One of the endings that has always got to me is the other Emi/Hisao one.
You know which one I mean. The sad one.
Well, here's a sequel, involving some new characters.
The boy sat under a tree at the end of the bleachers, all alone. A distance away, he saw his classmates running, little patches of white on a brick-red track surface. They were having a first year physical education class, one from which he was temporarily excused. Their instructor was running with them. A soft and slightly chilly wind ruffled the highlights on his dark hair, although the sun still shone warmly from the east and it was only August.
Winter was coming to Mount Aoba
, he thought to himself. It’s just like that old HBO TV series that refused to go away.
The boy liked American fantasy, the curious blend of fake-European/Asian/African ideas thrown together into something potent and pungent and strange.
Old copies of fantasy favourites were all he had, exiled to this place. Mother had said it would be good for him; it was where cousin-at-a-distance Kenji had graduated. “And see how well he turned out!” were her very words. Well, one man’s garbage was another man’s treasure, in so many ways. Cousin Kenji was insane, but he had a wonderful collection of manga, anime and foreign action adventures, and he shared it freely.
I’m a child of the torrents
, he mused. He was happy to have found words for himself. It was good to have words for oneself. He wasn’t good with words; he preferred the clean direction of mathematics and physics if he had homework to do. He looked up as something interrupted his light.
“Setou? Are you not feeling well?”
, was how he thought of her. Long hair, in loose chestnut and auburn braids. Must’ve spent a lot of time at the hairdresser.
And perfect eyes, large brown irises that seemed to invite you into a different world.
He scrambled to find a reply.
“Um, hi, Tanaka. My legs… they aren’t feeling too strong today.”
“Oh?” There was genuine concern in her voice.
“Yeah. The medication I take, sometimes it makes my legs tender. Painful and swollen.” Shit, too much information.
Maybe his classmate would think he was hitting on her. He wasn’t, he knew he wasn’t. No guts for that kind of thing. Besides, he had to focus on winning one thing at a time.
“Maybe Ibarazaki-sensei knows some special physio plan that can help with that.”
Involuntarily, he turned towards the track. He could hear the clear, well-trained voice out there, commanding and exhorting. It had a sharp force to it, although it wasn’t deep and powerful. “Maybe she does.”
“Why not ask her?”
“The guys would tease me.” As it is, every time I go up to Miss Ibarazaki to give her my excuse slip, they say I’m finding an excuse to spend personal time with her.
He turned away, hiding his face in shadow.
“She’s been giving me special help after school. Maybe I could ask her for you?”
He had to ask, although it wasn’t polite. He found courage and used it before it expired. “Rude of me, but, ah… may I ask what she is helping you with? It is very kind of you to offer, Tanaka.”
“I’m shifting completely to prosthetics and getting out of this chair. Since Ibarazaki-sensei has experience with learning to use new legs, she’s been helping me train since I arrived. I need to do it before my muscles don’t work properly any more. I’m sorry, I thought I’d told you earlier.” She frowned a little. It cut him to the heart.
Seeing his expression, she relented. “Well, it was a few months back. You had your own difficulties. I must make it up to you.”
“Er… what? Sorry?”
“For offering to wheel me around all these months, even with your own legs hurting and all.” She smiled. She had a nice smile, full lips but not too full. No dimples though, which is a shame, otherwise she’d be perfect. Ha, cousin Kenji would not have approved. Eh, what is she saying now? She knew my legs were hurting?
“Oh, that’s embarrassing.” He glanced at her, and then looked away again. He couldn’t hold that gaze. It made him too warm inside. She hadn’t needed his help. He’d just assumed she would.
“It was very nice of you, even though I didn’t make use of you enough. And you’ve done it long enough to call me Kumiko, perhaps?”
He could feel himself blushing all over. Maybe it was just the steroids. He nodded, trying to pay appropriate respect while sitting down. “It would only be fair if you called me Rikuto, then.” He winced a little. He’d never liked his name; he preferred to be called ‘Rik’, with a near-silent ending.
“It’s a deal. Maybe I will see you on Monday morning at the PE office?”
“Ibarazaki is a fiend, she likes starting really early, so it’ll have to be six in the morning.”
Rik groaned, and hated himself for allowing himself to show weakness. But it was worthwhile for the giggle from Kumiko that followed.
The weeks ran on, and so did he. And Kumiko, and their coach. Two months, almost, and they seemed like forever.
Clack clack, clack clack. Rik was used now to the soft sounds of Miss Ibarazaki’s legs. Her gait reminded him a bit of the velociraptors from the Jurassic movies. Or maybe the killer robot from that cybercop movie. But she was fast and confident. Heck, she was probably faster than anyone else in the school.
