All the words I could say left my mouth. Mayu put her hands on her hips and glared back.
I had no idea what to say but, “I’m sorry…”
She sighed at me with a frown on her face. Slowly, she picked up the plushie.
She shook her head. “If you were trying to be funny, it wasn’t funny.” She shook the plushie at me.
I swallowed and lied a little. “I’m sorry…I kinda felt woozy for a second there and my head got all…messed up.”
Mayu put a hand to my forehead and touched my side. “You did look woozy…do you need to sit?”
I needed more than that but I nodded and she walked with me over to her bed.
I tried, “It could be low blood sugar.”
Mayu’s eyes widened. “I have a candy bar in my purse.” She had it out before I could say if I even wanted it.
I split it with her. And it did help. A little.
I looked over, Mayu smiled at me and asked, “Feel better?”
I nodded at her. She rested her head on my shoulder. “I’m sorry too. I’m still afraid…because of my dad. I don’t want to lose you too.”
Mayu’s presence next to me was nice but her words kindled my sick feeling. As far as I knew, Mayu’s father drove us to the airport yesterday. I wondered if he’d died in this reality. My legs began to quiver again.
I looked at Mayu’s head on my shoulder and told her, “You won’t lose me. You’re my friend, no matter what.”
Mayu shut her eyes, sighed, and grimly repeated, “Friend…no matter what.”
I rubbed her shoulder and she slowly sat up. She nodded. “You’re right. Like you’ve told me, my dad didn’t leave because of me. And I shouldn’t hold onto the fear that it’ll happen again. You’re different.”
I knew that Mayu’s parents had a rough spot they worked through over a year ago. I talked to Mayu a lot then. We got close but, ultimately, we knew we were just friends.
If using the paper’s original image hadn’t brought me back to my original reality, then how could I return to it?
I had to find A.L.
I just hoped she still existed in this reality.
I looked over at Mayu as her face brightened. With her plushie clutched in her arms, she smiled and said, with a grin, “Let’s go have some hamburgers.”
That sounded good to me. I was glad Mayu made no motion to pick up her papers.
She slipped her purse over her shoulder and held my hand as we walked out of her room. After I picked up my wallet back in my room, we walked together down the hall.
Being with Mayu like this wasn’t bad and some part of me said that I could just stick with this reality and not look at the drawings again. But I couldn’t accept Mayu and her family suffering for my gain of a girlfriend.
It was no more real than being Mayu’s female best friend for years. No matter what though, I worried I’d have to take away Mayu’s smile again. Hopefully, A.L. would have a better option.
We passed a guy in the hall with red and green streaks in his hair. He kinda reminded me of a Christmas tree. I figured he was part of the convention.
Then, I blinked. For a moment, his color looked somehow different, like he’d become one of the paper paintings. I rubbed my eyes, and everything was fine again. I hoped that wasn’t a foreboding sign.
The sun was right overhead outside. The parking area was packed with convention-goers. I noticed a group of colorful ninjas and samurais. Mayu giggled at a particularly well-done cosplay of a catboy.
She whispered in my ear, “I had to have a catboy version of me from that art lady. I think it turned out awesome.”
Should’ve expected that. That left me wondering what her other image was.
The hamburger place wasn’t too busy. It was styled like an old diner. Mayu skimmed the jukebox but lost interest when it was clear they didn’t have any anime or video game tunes.
She ordered a regular burger with extra onions, her usual. And I ordered a regular with extra pickles and mustard, my usual.
We found a booth in the corner while our burgers cooked. Mayu scooted as close to me as she could. I could feel the warmth of her jeans on my bare leg.
I tried to bring up the OVA we’d seen, at least in another reality, earlier.
Mayu smiled and said, “We sure did plenty of this…during it.” She explained with a kiss on my lips.
Only Mayu could find a dark fantasy adventure romantic…
Without thinking about it, I kissed back.
She giggled and clutched my hand.
I could get used to this…even if it was wrong…
I glanced across the dining area because I thought I saw something move suddenly. In a booth on the other side, I spotted A.L in her same dress.
She waved her hand once as I spied her. She smiled at me.
Mayu noticed her by following my eye line and waved too. I cleared my throat and said, “I’ll be right back…I need to go ask her something about her art.”
She raised her eyebrows but nodded. Mayu leaned over and gave me another, longer kiss.
“Could you get some napkins too?”
