I'm just surprised to find this still getting views. Here is the conclusion. There may be some editorial flaws that I'll tidy up later, but it's late by my standard and I have class in, oh, five hours? So I should post it now and worry about those later.
I want to thank you guys again for taking the time to read this and provide feedback. I guess I have a backlog of comments to read.
Scene 14: At Home
I’d been expecting to miss a good portion of my summer holiday, let alone the last few days of school. I don’t exactly feel as good as I ever did, but I guess there’s not a whole lot of reason for me to be staying in hospital instead of staying here at Yamaku, which is almost as much a hospital as it is a school. I was released after only two days of being in the hospital, quite a big change from my last stay. To my surprise, Mrs. Ibarazaki insisted on coming to pick me up when I was discharged. I’d been dreading an awkward car ride with Emi, but she did me the courtesy of acting as though nothing had even transpired between us. True to form, she had no shortage of small talk to fill what would otherwise be an awkward silence. There was a brief moment after we were dropped off at school when it seemed like Emi was about to hug me, or break down crying again, but instead she just put her hand on my shoulder and gave me a forced smile as if to say, “let’s just put it all behind us.”
Now I understand why Rika doesn’t read in the hospital. After my first heart attack, all I wanted to do was forget about my brush with death, forget who I am, where I found myself, and just pretend it wasn’t so. Pretend I wasn’t me. So I took comfort in books, and for a brief while at Yamaku, in the happy company of the few friends I came very close to making, and who gradually were delegated to the role of peer, classmate, acquaintance.
I don’t resent Rika for rousing in me this encroaching sense of isolation. Emi’s not entirely wrong when she suspects that I’m a different person now than when she met me, and that it has a lot to do with Rika’s influence. But it isn’t her fault, after all. It’s neither of our fault. It’s just the way things are.
Today was the last day of school before the summer break. I got a text message from Rika telling me she was coming home. Whatever the reason, she ended up having to stay a few days later than myself. I don’t know much about why Rika had to stay in the hospital to begin with, since the only thing anyone told me was that she “came close” to having a heart attack. It makes me wonder how many of these short hospital stays Rika has grown accustomed to, and how many more are yet to come for either of us. Both of us, even. I can’t help smiling a bit at the thought. Rika and Hisao in hospital together, over and over. What would people say?
Thinking about her brings to mind that last question she posed to me. How can I live with myself? Not a rhetorical question. Not a rebuke. Something that really did require an answer, and I’m still not sure at all. Maybe just one of her jokes. A bit of her own homework to keep me thinking of her in her absence.
But it tells me more than it asks me. I think of the incident in the woods by the school where Rika almost died, when she was asking me questions about Iwanako… it seemed strange to me at the time that she should take such an interest in her. She’s not the jealous type, after all. And it’s hard for me to vividly recall any of the things she said to me on that evening, because my memory is so crowded with the images that I’d rather forget. Of Rika laying there in the grass, her exposed, paper-white skin and her stillness that made me think she certainly must have died.
And now, as though transported by my thoughts, there she is, standing right where we were on that very same night, her grey hood pulled over her head, but failing entirely to cast a shadow over her radiant features. She seems to be holding something in her arms, but my gaze is locked by her bright crimson eyes. With a vague smile she simply turns away from me on the footpath and emerges into the clearing.
There was a time when Rika’s tendency to simply be everywhere used to startle me, but maybe because my thoughts have been carrying me here, to this place, and my thoughts have been on her, there's nothing surprising about her being here. It’s night, and the scenery of the woods is every bit the same as it was then: so dark that there’s no colour anywhere, the trees and their leaves and branches all the same silvery sheen as the bright moon that hangs over us, illuminating the wood through the canopy of tree branches, the only sounds being the slight rustle in the breeze and the faint chattering of crickets. Like a sleepwalker, or a lucid dreamer realizing that he’s not dreaming at all, I absent-mindedly follow her lead.
“Can I ask you something?” she says, still facing away from me.
“What was going through your mind, right after Iwanako? During those months where you sat around reading. You did think about things other than books, didn’t you?”
I shrug. “I was scared. I was worried about the future. I couldn’t stop thinking about how they told me that it was a ‘miracle’ I’d been able to live so long without any problems. Like my miracle was over, and the life I thought I was living was just an illusion, a dream that I was waking up from… and now reality was hitting hard, for the first time in my life. But the whole time I couldn’t shake the sense that I’d lost everything I knew. By the end of it, well… I was just feeling sorry for myself. What did I do to deserve it? To deserve any of this?”
