Original post: http://ks.renai.us/viewtopic.php?f=52&t=7281&p=149944#p149944
“Good night, girls. Don’t be up too late, and no funny business, you hear?”
Emi sighs and rolls her eyes. “’Night, mom,” she replies, her tone matching that of the actions preceding it.
“G-good night,” I add.
I have no idea what kind of funny business might occur that would require Mrs. Ibarazaki to warn Emi and me against it, but then again, I don’t really have any idea what kind of business would occur at a sleepover, period. Especially this one. I always thought sleepovers were the domain of little kids.
How did I even end up taking part in a sleepover? I can’t really make the connection. First, I was enjoying dessert with Emi and her mom. Then there was something about me being a better guest than Emi and the late bus being a bit dodgy. And now, here I am, lying on a futon in Emi’s room wearing a nightie designed for a much curvier woman than me. It’s a bit surreal.
I take a look at my surrounds. It’s a bit hard, in the near-darkness, but I can make out the general shape of several furniture units, and the things that occupy their space. It strikes me that I’ve never really seen many others’ bedrooms before. There’s mine and Lilly’s, of course, and there was that one time I saw Misha’s room, but other than that…
“Whatcha thinkin’ about?” Emi whispers, leaning on her arm to look down from her bed.
“Oh, n-nothing… I just realised I’ve never really been to a sleepover before.”
“Never. There w-wasn’t much opportunity when I was r-really little, and then… well, what opportunities there were d-disappeared shortly after.”
I can tell she’s contemplating my answer. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what I mean. Then again, Emi doesn’t have the strongest reputation for being the academic type. I decide to change the topic before the questions come.
“W-what do you even do at a sleepover?”
“I dunno. Girl stuff. Talk about boys, trade gossip, do makeovers… that sorta thing?”
“Aren’t we a b-bit old for that stuff?”
“Pfft no way! I could totally give you a makeover.”
“I… don’t really w-want a makeover…”
“Didn’t think you would. I was bluffing about being able to, anyway. I don’t usually do the whole ‘makeup’ shebang.”
“M-me neither. Lilly does, which is kind of impressive considering she… a-anyway, it doesn’t really serve much p-purpose for me.”
“Hmm… well, there’s still hair styling. I bet you’d look great if you put your hair in twin tails like me!”
To emphasise the point, she takes hold of her hair, which she’d let down for the night, and holds it up in a rough approximation of her usual style. The cheesy grin and wink that accompanies it makes me giggle slightly.
“Oh, I d-don’t think so. I’ll keep my hair the w-way it is, thanks.”
“Aww, c’mon, I’ll do my hair like yours if you do yours like mine!”
She releases her almost-twin tails and rearranges her hair into an amusingly inaccurate impression of mine. I smile and shake my head disdainfully.
“That’s not how you d-do it… the fringe has to c-cover your eye more; h-here, like this…”
I reach up and fix Emi’s fringe so that it sweeps to the right. Since it’s not as long as mine, I also shift some of what’s normally in a twin tail to achieve more or less the same effect. Emi takes a look at herself in a little mirror on her side table and makes an impressed face.
“I’m Hanako Ikezawa,” she forces out between giggles, “and I’ve gotta go do something!”
“Oh, is that r-right? W-well then, I’m Emi Ibarazaki, and I’ve gotta go fast,” I retort, mimicking Emi’s previous twin tails approximation.
“Oh yeah? Well I’m Lilly Satou, and I drink fancy tea because I’m classy and European,” Emi returns, now holding her hair in a ponytail and drinking from an invisible teacup.
I tuck my hair into my borrowed nightie and slip my arms inside the sleeve.
“I’m Rin Tezuka, and I p-paint with my feet and say c-confusing things that might a-actually be really deep.”
Emi stuffs a small pillow into her nightshirt and puffs out her chest, winking and making a kissing motion.
“I’m Meiko Ibarazaki and I sing trashy old music just to embarrass my daughter in front of her friends,” Emi says, with a wistful sigh.
A sudden wave of nostalgia washes over me and a memory of a time long since past plays in my mind’s eye; a memory of a time when things were very different. I return my hair to its usual style, save for the sides, which I hold together at the back due to my lack of a hair tie.
“I’m Naoki Ikezawa, and I used to s-sing classic rock music to my daughter while I c-cooked exotic food for us to try,” I whisper, closing my eyes.
