13. The Nail that Sticks Up
Emi Takada’s car was nestled in the Mori Tower parking garage, looking small and fake under the fluorescent lights; a boxy blue toy, like something from a capsule machine. Shiina Mikado stood next to it, wearing the widest smile she could manage, and watched Emi help Lilly Satou into the front passenger seat.
It’s almost over, she told herself. Just a little longer now.
“You okay there?” Emi was asking.
“Fine, thank you.” Lilly sounded unsure. She’d drunk at least two more glasses of wine during the meal.
“Of course, of course.” Shiina watched her through the window, saw Lilly fumbling for the strap. Rin Tezuka was already in the back seat, lolling against the car door as if she lacked the strength to hold herself upright. She hadn’t drunk anything other than orange juice, but had complained midway through the evening that her head was hurting again. Emi had taken a packet of pills from her bag and given her two, and Shiina couldn’t remember Rin saying very much at all after that.
Emi closed Lilly’s door, then came around to Shiina’s side of the car. “Remember what we talked about, Misha. This asshole might decide to branch out, so stay safe, yeah?”
Emi had used her old name again, but she’d been doing it all evening. Shiina didn’t bother to correct her. “I’ll be careful, Emi-chan.”
Quite unexpectedly, Emi lurched forwards and hugged her awkwardly. “It was really good seeing you again.”
“You’ll stay in touch?”
“Of course I will,” she lied. She couldn’t bring herself to lift her arms and hug Emi back, not properly. “I’ve got all your numbers now.”
The last part was true. Emi had insisted on tapping her details into Shiina’s phone, along with those of Lilly and Rin and Shizune. As soon as she was alone, of course, she would delete them all. Just in case she suffered a moment of weakness – while drunk, perhaps, or especially lonely – and was tempted to use them.
Misha had been told, a great many times and by a great many people, that she was loud and annoying and uncomfortable to be around; that her behaviour was disruptive, that her voice and her laugh were obnoxious. And although Shiina Mikado had left Misha very far behind her, she would no longer risk inflicting herself on anyone she didn’t have to.
“I’ll look forward to it.” Emi straightened up, in that slightly stiff, mechanical manner forced on her by the prosthetics, and turned to Shizune.
“Thanks for everything, scary girl. I mean it.”
Shizune beamed and signed a rapid response. “I’ll call you whenever I hear anything,” Shiina translated. “I’m sure you’ll be quite sick of me before all this is through.”
“Not a chance.” Emi winked at her, opened the car door and folded herself down inside.
Shiina head the engine clatter into life. She raised a hand to wave, and as she did so she noticed that Rin was looking at her through the window, intensely, her head tilted slightly as if Shiina was a puzzle she was trying to solve.
As the car pulled off, a sudden smile, small but quite beautiful, lit up Rin’s face.
And then they were gone, a little blue toy rolling away from her under the striplights. It swung towards a ramp, passed behind a wall, and vanished.
Shiina let out a long breath. One more thing to do and then she could escape, find her way to the bus stop and go home. Crawl under her duvet and forget that this terrifying, shameful night had ever happened.
She turned. “It’s time for me to go, Shicchan.”
Shizune didn’t reply. She just stood there, studying Shiina with that cool, analytical gaze that made her feel as though she were a bug under a microscope.
“It was good seeing you again. I’m sorry if I embarrassed you. I hope everything’s going to be-“
Shizune stepped forwards and slapped her, brutally hard, across the face.
She stumbled back, too shocked even to cry out.
[How dare you?] Shizune’s hands were trembling as she signed. [How dare you? Not one word in three years. Not one. I emailed and you never replied. I texted and my phone was blocked. I begged my father to call your parents, and when he finally did they told him you’d moved away.] Shizune’s face was twisted with fury. She was signing so frantically now that Shiina could barely read her. [You made them lie for you! How despicable!]
Not a single word was untrue. Shiina couldn’t deny any of it, even if she had wanted to. All she could do was to stand there under the hard harsh light, her face hot with shame and the sting of the slap, and watch Shizune list her crimes, one after the other.
[And when you finally resurface I find you skulking in the dark, spying on my friends, hiding behind my back like a thief. How dare you?]
