“Calm your tits. So she bluffed you out of a pot, what you do expect?”
“It’s not the bluff, it’s how badly I blew that read. I was sure she had an ace.” Hisao shakes his head.
“She certainly was acting like it, so don’t have a heart attack. She’s had her entire life to practice bluffing. Who knows how many times she has woken up somewhere, not knowing where she is or why? Have you ever seen her panic? Compared to that, pushing her lunch money into the pot seems pretty tame. What did you have, anyhow?”
“King and queen of hearts. I came up blank.”
I open the door to my room and pull him inside. “The bags are in here.” Closing the door behind us, I throw my arms around his neck and plant a big kiss on him. He stiffens for a second or two in surprise, then wraps his arms around me and starts to kiss back. He’s not bad at it, and it’s nice to be the one in the lead for a change. “Shall I let in some light, or would you rather fumble in the dark a bit longer?” I suppose I can take another kiss for an answer, but we do have to get moving before anyone gets too suspicious. After adjusting the blinds to let in some light, I select two bikinis – a pink one for myself, and a yellow one a couple years old for Suzu. I drop hers on the arm of the loveseat and whip Hisao on the backside with my top as he digs through his travel bag. “Take the bathroom,” I say as I gesture towards a door. Still not having found his swim gear, he takes the entire bag with him.
It doesn’t take me long to dump the less-than-useless cosmetic arm and get changed. While waiting for Hisao to emerge from the bathroom, my phone buzzes. It’s from Miki.
“Kenta first, I placed fourth, Emi right behind. Next stop: Sapporo!” I let out a whoop and a cheer, and shout through the bathroom door. “We won! They pulled it off!”
The bathroom door opens, revealing Hisao in blue swim shorts, a white T-shirt, and flip-flops. “What did we win?”
“Our cross-country team! They just won the open meet in Yamagata! Woo!”
“Sounds wonderful! What’s an open meet?”
“It means the best teams from each of four prefectures all ran in one race, a race Yamaku
won! Do you have any idea what that means?”
“Uh… it means they’re fast?”
“No shit it means they’re fast. But beyond that… it means a shot at nationals!
If they can win the next meet, they’ll represent all of northern Japan, in front of the entire country!”
“Just how many high schools in this country specialize in taking on disabled students, anyhow?”
“There are a couple of others, but you’re missing the point. Hisao, they didn’t race against other schools for the disabled. They raced against the best high schools in four prefectures, period.
And they won.
” I do a little victory dance as I head back toward the kitchen, waving my arms in the air like I just don’t care. Suzu and Abe are the only ones remaining at the kitchen table, and they have switched to backgammon. “Where’s mum?”
“Dunno,” says Abe. “Last I saw, she was with Junpei. I think they’re both a little…” He rolls his eyes and sways back and forth in his seat.
“Ah well, I guess I can fill them in later. Suzu, love… Miki and company did it! They won the meet!” Her eyes sparkle as I muss her hair. She always seems to come to life when she visits us, and this time she has Abe in the hole another two thousand yen to go with her haul from the poker table. “Try not to bankrupt the kid too fast. We’ll be in the pool. I left you something to wear if you care to join us.”
“Pool, hmm.” Suzu thinks for a bit. “Hey Abe, want a chance to win some of this money back? How about a little snooker, say, five hundred a frame?”
“You’re on!” You’d better hope she’s not ‘on’, or you’ll be broke for the next two weeks.
I head out the rear exit of the kitchen to the pool area, the slapping of flip-flops assuring me that I’m being followed. I can hear the washer running as I fetch towels for us from the laundry room. I toss one over my shoulder and the other, still rolled and tied, at Hisao. “Think fast.”
He allows it to bounce off his upper chest, kicks it into the air, and heads it back at me. “Your turn.”
I catch the twirling towel roll and toss it into a chair. “Nice moves. Where’d you pick those up?”
“Eh, that’s nothing. I’d have gotten laughed right off the pitch if I couldn’t manage that. Now if I could still run… or take a hit…” He looks wistful.
I take a seat at the edge of the pool, remove the leg, and toss it into a chair before sliding into the water. “I never could run, but I’ve taken many a hit in my life. Are you going to stand there and watch, or are you coming in?” He slips off the sandals and slides into the water as well, still wearing the T-shirt. “Really? You’re going to swim in a T-shirt?”
