This one's a bit longer than my recent chapters, about four times as long in fact, so I'm fairly glad it didn't take me four times as long to upload!
Act 4 – Chapter Five, Third Branch: Lost in the City of Angels
Even I'm not entirely sure why I'm in the city. I suppose it was the need for a break, from the monotony of revising and studying and just being at Yamaku. Normally at a time like this, I would retreat to the lunch room, but there's no guarantee Hisao would be around to join me, and certainly Lilly wouldn't be available, given her present location on the other side of the world. Failing that, perhaps the Shanghai, but again I wouldn't have anyone there I know. Yuuko is having to pull extra time for a few days in the library, just to deal with the added influx of students – the precise reason I'm no longer there. In the city, I may still get the stares and the attention I'd rather avoid receiving, but at least nobody there is likely to see me again any time soon. It's something that, paradoxically, can be somewhat easier to deal with, since a complete stranger seeing me is a one-off incident that will soon pass from their minds. I know they won't remember me for very long, regardless of how unforgettable my disability may seem to be, and so it's easier for me to get over the initial embarrassment. Of course, it's not exactly that they won't remember me – nobody can forget my face, the scars that adorn it both so stunningly and distastefully. It's more that they won't remember the person, the individual who wears them like stigmata. When strangers stare, it's better (in a strange and terrible way) than when my colleagues, my fellow students, stare – the same people who know my name, my age, my home and all those other intimate details that come with co-inhabiting a dorm or taking a class in school.
Which makes it all the more out-of-synch for me when I visit the shop Hisao and I went to previously, where he and Lilly had purchased my... my birthday gifts. As if I need a reminder of that, but the presents and the pleasant wishes and feelings behind them are enough to outweigh the negative connotations of the event itself. The store owner recognises me as soon as I enter, almost putting the lie to my earlier thoughts about remembering me despite my face and scars. Then I realise, he probably doesn't have very many customers, although that raises the question of how he can run a successful business, particularly in such a niche market as antiques. Still, he doesn't make any comment, and in fact seems rather more helpful than in our previous encounter – perhaps realising that I am still only human, regardless of my physical appearance. We chat a little, though I don't give much away – my reserved personality still shines outward. It does give me an idea, though. Since I'm not so busy today, perhaps I could see if Hisao wants to spend some time with me? It's a vain hope, but Lilly gave me his number before she left, in case I needed him for anything, and any attempt by me to be stronger needs to be pushed further than the baby steps so far taken.
I take out my phone and look at the three numbers stored within its memory. Lilly, Akira, and Hisao. Such a lonely bunch of numbers, with no-one else to keep them company, but who else would I call? Shizune wouldn't have much use for a phone, all things considered, and I'm hardly close to her as it is. Misha too, I'm not so close to, and she'd probably deafen me every time she answered a call. Miki... maybe not. We'd have very little to talk about, despite previous attempts by her to do so, and besides, that's awkwardness I could do without. Yuuko, perhaps, but I never really asked for her number, and before the past couple of weeks I wouldn't have dared anyway. I push the thoughts away and tap on Hisao's name, his number dialling automatically.
It rings a couple of times before he answers, as my heart pounds in my chest. I don't fail to notice the irony, given who I'm calling. “Hello,” I hear as the ringing stops, “Hisao Nakai speaking.” I pause, trying not to breathe too loudly as I consider what to say. “Hello?” he repeats.
“Hanako?” He recognises my voice, despite being on the other end of a phone. “Sorry, I wasn't expecting you to call. What's up?” Strangely, to me at least, he doesn't yet question how I have his number.
“U-um... I... um...” I revert to my usual stuttering way, almost regretting the bold move to make this phone call. I push the offending thoughts away and focus on my initial aim. “If... if you're not busy... I-I was wondering if y-you would... l-like to... m-”
I'm spared from digging myself an even deeper hole by Hisao's realisation of my intentions. “Meet up?”
“Yes!” The relief in my voice is clear, but hopefully not too much so. I backtrack a little... “U-um... I mean...”
“That sounds fine. Are you at the Shanghai?”
I understand why he would assume I'm there, since it's one of the only haunts of mine where I could reasonably chat on a phone, the library being an (apparent) haven of calm and quiet in normal times. He must know that I wouldn't be there with so many people studying for exams, nor in the lunch room on a weekend. The Shanghai is the wrong answer, but a perfectly rational conclusion to come to other than my own room. “I-I'm in... the city...” The nerves creep back into my voice again. I'm standing outside the antique shop, but begin to walk slowly as I speak, if only to clear my head a bit more.
