crossrook Jan 28th, 2012 3,612 Never
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  1.                                         “Judging from the residual scarring and yesterday’s blood tests…” he said, noting something down on his clipboard, “I think next week the bandages can come off for good.”
  2.         For six months I came to this office every afternoon and had the bandages changed.  That was over 180 times.  What were seven more days?
  3.         I simply nodded in response.
  4.         “And I’ll set up an appointment for the week after that, for the eye people to come in.  They’ll take molds, pictures, and all that.  You’ll look good as new!”
  5.         I didn’t want some glass eye.  I didn’t want to look lazy-eyed or crazy.  I’d seen people with false eyes before.  It was uncanny-valley type stuff.  I wanted my eye.  My real fucking eye.  But that ship had sailed a long time ago.
  6.         “…Okay,” was all I could get out of my mouth.
  7.         My bandages were changed and I had been given my medications.  The nurse kept them here, a precaution against ‘the black market.’  Apparently my drugs were in high demand among the more scurrilous of the academy.  But I was free to go now.  It didn’t stop the nurse from lecturing, like he always did.
  8.         “You know Koji, you’re basically back to full strength.  Why don’t you get out there?  Join a club or something, it’d do you a lot of good.  My spies tell me they never see you around.”
  9.         Ah yes, the nurse, legendary spymaster.  Though most of his spies were athletes and I didn’t hang out around the track or fields very often.  Just Tuesdays, when-
  10.         The nurse grabbed me by the shoulder as I was edging my way out the door, interrupting my train of thought.
  11.         “Listen kid, I know you’ve gone through a lot.  But so has everyone else here, you know that.  Despite what happened to you don’t think they’ll judge you for it.  Here we’re all just people.”
  12.         “Y-yeah, okay.”
  13.         “I’ll get you out there one day Koji.  Trust me on that.  I have my ways.”
  14.         This frightened me more than anything.  Did he now have people following me?  Did they know about me, at least more than the others did?  I scurried out the door and quickly ran across campus to my dorm.  Locking the door, I sighed in relief and turned on the lights.  I had blocked up my window.  Too much sun.  Too many people outside.  It was more like my room back home this way.  More like nothing had changed.
  15.         I went over to my computer.  Students weren’t supposed to have computers but my parents persuaded the administration.  “We’re so far away,” they said, “it’s the only way we can keep in touch.”  My mom called me on Skype twice a day.  I never turned on the camera.  I didn’t want her to look at me, it would just remind her of my failure.  But we talked.  Some days it was the only person I talked to, at least with my mouth.
  16.         Deaddrop1911: <if it isn’t crippled kawamori!>
  17.         My computer.  Someone was messaging me.
  18.         VariableValkyrie: <I told you to stop calling me that.>
  19.         Deaddrop1911: <but isn’t even more alliterative in your native japanese?
  20.         Deaddrop1911: <katawa kawamori or something?>
  21.         VariableValkyrie: <Yeah, that’s about it.>
  22.         Deaddrop1911: <so what’s up koji?>
  23.         Deaddrop1911: <holding things down on your end?>
  24.         VariableValkyrie: <I’m fine.>
  25.         Deaddrop1911: <aight then>
  26.         Deaddrop1911: <i went to a rifle range over the weekend>
  27.         Deaddrop1911: <the coolest thing i’ve ever done>
  28.         VariableValkyrie: <Congratulations Jake.  I know you’ve always wanted to do that.  Fun?>
  29.         Deaddrop1911: <fuck yeah it was>
  30.         Deaddrop1911: <you gotta reach for your dreams, bro>
  31.         Deaddrop1911: <its a lot easier than you think>
  32.         Deaddrop1911: <that girl you always dream about>
  33.         Deaddrop1911: <the german?  germans are freaks by the way>
  34.         Deaddrop1911: <talk to her today.  or tomorrow, for you i guess>
  35.         VariableValkyrie: <You know I can’t do that.>
  36.         Deaddrop1911: <fuck what you cant do>
  37.         Deaddrop1911: <life is about fucking what you cant do and doing it anyway>
  38.         Deaddrop1911: <you think they were gonna let me anywhere near a range after what happened to me?>
  39.         Deaddrop1911: <but i got there, and it was great>
  40.         Deaddrop1911: <fuck reason and catch your dreams>
  41.         Deaddrop1911: <i gotta get to class bro, i’ll catch you around>
  42.         Variable  Valkyrie: <Okay, see you later.>
  43.         Most of the time was spent as it had been at home, on my computer playing video games and surfing the internet.  Sometimes it even felt like nothing had changed.  If only I were so lucky.
  44. *       *       *
  45.         Class.  The worst part of my day.  Not that I didn’t like learning, I just knew the other students were afraid of me.  Or at least it felt like that.  Class 3-2 was for the visually impaired.  I mean, I guess I technically was, with one eye, but it was mostly blind kids and other much more severely impaired than I.  So I sat in the back.  I could see from back there and it also let others who couldn’t sit ahead of me.  It also kept me away from everyone else, lest they accidentally touch me.  The repercussions of which scared me half to death.  I didn’t want to put anyone else through what had happened to me.
  46.         But 3-2’s instructor/homeroom teacher, Ms. Ito (who was also blind), focused on History.  I liked History, it was like living vicariously through other people.  Getting to do things I knew I’d never be able to do.  Though I wished I could stay in that class all day, I had a full schedule.  Something about making up for lost time.  They also put my in a sign language class.  When I asked why, the guidance counselor simply said “Because you have two hands.”  At first I thought it was some stupid joke but after my first day at Yamaku I saw why.  And I guess they needed all the translators they could.  Helped to integrate the deaf students into the school’s social circles.  Not that I’d ever be much good at that.
  47.         Today was Tuesday though.  Best day of the week.  After class, I took the long route back to the dorms, past the soccer field.  I suddenly felt scared.  I wondered if the Nurse’s spies were watch.  No matter, I brushed it off.  Women’s soccer had matches on Tuesdays at home, Thursdays were matches away.  I had looked up the schedule on the school’s website, though the schedule was probably for parents.  Students were supposed to ask.
  48.         Walking by the field, a crowd had already taken seats in the stands.  I never sat down but I thought it looked reasonable to stand and watch for a little while.  Like, “Oh, I’m just on my way home but then I happened to see this soccer match and thought I’d just watch for a little bit.”  Like anyone’d believe that though, two months in a row.  But I couldn’t stop now.  If people had seen me and I stopped, then they’d think I had been planning something.  If I sat down, that’d be weird too.  Why hadn’t I done it after the first week?  The situation was too complex now.
  49.         Stopping, I looked for her golden hair blitzing across the field.  Jessica Frederson, captain of the Girl’s Soccer team.  And daughter of the former German Ambassador, I found out thanks to some internet research.  I knew why she was here though.  A news article from three years ago revealed her and her family had been in a car accident, a really bad one.  On the way home from a diplomatic dinner, their car had been hit side-on by a speeding driver running a red light.  Her father was restricted to a wheelchair, his spine snapped.  Jessica had lost her left arm at the elbow, mangled in the metal.  She’d also needed a new kidney and liver, which had failed after internal bleeding.  Her mother, at the wheel that night, died.  
  50.         Apparently Jessica had made a remarkable recovery, as donor organs were found quickly.  Her father had retired from politics after that, and also to the Japanese coast.  His wife was buried here, so apparently that was reason enough to stay.  Jessica had lived here her entire life as well, so I guess it made sense for her to stay.
  51.         She was beautiful, the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen.  165 cm tall, thin and with close-cropped blonde hair.  A sporty look, I guess.  But her best feature was her eyes.  Steely blue with determination, I caught glances of them on the field, vicious and sharp and ready for battle.  I’d also seen them up close once.  I accidentally bumped into her, the first day I was at Yamaku.  Off the pitch, her eyes were kind and colored like a warm summer sky.
  52.         “I’m terribly sorry,” she had said.
  53.         “N-no… it’s my fault.  I should… should’ve been paying more attention.”
  54.         “Your loss then, it’s a great advantage for me to be in your debt,” she smiled ear to ear, “Jessica Frederson, 3-3.”
  55.         “Kawamori. 3…, 3-2.”
  56.         “Well Mister Kawamori, do you have a first name?”
  57.         “K-Koji.”
  58.         “Well Koji, where I’m from we call friends by their first names.”  The bell rang.  “Shit, I gotta get to class.  See you around, Koji!”
  59.         “B-…Bye!”  I turned and wove as she tore down the hallway.  Bearing in mind the fact that she was born and raised in Japan, the gesture was still nice.  I greatly appreciated it.  She was the first at Yamaku, though not knowing of my condition, who’d been genuinely friendly to me.
  60.         Everyone in my class had been debriefed on my condition.  It was protocol, with something as potentially dangerous as MRSA.  Jessica hadn’t known – she couldn’t know – and had thus been friendly to me.  I could never tell her, and could never speak to her.  I didn’t want her getting hurt.  I knew, she being immuno-compromised from the transplants, was at more a risk than anyone else.  If she caught what I’d had… she’d die.  Fuck, that was the reason I’d got it in the first place.  It’s one thing to go through… all that… and then find out you caught the killer bug, MRSA, and could die anyway?  I’d almost offed myself then.  The added pain was unbearable.  I didn’t want anyone to go through that.  Especially not her.
  61.         So I watched her.  I tried not to be creepy about it, but there was no other way.  I couldn’t talk to her, talk to anyone.
  62.         I was there, watching the game, that Tuesday.  The coach called a time out.  Jessica called out for a towel and deftly wiped the sweat off herself, a combination of overcompensating with her right arm and calculated placement of the remains of her left.  Grabbed a bottle of water and practically downed it in one gulp.  She talked with her teammates, probably discussing plays, then ran back onto the field.  At the last second, she turned around and looked, looked directly at me.
  63.         I turned away as quickly as possible.  She saw me.  Had I been staring?  Had she felt my eye on her?  Was I leering?  Oh God I didn’t want to be leering.  I was a creep now, a stalker.  She saw me, she knew.  I practically ran back to the dorms.
  64. *       *       *
  65.         VariableValkyrie: <Jake, are you there?>
  66.         Deaddrop1911: <always around somewhere buddy>
  67.         Deaddrop1911: <was in the middle of a match but whenever you start with “are you there” its gotta be more importatn>
  68.         VariableValkyrie: <It’s just stupid League of Legends anyway, it’s destroying your brain.>
  69.         Deaddrop1911: <so you admit i have a brain to destory>
  70.         VariableValkyrie: <Not if you keep up the misspellings.  How am I better than you at typing your native language?>
  71.         Deaddrop1911: <whatever bro>
  72.         Deaddrop1911: <whats up?>
  73.         VariableValkyrie: <She saw me today.  At the soccer field.>
  74.         VariableValkyrie: <I’m a creeper now, aren’t I?  That’s what Americans call it these days, right?>
  75.         Deaddrop1911: <i think you’re overreacting>
  76.         Deaddrop1911: <besides how does she know you were watching her?>
  77.         Deaddrop1911: <you were just there to supports the team is all>
  78.         VariableValkyrie: <The school outcast suddenly has spirit?  I don’t think so man.>
  79.         Deaddrop1911: <whatever, bro>
  80.         Deaddrop1911: <did you talk to her?  explain yourself?>
  81.         VariableValkyrie: <No.>
  82.         VariableValkyrie: <One day.  The bandages come off next week, or so they say.>
  83.         Deaddrop1911: <that’s good>
  84.         Deaddrop1911: <from what the internet tells me youre fine from here on out. not contagious at all.>
  85.         VariableValkyrie: <I’ll believe it when I see it.>
  86.         There was a knock on the door.  The clock on the computer said it was 7:48, but time didn’t really matter to me.  My bandages were changed and my homework done.  I was free to delve into cyberspace as wished.  Why would the nurse be bothering me?  He was the only one who came around, usually when I forgot to come in to him or when I refused to.  I went over to the door, picking up a loose paper, placing it in the appropriate bin and opened it.  I hooked in the little door chain I had illegally installed on the door and opened up.  I had wanted to get a stronger-security bar but I feared that might be too obvious and I’d get written up.
  87.         “Hey there Koji.”
  88.         It wasn’t the nurse.  It was Jessica.  Oh shit, oh shit.  She saw me staring, she must have.  She’s here to confront me, to report me.  I’m fucked.  They’ll take my computer away, as punishment.  What do I do?  What the fuck do I do?
  89.         “…Hi.”
  90.         “Can I come in?”
  91.         The prettiest girl in school, come to my room, and wants to come in?  This has to be a set-up.
  92.         “I… I mean y-you… you d-don’t know about… me.  I’m – I’m dangerous.  To you.  To… everyone.”
  93.         “You mean the MRSA?” She said it like ‘mursuh,’ not spelled out as I’d usually heard.
  94.         She knew.  How did she know?  She knew that I was a walking time bomb and could kill her at any moment.
  95.         My face must have shown nothing but shock or horror, because she continued: “You’re wondering how I know.  Nurse told me.  He also said that you’re pretty much healthy now.  The antibiotics killed most of it or something and now the risk factor is pretty much zilch.  Now are you gonna let me in or not?”  
  96.         I nodded nervously, closed the door, removed the chain and opened the door.  The first time someone’s coming in to my inner sanctum.  It’s probably because it is her that I’m opening the door.  Anyone else and I might have shut the door and deadbolted it, but the one person who’s shown me genuine kindness… Still there may be something to this.  Can’t let my guard down.
  97.         “Wow, this is a cleaaan,” she said walking my room, “my room’s a positive dump compared to this.”
  98.         “Y-yeah, they said at the hospital I should be… cleaner.”
  99.         Clean was an understatement.  I was proud of how clean my room was.  One dresser, one desk, one bed and one closet.  Two pairs of shoes, two uniform jackets and two uniform shirts hung neatly in the closet.  Two pairs of everything else neatly in the dresser, on top of which were various sorting bins for papers and assorted things.  My bed was made; you could bounce a coin off the taught sheets.  Desk had the monitor, mouse and keyboard, all wires properly hidden away underneath the desk and stapled to the wall to prevent them from getting caught and tangled.
  100.         “Oh man you have a computer?  That is so cool!  How’d you manage to get away with that?”
  101.         “My parents… I’m from K-Kagoshima so it’s hard for them to come visit…”
  102.         “I see, I see.  Con man are we?” She winked.
  103.         Winking?  At me?  This was too strange.
  104.         “Do you play video games?  I mean, with a computer like that you have to!” She continued, barely noticing my confusion.  “I used to play a lot before, well, I think you can guess.”  She held up her stump.
  105.         “Y-yeah, I can see how that’d make… things hard… I’m sorry, I don’t want – I didn’t mean – It’s just –“
  106.         “It’s fine, really.  I’m used to it by now.  Besides, I play soccer now.  Not the same as fighting aliens or solving crimes or getting in a war but it’s an adrenaline rush all the same!  Say, do you have any new games?  Like from this year?”
  107.         A girl.  No.  The girl.  In my room.  Asking about my video games.  This is like some sick dream, it has to be.
  108.         “L-like… from this year new?”
  109.         “Yeah, you know, newer than from before my accident.  Without computers here at school I have to read about new games from magazines from the convenience store.  Do you know how antiquated that feels?  My dad can access his entire movie library from his cell phone but I have to read about video games in a magazine!”
  110.         “Uh, s-sure then…”
  111.         I went over to the computer.  Opened the games directory.
  112.         Deaddrop1911: <dude?>
  113.         Deaddrop1911: <duuuuuude?>
  114.         Deaddrop1911: <im calling your mom if you dont answer.>
  115.         Deaddrop1911: <im serious bro>
  116.         Shit.  Jake.
  117.         VariableValkyrie: <I’ve got to go, I’ll be back later.>
  118.         I signed off as quickly as humanly possible.
  119.         “Who was that?”  She was watching.
  120.         “J-Just… a friend.”
  121.         She shrugged it off.  “Wow, this thing is fast.  I mean, I must be out of the technological loop, it’s been about four years since I last used a computer, but this is fast.  Wait, is that Portal 2?  The first came out right after I got out of the hospital?  This one is brand new!  Can we – er, you, play it?”
  122.         I booted up the game.  I guess Jessica likes Western games, too.  Though that makes sense.  And for a second I was relaxed, merely thinking about playing games with this girl before I realized, it was this girl.  Jessica Frederson, star of the soccer team.
  123.         “Stop being nervous and play the game, dude.  I only have like 30 minutes before I haveta get going and do my homework.”
  124.         And so I played the game, trying my hardest to pretend that there wasn’t someone watching at all times.  While she was also having visceral reactions to the game.  Her eyes darted across the screen, eating up every moment.
  125.         Some time passed, then:
  126.         “Hey Koji, what time is it?  I don’t wear a watch because… well you know.”
  127.         “Uh…” I checked my watch. “E-Eight fifty… two,” as the second hand passed 12.
  128.         “Shitshitshit, I’m not gonna have enough time to do my homework.  I gotta run, dude.  But I did come here to talk to you for a reason, don’t forget that.  I’ll find you at lunch tomorrow, we’ll talk then.”
  129.         “B-bye,” I called after her golden whoosh.
  130.         A whole hour spent with Jessica.  It was like a dream come true… but I dream I didn’t want to have.  Every time I thought about her, her giggling and smiling, I thought about the potential harm.  I mean the nurse did say I was better, but they said that when I was 8, too.  And look what happened then.  And she said she was going to find me?  She must really be one of the nurse’s spies.  Did the nurse know where I ate lunch?  It was a private spot.  Really private.  Not something cliché like the roof either.  I suddenly dreaded tomorrow.
  131. *       *       *
  132.         I liked Sign Language class well enough.  I could sit in the back and watch other people translate.  I practiced sometimes in the mirror in the bathroom but like usual I was content to watch.  There was someone new in the room today though.  A young woman, perhaps just 21 or 22, with long brown hair.  She was dressed in a plain skirt and professional shirt, looking the part of a sophisticated college student.  The instructor said, signing along the whole time:
  133.         “This is our new Teaching assistant, Shiina Mikado.  She’s working with us while she studies to become a sign language teacher.”
  134.         “Please, call me Misha!  I’m not a teacher yet! Wahaha~”
  135.         I didn’t know the sign for her curious laugh but the motions she made seemed to nail it.
  136.         “Anyway, I graduated from Yamaku not too long ago-“
  137.         She was interrupted by one of the, let’s say, more brutish students in the middle of the classroom.  “What’s your disability?”
  138.         The teacher shot him a dirty look but Mikado took it in stride.
  139.         “Well, I’d rather not get into that now.  But I learned sign language like you guys did, in this very classroom!  So I’m so very glad to be working here now! Wahaha~”
  140.         And so Mikado lead today’s lesson, seeming to know exactly where the instructor left off.  She’s good, I thought.  She signs like it’s second nature.  Her energy and friendliness suit her choice of teaching too.  The bell rings after a while and I try to silently slink out as usual.
  141.         “Ah, Kawamori, is it?”  Mikado calls across the room to me.  Instantly all the eyes in the classroom turn on me.  Shit shit shit.  I’m sweating bullets.  
  142.         “Just wait around for a moment?  I’d like to speak with you.”
  143.         The class takes this as their cue to stop staring and continue out the door.  After they’ve left, Mikado comes running, no, bouncing over to me.
  144.         “Koji, Koji Kawamori?”
  145.         “Y-yes?”
  146.         She extends her hand.  “Pleased to meet you.  And please, call me Misha! Wahaha~, I’m really not a teacher yet.”
  147.         I limply return the handshake.  There are no bandages on my lower arm but the ones on my face are painfully obvious.
  148.         “Your instructor here says you don’t have a partner to practice with.  Why’s that?”
  149.         “I… I don’t… the other students wouldn’t want to practice with me.”
  150.         “That’s silly~  They have to practice with you, it’s part of the experience in school life!  Meeting others, forming social bonds, all that stuff!”
  151.         I just nod.  What is she getting at?
  152.         “Anyway, Koji – can I call you Koji?  I’ll call you Koji – I’m extending you a one time offer totally not refusable one time deal here!  One on one practice sessions with me, after the day’s classes are over.”
  153.         “But… I-“
  154.         “Nonsense! Wahaha~  We’ll meet in the room, it’s usually empty after class.  If it isn’t we’ll go to the roof or something like that.  Anyway, get to your next class, kid.  You’re going to be late!”
  155.         I bow and run off.  This is… this is scary.  And unprecedented.  I thought you were allowed to do things at your own pace here?  Well I guess if she’s from Yamaku, she understands.  But I still feel rushed.  And frustrated.  This is too much for me to handle right now.  I look at my watch.  Lunch in two periods.  Shit.
  156. *       *       *
  157.         The alley between the gymnasium and the school was rarely, if ever used.  At one point the two buildings were completely separate but at some point they built a tunnel connecting the two, leaving two alleys on either side.  The one more facing the school grounds was a common hangout, a nice bit of shade.  The other side, facing the fence, was my side.  When it was nice out, which I discovered when I first came to the school, it was secluded and quiet but still outside.  Now that it was spring I had started coming back out.  The gardeners had still not trimmed it up from the winter so it was a bit overgrown.  But it was still my side, I was comfortable there.
  158.         I unpacked my lunch from my bag.  Once a week, Sunday nights, I went down to town to get supplies.  Seven boxed lunches, enough ramen for dinners and a box of cereal for breakfast.  But as far as I could tell, I hadn’t been followed.  Maybe Jessica forgot.  Hopefully she forgot.  Then, halfway through my lunch, I saw her walking around the corner of the gym.
  159.         “Hey Koji!  This place is hard to find.”
  160.         That is why I ate there.
  161.         “H-how did you find me?  …I didn’t see a-anyone follow me.”
  162.         She pulled out a small cell phone.
  163.         “Emails!  I just made use of the spy network to find out where you were going.  Wonders of technology, these things.”
  164.         Cheeky.  But my suspicions were confirmed.  The nurse was watching me… somehow.  I didn’t like that feeling of that.
  165.         “Whatcha got for lunch, dude?”
  166.         “J-just a boxed meal… from the store.”
  167.         “Laaaame.  Here, have some of my spargel.  I made it myself!  It’s not in season, but even fresh asparagus is hard to get in Japan so I make due.”
  168.         I glanced at the little plastic box she had opened while she sat down across from me in the alley.  Little white stalks of vegetable stared back at me.  It wasn’t really like anything I’d seen before.
  169.         “It’s from back home.  A national treasure.  Come on, have one!”
  170.         I grabbed a stalk with my chopsticks.  It wasn’t bad.  Tender and juicy.  I was surprised, they looked at first like little white sticks.
  171.         “Good, right?  My… my mom taught me how to make it.  Before, you know.”
  172.         “I – I, uh…” I tried to change topics.  “Is it… hard to cook… with just one hand?”
  173.         “Hahaha, yeah it is!  Nobody ever asks though, they’re too afraid of offending me or something.  Luckily all you really have to do is steam the spargel and add sauce to the top.  Pretty easy and fast, too.”
  174.         “It’s pretty good… thank you f-for sharing.”
  175.         “No problem.  Oh!  I’m supposed to talk to you about something.”  She was clearly easily distracted, but she continued.  “Why do you stop by the soccer matches once a week?  The other ‘spies’ tell me you don’t go to any other events.”
  176.         I glanced nervously to the side, completely unsure as to what to say.  That I went there to catch a glimpse of her?  That it was a highlight of my week?  I mean, I barely knew the rules of soccer.  You kicked the ball into the net and that’s about all I ever figured out.  I just shrugged, hoping that’d be enough of a response.
  177.         “Hmm.  You don’t look like you play; I think your main hobby is video games.  And I don’t think you’re interested in it because you like to watch sports.  You don’t have any posters in your room or watch the games in the lounge with other kids… but you do have internet, so maybe you watch it there?  …Nah.  I’m going to guess… you’ve got a crush on someone on the team!”
  178.         Horror.  Shock.  Blood drained from my face.  If it was fully uncovered she’d see how pale – paler – I had just become.  Pupils dilated.  Mouth slightly agape.  I just saw the face of infinity and it scared me.
  179.         “That’s it!  I knew it!  Some of the girls, maybe your girl-“ She giggled, “might think it’s kind of creepy.  Guy watching a girl week after week?  I think it’s kind of sweet though.  I mean, given your conditions and personality, it shows you really care!  Enough to go out once a week and cheer her on, despite how much it hurts to be in public.”
  180.         If only you knew, Jessica.  If only you knew.  She seemed lost in thought for a little bit.  She at another piece of asparagus, mulling something over in her head.  If I wasn’t so crippled with anxiety right now I’d be running for my life, just to be out of it.  She finished the piece and spoke again.
  181.         “That settles it then.”
  182.         “W-what?”  I’m totally beguiled.
  183.         “I’m gonna be your wingman.  I’ll help you get out there and confess to her, tell you what to say and all that.  You know, win her heart!”
  184.         The situation went from bad to worse at that moment.  100 to 200 km/h.  I’m almost certain I gulped, like in some bad cartoon.  Thankfully, the bell rang.
  185.         “Aw man, I didn’t even get to finish!  Spent too much time looking for you.”  She winked.  “Anyway, I gotta jet.  I’ve been late too many times for English already, teacher’ll kill me if I’m late again.  See you later Koji, we’ll work on this together!”
  186.         “S-see… you.  See you later.”
  187.         With a flash she was gone again, and I sat there completely confused.  What would I do?  What would happen when she found out it was her?  She was going to make me talk to people?  She was going to spend time with me?  She’d get sick.  I’d get people sick.  What about when she finds out I have no friends at all?  She’d reject me, even before she finds out I… I like her.  In that way.  I hung my head.  This was going to be bad.
  188. *       *       *
  189.         “Koji!  I’m glad you came!  Wahaha~”
  190.         I was standing outside the sign language classroom.  Mikado was there.  Apparently there was a club meeting after classes.  I guess we’d be going somewhere else.
  191.         “Y-you... made me.”
  192.         “True enough!  I may not be a teacher but I can still make you students do things!”
  193.         Frightening.  Unchecked power in her hands would give me nightmares.
  194.         “So let’s get started!  Basic conversation, see what you know and all that! [Good afternoon, Koji!]”
  195.         I raised my hands in front of me and fumbled to put words together.  I really hadn’t practiced as much as I liked to have thought I did.
  196.         “[Good… evening.  No… I sorry… good… afternoon, Mr…. No, no, no, Mrs-]”  Embarrassment all over my face.
  197.         “Wahaha~ [No need for formalities!  Misha, please!]”
  198.         “[Good… afternoon… Misha.]”
  199.         “[How are you today?]”
  200.         “[I… good-]”
  201.         “[I’m.]”
  202.         “[I’m… fine.]”
  203.         “[Glad to see that.  Tell me something about you, Koji.]”
  204.         “[I… play… games.  On computer.  I’m… not… social.]”
  205.         Was I really telling her that, here on the roof with my hands?  I guess the disconnect between my head and my hands was greater than between my head and my mouth.  It was easier, this way.  Even if I didn’t have the words, she was watching my hands, not my bandaged face.
  206.         “[Any friends here at school?  Someone you get lunch with, maybe?]”  She said it with a wink.
  207.         She must have seen me at lunch, somehow.  I mean, the alley was close to the teacher’s parking lot…  Shit was this rumor going around the school?  What would people think?  The other students were really keen to spread rumors and gossip, I’d overheard a lot of things.  In a day my entire life had changed.  I wanted it to back to normal.  I just wanted to go back to my dorm and fall asleep.  This was a bad dream.  Misha looked at me with some concern.  I guess panic had set in again.
  208.         “Touched a nerve there, did I?  Hey kiddo, it’s fine, we don’t have to talk about it.  Topic dropped.”
  209.         Was it raining?  It had to be raining all right.  My cheek was all wet.  With my eye also went the tear ducts.  I had figured this out on multiple occasions.  Crying from one eye, to self pity, is the saddest thing I’d ever experienced.
  210.         “Hey, hey, calm down.  I really didn’t mean to push.  There, there,” she said patting my shoulder.  She came in to embrace me for a hug.
  211.         No no no, she can’t touch me.  She’ll get sick.  I can’t let her touch me.
  212.         “N-no…  No.  Stop.  Don't!  DON’T TOUCH ME!”
  213.         I pushed out of her arms and ran for the doorway.  I didn’t stop until I got back to my dorm.  Locked the bolt and the chain.  Went over to my bed and cried.
  214. *       *       *
  215.         I didn’t go to class the next day.  I don’t remember if I ate, either.  Didn’t leave my room at all.  There was no need.  I was done for.  If I showed my face around school I’d be laughed out.  Better to stay in here, flunk out and have my parents come pick me up.
  216.         I didn’t answer my mother when she called me, either.  I didn’t tell here about most things.  She surely did not have to hear about this.
  217.         For a few hours at night I was on my computer.  Bullshitting with Jake.  He really did have my mom’s skype address.  If I worried him to much he would call her.  So I didn’t say anything.  How pathetic was that?  Lying to someone I’d never really met?  But mostly I just slept, wrapped in a blanket and darkness.  I was safe here, in my cocoon.  My thoughts drifted, to a better time.  The last good time I can remember from before.  The sky is a violent eruption of reds, oranges and yellows.  The sun is setting and there are clouds painted red.  Somewhere above a seagull cackles its maniacal laughter.  The water is a deep blue, but calm.  Katsuo and I are playing the water.  He’s six, I think.  I’m getting tired though, we’ve been at the beach all day.
  218.         “Boys!” my mother calls to us.  “We’re going to head out soon, come dry off.”
  219.         There’s no one else left at the beach.  The warm summer air stings the drying salt water on my face and smells like the glorious ocean.  This is my quiet place, where I retreat to in my head when I need to relax and be free.  After the first time the same beach was my private place, through middle school and then the first year of high school.  At dusk it was quiet and beautiful.  The warmth of the setting sun burned away all my problems.
  220.         It’s so far away now.  It’s been so long since I’ve been home.   Since I’ve seen the sun set.  I wish I were home.  I wish I didn’t have to be at this stupid school, ostracized at a school for outcasts.
  221.         I don’t mean that.  They’re good people here at Yamaku.  But they’re stigmatized and kept away from society.  Even the townspeople manage to look at them and I strangely, every once in a while.  Do cigarettes relieve stress?  Maybe I should take up smoking.  It’s not like my health can get worse.
  222.         What was I going to do?  I didn’t have enough food to last me forever.  I’d have to leave to resupply.  Maybe if I ran away?  No, there was too much of my stuff here.  I’d never be able to carry my computer around with me.  And then there was my medication.  I was tethered to someone else, no matter what.  I hated this.  So restricted, so needy.  If people weren’t horrified by me they pitied me instead.
  223.         Minutes turned to hours.  I laid there in thought, contemplating the futility of my situation.  I could stop taking the medications and let myself go.  The pain of death would be a way out.  Nobody would have to worry about me or my future.  My grades had suffered because of the extended absences in the hospital.  College was then ruled out.  I couldn’t get a job because I had no skills.  I couldn’t even join the military or work as a laborer because of my stupid fucking eye.  Hikikomori or death.  Not a hard choice.  Sometimes I wish I were an otaku.  At least then I’d have no shame.  I could be blissfully unaware of myself, lost in some fantasy world or another.
  224.         BANG BANG BANG.  Someone was at the door.  I checked my watch.  4:02 PM, Thursday.  Only one person it could be, the Nurse.  If I ever missed our regularly scheduled checkups and didn’t show the next day, he’d come find me.  I felt my bandages.  They didn’t feel wet, which was good.  Maybe I wouldn’t get the berating I’ve gotten before, if the bandages were doing okay.  They needed to be changed to get rid of the excess fluids and to let my wounds breathe for a few minutes.  I took off my button-down uniform shirt, wrinkled by a day of laying in it.  Usually I just wore a light t-shirt underneath but it was hot yesterday, so I didn’t have anything on at all.
  225.         “J-Just a second!” I called out, peeling the first layers of my head bandages off.  Might as well get this over with as fast as I could.  My hair wasn’t long but it stuck to the bandages.  They told me to let it grow, that way I could look “normal” when I finally was able to keep the cloth strips off my face.  It was easy to get it off my face, impossible to get it on.  My neck and shoulder were hard to reach too, but I didn’t want to be too much of a burden.  I did the best that I could, so the Nurse would be done with it quickly.
  226.         I open the door.  Jessica.  A look of shock on her face.  A gasp.  Try and close the door as hard as I can.  Left stump jammed in between the door and the frame, foot pushing against the door itself.  No one needed to see me like this, especially not her.  She was stronger than me though, pushing the door as hard as I was.
  227.         “Wait, Koji… wait!  Just open… the door!”
  228.         “N-no!  I can’t!  N-Not like this!”
  229.         She let go.  The door slammed shut.  I slid down it, knees on the floor and hands still pushing fruitlessly.  
  230.         “Koji…” a muffled voice on the other side.  “I… I didn’t mean to startle you.  Just… put something on, the nurse sent me.”
  231.         I didn’t want to.  I shouldn’t have to.  But something deep inside told me it was okay, if I covered up.  I don’t know what animal instinct it was, but I guess it was a desire for human contact.  And information.  If Mik- Misha had known about Jessica and I’s lunch, then Jessica would surely know what the rest of the school knew.  Whether they heard about my breakdown on the roof.  Maybe there was a chance I could back outside.
  232.         “O…okay.”
  233.         I pulled my shirt back on.  The cotton against my scarred skin felt strange, a sensation the skin hadn’t felt since it all began.  Shit.  I couldn’t wrap my face.  There wasn’t anything in my dorm I could use to cover up, either.  I held my hand up to my face and covered my eye and upper cheek.  If this wasn’t a cliché I didn’t know what was.  Maybe having hair that covered it entirely.
  234.         I opened the door and let Jessica in.
  235.         “I’m sorry, I really didn’t know you’d be, well, like that.  Actually, I didn’t know at all what was under your bandages.  I don’t think anyone does.  And I didn’t expect you to be naked when I walked in.”
  236.         I clearly looked upset, because she apologized.
  237.         “That was a joke, sorry.  Anyway, the nurse said you missed yesterday’s appointment.  He usually comes here then, he said, but thought it might be better if someone else managed to get you out.  He’s worried, even though he won’t say it.”
  238.         “W-Wasn’t there… a game today?  Y-You know… away…?”
  239.         “Oh, that.  It’s not important.  I go to every game, I can afford to miss one.  Besides, the Nurse thought it was important to get you out.  I trust his judgment.”
  240.         “W-well… okay.  T-Thanks-s for… coming, I g-guess.”
  241.         “Ah, it’s nothing, really!  So hey, need help with those head bandages?  They seem pretty hard to get on by yourself…”  She grabbed one of the cotton strips off the bed and stretched it out between her hand and under her armpit, looking like she was picturing how to best wrap my head up.  The bandage, and her hand, were really close to my face.  I panicked.
  242.         “NO!” She was startled, her eyes growing wide.  “I… I m-mean, no thanks… I don’t like people… touching me.  W-without…. Gloves.  For p-protection.”
  243.         “Well the Nurse said you were fiiiiine, but have it your way.  Heh, I don’t think anyone will recognize you without them!  But let’s goooo, I told him I’d get you back there as soon as possible.”
  244.         And like that she opened the door back up and led me across the grounds.  This was clearly a step between not wanting to disappoint her and not wanting to get in trouble the nurse, but it was frightening.  I had both hands covering my face, which made it even more conspicuous.  So long as no one saw, I thought, I’d be fine.  How ridiculous that was though.  Like no one would notice the foreign girl leading a guy covering his face with his hands all across the school.  Why was I even doing this?  I’d be fine alone.
  245.         Keeping up with Jessica is hard, she’s practically sprinting there, but we make it soon enough.
  246.         “Hey, I’ll be out here when you’re done,” she smiles, “we’ll go get coffee or tea or something.”
  247.         Gulp.  I hope she didn’t hear that.  But for some reason I can’t say no to this girl.  So I just nod and head in.
  248.         “Ah, there you are.”  The nurse looks a bit pleased to see me, but this quickly changes. “I hear you had a rough afternoon yesterday.”
  249.         I just look at him, unsure of what to say.
  250.         “Misha’s an old patient of mine, as you might of have guessed.  She used to come in here every once in a while when she was going to Yamaku.  For her disability.  Anyway, she came to me after you freaked out on her yesterday – which you should stop doing, you know, if you don’t want us to get worried – and was asking all about you.  She’s a sharp one, figured I’d know most about the guy with the bandages.”  He was smirking now.
  251.         “So, let’s get your medicine out and get you some bandages.  Only three more days of this you know?  And, shoot kid, you made it all the way here without ‘em and didn’t die.  You might not need this crutch anymore.”
  252.         I guess I hadn’t though of it that way before.  I thought they were helping me heal, not sheltering me.  In that way they were better than any locked door or computer screen.
  253. *       *       *
  254.         “Hey, look at that!  All fresh and ready to go?”  Such a positive attitude after the 30-minute wait.  This girl was something.
  255.         I just shrugged meekly in return.  Where would she take me next?  I hadn’t gotten the chance to talk to her yet, so I couldn’t refuse.  I don’t think she’d let me anyway.
  256.         “Y-you weren’t… bored, w-waiting?”
  257.         “Nah, I’ve got some games on my cellphone!”  She whipped it out of a pocket in her skirt I didn’t think she’d have.  “It’s a lot easier to play games one handed on one of these, you know what I mean?”
  258.         I nodded and followed her outside.
  259.         “W-where are going?” I asked as we passed through the gate.  That gate that was the first barrier of defense against the outside.  Kept me protected and kept everyone else protected from me.
  260.         She seemed pensive, thinking about it hard.  “Well it’s a bit early for a big meal… and I don’t eat fast food… too late for a picnic… that settles it!”
  261.         “Hmm?”
  262.         “The Shanghai!”  Her eyes lit up like she’d just made a major breakthrough.  She got so excited over the little things in life.  It was kind of infectious.
  263.         “T-the… Shanghai?”
  264.         “Yeah, it’s this nice little tea house.  But don’t worry; they serve pretty good food there.  And they cater to students a lot from Yamaku so they’re all used to us freaks marching in and out all day long.”
  265.         Glad to know that she thought of herself as a freak, too.  Admittedly, her disability was just as visible as mine.  I should really stop making seeing jokes, it feels too self-depreciating.
  266.         So down the hill we went, a few turns through the narrow streets of the town and we were there.  It occurred to me that we were deeper into town than I’d ever been before.  The convenience store was right there on the main road, I had no need to go around town at all.
  267.         She noticed.  “First time into town?”
  268.         “W-well I… I usually just go to the convenience store.  F-for… lunches and things.”
  269.         “You should get out more, you know?  Even in just this small town there’s lots to do.  Not as much as the city of course, but still things to do and places to go.  Ah, we’re here.”
  270.         Old fashioned and unassuming, the Shanghai didn’t look like a place Jessica would come to.  I guess I can’t say that though, I don’t know her that well.  Inside it was even more old fashioned than outside.  High backed booths ringed the outside though.  That was good, nice and private.  There was a clatter and a couple of loud thumps from the back as we came in.
  271.         “W-Welcome to the Shanghai!” A voiced called from in the back.  “P-Please sit wherever you like and I’ll be out in a minute!”
  272.         “The corner over there alright, Koji?”  Jessica pointed to a secluded private booth.
  273.         “Y-yeah, that one looks… good, I guess.”
  274.         Almost immediately after we had sat down a woman, about 30, with reddish hair and glasses, joined us.  Jessica clearly knew her.
  275.         “You didn’t have to rush Yuuko, we were fine waiting!”
  276.         “T-the customer always comes first!  I can finish the dishes later.”
  277.         “Oh, Yuuko, this is Koji.  Koji, Yuuko.”
