When the Cat’s Away

Chapter 2 of SWIFTSAILS.

By the time I finally wake up, the bright noon sun is already pouring its steadfast rays right through the window above my desk. Even though I am still exhausted and right on the verge of falling back asleep, I already know that there is no way I will be getting any quality rest with how bright it is in the room. After all, this is the one bedroom in this house with its windows facing to the south-east. That alongside the pale white curtains which barely filter any of the incoming light made it so that while growing up I was almost always out of bed before anyone else in the house.

But these days, lethargy overtakes that rather enviable biological clock from my younger days, and I often find myself in the situation of trying to sleep in a well-illumined room after a long night of browsing message boards and watching illegal anime streams. Of course, laziness produces some stunning contradictions for anyone who bothers to consider the circumstances. If I wanted to fully immerse myself in the endless loop of computer-eat-sleep, I could just fix my sleep schedule and make each of these activities far more enjoyable. If I insisted upon sleeping during the day—maybe to make sure I always catch the latest episodes right after they air on the other side of the world—I could just move my sleeping quarters into one of the many other rooms available in this house, all facing away from the sun and fully equipped with curtains. And even then, if I just had to sleep in this particular room for whatever reason—whether out of nostalgia or out of habit—I could just take the curtains from one of the other rooms and place them in this one instead. Hell, I could even take the curtains from all of the rooms and stack them together to make sure not a single stray beam slips into my room during my daytime napping.

Alas, the tragicomedy of an unemployed bachelor’s pathetic life.

My train of thought quickly derails as I become more and more distracted by the hard, flat object under my spine. Sliding my arm behind my back to fish it out, I unlock the smartphone lock using my thumbprint before my hand even emerges from under the covers.

12:37PM. I got back home just a few minutes before sunrise, meaning I slept for around six hours. Of course, that would be if I fell asleep immediately.

Speaking of which…how the hell did I fall asleep after realizing that some rich stranger knew where I lived off the top of her head?

Maybe I fried the wiring in my brain after trying to figure out whether it was because of research she did for fun (as part of her hobby of screwing with random commoners on the street) or because of instructions from her boss as part of their plans of tracking down their Moby Dick. That would make a lot of sense, now that I consider it. Somehow, sleep comes most naturally when your mind is racing too fast to realize that you should be sleeping.

Sitting up in my bed on this fine morning—er, afternoon—I decide that I will stop assuming the worst of that driver from yesterday.

Ishmael was nice to me. That’s all that matters. At this point in my life, I don’t care if it’s out of ulterior motives or pity or condescension that someone graces me with their kindness. For someone like me, who spends most of his days sitting alone in his room unless Riley drags him outside, pleasantries from strangers are always wonderful blessings in a world full of evil and suffering.

In any case, Ishmael has no reason to ever remember my existence again. To her, I will probably just be one more background character in her long wonderful life, just as she will one day become for me.

But even though this is most natural of interpersonal relationships, I am deeply saddened by the fleeting nature of human connection.

Well, moping about the immutable traits of reality won’t do anything. Time to get up.

I pull myself out of bed and get myself dressed with one hand while using my phone with the other. Of course, it is terribly inefficient to do it this way, but these days efficiency is not exactly on the top of my list of priorities. Putting on the same dress shirt from this morning while scrolling through some news headlines; pulling on a pair of old shorts I found on my chair while glancing through my spam-ridden email inbox; rubbing on some deodorant and fixing up my bedhead while playing some crappy budget match-three game. In the end, it probably took at least ten minutes just to do a basic dressing job that should have taken less than one or two minutes.

While rubbing out the sleep—and the gunk—from my barely-open eyes, I stumble out of my room and make my way down the stairs to get my usually-morning routine out of the way before he shows up—

Huh?

“Hey, J.”

“Well, look who we have here.”

Riley is sitting at my dinner table with his laptop, class notes, and textbooks strewn around as if he owns the place. Among the mess on the table is a cardboard coffee tray with three cups in it. Just in case, I stride right over and pick up the tray in case one of them is for me.

Nope, both empty. Should have expected nothing less from a caffeine-dependent university student.

“Dude, you look terrible. Ditto for smell.”

“I literally just woke up. Aren’t you here way too early today?”

“Didn’t I already say the other day that exams are happening this week? I’m gonna crash here earlier than usual.”

“When did you even show up today?”

“At around ten?”

“Damn. You’ve never been here before two before.”

“Well, today is just the first time, babe. They say the second time hurts a bit less.”

Not wanting to acknowledge that disturbing innuendo, I immediately move the conversation forward.

“It would be nice if you asked for permission before using my place as your hangout spot.”

“I mean, don’t I basically live here if I have this?”

Riley waves the door key I gave him who-knows-how-long ago with a confident, unashamed grin. I reach for it and try to swipe it out of his hand, but he quickly pockets it again.

“I regret ever thinking that I could trust you with that key.”

“Come on, bruh. You know me. Besides, when was the last time I ever caused you trouble?”

“What about that time you brought that one girl over here and she puked on my sofa?”

“Hey man, leave the past in the past. I don’t even think I remember her name anymore.”

“What a gentleman.”

I wander over to the fridge and crack open the door to see what there is to eat. It seems that the menu for today consists of a carton of spoiled milk, the stalk of a head of broccoli I ate three weeks ago, a few ketchup packets that I grabbed the last time I went for burgers, and half of a chicken salad sandwich that I couldn’t finish the other day and probably never will. Food fit for a king. I close the door, slightly glad that I am a simple peasant.

Riley watches me and shakes his head.

“You are basically never busy. Why can’t you just do the groceries yourself from time to time?”

“It’s because you’re supposed to do them for me, like we agreed back then. I didn’t give you those keys for nothing.”

“Yo. Stress. You know how heavy your shopping list is?”

“Maybe you should have thought of that before entering a deal I intend on holding you to.”

“Okay, fine. I’ll run to the store tomorrow morning or something.”

“Don’t you have an exam at that time? And another one later in the afternoon?”

“…Oh, yeah. You’re right. Tomorrow evening, then.”

I roll my eyes, but not at him. I’m a bit disappointed in myself that I involve myself so much in the life of others that I know the time of their exams better than they themselves do. Guess that’s to be expected of a stay-at-home bum like me.

“Oh, yeah.”

Riley puts down the empty cup of coffee that he is pouring aimlessly into his mouth to taste those last bitter drops. He leans forward in his chair and gives me an excited expression.

“Let’s go out for lunch today. My treat.”

“What, are we going to grab dollar menu items from the burger joint?”

“Nope. We’re going to a restaurant.”

I do a double take at the unexpected proposition. After all…

“…When was the last time we went out together to a restaurant, again?”

Riley hems and haws for a bit before giving a straight reply:

“Sometime before you became a disgraceful NEET.”

“Glad to know that’s how you think of me.”

“Hey, buddy, true friendship is accepting someone for who he is. Even if he’s a degenerate.”

“I’m honoured.”

Riley chuckles as he brings his focus back to the screen of his laptop. I sit across from him at the kitchen table and flip through his meticulously written course notes. Riley’s beautiful, flowing handwriting would better match the work of an inspired poet rather than the lecture summaries from his engineering classes.

“I feel like these equations have fewer and fewer numbers in them with each day that goes by.”

Riley exhales deeply and shakes his head.

“It’s torture, man. How about you just write my exams for me?”

“Sure, if you’re fine with failing your final semester.”

“But seriously, dude. If I just gave you all of this, how long do you think it would take for you to learn it all?”

I take a closer look at the materials from his courses, skim through the stack of past exams piled up amid the mess, and give an honest guess:

“A month or so, maybe?”

“Would that to be to actually understand it or just to get a good mark?”

“I don’t think I’ve actually understood math since freshman year of high school, so take a guess.”

“Test-taking freak.”

Riley apparently really takes after his father Conari when it comes to studying. Mom always told me about how back in high school, she really admired Conari’s dedication to school beyond just getting good grades. From how she described it, it was like his life mission was to understand all of life’s mysteries inside and out, with getting good grades as just simple validation of the fruits of his journey.

Meanwhile, all throughout my school years, I’ve just figured out the best way to score a high mark without needing to really understand any of the course material. Whether through rote memorization while riding home from school on the bus, learning the format for multiple choice tests inside and out for a particular class, or sticking right to the marking rubric when writing an essay, I managed to get through high school with acceptable marks without really needing to take in any of the knowledge necessary.
You could say that in a sense I am a good-for-nothing pragmatist. I’m perhaps the embodiment of the failure of metric-driven academic assessment: good grades, horrible student. Or maybe I’m a “model student”, if the point of school is seen as getting as many three-digit grades or two-digit grades beginning with a 9 as possible. After all, given that most of the students at my high school were more concerned with hustling teachers for marks than with really  “getting” calculus, I should technically be the epitome of results-based education.

Of course, I found all of that stuff pointless. If the law didn’t prevent me from quitting school before the age of eighteen, I would have done so in sophomore year without any hesitation. But instead, I crammed away all the way until graduation day, then immediately shut myself in at home while all of my friends—and a certain former friend—went off to university.

Riley was always jealous of how little I studied in high school, even though he always pulled slightly higher grades than I did. So, I think he feels like I’m wasting my potential by doing odd jobs around town and selling essays online.

Although to be fair, it’s not like he’s the only one who thinks so. Moreover, he’s the only one from who hasn’t changed his attitude towards me ever since I became a NEET. In other words, he’s a true friend. Good thing too, because that’s the one thing keeping me from calling the cops to drag him out of my house when he’s babbling about his “game”.

Riley reaches over the screen of his laptop and plucks the mock exams out of my hands. Then, closing the lid of the computer and placing the exams on top, he makes a triumphant proclamation:

“We’re going now. To Royal Feast.”

“You want to eat at a buffet? An expensive one?”

“Hey, hey, I’m paying. Don’t sweat the details.”

“Are you sure Uncle Canary would be okay with you wasting money like this?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll just write it off as an expense for the aerospace club.”

“…Are you sure that’s okay? Doesn’t that count as embezzlement?”

“Don’t sweat the details, man. Our club has all the money it’ll ever need. Besides, you’re always cooking dinner for me, so just consider this payback for a few favors.”

“You’re right. Three years of cooking for a picky eater deserves at least a buffet or two.”

“Shut up. If you’re gonna stay home all day, at least learn to cook like a good housewife.”

“I’m telling Aunt Liz you said that.”

“…Please don’t.”

We look at each other with serious, blank faces before bursting out laughing.

This feels really good. I’m lucky to have him around.

A pang of guilt hits me when I remember that I still haven’t told him about last night.

Just as I summon the resolve to start that conversation with him, he stands up and pushes me back towards the stairs.

“Before we go, take a shower and change your outfit into something more presentable. Don’t ruin my lunch for me.”


“Damn, does this ever taste good.”

Riley’s plate looks like a war zone. Imitated fine cuisine from all over the world fights a border conflict on this plate, where the sauces and seasonings from one section freely flow into and overtake the food sitting in another. By trying to take a bit of everything, Riley has created a multi-colored goop that I am getting a little sick just from looking at.
I force myself to stare down at my half-eaten slice of pepperoni pizza instead of killing my own appetite with my curiosity. Although, Riley’s loud eating sounds are detailed enough to give away almost everything about what’s entering his mouth. The succession of chewy beef, creamy potato soup, and crunchy vegetables might not be so nauseating if I wasn’t fully aware that they were bordered by the nations of Calamari, Pig Liver, and Caviar.

“Don’t tell me you’ve brought girls here on dates with you before.”

Riley stops slurping for just long enough to give me a reply:

“Don’t tell me you’re the jealous type.”

“Trust me, even if I were, I would feel pretty secure if this were your first pick for a date with your mistress.”

Riley laughs and in the process inadvertently spits some of the residue from the messy mélange right onto my forehead. I try to stay calm as I reach over to the small stack of dinner towels that the waiter left there shortly after seeing the disaster unfolding at our table. I gingerly wipe off his spit as he stares right into my soul with his food-comatose eyes.

“I would never cheat on the one person I would ever bring here with me.”

“I’m flattered. By the way, we’re breaking up.”

“Only if you’re footing the bill.”

“This is quite the abusive relationship we’ve got here.”

Between our banter and my bit-more-than-slight horror at Riley’s disconcerting eating habits being utterly unchanged even while out in public, I’ve barely gotten through my second plate of food. Meanwhile, he’s been back into the food line at least four times now—maybe five? I can’t even remember anymore, since the waiter has been so diligent with removing Riley’s dirty dishes every time he finishes scraping his magical potion off of it.

“But seriously, Riley. I thought you only eat like that at my place because Aunt Liz isn’t around to nag you. Have you always been this big of a slob?”

Riley grins sheepishly, exposing a piece of spinach stuck between his two front teeth. I motion up at my mouth with my finger and he quickly uses his tongue to clear out the green patch before speaking.

“This is the first time we’re eating out alone together.”

“Hmm, I think you’re right. Until now we’ve always been either with our families or with our high school friends.”

“Yeah, well, it kinda sucks having to hold back while there’s so much yummy grub to be tasted, ya know?”

“But aren’t you worried about what the other diners are thinking? Or what the staff are thinking?”

Riley looks at me surprised and gives a simple answer:

“I’m a paying customer, yo.”

“If I were the owner, I would pay you to stop grossing out the other patrons.”

“Getting paid to eat? That would be quite a career.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

I pick a shining red piece of pepperoni out of the cheesy top layer of my pizza and pop it into my mouth. As I chew on the greasy piece of spicy meat, I look around us and steal another glance at the family sitting across the aisle from us, who have been whispering to each other while glancing over at Riley for a while now. I sigh and decide that I shouldn’t be trying to play parent with my only true friend. I just silently thank the universe for us being seated in a booth near the back instead of at a table in the middle of the restaurant.

But, now that I think about it, maybe Riley would be a bit more self-conscious if there were more people staring at him?

…Nah. If anything, he would relish the attention.

“So, Riley.”

“Mhmm—that was a big bite. Yeah, fam?”

“Are we heading back to my place after this? After all, your stuff is still there.”

