If you were suddenly transported to Yamaku Academy for 72 hours, what would you do?
What would you try to do? And what could possibly stop you?
(Also, is it possible to write a self-insert fic that isn’t creepy and/or cringeducing?)
Reddit is a funny place. It lures you in, through devious chains of links and bridges with trolls under them. And so it was that I dozed off while on that most eclectic of websites and… [YOU HAVE SEVENTY-TWO HOURS]
says a mighty but soundless voice, just before I wake up.
** DAY ONE **
I’m in a classroom. It’s warm, the ventilation is lousy, and I’m cramped up (or just crammed) in a corner space near a sunlit window. Clearly I’ve been here for some time as I can hardly feel one of my arms. I think I’ve been using it as a pillow, and… eeuuww, gross… I’ve been drooling on it a bit.
The poorly-shaven, scruffy man at the board (chalkboard, really?) is droning on in what sounds like an Okinawan accent. I’m barely able to make out that I’m in a chemistry class, and this has something to do with the electrophilic substitution mechanism used to modify the aromatic ring. Joy, something I understand and to which I need pay no attention at all.
But where am I? That suddenly becomes a much more pressing question. It’s been years since I’ve had a basic wooden schooldesk and been stuck in a room with such poor ventilation. I can smell my classmates, although I am relieved that they don’t smell that bad.
In fact… as my eyes finally learn to focus at any distance but the far range, I seem to have only girls sitting in front of me. Directly in front is a head of shoulder-length hair that’s clearly been dyed a shade of faded honey. And to the right of that is a mass of bright, electric-pink hair, with long tresses corkscrewing liberally…
I don’t normally use ellipses in my thinking or writing. But the tentative nature of my immediate perceptions, and the understanding of those perceptions, makes it necessary. Right now, I have to invent a mental punctuation mark to indicate silent consternation. That’s because I now know where I am, and when. I’ve even figured out whose body I’m occupying and why my right arm feels so out of sorts. It’s not the body I would have chosen. In fact, I’m not sure which one I would have chosen, given that choice.
“So, Taro, would you be so kind as to state the rule for substituent position given a pre-existing electron-donating group?”
I can feel my body’s reflexes kicking in. The temptation is very strong to just let my jaw hang and produce some temporary inanity that will buy me time. I have to fight to overcome that before I reply, “Ah, sir, substitution occurs preferentially at relative positions 2 and 4.”
The teacher’s face lights up, as if he has found love in a place of despair. All around me, I can sense sudden alertness, the response of a stable group that has found unexpected strangeness in its midst, on an otherwise boring occasion. Backsides shift on old chairs. A desk scrapes slightly. I feel gazes swivel and lock on, and a great sense of discomfort crawls into my ribs.
The pink hair in front of me shakes as if a bird is about to take flight from a tree. On her right, a girl with short dark hair (oh yes, I know who you are now) and spectacles looks round with swift, brief, darting movements. Then Shizune (who else?) gesticulates furiously at Misha (nobody else could have that kind of pink hair).
At the very front of the class, my ‘body non-double’ with long black hair and sultry eyes has turned to look at me over her shoulder. That’s Miki Miura, as I’ve always imagined her. Her long legs are crossed, right over left. The only one who doesn’t turn is her neighbour, whose hair is dyed aqua and who seems slumped tiredly in her seat.
I look back at the teacher. “Ha. Very good, Arai-san,” he says, with only a bit of irony in his voice. “That’s a much more precise use of technical language than I have ever heard you use in class. Clearly you are sleepy from studying too hard, and not for the usual reasons. Well done. Please get up and go and wash your face.”
I stand up and bow. He nods and I make my way through the back of the class, trying hard not to stare at each of my fellow classmates. I desperately want to remember each detail of their faces, every mark, even the traces of different fragrances that some of them are wearing. Muttering multiple apologies for the disruption I’m causing, I go past each of the people in the last row.
My current body supplies data: Ritsu with the frozen hand, Akio with the brittle bones (I take great care not to trip over his cane or, worse, over him)… the girl I’m passing by has a strange combination of scents that reminds me of woodsmoke and flowers. Her face is half-hidden by long hair, and I know what she’s hiding; I want to tell her everything will be all right, but I know that’s not something I should do, Hanako. It’s with great difficulty that I keep moving past her, because there’s so much I want to say.
The moment passes. I carefully move behind Naomi, who looks at me absent-mindedly. One more. As I let myself out by the rear classroom door, I am pinned momentarily by the fierce, hawklike gaze of the scruffy girl whom I know as Natsume. It’s as if she’s saying, “I know something’s up with you and I want to know what it is.”
I murmur one last apology and flee into the corridor. Now to find the washroom. Not for the life of me can I remember where it is, but my body navigates fairly automatically, and I go past 3-2, resisting the urge to knock on the door just to see the blonde who must be there, and 3-1—the great unknown, to me—before I come to the tired-looking but clean portal leading to sanctuary.