I can’t see it, but I can tell Emi’s face has ‘realisation’ written all over it. I release my hair and curl my knees up to my chest, wrapping my arms around them and staring into the infinite space beyond my eyelids.
“Oh, hey, I’m sorry… I didn’t realise…”
I sniff back unshed tears and give Emi a reassuring smile that probably isn’t as reassuring as I want it to be.
“I-it’s alright. You c-couldn’t have known. Not many people know m-much of anything about me.”
“Not many people know much about me, either. People think my favourite colour is pink, can you believe that? Bleh. You just have to talk to people more, I s’pose.”
“W-well… what is your favourite colour?”
“Huh? Oh, it’s blue. I don’t usually bother to correct people because it’s so minor, but it just annoys me how people assume instead of asking. Sometimes I think mom, dad and the nurse are the only people who actually know me.”
“I can’t even s-say that much about Lilly.”
“What about your family, though? Surely they would?”
I turn away from Emi to look at an unspecified point in the distance. She had no way of knowing. It’s not her fault.
“Lilly is the only f-family I have, now.”
“Wait… you don’t mean…?”
“Man, that’s pretty heavy. No wonder you don’t talk much.”
I make no effort to respond. I don’t feel like it anymore. Emi doesn’t seem to have anything more to say either, so we lie down in silence for several long minutes. I don’t blame her for not wanting to talk; the topic is, as she so eloquently put it, ‘pretty heavy’.
Instead, I indulge myself in fond memories of my past. One particular memory comes to mind; a memory of a golden sunset atop a small mountain back home. So vivid is the memory that I almost forget where I am. As a result, I’m somewhat surprised when Emi speaks up again.
“I lost someone too, once. A long time ago.”
I open my eyes and sit up. Emi lies on her back, head inclined slightly from the pillows and her joined hands beneath it. She crosses one leg over the other, though the pose looks a little unusual given her lack of lower legs. She looks… contemplative.
“My dad was a brilliant athlete. Real top-class, you know? They even considered him for the Olympics at one point. So, it was only natural that his first-born child was to be as athletic as him. Everywhere dad went, little Emi went as well. Eventually I started training with him, and not long after, started competing in junior track meets.”
Emi gestures towards a row of trophies and medals aligned on a chest of drawers by the wall to my side. I can’t read what they’re for in the semi-darkness, but I could hazard a guess.
“After every meet, the two of us would stop by this one ice cream parlour a short distance from where we lived at the time. They have the best sundaes; I can’t even describe how good they are.
“Anyway, after one particularly successful meet, we headed over to the ice cream parlour, as usual. The way we came from, we had to turn across the incoming lane to get in. The roads were pretty busy that day, but we got our chance when the lights changed. We started turning across to the car park, but someone on the other side of the intersection ran the red light straight towards us.
“There was nothing we could do. The car hit ours on the driver’s side. Hard. Our car was totalled. When I remember it, it all seems like it’s in slow motion. The truth is it lasted all of two seconds. Two seconds was all it took for a speeding driver to take my dad away.”
Emi’s voice starts to crack as she utters the bombshell line. I desperately want to tell her she can stop, if she wants, but I dare not interrupt her. Something tells me she wouldn’t dream of stopping even if I did.
“I woke up in a hospital bed nearly a month later. They told me my dad died on impact. I hope so. I wouldn’t want him to have suffered. They thought I was paralysed for some time, but it turns out it was just shock from losing my legs and my dad. Personally, I think it was dad that got me to walk again.
“That was the hardest part. I guess it’s kind of like learning to walk on stilts. I toughed it out though. They said it could take up to three years before my injuries healed completely and I could learn to run with prosthetics. I did it in one. Course, that meant I was a year behind in school.
“After a while, one of my nurses suggested I go to a school he’d been filling in at, called Yamaku. Once I finished middle school, over I came. Which brings us to now. Some story, huh?”
I’m at a loss as to how I should respond. How do you respond to someone telling you such a painful secret? I stutter out a feeble ‘y-yeah’, and look back down at the space in front of me.
That was a courageous thing Emi just did. I doubt Rin knows about this. Heck, I doubt many people at all know about this. And yet, Emi believed she could confide in me. I’m not sure that I deserve to have been her confidant after being friends for such a short time, but the least I can do is return the favour.
“I was eight years old.”
