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Tori stood nervously in front of Number 324, the door to her townhouse room. She didn’t want to tell her mother the bad news, but there was no avoiding it.

“Okay, Tori,” she muttered to herself. “It’s just the midterms. I can still turn things around.”

She unlocked the door, trying to look calm. Her mother was already there, with a stern look on her face. Tori quickly opened her bag and presented her with the report card, shaking nervously. Her mother sighed.

“B- in math, again,” she read. “I thought you said you were studying.”

“I did, Mother,” Tori cried softly. “But I just don’t get it, no matter how hard I try.”

“I spent every night last week trying to help you study,” her mother informed her. “I thought we were getting somewhere. Why is this so difficult for you?”

Tori looked down, unable to speak.

“Have you been wasting time on those drawings again?” her mother continued. “You know that it’ll get you nowhere in life, right?”

Tori nodded.

“You can’t just stay with your manga and video games forever, Tori. Some day, I’m not going to be here for you, and those things won’t pay for your dinner. Is that what you want? To starve?”

Tori shuddered. “No Mother,” she replied quietly. “I just want to make you happy.”

Her mother looked worried. Neither of them could say anything else, so they parted ways to their rooms.

—-

Tori walked into her room, greeted by the rainy evening sky and her library full of worn out books. At her desk, she pulled out her sketchbook diary and a quill pen. It too was dirty, with many torn and muddied pages. Still, she held it close to her heart, staring at the photo of her family taken when her father was still alive. She began writing, across a sketch image of a blonde long-haired anime girl with a bow and dress.

Hi again,

I guess you heard everything, didn’t you? Sorry about that. I wish I could have given you better news today. She’s always so tired, but she tried so hard to help me, even if she had trouble understanding math herself. Why did I have to disappoint her?

She started crying before continuing.

Just once, I wanted her to be happy. I haven’t seen her smile in years. But I let her down, as always. I don’t know what is wrong with me. Right now, I wish I could be someone else. Anyone else. She deserves better.

Tori paused, looking at the teardrops that have fallen all over the page.

You’ve heard this many times before, haven’t you? Sorry about that.

—-

Yoko Haruna was also looking at a picture taken back when her husband was still alive.

“Tadashi,” she said. “I don’t know what to do with Tori. I thought that changing schools would help her, but she still has trouble with classes, and I have so much trouble keeping up with her. If only you were still here, what would you do?”

—-

The next lunch morning, Oliver caught up with Stacy and Cheryl in their usual classroom.

“So, how did dinner go with your family?” he asked.

“The food was good,” Stacy replied, then suddenly looks regretful. “Oh, drat, I should have saved some of it. I mean, we had chicken feet!”

“Sounds interesting,” Cheryl said. “Maybe all of us should go some time.”

“Yeah, I’d be down for that,” Oliver agreed. “In other news, I actually got an A-! In Social Studies! I couldn’t believe it!”

“Woo-hoo!” Stacy cried as she and Cheryl exchanged hi-fives with Oliver.

“Congratulations,” Cheryl added. “Wish I was that good at essay-writing.”

“Hey, you were the reason we did so well in our Biology reports,” Stacy remarked. “I suppose you aced it, didn’t you?”

“Yep. A+.”

The two of them grinned, giving her hi-fives. “I overheard Ms. Beryl saying she never had someone as enthusiastic about the course as you, aside from when we’re covering human reproduction.”

Cheryl grinned as well. “That’s something to look forward to. Say, Stacy, how did you do?”

Stacy grimaced, not wanting to be reminded of her report card. “Okay, I know it’s going to sound pathetic to you guys, but I got another B in English.”

“Hey, that isn’t bad,” Cheryl consoled. “I got the same thing.”

“So did I,” Oliver concurred. “Why are you so concerned, anyway? You’ve got A’s in everything else.”

Stacy sighed. “It’s just that I’m going against city kids with straight A’s in full IB courses.”

Oliver gazed at her quizzically. “Why do you need to compare yourself to Lydia?”

Stacy’s face reddened. “Who said anything about Lydie,” she stammered. “-uh?”

