Chapter 32:

After the Storm

Are You Real?


Ai's face started to hurt. Her phone told her she had spent the last 17 minutes practicing her smile. Consequently, she was 15 minutes behind schedule.

The girl leapt off of her springy bed and landed on her heels. There was not a second to spare between the makeup and the hair brushing and the showering and the painstaking decision of choosing the perfect outfit.

Ever since Kiro’s message came in earlier that morning, she felt like she had a second wind:

“Can we meet up at the park? At the same bench where we first met?”

Ai stopped in the middle of her room just to spin around with a giggle. After that miserable day at the aquarium, this was her chance to set things right. Having more or less gotten the hang of her button-press Monster mode, all that was left to do was to show up and make sure the both of them had a good time. With that in mind, she discarded the outfit that she wore on that fateful day in favor of something new and vibrant. If she was going to turn over a new leaf, she might as well pull out all the stops.

She left her room without her headphones, making sure to close the door behind her. A lukewarm chatter came from down the hall, and curiosity got the better of her. The girl flicked the switch in her head amid her calm stroll down the hall. Peering into the kitchen, Ai gave its occupants a hello with a smile.

Her mother’s collection of mouths hung open, and her father's swarm of eyes stared blankly. Evidently, neither could believe their daughter’s presence to be anything more than a mirage.

“Oh, Ai.” Mister Suzuyoku spoke with a voice like a struck tuning fork. “Heading out again?”

She nodded with a girly flourish of her outfit.

Miss Suzuyoku took a sip of morning tea at three different mouths. Then, after wiping each and every single one of them, all of her mouths asked in chorus:

“You seem different. Did you do something with your hair?”

Ai shook her head in an obvious lie. “I think it's just the moisture in the air. You know, it feels like it's been raining forever.”

“How very fortunate.” Miss Suzuyoku took another series of sips. “It's finally nice out after all.”

For some reason, her mother's overlapping tones sounded almost warm. Ai swore that as her parents exchanged a glance, she could even see the corners of some of Ms. Suzuyoku’s mouths curl into a smile.

“Well,” Ai said, with a curtsy. “Forgive me for the intrusion, but I must be on my way now.”

As she put on her shoes by the entrance, she felt her parents observing her through the wall. But she didn’t shiver, nor did she experience the usual sudden heaviness throughout her body. All it felt like was that their attention was focused on her without any intention in mind.

Stepping out of the house and into the glowing world outside, Ai had never felt this refreshed in years.

---

It was really wonderful, this park after a long period of rain.

Everything, from the leaves of hanging branches to the metallic sheen of the benches around her, was glistening with a reflective constellation of dew. The sun's midday light was almost as vibrant as golden hour through the lens of the moist air. Puddles littered the ground, iridescent as oil spills and big enough to swim in to boot. An entire cast of squirrels, birds, and bugs came out in concert, hidden in plain sight amid the luxurious lushness of Riverside Park.

Ai entered the final stretch of ivy-lined passages before her destination. Every one of her footsteps resonated with a satisfying smush-crunch atop the wet leaves lining the floor. Between a break in the treeline ahead, the lounging cerulean serpent that was the Red Prince River came into view. She accelerated her pace until the benches bloomed into sight, at which point she couldn't help but gasp. A massive rainbow over the water framed the arching, red suspension bridge in the distance like a neat vignette.

There, three benches out to her left, she saw that familiar and messy auburn head of hair. She couldn’t help but feel a nervous flutter in her stomach. This was the perfect day, the perfect chance to set things right.

Ai approached cautiously, but swiftly, intending to surprise him with a smile. Upon drawing within a couple strides of the back of his head, she pounced. But as her hands sunk into his hair to the tune of a giggle, she could feel that something was off.

When Kiro got up, he looked like an extra from a zombie movie. Pallid skin, baggy, puffed-up eyes, and a shirt that might have been more dirt than fabric by its stains. His pupils met hers with paralytically slow deliberation.

The boy opened his mouth, but nothing came out. It looked like he was trying to push something out of his throat to no avail. But, Ai waited for his words with an encouraging smile.

“Hey,” Kiro finally said.

Ai pressed two fingers to his forehead. “Is everything okay? You're running a bit hot.”

He shuffled back away from her touch with a delayed reaction.

“Yeah. I just haven't slept very well.”

“Oh no.” She retracted her hand to her mouth. “Maybe we should get you something to eat and get you to bed?”

Slowly, Kiro shook his head. “It was important for me to see you as soon as possible.”

