It was maybe five or ten minutes after midnight. I was sitting in front of my computer in my room when I first noticed the sound. It was faint and dull, but after a few seconds of listening I could make out a definite tune. For a few seconds I wondered just what it could be at this time of the day, but then the proverbial iridescent bulb lit up over my head and a second later I was already flying down the stairs towards the living room. There, after some fumbling, I managed to get my new phone out of my coat carelessly discarded on the back of a chair and I accepted the call without even looking at the caller ID.
“Yes, it's Leonard…. Um… " I paused for a moment, but then the momentary brain-freeze was over and I exclaimed, "Dunning! I mean, Leonard Dunning speaking.”
For a few seconds there was only faint static in the ether. I wondered if maybe someone called the wrong number, but then at last a familiar voice called out to me.
“Good evening, chief.”
I involuntarily frowned.
“Hi Judy. I think we are a little beyond evening if you ask me.”
“Did I wake you?”
“Nah, I was researching stuff on the net.”
“Sorry, I… I should have thought about the time…”
That answer threw me off the loop for a moment or two. It wasn’t just the apology (though admittedly my assistant didn’t strike me as someone who apologized at the drop of a hat), but the tone. At first I thought it was just a stupid compression artifact of the connection, but by this point I was sure I heard it right: Judy’s voice sounded frail, almost mousy. It made me worry.
“Is everything all right?”
I waited for her to elaborate, which didn’t happen, so I sighed and ventured a guess.
“You couldn’t sleep again?”
There was a faint rustle on the other side and I frowned again.
“Please don’t tell me you just nodded…”
“Oh…” She sounded actually surprised; whether at herself or me, I couldn’t tell. “Force of habit.”
“It’s not a big deal, but be aware that it will be kind of hard to uphold a conversation if you don’t talk.”
“… You know, you are apologizing an awful lot. Are you sure everything is all right?”
There was a long, tense pause, during which I most certainly didn’t nervously walk up and down in the room like an expectant father at the maternity ward. At last Judy spoke again, her voice somehow managing to sound even less secure. Speaking of which, it was weird to hear emotions in her voice like that. Maybe she let her guard down while on the phone; I pondered? Or maybe it was just that I always focused too much on her severe deficit of facial expressions and never noticed the small nuances in her admittedly enchanting voice… Anyways, she finally answered:
“I was just… thinking.”
“Oh, that happens even to the best of us. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” There was a stretch of silence between us and for some reason I felt mother-in-law levels of disapproval emanating from the phone in my hand. “Sorry, that was… inappropriate?” I grasped for a response. “Anyways, what were you thinking about?”
“… Many things… About the world. About me. About everything.”
“Oooooh…!” I exclaimed as I plopped onto my comfy sofa with a somewhat awkward smile. “I get it! You are having an existential crisis!”
“I… I’m sorry. I shouldn’t bother you with…”
“Oh, no, no!” I interrupted her before she could gather steam. “It’s all right. Having an existential crisis is a perfectly legitimate reason to call me.”
“Yep. It’s nothing to be ashamed of; I think anyone would have one in your shoes.”
In fact the only strange thing about it was how early it happened. Considering that she was a placeholder, I expected the dread to set in much later. After a second or two Judy tentatively asked; “Even you?”
“Especially me,” I answered with confidence, though I realized how inappropriate that was by the time I said it. Oh well.
“… You seem to deal awfully well with it.”
“Oh, that’s just the surface. I am screaming incoherently on the inside even as we speak.” There was another stretch of very loud silence and before I knew it I found myself apologizing. “Sorry, I guess it’s not the time to joke about this.” I waited until I heard a noise from her which I choose to interpret as a sign of forgiveness, so I proceeded to do the sensible thing and shamelessly changed the topic. “So, I guess that’s the reason why you couldn’t sleep yesterday either.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I thought you would ridicule me.”
“Wait, do you really think I’m the kind of guy who would do that?” My mouth moved before my brain did, so after a moment of pause I hastily added. “Wait, no, don’t answer that question. I think we are both better off if you didn’t.”
After another lengthy period of nail-chewing silence I finally sighed.
“So, why exactly did you call me? How can I help?”
“… I don’t know.” She answered in a wispy voice, and I was once again astounded by how different she sounded from her usual level deadpan. “I think… I just wanted to hear your voice.”
“I see…” I hesitated for a moment but at last I shrugged. “I guess I should start by apologizing too.”
“Well…” I awkwardly scratched the back of my head, though she obviously couldn’t see that. “If you look at the root of the issue, we would not have this conversation if I didn’t get you involved, so…”
“Stop.” The word cutting me off was icy cold. “If you try to tell me you regret involving me, I will be really, really angry at you.”
“I… see.” I smiled awkwardly to myself. I was actually a little curious how an angry Judy would look like, though I concluded that I really didn’t want her to be angry at me in particular. “And no, that’s not what I wanted to say. I should have just… done things better. Ease you into things. In fact, that’s what I originally wanted to do, but I guess I got impatient. Sorry.” She didn’t say anything to me, so I cleared my throat aloud and tried to smile while speaking. I cannot attest, but apparently doing so makes one sound friendlier too. Anyways, I said; “So, do you want to share your worries? Get them off your chest?”
This time there was only the briefest of pauses.
“I… shouldn’t. It’s silly.”
“I don’t think it is… Trust me, you will feel better afterwards.”
Judy fell silent, probably collecting her thoughts, and finally spoke up with a slightly firmer voice.
“It is because of our research… I am usually too busy to think about them throughout the day, but when I get to bed they just overwhelm me. Questions. Is this world really just an imitation? Am I even real, or just a figment of someone’s imagination? What about my memories? Are they really mine, or just pre-programmed images someone else put into my head? What if all I am, or what I think I am, is a lie? What guarantees that if I go to bed today, I would not be reprogrammed into a different person by the time I wake up? Or if the entire world just ends… Would I even be aware of the moment it happens? And… and…” She let out a pitiful sound that made me wince in sympathy. “I am rambling. Can you even understand what I want to say?”
