Harem Scarem: 001

I'm a pretty normal guy. Well, okay, let me qualify that: I'm a total weirdo, but in a pretty normal way. Does that even make sense?

I need to start over. My life is fairly average. I'm not incredibly attractive, but I'm also not bad-looking. I've got a decent number of friends, but I'm neither popular nor infamous. Just one of those guys skating through high school whose face you won't remember in 5 years, I guess. Which is fine by me, since I don't really care one way or the other for most of my fellow students.

Anyway, what I'm trying to get at is that if I were in a manga, I wouldn't be the protagonist. I'd be one of those characters in the background whose name you never learn and who usually never graduates beyond a vague silhouette. And I like it that way.

I mean seriously, thanks to my dad I've read a fair amount of manga and being a manga protagonist sucks. Their relationships are all fraught with absurdly manufactured drama, they're constantly getting beat up or kidnapped or nearly killed, and even when they're surrounded by beautiful women who all want to get into their pants they spend their time getting constantly blue-balled. Also, being sexually attracted to your siblings or first cousins is just wrong, so let's not even go there.

I'm quite happy with my humdrum life, thank you very much. Heck, I even have a girlfriend. And since she's not the most beautiful or most popular girl in school, doesn't have a semi-abusive relationship with me, has normal length hair that isn't styled into twin-tails, and isn't an old childhood friend our relationship would basically be doomed if I were in a manga.

So thank goodness my life is not a manga.

At least that's what I always thought, until during a get-together with my friends over summer vacation after my freshman year I tripped over my own feet and broke through the fourth wall.

Okay, okay, I guess I should back up a little. I mean, the vast majority of people don't even know what manga is, and I'm guessing I lost a few more at "twin-tails" and "sexual attraction to siblings." So here's the thing: here in the good old U.S. of A. we have comic books, right? Super heroes bashing one another's faces in, generally on a monthly basis, in full color on flimsy paper. Everyone knows about comic books.

In Japan, though, comic books aren't really a thing. Instead they have manga.  Manga is similar to comics, in that it contains panels and speech bubbles and is hand drawn, but it's also completely unlike comics in that it's often released on a weekly or bi-weekly schedule in magazines alongside a whole bunch of other manga and is usually black and white. Then once a particular manga series has enough content, it's gathered together into a book called a tankoubon and sold as a series of paperback books.

The thing about manga, though, is that there are a ton of genres available, targeting a ton of different demographics. Sure, if you're a nerd and know where to look you can find a bunch of different genres in comic books, too, but manga is way bigger and more mainstream.

And because it's more mainstream and Japan is a capitalist country, a lot of manga is heavily informed by tropes. After all, if something sells, then it's worth producing in bulk, right? There are entire genres for just about every escapist fantasy you might want, starting at feel good slice-of-life stories right up to pornography, and in every setting you can imagine. Sports manga, romance manga, smut manga, monster girl manga, pet manga, harem manga, super hero manga, food manga, horror manga, fantasy manga; the list goes on and on.

My dad owns it all. Well, okay, it's not like my dad owns all manga published ever, but if it was translated into English, then he either owns it or has probably read it. We've got a room in our house he calls the Lab with bookshelves lining the walls which are exclusively filled with manga. Of course, when I say "filled", I don't just mean side to side; most shelves have a row of books behind the front-most books, as well, and sometimes have books stacked in a third or fourth row on top.

The lower shelves have the stuff that's appropriate for kids. Go a little further up, and you'll find older characters, more violence, and more skimpily clad love interests. Get up near the ceiling, and the violence gets worse while the characters lose more of their clothes. If you dig around in the back row of the uppermost shelves, you'll even unearth a fair bit of hentai (pornographic comics; I think the literal meaning is something like "perverse sexual desire").

Thanks to the Lab, I've read a lot of manga across a broad spectrum of genres. Heck, it's bad enough that when I see an American comic, I initially try to read it backward (like the Japanese language, manga is read from top to bottom and right to left). I can spot a manga trope from fifty paces, and really confused my middle school homeroom teacher when I asked her why we weren't holding a cultural festival.

Like I said, I'm a weirdo. Thanks, Dad.

Fortunately for me, manga also taught me that people who are heavily into manga—otaku in Japanese—are social outcasts. So despite my weirdly broad knowledge of manga, I survived middle school and my first year of high school by never, ever mentioning it, and ensuring that the door to the Lab was closed whenever I invited a friend over. Not even my girlfriend knows my dirty little secret. Though, admittedly we've only been going out for about 4 months now, so there's time.

But only if my life is in the right genre.

Right, sorry. Backing up again. So, the fourth wall. It's a term that originated in theater: the actors on the set were surrounded by three walls you could see, and an invisible "fourth wall" between them and the audience. When a character directly acknowledges the audience, notices that they're a fictional character, or similar it's called breaking the fourth wall.

I never expected that you could literally break the fourth wall, but then again my life isn't fiction. Wasn't fiction. I hate this.