  278.         “N-Nice to meet you,” I said.
  279.         “Yuuko used to be Yamaku’s librarian, but now she’s off doing bigger and better things!  How goes your university studies, by the way?”
  280.         “I-I thought I was good at Latin and Greek before… but this stuff can be so overwhelming.  But at the same time, it’s really fascinating.”  Her expression of bewilderment almost made me feel like she was overwhelmed all the time, but it probably wasn’t proper to mention it.
  281.         “She’s studying Ancient History at the university in the city, and if she thinks its tough, I’d probably die.  I’m no good at history at all.
  282.         “I-It’s not that… tough,” I replied, “It’s a-all about seeing the… story of it.  L-Like people always wonder why there was a second world war so soon after a first… it’s because of the first one that the second one even happened.  G-Ger- er, your country, was left depressed and bitter and spent years planning a comeback… and the c-cost of war on Europe allowed us, well, J-Japan to expand… when such forces were allowed unchecked i-it was inevitable.”
  283.         “Hmm.  I guess you really like this stuff too. You should tutor me in it, I’m always almost failing…”
  284.         I noticed Yuuko was shifting her weight back and forth, a bit uneasy.
  285.         “W-We should order now, r-right?”
  286.         “I completely forgot!  Yes, let’s!  I’ll have a turkey sandwich and some black coffee.  Koji?”
  287.         “A s-sandwich for me t-too… and some regular tea.  S-skim milk, if you have it.”
  288.         “I’ll check,” Yuuko said, “Will that be all?”
  289.         We nodded in near unison and she hurried away.
  290.         “So Koji, you’re not from around here, are you?”
  291.         I shook my head.
  292.         “Me neither.  Well I mean besides the obvious.  Up until my dad retired our official residence was in Berlin, but I grew up in Shinjuku.  Tokyo has always been my home moreso than Germany.  Every time we went there, for confrences or state visits or to go see family or something I felt so out of place.  Sure I spoke the language and knew all about Germany but… there’s nothing like home, right?  I think that’s why my dad decided to stay here, after the accident and retirement.  He knows that I like it here better, am more used to things here.”
  293.         Her eyes tensed up and her brow furrowed. Her lower lip quivered.
  294.         “Wow, I didn’t expect to tell you all that on our first date.”
  295.         I practically threw up.
  296.         She laughed, really hard, a deep belly laugh.  “I’m just kidding you, dude!  She kicked me under the table.  “Stop thinking so much.  Anyway, where are you from?”
  297.         “K-Kago… Kagoshima.  A small town… near the water.”
  298.         “Woooow, Kyushu?  That’s really far south.  Hmm.  I guess you’re really unused to living here, where it actually gets cold.”
  299.         “W-Winters are really warm… well, warmer than here.  It’s different being here.  Being away from the ocean.”
  300.         “Well we have an ocean here too you know.  You could probably take the train or something.”
  301.         I shrugged.  “I-I like Yamaku… and the town.  Small and i-isolated… like home.”  Too bad there were people here though.
  302.         “Yeah, it’s pleasant, isn’t it?  Relaxed and all that.  I’ve gotten to see a lot of the prefecture too, thanks to the soccer team.  Compared to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo… it’s relaxed.  That’s the best word for it.”
  303.         Yuuko came over with a tray, two sandwiches and the two hot beverages.
  304.         “We, uh, didn’t have skim… Is one percent okay?”
  305.         I nod and Yuuko bows and leaves.
  306.         “Looks good, eh Koji?  Let’s dig in.”
  307.         The girl was ravenous.  A minute passed and the sandwich was gone.  Sandwiches seemed easy enough for her to eat, though she had to put it down to take sips of her coffee.  I suppose if she had both hands it’d only take 30 seconds to finish the meal.
  308.         “Ahh, that was good.  I always like coming here; turkey is so exotic around these parts.  How’s yours?”
  309.         “G-Good… the tea is good too.”
  310.         “Glad to hear it.  I needed the caffeine shot from this coffee.  Usually I have some energy drinks or something before practice, you know? It gives me a boost I need to playwellandogoodinclass – whoa there, fräulein, too much too fast.”  She exhaled and calmed herself down.
  311.         “F-Fräulein?”
  312.         “Yeah, it’s a German word… it’s what my dad calls me sometimes.  It means young girl or something like that.  It’s antiquated but my dad’s an old fashioned guy.  Speaking of language, do you speak English?”
  313.         “Y-yeah.”
  314.         “Thought so.  I saw your computer was running in English and you were talking to someone in it.  You must be good at it if you use it as the primary language on your computer!”
  315.         “W-Well I was always watching old… American movies.  I guess… I j-just picked up somewhere along the way.”
  316.         “<Well this is great, someone I can talk to in Englisch!  I can’t tell you how bad the people in my class are.>”
  317.         “<S-So, you speak Eigo, too?>”
  318.         “<And Deutsch, Putonghua and Nihongo!>  My parents made sure I’d be prepared to talk to anyone they met.  Such is the life of a diplomat’s daughter.  Comes in handy though.  <So, what are you doing after this?>”
  319.         What kind of question was that?  I was going to go home and sleep, probably.  Teachers didn’t seem to care if I did my homework or not after I missed class so I’d just show up tomorrow and be done with it.
  320.         “<N-nothing…> I guess.”
  321.         “Want to play more Portal with, er, for me then?  <Turn on the English audio this time, I’m pretty sure the seiyu are putting more effort in, because it’s their game.>”
  322.         “S-Sure… we can d-do that.”
  323.         I reach into my pocket for a ten-yen note.
  324.         “No dude, I got this.  What’s the fun in being an aristocrat if you can’t give your friends some free meals?”
  325.         Friends.
  326.         “I-I just…”
  327.         “Don’t want to owe me?  Forget about it.”
  328.         From the same strange and hidden pocket she keeps her cell phone a wad of banknotes soon appeared.  She put down more than enough for the bill and leads me out of the restaurant, shouting a goodbye.
  329.         The walk back up the hill is uneventful and silent.  Jessica doesn’t seem to mind the silence though, despite being one of the most talkative people I know.  She’s got this ear-to-ear smile on her face as she walks next to me.  I don’t know what she’s so happy about but it’s something nice to see.  Her short hair is blowing in the light wind and the setting sun forms a corona around her head.  The pale blond of her hair is painted a beautiful red.  A setting sun and a still breeze, Jessica and I walking up the hill to Yamaku.  Thinking about it, this is why she’s at peace.  There’s nothing to be worried about here, during this 10-minute walk.  Even if something happened we couldn’t know if we got back.  Time to stop and smell the flowers, figuratively and literally.  So I do.
  330.         “Koji?”  Jessica turns around after I stop and let the scene envelop me.  Now her face is darkened, turned away from the sun.  The edges of her hair are red, like fire on the mountain.  She’s at the apex of the hill, the setting sun casting it’s magic upon the sky and her back.  I’m in my happy place.  I’m at the beach now, peaceful again.  I never thought it possible.
  331.         “I-It’s just… so beautiful.”  I’m looking through her and around her, not at her.  I hope she understands.
  332.         She turns around.  I think she does.
  333.         “I think… I think we’re on the same wavelength now, Koji.”
  334.         “T-This is the first time… I’ve seen a s-sunset like this since coming to this school.”
  335.         “It’s magnificent, isn’t it?  The light playing on the trees and hills.  Want to just watch it for a while?”
  336.         I nod and head off the road, up the hill opposite the school’s main gate.  We sit down next to each other and sit there for an hour or so, just watching the sunset.  It’s beautiful.  This is a perfect moment.  The sun has burned away all my worries.  In this moment there is only the sun, universe, Jessica and myself.
  337.         The sky eventually turns dark and the last bursts of sun fall behind the circumference of the Earth.
  338.         “Well, how about that video game, huh?”
  339.         “R-right.”
  340.         Somehow playing video games in my room wasn’t quite the same as watching the sunset but it was still nice to spend some time with somebody.  She was late leaving again but I wasn’t too upset when she stayed nearly to nine.  We were about halfway through the game now and she was already asking to look at my back catalog of games to see what we could play next.  Something similar I’d guess, with a focus on story so we could both get into it.
  341.         After she left I logged on.
  342.         VariableValkyrie: <Hey Jake.>
  343.         Deaddrop1911: <whats shakin, bacon?>
  344.         VariableValkyrie: <You’re not going to believe this.  I didn’t talk to her.  She talked to me.  We had dinner together.>
  345.         Deaddrop1911: <what like a date?>
  346.         VariableValkyrie: <No, I don’t think so.>
  347.         Deaddrop1911: <well be careful not to get friendzoned bro>
  348.         Deaddrop1911: <its a bad feel>
  349.         VariableValkyrie: <You mean feeling, right?>
  350.         Deaddrop1911: <feel, feeling, whats the difference?>
  351.         VariableValkyrie: <Whatever you say.>
  352.         VariableValkyrie: <What do I do next?  This has got me so caught up in things I’m afraid I’ll have a panic attack.>
  353.         Deaddrop1911: <well youre gonna have to seal the deal sometime soon>
  354.         Deaddrop1911: <you gotta make it known youre interested in her in that way>
  355.         Deaddrop1911: <else shes gonna think you just want to be her friend>
  356.         VariableValkyrie: <Well I’d like to be her friend if nothing else.>
  357.         Deaddrop1911: <sure you do>
  358.         Deaddrop1911: <but don't think youll ever be able to sweep her off her feet>
  359.         Deaddrop1911: <shell only see you as a friend>
  360.         VariableValkyrie: <That’s going to be hard.  You know how difficult it is for me to talk to people.  I can’t imagine confessing to her.  My heart is racing just thinking about it.>
  361.         Deaddrop1911: <well then you gotta ease your way into it>
  362.         Deaddrop1911: <hang out with her and stuff but don't be a bitch>
  363.         Deaddrop1911: <show her that despite your whole situation your just a normal high school guy with normal high school emotions and hormones and shit>
  364.         VariableValkyrie: <This is getting complex.>
  365.         Deaddrop1911: <life is complex>
  366.         Deaddrop1911: <thought youd figured that out by now>
  367.         Deaddrop1911: <what with all the shit you been through>
  368.         VariableValkyrie: <I suppose I know what you mean.  Well, I can always kill myself if it doesn't work out.>
  369.         Deaddrop1911: <don't talk like that bro>
  370.         Deaddrop1911: <seriously>
  371.         VariableValkyrie: <Oh.  Yeah.  Sorry.  I didn’t mean to say that.>
  372.         Deaddrop1911: <its nothing>
  373.         Deaddrop1911: <just don't think about it>
  374.         Deaddrop1911: <anyway i gotta get my elo up so ill talk to you later>
  375.         VariableValkyrie: <Be talking with you, Jake.>
  376.         Deaddrop1911: <sure thing, Koji>
  377.         After this long, long day I think I can afford to go to sleep early.  Sleep comes as a sweet release.
  378. *       *       *
  379.         I wake up the next morning haunted by the fragments of dreams.  A sunset on the beach.  Golden hair in my fingers.  Rush of a train passing by.  Heat from an unknown source.  Transdimensional doorways.  I should really start one of those dream notebooks.  I wish I could have remembered this one.
  380.         Class passed by uneventfully until sign language.  Misha was still there.  I guess she’d be there until summer break.  After class she came up to me.  As I expected.  I was feeling great today though, my mind was thankfully elsewhere.
  381.         “So Koji, coming to practice today?  Roof after classes?”
  382.         “Y-yeah, I’ll… be there.”
  383.         “Great!  Wahaha~”  Her smile took up her entire face.  “I’ll see you then!”
  384.         Well that wasn’t as awkward or strange as I expected.  I guess most people, the Nurse excluded, were happy to ignore my panic attack.  Easier for me then.  One more class passed.  English.  Then lunch.
  385.         I found myself strolling slowly to my secret spot.  Subconsciously waiting for Jessica, hoping she’d be joining me for lunch again.  Heh.  Why would she even want to hang out with me?  We barely talk.  Lunch is talking time for most people.  However, I found I was beaten to the punch.  She was already there, leaning on the brick wall and staring out into space.
  386.         “Oh there you are!  You’re late.”
  387.         “I-I didn’t know… there was something… I was supposed to be on time for.”
  388.         “You can’t watch the sunset with someone like that not expect to eat lunch with them the next day.  That was some deep, introspective stuff man.”
  389.         I wasn’t sure if she was mocking me or telling the truth.  I decided to dodge the subject.
  390.         “W-What about your other friends?  The ones… the ones y-you usually eat with?”
  391.         “The soccer team?  Bah, I see them every day after practice.  Plus they talk about the same stuff all the time.  Who-likes-who, what everyone’s doing for the weekend – it’s always the same stuff – and how tough classes are.  The who-likes-who stuff isn’t even fun, there are no boys around to watch squirm.”  She giggled.  “I’ve been having more fun with you lately, anyway.”
  392.         Me?  Fun?  I hardly would think so, but I’m not about to tell my crush off.  If she wants to hang out with a loser like me, why not?  So I just shrug and sit down.  Unpack the same boxed meal as last time.
  393.         “Same thing again?”
  394.         I nodded.
  395.         “Then let’s switch.  You probably could use a more balanced meal anyway.
  396.         Why not?  The spargel was pretty good, this couldn’t be that bad.  Then I looked down at the little plastic bowl in front of me.  A dozen slices of sausage, doused in some sort of red sauce and a little portion of French fries.
  397.         “W-What… is this?”
  398.         Jessica looked up; she had greedily dug into my boxed lunch already.  “Oh, I guess I should’ve told you.  It’s called currywurst.  It’s pork sausage covered in curried ketchup.  It’s really good and really easy to make.  A staple of Berlin!  Just try it, it’s better than it sounds.”
  399.         I stabbed the smallest and least covered piece of sausage with the provided fork.  What was I doing?  I hated spicy food.  Curry was specifically spicy!  I slowly raised the piece up to eye level, squinting at it.  Fuck it.  Here goes nothing.  I put it in my mouth and chewed.  Surprisingly not bad.  And then the spice hit.
  400.         “H-hot-hot-hot!”
  401.         Jessica was cracking up, her mouth full of rice.  “Buff if’s grood, righf?”
  402.         She was right, actually.  It wasn’t half bad.
  403.         She gulped down the morsel in her mouth.  “It’s like the hamburger of Germany.  Well maybe not, since we have those too… It’s fast food, comfort food.  A national pride, in a way.  Saying you hate currywurst in Germany is like saying you hate beer… though I guess that applies pretty much everywhere.”
  404.         “W-Well it’s good… thanks.”
  405.         “Nof proflem,” scarfing down more.  The rest of the meal passed in contented silence.
  406.         A little while after finishing, Jessica spoke up.
  407.         “Hey Koji, do you have a cell phone?”
  408.         No, I didn’t.  What did I need one for?  Nobody to call, my mom called over the internet and my dad and I didn’t talk often.  Nobody to e-mail either.
  409.         “N-no.”
  410.         She seemed to move an idea about in her head, like someone chewing on a particularly large piece of food, switching it back and forth across their mouth.
  411.         “Then we’ll have to get you one, then.”
  412.         “W-what?  W-why?”
  413.         “So I can e-mail you and stuff.  Think about it like this, girls always like mysterious guys, right?  So if I’m e-mailing you then other people will see and think ‘who’s that guy always talking to?  He’s so mysterious!’  And it’ll make that girl who have a crush on jealous.”
  414.         My face turned a bright red.  “W-why would I… I want to d-do that?  D-Does that work?”
  415.         She shrugged.  “Dunno, but it’s worth a shot.  Plus everyone needs a phone, what if you got lost or something?  Anyway, that settles it.  We’ll go into the city tomorrow and get you one.
  416.         I think I’m getting used to Jessica’s impulse driven lifestyle but she just keeps ratcheting up the danger.  I haven’t been to the city yet, at all.  I didn’t like cities, too big and too many people.  A dangerous place for someone like me.  I didn’t want to go but I don’t think she’d allow that.  I also might be able to confess to her.
  417.         Hah, that’s rich.  That wasn’t going to happen.  She wasn’t interested in me, and could never be.
  418.         “O-okay.”
  419.         “Awesome!  Well, the bell is going to ring soon, we should get going.  Oh, and I can’t come over to play video games tonight, coach says I missed too much yesterday and have to make it up.  Anyway, gotta go dude, I’ll see you tomorrow, bright and early.  Might as well make a date of it!”
  420.         Did she say date?  I think she said date.
  421.         “D-date?”
  422.         “Yeah, day.  You know, spend the whole day doing stuff there.  I know lots of great shops and things to do.”
  423.         With a quick wave she took off.  I was spent.
  424. *       *       *
  425.         “[Good afternoon, Koji Kawamori!] Wahaha~”
  426.         Rooftop, after class.  Mika- Misha was there waiting.
  427.         “[Good afternoon, Misha.]”
  428.         “[Ready for today’s practice?]”
  429.         “[I guess so.]”
  430.         “[Great!  Let’s get going then.] Wahaha~”
  431.         Practice was actually pretty fun.  Once I started getting the hand motions more and more under control, it was easy to lose myself in the conversation.  I wasn’t thinking about the stress or anything else that triggered my anxiety.  I was free to just talk, provided half of my mind was focused on pulling up signs from some corner of my memory.  And almost as quickly as it started, the hour was up and I was free to go.
  432.         “Hey Koji, before you go…?”
  433.         “Y-yes?”
  434.         “I’m sorry about the other day.  I know I come on a little strong but I wasn’t aware to the full extent of your… issues.”
  435.         Oh great, pity.
  436.         “We all have issues, especially at Yamaku.  When I was a student here… well I was in love with my best friend.  She was my rock and support structure.”
  437.         She?
  438.         “She… Shizune is a great person.  I learned sign language just to be able to talk more freely with her.  But in the end I told her what I truly felt.  Things were strange and awkward for a while but she still wanted to be my friend.  It was hard for her to make friends, because of her disabilities.  So I did, heartbroken the entire time.  It pained me every day and smiled with gritted teeth.  So you’re probably wondering why I’m telling you all this, right?”
  439.         I don’t like knowing about people’s personal lives and problems, because inevitably they want to know about mine.  Then they’ll reject me.  Only those who couldn’t see me, what I really was, seemed to accept me.  So I just nodded, hoping to get out of here as quickly as possible.
  440.         “Because if I hadn’t I’d regret it for the rest of my life.  I’d be more depressed than I was when I was rejected.  I would have never known, been always searching and wondering about what could have been.  And I’d probably have pushed Shizune away, not wanting to face her every day.  So what I’m saying is that when an opportunity presents itself, you have to take it.”
  441.         That… wasn’t what I expected.  I suppose she has a point, but I don’t know if I ever could.  There were too many things to worry about.
  442.         “Anyway, I’ll see you on Monday, kid.  Hope you have a good weekend.”  An ear-to-ear grin.  She was back in her happy mode.
  443.         “W-wait…”
  444.         “Hm?”
  445.         “T-hank… thank you… for telling me all that.”
  446.         “Ah, it’s nothing.  I just figured you could use some advice.  We all need some good advice once in a while, especially from people who’ve been there before.”
  447. *       *       *
  448.         “Man, I hate the bus.  So much time waiting for it to show up, then so much time for it to get into the city… too bad I don’t have a car.  Or a license.”
  449.         Jessica was wearing her equivalent of casual clothes.  Jeans, a green zip-up sweater and a white shirt, plain and innocuous as possible, hard as that was with one sleeve pinned up.  I didn’t own anything even remotely casual so I was there in my uniform, minus the jacket and tie.
  450.         “I-I don’t mind… time to think.”
  451.         She sighed.  “You would say something like that.  At least let me be selfish some of the time.”  Her tongue was stuck out at me.
  452.         And at that moment the bus decided to show up.  Loud, old and smelly, I was starting to agree with Jessica.  It might be worth it to buy a car just for this one trip.  But the trip passed by relatively quickly.  The bus driver paid no heed to the kid with bandages all over his head and the girl with one arm but I can’t say the same about the rest of the passengers.  This was not good.  I sensed them shift away as we walked to the back.  I suppose I didn’t want to interact with them, either.