“Of course I do,” I answered confidently. “I have these kinds of thoughts all the time.”
“… You do?” She sounded genuinely surprised.
“Of course I do. I told you it was only natural.”
“How do you deal with it?” She asked so eagerly I tried to imagine what kind of expression would suit such a tone, and I just couldn’t overlay it on her face. The image still made me smile though and I leaned forwards in my seat.
“We are both dealing with it already.” I could sense that she didn’t get my meaning, so I hurriedly continued. “Isn’t that what our research is all about?”
“Of course! We are collecting data and constructing hypotheses because we are uncertain. Being uncertain is troubling, and being uncertain about heavy topics like your own existence is just plain scary. We are combating this dread by taking the thing that makes us uncertain, observing it, picking it apart, poking its innards, putting it back together and ultimately attempting to figure out how it works. At that moment it is no longer uncertain, and thus we have nothing to fear.”
“But what if it is something we should fear? Like us not being…” She seemed to struggle for the right word for a while before uttering. “… real.”
“It is a possibility, but once we know that we can move on. It’s better to know things like that than not to.”
“And in the meantime? What do we do until we get our answers?”
“Live in the present,” I answered without a moment of hesitation.
“… What is that supposed to mean?”
“Exactly what it sounds like. So what if the world can end at any moment? So what if you cannot ascertain the continuity of your consciousness? It’s not like we can do anything about them right now, and obsessing over them would just turn us into nervous wrecks, and personally I am not a fan of that. There are so many interesting and fun things out there, new experiences and people to meet, that I find worrying about these things a waste of time and effort better spent elsewhere.”
“So you say we should ignore them and engage in escapism?”
I was once again wondering where she got her vocabulary, but I decided to ask her at the moment was not really prudent.
“No, I advocate enjoying yourself moment by moment. That’s what I’m doing whenever I am not doing my research, and usually even when I do. I hang out with Joshua and company, piss off annoying butlers and make friends with girls that call me in the middle of the night to spill their hearts to me. Stuff like that.”
“This is fun to you?”
“Yeah, I like talking to you.”
There was another long pause ending in a quiet ‘I see…’. Just then I suddenly had a thought.
“Hey, should we go and see the ocean on the weekend?”
There was a silence that decidedly felt more baffled than anything else on the other end of the line.
“… Did you just invite me on a date?”
I pointedly fell silent, though I suppose it had little effect since we have been doing that a lot during our conversation anyway. “Just for the record, I am currently rolling my eyes. I just thought you should know.”
“So it’s not a date?”
“No, it’s a research excursion!” I told her with a tired sigh. “I just discovered today that we live on an island and I want to see the shore. Maybe check out a local port and the ships. See if we can find the boundaries of the world. Take your mind off the vast emptiness of existence by doing something fun and productive. Stuff like that.”
My assistant gave me a small ‘Hmph.’ and at last answered:
“… Two deluxe cheese sandwiches.”
I sighed. “Do I have to pay you separately for everything? … Also, that sounds like compensated dating. It makes me feel dirty.”
“You said it’s not a date, so it’s fine. Call it compensated research tripping.”
“Might as well… So, should we call it a day for today? We should discuss the details tomorrow and…”
“No!” Judy suddenly exclaimed and it almost made me jump out of my seat. “I mean…” She mumbled something I couldn’t understand.
“Could you repeat that?”
“I said… please talk to me some more. Until I’m ready to fall asleep.”
She sounded surprisingly earnest, like a little kid asking for a bedtime story, but I really didn’t want to ruin the moment by poking fun at her.
“Fine, fine… But what should I talk about?”
“I don’t know…” She hesitated. “What were you researching when I called you?”
“Oh, it was time travel. Time travel in fiction, I mean.”
“Ah, that sounds perfect to help me fall asleep.”
I involuntarily set my jaw.
“Let me warn you, it will be in the test.”
“The one at the end of the semester.”
“… I am pretty so I don’t need to worry about my grades.”
“Young lady! Your lack of study ethics is appalling! Kids these days just can’t appreciate proper education! You have no idea how easy you have it nowadays! Back in my days, we had to mine our own textbooks from the deep, darks crevices of Mount Librarium! You youngsters have everything at your fingertips with your interwebz and social media and… and…”
“Especially lolcats! I truly fear for the future of our country and/or species!”
“Oh, the humanity?”
“Oh, the humanity indeed!”
We both paused for a few seconds, and at least on my end I had a hard time stifling my snickers. At the same time I also felt really, really relieved that Judy seemed to be back to normal… well, as normal as she can be considered, but I might not have been the best yardstick in that regard.
“So, back to the topic: time travel in fiction.”
“Do you think it happened in this world?” Judy interjected before I could even gather momentum.
“Hm? Oh, no. Or rather, I have no idea, but probably not. Otherwise we should be up to our necks in paradoxes.”
“Then why did you look into it?”
“Oh, that’s a bit of a tangent. You see, I was originally researching school life comedy stories for common tropes and formulas when I came across this particular galge…”
“Oh, right, you probably don’t know this… A galge is a romance-focused game about a single male protagonist wooing one or more love-interests… except when they are more like virtual books with images… and then there are the ones that are all about raising statistics and stuff and… that’s another tangent. The point is; I was looking into this particular eroge…”
“Ugh… It’s a game with… well…” I awkwardly scratched my chin and averted my eyes, but then I realized I had nothing to avert them from and instead I just rolled them and muttered; “… sex.”
“So it’s porn?” Judy answered dryly, apparently completely unfazed by the subject matter.
“Not always. At least depending on whom you ask. One of my sources told me most eroge are story-heavy and only have about as much sexual content as your average paperback romance novel while another insisted they are all horrible child-porn made by Satan or something… I think I will need to do more research.”
“And it has nothing to do with you trying to hone your flirting skills through virtual training.”
I smiled ruefully and grunted directly into the phone so she could certainly hear it.
“… I’m glad to hear you are completely back to normal. Now stop it.”