I walked over to A.L.’s table and she leaned her chin on her folded hands.
I whispered, “Why didn’t the original art take me back to the way things were before?” It was only after I’d said that I wondered if this version of A.L. would even know what I meant.
She smiled back but sighed. “The paper doesn’t work like that. There’s no going back with the images I made.”
“Then you remember our conversation in another reality…”
She offered her hands out. “…Maybe, I remember more than I implied…in another life.”
I bit my lip. “There’s gotta be a way to stop this…and set things right.”
A.L. leaned her head back. “It stops…eventually. Where you end up is a choice that you and your friend will make.”
I shook my head. “There’s gotta be another way.”
She smirked and remarked, “I know a few ways.”
I leaned closer.
She whispered, “Did you know there’s a reality where you and Mayu permanently end up as each other?”
I narrowed my eyes.
She added, “And there’s a reality where you become me…”
I widened my eyes and she smirked at me. “Just saying…and that’s all I’ve got. For now.”
I shook my head. “There’s gotta be something else.”
She picked up her drink. “Maybe…you’ll figure it out.” She sipped slowly.
She gestured with her eyebrows. I turned. Mayu was staring at me. I sighed and left A.L. with confusion and concern.
I returned to Mayu with a good amount of napkins. Our burgers had already arrived.
She asked me, with a low voice, “What’d she say?”
“All the things I didn’t want to hear.”
Mayu narrowed her eyes at me.
I knew all that was too much to tell Mayu, but I didn’t want to lie to her.
I told her, “She said the uh…paintings give toxic fumes for a couple of days because of the paint she uses. With your allergies, it’s probably best we wait until we get home to really…look at them.”
It was a bad lie but I hoped Mayu would buy it.
Mayu scooted away from me as I sat down. She shook her head. “That doesn’t sound like anything she told us when we got them. And it wasn’t on the paper with them either. It just talked about the drying being thirty minutes. Then you need to wait thirty minutes.”
She paused and added, “Is that other thirty minutes part because of the fumes?”
Mayu grimaced. “Bummer…maybe it’ll be fine if we just look at them outside.”
“We better play it safe.”
Mayu sighed but nodded. As we ate, Mayu made her way back over to my side.
The burgers were nice but there was a lot on my mind.
I wasn’t sure how much to believe of what A.L. said. And I couldn’t believe that Mayu and I were just doomed to whatever fate came our way. But I had no idea what to do next.
I wanted to cry and scream and hit the walls. I felt as lost as when I was a girl.
To keep Mayu from panic and fear, I just quietly ate.
She noticed something about me as we were walking back across the parking lot with laughing fans running to get to the main convention doors.
Mayu squeezed my hand and asked me, “Is there something else?”
If Mayu was right, then in some reality I was Mayu, standing there with worry on her face for her boyfriend. And, in another reality, I was A.L. and I had no idea what that meant.
Disguises were interesting, like the cosplays I could see passing me by. But, despite all my curiosity about being someone else, I felt lonely for the familiar.
Rubbing my neck with my free hand, I told Mayu, “I think I’d like to take a nap.”
She caressed my hand gently and nodded. “Do you feel better with food?”
I lied. “Yeah.”
We walked back to my room. Mayu stayed with me. She rubbed my shoulder a little.
I tried to relax.
Mayu made a curious sound and noted, “That’s weird…”
“What is?” I turned around.
She walked over to my closet and noted, “I had this strange recollection…of giving you something and you were a girl.” She laughed and shook her head. “Weird…”
I smiled at her. “Well, not so weird considering those images we had made.”
She nodded. “But…it felt so real…for a moment.”
I felt a little rush of hope that Mayu recalled something from a previous reality.
I went over to the sink to splash my face. I thought over my next course of action.
I could look over the images with Mayu and show her what happened when they were looked at. I wasn’t particularly keen on becoming a girl again though.
I supposed I could touch Mayu’s images as she looked at them. Reality would have to change a good deal to allow catboys though.
As my fingers dripped, I had a sudden thought. My eyes widened.
I had to take another look at the little info paper in the sleeve. I darted out of the bathroom. I turned and looked over to my bed.
Mayu was on my bed. She had unsleeved one of the papers and had it near her nose.
The next instant, she turned it around and asked, “I don’t smell anything, do you?”
