Scene III: A Slice of Life
"You're telling me that you've been here for three weeks, and you still haven't been to the town?" Alex asks.
"No," I answer plainly. This is actually only the second instance in my time at Yamaku that I've left the campus, but I can't let them know that. It's Saturday and the group has decided to spend the afternoon in town, inviting me along with them. Alex opens his mouth, no doubt to make some snide remark, but the girl beside me cuts him off before the words can leave his mouth.
"We should take him to the Shanghai. What better place for a first impression?"
"Naw, Saki, we were gonna take him to the museum," the girl on my shoulders replies with heavy sarcasm. Rika is actually much heavier than I'd expected, "Where else would we take him?"
"But there's no food in the park," Alex complains to Ikuno, on his own back. An odd sight we must be: two guys casually walking down the street, carrying women on their backs while the one we choose not to carry needs a cane to walk. If someone took the time to think about it, we'd all look like terrible people.
"Does the town even have a museum?" Saki asks.
"I dunno, I was just making a point."
"I don't think it does."
"So the Shanghai it is!" Alex finishes the conversation, and with that, we're off to whatever place the Shanghai is. It's probably a Chinese restaurant judging by the name, and while I'm not a big fan of the stuff, the rest of the group seems to hold it in high regard. Call me optimistic.
Our pace is slow due to the extra weight and Saki's typical dampened speed. It's nice, since meandering along like this allows me more time to take in the scenery. My parents and I drove through here on the way to the school when I transferred, but I was too busy with my thoughts to take note of anything. The town is a small and quiet one, with a musky feel to it that seems similar to the smell of an old paperback book in the library. Most of the inhabitants I see are elderly, likely having retired out here to get away from the harsh noise of the city. As we walk, I catch some residents staring at us as. Some in bitterness, but a majority in amusement. It's mostly the younger folk who regard us with disdain. Either way, the extra attention is enough to bring a slight hue to my cheeks. Why did we decide to carry these two and make ourselves look ridiculous?
We're the astronomy club, that's why. In my time with these people, I've discovered that it's pointless to argue about the pointless things they do. Even now, they still tell me to lighten up more than anyone I've ever met, and I can already notice their influence after just two weeks. Even if I weren't the guy carrying Rika, Alex would still be the guy carrying Ikuno, and I'd still get the same looks as he does for being with him. When you're going to attract attention either way, why not have fun while you're at it?
While my face is redder than usual, I've developed the slightest sense of pride for my newly found circle of friends: Alex the troublemaker, Rika and Saki the rivals, Ikuno the voice of reason, and Kenji the token oddball.
"There she blows!" Rika calls from atop my shoulders as we round the corner, "You can stop here, Charles."
"Yeah, Charles. Hisao is a terrible chauffeur name."
Dismissing the remark, my legs drop me to a crouch in order to unload my cargo. Rika slides over my head putting her feet on the ground, and I stand myself upright once more. My shoulder blades nearly touch as I stretch them out, doing a systems check to make sure everything is still functioning properly. If my muscles were beings of their own, they'd justifiably slap me. Alex does the same and we finish the last 20 meters with at least some normalcy in our stride. Our destination is a relatively modern looking building, bearing a red awning below a large sign inscribed with Chinese cuneiform that I assume reads 'Shanghai'.
We enter, and as I walk through the doorway, I can feel the cool air from the A/C escaping and creating a coffee-scented breeze through the opening. While the decor of the outside of building bears resemblance to China's style, the inside appears no different than any other western cafe I've been to.
"Welcome to the town's best teahouse, The Shanghai!" Alex says with a flair.
Teahouse? This looks nothing like a teahouse-
"Welcome! Thank you for patronizing this establishment!" A very familiar looking auburn-haired librarian greets us before I can continue that train of thought.
"You're very welcome, Miss Shirakawa. Thank you for the warm greeting," Alex returns her gesture without sarcasm and without missing a beat, almost as if this was rehearsed, "Do you have a table for five?"
