The annotated copy of The Tempest came in at the library today, much to my joy (I read the preface and the first three acts in the car on the way home, unable to stop myself) and tonight we get pizza for dinner and Divergent for dessert (or was that the homemade chocolate-chip/oatmeal cookies my sister’s whipping up?) – so altogether, I’d say today is one of those gems. I’ve been mulling over a blog post, but I couldn’t quite settle on what to write – so, I pulled my NaNo. I fell in love all over again. The characters, the world, the chapter titles, the (hole-filled but dear to my heart) plot make this a grand success, whether it ever gets published or not. Most people don’t know this, but the plot of Disconnect, if it ever continues into a series (it could use a sequel, if I say so myself) will follow the same line as King Arthur and Camelot; except in dystopian Japan. I’ll leave you to take that how you will.
So, to commemorate my trip down memory lane (also known as Five Months Ago) I give you a few of my favorite pieces. Some you’ve already read, and some you haven’t – but I love them all mightily.
Mom ran her fingers through my hair, eyeing it critically. “You need to dye it again,” she said offhand. “The blue is starting to fade out at the roots.”
“And I know you aren’t a big shot at school, honey, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the games, right?” She hugged my shoulders and pressed a kiss to the top of my head.
Yes, I was short enough she could do that.
“I get sick of being followed around by cameras.” I shoveled the last bite of breakfast into my mouth and tossed the disposable container into the small square incinerator hole next to the sink. There was a faint grinding sound, and then silence. “People asking ‘hey, so are you friends with Deuce? Are you rooting for him? Are you his biggest fan? Do you have a crush on Gummy? Who are you rooting for? What’s your Life Game? What level are you on? Do you go to the bathroom before bed, or when you wake up in the morning?””
“They don’t ask you that.”
“Well, they ask me the rest of the questions,” I said with a sigh. “And since I don’t care, it’s a pain. I guess I can put up with it, though. Chopper enjoys it.”
“You haven’t brought him over in a while.”
“He barely fits through the front door.”
I stood and let the students flow around me while I waited for Chopper. He was always last. Most people thought he was so polite he just wanted to wait until everyone else was off the bus, but really he was so lazy he didn’t want to have to fight his way through a crowd.
I saw him at the back, a good head and shoulders above everyone else. His hair, long, wild, and sticking up all over his head, was the color of tomato juice, and his entire tall body was covered – from the mask around his nose and mouth to his platform boots – in black, skintight leather.
I cupped my hands around my mouth and shouted, “Oi!”
His head turned in my direction and his stride quickened. As soon as he reached me, he gave me his customary greeting. He smacked me upside the head. “Yo, baka. What’s up?”
“You,” I said. “You’re always up, farther than anyone else in the city, and probably the rest of the world.”
He laughed. At six foot four – not to mention the four inches in his boots and the six or seven inches in added height his hair gave him – he towered above people no matter where he went. Compared to my height – a meager five foot six inches – he was a giant.
“You ready for the paparazzi, little man?” He bounced up and down, somehow able to keep his balance. “You know they’re gonna swamp us asking about the Hardcores.”
“They’ll probably think you’re a Hardcore until you tell them otherwise.” I looked him up and down and shook my head. “Little do they know.”
He tipped his head to the side and shrugged. “Shoganai,” he said. “Can’t be helped. Come on, we’re gonna be late for orientation.”
“We’ve pretty much got it memorized anyway,” I said. “It won’t hurt to be late. Besides, you’ve heard it – what, four times more than I have. Why are you so eager?”
“I like it!” He crouched down and slung his arm around my shoulder. “Maybe they’ll let you give orientation next year, huh? Since you’ve got it so memorized.”
I shoved his arm off my shoulder. “Ikuzo,” I said. “Let’s go.”
“Sure. You know, you really should call me senpai,” he said, walking next to me. I’d told him several times before that I refused to run to keep up with him, so he shortened his stride accordingly.
“In a perfect world, yeah, maybe. In this one, you’re in the same grade as me, so dream big.” He liked to pull the ‘senpai’ card now and then, but it was more of a private joke than anything else. Chopper was twenty- two years old, and he should have been graduated by now, but he was a staunch underachiever and didn’t care if he was in my grade.
Sometimes I wondered if he failed classes on purpose just to watch my back, but I never voiced my suspicion because if I had, he might have stopped doing it and I valued my life as much as the next person.
Chopper tucked the information packet between his knees and cracked his knuckles. “I need to stretch my legs.”
I tugged the packet free. “You always need to stretch your legs.”
“It’s a curse.”
“You know I can barely hear you with that mask on,” I said.
His eyes still on the wild chaos below, he patted my shoulder. “Don’t cramp my style, tiny.”
