So Much In The Dark
“So, you and Hisao are going on a date on Saturday?” He asks, positively beaming.
“Something like that.” I stare straight ahead as we make our way from the main building.
“This is going to be exciting. Are you excited? I'm excited.”
“Not really.” I continue walking.
“You're just saying that. You're nervous, I can tell. It's okay to be nervous.”
“Okay.” It's gotten dark so fast.
“Don't worry. I would be nervous too.”
“I really doubt that.”
He laughs. I stop walking, he stops too. We stare at eachother for a few long moments, his expression is unreadable and I wish I could say the same for mine. But just being around him makes me feel like I want to cry. Eager to change the subject, I take a glance at my surroundings. The school grounds are covered with shadows and absolutely still, without even the sounds of the wind or the occasional bird.
“It's so dark.” I fumble with the words. I've run out of things to talk about, I don't want to talk about anything. I don't want to be here. Not anymore, I hate it.
“It's always dark here, Suki.” He says quietly.
“Where's the table? The game?” I ask. This is different again, and different is bad. Instead of that tiny, claustrophobic emptiness, I'm standing outside the girls' dormitory, next to a familiar skeleton draped in black robes.
“Time out.” Death raises his bony hands to form one of the signals I've seen used in sports games on television. Usually something like that would be said in his derisively sarcastic tone, but this time he's completely serious. It only makes my stomach clench tighter with a mixture of fear and dread.
I want to wake up. What was I doing? Where was I? I don't want to be here. Please.
“It's my turn though.” The last thing I want is a nice long chat. I'd rather things be back to normal, back to our game. Hell, I don't even have to be winning again, I just don't want to be here, like this, now.
“Is it? It's so hard to keep track sometimes.” He replies, still completely serious. Slowly, he takes a seat at the top of the cement stairs--I hear the sound of bones creaking--and gestures for me to do the same. I have half a mind to bolt through the doors and make for my room, and he knows it. After all, it's all in my head to begin with.
“Don't run, Suki. You won't like it.”
I won't like it here either, but Death actually sounds tired instead of threatening for once. With no real choice, I sit next to him. He stares across the grounds with empty, dark eye sockets, as if watching the sunset. But the sky is a sheet of black, without stars or lights of any kind.
“This is nice, isn't it? Sitting here like this.”
“It wouldn't be any fun if you agreed with me, Suki.” He tilts his head--skull--in my direction, his grating, distorted voice regaining a bit of the usual edge.
“We used to do this all the time.” He says.
“No.” No. This is where I draw the line. I'm not doing this, not in my dreams, not in my head. I stand up, my fear has turned into rage. Or, it's getting there at least. Death slowly lifts his head to look up at me.
“That wasn't with you. It never was.” I glare down at the figure next to me. He stares back quietly for what feels like minutes.
“I don't have much more time to play with you, Suzu.” He turns again to watch the nonexistent sunset. “You'll be gone soon, one way or another.”
“Like I'm listening to anything you say.”
“I happen to be an expert...” Death cups his bony jaw in one hand, still staring off in the distance. “...on this topic.” He chuckles, a sound like someone's choking gasp.
I don't know what to say to that. This is right around the time I usually wake up. I try to pinch my arm through my sleeve, it's never worked before but it's worth a try now. Death watches with what I can tell is amusement, even though he has no lips or eyes to convey it.
“That would be too easy, Suki.” He slowly gets to his feet again, knees and legs snapping and popping, the sound makes me sick. “Too easy.”
“I'll be going now, Suki. You have a lot to do, I'm sure.” He turns to look me straight in the eyes, and I'm frozen in place. Something about that gaze, that stare.
I can't fight it. I can't get away from it. I feel powerless, like a...
Like a scared teenage girl, standing in the street, screaming for help.
My eyes begin to burn.
“The next time we meet, it will be time for our game to end.” Death says solemnly.
“What do I get for winning?” I sniff, wiping my eyes. There's no point in hiding anything from him, I already know those empty sockets see straight through me.
Death smiles. I don't know how he does it, I can just tell that he does.
“What do you want?” He asks.
I don't know what I was expecting him to say. Not that, that's for sure. I try to think of something, anything, but nothing comes, and I don't want to risk testing his patience.
“I don't know.” I say at last. Death smiles wider, again, not in the skull of a face, but in the feeling that he's giving off, somehow I just know. It's in the air, part amusement, a tiny drop of sorrow, and the rest is entirely predatory.