Anyway, here's how it happened: it was summer vacation after our freshman year of high school, which in our district meant we were coming up on tenth grade. We'd been out of school for about three weeks, so enough time to start getting bored, but not enough to have started the yearly spate of family vacations or similar. I'd been hanging out with Emily—my girlfriend—whenever I could, which wasn't as often as I'd like since neither of us could drive unaccompanied yet and she lived on the other side of town. As a result, I hadn't seen my friends since school let out, so I was happy when my friend Seamus invited me to come hang out at Tracy's, a dive of a diner located a few blocks away from our high school which was popular with kids my age due to its apathetic wait staff and cheap, intensely caloric side dishes.

I got another couple miles-worth of driving practice on the way there, and then Mom took the car back home after admonishing me to call her if I wasn't able to bum a ride from Hayden or Seamus' folks.

I wandered into Tracy's, successfully avoided eye contact with a waiter who was simmering in a haze of ennui by the entrance, and located my friends laughing and talking over-loudly in a table at the back corner of the restaurant.

Seamus looked up as I approached. "The X-man is here!" he all but yelled and shoved his way towards the back of the booth to make room for me. Evidently I was the last to arrive.

I'll just come out and say it: it's times like this when I wonder why I still hang out with Seamus. We've known each other forever—our mothers are very close friends, so we were stuck playing together on a regular basis practically since before we could walk—but we've always meshed in kind of a weird way. If we were lines in a geometry textbook, we'd definitely be perpendicular.

Seamus is a pretty big dude. I think he's somewhere around 6 feet or a little more, and reasonably hefty. Not linebacker hefty, but more like someone who regularly lifts weights and isn't too fussed about low-calorie diets. Both of which are probably true, now I think of it. I'm pretty sure he took Strength and Conditioning as his physical elective last year, and he's the one who suggested eating at Tracy's.

Yet despite his name and physique, he's mostly of Korean descent and looks it. Dark, straight hair, east Asian features, the works. Which come to think of it might actually be why we're still friends. There aren't a whole lot of kids of recognizably Asian descent in our town, so at least in that regard Seamus and I are peas in a pod.

The other folks around the table greeted me in far less annoying ways. Seated next to Seamus, Jesse gave me a nod while he scooted over. He and Seamus hang out a lot, and while I'd count him a mutual friend we aren't terribly close. He's a medium-sized white guy with dirty light brown hair, who's pretty middle-of-the-pack material. Reasonably sporty—which I think is why he gets along well with Seamus—but doesn't stand out much. We had several classes together throughout middle school and last year and did a few projects together, but outside of class I pretty much only see him if I'm hanging out with Seamus.

Next to Jesse was Katie, who's a fellow band member with Seamus and hangs out with him a fair bit; some sort of brass player solidarity, maybe, because there's certainly nothing romantic or even just plain sexual going on there. She didn't bother to look up from the greasy menu she was perusing as I walked up, which didn't surprise me. We're casual acquaintances at best. Katie has mid-length brown hair and is skin and bones, but not in a sexy super model way. More like a "puberty is an asshole with a meaningless grudge against the world" sort of way.

In addition to the three in the wrap-around booth, there were two people sitting in chairs. Next to Katie, my friend Hayden twisted around to face me, put on his serious face, and crossed his arms in an "X" over his chest. "What happens to a Seamus when it's hit by lightning?" he asked me in a sonorous tone.

"Same thing that happens to everyone else," I shot back, and slid into the booth next to Seamus. "Hey, Seamus."

Hayden's my best friend. We haven't known one another all that long—he went to a different middle school, so I'd never seen him before until he showed up in my English class first semester of ninth grade—but after a few weeks of skating past one another both in and between classes, he invited me to the after school improv club and after that we started spending more and more time together. Hayden's a slightly-overweight white guy with really light brown hair, is pretty close to my height, and is a complete drama geek. I don't really get his obsession with acting, to be honest, but I do have an absolute blast at the improv club with him. Plus after we started talking regularly we discovered a shared love of older, campy movies. Thanks to dating Emily, I haven't seen Hayden all that often this break, but during the school year we spent enough time together to be fast friends. When Seamus suggested this get-together, I immediately invited Hayden.

The girl sitting in the chair next to Hayden—and who was now sitting next to me—wasn't anyone I recognized. As the cracking plastic of the booth shifted and snapped beneath me, I turned my attention to her.

"So this is my cousin Rachel," said Seamus. "Rachel, this is my friend Xavier."

"Hi, Xavier," said Rachel, smiling. "I think we've actually met, but it was years ago when I came to stay with the Doyles over the summer."

I have absolutely no recollection of that, and you'd really think I would.

Rachel was memorable. She isn't one of those girls who naturally inspire descriptors like "beautiful" or "gorgeous"; she doesn't really stand out in any specific way. But any guy who didn't take an immediate second look would need to have his eyes checked.

Rachel's hair is a very light, natural blonde, and she had a pair of tightly chorded braids that started at each temple, curled back around her head, and terminated with a short fall of hair in a sort of mid-height pony-tail. If she was wearing makeup, she'd applied it so skillfully that I couldn't tell though I guessed she had to have done something, because no teenager I've ever met has skin that clear. Normally I don't notice people's eye color because prolonged eye contact makes me feel awkward, but Rachel's eyes are a surprisingly vivid green.

