Chapter 16: The First Rank (Thur, July 26)
Misha sat at her desk fidgeting with her pencil. Thursday’s classes were winding down. She looked around the room. Hisao sat to her left, and he looked like he was counting the seconds until class ended. Shizune had already put most of her books away and was looking at the blackboard. Miki pushed her desk slightly closer to Suzu’s, and the two were chatting quietly. Misha turned to the back of the class; Hanako was writing something in her notebook, heads down.
She felt a touch on her shoulder. Shizune had her focused determination face on. [We might only get one chance to get everyone together. We must get Hisao to come with us at all costs. Are you ready?]
Misha smiled as she replied. [You bet Shicchan! I’ve been looking forward to this all day.]
Shizune grinned and signed, [This is going to work. I can feel it. There's only a couple of minutes until class ends. Be vigilant!]
Misha nodded and turned back to Hisao. She knew what she needed to do. She just needed to wait until it was the right time. Why does time always move slower the closer it is to the end of the school day?
She mentally went over the list that Shizune gave her. Be packed. Be ready. Get in front of Hisao. Hold his attention. Shizune comes from behind. He’s trapped. Misha put her pencil in the bag along with her books. She was as ready as she felt she could be.
She tapped her fingers against her desk waiting for her moment. When the bell rang, it was a relief. She sprang up and, bag in hand, turned to her left. Hisao was getting up, but she was a step ahead.
“Hicchan! You’re not running off. That’s good! That’s very~ good! I need your help with something. See … um … someone delivered some, uh … food, to the student council office. Huge~ boxes of noodles for the festival. They're too big! And they don't belong there! Shicchan and I need your help to carry them to ... ah … a storage room in the cafeteria. Where they'll be safe. And not in our office.”
Hisao tried to move to the side to walk past Misha, but she slid across to cut him off. “You wouldn’t want Shicchan and me to carry those boxes all by ourselves. There’s so many! But ... not too many if we had your help. C’mon Hicchan! It won’t take too long.”
Hisao seemed to consider it as Shizune came from behind him and put her hands on his shoulders. “Yes!” Misha exclaimed, “Shicchan ... uh … knew you’d want to help. And there she is! No escaping, Hicchan!” Misha emphasized that point by placing her hand on his shoulder. “Let’s go!”
Shizune swung open the door to the Student Council office. She was surprised that it wasn't empty. Lilly and Hanako were sitting in the front right corner, and Miki was standing around on the far side of the room.
"Wahaha~! Look Shicchan, we aren't the first ones here! Hi Miki!" Misha exclaimed as she gently pushed Hisao into the room. "That's right Shicchan … this is suspicious. The council room is usually locked."
Lilly turned to her left and said, "I have a key."
Shizune's reply via Misha was immediate, "You should have returned that key when you left the council!"
"You never asked," Lilly innocently replied.
From the other side of the room, Miki laughed. Shizune stayed near the doorway and signed. Misha said, “No matter. We’re here now. Have a seat Hicchan! This really shouldn’t take long. We just need to wait for a couple of people to arrive, and we’ll start. I can’t wait~!”
Hisao hesitantly took a seat near the middle of the room, closest to the blackboard at the front. Misha sat beside him. “Okay Hicchan, I can tell you’ve noticed there aren’t any boxes to move. I may~ have stretched the truth a little. But it really shouldn't take too long.”
“Another lie?” Lilly asked skeptically.
“It’s like a surprise~ party!” Misha replied. “You can’t tell the person you’re trying to surprise that there’s a surprise party. Then there’s no surprise!”
“There’s a party?” Rin’s dry voice filled the room as she and Emi walked around Shizune and into the council office. “I thought we were going to help Hisao to stop acting so silly. Will there be a party afterwards?”
Misha hung her head. "There goes the surprise..."
Shizune closed the door and approached the front of the room. As Emi and Rin sat down near Miki, Misha leaned over towards Hisao and said, "Don't go anywhere~!" Then she took her usual place beside Shizune.
“Now that everyone is here, we can begin.” Misha’s voice easily filled the council office. “Thank you all for coming on such short notice. As you know, we are here to do collectively what we have not been able to do individually.” Shizune paused for a moment before continuing, looking at Hisao as she signed. “Hicchan, I can speak for everyone here when I say that we are deeply sorry for the harm that we have caused you. Hurting you wasn’t our intention. We just wanted you to have a story that you want to keep private, just as we do.”