“That's okay.” He says, nodding slightly. “I do.”
One bony hand shoots forward like a snake towards my head and--
I cry out, my eyes snapping open. I feel myself falling backwards. Luckily I land on the tile floor of the cafeteria, instead of the hard cement of the stairs outside. I stare up at the lights in the ceiling, my chest heaving up and down.
Dream. It was just a dream. Right, of course it was. It's always a dream. It's always been a dream.
Geez. That was... that was...
Aaaugh. I don't have time for nightmares. Several heads poke into my vision, Miki on the right, Taro on the left. Miki looks like she's not sure whether to ask if I'm okay or to laugh, and Taro's eyes show concern while his mouth shows nothing but affection for the pork bun currently occupying it.
I can't deal with this crap right now, I'm still freaking out about the physics test tomorrow and the... thing? The date? The thing. Whatever it is that comes after the test and will hopefully be a lot more enjoyable. I pull myself up off the floor and twist my shoulders back and forth to test for any evidence of sprains. No new ones, anyway. I sit back down at the table, a half-eaten but luckily unsquished sandwich in front of me.
“I'd give that one a ten out of ten.” Akio mutters, either his gaze went straight back to the book perched in one hand or it never left to begin with.
“Lunch and a show, what a deal.” Miki bumps me with her left shoulder, smiling encouragingly. I can't help but smile back, she always knows how to push my buttons that way. Sitting across from me, Hisao looks at me with genuine concern.
“Bad dream?” He asks.
You could say that. Actually, yeah. Yup. Bad dream. I guess I get my fair share of those.
“Not really. It's nothing.” I smile, hoping I'm awake enough to sound sincere. He doesn't look convinced, but he nods and goes back to slurping a bowl of noodles. By this point he's completely settled into the groove of eating lunch with us, and doesn't even seem to mind the food anymore. But the sudden disconnect hangs in the air between us. This sucks, I want that smile back. I aim a gentle kick under the table, just enough to tap his leg. Hopefully he's not at a school for the disabled because of crippling explosive leg... syndrome. Yeah.
Hisao looks up, and we lock eyes again. “I mean it. I'm fine.” I say.
Please please please yes. Hisao smiles, a real smile. “Okay. I'm glad.”
We continue looking at eachother from across the table even after the two of us fall silent. That's our thing, I guess. We're dating now, it's probably normal to have a thing. Wait, are we dating now? We haven't actually--I mean, am I technically--I don't know. Man. It's been like this all day, the two of us awkwardly walking on eggshells around eachother, happy but unsure just what to do. I don't feel like a different person than I was before yesterday. The only thing that's changed is that I can't look at Hisao without getting that feeling, what do they call it? Butterflies. It's a good feeling. And it scares the crap out of me.
On the other side of the table, Hisao looks about as attentive to things as I am. I wonder what he's thinking about? Maybe the same thing as me? Did he always used to do that, or are these long staring sessions so boring to him that he's started to daydream too? No, no, if he was bored he wouldn't bother doing it. And if I was that boring he wouldn't have... he asked me to...
Miki appears in my peripheral vision, I can just make out her face, frowning in concentration, and something in her hand. There's a clicking sound. I glance over to see her grinning at us, brandishing her phone.
“Sorry, I couldn't help it. It was a kodiak moment.” She laughs and turns the screen around so I can see the picture she just took. On one side is me, staring intently at Hisao, slightly blushing. On the other is him, staring straight back, a distant smile on his lips and his head just as much in the clouds as me.
“A kodiak is a kind of bear.” I say, trying to hide my embarrassment. Hisao is pretending to be fascinated by his noodles, but now he's blushing a little too.
“Whatever, it was too cute.” Miki laughs again, then she winks at me conspiratorially “I'll send it to you in just a second.” She whispers.
“Yes, that, do that.” I whisper back, then quickly turn to Hisao, my cheeks still flushed.
“That reminds me.” I say. “Your number, I need it. In case of emergencies.”
Hisao's lips turn upwards in a slight grin. He reaches for his pocket. “Emergencies?”
I nod. “Yeah. Sleep emergencies. Test emergencies. Or what, your dorm mate, Kenji right? Maybe I could warn you ahead of time when the feminist invasion is about to go down. It could save your life.”
