Page 7 of 22
Chapter 47 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:12 am
"You know, I think we may have already used up all our good luck when we made our way up these stairs in the dark without breaking our necks."
"I think you may be exaggerating a bit."
It was still trickier than I thought though. After we each picked an o-mikuji, Mom suggested I drive back to the shrine together with Lilly and Hanako and tie our pieces of paper to the pine tree on the shrine grounds. As custom would have it, bad fortunes can be avoided that way while good fortunes are strengthened. Seems a bit silly, but I was kind of aching for some fresh air anyway, and there were some things I wanted to say to Lilly without Mom and Dad being anywhere nearby, so I gave in and drove back with the girls in tow. We very carefully climbed up the stairs to the gate, and now we're standing on the road leading to the various buildings. The shrine's been closed for hours, but fortunately there's no need for us to enter any of the buildings. The tree that visitors tie their o-mikuji to has to be somewhere nearby. It's probably near the hall of worship, so that's where we're headed right now.
"It might not be easy to find that tree with the shrine grounds being this dark, but a tree containing hundreds of pieces of paper must produce a pretty distinct rustling sound, so keep your ears open."
"Hmmm... I think you're right. Are we near the right building already?"
"We're pretty close. Do you hear anything?"
"Somewhere... to our left.
I peer through the darkness in the direction Lilly pointed out and vaguely see some light shapes moving in the wind.
"Yup, we've found the spot. I'll hold out a branch and you can do the tying, okay?"
I approach the tree, grab one of the branches and hold it in front of my sister who starts meticulously tying the pieces of paper to one of its unoccupied parts.
"I'm almost done. Can I have your piece as well, Hanako?"
No immediate response. Hanako's merely standing there looking at her o-mikuji as if the thing's calling her names.
I hear a tired sigh coming from her and then the piece of paper is pressed into Lilly's hand, who wastes no time attaching it next to our pieces.
"Hey Hanako, is everything alright?"
"Y-Yes. It's just..."
"I... d-don't really believe in t-this either."
Earlier today, she told us that she and her parents used to visit a place like this during New Year's Day. I wonder what her last o-mikuji said back then, assuming she picked one. Maybe she picked a 'Great Luck' fortune back then too, only to be orphaned and disfigured later that year. That would turn you off to the practice pretty quickly. On the other hand, maybe the fact that she survived at all is great luck in a really twisted way. I wonder...
"Good evening. Are you here to... sight-see? I'm afraid we're... only open between 9 and 4."
Hanako lets out a cry of surprise when we suddenly hear an unknown voice behind us speaking to us in rather awkward English. We turn around and see a girl who's probably not much older than 16 standing in front of us.
"Uh, hey. Good evening. Sorry for intruding."
"Oh... ah... excuse me."
She seems a bit surprised when I answer her in Japanese. Due to our blond hair and the weird time of our visit, she must have mistaken us for tourists.
"We weren't really here to see the sights. We just finished hanging up our o-mikuji."
Lilly, sensing the awkwardness in the girl's voice, steps forward and smiles in her general direction.
"I realize that we're visiting at a really awkward time, but we've spent most of the day studying at our house, and we need all the good luck we can get for the weeks that lie ahead."
A look of realization appears on the girl's face almost immediately.
"The Center Test?"
"Good luck. I hope you'll do well."
We exchange bows and prepare to leave the premise when the girl suddenly calls out to us.
"Would you... ah... like to use the hall of worship?"
"The hall of worship? But the shrine is closed, isn't it?"
"The doors aren't locked right now because I just finished cleaning it. If you like, you can make a wish there while I finish my remaining chores at the administrative building."
Lilly gives me an encouraging look.
"Well, okay then. Thanks. We greatly appreciate it."
"You're welcome. I have an older sister who worked here as a shrine maiden during the last few New Year's Days, but now she's busy studying as well, which is why I've taken her place this year."
After thanking the shrine maiden again, we wash our hands at the nearby purification basin and then enter the shrine building. It's still pleasantly warm inside the building, especially compared to the rather chilly night air, and the presence of several lit lanterns in the room gives it a cozy atmosphere. Looking at the row of low seats in the center of the room gives me a sudden urge to take a load off.
"It's kind of cozy in here. Seeing that that shrine maiden sounded like she might still be busy in the other building for a little while, we might be able to take it easy for a few moments without running the risk of wearing out our welcome."
The girls think about it for a moment and then give an almost simultanous nod. We put three of the seats in a circular formation and sit down. This is probably the most relaxed I've felt all day. I guess this would be a good moment to apologize to Lilly. I could do it after today, over the phone, but I'd really prefer to do things like these in person. I don't think either of us minds Hanako being nearby.
"So... umm... Lils, what did you think of today?"
"It was good to celebrate New Year's Day together again after being separated for such a long time."
"So you enjoyed it despite me... well... causing trouble?"
Lilly's smile falters a bit. Looks like she picked up what I'm talking about.
"You're still troubled by Mother's words, aren't you?"
"You think she was on to something?"
A pained expression appears on Lilly's face. This isn't a comfortable subject for either of us, and the silence that follows merely reinforces that.
"You can tell me what you think, Lils. I won't be upset if you take Mom's side in this case."
Lilly's shoulders droop upon hearing my words. I can't help but feel that what was meant to be a reassurance had exactly the opposite effect.
"Akira... I don't want to take sides. I don't want to feel like having to choose between you and our parents anymore. There shouldn't be any sides to begin with. Why can't you understand that? Why won't you understand that?"
She's right, of course. There shouldn't be any sides. Yet ever since Mom and Dad left Japan, that's exactly how things have been in my mind. They abandoned us. They abandoned Lilly. So from that moment on, it was us and them. They sent all the financial support we ever needed and then some, but as far as emotional and practical support were concerned, I was the only person Lilly had left. From that point on, it was up to me to be a father and mother figure at the same time. I promised myself back then that I'd be a better parental figure to her than Mom and Dad could ever be. That bar wasn't set particularly high. All I had to do to stay above it was simply vowing to never abandon Lilly. Easiest vow I've made in my life.
"There shouldn't be, but when Mom and Dad left, I really did feel like our family was split into two halves. That was simply the way things were."
Deep down, I felt the schism in our family was permanent. Even if they'd return one day, things wouldn't be the same. It would still be us and them. It would always be us and them. Even though I felt angry, even bitter, about it, I accepted this to be reality from then on. Looking back on things, I think I did more than merely accept this new reality. I think I also grew comfortable with it. Like we were better off without them anyway. Maybe I grew too comfortable with the situation.
"Maybe. But I don't think that's the way things should be."
The same obviously can't be said for Lilly. Deep down she never made peace with the way our family split up and probably always hoped they'd unexpectedly return to Japan and we'd pick up exactly where we left off. Then we took that first trip to Inverness, and we experienced first-hand how much we had grown apart. It didn't really faze me since it merely confirmed what I already knew, but Lilly was very troubled by it.
"I've been thinking about it, and Mom's probably right about me. I have given up on this family. Probably gave up a long time ago. Look, I'm really sorry for kicking up such a fuss."
When Mom and Dad asked Lilly to move to Inverness, I didn't really know what to think about it. Part of me felt like she was better off staying in Japan. She had her friends there and a little semi-family of her own. We'd stay in contact regardless. If she'd really move to Inverness, I'd still get to hang out with her, but I didn't think she'd really get that close with our parents.
When Dad got hospitalized, the various confrontations between us reached a point where I feared that the two halves that made up our family were in danger of falling apart themselves and I hated the fact that I couldn't reliably support Lilly on this particular issue. So eventually, I turned to Hanako who was the closest thing Lilly had to a sister aside from me. I'm not really sure what Hanako talked to her about - Lilly's never been willing to tell me - but the next time I saw Lilly, she seemed to have found a new sense of determination and purpose.
Things really changed after that. When I mentioned to Lilly that people at the office seemed worried about going to the States without Dad and Mom, she suggested for Mom to go and me to accompany her as Dad's representative while she stayed behind in Inverness to look after Dad in Mom's place. We ended up going with that suggestion, and Mom and I spent quite some time in each other's company, although we didn't really do any bonding. Lilly, on the other hand, really managed to make an impression on our old man while we were gone, and after we got back I couldn't help but feel that he developed a genuine soft spot for his youngest daughter. When we learned that Dad was going to be replaced as CEO of the company and Lilly made the proposal for them to come and live in Japan again and Dad seemed to be willing to give it some thought, I did what I felt I had to do - throw my support behind my sister.
"Even if you have given up on us, we haven't given up on you, Akira. Nor will we ever."
"Heh, 'we' meaning 'you', Lils? Are Mom and Dad really this eager to have their black sheep back?"
"I think you're being too hard on yourself."
I dunno about that. As far as I'm concerned, Mom and Dad always considered me a bit of a troublemaker. While other kids in the neighborhood were spoiled by their mothers, I was continuously told what was or wasn't the proper way to act. Them eventually sending me to that horrible middle school was just one more attempt to turn me into something I never was, nor ever could be. Maybe that's why I so quickly became comfortable with the situation of things coming down to me and Lilly. Between the two of us, there was always unconditional acceptance. If the four of us would 'get back together again', there's no question who'd end up eventually falling by the wayside again, like always. Maybe that's why I feel the way I feel.
"It's not myself I'm being hard on. I'm fairly comfortable with who I am even if most others aren't."
"They may be hesitant to show it, but your happiness is very important to them. In fact... While I was selfishly trying to convince you to accompany us back to Japan, Mother and Father felt that maybe it was a good idea to give you the opportunity to find out if you could become happy in Inverness. They were thinking of your well-being when I wasn't. It was Father who told this to me."
"He also told me he could never dislike you... because you remind him so much of Mother."
"A couple of months ago, I would have insisted he'd take a drug test for that saying kind of thing."
"I agree with him. You two really do seem to have a lot in common. I think... it made it easier for me - to reconnect with her."
"Don't remind me, please."
It's probably not Lilly's intention, but her words give me an unpleasant feeling in the pit of my stomach, just like seeing Mom's interaction with her tends to do. At first, I believed Mom somehow thought that imitating my way of interacting with Lilly was some quick and easy way to bond with her. I was quite insulted by the idea of such a cheap trick actually working. It wasn't until I spent some more time at head office, where Mom and Dad were frequently brought up, that I started second-guessing my initial impression.
"I... um... t-think it's actually t-true as well."
I smirk slightly as Hanako jumps in for the first time since we sat down here.
"You wannna know something funny? I hear this all the time at work. Just about every time I have a bit of fun with a colleague, I hear stuff like 'That's your Mom talking'. It's actually starting to get on my nerves a bit, being compared to her all the time."
"I think they're complimenting you. Mother was greatly respected at work, wasn't she?"
"Mom and Dad both - from what I've been able to tell so far. Dad was considered the brains of the operation. Very sharp business instincts and a knack for playing the long game, but also a bit distant and... heh... a bit repressed. Mom was more considered the heart of the business. She had the reputation of being sociable and easy to approach. She'd usually be the one to smooth over misunderstandings between the staff and either Dad or people from the Japanese branch, and she also acted as confidant for people on the workfloor. Heh, over the last few months people have been randomly walking up to me - probably under the assumption that I am her successor or something..."
"This is merely conjecture on my part, but I believe you and Mother will probably get along very well with one another once you manage to work out your... differences."
"Don't misinterpret my words, Lils. Just because she could earn my respect as a colleague doesn't mean I could respect her as a person, and without personal respect it would be really hard to get along, don't you think?"
"That's... pretty harsh..."
"Don't you wonder about it then?"
"Wonder about what?"
"Mom used to be so different. She was pretty much the ideal housewife from a traditional male perspective. Quiet, elegant - but also a bit of a doormat. I mean... When Dad summoned her to Scotland, I wasn't even that surprised she went along with it without putting up a fight. She almost always deferred to Dad. For some time, I simply saw her as just another victim. But that's kind of hard to believe now. If this proper lady thing was really an act, put on to 'set the good example' or whatever lame excuse Dad gave, why didn't she tell him to stick that summoning where the sun don't shine? Unless, of course, she really did want to get away from us."
"I don't really have an answer to that. Except we don't really know what went on between them. Maybe there was a confrontation, and we simply don't know about it. Maybe we'll find out some day. "
"I don't really get it, Lils. Is it really that easy for you to forgive them like that? Are you a saint, or am I simply dead inside?"
Lilly giggles at that.
"I think neither. Can I say something that will remain within these walls?"
"My lips are sealed."
"The truth is that... I haven't forgiven them myself yet either. But... I'd still like them to be part of my life in the meantime while I deal with that. I don't think I can go back to the way things were, because I perceive them in a different light now. Perhaps less as infallible authority figures and more simply as ordinary people, just like you and me - with both qualities and flaws. This makes it easier to appreciate their qualities and overlook their shortcomings. I'd like to give them a second chance to prove themselves. Deep down I feel that Mother and Father genuinely care about us and about our well-being. I want to try and have faith in them. I can't really explain it myself. Call it female intuition."
"Hmmph, I wonder why I don't have any of that 'female intuition' of yours..."
Lilly raises her hand to her mouth in order to hide a playful grin, and I realize that I just set myself up for the world's easiest punchline.
"If any of you dare suggest that it's because I'm not feminine enough, you'll either be walking back to our parents' place or sleeping at the shrine. Just sayin..."
Lilly and I share a hearthy laugh with even Hanako joining in eventually. After this little moment of silliness, Lilly slowly gets up from her seat.
"Seeing that we're indeed still at a shrine, perhaps it would be a good idea to do what we came to do here. Our host is probably finishing up as we speak."
"Good point. Let's go ahead and make a wish then."
We get up, I put some coins in the nearby offering box, and Hanako walks up to the bell cord on one side of the room, ringing the shrine's bell twice. As she joins Lilly in a silent little New Year's prayer, I find myself trying to put my thoughts in order.
For all her polite approach towards our parents, Lilly has a surprisingly down-to-earth attitude towards them that took me off guard a bit. Maybe I really should back off a bit and avoid shouting at Mom and Dad on her behalf.
Is it really possible to move on without forgiving them first?
Can I have faith in them?
Do I even want to?
If I want to keep interacting with Lilly, I can't keep avoiding our parents, tempting as it seems.
I wonder what kind of future we have as a family, if any.
Making a wish for our family to fully reconciliate might be insincere on my part for now.
Maybe something more generic. I take a quick look at Lilly and Hanako and then silently nod to myself.
I wish for everyone I've been with today to have good fortune the upcoming year...
...Mom and Dad.
Yeah, that'll do.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:12 am
As beads of sweat start appearing on my forehead, and my breathing gets more frantic by the second, I whisper the name of my girlfriend in desperation. I moan as the sensation I'm feeling right now grows even more intense.
Keep it together.
Deep breaths. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out.
I struggle to regain control of myself. If I wasn't sitting behind my desk right now, I probably would have collapsed in a heap already.
Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out.
My heart's still pounding like a jackhammer, but its pace doesn't seem to be increasing beyond its already frantic rate.
Breathe in, breathe out...
I might be able to get up. If this is still going to get worse, I might as well have my episode in the hallway and hope somebody notices and gets help.
At least I'll know the face of my sudden assailant.
I struggle to get on my feet and shuffle towards the door. Just when I reach the doorknob, I feel my heart slowly calming down. I lean against the door with both hands and try to avoid panicking, concentrating on keeping my breathing steady and emptying my head of any thoughts that might cause distress.
As my heart slowly returns to its 'normal' rhythm, I turn my head around and look at my alarm clock. It's 00:30 on January the 19th right now and under normal circumstances, I would have been asleep at this time of night already. But tomorrow (technically today) will be the first day of the National Center Test for University Admissions, and just about all the subjects I'm not extremely confident about, such as English and history, are on the books this day. That's why I decided to involve myself in a last-minute late-night cramming session.
I've been doing very little else than studying over the course of the last few weeks with the occasional nap thrown in for good measure. I know that it's not a healthy schedule, but until recently I was convinced that I'd be able to hang in there without any serious issues popping up.
But then this night came along. I wasn't feeling well, but I've been reminding myself that I'll be able to take it slightly easier after this weekend. All I had to do was hang in there for a little while longer. I was studying when there was suddenly an unusually loud knock on the door that startled the hell out of me and caused my heart to skip a beat, then another beat. Just when I realized that this could spell big trouble, my heartbeat returned, only for it to accelerate... and accelerate... and accelerate.
While fighting the urge to pass out from the strain, there was interestingly only one thought on my mind.
What will happen to Hanako if I die here tonight?
Thankfully, after what felt like an hour but was probably closer to 20 seconds, my heart started slowing its dysfunctional rhythm, and I slowly started regaining my senses.
That was close.
And now I'm at the door of my room. Whoever nearly scared me to death better have a good reason.
"I was starting to think you dozed off. This is no hour to keep a bro waiting, man."
I let out a frustrated sigh.
Of course, who else? I consider shouting at him what an idiot he's just been, but then realize I probably don't even have the strength to keep that up and would achieve little anyway aside from getting into trouble with the dorm keeper. So instead, I walk past him and into the bathroom where I soak one of the washing cloths and use it to wipe the sweat off my forehead. As the cool cloth soothes my throbbing head, the adrenaline rush from the experience back in my room makes way for an overwhelming tiredness, so I sit down on the nearby shower seat and wait for my body to get its bearings back.
"Man, you're not looking so great."
Looks like he's still completely oblivious to what just occurred. Of course, obliviousness has always been one of Kenji's strong suits. Even the stress of the upcoming test hasn't changed that. I briefly consider how this could have turned out. The last sight of my life being Kenji looking down at me. What a depressing way to go that would be.
"I think I just got uncomfortably close to keeling over and dying."
"You mean like... that thing with your heart happened again?"
Wow, I didn't expect him to actually grasp that. Maybe my first impression was wrong.
"Y-Yeah, that thing with my heart happened again. I'm kind of impressed you still remember that. The only time I mentioned that to you was nearly half a year ago."
That was after my hospitalisation, while I was trying to keep him away from Hanako and Lilly working things out in my room. Man... that feels like such a long time ago. A lot sure has changed since then.
"Of course I remember that. They operated on you and placed that tracking device inside you, right?"
And other things haven't changed in the slightest. I guess there's a reason people like to rely on their first impressions after all.
"Forget about the tracking device. Why did you have to knock so loudly? You nearly killed me just there."
"Killed you? That's not a cool thing to say, man. Not cool at all. If I really wanted to kill someone, I wouldn't start making noises and scare 'em to death. I'd do something like... drop him off a roof or something... make it look like an accident."
"Look, you startled me with that loud knock. That caused my heart to act up."
"It's gotta be something more. Maybe someone spiked your food. Do you remember it tasting funny?"
"It wasn't the food, Kenji, it was the knocking. Besides, who'd want to poison my food anyway?"
"The feminist conspiracy - or someone working for them. They're trying to keep you from graduating and getting into a university."
"Why would they want to do that?"
"Universities in Japan are still largely dominated by men. They're among the last remaining bulwarks against the feminist influence. So now the bitches are conspiring to keep as many men out of there as possible and eliminate contenders before they have the chance to make it in. One at a time. You're lucky you're still alive."
"Is that why you're studying so hard to get admitted to a university yourself?"
"Am I ever! And it looks like I got their attention. Damn, now that I think about it, they may have been after me all along. Got the meals mixed up."
"I doubt it. The person who's been making us meals over the last few days is a member of the science club. You said you personally vetted all of them. Shouldn't that clear him?"
"Oh, right. So I guess it wasn't the food. Did you pass any girls carrying umbrella's lately?"
"There's the old trick with the poison-tipped umbrella. You pass a chick carrying such a thing, you feel a little prick in your ankle and by the time you're keeling over, the perp is already on the other side of the country."
"It was the knocking, Kenji."
"Did you receive any letters containing some strange powder lately?"
"It was the knocking, Kenji. Why is that so hard to accept?"
"Because I knock like that all the time whenever I need a favor, man. And you've always handled it just fine."
That's kind of difficult to deny.
"You know, maybe you're right. Maybe I'm just way more out of shape than I thought."
"You don't really look in good shape, dude. Maybe... you know... you should get some sleep. You look like you need it."
I'm already kind of used to Lilly and Hanako mothering me, but if even Kenji starts telling me I need to take it easy, I must be a really sordid sight.
"...maybe I should. Tomorrow's gonna be one hell of a day. I doubt I'll get much more cramming done anyway."
I get up from the shower seat and carefully make my way back to the door to my room. Before going in, I turn to Kenji, having just remembered something.
"By the way, why did you want to see me at this hour to begin with? Was it really that important that it couldn't wait until morning?"
"Oh yeah, that's right... it was. It was about... uh..."
A new feminist plot? Breakfast money? Or something even more...
"...your science notes. I need your notes on the aerodynamics stuff. You're the science club president. You took notes on that, right?"
... mundane? Gee.
"Yeah, I'll go and get them."
Still feeling tired, but no longer as anxious, I enter my room, get the notes he asked for and walk back out.
"Here's what I have on the subject."
"You're a real pal. If I can't make it into university, I might as well keep the honor to myself and eat the feminists' fuckin' poisoned food right here and now. And uh... Sorry about the knocking, man. Didn't expect you to take it that badly."
"Thanks. I didn't expect it either, so maybe it was a wakeup call."
"I'll return them when I'm done with them."
"It's okay. I think I know what's in them anyway. You might not be able to use them though. I wrote in rather tiny letters when I took those notes. You might have trouble reading them."
"Hey, don't knock the eyes, man. They've seen things. Terrible things that you can't imagine..."
He's back in his own world again.
"Good night, Kenji."
"Like when I made a ship in a bottle and my mom sat on it..."
Chapter 48 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:13 am
I'm woken up from my slumber by the sudden sound of my cell phone ringing. Still groggy, I stumble out of bed and manage to snap it open just before my voicemail would have kicked in.
"Good morning, Hicchan!"
"Wha... Misha is that you?"
"Misha? Don't you recognize the voice of your own mother anymore?"
"Sorry, Mom. I just got out of bed."
I'm now awake enough to remember that Misha and Shizune weren't even the first people to use that nickname on a regular basis. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that Mom's calling me today. I was just taken off guard by how early she called. She probably wanted to make certain I wouldn't oversleep.
"I hope you weren't too nervous to sleep."
To be honest, that little episode last night did manage to rattle me, and I started wondering whether it was even a smart idea to set my alarm clock before ultimately deciding that without it I was almost guaranteed to oversleep. Now it turns out that I was never in danger of that to begin with.
"No, not really."
I turn off my alarm clock and start opening my pill bottles with my free hand. I might as well get that out of the way not that I'm awake.
"This is the day you're most nervous about, isn't it?"
"Yeah. History and languages are on the menu today. The most important subjects for me aren't up until tomorrow, but I'll still need to do fairly well on today's exams in order to keep my average up. I have some leeway due to science and math being weighed way more heavily by the faculty I'm applying for than today's subjects, but they could still drag me down if I'm not careful."
"You've been studying so hard over the last few months, I know you're going to do well."
"I really hope so."
"When do you expect to know the results?"
"We're not going to get official results, but the school's making copies of our answer sheets for us and the National Center for University Entrance Examinations is publishing the answers this evening, so that's when I'll know how I did. Same thing tomorrow. Tomorrow evening I'll be able to tell whether I have a chance to take the entrance exams for university or whether... I'll have to look for other options."
I'm really hoping it won't come to that. There are smaller universities in the area that don't look at the results of the Center Test for student admittance, but after Mutou's countless lectures about aiming high, I would be very reluctant to to apply there. Assuming I won't feel too guilty to approach him, Mutou would be a good person to discuss alternative options with in case I flunk the tests this weekend.
"Let's not think about that yet. You'll let us know once the results are in, won't you?"
"I'll soon be heading over to the shrine a few blocks away to get some good luck charms for you and pray for good luck. The rest is up to you, Hicchan."
"Well, good luck today."
"Could you... Get some good luck charms for Hanako too? And pray for her good fortune? She's going to need it just as badly as I do."
"I will. How has she been doing?"
"Alright... I think."
"Good luck to both of you today."
Having finished my morning diet of medication, I take a quick shower and go down to the kitchen to have breakfast, taking one of my study books with me to do some last-minute cramming while I'm eating. There's been an initiative from the junior students over the last few weeks to prepare meals for the seniors so that we had more time to study. It's one more example of the close community that this school is, and I for one am really thankful for it. After finishing breakfast, I pack up my things and head for the girls' dorm.
The girls' dorm's common room is really crowded right now. I see several 3rd years sitting at the tables, eating breakfast with one hand while leafing through a book with the other. I recognize Natsume and Naomi at one table, both studying intensely and catch Naomi letting out a pronounced yawn. She sure looks like she's seen better days though she'd probably say the same of me if she heard me say this. I also see Misaki from my class swapping notes with another girl whose name I can't remember. In one of the corners of the room sits Shizune, her back partially turned to the rest, calmly flipping through the pages of one of her books. Two girls whom I remember being in Lilly's class head towards the exit, and I quickly step aside to let them pass. The common room's probably way too crowded for Hanako to be here, so I head for her room, hoping she hasn't already left. As I enter the hallway leading to Hanako's and Lilly's room, I notice Lilly standing there talking to one of the teachers. I approach them and give the teacher a polite bow.
"Good morning, Lilly. Good morning, Miss Miyagi."
"Oh, hello Hisao. How are you? Are you feeling up for today?"
"Yeah, I'm fine, Lilly. I'll be happy when this day is over, but I haven't counted myself out yet."
Our English teacher raises an eyebrow at my optimistic description of my own condition, but thankfully doesn't say anything. I've already decided that I'm not going to let Lilly (or Hanako) in on what happened in my room last night. The last thing I want is for one of them to have a flashback to what happened with Mister Satou. It's funny, but I think I'm starting to understand how he must have felt; slowly feeling your limits approaching, but also realizing that the stakes are currently too high to quit or slow down. You don't hold back and save your strength in sight of the finish line. You go all out.
"Miss Miyagi has been going around this morning giving pep talks to the girls who are about to participate in the test. Maybe she can give you one as well."
Lilly's homeroom teacher gives me a look-over.
"You're Mutou's star pupil. You'd better make it through this weekend, or you're going to break his heart."
"That's not the most uplifting pep talk I've ever had."
"What tests are you taking today?"
"Ethics, Japanese History, Japanese Literature and English. History's going to be a bit rough, but it's the last one I'm most worried about."
"Just focus on one subject at a time without worrying about the rest and try not to spend too much time on one question. Since all your most important subjects won't be tested until tomorrow, just try to do the best you can and save your strength for the subjects that give you the most points, namely literature and English. There'll be an English listening test at the very end, but the written test is the one you should try to do as best as you can in since it carries a lot more weight."
"I'll do my best. How about your star pupil?"
Miss Miyagi gives Lilly a confident nod.
"I think I can safely stake my job on her acing the English test today. Many students have been dreading the listening part of the test ever since it was introduced two years ago, but someone who was both raised bilingually and is used to paying close attention to audio cues should have no problem achieving a perfect or near-perfect score there."
Lilly smiles humbly.
"I'll do my best to live up to your expectations. English will be the easy part today. I'll still have Contempory Social Studies, World History and Japanese Literature to deal with first. And there's... tomorrow."
"You've been studying pretty hard over the course of the last two months. It should be sufficient. Just concentrate on doing well on the subjects that carry the largest amount of weight for your university application."
"I'll do my best."
"Why are there teachers in the dorms, by the way? I noticed Mister Hoshino walking around the guys' dorm this morning as well."
"We're essentially doing a head count. Making sure there are no students who are set to take the tests today who accidentally oversleep."
"The school really seems to be going out of its way to help its students make it through examination hell."
"In the end the actual studying is still in your hands, but yes, we do try to accommodate you as much as we can. That's also why you're allowed to take the tests here on the school grounds instead of having to travel to the nearest university to take part in the examinations. Normally, only the larger high schools would be granted this privilege. You can thank us for our efforts on your behalf by doing well on your test this weekend."
"Have you already seen Hanako this morning? I came here looking for her."
"Not yet. I was about to go and check on her."
Lilly takes this moment to speak up.
"I believe I have heard her early this morning. She probably went to get some breakfast, though she's been eating in her room - as usual lately."
I must admit I'm still a bit worried about her. From what Lilly has told me Hanako only leaves her room these days to attend the supplementary lessons the school made her take. She eats and studies in her room with the door locked. At least, I hope she's been able to study."
Lilly's homeroom teacher walks up to the door leading to Hanako's room and gives a few gentle raps on it.
"Ikezawa? This is Miyagi."
There's no immediate response, but just as the teacher raises her hand to knock again, the door opens just a bit, and I can see Hanako peering at us from inside the room.
"Ikezawa, it's about time for everyone to head for the gymnasium. Are you ready to go?"
Hanako opens the door further and gives a nervous nod. She takes her bag and then walks out, closing the door behind her.
"Good morning, Hanako. Let's both do our best today."
"Good morning, Ikezawa. What subjects will you be taking today?"
"Umm...P-Politics and Economy, J-Japanese History, Japanese Literature and ah... English."
"And you have studied hard for them, haven't you?"
A silent nod.
"All the teachers here know that your mock exam results weren't an accurate representation of what you're really capable of, so please do your best to prove us right today."
"What study are you aiming for?"
"J-Journalism and Media."
