Are You Real?
The score was 3-2.
“Good job, champ!” Richard patted his stomach. “Looks like you’re catching up to your old man.”
Masked by the beeping, chirping, and clanging of machines all around, Kiro groaned.
The boy crossed his arms and put on an exaggerated pout. “Hey, at least I’m doing better than last time!”
Kiro had never been particularly good at the arcade. In fact, he’d never been particularly good at games in general. But usually, the average teen could chalk things like this up to luck. After all, how often does one’s forty-three year old dad turn out to be a veritable arcade archon?
The boy’s meager victories weren’t of much comfort. In Aerial Ace: Revenge and Dance or Die: Revolution, Kiro eked out narrow leads due to his freak immunity to motion sickness and his youthful knees respectively.
With a belly laugh, Richard’s arm reached across the table and landed on Kiro’s shoulder. Kiro watched with bated breath as the fur hanging off his father’s massive arm just narrowly avoided a dip into their half-gnawed Trip-L Cheez Peeza-Pie.
“Don’t sweat it, bud. They’re just games after all.”
The last time Kiro had told that to someone, they were kicked from the game lobby after an expletive-riddled tirade.
Kiro rolled his eyes. “Whatever. It’s just cool to hang out with you again.”
“That’s the spirit!” Richard grinned. Motioning all around, he added, “Plus, when I was your age, we didn’t have any of those fancy gamestations and playboxes, so I practically grew up in a place like this.”
Kiro shrugged to keep his head from drooping into his shoulders. “Yeah, I guess I just don’t have the life experience for it.”
It shouldn’t have been a surprise that his dad was good at Guitar Rock 17. After all, he had been playing instruments longer than Kiro had been alive. And the man probably drove half the cars in Grand Tour Racing ‘94 during his younger years, so that makes sense too. But Global Strike: Arcade? Kiro wasn’t a prideful person, but he had thrown at least a couple hundred hours into the PC port of Global Strike. Far too many to get tossed like the salads that no one ever ordered here.
“So what’s next?” Richard asked.
Kiro scanned the room. Neon lights showered every cabinet-cubbied corner of the two-story arcade. It was an astral blitz of blinking Insert Coins screens and wall-roving projections of licensed characters. Amid the dozens of simulated car dashboards, gun galleries, and four-screen button mashers, it was hard to make out much of anything at all.
“Uhhh,” Kiro pointed in a random direction. “That one.”
“Farming Simulator: Haystack Hooplah?”
Kiro immediately disliked the slight glimmer of recognition in his father’s eyes.
“Wait, no,” the boy said, pointing into the strobing depths of the arcade. “That one.”
Richard chuckled. “I don’t think my contacts can see that far, champ. Wanna take me to it?”
Kiro nodded and rose from the table. He hid his hands in his pockets, where he clenched them in determination. Richard motioned to the Trip L. Cheez pizza with a down-tilted, wide-eyed expression that read: “You gonna finish that?”
Kiro shook his head. Then, he watched in mortified fascination as his father rolled the uneaten half of the pizza into burrito form. Richard popped the entire grease tube into his giant maw like he was slurping a noodle. And just like that, it was gone.
With a shudder, Kiro took off into the arcade. His little ploy to buy time had worked. But now, he had to actually pick a game before their little trip got too suspiciously long.
“Oh yeah, it was this one,” Kiro said, sitting down at a random cabinet without looking.
Richard scratched the back of his head. “Uh, sure you want that one, bud?”
“Yeah, I mean how bad could it possibly b-?”
Global Popular Trivia Volume 5.
The title hit Kiro like a vomit-inducing gut punch.
“Alrighty.” Richard plopped down onto the seat next to Kiro with a hefty exhale. “Let’s get our quiz on, eh?”
Kiro stared blankly as his father loaded in the coins and thumbed past the intro cutscene. The blocky model of the celebrity lookalike host bore into his very soul with its blocky, mannequin eyes. The first question read:
How long was the Trilateral War?
Kiro stared at the words like they were in an alien language. If the walking hippocampus that was his history teacher were here right now, he’d probably fail on the spot.
Richard winced. “Ouch. You'd think I’d know this, since I’ve got a couple buddies at the office that were old enough for that.”
Although Kiro figured he had a good chance, considering there were only 4 choices, both of them got the question wrong.
By how many days was Hoopalooza ‘02 extended?
