“Huaaaah!” I yawned, more out of a sense of habit rather than actual fatigue, as I walked down the morning streets. In fact, I didn’t feel drowsy at all even though I spent last night transcribing, browsing the web for data and watching funny cat videos on the net, in that order. I supposed I might as well tick the 'confirmed' box next to my ‘doesn’t need any sleep’ article, but I decided I should go for broke and wait another day.
With such thoughts on my mind, I rounded another corner and noticed a familiar back in the distance. I increased my pace and in a minute or so I managed to catch up to the guy and I greeted him via a friendly pat on the back.
“Ugh.” Josh looked up at me with weary eyes. “Why do you have to be so unnecessarily energetic so early in the morning?”
“I don’t know, but I am working on it.”
Josh didn’t really react. He just let out a melancholic sigh and continued putting one leg after the other.
“Did something happen?”
As if he was only fishing for the question from the very beginning, the guy immediately perked up.
“You won’t believe what happened to me yesterday!”
“Won’t I? Careful, that sounded like a challenge.”
“Okay, here it goes...” Josh started animatedly. “So yesterday I was hanging out with the girls…”
“You mean Angie and the class rep?”
“Of course I mean them.”
“Anyways, we had a nice afternoon, kind of like old times.”
“Oh, so you used to hang out before?”
“Yeah, in middle school. We were in the same class even back then and we were in the student council together. Can I continue?”
“Sure, sorry for interrupting.”
“Anyways, we were having fun. Going to the joint to get some fast food, hanging out in the park, window-shopping, stuff like that. Then Angie decided to take Ammy to a place I couldn’t go.”
“Shopping for lingerie?”
“No!” Josh protested and gave me a disappointed squint. “Is that really the first thing that comes to your mind?”
“Well, yeah? That, and the toilet.”
“What?” I protested in turn. “Girls go to the toilet together all the time!”
“Doesn’t matter, they weren’t going there.” He paused, presumably for dramatic effect. “They went to the bookstore.”
I gave him a shrug and said, “So what? Are you allergic to books or something?”
“You don’t get it. Angie was taking her to the young adult aisle.”
“Once again: so what?”
Josh sighed and began rubbing the base of his neck.
“Listen, have you ever read any of the books there?”
“... Did you seriously ask that from the guy with the amnesia?”
“Fine, then let me explain! Nowadays these books are all about a bunch of monsters falling for vapid teenage girls. Vampires, werewolves, aliens, chupacabras...”
“That sounds like a gross oversimplification, but whatever. So? How does that affect you?”
“I’m getting to it! You see, Angie had a... phase. Arguably she is still in it, but nowhere as near as deeply as a few years ago.”
“She was reading these books?”
“Worse; she was obsessed with them. She was reading them, talking about them, watching the adaptations multiple times... and at one point she forced me to read her favorite series under threats of physical violence.”
“I gather you didn’t like it.”
“It was horrible! The plot made no sense, the protagonist was a bland idiot and it had a handsome teenaged werewolf for the male lead... who didn’t turn into a wolf at full moon! The books didn’t even mention the phase of the moon! I mean, who writes a book where werewolves don’t respond to the moon?! There were also some vampires in there, but those only seemed like vampires, and in reality they were just Russian immigrants with a magic disease, so I could cut those some slack… But the werewolves?! I hated the entire thing from beginning to end.”
“... Did you actually tell all that to her?”
“I did, and then some more,” Joshua said with his chest puffed up.
“And how did she take it?”
His chest deflated at record speed.
“She refused to talk to me for a week.”
“Ouch… But how does that relate to your story?”
“I told you I’m getting to it! So, Angie wanted to go to the bookstore to look at new releases and I refused to go on principle.” He hesitated for a moment and then added, “We… might have also had a little fight over it.”
“Ooooooh… I was just about to ask where she is,” I grinned at my friend and he scoffed in return. “Giving you the cold shoulder again? Are you feeling lonely?”
“Oh, shut up.” He rolled his eyes and sullenly tucked his hands into his pockets. “And it’s not the reason why she is not here.”
“Really? Then why?”
He looked at me, took a deep breath and continued.
“You see, after that Angie and Ammy went into the bookstore and left me outside. Of course, they left their bags with me so I had no choice but to wait for them… and then this girl showed up.”
Now that grabbed my interest. Another suitor appeared? So soon?
“What kind of girl?”
“Average height, a little curvy, long white hair.”
“Yeah, pure as snow. It was the thing that first caught my eye too.”
I nodded to myself in satisfaction. This new girl most certainly fit into my ‘hair equals importance’ theory.
“So, what happened? Did you hit on her?” Josh gave me a deadpan look. “So you didn’t.”
“Of course I didn’t! What kind of guy do you think I am?!”
“Okay, then what?”
He looked away with an exasperated expression for a moment before he returned to the story.
“Here comes the really weird part: The girl just walked up to me, during the middle of the day, on a crowded pedestrian road… and she just kissed me!”
“… She kissed you?”
“Yes! Right on the mouth too!”
“… And she didn’t say anything?”
“She told me I was cute and then she ran away and disappeared into the crowd before I could say anything!”