Not that I especially mind, of course. If anything, I get a bit worried when he starts taking a lot of stuff home. It gets me thinking about whether he’s trying to cut me out of his life and finally forgetting about his loser childhood friend. But no matter what, I seem to always find something of his lying around my kitchen or living room. Almost as if he were trying to tell me that he would be back soon.

Or maybe it’s just a way to mark his territory. It wouldn’t be the first time that he’s tried to pull his “alpha” shit on me.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you.”

“Well, I’m all ears now.”

“We’re going to have fun today. I have the whole day planned.”

“What the hell? You have multiple exams tomorrow and you want to screw around right before?”

Right as those words come out of my mouth, I realize that Riley is really going to enjoy the irony of me of all people lecturing him about his study habits. His lips curl into a foxy smile as he begins speaking in a singsong voice.

“Sorry, Mr. J. I’ll be a good student so I can grow up to be just like you.”

“Shut up.”

Riley snickers at me as I turn away feeling a little miffed at how casually he can poke fun at my situation without the slightest hint of venom. If he could be a really big dick about it, maybe I would be able to hate him a little more.

“But get this, my dad told me about his school days. He had a teacher who always told the class to make plans to go see a movie right before an important test or exam.”

“Seems like a terrible idea. Wouldn’t you forget every last thing you crammed?”

“Actually, that’s the entire point. It forces you to learn the material properly.”

“…Ah. So essentially it’s using the movie plans as a way of preventing you from putting everything off to the night before.”

“Exactly. It seems like a good idea, so I’m trying it out today.”

“And what if it doesn’t work?”

“Then I got to see a movie with a friend instead of studying physics.”

“…I mean, your call. I’m down for whatever. Let me pay for the movie, though, since you paid for lunch.”

“Where did your money come from, all of a sudden?”

I immediately feel defensive about my personal finances and open my mouth to bicker, but it seems like Riley is set on paying today. I sigh and realize he’s effectively forcing me to accept his generosity. Maybe he’s trying to gain my favor to ask for a big favor or something?

But, in the spirit of wanting to stop assuming the worst in people, I nod my head and voice my gratitude.

“Thanks, man.”

Riley winks at me while wearing what he intends to be a coy smile on his face.

“Finish up the rest of your food and we’ll get going. I’ll grab another plate so we can munch on something together.”

I immediately feel the family next to us tense up as Riley stands up and prepares to go grab yet another plate. I glance over at the brown residue lining the dish he is leaving behind and realize that I cannot in good faith allow for Riley to embarrass himself any further. I don’t think I can eat properly with Riley’s display of bad etiquette right in front of me, anyway.

“You know what? I’m not that hungry anyway. Let’s just get going.”


“…I seriously can’t believe you, Riley.”

“Dude, you barely ate anything. This is just me trying to get our money’s worth.”

“I am pretty sure that this could result in us getting banned from both the restaurant and the movie theatre.”

We got into the theatre without a hitch. The entire time, I was nervous that the usher would check Riley’s shoulder bag like she’s supposed to. But Riley’s suave social skills really came in handy here, as he made small talk with the obviously enamored girl. By the time she scanned our tickets and ripped off our stubs, she seemed ready to just jump onto him and relieve all of the sexual tension in the air. But, in complete control of the situation, Riley pulled us away from her with a big smile on his face, letting us slip right past a sign which clearly read “No Outside Food” with several meals’ worth of fried edibles stowed away in Riley’s bag.

Riley plops right down in the chair dead center in the back row, and I sit to his left not caring that I would be watching the movie slightly off-centre—which he, on the other hand, would find acceptable. Once comfortably seated, he reaches into his bag and fishes out a neatly-tied dinner towel. Carefully undoing the tight knot, he opens up the towel to reveal an assortment of fries and onion rings. He lifts up the towel by the corners and moves it over to my lap and then pulls another wrapped cloth package from the many he still has left in the bag.

“I swear you planned for that waiter to give us this many towels, so you could do this kind of thing.”

“Nah, dude. It was all just in the moment; imagine paying $30 just so that your friend could eat a hamburger and a slice of pizza. What nerve by that establishment! They even brushed me off when I asked for a discount.”

“I mean, to be fair, it was all-you-can-eat, and I all I could eat was that much.”

“Maybe all-you-can-eat can also be interpreted as ‘all-you-can-eat-for-the-rest-of-the-week-too’?”

“I don’t think that would hold up in court.”

“You’re right. We’ll have to keep this our little secret.”

“I’m just an innocent bystander.”

“Then gimme back my onion rings, you traitor.”

“Consider this a hush fee.”

I nibble away at the fried food as the movie starts.


“Man, that movie was terribad.”

“I wouldn’t know, since your chewing drowned out most of the dialogue.”

“Which asshole’s idea was it for them to cast him as the lead? His acting was so stiff…”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it. You told me the same thing while the film was still rolling.”

“This is a comprehensive list of my afterthoughts:—”

I realize that he’s not going to shut up. I decide to just ignore him while nodding my head.

We’re walking around in the plaza outside of the theatre, wandering in and out of various stores while Riley goes on and on about the crime against humanity that the director of that movie committed by not overseeing the script and the sound effects. Luckily, my window-shopping nature keeps me occupied comparing different brands of trash bins at the department store while the chattering next to me ebbs and flows like the inundation of noise that it is.

“So, Riley.”

“But all of that could have been forgiven if not for that plot hole—”

“Riley.”

“Oh, sorry. What’s up?”

“We are standing inside of a pet store staring right into a birdcage with a huge parrot in it.”

“That we are.”

The fine avian specimen tilts his head at us, seemingly entertained by our little back-and-forth.

“Are we heading back to my place now?”

“Woah there, buster. You’re gettin’ a bit too feisty, there.”

“For the love of God. We had lunch and watched a movie. Are we calling it a day yet?”

“My man. You’re saying that as if you’re not enjoying yourself.”

“I mean, I’ll be honest, I have better things to do than hanging out with you and Mr.

Parrot discussing low-budget movies.”

“But that’s the thing! That movie had millions of dollars to work with—”

“Not my point. Let’s get out of the plaza.”

“We can’t. We’re taking the bus from the terminal over there in like five minutes.”

“Wait, that doesn’t go to my place—are you saying you have even more planned for today?”

“I mean, I did say I made plans for the whole day.”

“You really are gonna not study.”

“Have I ever kidded around before?”

As a matter of fact, yes you have. Every day of your life, most likely.

I don’t bother saying it out loud, though. Instead, I stick my finger through the bars of the cage and let the parrot examine the tip of my finger as I wiggle it. The bird shuffles close enough to for me to lightly stroke its soft breast feathers.

“What a stupid-looking bird.”

“Dad told me that he and his posse in high school called each other ‘Birdbrains’.”

“Were they a band of idiots?”

“I’m telling your dear Uncle Canary that you said that.”

“I’m sure he’ll survive. He doesn’t seem to be as big of a wuss as his son.”

“What high praise.”

Squack—pretty bird, pretty bird.”

“Yes you are, little guy. Yes you are.”

Riley also sticks his finger through the cage, causing the parrot to direct his attention to the new stimulus. It steps out of reach of my finger and makes its way over to Riley who for once has a gentle smile on his face.

“I never knew you liked birds.”

Riley shook his head.

“I’ve never been particularly fond of them. But Dad is. He always says that they remind him of those dear friends from high school.”

“Was one of them my mom?”

Riley glances over at me, then back into the cage.

“From how he described the two, I don’t think so. I think Aunt Jenny and Dad were more just two people in the same social circle who happened to keep up contact over the years.”

“I guess that makes sense. I’ve never heard about any of this birdbrain stuff before.”

“That’s because my Dad only brought it up recently.”

“Interesting.”

The parrot uses its beak to prod at Riley’s finger, but he doesn’t seem to mind. Instead, he sticks his finger in further to rub the top of the bird’s head. It seems to like it, as it closes its eyes and lets out a low-pitched clicking sound.

“Looks like your supposed bedroom skills are coming in handy, there.”

“A worldly man is one with many talents.”

Just then, I hear a loud sound right outside of the pet store. Looking over, I see a bus driving past us.

Which reminds me—

“Should we get going to the terminal, now?”

“Yeah, sure. Seems like it’s about time.”

Waving goodbye to the endearing bird in the cage, we leave the store and make our way to the bus terminal five hundred metres away.


“Spare. Not bad, J.”

“I would be a bit prouder of myself if I didn’t know that was a fluke.”

Looking up at the screen displaying our scoresheet, I can see that I’m getting stomped by Riley. While my first seven frames have been mostly open with only a single spare, Riley has an excellent assortment of strikes and spares to boost up his score. Given that one open frame is worth up to nine points while a spare and strike can be worth up to twenty and thirty respectively (depending on subsequent rolls), Riley has comfortably doubled my score. How typical of Riley, being so familiar with a mainstay date activity. Given how easily he finds his way around here, I have almost no doubt that he comes here somewhat regularly to practice.

Meanwhile, the last time I’ve bowled was probably in a five-pin game during elementary school at one of Riley’s birthday parties. Basically, I have no clue what I’m doing. I end up just watching how Riley’s delivering the ball while also trying to recall anything Riley has said about bowling.

“Come on, J. You can still catch up if you roll enough strikes.”

“And you can become a millionaire if you win enough scratchcards.”

“Ah, but keep in mind—”

Riley turns towards me as soon as he lets go of the ball and sends it rolling down the alley into the remaining two pins to complete his spare.

“—bowling is all skill. Everything is decided by you and you alone.”

“But what if the oil isn’t evenly spread and the balls aren’t up to regulation?”

“We’re using the same lane, bozo. No excuses for your defeat.”

“Okay, fine. I’ll lose like a man.”

I stand up and walk over to the ball return to grab a ball with a swirling pattern on it. It reminds me of those marbles that I once bought at a dollar store, except enormous. And with a finger hole.

Well, here I go.

I look up at the scoreboard and realize that I don’t really have a real chance at beating him anymore. I decide that it’s probably best to just slow down the pace of the game and try to get a few good shots in.

“Hey, Riley. Wanna give me some pointers?”

“Huh?! You’re asking for help?”

“Hurry up before I change my mind.”

“O-okay! Here, lemme go over there—”

I hear Riley jogging up to me from behind, and turn around to see him rubbing his rented bowling shoes on the ground.

“See how the bottom of these shoes is slippery?”

“Yeah, I noticed. It’s so impractical.”

“On the contrary, you’re supposed to slide a bit when you throw the ball. It helps you to transfer your forward momentum to the ball.”

“Huh. I never knew that. Does it help?”

“Well, letting yourself slide instead of holding back does help you follow through more naturally. That will probably let you throw straighter and with more power.”

“It probably will? Isn’t bowling supposed to not have any luck?”

“Hey, bud. I figured this shit out myself, so I’m just telling you what works. Maybe you’re not as naturally talented as I am.”

“…Is bowling a skill you’re born with, then?”

“I mean, being hot enough to be able to take girls to bowling alleys is certainly a genetic boon.”

“Why, aren’t you being modest today.”

I take four steps behind the opening of the lane and try to line myself up with the ten pins all the way at the end. Then, taking brisk strides forward, I lean into my left foot as I finish my last step and let the ball go as my forward foot glides just a bit before coming to a halt.

“Hey, Riley, how did that look?”

“Woah, dude—”

The ball slams into the pins. Nine of them fall, and then the last one on the side wobbles from side to side before finally it—

—goes right back to standing in place.

“Wow. That was close. Did I do something wrong, Riley?”

“N-no. That was fine. You were just unlucky.”

“But you said before—”

“You were unlucky. Your form is fine. Knock that pin down then let me have my turn.”

“Okay, sure.”

I do the same thing I did last time, but this time training my eye on the one pin standing on the side. Step, glide, release. The ball rolls confidently down the lane and slams right into the lone pin. The poor guy had no chance. That makes my second spare, in the eighth frame.

Riley steps up and makes his delivery for his ninth frame: another spare. That makes his fifth one, which along with his two strikes makes for a commanding lead.

In my ninth frame, I concentrate once more and try as hard as I can to imagine the follow-through of my throw. Four steps, lean in, glide while throwing—

“—A strike!”

Riley and I exclaim in unison as all ten pins fall and the scoring machine gives me a nice little X to reward me for my efforts.

“You better watch out, Riley. Would be a shame if you lost to a newbie like me.”

“Not gonna happen.”

Riley suddenly seems to get more serious. Rather than just casually throwing the ball and nonchalantly slamming over the pins due to pure muscle memory, he lines up his shoulders with the lane and breathes slowly in anticipation of the delivery. He steps in, slides on his left foot, and throws the ball—

—and that’s when I noticed something: he is always delivering slightly off-centre. In fact, now that I think about it, he’s probably doing it on purpose. After all, hitting the pins straight on would leave the side pins standing at the end, so the ball must be striking at an angle; for him to be hitting so many pins on such a consistent basis, he must be aiming at the perfect sweet spot every single time.

When the ball impacts the pins, I get my answer—

“Aw yeah! Another strike!”

—The two right-hand front pins. He’s hitting right in between them and allowing this to sweep all of the pins off of their feet. What a Casanova, even when it comes to bowling.

“Okay, time for my fills.”

Riley grabs a ball and once again lines up to complete his tenth frame. However, before he even completes his delivery, I can see that it isn’t going to hit all of the pins—

“—Five pins…”

Just mentally comparing it with his previous throw let me immediately see that he wasn’t going to knock them all down. His arm noticeably rotated right before he let go of the ball, resulting in it slowly bearing to the left until finally it only struck down five pins in the middle of the pack. Now, after the machine cleared away the fallen pins, there are pins on both sides of the lane.

“You got this, Riley.”

“Watch close, J.”

I do exactly what he says and realize, with horror, that his delivery on this shot has gone horribly wrong—

“…A gutter ball…”

That was just pathetic. Maybe he was conflicted on which side of the lane he wanted to aim for and changed his mind at the last moment. Or maybe he got greedy and wanted to take the risk so that he could try knocking down the rest of the pins.

Either way, what an anticlimactic way to end off his game.

“Well, your turn, J. Then we’ll get going.”

I nod my head and walk over to grab a ball. While backing up and taking my stance, I compare the time where Riley scored a strike to the subsequent deliveries when he didn’t and manage to roughly understand what works and what doesn’t work.
Now, it will be a matter of if my body can follow my instructions properly.

