Stop that.” A deep voice sounds. The dad still won’t look at me or anyone. He just talks as he eats.
“The only reason we live the way we do is so we can spend our finances on what we actually need. Nutrition is one of those things. You are a teenage boy. Please, eat your fill.”
“Eat! Don’t be rude to my family.” He says, continuing to enjoy his meal as of nothing has happened.
I eat my second bowl in silence. Aside from Data explaining some movie he saw recently, nobody makes a sound. It’s so uncomfortable I almost forget about the Vtuber who moved in by my house.
Kirk doesn’t walk me home that afternoon. From the looks of it, he got to studying colleges right away once lunch was over. I’d be terrified in the position he’s in. I don’t know what his dad’s deal is or what kind of circumstances they have, but I get the feeling it really isn’t anything I should know. I mean, I’ve got family issues of my own, and that’s not anyone else’s business.
I open the unlocked front door to my home. Of course, even if all that’s true, it’s not like it matters. After all, who’d even want to get involved in my family’s business? This house is my safe place. Nobody can invade it. This is a separate world where I have just two people I need to put up with- and I know them both well. There’s something calming about the predictability.
I walk into my dining room, and Seth is sitting in my chair.
“HUH?” I gawk reflexively, probably looking like a total idiot in the process.
“Oh, Roscoe. Good to see you.” He says.
“Welcome home, sonny. Wait, you two know each other?” My dad soon looks at me, coming in from the kitchen with lemonade in one hand and a box in the other.
“We- yes- I-“
“We met at the park a few days back. We have some mutual friends.” The slouched man smiles.
“Well, glad to see you’re making new connections, son! I’m sure you could learn a lot from this old gentleman!”
Completely speechless for the third or fourth time today, I sit down and pour myself a glass of lemonade. The men do the same.
“I just came by to pick up my clock you two were fixing. I had no idea you were Mr. Fletcher’s apprentice, Roscoe.”
“I- had- no idea that clock was yours, Seth.”
“Well, it is now. Belonged to my grandmother before she passed away. By the way, you did a killer job on this thing. Before I go, I’d like to speak with you, too. Apart from your dad.”
“Oh- um- okay. That’s fine.”
My idiot brain’s freaking out, thinking up all the ways he could for some reason kill me and all the motives he’d have for doing so, but something else happens before my delusions can go too far.
“Mr. Fletcher, you and your son have been of indisputable help to my family. Here. Take this as thanks.”
My father’s eyes marvel at the slip of paper Seth hands him. Clutching the blue check in his hands, he begins passionately shouting out of nowhere.
“WOO-WEE! Thank you kindly, Mr. Seth. I think I know what to do with this! You talk to my son all you like. Good day! MYLIE! MYLIE, WE CAN ACTUALLY DO IT!” He runs upstairs, calling my sister to talk about something I have no knowledge of. Before I can wonder what, Seth leans in towards me.
“Okay, kid, so we’re gonna go outside now. Just relax, this’ll be quick. It's about her. Some things I think you oughta know.”
I want to argue with him. What does this creep know about Cleo? He’s just some loser who took advantage of a teenager. I’ve got no respect for him.
But my shoes are resting on grass. We’re already outside.
“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”
Seth is smoking. I’m leaning against the backyard wall of my house, my shoes resting on the grass. He’s talking more to me than at me this time, but I’m so loopy right now it’s not much better.
“You listening to me?” He lets out a puff of smoke.
“Y-Yeah.” I gulp.
“She’s not really that great a person. And before you ask, I didn’t know her age. She never told me shit about her.”
“S-shouldn’t you have- I dunno, known?”
“Certainly not by her looks. And listen, she was seventeen at the time. Thought she was twenty-three at least. Guess I ought to have known better, but I was younger then. Gimmie a damn break. Relationships in the real world aren’t like what you imagine in your games and cartoons.”
“Why wouldn’t she… tell you?”
“Because Cleo’s a paranoid weirdo. She doesn’t like people to know anything if she can help it. And that’s probably why she can’t fall in love.”
“She… can’t fall in love?”
“No, of course not. What, you didn’t get that from her? Or did you wuss out before actually talking to her?”
“Hey… I- I spoke to her, you believe that. I even went inside her house. We’re acquainted.”
“Heh. So what? It won’t lead anywhere.”
“What do you know? “She can’t fall in love?” Like you said, this is the real world! Not some fantasy anime!”
“Some people just don’t fall in love. It’s totally normal. Just uncommon is all. And boring as hell when it does happen.”
“Just because she didn’t like you… doesn’t mean she has some kind of rarified condition. I… really, really like her, and if I can help it, I will get with her.”
“This is why young guys like you are so hopeless. Women always complain that men objectify them, but it’s really all kids like you who don’t understand love yet. Lemme give you some advice, punk. You don’t really love Cleo. You just love the idea of loving Cleo. And for all I know, you might be just like her. A cold ice witch with no redeeming qualities.”
“Y-you shut up, dammit!”
Seth gives me a look he hasn’t given me before. I decide to continue.
“You’re bitter, pessimistic, and an asshole to boot! I love Cleo, and that’s that! Even if she won’t love me back! Even if she’s scared and paranoid of this ugly world grown-ups like you live in! I’ll tell you something- I don’t care! I love her!”
Sweat drips from my brow. The embarrassment is kicking in. What am I doing? This isn’t me. Can one woman really drive me to say such things? I suppose it only goes to prove my commitment.
“Very well then. I mean, who am I to say? After all, I’m just an adult with more life and relationship experience than you. What do I know?” Seth smiles. “If you wanna get burnt, go ahead. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Seth walks in. My dad and Mylie walk out.
“Roscoe, Roscoe! You won’t believe what dad said!” My sister hops up and down in a sailor uniform.
“Guess what, son? Tomorrow, on the Fourth of July… we’re gonna have a party! And the whole neighborhood’s invited!”
Hot magma fills my head.