I can hear the sound of the snow crunching underneath my feet, even despite the winds raging between the trees.
This place is so beautiful in the summer... The enclosure of trees provides sanctuary from the gaze and the sounds of teachers and students. The leaves have since fallen, and now the copse seems bare, almost skeletal. Still, though... with the snowflakes falling dreamily from a bleached white sky, I think this place is more beautiful than ever.
That's why I chose this place. This is where I want things to begin.
The freshly fallen snow is almost pristine, save for a single pair of footprints into the woods. I feel a flutter in my chest, and focusing on the metronymic sound of the snow crackling under my feet is the only way I can keep from losing my resolve. As it is, I know I'm almost twenty minutes late. It took me that long simply to conquer my own anxieties.
I must have thrown away ten drafts of that note before I was finally able convince myself that one was flawless. Even then, I couldn't work up the nerve to deliver it myself. I handed it over to a friend. That was this morning. I've hardly been able to concentrate on anything else since that moment.
I finally see him, facing away from me, breathing into his hands to fight the numbing winter cold. The sight of him causes my heart to race, and despite the biting winds, I can feel my face get hot with embarrassment. He's freezing because I've kept him waiting out here for half an hour.
Not a good start. I almost lose my nerve and turn around, but the same anxiety that makes me want to give up is also paralyzing me, keeping me bolted to where I'm standing.
No. There won’t be any turning back.
"Hi... Hisao? You came?"
A stammering, painfully obvious question. I internally wince at my words. Didn't I have something else to say? Didn't I practice something? Why can't I remember?
I feel my heart skip a beat as my voice reaches his ear and he starts to turn around. His eyes meet my own and I momentarily forget not to look like I'm completely petrified.
He starts to say something, and my heart begins to race even before he's finished his first sentence.
I don't think I even hear what he says. All I can focus on is the tenor of his voice. I recognize what's in his hand, though. The eleventh draft. The note I haven't seen since this morning.
"Ahmm... yes," I say, as if I'm still somewhat uncertain, "I asked a friend to give you that note..."
Smile, stupid. Smile. Don't look terrified.
"I'm so glad you got it."
This time, he doesn't say anything. He seems... dumbfounded. I start to feel like an idiot. My heart is pounding now, hard, as though it were striking me in protest, chastising me for being a fool.
After what seems like a century, he finally speaks again. "So... ah... here we are. Out in the cold..."
Again, the wind begins to roar through the woods. I feel it brush against me and I can’t help but flinch against the force of it. In truth, I'm not dressed for this weather, though I don't feel cold at all, anymore. I stand up straighter, despite the wind.
His eyes are earnest and excited. A part of me never would have dreamed the two of us would be here, having a moment like this. My heart thumps anxiously, each beat sounding with greater and greater urgency. I can’t... what was it I was going to say to him?
My throat is tight; speech is a challenge, now. Determined, I will myself to force out the words.
"Y," I gasp, "You see..."
"...I w, I wanted to... know..."
"...if, yyyou'd g, go out with ME..."
He stand there, motionless, and I see his eyes wash over with... apprehension? Horror? I think I’ve done something wrong; whatever it was, I know I must say something else, but... I suddenly realize it’s gone. My voice... There’s something wrong with my voice...
Without warning, my throat erupts into pain.
I try to clutch my neck, to quell this inferno
spreading into my chest, but as I try to move my arms they wail
My whole body goes rigid, betraying me, except for my eyes, which only express terror.
Then the building pressure in my chest dies away. I break apart onto the virgin snow.
This beautiful wood, where I wanted everything to begin — the obsidian trees, the howl of the wind, Hisao running towards me — all of it fades to white. The last thing I remember before the world goes away is the feeling of his hand on my cheek and the snow against my bare skin...
That was four months ago.
I can hardly believe it even happened, now. I've been in this room for so long, I started to wonder if it wasn't all some fleeting dream.
The only reason I know it isn’t is because everyone in my world seems to know about it. But that isn’t as many people as there used to be. Everything's a microcosm of what came before. I've only seen a fraction of the people I thought I knew. But from those I have seen, I no longer have any secrets.