“Ooh! Oh-two was wild!” Richard’s face lit up. “That was my second date with Carol!”
In one fell swoop, Kiro was plucked from the arcade and placed in a white void face to face with that name. Though his memory of her face was incomplete, the silhouette alone carried a timeless, radiant warmth.
Kiro gripped his knee with one hand. The other went to his temples. But something stemmed the tide of emotion.
He thought back to his run-in with Maia the day before. The way her posture froze. The way her lips parted for several seconds before she spoke. The striking earnestness in her words:
“Listen, I get it. When I was little, my dad-”
Something shifted in his chest, as if a bulky stone had been dislodged just the slightest bit.
Drip. Breath. Drip. Breath.
One drop at a time, a trickle of courage formed from the crack in the foundation. Kiro chose a random answer and turned to his father.
Richard pressed the button to claim his point before turning to his son. “Yo’okay champ?”
“I was wondering.” Kiro glanced blankly at the answer buttons. “About those days.”
“Those days?” Richard shifted in his seat and cleared his throat. “Ask away, bud. I’m an open book.”
Kiro flipped through all his memories, seeking a place to start. But they were all either partial from the years or partially-constructed from the stories that his dad had told. And then, it struck him. A couple weeks before she was gone, the three of them had gone to the cinemas as a family.
“Do you remember that old movie, uh-” Kiro snapped his fingers in thought. “Stardust to Dust? It was like a cheesy family dramedy.”
Richard ran a hand through his cheek fuzz. “I’m not sure, champ. It’s been a while since we’ve gone to any movies.”
Over the years, they’ve been to arcades, bowling alleys, and escape rooms. But they haven’t gone to the movies even once since. Kiro was sure that both of them were all too aware of that fact.
“I think it was when I was little, so I don’t remember much.” Kiro continued as the next trivia question passed by, unanswered. “All I can really remember is how much fun it was.”
Richard’s hand hovered in position over Kiro’s shoulder. But he relented.
“I- erhm, didn’t know you were the sentimental type, bud.”
“I’m not, usually.” Kiro turned to his father. “But you know, something about today reminded me of back then.”
Kiro knew it was a bit cruel. But the ball was now in his dad’s court in this bitter game of reminiscence.
“Yeah.” Richard adjusted the wrinkled collar of his floral shirt. “Today’s been awesome. I’m glad we could set aside the time to do something as father and son.”
Kiro nodded. “There’s just something about spending time as a family, you know? It’s like it recharges your batteries.”
Richard let out a golden chuckle that was unmistakably tarnished with a subtle note of wist.
“Sure does.” His father’s gaze drifted off to the screen. Then, he turned back with a wizened gravitas. “I love you, Kiro. Unconditionally.”
The boy recoiled. “W-what gives?”
“Sorry if I came off a bit strong.” Richard rubbed the back of his neck. “Things happen, so I just wanted to let you know that I care.”
Kiro buried his face in his collar. “L-love you too, dad.”
The cabinet next to them let out a deafening victory jingle.
1-1 Tie! Insert coins to continue?
Somehow, despite barely remembering pressing any buttons in the last minute, Kiro had caught up to his father.
“Correct. Very good, Kiro.”
Kiro’s cheeks flushed as Lovecleft turned back to the board.
“As your classmate just answered, this story’s symbolism with water has almost everything to do with the pressure the protagonist faces throughout the narrative. As such-”
Kiro let out a quiet sigh and laid back in his chair-desk. For once, he had been called on with his eyes open. On a Monday of all days.
With the pressure off, his eyes drifted to the windows once more. He found himself staring at Bat-Girl, who had uncharacteristically raised her hand.
“Alright, Marissa.” Lovecleft said. “Why don’t you take a crack at reading this next page for us?”
Maia’s words sauntered into Kiro’s head:
“How would you feel if I called you Weirdo-Artist-Boy?”
Kiro watched with a strange sense of wonder as Bat-Girl—or Marissa, rather— began reciting the words from the page. She was the same as always, ears, wings, and all. But this was the first time Kiro caught her name, and the first time he really paid attention to her voice. It was a bit high-pitched, and a little scratchy just like a bat’s. But for whatever reason, her eyes lit up as she read, and she genuinely seemed to be enjoying the material.
