| Part 1
| Part 2 | Part 3
| Part 4
| Part 5
“Right then. For the remainder of this class I’d like you to work in groups of three or four on the problems in chapter twelve. I’ll be here if you need me.”
While Mutou seats himself behind his desk, the students in the classroom begin shuffling their own around to form groups. As has become the norm, I shift my desk over to join Naomi and Natsumi. They both greet me in their usual cheery manner, which I return in kind.
Nearby, I spot Hisao looking uncomfortable next to Hakamichi and Mikado. It looks like they’re trying to recruit him into their group. He looks over at me with a pleading expression, so I wave him over. The relief on his face is painfully obvious.
“Thank you so much,” he whispers as he joins us. “Good morning Natsume, Naomi.”
The girls return his greeting and we set about completing the assigned class work. The questions are centred on redox reactions involving a number of different chemicals. It’s somewhat difficult, but having Hisao around makes things that much easier to understand. Thanks to him, the allotted time is only a little under two-thirds gone when we finish.
The quiet chattering from the surrounding groups – and the not so quiet Misha Mikado – is all the justification the four of us need to begin talking idly among ourselves. It’s just inane small talk, but it’s nice.
“Do you know how long Lilly will be away for?” Natsume asks.
“I’m not sure,” Hisao answers. Turning towards me, he continues, “She said she’d miss Hanako’s birthday, so…”
Lilly didn’t give a specific return date when she left, but, from what I’ve gleaned from our few short phone calls in the past week, “It’ll be around this weekend at the earliest before Lilly gets back.”
“Right, there you go.”
Natsume nods in acknowledgement. “I see. Thank you.”
“I’m a little bit jealous, in a way,” Naomi muses. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful? Travelling to faraway places and sightseeing and buying neat souvenirs…”
“I don’t think Lilly will be doing much sightseeing.”
“Oh! No, I didn’t mean-”
“Don’t worry about it,” I interject. “I’ve known Lilly for a long time and I still do it sometimes. Besides, Lilly’s not exactly going on holiday, you know.”
“Well, yeah, but still… don’t you ever think about how fun~ it would be?”
“Not really. Going on holiday is… something I can’t really do.”
“I can understand that,” Hisao says. “I went on a trip with my parents once, when I was small. Let’s just say flying doesn’t agree with me.”
“I’m the same,” Natsume agrees. “Trains are about the only mode of transport that doesn’t make me ill.”
“Oh~, trains! We should go on a train ride! One of those long-distance ones with the cabins. There’s a certain charm to them, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Yes, I’d say so. There’s a bit of romanticism about them, even.”
“That settles it! Natsume, we’re going on a train ride!”
“We’re not invited?” Hisao asks.
“Well~, Hanako already said she can’t, and it’d be far too scandalous for just two girls and a boy to go on holiday together…”
“Why would it be – oh. I wasn’t planning anything, before you say it.”
“Sure you weren’t~.”
The girls and I have a little giggle at Hisao’s futile attempts to argue his innocence. Even after the conversation returns to its previous, meandering, time-killing role, the topic lingers in my mind. Travelling to distant places… it would be a lot of fun. But I couldn’t. Who would I go with? How would I afford it all? It’s just not feasible. No, I can’t do it.
Long after class ends for the day, I find myself distracted by thoughts of my lack of independence. Even though I live alone, I’m not nearly self-sufficient. Other students have their parents or other family to back them up. I don’t. It almost amuses me that such thoughts occur to me at a time like this.
Tomorrow is the anniversary. Tomorrow is the day of my birthday. Having already celebrated the latter, the former had slipped my mind. It was as if I had skipped the time period entirely. But, now that it’s nearly here, I can’t help but think about it. I can’t focus like this. How do I distract myself from a distraction?
Instead of spending time with Emi and the others, I say a curt farewell and head over to my dorm room. It’s the best thing to do whenever I feel like this, as I’ve learned from experience. The smaller the risk of something setting me off the better. Even though it’s been ten years, and so very much has changed in that time, I don’t want to bear the shame of freaking out in front of everyone.
Once inside my room, I lock the door and flop onto my bed without bothering to change. I hate myself as soon as I do it. Emi wouldn’t back down like this. This amounts to giving up, just like every other year. I’m better than that. I’m stronger than that.
I propel myself into a sitting position and look around my room. There has to be a more productive way to spend some quality alone time. Stepping over to my desk, I flip through several papers that Naomi and Natsume sent me for digitisation. Working on them would require a computer, or a laptop at the very least. I guess that’s out of the equation.
The only other things I have lying around are my schoolbag and the small pile of birthday presents that I never expected to receive. Deciding to abstain from any homework I might have, I take a seat, cross-legged, in front of the gift pile and examine each one in turn.
From Naomi and Natsume, a copy of the school newspaper. Not just any old paper, though; the very first copy of the very first edition to which I contributed. And, with it, a fountain pen inscribed with a journalistic quote. Trust those two to choose something like that as a gift. They have significance, though. The paper is a record of my first step towards making a new life for myself, and the pen is the tool with which I might inscribe the life I have ahead of me.
From Rin, the canvas depicting an angelic version of myself, shedding my clothes as I rise into the sky. Apparently. It’d be more than a little risqué if not for the strategically placed maybe-wings covering my possibly-body. I’m not entirely sure if that’s what I’m even looking at. According to Rin, though, it’s meant to be symbolic of how I’ve changed. I can’t say I see that here but… I guess she’s right. I have.