In my own experience, and it seems, also in the experience of Taro Arai, a toilet cubicle is a great place to collect oneself and reflect on a swirling rush of mad events. The last few minutes, my own (or at least, that’s what I think) consciousness tells me that I am in what seems to be the somewhat depressed mind of a person who would like to be the class joker but isn’t quite confident enough to pull it off. And all this is an imperfect construct I’m building from the memory traces in the head I’m occupying which I’m sure are not mine. I can’t think straight because somehow my own memories and thoughts are sharing the network with someone else. I wonder where he is, and also whether I’m really him, having a delusional attack—like a phantom limb, except that this is a phantom mind.
At the back of that mind, I hear a faint whisper. It’s a young man’s voice.
“I get that too, whoever you are. I have right arm that doesn’t work—but I feel that it does sometimes, and it does things. Yet I can see it isn’t doing anything at all.” There’s a short pause. Then: “You’re making me sound strange. I hope it works.”
He doesn’t sound petulant. He sounds sad. And shortly after, I realize that’s all he’s going to say. Unless he too is merely a figment of my mind.
With a vague sense of uneasiness, I try to arrange events in order. Reddit. Katawa Shoujo, that odd little game with disproportionately great emotional force. A sudden tiredness. A voice giving me seventy-two hours—to do what? And another voice, resigned and mature beyond its apparent years, hoping that something will work.
I know much of what he knows. I get the feeling he allows that access. With a bit of effort, I can remember his breakfast, his silent musings, the forced raucous laughter he uses to disguise melancholy and demonstrate that he doesn’t give a shit about life. And under it all, the deepest sadness: something directed not at himself, but at someone else. It’s not that he has no friends; it’s that he would very much like to develop one friendship, and it’s killing him that he just can’t bring himself to do it. He’s locked up in his head.
As I (we?) leave our sanctuary and head back to class, I find myself consciously making adjustments and getting my bearings. I am taller than he, thinner, with a higher centre of gravity; he is adept at handling things with only one hand, but so am I. He knows the geography of this place better than I do, and he knows most of the people so much better that it makes my heart ache. It’s April 2007, in this odd dream or alternate universe that I’m in. Hisao Nakai, the protagonist of the visual novel I was working my way through, he isn’t here yet—he’s in some hospital far away.
I knock politely at the door, and Mutou-sensei (‘Mr Mutou’? ‘Teacher Mutou’? my/our brain tries to work out) nods me in. My cultural experience isn’t quite up to automatically normal behaviour for a Japanese high school; it’s been years since I had any such exposure. “You’ll have to handle all that,” I subvocalize at Taro Arai, but I receive no response at all, except a sensation of uneasy humour.
As the lesson draws on to its conclusion, I find myself staring at my classmates. Seeing them in the flesh is an experience that is strange and terrible. They don’t have the over-large eyes you see in Japanese pop culture. They do dye their hair, though, and that’s uncanny. The details get to me. Misha has a cute little mole on the back of the left side of her neck. Shizune’s hair is very glossy, as if she uses some special conditioner on it. And in front of me, the girl sitting in Hisao’s place, whom I… I can’t identify. It’s as if I’m being blocked from knowing who she is.
It’s half past twelve, and the sun has risen so high that direct sunlight no longer reaches most of my desk. Mutou turns round. “Ah, so that is all we will be covering today. But before I release you to wreak havoc on the rest of the school, I have an announcement to make.”
My mixed memories tell me that this isn’t normal. Announcements are normally made at the beginning, and occasionally at the end, of a school day. Somewhere inside, I feel a sensation of dread. I don’t know why.
“Miss Enomoto will be leaving us for the roster of the reserve supplementary class. She has special scheduling requirements, and it is with very deep regret that I have to allow her detachment from this class. As you know, she has been one of our best students, and also has performed the duties of class representative excellently well in your junior years. A teacher never likes to see a student leave the group before everyone graduates together. I trust she will manage her schedule well, and visit us whenever she can. She will remain with us till the end of the week.”
All I feel is pain, a deep, sad clawing at my guts. It’s all I can do to not double over in anguish. But Mutou is still speaking.
“Saki, would you like to address your class?”
‘Your class’, he’d said. The memories are leaking out now, unsuppressed. Saki has been class representative of this class for two years. Shizune will be taking over from her, we knew this would happen, but watching it happen is hard. Taro remembers kindness mixed with bitterness, ambition mixed with despair. She’d been nice to him, but in the second year, he’d forgotten she was a dead girl walking, and he’d… the wall of memory slams down against me.
Gingerly, the girl in front of us (I have to acknowledge that we’re stuck with this) stands up and moves gracefully but stiffly (how does that work?) to the front of the class.
“Good afternoon,” she says, bowing, and we all respond automatically. “Thank you for allowing me to serve you as class representative for two years, and for being patient with my deficiencies.”
She smiles, half in self-mockery, but half with the kind of bittersweet pleasure one might have from enjoying an experience that is almost over. It is the most beautiful smile in the world
, Taro thinks. Don’t you think so?
I can’t not think so, since part of our shared mind is certainly thinking that. And Saki is pretty, with regular features, a smooth complexion, lips that are perfectly shaped… it’s hard to tell how much of this is me, and how much is Taro. In front of us, Misha is interpreting for Shizune. The latter is looking at Saki while occasionally glancing at Misha’s hands.