Oliver shrugged. “Well, I don’t know anyone else that does IB. Not even Mr. Stewart knows that many personally, and he’s been around the city a few times. It’s more likely she’s just exceptionally smart, and she’s clearly loaded enough to afford all those fancy clothes.”

Stacy sighed. “Wish I was exceptional.”

Oliver patted Stacy’s shoulder. “Hey, I couldn’t have made the grade without you, buddy.”

“You’re also really fun to work with,” Cheryl concurred. “In our labs, and just hanging out in the club.”

Stacy cracked a smile. “Thanks, guys. But…”

Just then, Tori arrived at the room, looking sad and dejected. Stacy rushed towards her, suddenly looking more positive.

“Hey, Tori!” Stacy called out.

She didn’t respond.

“What’s wrong?” Stacy asked.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Tori answered.

“Oh.”

Stacy paused, looking around at everyone awkwardly, then smiled. “You know,” she told her. “There’s this thing I like to do when I feel upset sometimes. I find some nice quiet place, all to myself, and laugh.”

Oliver’s eyes widened in shock.

“Laugh?” Tori asked.

“Yeah, laugh. Want me to show you how it’s done?”

Oliver bit his lip, with Cheryl looking on in confusion. “Uh-oh, here it comes,” he muttered.

“Um, sure?” Tori replied.

“Okay then.”

Stacy looked around to make sure the window and door were shut tight. After her inspection, she began to take a deep breath, pausing to exhale while the others looked on nervously. She took another breath, and screamed, in loud and slow staccato bursts,

“AH! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!”

Oliver hung his head in embarrassment, while Cheryl looked aghast and Tori just looked puzzled. But Stacy didn’t stop yelling, sounding like a seagull gasping for air.

“AH! HA! HA! HA! AH HA HA HA HA!”

Stacy suddenly stopped to face Tori. “Now you try.”

Tori, still reeling from the awkwardness and seeing Oliver and Cheryl scanning to make sure no one else heard, strained to smile.

“Um, ha ha ha?” Tori chanted.

“Louder!”

“Ha, ha…”

Tori couldn’t stop herself from giggling. “Why, what, is wrong with you? You’re so weird!”

“Ha!” Stacy exclaimed to Oliver, sneering. “And you thought it wouldn’t work.”

Cheryl looked at Oliver, still reeling from the sound, while he just shrugged.

Just then, someone knocked on the door. Stacy immediately rushed to open it, and saw Ren and Mr. Stewart looking flabbergasted.

“Is everyone all right in here?” Mr. Stewart asked.

“Yeah, we’re cool,” Stacy replied, chuckling.

“Oh, good,” he said, exasperated.

“We were just wondering what was up with that strange noise,” Ren added.

“It’s just Stacy being Stacy,” Oliver remarked.

“Oh, I see,” Ren said.

“While I’m here,” Mr. Stewart interjected. “You all ready for the Career Fair this Friday?”

“Nintendo and Ocean Group are going to be there!” Ren added.

“And class ends early so everyone can get there!” Mr. Stewart announced.

Everyone’s eyes lit up, except for Tori. “Ocean, as in the anime voice actors?” Oliver asked.

“Yep.”

“Awesome! We’ve gotta go!”

“Indeed!” Stacy and Cheryl said.

Mr. Stewart noticed Tori’s lack of enthusiasm at the announcement. “Hey, aren’t you excited?”

Tori shook her head. “I don’t know what I’m good at.”

“Aw, c’mon!” Stacy said. “You don’t want to see Nintendo?”

“They’ll just think I’m an idiot.”

Mr. Stewart gave a comforting smile. “They won’t. Everyone there knows what it’s like to be a high school student, and they’re all friendly. Just be yourself and they’ll be happy to talk.”

“Yeah, it’ll be just like talking to us!” Stacy chimed in.

Tori gazed at Stacy, with a bewildered expression on her face. “Okay, I guess,” she told Mr. Stewart.

“Great!” Ren exclaimed. “I can’t wait to meet you all there!”

—-

The school bus from Pollock Secondary was en route to the Career Fair, and the students there were anxiously waiting to get off.

“Um, do I look okay?” Tori asked.

She wore a black overcoat over her matching skirt and leggings. Stacy turned to take a look at her and was shocked.

