I wrote these over the course of the last few days.
Damn. Writing is time consuming. And writing Emi dialogue is hard. I tried to do it while imagining everything she said in the voice of Rikku from FFX.
Seems like the proper etiquette in this forum is to continue posting your installments in the same thread, so that's what I'm going to do with these. Quite a bit more reading than the first two parts. The payoff is some bonding.
(Disclaimer - Rika may or may not talk shit about you're waifu)
Art by Dubsdraw.
***Scene 3: Labels
One of the nice things about being heavily medicated is the side effects. Sometimes when I have trouble sleeping I read the labels on my pill bottles – which is no small undertaking – trying to find one that lists “drowsiness.” Then the morning after when I’m groggy from lack of sleep, I like to see if I can find “wakefulness,” or “euphoria.”
Or maybe “amnesia.”
In the small hours of the morning, I turn one bottle over in my hand. “Drowsiness” again. Maybe I can go light on the “drowsiness” ones today?
In one of my first appointments together with Rika at Nurse’s office, I asked Nurse a few questions about my meds. I made a point of asking while Rika was around so I could get a user’s perspective. She only had one thing to say. “Keep the side effects in mind.” Nurse clearly wasn’t happy about that remark, but he chose not to say anything. I’m starting to understand what Rika was talking about, and why Nurse disapproved.
I’m too tired to stare death in the face, though. I decide to take the safe route and put my faith in my medicine. I’ll just keep my fingers crossed that I don’t fall asleep in Mutou’s science class. Shiina and Miki would never let me hear the end of it.
My curtains are doing a bad job of keeping the morning light out. I may not have slept but at least I had my eyes closed for a while.
Before my alarm goes off, my phone rings. I don’t even have to check the call display.
“Emi, I’m not coming this morning,” I say decisively.
“Every day you sleep in is a year off your life, Hisao.”
“Can you just cut me a break today? I didn’t sleep well.”
“You think I did? I stayed up all night worried about what Nurse would do to me when he finds out I’ve been letting you slack off. And besides, nothing wakes you up like a morning jog. It’s not like there’s anything else to do if you’re not sleeping, right? Come on, please?” She draws out the last syllable.
“Emi, you know I can’t see you making that face over the phone, right?”
“Hah! That just proves you CAN see it! You can’t escape me, Hisao! This face of mine is going to haunt you every morning starting at 7:00 AM sharp. Awake or asleep. For the rest. Of. Your. Life. And mark my words: that’s going to be a long time. Now get your marshmallow butt out here.”
She hangs up. I can’t help being a bit cheered up by her antics. She’s got a real talent for hounding me without getting on my nerves. And I suppose it might be a good substitute for a night’s sleep.
Emi ends up being right. I head out to the field and find her mid-sprint. She’s not about to wait for me to get started, after all. After a few warm-up stretches I join her, and she gives me that cheerful smile of hers that’s come to be the highlight of my mornings. Either the running or the good company makes me feel a lot more positive.
After a few laps I retire to the bench and just watch her sprinting for a while. Of all the tales of inspiration that come out of Yamaku, I always think hers is the most likely to end up as one of those made for TV movies.
She eases off from a final sprint and jogs over to the bleachers. I hand her a towel and let her take a swig from my water bottle. I’m still catching my breath but she’s not even winded, and takes a seat beside me.
“So did you and Rika have fun on your date?”
That’s really not the conversation topic I was hoping for. She takes my silence as a confirmation and breaks into a conspiratorial giggle.
I feign good humour. “I guess word spreads fast in the girl’s dorm, huh?”
“Nope! I have insider info. I got a text from Miki betting me that you’d try to bail on me this morning. Rika didn’t show up to her run last night and Miki has a theory about you guys.”
That doesn’t bode well. Miki is the grapevine incarnate. Suddenly the prospect of falling asleep in class seems even more terrifying. Maybe I should try to get a sick note.
“Are you blushing?” Emi says tauntingly.
“No, I’m just a bit heartbroken that your morning pep talk was coloured by an ulterior motive.”
“I don’t lose bets, Hisao. I find loopholes.” She nudges my shin with her prosthetic leg. I guess she has a point.
