Scene 6: Fears
It’s 3 in the morning, and I’ve found what I think might be the best of all possible study hours. I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t tired at this hour. I woke up at 7:00 PM in the lounge of the girl’s dorm, in the company of Shiina and Shizune who apparently thought it best not to rouse me and evict me for trespassing. Shiina winked at me as if to say she was the reason I’d been afforded any leeway with the rules, and teased me for “snoring like a homeless person at a bus depot.” When I awoke, Rika was nowhere to be found. She must have either gone willingly or been dragged to her evening track appointment with Miki.
I tap my pencil as I try to work out the particulars of a biology report that’s due at the end of the week. It’s been a relatively productive evening, and I’ve been trying to push thoughts of the last day’s events out of my mind. This is only my second sleepless night at Yamaku, but everything that happened the day prior feels like a week’s worth of events. All the course material I’m reviewing feels like it’s all new to me. I hope this doesn’t affect my grades.
The text message notification on my phone goes off. It’s from Rika.
“Come to school.”
Why is she at the school?
“Because I want to see you.”
That doesn’t entirely answer my question, but I can’t really expect Rika to be anything but vague when she’s trying to be so mysterious. I had thought of trying to force myself to sleep with an extra “drowsiness” or two in order to straighten out my sleep schedule. She must have come to the opposite conclusion. Maybe she’s more accustomed to sleepless nights than I am.
The walk to the school building refreshes my senses. It’s a cool night, just enough to chill my breath a little bit. The weather is cloudless and the sky is lit up with stars. One of the nice things about Yamaku is it’s just rural enough that you can see the stars really well in the dark, something I never was able to enjoy growing up in the city. The moon is ominously full and it floods the courtyard with a soft yellow glow. There is a total silence everywhere. I’m not sure where she was planning on meeting me, exactly. As I approach the school doors, my phone’s text message notification beeps again.
I look straight up and see Rika staring down at me. She’s sitting on top of the chain-link fence that surrounds Yamaku’s roof, her legs dangling over the edge, swinging very nonchalantly, her hands balancing her at the sides, one of which is holding her phone. She clutches the bar and leans forward slightly to look down at me better, her long, bare legs anchoring her against the fence, her silver braid dangling in front of her. The school is tall enough that she’s too far away for me to speak to her discreetly. The ever-present glow of the moonlight causes her bright visage to pop out vividly against the black sky. I can see the redness of her lipstick, the bright luminosity of her fiery eyes, the wicked, sly, tight-lipped smirk that is a permanent fixture. She’s dressed in a pair of green cotton shorts, white crew socks and a plain white tank top. Her apparent boldness and confidence is the only thing keeping my heart from giving out from second-hand fear. Is this what she wanted to do?
Before I can ask any questions, she turns and disembarks onto the roof, and I get another text message asking me to hang on. The front door of the school opens a few minutes later.
“Security is lax around here at this time of night,” she says in a hush, “but we have to be quiet.”
She takes my hand and we enter the school, which is almost pitch black. How she can find her way around here without any light, I don’t know. She must come here a lot after hours.
We ascend the many flights of stairs to the roof. My heart starts to beat a bit more rapidly. Emi would be pleased to know that I’m doing a little extra cardio.
Rika throws the door to the roof open, and we walk out onto the gravel-covered rooftop of Yamaku. I’ve been here once before, on a lunch date with Emi and Rin, but it looks eerily dissimilar under the moon’s glow, with this stillness and silence everywhere.
“Home free,” Rika says, closing the door behind us and locking the handle. She guides me towards the back of the school, where the chain link fence abruptly stops, leaving a bare ledge with a very small concrete border just a foot above the gravel. She hops up onto the ledge and starts to do a mock balance-beam walk. I reach out instinctively to stop her but she proceeds undeterred, taking one cautious step before the other but walking rather rapidly.
“Are you afraid of heights?” she asks me without looking over her shoulder.
“I guess, a little,” I reply. “Aren’t most people?”
“Everyone is,” she says. She twirls on her heel, facing me again, her braid flipping around to her front side. I regard her cautiously, trying to remain calm, but the spectacle is still putting me ill at ease. Her arms are extended to keep her balance, and the sight of her wobbling just a bit with each step fills me with anxiety. I feel my heart rate increase, and try to take controlled breaths as I watch her. She seems to notice this in me and narrows her eyes gleefully at my reaction.
