Chapter 13:

Cascade

Are You Real?


The cat’s hands moved in slow motion. 10:59 on Sunday morning. She stared into its unblinking eyes, waiting for her cue.

Tick, tick, tick…

Meow!

Ai’s hand shot out to stop the alarm on the dot. She rose on the invisible strings of habit, hair spilling out over her field of vision in every direction. It was now eleven, though she had been awake for much longer. Her parents’ low voices continued firing away without realizing they’d woken her.

“Yes, but-”

“No, but-”

“Why don’t you-?”

“How could you-?”

Ai wiped the hair from her eyes and floated through her morning routine. Emerging from the bathroom into the hall, she kept her eyes off the shadows from the kitchen archway. The girl wandered into her room and placed herself at the diminutive desk in the corner. Sandwiched between the protruding shoulder of a closet and the vertical shadow of a gargantuan laundry hamper, it wasn’t the most glorious of setups. But it was hers.

Ai donned her battle-scarred headphones, making sure not to snag her hair on the freshly-jagged bits. She passed a hand over the surface of a small, silver laptop to cleanse it of nonexistent dust. An untouched sticker on the front read, “Congrats!”

As the computer booted, the girl took a deep breath. She twisted the headphone jack in, and the device crackled to life in her ears. With a sigh of relief, she launched the only non-default program on the desktop. The app’s splash screen popped up with a familiar chirpy jingle.

With the opening of a new file came the dawn of a whole new world.

She was a couple of notes in at first, little more than a ghost in the leitmotif. But as the drums speedily carved roads across the land, and the wind began to blow in full, her voice emerged in pockets of piano. A girl against the oppressive scenery, braving the seaside paths amid the bucking loam below and the spritzing foam above. A halo formed in flourishes above her head, and diminutive wings sprouted further from her back with every repetition.

A bassy warble emerged from the depths of the sea to try and cut into her updraft, but she carried on. Up and up and up into the light, beyond the clouds above. To the destination of all her hopes and dreams. She saw the golden yowling of triumphant trumpets beyond the breaking storm.

And then, with a searing flash of lightning, the bass dropped.

“No!” she screamed, as her wings flared out brilliantly above the waves.

Catching specks of golden, symphonic light from far above, the angel veered sharply upwards. All the momentum that went into her fall was now reversed. The drums cried foul and the waves were drowned by the resurgence of the chorus. A bass-line like a warm, excited heartbeat pulsed beneath this second rise.

The angelic girl climbed higher and higher, surpassing in moments the highest point she’d achieved prior. For the first time, there was a clear melody in every moment. After starting from an echo in the wind, the girl had now become the leading voice. Her otherworldly leitmotif played on the off-beats as her halo was set aglow. She reached the clouds with a brass embrace of what comes after.

And then, as suddenly as she appeared, the girl left the world empty once more.

All the glory subsided into the placid lapping of the waves, the gentle blowing of the breeze, and the deep moans of foghorns in the distance. The light above lapsed into the void, and the rest of the world followed suit.

Meow!

Ai glanced at the cat-clock at her bedside. 12:00 sharp on Sunday afternoon.

---

He’s late again.

In the distance, she heard distorted laughter. Omnipresent was the stench of Meatloaf Monday.

Ai sighed and looked back down to her music sheets. Everything had been filled out, entire arms of the arrangement blooming in full amid the swarm of black dots occupying the page. Everything, except for one small section that repeated in its blankness across the soundscape. It was like a detailed painting of a busy waterfront, except everyone’s faces were inexplicably left unfinished and absent of color.

Why can’t I figure out this melody?

Ai lost herself in the margins of the page, where she scribbled endless combinations of dots across elevations. But nothing clicked.

“Hey!” Kiro’s voice came across the fog of her focus.

Instead of his words, all she heard was the rhythm of his footsteps. The particular squeak of his sneakers as he slipped on a patch of pudding on the floor, the pitter-patter as he scrambled to straighten himself out.

That’s it.

With an inspired fury, she captured that sound in sheet notation. It clicked into place like the final piece of the puzzle, and the waterfront soundscape suddenly bustled to life in front of her ears. Page by page, she managed to plug the sequence in without issue.

When she finally finished and set down her papers, she saw Kiro’s head directly below. Sitting on the floor at her feet, he seemed to be engrossed in the middle of sketching a figure.

Ai was about to reach out and touch him on the shoulder, but she stopped herself. Watching the flow of his pencil at the page, the girl observed a particular rhythm to his movements.

Stroke, stroke, stop. Stroke, stroke, stop.

That rhythm.

It was practically 3:4 meter. Ai pulled out a fresh sheet of music paper and continued observing.

Stroke, stroke, swoop. Stroke stroke, stop.

