Chapter Four

As Cinderella broke our embrace, I wiped my tear-soaked cheeks off with my sleeves again. “Heh,” I scoffed with a smirk as I gazed down at them. I then muttered, “My sleeves are getting soggy.”

Cinderella shrugged. “You had quite a lot to let out; I can tell,” she said kindly.

She continued frowning concernedly, however, as she commented, “You’ve really never had any friends before… and your life hasn’t been terribly easy, either…”

Taking a deep breath, Cinderella concluded, “To be honest, I’m surprised you turned out as well as you did.”

I raised a brow in confusion. “What do you mean?” I said.

Seeming to be worried that she’d offended me, Cinderella quickly clarified, “I mean- with everything that you’ve been through, I don’t think it would be reasonable to expect you to be anything more than a recluse. Or a gibbering mess. I’m just surprised that you’re as sane as you are, considering that most anyone else would likely have become so psychologically damaged that they’d have to spend the rest of their lives in a mental hospital, after living through the things that you have.” With a smile, she added, “It’s a compliment- in other words, the strength of your will and mind are quite extraordinary.”

I returned her smile. “Thanks,” I said.

I then looked away, however, as I muttered, “But actually, you are right.”

Cinderella blinked. “About what?”

Swallowing and trembling slightly with nervousness, I replied, “You’re right in assuming that my psyche was damaged by my… childhood trauma. Quite badly.”

For an instant, I saw a sliver of the same fear in Cinderella’s expression that had been present in the eyes of every other person who had ever looked at me before. “What do you mean?” she said softly.

Steeling myself for the possibility of driving Cinderella away again, but determined to soldier through this in order to establish with complete certainty whether or not this friendship could last, I took a deep, shuddering breath before pointing at my temple and saying, “As of right now, I am currently diagnosed with several psychological disorders; including high-functioning autism, clinical vampirism, and borderline sociopathy. Among others. In other words, I am quite far from sane.”

Cinderella blinked, and was silent for a few moments. However, she then grinned and shrugged, saying, “Well, I think your autism was fairly obvious just observing your behavior. I don’t think it’s a ‘disorder,’ anyway; I think you’re just the psychological equivalent of left-handed. As for the other two, how do they manifest?”

I gazed silently at Cinderella for a few moments, stunned at how well she was taking this revelation. “Really?” I said disbelievingly. “Your not bothered at all by any of those?”

Cinderella shook her head. “Not really,” she replied casually.

“Why not?” I said.

“I’ll tell you in a moment,” Cinderella reassured me. “But please go on first.”

I blinked, then shook my head and said, “Well, when I say I have clinical vampirism, it means that I literally thirst for blood. I love how it tastes, and I have an intense longing to taste it; to drink it. Seeing blood being spilt fascinates and excites me just as much as it horrifies me.”

Cinderella looked slightly disturbed, though evidently not enough to abandon me. “So do you drink blood?” she said. “Quite often?”

I looked up for a moment, then shook my head. “Not really,” I said. “I mean, I don’t go out of my way to do it; but whenever I receive a wound that draws blood, I’ll lick some from it if it’s been cleaned. My mother says I’ve always done it; when I got vaccines or scraped my knee as a little kid, I would always either directly lap blood from the wound or, if I couldn’t reach it, lick it from my fingers. All she could convince me to do was to make sure I washed my dirty wounds before drinking from them.”

Cinderella scrunched up her face and stuck out her tongue. “Yeah, that’s… really gross…” she muttered in disgust.

I softly chuckled. “Yeah, but I can’t help it. I enjoy the taste and… I don’t know… the sensation far too much.”

Cinderella’s expression became a touch concerned as she asked, “But you don’t drink others’ blood, right? Or deliberately harm yourself to taste your own?”

I shook my head. “No, I don’t,” I replied. “But I want to sometimes…”

Cinderella blinked. “Which one?” she said.

“Both,” I replied.

Cinderella was silent for a few moments, then she sighed and said, “Well, assuming you’re telling the truth, you still don’t, even if you want to. I guess that’s all that matters, in the end.”

Quite stunned again at how she was taking it, I said astonishedly, “It still doesn’t bother you?”

Cinderella shrugged. “We all have our own demons we must face,” she muttered. “And though yours might be quite unusual, you still seem to have tamed it rather well. Your desires aren’t the things that matter; what matters is what you do about them.”

I made a small smile, though it was short-lived; I then frowned again as I said, “What about my borderline sociopathy, though?”

Cinderella snorted. “Are you serious?” she said as she suppressed further laughter.

“Absolutely,” I replied annoyedly. I was a little angry now. I frowned as I said sternly, “I’m always serious.”

“Just making sure,” Cinderella said, grinning widely and rolling her eyes.

“It is serious,” I insisted somberly. “You really shouldn’t make light of it; insanity is… dangerous.”

“Aren’t we all just a little bit mad, though?” Cinderella replied, narrowing her eyes coyly as she continued grinning and gazing sideways at me.

I replied with glaring silence. Cinderella laughed again, then she said with still-cheerful but earnest sincerity, “Come on, Aaron; you’re obviously not a sociopath.”

My glaring frown melted into a frown of surprised confusion. “What?” I said quietly.

Cinderella gave me a light punch in my upper arm. “Just think about it, sweetie,” she said. “A sociopath is, by definition, incapable of empathy. Or compassion. I doubt people fitting this description even exist, but I know for an absolute certainty that you don’t.”

Rubbing my arm and blushing more intensely at having been addressed as “sweetie,” I muttered, “And how is that?”

“Because you felt the need to warn me that you were,” Cinderella answered. “Hard to spin that as anything other than concern for my well-being, innit?”

My mouth opened slightly as Cinderella leaned forward, supporting her weight against the swing’s chains by her elbows, and continued, “Whoever diagnosed you as a sociopath is a right proper idiot.”

I shook my head. “They didn’t,” I said. “They diagnosed me as a borderline sociopath.”

Cinderella frowned at me. “What the hell does that mean?” she said disdainfully.

“It’s sometimes extremely difficult for me to empathize with others,” I replied. “In addition, I have an almost pathological lack of fear.”

Cinderella seemed quite confused. “Huh?” she said.

“I don’t respond rationally to dangerous situations,” I clarified. “For instance, if you point a loaded gun directly at my face, I won’t immediately flinch or try to get out of its path. It’s not that I’m suicidal, or that I don’t try to preserve my own life, but… the prospect of my own death doesn’t really frighten me at all.”

Cinderella looked equal parts shocked and impressed. “You have no fear of death whatsoever?” she said quietly.

I shook my head.

Cinderella looked as though she was going to say something in reply, but evidently decided against it. She looked out into the distance for a few moments, then she softly asked, “Why do you suppose that is?”

“I don’t really know,” I replied with a small chuckle. “I mean, I don’t want to die, but the idea of dying isn’t scary to me. I guess I just see it as nothing more than lying down and falling into a dreamless, eternal sleep. As true a rest as anything you can possibly have. I just hope that I can live my life in such a way that when that time comes, I’ll be ready for it, and I can welcome it with a sense of relief.”

Cinderella nodded in agreement. “A sound and reasonable philosophy, to be sure,” she commented. “However, I don’t think your fearlessness in the face of your own mortality makes you even a borderline sociopath.”

“Why not?” I said.

“Because you still experience fear,” Cinderella answered. She held her palm up as she continued, “You might not fear death, but you’ve shown fear towards other things. Cruelty. Pain. Loneliness. I think it’s fairly clear that you fear those things.”

“Yeah,” I casually replied. I cracked a small smile as I said, “But I don’t think it’s possible not to fear those things. After all, since we’re social animals, it’s only natural that aversion towards isolation or suffering is one of our most fundamental inherent traits.”

Cinderella nodded. “What would you say is your greatest fear?” she said.

Thrown off a little by this fairly unexpected question, I looked up towards the clouds in the bright blue mid-morning sky for a few moments before answering, “That I don’t fear death. In the face of physical danger, I fear nothing, and that scares me.”

“Why’s that?” Cinderella said.

I looked down at my grasped hands, careful to keep my watering eyes out of Cinderella’s sight. “Because it’s not normal to not be afraid of death,” I said. “It’s how humanity has survived. That I don’t have something that every other human being has… it must mean that I’m broken. That there’s something fundamentally wrong within my psyche that makes me a danger- not just to myself, but to the others around me. Add to that my misanthropy, my stunted ability to empathize, and my literal blood-thirst, and I’d say it wouldn’t be unreasonable to worry that I might become something truly… monstrous.”

Cinderella gently placed her hand under my chin, causing me to widely open my eyes and make a small gasp of surprise. Cinderella softly turned my head to face her, and I saw that her expression was every bit as caring and concerned as it had been before my confessions. “Aaron, you’re not dangerous,” she said. She smiled and laughed as she added, “In fact, paradoxically, the fact that you’re so worried that you are a threat to others is how I know you aren’t. Aaron, you are honestly and truly one of the single best friends I’ve ever had.”

I felt tears welling up again as I smiled bitterly and replied, “You haven’t even known me until yesterday.”

“I don’t have to,” Cinderella replied, firmly but still sweetly and kindly. She smirked as she added, “Trust me; I have dealt with far enough people to know who is a danger and who isn’t. I have seen many cruel, fraudulent, and insincere people, and a few kind, compassionate, and utterly genuine people, and so I feel quite secure in conclusively assessing you as being one of those rare treasures that is a true friend.”

Cinderella gave my cheek a gentle, prolonged stroke before she shifted back to place her full weight on her seat once again. She then said, “Let me tell you a story now. I’m almost certain that you’ll be convinced of the high quality of my sense of judgement by its conclusion.”

After a moment of hesitation, I nodded. “Alright,” I said. “I’m listening.”

With a pleased smile, Cinderella gazed forward, out into the distance, as she began, “I was born in London in the morning of an Easter Sunday thirteen years ago. My mother was fourteen when she had me, having been compelled to conceive and bear me by the state.”

My eyes widened. This meant that Cinderella’s mother had refused to abide by her civic duty and bear her required two children, and had been subsequently forced by the World Hegemony to conceive Cinderella on pain of arrest and life incarceration for defiance of the state’s law.

