Without missing a beat, she responds. “Just because I wasn't there doesn't mean I wasn't busy. And besides, you should know better than to ask me to lift heavy objects by now.” She pauses for a moment, and raises an eyebrow. “You wouldn't want me to tattle on you to Shizune that you weren't giving a hundred percent, would you?”
,” I say, holding up my hands. “You win. You're welcome, by the way.”
“Honestly, I do appreciate it,” she sighs tiredly, all the playfulness gone from her tone. “We're not the only ones using it today either.”
“Where did the fish come from?” I ask, staring at the darting figures again.
“We get them in bulk down at the pet store in town. They're cheap because they use them as feeder fish. The jars are just from a food service place, and we order the nets online.”
There's many more fish in the tank than there are jars from what I can see, unless there's a hidden cache that I'm not seeing. “What do you do with the leftover fish at the end of the night?”
“We've already paid for them,” Saki explains, “so we just end up giving them away at the end of the festival to anyone who wants one, or two, or ten.” With another sigh, she sits down on one of the folding chairs and starts to fan herself with a piece of paper.
I notice her forehead is slightly damp. It looks like the humidity and heat might be getting to her too.
“What time did you get to sleep last night? You look completely drained,” I observe.
“Not that late, but I was up pretty early. Nobody’s
been sleeping much this week. Getting ready for the festival has been hectic enough, plus I've had to practice with the rest of band for our show in a bit. I'll be glad when it's over. I might just skip out on the rest of the festival and go straight to bed,” she says, punctuating her last statement with a light yawn.
I lean against the edge of the stall, feeling my own lack of sleep catching up with me after hearing her mention it. “Aren't you supposed to run the booth for the rest of the day after you play?”
Saki snorts derisively. “Let Chisato do it. She was supposed to be here already helping me, but she had to go set up chairs. I know she wasn't doing it by herself, and it doesn't take four hours even if she was
Ouch. Don't tell me you've been here the whole time.”
“Since about eight this morning, yeah.”
“So you haven't had anything to eat?” I ask, alarmed.
“No, not since last night. That’s another reason I'm going to smash Chisato over the head with my violin the next time I see her,” Saki growls.
“I can get something for you, if you want.”
Saki looks genuinely grateful for a second at the gesture, then looks around to see who else is manning the adjacent booths. Her gaze settles on another student that I've seen earlier during the week – a girl around Saki's height with long purple hair pulled up into small loops on either side of her head.
“Noriko?” Saki asks, getting her attention. The girl snaps her head around.
“I'm famished...is it alright if I cut out a bit early to get some food before the performance starts?”
Noriko ponders this for a moment, checking to see how heavy the traffic is around the booths at the exact moment. “Sure. I don't think it should be too much to handle,” she answers in a small, shy voice.
“Thanks! I owe you!”
Saki quickly retrieves her cane from the back of her chair and sits on the edge of the booth, swinging one leg over followed by the other. She holds out her hand expectantly towards me, waiting for me to help her up. I oblige, and we turn towards the direction of the food stalls.
“So,” I ask casually, putting a hand in my pocket as we start to walk. “What are you in the mood for?”
“The fattiest, greasiest thing I can get,” she answers, her eyes twinkling as visions of sugar plums dance in her head.
I laugh. “So basically, the worst stuff for you that you can find?”
“Screw being healthy, right now I need the calories. What, you don't want to try whatever deep fried horror someone came up with this year?”
I grimace in revulsion. “Ugh, no thanks.”
“Oh come on,” Saki says teasingly. “It's not like it's going to give you a heart attack.”
Both my mind and my body come to a screeching halt when I hear that. Suddenly, with that simple sentence, all the joy and fun of the day fly out of my head with reckless abandon...and ever present at the edge of my consciousness, the dark thoughts I've been keeping at bay are more than eager to fill the newly vacated space.
Saki, for her part, has no idea what she just said. Nor would she, as the topic of my reason for being in Yamaku has never seem to come up in the chats we've had the last week. Nevertheless, the sudden stop and palpable change in mood from me is enough to clue her in that something is wrong. She stops half a step in front of me and turns towards me, confusion written on her face.
“Hisao...?” she questions tentatively.
“No,” I say, trying to shrug it off but failing miserably with my tone. “No, I guess it wouldn't, would it?”
Saki's amber eyes look at me with an intensity I've never seen directed at me before, searching me. Studying me.
Her brow furrows slightly as I can see her mind racing to figure out what this means. A quick glance at my chest – almost too fast for me to see, if I wasn't staring back at her – and I can almost read her thoughts as she stares through me. I've done this same routine in the mirror more than once this last week. I know what she sees.
A new student, transferred suddenly to Yamaku after the year had already started. That type of transfer means something
serious and sudden must have happened.
And yet, you'd never know from looking on the outside. All you’d see is an outwardly healthy looking boy. No missing eyes, ears, limbs, or anything else like that. No walker, wheelchair, or cane to get around. Nothing really eye-catching except a pale lankiness created by the hospital stay that would have followed whatever that something
The only logical conclusion based on this – and my reaction to what was just said - is that I ended up at Yamaku because of something to do with my heart.
Almost as if I was speaking aloud, Saki finally puts enough pieces of the puzzle together as I finish my internal monologue. Her eyes go wide and she brings her free hand up to her mouth.
“Gods,” she says softly. “I'm sorry Hisao...I didn't realize...”
“It's okay,” I answer quickly. “I mean, it's not like I told you...”
Saki nods and averts her gaze.
didn't I bring it up sooner?
It's not like I didn't have plenty of chances to earlier. I haven't really told anyone
except for Rin who asked outright. I suppose I'm one of the “lucky” few that require more than a quick glance to figure out whatever their “problem” is.