The silhouette of an indistinguishable figure in a hood and robe poured out from Kiro’s hands and onto the page. The carefully-crosshatched texture reminded Ai of the noise she’d once used to paint the sound of foliage rustling in the wind. The same texture could be used for fabric, couldn’t it? Before she could watch him add a face, Ai turned to the blank bars of her music sheets. One black tick, then another. In seconds, she was notating full-swing.

As the two of them sat there by the windowsill behind the nook of the north-east stairs, it became a world all to their own. Unbeknownst to her, Ai had begun to mouth the notes, progressing into a delicate, soft hum. Kiro’s rhythm changed in response, and her song adapted in turn. His line weights would shift one moment, and her melody would lighten in the next. The two of them pushed and pulled, tangoing effortlessly across the gaps between mediums without so much as a glance or a word.

Ai and Kiro laid down their pencils at the same time. Their eyes met. Then, they clutched their respective papers to their chests in unified embarrassment.

Kiro looked up at her. “Sorry for creeping up on you like that. You looked busy and I didn’t want to interrupt.”

“No, no.” Ai glanced at the half a dozen full papers of notation in her hands and offered him her best attempt at a smile. “It was interesting.

Kiro’s eyes glimmered in the light filtering from behind her. “You felt that too?”

Ai couldn’t quite figure out what to say in response. But by the way his eyes looked into hers, she felt understood.

“You have a nice voice,” Kiro added.

Ai’s pallid cheeks sifted into a shade of red.

“Your humming, I mean.” Kiro cleared his throat. “It was fun to draw to.”

It was hard to speak when her heart was skipping beats.

“I didn’t mean to- I mean, I don’t usually hum…”

Ai craned her neck to try and catch a glimpse of the boy’s sketchbook, but it was pressed too close to his chest. The girl took one more look at her music papers. Then, holding her breath, she showed them to him.

Kiro’s eyes widened in wonder. “I thought you were doing homework this whole time.”

“I already got that done.” Ai sigh-laughed, her cheeks still firmly red. “I’m a little embarrassed, but I suppose I do a bit of composing.”

His voice went hoarse. “A bit?”

Kiro’s jaw dropped as she watched his brain struggle to process the galaxy of black dots and bars before him.

“It’s not all that,” Ai replied, patting down a wrinkle in her sleeves.

Kiro shrugged and presented her his sketch page. “More impressive than what I did.”

Face to face with her partner’s side of their intertwined journey, Ai almost gasped. The page was awash in the barges, bushes, and trees of an overgrown riverside. Its central personage was unrecognizable from the solemn, hooded figure that Ai originally set off with. Now it was a statue of an angel mounted at the apex of an arched bridge, its vast stone robes drooping into the waters to mask a supporting pillar. A barge piloted by a party of mossy rocks drifted along the placid waters below. Fog rolled in at the edges of the page, the riverside fading in detail as it receded into the distance.

“That’s amazing,” Ai said. “You did all that in five minutes?”

“Five minutes?” Kiro glanced at the cafeteria clock. A shiver ran down his body. “There’s only five minutes left in lunch.”

Ai’s hands went instinctually to her headphones. She paused, and said:

“I have an idea. There’s just enough time.”

“Oh?”

Suppressing all her doubts with an exhale, she selected the track she had made the day before and handed him her headphones. He put them on eagerly, and she hit play.

Kiro closed his eyes in meditative focus. She stared at him with her teeth sunken into her bottom lip. The boy’s face twisted in intrigue, then in contemplation. Eyes dashing between him and the track’s timestamps, Ai’s heart began to pound. Kiro’s head went through a series of nods, then a pause. He was at the bass drop and fall.

Ai’s fingers dug into her skirt as he sat there, unmoving. For an entire minute and a half, Kiro showed no signs of life. During what must’ve been the last stretch of the angelic girl’s flight, his eyes fluttered. Ai watched the timestamp run dry as the song came to a close. Then, with a hopeful stare, she asked:

“How was it?”

Kiro put a hand to his chin. “It was interesting.”

Interesting?

Ai’s chest tightened.

“Yeah.” Kiro nodded to himself. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard something like that.”

“Oh… Thanks.”

Kiro’s pupils shrunk. “Wait, did you make this?”

Slowly, Ai nodded.

“That’s so cool!” Kiro said, his face brightening. “So that’s what those dots sound like!”

Thrown off by the statement, Ai couldn’t help but sigh-laugh. As she searched her thoughts for some way to ask for a more detailed opinion, the lunch period bell rang.

Ai helplessly watched Kiro start to pack his stuff. After shoving the Monsterpedia away and zipping things up, he turned to her and offered the girl her headphones.

“You coming to class?”

Gingerly, Ai took the headphones into her hands. “What do you mean?”

“I was just thinking,” Kiro said, rising from the floor with a heave-ho. “I just don’t see you around much, you know?”

