Page 9 of 22
Chapter 58 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:24 am
The sound of something, a phone or a doorbell, shakes me out of my slumber. I'm not sure if I had another bad dream or not, but I still feel a bit tired. I don't feel quite as bad as last night, but maybe that will change once my brain has woken up completely. I wearily open my eyes only to let out a soft cry at the sight of Lilly's face being a mere ten centimeters away from my own.
After a moment of confusion I remember going back to sleep last night, and I giggle awkwardly. Lilly's action was very sweet, but a little bit embarrassing too.
I don't hear a reaction from Hisao, so he's probably still asleep just like Lilly is.
Before I can doze off again, I hear a door opening, followed by the sound of voices.
"Hiro? Lilly's not in her room. I wonder if she's taking a bath, and that's why she didn't open up when we rang. Shall I check the bathroom?"
"Not necessary. I have already found her. It appears that she is still asleep and... hmmm... perhaps you should come and see for yourself."
"Huh? She's asleep in the living room? Is there a boy with her or something?"
"A boy... and a girl..."
I feel an uneasy sensation in the bottom of my stomach. I'm already awake enough to recognize those voices. They belong to Lilly's parents, and it seems that her father has already discovered us here. This is probably going to be awkward.
I decide to do what's probably for the best: pretend to be asleep and let Lilly handle all of this.
"Hahaha. Oh my, it seems we just stumbled into something scandalous."
"The actual scandal would be the fact that they are still asleep. This is an important day, and our daughter here is sleeping through her responsibilities."
"Then lets wake them up, shall we? My own mother often used the the good ol' ladle and frying pan combination to get people out of bed. It never failed to do the job. I've always wanted to wake someone up that way. This would be a perfect opportunity."
"It may be effective, but it is also a bit coarse and unrefined. I prefer a simpler approach."
I hear him clearing his throat.
I instantly reel a little, and I feel Lilly immediately stirring as well. Mister Satou didn't even raise his voice all that much, but his tone was one of an angry boss who just caught one of his underlings napping during crunch time. It's the kind of tone that would probably cause me to start stammering apologies before I even knew what I did wrong.
I open my eyes and throw a quick glance at the people standing in the room. Lilly's mother has an amused grin on her face, but Lilly's father looks a little dismayed. Behind me, Hisao rises up as well, and I hear him fidget.
"Mister and Mrs Satou. Uh... This isn't what it looks like."
Lilly's mother gives my boyfriend a teasing wink.
"You know Hisao... When people say those specific words, it's often exactly
what it looks like."
"Hanako had a nightmare last night, and we just wanted to...uh..."
Lilly's father gives a prolonged sigh.
"My wife is merely teasing you, Mister Nakai. Your sleeping arrangement is of less concern than the fact that Lilly was about to sleep through her obligations for today. Do you know what day it is?"
"Yeah, it's open house day at school. *yawn* I'm supposed to help out with a workshop at the faculty. Uh... What time is it anyway?"
Hisao looks around, only to remember that Lilly doesn't have any easily readable clocks in the apartment. Mister Satou checks his watch.
"It is almost a quarter past 8."
"What? Damnit! I'm supposed to be at the faculty in half an hour!"
"So... You too..."
"Never mind that. Mister Nakai, why not pay a quick visit to the bathroom and freshen yourself up? Do not take too long. You can hitch a ride with us and still be at the university in time."
Hisao gets up and quickly leaves the room. Next to me, Lilly's slowly rising to her feet as well, yawning as she does so. Something her father just said is bugging me, but I'm still trying to wrap my head around the Satous' sudden appearance. Lilly didn't mention that they'd drop by this morning.
Lilly's father gives his youngest daughter a scrutinizing look.
"Is it still too early in the morning for a proper greeting, Lilly?"
"I... apologize, Father. I'm happy to see you and Mother. Welcome. It's just that your appearance here caught me off guard. Weren't we supposed to meet up this evening?"
Lilly's mother smiles playfully.
"We changed plans and decided to attend your little performance... or performances. Hehe... maybe I'll write a review afterwards. No pressure, of course."
"A good thing we did or you might have overslept."
So it wasn't just Hisao who got involved in a faculty activity for today. But Lilly never mentioned this. Why not? Didn't she promise to accompany me today? What's going on?
"Ummm... L-Lilly... What p-performance?"
Lilly grimaces and suddenly looks cornered.
"The truth is, Hanako, that I was originally scheduled to participate in an activity at my faculty as well. When you called me earlier this week to tell me that Miss Takawa instructed you to visit the open house day today, and you mentioned you didn't want Hisao to come with you because he already had a workshop activity that you didn't want him to give up for your sake, I... decided not to bring up my original plans for today. I'm sorry."
"Y-You... c-canceled something f-for m-my sake?"
"I called a classmate and told him that some personal circumstances came up. I asked him if he'd be willing to fill in for me and he said that was okay. I'm sure he'll do a very good job in my place. Being here for you today is more important to me than the activity I was initially planning to help out with. This is my own choice."
I feel guilty about Lilly having made such a decision for my sake, though part of me also feels good that she's so committed to being by my side. Mister Satou, on the other hand, gives his daughter an angry scowl.
"And how much time did you take to carefully consider that choice, Lillian?! Do you realize what it is that you are so casually dismissing after all the effort that was put into it? Do you realize what your classmates will probably think of you afterwards? What effect this will have on your reputation?"
Lilly cringes at every word from her father. I'm a little taken back by how fierce his response to the news of Lilly's change of plans is and the same is probably true for her. After fidgeting a bit, Lilly recomposes herself.
"I... I am hoping that they will be understanding, Father. I was... hoping that you would be understanding as well."
"I am understanding. But I still insist that you call your classmate and tell him that you have changed your mind. I do not think Hanako would want you to do this if she knew the whole context of the situation."
"L-Lilly... I... I think I'll... b-be okay on m-my own."
Lilly's mother gives me a concerned look.
"I don't think that sounded very convincing, dear."
Mister Satou's look softens a bit as he addresses his daughter again.
"Lilly, nobody in here doubts your ability to function as a pillar of emotional support to others, but what if something happens that... triggers Hanako's apprehensions? Will you be able to quickly get her out? Will you even notice in time? For whose benefit is this really?"
While there's no accusing tone in Mister Satou's voice this time, Lilly looks more hurt by his words this time than during the scolding she received moments ago. As much as I hate to admit it, I can't deny that there's probably some truth to his words. If something happens, and I start panicking and need to get away, Lilly's usual pace would be a hundred times too slow for me, and from the looks of it, Lilly also realizes this and it stings her.
A painful silence follows, but Mister Satou eventually exchanges a long look with his wife. Just as I start wondering what's going through their minds, Lilly's parents share a short mutual smile and Karla gives her husband a brief nod, which is promptly returned. Then she turns to me.
"Hanako... I think it's still a good idea if someone comes with you to offer a bit of reassurance in case you need it. Would you mind if I came along with you instead of Lilly?"
Lilly looks genuinely baffled.
Lilly's father nods.
"Yes, I will attend the activities at the English faculty on behalf of both of us, and my wife will accompany Hanako for today. Hanako, do not be afraid that you are imposing on her. It is a journalistic faculty after all, so she will probably enjoy the experience."
"How about it, Hanako? Can I go with you for today?"
I give Lilly an unsure look.
A tiny smile is visible on Lilly's face.
"I'm okay with it if you are, Hanako. I... I have faith in Mother."
"Uh... O-okay then."
Lilly's mother gives me an excited smile.
"Alright then. Just leave things to me, okay?"
Lilly's father gives an approving nod.
"It is decided then."
He walks out of the room and returns a few seconds later with Lilly's cell phone which he places into his daughter's hand.
"Lilly, call your classmate, and tell him that the circumstances have changed and that you will be fulfilling your obligations after all. Be sure to apologize profusely to him for the confusion you have caused."
"Ah... Yes, Father. I will."
"Good. Let us make haste. If we hurry we can be on the road in 15 minutes."
Lilly's mother heads to the kitchen and starts rummaging through the cupboard.
"I'll go and get some food ready for breakfast."
"That is a good idea. They can eat on their way there."
Things suddenly become hectic around me. As Hisao, fully dressed now, walks back into the living room, Lilly's father looks at me and gestures towards the bathroom.
"You should go and tidy yourself up too, Hanako. A proper lady does not go out in public with a head of dishevelled hair."
And with that, the morning suddenly kicks into overdrive.
Against my own expectations, we manage to finish our preparations for the day in record time although it's obvious that Lilly, who is always a slow starter in the morning, has trouble keeping up. After refreshing and dressing ourselves, we get in the car and feverishly wolf down the seaweed-wrapped pieces of fish that Lilly's mother found in the fridge and hurriedly prepared for us. I hope none of us is going to get a stomach ache half an hour into the event.
We're still finishing the final remaining pieces of food by the time we reach the campus terrain. As the car approaches the parking area, Lilly's mother turns to her husband.
"Hiro? Since Lilly and Hisao are in a bit of a hurry and the English and science faculties aren't really close to the entrance, why not stop right in front of the gate and get out there? I'll park the car for you. Since it'll probably still take a little while for preparations to finish and the actual events to start, Hanako and I still have plenty of time."
"Very well. If we get out close to the entrance we should be able to still make it in time as long as we pace ourselves a bit."
Lilly's father stops the car in front of the entrance gate and turns around to face us.
"Lilly, Mister Nakai...this is our stop. Mister Nakai, be sure to do your best today too."
"Don't worry, sir. I will. I'm not sure when I'll be back. Probably some time after the activities at my faculty end. Fortunately there are already other people scheduled for cleaning duty. I'll come to the journalism faculty afterwards."
Hisao turns to me and gives me a quick kiss.
"Hanako... Good luck today. I'll be rooting for you."
I feel Lilly briefly taking my hand in hers.
"Yes, good luck, Hanako. You'll be in my thoughts today. Hang in there."
"Let us be on our way."
Lilly's father gives the car keys to his wife and then gives her and me a quick nod.
"Karla... Hanako... Good luck."
"Thanks, Hiro. We'll do our best."
Lilly, her father and Hisao get out and head towards the entry gate at a brisk pace. Lilly's mother gets into the driver's seat and motions me to take a seat next to her. As I get in the front seat, Karla starts the engine and navigates the car to a secluded corner of the parking lot. Then she looks at me.
"We should probably go too."
"If you really want to stay in the car for a little while longer, that's fine with me, but there's not a lot we can do here. They're probably still busy with preparations at the journalism faculty building, but I was thinking we could have a brief walk around the campus. To acclimatize to the place a bit. It might ease your nerves a little. You're looking a little tense right now. Staying here and doing nothing might only make things worse."
'A little tense' is hardly an accurate way to describe how I'm feeling right now. I'm extremely nervous, and I'm getting uneasier by the minute. Funnily enough I felt okay this morning. We got off to such a rushed and hectic start that I was completely preoccupied with getting ready and making sure Hisao and Lilly wouldn't be late. I had no opportunity to think too deeply about today. But after Hisao, Lilly and her father got out of the car and the pace slowed down again, my brain was quick to remind me how horribly wrong things went the last time I was here. And now it wants to know whether I'm really ready to go back for more of what I endured last year.
Karla seems to notice my nervous fidgetting and gives me an awkward smile.
"You know... I'm... probably not as good at this as Lilly is, but I do think I understand how you're feeling right now. Last year things went terribly wrong, and you haven't been back here since. Your gut tells you that if you go now, things'll just turn out the same way."
I nod sullenly. That's pretty much the gist of things.
"Whenever you're getting particularly nervous, I'd like you to tell yourself something. I'd like you to remind yourself that history doesn't always repeat itself."
"History d-doesn't always repeat itself?"
"Uhuh. There's nothing strange about the way you're feeling right now. There's a saying that says: 'Once bitten, twice shy.' It wouldn't be a saying if what you're feeling is anything out of the ordinary. But sometimes a situation isn't completely the same. Sometimes it's merely similar, but beneath the surface things are different enough to result in a completely different outcome altogether. I think this is one of those situations."
Despite my anxiety I manage to smile for a moment. There's something strangely familiar about what Karla is saying.
"Uh... Akira said... that you told her something like this too."
Karla's look turns slightly curious.
"What exactly did Akira say that I said?"
"Just that... history doesn't always repeat."
"It was probably as appropriate then as it is now. Like I said, there's nothing unusual about how you're feeling. It's completely human. Just for the record; what I said were originally my husband's words. Heh, as a journalist it's important to name your sources when quoting someone."
We smile a little at that.
"Speaking of which, shall we go?"
I let out a deep sigh.
We get out of the car and start walking back towards the campus entrance. I make certain to keep walking on Karla's left side so I can quickly turn towards her a little if we get too close to other people. By the time we reach the gate, I have already slowed down to a fraction of our starting pace. And when we get close to the journalism faculty building, a shiver goes through my body that even Karla seems to notice. She gives my hand a reassuring squeeze.
"It's probably kinda early to go in already, so why don't we go find ourselves a spot where we can take a load off for a while? I know a place that's fairly peaceful."
I give a weak nod and follow Lilly's mother until we reach a garden-like area some distance away from the faculty. As I sit down on a nearby bench, Karla gestures back towards the building.
"I'm going in there really quick to get us some snacks for lunch. The cafeteria's probably open for business already. Can you think of anything in particular that you like?"
"N-No. Anything's fine."
"Good. I'll probably be back in ten minutes or so."
She turns around and hurries off in the direction we just came from. I've noticed before that Karla's usual pace (and not just her walking pace) is quite fast. I feel bad about making her slow down so much for my sake.
I shoot an uneasy look at the faculty building in the distance. It sounds crazy, but when we were near its entrance just a few minutes earlier it felt like the building itself loomed over me like a faceless bully, and I could almost picture it throwing a mocking greeting my way.
Hey there! Remember me? Good, because I certainly remember you! Did you come back to cause more trouble?
I shiver again.
"History d-doesn't always repeat itself."
I softly repeat Karla's mantra to myself. It doesn't really do much to put my mind at ease.
"History doesn't always repeat itself."
That implies that at least some of the time it does. It sure feels like it'll do just that. I can still recall the summer of last year. Getting into a relationship, strengthening my bond with Lilly and making some new friends, enjoying life for the first time in a long while despite the increasing need to focus on my studies, the approaching mock exams which I didn't think much of at first, visiting this place, feeling very uneasy from the moment I set foot on the campus and then having a panic attack at the worst possible moment and in the worst possible place.
Thinking about it, this year hasn't been all that different. 'Hanging out' with Lilly and Hisao at the festival, starting to play chess with Hisao again, my relationship with Hisao going through a bit of a rebirth, reviving my friendships, being fairly happy with my life, being fairly optimistic about the mock exams, visiting this place again and feeling very uneasy again. The only thing that's still missing is the panic attack - so far.
I'm certain that Lilly's not going to accidentally call me today, but the way I'm feeling right now I might not even need a phone call. Just being in the building for an extended amount of time might be a trigger. And then what?
I don't think I'll be able to stay at Yamaku for another year. Besides, I don't want to lag another year behind Lilly and Hisao. Deep down I want to move on as well, despite my anxieties. I could always apply to another university. I've learned this year that despite the physical distance I've still been able to keep interacting with the people who are important to me, despite my initial worry that my bond with them would quickly fade out after graduation day.
But a university isn't a high school for the disabled. They probably won't be as willing to accommodate my apprehensions the way Yamaku has done. I won't be one of many. I'll be the odd one out, no matter what school I'll end up attending. It'll be a major change in my life regardless. And exactly because of those inevitable changes that will inevitably be extremely difficult for me, I want part of my life to remain familiar and comfortable. Hisao, Lilly... maybe even Naomi. Having them as constants in my life in the background might just give me the strength to face the unknowns that are waiting for me beyond graduation day. They might make the difference between struggling through or breaking down after the first week.
I guess in the end this place really is the best thing I can go for.
If only I could be a little less... me.
"History doesn't always repeat itself."
I jump a little at the sudden sound of my name. I was so occupied by my own brooding that I didn't even notice Lilly's mother making her way back to me. Karla gives me an apologetic look.
"Did I startle you?"
She holds up a plastic bag filled with... something.
"I remembered correctly, and they were already open. I got us enough snacks to make it through the day. Now we can have our lunch break wherever we want."
"You r-remembered... correctly?"
Lilly's mother nods.
"I'm fairly familiar with this campus. I accompanied Lilly to school during the first few weeks of her college life until she memorized the layout of the place a bit. I used to take walks around the campus while Lilly was taking classes. I naturally visited the journalism faculty from time to time, out of curiosity."
She sits down next to me.
"I'm gonna assume we're not gonna lose sight of one another, but in case we do get separated I was thinking it'd be a good idea if we designate a spot or two to meet up."
In other words, we're going to pick a spot where to run off to if I suddenly lose it.
"We could pick this spot or maybe the bleachers facing the sports field. You can see the field's floodlights from here."
"Good. Like I said, it's just a little precaution. I doubt we'll lose sight of one another, but better to be safe than sorry."
"You know... while I was leaving the building just now I could already see the first bunch of visitors making their way inside. It's probably best if we go there too. That way we can still pick a spot in the respective classrooms."
I guess this is it.
"While I was inside I already picked up two pens and notepads they were handing out. I also got today's program."
She takes out a pamphlet and hands it over to me.
Information sessions and presentations: (start every 45 minutes. 9:15 - 15:15)
- History of journalism (classroom 1-1)
- Journalistic writing (classroom 1-2)
- Research and analysis (classroom 1-3)
- Researching media and culture (classroom 2-1)
- Advanced reporting (classroom 2-2)
- Political reporting (classroom 2-3)
- The media and popular culture (classroom 2-5)
Closing session: (15:30 - 16:00)
- The internet, social media and the future of journalism (lecture hall 1)
I can't be sure, but I'm fairly certain the program isn't very different from last time. Maybe it's even exactly the same. Another case of history repeating itself. Not exactly reassuring.
Still, despite my uneasiness, I manage to take a deep breath and get up. Karla smiles at me.
"So, which one shall we attend first?"
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:24 am
Is my phone turned off?
"...and many of the people now covering our politicians have alumni from this school."
I think it is, but I'm not 100% sure. What if it goes off in the middle of class?
"There's also the matter of several political leaders in the Liberal Democratic Party as well as some in the Democratic Party of Japan and the Japan Restoration Party being graduates of this university. This creates a bond that can be used to your advantage to improve your working relationship with the politician you're assigned to cover..."
The thing's been dominating my thoughts for the last 15 minutes. I shouldn't check. It might draw attention. But what if it's still on? What if it goes off?
"Since Kasshoku has good ties with the five largest newspapers in the country, graduates of this school will have a good chance to get into the various kisha clubs you need to be part of in order to have direct access to the members of our legislature."
My eyes keep getting drawn to my bag.
What if it's still on?
I have to check.
I lower my hand into my bag while trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. It's still folded open, so the only thing I need to do is turn it around and look at the display. My hand is shaking a bit, but I manage to steady it enough to grab the phone.
It's turned off. Thank goodness. I drop it back into my bag.
I can breathe a little easier now.
At least until I notice that one of the other people is looking at me.
Did he see me checking my phone?
Was he here last year too? Did he recognize me?
"Trust will come with better access and more opportunities for stories."
I'm not sure if his gaze is still on me. I can't tell without looking behind me, but if I do and he isn't watching me then maybe I'll attract his attention.
"...and there's information about Japanese kisha clubs obtainable online for those of you who wish to learn more. That is all for today. There'll be opportunity for you to have lunch in our cafeteria downstairs. The next presentations will start in 45 minutes. I wish you good luck with the rest of the sessions."
People all around me start packing their things, and I shoot an uneasy look in Karla's direction who's sitting behind the desk next to mine. Lilly's mother makes a small gesture with her head towards the notepad in front of her before returning to her scribbling.
I guess that's not a bad idea. Look busy until the classroom has emptied out and the building's population has concentrated itself in the cafeteria on the ground floor. It'll give us an opportunity to leave the building without having to wade through the crowd.
The teacher who was holding the lecture just now gives us a brief glance, and I reflexively raise my notepad a little. Karla gives the teacher a friendly nod.
"I apologize for taking so long. We'll be done in less than a minute. Please don't mind us."
The teacher returns Karla's nod with one of his own and leaves the room. We wait until the din in the nearby hallways has settled down and then prepare to leave the classroom ourselves.
"The sky's kinda cloudy, but if we get rain today it probably won't fall until later. Do you want to go outside and eat lunch there?"
I give a tired nod. I don't think we're supposed to stay in the classrooms during lunch break and the cafeteria will be way too crowded. We might as well go outside and get some fresh air. I could certainly use some. We've only been in the building for about three hours, but it feels like three days to me. My head hurts from having been on my guard almost non-stop, and I feel exhausted. A little unsteadily, I follow Lilly's mother down the stairs and through the still rather crowded entry hall, sticking as close as possible to my companion in order to prevent the people hanging out there from getting a good look at me. The bench we sat down on this morning turns out to be occupied, so we head towards the sports field and find the bleachers still empty. I let out a worn-out sigh as I slump down next to where Karla's sitting. Lilly's mother gives me a gentle pat on the shoulder.
I just nod. I know better than most people how much of an energy drain stress can be. I doubt 45 minutes will be enough to get my bearings back, but it'll have to do.
"Here, have something to eat. After having only that three-minute breakfast in the car this morning you're probably hungry again by now."
Not really. I've always had a diminished appetite whenever I'm stressed, and today is no exception. But I don't want to worry Karla, so I take some sweet breads from her hands and start nibbling on one of them.
Karla gives me a sympathetic look.
"...things aren't going too badly, are they?"
I don't know. Last year I was anxious, but it wasn't a lot worse than it usually was whenever I was in an unfamiliar place full of unfamiliar people. I know for sure that my emotional state right now is one hell of a lot worse. Just about every time someone looks at me for longer than a second I'm expecting him or her to point at me and shout something like: 'Hey! You're that girl with the scars that caused such a disturbance last year.'
"I... d-don't know. I'm... p-probably a whole lot w-worse right now than I was at t-this point l-last year."
"But what really matters won't be whether you're feeling worse right now, but whether you'll be feeling worse than you did last year at the end of the day, right?"
"I... s-suppose so. I d-don't think I p-picked up anything f-from the lectures though."
Lilly's mother suddenly breaks into a wide grin.
"Hehehe, about that..."
With a hint of excitement she pushes a notepad into my hands, and I let out a pleasantly surprised cry as I read it.
Written on the pages are three surprisingly thorough summaries of the lectures we've attended so far, all of them ending with a neat bulleted list containing the main points of each of the presentations. Looks like somebody was paying attention. I'm impressed. And here I was thinking that Karla was just doodling.
"W-Wow. You're... r-really good at this."
"Heh, think nothing of it. I figured it might be useful. There was quite a bit of stuff in those lectures that was worth remembering."
"What... d-did you think of them?"
"The teachers seem to know their stuff. I don't agree with everything that was said, and don't even get me started on the subject the last lecture was about, but all in all I still think that if you can make it in here, you'll get a solid education that'll serve you well for what you intend to do afterwards. Good credentials are very important."
"That's w-what they s-say at Yamaku too."
Karla nods, and suddenly a very grim expression appears on her face. I give her an awkward glance, but I have no idea how to react. Eventually, her grimace turns into a sad smile.
"Hanako, Lilly didn't tell you anything about the activity she's participating in today, did she?"
"N-No. I think... she was planning to tell me, but when I t-told her about Miss Yumi's assignment, she d-decided to k-keep it from me and offer to g-go with me instead."
"The activity in question was a public recital of various English poems and pieces of literature held by the first year students of Lilly's faculty. It's considered a pretty big honor and a pretty big responsibility since you're essentially representing the school in front of potential newcomers, and the works that are recited are not exactly beginner's material, so they only pick the best candidates. The people chosen for the event are the students who have scored the highest on their tests during the last trimester. They pick one student per class. You may have heard that Lilly's been taking her studies very seriously, and she's been at the top of her class for some time."
"She... said something like that the last t-time I asked her."
"Imagine the surprise when one of her classmates was chosen to represent their class instead."
"Despite Lilly having higher m-marks?"
"Yeah. Someone in the committee that's organizing the event apparently made that call. The official excuse was that the reading material may end up being changed at the last minute and they most regrettably wouldn't be able to arrange Braille versions in time if that happened."
I feel my stomach twist itself into a knot.
"That's... n-not what the real r-reason was, was it?"
Karla's eyes become distant for a moment.
"It was a load of mince, of course. Events like these are always meticulously prepared and staged. They wouldn't change stuff at the last moment and risk one of the students messing up in front of potential freshmen and their parents. I don't think we were meant to take that reply literally anyway. It was all about hint-dropping without coming across as openly dismissive."