“Come on, J. Just take your shots and we’ll get going. The score doesn’t really matter, anyway.”

I immediately feel my shoulders slump when I realize that Riley is trying to comfort me before we even finished. I already know that since I’m more than fifty points behind Riley, I wouldn’t be able to overtake him even if I threw three strikes in a row. At this point, I already lost as expected. But Riley knows that even when I am well aware of when I’m bound to lose, I still let it eat away at me.

“Are you just saying that now that I have no chance of winning? What happened to your competitive spirit from before?”

Riley sighs and taps his feet.

“You haven’t really been taking this whole bowling thing that seriously, anyway. I’m happy that you got a strike on the ninth frame, so there’s no need to let me put pressure on you.”

“But Riley. That’s where you’re wrong.”

“Huh?”

My body and mind align and move of their own accord as I complete my tenth frame in a trance, muttering only a few words under my breath as I shock both of us with the ensuing event:

“I went and got myself all fired up.”


“That was amazing, J! Three strikes? Were you just slow-rolling me this entire time and hiding your incredible talent?”

“Nah, it was just beginner’s luck.”

“I already told you that there’s no luck in bowling!”

“No, actually, you said—”

“Cut it out. Just accept the praise, dude. I’m seriously stunned, yo.”

“Okay, fine. Thanks for the kind words. And for paying today.”

“Don’t mention it.”

We’re sitting on a park bench eating ice cream cones. Earlier, at the buffet, Riley wanted to put a few scoops of ice cream into his bag along with all of the fried food, but I stopped him from ruining the beautiful start-of-school present that Aunt Liz had gotten for him at the beginning of his last year of his degree. But as soon as we left the bowling alley, Riley dragged me onto a bus and brought us to the ice cream shop near my place. And now, we’re finishing off a long day of running all around town with a calm frozen dessert in a park.

“Mmm~! This is just the thing I needed after that huge meal this afternoon.”

“Aren’t we basically just having ice cream as dinner right now?”

“I just considered dinner as all of the fries we had in the theatre.”

“Hm. Fair point.”

Somehow, after spending most of the day feeling myself bursting at the belt, I am still in the mood for a bit of ice cream. Maybe the bowling game helped to kickstart my metabolism or something. After all, my almost-miraculous performance in the last frame caught me completely off-guard. It was like the God of Bowling suddenly came down to me and let me see the game in a completely new light. In those moments, everything made sense, from placing my throw perfectly along the oil lines to adding just the right amount of spin to the ball to make sure that it approaches the pins at the right angle.

Of course, I still lost to Riley. But I had closed the gap to just five points. Meaning if Riley shot just one more gutter ball somewhere, I could have beaten him.”

Riley, however, seems completely unoccupied with the narrow margin by which he beat me. Rather, he’s lauding me as if I’m the next world champion of bowling or something and completely leaving himself out of the picture.

“Seriously, J. You never fail to impress me.”

“What’s this all of a sudden? Is this a confession scene or something?”

“Lay off on the jokes for a bit. I’m feeling my serious mood kicking in.”

“Ah.”

Riley and I always are bantering back and forth all day every day. But while I would be okay keeping up that routine for as long as possible, Riley is the type of person who loves to drag me into deep, introspective talks once in a while.

I can’t tell if I really like it when he’s so mature and contemplative. It doesn’t matter, though; whatever he wants to talk about, I’ll listen. Because he’s—”

“‘My childhood friend’. That’s probably how you think about me, right?”

“I mean, that’s exactly what you are, right?”

“I think you’re both wrong and right about at the same time.”

“Okay, dude. Enough with the blazin’. Bring yourself back to reality.”

“Chill, chill. I need to think about how to word this.”

“Okay, fine.”

A silence falls upon the evening as Riley ponders with his eyes closed. Instead of the infectious grin he usually carries or the gentle smile I saw at the pet store, this time his face shows a much…darker…expression. As if he is conflicted on whether or not to say whatever is coming next.

That’s when I realize that this whole day—lunch, the movie, bowling—was just a leadup to this moment. But contrary to my original instinct that it was about a favour he wanted to ask of me, my gut told me that this was something of a much more personal nature.

After all, why the heck would Riley of all people try to bribe me into giving him a favour? He would either just force me into it through one of his schemes or plead with me until I get sick of his puppy eyes. There never was, and will never be, a reason why Riley has to spend so much money just to ask a simple request of me.

This is something huge. I start feeling nauseous, as the taste of the sickening sweet ice cream settles in my dry mouth.

Riley opens his mouth and begins to speak.

“My father regrets a lot of things, you know.”

“Yeah, I mean, I’m sure my mother does, too. I told you about everything with Aunt Nina.”

“Indeed you did. Feels like my Dad and your Mom had quite a rocky high school experience together.”

“No kidding.”

Riley takes a deep breath before continuing. When he opens his mouth, his voice cracks just slightly.

“To this day, Dad wishes he could go back and do more for the Birdbrains. Even after all of this time.”

Another silence falls as I fail to find a proper reply to this revelation. This time, the space between words is a chasm that threatens to swallow me up and bury me in its depths.

“J. My Dad is telling me all of this because he’s leaving.”

I freeze over. Leaving? What does that mean?!

“…To where?”

“To Montreal.”

I sigh a breath of relief and lightly punch Riley’s shoulder.

“For fuck’s sake, dude. You scared me for a second.”

“Haha, he still has a few decades left to live.”

“Did I just hear disappointment in your voice?”

Riley laughs at my black humour, then stands up and throws what’s left of his ice cream cone into the garbage can nearby. Then, he turns around and extends his hand to me, reaching for the melting cone in my hand. Admitting to myself that I will never finish this off anyway, I let Riley pick the slightly-moist waffle out of my hands with his thumb and index finger and bring it over to the garbage can.

I think about how casually dependable Riley has always been for me. No matter what kind of struggle he’s going through or what sort of high point he reaches, he never fails to show back up at my dinner table with all of his books and notes, complaining about his classes while talking about the hot date he has the next day or what he’s craving for dinner or what cool new thing he saw on the Web.

He is always there, by my side. As if trying to make up for the person who I wanted to be at my other side.

“When Mom and Dad move to Montreal, I might not see them again for quite a while. You know, with the checkpoints and everything.”

“Isn’t there a ceasefire right now, though? I read on the news that a merger is going to be signed. The war will be over soon, and everything will go back to how it was before the split.”

“Who knows. Didn’t you see all of that stuff about a terrorist militia on the move? Apparently they captured an Ontarian soldier and everything.”

“Wait, what? Did Quebec send them or something?”

“Nope. They’re apparently all from Ontario. It might be the beginning of a civilian uprising.”

“That’s pretty scary.”

Riley nods and scratches his head.

“Anyway. You know that question I keep pestering you about, right?

“Yeah. Why?”

“You know why.”

I feel a mix of relief and annoyance. Did he take me out today just to make a request that he always asks of me anyway?

“I would trouble you a lot if I live at your place.”

“That’s not quite it. I want to move into your place.”

“Wait, what?”

“My parents are selling our house. Your parents always seemed to intend to come back. Mine aren’t quite so optimistic. They’re basically planning for the worst. The situation in Ontario has always been chaotic, and they’re expecting things to only go down from here.”

I’m completely lost for words. Uncle Canary told me about how he grew up in that beautiful house and always dreamed of living the rest of his life inside of it. And yet, the war has stripped him of even that humble dream…

“I am so sorry.”

“What? Don’t be. My Dad’s really excited, if anything. Apparently, the other Birdbrains are living in Montreal right now too, so he’s taking it as a chance to make amends.”

“It’s not just that. I can’t let you move in with me.”

“Come on, man. It would basically be like hanging out all day every day. What’s to hate?”

I sigh and try as hard as I can to not imagine the happy life that would be going downstairs knowing that there would be someone there waiting for me. A life where I don’t need to be wary with my hopes, lest all there at the dinner table is a pile of textbooks and a few pieces of scrap paper. As soon as he suggested the idea, I started to look forward to it. But I can’t accept it.

“I wouldn’t make a good roommate, and I usually just stay up in my room.”

“I already know about all of that. I can remember a few times where I’ve studied in your kitchen all evening and you never came down even once.”

“Then, why—”

“J. Answer me honestly.”

Riley turns on the bench and looks right into my eyes. His look of resolve surprises me, especially given that he looked so unsure just a few moments ago.

“If you just always hole yourself in your room, then what difference would it make to have me live over there? But that’s not the real issue here, right? It’s not really about that.”

I look away, but Riley grabs my head and forces me to face him.

“Look right at me when you answer. It’s me, isn’t it?”

I struggle to turn my head and avert my eyes, but his hands are firm. Closing my eyes to gather my thoughts, I give my confession:

“I don’t want you to be bound to me.”

“Well, I want to be closer to you. I’m already always there anyway, right? It’s pretty much already my home. All I ever did at Mom and Dad’s place was walk up the stairs to my room and go to bed. I spend more waking hours at your place than at mine.”

I move my hand to take Riley’s warm hand off of my cheek. He removes it before I even make contact.

“Look, Riley. If you lived with me, I would worry that you’re only by my side because I’m giving you no other choice.”

“That’s ridiculous—”

“No, it’s not. Especially now, with your parents moving away. You said they’re selling the house, right? That means if you ever have an argument with me or realize how big of a loser I am, you won’t have anywhere to—”

“I wouldn’t go anywhere. I can’t, man. You might think of us as just childhood friends who stuck together for old times’ sake, but that’s where you’re wrong. I wouldn’t leave the only person I could call a brother.”

“You say that now, but you never—”

“I do know. Look, if we argued, I’m not gonna run away like a little kid. We’re gonna sit down and talk about it, like we always have. Since when did we ever hold grudges with each other?”

“Remember that one time where I ate the last piece of your chocolate Easter bunny?”

“I’m pretty sure ‘never talking to you again’ lasted all of three hours before I ran back apologizing.”

“Sure. Point taken.”

“And then, all of that stuff about you being a loser…”

Riley puts a hand on my shoulder and gives it a firm squeeze.

“You’re the type of person who can throw three strikes in a row when he gets serious. I’m sure you’ll be fine, man. I know you will. And I want to reserve front row tickets for the moments when you shine.”

I feel myself getting a bit emotional. Happiness. Self-loathing. Confusion. Frustration. The indescribable catharsis in my heart wells over as I feel myself tearing up a bit.

“You have so many friends. Back in high school, all of the other guys adored you. And then, even Alex… even she always hung around you. And yet, you’re always here for me.”

“Dude. They were just classmates. No big deal. If you didn’t notice already, you’re the only real friend I’ve got. Alex and I only ever started talking because we both knew you. In fact, I was always jealous of Alex for being a better fit for you than I was.”

“That’s not true. She and I—”

“I could feel it. I didn’t stand a chance against her until she walked away herself.”

I can’t say anything, effectively confirming the truth of Riley’s words. But he simply laughs sadly before continuing.

“It’s fine, man. I was okay with it, then, and I’m okay with it now. After all, slow and steady won the race. It’s honestly Alex’s loss, being too petty to talk to you about everything face to face.”

“I’m glad to know that this is a shounen ai manga where the girl loses to the main guy.”

Riley chuckles and looks up at the sky. The sea of stars is already twinkling over the clear skies of Waterloo. The familiar coolness of evening has already settled in, but somehow my existence at this moment feels so incredibly warm.

“Mom didn’t want me to stay here. She told me to follow after them right after my exams are over. But Dad helped me convince her to let me stick around if I live with you.”

“Aunt Liz changed her mind about something? Seems unusual.”

“Yeah, I was surprised too. But Dad told me afterward that Mom always felt guilty about not doing anything about the Birdbrains when they fell apart. In a way, Mom is even more excited than Dad about moving to Montreal. After all, she probably wants to see Dad laughing with his friends again.”

Riley gives a wry grin.

“She probably didn’t want for me to also regret not being next to the one I love most.”

“No homo.”

My face feels a bit hot from the sudden mention of “love”. Looks like I’m an easily moved person.

“So, as long as you live with me, Uncle Canary and Aunt Liz will let you stay back?”

“That’s right.”

I pinch the bridge of my nose and try to organize my thoughts.

“I still don’t think us living together is a good idea.”

“Well, I think it is. After all, then I can stop you before you do stuff like last night.”

I look right at Riley with a gaping mouth. He’s looking at me right back with a smirk on his mouth, but with a worried expression shown in his eyes.

“Yes, I know about it. Got a little tip from someone.”

I open and shut my mouth like a goldfish. I struggle to find the right way to explain myself.

“How much do you know?”

“Let’s just say a connection of mine got their hands on your police report.”

I cover my eyes with my hands as I prepare to apologize.

“I was going to tell you earlier. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine. To be honest, the reason why I was talking so much today was that I didn’t want you to bring it up before I did.”

“I thought you talked that much today because that’s what you do every day.”

“Hey, hey. Get a little more serious if you’re apologizing.”

“Noted.”

Riley stays silent, as if waiting for me to say something. I realize that he is still waiting for my answer to his question.

“How long do I have to make the decision?”

“Until the end of the week, right after exams. That’s when my parents are leaving.”

“Woah. That soon?”

“Yeah. I know, right? They seem to have been planning it for a while too.”

“And you only found out recently, you said?”

“Yup. A day or two ago.”

I decide that it’s probably fine if Riley moves in. After all, his presence is a huge help to me too.

“You can probably just start bringing your stuff over in the next few days. So we don’t have to scramble on the day your parents leave.”

“So that’s a yes?”

“Yes.”

We smile at each other, thinking in silence about the future.

Riley stands up once more, this time picking his bag. I follow his lead and turn to go towards my house.

“You’re coming to grab your laptop and books, right?”

“Nah, don’t need ’em. I wasn’t going to study the night before my exam, remember?”

“Yep. I still think it’s a horrible idea.”

“Well, I’ll know after tomorrow morning.”

Riley turns the other way to go to the bus stop, but turns right back as if he forgot something.

“Since you’re already out, shouldn’t you buy your groceries right now?”

“Nope. Your job.”

“Sigh. It was worth a try. I’ll bring over the groceries tomorrow. In the meantime, take the rest of this.”

