Page 8 of 22
Chapter 53 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:18 am
I step aside a bit so Lilly faces my classmates.
"These are Shouta Kamijo, Takumi Kisaragi and Yuuto Sazukawa. We're in the same workgroup, we usually do group projects together and hang out during lunch break."
Lilly makes a polite bow in their general direction.
"I'm honored to meet Hisao's friends. I am Lilly Satou, and I'm a friend of Hisao's from high school."
Kisaragi makes a baffled face.
"You're a friend of Nakai?"
"Yes, we often had lunch together last year. Hisao is also currently dating my best friend."
"Oh... Uh, nice to meet you."
"Yes, pleased to meet you."
"Uh... H-hi there..."
With the introductions behind us, I turn back to Lilly.
"I didn't expect to see you here. It must have been quite a walk from the English faculty to this place."
"It was, but I'm slowly getting the hang of the layout of the campus. I've been taking strolls around the campus since I first started attending here. At first strictly in the company of others, but lately I've also been exploring by myself."
"So it's kind of like training to you?"
"A bit. It ties into my mobility training. Since you will be attending classes in this building for the upcoming years, I felt it worth the time to try and familiarize myself with the location."
"That's very much appreciated. So that's why you didn't want me to meet you in the entrance hall?"
"Indeed. It's easier for me to remember the layout of a place when my hand isn't being held."
"I'll keep that in mind. I'd give you a tour of this place and catch up a bit with you in the meantime, but I'm not sure if we can do that and still leave you with enough time to get back to your own building before the next classes start."
Lilly nods her head.
"I appreciate the offer, but you're right in that there's probably not enough time for a tour. Perhaps another time. As for the catching up... Did you get the card I sent you with my new address?"
"I did. Thanks. You must be pretty thrilled to still have been able to get a place of your own. I'd love to see it sometime."
"That's actually part of the reason why I'm here. I know it's a bit sudden, but do you already have plans for this evening?"
"I don't. This evening will work fine. We can catch up then."
"I'm looking forward to it. Between seven and eight o' clock at my apartment then?"
"Works for me."
Lilly turns towards my classmates and bows again.
"It was a pleasure to meet all of you. Perhaps until some other time."
I walk Lilly to the cafeteria's exit where we say our goodbyes. When I watch her slowly make her way out the front entrance, I can't help but feel a bit of admiration. I haven't been to the English faculty ever since the open house day and would probably have trouble finding it unless I paid very close attention to the signs. And here's Lilly navigating the campus without eyesight. Maybe I gotta get around more as well.
Still, her visit was a nice surprise today, and I'm looking forward to visiting her this evening. First things first though. Lilly has at least been thoughtful enough to avoid asking me about my health, but it's still possible that the guys are now wondering whether I attended a special school or not and if so, what the reason behind it could be.
I sigh and return to the canteen to find my classmates in the middle of another heated conversation. I feel a bit uncomfortable as I sit down at their table and get three pointed stares in return. I decide to make an awkward attempt at conversation.
"So... I guess the person you guys were talking about turned out to be an old friend of mine. What a coincidence, huh?"
"Why are you guys so quiet all of a sudden?"
"What is it?"
Kisaragi gives me a withering look.
"The first hot girl who's walked into this building for nearly a month doesn't merely turn out to be on first-name terms with you, but also invites you to spend the friggin night with her right in front of us and all you have to say for yourself is 'What a coincidence'? I'm never lending you my notes again! And these guys won't either. Serves you right, you son of a bitch!"
"She said 'evening', not 'night'. Don't get the wrong idea."
"Like that makes a difference! And you're already dating her best friend too! Is there any more salt you wanna rub in my wounds while you're at it?"
I smirk and roll my eyes. Looks like I have nothing to worry about after all.
I look at the card in my hand a few times in order to confirm that I have the right address and then walk over to the buzzer. As I look at the nameplate next to the button, I can see that's it's clearly been placed recently. Sure enough, the name engraved on the nameplate, next to the number 522, clearly reads 'Satou'. I press the buzzer, and a little while later I see the door open slightly.
"Hi Lilly. Can I come in?"
The door now opens completely to reveal Lilly standing there.
"Please come in, and make yourself at home."
I walk into the entryway area and put my shoes away. Lilly walks past me and makes her way down the hallway into the living room. I notice that she moves around this place without her cane and without carefully feeling her way around, so she's probably intimately familiar with the layout of this apartment already. As we reach the living room, Lilly turns around and spreads her arms in a welcoming gesture.
"Welcome to my little home, Hisao."
As she hears me walk closer, she carefully feels her way to my shoulder and then gently pulls me into a loving embrace which I'm all too happy to return. I have to admit I did kind of miss my daily interaction with Lilly. As we break off our hug, Lilly chuckles.
"This seemed like a more fitting way to celebrate our reunion. Unfortunately, hugging in the middle of the school cafeteria would have been a bit improper."
"You probably saved my life by deciding not to hug me there. Our faculty barely has any female students, and at least one of my lunchmates is a frustrated single, but he probably wasn't the only one in the room. I would have been lynched for sure."
"Still getting used to your new school life?"
"A little bit."
"Can I get you some tea, Hisao?"
"It wouldn't feel right without some, wouldn't you agree?"
"Completely. Please make yourself comfortable. I'll be right with you."
Lilly gestures towards the couch and then walks over to the kitchen area. She opens one of the cabinets and takes a tea set out of it. I instantly recognize the red color and flower motif on the cups and teapot. A sense of comfortable familiarity washes over me. So much has changed since I left Yamaku, so a familiar ritual such as this feels surprisingly good to me.
As Lilly's busy heating water for the tea, I take a moment to look around. The apartment is surprisingly spacious. It's probably built to house a couple and one or two children. The living area is rather sparsely decorated, but the furniture has the same antiquish style as the cabinet in her dorm room. A table in the middle of the room serves as the dining area, and near the back of the room is a sitting area with a low table and an angled sofa that seems large enough provide room for five or six people. In the corner is a cabinet with a landline phone and an extremely small television on top of it. The kitchen area is rather standard although one thing that catches my eye is the fact that there are several sheets of paper with text in Braille attached to one of the cupboards.
"Feel free to look around a bit if you wish, Hisao."
"Don't mind if I do."
I walk back to the entrance area and look around. Aside from the front door and the doorway leading to the living room, there are three other doors there. One of them merely leads to an extremely small room with a few cabinets. It's probably used as storage area. The other doors lead to a bedroom and a bathroom area.
Lilly's bedroom has the same familiar fragrance of perfume and nail polish that her dorm room at Yamaku used to have. In addition to a bed, it also has a bookshelf and a desk. Despite there being a bookshelf here, half of the books in this room are still stacked on the floor. Either Lilly has a system she's been using for a very long time and doesn't like to deviate from or she simply doesn't like putting away her books. The desk houses a braille device similar to the one I've seen in Yamaku's student council office a few times. There's also an old-fashioned typewriter there. Each of the typewriter's keys is covered by a sticker with something that looks like a braille code for the respective characters. Seeing that her teachers probably don't know Braille, this must be how Lilly writes the reports and essays she has to hand in.
The bathroom area houses a simple sink and two inner doors, one leading to a toilet area and the other one to a bathing area with two small stools, a small bucket and a rather deep bath. All in all, Lilly´s apartment seems to have all the amenities of an actual family home.
I return to the living room and take a peek behind the door near the cabinet holding the television. There's a fairly large but completely empty room behind it. One of the walls has a large empty compartment that was probably built to house futons. This room would probably be used as either a secondary bedroom or a secondary living area, but currently it seems to serve neither purpose. I think I have an idea of the reason behind it.
I look around and notice that Lilly has finished preparing the tea and has put the cups and tea pot on the table in the sitting area.
I take a seat at the low table and watch as Lilly pours the tea in a practiced motion. She hands me a cup and slightly raises her own.
"To the good old times?"
"Works for me."
It's been two months since I last saw Lilly. We both graduated that day and passed our entrance exams to boot, but our joy was marred by the fact that Hanako didn't manage to make it in, and to make things worse, Hanako had disappeared without a trace, apparently having left the school grounds earlier that morning.
Hanako's therapist informed us that Hanako was in a safe place and busy sorting out her thoughts, but I don't think I was the only one who suspected that Hanako's desperation simply got the better of her and that she fled the school because she didn't know how to deal with the situation. We reluctantly left the matter in Miss Takawa's hands, and returned home with our parents, though I suspect I haven't been the only one who had trouble sleeping the nights after.
Finally, two days afterwards, just when I was contemplating calling Yamaku, I received a text message from Hanako. It didn't shed a lot of light on her circumstances, but it did say that she was okay, that she'd be spending another year at Yamaku and that she was sorry for having run off like that. I couldn't reach her when I tried to call her, but an hour later I received a phone call from Miss Takawa who explained the situation to me in full.
It turned out that Hanako had sought shelter in the orphanage where she grew up. I can't say I ever would have found her there, seeing that Hanako never told me where exactly it was located. Miss Takawa also informed me that Hanako had been accepted into Yamaku's ronin program, and that the school would do its best to make certain she'd be better prepared for the exams next year.
I offered to drop by at Yamaku that very day, but Miss Takawa said that it was better if I didn't. She said Hanako'd had a few very stressful months behind her and that it was best to simply let her get her bearings back and give her time to get back into a normal daily routine. In time, Hanako would have settled down enough to initiate contact with us. In the meantime, she advised me to concentrate on getting settled in my new life myself as I probably had more adapting to do right now than Hanako. I couldn't really argue with that, so I left it at that.
I had a long phone conversation with Lilly that same day, and it turned out that Miss Takawa had contacted her as well. While both of us were already missing Hanako, we agreed that there was no longer any reason to worry about her, and the best thing we could do was get our own life in order right now so Hanako wasn't going end up worrying about us. Lilly argued that it probably was best for us to go our own way for a little while and focus on meeting new people at our respective faculties, rather than clinging to each other for company. I've missed hanging out with Lilly, but I recognized the value of getting familiar with the people in my own class, so we agreed to focus on our own lives for a bit and catch up once life started settling down a little.
"You used to call your parents' place your home. I suppose now that you have this place, that's not the case anymore?"
"Actually, I call both places home now. It can be a bit confusing, but it reflects how I feel."
As I drink my cup of tea, I notice that it has a very familiar taste.
"Is this the same tea you'd usually drink at Yamaku?"
"Orange Jaipur. Indeed. I'm fortunate that the local store carries it."
"If you don't mind me asking: do you do your own shopping nowadays?"
"I do. We have a very convenient system in place for that."
Lilly briefly points at the sheets of Braille paper taped to the front of the cupboard.
"Those lists you see there are shortened inventory lists of some of the nearby stores. They contain most of the items I need in my daily life. When I need to do some shopping, I can make a phone call to one of those stores and tell them what I need. By the time I've made it there, they usually have the order ready for me to pick up. All the remains then is to pay for it."
"Wow, that's some customer service."
"Father made the arrangements for me. He and I had a personal talk with each of the stores' managers, and they were happy to be of assistance to a regular customer."
"Looks like you managed to adapt really quickly."
Lilly modestly shakes her head.
"Last Wednesday was actually the first day I've lived completely on my own. Up until that point, Mother has lived here with me. Throughout the first four weeks, she's been here with me seven days a week. During the first three weeks, she even accompanied me to school. Over the last two weeks, she's only been here on Mondays and Thursdays. I don't think I would have been able to adapt without her efforts. I'm truly thankful to her. And also to Father for changing his mind about letting me live here without a roommate."
"Wow, that's some dedication."
"She said she felt she owed it to me. I... don't really agree, but I'm nevertheless thankful for her efforts. I think... it's truly better that Mother has taken this role upon herself and not Hanako. Better for everyone."
That's probably true. I could have seen Hanako agreeing to move in with Lilly anyway if that had been the only way for Lilly to be allowed to live here, but it probably would have lead to problems down the road, especially in the emotional state Hanako was in around graduation. With no school to study at and nothing to do all day long except act as Lilly's temporary crutch, her self-esteem probably would have suffered, and as Lilly became less and less reliant on her, it'd probably start dropping even more with each passing day. I'm not sure how well Hanako would have functioned guiding Lilly around a crowded school either. No, this approach was definitely better.
"I agree. So, is your mother still staying over every now and then or are you truly on your own from now on?"
"She won't be spending the night here anymore, but I still spend my Sundays at my parents' home each week. When they come here to pick me up on Sunday mornings, Mother usually does a quick check to see if everything here is still in order and does some additional cleaning if it's required while Father assists me with my mail and administration."
"Sounds like you're holding up here just fine."
Lilly empties her cup and then promptly refills it. Looks like that raging caffeine addiction of hers hasn't gone anywhere in the meantime. As she takes another sip, she smiles playfully at me.
"That about covers my life up until this point. How about yours, Hisao? Catching up is a mutual process, you know?"
"Point taken. I've moved back in with my parents. We don't really see each other that often because both of them are working, but we try to spend some time together each evening. I'm also trying to make myself useful around the house and do some chores every now and then. They are paying for my tuition after all."
Lilly smiles in appreciation.
"That is a very good attitude to have."
"It's kind of funny, but I didn't really use to be very close with my parents. I think that ever since I started dating Hanako, I've grown a bit more… appreciative of them."
Lilly gives an understanding nod.
"I think I know what you mean. How about the people at school? Were the people you were having lunch with your friends?"
"It's kind of difficult to say. We work on group projects together and spend lunch breaks together on a regular basis. They even made notes on my behalf when I was absent for a day last week. So I guess you could call us friends, though I kinda feel like the odd one out."
"Hmmm, how so?"
"I'm the only one who doesn't live in the dorms for starters."
"That's not necessarily a problem. You don't have to live in the dorms to make friends. With the exception of Hanako, I made all of my friends at Yamaku during my first year when I was still living with Akira, and many of my friends were boarding from the beginning."
"I guess there's something else too."
Chapter 53 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:18 am
"Your health? How is it these days?"
"I haven't had an episode since I started attending here. I no longer have a running track in my backyard, so my parents and I shelled out some money for a home trainer that I use on a daily basis to stay in shape. Emi would probably call me a turncoat for switching from running to cycling, but the neighborhood I live in just isn't very suitable for jogging. I had a checkup at the hospital last week, and they seemed satisfied with the results."
"That's good news. I'm happy to hear that you're taking good care of yourself."
I can't suppress an amused smirk. I don't think Lilly even realized how extremely motherly that sounded just now. She really hasn't changed a bit.
"Well, I try. I'd really hate to have an episode during schooltime."
"Hisao... Does anybody at school know about your heart?"
"One teacher and a school nurse. I guess I'd have some explaining to do if I ever were to have a heart flutter in the middle of class, so I'm doing my best to prevent that kind of thing from ever happening in the first place."
"Most of your old classmates from Yamaku knew about it, didn't they?"
"Yeah, eventually. But that was because I also came to know their reason for attending Yamaku. Everyone had their own condition to deal with, so once I accepted what I had, I felt petty for trying to avoid the subject in front of my fellow students. After all, having a medical condition didn't make me different from the rest. But it's kind of different now, because I'm probably the only student in class who attended a school like Yamaku. The last thing I want is to get stares and whispers whenever I enter class. I'm not sure if this is something people even care to know about."
Lilly looks a little saddened to hear my words.
"It almost sounds like you're feeling guilty for being the way you are. Have I ever apologized for my blindness, even once? You can't help the way you were born, Hisao. There's no point in apologizing or feeling guilty for who you are."
I wouldn't have expected Lilly to say anything else. But there's a difference between us. Lilly's blindness is impossible to hide, so it'd be unreasonable for people to expect her to do so. My condition is a lot more subtle, so it's not really fair to compare the two. Still, since Lilly can't hide her condition, I wonder how her school life's been.
"Lilly, can I ask you a question?"
"Of course, Hisao."
"How's your school life been? It's good to hear that you've managed to adapt to your new environment and that you're now capable of finding your way around, but how's your interaction with your classmates? And... How's their interaction with you?"
"Most people in my class are very friendly. There are several people with whom I spend time after school. I still like to take walks across the campus during lunch break in order to familiarize myself with the terrain, but eventually I'll probably join them for lunch as well."
Lilly makes an uncomfortable grimace.
"You... are asking how people reacted to my blindness, aren't you?"
"If that's not too personal a question."
She shakes her head, but judging from the expression on her face, it very well might be.
"Mostly positive. It's difficult for me to determine if I get many stares or not, but people don't speak ill of me. Quite the opposite. People are generally very helpful. But there's still quite a bit of awkwardness from time to time as well. I can tell that people sometimes don't really know how to act around me. I... could probably do without the praise too."
"Sometimes people try to be friendly and tell me how impressed they are that I can eat with chopsticks or use a cell phone, despite the fact that I've been doing that for years. They mean well, but it comes across as a bit..."
"...a bit like: 'Look at that monkey peeling a banana, mommy.' "
"That's kind of why I'm reluctant to let other people in on my condition. I don't want people to have that kind of interaction with me."
"Neither do I, but your classmates might eventually find out about it unless you go out of your way to keep them at arm's length. And doing that will make you more of an outsider than your condition ever could. I believe that people simply need some time to adapt. After all, you were a little uneasy when you first came to Yamaku, weren't you? If you could do it, certainly others can as well."
"That's not a bad point."
"Whenever people are awkward around me, I try to remind myself that many of my former classmates from Yamaku, as well as yours, are probably faced with the same situation or will someday. The knowledge that I'm probably not alone in this makes it easier to put things into proper perspective."
True. Several of my classmates have disabilities less subtle than mine. I'm pretty sure Shizune or Miki or even Natsume would be more eye-catching than I would be. And that's not even counting Hanako.
"Are you talking about Hanako?"
"Not specifically, although it's probably unavoidable that she'll attract her share of stares eventually. We can only hope that by then she can deal with that kind of attention."
I wonder if Hanako will ever be able to deal well with that kind of attention, but at least that's not going to be a concern for at least ten more months.
"Speaking of Hanako; she and I have been corresponding through e-mail lately. Has she... reestablished contact with you as well?"
Lilly's smile returns.
"She has. Just a moment, please."
Lilly gets up, disappears into the hallway and comes back after a minute holding a binder in her hands.
"I keep all my correspondence with her in here."
I take a look at the binder that Lilly placed on the table. It contains between eight and twelve sheets of Braille paper, presumably letters from Hanako to Lilly. Looks like Hanako found a way around Lilly's lack of technical savvy. I can't really read what the letters say, though most of them aren't extremely long. Assuming she started writing Lilly around the same time she reestablished contact with me, Hanako must have been writing about 2 letters a week to Lilly. That's quite a lot, considering the fact that she and Lilly correspond through snail mail.
"Letters in Braille. Hanako's probably using the newspaper club computer to print them. I believe she said it has a program that can convert normal text into Braille. That's how they make the special editions of the school newspaper too."
"Apparently it works both ways. She said it was okay for me to write back in Braille too. I'm better with a brailler than with a normal typewriter, so this is quite convenient for me."
So Hanako basically scans in Lilly's letters and then runs them through some conversion software.
"So when did she start writing you?"
"Around the third week of April. I was getting a bit anxious already, but I wanted to keep my promise to Miss Takawa."
"So Miss Takawa also asked you to leave it up to Hanako to reestablish contact?"
"Yes. I asked her why and she said that Hanako having to take that initiative was part of her therapy and that it was best if we first let her regain her footing a bit until she was comfortable enough to interact with us as equals again."
"Hanako probably still feels really bad about what happened on graduation day, so indirect contact through e-mail and letters probably feels safer to her."
"I think so too, though there may have been other factors besides her actions on graduation day. It's a real shame though that she doesn't seem comfortable with phone contact yet. I'm fine with letters, but... Being able to hear her voice from time to time would be very welcome too. Especially during this week, don't you agree?"
"I'm not sure..."
Lilly looks a bit upset. Did I miss anything? Hanako's birthday is still slightly over a month away.
"This week, one year ago, something very special happened."
"Wait! Was this week the week I transferred to Yamaku last year?"
"It was. Last year, it was during this week that Hanako and I first met you."
"I can't believe you remembered that."
"I'm sure Hanako remembers it too, Hisao. Girls remember these sorts of things, and meeting you was a very special occasion for her."
"Is something the matter?"
I tried to be casual in my tone, but it looks like Lilly still managed to pick up a wistfulness in my tone.
"Can I ask you something, Lilly?"
"How do you feel about... Hanako no longer being a daily part of your life?"
Lilly smiles sadly.
"I miss her presence, and I hope that she'll soon get to the point where we can talk directly to each other again and spend time with each other again. In the meantime, I keep telling myself that Hanako received a valuable opportunity to become stronger and that it's a good thing that she's chosen to take advantage of it."
"That's a good way to look at it, I guess."
"But how about you, Hisao? You two were dating, and then you were suddenly separated and thrust into a long-distance relationship. To be very honest, I would personally have difficulty maintaining a relationship of that kind, so I'm curious how you are holding up."
"To be honest, the moment where our relationship suddenly changed didn't take place on graduation day, but several months earlier. All that happened at the end of March was a physical separation."
Lilly smile immediately vanishes, and a guilty look appears on her face.
"Hisao... I'm sorry."
"Hey, don't be like that. I'm not pointing fingers."
It's not like I'd need to anyway. Lilly already does a fine job of claiming responsibility for Hanako's situation even though I don't think that Hanako is blaming her. I do kind of wonder if I should discuss this with Lilly to begin with, but ultimately decide that Lilly's probably still the best person to talk to about this.
"Of course... Please continue, Hisao."
"That period between the start of our relationship and that incident at Kasshoku consisted of some of the best months of my life. But afterwards, she immediately started relapsing. She started secluding herself in her room again. She often seemed lethargic whenever we could make time to hang out. Maybe that stressful exam period was a blessing in disguise because it served as a distraction from the fact that our relationship was already in the freezer. There were times when I told myself that everything would be okay after we all graduated and that we'd be able to pick up where we left off afterwards, but that was probably very naive."
"I'm sure that Hanako isn't happy with the situation either, Hisao."
"I'm not blaming Hanako, Lilly. I'm mostly frustrated with the situation and not really with her...anymore."
I take a deep breath.
"I won't lie. There have been times when I wondered whether it was even worth it. I couldn't help but wonder if this was what a relationship with Hanako was going to be like in the long run too: good times, followed by months and months of helplessness and feeling like I'm walking on eggshells. What if it's a cycle that never ends?"
Lilly looks uncomfortable. Given how supportive she's always been of our relationship, this must be painful for her to hear.
"I don't think that's fair to Hanako, Hisao."
"I know that. It's not just unfair, but hypocritical too."
"After my last hospitalization, Hanako and I made up and she made me a promise."
I pause for a moment to study Lilly's face and her tiny knowing smile confirms that Hanako must have told her about that at some point.
"When she promised me that if something happened to me again, she'd wait for me, even if she couldn't be by my side through it all, that meant the world to me. It may seem like a small thing, but her keeping that promise would still put her ahead of most people who used to be in my life. And despite her relapse, I'd like to think she'd keep that promise, even now."
"She would, Hisao. There is no doubt in my mind about that."
We both let out a soft chuckle. I bet that Lilly, like me, realized that the most sure-fire way of seeing Hanako in the flesh again would be for me to have another heart attack.
"Let's hope I won't have to find out. Anyway, in the end it wasn't me who got put out of commission, but her. And now I feel like it's up to me to keep up my end of that vow. It's pretty likely that at some point in the future, I'll be hospitalized again, maybe be out of commission for months on end, just like Hanako. It's happened before, after all. How can I expect Hanako, or anyone for that matter, to stick with me if I can't stick with them when they go through their darker moments?"
"It's almost like a test, don't you think? Like a trial to test your resolve?"
"I told myself I'm going to tough things out, but even so, I never expected the wait to be so...damn...long."
Lilly nods and there's a long silence. I've never discussed this with anybody and I'm surprised how relieved I'm suddenly feeling after letting this off my chest. I'm happy that I took this opportunity to talk about this to the one person who probably knows Hanako as well as I do. Eventually, Lilly speaks up.
"Is this situation on your mind a lot?"
"I'm trying not to think too much about it. And for the most part, I've been succesful. I've had my hands full getting my university life in order over the last two months, so I've been able to keep my mind off Hanako so far and I thought that was a good thing since it's better being busy than being bitter, but now I'm starting to wonder if that was the right thing to do to begin with. What if I focus so much on my university life that I'll wake up one day and realize I feel content with the way things are now? And then realize I feel content despite being in a relationship that's a relationship in name only?"
Lilly gives me an amused smile.
"I think I know what you mean. It's a little bit similar to how I used to feel after Mother and Father left for Scotland. Eventually I got to the point where I was fairly happy and content despite them not being there because there were others who were an important part of my life as well. That doesn't mean I wasn't hoping they'd move back someday. I don't think you should feel guilty about feeling content with your life, because you can feel good about yourself and still hope for your life to get even better."
"Maybe... It's just that I can't shake the feeling that this isn't how things are supposed to be. I was pretty frustrated when she left just like that, but focussing on getting settled at my new faculty allowed me to get my mind off things and I'm no longer upset with her, but I'm not really feeling that spark either. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but I'm just not feeling that right now."
"Do you really feel like your relationship with Hanako is one in name only? Despite the fact that you're exchanging correspondence with her?"
"The mails we exchange are usually rather short and about casual stuff. It sounds a bit harsh, but right now it feels like Hanako and I are just pen pals, rather than boyfriend and girlfriend."
"Have you talked to Hanako about this?"
"I'm afraid that if I bring it up, she'll jump to the conclusion that I'm on the verge of breaking up with her."
"Maybe you could try to make your interaction with her less casual? Maybe I'm a bit old-fashioned, but have you tried writing her a romantic love letter? That would certainly win me over."
I chuckle briefly at that. That really did sound like something Lilly would say.
"I could be mistaken, but I think that's one area where you and Hanako are different, and I'm not merely saying that because I'm reluctant to write her a sappy love letter."
"What would your idea of a pleasant date be if you were in a relationship with someone?"
"Hmmm... I would... go somewhere together... for a nice dinner, some tasty wine and a pleasant conversation."
"You probably nailed it with the last part. I'm not saying that Hanako's incapable of enjoying conversation, but it's never been at the core of our relationship life. Whenever we'd go out on a date, we'd go and see a movie or visit an arcade center or do karaoke. Whenever we wanted to bond, we'd play a game of chess or snuggle up to each other while reading books or... uh... make love. I think some of the most romantic moments of our relationship have been just walking hand in hand through the forest near that Scottish village, or reading a book together or waking up or dozing off in each other's arms. Do you know what all those activities have in common?"
"You don't need conversation to enjoy them."
"Exactly. It's not that Hanako and I hardly ever talked, but I don't think Hanako or I are really talkers by nature and with Hanako's social skills, conversations often contain just a little bit too much awkwardness to feel fully relaxed. So we kinda built our entire relationship life around activities that we could enjoy just as much without the need to engage in conversation. And it actually worked really well for us. But right now... it seems that conversation is all we have left. To be honest, I don't think we're cut out for a long distance relationship. But if I tell Hanako that, she's probably going to freak out."
"Damn, just listing those things suddenly made me really miss her again."
"It's a relief to hear that. I realize that a relationship with Hanako may not always be low maintenance, but there have been many wonderful memories you have of her despite the recent struggles, don't you agree?"
That's true and that's probably why I still consider her my girlfriend even though we're so far apart right now. Hanako's bad times have been pretty bad, but the good times have been wonderful and I sincerely want those back. I miss those little moments we used to share. Despite everything, Hanako's still really special to me even though being her boyfriend has been difficult the last couple of months.
"Yeah. I guess it'd be best to hold on to those memories and have faith that those kinds of times will return eventually."
"Hisao, would you like my opinion?"
"If just the mention of those moments make you feel that way, then perhaps we should make an effort to create such a moment ourselves. A bonding moment as it were."
"But how? Other than ignoring Takawa and taking the next train to Yamaku, that is."
"Maybe we could talk to her. Have an actual direct conversation with her. My landline phone here has a speaker."
"You want to phone her? Didn't Takawa ask us to leave all the initiative with Hanako?"
"We won't phone her, but we could tell her that we'd like to have a phone conversation, even if it's only once. We'd take part of the initiative, sure, but in the end the final decision would still lie with Hanako. We could plan a special moment for it."
"Do you have one in mind?"
Lilly gives a reassuring nod.
"I think I do. Do you have time to visit here later this week?"
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:19 am
"Haha, missed me!"
"I don't think that attack's going to do much good."
"And here we go!"
"Hmph, lucky shot."
"Is this how you want to play it?"
"Let's try this one more time."
"Was it... uh... class 1-3 or 1-4 that held that fishing game today?"
"Mmm... I'm pretty sure it was class 1-4. You know that 1st year who joined the newspaper club recently? Makoto... something? He was operating the stall for some time and I think he's from class 1-4. Uh... We can probably check that later, right?"
"I accept the challenge. Give me your worst!"
"Huh? Jeez, that attack is overpowered. How did that get through the beta testing?"