“Yeah,” Miki interrupted, “we didn’t know your heart would give out on ya like that.”
“Hicchan,” continued Misha, translating for Shizune, “I think that we all wish that things could be like they were before. Do you accept our apology?”
After a brief moment’s reflection, Hisao nodded.
Misha squealed with delight, “That’s good~! That’s very~ good! So no one is upset with anyone.”
Shizune turned to the side to address Misha privately. She signed, [I don’t think he said anything. Did he say something?]
[No he didn’t.]
Turning back to face him, Shizune resumed signing. Misha said, “Hicchan, you don’t need to worry about upsetting us by saying the wrong thing.”
Rin added, “Unless it’s about the shower thingy.”
“Yes! Yes!” Misha hastily added, “But aside from that~, which you know is bad, we won’t get upset with you again. So you don’t need to worry about that anymore.”
Hisao looked at Shizune suspiciously, but she continued signing undaunted. "So it's okay. You don't need to worry anymore. Everything's okay. I know that Misha's looking forward to talking with you in class again. I really~ am! And I'm sure that everyone else is too."
Shizune looked at Hisao expectantly. But he just shook his head and looked towards the desk he was sitting at. She turned to Misha and asked, [How about now? I don’t think he said anything.]
Turning back to face him, Shizune looked serious. “Hicchan!" Misha exclaimed so loudly that Hisao looked stunned. "You’re being very stubborn. We, your concerned and hard-working friends, have all come here this afternoon to apologize and to cheer you up. Surely you realize that you have no reason to remain silent."
Lilly stood up. "If I may." Without waiting for acknowledgement, she continued, "Hisao, we understand that this situation must be overwhelming for you. Please know that we wouldn't put you through this unless it was necessary. I know we betrayed your trust, and that friendships take time and effort to repair. And I know that Hanako and I want to repair our friendships so that, as others have put it, things will be as they were before.”
“But Hisao, “ she continued, “I feel that your silence hinders you unnecessarily. It benefits no one, and it deprives your friends of your wit and charm. If you feel you must continue, then we will support you. But I implore you to reconsider. Please break your vow of silence."
Lilly sat down just as Rin added, "And stop acting silly."
Emi turned to her friend, "Rin!"
"What?" Rin replied nonchalantly.
"Don't you think that's a bit much?"
"No. He is acting silly." Rin replied. "Or he's acting badly. That's what Misha said yesterday when they had lunch with us. And he is. Silly, I mean. He's like a canvas that paint doesn't stick to."
"Wait a sec. Is that even a thing?" Miki asked Rin.
"No. Because that would be silly," replied Rin. "Canvas you can't paint on isn't canvas. Or the paint isn’t paint."
"Yeah," Emi said, "but we're trying to cheer him up, you know? Say nice things. We should try to get him to smile."
"We aren’t doing a good job. He doesn't look happy," Rin replied. "I think I’ve only seen him smile once. At the old store. Maybe we should take him there?"
Meanwhile, Lilly leaned towards Hanako, whispering, “I hope we haven’t pushed him too far. Can you describe his expression?”
Hanako whispered back, “He ... he looks … like he’s i-in pain.”
“Oh dear.” Lilly quietly muttered as her hand found Hanako’s. She gave her friend’s hand a reassuring squeeze.
"Hicchan!" Misha's voice once again filled the room, getting everyone’s attention. "As you can tell, we’re all concerned about you. That’s why we’re all here. We want you to talk to us again. Why won’t you?”
After Misha finished speaking, the room was so still that the sound of Hisao’s sigh could easily be heard. After looking around for a bit he got up to write on the blackboard.
I’ve tried to explain this. It’s just easier this way.
“But it isn’t!” exclaimed Misha, translating for Shizune. “Look around you. Your silence hurts you and us. No one is upset with you anymore. We want you to talk to us. We’re offering you the easy way out. Why won’t you take it?”
I don’t want you to know. It’s none of your business.