That must have been a shock to Lilly. I wonder why she never mentioned this to me. Was she afraid that I might start getting second thoughts about applying here? After all, this kind of thing can probably happen to me too, though fortunately I don't have any craving for any tasks that put me in the public eye to begin with, so in my case they'd actually be doing me a favor.
"B-But... they changed their m-minds?"
"Lilly was really lucky that she had a supportive class. Particularly the person who was picked instead of her felt really bad about the situation and he told her that if she wanted to take it up with the faculty staff, he'd support her all the way. Several of her other classmates encouraged her not to give up either, so eventually the guy who got the assignment wrote a letter claiming he was passing up on the offer and Lilly wrote a letter asking for a second look-in. I recall the rest of the class put together a third letter with signatures of support that started with a few but eventually consisted of most of the class. The organisation committee replied that they'd consider their options. Lilly eventually managed to get us the names of one of the committee members and Hiro and I dropped him a phone call to try and work things out. Well, I'm saying 'we', but it was mostly Hiro and that man exchanging pleasantries while politely phrasing their arguments. A few days later they relented. And a few days after that, Lilly called the boy who first got the assignment and asked him to fill in for her."
Ugh! No wonder Lilly's father was so angry this morning.
"So... t-that's why..."
"Yeah. This wasn't just a minor gig. It was the opportunity for Lilly to prove herself, and if she had passed it up today, she wouldn't have gotten a second chance later."
If I had known, I might have been even more upset with her than her father was.
"I... wouldn't have w-wanted her to... g-give up that for m-my sake."
"We know that, dear. But please try not to hold it against her. This was a very important event for her, but you're even more important to her. And I think that deep down she still feels awful about what happened here last year. I've noticed that even nowadays her smile falters for just a moment when you and your ronin year are brought up. Maybe an opportunity to make amends was more important to her than an opportunity to represent her school. To be honest, I'm not sure how I would have acted in her situation."
I'm not sure what I would have done either. I probably would have handled it much worse than Lilly has. I once rushed to break up with my boyfriend out of guilt. I might have been unable to convince myself that Lilly didn't secretly hate me and might have started avoiding her. Lilly never gave up on me or our friendship.
Karla gives me a weary smile.
"You know, the support Lilly received from her class really surprised me. When she first came here, many of her classmates were awkward around her. When that other student was nominated people could have looked the other way or voiced some silent support while otherwise keeping quiet. It certainly wouldn't have been the first time social justice was sacrificed on the altar of social harmony. But in the end they picked Lilly's side. Heh, I think my faith in humanity has been given a little boost. I just hope this event won't be an exception to the rule."
"If she continues doing her best and keeps up her current grades, I don't think she's going to have a lot of trouble making it through university. It's what comes afterwards that worries me. School administrations might have people in them with a similar mindset to the people on the open house committee. And even if they don't, a handful of complaining parents might still cause them to retract their benefit of the doubt."
"You worry that s-she w-won't find work after g-graduating?"
Lilly's mother gives me a bitter smirk.
"When it comes to providing the disabled among their population with opportunities, or even publically acknowledging their presence, this country is still lagging behind many other developed nations. The extent to which both schools and workplaces are segregated is... rather jarring. It's not unheard of for people who attended a school like Yamaku to end up in a segregated workshop for people with disabilities, initially as part of a transitional phase into the regular job market, only to end up staying there permanently. That's why Yamaku has been pushing you guys so hard to aim high and build up a solid educational record."
She seems lost in thought for a moment and then smiles awkwardly.
"One of my husband's motivations used to be to try and ensure Lilly's financial future to the best of his ability under the assumption that she probably wouldn't be able to find work that she liked anyway. That way, she'd still be able to live her life the way she wanted to and be happy. Of course, knowing what we do now, a job she liked and living her life the way she wanted to seem to be very strongly connected."
Something about this feels familiar. Karla has recently spoken about this subject before. Suddenly a realization hits me.
"Ummm, w-was this the r-reason you started writing that article?"
Lilly's mother smiles.
"You're sharp, Hanako. I got the idea for my article when this whole thing started. The idea behind it was to do my part to raise public awareness of this kind of thing. I didn't know back then how this whole deal was going to play out, but..."
She gives me a brief disapproving look.
"...if the school had insisted on excluding Lilly, I very likely would have added a little exhibit A to my article."
"Now I can end it on a slightly more positive note that'll hopefully inspire people and give them hope for the future. That includes you too."
I'm not really sure how to reply to that, so I simply nod. Part of me insists that her class helping Lilly out was simply due to the fact that she's pretty and socially adept rather than a strongly developed sense of justice playing any role and that it's highly unlikely that any classmate of mine would come to my aid like that. I consider myself neither pretty nor sociable. In fact, now that Karla has brought it up, I wonder if I'll ever be able to find work myself. Who would hire a person with facial scarring like mine.
Karla must have noticed my expression and frowns.
"Are you okay?"
She checks her watch.
"It's almost time to go back. Today's program ends at four o' clock. That's less than three hours from now. Or less than 180 minutes, if that feels shorter to you."
That actually feels like an eternity.
"It's probably gonna be tough, but I think that if you make it through all of this you'll sincerely feel better. Usually the situations that are the most uncomfortable have the highest payoff. Even if that payoff isn't immediately obvious."
My thoughts briefly return to my last chat session with Akira. Karla apologizing must have been agonizingly uncomfortable, and Akira's immediate reaction seemed luke-warm at best. But I nevertheless felt a slight change in Akira and she promised to come over for New Year and make a sincere effort to make it a fun day. Maybe this situation is similar.
I let out a pronounced sigh and then get back on my feet. Only 180 more minutes of hell left.
I try to take a casual glance at my watch without making it too obvious that I'm checking the time and then take a quick peek in my bag to look at my phone. It's probably been the fifth time I've checked the time the last 15 minutes. And it's probably been the tenth time during this lecture that I've checked to verify that my phone's turned off.
It's 15:10 right now. Only five more minutes. We arrived fairly early, but Lilly's mother insisted we'd take a seat near the front of the class. I've been hunched over my notes while the other people in the room were coming in. I can't shake the feeling that at least some of the people here recognized me as they passed me by.
It's 15:12 right now. I'm almost positive that the person sitting in the row behind me, a slightly thin-looking girl with a gold-colored hairpin is staring past my bangs. She was probably here last year too. In fact, I can almost swear half the class is watching me, but I'm afraid to turn my head and look around. I consider covering the right side of my face with my hand, but that will only make the scarring on the back of my hand more noticable.
It's 15:14 right now. I wonder what the point of all of this is. Even if I make it in here, I'll just be a nervous wreck each day. I'll break down before the first week is over. Why am I even here?
"In 15 minutes, the faculty head will close off today's events with one last presentation in the hall one floor down. We are hoping to see all of you there."
My thoughts are interrupted by the teacher finishing up and people start getting up. Lilly's mother has already gathered her things and motions me to follow her. Looks like she wants us to get out of the classroom before we're caught in the middle of the crowd. I feverishly shove my pen and notebook into my bag and follow Karla into the hallway which is already rapidly filling up with people exiting the classrooms. I hurriedly follow Karla down the stairs, occasionally hiding behind her whenever someone else gets too close.
"Karla. Hanako. I was hoping to find you here. Well timed."
Startled by the sudden mention of my name, I recoil in surprise. Karla turns towards the source of the voice that greeted us and smiles.
"Hello, Hiro. I didn't expect to see you here already. Is Lilly with you?"
Mister Satou shakes his head.
"Her activities have already ended, but she is still talking to her classmates at her own faculty. I did not think my presence there was contributing any longer, so I decided to come here ahead of her. She assured me that she knows how to get here on her own."
"How did she do today?"
"I think if you had been there today you would have been quite proud of her."
I'm a little taken back by the way he phrased it, but Karla simply smiles cheerfully.
"That's great, isn't it Hanako?"
"And how are things over here?"
"Still hanging in there. Just one more lecture to go and we're home free. We were just on our way there, weren't we Hanako?"
"The closing speech in the lecture hall?"
"That's the one. Seeing that you're already here, why not come with us? There's no point in just standing around in the entry hall for half an hour, right?"
"If neither one of you has any objections."
"Not me. Hanako?"
Realizing that they're waiting for my answer I reflexively shake my head, but my mind is elsewhere.
"Good. Then let us be off."
I've been anxious and on edge ever since we set foot here on campus, but to my extreme surprise there hasn't been a moment so far where I felt an actual panic attack approaching. However, part of the reason may have been that for most of the day, I've been actively trying to block the possibility that I'd end up where Karla said we're heading right now from my mind.
That strategy's usefulness has obviously worn off, and as I follow Karla down the hallway towards... that place... my feet start feeling like someone's filling my shoes with lead.
I feel like a condemned person being lead to the execution chamber.
What am I doing?
What was I thinking?
We've reached the double doors that lead to the hall. Lilly's parents turn around to face me, and I notice an expression of concern in their eyes. I'm probably as pale as a ghost right now. Eventually Karla gives me an unsure look.
"Hanako, this is probably very intimidating to you, but if you decide to go ahead with this then the two of us will just stick close, okay?"
"We won't force you if you really don't want to go in."
Please don't tempt me. It's already hard enough to just be here.
But what choice do I have? In the end this is just a lecture hall. If I'd end up enrolling here I'll have at least some of my courses in this place. If I freak out each time I go in here, I might as well not attend this faculty at all.
I haven't really changed at all this year. My mind is still as frail as ever.
Last year, after I screwed up in here, my whole life fell apart again. I don't want to go through that again. I can't go through that again.
I really want to be stronger. I want to follow in Hisao's and Lilly's footsteps and join them here. I'm tired of lagging behind. I want to move on. I'm really, really afraid, but I also want to move on, and I don't think I can move on without going in here.
But I'm probably fooling myself. If I set foot in there, my mind will probably snap under the pressure. Maybe not immediately, but definitely before the lecture's over. I'll probably end up sprinting out of there again in a panic. And then what?
Then I'll also cause Lilly's parents to look bad in front of everyone. How would they take that?
"I... d-don't w-want t-to create t-trouble for you."
Chapter 59 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:24 am
"If... If I c-can't l-last in there and r-run away again, I'll m-make you l-look bad in front of everyone h-here too."
"You don't have to worry about us, Hanako. This is about you, not about us."
"Hanako, if we were to get involved in a public spectacle then that would be... bad, but attending this lecture was probably meant to be part of your therapy so it may be worth taking the risk. If... If something happens... despite our best efforts to prevent it, then... it was something that was probably meant to happen and... we... will not hold it against you."
"Yes. You have my word. "
I look at Mister Satou and notice he seems almost as uncomfortable as I am. The idea of me panicking and them getting drawn into it is obviously making him uneasy.
"Y-You d-don't have to c-come along..."
Lilly's father lets out an indignant huff at my response.
"If you intend to go in there and tough it out then I can do no less. What is the worst thing that could happen? It certainly cannot be worse than a heart failure, and I have lasted through one of those."
Karla lets out a laugh that sounds surprisingly cheerful, even strangely happy.
"Hehehe, that's a very good attitude. I like that way of thinking."
She smiles proudly at both of us.
"Hiro... Hanako... Shall we go?"
I exchange one more glance with Lilly's father who slowly nods. And despite my terrible anxiety I find myself nodding back.
The die has been cast. No going back now.
I hope I won't end up regretting this.
We enter the double doors leading to the hall. Karla heads up the front with me following, partially hiding behind her. Hiroyuki follows close behind us.
The hall's already half-full, and a steady stream of people is coming in through the doors. How many people here were also here last year? How many people might recognize me?
Lilly's parents are already looking around for a suitable place to sit down.
"Hanako, where were you seated last time?"
"O... Over t-there."
"Then we will be sure to sit somewhere else this time."
"Karla, the row over there will probably be fine. If we sit too far away from the rest of the crowd we might attract attention."
Lilly's mother gets into the row of seats her husband pointed out and gestures for me to sit down next to her. Lilly's father sits down on my left side afterwards, and I watch as the seats next to him and then the rows of seats behind us are slowly filled.
It feels like I'm standing in a giant tank that's slowly filling up with water.
In some ways, my current seat is in a better location than the one I had last year. At least people getting to their seats are less likely to notice me, and since Karla and Hiroyuki are both rather tall people they're doing a good job obscuring me from the people sitting on the same row.
On the other hand, I'm feeling more trapped than ever. I'd need to pass at least five people in order to get to the nearest aisle. If I break down now I'll literally have nowhere to go.
Lilly's parents assured me that if something happened, they'd escort me out of here with a minimum of fuss, but I wonder how well that'd go in practice.
I think there might even be more people in here now than there were last year. I shiver at the thought.
My thoughts are briefly interrupted by Lilly's father whispering my name. I try to look in his direction without turning my head too much and I notice he has his hand held out.
"Your cell phone please."
For a moment I'm confused but then I reach into my bag, get my cell phone out and place it in his hand. He briefly flips it open to verify that it's turned off, then closes it again and places it in his pocket after giving me a brief nod.
Maybe this is for the better. I turned my phone off on our way to the campus this morning, but I've nevertheless been almost obsessively checking it throughout the day. I really should have left it at Lilly's place.
The stream of people flowing into the hall has dried up, and one of the people standing near the doorway, probably the same person as last year, closes the doors and activates the large screen on the back wall before walking up to the microphone.
"I would like to welcome you all for taking time out of your busy schedule to visit us today. We hope you have been finding your visit educational and enjoyable so far..."
This sounds familiar and 'familiar' is a very bad thing right now.
"...and there are some who say that the rise of the internet will spell an end to newspapers and possibly even journalism. Let me say that one of these claims is an exaggeration and the other one is untrue. Newspaper membership is still extremely high in our country, newspapers will always continue to exist in some form or another and journalism maintains its role in society as it always has..."
20 more minutes to go. I notice that someone sitting a few rows in front of me briefly looks over his shoulder. Did they spot me? I press myself further into my seat and try to avoid his gaze to the best of my ability.
"...news organisations will have to get used to no longer being the ones to have the scoop on images of unexpected events as random passersby will often use their cell phone to take a picture of these events as they witness them and upload it to their weblog. But there is more to news than a picture of an event as it takes place..."
15 more minutes. The atmosphere in here is starting to feel extremely oppressive, even suffocating, and I'm starting to feel slightly tight in the chest. This is bad. This place is getting to me. My eyes sweep over the crowd sitting in front of me. What if I lose it? What if I start hyperventilating or something? Everyone will see. I can't even get up and walk out of here.
"...it is up to the reporter to provide the big picture of events through investigative journalism. A random witness may help the world see the where and when of an event, but the public will always turn to the true journalist for answers on questions that eyewitnesses cannot answer such as why and how..."
10 more minutes. I'm starting to have difficulty breathing. My thoughts return to what happened last year. I was sitting in here just like I am now. Then suddenly my phone started ringing, I drew everyone's attention, and I completely lost it. I was too scared to even turn off my phone. Eventually I cracked, got up, started running and kept running... and running... and running. The fact that I drew even more attention to myself that way didn't matter. Nothing mattered except to get away from everyone and everything. I'm still not exactly sure how I ended up where Hisao found me. It's a blur in my mind. I remember running, like a maniac, my hands covering the right side of my face. At some point I nearly collided with someone, I tried to sidestep, lost my balance, fell down really hard, the pain didn't even register until later, everyone's eyes on me again, me scrambling to get up, even more frightened, running away even harder until I couldn't run anymore. Away from everyone. Far away.
The memories of last year's events start whirling around in my head and I slowly feel a sense of panic coming up. I'm starting to have trouble breathing despite my best efforts to keep a hold of myself. This is bad. This is very bad. This is... this is...
Suddenly I feel someone taking my right hand and giving it a reassuring squeeze. I hear Karla's voice whispering to me.
"You're doing fine. Nothing's gonna happen. Just... take deep breaths... in and out... slowly. And go ahead and squeeze if you're feeling tense."
Breathe slowly. Breathe slowly.
"That's it. Things are fine. Nobody's looking at you. Nobody's noticed you."
I struggle to keep my body from shutting down.
"...of course, there is no need to take my word for it. If you take a look at the statistics of the last decade, you can see that they follow the trend that was just discussed."
The man in front of the microphone stops speaking and uses his remote control to show a series of slides containing graphs and numbers. He slowly and quietly runs through the slides, pausing after each one to give the information time to sink in.
The slides! This was the point where... it happened. After running away... after causing a spectacle in front of this entire hall... I somehow ended up near the place where we had lunch that day and hid away behind a small building so nobody could find me. There, I curled up until the panic started subsiding. But what came afterwards was no better...
"Nothing's gonna happen. Just breathe slowly. We're almost there."
...it was in fact much, much worse. With the panic disappearing my mind became coherent enough to realize what just happened... as well as all the implications that came with it. When I realized that I probably just burned the one bridge I couldn't afford to lose, a wave of despair came over me that was so powerful, so crushing, so all-encompassing that my mind promptly shut down again as that wave swallowed me whole. The whirlwind of horrible outcomes and scenarios didn't stop until much, much later.
I shiver uncontrollably at the mere thought of that moment.
"Only five more minutes, Hanako. Just hang in there."
"...and as with everything in life, things aren't handed to you on a platter. The only way to master a skill is to practice it since talent is often an unrefined gem at best. It is said that to truly master a skill, one needs to practice it around a 1000 hours."
"This is the last part, Hanako. He's finishing up."
"Such a process takes a bit of talent and a little bit of luck, but above all it takes perseverance. The perseverance to see it all through."
"Just a little while longer, you're doing fine."
I close my eyes and try to keep my mind blank.
Breathe. Just breathe.
"My own headmaster used to say that it also takes a dull-witted mind that can weather such extreme repetition."
A polite chuckling can be heard throughout the hall.
"You're doing well."
"The Center Test and entrance exams are just ahead of you. Your perseverance, your talent, and that little bit of luck will be tested there. We at this faculty wish you good luck in the upcoming months and we hope to be able to welcome you as first years this upcoming spring. Thank you very much for coming here today, and we hope you'll have a safe journey home."
The speaker makes a quick bow, and the people in the hall erupt in thunderous applause that makes me flinch. Karla takes the opportunity to give me a quick pat on the shoulder.
"Hey, I guess this is it. The worst part is behind you now. We'll just wait for this place to clear out, and then we go back to Lilly and Hisao."
She smiles proudly at me.
"You've done well today, Hanako."
"You kinda deserve an applause even more than that man in front does."
The applause around us slowly dies down and is replaced by a murmur as people start packing their things and getting up from their seats. I more or less keep my head down while the hall slowly empties out. The feeling of anxiety is still there, but the sense of panic I felt earlier has for the most part disappeared and right now I'm just feeling tired. Tired, but also baffled that I just sat through this whole thing, in this very place, without suffering a total breakdown.
Is it really over?
My mind still a jumble, I watch as the crowd forms two orderly lines and starts trinkling out of the hall. As the lecture hall empties out, the oppressive atmosphere slowly disappears as well, and I let go of Karla's hand while breathing a long sigh of relief. Lilly's father lets out a soft chuckle as he watches his wife massage her hand a bit, and I realize with some embarrassment that I must have been squeezing it really hard.
"Hey, it's okay. I told you you could squeeze if you were feeling tense."
"Let us know when you are ready to leave. We will... hmmm..."
Lilly's father cuts off his words mid-sentence and looks at the aisle on one side of the room. As I follow his gaze, the sense of relief I felt before is instantly replaced with a renewed feeling of terror. The man who gave the lecture this half hour has finished packing his things as well, but instead of leaving the now empty room he's walking up the aisle and is approaching us.
No... no... no...
Not now... He'll recognize me... Don't get near me!
But before I can react I can feel a hand on my shoulder pressing me into my seat.
"Do not get up. Let us handle this."
Don't look at me!
I turn my head in Karla's direction in an attempt to keep my scars out of view as Hiroyuki gets up from his seat and walks up to the man approaching us, positioning himself between the speaker and me. He greets the man with a polite bow.
"Good afternoon and please excuse my niece. She has been... under the weather the last few days, and she briefly considered staying home before deciding that attending here was still more important. This day has been a bit taxing, so she is just taking some time to get her bearings back."
"I am truly sorry to hear that. If she is unwell then perhaps we could see if there's still a nurse on duty."
"I greatly appreciate your concern, but things are not quite so bad as to impose on you like that. A few minutes rest followed by a good night's sleep are all she needs."
"Then I will not trouble you any longer, and I am sorry that she couldn't experience this day the way we would have liked."
"Today may have been a bit draining on her, but it was still a most worthwhile visit. I believe this day has helped her to make an important choice regarding where she wants to go after the school year ends."
"That is encouraging to hear. Perhaps we will meet each other again at this very place during the welcoming ceremony next April."
The man exchanges another bow with Lilly's father, and then he turns around and walks towards the exit. I watch him go, barely able to believe the confrontation I was dreading to have was averted just like that. Before he walks through the door he briefly turns around one last time, nods at us and then he's gone. Lilly's father turns to face us and gives us a satisfied nod.
"Well, that takes care of that."
"That was kind of close."
With the last remaining source of my anxiety gone and the hall now completely empty safe for us, the realization that today's ordeal is now truly over finally sinks in. All the tension, anxiety and fear I've kept bottled up inside the last several hours finally gets the better of me, and I break down, sobbing into my hands, the last of my resistance gone. I feel Karla putting a comforting arm around me. I hear Hiroyuki let out a sigh, and something soft is put in my hand. It's a neatly folded handkerchief.
"I will return to the building's entrance and wait for you there. Lilly and Mister Nakai have probably already arrived. I will let them know that things went well."
"Alright, Hiro. We'll be there soon as well."
Lilly's mother chuckles softly as her husband walks down the nearby aisle and then out of the door.
"Please don't hold it against him. He's always been a little uneasy with situations like these."
I just shake my head. I'm already grateful for him doing his part to get me through today. I feel embarrassed enough as it is that he and his wife had to see me this way.
It takes longer than I thought, but I eventually calm down enough to wipe my tears and put the pen and notepad (that were more there as a distraction than a genuine attempt to take notes) back in my bag. I feel a little awkward about the crying fit I had just now, but I have to admit it did feel cathartic. With all the tension and stress relieved I now feel a bit empty and more than a little exhausted too. We get up from our seats and walk up to the double doors leading to the hallway. As we pass through the doorway, I turn around and look back one last time. When we got here, entering these doors felt like entering an execution chamber. Now, with today's assignment behind me, the place being emptied out and the threat of a repeat of last year's fiasco no longer an issue, the lecture hall doesn't really look so intimidating anymore. Rather than the place of my nightmares, it's now simply a large empty room like Yamaku's gymnasium.
Still, I'm glad to be out of there.
Without a word, I follow Karla to the faculty building's entrance where her husband, Hisao and Lilly are waiting for us. The hard part of today is behind me.
Chapter 59 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:25 am
"Hanako, wake up."
"Hehehe, did you hear that Hiro? If I'm being mistaken for our 19-year old daughter, I must look pretty young for my age."
"You do look rather young for someone approaching the age of..."
A sharp cough suddenly drowns out the end of that sentence.
"Okay, okay, no need to say the number out loud."
Still a bit drowsy, I open my eyes and examine my surroundings. I'm inside a car. A rather large car. As I rub my eyes I slowly become aware of the fact that I'm not alone in here. There are two people sitting in the front seats of the car and even though it's rather dark I think that both are currently looking at me.
"Hey there. Are you back with us, Hanako?"
I let out a yawn.
"Are we... there already?"
"We are. I have parked as close to the school gates as I could."
I take a look outside. Despite the darkness outside I easily recognize Yamaku's front gates. I never thought I'd be so happy to see these gates again even though I know deep down that it's not good to be this attached to a place.
After the activities at the journalism faculty ended, Karla and I headed for the entrance where we were greeted by Hisao, Lilly and her father. We drove back to Lilly's apartment where we had a quick meal, and we went our separate ways afterwards. I initially planned to head back to Yamaku by train, but after we left the campus the side effects of the intense stress I endured all day long finally caught up with me, and even at Lilly's place I found myself dozing off every ten minutes. The general consensus was that it wasn't a good idea for me to travel by train, so Lilly's parents offered to drive me to Yamaku and personally drop me off. I felt guilty after all they had already done for me today, but I was too tired to keep up a four-against-one argument and relented after only a brief protest.
I don't remember anything about the trip back so I must have slept like a rock until we finally reached the school gates.
"Well, I guess this is where we part ways. I'll drop you a mail or call later this week to wish you luck, okay?"
Luck? Oh right, mock exams.
"Oh... ah... T-thank you."
I probably should say goodbye here. Lilly's parents are probably eager to get home as well.
On the other hand...
They still have quite a trip ahead of them. They've made a large detour just to drop me off here. And that's on top of everything else they've already done today. A simple thanks feels insufficient for all of that. I don't have much I can give back, but...
"Uh... M-Mister Hiroyuki... K-Karla... uh..."
"What is it?"