If Hisao is surprised at my revelation, he hides it well. “That works out well; I'm just wandering around there now. Where are you?” I have to say, I'm surprised myself. It's a strange coincidence that we should both be in the city, whether for a purpose or just at a loose end, at the same time. It most likely means nothing, but a flicker of wonder works its way into my mind, as if it's fate or some kind of divine providence. A silly thought to be sure, but comforting nonetheless.
I look around to get the name of the street, and some sort of landmark to identify my location, passing the details with a few directions (as much as I can remember) to my current conversational partner. It turns out Hisao isn't very far from where I now am, so we arrange to meet at a small cafe nearby, at an outside table, and I continue to proceed on foot. I arrive before him, and wait alone, happy in the knowledge that the couples and groups of friends occupying the tables nearby are too busy with each other and their own engagements to notice my face and scars. Even so, my chosen table, which I'll readily admit I was lucky to find, is away in a corner, inconspicuous and hidden slightly from most of the other patrons.
It's not very long before Hisao arrives, and I greet him with a small wave when I notice him. “A-are you feeling okay?” I ask as he sits down, my first thoughts being for his own well-being and health. He's trying to hide how out of breath he is, even attempting a small laugh to deflect attention, but I know from my own years of experience of attempts to distract from my true feelings that he's not being genuine. Though in my case it was always more the situation that I would try and make a scenario so awkward for the other party they would leave, or else flee in fright myself, my timid nature doing the work for me – in this case it's rather different, and I wouldn't be too happy if he does run away. Assuming he's physically capable of that right now.
“Not very fit these days,” he replies, stating the obvious. “Don't mind me.” I nod at Hisao's words but my face still betrays my concern. I look at his face, notice the rapid breath that he's trying to hide, the eyes resting on my own features... I quickly look down again, but inside my heart begins to beat just that little bit faster... Before things become too hard to bear, the waitress arrives with my order, placed just before Hisao turned up. A cup of tea, nothing more, but it's the perfect opportunity to hide my face that's growing more red even on the unblemished side, tilting my head to one side to ensure the scars are covered more by my hair.
It's not even for his benefit. I don't think about it, but again I don't mind him seeing the scars – he already knows me, and knows about my background. The waitress is the one who I perform this task for, to hide myself away more out of instinct and habit than any real concern for my appearance. It's only when Hisao starts to speak rapidly to the waitress that I realise my hand is still showing, catching her attention.
“Excuse me, may I place an order?” The waitress nods in response and Hisao scans the menu she offers, while he makes his choice. I notice her pointedly looking at him rather than me, both a blessing and an indignation acting in tandem. The order is decided - “Can I have a mango smoothie please?” - and with another nod the waitress retreats inside, almost bouncing in an apparent relief to be away from us. Hisao turns to me, and I decide not to show him what I saw. I push it away as I have done with so many other things (not necessarily a healthy way to be, but certainly a valid short term solution when needs must...).
The distraction seems to work. “I think I'd die from this heat if I had something like coffee right now.” I freeze at his words, for two reasons. His poor choice of words, regarding the heat, doesn't bother me as much as it should, and I can attribute it to a simple Freudian slip, a slip of the tongue meant with no malice. The other reason, however, is again regarding Hisao's own health concerns, and although he may be able to joke about it, I can't bring myself to laugh at such a morbid outlook on one's own state of being. My own condition is no longer life-threatening, but Hisao could have many years left on this planet, or a mere matter of minutes, and that constant flux is still a source of mental anguish for me. Albeit one that I can, usually, hide fairly well. My concern for him is still an issue, though, and it seems to show, as he stops speaking and simply waits.
We sit in silence, punctuated only by the ambience around us and my own occasional sips of tea, until the waitress returns with Hisao's smoothie. She doesn't stare as she did earlier, though she doesn't outright avoid looking at me either – a small improvement, I suppose. On a similar note, however, when she walks away I catch Hisao watching her in return. A pang of envy, now uncomfortably familiar, strikes my heart as I ask him, “Do you think that she looks... pretty...?” I can tell myself, although not what one would call stunning, she definitely has a charm and grace about her that draws the eye. Something I could never hope to have myself.
He stops for a second, and a tinge of red appears in his cheeks. “Nah, can't really say that I'm into that look. She just looked a lot like an old friend I knew before my heart attack.”
I try to avoid the dangerous waters that the tenuous conversation is drifting towards, steering away from who I think he may be talking about, and into more general talk of friendships both past and present. “Did you... have many friends?”
“I had a few at my previous school,” Hisao replies, “though I wouldn't say a lot. The four of us just hung around together after school and stuff.”
It sounds nice. My questioning becomes more natural, feels less forced. “Do you still talk to them?”
Hisao shakes his head. “No. We gradually lost contact while I was stuck in the hospital.”