“How am I going to swim at all? I mean it’s great to have an indoor pool and all, but there isn’t so much room for activities.”
“«I find your lack of faith disturbing.»” I start up the treadmill current, and start swimming against it to demonstrate. After a few moments, I surge forward and grab the bar at the front. “It’s an endless pool. I can adjust it anywhere from a lazy crawl to over nine thousand!
Just say the word.” I release the bar and let the current push me to the far end.
“Lazy crawl sounds good to me.” I dial it back a bit, but not as low as it can go, as he slips into the stream and starts flailing like a drowning rat. I let him struggle for twenty seconds or so, then cut the current.
“You were right about that not-drowning bit. Now let me actually teach you to swim. First, you need to stop kicking like you’re trying to ride a bicycle underwater. You have two options, the scissor kick or the dolphin kick. Scissor kicks tend to make me go in circles so I prefer the dolphin style, but you’re free to choose.” I turn the current back on, swim up to the bar, and demonstrate both types of kick. “Your turn. Just hang onto the bar and don’t worry about your arms right now.”
Even his most awkward scissor kick is a vast improvement over dog paddling, but he surges forward when switching to dolphin. I turn up the current. He alternates a couple more times between the two, then lets go of the bar and floats back to me. He’s out of breath, but looks quite satisfied just the same. “It feels like there’s more power in the dolphin kick, but it wears me out so fast. I think I’ll have to stick with scissor for now.”
“Dolphin kicks require a very strong core, since a lot of the force comes from the body rather than the legs. You’re probably right to lean toward scissor kicks at this stage, but I wanted you to see for yourself. Work on that a little bit more once you catch your breath. Strength is something you build, but you want to have good form right from the start. Excuse me for just a moment.” If everyone else is going for baked goods, I’m going to indulge just a little myself. Half a cookie shouldn’t mess me up too
I cannot resist watching as she hops her way back into the house. I tell myself I’m watching out for her safety, but I doubt there’s anything I could do in time if I saw a hazard. I enjoy watching the bounce from behind as she leaves. I look forward to the bounce coming back even more. I decide to work on the kicking motion from my back, so as not to sacrifice the view, and it is not long before she returns with bottled water for the both of us.
“I like your legwork. Lose the shirt, and I’ll show you how to time the arms, and where to breathe.”
I’m not ready for this. I don’t want to do this. Please, not today.
“Do I really have to?”
“Loose clothing means drag, and drag means wasted energy.”
“Couldn’t you just turn down the current a little instead?”
“What, and go easy on your legs? I don’t think so. I mean it’s not like you have an alien bursting out of your chest or something, right?”
“No, not as such…”
“Then what’s the issue? Look, I’m willing to compromise here.” She dangles her bikini top in my face, then throws it onto one of the deck chairs.
Oh. My. God.
“You’re going to get us…”
Very funny, Hisao. I’ll stay under water. You can too for all I care, but the shirt has to go.”
A voice calls out over the noise of the pool motor. “Just moving the laundry!” Abe has his hand up beside his face like blinders on a horse as he edges around the pool.
“Alright, alright. You
wear this.” I surrender my T-shirt, and she squirms into it. I’d forgotten how difficult it can be to put on thoroughly soaked clothing, but I was unaware it could be that much fun to watch. Not only that, it really doesn’t do much to obscure the view. “Very nice. I think it fits you better than it fits me.”
“Mmm-hmm. Try not to lose the plot here. It’s time to work on the arms and the breathing. Even limiting the kick style, there are still two options: four-beat and six-beat. I’m only going to show you four-beat right now. This means that for every cycle of your arms, you kick four times.” She demonstrates, and seems to have no trouble at all with the current that was a struggle for me. “Now whether you breathe on the left or the right is up to you, but be consistent about it. Also the longer you can go between breaths, the faster you’ll be, because you have less of your head breaking the surface of the water – but don’t worry about that too much right now. Just breathe whenever you need to. Your turn.” She slips off to the corner where the current doesn’t reach.
My turn. I feel like I’m flailing about with my arms, and trying to get everything to synchronize is making it hard to propel myself. I feel like I’m going slower than when I was just kicking, but then I don’t have the bar to hang on to any more. Worse, my legs keep sinking. I’m about to stop and let the current carry me to the far end when I feel a pair of knees lifting my midsection from beneath. I’m able to continue for another twenty seconds or so before I get pushed downstream. “What was I doing wrong?” I shout while trying to catch my breath.