"C-Can I... g-get you s-something to d-drink before you h-head back?"
Lilly's mother frowns.
"Are you sure that's a good idea, Hanako? You've had a really intensive day and you're probably still tired. You don't have to stay up on our behalf."
"I know, but I... I w-want to d-do something back. To s-show my appreciation."
Karla and Hiroyuki exchange a long glance until eventually the latter gives a curt nod.
"We will be honored to accept your hospitality."
"Well, it's decided then. Lead the way."
During this year, Miss Yumi has told me several times that if others go out of their way for me, I shouldn't wallow in guilt when I can't return the favor, but I should focus on being appreciative of those efforts instead. I feel like I'm finally starting to get the hang of this.
We get out of the car and make our way to the girls' dorm. As we enter the building I take a quick peek into the common room. I had been hoping to claim a quiet corner there, but the place is a lot more crowded than expected. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised seeing that this is a Sunday's evening. Even some of the 3rd years seem to be hanging out here despite the rapidly approaching mock exams. I could check out the kitchen area. Or...
Maybe it'll be alright if I...
"Hanako? This place seems a bit rowdy, don't you think?"
"Umm... T-this w-way please."
Feeling a bit awkward, I lead the Satous to the hallway outside my room. This is the first time either of them sets a foot inside. The only times I spoke to Karla without Lilly around, which were the time she agreed to sponsor The Broken Quills and the time when she visited Yamaku to interview people for her article, we made use of the common room. I didn't count on having visitors when I left here yesterday. I'm a little uneasy about them seeing the inside of my room. On the other hand, Naomi and Jun were able to hang out in my room without being put off by its plainness.
I take a deep breath and unlock the door to my room.
"G-Go on in. I'll b-be right b-back."
I hurry to the kitchen without waiting for a reply and start boiling water for the tea. While the water's heating up, I realize that I may have just left a very poor impression by walking off just like that. I was able to avoid their initial reaction to my room this way, and they'll have some time to practice a polite 'nice place you have here', but it's not exactly the way a proper host would act. This is certainly not the way Lilly would have handled things. But then again, Lilly isn't as horribly socially stunted as I am.
It feels like ages until the water reaches boiling temperature, and after filling a tea pot from my cupboard with hot water, I hurry back to my room.
When I enter my room, I find Karla and Hiroyuki sitting on the bed. Neither of them says a word as I fill two bowls and hand one to each of them before sitting down in my desk chair.
"Uh... P-please enjoy.
Lilly's father gives an approving nod.
"Yes, thank you."
"N-No, I... uh... I should b-be the one saying that."
I fidget, not sure how to go about this. After what feels like an eternity, I finally push myself to say what I've been wanting to say since we arrived here.
"M-Mister Satou... Mrs. Satou... T-thank you... f-for supporting me t-today. I'm... r-really thankful. It's b-because of you... that... I made it... through."
Lilly's father shakes his head.
"Our contribution was but small. I think that for the most part your own perseverance was what saw you through."
I shake my head.
"I... m-might h-have b-been able to attend... one lecture... on m-my own... or maybe t-two, but... I probably... w-would have g-given up afterwards."
Karla scratches her head.
"You know, all things considered, that therapist of yours did take quite a gamble in sending you there on your own."
"Perhaps she was never meant to go there on her own and today was not just about confronting her apprehensions. Perhaps another point behind today's assignment was that there was never the need to face this challenge all by herself. That her support was a mere phonecall or e-mail away."
"You really think so?"
"It would make sense. If I remember correctly, Hanako's ronin year was a one-time opportunity. Come next spring, Miss Takawa will no longer be able to jump in when Hanako is faced with a daunting situation like today. Perhaps this was also for her own reassurance to see if Hanako would be able to reach out to others when faced with a challenge that might be too much for her to face on her own."
"Hmmm. What do you think, Hanako?"
I never really thought about that. I simply assumed Miss Yumi had gone crazy when she told me to visit another open house day. She of all people should know how likely it was that something, an event or simply the place itself, would act as a trigger and cause an anxiety attack. She did seem extremely pleased when I told her about having called Lilly who offered to come with me.
"I... d-don't know. It's definitely p-possible."
"Hehehe, in that case you had passed her test even before this whole day started."
"I'm n-not sure. I d-don't really feel like I... p-passed anything today."
"Even though you made it through today without dropping out half-way through?"
"I won't b-be able to function as a s-student there if I k-keep feeling the way I felt today."
"I think it was perfectly normal for you to feel the way you did today. I mean, things went really bad last year so it's perfectly natural to feel anxious the next time you go there. Any person would be uneasy. But I think... no... I know it'll be easier next time."
"I... d-don't know."
"My wife is correct. It will be easier next time. As you focus on your exams the upcoming months, remind yourself that despite last year's incident, nothing has happened today. Nothing has happened today, and nothing will happen the next time you go there. It may be difficult to convince yourself of that right now, but you still have over four months to let it sink in. Give it some time."
I wonder if it's really that simple.
I feel a lump in my throat that I manage to swallow with supreme effort.
"I was... l-looking forward to finishing elementary s-school at f-first. I... used to h-have friends t-there, but after my accident I... l-lost all of them. L-Life there b-became very hard. I thought... entering m-middle school w-would be like a... n-new start. But... once I s-started g-going there, it only t-took a week f-for me to...t-to realize that n-nothing had changed. The p-people were d-different, but everything else was... the s-same."
Karla looks heartbroken and even Hiroyuki gives an understanding nod.
"Your anxiety is understandable, maybe even logical. But what you should remember is that history does not always repeat. Sometimes a situation merely appears to be similar to one from the past, yet it is very different beneath the surface. I believe this is one of those situations. I recall my own middle school years, as well as my own high school years, as being very stressful. There was always intense pressure:To keep up, to stay on top, to do well on every test, to meet extremely high expectations, to never disappoint, to excel, to reach a place only the nation's finest could reach… Always. I was probably not the only one expected to uphold a legacy. Not everyone handles that kind of pressure well. It is not uncommon for people to take their own stress out on others. That does not excuse their actions, of course. University, on the other hand, was different for me."
"I fondly recall my own university days, and most people I've known at work consider those times the most stress-free times of their life. Without the pressure to get into a particular university and without the pressure of a full-time job yet, people could - for a while - relax, be themselves and live the way they wanted. The atmosphere was always more welcoming and friendly. School uniforms were no longer required, so suddenly there was much greater diversity - and greater acceptance of diversity. The environment was very different from middle and high school. It will probably be different for you as well. You should expect to get some initial awkwardness and stares, as Lilly did when she started attending, but people might get used to you quickly enough."
Hiroyuki looks a little awkward.
"I will confess that when I first met you, I caught myself staring a little as well, despite Lilly's urging not to."
Karla smiles sheepishly.
"I kind of did too at first. But that doesn't mean people aren't interested in getting to know you."
Hiroyuki gives me a quizical look.
"Did you not catch yourself staring at other students from time to time when you started attending here?"
I probably did. Especially when others had easily noticable conditions like missing limbs. I guess I'm not that much better than everyone else.
Karla gives me a warm smile.
"You know... Your facial scarring may stand out a little, but you get used to it really quickly. I... don't even really notice it myself anymore. And it's not very easy to spot from a distance because of your hair. I get that you were probably worried that people would recognize you today, but I don't think anyone did."
"That... teacher might have."
Hiroyuki shakes his head.
"He did not. I assure you."
How can he be so sure about that?
Lilly's father looks pensive for a moment and then takes a deep breath.
"I know this because he told me so himself."
Hiroyuki's words hit me like a truck, and I reel back in shock. Karla lets out a gasp and gives her husband a bewildered stare.
"Wait, what? Hiro? You... talked to that man?"
"I did. I went after him after I left the lecture hall and I... apologized for last year's incident on Hanako's behalf."
"Why? It wasn't really Hanako's fault, was it?"
Lilly's father chuckles briefly.
"Karla, do you still remember the night we met in Inverness? There were quite a few questions you asked me during our first outing, but there was one that seems relevant right now."
Lilly's mother thinks for a moment and then nods.
"You were profusely apologizing for your colleagues' intoxication and the inconvenience they were supposedly causing me while I was driving you guys to your hotel."
She softly snickers a bit.
"I think you apologized to me every time one of them even let out a single burp. I asked afterwards why you were taking responsibility for things that weren't your fault. I... uh... was curious why the Japanese were always apologizing so much."
"And I replied by asking you why westerners apologized so little when something went wrong."
They both chuckle briefly at the memory before Hiroyuki continues.
"What we concluded that night was that westerners see an apology as an admission of guilt, so they often apologize only when they feel they were in the wrong somehow. To the Japanese, on the other hand, an apology has a much broader meaning. It is often not an attempt to shoulder the blame, but a simple gesture to say: 'What happened is most regrettable. Let us put it aside and move on.' That was the kind of apology I made today. I did not assign any guilt to any party. It was not expected either."
Lilly's mother thinks about that for a moment.
"How did he react? Did he...?"
"The apology was appreciated and accepted, of course. We spent some time talking, and I learned how he experienced that incident last year."
Lilly's father turns to me.
"As I said before, Hanako, he did not recognize you today. Things went very quickly last year. What he remembered was a cell phone going off and eventually a girl with long, dark hair running out of the room with another girl following her shortly afterwards. But girls with long, dark hair are extremely common in Japan, so he did not make the connection when he saw you today. I think most people in attendence there will fail to make the connection as well. It has been a whole year, people went through a stressful exam season, and human memory is a fickle thing. Do you still remember what the people sitting next to us were wearing? I myself have already forgotten even now."
"I'm... n-not sure."
"He was a bit put off by his lecture being interrupted and confused why someone suddenly ran out of the room, but in the end it was a minor incident. Things went back to business as usual and people's phones going off at inopportune moments is something that is not uncommon in this day and age. It is not something he would forever hold against someone, especially not after an apology. When we parted ways he told me to wish you well with your exams."
I'm completely dumbfounded by what I'm hearing.
"They k-know and they... still w-want me to attend t-there?"
"Of course. The birth rate in our country has been declining for some time, and as a result the competition for pupils between schools has intensified over the last few years. They would be crazy to refuse a competent student over such a minor incident."
A stern expression appears on his face and his eyes stare directly into mine.
"Hanako, the students and student hopefuls there obviously do not remember last year's incident in specific detail and the school is more than willing to let bygones be bygones. Everyone else, it appears, has already moved on. The one thing that remains is for you to do the same. You cannot allow this matter to distract you any longer."
I'm not really sure how to respond to that. My mind is still trying to sort everything out, but I know what's being expected of me, so I give a meek nod.
Lilly's parents give an approving nod, and we spend some time just sitting there and finishing our tea. After I barely manage to suppress a yawn, Lilly's father shoots a glance at his wife.
"I suspect our host is getting tired. It would be best for us not to wear out our welcome."
Karla leans in and whispers something in her husband's ear. He gives her a puzzled look.
"Are you certain?"
She nods, takes the notepad out of her bag and hands him a piece of paper.
"For good luck."
"This once then. This paper is hardly ideal."
He takes the piece of paper from his wife and starts meticulously folding it. None of us say a word as the paper in his hands slowly starts taking a different form. Eventually, he gives it one scrutinizing lookover and then hands it to me.
I look at the origami figure in my hands with an unsure look. It's a bit rough, but still recognizable.
Karla smiles and nods her head.
"Where I come from a lion is considered a symbol of courage. It felt like an appropriate memento of today. Be sure to keep it close in the upcoming days as a source of inspiration and as a reminder of how brave you can be."
"I'm... n-not very brave at all. I'm s-scared of a lot of things."
Hiroyuki shakes his head.
"I think you are confusing being brave with being fearless. Being fearless is not a healthy trait. Fear is a human defense mechanism and those who know no fear tend to have their lives ruined by their own recklessness. Being brave is being afraid... and still going forward in spite of that because the end results are worth the anxiety of the moment. Being brave is facing your fears. You have shown that you can do that. "
Karla and Hiroyuki get up from the bed and put their bowls on my desk.
"If it is okay with you we will be taking our leave. It is still quite a ride back."
"Shall I drive us back, Hiro? You can take a nap in the car. I don't have to get up early tomorrow morning."
"Very well. Hanako, thank you for your hospitality."
"Thank... you... too."
Karla gives me a little pat on the shoulder.
"Hanako, there's one more thing we'd like to ask you. Do you have any plans for the upcoming New Year's Day? If you don't then... we'd be pleased to have you over again."
Her husband scrapes his throat.
"You will be expected to study, of course, with the Center Test being less than a month away at that point. But whatever breaks you allow yourself that day can be spent celebrating the start of the new year with us."
"Akira's promised to come over as well. She'd be very pleased to have you too. We all would, actually."
I blush a bit. Fortunately, Akira already clued me in on the possibility, so the invitation doesn't come as a complete surprise, and it doesn't take me very long to answer.
"Wonderful. Sleep well tonight and good luck this week."
I accompany the Satous to the building's entryway where we say our goodbyes and part ways. Rather than immediately returning to my room, I linger near the door and watch Lilly's parents walk down the path to the gate until they're out of sight. They're an odd couple if I ever saw one. Hiroyuki's walking slowly and carefully, but in a dignified manner despite the fact that nobody can see him. Karla's trying to match his pace and his manner of walking, yet there's a spring in her step that she can barely conceal. Yet despite their differences, they seem capable of connecting with each other, like earlier this evening when they briefly brought up the day of their meeting.
I return to my room, take off my clothes and put on my nightgown. I suppose I should go to bed now. Three weeks ago I made a studying schedule that covered all days until the mock exams. If I want to do better than last year, I'll have to make an effort to stick to it.
I don't think I'll be able to sleep easily tonight though.
Something Karla said earlier today pops back into my mind.
What really matters won't be whether you're feeling worse right now, but whether you'll be feeling worse at the end of the day.
I'm feeling different alright. I'm not sure how exactly I'm feeling, but it's a lot different than the mood of crushing despair I felt at this point in time last year.
I think the best way to describe my mood would be 'restless'. Even though I feel tired, countless thoughts keep whirling around in my head.
- It will be easier next time. -
- Nothing has happened today. -
- Nothing will happen the next time. -
- History does not always repeat. -
- The atmosphere was always more welcoming and friendly. -
- A greater acceptance of diversity. -
- The apology was appreciated and accepted, of course. -
- Human memory is a fickle thing. Do you still remember what the people sitting next to us were wearing? -
- When we parted ways he told me to wish you well with your exams. -
- Everyone else, it appears, has already moved on. The one thing that remains is for you to do the same. -
- Move on. -
- The one thing that remains is for you to do the same. -
-...for you to do the same. -
I rub my temples in an attempt to slow the torrent of thoughts.
Did everyone else really move on the day afterwards? Can I really pretend that nothing happened last year? Will things really be different? It seems hard to believe.
- You still have over four months to let it sink in. Give it some time. -
Can it really be that simple?
I don't want to lose another year to this.
- Let it sink in. -
I look at the study schedule on my desk. I have six hours planned for tomorrow. Nothing happened today, so maybe I can stop fretting over this until the mock exams are over. Nothing happened today, so maybe there's no immediate need to worry over it. Graduation is still four months away. Mock exams are in four days. Maybe I can stop worrying about this for four days.
Nothing happened today.
I take a pen and write a big '9:00 a.m' in bold letters on my schedule.
I'm going to make an effort to do well on the mock exams this year and focus only on the immediate future for the time being.
Because nothing happened today.
With my resolution for the upcoming week made, the thoughts surrounding Kasshoku slowly start dissipating, only to be replaced with something else.
Something much more personal.
- Akira's promised to come over as well. She'd be very pleased to have you too. We all would, actually. -
I didn't think I'd get through today's activities scot-free, but to my surprise that's how things played out. I think that for the most part I have the Satous to thank for that. They came all the way there to see their daughter participate in a literature recital, but when they heard of my predicament they quickly adjusted their plans, and Karla spent the entire day acting as my support. And after Lilly's activities came to an end, Hiroyuki joined us and then went out of his way to smooth things over with the faculty and get me a clean slate. Then they drove by Yamaku to drop me off and give me a pep talk.
They really went out of their way for me today.
I take the little origami lion from my nightstand and run my fingers over it.
I'm not really sure what to think about all of this.
I wonder what the Satous are to me.
Even Naomi and Jun noted that I don't just seem to be a mere friend of their daughter. Karla diplomatically referred to me as an official friend of the family when my friends asked about it. Hiroyuki called me his niece today, though that was probably because I don't look half-foreign.
I've known them both for over a year now. Karla has always been very friendly and kind to me. It's taken a little bit longer for me to warm up to Hiroyuki, but I think today proved that he has a good heart underneath his strict exterior.
Or is it simply the fact that they're still grateful about last year? I kind of wish that 'debt of gratitude' that Lilly's father spoke of in the past wasn't there anymore. All it does is muddy the waters. Are they still trying to pay me back?
I'm not sure.
They seemed really sincere today, but...
It kind of clashes with the way Akira has always felt about them. I'm having a difficult time picturing the people who were in my room less than an hour ago to coldly leave behind their own children, yet that seems to be what happened in the past.
But apparently Karla recently apologized to Akira, and Akira seemed pretty shaken despite her tough talk.
I'm not really sure what they are to me - or what I am to them.
I open one of my desk drawers, reach inside and pick up the piece of paper hidden underneath several books. The piece of paper they gave me nearly a year ago. I take it out and sit down on my bed.
With a single signature, I could trigger the biggest change my life has undergone in a decade. A few strokes of ink on this paper and I'd once again have a family.
And two loving sisters...
At least on paper...
If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
Would they be able to truly accept me as one of them, or would I always remain an outsider?
And more importantly: would I be able to truly accept them?
Would I be able to address Hiroyuki and Karla as Father and Mother?
It feels sacrilegious, and I feel a sharp pang of guilt just thinking about it. My thoughts dwell on the parents I once had. The ones I lost eleven years ago.
Mother... who loved to do my hair each day, always telling me how beautiful she thought it was. Who liked to cuddle with me in bed on Sunday mornings and who lost her life trying to protect me.
Father... who asked me for a new drawing each week to pin to his computer monitor at work. Who played games with me on Sunday afternoons and who taught me how to play chess.
Would they feel happy for me or would they be hurt and feel like they were being replaced?
It hurts me just to think about it.
I wish I could talk to them one more time.
I look over the form in my hands once more, sigh softly and put it back beneath the books in my drawer, away from where the people who've been in my room this year could find it.
I lie down on my bed and look at the starry sky outside my window. I think I'll keep the curtains open so I won't risk oversleeping tomorrow morning. Maybe counting stars will help me sleep.
I get underneath the covers, taking the nearby plush puppy and teddy bear in my arms. As I start counting, I start murmurring the words Hiroyuki spoke earlier.
- Nothing happened today. -
- And nothing will happen next time. -
- Nothing happened today. -
- And nothing will happen next time. -
This has to be the world's oddest lullaby, but strangely enough it seems to work.
- Nothing happened today. -
- And nothing will happen next time. -
My eyelids slowly grow heavier.
- History doesn't always repeat. -
- Nothing happened today. -
- And nothing will happen next time. -
Before I drift off to sleep, for just a brief moment, I feel something. Something I don't feel very often and never expected to feel after today.
- Nothing happened today. -
Before I doze off, I feel...
- And nothing will happen next time. -
...a sense of hope.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:25 am
"Mother, what time is it?"
I take a look at the display on the dashboard of the car.
"Nearly half past nine. Looks like we've arrived here right on schedule. They said they were going to call it a day around this time, didn't they?"
"Yes. When I called her earlier today, Hanako said that they're trying to limit their late-night studying because of Naomi. They started this morning around half past seven, and they've been cramming for most of the day. Naomi's supposed to stick to nine hours of sleep each day, so she'll probably need to go to bed soon."
"Well in that case let's not keep them waiting."
We exit the car and head through the parking lot to the front gate. I give my daughter a sidelong glance.
"You still remember how to navigate this place?"
"It's been a while since I've walked this campus, but I should be okay. I have spent three years of my life here after all."
Lilly smiles as she continues.
"That feels like such a long time ago already."
"Nearly a year. Time flies, huh?"
"It sure does. I feel a little nostalgic walking around here again."
"Ever felt like going back?"
My daughter flashes me a playful smile.
"Sometimes. Just not yet. And not as a student."
"Hahaha, point taken."
"University took some getting used to, but the way things are now I wouldn't want to turn back the clock. Besides, moving on is a part of life."
"Let's hope that Hanako feels the same."
My daughter remains silent for a moment and then nods.
"Hanako's situation is different from my own. Yamaku has been much more than a mere boarding school to her. I've been trying to put myself in her shoes, but I don't think I'll ever be in a position to know exactly how she feels."
"Well, the school's probably not going to allow her to stay for another year, so let's hope she's gonna pull through where she stumbled before."
"She has already made it through the National Center Test again. If she's... emotionally ready for it, I'm certain she'll do fine on her upcoming entrance exam as well. It's possible I'm engaging in wishful thinking, but I have the impression that she's a little more ready for it this time around."
"I got that impression as well when she dropped by at New Year's Day. Hey Lilly, I've been thinking... Maybe everything that's happened was meant to play out this way. Hanako's had a lot of baggage to sort out, and I can't help but feel that she needed the extra time. What do you think?"
"To be honest I've been considering this as well, Mother. Although it still doesn't change the way I feel about what happened last year."
"You know... My own mother used to tell me that God works in mysterious ways. It often involves bad things happening and people getting hurt, but in the end you find out that there's been a long-term benefits game played. Heh, kind of reminds me of your dad in that respect."
"Isn't that blasphemy, Mother?"
"Hey, it's a compliment!"
I scratch my head as we reach the entrance to the main building.
"Lilly, this doesn't look like the girls’ dorms. Heh, are you sure you still know your way around here?"
"Hanako still has her set of keys to the library, and she and her friends have been studying there after closing hours. She promised to keep the doors unlocked for us."
"Let's not keep her waiting then."
I follow Lilly into the main building, watching with a bit of fascination as she uses the nearby handrails and walls to navigate her way to our destination without breaking stride. I really shouldn't be impressed anymore by what's essentially a second nature to her, but sometimes I can't help myself. When we reach the door that leads to the library, Lilly delivers three measured knocks on it. We wait a moment, but there's no response.
"Unless they're sitting right in front of the door, I don't think they could have heard those, Lilly. Let's just go inside. Hanako said that the door would be unlocked, right?"
We quietly open the door and go inside. I notice that only one corner of the library is lit, and in that corner, sitting at one of the tables, are three girls. Even from this distance I can make out Hanako's long, flowing hair, Naomi's bleached hairdo and Jun's brown hair underneath a red cap. The table they're sitting at is almost completely covered with books, notes and writing implements. Only one corner is occupied by other things, namely a collection of bowls, thermos bottles, a few bags of snacks and the leftovers of a takeout meal. Near the table is a small electronic heater against the chilly temperature in the room. I whisper to my daughter.
"They're sitting at the table at two o' clock. You know, they look so busy, I feel a bit guilty for imposing on them."
We approach the table until Naomi notices us, gets up and gives us an enthusiastic wave.
"Mrs. Sponsor! Welcome!"
Hanako, who was sitting with her back to the door, gets up and walks up to us.
"Hi Lilly. Hi Karla. It's good... to see you again."
Lilly walks up to her best friend and gives her a loving hug.
"Hanako, congratulations once more on succesfully passing the National Center Test again. You've done really well."
Naomi gives us a mock-offended pout.
"No congratulations for us? All three of us are still in the running, you know? Last year I already dropped out at this point."
"All three of you did great. When the three of you spent the weekend at our place I could already see how well you all work together. All of you succesfully passing the Center Test merely confirms this once again. You've brought great honor to The Broken Quills, and your sponsor is very pleased with all of you. Now all that remains is to finish what you've started. Onwards and remember: The quill may be broken..."
"...but it will never be silenced!"
Lilly giggles as Hanako, Naomi and Jun finish my sentence in perfect unison. This is probably the first time she's heard the club's official motto.
"Keep fighting the good fight, you three."
In contrast to Naomi's excited cheer, Jun merely giggles.
"We'll do our best, Mrs. Satou. By the way, would you like some tea? We still have some left here."
"Ummm... Jun? I'd... rather make some fresh tea for them."
"In the dorms."
"So we'll be calling it a day? Well, it'll be good to relax for a bit before Naomi has to take her beauty sleep. We'll need to be up early again tomorrow."
"I second that."
The girls load their supplies into their backpacks, and after Hanako has put the heater into the storage room and locked up the library we leave for the girls’ dorm. Upon reaching the hallway outside the dormitory's kitchen, Hanako turns to us.
"Uh... p-please make yourselves comfortable. I'll go and make us some tea."
"Hanako? Would you allow me to assist you? It'll be good to relive some of the good old times while I'm here."
As Hanako and Lilly enter the kitchen to prepare our drinks, I turn to Hanako's studying companions.
