Chapter 18:

Afloat on Hope

Are You Real?


Her hair was shorter then. Her eyes were brighter. Her sleeves were always rolled up and she rarely wore headphones. There was no reason to, of course. Otherwise, she would miss out on all the chattering that went on in the back row of math class.

That day, she was milling about with her finished homework sitting neatly on her desk when Victoria came in. Ai didn't bother looking up, but only because she knew what was going to happen. That signature buzzing grew louder and louder until it stopped right before her desk. Then, it flopped itself into the seat beside her with an:

“Ugh. Math first period is the worst!”

Ai let out a sigh laugh. “Forget your homework again?”

“I didn't forget it. I just didn't do it.” Victoria replied, spilling the contents of an empty backpack onto the table to prove her point.

Ai was glad that she never had a strong fear of bugs. In fact, as she looked up to glance at Victoria's mandibles and cute, bulbous eyes, she found that the girl’s fuzzy-faced pout was somewhat endearing.

Victoria played with her antennae in nervous idleness. “Say, you wouldn't happen to have some spare answers on you, would you?”

Coyly rolling her eyes, Ai slid the homework neatly from her desk to her friend.

As Victoria busied herself with the panic-copying, Ai remarked how well things were going. It was only a couple of semesters, but things were as sweet as the honey that she imagined Victoria would go home and produce every night. Between the class periods spent chattering about boy bands and bracelets and the after school hours spent at Victoria's mansion, it was almost easy for Ai to forget that empty house she left every morning.

The only hitches in the whole machine came through the door about five minutes later. And ten minutes late.

“I absolutely hate this new eyeliner.” Butterfly Tara said, sitting next to Victoria as she fixed up her lashes through a pocket mirror.

Reflected in the pocket mirror, Ai saw Cicada Shania take the seat right next to her. “At least your spray tan isn’t coming off again!”

“Shania, you need to learn how to keep your mouth shut sometimes.” Tara snapped her mirror closed. “You’re so loud.”

Between Tara’s prissy attitude and Shania’s obnoxious chirping, the pair set about their usual task of drowning out all intelligent thought with gusto. Normally, Ai was able to tolerate any amount of topic derailing or vapid conversation. But something about the way they jumped in with their bubble of cloying nonsense set something off inside her that day.

When Victoria finished copying the homework, the teacher had already come back from their bathroom break. It was the perfectly convenient excuse for Ai to deny Tara and Shania the same opportunity to copy.

“Sorry,” Ai said, suppressing a smile. “But I don't want to get in trouble.”

It began with that pair of looks from the pair of insects. A flicker in Tara and Shania’s eyes. The way it slowly sunk in on them that Ai was not kidding. But the class passed without anything more eventful than a couple of missed homework marks.

In fact, the whole semester went by in what seemed like only two weeks.

It was a strikingly hot day for spring when Ai found herself at Victoria's house again. Rather, she found herself hesitating at the front door and she didn't know why. And even if she did, there wasn't really much of a choice but to bite her lip and ring the doorbell. Worst case scenario, Ai would have to shyly bow to the nanny and run in.

When it was Tara that opened the door, she was at a loss for words.

“Hey, Ai. What’s up?”

Tara might have been smiling, but it felt like she was staring straight through Ai. This was supposed to be another one-on-one hangout. Victoria promised so herself.

Ai tucked her fists into her skirt. “Victoria invited me over.”

“Really?” Tara threw her head back into the house as if to check. “She said that she had something to talk about. Just the three of us.”

As Ai floundered for a response, she was relieved to hear a buzz approach from the other side of the doorway. Victoria Beatrix appeared, followed by her head sticking out of the door.

“Oh.” Victoria’s pedipalp opened and closed as if she was parting her lips. “You're early.”

“Yeah,” Ai replied, digging her nails into the material of her skirt. “I just thought it'd be nice for the two of us to have more time to talk.”

“It's okay,” Tara added. “We're probably going to be pretty busy anyways, so we're not going to have time for just hanging out and talking.”

“Oh, yeah.” Victoria glanced at Tara. “You wanted to talk about that party, right?”

It didn't take long for Ai to catch on.

“I'll get going then,” Ai said, and turned to calmly walk across the front yard.

As she walked, she could’ve sworn she heard a snicker. After she turned the corner and was out of view behind a row of manicured hedges, she took off at top speed, trying to run faster than she could think.

