Are You Real?
Her pink lips were ever so slightly pursed and her icy blue eyes quivered as they struggled to look straight ahead. Kiro could tell that despite a seemingly plain expression, Ai was hiding a world of hurt. By the time that he had the courage to move, Maia had thrown off her own apron to the side and was already heading out the door with her boxed share of the baked goods.
“I'll just... be going now,” she said, brushing past Ai and closing the door behind her.
Kiro and Ai were left staring at each other. After a handful of painfully long seconds, Richard approached from the side.
“Oh! You must be... the person that Kiro's told me all about!” As if to mask the lack of confidence in his voice, Richard held out a hand. “It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm Richard Lane, Kiro's father. But you can just call me Richard.”
Not only did Richard's hand go unattended, but his gaze wasn't even met. Ai seemed to be so busy staring at the floor that she didn't even process his presence.
“If now is a bad time,” she mumbled, “I can just go-”
“Nonsense!” Richard pulled the nearest empty chair. “I've been looking forward to meeting you. Please, have a seat! I'll get you a drink.”
The big red fuzzball bounded off around the kitchen island and buried his face in the fridge, as if trying to give them any semblance of privacy. Hesitantly stepping forward, Ai brought herself to one of the wicker seats and practically fell over into it. Kiro sat across from her, equally at a loss for what to say.
The smell of freshly baked pastries hung in the air like an olfactory specter.
Richard couldn't have returned soon enough with three glasses of water. “So, uhhh…”
“Ai,” she replied.
“Ai!” Richard beamed. “So what are you in the mood for? We got Bepsi and Sprike. Or maybe you'd like some milk-?”
“Water!” Richard replied with a laugh and the snap of his fingers. “Can never go wrong with water!”
The two teenagers stared at the glasses of water that were already on the table as Richard once more moved to the fridge. Again, there was little but silence until he returned with yet another trio of water glasses, this time accompanied by a pitcher for refills.
“Oh,” Richard said, realizing his mistake and motioning to the second wave of drinks. “This? I just haven't been hydrated enough, don't mind me.”
Plopping himself down across the counter from them, Richard downed a glass and waited for one of them to speak. And then he downed another. And a third. Sensing that it would be more awkward to refill than to speak, Richard had little choice but to break the ice.
“So... How'd you two meet?”
“We sort of… go to the same school. And then we saw each other at the park the day we met.” Kiro started. “And then we shared lunch periods together…”
As Kiro's voice tapered off, Richard did his best to piece together the clues. Glancing at Ai, he spotted the bulky, decorative headphones around her neck.
“So, Ai.” Richard motioned to her headphones. “I take it you're a fan of music, right?”
“That's great! What kind of music are ya into?”
“It's... a very obscure genre.”
“Don't worry,” Richard let out a belly laugh. “I've been all around the musical world, so just try me.”
“Vapor... Wave.” The second half of the word left his mouth like a weight dropping to the floor. “Okay! I don't think I've heard of that one, but it sounds pretty funky!”
Richard's eyes were drawn to what the girl was looking at in the wake of her silence. Ai was bug-eyed, her gaze locked on the plate of freshly baked cookies.
“Oh! Do-ya want some, hon?” Plucking a cookie and holding it in the air, Richard pushed the plate towards her. “Kiro and his good friend just finished making them before she ran off.”
“No.” Ai shook her head. “Thank you.”
Richard leaned back into his seat with a creak and plugged the cookie into his mouth. “Hey, here's a great idea! Why don't you go visit a concert sometime? I'll pay for your tickets!”
“We haven't really planned that far ahead, dad.”
“Nonsense,” Richard replied, waving a giant, hairy palm. “Not planning is a big part of the fun. And concerts are definitely fun! In fact, Ai, did you know that his old man used to be in a band?”
Richard got up from his seat and made a gesture like he was picking up an air guitar.
“Actually, lemme see if I can find where I kept that ol’ guitar of mine.”
With that, Kiro's dad headed upstairs. As his heavy, creaking footsteps vanished towards the second story, Ai's eyes finally met Kiro's. A chill went down Kiro’s spine.
“I'm leaving,” she said.
“Huh? What about my dad? You barely got a chance to meet him.”
Ai had already gotten up from her chair. “Tell him I'm sorry.”
Kiro followed her up out of her chair, his stomach sinking in anticipation of what was to come next. “Ai-!”
She speed-walked her way to the front door. In one swift motion, she slipped on her saddle shoes and exited. Kiro scrambled to put on his own sneakers, nearly tripping on his way outside.
She stopped and whirled around on her heels.