She was wearing some sort of a light sweater or something; I'm no clothes expert. In any case, it was tight enough to emphasize her very nice figure, but not so form-fitting that it was likely to draw unsolicited attention from sleazebags. Her posture was excellent and made a striking contrast with Katie's slumped shoulders across the table. When she spoke she was calm and collected, but her smile was vibrant and expressive.

If I had to pick a single descriptor for Rachel it would have to be "clean." Or maybe "put together." "Perfectly coifed?" I could imagine her quietly scoring perfect scores on tests even while serving as the calm cornerstone to a large circle of female friends.

Basically, she's nothing like Emily. Emily is quite a bit shorter than me, flat as a board, and I think her eyes are brown. Bad as it sounds, I'm honestly not sure on that last one, because Emily and I have never spent large amounts of time staring lovingly into one another's eyes. There's a reason for that, though: Emily is so full of life it's frizzing straight out of her curly brown hair, and I've never been able to get her to sit still long enough.

Take a normal teenager. Then take one of those little kids who is so full of wonder and energy they're bouncing off the walls and investigating everything that moves (and a bunch of things that don't). Mash them together, add a love of acting and the stage, turn the dial up to 11, and you've got Emily.

No one would call her pretty or cute, she doesn't have perfect skin, and I think I already mentioned she's a washboard, but she doesn't need any of that. Emily captivates me. If she were here, I wouldn't give Rachel a second glance.

Still, Emily wasn't there, so I did give Rachel a second glance, appreciated what I saw, and moved on.

We made small talk, Hayden made movie references that no one but me understood or appreciated, and between us all we consumed a larger variety of deep-fried appetizers than could possibly have been healthy. Just normal teenagers hanging out, really.

And then Jesse spilled his water. The waitress had just slumped by to refill out glasses a few minutes before, so it was a pretty epic spill. Jesse had been reaching across the table to snatch a fry off my plate, and he accidentally bumped the glass right over. The ice water washed across the table in a miniature wave, Hayden scrambled to shove a napkin in front of it, and the redirected flow dripped straight into Rachel's lap. She grabbed her own napkin and successfully dammed off the flow, but that put paid to both of our reasonably clean napkins.

"Spill on aisle four!" Seamus called out, but the only thing he got for his trouble was the glares of a few of our fellow diners. Hayden was still trying to corral the water, Katie was fighting a losing battle alongside to keep it off her own lap, Jesse was apologizing profusely—and uselessly—and the water was still managing to drip slowly on Rachel's clothes.

"I shall fetch help, milady!" I declared gallantly—we'd been there long enough that both Hayden and I had hit the goofing off stage—and I jumped out of the booth, whirled about to go locate some wait staff or at minimum hijack some napkins from a nearby empty table, tripped over my own feet, and sprawled forward face first to the amusement of absolutely everyone.

I blame puberty. I'd been having a lot of uncomfortable nights of growing pains recently, and as a result was still not entirely certain where my feet were located.

As I fell, I stumbled forward a couple steps, throwing out my arms to catch myself on the empty table adjacent, and with a tearing sensation the air in front me parted and all sound cut off as I stumbled onward into grayness.

I couldn't figure out what had happened at first. One second I was in a rowdy diner, and the next the only sound was my own panting breaths surrounded by—what was it even? I could barely see past the end of my nose, and everything around me was strangely ill-defined. Was it mist? That was the closest analog I could think of, but where you can see variations in mist, here everything was a unified gray. "What the heck, guys, do you see this?" I said, turning.

And there it was. The only thing here in the grayness besides myself was a giant page of black and white manga. There were all my friends: Seamus, head thrown back as he guffawed at my clumsiness; Jesse laughing despite himself; Katie and Hayden barely looking as they mopped at the water on the table; Rachel half out of her seat with a look of concern on her face. They were stylized, but recognizable. Scattered around them were katakana, the writing system Japanese use for sound effects. I recognized the katakana for "a ha ha" near Seamus, one of the few Japanese onomatopoeia that matches its English equivalent. Looking up and to the right I could see another panel, our conversation leading up to the spill rendered in static speech bubbles. The only splash of color was a rip in the paper directly in front of me through which light from the actual diner shone through.

My gaze slashed across the page as I desperately tried to make sense of what I was seeing. I think I might have been hyperventilating a bit; it sure felt as though no matter how I sucked in air I couldn't get any oxygen.

Best I could tell, the entire latter part of our visit to Tracy's was shown on these two pages, but with missing details. The main topics of conversation were the same, and some of the random little asides, but I remembered people saying things that weren't shown. Wait, could I…

I rushed to the edge of the panel and tried to turn the page, but it was completely immobile. Heck, there wasn't even a page edge to grab hold of; it was more like a solid block that extended out into the uniform gray of my surroundings. It felt nothing like paper, either; more like a completely smooth rock.

At this point I was seriously gasping for breath. Was there no oxygen here? Maybe I'd just been breathing whatever had come through with me. Shit, could I get back?

Just before I stumbled back through the rip my eyes caught on an unassuming line of text at the very bottom of the page next to the page number "5":

My life is not a manga, or maybe…