This entry is more set-up than pay-off, so more is definitely owed in decent time. I just didn't want to hold out.
More to come this weekend.
Scene 5: Wards
The other students are pretty merciful about my shabby appearance in class. I woke up with an empty bed and an ominously open window, fully dressed in my school clothes, and almost late for class. Rika must have shown herself out, somehow. It would have been nice of her to make sure I got up at a decent hour, but I guess that would have come at the cost of her leaving me wondering whether last night happened or was just a dream.
So here I am, sitting in class in my slept-in school uniform and unkempt hair, being charitably tolerated by my peers. I would normally expect some gentle ribbing from Miki and Shiina, at least. But either they’re too preoccupied with the looming threat of exam week, or they’re assuming the worst of my situation and feel sorry for me. My sleeplessness and general disarray have been more or less common knowledge this past month. Even Mutou seems to have altered his attitude to me. He used to treat me like a star student, but lately he almost seems almost to have given up on me. Some of the marginal notes on my returned assignments are telling. “You can do better than this.” I guess it’s not easy putting all your hopes in a pupil only to see them consistently let you down.
The exams are my chance to restore a little of his faith in me. I wish I could tell Mutou this myself, but it’s been a while since the last time he asked to speak to me after class, and I’m not so bold as to approach him. It hurts a little every time I notice him eyeing me up, as if he were about to call on me for a question, before choosing not to.
The bell finally rings, and the students hurriedly shuffle into the hallways while Mutou tries to shout a few additional pointers about the exams to whoever might be listening. I stuff my things into my bag and head to the Nurse’s office for my last appointment of the week.
Much to my surprise, Rika isn’t present when I arrive. Nurse smiles at me and motions for me to have a seat while he flips open his clipboard.
“How’s your week been treating you, Hisao? Taking it easy on the ladies, I hope.”
I smirk at him. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Hey, it’s my job to ask. I don’t like it any more than you do.”
He flips through his clipboard, making notes as he conducts a preliminary exam.
“Either way, Hisao,” he says as he writes. “You’d better take it easy with the romance. I don’t know if she told you yet, but Rika’s been discharged from the hospital, so she’ll be back any minute, and I’d hate to see you getting caught slaking your libido. You know how Rika is. She’ll show up when you least expect it.”
I chuckle. He doesn’t know the half of it.
“You know, Nurse, there’s something I wanted to ask you. Miki invited me and Rika to go do some camping after the exams are over. We’re probably going to go, but I’m a little bit worried that it might be… dangerous for us, or not a good idea. What do you think?”
He gives me a thoughtful look, and taps his pen against his mouth, as if contemplating whether to say something. Did I ask more than I intended to?
He takes a seat across from me in his office chair.
“Hisao,” he says after a brief silence, “you know I like to enlist the help of my students in caring for one another, right?”
“Well, did you ever wonder why I do that?”
“Because you like screwing with people?”
He laughs. “Well, that too. But mainly, the thing is that as a medical practitioner I have a strict duty of confidentiality when it comes to my patients. I take my professional responsibilities pretty seriously, as you know. But a lot of the time, retaining a strict level of confidentiality puts an unfair burden on my patients to watch out for their own interests. If someone comes to me with a problem, and I give them a solution, whether or not they actually bother to apply that solution for themselves is entirely up to them. And a lot of the time, as I’m sure you know by now, people aren’t the best at looking out for their own interests.”
He sits forward before talking again, lowering his voice a bit, with a serious expression on his face. “Now, Hisao, a lot of the time this puts me in a tricky position, as you might imagine. Let’s say, for example, I got wind of the fact that you weren’t taking your medicine. I could nag you all I wanted about it, but it might not do a whole lot of good. And then, who else can I talk to? If you’re putting your own life in jeopardy, do I just sit here with my secrets and wait for you to bite the dust? I can’t do that. All I can do is make as many students as possible as nosy as possible about each other’s health. Students have a lot more freedom than I do to get in each other’s business. Do you understand what I saying?”
He puts a lot of stress on that last sentence, and I nod solemnly.