I saw the image of a schoolgirl with long, reddish hair. I tried to respond. I tried to touch it in time. I tried to turn away…then…
“Siiis!!” I stomped my feet and grabbed the papers from Mayu. “These are private! I didn’t just look at yours.” I couldn’t believe her. It was embarrassing enough she convinced me to get these silly little paintings of me as a boy at a local anime convention. I slipped them back into my school bag and checked myself in the mirror.
My long, red hair looked okay but I plucked my hairbrush from my purse and gave it a little attention near my forehead. It looked good enough for class. My lips weren’t dry, but I put a little balm on, just in case. My blue ribbon still looked fine. My skirt was starting to wear on the side though. Time to buy some new clothes...
I turned around and saw that Mayu was still sitting on the ground. Her skirt was all crinkled and she looked like she was surprised to be in the restroom. I couldn’t really figure out what she was up to, but I reached my hand out for her. She just looked at it in shock and asked, “Neil?”
Rolling my eyes, I knelt beside her. I asked, with a frown, “You hurt, sis?” She just scooted backwards against the stall. She really looked afraid. My heart thundered in my ears and I approached her slowly. I touched her softly on the shoulder and asked, “What’s wrong?”
Mayu shook her head. “What happened to you, Neil? What happened to everything?” Her words didn’t make any sense to me. I asked back, “Neel? And what do you mean 'everything'?” Her eyes kept roaming around the room. I had no idea what she was looking for or even if she was looking for anything at all. It was scary.
Finally, she quietly said, “Everything looks like anime. Even you. And…you’re supposed to be my boyfriend, Neil.” That definitely wasn’t what I expected to hear from my sister. I carefully put my hand to her forehead. It sure didn’t feel like she had a fever.
I reminded her of what I thought I’d never have to remind her of, “Everything looks the same as it always has. And I am and have always been your sister, Kyoko. And you…who are freaking me out…are my sister, Mayu.” I grimaced. She must really be out of it. My sis hadn’t even had a boyfriend for months and his name was Ohyama. Hardly confusable with ‘Neel’.
She shook her head slowly and said, “Your breasts…” I blushed. It wasn’t as though they’d sprouted overnight. I’d definitely heard enough jealousy from my sister over my chest in the past. But the look in her eyes…It was like she was seeing them for the very first time. And that spooked me.
Though I wasn’t really strong like Yumiko in gym class, I managed to reach around and get my sister to her feet. I was able to pick up her bag and purse too. She didn’t fight me, at least, but she trembled all the way, muttering, “I don’t understand…” I softly answered, “Shh…it’s okay”, in her ear and lightly brushed at her hair. She clung to me as I walked her to the door.
A girl coming in held the door for us. She had red and green ribbons that looked like colored streaks in her hair and she had a figure which made even me a little jealous. The halls were thick with girls laughing and rushing around at the end of lunch. I knew I’d probably be late to my Japanese class but getting Mayu to the nurse was foremost on my mind.
Softly, she asked me, “Where is this? Where are we?” I felt a tremble go through me. All those previously-silly melodramas I’d seen about sudden-onset amnesia flooded my thoughts. I hustled but calmly told my sister, “You’re at school. It’s okay. We’re just gonna go to the nurse. And you’ll feel better soon. Promise.”
She shook her head. “School? But I was at a convention. A hotel room, with Neil. Did the paper cause this?” I explained to her, gently, “This is the Ayuki Mari School for Girls. We’ve been going here for over a year. Together.” Mayu gasped and said only, “No…”
It didn’t take long to get to the nurse’s office. At least she didn’t have any other girls in. She asked Mayu a few questions while I wrung my hands. I couldn’t understand what was happening to my sister. We’d just gone to the restroom to freshen up. I set my bag aside to wash my hands and then, next thing I knew, Mayu was holding up the painting of a boy version of me in a boy’s school uniform.
At least she seemed to have some recollection of the anime convention we’d both gotten the images at. She still hadn’t shown me the ones she got. I hoped there wasn’t some chemical in the paintings that affected her mind. I fidgeted and the nurse smiled at me and said, “You should get back to class. I’ll take good care of your sister.”
Mayu’s eyes looked out to me with something like panic. It hurt to see that in her. I wrapped my arms around her in a tight hug and gave her a kiss on the cheek. I whispered in her ear, “You’re gonna be okay, Mayu. I love you.” She still looked fearful. She didn’t respond to me. She just laid her head on a cot and covered her eyes. Reluctantly, I left the nurse’s office.