“Aw. I was scolded.”
I rolled my eyes and pointedly cleared my throat.
“Anyways, there was this one particular story that had time travel in it, so I clicked on a link pointing to that topic and was reading through that when you called. It’s actually pretty fascinating.”
And with that, I began my long, detailed and in no way dry explanation of fictional time travel over the phone. I didn’t get too far though, as I was only beginning to explain how the grandfather paradox worked when I noticed my assistant was suspiciously silent.
“Judy? Are you asleep?” I waited for a few seconds for an answer, and after listening very closely I thought I could make out the sounds of a soft, even breathing over the white noise of the phone line. I smiled. “Good night.”
With that I ended the call and pocketed my phone before I jumped to my feet and headed for my room, already thinking about the research trip we would have on the weekend. I originally wanted to do it on my own, but now that I asked her to accompany me I had to make sure to help her relax properly.
“Before anything else, I should check the local maps for docks. Oh, and a nice shoreline. Are beaches still open at this time of the year…? Transportation, food, tickets… I wonder if there is a good movie in the theaters we could watch afterwards…?”
Mumbling so I entered my room and tried my best to ignore how excited I sounded.
“I tell you, this episode was the best since the third season finale!” Angie declared angrily while waving a still intact fried chicken drumstick in the air.
“Are you serious?” Joshua retorted just as animatedly. “How can you even compare the two? The action was nowhere near as great!”
“Hey, it had action too, but this finale was great because it focused on drama and romance!”
“Hah! You just say that because your favorite pairing got to be canon!” Josh snorted derisively while crossing his arms in front of his chest.
“Oh, now you did it! You revealed your true colors!” Angie shook her drumstick at Josh while stomping her feet under the table. “You are like this because Trucy ended up with Elliot instead of Ceraph!”
“Well, she should have!” Joshua retorted. “He had three season’s worth of buildup and he was totally sidelined in the finale!”
“He has a point,” The class rep quietly interjected while cutting her beef croquettes, not even looking up from her plate.
“Et tu, Ammy!” Angie staggered back theatrically, but a moment later she was pointing the drumstick of accusation at her friend. “And what do you mean ‘He has a point’?! Elliot was the main male lead since season one! He had way more buildup than Ceraph!”
“Well…” The class rep fidgeted for a moment, then she glanced at Josh, who in turn gave her a reassuring smile, so she continued; “True, but he didn’t really do anything since season one…”
“Right!” Josh continued the assault. “Not to mention, turning Ceraph evil again, after it was established that his love for Trucy fixed that, was just dumb.”
“Oh, so you say that your precious Ceraph alone should have been able to resist the bloodlust of the Red Moon?!”
“No, but it should definitely not have turned him into the chief enforcer of The Dread Wolf Vladimir at the end.”
“Well, okay, that should have been better explained, but it was totally in character.”
“No it wasn’t!” Josh objected a bit too loudly.
“Please don’t disturb the other students,” The class rep scolded him.
“Ooops, sorry. Anyways, it wasn’t in character, he just had to be written out of the series because of his own spinoff.”
“Wasn’t that just a miniseries?”
“It gets a full season next year,” The class rep supplied. “It’s called ‘Ceraph: The White Wolf Chronicles’, and it is about…”
And so on and so forth. I let out a tired sigh and I popped another french fry into my mouth. This lunch break was noisier than usual; probably because the entire gang ate together in the cafeteria, save for the princess who was on sick leave, as per my instructions. Anyways, I was just about to cut a ribbon off my fried pork when my assistant poked me in the shoulder.
She looked much better than yesterday, though I could still see traces of the black circles under her eyes. She had her pink phone in one hand and a half-eaten ham sandwich in the other, her lone pinky finger extended. She apparently used it to type while eating. Anyways, she leaned closer.
“What are they talking about?”
“Some TV series. ‘Trucy the Werewolf Huntress’, I think. It seems like it’s really popular.”
I was just about to turn back to my food when the table shook violently as Angie planted her hand on it so that she could lean way forward and hold the drumstick up to my face like a microphone.
“And what do you think about the ending?!”
“… The ending?”
“The last scene where Elliot shared part of his soul with Trucy so that she could reawaken her disabled huntress-powers and take down The Dread Wolf Vladimir, entwining their souls forever and ever! It was awesome, right? It was totally romantic, right?”
I awkwardly glanced at the other two participants of the conversation, but they both avoided my eyes. In the end I sighed and shook my head.
“Sorry, I didn’t watch last night’s episode.”
Angie audibly gasped and staggered back in her seat like she was struck by a mortal bow.
“How could you, Leo?! I thought you were my ally! My stalwart partner! How could you abandon me like this?!”
I rolled my eyes and proceeded to cut another slice of pork.
“Sorry, I had other things to do.”
“What other things? Didn’t we leave the party early so we could all catch the finale?”
Well, they most certainly did. In fact, I could vaguely remember them mentioning that the three of them would watch the episode together at Angie’s place and that’s why we went our separate ways, though I didn’t pay it much attention at the time. Either way, all I knew about the show were the snippets I gathered when the others were talking about it.
“What do you have to say in your defense?!” Angie menaced me with the drumstick of divine retribution, and I could only sigh.
“As I said, I had stuff to do.”
Still unsatisfied, Angie turned to my assistant.
“What about you?”
“I don’t watch the series,” Judy stated matter-of-factly without looking up from her notes.
“What is wrong with you people?!” Angie exclaimed and it looked like she would finally raise her drumstick to her mouth, but she didn’t actually take a bite. As for the question, I really wanted to ask the same, but then she suddenly squinted at me through skeptically furrowed brows. “Suspicious!”
“I said, this is suspicious! You say you two didn’t watch the last episode even though we have eyewitnesses claiming they saw you two leave early so you could watch it!”
“No, that was you guys. Also, ‘eyewitnesses’?”
“Yes, all three of us!” She indicated Josh and the class rep. For the record, they were obviously very busy eating so that they would not have to enter the conversation. “Not only that, but the only other person who would know what the two of you were doing after we parted is Elly… who is conveniently missing! Super suspicious!”
“… Why exactly?”
“Thank you for asking!” Angie declared in some kind of fake accent while holding her drumstick like she was smoking a pipe… so I guess it was supposed to be British? Anyways, she began talking, but the mention of the princess reminded me of something and I gestured for Josh to lean closer to me.
“I just remembered something. I forgot to tell you this morning, but I have a job for you.”
I could barely make out Josh’s answer over Angie’s spiel on the left. It was something about alibis and the ‘Howdunnit’ or something. Judy seemed to be paying her attention and was taking notes, so I decided not to bother them.
“I said I have a job for you,” I repeated myself leaning even closer.
“I heard it. I asked what it is.”
“I told you the princess wasn’t coming to school till Monday, right?”
“Yeah, I noticed. She twisted her ankle again, right?”
“Yup. Listen, I need you to bring today’s homework over to her.”
Josh raised one of his trademark critical eyebrows and grunted softly.
“Okay, what’s the catch?”
“What do you mean?” I guess I might have sounded slightly defensive, for Josh gave me a look saying ‘I knew something was up!’ and leaned forward on his chair.
“Why don’t you bring her the homework?”
I gave my friend a flat look.
“Listen, do you really need me to give you a reason to ask you to go to a friend’s house?”
“Well…” Josh averted his eyes. “To be perfectly honest, I really don’t like the place. And the butler really unnerves me.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that!” I jested with a smile. “Yesterday I pissed him off so bad you are going to look like a prim and proper gentleman in comparison. He is going to love you.”
“… Is the unrequited love of an old butler supposed to be a selling point for this ‘job’? Because if it is, you are a terrible salesman.”
I rolled my eyes, and while doing so I caught a few snippets of the discussion between Angie and Judy.
“… so there cannot be any hidden passages, nor can there be a chinaman.”
“What is a chinaman?”
“Oh, it’s like the ‘mystical black guy’. You know; the wise old man who has all the answers, saunters into the crime scene and tells the solution. They don’t really have to be Chinese, but the name stuck.”
“Sounds like a copout.”
“Yeah, and that’s why they are not allowed!”
I had no idea what they were talking about, and to my reassurance, I found that I didn’t have any urge to learn either. That said, I returned to my own conversation.
“Listen Josh, just go there and give her the homework. It’s really not that hard.”
“But do I have to do it alone? Can I take Ammy along?”
I glanced at the class rep, who subtly perked up at the mention of her name, and covertly shook my head. To my surprise, she didn’t seem to need much convincing, as she followed suit and shook her head as well.
“Sorry, I… can’t.” Her voice sounded surprisingly conflicted, but I didn’t think much about it. It was probably about her actually wanting to spend time with Josh but not finding doing so at the princess’ mansion appealing or something. Anyways, I turned back to Joshua and grinned at him.
“Well, that’s how it is.”
Instead of quietly accepting his fate Josh seemed to be defiant to the end, crossing his arms in front of his puffed out chest with an exaggerated sneer.
“Make me, punk!” He grunted, and I rolled my eyes, reached out and grabbed him by the ear. “Ow-ow-ow! Hey! No violence! I was kidding, kidding!”
I made a disappointed sound and let him go. After some further intermezzo (during which the two girls at the side were apparently discussing the efficiency of different poisons… weird…) Joshua finally settled down.
“Fine man, fine. But you have to make it worth my while.”
“Seriously? You want to extort me for this?”
“’Extortion’ is such a nasty word…” He smiled at me broadly. “I would rather call this… err… Okay, let’s call it extortion after all.”
“… You couldn’t come up with a less malicious word, could you?”
“Oh, shut up! Just go and buy me some truffles.”
“Truffles,” I repeated blankly. “You want me to buy you more overpriced food.”
“Overpriced? I'll let you know that truffles are a true delicacy that is…!”
“Fine, stop!” I raised my hands in surrender and thankfully my friend, the moocher extraordinaire, didn’t continue one of his culinary info dumps. I sighed. “What kind of meal here does actually have truffles?”
“It’s funny you asked, I just happen to have a handy list on me!”
Completely disregarding my mincing glare, Josh handed me a small piece of paper with a bunch of food items and prices listed on it. For a moment, I almost had to have a double-take at some of the higher-end ones.
“Okay, you are getting the cheapest.”
“Awwww! At least consider the dessert first!”
“No! You don’t need truffles and edible gold foil with your vanilla ice cream!”
Josh was about to protest again when all of a sudden both Judy and Angie faced me and pointed a pair of accusatory fingers at me that even the princess would have envied. For a second I could only blink at them.
“Ms. White, in the kitchen, with a candlestick!” Angie declared with a haughty grin. “What do you say to that?”
I blinked again and tilted my head to the side. “That you should stop playing imaginary Cluedo and finish your lunch before the break is over?” I answered tentatively. Angie immediately clicked her tongue.
“Damn, he is onto us.”
“I told you he is sharp,” Judy told her with some empathetic, though slightly mechanical, pats on the shoulder.
“I am glad you guys have a high opinion of me, but didn’t you go totally off-topic?”
They both perked up with a silent ‘Ah!’ and Angie in particular immediately aimed her still-intact drumstick at my face.
“Right! You still haven’t told us the salacious details about what you two were doing instead of watching the season finale of Trucy!”
“’Salacious’ details? Seriously?” Angie kept looking at me with what I presumed was supposed to be an accusatory scowl, but on her face it looked more like the look a hurt puppy would give to the person who accidentally stepped on its tail. I couldn’t bear it for long, so I gave up with a small sigh. “Listen, because I am only saying this once: after we left the bakery yesterday, we took the princess home, then I took my assistant home and finally I went home and spent the night on the internet doing research for a paper I was working on. There is no secret.”
Still suspicious, Angie raised the drumstick to her mouth again and did an exaggerated smoking motion.
“Do you have any eye-witnesses who would corroborate your alibi?”
“… No?” I answered, too puzzled to put up an intellectual front. “I live alone.”
“You do?” This time the question came from a surprised Joshua. I looked at him and shrugged.
“Yeah, my parents are… overseas?” If I sounded unsure, that was only because I was. I spent some time combing through the house, and the only clues I could find about my presumed family were the names on my legal papers, the account number of my beneficiary on my bank account and a single, unmarked key that apparently belonged to a safety deposit box, but since it had no emblem and numbers on it I couldn’t even tell which bank held it. In other words, I still wasn’t sure my parents even existed in this world, let alone them providing witness testimony about where I was instead of watching a TV show.
“Really?!” Josh exclaimed again. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“… Um… Why?”
“We could have held Judy’s birthday party there! We could have gone all out!”
“Yeah, no. I’m not a fan of house parties.”
“A-ny-ways!” Angie demanded our attention by tapping on the table. “The jury finds you guilty of gross negligence of season-finale-watching-duties!”
“What jury?” I asked flatly.
“Me,” The girl beamed at me, but then she caught herself and returned to her hurt-puppy-frown. “I thereby sentence you to hanging out with all of us at your place on Sunday and marathoning the entirety of Trucy the Werewolf Huntress!”
I gave her a wry look and shook my head.
“Uh… I… already had plans for Sunday.”
“Plans? What plans?”
“You mean our trip to the shore?” Judy asked at my side with the worst timing possible.
“Oooooh?” Angie smiled at me impishly. “So that’s how it is…”
“No, that’s not how it is. It’s for research,” The smile didn’t wash off of Angie’s face, so I decided to change the course of the discussion. “Anyways, I am not entirely against the idea of hanging out over the weekend. Why can’t we do it tomorrow instead?”
“Tomorrow?” Angie wondered aloud. “Well, I suppose, though we could only start after my weekend practice is over.”
I wanted to ask what kind of practice she was talking about, but then I remembered that she was in the tennis club and I bit back the oblivious question.
“It’s fine with me, I don’t have a club,” Josh smiled contently.
“Because you are a lazy bum,” Angie poked his cheeks with her drumstick. Josh tried to take a bite out of it but she retracted it before he could do so.
“I’m not lazy, I’m just economical,” He grinned before he looked over to the class rep. “What about you, Ammy. Are you free tomorrow afternoon?”
“Hm?” The class rep looked distracted for a moment. She blinked at Josh and it felt like she was rewinding the last few minutes in her head to figure out what he was talking about. At last her eyes sparkled with recognition and she nodded. “Yes, I can make the time.”
“Great!” Josh’s contagious smile spread over the table, infecting everyone but my assistant, who was busy poking her phone. “I will ask Elly about it too! We should totally have a second birthday party if we are at that!”
“Nope.” I said as I gave him a totally dishonest toothy smile. It was about this time I began to wonder if maybe this was a bad idea…
“I demand a rematch!” Joshua exclaimed at my side as we were collecting the balls and pads left behind by the other students. Our last lesson for the day was PE, and this time we were playing table tennis inside the school’s pointlessly huge gymnasium. Needless to say, I paired up with Josh from the very beginning and we conducted a long and arduous campaign of inter-tabular ballistic warfare against each other. It was fun, though at least one of us had some gripes about the final tally.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes!” He growled at me while picking up another white ball from a corner. I shrugged my shoulders.
“Fine by me, but… are we going with a clean slate or carry our current score?” I asked innocently as I used one of the paddles in my hand to try and fish out a stray ball trapped under the wall-bars.
“Clean slate. Definitely clean slate.”
“Are you sure?” I teased as I finally managed to overcome the resistance of the stubborn white plastic fugitive and placed it into custody inside its cardboard prison cell. Once I was done I turned to Josh and grinned at him. “I mean, a rematch is nice and all, but wouldn’t your victory be all the sweeter if you could overcome my initial score-advantage? What was it again, fifty-seven to two?”
“It’s because you were cheating,” He grit his teeth and I could only shake my head in response.
“Just how can one even cheat in ping pong?”
“It’s because of your…”
“Are you finished?” Josh’s presumably well-reasoned and in no way acidic explanation was cut short by the class rep poking her head through the half-open door of the hall. She asked us to help her gather the discarded equipment beforehand and we agreed, though I really couldn’t tell why we were doing it. Maybe cleanup was part of her duties as the class representative? Or maybe that was just the honor-student-y thing to do… Either way, I faced her and gave her a small wave.
“Yeah, we got all of them,” I told her as I raised the filled cardboard box in my other hand.
“Good.” She finally passed through the door with lithe steps and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t help but feel that her shirt was at least one size smaller than it should have been. Though, as I reflected on it, I supposed the same could have been said about the other girls as well. I wondered if that was the thing that Josh was hinting at the day before.
Anyways, she walked over to us and took the box of balls from me and the paddles from Josh.
“I’ll put these away. Thank you for the help, you can go now.”
“You are welcome.” Josh smiled at her and gestured for me to follow, his previous saltiness over his abysmal score already filed in the annals of ancient history under ‘u’ for ‘unimportant’.
“Leo, a moment…” The class rep addressed me just as I was about to take the first step. “Before you go, could you help me with something?”
“Sure, what is it?”
She fidgeted for a second, then sheepishly said; “The balls should be placed on the top shelf.”
“Aaaaaah…” I couldn’t help but chuckle at her request and nodded hard in response. “Of course, lead the way.”
“Should I wait for you?” Josh inquired. I thought about it, but ultimately I shook my head.
“Nah, you should head for the princess’ mansion. Tell her I said hi.”
“I’m sure she will be riveted,” My friend prodded me with an impish smile that would have been more at home on Angie’s face. I rolled my eyes and I shooed him away with exaggerated motions. He gave me one last wave from the door before he left, after which I turned to the girl waiting at my side.
“Lead the way.”
She nodded hard, and I actually had to quickly (and very inconspicuously) aver my eyes from her jiggling assets. Not that I paid much attention to them, of course. They were just… hard to ignore. It was the fault of the gym clothes, I tell you.
Anyways, the important part is that I followed her to the storage room at the back. It was pretty much what I expected; a small room with a surprisingly high ceiling with only a small window about four, maybe even five meters above the ground. It was probably just for ventilation, as it barely provided any light and was too high up to serve any other purpose. The room itself was filled to the brim with sports equipment and the storage compartments for said sports equipment. Needless to say, everything was in mint new condition. I grimaced to myself and took the box from the class rep… which was kind of silly considering she just took them from me a minute ago, but I decided not to complain.
“Where to?” I asked, and she pointed at a tall cabinet at the back under the window. I opened it and found several identical boxes on its top shelf. I reached up and slid the box in my hands into place just as I heard a noise behind me. By the time I turned around the class rep was already walking towards me from the freshly closed door with a serious expression.
“Leo, we need to talk.”
Uh-oh… That was her authoritarian voice… I silently gulped and straightened my back with an awkward smile.
“Am I in trouble?”
“Maybe,” She answered enigmatically. “I just want to ask you a few questions.”
“Oooookay…” I leaned my back on the cabinet behind me and crossed my arms. “Shoot.”
She seemed confused for a second, but then the seriousness returned to her eyes.
“Why did you lie to us?”
“I asked why did you…”
“No no, I heard the question; I just need you to be more specific.”
She looked at me dubiously, her face practically screaming ‘Is he lying so often he needs me to pinpoint which lie I am talking about?’, which wasn’t exactly flattering, but at the same time wasn’t entirely untrue either. It made me sad.
“During lunch, you said you were home browsing the internet yesterday.” I nodded in response. “That was a lie.”
“Errr… No, not really. That’s what I was doing.”
“Then why were you outside after dark? In the park?”
“Ahhhh!” I smiled her in sudden realization. “Now I get it!” A moment later my smile faded though, replaced by an inquisitively raised eyebrow and a curious smirk. “Speaking of which, what were you doing outside at that hour?”
“I… I was going home from Angie’s place. After the show was over.” The mask of the class representative fell away in a flustered scamper as she tried to explain herself. I shook my head.
“And Josh didn’t even offer to take you home? Damn, I need to have a talk with that guy about being a gentleman…”
“That’s beside the point!” Her authoritarian manner reasserted, the class rep scowled at me accusingly. “We are talking about why you have lied to us about it.”
“I didn’t lie, I just omitted information. It’s not the same,” I corrected her, but she didn’t seem to care about the nuances. I sighed and uncrossed my arms. “You are making this seem a bigger deal than it actually is. I was outside because I met with an…” I paused thoughtfully. “… Well, I suppose I can call her an acquaintance. Anyways, it doesn’t really concern you guys.”
“Then why lie about it?”
“I told you, I didn’t lie, I just didn’t go out of my way to mention her.”
The furrows on the class rep’s forehead deepened even further as she took a step towards me.
“Listen Leo, that girl is dangerous. You shouldn’t involve yourself with her.”
I blinked in surprise at her harsh words and cocked my head to the side.
“Snowy? Dangerous? Are you sure we are talking about the same person?”
“Snowy?” The creases on her forehead gave way to a surprised look and I almost snickered at the sudden change in her facial expression.
“Right, you probably don’t know her name… It’s the girl the princess tackled yesterday. And the day before too, if we are at that. Anyways, I was meeting with her in the park. Her name is…” I paused for a moment and scratched the nape of my neck in embarrassment. “Actually, I can’t remember her name. I’m kind of bad with those, but I do remember that it means ‘snow’ in French, so I just call her Snowy.”
“Yeah, that one!” I snapped a finger. “I didn’t know you speak French.”
“… A little…” She looked away sheepishly, but then she actually remembered that she was interrogating me and so she hastily reaffirmed her scowl. Unfortunately for her, by this point I knew it was so paper-thin it had absolutely no effect. “Why were you meeting her?”
“To return her phone.” The answer seemed to take her aback, as she only blinked at me uncomprehendingly. I sighed and elaborated; “Yesterday, when the princess tackled her, she lost her phone. I picked it up, called her brother on it, we set up a meeting time and I gave it back to her.”
“… You talked with her brother…?”
“Yeah…” I rolled my eyes at the mere mention of the guy. “Sounded like one smug asshole.”
The class rep shook herself and looked at me with harsh eyes.
“Leo, you really don’t know what you involved yourself in. Those people are bad news.”
“Really?” I was doubtful and it really showed in my voice. “I mean, yeah, her brother sounded like a piece of work, but Snowy seemed pretty harmless to me.”
“You shouldn’t let appearances fool you,” The class rep warned me sternly. “She is a seducer.”
I blinked at her and then immediately and uncontrollably laughed out loud. The weirded-out look she gave me afterwards didn’t help my laughing-fit either. At last, I managed to get my diaphragm under control and wiped the tears from the corners of my eyes.
“A seducer? Her? Oh please, that girl couldn’t seduce a virgin at a prom-night if her life depended on it!”
Once again the class rep looked at me funny and I almost entered into another laughing fit, but I forced it down.
“You… mean that?”
“Yeah!” I answered with a grin. “She was absolutely horrible at it. It was like watching a really bad rendition of one of those noir femme-fatale characters.” I paused again and exhaled sharply. “Though, I suppose if one is really into that kind of thing… I’m not judging anyone, but I personally liked her better after she dropped the act.”
“… Dropped the act…” It wasn’t a question, instead the class rep seemed to be thinking aloud. “What was she like then?”
“Hm? Fairly normal, I suppose. A little awkward and fidgety, though that might have been just the cold. Otherwise she seemed like a nice girl. Maybe a little sheltered. Actually, her vamp act could have been just chuunibyou and…” I trailed off as I noticed that the class rep wasn’t even looking at me anymore, instead staring a hole in the cabinet behind me. I tried to figure out if there was something there, but it seemed like she was just so deep in thought she didn’t even notice. I waited for her to ask her next question for a minute or two, but after she didn’t react and the silence got uncomfortable, I pointedly cleared my throat. She was startled for a moment and looked at me like a deer in the headlights, but then she remembered where we were and put on her game face again.
“I was just wondering why you keep insisting that Snowy is dangerous. I mean, you obviously know more about her background than I do, and I can’t help but feel curious.”
She looked me in the eye for a good five seconds, but ultimately she shook her head.
“No. The less you know about her, the better. You shouldn’t get involved.”
“Well, I already am. Kind of.”
“No.” She stated firmly, turned around and headed for the exit. “You really should take better care of…”
Just then there was a dull metallic clank and the class rep’s final words were abruptly cut off by the air being squeezed out of her lungs as she ran headlong into the still closed door. She wobbled for a moment and then abruptly fell on her butt while cradling her forehead.
“Ow-ow-ow!” She cried while I rushed to her side.
“Whoa there! Are you all right?”
“Nooooo,” She answered in a long, childish whimper as thick beads of tears started flowing down her cheeks. I gently moved her hands from her forehead, but thankfully there was only a small bump there, nothing serious.
“There, there. It’s just a small bruise; it will get better in no time.” I patted her head to comfort her before I turned my attention at the door. It was big, brown and a few knocks affirmed that it was made of surprisingly thick metal plates. Furthermore, it was obviously locked. I rattled the knob a few times but in the end I could only groan and roll my eyes. “Dammit, I should have known. This is so…”
“What?” The class rep looked up at me from the ground, her teary eyes partially obscured by her bangs.
“This is such a stereotypical development. I should have seen it coming.” I complained at no one in particular as I tried to force the door open. It didn’t budge. “Damn… This is the kind of situation Josh should be involved in, not me!”
“What do you mean?” My fellow storage-room prisoner asked as she got onto her feet. She seemed to finally regain her composure. Not only that, but she finally stopped trying to sound like a teacher, so at least that was a plus.
“… Nothing. It would take too long to explain and it wouldn’t help the situation.”
Though apparently unconvinced, the class rep didn’t press any further, instead she got next to me and tried the doorknob as well.
“Yeah, I already figured that.”
“Maybe the latch fell down when I closed the door…” She theorized.
“Okay, does that help us? Can we open the latch from the inside?” She considered our options and shook her head. “Great, so what do we do now?”
“Ours was the last PE class, so…”
It didn’t take a genius to connect the dots.
“… You want to tell me we would be trapped here until Monday?”
“No, only until tomorrow morning!” She corrected me hastily. “The sports clubs would need to get their equipment for their weekend practice.”
“Well, that isn’t much better either,” I griped and raised my eyes to the small window. It was high up, but if I tried really hard I would have probably been able to squeeze through. I looked around in the room and after a few seconds of planning I nodded to myself. “Okay, that should work.”
I turned to the expectant-looking girl at my side and pointed at a cluster of containers in the far corner.
“Can you help me move a few things?”
“Why?” She asked, but she moved immediately and began stacking boxes at my side.
“We are going to make a ramp to the window using these equipment boxes and the cabinet. I will climb up, go through the window, circle around the building and open the door from the outside to let you out.”
She glanced up at the window and then back at me. There was an uncertain glint in her eyes.
“Can you fit through?”
“I will worry about that when I get there,” I answered with what I hoped to be a reassuring smile. “Hand me that box, please.” She nodded and tried to lift a large cardboard-box filled with basketballs, but she couldn’t even get it to budge. I smiled ruefully and pointed at a smaller box. “On second thought, I will get this one. Bring over that instead.”
Like that we managed to put together a ramp in less than five minutes. A wobbly and decidedly dangerous-looking ramp, but hey, beggars can’t be picky.
“Well, here goes nothing…” I grinned fearlessly (or at least I hoped that was the impression I gave off) and began scaling our construction.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” The class rep stopped me with a whisper. I looked back at her and awarded her a critical frown.
“I’m already halfway there. Don’t you think it’s a little too late to ask that question?”
“Oh, right… Sorry…”
With that I returned to climbing. Getting to the top of the storage cabinet was fairly easy, but getting onto the unstable boxes we piled onto the top of that; now that was a different story. I somehow managed to gain a somewhat stable footing and crawled onto the top of the first box. It creaked ominously under my weight, the balls inside bulging out the sides of the box like a balloon that was about to pop, but slow and steady did its magic and in a minute I was on the top of the pile with the windowsill roughly in line with my chest.
I reached out for the latch and immediately cursed under my breath. How the hell is it that everything in this bloody world was brand new except this single rusty latch?! I groaned loudly and got on my tiptoes to get a better view, which unfortunately made the entire ramp wobble under me.
“Careful!” The class rep called out, but by then I already regained my balance and let out a sigh.
“I’m fine, don’t worry… but on second thought, you might want to take a step back. Just to be on the safe side.”
“You are jinxing it…” She muttered even as she obediently backed away until her back hit the wall right next to the door.
I tried to reassure her with a smile before I returned to my contest with the rusty latch. Even as I worked on different angles, I let my mind wander about why this bolt in particular was rusty in the first place. Sure, if one only considered its position, maybe it was because moisture in the air tends to condense on windows and it would trickle down, rusting the metal. But then again, the window itself showed no signs of this; it was as brand new as everything else.
The other, and far more likely, option was that this was a ‘plot device’, or at least was supposed to be under different circumstances. As I have alluded before, a boy and a girl getting locked into a storage room (or in case of outdoor activities, storage-shed) is a bread-and-butter cliché of school-life romance stories. Of course, if I presumed that it applied here, it would have meant that this situation, or at least a similar one, was meant for Josh. In that case the positioning of the window and the rusty latch made sense, as they were just there to further the romantic development between two characters by making sure they cannot easily leave the room and instead force them to spend quality time together.
Just then I pushed against the window and the latch finally moved. Unfortunately it also unbalanced me and for a second or two I teetered on the edge of tumbling down.
“Wait Leo, I’ll help!” The class rep cried out and I immediately snapped at her.
“No, stay where you are!”
She froze mid-motion. Thankfully I also managed to regain my balance once again and exhaled. Yeah, we almost (quite literally) fell into the second clichéd development, where I would have fallen onto her in some kind of compromising position. That’s kind of like the whole ‘girl falls down the stairs, guy accidentally gropes her’ deal, and I wasn’t a fan of either. Anyways, I tried the latch again and it indeed moved, though only a little. If only we had some kind of lubricant…
“Oh well…” I mumbled under my breath as I placed one hand against the window and grabbed the bolt with the other. As a wise man had once said, ‘when out of options, brute-force’… Well, okay, the original saying was a bit more eloquent, but the point remains the same. “Here goes nothing, again…”
I tried to plant my feet as best as I could on the unsteady boxes and took a deep breath, held it in for a moment, then exhaled sharply as I pushed against the window with all my might while simultaneously pulling on the latch to dislodge it. To my sincerest surprise it worked. In fact… it worked too well…
“Sonova…!” The curse got trapped in my throat as the bolt gave way and the window swung outwards. Since it happened so unexpectedly I completely lost my footing and fell forwards, hitting my forehead on the top of the frame. I could distantly hear the class rep gasp in horror, but a moment later I found myself outside, tumbling through the air like a crash-test dummy that just got flung out of a speeding car’s windshield.
For a very long moment everything seemed to blur together and I felt nauseous, which I attributed to the weird spinning feeling I experienced at the time, but just as I was about to grasp the gravity of the situation I found myself landing on my butt with a surprisingly painless thud. For a couple of seconds all I could do was to blink blankly at my surroundings, but at last my brain caught up and I jumped to my feet like I was sitting on fire.
First, I quickly patted myself down. I didn’t seem to be injured. Even the spot where I hit my head on the window-frame only stung when I poked it, so it didn’t seem serious. Once I made sure I still had all my limbs and organs, I focused on my surroundings. I was standing outside, by the back wall of the gym, and as I looked up I couldn’t help but whistle. The entire building had an elevated foundation, so from the outside the window I just fell through was a good five meters above the ground. Sure, the soil I fell on wasn’t particularly packed, but damn, getting out of a fall like that with a sore butt was pretty miraculous.
Just then I remembered why I was climbing out in the first place and raised my hands around my mouth to form a funnel. “Hey, class rep! Are you okay in there?!”
“I’m fine!” Came the hasty reply. “I should be the one asking that question! Are you okay?!”
“Perfectly fine! I will let you out in a minute!”
I didn’t wait for her to answer, instead I immediately began jogging to the left… only to stop and go the other way around as I remembered that the entrance is on the other side. This small, embarrassing intermezzo aside I quickly found my way into the gym and rushed up to the door. On closer inspection it turned out only the tip of the hook of the latch that held the door shut was in its socket, so in retrospect shaking the door a bit more could have possibly dislodged it and let us out. Oh well, spilled milk and all.
After undoing said lock I opened the door and the class rep all but jumped through.
“How did you do that?!” She leveled the question at me with a strangely intense expression.
“I undid the latch. See, it’s…”
“No, not that!” She shook her hand vigorously to halt me. “The window! You fell through the window!”
“… Yes, I did that,” I answered hesitantly. I really didn’t know why she was making such a big deal out of it. Maybe she was just still in shock after my sudden exit?
“How? How did you do that?”
“… I really can’t follow your questions…”
“You fell through the window!” She repeated herself, obviously frustrated with my incomprehension.
“Yes, I opened it, lost my balance and felt through. What about it?”
“But you fell through the frame too!”
Now it was my turn to look at her funny.
“That’s just silly.”
“I saw what I saw,” She stood her ground. I, on the other hand, could only shake my head. She was probably still in a shock of fright over my unintentional stunt, and I couldn’t blame her.
“Now, now. I’m not saying you lied, only that you might have seen it wrong. It happened fast and you were probably pretty tense, so you might have mistaken something. For example, I hit my head when I tumbled forwards. Maybe that looked like my head went through the frame from your point of view?”
“… Maybe…” She answered hesitantly, and I smiled to reassure her.
“It had to be. It’s not like people can phase through walls.”
“Not unless they are part of the First Earth Battalion.”
Suddenly the class rep perked up.
“They were an elite psychic unit of soldiers. They could phase through walls and use ESP and even kill goats by staring at them.”
“Uh-huh…” I tried to nod politely while also grasping for a quick excuse to change the topic.
“I see, so… Oh, wow… Look at that mess…”
I pointed behind her and she fell silent with a frown. The inside of the storage room was a mess indeed. Our makeshift ramp obviously tumbled over during my escape and the contents of the boxes were strewn all over the floor in a giant heap of balls, rackets and assorted whatchamacallits. While falling on the outside had me drop from higher, looking at all the sharp edges on some of those things made me think that if I fell down with them I would have not escaped with just a bruised bottom.
“I guess we better clean this up, huh?” She looked at me funny for a few seconds in return, but at last she nodded and so I passed by her and returned to the storage room. I looked behind me as the class rep also entered and I grinned at her. “If possible, please leave the door open this time.”
She frowned at me, but at last she relaxed and sighed as she picked up one of the dented boxes. However, the moment she gave it to me she continued, “You see, according to them people can move through walls, so maybe you did just that.”
I feigned polite interest but then stealthily rolled my eyes when I turned back to put the box away.
“I… don’t think I can do something like that.”
“But you seem to have great psychic potential! We already saw it!”
I gave her a flat look upon receiving the next box. “I told you, that was just a joke. I’m not psychic.”
“I see…” She thoughtfully nodded to herself. “Right, you are not psychic. Don’t worry; your secret is safe with me. Anyways, according to the First Earth Battalion Training Manual, one can…”
I silently exhaled with a hidden grimace, but at last I gave up. I decided I might as well let her talk while we worked. She seemed really enthusiastic and I didn’t have the heart to stop her. As such we kept piling boxes while I learned more about defunct military psychic operations than I ever wanted to…