"So how are things holding up for you two?"
"Okay, I guess. I've had a few seizures over the last weeks, but they weren't as dramatic as the ones I had last year. They were more like blackouts than shortouts. I lucked out and didn't have any on the days of the Center Test itself. That nine-hours-of-sleep-a-day-schedule is a pain, but at least my seizures are much more infrequent now than they were the year before. I'll just have to try and study as efficiently as I can."
"That sounds like a plan. You know, this is just my personal opinion, but seeing how extremely focused Japanese exams are on rote memorization, I don't think pulling all-nighters is going to make much of a difference. When you're sleep-deprived the memory is often one of the first things to go."
"I still think nine hours is overdoing it, but for now I'm stuck with it. Hanako and Jun aren't allowing me to cheat, and if I don't follow my schedule then I think the head nurse is gonna have me kicked out of here before I can even make it to examination day."
"So the school has no objections to you studying here?"
"They probably wouldn't allow me to participate in any supplementary lessons, but they don't seem to have a problem with me studying on the school grounds. Good thing too. Gotta keep Jun and Hanako motivated."
Judging from Jun's obvious eyeroll at Naomi's last remark, her position of team motivator is a self-appointed one.
"So where do you sleep during your stay here?"
"Usually in Hanako's or Jun's room. I brought my own futon along with me. I usually switch every night."
"Heh, don't tell this to anyone else, but I've pulled a Hanako a few times too."
I laugh. What a weird saying.
"You'll have to explain that term to me."
"Pulling a Hanako is the practice of curling up on one of the library's beanbags and taking a nap there. Naomi and I have named the practice after its inventor - much to her embarrassment."
"Haha, I'll avoid bringing it up then. By the way, wouldn't it be safer to let Naomi sleep in Hanako's room all the time? Your... conditions... are not exactly compatible, are they?"
"It's not that bad. If Naomi has an episode while staying with me, I simply call a nurse and let her handle things. It's not like we're sharing a bed or something."
"Yeah, I also don't want to impose on Hanako too much. She likes her privacy, you know? I don't want to wear out my welcome just yet. I think I'm already stretching her hospitality enough as it is."
I give an understanding nod. Hanako's dorm room is the closest thing she has to a home. I get why she's usually reluctant to let people enter there.
"Yes, this seems like a good compromise. By the way, you're studying for different exams right now, aren't you?
Jun nods her head.
"I'm aiming for a study in information technology. Its entrance exam involves a lot of mathematics, so it's radically different from the one Naomi and Hanako are studying for. I think I'm the only girl in school heading in that direction right now, so rather than seek out some guy I don't know very well but who's also into IT-stuff and spend nearly twelve hours a day in a room with him, I decided to join these two. They often can't help me when I don't get a mathematical problem, but the atmosphere's pretty good and that's very important too."
"Yup. If we screw this up it won't be due to a lack of drive. All we have to fear is a stroke of bad luck."
Given that the event that forced her to drop out last year could easily repeat itself this year, I admire Naomi's spirit.
"Perhaps I can help with that. Lilly and I bought some good luck charms today. I'd like each of you to have one. It's not much, but maybe it'll help a bit. Please take them."
I open my bag and take two charms out of it that I hand to Jun and Naomi. Both of them look quite surprised.
"Awww, that's so sweet. Thanks."
"You really shouldn't have."
"It's okay. Like you said, there's still a bit of luck involved. Hopefully it'll be good this year and all three of you pass your entrance exams."
"With the Center Test behind us, we're already half-way there. We'll just take it one day at a time, right?"
Our conversation ends as we see Hanako and Lilly walking back into the room. Lilly has a tea pot in her hand, and Hanako's holding several bowls and some snacks. I throw another look at Naomi and Jun.
"Want to join us for tea?"
Naomi shakes her head.
"I can't go drinking caffeine this close to bedtime. Sorry. I'm gonna go and get myself a soft drink and then take a hot shower. Best thing to do before hitting the sack."
"I still have my mail and a few forums to check before bed, so I think I'll pass as well. Besides, I assume you came here to spend time with Hanako. It's probably more appropriate that you spend some time alone with her."
"Well, good luck in the upcoming weeks, you two."
Jun and Naomi give me a polite bow, exchange a few words with Hanako and then walk off. I turn to Hanako and Lilly.
"Do you two want to find a spot in the common room?"
"It's... a little crowded there right now. Can we go to m-my room instead?"
"I'm fine with that, Hanako."
"Me too. Let's go there. Do you want me to help either of you carry something?"
We make our way to Hanako's dorm room where Hanako and Lilly sit down on the bed, and I take a seat in Hanako's chair. We take some time to relax, and I take this opportunity to give Hanako her good luck charm too.
"To be very honest, I don't think that someone who has passed the National Center Test twice is in great need of it, but hopefully it'll still help."
Hanako fidgets a bit, still not really comfortable with praise.
"I'll k-keep it close."
As Hanako puts the charm on her nightstand, Lilly takes a sip of her tea and then poses the question that's probably been on her mind for some time.
"Hanako, it must be tough to spend so much time cramming once again. Are you... looking forward to the end of examination season?"
Most students around here would probably immediately say yes. But Hanako's situation's probably a little different from most. She's got a good head on her shoulders, that much is certain. Nobody ever believed her failure to pass her entrance exam last year was due to a lack of academic skills. The actual issue that became a spanner in the works had nothing to do with studying. That's both a relief and a worry. It means she has a good chance to make it in this year, but only if her heart is in it this time. If not, no amount of studying will help.
Hanako doesn't immediately answer. She closes her eyes and takes her time to think about Lilly's question.
When I accompanied her on that open house day nearly three months ago, I was worried that we were going to get a repeat of last year and that she'd be too worked up to focus on studying. But a few days later we received word that she passed her mock exams this time with an overall score of seventy six, and when she stayed at our home on New Year's Day, she seemed nervous, but not downright anxious or depressed. Maybe she managed to bounce back this time after all.
"I'm... not really sure. I'm trying not to think too hard about the f-future and just concentrate on studying. I think that's... best for now. I've been trying to take inspiration from Naomi."
Lilly looks puzzled at that.
"Naomi was forced to drop out last year b-because of a seizure. She's had some seizures since she came here to study with us. N-Not all that many, but... j-just enough to remind us that the risk is still there. She says she's dealing with the uncertainty by c-concentrating on the present and just trying to get through this one day at a time without worrying about what m-might happen the day afterwards. I'm... trying to do the same. I'm... n-not sure how well I'd do at university, but... I want to pass m-my exam, and I'm t-trying not to look or worry about things beyond that. I'll have t-time to t-think about it afterwards."
"Hehe, you're a tough young lady, you know that? I think you'll do fine."
She fidgets a little again and softly shakes her head, but there's a small trace of a smile on her face.
I give Hanako a conspiring look.
"You know, you do make me wonder about something. Does focusing completely on the present and living from day to day mean you're not preparing anything for Valentine's Day? That's in two weeks, isn't it?"
Hanako blushes at my remark, then smiles and shakes her head.
"N-Not really. Hisao said... that the best Valentine's gift for him from me would be if I passed my exams and b-became part of his everyday life again."
"There's a lot of truth in that statement. Gifts are nice, but no gift could compare to simply having you there with us again."
"We... d-decided to not to do gifts this time and d-do something together after... everything's over. To celebrate both Valentine's Day and White Day. And... m-maybe my... exam r-results too."
"Like a vacation?"
"Maybe. We haven't really talked about it much yet."
"Lilly's already having a field day with all the courtesy chocolate for her male classmates. The fact that there are more males than females in her class means it's almost like a day job."
"At least that means that in a month, on White Day, I'll get plenty of presents back."
"Yeah, your first White Day at a new school ought to be one heck of an experience. Expecting any confessions or love chocolate?"
Lilly smiles and shakes her head.
"Not at the moment. Fortunately, courtesy chocolate is quite tasty too."
"You seem pretty sure about that. You're positive you're not going to get at least one box of special chocolate..."
I pause a moment for dramatic effect and then continue while throwing a sneaky wink in Hanako's direction.
Lilly's cringe isn't as obvious as I was hoping for, but it's still noticeable enough to draw Hanako's attention and she lets out a gasp, followed by a broad smile.
"Mother... I think you may be jumping to conclusions."
"Maybe. But I notice that you're not telling me that I may be jumping to the wrong conclusions."
"I'm not sure how I'm expected to react to that."
"If you really want to keep tight-lipped about it, then I won't keep badgering you. But if there's anything you do wish to share, this might not be a bad time. What's probably not a good idea is to keep dancing around the issue. You're sharing a room with two journalists who have a nose for that kind of thing and being evasive is like a putting up a big, fat 'investigate me'-sign that cannot be ignored."
"You certainly are curious."
"If I wasn't, I wouldn't have studied journalism, dear. But I don't think I'm the only one. Hanako looks kind of interested too."
Hanako fidgets a bit, not really happy to be drawn into the conversation, but obviously not ready to deny her interest either.
"If L-Lilly doesn't want to talk about it..."
"It feels a bit like I'm being ganged up on here."
Lilly sighs softly.
"I don't think there's a lot to tell, but if you want to speculate I will tell you whether you're warm or cold."
I turn to Hanako.
"When I came to pick Lilly up today, her cupboard was filled with little boxes containing courtesy chocolate. It's still kind of early, but I guess she wanted to get it out of the way. The amount of boxes happened to be the same as the amount of males in her class."
"I'm surprised you can recall the exact amount of boys in my class, Mother."
"Well, I did accompany you to school for a while, remember? Anyway, all that courtesy chocolate was standard store-bought stuff. But there was also a half-full box of cocoa powder in your cupboard and that's not on your usual shopping list. So I got curious, and while I was in your room I noticed a box partially filled with chocolates under your bed. I guess you're making those chocolates yourself, but you're not finished with them yet. I thought it was impressive, by the way."
"I think so too. I'm sure it'll be appreciated by the… recepient."
"I take it that she didn't tell you that she was planning this, Hanako?"
"No. This is a surprise to me too."
I grin at my daughter.
"Warm or cold, Lilly?"
Lilly gives us a weary, almost resigned smile.
"You are rather warm, Mother. But like I said before, your conclusions might be a little premature."
Hanako turns towards her friend.
"You're... not sure yet whether to actually give them or not?"
"It's not meant to be a veiled confession. More like a sign of... above average appreciation. I'm still debating with myself on whether it's the right time or not. If it isn't, I'll make do with just the courtesy chocolate I have. Although... to be very honest... just courtesy chocolate wouldn't feel completely right either."
I rub my chin.
"So you also have courtesy chocolate for him, and if you decide it's 'the right time' then you'll give him your home-made gift somewhere in private, isn't that right?"
"Something like that."
"If the courtesy chocolate I saw on the table was all you have stocked for next week and you also have a batch for the person we're talking about then that person must indeed be a classmate of yours or the numbers wouldn't add up. I don't see you excluding one guy in class with this kind of thing. That narrows things down a bit. Heh, seeing that he's in your class, I've definitely already laid eyes on him before. Now I just need to determine what guy you'd be most likely to go for."
Lilly looks a bit uneasy at my deduction and doesn't answer. This is probably going way too fast for her. Hanako, on the other hand, suddenly gets a tiny sparkle in her eyes.
"Lilly? Is it that boy?"
Sounds like Hanako is in on some information I don't know about.
"Assistant-reporter Hanako, if you have some exclusive information that could help us solve this mystery then now would be a good time to share it. Lilly did say that we were free to speculate, didn't she?"
Hanako giggles a bit at the way I addressed her, but still looks to Lilly as if waiting for permission.
"To be honest I already regret saying what I just said, but go ahead, Hanako."
After a moment of hesitation, Hanako turns to me.
"During the... open h-house day, you told me that one of Lilly's classmates was chosen to... represent their class, but he threw his support behind Lilly instead. I believe that Lilly... invited him f-for dinner the week after. Now I'm wondering if they're... the same person."
"You invited him for dinner at your place?"
"I did. My participation in our faculty's events wouldn't have been possible without his support. I wanted to show him that I appreciated his efforts, especially since he's not the most extroverted person in class, and we hadn't really interacted much with each other prior to the ordeal with the committee. So I extended him an invitation into my home and cooked him dinner. I felt it was a good idea to get to know him a little better because I was curious about something."
Hanako almost immediately gives an understanding nod.
"You... wanted to know why?"
"Heh, you wanted to know if his actions were motivated by pity or by something else."
Lilly gives us a sheepish smile.
"I hope you two don't think any less of me for this kind of thinking."
"Seeing how your school year started with more than a wee bit of awkwardness, I can't really blame you."
"Fortunately my fears turned out to be unfounded. We've been on fairly good terms ever since."
"And now you're gonna give him some hand-made chocolate."
"As I said, I'm still thinking about it."
"You said earlier that you didn't know whether it was the right time or not. You think it's too early? I recall that Hisao enrolled at Yamaku in June and by the time you guys came to Scotland he was already in a relationship with Hanako. Things went pretty quickly between the two of you, didn't they?"
Hanako blushes a bit, but then smiles and nods.
"We s-started d-dating only six weeks after w-we first met each other. I... really s-surprised myself with that."
"You surprised me too. But it's not about that. It's just... there's an eventful time coming up, Hanako. Within just a little less than two months, you'll probably be moving in. I want to help you get settled and take some time getting used to life with a roommate. It'll be a change for me too, though certainly not a bad one."
"Uh... Y-you really don't have to t-take me into account."
"Well, she does have a point, Hanako. Assuming you make it into the same university as Lilly, there's no guarantee of a smooth start. Things took some getting used to even for Lilly. If I were in your position, I'd appreciate the ability to have some peace and quiet in a private place with nobody but Lilly and maybe Hisao around. You don't know in advance whether things are gonna get stressful or not."
"On the other hand, Lilly, it almost sounds like you're trying to keep some sort of schedule here. Which is pretty pointless because you can't plan stuff like this. Ever. Let's assume you go through with that Valentine gift. He might not reciprocate immediately or even not at all. He might bide his time to send you a gift of his own on White Day or he might decide that a month is too long a wait. He might decide to take things slowly and schedule a date or he might give you a confession on the spot. That's just a fraction of the scenarios that could take place. Which one is most likely in your opinion?"
Lilly looks sincerely flustered
"That's... difficult to say."
"Heh, get what I mean?"
"I think I do. But... even so, I'd like to think on it a little bit."
My gut tells me that this isn't all there is to it. Lilly seems more reluctant about this than I was expecting. Is it just because she wants to make sure she's available for Hanako at the start of the next school year. But even if Lilly were to get involved with someone I don't think it would really influence the amount of time and support she'd try to give Hanako. The guy would understand, wouldn't he? He'd better. After all, I don't think Lilly would be serious about someone who...
Right... that explains things.
"Ah... Mother, why are you addressing me with...?"
"Can I ask you something?"
"What if you got involved with someone, and then it turned out that he and your upcoming roommate didn't mix very well with one another?"
Hanako'd probably make an effort to keep her skittishness under control, but it took her quite some time to really warm up to Hiro and me. Probably over a year. I can imagine that not everyone would have the patience to deal with Hanako's awkwardness for months on end or longer. I see Lilly tensing up for just a moment. Looks like I hit the bullseye. Hanako looks very uncomfortable too.
"L-Lilly, you'd never... w-would you?"
"I really think we're getting ahead of ourselves."
"Yeah, we probably are, but I can imagine why it's tempting to just hold off the boat for the time being and not get too attached to someone before you know for certain he gets along well with your friends. It can save you a lot of heartache."
"I think the same is true for family, Mother."
I really wonder how things would have played out if Hiro and I had done things differently in the past.
"...I guess so."
I don't think I was entirely succesful at keeping the melancholic tone out of my voice as Lilly's ears perk up and a concerned frown appears on her face.
Chapter 60 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:25 am
"Is something the matter, Mother?"
"Nothing important. It's just... What you said just now made me wonder. What if you got involved with someone you really cared about, Lilly? And what if that person really cared about you? But your family wasn't happy with the person you were with? What would you do? Would you elope and try to forget your family, starting somewhere else with a clean slate? Or would you cut ties with the person you were with so you could continue living the life you had before you met that special someone?"
Lilly giggles awkwardly.
"That's a bit of a heavy-handed question, Mother. I toy with the idea of sending someone a Valentine's gift and you start talking about eloping almost immediately. Don't you think that's a bit of an overreaction?"
"Huh? Oh, there's no direct relationship. I'm just speaking hypothetically. I was interested in your point of view."
Lilly nods and takes some time to think.
"I think I've been in a similar situation not too long ago. When you and Father summoned me to Scotland, I was faced with the choice of abandoning the life and friends I had here or abandoning the chance to reconnect with my family and stay with Akira. It's not a choice I would wish on anyone."
How ironic that I ended up putting two of the people I care most about through a similar situation. History may not always repeat itself, but sometimes it does.
"I'm sorry, Lilly."
"It's okay, Mother. In the end, I do not believe that the choice was ever that black and white to begin with. There's often a third option between two extremes, and in the end, I'm really glad I took it. In the situation you described earlier, I could see myself doing the same. I would try to bring the two sides together, no matter how hard it seemed. Giving up on that would be giving up on who I am. I do not wish being forced to choose between loved ones ever again."
"No matter how hard it would be?"
My daughter gives me a playful smile.
"No matter how hard it would be. You have been warned."
Both Lilly and Hanako giggle at this. I'd probably do the same if the whole thing didn't feel so bittersweet to me.
"Heh, can't say I'm surprised at this. I'd be shocked if you had said anything different. And yet..."
"Mother... is anything wrong? You sound... almost sad."
"Just thinking about stuff."
"I don't understand why you asked me this question to begin with. Why dwell on such extreme situations?"
"Context, I suppose..."
"There's a promise I made to someone a little while ago. A promise to tell you a few things. What we just talked about fits into that."
"A few things?"
"Yes. This seems to be a good opportunity. Though I won't force you to listen."
Lilly's expression turns worried.
"If there's something you wish to share with me, I will listen. Is this about... you and Father?"
"Hehehe, don't worry, the two of us are doing fine. This isn't about anything that's happening now, but about something that has happened in the past."
"Very well then."
Hanako gives me an unsure look.
"Should I... l-leave you two alone?"
I shake my head.
"No, I think it'd be best if you stayed here. This is something you should probably hear as well."
Lilly looks puzzled.
"What's this about?"
"It's about what you said earlier. About bringing two sides together, no matter how hard it seems. About not being forced to choose between loved ones. It's an admirable mindset and not an unfamiliar one. Someone I know has always possessed the same mindset."
She thinks for a moment and then nods.
"Grandfather and Grandmother didn't approve of you when they first met you?"
"For a long time they didn't even know of my existence. Until we decided to get married, we kept our relationship a secret. When I first met your grandfather, your dad introduced me as a reporter planning to include the family company in an article. Your dad wanted to try the slow-and-steady method of introducing me, arranging initially 'coincidental' meetings and allowing them to slowly get to know me before taking the step of revealing our relationship. In the end, that approach was cut short before it could reap tangible results."
"They found out about you?"
"No. They merely became concerned with your father's ongoing status as an unmarried man and started taking steps to change that. They started planning meetings with bridal candidates for him. Your father was at a loss on how to deal with them. By the time he realized that stalling wasn't going to help, the fourth candidate had already been turned down."
"I never knew that. How did you and Father deal with this?"
"We knew that our options were limited, and time was running out. Your father didn't want to choose between me and his family, so we decided then and there that we wanted to get married. Hiro was faced with the intimidating task of confronting his parents and telling them about me, our relationship and our plans. He warned me that I'd likely be rejected, but promised me to give it his all. I promised in return that if his parents were to give in, I'd do my best to be a good and proper wife for him, even though it meant giving up a job I loved. And so your father went off to confront his parents - probably for the first time in his life."
"And apparently he succeeded or I wouldn't be here."
"I wasn't there when he spoke to them. But I talked to him on the phone afterwards. He sounded shaken and ill, but he said that his parents were 'considering their options'. I initially thought that was simply a polite way to refuse, but I later learned that your father's words were pretty much spot on when I got an unexpected visitor. Your grandfather dropped by to talk to me."
"How did it go?"
"When I was first introduced to him, your grandfather was very friendly and polite and quick to praise me to high heaven. When he visited me in my apartment though, there was something different about him. He was still smiling, but that smile didn't reach his eyes. It was kind of unsettling."
"At least he took the time to talk to you."
"He couldn't just ignore me. You see, over the course of our relationship I spent quite a bit of effort on scoping out business opportunities for your father's company whenever I was in the UK. I had a large network of contacts from my days as a business reporter that I was able to make use of. In fact, the company that was later bought by Satou Medical Technology and eventually evolved into what is now head office was a place I checked out and then recommended to your father who in turn passed it on to other folks in the company. His sense of obligation forced your grandfather to deal with me in one way or another."
Hiro was at first reluctant to bring it up, but I suppose he eventually decided to mention it anyway.
"I did my best to be hospitable and polite to him. Since he started his visit with an abundancy of small talk, I thought at first that he simply came to get a better impression of me. But then he started to talk about how he heard that the company was in my debt, and he came here partially for the reason of settling that. He offered me a small part of his own shares as compensation for my efforts. I wouldn't be able to attend board meetings of course, but those shares would have still made me a nice sum of money if the company kept doing well."
I have no doubt that he was motivated by a real desire to settle a debt he felt he owed, but I also felt like accepting that offer would be akin to selling out.
"I argued that I wasn't interested in money and I simply did what I did because his son was part of the company, and I wanted it to do well because I cared about him. That led us to the main reason of his visit: his son. I was baffled when his own take on the situation came up. He described the situation as a crisis in the family that, if left untended, could turn into a crisis in the company. He felt like his son had turned into someone he barely even recognized, and he felt it was up to him to get his son back to his senses. I personally thought he was overdramatizing the situation, though of course I didn't tell him that."
"A company crisis?"
"Uhuh. Hiro never told me how exactly his fateful talk with his parents played out, but I strongly suspect that things eventually escalated to the point where he at least suggested the possibility of eloping. That's probably what got his father so spooked. Well, that and the fact that Hiro never went against his parents before. He was pretty much the perfect son and successor: smart, a hard worker and well-regarded at the office. Suddenly dropping everything and walking out of his father's life would probably have caused quite a scandal."
"Would Father really have done that?"
"No, he wouldn't have. Ever since his second birthday he's been groomed to follow in his own father's footsteps someday. He spent nearly 25 years pushing himself to his limits to be the best he could. Throwing that away after all that time would have been like discarding a large part of his identity and would have made him feel like the first two decades of his life had no meaning. Also, every other person he knew was tied to his family or the company in some way. If we had eloped and it wouldn't have worked out, he would have had nobody left in his life. It's not something I would have ever asked him to do. But his own father didn't realize that. The fact that he didn't immediately recognize his son's bluff for what it was... was probably pretty telling of how well they really knew each other."
I take a sip from my tea before continuing.
"The fact that his son suddenly defied his authority wasn't nearly as big a problem as what he was planning to do. I was told that me marrying your father would almost certainly create problems and loss of face for the family."
Lilly looks uncomfortable.
"Because you're... not originally from Japan?"
"That's no doubt what it came down to. This has always been been a very homogenous country and not many foreigners take up permanent residence here. Intercultural marriages are still frowned upon in some circles, and one generation ago they were much more of a rarity than they are now. In a way I could understand why your grandfather didn't like the idea. I just... didn't feel like it was an insurmountable obstacle. And the alternative would have been to just break up and walk away, because the proposal your grandfather offered was... not realistic in my book."
"Yeah, I was told that a marriage would be troublesome, but he was willing to acknowledge our relationship under a few conditions. Those conditions included... well... not visiting him at the office or at home, not calling him at home, no interaction with the people close to him, always using protection and when the time came - not saying bad things about his wife to him."
I roll my eyes at the mere memory of it and can't hold back a few chuckles at the absurdity.
"Ha ha heh, sorry. It's just... You have no idea how strange it feels to hear a man in his fifties, with whom you've only interacted a handful of times, lecture you about using birth control. He he, well... I was able to keep a straight face at the time, thankfully."
Lilly and Hanako aren't exactly chuckling along with me. In fact, Lilly looks downright distraught.
"Mother... Do you really mean you were offered to be Father's...?"
"Mistress? Yeah. The reasoning was that your father and I could continue our relationship and keep seeing each other despite the whole marriage business, and as I long as I told nobody, nobody would ask. The fact that your grandfather was completely serious just showed how extremely different - probably even incompatible - our mindsets were. To him, a romantic relationship and a marriage were things that he could easily picture as separate. In his mind, his proposal was a reasonable compromise to solve the situation and satisfy both parties and acceptable as long as it didn't become public."