Every fertile girl over thirteen years of age was required to make at least one attempt at conceiving a child per year, either through artificial insemination or unprotected vaginal sexual intercourse. Any fertile girl who had not conceived a child by her eighteenth birthday was then taken into temporary state custody until she became pregnant, and was then released back into her home community. Likewise, if a girl had not conceived her second child by the time she turned twenty-one, she was likewise put under temporary arrest until she again became pregnant.

When the World Hegemony first implemented this law, the Board Of World Leaders released an accompanying statement that they regretted having to enforce it, but that they had to in order to keep all of civilization alive and flourishing. They pointed out that if they simply allowed women to bear as many or few children as they desired, there would either be a communal workforce shortage due to women deciding not to have enough children to replace the dying senior population, or that there would be so many new people every generation that the world population would soon outgrow what the Earth could sustain, as very nearly happened immediately before the International Unification of Nations a thousand years ago.

The BOWL stated that though this was undeniably an unequal burden on the world’s women, they argued that it was also an honor, because the women could perform a necessary task that a man never could. In addition, they attempted to mitigate the apparent sexual imbalance this created by making artificial insemination publicly and freely available to all girls thirteen years of age or older, as well as pointing out that even the female World Leaders were required to abide by this law and command, just like all civilian women were. This included none other than the current Hegemon Chairperson of the Board Of World Leaders: Whitney Beatrice Shamroque, who had performed her societal duty and bore two children herself despite being the most powerful human being- man or woman- in the world.

However, in the event any girl or woman over the age of consent refused to abide by the reproductive commands of the World Hegemony, she would be arrested and presented with an ultimatum: she must either allow the state to impregnate her by any means it deems necessary, or she must forfeit her freedom and be forever removed from society. If she relented, the offending woman no longer had any say in how she conceived her child; at the discretion of her Monarch Secretary, she would either be forced to undergo artificial insemination, or otherwise be compelled into sexual activity with a man her Monarch Secretary selected for her.

Though I didn’t dare voice it, I privately viewed this as unjustifiably barbaric. After all, even if the offending girls technically were criminals who had legally partially forfeited their freedoms, it was still virtually impossible to view the state-mandated coercion they underwent as anything other than simple rape. This is why I was determined to work to change it if I ever became a World Leader.

I said hesitantly, “Did she- well, your mother, I mean- um… did she, ah… did she have to…?”

“Yes,” Cinderella replied somberly. “She was considered to be extremely beautiful, so she was made to service all of the men charged with her custody. Including the then-King Secretary of Britain. One of them is my father, though I’ve no idea who. Nor do I care.”

I nodded softly. “I don’t blame you,” I muttered.

Cinderella gave me a small smile, accompanied by a short, bitter laugh. I then said cautiously, “I hope you don’t mind my asking, but… do you know why your mother was so… rebellious?”

Cinderella grinned. “Not at all,” she replied. She looked up as she answered, “It wasn’t that she didn’t desire to have children. Quite the opposite, actually. But she also believed quite strongly that it would be cruel to leave her children alone with no one to watch them for long stretches of every day.”

My eyes widened. “Y-you mean, she…?” I stuttered.

Cinderella gazed expectantly at me, waiting for me to finish my question. I swallowed before blurting out, “Did… did your mother desire to have a husband…?!”

Cinderella smiled, then shook her head. “Not at all,” she said.

I sighed relievedly, noting that I had been trembling and flushing with fear. It would have been very bad if Cinderella’s mother had been actively seeking a man who would marry her; after all, marriage was a fundamentally religious practice, and was therefore outlawed as a highest-tier crime of treason and endangerment to civilization along with all other religious rituals, sacraments, and rites when the World Hegemony was founded nearly a thousand years ago.

In many ways, it was religion and the ills it brought that had led to the conception and creation of the World Hegemony in the first place. A millennium ago, just before the International Revolutionary War occurred, the Earth seemed to be on the brink of destruction; the world was bursting with unsustainably large populations, crime and warfare seemed to ravage every street, man-made natural disasters rendered the faces of many nations into apocalyptic wastelands, and the world’s superpowers all seemed poised to unleash weapons upon each other wielding such destructive capabilities that they could easily reduce the entire planet to a mound of dust.

Worst of all, mankind seemed to welcome its own imminent self-annihilation. As utterly insane as this was, the widespread delusion that humanity’s extinction was something to be desired was largely the result of the teachings of the world’s most widespread religious traditions, which convinced their followers that the world must end so that our pain-riddled, sinful world could be washed away and replaced with an eternal, spiritual paradise of the afterlife. Furthermore, each major religion claimed that its own adherents were the only ones who would be admitted into this paradise, and so all non-believers must therefore either be converted into their own way of life, or otherwise be utterly destroyed.

Naturally, these extreme and irrational dogmas led directly to conflict, which only grew in scale and destructiveness as mankind’s secular knowledge of the world simultaneously also accumulated. For the vast majority of history, it was the most religious, irrational, and primitive examples of humanity who ruled the world’s lands, and the enlightened men- the rational, the educated, the intelligent– were either put to death for daring to question the madness of their lords, or otherwise made to serve those lords as designers of their weaponry or strategists of their military campaigns.

With the advent of industry and mechanical technology, it seemed as though mankind had finally realized the error of its ways; there was a great era of science and rationality, the majority of nations implemented systems of democratic republics so that the people could choose better leaders than the autocratic, hereditary monarchs of ancient times, and religion seemed to be slowly dying off.

However, we humans gravely underestimated our own foolishness and our irrational greed; though reason, democracy, and secularism had brought untold prosperity and stability to nearly all peoples, the common masses were still not content with all they had. Though even the poor men of the first global civilization lived far better than the richest emperors of medieval times had lived before them, they still desired but more wealth and more luxury. Of course, since they were enjoying as high a quality of life as it was possible to have, they began seeking to attain impossible degrees of luxury and indulgence, which is what still-living religious traditions promised them.

As such, despite living with undeniable proof of the value of reason and the emptiness of religion all around them, the world’s nations seemed to regress in their cultures and ideals to those of older times; back to the primitive ways of tribalism, dogma, and warfare. Mankind democratically elected the same sorts of fools for leaders that democracy had been specifically designed to prevent from obtaining power, and mankind came to the brink of complete self-destruction, armed simultaneously with the destructive miracles of secular science and the suicidal madness of religious belief.

However, just before humanity could obliterate itself with the horrors civilization had crafted with its own hands, a new movement began. This movement, which began with a small collection of scientists, philosophers, artists, aesthetes, and other nonreligious intellectuals, came to the realization that it was ignorance that was the root of the threat of destruction that civilization faced. They realized what was, in retrospect, a ridiculously obvious truth: that it was absurd to entrust the common man with his own self-preservation, in the exact same way it is absurd for a parent to do the same with their young child. The fact was that most humans were fools who did not, and could not, know what they truly needed. They could not select competent or capable leaders for themselves, any more than an infant can select a mother for herself who is well-suited to raising her. Furthermore, there was no training required to become a nation’s democratic official; you simply needed to have enough charisma to rally a majority of your countrymen around you. Why did we not train our leaders, and carefully filter out all those with incapable minds from that training, in the same way we diligently selected and trained our physicians or teachers?

These educated secularists then realized that it was the common masses who held them back from obtaining this ideal technocratic civilization; they came to see that the uneducated simpletons that made up the majority of the world’s peoples feared and hated them, as they knew in the deepest reaches of their suppressed minds that the so-called “intellectual elite” really were their superiors in every way. It was the educated who had created civilization and all of its wonders; it was achievements of the mind such as writing, art, philosophy, diplomacy, science, mathematics, and reason that had made the world’s civilizations into glorious, advanced bastions of flourishing prosperity, and it was not the result of the overly-glorified wars and savage brutality that mediocre minds liked to imagine had made their homelands great.

With this newfound discovery, in addition to the knowledge that humanity’s lesser minds would never peacefully accept this new world order due to their own willful, proud ignorance and spiteful jealousy, the enlightened minority of mankind came together and formed a coalition known as the “Secular Military State for the Formation of a Single and Unified International Government,” which was colloquially shortened to the “Atheistic State.” Though the Atheistic State was smaller and less populous than every other power on the world stage, they quickly rose to become an overwhelmingly mighty superpower due to the superiority of their advanced technological weaponry and unparalleled strategic brilliance. Though the rest of the world’s nations quickly divided themselves into other allied superpowers in a frail attempt to defeat or even slow the steady conquest of the Atheistic State, they all inevitably crumbled and fell before their unstoppable might.

Once they had secured the unconditional surrender of every other nation, the commanders and officers of the Atheistic State officially founded the World Hegemony, then built a new capital for this unified international government. This capital, Central City, was founded upon the ruins of the great metropolis New York City, which was a center of world trade and diplomacy that had been destroyed in battle during the International Revolution. Intelligence tests were then administered to each person on the week of his or her thirteenth birthday; the brightest and the best were then made to be doctors, scientists, and government officials from that day forward. The highest government officials, which consisted of the six Emperor Presidents of the Earth’s six inhabited continents and the Hegemon Chairperson of the entire World Hegemony, installed themselves in the capital as the ultimate ruling body of the Earth: the Board Of World Leaders, who were tasked with overseeing all the world’s nations and maintaining peace in every land.

The BOWL then issued their first major order; after officially criminalizing the teaching or practice of religion in any form or capacity, they commanded the law enforcement of every nation to purge all dissenters who refused to completely renounce their irrational beliefs in the supernatural. In the process of eliminating religion completely from civilization, the BOWL also outlawed all rituals and practices with fundamentally religious roots, including prayer, sacraments, marriage, and wedding ceremonies. As such, any person who was found to have participated in or seeked to engage in marriage was sentenced to lifelong removal from society for endangering civilization.

Nonetheless, though the BOWL had strictly enforced its forbiddance of marriage for an entire millennium, there were still occasional occurrences of isolated lunatics attempting to secretly engage in religious rites- including marriage- which were routinely unearthed by the World Hegemony’s police forces. Fortunately, these were an increasing rarity; such incidents always appeared in the international news, and the gaps between them were slowly growing increasingly lengthy. Nowadays, it was considered an anomaly to see more than one or two reported during any given year, and the individuals involved were always viewed by the world at large as tragic cases of mental illness who almost certainly couldn’t be cured.