"Well, both can play at this game."
"Whew, that was close."
"Do you... know who organized that h-haunted house event?"
"I think it was Aoi from the student council. It's a bit cliché, but she's wanted to have one here for years."
I turn my attention back to my notepad and start scribbling again. I'm really exhausted right now and I'm struggling to hang on to my recollection of today's events, but if I don't commit as much as possible to paper before the end of the day, I'll have forgotten half of it by tomorrow morning. Besides, I need a basic outline done this evening to show Miss Yumi.
I have barely finished writing two lines when I realize that it's suddenly rather quiet in the room. I look back at Jun, who has spent the last hour or so in front of her television. There's a message on the tv saying: 'Searching for an opponent'. Jun's fingers are idly fiddling around with the Wii controller in her hands, but her eyes are looking at me.
"Is... s-something wrong?"
"You seem pretty serious about getting this piece of yours done. I'm not distracting you, am I?"
"If you say so."
I don't think it's my place to tell Jun to stop playing games on her own console in her own room anyway, but fortunately her vocalized thoughts aren't particularly distracting.
Not distracting, but still a bit bizarre.
Jun recently found out about my tendency to only step on the dark tiles in tiled hallways when there are no other people around and was pretty amused by it. But before that, I already found that she has a rather interesting quirk of her own. Whenever she's playing video games, she really gets into them. When we were playing Mario Kart earlier today, Jun tended to suddenly lean left or right whenever she needed to dodge an obstacle or car at the last moment. And ever since we visited the arcade last year together with Naomi, I've known that Jun likes to think out loud while playing games. At first I thought she was talking to me and was a bit weirded out, but now I realize that she probably does this even if there's nobody else in the room.
She says she enjoys the game more this way.
It still feels odd for someone who usually provided the calm and collected counterpoints to Naomi's spontaneous outbursts during our writing club meetings.
"Hanako, is there a word for the opposite of being grounded?"
"When you're sent to your room and you're not allowed to leave, you're being grounded, right? But is there a word for when you're told to stay of your room and you're not allowed to enter?"
I think for a moment, but then smile and shake my head.
"I... d-don't think there is."
"I guess your situation is that unique, huh?"
Today was a busy day for Yamaku as it was the day of the annual school festival. Since I'm no longer part of any official class, nobody asked me to help at any of the stands and to be honest, that suited me just fine. I don't think I would have enjoyed spending the entire day getting stares from people as I took their orders for fried rice or noodles. Unfortunately, the option of sitting the day out in my room was denied to me by noone other than Miss Yumi.
Two days ago, she gave me an assignment for today. An assignment that was meant to be part of my therapy.
The gist of it was that I wasn't allowed to set foot in my room or in the library today. I could bring a book from the library if I wanted to read, but I wasn't allowed to hide away in there. In addition, I was asked to write a small article about the festival. It wasn't necessary for it to be published in the upcoming newspaper issue, but Miss Yumi wanted to read it. Because of that, I was pretty much forced to go outside today and tour the school grounds. At least I had an official excuse to convince myself and something to keep me partially occupied.
I didn't really feel up to spending hours upon hours among the crowds today, so I got up really early this morning and tried to gather as much information as I could before the start of the festival while the students were still setting up their stands. I still ended up having to take a few trips across the school campus during the festival itself to fill in the blanks in my piece, but I managed to make those as quick as possible. I spent the rest of the day either reading a book in the school gardens, which remained relatively quiet, and hanging out in Jun's room who got a Nintendo Wii on loan from her father for a few weeks as a reward for doing well on her last test and as a consolation for fracturing a bone in her foot a little while back, forcing her to spend most of the day in her dorm room.
We spent some time playing a few games together until I decided to resume piecing my article together and Jun switched to online play. The last hour has consisted entirely of me trying to make something coherent out of my large collection of notes and Jun holding one-sided conversations with whoever's on the other side of her internet connection.
"How's the article coming along?"
"Okay... I think. I'm currently... t-trying to just get a complete outline done without too much d-detail."
"Are you sure you don't want me to help you write the whole thing out?"
"I'm sure. Besides, it s-sounds like you're having fun."
"Heh, I actually like the older Pokémon games better, but the ability to battle random people online is a pretty fun feature and..."
The 'searching for opponents'-message disappears from Jun's screen and is replaced with a menu. Jun gives me a look that says 'Do you mind if I take that one?' and I give a quick nod in response.
I get back to my outline and Jun gets back to her game. Judging from the sound of it, it's not going to be a drawn-out one.
"Hmm, hmm... Are you sure you want to pick that attack?"
"I have you now."
"Boom! One down. Bring on your next one."
"OH, COME ON!"
I jump a little, startled by Jun's sudden exclamation. When I look at the screen, there's surprisingly a 'You win' message there that doesn't seem to validate the death glare that Jun is shooting at the television.
"W-What happened? You w-won, didn't you?"
That sure was quick though. Her matches usually last way longer. Jun doesn't respond at first, but eventually puts down her controller slightly more forcefully than usual and turns off the tv.
"I hate ragequitters."
"Imagine you're playing a chess game against someone and during the opening you already manage to capture his queen. Instead of taking his setback with dignity, he flips the chessboard and walks off, probably under the belief that he hasn't really lost as long as you didn't get the opportunity to put his king in check mate. How would you feel?"
Probably extremely frustrated. I'd never goad my victory over a fellow player, so I really don't like sore losers either.
"P-Put off, probably."
"Exactly. I got one good shot in and the guy immediately disconnects. Ugh."
"I'd never do that myself."
Jun's smile returns and she nods.
"I know. That's why I like playing games with you. You're a good sport. You don't gloat when you win and you don't pout when you lose. I admire that mindset."
When playing video games with Jun, I spend more time losing than winning, although since our win-lose rate was close to 50-50 when we visited an arcade last year, that's probably simply due to Jun having had more practice with the games we play here.
"It feels good to be able to p-play games with someone."
"I sometimes feel a little guilty though. All the games we play here are games I've had lots of practice with. You're starting to catch up, but I still wonder at times whether you're actually enjoying yourself."
"It's okay. I enjoy playing games, regardless of the outcome."
"It doesn't matter to you whether you win or lose?"
"I like winning when p-playing, but I'd rather play and lose than not p-play at all. When I visit with Miss Yumi, we often play a game of Go. She really likes that game."
"Go, eh? Is she any good at it?"
"I think she m-mentioned once that she used to p-participate in local competitions a few decades ago. I've never beaten her so far. S-Sometimes the session ends before anybody's in a clear winning position, but m-most of the time she simply beats me."
"Is it even still fun that way? A competitive player going up against a casual one without some sort of handicap to even the odds is really unfair, isn't it?"
I smile sadly at Jun.
"Her answer t-to that was that... l-life isn't always fair either, so..."
Jun nods understandingly.
"So the best thing you can do is improve yourself rather than count on the rest of the world to keep accommodating you, right? That does make sense. Even so..."
"She's a very p-pleasant opponent. She usually gives me t-tips after each session on how to improve my game or points out the m-moments where I made mistakes. She also p-praises me when I come up with an effective s-strategy or counter one of hers. And I've been s-slowly getting better at it, which already feels good on its own. Just like it felt good when I started k-keeping up with you or was able to follow you across shortcuts in Mario Kart."
"In other words: the little victories can and should be appreciated too?"
Miss Yumi never grew tired of reminding me that the same principle also applied to life in general. My physical scars will remain with me forever, and many of my mental ones will take a long time to heal, but there are plenty of smaller victories to be savored in the meantime, and I shouldn't think of life as a zero-sum game that's always either completely won or completely lost.
"Yes, b-but those little victories wouldn't mean anything if I knew she was merely letting me win or d-deliberately holding back. They only feel genuine because she's never going easy on me."
Jun takes several seconds to think about this really hard, then taps her red-and-white cap and breaks into a smile.
"That does make a lot of sense. It's like those old 8-bit Famicom games, right? Back then you could barely ever save your game and lives were limited, so it was really hard. You'd first start playing it and you'd get a game over message on the first part of the first level. Then, with lots of practice, you'd beat the first stage, and you'd feel great about yourself. Then the second level repeated the process until you finally beat the game and felt like a pro or got to a point where things became too hard or cheap to continue. It was always a struggle, but it wasn't just beating the game that felt really good. Every time you got just a little further than before felt like a major accomplishment. It's something like that, isn't it?"
I giggle a bit and manage to avoid rolling my eyes. I don't have any experience with 8-bit consoles myself, so Jun kind of lost me half-way through her rant, but I think she caught the gist of things.
"I... I think so."
"So you like playing games for those little victories that come with getting better at it?"
"That's... one reason. I also like playing games because I feel good when playing. It's a... very special feeling. It's h-hard to explain."
"I think I know what you mean."
I'm not so sure about that. What I feel while playing games with someone isn't the urge to play the role of some outlandish commentator. It's a sense of comfort I usually don't feel when interacting with someone in any other way. After I became disfigured, most of my ways of interacting with other people became stunted. I just wasn't able to relax while someone was staring at the burns on my face, and I knew my stammering and tendency to clam up made conversations frustrating for other people, which made me stutter even more and shut down even sooner as they waited for me to finish my sentences. In a way, playing a game with others is interacting with them too, but others' attention isn't on my facial scars for once and instead of exchanging words, you exchange cards or moves. It feels so much more natural. The sparse times I played games with others were the sparse times I felt a bit normal.
Miss Yumi and I spoke about this during therapy a few times, and she said she believed that playing games was my way of interacting with people as equals. She noted that people could be on different levels in terms of playing skill and still respect each other as opponents as well as respect themselves as players.
Playing a game against someone who takes the game seriously and who's making a sincere effort to win has always been the one time I felt like I was interacting with someone without them looking down on me or being annoyed by me.
"It's about... respectful interaction... while also relaxing and h-having fun."
Jun looks a little puzzled at that, obviously not completely able to figure out my train of thought.
I shrug in order to dismiss the matter. I really don't feel like going through the struggle of explaining all of that to Jun right now. Maybe some other time. Jun frowns for a moment, but then nods.
"Okay. Still, it might be a nice change of pace to play something you have more experience in. How about a little chess match some time? You're really fond of that game, aren't you?"
"B-But you don't have a chessboard."
"Chessboards are nice and all, but in this day and age they're not exactly mandatory anymore. If you're up for it, I'll just get my laptop and download a chess game off the internet. There are plenty of free ones available online. See?"
Jun opens her laptop, clicks her mouse a few times, types in a few words and then turns the computer around so I can look at the screen. It indeed looks like there are plenty of alternatives to my old-fashioned chess set these days, though I already knew that. Back at the orphanage I occasionally played chess on the computer there, though never against another person. Lilly was the first human opponent I had in a decade and Hisao was the last one.
A game of chess does sound tempting, but before I can consider accepting Jun's offer, a sharp sense of guilt runs from my gut to the top of my spine and I shiver. Jun notices the expression on my face and frowns.
"Did I say something wrong?"
"It's... nothing. I think I'll p-pass this time."
Jun thinks for a second whether a 'nothing' that's obviously 'something' is worth questioning me about
...and decides that it is.
"I hope I'm not being a bother, but is it's not really 'nothing', is it?"
"P-Promise me that you won't laugh."
"It would... feel a bit like... I'd be... cheating."
Chapter 54 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:19 am
From the baffled look on Jun's face, I can tell that my answer was not what she was expecting. She just sits there, with her mouth agape.
"Uh... I know it must s-sound a bit..."
My words are cut off when Jun starts giggling.
"Whoa. That's a bit... hahahaha. That's not something I ever expected you to say."
"P-Please don't laugh."
Jun makes an apologetic gesture, snickers a bit and then scrapes her throat.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to laugh at you. It's just that you're usually not that confident about anything. I may not be the best chess player in the world, but don't you think you're underestimating me just a little bit by saying that playing against me would feel like cheating to you?"
Ugh. That's not what I meant at all. I really could have worded that better.
"It's not l-like that. I mean..."
This may actually not sound any less silly to Jun.
"Ever since we... s-started dating, Hisao's been the only p-person I've played chess with. I quickly started seeing it as... something special between us. It... probably doesn't make sense to you, but..."
Jun quickly shakes her head.
"I think it makes perfect sense, actually. People can bond in all manner of ways, and I personally think that bonding over a game just feels more natural than bonding by getting drunk together or having a long conversation over dinner."
Somehow I feel that Jun's not the most objective person in the world in this regard. Still, it feels good to hear her emphatize with me.
"I think bonding is the perfect word to describe it."
Jun suddenly gives me a playful look.
"So... ah... does that mean your boyfriend is also abstaining from chess?"
I can barely suppress a cringe at that remark, and even when it becomes clear that Jun wasn't referencing my love life, it still takes me a moment to recollect myself.
"I... uh... don't know... how he feels."
"I'd be surprised if the significance was lost on him. It's not like you two got together only recently. Although..."
Jun's expression suddenly turns serious. The way she averts her eyes gives me the impression she's not fond of the idea of bringing up the elephant in the room, but she doesn't like the idea of ignoring it either. Eventually, she gives me an awkward stare.
"Wasn't today an ideal day for him to visit? I was kind of expecting him to drop by. And maybe your friend Lilly too. Even my parents were here briefly today, and they don't come over very often."
I sigh softly. I can't really blame Jun for bringing this up, though I kind of wish she hadn't. On my way back from the orphanage, after I sent my friends a text message to let them know I was safe and sound, Miss Yumi called up each of them and told them the situation in detail. One thing that stood out in my mind was the fact that she made a request to leave the initiative for further interaction up to me.
In theory, this meant I was free to set my own pace in the process of getting back on my feet and getting back in touch with everyone.
In practice, this meant that the process of getting back in touch with everyone has been moving along at snail's pace.
After returning to Yamaku, I started the long process of crawling back from the emotional edge I've been dangling over for months. When Miss Yumi mentioned she was planning to step up the therapy sessions, she wasn't exaggerating. During the first month, each day contained of either a session in the morning and one in the afternoon or one session spanning two hours or more. Either would usually leave me feeling drained. Miss Yumi pulling some strings allowed me to help the school librarian sort and categorize books from time to time, but most of the time the rest of the day would be spent studying in either my room or the library for the tests I was meant to take along with the 3rd years and the occasional supplementary lessons in the late afternoon or early evening.
I'd occasionally join Jun in her room for a bit of company or to watch her play games on her old laptop. Jun occasionally exchanges e-mail with Naomi, and she usually lets me in on how our mutual friend is doing. I'm pretty sure that in return, she's also keeping Naomi updated on how I'm faring, though I'm not too bothered by that.
Aside from that, most of my evenings are simply spent in my room, and it is during those times that I feel Hisao's and Lilly's absence the most. About a month after returning to Yamaku, I finally managed to work up the courage to get back in touch with them, using e-mail to interact with Hisao while exchanging letters in Braille with Lilly. The initial letters I sent made no mention of my sudden 'escape' from Yamaku on graduation day, and the letters I received in response avoided bringing it up as well, so in a way that was a relief. But I still can't shake the feeling that, as pleasant as our correspondence is, there's also something missing. It sometimes feels as if we're just going through the motions.
Miss Yumi likes to frequently remind me that in order to really pick things up where we left off, all I'd need to do is send them a little message telling them that I'd like to visit them or that I'd like them to visit me.
If only things were that simple.
Where exactly is 'where we left off'?
Is it that evening before the ceremony, when I listened in on Hisao and Lilly trying to figure out how to deal with my housing problem?
That was actually a horrible place to pick things up.
Or is 'where we left off' the time before both that open house day and my big relapse? Back when my anxieties seemed mostly under control, my self-esteem was higher than it had been in a decade and I was cautiously optimistic about the future?
My assignment today to mingle with the festival crowd wouldn't have given me nearly as much trouble eight months ago when, emotionally, I was in a better place. If, during that time, I was at my peak, I haven't gotten back there yet.
Miss Yumi argued that Hisao and Lilly weren't worrying over me out of pity, but because they too wanted the good times from the past to come back. I think I have enough faith in them to believe that. I didn't back when I was at my lowest point and even though I've since made a solemn promise to myself never to treat my friends that way again, I still feel really guilty about that.
But will I ever get back there? Or were those carefree times simply the result of me being ignorant and oblivious and too used to life inside the comforting bubble that is this school?
I really don't know.
Miss Yumi praised me for reestablishing contact with my friends, but in a way it has also made things more complicated. Exchanging mails and letters has felt relatively safe. My friends can't hear my stammering, there are no uncomfortable pauses, and since I can take my time to choose my words, I'm probably coming across as a lot less awkward and a lot more confident.
The magic words being: 'coming across', unfortunately. In reality, as I've been reminded once more today, my issues haven't really gone anywhere. I'm no longer as much of a nervous wreck as I was around graduation day, but I'm still quick to get nervous and start stuttering, I still have a great deal of difficulty dealing with crowded places, and my self-esteem is still severely lacking. I can only imagine that if Hisao and Lilly were here right now, they'd be disappointed that I've made so little progress and that our correspondence put me in a better light than I feel I deserved. That's probably the main reason I've been hesitant to take our interaction beyond written correspondence - at least until I can clamber my way back to the place I was until everything came apart. Well, hesitance or not, that's not going to matter much anymore later tonight.
"We're... g-going to be on the p-phone t-tonight."
"I'm happy to hear that..."
Earlier this week, I received a letter from Lilly telling me that, for old times sake, she wanted to spend some time talking with me personally. She also mentioned that she spoke to Hisao this week, that he'd be visiting her today and that if I could be there, even only through the telephone lines, it would make both of them very happy. I talked the matter over with Miss Yumi and managed to send a letter of agreement back to Lilly to let her know that I would call her or she could call me.
We'll be having that phone call later tonight, and I'm really nervous about it.
Jun absentmindedly runs her fingers across her laptop's keyboard and then looks back at me.
"But are you really content with just contact over the phone? I remember the three of you were really close, but I haven't really seen your friends around here since graduation."
"W-We w-were... I mean... W-we are close. It's j-just... complicated."
"Well, I'm not saying it's not possible to keep a friendship going through letters or mail. I've been able to keep in touch with Naomi through mail, but..."
I don't really like where this is going.
"Relationships have to be maintained, don't they? If you don't meet up with your boyfriend, then how are you supposed to go on dates or... uh...?"
I give her a puzzled look, not sure if she means what I think she means, but when Jun shoots a quick, but obvious glance at her bed, I instantly feel every drop of blood in my body rush to my cheeks. The only response I can muster, a flustered 'I'm still working on that', comes out as such a soft mumble that Jun probably didn't even hear it.
What makes it extra uncomfortable is that Jun has a point. Hisao's probably been very busy since graduation with getting settled back in his hometown, starting at an entirely new school and getting to know new people and teachers. But eventually the hecticness of that big change is going to wind down. We might actually be at that point already. And then Hisao might start wondering why he's still in a relationship with me if he's not going to get more than casual correspondance out of it. At this point, we're little more than pen pals.
Then there's the matter of the sex life that Jun painfully reminded me about. I used to have one, and I used to be pretty happy with it. It was one of the ways we strengthened the bond that existed between us and the sense of closeness I'd feel during the afterplay, the sight and sound of the reactions I could draw out of him and the knowledge that I was giving him a good time and turning him on were just as wonderful as the physical pleasure I got out of it. Being able to not just be Hisao's girlfriend, but also his lover gave me a welcome boost to my confidence as well.
Then I had that breakdown and my... performance was completely crippled. I could barely get aroused, I couldn't get into it, and my mind kept wandering off. The experience ended up being such a failure that the sliver of self-esteem I still had left was utterly shattered.
We haven't done it ever since.
During the therapy session where Miss Yumi first gave me a recipe for a small batch of medication, she also handed me a printout with some general information about depression and one thing of note on there was a line about one's sex life being negatively impacted being extremely common. Having an official excuse didn't make me feel like any less of a failure.
I'm still worrying from time to time how things would play out if I were to visit Hisao and stay over at his place.
Would he want to do it?
During the better times, like the summer break, I would have welcomed that. But how about now? Would it be like last time? Would I still be… lacking? And how would he react?
"Hanako? Hey, Hanako."
"S-Sorry, what is it?"
Jun's voice suddenly pulls me back to planet earth. I must have gotten lost in thought.
"I said I was sorry about what I just said. I was probably a bit out of line."
"It's okay. I... t-think you had a good point before... about r-relationships needing to be... maintained."
Jun gives a satisfied nod and grins.
"They do. Neglecting your relationship is disrespectful towards those of us who are single."
With some effort I manage to hide an amused smile of my own. Jun likes to complain about her own status as a single from time to time, but at the same time she doesn't seem to ever make any active efforts to talk to any of the boys around here.
Jun gestures towards her laptop.
"It's difficult for us to imagine, but one generation ago, maintaining a long-distance relationship was very tough and slow-paced. You were completely reliant on snail mail, and that was slower back then too. Telephones weren't very common, and there was no internet either. What horrible times to live in that must have been. Nowadays, you can use e-mail, chat programs or webcams. You can even set up game dates."
That's the first time I've heard that term.
"Or whatever it's called. I'm not sure if it even has an official name. It's a date in an online world. You know what Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games are about, don't you? They're like gigantic worlds for people to explore and play alongside other people. There are several examples of people who met in those game worlds and got involved with one another. Some of them actually went on dates inside the game world. I was thinking that maybe you and your boyfriend could try that kind of thing. It's not the same as the real thing, but it's a close second. You could get a 30-day trial for Final Fantasy XI, or you could look up a free online RPG-game. There are quite a few of them on the internet. You could walk around the game world together, try to find a secluded spot and talk. Maybe do a quest or two together and use the cash to buy each other a little gift in one of the stores there. It's a little nerdy, but it's a lot more involved than simply passing mails between each other. You can always borrow my laptop if you need to. It's not the most reliable system, but it's never died on me. Think about it."
I have to admit that that's a pretty creative solution Jun just thought up. I'm not sure how well it would work for us though. Hisao and I are both casual gamers at best, usually only playing video games when we visit an arcade hall together, and I've heard that role playing games can be quite the time sink. Going on a 'game date' might feel odd or unnatural too. Still, I don't want to dismiss Jun's suggestion outright. The idea to not just write back and forth but also do something together is a good one.
"I... I will."
Jun gives a satisfied nod.
"That's good to hear. You can ask him for his opinion when you speak with him tonight."
"Ummm... I could... give it a try."
"When exactly is the talk with your friends?"
I look at Jun's alarm clock.
"In less than an hour. I'm heading for a place that's probably not t-too crowded right now."
Jun picks up one of her Wii controllers by its strap and playfully twirls it around.
"Does that mean there's still time for a little game of Mario Kart?"
I consider it, but then decide that there's still one more thing I have to do.
"Thanks, but... Maybe another time."
Chapter 54 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:19 am
I put the bowl of tea I just received to my lips and take a careful sip. Miss Yumi does the same after giving the waiter who brought us our drinks a 'thank you' of her own. I try to remember the last time I visited the Shanghai. It must have been over half a year ago. They still serve some fine meals and drinks, even with Yuuko no longer working here, but I've nevertheless been reluctant to come here for the same reason I hardly ever have lunch in the 'tea room' anymore. It's a bit depressing without Hisao and Lilly around.
Miss Yumi's giving me an analytical look. I ran into her on my way to the nurses' building, and she asked where I was planning to be this evening. When I mentioned the Shanghai, Miss Yumi drove me here, and we got ourselves a tasty cup of tea.
"You look a little bit wistful, Miss Hanako."
"This was... W-where we hung out last year."
Miss Yumi gives an understanding nod and smiles.
"Then this is probably the perfect place to spend tonight as well."
"Now then, dear. Shall we get down to business?"
She briefly drums on the table with her fingertips and, getting the hint, I take out my phone. I take a deep breath, turn it on and put it on the table. Then I fish the outline of my article out of my bag and hand it over to Miss Yumi, who quickly starts reading it.
Minutes pass without either of us saying anything. Miss Yumi goes back and forth between skimming the sheets of paper in front of her and taking sips of her tea. I doubt it'd really take her that long to read through the whole thing. Maybe she's simply trying to buy some time.
Miss Yumi puts the sheets of paper on top of each other in a neat stack and then hands them back to me.
"From the looks of it, you've seen your first assignment through succesfully. Only one more to go."
"How are you feeling right now?"
I'm not really sure. In their correspondence, Hisao and Lilly told me that they're doing well. Does that mean they're doing just fine without me? Or have they been putting on a brave face just like I have? And am I to blame for some of that? I really don't know how to feel. Either way makes me uneasy.
Miss Yumi must have noticed my frown, for she makes an 'ah-ah-ah'-motion with her finger.
"I think I just saw some very bad thoughts sneaking in there, Miss Hanako."
Feeling caught out, I mumble an embarrassed apology. Miss Yumi nods and looks at me with a sheepish expression.
"It still happens from time to time, doesn't it?"
I don't answer, but that's probably okay. It was probably a rhetorical question anyway.
"I think the best advice I can give you is to simply concentrate on the moment. Don't dwell on what happened in the past or what might happen in the future. Just allow yourself to enjoy the present. It's not a good habit to adopt permanently, but I think it'll make a positive difference tonight."
Miss Yumi beckons the waiter and pays her part of the bill. Then she takes a look at her watch.
"Are you... leaving already?"
"I can't stay for too long. I still have to make my way back to school and find a nice place to watch the fireworks. You don't need my help to hang out with your friends. That's never been the case. We'll wait for five more minutes and if there hasn't been an incoming call by then, we'll just call them ourselves. I'll leave once you've made contact. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to stay around any longer."
"You'll have no problems getting back to school on your own, will you?"
"Hmmm... And try not to violate curfew too much, okay?"
"Uh... I d-don't think..."
Rrriiinngggggg rrrriiinnnngggg - rrriiinngggggg rrrriiinnnngggg
My heart immediately performs a somersault as my phone on the table springs to life. Miss Yumi chuckles and gets up.
"That sounds like my cue. And yours. I'll ask the waiter to get you another drink. This one's on me. You go and enjoy yourself."
Rrriiinngggggg rrrriiinnnngggg - rrriiinngggggg rrrriiinnnngggg
It's been a long time since I've heard that sound. It still makes me shiver a bit.
Miss Yumi heads for the exit, but before leaving the room she turns around and looks at me.
Rrriiinngggggg rrrriiinnnngggg - rrriiinngggggg rrrriiinnnngggg
I take a deep breath, pick up my phone and flip it open. Miss Yumi gives an appreciative nod, waves goodbye and walks out, leaving me... well, not exactly on my own.
For a few seconds, there's near-absolute silence. I think I hear some soft background noise on the other end of the line, but nobody says a thing.
They made the call. The last move was theirs. I suppose it's my turn now. They're waiting for me to make the next move.
Just focus on the moment.
I feel a nagging sense of guilt in the back of my mind, but I'm able to preempt it before it has a chance to take hold and whisper a soft greeting into my phone.
"Hey there, Hanako."
Before today I wasn't quite sure whether I'd feel happy or uneasy when suddenly faced with my two best friends. Turns out it's a little bit of both. There's more happiness than unease, I think. I really did miss both of them terribly.
A brief silence. I think we all grasp the fact that it's been really long since we spent time together like this since I spent most evenings hiding away in my room prior to graduation day. Eventually, Lilly breaks the silence.
"It's really good to talk to you again, Hanako. It's been such a long time since I last heard your voice."
I don't think it was Lilly's intention, but I instantly feel a pang of shame upon hearing her words.
"I'm sorry too, Hanako. Maybe... we should leave it at that and not exchange any more apologies for the remainder of the evening?"
My attention is briefly drawn away when the waiter approaches my table and refills my drink. I quickly nod in order to acknowledge him, but don't say anything. Nevertheless, Lilly seems to have picked up the sound of his footsteps.
"Hanako, is there somebody with you right now?"
"It's just... the waiter. I'm at the S-Shanghai right now."
"The Shanghai? Just like..."
Hisao doesn't finish his sentence, but Lilly lets out a soft 'hmmm'.
"This week is a very special week, isn't it Hanako?"
"It is. This is... the week we f-first met Hisao. One year ago."
I hear Lilly giggle softly followed by Hisao's groan.
"Okay, okay. You were right. She remembered. No need for the smug expression."
"It's... the week of the festival this week, so it w-was easy for me to remember."
"Well, I definitely would have remembered, too, if there had been festival preparations going on around me. My first week at Yamaku was a pretty memorable one in hindsight. I'm just bad with keeping track of dates."
"Well, while I was in the hospital, my life was pretty much on hold. It was during that week that things finally started moving forward again. Looking back on the whole thing, it seems like the entire foundation of my ten months at Yamaku was laid that week. I met Mutou who played a pretty big role in getting me to pursue a career in science. I met Shizune and Misha who helped me get settled in class and who saw to it that I always gave the class assignments a 100 percent. I ran into Emi who became my running partner in the mornings. Uh...there was Kenji too. But most importantly, I met you and Hanako who became my first real friends at school and in Hanako's case, more than a friend. Looking back on things, that first week turned out to be pretty important."