“As you all know, I have a rare kind of spinocerebellar ataxia. It is no excuse for all the times I may have been impolite to you, or unwilling to help, of course. However, the medical specialists have told me that this problem is best handled by some treatments that will take me away from school a lot. That means I will possibly only be able to spend half the day in school. I will try to handle my Art Club duties every afternoon, but I cannot be a class representative when I am not around all day.”
She pauses, a faint grimace visible under her bright smile. Clearly, she’s in some kind of pain—her left hand has risen to rest just below her ribcage. A gastric problem? I don’t know, but I’m willing to bet Taro does. The moment is brief, as she continues: “I would like to… thank Miss Hakamichi for agreeing to cover my class representative duties as well as her own heavy responsibilities as Student Council president. I am sure that Shizune will handle the matters of this class effectively, and certainly in a more efficient way than I.”
Shizune nods. From what I can see of the left side of her face, she is in a somber mood. She doesn’t seem to think of this as a contest that she has won.
Nooooo… don’t go, please don’t go…
I hear myself thinking, pleading. You can fight this, you can do this…
“Thank you for being such a great class. It has been a pleasure to have been able to do what little I could for all of you.”
She bows again, and steps to one side. Mutou holds up a hand, indicating that she should wait a while, and then he nods to Shizune. Shizune comes to the front of the class, and raises her hands, almost like a conductor.
We all stand, and bow. Mutou begins clapping, and we all join in. It’s at that moment that I feel a wrenching sensation. Taro’s sadness has launched into the sky. If he could scream, he would. But tradition, culture, self-awareness, and his own nature prevent him from doing that.
I observe Saki through Taro’s agony. She is smiling still, but her smile is personal. She is smiling at Natsume. I look at Natsume, and realize that Natsume looks as miserable as Taro feels. And then Saki turns her smile on us.
What am I supposed to do with 72 hours? It’s evening now, and I’ve been thinking about sad, defiant, beautiful Saki Enomoto for quite a few of those hours. In the world beyond this, delusional or not, I would have given anything to be able to interact so directly with Shizune and Misha, Miki and Suzu, Natsume and Naomi, and some of the other people in the other classes. In this world, everything revolves around Saki.
She will be my classmate until Friday 13th April. It is Wednesday 11th April today.
As darkness closes around the little circle of my bed, my desk, my homework left undone, I feel tears leak across my eyelids and trickle down my face. They are not my tears, but I can understand how they might be.
BANG. My eyes open, strangely unfamiliar and almost gummed shut by sticky eyelids. BANG. Someone is thumping the flimsy door of… my room. I’m Taro Arai, joker, misfit, loner. I reach out for the doorknob on my right, and miss; this almost sends me crashing to the floor as I get out of my… chair? I could’ve sworn I was sitting on the bed.
I had felt my muscles and tendons shift, but my arm hadn’t moved. Is this what Taro experiences all the time?
There is no reply in my head, either because it is obvious, or because he is leaving all the heavy lifting to me.
“Hey, Taro! We’re having a pizza break. We have unagi pizza with wasabi mayo, that stuff you like so much! With extra spring onions!”
It sounds like… Isamu. Isamu Takagi, the guy we call ‘Brave Lizard’ or ‘Big Sam’ as a joke. Again, the memories that aren’t my own give me information I shouldn’t have.
“Coming!” my stomach replies through my mouth, before I can even wonder about whether I like a pizza with what amounts to spicy creamed eel on it. The body I occupy seizes the doorknob with its much more useful left and yanks the door open. The guys are outside with a stack of pizza boxes. I can smell savoury vapours, and for a moment, I almost feel as if I’m where I belong.
A couple of our other classmates are here too. Professorial, soft-spoken Akio, namesake to our class teacher, seats himself comfortably in the old lounge armchair, taking good care of his brittle bones as always. “So…” he begins conversationally, a slice of garlic pizza in his off-hand, “how have you been coping in this little matter of our much-beloved class representative?”
Suddenly, the appetizing aroma of eel in sweet sauce is no longer attractive. “W-what do you mean?” is all I can say. I have no idea which personality in this body is responding now.
Takashi, who has severe problems with his hearing, barks laughter in my direction. “Har! I’m the one with the bad ears, not you! Come on, of all the guys in the class, Saki mostly talks to you, sometimes to Isamu, and treats the rest of us like dirt!”
Once-tasty pizza in my mouth is now turning to sticky fish and hard bread. Part of me still finds it delicious, but the original mind is not convinced. “N-no, she’s not like that. She’s shy, she doesn’t talk much.”
“When she talks to me, it’s all about ‘Isamu, pass the test papers back here, please’ and not much else. But she’s not my type anyway.”
My shared memory takes the opportunity to inform me that Isamu is probably going out with either Suzu or Moriko (well, ‘Molly’ is on her doorplate), or perhaps both. He’s likely to be telling the truth.
“Yeah, see? She talks to you. All these years, she talks to you. I mean, she’s been a good bitch for us, always getting stuff done on time, a bit like the Satou girl next door. But still, cold, damn cold. Except to you. Har har har!”