“But Hicchan. We’re your friends...” Misha said, her voice trailing off before returning at full strength. “Stop being evasive. It’s a simple question Hicchan. Why won’t you talk to us?”
Hisao turned to face the blackboard. His right hand trembled as he thought about what to do. Then he wrote,
It’s because I can’t.
When he turned to face the girls, he looked like a defeated young man. He kept his head down. There was a moment of silence that was broken by Misha. “Sure you can. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. It’s okay, Hicchan. You can.”
In response, Hisao just turned back to the blackboard, and underlined the words “I can’t”. He turned to look at Shizune. She looked from the blackboard to Hisao with her arms crossed. Hisao just stood beside the blackboard, waiting.
Emi’s voice cut through the tension, asking, “Wait … surely you don’t mean that. Like … you really can’t?”
Hisao meekly nodded. Then he wrote,
After I tried to find where you hid my clothes, I ran across the bathroom to untie Kenji. I slipped and hit my head hard on the shower stall.
I didn’t wake up until the next afternoon. And when I did, I couldn’t speak properly. Everything comes out sounding wrong.
The room slowly became quiet as each girl read the blackboard. Eventually the sound of Hanako’s whispered interpretation for Lilly faded into silence. Shizune uncrossed her arms, but kept looking at Hisao. After a few moments, Hisao continued writing.
When I woke up, I read Shizune’s note where she apologized. I figured the rest of you felt the same way.
After a couple days of testing the doctor's told me what they thought was wrong with me. They said I have "Apraxia of Speech."
It took a few days, but I eventually realized that none of you meant for that to happen. It was a horrible accident, and I didn’t want you to feel any worse than you did.
“Oh Hicchan …” Misha’s voice drifted off as she finished reading what he wrote. Shizune looked especially solemn before she sat down at her desk and stared across the room.
Lilly asked, “So your vow of silence was to try to prevent us from realizing the magnitude of the harm that we caused you.”
Hisao nodded, and Hanako whispered to Lilly that he had. Before Lilly could say anything else, Miki asked, “Okay, so I get it. But I don’t get it. Like, what were you thinking? Did you seriously think you could keep it up for the rest of the year?”
I was hoping I didn’t have to. I practice when I can and I’m getting better.
Rin said, “I practice talking all the time. Most people seem confused though. I don’t think it helps.”
Hisao shook his head in disbelief and wrote,
I really feel like I'm improving.
In the hospital I kept hoping that something would click inside me and I’d be back to normal. But my doctors and therapists don't think that’ll happen.
It’s rough. It’s just sad how quickly something you’ve had all your life can be lost.
“Hey Hisao!’ Miki’s call got Hisao’s attention. “C’mere. And bring your little book.” Seeing Hisao’s confused look, Miki pressed on, “Don’t think about it. Just do it.” Hisao shrugged, but gathered his stuff and went to sit with Miki, Emi and Rin.
On the other side of the room, Lilly whispered, “Has Hisao decided to join them?”
“Y-yes. H-he’s sitting beside Miki”
Lilly replied, “Well, then it would seem we have a few moments to talk amongst ourselves.” She squeezed Hanako’s hand and asked, “Hanako, how are you feeling?”
“I … I’m okay.”
“I’m glad to hear you say so,” Lilly replied. “Hisao’s admission was quite … alarming.”
"H-how about y-you?"
Lilly leaned in closer. "I am … struggling to process things. I hadn't considered that he had a hidden motive."
“Akira … she thought he was ... hiding something. So ... I thought … “
“You realized there was more to his silence than he claimed?”
Hanako nodded quickly, then quietly added, “I ... did it to him. He ... he can’t talk b-because of … me.”
Lilly could hear her friend’s breathing quicken. She leaned towards Hanako and said, “You needn’t bear that burden alone. Everyone in this room bears some responsibility for what happened.”
“I - I know. But … I …” Hanako’s voice trailed off as she couldn’t get the words to her sentence out.
“We must be strong. You told me that he wrote that his words ‘sound wrong’. Perhaps he is ashamed of the quality of his speech.”
“I … I don’t know … I …”
“When he is ready to try to talk to us, we will be ready to listen. Let us invite him to lunch tomorrow. I’m sure he will join us. What do you think?”