“Well, gossip girl, since you’re so interested, we just went downtown and saw a couple of movies after class. Why, are you jealous?”
She scoffs and rolls her eyes. “Oh PLEASE! I don't date couch potatoes. I just need to make sure your girlfriend isn't screwing with your priorities. Health comes first, Hisao."
Girlfriend? Is that what Miki’s been telling people? I find myself wondering what kinds of conversations Rika and Miki have after their evening runs. Rika hardly said anything to me on the bus ride home from the cinema last night. She was even more quiet and aloof than usual. She held my hand. She said “Goodnight” before we went our separate ways. At what point did things become official between us? Did she tell people what happened in the theater? Does she think of me as her “boyfriend” now? Is that why she was so… forceful with me last night?
I turn my thoughts once more to Emi who is again giving me that pleading puppy-dog look of hers. I can't help wondering whether she actually is a little jealous. We've joked around about our relationship before but I've never really thought of her as more than just a pal. I know her concern for me is genuine, even if she doesn’t always agree with me, and I hope my relationship with Rika doesn't come between us.
“Emi, you’re the best Mom a guy could ask for.”
She crinkles her nose at me and punches me in the shoulder, then springs to her proverbial feet.
“And you’re the smelliest kid a woman could have. Hit the showers, loverboy.”
She dashes off for another run. It’s shaping up to be an interesting day. Hopefully interesting enough to keep my eyes open.Scene 4: Symptoms
At my old high school, when you wanted to miss a day of school, you just stayed in bed. I don’t need to be told that the same thing won’t be true at Yamaku. I haven’t missed a day of class since transferring here, but if I didn’t get out of bed and come to my classes I figure I’d be woken by the sound of paramedics breaking down my door.
The burst of energy I got from my morning run with Emi fizzles out before I reach the school, and I don’t even bother heading up to 3-3. 15 minutes before classes start, I’m sitting in Nurse’s office on his examination table.
“You’re not feeling well? How so?”
“I don’t know,” I mumble.
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to be a bit more specific than that if I’m going to let you leave without recommending a hospital stay. What are your symptoms?”
I suppose it’s not fair to worry him.
“I didn’t get any sleep last night and I thought a little exercise this morning would be enough to get me through the day. Turns out I was wrong. I don’t think I can stay awake during class, so I wanted to just head home and sleep.”
“Hmm, insomnia.” He jots something down. “You’ve been taking your medications?”
“Yeah, every day.”
“Before bed, or in the morning?”
“Every morning like you suggested.”
“You’ve been missing your morning workouts, too, I’m aware. Is that because you’re having trouble sleeping?”
“No, this is the first time.”
He puts his pen and pad on his desk and sighs.
“I don’t think you’re telling me the whole story here, Hisao. I wasn't always the dashing paragon of maturity that I am today. I was a kid like you, once. Now listen, Hisao... I can’t control the choices you make, but it’s my duty as your school nurse to make sure you’re smart about it.”
He opens up a drawer and produces a couple of pamphlets, and what I recognize as a small pack of condoms.
“Trojan Juniors. I had to special order those for you on the internet. The school only carries them in grown up sizes.”
Funny guy. I look at the pamphlet. “Golden Love: Healthy Sex for Virile Seniors.” Really, Nurse?
“I picked up a few of those at the hospital last time I was in town. They don’t have one for teenagers with heart conditions, but everything in there applies to you.”
I pretend not to notice that he’s given me two of the pamphlets, and I quickly stuff the whole care package into my backpack. It’s probably too late for me to act shocked. I don’t know if I’d have the energy for it either way. He puts his hand on my shoulder.
“Go home and get some sleep, kid. In your own bed. I’ll notify your teacher of your absence.”
I step out of Nurse’s office and close the door behind me.
Rika’s crimson eyes seize me instantly. She’s leaning up against the wall directly across from me with her arms crossed. I’m surprised to see she’s not in her school uniform. Instead she’s wearing a pair of skinny jeans and a fitted, silver pull-over hoodie, with the hood up.
She grins at her craftiness in getting the jump on me.
“Taking the day off?” she asks me.
“What gave me away?”
“Just a guess. I couldn’t get any sleep at all last night. Too much excitement. I just came here to let Nurse know that I’m taking a personal day.”