“You're not... saddened by that? Or angry?” Having so few friends, I can hardly think about how I'd feel if I lost any of them. Despite my well documented social issues, and my occasional anger and (perhaps misdirected) resentment at my friends, I don't think I could bear to lose Hisao, Lilly, Akira, or even Yuuko. It's somewhat difficult for me to consider how he could have felt as his companions drifted away one by one...
“Well, life did move on for them while I was stuck in the ward. I was pretty sore about it at the time, but now it's just a bunch of nice memories. Besides, once I came to Yamaku I found new friends as well.” My own time hiding my emotions, pushing them away for the sake of avoiding attention, give a hint through his tone and manner of speech that he's not being completely honest. I don't press the subject any further though. If things were as dark for him as I suspect then it'll do no good to drag those shadowed thoughts back into focus. There's a brief silence again, but between us things seem better, the tension I always feel steadily lessening as our sort-of 'date' progresses.
“That's right,” Hisao suddenly begins, “I was going to ask...” He pauses, and I show a sign of interest at his approaching query. “I didn't know you had a mobile phone. How'd you get my number?”
I'm honestly surprised it took him this long to realise. I answer with honesty, “L-Lilly... gave it... to me.” I smile at his confused expression.
“You know, you could have just asked; I'd have given it to you.” His face and tone are a mix of mild amusement, happiness, and annoyance, almost with a sense of regret, as if he wishes I'd been bold enough to ask him directly for his number in the first place. “Want to exchange email addresses?”
I nod and show my agreement, as we both dig out our phones. Interestingly enough, our phones are the same, albeit different colours. “Nice phone,” Hisao says. I can't avoid letting out a short laugh, more a giggle than anything; indeed I don't even want to avoid it.
“I didn't pick it out myself, though.”
“It was a present, from Lilly.” At the end of the day, I wouldn't have bothered buying a phone myself. Too few contacts for it to be worthwhile. “I never really needed a phone, and I couldn't afford one. She bought me one for Christmas, though, saying that we could use it to keep in touch.” I break off, content to let my words sink in.
“Lilly's a very special person to you, isn't she?”
He's right. She's almost like a sister I never had the chance to grow up with. “She is. I... love her... very much.” My eyes drop, the smile on my face becoming all the more fixed and genuine, as my mind fills with the happiest memories I have of my friendship with Lilly. After a moment, we finally swap email addresses and tap them into our phones, building up the contacts. “...Done. That makes three, now.”
“Lilly, Akira, and you.”
“Ah, Akira. She's an interesting person, isn't she?” I forget, Hisao doesn't really know her that well, only meeting her briefly in the past few weeks. Unlike our earlier subject of discussion, I don't feel any envy regarding Akira, maybe because I can tell just from Hisao's tone and manner that he's asking in a purely innocent way. She's a bit old for him anyway, I guess...
“She is. She's also really nice, though. Her suit makes her... look a bit cool.” It's a fair comment to make, she certainly knows how to pull off the masculine look while still retaining that feminine air about her. It's somewhat... impressive, I think.
“I'm a little surprised you know each other well, what with her job taking up so much of her time.” He's failed to understand, given how few friends I really have, that those ones I do have mean the world to me, and more besides...
“How many... do you have?” Asking about his phone contacts, I dodge Hisao's question, not out of malice, but because it'll be nice to see if he can work out the answer for himself, even if he keeps the result hidden.
“Me? About nine or ten.” He hesitates, and I can only assume this is out of careful consideration of his next words, to avoid any wrong comment hurting my feelings. I really don't mind, but his subtle sentiment without being overt and pushy is just the kind of support I need. Quiet, but reliable. I say nothing, allowing him to speak in his own time. “I imagine that Lilly would have more than both of us put together, probably.” I'd say he's right. Another giggle works its way through my lips, another smile dawning on my face...
“Do you mind if I ask you something that I've been wondering?” Hisao says. I shake my head, meaning that I don't mind. “You don't seem very jealous of Lilly having lots of friends. Don't you want to make some more friends yourself, or get to know some of hers?”
He's treading on thin ice now, a shockingly fast reversal from the quiet concern and consideration of earlier. I choose to head him off early, using the truth itself as my weapon, knowing his reaction to my words will be a clear indication of whether he does intend to push me into 'becoming normal', as I once feared. “I'm not jealous. I... don't like people, so I don't mind not having many friends.” Another momentary pause. “I...” I rub my arm, unsure of whether to continue.
Hisao's silence is a decent indicator that he's not going to force the point. My fears were unfounded after all. Emboldened by this, I choose to bare myself once more, speaking about my past with an honesty that I could never bring myself to achieve with the layperson straight up asking about my tragedy. “In middle school, I got bullied... a lot. I was called names, and got excluded from work groups and sports teams. There were... worse things too.”