Hanako’s breathing slowed back to normal. “O - okay.”
While the girls on either side of the room were talking, Misha pulled up a chair opposite Shizune. Her friend seemed to be lost in thought. After waiting for a moment Misha tapped Shizune's hand. Shizune looked up at her and signed, [I should have realized.]
Misha replied quickly, [Realized what?]
Shizune looked annoyed. [The truth about Hisao’s condition.]
Misha looked around before answering, [But how? Look around Shicchan. None of us knew. You’re being too hard on yourself.]
[No, I’m not.] Shizune signed. [I didn’t understand why teachers were going easy on Hisao. I thought it might have been because it was his first week back. I should have realized the truth. He was being accommodated. That's what Mutou meant.]
Misha's eyes went wide. Then she signed, [Because it’s mean to ask someone a question if you know they can’t talk.]
Shizune nodded, [Exactly. Mutou and the other teachers knew the truth. Hisao didn’t want us to know. I drove the confession out of him.]
[But things aren’t so bad, Shicchan.] Misha signed. [Look around! Hicchan is over there with Emi and her friends and he seems okay. And Hanako is still here! I would have thought she’d have run off.]
Shizune looked around the room. Hanako looked terrified, but she and Lilly were talking about something. And near the windows, the rest of them seemed to be doing okay. She was sure she saw Miki laugh about something.
[You’re right. Even though his silence wasn’t for the reason I thought, it was still hurting him. Now he will be able to socialize again. At least he’s talking now.]
Misha looked concerned. [I don’t think he is Shicchan. I haven’t heard him say anything.]
Shizune stood up and took a couple of steps towards the window. Sure enough, she could see Hisao's notepad. He was clearly still using it.
Returning to her desk, she signed, [You're right. He is still writing notes. That won't do.]
[But what else can we do Shicchan?]
Shizune re-read what Hisao wrote on the blackboard. She signed, [If the only reason he is being silent is because he sounds wrong, then he needs more practice. He should practice in conversations with his friends. He can hear himself and correct his mistakes. But he is falling back into bad habits. He won't move forward that way.]
Misha looked unconvinced. [But what if he sounds really bad Shicchan? What if no one can understand him?]
[He won’t know until he tries. He needs constant practice if he is to improve. I won’t sit idly by while he wastes his potential.]
[Then you better think of something Shicchan. I just heard Emi saying that she doesn’t see the point in this meeting anymore.]
Shizune looked over. Sure enough, Emi, Miki and Hisao were starting to get up. Shizune shot up like a rocket and started signing. Misha translated, “Hicchan!” Everyone stopped to look at Misha and Shizune. “There’s one more thing that Shicchan wants to ask you.”
Misha scrambled to stand up while still looking at Shizune’s hands. She said, “Shicchan wants to know … wait ... that’s too fast Shicchan. Slow down. Okay! She wants to know how not talking is making you feel. She says she wants to know how you feel so she can be a better friend and classmate. Oh Shicchan, that’s sweet …”
Hisao looked over at Shizune, trying to size her up. After a moment he wrote a short note. He walked over and showed it to her. After reading it, Shizune nodded and pointed at one of the filing cabinets at the back of the room. Hisao walked over to it and opened the top drawer. Then Misha said, “No Hicchan! Behind the cabinet.” Then Hisao looked behind the cabinet, knelt down and slid a chess set out from a stack of board games.
He returned to Shizune’s desk and sat opposite her, where Misha just was. He placed the box down and opened it, revealing the chess board and pieces. He set the board down between them and started to set up the white pawns in front of him. Shizune looked very curious, but she decided to set up the black pieces for a game.
“I don’t know if I like where this is going,” Miki said to Emi. “Trying to cheer up Hisao is one thing, but I’m not going to stick around while they play a game. I’d rather be running.”
“You and me both,” came Emi’s reply.
But Hisao only set up the row of white pawns. He took the white king out of the box and set it down on the desk in front of him. Hisao stood up, and as he did so, Shizune looked confused. She took a white rook out of the box and leaned across the board to place it on its square. But Hisao interposed his hand between hers and the board and waved her off.
Shizune sat back in her chair, still holding the rook as Hisao walked over to the blackboard. He wrote,
It’s my turn and every move loses. That is how I feel.