No wonder Nurse was jumping to conclusions.
Rika pulls back her hood and extracts her long silver braid, letting it hang down. She must have tucked it into her sweater to improve her chances of sneaking up on me. The two of us start walking towards the exit.
“Any reason you decided to wear your school uniform just to come pick up your doctor’s note?” she asks.
“Just a habit, I guess. Any reason you’re dressed like a drug dealer?”
She shrugs. “Maybe I’m pushing pills.”
“I could use some of those. Drowsiness?”
“Difficulty sleeping," she says flatly. "Bleeding ulcers. Shortness of breath. Loss of life.”
“In the event of sudden death, discontinue use.”
She cracks an incredulous smile. "You're making that one up."
It's nice to see her smiling without cynicism for a change. It’s the same peaceful smile from last night. I wish I could tell her how beautiful she looks right now, but I’m sure that would just agitate her. Rika seems like the sort of person who likes to have control over the way people perceive her. These fleeting moments of authenticity are just going to have to be my secret.
“I don’t think I can go to sleep right away,” she says. “Want to come over and watch some daytime TV?”
The girls’ dorm? Is that even allowed? Not that it would stop her, I guess.
“Yeah, sure, let’s do that. No scary movies though.”
She takes my hand and looks right at me with a happy glint in her tired, cloudy eyes.
On second thought, maybe I’m wrong about that smile. Maybe she knows exactly what she’s doing to me.Scene 5: Programs
Daytime television is something I hope I never learn to enjoy. Rika stares at the TV in a daze, sprawled on the couch with her head on my lap, as we spend time together in the middle of the girls’ dorm lounge. I can’t tell whether she’s really following any of what’s going on, or whether we’re both just being silent. We got here just in time to catch the end of the morning news, and are watching one of those tacky soap operas that are the hobby of bored housewives across the nation. I’ve heard that Japan is infamous in the world for its television and I don’t normally enjoy watching it myself, especially ever since I took up my reading hobby in the hospital.
Rika takes hold of my arm, which I realize I’ve been resting on her as she reclines on me. Her slender body feels almost weightless against me, though the way she's sprawled out draws my eyes to her long, shapely legs. The sweater and jeans combination accentuate her shapeliness in a way that I hadn't noticed seeing her in her school uniform. This level of intimacy would be comforting if I weren’t still so uneasy about her company. I close my eyes restfully and try to clear my mind of the day’s events, my torment at the hands of Emi, the awkward appointment with Nurse… and it leaves me only with the memory of what happened last night.
She starts to laugh, and I open my eyes and look at the TV. One of the characters on the program is a little boy with a wooden leg. Of course, it’s just a stage trick. They couldn’t be bothered to find an actor who is actually missing a leg. The prop leg looks hilariously tacky and nothing at all like a real prosthetic. The boy hobbles around while sad music plays.
“The music is how you know you’re supposed to feel bad for the little katawa,” Rika says. “In case we couldn’t figure it out.”
I try to disregard her vulgarity. “I think I’ve seen this show before,” I say. “The writers must think amputees spend every moment of their lives being pitied.”
“People love to feel pity. It’s human nature. It’s the same reason media likes to go to the Yamaku track events.”
Her negativity is oppressive and it makes me even more tired. There isn’t a hint of malice in her voice, either. Just her usual inoffensive, thoughtful demeanor. I’m surprised she talks so openly in the public lounge like this. Either she’s absolutely certain there’s no fear of anyone hearing her, or she doesn’t care. Maybe this is how all the girls at this school talk to each other when they’re just hanging out, not trying to impress each other. Not like I’d know. Nobody here really seems as comfortable with me as Rika does. I decide to change the tone of our conversation, mostly for my own sake.
“Well, it’s not all like that, I’m sure. I think a lot of people are really inspired by the stuff that goes on at the track meet. I know I am.”
She looks away from the TV and into my eyes. They’re bloodshot from fatigue, half-closed. Her irises look like starfish.
“Do you admire Emi?” she asks me softly.
“Well, everyone admires Emi, right? She’s remarkable.”
Rika sighs and looks at the TV again. “I think if you admire someone, it means you wish you were more like they are. I’m not going to deny that people get emotional watching Emi run. I’ve been to the track meetings with Miki before, and I’ve seen people crying. People who don’t even know her. But I don’t think they’re crying out of admiration.”