"Of course. Right this way," she complies, beaming at him as she speaks. I've never seen Yuuko smile like that before.
She leads us to the edge of the cafe, pointing us to our seats, "Is a corner booth okay?"
"Perfect. Thank you."
"I'll be back to take your orders soon!" She says, bowing so deep that I flinch at how close she gets to the corner of the table. The girls slide into their seats with Ikuno in the middle, Saki at the left, and Rika at the right. Alex takes his seat, capping off the left side, so I take the remaining seat next to Rika.
"That was odd," I state, watching as our waitress disappears into the kitchen.
"I thought Yuuko was the librarian at Yamaku," I explain, "That, and how polite and proper you were being, Alex."
"Are you kidding me? I am a gentleman and a scholar!" Alex retorts, feigning insult.
"I want you to go pick up a dictionary and look up the meanings of those two words before you use them again."
"Quiet, Saki. Anyway, is it really that odd for a girl to work two jobs to put herself through school?"
"No not really, now that I think about it."
"Exactly. As for the politeness: I'm sure you've noticed Yuuko is a bit of an odd one. She's a bit of a nervous wreck when it comes to her jobs. One screw up and bam, she gets upset and self conscious and begins considering quitting because she thinks she can't do it right. She's already quit from here twice."
"Both were Alex's fault."
"Rika, please. Yuuko has made a habit of planning things out in her head and going over them over and over again, making sure they go exactly right. The best thing to do is go along with it. In public, she'll gladly talk and chat with you as a friend, but here, she thinks of us as the client. The simplest thing to do is act the part."
"That, and Alex has a crush on her."
The Russian across the table goes from white to red at a moment's notice. "Ikuno! Shut up!"
"He has a thing for cute girls with glasses."
"Hey!" he exclaims, clapping his hand over Ikuno's mouth. Her resistance is minimal, if at all, and she just sits there as Alex covers the wide mischievous grin spreading across her face. Even she has her rambunctious side it seems.
"Do you love me yet?" Saki asks, pushing her glasses up higher on the bridge of her nose. Where did those come from? I've never seen her wear glasses before.
"Stay in school."
Before Saki can make her own remark, Yuuko returns holding a pad of paper and a pen. "May I take your orders?"
"Saki, why did you ask for that?" Rika asks, stirring her coffee while she waits for it to cool.
"You'll see," she says cryptically. Saki takes a straw and wraps a napkin around it, tucking one of the loose ends into the opening to secure it. In front of her lies the white piece of A-sized paper she ordered, neat and completely blank. "It's a little thing I found on the internet. You take the coffee and do a watercolor painting with it."
"Yeah, I want to give it a try." Dipping the makeshift paintbrush into her coffee, Saki lowers her hand onto the paper. Her chronic trembling distorts the lines on the page, like trying to write something in a car with bad suspension. Despite this, her drawings always come out amazing, if a little rough around the edges.
When I was first showed her sketchbook, I was surprised by how good Saki was, despite her apparent lack of fine motor control. Many drawings were very messy and sketched-looking, but still retained the intended effect. If her intention was to draw a rose, you would be able to identify it as a rose. Not a petunia or tulip, but a rose.
"Geez, Saki. Is there anything you won't turn into art?" Alex says, inspecting her work so far. She's using the natural white of the page perfectly to show off highlights, and she seems to compensate for her natural disadvantage by using her mistakes to her advantage. Eventually, out of the brown cloud, a form begins to take shape.
"Is it a snail?"
"A bird's head?"
"Nope." She continues adding curves and patterns inside the outline.
"Is it a fancy snail?"
"Try again." Her hand moves to the other side of the paper to work on the opposite side of the piece. A symmetry begins to make itself apparent.
"Is it a fancy snail reflected on the water?"
"It's not a goddamn snail, Alex!"