I had been worried, after hearing Cinderella describe her mother, that Cinderella herself might have been raised by such a mental case. That might have been quite dangerous, so it was with great relief that I learned it wasn’t so.

Cinderella wasn’t done, however. “My mother had no desire for a husband,” she said. “However, she did desire for the father of her children to act as her partner in raising them.”

My concern returned a little. “So… so she wanted a… boyfriend?” I said.

Cinderella nodded.

I frowned with confusion and a tinge of worry. Though cohabitation didn’t have the ritualistic, dogmatic sanctions that made marriage dangerous, it was still widely viewed with suspicion and distain by society. After all, it was common practice for those who still engaged in marriage even during the BOWL’s prohibition of it to present themselves as mere cohabitative couples to the outside world in order to keep their felonious unions secret. In addition, voluntary monogamy was widely viewed as a sign of personal weakness and evolutionary unfitness; if you cannot reproduce with a wide variety of partners, the thinking went, then you are ultimately a biological failure as a sexually reproductive animal. To be monogamous was to declare to the world that you and your chosen partner were both too unattractive or lacking in social skills to live up to your natural instincts; therefore, all voluntary monogamists were viewed as shameful embarrassments.

Likely sensing my wariness at her mother’s socially contrarian nonconformity, Cinderella continued, “My mother was a gentle, withdrawn introvert. Furthermore, she viewed kindness and chivalry more highly than anyone else I know; she desired that her children have the chance to inherit these traits from whoever their father was, and that they could know their father, so that they would receive twice the attention, wisdom, and love they could from her alone.”

My eyes widened, and my mouth opened slightly, as I realized surprisedly how sensible and intelligent these desires were. After all, as much as I loved my mother, there was still only so much she could do for me; she still had to put bread on our table and live her own life, even while doing everything in her capabilities to aid me with my own problems. If I had another parent, I realized, our lives would be significantly easier; some of the burden of raising me would be lifted from my mother’s shoulders, I would have another counsel in my learning and growing, and the both of us would have another ally and confidant to rely upon.

I allowed myself a small smile, then said, “Now that you put it that way…”

Cinderella grinned. “My mother was also incredibly cautious and guarded. She was very sensitive, and was uncomfortable with personal vulnerability, so she desired a physical relationship only with someone she was good friends with, and could trust would show respect and consideration to her and her wishes, rather than simply doing as they pleased to satisfy their own desires.”

I smiled and looked down at my hands. “She sounds like me…” I muttered softly.

I flinched as I realized what I’d just said, though relief quickly washed over me when Cinderella then giggled, “I agree.”

My smile faded as I asked, “I presume your mother never met such a man?”

Cinderella shook her head sadly. “No,” she said. “All the men she spoke to were completely uninterested in whatever she had to say or happened to think; all they saw was a pretty, shy girl with a voluptuously sensuous body and a sweet voice.”

I blinked. “Did she happen to look like you?” I said.

Cinderella grinned, obviously flattered. “She did,” she replied. “Her hair was a shade darker, though, and she had green eyes and a freckled face. But otherwise, yes, we are almost perfect mirror-like images of each other.

“At any rate, because she was still a virgin and hadn’t made any attempts at conceiving by the time she was fourteen, my mother was arrested and taken to the British Capital Building in London. There, the King Secretary of Britain gave her a choice: to either offer her own body to him and any of his policemen who paid him the monetary price he set for a taste of her, or to be permanently removed from free society.” Cinderella’s eyes began watering. “She was terrified, but she had no choice; she didn’t even have an idea of what would become of her if she refused. She chose to be violated until she could be set free again.”

Cinderella wiped some tears from her cheeks with her fingers. “They restrained her, and took turns to use her. Every day, the King Secretary of Britain tested her to see if she was pregnant, then she would undergo another round of rape by him and his guardsmen. My mother didn’t remember how many days this went on.

“When she finally tested positive for pregnancy, her restraints were removed and she was sent back home. However, she was warned by her King Secretary that if she intentionally miscarried, she would be forced to endure that same fate all over again.”

The both of us were silent for a few moments, and I slowly absorbed the shock of all Cinderella just told me. Cinderella then took a deep breath, turned to face me with a gentle smile once again, then she said, “Trust me, Aaron; I know. You are probably the least dangerous or untrustworthy boy I’ve ever encountered.” Cinderella laughed as she added, “Hell, not even my own father could hope to be half as noble as you are, whoever he is.”

Cinderella then reached over and took my hand, causing me to flinch and intensely blush as she concluded, “I promise, Aaron; you are my absolute best friend. I’d stake my life on it, so certain am I.”

Cinderella then leaned forward and kissed my cheek.

While I was motionlessly paralyzed for a few moments, Cinderella stood up from her swing and stood in front of me. Leaning forward, she said, “Will you allow me to take you somewhere, my sweet friend? To show my gratitude?”

My face blazing, I made a small smile and nodded very slightly.

Cinderella giggled, took my hand again, then pulled me onto my feet. We began walking through the park, and I was utterly silent for about a minute, even as the bystanders we passed turned to stare at us between the trees and flowering bushes.

However, once my blush had subsided, I said, “Cinderella- can I ask you one more thing?”

Cinderella turned and grinningly nodded at me. “Of course. What is it?”

“Your mother,” I said, “she- … w-what’s her name?”

Cinderella’s eyes narrowed. “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” she said coyly.

At my puzzled silence, Cinderella giggled. “My mother, her mother, and her mother’s mother have been Disney’s biggest fans as long as we can remember. My name is Cinderella, my grandmother was named Aurora, and my great-grandmother was named Belle. Naturally, my mother’s name was Alice.”

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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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Chapter Two

I never got tired of watching Tokyo rush by through the window of a tram car. I was never bored when I was traveling; whether on a bus or on a train, I was always perfectly contented to just stare out the window at the scenery of my surroundings throughout the entire trip while the other passengers read their pulp novels and manga magazines (or, if they were wealthier, playing games on handheld consoles). In my eyes, reading and gaming were strictly activities for my bedroom, and traveling was for observation, contemplation, and reflection.

I liked to imagine how a master oil painter might portray this city in differing times, lightings, or weather conditions. I didn’t mind when it rained or snowed; in fact, I saw an exciting opportunity whenever precipitation occured. I imagined committing such scenes to a canvas with cool, deep blues and silvers to create a moody, melancholic atmosphere suited to the composition made upon it. Whenever it was a bit cloudy, but not so cloudy that the daylight was blocked out, I would likely wait until sunset so that I might capture the rich oranges and purples the sun cast against the clouds. At night, I would select vibrant neon hues to recreate the many lights glowing from the casinos, malls, cinemas, bathhouses, and arcades scattered throughout the metropolis. But my absolute favorite times for taking in the vista of Tokyo were bright, sunny autumn and spring mornings, when the trees were pink with cherry blossoms or browning with dying leaves; those were the times I felt that Japan showed its true essence, completed by the sight of the majestic peak of Mt. Fuji in the distance.

In my eyes, Mount Fuji was the most beautiful object in the world. The highest point in Japan, the wide and snowy volcano had awed, enraptured, and inspired countless artists and explorers since it was originally discovered in ancient times, as well as providing untold thousands of generations of philosophers and thinkers the focus for countless hours of pondering and meditation. But what most amazed me about this mountain was that it was largely the same as it had been thousands of years ago; even at the dawn of civilization, mankind must have seen and revered a mountain much like the looming, snowy purple behemoth I beheld now. It had witnessed many great wars and the rise and fall of many great civilizations, and even after mankind’s great leaps and advancements in science and technology it still stood there, like a grim old man eternally telling the world the story of the wonders of nature and the slow passage of time.

It gave me comfort to know that many others before me had seen this same mountain, and that many of them must have been thinking many of the same things that I did. It was a reminder that though things were always changing, in many ways they also remained the same. How many other people have been lonely, I thought, and looked at this mountain, and wondered if there was anyone like them? That have thought that things must have been better in the past, only to realize that those who were also outcasts with the same frustrations were the only ones that wrote anything? That realized no one can ever know the deepest secrets of the universe, as they are forever out of the reach of any man?

But today, at last, at least one of my questions had been answered; there must have been at least one other person who was looking at Mount Fuji and thinking like I did. After all, she had come to Japan for the purpose of admiring and reflecting on beauty, as I did. A part of me had begun to doubt that such a person even existed, but happily I was proven wrong; I had met that person on the steps of the Tokyo Public Library today. Thinking about Cinderella Peterson while continuing to gaze out the window at Mount Fuji, I gently began to close my eyes as I softly smiled.

It was dusk by the time the tram stopped at the station nearest to my home. I stepped off of the car onto the station’s platform, then I made my way onto the street and began walking towards my home as the blue of the night sky deepened until it was completely black. I couldn’t see any stars, as they were obscured by the light of the street-lamps, which cast a comforting and familiar orange glow over me as I gradually approached my apartment building. Within a few minutes, I saw it; a tall, cylindrical, steel beam-framed tower built of locally-excavated stone shaded in many pleasant hues of brown. I pushed the steel handlebar of one of the glass doors at the entrance, opening my way to the building’s light brown wooden staircase.

I scaled up six flights of stairs before I arrived at the small, rectangular hall of the seventh floor, which like all of the others held two doors in the long wall and one door in each of the two smaller side walls. I turned right, walked to the end of the passageway, and knocked on the door to Room Seven Hundred Four.

“I’m home!” I called out as I entered my apartment.

My mother, who was chopping up some vegetables for dinner in the kitchen, turned to me and gasped happily. “Welcome home, Aaron!” she cried delightedly, setting her knife down on her chopping board before stepping up to me. She embraced me, exclaiming, “I’m so happy to see you, dear! You’ve come home so early!”

“Yeah, it’s nice to see you too, mom,” I replied, hugging her back.

