Julien was arrested when he was fifteen. The cops said it would be a pretty open and shut case: traces of the victim’s blood were found on his keyboard and the murder weapon was on his desk beside him.
I wasn’t home when they swarmed our house with a warrant. I didn’t have to see my little brother being led away in cuffs. I’m grateful for that. Mom called me right after they left. She wanted me to stay at Char’s house that night, but wouldn’t say why. She just told me not to come home from work. I hadn’t even hung up with her before I started getting calls and texts from friends asking about Julien and someone named Angel Lopez.
I’d never heard of Angel before that day.
Mom’s line went right to voicemail when I tried to call back. I didn’t know she was already talking to an attorney. I left work with half my shift still to go. How could I focus on checking people into the hotel when something serious was obviously going on? No one was home when I got there. My parents had both followed Julien to the station to be present for his questioning. I only found out when Dad answered Mom’s phone on the dozenth ring.
“He’s being accused of something really bad, Shane,” Dad said.
His voice was dark and grave, a tone I’d never heard from him.
“What’s going on?” I demanded.
Dad hesitated and then lowered his voice. “Another kid was killed near the high school. They think Julien did it.”
He wouldn’t say anything more, he wanted to get back into the interrogation room. Over the next few hours, I got brief texts to update me about what was going on.
Two detectives in with us now. They’re asking Jules about a classmate who was found dead in the woods off Glosbury.
This is ridiculous! Jules would never hurt anyone! They’re saying that his pocketknife has blood on it!
Do you know someone named Sakura???
After the text about Sakura, I didn’t hear anything else for a while and was left in the dark to pace the house. Just like I hadn’t recognized Angel’s name, I didn’t know any Sakura either.
Just shy of midnight, my parents came home without Julien. We sat at the dining room table, Mom sobbing quietly and Dad stone faced, and they told me what had happened.
Another teenager, Angel Lopez, had been found early that morning by a jogger. He was lying just off a trail, half-heartedly hidden under some brush. He’d been stabbed forty-seven times. Investigators said he’d been there for almost two days and, a little ways from the body, they’d found a bloody school ID card. Julien’s. They assumed he must have dropped it in the attack.
“He didn’t even try to deny it,” Dad was shaking. “He said he did it for Sakura.”
“Who?” I asked.
The mention of a girlfriend was almost as shocking as the allegations being made. Jules was shy and painfully introverted. He spent most of his time alone in his room on his compute. He’d never been very good at talking to girls. When pressed for details about this “Sakura”, he had clammed up and refused to say anything more.
Mom was almost hysterical by that point and Dad decided it would be best if we all went to bed. He led her to their room and I went upstairs to mine, but I just laid there, unable to sleep. Usually I would have heard Jules moving around in the next room over, playing games or watching anime, but that night, it was completely silent.
My brother and I were only three years apart. We were close. I didn’t think he’d ever kept anything from me, especially not something like having a girlfriend. It just wasn’t like him. The more I thought about it, the more frustrated and angry I became, until I shoved my covers back and crept from my room into his.
I flipped on the light. It was in the same messy state as ever: bed unmade, a couple dirty glasses on his computer desk, clothes left rumpled on the floor beside his half empty laundry basket. Completely normal. I kept expecting Jules to walk up behind me and ask what I was doing.
His phone was first. The passcode was easy to guess. The same four digits he used for everything. I poured over his few texts, went through his browser history, looked into all of his apps, but it was exactly what I would have expected from Jules: gaming stuff and porn sites. From how little there was, it looked like he’d cleared his history fairly recently. No mention of Sakura anywhere, much less any contacts listed under that name.
I went through his dresser, his nightstand, his closet, but again found nothing. All that was left was his PC.
A bright anime background lit up the screen as soon as I turned it on. A purple haired girl in a cutesy pose smiled from the center and, in the lower left, a bubbly font read “Kawaii Hai!!” I opened a browser over it and scanned how search history, but it was much the same as what I found on his phone. I checked his document folders next.