"F-For me too."
"Today it's exactly a year ago that you and Hisao first spent time together, isn't it Hanako?"
"Actually, t-today was the first anniversary of our f-first chess match, but... we... already spent s-some time together that day before."
"Yeah, I remember. I didn't really have anything to do after classes ended, and on a whim I decided to visit the library and read a bit. I met you there, and we spent several hours reading together. I think it was during that time that I first got curious about you. I remember you thanking me for spending time with you, which I thought was really sweet. Our time spent together that day was probably what made me seek you out again the next day."
I feel my the blood immediately rush to my cheeks upon hearing Hisao's sweet words, and I'm kind of relieved that he can't see me blush right now, though I also feel a bit sad that we're so far apart right now. What he said made me feel really happy, and if we had been in the same room right now, I could have given him a little kiss in return for his kindness. As things are, I have no way to return his kindness except by saying something sweet in return which I'll probably hopelessly fumble.
"T-That first... afternoon... was nice. And... when you... came to k-keep me company that day after and... we played chess together... that made me r-r-really happy."
I hear Lilly giggle softly.
"It sounds like the seeds that your relationship sprouted from were sown this weekend one year ago."
That's a rather poetic way to describe it, but it's probably true. I remember last year clearly. After watching the fireworks, we headed back to the school grounds and said goodbye to Hisao. Lilly seemed tired, so we called it a day without spending any more time together in her room. But before we parted ways, Lilly said that I sounded like I had a good time today, and I replied - perhaps a little too eagerly - that I did. This was followed by an awkward silence, and before she excused herself and went to her room, Lilly gave me one of those knowing smiles of hers that managed to keep me awake for a large part of the night, because it implied that she noticed the same thing I did.
I hung out with a boy that day. A boy who could see me and still willingly spent time with me.
A boy who liked reading and playing chess, just like I do. What were the odds of that?
A boy who sought me out and talked to me without asking what happened to my face.
A boy who had a very nice smile.
It was that last thought that shocked me more than any of the others, because that one was about me rather than him, and I wasn't sure whether I was comfortable with the implications. It was still a rather mild crush, but a crush nevertheless. And it was on a boy I had known for less than a week and spent barely more than a few hours with. The development scared me a bit. Surely he wouldn't actually like me in that way? Lilly seemed rather fond of him as well, so he'd probably just get together with her. I felt I was on the road to an inevitable heartbreak.
I ended up talking to Lilly about it soon afterwards. If I could get Lilly to admit that she liked Hisao as well, I'd at least know that it was best not to cling to any foolish hopes. Lilly played along at first, mentioning that she thought Hisao was a good person. When I tried digging deeper though, Lilly promptly shut down my offense by assuring me that she wasn't going to become a rival to me. All I could stammer afterwards was: 'How?'
Then she told me that she didn't know for sure until now. While Lilly was going on about how she thought we would be quite well-suited for each other, having several interests as well as maybe some past experiences in common, I was just sitting there feeling stupid. Still, with nothing to lose, I confessed to Lilly about how I felt. She told me not to immediately write myself off, since he did seek out me of all people during the festival.
The next day she invited Hisao to spend the evening with her and me.
I wasn't completely convinced back then that Hisao and Lilly wouldn't grow closer with me falling by the wayside. Why would Hisao put up with my large collection of anxieties when he could have someone like Lilly by his side, who was pretty much the perfect partner? But looking back on the whole thing, Lilly's promise not to become my rival turned out to be completely serious. If she really concluded that Hisao was probably more interested in me than in her, then that first week really did matter a lot more than I thought at first.
Hisao's chuckle interrupts my musings.
"Sown seeds, huh? It makes me wonder sometimes how our lives would have fared if things had gone a little differently. That day I first hung out with Hanako in the library, I was actually wondering if I shouldn't go and take a long walk around the surrounding area... maybe check out the town some more, or give in to the guilt trips Shizune and Misha put me through and help them out with the festival preparations. I actually befriended you two during this weekend last year. If that weekend had gone differently, would we be where we are today?"
"Where we are today?"
"I mean, would we still have become friends? Would Hanako and I still have gotten into a relationship? Would you have stayed in Japan anyway or would you have left? If not, would we still have taken that trip to Scotland? How about all the other events of last year, like my accident, Hanako's first aid course, your father's hospitalization and your parents' return to Japan? If you believe in the butterfly effect and that all things are connected, then a couple of minor events during the weekend last year could have had major consequences."
Lilly sounds half-intrigued and half-amused at Hisao's words.
"What do you think, Hanako?"
"Uh. M-My head is spinning a bit right now."
Hisao laughs cheerfully at my reaction.
"You're probably not the only one. A lot has happened since then, and every time I try to imagine how things would have run their course if I had picked different people to hang out with at that time, I get a headache."
"Perhaps you're simply overthinking things, Hisao. Maybe it's a lot simpler than you think."
"Have you considered the possibility that... your actions were being guided all along?"
"I can't say I'm comfortable with that idea, Lilly. I'm not exactly religious."
"Most people in Japan aren't, but many of them do believe that their actions are guided in some way, be it by God, ancestors' spirits or simply fate."
"Fate, huh? Is that what you believe, Lilly?"
"I do, Hisao. I'd like to believe that you and Hanako were simply meant to meet and become part of each other's life, just like my parents returning to Japan was meant to happen. Even if you hadn't befriended us that weekend, it would have happened at some point afterwards. I would like to believe that because of the person that you are and the person that Hanako is, you two were fated to find each other eventually. Whether it was coincidence, fate or something else isn't all that important."
That's both kind of uplifting and kind of scary. If my relationship was meant to happen, the same is probably true for my breakdown. That's not exactly encouraging.
My thoughts and our conversation are suddenly interrupted by several loud noises coming from outside. Realizing the source of the sound, I quickly pay the waiter and hurry outside. When I make it outside, the sky is already brightly lit up. As I look at the colorful explosions above me, I hear the voices of my friends.
"That sound... Hanako, is that...?"
"That's the sound of fireworks, isn't it, Hanako?"
"It... it is."
"That brings back memories."
My thoughts briefly return once more to the evening we shared here last year, back when we watched the light show together with Yuuko.
"Hanako, how is it?"
"It's... just as beautiful as last year. Maybe even more so."
"Hanako, could you describe the sight to us?"
My eyes focus on the bursts of light that are lighting up the sky.
"There's a white one over t-there that looks a bit like a flower... and uh...there's one a bit farther away that consists of really pretty green and red sparkles... and umm... there's also..."
The fireworks last for several more minutes, and I do my best to let my friends experience the show through my eyes. Eventually the last colorful sparks fade out on their way down, and for a long time neither of us says a word. The silence is strangely comfortable.
"T-Thank you... f-for sharing... this moment with me."
"Thank you too, Hanako, for making us part of it."
After everything we went through, we've made a pleasant memory again together. I'm happy I didn't chicken out of this phone call this evening.
"Hanako, how are things going at school? Is this a busy period for you?"
"A bit. I'm trying to t-take all the tests that the 3rd years take. There are several c-coming up this month. I'm trying to study as hard as I can."
"Do you have any plans for summer break?"
"N-No. How about you? Are you going to Scotland again?"
"Not this summer. Akira said she expected things to get very busy for her at work during the later part of the summer, and I'd feel like I'd be imposing on her. I'm expecting to spend most of the summer break in Hokkaido. Father and Mother will be renting a vacation home there, near the place where the previous summer home was. I... don't think they would mind if the three of us spend some time there as well. Would you two consider it?"
"What do you think, Hanako?"
I did enjoy the little bit of time we spent in Hokkaido last year. Maybe this year won't be different.
"I... I think I'd like that."
"Then if your parents have no objections, we'd both be glad to accept your offer."
"I'm really happy to hear that, Hisao. I'll talk to my parents about it, but I don't expect any problems."
"I'm looking forward to it."
I hadn't even thought about the summer break before. Lilly's proposal at least gives me something to look forward to. But summer break's still nearly two months away. Hisao will probably be disappointed with me if we go back to just mail contact after tonight. Jun's suggestion springs back to mind momentarily, but it seems like a silly thing to suggest right now. I'm still not even sure how well that'd work for us, since neither of us is really into those kinds of games.
My thoughts are suddenly interrupted by a loud beep from my cell phone.
"Hanako, what was that sound just now?"
I look at my phone's display and cringe.
"It says... My phone's b-battery is running low. I forgot to charge it b-beforehand. I'm sorry."
"It's okay, Hanako. You'll probably have to get back to school in order to avoid missing curfew and it might be time for me to go too. It'll still take me some time to get home."
I think I just heard a yawn in his voice.
"Can I get you one last cup of tea, Hisao?"
"Yeah, that'd be great, Lilly. Thanks."
Despite Lilly merely being a good host, her exchange with Hisao still stings me a bit. Lilly invited Hisao to join her and participate in this call, and she's acting as a host. What have I done for Hisao lately?
I wonder if there isn't a way I can improve our relationship with no risk of screwing up.
"Hanako, we'll mail again this week, won't we?"
"I'll be sure to write you, too, Hanako."
I wonder if...
"I was really good talking to you, Hanako."
"Yes. Stay well, okay?"
Another beep from my cell phone. This conversation looks to be over, whether I like it or not.
Suddenly, as I briefly think about Jun's suggestion again, I have a sudden moment of clarity and before I can have second thoughts or my friends can hang up, I shout my boyfriend's name.
"Uh... I... I'd like to... play a game of chess with you..."
"Well, uh... it'd be my pleasure, but..."
"A chess site! There are... s-sites where you can register and... p-play others online. W-We could both... create a profile. It... might have a chat function too, so we could talk during the g-game. We c-could... we could..."
I'm not sure how the idea suddenly popped in there, but while Jun was showing me an internet search about chess games, I saw several sites that allowed people to play others online. If we could 'meet up' in this way...
"That's a brilliant idea! We should do that. Do you have a site in mind? Just mail me the address and I'll register an account there. Maybe we can plan a game for tomorrow or the day after."
For a moment I'm too overwhelmed to respond. I didn't expect him to be this enthusiastic. While I'm trying to think of how to react, I hear Lilly chuckle.
"That was an unexpectedly enthusiastic reaction, Hisao. It almost sounded like Hanako offered you a date this week rather than an online game of chess."
"I don't know if the difference is as big as you're making it out to be, Lilly. We'll still get together to talk and more importantly, engage in an activity we both greatly enjoy and that has a strong meaning for both of us. It's a lot like a date, especially since to me, chess has kinda become 'our thing'. I guess that also means I'm a little bit out of practice. I hope I can still give you a decent challenge, Hanako."
"I'm... out of p-practice too, so I..."
Another sharp beep from my phone and then the display goes dark. I listen closely, but it sounds like the connection's lost. I sigh loudly in frustration. What an anticlimactic way to end our talk.
Still, something good came out of it. The three of us will be spending some time together in Hokkaido this summer. That still gives me some time to focus on my therapy and build a bit of confidence before hanging out with Hisao and Lilly again. Most importantly, Hisao and I will be going on an online chess date this week. I could use the computer lab or maybe get Jun to lend me her laptop. I can't call her to ask, but maybe I can make it back to the dorms before she goes to bed. I put my phone back in my bag and start walking down the road heading back to Yamaku.
"A chess date..."
I let out an excited giggle.
I start walking faster. A wide smile is starting to form on my face.
Our relationship still has a way to go before it's back to where it was before my breakdown, but tonight I feel I managed to recover a very important part of it.
My steady pace speeds up until it's a stiff little jog. Running uphill is probably not the smartest thing I can do, and I'll probably be out of breath in less than a minute, but right now it feels good to run off the feeling of excitement that just welled up inside me.
Some true progress at last.
I'm really looking forward to tomorrow.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:20 am
The first time I saw this gate, it felt intimidating and unwelcoming. Now, just over a year later, it almost feels like an old friend whom I haven't seen in a long time.
When I left this place about three months ago, I didn't expect to see it again this soon.
The lush greenery of the school grounds feels soothing. It's not like Kasshoku doesn't have any gardens, but somehow Yamaku's feel neater.
Or maybe that's simply nostalgia talking.
Either way, when I first came here I couldn't help but feel that I stepped into another world. Even though I'm familiar with this school and its surroundings now, coming back here after having spent some time in university and Chiba it once again feels like I've entered an isolated bubble that's cut off from the rest of the world. How strange that I still feel this way, even after all this time.
As I walk down the tree-lined walkway leading from the gate to the main building, a group of students passes by. They don't look familiar, so they're probably 1st years. As we pass one another we exchange a polite greeting, but as I proceed, I feel their eyes on my back and for the first time since my arrival, the feeling of nostalgic comfort fades a bit to make room for the sense of being a stranger here.
Ironically that's how I felt when I first started attending here too.
For a moment I find myself wishing I still had my old school uniform. Being the only teenager around here not wearing green and white probably draws way more attention than I'd welcome right now.
I suppose the best thing I can do is not loiter around here for too long.
I reach the point where the pathway splits off in several directions, and I wonder where to go. Would Hanako be in her room today? I rack my brain in an attempt to determine whether she was already holing herself up in her room around this time last year or not, but can't tell for sure.
I'm not sure if it's a good idea to go straight to the girls’ dorms though. I think I'll search the school building first, particularly rooms like the tea room, the library and the newspaper club room. Maybe our old classroom too.
The lobby of the school building is a little busier than the area outside, and my eyes dart left and right, scanning the place for people I know. A group of three female students stands near the entrance, chattering away. A nurse is checking his watch as he's hurrying for the exit. A teacher and a male student are coming down the ramp leading to the first floor. A student with crutches is sitting in a chair near one of the doors reading a study book.
The student in the wheelchair coming down the ramp actually looks familiar and he's even waving at me. The teacher accompanying him is someone I know too, but he's decidedly not waving.
Oh crap! How ironic is it that Mutou's once again the first person I run into? Since I've already been discovered, I wave back at my former clubmate and my former homeroom teacher.
"Hi there, president Hisao!"
I roll my eyes at the boy in the wheelchair before returning his greeting.
"That's former president Hisao, president Nobuyuki. But good to see you, too."
"Couldn't stay away from us, huh?"
"Well, I felt I had to check up on you guys from time to time, just to keep my peace of mind."
"Is that really so, Nakai?"
Contrary to Nobuyuki's jovial expression, Mutou's looking a bit sour. I hope he's not jumping to the wrong conclusions about me. I face my mentor and make a respectful bow.
"It's good to see you too, sir. I was just joking a bit. There's another reason I came here."
"You didn't drop out already, did you?"
Mutou's glare tells me that if I dare to say yes, even as a joke, I can safely consider my life over.
"Hey, what do you think of me?"
"Well, i wouldn't make sense for you to visit here if you dropped out. In fact, if that's what happened, it'd be in your best interest to stay as far away from here as possible. So I guess you're still in the running."
My former homeroom teacher's expression becomes just a little less hostile and a little more curious.
"Then what brings you here, Nakai? Is it...?"
"I came to see Hanako. It's... uh... her birthday tomorrow."
Mutou doesn't immediately answer. It's obvious that he's at least partially in the loop about Hanako's birthday issues from the past years. Eventually he sighs, probably having decided that this isn't a subject that's appropriate to be discussed at length, particularly in front of Nobuyuki. Not wanting me to get off the hook too easily, he gives me a scolding look.
"You're still skipping class."
"The only major thing for this week is a report for molecular physics that I have to finish together with some classmates. I brought some books from the faculty library with me, and I intend to use the computer lab here tomorrow to type up my part and send it to the rest. I'll be doing an extra large piece of the work to compensate for my absence."
In hindsight this seems to have been a real bargain for my classmates, since they got me to write up the toughest part. At least I was discreet enough not to mention that I was taking my leave of absence in order to visit my girlfriend, or they would probably have dumped the entire project on my shoulders.
A few painful seconds pass, and then suddenly Noboyuki looks up at our teacher and addresses him.
"Sir, may I make a suggestion? Maybe it'd be a good idea to have the former president drop by the club tomorrow and tell everyone about university and what he's learned there so far. It could be a big boost for morale. He could show us his report too, so we can have a taste of what's going to be expected from us after we graduate. I think everybody would love it. Maybe even be inspired to work as hard as we can to get good marks and do well on the exams."
That's some pretty smooth talking right there. I can see Mutou furrow his brow, and he doesn't say anything for a very long time. Just when things start feeling too awkward, he gives me an exasperated look.
"I hope you can show us something impressive tomorrow, Nakai. I will not be expecting anything less from you."
He makes a small bow in my direction, and after I return it, he walks off in the direction of the staff room. Nobuyuki and I watch him until he rounds the corner of the hallway. When he's finally gone from sight, I turn towards my former clubmate.
"That was a pretty clever suggestion you came up with. I could just see the teacher and the scientist engaged in a tug-of-war game inside Mutou's head."
"And the scientist won out. Lucky for you."
"This was not how I imagined my reunion with him."
"He probably would have welcomed you with open arms if you had only picked a Saturday afternoon to drop by. I think deep down he was happy to see you, but as a teacher he can't bring himself to condone someone playing hooky. As a guy who wants to follow in his footsteps someday, you ought to understand that."
"Yeah, that's a good point."
"I'm kind of surprised he dropped the matter this quickly. Maybe I was wrong and he's simply biding his time and waiting for the right moment."
"What do you mean the right moment?"
"Not only did you turn up here in the middle of a school week, but you also suggested that you're planning to spend the night here, most likely in the girls' dormitory. That's... probably not the smartest thing you've ever done. Maybe Mutou decided that having you kicked off the school grounds here and now would be boring, so he's gonna ask the dormkeeper to check in on your girlfriend's room later this evening and have you kicked off the school grounds wearing nothing but your underwear."
"I see the position of club president hasn't done much to diminish that twisted imagination of yours."
We both laugh at that. I've always gotten along pretty well with Nobuyuki during our science club sessions, and when I graduated I felt like the club was left in good hands. He's a pretty good guy with a real passion for science, especially physical cosmology, but also fun to occasionally exchange down-to-earth banter with.
"Glad to see you too."
I step aside as a group of students passes us on their way to the exit. I exchange a glance with Nobuyuki who smiles sheepishly.
"I think we're kind of blocking the traffic here. Want to stop by the cafeteria? Or am I keeping you from your girlfriend?"
"I guess I can spare a few minutes. I'm not even really sure where she is yet anyway. It's possible she's in her dorm room, but I thought I'd check a few places in the school building first instead of heading straight to the girls' dorms."
We head over to the cafeteria where I pick a quiet corner for us to sit. With my clothes having already drawn a few stares, I'd rather avoid attracting too much attention. I wait until Nobuyuki has maneuvered his wheelchair into the right position before posing the question that's been on my mind since I ran into him today.
"So Nobu... How's the science club doing these days?"
Nobuyuki smiles proudly.
"We've picked up six new members among the 1st years. Courtesy of Takahiro and me campaigning at the start of the school year."
"Hey, nice work! I'm looking forward to meeting them tomorrow."
"That reminds me... Some of them have been having a bit of trouble with the finer points of thermodynamics. I was wondering if you could... hmmm..."
"I can see where this is going. Isn't it your job to provide the explanations now? You've always gotten good marks for science, haven't you?"
"Yeah, but I'm not as good at explaining the stuff as you are. Help me out, will you? Consider it a counterfavor."
"A counterfavor for what?"
"For not making an anonymous phone call to the dormkeepers' office this evening."
"You're stooping to blackmail now?"
"It's okay. You weren't going to turn us down anyway, were you?"
"Okay then. How many people are going to take part in this miniature tutoring session?"
"Eh... Jurou, Katashi and Minoru. That's three."
"All guys. We're still a men's club, aren't we?"
"Uh, yeah. There are a lot of female students here, but our club still only has male members. I wonder if the female part of the student body simply isn't interested in science."
"I don't think it's that simple. There are probably few female students who like the idea of being the only girl in the club, so they're hesitant about joining, which in turn discourages other girls from joining up as well. It's kind of a vicious circle."
"Even though we're a club filled to the brim with strapping guys? I know that the prospect of being the only guy in an all-female club wouldn't put me off. Heck, maybe the opposite."
"Then you'd better stay far away from the faculty I'm studying at right now, because guys are all you ever see there. If you're hoping to get lucky, best try your chances here while you still can. A strapping guy like yourself shouldn't have too much trouble following in my footsteps in that area too."
My successor puts on a mock-grumpy expression.
"Rub it in, why don't you? I know I'm definitely making that phone call tonight."
"Let's drop the phone call stuff, okay? I'm kinda curious. You're in class 3-3 now, aren't you?"
"Are you taking classes with Hanako these days?"
"Ikezawa? I don't think she's actually part of any class right now. I think she studies somewhere else during the day. You'd have to ask her."
"Have you seen her today already?"
"Not as far as I can remember. If she's in the building, there's one place I'd check out before all others."
"I'll go and have a look then. If she's not there, I can come back here."
"I have some homework to do actually, so I'm afraid I can't stick around. But assuming you're not going to get kicked out of here, I'll see you tomorrow after classes, right? Classroom 3-3."
I say goodbye to Nobuyuki and leave the cafeteria. As I walk through the school's hallways in the direction of the library, I replay the events that just took place in my head. I didn't count on immediately running into Mutou, so I was caught off guard when I suddenly came face to face with him. It's a shame we got off on the wrong foot like this. I hope I'll be able to get back in his good graces tomorrow. It'll be good to see the guys at the club again, though I hope this unexpected club session isn't going to mess up my schedule for tomorrow.
A wave of nostalgia hits me as I open the door to Yamaku's trusty old library and walk inside. The gardens and cafeteria were familiar places, but I never spent hours in there. The same cannot be said about the library. This room holds a lot of memories for me.
A quick glance around tells me this place hasn't changed a bit. The slightly musty smell, the students studying or stealthily sleeping at the tables, the sunlight shining through the windows and the peaceful atmosphere... It's all exactly like it used to be. Well, almost exactly. A teacher and two students are standing near the counter, and I can hear a soft shuffling sound coming from the storage room behind the counter. I play with the thought of hanging around here and saying hello to Yuuko, but then I remember that Yuuko doesn't work here anymore, so I walk past the counter and towards the quiet little corner that Hanako has always used as her own personal place of shelter.
I guess even here, some things do change. To me, Yuuko's always been a part of the library, and yet now she's gone. I wonder if Hanako's once again in her usual place.
As I approach Hanako's corner, I can't help feeling a little apprehensive. Hanako doesn't know I'm here. My visit here is a surprise, and I have no idea how she's going to react when suddenly coming face to face with me. There's a chance she'll be overjoyed, but a little voice in the back of my mind also tells me that there's probably a chance of her either clamming up or even running off. That'd make things awkward in a hurry. It's too late to turn back now though, so I take a deep breath and make my way past the bookcases only to find...
My heart, which has been beating at a significantly faster pace since I entered here, slows down again and a pang of disappointment surfaces. I just got myself riled up for nothing.
I suppose even Hanako isn't in here 24/7. Maybe I should check the tea room or the newspaper club classroom next. Before doing so however, it might be a good idea to talk to the librarian and ask if Hanako's already been here today. She's bound to be a familiar face around here even to a new staff member.
I turn back and head back towards the entrance. My mind is already trying to determine where to go next. The tea room is closer to the library than the place the newspaper club uses to have its meetings, but the chances of Hanako being in the tea room outside of lunch breaks are slim. Maybe it's worth heading to the dormitory straight away. I'm still weighing my options when I suddenly hear a thud coming from the direction of the counter. I turn my head towards the source of the sound and my heart promptly skips several beats.
Standing behind the counter, both hands in front of her mouth and eyes wide enough to fall out of their sockets, is my girlfriend. She doesn't move. She doesn't even blink. She just stands there, staring at me in total shock as if I'm a ghost. I open my mouth to greet her, only to find out I'm at an equal loss for words. Just when the moment becomes unbearably uncomfortable, the spell is broken by a sharp cough from the teacher standing at the counter. Hanako's eyes dart from me to the people standing near the counter, and a blush appears on her cheek. I turn to the bystanders and make an apologetic bow.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to cause any trouble. I'll be on my way."
I quickly turn to Hanako, who still hasn't moved a muscle.
"Uh... I'll be in the usual place, okay?"
My girlfriend manages a nod that almost seems mechanical and, still looking a bit dazed, bends down to pick up the books she just dropped. Meanwhile, I go back to the reading corner where I sit down on one of the beanbags and try to put my thoughts in order.
I'm not surprised to have found Hanako here, but finding her behind the librarian's desk was certainly something I didn't see coming. Well, she did say she ran a few errants for the librarian in one of her more detailed e-mails, but this is a lot more than a mere errant.
As much of a surprise as Hanako's apparent job here is to me, it didn't even remotely compare to the shock she must have experienced when suddenly finding me right here at Yamaku. I quietly curse myself for having been just as tongue-tied as Hanako despite the fact that I've had nearly a day to think up something to say.
But what do you say when you're suddenly faced with a girlfriend you haven't seen in months?
Good to see you again?
I've missed you?
I love you?
I'm not sure if I'd be able to say these kinds of things just like that without sounding cheesy.
The fact that there were other people nearby didn't help matters. I would have liked to speak with her without anyone else around, but since there are still students coming and going I don't think that's an option right now. The best thing to do is probably to just wait.
I check my watch. It's nearly five o' clock right now. The library closes at half past 6. That means I've got just over 90 minutes to kill.
Racking my brains over what to say to Hanako might do more harm than good. I don't want to spend one and a half hour getting myself worked up. Maybe it's best if I simply find something else to do. I could make a start on my report. If I can't come up with something that'll impress the guys at the club tomorrow, Mutou's probably going to be grumpy again.
I think I'll do that. It'll allow me to get my mind off things until it's time to speak with Hanako. I get up and head for the scientific literature section. I recall there being a book or two about molecular physics that I borrowed for the science club a few times last year.
Fortunately, the books I was looking for are still where I remembered them to be and after returning to the beanbag, I start thumbing through the pages in search of excerpts I can use. If I'm not allowed to take these books out of the library, I'll just use the photocopier to copy the pages I need.
As the outline of my report slowly starts taking shape, my thoughts occasionally jump back to Hanako.
She's probably trying to figure out how to deal with this sudden reunion, just like I am. I wonder what she's thinking right now.
I wonder if they made Hanako the school librarian as part of her therapy or simply in order to give her something to do other than studying during the day. I'm kind of curious how she's handling it. I remember how there was always a guilty look on Yuuko's face whenever she told me that it was time to leave because the library was closing. I could see Hanako having similar troubles.
Still, it seems fitting - just like it seems fitting that our reunion takes place in the very spot where we first talked to each other. That feels like such a long time ago.
I lose track of time as I work my way through the first book I borrowed, and as I finally finish my list of references I intend to use, I suddenly become aware of how silent the place has become. When I first sat down here, I could hear the occasional sound of footsteps or people speaking in hushed tones. Right now, though, the library is almost eerily quiet. A quick peek at my watch tells me it's a quarter to seven right now; 15 minutes past closing time. Just when I consider getting up and paying a visit to the front desk, I become aware that I'm being watched.
Chapter 55 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:20 am
I turn my head, and Hanako, who seems to have been standing in the nearby aisle for a while, quickly looks away as my gaze meets hers.
I wonder for how long she's been standing there, just watching me without saying a word.
I can tell that my stare is making Hanako nervous, but I try to block her fidgetting from my mind. It's been over three months since I've last seen her.
Despite the uneasy expression on her face, Hanako's actually looking a lot better than she did the last time I saw her. That evening before graduation day, she looked ill, scrawny and at emotional rock bottom. From the looks of it she's at least eating regularly again. I could be mistaken, but I think her hair's a little bit longer than it was three months ago. Even though Nobuyuki suggested that she's not officially part of any class, Hanako's still wearing her usual school uniform.
The mutual staring is starting to get a bit much. Seeing that there doesn't seem to be anyone but us left in the library, this awkward situation is probably going to last until one of us says something. Since I took the initiative to come here, I guess it's up to me to make the first move to break the ice.
"Uh... You know, you're...looking a lot better than the last time we saw each other. I mean... You're... uh... looking pretty good."
I cringe upon realizing how stilted that sounded, but I think that for just a split-second I could see a trace of a smile on her face.
"I... ah... wasn't really sure whether coming here at this time was a good idea or not, but... I was hoping you'd at least be happy to see me."
"I... I... I'm h-happy t-to see you."
This ice proves tougher to break than I thought. It's a little jarring how awkward our interaction is right now. It wasn't this bad while we were exchanging e-mails or smalltalk through the chess site's message channel. Then again, Hanako probably realized this, and that's why she's been limiting our interaction to more indirect ways of communication until now.
Well, there was that phone call on the evening of the festival, but back then Lilly was present with her ever-realiable knack for making pleasant and relaxing conversation. I won't be able to rely on her this time.
But then again, maybe making conversation isn't what we need right now. We've had conversations over the internet, but I didn't really have the impression that we started closing the distance between us until we started playing online chess against each other. The fact that Hanako suggested those chess games made me realize that she's also aware of how our relationship works.
