I stared at Mom, completely nonplussed for a moment. "How—" But I couldn't finish the sentence. I just started silently crying.
Mom moved so fast I could barely track her, and an instant later she was embracing me, hard.
There's something uniquely horrible about suffering alone. I'd known that I was under heavy stress due to this whole stupid situation. I'd been living through the mood swings from anger to helplessness and back. I'd railed against my fate, I'd tried to live with it, I'd done my best to distract myself. But I'd done it all alone. There was no one I could even talk to about it, because they would have rightly assumed that I'd gone 'round the bend and I'd likely have some very interested psychologists to add to my problems shortly thereafter.
I hadn't realized quite how much emotion I had been repressing, but now that I'd started crying I was finding it incredibly hard to stop, which was super embarrassing. Not least because I was still suffering from a head cold, and my sudden bout of waterworks was causing all sorts of fluid-related issues in my sinuses and nose.
I dripped and sniffled and failed to adequately deal with the situation, and throughout it all Mom just held onto me with a grip of iron, ear up against my chest while I leaked onto her hair.
After far longer than it should have taken, I finally calmed down, we removed the tea bags from our over-steeped tea, and sat down at the kitchen table.
"How did you know this is a manga?" I managed to get more than the first word out the second time around.
Mom looked grim. "I've been wondering if something is up for a while now, but I was nearly certain when all those girls came by to see you when you'd missed a single day of school."
"Yeah, that was pretty weird, huh."
"Your reaction, though—how long have you known you're in a manga, Peanut?"
"I broke the fourth wall back in early summer. You know, the day Seamus invited me to Tracy's?"
"How long had it been going on before then?"
"I think it had just started. Mom, how did you even notice? Has—something like this happened to you?"
Mom looked away. "I—shortly before I met your father in college—I was trapped in a death game."
"Shit!" Mom doesn't like swearing, but she didn't bat an eye at that. There's not a lot of genres that would be worse than a death game. As the name suggests, it's a literal battle to the death, typically between normal, or mostly normal, characters who are somehow coerced into participating. Death games never end well, and typically explore the levels of depravity and insanity that people can descend to in horrific, no-win situations. Suddenly Mom's weird emotional hang-ups when it comes to conflict resolution were making a lot of really scary sense.
"I'd rather not talk about it," she said quietly. I could completely respect that. I wasn't sure I wanted to, either, despite my horrified curiosity. "Do you know your genre?"
"I'm pretty sure it's a seinen rom-com harem."
Mom frowned, drumming her fingers on the side of her mug. "I don't have any experience with harems. What else do you know?"
"When I broke the fourth wall, I saw the title, but I don't know the author."
Mom waved that aside. "Author doesn't matter. When you say you broke the fourth wall, what specifically happened? What did you see?"
"Well, I tripped, then the next thing I know I'm standing in this weird gray nothingness with a giant page of manga behind me depicting the scene I'd just lived through."
"Did you try to interact with the page in any way? Could you affect it?" Mom was leaning forward, her stare a little intense for my liking.
"I tried to turn the page, but it was immovable. I started getting short of breath, so I jumped back through the hole. I don't think there was any oxygen there. I haven't been able to break the fourth wall again, so I haven't had a chance to try anything else."
Mom sat back. "Damn. That could have been a major breakthrough, but if it was random chance it's unlikely to happen again. If something like that does happen to you, you should definitely prioritize either trying to affect the page directly, or else looking ahead and seeing if you can change the future that you see depicted."
I nodded. "What do you mean the author doesn't matter? Wouldn't knowing the author allow me to directly appeal to them?"
Mom shrugged. "Probably not; that assumes that they even exist in our reality, which is unlikely. Besides, it's not the author you need to worry about. It's the genre. Maybe the author tweaks things here and there to taste, but the genre is what ultimately dictates your fate."
"The genre? I mean, I've been trying to get a little control over my life since I can sometimes guess what's coming based on the circumstances, but how does that ultimately help?"
"Knowing your genre is the only thing that will get you out of this manga," said Mom. "You'll have to talk to your father if you want specific ideas, but based on our experience there are only three things you can do to escape a manga: accelerate your genre, subvert your genre, or break your genre.