I smacked the packet against his leg. “Call me that again and I’ll rip your lungs out through your nose holes.”
His eyes, rimmed with heavy black eyeliner, slid over to me. “You’ll what?”
I amended my statement to be a bit more realistic. “I’ll attempt to rip your lungs out through your nose holes.”
He tossed his head back and laughed. “It’s nice that you dream big, Q. It really is.”
I decided not to talk to Chopper for the rest of the day, and he seemed content to transfer annoying pictures with cheesy captions to my Eye every five minutes for the rest of the day. As soon as the last class let out – the best one, since the instructor was a hologram and everyone was allowed to talk and ignore her to their hearts’ content – I blinked Chopper’s combination and waited for the connection to reach him.
“Moshimoshi,” he said.
“Hey, little man.”
“Enough with the pictures.”
Things like sighs and breathing did not transfer through Eye calls, but I knew he was letting out a huge sigh anyway. “You have no sense of humor, Q.”
“I’ll add that to my list of defects. Just don’t send any more pictures. You’re clogging my feed.”
“Did you like the kitten?”
As if I needed a reminder, an image of a fluffy white kitten entered my head again, its enormous, cow-sized eyes staring wide at me, with the caption HOW MUCH FOR YOUR SOUL? underneath in block white letters.
“Chopper, if you don’t stop, I’m going to tell Gummy that you have a crush on her, and were doing some kind of psychological alternate speaker with me for your feelings. And before you ask ‘what does that even mean,’ you know what it means.”
The connection went silent for so long, I thought he might have hung up. “Chop?”
“Chibi,” he said, and the connection went silent.
I rubbed my forehead. Cosmic. Now Chopper was mad at me, too. I had every right to be mad at him! He’d spoken for me when I was incapacitated!
“You’re too sensitive for someone your height,” I growled, and hoped he heard me, wherever he was.
Mom opened the door and stopped abruptly. “Chopper! I had no idea you were coming over!”
“Neither did I,” I said, as Chopper waved to my mom from his upside-down position.
“I thought I’d surprise him,” he said.
She waved back at him with the sort of smile on her face that said He’s Such a Nice Young Man. “There’s some leftover okayu if you’d like some, Chopper.”
“I’m good.” He curled his thumb and forefinger in an O. “Arigatou.”
She smiled and shook her head, then pointed at me. “Don’t stay up too late, Q. School tomorrow. Chopper, I’d advise the same for you, but since you’re no longer a minor, I can’t exactly order you to.”
“I don’t want to keep Shorty up too late.” Chopper reached up and ruffled my hair, pulling his gloved hand back before I could hit it. “He needs as much help as he can get.”
“Says the guy who got all D’s last year.”
“I have better things to live for.”
“Yeah, like killing Deathstrike?” I held up a finger. “Or wait, wait – like attempting to kill Deathstrike, because the last time I looked, you’d decided not to again.”
“I have it all under control,” he said smoothly. “I can kill him any time I want.”
“Which will be when?”
“Whenever I decide to.”
Mom squinted. “Sorry to interrupt your bromancey moment, but what does ‘koshinuke’ mean again?”
She had trouble with insults and nastier words, because, as she put it, ‘why go to the trouble of learning words you aren’t ever going to use?’ “I called him a coward,” I translated.
“Daijoubu,” said Chopper, sitting up and pulling his long legs in, Indian-style. “It’s all right. We call each other names all the time.”
“It’s affectionate,” I added.
“Baka ja nai no?” He cocked his head, his two long sections of red hair hanging in front of him. “Are you stupid or something? I mean every insult I call you.”
“Hidoi na,” I said, punching him in the arm as hard as I could. “You’re a jerk.”
“I’ll let you two battle whatever this is out yourselves,” said mom. She walked into the room and gave me a quick hug that I knew she couldn’t resist. “Sleep tight, honey.”
“Yeah, you too,” I said, returning her hug and watching as she moved back to the door.
“Oi!” Chopper held his arms out. “Don’t I get one?”
Mom laughed and went back to him, hugging his neck and planting a kiss on his head. “Oyasumi najai. Good night.”
“You, too, Mrs. Shohei.”
She left, closing the door behind her, and he sighed. “It’s really too bad your mom’s married.”
I groaned as Chopper smacked me upside the head. “Same to you.”
“Seen Gummy yet?”
“No, idiot, I was waiting for you. You told me not to talk to her without you, if you recall.”
“I recall, but since when have you ever taken my suggestions to heart? Keep this up, and I’m gonna have to rethink my existence. And that’s your department.”
“You didn’t word it like a suggestion,” I told him, walking toward homeroom. “You worded it like a threat.”
“It was, wasn’t it?”
“You had something planned, like embarrassing me in front of the entire student body if I didn’t, right?”
I looked sideways at him. “Why are you giving me one-word answers?”