“Huh… You are right. That must have been pretty weird.”
“I know, right!?”
“So… how does that relate to Angie not coming to school with you?”
“Well, she just came out of the bookstore to get her purse when this happened, she left it in her bag I think, and she saw it. Then once the girl was gone she started arguing with me about kissing random people on the street! Like it was my fault!”
“I hear you.”
“Man, girls are weird!”
“No, I think it’s just that you don’t really get them,” I told him furtively and he raised an eyebrow in return.
“What do you mean?”
“She was jealous, you idiot. That’s why she flipped out.”
My friend suddenly flushed red (people around these parts do that a lot) and vigorously shook his head.
“No no no! You are misunderstanding something, we are not like that.”
“Not like what?”
“I mean… it’s not like we are in a relationship or anything…” His words became less sure as he went on.
“And so she cannot be jealous? You see, this is what I mean when I say that you don’t get girls.”
“Oh really?” It seemed like I put too much pressure on the guy and so he became petulant. “Then can Mr. Casanova, the one true explorer of the female heart, give me any advice?”
“Sure!” I answered enthusiastically just to take him off-guard. “Apologize.”
“Sure, it worked the first time, didn’t it?”
“… I suppose… but then what?”
“Telling her you are sorry is just the foot in the door. Once she calms down, you use the opportunity to explain what happened. If she still wouldn’t melt, just exaggerate how much it shocked you. Cook up a small speech about how violated you felt that some random girl on the street stole your first kiss that you were saving for ‘that special someone’ and it should let you sail through the roughest part. Oh, also make sure you make up about the whole refused-to-enter-the-bookstore-thing if you are at that. You can be a little more mundane there, just tell her your tastes might not align but you are not judging her. Ah, and before I forget it: Did the class rep see the kiss too?”
“I don’t know… why?”
“It doesn’t matter. Make sure she is either there when you explain things to Angie or apologize to her as well.”
“But why? She had nothing to do with it.”
“Just trust me, okay? It will help you a lot in the long run if you try and avoid misunderstandings.”
“But why the class r… I mean, why Ammy?”
“Just do as I said and don’t ask questions, okay?” I snapped and he immediately gave me a nod. “Good.”
After that, we walked in silence until we could see the school gates, at which point Joshua tentatively spoke up again.
“Are you… actually experienced with girls?”
“Dude, for the umpteenth time: Am-ne-sia!”
“But… you sound so sure of yourself when you talk about dealing with them…”
“Okay Josh, here’s a pro tip then: Don’t think of them as ‘girls’.”
“… I shouldn’t?”
“No. Think of them as just people like you. Try to put yourself into their shoes and figure out what they are thinking about. For example, what would you think if you saw that some guy kissed Angie on the mouth in the middle of a street without her resisting?”
“I would be… I…” Obviously conflicted and lost for words, Josh just hung his head in defeat. “I don’t really know.”
“You better think about it then,” I grinned and patted the guy on the back.
“Yeah…” For a few seconds he stayed silent and then he looked at me uncertainly. “Are you really sure you are not experienced with girls?”
“I told you, I have no idea,” I told him frankly. “If I had to guess though, I would have said I don’t.”
“Really? Why would you think that?”
“Idunno. I guess I am just not the kind of guy girls would be interested in.”
Josh stopped for a moment to give me a flat look.
“Okay, you are just messing with me right now.”
“Well, I‘m not.”
“But… you are the handsome athletic guy of our duo!”
I grinned at him.
“What does that make you then?”
He grinned back in kind and said, “I am the clever, charming one, obviously.”
We looked each other in the eye for a second and then burst out laughing at the same time.
“Wish me luck,” Josh implored wearily as we stood in front of the classroom.
“An arm and a leg, man.”
“It’s a variation on 'break a leg'.”
“I thought it was about something costing a lot...”
“No, I am pretty sure I meant the former.”
Joshua shrugged with a face that said 'Fine, I'll take whatever I can get' and we entered the classroom. With a diminutive nod he headed for Angie’s desk. I honestly wished the guy some luck, in my head at the very least, and went to my own spot.
It was actually a little early, so there were still a lot of placeholders idling around the desks in small groups, repeating stock phrases to each other like broken machines. Sometimes I wondered why Josh and the others wouldn’t notice this, but I didn’t dare to point it out to them in fear of breaking the spell and irrevocably contaminating my future observations.
I practically fell into my chair and stretched like a cat. I already did that a few times this morning, but my limbs still felt wooden. It was probably because I spent the entire night sitting in front of my computer, organizing my notes. Maybe I should start exercising in the morning?
Being reminded, I reached into my bag and retrieved my new and improved notebook... okay, maybe it was only new, but I liked to pretend that starting anew without all the messed up, cramped and stricken out text was an improvement in and of itself. I entered all of my previous ideas and observations into a handy text file that I could freely edit in the future through the magic of the backspace key.
I still needed a physical notebook though, as carrying a PC on my back around school didn’t exactly fit my definition of fun. Maybe I should get a smart-phone with a keyboard? I did some research the previous night, and it was apparent that while I and my immediate social circle might have used outdated bricks for telecommunication, the technology actually existed. I should really buy one this afternoon, I decided. Or better yet, actually try one of those tablet machines. Preferably a tough one with a long battery life.
I was still considering my options when my ears caught a small creak coming from the desk ahead. I glanced up and, sure enough, I just caught the princess hastily sitting down while overtly ignoring me. That reminded me; I still had her shoe in my bag, didn’t I?
I grimaced as I recalled the previous day’s events and began staring at the girl’s back with a slowly swelling urge of mischief. At last I quietly leaned forward, making sure I made no noise. Slowly, very slowly, I got close enough that my face was almost in line with her shoulders, and I whispered right next to her ear.
“Good morning, princess.”
As predictable as ever, the princess jumped in her seat with a strange noise. In fact, for a moment she was teetering on the edge of falling over, with only two legs of her chair touching the ground. Without a word I grabbed the backrest of her chair and set it upright with a solid yank.
“Careful there,” I tried to sound as friendly as possible. “You might hurt yourself if you fall over. Again.”
“Youuuuuu!” She glared at me with the kind of fiery disapproval usually reserved to door-to-door salesmen.
“Me?” I asked back innocently and for a moment I felt a distinct sense of Déjà Vu.
She kept up her glare for a few seconds before averting her face with a harrumph.
“What are you doing?” I asked innocently.
“I’m ignoring you,” She answered with a pout, completely unaware of the irony of her words.
“For what you did yesterday.”
“... Saving you from breaking your neck?”
Her eyes snapped back to me.
“No, what you did after that!”
“... Saving you from breaking your neck... again?” Seeing that her face was getting crimson with what I presumed to be blood-curdling rage, I wisely decided to change the subject. “Speaking of which, how is your ankle?”
“Oh, it’s fine, I can barely feel it anym-HEY! Don’t change the subject!”
I clicked my tongue. She was onto me.
“Fine, we apparently remember the events of yesterday differently. Would you enlighten me which part are you angry about?”
She looked at me blankly for a moment before she turned around again.
Her voice trailed off, and while I could swear I saw her jaw moving, I couldn’t hear the end of it,
“Because of what?” I asked for qualification, but instead she just turned back to me and yelled.
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!”
“Whoa!” I raised my hands, palms out, in a sign of surrender. “Easy there, we are in public.”
As if the information just dawned on her, the princess looked around and turned pale at the sight of the placeholders looking at her. After a brief pause she jumped to her feet, ready to bolt out of the room... at which point I promptly grabbed her again and pulled her back onto her seat. She landed with a soft puff and looked at me like she didn’t understand what just happened.
“Don’t make a scene,” I scolded her gently, as you would do to a misbehaving puppy. “Classes are about to start.”
That’s what she said, but if her expression was any indication, she wanted to murder me and my unborn children with a teaspoon. In retrospect it was probably just a mixture of anger, surprise, and embarrassment. Angprizerassment?
... That was horrible. I apologize.
“Is there a problem?”
I turned and smiled at the new voice entering the conversation.
“Good morning class rep.”
She gave me a long, level look in return.
“You still haven’t told me what that means.”
“... I’m pretty sure I did.”
“It’s beside the point,” She said curtly and turned to the princess. “Why were you shouting?”
“We are terribly sorry for causing a ruckus,” I came to the rescue. “We were just acting out a scene from an old show and it got out of hand. It won’t happen again.”
The class rep looked at me dubiously for a moment before she turned to the princess.
“Is that true...”
“Err... I mean... Yeah, I suppose...”
She still looked unconvinced, but in the end she relented and turned back to me.
“Very well, please be more careful in the future,” With that said, her expression abruptly became less formal and she even smiled a little. “Oh, before I forget it. I found what you were asking for.”
It took me an embarrassingly long moment to realize what she was talking about, but then I smiled back in kind.
“Ah, you mean the notes!” She nodded. “Thanks, I thought it would take longer.”
“You are welcome,” She said before she stepped back to her desk and handed me a huge stack of notebooks... then went back to deliver an identical pile. I whistled in amazement.
“How did you even bring these to school?”
“I asked some... friends for help.”
“Either way, thanks a lot. You are a lifesaver.”
She smiled demurely at my repeated thanks and moved back to her seat. I took another look at the stacks and gulped. It’s a good thing I don’t need to sleep, I supposed.
I wanted to open one of them and take a peek, but something else drew my attention. The princess ahead was glaring at me (I was getting to the point where I should only note when she WASN’T doing so, I guess) and she was also slightly shaking, her face a shade of crimson I thought belonged only to humanoid aliens on low-budget afternoon sci-fi series.
She reminded me of a boiling kettle on the brink of exploding. In fact, I felt tempted to poke her cheeks just to see if steam would come out of her ears in a whistle. However, before my mischievous impulses could take control again, a different person appeared at our side.
“Morning!” She beamed an infectious smile at me and I immediately returned it.
The princess only nodded at her before she resumed her attempts to burn my face off with the fierceness of her eyes.
“You didn’t greet me when you came in,” Angie stated with an exaggerated pout.
“Sorry, I didn’t want to be a third wheel.”
“A-ha!” Angie struck a triumphant finger in my direction. “I knew it was you! You sent Joshua over to make up!”
“Guilty as charged,” I answered modestly.
“Too bad though. For a moment I actually thought he might have gotten over his stubborn streak.”
“Hey, I am right here, you know?” Josh protested, and true to his word, he was standing behind Angie.
“I know,” The girl grinned and stuck out her tongue, which elicited a weird grimace from Josh. In the end they were both smiling though, so I supposed they made up all right. “So, what was that all about?” Angie’s question shook me out of my momentary daze.
“What was what about?”
“Oh, that… We were just talking about what happened yesterday.”
Josh and Angie looked at each other questioningly.
“You mean, between you two?”
“No!” The princess protested. “There is absolutely nothing between the two of us.”
“Except the desk and her chair, of course,” I added helpfully before I remembered something. This might not have been the most appropriate moment, but I decided I might as well hand her back her shoe right then and there. It was only so that I wouldn’t forget and avoid further complications down the line and in no way because I found her flustered reactions infinitely amusing. Not even the slightest. With that rationale in mind I reached into my bag and presented the aforementioned footwear.
“Here, you forgot this yes…” It was at this point when she started making funny noises and tried to rise to her feet to run away, so I once again tugged on the back of her jacket and pulled her back onto her chair before she could cause any more of a ruckus. “… terday. Also, I would really appreciate if you stopped that.”
She once more looked at me like she had no idea what just happened or how I managed to restrain her. I sighed and forcefully handed the shoe over to her. She looked at it blankly for a moment, then at me.
“What are you supposed to say when someone returns your property?”
“Exactly. Good girl.” I gave her a thumb up and she once again reddened in embarrassment. Well, at least she was still too dazed to glare at me, so that was a relief.
“Excuse me?” Angie interjected with a hand on my table. “Why exactly do you have Elly’s shoe?”
“Elly?” I asked back perplexedly until I remembered that the princess actually had a name. “Oh, you mean her?”
“Hey!” This time it was the princess’ turn to interject, seemingly regaining her lost vigor. “I told you I have no need for nicknames!”
“But everyone has one!” Angie retorted as she began to point at each one of us in turn. “Angie, Josh, Leo, Ammy and Elly.”
One of those names caught my interest. Just when did the class rep come back? Nevertheless, I flashed my most innocent smile at her.
“Let me guess,” I said with one hand on my temple. “You came over because we were making a ruckus, but then you didn’t find a good opportunity to interrupt so you were just standing there frowning and waiting for us to notice you.”
The class rep looked astonished for a moment before she picked a pen from a pocket and began scribbling on her palm, then closed it and turned to me.
“What did I write in here?”
“Excuse me? I thought we were over this already.”
“Come on, guess!” Her eyes were almost sparkling and for some reason I didn’t want to refuse her. I groaned with a grimace and answered,
Her eyes opened wide again, but before she could continue her impromptu ESP research, I quickly pulled Josh over.
“Hey, have you talked to the class rep yet?”
“Who… Oh, you mean Ammy? One of these days you really have to tell me why you call her that.”
“Don’t mind that. Quick, grab her and talk to her before classes start. Preferably in that corner.”
“Just do it, soldier!” I grunted at him and after a moment he gave me a sarcastic little salute accompanied with a wry smile.
While Josh was doing his thing I turned back to the other two girls. “So, I believe we were at the shoe, right?”
“Riiiiiight…” Angie glanced suspiciously between me and the retreating Josh and class rep. “What exactly are they supposed to talk about?”
“The weather, studies, your threesome date yesterday… the usual stuff.”
“You don’t have to put it like that…” Angie mumbled with a cute pout. It was refreshing to see a non-over-the-top embarrassed reaction after dealing with the princess all morning. Speaking of which…
I looked at her flatly and shook my head, “You really have to work on your overreactions. People are going to bully you if you keep making them.”
“You do! You already do!” She retorted angrily.
“My point exactly.”
“A-ny-ways,” Angie re-entered the conversation with her usual gusto, “What was this shoe-business about again?”
“Oh, that? She lost it, I returned it.”
Angie looked decidedly skeptical.
“How do you even lose a shoe?”
I was about to answer when I saw that the princess was vigorously shaking her head with an expression that said ‘If you tell her anything about what happened yesterday, I will bury you neck-deep in an anthill and cover your face with rancid mayonnaise’… well, maybe those weren’t the exact words, but a close approximation.
“I am curious too,” Josh butted in upon his return from the discussion corner. Based on his smile, I supposed his discussion with the class rep was also successful.
“Stuff happened,” I told them mysteriously, but it didn’t seem to satisfy them, so I decided to make something up. “Remember how I had to stay behind yesterday? Well, on return from my business I found the princess tumbling down some stairs. She injured her leg and couldn’t wear her shoe, so I took it for safekeeping. Nothing spectacular.”
I was expecting a torrent of questions when I finished my explanation, but instead the group was only looking at me uncertainly.
“The ‘princess’?” Josh asked and it finally dawned on me. Crap, I accidentally called her that. I sighed. Oh well, it was going to happen sooner or later.
“Well, she is kind of a princess, don’t you agree?” I said as pointed at the girl who was in the process of burying her face in the desk. Josh in the meantime nodded to himself.
“Now that you mention it… Yeah, it fits surprisingly well.”
“Yeah,” Angie agreed tentatively. “She does have a butler…”
“It’s still a better nickname than ‘class rep’,” The class rep brandished her occasional sharp tongue at me, but I took it like a good sport.
“Hey, can we call you that?” Angie poked the princess’ shoulder, who in turn looked like a dead fish spread out on the desk.
“Do whatever you want…” She answered in utter defeat. I am not going to lie, for a moment I felt a little bad about it, so I leaned forward to place my hand on her shoulder.
“Hey, would you like if only I called you that?”
She immediately perked up and yelled at me.
“Who would want that?! That’s even worse!”
I smiled in satisfaction as I leaned back on my chair.
“All right then. You almost had me worried there for a second, but it seems the princess we all know and love is back.”
Her face suddenly emptied of all emotion and before I knew it she jolted upright… only for me to grab her and sit her down again, for the third time. I sighed as she kept making embarrassingly cutesy noises while burying her face in her arms. The others just smirked around us. I looked up at them and tried to awkwardly return the gesture.
“I guess we still have to work on those reactions…”
The morning classes were like a freight train; they were long, noisy and altogether boring, but at least they went by pretty fast. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t paying much attention to them anyway. Once I had the deal with the princess explained (she resumed her practice of ignoring me after that, by the way) I actually had a number of other things to consider, such as the future of my observations.
I hated to admit it, but my point of view was biased. Case in point, I automatically assumed that I was the center of this... well, whatever this was. I think I will stick to 'narrative'. Either way, the problem was the same: My perceptions colored my interpretations of things.
There was only one way I figured I could combat this: I needed a different perspective, a fresh one without my biases. For example, if there was a third, unspoiled observer to give input on the princess’ behavior, I would have realized her deal sooner and could have avoided a lot of awkward events.
Then there was the next set of question: Who, how and how deep?
First, the who part: I needed someone who wasn’t involved in the larger narrative. While I was sure Josh and company would be happy to help, if only out of bile fascination, using the targets of my observations as observers was a bit counter-productive.
Next, how: Exactly how was I supposed to break this subject? ‘Hey there, I think we are living in a fake world, would you like to help me uncover its mechanics?’… I would be lucky if they only thought I was crazy after saying something like that.
Finally, I had to decide ahead of time just how deep I would pull this person into this. I would get the best, most objective observations if I kept them mostly in the dark, but doing so greatly reduced the usefulness of said observations, not to mention it meant they could provide me with little on-the-field support. It was a sliding scale of accuracy versus utility.
I spent my entire morning pondering these things and I came up with the following: I needed a placeholder, one of the featureless background guys. It was best if my future helper was male, as it reduced the chances of them being pulled in by Josh’s harem protagonist magnetism. They also had to look as plain and unimportant as they come to make sure they weren’t involved in the narrative some other way. Last, but not least, I needed to have them at arm’s length, so a classmate was preferable.
With these criteria in mind I made an account of all my classmates. There were twenty-seven of us in total. I didn’t know if that was a lot or not around here, but it didn’t really matter either. The gender-ratios were twelve males and fifteen females. Once I subtracted our little group, it left me with ten guys (plus twelve girls, but they were beside the point for now).
To both my joy and dismay, I found that aside from one fat guy the rest looked so similar to each other that I could hardly even tell them apart. On one hand, this meant I had a smorgasbord of generic sidekicks to choose from, but on the other, it also meant that the best I could do when picking one was random chance. I didn’t like that.
It didn’t seem like I had any other choice though. I spent all my breaks straining my ears to try and listen in on their conversations, but it didn’t work at all; they all kept talking about the exact same thing, sometimes even using the exact same words! It was all ‘Dude, did you watch the game last night?’ and ‘This movie is awesome, it has explosions and stuff!’. Truly riveting.
By the way, doing this actually almost got me in trouble with Angie when I wasn’t paying attention to what she was saying. Something about an animated show with giant robots and drills or something. It sounded silly.
But to get to the point, I was no closer to making a choice by the time lunch break rolled over. Maybe I should just give up and pick one at random after all, I thought? I was deep in pondering my choices when Josh patted me on the back.
“Hey there, wanna grab something?”
“Huh?” I looked up at him in a daze before I shook it away. “For lunch? In the cafeteria?”
“Duh, where else? Unless you brought a lunchbox, that is.”
The word involuntarily made me look that the princess and she flinched as our eyes met.
“T-That was a one-time thing, you hear me!”
“Oh well...” Josh shrugged. “The cafeteria it is then. I was always curious about caviar.”
“Whoa, whoa!” I raised my palm to stop him. “Are you planning to mooch off me again?” Josh just smiled mysteriously. I glanced back to the princess and suddenly got an idea. “Hey, princess?”
After the obligatory noise she gave me a death-glare and hissed, “Stop calling me that in public!”
“Whatever,” I brushed her off. “You wanted to invite us yesterday, right?”
“I...” Obviously put off-balance by my question she grasped for words for a few seconds. “Yes, but...”
“But we refused. That was rude.”
“Yes, we can agree on that,” The princess said once she found her conversational sea-legs.
“Is this another of your schemes?” Josh asked wearily at my side.
I whispered, “Pst! Just wait a moment; it’s going to be worth it.”
My friend stealthily rolled his eyes as I turned back to the princess and continued.
“How about we have Josh invite you this time around?”
“What?” The two of them spoke in perfect unison.
“It’s only fair,” I told them with a smile that was in no way sly or smug. “It should also be a good opportunity for you to learn about the cafeteria. Joshua over here is an expert.”
“But... But...” The princess protested with a hand raising a neatly wrapped box. “Look, I already have my lunch.”
I leaned forward and with a frown of my own whispered, “I am trying to help you, idiot! Stop being contrary!”
“I don’t need your help!” She hissed back, then after a moment she added, “And I am not an idiot.”
“Oh well, that’s a problem,” I told them while I stood up, and then in the blink of an eye a snatched the lunchbox out of the princess’ hand.
“Hey, what are you...!?” She protested while trying to grab after it, but she had no chance.
“As you so eloquently explained yesterday, we cannot have such a pricey lunchbox go to waste, so I will sacrifice myself for the greater good. You two can go and try your caviar knowing that your lunchbox is in good hands.”
“Wait a moment...” Josh tried to interrupt me, but by then I already had my wallet out and handed it to him.
“It’s on me. Have fun.” I winked at him and strode out of the classroom before the princess could shake off her stupor and lunge after me.
“Bon appétit, I suppose,” I said to myself as I took the lid off the lunchbox. The fragrance of home-cooked food instantly filled my nostrils, and to my surprise I found that the meal inside was still warm. The box must have been insulated.
Thankfully the stuff inside was chunky; fried chicken breasts, fries, some kind of sauce plus a handful of sandwiches, things I could eat with my bare hands. Sure, the lunchbox came with a set of utensils, but eating with those would have felt like a major breach of privacy. Not that snatching away one’s lunchbox was much better, but in my defense, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
I sighed and the sound of my breath was carried away by a light breeze. The rooftop was unusually empty... though I couldn’t even be sure of that, as I have only been up there once during lunch break. Once I left the classroom this seemed to be the obvious place to have lunch, but it wasn’t the only reason why I decided to come here.
Following my previous ponderings about my choice of an independent observer, I decided to leave it up to fate, or rather random chance. I picked the bench facing the entrance to the roof and decided that the first guy from my class to come through that door would be my primary candidate. It sounded fine in principle, too bad it didn’t bear fruit.
To put it bluntly, I was all alone. Not a soul came to eat here yet, and though lunch break was far from over, not seeing anyone was a little unnerving.
“Oh well.” With a shrug I reached inside the box and popped a chicken breast nugget into my mouth. It was... actually really good. Not really on par with yesterday’s lasagna, but it was still a very fine meal. The vivid red sauce that I had first mistaken for ketchup also turned out to be something much spicier, yet tastier, than expected.
Immersed in eating, I almost didn’t notice when the door opened. I immediately put the piece of fries I had in my hand (which was also covered in some blend of spices that made it way more awesome that it had any right to be) back into the box and focused on the newcomer... but it was a bit of a letdown. It was a girl.
With a weary sigh, I returned to my meal. I was just about to unwrap one of the sandwiches packed neatly in a smaller compartment to find out what kind of shockers those had in wait when a shadow fell over me. I glanced up and found the girl from before standing right in front of me and staring.
I blinked and was about to awkwardly greet her when I noticed her fixed stare wasn’t really on me but the place where I was sitting. I tried shifting a little, and as I thought, she didn’t follow me with her eyes.
“Do you... want to sit here?”
She didn’t react for several seconds. When I was just about to speak up again though, she nodded. Without any further ado I slid to the other end of the bench and she immediately sat down, seemingly completely forgetting about my presence. Well, she was a placeholder so I didn’t expect much, but still...
I watched her unpack her bag and take out a large ham sandwich. She was... well, like other placeholders. She was short, though at this point I was starting to feel that everyone was short compared to me. She was pretty in the same, generic way as all other placeholders; slim but well-proportioned, a symmetric face, a simple shoulder-length cut of black hair. No makeup, no accessories.
What really captivated my attention was her grace. She was mechanical. Efficient. She acted without wasted movement, yet she didn’t seem rigid at all. She unpacked her sandwich, grabbed it with both hands like you would see in a commercial... and suddenly took a gigantic chomp out of it.
It took all my self-discipline not to laugh out loud at the unexpected sight, but some snickers still escaped my mouth and drew the girl’s gaze. When she turned her face to me, her cheeks were so stuffed she looked like a hamster. That was the last straw; I burst out in uncontrollable laughter and I almost knocked over my half-eaten lunchbox in the process.
I was laughing for a good minute, but the girl didn’t seem to mind. She kept chewing absently, not even a little bit perturbed by my display at her side. At last she gulped loudly and her cheeks returned to their normal state. She kept looking at me for a few seconds longer before she faced forwards again, mechanically raised the sandwich to her mouth... and the repeated the process from the beginning.
For some reason I couldn’t look away. It felt like I was in some kind of nature documentary. Here we can see the wild placeholder in her natural habitat, quickly consuming her food before a predator could find her.
The seconds turned into minutes, and before I knew it she had already finished her sandwich. For some reason that made me disappointed. I was just about to leave it at that when I noticed that she was still staring at me. Furthermore, she seemed to be... questioning me?
I froze up. 'Oh, crap' I thought. I should have expected this. Placeholder or not, staring at a girl for that long was obviously weird.
“... Hello.” Her voice was flat but somehow it still felt very nice, even if a little deeper than I would have expected.
There didn’t seem to be any further development after this exchange, yet she kept looking at me like she was expecting something from me. For the first time since I woke up, I felt completely lost for words and awkward.
“So... um... How was your sandwich?”
She absently looked at the empty wrapper in her hands.
“It was okay, I think.”
I couldn’t help but be amazed. Not just because a placeholder actually gave me a proper answer without the expected blank stare, but I had to realize that her voice was just plain beautiful. It had a sort of warm softness to it that I had a hard time describing without going into superlatives. Needless to say, making such observations in this situation only made me feel more awkward.
“Really? I thought so...”
We once again fell silent and I really wanted to pound myself on the forehead. That was a riveting conversation, idiot. And to make things even worse, she kept staring at me. For a moment I even thought it was her way of getting back at me for staring at her, but then again, could placeholders even hold grudges?
I paused. The question actually hit me harder than it had any right to. Can they? Exactly how independent are they? Can they develop? I was so focused on my circle and the setting that I completely forgot about these kinds of questions. This right here was the reason I needed another observer.
I should find these things out… and I had the perfect opportunity on my hands. Just to make sure, I glanced around the rooftop and couldn’t see anyone else. I stopped and weighed my options.
On one hand, I had already decided to leave things up to chance, so grabbing this one (not literally, of course) was in a way appropriate. While she only hit one point of my criteria, being a placeholder, one wasn’t supposed to look the gift horse in the mouth.
On the other hand... well, she only hit one point of my criteria. Not to mention, she was weird. By placeholder-standards, I mean. Would that pose a problem to my observations?
After some further painful vacillation, I finally shrugged and decided to throw caution in the wind. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If things didn’t work out I could still pick a guy after this. So, with that determination in mind, I met her eyes, took a breath and made sure to ask her in a very natural—
“Hey there, I think we are living in a fake world, would you like to help me uncover its mechanics?”
I paused for a second and then hit myself on the forehead. What the hell, brain?! Just... what the bloody hell?!
The girl, on the other hand, didn’t seem to be fazed either by my question or by my actions afterwards. In fact, she seemed to be seriously considering my question. The silence was very loud for a while before she finally nodded with the same, empty yet serious expression.
I couldn’t believe my ears.
“Excuse me, could you repeat that?”
“Sure, I’ll help.”
“So I heard it right...” I mumbled. “How did that even...? Did I just hit a hidden flag or something?”
To my further surprise, the girl looked around attentively and told me, “No, I don’t see any flags.”
She sounded so serious it almost made me laugh out loud.
“No no. It’s not that kind of flag. It’s a colloquialism.” She still looked at me questioningly, so I continued. “How should I explain this...? You see, in games where you have choices, sometimes you can change the flow of the scenario by picking certain ones. It is called 'setting a flag' when you pick a choice that leads to a branch in the scenario.”
“That... That is actually a very good question,” I answered, mildly impressed. “It has to do with programming. You see, variables in these games are called flags, so...”
And so on and so forth. She asked, I answered, and before I knew it I was completely wrapped up in the conversation. We (or rather I) talked about event flags, branching, story structures, mediums and genres that use them and so forth. What’s more, my interest in the girl grew with every passing minute.
Sure, she didn’t show much emotion (or any, if we are at that), and she only asked short, concise questions, but they were always on the mark and by the look in her eyes I could see that she really tried to understand everything I was saying. Before long I found my inhibitions breaking down and began dropping hints towards my actual hypotheses.
“So, let’s imagine that we were living in a world where such things applied,” I began, and she obediently nodded. “So, in such a world, anything could be a flag.”
“Yup. Who you talk to, what you say to them, even what you ate for breakfast.”
“Like real life.”
“Not quite!” I raised a finger, and she followed it with her eyes. On a whim I moved it around a bit and she still kept following it like a cat chasing the laser pointer, and with a deadly serious expression to boot. Once I got my share of amusement out of that, I continued. “So, as I was saying, the difference is that there are rules. Shorthands. Conventions. A world like that would follow things like that.”
“Lots of things. Personality archetypes, events, everything. However, and herein lies the main difference from ordinary reality: these tropes wouldn’t stand on their own. They come in different sets and shapes depending on the genre and situation. Once you grasp that, you can begin to unravel everything and figure out what makes the world tick.”
“You want to do that?”
“Errr...” Well, here came the plunge. I steeled myself and nodded. “Yes. I believe this is how this world works, and I would like to ask you to help me figure it out.”
“...” Her answer was so immediate that it took me a moment to register. “Okay... Welcome aboard... I think.”
It was final then. It was both relieving and disappointing in a way. I expected it would take more convincing, or I would have to prove it to her somehow, yet this girl... this... girl...
'Holy crap' I though. I didn’t even know her name. I asked her, dragged her in, and I didn’t even ask her name! What the hell was wrong with me today?!
Not only that, just then I realized that lunch break was almost over and that I still had half my lunch left.
“Oh, crap...” I murmured as I opened the box again.
“Is there a problem?”
“No, it’s just that...” Just then I noticed that she was looking at the sandwiches and an idea came to me. “Want some?”
She looked at the sandwiches some more, then at me
“Errr... If you want to take it that way...”
Before I even finished my line she already reached into the box and took one of the bundles. She unwrapped it, raised it to her mouth and took a large bite. Then she noticed my inquisitive look and turned back to me.
“Please swallow before you speak,” I chided her. She began chewing and once again swallowed with one large, loud gulp.
“Delicious. Payment accepted.”
“You are… welcome?”
We spent the rest of the lunch break finishing off the lunchbox. The sandwiches, as it turned out, were only filled with a generous amount of chocolate cream, but somehow they still felt as high-quality as the rest. Once we were done we wordlessly cleaned up after ourselves and left the empty rooftop.
It was only when we separated at the feet of the stairs when I realize I still didn’t ask for her name. I silently cursed under my breath as I turned to dash after her, but by then she disappeared from the corridor. I clicked my tongue and checked the time. I didn’t even ask which class she attended! How was I supposed to find her?! I groaned and headed back to my classroom with weary steps.
When I arrived I found Angie and the class rep talking by the latter’s desk, Josh lazing by mine and the princess sprawled over her own with an exhausted expression.
“What happened?” I asked my friend as I sat down.
“You missed a huge show, that’s what.” Seeing the incomprehension on my face, Josh smiled wryly and handed me back my wallet. “You see, we went to the cafeteria, and when Elly learned that you would be paying, she went on a spree!”
“Go figure,” I told him as I sat down and checked the content of my wallet. “Not that much is missing though?”
Josh gave me a withering look.
“Only you can say that three hundred Jen for a single meal is ‘not much’.”
I ignored the comment and looked over the princess.
“Is that why she looks so worn out?”
“Yep. She ate a full course, an entire turkey and a huge parfait just to dent your wallet.”
“Yeah, she said so. Also that she hates you, that you are a meddler and that you smell bad.”
“Yeah, she says that a lot,” I told Josh absent-mindedly as I poked her in the back. She looked up at me and immediately twitched.
“You! When did you come back?!”
“… I have been here for a good five minutes by now,” I answered amicably, then paused. “You look really out of it.”
“W-Why do you care?”
“Binge eating like that is bad for your stomach and it can lead to a bunch of nasty problems. You really shouldn’t do that.” I paused again as I took a look at the rings under her eyes. “You really look bad. Are you all right?”
“S-Shudup!” She slurred while trying to dodge the hand I extended to check her temperature. “Leave me alone! I don’t need your care!”
“Whatever you say,” I relented and then placed the empty lunchbox onto the desk. “By the way, thank you for the food.”
“Oh…” In a shocking display, the princess completely calmed down as she stared at the empty box. “How… was it?”
“Hm?” I was momentarily perplexed by her sudden change of gears. “It was delicious. I especially liked the sauce.”
“Oh, that’s an original recipe of mine,” She stated proudly.
“Wait, you made that?”
“I thought you had a cook.”
“So… you packed a homecooked meal because…”
“It wasn’t for you!” She protested loudly, at which I could only shake my head.
“Of course it wasn’t for me, it was for him.”
“Yes! I mean, no! I mean…” With a frustrated growl, the princess tried to stomp her bad foot and cringed. “Argh! I hate you!”
And with that, she buried her head in her arms and fell over her desk again. I looked over at Josh. His face simply read ‘Girls are weird.’ Mine answered ‘They sure are.’
Just then the sliding door opened, but instead of the teacher, a girl entered. For a moment I could only gawk at her as she walked in and sat down on the other end of the classroom. It was her! The girl from the roof!
“Yeah?” My friend looked up at me from rummaging through his bag.
“Who is that girl?”
He followed my eyes and apparently had to think for a few seconds.
“That’s… Judy. Why? Did you remember her or something?”
“Nah, it’s not that.”
I stared at the girl and after a few seconds she looked my way and gave me a small nod. I couldn’t help but grin as I looked over at my friend.
“Hey Josh? Two out of three is pretty good, right?”
“I… don’t follow. What do you mean?”
I paused for a moment and then shook my head.
“Nothing. It’s complicated.”
I sat back in my chair, still grinning, and from the corner of my eyes, I could see an expression on Josh’s face that declared that girls weren’t the only weird thing in the room…