I could tell her that I've missed her, and she'll probably stammer a response, but there are other ways of getting that point across and maybe those other ways are worth a try.
I smile at her, doing my best to hide my nervousness, and gently tap my knee with my hand. I feel a bit silly doing this, but judging from the sudden blush on Hanako's cheek, she understood the meaning behind my gesture quite well.
After a short moment of hesitation, she walks up to me, turns and sits sideways on my lap. I wrap one arm around her waist and place my other hand on her leg. For a while, she doesn't react. She just keeps staring at it, seemingly unsure of what to do now. Then she carefully takes my hand in her own and starts caressing it with her own.
Neither of us says a word. My gaze wanders from the sight of her hand stroking mine to the unreadable expression on her face and then back to the hand that's carressing my own. To my surprise, my eyes first focus on her neatly trimmed fingernails before they move to the scarred area on the back. It's a relief that even after a few months of separation, looking past her scars is still a second nature to me.
I let her caress my hand for a little while longer and then gently move it up to my face where I press a little kiss on the back of her hand, right on the spot where her scar tissue ends and her undamaged skin begins. Then I look at her face for a reaction.
This was one of the little gestures we came up with on one of our dates during the summer vacation last year. The time that was more or less the honeymoon stage of our relationship. That seems so long ago now and so many much has happened since then.
But then a look of recognition appears in her eyes and she takes my hand, brings it up to her lips and places a little kiss on it herself.
She remembered. That's a relief.
I pull her a little closer to me until her left side is leaning against me and I think of what to do now.
Maybe the best thing to do is to just keep going.
Think up some other ways to make things more comfortable between us without having to hold a conversation.
I rack my brain trying to remember the little rituals and gestures Hanako and I used to take part in. I know she really used to like playing footsies, but I'm pretty much guaranteed to destroy the moment if I ask her to get off my lap so we can take our shoes off.
Then I suddenly remember something else that especially Hanako enjoyed far more than a person of her age probably should. I bring my hand up to my lips and place a kiss on my fingers. Then I slowly move my fingers in the direction of Hanako's face and very softly touch her cheek with my fingers, as if putting a kiss there. A childish smile appears on Hanako's face as she presses a kiss onto her own fingers and then touches me on the nose.
This 'kissing by proxy' game was something we came up with during our vacation in Scotland last year. We'd often play it while we were in public places that weren't too crowded, trying to see how many 'kisses' we were able to sneak in while avoiding attracting attention.
I respond to Hanako by placing an indirect kiss on her nose as well.
Which results in a touch just underneath my right ear.
Then one just above her eyebrow...
An excited giggle...
One to the side of my neck...
One near the edge of her mouth...
A tender one on my lips.
One on her lips as well.
I eagerly wait for Hanako to pick a new spot for her next semi-kiss, but there's no immediate response. She merely fidgets a bit, her eyes jumping back and forth between me and her hands. Then she gets up and turns towards me. Just when I'm about to get up as well, she takes a step forward, lifts her skirt just a little bit and straddles my lap. My heart instantly skips a few beats. This is one sensation I haven't felt for a very long time.
Hanako still doesn't say a word, but she slowly moves her shaking hands towards my face and gently places them on both sides of my head. Her hands are just a little bit sweaty and very warm to the touch. It definitely feels nice.
Eager to reciprocate, I take her face in my hands as well, brushing aside the lock of hair that obscured her right eye until now. A rush of nostalgia hits me as my right hand feels her warm, soft cheek and my left hand feels the leathery roughness of her facial scars.
Noone but Hanako feels like this.
Our faces slowly approach each other, and I close my eyes and open my mouth just a little in anticipation of what's to come. Then I feel a pair of lips gently suckling on my upper lip. Hanako moves her head just a little bit and locks her lips with mine. Unable to wait any longer, I slip my tongue into her mouth, and as soon as my tongue finds hers and almost pounces on it, it's like a switch is thrown in the back of my head, and all the self-restraint I've mustered up to now vanishes in an instant.
My hands, moving on their own, slide down her back and then lock around her waist, pulling her closer.
My tongue dances around hers, sampling the taste and softness.
My lower body has started making jerking motions in response to the grinding movements of her hips. I feel myself slipping off the beanbag just a little and brace my right leg in an attempt to compensate.
My breathing becomes shallow as I struggle to breathe in and out without breaking our feverish kiss.
I want her. Badly.
We both gasp for breath as she breaks our kiss. Then she embraces me and hugs me, causing my face to press tightly against her chest. I can actually hear her heartbeat which sounds just as frantic as mine, and the feeling of her breasts causes my arousal to go through the roof. One of my hands makes its way underneath her blouse and starts stroking her back.
As she briefly lets go, I look up at her and smile sheepishly.
"This... kind of brings back memories, doesn't it?"
She blushes a bit, but nevertheless nods and smiles. Then her lips lock with mine again, and she starts moving once more.
I feel myself slipping off a bit again, but I'm way past the point where I can bring myself to care. Our bodies start moving in unison, old instincts reawakening within both of us.
Until I slip off the beanbag completely, nearly dragging Hanako along with me.
Fortunately, I kind of slide off instead of dropping straight on my tailbone. I'm more startled than hurt. Hanako, though, looks at me with eyes as large as saucers.
"I'm okay. I'm not hurt."
I hold out my hand, which Hanako takes and uses to pull me up. When I'm back on my feet we exchange an awkward stare. I may not have been hurt, but the mood we were just in has been killed on the spot. Pity.
"I... uh... guess these beanbags aren't suitable for this kind of thing, huh?"
Hanako doesn't respond. I can't really blame her. It's not like this discussion about beanbags is really gonna go anywhere.
Now what? Ask her if we can go to her room? That would be kind of bold.
While I'm busy trying to figure out what to say, I notice that Hanako's kind of fidgetting and fumbling as well. The expression on her face is a familiar one. It's her 'I want to say something, but I'm not sure how to say it'-expression.
"Hey Hanako, is everything alright?"
Still no response. Hanako closes her eyes, and I can see a frown on her face as if she's trying hard to make a decision of some kind.
Her eyes open, but her gaze remains focussed on her feet.
She falls silent again and starts to nervously play with her hair.
"You know you can tell me anything, don't you?"
She nods, but still seems to be struggling to say something. Eventually, she opens her mouth.
Before I can say 'sure', Hanako has already taken off towards the librarian's desk. I wonder what that was about. I scratch my head, shrug and sit down on the beanbag again.
That sure felt familiar just now.
But so did many other things.
Her sitting on my lap. Us holding hands. The kissing-by-proxy game. They were all familiar little rituals from the earlier days of our relationship.
Even her straddling me like that, holding me to her chest and moving around on my lap. She did that during our vacation in Scotland in an attempt to distract me. She was kind of tipsy back then and really embarrassed about it afterwards. We both were, in point of fact, and kind of avoided speaking of it afterwards.
And yet, when I brought it up just now, we both smiled. Maybe because at this point, it may still be a little embarrassing, but it's also turned into a pleasant memory. A memory of more carefree times. A memory of how much fun we had together back then and how happy we were.
Maybe that's the key to bridging the gap between us. Maybe we need to remember the good times, draw resolve from them and do what we can to relive them.
Well, that's kind of why I'm here to begin with.
Maybe there's no need to talk at all.
I kind of wonder what Hanako's doing right now. If she wants to leave here and retrieve her handbag, why is it necessary for me to wait here?
Just when I start considering to get up and see what she's up to, I hear footsteps and the next moment she's walking up to me. As I look at her, my eyes grow wide in surprise.
Hanako's standing there, her mouth clamped shut, her eyes aimed at the floor and her face red like a tomato.
She's wearing the hairclip that I gave her on our first date.
And she's holding a blanket in her hands.
My first thought is: 'where did she get this?'
That's kind of an irrelevant question though and it's quickly replaced by a more relevant one.
Well, assuming Hanako locked this place up already, we'll actually have more privacy here than in the girls' dorm. But still...
While I'm trying to digest this sudden turn of events, Hanako hasn't moved a single muscle, and if I don't say anything, I could easily imagine her remaining standing here all night.
On the other hand, is there a more suitable place to reconnect than the very place where we first connected with each other?
Maybe there's no need to talk at all.
As I get up from the beanbag, I realize my legs are a little shaky. While we were making out earlier, going all the way would have felt more natural than it does now. The last time we did it, it ended rather badly. I pray that we won't end up in that kind of situation again.
No point in worrying about that now.
Chapter 55 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:20 am
When I reach Hanako, I let my forehead rest against hers and look into her eyes for several seconds before giving her a quick peck on the lips. It's another familiar gesture we've used in the past to say something without having to say it out loud. And when I receive a quick peck on the lips in response, I realize Hanako hasn't forgotten either.
Given where we are, we probably can't afford to ruin the mood again, lest we end up chickening out half-way through. Conversation will probably kill the mood. Thinking too much will probably kill the mood. I don't think we'll need to do either. We have our memories.
I take the blanket from Hanako and spread it out on the floor near the beanbag. Then I take off my shoes and socks and sit down on the blanket. It's soft enough to feel comfortable. Hanako follows suit and sits down facing me after taking off her own shoes as well.
Hanako's eyes still aren't aimed at my face. They're aimed somewhat lower. She says nothing, but I nevertheless give her an understanding nod. This has often been one of the first steps in the past. Fighting off the slightly uneasy sensation of Hanako's intense gaze, I take off my vest, followed by my shirt. It feels a bit weird to be doing this again after all this time.
Hanako's eyes are drawn to the scar on my chest as usual, and she tentatively places her right hand on it. This simple ritual of her scars touching mine has always been a powerful bonding mechanism for us both, and a sense of nostalgia hits me as she tenderly starts stroking the spot where the surgeons operated on me all that time ago. Maybe Hanako's feeling the same way as there's a dreamy look in her eyes while her fingers are running up and down the light line on my chest.
We stay like this for quite some time, but just before I can start wondering whether Hanako has lost her desire to go further, she pulls her hand back and turns around. She takes a deep, shuddering breath and she starts to tug at her ribbon. I sit there wordless as she slips off her ribbon and continues to unbutton her blouse, before working the clip on her bra. The process seems slow, but I know better than to try and hurry it up. If I want this to go well then Hanako needs to be able to set her own pace. I look on as Hanako, hands trembling a bit, unclips her skirt. Finally, she takes her blouse in her hands and draws it off, her bra falling from her shoulders. She sits there in front of me all but bared, save for her stockings and underwear.
I slowly reach out and gently place my hands on her shoulders as she lets go of her blouse. She gasps a little; not in fright, but in simple startlement. Her lips are open, just a little. She lets out a sharp breath as, without thinking, I lean forwards and press my lips to hers.
The kiss only lasts for a fleeting moment before our faces part. The feeling of Hanako's mouth lingers, and her eyes remain locked to mine. I decide to move things forward and unbutton my pants. Hanako's body flinches at the sound of my zipper being pulled down. Maybe it's better if I let her do this part. I lean back a little and raise my hips just a bit, giving Hanako a quick nod. She grimaces just a little, but then reaches out and takes hold of my trousers. I gently move my hips back and feel both my trousers and my boxers sliding down until they're removed completely. I suddenly feel extremely vulnerable and quickly pull my knees up a bit in order to cover up my private parts.
Hanako seems a little uneasy too and looks at a loss on where to look. Nevertheless, she mirrors my gesture, raising her bottom a bit. Saying a silent prayer that the next part isn't going to take longer than it needs to, I reach out and take hold of her stockings. I slowly, but deliberately pull both her stockings and panties down. The first time she and I did it, I wasn't even able to completely remove them, but in the months that followed I got plenty of practice with those stockings, and I'm relieved to see that I've still retained enough of my special touch to take them off without much trouble.
Wanting to move the situation forward quickly, I position myself in front of the beanbag I was reading on earlier and lean against it a bit. Then I open my legs and pat the blanket we're sitting on. I feel extremely embarrassed being in this position and I keep my eyes averted, hoping for Hanako to quickly make the next move. She thankfully gets the cue, and a moment later, she sits down in front of me, drapes her beautiful dark hair over her right shoulder and leans back against me. I wrap my arm around her waist and eagerly pull her closer. The feeling of her back and shoulders leaning against my chest is really nice. I think the hardest part is over now. I can probably go with my instincts from here.
I run my fingers gently across the side of her face, stroking her cheek before giving a loving kiss on it. My hand, as if possessing a mind of its own, starts stroking her shoulder and neck before ending on her left breast. She lets out a sharp breath as I start caressing it, starting with the sensitive underside before moving up, my hand going in ever-shrinking circles around the center, tracing the edges of the areola. I keep this up until she unexpectedly moves her upper body forward. Taking this as my cue, I take her breast in my hand and start kneading and fondling it, tweaking her nipple between my thumb and index finger.
She arches her back a bit and turns her head as far as she can. I notice her eyelids are slightly lowered, and her breathing has become more shallow. I lean forward and manage to embrace her lips with my own. My other hand, which was still stroking her tummy now works its way up until it rests on her right breast before it starts mirroring the movements of my other hand. I kiss Hanako passionately, drawing her sharp breaths into myself as my hands enjoy that wonderful combination of softness and firmness. Despite Hanako's right breast being partially covered by scar tissue, I've always found her breasts to be really beautiful and have always loved fondling them. The fact that Hanako has always enjoyed it as well certainly helped too. I continue kissing her, muffling her occasional moans as her nipples become erect underneath my fingertips. Sensing that she's probably ready for more, I let my left hand wander down until it rests on her upper leg.
Still keeping my right hand focussed on her breasts, my left hand slides further down and starts fondling her inner thighs, switching from her left thigh to her right and then back again. Each time I move my hand from one thigh to the other, I teasingly bring it mere centimeters away from her most intimate place before moving on and each time I do so, Hanako's breath stops for a moment. I keep this up for several times until eventually Hanako can't take it any longer and while my hand is hovering over her private spot once more, her lower body shoots forward and presses itself against my fingers. Eager to continue, I start making slow, circular rubbing motions with my fingers, just the way she always liked it best. We stay like this for a while, Hanako content to let me pleasure her and me content to listen to the little sounds and sighs my fondling draws out.
Deciding she's ready to go further, I bring my right hand up to her face and stroke her cheek with my index-and middle finger. She gives a barely visible nod and softly kisses the two fingers caressing her face. She shivers in anticipation as I run my hand down her body and briefly finger her with two hands until the fingers of my right hand are wet enough. Then I carefully slip two fingers inside her. She lets out a sharp gasp, and I immediately feel her tighten around my fingers. I give her a reassuring kiss on the cheek and wait until she's used enough to the sensation to relax. Soon, she lets out a long sigh, and the tension in her body slowly starts ebbing away. I push my fingers in a little deeper and then start making beckoning motions with them while letting my other hand wander up and down her body. At first, her entire body tenses up each time my fingers press against her sweet spot, but she soon gets into it and relaxes in my arms.
I realize that this is almost as arousing for me as it is for her. The sound of her rhythmic but shallow breathing, the sight of her naked body pressing against mine, the way her hands are squeezing my upper legs with each motion of my fingers and the sensation of her bottom rubbing and wiggling against my groin. Part of me would like to keep going until she reaches her limit.
Hanako, however, suddenly takes my wrists, gently pulls my hands away and gives a long breath of relief from the intense stimulation she's been experiencing. Her face looks to mine a little, silent, but expectant. I nod my head, sit up a little more and push away the beanbag we've been leaning against. Then I lie down on my back, ready to let Hanako take over from here.
Hanako turns around, gets on her knees and positions herself above me. She takes my erect member in one hand and slowly starts lowering herself, trying to aim the tip just right. The sight of her still shaky legs makes me a little nervous. Hanako must have seen my expression for she lets out a cute little giggle behind her hand, easing the awkwardness a bit. Then she lowers herself further onto me, and a warm sensation envelops my tip before extending all the way to the base.
I can't resist a moan when her insides embrace me completely, and I instinctively put both hands on her hips to prevent her from raising herself again. I close my eyes for a moment and relish the sensation.
I don't remember being inside Hanako feeling this wonderful. I open my eyes again when I feel something pressing down on my chest. Hanako has put her hands on my chest, on both sides of my scar, in an attempt to steady herself. For the first time since we started this, she's looking directly at me without any discomfort, and I take a long look at her as well.
He soft and slightly pale skin, colored by a slight blush.
Her beautiful dark and long hair, sticking to her back and sides right now due to her already being covered in sweat.
Her attractive figure and well-shaped breasts, the nipples now erect and blood-engorged.
The scars covering her body that give Hanako her unique look and feel.
Her pretty dark eyes which are half-closed and have a dreamy look about them.
That beautiful smile that sets her apart from everyone else I know.
I love this girl - scars and all.
A tear runs down her cheek as we look at each other. I bring my hand up to her face and tenderly brush it away. Words aren't needed here. The look we're exchanging is all we need.
After tilting her lower body a bit in order to get a better angle, Hanako slowly starts moving her hips, grinding against me in circular motions, slowly and carefully at first, but faster once we've figured out a rhythm. With me lying on my back and Hanako straddling me, I take advantage of the fact that I have my hands free to let them wander all over her body.
Her neck and shoulders...
Her upper legs and buttocks. I can't resist the urge to squeeze them a bit, but Hanako's too much into it to protest or even care.
Finally, her breasts. Due to her scarring, Hanako's right half tends to move differently from her left half during sex and her breasts tend to bounce out of sync as well, but I've always felt that it looked kind of cute. I start stroking them with both hands, and Hanako, gripped by the experience presses her chest against my hands, wiggles her upper body in order to increase the sensation.
"Hah... mmmg... hmmm!"
We're both breathing heavily and already past the point where we're even trying to restrain our voices. I doubt there's even a single soul other than us on this floor, and letting the other know how much we're enjoying each other is more important than anything else. Even if somebody were to come in, I doubt we'd even be able to stop anyway. We've come too far already.
Suddenly, Hanako takes my hands off her breasts, lies flat on top of me and takes my head in her hands. I wrap one of my arms around her waist, gently place my other hand on the back of her head and push her head closer to mine. We share a passionate kiss, and I start wiggling my upper body in response to her movements, my breath briefly taken away by the sensation of my nipples rubbing against hers. It feels like every part of my body is now being stimulated by her... my tongue, my upper body, my netherregion... everything.
I can feel our limits approaching rapidly. Our movements are becoming less and less controlled and more and more desperate... instinctual even. I gave up repeating scientific formulas in my head in order to stave off the intense sensation minutes ago. Our breathing is ragged and shallow. My muddled mind can just barely make out the sight of Hanako's face as she squeezes her eyes tightly shut and grits her teeth. Then her entire body starts squirming, forcing my body to do the same. Her mouth opens slightly. I close my eyes, bracing myself for the inevitable. We hang onto each other as we race past the point of no return together, still trying to prolong the moment for as long as possible. Then Hanako cries out, and her entire body freezes while her insides give me the most powerful squeeze I've ever felt. A wave of pleasure races up my spine as I, too, freeze up and then discharge into Hanako.
Everything around us seems to disappear in haze of white, as if there's nothing and nobody left in the world except Hanako and me, our bodies shaking and convulsing in a climax of shared ecstasy. Finally, after the last aftershock subsedes, the pleasure makes way for a sense of all-encompassing bliss. As my breathing slows down to a normal rate, Hanako slides off of me and puts her scarred hand on my chest. I concentrate on my heartbeat as it slowly returns to its normal pace as well. For one moment I feel a slight abnormality in its rhythm, but the feeling passes as quickly as it came up. I put my hand over Hanako's, look her in the eyes and give a silent nod. A happy smile appears on her face, and she closes her eyes, yet can't prevent a few tears streaming down her cheek.
Starting to feel a little cold, I sit up, pull the nearby beanbag a little closer and lean back against it. When Hanako sits up as well, I motion her to sit sideways on my lap and then wrap the blanket we've been lying on around us, like a wonderfully warm protective cocoon. Our lovemaking has left me feeling drained, and I feel my eyelids getting heavier. Hanako's drenched in sweat, and her unscarred skin is heavily flushed, but she isn't looking as sleepy as I'm feeling right now. Remembering how important this is to her, I hold her close and stroke her face and scalp with my free hand while gently rubbing my feet against hers. In response, I feel her hand stroking my chest and her left cheek brushing against mine. The feeling of sleepiness is getting stronger, and I blink my eyes a few times in an unsuccesful attempt to shake it off. Then I suddenly feel Hanako shift a bit, and a moment later I feel a tender kiss above my eyebrow. My mind eased by Hanako's gesture, I close my eyes as the warmth of the blanket and Hanako's body gently lull me to sleep. For one more moment, my mind registers Hanako's cuddling, and then I sink into a comfortable, dreamless sleep.
When I wake up, I notice it's already pretty dark, especially in the corner where I'm sitting against the beanbag. I must have slept for several hours. I let out a yawn and moments later, I hear someone softly whispering my name.
"Hanako. When did you wake up?"
"A little while ago. How are you f-feeling?"
"Pretty good, I think. My lower back feels a bit sore though. I guess I'm a little out of practice."
"Erm... I hope you don't mind me asking, but... How was it?"
I wouldn't blame Hanako for refusing to answer a question like this, seeing how embarrassing it is, but I nevertheless get a reaction; not in the form of a reply, but in the form of a tender little kiss on my lips. It makes me smile and just a little bit proud too.
"I... uh... really enjoyed it too."
That earns me another kiss. I nevertheless feel a little awkward thinking back on the last few hours. Things took a pretty unexpected turn after we were reunited with one another. In a way it felt natural that our first act of intimacy and our first physical union in many months took place at the very spot where we first got to know each other. Our relationship underwent a bit of a rebirth in the very place where it was first born. But now that the adrenaline and endorphins are no longer raging through my system, my mind also reminds me of the implications of what we just did.
We just had sex.
In the school library.
The school's been pretty accommodating to Hanako over the years, but I have little doubt that if they were to find out about this, they wouldn't waste any time expelling her.
"You remembered to lock the door, right?"
"We'd better not tell anybody else about what we just did. You could get into trouble."
"It'll b-be our shared s-secret."
"Heh, they say that shared secrets strengthen a couple's bond with one another."
My girlfriend giggles.
"Hanako? Where did you get this blanket? I didn't expect to find something like this in a library. And whose is it? We... uh... got it kinda dirty it and the owner may not be happy about that."
"It's okay. It's my spare blanket. I k-keep it in the storage room. I'll w-wash it when I have the chance."
It did kind of look familiar, now that I think about it.
"Why are you keeping a blanket in here?"
"Uh... ever since I... started helping the l-library staff, they've allowed me to... lock up at the end of the d-day and said that if I wanted to, I could use the library to study after closing hours. Ever since, I've often spent my evenings here. But... the heating in the building is automatically turned down after a certain time and it can get a little c-cold here in the evenings, so I use that blanket to k-keep warm."
"My girlfriend the librarian. It kind of fits you. But why didn't you tell me in our mails?"
"This is... only m-my first week as an actual l-librarian. Before, I was just helping out s-sorting books and learning the ropes. I w-was going to tell you after I g-got settled a bit."
"Oh, okay. Do you often spend your evenings in here?"
"Usually a few days every week."
"You're not sleeping in here too, are you?"
It was just a playful little joke, but Hanako suddenly freezing for a second makes me realize I accidentally hit a nail on the head that I didn't even know was there.
"You're sleeping in here too."
"Hahaha. Jeez... You're sleeping in here?"
"N-Not always. Only once or t-twice."
I chuckle. What a weird habit.
"Is that even comfortable?"
"If you... c-curl up on one of the larger beanbags, it's not too bad."
"I'll take your word for it. This is kind of nice too though."
That's an understatement. I hope Hanako's not in a hurry to get back to her dorm room, because the prospect of remaining here for a little longer, wrapped in a comfortable blanket with my girlfriend's warm body pressed against mine is really, really appealing.
"Do you... want to stay like this for a little while longer?"
"I wouldn't mind. Do you?"
"I'd... like to, but aren't you hungry?"
"A little bit, but the cafeteria is probably closed already anyway, so there's no point in hurrying."
"Ummm... Hisao? Can you reach my bag?"
I turn my head to the left and see Hanako's handbag lying near the beanbag we're leaning against. I stretch my arm out as far as I can and manage to pick it up without having to leave the spot we're sitting. With some effort, I fish a lunchbox out of it.
"This is your dinner?"
"Yes. I sometimes bring food along, so I can eat here after c-closing time. It's not much, but... we can share. I have... uh... rice balls, p-pieces of sashimi and some rolled sushi."
After some fumbling, I manage to open the lunchbox with a single hand and hold it in front of Hanako, who wiggles an arm out from under the blanket and takes a piece of sashimi.
"Could you say 'aaah'?"
I roll my eyes and sigh.
"Alright then. Aaaah."
I open my mouth, and Hanako puts the piece of sashimi inside, quietly giggling to herself. I've always had to roll my eyes at this childish little ritual whenever my girlfriend made me take part in it, but Hanako has always enjoyed it a lot, and I see no reason not to humor her right now.
Neither of us says a word for a long time, not during our quiet shared dinner and not during the time afterwards when we just sit there and enjoy each other's presence. Eventually, I start feeling a little drowsy again, and I yawn slightly.
"Are you sleepy, Hisao?"
"Not overly so, but I attended morning classes at Kasshoku and there was the long train ride too, so all in all it's still been a pretty long day."
"Is it... r-really okay to s-skip classes for my sake?"
"I think it's perfectly fine. I'm actually one of the most diligent pupils in my class. I can afford it. Some folks in my class hardly attend at all. There seems to be an unwritten understanding at university that everybody who's attending there had to work really hard to make it in, and after they graduate they'll once again have to work really hard until the day they retire, so now's their last chance in a long while to hang back a bit. Some take that further than others. I'm still going to do my part for our group project tomorrow, so my absence isn't too big a deal."
Hanako seems to consider this for a moment.
"If you... really say so."
"It's okay, I promise."
"So, do you want to stay here?"
"We... s-shouldn't sleep here. The cleaning ladies are usually here p-pretty early in the morning and if they found you here, that would be b-bad."
"Then maybe we should get dressed now before this starts feeling too comfortable."
I pull the blanket away, causing both of us to shiver a bit and fish a handkerchief out of the pocket of my pants so we can clean ourselves a bit. After dressing ourselves, we leave the school building and set out for the girls’ dorms. Just before we reach the entrance, I turn to my girlfriend.
"You... know why I'm here, don't you?"
Hanako averts her eyes and looks a little uncomfortable, but then she nods.
"And it's still okay with you if I stay here tonight?"
"It...is. I...would love... for you to...stay w-with me."
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:21 am
As I slowly wake up from my slumber, I wearily open my eyes only to immediately close them again due to the bright light. My eyelids feel heavy as does my head. My body feels like lead.
Did I forget to close the curtains last night?
Something feels very different.
As my mind starts trying to orientate itself, I'm starting to become aware of various things.
I can't feel my right arm. I try to move my fingers, but I'm not sure if they're even responding. Looks like my arm is still asleep for some reason.
I do feel my left arm and my left hand is resting on a soft surface. In fact, something is pressed against my body. Something nice and warm. It's a pleasant feeling.
I don't think I'm wearing my pajamas. Or anything else for that matter.
Something is tickling my nose. There's a faint smell of something... familiar.
I hear the sound of soft breathing nearby and carefully open my eyes a bit. As my eyes gradually get used to the light, I start making out my surroundings.
It only takes me one brief glance at the flowing, dark hair in front of me to realize where I am and who's currently sharing the bed with me.
This is Hanako's dorm room at Yamaku. I came to visit here yesterday. We shared Hanako's leftovers from lunch last night. She told me she wanted me to stay with her. (good thing too since it was too late to return home at that point) Then we snuck into her dorm room and... well...
Let's just say I'm happy that I made the effort to stay in shape over the last few months.
I take a long look at Hanako. She's lying on her back, and I'm lying on my side next to her. My right arm is wrapped around her, and her head's been lying on it which probably explains why it's asleep right now. My left hand is resting on her tummy which gently moves with the rhythm of her breathing. Our legs and feet are tangled up in one another, and my head was resting against hers until a moment ago. It was probably one of her locks of hair that tickled my nose earlier.
I try to move my fingers again, but they still don't seem to be responding. Using my other arm, I eventually manage to pull my right arm free. Hanako stirs for a moment, but doesn't wake up. I take another look at my girlfriend. Hanako looks really peaceful. A lot more peaceful than she usually is when she's awake. She looks really cute too. I hope she'll be at ease too when she wakes up.
It's the 10th of July today. Hanako turns 19 on this day. Since Hanako spent the last couple of her birthdays securely holed up in her room, I had been hoping to preempt the situation rather than risk arriving here on the day itself and only seeing a locked door.
I move my head closer to hers and take a gentle sniff. Hanako's hair always has a rather distinct smell. She probably uses a special shampoo to keep it as vibrant as it is. It smells really nice.
