I spent most of the week dithering, but the daily Debbie the Glasses Girl coincidences were starting to worry me:
- On Monday, I turned a corner and barely stopped myself from ramming into her from behind.
- On Tuesday, I was about to leave the bathroom at the end of lunch when I heard her voice asking someone if she had in fact seen me going in there. I ended up late to P.E. as I loitered in the entryway waiting for her to give up and go to class.
- Also on Tuesday, she somehow managed to knock her glasses off her own face while I was walking past her desk to get to an empty spot in pre-calculus. I barely missed stepping on them, and pretended I didn't notice.
- On Wednesday she just happened to be coming my way down the hallway on three separate occasions, one of which was immediately after I'd taken another route when I saw her coming the first time.
- On Thursday, Samantha was going on about some nice girl in glasses doing something for her before I peaced the hell out.
It was clear that the genre was desperate to add another harem member to the mix, and was going glasses or bust. I needed to resolve things fast, because I had a sneaking suspicion that even if it stopped trying to shoe-horn Debbie into the harem, it might recall the fact that Ms. Cariño was still lurking around partially unresolved, and I absolutely had no plan of attack for that.
So come Friday evening, I marched down to Rachel's room to have a talk.
Her door was partially open, and just as I was reaching to knock on it I froze, then redirected to knock on the frame. Lucky lechery potential, avoided.
"Yes?" Rachel called.
"Hey, Rachel, are you busy? I was wondering if we could talk."
"Sure, just give me a moment!"
"Okay, I'll be in the Lab."
"Be there soon!"
I sat down in the Lab, my leg jerking up and down with nerves. The last time I'd tried this particular stunt, it ended with Emily summarily dumping me and escaping across the state. Not my favorite memory. I knew in my head that talking to Rachel definitely wasn't going to go wrong in quite that way, but I was still feeling awfully panicky when a damp-around-the-edges Rachel slipped demurely into the room. I guess she'd just taken an after-dinner shower. Thank goodness I caught myself before knocking.
"Hey, Xavier," she said, sliding into the chair across from me. "What's up?"
"Uh," I managed, coherent in the face of stress as always, and intentionally forcing myself not to think about how nice Rachel's shampoo or soap or whatever smelled, or the way a curl of wet hair had escaped the quick bun she'd thrown it into and was caressing the nape of her neck, or—dammit!
"Is everything alright?"
Shit, how was I even going to broach the topic? I opened my mouth, not sure what would even come out. "I—have—I want out of this manga!" Crap, was I tearing up? This was not the reasoned explanation I'd hoped to deliver.
Rachel sat back in the chair, but said nothing. I couldn't read her expression at all.
"So—the thing is—all of these books? They're manga. Comics from Japan, except with a lot fewer super-heroes. And you know, I always thought they were fiction. But then one day—at Tracy's, you remember?—I broke through the fourth wall and discovered that I'm in a manga. We all are, we're all characters in it, except I'm the protagonist and I hate it!"
I forced myself to a stop before I broke down any further, and snuck a peek at Rachel. She had a far-off look in her eye and was staring up toward the corner of the room. I still couldn't tell what she was thinking. What had I even said? Shit, she probably thought I was nuts. I opened my mouth, shut it, opened it again. Shut it again. How was I going to explain this now?
Before I could figure out whether I was going to dig my hole a little deeper or give up and flee, Rachel spoke up. "You know, I'd kind of suspected."
"No, listen, you see—wait, what?"
"About a month and a half ago, I caught Vickie reading under my bed, and when she fled I discovered the first few volumes in a manga series." Vickie was under her—no, wait, that actually didn't surprise me at all. "Anyway, I asked her about them when I caught up to her, and I was kind of curious when I realized this whole room was all manga. So I was reading some of her recommendations, and I started to notice some weird similarities to your life. Plus you've never seen how Paula and Jill and Samantha interact when you're not around, have you? Well, I guess that's obvious. Anyway, they're really different. Paula, especially, although she does still like to give Samantha grief. I've been to a lot of schools, and something about the way those girls were acting around you just—wasn't normal."
I really wanted to make a snappy comeback to that, but I was still stuck on the fact that Rachel believed me. "You noticed? Why didn't you say—?"
Rachel looked embarrassed. "Well, I mean I didn't really believe. It's crazy, right? There's no way we're fictional characters."
"I know exactly what you mean."
"But then I overheard a couple things when your mom and dad were talking to one another, and well…I guess I wondered. But you've actually seen proof? Did I get that right?"
"Yeah, I broke through the fourth wall. Do you know that term?" She nodded. "Plus apparently Mom was stuck in a manga when she was in college. I think it really messed her up."
Rachel gave a noncommittal hum. "So why talk to me about this?"
I took a deep breath. "Mom and Dad think I can end the story if I successfully escape the genre. I've been trying to figure out what motivates everyone in order to find ways to get them to—well—I guess leave me alone. I'm reasonably certain I'm in a—rom-com, and without female heroines there's no rom-com. But it's kind of awkward with you, because you know, we live together, so…" I shifted in place. Man, this was nerve-wracking.
Rachel's calm demeanor never changed, though. "What exactly are you asking me to do?"
"Could you just—maybe try to avoid me at school for a bit? Sit with other friends at lunch, talk to other people in the classroom, you know that kind of thing? I really think that would do the trick."
Rachel was silent for a little while, but then smiled a tight-lipped smile. "Sure, Xavier. I can do that for you. How will you know if it works?"
"Well, the weird manga coincidences should go away. And you said that Paula and the others behave differently when I'm not around, right? I'll bet that's their normal behavior. If the manga ends, they'll probably revert to that all the time."
"Right." She moved as if to stand and then paused. "Do you need anything else?"
"No, that was all."
"Well—good luck then."
I stood with her and impulsively grabbed her hand and gave it a squeeze. "Thank you so much, Rachel. I really appreciate this."
"Mm-hm." She extricated herself and left the room.
I did it. Did I actually do it? I think I did it. Was I missing anything? I mean there was Ms.—no, I wasn't even going to think about that. Monday at lunch. That would be my real test. Dammit, I was sitting somewhere else if it killed me.
Monday rolled around, and when lunch hit I was first out the door and moving down the hall fast enough I must have been a blur.
I spotted Seamus right as he was sitting down with his band-mates. "Hey, Seamus, mind if I join you guys?"
"Hey there, X-man! Of course, you're welcome. Scoot over, Matt."
As I sat down, I saw Rachel walk by without giving me a second glance and I felt a twinge of guilt over suddenly abandoning her and the other girls.
But damn it all, this was my life! And as I settled into a completely normal high school lunch, for the first time in a long, long time it felt as if that were actually true.