“Funny you should say that,” she says with a brief glance over her shoulder. “If you’re so worried about deserving it, then have you ever thought that maybe there’s something you need to do? Maybe justice doesn’t always work in the order we expect it to. Maybe I was punished yesterday for the thing that I am going to do today. What do you think of that?”
“You’re talking about that question you asked me, right?”
“Has it been bothering you?”
“Well, yeah. The answer seems pretty simple. I can’t let myself feel guilty for the things that I can’t control. The only way to live with myself is to just forgive myself.”
She stops walking and turns around to face me, a gentle, patient expression on her face. Smiling, she closes her eyes and shakes her head.
“No. I’ve been here for a lot longer than you have, Hisao. You try that at first, but then you start to doubt. You start to think the only reason you’re willing to forgive yourself is because of how badly you need to hear it. And all of the things that people say… they confuse you. People tell you it’s not your fault, but what do they know? And just as many people think you really are evil. So you’re alone, and nothing anyone says means anything to you.”
Kneeling in the grass, Rika sets down the thing she’d been holding in her arms. In the moonlight of the clearing I finally recognize it as the jar of fireflies she’d kept with her at her bedside.
“One of the nurses at the hospital used to do this as a hobby,” she explains as she begins to unscrew the lid. “She taught me a few tricks for keeping them alive longer. There were only two of them by the time I came home, but can you believe it? It’s been almost a week.”
I kneel down and examine the contents of the jar. A little spot of light, fainter than it was in my memory, glows like an ember in a pile of grass.
“I only see one,” I say.
Rika furrows her brow, scrutinizing the contents of her jar, and her expression darkens. After a few seconds, she sighs and rises to her feet, leaving the open jar where she’d put it. I watch for a second, expecting the little creature to fly to freedom, but it stays where it is. I guess it’s hard to adjust to that kind of change when you’ve grown used to living in an artificial environment. Rika begins walking back into the woods, down the pathway leading to the school. After another last look at her little souvenir, I catch up with her. In the serenity of silence we walk together, hand in hand, back down the footpath in the woods, completing the walk we started what seems like a lifetime ago.
“Do you want to hear the answer?” she says after a brief silence.
“Let’s hear it.”
She tilts her head at me playfully, looking up at me from under the cover of her hood. There’s a gentle smile on her face. Warm, genuine. It’s infectious.
“You need to find your mirror,” she says.
“You mean a person who’s just like me?”
“I used to think so,” she says. “But it’s not quite like that. When you look at your reflection, what you’re really looking at is the mirror. The mirror is something that shows you who you really are. Sometimes you would swear that it’s looking right at you, but it isn’t. You’re the only person in the room, alone as you ever were. But when you’re looking at the mirror, that illusion tells you the perfect truth. A painting can lie or distort the truth. A photograph only shows an instant. But the mirror shows exactly what it sees, because it’s totally innocent. It doesn’t even know that you’re watching.”
I can’t help smiling a bit in spite of her solemn tone. I wonder how much time she spent lying in her hospital bed, trying to figure out how best to make this concept more complex than it has to be.
“I don’t see how that answers the question, though,” I say.
She stifles a chuckle. “I’m mean to you, Hisao. It’s a trick question. The answer is that you don’t have to live with yourself. Not if you’re lucky.”
Scene 15: Ontology
Before long the path leading to the school comes to an end. It’s the middle of the night, but still early by our standards, and it goes without saying that neither of us wants to head back to our dorms quite yet. Once we’re out of the woods and back at the Yamaku campus, Rika grabs my arm to stop me from walking any further.
“Let’s go to the school,” she says.
“Why? You feel like you got cheated out of a last day of classes, or something?”
Without answering my question, she takes the lead, traipsing through the front yard of the school without even pretending to be the least bit worried about being caught. Security really must be lax around here, I think. I follow her lead, hands in my pockets, trying my best to keep my cool.
When we arrive at the front door, I pull on the handle instinctively only to notice that it’s locked, as I should have expected.
“Well,” I say with a shrug, “I guess it’s time for you to reveal one of your magic tricks to me.”
“You’ll be disappointed,” she says, rummaging through the pockets of her sweater and producing a ring of keys. Where did she get those? With a loud click, she opens the door.
“But don’t worry, Hisao. If it’s secrets you’re after, I’ve got a good one for you. Did you know that this school is haunted?”
Before I can respond, she drags me into the darkness of the main hallway, faintly lit by the slight glow of a nearby vending machine. Pulling back her hood, drawing her braid out and letting it dangle in front of her, she takes a long glance at the empty hall before her, sighs, and turns to face me.
“Welcome to the Yamaku School for Disabled Children, Mr. Nakai. A state of the art facility where the disabled, the different, the dying, can live in peace with one another and not feel like outcasts. A noble goal, isn't it?”