He shrugged. “Because.”
As we approached the homeroom door, I asked, “Are you going to continue giving me one-word answers?”
I stopped walking and stood in front of the door with my arms folded. “Ii kagenni shiro. Stop messing around.”
He grinned at me underneath his mask. “Sure thing, little man.”
“You know, I really hate you sometimes,” I told him, opening the door.
“Quit it already!”
Half an hour later, Deuce had taken off his mask to showcase his stare of violent disbelief. He looked at each of us, his lips pressed tightly together.
“You” – he jerked his head at me – “can’t be serious.”
I rocked back and forth on my heels. “Unfortunately I’m about as serious as I know how to get.”
“Which is pretty serious,” added Chopper, “when you think about it. I mean, you haven’t seen serious until you’ve seen this boy get bothered about something. Trying to call him off is like trying to hold back an angry rhinoceros with a piece of floss.”
I jumped as Chopper’s hand gently nudged the side of my head. He was probably being careful because I had been injured the day before, but I hardly noticed. I was too shocked. “You’re here early!”
“The bus just came in.”
“Chopper,” I said. “You’re always the last one off your bus. Now you’re at the head of the crowd?”
He cocked his head to the side and squinted at me. “Your black eye looks worse,” he said. I glared at him until he shrugged and said, “What’s wrong with wanting to be early, Q? Sheesh; you’d think two minutes was a life or death problem.”
“Eager to get to work or something?” I teased, and then blinked. “Something’s different about you.”
“I’m exactly the same height as I’ve always been.”
“Not that.” I looked him carefully up and down. Same boots, same skin-tight black leather, same long, wild, bright red hair… “Okay, I give up. What is it? Did you get a different brand of eyeliner?”
“Real observant, Q. Look into my eyes.”
“Yabai!” I yelped. His irises had been dyed the same color red as his hair. “You look like an evil robot!”
He frowned; I could see it underneath his mask. “Su-ge. Arigatou, Q.”
“Yare yare, nante koto da!” I gave an exaggerated groan. “What a disaster. Now, not only do you look weird, you look villainous.”
“You’re one to talk, Grandma.” He eyed my sweater. “What exactly are you wearing?”
“Something to hide my cast, which is just a tad bit on the bulky side. Like you’re one to talk, anyway. You’ve worn the same thing every day for like fourteen years now. Can’t you choose something a little more creative?”
We turned and watched as Deuce approached at a quick saunter. “What are you idiots standing around for?”
“We missed the bus,” I pointed out.
He turned and gave me a how stupid are you look. “Exactly. It’s why I didn’t take a bus today. I drove that.” He pointed toward public parking at the far end of the tunnel.
Even Chopper grinned, then. “Now that,” he said, eyeing the vehicle as we approached it, “that, I like.”
Deuce smirked. “Then get in.”
Chopper’s relaxed posture stiffened. “You’re joking, right?” He gaped at me, then at Daigo. “She hates me! In case you haven’t noticed. Also, I’m not fond of her. As a matter of fact, we have about as much chance of getting together as two opposite magnets.”
“That’s her condition,” he said, flapping his arms at his sides like a dejected penguin. “I do not happen to be able to see inside her head.”
“What,” said Daigo, “have you three done?”
“I think we’ve just started a country-wide panic,” said Chopper, sounding remarkably relaxed. “How does it look like where you are?”
“I think you have just destroyed Tokyo,” said Daigo.
“Not destroyed,” I said, shaking my head. “Revealed. There are no Rulers. There haven’t been for a long time.”
“We’ve all been living in a hologram,” breathed Gummy.
After a moment, I leaned back. I had to get back to my parents, to our institution. We had just started something that was not about to go away. “What if he was right?” I nodded toward the desk where the hologram had sat. “What if there is nothing else? What happened?”
“We’re sunk,” said Chopper. “If he was right.”
Gummy turned away from the window, an odd expression on her face. “What if he was wrong?”
They were both looking at me. I had the feeling even Daigo was waiting for my response. “Um, well,” I said, knotting my hands in my shirt, “if he was wrong, then I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”
The glamour in the room around us had faded, exposing rough concrete and dust.
“We need to get home,” said Gummy. “Before the panic starts.”
“Panic will have already started,” I said, shrugging. “But yeah, we should leave now before it gets worse.”
It was the only thing to do. We walked out of the office and down the hall, toward the elevator. The rusted steel doors opened and we stepped into the worn interior.
I squeezed Gummy’s hand and gave her what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “It’s going to be okay,” I said.
She squeezed back and did not respond.
Chopper slung his arm around my shoulder. “You always did have a knack for trouble, little man.”
I blew out a breath, gave him a lopsided smile, and pressed the button for the ground level. “Just you wait.”