The most recently modified folder was one labeled “Sakura”.
I opened it to find hundreds of pictures of the purple haired girl on his desktop. Some were innocent enough, others far less so, but all were that same girl, over and over again. Some had the name, Sakura, written on them in the same font as “Kawaii Hai!!” had been on the desktop.
So he hadn’t told me everything. I thought I’d known him better than anyone, but he’d been hiding this weird fascination with a made up girl. I’d never suspected a thing.
My stomach dropped into a sick, spiraling void as I went back to the browser and searched the term “kawaii hai”. It came back as being a video game, some kind of Japanese dating simulator where you could choose to romance a number of girls. I found an illustration showcasing all the possible matches: a now familiar purple haired girl was right in the middle.
A quick look at his game library showed Kawaii Hai!! was the only thing he’d played recently. He had over a thousand hours logged.
The game opened with cheerful music and a colorful menu. I wasn’t sure why I’d even opened it or what I was looking for. I knew who Sakura was, his obsession for her, but I didn’t understand how it could have happened or why he would have killed another boy “for” her. I didn’t expect the game to help me at all, but I was desperate and selected his most recent game file.
As soon as it had finished loading, a little phone symbol appeared in the upper left corner with a message beside it: Text from Sakura! I clicked on it.
A realistically styled phone screen popped up showing a text conversation between Sakura and the player. The most recent one said, Hi, JJ! My cursor blinked in the text bar, where I could type a response. Instead, I scrolled upwards, and upwards, and upwards.
There had to be hours worth of “conversation” between Jules and this anime character. The AI for her had to be pretty complex because a lot of her answers seemed almost real. They talked about hobbies and family and school, and if I hadn’t known better, I might have thought Jules was actually speaking to a girl. He professed his love to her constantly and I cringed at how over the top and ridiculous it was. At the same time, my heart was pounding painfully in my throat. Especially when she, unprompted by anything that I could see, started talking about someone named Angel.
Do you know Angel? He goes to your school, right?
Angel is so sweet! He’s so nice to me.
Angel gave me presents again! Hehe
Julien’s responses were getting more agitated every time Angel was mentioned. Sakura seemed to thrive on it and her remarks were obviously meant to push Julien’s overly-sensitive buttons.
Do you like him more than me? He asked at one point.
I dunno Sakura had replied. I guess I like whoever likes me more!
I love you Sakura-chan!!
I stopped scrolling and read those two words over and over again. This couldn’t be real. Had Julien somehow found his way into the game script file and had these talks with himself? While my mind raced to piece together the growing, confusing puzzle that my brother had become, the on screen phone buzzed with a new notification.
Text from Sakura!
I scrolled all the way down to the bottom to see the most recent message.
I know what you did. You really do love me!
I sat back in the chair, beads of sweat dotting my forehead and my fingers gripping the arms of the chair. A little bubble appeared, indicating Sakura was typing again.
Wait…you’re not JJ, are you?
A pause, and then she was typing again.
Tsk tsk, you shouldn’t be reading other people’s texts.
My heart had clawed its way into my throat, where it beat hard and fast and made it hard to breathe. Did he have a webcam? Could someone be watching me? There was no way a video game character would know that!
Fine, don’t say anything, it doesn’t matter to me. I know what he did. I know who likes me more.
The monitor flickered.
Just tell JJ I’ll be waiting for him. He knows where to find me…
The game window locked up and an error message appeared over it. I tried to clear it, but it persisted until I shut the game down.
Frantically, I relaunched it. I needed to get screenshots of those in-game texts! Maybe the cops could use them to prove there was some sicko who hacked Julien’s game and coerced him or something! I went to the saved game files and double clicked on the most recent one.
The game crashed immediately.
I tried again and again, but no matter what I did, how I tried to open it, what fixes I attempted to use, I was never able to access any of Julien’s Kawaii Hai!! files again.
And I was never able to prove that, whatever “she” actually was, Sakura had been all too real.