  453.         The bus slowly fills up with people as we get closer and closer to the city center.  This is no good.  All these people, all so close.  I’m like a plague carrier.  Everyone is in danger.  Jessica is in danger.  I think I started hyperventilating.  The panic attack was coming.
  454.         Then something grabbed my arm and clenched down.  My shirt prevented skin from touching skin but I almost cried out.
  455.         “Hey,” she said looking at me straight in the eyes.  Small but brilliant blue eyes, the color of a pale northern sky.  “Just relax, we’re almost there.  Everyone’s just staring at how old fashioned your clothes are.  You need to get something casual, dude.”
  456.         Normally anyone, anyone at all touching me is just rife with tragedy.  I don’t know how many panic attacks I had in the hospital whenever a nurse came in to check on me.  But, transfixed in those eyes... I was frozen.  Better than panic, I guess.
  457.         “Oh hey, our stop!”  She continued pulling me by the arm down the length of the bus, twisting me around while she took the lead.
  458.         The city was bright and busy, people milling about everywhere on this Saturday.  Tall buildings of glass and concrete stretched up to the heavens but below and in between there were plenty of traditional-styled buildings as well.  Cars stuck in traffic, the noise of people’s chatter and movement, street vendors calling out their wares and the sound of frying food all contributed to a din I’d not heard in some time.  Chaotic but controlled.  It was amazing how all this coalesced into this one space, forming the scene in front of me.  I don’t think Jessica felt the same way, however, and quickly yanked me down a different street.
  459.         “The phone store’s right around here.”
  460.         “A-Are you sure… sure you k-know where you’re g-going?”
  461.         “Of course!  I’ve never been lost.  Something about an impeccable sense of spatial awareness.  It’s like I’m able to sense where I am at all times in relation to other things.  Or something like that.  Basically, I know what direction to go and about how far to travel to reach places I remember.  Sounds fancy but isn’t all that useful.”
  462.         “W-well if… if you say so.”
  463.         “It’s just this way!”
  464.         A quick turn left and another block down and lo and behold, the logo of Softbank Mobile.  The store was unassuming but perfectly suited to its purpose.  Lines of phones ringed the inner walls of the store and a couple of salesmen were walking around, talking to customers and securing deals.  As I held the door open for Jessica she took the opportunity to switch arms and grabbed my left.  Now she wasn’t as much leading as she was holding onto my arm, and we stood side-by-side.
  465.         “So what kind of phone do you want?”
  466.         “A r-regular one?  One that… can call and e-e-mail.”
  467.         “Every phone does that.  Here, look at these smartphones.  Touchscreens!  This one comes with lots of apps preloaded… this one was developed with Sony so you can play games… this one has a really good camera…”
  468.         “I-I…” I stared at my feet.  “I don’t have enough…”
  469.         She did that move of hers when she appeared to be crunching numbers in her head, swishing around ideas.
  470.         “When’s your birthday?”
  471.         What? “N-next month…”
  472.         “Then I’ll buy one for you.  Early birthday present!”
  473.         “N-no… you’ve already done…”
  474.         “Nonsense, I have so much money in allowance from my father that I never spend.  I don’t have the time to, what with soccer and studies.  Here, iPhones are good.  Lots of games and stuff for you to… uh…”  She got caught up for a second.
  475.         “W-what’s the matter?”
  476.         “It’s just…  Well it’s hard for me to use smartphones.  It’s why I don’t have one.  You need two hands for a lot of things.  Heh, maybe I’ll just live vicariously through you some more.”  She was back to grinning.  “Excuse me, sir?  Yes, we’ll take it.  Just the one.”
  477.         A slap of some plastic and a few documents to sign and there I was, proud owner of a cellular phone, courtesy of one Jessica Frederson.
  478.         “We’ll check it out later, but right now I made reservations for us at a restaurant.  And then we’ve gotta go get you some new clothes.  I don’t mean anything fancy, it’s just you look like you should be back at school.  Sometimes you need to dress a little less formally, dude.”
  479.         There was a trill noise from Jessica’s phone.  She dropped my arm and went into her pocket to answer it.  I realized just how much she was limiting herself by holding on to me.
  480. *       *       *
  481.         Some hours later I figured it was time for a break.
  482.         “H-Hey… there’s a vending machine… I’ll buy you something.”
  483.         “You don’t have to, you know.”
  484.         “It’s the l-least… after all you’ve d-done…”
  485.         “Alright then.  Hmm, is there peach juice there?”
  486.         I slotted in the cash and bought her a can of peach juice and myself a bottle of water.
  487.         “Y-yes, h-hear you go.”
  488.         She took the can and placed it in between her stump and body.  With her free hand she tried to pop the top but the can slipped out and fell to the ground.  She picked it up and tried again but it clattered to the ground.
  489.         “H-hey… do y-you...?”
  490.         “No no no, I can… I can do it myself…”  She was gritting her teeth, almost snarling.  It fell again and popped open, spilling juice all over the sidewalk.
  491.         “D-DAMMIT!”  
  492. She grabbed the can and flung it at the nearest wall.  The tinny metallic sound of the can rattling on the ground was deafening.  Jessica fell to her knees and started sobbing.  I dropped the bags to the ground and went over to her, picking her up and embracing her in a hug.  What was I doing?  Some sort of animal comfort instinct or was this more?  Ignoring my condition, her condition?  Her one arm was coiled against my shoulder, grasping my shirt.  Tears from her face pushed up on my chest seeped through to my undershirt.
  493. “I-it’s so… so frustrating some times.  I’m fine, I’m really fine,” she said through tears and sobs, “but then, fuck, it’s like, even the most basic things like answering a phone or o-opening a fucking can of juice… and it’s never coming back, never.  Its not like it can get better… I’m missing my arm for the rest of my life.  …You understand me, don’t you Koji?”
  494. “I do.” I self-consciously looked away, she was looking right at the bandage where my eye should be.
  495. “I mean, I even have to keep my hair this short because it’s too hard to have long hair, brushing and styling and…”
  496. “I-I like it… like it is.”
  497. “W-what?  Oh.” She smiled.  “S-Sorry about all that,” she said breaking the hug, “sometimes these things get to me.  I’m better now.  Come on, we should get back to Yamaku.”
  498.         She helped me pick up the bags and then grabbed my sleeve again, like before in the phone shop.  Side by side, not quite holding hands but close enough for me, for right now.
  499. The ride home was uneventful, but she stayed attached to my sleeve the entire time.  Something about her presence was calming and suppressed my baser urges to flee or panic.  I was too content to consider the implications.  
  500. It was late by the time we got back to Yamaku.  We’d missed the sunset while riding on the bus.  She dropped my arm when we passed through the gate.
  501. “I’ll see you later, Koji.  I had a lot of fun today.”
  502. “M-me too… thanks for e-everything.”
  503. “Get some rest, you look tired!”
  504. She took off like a flash, as per usual.  I somehow managed to drag myself into the dorms and collapse on my bed.  There was a lot to process about today.  About myself.  She was clearly touching me for large parts of the day, not my skin but touching me nonetheless.  And I didn’t freak out.  Perhaps this was some kind of hormonal thing?  Being a teenager?  Was it… emotional connection?  I was too confused.  I’ll ask Jake about it later.
  505. *       *       *
  506. VariableValkyrie: <Hey Jake.  Got a minute?>
  507. Deaddrop1911: <if im on you don't even need to ask>
  508. Deaddrop1911: <lol can wait>
  509. VariableValkyrie: <Thanks buddy.  So yesterday… Me and Jessica spent the day together.  In the city, hanging out and stuff.>
  510. Deaddrop1911: <where did this come from?>
  511. Deaddrop1911: <I mean i knew you had it in you bro>
  512. VariableValkyrire: <Well after dinner, we’ve been getting lunch and stuff.  Then we hung out yesterday, you know, outside of a school context.>
  513. Deaddrop1911: <congrats>
  514. Deaddrop1911: <did you confess or whatever you japs call it?>
  515. VariableValkyrie: <No.  But she did hold my arm.  She knows about my not wanting to touch people, so I think it was as close to holding hands as I could get.>
  516. Deaddrop1911: <she has to like you man>
  517. Deaddrop1911: <accommodating your paranoia>
  518. Deaddrop1911: <nobody just fucking does that>
  519. VariableValkyrie: <I guess so. Are there like signs, I should be looking for?>
  520. Deaddrop1911: <yeah, there’s a big one>
  521. Deaddrop1911: <holding your arm because your too chickenshit to hold her hand>
  522. Deaddrop1911: <she only has one, thats a pretty big commitment and sign of trust>
  523. Deaddrop1911: <it means shes relying on you>
  524. Deaddrop1911: <even if she doesnt know it thats what it means>
  525. VariableValkyrie: <But I’ve been relying on her.  To talk to people, to get outside.>
  526. Deaddrop1911: <sure, sure you say that>
  527. Deaddrop1911: <but friendships>
  528. Deaddrop1911: <and relationships>
  529. Deaddrop1911: <are mutual things.  Shes opening up and relying on you just as you are on her>
  530. Deaddrop1911: <big fucking sign there, bro.  fucking times square of signs>
  531. VariableValkyrie: <So what do I do now?  I’m fucking scared, I don’t want to screw this up.>
  532. Deaddrop1911: <ive been telling you since the beginning>
  533. Deaddrop1911: <fuck reason and timing>
  534. Deaddrop1911: <man up and kiss her, tell her how you feel>
  535. Deaddrop1911: <i dont think youll be rejected but even if you are it doesn't matter>
  536. Deaddrop1911: <you fucking went for it, know what i mean?>
  537. VariableValkyrie: <I think so.  I’ll try, maybe tomorrow.  I’ll see what she really thinks of me.  Bandages are coming off.>
  538. Deaddrop1911: <shit man, fucking finally>
  539. Deaddrop1911: <but if shes already attached to a man she can barely see>
  540. Deaddrop1911: <im sure youre golden>
  541. Deaddrop1911: ;)
  542. VariableValkyrie: <That’s a stupid emoticon.>
  543. Deaddrop1911: <whatever bro>
  544. Deaddrop1911: <don't disappoint me>
  545. Deaddrop1911: <and more importantly don't disappoint yourself>
  546. VariableValkyrie: <Thanks.  You’ve been a help.>
  547. Deaddop1911: <no problem, its practically my job now to make sure you don't follow in my footsteps>
  548. *       *       *
  549. Fighting a snake-man.  A mountain on fire.  Laying on the beach at home with Jessica.  A torrential downpour.  I really wish I could remember more of my dreams beyond these flashes.
  550. *       *       *
  551. Monday afternoon.  I was in the Nurse’s office.  Today was the day, the last day I’d be covered up.  At lunch Jessica had told me to call her when I was done, we’d go celebrate.  Whatever that means.  The Nurse was looking over some charts and I was sitting on the examination table.  I couldn’t say I wasn’t apprehensive, but Jake’s advice kept resounding in my head.  She was attached to a man she already couldn’t see, whatever was underneath couldn’t be that bad.  Or so he told me.  Jake wasn’t exactly Don Juan.
  552. “Hmm, I think my predictions were correct.  Bandages completely off today.  You’re going to have to be careful though, the tissue is still very raw.  When you come to take your pills we’ll apply some ointments and such to keep it healing.  Now strip.”
  553. Sometimes the Nurse’s attitude was a little too frank.  But I complied.  I took of my shirt and placed it gently on the table next to me.  Gingerly, the Nurse began to peel off the layers of bandage from my head, neck, shoulder and upper arm.  It hurt but I was so used to this that it barely registered.  The nurse then grabbed a variety of tubes filled with some sort of gel or cream substance and gently applied them.
  554. “Moisturizer.  Makes it look better.”  He peeled off his gloves and marked something down on his clipboard.  He opened another drawer and pulled out a small plastic bag with a black thing in it.  “Here, you’ll need this for now.”
  555. I opened the package.  An eyepatch.  I nodded to the nurse and put it on.  It fit pretty well.  The Nurse adjusted it; he didn’t seem to have any mirrors handy.  Well I guess it was better than nothing, raw eyesocket would greatly disturb a lot of people.  Myself included.
  556. “Alright, get out here.  You’ve got stuff to do these days, right?”  He winked.
  557. I shrugged and dressed.  When I was outside in the hallway I pulled out the phone.  My phone.  I was still getting used to it, all this touching and swiping and apps.  Luckily I only had two numbers in it so far, Yamaku’s Emergency Service number and Jessica’s.  I pressed the nonexistent button to call her.
  558. Ring.  Ring.
  559. “Hello?  Koji?”
  560. “Y-yes… it’s me.”
  561. “All done?”
  562. “Y-yeah.”
  563. “Great!”  She paused.  “Hmm, I’m just in the middle of some homework, why don’t you come by and wait for me?”
  564. Go to the girl’s dorms?  Her dorm room?  
  565. “Uh… o-okay.”
  566. “Great, see you in five!  Oh, and it’s room 308.”  There was a snap of her closing the clamshell of her phone shut.
  567. Don’t think about it Koji.  Just let your body go, let your mind drift onto something else.  Autopilot yourself there.
  568. 5:00 on a Monday afternoon meant the grounds were pretty deserted.  Most of the students with free time were off in town and those with clubs were doing homework but it wasn’t yet time for dinner so the crowds weren’t streaming towards the cafeteria.  Safe time for me.  I really didn’t want anyone to see my like this, not yet.
  569. The Girl’s Dorm was just across a small courtyard from the Boy’s.  A mirror image, actually.  There was a strange painting on the wall next to the stairs leading up to the courtyard, apparently done by one of Yamaku’s students a few years back.  A large mural, it conveyed all sorts of emotions to me, from pain to love to anger.  There was a student outside, sort of just skulking around the building.  I recognized him, Takeshi Kaneda from 3-1, Jessica’s class.  I wonder what he was doing waiting out here.  I guess he saw me looking because as soon as I stared for too long he turned and walked towards the girl’s dorm.  I suppose I’m not the only one who shuns most human contact.
  570. When I reached the entryway, I was surprised to find a guard posted.  A large sign above the middle-aged woman said: ‘ALL MALE STUDENTS MUST SIGN IN AND SIGN OUT’.  That was strange; there was no such restriction in the Boy’s dorms.  I went over to the desk.
  571. “Hello there, sweetie, you need to sign in here, and what room here.”
  572. I quietly wrote my name and 308 next to it.
  573. “Oh, so you’re Frederson’s new friend.  Pleasure to meet you, I’m Fujiyama.”
  574. “P-pleased to meet you.”
  575. “Surprised?”  I shook my head up and down.  “She comes down to talk to me sometimes.  You know how friendly she is.  Always eager to share.  Run along, I’m sure she’s waiting.  I know how impatient she is, too.”
  576. I bowed and walked down the hallway, then up two flights to the third floor.  Room 308 was on my right out of the staircase, according to a sign on the wall.  Take deep breaths, I thought.  It’s just another room, probably no different than your own.  Well, maybe not as clean.  But you came here for a reason.  Tonight you’re going to tell her.  I knocked.
  577. “Yes, who’s there?”  Her voice from inside.
  578. “I-Its… uh, me, K-Koji.”
  579. “Oh great!  Door’s open.”
  580. There was a sign this definitely wasn’t my room.  I grabbed the door handle and opened up.  It didn’t seem that messy.  Her room was arranged similarly to mine, but instead of a big desk there was a dresser.  Her bed was larger.  And there were clothes, everywhere.  No sign of a lot of makeup or anything, I guess… I guess that would be hard, too.  Piles of books and magazines were scattered around. Okay, it was pretty messy.  She was laying on her bed, stomach down and a book in front of her.  She was propping herself up on her left arm and writing down answers to her homework with her right.  Her legs were bent backwards, sort of hanging in the air above her.  When the door opened she turned around and sat cross-legged on the bed.
  581. “Wow Koji, you look really great!  Come on, sit down.”
  582. “T-Thanks.”  I sat down on the bed next to her.
  583. “Have you looked at yourself in a mirror yet?”
  584. I suddenly noticed the large mirror on the dresser across from the bed.  I wasn’t what I was expecting.  What was once a mottled layer of acne scars, discolored skin and the remnants of infection was now a series of lighter red patches and a striated pattern.  It wasn’t really bad at all, though certainly noticeable.  Sections right jawline and neck were erythemic and taught, where skin had to be removed and replaced, and looked more like burn scars.  The eyepatch was fitted snugly over my eye, the black elastic material stretched across my hair and the scarred section of my face.  My hair was messy and short, but they were right in the hospital.  After it had been shaved off any amount of length was good.
  585. “I’m serious, you look fine.  The eyepatch is badass, too.  Like you’re a pirate or Big Boss.”
  586. “I-I don’t want it… the fake e-eye.  It’s j-just going to... to look f-fake.”
  587. “Know what you mean dude.  Why do you think I don’t use a prosthetic?  If it doesn’t work the same, look the same and requires more maintenance, what’s the point.  A hook is no arm at all.  Heh, if I did have a hook we could be pirates together.”
  588. I laughed.  An actual laugh.  I surprised myself.
  589. “S-so why do I have to sign in… I’m s-sure there’s nothing l-like that in boy’s dorm?”
  590. “Oh!  You met Fujiyama then.  She’s a nice lady.  Well the story is, some guy three or four years back went around installing cameras in the hallways.  Claimed to be watching ‘the feminists at work’ or something like that.  A bit crazy.  Anyway, since then boys have had to sign in.  I guess it makes sense, what with this being a high school… with really private rooms.”  She blushed.  I didn’t know why.
  591. “T-That… makes s-sense… but can’t girls j-just go into the Boy’s r-rooms instead?”
  592. “I guess.  It’s not a perfect system; I mean you still got in.  We could be doing stuff right now and nobody seems to care.”  Okay, now I was blushing.  “So, I don’t think I’m getting this homework done.  Shall we go celebrate?”
  593. “W-What did you have… have in m-mind?”
  594. “Well, I though we could go back to the Shanghai.  Nothing fancy, you know?”
  595. Sounded great to me.  I nodded.
  596. “Alright, let’s be off then. “ She hopped off the bed and put shoes on.  I opened the door for her and then shut it.
  597. “A-Aren’t you g-going to lock it?”
  598. She shrugged.  “Nah.  Nothing in there for anyone to take, anyway.  Not like your rig.  Lets gooooo, I’m hungry.”
  599. Waving goodbye to Fujiyama, we left the girl’s dorm together.  I thought I saw blinds on a first-floor room in the boy’s dorm close but I think I may have been imagining it.  Once we left the main gate and were about 20 meters away, she leaned over and grabbed my arm again, without a word.  I’d be scared half to death if it wasn’t such a reassuring gesture.
  600. Once we got to the Shanghai she had to break the hold for me to open the door.  A strange feeling of loss came over me.  I wanted to continue… just being connected to her.  But I was scared as hell to initiate something, to touch her myself.
  601. “Just sit wherever you like!”  Yuuko called from the back.  A few seconds later she was blundering over to our table.  “Hello Jessica, oh and Mr. History!  No… bandages anymore?”
  602. “Nope, he’s all healthy now.  Nothing left at all.”  Jessica was grinning, proud of me for some reason.
  603. “Well that’s great to hear?  A turkey sandwich and coffee?”
  604. “Sounds good! Koji?”
  605. “T-The same sandwich… and tea, p-please.”
  606. Yuuko took down our orders and scurried away.
  607. “…I’m serious Koji, without the bandages you look really good.  The scarring isn't even noticeable at this point.”
  608. Subconsciously I covered my face with my hand.
  609. “T-thanks, I appreciate it… I really d-do.”
  610. “So I was talking to my dad earlier…”  Where was she going with this?
  611. “Y-yeah?”
  612. “Mhm, well I mentioned how I had a friend who really likes the beach and well he volunteered to take us next weekend.  That is, if you want to go.”  She was acting nervous.  Strange for her.