It turns out that Hanako's hair is the only thing that smells nice about us right now though. As I move a bit and start massaging my numb right arm with my left, the romantic mood of the moment is slightly spoiled by the faint smell of perspiration and... other stuff... coming from beneath the blanket. After our lovemaking last night, we didn't want to ruin our moment of closeness so we snuggled up to each other and drifted off to sleep without taking the time to clean up. It felt like the right course of action back then, but I'm feeling kind of sweaty and sticky right now. I could really use a shower...
...which might be a problem right now seeing that I'm currently in the girls' dorm. I don't want to cause a scandal while I'm here.
Guess it'll have to wait.
I suppose I'll just lie here until Hanako wakes up. It's not like I have a lot planned for today.
Then again, I think I have an idea that she might appreciate.
I quietly get out of bed, making an effort not to wake Hanako and start gathering the clothes scattered across the floor. I neatly fold Hanako's clothes over her desk chair and put on my own. I had the foresight to take along an additional set of clothes in my backpack, but I'd better keep yesterday's clothes on until I can wash myself.
I take the room keys from Hanako's desk, unlock the door and exit the room without making a sound. A boy walking through the girls' dormitory this early in the morning will immediately cause people to become suspicious, especially if said boy isn't even wearing Yamaku's school uniform, but it's still fairly early in the morning so with luck most of the students here are either still asleep or simply hanging out in their own room. I hurriedly make my way to the kitchen area and open what I remember to be Hanako's cupboard. She probably did some shopping earlier this week because there are plenty of things inside. I don't want to spend too long here, lest I attract the attention of half the building's residents, but it shouldn't take me too long to cook some miso soup with the stock and miso paste that Hanako has in here. I hurriedly put two pans with water on the stove; one for the miso soup and another for the instant noodles I found among Hanako's things.
While I'm waiting for the water to reach boiling temperature, I find myself repeatedly looking at the doorway. This isn't very relaxing. If the boys' dormitory had been a bit closer I could have gone there to prepare the meal, but walking across part of the campus carrying our meals isn't really feasable either.
After a few minutes, the water in the pans starts to boil and I add the stock, paste and noodles. Only a few minutes more and I'll be able to return to Hanako's room. With a bit of luck she won't have woken up yet.
My attention is suddenly drawn away from the food when I hear a girl's voice behind me. I turn around and see a sleepy-looking girl still wearing pajamas standing in the doorway. Her long, unkept hair has an extremely light color, giving me the impression that she's an albino, and she has a rather skinny build. I think I vaguely remember her from when I still came here on a daily basis.
"Aren't you in the wrong building?"
I make an apologetic gesture.
"Sorry, I'll be done in a minute or two."
I quickly get back to my breakfast preparations, but when I take a careful glance over my shoulder, I notice the girl's still standing there, looking at me. She's probably either too polite or shy to tell me to hurry up, but I feel like I'm being stared out of the room. Just when I'm about to say something, another girl comes walking in; a familiar girl with a crutch who gives me a friendly wave.
"Hey. Nice to see a familiar face."
The girl who first came in here turns to her fellow-student.
"Do you know him? Why is he occupying our kitchen?"
"He's Hanako's boyfriend. And I guess he's... making breakfast for her?"
"The new librarian. She's a friend of mine from the newspaper club."
The first girl shrugs her shoulders.
"I figured I'd be the first person here if I got up a little earlier and I'd have the kitchen all to myself. So much for that. Guess it wasn't meant to be."
"I'm almost done. Sorry for making you wait."
She shrugs again and then takes a seat at the nearby table. The girl with the crutch, whom I recognize as Jun Yamazaki, approaches me.
"Good morning. Please don't mind my classmate. She's not really a morning person."
"It's fine. I know I'm a bit out of place here. It's been a while, hasn't it?"
"How does it feel to be here again?"
"A little weird, but also strangely comfortable. I still can't help but feel a little bit like an outsider now though. That's something I didn't expect."
I take a look at her crutch and then at her. She makes a reassuring gesture.
"I had a little misstep a few weeks after graduation day and I'm not extremely mobile yet, but I can manage."
I I shift my attention back to our breakfast and finish preparing the meal. I get a tray from the cupboard, pour the soup and noodles into some bowls and put them on the tray. Jun looks at the tray with a slight look of envy in her eyes and sighs.
"I wish I had a boyfriend who did these kinds of sweet things for me."
I give Jun a surprised look, but her classmate at the table rolls her eyes. She's probably heard this before. She gives Jun an annoyed stare.
"Then maybe you should talk to boys more often or spend more time around them instead of sitting behind your computer surfing the web or playing games all the time."
Jun makes a face.
"If I have to give up everything else I enjoy in life, a boyfriend's still going to result in a net loss of happiness. Besides, nobody is attracted to frail grannies without wrinkles anyway. Well, except for my dad..."
"Ugh, that's not what I meant. Get your mind out of the gutter before it catches something!"
I don't think I need to be part of this discussion, so I say goodbye to Jun, leave the kitchen and make my way back to Hanako's room. It takes a bit of effort to get the door open without dropping the tray in the process, but I eventually manage to get inside and deliver the meal to its intended recepient, who has already gotten out of bed in the meantime and has put on her nightgown. As I enter the room carrying the tray, Hanako lets out a surprised gasp.
"Aww, you're already awake."
"It's okay. It's just that I was hoping I'd be able to treat you to some breakfast in bed."
Hanako doesn't look me in the eyes, but after a few seconds a little smile appears on her face, and she gets back in bed while giving me an expectant look. I grin and sit down on the bed, putting the tray in between us.
"I'm sorry it's such an unexciting meal, but I didn't want to take too long. I kinda felt like an intruder in the dorm's kitchen area."
"It's... probably best if you stay in h-here until classes have started."
"Yeah, since I no longer have a school uniform, I'm probably standing out even more than usual already."
We finish the meal I cooked up without making any further conversation. I'm still trying to read the mood in the room. Hanako's not exactly talkative, though that's hardly out of the ordinary with her. She doesn't seem to be struggling with depression either, so that's definitely a step forward compared to the previous years. But how is she feeling right now?
"Thank you for the meal, Hisao. It tasted really good."
"It was just a basic soup and noodles breakfast. Still, I'm glad you appreciate it. It was the least I could do to get you off to a good start for the day."
The fact that Hanako averts her eyes as I finish my sentence confirms that she acknowledges that today is no ordinary day.
"Uh... Can I... congratulate you?"
Hanako pauses for a moment to consider this, but then slowly nods her head. I lean forward, we close our eyes and I share a quick but tender kiss with her. When our lips separate, I smile at her.
"Happy 19th birthday, Hanako. I'm really happy I met you."
Hanako looks a little awkward, but there's a brief trace of a smile on her face.
"T-Thank you... Hisao. I'm... r-really happy I met you too."
"How are you feeling?"
"I'm... n-not really sure. A little mixed, I think. P-Part of me still wishes this day would be over, but... I'm... happy you're here right now."
I pick up the tray and put it on Hanako's desk. As Hanako gets out of bed again I give her a curious look.
"So... uh... Do you have any plans for today?"
She meekly shakes her head.
"I... h-have to take a shower and then open the library."
"So you're working today?"
Hanako nods slowly.
"It's... an official assignment... from Miss Yumi. I h-have to spend t-this entire day away f-from my room. Just like... during the festival."
"At what time does your shift end today?"
"Usually until... the library closes. But... Miss Morita can probably t-take over after five o' clock."
"She... works at the s-school administration office, but she sometimes acts as r-replacement for the librarian. She used to... fill in for Yuuko at times too."
"So... five o' clock. I was wondering if you'd be willing to head to town with me afterwards. We can take a little walk in the park, and I'd like to treat you at the Shanghai afterwards. It'll be good to visit that place again after several months."
"Then it's a deal. I'm looking forward to it."
"But... that won't be until five o' clock, and it's still morning now. What will you do in the m-meantime?"
"Well, I promised Mutou I'd be at the science club today and tell the other members about life at the science faculty. He'll also be expecting me to show him and the rest at least a semi-finished science report. It's probably the only way I'll be able to earn his forgiveness for not being at school right now."
Hanako giggles, but also looks a bit guilty.
"I'd like to take a shower and put on some fresh clothes, but it's probably best to do that in the guys' dorm. I'll just wait until classes get started. It's unlikely anybody will even notice me there with school being in session. I think I'll spend most of the day studying and working on my part of the school assignment. Though if there are any chores you want me to do, like shopping or laundry, I'll be happy to do them."
Hanako considers this for a moment but then smiles and shakes her head.
"Thanks, but that's not n-necessary yet."
I take a brief look at the bed.
"I'll be sure to wash the sheets and blanket though. You can't say that's not necessary yet either. We messed up two blankets in one evening."
Hanako instantly turns beet red and doesn't respond. I chuckle. It's not very nice, but I think her awkward fidgetting is surprisingly cute.
"It's a deal then. You should go and take your shower now. You want to be in time to open the library."
Hanako nods and, still blushing a bit, walks out of the door. As I'm left alone in the room I take the opportunity to look around a bit. When we first came here last night, we had other things on our mind, and when I woke up this morning, I was focussed on making breakfast before Hanako woke up. Now that Hanako's away, I find myself taking in the surroundings.
When I first saw the inside of Hanako's room I was shocked at how frighteningly plain it was. I still wouldn't mistake it for anybody else's room, but a few things in here are different now from how I remember them.
The teddy bear that Naomi got Hanako during the writing club's outing is lying under the bed. We put it there to make room for me last night.
The plush puppy that Hanako once gave Lilly is keeping the teddy bear company. Before we left Yamaku on graduation day, Lilly gave the plush dog to Miss Takawa with the request to leave it with Hanako as a sign of support.
It looks like she finally got herself a new alarm clock to replace the one Naomi accidentally broke. For a long time was stuck using her phone's alarm clock function.
I notice two framed certificates on her dresser. One of them is the first aid certificate Hanako earned nearly a year ago. The other one is the prize she and her friends from the writing club won in that contest. I remember she used to keep these in her desk drawer. I wonder if it was her idea to frame these or someone else's. Is she using these as reminders of what she can achieve if she puts her mind to it?
There are some papers on her desk. I briefly skim one and can immediately tell who wrote it by the writing style. It's a letter from Lilly. Hanako must have run Lilly's original letter in braille through the conversion software at the newspaper club and printed it out. Next to the letter is a sheet of paper with text in Hanako's handwriting. Seems like this is her correspondence with Lilly.
The most eyecatching additions to the room are on the shelf near the bed though. One is a photo album that seems to contain several dozens of photos from our vacation in Scotland. The other is a rather large frame containing what seems to be a collage of pictures. As I look closer at the frame, I realize I recognize most of them.
Near one of the corners is the class photo that was taken last year, just a week before we visited Kasshoku. Looking at it makes me feel nostalgic even though it's only been a few months since I last saw everyone at graduation. Hanako looks pretty good in that picture. She has a shy, but sincere smile on her face.
There's also a picture of Hanako, Naomi and Jun that was probably taken after the outing they went on to celebrate their writing prize. Each of the girls is holding a plush doll in their arms that Naomi presumably got from one of the crane games. Hanako is holding the teddy bear that's currently residing under the bed, Naomi has a 'Hello Kitty' doll in her arms and Jun is carrying a cute plush Pikachu. They seem to be laughing in the picture, and Hanako is holding her bear particularly close to her face, so her scars are practically invisible in the photo.
Another one is the picture we took on the plane to London at the start of our vacation.
And one with Hanako, Lilly and me having a picnic on that second day of our trip.
Then there are several photos that were made during our activities in Inverness and our time in my hometown during the summer break.
Finally, I spot a photo of me and my parents that was probably made when Hanako and I dropped by for Christmas and another picture of the Satou family that Hanako must have taken during New Year since I doubt Akira would wear a kimono on any other day of the year.
I'm pleasantly surprised seeing these things. There was always something unsettling about the emptiness of Hanako's room. It was like a jarring confirmation of her words that her life's been on hold for a long time.
After leaving Yamaku, there have been times when I wondered if Hanako's life went back on hold after her breakdown. Was this extra year truly going to make a difference or was it just postponing the inevitable? At times I feared it was the latter, but after today and yesterday I'm not so sure anymore.
Chapter 56 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:21 am
I give a few polite knocks on the door of the office. After Hanako left the dorms this morning, I went to the guys' dorm to take a quick shower and change my clothes, and then I went through one of my study books while the washing machine was busy cleaning Hanako's sheets. Afterwards, I went to the computer lab, checked for mails from my classmates at Kasshoku and spent a few hours typing up my part of our group assignment. After mailing it to the others, I realized I still had some time before the science club started, so I went to see an old acquaintance with whom I already had a conversation over the phone earlier this week.
"Mister Nakai! So glad you could make it. Please come in."
The old therapist gives me a welcoming smile and gestures for me to come in. I've been here often enough to know the usual ritual by now, so I follow her inside, sit at the table and patiently wait while she pours us some tea and hands me a bowl.
If she does this with every person who visits here, I wouldn't be surprised if she's just as much a caffeïne addict as Lilly is.
"I hope I'm not imposing on you."
"Not in the least. As you can see I'm not having any clients over at the moment, so your visit was well-timed."
She smiles at me.
"Your visit was surely a nice surprise to Miss Ikezawa. She must have been quite pleased when you suddenly reunited with her."
She was... in several ways.
"You could say that. Thank you for the blessing the other day.Three months ago you told me it was best if as much initiative as possible was left to Hanako for the sake of her therapy. I thought it'd be best to ask you ahead of time if this was okay or not."
"There's nothing wrong with exceptions from time to time. I don't think she would have asked anyone herself to take a day off to be with her on her birthday after all. I won't go as far as to condone truancy, at least not officially, but if the university doesn't complain, neither will I."
I have the impression that if Mutou puts up with my truancy without further complaints, I'll probably have Miss Takawa to thank for it.
"I also felt that it was a smart idea to test the waters a bit myself since her birthday is a bit of a sensitive issue. Last year and the year before, Hanako spent her birthday hidden away in her room, probably wallowing in depression. I wasn't quite sure how things were going to be this time. I didn't want to run the risk of the same happening this year."
"Hmmm... Did you really think that would have happened?"
"I don't know. Before I came to Yamaku I never met anybody who reacted to a birthday the way Hanako did."
"Do you know why she secluded herself on that day in the past?"
Miss Takawa chuckles at this strange stand-off.
"She told me once that her birthday was the one day when people would pay attention to her and she wasn't treated like an inconvenience. The sheer contrast of that day and all the other days of the year only served to make her feel worse about herself."
"But you are not merely pretending to care about her, are you?"
"Of course not."
"Then I don't think how she feels about her birthday really applies to you. Miss Ikezawa's faith may waver a bit from time to time, but I don't think she doubts the fact that you sincerely care about her. Because of that, I don't think she would have turned you away today. Please keep that in mind."
"Well, it turns out that she wasn't going to hide in her room regardless since you specifically asked her to go about her daily schedule as usual today. I don't understand why you didn't tell me about this when we spoke on the phone earlier."
Miss Takawa gives a casual shrug.
"Those assignments I give her on occasion to let her take gentle steps outside her comfort zone are part of her therapy and since you asked about her birthday, I didn't feel it was necessary to bring up her therapy with you."
There she goes again with the need-to-know stuff. I get why she's doing it, but it's annoying at times.
"Is Hanako working here as a librarian part of her therapy too?"
Miss Takawa smiles proudly.
"She's still a little awkward right now, but since this is her first week as an actual librarian rather than an assistant, I think things are still going pretty well. The job really suits her, don't you agree?"
Given how jumpy Yuuko was most of the time, Hanako almost seems like the perfect replacement to carry on the tradition at Yamaku of having the school library run by socially awkward people.
"It does seem pretty fitting. Does she get paid for it too?"
"Not directly, but if she can keep this up until the end of the school year, the school is willing to refund a good part of this year's tuition fee. That's one of the perks that come with the job."
"In addition to that, it also gives her a useful activity to keep busy during the day and she's allowed to use the place to study in the evening. Having a job also tends to boost one's self esteem ever so slightly, which is always welcome with Miss Ikezawa. Most importantly though, it forces her to have casual interaction with other people on a daily basis while still in a relatively controlled environment that is familiar and safe to her and that she knows well. Through this daily contact with other people, we're hoping to restore her faith a little bit."
"Not in a religious sense, but more in a personal sense. She trusts you and Miss Satou for example, but she's had quite a bit of time to get to know you and it took her a long time before she trusted you enough to open up to you. That's not a viable approach to take with people in general. In daily life you often meet new people with whom you have to deal and you don't get the time to gradually get to know them. In order to deal with them you simply need to have faith that they bear no ill will towards you. If every unknown person around you becomes someone who's potentially thinking bad thoughts about you, it becomes impossible to function in everyday society. Sometimes you just need to put your trust in mankind."
"Hanako's had some pretty rotten experiences with mankind."
"I am aware of that. That's why she needs this daily contact with other people so badly. She needs good or at least neutral experiences to cancel out the bad ones. If she cannot lose or soften this deep-seated distrust of people in general, it'll once again ruin her chances of moving on when it's time to take the entrance exams. What we're trying here is to prevent history from repeating itself."
"I'm sorry, but I'm afraid you've lost me. Did you say that Hanako's distrust of people in general caused her to flunk her entrance exams?"
"I thought it was her fear of not being able to function outside Yamaku that contributed to her failing the entrance exams."
"That played an important role as well, but if I had to point out one central issue that must have dominated her thoughts back then, this one was probably it. To her it was a bad situation with no way out."
"The situation being exam season?"
"Yes. I think she really wanted to pass her entrance exam, Mister Nakai. She really, really did. She wanted to attend the same university as you do. She really wanted to continue her relationship with you and see you on a regular basis. She really wanted to become Miss Satou's roommate. She really didn't want Miss Satou to lose her chance of getting her own little place because of her. And yet... Despite the stakes being this high, another part of her felt terrified of succeeding. Probably even terrified enough to flunk that important entrance exam."
"Fear. Fear of others. Surely you understand her position. The stakes were so high and yet... That breakdown she had in the lecture hall… There were many people there. Apparently between 150 and 200. Many of those were high school students, just like herself. Many of those were potentially future classmates. And Miss Ikezawa made a very bad first impression on them that day..."
So that was what was on her mind. Hanako...
"Hanako was afraid that... the people who witnessed her breakdown that day... would remember it and... would start bullying her over it? And you're saying she...threw the exam? On purpose?"
"A term like 'on purpose' is a little too black-and-white for my tastes. And is it that hard to imagine Miss Hanako worrying about history repeating itself?"
"No, but I... Jeez, that must have been eating her up inside. But..."
"What would the chances be? From what I've experienced so far, the atmosphere at university is very different from middle school and high school. Much more... laid-back. Much less pressure. It's a different environment."
Miss Takawa gives me a smirk that's almost derisive.
"Can you give her a guarantee that she won't get picked on, Mister Nakai? Because I certainly cannot despite the odds probably not being as high as she thinks them to be. People don't stop judging each other the moment they graduate high school. Bullying and exclusion can take place anywhere. Even at university or at the workplace. People get more subtle about things when they grow older, but group dynamics remain roughly the same throughout life."
"That's pretty depressing."
"Which is why Miss Ikezawa cannot afford to think like that. If she does, I'm afraid that the whole thing might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those first few weeks at university will be crucial. That's when groups are made. She cannot afford to lag behind despite having a disadvantage over the rest. You are right about the environment being different. I believe that if she can make it through those crucial few starting weeks and make a few friends, things will be fine for her, and she might graduate from university as a much more confident young woman. If, however, she enters university under the conviction that a repeat of middle school is inevitably waiting for her there, her behavior and mannerisms will reflect that belief. Her resulting behavior will be almost certainly keep potential friends at arms' length while at the same time attracting the attention of whatever bad apples might be nearby. That's why restoring her faith is so important. We cannot influence with whom she'll be attending university classes, but we can influence partially how those people will come to see her. As a fellow-student who's merely a bit nervous on her first day, just like the rest - or as a barely functioning loner."
"Do you think that can be done?"
"Her anxieties won't be gone at the end of the school year, but with enough effort on her part she'll be able to handle them better. That's what we're aiming for."
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
"I think you've already made a difference by coming here today. Even though I cannot officially condone the practice of skipping classes, I think it's a good thing you're here. Miss Ikezawa's bonds with her friends are at the foundation of her efforts to cope and adjust. Whenever I tell her to have faith in people, I bring up you and the rest of her friends as examples. Do what you can to honor that trust because without it, her resolve to see this year through to the end would quickly crumble."
The old lady chuckles.
"That probably sounded a bit more demanding than I meant it to. I think that if you simply keep up your interaction with her and watch your own health a bit, things'll work out fine."
"Here's hoping. With luck, today will add a little bit to that foundation of hers you spoke of."
"Well, there's still some time left, but try not to take too long."
"Huh? Hey, there she is already. 15 minutes ahead of schedule. I have to hang up. I'll talk to you later."
I hang up my phone and wave at Hanako who's approaching the bench where I've been sitting for the last 10 minutes.
"Hey there! You're earlier than I expected."
"Miss Morita s-said she came a little earlier so I could spend a b-bit more time with you."
"That's really nice of her. Shall we go?"
I get up and we head through the school gate and down the road to town.
"It'll be nice to go on this little walk again after all those months."
Hanako nods and then turns to me.
"Who... were you talking to just now?"
"Oh, just one of my classmates. I mailed a piece I wrote for our group assignment their way earlier today and he needed some clarification."
"Were you... able to do you part?"
"Yeah, I used the computers at the computer lab to type up my contribution and to look up stuff I didn't know. I also took some of my science books with me for additional references. I feel that today's been pretty productive."
"And how was the s-science club?"
I smile broadly at the memory.
"It was really good seeing the guys again. They were all happy to see me, and I found out that the club gained six new members while I was gone. We had a really good time together. I felt embarrased being addressed as 'president' again though."
"I think... it makes sense. You're not just the club's first p-president, but also its f-founder. That m-makes you... a bit special."
"I personally don't think it's too big a deal."
"Did you get to talk about university?"
"Yeah, I did. Mostly about the various subjects and assignments I've had so far. Mutou actually ended up giving me some pretty helpful feedback on my science report, so I might end up getting something out of this too."
"Isn't that... uh... cheating?"
"I don't think it is. Mutou gave me some directions, but he didn't spell things out for me. There's nothing wrong with letting others review your stuff before you submit it. Scientists do that all the time."
Hanako lets out a soft giggle, and I realize that that probably came out wrong.
"Not that I'm calling myself a scientist, mind you."
Hanako merely shakes her head and smiles, obviously still amused by my comment. I decide to change the subject.
"How's the newspaper club, by the way? Are you still involved with it?"
"Seeing that you're probably the oldest member of the club right now, certainly you have special status."
Hanako smiles and meekly shakes her head.
"Not... r-really. Most people there h-have been members for a longer time than me."
"You say you're still a bit involved. Do you still go to meetings?"
"Not anymore. I have to work during their meetings. But I still t-try to write at least one piece for each of their issues. It's... a column where I r-recommend one or more books that w-we carry here."
"That sounds like something that's right up your alley. Do you have any recent issues? I'd love to read one."
"In my desk drawer. If you... still have time after we get back, you can r-read them."
"Looking forward to it."
We finally make it to town, and I take a wistful look around. I've lived in the city for most of my life and am used to bustling urban areas, so this town maintains a charming and soothing atmosphere.
"Shall we go?"
"Uh... T-the Shanghai is the other w-way."
I roll my eyes.
"I know that, but if it's okay with you, I'd like to take a little walk through town first. I'm not really hungry yet."
"I don't mind."
We walk through the peaceful streets of town until we see the lush vegetation of the park before us. I give my girlfriend a knowing look.
"I'd like to pick a nice spot somewhere around here and take a little break for a while."
Of course the words 'picking a spot' would suggest looking around, keeping a few options in mind and then choosing the option we like most. In truth there's only one spot in the park that I think is suitable right now, and Hanako's probably been thinking the same as we take a quick look at the other at exactly the same time when a particular bench with a vending machine nearby comes into view. The look we share is enough for both of us.
"It's been decided then."
Hanako lets out a cheerful giggle.
We head over to the bench, I get two cans of apple juice from the nearby vending machine, and we sit down. For a long time neither of us says anything. We both know the significance of this place. This is the place where, nearly one year ago, Hanako and I reached out to each other and became boyfriend and girlfriend.
"This place brings back memories, doesn't it?"
"I can't believe it's been nearly a year since we got together."
Hanako doesn't finish her sentence, and when I look at her, I noticed that there's a pained expression on her face.
"Hanako, what's wrong?"
"It's been... nearly a year, but I... haven't been a very good girlfriend for... a large part of it. I feel... good about the first f-few months, b-but afterwards..."
"You don't have to be so hard on yourself. You were going through a rough time."
"My... r-rough time spanned half of our r-relationship. We l-live far away from each other. I w-wasn't really there for you. I ran away from all of you. I... c-couldn't even do... that... with you anymore."
"I think yesterday proved that that last part was a temporary hurdle..."
Hanako's cheek turns a little red at the reminder of yesterday's events.
"...and besides, it was partially my fault as well. The last time we shared a bed and things didn't go well, you offered to... uh... tend to me using alternative means and I immediately shot the offer down because I didn't feel good about the idea of just me having a good time. I didn't even consider that putting our entire love life in the fridge was probably going to make you feel worse about yourself. I'm sorry about that."
"It's okay. I'm... guilty of the same when you were f-forced to take it easy because of your heart."
"So I guess the moral of the story is for both of us to be a bit more flexible in that area."
We both blush a bit at the implication of what we just said.
"You know... In the end, exam season probably would have played out the way it did regardless because I wasn't exactly in peak physical condition myself. In fact, I'm not sure if I would have been able to take anything more intense than a kiss."
"Isn't that... a little bit exaggerated?"
"I never told you or Lilly this, but I had a rather intense heart flutter less than eight hours before the National Center Test. Kenji needed to borrow some notes, he knocked way too loudly, I was concentrating on some last minute cramming and got startled badly, and my heart suddenly went crazy. It was really scary. When Naomi had that seizure the morning after, I realized how reckless I had been. I could have easily been the one who had to drop out early instead of Naomi. After that epileptic fit of hers, I promised myself to take it a little easier and let the nurse in on my condition. Even with the additional medication he gave me, I remained in a rather volatile state until the entrance exams were over and I started sleeping regularly and working out again."
Hanako looks a bit troubled upon hearing that.
"I... I never knew."
"Sorry. I just didn't want you to worry about me. I figured you already had enough on your mind."
"S-Same here. I... ever since that d-day at K-Kasshoku, I knew that I... probably w-wouldn't be able to make it in. I started having bad dreams. I gave everything I had on the C-Center Test, because I d-didn't want you to worry about me. But after the Center Test, the n-nightmares became more frequent and... a lot worse. I... d-don't think I ever r-really had a chance. I didn't know what to d-do or how to face you and Lilly. I felt I was ruining things f-for all of us. I felt like I was b-becoming a burden to all of you again. I..."
"I... I hated that you h-had to watch me r-regress like that. I wanted to be... the way I was during our v-vacation. I thought... maybe it was better if we... didn't meet until I was... back at that point. So that... when we'd meet... you could b-be proud of me again."
I can't say I'm surprised to hear her say that, but I still let out a sigh.
"Everybody knows how much effort you've been making, Hanako. There was no need to avoid us until some arbitrary point in time. I've really missed you and I think the same is true for Lilly. I just..."
Hanako lets out a sad sigh of her own.
"M-My absence is an even b-bigger burden, r-right? M-Miss Yumi already t-told me that before."
"Yeah, but it's not just that. It's just...what's the point of having friends who are willing to support you when relying on them is just gonna make you feel bad? If you can't bear to be around me when you're not feeling in top shape, doesn't that make me just a fair-weather friend? I really hope we moved past that already."
"I know that you tend to feel like a burden whenever people are having to accomodate you, but don't you get that people are accomodating you by choice? I just wish you could see that when people are going out of their way for you, they're doing it because they want to. At least that's the way it is with me. And it's really frustrating when every effort I'm putting in is just making you feel worse about yourself, because it makes me feel like none of those efforts is even appreciated."
The corners of Hanako's mouth drop down. I don't think she likes hearing this, but this has been something I've been wanting to say for quite some time.
"I know this is not a switch you can just flip, but...the next time people are going the extra mile for you, instead of feeling like a burden, maybe you could just...feel thankful that they're making those efforts? Even if you can't immediately repay the favor, you could still make them feel appreciated. That's usually all people want in return. It's all I've ever wanted in return."
Hanako's silent for a very long time. She really seems to be thinking deeply about this. I hope I didn't just ruin our moment. When the silence finally ends, she gives me a guilty look and then nods her head.
"I'll t-try. I p-promise. Okay?"
There's an almost pleading look in her eyes as if she's afraid I won't believe her. This is better than just another reflexive apology. I give a satisfied nod and smile at her.