That isn’t true. She’s cold to me too. Or so I think. My memory palace has closed doors in it, whole hallways sealed from my thoughts. As if from a great distance, I hear Akio drone on, probing at my weaknesses delicately, the evil thing he does so well with everyone.
“It’s an interesting little problem. She is rather pretty, and some of us have had past crushes on her before, only to be crushed ourselves. But you, if memory serves us well, are the only one to have gone down to the Shanghai with her, just the two of you.”
A door in my mind crashes open, as if a strong wind has flung it aside. I blink and shake my head, desperately trying to remember what’s in that room in my skull. The lurking memory roars, and then turns into a little movie in my head.
Two crippled children walk down the road, the afternoon light dry and unseasonably warm upon them. We’re in the second year, and third trimester exams are done. Somehow, my dream has come true. I am going out with Saki Enomoto. She is slim, perhaps taller than I am. I am out of shape, a little pudgy. People like to caricature me. I don’t care. Her hand rests gently on my right shoulder. Between us, we probably have enough missing and malfunctioning nerves to make a baby… I throw out that thought, but it keeps bouncing back.
“You’ve never really talked too much, Taro,” she whispers. It’s the breathless, raspy voice she uses when she’s tired.
“I haven’t? Me, the class clown?” My voice sounds like a joke. It’s uneven, broken, like some sort of parrot.
“Hey…” she murmurs, “All that stuff you say in class, those jokes you crack? I know what they are.”
“What?” I squeak manfully.
“You’re afraid.” I try to interrupt, but she goes on relentlessly, “Afraid that people will think of you as a sensitive fat kid like the one in that ‘Lord of the Flies’ text that we were forced to read in English. So you act crude, and everyone laughs. But that’s Takashi, not you; difference is, he’s crude and nobody laughs except him.”
“Saki, why are we going out?”
She turns to me slowly and deliberately. She has her bitch face on, the sharp planes of her delicate face converging in the cold warmth of the winter sun.
“Because it’s my way of controlling things. I’m dying, you all know that. But you’re the only one who actually tells me you want me not to die. Who knows? This is my last opportunity to tell you: forget it—you can’t have miracles. Friendship isn’t forever, and love doesn’t endure.”
I’m hurt by this. But I’m a bit like Big Sam Takagi, I need to get things straight. I take a deep breath into my underperforming lungs.
“So it’s not because I told you I loved you, Miss Enomoto?” I grin, making a joke of it despite the complete lack of humour in my heart.
“No. My reply is that it isn’t possible. When I’m gone, nobody will love me. Some might say they did. It won’t be true. Better to save you that trouble.”
“Then why not just tell me in school?”
“I’m not totally a bitch, Taro. Two things are gained here. You get points from everybody because you’re the only one who ever dated Ice Lady Enomoto. And I get to be me with a friend who likes me and doesn’t mind that I’m mostly a bitch.”
She sounds horribly sad. Maybe her words are shields and disguises, just like mine. And maybe that’s one way we’re alike.
I think, much later, that we both enjoyed the time we spent together. It was just once. It was a simple date, just a sandwich and a sundae each. She enjoyed her food, savouring every bit. I said I would cook for her, that I’d never love another person. She laughed a little sourly and said, “Don’t say I’ve spoilt you for someone else. That wouldn’t be fair to anyone.”
I hear Akio’s voice again. “Hmm. I thought ‘monoplegia’ referred to limbs only, excluding the head. Mr Arai, are you alive in there?”
“Yes. I’m alive. I’m okay. It’s not like she’s going away for good. Takashi will still get to drool over her in Art Club, right?”
He swallows the remains of his slice of pizza and flicks a ball of grilled squid at me. I fail to catch it, my nervous system again playing me false, and it lands on my fresh white T-shirt.
Later, after we’ve washed up the blood and food bits, we go to get a little assistance. The night nursing staff wearily remind us not to walk around in dark places and fall over each other so violently.
I’m disgusted at my responses. Clearly I’m not the violent one in this body. Yet there was a lot of pleasure in pasting my fat left fist in Takashi’s face. I shudder. I wonder how much control Taro has, and how much I have.
** DAY TWO**
The second day doesn’t take me with as much surprise as the first day. I’m woken by the alarm clock at dawn, around six. Getting dressed with one arm is by now a natural thing; if I take my mind off it, my body does the rest.
I let the body go through its motions while I look around. The reality of Yamaku Academy is slightly different from the stylized version I’ve seen in simply rendered computer graphics. There’s a lot more wood and light than I expected, but also a lot more glass and steel. The architecture is a peculiar blend of post-war utilitarian, traditional, and modern technological.
I have just a bit more than 48 hours left, if I’m not hallucinating too badly. I get to class early, then find myself looking out of the window.
“Don’t be sad, Taro-chan!~” says the chirpy, well-rounded voice of the Misha I am coming to know. She has a chesty voice, as one might have guessed. How anyone can chirp while having such sultry undertones is a wonder to me. “Shizune says you seem to be handling things well, it is good that you’re paying attention in class. Washing your feet before a religious conversion… wait! What does that even… oh yes. Turning over a new leaf, sorry, Misha is slow today, hold on, I’m Misha!~”
It is exhausting, but rather fun, to be listening to her. She’s very cheerful. But after what I spent the night thinking about, I wonder if she too hides an inner demon.