Hisao groans, glancing quickly at the other guys around the table, but none of them seem to think less of him because of his association with the semi-blind conspiracy theorist. If anything, even Lezard gives him a look of pity, the first time he's even deigned to glance in his direction all day.
He's mad. We haven't even told anyone about our plans to start dating yet besides Miki who's sworn to secrecy, and he's still picked up on the change in the air. He notices me peering at him and I quickly look away.
I wish it didn't have to be like this. Lezard is... well, he's an ass, most of the time anyway. But every once in a while he tries to do something slightly less asinine--is that? Asinine? Nine asses? Is that how--whatever. The point is, sometimes he'll go out of his way to do something nice for me, even if he's not very good at it. And it makes me wonder if it's his weird way of telling me that he likes me. I don't know how to respond to things like that, and when I never seem to react in the right way, he gets even more annoyed and goes back to being an ass again. And that's why, after being in the same class all year, he's still nothing more than a friend. It makes me feel uncomfortable, not like I feel threatened by him or anything, but I think he has feelings that I don't, but he won't say or do anything about it so there's nothing either of us can do but let things stay the way they are. Well things are changing, and even though they weren't great before, it's clear that he's unhappy with the way they're going now.
I'm sorry Lezard, I can't help it. I don't want to hurt your feelings, but I don't know what you want and even if I did I don't think I want the same. There's nothing I can do about that. Thinking about it makes me depressed, but I look up and find that Miki is giving my phone number to Hisao, since I've been present but tied up with other things.
“...452, right?” Hisao is tapping at his cell phone, frowning in concentration. He looks like he isn't familiar with using it much at all.
“You got it.” Miki nods, grinning.
“What?” I look back and forth between the two of them. Someone could have poked me or something, they didn't need to go around my back. Well not around my back, more like right in front of me. I need to stop spacing out like this.
“Don't you worry Suzu, adults are talking.” Miki winks at me, tapping away at her own phone with her good hand. Normally she has trouble doing a lot of things that would require two hands, but being the gossip that she is, navigating her phone was one of the tasks that she adapted to quickly.
“What?” I turn to Hisao, but he's biting his lip, obviously focusing. “Juust a second.” He says.
A few moments tick past. I look at Taro, who's sitting next to me.
“What?” I ask, but he just shrugs and continues jovially chewing his second bun.
My pocket vibrates. “I'm Suzu's phone and I'm getting a text message.” A familiar voice chirps, muted by the fabric covering it. Miki had recorded the notification tone a few months ago without telling me, the first time I'd gotten a message had almost given me a heart attack. But I'd kept it, it's kind of funny in a dumb way, and Miki loves to hear her own voice coming from my phone, so it works for everyone.
“That's your ringtone?” Hisao looks at me incredulously. I tilt my head at Miki, who flashes another wide grin.
“Isn't it great?” She says.
“I'm Suzu's phone and I'm getting a text message.” My pocket replies. The tinny sound next to the real thing produces a weird contrast. I pull out my phone, a message pops up telling me that I have two new texts.
One is from Miki, with the subject of “Just kiss alrdy”. Attached is the picture of me and Hisao that she took.
Right, that's. Right. I make a carefully neutral face as I save the picture and then move on to the next message. It's from a new number, and it says, in all capital letters, “HI. IT'S HISAO.”
I look up at him. “You know you're yelling when you type like that right?”
He blinks. “Oh, yeah. I just really wanted to make sure you knew it was me.”
Lunch break ends, and we make the trek back to the classroom. Before going in though, I tug on the back of Hisao's shirt, motioning for him to walk with me a little further down the hallway. He complies, looking a little nervous but not irritated or anything. Join the club.
“So, uh. Saturday.” I mumble. There's an elephant in the room and I need a new ivory keyboard for my piano. Actually I've never played a piano in my life, I'd probably make better music passing out onto it than I would actually trying to play it. But that aside. We agreed to do something together the day after tomorrow, and I still have no idea what.
“Right. I haven't really thought about it.” He quickly catches himself. “Well I mean I've thought about it. A lot, actually. I just don't have any ideas yet because I don't really know what you're into.”
Into. That makes sense I guess. What am I into? Not really that many things that would make for an exciting date. I don't go out much, partly by choice and partly by necessity. I don't like unfamiliar places, especially when I'm by myself.