Neko drops into the current and floats down to my end. “Two things: you were thinking too much, and you were going too slow. Both will fix themselves with practice.” She dials the current up a bit. “I also forget about buoyancy.” She glances down, drawing my eyes down with hers. “I’m naturally gifted at floating.” That’s putting it tactfully.
“Let me know when you want to give it another shot. You can recover in the spa if you want, if it’s warm enough.” She launches forward into a swimming style I’ve only seen on television, with both arms working together and her whole body seeming to lift out of the water between strokes. It’s a marvelous sight. She seems so at home in the water, like a mermaid in disguise. Finally she dives beneath the surface, driving through the current by leg power alone for long enough to make my
lungs hurt just watching. She surfaces and floats back down to my end.
“What was that
called?” I ask as she bobs up beside me. “I’ve seen it before, but never in person.”
“Butterfly.” She pauses to catch her breath. “Train with me and we’ll get to it… but not today, it’s the most demanding of the four. For one thing, a dolphin kick is part of the rules for the ’fly, so let’s stick to the crawl for now. Are you ready for another go?”
“Maybe a short one. I’m starting to feel heavy already, and I’m not in a drowning mood any more.”
She dips her hand into the water on the other side of the divider. “It’s finally getting warm in there. Tell ya what, you put in another five and I’ll give you a treat.”
“I might need you to prop me up again, like you did last time.”
“Just give it a shot the way the current is now. It should be fast enough to keep you from sinking. And don’t think.
That’s easier said than done, but it does have a certain easy rhythm to it. Did I have to think when I first started to run? I don’t remember that I did, but I could have forgotten. “Five minutes you say?” She nods. “Let’s do this.”
At first I think I might actually be able to make it, but then my legs start to burn. I try to take up the slack with arm power, but I can still see that I’m slowly slipping backward. Come on, you can do this. It’s just five minutes.
But it’s no use, the current wins and I find myself back at the far end of the pool. I catch my breath and prepare to apologize for my poor performance, but Neko is giggling. She turns the current speed back down from where she’d ratcheted it up to as I tried to fight it.
“You’re a good sport, Hisao. You earned that treat, five minutes or no.”
Mmm, yes. I did earn this.
She can prank me all she likes, if it means she does the backstroke in a wet T-shirt again.
“Now that we’re sharing secrets,” she says as she pulls up beside me, “it’s your turn.”
“I dare say those
weren’t much of a secret.” My eyes drop for less than a second.
“No, they are kinda hard to keep secret. But this
was.” Her right knee makes contact with my left thigh. “Fair?”
“Fair.” Several possible questions run through my mind, none of them pleasant to answer. “What would you like to know?”
Her finger lands on my chest. “This. Why do you have your own Harry Potter mark, only on your chest instead of your face?”
I didn’t think it looked much like a lightning bolt, but I suppose maybe it could. “It’s my ticket to Yamaku.”
As I explain the incident from the beginning – the note from Iwanako, the confession, the heart attack, the time in the hospital – it's her turn to say “I'm sorry…” I repeat her sentiment that she has nothing to be sorry about, but she disagrees. “No really, I didn't get it. I have my issues, but none of them are going to kill me. I'm going to grow old like everyone else. I'm going to get gray hair like everyone else. If fate wills it, I'm going to have children and grandchildren like everyone else, and I don't have to worry about them inheriting my condition. I had no idea your life was in danger.”
“It really isn't, once I learn to live within my limits. From what I understand, I don't have
to die young, although I still might if I'm unlucky, stupid, or some combination of the two. I'm still trying to come to terms with just what those limits are. You saw that Sunday.” Has it really only been six days?
“Well I suppose luck can't be helped, that's why it's called luck. But learn to not be stupid, I'm starting to like you.” She kisses me, gently but not briefly, and pulls back slightly.
I take her hand and place it over the scar on my chest and whisper, “Now that you know, I'm still here if you want me.”
“Hisao, everyone on this planet is a little bit broken. Some of us are more obvious about it than others, but not one of us is perfect.” She wraps her arms around me and pulls me in tight.
That wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.
But something else