He looked at her. She was shorter than he was, but he could feel the intensity in her face. When she glared at you, you said, “Yes, coach!” and obeyed. Of course, if you didn’t, that was worse. She just looked at you with a ‘you quitter’ look and shamed you into trying harder. And she was pretty too.
“C’mon, Setou!” she said. Amaterasu on crutches, she’s running backwards on no legs faster than I can run on two.
He increased his pace a bit, feeling the tightness nag at his joints. “You can do it, just a bit more. Tanaka’s doing well, and so can you!”
On the other side, Kumiko kept the pace, her lovely face set in grim determination. She looked a little pale, and rather sweaty. She had adapted well, but then again, she’d been working with Miss Ibarazaki for a few months more.
“Okay, up with you both, we’re taking the steps! No skipping daily checkups!”
Wasn’t that illegal? But you didn’t say ‘no’ to Dread Pirate Emi Ibarazaki, as his seniors too reminded him.
She hauled the door open and gestured them both into the administration building. They were a little late. Other students were already streaming towards their academic classes.
Then it happened: inevitably, a collision. Kumiko found herself turning the corner just as someone else was coming the other way. Rik turned to look as he heard the thump of impact. Miss Ibarazaki had come to a dead stop, her face even paler than Kumiko’s.
“Ow. Damn…” said the obstacle, a trace of wonder in his voice, which was already fading. The middle-aged man slumped backwards onto his elbows, then gracelessly keeled over sideways onto the floor. “Not again…”
A few incoherent thoughts flashed across the confusion in Rik’s head. Shit! It’s senior physics teacher Nakai-sensei. We’re so screwed.
“Stay with him, Setou,” said Miss Ibarazaki. “I’m going to get help.”
There was a tone in her voice he’d never heard before. He couldn’t identify it. He stayed. Kumiko stood against the wall, her hand to her mouth, looking as if she’d fall over at any moment. A crowd was gathering.
Strangely, he felt a kind of melancholic satisfaction, as if this was something he knew had been coming for a long time. This is going to be the worst day of my life.
He wasn’t completely correct. Some things were awful, but not everything turned out for the worst.
December was a quiet month. The two of them sat under the tree at the end of the bleachers, each no longer alone. That day, there were no students on the track below—there was only a single figure, recognizable from afar. Miss Ibarazaki was running her curious pattern of sprints and laps. She did that to herself every morning, but of late it had become something more intense.
“Are we going to visit Nakai-sensei this afternoon?”
“Yes,” Kumiko replied. She didn’t look at him. She seemed to be attempting to memorise every one of their PE teacher’s movements. He didn’t mind so much; he enjoyed looking at Kumi sidelong, the tip of her delicately pointed nose, the lobes of her ears, the stray wisps of copper-and-gold hair.
“He seems to be getting better. He actually smiles these days.”
“Yes, he does.”
“What’s on your mind?”
This time she turned in his direction. “Rik, why doesn’t Miss Ibarazaki want to go with us? I know it was my fault that he’s in hospital, but she had a bit to do with it too.”
They’d asked her to come with them a couple of times in the last few weeks, and each time she’d sighed and declined. He’d been curious about that, and he had asked the one person he thought might know. Doctor Kaneshiro had looked at him, shaken his head, and said, “Well, you could ask her, but she probably won’t say anything. It’s a sad story.”
“I don’t know, Kumi. Doc Kaneshiro wouldn’t tell me.”
“Do you think they…” her voice trailed off. He guessed what she might have been about to ask, and winced. It’s a bit like imagining my parents having sex, except that these aren’t my parents.
“But even then, shouldn’t she at least visit him?”
“It must’ve been a bad break-up. How…” she paused, trying to find a word. “… tragic! They’re both such respected staff.”
Rik twitched a little. He’d done some internet research. People had actually written romantic fiction involving those two. Some of that research had made him learn the benefits of cold showers.
“He closed his eyes and turned away from her, you know.”
“When?!” Now her gaze was piercing, like a pair of chopsticks digging into the noodles of his brain.
“When they loaded him onto the ambulance. She was trying to look at him without him noticing. Then he opened his eyes, and he looked… well, pained, maybe? I think she looked a little sad, but he just turned his face away.”
“That’s terrible. Quick. Kiss me.”
“Sorry.” She looked crestfallen. “Did not mean to be so coarse and unmannered. It’s just that I had this sudden idea.”
Now he regretted not following his instincts a few seconds ago. “It’s fine. What was this idea, Kumi?”
“What if we had one last chance and we didn’t take it, and then we never saw each other again?”
“Oh. That’s sad. Um… very sad!” He looked at her, stricken as the full meaning of her words crackled through his mind.
“I think I love you, Kumiko.”
“We’re only sixteen. But people like us, there might not be so many chances, right? But that’s not important. I think I love you too, Rik.”