“Thanks, Shizune,” I reply, nodding in my new class representative’s direction. “Thanks also, Misha, for being so cheerful.”
Shizune raises an eyebrow, perhaps not at the words she can’t hear, but at my demeanour. Misha stands dumbfounded, one hand involuntarily waving towards herself as if to say, “Me?”
It has suddenly occurred to me that Taro has many things to be thankful for. He just doesn’t realize what they are. He isn’t disliked. He’s the good joker, not the bad one. The girls enjoy his cooking, a random memory tells me. He masterminds the food menu whenever the class is running a stall for a festival. He is meticulous about such things, is considered trustworthy with class funds.
He hasn’t known Shizune or Misha well because they weren’t in his class for the last two years. That’s probably why they can still be surprised by him. And when I look at Shizune’s hair, her pointed chin and the way her right jaw muscle twitches when she thinks; or when I see Misha absentmindedly twirl a coil of pink hair back and forth between the second and third fingers of her left hand; these are things I see that he too is seeing for the first time.
Misha catches herself, quickly interprets what was just said. Shizune smiles and nods. It’s a very gracious smile, but also genuine, marking a young lady’s appreciation. For a moment, I would love to stay and watch, because I’ve always been intrigued by the girl as she appears in the visual novel. And yes, she has a nice figure; how does she keep herself so trim on a diet of fried food?
But then Saki walks into the room, and my focus immediately shifts to her. It’s almost as if I don’t want to look at anyone else.
Deliberately, almost gliding, she makes her way to her seat in front of mine. She takes time to nod at various classmates, she exchanges some words with Misha-and-Shizune. Then she turns to me. “Good morning, Taro. I trust you slept well?”
I have no idea how to answer that. By reflex (but whose, I wonder), I reply, “Good morning, Saki. Well enough, thank you.”
My class representative smiles, adjusts her skirt, and sits down. I notice that there are signs of strain in the skin around her eyes, and her shoulders seem stiff and unnaturally poised. But there’s no time for questions or overtures, because class is starting.
Her head tilts towards me, almost unnoticeably inclined. The first person to notice is of course Misha, whom some people think must be hearing-impaired but who is actually pretty observant.
I slip Saki my note, feeling horribly adolescent. Most of me is, anyway, in this surreal situation. She snags it between two artistic fingers, somehow at the same time managing to convey to her pink-haired neighbour that it would be far better for her health if Shizune were not to know about it.
Without moving much, she makes it disappear. Minutes later, as Iwata-sensei approaches the end of his punchy little lecture on ‘very small numbers and how they add up’, a little origami horse appears on the edge of my desk. I twitch, startled by the sudden sight.
With trembling fingers, I unfold the horse carefully, a difficult task at that scale, and even more difficult with only one hand. [Thanks for the invitation. It’s not love, don’t delude yourself. Meet me outside the Student Council room at 5 pm.]
So, no second date at the Shanghai. Maybe I should have suggested the park. The older me sees this as somebody else’s lost cause; Taro feels sad in a more well-defined way—he feels like a gambler who is watching his last chip disappear, knowing that he never really had a chance to win everything back.
But she folded a horse for us,
I remind my other self. Maybe you have a chance.
I suddenly feel invested in Taro’s success. I have fewer than 48 hours left. At some point, I find that I’ve decided to spend them on Taro, instead of walking around the school looking at people I’ve always wanted to see. What a fool I am.
“So, you naughty fuck, when did you decide to move out of our little club of failures? Shit, you’ve actually been studying!”
She doesn’t sound angry. It’s just the way she is, my ‘body non-double’. Miki is everything Taro is not—tall (almost as tall as Lilly Satou, our shared memory tells me), dark, and handsome. I’m fat and out of shape, the legacy of too much cooking and eating, too little running and dancing. The only thing that has given us a bond is the fight for last place in the class.
My inert right arm twitches slightly, because one of those long, long legs has come into contact with it as Miki makes herself comfortable on my desk. My mind recalls that she doesn’t care who sees how much of her. Who wouldn’t want to see more? Who would like to get punched in the eye with a stump designed to fit right into a man’s eye-socket? An unwelcome and rather bloody memory makes itself known to me.
“Ah, it was a fluke. I’m not so smart. Just that Akio was studying out loud the other night and I was listening.”
“Hey, there’s no call to malign me like that. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day,” says a faint voice somewhere to my right.
Miki leans forward, her musky odour wafting into my nostrils. I press myself back into my chair, intimidated but aroused. A corner of my mind notes that she’s again been haphazard in securing her shirt buttons. A second corner says that purple lace doesn’t quite suit her. A third corner points out that pointing this out now will get us killed, so I stop thinking before I get to fourth base.
“You’re different,” she says, sniffing. With a very un-Miki-like concern, she asks, “Did you fall down and scramble your eggs again?”