He continues. “So, Hisao, to get back to your question, the nearest campgrounds have their own on-site medical facilities and they’re equipped to deal with most medical emergencies should they arise. They’re pretty accustomed to getting campers from Yamaku. But staying in isolation like that still means that you need to be watching yourselves pretty carefully. Emergency response is still a lot slower than it is out here. So, you need to be responsible for your health. The same goes for Rika. And really, you’re in a unique position to look out for her. She trusts you.”
So Nurse is enlisting my efforts to be part of Rika’s wellness crew? I give him a reluctant nod, and he grins at me, dropping in an instant all the solemnity he’s put between us. He starts to scribble something down on a notepad.
“You’re a good kid, Hisao. I hope you guys have a good time out there and that you play it safe. Remember, having sex in tents attracts bears.”
He rips the piece of paper off the top of his notepad and hands it to me. Two phone numbers, his cell phone and his home line. I stuff it into my pocket.
The exam and the school day now over, I step out the front door of Yamaku only to find that it’s raining. Wonderful. With my morning routine as backwards as it was, I didn’t bother to check the weather forecast, so I didn't exactly dress for this kind of thing. Just as I’m about to lift my backpack over my head to shelter myself from the rain, a shadow comes over me. I turn around and once more I’m face-to-face with Rika, the girl who’s always everywhere. She’s more sensibly dressed in a hoodie with the hood drawn, jeans, and a pair of sunglasses atop her head. It takes me a moment to notice that she’s holding an umbrella over me. She gives me a patronizing smile as she takes my hand, and we start walking nowhere in particular.
“Honestly, Hisao, I don’t know how you managed to survive all week without me.”
Scene 6: Illusions
Rainclouds eerily gather in the sky as Rika and I walk down the road leading to town, hand-in-hand, sharing her umbrella. I’d asked Rika if we might stop by the boys’ dorm to so I could change into something a little less disheveled, but she just giggled and said I should stay like this because I resemble the weather. Whatever that means.
We walk together in a hush, listening to the rain as it quickens its descent, growing noisier. Cars pass us on the road, kicking up puddle water, the employees of Yamaku who are going home for the weekend.
“So,” I ask, breaking the silence, “what’s the plan once we get into town?”
“We’ll see when we get there. We aren’t the sort of people who make plans.”
A bright flash of lightning illuminates the sky, and she stops walking, raising a finger as if indicating that I should wait for something. After a few seconds she snaps her fingers, and the sound of thunder rolls out of the clouds.
“Not bad,” I say.
“Just a little trick I picked up,” she replies. “We had a lot of thunderstorms in my town when I was a kid, and I used to spend a lot of time out in the rain, wondering what the odds were that I’d get hit by lightning. It’d be a funny way to go, don’t you think? I’d like to see the reactions it would get out of people.”
“Are you going to tell me how you did that?”
“Why would I do a thing like that, Hisao? You should learn to be more okay with not knowing things.”
I can tell she’s enjoying leading me on like this. More lightning lights up the sky, and I look at her expectantly. She just shakes her head.
“No, it only works once a day. I need to recharge it.”
I smirk at her, but she seems to be preoccupied, and keeps glancing up at the overcast sky. It’s so dark outside that it looks like it’s the middle of the night. As we step into town, another, much brighter flash of lightning fills up the sky, and a fork shoots out between two of the billowy, black clouds. Rika’s face flickers like a lantern as the lightning illuminates her. Her crimson eyes burn with an intensity unbecoming of her solemn expression.
“Maybe we should stop in the Shanghai and get a cup of tea,” I say. “I’m starting to get cold.”
“I’ve never been there,” Rika says. It’s not really surprising that Rika wouldn’t frequent one of the local student hang-outs, but she doesn’t seem to have any objection to it, so we make our way up the sidewalk and enter the Shanghai, where Yuuko greets us with a deep bow of hospitality.
The café is relatively busy, as it tends to be on Saturday afternoons, noisy with students yammering on about the tension of exams, the minutiae of their lives, all the things that normal teenagers tend to occupy themselves with. Rika is silent, and her presence presses me. I deliberately avoid eye contact with some of the students in the café, hopeful that we don't get invited to any tables.