Riley hands over his book bag which still has all of the food from lunch wrapped up inside of it. I peek inside and see that even if Riley forgot about the groceries tomorrow (which wouldn’t be without precedent), I would have enough to eat for the next few days.

“Oh yeah. One final thing.”

Riley steps towards me and puts his arm around my torso. Surprised, I clutch onto the bag with one hand while the other falls to my side.

“Happy birthday. I’ll say it again in person tomorrow. But just in case.”

A quote from my favourite book suddenly popped into my mind:

There is no use in loving things if you have to be torn from them, is there? 

I bring my free hand up to Riley’s back and pull him closer. All at once, my tears finally brim over and fall.

“Thank you for everything.”

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When the Cat’s Away

Another Great Day

Chapter 1 of SWIFTSAILS.

“Fly with me.”

Her outstretched hand is within my reach. And yet, my arms stay at my side. Fear seizes my entire being as I imagine that familiar scene of white and blue in all directions. My legs shake at the thought of having to go back to that faraway place, ten kilometers above the solid ground on which I stand, trembling.

I was always afraid of falling. The higher we go, the harder we fall. That is the reality of the human experience.

A fear of heights is common sense. I have only been convinced of this through all of those adventures and close calls. But there is one emotion that defies all common sense. A feeling filled with joy, sadness, longing, and dread. A roller coaster that has no end, that keeps me always bracing myself and holding my breath for the next turn and development.

We fell out of the sky together. We landed on rock bottom. We lay on the ground, holding hands while waiting to be swallowed by that cruel winter night.

We survived.

An inkling of hope—a bubbling delusion—begins to form in my mind as I force myself to meet her glimmering, beckoning eyes.

Maybe, just maybe, the lower we are right now, the higher our hearts will one day soar.

The poison of this love erases every last bit of rationality I have left, leaving behind just a crazed man thirsting for a glorious climax and blissful dénouement—

—Maybe I’ll reword that someday when I write a book. After we reach our happily ever after.

With my heart nearly leaping out of my chest, I give her my reply.


“Wake up. Get your ass out of here.”

“Sir. You told me to get my ass in here and go to sleep just a wink ago.”

“Don’t get smart with me. Things have changed. Get moving or I’ll drag you by your feet.”

“Understood.”

I poke my head out from behind the thin blanket and try to adjust my eyes to the sudden stream of light in the room. I feel my naked torso and bare legs getting goosebumps as I throw off the only thing between me and the chilly air. I quickly pull the covers back on when I realize that a certain appendage is standing at attention from behind my underwear as if saluting the arrival of a most excellent day.

“Am I supposed to stand here while you rub one out? I’ve seen more dicks than you can imagine since coming to work here, and I can assure you that yours is nothing special to look at.”

“Well, aren’t you quite the connoisseur.”

“Did you say something, punk?”

“Oh, nothing. Just wishing you a good morning.”

I move my hands around my nether regions trying to make sure that the entire package is concealed and secured, and then finally sit up and throw aside the white sheet triumphantly.

Shivering a little as I move my feet off of the bed and onto the cold hard ground, I wobble over to the chair on the other side of the cell and silently put on my stained dress shirt while the guard looks on, amused.

“You put your shirt on before your pants?”

“I have to tuck it in after anyway.”

“You look absolutely ridiculous.”

“Luckily, I don’t usually dress up in the presence of dudes.”

“You better get used to it.”

The insides of my black jeans wrap my legs in the uncomfortable cold as I pull them on and fasten the button after smoothing out my shirt and pulling it under the waistline into a neat military tuck. I fumble with the buckle of my cheap belt while continuing the conversation with the uniformed man watching me clothe myself.

“So, you’re gonna greet me like this every morning?”

“Next time you’re here, sure.”

“What does that even mean?”

I start walking towards the bar doors where the guard is standing. He gives me a weird look and points at the shoes and socks which I placed under my chair last night.

“Put your shoes on too. You’re not coming back.”

“Wait, what?”

I look right into—let me check his name tag—Anthony’s face with what is probably the most confused expression I have had in a while.

“Your bail was posted. You’re leaving.”

“I think there must have been a mistake. I told the cops that I don’t have a grand.”

“A girl went in over at the station about ten minutes ago to pay under your name. Quite a babe, from what I heard. You got a girlfriend or something?”

In response to such a piercing and soul-crushing question, I can only put on a stupid and smile and point to myself while making a self-deprecating joke.

“You think I can really get a girlfriend?”

“Meh. You know what they say, about average-sized guys being more eager in bed.”

“Wait, what?”

“Oh, nothing.”

The guard clears his throat before continuing.

“Well, lucky you. Maybe someone screwed up. Consider it an early birthday gift or something.”

“And when, pray tell, is my birthday?”

“Tomorrow, according to your file.”

He waves his clipboard in front of me, showing a chart with all of my personal information along with an unflattering mug shot of me tacked on the side.

“Very astute, my dear Tony. You gonna throw me a surprise party?”

“Hell no. Put your goddamned shoes on.”

I move back into my cell and pull on my socks while thinking about my situation. So, I’m getting out earlier than I thought. From what the public defender told me, it would take around two days before a judge would hear my case, and then the sentence could take anywhere from a week to a couple of months to be decided. But, he told me, I was probably going to get off pretty light. Apparently, my case looks pretty good. Just like I planned. And then, I managed to secure a room for myself so that I can sleep and eat without any worries before sentencing. Just like I planned.

But I guess being able to laze around at home is better than being holed up here. Thank you, unknown woman, for your kind birthday gift.

Wait—

“Yo, Tony. What did you mean by ‘next time’?”

“What?”

“You said that you were going to watch me dress again the next time I’m here. But I’m getting outta here, aren’t I?”

“Oh, come on. You know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t.”

Tony the talkative guard rolls his eyes as he looks at me with a wry smile.

“I know what you did.”

“Explain.”

“You planned this all out. The evidence in your favor. The reasonable doubt about who did it. The testimonies from the others who were detained with you. Even getting your own cell. You planned this all before getting into this whole mess.”

“Hm?”

“If I had to guess, you even planned for someone to accidentally pay your bail on your behalf.”

“Nah, I didn’t think that far.”

Tony leans forward and gives me an eager look.

“So, the rest of what I said—”

“You have a really great imagination, Tony boy. But the truth is, I’m just some poor chump who accidentally got wrapped up in some trouble. Who just got involved with the wrong crowd.”

“My buddy Mike was the one who interviewed you last night. He seems to think the same thing as you.”

“Yep. Listen to your friend.”

“But!”

Tony raises his hand and points at my face.

“You were smirking when they handed you over to me. What kind of innocent man smirks after a police interview?”

“I’m sure that reason will work out in court.”

Tony ponders for a short while before assuming a serious face.

“You got everything on you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Get the fuck out of that cell.”


The meeting with my public defender is short and sweet, just like the blueberry muffin that he bought for me on his way to the jailhouse. He tells me to make sure that I show up for my court appearance tomorrow—that’s right, on my birthday of all days—and to dress appropriately for the occasion. After confirming that I understand, he stands up and shakes my hand with a big goofy grin on his face. Even though he was called out at such a late—early?—hour, he looked positively beaming.

“You’ll be just fine. This will a smooth case for the two of us.”

After he walks out carrying his oversized briefcase, Tony comes back in to lead me out of the meeting room and through a white hallway. We go to a storage room where I get back my wallet, my keys, and my jacket. Then, strolling briskly past many tired-looking early morning patrol staff, we finally reach out front where I see a police car on neutral, waiting to take me to the station.

Standing outside that station, Tony reaches out and pats me on my back.

“When you’re back, I’ll go easy on ya. Maybe even spoil you a little.”

“I already told you, I won’t be back.”

“Ha, that’s what they all say.”

The police car honks loudly at us and flashes its lights. Tony looks over and yells out:

“Fuck you, too, Amy!”

Then, looking at me, he breaks out into a chuckle. I join him, the warmth of that moment letting me forget about the brisk morning air. But alas, the moment fades and he presents his fist for a parting bump.

“Take care, man.”

For some reason, I feel incredibly lonely as I raise my hand and give his a light tap with my knuckles.

“Thank you. See you never.”

Tony snickers as he waves and sends me off.

What a life I’m living, where the person who has been the nicest to me in oh-how-long is a prison guard.

I get into the cruiser in the front seat and buckle up next to a burly man with coils for arms.

“So, you’re Amy?”

The veins on his trunk of a neck pop as he utters an ice-cold retort.

“One more word out of you and you’re getting in the back.”

Oh, the start to another great day.


There is no one waiting for me at the station.

To be honest, I’m a little disappointed. After hearing from Tony the guard about how a babe went to the station to pay my bail, I thought for a moment that maybe it would be like in a movie where a girl waltzes into my life and whisks me away on an adventure.

Lame. Real life needs to take a lesson in narrative.

I go to the front desk and inquire about my bail payment to the young woman in uniform.

“Hello. My name is—”

“Don’t worry. I have your file right here. How may I help you?”

“Oh, you were here earlier when I first arrived at the station.”

“That I was. How may I help you?”

“Quite a coincidence, huh? At what time do you get off work?”

“How. May. I. Help. You.”

The female officer peers from behind her glasses and gives me a stony expression which gradually cracks at the corner of her lips into a humorous smile. I would tease her more, but I know better than to go too far with having fun at the expense of a figure of authority. Especially one with a baton at her side.

“I just wanted to ask about my bail.”

“Yes, you no longer have to worry about it. Someone paid it on your behalf, and even under your name. You should receive back the amount in full after your verdict and sentence are decided.”

“Wait, so I’m gonna get a thousand dollars when this is all over?!”

“If you don’t plan on paying her back, then yes.”

“So, it was a girl who paid for my bail…”

“The individual asked that we do not identify them for you.”

I close one eye and look at her incredulously.

“Do I not have a right to know who paid for my bail?”

“They told us to treat it as a donation to you, so technically you paid it.”

“…Sounds really sketchy.”

“Feel free to call the cops on us.”

The female officer is noticeably snickering at this point. A male officer sitting behind her reading on his laptop also seems to be laughing with his back turned to me.

“Just please tell me one thing.”

“Shoot.”

“Was she really a hottie?”

The female officer rolls her eyes and turns to tap the male officer on his shoulder.

“You answer.”

He swivels around in his chair and stares at me straight in the eye while taking a long swig of coffee. Then, he answers my question with a straight face:

“You bet she was.”

The male officer swivels back around in one fluid motion and continues scrolling through what looks like a familiar message board. The female officer sighs and looks at me wearily.

“Will that be all?”

“Just your number, please.”

She laughs and shakes her head.

“Don’t make me tell on you to that cute little girlfriend of yours after she paid big money to get your ass out of jail.”

“I’ve never had a girlfriend, just so you know.”

“Well, then. I would feel bad changing the natural order of things.”

The male officer behind her gives her a small round of applause. I give a curt smile and accept the kind joke made at my expense.

“But seriously, now. One last inquiry.”

“I’m heartbroken that you were joking with that last one.”

Ignoring her bait, I continue on with my request:

“Is it possible for me to get a ride home? I’m short on cash.”

The female officer thinks for a moment, and then nods her head as she picks up the office phone and makes a call.

“Consider it repayment for making this overnight shift more bearable.”

I stand there stunned by her acquiescence of my request. She brings the receiver to her ear with one hand while shooing me away with the other.

“Just go outside and wait. I’ll ask for an available cruiser to take you home.”

After thanking her and waving at the back of the male officer’s head, I head outside and look out at the street for signs of an approaching police car.

It really is cold outside, for spring.

I reach down and rub my legs up and down to try warming up. On days like these, I really wish that I wore long johns before heading out. Although, to be fair, I would have only been out for half an hour or so if the police didn’t show up.

Even though I planned for the worst-case scenario, I didn’t think that it would actually happen. Oh well. Long johns are a pain in the ass to put on, and that won’t change anytime soon.

Soon, after a short wait, a cruiser pulls up to the curb. I walk over and peer in through the passenger seat window as the window rolls down.

“Thank you for—”

Oh.

The incredibly muscled “Amy” stares right into my soul with his look of recognition. Munching vigorously on a doughnut, he maintains eye contact with me making a loud chewing sound. Before he can say anything, I turn around and walk off into the dark streets. Behind me, I hear the cruiser drive away and turn on its siren for a second or two as it runs a stop sign and then speeds around the corner.

“Guess I’m walking home after all.”


I watch my hot breath float up to the sky with every couple of steps.

As I make my way home at a leisurely pace, I admire the empty sidewalks of Waterloo. A former tech hub in Ontario, it once was a bustling city with two universities, several finance and software firms, and new startup companies of all sorts popping up seemingly every day.

Or at least, that’s what my parents once told me about the Waterloo that they had grown up in.

These days, Waterloo is much quieter on the world stage. Especially with the ongoing politics surrounding the merger between Ontario and Eastern Canada, our small world of technology and finance are only background characters in the mess going on right now.

Walking past many old relics of the old Waterloo—a high school close to the two universities, the old buildings of former tech giants, the bus stops that have yet to be deconstructed and removed—give me a pang of nostalgia for a Waterloo that I barely knew.

“This place really has changed.”

Suddenly, I hear a horn blare behind me. Turning to my right, I see a black luxury car flashing its lights as it slows down to a halt beside me.

Oh, shit. Is this going to be like one of those movies where men in black whisk me away in the veil of night and interrogate me? I inch away from the road as I debate between fight and flight in this situation.

When was the last time I had any exercise?

While I resolve to lift weights and take judo lessons if I ever get out of this alive, the front door on my side swings open as the driver of the car steps out:

A smartly-dressed woman in an expensive suit.

“Good evening, sir.”

Completely floored by the reversal of expectations, I stammer the first retort that comes to mind:

“You’re on the wrong side of the road.”

The woman brought a gloved hand to her lips as she giggles.

“If a car drives on the wrong side of the road and no one sees, is it against the law?”

“Did you stop me on my early morning walk just to discuss epistemology?”

“Actually, no.”

She moves her hands to her side and cleanly turns on the balls of her feet. I step back in surprise from her sudden movement while she, unfazed, opened the back door of the luxury car and bowed gently at her waist and gave a quick flick of her wrist.

“I’m taking you home.”

I am torn between laughing and crying at the absurdity of the situation. I end up chuckling nervously and looking around to see if anyone is around. No one. Hahaha. The suited woman is still holding open the car door with her servile posture.

“W-who are you, now?”

Damn it. I stammered. I think back to the crash courses that Riley gave me on confidence and social dominance. I usually just ignored whatever came out of his rambling mouth as he went on and on about how to woo the ladies and conquer one’s foes, but I faintly recall one of his lessons:

“It’s called a power play, bro. You set the pace and the rules, then force ‘em to get dragged along. They won’t even know what hit ‘em.”

Although, in this case, I am painfully aware of the dynamic. A stranger drove up to me on the wrong side of the road and scared the living daylights out of me, then told me she would give me a ride as if it were already decided that I would accept. And now, I, completely thrown off-guard, am on the back foot as I try to hold my ground in this delicate yet fast-paced mind game.

The woman, as if relishing the smell of my fear, closes her eyes and smirks at me with impish delight as she artfully and nimbly keeps the conversation on her home turf.

“Who am I? Why, just a kind stranger taking you on an evening drive.”

“And when did I agree to this arrangement?”

“Would you so easily turn down the kindness of a generous passerby?”

“You drove up to me on the wrong side of the road! How do I know you’re not here to kidnap me?”

“Because I’m holding open the back door and not the trunk lid.”

No matter how I try to press on and gain control of the situation, she effortlessly gives a beautifully-crafted and perfectly reasonable response to each of my questions. As I fire off more and more curveballs at her, trying to throw her off, I feel myself calming down.

“—and, most importantly, why the hell would you even pick up some rando off the street at 4 in the morning?”

“Would you believe me if I told you that I just want to ‘pay it forward’, as they say?”

I run my fingers through my hair and start rubbing my hairline out of habit. I hate to say it, but I actually really like this stranger. This entire time, she has maintained both her bowed pose and her even tone of speech, betraying not the slightest trace of impatience or disdain. In fact, I feel kind of bad even doubting her in the first place; from what I can see and hear, she is genuinely offering me help.

Although, maybe that’s what she wants me to think—

I shake off the thought and reaffirm the last question I asked:

“…Can you swear that you mean it?”

With a grin on her face juxtaposing with her otherwise humble stance, she places a hand over her heart and quells all that remains of my apprehension:

“I swear by my life and name.”

I breathe in deeply through my nose and slowly exhale as I finally accept her offer.

“…Thank you. This will save me a lot of time.”

I walk up to the open door and put my feet in, plopping down on the cushy warmed seat. When I am comfortably settled in, she finally rights her back and closed the door with a gentle but firm motion, then takes one stride toward the driver’s seat and enters the car. She changes the gear selector to “drive” as the mighty vehicle’s engine roars to life. Turning sharply to the right, the driver brings the car back over to the correct lane and then rolls down the road at a steady speed. Just as I am about to open my mouth and give her directions, she arrests me with a disarming remark:

“I take it you live pretty far from the police station.”

Holy shit. Has she been following me ever since we were at the station? Wait—

“Are you the one who paid for my bail?”

“Not as far as I know, sir.”

“Well, what do you know?”

In the small rearview mirror, I can see her glancing at me as she turns her car into an unfamiliar street.

“I can at the very least tell you that it wasn’t me.”

I stare into the rear view mirror trying to catch a tell revealing a life; no matter how hard I look, I can see nothing of the sort. Instead, her eyes are trained on the road as she drives diligently through a darkened neighborhood. She is completely focused on her driving; it really shows, given that the ride is as pleasant as one might only be able to expect from a trained chauffeur.

I have the feeling that my wary behavior is quite insulting to the kind person who offered to drive me home. I clear my throat before changing the topic of the conversation.

“So, what’s your name?”

“Should you not be providing yours before requesting mine?”

“Ah, yeah, my bad. Just call me J.”

“Jay? As in the bird?’

“Nah, J as in the letter.”

“Quite an interesting choice of a nickname. Or is that your real name?”

“It’s what everyone except the government and banks knows me by.”

“My, my. What a curious name.”

I peek around the driver’s seat at the road ahead and realize that I have no idea where we are. I am just about to say my address, but then I realize that maybe we could just have a nice conversation. After all, it takes less than ten minutes to get back to my place from where she picked me up, and I usually don’t get to talk with many women. Especially not ones who look so dashing in a suit.

“So, I told you my name. Now, how about you?”

A short silence follows my question, followed by a nonchalant answer.

“Call me Ishmael.”

“…That’s definitely a fake name. I shouldn’t have trusted you after all.”

“Ignorance is the parent of fear.”

“What the hell? Don’t you dare try getting away with quoting Moby-Dick.”

The driver laughs heartily at my accusatory tone but responds with her usual diplomatic way of speaking.

“I’m impressed that you caught on so fast. It is my favorite book of the many in my master’s collection, so please pardon my tasteless jest.”

Realizing that I am once again letting my suspicious nature get the better of me, I hang my head apologetically and bring my hand to my forehead. She was just having a little fun with me, and I immediately lashed out at her. I really need to watch myself, lest I cause offense to this kind stranger who is giving me a ride home.

“If you want me to call you Ishmael, I’ll do it. After all, I didn’t quite give you my real name either.”

The driver—no, “Ishmael”—turns around briefly and gives me a comforting smile before she goes back to completing her U-turn. Seems like we went right into a dead end. Maybe she too is unfamiliar with this area. Somehow, this quells the rest of my concerns about her motives behind giving me a lift; after all, would a criminal set on trafficking me really not know where to go?

“Well, then. Today I shall be Ishmael.”

“If you’re Ishmael, then who’s Ahab?”

Ishmael noticeably tenses up for a moment, but then gives me a straight answer.

“It’s my personal nickname for my master, of course.”

I have the feeling that there is some deep meaning behind this. Maybe, just as Ahab inspired Moby-Dick’s protagonist with his crazy ambitions, the Ishmael before me is also caught up in her employer’s madness.

I wonder what kind of great mission someone rich enough to hire such a well-trained chauffeur would have.

“What would your master’s Moby Dick be?”

This time, the silence lasts for quite a while. Looking in the rearview mirror again, I can see that Ishmael’s eyebrows are furrowed. I am not sure whether it is from trying to see the road ahead in the dim lighting or from being deep in thought. I decide that either way I ought to wait patiently for her answer as she turns in and out of many other neighborhoods in the area.

Now that I think about it, why is she not using her headlights? After all, this is quite an expensive car. Should it not have some excellent peripherals?

But wait! Maybe that’s why she isn’t using her headlights! Maybe she doesn’t want to be seen! Maybe she’s driving all over the place like this to throw off the cops so that they can never trace me again once she dumps me in some guy’s basement and—

There I go again. It’s probably just because she doesn’t want to disturb the sleeping inhabitants in the rows of houses that we’re passing by. For her to be so considerate of even the common folk, despite being the spitting image of a well-cultured gentleman…

Although, maybe she is also one of us. Maybe her employer picked her off of the streets just like she did for me and cultivated her into a perfect servant. After all, a poor girl lifted up into the world of elites would be much more willing to obey her master’s every command. But wouldn’t that be terribly inefficient compared to finding someone already trained to wait on the bigwigs?

My mental debate on whether or not a rich guy would prefer to hire someone poor or rich as their attendant is interrupted by Ishmael’s quiet mumbles.

“…Her Moby Dick, eh…”

“Is your master a woman?”

Ignoring my offhanded remark, Ishmael clears her throat and delivers her answer:

“Maybe Ahab sees the world itself as his Moby Dick.”

Before I can properly reflect on this answer, Ishmael throws the spotlight back onto me.

“So, why were you at the police station?”

I hesitate to reveal the circumstances of my being there. I consider for a moment whether or not to just tell a lie—maybe just say that I was being interrogated as a witness in someone else’s crime—but I somehow cannot bring myself to lie to the woman before me.

“I was arrested as part of a drug bust.”

Expecting her to be disturbed by this revelation, I mentally prepare myself to apologize for misleading her and then find my way home on foot. But, acting as if I had simply commented on the weather, turns to give me a nod and a smile.

“Did you do it?”

“I won’t be found guilty of it, that’s for sure.”

“Are you innocent, then?”

“In the eyes of the law, yes.”

I try to keep my answers short to not reveal too much of my trickery but also to leave a sense of mystery for dear Ishmael. Since she hasn’t thrown me out of the car after finding out that I might be a felon, maybe she’s interested in this kind of stuff. After she pries for more information and begs for an elaboration, I’ll finally—in a most “reluctant” way—reveal my utter genius and wit.

But she doesn’t press on. Only seeing her eyes in the rearview mirror, I cannot read her expression as she steers back onto the main road with the same smooth controlled driving.

Silence once more. Feeling as though I should push the conversation forward given that I was the one who brought up an unpleasant truth, I decide to make some small talk.

“Did you know? A stranger paid for my bail.”

“Was it a friend of yours?”

“Not as far as I know. Apparently, it was some random chick, and a hot one at that. So probably not.”

“Your girlfriend, then?”

“You’re not the first one to inquire. Would you believe it if I told you that I have never had a girlfriend?”

“I will if you insist upon that truth.”

I do not make an effort at such an insistence, not only because it pained me to think about my lack of a love life, but also because I am not quite telling the truth in the first place. But Ishmael does not press the issue, despite the glint of dissatisfaction that I saw flash in her eyes from the rearview mirror. She scratches her head with a gloved hand before changing the subject.

“So, Mr. J.”

“Just J is fine.”

“Are you an avid reader?”

“No, not especially. Why?”

“Many people would know the first quote I said, but very few would know the second.”

I guess she is right about that one. In any case, her guess was spot on because—

“I once had a friend who loved books.”

“Are you two not friends any longer?”

“Well, we haven’t had a real conversation since sophomore year of high school.”

“And yet you still remember quotes from a book that this friend once recommended?”

“Well, she was quite the fanatic. She seemed to just devour any book about the sea.”

“Ah. Was she fond of the ocean?”

“I’m not so sure, to be honest. I think she was fond of a good adventure story if anything.”

Now that I think about it, we were going to go to the ocean together sometime…

“Do you do much reading yourself these days?”

“Just the occasional web novel.”

“Have you not looked into more of those books that your friend loved?”

“I sometimes skim through a synopsis or two online.”

Ishmael seems awfully interested in this old friend of mine for some reason. Having to think about the past—about her—starts making me feel a little uneasy. As much fun as this ride has been, I start feeling like it would be better if I just got home right about now.

“Hey, Ishmael. Should I give you the directions to my place?”

“No need. Get off when the car stops.”

Jarred by the sudden herald to the end of the ride, I look at her reflection quizzically, trying to decipher her intentions.

“Where are you dropping me off?”

“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”

“Oh, come on, another Moby-Dick quote?”

The car comes to a stop, this time on the correct side of the road. Ishmael gets out of her seat and strides around the front of the car to the other side. I slip through the backseat over to the other side and get out the door that Ishmael is holding open with her head bowed and her hand on her chest.

“Please take care.”

“Oh, yeah, you too. Thanks for the ride, I guess. Does your boss ever tell you that you’re a great driver?”

The stranger who I will probably remember forever as Ishmael gives me a smirk once again; just like last time, it seems utterly devoid of malice and is instead filled with a pleasant playfulness.

“I try all things, but I achieve what I can.”

“There’s no ‘but’.”

“You passed the test, Mr. J.”

After a curt nod of her head, Ishmael walks back around her car in perfectly-spaced steps and gives me a wave before getting in. I watch the car drive off as I try to reconcile what had just happened.

A stranger picked me up off of the streets, drove me around with no particular rhyme or reason, enjoyed a lengthy conversation with me, and then dumped me out without any warning. Is this some sort of game that chauffeurs like to play during their break time?

But anyway, I should really find out where I—

“—?!”

I’m on my street, standing right outside of my own house. I had been so distracted by the last portion of our conversation that I had completely lost track of where we were.

I am suddenly immensely disturbed by one apparent fact:

She knew where I lived without me ever telling her.

Suddenly feeling the chill of this strange morning, I scurry into my house just as the soft light of dawn begins to fill the sky.

When I unlock the door and step over the threshold, I don’t bother turning on the lights as I’ve already gotten used to wandering around my place in the dark. But, out of habit, I call out into the emptiness:

“I’m back.”

Looking over at the wall on the right, I see a dim reflection of myself in the large mirror atop the hall table. I grimace at my current state, with sunken eyes, greasy hair, and a prickly face. But, reaching out to the glassy surface of the mirror, I touch my fingertips to those of the person on the other side and whisper with a hint of crying laughter in my voice:

“Why hello there, Katie Maurice.”

Another Great Day

It’s not like I love you or something…

Spoiler: I do.

The first anime that I proactively followed (and wasn’t just passively watching along with my siblings) was The Pet Girl of Sakurasou. And within twelve episodes, I had completely fallen in love with Nanami, the girl who dreams big and who bravely moves forward in every aspect of life—except for love.

My first best girl ❤

Airing in the same season was the now-infamous Sword Art Online, which for better or for worse defined an entirely new era for anime (especially for the isekai genre). But as much as I often had gripes with Kirito’s actions and the many issues with the plot’s construction, I was completely enamored with Asuna, the lone swordsman who uses her talent in-game for the benefit of those around her and who becomes a partner and equal to our overpowered protagonist. Oh yeah, she’s also a dunce when it comes to love.

Related image
Ordinal Scale was a good movie >:)

Fast forward a few years, and I happened upon the sensational anime A Certain Scientific Railgun (a spin-off/midquel to A Certain Magical Index). After having been a bit disappointed with both the titular character and the protagonist of Index, I thoroughly enjoyed Railgun, which focused on the perspective of Mikoto, the third strongest esper in Academy City who happens upon major conspiracies happening around her. And—of course—she is absolutely helpless whenever it comes to her crush.

Real shocker, I know.

No matter how many anime I watched after this one, there would always be this one girl who would always tug at my heartstrings and make me fall head over heels for them. She would be an incredibly nice young woman, beloved by all who know her for her upstanding character and her strong presence. And yet, when it comes to the person she likes, she becomes nervous and frustrated by her inability to properly say and feel the way that she feels about him. She fumbles, stumbles, over-compensates, double-guesses herself, and becomes defeatist when it comes to the person she cares about most. As much as she wants to be with this person and even spoil them if given the chance, she can’t bring herself to say those three words and put her feelings out in the open.

So all she can do, with flushed cheeks and shifty eyes,  is force out the phrase that she has gotten into the habit of saying to hide her true message:

“…You really are an idiot.”

But that’s why I love you.


Tsundere is a mainstay trope in anime. As evergreen as the doting little sister, the forever-alone female teacher in her thirties, and the perverted best friend, every character lineup in modern slice of life or shounen anime seems to include some variant of that cold attitude towards the main character or the world (tsun), followed by a gradual reveal of their true gentle and loving nature (dere). There are quite a few approaches to this character archetype, ranging from a bitter rivalry turning into friendship and love to a childhood/family friend who deals with the awkwardness of the passage of time in their friendship. But the general character arc is always “cold to warm”—that is, from closed to open, or from false to true.

A critical middle step in all tsundere character development is always denial. She has always been a strong and forthright character (maybe even a little harsh), but somehow she feels like she’s been losing her edge. Whenever he‘s around, she begins realizing that she has a hard time saying what she means. She stammers, makes petty excuses for every action she takes, treats him as expendable, and acts like every bit of his existence is an insult to hers. And yet, at the moment he is about to leave, she has a change of heart and suddenly shifts gears:

“…I wouldn’t mind if you stayed a little longer.”

Please don’t leave.

And soon, this strong female character feels stuck in this cycle of faking pretense just to see the person she loves, treating him like hot garbage for every moment of it, then wanting to beat herself up afterward for—yet again, not being able to sincerely show her true feelings.

We, the viewer, relish every moment of it.


Tsundere character development is often criticized as cheap and annoying. To many, it’s a great way to ruining a powerful female character by shoehorning in a weakness that is effectively played for tragicomic effect. To others, it’s an obvious self-insert mechanism by the author who wants to convince himself and his readers that every girl who was ever mean to him secretly harbored romantic attraction towards him. To both camps, the concept of tsundere is inherently destructive to the character’s development; after all, why the hell would such an otherwise strong character have so much trouble just telling someone how they feel?

But I would argue: aren’t strong people still just people?

When I was a bit younger, I always found “strong women” to be a bit intimidating. Although women in general were quite the enigma to me, the “strong” ones who seemed to be able to hold a conversation about anything, take the spotlight in every social situation, and maintain a smile and pretty face no matter what happens around them were always somewhat of an “off-limits” zone to me. It was almost overwhelming to be around someone who I deeply admired as a person but who I felt was always a bit detached from me in her mannerisms. In some situations, I would even feel like they were a little… fake.

Strength is an admirable trait, but it’s not quite a lovable one. Strength is a wall which defends against not only adversity but also those around us. Strong people are reliable and capable, but these two adjectives definitely don’t appear at the top of my list for lovable traits. Strong people are even usually quite nice—and I honestly believe that their kindness is genuine—but they also appear both a bit too reserved and also a bit too defensive. They, as the upstanding people they are, want to make everything around you. If you want to talk about that new show you watched, they will listen along and nod along with a smile and some well-placed questions. If you express your opinion about a hot-button issue, they will tell you that you probably have a point without challenging you. But if you ask them what they like or what they think, you will probably get one of two responses:

“Oh, I don’t really have a favorite.”

“I haven’t really thought that much about this.”

Maybe they really don’t have a favorite, or maybe they really aren’t interested in politics. But as time goes on, we inevitably feel like their strength isn’t just a way to overcome hardships and challenges; we feel like their strength is keeping us at arm’s length and preventing us from entering beyond the walls around them.

Their always-strong appearance is a rift which separates you from them.


The key to all meaningful relationships is vulnerability.

What I described in those “strong” people above is not true inner strength, but rather a fear of vulnerability. To these people, accidentally revealing an unexpected hobby or an unpopular opinion would be putting themselves out in the open to be criticized, potentially mocked, and invariably challenged. At best, the followup questions that would ensue would dig deeper and deeper to the essential, until the very core of one’s existence becomes stripped bare; at worst, the smug ridicule, thinly-veiled disdain, or overbearing pity that would follow is a debilitating blow to this “strong” person’s sense of identity.

Of course, in my experience, more people are closer to the former than the latter. From what I have seen, people are quite interested in peering into the hearts of others out of pure desire for human connection. And indeed, these “strong” people feel the same way. That’s why, despite not revealing much about themselves beyond the superficial, they are genuinely passionate about the people around them. They, in a sense, have mastered the art of creating human connection and coaxing other people into taking the risk of rejection by sharing a part of themselves with another. However, this trust only goes one way; while people are readily willing to trust this “strong” person with their secrets and truths, the “strong” person returns nearly nothing back and instead relies on their charisma to deflect the topic altogether.

My particular framing of these “strong” people has perhaps sowed doubt in your mind about whether or not they are truly strong. In fact, in a sense, the people who share their true selves with these “strong” people while assuming all the same risks of both exposure and rejection seem to be the truly strong ones by taking the risk of human connection.


This is the key: being a strong person doesn’t just mean always trying to appear or act strong.

And to me, that is the core of the beauty of the tsundere aesthetic.

I definitely wouldn’t consider Nanami, Asuna, or Mikoto to be weak. Nanami leaves home and takes on numerous part-time jobs while still in high school to fund her own dream of becoming a voice actress; Asuna takes on the burden of leading the other players of SAO to victory even though she is as scared as anyone else; Mikoto takes justice into her own hands when she realizes that the society around her has been conspiring against humanity itself. They are all teenage girls who refuse to ignore their calling and who propel themselves to new heights through their conviction.

But they are still teenage girls, all the same. Painfully so.

Being dedicated to your art, taking up the sword, or investigating wrongdoing doesn’t suddenly make you any less awkward and beleaguered when it comes to their personal lives. Nanami knows that she should make amends with her parents, but stubbornly decides to fight on alone just to prove something to herself. Asuna, to her horror, ends up treating SAO as an escape to her previous mundane life even as she earnestly tries to break out of it. Mikoto is harsh and unwavering when it comes to dispensing justice on her foes, but becomes uneasy when she might have to suspect or doubt her own friends. These are definite flaws in their character which are as plain as day to the viewer, but which don’t invalidate the strength that we feel emanating from them; after all, conquering one’s weakness is the pinnacle of strength, is it not?

So why, then, do we hold them to a different standard when it comes to love?


Tsundere can be seen as a form of rebellion against the current apathy championed in dating culture.

Don’t text back for at least a day even if you have something you really want to say. Don’t act too interested right off the bat even if you are enamored. Talk about this set of topics, even if you don’t care about them. Limit yourself to seeing them only once a week, even if all you do is wait until that next time.

Obviously dating culture is quite different in the West vs. in Japan, but I am sure that in the Land of the Rising Sun they still have similar social constructs around dating and relationships. From what I have seen, the mind game has become a central part of all romantic relationships, as an extension of the social metagame which has come out of modern social media. No longer are human relationships wholly spontaneous and passionate, based on us being together now. Instead, except for a narrow group of friends, social interactions have become cold and calculating.  And how could you blame anyone for being a little defensive when a passive-aggressive tweet or a passed-around screenshot could ruin your image without you ever even knowing? There was once a time where your friends would have to be subject to the harsh eye of society if they were to say, with their own mouth, the vitriol which now regularly pours out of their fingertips. But alas, the darker side to socialization has been driven into the shadows and is now an invisible force threatening to get you at any moment.

We are now part of a society which values feigned apathy. I say feigned because I know not a single person who truly wants to be apathetic.

Rather, humans are the embodiment of pathos. We laugh, we cry, we howl, we cackle, we sing, we wail. Nothing in the nature of humanity is drawn to extensive wars of attrition with the people we care about.

Mind you, I do see the intellectual appeal of a more strategic approach to communication. Outside of romance, social media and the Internet has allowed a higher level of concision when it comes to relaying information and organizing the discussion. Turn-based, timed communication has all but disappeared with the possibility of multiple parties constructing different conversations in real time. Two people can effectively each speak at the same time to two different people, with everyone spaced a thousand miles apart. Even within the same conversation, two people can effectively speak at the same time, typing up a response and immediate non sequitur while the other person is still typing or thinking of a response, allowing for a coherent, easy-to-understand dialogue which contains three or four different trains of thought. Amid all of this frantic information, strategizing to communicate in a way that gets to the point and removes extraneous emotional baggage makes unpleasant conversations easier to have. Pointing out an error in someone’s work, for example, is much easier through a tactfully-constructed critique than through approaching someone in the real world, where emotions are bound to get in the way. As a reflection of the online world, the real world now values removing human emotion from situations where human emotion should not interfere—especially in work.

But what about in places where human emotion should be at the forefront? What about when we begin to remove emotion and personal investment in what should be our happiest conversations?

I understand the efficiency of the direct interaction between human minds, but I absolutely reject it when it comes to my personal life with those I care about. In my view, humans are created by the union of “the mind” and “humanity”. And while the mind is now being recognized as the beautiful and wonderful force that it is, it has become an excuse for us to abandon the other part of what makes humans the greatest thinking beings on this planet. It has become an excuse to pretend that we are not living beings but rather perfect concepts. And that troubles me.

Which is why these days, when I see a tsundere character flailing around with their social interactions in their failed attempts to act detached, I become hopeful. After all, on the screen before me is the beautiful battle between the mind and humanity.

I shouldn’t feel this way, but I do. Based on how I feel, I should act this way. But it’s too hard, so now I can’t act.

This, my dear reader, is a reflection of every one of us in the modern world.

Tsundere characters are endearing not just because they are hilarious when trying to feign apathy. It’s also because they’re terrible at it. And sometimes, we also wish we were a bit less skilled at lying through our teeth, so that our falsehoods can reveal the truth without us having to say it directly.


One of those “strong” women I admired ended up becoming one of the people I loved most—maybe one of the people I love most even now.

And almost right after the first teary embrace, the veil of apathy dissipated and became replaced with a creeping sense of fear.

It isn’t the type of fear where I think a monster is around the corner and so I brace myself to fight it if needed. Rather, it’s a fear of us. I knew that (especially given my volatile and deeply troubled character) we would eventually get hurt. I knew that more than any external force, we had to be most afraid of ourselves and of each other’s darkness.  And I knew that when push came to shove, neither of us would be able to bear either raising our hand or having a fist raised at us.

And so, we could only succumb to each other’s darkness, until the only way to avoid the fight was to both head off in different directions.

I was bitter for a long time. I blamed her for a short while but ended up directing all of the blame to myself. And maybe rightfully so, since to this day, I feel like the monster inside me had reared its head in the ugliest way imaginable. I was sad and mad, with a deep regret from ever opening my heart to her and from baiting her—the “strong” woman who I admired—into letting her get hurt and potentially regret ever daring to allow herself to be vulnerable.

But I don’t regret that vulnerability. Not for one second. It led me to feel the most connection I had ever felt for a person who was once a stranger. It allowed me to go from seeing them as a stranger who I would occasionally pass by with a curt hello or a random name which sometimes pops up on my Facebook feed to know that I had a confidant who I could tell anything.

It was a short-lived connection, but it was a stronger one than any I had ever felt. And in a brutal sense, if all it took was a few months of tears and anguish to happen upon something that only comes once in a lifetime, which I know is irreplaceable for both of us no matter where we end up in the future, I would do it all over again.


Vulnerability is a risk. But so is an adventure. So is ambition. So is happiness. So is curiosity, change, desire, passion, excitement, knowledge, and wonder. But so are all of their counterparts.

Life itself is a risk. Because if we accept our own humanity, we accept that we have at least humanity to lose. Meaning that perhaps only apathy itself is not a risk since it means that we will definitely be losing a part of our humanity.

That is the critical moment of tsundere development: when the character finally realizes that they have as much to lose from inaction and hesitation as from action and decisiveness. They finally come to terms with the reality that there is infinitely more to be gained than to be lost. After all, all you stand to lose is one person in your life who would eventually fade away anyway; what you stand to gain is a deep connection which is all the while unique to your own person yet universal to the human experience. It is a place where we all reach through our own paths but which we all recognize when we see it. The meaning of life is created through our own experiences, but our experiences are defined by the people we come across. Meaning that, for as long as human nature abhors isolation, we will all inevitably become drawn to that mystical nameless place. The onus to muster up the courage to begin on our own journey falls only on each of us as individuals.

And perhaps, for me, the courage to finally begin on another journey despite my lingering fears from my previous one comes from a little bit of inspiration from a wide-eyed Japanese girl on screen, playing with her hair as she asks her carefully-crafted question with none of the confidence she had intended:

“Do you… also have someone you like?”

Please say me.

And of course, the main character replies:

“Well, you of course. We’ve been friends ever since we were little.”

B-b-b-baka! Moron!”

She raises her fist at him and he, bracing for the blow, raises his arm. But instead, all she feels is him poking his cheek.

“But that makes me happy, I guess.”

I love you so much.

It’s not like I love you or something…

I need you to know:

I still love you.

The way your hair falls over your shoulders.
The way your skin shows your shedding youth.
The way your scent penetrates my senses.
The way your face lights up when we meet.
The way you gaze at me while I ramble on.
The way you press up against me in each embrace.
The way you nestle your head in my chest.
The way you lean into every kiss.
The way you whine with a simple tease.
The way you stroke my hair as I cry.
The way you say you love me with shallow bated breath.
The way you conquer my body and soul.
The way you challenge my very being.
The way we parted ways, that distant day.

All is etched in my soul, in the tablet of my subconscious.
The burning of yearning chars my tired heart.
After so long, there are finally days where I don’t think of you. But somehow, the emptiness persists and burns away at me until I do.

And then I cry. Bitterly. With a smile, as I tell myself to be glad that I met you.
But I’m not. You took every single one of my first loves. That precious one, forever lost to me.

I peer within for the strength to one day let a second one entrace me the way you did. But I exhaust from the simple thought.
For now, I take another short repose. And after this one, another.

You would weep when you feared I would come to hate you. But you didn’t need to shed a single tear. For even now—
—I want you.