I shake my head at her. “I’m not sure that’s even possible.”
She frowns playfully and places her index finger on my chin. “Now, now, Mr. Nakai. We don’t care for cynicism here at Yamaku. Come on, let me show you around.”
She grabs my by the wrist and trots down the hall. I take a quick glance around, apparently the only one of the two of us that’s worried we might get caught. But there’s nobody in sight. We’re the only ones here. In the dark, in the absence of anyone else, the place almost looks completely foreign to me.
I hear the jingle of her key ring again as Rika unlocks another door. A feeling of déjà vu overcomes me as the two of us step inside my homeroom, 3-3. By force of habit I start walking in, but Rika takes me by the shoulder and spins me around, looking at me with an intense expression.
“Now, before you set foot in this class, I want to warn you that what you see might be alarming. We have a very diverse student body with many different… challenges, and some of them might be things you’ve never seen before. But I want you to just smile, be polite, and try not to stare. Can you do that for me?”
She purses her lips, maybe fighting off a grin in an effort to sustain the charade, and I nod at her, stepping past her into the classroom.
The curtains of the window have been left drawn, and a broad beam of pale moonlight creates an eerie presence. I stare for a moment at the desks, taking a wide, familiar glance across the old scene. Either because of the context or the low lighting, my mind fills in all the details of that day. A stern, bespectacled girl sits back with her arms crossed, scrutinizing me. Next to her, a cheery-eyed girl with bizarre, pink hair gives me a nod, pencil and paper at the ready as though she were expecting me to start dictating notes. Another girl hurries to cover her face, with such a scared look in her eyes that you’d swear she was the newcomer, not me. Up front, a girl with her head in her arms appears to be blatantly napping. A bored-looking girl with a dark complexion daydreams beside her, putting her hand behind her head. No, wait… her hand…?
“You’re doing that thing I asked you not to do, Mr. Nakai.”
Rika snaps me back to reality and the imagery recedes. I turn to face her where she sits in the teacher’s chair with her feet propped up on the desk, crossed at the ankles, giving me a disapproving mock glare.
“Aren’t you going to introduce yourself to your classmates?”
“What should I say?”
“Anything you’d like.”
I clear my throat, rubbing the back of my neck nervously. “Nice to meet you all. My name is Hisao Nakai. I don’t think I really belong here. You guys all seem to have like… missing limbs and stuff, but the only thing wrong with me is I might die any minute.”
I glance at Rika where she’s sitting. She knows I’m trying to get a laugh out of her, and I can see a bit of it in her cheeks, but she’s fighting it back.
“Something wrong?” I say to her teasingly. She waves her hand.
“No, nothing at all. Please, continue.”
I nod at her and turn back to the vacant classroom, and I’m utterly transported to my first minutes of class. So vivid is the memory that I almost get a bit of stage fright. One girl whispers something to another, and giggles. Someone clears their throat. I hear the impatient tapping of a pencil. Every insignificant detail that I can’t believe I remember, stored somewhere in my head, is painting a picture. I press on.
“Well, it’s like this. A few months ago I dropped dead in a field because of a love letter I got from a girl I liked at the time. It turns out I have a heart condition called Arrhythmia, which means I could bite the dust at any moment, without warning. So if you guys are okay with that, I’d love it if we could be friends, or something.”
“Or… something?” Rika interjects, rising to her feet. “Young man, you wouldn’t be abusing this occasion to try and get a date with one of the girls in this class, would you? Because that’s most unbecoming of a person with your… condition.”
“But weren’t you just saying that anything’s possible here at Yamaku? That I can be just like anyone else?”
She closes the distance between the two of us and wraps her fingers around my tie, tugging on it like a leash, until I’m at eye level with her. A menacing expression overcomes her. She looks like she’s about to say something, but she just scoffs.
We exit the classroom, her taking me by the wrist and walking at a bold, brisk pace, making no pretense of secrecy. I can hardly believe we haven’t been caught the way she’s trotting around.
“As you’re no doubt aware, Mr. Nakai, the dream of Yamaku is not self-sustaining. It takes hard work and effort. But you aren’t alone in your fight.” Again, the ring of keys makes its appearance and she opens the door to Nurse’s office.
“Does this mean we’re done playing classroom and we’re going to play doctor?” I chide her. She gives me a convincing glare. Oh well, it was worth a shot.