It's not a pleasant thing to think about. But in the four months that I've been here, there haven't exactly been a lot of other options.
Hisao personally carried me to the nurse's office. I later found out that, were it not for his quick reaction, I may have died out there. It was supposed to make me feel better. But in truth, I still felt dead regardless.
If you’re willing to give it a little thought, it’s not too hard to tease the meaning out of a word like that. Tachycardia is much harder. That's what my arrhythmia can cause: a rapid, dangerously fast heart rate. It can be fatal.
‘Ignorance is Bliss.’ I’d heard that maxim before, but before I woke up in this bed, I never really gave it any thought. Apparently, though, I had been afflicted by this condition for a long time. My whole life? I learned it was highly unusual that I had been able to live so long without something like this happening.
, I thought.
, they said.
, I thought.
Unsurprisingly, my parents were sanguine about the entire situation. They could afford the treatment, after all. Their more pressing concern was the revelation that the disorder was genetic. As it happened, though, my older brother didn't have it, so all was well. As long as he was fine, a minor inconvenience like this was no trouble at all.
A minor inconvenience like me.
My brother never actually visited me in the hospital. I thought he might show up, eventually, but that day never came. He sent me flowers and candies, and, allegedly, left a voicemail on the phone I hadn't seen since that day in the snow. Months went by, though, and not once did he ever show his face. I began to forget what he looked like. I knew he was busy—he’d always been—but I found it exasperating, this idea that I could drop dead any moment, never seeing him again.
While his absence was troubling, my classmates’ near-constant presence was just aggravating. The first week I was there, there always seemed to be some visitors beside my bed, even people I hadn't spoken to in years. Time passed and I slowly came to the realization that all this attention was the result of a class project. It was stifling, being surrounded by all those people. I was a captive in my own bed, compelled to endure a cacophony of chatter and small talk that persisted until the late evenings. It came as a relief when their interest waned after only a week and I never saw any of them again.
Even after that first week, though, my friends continued to trickle in for a while afterward. Some of these friends I’d known for years, and in the past they’d been an inexhaustible source of support and understanding. They continued to provide me with both, but it just wasn’t nourishing anymore. Those friends whose jokes I always laughed at now began to seem obnoxious. I always used to enjoy gossip, but the newest anecdotes all seemed so abstract and pointless. My friends’ support felt hollow, superficial. Above all, it was painfully obvious that not a single one of them had even the slightest idea what I was going through. Our lives had always been so ordinary and carefree; our friendships had never been tested by fire.
Those close, loyal friendships felt so tacky and soulless now. In the end, I think I pushed them all away.
Hisao was the last to stop coming. His visits were the worst.
He visited me several times a week, but I never knew what to say to him. I was… grateful for everything he had done, but I couldn’t bear to look him in the eyes. There was never much for us to talk about, and I hated
how he would look at me. My reflection in the mirror was that of a corpse. I was losing weight rapidly, my hair was a tangled mess, and I was rarely out of a hospital gown. I hated him seeing me like that. I hated the undercurrent in his voice when he would offer to help me over to the bathroom.
My new condition had brought out the worst in me. I knew it, and it was driving me crazy to have him always here, constantly seeing
me like this. Every time he came through the door, the disappointment was plain on his face, so the consistency of his visits baffled me. We never had any fun and it was obvious he’d rather be somewhere else. Some evenings we never even spoke at all.
After six weeks of protracted silence, I finally realized why he continued to visit me. The narrative of our relationship had come into focus. He couldn’t
be the boy who abandoned me on what might easily be my death bed. Even if others had already done that, he would never accept that of himself. Even if it was what he really wanted.
So, shortly after the beginning of what would have been spring vacation, I finally broke our enduring silence. In unambiguous terms, I told him to stop coming to visit me.
His expression was blank for a moment, but, finally, he nodded. Something quickly crossed his face—gratitude? Then he turned away, and disappeared into the hallway. I never saw him again.
And that was that. That snowy day in the woods was washed away.
The hospital isn't where you go to live; it's where you go to die. I certainly felt like my life was over after that day.
The doctors and nurses seemed to notice how withdrawn I was becoming. Though I never asked, they started to make comments about how I'd probably get released soon. Quietly, I kind of wondered if the treatment and surgeries would actually work.