“Well... unless you want to sit around and read together, I think we'd be better off going with something you like.”
“What, no option for a slumber party?” Hisao grins. I scoff in mock indignation.
“That's not funny. You think that's funny?” I can't help but smile though. It was funny.
He laughs, holding up his hands in a peacemaking gesture. “Okay, okay. You'd probably destroy me in a pillowfight anyway.”
“True, true.” I pretend to consider the idea. “I have spent years honing my technique. I wield my weapon, Excali... pillow... with deadly accuracy.”
Hisao frowns, not quite understanding the reference.
“I pulled it from a stone.” I add. He tilts his head, still not getting it.
“Anyway,” I give up. “The point is that if you ever tried to best me in a pillow fight, you would already be dead.”
“I'm not quite sure about that, but I'll take your word on it for now.” He says. “In that case... I don't really know. All I've really done since getting here is read books. I used to play soccer when I was younger, but... do you like soccer?”
I have to shake my head. “Me and organized sports don't really get along. Besides, don't they have spiked shoes in that game?”
“Yeah, those.” I shake my head harder. The thought of passing out and getting trampled by a group of soccer players makes me shiver. Hisao seems to understand.
“I never really played it seriously anyway. And the nurse doesn't want me doing something as intensive as that so I don't mind.” He says. At the mention of something medical, my ears perk up.
“Really?” He still hasn't told me what it was that brought him to Yamaku in the first place. I know something like that can be deeply personal, but, well, we've grown a little close in the time since he's arrived, and we're even dating now. Or... sort of. Not yet? This situation is so weird. I just want the physics test to be over so something, anything can happen.
“Yeah.” Hisao nods. He knows that I'm still in the dark, and a pensive, thoughtful look crosses his face. I think he's about to tell me his deep dark secret. I brace myself, staring at him attentively. He looks like all his... parts... are working. How bad could it be?
Hisao takes a deep breath, opens his mouth to speak... and then closes it again, running out of steam. I stand there and watch him, waiting patiently. It's the least I can do for all the times I've zoned out on him.
“Er.” He gives that uncomfortable frown that I've come to know. Come on, don't chicken out! I won't judge you, I promise. I know I don't really need to know, but I want to understand you more. I want to know who you are, faulty immune system or autoimmune disease or, or genetic mutation and concealed superpowers, whatever. It doesn't make you a bad person.
Please don't be scared. This is nothing to be scared over. I could tell you all about being scared.
“I think the bell is about to ring. We should head back to class.” He says. No!
“I'm pretty sure we have a few more--” The loud chime that suddenly echoes through the halls cuts me off. Damn it.
“See? I was right.” Hisao smiles, looking both a little relieved and a little disappointed himself. He's already walking back towards the classroom, I trail behind him. You might win this time Hisao, but I'm not giving up yet. I'll learn your secret identity if it's the last thing I do.
Actually, that's supervillian talk. I'm not a supervillian, I'm a sidekick. Well. I guess I could be the hero when Miki isn't around. And besides, I of all people don't have a right to pry secrets out of Hisao.
After class gets out, Miki kidnaps me to help time her for some laps at the track, claiming that there will be plenty of chances to be alone with Hisao soon. I don't quite like the tone in her voice as she says it, but at least she hasn't talked to me about the birds and the bees yet. That's a silly analogy anyway, birds don't even like bees. Or do they? Do birds eat bees? And what does that even have to do with... with...
...anyway. Before I know it, it's Friday, the day of the test. No matter how hard I try I can't seem to shake the feeling of impending doom that hangs over my head. Not just for the test, Hisao's tutoring went a long way and it actually feels really good to be caught up in class for once. No, it's not just that, it's the fact that we still haven't ironed out just what our plans are for Saturday. I guess it all depends on how well I do on the exam, if I bomb it we might just be having a pity party. Are those real things? If they were they'd probably serve food salted with the chef's tears, and it wouldn't even be good food because the chef would be full of self-pity, and good food cheers people up anyway so it would be besides the point.
Right, the point. The point is that I'm used to having great big unknowns in my future, that's pretty much all there is. But having something planned to happen tomorrow and having no idea what it is, that bothers me even more. I try to look at it like a mystery, like a surprise, but I don't think I really like surprises. I get enough of those all the time, never knowing when I'm going to be awake and when I'm going to be asleep.