"Except it wouldn't have been satisfactory for me. I'd feel terrible knowing that any time your father'd be spending with me would be time away from his wife and perhaps later even his children. Not to mention it didn't really solve anything. It just made the problem of your father having to choose between me and his family a permanent one. Our relationship wouldn't be able to work in the long run under those circumstances. So I declined the request, in the most polite way I could think of."
"How did he react? You and Father married, so how did you change Grandfather's mind?"
"I didn't. We spent the rest of his visit talking completely past each other. I just kept politely asking him for a chance to prove that I could be a good wife to your father, and he just kept going on about how we'd probably be able to see each other more and that things would be better for everyone if I went along with his offer. Eventually he got sick of going in circles, excused himself and left. But before he walked out the door, he told me that he didn't believe I could truly be a good wife to his son. That the best thing I could do was pretend. Heh, I've often wondered during the years that came after whether he wasn't partially right about that."
"Anyway, a few days later I received a phone call from your father. He said he wanted us to meet after he got off work. He took me out to dinner, and he told me that your grandfather had changed his mind and that we were allowed to 'give it a try'. We took a walk in the nearby park afterwards, and it was there that your father officially proposed to me. I naturally accepted."
Hanako gives me a tiny smile.
"Parks are r-really good places for those sorts of things."
"Hehe, I think so too. I was really happy that night. I quit my job as promised and we got married soon afterwards. The wedding wasn't anything spectacular, just the two of us and a handful of family members in a remote location. We went to Scotland to celebrate our honeymoon. It seemed fitting to spend it in the location where we met each other. Those were some of the most wonderful days of my life. A few days before we were set to return, we took a long walk along the shores of Moray Firth and talked about the future. Hiro got a phone call earlier that day informing him that a promotion was waiting for him at the office. He was already due for promotion anyway, but he said they had decided to give him some extra responsibilities on top of the usual tasks. Things would get very busy for him after his return, and because he used all of his credibility with his parents in order to push our marriage through, he felt that he'd have to work hard to get back in their good graces. He warned me that my life was probably going to get pretty hard from now on and to persevere for both our sakes."
"Yes. We'd be moving in with your grandparents after our honeymoon, and your father explained to me that the position of the oldest son's wife was... pretty much the lowest spot in the hierarchy. There was this tradition of the mother-in-law putting the person who'd one day replace her as lady of the house through a hazing period of some kind. Your grandmother herself went through the same thing apparently when she married into the family. Perseverance in the face of hardships was considered an admirable trait, and your father believed that I'd be able to win your grandparents' respect and acceptance eventually if I could just manage to weather the storm long enough. Believe it or not, at that time I still thought it wouldn't be that bad and that this was just another challenge to take on and conquer. Heh, it turned out your father wasn't exaggerating."
Lilly lets out a sad sigh.
"Was this... first period... very hard, Mother?"
"When I moved in with the Satou family, I was prepared for a the life of a homemaker. I did my best to talk and act the way a good wife of an upper-class businessman was expected to talk and act. What I wasn't prepared for was the life of a slave. Which was probably a better description of my situation than 'daughter-in-law'. I was essentially expected to defer to my new mother-in-law in every way and she was set on micromanaging my entire day to a ridiculous degree. She did very little else all day long except ordering me around or criticizing my way of doing things. I had confidence in my homemaking skills before, courtesy of having lived on my own for quite some time, but they proved of little use to me because my way wasn't 'the right way' of doing things, so even if I did something correctly I'd still get criticized for it. Hpmh... I even required her permission to be able to leave the house, which I didn't get very often."
"H-How did Father react?"
"Whenever things got bad enough, your father would usually try to mediate between us and things would calm down for some time, only to inevitably start up again a week or two later. I kept telling myself that things would get better. That I was being tested. And your father would echo those sentiments. But this wasn't a process of months. For years, I couldn't do a single thing right, no matter how hard I tried. It didn't let up until Akira started saying her first words. And there were... things... that were disquieting from the beginning."
"Like whenever the whole family was sitting at the dinner table on Sunday and your grandfather wanted to know something about me. He often wouldn't ask me directly. He'd ask your father, even though I was sitting right next to him. Or whenever your grandmother had visitors. Usually I wasn't allowed to 'impose' on those meetings, but very often whenever those visitors and I were introduced to each other, I was introduced as a 'friend of the family'. That always felt very… wrong. Even though I was officially part of the family, I still very much felt like a stranger - sometimes even an intruder. I think that was the point."
Hanako gives me a pained look.
"That's... really horrible."
"In the end, what kept me going was Hiro's support. After his promotion, he got swamped with work, but every few days, especially after the bad ones, he'd leave a piece of paper beneath his pillow that either contained a nice quote from a book he read or was folded into an origami animal or flower. I'd in turn leave little notes of support in the lunches I made for him. He also tried to spend whatever free time he had with me, even though he was often exhausted from the long hours at work. Those little things gave me the strength to endure, even after I stopped believing that things would improve between my in-laws and me."
"For a long time I felt that if I could just keep giving it my all, the family would accept me. Until one of the family members broke that illusion for me. Your aunt Mayoi. She was still living at home as well when I moved in, but we never really interacted all that much. During the day, she worked as a secretary at a nearby company, and she often spent time with friends outside the home. She was nice enough, but always seemed to be wary of taking sides or getting too involved in the family drama. After my marriage to your father, I suspect a lot of pressure was put on her not to 'give the neighborhood anything else about our family to talk about' and I don't think she was happy with that. On the day before her wedding - at which point she'd quit her job, leave home and move in with the Hakamichis - she invited me on a nightly walk through the park. When we were there, she asked me if I was still planning to stick things out. I said I was, and she told me to look after her brother to the best of my ability. I asked her if she had any advice for me on how to improve my relationship with my in-laws. Even though your father and I moved into our own place a few streets away from the parental home, your grandmother would still drop by daily, and with Mayoi leaving she was getting more and more focussed on me again. She gave me a pitying look and said she didn't know what to tell me. I asked her if she was sure and she said she was. She then told me a story about something that happened at her work."
"Mayoi worked at a company very much like the family company's Japanese branch. A company with a very traditional business culture. Young men came into the workplace each April, straight out of university, and stayed there until they reached retirement age. For over 40 years, the company would be their world and their family. The relationship between the company and the employees was founded on mutual trust. The company would take care of them and wouldn't abandon them. If business would get tough, everyone would take a pay cut including the bosses, but there wouldn't be any layoffs. Mayoi couldn't even remember the last time someone was fired. In return for that life-time employment, the company expected loyalty and complete devotion. It worked for most people. But sometimes, there'd be an employee who just... didn't fit in. Who couldn't integrate into the team. Even though management wanted to get rid of him, they didn't like the idea of firing him because it would make the company look bad and the other employees might start worrying. So... other ways were often employed."
"Those kinds of employees would be asked to do more and more superfluous tasks. They'd have to write a report about the same thing twice or thrice a day only to have those reports trashed immediately afterwards. They'd be put on dead-end projects that were too underfunded to ever get completed. Their invitations to company get-togethers would start getting 'misplaced'. Usually, such a person would eventually get the hint and resign on his own. Every once in a while, someone would just keep going no matter how unhappy it made him. Mayoi once met such a person at work. She asked me what advice I would have for such a person. She said she felt that her brother was in denial about the situation. Because if he acknowledged that I was in the same position as that employee, he'd also have to acknowledge that... there was no third option. And suddenly all the belittlements and putdowns I endured over the years started falling into place."
"Why? If they really didn't want you to be part of the family, then why didn't they simply oppose the marriage?"
"Because your grandfather was convinced that his son would elope with me if he didn't give his blessing, and he wasn't yet ready to write off the son whom he had considered his faithful successor for so long and in whom he invested so much. That offer he made me prior to the marriage should have clued me in on how he saw me and how he saw your father's feelings towards me. I was considered a temporary whim - a passing craze that his son would eventually grow out of. All that needed to be done was weather the storm until your father's common sense returned and things would be okay again, so he saw no need for permanent measures. If I had become your father's mistress then that would have worked out perfectly, but I rejected that offer, so your grandfather instead decided to treat me like a bothersome employee. He probably thought that enduring hardships like that was something only the Japanese could do. He correctly guessed that I didn't have the heart of a homemaker and that I'd struggle to get accustomed to a strict and traditional domestic life, so he approved the wedding under the assumption that I wouldn't last more than a month or two and that if I'd leave on my own accord, your father would be too disillusioned and ashamed to follow me. With luck, I'd be gone before people even discovered that your father got married."
I sigh and shake my head.
"And so we spent years unknowingly pushing against each other. I was continuously telling myself that I was mere weeks away from their reluctant approval, and they were continuously telling themselves that I was mere weeks away from being fed up and walking away. Every New Year's Day, when everyone was acting nice for a change, I told myself that this was a new beginning, only for things to return to the way they were the week afterwards. To be honest, Mayoi's revelation was one of the low points of my marriage and that was probably the one moment where I wondered if I shouldn't just run away and leave everything behind."
"But you didn't."
"I regret having married into the Satou family, but I never regretted marrying your father. He put his relationship with his parents on the line for me, and I didn't want that to be meaningless or punish him for his parents' attitude. But what stopped me more than anything else was Akira. I realized that if I walked away now, I might never see my daughter again. Japan has no joint custody and I wouldn't have won a custody battle against the Satous. Heck, I wouldn't have ruled in my own favor if I had been part of the family court. And even if I would win, Akira would have lost her father in the process. So I stuck around, promising myself not to let my in-laws get to me and not let them win."
"Things remained pretty difficult over the years, but eventually even my in-laws started realizing that I wasn't going anywhere, and your father - thanks to his tireless mediating - was able to negotiate somewhat of an uneasy truce over the years. Or maybe not a truce as much as an agreement to make your and Akira's childhood as carefree as we could make it and to not let you both grow up in a family environment permeated by hostility and resentment. It wasn't great, and it was still a pretty lonely and isolated existence, but resigned tolerance disguised as acceptance was still a step up from how things were at the beginning. Things kinda limped on, the four of us always making sure that conflicts were out of your earshot, until the day your grandfather decided to announce his definite retirement and your father got his ultimate promotion and relocation to the Inverness branch, which had been changed into the company's head office not too long before."
"I remember the evening Grandfather announced it. You acted happy for Father."
"Smiling and acting happy while you're secretly feeling miserable is a skill just like any other, Lilly. You get better at it with practice, and by that time I had enough practice to be a pro. But that evening, it was harder than it had ever been before to maintain my composure. Your father was the one person who both knew and accepted the real me. He was the one person I could lean on for emotional support. And now he was moving to the other end of the world. I felt truly lost. It's funny because I used to be a very independent person."
"But then, soon after, he summoned you to join him."
"Yeah. Things were getting more and more difficult for me here. Your grandmother's health had been on the decline ever since your grandfather's surgery, and it deteriorated further after he retired. There were tensions between them, and your grandmother started taking out her frustration on the person who was designated to look after them, which was me. I started wondering how long it was gonna take before I'd start getting ulcers and high blood pressure too. Then your father visited Japan again. He told me that he needed me in Scotland and said that he arranged for me to be able to join him there. He told the board of directors, consisting of your grandfather and his two brothers, that he needed a close advisor he could trust who had intimate knowledge of western culture who could counsel him on how to run the company with a minimum of cultural conflicts. He said he wanted me to be that advisor for some time. Your grandfather was heavily opposed to the idea at first, stating that the wife of an oldest son was supposed to take care of her in-laws. That's how the custom went, and that's how things had always been. But his two brothers liked the idea and overruled your grandfather's vote. For once the tradition of the company taking precedence over the family worked in my favor. Eventually your grandfather gave in under the condition that if I was no longer needed there, I'd return here to look after him and his wife again, as per tradition. Your father accepted that compromise. We hired a nurse and housekeeping staff for your grandparents and I finally came to live in my homeland again - but without you, as much as I had wanted otherwise."
Lilly nods sadly.
"Father always said that I had to stay behind because of my education. But Akira felt that there was another reason."
"I know what Akira used to think. She thought that your father felt that a blind daughter could harm his image there. But Akira was wrong about that. Culture in the UK isn't quite as... uncomfortable... about the subject of disabilities as it is here. Your father could have paraded you around all day long and nobody would have thought of him as confrontational. I knew that, and so did he. That was never the reason. Your education... truly was the reason he decided you had to stay in Japan. There were just... a few details he omitted."
"About three years after Akira was born, we moved from the Satou parental home to a place of our own. It was still within walking distance from my in-laws, but I was still happy to at least have some breathing room. Your father mentioned that then would be a good time to make my 'park debut'. It's what they call the process of taking your child to the park for the first time and join one of the cliques of mothers hanging out there. Your father reminded me that our neighborhood was a very tight-knit community where everybody knew everybody, and the mother groups in the park were even more tightly-knit. He urged me to be on my best behavior, respect the hierarchy and defer to the mothers in charge. I spent most of the evening practicing my introduction, but when the day of my park debut came, things went... really badly. I pulled off my introduction exactly the way I practiced it in front of your father, but I was almost immediately told that there was no place for me in the group. A few days later, I had tried with all the cliques in the area, but I was turned down wherever I went. At first I didn't really care. I first told myself that if those cliques wanted to have nothing to do with me then that was their loss. But then those same mothers started keeping their children away from Akira and wouldn't let them play with her. It turned out that joining a group wasn't as optional as I had thought. Akira was three years old at the time. For the first time I realized that even though I was no longer confined to the Satou home, the world outside its walls wasn't much different. I was still an outcast."
I later learned that several of those mom groups contained family members of the candidates that Hiro turned down. I doubt I ever had a chance to begin with.
"Your father and I met with your grandparents to discuss the situation. Your grandmother asked me why I was so surprised. I imposed myself on a tight-knit community and the community reacted accordingly. Your father reminded her that this was about Akira, not me and that she used to be a 'boss mom' of one of those groups herself. He said that she'd probably be able to smooth this over since the members would respect her seniority and name. I didn't think she'd go for it at first, but she agreed to help without any further urging. She said that she'd take Akira to the park in my place while I did chores at their house in her place. It wasn't an ideal solution and she'd often remind me of my failings as a mother after those park trips, but at least Akira was able to play with fellow children again. Still, your grandmother reminded us that she'd only be able to smooth things over with the mothers. If the children wouldn't accept Akira as one of them, there wouldn't be much she could do. She also reminded me that we were only fighting the symptoms of the problem and that due to our selfishness our children would probably never be fully accepted among their peers. You have no idea how much it hurt to hear that."
Lilly doesn't say anything, but the pain is evident in her expression. Hanako, ever thoughtful, wraps her arms around her best friend and holds her gently.
"Back at home, your father and I discussed the talk we had with your grandmother. I asked him if she was exaggerating or not. He admitted that it was true that Japanese with mixed blood tended to receive mixed treatment. Some were accepted without much trouble while others remained forever foreigners in their own land. He argued that it was our responsibility to limit the odds of the latter happening to our children."
"We couldn't do much about the fact that you and Akira didn't look the same as full-blooded Japanese, but we could do our part to make sure you'd end up acting the same. We figured that if you didn't act any different from others, people'd be more likely to look past your foreign appearance and acknowledge you as one of them. Your father didn't think there was a problem in us teaching you to speak English on the side, but your upbringing had to be Japanese in spirit. We could make sure you could speak Japanese without an accent. We could make sure you'd behave with all the mannerisms and etiquette a well-raised Japanese was expected to show. So that's what we did. We picked schools for you that were well-regarded and I... I continued the act I started mastering while living with your grandparents, so I could set the best possible example for you and your sister - even if the person who was raising you wasn't... the real me and even if it would eventually make me feel like an outsider if everything went right. It was the best I could do."
"When your father told me I could join him in Scotland, but that he wanted you to stay here, I was horrified. What kind of parents would leave their child behind while moving to the other end of the world? But your father reminded me that our move was temporary. A simple shift in the European or Asian market could mean he would be relocated. One of the executives in the Japanese branch unexpectedly dropping out would mean he'd be relocated. And even if nothing like that happened, the board would eventually appoint a successor and request him to join them back in Japan. No matter what happened, we'd eventually return here. And if we took you with us to Scotland, that meant you'd probably have to go back with us when the time came. But you were twelve at the time and still developing. Your father worried that if you spent all your teenage and most of your adolescent years in a western country, you'd also adopt the manners and the mindset. And when the time came to return to Japan, he was afraid that you wouldn't be able to sufficiently adapt anymore and that you'd truly be an outsider for the rest of your life. Heh, that's your dad - always thinking about the long game. One time I would have fought his decision tooth and nail, but given my own experiences, I... I... couldn't, so... we..."
I swallow a lump in my throat. The next part's even going to be harder.
"When I arrived in Scotland, your father told me why he had me come over. This wasn't just about someone giving him cultural advice. He wanted to make amends to me for the hardships I endured in the past... because he couldn't bear to give up his family and his legacy. He told me that while I was in Inverness, I should live my life to the fullest without worrying about him or let him or anything else hold me back. And when I felt rejuvinated and ready to face the challenges back home, I should return to Japan. So that's how my new life in the city of my birth started. We had cleaning staff to take care of the chores, so I had no obligations at our new home. I started working at the PR department at head office and quickly worked my way up to a managing function there through my efforts and dedication. The overwork I voluntarily put in didn't even tire me out, it invigorated me. I started getting involved in the local neighborhood committee. People paid attention to what I had to say and didn't dismiss my comments with a generic 'you say very interesting things' like at those blasted PTA meetings in the past. I started setting up a new network of journalistic contacts. I joined a cycling group. I started playing bridge with the vice-director's wife and her friends. I started writing and submitting articles in magazines and local newspapers. I started getting involved with charity groups. I started making friends. I... *sniff* I..."
I can't bear to finish my sentence, but then Hanako finishes it for me in a barely audible whisper.
"Y-You s-started... living."
I sniffle as I hear those words.
"I'm s-so s-sorry, Lilly. For everything."
"Mother, were you... happy there?"
"I'm not sure. It felt good, most of the time, as long as I kept busy. But the brief moments I didn't have anything to do, I was reminded of the fact that I bought this new life by selling out my family. You, Akira, even your father. I promised your father that whenever he needed my support or company, he just needed to say so and I'd drop everything for him. But he never took me up on that offer even once. Not because he didn't feel like a fish out of the water or lonely at times, but because he felt obliged to give me as much space and time for myself as possible. It wasn't until his hospitalization that I realized how much I must have neglected him over the years, even if it was with his own consent. We... slowly started drifting apart over the years even though I'd see more of him in a day than I used to in a week. Because..."
My stare shifts to the floor. Even though Lilly can't see me, I still can't look her in the eyes.
"I probably wasn't meant to stay as long as I did. There were several times when I was on the verge of telling your father that I was going back, but I always ended up chickening out at the last moment. There was always a company goal or a project or a commitment that I felt I still had to finish. There were always things I still wanted to do. So I never came through. Your father was aware of this too. I could see it in his eyes whenever we were alone, and I started growing more and more uncomfortable in his presence as a result as time went on. Ironic, considering the fact that he used to be a source of comfort for me. But even so, he never had the heart to tell me that I had to go back, so things limped on."
It's almost as if our roles had reversed when we took up residence in Inverness.
"Then your aunt Stella fell ill. When I visited her, she made a very unusual request of me. She said she wanted to see you and Akira again. I thought she was terminal, so I felt I had no choice. Heh, I later learned that while she really was in bad shape, terminal was an exaggeration. She simply did what she did because she felt that I was struggling with the family matters, and this was her way of trying to help me. She always was a bit of a busybody. It did make it impossible to ignore the emotional chasm that had grown between myself and my children, and while you were in Inverness I realized that something had to be done or else I'd return to Japan one day and find both my in-laws and my children hating me."
"I would never..."
"So I approached your father and asked him to reunite our family, even if it was for a little while, so we could mend the rifts between us and be a true family again. I eventually managed to convince him. He too felt the distance that formed over the years and the two of us agreed that Akira might actually be happier if she moved to Scotland."
"But what about Father's reason for having me stay in Japan?"
"Your father refused my request at first, even when I pointed out that you nearly finished your education already. He ultimately conceded when I upped the stakes. I swore to him that... if you moved to Scotland... and you couldn't adapt there or weren't happy... not only would you be allowed to return to Japan, but... I'd come with you. Either way, you'd have your mother back. That's what made your father change his mind. Heh, I think that in the end we were probably both betting on different outcomes, only for the referee to make a call that neither of us had expected. I was saddened by your decision to stay in Japan, but at the same time what you said about wanting to go out of your way to reconcile with us, even after everything that happened, made me really happy. I decided for myself that if we were only going to have brief periods of time to get reaquaintanced with each other, I didn't want you to reconnect with the person I had been pretending to be, but the person I truly was. And maybe - when you and your sister were ready - entrust you with my own perspective of everything, even if it might make you think less of me than you used to."
In the end, it was probably for the best. My promise to Hiro got the job done, but could have resulted in a whole new mess in the long run.
For a very long time, Lilly's silent as she lets everything I just told her sink in. Eventually, she gives me an unsure look that appears almost guilty.
"Mother? After you and Akira returned from America, I asked you and Father to return to Japan and both Akira and Father sided with me. I never knew... I mean, how did you really feel about that?"
"How I felt about it was likely how Hanako must have felt when she was told to go to that second open house day. I felt really anxious, frightened even. I felt that way even during my trip to the US, before you asked us to consider moving. But, like Hanako, I think that what happened was really for the better."
"If I had know, I wouldn't have asked you to return."
"That's why it's good that you didn't know back then. I was uneasy about going back, but the day after I dropped you off at Yamaku, I had a meeting with your uncle Koji at the Japanese branch. He told me that your father confided a few things in him regarding our family situation and that, as a gesture of goodwill towards his new brother, he wanted to help. He mentioned that his wife wouldn't be accompanying him since she didn't speak English, but that she was okay with looking after your grandparents in my place. Koji and your father decided to keep part of the housekeeping staff on board to take most of the everyday chores out of her hands and split the costs between them. Koji also asked me to stay involved with the Inverness branch and act as his advisor and confidant in terms of dealing with the staff, like I had done with my husband. I told him I would be honored to help him run things smoothly in whatever way I could."
"And that's when you decided to come back?"
"I had a long conversation with your father over the phone. He told me that he also wanted to return to Japan and that he wanted me to make a new start there together with him. He said he also understood my reluctance, but he stressed that history didn't always repeat and that not all places were as traditional and conservative as the neighborhood where we spent most of our marriage. He said that we could go wherever I wanted and that if I agreed to move, he'd let me decide where our new home would be. After that phonecall, I took a long, hard look at myself and asked myself if I was really ready to give things another try. That was probably when I realized how cynical I had become. In the end, I decided to try to have faith and give things one more try and spent the rest of my stay visiting and looking into various neighborhoods until I found one that gave me a good feeling."
I get up and give Lilly a comforting pat on the shoulder.
"In the end, Lilly, what you did was for the best. I think my life has truly taken a turn for the better now. The neighborhood we ended up settling in has been a lot more welcoming than our old one, and I'm on fairly good terms with both of our neighbors and several other people who live nearby. I can't say we're extremely close, but I don't think that's really necessary. In public, I try to conform to expectations others have of me while in private, I can be myself. I can visit my friends and colleagues in Scotland whenever I want, and when I'm at home I try to be there for your father. When your father and I were still dating, we respected each other's cultural background and often managed to laugh about the idiosyncracies we perceived in each other's cultures. When we got married, that balance was lost but I feel like we've finally regained it. For the first time in a very long time I feel like I don't have to choose between my family's happiness and my own. Things aren't perfect yet, but I have good hopes for the future."
Lilly sullenly nods, but doesn't reply. She looks tired and even a bit confused. I sigh.
"It was a quite a bombshell I just dropped, isn't it?"
"You should take your time to let it sink in a bit."
"I think I will do that. Mother, would it be okay with you if I... went to get a bit of fresh air?"
"Not at all, dear."
Chapter 60 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:26 am
Lilly gets up and softly walks out of the room. As she closes the door behind her, Hanako gives me a worried look. I try to give her my most reassuring smile.
"Try not to worry too much about her, Hanako. Lilly's a strong girl. She'll sort this out and be perfectly fine afterwards."
She gives me an unsure look.
"K-Karla, is it really okay for m-me to h-have heard all of this?"
"I think it is. Lilly may have quite a few friends, but I don't think she has many confidants. You and Akira are probably the two people she's most likely to approach when something's bugging her. It'll be good if she can talk about this with both of you."
Hanako smiles and nods.
"There's a second reason too. It relates to something else I wanted to talk to you about."
I nod and give her a sincere look.
"Just this once. It's about... something we did slightly over a year ago."
Hanako cringes a bit as she realizes what I'm talking about and start fidgetting nervously.
"Looking back on the whole thing, we could have handled it a lot better. The timing was pretty bad and we could have done a better job at getting our intentions across too. I'm really sorry about that. We probably caused you a lot of unnecessary stress."