  613. I must admit I really missed the ocean.  Being this far inland was something I thought I’d just have to deal with.  An opportunity to go would be great.  But then I’d have to meet her father.  I’d have to do a lot of things, a lot of explaining.  She seemed to notice my indecision.
  614. “We don’t have to.  It’s just something I thought would be nice.”
  615. “N-No… I want to g-go… it’s just I… I…”  I vaguely gestured to my face.
  616. “Oh, don’t worry about that.  My dad doesn’t have any legs.” She giggled.   “I think he’ll understand about your condition, if he even asks.”
  617. Well I suppose that would make things easier.  Common ground between us.  I was still curious why she was doing this though.
  618. “O-okay then.”  I gave her a brief smile. “B-but… why-“
  619. I was cut off by Yuuko arriving with our food.
  620. “Ask me later, I’m starving after practice!”  She greedily began devouring her sandwich.
  621. I took my time with my tea and sandwich but the whole meal went pretty quickly.  Yuuko soon came over with the bill and to clear the dishes.
  622. “Hey Yuuko, what time is it?”
  623. She was startled by the question.  “W-what?  Oh… A quarter after 6.”
  624. “Hey Koji, we gotta go.  Don’t want to miss the sunset, right?”
  625.  She peeled off a yen note and grabbed me by the arm, practically yanking me out of my seat.  Before I knew it we were working our way up the hill towards school.  Jessica was right though, the sun was just beginning to set in the distance.  The same kaleidoscope of colors was burning its way across the sky.  I looked over at the girl who had now hooked herself on to me, not grasping me like before.  We were walking arm in arm… like a couple.  My face was beet red.  Maybe now was the time to speak up.  It had to be.
  626. “L-let’s go w-watch it again.  On the h-hill.”
  627. “Weeeell I was going to do some homework, but I’ll make an exception, just this once.”  She winked at me.
  628. We had to disentangle to walk up the hill because of how steep it was.  I let her sit down first then sat down on her right, her arm safely in between us.  The sky was beautiful.  Jessica’s eyes were darting around, looking at all the different colors and combinations.  I kept mine forward, too.  Her hand was planted firmly on the grass, holding her up while she leaned back.  We were sitting about 20 centimeters apart.  Slowly but surely I slid my hand across the grass, closer to hers.  I was doing it, I was going to touch her skin.  I opened my hand and put my fingers over hers.  I held this for a few seconds.  A few seconds too much, I thought.  My fingers were trembling.
  629. Then I felt something.  Her fingers met mine and intertwined.  Her skin was soft and smooth and her fingers soft and delicate.  Our warmth swelled and combined.  Some tension in her back seemed to be relieved and she let out a breath.  She turned and crossed her legs, looking right at me.  Completely open and ready.  Keeping our hands together, I got onto my knees and moved over her.  I had to do this.  I had to do this.  I had to do this to prove to her.  I had to do this to prove something to myself.
  630. She slipped her legs between mine and pulled me down over her, laying down onto the grass.  I was holding myself up with one arm.  I leaned in and something instinctive, animal in my brain kicked in.  I closed my eye and pressed my lips to hers.  Sparkles in my brain.  Electricity flowed between us.  If this was a cartoon there’d be a giant heart growing in the background where the sun was.  After a lifetime, I pulled my head back.
  631. “It was about time.”  She giggled at me.  She let go of my hand and put her arm around my neck, pulling me back down for another kiss.
  632. “I-It’s you… the girl I-I have a c-crush on… the girl I l-like… it’s y-you.”
  633. “I know.”  
  634. End of Act 1.
  635. Act 2: Climate
  636. “[So Koji, what’s new?]”
  637. It was the day after.  Jess (she told me I should call her Jess, I suppose I hadn’t said her name much at all before) and I spent the night playing Fallout: New Vegas.  And then there was more kissing.  A kiss goodnight was perhaps the best thing I’d ever experienced, apart from the first kiss.  All day today I was walking around on cloud nine.  Some people seemed to notice the eye patch but nobody said anything.  I couldn’t care, anyway.  Lunch was great, too.  With no one else in the alley we were free to be a physical.
  638. So now I was on the roof, practicing with Misha.  We’d finished the basics for the day and now it was free conversation time.  
  639. “W-what? [What?]”
  640. “[You just seem so happy today.  And you keep drifting off somewhere.] Wahaha~”
  641. “[Nothing.  Just got my bandages removed.]”
  642. “[I noticed that, you look great!  But I think there’s something else too.  Let me guess… That girl!]”
  643. “[I don’t know what you’re talking about.]”
  644. “Suuuure. [I’ve heard this before.  Well, deny it as much as you can, but I know that loving look.  Head over heels.  But it’s a good look, it means it’s being reciprocated.] Wahahaha~ Congratulations, Koji.”
  645. “[Thanks I guess, it’s really not that though.]”
  646. “[You’re free to go though, see you tomorrow.]”
  647. “[Thanks Misha.]”
  648. I gathered up my books and walked down the stairs to the first floor.  Out the doors and headed straight for the soccer field.  Forget whatever anyone would think.  As Jessica’s… boyfriend, I had to be there to support her.  Or whatever.  I wanted to go and I’m not going to let my anxiety get the better of me.  I walked into the stands and took a seat.  There were a few other students around, but with weekly games I suppose there wasn’t a big push to go to every one.  I saw a single familiar face, it was that kid Kaneda.
  649. The match was against Seiei Academy and Yamaku was losing 1-2.  I saw Jessica charging down the field.  She told me that besides captain, her position on the team was ‘left forward’ and her job was to score goals.  Supposedly this left her more open to come up with strategies on the fly, she didn’t have to worry about defending or anything else complex, just to score goals and tell her team what to do.  The match was fierce and both teams were really good.  Yamaku’s goalie only had one leg and a lot of the players seemed to have arm disabilities.  I guess when you lose one thing you make up for it in other ways.
  650. I arrived right at the beginning of the second half.  Yamaku was doing all it could to prevent Seiei from scoring again, to prevent a greater lead.  Jess was barking orders all around the field, completely in her element.  With 20 minutes to go one of Yamaku’s players took a dive, apparently injured.  There was no one to replace her.  Jessica looked concerned and helped her off the field.  When play resumed, she quickly took control of the ball, pushed it downfield and scored.  The small crowd let out a cheer.  I looked around when the crowd was celebrating.  Kaneda was gone.  
  651. Unfortunately Yamaku didn’t score again.  The game ended in a tie.  The teams shook hands and congratulated each other for a good game.  Yamaku’s team gathered for a talk from the coach and then broke off into groups, friends heading back to the dorms to get changed, bringing equipment to the athletic shed and that sort of thing.  Jess looked around at the crowd, saw me, waved and then ran to the stairs going up the bleachers.  As I stood up to greet her she embraced me in a hug, or as best a hug she could do.
  652. “You stayed the entire game for once!”
  653. “I-I figured… since w-we’re uh… well y-you know…”
  654. She laughed and let me go.  “Thanks, I really appreciate it.  We need more fans anyway.”  She quieted her voice.  “Have you told anyone yet?”
  655. “N-no… I d-don’t really have… anyone… to tell.”
  656. “Hmm, well I guess I’m fixing that.  I didn’t tell anyone either.  I think it’d draw attention to you, which I know you don’t like.  I mean, we’ll have to soon enough, but for now it’s a great little secret!  Or big secret I suppose.  Anyway, I’ve got to go get changed.  Coach is making dinner.  But I’ll be around your room later, ok?  I owe you a kiss for then.”
  657. She took off.  So she was thinking of me.  To be honest I didn’t feel great being handled with such kiddie gloves but she knew the social sphere better than I did.  If it would cause a commotion like she believed it would I’d be glad if it progressed slowly.
  658. After my regularly scheduled appointment with the nurse, I went back to my room and started on my homework, but quickly got bored and logged on my computer.
  659. Deaddrop1911: <dude come on ive been waiting>
  660. Deaddrop1911: <you haven’t been on in two days>
  661. Deaddrop1911: <what fucking happened>
  662. VariableValkyrie: <I told her.  You were right, she knew and reciprocated.  We kissed.  More than once.  I think we’re dating now, but it’s a secret for the most part.>
  663. Deaddrop1911: <see what happens when you man the fuck up?>
  664. Deaddrop1911: <good fucking things happen>
  665. Deaddrop1911: <so did you put it in yet>
  666. VariableValkyrie: <No no no>
  667. VariableValkyrie: <I’ve never done anything like that, I want this to progress naturally.  Can’t be rushed.>
  668. Deaddrop1911: <lol I know>
  669. Deaddrop1911: <not like youd bang her anyway>
  670. Deaddrop1911: <make love that seems your thing>
  671. Deaddrop1911: <for a guy who hates when people touch him you certainly are touchy-feely>
  672. Deaddrop1911: <howd that go by the way, trying to touch her>
  673. VariableValkyrie: <I just put everything else out of my mind.  Focused on what I really wanted and just went for it.  Since then she’s been initiating stuff like kissing, but I took that first step.>
  674. Deaddrop1911: <looks like you found the right girl>
  675. Deaddrop1911: <here I was thinking I was the only one whod put up with you>
  676. Deaddrop1911: <lol>
  677. VariableValkyrie: <Thanks for the vote of confidence, ‘bro.’>
  678. Deaddrop1911: <hey man I got you to do this>
  679. Deaddrop1911: <my powers are stronger than you think>
  680. My phone buzzed.  An email from Jessica: ‘too much food here, don’t worry about dinner I’ll bring some leftovers over later. <3.’
  681. VariableValkyrie: <Signing an email or SMS or whatever it is you Americans use with ‘<3’ is a good thing, right?>
  682. Deaddrop1911: <texting, tahts what we call it>
  683. Deaddrop1911: <but yeah, very good>
  684. Deaddrop1911: <especially, after, you know, youve already kissed her>
  685. Deaddrop1911: <why whatd she say?>
  686. VariableValkyrie: <Just that’s she’s bringing me dinner later.>
  687. Deaddrop1911: <yeah shes head over heels for you bro>
  688. Deaddrop1911: <just wants to spend as much time with you>
  689. Deaddrop1911: <I say let her>
  690. VariableValkyrie: <We’re going to the beach together next weekend.>
  691. Deaddrop1911: <what like your beach>
  692. Deaddrop1911: <like at home>
  693. VariableValkyrie: <No, the one here.  Home’s too far for a weekend trip.>
  694. VariableValkyrie: <Her father is taking us there.>
  695. Deaddrop1911: <her dad?>
  696. Deaddrop1911: <good luck>
  697. Deaddrop1911: <fathers are really protective of their daughters, you know?>
  698. Deaddrop1911: <gotta make a good impression>
  699. Deaddrop1911: <anyway whens she coming over?>
  700. VariableValkyrie: <I’m not sure, an hour or two likely.>
  701. Deaddrop1911: <lets play some kf then>
  702. Deaddrop1911: <get some dosh>
  703. VariableValkyrie: <Alright, I’ll see you in-game>
  704. *       *       *
  705. Knock knock knock.  
  706. “I-I’ll be there in a second.”  I got up from my desk and opened the door.  Chain still attached.  Some habits don’t die.  Much to my surprise, it wasn’t Jess.  Shoulder-length brown hair and brown eyes looked straight at me, pierced through me.  Takeshi Kaneda.  
  707. “H-Hello… can I h-help you?”
  708. “Kawamori, right?”  I nodded.  “We need to talk.  Open the door.”
  709. “I-I’d rather not.”
  710. “Fine then.  But heed my warning.  What you’re getting into isn’t real.  She’ll cut your heart out man.”
  711. “W-What?”
  712. “I know what’s going on.  Between you and Frederson.  Man to man, I’m warning you.”  He turned around and walked down the hall to the stairs.
  713. What the fuck was that about?  I’d never spoken to him before in my life and now he was showing up at my room, on top of all the places me and Jessica had gone too lately.  This was very strange.  What was he talking about?  Ah forget it, it wasn’t important.  It was well known that despite not catering to the mentally disabled, Yamaku had its fair share.  I sat back down at my desk.
  714. Thump.  A thumping noise at the door.  Not quite the pitch of a knock, not a kick, more like someone was whacking the door with the broad side of their- …elbow.  This was Jessica.
  715. “Koji come on open up I can’t use my hand and this bag of stuff is heavy!”
  716. “O-Okay, okay!”
  717. I got up and opened the door.  As soon as it was open wide enough, she push through, got on her tip-toes and gave me a kiss on the lips.  I wasn’t expecting that right away.  Or was I?  I really didn’t know what I was in for recently.
  718. She set the bag down on my beg and started unpacking it.
  719. “I’ve got… pasta with marinara sauce, pasta with alfredo… and baked ziti.  Well rigatoni, but we tried.  What do you want?”
  720. I’ve never had any of that, besides the pasta with marinara.  And never home cooked.  Was the coach Italian?  I couldn’t remember.
  721. “W-what’s in each?  I’ve n-never really had… any of those.”
  722. “Oh!  Well we usually have some kind of pasta after big games and stuff.  Hmm, well marinara is a tomato sauce, like ketchup but better and less salty.  Alfredo is just like a cheese sauce.  Not real parmesan but close enough.  And baked ziti is melted cheeses and sauce, cooked in an oven.  It’s my favorite.”
  723. I grabbed the pasta with marinara.  Jess handed me a plastic fork.
  724. “So courteous, eager to allow his girl to have the food she wants.”  She giggled and smiled, closing her eyes.  I don’t know if she was joking, but she grabbed the baked ziti-ish pasta and started digging in.
  725. After eating the food (which was surprisingly good, fresh tomato sauce!), Jessica wanted to play Fallout: New Vegas.  I had made her a character last time and she wanted to continue playing, or playing through me as it were.  She couldn’t actually do anything but instead dictated all her moves and dialogue choices.  Some time after that, she wanted to play a few games on the- er, my, iPhone.  Plants Versus Zombies was apparently something she had been looking forward to.  An ulterior motive behind her getting me that phone?  Probably.  So we sat on my bed, her on my right, phone roughly between us, playing it for… hours, it must have been.  She called out positions and I merely placed the plants.
  726. And then I was playing the game by myself, I realized.  Jess had fallen over, huddled in a fetal position, fast asleep.  I looked at my watch.  11:30.  Wow, this was later than we had ever hung out before.  Way later.  Past curfew, even.  She was adorable, curled up like that.  Innocent and at peace.  I hadn’t realized it before this point but there was this constant determination, a focus in her face.  Asleep it was completely gone, replaced with pure calm.  It was too late to take her back, what would the guards think?  What would everyone think?  But I had to sleep too.
  727.  “H-hey Jess…  J-Jess?”
  728. She didn’t open her eyes.  “Hn?  K-Koji?”
  729. “Y-yeah… you fell asleep… b-but it’s past c-curfew…”
  730. “Well… I’ll sleep here then.”  She smiled, eyes still closed, then softly laughed, still half-asleep.
  731. “O-okay… I’ll just stay on the f-floor then.”
  732. I was suddenly pinned by two extremely powerful legs.
  733. “Don’t you dare.”  Her arm fumbled at my neatly made sheets and pushed it down.
  734. “W-what?”
  735. “Put your phone away… and come to bed.”  A hand stretched out at mine.  I put the phone in it and was shocked to see such a callous disregard for expensive technology.  The phone wound up in the far corner near my closet.  “You don’t need it now.”
  736. She was now kicking the sheets around me, trying to push underneath where I was sitting.  I stood up and the sheets were at her feet.  She turned and laid down flat as a board.  I did my best to maneuver around her and wound up lying on the right side of the bed closest to the wall.  She curled up, knees practically touching my hip and a thin pale arm reaching across my chest, nimble fingers grasping at my far flank.  I pushed my right arm next to her head – arm around the shoulder, right? – and she lifted her head, allowing my arm to come to rest beneath her head.  She moved her head into my armpit.  It was strange, but at the same time felt very natural.
  737. I bent my arm and put my fingers in her hair.  Blond locks passed through my fingers.  I think I had a dream about this.  Her hair was soft and smooth, but at the same time not straight and fluid like mine.  It was thick and wavy at the base.
  738. “D-do you straight… straighten your h-hair?”
  739. “Hn?  No.”  There was a soft smile on her face.  “But when it gets longer then this I need to.  It’s very wavy.”
  740. I continued to play with her hair.  It was oddly comforting.
  741. Some time after that I fell asleep, Jessica curled against me and my hand in her hair.
  742. *       *       *
  743. There was something soft and a little wet on my lips.  I opened my eyes and saw Jessica leaned over me, giving me a kiss.
  744. “Don’t be so startled Koji, you don’t want to be woken up by a pretty girl kissing you?”  She giggled.
  745. “N-No... it’s just… I…”
  746. “Heheh, I’m just teasing you.  But I think we have a problem… I guess I stayed out past curfew.  You’ve gotta help me sneak out of here.”
  747. This was a problem.  Not just that we hadn’t gone public yet but staying over in a boy’s room?  This could be bad.
  748. “R-right.”  I pushed the sheet covering us down and Jess got out of bed, brushing her skirt down and patting the wrinkles out of her shirt.  It didn’t really help, she still looked like she’d slept in them.  “W-well it’s still early… only track kids are up now.”
  749. I got out of bed myself and gathered up all the garbage from last night’s feast.  I put it in the bag she’d brought it in.  Meanwhile, Jessica had retrieved my phone from the floor and was trying to use it as a mirror to fix her hair.  With one arm this was kind of hard.
  750. “H-hold on.”  I walked over and took the phone, holding it up so she could use her free hand to push her bangs back along the part.
  751. “Thanks!”  She smiled one of her carefree smiles.  I pulled on my school jacket.  “I think this weekend you’ll be able to wear some of those new clothes of yours.  You’ll look great!”
  752. “W-ha?  Oh, right.”  I had almost completely forgotten about the trip over the weekend.  Meeting her father.  I made a mental note to ask Jake for advice next time we spoke.  “Ready to go?”
  753. “Yup!”
  754. “O-okay, we should go down… down the back stairway, into the first floor, uh… bathroom… and out the window there.  I’ll help you out.”
  755. “I think you’ve done this before.”  She winked.
  756. “W-well I uh… Sometimes there are people in the lobby.”
  757. “No need to be scared anymore, Mr. Handsome.  Okay, let’s go.”
  758. I checked my watch.  6:45.  15 minutes until most people got up.  Just enough time.  I opened the door and peeked out the hallway.  Clear.  I turned and nodded to her, trash bag in one hand and taking hers in the other.  We tiptoed down the hallway.  There was an unlocking noise from the room near mine.  We were two meters from the stairway door.  A creek from an opening door.
  759. “Move move move!” I heard myself shouting.
  760. We dashed down the rest of the hallway, fumbled with the door and nearly crashed down the stairs to the landing between floors.
  761. She was laughing and so was I.
  762. “Close call!”  She let out a breath.
  763. “Yeah, it really was.”  I was panting a bit.
  764. “Breathless because of me?  Aww, how cute!”  She turned serious for a second.  “You should get more exercise though.  Like, don’t run track every day, but it’d help to get out more.  I can come with you, if it makes it easier.”
  765. “O-okay…”
  766. She smiled.  “Let’s keep moving then, in case someone hears us.”
  767. At the bottom of the stairwell I peeked through the door’s window, Jessica was flat against wall next to me.
  768. “All clear?” She asked.
  769. I nodded slowly and opened the door, taking her hand again.  A quick turn around a corner and we were in the first floor bathroom.  It was empty.  I opened the window and hoisted Jessica up through it, then tossed through the garbage bag.
  770. “Hey Koji?”  I heard her talking on the other side of the wall, then her head popped over into the window.  She was holding herself up on something.
  771. “Y-yeah?”
  772. “Thanks for a good night.”  She grabbed my shirt with her hand and pulled me close into a kiss I could barely reach.  “See you at lunch!”
  773. I practically fell onto the floor after she let go.  Heh, all this sneaking around was kind of fun.  Or maybe it was just Jess that was fun.  Probably both.
