Chapter 19:

Guilt

Are You Real?


The air was growing thinner by the second. Ai glanced left and right, but he wasn't there. Seconds ago, this wing of the mall was as empty and spacious as a savannah. But with every breath, the walls seemed to close in. The shadows of monsters milling about in front of the game shop crept in through the warping of everything around her.

Ai pressed herself to the nearest wall. Her eyes were glued to the floor as all her efforts to compose herself in the bathroom came undone. The squelch and patter of steps around her started to come to a stop. Her breathing accelerated in pace as the air seemed to leap away just ahead of her desperate gulps. She could feel them acutely.

Watching her.

A noise emerged nearby. Starting as a low rumble in the floor, it rose in fits and morphed into a lashing cacophony, like an ocean caught in a storm. Different voices burst in like cracks of thunder peeling off the backs of foamy, crashing waves.

“Mama, what’s wrong with her?”

“She looks pale.”

“Is she crying?”

Ai reached for her headphones, but atop her head was nothing but empty air. Chills poured down her spine as Ai remembered that she had opted to leave them at home. Kiro would have been by her side to take care of this.

Kiro promised to take care of this.

Her legs started moving before she knew it. With the treeline bottleneck hemming her in on the left, Ai took off towards the empty end of that wing of the mall. As she ran, the number of lit storefronts decreased dramatically. A five second jog past the last monster and open store, the lights gave way to a creeping shadow, born out of the mall’s desire to cut costs in its unprofitable, inactive sectors.

A stone's throw from a gathering crowd, Ai took refuge in a corner behind a withering, potted evergreen. Swaddled in shadows, she felt secure from the noises massing across the muffling, leafy barrier. The voices only grew more adamant as the seconds seemed to bleed into minutes that bloomed into hours.

“Mama, why’s she running?”

“What is she hiding from?”

“Is she sick in the head?”

Glancing to the nearest wall formed by lock-sealed fire exits, Ai realized that she had nowhere further to run. Moment by moment, the monsters crept closer to her shelter in the shadows. To her relief, she saw that none of them dared follow her fully into the dark.

And yet.

Her eyes were inevitably drawn to their words. At least, at first. But underscoring every pointed whisper were those sounds. The sounds of monsters in their natural state.

Growls broke out between nervous laughter. Screeches and groans transformed the cry of every confused child into a spear of mockery. Concerned whispers cast off their guises and transformed into eager jeers. Amid a dozen horrific maws and snouts, each assault of sounds prodded into her, jostling the rhythm of her breath more than the last.

She was watching them now.

Her eyes drawn to the light, their outlines appeared first in hulking silhouettes. Features dug into her acclimating retinas as they became apparent. Crooked horns the size of her forearms. Gaping, fang-lined mouths big enough to swallow her whole. Tangles of relentless, knot-jointed arms and mazes of mangy, mangled fur. Hungry, angry eyes across the spectrum of comprehension. Stalks and bulbs and orbs sprinkled across the mass of monsters in slanted rows and frantic clumps.

And all of them without exception, watched her.

Her heart felt like it was standing still. The light that robbed her ability to hide was the same that kept her pinned there, forced to confront what she'd managed to avoid at all costs for four years. Her lungs pump like pistons in a dark corner drained of warmth. Without any means to carve out her own little slice of the world, she was as good as eaten alive by the ravenous crowd.

“Ai!”

A single, resonant note of warmth punched its way through the wailing storm.

Kiro.

The crowd parted, letting in an unbroken stream of light. From this light, stepped the one figure that could bring her back into it.

He stopped right there, doubling over to catch his breath. With the image of him in her mind, she was able to close her eyes. Against all of the clawing fire in a percussion act against her eardrums, and despite the jagged walls of leering shadows, she began to move. It was either the monster-proof darkness or the monsterbound light by his side.

Light and sound blurred around her as she burst forth from her hiding spot. In one smooth motion, she threw herself into his arms and sent the two of them staggering away from the crowd. Though Ai’s eyes were closed, she could feel herself being whisked away from the pandemonium behind her. Time passed in strange, warping beats in an asynchronous battle against the beleaguered pulsing of her heart and lungs. She clung to him, her face buried in his shoulder and her arms wrapped around him.

It was only when things were both dim and dead silent that she emerged.

“Ai. Ai! Are you okay? What happened?!”

She lifted her head from the moist spot on his shoulder and stared him in the eyes as her own continued to involuntarily overflow. They had found themselves in the secluded depths of an abandoned fast-food restaurant, stripped of all its signage but not its lights and chairs.

“You liar!” Ai beat at his chest with the side of her fist. “You said you would be there for me! You promised, you promised…”

Kiro's head dropped into his collar. Gently, he raised his hand in a patting motion and held it over her hair. As much as Ai wanted to pull away, to shirk his affections to prove her fury, she couldn't. All she could think about, as he pulled her in and his hand gingerly stroked her head, was that pang of emptiness when she came out and saw that he wasn't there.

Kiro opened his mouth, but she put her lips to his before he could speak. They stayed like that until her tears ran dry and until the last question slipped his mind.

As Ai pulled back from his face, she saw the shadow of a monster passing by the paper plastered storefront. She took his hand, begging with tear-blurred eyes:

“Take me home.”

---

They arrived at an empty, dark house. The red sports coupe that Kiro remembered from last time was not in the driveway. As Ai led him into the depths of the house, she didn't bother turning on a single light. Like he could read her mind, Kiro stayed mercifully silent as they entered her room.

For the first time in years, Ai pushed the door shut with an ear-searing creak. While Kiro stood there with befuddled eyes caught up in the room around him, Ai threw herself to the big, fluffy bed like a ragdoll.

“Ai-” Kiro said, before stopping himself.

“Why did you leave me?” she asked, half-screaming into a plush pillow.

Kiro was still. He approached the bed with caution and lowered something onto it with a crinkling sound. Ai ripped herself from the plush and stared at a sizeable, decorative plastic bag. She gave him a confused look, as if only now registering that the bag had been with them their entire way back.

Kiro rubbed the back of his neck. “I… wanted to give you this.”

Ai reached into the bag and withdrew a cube-shaped package. It was the size of her head and covered in cartoon cat-themed wrapping paper. With a single furtive pull of the pink and gold bow at the top, the packaging came undone. She gasped.

A pair of headphones. The same exact pair in fact, as the one that sat battered and taped up on the work desk across the room from them.

Ai's eyes widened as her mouth remained agape.

“I'm sorry it took me so long to come back.” Kiro sat down beside her on the bed. “Had to go through like, three different shops, and I… guess I took too long.”

Her face twisted as if she was about to snap at him. Tears began to roll down her cheeks.

Caught in this crossfire of emotion, Kiro's hands bounced between attempts to console her with an embrace and efforts to hide themselves in shame.

“I’m sorry,” Ai whispered, as she scooped up the box and clutched it to her chest. “I’m sorry.”

“Don't be,” Kiro replied, finally gaining the courage to put his hands on her shoulders. “You did nothing wrong.”

“I doubted you.”

“Ai, listen. There's nothing to be sorry about. If I had done more the day we met, your headphones wouldn't be broken. And if I wasn't an idiot and didn't try to make it up to you with a stupid surprise-”

“You're not the idiot.” She sniffled. “I ruined everything. You've been so nice to me. All you wanted to do was make my life just a little bit better and my first thought was to doubt you and blame you for it!”

“Ai-”

“I’m so pathetic.” She rubbed her eyes between uncontrollable sobs. “Why are you even dating me?”

“Don’t talk about yourself that way. I care about you.”

“Exactly. You care about me.” She grabbed onto his sweater and pulled herself towards him. “You've cared about me this whole time and you put your all into it. And what have I given you in return? Nothing.”

His face was a muddled mix of aghast white and deep red. Kiro barely managed to choke out his words. “You don't have to give me anything. I'm happy just being with you.”

Their eyes met, equally worked up and yet just as desperate to do so. Then, their lips again. Except, instead of pulling away after the first mind-numbing wave had them pausing for breath, Ai pushed in once more. It was deeper, more involved than their minds could properly register.

After the second wave passed and left them seeing stars in their eyes, they found themselves horizontally chest to chest. It was instinctual at this point—one more kiss. One more motion past the point of no return.

Kiro tried to make some space. But he only ended up pressing himself deeper into the soft mattress and taking her with him. He laid a hand on her cheek.

“Ai,” he whispered. “We don’t have to do this. Don’t force yourself.”

She swiped his hand away from her face and cupped both of hers around his cheeks.

“Kiro-”

Ai planted her lips in the space between his chin and chest. Then, she raised her head and peered at him for a moment. Her wavy, navy hair glimmered in the dim, curtain filtered light. Icy, blue eyes that widened and pulsed yet focused perfectly still on him.

“Just this once,” she said. “Let me share a moment with you.”

The oscillations of his chest accelerated on their own accord. His mess of auburn hair and almost-manly nose covered the upper parts of his face in a shadow, leaving his thin, still-boyish lips exposed. Those eyes of his, colored like a forest floor in fall, finally closed.

The two of them melted into the last kiss.

---

They didn't dare to break the blissful silence for a long time after. She buried her contented face between his chest and the covers while his eyes undertook a half attentive survey of the room.

It was surreal. He didn't quite know what to think, so he let the static run wild in his mind. Imagery from his visual library flickered through the background of his mind, occasionally projecting itself onto the surface amid his observations of the room’s furniture. He thought of parks and bushes and trees. Of the vast, crowded halls of V.I.A.S. High. Of all the places at which he’d been spending time with the new people in his life.

Just as the wood vaulted ceiling and maritime effigies of the Undersea Cafe faded in along the plain surface of Ai's desk, his phone vibrated.

Splash!

Ai jolted back to life as Kiro reached away to check the notification. She watched him take a glance at the phone, fire away a quick message, and chuckle.

“Your dad?” She asked.

“No, it's uh- Keano.”

Ai's eyebrows knitted together. “Keano?”

“A friend I knew in middle school.” Kiro said, his back still turned to her. “Or, I guess a friend that I know now.”

Ai bit her lip, but her tone remained warm. “You seem to be making a lot of monster friends recently.”

Kiro turned back to her and smiled. “Yeah, it's pretty neat how I've been getting along with others recently.”

“Others.”

“Yeah. There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you about that, actually.” Kiro’s eyes widened in familiar hopefulness. “Would you… like to meet them? My friends, I mean.”

“No.”

The sharpness of her response compared to the careful measure Kiro chose to make his offer. Ai realized it instantly and flinched at herself.

“Sorry” she quickly added, not being able to meet his eyes. “I was just worried about you.”

“Don't worry, I’m keeping myself out of trouble these days.” Kiro took her up in his arms. “And they’re nice people, I swear.”

She returned the embrace, but that pang of emptiness had returned once more.

“What about my dad, then?” Kiro pushed forward. “You have to meet him at some point, right?”

The simple logic behind his words and her uneasiness behind her own earlier response paralyzed Ai. Unable to speak, she lay there pressed against him.

Chirp!

His phone went off again. Ai wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved or annoyed.

“Speak of the devil. It’s my dad.” Kiro sat up from their bed. “I have to go. Sleep on what I said though, okay?”

“Okay.”

Her answer was like it was read off a script. But she had no more lines—not while Kiro was putting his clothes back on, and not as he had a foot out the door.

Soon, he was waving her goodbye.

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