Then he went back to the chess board and stood behind it as he placed the white king on its square with such force that the other pieces wobbled.
Shizune leaned forward, looking at the board as though she was studying the position. Rin got up from her seat and moved closer, silently examining the board from different angles and elevations. Hanako leaned over towards Lilly, telling her what he wrote and what that loud noise was.
After a while Shizune looked up to make sure she had Misha’s attention. Then she signed, and Misha said, “You can’t just wait and try to run out the clock, Hicchan. If we were at a fancy tournament, you’d run out of time and lose.”
Hisao glared at Shizune. She continued nonetheless, “Your opponent isn’t perfect. You can’t capitalize on your opponent’s mistakes if you don’t play the game. But Hicchan, if you never make a move, you will always lose. That’s no way to live.”
Hisao closed his eyes and sighed audibly. Then he carefully picked up the board and rotated it so that Shizune had the white pieces. Then he gestured for her to make a move.
Miki leaned over to Emi and said, “I changed my mind. This is getting good.”
Shizune leaned forward and looked at the board in earnest. She held the white rook in her left hand, moving it between her fingers as a magician would with a coin as she thought. Her right hand moved over the board, miming her hypothetical moves and Hisao’s potential replies.
Visibly annoyed, she put the rook down on the table and leaned back in her chair. She sighed as she looked around the room. Rin was still examining the board in her own unique way. Miki and Emi seemed to be giggling about something, probably her. Hisao, still standing on the other side of the table, had a smirk on his face. Misha was beside him, looking at her and waiting. Hanako and Lilly were sitting close together. Presumably they were talking about something.
Then Shizune’s gaze drifted back over the rook and back to the board. An idea formed in her head, and her grin matched Hisao’s. Then she looked at Misha to get her attention and signed. Misha said, “Hicchan, if you know your opponent and you know yourself, you don’t need to worry about the result of the game. But Shicchan says that you don’t know yourself. That is why she’ll beat you. Really, Shicchan?”
Then Shizune picked up the rook and put it on its square on the right side of the board. She continued signing, and Misha said, “Hicchan, you are unaware of your own strengths. Watch as I make use of what you discard. Now I can castle. It’s more than I had before.”
Hisao sat down as Rin took a look at the newly placed rook and said, “This is an unusual game.”
Misha giggled and added, “Yeah, I don’t understand it either. But it looks like fun!” She looked at Shizune, signing as she asked, “I want to do one. Can I get a castle too?” Shizune nodded and Misha squealed with delight. She took the other rook from the box and placed it on the last unoccupied corner square, saying, “Now there are two white castles!”
Shizune’s looked to her right and met Miki’s gaze. Then she nodded and gestured towards the board. Misha noticed this and asked, “Hey Miki, didn’t Hicchan draw a horse on your letter? There are a couple still in here…”
Miki sighed and said, “Fine. I guess this is a thing we’re doing. Horses beside castles, is it?” She got up and walked towards the board, taking a knight from the box and putting it on the board beside Misha’s rook. Miki turned towards Hisao and said, “So I guess that’s what you were talking about yesterday. I get it now. Just don’t let this beat you, okay? You don’t want to end up like your gaylord hallmate Setou. He’s just a loser.”
“Yeah!”, Emi chimed in, “But you’re practicing talking. And you’re gonna keep practicing it. It took me months of rehab before I could run again. But I did it, and you will too. No excuses! You’re going to beat this, Hisao.”
“But Hisao,” she continued, “You drew a horse for Miki and Rin, but not me? I told you already -- I’m the fastest thing on no legs. And horses are fast.”
Hisao looked up at Emi, waving his hands in front of him like he was trying to apologize. Emi walked over to the box and looked inside. She said, “None of these pieces in here even have hair like mine. Or hair at all. Just a horse and a tall one with a crown and these … things.” She picked up a piece, held it up for everyone to see and asked, “I mean, what are these?”
“It also isn’t a jellyfish.” Rin added. “But there are black ones of those over near Hisao.”
Lilly asked, “Does the piece have a line cut out of it near its top?”
“Yes, it does,“ Emi replied.
“Then that piece is called a bishop,” Lilly answered. She hastily added, “And it can move farther and faster than a knight.”