My mother was a rather small, plump woman with a warm, good-natured face who always wore a kitchen apron whenever she was at home. Unlike me, she had a very normal appearance; like most other Japanese women, she had a light olive skin tone, dark brown hair, and slightly narrow brown eyes. Her hair was long and artificially curled, and she usually had make-up on, which all contributed to a pleasant and friendly appearance that suited her well in her profession as a receptionist for a hospital not far from our home. It was fairly obvious that Reo Sakura was not my birth mother; she was medically infertile, and so she had been assigned by the World Hegemony to raise me and my younger brother Avion as her adopted children.

When an adult woman was unable to have children of her own, the state would assign her to be the custodian to two or three of someone else’s children, who could come from one of two sources: they could be orphaned through the death or imprisonment of their birth mother, or they could be the children of the female officials of the Board Of World Leaders, the highest governing body of the World Hegemony. The state also tried to keep blood relatives together, as well as keep foster children in their nations of origin, if they could; as a result, my brother and I had both been assigned to Reo Sakura immediately after we were each born to a (predominantly) Japanese BOWL official in Central City, the Capital of the Earth.

I loved my mother with all of my heart, though I often wished that I had been assigned to the care of a doctor or a professor instead of her; as kind, loving, and supportive as my mother was, she was of average intelligence, while I was speculated to be an “immensely gifted intellectual prodigy” by the healthcare providers and educators charged with me. It was difficult to contest that evaluation; I could already speak fluently when I was two years old, I began reading and writing shortly before I was four, and I had an advanced knowledge of linguistics, literature, music, computer science, mathematics, and physics by the time I was seven. Even during my first school years, only a few adults could understand many of the things I spoke about; needless to say, absolutely none of my peers could. As a result, I found that nearly everyone had absolutely no idea whatsoever of how to deal with me, including my mother.

Nonetheless, my mother did everything within her power to give me as much out of my life as she could, even if she couldn’t discuss most of my interests with me. She always concerned herself with my troubles, tried to give me access to any resources I might need, and praised me for every accomplishment I made, whether it was a perfect grade on a class exam, the final draft of a poem, or the solution to a highly-complex abstract mathematical problem that she couldn’t even begin to wrap her head around. For that reason, I always concluded that I preferred to have her as a mother more than I would probably have liked a doctor, as they likely wouldn’t have shown me even half of the attention or affection that my mother had shown me.

“How was your visit to the library?” my mother said once she had released me from her embrace and taken a step back. “Is there any particular reason you’re back so soon?”

“My trip was quite nice,” I replied as I knelt down to untie my black, belted, gothic leather combat boots. I then slid out of them and placed them against the apartment genkan’s wall while I continued with a small but beaming smile, “I befriended a girl there. She’s just moved here from Britain. Her name is Cinderella Peterson.”

My mom placed her hand over her mouth as her eyes widened with shock. “You did, dear?” she gasped.

I nodded. “Yes,” I said. “I’ve also arranged to go on a date tomorrow with her.”

My mother broke into a wide, giddy smile. “Oh, that is just wonderful, Aaron!” she cried. Tears began streaming down her cheeks, which she wiped away as she sniffed and continued softly, “I was so, so very worried that you wouldn’t ever be able to make any friends…”

I comfortingly placed my palms over my mother’s shoulders and gave her a gentle, reassuring smile as I said, “Don’t worry, mom; I’m alright.”

Once she had dried her tears from her cheeks, my mother replied, “I know, dear. It’s just that you’ve never had anybody to talk to or play with growing up. I’m very glad you were able to meet someone who could see how amazing you really are.”

I blushed slightly in embarrassment. “I’m not that great, mother…” I said, looking away and rubbing the back of my head nervously, to which she broke into laughter.

My mother then returned to the kitchen, where she resumed cutting up her vegetables as she said with a sly glint in her eye, “Is she a pretty girl?”

“Oh, she is dead gorgeous,” I replied as my smile widened with the memory of Cinderella. “Her beauty is almost divine. She’s really smart, friendly, and cute, too.”

My mother’s smile broadened. “Quite a brainy looker too, huh? She sounds a lot like you.”

I chuckled nervously, “Honestly, mom…”

“Do you think you’ll ask her to be your date?” my mother asked. “You know, to your Coming-Of-Age day?”

My eyes widened and I was silent for a moment, stunned. “I… I never really thought about it…” I said.

My mother abruptly stopped chopping a carrot and turned with a shocked expression to me. “You haven’t?” she said. “Why not? Didn’t you say she was pretty?”

“Y-yeah, she is,” I stuttered. Indeed, now that I thought about it, not only was Cinderella extraordinarily beautiful, but she was also quite sexy, as well. Her minidress had shown off her stunning legs, which were long, smooth, and slender, but pleasingly toned. Her figure was likewise strong but graceful, and though she only seemed to be about as old as me, she already had rather wide hips and a pair of nice, pleasingly round small breasts. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I would have liked very nearly nothing more than to see her without any clothes on.

So yes, I did find Cinderella quite physically attractive. The odd thing, however, was that sexually fantasizing about her wasn’t the very first thought I had about her when we had first met; in fact, my carnal desire for her hadn’t occurred to me until several hours after I first met her, despite the fact that I’d been thinking of nothing but her the entire time.

Usually, when I encountered someone who was highly attractive, I would immediately imagine myself having a sexual encounter with them, and then when I got home I would browse my porn collection until I found an image of a similar-looking model that I could pleasure myself to. Not so with Cinderella, however. Despite the fact that her beauty surpassed that of anyone I had ever met before, her sex appeal had been less of a priority to me than the possibility that I might become her friend. How curious, I thought; why had my first desire been to get to know her, rather than to lure her into bed?

Perhaps it was because my thirteenth birthday was still a month away, I thought; after all, it would be foolish to make an advance on Cinderella now, before I had come of age. Perhaps I wanted to befriend her so that I could still have access to her by the time of my Coming-Of-Age’s arrival. However, I then remembered the first moment I had laid eyes upon Cinderella, and I realized that befriending her had been my end goal in and of itself at that time; the idea of physical intimacy with her had only occurred to me when my mother suggested it just a few moments before now.

I sat silently for a few moments, surprisedly wondering how something so strange had happened to me, as well as asking myself why it would. I then shook my head and smiled, however, as I decided that I was simply so completely starved for companionship of any kind that my instincts had turned to finding friendship before finding a mate. It was a logical product of my evolutionary heritage; after all, humans are pack animals, we must form bonds in order to survive, and if you do not survive you cannot perpetuate your bloodline.

Chuckling to myself one more time, I lifted my arms into the air and stretched. “I’m going to be in my room,” I said to my mother after a long, luxurious yawn.

My mother nodded. “I’ll call you when dinner’s ready,” she said.

“Thanks!” I replied before making my way to the apartment’s hall.

Before I turned into the door leading to my room, however, I stopped at the one just before it: the door to Avion’s bedroom.

I turned and stared at the closed entrance to Avion’s room. I couldn’t remember the last time I did this, and I was quite surprised at myself for doing it now. What has seized upon me to stop at the entrance to Avion’s bedroom? I wondered. Have I gone mad?

I scoffed. Well, of COURSE I’ve gone mad, I observed sardonically. But so mad as to ENTER it?

I tensed up, and a chill ran down my spine. No. Don’t you DARE, Aaron. Don’t even THINK about it, I chided myself. I took a deep, steadying breath, then slowly exhaled to relieve the panic that had suddenly overcome me.

Even after all the horrors and atrocities I have witnessed and experienced, never have I encountered a being who has filled me with as much inexplicable, horrific dread as my younger brother Avion. His full name was actually Joshua Avion Axe, though he seemed to prefer to be known by his middle name. I couldn’t be sure, though; he never told anyone if this was actually the case. In fact, he never told anyone anything; my brother was utterly and completely silent, and as such nearly everything about him was a complete mystery.

Avion was born on June Thirteenth, when I was eight years old. However, he was not brought to me and my mother until three years later, as he was critically and deathly ill during and long after his birth. We were informed by the letters his doctors had sent us that he was extremely lucky to be alive; he had barely hung onto life by a thread for about eighteen months after his birth, during which time he never had human contact and was raised entirely by medical machines. When his condition improved and his caregivers attempted to introduce him to other children, however, Avion was extremely cold and aloof to them. None of his nurses could ever persuade him to speak, though his doctors said he wasn’t mute. He never played; not even by himself. He never smiled, or laughed, or explored the world like other small children do. Instead, he laid in his bed all the time, leaving only to eat, use the restroom, and attend his mandatory lessons and playtimes. He didn’t have any mental disabilities; on the contrary, Avion had reportedly mastered reading, writing, and mathematics even sooner than I did. Though he had been sickly when he was born, he seemed perfectly healthy now. No one was sure exactly what was wrong with him; all anyone knew was that he was- at all times- utterly silent, brooding, and grim.

When Avion was well enough to travel, he was brought to Tokyo by an airplane; the same jet model as the plane I was brought on. My mother and I were both extremely excited to meet him, and each of us had purchased a gift to welcome him; my mother got him a set of finger-paints, and I ordered him a miniature arcade cabinet kit; I planned to build it, install it in his room, and then help him select games for it. I had helped my mother shop to get new clothes for him, and I also helped her move Avion’s new bed and dresser into his bedroom. Everything we picked out for him was rather plain, but we planned to get him new items as we got to know him and learned what his likes and interests were.

On the day of Avion’s arrival, it was early wintertime. My mother and I had both dressed in jackets and knitted beanies to keep warm, then we took a train to the Tokyo Airport, where we waited at the cheerfully-colorful adoption terminal with a handful of other women and their children for his jet’s arrival. Once the silver, sleek passenger plane landed, an airbridge had been connected to it, and its entrance door was opened, a squad of nurses uniformed in white came out, carrying newborn infants to their adoptive families. The exception, of course, was Avion, who was holding the hand of the nurse who brought him to us, and we were able to identify him the instant we laid eyes upon him.