I was so ashamed of this hideous, crimson scar between my breasts. I would often stare at it, wondering when it would finally go away. It never did, though, not completely. But it was the only indicator of the passage of time that truly mattered to me.
The head cardiologist doesn't come around that often. Now, whenever I see her, I ignore her. She has no interest in answering my questions and I certainly have no interest in being patronized.
Eventually, I started watching TV. Not for any reason in particular; I almost never watched it before my heart attack. But now, it felt nice to slip into the saccharine monotony the television offered and quash my own anxieties, if only for a few hours.
My parents set me up with a portable movie player in the early days here, one of the many lavish gifts they showered me with to obfuscate the fact that they didn't actually care to come visit me. But I relished it. As soon as the credits began to roll, I would swap the disc out for another. The genre of movie didn’t matter. Hollywood movies, independent movies, classic movies, documentaries... As my parents visited less and less often, more and more of these movies appeared in my hospital room.
Eventually I accepted that I liked it better this way. That was just what my life was like.
Every day was the same. Winter eventually passed without me realizing it; I never looked out the window. All I could ever really see was a parking garage, anyway. The only difference between days was what movies I was watching. Even the meals were redundant.
Eventually, it became a relief of sorts. With every moment so ephemeral, it became easier to cope with the reality of my situation. It was only when I paused to remember all the things I'd lost that the pain came rushing back.
There were some days I knew I was going to cry. I waited until I was alone and sobbed into my pillow. I didn't want anybody to see me. I didn't want to be showered with anyone's pity.
But those days started to disappear as the year yawned on. Eventually I forgot what it felt like to cry.
Today the doctor comes into my room and gives me a smile. I try to be friendly. I remember I used to be friendly, once; sociable, even. Wasn't I?
My parents follow behind her. It feels like it's been years since I saw them last. The two of them are even more dressed up than usual. ...What's going on? Am I going to die? Regardless of my despair, I thought
I was getting better.
The head cardiologist doesn't waste time making small talk about what I'm doing or even about the movie I'm watching. I move to shut it off.
"Good morning to you, Iwanako."
Smile, stupid. Smile. Don't look terrified.
"It looks like you can go home," she says. "Your heart is stronger, now, and as long as you take care of yourself, you should be alright. We have all your medication sorted out. We're getting the prescription ready for your parents."
I feel like I should be relieved, but I feel my stomach sink with anticipatory dread. She hands a sheet of paper to my father, who rolls it up in his hands without reading it.
I glance at him in consternation. "Well, don't I get to see it?"
There's a pause, and reluctantly, he slides the paper over to me. I open it up and peer through it, but immediately realize I needn’t have bothered. I’m not limber enough, intellectually or
emotionally, to assimilate even a single word of this. It’s as though I've melted my brain watching action movies and bad television. In retrospect, though, this was never my strong suit, even when I was at my best.
I do understand it enough to know that there's an absolutely ludicrous amount of medication here. Medication with an even more ludicrous menagerie of side effects.
This is my life, now. I already knew as much.
"I know it's going to be hard on you," the doctor says.
Do you really?
"That's fine," I say.
"There's always new treatments for heart disease coming out, so try not to look at this as a life sentence."
A poor choice of words on her part. "That's fine," I say.
"Also, I had a chat with your parents and we agreed it would be best that you don't return to your old school."
They all pause, as if they expect me to be surprised. They’re studying the expression on my face as though it’s the surface of Mars. They’re looking for some kind of reaction, perhaps indignation or anger, some sort of vivid emotion to shine through the grey. I’m going to disappoint them, then, because I think they’re absolutely correct.
It's been so long since I last attended class there that I can hardly remember what it was like. It feels like it wasn't even me, like I can't remember those days in the first person. What would be the point of going back? Nothing would be the same. All my friends left me for dead, or at least willfully abandoned me to my own agonies. And... Hisao's still there. I don't think I could ever look him in the eyes again.
If I’m going to embrace the charade that my hopes and dreams are still intact, despite my having the permanence of a mayfly, then they’re right. I need to purge these obstacles and unpleasant distractions from my life.