“How about that table by the window?” I ask her, indicating a relatively secluded spot. She smiles at me graciously.
We take a seat and I open the menu, looking at some of the items, more out of habit than desire for food. Rika, for her part, puts her chin on her hand and looks out the window.
No, on second thought, she’s not looking out the window. She’s looking at it, watching the raindrops collect and trickle down the pane, connecting with one another, trembling, dissipating. The occasional flash of lightning, bright though it may be against the dark, overcast afternoon outdoors, has no effect on the well-lit coffee shop. She seems to be the only one taking any notice of the weather.
I thumb the menu with disinterest, hungry more for the company of Rika than for anything to eat. I’d forgotten how distant she can seem when I’m with her, any time we’re not talking.
“You know,” I say, “you can tell how far away lightning strikes by counting the seconds before you hear the thunder.”
“I’ve heard that,” she says, not removing her eyes from where they are. She almost looks sad, but I’m fairly certain it’s just that she’s caught up in her thoughts.
I awkwardly look down at the table, trying to think of something more interesting to talk about, when Yuuko shows up to take our order. She’s more than a little disorderly, a pencil behind each of her ears as though she’s forgotten they’re there, and a ballpoint pen in her hand. Her sleeves are rolled up and she’s got a few hurried notes written on her left arm. She looks flustered but gives me a pained smile and another bow.
“I’ll just get a green tea and some rice, Yuuko, if that’s alright.”
“I’ll have the same,” Rika says, not even making eye contact. Yuuko frowns a little at the display of bad manners. Hardly any wonder people think of Rika as standoffish, even if she doesn’t mean to be.
Yuuko writes down our orders quickly and thanks us, taking off to attend to her queue of duties.
“Was I being rude?” Rika asks, so flatly that it’s hard to tell whether she’s being sincere.
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it. Yuuko’s got a thick skin.”
She shakes her head at me. “No, she doesn’t. She’s pretty hard on herself. I should apologize to her later.”
The chatter of the students around us grates on my senses, and I can tell it’s bothering Rika, too. This may have been a bad choice of places for us to warm up, but she was either kind enough or indifferent enough to follow my lead. We both look out the window again as more lightning flashes against the clouds. I find myself wishing we weren’t in a public place, that we could forego this social backdrop and be alone in a gallery watching the spectacle of the dark, wet glass on the window. I wish someone could just draw a curtain around us.
We stare outside, and I’m certain she’s thinking the same thing, but something in me craves the comfort of normal conversation. I make eye contact with her faint, ghostly reflection, which seems to please her, and she does me the same courtesy.
“Did you get a deferral for your exams?” I ask her.
She sighs. “No. I think I’ll be fine.”
“You studied in the hospital, then?”
“Not one bit,” she says. “I’m not applying to any universities. I just want to graduate. Then, whatever happens happens.”
I flush at the thought. Rika’s resignation to her fate is something that never ceases to dampen my spirits. She notices my reaction and must feel a bit guilty, because she tries to reassure me with a smile. I feel her hand on mine, which takes me by surprise because I’ve by now forgotten that I’m only looking at her reflection.
“I was thinking more like early retirement,” she says. “People spend their whole lives working for retirement. It’s nice to be so young in our old age, don’t you think? We’re exactly where everyone wants to be, and we can enjoy it more, too.”
I stay silent, not sure what to say. I’ve been worried sick about finals, and the thought never crossed my mind that the dream I’m chasing might be too distant. I might never be that old. Being young in my old age…
The clouds shift, and a bit of sunlight gets through, causing her reflection to flicker out momentarily. I turn to look at her, but she’s still staring at my reflection. Her thoughts look heavy.
“Did your doctors ever give you a prognosis?” she asks me suddenly.
“Uh, no,” I stammer, a bit taken aback. “They were vague about it. I don’t think they want me to think about it, myself.”
“And don’t you think that’s a little unfair?”