But I cannot have you. Should not have you.
So, with wistful humor that hinges on sobbing, I call out to you:

Meow.

I need you to know:

She, the Prince

As a young girl, my greatest chagrin was knowing that I could never grow up to be one of the daring knights or brave kings from those fantastical stories I loved. But I’ve long grown past that.

Fairy tales are pointless for a young woman with hopes and dreams, because there is nothing to be gained from obsessing over happily-ever-after. Reveling after a stroke of good fortune is just setting oneself up for failure in the future; as such, I strove to struggle all the way to the grave. Why would I want to be a self-righteous prince who walks in at the last second to deliver a deus ex basium when I can take center stage and shine gloriously from beginning to end?

After years of hard work, I finally forced the spotlight onto me.

Or so I thought.


Career women usually find partners with the same salary or more. It is simply a matter of statistics; this is normal, and it was certainly what I expected when I thought about love.

But then again, there was nothing quite normal about me and him.

He quit school to “discover himself” and ended up carving out a stable but difficult lifestyle for himself, writing articles and short stories from home. It was in the midst of this period of exploration that he drifted to me, and in the heat of the moment I too began scanning the horizon for signs of land. As he and I got closer, fell in love, then settled into marriage (all in the span of mere months), my working life had somehow stopped being about improving my resume and earning those performance awards and instead about fighting every day to earn a stable living for our new family. He continued to work from home, although at some point his earnings dwindled into nothingness. Something about him taking a break to work on a novel.

After particularly busy days, a voice in the back of my head told me that I might have been the only one still searching for that mystical shore. Sometimes, I wonder if he has already given up on reaching that magical land he yearned for. If he is satisfied in staying where he is, on a rickety ship cast out at sea.

“With you, every voyage is but a whimsical excursion.”

I already knew that what he would say if I ever brought any of this up. I hated myself for loving the way he could sweep me off my feet with just a few words.


Long eyelashes, accentuated by the way he squinted while deep in thought.

Strong hands, juxtaposed with the colorful pens he used to jot notes.

Thick arms and wide shoulders, contrasted with the serenity of his work.

He was beautiful, despite his messy hair. He was charming, even when he told bad jokes. He was strong, although he knew how much I loved it when he relied on me and showed me his soft side.

He loved me. I, a plain woman who long extinguished the intrepid maiden that resided in her heart. He, who seemed much better suited to wear a flowing cape while riding on a white horse, let me into his life and held me close.

I now regret the ugliness of my envy back then. Like a child throwing a tantrum during playtime when someone else gets to be the hero, I silently rued my fate of having to stand next to the prince I always wanted to be.


“Sir… should your wife stay with you to hear the results?”

“…Yes, doctor.”

This can’t be good.

“I am so sorry to say that… that…”

Why are you tearing up? Why can’t you just say he’s fine?

“…you have around one year to live.”

No…

“Yes, understood.”

“Should I give you some time alone with your wife?”

“That’s probably best, yes.”

Please leave… before I lose control…

“He’s gone. Let’s talk.”

We shared nary a single word as I cried in his arms while he stroked my hair.

“It will be fine. It will be fine.”


My favorite fairy tale was Cinderella. I loved that the prince can be so hopelessly in love with a mere servant girl that he can tell that the slipper will fit.

But the one that always haunted me was Beauty and the Beast. Where the prince is trapped in a monster’s form and forced to live in sullied form. In the end, he is mortally wounded but is only saved by the kiss of the one person who truly loved him.

This disturbed me. That such a strong, proud, worldly prince is saved by a merchant’s daughter is a challenge to the prayer I always made that I will one day become an indomitable prince who saves the day.

When this came to mind, I comforted myself by reading some Snow White. The prince comes, kisses the helpless princess, and saves the day. Just what I needed to restore my faith in my childhood wish.


 “How is the bedding?”

“Not as good as what we have at home.”

“How about I bring some from home?”

“No need. I’ll be out of here in no time.”

You’re only making it worse for me. Please.

“…How was your session today?”

“Better than usual. Not getting as dizzy as before.”

“That’s a good thing.”

“Although, I wish the shape of my head was more attractive.”

“You’re quite sexy when bald.”

“It’s too bad we can’t get too heated with the nurse coming in and out, eh?”

“I’m on my period.”

“Makes it so much better.”

Don’t make me laugh… I might start crying if I’m not careful.

A chilly breeze blew into the room. I strode across the room and closed the window. I looked outside and silently cursed the ugliness of the lonely roads illumined by streetlights.

“You should get some rest.”

“Same as you. You’re the one with work, right?”

“That’s right.”

I tugged on the curtains and noticed that the railing was loose. I made a mental note to tell the front desk when I leave.

“Honey.”

He abruptly sat up and gave me a serious look.

“…Yes?”

“I’ve been thinking that I have a lot of time, but all at once. I’m going to finish writing that novel.”

“…Good idea.”

Please don’t push yourself.

What is love, I wonder? Is it wishing that he can reach the shores of the island of dreams? That he can finally step on dry land and leave the waters behind?

Or is it hoping that he abandons his journey to stay by your side and keep drifting out at sea?


I met him for the first time at the subway station, during a one hour delay after work hours.

I had planned to go home and watch my favorite shows after a hard day filing paperwork, but my mood soured as agitation built up in the crowd around me. A woman loudly complained to a staff member who was trying to settle the commotion; a man argued with his wife on the phone about his whereabouts; a baby wailed as his mother cooed softly.

I skimmed a magazine I stole from the office lounge while tapping my feet impatiently. I had developed a habit of sitting around for way longer than I should, and standing in one place for so long without my phone out was a true test of character for me on a long day like this one. But I had promised myself this: to not use my phone during the day, until I get home.

My eyes scanned the glossy pages and fell upon beautiful prose. Realizing I had flipped to the middle of a short story, I turned the pages back to the start of the selection and read the title:

“…Seekers of the Unreached?

“A fantasy story.”

Startled by a voice next to me, I looked over and flashed a hostile scowl at the stranger who spoke to me out of the blue. However, seeing his warm smile, I cleared my throat and forced a polite grin while speaking in an overly cheery tone.

“Have you read it?”

“Yeah, you could say that.”

“Is it any good?”

“It’s hard for me to judge.”

“…I see.”

Not knowing how to continue the conversation, I looked back down and immersed myself in the piece I held in my hands. It was a simple story about a boy who strove to become the first explorer to chart a newly discovered world before realizing that he did not even dare to look inward into his own heart. I wonder if back then it had occurred to me that I had not read any fiction writing since finishing high school; if I had to guess, I would say that back then, I was too enthralled by the raw imagery and honest dialogue between the characters to even begin to compare it to the required readings I did for English class.

Maybe, in some ways, it read much like a parable of my own life.  Although set in a magical place with dragons and orcs, it had none of the dreamy quality of the other fantasy stories I have read. Rather, it was quite lucidly a tale about a boy who trapped himself in a world without fairies.

I felt a swell in my chest when I finished the story. I looked over at the man standing next to me. He had been glancing over expectantly, and his face lit up when I acknowledged him with a small nod of my head.

“…That was exquisite.”

“Thank you.”

“Come again?”

The wheels of the subway train screeched as it pulled to a halt. The man stepped forward to enter the car while I stood still on the platform, dumbfounded. We stood there right at the doorway while people walked around us in and out giving us pointed glares.

“Do you have a phone?”

I nodded scrambled to pull out my phone, but the door-closing tune played right as I fished it out of my pocket. I looked at him with frantic eyes, and he returned a confident smirk.

“Google me.”

As the train left the station, I turned around and sat down on a now-vacant bench, wondering why I did not board the subway.

Rolling my eyes, I pulled out my phone and searched up the short story author’s name.


“I…”

Just tell him it’s brilliant.

“You…”

Say it…

“I hate it.”

I braced myself for him to finally get angry for once. For him to show me his despair and fish for my approval and affection.

But my sickening gambit was answered with an honest laugh.

“I guess I tried.”

It almost looked as if all of the vitality in his body left all at once. His body, just skin and bones with tubes and needles attached everywhere, was shriveling away. His hair had grown back after he stopped his treatment, but it was wispy and thin unlike the dark locks from before.

I mourned the fall of the prince into this pitiable form.

I gripped the manuscript in my hands and resisted the urge to fling this across the room. The culmination of our joint voyage is a disjointed novella with heavy prose, numbered days to spend with each other, and a lifetime’s worth of averted firsts.

“…I wanted to be a father.”

He broke the silence with a sobering thought. We never reached our happy ever after. The prince and princess were supposed to ride off to his castle, have children, raise them into good people, see them live their own lives, embrace their lifetime of accolades and memories, then peacefully pass away in each other’s arms as the whole kingdom mourns and celebrates the end of a remarkable era.

“…I wouldn’t have made a good mother anyway.”

“I wanted a daughter with your eyes.”

“I like yours better, though.”

“And your mouth.”

“But my lips chap easily.”

“And your nose.”

“Would she have the same face as me?”

“Of course. All the boys would be all over her.”

“Then what does she even inherit from you?”

“My wicked sense of humor.”

“Perfect for scaring off her suitors.”

We shared a hearty laugh over our usual banter, but the energy in our quips quickly died down again as the atmosphere of the room weighed on us. The nurse had not come in this entire time, and yet there was noticeable shuffling and commotion near our door. It was as if the staff on this floor were just preparing for the end. Replacing the bed, changing the sheets, sanitizing the room, removing the name card on the door, then welcoming the next patient. All business as usual; one customer leaves, and another one enters.

The curtain railing above the window creaked and wobbled as I pulled the drapes close. Leaving his room, I whispers a soft g’night as I stepped out and closed the door behind me. The door shut with a sound as dead as that of a falling lid of a sarcophagus, and I continued through the dim hallways and out the front doors into the chilly night.

At some point, I stopped bothering to ask the front desk to do something about the curtain.

I arrived home, threw the wrinkled manuscript on the nightstand, and stared at the ceiling of our bedroom until morning came.


“Do you believe in fairy tales?”

On our second date, he asked this peculiar question out of the blue. Not knowing how to answer in a way that keeps my cards close to my chest, I shrugged and look around the restaurant.

“I don’t know. Fairies don’t even exist, right?”

“Hmm… I wonder.”

I had a bad habit of never taking my dates seriously. My routine of meeting a new guy, going for coffee, and then blocking their number had dulled me to any sort of guilt in flinging those clingy men aside.

For some reason, this one time, I felt like it was worth it to invite him out again just to hear the way he hums and haws at the straightforward things I say.

“Don’t tell me you still believe in that fantasy nonsense?”

“If it were truly nonsense, we couldn’t be having a coherent conversation about it, right?”

“Is that even how logic works?”

The meal that day was lobster for me, and a Hamburg steak for him. I had told him to order whatever he wanted since I received my bonus for the month, but he didn’t even hesitate in picking the cheapest option on the menu. Honestly, I felt a little stupid ordering such an expensive dish just to impress someone on the third time we’ve met. I didn’t even like seafood.

I picked at a claw I tore off while he diligently cut his steak into tiny pieces and ate each one with barely-concealed glee.

“So. What was that question all about?”

He looked up and winked at me.

“Just trying to see if you were also a hopeless romantic.”

“Sorry to disappoint.”

“But didn’t you want to read more of my writing? All I ever publish are those sappy, verbose word salads.”

“People always said I have good taste in entrées.”

“But not so much in main courses, I presume.”

I looked down at my barely-eaten meal and chuckle sheepishly.

“I think I have some buyer’s remorse.”

“Want some of mine?”

He held out his fork and dangled a thick piece of beef patty right in my face.

“I mean, it’s mine anyway. Since I’m paying.”

“Yeah, yeah, princess.”

I deftly pulled the meat off of his fork with my teeth and chewed the juicy steak vigorously. He looked at my brash eating style and laughed loudly.

“Looks like you’re quite a handful.”

Strangely agitated by his playful jabs, I gave an exaggerated pout.

“Just my luck,” I whined in a dramatic tone, “getting stuck with a beast who offered an innocent maiden an indirect kiss!”

“Maybe if you give me a direct one, my curse will break.”

A merry evening of meandering conversation passed by pleasantly. When the waiter came with the bill, I stopped him and asked to get another order of Hamburg steak.

“Help me eat this lobster while I finally eat a real dinner.”

“But it’s already cold now.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers.”

“Yeah, yeah, princess.”

Don’t get too ahead of yourself, buddy.

Watching him eat the leftovers of that expensive dish, I must have relished the thought of a man like him falling head over heels for me.

I’m so ready to watch you crawl over and become a slave to my whim.

And yet, after but a few days of no texts, I called him to invite him out again. I told him I wanted to talk about the new story he had posted that morning.

“Sure,” he said on the phone with a smile in his tone. “How about I pay for a movie?”


In all of those movies that he and I watched together, the death scenes are always so dramatic and tense. Secrets are revealed, true feelings are expressed, love is realized.

But at his deathbed, he only lay silently as his vital charts dwindled and dwindled. At some point, the doctor put down his clipboard, shook his head, and excused himself. Only I sat in that room as he slipped away.

I always thought that we would tearfully exchange affirmations of love when this day came. But he lay silent, barely even breathing. His eyes, though closed, jittered in his sockets as if he were dreaming.

Maybe he is dreaming. Of that shoreline we wanted to find together.

I felt not sorrow, but rather panic. For some reason, even though the doctor warned me this day would come and that I would have to brace for it, I could not accept that he was leaving me behind. That he would betray me by going where I could no longer reach him.

His heartbeats slowed down dramatically. The time was coming. I could feel it.

My thoughts raced as the seconds ticked by. And yet, I did nothing except stare at him.

Do you believe in fairy tales?

“…True love’s kiss!”

Overcome by renewed false hopes, I leapt out of my seat and right next to where he lay. I lifted him up roughly, almost getting tangled with the tubes still attached to his near-transparent skin. His vital signs picked up slightly as he moaned from the sudden displacement.

Then, brushing back my hair, I closed my eyes and gave him a passionate kiss.

A summer breeze blew through the meadow where I held him and locked my lips with his. Birds sang in a chorus as the warm afternoon sun cast radiant light on the picturesque scene. As the wind died down, I opened my eyes to look into those of the one I held in my arms—

And realized that it was he—him—who was holding me in his arms.