"...That's fine," I say.
My parents seem dumbfounded by my blasé response. The doctor breaks the silence. "We know your schooling is important, but..."
My attention drifts away. I don't need an explanation. They’ll do what they’ll do.
More talking, more sounds of superfluous justification. My father says something else. I tune out the noise and reach for an open can of juice. It’s warm, now. I’m upset I didn’t finish it earlier.
Reflexively, I meet my mother’s gaze, compelled by the urgency of her voice.
"Did you hear that?" My mother asks. "It has a 24-hour nursing staff and it's very close to a general hospital. You'll get to live on campus."
This is very unlike my parents. Why are they advocating this as if I had a choice in the matter? Am I such a broken thing now that even the ultimatums must be sugar-coated?
"Sounds good to me," I say, my voice barely breaking a whisper.
That seems to be the end of it. I don’t really have anything else to say. The conversation comes to a lull and I find myself contemplating what the weather will be like outside.
I suddenly look up from my juice, surprised by the Doctor’s outburst. She looks annoyed with me.
"Look, I don't think you realize how lucky you are. Compared to a lot of other patients I'm seeing right now, you're going to live a long time, provided you don't lie around sulking.”
“If you’re at all interested in having a decent life, you could start by adjusting that terrible attitude
So. This is how she really feels about me? I should merely feel petulant, yet… It hurts.
Something about her words punches me in the gut.
I feel my lips part involuntarily, too startled by her frankness even to be offended by her sudden lack of professionalism.
“If you ever plan on getting a job, you could do a lot worse than going to Yamaku Academy. In fact, you’re lucky
to go. You’re getting a second chance; take my advice and make the best of it, because this hospital bed won't be here for you forever. We’re going to give it to somebody who actually is
going to die."
Doing nothing to conceal her impatience, the doctor turns to my parents and informs them where the out-processing office is before walking briskly out of the room. My parents both look too flabbergasted to protest.
I’m feeling dazed. I can feel my stomach turn. I hadn’t known I’d made somebody so disgusted with me... I hadn’t realized anybody else thought I was becoming a horrible person.
“Iwanako,” my father says, hastily moving in to soften the blow I’ve just been dealt, “We know this isn’t exactly fair to you. Nothing about this has been fair to you.”
He pauses, sighs, rubs his nose, and then continues, looking weary. “Lately, though, we’ve noticed a drastic change in your temperament, and we’re very concerned. It’s as though you’ve given up on everything.”
Haven’t I, though?
I’ve never had the fighting spirit I’ve admired in others. Everything in my life has been going downhill since that day in the snow. Rather than try to fight that reality, I accepted it.
This has been perhaps the first time in my adult life that I’ve truly been tested by anything, and I’ve failed miserably. I’m pathetic.
My mother places her hand on mine, stroking my knuckles with her thumb. I gaze blankly into the enamel of her nail polish.
“We’re trying to give you a fresh start. A new outlook on life. One of your father’s business partners has a son at Yamaku, and we’re told he loves it there. It’s out in the country, it’s beautiful. And I can visit every weekend, if that’s what you want. We just want you to be happy.”
I realize there’s sincere concern in his voice, and for some reason it floods me with sorrow. The conviction I had in my parents’ indifference is starting to crumble. It should be a relief, but it’s just the opposite. I’m beginning to doubt everything.
Against my better judgment, I manage to look my parents in the eyes. Both of them actually look dejected.
It’s the first time in a while that I’ve felt like my parents truly cared about my feelings. Has my fatalism scared them so thoroughly that they could no longer be complacent? Or have I simply been misreading their feelings this whole time?
It doesn’t matter. I feel the weight behind my face and I suddenly know I’m about to cry, but I can’t come up with an excuse to get them out of here so I can do it in private. And then I run out of time as the dam bursts and the tears start flowing out as all my regrets rush in, no longer barricaded by my mask of ennui.
A new start.
Okay. I’ll make the best of it. I will. I’m finally starting to see who I am, and it’s terrifying.
More than simply dying, the thought of dying as this person
is the most frightening of all.
~Table of Contents~ Next Chapter -|-|->