“Wait, we were supposed to dress up?” she gasped, realizing she hadn’t bothered changing her usual outfit for the occasion.

Oliver shrugged. “Would if I could,” he replied. “But mom knows as much about fashion as I do.”

“Hey, you’re not too bad,” Cheryl said, taking note of his smoothly aligned brown hair. “Besides, I’m not much of a fashion expert myself, as you can tell.” she continued, being conscious of her navy blue shirt and black pants.

“Maybe we could get tips from Lydia,” Oliver remarked, which suddenly caused Stacy to sweat.

“So in other words,” Stacy concluded hastily. “You’re good to go, Tori.”

Oliver and Cheryl chuckled while Tori smiled weakly. “Thanks, I guess.”

Finally, the bus pulled into the Mercury Plaza parking lot as everyone rushed off. Wind blew over the surroundings as they saw a huge crowd of students from Cedar Valley Secondary gathered in formal attire, swarmed around the various company booths. Oliver noticed the Smith family’s fancy limo and shook his head.

“Okay, team,” Stacy announced. “Where should we go first?”

“Nintendo, of course!” Oliver exclaimed.

Trying to keep up with the rest of the crowd, they ran to the booths. Unfortunately, when they got there, they saw a huge line-up for the Nintendo booth.

“Aww,” Oliver moaned. “Looks like it’s gonna be a while.”

“Well, how about we check out the other booths first?” Cheryl said.

“Sounds good to me!” Stacy replied.

As they prepared to walk away, they saw Lucas and Ren come out from the booth. While Ren was dressed in his usual blue shirt and jeans, Lucas was suited up in a black tuxedo with shades. Stacy resisted the urge to laugh at his attempt to look cool.

“Too bad, suckers!” Lucas sneered. “That’s what you get for not coming here early.”

“Well, not all of us need to show off,” Oliver protested, though Stacy gestured at him to calm down.

“Oh, hi, Lucas,” Stacy said nonchalantly. “How did your meeting with Nintendo go?”

“It was awesome,” Lucas replied. “They were so impressed by my straight A’s and gaming prowess that they gave me their business card. They even said there might be a slot for me in the future!”

“Uh, Lucas,” Ren interjected. “That’s what they told everyone.”

“So? They were clearly happier with me.”

He turned back towards the Games for Everyone crew. “Don’t waste your time. You’re not only up against me, but Cedar Valley’s geeks as well. None of you has a chance, especially not a pretender like you!”

He pointed towards Stacy, smirking, while she simply rolled her eyes. They suddenly heard another boy’s voice behind him. “Ah, Lucas,” he said. “Still wasting your time with those video games, I see.”

Lucas recognized that smug British accent. Great, he thought. That Prince kid again.

“So what if I do?” Lucas protested. “I’m still Pollock’s top student, you know.”

“Only Pollock,” Tory sneered. “Your average is, what, 90%?”

“91!”

“Oh, I’m so impressed. I mean, I only have a 95% average, and already, I’ve been accepted into law school,” Tory answered. “While you’re still playing with your toys, I’ll be off shaping the country’s future. Anyway, I’d love to stay and chat more, but I’ve got other booths to visit, so ta!”

As Tory left, Lucas grinded his teeth while the others simply stared at him.

“I’ll show that spoiled brat,” he murmured, clenching his fist. “Someday, I’ll make millions off video games, and he’ll be sorry he missed the boat!”

He laughed manaically, fantasizing over humiliating his rival, while everyone just stared.

“Say, Lucas,” Ren told him. “How about we check on Abby?”

Lucas took a deep breath. “Fine.”

As they left, the foursome collectively breathed a sigh of relief.

“Anyway,” Oliver said. “I’m off to see Ocean Group. Catch ya later!”

“I’ll be at the aquarium booth!” Cheryl responded.

“I’m probably just going to wander around a bit,” Stacy said. “How about we meet back here later?”

“Sure!” Oliver and Cheryl replied. “See ya!”

“See you later, everyone!” Stacy called back.

As the other three parted ways, Tori just stared into the distance. What was she going to do?

—-

Nick and Ian, dressed up in Zapdos and Moltres costumes respectively, just finished talking to the voice actress at the booth, a middle-aged, short-haired woman named Alice Bernstein, and stepped aside to let the next person in line talk while they met up with Oliver.