“Don’t you think they want to be strong, and face their fears like she does?”
“People aren’t strong because they want to be. Emi never asked to lose her legs. It’s not admiration. It’s pity. The thing Emi wants most in the world is to just be a normal girl again.”
It’s not easy to tell whether Rika’s speculating, or basing her opinions on her own knowledge of Emi. Before today the two had never even really mentioned each other. Now I’m suddenly getting the impression that there’s bad blood between them.
“Rika, you know Emi is my best friend, right? If we’re going to…” I run out of words here. Be together? Date? Do whatever it is we’re doing?
“Didn’t Emi tell you that we used to be running partners?” she says.
She reads the answer on my face.
“Well, I have nothing against her, Hisao. We just don’t really get along. Nurse put her in charge of my health, and she was always… well, I don’t have to tell you what she’s like.”
I don’t need much more of an explanation. I can’t see Rika’s strange outlook on life being at all compatible with Emi’s stubborn optimism.
Rika goes on. “I guess what really pushed me over the edge with Emi was the socks.”
“What, you mean the striped knee-highs she wears over her prosthetics?”
Rika toys with her braid idly while she talks. “She didn’t used to wear anything over her prosthetics. But when I saw her wearing those socks for the first time, I thought of what was going through her head when she put them on. I wonder if she looks in the mirror and sees the person she was before she lost her legs. That the goal of all her hard work is to undo all of the bad things that have ever happened to her and go back to being the person she was before. Is that what Yamaku means when they call her an inspiration? That she’s learning to pretend she’s just like anyone else? And that's all part of the program here. We celebrate everyone to the extent that they reach parity with what's normal.”
She pauses for me to answer, looking at me expectantly, but I’m at a loss for words, so she just continues talking.
“I’ll give you another example. Do you know Hanako? The girl with the facial scars.”
“Yes, she’s in my class, actually. I’ve never really talked to her all that much. She’s pretty timid.”
She snuggles up to me a bit more and closes her eyes. “Would you believe that she used to be worse? I don’t know what happened to her in her middle school. I can only imagine. But when she came here, she obsessively hid herself from everyone.“
Rika puts her hand up over the right side of her face, eyes still closed. “She walked around like this for a year.”
“Yeah, she still does that sometimes.”
“But not nearly like she used to. You don’t realize, Hisao. Every day, she’s a little bit stronger. A little bit more comfortable with who she is. And she’s weak, Hisao. It takes so much out of her to do the things that she does. Have you ever spoken to her?”
“Just a couple of times. We had a chat about books in the library once. Even talking to me took a lot out of her.”
“That’s what I mean. Every time I look at her, I see effort. She’s always afraid. And that’s why she’s the student I admire most.”
“But isn’t that parity, too? Just wanting to be like anyone else?”
“It’s different, Hisao. When I think of how she’ll be ten years from now, I imagine an uncompromising, strong woman who makes the world choose to accept her or reject her. And wherever she’s accepted, she’ll know it’s because of who she is, not who she pretends to be.”
I’ve never really thought of Hanako as a “strong” person before, but I suppose Rika has a point.
“Have you ever told her about how you feel?” I ask.
“No. Her teachers and her counselors tell her how brave she is all the time, and they don’t mean the same thing I do. I doubt my meaning would really penetrate the din of empty praise she gets on a daily basis.”
She yawns as she finishes her sentence and closes her eyes, starting to doze off with a peaceful sigh. Her choice of words strikes me as rather profound, especially for someone half-asleep. Come to think of it, there really are a lot of dins at Yamaku. It’s hard to see what’s really going on with anyone. People are bashful about their problems, because everyone here has a story to tell, and nobody wants to draw the spotlight onto themselves. Like an emotional white noise, you can’t hear anything over the sound of everything all at once.
Rika’s sleeping now, her head and her left hand resting on my lap. Still busy with the thought of everything she’s said, I can’t sleep, so I just watch her face as she drifts deeper, her eyelashes twitching, her mouth opening ever so slightly. Who was it that asked me a while ago whether or not I like to watch girls sleeping?Scenes 6-7