According to my mother, Avion looked exactly the same as I did when I was a young child. He was small and scrawny, though he was taller than most other boys his age. He had a round, sweet, exquisitely-shaped face, which wouldn’t have looked at all out-of-place on a porcelain doll. His skin was snow-white; his straight, silky hair was shiny and black as pitch; and his enormous eyes were the same intense shade of violet as my own were. Looking at him, I could see why people were often afraid of me; Avion was quite beautiful, but in a cold, eerie, and deathly sort of way, like a recently-deceased corpse or a pale, lifeless china doll. Adding to this uncanny aura of unnaturalness was the bright violet of his irises, a shade that was almost impossible to find in human eyes. According to our physicians, the pure white complexions and unusually-colored eyes that Avion and I shared were attributable to albinism, though they were utterly baffled and unable to explain how our hair was still black despite this.

Nonetheless, despite Avion’s fearsome appearance, I was quite happy to see him. I grinned and called out to him as he was being led to me and my mother, “Hey, buddy! You’re Joshua, right? I’m your brother, Aaron!”

My excitement only builded as Avion approached us. He looked so adorable, I thought, in his little white t-shirt, gray sneakers, and faded black jeans. He looked almost like a miniature alternative punk rocker. My cheer faltered, however, when Avion turned to look at me.

I trembled under Avion’s gaze. His eyes were narrowed in a malicious glare, as though he wanted nothing more than to strangle me. His expression was filled with pure, burning hatred and loathing for me, despite the fact that we had never met before. He never spoke, though I thought I could detect a message in his expression, as though a voice were sounding clearly in my head:

Do not speak to me. Ever.

I involuntarily hid behind my mother, stammering fearfully, “M-mom? Is h-he okay?”

My mother was silent. I looked up at her face, and saw that she was pale with shock and fear, as well.

“You are Reo Sakura, correct, miss?” the nurse accompanying Avion said, looking to my mother.

After a moment, my mother nodded. “Y-yes, I am, sir,” she replied quietly, still gazing at my brother. She then asked tremblingly, “Is… is this Joshua?”

“It is,” the nurse replied. I detected a slight hint of fear in his voice, as well, and saw that he seemed anxious to hand Avion off to us as quickly as he could.

Avion released the nurse’s hand and briskly strode until he was standing just before us. My mother swallowed, made a painful smile, and crouched down as she opened up her arms. “Would you like a hug, Joshua dear?” she said hopefully.

Avion cast a threatening glare at my mother, causing her smile to quickly fade and for her to promptly stand back up as she said, “Al-alright, then…”

“He’s not much for physical contact,” the nurse said.

“What’s… what’s wrong with him?” I whispered fearfully.

My mother placed her hand on my back and frowned sternly at me. “Now, Aaron…” she said chidingly.

“We don’t know what’s wrong with him,” the nurse said, causing me and my mother’s attention to immediately return to him. “He doesn’t speak, he doesn’t play, and he never gets out of bed except to eat.” The nurse then reached into his right trouser pocket and pulled out an envelope, which he held out to my mother. “This is a letter from his physician,” he said. “It’ll tell you everything you need to know about him.”

My mother blinked in stunned silence for a moment, then took the envelope, opened it up, and pulled out the letter it held. After unfolding it and reading the first few lines, she said, “He… he prefers to be known as ‘Avion’?”

“We think so, Miss,” the nurse replied. “We can’t be sure, though. He won’t tell us.”

My mother continued reading the letter for a few moments, then nodded. “Al… alright, then…” she muttered, folding the paper back up and sliding it back into the envelope.

The nurse, with an expression of great relief, nodded at my mother with a polite, “Good luck, Miss,” before turning and quickly reentering the plane.

As the nurses were boarding the state airplane to return to Central City, my mother and I turned around, and saw that the other families were staring fearfully at Avion, as well. When the other mothers met our gazes, they immediately embarrassedly looked away and began taking their children back out of the terminal.

My mother took a deep, weary breath, then turned to Avion. “Shall we go home, dear?” she said, smiling kindly and offering him her hand.

Without responding to or looking back at my mother, Avion slid his hands into his pockets and began walking towards the exit. My mother and I exchanged a fearful glance, then we reluctantly followed Avion as he led us out of the airport.

Even after we brought Avion home, he remained every bit as hostile and icy as when we first met him. He shut himself in his room and refused to leave except to eat and use the restroom, just like the letter his physician had given us said he had done at the hospital he used to live at. He never touched the gifts me or my mother had given him, and the only things he allowed into his room were books from the library, which he kept on his bookshelf. My mother and I had no idea how he got the books; we assumed that he had walked to the library and brought them back himself, though we never saw him leave the house. My mother tried to ask him if he had gone off to the library all by himself without telling her, but of course he stoically refused to answer. As a result, my mother gave up and told him to at least be safe, then never troubled him about it again.

The strangest thing about Avion, however, was not his refusal to break his silence, his hermitage in the solitude of his bedroom, or even the hostility he displayed towards everyone for seemingly no reason; the most peculiar thing about him was what sorts of books he read. It didn’t at all surprise me that Avion was already deeply invested in studying books, or even that the books he read were often quite ponderous and thick; after all, I was reading books of similar difficulty and advancement when I was only a little older than him myself. However, when I had first started reading, my first ventures into literature had been pieces of speculative fiction such as DraculaBlue Lights of Heaven, and The Lord of the Rings. Avion, on the other hand, seemed to have absolutely no interest in fiction whatsoever; the only books I ever saw him studying were highly academic textbooks, journals, and essay collections on topics such as human history, biology, quantum physics, philosophy, high-level mathematics, linguistics, and cultural mythologies. I would have thought of it as nothing more than merely a somewhat unusual academic recreational activity, except that Avion didn’t seem to perceive it as a hobby at all; on the contrary, Avion seemed to take his strange studies so seriously that he obsessed over them to the point of exclusion of all other aspects of his life.

It was as though Avion had been waiting to escape from the hospital he was born in exclusively to engage in this one activity. When he wasn’t in daycare, sleeping, or eating, he was always sitting cross-legged on his bed, reading one of his many staggeringly heavy library books. Everything he did seemed to be in service of this laborious pursuit; he added no decorations to his room, he had no toys on his bed or in his empty toy box, and he didn’t even have a clock on his wall. Aside from his bed and shelves of library books, the only other objects in Avion’s room were a writing-desk with no chair (he stood whenever he was writing), a stack of blank sheets of paper, a clear glass bottle of ballpoint pens, and the many pieces of writing he had made and tacked to the walls. I couldn’t read these writings; they seemed to be composed entirely of characters from an extremely complex, indecipherable constructed language that Avion had invented for his own use. Obviously, Avion didn’t want me to understand them, or for anyone else to, for that matter. But whatever it was he was writing, it seemed to be something quite enormous and of the greatest importance to him; he studied the notes on his wall just as much as he studied his books, and he was always adding more to them and tying strings between the tacks holding them up to better organize them.

Avion had been absolutely livid the few times I had disturbed him, and he made it abundantly clear that me and my mother weren’t allowed anywhere near his bedroom. He always kept it quite spotless and tidy so that my mother never had to enter to clean it, and he did all of his laundry by himself so that neither of us would have an excuse to enter to collect his dirty clothes or bedsheets. His message was obvious: that he was to be left alone at all times, and that there would be deeply horrific consequences if me or my mother so much as put a toe over the threshold of the entrance to his room.

However, at that moment, I had a surprising and powerful urge to check in on him and say hi. Though the idea of speaking to Avion was still quite frightening, I was filled with a newfound courage at that moment, likely from the joyful energy I had gotten from meeting Cinderella. As much as I feared Avion, I still deeply cared about him and was very worried about him; I thought that his cold, mechanical upbringing had caused him deep and disturbing psychological damage, and even if I couldn’t, I still wanted more than nearly anything to find some way- any way- to help him heal those scars.

Taking a deep breath, I rapped my knuckles on Avion’s door before turning the knob and pushing it slightly open. I saw that Avion was hunched over his desk, drafting one of his encrypted notes.

“Hey, buddy,” I said, offering him a warm smile. “How are you doing, Avion?”

Avion responded by flinching, then turning to look at me with an expression of deeply appalled surprise.

“Do you need anything?” I said with a slight tremor.

Avion’s eyes narrowed, and he gave me a glare of such burning fury that it seemed to say, Get out, or I will tear your eyes out and snap your neck.

I shrank away from Avion’s malicious gaze, then I said quietly, “Alright, alright, I was just checking…”

Avion continued glaring at me until I closed the door again, after which I heard him resume scratching out his notes.

I stood before the door for a few moments, gazing at it as I slid my hands into my pockets.  I then sighed wearily, shrugged, and muttered, “Well, it was worth a shot…” before turning and closing the remaining distance to my own bedroom.

Once I had opened the door to my room, I smiled; it was probably the most comforting sight to me in the entire world. It was a little like Avion’s, in that all of the walls were lined with shelves and there was a writing-desk in the corner of the room; however, unlike Avion’s bedroom, mine was filled with color and little decorations to liven it up.

That wasn’t to say everything in my room was completely cheery; for instance, my western-style bed was made with black sheets, a white pillow, and a hand-stitched quilt I had made myself that consisted of black, white, and gray blocks which were embroidered with victorian-inspired floral designs and arranged into a Storm at Sea pattern. I similarly had an elegant, drearily monochromatic fine victorian china tea set, an iron reading-lamp designed to resemble a gothic streetlight, and posters for several death metal bands plastered over my walls. But dark things weren’t the only things that brought me joy; I also had hundreds of toys, game pieces, and figurines stacked on all of my shelves and any other horizontal surface I could fit them on. Some of the items in my collection included rare, century-old vinyl figurines of some of my favorite anime characters, such as Leleouch Lamperouge, Shinji Ikari, Maka Albarn, Simon Jiha, and Ray‘s Alex, as well as my favorite video game protagonists Link, Heather Mason, Caim, and American McGee’s interpretation of Alice Liddell. I also had a replica of the original Winnie the Pooh and plush dolls of Riolu and Lucario, my two favorite Pokémon. However, of my knickknacks, by far my most valuable and treasured one was my Jack Skellington puppet; it was one of the actual dolls used to animate The Nightmare Before Christmas, and I had carefully posed and displayed it in a cylindrical glass case before placing it on top of my tallest shelf in order to preserve it.