“Hi guys,” Oliver greeted. “How’d it go?”

“We made her laugh, I think,” Nick replied.

“Well, more of a mild chuckle,” Ian added.

“Next time we meet, it’ll be a guffaw!” Nick boasted. “We’ll make sure of it!”

They high-fived as Alice called Oliver over.

“By the way, great costumes, guys!” Oliver told them.

“Thanks!” they both said in unison. Oliver then nervously turned to face Alice.

“Hi, Ms. Bernstein,” Oliver told her, his voice shaking.

“Call me Alice,” she said, smiling. Oliver was surprised at how deep her voice was. “What’s your name?

“Oliver,” he said, before pulling out a black anime cat plushie. “Could you please sign his tail?”

“Sure thing,” she replied, pulling out a white marker and signing her name. “So, you’re interested in voice work, are you?”

“Of course!” Oliver responded.

“Hmm, what shows are you particularly interested in? And what role would you like to play?”

“Well, I’d love to be some cool shonen protagonist like Goku.”

Alice smiled. “Well, how about we hear a demonstration from you?”

Oliver paused. “Um, you’re not going to make me laugh, are you?” he asked.

“Not if you don’t want to. But being a voice actor is all about throwing your inhibition to the wind, not being afraid to look like an idiot. After all, your characters will, a lot.”

Oliver paused. She had a point there.

“How about this?” Alice told him. “Try imitating a famous scene from a show you like.”

“Like Death Note?” Oliver asked.

Alice smiled. “Ah, good choice.”

Oliver took a deep breath, seeing the crowd gathered there. “Okay, here goes!”

He took the microphone, paused for a bit, and suddenly yelled, “I’ll take a potato chip…AND EAT IT!”

Oliver gasped, scanning the area. He saw a few girls giggling as he was sweating, but after a while, everyone applauded him. He sighed in relief.

“Not bad!” Alice complimented.

Oliver smiled. “Does that mean I’m worthy?”

“Well,” Alice said. “It’s not that simple. The industry is quite competitive, and you’re constantly going to have to prove yourself, especially if you want a major role. But if you’re up for it, it can be quite rewarding.”

Oliver grinned. “It would be awesome to do, though.”

“It is,” Alice concurred. “You meet some amazing and understanding people in the field. Anyway, I believe there are others waiting for their turn, but I’ll be at CherryCon in the next few months!”

“All right! See ya then, Alice!”

As he walked off the stage, a girl walked up to him.

“You were really brave up there,” she told him.

Oliver put his hand behind his back. “Aw, shucks,” he said. “At that point, I just didn’t pay attention to anyone. Good luck up there.”

“Thanks. You too.”

—-

Cheryl caught up with Sofia at the University of British Columbia booth.

“Hi, Cher,” she called out.

“Hi, Sofie,” Cheryl called back. “Whatcha up to?”

“Oh, I’ve just been checking out different booths. Anything particularly interest you?”

“Well, that’s why I’m here. They’ve got a cool marine biology program I wanted to check out.”

Sofia sighed. “I wish I had my life figured out like you.”

Cheryl smiled nervously. “It’s not so simple. I know I want to do something in biology, but I don’t know what specifically.”

“At least you have some idea, and so does Tori. I’ve got nothing.”

“Leading our team isn’t nothing, Sofie. Lots of employers love that take charge attitude. Besides, if you don’t know, that’s why we’re here, right?”

Sofia beamed. “Yeah, you’re right Cher. I hope this fair helps.”

“I hope so too.”

They high-fived as they walked towards the marine biology booth. Standing there was a young woman wearing a shorts and a red shirt named Trina.

“Hi there,” she greeted. “Are you looking for a job full of adventure?”

“That’s why we’re here!” Cheryl replied cheerfully.

“Good. Well, many of us are fascinated by outer space, but imagine, we already have alien life on Earth, in our oceans!”

“Yep,” Cheryl concurred. “Those bioluminescent creatures are pretty out there.”

Trina smiled, pleased to see a fellow enthusiast.

“What made you interested in marine biology?” Sofia asked.