I’m puzzled, until the appropriate chunk of memory surfaces. She’s referring to an incident some time ago when I was taking the stairs, swerved to the right to avoid Emi Ibarazaki (who has no legs but runs around recklessly on her prosthetics) and tried to hold on to the rails with my right hand. Result: instant visit to our head nurse, concussion diagnosed, bed rest under observation. That time, it was Miki who helped me out.
“No, Miki. I don’t think so. Thanks for asking.”
“Any time, lover-boy,” she says, a trace of puzzlement still evident in her smirk. “Seeya later at remedial class!” she adds, getting off my desk with a gravity-defying butt-swaying motion. I’m sure she knows what she’s doing.
There aren’t many of us left in class. The first one out after the last class was Hanako; in fact, she’d left quietly before I noticed. This is canon
the me that is me (?) reminds me. At the right of the front row, Ikuno is finishing up an essay with her usual slow, precise penmanship. At the right of my end row, Natsume is glaring in my direction; she glares at everyone, so I’m not too concerned. The class seating plan seems almost as strange to Taro as it does to me, and I wonder why. I dig a little deeper. Hmmm. Apparently, Emi and her friend Rin Tezuka had moved to 3-4 to make way for Shizune and Misha, and some of my classmates had taken advantage of that change to book different seats.
I have conflicting memories. Part of me thinks this is a game, a fevered construct of my imagination. Part of me is sure this is reality. Both of me think the other half is bleeding through from too many late nights on the computer. I’m not sure who is right, but the learning curve is steep.
I ask myself belatedly, realizing the implications. Remedials begin at 5 pm. It’s 4.45 now. I’m supposed to meet Saki at the Council room. I’m probably going to be black-marked for this. Taro isn’t a bad student. He’s conscientious. He isn’t late for classes. This will not be good.
I grab my stuff and hustle out through the back door. On my way, Natsume puts out a hand as if to attract my attention, or perhaps stop me. I look at her, and I suppose my desperation is showing, because she withdraws her hand and nods, her amber eye catching the last glint of afternoon sun. I suspect she’s got questions. Her journalistic instincts are unnerving.
I hurry down the corridors, which I wish I could examine in greater detail, and head down the stairs to the Council room. There’s no time to be a tourist, worse luck. There’s a tea-room I’d like to visit, but Taro’s urgency is overriding everything.
As I reach the correct floor, I hear a door shut softly and turn towards the sound. “You’re early,” she says. In the off-white glow of energy-saving lamps, her hair is still honeyed, and her features are softened by shadow. Saki is indeed very pretty. She is like a Disney princess, like someone who belongs in Tokyo and not up here in Sendai.
“Sorry, Saki. I’ve got remedials in the library at 5 pm and I forgot.”
“Oh, that’s right. You and Miura.” She sighs, for no reason that I can imagine. “I’ll come with you. We can talk on the way.” She adjusts the pile of books in her arms and juggles a bit with her formal school jacket. I can’t help her with the books, so I content myself with offering a shoulder. She releases a small grin and drapes her jacket on me. It smells of something flowery, but light and not particularly sweet. It smells comfortable and warm.
We’re halfway there when she breaks the companionable silence. “Taro, I don’t have many friends, and I suppose I’ll technically have none when I’m gone. Thanks for trying. I’ve tried to be fair to you, but there isn’t any way to do that.”
“You’ll still be around, Saki. I’ll go bug Takashi and use him as an excuse to visit the Art Club.” I’m babbling. We’re babbling.
“You could do that. But one day, somebody else will be sitting in that seat in front of you. Someday, I won’t be able to return even for Art Club meetings. And you’ve got to understand that. You’re a nice person. If you think you’re ugly, at least you’re pleasantly ugly. You will feel pain. I don’t want to hurt you, so I have to condition you to the pain.”
She says all this softly, exactly, in low tones that make things very clear. I want to hold her, to hug her one last time before I have to learn to let go.
She looks at me. “I have to patch things up with Natsume, I have to learn not to be angry at Shizune. I have many things to do. Are you good to go?”
is what all parts of me want to say. But my body nods, voiceless.
Saki gives me that half-smile again. Suddenly I realize, illuminated, what that smile means. It’s the smile that says, “Yeah, I know it sucks, but we’ll make the best of it.”
As if echoing that thought, her lips part, and she says, “Taro, we all do what we can, with whatever we have left. Promise me you’ll remember that?”
We’ve come to the library, and I know I have never hated the idea of remedial lessons so much as in this one pinpoint moment in the history of the world.
“Yes,” I whisper.
“Why are we whispering?” she says, still smiling. She gestures around her, at the nodding hordes of junior students, mostly first years. “They should all know that you’re one of my few friends. Maybe they will remember that. I doubt anything will remain, but who knows?”
“See you tomorrow, Saki,” I nerve myself to say.
“Till tomorrow, big man.” I almost laugh at that, because that’s a Miki line, and not like Saki at all. She snags her jacket from me, patting my shoulder as if to say thanks, or perhaps for luck, and turns slowly on one heel.
I watch her slim, stiff back disappear into the crowd. I don’t know what to feel, as I lean against the library door.