From Saki, the hand-made, purple patterned yukata I wore for a commemorative photo at the festival. Even though plenty of girls most likely wore it on the same day, Saki thought that, out of all of them, it suited me so exactly that she didn’t even hesitate to give it away as a gift. I can still recall the gleam in her eyes when Emi and I emerged from behind the curtain. ‘You look wonderful,’ she said. For the first time, I actually felt like it was the truth.
From Hisao, a stunningly crafted chess set. I’m not familiar with wood crafting, but I can see that it is made from very high quality wood, with different coloured wood for the white and black pieces. I haven’t had the chance to play much chess in recent times, or anyone else for that matter, but it brings back fond memories of my childhood. Dad and I used to play together back in the day. What I wouldn’t give for one more game with him. Hisao might not have known it, but this chess set carries a lot more meaning than simply being a nice present.
And from Lilly, an adorable porcelain doll adorned in gorgeous fabrics. I have no doubt that it cost a significant amount of money. Normally I would resist such large expenditure, but, if it’s from Lilly… I’m willing to accept it. Being unable to see the doll, it means that she had to have had the utmost confidence and trust that it would be appealing to me. And, of course, she was right. This doll is no mere thing of beauty; it represents the bond that Lilly and I share.
Not present among the pile are three other gifts. Akira’s was cracked open and emptied, right down to the last drop; a combined effort between most everyone at the party. Illegal thought it may have been it certainly helped to make the night enjoyable. Kenji’s ‘offering’ didn’t last much longer, going towards a decidedly fattening breakfast the following morning. Not that Emi was complaining.
Emi’s present is the last one not with me. Understandably, it still resides in the Ibarazaki household’s lounge room. It doesn’t exactly fit in these little dorm rooms, and leaving it out in the common room might not be the best idea. Still, the expense involved is not lost on me. Not only was it a birthday present, it was a bonding experience with everyone who joined in. Most especially of all, with Emi Ibarazaki.
Sitting here amongst the assorted items, I find myself reaching an intense revelation – an epiphany of sorts: this was the first normal birthday I’ve had since my parents passed away. For one night, I was not ‘Hanako Ikezawa the skittish burned girl’
, I was ‘Hanako Ikezawa, the mighty Iron Chef of Yamaku Academy’
; I was ‘Hanako Ikezawa, the Yamaku Pop Princess’
; I was ‘Hanako Ikezawa, the rough ‘n’ tough rock star’
. Most importantly, I was ‘Hanako Ikezawa, average eighteen year old girl’
Fountain pen in hand, I rise from my position on the floor and take a seat at my desk. I find a blank sheet of paper amidst the pile from the Newspaper Club and begin putting my thoughts into words. It’s tough going, with numerous crossings-out and rearranged sentences. By the time I’m done, my writing has filled both sides of the paper and most of another one.
It is only in putting my pen down and leaning back in my chair that I notice the knocking on my door.
“Hanako? You awake in there?”
“Emi? Uh, yeah. What’s up?”
“Can I come in? Door’s locked.”
“Oh, sure. One sec.”
I hastily stash the scribbled-on papers under the rest of their original pile then unlock the door to let Emi inside. She slips inside and hops onto my bed in lieu of any other seats. She swings her legs alternately as she looks around my room.
“So… what’s up?” I prompt.
Emi stares at me hesitantly, like she doesn’t want to say what’s on her mind. “Are… you okay?”
“Huh? Yeah, I’m fine. Why?”
“Well, you were kinda distant at lunch, and since class finished you’ve been shut up in here all day.”
“Sounds like a normal day to me,” I counter jokingly. “Trust me, I’m fine.”
Emi sighs, breaking eye contact with me. “Look… I know you’re not fine because this is what I do when I’m not fine. Kind of. I mean, I run instead of hiding, but… the end result is the same.”
“Don’t you believe me?”
“No, I do. But… I know what day it is tomorrow, and I know that it has an effect on you. I just want to make sure my best friend is alright.”
“Like I said, I’m good. I wasn’t before, but I worked through it. Like you would.”
Emi smiles and returns her gaze to mine. “Well, great! I’m glad to hear that.” Taking on a more serious expression, she continues, “Are you going to do anything? For the anniversary I mean.”
“Like what? What would I do?”
“I dunno. Visit your folk’s graves? Do a memorial thing? That’s what I do. Don’t you do anything like that?”
“It’s not that simple. They’re in my hometown, which is pretty far from here. I’ve never really been able to do anything.”
Emi buries her chin in her hands in thought. She seems to wrestle with an idea, since she makes to speak several times before cutting herself off. Evidently, she decides to voice her suggestion anyway.
“Hmm… the Marine Day weekend is coming up, right? I normally visit dad then, but I’m sure we can arrange to visit your folks too.”
“You’d do that? You’d go with me?”
“Of course! I’d do anything for you. I know better than most how important something like this can be. So, whaddaya say?”
“It’s cool if you wanna take some time to think about it. It’s a big decision.”
“Yeah… I’ll let you know when I make up my mind. Thanks, Emi.”
“You’re welcome.” Jumping up from my bed, Emi adds, “I’m gonna head back to my room. You should get some sleep; it’ll make tomorrow go easier.”
Shortly thereafter, I’m alone with my thoughts once again. Visit my parents? It’s something I was never able to do. The last time I saw them was… just before I went to the orphanage. I’m sorry, mom, dad. I didn’t mean any disrespect by it. This’ll be my chance to finally move on. It’ll be the final proof that I’ve become more than what my past defines me as.
| Part 1
| Part 2 | Part 3
| Part 4
| Part 5