“Good question,” Trina replied. “Have you ever played a game called Endless Ocean?”

Cheryl and Sofia gasped. “You’re the first other person I know who played that game!” Cheryl exclaimed.

“Yeah, it’s an underappreciated gem. Well, I’ve always been fascinated by the sea, and that game was like a dream come true for me. After playing, I wanted to visit the sea for real, and now, I get to swim with sharks for my graduate program!”

“Aren’t they dangerous?” Sofia asked.

Trina laughed. “They’re not dangerous! That’s just a Hollywood myth. Most sharks don’t care for the taste of human. But like any animal, you need to respect them.”

Cheryl and Sofia gazed in awe at a photo of Trina surrounded by sharks.

“Thanks a bundle,” Cheryl said. “When I get to university, I hope I’ll get to do something as cool as you!”

“No problem! Hope to see you again!”

—-

Stacy had collected multiple business cards already, eager to sample everything out there. Scanning the plaza for her next job visit, she gasped as she saw a familiar face.

“Mr. Stewart?” she asked. “What are you doing here?”

Mr. Stewart was standing in front of a booth for Cedar Grove Teachers. Alongside him was someone Stacy recognized from her childhood, a stern-faced elderly woman named Mrs. Myska who was a teacher at Hopper Elementary.

“Hi there, Stacy,” Mr. Stewart called to her cheerfully. “I suppose you’re interested in teaching?”

“Um, not really?” Stacy replied. Of all things, teaching was the last job she had in mind.

Mr. Stewart looked at Mrs. Myska, smiling. “Looks like we’ll be the ones tested today,” he remarked. “Time to make a case for our job.”

“Do you like working with kids?” Mrs. Myska asked.

Stacy pondered her question. “Well, I never actually tried.”

“Well, I’d think that gaming club of yours would give you some experience, right?” Mr. Stewart inquired.

“Yeah, but we don’t really do anything.”

“Hey, don’t sell yourself short. You and your friends are having fun, aren’t they?”

“I guess so.”

Mr. Stewart smiled. “I’ve met a lot of student club leaders like you. They all have one thing in common. More ideas than time.”

Stacy frowned. That sounded about right. “Even Lucas?”

“Lucas, well, he’s smart, no doubt, but he has, um, a habit of deferring responsibility. From the sounds of things, it’s my boy actually keeping the place running.”

Mr. Stewart laughed. “Sometimes, all people need is a common interest and a place to hang out. I mean, I just come to Teachers’ Union meetings for the food!”

Mrs. Myska shook her head, but Stacy chuckled softly. “Hmm…there’s an idea.”

She turned to Mrs. Myska. “So, what is it like at Hopper Elementary these days?”

“Same as always,” Mrs. Myska remarked. “Kids are still rowdy.”

“Of course,” Stacy remarked, smiling. She fondly remembered how much she yelled at them to be quiet.

“By the way,” Mrs. Myska added. “Ms. Markov has been telling me about your piano talent.”

Stacy shivered. “Well, I’m not actually that good.”

Mrs. Myska smiled. “First Class Honors in Grade 9 is pretty good if you ask me.”

“I guess.”

“Anyway, we’re currently looking for musicians like you to teach the kids about music after school. Would that be a position you’re interested in?”

Stacy stopped, holding her heart. She was actually offering her a position already?

“Um, sure, I’ll try it. I get off class early on Friday, so maybe then?”

“Sounds good. Will you be able to try next week?”

“Sure.”

“Very well. See you then.”

Stacy beamed. “Thanks a bundle for inviting me. I’ll do my best!”

Mr. Stewart smiled. “Who knows? Maybe you’ll want to do it full-time!”

Stacy looked skeptical. “We’ll see.”

—-

Tori was waiting patiently in line at the Nintendo stall when her friends got back, drawing something in her sketchbook to pass the time. The crowd had mostly dissipated, much to her relief. In the distance, her friends were chatting about their day.

“Wait, you got a job already?” Oliver asked Stacy.

“It’s just a volunteer position,” Stacy reminded him. “Honestly, I’m as surprised as you, but I guess I was lucky to know people.”

“Well, it sounds like you’ll have a fun time,” Cheryl said. “Tell us how it goes, okay?”

“Sure thing, if I don’t totally screw up,” Stacy said.

“C’mon, Stacy,” Oliver told her. “Kids are pretty easy-going.”

“I guess,” Stacy replied. “Anyway, how did everything go for both of you?”

“It was alright,” Oliver said.

“Yeah, it was fun,” Cheryl added. “Good to know what’s out there.”

They saw Tori still standing at the Nintendo booth. She noticed them coming and waved cheerfully.

“Hey, Tori,” Stacy called to her. “Whatcha been up to?”

“Um, not much,” Tori replied. “I, um, thought I’d just hold the position for you guys.”

No one looked convinced by that statement. “Really?” Stacy remarked. “You just stood in line here all day?”

“I don’t think the line was that long,” Oliver added.

Tori gazed nervously at her friends. “Okay, I lied,” she admitted. “I just, I didn’t dare meet anyone! I thought, they would just look at me, think I was an idiot, and tell everyone never to hire me ever!”

The other three gazed in concern at Tori’s shivering. “Tori,” Cheryl began. “They’re not like that. Everyone we talked to was very friendly.”

“Yeah, it was very casual,” Oliver added. “Nothing to worry about.”

Tori sighed. She was prepared to say something else, but before she could, a man’s voice called out, “Sorry, you’ve been waiting quite a while, haven’t you?”

The four of them gasped. “Tori, he’s talking to you!” Oliver told her.

Tori took a deep breath, and turned around to meet the pair at the booth.

“Um, hi,” Tori greeted the man.

He extended his hand. “Hi, I’m Gerald.”

“And I’m Ethel,” said the woman beside him. “It seems you were drawing for a while. May I take a look?”

Tori, trying to stay calm, handed over her sketchbook. Gerald and Ethel flipped through the pages and smiled. The page was turned to a crowd of Mario characters all gathered in Mercury Plaza, including Yoshis, Toads, Koopas, and much more.

“You’re a very creative artist,” Gerald replied. “Thank you so much for sharing.”

“Y-you’re welcome,” Tori stammered nervously.

“So, any plans to work for Nintendo someday?” Ethel asked.

“Um, I’m not good at programming!” Tori answered.

“No problem,” Ethel replied. “We’re also on the lookout for artistic talent such as yours.”

“In fact,” Gerald added. “We get a lot of requests for programming jobs, but not as many artists. So I’m glad you came to us today.”

Tori gasped. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

“T-Thank you!” she said. “But what would I have to do to get a job here?”

“Well, you’re already off to a good start,” Ethel replied, as she further scanned her sketchbook. “but to be honest, I don’t see that much unique about your portfolio. You need to develop your own style.”

“My own style?”

“Yeah, something that everyone will recognize comes from you!”

Tori smiled. “I’ll do my best.”

“And we’ll be looking forward to it,” Gerald said. “If you’re still interested after a few more years, we’d love to have you around.”

Tori bowed. “Thank you so much! I’ll work as hard as I can!”

Tori cheerfully walked back up to her friends. “C’mon, it’s your turn now!” she told them, gesturing towards the booth

The other three were stunned. They couldn’t remember the last time they saw Tori this optimistic.

—-

Dear diary,

Today was such a good day. We were at the Career Fair, and it seemed that everyone had fun. Stacy met her old teacher from Hopper Elementary and will be volunteering at next week as a music teacher next week. Oliver got a taste of voice acting and is really looking forward to drama class next term. Cheryl got to meet a marine biologist and is looking forward to eventually getting a field research position after University. I’m so happy that things turned out so well for my friends.

As for me, I got to visit some people from Nintendo! I was really nervous at first, since the Cedar Valley students were there too, and I’m still grateful I didn’t run into you-know-who. But the people at Nintendo were really nice, and they even liked my drawings! Who knows, being a video game artist might be fun!

Say, I just realized. All this time, I shared my drawings with you, but I never showed you what I looked like.

In the space after that entry was a drawing of a girl waving to the viewer. She had big round glasses and short, bowl-cut hair, with a black minidress and leggings completely covering her pear-shaped body. Though tiny, she looked happy and serene in this very moment.

This is me. What do you think?

(next)

(table of contents)

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