** DAY THREE **
She isn’t in class. That’s all wrong. This is supposed to be her last day in 3-3. We have all prepared little gifts. Instead, there is an empty seat in front of me. Nothing of her remains except perhaps the faint trace of a quiet floral scent. I am struck by Taro’s realization that he will hate whoever it is who ends up sitting there. Whatever there is of me knows who will end up there, at least in the game, and I can’t really hate that person myself.
At lunchtime, we abandon both the ‘bento-in-classroom’ clique and the ‘hunt-for-strange-food-in-cafeteria’ clique. We don’t have much time. We have to know if Saki is in school. I can feel my rising panic, and I know Taro and I are both feeling the same way. In a very abstract way, a very tiny part of me is laughing that now, more than two days after this began, I still don’t know how to describe the Taro/me or I/we situation in proper language.
I head into the administration block, towards the healthcare unit. I pause to catch my breath outside the Head Nurse’s office. My lack of fitness will kill me, but not today. I knock, and a sharp clinical voice commands, “Enter.”
“Nurse? Have you seen Miss Enomoto?”
“Saki? Yes, she was off to the hospital this morning, dropped by here on the way out.”
When he grins, I can hardly see his eyes. He somehow has always given me the impression of a man overacting his part. But I’m in no mood for games.
He interrupts me. “She’s fine. I know that she’s supposed to have one last day in your class, Mr Arai, but she has a lot of things to do before she starts her new schedule next week.”
One of his eyes opens much wider than the other, like some caricature of a cartoon supervillain. “Is there anything specific I can help you with? How’s the phantom non-phantom limb sensation?”
“Ah… is Saki coming back to school today?”
“Very likely. It depends on whether there were further tests, but she should be back at the dorms by mid-afternoon at the latest. She could be back in her room by now, actually. Not that you should be visiting the girls’ dorm unescorted.”
He tilts his head and gazes at me with that odd one-eyed stare. “Possibly, it could be my duty to check on that. Especially since Miss Enomoto left her phone on my desk this morning in her hurry to escape my paperwork. Would you like to join me?”
My mouth is hanging open. A bit self-consciously, I shut it and swallow. “May I make a humble request for some time? I have something to pick up first.”
He laughs, both his eyes disappearing into his head again. “Oh, no problem. You might be late for afternoon classes, but I can give you a pass. Meet you at the entrance to the ladies’ block in ten minutes. No, fifteen. You’re not very fit, Mr Arai, you should take up some light aerobic exercise.”
“Thank you, thank you, sir,” I manage to say. I can’t get back to my own dorm fast enough. I’ve prepared the ingredients of a bento lunch for Saki, and it will need some quick warming up. And I have to slice the sashimi, which isn’t easy for a one-armed chef. Running is hard, when you can’t balance your body well.
In the end, I’m late, and it infuriates me. But Nurse Kaneshiro is patiently waiting, no trace of offence on his face. Rather, there’s what could be a lewd smirk spreading over it. “Ah, that looks like a boxed lunch. How considerate of you. I’m sure she’ll appreciate the gift.”
He does sound sincere, so I try not to think bad thoughts about him as we head into the mysterious domain of the feminine. There’s hardly anyone around. Women are social animals, and they prefer to gossip over lunch, where each group can watch the other groups warily, like animals at a waterhole. Some are zebras, and some are lionesses.
I mentally smack Taro over the head, for that thought. I receive a sensation of mild confusion in return: What’s wrong with thinking that? It’s true!
Saki’s there. The lurching sensation in my chest seems to be one of relief. She’s fumbling with her keys as she attempts to get the door open. “Fuck!” she says, as she somehow fails to do so. It stops me short, because the Saki I know doesn’t use such crude language.
Nurse grins. “Hey, Miss Enomoto! Life is not so hard, surely?”
She looks up in surprise, her eyes narrowed a little in anger. Curiosity follows, and then a large and artificial smile.
“Nurse! You came to check on innocent little me? And who did you bring along?”
“Oh, Mr Arai was just passing along as innocently as you, and I dragged him over because he wanted to give his class representative a gift of appreciation.”
“Really? How kind of him!”
Her brittle and unconvincing tones are getting on my nerves. Why is she doing this? Clearly, Nurse is aware that something’s not right. The difference between us is that he’s nodding; he knows what it is. Absentmindedly, he places her cellphone on the bag she’s carrying. She doesn't even bother to look at it.
“The hospital emailed me the relevant results, and I’ve just had a chance to look at them.”
“Yes! I thought you would know.” She smiles even more brightly than before and finally gets her door open. “Thanks for all your trouble! It is much appreciated!”
The door slams in our faces.
We’re back in Nurse’s office. My lovely bento is cooling on the table. Soon, it won’t be at its best, and my heart aches for that criminal waste of ingredients. But my heart is aching even more for other reasons.
“Well, patient confidentiality and all that. But you should be able to make some conclusions from Miss Enomoto’s behaviour.”
“It’s bad, isn’t it?” My uncontrollable hand is trembling by itself. I look at it curiously. I look at Nurse fearfully.