  774. *       *       *
  775. I was playing with my tongue in Ito’s class.  Exploring my teeth and mouth with it.  At lunch Jess had gotten a little more brazen with kissing and slipped her tongue inside my mouth.  To say the least, I was shocked.  But now I was wondering how it felt, how it felt to explore a mouth with a tongue.  I really wanted to reciprocate.  It had felt good.  However, being the inexperienced one, I was no sitting here with my tongue in my cheek, feeling around my teeth.
  776. “Ah, Kawamori, could you explain this to the class?”
  777. Ito was talking to me.  Specifically at me.  I don’t know if she saw (heh, saw) I wasn’t paying attention but she always seemed to have her ways.
  778. “H-huh?”
  779. “The reason why China no longer has an emperor.”
  780. “O-oh!”  I knew this one, I just had to search for it and there- “The Xinhai Revolution.  Emperor Puyi abdicated after Yuan Shikai’s army took control of Beijing and Sun Yat-Sen was elected first President of the Provisional Republic.”
  781. “Very good!  You seem to have a talent for this, Kawamori.  Why don’t you speak to me after class?”
  782. The were some snickers and giggles throughout the class but thankfully there weren’t many eyes that could see the embarrassment on my face.
  783. “O-okay…”
  784. Ito continued with the lesson.  Why did she call me out today, of all days?  I thought I was invisible as humanly possible in that class and liked it that way.  Well I suppose she was content with my answer, I was safe for now.
  785. After class I walked up to her desk.
  786. “Ah Kawamori, I’m glad you stayed.  I was hoping you wouldn’t skip out.”
  787. “W-well you wanted… t-to speak to me?”
  788. “Yes, I’m wondering if you’ve given any thought as to what you’ll be doing after graduation.”
  789. I hadn’t thought about that at all.  I was too concerned with living day-to-day.
  790. She must have… sensed my apprehension.  “I know it’s still early and there’s lots of opportunities but I think you should travel, perhaps even before college.  A friend of mine – I believe you’ve met, Yuuko – mentioned to me how passionate you were about history.  It also comes across in your work in class.  I think it’d be a life changing experience for you.  There’s so much history in the world to see and experience.”
  791. I… I could actually get behind this.  As much as I loved Japan and yearned to go home, perhaps it would be better if I explored the world a bit.  My parents, well, my mother was supportive of any decision I made.  Perhaps backpacking around the globe would be the kind of enlightenment I needed.
  792. “I think… I think I-I’d like that.”
  793. “Well, you’ve got time.  So many of my other students are rushing off to college or to get jobs when I think they should take their time and really understand life first.  I’m so glad you understand.”
  794. “Thank you Ms. Ito.”  I said, bowing.
  795. “It’s no trouble at all, Kawamori.  We teachers are here to guide you all along.”  She smiled and made a quick motion that I was dismissed.  She rummaged through her desk while I walked to the door.  As I opened it she called back to me.  
  796. “Would you tell Frederson she needs to come in soon for her tutoring?  I know she wants to spend time with you but she can’t neglect her studies.”  A devious and knowing smile spread across her face.  The blood drained from mine.
  797. “H-how… d-did…”
  798. “You two think you’re so good at covering it up, it’s adorable.  Your ‘private’ alleyway is right on the teacher’s parking lot.  Now run along, you’re going to be late.”
  799. I hadn’t considered that.  Well, I guess it was one more step to being an official couple.  Wow Koji, you really are changing.  A week ago and this would have sent you into a panic.  What is this girl doing to you?
  800. *       *       *
  801. 10 minutes… 5 minutes… 3… 2… 2 and a half… 1… 30 seconds… Briiiing Briiiing!  Class was over for the week, and my time was mine.  After being unable to spend time with Jessica on Thursday due to her away game and last night because she had finally decided to start writing a paper she was putting off for the week, I was going to see her again.  Well, more accurately I was going to see her and her father.  I was to meet her by the front gate at 1 PM, where presumably her father was waiting.
  802. I practically ran through the halls, eager to get out of here for a weekend.  Apparently we’d been put up in a small house owned by one of Mr. Frederson’s friends.  I guess I was now really going to be hob-knobbing with the elite.  When I got back to my room I grabbed the clothes Jess had bought for me.  Nothing fancy, just two pairs of jeans, some shirts and a rather-vintage looking sweater.  I guess it was enough, considering how much time I spent in my uniform.  I slipped into a pair of dark blue jeans and a red t-shirt, then pulled the sweater over.  It was mostly black with some green stripes across the middle.  I probably looked like the least fashion-coordinated person at the school, but maybe this was the style?  I honestly didn’t know.  I put on the one pair of casual sneakers I had and threw the rest in my small duffle bag which I’d used to bring clothes in when I first came to Yamaku, then putting in my phone charger and the small travel case of medications the Nurse had given me.  That had been an awkward conversation.
  803. “What do you need small amounts of your medications for?”  The Nurse had asked.
  804. “I-I’m going away… j-just for the weekend.”
  805. “Oh, where too?”  He turned away from me and began gathering up the required medications.
  806. “J-Just the beach…”
  807. “A glimpse of home, then?”
  808. “S-Something like that.”
  809. “Going with anyone I know?”
  810. This, of course, froze me in my tracks.
  811. “Ah, you don’t have to tell me now.  When you get back, tell me how it was.”  He bared his teeth in that ridiculous sinister grin of his.  “Well have fun!”
  812. Slinging the bag over my shoulder I locked up my room, made sure I had the iPhone and headed out of the dorms.  Walking across the grounds, I noticed a lot of other students working their way out of the dorms, changed into casual wear for the weekend.  I guess I wasn’t so unusual.  The air was warm and a bit humid, strange for May.  I pushed the sleeves of my sweater up.  Maybe I didn’t need it.
  813. As I got closer to the main gate, I saw a black town car parked outside it.  A tall man wearing a suit was leaning on the car while another man in a wheelchair was on the sidewalk, next to the car.  He was wearing a simple Oxford-style shirt and a knitted sweater.  My first thought was a former Yamaku student but then noticed how clearly foreign the two men were.  And the one in the wheelchair’s hair.  Light blonde and gently wavy.  This was Jessica’s father.  As I got even closer, I clearly saw his amputated legs, though covered in a blanket.
  814. Take a deep breath.  You can do this.  Do it for her.  Try not to make things awkward.  My pace had slowed dramatically since I’d spotted the men.  I pushed myself back to full walking pace and strode right out of the gate, though my hands were planted firmly in my pockets.
  815. “Uh, h-hello.” I said, bowing firmly.
  816. “Ah, you must be Koji,” said the man in the chair.  They way he said the ‘j’ it was practically a ‘z’.  “Ze eyepatch gives it avay.  My Jessica has toldve me zo much about you.  Ah, vere are my manners.  I am Erwin Frederson, former German ambassador to Japan.  Zis is my associate and… vat is the vord... butler?  No, not exactly.  Manservant isn’t right eizer…  Anyvay, Felix is here to help me, vat with my own disability.”  He and Felix extended their hands to shake mine.
  817. Oh no.  I was just used to touching Jessica, I hadn’t even considered touching other people yet.
  818. “I-I uh…”  Thankfully I was interrupted by something between a shout and a screetch.
  819. “PAPA!”  Jessica came running out of the gate, practically smashed through me and swooped down onto her father for a hug.  They rapidly began speaking back and forth in German.  I couldn’t understand a word, I couldn’t even pick out something Jess had even taught me.  After a minute or so of rapid conversation, she turned around.  “I see you’ve already met Koji.”
  820. “Yes, ve vere just getting acquainted.  He’s quite polite.  Vell.  Shall ve be off?  No time to vaste.  Felix?”  
  821. Felix went around the back of the town car, opened the trunk, then wheeled Mr. Frederson around to the passenger door.  He lifted Frederson up and into the seat, after which Frederson took over and buckled himself in a closed the door.  He then took the wheelchair around to the trunk, hit a few clasps and switches on the chair and folded it up.  Placing it gently into the trunk, he gestured at Jessica and I to put our bags in the trunk.
  822. I got to look at Jess for the first real time all day.  She was wearing her usual hooded zip-up sweater but a pair of thin jeans.  Considering how thin her father was, I guess that’s where she inherited those genes.  I practically cursed myself aloud for the stupid pun I made in my own thoughts.
  823. As we were shifting our bags into position in the trunk, she spoke to me.
  824. “Felix doesn’t speak much Japanese.  I mean, I’ve known him since I was born and he still doesn’t speak much.  It’s strange.”  She took a glance at me up and down, as I had before.  “You look good today, I told you that sweater would suit you.”
  825. With the trunk still up and Felix now sitting in the driver’s seat, both adults’ views of us were obscured.  Jess leaned over and hugged me, then gave me a quick kiss.  She smiled then walked around to the left side of the car, opened the door and got in.  I followed suit on the right.
  826. Felix said something in German to Mr. Frederson, who then turned around and spoke to us.
  827. “Felix says it’ll be about an hour.  All buckled up and ready to go?”
  828. I nodded and Jess responded with “{Ya}” which was pretty self-explanatory in meaning.  Felix started up the car and it roared to life.  We took off quickly.  Felix said something to Mr. Frederson and then went silent.
  829. “So, Koji – I can call you Koji, right?  You Japanese are very strict on such protocol.”
  830. “Y-yes, that’s fine.”
  831. “Good!  You can call me Erwin, then.  I alvays hated ze sound of ‘Mr. Frederson.’  So uptight.  But zen again, I did vork in International Politics.  Ze stuffiest of jobs.  Anyvay, my little fraulein Jessica-“ she rolled her eyes “-tells me you’re just as foreign as ve are, in a sense.”
  832. “Yes, I-I’m from Kagoshima… down south.”
  833. “Ah, a vonderful city and prefecture.  It is so more laidback than Tokyo, is it not?”
  834. “It is… t-things are so fast in the cities up nor-… up here.”
  835. “Vell, Berlin is very much like Tokyo.  Evervone is always hustling and bustling about, trying to get as much business done as possible.  I prefer retirement, it means I get more time to spend vith my daughter and practicing my instruments.”
  836. “Papa plays the piano, the violin, the guitar… uh, lots of other things.  He likes music.”  Jess was beaming, clearly proud of her father.
  837. “Though I get called out on ze occasional consult.  It helps to put some spending money in my pockets.”  He chuckled, apparently at the irony of needing spending cash.  “Koji, do you play any instruments?”
  838. “N-no…”
  839. “Hm.”  He had the same contemplative look Jessica gets, like he was chewing the thoughts in his head.  Like father like daughter.  “Zen I vill teach you.  Every man must know how to make music, it is vone of life’s greatest pleasures.”
  840. “No… y-you don’t have to.”  I’d never considered learning an instrument.  It always seemed like something for creative or dedicated people.
  841. “Nonsense.  Anyzing for a friend of my daughter’s.”
  842. The rest of the car ride was spent discussing classes, which seemed to bore Jessica immensely.  However, Mr. Frederson, er, Erwin and I had a great conversation about the Frankish Empire.  Apparently he was quite interested in German history, as a consequence of his job.
  843. Soon enough we were pulling up to a house, well, more like a compound right on the beach.  There were four small buildings around a traditional Japanese courtyard, and Felix pulled the car right into the middle.  Through the gap in the two buildings directly ahead I could see the beach and the ocean.  Wedged on the side of a small cliff, the compound was isolated and secure.  A perfect getaway for a politician, I guessed.
  844. “Come on Koji, I’ll show you to your room.”  Jess got out of the car and said something in German to Felix who pressed a button and opened the trunk.  I got out and grabbed my bag and helped Jessica pull out hers.
  845. “So y-you’ve been here before?”
  846. “Yeah, Mr. Nakamura is a really good friend of my father’s.  We used to all come here every summer to visit him and his family.”  She was suddenly crestfallen.  “Back when my mom was around.”
  847. “O-Oh.”
  848. She shook off whatever painful memory she was living through and took off towards the right corner house.  The covered gap between the buildings was a traditional Japanese walkway, though clearly constructed somewhat recently.  From the walkway there was a ramp right out onto the beach.  It was only a little after two in the afternoon but it was completely abandoned.
  849. “I-Is this beach private?”
  850. “Yup, Mr. Nakamura owns it completely.  We’ll be completely alone for the whole weekend.”  She grinned and then slid open the paper door to the corner building.
  851. There was a large bathroom immediately on the left, a small bedroom next, a larger one, then a lounge type room.  A few couches scattered about, a large television and a pool table.  The room took up most of the overall space of the building, with another paper door to the south and eastern walkway on the south side of the room.  Despite the traditional exterior and design, the interior of the room was very modern, almost like something out of an Ikea catalog.
  852. “W-Wow, this is really nice.”
  853. “Yeah, I know!  It pays to know people.”  She took me back to the first small bedroom.  “This one will be yours to stay in, I’ll be next door.  My father doesn’t know we’re, uh, dating, yet but even if he did I don’t think he’d like us to sleep in the same room anyway.  I mean, not that we’re not gonna, but keep up appearances.”
  854. “W-we should…”
  855. She nodded.  “I know.  I think we should do it at dinner.  I think he likes you so it should be fine.”
  856. I set my bag on the rather small bed.
  857. “Anyway dude…”
  858. “H-hm?”
  859. She hugged me and gave me a kiss.  “It’s hard to wait an hour without wanting to do that.”
  860. There was the sound of the door sliding.  We quickly ended the embrace.  There was a loud thump and a squeaky noise.  It was Erwin, rolling himself along.
  861. “Ah, zere you are.  Hungry?  I have Felix scrounging somezing together for lunch.”
  862. I think my stomach growled.
  863. “I’ll take zat as a yes.”  He laughed.  “Koji, could you help me?”
  864. And there was a startling revelation.  Because of Jess’ arm, she couldn’t push her own father around.  Erwin’s weakness was apparent.  Jessica couldn’t help her father.  The bitter irony clung to me, but I didn’t mention it.
  865. “S-sure.”  I grabbed the handles on the back of the chair and started to push.  “W-where too?”
  866. “Ze southwest building has ze kitchen and dining room.”
  867. “O-Okay then.”
  868. The three of us set across the courtyard and into the southwest building.
  869. After a delicious lunch (Felix was some kind of god in the kitchen), Jess and I set off for a walk down the beach.  It was a little too cold to go swimming, though she claimed she’d make me try tomorrow.  Before we even left sight of the compound she was clinging on to me, apparently just raring to be alone.  This… desire for me, being wanted, felt really good.  I don’t know why she had become so attached but I enjoyed it.  We took off our shoes before walking on to the sand, which was a little warm but still soft and enveloping.  There weren’t many rocks or shells like back home, just the tan sand.  Looking back, our tracks were the only impressions in the sand, bouncing back and forth from the water like a sine curve.
  870. For a soccer player, Jessica’s feet were small and delicate, somehow even paler than she was normally.  Her toes barely splayed as she lifted them up to walk and they were light and nimble like her fingers.  Her whole body structure was almost avian, so light and thin she could probably take off in a stiff wind.  On the other hand, my feet were clunky and awkward though I’m used to walking barefoot on the sand.
  871. It was cloudy now, and the large clouds of a storm were brewing.  I didn’t care; the beach was wonderful as it was.  The lull of the ocean, the calls of the seagulls and smell of salt in the air all brought back a fine nostalgia I hadn’t felt in a long, long time.  Similarly, Jessica was at rest, barely opening her eyes and simply relying on me to guide her.
  872. Something wet on my cheek.  Then my other.  Then my nose.  Jess snapped up and opened her eyes.
  873. “Is it raining?”
  874. “I-I think so.”
  875. I looked back at the trail we’d left.  We’d probably walked a few kilometers.  There was a flash and a crack.  Thunder and lighting.  The rain grew steadily stronger and Jess pulled her hood over her head.  I was unlucky and didn’t even have one.
  876. “Oh crap, it’s coming down!”  She yelled through the sound of the storm.
  877. I looked at the Cliffside.  Maybe a hundred meters back there was a small outcrop, a little cave or clearing.
  878. “B-Back there, look!”  I pointed at the cave.
  879. “Okay, let’s run for it!”  She was grinning madly.  I found myself doing the same.
  880. We took off for the shelter at breakneck speed, kicking up sand and laughing as we went.  The cave was only about a meter high so we ducked and rolled into it, safe from the torrential downpour.  The cave was maybe a meter wide and two deep, decreasing in height and depth as it went.  Maybe someone had made it, it really didn’t look natural.  I sat down on one side and her on the other.  She stared out at the rain.
  881. “Well this puts a damper on the day, don’t you think?”
  882. “Y-yeah… but it’s okay, since I’m here with y-you.”
  883. She bent over and walked on hand and knees over to me, her face in mine and body between my bent legs.
  884. “Y-you know Koji… I never said it before, and I think I was having trouble saying it at all… but I-I like you too.  I know that it’s kind of obvious… but you’re, shit, I can’t put this into good words like you can, awesome.  The best guy I’ve ever met.  And I’m really-“
  885. I cut her off and pulled her head to mine, kissing her deeply.  Her lips tasted like salt.  The kiss grew deeper, open mouthed and contracting.  Her tongue met mine and exchanged.  She rolled over and sat next to me, grabbing my head in for another kiss.  This one lasted an eternity, or at least a few minutes.  It was heaven.
  886. “So you can take the lead.  I’ve taught you well.”  She giggled.
  887. I just smiled back at her.
  888. “Thank you though, really.  I’ve just been… so clingy while we’re here, and I’m sorry for that.  We all need space.  It’s just… the last time I was here was before my mom died.  Coming back has just brought back so many memories.”
  889. I put my arm around her shoulder and pulled her close, taking my other arm and grabbing from the other direction.  She was safely inside my embrace.  She fiddled with the collar of my sweater and stared into my eyes.  We stayed like that, in the cave, for a while.
  890. *       *       *
  891. We were soaked by the time we got back.  Even if I didn’t get to go swimming I’d have to change clothes anyway.  Erwin Frederson was sitting on the north walkway, staring out at the rain.
  892. “Ah, zere you are!” He called out to as we walked back.  “I vas hoping you veren’t caught out there, but no such luck I guess, eh?”
  893. “Yeah Papa, we were just going for a walk and got caught.  Oh well, these things happen.”  She winked at him.  Some kind of in joke?
  894. “So zey do, so zey do.  Come, come now, get you two into zomesing varm.”  He beckoned with his hands to go to our rooms.  “Give your vet clothes to Felix, he vill dry zem for you.  In the meantime, I believe zere are some extra clothes in ze closests.  See vat fits.”
  895. “Thanks Papa, tell Felix we’ll bring them right over.”
  896. He turned himself around and wheeled back to the room across the walkway.  We walked into the north west building and into our rooms, after a brief kiss.  I looked in the closet.  Kimonos, a variety of them in different sizes.  I sighed.  At least I’d be comfortable while I was drying off.  I sized a few different ones up but they all seemed a little too big or a little too small.  The one I finally decided to wear was too long and a bit too puffy, but it’d do.  I walked out of my room and was met in the lounge by the most stunning sight.
  897. Jessica in a short blue yukata, her lower legs clearly visible and the overall garment hugging her body closely.  She turned around as I walked towards her.
  898. “How do I look, Koji?”  She twirled around.
  899. I’m pretty sure my jaw hit the floor.  Foreign as she was, she pulled off the traditional summer dress extremely well.
  900. “That good, huh?”  She laughed and came over to hug me.  “Felix will be here to pick up our other clothes, but I don’t think we can go back to the beach just yet.”
  901. The rain was even harder now, raking against the windows.
  902. “W-want to watch I movie?”  I pointed at the big TV on the wall.
  903. “Sounds great, let’s look for something in English, since we can both understand that.”
  904. There was a whole closet full of DVDs next to the TV.  Jess traced her index finger across the spines of each case.  She suddenly gasped.
  905. “Oh thank you, Mr. Nakamura!”
  906. “What is i-it?”