Finally, she takes a seat on the ledge and motions for me to join her. I comply, more because I want to sit down than because I want to face my fears. I try to look at the sky rather than the ground beneath my feet. She puts a hand on mine and we both stare out, me at the sky, her at the earth.
“You’re pretty agile for a slacker,” I say.
She chuckles. “There’s a lot you don’t know about me. Did I ever tell you about my first heart attack?”
“Didn’t you say it was when you were just a little girl?”
“Yeah,” she says, and pauses, a dreamy expression overtaking her. “I wasn’t even old enough to remember it, but my parents have told me this story a few times. They had taken me to a circus just at the outskirts of my hometown. I was dazzled by the trapeze artists. There was a tight-rope walker that came out towards the end of the show and my parents said that the look on my face was a sort of joy they’d never seen before. But just at the halfway point across the rope, the tight-rope walker lost his balance and fell. I must not have understood that there was a net beneath him, that he’d be okay, because I was mortified. I fell unconscious. I spent months in the hospital, going through tests and surgeries."
"So that's how you found out about your heart condition?"
She shakes her head. "We already knew. I'd already had a few corrective surgeries and was scheduled for a third one once I was old enough. That's just the first time I had a brush with death. The doctors said it wasn’t fear that caused the heart attack, it was just a 'complication.' But how could it just have been a coincidence? I still think it was that sight that did it for me. The thought that I was watching a person die.”
She stretches out along the narrow ledge, dangling her right leg off the side, and puts her head in my lap. Her hands are interlocked, sitting on her stomach. She looks up at me, forcing me to look down and be confronted with the sight of the great distance to the pavement below.
“I can hear your heart,” she says.
“I’m still not as good with heights as you are,” I admit.
“Me neither. Look,” she says, and takes my hand, sliding it down the collar of her tank top. I feel her heart beating rapidly, moreso than my own. Her skin is hot. Is she alright? She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, then goes on as though nothing was amiss.
Something else makes my heart skip. She isn’t wearing a bra.
“I fell in love with gymnastics as a kid,” she goes on. “My doctors said it was good for me, that it would keep me fit and healthy. But what I really wanted was to be an acrobat. To walk on a line between life and death. And to help others feel that way, too. Because of me. When I told my parents this, they pulled me out of the gymnastics program. That was when I was 10. I was furious. But, I understand why they did it. They never did like when I talked about those things.”
“So, now you have to sneak out of your room at night and come up here to work on your tight rope routine?”
She giggles. “I was a kid, Hisao. I grew out of that dream years ago. But I still like that feeling. Of forcing people to face their fears. People who want to feel as alive as I feel all the time. And maybe I like not being the only one who is afraid of what’s going to happen to me. You know? Besides, I’m sure nobody would hire an acrobat with heart failure. And I probably wouldn’t like it, anyways. There’s nothing real about walking with a safety net.”
I frown at her. She’s forced fear on me enough times for me to know exactly what she means. My hand starts to shake where it lays on her chest. I’m conscious of the fact that her heart rate isn’t diminishing, and that makes me even more worried. Has she been taking her meds?
“Are you okay, Rika?”
“Why? Are you afraid for me?”
“I’m afraid for both of us.”
This makes her smile. She says nothing.
I take a deep breath to try and calm myself, but the combination of the height and the intimacy are making it difficult to control my breathing. Being alone with her, feeling her body against me in this starry night up on the rooftop, makes me feel so close to her. Even though we hardly know each other. This common affliction, this thing that we share, binds us together. I feel both of our hearts beating, hers faster but slowing a bit, mine accelerating to meet hers. Almost like they’re listening to each other. Even in spite of her heart rate and her rapid breathing, her face is filled with serenity and peace. The pale moonlight fills her skin with a golden glow. Her shiny silver hair is positively glittering in the low light. Her beauty overwhelms me.
“Rika, we should get down from here. This isn’t good for us.”
She snuggles closer to me and sighs. “Just a little longer, okay?”