Jolted back to desolate reality, I felt his hand gently resting on my cheek. I pulled back and looked into his face as he said his last words with an apologetic smile.

“…My hero.”

Right to the end, I could not be the prince. I cried my first tears of that night as the curtain finally detached from the wall and fell to the ground with a deafening clang.

 

She, the Prince

Writing Prompt #13 | October 25th, 2017

Prompt: One night you realise you can continue dreams from previous nights. You start building your perfect life but in your obsession you start neglecting reality. (Reddit link, to my submission on the original /r/WritingPrompts post.)


I cannot stop thinking about the faceless maiden from my dream last night.

I woke up late this morning and had to scramble to arrive on time to that coffee shop at which Jenny told me to meet her. Brushing my teeth in the shower and buttoning my shirt as I put on my shoes, I stumbled into my car and drove across town in serene Sunday morning traffic.

When I arrived at the coffee shop, Jenny greeted me with a hug and a peck on the cheek before pulling back. She gives me a pout before badgering me about my late arrival.

“What took you so long?”

I shrugged and avoided her questioning gaze.

“Just overslept.”


A vast, pastoral landscape.

The grassy hills that roll around across the field and surround us. The clear blue sky that bleeds into the horizon. The breeze that blows and gently weaves with her hair.

The faceless maiden in a white summer dress turns to me and smiles with her shapeless lips. I cannot hear her silent voice, and yet it grips my entire being with every uttered word:

What a beautiful day.

Those nocturnal days with her linger with me even after I wake.


I go to see Jenny at her place. She has come down with a cold, so I bring medicine, some chicken stock and spices for a hearty soup, and a bootleg copy of a movie she wanted to see at the theater. I let myself into her house with the key hidden underneath the flowerpot on her front porch and immediately get to work conjuring up a meal with the ingredients I brought and the scraps in the back of her fridge.

As the water boils, I chop up a rigid broccoli stalk as I think about the image which has stayed in my mind’s eye since I woke up this morning. Glancing out the window above the kitchen sink, I only see a dull, overcast grey.

Too focused on my repetitive chopping and the dichotomy between reality and dream which has bothered me for weeks, I do not notice Jenny stumbling into the kitchen behind me until I feel her arms slip under mine and wrap around my torso. She buries her face in my shoulder right at the base of my neck and breathes in deeply, then out.

“You feeling okay?” I put down the knife in my right hand and move to ruffle her messy hair. Despite usually being against me touching her hair like this, I feel her body relax and push into me as I gently pet the top of her head.

“I threw up.”

“I brought some medicine with me. Maybe you should take some right now while I finish up this meal?”

“Let’s stay like this for a while.”

I try to keep cutting into the firm broccoli in front of me, but I decide to just let it be and put my hands on her hands which cross over my navel. I enjoy this intimate moment with an inexplicable but palpable guilt.

There was once a time where her pressing her bra-less chest against me like this, with only a thin shirt over her swells, would have excited me and caused me to become flustered or embarrassed. And yet, here we are, casually holding each other in front of the beginnings of a patchwork dinner splayed out on the kitchen counter.

The water begins to boil over. I move to turn off the heat, breaking free from Jenny’s hold. I take the cutting board with an assortment of half-chopped vegetables and put them into the hot water with a shrug. Whatever. Good enough.

I put the lid on and turn to face Jenny. Immediately, her arms shoot up around my neck and pull me into a tight embrace. I hug her back, resting my hands on the small of her back. Looking down at the ground, I am bemused as always by the sight of her standing on the balls of her feet.

“Make sure to get better before this weekend, okay? In time for the eclipse.”

Indeed, a solar eclipse is going to happen this weekend. For the people of this town, who live every day restless and aching for novelty, the excitement and anticipation surrounding this astronomical event is a temporary distraction from the mundanity of everyday life. A community gathering at city hall has been planned, which has been pretty much the only thing Jenny talks about these days. She has always been interested in astronomy, and the incoming total eclipse is basically a dream come true for this girl who has never seen beyond our town.

This girl deserves to see her eclipse. I feel a pang of pity for Jenny as she lets out a pained groan.

“I feel so shitty. I’m gonna die before Sunday.”

“Not with me taking care of you.”

She nestles her face into my chest.

“You’re here for me now, and you’ll also be there with me on Sunday. Will you always be by my side?”

“Of course.”

Jenny looks up at me with expectant eyes. I move my hand to cup her cheek as I draw my face closer. The world turns to black as we both close our eyes and—

I feel her palm right there her lips should me. I open my eyes to see her covering her mouth with her hand.

“Vomit.”

“Oh. Yeah.”

I kiss her on the forehead before we both break out into hearty laughter. I think about how lucky I am to have Jenny right here with me at this moment. And yet, somehow, this scene in the kitchen with a pot of half-assed soup cooking behind me and a sick girl in my arms leaves me feeling just a little empty.


The same perfect scenery, illumined by the brilliant Sun characteristic of my nighttime fantasies.

Although the light cannot pierce through the imperceptible veil on her face, I know that she’s smiling and laughing with me. The nameless maiden has laid a white blanket on the grass, and we sit together enjoying the imaginary birdsong which accompanies this timeless day.

She leans forward from her sitting position and moves into a seductive crawl, inching closer to me and lithely settling right between my legs with her knees between mine. Even this close up, with her head moving right next to my ear and our bodies almost touching, I still cannot make out her face.

Stay with me for a while. Her silent voice beckons me to enjoy this eternal summer day with her.

However, I hear a persistent beeping noise over the horizon. I do not know what it is, but I sense that it is time for this meeting to end.

“I have somewhere to go, now.”

The world begins to fade as I feel the vision in my eyes sensing some sort of dull otherworldly light. I see a digital clock screen showing [9:00] juxtaposed with the bright scene I am so reluctant to leave behind.

Just a little longer.

I somehow know that her shapeless lips are curling into a coy smirk, inviting me to spend eternity with her and escaping from the waking world—

“Sure.”

I reach my arm through to the otherworld and turn off the alarm. The beeping stops and the clock display abruptly disappears. Once again, it is just me and the faceless maiden on a beautiful day with fields and sky in all directions.


I wake up utterly confused.

Although my clock reads [2:00] and my phone clearly shows that it is indeed 2pm, it is completely dark outside.

It takes me more than a few sleepy moments for my brain to finally take control of my rattled instincts and figure out what’s happening.

“Shit!”

I throw on some clothes and rush out the door fumbling with my car keys. As I back out of the driveway near blind, without the aid of any streetlights, I look out the window at the magical daytime sky with stars scattered around a mysterious ring of light. But I do not have time to admire this once-in-a-lifetime view while drive through the streets. All I see ahead is someone running and using their phone as a flashlight—

“Stop! Stop!”

I hear Jenny’s voice. I skid to a stop and jump out of my car to see Jenny running toward me, out of breath.

“Where the hell were you?”

She is angry. Her eyes brim with ire as she tries to catch her breath. I try to think of the right thing to say—a flowery apology, or a funny line—but instead stand silently while she boils over with rage.

“I waited there for hours! I found us the best spot! I was calling you this whole time and worrying that something happened to you!”

She unleashes a barrage of fiery words at me, and all I can do is take it underneath the darkness of this once-in-a-lifetime daytime sky. I gazed behind her at the bright ring in the sky, which right before me bursts in a flash of light as the Moon slowly uncovers the Sun.

“This was the first eclipse in this town in over a century! I looked forward to this for months! It was going to be the memory of a lifetime, seeing an eclipse with you!”

The stars, which twinkled gently during this tense scene, suddenly hid away once more as the Sun’s light once again filled the daylight sky.

“I’m done! I’m leaving!”

She storms off and leaves me standing there in the street. After a while, I stumble into my car and drive back home while looking at the daytime sky and wondering if the scene that just occurred had actually happened.

By the time I arrive home and stumble back upstairs and into bed, not a trace of the eclipse remained in the afternoon sky.


The faceless maiden looks at me with what I somehow know to be a questioning gaze. I look away and silently enjoy the rain which falls around us and covers the usual nightly perfect summer day in a curtain of grey.

We sit underneath a tree which somehow completely shelters us from the raindrops which pound on the otherwise completely empty field which stretches in all directions.

I have spent countless nights—countless days in this dream world—with this faceless maiden. And yet, even though I still do not know her name, I feel at ease silently sitting here with her as the dull sound of rainfall drowns out my thoughts.

Listen…

Her silent voice calls out to me. Just this once, I’ll ignore it.

Listen…

I turn away and reach my arm out to feel the raindrops—

“Listen.”

This is not a silent voice. I turn around and, to my alarm, see the no-longer-nameless maiden’s face. Jenny, wearing a white summer dress, gives me a forlorn look which juxtaposes with her earnest smile.

“Listen.”

I feel myself choke up and cry tears of sorrow as the field and sky crumble away and give way to reality. As I am plunged back into the otherworld, Jenny comforts me with her no-longer-silent voice.

“I love you.”


I wake up and immediately jump out of bed to get dressed and run to Jenny’s house. It’s the middle of the night, but I have to see her.

However, as I slip my leg into my pants, I see that I was not alone in my bed.

It seems that while I slept, Jenny had snuck into my house and moved into my bed between me and the wall.

She stirs at the sound of me moving. Moving closer to observe her face, I see that her eyes have opened a crack and that her lips have curled into a smirk.

“Going to meet someone at two in the morning?”

I glance over at my clock and realize that it is indeed that time. Somehow, I managed to sleep another twelve hours after sleeping in this morning.

“Looks like she was right here with me.”

I slip my arm around her and she pulls herself closer to me. We stay there for a moment in silence before I finally speak up again.

“I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

In all of our time together, I have taken for granted how forgiving she is of my countless faux pas. I thank the world for letting me meet and fall in love with such a good girl.

“You know… eclipses happen all around the world. I can buy tickets to somewhere where another eclipse will happen.”

I feel her shaking her head.

“Nah.”

“But… I screwed up and ruined a once-in-a-lifetime event. I want to make it up to you.”

“No need. I don’t really want to go anywhere. Besides…”

She moves her head up and kisses my cheek before whispering in my ear:

“Every moment with you is already once-in-a-lifetime.”

While she nods off to sleep, I shed a few tears of happiness at the thought that she feels the same way.


This became way longer than I originally intended, but I really like the idea.

Writing Prompt #13 | October 25th, 2017

Writing Prompt #12 | October 18th, 2017

Prompt: You accidentally end up as a character in your own story. You need to blend in at all costs: if the characters realize you’re the narrator, it will create a paradox, and you will die. (Reddit link, to the /r/WritingPrompts post and my submission.)

Start: Sometime this morning.

The young couple sits on the double-sized bed, facing each other with embarrassed determination in their eyes. They both know what they want—each other—but are wary of the risk of rebuke.

She stretches out her hand and touches his arm gently. He looks away, feeling his face turn red. This moment of weakness betrays his naivety towards love; she realizes straight away that this might be his first time. This emboldens her to take the lead.

Rising from her legs-crossed position to her knees, she leans forward and pulls herself closer to him. Awkwardly, he embraces around the girl who he had only mere weeks ago only dreamed of ever holding in his arms. The smell of the fragrance of her shampoo overwhelms him as he finally realizes what they are about to do.

But he moves his hands off of her, then firmly takes her by the shoulders and pushes her back. She, rattled, looks at him with questioning eyes.

“Do you… not want this…”

He sighs and shakes his head.

“It’s not that. It’s just…”

“It’s just that…”

“…I can’t do it with him sitting right there.”

The couple looks over to me with wary eyes. I, uncomfortable with suddenly being the center of attention, chuckle mechanically.

“Just keep going.”

“…Dude. Can you give us some privacy?”

His words urgently plead me to take my leave. But I cannot. For this is a young adult love story and I am its narrator, and my duty to the reader defines my entire existence. I am ever-present, commenting on the events which unfold before me and putting them into words for the enjoyment of all.

“I won’t get in the way. Just pretend I’m not here.”

“Please, Mr. Stranger… Can you give us just an hour or so to ourselves?” She chimes in, trying to negotiate for some alone time so they can make love in peace.

Oh, how much I would love to grant their request. We narrators usually leave the characters be in their intimate moments, as going to the washroom or engaging in coitus are often not of interest to the reader. Unfortunately, the author of this novel wants to sell sex with this trashy young love plot line, and so I need to be here to give a play-by-play of all the events.

“Would it fix the problem if I just change where I’m sitting? I can just crawl under the bed and listen instead.”

“…Dude. How does that make it any better?”

“Look, man, I have my reasons for being here. Do you really think I want to stay here and watch you blow a load after thirty seconds of thrusting?”

“Wait, what? Thirty seconds?”

She looks at me and then him with bewildered eyes. Apparently, the brevity of the time I predicted surprises her.

“I mean, yeah. Isn’t this going to be his first time or someth—”

“Are you trying to pick a fight or something? What are you playin’ at?”

This male protagonist gets angry at this kind of stuff, I guess. Maybe I said too much.

“Sorry. Slip of the tongue.”

The female protagonist, in her usual passionate fashion, looks at her lover with sparkling eyes.

“Don’t worry. If Mike can last an hour, then so can you.”

I burst out laughing as I consider how to properly narrate this turn of events.

“An—an hour? He was that good?”

“You can do way better than that, right?”

His face turns pale as he thinks back to his late-night porn surfing. He cannot recall spending more than ten minutes before blowing a load. He begins to imagine his current girlfriend, the wonderful girl before him, getting absolutely pounded by her jacked ex-boyfriend.

Sometimes, I regret being able to read people’s minds like this.

“It’s fine, man. Just focus on making it past the first thirty seconds.”

“I’m gonna last way longer than thirty seconds, man! Shut it and leave!”

“Are you sure you don’t need some advice on sex?”

“I’ll be just fine, thank you very much!”

Giving up on thinking of a proper way to end this scene, I walk out of the room and decide to just end things there. Closing the door behind me, I hear a small snippet of their conversation:

“…Shall we continue?”

“Nah. Let’s just watch Netflix instead.”

End: Later in the morning.

Elapsed Time: I forgot >.>


A little writing exercise to prepare for a short story contest.

Writing Prompt #12 | October 18th, 2017