The possessions I had in this room that I loved the most, however, were the hundreds and hundreds of books, disks, cartridges, records, and tapes that filled my shelves. These weren’t even all of the items of my library; just my absolute favorite ones. I was contented to read most books, listen to most songs, or emulate most games on the black tower personal computer I kept on my desk; however, when I was absolutely filled with adoration for a particular work, I would get ahold of a genuine original copy of it (or at least a replica of it) so that I could experience it as its creator originally intended. For that reason, I had a real vintage record player, several century-old gaming consoles, and an entire shelf full of plastic sleeves in which I had carefully stored many ancient Western comic books. The rest of my shelves were filled with countless optical disks of films, games, and television series; hundreds of Nintendo cartridges; hardcover editions of my favorite novels, such as The HobbitBeowulf, the Harry Potter series, and Touched; as well as complete collections of about a dozen manga series such as Fullmetal AlchemistDriven BackAi Ore, and every series Takeshi Obata had ever illustrated, including Hikaru No GoDeath NoteBakuman, and All You Need Is Kill. They all added together to create a vibrantly eclectic atmosphere of- to use an old English word- geekiness, which was the most relaxing one I could possibly be in.

I took a deep, satisfied breath, then strode to my bed. I lifted up my mattress, then began browsing over the stacks of pornographic magazines that rested beneath it. My porn collection covered an extremely wide range of subjects for those with specific interests; pregnancy, bondage, food play, incest, bara, yuri, water play, and many different kinds of role-play were some of the many genres it included. In all honesty, I had an insanely huge number of intense kinks, and I couldn’t say which was my most powerful one; all that really mattered to me was that the participants were showing real pleasure during whatever act they were engaged in.

I ran my fingers over the spines of the magazines, attempting to choose one to aid me in my nightly ritual of masturbating before taking a bath and going to bed. However, I found myself realizing something that caused me to hesitate, bring my hand to a stop, and gently lift it away from the magazines: I could still not get Cinderella out of my mind.

I thought of finding a photo of a teenaged European model with golden hair and blue eyes so as to have a visual aid that resembled Cinderella. But- strangely- I found that the idea seemed oddly unsatisfying; the model wouldn’t be her, and so it wouldn’t be the same.

My eyes narrowed with puzzlement. “What is going on…?” I whispered, setting the mattress back down. “I’ve never been so obsessed with someone before…”

I stared down at the floor, scraping the corners of the farthest reaches of my mind to find an explanation for why I could simply not stop thinking about Cinderella. Was it because she had approached me and talked to me of her own volition? Was it that everything about her, from her looks to her personality to her mind, seemed to have been crafted specifically to make her as attractive as possible to me? Was it because she was the first friend I’d ever had? Or was it something else; some unknowable connection between us that could not be detected or measured, and I couldn’t even begin to understand?

I thought about this for several long minutes, though the answer was just as elusive to me at the end as when I’d started. I sighed disappointedly, then turned my thoughts to another, more palatable problem: Cinderella so completely filled my thoughts that I would not be able to sleep tonight. I had no doubt about this; my obsession with Cinderella would be a very long-lasting one, and it would not allow me any rest anytime soon. For that reason, I needed some way to occupy myself for several hours until sheer exhaustion could overrun my insomnia.

Gently smiling, I went to my desk, sat in my plush, purple swiveling gaming chair, and picked up my communications headset. I slid it over my head, adjusted the microphone attached to it, turned on my computer, then clicked an icon of a black, calligraphic on the monitor’s desktop. A few seconds later, the interface for my application, MasterScribe, opened up and displayed the message: “You are now online, Mr. Shiro Yami.

Shiro Yami was a fitting pseudonym, I think; after all, one had only to look at me to understand what the words “White Darkness” meant. This was the name I had chosen as my identity on the Internet; the one place where I could interact with others without causing them fear or drawing bullying to myself. Here, I was anonymous, and so the world could see me for what I really was.

My activities on the internet reminded me a lot of those that Valentine and Peter Wiggin engaged in in the novel Ender’s Game; in the real world I was a nobody, but I was staggeringly famous and respected on the Web. I could comfortably join discussions in nearly any community, as I was fluent in every living language and had a deep knowledge of most things people liked to talk about. Of course, I contained my activities largely to forums dedicated to literature, music composition, and programming circles, since I was only comfortable having conversations on those general topics. People often emailed me whenever they had a very difficult question relating to them, and my answers were almost always unanimously accepted by the entire Web as gospel truth. But my main use for the Internet wasn’t browsing the forums or communities; my primary reason for being there was to distribute my projects.

Aside from reading, gaming, and watching movies, my favorite hobby was to create media. I wasn’t contented to work in just one medium, however; I wrote novels, comics, plays, and musical scores, and I was additionally a game developer. These projects were the source of my fame; they were extremely well-regarded in critical circles as well as with the general public, who were all quite astonished at the tremendous speed and high quality with which I was able to compose them. Fans and admirers of my work tirelessly attempted to guess my true identity, though I adamantly refused to tell them. Watching their guesswork was pretty amusing, though; many were absolutely convinced that I was the persona of an artistic collective or the alias of a highly secretive private corporation, as they couldn’t believe that just one person could do all that I did, though the majority of my most fervent fans agreed that the consistency in style between my works pointed to a single mind being behind all of them. No one was able to come close to guessing who I actually was, however; the most dominant theory about my identity was that I was a reclusive, brilliant Doctor or World Leader, that I was in age somewhere around my late thirties to early fifties, and that I used my pseudonym out of a desire to be left alone, or otherwise to see how my works would fare without the prestige of my real name. How ironic, I often thought, that Shiro Yami was a reputable nobleman of the world’s intellectual gentry whose ideas and opinions were held by the populace at large with a deference bordering on reverence, while Aaron Axe was nothing more than a young, strange, frightening little peasant-boy who had no friends and had often returned home from school covered in blood and bruises from beatings he had received from other children.

The wealth with which I had purchased all of my games, books, toys, and antiques had come from the revenue I generated from my online sales of my projects. My income wasn’t great enough to, say, start up my own corporation, but it was substantial enough that I could fund yearly summer-long vacations to luxury resorts if I so desired. I had little interest in such things, however; if I were to win a lottery and suddenly receive an entire fortune, I would have simply spent my winnings on even rarer and more valuable collectibles I desperately wanted, such as a signed first edition of Alice in Wonderland, arcade cabinets of Galaga and Pac-Man that were manufactured in the Nineteen Eighties, and the first editions of the Gutenberg and King James Bibles. The closest I would have come to throwing a huge, wild party would have been to buy one of the original Nightmare Before Christmas film reels, rent a Twentieth Century-reenactment movie theater, then hire the projector to show the film while I watched it and ate buttered popcorn in complete privacy.

The application I was currently running, MasterScribe, was one of my most popular and successful products; it was a software I had developed for the purpose of hosting sessions of role-playing games on the Internet, and I had designed it to be as powerful, intuitive, and fun to use as possible. Most of the time I had spent writing it had been devoted to its map editor, which I modeled after raster graphics software. I had put a lot of love and care into the assets making up the map editor’s library, so that anything a Game Master might need for any given session- whether it was a complex trap, a tile for a specific ground type, or an obscure monster from an almost-forgotten adventure module- was always right at their fingertips. I had also composed a large selection of musical pieces that a GM could play to add atmosphere during a session. When one was actually playing their game, it became a three-dimensional simulation almost exactly like a conventional video game, except that the GM continued to hold complete control over all aspects and rules in it. MasterScribe, initially made just for my own use, had quickly become a huge hit after I introduced it in online RPG communities, and was now the platform most online role-playing sessions were played on. Even at the tiny price I sold it at, I had still made a tidy profit off of it; I was grateful that I didn’t live in a pre-World Hegemony civilization, as I would have had yet-uneliminated online piracy to worry about that might have made things result differently.

“Send out an open invitation for a self-contained Dungeons & Dragons adventure,” I said. The voice recognition registered my command, then promptly displayed a list of my favorite D&D modules, as well as some I had written myself. I selected a module of my own creation titled The Emperor’s Pistol, which was an extremely difficult self-contained adventure for the third edition rules that had been inspired by the Tomb of Horrors module, as well as the old platformer I Wanna Be the Guy. Once I selected the adventure, MasterScribe informed me that my open invitation was up, and I sat back and waited for other players to take it.

I didn’t have to wait long; within seconds, I had several dozen players send me messages asking to join my session. I selected a few players that I had played enjoyable sessions with before, then I said, “Alright, then, let’s get this going. Select one of your pre-made level five characters, everyone.” MasterScribe automatically converted my words into a text message and sent it to the other players.

I oversaw the other players attempt and fail to complete The Emperor’s Pistol about three times, which always ended with them all dying truly gruesome deaths to one of my many death traps I had hidden throughout the module. Their first trek into the palace I designed ended with them all falling into a bottomless pit, the second ended with them drinking a potion that instantly turned them all to dust, and their third attempt ultimately resulted in them all getting crushed under a falling moon-shaped ceiling decoration. After this last party wipe, I looked down at the clock in the corner of my desktop. It was about two o’clock. At that moment I felt all of my accumulated exhaustion fall upon me, and I made a wide yawn before saying, “I have to go now. Good game.” I then removed my headset, closed MasterScribe, and turned my computer off.

Now that I was sufficiently tired enough, I stretched, stripped down, then went to take a bath. Once I had finished bathing and dried off, I returned to my room, opened up my bedcovers, and slid naked into them. As I closed my eyes and drifted into slumber, my thoughts remained fixed upon Cinderella. The last thing I saw before losing consciousness was the sight of her kind, warm, friendly smile.

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Chapter One

I fell in love. She was breathtaking, otherworldly, and angelic. Our eyes met and she tilted her head, staring at me curiously.

A sudden burning sensation caused me to look away. I felt my cheek. It was hot. I sighed, smiled, and turned back to her. She was smiling, as well.

This girl intrigued me for many reasons; to begin with, she was by far the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. She was tall, slender, and graceful, yet strong. Her complexion was fair but lightly tanned, which along with a grassy scent she carried and a look of playfulness in her expression indicated that she had a deep affinity with nature as well as a childlike love for play. Her face was round, youthful, and sweet; it seemed to be glowing with a magical radiance, as it was framed by extremely long, wavy golden hair that shined and glistened as though it were spun from sunlight. But above all, I was enraptured by her eyes; they were very large, intelligent, and caring orbs of a deep and vibrant blue that I couldn’t decide more resembled sapphires or the sea.