“It’s not like that,” Shiina spoke out loud, hoping Shizune could read her lips in the unnatural light. She didn’t trust her hands. “I just needed to make sure you were okay, Shicchan!”
[I’m not okay! How could I be okay?] Shizune took another step forwards, making Shiina cringe away from her. [I haven’t been okay since you cut me off. All I ever wanted to do was apologise to you, and you never even gave me the chance!]
“What? I don’t understand, there’s nothing to apologise for.”
[Liar! I know I hurt you. I know I drove you away. I hate myself for it.]
“No, please don’t say that!” Shiina was being loud again, horrifyingly so. She could hear her own voice echoing around the car park. The sound of it made her want to vomit, but she couldn’t keep it down. “You were supposed to hate Misha, not yourself!”
[That was never going to happen!] Shizune’s face was crumpling. She stopped signing for a second to drag her glasses off and rub her sleeve roughly across her eyes. [You were my best friend, my only friend! I could never hate you!]
“You were supposed to forget all about her! You were supposed to let her go!” Shiina shut her eyes and staggered away. What little control she had left was gone, shattered by Shizune’s words. She got two steps away before she broke down entirely and collapsed to her knees, sobs tearing their way up from deep inside her, as painful as a slap, as bitter as bile. “I thought you were okay! I thought you’d forgotten all about me!”
And then, impossibly, Shizune was down beside her, arms around her, drawing her close. Hugging her tightly, stroking her hair. Making the only voluntary vocal sound Shiina had ever heard from her; so soft, so quiet that it was barely audible over her own weeping.
“Shh,” Shizune breathed, as they knelt together on the cold concrete. “Shh.”
Shizune drove her out of Roppongi, away from the crowds, to a street where the bars clustered under a forest of buzzing neon as if huddling together for protection. And there, in the back of a sports bar so narrow it was little more than a corridor she bought Shiina skewers of fried chicken and a large brandy. [Drink that, then eat those.]
Shiina could barely look up from the tabletop. [You already bought me dinner, Shicchan.]
[You picked at a few salad leaves. That’s not eating.] She pushed the brandy towards her, defiantly. [Drink. You’re still shaking.]
Shiina lifted the glass. It took both hands wrapped around it to get it to her mouth without spilling, and when she sipped it the vile stuff coursed down her throat like acid. She almost gagged.
She nodded. [I’m sorry to be such a bother.]
[Are you going to stop apologising, or am I going to have to slap you again?]
Shizune was smiling as she signed that, but as soon her hands stopped moving she began to rub one unconsciously with the other. Her right hand was hurting.
Somehow, that made Shiina feel even more guilty. By way of apology she gulped down a mouthful of the brandy and then picked up one of the skewers, nibbled off a section of chicken.
It was delicious. Shiina normally didn’t allow herself fried foods, hadn’t done in a long time. Now she remembered why. She forced herself to set the skewer down.
[So.] Shizune sat back. [How did you find us?]
For a few seconds Shiina couldn’t answer. She tried desperately to think of a lie, an evasion. An excuse to get up and run out into the night.
And then she thought: why?
It didn’t matter if she left or if she stayed. Every wall she had worked to erect in the past three years was already gone. Shiina’s mask had been torn from her; she was exposed, laid open, gutted like a fish.
There was no point in hiding anything anymore. [I called your office,] she signed miserably.
[Try again. I told them not to say where I’d gone.]
[They didn’t. They didn’t need to.] She paused for a moment, took another gulp of the brandy. Waited as it traced a line of fire down into her gut. [When I got that call from Emi I knew things were worse than she was letting on. And I just got this stupid idea in my head that something had happened to you. I got really scared, Shicchan.]
Shizune adjusted her glasses slightly, as if doing so would allow her to bore even deeper into Shiina’s soul. [Go on.]
[I couldn’t get it out of my head. I couldn’t do my work. I couldn’t do anything. So eventually I gave up and called your office, just to ask if you were there. But they said you were out with clients.]
[Well, you told me a long time ago that you only felt comfortable at three places. It’s karaoke night at Doki Doki Danger, and Bright Lighthouse is closed for redecoration. So it had to be Accelerando.]
Shizune raised her eyebrows. [Good work. You always were smarter than you gave yourself credit for.]