There's a dead silence in the class as Mutou goes from row to row, leaving each of us a gift of several sheets of paper stapled together. How kind of him. I glance through the various questions, steeling myself for the bloody battle that is to come. After reaching the last row, our teacher returns to the head of the class and gives a short speech about knowing we're all up to the task. By this point I'm gripping the sides of my desk, staring at him in stubborn determination.
“Good luck, everyone.” Mutou looks around the classroom one more time, his gaze coming to a rest on me. He gives me the tiniest smile and then nods his head. I wish I had brought a hachimaki headband, one with a cool slogan like “No prisoners!” or “Sucks to your ass-mar!”. But I forgot to do anything like that, and instead I have to rely on returning his nod with a swift, forceful one of my own.
The exam begins. I glance at Miki to my right, who's busy taking in the first page with a growing frown and widening eyes. Hubris! To my left, Lezard is running one hand through his hair in frustration as he chews on his pen. Another casualty! I will climb to the top of a mountain of corpses if I must! Let me just change my shoes first though, that sounds gross.
I sneak a peak at Hisao behind me. His eyes are calmly moving back and forth between the page in front of him and his calculator. He looks engrossed in the material, almost as if he were reading a good book. He doesn't make it look easy, but he gives off the vibe of someone dealing with an old, familiar adversary, one he's come to respect. I wish I could be in his shoes, but my battle spirit won't allow me to approach things so casually.
He glances up, and stares back at me for a moment, and then gives me an encouraging smile. I return it quickly before pivoting in my chair. What... what was I doing? My head feels kind of hot now. No, no! Never turn your back on an enemy! This is no time to get flustered over a boy, now is the time for action! For our date on Satuday! Attack! Attack!
Solve for X.
Two billiard balls--billwhat? I don't even know what those are--move on a frictionless surface with speeds of...
Calculate distance D from the problem above.
Calculate the displacement between--wait, what? I don't remember going over this in class, that's not fair.
I plow through the exam. It's a long, monotonous slough, but eventually I'm batting aside equations and crunching numbers with the rest of them. There are still a few problems that stump me, and I'm left resorting to the old standby methods. Find X? I circle the letter on the diagram and next to it pencil in “There it is, I found it”. I only have to do that a few times though, and even if I feel shaky on a couple others, the majority of the questions require nothing more than time and effort until they fall before me. There's an extra credit question at the end, but by that point my brain is so fried that I offer up a doodle of The Stump Signal--a beam of light projected onto the clouds that forms a blunted wrist and the words “Hell yeah!”--and then collapse forward onto my desk. Victory is mine, and to the winner goes the spoils of... the spoils of...
And to the victor goes a nap.
I'm awoken a short time later by Mutou tapping on my desk.
“Come Suzuki, wake up. It's over, you survived.”
“Victgrbly or death.” I mumble, feeling like I'm emerging from a pool of warm water. I open my eyes to see my teacher holding my exam in one hand, the stack of papers belonging to the rest of the class in the other. He's glancing over the first page with an expression of satisfaction and almost surprise. Ha, take that. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it. You can take that to the bank! And... and ask to withdraw some money, or something. Yeah.
I stretch my arms above my head as the teacher returns to the head of the class. Everyone else seems to be just as wiped out as me, the clock is attracting constant stares. Mutou knows it, and declares that since he can't unleash us on the rest of the school early but doesn't have anything else to teach us today, we can spend the rest of the period talking, as long as we're quiet. It looks like he's about to sit down and start grading the papers right away, but I'm proven wrong as he deposits them in a pile on his desk and pulls out a scientific journal to read. Oh well.
Miki would normally pull her desk over to mine, but she's flopped on top of it like a fish lying in the sun. She raises one hand to me and switches back and forth between a thumbs-up and thumbs-down repeatedly to ask me how I did. Pursing my lips, I give her a determined thumbs up, and she gives me a bright smile before thumping her head down on her desk. I dedicate this victory to you, Miki. May your sacrifice never be forgotten, may Stumpfist be avenged.
Ah, who am I kidding. Stumpfist is eternal. This is only a minor setback. Besides, I should be worrying about myself. I passed the test. I know I did. Maybe not with flying colors, but I still think I did well enough to deserve a celebration. And I know just who I want to celebrate with. In fact, here he is now.
Hisao appears in front of me. “Status report?” He asks.
Even after my nap, I still feel exhausted. I'm leaning on my desk with both elbows, propping myself up.