The door opens and the two of us step inside. “Many of the students here make regular visits to the Nurse’s office, check-ups to make sure that your transition to adulthood is nothing short of perfectly normal. Your nurse will do all he can to make sure you don’t miss out on any milestones of your young life. And most importantly, in your case, he’ll make sure you yourself never lose sight of the reason we’re all here. At the very first sign that you’re faltering, it is his responsibility to set you on the straight and narrow. But please don’t forget that you need to do your part, too. He’s a terrific motivator, but he’s not a miracle worker. After all, some people are just beyond saving.”
Her choice of words at the last point gives me chills, and I instantly recall the sight of Emi bursting like an emotional reservoir strained to its limits. Rika’s not far off-base in her characterization of Nurse, and Emi is an excellent example of a person who tries her best to keep the mission of Yamaku alive. Someone who hides her sadness even more obsessively than Rika hides her joy.
After a pause I notice that Rika’s act is faltering. Her hands at her sides, she stares for a few moments at the twin examination tables where we met. Funny how a place like this can be so meaningful to a couple of young lovers. I’ve never thought of it before, but I wonder whether she had shared appointments here with…
“It’s important that I show you one more place before the tour is over, Mr. Nakai.”
“Where’s that, Ms. Katayama?”
She looks up at the ceiling and half-smiles.
“Somewhere I want you to promise me you’ll never go again. Follow me.”
Scene 16: Tight-Rope Walkers
I take a deep breath as we emerge from the school stairwell and onto the Yamaku rooftop. Even though we haven’t been inside for long, the cool night air and the gentle breeze are exhilarating. As if I were playing the scene from memory, Rika walks right over to the break in the fence, her favourite ledge. But instead of doing a balance-beam act, she simply takes a seat and motions for me to join her, and I do.
As I sit down beside her, she shifts her position so that she’s resting her head in my lap, stretching along the length of the ledge, gazing up at me or at the sky. I look her in the eyes, still habitually disregarding the distance to the ground below. Her contemplative expression puts me at ease, a gentle smile on her lips. The last time we came here, I was afraid my heart might give out from sheer terror. Was it because I didn’t trust her not to fall? Maybe I didn’t trust her not to jump? Or maybe I didn’t trust myself? Maybe it was just butterflies in my stomach at the idea of being alone with a girl at night, or the fear of getting caught. But whatever it was, there’s very little that’s frightening about this place anymore.
“Do you believe in ghosts, Hisao?” she asks all of a sudden as she snuggles up to me.
What a strange question.
“I don’t think I do,” I say, trying not to overanalyze her words but unsure where exactly plans on taking it. She crinkles her nose playfully, narrowing her eyes.
“I knew you’d say that. A true man of science as ever. I can show you a room full of ghosts and not even begin to change your mind. I think I might be able to make a believer of you yet, though. Is it something you might be interested in believing?”
I shrug. “It’s not up to me what I believe. If I’m convinced, then I’ll believe it.”
We sit in silence for a few more moments, a look of concentration overcoming her as she assembles her thoughts.
“Have you ever been to a funeral before?” she asks me at last.
She gives a muffled giggle, closing her eyes again. “The first funeral I ever went to was last year. Everyone had something to say to me, all of it so….”
She pauses and shifts her weight against me with a thoughtful hum.
“It was the kind of thing you see on TV. But there was one thing someone said that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. I don’t even know why it got to me like it did, and I don’t even remember who said it, or how many people said it. But I want to share it with you.”
“What was it?”
She sighs. “Someone said, ‘He’ll live on in our memories.’ It made me wonder. What does it mean for someone to live on in my memories? Is he here with me every time I think of him? Because people don’t know how I remember him. If he lives on in my memories, then the person that lives on is exactly the one I remember. Every time I think of him, every time I picture his face, every time I remember the things he’s said to me… and every time something or someone reminds me of him… he comes back. His thoughts, his feelings. Because I know his thoughts. And they’re… strong. Stronger than I am.”
She trails off. I feel as though I should say something, but I’m at a loss for words. It’s plain that she’s being serious, but I am having trouble discerning how literally, or figuratively, she means the things that she she’s saying.
But there’s something familiar about her choice of words, her line of reasoning. The idea that a person can get inside of your head so much that you find yourself struggling with their ideas even in their absence, wrestling with them and feeling weak by comparison. Sometimes I can’t even close my eyes and try to gather my thoughts without hearing Rika whispering riddles in my ear.
Her eyes seem almost to tremble as she gazes at me, trying to read my thoughts. I’d like to say something to her, but I can’t. Her smile returns as she once more takes solace in my apparent inability to respond. But there’s a hint of disappointment in that smile. I don’t think I've ever noticed it before.
Maybe Meiko was right, and all of these ideas we purport to argue about are really just a smokescreen for something very simple. Just like young folk to hide our feelings behind enormous concepts.