There's a large curve at the top of each side, coupled with a smaller curve at the bottom. There's a main body in the center, making the two structures seem like wings. Suddenly the patterns in the curves look vaguely familiar as my mind finally puts two and two together. "A butterfly," I take my guess.
"See, there we go. Hisao gets it. The new kid is better at this than you."
He rolls his eyes as he takes a sip of his coffee and I mimic his movement, the only difference between us being my smug look contrasting his visible annoyance.
"Can I give it a try?" Rika asks, already wrapping her own do-it-yourself brush.
"I don't see why not." The paper slides across the table, coming to rest in front of Rika, who dips her straw into her own coffee, immediately going to work.
Her first line is just a long shallow curve, and the takes her time after to make the outline of said curve rough and feathery to simulate grass it seems. Then she connects something to the grass, making it wide at the bottom and tapering it as she rises.
"It's a tree," Alex guesses, earning a pat on the head from Saki.
"Good job! You got one right!"
Rika continues her piece, and the branches of the trees begin to take shape. Every branch is placed so naturally, yet the artist's hand moves so procedurally and precisely that I can't help but ask.
"How do you know exactly where to put the branches?"
"Fractal Geometry," Rika and Saki both reply at the same time. With so many similarities, it's a wonder why they tease each other so much.
"Layman's terms, please."
"C'mon we learned this in our second year. Fractal Geometry is when what nature uses to create so many seemingly complex patterns. Really, all trees have the same branch pattern, and the smaller branches even share the same pattern as the larger branches. All you gotta do is add a little randomness to it, and it looks like nature. Check it out."
The tree painting was finished as Saki explained the concept to us, and it looks as natural as one color on a piece of paper can get. Rika even added leaves falling from the tree as if it were the end of Autumn. Her lines are much cleaner than Saki's and I'd even go so far as to say that it looks better than the almost abstract looking butterfly on the other side.
"I never knew you were an artist too, Rika."
"There's a lot you don't know about me," she says, locking eyes with me. This has happened a few times lately, these silent moments between us when our gazes meet. Her eyes are like those of a snake, hypnotizing at some points. There's an unmistakable glimmer of both curiosity and challenge in her eyes that always seems to be there, inviting me to discover those aspects of her I don't yet know about.
There's a loud clink on the table as Alex slams his cup back down on the table, causing the rest of us to jump in surprise. "Everyone done with their drinks?"
Looking down, I realize that my coffee mug is actually empty. Everybody else aside from Rika is holding an empty cup as well. Alex and I pay the bill, and we all make our way for the door, leaving half a coffee in our wake.
"Rika, where are we going?"
"To the convenience store."
"Why are you dragging me along?"
"Because it's only polite for you to help carry my bags, right?"
"That doesn't sound like an ulterior motive at all."
Rika pretends to ignore the remark.
"Besides, I'm sure you need supplies after being stuck on campus for two weeks."
"And I think it's high time we spent a little while away from the group. They're slowly poisoning you."
"Alright, you don't have to drag me any more, though."
"Oh, sorry," she says with a playful smirk, slowing down to a more tolerable pace, but keeping her hand secured to mine. We've separated from the rest of the group, leaving Saki and Ikuno alone with Alex. God help their souls.
"And what do you mean by 'poisoning me?'"
"They're teaching you how to be witty and snippy."
"You're the snippiest person I know."
"Yeah, but you're too smart to be entrusted with such abilities. A man like you could be dangerous with them."
"So basically, you just don't want to keep losing arguments with me."
"Are you kidding? I never lose!"
"Sure you don't."
An exaggerated pout on Rika's part ends that banter, and the conversation dies off. My eyes turn to the sky as the ground yields nothing of interest for now.
A strong overcast has overtaken the skies, threatening us with the rumble of thunder and the flash of lightning. I have yet to feel a single drop fall yet, but I know it's coming because the air smells of soil. As we walk, my partner's head is pointed upwards towards the impending storm, examining the patterns and swirls within the ominous gray mass. In our cloudwatching we almost miss our destination, a small shop with the words "Aura-Mart" written on the sign.