"Thanks. I'm really happy to hear that."
"Hisao, are you... happy with our relationship? With the way t-things are now?"
"I can't say that our circumstances are ideal right now, but I'm hoping we can find a way to make this work. I don't think we're really the ideal couple for a long-distance relationship, but that's simply the situation as it is right now. I don't like the idea of our relationship being put on hold. Maybe we can both think about what we want out of our relationship and how we can achieve that."
"I... r-really like the fact that we're playing chess again, even if its through an internet site. I... always look forward to our next game."
"Me too. That was definitely a step in the right direction. Maybe that's the key to maintaining the relationship. Finding things to look forward to."
"Dates maybe? We could, like, plan one every three or four weeks or so. You could either come over, or I could come back here. Even if we just end up spending that time in your room or mine, I'd still be looking forward to it."
"Every four weeks..."
"What do you say?"
"I... I think I'd like that."
"Great. Let's give that a try then."
"T-Thank you, Hisao."
"F-For not g-giving up on me."
"Hanako, do you remember when I got out of the hospital last time and you made a promise to me?"
"T-To wait for you?"
"When you made that promise to me, I made a similar promise to myself. I may not be able to be there for you on a day-to-day basis, but waiting for you is the least thing I can do."
Hanako smiles happily and I feel her hand tenderly brush across mine.
Hanako has suddenly started fidgeting nervously. I'm curious about what could make her act like this. I patiently wait until she's worked up the courage to speak up, which she eventually does.
"Hisao, since it's b-been... just over three m-months since you left here, that m-means we're... at l-least three d-d-dates behind."
"Yeah, we kind of are."
"Uh... I know it's s-selfish of m-me to ask, b-but... w-would you... Tt-take me on a date tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow? Well, I can probably do some more work in the computer lab, and I made sure to bring my medication along. We can go somewhere after you've closed up the library tomorrow."
"And ummm... m-maybe Saturday afternoon and S-Sunday m-morning too? Then we'll b-be...on schedule."
She's blushing heavily now, but I give her a happy smile to reassure her.
"How could I possibly say no to an offer like that?"
A happy smile now appears on Hanako's face too.
"Really. Let's recreate some of the good old times starting tomorrow. Heck, starting today."
"I'm... l-looking forward to it."
"Me too. I'll have to phone my parents this evening and tell them I won't be home until Sunday. I'm sure they'll understand. I might have to avoid Mutou tomorrow though."
I move a little closer to her, gently take her hand in mine, and we share a long, comfortable silence. This went better than I expected. I feel that the rift between us is gradually starting to mend. Eventually, the silence is disrupted by a sound from my cell phone. I take it out, take a look at the screen and put it back in my pocket again.
"Who was that?"
"Just one of my classmates. He can wait a little while longer."
I take my and Hanako's empty can and toss them in the garbage bin near the vending machine.
"I think I'm ready to have a bite to eat. Shall we head for the Shanghai?"
Hanako gets up from the bench, and we casually stroll back to the park entrance and then to the street where the Shanghai is located.
"It'll be good to eat there again. It'll be just like old times. If only Yuuko was still there, things'd be perfect. But since you're the librarian now, I suppose Yuuko finally got into university as well."
"She did. But the new person there isn't too bad either."
As we reach the coffee shop's entrance, I stop for a moment.
"Hanako, could you wait here for a moment? I'll go and see if they have any free tables."
Hanako looks puzzled.
"Uh... It's Thursday, Hisao. They always have free tables at this time of the week."
"I know, just a moment."
I walk in, take a look at our usual spot and then quickly return to Hanako.
"We can sit at our usual table. Shall we?"
Hanako still looks a little baffled by my actions, but still follows along. As we enter, I take Hanako's hand in mine and guide her towards the spot where we always took our seats. As we approach, Hanako looks at me with a puzzled expression.
"H-Hisao, I think there are already people sitting there."
"Hey, there she is! Hurray!"
I feel Hanako's grip tighten in shock as an excited voice suddenly calls out. An excited voice we haven't heard for some time, but is still instantly recognizable. One of the people sitting at the table gets up, and we see a head full of bleached blonde hair pop into view, sporting a million-watt grin.
"Hehehe, surprised to see me?"
Hanako's eyes grow to nearly twice their size, and her right hand flies in front of her mouth to cover up a gasp at the unexpected sight of Naomi. I gently escort her up to the table where the other people sitting there rise to their feet as well.
One of them is Lilly, who has a happy, but also slightly nervous smile on her face.
Standing next to her is Akira, who's looking at Hanako's face with a look of amusement.
Standing a bit unsteadily next to Naomi is Jun, her crutch leaning against a nearby wall. She's looking at Hanako with an expectant expression, trying to determine how the latter is going to react. It's probably something that's on all our minds right now.
I was a bit skeptical when Lilly called me last week and proposed to hold a surprise party for Hanako. Last year when Hanako found out about a party we were planning for her, she had a full-blown panic attack in class. I ended up making a phone call to Miss Takawa to ask her for her opinion. She told me that she thought it was a good idea not to just ignore her birthday. When asked about the possibility of Hanako having another breakdown, Miss Takawa gave the not exactly reassuring answer that if that were to happen, she'd at least know that she had her work cut out for her.
We decided to limit our little group to the handful of people Hanako's been closest to over the last year. That covered Lilly, Akira, Naomi, Jun and myself. We didn't have Jun's contact information, but fortunately we still had Naomi's, who was excited about the idea and sent word to Jun in our place.
I ended up coming to Yamaku a day in advance in order to gauge Hanako's mood and call the whole thing off if necessary. It was also my task to get Hanako to the Shanghai and to keep her occupied while Lilly and Akira dropped by the school by car and picked up Jun. I suppose it was a good thing Hanako and I had several things to talk about until I received Akira's text message that things were ready here.
We considered asking Lilly's parents along, but in the end we decided that the atmosphere would probably be less awkward without them present. They'll be picking up Lilly afterwards though and will probably take the opportunity to congratulate Hanako then, since Akira will be staying at a hotel near the airport tonight before flying back to Scotland tomorrow morning. It turned out that the business delegation she was part of already left the country two days ago, but Akira extended her stay for this party's sake.
There's a birthday cake on the table that I know Lilly spent a lot of time on, and I notice two bags underneath the table that probably contain presents. A lot of effort went into this. All that remains to be seen is how Hanako's going to react. At this point, she doesn't seem to be reacting at all, except nervously shifting a bit under everybody's gaze, her hand still covering her mouth and her eyes still wide. I put my hand on her shoulder in an attempt to reassure her.
"Hanako? Your friends are here to celebrate your birthday with you. Aren't you going to welcome them?"
For a second, Hanako's gaze jumps to me as if suddenly remembering I'm here with her. Then I hear a whisper from behind her hand.
I'm trying to reassure myself by reminding me what Miss Takawa said. All of the people here genuinely care about Hanako. There's no pretending here. But does Hanako feel that way?
Having picked up Hanako's response, Lilly takes a step forward and feels out Hanako's shoulders with her hands. She gives her best friend a warm smile and embraces her.
"Happy birthday, Hanako. I'm really happy that you're here with us right now."
Finally, Hanako seems to relax a bit and after a few moments she returns Lilly's embrace. When I look at her, I notice a happy smile on her face.
"L-Lilly... everyone... t-thank... t-thank y-you..."
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:22 am
Friday July the 11th
Dear Mister and Mrs Nakai,
I wanted to send a little letter of thanks for the sweet birthday card you wrote to me. Hisao gave it to me yesterday during the party. I really appreciate the thoughtful gesture. I'm sorry for my absence over the last few months. I have no excuse. I promised Hisao yesterday that I'd visit your home during the upcoming summer break. We can catch up then.
I also apologize for having asked your son to stay here a few days longer. It's been a very long time since we've spent some time together, so I hope you understand.
I hope that you're both doing well.
Sunday July the 13th
Hisao has just taken the bus to the train station, and I'm finally getting around to writing you.
First of all, thank you so much for the wonderful birthday surprise. I have to admit I felt a bit strange at times, asking myself if this birthday was really different from the way they used to be. I think it helped when I stopped thinking and just tried to have fun. I'm happy we got together like this. So thank you again. I actually feel a bit bad for not having taken the initiative myself to hold a party. Maybe next year?
I'm also really happy that Hisao agreed to stay a little while longer. I have to admit that over the last few months, I've had my worries about the feasibility of our relationship, but this weekend served as a good reminder for both of us why it's worth staying with each other despite the distance. We both enjoyed the last few days a lot, and we made a mutual promise to try and keep our relationship going. It's a real load off my mind. I'm already missing Hisao, but I promised to visit him at his home during the summer break. I think I can hold out for some time.
It was a shame that I still had to work on the first two days, so we only had the evenings to spend together. We went to see a movie last Friday and got off the bus in town rather than near the school gates. It was relaxing to walk the final stretch back to school together.
Saturday evening was dedicated to karaoke. It's been over half a year since I've done that. It felt good to sing again. We spent the night in the city afterwards. We brought some food along the previous evening, so we were able to have breakfast in bed. It's a really nice way to wake up.
We visited a miniature golf course later that day. We fought a hard battle, and I lost, although it was close. Still, we both had a lot of fun. That's what's most important, isn't it?
I know that I promised last Thursday that we'd call each other on occasion from now on, but if it's okay with you, I'd still like to continue our correspondence through paper mail. It allows me to save our interaction and re-read it from time to time.
I'll talk to you later.
To: Akira Satou
Subject: Thank you + messenger account
Date: Tue, 15 Jul 2008 12:32:43
I hope you've already recovered a bit from the long trip back to Scotland. I feel a bit bad that you took three days off just to attend my birthday party instead of returning home with the rest of the business delegation last Tuesday.
Nevertheless, it was really good to see you again, so thank you, and I'm also very thankful that you and Lilly picked up Jun at the school gate. I would have hated to think of her having to walk all the way to the Shanghai with that crutch of hers.
Anyway, my instant messenger name is "Flowergirl_89", so feel free to add me. I'll be keeping an eye out for you, though due to the time difference we might not catch each other very often.
Re: Fwd: Fits_and_Giggles has sent you an invitation
Fri, 18 Jul 2008 16:41:22
I received the same e-mail from Naomi. She's set up a Mixi group for us. You're familiar with Mixi, right? It's a semi-anonymous social network service that allows you to interact with friends who share the same interests. I've already accepted her invitation. I suppose you don't yet have a Mixi profile? Registering can be a bit of a hassle and you need your cell phone number to finish the process. Let me know if you're having trouble.
P.s.: Did you see her username? Kind of a groaner, isn't it? I should have known there was more where 'The Broken Quills' came from.
To: Jun Yamazaki
Subject: Re: Re: Fwd: Fits_and_Giggles has sent you an invitation
Date: Fri, 18 Jul 2008 16:50:07
I'm not really sure. It probably seems paranoid to you, but I really don't like the idea of giving other parties my cell phone number. Or making an online profile about myself. Or having people I don't know request that I become their 'friend'. The word 'friend' has a very specific meaning to me and giving that title to random people with whom I only share an interest or two feels sacrilegious to me.
That probably sounded strange.
So I'm really on the fence on this.
From: Jun Yamazaki
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Fwd: Fits_and_Giggles has sent you an invitation
Date: Fri, 18 Jul 2008 17:04:28
The group Naomi created would only be accessible to the three of us, so you don't have to worry about other people seeing pictures of you. In fact, Mixi discourages the posting of personal photos, because they don't want people using the site as a dating service. Now that I think about it, that might be a problem if we use a Mixi group to interact with Naomi.
About friend requests, whether you get any depends on what you put in your profile. I get several of them each week, probably due to the video game titles in my profile, but I generally deny them. It can be annoying sometimes, but not overly so.
Anyway, if you want to discuss this further, why don't you drop by my room this evening? It's faster than typing.
To: Naomi Inoue
CC: Jun Yamazaki
Subject: The Broken Quills forum
Date: Sat, 19 Jul 2008 14:22:51
Sorry for not replying sooner. I had a few reservations about registering a Mixi profile and talked them over with Jun last evening. Jun also noted that Mixi has certain user policies regarding the posting of personal information that might clash with what we want. So we came up with an alternative.
Jun is currently setting up a private forum that's hosted on the webspace that's also used by her father's website for his store. (he's okay with this) You need to log in in order to view the contents and only the administrator can create new accounts. So it's only open for the three of us, and we can post anything we want without fear of anybody else seeing it or us violating anyone else's terms of service. I personally think this is a better approach as it adds a more personal touch. When Jun is done, she'll mail us our account info.
Talk to you soon,
H1S4O is online.
You have issued a challenge to H1S4O.
H1S4O has accepted your challenge.
Are you on lunch break right now?
Yes. We should have enough time for a game. Shall we?
How are things?
Lots of studying.
Exams are just before summer break, aren't they?
Aren't you exempt from them since you're no longer a third year?
They're optional for me, but I've decided to take them. I want to make sure I'm keeping up with the rest.
Feeling stressed already?
Not yet, fortunately. It helps that it's material I already studied for last year.
Lots of luck with it then.
Do you have any plans for the summer break already?
Stay at your place?
That was just going to be for a week, right? Anything else?
Hokkaido, right? Lilly invited us there.
Looking forward to it. Too bad Scotland wasn't an option this time.
By the way, there's an assignment I have to do during summer break.
An assignment? For what subject?
For Miss Yumi.
What has she asked you to do this time?
Go on a trip by myself.
You mean going on vacation? All on your own? Isn't that boring?
Not really a vacation. More like a day or two, maybe three, that I have to spend visiting places. But I have to visit them on my own.
To 'push against my boundaries' as she called it.
Did she mention where you had to go and when?
She allowed me to pick the destinations myself, though it had to be some distance from Yamaku. I can't just visit the nearby city.
Do you have any ideas?
That's not too far away from where I live.
I was thinking that maybe I could make those trips after our week together. And...still spend the night at your home? That way I wouldn't have to
sleep in a completely strange place.
Sure, that's not going to be a problem, I think.
That would be really nice.
You could get up early in the morning, take the train to Tokyo and be back in the evening.
Do you already have an idea what you're going to do in Tokyo?
You like Disney and Disneyland?
Yes, I like Disney. But I can't remember Disneyland very well. The only time I've been there was when I was very young.
I'll be back.
Well, at least there's still only one of them.
I'm sure you'll have a lot of fun there.
I'm not sure if I'll have a lot of fun, but at least it's a place that I like. Or used to like. It might make it easier.
Do you have any other plans besides going there?
I think I'll go to Ueno Park the next day. Perhaps visit the zoo there or the International Library of Children's Literature. Maybe visit a museum or two.
Here we go again.
I'm not making progress here.
My king's feeling kinda lonely now.
You know, that kind of reminds me of that trip we were supposed to make to Edinburgh last year.
Haha, you thought so too?
Yes. Anyway, it sounds like an interesting two days. It's a real shame I won't be allowed to accompany you. Maybe some other time.
Yes. I've also been thinking that we could maybe visit Lilly afterwards. Plan these days in between the stay at your place and the stay at Lilly's.
Sounds like a good idea.
Nail, meet coffin. Please make it quick.
You were quite relentless this time. Well done and congratulations. Great game.
Great game. Shall we play again?
Sorry, but I still need to get lunch. Another day, maybe.
Bye. Miss you.
Aww, me too.
H1S4O has logged off.
Sapporo4ever has logged on.
Yo Hanako! Didn't expect you to be online.
Huh? I'm often online around this time.
Yeah, when you're at Yamaku. But aren't you, Lilly and Hisao in Hokkaido right now?
We are. But your mother has left her laptop here for us to use and I was just using it to check my mail when you came online. Lilly was actually planning to call you later.
Uh yeah, about that...
She's not gonna be able to reach me for a day or two.
Are you going on a trip?
No, my phone's broken. I'm gonna get a replacement at work the day after tomorrow.
Oh no! What happened?
I left it in one of the pockets of my pants and then forgot about it. Until my washing machine started making a terrible noise.
I'll tell Lilly not to try calling you until then.
Thx. So, how are things over there? Having a good time?
Yes, very much. We've mostly spent time taking walks in the surrounding area and shopping in the nearby town, but it's been a very relaxing stay here.
I heard you went to Disneyland in Tokyo last week without anyone else? How was that?
It was nice at times, but also stressful. I think it might have been a a lot more enjoyable if I could have made the trip with friends instead of alone. I was completely exhausted after half a day and accidentally fell asleep on the train ride home. Luckily I woke up in time to get off at the right station.
Too crowded for your taste?
Some rides had fastpass systems so you didn't have to wait in line, but not all of them and being in the middle of masses of people felt very suffocating at times, despite my precautions.
I bought a Goofy cap at one of the shops near the entrance to hide my features a bit. It looked a bit silly, but there were many people wearing hats like it, so I didn't really stand out much.
LOL! That must have been one helluva sight. Do you still have it?
I'd love to see you wearing it.
I haven't made any photos of myself.
Maybe the next time I drop by here.
So how are things with you and Hisao right now?
I've had a lot of fun last week and this week too. I'm starting to think the two of us will actually be able to make it through this year without our relationship suffering too much.
That's the spirit!
You have experience with long-distance relationships, right? Do you have any tips for us?
Hehehe, my relationship wasn't exactly a long-distance relationship. It was simply us being apart for some time until he could finish the arrangements and come over. Still, I think I can emphatize with your situation a bit.
So, no advice? You do have relationship experience.
Heh, that really doesn't say much. Every relationship is different. What works for me might not work for you. Heck, what works for me is almost guaranteed to not work for you.
If I had to give advice, I'd suggest keeping in contact as much as possible, though I hear you two are already playing online chess against each other on a daily basis.
Not every day, but we try to play a game every 2 or 3 days. It's really helped me feel better about our relationship.
Keep that up. Also, try to make plans to go and see each other on a regular basis. Not just to be together, but also to have something to look forward to.
We're trying. At least until exam season comes up again.
I think the most important thing is to stay positive and remind yourself that this separation is a temporary thing. That worked for me. Also, don't forget to make the most of the time you do have together. In fact, why are you even sitting here chatting with me right now??? Shouldn't you be doing lovey-dovey things with your boyfriend instead?
Anyway, I don't think you really need advice. Things seem to be going well. And even when school starts again, a little separation from time to time can keep things interesting. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
I'll remember that.
Attagirl. You'll give Lilly my regards, won't you?
I could ask her to come here and you could talk.
Naw, no need for you to act as interpretor. Just tell her I said hi and let her know that I'll drop her a call the moment I get a new phone. With some luck my SIM card will have survived the ordeal.
Talk to you later.
From: Karla Satou
CC: Akira Satou, Hanako Ikezawa, Olivia Ferguson, Amy Taylor, Charlotte McMillan, Rebecca Johnston, Sarah Gray, Andrew Munro, Shizune Hakamichi, Caitlin Graham, Murray Hamilton, Stella Sutherland, list_SMT_Management_UK
Subject: New job
Date: Fri, 5 Sep 2008 19:05:55
I wanted to share some exciting news with you all. Many of you have asked me over the months what I've been up to, and I acknowledge that my answers have often been a tad vague. I've spent the initial few months in Japan getting settled in our new home and helping my husband get back on his feet. After Lilly's graduation I've also spent some time helping her get settled in her new apartment where she now lives by herself.
I've been doing my best to keep in touch with everyone even after moving back to Japan. That hasn't always been easy due to being limited to the internet most of the time, but I'm happy to report that my efforts have paid off.
I might have dropped the name Emily White to some of you already. She's a former colleague of mine I've worked with back in the time I was still working for the Herald. We got back in touch with one another through LinkedIn and decided to meet up at a local business conference a little while back.
It turned out that Emily recently received an opportunity to work on a biography for a retired businessman and philantropist living in Edinburgh and was still looking for a partner to take part of the workload off her hands. Deciding that with things pretty well in order back at home I was ready to explore new ventures I accepted the offer. I'll still be in Japan most of the time with Emily doing most of the resource gathering and me concentrating on putting the piece together. This is quite a step up from the small columns and articles I used to submit when I was still living in Inverness, and I'm very much looking forward to it.
If you're interested in more details, please don't hesitate to contact me or, for my friends in Scotland, arrange a get-together the next time I'm in Inverness.
H1S4O is online.
You have issued a challenge to H1S4O.
How are things?
I'm doing okay. Thanks. And you?
I'm good too.
You have issued a challenge to H1S4O.
Sorry I haven't clicked the accept button yet, but I'm supposed to meet some classmates in a couple of minutes, so there's not enough time for a quick match.
Oh, come on, not the sad smilies. You know they make me feel horrible.
Hahaha, okay. I'm always happy to hear from you even if we can't play.
Hey, Hanako, I was wondering if you're busy this weekend.
No, I'm not. Do you want to meet up?
Yeah, it's been a little while. I'd like to come over. You good with that?
Hehehe, okay. Looking forward to it.
Great. We'll mail about the exact time.
Hanako, you still there?
Uh, Hisao? I just remembered...didn't you say something about a class activity this weekend last week?
Oh, you remembered that?
Yes. I thought you were thinking of going.
It's not an official class activity. Just a little outing organized by a few guys in my workgroup. It's not exactly mandatory.
But since you don't live on campus, it's a good opportunity to hang out with classmates outside of school hours, isn't it?
Yeah, but I'm not sure about the activities. So I'm gonna pass.
Well, one of the guys arranged one of those large semi-professional grills, so we're gonna have a grill party. Everybody who participates has to put in some cash for the food.
That sounds good.
Yeah, it's the other activity that worries me. The organizer's a member of the baseball club and arranged for us to use the baseball field on campus. We're supposed to split into two teams and have a baseball match to work up an appetite.
And you're worried about your health?
Yeah. I'm probably fit enough to throw balls, but most of the guys are novices at baseball and it's not meant to be a serious match, so we're probably gonna have a couple of collisions, accidental or otherwise. I don't want to risk dying there.
You're not going to go?
So that's why you want to come over?
Hey, don't be like that. I really do want to see you. But if I just sit at home, I'd probably feel conflicted all day long.
I do enjoy our time together.
Me too. That's not it. I just feel bad that you're going to skip something you might enjoy. I'm not sure I like being part of that.
You think I should take the risk?
If it's just the baseball game, can't you say you're not up for it? That you're not in good shape?
Half the class isn't in peak physical shape. I have several folks with Taro's physique here. If I said I was in bad shape, they wouldn't believe me.
Then how about sticking to the less risky parts? You could pitch or catch. You could let your teammates do the runs. And you could attend the grill party afterwards.
Yeah, but I'd still need an explanation.
They don't know about your heart?
No. There's never been a real need to tell anyone.
Maybe you could consider confiding in them?
I'm not sure.
If your classmates know and something happens, them knowing what's going on and what to do could save your life.
I guess so.
It would be reassuring for me too.
You really want me to tell them, huh?
I can't force you.
You know Lilly had to deal with a lot of awkwardness with her classmates, don't you?
Whenever I ask her about it, she always brushes it off and changes the subject. I'm not sure if she's embarrassed about it or if she simply doesn't want to scare me.
I guess I should feel lucky I've actually had the option of not telling people about it until I feel it's the right time, so far...
Lilly never had that option. I won't either. I'm trying really hard not to think about how it'll be for me.
But when I attend university...IF I manage to get in...I'll have to deal with the same. Probably worse. And I don't think I'll be as graceful as Lilly about it.
You don't know that yet.
It might help to remind myself that both you and Lilly went through the same.
Misery loves company, huh? I guess you want me to come out?
I don't want to force you into it. But if you were to do it, consider it a favor from you to me. To keep things fair.
It's not really fair that Lilly and I don't have a choice, but you can just choose not to deal with it if you don't like it.
Okay, okay. I can see how you see that as unfair.
Things might be pretty awkward.
I'll be there for you if you need me.
So, this weekend's meeting is off? I would have loved to see you, but it's okay if it's for a good cause.
Some good cause. I hope I won't be too worked up over this.
It'll be fine. I'll be there for you too. Just let me know if there's anything I can do.
Hmmm, there might be something.
What is it?
Is it okay if I show my classmates your picture?
Yeah, I always have one in my wallet.
Why? And how does this relate to that event with your classmates???
It doesn't directly. But several of my classmates know that I have a girlfriend and they've been bugging me for a picture for quite some time now.
I'm not really fond of people looking at my picture.
I know, which is why I've been blowing them off so far whenever one of them brings it up. But they keep asking about it. Blame it on the fact we're pretty much an all-male faculty. Since you said you wanted to support me...
By making me as anxious about the upcoming weekend as you are?
Misery loves company. I don't think it'll be as bad as me having to come clean about my condition. I can't keep brushing them off forever anyway. This might be a good opportunity.
You're not coming clean about it for me, but for yourself.
True, though my classmates knowing about it also feels reassuring to you. You said it yourself.
Hanako? You're still there?
Which photo is it?
The one Lilly's mom took of us at the ruins near Loch Ness.
I don't have my photo album with me right now.
For the most part your left side is facing the camera. It's actually a very pretty picture and I think you look very good in it.
You promise to tell them?
Then...it's okay. Just a little peek.
I'll treat you the next time we meet up.
Thanks Hanako. Let's both try not to get too worked up about this.
I have to get going. We'll have a little match the next time.
It's a promise.
Good luck this weekend.
From: Hisao Nakai
Subject: You're cute
Date: Sat, 13 Sep 2008 23:03:55
I'm sure we'll catch each other later, but for now I just wanted to let you know that the verdict was "cute". I actually felt really proud.
Talk to you later.
Chapter 57 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:22 am
From: Hiroyuki Satou
Subject: Computer aptitude
Date: Sat, 13 Sep 2008 22:31:14
How have you been doing at Yamaku lately? I trust life as the school's librarian is still treating you well? It seems a job you are most suitable for.
I apologize for bothering you with this matter, but you seemed the most suitable person to ask. From what I have heard from my wife, you are or have been acting as one of the editors of the school's newspaper club, which would indicate you are fairly capable with the use of a computer. May I inquire about your aptitude with the troubleshooting aspect of computers? And how quickly do you pick up new software when you are forced to use it?
Do you believe you would be capable of assisting someone with less experience in the use of a computer if that person were to run into trouble?
I am looking forward to hearing from you.
To: Hiroyuki Satou
Subject: Re: Computer aptitude
Date: Mon, 15 Sep 2008 8:13:37
Dear Mister Satou,
I apologize for not responding sooner. Your mail arrived just after I left the library last Saturday and I failed to check my mail yesterday.
I think I've been doing rather well. I'm slowly getting the hang of the librarian business. I'm not sure if I'm as suitable for it as you imply, but I do know that I enjoy the activities. I received a 3rd quarter catalog from the publisher you work at a few days ago with some hand-written check marks in the content section. I assume you were the person who sent it? Thank you very much. There seem to be some very nice offers.
About your question regarding my aptitude with computers: I'm nowhere near as good with them as my friend Jun who has assembled her own laptop, but I do work with a computer on a daily basis nowadays, and I'm comfortable with its use. If something goes wrong I can usually figure out a way to get things working again without having to contact the system administrator. I'm not exactly a computer expert, but I'd probably be able to offer a bit of help to someone having trouble with his or her own computer. I can't give any guarantees though. Is this about Lilly? I know she doesn't like computers very much.
By the way, congratulations on your wife's new job. She seemed really happy with it. I'll be sure to read her book when it comes out.
P.s.: The library received three copies of a certain book last week. It's an autobiography written by a certain Mister Jigoro Hakamichi. Shizune used to be a classmate of mine, so I was curious whether the author is related to her or not. There was a photo on the back, but I certainly couldn't see any family resemblence. Do you know if he's related to Shizune?
From: Hiroyuki Satou
Subject: Re: Re: Computer aptitude
Date: Mon, 15 Sep 2008 22:02:44
Thank you for your kind words regarding my wife. It is true that this job is something that is right up her alley, and she has been in a very excited mood lately because of it, which makes me quite content as well.
Your guess about the catalog was correct. I was indeed the one who had it sent to Yamaku. The check marks on the first page highlight my personal recommendations. I tried to go for variation. It would be an honor for us to contribute to the worthy cause of having Yamaku's library maintain a varied and high-quality selection of reading material.
Regarding the original question; this is indeed about Lilly. My wife and I have been thinking about arranging a laptop for her in order to assist her with some everyday tasks. We have had talks with SMT's system administrators who have told us that it would be possible to set up a laptop with a microphone and voice recognition software that would allow its user to operate the system almost entirely through voice-activated macros. The accompanying scanner and text-to-speech software would also allow her to read her own incoming mail if necessary. We feel this would benefit her greatly in everyday life.
We suspect that Lilly does not feel quite the same way at this point. We felt a sense of reluctance coming from her when we brought up the subject. The system administrator at SMT let us know that it was possible to connect two computers through the internet and have a person on one end control the computer on the other. This would allow other people to help her solve whatever issues she'd run into while using her laptop. Obviously she can rely on SMT's system administrators in case of severe problems like virusses, but for more minor issues it would be good if there were some people closer to her she could approach for assistance. While my wife and I can help her if needed, we thought she may be less reluctant to call on you for assistance in case of problems. You are, of course, under no obligation to go along with this.