“Oh.” Ai blushed, unable to help herself from turning away. “That's so sweet.”

Kiro lowered his gaze. With a long exhale, he raised his head again.

“Ai-”

Her brain didn't even register the rest of his sentence at first. There was a lull in the air. It was as if the sound vanished somewhere between the piercing, Saturday morning sunlight, the sparkling flash of dew droplets, and the stop-motion flow of the river.

When Ai came to, only one word could escape her:

“Huh?”

“Ai.” The boy’s eyes snapped into focus. “I want to break up with you.”

Ai blinked once. Twice. Then, she took a step back.

“This is some twisted joke, right?” Her makeup-blanched face had never looked so colorless. “I mean, if that's the case, then you’ve certainly got me.”

Kiro paused with his lips between his teeth. He looked as disheveled as a person could possibly be, but that only made his intense expression stand out all the more.

“Kiro,” she said, her throat throttling her words. “Tell me you're not serious.”

He simply watched her, hoping desperately that his eyes would speak for him. Reality finally hit her at full force, like a punch to the stomach.

Ai stepped forward with her palms out. “We can make this work. I don't know what you've heard, but-”

“Stop-” Kiro tried to interject.

But she kept going, and her hands latched onto his.

“We’re supposed to make this work, Kiro! You can see that, we both can! How could you even think of something like that?”

“Stop!”

Kiro began prying himself out of Ai’s grip, adding more force as she rejected his effort. When he finally broke free, he took several steps back.

The force behind his actions and words visibly shook Ai to her core. She was unable to take a single step further. Instead, her expression started to capsize, and the first tear came loose.

It took almost all of Kiro’s strength just to stay standing. He didn't know what hidden reservoir was fueling his words, but he understood that if he stopped speaking for even a moment, he would collapse into himself.

“It's over,” he said, steadying his breath. “I'm sorry.”

Hearing it the second time sent the girl reeling onto the bench. Ai’s face was draped in her inky waterfall of hair as she stared at the ground. Not knowing what to do, Kiro simply watched.

For the last 48 hours, his head had swum laps around how to break the news. All that effort to keep himself from getting pulled into the undertow had left him like a hollow shell.

He had never considered how to walk away.

“Sorry?” she asked, still staring at the asphalt path in front of her. “You’re sorry?”

The girl arose from the bench asymmetrically, like a puppet on strings.

“I’m sorry I ever even met you! If you never came into my life, then I wouldn't have to live the rest of it thinking about what could have been, alone.” Ai raised her tear-marred face, glaring holes straight through him. “I gave you everything! And this is how you repay me in the end? You have your fun and then you throw me out like trash when I wasn’t your perfect doll?!”

“I never asked you for everything, and I didn’t ask for you to be perfect either!”

“You’re such a liar! Just like how you lied to me about seeing Mad Dog!” She shoved a finger towards his face. “I warned you, but you didn’t listen! And look at where that got you!”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, that bruise wasn’t from her! She’s in the hospital, Ai!”

“And that’s where you’ll end up too if you keep dealing with her! That’s all the good that comes out of dealing with the monsters!”

Kiro took a deep breath, closing his eyes.

“Okay, Ai.” He spoke with his exhale. “You want something honest? I realized it wasn't a relationship that I wanted. At least, not one like this.”

“Then what do you want?”

“I-”

Kiro clutched his chest. Somehow though, he was able to find the words:

“I just wanted someone that could understand me.”

“Well, I don’t understand you at all!” She pleaded to him with her eyes, her tone weakening. “How could we not understand each other? We're the only two people in the world who see everything the way we do!”

Kiro shook off a chill. This time, his voice was measured, steady.

“Maybe there's something more important than being the only two people in the world that see something the same way.” His throat felt like it was constrained by a python, but his words still found their way to freedom. “And I want to find out what that is.”

As liberating as they were for him to say, they were equally potent in sending her over the edge. Ai could not summon a response, instead covering her face with her hands and weeping into them. Kiro reflexively raised his hands to place them on her shoulders, but she slapped them away in a flash.

“Go,” she choked out.

“Ai-”

“LEAVE!” She shoved him back, tears running like that week's downpours. “Go find whatever you're looking for by yourself! Just leave me alone, and don't come back!”

Kiro didn’t respond—he wasn't even sure if he should respond. He lowered his hands and eyes in silent acknowledgement.

“Goodbye.”

He turned and left, becoming little more than a blurry red spot in a puddle through her eyes. As he walked, the throbbing of his heart barely masked the sound of her sobs behind him.

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