“Sir, we're reading green across the board. All systems are go.” I raise one hand in a salute, but removing the support causes me to slowly sag forward onto my desk. As excited and terrified as I am for our date, the best solution to all of my problems is obviously another nap. Yeah, that's what I need. Just a quick one, just 40 winks. I'll be back in action soon.
“Fire the missiles.” I whisper as everything begins to go black. Hisao is smiling brightly and saying some joke about making my tutor proud, but as much as I want to hear it, I don't. It's naptime, no time for talk. Naptime.
“Okay, are you all set?” Miki asks, checking me up and down as we stand in the common room of the girls' dormitory.
“Yes mom, I think I've got everything.” I make a pouty face, but inwardly I don't really mind. She might fuss over me sometimes, but half of her whole motherly act is just that, an act. I don't need another mother, all I need is a friend who knows to catch me when I start to tip over. I've found more than that though, I've found a good friend, my best friend. I love Miki like she was family. She might as well be.
“I can't help it, this is going to be great. My little Suzu is all grown up, going on dates with boys. It brings a tear to my eye.” She's grinning again. Miki gives me one last look over.
I had decided to dress myself this time, going with a cream colored sweater that my parents had sent me last winter. My mother made it herself and it's huge. Like usual with the things she tries to knit, one sleeve is a bit longer than the other, but both go well past my hands, and the bottom almost reaches my knees. I had always thought it looked a little like wearing a tent, but Miki had swooned over the sight of me in it, claiming that it was the cutest thing she'd seen in, well, ever. So I had decided to run with it, cute is good. The sweater obscures the pair of gray shorts that meet some long black stockings and brown shoes, they seemed like normal things to go with it I guess. And that was about all there was to it. Miki had tried to deck me out in makeup but I refused, my sleep schedule provides me with all the eyeshadow I could ever need. I think.
Anyway. Miki finally decides that I'm ready for action. I mean, that I'm ready for my date. She checks one last time to make sure my phone is charged and that I know to call her if I need anything, and then pulls me into a tight hug.
“I'm really glad to see you going out like this again, Suzu.” She says into my shoulder, her tone heartfelt and serious. “I mean it.”
“Hey hey, what's all this?” I ask, but I know what she means. It's been a long time since I've done anything close to resembling this. It's just one of the reasons for that uneasy, warm, ice-cold feeling in my chest. Miki gives me a tight squeeze before releasing me, one hand on my shoulder, her other wrist around my waist.
“Just try to have fun. And remember, if he tries anything, if he even thinks about trying anything, you call me and we'll bury the body behind the school.” She says it in a completely casual tone, smiling brightly. I'm about to ask if we can just find a horse to put in his bed instead, but then I remember that technically I wasn't around for that conversation.
“I will. Have fun that is. I'll be fine, Hisao is a good guy.” I smile back. I don't know why, but I trust him. Actually, I do know, it's because Hisao was so vulnerable, so empty when he got here, and I've watched him become stronger and happier, almost like watching him come alive. He's still not quite there yet I think, but he's getting there. And so am I. I realize now that in the months before Hisao came, I was just floating, just watching the days go by. I went to class, I fell asleep, I played battleship in my dreams for some stupid reason. I went to the literature club meetings, I hung out with Miki and the others, but that was about it. Every day was, more or less, exactly the same. Now something's changed, I can feel it. Being around him is waking up some part of me that I think I thought was gone. I think I had buried it, deep in the ground, last year. And now Hisao shows up and I, I feel... alive. Nervous, awkward, terrified at times. My dreams have been getting weirder and worse, and I've made an idiot of myself in front of him more than once, but, but he still puts up with it. With all of it. We're about to go on a date. He wants me around.
I want him around too. But there's something I have to do first.
After making me swear to tell her every detail about tonight when I get back, Miki leaves to meet up with some friends from the track and field club. I'm left on my own in the common room, waiting for Hisao to show up so we can go into town. We had finally decided on watching a movie and grabbing something to eat afterwards. It's an old standard but neither of us really have a better idea and the company is more important than the actual event anyway, or so I hope. He should be here in about an hour.
I take a slow look around the room. No one else is here right now, I should be able to go undisturbed. I wish I could say I was getting some much needed rest before my big night, but somehow I know I won't be that lucky. I settle into of the chairs, twist into a comfortable position, and then begin gently rubbing my knee almost by instinct. After suppressing the tiny ache, I lean back and wait.