“A ‘good friend’, huh?”
“Ai, Just let me explain-”
“Why was Mad Dog at your house?” she asked, spitting Maia's moniker out of her mouth as if it was poison.
“Listen,” Kiro said, opening his palms. “She's really not that bad-”
“‘Not that bad’?” Ai mirthlessly laughed to herself. “Did you completely forget that her goons shoved me around and threw trash at me? You know, the day we met?”
“She tried getting them to apologize to you!”
“And, what?” Her narrowed, blue eyes were sharp like icicles. “We’re all supposed to get along after that?” Make up and sing songs with the monsters around a fire?”
“No- I mean, ugh!” Kiro sputtered. “I just, I didn’t expect you to be here today.”
Ai’s expression visibly trembled. She tried to recollect herself as quickly as possible.
“I wanted to surprise you.” Her tone started to betray the air she was trying to project. “But I guess I was wrong. Sorry.”
“No! No, Ai.” Kiro shook his head, throwing his arm in exasperation. “I… none of this was supposed to be this way.”
Ai sighed—Kiro never realized until now how much colder it sounded without the usual hint of laughter right after.
“Look. I just want you to be more transparent with me.” She gripped into her skirt. “That's all.”
“It's not like I was being un-transparent!” Kiro said, waving his arms in emphasis. “At least, not on purpose!”
“Then tell me.” She locked eyes with him. “What purpose was there, in consorting with those that made my life hell behind my back?”
Kiro’s chin dropped into his collar.
“Isn’t it just me and you?” Ai's eyes softened ever so slightly. “We're the only two people that understand what it's like.”
“I mean-” Kiro started, still completely directionless with his answers. “I guess.”
“To them, everything must seem just peachy.” A single tear appeared in her left eye. “But to us, everyday is a struggle.”
Kiro could barely stomach the strength to look at her face as a second tear appeared—as she continued her emotional onslaught.
“You can't tell me that things are somehow perfectly fine, right?!”
Kiro opened his mouth, but no words came out.
Ai turned to the mirror parked beside the doorway. She stared into it, as if her reflection had spoken to her. Ai buried her face in her sleeve, adjusted her hair, and then turned back to him.
“Listen,” she said, her voice lowering and growing softer. “Are we still… okay?”
“Yeah.” Kiro barely heard her, but he shook his head affirmatively. “I'm still with you. That hasn't changed.”
“I'm glad. Ai put a hand to her chest. “I've been worried. So worried.”
Kiro stepped in closer and put an arm around her back. “I'm sorry. I never wanted you to-”
“It's fine.” She buried her face in his chest. “Just promise me something. One simple promise and I won't worry ever again.”
Even amid his state of panic, he couldn't help but grow a little flustered. “Of course.”
Ai peered up at him with her piercing, beautiful eyes. “You said that if you ever did something wrong, you'd want me to tell you so you can help, right?”
Slowly, Kiro nodded.
“Then promise me.” She said, her sadness now strangely alluring. “Promise me that you won't spend any more time with the monsters.”
His heart was pounding. His throat ached. And as he stared at her face, the answer left his lips before he even knew it:
“That's all I wanted to hear,” Ai said, and brought her lips to his.
When she pulled back from him, it was as if she pulled a ripcord that sent his world spinning. Half-dazed, he barely processed Ai’s goodbye and watched her walk out the door, round the corner, and disappear out of sight. Then, his head still a sea of swirling static, he stumbled his way back home.
Kiro's head cleared in fits and starts between breaths, and he wasn't sure if he was hallucinating when he saw Richard by the doorway. His dad had on a full face of dated, black-and-white rockstar makeup, and was holding an equally dated, red flame-decaled guitar in one hand.
“Everything alright, champ? Where’d Ai go?”
Saying nothing, Kiro brushed past his dad and climbed the stairs to his room. The boy slammed his door shut and collapsed on the other side of it, letting himself slide down until he hit the floor. Kiro closed his eyes and choked down a lungful of air.
His eyes shot open, and he pulled out his phone.
“I want to talk to you. Tomorrow noon, at Pasta’s Pizzeria.”
Kiro felt a migraine coming on. He texted back:
“Now’s not a good time, Keano.”
The next splash came before Kiro could even turn off his phone and chuck it away somewhere.
“It's really important. And I'd like to get it out of the way before I meet up again on Friday with everyone else.”
After reading the message, Kiro hesitated with his fingers over the keyboard. Before he could respond, one more message came in. A single word:
Kiro let out a sigh. After staring at the unlit ceiling for what must have been over half a minute, he typed his reply, also in one word: