Chapter Three

My first, horrified thought when I woke up was: Was it all just a dream?

I was wide awake in seconds; I threw off my covers, ran to my computer, and turned it on. The seconds it took to boot up felt like hours, and I found myself sweating and trembling as I rapidly muttered to myself, “No, no, no, no, no no no… come on, come on…”

Once my desktop was up, I immediately clicked on the MasterScribe shortcut. A few clicks later, I scanned down my recent MasterScribe chat history, and saw that I had, indeed, played Dungeons & Dragons until two in the morning last night.

With an enormous sigh of relief, I hung my head before taking a few breaths. So it wasn’t a dream. Cinderella was real.

I looked up towards my ceiling, grinning more widely than I think I ever had before.

I still couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the surreality of all that had happened yesterday; I was quite certain that there was no possible way that Cinderella wasn’t merely a fantasy I’d subconsciously created in response to my maddening loneliness. And yet, astonishingly, it seemed that I really did meet and befriend her on the steps of the Tokyo Public Library yesterday afternoon. I also had a date with her today. It would be the first date- or, for that matter, the first social outing– I’d ever successfully arranged with another human being.

My smile vanished as suddenly as it appeared. My overwhelming joy was swiftly replaced with complete panic. I had a date with Cinderella today. What time was it scheduled for?

I then flinched as I realized: we’d never arranged a specific time; all we’d agreed was that we’d meet at the playground of Hayashi Park today. I immediately looked down at the digital clock on my monitor, which told me that it was seven fifteen in the morning.

After marveling over the fact that I was already completely lucid despite getting up so early after having only gotten a few hours of sleep, I made my decision: I would get dressed and have breakfast right now, go to Hayashi Park as soon as possible, and wait there for Cinderella to arrive. I’d wait all day if that’s what it took; this was the only opportunity at forming a friendship or engaging in courtship that I’d ever received in my entire life, and I would’ve laid down my very life before I let that opportunity slip away.

I bolted away from my computer desk to my dresser, where I pulled open my black wooden drawers and began pulling clothes out. I knew exactly what outfit I was going to wear without even having to think about it; I was going to wear my favorite outfit.

After I’d retrieved and donned some soft cotton boxers, I picked up a pair of loose, black denim jeans; a pair of hand-knitted black socks; a long-sleeved cotton shirt with thick, even horizontal black-and-white stripes; a large white t-shirt with several belt loops of the same fabric sewn onto it; and three black leather belts with steel buckles, as well as a matching belt choker.

I slid into my pants, fastened one of my belts over it, pulled on my socks, put on my long striped shirt, then pulled my large white t-shirt over the top of it. I then fastened my other two belts across my torso through my shirt’s belt loops, then fastened my choker around my neck.

I’d modeled this outfit after those of some of my favorite characters, especially those particularly gifted at puzzles and games, such as Alice Liddell, Yugi Muto, and Leleouch Lamperouge. It was also distinctly Tim Burton-eque; belts, stripes, and a monochromatic color scheme were all staples of his protagonists’ wardrobes. I’d also decided that my white t-shirt’s resulting resemblance to a straightjacket would only add to the aura of creepiness I radiated, but that I should embrace it anyway; after all, I couldn’t do anything about it, so why try to fight it? Besides, perhaps Cinderella had approached me because she liked the “dark and mysterious” aesthetic in the first place; and though I regarded myself as not particularly either of these things, I seemed to be able to pull off the look well, at least.

Once I was dressed and I had straightened out my hair, I went to the kitchen, where my mother was enjoying an omelette and a mug of unflavored green tea. Upon seeing me enter, she smiled and remarked, “You’re up early.”

“Yep,” I replied, approaching our refrigerator. Once I opened it, I pulled out a carton of milk and poured myself a glass. I then sat at the table across from my mother, took an apple from the handmade brown ceramic fruit bowl standing in the tabletop’s center, then began briskly eating my small breakfast.

“Excited for your date with- Cinderella, wasn’t it?” my mother said.

“Yep,” I said after swallowing a mouthful of apple.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile this much,” my mother said, a tranquil and glad look in her eyes.

“I could get used to it,” I said, shrugging. I chuckled, then continued eating my apple.

In less than a minute, I finished my breakfast. I discarded my apple core, placed my glass in the kitchen sink, then walked to the door, calling “Bye!” back to my mother.

“When do you think you’ll be back?” my mother shouted to me as I stepped to the exit’s threshold.

“I have no idea!” I cried, laughing joyously. I opened the apartment’s front door, then made my way to the building’s staircase.

It took me around twenty minutes to arrive at Hayashi Park. It was a beautiful and pleasantly cool morning; the smell of flowers and growing fruit saturated the air, and the sun alternated between peeking from behind leaves and from behind large clouds. There weren’t very many people there, either; even though it was summer vacation, it was a little early for a lot of small children to be there, so the park was mostly populated by a scattered mixture of joggers, breakfast-eating salarymen, and casual strollers ranging in age from as young as me to quite elderly. I rather liked relative solitude, so this was as wonderful a morning as I could possibly imagine.

I expected to be waiting for Cinderella for quite a while once I had reached the park’s swing sets. I didn’t mind this; I had become quite skilled at passing the time with my own thoughts and contemplations in the many, many lonely hours I had spent by myself. However, to my surprise, I didn’t have to use that skill at that moment; when I arrived at Hayashi Park’s playground, I saw that Cinderella was already sitting in one of the steel chain-suspended swings, gently swaying while reading a worn hardcover novel.

Cinderella was really there. I had really met her yesterday, and she had waited for me here, just as she promised. I beamed, and held back a sob as my eyes watered up. I had never before been as happy as I was at that very moment in my entire life.

I let out a small laugh as I wiped my eyes, which caused Cinderella to look up at me. “Oh! Aaron!” she said, smiling cheerfully. “Hello!”

“Hi, Cinderella,” I replied, sniffing.

Cinderella frowned concernedly upon seeing my watery eyes. “Are you okay?” she said. The genuine care for my well-being in her voice tugged at my tears even harder.

“Yeah,” I said, laughing softly as I wiped at my eyes again. “I’m sorry I’m such a mess…”

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Cinderella replied, gently smiling. She then frowned concernedly again as she asked, “Is something wrong?”

“No, no, it’s just…” I began. I sniffed again, then looked around. “I think I’ll go find a restroom to get some tissue…” I said.

“Will this do?” Cinderella said. I turned back to her, and saw that she was offering me a white, lace-edged handkerchief.

I made a small, elated gasp. “Thank you!” I cried, bowing as I held my hands forward to graciously accept her offering. Cinderella placed the handkerchief in my upturned palms, which I then dabbed my eyes and wiped my nose with.

“I’m completely fine,” I said after my face and nose were a bit drier. I chuckled, then added, “I just… eh, I’ll tell you in a second. What’s that you’re reading, by the way?”

Cinderella grinned broadly, then closed her book and held it up, displaying the cover to me. It was a dark blue codex with a dust jacket that had obviously seen a lot of wear, judging by the small tears on its edges and the large wrinkles down its center. There were three clusters of rings printed upon its front, and in each was the white silhouette of a young person; in one was a teenaged boy, in another was a teenaged girl, and in the last was a male child. The words upon the cover were English, and the author’s name was printed in cursive in the lower-left corner while the title was given in large, bold uppercase letters at the top.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle,” Cinderella said, beaming. “It’s my absolute favorite book.”

“Really?” I said surprisedly.

“Of course,” Cinderella replied. She then smirked as she asked, “What, is it really so shocking?”

“No, not at all!” I replied, laughing softly. “In fact, it makes perfect sense. More than anything I’m just surprised that you admit it’s your favorite book.”

Cinderella raised an eyebrow quizzically. “Why does that surprise you?” she said, puzzled.

“Well, it is a children’s book,” I pointed out, “which most aesthetes would be embarrassed to admit to be their absolute favorite piece of literature.”

Cinderella frowned. “Is there something wrong with that?” she said.

I laughed again. “Of course not! Not in the slightest!” I said. “I agree completely! Children’s books hold just as much artistic value as any other form of literature. Anyone who says otherwise is arrogant, pretentious, and elitist.”

Cinderella grinned.

“People have actually given me a lot of grief over my favorite book, too,” I continued.

“Really?” Cinderella said surprisedly. “What book is it?”

The Lord of the Rings,” I answered. “No one disputes that it’s a classic, but no one will take you seriously if you argue that it’s the greatest novel of all time, either.”

“So you think it is?” Cinderella said.

I nodded energetically. “Oh, yes!” I cried. “You can go on all day about the literary brilliance of Ulysses or Great Expectations, but how many novelists can write ideas with as much depth and reach as many audiences as Tolkien? Even to this day, the man continues to draw immensely passionate fans as much as he draws academic scholars who analyze and study his works.”

Cinderella softly smiled. “You make a rather good case for it,” she said. She then looked up thoughtfully as she observed, “However, I would argue that popularity does not inherently indicate quality. The standards by which judge a work are how true, needed, and well-delivered its message is.”

I nodded. “For example?” I pressed.

“I’d argue that the greatest novel of all time is either To Kill a Mockingbird or Les Misérables,” Cinderella continued. “Both works are about the cruelty that people can show to one another, and aim to demonstrate the world-shaking power of kindness that can counteract it. Even if that kindness seems small or insignificant.”

Cinderella then gazed into my eyes as she added, “Cruelty is something that will always plague humanity, and kindness is something we will always need. Therefore, those books will always hold value, because they will always be able to teach new readers how to be kind in the face of a cruel world.”

I found myself staring at Cinderella, stunned by the eloquence of her argument. However, I was even more shocked by the reasonings behind her argument; to Cinderella, the most important thing in the world was… kindness. “That’s… incredible,” I said.

Cinderella raised a brow. “What is?” she said.

“Just… that you hold kindness so highly,” I said, giving her a small smile of amazement. “I never thought I’d ever meet anyone who values kindness as much- or perhaps even more– than I do.”

Cinderella’s mouth opened slightly with shock, and her expression was one of deep, concerned distress. “You’ve never met someone who values kindness before?” she said.

I rubbed my head and looked away. “Well, that’s not exactly true…” I admitted. “I mean, my mom is one of the kindest women I know. But aside from her… no, I haven’t.”

Cinderella continued to gaze at me with distressed disbelief. “You really… haven’t?” she whispered.

I shook my head.

Tears began forming in Cinderella’s eyes, and she stood up from the swing she was seated in. She stepped up to me, then wrapped her arms around me, pulling me into a gentle but tight embrace. “Oh, Aaron…” she whispered. “I’m so sorry…”

I wasn’t sure how to feel at that moment. I was a bit frightened and confused; after all, I had only known Cinderella for one day. Despite how short the time we had known each other was, however, she was already showing me a deeply intimate physical expression of comfort. It was as though we had been close friends our entire lives.

Another part of me was overwhelmed with relief, gratitude, and joy. I felt tears begin pouring from my own eyes again as it dawned upon me that I was receiving genuine, heartfelt affection from another person. Cinderella was performing for me an act of great caring and support that I had received from no one else (except for my mother), even despite the fact that she barely knew me. I sniffled again as I wrapped my arms around Cinderella and returned her embrace.

After a few more moments of continuing to tightly hold me, Cinderella released me and stepped back. She then sat back on her swing and nodded to an empty one beside her, asking softly, “You want to swing with me?”

Without hesitation, I nodded and swiftly seated myself beside Cinderella. We then pushed off from the ground and began slowly swinging in differing tempos.

As we fell into a rhythm of gently passing each other in opposing directions while swinging back and forth, I found myself mentally deliberating whether I should begin going into the details of why I was so unspeakably grateful to have met Cinderella to her. My greatest worry was that by doing so I’d alienate her and drive her away by coming across as even stranger and more unsettling, not to mention pathetic, than I was sure I already did. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was highly doubtful that Cinderella would confirm such fears; even though I had only known her for barely more than a few hours, I had already gotten enough of a sense that she was exceptionally non-judgemental and open-minded that I was almost certain of it. I also desperately wanted to pour my heart out to someone, and bare the great suffering I had endured for my entire life to someone who could understand and offer real consolation for it. If Cinderella couldn’t understand the unique and horrible nature of my woeful past, who else possibly could?

After taking a few deep, meditative breaths to steel and ready myself for the daunting action I was about to take, I turned to Cinderella and said with a gentle smile, “Cinderella, I really cannot thank you enough for being my friend.”

Cinderella smiled back. “Oh, the honor is mine!” she replied, giggling modestly.

I softly laughed, then said, “No, you haven’t the slightest idea how much it means. Before you, I’ve actually never had a friend before. Let alone one so… remarkable as you are.”

Cinderella’s smile faded as she turned to look worriedly at me. “Really?” she said. “You’ve never had a friend before?”

“Nope,” I said sadly, turning away from her to look down at the ground. “Not even one.”

“I don’t understand how that could have happened,” Cinderella said. “I mean, you’re one of the sweetest and most noble boys I’ve ever met.”

I smiled softly, then said, “Even if that’s true, no one would ever get close enough to me to learn that.”

“Why not?”

“There was always a reason for my peers to shy away, even if the reasons changed over time,” I replied sadly. “When I first started going to school, the reason all the other kids stayed away from me was very simple: they were afraid of me. More specifically, they were frightened of my physical appearance. They thought I might be a ghost, or a vampire, or some other kind of unsavory, unnatural monster. The few times I tried to approach some other children to play with them, they ran screaming away from me, crying that I was going to bite them or put a curse on them. Nothing the teachers said about vampires and ghosts not being real did anything to convince them otherwise. So I gave up.”

Cinderella’s expression was now one of deep sympathy and heartbreak, though I had only barely started. I continued, “Around the next year, they got used to how I looked. But rather than fear me, they began to hate me.”

Cinderella gaped at me. “They hated you?!” she cried, stunned. “Whatever for?”

I shrugged. “For lots of reasons, I think,” I said. “To start, I was very strange, even back then. I kept largely to myself and spent most of my time reading, drawing, or solving riddles and puzzles in puzzle books. I never put up a fight, even if someone tried to pick one, so the other boys started calling me ‘weak’ and ‘spineless.’ I just didn’t want to fight. I don’t like fighting. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

Cinderella nodded. “Go on,” she said.

“Gradually, I think their hatred then became motivated by jealousy.” I then shrugged as I continued, “I know this might sound sound conceited, but there’s no point in pretending otherwise: I’m immensely intelligent. I just am. I’ve never had any difficulty learning new things, even without trying. I was already able to fluently read and write when I entered kindergarten, and I also had a fairly firm grasp of advanced science and mathematics.” I grinned. “It honestly felt as though I were a real-life Matilda Wormwood. It probably isn’t surprising that I read Matilda quite a bit.”

Cinderella nodded. “So that angered your classmates?”

“Yeah,” I sighed. “I always knew the answers to all of the teachers’ questions, and I always had the best test scores in my grade. Sometimes I even knew more about the subjects than the teachers did. I honestly felt rather guilty about it, since I could see a lot of the other kids pouring their very sweat and tears into countless things that I could accomplish flawlessly while barely thinking about it. I could understand why they’d hate me so much.”

I hunched forward and wrapped my arms around my swing’s chains as I continued, “And my classmates essentially just kept hating me for that reason throughout the rest of our primary school careers. Everything else was just added on top of it.”

Cinderella blinked. “‘Everything else’?” she said. “What do you mean?”

I looked back at Cinderella, and saw that she was still gazing at me with deep, sincere concern and sympathy. In truth, I thought that I’d rather not talk about it any more, as I would be going into some of my most painful and traumatic memories if I went any deeper. However, I found that I couldn’t refuse such a sweet look from such enchanting, compassionate eyes.

I also had a growing feeling that, by telling Cinderella about some of the worst things that had happened to me, I would likely have the profound experience of a healing through cleansing. It would be painful to confess such painful memories I’d never told anyone of before, of course, but I realized that doing so would be like removing a shard of broken glass from a wound; though it might be more painful at the moment to remove it than to just let it stay there, it would ultimately result in less ache and, more importantly, allow the wound to begin mending.

With a sigh, I said, “Well, as we grew older, the other kids and I began to explore our sexualities. Obviously we would. But like most other things, I was ahead of the curve there, as well. I’ve known as long as I can remember that I’m attracted to other boys as much as I am to girls. Well, that’s not exactly true- boys generally care less about their personal appearances than girls do, and I find dishevelment off-putting. But if a girl and a boy both have average appearances and are equally untidy, I’ll be equally attracted to both of them.”

I could tell by the cringing expression on Cinderella’s face that she anticipated what was coming next. “I didn’t think anything of it, either,” I said, shrugging. “I just liked boys. Plain and simple. So when my classmates started going on dates and writing love letters to each other, I had no idea of what might happen if I attempted to pursue a homosexual romance with one of my peers; I didn’t even consider how badly people might take it.”

Taking a deep, slightly trembling breath, I continued, “His name was Takeshi Matsumoto. He was much bigger than me, so I was pretty afraid of him, but he was also a very good-looking and talented athlete, so I had a massive crush on him. He’d dated many of the girls in our grade, but I could see that… I don’t know… his heart wasn’t really in it. I could see that he was just pretending to be a big lady’s man because that’s what all of his friends were.”

I took another breath. “I wish I didn’t try to ask him out in the school halls,” I said. “I wish that I didn’t do it in front of so many other kids. I could tell that he felt completely humiliated and absolutely furious when I said that to him. His friends all laughed at us, and started taunting us by calling us both ‘perverts’. He blew up at them, shouted that was the only freak there, and that he didn’t even ask me to make a move on him.” I sniffed and my eyes began watering. “Then he beat me. Pretty badly. I was all bloody and bruised and had to go home early that day.”

I wiped my eyes on my sleeve, then continued, “The bullying got much worse after that. People started calling me a ‘freak’ again, but now they’d also added ‘disgusting’ and ‘pervert’ to the mix. I got attacked several times after that, too, and I never tried to ask anyone out again.”

My hands, which were clasped together, began to faintly tremble as I gritted my teeth with rage. “I’ll be honest, I came to dislike boys more than I do girls. I’m not any less… physically attracted to them, but I developed a…” Here I steeled myself to be completely honest. After a few short, terse breaths, I finished, “I developed a hatred especially for them.”

“Why’s that?” Cinderella said. There was still no judgement in her voice. The sheer overwhelmingness of my emotions became nearly unbearable.

I quietly sobbed. I lifted my arm up and hid my face in it, whispering, “I’m so, so sorry… I… I’m making a scene…”

I felt Cinderella place her hand on my back. “Don’t be,” she said sternly. Surprisedly, I looked up at her, and saw that she was gazing at me with a chiding frown. “You shouldn’t be ashamed of your emotions,” Cinderella said. Her expression softened as she added, “It’s okay, Aaron. You need to let it out.” She concluded with a small smile, “There’s nothing wrong with it.”

I barely suppressed another sob of overwhelming gratitude, but nodded. “Al-alright…” I said.

I quietly wept a little longer; once I had my bearings again, I sat back up, wiped my cheeks, and sighed. “Ugh,” I said. “I’m such a mess…”

“It’s alright,” Cinderella said kindly. I returned a smile of thanks to her, then she said, “You want to keep going?”

I nodded. “Y-yeah,” I said. I looked back down at my hands as I continued, “The reason I hate boys more than I do girls is because… well, girls just seemed to have a line that they wouldn’t cross with me. They verbally harassed and insulted me as much as the other boys did, but they never hit me or otherwise physically violated me in any way.”

Cinderella’s eyes widened with shock. “What?” she said quietly.

I swallowed, tremblingly took a few breaths, then continued, “One time, while I was walking home from school, I saw that Takeshi was following me. And something about him that day scared me more than I usually was of him. I tried to just ignore him, but he kept following me until we were next to an alley, then he shoved me into it.”

I shivered. “When I got up, he pinned me against the wall. I tried to get away, then he hit my cheek and growled, ‘Where do you think you’re going, freak?’

“I said, ‘Please let me go.’

“He snickered, then he said, ‘Oh, so you’re going to play hard-to-get now?’

“Then he kissed me.”

I looked over at Cinderella, and saw that she looked deeply disturbed. “I…” she began, though she found herself at a loss for words and said nothing more.

Looking down again, I continued wearily, “It was very… invasive. Above and beyond the fact that Takeshi was forcibly kissing me, he also used one of his hands to hold my jaw and force me to keep my mouth open. I tried to stop him for about half a minute, but then I saw that there was no escape and decided to try to enjoy it. I started kissing him back, so he stopped holding my jaw open. After he’d kissed me a little longer, he pulled away and chuckled, ‘I knew you really wanted it, you little pervert.’

“I didn’t say anything, and he started kissing me again. I didn’t fight him anymore, but he still had me pinned with one of his arms. With his other one, he slid his hand up my shirt and started stroking my belly and chest.”

I was flushing and weeping with shame and embarrassment as hard as I’d been in the story I was recounting to Cinderella. “I was… terrified,” I whispered. “I was more scared than I think I’d ever been. But I also…” I swallowed. “A part of me also really did like what he was doing. I was so very scared and confused, because I wanted desperately for him to stop so I could get away from him, but I was also enjoying it.” I placed my face in the palm of my hand as I added, “This probably doesn’t make any sense, does it?”

Cinderella placed her hand on my shoulder, then shook her head. “Not at all,” she replied. “I understand completely.”

My eyes widened. “R-really?” I said astonishedly. “How-?”

“I’ll tell you more when you’ve finished,” Cinderella interrupted me. “Are you finished yet?”

After a moment of stunned silence, I shook my head and said, “N-no… sorry…”

“It’s alright,” Cinderella immediately reassured me. She pulled her hand away as she said, “Go on.”

Taking another breath, though filled with newfound courage, I continued, “I felt so ashamed, and worthless, and filthy, especially since I was getting… excited. I hated that I was getting aroused by Takeshi molesting me, and I tried my hardest not to. But… something about that situation, and the way that Takeshi was kissing me and teasing me…”

I clenched my eyes closed and trembled silently for a moment. “And he could feel it,” I whispered. “When he did, he pulled away again and snickered, ‘What, am I making you hard, pervert? Wow, you really are a sicko, huh?’

“He then leaned forward and whispered, ‘Just like am.’

“I felt his free hand start moving down to my crotch, and I panicked. I started struggling again, but he just laughed and said, ‘Relax, freak. You’re just gonna make this harder on yourself…’

“He kissed me again, and he started undoing the button and zipper on my jeans. Out of desperation, I bit his lower lip very hard. For a fraction of a second he loosened his grip slightly as he screamed and began badly bleeding, and I was able to push him off of me. However, before I could get away, he swung his fist and hit me in the back. While I was lying on the ground, he kicked me in the chest and broke some of my ribs.”

Aaron…” Cinderella muttered distressedly.

“I could tell he was going to hurt me even more,” I said, “so I kicked him in the gut before he could attack me again. While he was lying on the ground, doubled over from the pain, I slowly stood up before running as fast as I could to get well away from him.” I teared up again as I muttered, “I was so afraid and in so much pain. I cried for someone to help me the whole time, but everyone I passed avoided me, or even ran from me in fear. With the blood on my clothes and dripping from my chin, this doesn’t really surprise me- particularly when added to my unnatural paleness, I have no doubt what I must have looked like to them.”

With another trembling sigh, I concluded, “I caught a train, then returned to my mother. She was mortified, but she immediately got me to a hospital where they treated me and my injuries. She also contacted the school, who immediately expelled Takeshi and notified the State, who apprehended him.”

As stunned as ever, Cinderella was silent for a few moments before quietly asking, “Did you tell your mother that he was trying to…?”

I shook my head. “No,” I said. “All I told her was that one of my classmates had brutally attacked me without provocation, and that I’d had to fight him off to get away.”

Cinderella was quiet again for a few more moments. “Have you told anyone else about this?” she then said. I detected tremendous worry and distress in her voice.

I shook my head. Cinderella blinked, swallowed, then said, “Aaron, I… I can’t even…”

I shrugged. “There’s nothing I can do about it, right?” I said. “I got my injuries treated, and the State arrested Takeshi, so I’ll never see him again. I don’t know what more I could have reasonably expected from this situation.”

To my astonishment, however, Cinderella was hugging me again. I was shocked that I had any tears left, but I began silently weeping one more time as I hugged her back.

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