"Accelerating the genre means you actively attempt to move your situation into whatever that genre considers the end game. Subverting the genre means taking actions that cause the genre to change into something you find more palatable, or something that is easier to accelerate. Breaking the genre means you take actions that are completely inappropriate to the genre, effectively destroying it from the inside."
"Okay," I said. "That makes sense. I've actually considered accelerating or breaking the genre on my own, if not in those terms. The problem is I don't want to date any of these girls, and in order to actively drive them away I would probably destroy my social life."
Mom sighed. "There's no easy answers, unfortunately, Peanut. Now that I know you're in a manga, I can get your father to help out, though, which should give you more options. He's the one who came up with the theory behind accelerating, subverting, or breaking genre and ultimately helped me find a strategy of my own. I wouldn't have made it out of my manga without him."
"Wait," I said, a horrible though occurring to me. "How do I even know that I have a real life to return to? What if my memories of my life prior to this are just backstory?"
Mom grabbed my hand and squeezed it. "You and I are real, Xavier. I don't know how or why we both got stuck in manga stories, but the manga thing is something that's imposed from outside, not the entirety of our existence."
"But how do you know?"
"Well, I guess there's no way to prove that for sure, but I had a similar crisis back when Bill and I first realized what was truly going on and he came up with a method to attempt to verify that our world is real. There's actually two steps to this, but I'll have to dig around in the garage to get the second proof Bill came up with. First one's easy, though. Who are all of the members of our extended family?"
Mom gave me a "go ahead" gesture. "Come on, start listing."
"Well, okay. There's you, Dad, Sasha, and Vickie. On your side there's Obaasan and Ojiisan—"
"Names," interjected Mom.
"—I mean, Himeko and Tadashi Nishimura. Then there's Aunt Selene and Uncle Daisuke, and in a few months they're having a kid—do we know the sex yet? So Little Cousin Indeterminate, then. Then there's Uncle Jon, even if we never see him, and I suppose I should probably include Nana Rose, though she isn't technically a relative. On Dad's side, we've got Gramma Felicia and Great-Aunt Agatha for the older generation, then Uncle Johannes and Aunt Felicity and their kids Stephanie and Vincent. Auntie Abbie, Uncle Ricardo, and their kids Samson and Julia; then finally Aunt Lisa and Libby. So I've got a bunch of aunts, uncles, and cousins. What does that prove again?"
"How many manga have you read that include an extended family, all of whom have names and personalities?" Mom countered.
"Ah," I said. That was actually a pretty compelling argument. Manga authors—and really most other authors, now I thought about it—were by and large incredibly lazy. Even if a character was assumed to have a normal extended family—and that was rare on its own—the extended family never received names. Which made sense, I suppose. Why go to the trouble to dream up a bunch of characters who will never have an impact on your story? Only an idiot or a masochist would waste effort like that.
"You can do a similar exercise by mapping out your social relationships at school," said Mom. "But the point is that our world is too complicated to be fiction. For what it's worth, I've lived over two decades outside of a manga after my own storyline ended, too. You're living in the real world, and it's important to remember that, particularly if you start to go off-script. The further you stretch the genre, the more realistic the consequences become."
"That's good to know," I said quietly. I was guessing from her expression that Mom had direct experience with that fact.
"Anyway, you're still sick, so it's about time you went to bed, Peanut. I'll let your Dad know you're stuck in a manga, and I'm sure he'll help you strategize a possible way out this weekend."
"Thanks, Mom. Just—thanks." She was right it was high time I headed to bed. The emotional outburst coupled with the hot tea had done me in and I was flagging in a major way.
Mom stepped up to me and gave me another quick hug. "I'm sorry about all this, Xavier. I tried everything we could think of to make sure our children didn't have to suffer like I did, but—I don't know, maybe I'm just cursed."
"There is no way this is your fault, Mom. And how could you possibly have prevented it, anyway?"
She grinned. "Why do you think we named you 'Xavier'? Try saying that in Japanese."
I shook my head. She was certainly right about that. Maybe my manga really was some sort of cheap American knock-off like I'd originally thought, because I was having trouble thinking of a name that was more impossible to transliterate into katakana.
"Sleep well, Peanut."