I look around at the people around us, feeling desperately uncomfortable. Sadly, this doesn't seem to help my mood at all.
It’s almost if I can feel
their looks, both at the school in general and towards the other students in particular. The way they openly gawk when someone has their back to them, but then quickly turn away when the object of their attention turns in their direction, as if guilty of being caught.
Such as staring at someone climbing a flight of stairs.
This is going downhill fast.
“I think I'm still getting used to it myself,” I offer up lamely.
“Weelllll...” Saki drawls, a slight smile coming to her lips in an attempt to cheer me up. “You can't use the 'new guy' excuse forever, you know.” Her eyes grow softer, as does her voice. “You learn to adjust to...all of it.”
“I guess so. It just...gets to me at times. But still, baby steps, right?”
“Speaking of steps,” she says, turning her body back towards the food stalls and inclining her head to make sure I get the hint, “can we keep walking? I'm still starving.”
And just like that...the oppressive atmosphere deflates. How does she manage to switch from carefree to serious and back again in the span of an eyeblink? Can one really simply brush off these types of things that easily?
I guess you could, if you've gotten used to it. Or maybe her sense of humor is much drier and darker than my own.
“Um, sure,” I stammer out quickly when I realize I haven't answered her question. We resume our course towards the far end of the main building.
The sense of curiosity over the previous exchange simply won’t stop nagging me, and I can’t stop myself.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Hm?” she mutters, turning her face towards mine to give me her full attention.
“Why...why didn't you ask? Why I'm here. At Yamaku, I mean,” I stammer, the words fighting desperately to not leave my mouth.
“I just figured you'd tell me if you wanted to,” she puts simply, in a matter-of-fact tone that seems to scold me for thinking the answer would be anything but. “You haven't asked me about my cane either. I've seen you looking at it, and every time I catch you at it, you look so damned guilty.
I rub the back of my neck, feeling more guilty than ever as my face heats up. When that seems to be the only reply I’m able to muster, Saki stops and waits for me to face her.
“You’re still stuck on it that much? Okay. Look, Hisao,” she starts, her tone deadly serious. “You can't tiptoe around people like this. Or yourself. Everyone here has a reason that they're here.” She points down the walkway towards a student in a wheelchair being pushed by a family member, and then gestures at my chest. “Sometimes it's obvious. Sometimes it's not. I don't know what exactly happened to you, but please, take it from someone who's been where you are for a lot
longer than you have been. We're not normal. And that's fine.
“Saki...” I blurt, too stunned at her outburst to say anything. She just continues rolling on right over me.
“I know it takes time to adjust. But you know what? Deliberately going out of your way to treat someone like they're some sort of, I don't know, 'extra-normal' person makes them feel ten times worse, and just rubs it in that they aren't.” Her voice lowers as she glances around. “We all get enough of that from the people around us. So don't you start doing it too. Not even to yourself. Especially
not to yourself,” she finishes, with a voice filled with intensity.
My first reaction is anger.
My second reaction is that she's right.
...can't manage a reply.
Saki sighs and turns her eyes away from me. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean for that to sound so harsh. It's just...”
I wait for a few seconds before she continues, her voice much softer than before, with a twinge of regret.
“So many people that end up here fall into the same trap,” she says, closing her eyes. “Some are like Lilly, or Shizune, or Rin, where they're born with issues so they haven't lost anything. Then others come here because they lost everything
. Car crash, heart attack, diving accident, some doctor tells them there's a tumor in their brain that will kill them before they're thirty...it doesn't matter what happens, just that something
She pauses for a breath, letting it out slowly, as if trying to order her thoughts in her head before speaking again.
“They get here, they run into people who try to treat them like they're made of glass, and they shut down. They never accept what happens because people around them keep trying to sweep it under the rug like it never happened. So they feel like failures because they can't get over it when everyone is trying to tell them they should. And they just...give up.” She shakes her head. “Nobody says 'It's okay to feel sorry for yourself once in a while. It's okay to think that whatever happened to you isn't fair. It's okay to get pissed off and cry and scream and punch a wall or throw something.' So they get into their own little world of pity and never come out of it. I don't want to see that happen to you, Hisao.”
I'm stunned. That's the only word I can use to describe it, and it's so inadequate.
In the months since my heart attack, everyone around me – my parents, my friends, my doctors, even and especially Iwanako – have all tried their best to cheer me up, to make me feel normal.
It’s painfully obvious when it’s forced.
Saki's completely right – it did
start to wear at me. My parents even tried to be optimistic about Yamaku, saying it was an opportunity. By that point I was so pissed off and wallowing in self pity that I was resenting every good-natured attempt around me out of habit.
By trying their best to make sure the full weight of what happened never hit me, I still haven't truly
been able to mourn for anything I've lost.
Thinking back, I did deal with a small handful of people during my hospital stay that were frank and open with me, and I appreciated it. I even find Mutou's concerns and Nurse's lecturing refreshing, when compared to the way people were treating me beforehand. They haven't tried to avoid or tiptoe around my issues, or the problems of anyone else for that matter.
By addressing those issues, they just make them another part of everyday life and not some black sheep or elephant in the room.
There's a very large difference between someone telling you what you want to hear, and someone telling you what you need to hear. Sometimes, you don't even recognize the difference until someone does...well...whatever it was that Saki just did.
“Thank you,” I say, a small smile coming to my face with the sheer irony and absurdity of it all. “I needed to hear that.”
“Damn straight you did,” Saki chastises. My smile turns into a laugh, just like it always seems to do when talking with her.
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