  907. “He’s got the entire collection of Abbot and Costello.  They were this comedy team from America back in the 40’s.  They were really funny, come on you have to see this.”
  908. Why not?  I liked old American movies, though generally not that old.
  909. “O-okay, let’s d-do it.”
  910. She jumped a little, clearly excited.  Pulling one of the DVD’s from the shelf, she deftly popped it open, grabbed the disc out of it, pressed the button to open the DVD player tray and then neatly dropped the disc into it.  Pretty impressive for someone with one arm.  I sat down on the couch and, remote in hand, Jess soon joined me.  I put one arm around her shoulder.  Somehow, with her head rubbing into my chest and left arm squeezed gently between our bodies, this position felt right.  I was perfectly relaxed and let my concerns go.
  911. She was right, they were really funny.  Right off the bat we were in stiches.  The two comedians played off each other so well, a perfect partnership.  So we sat, or rather, laid out there on the couch for hours.  It was bliss, just laughing there with this girl… this girl who had brought so much light into my life.
  912. “Hey Koji, what time is it?”  She grabbed my wrist and turned it over to see my watch.  “Oh crap, almost 7?  Dinner was at 6:30!  Come on, let’s go!”
  913. Jessica practically jumped off the couch and then yanked me up with her.  Walking across the walkway to the northwest building, she slid the door open and we went through.  It was pretty much a mirror image of the one we were staying in, a bathroom, two rooms and then an open living space.  We passed through the door on the opposite side and down the west walkway.  The building ahead was slightly smaller than the two “residential” buildings but was still big.  Inside, there was a room with a large dinner table and a breakfast area bar type thing.  There was a silver door to the right behind the bar, leading to the kitchen I presumed.  Jessica’s father was already sitting at the head of the table, which had been set for three.
  914. “Sorry we’re late, Papa.”
  915. “It’s no problem, Felix vasn’t finished cooking yet anyvay.”
  916. “W-what are we having?” I asked.
  917. “I think he’s just putting together some hamburgers or something.  Usually zere is a full time chef here but he doesn’t start until ze summer, so Felix is making due vith vat zere is around.”
  918. “Sounds good to me.” Said Jess.
  919. We sat down across from each other at the end of the table where Erwin was sitting.  Before we could even strike up a real conversation, the door to the kitchen swung open and Felix emerged with three plates.  Set down in front of me, this didn’t really look thrown together.  More like painstakingly arranged and cooked.  The burger itself was grilled to perfection, the garnishes delicately place and even the bun was toasted just enough, with a coating of some kind of butter or oil that made it look appetizing.  If this is what he could pull together, I can only imagine what a full meal would be like.
  920. I took a big bite.  I was pretty hungry, after all.  It was incredibly delicious.  I looked up.  Jessica, as usual, was scarfing hers down.  Even Mr. Frederson, frail as he appeared, was taking huge bites out of the burger.  No wonder they kept Felix around, if he made food like this for every meal I’d die fat and happy.
  921. Happy.  That thought hit me like a ton of bricks.  I guess I was, happy.  Happy enough.  Happier than I’d been in a long time.  Here I was, enjoying a meal with my… girlfriend and her family, small as it was.  It made me think about my mother, and father.  And Katsuo.  I needed to call my mom, let her know how I was doing.  Hopefully Jake was telling her I was doing well.  And there were things I needed to tell Jessica.  Things about myself I needed to tell someone.
  922. The hamburgers were delicious and extremely satisfying.  I almost found myself patting my stomach.
  923. “So, are you two excited for a full day at ze beach tomorrow?  Ze veather report says it vill be nothing but sunshine.  Ve can take you back to school in ze afternoon.”
  924. “Yep!  I can’t wait to go swimming.”  Jess nudged me under the table and winked.  What was she implyin- Oh.  OH.  Jessica in a swimsuit.  A fantastic weekend.  “Anyway Papa, there’s something me and Koji, er Koji and I, uh, we need to tell you.”
  925. “Oh, vat is it?”
  926. “We’re uh…”  She was fidgeting in her chair, playing her knife.  She was clearly struggling to get the words out.
  927. “W-We’re dating.”  A voice.  My voice.  I was dumbstruck, at myself.
  928. “Oh, isn’t zat vonderful!  I do so much young love, zere is so much fun to be had.”  He winked at me now.  “But I could already tell.  Ze vay you look at each other, hah.”
  929. His eyes narrowed and his voice grew harsher.  “I like you Koji, I really do.  But zis is my only daughter.  You must promise to take care of her.  Never to hurt her.”
  930. “I do.  I s-swear it.”
  931. “Good!”  His previous contented expression came back.  “Vell, we should have a celebration, no?  For my stamp of approval?”
  932. “Papa…”
  933. “Indulge me just zis vonce?  Please?”
  934. She sighed.  “Okay, okay.”
  935. “Great!  Would you go tell Felix to bring out ze sparkling juice and a glass of vine for me?  Ve need a toast!”
  936. “Alriiiiight.”  She got up and passed through the metal door into the kitchen.  Erwin turned to me now.  Serious again.
  937. “Kawamori.  I am serious about my daughter.  She plays tough but she is a lot more delicate zan you vould expect.  She is so giving to other people that she sometimes forgets about herself.  Maybe you have seen it, skipping out on her schoolwork to spend time vith you or her friends?”
  938. “Well y-yes, I have… seen that.”  So this was a problem, then.
  939. “I vould give anything for my little girl, you understand this?  But I also know that she needs to think for herself every vonce in a vile.  And so I am asking zis of you: do not let my daughter completely dedicate herself to you.  Such practices have gotten her hurt in ze past.  You must instead be her friend as well as her lover.  Support her as she is supporting you.
  940. “Vith the time you have spent in ze hospitals and such I think you realize just how important just a support is.  I cannot be zere for her, not like I could before.  And you know about her mother.  I do not vish to burden you Koji, I am just asking you to be zere for her.”
  941. This was a lot to process.  Here I was, relying on her for so much, to get me out and back to normal.  I hadn’t even considered that Jess needed support like I did.  Thinking back to the vending machine and the cave, I guess it made sense.  In a way I was already doing that without realizing it.  But I would make an effort to be there for her, to be a hand for her to grab when she needed it.
  942. “I-I understand… I think I really do.”
  943. “Excellent.”
  944. The door swung open, Jessica leading along Felix who had a circular tray in his hand.  On the tray were a single bottle and three wine glasses.
  945. “Papa, there’s no sparkling juice in the pantry.  Felix found this nice vintage from the basement though…”
  946. “Vell, I suppose if this were Berlin you could have been drinking for three or four years by now.  Ah, it’s a special occasion, vy not?”
  947. He nodded to Felix, who proceeded to poor three glasses of wine and then handed one to each of us.
  948. “To you two, and ze wonderful babies you vill have.”
  949. Jessica shot daggers from her eyes at her father.  I found it hard to keep from laughing.
  950. “Only kidding, only kidding.”
  951. We toasted the glasses together.  I pulled mine back and took a sip.  I hadn’t had wine before.  It was very sweet but at the same time bitter.  Still, I mustered the sip down like a champion.  Jess, meanwhile, had taken a sip and was almost licking her lips.
  952. Erwin drank none of his wine.  Felix moved the tray over to him and Erwin placed the glass on it.  Felix left the room without a word.
  953. “Y-you don’t drink?” I asked.
  954. “Not for a while now.”  He looked crestfallen.  “Ah, vell today has been interesting, and tiring.”  Smiles.  “I think I’ll be off to bed, zen.  Felix?”
  955. Felix came out of the kitchen and pulled off the cooking apron he had put on over his suit.  He grabbed Erwin’s chair and wheeled him out of the dining room and out to the other building.
  956. “Hey Koji…”  Jess had the most devious look I think I’ve ever seen on her face.
  957. “Y-Yeah?”
  958. “I saw some beer while I was in the kitchen.  We should take it.”
  959. I’ve never drank before this night.  Mr. Frederson didn’t exactly give his full blessing, either.  But fuck it, I might as well try it.  Even if I don’t like it I’ll have at least tried it.  Plus drinking with Jessica sounds fun.  My parents even met at a bar.
  960. “W-why not?”  I gave her a big smile.
  961. We walked into the kitchen.  It was huge, with professional-grade appliances, stoves, fancy aluminum counters and everything.  It looked like a whole restaurant could be run out of here.  There was a row of refrigerators in the back.  Jess opened one up.  There was a lot of beer inside, but I didn’t recognize anything.
  962. “Hmm… nothing that good.”
  963. “You k-know your beer?”
  964. “Well, it is a German tradition… whenever I go to Berlin I always drink a little with my cousins.  Ah, there’s some Sapporo.  Not Franziskaner but it’ll do.”
  965. She grabbed an armful of beer cans and then handed them to me.
  966. “Easier for you to carry them.”  She gave me a cheeky smile.
  967. “How m-much is too much?”
  968. “Uh, I don’t know really.  There’s like eight there.  I think that’ll be good.”
  969. So she wasn’t that experienced.  I shrugged and we made our way out of the kitchen and the dining area.
  970. “Okay, we’ll run across the courtyard so my dad doesn’t see us sneaking.”
  971. I nodded and we took off, the rain still streaming down.  I practically crashed through the door Jess had barely managed to get open, soaked again.  I hope Mr. Frederson was right because this rain wasn’t letting up.  We walked, no, slid into the living room, our feet were that soaked.  I dropped the precious cargo on the small coffee table near the couch.  Jess picked a can up and pointed it in my direction.
  972. “Can I have a little help here, Koji?”
  973. “Huh, w-wha- Oh!  Yeah, s-sure.”
  974. I popped the top of the can for her.  She raised it to her mouth and took a generous swig.  In the meantime, I opened one for myself.
  975. “Thanks…”  She smiled.  There was something about her sitting there on the couch, beer can in hand and smile on her face that seemed so natural.
  976. I took a sip of the beer myself.  It wasn’t awful.  Very bitter, or bitter enough based upon my sweet tastes for tea and juices.  I almost spit a little of it out.
  977. “I-It’s… different…”
  978. “Maybe it’s genetics, but I really like the taste.”  She got up and went to the DVD shelves.  “Hey look!  Jaws!  I love this one!  Perfect for a scary night at the beach, too.”
  979. In the same way as last time she deftly placed the DVD in the tray.  The movie was a real classic, though it inspired some weird actions from Jessica.  Or maybe that was the alcohol.  It was the scene where they were drinking on the boat.  Jessica was kissing my face.  Three empty cans in front of her.  Two in front of me, the third in my hand.  I didn’t think alcohol made things this awkward.
  980. “Heeey Koojiii… l-let’s maaaake ouuutt.”
  981. My brain said, no that’s a bad idea.  My body was not listening, neither was my mouth.
  982. “O-ooookaay.”
  983. Hands around her back.  Tongues intertwined.  Shark on the screen behind me.  Her hand touching my face.  The soft skin of her leg.  Another empty beer can each.  Her blue eyes against screen in the background.  Two kimonos on the ground next to the couch.  Our underwear still on.  The small bra on her small frame.  The soft skin of her stomach and hips.  Somewhere after that I passed out, our limbs entangled and intimate.
  984. *       *       *
  985. I woke up lying on the couch.  My head was pounding.  Jessica’s head was on my chest, sleeping softly and rising with each breath.  Her arm was trapped beneath me and our legs were curled next to each other.  I felt my underwear still on and the softness of hers on my skin… somewhere.  There was still a pile of empty beer cans on the table.  I checked my watch, just about 7:30.  Well at least the alcohol didn’t make me sleep all day.  Couldn’t say that my head was spared, when I tried to lift it I just felt it get knocked right back down, a throbbing in my frontal lobes.  Future experience with alcohol would have to be better monitored.
  986. I slowly lifted myself out from under her.  Bathroom was my first objective.  After what seemed like an age taking care of that business, I went in ‘my’ room and took the sheet off my bed.  Back in the living room, I laid it out over Jess.  Then I hopped into the shower and nearly passed out in there again.  After the world’s longest shower, I got dressed, cleaned up the beer cans and stowed them in my bag.  Might as well find out what was for breakfast and maybe bring some back for Jess, too.
  987. I found Felix and Erwin in the dining room, conversing in German.  Upon seeing me, Felix mentioned something to Erwin.
  988. “Felix is vondering, vat vould you like for breakfast?  Zere is most anyzing you can think of.”
  989. “J-Just some eggs and toast… and some for Jess- Jessica, too.”
  990. Erwin translated and Felix went off into the kitchen.
  991. “So Koji, how are you liking it here at ze Nakamura Estate?”
  992. “I-It’s quite… grand?  I’ve never seen such a house before, especially a summer house.”
  993. “Forgive my curiosity, but is, or vas, your family poor?”
  994. Not particularly, for Kagoshima.  My father was a fisherman and my mother a schoolteacher.  Her salary wasn’t great and his income fluctuated with the season.  However, it was mostly my medical bills over the years that had put us into poverty.  That and Katsuo.
  995. “Well… uh... Only because of me.”
  996. “Oh?  Vy is that?”
  997. Inquisitive, wasn’t he.  Well, no harm in answering.
  998. “I haven’t e-even told Jessica t-this b-but… when I w-was nine I was diagnosed w-with cancer… a tumor in my b-back.  The doctors e-excised it but my family c-couldn’t easily p-pay for the whole operation.”
  999. “I see, I see.  Is that connected to your eye?”
  1000. “N-no… well, partially… You s-see they thought they had got all of it, back then… but they missed a spot.  W-when I was fifteen, they found another… o-or the g-growing remains of the previous.  I s-spent two years in c-chemotherapy… and other treatment.  While at the hospital I contracted MRSA… w-which took my eye and s-scarred my skin.
  1001. “I survived c-cancer but a s-stupid infection almost k-killed me.”
  1002. Absorbing the information, Mr. Frederson contemplated his response slowly.
  1003. “You a very brave, Koji.  Jessica told me you didn’t have many other friends, and now I zink I better understand vy.  To have spent so much time recovering, it must have taken its toll.  You are very lucky to have a family zat loves you and cares for you.”
  1004. Katsuo.  Fucking Katsuo.  Tears welled up in my eye and I tried to look down at the floor.  A droplet fell from my eye and hit the wooden floorboard.  Erwin rolled over.  He placed a hand on my shoulder.  I almost violently shrugged it off, a look of horror flashed across my face.
  1005. “I-I’m sorry… I still… I still have i-issues wit p-people touching me.”
  1006. “No, it is my fault.  I shouldn’t have tried.  My daughter told me about zis, how you are afraid to come close to anyone.”
  1007. Well isn’t that great, spilling my secrets to the whole fucking world.
  1008. “But listen, son.  Zere is nothing to be afraid of.  You are a normal, healthy teenage boy.  You have the love of a beautiful girl-“ he laughed, “zo I must say perhaps you two should slow zings down?- and a bright future.”
  1009. “I’m s-sorry… it’s just you m-mention family.  My b-brother… Katsuo… h-he… he left home because of me.  B-because of the stress I put on m-my family.”
  1010. He contemplated my words for a second.  “Koji, do you zink that perhaps I am not ze best person to talk about zis vith?  Zere are other who understand you better.  I vill listen to your problems if you need me two, but I zink you might be escaping zem by trying to dump zem on a stranger.  Your mother and father vill provide a greater insight into your brother’s disappearance than I ever could.  Perhaps your problem is not vith explaining yourself to ze vorld but explaining yourself to zose you hold near.  Have you told Jessica about any of your own problems, beyond zose vich she can see vith her own eyes?”
  1011. I hadn’t.  I’d barely explained anything about myself, and she was so… not eager, but ready to explain the circumstances of her own disability to me.  I guess I owed her an explanation.
  1012. “T-thank you, Mr. Frederson-“
  1013. “Please, Erwin.”
  1014. “-Erwin.  Y-You’ve actually helped to clear my head on… on a lot of things.”
  1015. “What’s ze point in being old if you can’t share your visdom?”
  1016. Felix came out of the kitchen with two plates of scrambled eggs, toast and bacon.  I thanked him, though he probably could understand, said goodbye to Mr. Frederson and took the two plates out of the dining room.  Sliding the door to our rooms open with my foot, I walked into the living room and places the plates down on the coffee table.  
  1017. “H-hey… I brought breakfast…”
  1018. “hrnn… wha…”  She sniffed the air.  “b-bacon?”
  1019. “And e-eggs.”
  1020. She sat up and pulled the sheet over her head and body like a shawl.
  1021. “So I assume… since my underwear are still on, that we didn’t do anything serious?”
  1022. “W-what?  I-I… I-I uh…”
  1023. She smiled at me.  “Don’t worry about it.  I mean, I’d like to do… it… one day with you… but probably not like that.
  1024. I sat down next to her and began eating, though like usual she was done way before me.
  1025. “S-so… a day at the beach?”
  1026. She looked out the window, then turned back to me.
  1027. “Looks like it to me.  Now, if you’ll excuse me.”  She winked, got up and walked to the bathroom.  I cleaned up the dishes and went to go change into a swimsuit myself.
  1028. *       *       *
  1029. Late afternoon.  Traces of red and orange had started to leak downwards from the sun.  A cool breeze had picked up, blowing traces of salt and sand across my face.  And thus we both lay there on the beach blanket, drying from our last swim and waiting to be recalled by Jess’ father.  There was no one else on the beach at all, perfectly secluded and private.  A day of rollicking in the sand, swimming in the water and dozing off under the hot sun had been paradise.
  1030. Despite having slept with her in her skivvies the night before, Jessica in her bathing suit was impossible attractive.  A blue halter-top bikini, it showed off her slim curves extremely well.  The suit was almost too showy for her though, and she wore shorts and a very light and oversized t-shirt over it whenever we were out of the water.  She claimed it was to prevent sunburn, but I think she was just a little embarrassed by the suit.
  1031. On the other hand, it had taken me forever to take off my shirt.  Despite her having already seen me without a shirt – twice now – I was still self-conscious of the scars on my neck, shoulder and upper arm.  Like my face it was a battlefield of pockmarks, discolored patches and an odd striated pattern.  My shoulder was much worse than my face, mottled and a deep reddish color.  Of course Jess had wanted to touch it.  Her soft fingers on the rough skin was one of the weirdest contrasts my body had ever felt.
  1032. We learned that I was the better swimmer, she was the better sand-castle builder (and destroyer) and that kissing in salt water is an unpleasant experience.  So now we looked up at the blue sky and the falling sun.
  1033. “Jessica!” then something in German.
  1034. A response from her ending with “Papa.”  She propped herself up on her arm and turned to me.  “Time to go.  Wish it wasn’t, but it is.”
  1035. I just shrugged and got up.  “All good things must come to an end.”
  1036. “Hey…” She grabbed my arm and hoisted herself up.  “You didn’t stutter.”
  1037. I guess I hadn’t.  Maybe it was just from repeating a common phrase or maybe I was just really comfortable with her.  My brain started racing, dealing with the implications.
  1038. My thoughts were interrupted by a hug and a head pressed against my chest.  Then a pair of blue eyes looked up at me.  “Good for you.”
  1039. I took her hand and grabbed the blanket with the other.  My thoughts could wait.  I just gave her a smile and we walked back to the house.
  1040. *       *       *
  1041. Back at Yamaku.  It was late, nearly nine o’clock by the time we got there.  It was dark and the campus was asleep, tired after a weekend of activities.  After walking, well, rolling us to the gate, Mr. Frederson was getting a big hug from his daughter.  They were speaking in German, but their body language revealed most of the conversation: “{Please come visit more.}” “{I promise I will.}” “{You swear?}” “{Cross my heart and hope to die.}”
  1042. “Ah, Mr. Kawamori.  It has been a pleasure meeting you.  I trust you vill take care of my daughter?”
  1043. “Papa, Koji doesn’t need to take care of me.”
  1044. “Ah, I am old fashioned zis way, fraulein.  Indulge an old man.”
  1045. “You’re only 51!”