The class took turns reading the passage in order, and Kiro couldn’t help but pick up on their names. So Ant-Boy was Anthony, quite fittingly. Alligator-Jock was Geoff, and Alien-Chick was Dianne. Kiro mouthed the names, swishing them around in his mouth without verbalizing. It was a little surreal at first, but as he glanced at the name’s respective owners, things started to click.
It’s like his classmates were moving more fluidly, more vibrantly now. Their varied, incompatible eyes seemed to move, drag, bounce around with animated precision in ways that he had never known. Or maybe, just never noticed that they could. And, just as this startling realization came to pass, the bell rang.
Realizing that he had just spent half a class period awkwardly eyeing his peers, Kiro packed and left the room. With little more than a nod to a more chipper than usual Lovecleft, the boy ducked out into the hall to recover his mental stamina. Amid the lunch period rush, his brain struggled to think when it had just been absorbing.
What was different today? Did something change? Was his art-vision kicking into overdrive? Did it level up somehow?
A pair of footsteps approached, and the questions dropped from his mind like birds from buckshot. The hall was now barren, save for one other figure.
She approached Kiro, looking anywhere but at him.
She paused, clutching her dim purple binder a little more tightly to her chest. Bat-Girl’s lowered ears twitched with evident anxiety.
Right- her name.
“Is everything okay, M-Marissa?” Kiro sputtered, still feeling out the new name.
Marissa let out a sharp exhale, as if she’d just finished a mental peptalk. Then, she raised her head and stared straight into his eyes.
“Look, you seem nice. But I’m not interested.”
“Yeah,” she continued, her fuzzy cheeks rustling in a blush. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that you’re not my type. I’m just seeing someone.”
“Oh,” Kiro said, entirely on instinct.
“Yeah. I’m sorry!” She loosened her grip on her binder. “But I hope we can still be friends, since we’re deskmates and all…”
Kiro had never been rejected before… if this could even be counted as a rejection? Can you lose a game you weren’t trying to play? Either way, for some reason, this felt like a new social low.
“Uh, yeah, of course. I don’t really mind.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “But like, um, so-”
“Really? Wow!” Marissa’s beady eyes glimmered. “I’m glad you’re taking this well! I-I’ve never had to, like, do this before! So I was really nervous!”
Kiro was frozen in place. Her ears perked up in concern.
“A-are you okay?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Kiro said, the words unspooling with care like a lifeline. “I just have a question. H-how did you come to that conclusion? That… I liked you, I mean?”
“Well…” The girl shrunk into herself, and her eyes wandered along the floor. “You’re always staring in my direction. And you always have this like, dreamy look in your eyes when you do.”
A shockwave passed through his entire body.
Kiro couldn’t help but laugh. Something just got to him about things, and he couldn’t explain it if he tried.
“What?” Marissa’s face twisted in confusion. “What’s the matter?”
“Funny story,” Kiro paused between guffaws. “I know this is gonna sound ridiculous, but stay with me.”
Kiro placed his hands to imitate her fist next to the palm of the windows. “So you know how you have the window seat?”
She nodded in reply.
“Well, you know how, uh, detailed, Lovecleft’s lectures can get, right?”
The gears started turning in Marissa’s head and her pupils shrunk.
“So, I kinda-sorta just like to stare out the window and zone out.”
The light in her eyes shattered like a mirror as her mouth hung open. She buried her face in her binder.
“I-!” She squeaked into the pages. “I-!”
Kiro stood there for a few seconds, watching her sputter a few more times like a dying car. He wasn’t sure whether or not she was about to burst into tears.
“No, no, no!” Kiro waved his hands disarmingly and offered a goofy smile. “Don’t worry, we’re cool! Promise. We can totally still be just pals.”
“Oh, really?” Her tone turned from teary to jubilant on a dime as she gazed up at him. “Thank you!”
The second bell made Marissa’s ears twitch. She dashed away in the opposite direction, but not before waving her binder at Kiro in the distance.
“Seeya tomorrow!” she called from around the nearest corner.
Kiro was barely able to raise his hand in response before she disappeared.
“Strange day.” He shook his head. “Strange week.”
Wait. She said I was her type. Does that mean I’m-
“Focus!” Kiro slapped at the sides of his face with both hands. “Who cares about what girls think of you?! Have some dignity, man!”
His phone shook in his pocket with a meow:
“Hey, where are you?”
Kiro burst into a sprint, leaving little but scraps of his shoes’ soles on the linoleum floor.