The next week at school, Victoria sat one seat over from Ai, allowing Tara and Shania to create an impenetrable barrier of conversation around the bee. Every so often as Ai was doing her best to pay attention, she could hear her name being whispered. It was subtle, but with every passing moment it started to claw at her mind.

By the end of the week, she had to start covering her ears with her hands just to make it through the class.

It was Friday when she overheard something that she probably shouldn't have. Through the narrowest window of letting down her guard, the words that would ruin her year played out before her.

“Wouldn't it be fun if we invited Mister Halsack to the party?” Victoria proposed with a buzzing giggle.

“Yeah. He's hot,” Tara whispered back.

“Plus,” Shania said, “I heard he made out with Tanya from the cheer team.”

“Ooh. Then I'm definitely inviting him.” Victoria replied with another buzz-giggle.

“Stop.” Ai hissed back at them. “Stop talking. The three of you.”

Tara and Shania stared daggers into her. Yet, Victoria's face was as poisedly saccharine as in the seconds prior. The Bumblebee-Girl’s eyes narrowed, as if with glee.

“Oh. And here I thought I was going to invite you.”

“You’ve completely lost your minds.” Ai kept her eyes glued to the front of the classroom. “Do you know how much trouble you’re getting into?”

“Do you know how much we don’t care?” teased Shania. “Why do you think we’ve been ignoring you all week?”

Ai froze. If there was a puzzle that clicked together in her head, it was made of jagged, shattered glass. Victoria glared at the Cicada with a sudden fury borne on the back of betrayal.

When the prey figured out the rules of the game, it sucked out all the fun.

“Fine.” Victoria crossed her arms. “If you’re so smart, you come up with something exciting for the party.”

“I’ll do it.” Tara chittered. “Unlike some people here, I’m not a buzzkill.”

“No.” Victoria raised a claw-hand. “Let Ai figure it out.”

“And why should I?” Ai asked.

“Because maybe you can prove you’re not a total narc.” Victoria leaned in closer for a whisper. “Or is your crappy attitude because your mommy and daddy don’t get along?”

A wave of oohs came from Tara and Shania.

“You know, Vic.” Ai slowly turned to Victoria, smiling the whole way. “I just realized something.”

“Yeah?” Victoria cocked her head, keeping on her own grin. “What’s that?”

“Maybe you want Mister Halsack at your party so bad because your daddy doesn’t give you any attention.”

Satisfied at seeing Victoria’s smirk instantly drop, Ai turned back to the lesson. Despite the blissful silence, she could feel their stares for the rest of the class. Watching her.

That was when the rumors started.

---

The song she was listening to ended abruptly. Ai felt like she was just ripped out from an icy cold pool. She looked down at the flash drive in the grip of her slightly trembling hand.

Why did I do this to myself?

Curiosity? No—it occurred to her because she thought she was stronger now. Whatever the reason was, it compelled her to dig that flash drive out from the deepest recesses of the cabinet where it laid for years. On it was all the music that she made in middle school. Combined, they were the injured artery that kept her chained to her old heart.

Ai thought of Kiro, and his surreally beautiful face.

None of that matters now.

She shot through a quick routine to make herself look presentable and strode out into the hall. It was almost inaudible from her room, but as she approached the entrance of the house, she heard her parents bantering again.

Ai began putting her shoes on, forced to pause just out of arm’s reach from the front door.

“Going somewhere, Ai?” her mom’s voice asked, clearly masking a nonchalant tone.

Evidently, despite their chilling whispers, her parents heard her too.

“Mhm.”

“It's unusual to see you going out this much,” her dad said. “What’s the occasion?”

“I just wanted some fresh air,” Ai replied, trying to maintain any sense of familial tenderness in her tone.

“In that case, make sure to take your keys,” her mom said. “In a couple hours, your father and I are going to leave for the day again.”

Ai nodded, knowing full well that they couldn't see her gesture. When the heel of her foot finally slipped into her saddle shoe, she hurried out of the house as fast as humanly possible. Her lungs met fresh air, but she could still feel their stares, even with her back turned to the kitchen window.

Watching her.

---

Ai wore an unsinkable smile as she clung to Kiro's arm. Amid the cacophony of store jingles, loudspeaker announcements, and Eldritch chatter, his comforting, goofy grin and the touch of his skin was enough to pull her into a little world of their own.