Rika reaches up and rings the bell as we enter the store. The clerk looks up from his newspaper simply to confirm our presence, then returns to reading as we enter the isle. Rika makes her rounds, and shows me the store's layout. At the soup section we get into a small debate over which flavor of instant noodle is the best.
Pork is best of course, as if that's even a viable subject for debate.
We split the bill evenly, and make our way out of the store with our groceries in tow. The rain has yet to fall, but the sky is trying it's hardest. In the distance I can see a low cloud spilling its contents onto the mountainside along with other isolated downpours. There are patches where sunlight shines through the clouds as well, making for quite a show mixed with the columns of rain.
"This is a really pretty storm isn't it?" Rika asks beside me, her eyes fixated on the spectacle just as mine are.
"Yeah, it sure is."
"Let's get a better view!" she exclaims, suddenly yanking me to my right by my left arm, taking a detour into the park. By some miracle of coordination my feet are able to carry me despite being hopelessly confused by the sudden change in direction.
"Woah, Hey! Stop yanking me around everywhere!"
Once again, she slows to allow me to keep up. "Sorry, it's just that you're so slow."
"You sound exactly like Emi," I say before I can catch myself. My mind short circuits for a splint second as it tried to rush and amend my last statement.
"Oh, sure I do. Emi has a much higher pitched voice than me, I'll have you know."
There isn't any need for panic around Rika; that's a fact that should be hammered into my head by now. Somehow her casual attitude about the tension between Emi and herself bugs me because Emi seems to take it so seriously. With that thought fresh in my mind, I ask the question that's been on my mind for two weeks now.
"What ever happened between you two?"
"What do you mean?"
"You and Emi. What's wrong between you two?"
"Why are you bringing it up?"
"Emi is my running partner, so I want to know why you two don't talk anymore."
"You run with her?"
"So Nurse lined you up with her too, huh?"
"Yeah, just like he did you apparently."
The invisible glow that Rika usually has seems to have dimmed at this particular subject. "I just couldn't be bothered to run every morning anymore."
The tempo of her footsteps dampens even more as we walk, her fingers play with her hair as she inspects the grass.
"Listen, Hisao, it's not something I want to get into right now." I had actually expected as much, that's why I had been hesitant to ask for so long. "All you need to know is that Emi and I don't hate each other, and there is no malice between us. Don't worry about it, okay?"
"Alright," I concede, taking the hint from the sudden change in atmosphere. We approach a tall tree in the middle of the park and stop at the base just as it's begun to rain.
"Believe it or not, Rin told me about something before we stopped talking. She said she had a thing called the worry tree where she goes to think about things. I took a page out of her book and chose this tree as my own, although it's more of a multipurpose tree than a worry tree. C'mon," she beckons me as she runs at the tree and bounces off of the trunk to get to the lowest branch.
"Woah, woah, woah! You're gonna climb this?"
"We're going to climb it. C'mon!" she exclaims once more as she moves up to the next branch. I take a step back to gauge the height of the tree, estimating it to be at least 20 meters high.
"Are we allowed to do this?"
"Never been bugged about it before!"
"But it's storming out!"
"We'll be fine. Being struck by lightning is only a one in a million chance."
"What about our hearts?"
Rika stops on the branch that she's on and looks down at me with an odd expression, one that I can't quite read. It lies somewhere on the spectrum of joy, however.
"You get your big messy-haired head up into this tree right now, mister!" she orders me like she's my mother, even if that's the exact opposite of what a mother would say. It's not a convincing way to get me to obey. Still, she called my hair messy, and I'm not gonna let that stand.
I begin the climb, going from branch to branch as Rika showed me. On my tenth I stop and look down. The height is already enough to make me slightly dizzy, and I'm only half as far as the girl above me.
'What am I trying to prove, again?' I think to myself.