Talking about my past is hard, but it's something I wouldn't have considered a few weeks ago, and now I feel I trust him enough to be able to bare myself. So much has changed, oh so quickly. “And that's what made you not like other people?”
He's a bit far off, in terms of timing. It was before then, as I indicate with a single shake of the head. “That was... elementary school.” I wait a moment, letting my silence fill in the blanks. Surely he can understand just how difficult it was? Children can be so cruel, especially since they haven't learned like adults have how to stay silent. They let themselves say the first thing that comes to mind, and give no thought to the damage they can cause. I take my phone and allow myself to be distracted, the memories starting to well up and make me more aware, more paranoid, of the people around me. Though my conscious mind knows they don't notice me, most of the couples nearby caring more about their own interactions, I find myself reverting yet again to that same old state of mind, crippling myself without reasonable cause...
“Hey, Hanako, wait for me. I'll be right back.” Hisao rushes off, slipping his phone in his pocket and replacing the now empty smoothie cup on the table. I don't understand, where is he going?
“Wait, w-what? Wh-where are you going?”
“Just stay here, I'll be back in a bit!” He leaves me alone and I'm left to ponder what he's up to. It takes around half an hour for him to return, the time spent by me imagining all sorts of scenarios, not many of them exactly pleasant. It would be easy for him to abandon me here, though I see no reason why he would. I can make my way back to Yamaku fairly easily, and why go to the trouble of agreeing to see me here if he was going to leave partway through? It would make no sense. Is it to do with my past, and my admittedly minor attempt at opening up again? Have I frightened him away, too much baggage for one person to deal with so early? My mind races and I try again to distract myself, the internet on my relatively tiny screen providing a useful way to escape from these dangerous thoughts.
After a while Hisao makes his return, clutching a small bag in one hand, which he lightly drops in front of me. “Is this...?” I wonder what could be inside the bag?
“It's for you. You can open it.”
“Go on.” He's insistent that I open it here, right now, presumably so he can see my reaction – whether positive or negative. It takes me a few moments to consider before ultimately deciding to open the bag, allowing the loose contents to spill onto the table.
Before me lies a silver chain, with a loop of cloth at one end and a delicately carved flower made of timber, hand painted in white and yellow, the gentle colours of cream and corn. The carving is rudely done and imperfect, clearly made by hand by a craftsman without much experience, but it only adds to the charm, its limitations resonating with my own marred appearance. To me, it's beautiful.
I glance at Hisao - “But... it's not... Christmas, or my birthday...”
“It's fine, don't worry about it. I just thought it might be nice to have something to decorate your phone with.” I realise that really, this phone could hardly be considered mine – Lilly bought it, both as a gift and as a useful tool to stay in touch, and Hisao bought the silver chained flower, not me. I do appreciate them both, still, massively and without either of them realising the full extent of my gratitude, how valuable the boost to my own sense of self-worth proved to be. Even so, there's a not-so-insignificant twinge of guilt in my mind and heart.
“I-I don't have anything to give to you...”
“I told you, it's fine. Friends can give things to each other like this sometimes, right?”
“Friends...” I don't even try to hide the smile, though I do look down out of slight embarrassment. It's a good thing, though. I wonder if he knows I want more than that from him, more than friendship? I nod, attach the chain to my phone, and smile again at him. “Thank you... Hisao.”
He smiles back at me, and it crosses my mind that maybe, just maybe, I'll have to be bold and take the next step. I don't know if he's ever going to feel ready to make a move and show his feelings towards me, if he really has them. Maybe he only does see me as a friend, and I'm wasting my time by pretending that we could ever be anything more. It would be the most confident thing I've ever done, if I do take that step, and I'll need to think it through carefully. Chances are I won't even have the drive to do it, I'll probably back down as I have done with so many other things before. Then again, I've gotten this far, and built up my confidence to a level that, while weak by most standards, is still vastly improved on any kind of feeling I've previously had. Should I try it? Should I be bold, when we're next alone and the opportunity comes? As I consider it, Hisao's voice draws me back to the here and now.
“I guess I'd better be going if I want to catch the next bus back to town. You coming as well?”
“Ah, y-yes.” I take my things and we walk together to the bus station, my hand lightly resting on his arm, no longer a symbol (I hope) of fear, but more a sign of affection. I hope that he notices too. As we walk, I think about the future, and about my plans, to take whatever opportunity comes and push forward with a new step in our slow dance towards each other. I have no idea when that opportunity will come, or what it will be, but at least I can go forward knowing that whatever I do, I do on my own terms.
I only hope that I can bring myself to take that step when I see it.
Last edited by Trivun
on Sat May 10, 2014 12:43 pm, edited 1 time in total.