Emi looks over to me and sits up. Now it’s her turn to listen.
“Only j-just eight years old, in fact. That same day had been my birthday p-party. My parents decided against cleaning up the m-mess, too tired from managing all the tiny party g-guests. Instead, we c-curled up in front of the TV in the living room, and fell asleep watching a newly released anime dad h-had videotaped at the cinema.
“We were sleeping when the fire st-started. I don’t know what caused it. They didn’t tell me b-back then, if they even knew, and there probably wasn’t much use in d-doing so later on. All I know is that something n-near the other side of the house caught fire. Whatever it w-was, the fire spread fast.
“I can’t remember if it was the smoke or the h-heat that woke me up. All I remember is c-coughing and calling out for my mom. Dad had already w-woken, not long before me, and noticed the fire. He woke my m-mom and carried me into the hall.
“The roof had collapsed. P-pieces of the ceiling lay burning in a heap b-before us, blocking the passage to the front d-door. Behind us, the fire engulfed the b-back half of the house. We were trapped. There was only one way to g-go; an adjoining hall leading to the bathroom.
“We b-barricaded ourselves in there, and turned on all of the taps. We thought that we c-could stop the fire from getting in if the room was w-wet. I was crying, and mom began to sing to c-comfort me. With all the smoke, she could barely g-go a whole line without coughing. But she k-kept singing, to keep me calm.
“Dad p-passed out first. He was a long-time smoker; his lungs simply c-couldn’t get enough oxygen out of the smoky air. I went next. As I was blacking out I heard a d-deafening roar and a searing heat swept across the room. My m-mom shielded me from as much as she could. It’s thanks to her I s-survived.
“After that is a big blur. Most of what I remember is b-being in incredible pain all the time. I had b-burns to about a quarter of my body, and s-spent the next three months in hospital. I don’t think I spoke more than f-five words that whole time. When I was released, I had nothing left to g-go back to.
“I was made a ward of the st-state, and set up in a little orphanage near my old school. Things… didn’t g-go well when I returned. The people I used to call my friends turned against me, calling me things like ‘scar f-freak’. Middle school was better, if only b-because the teasing wasn’t coming from those I used to call my f-friends.
“Eventually the people from the orphanage g-gave me some options about my future. They told me about a p-place called Yamaku, a boarding school for kids with medical c-conditions. I said ‘yes’ right away. What b-better chance did I have to escape the t-torment I experienced every day?
“So I ended up at Yamaku. I met some p-people, like Lilly and you and Rin, but mostly I still couldn’t b-bring myself to make friends. It just wasn’t worth the effort. But, t-tonight… I think tonight has changed that. Thank you, Emi, for showing me that I’m not a-alone.”
Emi sits in silence, pensive, as she processes everything I’ve said. When she responds, it’s with little of her usual pep.
“You’re… thanking me? After that tear-fest? Jeez, not exactly the reaction I expected.”
“Don’t be. Why even be sorry? For what? ‘I’m sorry some jackass couldn’t wait for a green light’? ‘I’m sorry fate decided to burn down the Ikezawa house one night’?”
“I… it’s just, b-being here reminded me of how things were with mom and dad before the f-fire. It makes me wish my p-parents were still here.”
“I know how you feel. But you can’t change the past. You want some advice? ‘These things happen’. I have no idea who said that, but they were right. You can’t dwell on the past. We can’t dwell on the past. We can make our own future.”
“Lilly doesn’t have to be your only family anymore. You know why my mom insisted you stay the night? It was because she liked having you around. I gotta say I did as well. There was an energy in this house tonight. It was like having my dad back. You’re a pretty cool girl, Hanako Ikezawa, and you’re welcome here whenever you want. This can be your house too.”
I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do. The magnitude of Emi’s words leave me speechless and immobile. I don’t even reach up to wipe the joyful tears welling in my eyes. All I can do is smile bittersweetly at the girl who would welcome me into her family.
Emi smiles back, and hops off her bed to crawl over to me and wrap me in a soft, warm, slightly strawberry-scented hug. I’m able to unfreeze long enough to embrace Emi in return, as a single tear rolls down my cheek and is absorbed by Emi’s nightshirt.
I’ll never have to be alone.
I'll be with my family.
“‘Ohana’ means family; family means no one gets left behind or forgotten.” -Lilo and Stitch, 2002.