This girl’s beauty wasn’t the only thing that fascinated me about her, however; she was also very noticeably odd in a great number of ways. She was obviously European, which was somewhat of a rarity as a sight in the city of Tokyo. In addition, her attire stylistically clashed with the clothing of nearly everyone else around her; while most of the people walking past us wore either traditional kimonos or modern outfits reminiscent of the styles of popular anime and manga characters, this girl was wearing an eclectic combination of a rainbow tie-dyed t-shirt, a blue denim overall minidress, and a pair of thick white cotton socks beneath a pair of black leather combat boots. The only thing that I could think of that all of these anachronistic items had in common with each other was that each one was associated with one of the movements of late-twentieth century rock.

But the thing that most fascinated me about this girl was the fact that she was gazing and smiling at me without the slightest hint of fear. This caught me quite off-guard, as I had never seen a stranger look at me without being afraid before. The moment anyone first caught sight of my deathly pale skin, ink-black hair, and intensely violet eyes, they would invariably and immediately flinch and recoil slightly away from me with fear, if not run away outright. But not this girl; for some reason, she was giving me a smile that showed nothing but friendliness and warmth. In the face of hospitality I had never known before, I found that I was a little afraid myself; after all, what was it that made this girl different? Why, when all others looked upon me with dread, did she smile at me as though I were as ordinary as anyone else?

Nonetheless, whatever the reason this girl wasn’t afraid of me, I found that I was immediately immensely attracted to her; not only was she unafraid of me as well as astonishingly beautiful, but if my guesses proved to be correct, she was also a classic rock aesthete. I wondered if I was dreaming, as it was as though someone had taken everything I’d ever wished for and crafted them all together into my ideal girl. If I was dreaming, I prayed with all of my being that I would never wake up.

I wanted to talk to her. However, I was paralyzed with panic. What should I say to her? I thought. Should I speak in Japanese, or cycle through European languages until I encounter one we have in common? What should I talk about? What will I do if something goes wrong? What if I blunder so badly that I drive her away? Every question I asked myself only made me more panicked and anxious, and I felt myself begin to tremble as my face burned as though it were on fire.

However, to my enormous relief, I didn’t have to initiate the beginning of our conversation; the girl stepped up to me and said cheerfully, “Hello.”

I blinked, swallowed, gave my head a small shake, then nervously smiled back as I tremblingly replied, “He-hello…”

The girl giggled, and I felt my blush intensify. “There’s no need to be scared,” the girl said. My mouth opened slightly with surprise; her Japanese was excellent, though I could detect a noticeable British accent in her voice.

Once the girl stopped giggling, she placed her hands on her lap and bowed to me. “It’s an honor to meet you,” she said.

I blinked again. This girl was demonstrating perfect courtesy in introducing herself to me. Smiling back, I placed my hands at my sides and bowed back to her, replying, “It’s an honor to meet you, as well.”

Once we both stood back up, the girl offered me her hand. “I’m Cinderella Peterson,” she said. “What’s your name?”

I blinked, wondering if I had heard her correctly. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” I said.

The girl giggled again. “My name is Cinderella Peterson,” she repeated. “What’s yours?”

After gazing astonishedly at Cinderella for a moment, I smiled back before taking her hand and shaking it. “Aaron Axe,” I said, to which her smile brightened.

Once she released my hand, Cinderella clasped her fingers together behind her back and rocked back and forth between her toes and heels. I slid my hands into my pockets as I said, “‘Cinderella’, as in the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, right?”

“Yes,” Cinderella replied. “But in actuality, my mother named me after the Disney movie, since it’s her favorite one.”

I nodded. “So your mother’s a big Disney fan, huh?”

“Oh, yes,” Cinderella said. “She told me that if she ever had another daughter, she would name her Aurora Belle; if she had a son, or if I was born a boy, she’d have named him Adam, after the Beast.”

I grinned. “Well, the Beast is the best Disney prince,” I said. However, I raised a brow in puzzlement as I noticed that Cinderella had uttered the phrase, “if she ever had another daughter or a son”. Wondering if the implications were really true, I said, “So… you don’t have a brother or sister?”

Cinderella’s cheerful smile quickly faded. Her eyes closed slightly as she replied sorrowfully, “No. My mother died before she could have her second child.”

I blinked. “Oh,” I said quietly. “I’m… I’m sorry…” I muttered.

Cinderella shrugged. “It’s not your fault,” she said. “She just got very, very sick. I miss her terribly, though.”

I nodded. Wow, I thought; she really is like a Disney princess; she has the beauty, the appearance, the personality, the name, and even the tragic backstory of one. However, though I was deeply excited about this fact, I set it aside as I gave her a sympathetic gaze and said, “I’m very sorry you lost your mother.”

Cinderella nodded and softly smiled. “Thanks.”

I looked around at the street we were standing in; there were vibrantly colored (especially red), neo-traditional towers and buildings all around, with the distinctive curving roofs of archetypical medieval Japanese architecture. Pedestrians were crossing over the roads in large, shifting crowds between shops and restaurants as the occasional tramcar rolled beside them, guided by the steel cables webbed over Tokyo’s streets. Cinderella and I were standing on the stone steps to a particularly large and tall building: the Tokyo Public Library, which was my most preferred haunt aside from my own bedroom in my mother’s apartment. I wondered extensively at why Cinderella had come here; after all, not only did she look quite out of place, but she seemed to have neither tried to acclimate to Japanese culture nor any intention to. I would have guessed that she was simply a tourist that was here for a temporary visit, but she was a fluent speaker of the language and had just come out of the public library, which were highly unusual traits for a for a mere casual sightseer to have.

Curious, I turned back to Cinderella and asked, “I was wondering- why have you come to Tokyo? Are you just here for a visit, or did you move here?”

Cinderella looked away with a thoughtful expression. “Well… a little of both, I suppose.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I plan on living here for a while,” Cinderella said, “though I plan on leaving eventually.”

I nodded. “I see. How long to you plan to stay here?”

Cinderella shrugged. “That depends,” she said.

“On what?” I asked, raising a brow in puzzlement.

“On how soon I can finish what I came to do,” Cinderella replied.

“What have you come to do?” I said.

Cinderella looked up as she considered her answer. After a few moments, she said, “I was called here.”

My eyes widened with surprise. “‘Called here’?” I said confusedly. “What do you mean?”

Cinderella shrugged. “There’s really no better way to say it,” she replied simply. “I’m just meant to be right here at this moment, and I’ll need to be here until I’m needed somewhere else.”

I blinked, silently gazing at her for a few moments. “I don’t understand,” I said.

Cinderella softly laughed. “That’s alright,” she said. “It really doesn’t make any sense, does it?”

I smiled.

After a moment of silence, I said, “Alright then. Maybe this will be easier to answer: what exactly is it that you do?

Cinderella grinned. “Oh! I’m an artist,” she replied.

I nodded. “I see. Can you provide me any details?”

“More specifically,” Cinderella said, “I’m a sketcher and an oil painter. I also play the guitar and the piano.”

I gasped, smiling with pleasant surprise. “Really?!” I said. “do, too!”

Cinderella gasped, as well. “You do?!” she cried elatedly.

I nodded excitedly. “Yeah! I’m also a violinist and game developer!”

Cinderella beamed. “That’s so cool!” she cried. “What subjects do you usually use?”

I looked skyward as I thought about it for a moment. “Um… mostly, uh… ‘Tim Burton-esque‘ things, I suppose.”

Cinderella nodded. “Alright. Like what?”

“Well, uh…” I said, “bare trees, old abandoned houses, victorian and gothic architecture, cemetaries, that sort of thing. Danny Elfman is also my favorite composer and Hideo Kojima is my favorite game designer, and they’re my biggest inspirations when I’m writing music or developing games.”

Cinderella nodded. “I see,” she said. “So, you really like the horror genre, huh?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “It’s not because I want to be scared, though. I just love the atmosphere and the mood when horror is done correctly.” I grinned. “That’s why Tim Burton is my favorite filmmaker, I think; nearly all of his works are horror, yet not many of them are designed to be outright frightening. They’re more like pieces of literary fiction with horror as the frame and backdrop. For instance, Sweeney Todd is a classical tragedy disguised as a rape-and-revenge-esque exploitation film. By the same token, The Nightmare Before Christmas is essentially a retelling of How the Grinch Stole Christmas where the hero still misunderstands the holiday, but loves it rather than hates it, and thereby examines its themes in ways The Grinch didn’t within the context of a cool, eerie stop motion world.”

Cinderella grinned. “You’re right,” she said. “Tim Burton’s filmmaking style really is quite clever in that way.”

“What are your main inspirations?” I said, leaning forward slightly with eager anticipation.

“Disney is an enormous inspiration to me, in case you haven’t guessed,” Cinderella replied with a coy smile.

“What a surprise,” I laughed.

“I also love works with the same core ideas of magic, optimism, and childlike wonder,” Cinderella continued, her eyes wide with wondrous bliss. “My favorite live action film is The Wizard of Oz, which is the closest thing I’ve seen to an animated Disney film that isn’t animated.” Cinderella laughed as she added, “Of course, the creators of The Wizard of Oz were inspired by Snow White to make it in the first place, so it’s no surprise it ended up being so Disney-like!”

I grinned. “I see. What kind of music do you like?”

“My favorite bands are the Beatles and Coldplay,” Cinderella replied. “There’s just this undercurrent of hope and fun in much of the Beatles’ work, and I’ve never heard music with as much beauty and a sense of wonder as Coldplay’s. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Coldplay were the successors of the Beatles.”

I raised a brow in confusion and surprise. “Really?” I said.

Cinderella nodded. “Mm-hmm,” she said with a soft smile.

“How so?”

“Think of Eleanor Rigby and Viva la Vida,” Cinderella replied. “Can’t you see the common heritage in ideas between them?”

I placed my hand over my chin and looked down, humming in thought. “You know, I think you’re right,” I said after a few moments. “Both songs are moody, orchestral ballads about an unfortunate person’s tragic life and eventual fall.”