I have a feeling about this. Not a bad feeling, not a good one either, I just know. Here we go. It's time.
I close my eyes. When I open them again, the common room is gone. The table is back, and so is the all-consuming dark on every side, as well as the familiar hooded figure sitting across from me. Our game is laid out between us. For the first time I can remember, the pieces are sitting in a small pile, waiting for me to put my ships where I choose.
“Hello, Suki.” My opponent says. I nod back to him, but my focus is on the board set out in front of me.
Without another word, we both begin to set our plastic pieces at different points around the map. Then the game begins.
“J10.” He says.
“Miss.” I don't even bother looking up for a reaction. “C3.”
“Miss.” He seems just as focused on the game as I am, not even bothering to make the occasional joke or obnoxious statement. Is this really it? Is this really the last time? When did this whole thing start, somewhere around a year ago? And this is the first time I can remember it feeling like this. Like we're playing for keeps.
“I9.” He calls. I glance at my cruiser in dismay, I was hoping it was close enough to the corner to avoid center shots but far enough away that it would go unnoticed. Instead, my opponent decided to methodically sweep outwards looking for his next target. “Hit.” I mutter.
Death reaches for a red tab to mark his success, and then proceeds to wipe out my ship over his next few turns. I grimace with each attack that lands, but I'm not losing quite yet. I've already taken out his patrol boat and I think I'm in the process of figuring out which way his main battleship is aligned.
I steal a moment to glance up at the figure sitting across from me. So much strategy for a game that seems to rely completely on luck and reaching around in the dark. Every turn is a step into the unknown, waiting to see if one of my ships will get hit is like watching a teacher look around the classroom, searching for someone to call on. You can only sit there and hope it's not you, hope you get lucky. I hate it. But I think I actually have gotten pretty good at this game, after doing this for so long. Not that I wouldn't rather be doing other things. Not that my opponent doesn't scare the crap out of me sometimes.
“See something that you like, Suki?” He asks. Case in point. His hooded skull is still pointed down at the game in front of him, but I can tell that those empty sockets are looking at me. I don't even know how, I just know, like I can almost see the eyes that aren't there.
I think I'm getting too familiar with this. I think I'm starting to almost get comfortable with this whole screwed up situation. Well good thing this ends today.
I hope. One way or another.
“D2.” I respond. Death looks back at the game--somehow--and slowly reaches for a red tab.
“That's a hit.”
We continue to go back and forth. Despite claiming that he was going to let me win some time ago, my opponent was either lying or he must have changed his mind, because he fights me tooth and nail. Tooth and bone, I guess. I probably shouldn't have believed anything that came out of a mouth looking like that anyway. The board slowly fills with red and white, every time I sink one of his ships I find myself a little closer to the edge of my seat. Every time he takes one of mine, the room somehow manages to get even darker. Now, we each only have one ship left. My submarine has two hits remaining but he's missed the last few turns, unable to find out which way it's rotated. The only thing he has left is his aircraft carrier, it's the biggest ship and can take five hits total. I've only managed to find it twice, but I'm pretty sure I know where it ends and where the empty spaces resume.
I need three more turns to finish this. He can end it in two.
Come on. Come on.
It's my turn. “B9.”
“Hit.” He says. Two more turns. Two more hits. I know where it is. I can do this.
“H3.” He fires back.
“Hit.” I stare at my screen, fighting back the waves of cold panic that begin to rise up from my chest. Two hits on my submarine. One more and I lose. One more and I--I look back up at the person, the thing, across from me. Death stares straight back at me, we manage to lock gazes even though he doesn't have any eyes.
What happens if I lose?
I'm not going to find out. I'm not. I'm not.
“Hit.” He responds, not even looking down at the game. He reaches for a red tab without ever moving his head.
It's his turn now. My heart is pounding like a jackhammer in my chest, the corners of my vision are blurred. I can't see my legs, I can't see the edges of the table, everything is shrouded in darkness. I feel like I'm standing on an island in the middle of a black ocean, like I'm so deep inside my dream that I might never find my way back again.
No. Not me. Not like this.
“H5.” Death says quietly. I close my eyes. I let the feeling pass through me, a deep shudder threatening to echo throughout my entire body. I open them again.
It's a miss.