“Well, it’s not like they could know anyways. It will depend on how I take care of myself, how lucky I am, you know… if something happens one day, well… it’s just like you said. Whatever happens happens.”
She chuckles darkly and closes her eyes. “Well, that's true of everyone. Nobody's ever more than a step away from death. We’re just more awake to the reality than most people. That’s all. I’ve met people in the hospital who knew the day and time that they were going to die. Some of them were right. Some of them got struck by lightning. Imagine that.”
I start to wonder whether anyone is listening to us. It would be pretty uncomfortable for Yuuko to step over to our table at a time like this. Then again, maybe she has. I haven’t been paying attention.
The light’s finally coming out from the clouds, and we’re probably the only two people in the Shanghai to have noticed. She turns her eyes to me, chin still resting on one hand, her other hand holding mine.
“Do you want to know my prognosis?”
“Let’s hear it.”
“Nobody knows. My surgery was a new procedure when I got it. The oldest living person who has had the same procedure is in his mid 30s. But, mine was a little different, because medicine has been changing. So no one can know for sure just how things are going to go with me.”
“That’s something to look forward to,” I say with a chiding grin. “Maybe if you try to live to a ripe old age, you’ll be someone else’s benchmark someday.”
She frowns, more affected by what I said than I would have thought. “You think too much about the future, Hisao. You shouldn’t worry so much about people’s expectations of you. Wouldn’t you really rather be doing something else than studying all the time, for a scholarship you might never use, for a job you might never have, where you can work for a retirement that might never happen?”
I shrug. "Well, maybe it makes life a little more exciting when you wager on something big. If you hedge your bets, you don't have as much to lose. Think about it like walking tight-rope without a net, but where the net would be, you have a tank full of man-eating sharks."
She cracks a bit of laughter at this, in spite of herself, but instead of glowering at me for breaking the tension, she just gives my hand a squeeze. It's satisfying to see her let her guard down.
The clank of our dishes comes down on the table as a timid, overworked Yuuko minimizes her presence, scurrying off as soon as we’re served our food. Maybe she doesn’t want to interrupt, and I can sympathize with her plight. She works so hard for her own future, I wouldn’t want Yuuko hearing a word of what Rika is saying.
I pour a bit of soy sauce on my rice and start nibbling on it. Rika sits in silence, not eating or taking any notice of her food. I feel disconnected from her. As I’m trying to think of something to say, she says something instead.
“Miki invited us to go camping after exams are over.”
“Yeah, she mentioned that to me, too.”
“Do you like camping?” she asks, and starts to pick at her rice with her fingers.
“I’ve never been, really. I’m from the big city, remember?”
She smiles. “It can be exciting. I used to go camping a lot when I was younger. It’s nice to get away from civilization and spend some time out in the middle of nowhere.”
Typical, Rika doesn't seem to think of it as a social event. I hope Miki isn't disappointed if Rika spends less time with the company and more of it being aloof.
“Are you familiar with the place we’re going?" I ask. "Nurse said there’s a campground not far from Yamaku.”
She gives me a strange look. Should I have mentioned that I was talking to Nurse about this? She looks down at her rice and continues nibbling with her fingers.
“It’s wooded. The wildlife is really nice. And there’s a nice lake where you can do a bit of swimming. A hot spring, too, if you like that kind of thing. We probably won’t be the only people out there, but it’s easy to get away from the crowds if you want to.”
“Hopefully the weather looks up by then,” I add. She raps her knuckles on the table and I smile at her.
We finish eating our meal and Rika continues to muse about our camping trip and what it might be like. I get the sense that she’s restraining her joy, and it’s refreshing to see her this way. My own anxiety about the encroaching exams is sated somewhat by the promise of something immediate to look forward to. I was worried she wouldn’t be interested, just based on her disposition, but I guess that was a little of me falling prey to the common misunderstanding about Rika. Come to think of it, she doesn’t tend to decline invitations.
I look out the window again, at the spot where we were just minutes ago making eye contact. The sky is bright again, though, and her image is nowhere to be seen.
Continue to Scene 7...