Reminding myself not to look down, I keep my head up, following Rika's path up the tree until I reach the branch where she has come to rest. Up here the leaves seem to have permanently fallen, allowing a full view of the town below. I shakily pull myself up to a branch right next to hers and take in the view with her. My body is still stiff as a board and my heart races as I cling to the perch. Were it not for my runs with Emi, I probably would've passed out by now.
"See? Room for two! It's perfect."
"You know, if you were wearing your girl's uniform I could've seen up your skirt."
"Don't make me," she says in response, raising a fist as if she were going to punch me out of the tree. My reflexes get the better of me.
"Nonononono!!! Please don't!!!!" I say flinching as hard as I can, holding to the tree for dear life.
"Afraid of heights are we?"
All I can manage is a strained nod.
"I was too at first, and that's why I started coming up here. I like to face my fears."
"Is that why you sleep with a night light?"
"Saki told you about that?!?!?!" Her reaction is so colorful that I can't help but laugh, but I almost cry as I do because I'm afraid I'll shake myself out of the tree. "I hope you said all you wanted to her, because when I get my hands on her, she's dead!!"
"Calm down. I was only guessing anyway! You actually sleep with a night light?"
At this, her face glows red. "I hate you."
Once again I start guffawing, and this time I'm joined by my tree-mate. I've been laughing a lot lately it seems, ever since I started hanging out with Rika. I've done quite a few things since knowing her now that I think about it. I've found my niche in the social system of high school, I've discovered how interesting astronomy can be, and now we're up a tree in the middle of town.
The view up here really is better. You can see the spotlights of sun poking through the clouds along with the columns that they cause and the shimmer of everything in the dampness of the rain.
"You wanna try a trust exercise?
"I'm not trust falling out of a tree, Lucy."
"No, it's nothing like that. You just lean on me and I lean on you."
"And if we don't, we fall?"
"So it is like a trust fall, then."
"Shut up. Do you trust me or not?"
"Good. Then lean this way."
I begin shifting my weight to the left ever so cautiously as mine and Rika's shoulders move closer together as fast as a speeding snail. I begin to panic and freak out, slipping slightly and feeling the world suddenly race towards me.
"Shut up already, will you? I've got your back."
Rika has caught me just like she said she would, and I've caught her. Our backs are against one another and like an arch, we hold each other up.
"See that wasn't so hard now was it?"
"Well, I'm scared out of my mind right now, so I guess it depends on your definition of hard."
She allows a slight 'ha' before settling in. This position is actually very comfortable and Rika is a beacon of warmth in the declining outside temperature. It reminds me of our hilltop vigil on the night of the festival. Soon enough I feel the exhuastion from the climb creep up and as the rest of the world becomes fuzzy. The bliss is short lived thought, because as I'm listening for the sound of Rika's heartbeat her something snaps me into awareness again.
A large clap of thunder slices the air like a hot knife through butter, cracking the sky with it's intensity.
"That was a loud one!"
I've only just gathered my senses back up as she begins speaking.
"That thunder was very close to the lightning, and I can feel the electricity in the air. We should probably get down."
"How do you propose we get out of this position?"
"Are you kidding me?!?!?!"
After half-climbing half-falling out of the tree we immediately made a beeline for the school as the rain started to pour. Now we stand at the divide between the two dorms, soaked thoroughly down to our underpants. Only now that we're here, the rain has decided to stop.
"We should go off on our own more often," Rika says as she hugs me, pressing our cold damp clothes against our bodies, sending shivers down my spine.
"Yeah. As suicidal as that was, it was fun." As I pull away she slips something into my hand, and then pulls me into a quick kiss before whispering into my ear.
"You're going to come get me at six o'clock tomorrow, got it?"
With that she sprints off to get dry before she gets hypothermia. I would do the same, but the note seems more important right now. Opening it reveals a grand total of seven numbers scrawled across the short length of paper, with a dash between the third and the fourth. That's when the realization sinks in.
She just asked me on a real date.
Previous Scene|Next Scene