“Look over there!” Kiro exclaimed, pointing to an exhibit of hyper-realistic T-Rexes wearing oversized tropical party wear.

Ai nodded without lifting her head from his shoulder.

The shopping mall might have stretched on in every direction like a repetitive corporate void, but they were in a spaceship built for two. Though both of their stomachs had been rumbling for the last hour, there was nothing like the simple pleasure of strolling past dozens of vendors, spoiled for choice.

“Wow. Can't believe how popular that Dimension Invaders 2 pop-up store is,” Kiro said, scratching his head.

Ai let out a sigh laugh. “Right. Wasn't the theater completely empty?”

Kiro nodded. “On Quickapedia, it says the movie only pulled in a third of its production cost.”

“You don't say?” Ai replied, glancing at the mass of legs accumulating outside the store.

The sounds of the crowd broke through her bubble momentarily, like the crashing come and go of the ocean. She couldn't stare for longer than a second before returning to the comfort of his shoulder.

“Say,” she whispered, “have you seen a bathroom anywhere?”

“Oh,” Kiro replied. “I think there was one about half a hall back.”

Half a hall back was some kind of cosplay meetup. A sea of monsters as loud as they were odorous and numerous, all scrambling for the last dyed ringlets that matched their wigs.

“Maybe we can find one ahead?” Ai asked. “You know…”

Kiro nodded. He wrapped his hand around hers.

“Of course.”

They went forward, past a procession of monsters. Each held a miniature version of themselves by the hand on the line to a candy sale. Ai couldn't help but glance at the smaller monsters as she and Kiro walked by.

Children.

If she had a child one day, what would they look like? What if she had a child with-?

Ai nipped the thought at the bud, burrowing her reddened face into Kiro’s sweater in hiding. Only now did she realize how long and tightly she was grabbing onto Kiro’s arm.

“Are you okay with me clinging onto you this much?” Ai asked.

“It’s fine.” Kiro chuckled. “I don’t mind it too much.”

She gave him a cheeky grin. “I just wanted to make sure you wouldn’t run off from me again.”

The joking-half of her words made him laugh. The other half, however…

Ai buried her face into his sweater again, muffling her voice. “You’ll stay by me, right?”

“What? Oh, yeah. Of course, haha,” Kiro replied, rubbing the back of his neck.

She looked up at him. “Promise?”

His head slightly tilted from her words, but his usual awkward grin melted off. Maybe it was caused by the weakness she failed to hide on her face, Ai had no way to be sure. But, what seemed sure was Kiro’s reply:

“I promise.”

The reassuring breadth of his voice and that warmth in his eyes. In that moment, something felt whole within her again. Something she never realized that was broken, until now.

Ai nuzzled her nose further up toward the nape of Kiro’s neck. “Just making sure, you know?”

“Don't worry,” he said. “We have all day to spend with each other, right?”

Ai nodded.

After no small navigation of a busy intersection, Kiro and Ai arrived in the wing of the mall that held the technology stores. Almost every store here seemed to be struggling to stay afloat, the crowd thinning the moment they crossed a bottleneck of planted trees. The natural exception of course, was the Gameshop chain store immediately to their left. To their right, and to their good fortune, was a bathroom demarcating gender by a time-worn wall plug and socket signs, respectively.

The two teens grimaced at the relic before parting.

“I might need a little bit,” Ai said.

Kiro glanced at something in the distance before turning back to her. “Take your time.”

Ai hurried off. With one last look over her shoulder, she saw Kiro staring off again. A renewed smile on her face, Ai found herself entirely alone in the white-tiled bathroom. Thankfully, her only company were half a decade old dust motes.

Ai ran to the mirror, releasing a breath that she didn't know she was holding. She ran the coldest water she could through the sink before washing her face. One splash. Two splashes. No—this wasn't a dream. She really was outside with her boyfriend.

Her heart was racing, and her breath was hard to control. But not impossible. For the first time in recent memory, it wasn't impossible. In fact, by the time her hands finished air-drying, she had regained a slow, comfortable rhythm of inhales and exhales.

Ai looked at herself in the mirror and, against all odds, offered herself a natural smile. She kept that smile on as she exited the bathroom, only for it to melt off her face in an instant. Ai looked around in every direction, giving herself a solid minute before accepting it:

Kiro was gone.

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