“Oh,” Emi replied, placing her bishop on the chessboard on the white square beside the white king. “That’s good. Okay then. Good job Hisao!” Then she turned to Rin, who was back at eye level with the chess board. “Hey Rin, you should say something next.”
“This game looks very unusual,” she replied flatly. “It’s symmetrical, but it isn’t. The row of those little pieces remind me of pawns in shogi. That game is very symmetrical. Except when it isn't.”
Emi pressed her friend and said, “No -- say something about Hisao.”
Rin stood up, looked at Hisao and said, “You weren’t acting silly after all. I guess that’s good. Just be who you are. Whoever that is. I’m pretty sure you’re Hisao. Also, can someone get a horse head and put it on the board for me? The negative space formed from the missing pieces looks interesting, but I don’t think that’s the point." Then she paused and added, "Or is it?”
Rin looked lost in thought as Emi retrieved the knight from the box. She placed it on the chessboard between her bishop and Shizune’s rook.
Hanako leaned over to Lilly and described the scene. “S-she put the knight on the board.”
Lilly giggled as she asked her friend, “Then I suppose it is the time for us to do our part. Would you be so kind as to assist me?”
“O-of course.” Hanako replied.
The two friends stood up at the same time. Lilly addressed the room as Hanako slowly made her way to the front. “Hisao, as you know both Hanako and I consider you to be our friend. You did not need to keep your apraxia a secret from us. We both want to support you and to enjoy your company.”
Hanako stood behind Shizune and took the remaining bishop and queen from the box. Then she placed the bishop on its square beside Miki’s knight. Hisao’s gaze turned from Hanako to the chessboard, now mostly set up. He looked as though he might start to cry.
Lilly continued unaware, “We will not be affected by the quality of your speech. It is the content of that speech that we miss. Please know that, if nothing else, you are surrounded by friends that are ready to support you. When you feel ready to speak again, know that we are ready to listen to you.” Then she sat back down.
Hanako fidgeted with the white queen still in her hand. She looked at Hisao and opened her mouth as if she wanted to say something. Hanako saw a tear forming under his right eye and quickly turned away. She blushed and quickly placed the queen on its square. Then she scurried back to her seat beside Lilly.
Misha couldn’t help but giggle happily as Hanako sat down and buried her face in her hands. Hisao turned to look at Hanako before looking back at Shizune. She signed, and Misha said, “You aren’t alone Hicchan. You never have been. Do you understand now?” Then Shizune picked up the chessboard and turned it so that the white pieces were back in front of Hisao. He looked down at the board with all the white pieces in their place, and broke down in tears.
Lilly sounded concerned as she said, “Perhaps it would be best if we concluded our meeting. After all, we came here to heal emotional damage, not to cause it.”
After a moment for translation Misha said, “I think that’s for the best. Thank you everyone for coming.”
Miki and Emi headed for the door. Miki said, “Hey Hisao, things will be alright. Just hang in there. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah!” Emi joined in. “And so will I. Bright and early! Don't be late! And Miki, race you to practice!”
“You’re on!” Miki said as the two girls raced out the door.
Misha got up to yell at them “Miss Miura! Miss Ibarazaki! No running in the halls!” Then, still standing she turned to Shizune, signed and said, “I’m sorry Shicchan. I tried…” Shizune nodded as she opened one of her desk drawers. She moved a few files from her desk to her bag.
Rin walked towards the door, saying, “I’m going to go now. This way. Probably.”
Misha replied, “Okay Rin! We’ll see you around.”
“Maybe. Who knows?” Rin answered as she strolled out the door.
Lilly whispered to Hanako, “Hisao seemed … distressed. Would you be so kind as to place a chair beside him? I think that we should stay with him for a while longer.”
“S-sure” Hanako replied. She found an unused chair and placed it beside Hisao. Then she went back to Lilly, to help guide her to it. As she did so, Shizune closed the desk drawer and stood up.
Lilly took her seat beside Hisao as Shizune joined Misha at the door. After some signing, Misha called out, “Shicchan says that you can stay here for as long as you need to. Just lock up when you’re done.”
Lilly replied, “We shall." She paused before adding, "Thank you both.”