Cinderella smirked and pointed at me as she added, “I’d even go so far as to say that, like the Beatles, Coldplay holds the distinction of being the greatest band of their time.”

I smirked back. “Are you sure?” I said, folding my arms. “After all, their contemporaries included Modest Mouse, Paramore, and Boyce Avenue.”

Cinderella tilted her head confusedly. “‘Boyce Avenue’? Who’s that?”

I gaped at her. “You’ve never heard of Boyce Avenue?!” I said astonishedly.

Cinderella shook her head.

I rubbed the back of my head as I said, “Well, they were a rather obscure early twenty first-century band who were mostly known for their covers of other artists’ songs. Their original albums are unsung rock classics, though. They could be a tad melodramatic, but their music is practically just bursting with passion and emotion. Their compositions are also quite beautiful.”

Cinderella smiled and nodded. “I’ll have to look into them, then,” she said.

We were both silent as I nervously darted my gaze in all directions but hers for a few moments. “S-so…” I said as I felt myself begin blushing again, “Do… um… do you think we could m-meet to talk again sometime?”

Cinderella grinned as she nodded. “Of course! I would love to!” she cried. “Where would you like to meet?”

“Uh, I don’t know…” I said, closing my eyes as I grinned embarrassedly. “I mean…”

“Should we meet at a playground?” Cinderella said, which caught me off guard and caused me to immediately open my eyes and give a stunned gaze to her.

“R-really?” I said softly.

Cinderella nodded. “Of course,” she said, beaming cheerfully. “I find that I love to swing while I’m talking. Would you like that?”

After blinking in stunned silence for a moment, I nodded. “Y-yes!” I said. “That sounds fantastic!”

“Wonderful!” Cinderella replied with a small, excited laugh. “Do you know of an especially good place for swinging, Aaron?”

“Well, uh…” I said, looking down thoughtfully. “One that I’ve often visited when I was little was Hayashi Park, which is close to where I live.”

Cinderella nodded. “Alright. Would you like to meet again at Hayashi Park tomorrow, then?”

My mouth opened slightly with surprise. “You… you know where it is?” I said.

Cinderella shook her head. “Nope,” she said, beaming. “I’ll be able to find it, though. I’m very good at navigation.”

I gazed silently at Cinderella for a moment, then nodded. “Y-yeah,” I said with a small smile. “It’s settled then. I’ll meet you tomorrow at Hayashi Park.”

“I look forward to it!” Cinderella cried with an enormous grin. She then leapt towards me and caught me around my neck in a tight embrace.

Aah-!” I said as I surprisedly took a step back to regain my balance.

My arms were still rigidly straight at my sides and I was blushing intensely as Cinderella released me. She then turned around, looked back at me over her shoulder, and waved at me with a friendly smile, singing, “Goodbye, Aaron! I’ll see you tomorrow!” before humming cheerfully as she skipped down the rest of the stairs to the street. I watched her skip with an energetic bounce until she turned one of the corners and vanished from my sight behind a building.

I stood motionlessly on the library’s steps for a few moments, processing what had just happened. I had just encountered an impossibly cute, beautiful, intelligent, and friendly girl who had looked upon me without fear, agreed to go on a date with me, and then hugged me. Could she truly be real? Was she just a figment of my imagination?

I then the remembered the warmth and softness I had felt when her torso pressed against my own, and as I inhaled I detected her still-lingering grassy scent, mingled with an aroma of cream that must have been from her shampoo.

So she was real. Cinderella Peterson was real. And not only that, she seemed to want to be my friend. I thought that she must be too good to be true, but nonetheless all evidence indicated that I was in reality, and that everything that had just occurred really did happen.

My face broke into a wide, elated grin, then I scaled up the rest of the stairs to the library.

Once I had pushed past the glass front doors, I was greeted by one of my favorite and most familiar scents: the smell of brewing coffee, drafting towards me from the small coffee shop in the library’s lobby just before the entrance. After taking a deep breath with my eyes closed to fully enjoy it, I opened them again and looked around at the comforting sight of the light brown wood paneling the walls, the towering and elegantly carved dark walnut shelves lining the walls and standing over the floors, and the globe-like frosted glass lamps that dangled at the end of cables hung from the ceiling. I could navigate and point out the location of everything in this great building blindfolded, and I adored every inch of it.

I went to the coffee shop’s counter and purchased a twenty eight-ounce cup of espresso with milk, chocolate, and caramel. The cashier, a spindly young man wearing a dark brown apron, charged me three hundred eighty yen for it. I paid for my drink with three silver coins, five titanium coins, and three copper coins, all of which were stamped with characters of differing national origin; some with Chinese, some with Arabic, and some with Japanese, as well as one with English and one with Hindi. Once I had my beverage, I made my way to the bookshelves to browse through their contents.

Though I could find most books on the internet on my computer at home, I found that it was still only a pale imitation of the experience of holding a solid, physical tome in my own hands. In addition, you could read modern books for free in libraries that you couldn’t online, so I often came to the library whenever I wanted to see what contemporary authors had been producing recently.

My reading interests were quite diverse; sometimes I read the most recent scientific journals on physics and computer engineering, and other times I flipped through the illustrations of collections of medieval paintings and sculptures. Most of the time, however, I simply went to the comics and speculative fiction sections to catch up on the latest entries of my favorite series.

On this particular trip, however, I found that I didn’t fall into my usual routine of seeking out a door-stopping space opera or a surreal horror manga volume; instead, I found myself pulling out books such as Bridge to TerabithiaChobits, and The Tale of Desperaux. After picking up a few of such books, I suddenly flinched and froze before looking down at them. I realized: everything that I had selected featured a heroine that greatly reminded me of Cinderella.

After making a small, silent chuckle, I placed the books back on their shelves and deliberately began searching for something to take my mind off of Cinderella; eventually I selected the collected works of Edgar Allen Poe, which was a very familiar favorite of mine.

However, I found that no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t maintain enough focus to keep my mind on the book; my thoughts rebelliously continued to wander to Cinderella. I closed the book and picked up a copy of Hamlet to attempt to distract myself with that, instead, but my efforts were just as wasted there. After I unsuccessfully tried again with a volume of Sherlock Holmes, I gave up; I stood up, replaced the book, and slid my hands into my pockets as I walked out of the library.

After walking down the street past pachinko parlors, sushi restaurants, gaming stores, brothels, convenience stores, and magazine stands, I reached the tram stop I had arrived from; after depositing a few coins in one of the fare boxes, I went through a steel turnstile and stood with several other passengers on a raised cement platform. Once the small, red, well-maintained train arrived, we all walked into it. I remained standing as I took a hold of one of the circular aluminum handles dangling from a strap bolted to the ceiling; a few moments later, the doors closed and the tram lurched forward as it began moving.

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Copyright, Dedication, and Acknowledgements

Rainbow ©2017 Morgan Ray Hess

To Michael, my brick wall.

I have many people to thank and express my deepest gratitude for making this work possible. To begin with, I must thank my mother Nikki as well as my friend Kelsie for showing me the light when my world was at its darkest. I must also thank my father Richard, my sister Aiden, and my brothers Warren and Collin for tirelessly being sources of inspiration to me. I thank my mother’s parents Ivo and Barbara for the sense of wonder and creativity I inherited from them, and I thank my father’s mother Coleen for reminding me how complex and wonderful a person can be. I thank my mentors Janet, Steve, and Eric for giving me an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and I thank my cats Puffle, Ellie, and Purr Fur for their unwavering companionship and affection. Lastly, I thank Shelly and Austin for being my friends despite how little I see them. My debts thus all repaid, consider this book dedicated to all of you.

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Rainbow Announcement

It is time to release my life’s work to the world.

As I might have already told you all, my life has been dedicated to the creation of a novel titled Rainbow. It is my Magnum Opus, the heart of my projects, and my attempt to create the Apotheosis of Human Artistic Achievement. I have spent what is now half of my lifetime planning and drafting it, and now I am ready to release the final version to the world. Without further ado, please allow me to introduce it.

Rainbow is a young adult fantasy/science fiction/dystopian/romance/adventure/horror novel inspired by such works as A Wrinkle In Time and The Mysteries of the Unknown. It is simultaneously a high fantasy epic set in our world as well as a meditation and deconstruction on storytelling and some of life’s deepest questions, such as:

What, exactly, is the nature of good and evil?

What is the inherent nature of mankind?

For what purpose are we all here?

Rainbow explores these questions and attempts to answer them in a bid to become known as the greatest novel ever written.

Now that I’ve established what this work means to me and what I hope to accomplish with it, here is my formal advertisement for it:

All stories are true.

Aaron Maitreya Axe is beautiful, brilliant, and alone in a distant future where religion is forbidden and romantic love is dismissed as an antiquated fantasy of an era of unenlightenment. However, Aaron meets and finds himself falling in love with Cinderella Peterson, a mysterious girl of seemingly-supernatural beauty who is the first real friend he’s ever had.

Cinderella spirits Aaron away from the oppressive, hopeless life he’s always known and shows him the world of the paranormal; a world hidden within our own in which all things are possible and wonders both unimaginably horrific and unspeakably beautiful roam throughout the infinite cosmos of the universe. Cinderella also reveals to Aaron that the Earth is on the brink of succumbing to the forces of darkness, and that the two of them are the only ones who can save it.

Aaron reluctantly joins Cinderella on her crusade to liberate the world from the clutches of evil, and together they embark on a quest across the Earth and through the stars to search for ten ancient artifacts of legendary power, with which they might successfully lead a revolution against the tyrannical rule of the servants of darkness. Along the way, they encounter and are forced to overcome all the obstacles that the princes of despair send to hinder them, including Cinderella’s tragic, secret past; the lords and legions of Hell; and a mysterious foe who may prove to be a greater threat than even the Dark Lord Satan himself.

A tale of horror and humor; of romance and adventure; of courage and despair; of darkness and light.

This is the epic of the universe.

This is Rainbow.

 

I will post the entirety of this novel on this blog, and it will be archived in my Rainbow page, which you will find under my Projects page. I will begin posting it on Friday, March tenth. Please subscribe for this site’s newsletter so you can receive updates for it, as well as other news regarding it and my other projects.