"Then those first two tests will probably be critical. Do your best."
"The three of you should go now. My colleagues have probably unlocked the gym already. Also..."
We turn around, and I notice one of the girls from our class running up to us.
"We're not supposed to be running in the hallways, Komaki."
"Sorry, but... in the common room... Inoue."
We hear our teacher softly curse under her breath, causing Lilly to cringe, before she takes off and runs down the hallway with Hanako following close behind her.
"This doesn't sound good."
We make our way down the stairs to the common room as fast as Lilly's navigation skill allows us, but by the time we arrive it's already so crowded in there that I can see neither Hanako nor the teacher. Even though I can't see Miss Miyagi in the crowd, I can certain hear her.
"Damnit, can you give us some room already?"
"Suzuki, hand me that pillow over there please!"
"Miura, go and get a nurse to help out. Wait, get two of them! Tell them to bring a stretcher too!"
"Get the chairs away from here. Put them in the hallway!"
"Look, this isn't working. No more spectators! Everyone who's taking the test, go to the gymnasium at once. Everybody else, go to your room! Come on! Today, please!"
At this point, the crowd starts to disperse, and as the common room starts emptying I finally start taking in the scene before me.
Naomi's lying on the floor of the common room, her limbs thrashing about as if she's being electrocuted. One of the tables and several chairs are scattered about. Miss Miyagi is kneeling by Naomi's side, holding a pillow under her head and trying to prevent her from hurting herself. I've seen Naomi have fits before, but the sight of them still never fails to make me feel freaked out.
Now that the bystanders are all gone, the only people in the room besides Naomi and Miyagi are Lilly, Hanako, Natsume and myself. Hanako and Natsume are both holding their hand in front of their mouth to partially mask their expression, but the look in their eyes is all too telling.
They both look crushed. I think they both realize the implication of this event. We all do.
"I really don't think the four of you should still be hanging around here. The nursing staff will probably be here any second now, and they'll take over from me. There's nothing you can do for Inoue right now."
Natsume nods sullenly, and when she speaks up her voice sounds like it's about to break.
"M-Maybe not right now, but... I think that... someone should stay by her side. When she wakes up and she... she realizes what happened..."
"I hope you're not talking about yourself. I could give Takawa a call. She can probably handle it."
We turn around and see a frail-looking girl standing in the doorway whom I recognize as Hanako's and Naomi's friend from the writing club.
"I... ah... probably won't do as good a job at this as you would, but I'll stay here with Naomi. You and Hanako should get going and pass your tests."
Natsume and Hanako exchange a short glance and then simultanously nod their head.
"Thank you Jun. That's really kind of you. We'll leave Naomi in your care then."
With that issue taken care of we quickly leave the dorm building and head towards the gymnasium. As we pass the main school building, Natsume lets out a depressed sigh.
"She was so looking forward to graduation too. I really wonder how she's going to take this. Even though she's been a little careless lately, she didn't deserve having the rug pulled out from under her in a way like this."
Lilly's ears perk up.
"I'm sorry, but... did you say she was careless? This didn't come completely by surprise?"
Natsume thinks for a moment and then shrugs as if to say 'why not?'
"Naomi can't really do much to prevent her episodes completely, but whether they occur occasionally or all the time depends a little bit on her lifestyle, which hasn't been very healthy lately."
"Are you saying that she overstepped her own boundaries?"
"Stress and sleep deprivation are things that make her more vulnerable to seizures. Her episodes have been increasing in frequency lately, and over the last week she was down to one every 48 hours or so. I was really afraid that she was going to damage her brain if she kept going like this. She was caught up in this downward spiral that only seemed to get worse."
"What do you mean?"
"The more seizures she went through, the more stressed she became, and the more time she spent cramming in an attempt to make up for all the time all those fits were costing her."
"What a horrible situation to be in."
"I was really hoping she'd be able to hold out until the end of the weekend. She kept telling me that she'd take it easier for a bit after tomorrow."
"Please give her my regards when you speak to her."
"H-Hisao, are you... alright? You look a bit pale."
"I'm okay, Hanako. Just a little upset about what just happened and more than a little nervous about the tests today. I'll be fine. As long as I can struggle my way through history and English, that is."
When we reach the entrance to the gym, we can see that a lot of people have already gathered there. I even see Yuuko hanging around near the entrance. Is she taking the Center Test too? Several groups of students, especially the females, are speaking to each other in hushed tones. It's not difficult to guess the subject of their current conversation. Rather than join one of the groups, Natsume secludes herself some distance away from the rest. She's probably not fond of the idea of people approaching her about Naomi right now. Before we can decide on whether to join her or not, I see Hanako pointing something out, and a moment later I see Lilly's homeroom teacher approaching.
As she reaches the place where we're gathered and several female students walk up to her, Miss Miyagi loudly claps her hands a few times in order to get everyone's attention.
"Alright, listen up everyone! We're all a little shaken by what happened to Inoue this morning, but the situation is under control, the nurses are looking after her, and we'll be talking to the National Center of University Entrance Examinations to work out a solution to this later today! So put this issue to rest and focus on your exams! I'll be acting as one of the proctors throughout the day, and if you're in my class and need my assistence with anything sight-related, but not question related, just silently raise your hand and I'll be right with you. There's a representative of the National Center keeping an eye on things as well today, so there's not a lot of room for leniency. Good luck everyone and go and give this your all!"
Almost as an indicator that she's finished, Miyagi pulls out a cigarette and lights it. The first students start pouring into the gym and Lilly, having smelt the smoke, approaches her mentor with a slightly uncomfortable expression and gets a sigh and semi-guilty look in return.
"Borrowed these from the dormkeeper's office just before I left. I really felt I needed one. And to think I was going to give up smoking for real this year."
Natsume approaches Miyagi with a wary expression.
"Teacher, what solution could possibly be worked out? Regulations on tardiness and absence are extremely strict for this test and there's no chance for retakes. Are there loopholes we don't know about?"
Miyagi gives a tired sigh while dropping her cigarette on the floor and putting it out with her heel.
"What else was I supposed to say? I don't want this lingering in the back of everybody's head all day long."
Both Natsume's and Hanako's face drops upon hearing this news. Miyagi looks a little bit uncertain, but then puts one hand on each of the girls shoulders and gives them both a tiny squeeze.
"You two need to shape up! It's more important than ever that the two of you do well today. Seeing that you are both good friends of hers, how do you think Inoue will feel if this little incident ends up costing both of you your chance to make it into your university of choice?"
That strategy has an extremely familiar ring to it. It's the same approach Miss Takawa used on Lilly and me. I wonder if this kind of guilt-tripping is the standard approach among school staff. Nevertheless, I can tell that Miyagi's words get through to Natsume and Hanako.
"Inoue is going to feel really bad about this, but if I know her a little bit I don't think it's going to keep her down for long. She'll be set on throwing you two a celebration party in the upcoming spring, so make sure not to deny her that opportunity."
With that, Miss Miyagi enters the gym. Natsume and Hanako exchange a confused look, but then I see something dawn on their faces. Suddenly, Natsume sticks out her hand at Hanako.
"I think Miss Miyagi's right. Naomi will probably be cheering on us, so let's not let her down. Let's do this, Hanako!"
Hanako gives the most determined nod I've seen for months and puts her hand on top of Natsume's as if to reinforce this pact.
"Let's k-keep this burden off Naomi's shoulders, Natsume. Let's make her p-proud of us."
The two give a defiant nod and then follow the rest of the students into the gymnasium. I turn to Lilly who now has an admiring smile on her face.
"Hanako was looking really determined just now. It pains me to say this, but maybe this was just what she needed."
I've seen this kind of look on Hanako's face before. It's that look of intense concentration she sometimes puts on during a game she's determined to win. And she often wins when that happens. I really believe she's going to give it everything she has today.
"We can't do any less, Hisao. Let's do our best today as well."
And with that, we walk into the gym ourselves and take our place in our designated spots. When the proctor gives the signal to begin, the only thing on my mind is getting a good score today.
But nevertheless, during the break between the Japanese History exam and Japanese Literature test, my thoughts briefly return to the sight of Naomi convulsing on the floor of the common room. I didn't tell Hanako and Lilly, but what happened to Naomi hit really close to home for me this morning.
It could have been me.
Naomi's situation sounded eerily similar to my own. It probably was.
It could have been me.
I could have had an episode less than 12 hours later, and I would have lost an entire year. In just a single moment, all the studying I've done over the last few months would have been rendered meaningless. I make a sincere vow not to let this happen to me.
Tomorrow is primarily science and math. I'm pretty good at both of them. I've been studying on them for weeks.
Maybe I really should be going to bed early tonight.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:13 am
"Come on in."
As the person behind the door responds to my knocking, I reluctantly open the door and walk into the office. I'd rather not be here, but as things are I think I'm going to need the peace of mind in order to study better.
"Good to see you, Hisao. Please take a seat."
The nurse makes a welcoming gesture towards one of the chairs and then goes back to typing on his computer.
"Just have to finish this report. I won't be long."
"Perhaps I can come back some other time?"
It's not like I have a lot of free time right now.
"Actually I've wanted to see you for some time now, so I'd appreciate it if we could get it out of the way now that you're here."
"Earlier this school year, we'd see each other on a daily basis, and I thought that was a good habit. It allowed me to keep a close eye on the state of your condition and keep you in optimal shape. I haven't really seen you for over two months and I'm quite curious about how you're doing."
I'm kind of put off by the flat business-like tone in his voice. He usually only adopts that tone whenever he's upset about something. The occasion just now was pretty much perfect for a remark like 'I've missed you and our daily intimacies' or something else embarrassing, but for some reason he doesn't seem in the mood for stupid jokes. And whenever he's not in the mood for stupid jokes, I automatically get kind of worried.
"Well, I guess I'm doing okay, though also very busy studying for my entrance exams. I didn't do all that well on the mock exams, but I studied hard to make up for that and I managed to get a sufficient score on the National Center Test to be allowed to take part in the entrance examinations for the university I applied to."
"Well, that's a relief."
"Lilly and Hanako also made it through the Center Test. I'm especially relieved about Hanako, because her mock exam results were really bad. It's a shame that one of Hanako's best friends flunked. Or actually rather than flunk she didn't even make it to the test. She really had rotten luck."
"Oh yes, I know all about Inoue."
He sounds a bit annoyed.
He shakes his head as if dismissing the matter.
"Never mind. So now you're preparing for the university-specific exam?"
"Yes. It's pretty stressful. I mean, it's largely focussed on science, which I'm not too bad at, but I'll be competing with nothing but people who are good at science."
"Yes, I remember my own examination period. Very hectic time. And at least I had the luxury of only having to be concerned about getting into my university of choice."
He finishes his report with a dramatic keystroke and then turns to me.
"I didn't have to worry about endangering my health."
"As you can see, I'm still here."
"So I see."
He opens one of his drawers and takes out a stethoscope.
"It's been a while since you've been here, but I'm sure you still remember where we go from here."
I nod and remove my shirt. I shiver a bit as the cold metal of the chest piece is pressed against my body. The nurse listens intently for several seconds, then moves the piece slightly upwards and repeats the process. After going through this procedure several more times, he puts the stethoscope away and gestures that I can put my shirt back on.
"So... did it still sound okay?"
"I'm afraid it didn't. I could hear an irregularity in your heart rhythm. But you probably knew this yourself already, and that's why you came here. Am I right?"
"Yeah, that's kind of the case."
"Why don't you start at the beginning?"
"I actually had a rather nasty heart flutter on the night before the Center Test. I was busy cramming, a hallmate came to borrow some notes, he knocked on my door rather loudly, I got startled, and then my heartbeat suddenly went completely out of control. It passed eventually, but it was pretty scary. It's been such a long time that I actually forgot how frightening that kind of thing is."
The nurse groans.
"The Center Test was on January the 19th. That was nearly a week ago, and you didn't think it was important to tell us until now?"
"I had exams that weekend and I went to bed rather early the night afterwards. After hearing that I passed the exams, I figured I'd take it slightly easier for a few days and things would be okay, but..."
The truth was probably that I also didn't want a lecture about how I had to slow down. I already know the problem without someone having to rub it in for good measure.
"The same thing happened again today?"
"Not yet. I actually figured I got away with it. But the memory keeps buzzing around in my head, even though it's been days. I'm starting to lose sleep over it. I was hoping you could give me some peace of mind."
The nurse gives me a very stern glare.
"Well, I'm afraid I can't. Something definitely sounded off just now. You're walking an extremely fine line here, Hisao."
"I know that."
"How much sleep are you getting on a daily basis?"
"Between five and six hours a day. I realize it's not much, but a lot of other students I've spoken to have similar schedules."
"Are you still eating enough and is the food healthy?"
"Yes. The juniors and the students who failed the Center Test are preparing the meals and doing the shopping for the 3rd years who are still in the running. It's a pretty convenient initiative on the school's behalf."
"How much physical exercise do you still partake in?"
"Emi has probably told you already."
"I know that you haven't visited the track in quite some time. Any
other physical activity at all?"
I think I get what he was referring to. Under other circumstances, that question would probably have been accompanied by a knowing wink, and he would have snickered at my embarassment. It's a good thing his tone is so neutral this time around, because I feel the answer kicking me in the teeth while it's leaving my mouth.
Ever since Hanako lapsed into a depression following the incident in that lecture hall, our sex life has pretty much been dead in the water. During the last time we did it, it became clear that she wasn't able to get into it or even enjoy it, so we basically ended up putting that part of our relationship on hold until Hanako is able to pick herself up again, whenever that is. The sudden bout of abstinence initially left me feeling inadequate, and it used to feel immensely frustrating, but at this point in time I feel that maybe it's a good thing. That's because I'm having sincere doubts right now about my ability to get into bed with her and not have my heart act up. At least now I won't have the need to make excuses to Hanako.
"Sleep deprivation, stress and no physical exercise make a pretty toxic combination for a person with your condition, Hisao. I hope you can bring yourself to admit at least this much."
I know all about that. It's the same poisonous cocktail that caused Lilly's father to nearly end up visiting his ancestors.
Kenji's defense about how he didn't knock louder than usual left me thinking. He should have restrained himself more, but the experience that night left me forced to admit that I've been allowing my condition to slowly but steadily start deteriorating, kind of like how Hanako's mood started regressing slowly but steadily after that traumatic incident last year. For the first time in months, I've started considering my own mortality again.
"I could draw you up a training schedule and a study planning that involves a responsible amount of sleep and a modest amount of physical activity, but I'm only going to do that if I know you're actually going to adhere to it."
"I'd have to see the schedule before I can decide that."
"The last person I made such a planning for ended up ignoring it altogether, and my hunch is that you'd find it too strict as well."
I wonder if that person was Naomi. That would explain the annoyed tone in his voice when I brought her up.
"Maybe. It's just... I really don't want to flunk my exam and find out that I could have passed it if I had spent just a little bit more time studying."
"I hear that one all the time. But it's going to be tricky doing something about your problem if you're going to just disregard whatever advice I have for you."
"I was wondering... could you perhaps prescribe some additional medication? Like the medication I was on shortly after my last release from the hospital? I reacted pretty well to that and don't recall any major side effects."
"Is that why you came here? Drugs are no substitute for healthy living habits, Hisao. If they were, I wouldn't have been pushing so hard for you to get yourself in proper shape."
"It's only for a few more weeks. I feel I'm really close. I can't afford to trip up just before the finish line."
The nurse nods at my words, but I can tell from his expression that he's not convinced, so I continue.
"Look, it's really important for me to get into this university. Lilly and Hanako are going there too. I don't want to fall behind them. If I fail now, not only will everything have been for nothing, but I'll be forced to go through this again next year. Not at Yamaku with its full-time nursing staff, but probably at some random cram school that won't even know how to deal with my condition. That's going to be even more risky. If
I'm going to push myself, this school would still be the safest place to do it. I've already made it through the Center Test. I just need a few more weeks to finish this."
The nurse rolls his eyes.
"It sounds like you've been rehearsing this little speech."
A little bit. I suspected I was going to need it.
"I'm only trying to put into practice what the school has been encouraging us to do."
"What the teaching staff have been encouraging you to do. And even they wouldn't go around encouraging you to kill yourself or do anything else that might make you miss your exams."
He lets out an exasperated sigh before proceeding.
"To tell you the truth, entrance examination season is my least favorite time of the year. Of course the teachers' arguments are perfectly valid, and it makes sense for all the students attending here to go for the best academic credentials they can get, but the stress of examination hell can cause some real trouble at a school like this, and sometimes I feel that the teachers are a bit too eager to lean on the medical staff for damage control."
"I guess I'm not the only student who's having a bit of a struggle with his health right now then."
"Sleep deprivation, stress and high blood pressure are bad for anybody's health, but some people take it worse than others. Heart patients, epileptics, diabetics - just to name a few. This is always a hectic time for the nurses here."
"So situations like the one with Naomi are not uncommon around here at this time of year?"
"We've had years where nobody was forced to drop out prematurely, and we've had years where worse happened."
"Worse? Nobody died, I hope."
"Fortunately not. But a few years ago, before I was employed here, we had a student with epilepsy here, like Inoue. He made it through the Center Test just fine, but things went wrong when he went to take his university-specific entrance exam. Back then, our students still went to take their entrance exams at the university they applied at, just like everyone else."
"He had a seizure during the exam itself?"
"Yes. Now imagine a hall packed with students who have probably been cramming non-stop for months and are wound extremely tight due to crushing pressure from their family to succeed that day. Can you imagine the results when all of a sudden a person in that hall falls off his chair and appears to be dying with no medical professional nearby to quickly jump in?"
"I can imagine getting spooked like that could cause a blackout or at least a negative effect on one's performance. Were there a lot of failures that year?"
"Certainly a lot more than usual. Yamaku received quite a few complaints from angry parents that year. From that point on we got around that problem by making arrangements with the universities our students applied for so our 3rd years can take their entrance exams here under the supervision of a representative from the National Center of University Entrance Examinations who comes over for the occasion. That way, we can have our nursing staff on stand-by and they can take immediate action if a similar incident were to happen again."
"That's a pretty nice arrangement."
"Of course, our own students would still be impacted if a student were to have a seizure or a heart attack in their presence in the middle of an exam. That's probably a good thing to keep in mind, Hisao. Being reckless may not just put yourself at risk, but could also cause trouble for others."
I didn't really think of that, but it doesn't change the way I feel.
"Would it be selfish of me to say that I'd still like to take the risk?"
"Probably. But it's not like I can stop you from taking it."
He gives a resigned sigh, takes a note from his desk and starts writing a short list of medication on it. He then holds it out to me, but when I take it he doesn't let go of it.
"I'd like you to get one hour of sleep a day more than you've had over the last few weeks. That's not a request, that's a condition."
"If you feel anything out of the ordinary - anything at all - come back here and let me know about it. Not the week afterwards or even the day afterwards, but as soon as humanly possible!"
He finally lets go of the note, and I quickly put it in my pocket before he can change his mind after all.
"Good luck with your cramming sessions, and try not to do anything that'll cause my head to end up on the principal's chopping block."
I get up and walk out of the office, but before I can close the door, he scrapes his throat to get my attention one more time.
"I'm still going to draw up a training schedule and a dietary plan. I want you back in adequate shape before this year's graduation ceremony, so prepare yourself for workout hell the day after your entrance exams are finished."
"I'll be looking forward to it. Go ahead and tell the workout imp to go and sharpen her pitchfork."
I close the door before he has a chance to reply, but the last thing I see is that familiar grin of his. Which honestly feels like a relief.
"Oh, hey there."
But when I turn around, I find out that I'm not alone in the hallway. Standing in front of me and looking me over is a familiar face.
" 'scuse me."
She nods at me and then walks past me, knocking on the nurse's door before opening it and walking in.
I wonder what she's here to see the nurse for.
Dammit, did she just hear the nurse's last comment?
I'd like to drop by at the apothecary and get back to my books as soon as possible, but the fact that Naomi just saw me leaving the nurse's office troubles me a bit, so I decide to wait for her and make sure she's not going to pass this event on to Hanako. The last thing I want is for her to get worried over me.
Surprisingly, Naomi comes walking out of the office less than five minutes after entering. Whatever she wanted to talk about probably didn't take long. As she closes the door, I notice a note in her hand not completely unlike mine.
"Oh, didn't think you'd still be around. Hey there."
I shoot a brief look at the door of the nurse's office.
"That didn't take very long."
Naomi rolls her eyes.
"He used to make small talk, but I don't think he likes me very much anymore at this point."
"You got on his bad side?"
Naomi lets out a weary sigh.
"My parents were pretty pissed when I missed my exams that day and made an angry phone call to the principal, who in turn went to chew out the nurse, but he said he gave me a daily planning I didn't bother to follow, so now both my parents and the nurse are mad at me. And all I did was try and prepare myself well for my exams so they'd be proud of me. So much for appreciation of my efforts, huh?"
"I'm really sorry to hear that."
"It's so easy for everyone to say I've been too rash. But if you were running in a race on the track or something and you tripped and fell on your face, would you take it easy or would you double your efforts so you could catch up with the rest? That stupid schedule required me to sleep for a total of eight to nine hours a day. How on earth can I compete with people who have so much more time to study than I can?"
"I think I know how you feel. I hope your parents weren't too upset."
"We'll be okay. They just need a little bit of time to let it sink in. Deep down they know I didn't fail my test on purpose or anything."
I point at the note in her hand.
"Looks like we're both headed for the same place."
"Yeah, I guess I'll come along."
We start walking down the hallway, and I take another look at Naomi. She's probably still bummed about missing the Center Test, but she looks to be in better shape now than the last time I saw her.
"Have you already decided what you're going to do now?"
"Welllll... I'd like to give it another try next year. I mean... If I'm destined to crash and burn, I'd at least like to properly fail my tests instead of missing them altogether."
"Do you think your parents are going to go along with that?"
"I think so. I remember they were really proud when Hanako, Jun and I won a prize in that writing contest. I think they'll support me in the end. At least for one more year. I'd better not press my luck after that. It's not like university preparation cram school is cheap."
"So you're probably going back home after graduation, right?"
"Yeah, I think I'm going to move back in with my parents for a year and attend cram school in my hometown. I'm gonna miss the freedom of the dorms here, but it's not like I have anywhere else to go."
"Cram school, huh?"
"Yeah, at least for part of the year. But until the graduation ceremony, I'll be sticking around here and help out wherever I can. Both at the newspaper club and at the dorms."
"You're helping the juniors taking care of the 3rd years who are still studying?"
"Yeah, the usual stuff like cooking meals and doing shopping. I try to give Natsume some extra priority. She can use all the help she can get?"
"She's applied for a university that has a pretty tough entrance exam. She's clever enough to make it in, but the stress is causing her arthritis to act up and that's making it harder for her to study. I dropped by the nurse today to get her some additional medication."
"So... Natsume too?"
"Yeah. I think my episode last month only worsened the pressure on the rest. Like... It showed everyone that many of us can still fail through no real fault of our own. That the deck is still stacked against us. It's kind of depressing. Maybe that's why the nurse was looking so glum. I bet his people are really busy right now."
"On the other hand, it's pretty clear this entire school is doing its best to reshuffle the stacked deck. They're making arrangements with universities so we can take our tests here on campus with the nurses close by. Junior classmen are taking daily chores off our hands. It's motivating to see that this entire school is working so hard as a community to get its 3rd years to succeed."
"Hey, that's true. It does make me feel kinda sorry that we won't be there to support them when it's their turn."
"There'll be others looking out for them."
As we get to the doorway leading to the apothecary, Naomi takes a look at the note I'm holding.
"I bet that unlike mine, that note you're holding isn't for someone else."
"I convinced the nurse to raise the dosage of my medication a bit. I'm hoping it's gonna be enough to carry me through the upcoming weeks."
"Figured as much. I considered something similar myself back in January, but I've been on the same meds for close to three years, and there's a lot of stuff I don't react well to, so there was no time to experiment. Might be an option for the upcoming year though."
"By the way, I was hoping you could be so kind as not to mention to Hanako that I was here. I don't want to worry her."
Naomi makes a face.
"And here I was thinking you were waiting for me because you desired my exciting company."
"Well, okay. Fine with me."
We give our notes to the nurse on duty at the apothecary, and after a few minutes, we're handed our fresh batch of medication. As we leave the nurse's building, Naomi turns to me.
"Have you talked to Hanako recently?"
"I'm afraid I haven't. Do you have any idea how she's doing?"
"What is it?"
"She's your girlfriend and you don't know how she's doing? You two don't have relationship problems, do you?"
"Don't be ridiculous. We don't have a very active dating life right now, but there's a good reason for that."
Truth be told, I do feel like we've been growing apart a little bit lately. Hanako started secluding herself after the mock exams and lately, I've been doing exactly the same. Still, I'm convinced it's nothing we won't be able to patch up after graduation when we'll finally be able to take it easy and relax.
"Yeah, I get that you guys are all busy with studying, and it's really important, but I remember that the three of you used to study together all the time. It'd be a good opportunity to spend some time with one another and still get some studying done, right? Why not continue that?"
"We did that until the mock exams, but afterwards the school started dumping all those supplementary lessons on Hanako, and she was usually too tired to do a lot of studying with us afterwards. I didn't feel comfortable just studying with Lilly all day long, so we all ended up studying on our own."
"But those supplementary courses ended after the Center Test, didn't they?"
"Yeah, but... uh... since we're all studying for an entrance exam in a completely different subject, studying together wouldn't really add much anymore."
Naomi gives me an investigative look that tells me she's clearly not buying it, but I don't really feel like discussing the real reason with her right now, despite the fact that she can probably guess what it is based on her own experiences.
After what happened just before the Center Test, I simply don't fully trust my body anymore. If I had an unexpected heart flutter in front of Hanako or Lilly, it'd be extremely likely that they'd lose what little sleep they're still getting worrying over me. I don't want to be responsible for putting even more stress on them than they're already under. I'll have time to hang out with them after the exams - after I've gotten back into shape a little bit.
"Of course I'm a little worried about Hanako, but I'm not sure if there'd be much I could do to help her at this point. I'm kind of walking on thin ice as it is and worrying too much about her would be bad for me too. So I'm concentrating on my own exam as much as possible, and I'm trying to maintain faith that she'll do the same. She did really badly on the mock exams, but she surprised everyone when she made it through the Center Test with adequate grades all around. I think she can pass her entrance exams too if she really wants to."
"Entrance exams? As in more than one?"
"Hanako filed an application for an additional university that holds its entrance exams on a different day. I'm still not sure whether she did this simply to appease Mutou or because she's trying to keep as many options open as she can, but the gist of it is that she'll be participating in two entrance exams, rather than just one."
"Whoa! How does she do it?"
"Well, they're two exams about exactly the same subject, so it's not like she'll need to study twice as much material. But we're getting kind of off-topic. You still haven't answered my question."
"I went to see Hanako after the answers to the Center Test were posted. I mean, failing sucks, but it would have been worse if I had also dragged Natsume and Hanako down with me. When I heard that they both made it through, it felt like part of me passed anyway. I looked Hanako up that evening and told her that. She was... like... beaming when I told her how relieved I was. But..."
"Just when I was heading out the door, that smile of hers turned sad again. I made me uneasy. I don't think we're out of the woods yet. I haven't seen her a single time over the last two days. I always leave her meals at the door. I can't help but feel like she's starting to seclude herself again. Maybe she's just busy. I hope this is not a sign of a relapse coming up."
It's obvious that Naomi is worried about her friend. I'm getting a little worried myself by listening to her. Is Hanako still okay? How is she doing? Is she studying diligently, or is she just sitting in her room all day long? If she's keeping her door locked, is she going to open up for me? Or would my presence merely make things awkward? I remember Miss Takawa's words that Hanako's mood might drop as we get closer to graduation day. And what's Lilly doing? Wouldn't she step in if she suspected that Hanako was struggling? No, that's not fair to Lilly. She has her own exams to worry about too.
I think I have an idea to cheer up Hanako a bit. I hope it works.
"Do you happen to have a pen and paper on you?"
"Of course! I'm a journalist, so I always carry a pen and blocknote."
"Could I use them for a moment?"
Naomi opens her handbag and takes the pen and blocknote out of it. I take them from her and start scribbling a little note.
Sorry for not having been around lately. I hope you're doing well. Things are pretty hectic for me right now, but I'm still managing. Whenever I'm not thinking about aerodynamics, electric circuits or quantum mechanics, I'm thinking of all the fun times I'm intending to have together with you after we've graduated together. It really keeps me going.
Let's both hang in there,
After finishing it, I neatly fold it up and hand it to Naomi.
"Could you deliver this to Hanako?"
"Well, she's probably not going to let me in even if I knock, but I could slide it under the door."
"Actually, I'd like you to include it with her meal. Maybe wrap it around her chopsticks?"
"Awww, that's a really cute gesture. Yeah, I'll do that. No problem."
"Could you also... like... try to avoid reading it?"
"You're no fun at all."
I say my goodbye to Naomi and quickly head for the boys' dorm...
...though not quickly enough to prevent Naomi's 'D'awwwwwww' from catching up with me.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:14 am
One more day.
That thought keeps returning to me as I look around the nearly-empty space of my dorm room. Tomorrow is the day we'll be graduating - the day we'll be leaving the school that I've come to call a second home. Over the last few days, the results of various entrance examinations have been slowly coming in. There's a notice board in front of the main school building that's being used to display the results for everyone to see. I've been paying the notice board a visit every day since the school started posting results.