P.s.: Three separate copies for a school housing about three hundred pupils is about one copy more than I would suggest a library like Yamaku's carry for our best-selling titles. Either the man has a warped vision of the quality of the book or the supply exceeds the demand to such a degree that he is taking drastic steps to get rid of whatever copies he can.
About your question: part of me would like to tell you that the figure in the photo on the back is just the publishing company's rather silly mascot, but I will not insult your intelligence with such a claim. The answer to your question is an affirmative one. The man you spoke of is my brother-in-law and Shizune's father. Please forgive me my rather inappropriate tone. The man and I have not been able to get along very well. I will not stop you from reading it if you are curious. In fact, I imagine I piqued your curiosity, and a good librarian should be as well-read as possible.
Re: Re: Re: Computer aptitude
Tue, 16 Sep 2008 19:38:02
Dear Mister Satou,
I'll be allowed to order another batch of books in three weeks. I'll be sure to keep your recommendations in mind. Thank you again for the catalog and the suggestions. I'll do my best to keep up the good fight for the worthy cause you mentioned earlier.
About Lilly, I'm not surprised she's reluctant. She's not very good at handling computers and as a result isn't very comfortable with their use. I wouldn't at all mind helping her get better at them, assuming it's also what she wants. I wouldn't be very comfortable going along with something that Lilly's doesn't fully support.
Lilly invited me over to her apartment for the upcoming Sunday. Maybe we'll get to talk about it.
P.s.: I'm sorry if I opened up old wounds with my question. That wasn't my intention. I must admit that I am rather curious now, although I also feel a bit reluctant since I feel I'd be prying into the private life of one of my former classmates. Maybe I'll give it a try this weekend, if for no other reason than to be a good librarian.
From: Hiroyuki Satou
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Computer aptitude
Date: Wed, 17 Sep 2008 22:48:42
That is good to hear. If you would like a copy of any of our titles for previewing purposes, please do not hesitate to let me know. I could leave some of them at Lilly's place when my wife and I drop by next Saturday.
I am very grateful for your offer to help regarding the issue of Lilly learning to use a laptop. I think it goes without saying that it would serve little purpose to take part in something that does not involve Lilly's full cooperation, but learning the basics of computer use is also something that Lilly wants, even if she herself does not know it yet. It may involve some adaption on her side at first, but it is sometimes necessary to endure some short-term hardships in order to make a positive difference in the long run, and the long run is what is important here.
Lilly has stated a desire to be independent, but technological progress will go on whether it is convenient for her or not. If she cannot adapt to changing times, her independence will be a mere temporary thing. She also wants to be an English teacher, but it is unlikely that next generation's school children will take their teacher seriously if that teacher gets uncomfortable when anything more technologically advanced than a typewriter is brought up. Expecting her to become an expert would not be reasonable, but she should know the basics. Can you imagine life without a phone? We might be in a similar position regarding a computer in less than a decade. With that in mind, one could argue that Lilly indirectly desires to keep up with the times as well. Anything else would be a contradiction.
My wife and I will be sure to bring the subject up this weekend. Perhaps she will talk to you about it when you visit. Your reassurance might help.
Thank you once again.
P.s.: Do not worry about old wounds. Your question was not unreasonable. If you wish to form your own opinion there is no need to be afraid of many 'spoilers'. If you do decide to read it, do not be afraid to share your opinion of the piece.
To: Hiroyuki Satou
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Computer aptitude
Date: Thu, 18 Sep 2008 7:57:26
Dear Mister Satou,
You make some good arguments and I can't really think of any way to refute them. Let's hope Lilly feels the same way about things. If she does, I'll do my best to help her. If she brings it up next Sunday, I'll be sure to tell her.
P.s.: I think I'm going to give the book a try. It gives me something to do during the train ride. I'll let you know my impressions.
To: Hiroyuki Satou
Subject: Computers continued
Date: Mon, 22 Sep 2008 7:20:52
Dear Mister Satou,
Lilly and I had a talk about the laptop issue yesterday, and she has decided to give it a try, meaning I'll do whatever I can to help her out. Please let me know what I can do.
P.s.: I've read the book we discussed earlier during my trip to and from Lilly's apartment. I'm still not completely sure what to think about it. I started reading the book with the expectation of getting a little glimpse into Shizune's family life, but the book focusses almost completely on the author's career, and his family is barely brought up at all. That disappointed me a little bit. The book feels... a bit odd. There's something... over the top about the person it's about. I can't really explain it very well. When I first saw the picture on the back, I thought he worked in the business of manufacturing katanas instead of consulting. After finishing, the picture strangely seems more fitting. I'm still trying to figure out what exactly to think about it, but I think the word 'unique' is very appropriate here.
From: Hiroyuki Satou
Subject: Re: Computers continued
Date: Mon, 22 Sep 2008 22:15:11
Lilly has also let us know that she is indeed willing to give our proposal a trial run. My wife and I were planning to send the laptop to Yamaku so you can take your time getting to know how the device operates. Since Lilly will be largely operating it with her voice, it is probably worth your time getting familiar with the speech recognition software. The software requires you to go through a few 'training sessions' in order to let it get used to your voice, tone and inflection. I suggest creating a profile for yourself and see what it is like to operate the computer through the microphone as well as going through documents or internet sites using the text-to-speech feature.
Good luck and thank you once again.
P.s.: Over the top is actually a very apt description of both the book and its author. The fact that his home life is somewhat left out actually worked in the book's favor in my opinion. Words can tell you many things, but sometimes the absence of words can speak volumes as well, and some things are simply better off away from the public spotlight. As for the sword; he apparently hails from a rather upstanding and well-regarded family, and if I recall correctly, the katana is a family heirloom. It is, however, also my belief that the man uses it as a compensation mechanism.
To: Hiroyuki Satou
Subject: Re: Re: Computers continued
Date: Thu, 25 Sep 2008 12:20:38
Dear Mister Satou,
Good news. The laptop arrived at noon. I'm eager to play around with it a bit. I think I'm going to ask my friend Jun to look at it together with me. She's really good with computers, and if there's something I can't figure out, it's very likely that she'll know what to do.
The only question I still have is how long I have before I'm expected to return the computer. Did you have a specific moment in mind?
P.s.: You make a good point about Shizune's family life. I was hoping for a few amusing or interesting pieces of information, but if there was anything bad about it, I wouldn't want to read about it in a book. I'd want her to let me in on something like that herself, or else I'd rather not know it at all.
From: Hiroyuki Satou
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Computers continued
Date: Thu, 25 Sep 2008 22:27:30
Good to hear that the system arrived safely. The system administrator mentioned to me that an e-mail account has already been set up and that a complete list of voice-triggered macros is present in the documents folder on the hard drive. I apologize for asking this of you, but would it be possible to print out the contents of the documents folder at Yamaku's copyshop as Braille versions? Regrettably we do not have conversion software or a Braille embosser at hand here or at work and some printed instructions may be of great help to Lilly.
As for how long you can take; I have no timeline in mind although it would probably be best to have everything over and done with by the time your mock exams are set to take place. A busy time is coming up for you and your assistence to Lilly should never come at the expense of your performance at school. You should not ever allow yourself to lose sight of your priorities.
P.s.: I realized after my last mail that my previous postscript may have been open to misinterpretation. I did not mean to imply that the man uses that katana as a compensation mechanism for a lack of... physique. To clarify: the part of the book that I considered the most offensive is the part where he voices the expectation of his book having inspired 'Tomorrow's Japan' to be the best they can be, presumably addressing those of your generation.
Our country has a rich culture and many proud traditions that today's youth could use as inspiration. If someone were to ask me what I would consider some of the most valuable Japanese traits, I would name politeness, good manners, respect for one's elders and humility. Someone with a true Japanese soul displays impeccable behavior and politeness towards others, does not run one's mouth, remains humble even after great accomplishments, does not boast, is respectful towards his or her seniors and does not go out of one's way to draw attention to oneself.
The author unfortunately possesses none of these traits (a true Japanese would not even consider tooting his own horn in print, especially not at that age) and so he compensates for that lack of traditional traits by parading a katana around like the neighborhood's oldest otaku. I would hazard a guess that my own wife has a stronger Japanese streak than he does. I apologize for my uncouth assessment of the man, but you would probably agree if you met him in person.
To: Hiroyuki Satou
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Computers continued
Date: Thu, 25 Sep 2008 22:35:48
Dear Mister Satou,
I don't think printing out the documentation in Braille will be a problem here, seeing how much we print out in Braille on a monthly basis at the club. I'll be sure to make a note of it so I won't forget it.
As for my schedule; Jun and I intend to start studying for the mock exams near the end of October, at which time I'll also start toning down my activities on behalf of the library. That means we'll have about a month for this, though I expect we won't need more than a week if we really dive into it during the upcoming weekend.
I'll let you know how things go.
Lilly's laptop update
Mon, 29 Sep 2008 12:35:11
Dear Mister Satou,
Jun and I have spent several days and most of the weekend getting to know the laptop and we're now at a point where we can (with some effort) perform some basic tasks without looking at the screen even once. (which is good since it remains a bit awkward to use the keyboard with all those Braille stickers on top of the keys) We've had a lot of fun working with this.
I wanted to know what you wanted to do now. Am I supposed to send the laptop and documentation back to you? Please let me know how you want to go about this.
P.s.: I've almost finished a new order for the library that includes several of your recommendations. I now have additions to the fantasy, science fiction, thriller, romance and drama sections, but I'm still trying to find some new material for the comedy section. Is there anything you can suggest, even if it's not part of the most recent catalog?
From: Hiroyuki Satou
Subject: Re: Lilly's laptop update
Date: Mon, 29 Sep 2008 22:02:44
That is truly good to hear. Thank you for getting it out of the way this quickly. Be sure to extend my thanks to Miss Yamazaki as well.
My wife and I would like to take the opportunity to spend a few days to also familiarize ourselves with the computer. My wife has an appointment at Yamaku later this week and will be able to pick up the laptop while she is there. While the computer is at our home we can simulate a remote session with you as well and see how easy it will be to address computer problems from a distance.
Let me know if this will work for you.
P.s.: Regrettably, no suitable titles from my company came to mind for the section that you spoke of in your last mail. We are expecting a title that you would probably like at the start of November. In the meantime, something from another publisher will have to fill that space. In fact, you have just given me an idea. May I ask if you have already categorized the three copies of the book we discussed in our earlier mails? If not, perhaps you should consider adding them to the library section that obviously still has space to spare, hmmm?
To: Hiroyuki Satou
Subject: Re: Re: Lilly's laptop update
Date: Tue, 30 Sep 2008 7:27:08
Dear Mister Satou,
Sure, that will work perfectly. Please let me know if she'd be willing to stay for dinner, so I can keep that in mind the next time I go shopping. I'm looking forward to her visit.
P.s.: I haven't categorized the books yet, but it might be difficult to put autobiographies in any of the fiction sections. A librarian is supposed to keep the library well-organized and I don't think I'm supposed to put books in sections they don't belong in.
From: Hiroyuki Satou
Subject: Re: Re: Lilly's laptop update
Date: Tue, 30 Sep 2008 7:27:08
I am certain that my wife will be more than happy to have dinner with you, and feel free to invite Miss Yamazaki along as well. This one will be on us, so please do not trouble yourself with the act of cooking, and let us return the favor. The idea is for her to stop by the day after tomorrow around 14:00 though she has no idea how long her appointment will take.
Please enjoy your dinner.
P.s.: One could argue that the comedy section would be the perfect place for the book. Did you yourself not describe it as 'over the top'? When looked at from a satirical point of view, the book's protagonist may actually be seen as amusing, rather than obnoxious since the reader no longer takes him seriously. People might actually enjoy the book more. It might be an interesting experiment. I think you should take some time to consider giving it a try for a week or so. There would be little harm in that.
To: Hiroyuki Satou
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Lilly's laptop update
Date: Tue, 30 Sep 2008 7:40:55
Dear Mister Satou,
I feel a bit bad about your wife visiting and me not being the best host I can be, but if you insist...
I don't think Jun would mind hanging out with us since she already knows your wife from before. I'll be sure to ask her if she has free time that day.
P.s.: I gave in and placed one of the books in the section you mentioned, just for a few days, but I feel rather bad about it as if I'm cheating on a test or stealing a cookie from the cookie jar.
To: Hiroyuki Satou
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Lilly's laptop update
Date: Fri, 3 Oct 2008 7:21:34
Dear Mister Satou,
Jun and I had a really good time together with your wife. Please be sure to thank her for me again for taking the two of us out to dinner. It was really tasty, and it was also good to see her again.
She said that you're planning to visit Lilly at her apartment this weekend and that we were invited as well to help you familiarize Lilly with her new laptop. Unfortunately, Jun already has plans to visit her home this weekend, but I was wondering if it would be okay to invite Hisao instead. He doesn't live too far away from Lilly's place, and it's been a while since I've last seen him. Is that okay?
P.s.: I'm not sure if you'll believe this, but the president of the literature club came by three days ago, and he ended up borrowing that book. When he returned it yesterday I asked him how he liked it, and he said it was cleverly written and a fun read. I was flabbergasted.
Anyway, your wife said yesterday that the Hakamichi family is one of the school's donors as well. With that in mind, I don't think I can afford to do anything that might cause the school trouble. If it were found out, I'd have no excuse, so I put it back in the non-fiction section. I hope you don't mind.
Oh, by the way, I finally got around to reading 'Sputnik Sweetheart'. Isn't that one of your favorite books? I liked it a lot.
From: Hiroyuki Satou
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Lilly's laptop update
Date: Fri, 3 Oct 2008 22:29:18
You can certainly invite Mister Nakai too. It would seem like a wasted opportunity not to go and see him while you are in town. Having a long-distance relationship must be tough enough as it is.
We will be in town rather early, so if you give my wife a call when you are about to arrive, we will be able to pick you up at the train station.
P.s: Very interesting what you said about the book. Very interesting indeed. It would almost be tempting to let the publisher know what gold mine he is ignoring. I do understand the school's position though, so perhaps what you did was for the best.
About Sputnik Sweetheart, it is indeed. I am glad you enjoyed it. Funny that you mentioned it. I recently finished 'Dance, Dance, Dance' by the same author. You liked that one, did you not? It was quite a good read if I say so myself.
Chapter 57 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:22 am
From: Lilly Satou
Date: Mon, 6 Oct 2008 19:17:01
Hello Hanako I am trying to get my first male to you has this one arrived safely love Lilly
To: Lilly Satou
Date: Mon, 6 Oct 2008 20:01:27
Hurray! Your first e-mail. I'm really proud of you! And I'm very honored to have been its recipient.
I have to mention that you forgot to add punctuation and carriage returns though. The software doesn't put those in place automatically. You're supposed to say things like period or new line in order to add them.
Also, the program seems to mix up homophones sometimes. It thinks you're trying to send men, rather than messages. It's supposed to recognize context, but it looks like it's not completely flawless yet. You can probably get around this one by using the word e-mail rather than mail.
Keep up the good work, and don't let these little errors discourage you. Nobody's perfect at something the first time.
To: Lilly Satou
Date: Tue, 7 Oct 2008 21:50:51
Are you getting a lot of mails already? I imagine that suddenly getting an e-mail address with your social circle would result in a literal flood of mails. I hope you're not overwhelmed.
I've been overwhelmed today. And rather stressed too. In fact, I'm having a bit of a headache right now. Yesterday, Miss Yumi gave me a rather drastic assignment for today. Another one of those challenges and a rather sadistic one this time. I had to wear my hair clip throughout my entire working day in the library. Miss Yumi argued that most people frequenting the library are already familiar with me by now and that my hair clip wouldn't make that much of a difference, but it did to me. I felt naked the whole time. I didn't get any shocked reactions from people, but things were awkward. Then again, maybe that was because I was awkward.
I suppose the point of today was that in the end nothing really happened, and I'm still alive and not suffering from a nervous breakdown. But I'm still feeling like I'm having a hangover.
Sorry, I'm just venting a bit.
To: Lilly Satou
Date: Wed, 8 Oct 2008 12:23:15
Thanks a lot for the kind phone call last night. I really did feel better afterwards, and I'm doing okay now. Things went back to normal a lot faster than I imagined. Also, about what you asked about yesterday; I haven't received any mail from your mother, but she did say last Thursday that she wanted to talk about something with Jun and me. Maybe something related to that mysterious appointment she had at the school. Jun offered to give her an account to our private forum, so maybe she'll talk about it there.
From: Lilly Satou
Subject: Re: Hi
Date: Wed, 8 Oct 2008 20:18:59
You are most welcome and it was good to talk to you. I also felt better after our phonecall so we both got something out of it.
Also I'm sorry if I sound spoiled to you but can you and I swap back to regular mail for our actual correspondence. I intend to keep practicing on the computer but you're the only person with whom I used to correspond in Braille and your letters are very special to me. I always imagine your voice in my head as I read your letters and now it feels jarring to hear your words spoken by a voice that is not yours. If possible I would like to keep receiving letters from you instead of just e-mails.
I hope that is okay with you.
Karla Satou wrote:
I'd like to thank Jun for creating an account for me here. I hope a fourth account on these forums won't cause bad luck around here.
For Naomi's information; I visited Yamaku last Thursday and had dinner with Hanako and Jun. I asked them if they'd be willing to help me out with something I'm working on.
I have a confession to make. I wasn't merely at Yamaku last Thursday to pick up Lilly's laptop, but also to have a little interview with the principal and several staff members. I'm currently working on an article about Yamaku and schools just like it. It will eventually be submitted to a magazine that has agreed to publish it when it's finished. Part of the research involves asking students and alumni of these schools a few questions.
I've attached a document with some questions to this post. If you'd be willing to look it over, fill in the questions and send it back to me either through mail or by posting it here, that would be greatly appreciated.
Naomi Inoue wrote:
That's unexpected. Nice to see our sponsor here.
Hanako Ikezawa wrote:
Hello Karla and welcome.
You seem to be keeping really busy, between this article and that biography you're working on with that co-worker in Scotland. Don't you get overwhelmed sometimes?
Karla Satou wrote:
Hi Naomi. Nice to talk to you again. I hope you're doing well. And Hanako, believe it or not, but I enjoy keeping busy. Back in my days as a journalist I was juggling multiple projects all the time. I'd like to think I have a fairly good idea of where my limits for work-related stress lie. I think a little bit of hecticness makes me feel alive. Weird, huh?
Jun Yamazaki wrote:
But not particularly inconvenient for a journalist.
Naomi Inoue wrote:
I'm doing pretty well. Cram school isn't Yamaku, but there's still some nice people there. I caused my fair share of awkward moments already though.
We've spent the last few months experimenting with my medication in preparation for exam season. It hasn't always been pretty. I hope we can come up with a definite 'diet' before the end of the year. I know the school is a bit worried about that. Anyway, I'll take a look at your questionaire tonight.
Karla Satou wrote:Naomi, if it's okay with you I'd like to hear more about your experiences. You can put it under 'additional comments' near the bottom. Or we can talk about it directly.
Jun Yamazaki wrote:The results of those questionaires won't be included in the article directly, will they?
Karla Satou wrote:They won't be. They're merely for my own information.
Hanako Ikezawa wrote:I've filled in the form and sent it.
Jun Yamazaki wrote:Me too.
Naomi Inoue wrote:Make that three. Though I kind of expected the question list to be longer.
Karla Satou wrote:It's easier to get people to participate if they don't have to spend an entire evening filling in the form. I can only cram so much information into one article anyway. Anyway, thank you very much. I appreciate the time the three of you took.
Jun Yamazaki wrote:It was my pleasure. It's a shame we can't do more. This is essentially an article about us, isn't it?
Karla Satou wrote:I guess in a way it is.
Naomi Inoue wrote:
Isn't there anything else we can do? Maybe we can help out with the writing in some way or another.
Jun Yamazaki wrote:
Naomi, she's a former journalist. I think she'll manage without our help.
Karla Satou wrote:I'm honored by the offer, and I would have let you girls come along for the ride if it wasn't for the fact you have mock exams coming up in about a month. It's important that the three of you focus on your studies.
Hanako Ikezawa wrote:You really would have let us help?
Karla Satou wrote:Uhuh. I'm always willing to help inspire people with whom I share an interest in writing. But your school comes first.
Naomi Inoue wrote:
But some additional inspiration might help us study better and do better on our exams.
Karla Satou wrote:
But you won't be doing better on your exams if you spend the majority of the upcoming weeks helping out with something that's not related to any of the things your exams will be about.
Hanako Ikezawa wrote:Spending all our time on this wouldn't be smart, but if you'd welcome our help then how about we pick one day to help you out and focus on our studies the rest of the time?
Karla Satou wrote:Just one day? Well, I guess that can't hurt, though I should stress that I'd reserve the right for myself to have the final word on all content.
Jun Yamazaki wrote:That sounds fine to me. Please let us know what you want us to do and post the material we have to work with here.
Karla Satou wrote:
I usually prefer not to do this sort of thing online unless there's a continent between me and my co-workers. If you're only going to spend one day working with me, we should go out of our way to be as efficient as possible. What I'd like to propose is this: I'm going to focus completely on collecting as much data as possible during the upcoming 1.5 weeks, and during next week's weekend the four of us can work on sorting and processing all the data and get a basic outline done. The three of you can catch a train after your classes on Saturday and have dinner at our place. We'll try to get the outline out of the way that evening so we can do the data processing and perhaps make a start with an early draft on Sunday. Since my husband will be visiting with Lilly on Sunday, we'll have the place to ourselves most of the day. After dinner on Sunday, the three of you can catch a train and dive into your studies with new-found motivation.
Jun Yamazaki wrote:That's quite an offer. I'm up for it if the rest is as well. So we'll be spending the night at your place? Is that okay?
Karla Satou wrote:Don't worry about that. We have enough space to accommodate you. I set up our attic as my own private office where the four of us can work. I have my own desktop PC, my laptop and a typewriter we can work on. Let me know if you're going to bring your laptop, Jun, or if I should try and arrange one.
Hanako Ikezawa wrote:
This sounds like it'll be fun. Thank you for having us, Karla.
Jun Yamazaki wrote:I'll bring my own laptop along. No need to accommodate us further. Thank you.
Karla Satou wrote:It's a deal then. Don't forget to study hard until then, okay?
Naomi Inoue wrote:
Naomi Inoue wrote:
Whoohoo! Looking forward to it!
Naomi Inoue wrote:
Comeback time for The Broken Quills!
Jun Yamazaki wrote:Naomi, you know you can edit your posts, right? No need to triple-post.
Sapporo4ever has logged on.
How are things?
I'm playing online chess against Hisao right now.
How is he? And should I come back later?
No need. The game is almost over. And he's doing pretty well. Apparently he's been asked by his teacher to take part in some special activity next month together with a few others in his class. It's a real honor, and I'm happy for him.
When I asked whether you were busy, I was actually wondering whether you were busy these days rather than busy right now. Exam season is getting closer, isn't it?
I'm slowly phasing out my librarian work. This month I'm having Wednesdays off. I use them to keep up with my studies. I also spend most of my evenings studying nowadays.
I heard that my family's been keeping you occupied as well.
Oh, the laptop? It wasn't that bad. We picked it up fairly quickly, and I haven't had to take over Lilly's computer so far. I think the documentation we printed out for her was pretty helpful. She's already sending her first mails.
Yeah, I got one myself a few days ago. It was still kinda unrefined, but that's to be expected when you're just starting out.
Yes. It'll be okay as long as long as she keeps practicing. Do you know of any other people she's already mailed?
Not really, and I haven't given her e-mail address to anyone else either. Lilly's probably still a little insecure about her mailing skills, and she probably wants to practice with the people she's closest to rather than risk sending overly rough mails to people she doesn't know that well and leave a bad impression on them. I think just trying this out with you and me is already taxing on her pride.
I think so, too. I've been trying to give her constructive feedback while keeping a neutral tone.
Good call. Imagine what would happen if Shizune got her hands on her e-mail address and sent her a snippy 'Welcome to the 20th century.' message. My poor sister would probably lose sleep over that kind of interaction.
By the way, do you think that text-to-speech software understands smilies in mails or would it just get confused?
We didn't test that. I think it would be confused, but you could try it sometime. Just tell Lilly in advance what you're going to do.
I'll keep that in mind.
My chess game has just ended. I lost.
It's okay. It was still fun. At least now I'm able to send quicker answers.
You're not gonna keep chatting with your boyfriend?
We don't really chat a lot during games. Just small talk most of the time. I think we do our actual bonding through the game itself and not through the accompanying chat messages. That's just the way things work for us.
I also heard that you and your writing club will be staying at our folks' place for a weekend.
Yes, your mother invited us to spend a day helping her with an article she's writing.
A little bit. This is much bigger than a school newspaper.
I hope you'll have fun. I'm sure I'll hear about it afterwards from either you or from Mom when she comes over.
Your mother's coming to Scotland again?
Yeah, a few days after your excursion. To visit head office and write a report for Dad with her view of the state of affairs here, to see her Scottish friends, to work on that biography together with her journalist friend and to engage in a pub crawl with me.
To 'bond'... or something. You can be my witness. If she gets carried away, then I'm NOT dragging her hammered ass back to my apartment. Her friends can take that one.
Hahaha. It'll probably be fine. She's Scottish. She can hold her liquor.
I've learned that that's a bit of a generalisation, but who knows...
Anyway, I don't expect anything to come out of it, but it's against my core convictions to turn down free beer even if it means I have to put up with my old lady crashing on the couch in my apartment.
Speaking of your apartment; did you end up making a decision about getting a new place?
It turned out to be a harder decision than expected.
You and Yuichi weren't sure yet whether you were ready to move in together?
It's not really that. We decided our relationship was stable enough to give it a try. But between the two of us we earn enough to get ourselves an actual home, rather than a mere apartment. That's one thing I've come to like about the UK. Houses are cheaper, and there's more space than the residences in Japan. We can actually have people over now. But getting a home means we'll have to decorate and furnish the whole place, too, since our current sets of furniture clash a bit style-wise.
So lot's of shopping ahead then?
Yeah. I've been getting lots of spam lately with offers for kitchens here. For a little while I'm not gonna delete that stuff on sight.
Were you hesitant to make the move out of practical concerns?
Not too much. It's mostly that when you get your own place and furnish the whole thing, it means you intend to be living there for at least a couple of years. It felt a bit awkward setting our lives in stone like that.
But you're happy living in Scotland, right? I didn't get the impression you and your boyfriend had a lot of trouble acclimitizing.
We've had our share of faux pas and misunderstandings from time to time, but they fortunately weren't all that common despite the fact that Japanese and Western culture are pretty different from one another.
I suppose having a Scottish parent gave you an edge.
I used to think so too, but now that I've lived here for slightly over a year I don't think that's really the case anymore.
Lilly told me once that your parents made sure that you two knew your Scottish side.
They taught us to speak English, sure, and Mom used to read us Scottish folk tales and stuff, but our upbringing itself was decidedly Japanese. I found out that I'm not really any less prone to cultural missteps than my boyfriend despite having a Scottish parent. What made the biggest difference in the end has been the fact that many people at the office were already fairly familiar with Japanese culture through Mom and Dad and have been doing their best to be accommodating towards Yuichi and me.
I suppose, though it gave me a very mixed feeling.
Why? Were they being patronizing?
No, not at all. They were treating us... like Japanese who moved here. Which was perfectly logical and Yuichi seemed fine with it. But it made me feel weird.
I think that for a large part of my life I've been 'American', 'English' or Scottish' to most people, depending on the topographical savvy of those around me. I came to feel that way too at some point. I certainly didn't feel Japanese. I used to wonder if I'd fit in better if we had been living in Scotland instead. But when I moved here and started working at head office, people immediately started viewing me as a Japanese. In Japan, you're a Scot. In Scotland, you're a Japanese. Weird, huh?
Is that why it was hard to make a decision on settling down there?
Kinda. Don't get me wrong, I do like it here in many ways. I like my job, my colleagues, my friends and my my relationship, but there are still some times when I feel like a fish out of the water, even after all this time. I'm just not sure whether I can unequivocally call Scotland a real home, despite my initial expectations.
Did you talk with Lilly about this?
I did. With Yuichi too.
What did they say? Lilly's a bit in the same boat as you are, isn't she?
Yuichi said that I should just hang back and let things fall into place of their own. Kind of a non-answer, but I can't expect him to solve this particular puzzle for me. As for Lilly, I don't think she's quite in the same boat. She never wondered what part of her heritage contained the real her. She's a Japanese in heart and soul. Always been that way. She said that she thought I was simply looking for a place to belong, and that I already had such a place. I'm not sure if I share her optimism.
Is she talking about your family?
Yeah. I don't think she's trying to nudge me into moving back, but she IS trying to convince me not to give Mom the silent treatment when she comes over.
Just doing a bit of bar hopping probably can't hurt.