“Well, it’s a big school.” Ai placed the headphones around her neck. “There’s more than four buildings on the campus, after all.”

Kiro turned to her with a frown. “I guess. But there’s only one you.”

Ai’s face grew hot in an instant, and her eyes leapt to the floor for dear life.

“If you like, I can walk you to class,” Kiro said, “My chem teacher always comes late anyways.”

You don’t know what it’s like.

“You don’t need to worry about me.” Ai offered him a weak smile.

Kiro put a hand on her shoulder, sending a jolt of static through her body with his touch.

“Of course I should worry about you. You’re…” He paused to gulp down some air. “M-my girlfriend, after all. Right?”

The next period’s bell rang.

“I think going to class might help.” Kiro quickly added. “It’s not all that bad, trust me.”

“I’ll go.” She laid her hand on his. “But I need to do this myself.”

Patting his hand one last time, she threw her things into her bag. She slung it over her shoulder and rushed off.

Ai managed to exit without meeting a single gaze by sticking to the shadows of the cafeteria’s walls. Aided by the lateness of her departure, she snuck along the mostly-empty halls at an uninterrupted, rapid clip. Arriving just after the last student’s shadow slipped into the room ahead of her, Ai paused outside the door. She glanced down at her headphones and shook her head.

I’ll only attract more attention.

The girl’s face twisted in thought, and she reached into her carry-bag. Amid the books and pencils packing the bottom, her fingers stumbled upon a small and oblong plastic wrapper. She’d be in a pinch if she didn’t restock it for next month, but she had to make do. Unsealing it, Ai ripped the cotton tube inside into two pieces and plugged one half into each ear. Thankfully, her long hair would sell the illusion of a student at full attention.

Taking a deep breath, Ai slipped into the classroom through the secondary door at the back.

“Suzuyoku,” came the Trig teacher’s voice.

“Here,” Ai replied as she slipped into her seat.

Without lifting her eyes from the wooden surface of her desk, Ai took out a notebook. The cotton bits in her ears were good enough. Only the occasional deep gurgle or squelch pierced through her concentrated efforts to piece together the classwork in her head.

That was, until she heard a particular rattle break through the teacher’s droning voice.

A hex-sided yellow pencil rolled into the corner of her vision along the floor. Ai paused. She flattened herself against her desk to pick it up, raising it butt-first in the direction from which it came until it brushed up against someone’s body.

With a warbly-whispered “thank you,” the pencil was plucked from her hand.

Ai looked up with her eyes closed and a brief smile. Then, she returned to the safety of the tent formed between her hair and the desk to compose her breathing. But it didn’t come back to her as quickly as she’d hoped.

A chorus of alien sounds arose around her as the class broke up for pairwork. Alone amid a storm of insurmountable distractions, Ai’s hand was frozen atop the classwork page. The numbers swam in her head, drifting from their problem sets and into the thick, opaque soup flooding her mindscape.

“Psst,” came the warbly voice from before. “Here.”

Ai heard a quick slicking sound as a piece of completed classwork slid beneath her hands. None of the answers appeared to be incorrect.

Whispering “thanks,” back into the void, Ai quickly jotted down all the answers and returned the sheet to its owner with the same look-away method as before.

To drown out the ensuing minutes, Ai busied herself piecing together mental melodies. Amid the crescendo of her internal orchestra, the bell finally rang, and the teacher finally came around to collect their classwork. Desk by desk, students were freed from their burden and dashed out of the room. After a full circle around the class, the teacher’s shoes squeaked to a stop.

“Miss Suzuyoku?”

Caught mid-packing with her back to her instructor, Ai replied:

“Y-yes?”

Ai heard the flick of a piece of paper as the classwork was collected.

“I apologize for being a bit harsh last time,” the teacher said, her dissonant and staticky voice softening in tone.

“It’s no big deal.”

“Oh, but it is,” the Trig teacher replied, placing an appendage onto Ai’s desk with a thud. “I really mean it. A bright, sensitive girl like you deserves more compassion than that. Especially when I see you’ve been making an effort to come to class.”

Sensitive.

Ai gripped her skirt with her free hand. “Thank you, I appreciate it.”

The instructor withdrew across the room to her desk, giving Ai the breathing room she needed to pack and head out. Instead of taking the backdoor out, though, Ai’s curiosity sent her across the classroom and through the front. The girl’s eyes glanced briefly across the teacher’s desk, and she caught sight of a small plaque on the desk.

Mrs. Statyczny, V.I.A.S. High STEM Teacher of the Year…

“See you tomorrow,” Mrs. Statyczny called from her desk.

“Have a good day,” Ai replied, curtsying.

After leaving the room, the girl collapsed against the nearest wall.

Alright, one class down.

Relentless as ever, the bell for next period sounded out across the halls. Ai let out a sharp exhale and straightened the headphones around her neck.

Three more to go.

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