Not so much for my own results, since those weren't set to come in until tomorrow, but simply to see which of my classmates managed to pass. Two days ago, I learned that Natsume made it through. That's probably a big load off Naomi's mind. Yesterday, I found out that Shizune succesfully passed her entrance exam. I can't say I'm surprised about that, given her fiercely driven nature.
Tomorrow, the uncertainty will end. The fact that graduation ceremony is also tomorrow means that the diploma I'll be getting will either be the cherry on top of the cake or a consolation prize that'll do little to take away the utter disappointment I'll be feeling.
I remember how apprehensive I felt about coming to live here at Yamaku. How trapped I felt here. Yet now, nearly ten months after I first came to this school, I've grown so comfortable here that the day of departure kind of crept up on me. I tried not to think too much about it.
About a week ago, I started making a list of people I thought I should say goodbye to before I leave Yamaku tomorrow. The first rule I laid out for myself was that I would not try to write them down in any kind of special order, like least important to most important.
Somehow it ended up like that anyway, though it also ended up being slightly longer than I expected it to be. As I skim it over, my thoughts again go out to all the people I've met here and who became part of my life.
Yuuko... Being an avid reader and Hanako's boyfriend on top of that meant I probably had more interaction with her than most students. I remember her telling me that she was working those jobs at Yamaku and at the Shanghai for the purpose of financing her studies. It made me appreciate the fact that my parents have shown willingness to pay for my studies - as long as I make it into university and not spend years at cram schools attempting retakes. The last time I spoke to Yuuko she mentioned that our efforts at passing our tests had motivated her to do well on her own entrance exams. I wonder if she'll decide to go through with things this year or if we'll have a reunion here in 10 years or so and still find the same Yuuko bumbling her way through the library. I really hope not. She's a pretty nice person beneath that neurotic exterior, and she's shown so much enthusiasm towards her chosen subject that it'd be downright cruel if she never got to study it in university.
The head nurse... After taking the entrance exams, I made good on my promise to him by resuming my morning runs, and he made good on his promise to me by supplying me with a training and diet plan. It was a lot harsher than I expected. Although he denies it, I think this was his revenge against me for not mentioning my heart problems to him sooner during examination hell. Still, despite his tendency to crack stupid jokes, he's been a very reliable source of support over the year, and in the end I'm thankful that he's always been so serious about keeping me healthy.
Mutou... I remember when I met Lilly, she said that my homeroom teacher was quite a character, but that I'd probably come to like him. She turned out to be pretty much spot on. I never imagined Mutou to become an inspirational figure to me when I first met him, yet that's exactly what eventually ended up happening, and I think that my plans for the future about studying to teach science one day are for a large part due to his influence. Seeing that a lot of students seem to think his lectures are incomprehensible, I'll probably have to aim higher than his standard as far as teaching the subject is concerned, but when it comes to being a highly regarded homeroom teacher, I think the example of my mentor will definitely end up sticking in my mind. I hope to return here for a reunion one day with a teaching degree to show him.
Nobuyuki, Eiji, Wataru, Takahiro, Okahito and Naozumi... The science club - our science club - ended up having a total of eight members, myself and Kenji included. Eiji, Naozumi, Okahito and Takahiro initially joined up because they were getting low grades in science class. They admitted that much to me privately. But they stuck around because they enjoyed the activities. Even though Mutou and Lilly were the ones who brought up the idea of teaching as a career, the junior club members I helped with their homework were the ones who made me realize I'd probably enjoy doing that sort of thing for a living. Being stuck in the position of club president has also made me a little less reluctant to take initiatives. I've always been more a follower than a leader, and that's unlikely to ever completely change, but I'm a little less reluctant to take charge when the situation calls for it now. In a way, they've helped me as much as I've helped them. A few days ago I transferred the title of president to Nobuyuki, who is one of the few 2nd years in the club and also the one with the biggest knack for the subject. I hope the club will continue to fare well under his guidance. He may even become Mutou's new star pupil.
Kenji... He remains a wildcard to me even today. There have been times when we were discussing stuff like the law of gravity, and he'd suddenly throw a random conspiracy theory into the conversation completely out of the blue. There have been other times when he'd approach me and just when I started bracing myself for the latest update on the machinations of the feminist movement, he'd simply ask me for my notes on one subject or another. I used to hold out hope that Kenji's membership in the science club would strengthen his link to reality in general, but it seems that Kenji's perfectly capable of appearing normal in public while still checking the roofs of the nearby buildings for snipers every time he enters his dorm room. I ended up coping with his antics by dismissing anything related to the feminist movement and simply focussing on whatever he said that did make sense.
Shizune and Misha... These two didn't exactly make the best first impression in the world. When I first came to this school there was a lot on my mind that needed to be sorted out, and Lilly's easy-going coaxing strategy worked a lot better at making me feel at home here than Shizune's aggressive recruitment tactics for the student council. It took me a little while to realize that both cousins had been trying to achieve the exact same thing with different methods. Despite having been put off by Shizune's confrontational personality at first, I ended up warming up to her and Misha rather quickly, and by the time I started dating Hanako, I considered the student council duo to be genuine friends.
While I've considered Shizune and Misha to be literally inseperable from the moment I met them, it turned out that they will still be going their separate ways after tomorrow. Through a lot of hard work and supplementary lessons, Misha's managed to do well enough to get herself a recommendation letter from the school, and she's set to transfer to a university in the United States later this year. Shizune, on the other hand, will be spending the upcoming years earning her business degree at a prestigious national university. I think they've been struggling a bit with the prospect of their roads splitting up after graduation, especially Misha. I hope they'll stay in contact with one another. Seeing how close they've been for as long as I've known them, it'd be a shame for them to completely drop out of each other's life.
Emi... I think I owe the fact that I've been in relatively good shape throughout my time at Yamaku (examination hell not withstanding) largely to Emi's efforts. My motivation to go through with my daily morning runs has had its ups and downs over the months, but Emi's been there every morning which in turn pushed me to keep going, too. The few times I've skipped practice consistently left me feeling guilty throughout the day, which is probably something Emi'd take as a huge compliment.
I also learned that Emi likes playful arguments, and I enjoyed my bantering with her, but unfortunately I never learned all that much else about her despite seeing her nearly every day. Our interactions were pleasant, usually half-joking and perfect to fill the silences between the end of practice and the checkups with the nurse, but I've realized lately that they've also always been a bit superficial. Around the time preparations for the mock exams were starting, I remember inviting Emi to come and study together with Hanako, Lilly and me, but she politely declined the offer. I guess just being running buddies with me was enough for her. At least I've made some good memories together with her, and I hope she feels the same way. According to the nurse, Emi's applied to a junior college in the nearby city with the intention of being a PE instructor. I think she'd be a good one, albeit a bit scary sometimes. Apparently the college has a track team of its own. I'm sure she'll do well.
Lilly... I think it's hard to overestimate the impact that Lilly has had on my life since I transferred here. From the moment I first came to this school, Lilly's been there looking out for me. I don't think I would have gotten into a relationship with Hanako if it hadn't been for Lilly's matchmaking efforts and emotional support. For a long time, I really looked up to her. She always seemed to be so confident, so level-headed and so in control of things. Due to certain events, I came to learn that Lilly's just as prone to screw-ups as everyone else, but despite the fact that she fell off that pedestal I put her on, I think part of me will always keep seeing her as a kind and reliable older-sister figure to turn to whenever I'm in need of advice or a listening ear.
Lilly's been directly involved in several major events in my life. Me getting a girlfriend, that big vacation in Scotland and finally the decision to study science and aim for getting a teaching degree. I wonder how things will play out between us after we all graduate. If everything goes well, Lilly, Hanako and I will all be attending the same university, but since we'll be studying at different faculties there won't be any more shared lunch breaks from now on. At least we'd be able to hang out at Lilly's place in the evening if we wanted to. It'd allow us to continue spending time together. If everything goes well, that is...
Hanako... In retrospect, things went really fast between us. During our first meeting, I managed to make her so uncomfortable that she ended up fleeing the scene in a panic. Six weeks later, we got together in the park, letting out that anguished confession that was the start of our relationship. Despite our rocky start, I've been really happy with Hanako, and from what I could tell, she's been really happy with me as well. It's been truly a sight, seeing Hanako slowly coming out of her shell, first merely in front of me but then in front of the rest of the world as well. There are plenty of wonderful memories I have from the first few months of our relationship, but the thing that stands out most among all of those is Hanako's smile. Even though she's started showing it more and more as time went on, it's never lost its charm. That sweet, child-like smile always manages to brighten my day and make me feel good no matter how often I see it.
I just hope I'll ever get to see it again...
Part of me probably never believed that Hanako's been secluding herself to such an extreme degree merely because she needed to study for her entrance exams. But for the sake of doing well on my own tests, I blocked Hanako from my mind to the best of my ability. Then the entrance exams came and went. Life slowly returned to normal as we started the process of waiting for the results and graduation day to come around. Students who had been cramming non-stop over the last months had a long night's rest and started resuming their daily activities from before exam season. Natsume returned to Naomi's side at the newspaper club, eager to bring out the next issue. I started my morning runs again, returned to the science club where I started my preparations of passing the presidential torch to my successor and spent the rest of my free time helping out Shizune finishing up the student council's duties in time for the swearing in of the new council. Business as usual everywhere, with one exception.
Hanako didn't come out of her room.
Ever since the entrance exams ended, I've made it a habit of dropping by at the girls' dorm twice a day. I'd knock on Hanako's door and ask if she needed anything. The answer would usually be a soft 'No, but thanks.' muttered through the door. She'd rarely open it, and the few times she did, she was always wearing her nightgown, no matter what time of day it was.
I recently asked Miss Takawa about it, and she merely said that I should continue what I was doing without trying to force anything. She told me that she's had several talks with Hanako over the last two weeks and that the dormkeeper was keeping an eye on her as well.
She had already predicted during my previous visit that Hanako would probably get worse as graduation day drew closer. This time she said that that day would bring the whole thing to an end.
What she didn't say was how she thought things were going to end.
One more day.
There isn't much I can do in my room right now. Nearly all of my possessions have already been packed, and I've already returned all of my borrowed books to the library.
I guess I should go and see Hanako. See how much progress she's made with packing her stuff.
I knock gently on the door to Hanako's room, putting my ear to the door in an attempt to better pick up a reaction, any reaction, from inside. There is none, however. That could mean two things. Either Hanako's in there and she simply doesn't feel like replying, or she's not in her room right now. I notice that the nearby bathroom door is locked, but standing around waiting for the person inside to come out might get me in trouble with the dormkeeper. I knock again, calling Hanako's name once more and prepare myself to return to the boys' dorm. I was going to offer to help her pack, but seeing that she still doesn't have a lot of possessions stored in her room, it's not unlikely she already finished up long ago.
Hearing a familiar voice, I turn around and see Lilly standing there.
"Hi Lilly. Do you know where Hanako is right now?"
"If she isn't in her room then I'm afraid I have no idea. I've just returned from a get-together with friends in the common room downstairs, so if she's gone I didn't hear her leave."
"Oh well, maybe I'll come back later. Unless you can use some help with packing things."
Lilly smiles sadly and shakes her head.
"I've already packed most of my possessions myself, and my family will probably help me with the rest when they get here. But..."
She walks up to her own door, opens it and makes a beckoning gesture inside.
"...perhaps you'd like to join me for a little while? For one final cup of tea in here?"
An actual tea party in that room with just the two of us would feel sacrilegious, but I sense that Lilly's offer isn't merely a polite request, so I follow her into her room without further ado. As I enter, I notice that the room is indeed largely empty already with the exception of the tea set, which is still standing on her dresser. I close the door behind me and sit down at the table. Lilly takes the teapot and fills two of the cups before handing one to me. We silently drink, neither of us feeling like saying much. We eventually finish our cups and as Lilly puts hers down, she has a wistful look on her face.
"This... feels wrong without Hanako here with us, doesn't it?"
"We could have waited until she got back, although... I'm not sure if she'd have accepted the invitation. She doesn't really seem to feel like doing much of anything these days. I was kind of surprised she wasn't in her room just now. Unless she was and she simply didn't react to my knocks."
"I've heard that she's still meeting with Miss Takawa on occasion."
"I spoke to Miss Takawa not too long ago. I asked her for some clarity on Hanako. She was evasive as usual. The gist was that Hanako seemed to be perking up right after the center test, only for her to start relapsing some time later. That's all she would tell me. She assured me she was still making use of every minute she had with Hanako, but I don't know..."
"You don't think she's serious? She gave us her word she'd do whatever she could to help Hanako."
"It's not that. I'm sure she's trying. I just don't think her therapy is helping anymore. She's just applying bandaids now. And why not? It's not like Hanako will still be her responsibility after tomorrow."
"Tomorrow we'll know more, Lilly. But..."
A mutual sigh. We're both thinking the same thing. Unlike Lilly and me, Hanako's taken part in two entrance exams, although I wonder if she'd truly have considered attending that second university in a town where she doesn't know a single person. It's possible she merely took that particular entrance exam because it was given before the exam that would let her into her first choice, meaning she'd be able to get a feeling for what the other exam would be like. The results of her 'plan B' exam came back three days ago already and she didn't do well enough to make it in. It left me with a very uneasy sensation and judging from the look on Lilly's face, she's thinking the same.
"Hisao, I've been thinking. It's possible that she didn't give that second exam everything she had."
"Yeah. It's even possible she passed her exam and I failed mine. We'll know tomorrow."
"The last time I asked how you thought you did, you said you were 'cautiously optimistic'."
True. My own exam wasn't easy - far from it. But all that cramming I went through did pay off, and there were no questions on the exam that were about things I never heard of before.
"Yeah, if I do end up failing tomorrow, I'll be genuinely disappointed."
"I asked Hanako about her exams too, but... She just said she didn't know."
Cautiously optimistic is obviously not a good way to describe Hanako's attitude towards her results.
"I wonder if she really doesn't know or if she simply wants us not to worry about her."
When Hanako passed the National Center Test, I was relieved and convinced she'd easily be able to pass her entrance exams too, but after she failed to get a passing grade on that second exam, the possibility of her not being able to attend university with us suddenly became very real again.
"I don't think it's just us. Earlier this evening, I ran into Naomi, and she asked if I knew where Hanako is going to go after tomorrow..."
"That will depend on whether she's passed her entrance exam or not, I suppose."
"Will it? No matter what results are posted on the board tomorrow, she'll need a place to stay, won't she?"
Lilly absentmindedly fumbles with her hair.
"Naomi said... that if there are no alternatives, she was willing to talk to her parents about letting Hanako stay over for a little while."
"It's nice to hear that she's trying to help, but I'm not sure if that's a good idea. I don't think that Naomi's parents ever even met Hanako. Who knows how they'd react."
A short pause. We've done a remarkable job of avoiding this subject for quite some time, but I feel not bringing it up now would be irrational.
"That... um... offer your parents made Hanako during our Christmas visit..."
A pained expression appears on Lilly's face. When her parents gave that adoption form to Hanako and we all got over the shock, I was initially exhilirated. I used to worry a little that Hanako might not have a place to go to after graduating here, and this seemed a really good solution.
Except after that day, Hanako never brought the subject up again, and now I'm not sure what to think of the whole situation. Judging from Lilly's expression, she's not exactly comfortable with the subject matter either. Still, after some hesitation, she starts speaking.
"I visited her room a few days after the Center Test and brought the subject up. I asked her what... what she thought about my parents' offer and if she had given it any consideration. Maybe I shouldn't have done that. She immediately clammed up and I... ended up leaving when the silence became too much to bear. I wonder if I oversimplified certain things. I..."
I wonder for a moment if she's going to say it, but then Lilly sadly shakes her head and falls silent. I don't think she'd ever be able bring herself to wonder out loud if the whole thing may have been a mistake from the beginning.
"Was that the last time you spoke about it."
"Interaction between us became very awkward afterwards. Almost as if I confessed to her and she didn't have the heart to reject me despite not being interested. I... created distance between us at the very time she needed my support the most."
Lilly's depressed look is painful to see. So it wasn't just me whose interaction with Hanako was put on the backburner.
"I... wonder if having her accompany me to my parents' home and having her move in with me is even feasible at this point. I would really like it to be, but... Will Hanako still want to? I... haven't really had the courage to ask her."
"Even if she doesn't, there's still another option. I've been talking to my parents this week and I've... been trying to gauge how open they'd be to the idea of taking Hanako in themselves. It would be a pretty big change, suddenly having an extra person in the household. It's not like Hanako and I have been there all that often. They said they wanted to take some time to think about it, but they seem to like Hanako, so I don't think they'll refuse in the end."
Of course, my parents aren't millionairs with a big house like the Satous, so we'd have to make do from time to time, but there's no way Mom and Dad would leave their son's girlfriend out in the cold like that.
"That... is a relief. I've been thinking of asking the school if there were additional options they could think of in case they were needed, but perhaps that won't be necessary now."
"We'll get something worked out somehow, Lilly. Surely Yamaku must have... you know... protocols in place or something. Don't you think?"
"I don't know about that, Hisao. But I have no intention of leaving here without..."
I wait for Lilly to continue, but she merely frowns as if deep in thought. Before I can ask her what's wrong, she gets on her feet and takes a few light steps towards the door. She feels out the location of the door handle and gently swings the door open, revealing...
I recognize the voice even before Lilly steps aside to reveal its owner.
Lilly calls the name of her friend in a tone that's barely above a whisper. I feel my heart skip a beat as I look at my girlfriend. Hanako's dressed in her nightgown, as usual. It's always been a little bit too large for her, but it seems larger than ever now. Or rather, Hanako looks a lot thinner than I remember her. There are thick bags under her eyes. Has she been eating or sleeping at all these days? She looks almost like a ghost. My eyes meet hers, and I can see that they're moist, as if she's fighting back tears and barely holding them back. Her fists are clenched and shaking slightly, and in her eyes I can see a look of sorrow mixed with just a subtle hint of anger. Her breathing must have reflected her current mood, for Lilly softly whispers Hanako's name again, this time sounding more unsure of herself than before.
How long has she been listening on the other side of the door? How much of our conversation has she picked up?
Hanako's eyes and jaw squeeze shut for a moment as Lilly repeats her name. She's still shaking a bit, and for a moment I think she's going to say something or cry, but then she suddenly exhales loudly, causing Lilly to take a startled step back, shakes her head a few times and runs down the hallway. The next moment, we hear the door of her room slam shut. The sound makes Lilly flinch as if someone just slapped her across the face.
For a moment, time seems to stand still.
Then, like a sleep walker, she starts moving towards Hanako's bedroom door. Before she can reach for the handle, though, I walk over to her and put a hand on her shoulder.
"Lilly, I... don't think that's a good idea right now."
Lilly raises her hand towards the handle, but then lowers it again and nods.
"You're probably right. I just..."
"I know how you feel. I feel the same. We'll talk to Hanako first thing in the morning, okay?"
Another sullen nod. Then, still a little unsteadily, Lilly walks back to her own room. I follow her to the door, but decide not to go back inside.
"I'd best be going now. We'll talk again tomorrow."
"I feel that, no matter what I do, I'm only making things worse... I just wanted to..."
"I know, Lilly. I think even Hanako knows, deep down."
Chapter 50 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:14 am
It sure is bright in my room.
Blinking a few times against the sun, I yawn and open my eyes and look around the room; the room that'll only be my dorm room for a few more hours. Tonight, I'll sleep in my parental home again, far away from here. It'll be weird waking up there again.
I already packed my alarm clock yesterday and decided to leave the curtains open so I wouldn't oversleep.
Graduation ceremony will start around noon. I know from the days before that the exam results aren't posted until shortly before that time. That's still at least 2 hours from now. I'm not going to put myself through the agonizing process of going there early and sitting there doing nothing. I'd rather do something to keep my mind off my test. Something like cleaning this room and packing the few things that are still lying around.
I get a quick bite in the kitchen downstairs, grab some cleaning supplies and start the process of cleaning this place. It's not something I usually enjoy doing, but this time I welcome the opportunity to keep my mind off things.
Things like my exam results. Within a few hours I'll know what my upcoming year will be like. As well as Lilly's year. And...
Dusting my desk only does a moderately succesful job at keeping my thoughts away from what happened last night. I still feel bad about it, and it took a long time before I managed to fall asleep. I'm still not sure when the best time will be to talk to Hanako. Probably before we go to see our test results. Assuming Hanako's willing to come out of her room this time.
My thoughts are still on Hanako when I'm suddenly startled by a loud knock on the door, which flies open a second later.
Damn, this is one thing I'm not going to miss.
"What's up, man!"
"Kenji, do you remember that night when you knocked on my door so loudly that I nearly died? I think that knocking back then sounded suspiciously like the knocking just now."
"Huh, you seem fine now, man. You don't look like a man ready to drop dead. Don't they, like, always clutch their heart and let out some guttural moan or something before falling to the floor?"
As if trying to stress his point, he presses a hand to his chest and lets out a loud 'HNNNNNNG' while gritting his teeth.
"I don't think that's quite how it goes."
"Whatever, man. Anyway, today's the big day. I showed them, didn't I? I've lived here rent free for more than long enough. If you take into account the rising cost of land, I think you could say I've won in the end."
A cheerful smile suddenly appears on his face.
"No, you know what? I did win. History will acknowledge me as the victor."
"The victor of what?"
"I managed to stay out of sight and slip through the cracks. I beat the system."
"If you put it that way, it sounds like you just ran away from the system."
"Sometimes, running is the greatest form of victory; like in the Olympics."
I'm not in the mood to argue that point with him. Who's he kidding? Everyone knows the shot put is the best Olympic event, in any case.
"So, what you're basically saying is, you won't miss it?"
"No, I told you, this place is too filled with feminists. It's beyond saving. But at least I'll be able to get out before it reaches critical mass."
"You're not going to miss the science club either? It was a nice group, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, but a small resistence group isn't really gonna make a difference when we're this vastly outnumbered. I'm gonna focus on mobilizing the troops somewhere else."
I sigh in resignation.
"Well, good luck fighting the good fight."
"I could send you updates on my status. What's your home address?"
"You want to swap home addresses?"
"Sorry, man. Can't give you mine. With that tracking device of yours, they could follow you right to me. Can't go and give up my position that easily."
If I give this guy my home address, I could see my parents filing a restraining order against him at some point or another.
"Maybe we should simply swap phone numbers instead."
"I don't have a phone. Not gonna get one either. I'm kinda scared of them. Not sure why. Maybe I was beaten with one in the past and can't remember."
Right. I think I've heard that story before.
"E-mail addresses then?"
"I don't trust the internet. You shouldn't either, man. They're monitoring that shit. Every mail you've ever typed up is backed up and stored on one of their servers somewhere."
"Why would anybody want to watch me? For associating with you? Are you on some secret service's black list?"
"They don't need an excuse, man. They do it because they can. Privacy is on life support. Nobody believes me, but you'll see... someday. Don't say I didn't warn you when the truth comes out."
"Uh... Yeah... Right. I won't. So no internet. Maybe you can just give me a status report the next time we meet. They do the ten year later reunion thing here, don't they?"
"How would I know that? Probably. Anyway, I have to start packing now. Take care of yourself, man."
He gives me a saluting gesture and walks out, slamming the door shut behind him.
'Take care of myself.' It's the first time I've heard him end a conversation like that. Usually, he parts ways with something like 'seeya.' 'I'll pay you back later, man.' I wonder if him saying goodbye here means he's not gonna attend the graduation ceremony. He might be more uncomfortable in crowds than Hanako. I could see myself ending up missing this guy even though he was a little annoying at times.
With Kenji gone, I resume my chores and finish cleaning and packing without further interruptions. There's probably no reason to carry all my stuff downstairs yet. Dad can probably help me with that when he and Mom arrive. Realizing I still have a bit of time to spare, I decide to drop by the girls' dorm before going to check the notice board. When I reach the hallway leading to Hanako's and Lilly's rooms, I briefly consider knocking on Hanako's door before deciding to check up on Lilly first. When I knock on her door, I'm greeted by a face I haven't seen in a long time.
"Yo, graduate boy. Have you come to share some good news with us?"
"Hi Akira. It's been a long time since I've seen you. You're certainly here early."
Lilly's sister flashes me her typical jovial grin. Her expression is familiar, but her outfit is not. This is the first time I've seen Akira wear a fancy blouse and a long skirt. It's a big difference from the business suit or sporty jeans I've seen her wear in the past. It kinda makes sense that Akira would put on something relatively fancy for her sister's graduation, but it still takes some getting used to. Akira notices my staring and rolls her eyes.
"I still prefer my jeans, but if I wore those during an occasion like this, Dad would probably first kill me and then himself. Anyway, my little sister here was commenting on my timing as well. I think my arrival actually woke her up."
She steps aside, and I walk into the room. Lilly's no longer wearing her pajamas, but she still looks rather sleepy. It appears I'm not the only one who had trouble falling asleep last night.
"Good morning, Lilly. How are you feeling?"
"Good morning, Hisao. I'm okay. Still a little tired and just a little nervous."
"If it turns out you've flunked your test, Sis, I don't think Mom and Dad will be speaking another word of Japanese to you for a whole year."
Lilly smiles weakly.
"At least it would be good practice."
I turn to Akira.
"Speaking of which, are your parents here as well right now?"
Akira shakes her head.
"They're probably on their way. I didn't sleep at their place last night, so we've been travelling separately. I figured I'd be here a little earlier and help my sis pack her things."
Lilly gives her older sister a grateful smile.
"Your help was greatly appreciated."
"So Hisao, have you already heard the results?"
"Not yet, Akira. The notice board is probably being updated as we speak. I just wanted to go and fetch you guys before heading over there."
"Well, my curiosity is ready to be satisfied. You want me to read the results to you when we get there, Sis?"
"That won't be necessary, Akira. The results will also be posted in Braille."
Lilly gets up from the bed and picks up her bag, taking her retractable cane out of it.
"But before we go, there's still one thing we have to do, isn't there Hisao?"
I look at Akira, but the lack of confusion on her face tells me that Lilly has already let her in on what happened last night. Her smile drops for a moment before suddenly returning.
"Hey, I was thinking... She might still feel awkward talking to you two, but maybe I could talk to her and ease the tension a bit."
Lilly's expression clears up upon hearing her sister's suggestion.
"That's a good idea, Akira. I'm sure she'll be happy to see you again."
Akira nods, opens the door and walks down the hallway while Lilly and I remain at a comfortable distance. As she reaches Hanako's door, Akira gives a few sharp raps on it.
"Yo Hanako! It's me. Are you up already?"
Lilly and I both hold our breath, and I can see Lilly listening intently. But there doesn't seem to be a reaction. Akira briefly presses her ear to the door and then knocks again.
"Hanako, you in there?"
Again there's no response. Akira shrugs and takes out her cell phone. She presses a few keys and then holds it to her ear. After a few seconds she sighs and snaps her phone back shut. Then she walks back to us.
"No dice. She's got her phone switched off. I can't tell if she's in there or not."
"Lilly, have you already heard her this morning?"
"I'm afraid not, Hisao. I only woke up a little while ago. If she's not in her room right now, she must have left before I woke up."
"That's a shame. Now what?"
Akira scratches her head.
"Maybe we should just go and check the exam results. Some good news might lure her out there - assuming she's even inside. "
"Hey, ditch the gloomy face. She did fine on the Center Test, didn't she?"
"You're right. Let's head for the notice board."
Chapter 50 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:14 am
We leave the girls' dorm and start making our way to the school building, making sure our pace matches Lilly's. As we walk down the path to the building, Akira gives me a curious glance.
"Hey Hisao, I suppose your parents will be here too today, won't they?"
"Yeah, I'm kind of expecting them to be here any moment."
"I think I'd like to meet them. You know... to see if there are any similarities."
"Heh, I had exactly the same train of thought when we met your parents."
"Uhh... I think I can do without having to hear your conclusions there."
"I doubt it'd be something you haven't already heard before."
Akira gives a mock-indignant huff, but then switches her stare from me to the school building ahead.
"Wow, quite a few people there. Looks like we're not the only ones who are eager to see the test results."
Akira's right. There's quite a crowd of people standing in front of the notice board right now. As we approach, Akira gives me a little poke with her elbow.
"Have you guys considered that maybe Hanako's already here to check the results herself?"
"You're right, it's a possibility. I don't think she'd be very comfortable with this many people around, but I bet she's still very curious about the results."
"Let's keep an eye out for her."
We join the chaotic mass in front of us and I struggle to catch a glimpse of the notifications hanging on the board. I notice that my heart's pounding in my throat right now. The moment of truth is probably mere seconds away. If only I can get a little closer.
While I'm still in the process of making my way through the crowd of students and parents, I'm suddenly greeted by a voice coming from somewhere in front of me. I look in the direction of the voice and find myself face to face with a rather large guy whom I recognize as Taro Arai, the guy normally sitting behind me in class. Taro seems to have seen the results already as he's making his way through the crowd in the opposite direction with one hand, the other one hanging by his side. He has an excited smile on his face.
"Hi Arai. You seem to be in a good mood. Did you make it in?"
"I totally did! Against all expectations. Man, spring break's gonna be so awesome now. I think I deserved it after all the cramming. I must have lost ten kilos over the last few months from all the stress. Heck, I barely ate this morning because I was so nervous."