A buncha pints isn't exactly good enough to compensate for years and years of screwups. I like beer, but not to THAT degree.
But it's a start.
I guess so.
Let me know how it goes, okay?
Sure thing. See ya around.
Chapter 57 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:23 am
Monday October the 27th
I promised to write you about last weekend as soon as I got the opportunity. It's Monday morning as I'm typing this, and I hope I can get this letter printed and mailed before my shift starts. (yawn) With luck it should arrive the next day.
First of all, I hope you had a good time last Sunday with your father visiting. I'm going to take his word for it that this visit was indeed already planned, and he didn't merely leave because he didn't want to get in our way.
Jun and I took the train to your parents' town immediately after Jun's last class. I fortunately managed to arrange for someone to watch the library in my absence. The three of us arranged to meet up at one of the stopover stations so Naomi wouldn't have to take the whole trip by her lonesome. After our meetup we had a quick snack and then took the train to your parents' home. Your mother was waiting for us at the usual place when we arrived.
We had some very tasty dinner, courtesy of your mother, and we had a bit of opportunity to catch up. Naomi had some interesting news. She's considering taking the Center Test and her entrance exams at Yamaku this year. Apparently her cram school's been voicing concerns about her due to her still having seizures from time to time even though she's changed her medication to something that decreased the frequency of her episodes. They brought up the possibility of taking her finals at Yamaku and offered to look into that. Your mother rather scathingly noted that the cram school's probably less worried about Naomi's well-being than they are about the hit its reputation might take if one of their students ends up disrupting an official exam. There's probably some truth in that, though personally I wouldn't mind at all if she came here to take the exams.
After dinner, Naomi and Jun were given a quick tour of the house that culminated in us getting settled in your mother's attic office, that was quickly dubbed the 'editorial office'. Your mother first spent some time telling us what exactly she would and would not cover in the article and giving us a brief look at the materials she gathered. Then we spent about two hours getting an outline ready before calling it a night. Your mother said she'd often pull all-nighters when writing articles, but Naomi's supposed to maintain a steady day-and-night rhythm, and we decided not to disrupt that.
Our stay hit a bit of a bump when Naomi said she wanted to take a soak in your parents' bathroom. Naomi's not allowed to bathe unsupervised because she'd drown if she had a seizure, and Jun's not allowed to be the supervising person because a thrashing Naomi could injure her. So the idea was thrown into the group to take a soak with the three of us, and I had to decline. I felt like a real spoilsport even though Naomi and Jun acted understanding.
In order to make up for it, I agreed to let Naomi and Jun sleep in my room for the night. (we put three futons on the ground for that purpose) I think we spent nearly two more hours talking, or rather it was Naomi talking with Jun and me occasionally chipping in, before we went to sleep. It probably wasn't very responsible, but it was rather fun. My very first slumber party.
After having breakfast the next day, we spent nearly six hours working non-stop to sort out and categorize all the information, and at the end we had a rough draft version of nearly half the article already. It was hard work, but it was nice to work together on something again after nearly a year. It felt a lot like the old newspaper club meetings or those nights the three of us spent working on pieces to submit to writing competitions. I've definitely had my nostalgic fix from this weekend for the time being.
We concluded our stay with another dinner and having to swear a solemn oath to your mother to give our upcoming exams a full 200 percent. (no pressure) We spent the first part of the train ride travelling together before saying goodbye to Naomi. And now I'm back at Yamaku, watching the mock exams slowly get closer and planning to get at least five hours of studying a day this week. One consolation is that it'll be almost impossible to do worse than I did last year.
Wish me luck.
P.s.: Your mother briefly mentioned that you might be getting an opportunity to take part in an activity at your faculty, but she didn't want to elaborate when I asked what it was about and seemed quick to dismiss the subject. Can you tell me more? Or is it still a secret?
Karla Satou wrote:I thought I'd post a quick thank you to everyone for their efforts last weekend. I hope you all had fun. I know I did. I think your participation has contributed to the quality of the final version. I hope you will show the same dedication in the preparations for the upcoming exams.
Naomi Inoue wrote:
Hi Karla. I had a blast this weekend.
Very motivated right now!
Hanako Ikezawa wrote:
Hi Naomi. It was really fun to see you again and work together again last weekend. I had a really good time.
Have you already heard something about your exams?
Naomi Inoue wrote:Apparently Yamaku had no issue with it. It seems it's not the first time alumni with special needs return to do their entrance exams there.
Karla Satou wrote:I don't want to start a rant here, but I feel very mixed about this. If they're so worried about you getting a seizure during exams, why don't they ask the nearby university where you're set to take the tests to let you take the exams in a separate classroom with a teacher to keep an eye on you and instructions about how to deal with seizures on hand? It can't be that hard.
Jun Yamazaki wrote:Maybe they feel embarrassed about making that kind of request from the university. Or maybe they'd need to request a second official proctor just for Naomi.
Naomi Inoue wrote:Hey Karla, I get what you're saying, but I don't really mind myself. A lot of people I know from the newspaper club will be doing their exams this year, including Hanako and Jun. I think it's cool that I can be there to wish them good luck. In fact, I was wondering if I'd be able to get away with doing the last stretch of studying there too.
Jun Yamazaki wrote:That might get you into trouble since you're not a student here anymore and most teachers probably still remember you.
Hanako Ikezawa wrote:But it's not like she'd be doing any harm by studying together with us. It could be just an extended visit. And we could see to it that Naomi gets enough sleep per day.
Naomi Inoue wrote:
I'd need a place to sleep though. Are you offering me your room? What will your boyfriend say?
Hanako Ikezawa wrote:If you brought your own futon then maybe.
Jun Yamazaki wrote:
Naomi having to spend the night in Hanako's room. That brings back memories.
Naomi Inoue wrote:
Screw you so much, Jun.
Karla Satou wrote:
Well, you already slept in her room last weekend.
Jun Yamazaki wrote:It'd probably be okay for you to use my room from time to time as well, just so Hanako can maintain a bit of privacy.
Hanako Ikezawa wrote:We could use the library as a cramming room in the evening. I've already been using it for that purpose for months. The beanbags are also just large enough to comfortably curl up on.
Jun Yamazaki wrote:
And I thought you actually sleeping in the library from time to time was just a silly rumor.
Hanako Ikezawa wrote:
There are rumors?
Jun Yamazaki wrote:So is this a serious idea, Naomi?
Naomi Inoue wrote:
I like it. I'll talk to my parents about it. I hope they'll agree. I could spend January and February studying with you guys. We could make our graduation an official Broken Quills project.
Naomi Inoue wrote:
BTW guys, Natsume says hi.
Karla Satou wrote:Are you still in contact with her, Naomi?
Naomi Inoue wrote:
We try to have one phone conversation a week to keep each other in the loop. By the way, she pointed something out last night that made me think. She said that if I were to bring my friends over to her house, her parents wouldn't just let me spend the night there with you guys, even though they know me fairly well. I never thought much about it, but not many people I know would just let a friend of their daughter bring along their friends and sleep over without the daughter even being present. And I think Mister Satou referred to the room we slept in as 'Hanako's room'. What's up with that? Is it Scottish hospitality?
Jun Yamazaki wrote:To be honest I was wondering about that as well.
Naomi Inoue wrote:Anybody?
Naomi Inoue wrote:Hello?
Naomi Inoue wrote:
Naomi Inoue wrote:Very suspicious.
Jun Yamazaki wrote:
^ Edit button! Do you see it?
Karla Satou wrote:
Sorry for the delay. I'm in Scotland right now and staying at my oldest daughter's place. The trip took me an entire day, and I didn't get around to setting up my laptop yet. Anyway, I'd like to say that last weekend was simply due to me being an honorary member of your club (or that it's Scottish hospitality
), but Hanako is also in a special position. You could say that she's an official friend of the family. I hope that answers the question. Anyway, I might not be able to reply for some time. I'll be here for less than a week, and I have truckloads to do while I'm here. I'll be finishing up our article while I'm in Inverness, and I'll be sending it to the publishing magazine through mail. When the next issue comes out, I'll be sure to send the three of you a copy.
Naomi Inoue wrote:
Jun Yamazaki wrote:
Yes, thank you.
Hanako Ikezawa wrote:
Sapporo4ever has logged on.
How are things?
My head hurts. Good thing it's Saturday morning right now, and I don't need to work.
Is this a result of your 'pub crawl' with your mother? That was yesterday, wasn't it?
Yeah. We had dinner after I got off work, and then we went into town. Man, the old lady can really hold her liquor. Maybe Yuichi being such a wuss with alcohol caused me to let my guard down.
So she beat you?
Dunno. She left early this morning because she still had a lot to do. Her flight back is only three days away. If she's feeling the way I'm feeling right now, it might still be a tie. I don't think it's just the alcohol though, but also the evening itself.
So how did it go? You didn't get into a fight, did you?
Dunno. Somewhere along the line. It was mostly talking. It was probably somewhere around the third pub that we got into an argument about the usual stuff. She said she wanted to have a serious talk with me. We bought a bottle of Scotch to go and took a walk. We ended up at the marina where we sat down on a bench facing the bay.
And you had a talk there?
Not sure if it was a talk. It was mostly her talking and me listening.
About you and her?
About lotsa stuff. Mostly about our family.
You know, while we were there she
For being such crappy parents... for leaving Lilly behind in Japan...
I don't know what to say.
I'm not sure either.
This is a good thing, isn't it?
Not sure. I mean it doesn't really change all that much. What happened happened and no apology is gonna change the past, is it?
Miss Yumi told me many times that I shouldn't let the past get in the way of the future.
My therapist at Yamaku.
I think I remember her. The old granny with the violet shawl?
And your therapist would want me to forgive Mom and Dad?
She's never that direct with me. She usually tries to nudge me towards certain actions instead of telling me to do things. Unless I have those assignments.
Like attending the school festival or visiting some tourist attractions on my own. That or spending a day behind the library desk without my hair obscuring the right side of my face. That was kind of bad. She said that I'll get another assignment at my appointment tomorrow. I'm kind of nervous about it.
Given that last one, I can imagine.
She says it's to stretch my comfort zone. She believes that some of the best changes in my life came to be whenever I stretched my small comfort zone.
I think I know what she's talking about. The reason Yuichi and I got back together and are now about to move in together is because I apologized to him for dumping him without giving him an opportunity to make a choice for himself. That was hard, and it really, really bruised my ego, but I think I wanted our relationship to be mended badly enough to ignore my pride for a while. It was worth it.
It was probably even harder for your mother to apologize, but I think she wanted a better relationship with you badly enough to also put her pride aside for a moment.
I suppose so. She insisted that history doesn't always repeat itself and that things are different now. But forgiveness isn't that easy to get. Even Lilly confided in us last year that she still hadn't completely forgiven our folks yet.
But Lilly's still trying to improve her relationship with them. It's easier to forgive people you feel close to. And I think they've made a sincere effort this year to be better parents to Lilly. I don't think you need to forgive them, but maybe you can reciprocate in a smaller way.
I dunno. Maybe. Mom invited me to come and celebrate New Year with them again at the end of the year. I'll already be with Yuichi's parents during Christmas, but New Year's day is still free. Maybe I could come over and make an effort to simply have a fun day. As in a real effort.
I think that would be a very good start.
Did you already get an invitation?
Well, you were there last year, and it wasn't all bad, was it? There were some awkward moments, but I don't think I was the only person who was glad that you were there as well. I expect Mom and Dad will invite you too sooner or later. You should give it some consideration.
I, for one, would be happy to have you there. Think of it as an additional motivator for me to go there as well.
I need to disconnect. I still have an hour of studying on my schedule, and I can't sleep in tomorrow because of my appointment.
Oh right, no problem. I'll just go and have a BLT sandwich. They're good hangover cures. And I'm keeping my fingers crossed the assignment won't be anything stressful. Maybe she'll just tell you to do well on your mock exams. They're less than two weeks away, aren't they?
Indeed. That would be a relief. I hope so.
Well, good luck with your studies. I know you'll do well, but I'll still keep my fingers crossed.
See ya. And good luck with the mock exams. You're gonna make it this year, mark my words.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:23 am
As I pass through the school gate, I stop for a moment and take a few deep breaths. Even though it's been two months since I started attending university here, the sheer size and especially the crowdedness of this campus still manage to overwhelm me. I kind of long for the quiet and cozy atmosphere of Yamaku at this point, but high school is a definite thing of the past now and something I can never return to.
Not wanting to be late, I pick up a steady pace and make my way to the journalism faculty.
"And that's all for today. Remember that this material will return in the upcoming tests, so study it carefully."
As the teacher walks out of the room, I take one more opportunity to compare my notes with the contents of the blackboard. After confirming that I've got all the important points down, I put my books and notebook away and my thoughts dwell on where to spend this lunch break. I'll probably settle for the area near the sports field again. As I'm making up my mind, I pick up pieces of conversation from the other people in class.
"Man, I'm glad it's lunch break. That guy just drones on and on."
"Hey, when are you going to return that book that I lent you?"
"Relax. I'll have it with me the day after tomorrow."
"Wanna stop by the shopping center later today?"
"Sure, why not?"
"Will we be staying here this lunch break or head down to the cafeteria?"
"I didn't bring my lunch today, so how about heading downstairs?"
"You already know what you want to eat?"
"I do. And how about having you-know-who get us some? To make up for the other day."
"You mean about the day before yesterday? You were really bugged by that? It was pretty obvious the teacher was just going through the motions. When we told him it was a misunderstanding and she simply took it the wrong way, the whole thing was quickly dropped."
"I know that. It's just that that silliness caused me to miss the bus I wanted to take, and I was late for an appointment in town."
"What a pain."
"It was. Shall we?"
Just as I'm about to get up from my seat, several of my classmates suddenly crowd around my desk, causing me to startle and quickly avert my eyes.
"Do you already know where you're gonna have lunch?"
I hesitantly shake my head. Even if I knew for sure, I still wouldn't let my classmates know where I go during lunch break.
"So you have no plans? Why not join us in the cafeteria? Also, could you buy us lunch today?"
"Well, you kind of owe us something from two days ago, remember? If you buy us something to eat for today, we'll call it even."
"I... d-d-didn't d-do anything."
"Huh? You're not trying to weasel out of this, are you?"
"I r-really d-didn't..."
"So the answer's no? I'm shocked."
I get four stares that seem to suggest I'm crazy for having to think about such a 'bargain' and I start feeling more stressed by the second. If I refuse, I'm not sure what'll happen. I look around the classroom, but the few people who are still here aren't paying us any attention. Eventually I sigh and manage a soft nod with extreme effort.
"Great. Just get us today's special. We'll be right there."
One of the others frowns.
"Today's special? How can you be so sure all of us will like that? Did you even check what it is today?"
"Hey, don't worry. I checked this morning. Trust me, you'll like it."
Their attention turns back to me.
"So... four times today's special. Got it? Attagirl."
I receive a playful slap on the back that causes me to let out a surprised yelp, resulting in a few amused looks.
"Hey relax. Didn't mean to startle you. You have ordered from the cafeteria before, haven't you?"
I manage another soft nod, pick up my stuff and quickly leave the classroom. As I walk down the hallway leading to the cafeteria, I realize that being pressured into paying for someone else's lunch gives me a feeling of déjà vu.
I just hoped that those days like at middle school were a thing of the past.
The four people who were at my desk just now were all people I already met before enrolling here, though I didn't know it at the time. They were there at the open house day two years ago as well and probably flunked their entrance exams the first time around just like I did. They did remember that spectacle though as well as the one who caused it.
I'm not even sure how they got my phone number in the first place. The first time my phone went off in the middle of class, I instantly had a flashback, lost my nerve under the attention and ran out of the room.
I initially thought it was just a one-time prank, but then it happened again. I stopped taking my cell phone to school with me, but someone then had the bright idea of setting up his or her cell phone with the same ring tone I used and letting it go off in class, causing all gazes to immediately focus back onto me.
Those were just the first few weeks.
That was just the start.
I don't know for sure what's going on, but I think some of my classmates got into trouble with the teacher over something like this. I told them the truth just now when I said I didn't do anything. But I think I know what happened.
Lilly probably called the school again.
Even though I begged her not to.
And now I'm being punished for that.
I wonder why they even waited a full day before retaliating.
I'm not sure if they're serious about dropping this if I just buy them lunch. It seems too easy, but if there's a chance to avoid more trouble, then I should probably take it.
At the cafeteria there's already a line forming at the counter, so I quickly join the queue while trying to avoid as much attention as possible.
"Can I help you?"
When it's finally my turn, I try to quickly place my order while blocking out the stare coming from the man behind the counter.
Just place the order. Get them their damn food and then get out of the building.
"T-T-Today's s-special, p-please. F-Four t-times."
My heart nearly leaps out of my throat, and my eyes grow nearly twice as large as I stare at the person behind the counter, wondering if I really heard that right. The man merely rolls his eyes.
"Today's special is fried shrimp. Would you like some?"
I swallow the lump in my throat and fight back my tears as I painfully nod my head. I can see the corners of his mouth twitching as he tries to maintain a neutral smile, but his eyes show amusement at my reaction. I shiver as I hear a few soft chuckles around me. They probably think this is pretty funny. Maybe it actually is pretty funny, and I'm just too messed up to 'get the joke'.
Now I know why they waited a whole day before pressuring me into this.
It truly is like middle school all over again.
The time it takes for my order to finish feels like forever, and the whole time I can feel several gazes piercing my back as if looking right through my clothes.
The meals eventually arrive, and I quickly pay for them, desperate to get out of here as quickly as possible. I walk around the cafeteria in search of my classmates, trying to steady my shaking legs. If I lose it here in the middle of the cafeteria, things'll be even worse. I'll just drop off these meals and then leave here. I need to be alone. Away from all this.
Just when I approach the place where I saw my classmates earlier, a loud noise coming from somewhere very close by startles me and causes me to promptly drop my tray. The noise itself was loud and distinct enough to draw gazes, but with the mess in front of me I'm immediately at the center of everyone's attention.
I need to get out of here!
I manage to keep myself together for long enough to realize that the sound is actually coming from my bag and frantically reach into it. The source of the noise turns out to be a cell phone.
That's not my cell phone. I don't even take my cell phone to school anymore. How did it get in there? When did they sneak in in there?
The second thing that pops into my mind is the thought that everyone staring at me is probably already thinking.
What kind of person uses a siren as a ringtone? Is it an ambulance's? Or something else's?
I try to flip open the phone to switch it off, but the phone's lid is kept shut with a strip of adhesive tape and my hands are shaking too much to scrape it off.
I need to get out of here!
The pressing atmosphere here is starting to suffocate me and in a fit of panic I hurl the source of the ruckus as far away from me as possible and dart out of the room and out of the building.
When I finally stop running, I find myself near the small substation building close to the sports field. Exhausted, both mentally and physically, I slump against the far side of the building and wait for my heart to stop racing. It does so eventually, but the utterly miserable feeling that comes in its wake isn't much better.
I should probably get back to clean up the food I dropped, but I don't have the nerve to do that in front of half the faculty.
I don't think I have the nerve to return there regardless.
I'll just wait until lunch break is over and then head back to the apartment.
Suddenly I hear voices, and when I peek around the corner I discover to my horror that my classmates have followed me here. I turn around and make an attempt to run, only to nearly collide with another of my pursuers who must have circled the building. Moments later the four of them have me surrounded and one of them gives me a quasi-jovial smile.
"You sure pick strange places to spend your lunch break."
"I thought we'd let you know that a cafeteria worker is cleaning up the mess you left right now. So no need to worry about that."
I don't think they came all the way here just to tell me that.
"Also, we've been thinking and maybe making that phone call while you were carrying that tray was kinda stupid. Heh, I might have dropped that stuff myself if I had been in your place. We really should have thought that through. So we decided not to hold the wasted food against you, and we won't expect you to buy us another round. I mean, it's just food, right?"
Somehow this is not putting me at ease. Despite the jovial tone of this one-sided conversation, the situation feels very threatening to me and I realize with dread that my decision to pick an isolated spot to retreat to is now working against me.
"We're not gonna hold the food against you, but there is another problem..."
I let out a cry, more from surprise than pain when my left arm is suddenly grabbed and twisted behind my back. The already artificial smile in front of me grows colder. Then, something is held out in front of me. It's the cell phone that was hidden in my bag. The one that I threw away in a panic and is now obviously no longer functional or even in one piece.
"We could have called it even back there, but you just couldn't leave well enough alone, could you? Fine, we played a little prank. It was just a harmless little joke. Anyone who has a sense of humor would have understood that. What do you think is worse? Startling someone for a bit in good humor or wrecking a cell phone worth 16000 yen?"
"Don't you think your reaction was a little disproportionate?"
"Because everybody else thinks it was."
Before I can finish thinking of a reply, the broken phone is put away, and another object is held out. Something that turns my anxiety from mere fright into pure terror.
It's a small lighter.
My classmate then takes out a pack of cigarettes, pulls one out and lights it.
"Do you know what your problem is?"
I start struggling, but then the hand holding my arm tightens its grip and I let out a soft whimper.
"Your problem is you're overreacting."
The cigarette is raised slightly, and I press myself back instinctively.
"You're always overreacting. To every single thing. From the time you first set foot here until several minutes ago in the cafeteria."
The cigarette is raised again until it's at eye level. The slightly glowing tip has to be one of the most frightening sights I've ever seen. My brain tries to insist that they wouldn't go this far. Something that'd leave marks like this would destroy the plausible deniability they've been hiding behind so far. But my gut tells me that I already have so many scars that most people wouldn't even notice a few extra ones. My breathing becomes frantic, and I start trembling as the person in front of me takes a drag and then dangles the cigarette in front of my face.
"In fact, you're overreacting even now."
A cloud of smoke is blown in my face, causing a heavy coughing fit.
I suddenly become aware of someone in the distance faintly calling my name, but none of my tormentors react.
"Bring 16000 yen for a new phone tomorrow."
"I don't care where you get them."
"Or else... We might be forced to start overreacting too."
Just when the lit cigarette is less than five centimeters from my cheek, my vision turns blurry and my mind fogs up. The only thing that remains is the voice.
"Hanako, are you alright?"
The clouds in my head slowly start clearing up and I notice someone in front of me. It's dark all around us, but the voice and the silhouette are familiar.
"Are you okay?"
"Uhhh... W-what? H... Hisao?"
"You were getting kind of restless in your sleep."
I squint as the lights are suddenly turned on. My thoughts are still a bit jumbled as my boyfriend sits down on the nearby couch and gives me a concerned look.
I manage a soft nod, but don't say anything.
"Can I get you something? A glass of water perhaps?"
I give another dazed nod, and my boyfriend walks off towards the kitchen area to fetch me something to drink.
"What... time is it?"
"Nearly half past two."
I hear Hisao rummaging through the cupboard, and moments later I hear the sound of water running from the tap. Hisao walks back, hands me the glass of water and then sits down next to me. Before I can take a sip, I hear another voice from across the room.
"Hanako? Hisao? Are you two... awake?"
"Oh, Lilly. I'm sorry, did I wake you up?"
"I wasn't asleep, Hisao. When I heard the sound of running water, I realized that at least one of you two wasn't either."
"I was just getting Hanako a glass of water. I think she had a bad dream just now."
Lilly walks up to the futon we're sitting on and sits down next to me. There's a concerned look in her eyes.
"Another bad dream, Hanako?"
"I... I think so..."
What exactly happened during the dream I just had is already becoming a blur in my mind, but it has nevertheless left a lingering feeling of severe depression and a faint feeling of dread.
"I kind of wonder if it's a good idea for you to go to Kasshoku tomorrow to begin with."
Lilly looks very uncomfortable at Hisao's suggestion.
"I don't think that giving up at this point is the right thing to do, Hisao. We've already come this far. Maybe after tomorrow, things will get better. Don't you think so, Hanako?"
"I'm... not sure."
If there was one thing that probably caused me to flunk my entrance exams the first time, it had to have been the dreams like the one I probably had just now. Most of the time I didn't exactly remember what they were about, but they always left me with a profound feeling of fear and anxiety whenever I thought about my time after Yamaku. I first started having them right after that incident in the lecture hall, but they lessened a bit after I started taking sleeping pills. After I passed the Center Test however, the nightmares came back with a vengeance, and they got worse the closer I got to the entrance exams and graduation day. The dosage of sleeping medication I was allowed to take didn't help anymore. I was terrified of going to sleep every night.
After Miss Yumi took me back to Yamaku and enrolled me in the ronin program, the bad dreams stopped. Until last week when Miss Yumi gave me my latest assignment. When I chatted with Akira earlier, we professed the hope that she'd simply tell me to do well on my mock exams, which are only a few days away. But it turned out that my therapist had other plans. This year, like last year, Kasshoku University is holding an open house day. In fact, Hisao will be one of the students participating in the workshops held at his faculty. Miss Yumi's assignment was straight-forward. Go back to the very place where I screwed up so badly last year, and attend the open house day once again.
Like a criminal returning to the scene of the crime.
I haven't had a peaceful night's rest ever since.
Eventually I ended up asking my friends for help, and Lilly invited me to stay at her apartment the night before the big event and also asked Hisao to stay over. She offered to accompany me on my upcoming ordeal and give me emotional support, which was probably what ended up convincing me to take the leap and come here. She only had one spare futon that we put in the living room for me to use while Hisao slept on the nearby couch. Last evening I could tell that Lilly was trying her best to make the atmosphere relaxing and comfortable for me as we spent time hanging out together, but I fear that by that time I was already such a nervous wreck that no friendly get-together would have been enough to ease my mood.
I'm seriously doubting my ability to make it through the upcoming day without having a nervous breakdown. With my luck I'll probably suffer one at the worst time and in the worst place possible.
Hisao rubs his forehead.
"Either way, it's probably best if we try to get a bit more sleep soon. We can't sleep in tomorrow."
Even though I feel tired, exhausted even, the prospect of going to sleep again and possibly having another nightmare is so unappealing that I can't resist a depressed sigh.
My boyfriend gives me an awkward smile that's probably meant to be reassuring.
"Maybe it would help if I sleep next to you instead of on the couch? You know... The Takawa remedy?"
Despite my despondent mood I can't resist rolling my eyes at Hisao using that term.
"You're... s-still calling it that?"
"You never came up with alternative descriptions."
Lilly lets out an amused giggle.
"You named the practice of sleeping next to each other after Hanako's therapist? How did that came to be or am I better off not knowing?"
"Don't get any weird ideas. It's nothing dirty. I had a conversation with Miss Takawa once and she mentioned to me that if Hanako was stressed or panicking, the best thing I could do was hold her close. Activities such as cuddling cause oxytocin to be released in the brain and help Hanako relax while lessening sensations like stress or fear. Oxytocin is a hormone that..."
Lilly grins playfully.
"I think I understand the general idea, professor Nakai."
"Uh yeah, anyway... We eventually started calling it the Takawa remedy."
"I... usually d-don't c-call it that."
Lilly gives us an amused smile.
"And is this... Takawa remedy... very effective?"
"It usually helps... a little bit. But... I'm not sure if it'll help this time."
"If it even helps a little bit then that's still better than nothing, right?"
"Lilly, we're going to try and get some more sleep. It's probably best if you do the same. We all have a big day ahead of us, and if we stay up for too long we're certain to oversleep. We already have to get up rather early."
"Alright, Hisao. Sleep well, you two."
"Goodnight Lilly. Could you switch off the light on your way, please?"
I hear a soft snick as the lights in the room are turned off. I lie down on my futon again and turn on my side. My boyfriend feels his way over to me and lies on his side behind me. I feel an arm wrap around me, pressing my body against his own. I take a deep breath and slowly exhale in an attempt to relax as much as possible. He places a gentle kiss on my cheek, and I feel his fingers tenderly stroking the side of my face.
I suddenly become aware of Lilly's voice nearby. She's kneeling right next to the futon Hisao and I are lying on.
She didn't return to her room after switching off the lights?
"Would it... be okay if I sleep here as well?"
"Would it be a problem?"
"N-No, I don't t-think so."
I let out a surprised gasp as Lilly, instead of lying down on the nearby couch as I was expecting, gets under the covers and snuggles up to me.
"Hey Lilly, I get that you want to do your part in giving Hanako support, but don't you think this is a little bit inappropriate?"
"Didn't you yourself say that there was nothing dirty about the Takawa remedy, Hisao?"
"H-Hisao... I think... it's okay. Just this once."
"If you say so."
We fall silent, and I feel Lilly's hand briefly stroke my hair before settling down on my shoulder. Then she gives me a quick kiss on the forehead. This feels a bit strange, but also a bit familiar. I'm suddenly reminded of that last day in Scotland, when Lilly and I took a bath, had a heart-to-heart talk and eventually shared a hug. Lilly's presence feels similarly soothing now. As the closeness and warmth of my best friends slowly causes my anxiety to change into weary comfort, I find my eyelids slowly growing heavier. As Lilly's and Hisao's breathing slows down to the steady rhythm of slumber, I close my own eyes and sink into a deep, dreamless sleep.