He felt warm all over. Part of it was that the sun had risen. Part of it was that the most beautiful girl he knew was leaning into him and looking up at him with bright dark eyes. How did that work, anyway? He didn’t care.
He tilted his head towards hers. He could feel the sweetness of her breath.
“Not in public, young people!”
He opened his eyes, realizing that he couldn’t remember having closed them. Kumiko rolled off him with a gasp of alarm. Miss Ibarazaki stood looking down at them, a cheerful smile on her face.
“Hey, it’s a nice morning. You don’t want to spend it in the Principal’s office, right? You’ve got better things to do!”
He never knew what made him say it. Maybe over-exposure to fantasy fiction?
“Coach, please excuse this foolish young person, but would you come with us to the hospital today? You could forgive Mr Nakai for whatever he’s done, and maybe he’ll get better a lot faster.”
He felt Kumi’s muscles stiffen. That sharp intake of breath probably didn’t mean anything good either. But what was worse was the stark whiteness of Miss Ibarazaki’s face. Her green-tinted eyes suddenly looked like twin sea-serpents. Velociraptor
, his primitive subconscious warned him.
Then it was over. Clack-clack, clack-clack. The echoes of her stride faded into the distance as the two young people looked at each other uneasily.
“Hello, young people. Or at least, you look young, and you are people. I think.”
“Hello, Setou. Sorry, I’m just remembering an old friend.”
“That’s okay, sir.” Was that Miss Ibarazaki he was remembering?
“And hello, Tanaka. You’re very kind to be visiting me. Most others have stopped, since they know I’ll be fine in a while.”
“Respected sir will be coming out soon?” There had been a guilty edge to Kumiko’s voice since the first week, and it hadn’t gone away.
“Oh yes. Dr Kaneshiro keeps in touch with the hospital and he assures me that I’ll be back in January. He too drops by once in a while.”
“This useless person is very sorry she ran into you, Nakai-sensei.”
The man in the bed laughed softly. “You don’t have to say that every week. Hey, you don’t have to say that at all, any more. You’re not the first one to have done it, did you know?”
This was new. Rik’s ears pricked up. He loved piecing bits of story together, and he wondered what kind of piece this was.
Kumiko remained silent. For a while, nobody said anything. Then, with a teacher’s natural timing, Mr Nakai grinned. “I can see that both of you want to hear a story. And because you’ve been so kind, and I like things like mochi and the other snacks you’ve been sneaking in for me, you deserve a break.”
His grin faded. “Sit down, sit down. I’ll just tell you a bit of it.”
Their disappointment must have shown. “Aw, hey, don’t look so sad. It’s most of the fun part. But you mustn’t tell it to anybody else; it’s a secret between a man who almost died and the two people who almost killed him and then felt very sorry for it, right?”
Quietly, they nodded and then found places to sit.
“Once upon a time there was a young and careless, also slightly depressed, transfer student at Yamaku named Nakai. Yeah, me. I was a student like both of you too. I hadn’t been at Yamaku very long when I stepped out of the classroom—it was 3-3, which Mutou-sensei still uses—and BAM, Emi Ibarazaki, your coach, except she was a student in 3-4 at that time, she ran into me and there I was flat on the floor and my heart was swelling in my chest and I thought I was going to die.”
Their teacher paused, the smile now completely gone from his face. It had been replaced by a rather distant look.
“We became friends. And then I was a little stupid and foolish, and I said and did a few things that were wrong, and Emi, Miss Ibarazaki, she gave up on me. I think she just wrote me out of her script. We haven’t spoken since… well, it’s been quite a few years, now.”
He looked at Kumiko, then at Rik. “You two, be careful, be thoughtful. Love, it’s a precious thing. You can break it by crude handling.”
With a sigh, he sank back into his pillows and closed his eyes. “Sometimes there is no happy ever after.”
When it became clear there’d be no more words that day, Rik gently grasped Kumi’s wrist and led her out of the room. “Goodbye, Nakai-sensei,” he heard her whisper, and Rik saw his eyelids twitch slightly.
“It was so sad, Rik! We should do something. They haven’t been talking for years and they work in the same place! It’s… it’s… madness!”
“You normally say ‘tragic’,” he remarked absently. It earned him a punch on the shoulder.
They were sitting in the cafeteria back at Yamaku. The holiday break was coming, and the atmosphere of the school was subdued as winter approached. People were making plans for the break, which would last till the first week of January.
He looked at his rice, covered with steaming egg and onions. A healthy dose of pork chops never hurt anyone
, he sighed, digging in. He turned to look at Kumiko—his Kumi now, if it lasted—and lifted an eyebrow. It was a new habit and he thought it made him look cool.