If that's true, it isn't very noticable. Then again, he has plenty of reserves.
"Congratulations. Really good work. I hope I can join in the celebrations soon. I'm on my way to see how I did."
"Would you like me to tell you?"
He flashes me a broad grin.
"I noticed your name on there while I was checking my results. Congratulations man. You'll be a university student after today."
"You passed. Saw it myself just now."
Time seems to slow down around me as the realization hits me.
A university student.
After all the stress and the short nights. After all the cramming and nearly killing myself. After everything that's happened... I've made it. It's all been worth it.
I've made it.
Taro's enthusiastic pat on my shoulder brings me back to reality.
"How's it feel, man? Wait, don't answer. I already know."
"I... hahaha... Wow, I can barely believe it... It's just..."
"Hehe, I know how it feels. Kinda surreal, doesn't it?"
"Go ahead and see for yourself. I'm out of here. See you!"
He makes his way past me, and I slowly become aware of my surroundings again. I look around for my blonde companions and from the look of it, Lilly's been spoiled by a classmate as well as they haven't made it to the board yet, but Akira is already sharing a loving hug with her sister and Lilly's laughing in a much more enthusiastic manner than she would usually do. With some effort, I manage to make my way over to them.
"Hisao. Did you...?"
"I've made it in. At least, a classmate just told me he saw my name. It's... still kind of hard to believe."
"The same happened to me. It's wonderful, isn't it? I can't wait for my parents to arrive. I want to hear their reaction when I tell them."
"I'm sure they'll be proud of you, Lilly. Any parent would be."
"I hope so. We should probably still go and check the board for ourselves. Just to make sure this isn't just some wonderful dream."
"Not needed, Sis. I've just checked and you're on there. Congratulations. Congratulations to both of you."
"Thanks, Akira. There's still one thing we need to check though."
"About that... I... umm... haven't seen Hanako."
"You mean she's not among the people here?"
"That's not exactly what I mean. What I mean is that... uh..."
I look at Akira and see a pained expression on her face.
"What I mean is... that I haven't seen Hanako's name on the list. She's not on there. Looks like she... didn't pass after all."
In one moment the rush, the happiness and euphoria I felt - all of them collapse as Akira's words sink in. What was the greatest achievement of my life just seconds ago now feels like a hollow victory. Lilly's expression has changed to one of horror, and she's slowly shaking her head as if she's unable to accept what she just heard.
"Akira... D-did you check thoroughly?"
"I did. I'm really sorry, Sis. This is a real shock to me too. I..."
With a look of despair on her face, Lilly starts pushing her way through the crowd, not even caring about the surprised reactions from those in front of her. Akira and I do our best to follow as closely behind her as we can, with Akira muttering a few apologies to people nearby. As she reaches the announcement board, Lilly presses her shaking hands on the sheets of Braille paper hanging there and skims the list of names...
I'm close enough to read the list myself now and confirm that Akira didn't misread it. Lilly's and my names are on it, but Hanako's isn't. Despite the fact that the possibility was there all along, it still feels like an excruciatingly painful slap in the face. For a moment, I feel extremely frustrated. Hanako's already been through so much and deserved so much better than this. Then Akira gets my attention with a quick nudge.
"There ain't much for us to do here anymore. Let's find ourselves a quiet spot to let this sink in."
She beckons me to come along and gives Lilly, who only barely seems to be hanging onto her composure, a forceful tug on her sleeve. Walking slightly faster than she usually would while walking with her sister, Akira guides the two of us away from the crowd and to a secluded spot in the school's gardens. All along, Lilly is walking alongside us in what almost seems to be a daze. When we reach a spot where nobody else is near, Akira lets go of her sister's sleeve and sighs deeply.
"I feel really bad for her. After she passed the Center Test, I seriously thought she'd clear this one no problem."
Lilly looks completely crushed at this latest development. She's squeezing her eyes shut in a futile attempt to hold back her tears.
"This w-wasn't supposed to happen, Akira. S-She did so w-well before. B-Before..."
Akira steps forward and gently takes Lilly in her arms. Unlike the savage hug she gave Lilly after she heard about her succesfully passing the entrance exams, this embrace is tender, almost motherly. Even though I know that Lilly and her sister are very close, it still feels a bit strange seeing the usually unrefined Akira comfort her sister in this way.
"W-When I made that p-phone call to Mother, telling her that I was s-staying here in Japan, Hanako was there with me... g-giving me her support. W-We promised then and there that we would graduate together. We were going to f-face the challenges of university together too. And now... *sniff* Now what?"
Akira gives her sister a comforting pat on the back and then lets go.
"Now what? Good question. That's probably up to Hanako. As rotten as this news is, at least the uncertainty is gone now. Now we can determine what to do next. Hanako will have to do the same. Maybe we can help her make a decision... If she's going to let us. Only one way to find out."
"I wonder if I can even face her after this. If it hadn't been for me..."
"This is no time to be thinking about that, Sis. Let's go back to the dorms. If she's in there, we'll find a way to get her out of her room. We'll have to hurry though. The graduation ceremony will be starting soon, and we'd better be there."
Lilly gives a weak nod and takes a hold of her sister's sleeve as a sign that she's ready to go. Just as we reach the entrance to the girls' dorm, Lilly's phone suddenly starts ringing. With an unsure look, she shows the display to Akira.
"Akira, is that...?"
"Nope, just Mom and Dad. They're probably wondering where the hell we are, what with the ceremony and all."
"What should I tell them?"
"You don't have to tell them anything. Just let me talk to them, Sis. I'll explain the situation. You'd better go inside. Maybe you should visit the bathroom really quick and clean yourself a bit. Your eyes are all red, and Dad's probably gonna give you a scolding if you attend the ceremony looking like that."
We hurry inside, and while Lilly enters one of the bathrooms to make herself more presentable, I move along to the hallway leading to Lilly's and Hanako's room. I give a loud knock on the door and press my ear to it, hoping to pick up a sound on the other side. A surprised cry, shuffling or any other sign of life.
I'm getting kind of worried.
I wonder if Hanako has been expecting this. If she had a blackout or something during the entrance exams, she must have known all along how this was going to turn out ever since exam season ended.
Is that why she's been secluding herself like this? Because she didn't think she'd be able to keep up appearances all day long in front of us and she didn't want to worry us either?
How awful that must have been.
"Hisao? Is she...?"
I see Lilly carefully navigating her way towards me. She's looking a little better now, although that elated smile she showed earlier today probably isn't going to make a reappearance anytime soon.
"I haven't heard anything. Maybe we should simply ask the dormkeeper for help. This room's officially supposed to be cleaned out, isn't it?"
"Mister Nakai! Miss Satou! You still haven't left for the gymnasium yet? Certainly you're not planning on being late for the ceremony, are you?"
We turn around and notice a familiar figure walking down the hallway.
Lilly and I do a quick bow in unison. The old lady gives us a careful look-over.
"I have the impression you've already heard today's results. Am I correct?"
"Yes, we have."
"Could I have a little talk with the two of you? It will not take long."
"I'd rather not talk here. Let's go to the common room downstairs."
A bit puzzled, Lilly and I follow Miss Takawa downstairs where we take a seat at one of the tables. The old therapist folds her hands and gives us a sympathizing look.
"The last time the three of us sat together like this, I expressed the hope that our next talk would be under more uplifting circumstances. It appears that fate decided otherwise. I still hope you don't mind if I extend my well-wishes to the two of you. You have done very well. Congratulations."
"T-Thank you. But Hanako..."
Miss Takawa lets out a weary sigh.
"Yes, I know. I suppose you are here to talk to her, aren't you?"
"That's the idea. But the door is locked, and we don't even know if she's inside. We haven't seen her around the school grounds today. We were about to ask the dormkeeper for a spare key."
"That won't be necessary."
The old lady reaches into her bag and takes something out of it. When she shows me her hand, a small key is lying in its palm.
"A key. A key to Hanako's room? Looks like you beat us to it. Great. Let's get going."
Miss Takawa slowly shakes her head, closes her hand and puts the key back in her bag.
"I believe that there is a right time for everything, but now is not the right time for you to visit Miss Ikezawa."
"Miss Satou, the graduation ceremony is set to start in 15 minutes, and the two of you will need some time to get there. You would have only little more than five minutes to deal with Miss Ikezawa, even if you'd be able to talk to her right now. Do you think that would be enough?"
"But Hanako's school grades have still been high enough for her to have earned her diploma. We can't just let her miss her own graduation ceremony, can we?"
"The same is true for the two of you. You can't afford to miss your own graduation ceremony either. You really can't."
I scratch my head.
"Don't you think that we should be here for Hanako right now?"
"Out there in the gymnasium are a father and a mother waiting for their son to take part in the ceremony and take his diploma. I imagine your parents to be here as well, Miss Satou. And your sister too if that young lady standing near the building's entrance is related to you. These people came here to see you stand there and participate in the ceremony that marks the end of your high school days. If your chairs were to remain empty, how do you think they would feel? They'd feel terrible, I'd imagine. Please take that into consideration."
Yeah, Mom and Dad will be expecting me to be there. They came all this way for that specific purpose, but...
I grit my teeth as a realization hits me.
"Do you realize how horrible that sounds? You make it sound like it's okay for Hanako to miss the ceremony because there are no people coming here today specifically for her. She doesn't have a father and mother sitting there to watch her graduate, so she has less priority? Are you saying that she can be missed?"
Hanako's therapist shakes her head and lets out a tired sigh.
"Calm down, Mister Nakai. All I'm saying is that a child's graduation is one of the most important events in a parent's life. Don't dismiss it so easily. Miss Ikezawa would not want you to miss the ceremony on her behalf."
"I think she's right, you know."
We turn around, and I see Akira standing in the doorway.
"Akira, y-you too...?"
Lilly seems a bit flustered by Akira's sudden intervention.
"You know that Mom and Dad would be crushed if you stayed away, Lilly. They've really been looking forward to this. Just like I have. Dad would be very upset with you too. Shizune's folks are probably in the audience already and your absence would surely be noticed. I don't think Hanako would want to create trouble for you."
Lilly opens her mouth to speak, but then stops herself and just nods as Akira continues.
"You remember New Year's Day, right? When we went to visit that shrine and had to return because Hanako felt suffocated there. How do you think she'd react when she had to stand there in front of a big crowd, unable to just walk out without disrupting the ceremony, faced with a whole audience of other students' proud parents sitting there? You think she'd enjoy being there?"
"I... I know what you're saying, Akira. But... it just seems so unfair. Hanako's worked as hard as everyone else, maybe even harder. To not even get to attend the ceremony, to not even have people acknowledge all her hard work and just have her pick up her diploma at the administration building, out of sight of everyone... It just seems so wrong."
Hanako's therapist gives a grave nod.
"Your sister makes a good point, Miss Satou. It may seem anticlimactic not to have a memory of the ceremony, but no memory is arguably still better than a bad one. She already has more than enough of those."
She gets up and looks at us with a slightly forceful look.
"Please go now and attend the ceremony. Try to feel proud of your achievements, and know that Miss Ikezawa is proud of you too. Say goodbye to the people you wish to say goodbye to, and then please come back here. Hmmm, if you meet Miss Inoue there, please ask her to accompany you. I'll be here when you get back. That's a promise."
We get up as well, and Lilly takes hold of Akira's sleeve.
"Until after the ceremony then, Miss Takawa."
"Yes. Until then."
As Lilly and Akira hurry along towards the exit, I take one glance back. I notice Miss Takawa is staring at the staircase leading to the upper floor with a strange look on her face. I rush to catch up with the Satou sisters, but as we walk towards the gymnasium as fast as Lilly can manage, I think back on Miss Takawa again.
Something about the look in her eyes gave me a really uneasy feeling.
Let's hope the ceremony isn't going to be drawn out for too long.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:15 am
"The ceremony should be over by now."
Having checked my watch, I walk up to the room's door and open it, so when Mister Nakai and Miss Satou return here, they'll know that it's okay to enter. Hopefully they've been able to find Miss Inoue as well. That would be convenient.
My gaze once again wanders around the room. I've worked here for nearly two years now, and I've been Miss Hanako's therapist for equally as long, but this is the first time I've actually been in her room. The one time she was in such a bad shape that I deemed it best to accompany her here, the day Mister Nakai got hospitalized, we parted ways at the door.
This was her own little sanctum, and she had the habit of locking herself up here whenever she felt distressed. That was sometimes a little frustrating since it also sometimes caused her to miss appointments, but I've never considered asking the dormkeeper to let me in here. For a person who had no place to call home except for this little room, violating its sanctity would have been a fatal breach of trust.
Despite this place having been the closest thing she's had to a place to call her own, I don't think she ever really decorated it accordingly. From what I've heard, it's always remained very bare bones. Miss Satou's room may actually have been easier on the eyes, ironically enough. I've always been curious why. It's not due to the lack of preferences. During one session, I gave her a few catalogues and asked her to come up with decorating advice for a girl around her age. She knew it was a test of some sort, but still went along with it, and the result might have been one of the girliest rooms one could imagine. She obviously had very specific tastes, yet when I asked if she'd consider dressing up her own room a little, she said she wasn't interested.
Maybe she saw no reason to make a place homey that she knew she was going to lose when her time here ran out.
My thoughts are interrupted by the sound of voices coming from the hallway.
"Hisao, do you see her anywhere?"
"Not yet, Lilly, but she said she'd be here."
"Didn't you guys say that Hanako wasn't out of her room yet when you left?"
I recognize two of the voices as the ones belonging to Mister Nakai and Miss Satou. The third one is unfamiliar to me. It must meant that Miss Inoue is tagging along too. That's good.
"That's right. Why?"
"Because I can see that her door's open."
"That's strange. There have been times when Hanako has kept her door unlocked, but she's never kept it open as far as I remember. Let's go see."
Well, I suppose this is it. I get up from the desk chair I was sitting on and turn towards the door.
"Hey Hanako, are you th...?"
A girl with distinctive bleached hair comes walking into the room and lets out a shocked gasp.
"WHAT THE HECK?"
"Naomi, what's wrong? Is something... HUH?"
Next is Mister Nakai, who seems as surprised as Miss Inoue.
"Hisao, what is it? Is she there? What do you see?"
And finally Miss Satou enters the room, a worried look on her face.
"Ummm... Miss Takawa is here, Lilly. But Hanako isn't. And neither is anything else."
"Neither is anything else? What do you mean?"
"The room's completely empty except for the furniture. It's like... like..."
I nod gravely.
"Like she has already left? Yes, I'm afraid so."
Miss Satou's worried look becomes pained.
"Already left? But... When? Why? And... Where?"
"Please take a seat on the bed."
I sit down on the desk chair again, and the three graduates hesitantly sit down across from me. Mister Nakai has a scolding expression on his face.
"Miss Takawa, have you been here all this time? Did you see Hanako walk out of here and simply let her?"
I shake my head.
"Miss Ikezawa already left the school early this morning. When the three of us spoke earlier today, she was already gone."
I apologetically bow my head.
"I apologize for not telling you this sooner, but I felt that you probably had enough on your mind already and didn't want to make you more worried than you already were while attending the ceremony."
Miss Satou makes an uncharacteristically impatient gesture as if to urge me not to waste time talking about trivial matters such as a ceremony.
"Miss Takawa, we appreciate your concern, but please tell us what you know about Hanako. Why would she just up and leave like this? Is it... something we did?"
There's a guilty look on her face that catches my attention. Miss Hanako will have to excuse me for inquiring about this.
"Miss Satou, has something happened between Miss Ikezawa and you over the last few days?"
Miss Satou seems a bit put off by my question. Was it an inappropriate question or is she simply impatient to hear about her best friend?
"Miss Takawa, please..."
"I will tell you all I can afterwards."
Miss Satou hesitates for a moment, but then tells me about how she and Mister Nakai were discussing what to do about Miss Hanako last night, only to discover she was actually listening in. Mister Nakai added that Miss Hanako seemed upset, maybe even a bit angry.
"Hmmm... That might have played a role. Thank you, Miss Satou. And you too, Mister Nakai."
"Played a role?"
"I ran into Miss Ikezawa when I arrived here early this morning. She was waiting for me near the school gate. She was carrying her backpack, and there were two suitcases standing nearby, undoubtedly belonging to her. When I asked her what she was doing here this early, she told me she was planning to leave."
"Did she tell you why she was leaving or where she was headed?"
"She wouldn't tell me where she was planning to go, if she even knew herself. She did tell me about her motivation, which was along the lines of... hmmm... No longer wanting to be a burden on others."
The hurt look on their faces is particularly excruciating to watch. Miss Satou in particular looks crushed. When she answers, I have to strain to hear it.
"But... she... isn't. Why did she have to do this?"
"I wasn't very fond of her plan myself and spent some time trying to talk her out of it. Unfortunately without much success. I did make a quick phone call to the school administration in order to ask about your exam results, and she seemed relieved when I told her that both of you passed. It didn't convince her to remain on the school grounds for today, but I think you nevertheless took a load off her shoulders."
Mister Nakai gives me an inquisitive look.
"So you have no idea where she could be headed?"
"I might. I urged her to go somewhere where I could get in touch with her."
"That's the tricky part. I could tell you, but that would involve me breaking my client confidentiality with her and I'm afraid I can't afford to let that happen."
"Even though after today she won't be a client of yours any longer?"
"That doesn't really make a difference. I wouldn't be able to do my job any longer if the rest of my clients were to believe that my confidentiality only lasts until graduation."
Miss Inoue makes a face.
"You've gotta be kidding me. So you have an idea where she is, but you won't tell us? What are we supposed to do? Just wait until she comes floating to the surface, as it were? Why even tell us all this at all?"
"I had a reason for calling you here. Please take a moment to reach under the bed you're sitting on. Be careful not to damage them."
"Huh? Hey, she's right. There's something under here."
Mister Nakai and Miss Inoue get on their hands and knees and reach under the bed. Moments later, they pull out what was hidden there. Three beautiful flower arrangements, each of them with a small card attached. The one with the card printed in Braille looks rather odd, the flowers' colors not really complementing each other well like the other two do. When Miss Hanako was making that one, I wondered what her reasoning behind it was. But when taking it to her room, I noticed that it was much more fragrant than the others. It must have been made specifically with Miss Satou's blindness in mind.
Miss Hanako's friends look confused for a second as they each take the arrangement that was meant for them. Miss Satou runs her hand through the flowers and takes in their scent. Then she gives me an unsure look.
"These are Miss Ikezawa's graduation gifts to you. She asked me to give them to you. Please accept them."
Their expressions slowly change from puzzlement to awe, though still with a clear hint of sadness.
"Wow, these are really pretty. But where did they come from?"
"She made them herself. Miss Ikezawa and I usually play board games during our sessions. They help her relax. She wasn't in the mood for games over the last few weeks, so I suggested an alternative. I had her work on these little gifts for you instead. She picked out the flowers and materials and we had them delivered at my office. She has spent the last few sessions putting them together. Just between you and me, I think she has a knack for this. Perhaps not so surprising for someone whose first name means 'flower girl'."
"She also prepared two sets of cards. One set with a congratulatory message and another one with a consolation. I attached the right cards to the pieces just before hiding them here."
I smile sheepishly at Miss Satou.
"I'm afraid I don't read Braille, so I really hope I didn't accidentally attach the wrong note to your arrangement."
"Don't worry, it's the right one. Did... Hanako really make these?"
"She did. I'm afraid that Miss Ikezawa has known what her own exam results were going to be long before this day arrived. She might even have known that she wasn't going to make it in before she even started those entrance exams. They weren't particularly easy, and one would need complete focus in order to do well. In the end, there were probably far too many things tugging at her and holding her back for her to have a realistic chance of success. I'm sure you'll understand that she was not looking forward to this day. These presents were her attempt at... hmmm... lightening the mood, so to speak. She was quite worried about how her exam results were going to affect you today. Although to be honest, I think just working on these also provided her with a limited means of distraction. It made the last few days here more bearable for her."
I smile sadly at Miss Hanako's friends.
"Please consider these the smile and well-wishes she wanted to have for you today, yet could not give you in person due to her own circumstances. I hope that despite Miss Ikezawa's situation, you will still be able to feel pride and a measure of happiness today."
A conflicted expression appears on their faces. I find myself wondering once more whether I shouldn't have taken the risk of pushing Miss Hanako to stay here today just a little bit harder. Her friends are touched by her gesture, that much is obvious. If Miss Hanako had been the one to give them these gifts personally, I'm sure she would have been looking at three huge smiles right now. It's obvious that the main thing on their mind right now is still worry about their friend. Eventually, Miss Satou speaks up.
"Miss Takawa, you said something about getting in touch with Hanako. Are you planning to do so?"
"I am, Miss Satou. As I'm sure Miss Inoue here can attest, whenever a student here fails his entrance exams, it is customary for that person's homeroom teacher to have a talk with him or her and discuss the options available to them."
"Yeah, I had that talk with Mutou and Hoshino after I screwed up on the Center Test. They told me that if my parents could afford it, my best option was to attend a cram school for a year and try again next January. Hoshino felt that I had enough academic ability to succeed the next time, assuming I'd be less reckless with my condition. We found a cram school in my hometown that has someone with a first aid diploma on duty, and the people here are now in contact with him to instruct him on how to deal with me if I have a fit."
"We had a meeting about today's exam results this morning, and Miss Ikezawa was brought up as well. I volunteered to take the task of having this talk with Miss Ikezawa off Mister Mutou's hands. I intend to get in touch with her later today. But... I cannot have this kind of talk with her if she does not trust me. So..."
"You... Don't want us to try and find her?"
"Miss Ikezawa has had a few very rough months and is probably still not really sure what she wants to do now and where she wants to go. She might need a little bit of time to sort things out for herself. I might be able to help her a bit, but in the end she'll have to make the final call herself."
"A little bit of time?"
"A few days maybe. When I talk to her, I'll try to convince her to contact you. If you haven't heard anything from her in... say... three days, feel free to give me a call."
I reach into my pocket and give a card with my phone number to each of the three graduates sitting in front of me. Mister Nakai looks a bit doubtful as he takes the card.
"There is no need to worry about her safety."
There's a short silence, but then Miss Hanako's friends give a resigned nod.
"Yes, Miss Satou?"
"If you talk to her, please tell her that... I'm sorry."
I study the expression on Miss Satou's face for a second and sigh.
"I think you've already apologized enough as it is for your part in this whole situation, Miss Satou. I doubt Miss Ikezawa even holds you responsible to begin with, so try not to blame yourself too badly for what happened. In the end, neither you nor Miss Ikezawa were truly responsible. If I had to point fingers, I would say that the real culprits are Miss Ikezawa's anxieties or the things that created them, not Miss Ikezawa herself."
The half-hearted nod I get in response isn't really the answer I was hoping for, but it'll have to do.
"I think I've pretty much said all I came here to say. If none of you have any further questions, then perhaps it is better to take our leave here. I'm sure your parents are wondering what's keeping you."
Mister Nakai and Miss Inoue wearily get up, but Miss Satou remains seated. For a moment, she appears deep in thought, but then nods and turns to me.
"Miss Takawa, I have one more request to make of you if it's not a problem."
"Hmmm. Still nothing."
I shrug and put my cell phone away. As expected, Miss Hanako still has her own phone turned off. I had been hoping to get lucky and be able to inform her how her friends reacted to her gifts, but I suppose that'll have to wait.
After leaving the dorm building, Miss Hanako's friends were greeted by their parents who had been waiting for them outside. They're standing outside of earshot range - well, my earshot range at least, which has admittedly been decreasing a bit over the last few years, but from the looks of it they're currently trying to explain the situation to their parents to the best of their ability. Eventually I see Miss Inoue walk up to Mister Nakai and Miss Satou and take out her phone. I don't need to hear their words to comprehend what's going on. They're probably exchanging phone numbers in order to make sure that they're all kept in the loop when one of them hears more about Miss Hanako. Upon finishing, Miss Inoue exchanges polite bows with Mrs. Satou and then waves goodbye to Mister Nakai and Miss Satou before walking off together with her parents. Mister Nakai and Miss Satou merely stand there for a bit until Mister Nakai's mother pats her son's shoulder and gives what appears to be an indication that they'll be leaving soon, too. Before they can part though, I see Miss Satou's older sister suddenly gesture in my direction, and her parents turn their heads to look my way as well. I approach them and bow politely.
"Good afternoon and congratulations on your son's and daughter's succesful graduation. I hope this day will be a special one to you despite the fact that Miss Ikezawa couldn't attend."
Nobody really seems sure how to react at first, but eventually they return my bow, and we exchange introductions. Miss Satou's father, a tall and stern-looking man, gives me a long look-over.
"Miss Takawa, our daughter has just explained the situation to us, but there is still one thing I am rather curious about. You mentioned making contact with Hanako and discussing the available options with her. Exactly what options are you going to bring up? And... What option are you planning to recommend? Are you... aware of all the options she has?"
"To be honest, I would like to discuss the options and my reccomendation with Miss Ikezawa herself before discussing them with anyone else. But if there's a specific suggestion you have in mind then this would probably be a good opportunity to discuss it with me."
Truth be told, I've been wanting to have a talk with Mister and Mrs. Satou for quite some time, so I hope they'll accept. I see them exchange a short glance and then nodding.
"Very well. We are at your disposal."
"I'm glad to hear that. My office is on the upper floor of the nurses' building. It's not very far from here."
Mister and Mrs Satou turn to Mister Nakai's parents and say their goodbyes, congratulating them once more on their son succesfully passing the exams. Then they turn to Mister Nakai himself.
"Mister Nakai, I am certain we will meet again in the future sometime, so please stay well until then."
"Yes, please take good care of yourself."
"You too, sir, madam."
He briefly turns to me.
"Thank you for all your efforts on Hanako's behalf, Miss Takawa."
"My efforts were not any more important than your own, Mister Nakai. Perhaps we will speak again soon. Until then."
I bow and then head off with Miss Satou's parents following me. I look back one more time and see Miss Satou and Mister Nakai sharing an embrace. A parting like this, even though it's most likely temporary, must be difficult for both of them.
Chapter 51 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:15 am
I hand Mister and Mrs Satou their bowl of tea, and we all take a careful sip. Mister Satou gives an appreciative nod at the taste and then proceeds to sweep the room with his gaze.
"You have quite an impressive and unique work environment, if I may say so. Is this a common practice for people in your profession?"
I chuckle. It's far from the first time I've heard that question.
"In a way it is, I think. Creating a calming and non-threatening atmosphere is an essential part of our jobs. If a client cannot relax, they usually cannot work with us. Although... hmmm... I've been told that I have taken the principle a little farther than most. But I believe it to be important to ensure this place does not resemble a doctor's office in any way or form. There are already enough of those kinds of rooms in this building."
"Is it that important?"
"I think so. A doctor's office can help but look somewhat clinical. You visit a doctor when there's something wrong with you. That's not something you want in the back of your mind when seeing a mental health professional. That is one of the two reasons."
"And the other?"
"This school is not a mental hospital, and we do not accept students whose condition isn't physical. But the truth is that even physical disabilities sometimes need more than mere physical treatment. Especially when a person's condition came later in life. Accidents have the tendency to also leave marks on a person that are more subtle than missing limbs. We have students in here each year whose conditions are the result of such events and who went through a long period of hospitalization. An office that reminds students of a hospital room would merely rile them up."
Mrs. Satou, who has remained silent until now softly speaks up.
"So your job is to help students suffering from post-traumatic stress?"
"That's correct. All treatment here is voluntary, though our suggestions to them to accept treatment are more persistent with some than they are with others. The treatment is somewhat unofficial, too, so students can have therapy sessions here without having to worry about the social stigma that society usually places on visits to mental health officials."
"What exactly does unofficial treatment mean?"
"I may have worded that a little poorly. The students' visits are unofficial, meaning we try to remain somewhat low-key about them. The treatment itself is a recognized therapy form. Its name is cognitive behavioral therapy. I was hired by this school because I have received official training in it. It has proven to be quite beneficial to people suffering from various anxiety and stress disorders, including post-traumatic stress."
Mister Satou raises an eyebrow.
"I may be mistaken, but is that not a western therapy form? I was not even aware it was practiced in Japan."
That's a surprise. Most people simply nod whenever I mention my specialty.
"You've heard of it?"
"I've read an article about it once while my wife and I were living in Scotland."
"I see. It's not practiced here much. I've actually received my own training abroad. There's still official research going on that's trying to prove that the therapy is... compatible with our country's culture and mindset. I myself have already reached my own conclusions about that, as has the school, but unfortunately my own findings do not qualify as peer-reviewed research. Still, the therapy has a proven track record. *sigh* Just not an official local one."
Mister Satou smirks slightly.
"It must be frustrating to have a specialty that's not widely in demand here."
"To be very honest, I believe our mental healthcare system has a lot of room for growth. I'm not merely talking about getting rid of the extremely strong social stigma associated with psychological conditions, but also about the way we treat them. Most mental hospitals are located about as far from 'proper society' as possible, so it's easier for the rest of the world to pretend that they're not there, and when people are admitted there, they're often being kept there for as long as possible, under as much medication as possible to keep them docile. It's not a system I agree with, but changing it isn't easy. There are quite a few economic interests involved for some to keep the beds filled for as long as possible and the medicine cabinet filled to the brim. Thankfully this school is different."