[Not that smart, Shicchan, I went to the other two first.]
One of Shizune’s hands went to her mouth, as if to hide a smile. Then she glanced away, closed her eyes for a moment.
[Shiina, I’m so sorry.]
[That’s okay, I deserved it.]
[Not for the slap, damn right you deserved that.] Her shoulders rose fractionally in a shrug. [I mean for everything else.]
Earlier she had looked furious. Now Shizune just seemed dejected, which was far, far worse. Shiina could hardly bear to see it. For a moment – a weak, shameful moment that immediately made her want to pick up one of the skewers and drive it hard into her own thigh – all Shiina wanted to do was take Shizune’s hands in hers, and hold them tightly.
[You didn’t do anything,] she signed instead.
[I did, though, didn’t I? At school, and for a long time afterwards.] Shizune picked up one of the skewers and bit off a nugget, began to chew on it thoughtfully. [I was always hard on people, Shiina, you can’t deny that. I used to tell myself I was being tough but fair, that it was for their own good. That they needed me to make them happy, otherwise they’d just sit around and be lazy. But it wasn’t true. At best, I was using them. At worst, I was being a dick.]
Shiina coloured. [That wasn’t how it felt to me, Shicchan.]
[You were a special case. In lots of ways.] Shizune smiled sadly. [But in other ways, all the ways that mattered, I treated you worst of all, don’t you think?]
[I don’t know what you mean.]
[Taking people for granted: that’s worse than manipulating them.] Shizune paused for a moment, and Shiina realised that opening up like this was at least as hard, if not harder, than it was for Shiina.
[In that last year, after Nakai died, things were so hard for everyone. Every day a new story in the papers, every day a new rumour about lawsuits or financial troubles. So I convinced myself that they all needed my help. I went into overdrive, I think. And I dragged you along for the ride, didn’t I?]
Shiina frowned. [You didn’t drag me anywhere. I stayed by your side because that’s the only place I wanted to be.]
[And I knew that. I worked you like a dog for the sake of that stupid Student Council.] She made a disgusted face. [I’m so ashamed of myself, looking back. Repulsed. I’m just glad you managed to get decent grades in spite of everything I put you through.]
Shiina barked a laugh. It was barely out of her before she clamped a hand over her mouth. Fucking brandy!
Shizune had seen it, though. Even if she hadn’t, she couldn’t have failed to note the startled reactions of the bar’s other customers. [What?]
[Nothing. Everything’s fine, Shicchan.] She saw Shizune’s eyes narrow. [Honestly.]
Several seconds passed. Shiina did the best she could, keeping herself very still, focussing on the way the TV behind the counter sent tiny flickers of reflected colour skittering off Shizune’s glasses. But, in the end, she didn’t stand a chance.
She folded. [I’m sorry, I lied. My grades weren’t all that good.]
[How bad were they?]
[Bad.] Shiina grinned nervously. [Really, really, really bad. Sorry.]
[You told me they were okay.]
[I couldn’t tell you the truth, it was too awful. And I didn’t want to trouble you, Shicchan.]
Shizune looked horrified. [How did you get into college?]
[I didn’t. I couldn’t go anywhere. I’d failed everything. I didn’t have any qualifications. I managed to get a temp job, but I got fired from that after a few weeks.] She smiled ruefully. [For disruptive behaviour. A couple of months later I got another one and the same thing happened. Turns out the only person who could stand to be around me was someone who’d never heard me talking.]
This time, she did reach out to take Shizune’s hands, if only to stop her words. She shook her head, then began to sign again. [It’s okay, really. I mean, things were bad, for a long time. Mom and Dad were really kind, but I could tell what a disappointment I was to them. I got really low, Shicchan. I thought all kinds of bad things.]
[No. Don’t say that.]
[It’s true, sorry. But then…] She paused, wondering how much she should say. Perhaps there were some things she should keep secret, at least for now. [But I had some good luck. I got in touch with someone, someone I could talk to about what was happening. And after a while, I realised what I needed to do.]
This was going to be the hardest part. She drained the brandy. [Shicchan, do you remember that day, back in school? I told you something. I told you that I wanted to be with you. I confessed to you.]
[Of course I remember.] Shizune blushed slightly. [Do you honestly think I’d forget something like that?]
