| Part 1
| Part 2 | Part 3
| Part 4
| Part 5
The journey passes rather quickly, owing to Hanako’s excited pace. Between the walk and the small talk, I notice that Lilly appears slightly unfocused. I pay it no mind; she’s probably just a bit tired. I wouldn’t be surprised if she doesn’t do much in the way of physical activity, so a long walk might hit her a bit harder than the rest of us.
When we arrive in town, we walk several blocks until we arrive at a small park not far from the town centre. I’ve seen it before; it’s a popular spot for Yamaku students to meet up outside of school. Once we’ve selected a nice spot under a wide, leafy tree, Hanako goes about setting up the picnic. It all seems a bit suspicious.
“So what’s the reason we’re out here, again?” I ask, more forcefully than before.
“Rin mentioned that you two usually have celebrations after your track meets,” Hisao replies. “So I suggested we all do something.”
“I guess… I dunno, this just seems like a really lame cover for a surprise birthday party. You know my birthday was months ago, right?”
Hanako frowns. “It’s not that. You looked down after the race. You have for a little while.” She smiles, adding, “We just w-wanted to cheer you up.”
So it was that obvious to everyone else, as well, huh? Hmm. Guilt doesn’t exactly go away with a picnic. A picnic can’t make up for the potential date I stole from Hanako. A picnic can’t make up for the day that Hisao spent with Rin instead of her. I’m the one who has to do right by Hanako, not the other way around.
“Thanks, but, like I said, I’m fine. Can we change the subject?”
“Okay. Just know that if you wanna t-talk about something, we’re all here to listen,” Hanako replies, giving me a knowing look. I can take the hint. She wants me to tell the others about my nightmare. I don’t think so.
I nod, wearing that fake smile I practiced in the mirror. It seems to do the job, since everyone quietly goes back to eating the sandwiches Hanako prepared. Even though she packed quite a few, most of them go quite quickly. I have to make up for the lack of bacon, right? The others won’t mind if my appetite’s a little more savage than usual.
Rin suddenly looks up from her food, and turns to Lilly. “Lilly. You’ve been very quiet.”
Hmm… Rin’s right. Lilly hasn’t said much at all this whole time. Hanako and I look to Lilly expectantly. She shuffles about where she’s seated for a few moments, looking almost like she’s been caught doing the wrong thing. She quickly regains her composure and smiles sweetly.
“My my, I suppose I have. The walk from Yamaku was rather taxing today.”
The way that everyone – except Lilly for obvious reasons – exchanges glances tells me that none of us buy it. Lilly’s expression suggests that she is just as aware of our doubt. Hanako puts down her sandwich, crosses her arms and frowns.
“Lilly… we’re all friends here. Us being here to listen d-doesn’t just apply to Emi, okay?”
Lilly sighs, all pretences of good spirits now dropped. “I’ve been struggling with how best to inform you all. You see,” Lilly starts. She takes a deep breath before continuing, “My dear aunt is gravely ill. My sister and I will be flying out to see her soon.”
Hisao speaks slowly, almost stumbling over his choice of words. “Is your aunt – well, she isn’t okay, I guess, but is she… y’know…?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” Lilly replies. “She’s clearly in a serious enough condition for Akira and me to be called out to see her; that much I can gather. It may well be that it will be to say goodbye.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Hanako says.
“Yeah… I really hope your aunt is okay.” I share a glance with Hanako, adding, “It’s… really tough thinking about the alternative.”
Lilly smiles tiredly, in stark contrast to her smile before and disturbingly similar to my own. “Thank you all for your concern. I do hope very much that she will recover. However, I’m afraid I have to say that, due to my absence, I will be forced to miss your birthday, Hanako.”
There it is again – Hanako’s birthday coming up in conversation. It must be soon. I know it.
Hanako shakes her head in disapproval, despite Lilly’s inability to see it. “Lilly… you shouldn’t worry about something like that. I’ll have p-plenty more. There’s not much to miss, anyway…”
“Nonsense. You’re just as important to me as any of my family.”
For a second, it almost feels like the conversation is headed the way of that night at my house several weeks ago. That feeling disappears as soon as Rin speaks. “Wait, so let me get this straight. You can fly? And your sister too?”
The rest of us can’t help but to laugh at such an absurd question. Rin’s expression remains neutral, as if the possibility of someone flying is a completely sensible question to ask.
“Heavens, no. I don’t imagine I would do so even if that were the case,” Lilly replies, unable to keep a genuine smile off of her face. “No, my aunt lives in Scotland, you see. My sister, Akira, and I will be travelling via aeroplane to see her.”
Rin snorts in a way that sort of acts as the vocal equivalent of one of her shrugs. “It would have been more interesting if you could fly.”
The conversation dies out immediately after Rin stops talking. It’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened. Luckily, Hisao manages to break the awkward silence.
“So, I noticed we’re out of snacks. Should we pack up?”
“Yes, I believe we should. I do have homework to attend to, and I’m sure you all do, too,” Lilly says.
“Pfft, it’s just homework,” I retort. “Still, we probably should get going. I just had a run this morning, but I reckon I’ll have to go again this afternoon to work off those awesome sandwiches.”
“You’re welcome,” Hanako chirps.
“Then it’s settled. I’m glad we could all hang out like this. It was fun,” Hisao says.