"I can imagine that you would want to keep students' medication as limited as possible because 'docile' students may not do well on their exams."
"Exactly. We're trying to keep our students' lives as normal as possible and go out of our way to prepare them for life as a productive part of society. Hence the school's desire for... hmmm... less intrusive methods of mental health treatment. To be honest, I'm quite fond of this job. I've always loved working with children. They are our country's future, after all."
Maybe I'm rambling on a bit. I take another sip and look at my guests.
"But forgive me. You did not come here to listen to an old therapist vent about the problems in her profession. Let us talk about the reason you are here... Miss Ikezawa."
Mrs. Satou gives me a curious glance.
"Has Hanako had... therapy of any kind before she came here?"
Now there's a question. I strongly suspect she hasn't. Part of me rues that fact. Heaven knows she would have benefitted from it if she'd been properly counseled from the very beginning. The orphanage staff must have known that she wasn't functioning well. Of course, having her committed to a psychiatric hospital, even for a little while, would have had its own issues if word got out somehow. A 'mental patient' label would have been a bigger stigma than even the burns on her face. A stigma that would make it hard for her to get a job or even a place to live. Do you risk placing that kind of alienating label on a child who is already lacking a real home or family?
"I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to discuss that subject without her permission. I don't think it's very important right now anyway."
Mrs. Satou gives an apologetic nod.
"I apologize. Please forget what I just asked."
"Very well. Getting back to the subject at hand; a few months ago I had a conversation with Mister Nakai and your daughter about Miss Ikezawa. I remember urging them to do what they could to make it through their own exams successfully. The idea was for the two of them to become sources of stability in Miss Ikezawa's life. From what I've seen, your daughter has taken that advice to... far greater lengths than I could ever have anticipated. It's... quite the permanent solution to a temporary problem."
Mister Satou gives me a frown.
"That has to be the first time I have heard those words in that particular context. Miss Takawa, if I may... I think all of us are aware of the fact that Hanako's situation is on Lilly's mind a lot. But I hope you are not seriously suggesting that our daughter is responsible for the offer that I have made Hanako. I am still the head of this family, not Lilly, and as such the final responsibility for that decision lies with me. If you deem the decision an unwise one, I would like you to take that up with me as well and leave our daughter out of it."
"Of course. To be honest, it's probably a little early to make a final judgment on whether the offer itself was wise or not. "
"Has she ever told you how she feels about it? Or does that also fall under patient confidentiality?"
"Client confidentiality, Mister Satou, and I'm afraid it does. That said, your offer came during an extremely stressful time for her, so I think it's too early to make a call on it."
"You believe the timing could have been better?"
"Rather than suddenly confronting her with it, you could have consulted me about it first. Your daughter and I somewhat know each other, and she knows how to contact me. I would have been happy to... ahem... subtly test the waters for you without arousing her suspicion. But said water is under the bridge right now, so there's no point in dwelling on that. That said, I'm curious what moved you to undertake such a... unique course of action."
"Unique? Adoptions of adults are extremely common in this country, Miss Takawa. Hanako would be one of many, I assure you. Why, my own brother, who now runs the head office of our company, is an adoptee."
That's not really the answer I was looking for. In fact it almost feels like a deflection.
"Oh yes, adoption of promising male business heirs is quite common here, but Miss Ikezawa is neither male nor a promising heir for your family business. Mister Satou, the adoption of a female adult would be unique enough to make the local news. I do not think you have made the offer for her to join your family because you're hoping to bequeath her your business assets."
He chuckles briefly and then shakes his head.
"No, the family business has nothing to do with this. It is a more personal perspective. As you are no doubt aware, Hanako has done a great deal for our family in its time of need. I believe that it is only appropriate that, now that she is going through a difficult time herself, we make an effort to return the favor. I consider it a matter of honor."
"Yes, I've heard of your hospitalization, and I'm glad you are doing better now. I imagine you are quite grateful to her. Maybe even grateful enough to take on a life-long responsibility such as this. Speaking of which... May I ask you a question?"
"What... do you think about marriage?"
"W-What does that have to do with Hanako?"
I'm a little surprised at how defensive Mister Satou suddenly seems. I wonder if I touched a sensitive spot. Still, I'll have to make my point now. At least Mrs. Satou seems willing to humor me and gives me a curious smile.
"Could you elaborate a bit, Miss Takawa?"
"It is a life-long responsibility, wouldn't you agree?"
"Yes, it is."
"Just like a child."
"Yes... just... like a child..."
For just a second I see a profound sadness in her eyes.
"For what reasons would you marry someone?"
"That's quite an embarrassing question."
From the sound of her playful chuckle, I suspect she was merely being polite.
"Hmph, with all due respect, Miss Takawa, I believe you are out of line here."
Mister Satou looks extremely uncomfortable, but his wife doesn't look embarrassed at all. She merely gives me a tender smile.
"There's only one reason I could think of. For myself, at least. I'd have to feel a strong affection for a person in order to marry him."
She throws a quick side glance to her husband and smiles warmly. Her husband sighs, but doesn't respond. I nod.
"What if a person came along for whom you didn't feel this kind of affection, but who did you a favor too great to just ignore. What if, when asked if there was anything you could do in return, that person asked you to marry him. Would you do it? Would you accept that life-long commitment purely out of gratitude? Out of a sense of honor?"
Mrs. Satou opens her mouth to answer, but then realization dawns on her face, on both their faces, and there's a long painful silence.
I give the two of them an earnest look.
"I realize you are very grateful to her, but gratitude or obligation alone cannot carry a family. If you merely did this because you felt that you had an obligation to settle, she'll eventually feel that her presence is merely being tolerated and not truly accepted. In fact, I would be surprised if this isn’t something that she has already thought of. A lot."
Mister Satou acknowledges my words with a short nod and a pensive look on his face. His wife, on the other hand, looks completely crushed - not completely unlike her youngest daughter when she found out that Miss Hanako had already left the school grounds. She gives me a pleading look, and her words are little more than a whisper.
"Is that... how Hanako feels? Is that how she thinks?"
There's probably a lot more to it than that, but I'm almost convinced that this is one of the reasons Miss Hanako hasn't accepted their proposal.
"Miss Ikezawa has lived a very hard life, and she is still struggling to regain her faith in other people. Especially when she's feeling down, her resolve to regain it tends to falter from time to time."
"But, this is not how it is... She's... mistaken about us..."
I give her a probing stare.
"Do you love Miss Ikezawa then?"
Mrs. Satou doesn't answer. Her husband, however, gives me defensive look.
"To be honest, we do not know her that well. But I believe you are being a bit unfair. Can couples who visit an orphanage in order to adopt one of the children there say for sure that they know the child? Or love the child? Would you discourage that practice as well?"
I shake my head.
"I wouldn't, but Miss Ikezawa is no ordinary orphan. She's..."
I pause for a moment while searching for the right words.
"...a special needs child, I suppose. It's not all she is. She's a person with her own talents, hopes, dreams and tastes. But she is carrying a lot of baggage around. Very heavy baggage. It's not something that should ever be ignored or dismissed. We are a school here, and common school etiquette says pupils can't be late for class or leave early or ignore the teacher's request to form groups and work together. Yet we make exceptions because we know that Miss Ikezawa's behavior isn't due to a refusal to conform, but due to an inability to. You are right in that it's impossible to really love a person whom you do not truly know yet, but it is possible to accept a person you do not truly know yet. Unconditional acceptance would be required from the very beginning. Imagine..."
I think for a moment before continuing.
"Imagine being at an event - a family reunion or something similar - together with her. All seems fine at first, but at some point something suddenly happens. Something that triggers her anxieties. She panics and runs off. There is an awkward silence around you. People look at her go. Then those people turn their gazes onto you. They say nothing, but you can see the judgment in their eyes. What will you do? Scold Miss Ikezawa for disrupting the harmony and making you lose face in front of your peers? Or go after her to see if she's alright? There's no need to answer this question, but think about it. More than the financial security, she needs the emotional security. A place to feel accepted regardless of what the rest of the world thinks of her. And people..."
I fold my hands and give my guests a solemn stare.
"...who are not merely willing to share her joy and her sorrow, but also - if necessary - her loneliness."
The people in front of me merely nod and for a moment I feel like a school teacher. Then Mister Satou scrapes his throat.
"We will think about what you have told us."
"Thank you. There is one other thing I am a little curious about."
"And what would that be?"
"Now that Miss Ikezawa has failed her entrance exams, what will your daughter do? I recall that she and Miss Ikezawa were set to become roommates if they both passed their exams."
"That is correct. However, I have told Lilly that I would only arrange an apartment for her if she took a roommate. If I know my daughter a little bit, I think she will want to hold out for Hanako, rather than simply pick someone else as her roommate. That would mean she will be spending her first year in the dorms, and we can give the apartment another try next year."
"I can imagine she will be quite disappointed."
"Yes, it is very unfortunate, but it cannot be helped."
"I was wondering... hmmm... if you wouldn't reconsider, for Miss Ikezawa's sake."
It sounds crazy, asking people to reconsider getting an apartment just like that. Especially with the high costs of living space these days. But from what Miss Hanako has told me about their accommodations during their stay in Scotland, I’m fairly confident that money isn't the problem here.
"What does Hanako have to do with this?"
"Your offer to let Miss Ikezawa move in with your daughter was most generous and well-meant, but at the same time it also put a lot of pressure on her. She knew how much your daughter was looking forward to having her own little place, and that that prospect is now gone because of her. There's no doubt that the feeling of having failed your daughter was one of the reasons Miss Ikezawa chose to leave here early. If you were to reconsider, you'd surely spare Miss Ikezawa a tremendous burden this year."
Mister Satou huffs.
"I understand what you are saying, but surely you see potential problems with leaving a blind girl on her own in a town she does not know."
"There will be challenges, sure, but we have blind students graduating here every year and several of them go on to live relatively independent lives. Your daughter has had 19 years to adapt to her lack of eyesight, and people like her tend to have more coping strategies than we can even imagine. From what I have heard, your daughter is one of the most self-reliant students of her class. She may need a month - maybe two, but she'll adapt eventually."
"That still leaves us with one or two months of her needing oversight."
"Perhaps one of you could be her temporary roommate - until she's grown accustomed to her new place."
A short pause and then Mrs. Satou turns to her husband.
"Maybe... I could be that roommate? For a little while. You already started your new job after all. The two of us would be living separately for a little while, but... I kind of owe Lilly something, don't I?"
"Karla, let us speak about this at home."
"Alright. Just remember that sometimes you have to endure some short-term hardships in order to make a positive difference in the long run."
For a split-second I see Mister Satou smile as if enjoying some private joke.
I open my notebook, thumb through a few pages and then write a phone number from one of the pages onto my business card.
"If you intend to follow through with this, please call this number. It's the number of our mobility instructors' office. They're the ones helping our blind students navigate the campus when they first get here, among other things. Surely one of them knows your daughter. They can tell you everything you need to know about helping your daughter adapt as quickly as possible."
"Thank you for all your help."
"Perhaps you should return to your daughters and do what you can to celebrate your youngest daughter's exam results."
We get up, and I start putting the bowls that used to hold the tea away. Mister Satou is already preparing to leave the room, but his wife seems to hesitate. When he gives her a quizzical look, she merely smiles.
"I'll be right with you."
As her husband leaves the office, Mrs. Satou walks up to me and gives me an unsure smile.
"I've... been thinking a little bit about what you said. My husband's... usually pretty sensitive about what others think of him."
"I think most of us are. We are very much a group-based society. Peer pressure and avoiding loss of face are some of the cornerstones of our culture."
"But I don't think he'd scold her, even if her anxieties caused trouble. That night he came home after that train wreck of an open house day, he seemed genuinely troubled by what happened to Hanako. It usually takes a lot to rattle him. I think... his first reaction might be to apologize to others if she accidentally caused a scene, but I'm sure he'd also go and see if she's alright afterwards. He has to."
"You seem quite certain."
She smiles sadly at me.
"Our daughters would never forgive us if we messed something like this up. We might lose them permanently."
"I suppose the principle can work both ways."
"I'm not sure what you're planning to recommend to Hanako, but... she can come to us if she ever needs a place to stay. We could even arrange for her to have her own little place if she needs some extra space. The costs are not a problem. Our family has done pretty well... financially."
"I think the best thing to do would be to leave this matter in her hands from now on. If she were to decide to rely on you or accept your offer at some point, she'll probably do so when she feels the time is right. If she decides not to, there's no need to ever bring it up again."
"Alright. I'll tell my husband and our daughters."
She gives me a thorough look-over, almost as if analyzing me.
"I was impressed by how passionate you were about the situation with Hanako just now. You... really seem to care about her."
"Aside from being a therapist, I also play the role of counselor from time to time here. I'm merely looking out for the best interests of those placed under my supervision. But I care a lot about the work I do."
"You said before that you loved working with children."
I smile warmly.
"I do. I hope I can keep doing this job for a long time."
"Do you have any children?"
"I've had many over the years."
"I mean... Do you have any children of your own?"
I shake my head.
"If you were faced with the decision - between being able to play an important role in the lives of many, or merely in the lives of a few... What would your choice be, Mrs. Satou?"
"I wish this sort of thing wouldn't have to be a choice to begin with."
The woman in front of me gives me a long look, and her gaze sends an uncomfortable shiver down my spine. I struggle for a moment to maintain my smile. There's a hint of sadness and quiet understanding in her eyes, but most of all there's... pity. I give a short cough.
"Is there anything else you wish to know?"
Mrs. Satou shakes her head.
"I'd better get back. Lilly's probably wondering what's keeping me."
"Please give my regards to your daughter."
"I will. Goodbye Miss Takawa. And good luck with Hanako."
Chapter 51 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:15 am
"Hmmm... Again nothing."
I put my cell phone away and open the door of my car. Looks like Miss Hanako's phone is still turned off. I consider trying the landline, but then conclude there's no chance she'll pick that one up. Oh well, I'll just have to wait a little while longer. Before I drive away from the parking lot, I take a look back at the school. When I look at this place, I merely see the school where I work as a counselor and therapist. But quite a few students must have left this place today and looked back only to realize that they will never return here, save for perhaps a reunion someday. I wonder what that feels like. Several people I've spoken to today must know by now.
While driving back home, I think back on what happened today. It's certainly been an eventful day. First my encounter with Miss Hanako at the school gate this morning, followed by a rather intense meeting about the graduates. Then there was the talk with Miss Hanako's friends, both before and after the graduation ceremony and the conversation with Miss Satou's parents. I've been filling up the rest of my time writing and filing reports. Graduation day is always a bit busy for me. I'm still a bit behind on my reports, but I want to be home rather early today, so I convinced myself to shelf the workload that didn't have to be done today. In a way, I'll be working this evening as well.
As I arrive at the parking lot near my apartment building, I experience a slight feeling of pride. That meeting today went very well - much better than I had anticipated. The school administration turned out to be impressed by my preparations and gave me the cooperation I asked for. Better late than never. Now the only thing that's left to do is to speak with Miss Hanako.
As I take out my key to the front door, I realize I've made quite an exception myself in allowing my guest to stay here today. I was a more than a little bit uncomfortable with it, realizing this is not something I ought to make a habit of, but drastic circumstances call for drastic measures and I think I owed it to her. Still, it'd be good if we could sort things out this evening, and she can sleep somewhere else. I've already been skirting the line of what's appropriate.
I open the door to my apartment and smile as I'm being greeted by a soft meow from my companion.
"Hello, Yuki-dear. Have you been a good kitten today?"
I kneel down and let the young Japanese Bobtail sniff my hand before gently stroking its chin and behind its ears. I take a mouse-shaped cat toy from my bag and toss it towards the far wall of the entryway area. Yuki immediately turns her head and dashes after it, awkwardly pouncing on it as if it's a real-life prey. I chuckle at the endearing sight of her taking the toy in her mouth and walking back to me, dropping it in front of me as if it's a present. If what I read is correct, playing fetch is only a fraction of the tricks this breed can learn. I just hope it'll still take a little while before she starts dragging formerly living animals in here as presents.
"Good kitty. Have you kept an eye on Miss Hanako as I asked you to?"
In response, the young cat merely takes the toy in its mouth again and drops it on the floor once more, this time a little closer to me, as if wanting to remind me that this is the part where I take the toy and throw it away again.
"I'll play fetch with you later, dear. Mommy's got some things to take care of first."
I get up and raise my voice a bit to announce my arrival.
"Miss Hanako? I'm back. Would you like me to make you some tea?"
No response. That's a bit odd. I expected her to at least come out here and say hello. Is she still in a gloomy mood? Well, probably, but...
As I look around, I suddenly realize that there's something missing here. Something that was here when I left again this morning.
Her shoes aren't in the place where she left them. Or anywhere else for that matter.
Completely forgetting to take off my own shoes, I hurry into my living room.
There's no one here.
How can this be?
What's going on?
I told her to stay here this morning. Take some time to calm down and play with Yuki. Yet she's nowhere in sight.
I quickly search the other rooms of my home. Miss Hanako is nowhere to be found. What's more - her suitcases are gone too. That means she's not taking a little stroll around the block. She didn't seem to be in the mood for one anyway.
I don't understand this.
I quickly take out my cell phone and call Miss Hanako's number. The phone's turned off just like before. Starting to get a little worried, I quickly call the school.
"Good evening. Yamaku Academy administrative office, Mariko Harada speaking."
"Good evening Miss Harada. This is Yumi Takawa speaking."
"Miss Takawa, what can I do for you?"
"Miss Harada, I would like to make a request of you if it's not a problem."
"Of course, what is it you want me to do?"
"I would like you to ask a few members of the nursing staff to go and look around a bit for a certain student. I would like to find out whether she's on campus or not."
"That's not a problem. And what if they find her?"
"I'd just like to be notified. The girl's name is Hanako Ikezawa. She's a 3rd year, relatively tall, long dark hair, shy demeanor, wears a denim jacket and a dark hat... and she's a burn victim. Most of the nurses are probably familiar with her, seeing that she's lived on campus for three years."
"Ahm... Miss Takawa... If she's a 3rd year then doesn't that mean she's graduated today? Why would she still be on campus?"
"The situation is a bit complicated, Miss Harada. You'll have to excuse me for leaving it at that."
"Alright then. I'll ask a few people. Do you have any suggestions on where to start?"
She can't be in her own dorm room, since she gave me the key this morning, and I left it at the administration office before leaving the school grounds.
"Hmmm... Start with the library if it's still open, the roof and the classrooms. Ask the dorm keeper to drop by Miss Yamazaki's room. She's the only friend of Miss Ikezawa who's still living in the dorms. If she's not there, have a look around the running track, perhaps."
"Alright, we'll do our best."
"Thank you, Miss Harada. I'm looking forward to hearing from you."
I hang up, give Yuki some of her favorite cat food and absentmindedly get started on making dinner. It shouldn't take the nurses too long to search the spots I indicated. Deep down I don't even believe she's gone back to Yamaku at all. She can't use her dorm room anymore, so where would she stay? But I want to rule out the possibility. Of course, if she's not at school, then where could she have gone?
I'm almost finished eating dinner when the phone rings. Could they have found her? I hurriedly pick up the phone.
"Good evening, Yumi Takawa speaking."
"Good evening, Takawa."
"Miss principal! This is an unexpected surprise."
"I'm merely returning the favor."
I don't like the tone in her voice. She sounds upset about something. I wonder what this is about.
"How can I be of help?"
"I would really like to know what is going on here, Takawa. During the meeting this morning you volunteered to have a follow-up talk with Ikezawa in Mutou's place. We gave you the green light on that, as well as on your other proposals. And now, while I stopped by the administration office, I heard that you requested the patrolling nurses to search for this girl. What on earth is going on?"
"I apologize, madam."
"You didn't have that talk with Ikezawa after all?"
"Please allow me to explain. Miss Ikezawa was actually waiting for me at the school gate when I arrived at work early this morning. She was set on leaving the school, and she asked me to present her friends with the graduation gifts she made for them."
"She was leaving? Without picking up her diploma or attending the ceremony? Why was she so eager to leave?"
"A minor misunderstanding with her friends combined with guilt and shame about not having passed her entrance exams. She's been under heavy emotional pressure lately, as I've mentioned this morning."
"So you let her leave?"
"I voiced my misgivings about it myself and tried to dissuade her from leaving, but I couldn't convince her to stay on the premises. So I... drove her to my apartment and told her to stay there until I returned. We could then take our time and have a talk together about her future. That was my condition for me doing her the favor with the presents to her friends."
"So that was why you were late at the meeting this morning?"
"My apologies again for my tardiness, madam."
I really hope this morning didn't earn me any speeding tickets on top of the scolding I'm taking now.
"Isn't taking a client home an inappropriate action for a therapist? Aren't you supposed to maintain - what do they call it - professional distance? You've literally taken your work home with you today."
"It's not something I intend to make a habit out of, madam, but I had to think quickly this morning. I couldn't convince her to stay on the school grounds, but I couldn't just let her wander off either. I thought that giving her a bit of space would be beneficial and buy me the time I needed."
Though I suspect that easing my own conscience played a very large role as well. I felt I partially responsible for her state and may have gone too far in trying to make that up to her. Not to mention the fact that the very idea of her walking away from Yamaku in a worse mental state than when she came, despite all the time and effort I put into her therapy, felt like the ultimate slap in the face. I've accepted the fact that she'll still have baggage to sort out even after her graduation, but the thought of her leaving school in the condition she was in was something that my personal pride resisted with all its might.
"But something happened?"
"When I came home an hour ago, I couldn't find her here. She appears to have left, but I have no idea when and where to."
"Why would she do that?"
"It's mostly guesswork on my part, but I think it's connected to her trust issues. She has difficulty trusting other people on a deeper level. She has to make a bigger effort than most to maintain her trust in others, and she's prone to lapses of faith during times of extreme stress. It's a defense mechanism that developed during her elementary and middle school years."
"But you still thought it was a good idea to leave her alone? I suppose you didn't anticipate this?"
That hurts. It's true, though. I should have anticipated the possibility of this happening, but I didn't. I suppose I deemed myself exempt because I was her therapist, rather than her friend. But then again, didn't I cross that line today by sheltering her? Did I cause her to become suspicious of me? Did I try so hard to convince her that I was on her side, that she started doubting my sincerity? I really messed up this time.
"I... have no excuse, madam."
"Does the fact that she left mean that your proposal this morning is now moot?"
"Not at all, madam! Let's not take any rash action! We should take a bit of time to wait things out."
"According to the nurses you sent out to search the campus, she's not anywhere around here. They'll keep an eye out for her, but we can probably discount the possibility. Do you have any other idea where she could be?"
"She might have contacted one of her friends after all."
"Also people from school?"
"Mister Nakai and Miss Inoue from class 3-3 and the Satou family. Their youngest daughter was class representative of class 3-2. The problem is that if we call them and she's not there, we might cause them quite a bit of distress."
"I'm sorry, but did you mention the Satou family? That Satou family?"
"If you are talking about the parents of Miss Lilly Satou of class 3-2 then yes, madam. They seem to have taken great interest in Miss Ikezawa's well-being lately."
"This is a big problem, Takawa. Are you aware of Satou Medical Technology?"
"They manufacture some of the equipment we use, don't they?"
"Yes, which they provide us with for quite a low price too. They're actually also one of the school's financial benefactors. Do you realize what would happen if we upset them and they pull part of the school's funding? That would be very bad. For all of us. This is quite a mess you've gotten us into, Takawa!"
Am I being thrown under the bus here? No, this is ridiculous. This whole situation is ridiculous. I'm getting a bit frustrated here. This isn't just my fault.
"Miss Principal, I will not deny my part in all of this, but this situation could have been avoided if I had been given the guarantee I've been asking for. It was frustrating having to settle for pep talks that were barely registering anymore. We could have spared that girl some truly dreadful weeks."
My superior responds with a dismissive sigh.
"You said before that you understood the school administration's policy and decision."
That doesn't mean I don't vehemently disagree with it.
"I'm afraid I still can't agree with it."
"That isn't important right now, Takawa. Do you have any idea where Ikezawa could be?"
"I... need to think about that. If I can figure out her train of thought, I might be able to come up with something."
"I hope you'll do a better job at this than you did earlier today then. Don't make us lose face in front of our benefactors, Takawa."
"No, madam. I'm sorry, madam. I'll keep you updated."
"Please do. Good evening."
As I put down the receiver, I feel exhausted. Exhausted and irritated. I can't help but feel that this issue is being politicized. Well, it's the principal's job to worry about our relations with our donors, but I still feel put off by the idea of Miss Hanako's situation suddenly being a matter of school-wide importance, just because a rich family took an interest in her. As if her well-being wasn't important before.
And then the matter of Miss Hanako's sudden disappearance. To be honest, I feel a bit betrayed. I've put so much effort into this. And now it's threatening to blow up in my face.
I rub my forehead to dull the throbbing sensation that started during my conversation with the principal. No point in getting angry. I must think. Suddenly, my attention is drawn by something sticking out from under the couch. I cleaned this place yesterday, so it's something that ended up there today. I kneel down, pull on it and find out it's a piece of paper. A piece of paper with tears and little bite marks in several places. I give my feline companion a scolding stare.
"Bad kitten. This wasn't meant for you."
I reach into my bag to retrieve my reading glasses, but even without them I can tell that it's a letter, probably left on the low table near the couch before Yuki got hold of it.
As I start reading, I immediately see that it's a letter of thanks. The letter is longer than I thought, but its message can be summarized in a mere four words.
Goodbye and thank you.
I shake my head and pound the nearby table with my hand in frustration, startling my furry roommate.
"Miss Hanako, you foolish girl."
At least this rules out the possibility that she returned to the school. Could she have contacted one of her friends after all? I'm a bit afraid to approach them. What other possibilities are there?
Think like Miss Hanako. Think like Miss Hanako.
She's a girl, not particularly strong, carrying a backpack and two heavy suitcases. She wouldn't just randomly start walking off, unless I'm really off the mark about her emotional situation.
There's a bus stop in front of the apartment building. She probably took a bus out of here.
Think like Miss Hanako. Think like Miss Hanako.
I leave my apartment and take a look at the bus stop. There's one on each side of the street. I look back at my apartment and notice that the caretaker's office is still occupied.
That man knows each of the tenants, and he might remember an unfamiliar person, particularly if said person was lugging a lot of baggage around.
I make my way to the office and gently knock on the window. The middle-aged caretaker opens the door and bows politely.
"Good evening, Miss Takawa."
I do my best to put on my most convincing smile.
"Good evening, Mister Kondo. May I ask you a question please?"
"Have you been here all day?"
"Most of the day. Did something happen?"
"I was wondering if you've seen a girl leave the building today. She's 18 years old, has long dark hair and was carrying a backpack and two suitcases."
"Oh yes, I remember her. I greeted her, but she kind of shied away. Seemed a bit nervous. She was heading for the bus stop."
"Do you remember when exactly you saw her and where she was headed?"
"It was during my lunch break, so it had to be close to one o' clock, give or take a few minutes. I saw her get on the bus at the bus stop on this side of the road."
"Thank you, Mister Kondo. You've been of great help to me."
"Anytime, Miss Takawa."
I walk back towards the bus stop, wondering if this information is really going to be of use to me. I can probably pinpoint where she's headed now, but I still won't know where she got off. Maybe I could call the bus company and ask who the driver of that particular bus was. Would he even remember her, let alone remember where she got off the bus? Probably not.
I take a look at the schedule on the bus stop in search of the bus that stopped here at one. I sigh loudly when I see what bus she must have taken.
That line only makes one more stop and then it goes directly to the train station.
I could check out that last stop, but I doubt it'll do me much good.
Goodbye and thank you indeed.
"Miss Hanako, you foolish, foolish girl..."
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:16 am
I wonder what time it is now.
Having just awakened from my restless state of semi-slumber, I try to fight off the disorientation that's the result of waking up in a strange place.
Even though the room's almost completely dark, I know instinctively that this room is not my own. The atmosphere is... different. Of course, was my own room at Yamaku ever really my own or was it just temporary too, like the rest of my high school life? A short reprieve from the rest of my life?
The drowsiness I feel slowly starts subsiding, but I still feel tired, exhausted even. My mind is clear enough to remember where I am, but I still wonder how long I've been in this state that might have passed for sleep. I think I retired to this room around nine o' clock. There wasn't any more work for me to do, and I wanted to be alone. I don't think I've slept much though. I haven't really slept much at all over the last few weeks, despite occasionally taking one of the sleeping pills that Miss Yumi prescribed. And when I closed my eyes, the nightmares would usually come. During the last two nights they've been different, but not any less horrifying.
My eyes have now adapted enough to vaguely make out the interior of the room I'm in. The fact that there's so little light getting past the curtains probably means it's still night. Should I try to get some more sleep? I wish there was an alarm clock in this room. There isn't, though, and I never got around to replacing the alarm clock that Naomi broke during one of her epileptic seizures. I've been using my cell phone as an alarm clock ever since.
My cell phone...
I could turn it on for a second.
I wearily get out of bed and feel my way over to the chair my clothes are draped over. I take the phone out of my pants' pocket, but before I can flip it open, a thought enters my mind that completely paralyzes my fingers.
If I turn it on, will it ring?
That's crazy and I know it. How coincidental would that be?
Still, it's not completely impossible, is it?
