Warmth, sound, and blessed oxygen embraced me, gray uniformity disappearing as if it had never been. Seamus was still laughing, Hayden and Katie still mopping up, and Rachel was out of her chair and had taken a couple steps toward me.
"Are you alright, Xavier?" she asked. "That was a pretty big fall."
No, no I was not alright at all. I grabbed her by the upper arms.
She squeaked, "Eeep!", jerked under my hands, and immediately flushed in a way that was undoubtedly the cutest thing I'd ever seen her do, given that the entirety of our time together she had been demure and the picture of composure. However, I was in no state of mind to appreciate it.
"You're real," I told her fiercely.
"Um, yes? Are you alright? What happened?"
I wanted to know that myself. I let go of Rachel and whirled back around. Nothing looked out of place. I took two steps forward and swiped my arm through the air in front of me, fingers clawed. Nothing. Right, we were definitely in a new panel at this point. The fourth wall could be anywhere.
"Xavier?" queried Rachel, voice wavering.
Oh. Right. I must have looked like I was having some weird psychotic break after hitting my head or something. Wait, what did they even see? I was completely outside of my own reality, so shouldn't I have disappeared?
I whipped back around to face Rachel, who jumped backwards. Whoops, hadn't realized she'd taken a concerned step toward me. That was awkward, though I couldn't help noticing that she smelled really nice.
No, Xavier, focus. "What just happened?" I demanded. "What did you see?"
"You got up to get me something to wipe up with, and then you tripped," she said. Her eyes searched mine. "I didn't see you hit the ground, but the next thing I knew you were grabbing me." She colored slightly again.
Why did I notice that?
Wait. Wait wait wait. I was hyped up on adrenaline, but my mind was finally kicking into gear. Taken at face value, what I had just experienced was evidence that I was literally in a manga. Hell, even the manga's title explicitly told me as much, although it might have been some weird American manga knock-off, since normal Japanese manga don't print the title at the bottom of the page the way American books commonly do.
So. Let's say I was a character in a manga, and suddenly a good-looking girl I've met for the first time that day is randomly getting physically close to me and blushing instead of having a sane reaction to my erratic behavior. Like, I don't know, suggesting I visit a hospital, because clearly I must have suffered a head injury. And meanwhile I'm bemusedly noticing that, which is not like me at all. I mean, how many weeks was Emily trying to get my attention before she just asked me out point blank? I don't know myself, because I'm just not very good at picking up on other people's emotional contexts.
This situation raised all sorts of flags with me, both red and otherwise, because it meant precisely one thing: Rachel was a love interest.
I needed to get out of there, and fast. If I was a fictional character, that meant I had a lot less control over my own life than I thought. And even without knowing what genre I was in, love interests introduced in the first five pages before the protagonist's girlfriend makes a single appearance are never a good thing. I needed to go home, barricade myself in my room, and think long and hard about what I'd just experienced. Also, having a more private place for a complete meltdown and freakout seemed like a good idea.
I don't even remember what excuses I made, but even before the wait staff had fully contained Jesse's water disaster I was out the door and calling my mom. She picked me up six blocks away from the restaurant on the route home and asked no questions when I barely spoke to her all the way home and then immediately shut myself in my room when we got there.
My mom is seriously the best.
My room is pretty basic, mainly because it's not very big. I've got a twin bed that I've slept in since I was little but would love to ditch now that I'm bigger, a set of shelves over a desk mounted to one wall that's basically just a place toys and books have gone to die, and a comfy chair stuffed up against the wall between the closet and the bed.
This is my thinking chair. I don't sit in it all that often, because to be honest it's not actually all that comfy—I rescued the chair from being discarded back when I was in elementary school, so it's older than me—but whenever I need time to think through something on my own I end up in my chair.
This was definitely one of those times. Based on what I experienced at Tracy's, I was evidently a fictional character which meant…what exactly? I sure as hell felt real, and I hadn't experienced any time lapses, so far as I could tell. While I was a bit out of my head with shock on the ride home, I do remember my mom picking me up and driving me, which is the sort of mundane detail that a manga would gloss over.
Was there any way that I could prove I was in a manga, and hadn't suffered a psychotic break due to overindulging in fried goods? I couldn't think of anything. It wasn't like I had access to some sort of red pill; my little break from reality was a combination of extraordinary clumsiness on my part and poor planning on the part of the illustrator.
Although come to think, that implied that I had some level of agency and free will, didn't it? After all, what kind of idiot author would plan on a character literally exiting their reality and realizing they were fictional? Heck, the title of the book even included "or maybe" which presumably meant that I was supposed to have some doubt about whether I was a manga character or not, and given my experience I was pretty damned sure on that point. Ugh, I was starting to think I was the protagonist in some stupid rom-com with a bumbling male lead who stumbles into situations he really should know enough to avoid all while complaining how amazing it is that everything seems to be following manga tropes.
Settle down, Xavier. What were the possibilities? One, my entire life is scripted and all I can do is sit back and enjoy the ride. Aside from the visceral distaste and denial I felt over that personally, I doubted that was the case thanks to my little stumble into no-man's-land. Two, I was living my life completely unimpeded and the author or whoever—or whatever—was simply recording what happened to me. I really wanted to believe that, but doubted it was the case. After all, what made me bolt out of Tracy's like a stereotypical Japanese school girl out of a haunted house when her love interest is lured away by her rival was the realization that my own reactions to Rachel were becoming increasingly out of character. Three, external forces were in fact acting upon my life, but I retained some level of autonomy in my actions. How much was anyone's guess.
That last one seemed the most likely. I couldn't explain a single thing about the situation I found myself in but based on what I had experienced at the diner, I was betting that while I was still mostly in control of myself, my actions and those of the people around me were currently being influenced to act out some unknown script.
Which royally pissed me off. Being a teenager isn't hard enough, now my life has to become the plaything for some untouchable entity? Screw that! There had to be some way to—
"Peanut?" my mom called from the other side of my door. "Emily is here, and she really wants to talk to you; would you come on down to the kitchen?"
I experienced the emotional equivalent of getting tossed into a walk-in freezer immediately after trying to beat my 100 meter personal best in the height of summer. Emily had never simply dropped by; we always planned our dates and casual get-togethers ahead via text, even if only a couple hours prior. Why had she suddenly shown up at my house, and why now? It must have only been a couple pages ago that I realized I was stuck in a manga and practically had Rachel thrown at me…oh shit. Oh, this was not good. I absolutely did not want to talk to Emily right now, but since she was in my freaking kitchen I had zero options.
"I'll be right there!" I called to my mom, hoping that the panic I was feeling didn't bleed over into my voice. Jumping up, I paced around my room as best I could given the limited space.
I have never in my life come across a manga in which a teenage protagonist starts the story out with a girlfriend. Even the manga that didn't care a fig for romance always seemed to focus on single characters. Yet here I was, girlfriend waiting for me downstairs—probably impatiently, knowing Emily. I was kind of surprised she hadn't just followed Mom upstairs and barged into my room.
No, focus! I wasn't helpless here. In manga, whenever there's relationship trouble, what's the cause? Two people who are unwilling to talk frankly to one another. Meddling external parties, love triangles, harems, everything is always, always, always rooted in a low-level inability to understand or communicate their feelings.
If my fears were correct and Emily was here to break up with me thanks to some jackass author, then my best odds of preventing that were simply to talk frankly with her. Maybe even tell her about what I experienced at Tracy's. Sure, she might think I'm crazy, but maybe it would break the narrative open and let me regain control of my own life.
Because I absolutely refused to lose Emily.
"Bring it on, asshole," I said aloud, and went downstairs before I could chicken out.