With that, we all start packing up the picnic stuff and make our way back to Yamaku. On the way up the hill, Lilly again drops to the back of the group. I gradually allow myself to fall back with her. Neither Hanako, Hisao nor Rin take any notice of just how far behind we are. This is as good an opportunity as I’m gonna get.
“Hey, Lilly,” I whisper. “I need to ask you something.”
“Hmm? Emi, why are you whispering?”
“Keep it down, will ya? It’s about Hanako. I’m trying to make sure they can’t hear us.”
“Oh, of course, my apologies.” Now whispering, Lilly continues, “What is it that you wanted to ask?”
“I was wondering when exactly Hanako’s birthday is. It’d be soon, right?”
“That’s correct – the tenth of July, to be precise. It’s the Tuesday after next, I believe.”
“Okay, so a bit over a week. Perfect. When’s your flight?”
“We’ll be departing on the afternoon of Sunday the first. It was to be Saturday but our flight was cancelled. Emi, I must say this conversation sounds like you’re trying to plan something.”
Damn, she’s perceptive. “Yeah. I wanted to do something nice for Hanako, since she’s recently been really, uh… supportive of me, I guess?”
“Oh my, is something troubling you? I’d thought you seemed somewhat distracted, and with the rather spontaneous discussion today…”
“No, I – well, yes, technically, but this isn’t about me… Anyway! She happened to mention it was her birthday soon, and then you mentioned it today, so I thought…”
Lilly frowns, holding up her finger to interrupt me. “I can see where you’re going with this. I feel I should tell you that Hanako doesn’t tend to do anything for her birthday. In fact, quite the opposite; she tries as much as possible to ensure that nothing happens at all. I believe it is related to the – well, I’m sure you know what I mean.”
“Yeah,” I sigh, recalling Hanako’s vivid description of the fire that claimed her parents. “I do.”
“Yes, well… history suggests that organising a birthday event might not sit well with her.”
“I’d been thinking about that. What if she didn’t know?”
“Oh?” Lilly says, arching her eyebrows. “A surprise? For Hanako, of all people? Emi, I’m afraid you haven’t thought this through very much at all.”
“C’mon, don’t write me off just yet. I might not be the smartest girl but I’m not dumb.” Lilly opens her mouth to protest, but I continue regardless. “The birthday is the only part that needs to be a surprise. If she expects people anyway, it won’t be a shock, right?”
“Hmm… I’m quite intrigued. Please, continue.”
“So, if we organise a ‘going away party’ for you and your sister and invite a few people to arrive before Hanako, it’d work… I think.”
“I see… This is an interesting proposition, but where might you host such a party? There’s hardly enough space in any of our dorm rooms to fit much more than the five of us, and I’d be disinclined to believe that people would take too kindly to a party in the common room unless they were invited.”
Lilly does have a point. It’d have to be somewhere spacious, that won’t attract attention, and that Hanako is familiar with. Somewhere like…
“How about my house? It’s only a city-bound bus ride away, and Hanako’s been there before.”
“Are you sure? Your family wouldn’t mind?
“Nah, Mom’s cool. She likes Hanako, so I reckon she’ll be happy to have people over for her.”
“Very well. Still, please ask her before you organise anything. Let me know over the phone –”
“Nice of you two to catch up!” Hisao calls, leaning against the wall surrounding the school. Hanako and Rin stand by his side. We’re back this quickly? And the others were back before us, even. Damn, I thought Lilly and I would have had longer to talk.
“Nice of you lot to wait, smartass!” I retort.
“We’re waiting, aren’t we?” he counters, which makes Hanako giggle. In contrast, Rin lets out a slight “heh”.
“Ah, shaddup,” I grumble, punctuating it with a jab to Hisao’s shoulder. “You know what I meant.”
He shrugs, clearly not denying it. “So, is this it? We’re really calling it a day for homework? It’s only, like, eleven in the morning.”
“Homework is a responsibility all students must bear,” Lilly says. “Leaving it until the last minute to spend time with friends would be irresponsible, no?”
“Probably. Yet here we are.”
“Well I don’t know what you’re all so worried about,” Rin says. “I don’t even have homework.”
“What?” I turn to her with a questioning look. That can’t be right. “Yes you do.”
“Really? How do you know?”
“We’re in the same class. If I have homework, then you do too.”
“Huh.” Rin shrugs, gazing vacantly into the distance. “Maybe I do, then. I’m going to bed. Goodbye.”
Without so much as a second glance, Rin wanders off in the general direction of the girls’ dorms.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to R-Rin,” Hanako mumbles.
“That makes two of us,” I sigh, throwing my arm over Hanako’s shoulder in a sort of half-hug. “Well, the longer we stand around out here, the less time we have for homework…”
“You don’t actually mean that, d-do you?”
“Nah. I might do a bit, though, just so I can say I tried.”
“Please do more than simply ‘try’,” Lilly chides. “Nevertheless, Emi, you are right. There’ll be plenty of time for us to talk later.” I notice a slight stress on the ‘talk later’. I take it as a reminder to continue the discussion with her about Hanako’s birthday party.
Reluctantly, the four of us head back to our dorms; Hisao being the first to part ways as we pass the boys’ dorm building. Soon after, I’m back in the peace and quiet of my room.
| Part 1
| Part 2 | Part 3
| Part 4
| Part 5