"It's... o-okay, really."
"I often wondered if we wouldn't have been better off simply offering you a home."
"Uhuh. A place to feel safe. A place to feel welcome. A place to belong. Everybody needs a place like that. We at least wouldn't have ended up casually insinuating that we could so easily replace the people that you lost."
"That home's there for you if you ever need it. Don't be a stranger, okay?"
I move my chair a bit closer to the bed and look at Hanako.
"You know, to be honest, I'm still kind of hoping you'll give our offer some consideration."
I let out a sad sigh.
"After I got married and it became clear that my in-laws didn't really want me around, I spent a lot of time wondering if they hadn't merely consented to the marriage because they felt they owed me something for the favors I did the company. The was a pretty awful feeling. I'd never offer to take somebody in if I felt that the best I could do was tolerate them. We're thankful for what you did for us of course… but that was never the only reason. Hanako, if I can ask: why did you help my husband back then?"
"Uh... I... I c-couldn't just do nothing."
"Sometimes, you don't need a reason for something. Sometimes, you just do something because it's the right thing to do. I think that what you did and what we did are both examples of that. Let's just forget about the obligation stuff already. It stopped being important when we got to know you better, and frankly, my husband's entire life has already been dictated by nothing but obligations upon obligations. I'm sick and tired of those. Let this be about something other than social debts for a change. Let this be about doing what I think would make everyone happiest. You already have a really special bond with both Lilly and Akira. Given how different those two are, I think that's pretty unique and you'd fit in well with them. Last New Year's Day made that pretty clear to me. This is just a hunch, but I think everything that Lilly did to bring our family closer together... she didn't do it just for herself or for us. I wouldn't be surprised if she did what she did with you in mind too. Most importantly, I... also feel a sense of kinship with you myself."
She gives me a puzzled look.
"A... sense of k-kinship?"
"When we first met all that time ago and I shook your hand, you gave me a very telling look as I looked you over. It was what my husband would call a 'please don't judge me'-look. He says that in the past I sported one myself at times when dealing with my in-laws. Even before I got to know you better and learned that we shared a passion for writing, you already gave me a special feeling - a bit like a kindred spirit."
"A kindred spirit..."
Over the course of last year, I've come to the realization that there have been several motives for our family's offer to Hanako. Not all of them were particularly selfless. My husband felt he owed her something and he was eager to repay that debt. Lilly was desperately trying to fix a mess she held herself responsible for. And I eagerly jumped at the opportunity to show myself and the world that I wasn't the horrible mother I came to believe myself to be over the course of Akira's and Lilly's childhood. I can't blame Hanako for suspecting ulterior motives on our behalf and latching onto them. But I also came to realize that in a way, Hanako was just like us. Hiro, Akira, Lilly and myself...we've all experienced the feeling of being the odd one out among the rest, of not truly belonging, both as individuals and as a family unit. We've all experienced periods in our lives where we felt isolated and lonely and I think Hanako, more than anyone else, can relate to that. More than anything else, I've come to believe that that aspect was what made me relate to her as strongly as I do.
"I won't insult you by claiming that our situations are exactly the same. I've never been hospitalized and I wasn't an innocent victim either. Back then I was stupidly overconfident. Up to that point, I managed to succeed at whatever I tried my hand at as long as I put in enough hard work. I got good grades in school, my bosses were happy with my work, and I picked up Japanese pretty quickly. I thought it didn't matter that Hiro's parents weren't crazy about me as long as I'd get a foot in the door and an honest chance to prove myself and make them like me. I felt like I could take on the world until the world took the gloves off and showed me how hard it could push back. That was a pretty harsh lesson. Still... I know first-hand what isolation and exclusion feel like. I know what you were going through when you confronted your own anxieties at that second open house day, and I felt really happy and proud afterwards when you managed to pull through. I think... I can empathize with you. At least, better than most people. I like what I've seen of you and learned about you so far. If possible, I'd like to get to know you even better and I know that the same is true for my husband."
I shake my head, softly put my index finger on her lips to cut off her protest and give her a sweet smile. Then I use my hand to gently brush the lock of hair in front of her right eye aside. She shivers a bit, but doesn't resist. I look into her eyes and we share a brief look of mutual understanding. Then I lean in, give her a tender kiss on the forehead and pull her into an embrace.
"You are you, Hanako, and everyone has damage. You are not strange and... you are not alone."
I pull her closer and whisper in her ear.
"You're not alone."
I feel Hanako returning my hug, and we stay like that for a while, neither of us feeling the need to say anything. Hanako's embrace is gentle with just a trace of firmness in it and I instinctively feel that what we're sharing right now is a gesture of mutual comfort. A warm and loving mutual comfort. Eventually we let go, and I sit down next to her on the bed. Hanako's still not saying a single word, but there's a trace of a smile on her face. Not really sure how to continue our previous conversation, I decide to finish with some small talk.
"You know what day it is next Saturday, don't you?"
"Yes, Lilly's birthday."
"This is a busy time for you, but do you think you can make it?"
"Hisao's coming too. He bought a p-present on both our behalves. I'm... not staying over t-this time, but I want to be there for a few hours."
"One of us could give you a ride if you like."
"Akira... already mailed me and offered t-to pick me up. I can study in the car."
"That's assuming that that girl can keep silent for hours on end. I hope she's up to the challenge."
Hanako giggles, and I chuckle along as well. After the dramatic subject of this evening, some light-heartedness feels surprisingly good. I ruffle her hair a bit and then prepare to get up.
"Well, I'd better go and get Lilly. It's still quite a ride back and... maybe she wants to talk some more."
I get up and expect Hanako to do the same, but before she does she reaches back and puts something soft in my hand.
"T-This is for Lilly."
"Huh? A plush puppy?"
She gets up, we take the tea set to the kitchen, and then we head for the exit. As we exit the building, Hanako turns to me, fidgetting nervously.
An awkward silence. It looks like she's trying to say something, but isn't sure how to say it. Eventually, she sighs and gives me a meek smile.
"Thanks f-for visiting me today."
"It's always a pleasure. Good luck with your studying."
We find Lilly sitting on a bench just outside the dorm building. We both say goodbye to Hanako and walk back to the car. As we get in, I give my daughter a little sideglance. She's been unusually quiet. She smiles sweetly when I give her Hanako's gift, mouths a soft 'thank you, Hanako' and takes some time to run her hands across its furry back, but she still doesn't say anything else.
"Lilly... if there's anything else you want to know..."
"Mother... Can I... ask you something?"
"What... do you think of me?"
"While I was growing up, you were always the person I tried to be like... the person whose example I tried to follow. To make you proud of me. I've known for some time that the person in whose footsteps I tried to follow... wasn't really you. But I never realized that you actually hated being that person. It makes me wonder how you see me."
"Hey now! Surely you're not worried that I secretly look down on you, are you? Because I actually think that you're a much better person than I am. Assuming, of course, that the person I know you as is also the person you truly are and not just some sort of act you've been putting on for my benefit."
Lilly shakes her head.
"And are you happy being you?"
"I... I am."
"Heh, then I see no problems. I think that in the end both you and Akira ended up becoming the people you've always been deep inside. The more I get to know you, the more you start reminding me of your dad. Heh, the persona I put up for your and Akira's sake was largely based on the tips and pointers he gave me, so in the end I feel that you still ended up following in one of your parents' footsteps to a large degree."
My daughter nods and smiles. My words seem to have put her at ease. What I said just now reminds me of something else, though, and I sigh.
"Your dad often said that Akira reminded him of me. That only makes me feel like we failed her even more. We gave her an upbringing geared towards making her act like a proper Japanese even though it often made her miserable. And now she's moved to a country with a completely different culture, I can't help but feel we could have spared her all of it. If only I had known. I'm not sure if we'll ever be able to make it up to her."
"Some time ago, she told me that you apologized to her while you were visiting. Did you... tell her what you told us just now?"
"I did. She was the one who made me promise to tell you all this. We were on a pub crawl that night and things started getting tense between us as usual. I eventually decided I didn't have much to lose by simply coming clean about everything, despite the possibility that she'd hate me even more afterwards. The worst outcome would have been getting permanently outed from her life, and I didn't feel the current situation was all that much better. I also told her that we were proud of her - for having lived such an independent life, for passing her law exam - and most of all for having looked after you in your grandparents' place. It felt embarrassing, but also good. Heh, the fact that I already had a few drinks by that time probably made it easier."
"How did Akira react to all of this?"
"I think her exact words were: 'We really are one royally screwed-up family, aren't we?'"
Lilly smiles wistfully.
"I think we're getting better though. I noticed that there was something different about Akira last New Year's Day. She seemed... more at ease than before. Like part of her was finally at peace. Hanako noticed it too. It'll take time, but Akira will move on eventually."
"Time will tell. These kinds of wounds take a long time to heal. I speak from experience."
"Mother, what do you think of Grandmother and Grandfather? Do you... hate them?"
"I used to. There's no use denying that. Nowadays... I'm not really sure. If you want to visit them at any time and your father's not available, I'll be happy to drop you off there. But I have no desire for any interaction with them myself and the feeling's probably mutual. They finally have a new daughter-in-law now, one who apparently gets along with them a lot better. No point in opening old wounds."
"They always seemed strict, but I never felt that they treated me unfairly."
I have to give them credit for at least keeping their ire focussed on me, even though they were always quick to blame me for everything, like Akira's tomboyish personality and even Lilly's blindness - at least for the first couple of months. Still, Hiro's mom could have refused to take our children to the park or attend those PTA meetings in my place. They obviously didn't want to punish our children for things they blamed me for. Despite my own feelings, I still believe that both of them cared about Akira and Lilly.
When Hiro's father stripped his son of his status as heir, I was very upset at first as it felt that he was callously tossing his loyal successor aside, but Hiro suggested that maybe his father felt that enough was enough, and he was setting his son free from his responsibilities at long last. I don't think a new start would have been possible without it, so in the end it worked out well.
"Their issue has always been with me and not with you. Anyway, I don't really hate them these days. At most, I pity them."
I never really got the impression that they had great chemistry together. They've always lived their own lives. I don't really think they would have gotten married if things hadn't been arranged for them. I wonder if Hiro's dad ever figured out that he was, in fact, the cause of his wife's sudden declining health. 'Retired husband syndrome' is what they apparently call it over here, and it's been hitting the salaryman generation pretty hard. I can't help but feel somewhat sorry for two people who never learned to spend extended amounts of time in each other's presence, but who are now being forced by the circumstances to do exactly that.
"I'm not sure if that's an improvement."
"Trust me, it is. I have no desire to go out of my way to make their lives miserable, but I won't be jumping through hoops anymore to win their approval either. I've spent enough of my life trying that already. If I have to devote energy to strenghtening my bonds with people, there are more worthwhile pursuits than your grandparents. Like Akira..."
I start the car's ignition and grin at my daughter.
"You know, this whole evening's been pretty intense. I could really use a beer about now."
"I think I know what you mean. I'm feeling the same thing."
"You're not asking me for beer, are you?"
"I've always been more of a wine person myself."
I roll my eyes.
"You'll turn 20 in about a week, and Akira's probably gonna bring enough wine along to permanently scar your liver with, and you still want to drink now?"
"Surely only one glass isn't a problem? It's under the supervision of an adult, after all."
I consider protesting, but then realize that we've both had a rough evening and could use some unwinding.
"One drink for both of us then. Let's see what's still open around here."
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:26 am
My alarm blares into my ears, only to be swiftly silenced when a lucky swat from my hand hits the off-button. My body switches into auto-mode, carrying my subconcious self out of bed.
I didn't sleep all that well this night, and my body and mind are feeling the results right now even though I set my alarm to go off two hours later than I initially intended to get up.
I still manage to get myself to the bathroom and take a quick shower. Even after drying myself off and getting dressed, I still feel rather sleepy, but the shower refreshed me enough for my brain to quickly bring a nagging thought to my attention.
This has been the last time I've taken a shower here.
My mood instantly turns a bit gloomy again, just like last night when I realized that this was the last time I'd spend the night in my trusty little dorm room.
Today is graduation day. I've only taken one entrance exam this year and the results for that exam will come in today, but Miss Yumi has already told me that it's unlikely for Yamaku to let me stay here for another year. No matter what my exam results will be, today will be my last day here.
I've been trying to keep busy ever since the day of my exam, focussing on my librarian duties and helping out at the newspaper club, trying to live in the moment.
Maybe it hasn't just been about trying to keep my thoughts off my pending departure from this school. Maybe I've also simply been trying to create as many memories of Yamaku in the few days I had left. Still, the fact that it all ends today - that a very important part of my life ends today and that it will be replaced by... something else starting tomorrow - weighs pretty heavily on me.
I haven't managed to pack all my stuff yet. Doing that for longer than a minute feels like dipping a wounded limb into a vat of salt water. Hisao and his parents will be here today. So will Lilly and her family. Maybe they'll be willing to help me pack, so I'll spend less time agonizing over this.
Deciding to put off packing my things or even staying in my room for an extended amount of time for the time being, I leave my nightgown on my bed and head for the kitchen area. Judging from the noise coming from the common room, it's too crowded to comfortably have breakfast there, and I don't feel like eating in my room either, so I'll just eat in the kitchen today.
There are barely any people in the kitchen when I come in, but fortunately Jun is among the handful of people present, and she greets me with a friendly wave. I return her greeting, prepare my breakfast as quickly as I can and then join her at the table where she's sitting.
"Good morning. Feeling nervous already?"
"I'm... not really sure."
"It'll be fine. You'll see. We all studied hard. If I can make it, you can too."
I just smile and nod at Jun. She's been in pretty good spirits herself ever since her own results came in three days ago, and I don't want to ruin her mood with wistful thoughts.
"I suppose... We'll see soon enough."
"If the suspense is getting to you, maybe we can simply have a look here and now."
"Now? I d-don't think they've already posted the results on the board."
"That's not a problem as long as you still have a copy of your answer sheet. Or rather the number that was printed near the corner. You can use it to look up the results online. I just need to get my laptop from my room."
I'm not really sure if I'm ready to already hear the results even though it may take some of the pressure off my shoulders. Before I can decline Jun's offer, we're suddenly startled by a loud beep coming from Jun's bag.
"Oh, text message. You don't mind if I have a look, do you?"
Jun takes out her phone and looks at the display.
"It's from Naomi. I hope she didn't get delayed."
"What does it say?"
Jun opens the message and then a baffled expression appears on her face.
"What on earth is wrong with you?"
"Uh, did she text something strange again?"
"Yes, no, I mean it literally says: 'What on earth is wrong with you?' Seriously."
"Is it a reaction to something you sent her earlier?"
"I can't think of anything. I'll just ask her to explain herself."
Jun immediately starts hitting keys on her cell phone, spelling out each word she types.
"What... are... you... talking... about?"
With a slightly exaggerated motion, Jun pushes the send button and puts the phone down while rolling her eyes at me. A mere second later though, two electronic beeps can be heard from somewhere outside the room. Jun's eyes widen in surprise, and then she lets out a groan.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"N-Naomi? Are you there?"
Grinning widely, our mutual friend with the bleached hairdo barges into the room, still holding the cell phone that gave away her presence.
"Were you listening in on us just now?"
"Hahaha, surprised you, didn't I? Congratulations yet again, college freshman Yamazaki."
Naomi walks up behind Jun and grabs her into a not-too-gentle hug. Jun's a bit startled, but then smiles proudly.
"So you've already gotten your results?"
While Naomi's still squeezing the breath out of Jun, another familiar voice is heard from beyond the doorway.
"Good morning everyone."
To my delight, the person walking into the kitchen is noone other than Hisao. Naomi snickers.
"I ran into the boyfriend at the gate, so we came here together. If you wanna kiss him now, please don't mind us."
Jun frowns at her friend.
"If they have even an ounce more shame than you, they probably will mind."
Hisao seems to agree since he walks up to me, puts his hand on my left shoulder and playfully tickles the side of my neck with his finger, but holds off on the kiss. It's probably for the best. I'd feel pretty uneasy kissing my boyfriend with my friends watching me like that.
"Hey Hanako. When I came here I was wondering if I'd find you here or if you'd still be busy packing things in your room."
"Hi Hisao. Uh... I still need to do m-most of my packing. I'm sorry."
"It's okay, Hanako. My parents and I can help out with that, and I'm sure the Satous will also be willing to lend a hand when they arrive."
Naomi scratches her head.
"Where are your parents anyway? When I got here I just saw you near the gate."
"They're currently in town having breakfast. We had to depart kind of early this morning. I wanted to check up on Hanako first, so they dropped me off at the school gates. They'll be here later."
"Heh, you guys had to skip breakfast too, huh?"
Upon hearing that two of my friends travelled here early in the morning on an empty stomach, I get up.
"Um... Aren't you hungry? I could... m-make some breakfast for you two."
"If it's not an inconvenience."
I still had some leftovers anyway and since this is my last breakfast here, I might as well use all of them up so I won't have to throw them away or take them with me.
My last breakfast here...
My mood once again taking a little hit, I quickly head for the kitchen sink unit so the others can't see the corners of my mouth dropping a bit. I get the few supplies I had left from the fridge and get to work on preparing breakfast for Hisao and Naomi while still trying to follow the conversation.
"So... What was with the text message?"
"The internet? Seriously? You were going to look up her results on the internet?"
"Well, it was an option. What's wrong with it?"
"What's wrong with it? No sense of romanticism for one. Why do you think I'm here other than watching you, Hanako and our fellow newspaper club members stand up there and receive their diploma?"
"That's already a pretty good reason in its own right."
"Yeah, but I'm also here to experience that moment. The moment of walking up to the notice board, making my way past the other students and, assuming my name's on there, yelling at the top of my lungs and going for the biggest group hug ever. Going to some internet site and filling in some random number while sitting in a dorm room just doesn't compare to that."
I hear Jun giggle.
"It almost sounds like you saw this in a manga or tv-series and are now looking to reenact it."
"And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Right, Hisao?"
"When did I become part of this discussion?"
"You went through this thing last year, didn't you?"
"Yeah, I did. And you're kind of right. It is a rather special experience."
"But to each his own. I've heard that you passed your own entrance exam already, Jun?"
"I have. After the upcoming break, I'll be off to study computer science."
"Sounds interesting. Do you want to be a software developer?"
"I'm hoping to become a programmer and work at a game company someday. But if that's not possible then there are probably a lot of other companies where I might be able to apply."
Having finished preparing Hisao's and Naomi's food, I return to the table while doing my best not to think too hard about the fact that this is the last time I'll eat here.
"Thanks for the food, Hanako. It would have been a pain having to go all the way to the cafeteria to eat something."
"Yeah, thanks for the food, Hanako. You can't be exhilirated on an empty stomach. Let's dig in!"
I sit down next to Hisao, and we eat our meal while Naomi and Jun try to combine the act of chattering with the act of eating to the best of their ability.
"Soooooo... What are you guys gonna do after today? Anyone has any special plans for our inter-school break? Jun?"
"It'll probably come down to finishing the games in my backlog and catching up with my aerobics exercises."
"On nurse's orders. To get in better shape and make me less of a walking china doll. Apparently I've been lagging behind a bit. Normal aerobics is kind of dull, but I'm allowed to play Wii Fit as a substitute. Occasionally, Mom joins in, and the two of us hold a match who can get the least pathetic score."
"Okaaaaay, so it's playing video games and playing more video games."
"There's a difference. But how about you?"
"Natsume's coming over for a little while. If it turns out that I screwed up my exam, I'll probably need some distraction. And if I passed it, we'll go and PAINT THE TOWN RED!"
"Are you talking about getting hammered? I thought both of you were on meds you shouldn't mix with alcohol."
"We'll just pretend to be drunk. That's fun too."
"If you say so. Anyway, give her our regards, okay?"
"Of course. Soooo..."
Naomi gives Hisao and me a teasing look.
"What are you two lovebirds gonna do, other than taking a vacation together and doing lovey-dovey stuff?"
"You don't think taking a vacation together is enough?"
"Wait! Huh? You're actually serious?"
"For serious? You're going on vacation?"
Both Naomi and Jun have a flabbergasted expression on their face after Hisao's revelation. Maybe I should have brought this up myself earlier.
"We are. The day after tomorrow. My luggage is actually already in my parents' car. We're allowed to stay over at the Satou home tonight and tomorrow, and we can leave Hanako's belongings there. We've both been saving up a little bit. In two days, we'll be leaving on a little trip together."
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little jealous. Where will you be going? Scotland again?"
"No, Okinawa. We're planning to take it easy there. Maybe go and see some natural parks, take a boat trip or two and see the sights."
"Also, Hisao has promised to take me to D-Disneyland in Tokyo if I p-pass my exams."
"As an aditional motivation. The last time she went there was on her own, and she told me she would have enjoyed it more if she would have had company. So this time we're going there together."
"That sounds sooo awesome. I'm kinda envious, but I'll forgive you if you buy us a nice souvenir and take some pretty pictures."
"It's a shame that today is our very last day here or you could have borrowed the club's camera again."
Naomi's words once again awaken the wistful feeling I've been trying to silence all morning and this time I didn't manage to hide the melancholic tone in my voice from my friends who give me a worried look.
"Are you alright, Hanako?"
"Yeah, you look a little bummed."
"You've been a little gloomy over the last few days."
"Are you sure?"
"The thought of... leaving here today... just feels a bit strange."
Hisao nods understandingly.
"Seeing that this place has literally been your home for the last four years, I think I understand how you feel."
Naomi and Jun nod as well. I don't think either of them can completely understand how I'm feeling right now, but I can tell that they're making an effort, and I appreciate that.
"Hanako, this must have been a problem last year too, right? How did you deal with it then?"
"Last y-year was... different. It's... hard to explain."
Last year, I already knew in advance that I messed up my entrance exams, and I was so preoccupied with the disappointment I felt I was about to bring down on Hisao and Lilly that I couldn't even think of anything else right up to the point where I fled Yamaku in a panic.
"But you'll have another place to stay after today, right?"
"If I pass t-today, I'll move in with Lilly after my vacation. I'm... n-not really sure yet what to do if I d-don't make it in."
I won't be able to stay at Yamaku, so I'd either have to pick another university that doesn't have its own entrance exams or I'd have to spend another year preparing for a third attempt. Karla offered to have me help her out with her biography activities. Or as she playfully put it, become her sidekick. But even she pointed out that getting myself into a reputable university is the best thing I can do for myself.
"We'll deal with that when we get there. We'll figure something out, Hanako. Together. Right?"
We finish our breakfast without any further conversation. When I start gathering the bowls and plates, Naomi gets up and takes them from me.
"No need for that. Your boyfriend and I will take care of the dishes."
"No buts. You've made us breakfast, so we'll clean things up for you. Won't we?"
"Uh, sure. I'll help."
"Okay. Thank you, Naomi and Hisao."
Hisao and Naomi head over to the kitchen sink unit and start arguing who's going to do the washing and who the drying. Meanwhile, Jun takes off her hair tie and starts fumbling around with her hair.
"Hanako, how's my hair?"
"I think it's looking fine. Why?"
"I had a shower just before going to bed last night and sometimes the next morning I have pieces of hair...you know..."
She makes a quick gesture with her head in the direction of my boyfriend. I quickly put my hand in front of my mouth to stifle a giggle. Then I shake my head.
"Not this time."
"Good. I could keep my favorite cap on during the ceremony, but I don't think the school would approve. Or my parents. They'll probably be upset if I don't look my Sunday best today."
"Are you... nervous?"
"Only a little bit. It's just a ceremony though. How about you? This is about the time they usually post the exam results on the board outside the main building."
"I'm... not really sure."
Rrriiinngggggg rrrriiinnnngggg - rrriiinngggggg rrrriiinnnngggg
Our conversation is cut short when my phone suddenly springs to life. I already know who it is before I fish my phone out of my pocket and look at the display.
"Hello Hanako. How are you doing? I'm not interrupting you, am I?"
"No, not at all. Hisao and N-Naomi are already here. We just had breakfast. Where are you right now?"
"Akira says it's only a few kilometres to Yamaku. I just received a call from Father that he and Mother are already there. They're waiting for us at the parking lot."
"You... didn't drive together?"
"We thought it would be more convenient if Father and Mother could drive straight to Yamaku without having to make a large detour to pick me up, so Akira spent the night at my place and the two of us had some breakfast and hit the road early this morning. Besides, since we'll be leaving here with you, Hisao and both your and his luggage, we might need two cars."
"Hanako, I assume you haven't checked the results yet?"
"No... Not yet. We can wait until you and Akira are here."
"I appreciate that, Hanako. I'm sure your results will be just fine. We can celebrate this evening at Mother and Father's place. Akira will be staying over too. It'll be great fun."
I'm almost expecting to hear Akira's voice at this point, commenting something like: 'Staying at that place is never great fun.' or something similar, but I'm pleasantly surprised that there's no reaction at all.