He'd skipped over the last end of my piece, hitting the empty water on the other side. I look back up at my opponent.
“Make your move, Suki.” He whispers.
“D9.” The words leave my throat without a second thought. No more time for hesitation. No more wondering, no more being afraid of the unknown. Not here, anyway. No more battleship.
Death watches me for a long moment as if studying my face. Maybe he's trying to burn every detail into his memory, because he's about to leave now and never return. Right? God, I hope so.
“You sunk my carrier.” He says at last. He slowly begins removing the tabs and game pieces from the board, setting them back in the holding slots on either side. The little clicking noises of plastic colliding are the only sound besides my thumping heartbeat.
“I won.” I breath the words, almost as much to myself as to my opponent. Death nods as he continues packing up the game.
“Yes, Suki, you did.” He reaches somewhere under the table and produces a cardboard box, which he places the board and the pieces inside. Then he folds his hands in front of him, and looks at me from across the table.
“What happens now?” I ask. I wasn't expecting fireworks and confetti, or, or a song and dance and cake or something. Maybe I was hoping I'd wake up and that would be it. I could put this all behind me.
“If I let you go, you'll just come back.” He says simply.
“I'm pretty sure I can promise to stay away.” I'll read books on how to control my dreams if I have to. I'll put on headphones with classical music playing before I go to bed or something. Anything. I'm done here.
“You always come back.” His voice lowers, becoming something close to a growl. Why is he the one getting angry? It's me who's been stuck here, it's me who's been forced to play this stupid game all year. And now that I finally win, he's acting like I'm walking out on him or something.
“I've kept you company all this time.” He narrows eyes that he doesn't have.
“Is that what you call this? Company? Like you're a houseguest?” I feel my own anger rising, I am not going through another year of this.
“I've kept you close by, kept you safe.” He snaps. “Do you remember the nightmares you used to have before I came along, Suki? Do you remember how you woke up screaming every single night, do you remember the therapy sessions?”
The anger dies in my chest. I don't have a response to that. I had forgotten. I had forgotten all of it. I wish it could have stayed that way.
“You tried to stop sleeping. You lived on coffee and energy drinks and pills, they said it was going to kill you. A coping mechanism, that's what they said you needed. You found one. You found me.”
I sit in silence. Old memories swirl around my head like sparks and embers and leave burns, each one a tiny, painful reminder of a time before. All I know is that I want to wake up. I want to leave this place.
I want to see Hisao again.
“We're in this together now.” Death says, empty eyes glaring.
“Then why did you let me win?”
He doesn't move, doesn't respond. He just continues sitting there, staring. I press forward.
“You could have beaten me, but you missed on that last turn. You let me win, you wanted me to. You even told me that you were going to let me win. I don't want to do this for the rest of my life, and neither do you.” I'm trying to reason with a skeleton. Why can't I just have normal dreams like other people?
Death leans back in his chair, looking thoughtful. “The rest of your life, huh...” He says quietly.
“The game is over. I'm done, I don't need you anymore.” I stand up, pushing my chair back.
“Is that any way to treat an old friend? Is that any way to treat--” He reaches for his hood as if to pull it down, but I turn around quickly.
“No.” The darkness all around is starting to brighten. My vision is clear, my mind is calm. Somewhere in the distance, I can hear the sounds of other girls in the common room, talking and laughing. Someone has turned the TV on.
That's where I belong. Not here. Not with this thing.
“It's not that easy, Suki. Suzu. It's not that easy.” Death's tone is changing, the howling gasp turning into a voice I know and recognize. I haven't heard it in a long time, except in my dreams. Except here.
I don't dare look back. Some part of me knew this all along. But this charade must have been close enough to the real thing to let me start sleeping at night again. Even if it made me hollow inside, even if it made me lose sight of everything and just drift along through life, it was better than the nightmares.
I don't know if they'll start up again after I let this go. But it's been a whole year, I'm ready to try. And I'm not alone anymore, I have Miki now. And maybe, maybe I have Hisao too.
That's right. I don't know for sure if anything will work between Hisao and me. But I'm ready to find out, and I can't do that here. I have places to go, people to see. Other games to play.
“Goodbye.” I say. I begin walking in one direction, any direction, away from that table and away from the stain on the memory of a boy I used to know.
“See you soon.” Death says.
Artwork by Skrats
: Make your move, Suki