“Let’s just say that some things shouldn’t be discussed. Perhaps she’ll tell you when she’s ready.”
I stare silently at him. His lips are pursed tightly, and his usual smile is nowhere to be seen.
“Thank you, Nurse.” I stand, bow, take my sad bento, and walk towards his door dejectedly.
“She’ll need friends,” he says, just as I reach the door. I turn and nod once more, unable to add anything.
“An infiltration op? Brilliant. Splendid. I never knew you had it in you, Arai.”
I sigh inwardly. Of all the helpers I could find, the first available one would have to be Kenji Setou, reclusive dweller on the split lowest residential level of the male dorms. As far as I can tell, the rooms around him are voluntarily unoccupied. But here he is, stained scarf and thick glasses and all.
“So, how do we ‘infiltrate’ the girls’ dorms at night, Setou?”
“Ah, trust me,” he says, tapping the side of his nose knowingly. “It’s Friday night, and the guardians of masculine freedom tend to be lax. You’ll have to watch out for female patrols, though. They carry stun-guns and will have no compunction about thrusting a cattle-prod into some sensitive orifice.”
He’s terrifying. Utterly insane. But he knows how to move unseen around the school. Somehow, he has smuggled in all kinds of contraband items, and he has raided every block in the school for ‘liberated technology’.
He maps out a plan for me, then wishes me good luck. He clenches a fist and thumps it over his chest. “For honour and glory!” he proclaims. I look at him disbelievingly, then return his salute with my left fist. “Good man!” he replies, shoving his papers towards me. “Do your best, and I will put your name up on my board to remind me of you even if you fall in battle.”
“After this is over, you can call me Kenji, and we can share manly drinks.”
In the end, I survive the climb, the drop, the entangled harness problem that Kenji had warned me about, and the bright lights of the intruder warning system. Carefully, I put my tools (actually, his) into the black canvas bag and huff-puff my way along the roof of the female dormitory block.
I’m about to test the locking mechanism on the roof access door when I hear the sound, and freeze. Someone’s just moved in the shadows to my right.
“Hello. It’s a clear night.”
It’s an unnatural voice. It’s clear, exact, sharp. It’s as if a bell is speaking. I try to understand what I’m hearing.
“Suzu once told me that Death plays games. Whether he or she, Death doesn’t want to have victory cheaply. Death wants a good job done by everyone, and that’s why I’m not jumping off this roof, in case you’re wondering.”
When I turn, I see Saki ghostly in the moonlight. She’s in a light grey tracksuit, hooded against the cold, night air. Her honeyed hair and bright face look very alive against the deathly background of shadow and chill, and the words she is speaking.
“So, are you here to make a statement? To jump off the roof for me? Please don’t. That’s foolish, and since I don’t have any affection for you, it would be futile.”
It’s a thrust to my heart, but I suspect she is using a blunted blade. I dig into my rucksack. “I brought you a bento. The earlier one wasn’t so good, so I ate it for dinner. This one’s for your supper.”
“You could just have met me at the courtyard.”
“It’s after curfew.”
“The guards don’t mind if you tell them you’re going to die and need a few moments.”
Even blunt blades hurt when applied with force.
“Will you eat with me?”
Sunrise has come and gone, and the weight of her warm body on my dead arm has been the one constant in this changing night. We have heard the sounds of late-night revelers and gamers, the sounds of people going to bed and waking up.
I am a stranger in a body not my own, and I have had an experience we will never forget. “Saki?” I whisper, and I’m not sure which ‘I’ it is.
She stirs, like a cat about to wake up, blink, and lick its paws. “Mmmm?”
“We’re very late for class.”
She stiffens, then punches me in the side. “It’s Saturday, fool.”
I smile at her, and she smiles back. That smile is golden, almost as golden as the sunlight shining across the rooftop on this morning of the fourteenth day of April, 2007.
Without warning, [YOU HAVE FIVE MINUTES LEFT]
booms in my head. I would stagger and fall, if not for the fact that I am already sitting on the ground. Dazed, I scrabble for words.
“Saki, goodbye!” I say, desperate. “Will you kiss me? Will you remember my bento?”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
I have no idea. Taro will soon be in control of my, no, his, body. I am losing everything, but I have four minutes left. I can’t just grab her. That would not be right at all. I have to do something.
“Saki, in three minutes’ time, things may change. But you have to tell me, in three minutes’ time, about our friendship, and how much it really means to you. You don’t have to use the word ‘love’. You only need to tell me what the rest of my life will mean to me, and you need to promise that you will follow your own rule about doing what you can with what you have.”
She is looking at me, bemused. She is beautiful in the morning sun. It must be almost half past eleven now. “Taro?”
“Do it. Two minutes.”
“Do I have to say what I want to say in only two minutes? I think I have more to say than that.”
“No, no, start in two minutes. I need to close my eyes. You’re too beautiful.”
Deliberately, I close my eyes. When these eyes next open, I won’t be here. I try to thank Taro for sharing his body with me, out-of-shape or not. He’s given me 72 hours that I can never repay him for, in any way.
roars a mighty voice which makes no sound at all. And my eyelids spring open.