I really like Akira, but her reactions around her parents have always made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Lately though, Akira seems to have warmed up to her parents just a little bit, and last New Year's Day was the first time Akira was spending time around her parents without giving off the impression that she was dying to be somewhere - anywhere - else. Lilly told me two weeks ago that her mother offered Akira to go hiking in the Scottish Highlands together with her this summer and that Akira reluctantly accepted. They're certainly not there yet, but it's still progress, and I hope they can keep this going.
"I'm... looking forward to it. I just hope I w-won't let you down today."
"You won't, Hanako. I'm sure of it."
"Sis, we're approaching the parking lot. Let's go see where the folks are, okay?"
"Hanako, I'll have to hang up now, but we'll meet you in front of the school building, okay?"
After I hang up the phone, I notice that Naomi is putting away the last of the dishes, and Hisao is looking at me with a curious look.
"When do you think Lilly is going to be here?"
"She and her family have just arrived. She said... we'd meet up in front of the main building."
"My parents should be back by now as well. I'll go and find them, and we'll see you at the notice board, okay?"
Hisao walks out of the room while already in the process of dialing his parents' number and Jun shares a look with the two of us.
"Maybe we should go too. If the rest gets there before we do, they might just sneak a peek."
We get on our feet and head for the dormitory's exit. Just as we pass the dormkeeper's office, Jun gets a phonecall. It's probably her parents who are on their way here, though I'm not really paying enough attention to tell for sure. Now that the moment of truth is getting closer and closer, I'm starting to get really anxious.
Hisao and his parents will be there. As will the Satous. What if it turns out that I failed again? How will I face them?
And what will I do then?
My former strategy of blocking out the future by focussing completely on the present isn't helping me right now because in a few minutes, my exams results will no longer be a thing of the future. They'll be the present. And I'll have to deal with them, whatever they are.
Final Chapter - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:26 am
When we reach the area in front of the main building, I can see that there's already quite a crowd there. Most of them are students in uniform, though I can see some others among them as well. Probably family. I doubt all of those people are looking up their own results. There are probably several of them who are merely taking a look at the results of their friends. I can see several people celebrating and patting each other on the back. But I can also see two people walking off with a dejected look on their face. I suppose not everybody has good fortune today. The mere look of them makes me nervous. And from the looks of it, I'm not the only one. Naomi is also giving them an uneasy stare.
Come to think of it, Naomi hasn't said a single thing since we left the dorm. That's... highly unusual for her. She smiles awkwardly when she catches me looking at her.
"I guess this is the big moment, huh? If I've mucked this up, my mom and dad are gonna be pretty upset with me."
Jun seems amused at Naomi’s sudden nervousness.
"Naomi, this isn't like you. Earlier today you were still going on about yelling at the top of your lungs. Have a little faith in yourself."
"That's easy for you to say. You already have your exam results."
"Ah, Hanako, there you are."
We turn around and find ourselves not just face to face with Hisao and his parents, but also with Lilly, Akira, Karla and Hiroyuki. They must have run into each other at the gate. Karla smiles broadly at Naomi and me.
"Hello girls. Are you ready for your big moment?"
"We... umm... We..."
"We're... still kind of preparing ourselves mentally."
"Well, go ahead and finish your mental preparations. Don't mind us."
Naomi and I share an uncertain look. I think we both realize that we can't just keep standing here with everyone looking at us like that. We shoot an uncertain glance at the message board and then at each other.
"I guess we can't put if off any longer, can we?"
"I... guess not."
"Okay, this is the plan. We walk into that crowd and keep our heads down. We just keep looking at our feet."
That's pretty much how I always deal with crowds.
"We'll just keep walking until we're right in front of the board. Then we both count to three and look at the same time."
Naomi takes an almost exaggeratedly deep breath, and then we both head towards the notification board. When we reach the crowd in front of it, we both keep our head down and start making our way through the crowd of people. My heart's beating so loudly that it almost completely drowns out the murmur of the people around us.
"Is it possible to spontanously drop dead from sheer nervousness?"
"Are you sure?"
"That's a relief."
We fortunately make our way through the crowd before we descend into even more inane rambling. With the announcement board right in front of us, we both take another deep breath.
"I guess this is it."
"The moment of truth."
"We've worked a whole year towards this."
"A whole year."
We look at one another, then back at the board, then back at one another. Naomi is the one to break the silence.
"Come on! We've gotta go do something."
I suddenly feel my right hand being grabbed followed by a sharp pull on my arm.
Before I realize what's happening, Naomi has dragged me back through the crowd until we're some distance away from the masses. Still tightly holding onto my hand, Naomi turns to me.
"Okay. On the count of three. One..."
Naomi's mouth curls up into a grin that starts out small, but then slowly starts stretching until it nearly connects her ears.
"Naomi, what are you...?"
Naomi's eyes start sparkling.
"What am I supposed to...?"
"YAAAAAAAHOOOOOOOOOOOOO! WE DID IT! WE DID IT!"
Naomi lets out an ear-piercing yell and throws both her arms up into the air, forcing me to raise my right arm as well.
"HAHAHAHAHA! WATCH OUT, KASSHOKU UNIVERSITY! HERE WE COME!"
The others, who have been standing some distance away from the crowds in front of the board now come rushing to our side. Jun, whom I have never seen running before, is miraculously the first one to reach us, looking at both of us with an elated expression.
"Did you...? Both of you?"
"FINAL SCORE FOR THE BROKEN QUILLS: THREE OUT OF THREE!"
"Hahaha, flawless victory!"
"YEAH! OH YEAH!"
Hisao is the second to reach us, and Jun graciously steps aside to make room for him. My boyfriend tightly hugs me and then gives me a big smooch on my left cheek.
Next is Lilly, led by Akira. A proud smile adorns her face when she hugs me, and while I'm still overwhelmed by the fact that I actually succeeded in my exams this time, Lilly's looking happier than I've seen her in a very long time. Maybe even happier than she was at her own graduation.
"Lilly, I... I made it in... this time."
"Yes, you did, Hanako. I'm so happy for you. Happy and proud. Congratulations."
"Yup, congratulations. You totally deserved this."
"T-Thank you, Lilly and Akira."
I think the reality of the situation is still in the process of sinking in, and in a bit of a daze, I accept the congratulations of the Nakais and the Satous. I nod at their words of praise even though they're barely coming through. I see Naomi excitedly talking into her phone while wildly gesticulating. I see Hisao cheerfully talking to Mutou and to a boy in a wheelchair, giving him a high-five. I see Jun walking up to her parents who probably just arrived. And all the while, one thought keeps running through my mind.
I made it in.
I passed my exam.
But will I be able to function in university?
"Ah, s-sorry. What did you say?"
"It looks like she's still a little bit in shock."
Her husband nods.
"I cannot blame her. I still remember the day I found out I made it into my university of choice. It was quite a special moment. Anyway, Hanako, I was saying that I hope you are also proud of yourself right now. You deserve to be."
"I'm... n-not really sure."
I turn around and see my therapist standing there. Miss Yumi makes a deep bow as she approaches me.
"I think Mister Satou is correct. You deserve to be proud of yourself today. Try to allow yourself at least this much."
"That's good. I think it's appropriate to congratulate you now, dear. You've done very well. So what will you do now?"
"What do you mean?"
"You've found a university that is willing to accept you. Are you also willing to accept that university?"
"You'll come along, right? It wouldn't be the same without you."
I suddenly feel Naomi's hand on my shoulder.
"I get that you're a little squeamish about it, but I think it'll work out. You'll already have one friend there, and we can both watch each other's back. Teamwork!"
Despite my uncertainries about the future, Naomi's words still make me very happy, and before I have time for any further doubt, I find myself responding.
"I... I'm going, too."
"Alright! That's the spirit."
Miss Yumi smiles.
"It is indeed. I think you've made the right decision, dear."
"Miss Takawa, it is good to see you too. It appears that your decision to place Hanako in Yamaku's ronin program has paid off. Congratulations on your good judgement."
"Hmmm. In truth, sir, I did very little. I may have shown Miss Ikezawa the road that was the most likely one to lead to success, but she has been the one who has taken the time and effort to traverse it all the way to the end."
"I agree. She can now participate in the upcoming ceremony with her head held high."
"Uh... Actually I... ah... will not b-be t-taking part in it."
Hiroyuki raises an eyebrow as if I just told him that the sky was green.
"You will not be taking part? But why not? It is a very unique experience and you might come to regret it later."
"The reason Miss Ikezawa will not be taking part is because the ceremony that will be taking place in an about hour is intended for third year students who graduate from Yamaku Academy this year. Miss Ikezawa may have passed her university entrance exams, but she already graduated this school a year ago."
"Yes, but she did not take part in that ceremony. I apologize for being so insistent, Miss Takawa, but certainly it would be little trouble for the school to arrange for one extra seat in front? Just picking up Hanako's diploma at the school administration office seems... extremely anticlimactic."
I can't really blame Lilly's father for his persistence. He and his wife, as well as Hisao's parents drove a long way just to be here today. Me not being part of the graduation ceremony must be a disappointment to them, and I feel a little guilty for my part in this. Truth is, I wouldn't be looking forward to standing in front there despite the happy occasion.
"I understand where you're coming from, but I have already discussed this matter with Miss Ikezawa a few days ago, and I came to the conclusion that she wouldn't enjoy standing in front of a gymnasium filled with people. I considered asking her to go through with it anyway, as a final therapy-related challenge of sorts, but I ultimately decided against it. There will be plenty of challenges for her in the weeks and months to come. I think today should be a day for celebration, not challenge. A day she should be allowed to enjoy as much as possible - on her own terms."
"Very well then."
I smile gratefully at Miss Yumi. I don't think I would have done that good a job of explaining myself.
"So, Hanako... What would you like to do now? Pick up your diploma?"
"There are... a few places I'd like to s-see one more time. I'd like t-to be in the audience when Jun gets her diploma. And uh...I still need to pack my things."
Lilly turns to her sister with that 'I have a good idea'-smile on her face.
"Akira? Do you think we could...?"
"Heh, I was thinking the same thing, Lils. Hey Hanako, the two of us will take care of packing your stuff for you while you attend the ceremony if that's okay with you."
"I couldn't possibly..."
"I guess it's settled then. Just leave it to us."
I guess there's no stopping those two. I might as well give them the opportunity to help me wrap things up a little sooner.
Lilly shakes her head in that 'think nothing of it'-fashion of hers and turns back to me.
"Hanako, what places would you still like to see?"
"Just the tea room and the library."
"Can I come along? I wouldn't mind paying them a visit myself."
Karla turns to Hisao's parents and makes a polite bow.
"Would you perhaps extend us the honor of having lunch with us in the school cafeteria in the meantime? It's been a full year since we saw each other. It will be good to talk for a bit again."
"The pleasure is ours."
"Yes, thank you."
As the Nakais and the Satous walk off towards the cafeteria, Akira gestures in the direction of the school building's entrance.
"Well, let's have our little tour then. Lead the way, Hanako."
Final Chapter - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:27 am
According to my watch, I still have 20 minutes to get to the gymnasium which should be ample time, and yet it feels extremely short at the same time. After visiting the notice board in front of the school building and confirming that I passed my exams, Hisao, Lilly, Akira and I took a little trip through the building and spent some time in the tea room, where Lilly made some tea for all of us for old time’s sake.
We spent some time reminiscing about last year, noting that this was the room where Hisao first made Lilly's acquaintance, where Hisao and I played our first game of chess and where we spent so many lunch breaks eating and getting to know each other.
Then we visited the library, and I felt a strong sense of sadness when it sank in that this would be the last time I'd be in a place that held so many fond memories for me. I've truly started considering it 'my library', as strange as that seems, and a lot of important moments in my life are connected to that place. It's the place where Hisao and I first interacted, where we first spent time alone and where, after being apart for a long time, we met back up and reconnected with one another. I was thankful that Akira didn't see me blushing when I recalled that particular memory. It was also the place where I spent most of my time studying, first alone and later with Jun and Naomi. In a way it contributed to the fact that I passed.
Miss Morita, who usually runs the library when the usual librarian isn't available, thanked me for all my effort and allowed me to pick a handful of books to take with me as keepsakes. I think the fact that I'll be taking a little bit of the place with me makes the loss a little easier on me.
And now we're standing in front of the door to my room. I was supposed to just retrieve my handbag and then give the key to Lilly and Akira so they can get started on packing my belongings. But now that I'm here, I feel a serious lump in my throat that I just can't manage to swallow.
The others must have sensed my mood, and I turn away from Hisao and Akira because I don't want to worry them by letting them see my gloomy expression.
"I'm... okay. C-Could I... Could I just s-spend a few m-minutes in here, p-please?"
"Of course, Hanako. Just let us know when you're ready."
I open the door to my dorm room, enter and close it behind me. Then I sit down on my bed and have a long, long look around, trying to etch every part of it into my memory. Last year I was too riled up to think straight, and I ran away from here without thinking about what this place has come to mean to me. Now that my mind is more at ease and I've had time to get used to the fact that I'll be leaving here today, leaving this room behind feels really painful.
It's been a close call between my room and the library, but in the end this room will be the place I'll end up missing most. For four years, this room has been my haven and my home. It's been the one place where I've always felt safe.
Having to move on can hurt.
I take out a handkerchief and dry my teary eyes. When I leave here, I want to walk out with a smile. I open the drawers of my desk, take a few private possessions out of them and put them in my bag and then walk around my room one more time, tenderly touching the bed, the chair, the desk and the closet. Finally, I close my eyes, take a deep breath and walk out the door, closing it behind me without looking back.
"I'm... r-ready to go. Here's the k-key. C-Can you... l-leave it with the d-dormkeeper when you're... done?"
"We will, Hanako. Are you alright?"
"I... I am. Thank you for doing this. There’s…um…something under the bed that’s g-going to be a present for someone. C-Could you be extra careful with it?"
I'm truly grateful. Packing my things myself and watching my home slowly transform back into an anonymous dorm room would have been much more painful. I'll remember this place the way it's always been. Things are okay this way.
"We will be, Hanako. You'd better hurry up and get to the gymnasium."
"You two will be okay on your own, right? Some of the science club members are graduating today as well, and I kind of promised that I'd be at the ceremony, too."
"Then you should go, Hisao. Akira and I will be fine. The last ceremony took quite a while, so we have plenty of time."
"Alright. Good luck."
We leave the dormitory and hurry to the gymnasium. It's already pretty crowded when we get there, but a look through the hall quickly reveals Naomi's bleached hairdo, as well as another head of blonde hair right next to her. Naomi and Karla wave at us as we approach.
"Hey guys. We kept these spots vacant for you. Have a seat."
"Thanks. I didn't expect to see you here, Karla."
"Well, as a sponsor for The Broken Quills, I felt I had to attend this ceremony since one of its members will be handed her diploma there. My husband didn't seem to be needing my help in keeping the conversation with your parents going."
"I kind of hope they're not just talking about heart conditions."
"Haha, no need to worry about that."
I sit down next to Naomi who gives me a little elbow in the side.
"Natsume says hi and congratulations, by the way."
"You've already phoned her?"
"Uhuh. My parents too. They were all really happy. There's a big party waiting for me when I get home. I can't wait."
"I hope you'll enjoy it."
"I know I will. Uh, by the way... You have your phone turned off, right?"
"Okay. Just checking."
The ceremony takes a little longer than I expected, and some parts are a little long-winded, but when Jun comes forward and accepts her diploma, I might have clapped louder than anyone else in the hall. I'm really happy that my friends have managed to come up on top as well.
When the ceremony finally ends, we quickly get up to leave in order to avoid the crowds. When we leave the gymnasium though, there's a familiar face waiting for me.
"Hello, Miss Hanako."
I'm a little surprised by Miss Yumi's sudden appearance. Has she been waiting for me here?
"So... Have all loose ends been tied up here?"
All but one, I think. I still have a small gift prepared for Miss Yumi as a display of gratitude, but it's still with Lilly and Akira.
"That's good to hear. I was wondering if you'd give me the pleasure of one final session - and perhaps one last game."
This is rather awkward timing, but Miss Yumi seems insistent on me coming with her now. Maybe this is a busy day for her. I'm probably not the only client who's graduating here today. I look back at Hisao, Karla and Naomi who give me a 'go ahead' gesture.
Before we leave, Miss Yumi whispers something to Hisao who nods his head. Then we make our way to Miss Yumi's office in the nurses' building.
"Miss Yumi, what did you tell Hisao when we left?"
"I told him and Miss Inoue to make sure that Miss Yamazaki doesn't get away before you can say your goodbyes."
"Oh. Uh... Thanks."
When we reach the entrance to the office, Miss Yumi makes an inviting gesture.
“Come in, please!”
We enter and exchange polite bows. The familiar little ritual, one last time.
“May I have the honor of getting you some tea, Miss Hanako?”
“I humbly accept, Miss Yumi.”
We sit at the table, a small bowl of tea is gently placed in my hands, and after a small bow, we both take a careful drink.
“Well then, shall we start?”
The familiar game. I've gotten a lot better at it over time. It'd be nice if I could beat Miss Yumi this time, though for the best I can probably hope for is keeping our score somewhat even.
Miss Yumi gives a small nod, and I place the first black stone onto the game board. Miss Yumi takes one of her white stones and puts it in place with a dull tap.
"Now then, Miss Hanako. You have just attended the graduation ceremony as part of the audience. I take it you feel no regrets about not having been on stage?"
“No. I think things are fine this way.”
People may argue that I deserved some time in the spotlight, but in my eyes I've also missed an opportunity to make a fool of myself.
"How did you feel during the ceremony?"
"A little uneasy due to being in a room with so many people. But the fact that Hisao, Naomi and Karla were sitting right next to me felt reassuring."
"I felt proud... of Jun. And happy for her. But I also felt s-sad for a moment."
"S-So many parents in the room. Feeling proud of their children. I... I missed m-mine today..."
"There's nothing strange about that, Miss Hanako. It's perfectly natural."
"Were you very surprised at the results this morning?"
"A bit. I... finished all questions on the answer sheet this time, but still... passing s-seemed too good to be true... I think."
"Good things can and do happen to everyone, Miss Hanako. You're no exception. Don't forget that. In fact, be sure to remind yourself of that every once in a while."
"Just between you and me, your results were no surprise to me. I had the proctor make a copy of your answer sheet and asked Mister Hoshino to have a look at it. He said it was extremely likely that you'd pass this time."
"I wouldn't say it was entirely curiosity on my part. I also wanted to be able to take my time looking into someone who can take over from me concerning these kinds of sessions. I'm happy to say that I found a replacement who I think is up to the task."
"Now would probably be a good time to say hello to each other, don't you think?"
"She? She's... here?"
"She isn't, but that's not a problem."
Miss Yumi takes a telephone from the nearby cabinet, dials a number and turns on the speaker. My heart skips a beat as I hear someone pick up on the other end of the line.
"Good afternoon, Kasshoku University counselor's office, this is Ibuki speaking."
Wow, she sounds young. I'd be surprised if she's older than 30. I didn't expect that.
"Good afternoon, Miss Ibuki. This is Takawa from Yamaku Academy. I promised to call you to let you know about today's results."
"Ah, yes, that's right. How did things go?"
"It couldn't have gone better. Not only has she passed her exams, but she also let me know that she's going take the opportunity and attend Kasshoku. In fact, she's here with me right now."
"Oh... I... didn't know. Good afternoon."
"Uh... G-good afternoon."
Miss Yumi chuckles at the slightly awkward atmosphere. She may be the only one who's completely at ease right now.
"Miss Ibuki, meet Miss Ikezawa. Miss Ikezawa, meet Miss Ibuki."
"Nice to meet you."
"N-Nice to meet you too."
"Ever since Mister Hoshino told me that he expected you to pass your exams, I've been searching for someone to keep an eye out during your time at Kasshoku. Miss Ibuki here is the person I deemed most suitable to the task."
The young woman on the other end of the line coughs modestly.
"I'm afraid I'm not a psychologist like Miss Takawa. I'm a school counselor, and the journalism faculty is one of the faculties I've been assigned to. I've studied at this university myself a few years ago, so I know quite a few people here. After graduating, I decided I liked it here so I chose to stay. The upcoming April it'll be my third year on the job. I... ah... know I'm not as experienced as Miss Takawa, but I'll still try my best."
Third year on the job? I quickly count the years back on my fingers and realize I was still off with my initial guess. She must be around Akira's age. This feels weird.
"Now then, shall we get down to business?"
Miss Yumi takes a sip from her tea, casually places another stone on the Go board and then continues.
"I don't think experience is really an issue here, Miss Ibuki. A personal click is much more important than seniority, and I think you two will get along fine. I am currently writing a treatment plan for Miss Ikezawa that I will send to you once it's completed. As long as you follow the instructions in there and pay attention to the recommendations made in there, I do not foresee many problems. Miss Ikezawa's case file will remain here at Yamaku, though you're always welcome to call me for advice if you feel you need it. I'm always happy to give my opinion."
Miss Yumi takes a note from her desk and starts scribbling on it. When she gives it to me, I notice an e-mail address, phone number and building number on it.
"Here's Miss Ibuki's contact information. I would like you to make an appointment with her for a face-to-face introduction. You can postpone it until after your vacation, but be sure to schedule it in before you start attending classes there. Now..."
Her expression turns a bit stern for a moment.
"Those first few weeks will be vital. We want to try and get them off without a hitch. During the first two weeks, I would like you to schedule one appointment a day with Miss Ibuki. If everything goes well, then you can bring things down to four short visits a week the next two weeks. Then, the next month, three visits a week. The month afterwards, you can take it down to two. By the time summer break arrives, you should be somewhat settled in and we can limit ourselves to one visit a week. In my opinion, you might still benefit from official therapy from time to time, but I'm still looking for a therapist with satisfying credentials in that area. I will let Miss Ibuki know as soon as I have found someone. Alright?"
Whoa, that's a lot.
"I understand. Miss Ikezawa, these visits don't need to last for an hour. Just drop by after classes and we can spend a minute or ten to go over your day. That should be enough if your day was uneventful."
Miss Yumi checks her watch and then clears her throat.
"Unfortunately we seem to be running a bit short on time. Does either of you have any questions?"
"I don't have any. I'm looking forward to meeting you."
"Uh... I w-was wondering. I have a f-friend here who... uh..."
I hesitate. I'm not sure if I'm really in a position to be making demands already, but Miss Yumi mouths a quiet 'ah'.
"Oh yes, thanks for reminding me. Miss Ibuki, there should be another student starting at the journalism faculty this April. Her name is Naomi Inoue, and she graduated from this school one year ago. She happens to be a friend and former classmate of Miss Ikezawa. I think both will greatly benefit from being in the same workgroup this upcoming school year."
"Oh... ah... sure, of course. That can be arranged. Not a problem. I'll make a note and phone the faculty next week."
I'm a little baffled by the eagerness in her voice. She must be aching to prove herself.
"That would be greatly appreciated. By the way, Miss Ibuki, do you play Go?"
"Go? I've only played it a few times years ago. Why?"
"This young lady here has developed a real knack for the game and it would be a shame if she allowed her abilities to deteriorate. She's quite fond of board games, and playing one during the sessions may help take the edge off."
"I don't really have a lot of attachment with Go, but I used to play Shogi against my former boyfriend. Is that okay too?"
"Ummm... Okay. Shogi is fun too."
I can briefly see Miss Yumi's mouth twitch as if she wants to say that Shogi isn't quite on the same level as her favorite game, but then she shakes her head.
"Oh well... Shogi it is then. I'm sure the two of you will get along fine. Who knows... You may develop a bond of trust and start using 'Miss Hanako' before you realize it."
I'm not sure what to make of that remark, but Miss Yumi chuckles as if she just said something extremely funny.
"I don't understand..."
I hear Miss Ibuki cough softly on the other end of the line.
"Well... ah... I suppose I can tell you... My first name is Hanako as well."
Miss Yumi grins playfully at me.
"Amazing coincidence, is it not? Or maybe it was meant to be. Fate works in mysterious ways."
"Miss Ibuki, we'll be in touch."
"Thank you, Miss Takawa. And Miss Ikezawa... I hope to see you soon."
"G-Goodbye, M-Miss Ibuki."
When my namesake hangs up the phone, Miss Yumi checks her watch again.
"We might not have time to finish our little game, so let's call it a draw. Would you be willing to do me a favor?"
"Could you help me move this table to the corner and make some fresh tea?"
I'm not sure why she wants to do these things now, but I see no problem in helping her out a bit. The table is a bit cumbersome, and after we push it into the corner, I can see Miss Yumi rub her back a bit. We get started on making a new batch of tea, and while we're waiting for the water to boil, Miss Yumi gives me a wistful look.
"Yes, Miss Yumi?"
"Those first few weeks at university will form the foundation for the rest of your college years. If you can work your way through those without any major incidents, I think you'll do fine there. We've done all we can here to give you a little headstart. The rest is up to you. Have faith in yourself, okay?"