Scene 7: The Other
At 7:30 AM I arrive at the track and, as usual, Emi’s already running laps. Lucky for me, Emi is incapable of negativity when she’s running, so she beams at me with a smile that I probably don’t deserve. Rika had insisted we stay on the rooftop just long enough to watch the sunrise, so I wound up ignoring a few of Emi’s phone calls this morning as the two of us silently watched the sun come up over Yamaku. After all, it’s not often you get to enjoy a sight like that. We were lucky enough to evade the cleaning staff as we vacated the premises.
Even if I am late, I’m sure she’s just happy that I’m not blowing off my responsibilities again. I join her on the track and run a few laps.
Just as I’m about to make my fourth lap, I feel a tightening in my chest. Emi sees me faltering and sprints over to assist me. I can see her concern but she masks it with enthusiasm.
“Hey, no dilly-dallying, lazy butt! Do you really want me to lap you again?”
“Sorry Emi, I think I need to call it quits for today.”
She glares at me sternly, her hands on her hips. “Hisao Nakai! Did you take your meds today?”
I fall to my knees. The pain is intense, and my fingers clutch at my chest in agony. Emi rushes to my aid, putting my arm around her shoulder and helping me back to the bleachers. I sit down and take a long swig from my water bottle.
“I’m calling Nurse,” she says, and opens her phone.
“No, Emi,” I say, “I’m going to be alright. Don’t worry about it.”
“Going to be alright!?” She fumes at me, and then tries to collect herself. Her angry expression fades and all that’s left is that sad face of hers, which hits me even harder. She puts her phone away and sits down next to me, covers her face in her hands, and starts to sob. Why is she getting so worked up?
“Hey, Emi,” I say, reaching out to put my hand on her shoulder. She bats me away.
She speaks again in a quiet tremor, still covering her face. “Don’t you know what’s going to happen to you if you don’t take your medicine?”
“Emi, it was just one day. I’m sorry. I couldn’t sleep because I slept all day, so me and Rika were just hanging out and I didn’t get a chance to go back to my room before coming here.”
This is probably not what I should have said. She stares daggers at me.
“So it WAS her? What has she been telling you, Hisao?”
“Nothing, Emi. That’s nothing for you to worry about.”
Her face turns red and I can see her suppressing more anger. Tears are still flowing down her cheeks. Why is she reacting so strongly? Does she hate Rika that much?
“Listen, Emi,” I start again, “I don’t know what happened between you and Rika. I know you guys used to be running partners and I know you didn’t get along. But I am making my own choices about my health. She’s got nothing to do with that. This has just been a weird couple of days for me and I promise I’m going to take it more seriously from now on, okay?”
She stares at her feet while I talk, the rage subsiding. She sniffles. The vision really is heartbreaking. The weakness, the tears, make her look like a child.
Finally, she looks at me, a bit more collected. “Hisao, there’s something else I need to tell you about Rika.”
I tense up in anticipation. I’ve had a feeling there’s something Emi has been keeping from me.
“What is it, Emi?”
She swings her prosthetic feet as she looks down at them, trying to retain her composure.
“Well, Hisao… there used to be another boy like you at Yamaku. I never really talked to him a lot because he was a junior when I started here, but he was paired up with one of the girls in his class who was on the track team. Like us.”
Her eyes meet mine. They are filled with pain. Why has nobody told me this before?
She continues. “And he…” She trails off, tears welling up in her eyes again.
My face reddens and I speak with trepidation. “Emi… what happened to him?”
She takes a deep breath before continuing, her voice saturated with pain.
“He died, okay? I wasn’t supposed to tell you but I just can’t keep it from you anymore. When you do stuff like this, I just… I just don’t want you to die, okay?”
She collapses in a fit of tears again and I hug her, stroking the back of her head. Her tiny frame presses against me as she sobs into my shirt. A million thoughts rush through my head. I can understand why people would keep something like this from me, but why is Emi suddenly telling me all of this? What’s different about our situation now? And then I remember something she said earlier. I let her calm down a bit before speaking again.
“You said you had to tell me something about Rika. What does this have to do with Rika?”
She takes another deep breath and pries herself from my embrace. After a long pause, she speaks.
“Hisao, Rika was... his girlfriend.”