Just for a second. I'll turn it on, check the time and then turn it off again.
My fingers still won't move.
I carefully move the curtain in front of the window aside and peer through. It's either still night or extremely early in the morning. Nobody's up but me right now.
Just for a second then. Just to check the time.
Finally getting a hold of my anxiety, I fold out my phone and turn it on. Preparing to turn it off immediately again, I look at the small lit screen.
- 5:45 a.m. -
- 16 missed calls. -
I let out a tortured whimper and abruptly drop my phone, fortunately into the pile of clothes on the chair.
16 missed calls...
A normal person would have checked her phone sooner. A normal person would have responded.
But how should I respond? What would I say to them?
What would they say to me?
I wonder for a moment if there are voicemails too, but I know in advance that I won't have the nerve to listen to those.
What would they say to me?
That question keeps bouncing around in my head, and I'm unable to get it out. What's worse, a little nagging voice in the back of my mind starts answering it.
What do you think they'll say?
Hanako, where are you? We're worried sick about you.
What were you thinking, running off without telling us? After everything we've already done for you.
I'm so disappointed, Hanako. Don't you remember our promise after I decided to stay in Japan? Didn't we promise to graduate together? I've kept it. Why couldn't you? Why couldn't you pass as well?
I know you're smart enough to have passed your entrance exams. You did well on the Center Test after all. Why couldn't you graduate with us? Why did you throw the fight?
Yes, why couldn't you pass as well? We could have celebrated going to the same university together. Now you've ruined the most important day of our lives. You only graduate high school once. Some memory that's turned out to be.
I was so excited about being able to have our own little place where we could live, study and spend time together. All we needed to do was to both pass our exams. I did my part. Why couldn't you do yours? Didn't you want this too? Didn't this prospect motivate you as well? Now I'll be stuck in the dorms there for a year, thanks to you.
I'm so sorry!
How are we even supposed to continue our relationship now? We probably won't be able to keep a long-distance relationship going, will we? Have you ever thought about that? Shouldn't that have been motivation enough?
At least our sex life isn't going to get any worse.
I'm sorry! I'm sorry!
Beads of sweat start appearing on my forehead, and my breathing gets more frantic by the second. I struggle to regain control of myself, but my legs nevertheless give out and I collapse in a heap on the floor. My lungs are screaming for air, but they're barely getting any, no matter how hard I try to breathe.
Keep it together.
My chest is hurting really badly, and for a moment I wonder if my heart is going to give out. I feel like I'm suffocating, yet I can't pass out.
Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out.
My heart's pounding like a jackhammer, but I'm suddenly hit by a flash of insight. Using every bit of strength I have, I pick myself up a bit and manage to reach into the pile of clothes on the chair and retrieve my phone. I can keep my shaking hands steady for just long enough to reach the power button and press it.
Breathe in, breathe out...
The sensation slowly starts ebbing away, but I can still barely breathe in here. I shuffle towards the door. I need to get some fresh air.
I open the door and stagger into the hallway. Everyone else still appears to be asleep.
I can breathe a little easier here, but I don't want to be caught here looking like I just had a heart attack, so I make my way to the nearby bathroom.
I soak one of the washing cloths lying near the sink and use it to wipe the sweat off my forehead. As the cool cloth soothes my throbbing head, the adrenaline rush from the experience back in my room makes way for an overwhelming tiredness, so I sit down on the edge of the bath and wait for my mind to get its bearings back. Eventually, the exhaustion starts fading and is replaced with a feeling that's not much better.
A feeling of depression.
I just had a debilitating panic attack. And it didn't happen because my boyfriend was dying in front of me or because I was trapped in an auditorium filled with people who were all looking in my direction. I had a panic attack because I looked at a cell phone.
I looked at a cell phone.
How pathetic can a girl get?
Have I really become this weak?
Seems like it.
My mind floats back to five months ago. We were going to try and get into the same university. Lilly, Hisao, even Naomi. And... me. I remember feeling a little uneasy about it even then, but... I had to leave Yamaku eventually. And I'd be able to share an apartment with Lilly. What more could I wish for?
But then, that panic attack happened. Lilly blamed herself and went really far to try and make amends for it, but this was never her fault to begin with, nor was it her responsibility to fix. A normal person would have turned that phone off after it went off, would have felt a bit awkward and then would have moved on. It was a painful reminder of how feeble I still am and how a single bad moment can immediately turn me back into a quivering semi-catatonic mess. Suddenly the future didn't look bright anymore. It started to terrify me.
Lilly must have been really happy when her father agreed to let her live on her own as long as she took a roommate. But I was secretly mortified, because I was thrust into that role. Now I had no choice but to pass. I'd never be able to forgive myself if Lilly became the victim of my weakness.
And yet that's what happened. My weakness eventually won out. I did surprisingly well on the Center Test. Perhaps part of the reason was Naomi. I knew I had to spare her the burden I was carrying. Then the entrance exams came. I had been struggling to keep studying despite my nightmares becoming more and more frequent. Maybe the little nagging voice in my head was right. I simply lacked the motivation to pass. I probably could have gotten in if only I had been a little more determined and a little less weak. The questions on the exam weren't easy, but they didn't make my head spin either. What made my head spin were my thoughts of what could happen if I answered them correctly.
And thus I failed not just my exams, but also Lilly and Hisao.
I managed to keep it hidden afterwards by hiding in my room, only sneaking out ever so often because I had to visit Miss Yumi in order to get a note that'd allow me to get my medication replenished. I didn't even think those antidepressants were helping anymore as graduation day came closer and closer. They were going to find out eventually and then what?
And here I am now. A nervous wreck, hiding away in a place far from the place that was like a home to me.
I think back on the thoughts that were just whirling around in my head. Thoughts about Lilly and Hisao. Bad thoughts about Lilly and Hisao. As if my downer mood wasn't enough already, a sense of shame now rears its head as well.
Miss Yumi's words from one of my sessions come back to mind. Psychological projection. Attributing one's own negative thoughts to other people. A defense mechanism against feelings such as guilt or inadequacy during times of heavy stress.
They wouldn't think such thoughts about me.
But I would would think such thoughts about me.
I'm such a horrible person.
I wearily get up and prepare to return to the room I spent the night in, but before I walk out, I take a long look in the mirror.
I look even more terrible than usual. My face has grown skinny. In fact, I probably lost quite a bit of weight due to stress ever since examination hell began. The bags under my eyes can be seen from all the way across a large room. And my scars...
I carefully move the lock of hair that partially obscures the right side of my face. Is it just my imagination or are the scars... covering a larger area of my face than they were before?
No, that's crazy. That has to be my imagination. And yet... That was the first thought that came up when I looked at the blight on my face.
I can't sleep this way. I need to find a way to distract myself.
Maybe I could... continue my chores. Yes, that'd get my mind off of things.
I'll wash myself and get dressed. And then I'll get to work.
It's a little too early to prepare breakfast and vacuuming will be too loud. I could clean this room though. Maybe there's some more laundry to iron.
Yes, I'll go and make myself...
"Ummm... Miss... uh..."
I cringe as I enter the kitchen and approach the woman who's busy cutting pieces of chicken meat while watching over a pan containing fried rice, judging from the smell.
What was her name again?
She turns around.
"Ah... Ikezawa, wasn't it?"
"Y-Yes. I... umm... c-came to say that I'm f-finished with the laundry."
"Oh. That's... uh... good to hear. Thank you for getting it done so quickly."
"M-Maybe I could... do some vacuuming next?"
"Have you already eaten? I didn't see you around at breakfast."
"I... wanted to finish up f-first."
"It's almost noon already and you haven't eaten yet?"
"I'm... not very hungry right now."
It doesn't look like that's what she wanted to hear. I fidget nervously under the woman's stare.
"You have to eat something or you're going to faint at some point. I think you can afford to take it easy for a little while. It's not like we're understaffed here."
I'd actually rather keep busy for more than one reason.
My silence is met with a resigned sigh.
"If you want to help out more, you can sweep the backyard. But please take these leftovers from breakfast with you. Have a bite or two to eat, and just give the pieces of meat you don't want to the dog."
I take a paper bag filled with leftovers from the kitchen table and make my way to the backyard where I sit down on the ground with my back against the wall. The fresh air clears my head a bit, but it still doesn't take away the unease I felt when the woman working in the kitchen tried to reassure me.
It's not like we're understaffed here.
I let out a depressed sigh. Then I absentmindedly take some of the pieces of bread from the paper bag lying next to me and start nibbling on them. Suddenly, I catch some movement in the corner of my eye and turn my head to see a friendly-looking Golden Retriever lazily approaching me. I wonder if he's just curious about this person sitting here or if he's smelled the pieces of meat in my bag.
He sniffs into the air and gives me a curious look as if trying to determine if I'd be willing to share my food with him or not. I decide to take away his doubt by taking a piece of chicken from my bag and putting it next to me on the ground. The dog immediately walks up to me, sniffs the piece of meat and then quickly devours it. After swallowing his treat, he looks at me again as if begging for more.
He obediently lies down, putting his chin on my upper leg. For the first time in a long time, I smile a bit. They trained him pretty well, it seems. I take another piece of meat from the bag, and this time I hold it in the palm of my hand, extending it towards him. He sniffs my hand and then eagerly takes the piece of chicken. I tenderly stroke his back as he gorges himself on the food. As I keep feeding my canine companion, my thoughts return to my current situation.
I figured I'd stay here until I figured out what to do next, but I'm still as lost as to what to do and where to go as when I came here. Lilly and Hisao are probably angry at me right now, and I don't want to be a burden on them. But... I wonder if I'm not a burden here either, despite my attempts to be useful here.
Maybe I'm just fooling myself when I'm telling myself that I'm here because I need some space to think of what to do next. Maybe I'm really just here because I'm afraid of everyone's reactions, and this is the one place where I don't think anyone's going to find me.
I probably can't stay here, can I?
I suddenly become aware of the voices of two people talking somewhere nearby. The dog has probably picked it up as well as his ears perk up for a moment before deciding that the possibility of me maybe having some more food is of greater importance to him. I present him with the last piece of meat in the bag. As he takes it from me, I put my hand on his head and gently stroke it. He settles down, clearly enjoying the attention.
I think I've always liked animals more than people. As I keep stroking the dog's head, I sadly smile at him.
"H-Hey... Niji. I... umm... d-don't think we really know each other well, do we?"
His ears perk up again briefly at the sound of his name.
"We... never really interacted much, b-but I'm h-happy to see you again. I've always liked you."
"My... ummm... n-name is Hanako and.... I used to live here. D-Do you... remember me?"
I'm not sure if his soft whimper is a confirmation or not, but it still makes me smile a bit.
My nerves soothed a bit, I sit back and try to empty my head. As I do so, I once again become aware of the conversation nearby, this time fragments of it reaching me.
"...not too much of an inconvenience?"
"...change of pace, actually. It was..."
"...not quite sure... a phone call myself..."
"... you did what was best. Besides. I've always wondered about this place."
"Let me see where she is."
The gate leading outside the yard suddenly opens, and I see the orphanage director walk in. She gives me a friendly nod when she notices me.
"Ah, there you are, Hanako."
I quickly spring to my feet, wondering what she wants with me.
"M-Matron... I'll g-get started on the yard right away!"
She rolls her eyes at my reaction and shakes her head.
"That won't be necessary. Someone else can do that later. But I was wondering if we could have a moment of your time."
"O-Okay. You w-want to t-talk to me about s-something?"
"Not me, actually. There's somebody here to see you."
"Miss Ikezawa! Fancy meeting you here."
Just as my brain makes the connection between 'somebody being here to see me' and 'somebody knowing that I'm here', the gate opens a bit further, and the owner of the second voice steps forward. I reel in shock as I recognize who it is, and panic promptly takes my heart in a suffocating grip.
How did she find me? Why is she here? Did the orphanage staff call the school? What's going on? Is she here to scold me? What should I do? Should I run? Can I even run? But where to?
Niji, who was peacefully lying down just earlier seems to sense my fear and starts barking loudly. After exchanging a glance with the matron, Miss Yumi slowly walks forward and holds out her hand. After sniffing for a moment, the dog relaxes and licks her hand a few times, deeming the situation a false alarm. Miss Yumi smiles at him.
"Aren't you a good dog?"
The matron smiles.
"He is. All the children are very fond of him."
She then sharply whistles, and Niji quickly walks up to her. She points towards the door.
"Inside, boy. Come on."
As the dog casually walks off to its dog bed inside the common room, the matron turns to me. I eye her with an unsure look.
"D-Did you c-call the school?"
She shakes her head.
"I received a phone call from Miss Takawa this morning, asking me if you were here. I confirmed to her that you came here two days ago, offering to help out the staff in return for shelter."
Miss Yumi nods in order to confirm the matron's words.
"I had a bright moment last night, and the contact information of this orphanage was still in the school's records, so I gave it a try. I'm happy I decided to do so. There's... still some paperwork that has to be tied up that we didn't get around to."
The matron gives me a puzzled look.
"Why didn't anybody at the school know that you were planning to go here?"
I feel a sense of dread as I start racking my brain for an excuse, but Miss Yumi merely shrugs her shoulders.
"Graduation day and the days leading up to it are always rather hectic at school. I'm sure there's merely been a miscommunication in our administration."
"I see. It must have been a rather long trip for you. Would you like some tea?"
Miss Yumi smiles at the matron.
"If it's not too much trouble for you then I would be honored."
"Not at all. Please have a seat in the common room."
The matron turns around and walks inside, but Miss Yumi doesn't immediately follow her, merely gesturing me to come along.
"After you, Miss Ikezawa."
I silently enter the building and follow the matron to the common room. On the way, I feel Miss Yumi's eyes on my back, and it makes me feel extremely nervous. The way she's following close behind me almost feels like she's a prison guard escorting an inmate to his cell. Or a police officer escorting a suspect to the interrogation room. I don't think the matron noticed anything, but I immediately picked up the fact that Miss Yumi isn't addressing me as 'Miss Hanako' right now, and that's something she's been doing for over 1.5 years. There was an amiable smile on her face just now, but somehow that smile felt really fake.
She's probably upset at me for unexpectedly walking out on her, and I'm starting to feel really scared. It might be weird for me to feel scared of an old lady who's about a head shorter than I am, but Miss Yumi probably knows more about my various emotional landmines than anyone else at Yamaku, and if she was truly angry and willing to turn me into a quivering catatonic mess, she'd probably need less than a minute to blow up most of those landmines and achieve exactly that result. After last night, I don't think I'd need more than just a little push anyway.
We reach the common room, and Miss Yumi sits at one of the tables, gesturing me to sit down opposite her. As the matron heads towards the kitchen, Miss Yumi shoots a glance at Niji, who is lying on his dog bed in one of the corners and who's happily chewing away on an old slipper.
"He seems like a good dog. Personally, I'm more fond of cats than dogs. Yuki, whom you've met two days ago, actually knows several tricks that are usually associated with dogs."
I don't think she just came all the way over here to talk to me about cats and dogs.
"To be honest, I used to distrust dogs when I was younger. As a child, I tried to pet a dog in the park once and got bitten. Perhaps I came onto him a little bit too strongly, or perhaps the dog was in a bad mood or not properly trained. I never found out. It wasn't that big a deal. My mother cleaned and bandaged the wound, which was completely healed after two weeks."
Why is she here?
"Still, the saying goes: Once bitten, twice shy. That certainly applied to me too. I don't think it was abnormal for me to be on my guard around dogs from that point on. It's a defense mechanism that most humans possess and those that lack it don't tend to live long and succesful lives."
Why is she here? Why did she come here?
"That discomfort diminished when I reached my teens, though I still wouldn't take a dog for a pet."
I'm starting to feel aggravated by her small talk. If she's here to scold me, why doesn't she do so?
"Taking a deep breath and thinking about the situation often helps too. Not always, but most of the time. Back there in the yard, for example, I told myself that an orphanage wouldn't keep a dog around if he was prone to biting people. He'd have to be extremely comfortable with human contact. Ah.... Thank you."
The matron returns with two cups of tea for us. She smiles at Miss Yumi.
"Not a problem. I... do have a few things I have to tend to though. Is there anything else I can do for you before I get back to work?"
"Hmmm... This room is nice, but I assume everybody living here is free to come in at will. I'm terribly sorry to impose on you, but is there a place here where we can have a little bit more privacy?"
"You can use the room that Hanako has spent the night in if you wish. Nobody else is using it right now."
"Thank you, I greatly appreciate it."
The matron makes a polite bow and then walks out. Miss Yumi takes a few careful sips from her tea before returning to the topic at hand.
"In the end, it might have been okay if I had remained uncomfortable around dogs. It's quite possible to live a productive and relatively carefree life without one's distrust of dogs ever becoming a real burden on one's life."
She takes another sip and then, for the first time since she came here, her eyes look straight at me.
"Unfortunately, the same can't be said about a distrust of people."
I cringe. I knew where this was going, but the punchline still feels like an actual punch. I look away from Miss Yumi and try to steady my shaking hands. Miss Yumi finishes her cup and slowly gets up.
"Miss Ikezawa, I think it's best if we continue our conversation elsewhere. Please lead the way."
Chapter 52 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:16 am
I don't have the courage to refuse her request, and with a slightly unsteady pace, I walk through the hallway towards the room where I've slept the past two nights, with Miss Yumi following close behind. When I reach the room, I sit down on the bed and I expect Miss Yumi to sit down on the chair nearby. She does so, but not before picking it up and putting it down in front of the door. When she looks at me, the smile she was wearing earlier has completely vanished, and she has a scolding expression on her face. I really feel scared now. Scared and trapped.
Please don't hurt me.
"Back there in the yard, I didn't merely tell that little white lie to the director in order to avoid an awkward situation, but also because it would have looked silly if I had told her that we weren't merely in the dark about where you were, but also why you left without saying anything. Perhaps you can explain that?"
I reflexively let out an apology, but Miss Yumi doesn't respond, obviously still waiting for me to elaborate. When the silence becomes too pressing, I start stammering an answer.
"Y-You r-really wanted me to s-stay on the school g-grounds that morning, so when you s-suddenly changed your m-mind and took me to... your place, I s-started wondering..."
I was a little surprised that Miss Yumi didn't simply order me to stay at school, but when she drove me to her apartment and told me to wait there and think about my plans for the future, I didn't think much of it... at first.
But then, about an hour later, a thought suddenly popped up in my head.
What if this was merely a stalling tactic to keep me occupied?
What if she's telling Hisao, Lilly and Naomi that she's left me at her place and they're welcome to pick me up there?
I tried to dismiss the thought and that worked at first, but as the time the graduation ceremony was set to end drew closer and closer, a little nagging voice in the back of my mind kept bringing it up, until that thought was replaced with another more distressing one.
What if they're on their way here as we speak? I've ruined their big day. What will they say to me?
Eventually, I completely lost my nerve, and, after penning a letter to Miss Yumi to thank her for all she's done for me over the years (it was the least I could do for her), I fled the apartment and took the next bus to the train station where I took a train to the city where I spent most of my childhood.
"What is it that you started wondering?"
"M-maybe... y-you were just p-playing along... I'm s-sorry."
Miss Yumi sighs. She doesn't look shocked. Judging by her earlier story, she must have suspected this already. She still looks put off though.
"I must admit I had to make an effort to refrain from telling your friends about your location. As touched as they were by your gifts, it was easy to tell that you were still the only thing on their mind. But in the end, I didn't tell them anything because I was afraid that breaking my promise to you would destroy our bond of trust. Little did I know that bond was either already destroyed or never existed in the first place."
"I'm... r-really sorry."
Miss Yumi gives a quick nod, but she shows no signs of getting up.
"Ummm... Isn't... t-this why you're here?"
"I'm here because I kept my promise to you, but you failed to keep your promise to me. So now I'm here to give you an additional chance to fulfill it."
"How about you, Miss Ikezawa? Why are you here? You haven't been here in years."
"I... didn't know what else to do. The night...before g-graduation, I overheard H-Hisao and Lilly... t-talking about me. About what... what to do with me. I... know they m-meant well, but... it... really hurt."
It feels like a flood is welling up inside me, and I'm too tired to try and stop it. Besides, what point is there to try and hold it in? Miss Yumi's obviously not planning on leaving until she heard whatever it is she wants to hear, and I doubt anything I say is going to lower her opinion of me even more.
"I'm... I'm so tired of being a burden to other p-people. B-But, no matter what I d-do or where I g-go, it's what I... end up b-being. H-Hisao and Naomi were going to... ask their p-parents to give me shelter, but... H-Hisao's parents are already paying for his university. They... shouldn't have to f-feed yet another mouth f-for a whole year. And Naomi's p-parents don't even know me. They'd get t-tired of me before the year is over."
"What about the Satou family? They seem affluent enough to support you for life. In fact... that's exactly what they offered you."
"I'm... a burden to them too. I was... with them on New Year's Day, but... my fear of crowds only made things d-difficult for them and I'd... p-probably continue to h-hold them back."
"Did they tell you that they were inconvenienced by you?"
"They wouldn't do that, but... why would they w-want me around if n-not m-merely out of obligation? They already h-have two daughters who are... pretty and c-confident and s-succesful. Unlike m-me. I'd j-just spend m-my entire life l-living in their shadow."
Not to mention their shared past. Despite the fact that Lilly has been estranged from her parents for nearly six years and has only been getting herself reacquaintanced with them for just over half a year and despite the fact that Akira is still distant from her mother and father, I was the one who ended up feeling like a fifth wheel during the times whenever the rest would bring up amusing memories from years back. It was a painful reminder of both my status as an outsider and an orphan.
"You said earlier that you listened in on Mister Nakai and Miss Satou and that their words hurt you. Why? You didn't think they were merely being concerned?"
"It felt like... everything was g-going back to the way things used to b-be, with Hisao and Lilly s-seeing me as a ward... instead of as a f-friend. I... don't want t-things to g-go back to b-being that way, but... it s-seems inevitable."
Miss Yumi sighs loudly.
"Of course the timing and circumstances of their conversation could have been better and that kind of talk should have taken place with you being present, but..."
She suddenly gives me a stern glare that has just a tinge of anger in it.
"...don't you think it should have been up to you to instigate that talk to begin with and preferably a bit sooner than the night before graduation?"
"When was the last time you spoke with them at length? From what I remember, you spent most of the last few weeks hiding away in your room. What did you expect them to do? Leave Yamaku while pretending that you don't exist? You're their friend. They care about you."
"I know you used to worry about your friends merely spending time with you out of pity, but people with that mindset wouldn't have stuck around during the more pleasant months of the summer and autumn. They would have drifted away, pleased that their job was done, and would have moved on to other people for whom they could feel sorry. Instead, they seemed happy to spend time with you and share in your moments of joy. Friendship isn't just about supporting others in times of hardship, but also about sharing moments of happiness with one another. If your friends were making efforts to help you out, that wasn't because they needed something to distract themselves from their own problems or because fixing you would make them feel better about themselves, but because they, too, wanted the good times between you and them to return. And as soon as possible. And yet here you are, claiming that it's inevitable that you'll return to being like a ward to them. Don't you think they deserve the benefit of the doubt by now? And if not, what could they possibly do to receive it after all this time? Have you thought about how they must have felt? Surely they must have wondered about that as well."
Her eyes narrow a bit more as she continues.
"They should treat you as an equal, but you should also remember to act like one."
Those last words sound familiar. Miss Yumi's frequently spoken them to me. I know I have to act like an equal to Hisao and Lilly, but what I know and what I feel are sometimes two different things. They've been two different things for weeks. I want to be their equal and I know I have to act like one, but how can I act like one if I don't feel like one? It's a contradiction that's been driving me crazy.
"It's fine to demand a bit of space to sort things out for yourself every now and again, but that's not what you've been doing. You've been shutting people out, placing unnecessary stress on your friendships. Friendship isn't just about supporting others, but also about allowing others to support you. Like Miss Satou has been doing."
"I remember Miss Satou went through a rather difficult time herself after the hospitalization of her father. And who was it she turned to in those difficult times?"
"Yes. There are various ways to handle a personal crisis, but some ways are less healthy than others. How would you have felt if, instead of accepting your support at that time, she'd have shut herself in her room 24/7, refusing to eat or talk to anyone? How would you have felt if she had unexpectedly walked off without telling anyone where she went? "
I'd be beside myself with worry.
"I'd f-feel b-bad, I think..."
"The same is probably true for them."
"Relying on you for emotional support must have been tough for Miss Satou as well. She came across to me as someone who has quite a bit of pride, and I doubt she likes showing her vulnerabilities to other people. The reason she was comfortable with temporarily using you as an emotional crutch was probably because she had faith that, once everything was sorted out, you'd dispose of that crutch role and resume the friendship on equal footing again. Why can't you bring yourself to have that kind of faith as well, Miss Ikezawa?"
"It's... different. L-Lilly only r-relied on me f-for a few weeks. I've b-been a wreck for m-months on end already."
"I don't think there's a difference. There's no time limit to these sorts of things. Or are you implying that you would have only supported Miss Satou emotionally for a few weeks and then had left her to her own devices, regardless of how she'd be doing at the time."
I wildly shake my head in order to deny Miss Yumi's suggestion as vehemently as possible. She smirks a bit in response.
"I didn't think so either. I think the same applies to them as well."
She gets up from her chair and gives me a long look.
"Do you remember what I said when we met at the school gates that morning and what I urged you to think about?"
I nod my head.
"What did I say then?"
I sigh. Miss Yumi had been talking during the entire car ride from Yamaku to her place, but not a lot of that registered at the time. My mind was just too occupied by other things.
"It didn't really stick back then, did it? I reminded you that just like you'd be worried if Miss Satou would disappear without a trace during a bout of distress, the same is also true for her and your other friends. When you've lived a life of isolation, it's easy to forget that almost all of your actions still have an impact on others. You would do well to pay more heed to how your actions affect those around you, even during times such as these. You spend a lot of your time worrying about burdening others and yet your attempts to avoid doing so end up burdening others all the more. Whenever you lock yourself in your room for an extended period of time, you burden them. Whenever you suddenly vanish without telling anyone, you burden them. Don't you understand that your absence will always be a bigger burden on them than your presence could ever be? That's what having other people in your life is all about. Still..."
She takes her handbag from the nearby dresser and reaches into it. As she does so, her scornful expression softens a bit.
"...despite everything, your friends are still rooting for you. Even now. Have a look. This is what they wanted me to give you. They said you'd understand."
She takes something out of her bag, and I reel in shock as I recognize it.
It's the plush puppy I gave to Lilly some time before the summer break. The one-eyed puppy we got out of the crane game whom I named after the dog with whom I shared my breakfast earlier today.
I remember giving him to Lilly when she was struggling with her parents' summoning. I didn't know for sure what was bothering her, so this gift was my way of telling her: 'even if you won't entrust me with your burden, I'm still thinking of you and rooting for you.'
Even if you won't entrust me with your burden...
...still thinking of you and rooting for you...
A lump appears in my throat.
"L-Lilly... Hisao... Naomi..."
I'm not sure what it was that set me off. The kindness of my friends' gesture where there should have been indignation? The slightly sad stare of plush-Niji's single eye? Or the realization of the meaning behind this gift? Maybe a combination. But as I take the plush toy from Miss Yumi, it feels as if a pressure valve bursts inside my head, and a steady stream of tears starts flowing. My breathing becomes uneven, and my shoulders shake as I start sobbing uncontrollably. So many feelings have started bouncing around inside me that there's simply no other way to let them all out. I feel moved, ashamed, relieved, confused, happy and sad all at the same time. For a long time, the only sound in the room is the sound of my ragged breaths.
Eventually, Miss Yumi reaches into her handbag again and hands me a neatly embroidered handkerchief, which I use to dry my tears.
"Feeling better now, Miss Ikezawa?"
"I'm n-not sure."
As stress-relieving as that crying fit has been, it's also left me feeling extremely tired and a bit empty inside. I'm not really sure how to feel now. I'm not even sure if it's an improvement. All I know is that I feel different from before.
"You look rather tired. Have you slept at all since you came here?"
"A bit... but not much."
"Perhaps you should get a few hours of rest right now. There's no point in continuing our conversation if you're too tired to think clearly. Here..."
As I give her back her handkerchief, she gets a small sleeping pill out of a pocket in her bag and removes the wrap.
"One of these should be okay. Take it with a glass of water and get some sleep. We can have our talk after you've woken up. There's no need to rush it."
"About your future. It's why I came here, and I have no intention of leaving here until we've had this discussion. I feel you owe me at least this much. Besides, I happen to have a vested interest in getting this situation properly resolved as well, but I won't bore you with politics."
"Good. If possible, try to think about what I just said. And more importantly, try to have an answer to one thing in particular."
"Think about whether you're willing to continue pursuing your dream in spite of this setback."
Miss Yumi nods as she moves the chair back to its original place and opens the door.
"Yes, regardless of whether you believe you're up to it or not. This is about what you want, not about what you currently think you can achieve."
I give a meek nod and walk to the bathroom to get a glass of water. As I exit the bathroom, Miss Yumi is waiting for me outside.
"I will see you in a few hours, Miss Ikezawa. Then we can exchange apologies."
Then she walks off without further explaining herself.
I wake up feeling drowsy, but still oddly refreshed. My watch indicates that I must have slept for four whole hours, and the fact that I can't remember whether I've dreamt or not is probably a good thing. I rub the sleep out of my eyes and get out of bed.