While we're finishing up the tea, our attention is suddenly drawn by a short, but loud knock on the door. Miss Yumi calls out a quick 'please come in', and my eyes grow wide as I recognize the person walking into the office.
"Good afternoon, Takawa. I hope you didn't have to wait too long?"
"On the contrary madam, you are right on time."
Final Chapter - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:27 am
The school principal gives me a friendly nod and then turns to Miss Yumi.
"That's a relief. I had the impression some of the people outside have been waiting there for some time."
"How many people were there?"
"I counted nine in total. Shall I ask them to come in?"
What's going on?
The principal walks up to the door, opens it and says something to whoever's waiting outside. Then she steps aside and people start pouring into the room. I gasp as I recognize Hisao, Lilly, their parents, Akira and even Jun and Naomi. I give Miss Yumi a dumbfounded look.
"W-What is this?"
Miss Yumi playfully smiles at me and then makes a quick gesture with her head in the direction of the principal. When I follow her gaze, I notice that the principal has something resembling a paper scroll in her hand. I let out a gasp before I can stop myself.
"It is. Ahem! May I have everybody's attention. Could you please line up over there please? Yes, that'll do. Thank you. Miss Hanako, please come and stand over here."
My mind still trying to comprehend this unexpected twist of events, I allow Miss Yumi to guide me to the center of the room. Everybody's attention's suddenly aimed at me, and I fidget a bit.
"M-Miss Yumi, what's going on?"
Miss Yumi chuckles mischievously.
"Why, this is your graduation ceremony, of course? What does it look like?"
Miss Yumi walks up to the place where the table used to be with the principal taking position next to her.
"Mister Satou had a good point this morning when he noted that just retrieving your diploma from the administration office would be anticlimactic. You've spent four years of your life studying here and deserve your moment in the spotlight just like any other student. Since I didn't want to risk ruining your day by forcing you to stand in front of an entire crowd at the gymnasium, I thought that maybe we could hold a small private ceremony here afterwards. The principal was so kind as to humor me, retrieve your diploma and attend here too. *chuckle* I can only hope that she also has a speech for the occasion."
The principal frowns upon hearing Miss Yumi's words.
"That may be a problem. I take it the people here have already heard the speech I gave earlier today."
"Maybe you could improvise."
"Maybe. Or perhaps you could do the honors instead of me."
Miss Yumi seems genuinely taken back by her superior's suggestion.
"You know this girl much better than I do. You have probably also known her for longer than many of the people here. It seems fitting. Maybe you can improvise."
Miss Yumi closes her eyes and seems deep in thought for a second. Then she nods.
"I suppose I could."
The murmur of the others in the room dies down as Miss Yumi takes the diploma off the principal's hands, turns to me, takes a deep breath and stands a little taller.
"Miss Hanako Ikezawa. Please step forward."
I nervously do so, well aware of all the eyes on me. Miss Yumi merely smiles at me.
"Well... Here you are. About to receive your diploma and about to embark on a new journey into the world beyond the school gates. The prospect of this journey may be exciting, but no doubt it is also a little frightening. Yamaku has been more than a school to you, after all. It has also been your home, your shelter and, most importantly, a place to grow."
"A place to grow... That is what Yamaku as an institution strives to be above all else. Good grades are important, but equally, if not more, important is our pupils growing the determination to create a future for themselves using the means available to them, taking advantage of their qualities while working around their limitations. You have shown yourself to be one of those pupils, Miss Hanako."
"As your therapist and confidante, I have very good memories of our sessions. I've enjoyed our games together and the process of getting to know you. But more than anything else, I have enjoyed the process of watching you blossom into the person who stands before us today."
I think she's flattering me. Progress doesn't mean much if everything's easily undone by a single bad day. I can see a playful expression appear on Miss Yumi's face as she studies me.
"I can tell from the look in your eyes that you question my words, even now. Of course there have been relapses in the past, and there will probably be a few more at some point in the future. Yet every time you were forced to take a step back, you've taken two steps forward afterwards. I believe you will continue to do that, and I believe it will get easier for you in time. The reason is simple and in plain sight. Look around, Miss Hanako. Look around and think about what you see."
Miss Yumi doesn't immediately continue, making me realize she really meant what she just said. I turn around and sweep the room with my eyes, briefly stopping on each of the people present.
Hisao's parents... I remember being really nervous when Hisao first introduced me to them. If they didn't think I was good enough for their son, our relationship wouldn't have had much of a chance in the long run. And yet, despite having already been introduced to stronger girls like Lilly, Shizune and Misha by that time, they approved of me dating their son and have always been welcoming to me. I feel a bit guilty for not having interacted with them a lot this year due to the distance. Now that I'll be living in the same city as them, I'm planning to drop by regularly. If anything, Karla's stories about her own family situation reminded me how fortunate I am to have supportive 'in-laws'.
Jun... I've really come to appreciate her friendship this year. During a school year when I was separated from most of my other friends, Jun was always there, convincing me to keep my newspaper club activities going, dragging me to her room to play games with her and keeping me company whenever I was feeling lonely. She won't be attending a school in the same city as I am and I already know I'm really going to miss her. She's going to keep our private forum open though, and I promised myself to keep in touch with her and meet up with her again once things have settled down for us. Maybe the three of us could hold another slumber party at the Satou home just like before. I think I'd enjoy that.
Naomi... She's been my classmate for three years and in a way I've known her longer than any of my other friends. Despite that, I've spent most of those three years trying my hardest to avoid interaction with her, which I'm kind of ashamed of now. Despite the fact that I've spent so much time blocking her out, she never held it against me and was quick to befriend me once I started opening up to her. Her rambunctiousness can still be a hassle to deal with at times, but at the same time her enthusiasm and motivation are always very infectious, and there's no doubt in my mind that she's a wonderful person at heart. The fact that I'll already have one friend at the start of the upcoming school year is a big reassurance to me, and I'm looking forward to sharing classes with her once more in the upcoming spring.
Hiroyuki... When I first met him, I thought he was kind of intimidating. There always seemed to be this veil of formality and politeness around him that was pleasant enough until you realized that you couldn't see the person behind it anymore, and that put me off a little bit at first. But then I remembered that I used to see Lilly in the same light, and I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. Interaction between us can still be a little stilted at times, but I no longer see his pleasantries towards me as merely a front. I think that deep down he's actually a very caring person, even though he has trouble showing it, and I'm happy that I was able to help him when his life was in danger, so we could get to know each other a little better.
Karla... Before meeting her, I imagined Lilly's mother to be a distant and uncaring person. After all, why else would she have left Japan all those years ago? I was taken off guard by how nice and warm-hearted she turned out to be. I discovered that there was more to her than met the eye, and she has some scars of her own underneath, but my opinion of her hasn't changed. In addition to a source of support, she's also become a bit of a mentor figure to me, and I've realized that I want to do well at Kasshoku, partially because I want her and her husband to be proud of me.
Akira... When Lilly first introduced me to her older sister, I didn't think Akira would ever be more than the sister of a friend to me; someone who put up with me because I befriended Lilly, but who'd stop talking to me the moment Lilly and I would go our separate ways. Things turned out very differently, and I found that I may actually have more things in common with Akira than I could have imagined at first. Even though Akira lives in Scotland now, we still talk on a regular basis, and the last two times she visited Japan, she even took the time to drop by at Yamaku, purely for the purpose of spending some time with me alone. If someone were to ask me which one of the two means more to me, I don't think I could answer. Akira has become just as much of a sister figure to me as Lilly has been.
Lilly... When I first walked into the room of the blind girl living next door, in search of some comfort and company that wouldn't be put off by my appearance, I had no idea that this person would end up becoming the first real friend I've made in my life. Our friendship has had its share of hurdles, but in the end we've managed to stick together and remain in contact. I'm really looking forward to moving in with Lilly. Even if university proves tough, I'll at least have the simple pleasures of her sleepy smile each morning and the little small talks we make over tea in the evening. I hope I can do my part to make her daily life more convenient as well. Who knows, maybe I can even give her romantic advice sometimes. Well, that's probably stretching things.
Hisao... When I ran away from him during our first real meeting, he could have easily decided that getting to know me better was too much of a hassle, especially since there were so many other new people he could have forged friendships with. And yet, he stuck with me and ended up being the first person I truly opened up to. In just a little more than three months, we'll be celebrating our relationship's second anniversary. I feel a little bad that such a large part of it was long distance, but at least that part's over now. I think that our relationship has changed a bit. My life no longer revolves around him like it used to when we first started dating. Unlike what I believed at that time, I was able to open up to others as well. It's made me nervous from time to time, but each moment we spend together still feels really special to me. Maybe our relationship simply has matured a bit, to the point where we can both have our own lives now without it endangering what we have. I'm really excited about our upcoming trip. It'll be our first true vacation together with noone else around, and I'm going to try my best to make it the best experience of his life. He often said that while he wasn't happy either that we were so far apart, he was willing to stick it out because he wanted the 'good times' to return. Now that I'll be able to once again be a part of his daily life, I'm going to try and be the best girlfriend I can be for him. It's the least thing I can do to reciprocate the dedication he has shown me. We might be able to keep our relationship going throughout university. I would really like that.
"I wasn't around to see it back then, Miss Hanako, but one of my predecessors told me about the day you first came here. His first impression: a frightened-looking girl, hiding behind the matron, dragging a suitcase along that was clearly too heavy for her. It feels good to look upon that same girl now. That girl who reached out and became a loving girlfriend, a cherished clubmate, a caring friend. A girl who has found new people in her life to help her carry both her suitcases and her burdens, while at the same time lending others her support in return. A girl who, when forced to rely on those around her during her more trying times, no longer sends them a guilty look, but a grateful smile instead. That in itself is growth, Miss Hanako, and a big reassurance as well."
Miss Yumi smiles warmly as she approaches me.
"Let this diploma be an acknowledgement. An acknowledgement of how much you've achieved already and how far you've come. An acknowledgement of the person standing before me: a strong young woman with clear plans for the future, surrounded by friends and loved ones who came here specifically to share and celebrate this joyous moment with her. An acknowledgement that you have graduated from this academy with flying colors. Please accept your diploma, Miss Hanako Ikezawa. You have truly, truly earned it."
She holds the diploma out to me, and I take it, holding it close to my chest. A moment later, the room bursts into thunderous applause, far louder than I ever thought eleven people capable of clapping. I turn around, face the others and see all the happy and proud smiles on their faces. I squeeze my eyes shut in a futile attempt to stop my tears from starting to flow. For once, being at the center of attention doesn't feel awkward or scary. In fact, it feels really good. I manage to swallow the lump in my throat for long enough to force some words out.
"Everyone... *sniff* T-T-Thank you. T-Thank you s-so much."
For a brief moment another thought enters my head.
I wonder if Mother and Father can see me right now. I wonder how they'd feel. Would they be... proud of me? Would they be happy, too?
The applause lasts a lot longer than I expected. Maybe everybody realized what a special moment this is for me and everyone wanted it to last as long as possible. When it finally dies down, Miss Yumi clears her throat in order to get everybody's attention.
"I'm afraid that's all I could think of. Perhaps that's all there really is to say. I'm afraid we didn't really put together a program for this occasion, but before this little ceremony Miss Hanako and I prepared some tea for everybody. If there are no objections, I'd like to propose we have a little drink in her honor before we leave here. One for the road, as it were."
The principal turns to Miss Yumi.
"I hope I don't cause offense, but I still have a lot of things to do today."
"Not at all, madam. I'm grateful you were able to spare some time for us."
"Alright then. Ikezawa... Congratulations yet again and good luck at university."
"T-Thank you, m-madam."
The principal nods at me and walks out of the room. After she's gone, Miss Yumi and I pour tea for everyone. After everyone's been served and Miss Yumi starts putting away the tea set, I take the opportunity to approach her.
"T-Thank you... for the beautiful speech. It was... r-really touching."
"It was the best I could do from the top of my head. If I would have had time to prepare, I could have made it a little longer."
"It was really good. Y-You're really good at this."
Miss Yumi merely smiles and humbly shakes her head.
"I merely said what I thought you needed to hear. You brought up your parents today and there's nothing strange about that, but I wanted to remind you that there are others who want to see you succeed in life just as much."
"I've been... thinking a lot about them lately. J-Just now, too, when you g-gave me my diploma. I wondered... how they'd f-feel."
"I think they'd be both proud and reassured."
"Life can be a battle sometimes. For you it has been for many years. And for a very long time it seemed like it was you against the rest of the world. Those are very worrying odds to any parent. But I'd like to think that since you're no longer alone and more comfortable relying on others, they're a little more at peace now."
I never thought of it that way.
You're no longer alone. Karla said similar words to me not too long ago.
She said a lot of other things too. Some of them have been on my mind ever since.
"I... r-really wish I c-could talk to them one more time."
"I think they live on inside your heart, Miss Hanako. So that's probably the best place to look for answers."
"Hmmm, from the looks of it, people are about ready to leave."
"I'll accompany you as far as the gate. That's where we can say our goodbyes."
"You seem awfully nervous all of a sudden."
"I... I... I would l-like to s-say something."
I look around the room and then back at Miss Yumi.
I nod silently.
Miss Yumi loudly claps her hands to get everyone's attention.
"Go ahead, Miss Hanako."
My eyes jump from person to person. There are only a few curious looks. Nobody seems annoyed that I'm not immediately saying something.
I take a deep breath.
And then another one.
And yet another one.
It doesn't seem to be helping.
The words I prepared for myself just seconds ago are now whirling around in my head. Whatever it was I wanted to say earlier, I won't be saying it anytime soon.
I stop trying to force the words out of my mouth and simply walk over to the table where my handbag is lying. As I reach out to take it, a profound feeling of sadness suddenly comes over me.
Is this really the right thing to do?
Is this really the right time to do it?
Is this what they would want?
Or am I about to hurt them?
A trace of doubt manages to sneak in there when I take hold of my bag. If I take it out now, there'll be no going back. My life will be changed permanently.
But then again, my life will be different after today no matter what.
With shaking hands, I open my bag and reach into it. My fingers find the fateful piece of paper and take hold of it. When I take it out, my eyes quickly scan the room again. Some of the looks are puzzled. I don't think Naomi, Jun or Hisao's parents know the significance of what I'm holding in my hands right now. Hisao, on the other hand, has an expectant look on his face. I can see Akira softly whispering to Lilly. Karla and Hiroyuki exchange a quick look, and, after a silent nod from his wife, the latter steps forward.
I take an unsteady step forward as well. Hiroyuki Satou looks at me with a completely neutral expression, neither eagerness nor impatience on his face. He just stands there, in a slightly formal posture, waiting for me to make the next move.
I start feeling a tight sensation in my chest. I've already passed the point of no return, but there's still something painful about continuing.
I take another step forward and, still trembling, hold out the form in front of me. Hiroyuki reaches out with both hands, as if preparing to accept an important business card.
A pang of guilt emanates from my chest. I close my eyes and take a deep breath in an attempt to keep my composure.
An image of my father and mother appears in my mind. I try to remember what they looked like, what they sounded like, the way they talked, the way they slept. And most importantly, the way they smiled.
I wonder if they can still see me somehow. I wonder if they know what I'm about to do.
I'm sorry, Mother.
I'm sorry, Father.
I'll never forget you.
And then I let go.
When I open my eyes, I see that Hiroyuki has taken the form and is taking a quick look at the dotted line near the bottom. The line that holds my signature. When he sees me looking at him, he makes a graceful bow which I instinctively follow, and I hear him whisper softly to me.
"Don't worry. Things will be fine. I promise."
Then he turns around and faces the rest of the people in the room.
"It appears that today is cause for two celebrations. Not only has Hanako taken another step towards adulthood in her decision to start attending Kasshoku University the upcoming month, but with the passing of this document, she has also accepted the adoption offer my wife and I extended to her earlier. When she leaves here today, she will not merely be leaving here with a diploma in her hands, but also with a family by her side. Lilly... Akira... I will leave the next part up to you. You can be the first to do the honors of welcoming your new sister in our midst."
Hiroyuki politely steps aside as Lilly and Akira walk up to me, and despite the nagging feeling of guilt in the bottom of my stomach, I feel a surge of joy as both wrap their arms around me in a loving embrace. The whole experience is so overwhelming I don't know what to feel. I feel sad and happy at the same time. Lilly has a tear running down her cheek as she smiles a glowing smile at me. Akira has a playful smirk on her face, but I can see that her eyes are a little moist as well.
"Thank you, Hanako. Thank you so much... for t-this... for this great gift."
"Well... heh... You're stuck with us now. But... I... wouldn't want things any other way."
I'm not really sure what to say to that. I'm not really sure if words could even properly convey what I'm feeling right now. So I simply return their hug and hope this moment will last for as long as possible.
After Lilly's and Akira's 'welcoming hug', I was congratulated by the others as well. I got a tight hug from Karla, a sweet kiss from Hisao, an enthusiastic high-five from Naomi and Jun and a heartfelt handshake from the Nakais. Now we're walking down the tree-lined walkway connecting the buildings to the gate. Akira, Karla and Hiroyuki wouldn't allow me to carry any of my own suitcases, so I'm merely carrying my diploma and the plastic bag containing a little present for Miss Yumi. As promised, she's accompanying me until we get to the campus entrance.
I cast a sideglance at her when I hear her let out a soft chuckle.
"It's nothing serious, really. I was just thinking about how unexpected this turn of events was. It may not sound very humble, but I thought that little private ceremony would end up being the surprise of the day. Hmmm, hmmm... Only for you to go and pull an even bigger surprise out of your sleeve. Life can certainly be unpredictable. I never really knew you were planning this."
"I... wasn't. It was done on a spur of the moment."
Miss Yumi gives me a puzzled look.
"But you had that form in your handbag, signed and all."
"I... signed it a few weeks ago already. I thought it wouldn't make a difference anyway whether I signed it or not as long as I didn't hand it in. I p-put it in my handbag this morning because I didn't want Lilly and Akira to find it while they were busy packing m-my suitcases."
"So you've been considering it for a while."
"Y-Yes. I would have moved in with them either way. But I didn't want to be a 'friend of the family' or an 'honorary guest' forever. I...want to have the same obligations that Lilly and Akira have. They don't have to say please anymore when asking me something. I wanted to s-show them that...I'm here for them as well."
"I... s-still feel a little bit guilty though."
"Because of your parents? Your birth parents, I mean."
"I wouldn't worry too much about that, dear. What you did today would no doubt have made them truly happy. Proud too."
"I'm not even s-sure what to call my adoptive p-parents."
"Talk to them about that. I'm sure they'll understand how you feel."
"Is that... an assignment?"
Miss Yumi shakes her head and casts a glance at Yamaku's entry gate which is now looming over us.
"More like well-meant advice. As of today, I'm no longer in a position to give you any assignments anymore."
I cast a look at the gate myself.
"So... t-this is goodbye?"
"I'm afraid so. We've postponed this moment for a year, but we both knew it would come eventually. Departures are very much part of life."
"I'll m-miss you, Miss Yumi. And Yamaku too."
"Try not to fret about it for too long, dear. You've met many wonderful people here at this school, but all those people will still be part of your life after today. They're waiting for you beyond those gates as we speak. In the end, this place is just a collection of buildings. You'll be taking the best part of Yamaku with you."
"Well... There are reunions for graduates every year. Within nine years or so, you'll probably receive an invitation as well. I'll just be sure to... keep breathing, and when we meet again we can finish that game we were playing today. With luck I won't be too senile to tell the black and the white stones apart by then."
"That... probably won't be the case."
She chuckles playfully.
"It's a deal then. I'll be expecting a tough challenge from you, so try not to let that... Shogi thing... dull your talents too much, okay?"
"Hahaha, don't worry. But... Miss Yumi... we... d-don't really have to wait nine years."
"Maybe we c-could... remain in contact... and play... from t-time to time?"
Miss Yumi sighs, and I can see a sad look in her eyes as she shakes her head.
"I'm sorry, dear. But I'm afraid my answer is still the same. I'm still a therapist, and you're still my client. That's been the nature of our relationship for over two years. I think if we would talk... socially... afterwards, we'd still fall back to those familiar roles without thinking. You deserve better friends than that."
"O-Okay then. I... w-won't force you. But, at least accept this from me."
I take my present out of the bag I was carrying it in and give it to Miss Yumi who takes it from me, handling it as carefully as she can.
"Oh my, what a beautiful flower arrangement. You truly seem to have a knack for creating these kinds of things. Thank you very much, dear. Such a sweet thank-you note attached to it as well. Hmmm?"
Having noticed something peculiar about the note, she takes another look at it and then gives me a puzzled stare.
"There's what appears to be an internet address written near the bottom. Is that meant to be part of the message?"
"It... leads to a site where you can register an account and then play Go online against others. I thought you m-might like it. I've... t-tried it myself a few times. It's pretty fun. You can chat with other players as well, b-but it's not necessary. The chat-function can be turned off, so you can f-focus completely on playing. Maybe... you could try it sometime."
Miss Yumi looks completely baffled for several seconds. Then she gives me a long unsure look. Finally, a broad smile appears on her face and she chuckles.
"My my... Playing Go over the internet. What will they think of next? I suppose I could give it a try sometimes. Who knows?"
"Y-Yes. Who knows?"
There's a short silence between us afterwards. I consider coming up with some small talk, but Miss Yumi throws another glance at the entrance gate and gives me an encouraging smile.
"I don't think there's much more need for idle chatter. There's a new life waiting for you on the other side of that gate, and I think you're ready for it this time. Go ahead. Say it."
I take a deep breath.
"G-Goodbye, Miss Yumi. Thank you for everything."
"Goodbye, Miss Hanako. And remember: have faith."
We exchange one more bow, and then Miss Yumi starts walking down the walkway back towards the school building, giving me one final friendly wave. I watch her go until she's gone from sight. Then I turn around and face the gate separating the school grounds from the parking lot.
The gate looks far too pompous for what it is. In fact, gates in general seem to do that, but this one especially so. Red bricks, black wrought iron and gray plaster, assembled into a whole that towers over me. I never paid much attention to it until now. It takes me a moment to realize why I'm suddenly hesitant to do something I've already done hundreds of times before.
This feels like the last chance I have to turn back, even if there's no longer a life for me here to return to. Once I walk through, there'll absolutely be no way I can go back anymore.
It feels a bit scary, but part of me is also eager.
In the distance, I can see Hisao, Lilly and Akira patiently waiting for me. I probably shouldn't keep them too long since we still have a long drive ahead of us. Once more, Miss Yumi's last words echo in my mind.
Miss Yumi mentioned there'll be relapses in the future and warned that all I'll get at university is a small headstart, but that there'll still be plenty of bumps in the road ahead. I know myself well enough to know that that's true and given some of the challenges Lilly faced at Kasshoku, I feel like I'm going to need all the resolve I can muster. I pray that it will be enough. Perhaps what I'm feeling right now is still the bliss of ignorance, like before that first open house day. Things felt too good to be true back then too, only to quickly fall apart when something bad happened. But nevertheless, I feel like the deck is no longer stacked against me as much as it was when I came here. Regardless of what inevitable challenges the future holds, I want to hold off on worrying about them for the time being and just spend today and the upcoming week being happy with my life. I want to have faith that everything will be alright. For just a little while, the challenges can wait.
Deciding not to get stuck on looking at the gate for too long, I take one more deep breath and then walk through it with a brisk pace that feels surprisingly good.
Moving forward feels good.
When I reach the others, Akira affectionally ruffles my hair.
"All ready to go?"
"I... think so. How about you?"
Lilly makes a little gesture towards the parking lot with her cane.
"Father and Mother have already left, along with most of your luggage. All that's left is to put your last suitcase into the trunk of Akira's car, as well as Hisao's luggage."
Hisao nods and taps the suitcase at his feet.
"I've already said goodbye to Mom and Dad. We're ready anytime you are."
"I'm... I'm ready too. Let's..."
I take a deep breath before finishing my sentence.
"Let's go h-home."
My boyfriend and my sisters all give me a warm smile and then we set out for the parking lot. We stash our luggage into the car's trunk, get in, and Akira starts the engine.
As the car leaves the parking lot and turns onto the road to the nearest highway, I can't help but turn around and look at the school building behind me one more time.
I can feel my eyes becoming a little moist. Behind me, slowly shrinking in the distance, lies the place that's been my home for four years.
The place where I found a new life...
Before Yamaku Academy vanishes from sight entirely, I use my hand to brush my fringe aside and send the school one last grateful smile, as if saying farewell to a beloved old friend. Then I let out a whisper that's too soft for even Lilly to hear.
"...and thank you."
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:28 am
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:28 am
Re: Sisterhood: True Edition (Hanako Epilogue) (Completed)
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:28 am
Re: Sisterhood: True Edition (Hanako Epilogue) (Completed)
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:29 am
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