“One last visit, and then we won’t see him till next year. We should get him a year-end present. We can say it’s for Christmas.”
“You’re just feeling guilty.”
“Since when have you been so hard-hearted, Setou-san?” She looked shocked. “Of course I’m feeling guilty. But I’m also feeling sad for him and Miss Ibarazaki!”
“Shhh! He said it was a secret, and this is the school cafeteria!”
“Maybe we can plan something with Dr Kaneshiro? He seems to like both of them.”
“Look, it’s been almost ten years. They’re old people now, they haven’t spoken to each other for so long, they’d just be awkward.”
“Love,” she said deliberately, “is a precious thing. He said so. He believes in it. I think he still likes her a lot.”
Her flashing eyes dared him to deny it. He couldn’t. Besides, if love could be denied, then why would he and Kumi still be together after graduation? They wouldn’t have a chance at all, in two years’ time.
A coil of auburn hair wiggled free and snaked down the right side of her head. Although not really alive, it startled him for a moment, and made her fiddle irritably with the scrunchy thing she’d begun to use. Her act of stuffing long hair back into a piece of elastic material seemed somehow extremely feminine and attractive to him. He felt silly, but determined not to be.
“Okay, but what can we do?”
They sat awkwardly in the Shanghai. God knows
, he thought to himself, how long this place has been here, giving bad service to all and sundry.
“This is very silly,” they both began at the same time. He looked a little flustered, and her voice quavered slightly.
“No,” he said, recovering first. “I was the stupid one.”
“Those damn kids, they set us up,” she hissed, and then realized what Hisao had just said. “Oh, you think so? Really?”
“Yeah. Love, it’s too precious to throw away.”
“Wait. I’m not going to talk about that kind of thing.”
“It makes a difference from not talking at all.”
“I could just walk away.”
“And you’d never catch me,” she replied with a broken half-smile.
“Not now that I’ve had a second operation, but I could’ve tried then.”
“Idiot. Well, are you going to order your usual sandwich?”
They’d fallen into some kind of banter, vaguely resembling that from happier times. Neither of them noticed. But they were overheard.
Behind them and across the room, Kumiko firmly placed her hand over Rik’s mouth. He tried desperately to release his laughter, and failed. He grabbed at her hand. She snatched it away, and kissed him, silencing him.
Some distance away, the conversation continued.
“So, why are you talking to me, Miss Ibarazaki?”
“I’m older now. I’ve learnt to give students second chances, Mr Nakai.”
“Good point. Me too. Do I get one even though I’m not your student?”
“It’s a possibility.”
“Well, I’ll take what I can get. There might not be many opportunities left.”
“Not funny. Not funny at all. Heck, I feel like leaving right now.”
“Please, don’t.” Something in his voice tugged at her.
“Hisao, if anyone is going to knock you over and get you sent to hospital, it shouldn’t be a first year girl whose coach made a bad call.”
He sighed. She noticed the tuft of hair sticking out at the back, gently waving at her. How very much like him, still.
“Emi. It’s been so many years. Did we just develop the habit of not talking? I’ll be honest with you. After we stopped talking that day, and we went our separate ways, I just gave up on the whole girlfriend thing. Then I followed Mutou’s advice and ended up here, and… damn, there you were, teaching PE.”
“Yeah, damn, there you were, teaching physics.”
“Heh. Well, I was afraid you’d just act nice to me and I’d never be part of your life anyway. I couldn’t live with that. So I avoided you.”
“Um. Well, that’s your story.”
Some distance away, Rik surfaced for air briefly. Kumi was light, but she had a powerful grip. Somehow, listening surreptitiously to a real-life drama while kissing your girlfriend is such a turn-on
, said the voice in his head.
“It hurts,” she whispered into his ear.
“What?” he recoiled. “Sorry, what did I do?”
“Listening to them not quite getting their lives together. I hope we never get like that.”
“Yeah. Mmmph.” He felt a sense of disquiet, though. He remembered what Mr Nakai had said: “Sometimes there is no happy ever after.”
Time passed. The lights flickered, the food came and went. Rik and Kumi sat, sharing a yuzu/azuki something-or-other with French vanilla ice-cream. The sounds from the other booth were subdued.
“I can’t take it any more,” Kumiko whispered. “Let’s pay up and sneak out and see what they’re doing.”
“Okay,” Rik replied, digging around for his wallet.
The Shanghai had never been brightly lit. A quick getaway would be easy if they used the staff door at the back. Shadows hiding them, they made their way to the exit and took one last look.
Mr Nakai and Miss Ibarazaki were holding hands. They weren’t talking at all.
“Merry Christmas,” whispered Rik.
Kumi smiled, lifting her fair face to his. “Ever after,” she mouthed, as they stepped out into the cold clear light of the late afternoon.