Miss Yumi's probably still here.
I tried thinking about what she said after getting to bed, but I started feeling woozy after a few minutes already and fell asleep soon afterwards.
I try to recall what I said to Miss Yumi during a previous therapy session when she asked me about my dream. I believe that session was a day after a very good date with Hisao during one of my better months. I was in a very good mood during that session and may have been way more optimistic than I should have been.
What exactly did I say back then?
I think I said I wanted to get into a good university and get a writing degree. I had been hesitating between picking copy writer or content writer as my goal to shoot for and settled on the latter. I think informing readers or getting them to contemplate something fits my personality better than writing sales pitches meant to convince readers to buy a certain product. It's also closer to the journalism end of the writing spectrum, which is always a plus. My ultimate dream would be to do creative writing, maybe publish a novel or something, but I wanted to aim for something stable first and do a novel on the side someday.
In the heat of the moment, I may have also said something about marrying Hisao and starting a family.
I really hope she's not going to bring that one up.
I've already failed the 'get into a good university'-part though, and that makes the rest a lot harder as well. I'm not sure what options I have. There might still be universities I could enroll in that don't use entrance exams. But I still remember what Mutou told me about aiming for the best academic credentials I could go for.
Should I try again next year? That's what Naomi's going to do.
Naomi's going to attend a cram school to prepare for the examination season next year though, and that's where my first hurdle is already. As things currently are, I'd probably have to spend so much energy on merely functioning on a basic level in such a place that I might be unable to actually study. And it's not like those cram schools are cheap. Wouldn't it be a waste of my parents' money?
Also, where would I study? Where would I even live?
I wonder if Miss Yumi has any recommendations. Am I the first orphan who attends the school and fails to get into his or her school of choice?
I suppose I'll have to apologize first. I did inconvenience her two days ago, and instead of writing me off, she took the time to look me up here. I don't even want to know what she meant with her words about vested interest and politics. I probably created trouble for her with the school administration. I do wonder what she meant with exchanging apologies though. What does she have to apologize for?
I walk out of the room, planning to visit the bathroom and wash my face (both in order to feel more awake and in order to erase the traces of my crying fit from a few hours back), and am somewhat taken off guard when I find Miss Yumi waiting outside my room.
"Ah, Miss Ikezawa. Have you slept well?"
I give a confused nod. Has she been sitting here outside my room all the time? I notice a deck of cards on the sidetable nearby. Can someone really play solitaire for four hours straight and not get bored out of her mind? Why didn't she simply wait in the common room? It almost feels like she's been standing guard out here.
Maybe that was the idea. Maybe she didn't quite trust me not to try slipping away when she wasn't looking. Or... Maybe the idea was to give me the idea she was standing guard, just to make the point that it's not fun when someone can't bring herself to trust you. Or maybe...
Ugh, maybe I should stop thinking altogether.
I enter the bathroom, quickly wash the traces of my tears away, return to Miss Yumi and make an awkward bow.
"Ummm... M-Miss Yumi, uh... I mean... Miss Takawa?"
"I'm... uh... r-r-really sorry."
"Sorry for what?"
"F-For b-breaking m-my p-p-promise."
She gives me a skeptical look.
"How can I be so sure that it won't happen again?"
I really don't know. I can't force her to trust me...
I wonder if this is what others think of me sometimes.
Miss Yumi sighs and then nods her head.
"Very well, Miss Hanako, I accept your apology this time. Just make certain that this doesn't happen again."
"O-Okay. T-Thank you, Miss Yumi."
She gets up from her seat, puts her deck of cards away and gestures towards the exit.
"Now then, would you like to get some fresh air? I could use some myself."
I nod, and we make our way to the backyard where we sit on a bench near the gate leading outside. We stay silent for quite some time, just enjoying the breeze a bit. Then Miss Yumi speaks up.
"I remember asking you about your dreams for the future near the end of last October, and you had some pretty specific plans. I spoke to your Japanese teacher about the... ah... academic aspect of your plans, and he said that he felt you had the academic ability to succeed as long as you did your best. The school would have been happy to give you a letter of recommendation."
"Dreams... M-Maybe that's all they w-were."
"Have you already given up on those dreams, Miss Hanako?"
"I'm... n-not sure. I would have l-liked it if they could b-become reality, but..."
"Your confidence has suffered a rather major blow in the last few months, but there's no reason to believe it will stay that way. A recovery process of this kind is never smooth sailing. Most of the times, it involves two steps forward, followed by one step back. The last months were a painful step back, maybe even more than one step back, but let's remember where you were exactly one year ago. Would you have believed a year ago that you'd become a member of a club? That you'd go on a vacation abroad together with Miss Satou and a classmate? That you'd end up in a relationship with that classmate?"
I shake my head.
"Those were some pretty impressive steps forward. I see no reason why this little relapse should be considered permanent."
"I... don't know."
"If I told you that I knew of a suitable place for you to study without too much discomfort, would you be willing to give things another try?"
"A suitable place?"
"In that case, I suppose you are what they call a ronin, aren't you? As in... a student spending a year preparing to try and get into their university of choice?"
Miss Yumi gestures me to be silent and gets up from the bench. Then she turns around and looks straight at me.
"Yamaku is not a cram school. We don't really have the teaching staff to cover a 4th year for students who fail their entrance exams. What we usually do is help students look for suitable cram schools in their home area that have a school nurse or staff with some basic medical knowledge and who are willing to supervise our alumni. Our head nurse then writes a treatment plan with instructions on how to deal with our students' condition, whether that student makes it into a university or spends a year at a cram school. Of course, that's not always enough. Some conditions are more severe than others."
"It was actually a heart patient who was the reason for the creation of a small-scale ronin program at Yamaku. That happened many years ago. He was a very gifted student, and his teachers had high hopes for him, but during the examination season he suffered a rather severe episode and was hospitalized until after the exams were already over. After he was released from the hospital, he expressed a desire to try again next year, but cram schools near his home didn't want to take responsibility for him. They deemed his condition too volatile. It was at that point that the school administration decided to set up a ronin program themselves in order to give that student one more year to prepare for his entrance examinations under the supervision of our nursing staff. From that point on, there have been years where the school has made exceptions and allowed a promising student whose condition required more oversight than the average school nurse could reasonably provide to stay at Yamaku for one more year in order to prove themselves. Two days ago, after all the results were in, the school gave one student in your year permission to enter its ronin program."
She gives me a solemn look.
"You are that student, Miss Hanako."
I gasp in shock at this unexpected news. Is it really okay for me to return to Yamaku? But... Why was I never told about this?
"I've been trying to convince the school to grant you admission to our ronin program in case your exams went badly, but it hasn't been easy. Until now, all exceptions that were made were made strictly on medical grounds. You'd be the first one to gain admittance for psychological reasons with a therapist making the request, rather than a teacher or the head nurse. The fact that this was uncharted territory for the people who had to make the decision resulted in a lot of reluctance."
Miss Yumi closes her eyes.
"I've made attempts to get you an official guarantee that you could enter the program, but that request was outright refused. The school didn't want to make a decision until all exam results were in. When the decision was made, a mere two hours after I dropped you off at my apartment that day, it was made due to a combination of three things: the testimony of your Japanese teacher that you had the academic abilities to make it in next year, the positive outcome of the National Center Test and, most importantly, me having prepared a detailed full-year treatment plan for them to inspect. I put a lot of time and work into it, but it ultimately paid off."
She permits herself a proud smile for a second, but then an apologetic expression appears on her face.
"Go ahead and ask."
"F-For how long have y-you been planning this?"
"For a few weeks. At first, I was hoping ordinary therapy would be enough. You gave me some hope when you passed the Center Test and your mood improved for a while. But then it started regressing faster than ever, and I started realizing that what I said was barely even going through to you. I kept trying of course. That's what I'm paid for, after all. But I also started looking for a plan B. I was unaware of the existence of the ronin program at first, since I haven't been employed at Yamaku for that long and the last time a 4th year was admitted was four years ago. The head nurse brought it up during one of my talks with him, and I started looking into it. It was a long shot, but I'm happy I took the chance. I only wish I could have told you about it sooner, but the school wouldn't allow it. Students being admitted to the program before the results are even in would have created quite a stir among the student body. The last thing we want as a school are accusations of nepotism from our students or their parents."
She makes a graceful bow.
"These must have been some truly awful weeks for you. I'm truly sorry, Hanako."
She modestly shakes her head.
"The sessions the last few weeks were difficult for me as well. I've been biting my tongue for longer than I thought I'd be able to. I think me giving you shelter, rather than letting you leave, two days ago was because I felt guilty and tried to make it up to you. In retrospect, that was the wrong thing to do. Therapists are supposed to be neutral. In the end, I probably should have recognized that I was merely complicating matters. I apologize for that as well."
I know how she must have felt. I've been biting my tongue around Lilly and Hisao for much longer than a few weeks and it's been horrible.
It's funny though. A long time ago I offered Miss Yumi my friendship and asked if I could come over. When she said I couldn't, I was deeply hurt. Yet when she left me at her place two days ago, it merely confused me and caused me to start questioning her motives. I suppose she had a reason to reject me back then.
She gives me a gentle, grateful smile and makes an inviting gesture with her hand.
"So... will you come back to Yamaku with me? We made sure not to assign your room to anyone else yet."
"You know, I gave Miss Satou's parents the number of our mobility instructors. There's a possibility of them reconsidering giving her a place of her own to live. When you make a decision, keep only yourself in mind. That is what your friends would want as well."
That a relief to hear. I've always felt very guilty about the impact of my failed exam on Lilly. I think she'd get used to a new place rather quickly. She probably wouldn't need me for longer than a month or two.
Miss Yumi's offer does sound very tempting right now. I wouldn't have to worry about a place to live, and I could study in peace. It would mean I'd spend a year far away from my friends though. But maybe me returning to Yamaku would allow them to concentrate on their own lives without having to worry about me all the time. That would be good. I'd probably feel extremely awkward facing them right now anyway. I think I'll need some time to sort things out.
Still, there's one thing I wonder about. Will I not be merely postponing the inevitable? Will I really be in a better position to try the exams next year?
"M-Miss Yumi, w-would I really have a chance next year?"
"I think you would. You've grown a lot over the last year. There will be things that will give you difficulty, even in a year. But you will be stronger, there's no doubt about that. All you need is time, therapy and support. You'll have time. A whole year, starting now. You'll have therapy. I intend to step up our sessions, and I've planned some very specific goals. And you'll have support, as you've seen for yourself just a few hours ago."
I smile a bit as I remember the plush puppy.
"I... guess I do."
Miss Yumi gives me an expectant smile and then holds out her hand.
"...if we hurry, we can probably avoid the worst of rush hour."
Another year... another chance...
I take a deep breath and then take Miss Yumi's outstretched hand.
I stare through the window of our passenger car as the last buildings of the city pass by. After gathering my possessions and thanking the matron, Miss Yumi and I left for the train station where we took a train heading for the station closest to Yamaku. It feels strange leaving this city again. Through the reflection of the glass, I notice that Miss Yumi's watching me.
"This is the city where you were born, isn't it? How does it feel to leave it again?"
"S-Strange. A bit... déjà vu. We w-went to visit Hisao's hometown d-during summer break and Christmas, but... I've never been back here."
"Brings back memories?"
"I... liked the orphanage, but... there are more p-painful memories than good ones here."
"Then maybe it's a good thing you've decided to come back. As pleasant as this orphanage was, it's part of your past. This year, it's the present and then the future we'll be concentrating on, starting today."
"We're going to be intensifying therapy for a while. I have daily sessions planned for you for the upcoming month. The first session will be tomorrow. The month after, we'll slow down to 3 visits a week. Every now and then, I'll be presenting challenges to you, intended to push against your boundaries a bit. We'll also be working on your faith."
"In yourself and other people. Confidence is largely a subconcious process, but to have faith is a concious choice. We're going to try and learn how to keep believing in yourself and those around you even during the more difficult times against all evidence to the contrary."
"I'm n-not sure if..."
"Hmmm, hmmm... And it sounds like we have our work cut out for us."
I sigh. I really don't have an answer to that kind of attitude. Miss Yumi takes a small agenda and scribbles something in it.
"I'll also have to remember to tell the school administration that you've accepted and will be staying for another year. I think I located you just in time. I don't think they would have waited for another week. After all the preparation that went into it, it would have been most upsetting if the school had called off your admission because they didn't know where you were."
Something tells me that if the school had really retracted my second chance because I wasn't around to accept it, Miss Yumi would have cursed my very existence. I really dodged a bullet here. From the way she looks at me, I think she can read my thoughts.
"This is not a stunt you can afford yourself a second time, Miss Hanako. Not with me and despite that gesture of support, not with your friends either. Not now, not ever. In a way you're lucky that two of the people you left hanging there had some minor involvement in the incident that kicked off this mess and probably extended you the courtesy of leaving part of the blame at their own feet. Next time you won't have that luxury. Remind yourself of today the next time you feel like leaving everything behind. If you're too insecure to rely on those around you during times of stress, those people will certainly draw their own conclusions. Do you understand?"
"Do you understand?"
I nod slowly and make an effort to look into her eyes.
"It...It w-won't happen again. I p-promise."
"Good. Can I have your cell phone, please?"
A bit puzzled, I take out my phone and give it to Miss Yumi who promply turns it on and gives it back to me.
"Since it'll take a while for us to reach our destination, I suppose a useful way to pass the time would be to let your friends know where you are and that you're alright. What do you say?"
I suddenly feel a sense of panic. After the way I left, I have no idea what I'd say to them. The crushing shame I'm feeling right now would probably shut me down before I could form a single coherent sentence.
"If you don't think you're up for an actual conversation, then a simple text message will suffice for now, even for Miss Satou. I'll call them myself afterwards to explain the situation in detail. But you have to be the one to initiate the first contact. That's your first official challenge."
After a moment of hesitation, I slowly nod my head.
I reluctantly start typing my first message, promising myself to include a sincere apology in each of them. Miss Yumi gives me an encouraging smile.
"Good. Miss Hanako... Let's get started on those steps forward!"
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:17 am
As I enter the lobby of the hotel where we agreed to spend the night, I'm approached by a young staff member who bows deeply before making a welcoming gesture and tells me I'm being expected.
"Hello. Were you asked to look out for me?"
He takes a careful look at me and grins for a moment before bowing again and nodding. I allow myself an amused smile. The lack of a completely shocked expression on his face tells me that he was informed of the fact that I speak the language, but is still a little awed to hear me speak without tripping over my words. It's a reaction I still get on an almost daily basis. An 'American' speaking Japanese fluently never fails to get jaws dropped around here. I think the baffled stares are kind of funny nowadays, though there are times when I wish people would just realize that being able to speak a foreign language and being able to use chopsticks correctly don't make someone the 8th wonder of the world.
"He didn't want you to go through the hassle of waiting in line at the reception desk, so he asked me to look out for you and give you his room key once you arrived."
I take a quick look at the reception desk further down the lobby. It does seem to be very crowded there. I smile appreciatingly.
"Ever the gentleman. Did he tell you to look out for a foreign person?"
"I had to look out for a tall, blond and beautiful woman."
I chuckle playfully.
It's probably partially practicality too. I know that my last name isn't particularly easy for the Japanese to pronounce. I wonder if this person even knows or remembers it. There's one way to find out. I give him a playful wink.
"Just between you and me, I think I saw another blonde woman hanging out just outside the front entrance. Am I ever lucky to have gotten here before her."
His face briefly shows an expression of almost comical terror as he realizes that he just addressed the first foreign-looking woman he saw without even confirming if I really was the person he was supposed to look out for. I chuckle briefly and make a reassuring gesture before the avalanche of apologies can be let loose.
"I guess Mister Satou would have had pleasant company either way."
He visibly relaxes upon realizing I know the name of the person who addressed him earlier and then beckons towards the elevator.
"Eighth floor, Lady."
We ride the elevator to our destination, and upon being given the room key I bow to him and thank him. When he walks down the hall back to the elevator, I open the door of our hotel room.
As I enter the room I notice he's casually sitting in one of the chairs with a book, my book, in his lap. When he spots me he gives me that sweet and slightly shy smile of his, walks up to me and shares a gentle kiss with me.
"Good evening, Karla. I am glad you could make it on such a short notice."
"Hey there, Hiro. Missed me?"
Hiroyuki Satou... currently employed at the finances department of Satou Medical Technology, oldest child and heir of its current CEO, graduate of Tokyo University and my boyfriend. The first three things are known to everyone who knows him. The last part is known only to the two people in this room.
"I apologize for not having had the opportunity to spend time with you lately. Hopefully this evening will make up for that."
For a moment I'm startled by a sudden knock on the door. Hiro walks up to the door, opens it and two waiters come in. Each of them is pushing a food cart filled with several delicious-looking dishes. After bowing to me they start putting the food on the nearby table. After guaranteeing my boyfriend that he'll just need to call if he needs anything they walk out, leaving me to appraise the meal before me. Just the smell makes my mouth water.
"Tonight we will be having a pleasant dinner in private. To celebrate Valentine's Day."
The food looks delicious, and I'm kind of looking forward to spending a nice evening alone with Hiro, but I still wonder if this is all there is to it. Are we having a private dinner because it's romantic or is he wary of being seen in public with me? We are rather close to his offices, but that usually hasn't been a problem in the past.
He chuckles as he suddenly seems to remember something.
"And if you are still hungry after our meal I am more than willing to share some of my Valentine chocolate with you - give or take a dozen."
"A dozen chocolates?"
"A dozen boxes of chocolates."
I know all about that. I ended up buying my boss and my male Japanese coworkers some Valentine chocolate too today. Not because I have the hots for them, but simply because it's expected here.
"You're getting to be quite the ladies' man, Hiro."
I give him a short stare, but I get no reaction other than a playful chuckle. I didn't think it was going to be this easy anyway.
"A mere formality and gesture of politeness. If the office ladies in my department were to start sending me the romantic chocolate variety, then I would consider your statement to be true. Although to be frank..."
He looks briefly at the book he was reading before I came in.
"Even lovers' chocolate would pale in comparison to this. When I said previously that you picked up our language very quickly, that turned out to be such an understatement that it feels like an insult to me in hindsigh."
It's true that I seem to have a knack for languages. Even while I was still living in the UK, I was able to adequately interact with French and German colleagues with a modest amount of effort. By now I have no doubt that my Japanese is a lot better than my French or German ever was. Before migrating to Japan I took some basic courses, but in the end it was everyday life in this country that gave me enough daily practice to get a fairly solid grasp of the language in a mere two years, though I never managed to completely lose my accent.
The book he's holding is my Valentine's gift to him. A book seemed a fitting present for an avid reader like him. Last year he went all out on his gift and he gave me a pair of beautiful origami swans whose necks formed a small heart. I already knew he was good with origami - he has the tendency to start folding nearby pieces of paper into figures if he has nothing else to do, and there's no book for him nearby to read. Still, that must have taken a long time, so I was inspired to make at least a similar effort. I've been reading a whole slew of Japanese poetry books over the last two months, and I copied the poems I liked best into the notebook I sent him today. (writing down my sources on the last page of course) In addition, a handful of pages contain poems I wrote myself. Most of them were rather simple haikus, but it's the thought that counts. From what I know, Hiro's more into fiction than poetry, but I still had faith he'd be able to appreciate a gift such as this one. In addition, this little project had been very educational for me as a non-native speaker as well.
"I guess that means you like it?"
"It is beautiful, and I will treasure it. Matching a gift as personal as this will be very difficult for me, however. It must have taken you months to create it."
He looks sincerely troubled for a moment. I'm pretty sure I know what he's thinking right now and it makes me frown a bit.
"Hey, don't be like that. Attaching obligations to this kind of thing ruins the fun of giving to each other. Consider this an obligation-free gift on my part."
Hiro has always come across to me as more open-minded than his traditional upbringing would have one suspect, but in some areas his mindset has always been - and I believe will always be - unquestionably traditional Japanese. This is one of those areas, I suppose.
The Japanese call it 'giri'. I don't think the Scottish have a term that comes close to completely describing it although 'social obligation' is probably rather accurate. One of the facets of 'giri' is unquestionable loyalty towards one's superiors. Another one is always keeping one's obligations in mind and meticulously repaying any gifts or favors bestowed upon you in order to set the balance straight again. Some go pretty far in that regard. Hiro once told me that when his grandfather died, his family kept a list of all the gifts they were given at the funeral as well as their appraised value so that his grandmother would know exactly to which people she still owed how much. Gifts that don't have an easily appraisable value are sometimes frowned upon for that reason. I can't exactly call myself an extremely devout catholic, but I nevertheless remember being taught that you can never give too much to others. That lesson clashes pretty harshly with the mindset that giving someone too large a gift is equal to placing an unbearably heavy burden of obligation on him. The principle isn't adhered to as rigidly among very close friends, but I've definitely seen it sneak into my boyfriend's thought process now and then. This appears to be one of those times.
"...very well then."
We both take our time enjoying the delicious meal that was prepared for us without really talking any more. After a filling dessert, we open some of the bags of chocolates my boyfriend was given today and feed each other some pieces of chocolate.
"I hope my gift didn't end up causing office gossip."
He chuckles as he shakes his head.
"Fortunately it did not. It is not customary to unwrap gifts in front of the giver here, so while my colleagues could see it might not have been a bag of chocolate, they did not find out what exactly was inside it. For all they knew it was yet another gift from a coworker. You were very clever in sending it to my office instead of my home address. That certainly would caused certain people to take notice."
I sometimes rue the fact that our relationship is still a secret around here. While Hiro insisted that he isn't ashamed of me being his girlfriend, he wasn't quite sure how his parents would react, and since he works at his family's company that also meant our relationship had to be hidden from his colleagues who form pretty much his entire circle of friends. Like many unmarried oldest sons in this country, he still lives at home. (along with his parents and paternal grandmother) Fortunately I managed to get my own apartment (courtesy of my employer's connections) when I moved here so we can still spend time together in privacy whenever he has time to stop by after work. Still, one wouldn't call our relationship normal, and my mind once again dwells on what I've been struggling with the last few days.
"Hiro... I... am wondering..."
"What exactly am I to you?"
He looks a bit puzzled at this sudden question.
"You are my girlfriend, Karla. You have been for two years. I am afraid I do not understand why you are asking me this question now."
Yeah, I'm his girlfriend. Hiro and I met three and a half years ago at a business conference in Inverness. He, a businessman, was there to attend it. I, at that time a business and finances reporter, was there to write an article on it. We briefly spoke there and exchanged business cards. We met again by coincidence that evening in a small pub near the place where the conference was held. His two colleagues, who accompanied him to Inverness, wasted little time in sampling the Scotch and getting hammered on it. Hiro himself seemed reluctant to empty his glass, merely taking a sip whenever one of the others shot him a glance so I decided to keep him company. I've always had a fascination for all things related to the far East and Hiro's gentlemanly demeanor made him a very pleasant conversation partner even though I probably did way more talking than he did.
Eventually Hiro's colleagues started getting seriously slammed, probably having underestimated the whiskey's potency, so I offered to take them to their hotel in my car. He seemed very hesitant at first but gave in when I pointed out it'd be troublesome if one of them were to throw up while inside a cab and the police might mistake them for vagrants if they took a nap in a public place. It turned out that unlike his colleagues, he actually knew that public drunkenness was an offense in the UK and seemed to dread the idea of one of his colleagues being forced to sober up in a police cell, but he didn't feel like it was his place to tell them to tone it down since they were both his seniors, so the only thing he could do was try and keep a clear head himself.
When I dropped them off at their hotel, Hiro stayed behind for a little while and insisted to repay my efforts in some way or another and we ultimately settled on them buying me dinner before they'd leave the country the upcoming Saturday. When I arrived at our agreed upon meeting point that Friday evening however, expecting all three of them to be there, it turned out that it was just Hiro waiting for me. Thinking back on the whole thing, it wouldn't surprise me if Hiro simply never told his colleagues that they were also invited.
In the end it turned out to be for the best since it allowed us to get to know each other slightly better. After dinner in a charming restaurant (which I picked since he didn't know the neighborhood) I drove us to the ruins of Urquhart Castle where we climbed the tower and spent the evening enjoying the breeze, watching Loch Ness under the starry sky and swapping stories about our respective homelands. (or at least trying to - he sometimes had difficulty understanding me despite me having largely ditched my Highlands accent during my work over the years) At the end of the evening, just before I drove us back, we agreed to stay in touch with one another through written correspondence.
I was already playing with the thought at the time to quit my job as a business reporter and become a foreign correspondent. By that time my job had already taken me all over the UK, and I had seen most of what there was to see. I was eager to expand my horizons and after an old college friend at the BBC told me that some positions in China, Hong Kong and Japan had opened up, I was quick to file my application. Hiro wrote that he'd be honored to help me acclimatize if needed, and since the apartments I ended up living in and the Satou offices were located in the same town, he was able to drop by after work on a fairly regular basis.
Eventually, our friendship turned into something else. All in all we're a rather strange couple. I'm a rather care-free and extroverted person who loves a good conversation, having a beer with buddies, riding my bike around the countryside, and I'm known to be a bit of a tease with the people I care about - and sometimes with people I've just met, though I've tried to cut down on that habit a bit. Hiro's a reserved and rather quiet man, more curious than most people I've met here but still rarely willing to express too much interest out of fear of appearing impolite. He's both a bookworm and a gentleman, his behavior always impeccable and always mindful of how others perceive him. I often wondered at first what exactly he saw in me. As far as I know, the general concept of beauty here involves being short, quiet and 'cute'. With my height of 173 cm and up-beat and playful personality, I couldn't be further from that ideal. It wasn't until I started learning more about his life and family situation that I started believing that part of his attraction to me must have been based on the fact that I was a bit of a wildcard in his otherwise tightly structured and regulated life and that being with me allowed him to be less restrained and more open than he could usually afford himself to be, if only a little, since I didn't care whether he was acting like a person in his position was expected to or not.
"I once heard about a guy who dated a Japanese girl for a while and after a short affair she ended up dumping him. It turned out she was mostly dating him out of curiosity regarding what it was like to be with someone 'exotic'."
He lets out an amused chuckle.
"We have been together for two years now. If you truly believe I am still merely dating you out of a sense of curiosity, you are giving my attention span far more credit than it deserves."
"So you're dating me because I'm me and you're happy with me?"
He gives me an analyzing look.
"Karla, you surprise me. It is not like you to display such a sudden lack of confidence."
I sigh and reach into my handbag. This might not be pretty but this has been eating away at me for days, and I've been hoping to be able to settle this tonight. Without saying a word I hand him the photo I took last weekend. A photo of him and another woman exiting a hotel. I hope he's not going to try and tell me it was a business meeting. The world of business here is still very much male-dominated in many regards, and she wasn't even dressed as a company representative. He takes a look at the picture and closes his eyes for a second but his facial expression remains unreadable. After taking a moment to contemplate his answer, he opens his mouth to speak.
"Was it a coincidence that you were there? With a camera on hand no less?"
I can sense an aggravated tone in his voice. Privacy is a pretty sacred thing here, and I realize that he feels I crossed a line, but I have no intention of letting this conversation get derailed.
"It's up to you to believe me or not, but it was. The hotel you picked was only two streets away from your office, and I was on my way there to ask you to come over to my place after work when I saw you leaving the lobby with her. I snapped a picture so I could talk to you about it later. I figured it was better than confronting you on the spot. As for the camera; I'm a journalist, Hiro. I barely ever leave my apartment without my camera and notepad. It's like a second nature. That shouldn't surprise you about me."
I can see him weighing my words carefully but after a long pause he seems to relax a little bit. It looks like he appreciated the fact that I at least refrained from confronting him in public and waited until it was just the two of us.
"I was actually not the one to pick the hotel, but... please go on."
"That's all there is to it. Would you please tell me who that woman is? Given the way you said goodbye to her, I doubt she's a family member or coworker."
"You are correct. She is neither of those. But she is not what you assume she is either."
He gives a sigh of resignation.
"I was planning to tell you this - after I sorted things out for myself. But you do deserve to know."
"I have told you that I am up for promotion in the near future, did I not?"
"Yeah, you told me about that. And I'm sure you'll do a very good job. But I don't really see the relevance here."
"My new position will come with additional responsibilities. And my father indicated to me it might help if I take steps to improve my credibility towards the rest of the department."
"He advised me to get married."
What the hell? What does that even have to do with credibility?
"In this country, marriage comes with social status, Karla. A man who remains unmarried past a certain age, an age I am rapidly approaching, is considered to lack a sense of responsibility here and his coworkers may look upon him as untrustworthy. Not the kind of person one would want to put in charge of others. This is something that is expected of me."
I notice with some wry amusement that he's taken that familiar school teacher-like tone as he puts forth his explanation to me. Over the past two years he's often taken time to explain various aspects of Japanese culture to me, and I have to admit he's pretty good at talking about these matters in a relatively objective and detached way, at least compared to a lot of people around here who have the tendency to clam up whenever I highlight something about this country that strikes me as odd or who blow me off with the typical 'It's simply a Japanese thing. It cannot be explained.' It is my personal belief that Hiro might have been a very good school teacher if he hadn't been born as heir to the head of a corporation.
"My father approached a friend who was willing to act as go-between during the introductions. You can see him behind us in that picture you've taken."