Shiina smirked. [I tried to. You rejected me, and that was really hard. And then you said you still wanted to be my friend. And that was even harder. But I told myself that being around you, just being your friend, would be enough. And in lots of ways it was. I don’t regret making the decision to stay by your side, Shicchan. Not for a second. But…]
[But I never stopped loving you.]
She saw the look on Shizune’s face change – from concern and apprehension to shock, embarrassment. Something else that she couldn’t quite fathom, and if she stopped to try she would lose her nerve. [I’m so sorry, Shicchan, I know that’s not easy to hear. It’s not easy for me to tell you, either. But it’s true.] She shrugged helplessly. [I was in love with you all the way through school, and afterwards too.]
[Why didn’t you say anything?] Shizune’s signing was becoming unfocussed, imprecise. Her hands were shaking. [Why didn’t you let me know that’s how you felt?]
[Because I knew you didn’t feel the same way. It would have just caused us both more pain. But you see, that was what was holding me back. I was still Misha then, and Misha wanted you. I was twenty-one and still a lovesick schoolgirl.] She smiled, and for the first time in as long as she could remember the expression didn’t feel like a disguise.
She couldn’t quite decide whether that was due to alcohol or honesty, but for the moment it didn’t matter.
[So I left Misha behind. I dyed my hair back to brown. I started seeing a speech therapist. I enrolled in cram classes, days at first and then evening classes when I got a part-time job. I’m working now, Shicchan, in the same college where I’m taking my exams and doing my advanced sign qualifications.]
Shizune looked at her oddly. [Isn’t that a conflict of interest?]
[It’s okay, they don’t mind. And I’m doing well. I have some friends now, some from work and one from before. I can pay my parents some rent money. Some days I almost feel like a grown-up.]
[And that’s why you cut me off.] Shizune looked away for a moment. [It all makes sense now. Thank you for telling me.]
[I’m so sorry, Shicchan.]
[No more apologies, Shiina. Just tell me one thing.]
[Of course, anything.]
[Did it work?]
Shiina paused. [I thought it had. But then Emi called, and suddenly all I could think about was making sure you were safe.] She slumped back in her seat. [I guess I never got over you after all.]
[Well, that’s good, you little twit, because I never got over you either.] Shizune leaned towards her, half over the table. [Don’t you understand? Why do you think I hated myself so much for driving you away? Why do you think I asked Emi to call you? I had no idea how much I needed you until you’d gone!]
Shiina stared at her, completely unable to process what she’d just seen Shizune say. She didn’t even realise that there was music coming from her bag until she noticed Shizune’s phone trying to crawl off the tabletop.
They both reached for their respective mobiles at the same moment, Shiina wondering if Shizune was as glad of the distraction as she was. She saw Shizune flip hers open and frown at the screen.
Hers was still chiming. She pulled it free and swiped it. “Hello?”
“Misha, it’s Emi. Where are you? Are you home?”
“Um, no. I’m still out with Shicchan. Is something wrong?”
“I just texted her. We were listening to the car radio and I think something’s happened. Are you anywhere near a TV?”
“Hold on.” Shizune was sliding out from behind the table. Shiina watched her step across to the counter, reach up to the screen and switch channels.
The picture changed, floodlit green sports field flicking into rain-soaked grey and fluttering sparks of blue-white light. “NHK, is that right? I think there’s a breaking story.”
She got up to stand next to Shizune, initially unsure of what she was looking at. The scene was moving, jolting, the camera being held by someone trying to walk backwards. She could see a street, utterly unremarkable, apartment blocks and vending machines, but it seemed to be half-full of police cars and uniformed men.
Text was scrolling across the lower edge of the screen: …suspect in the murder of architecture graduate apprehended in…
“Oh my God. Emi?”
A knot of policemen moved past the camera. In their midst, a hunched figure, head obscured by a draped blanket. Shiina watched as a car door opened to admit the captive and then a hand came up over the camera lens. The picture whirled away into a frozen smear of static.
“What is it? What’s happened?”
“Emi-chan… I think they’ve caught him. It’s over.”
Last edited by Sadako
on Wed Sep 02, 2015 9:16 am, edited 1 time in total.