“You talk a lot about death, Rika. But do you ever think about what it means to be alive?”
Her almost smug expression gives way to surprise. It’s not often I challenge her when she’s rambling like this, but there’s something I’m beginning to understand. Rika is afraid of her ideas. And like all things that make her afraid, she wants to put her fear in me, too.
“Rika, being alive isn’t just about having thoughts and ideas. Even a ghost can have ideas. But when you’re alive, you have this.”
I take her hand in mine and place it against my chest, our eyes still fixed.
“This is how we know that we’re alive. It’s not our thoughts, our values, or our identities. All that gives us life is our bodies. You can’t pretend there’s anything more than just that, because once you do, you start believing in things like ghosts. But you feel this, don’t you? I know you do, because neither of us could stop hearing it even if we tried. This is the heart that stopped beating when Iwanako confessed to me before you ever met me. Without this sound, there are no tight-rope walkers. No love and no fear. Do you understand?”
Before I can finish speaking, she takes my hand and places it down the collar of her shirt. The pulse of her heartbeat is rapid, and her skin is hot. The feel of the heat and of her pulse is answered by my own skin growing hotter, my own heart rate increasing, as if our bodies were sharing secrets with each other. I can feel myself beginning to sweat. As I leave my hand lingering on her chest I’m reminded of the first time we ever spent the night on the rooftop of Yamaku, laying together on the line that separates the living from the dead. Or of that day she crept up on me after my appointment with Nurse. Me in my school uniform, her dressed like a little truant.
“There’s something so fascinating about you, Hisao,” she says. “And I think I’m starting to understand what it is.”
I stroke her cheek wordlessly as she talks, watching her expression sadden and grow distant, the way she tends to in those rare, but increasingly frequent moments when she chooses to let her guard down.
“Ever since we met, I’ve been trying to show you things about yourself, things I’ve come to understand about the kind of people that we are. The doctors told you that you were always the way you are now, but we know better… we know there was a time before. A time when you couldn’t see what’s in front of you. But now, things are different, aren’t they? Your eyes are open, and you’re surrounded by people who want to live with their eyes closed. Especially here at Yamaku. And I…”
She pauses for a deep breath, her chest heaving beneath my touch, and there’s effort on her face, as if she were choosing her words carefully. Her voice starts again, this time without any of her usual confidence.
“I just don’t know what that’s like. It would be easier if everyone were just wrong. But you’ve seen all the things I’ve seen now, and they don’t… consume you the way they do me. It might not seem like much, but you don’t know how much I’ve changed ever since meeting you. I used to go days at a time without speaking a word to another living soul, just to see if I could. I was so awful to Miki when I met her, too, and she had no idea why. But I’m trying so hard to figure out how it is that you manage to make me laugh, make me care about you… and I’ve been trying it out for myself, too. Last weekend I asked you to show me the person you were before, but it wasn’t a different person at all. It was just Hisao. It’s always just been you.”
As she talks, I watch her eyes wandering across the black sky above. Funny how the two of us could find a calm moment like this here, on this ledge, where I used to be unable to even look at her without fear. Tonight, though, it feels like the most natural thing in the world that we should come here to have this conversation.
“Well, you owe me one, don’t you, Rika?”
She raises an eyebrow at me. “How so?”
“I showed you the person I was before. I went back, just for your sake, so you’re going to have to do the same for me. I want to see the girl who was so excited to go to the circus with her family the night that you saw your first tight-rope walker.”
Rika tenses, biting her lip. “I can’t even remember. I wasn’t really anyone back then, was I?”
“Well then, maybe you can be nobody at all?”
She gives me a look of concern. Fear, almost. It’s so unlike her that it feels like I’m talking to a completely different person – but it’s someone I’ve seen before. It’s that person I get glimpses of every so often. The one that she’s become so adept at hiding with her high-minded cynicism.
I clutch her hand in mine, and she squeezes it back, still silently reposing in my lap for a static moment, how long I couldn’t say. One of the nice things about the night-time is that there’s no way to tell precisely whether a few minutes or a few hours are passing. The sun marks our days and our nights, but the moon has its own logic. We only ever see one side of it, and the rest of it will always be hidden. All we can do is guess about what might be on the other side.
Now I know what I want my last words to be. But there’s so many of them, and I can only hope we have enough time for everything that needs to be said. I just need to be careful. I just need to make every word count.
“It’s nice here, isn’t it?” Rika asks.
“I’m starting to think so, too,” I say. She smiles in a more familiar way.
“Aren’t we lucky, Hisao? Everything’s so much better here, and nobody knows but us.”