Well dammit! I can't believe I missed the fact that there was a third person leaving the hotel together with them. So much for my sharp observation skills.
"So, that woman who was with you was..."
"Yes, she was one of the bridal candidates my parents picked out."
"So you're being pushed into an arranged marriage - like the one your parents have?"
"It is not quite the same. My father's spouse was picked for him. I am being introduced to potential partners, but in the end they are not forcing me to marry a person I do not approve of."
It's still not exactly a day and night difference in my eyes.
"It's still a marriage you're being pressured into, Hiro."
I look at him, wondering if I'm ready for a breakup if I pry any deeper, but I have to know how this is going to end.
"So... Hiro... after two years... Is this the end for us?"
Chapter Alpha - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:17 am
He doesn't respond immediately, avoiding eye contact while absentmindedly folding the pages of a brochure that was lying on the nearby table.
"My parents really want me to..."
I sigh softly. When I graduated high school my parents were content to let me move out of the house, get my own place while attending college and they encouraged me to live independently from that moment on. I can't say I have an extremely close bond with my parents anymore, but I value what they taught me, and have good memories of my childhood. I personally consider independence to be a strong Scottish trait.
When I came to Japan, I learned that the people here value interdependence much more than independence. Many people live with their parents until they get married. Oldest sons often remain at their parental home even afterwards, eventually taking care of the parents when they grow old. As a result of this and as a result of the concept that the gifts of life and upbringing are considered gifts that warrant a life-long debt, parental word is practically law to people like Hiro. For the most part I'm no longer astonished about the degree to which he still allows them to dictate nearly every aspect of his life for him even at his age. But tonight is different. Before Hiro can finish his sentence, I stop him with a sharp gesture.
"I know what your parents want, Hiro. But this is about your life, not theirs. What is it that you want?"
"And don't tell me that's not important because it is. Your happiness matters to me, and it should matter to them as well."
"I want to know how you feel about this. I want your opinion and not theirs."
"You do have an opinion of your own about this, don't you?"
His eyes narrow, and he gives me a scolding stare that stops my verbal barrage dead in its tracks. Hiro doesn't raise his voice very often, but the effect is that much greater the few times that he does.
"I will not have you talk to me as if I am a child."
He takes the phone on the nightstand, calls the reception desk and exchanges a few words with them. A minute later two waiters enter the room and start removing the leftovers of our dinner. During the entire time they're busy cleaning up neither of us says a word. The silence is the most painful one I've ever endured around Hiro. When the waiters finally leave, my anxiety has subsided a bit, and now I just feel exhausted. My boyfriend's still not saying a word. I suppose it's up to me to restart the conversation.
"Hiro... I'm... sorry. I... shouldn't have said what I just said. I got carried away."
I can see him relax a little upon hearing my apology. That's good. For a moment I was afraid he was going to walk out of here.
"I didn't mean to talk down to you. I get that this is hard for you, too."
"Karla, we have come this far together because we were able to respect each other's cultural differences. I do not fault you for having different views on certain things, but I still need you to respect mine."
He has a point. I've had my share of social faux-pas over the last two years in my attempts to become part of Japanese society, and Hiro has always been patient and understanding with me. The least thing I can do is keep that respect mutual. While I'm still contemplating this, Hiro sighs deeply, and for a moment he looks even more exhausted than I'm currently feeling.
"As for what you wanted to know - the girl you saw in the picture was actually the fourth candidate I was introduced to. All four of them were fine young women from upstanding and respected families in our neighborhood who had all the qualities to be excellent wives, and I had very little reason to reject them. They all put sincere effort into their introductions, as did their families when they accompanied them. I decided to avoid loss of face on their family's part by not turning them down immediately and go through the obligatory three meetings before telling the go-between that I would not pursue a marriage with them. I felt like a con artist during every single meeting, but in the end I still turned them all down, only because..."
He seems to struggle a bit with the last part of his sentence.
"...because ultimately they were not you. Does that answer your question?"
It does, and upon hearing these few words my anxiety ebbs away, and a strong sense of relief washes over me. I walk up to him and wrap my arms around him.
"Hiro... Thank you."
We share an embrace and stay like this for a long time without saying a word. Hiro's announcement that his parents want him to marry has shaken me, but I nevertheless retain a feeling of hope. He still loves me like I love him. Now that I know this I'm sure we'll find a way somehow. It may sound corny, but I sincerely believe that love conquers all.
"You've been stalling things for now, but if you accept none of the candidates your parents picked for you will they leave it at that? Or will they...?"
"They will at best be openly questioning my good taste and sanity. *mumble* And at worst Father will take me to our company's development labs, hook me up to one of the EKG devices we make and show me pictures of naked men while praying to his ancestors that there will not be any sudden… rises in the resulting printed graph."
Before I can prevent it, his words have created a mental image in my mind that is so comically absurd that I burst into uncontrollable laughter. It must have been a release of the stress and anxiety I've built up this evening. Hiro for his part merely chuckles along with me. After I finally catch my breath, I give my boyfriend a mischievous wink.
"I could reassure your father on that particular front if you like."
He smiles shyly for a moment before shaking his head. Neither of us really knows what more to say, so I embrace him once more and give him a light kiss before looking into his eyes.
"Let's... forget about all of this for just a little while. Let me... help you forget, even if it's just for a few moments."
I shoot a brief glance at the bed on the other side of the room to stress my words. He gives a wordless nod, takes my hand and gently leads me to the bed.
As the blissful feeling of our lovemaking session slowly subsides, my mind once again drifts back to what I discovered today. I came here prepared to deal with an affair and part of me is relieved to know that he hasn't been unfaithful, but now that I think about it an affair might have been easier to handle than a marriage forced upon him by his parents. The thought of him spending the rest of his life with a wife he doesn't love feels depressing to me. I realize that arranged marriages aren't necessarily loveless, and love eventually could grow, but it still feels unsettling to me. And the thought of him... doing what we just did with some relative stranger makes me sick to the bottom of my stomach and makes me more determined than ever to do what I can to prevent that.
I snuggle up to him. He doesn't react immediately, making me wonder if he has fallen asleep already, but eventually I hear his voice; weary but still awake.
"I guess... eloping is out of the question?"
"I... cannot... do that. I could never bear to bring shame of that magnitude onto my family. After all that my father has invested in me... running out on him like that would disgrace him for life. I... do not know how he would react to that, and I would prefer not to find out. In addition to that, I would permanently burn literally every bridge I have built in my life... except this one."
My first urge is to tell him he's exaggerating, but I don't think that's entirely the case. I have found that Japanese are extremely sensitive to what others think of them… or rather what they think others think of them. It's what makes social pressure such a strong influence here. And the bigger your reputation, the more spectacularly it can crash. To me, the thought of Hiro's father taking his own life due to the shame of his carefully sired chosen son walking out on him would feel extremely melodramatic. But during my stay in this country I've heard several stories of important people who were publically shamed - deservedly or otherwise - and ended up stepping out of life. It's a cultural aspect that you can't ignore as a journalist in Japan.
My thoughts briefly switch to Hiro's parents and what I know of them. At some point, as our relationship became more serious, Hiro said that he wanted me to meet his father. Aside from my activities on behalf of the BBC I made some additional money by occasionally submitting freelance work for a local magazine. Hiro introduced me as a reporter writing for that magazine who was working on a piece about local companies working in the technology sector and who wanted to include Satou Medical Technology in the article, and I briefly got to speak to his father. I was told that the company was honored to be included and I was treated like an important guest there. I ended up taking full advantage of the offer when he said I could come back anytime I needed more information. That was a good time as I was finally given a peek into Hiro's life that I formerly only knew from his stories. I could finally be seen together with him. Thanks to my previous experience as a business reporter the magazine ended up approving and publishing my article, and as a thanks for the exposure the management allowed me to attend one of the company's receptions for business partners later that year where I spoke briefly with Mister Satou senior again.
Hiro's father was extremely polite and friendly to me and was quick to heap a mountain of praise on me for speaking the language so well and for submitting such a well-written article that featured the company, for being so well-versed in the customs of Japan etcetera, etcetera. It probably helped that Hiro and I practiced my introduction to him several times in advance. However, he became evasive when I asked him a few questions about his family, and I wasn't surprised when Hiro revealed that his parents hardly ever saw each other except on Sundays. I suspect that in those few years working as an employee for his father, Hiro has already gotten to know him better than his mother ever did over the course of their marriage.
"I hope this isn't just about your father, is it?"
"It is also partially about me, Karla. I made the decision many years ago that I would not walk away from the responsibilities I inherited. I cannot simply throw away everything I have studied and worked so hard for since I entered elementary school."
I can't really blame him for that. His education and job up to this point were all geared towards his future position as head of the company, and I get that he doesn't want to throw away something he's already invested so much in. It's very much become part of who he is by now. But we've also invested a lot into our relationship, and now our options are severely limited.
I'm relieved to at least know Hiro doesn't think of me as a temporary love interest to toss aside once it gets inconvenient. I very much feel the same way about him.
Despite that, I don't think we ever made any long-term plans since our relationship was a secret to those who were part of Hiro's life.
Still, I think me visiting the company as a reporter and meeting and talking to Hiro's father was our way of gently testing the waters. Hiro, ever the supporter of the slow-and-steady approach, believed that gradually sneaking me into his parents' life was the best way to improve the chances of them approving our relationship. In the end that approach was brutally cut short by this whole marriage business, but it did show we were both hoping for more.
I guess... since the stakes suddenly went up, we can stop playing it carefully. I feel the combatitive mood I was in earlier returning. Our relationship may be doomed, but I'll be damned if I let it go down without putting up a fight.
"Hiro... I was wondering..."
"If it's okay with you I would...really like to talk to your parents. Just them and me. To explain the situation to them."
"Do you want to try and change their minds about encouraging me to get married?"
"That would only delay things. I was wondering if... ummm... well... we should... err..."
"I would... I think I would... very much... enjoy having you... as my wife..."
This is a truly wonderful moment. I give him a sweet kiss on the lips and giggle.
"Did we just propose to each other?"
"We did not. If it is okay with you, I would still like to be the one doing those honors under more fitting circumstances... assuming we can facilitate them."
"Karla... with all respects, I believe that you confronting my parents would merely make things worse. I know you. You would do your best to convince my parents that you would be a good wife for me by stating all your good points and my parents would most likely merely conclude that you lack humility and reject you immediately. Besides...*sigh* approaching my parents about this should be my task, not yours."
"Yeah, I guess it'd be best if you talked to them. Though if there's anything I can do to help, just tell me."
"It is not uncommon for future in-laws here to hire a private investigator to do a background check on a possible addition to the family. Since the rest of your family lives abroad, they might decide not to bother with that, but I trust there are no scandals in your family?"
"None that I know of. Just some speeding tickets I got from time to time, but I always properly paid them. I doubt a Japanese investigator could dig that deep anyway."
"Other than that, it would be best not to get your hopes up too high."
"When I met your father he praised me to high heaven in all sorts of ways. Was he just being polite?"
"I believe his praise was completely genuine. He was truly impressed by your quick mastery of the language and your politeness towards him. It must sound like a contradiction to you... if I tell you that he can be completely sincere in his praise and admiration of you as a person and yet be adamantly against you marrying his son - against you becoming part of his inner circle."
"I think I've lived here long enough to know there's not necessarily a contradiction."
As polite and friendly as this society is, I've also learned that it's an extremely closed one that's at times very much on its guard against outside influences, and while it's relatively tolerant of outsiders on the surface, it's also very resistant to the practice of fully embracing them.
"I can't really change where and to whom I was born Hiro, nor do feel the need to apologize for who I am and where I'm from. But I'm a pretty worldly and adaptable person. I would would be glad to make an effort to be a good wife to you if they're willing to give me a chance. A chance to prove myself is all I really ask for."
"My family is more traditional than most, Karla. And I wonder if its traditions would not clash with the way you are."
"What do you mean?"
"Traditionally, a married woman has three duties here. Serve and support her husband. Run the finances and the household. And finally give birth to and raise the children. "
"I've been running my own household since I graduated high school, and I know enough about finances to make a living writing about the subject. And I'll do whatever I can to support you. I'll even pretend to serve you in front of others as long as you don't forget who the person you fell in love with really is."
"I have trouble envisioning you changing yourself that way. Not to mention the fact that you love your job. I have difficulty believing that this would really make you happy."
"Being with you makes me happy too. Nobody's changing herself. I'll merely be keeping up appearances. I'll always be the person you know me as. Besides, I've always known that I'd probably have to stop doing what I do when I have children. I can't go waltzing around the area chasing news stories when there's a child who might need me back home."
The truth is also that I would really like to have children. I'd like to have 3, maybe 4. And I'd very much like Hiro to be their father.
"It might be very hard to me at first, but if it helps your parents in opening up to me over time, I think I can take it. Sometimes you have to endure some short-term hardships in order to make a positive difference in the long run."
"That sounds familiar."
I chuckle. That last part is one of Hiro's own mottos and a saying he likes to use from time to time.
"Wise words from a wise person."
Me having made my case, we fall silent again. I know I'm promising a lot, but my mind is made up. I'm going to fight for this relationship even if some sacrifices have to be made. I guess that's true for both of us. I can tell by his soft sigh that the prospect of confronting his parents about this is pretty intimidating, and his desire not to lose me is only barely keeping at bay the conformitive instincts that have been nurtured since his early childhood.
"I know this probably feels very intimidating to you, but I don't think we have anything to lose by at least trying."
"Except possibly the respect my parents have for me at this moment. Regardless of what they say, I will probably have to work very hard to win it back."
"I still think you're a very good son to them.You're smart. You're loyal. You're dedicated. And when your father retires you'll do a wonderful job leading your family's company. And you know what?"
"What is it?"
"Seeing that the company recently made customers and partnerships in the UK, wouldn't it be fitting if you'd eventually expand and both the family and family company were to become half Japanese and half Scottish?"
I take his brief chuckle as an agreement.
"I am not certain if my parents would find it amusing. I think my best bet would be to try and convince them that you would be a very diligent and capable wife. But be warned that on the slight chance that they were to accept, they will expect you to make good on that. "
"No impassioned speech about the power of love, huh?"
"That is unlikely to convince them. Nobody in our family's social circle that I am aware of married for that reason. It was usually for security or simply to join two prominent families together. A speech like you are talking about would merely cause my parents to remind me that this is real life and not some theater play."
That sounds kind of sad to me. Then again, a few generations ago 'Lie back and think of England' was probably a common piece of advice on the British Isles as well, so maybe I shouldn't judge too harshly. Still, this means that appealing to their sense of romanticism is right out. Thinking back on what we spoke of earlier, however, I am reminded of something else.
"The Satou company recently getting its foot in the door in the UK... Did anybody at your work ask any questions?"
"All the official introductions were done by the usual party, and I made sure to keep a low profile."
Although I now live in Japan, I've still made it a habit to visit headquarters and my family in the UK every four to five months. Since Hiro became my boyfriend, I've also picked up the habit of doing some unofficial networking on his company's behalf whenever I was in the UK. I still have a very large network of contacts I built up during my days as a business reporter, and I knew that dropping the right name at the right moment and in the right place could have very real results, especially since Hiro's company doesn't sell equipment to consumers.
I didn't think much of it at first. Hiro was my boyfriend, the company would be his someday, so I didn't think there was anything wrong with doing something that might benefit him in the future. But at some point last year, Hiro made mention of several business opportunities suddenly popping up in the UK. At this point several hospitals in the country are among the Satou company's clientèle and there's talk of hiring a local company in Scotland to assemble some of their products there to make distribution easier. The same local company I recommended to Hiro early after having visited there myself to talk to them about their theoretical willingness to do assembly jobs for foreign clients and assess their ability to do the job well. Seems like he did a good job subtly getting my advice to the right people without making too many waves.
"Part of the credit goes to the quality of your products and the efforts of your marketing department to seize the opportunities that were presented to them, but..."
"...we owe you a great deal as well."
"Hiro... then maybe you should tell your father about that. He might feel an obligation to... a look-in. "
If we can't appeal to his sense of romance then maybe appealing to his sense of obligation would help.
"It is not something he would be able to ignore, but it could easily end up escalating the situation."
"You know them better than I do. I'll trust your judgement."
"I might need to sleep a few nights on it. Think carefully on what I should say. And anticipate every single one of their possible responses."
"You'll only get one chance at this. So make it count. Give it your all. Don't hold back. And don't back down. Heck, make sure to have had a drink before you confront them. Just one. Always worked for me."
"I will do what I can to find a way to... settle this. I do not want to lose you, Karla, but I do not want to lose or abandon my family either."
"And you'll never have to, Hiro. I'll never ask you to choose between me and your family, nor will I ever expect you to abandon them on my behalf. You have my word. I think that with some honest effort... the two won't remain mutually exclusive."
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:17 am
As I pass through the school gate, I stop for a moment and take a deep breath. Even though it's been two months since I started attending here, the sheer size of Kasshoku University's campus still manages to overwhelm me. I don't think I'd mind the quiet and cozy atmosphere of Yamaku at this point, but high school is a definite thing of the past now.
After my graduation from Yamaku just over two months ago, I moved back into my parental home. It's taken some getting used to not living a mere three minute walk away from school anymore, but on the other hand it's good to see my parents on a daily basis again.
Kasshoku is too far away from home to walk, so I now commute to school each day. I can't say I enjoy stuffing myself into those crowded busses each morning, but my current living situation is certainly more comfortable than a dorm room on campus and less expensive, too.
The teachers are a bit of a mixed bag. Some of them seem to talk about their subject with genuine passion while others just mechanically scribe stuff on the blackboard. Business as usual, I guess. Overall, the majority of the subjects are pretty interesting.
I had to get used to walking to class on my own again. At Yamaku, I'd regularly walk there with Hanako, but Hanako flunked her entrance exams two months ago, and it was decided that her best option was to stay at Yamaku for another year. I didn't even know that option existed, but I guess they made an exception for her.
Not wanting to be late, I pick up a steady pace and make my way to the science faculty.
"And that's all for today. Remember that this material will return in the upcoming tests, so study it carefully."
As the teacher walks out of the room, I take one more opportunity to compare my notes with the contents of the blackboard. After confirming that I've got all the important points down, I put my books and notebook away, and my thoughts dwell on where to spend this lunch break. As I do so, I pick up pieces of conversation from the other people in class.
"Man, I'm glad it's lunch break. That guy just drones on and on."
"Hey, when are you going to return that copy of Valkyria Chronicles that I lent you? You've had it for nearly three weeks, and I barely had time to play it myself."
"Relax man. I'll have it with me the day after tomorrow."
"Wanna stop by the arcade later today?"
"Sure, why not?"
"You guys gonna stay here this lunch break or head down to the cafeteria?"
"I'm up for some ramen, so let's go and get some downstairs."
"Hmmm, don't know. I'd like some curry myself, but I'm kinda broke at the moment."
"Why not have you-know-who get you some? He still owes us something, doesn't he?"
Just as I'm about to get up from my seat, three of my classmates suddenly crowd around my desk.
"Do you already know where you're gonna have lunch?"
"Why not join us in the cafeteria? Also, could you buy me lunch today?"
"Well, you kind of owe me something from two days ago, remember? If you buy me something to eat for today, we'll call it even."
I get three stares that seem to suggest I'm crazy for having to think about such a bargain.
"Great. Just get me today's special. We'll be right there."
I pick up my stuff and leave the classroom. As I walk down the hallway leading to the cafeteria, I realize that being pressured into paying for someone else's lunch gives me a feeling of déjà vu.
Makes me wonder how Shizune is doing these days.
The three people who were at my desk just now were all people I already met before enrolling here, though I didn't know it at the time. Kamijo, Kisaragi and Sazukawa were there at the open house day last year as well and passed their entrance exams just like I did.
We tend to work together on group assignments during class, though we're not exactly close enough for me to stop by at their place for tea. Still, when I had to skip school last week due to having a checkup at the hospital, they were kind enough to provide me with a copy of their notes of that day when I got back the day after. I was grateful for that and told them to just give me a call when I could do something back. I was kind of aiming at letting them have my notes some time rather than getting one of them a free meal, but I guess there's no point in complaining. They did do me a favor last week, and I don't want to go back on my word, though I promise myself to be more specific about my counterfavors next time.
There's already a line forming in the cafeteria, so I quickly join the queue hoping the people in front of me aren't going to take too long to make up their mind.
"Can I help you?"
When it's finally my turn to order, I quickly address the man behind the counter.
"Today's special, please."
"Curried rice? "
"If that's today's special then yes please."
At least Kisaragi didn't go for the most expensive meal he could think of.
I pay for the meal and walk around the cafeteria in search of my classmates. I eventually find them at a table near one of the corners. As I walk up to them and put the tray on the table, I find them already in the middle of a heated discussion.
"Oh, thanks Nakai. You're a real lifesaver. I can't study very well when I'm hungry."
"I might just ask for a free meal myself the next time you miss a class."
"I'm sure you'll get the opportunity someday. Anyway, Nakai, we need your opinion. What type do you like most? Traditional or exotic?"
"Traditional or exotic what? Music? Food?"
Kamijo rolls his eyes.
"When was the last time you heard him talk about music or food?"
I let out a weary sigh.
"So this is about girls?"
"Hey, what's with the sigh? You're not... ah, never mind. Not my business."
"No, I'm not. But what's with the traditional or exotic thing?"
"Do you like a traditional woman... you know, the gentle and quiet kimono-clad kind or the hip exotic type?"
"Are those my only two choices?"
"It's more a spectrum than two choices, but surely your preference doesn't lie right in the middle?"
I personally think that despite her dressing sense, Hanako is still the traditional type deep down. After New Year, Akira sent me a photo of Hanako dressed in a kimono - probably taken secretly - and I thought she was a very cute sight. I think that if she got over her skittishness, Hanako might be able to rival Lilly in terms of elegance.
"I think traditional."
"Damn, then we got a tie. Maybe I shouldn't have asked you after all. Oh well..."
"Where did this come from?"
Sazukawa shrugs his shoulders.
"While you were waiting in line, Kisaragi went to take a bathroom break and saw an attractive girl in the entrance hall."
"What do you mean, that's all? You've been here long enough to know how much of a rarity it is to see females around this place. How many girls do you see around this faculty on a daily basis?"
"I have to admit not many. But I kinda wonder if males being in the majority isn't a universal telltale mark for most science faculties around the world. Social sciences or humanities-related faculties often have more female students than faculties that focus on physics, chemistry or IT. If you wanted to see more girls, maybe you should have ditched the university idea and attend a junior college. I heard the female-to-male ratio is around 90% to 10%."
"Yeah, but that would have gotten me into a big argument with the folks back home. Anyway, even you have to admit that this place is a sausage fest inside a sausage fest. I mean, this university probably has a 70-to-30 male to female ratio already and even that 30% might as well not exist when you're studying in this building."
"How does this relate to traditional or exotic?"
"Because the girl looked exotic. Probably a foreigner. Or a 'hafu'. You know, a half-Japanese. I wonder if she's an exchange student."
"And she caught your eye?"
"Yeah, she was really hot. I like exotic types. They're kinda hip although this one didn't really dress the part."
"So... by exotic types, you mean foreign people or people with mixed blood?"
"Yeah, kind of. Lots of fashion models and newscasters on TV are hafu these days. So I think they're kinda cool."
I can't help but grin a bit at that. I know only two people who are half-Japanese, and while the jury's still out on Akira, I don't think Lilly could ever be called 'cool' or 'hip' no matter how badly you stretch the definition. She's just way too old-fashioned for that. In fact, Lilly's really hard to place inside Kisaragi's inane traditional vs. exotic spectrum, because she acts more traditional than most full-blooded Japanese I know, despite her foreign looks. I've actually found that when you spend some time around Lilly, you quickly tend to forget that she's half-foreign to begin with.
"So uh... This cool person, did you talk to her?"
Or did you just ogle her from afar?
"I would have, except... she was on the phone."
The rest of us lets out a snicker. Kisaragi's not a bad guy, but for all his talk about girls, I don't think he's ever asked one out. Most of his knowledge probably comes from the dating simulators he's so extremely fond of playing.
"Hey, I'm totally serious."
This creates an 'are not / am too'-discussion between Kamijo and Kisaragi that I decide to stay out of, and I decide to focus on finishing my lunch instead. After eating the last of my food, I decide to make myself useful and load the empty cans and plate onto the tray and then head towards the nearby tray rack. Just before I reach it, my phone suddenly rings, surprising me enough to nearly cause me to drop the tray. If I had set the volume on my phone a little bit higher, I probably would have dropped it for real.
I quickly put the tray away and then fish my cell phone out of my pocket. As I fold my phone open, I see a familiar name on the display.
"Lilly, is that you?"
"Hello Hisao. I hope I'm not calling at a bad time."
"Not at all. It's been a little while since we've talked."
"About two months, hasn't it?"
"Yes. Are you calling to catch up? It seems... a little odd to do that during school hours, even though it's lunch break."
"I wanted to talk to you about that, but right now I was merely thinking I'd say hello personally while I was in the area. If it's not too inconvenient, that is."
"It isn't, but... Are you really here at the science faculty right now?"
"I am. Hmmm, at least I think I am. Where are you right now?"
"I'm at the cafeteria."
"I'm in the entrance hall right now. Could you explain to me how to get to your location?"
"Wouldn't it be easier for me to just come over to where you are?"
"It would be easier, but it wouldn't be what I'd prefer."
"Uh... Okay then. Let me think."
I suddenly remember that whenever we visited an unknown location in the past and Lilly tried to orientate herself, it was usually Hanako explaining these kinds of things to her. I try to remember how she'd usually go about that.
"If your back is facing the exit, there's a hallway at one o' clock you'll need to follow until there's a large door on the left after...erm...I think about 30 meter. It's still rather crowded here, so you can probably follow the sound. When you enter the room, I'm near the corner of the area at ten o' clock."
"That should suffice, Hisao. Thank you."
Lilly hangs up the phone, and I put my cell phone back in my pocket feeling a bit puzzled. It'll be good to see Lilly again, even if it's only for a little while, but I do kind of wonder what she's doing here. This place is actually quite a stroll away from her own faculty. Did she walk here all the way by herself?
Lilly said she was at the entrance hall right now. Kisaragi said he saw that 'exotic girl' there as well.
I groan loudly and slap my forehead. It looks like this whole idiotic discussion between my classmates just now has been about Lilly. Next time this subject comes up, I'm just going to do my best to shift the topic back to video games or baseball.
I walk back to the table and sit down. The back-and-forth between my classmates seems to have subsided a bit and they give me a curious look.
"Got a surprise phone call, Nakai?"
"Yeah, from a friend from high school who's studying at another faculty here and who wanted to drop by and say hello really quick."
"Oh? What faculty are we talking about?"
"English. It's been a little while since we last talked."
"Figures. That place is on the other end of the campus. Not a big chance of running into each other by accident."
"Maybe we could ask him for his opinion too. To break the tie that you caused."
"Not that again, please."
I kinda wonder how my classmates are gonna react to Lilly. I hope they're not gonna say anything embarrassing. There's another issue too. I've never told my classmates about my heart condition. The only people who know about it are my mentor and a nurse here. They're mostly following the outlined plan that Yamaku's head nurse wrote up for them after I graduated. If my classmates see that my friend from high school is blind, I kinda wonder if they're gonna jump to any conclusions about me. I really hope not. I found that as my time at Yamaku drew to a close, I didn't really have much difficulty telling fellow students about my condition anymore. After all, everybody there had something or another. But out here, I realized that I was still squeamish about telling others that there was... well... something wrong with me. I might eventually let them in on it, but I still prefer to wait a bit with that.
"Hey guys, look over there."
Sazukawa points towards the front of the cafeteria where I catch a glimpse of familiar blond hair. He turns to his neighbor.
"Is that the person you talked about?"
"Yeah, that's her. So, any of you guys want to reconsider your vote?"
"Well, she doesn't look bad, but she's kinda tall for my tastes. I like girls who are just a bit shorter than I am."
"She's not on the phone this time, Kisaragi. Wanna try and say hello to her."
"Gimme a break."
"Hey, do you see what she's carrying? Is that a cane? You know, the kind that blind people use?"
"I wonder if she got lost."
"If you want to know for sure, ask her. Ask her if she's looking for something or someone."
"Looking? Aw, that's cruel, man."
Trying to block out the random remarks from my classmates, I follow Lilly with my eyes as she's slowly approaching the spot where we're sitting, occasionally standing still to listen. It's still kinda crowded in here, and she's probably feeling a little disorientated, so I get up and call out to her.
"Lilly! Hey Lilly! Over here!"
Lilly's head instantly turns towards the source of the voice calling her name. She slowly walks towards me, and when she's right in front of me I greet her to confirm my presence.
"Hi Lilly. Long time no see."
Lilly turns to face me responds to my greeting with a dazzling smile.
"Hello Hisao. It is indeed. How have you been doing?"
"Okay, I guess. How about you?"
"I think I've been doing fairly well. Are the classes to your liking?"
"Yeah, they've been pretty interesting so far."
"Hey Nakai, what's going on here?"
Lilly tilts her head slightly in an attempt to place the voice of Kamijo who just spoke up.
"Hmmm, you're not alone here, Hisao?"
"Sorry, I was having lunch with a couple of classmates. I guess I should do introductions."