  1046. “Zat is fairly old, I zink.  Old enough to know more than you.  Anyvay, Koji, watch her or else I vill have Felix come here and vatch you.  You do not vant this.”  He laughed.  “Perhaps I vill come to ze school festival, it is soon, yes?”
  1047. “A week or two, I think.  Please please please come?”
  1048. “I promise.”
  1049. He rolled back to the car and Felix helped him in.  He waved once more as they drove past.  I picked up our bags and helped Jessica pull hers over her shoulder.  We started walking across campus, arm in arm.  There was no one around, after all.
  1050. “Whew, back in time for Fujiyama to not be cross with me, all right!”
  1051. “W-what you don’t want to spend more time with m-me?”
  1052. “A joke?  I didn’t know you had a sense of humor.”
  1053. “V-very funny.”
  1054. She was beaming.  “Well, I guess this is where I say good night.  I had a great time this weekend, just getting to spend time with out.  It was super relaxing, too.  Sometimes there’s so much stress…”
  1055. “I d-did too… and your dad seems to like me.”
  1056. “That he does.  Gotta jet though, I’m so tired.  See you at lunch tomorrow.”
  1057. She gave me a light kiss on the lips.  Our first in public.  Or near public.  Was it public if there was no one watching?  I walked into the Boy’s Dorms and to my room.  Truthfully, I was exhausted.  There’s something about laying out in the sun that’s so tiring.  But there was something I had to do first.
  1058. I threw my bag on my bed and booted up my computer.
  1059. Deaddrop1911: <and where have you been all weekend>
  1060. Deaddrop1911: <galavanting with your girlfriend>
  1061. VariableValkyrie: <Gallivanting is such a good word?  Practicing your vocabulary?>
  1062. Deaddrop1911: <ha ha so funny I forgot to laugh>
  1063. Deaddrop1911: <don't dodge the question>
  1064. VariableValkyrie: <Something like that.  Anyway, can I get back to you in a bit?  There’s something I really need to take care of.>
  1065. Deaddrop1911: <uh sure>
  1066. Deaddrop1911: <just don't forget about me bro>
  1067. VariableValkyrie: <I won’t, it’ll only be a few minutes.>
  1068. There was a knock on my door.  Strange, but I’d gotten used to it.  I got up and opened it.  No Jessica standing there with a kiss.  Just a folded letter on the ground.  I picked it up and unfolded it.
  1070. Kaneda?  The hell was this about?  Was he seriously that obsessed with me.  Or Jessica?  What the hell was going on?  I placed the letter on my desk.  I couldn’t worry about this now.
  1071. I opened Skype.  My mom was online.  I called her.
  1072. “Koji?  Koji!  It’s great to hear from you.  It’s been such a while, I was getting worried, so I called Jake and he said you got a girlfriend?  I couldn’t believe it but then he said he swore it was true and gosh I’m so happy for you an-“
  1073. “Y-yeah mom, that happened.  Sorry I didn’t tell you earlier.  Look, there’s something we need to talk about.”
  1074. “Hm?  What is it?”
  1075. “Mom… can you tell me… tell me about Katsuo?”
  1076. End of Act 2.
  1077. Act 3: Compound
  1078. Monday afternoon.  The sky was brisk and clear.  The rooftop was empty, as usual.  I had gotten up here earlier than usual and was now sitting on a bench, waiting for Misha.  The things my mother had told me last night… well I wasn’t really ready for them.  But I guess I never would have been.  I was doing my best to not think about them, for the most part.  I’d cross that bridge when I got to it.  The door to the roof crashed upon with a loud ‘wahaha~.’  She began rapidly signing at me.
  1079. “[You’re here early!  Isn’t that great, more time to practice!]”
  1080. “[I guess so.]”
  1081. “[You look down, is something the matter.]”
  1082. “[What?  No.]  Just lost in thought.”
  1083. “[Well, okay then.  How was your weekend?  Do anything fun?]”
  1084. I might as well tell her, no point in hiding it.
  1085. “[Yes, actually.  I spent it at the beach.  It reminded me of home.  I had a lot of fun.]”
  1086. “[You and your girlfriend went?]”  She gave me a cheeky, knowing smile. “Wahaha~”
  1087. “[She’s not my-]” Oh what was the point anymore? “[…Yes, my girlfriend and I.]”
  1088. “[What’s her name?  She looks cute!  You look like a good couple, by the way.]”
  1089. Spelling out her last name was hard.  Converting between the katakana of ‘Frederson’ and the fingerspelling was something I was having trouble with.
  1090. “[Fu… re… da…]”  
  1091. I shook my head.  Misha looked perplexed.
  1092. “F-Frederson.  [That’s her name.]”
  1093. “[Okay, now I understand.]”  She nodded enthusiastically. “[Frederson.]”
  1094. I spelled it back to her. “[Frederson?]”
  1095. “[Correct!  I guessed she was foreign but that last name is hard to pronounce for a newcomer to JSL.]”
  1096. “[Thank you for teaching me how.  She can’t learn sign language.  No arm.]”  I was struck by how uncouth and brash the way that came out in signing.
  1097. “[Oh, I see.  It is hard at Yamaku for certain disabled students to talk to others, due to their disabilities.  My friend Shizune had a cousin here who was blind.  Because of that they found it very hard to talk and be friends without an intermediary…]”  She looked sad for a second, accidentally drawing up bad memories.  “[And I wasn’t the best go-between at the time.]”
  1098. I guess I never really thought about how hard it would be to even communicate with someone with a different disability than their own.  The blind students in the class could at least hear Ms. Ito and other students.  Communication between a deaf student and a blind student would be nearly impossible.  I guess that’s really why I was put into the sign language class.  With all my senses I could hopefully be use as an intermediary for those who needed it.  Someone like Jessica couldn’t use the two hands necessary for JSL.
  1099. “[I think I know now why I’m taking this class.]”
  1100. “[And why is that?]”
  1101. “[Because especially among the disabled there is a need to communicate… to talk about problems.]”
  1102. She just smiled.  “[Let’s run some drills, Koji!] Wahaha~!”
  1103. *       *       *
  1104. My phone chirped.  A new email.  I was sitting at my desk, typing up a paper for class.  I opened it up to the main screen and pressed the little icon that represented email.
  1105. ‘can you run to the store and get me some soup? i’m not feeling too well :(‘
  1106. Oh fuck.  She can’t get sick, she can’t.  She’s immuno-compromised.  Any sickness can be threatening.  I typed up a response.
  1107. ‘Okay, I’ll get right on it.  Did you go to the nurse?’
  1108. The nurse had seemed to understand when I told him at our session today that I didn’t want a false eye.  I had said I didn’t want to hide what I was.  At first he was shocked, but then it quickly turned into an understanding grin.  He finished with applying the medication and sent me on my way, telling me he’d cancel the fitting.
  1109. I pulled on my uniform coat and left my room, making sure to lock the door.  It was a little brisk out, despite being late May.  I was still in danger of getting sick, too, so no chances.  It was just before six when I stepped outside.  My phone rang again.
  1110. ‘not yet… i promise i will tomorrow’
  1111. I’m pretty sure I sighed as loud as humanly possible.  Walking, I typed her an email back.
  1112. ‘Then I’m getting you some cold medicine too.’
  1113. Halfway down the road to town:
  1114. ‘ughhh fiiiine’
  1115. ‘If it’s nothing then it won’t hurt to take it.’
  1116. After paying for the soup boxes:
  1117. ‘koji i’m gonna kick your ass’
  1118. ‘If you’re sick that’s going to be difficult.’
  1119. Halfway up the road:
  1120. ‘when did you get so sarcastic’
  1121. ‘Always.  I’m just concerned about you, is all.’
  1122. Entering the girl’s dorm:
  1123. ‘<333333’
  1124. ‘I’m here’
  1125. Fujiyama was practically asleep at her desk.  Mondays were probably not every exciting, if any day really was.  She opened one eye to look at me.
  1126. “Ah, Kawamori, nice to see you.  Here to see Frederson?”
  1127. I nodded.
  1128. “You know what to do.”  She closed her eye again.
  1129. I signed the sheet and put down 308.  Walked up the stairs, bag in hand. Knocked on her door, then tried the handle.  It was open.  The room was its messy usual, and Jess was huddled under a layer of blankets.
  1130. “K-Koji…?”  Her voice was small and frail and muffled by blankets.
  1131. “Y-yeah it’s me.”
  1132. “…soup?”
  1133. “I’ve got t-to make it.  Is there a… kitchen… here?”
  1134. “down the hall… across from the bathroom.”
  1135. “Be b-back in a little bit then.”  I gave what I figured was her head a little pat.
  1136. She mumbled something incomprehensible.  I took the soup supplies and headed out into the hallway.  It seemed deserted.  I guess most of the other girls in the hallway were out getting dinner or staying late with clubs.  I hoped.
  1137. The kitchen was basically a small alcove at the end of the hallway, exactly the same as in the boy’s dorm.  A large refrigerator, an electric stove, a sink, cabinets and a microwave filled up the space nicely.  I guess we couldn’t be trusted with ovens.  Probably why the stove was electric as well.
  1138. I set the bag down on the counter and unpack the instant ramen.  It wasn’t much but soup was soup.  I found a pot in one of the cabinets and filled it up with enough water.  Set the stove on high and places the filled pot on it.  And now to wait for the water to boil.  It wouldn’t take long.  I guess I could go back to Jess’ room, but she would just get disappointed that the soup wasn’t there again.  I took out my phone and started playing with it, browsing the internet.
  1139. I was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder.  I jumped back.  What the hell had just- oh, there was someone there.  Luckily they’d only touched me through my shirt.  It was a short girl, with long brown hair and big brown eyes.  She was all curves too, especially when compared with a rail like my girlfriend.
  1140. ‘Sorry,’ she mouthed.
  1141. “I-it’s okay…”  Wait, she looked a bit confused then furrowed her eyes.  Not understanding, mouthing words… I was an idiot.  “[Are you deaf?]”
  1142. She smiled.  “[Yes, I’m glad you know sign language.]”
  1143. “[I’m just learning, really.]”
  1144. “[Pretty good for just learning.]”
  1145. “[Thank you.]”
  1146. “[I don’t believe we’ve met.  I’m Miyuki Okawara.]”  She extended her hand.
  1147. “[Koji Kawamori.  I’m… uh… not good with touching.]”
  1148. She nodded and withdrew, silently understanding.  “[Kawamori?  I think I do know you, if only tangentially.]”
  1149. “[What?  How?]”
  1150. “[You’re Frederson’s boyfriend.]”  She flashed a devilish smile.  “[You’re shocked.  Well, don’t be.  She hasn’t told all of us on the floor yet, or anyone I think.  That’s a good thing though.]”
  1151. “[Why’s that?]”
  1152. “[It means you’re special to her.  She’s had… other boyfriends before, and it blew up in her face.  You know, foreigner, star and captain of the soccer team, pretty… she’s hounded by the school’s gossip mill.  Previous boyfriends would barely last a week.  How long have you been going out for?]”
  1153. “[…a week.]”
  1154. She laughed, audibly.  It was a bit too loud and a bit off-key.  Hard to tell how you sound when you’re deaf, I suppose.
  1155. “[Well I have hope for you.  She seems so happy these days and I think she just doesn’t want to drag you into a social circle you’re not comfortable with.  Or she’s trying to escape a social circle she’s not comfortable with.  Either way, she’s choosing you.]”
  1156. I hadn’t thought about all this before.  I know she wanted to keep it quiet for some reason, I’d never thought it was for her own purposes.  Maybe being popular wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.
  1157. “[I think your water is boiling.]”
  1158. It was, practically shaking itself out of the pot.
  1159. “S-shit!”  I quickly dumped the hard noodles into the water and began stirring.
  1160. “[See you around, Kawamori.  Tell Jessica I wish her well.]”
  1161. “B-bye… [Good bye Okawara.]”
  1162. She waved and took off.  While I had been dealing with the soup she’d taken a drink out of fridge, apparently her original intention for coming to the kitchen.  I opened the door to the fridge.  Everything in there had a label with a name on it.  Why hadn’t we thought about that in the boy’s dorm?  If you left something in the fridge overnight it wasn’t very likely to be there in the morning.
  1163. The soup was done.  I poured it into two bowls and carried them back to Jess’s room.  Placing them on the floor, I propped the door open, picked them back up and walked in.
  1164. “Koji… soup?”
  1165. She was a lot sicker that I even expected.  I put the bowls down on her dresser and sat down on the bed next to her still form.  She slowly got up, wrapping the blanket around her and covering up her head.  I put my arm around her and she leaned against me.
  1166. “I hate being sick.”  She sneezed.  “It’s so limiting… there’s so much stuff I could do instead.”
  1167. I just rubbed her shoulder softly.
  1168. “I’ve been sick… for too long.  Too much of my life,” I found myself admitting to her.  “I thought I’d never get better… now look at me.”  I tried to flash a confident smile.
  1169. She laughed softly.  “…idiot.  Give me the soup.”
  1170. “No, what’s the magic word?”
  1171. Something flew out from beneath the blanket and smacked me in the face.  Her left arm.  I was knocked back onto the bed.
  1172. “I was… saving… my energy… for that.”
  1173. “I-I yield.”  I got up and brought the bowls over.  Jessica held it up to her head and just let the steam roll over her face, closing her eyes and breathing in the vapor.
  1174. “Smells good.”
  1175. “I-it’s just ramen…”
  1176. “It’s okay, I think we’ll be eating it for years to come.”  She started drinking the broth.  “This is easier than setting it down.”
  1177. I should have figured she had a way to get around the problem of soup.
  1178. *       *       *
  1179. ‘nurse says I’ll be fine tomorrow but that you shouldn't see me today, doesn't want you to get sick. :(‘
  1180. “[Who’s that from?]”
  1181. “[My girlfriend,]” I told Misha, “[She’s sick.]”
  1182. “Aww.  [That’s shame.]”
  1183. “[We did spend some time in the rain the other day and she doesn’t have the greatest immune system…]”
  1184. “[You kids need to be more careful.]”  Wasn’t she only 22?
  1185. “[I’ll tell her that tomorrow.]”
  1186. “Hmm… [We’ll if you’re not going to go see her, why don’t you come get something to eat with me and a friend of mine?]”
  1187. I can’t imagine what a friend of Misha’s would be like.  But staying in my room would just be boring and I’d be thinking about Jess the entire time.  Fujiyama probably wouldn’t even let me in the building.
  1188. “[Okay.  Where to?]”
  1189. “[The Shanghai!] Wahaha~”
  1190. Well at least the food will be good.
  1191. *       *       *
  1192. Some time later I was sitting in a booth in the Shanghai across from Misha and her friend, who turned out to be a first year named Hideaki Hakamichi.  Hakamichi was apparently extremely popular with the female students in his year and was happy for any instance to get out of the school.  He had an odd taste in fashion, his dark hair had a bow in it, overly large glasses and the female uniform’s bowtie instead of the normal tie for boys.  Misha had also said he was the brother of her friend Shizune, the one she had been in love with.  I was starting to doubt the ‘been’ part though; after all she had talked about her.
  1193. “So Kawamori do you have any plans for after you graduate?” Hakamichi asked.  For someone so seemingly concerned with their outward appearance, Hakamichi was very businesslike and professional, to an almost gruff and intimidating level.  It was strange to be intimidated by a frail prettyboy.
  1194. “I-I’m not s-sure.”
  1195. “You should enunciate your words when you speak.  Stuttering isn’t very professional.”
  1196. Misha shot him a glare that could set small animals aflame.  “Kocchan is very bright and in constant search of knowledge.  I’m sure he’ll be great at whatever he does,” she said.
  1197. Kocchan.  That was new.
  1198. “He’ll never get into a top university now.  I’ve been practicing the entry exams for a year now and I’m not graduating for another two.”  The kid was determined; I’ll give him that.  “Does he want to become a ronin?”
  1199. “The best u-universities aren’t… aren’t f-for everyone,” I piped up.  “Just like this s-school isn’t f-for everyone.”
  1200. Misha looked pleased.  “I think you just got told, Hideacchan.  Now should we eat?”
  1201. I looked down at the sandwiches in front of us.  Misha had insisted on paying and bought us all a large platter of them.  Hakamichi shrugged, apparently unfazed by the argument (if you could even call it that).  He picked up a sandwich and began taking small, delicate bites.  Well, I suppose there are things you can predict about people.  On the other hand, Misha was more ravenous than my girlfriend.  I think she saw me staring at her devouring the poor halves of sandwiches.
  1202. “At university… It’s hard to come across a good meal, you know?”  She let out a small but fake laugh.  I understood more than she knew, for the past 7 months I’d survived on cheap instant food and before then, hospital food that wasn’t much better.  So I nodded and began eating.
  1203. After we’d all had our fill, Yuuko came over to clear the dishes and trays.
  1204. “Can I get you anything else?” she asked to no one in particular at the table.
  1205. Hakamichi was the first to talk.  “I think that’ll be all.  Just the bill, please.”  Again with that professional attitude.
  1206. Yuuko looked a bit worried.  She apparently knew Hakamichi if by reputation alone.  She just shook her head and scurried away.
  1207. “So Kocchan, have you got any plans for tonight?”
  1208. It was dinner time and Jess was still sick… so no, I had no plans.  Why was she asking?
  1209. “N-no… I was just g-going back to my room…”
  1210. “Well that’s a waste of a perfect May night, why don’t you come with me and Hideacchan to this gallery that’s opening up in the city?  I’ll drive!”
  1211. A gallery?  A gallery of what?  I wanted to say no.  I could just go back and play some games.  It’s what I wanted to do.  But what would Jessica want to do?  What would she want me to do?  I glanced at Hakamichi, to see if he had any thoughts on the matter.  He was staring out the window.  I guess he was being dragged into this as well.
  1212. So I just said “O-okay.”  How much could it hurt?
  1213. “Yea!  Wahaha, let’s get going then.”  She took out yen note and placed it on the table.  As we were leaving, she shouted a goodbye to Yuuko.  Volume control wasn’t Misha’s thing, I guess.
  1214. Misha’s car was nearby.  Apparently she parked in town and walked up the hill after getting coffee.  “Good exercise,” she had said, “A recommendation by an old friend.”  Unlike everything else Misha, her car was tiny and cramped.  A very small hatchback, there was barely room for Hakamichi in the back.  I don’t think I would have even fit.
  1215. The ride was fairly short, compared the bus.  And because the city was small enough, we got a parking spot just a block from where the gallery.
  1216. “M-Misha, do you know… know much about art?” I asked as we walked to the gallery.
  1217. “Nope!  Wahaha~  But I’m going to support the artist, she’s an old friend.  And a former Yamaku student, too!”
  1218. Hakamichi had apparently already been briefed.  “I just want to see what art can be made by a person without arms.  Purely scientific inquiry.”
  1219. No arms.  That was intriguing, to say the least.  Considering my own girlfriend’s disability, I wondered what it really would look like.  And how she’d managed to survive all this time without both arms.
  1220. There wasn’t much of a crowd outside the gallery; just a few people smoking cigarettes.  Still early for the fancy crowd, but better for me, I guess.  The galley was a small space, only a few meters wide and roughly twenty deep.  The paintings were incredible though.  Abstract and colorful, haunting faces and explosions of color and light jumped out at me.  Most of them had been done with oil paints.  Every so often there was a picture of a painting or a reproduction of one, apparently her paintings sold fairly well, despite there only being twenty or so people inside.
  1221. I heard a squeal and a wahaha.  Misha had found the artist, I presumed.  I looked over at the commontion.  The artist was a frail young woman, not much taller than Misha herself.  Dressed in a simple button up shirt, rolled up slacks and sandals, she was the epitome of casual.  Her short red hair was tousled up and jutted out at extreme angles.  She clearly didn’t care about her appearance that much.  Her green eyes were relaxed and stared out at the people around her, unflickering and at peace.
  1222. But what struck me the most was he sleeves, which were tied up below the elbow.  She really had created all these paintings without arms.  It was pretty incredible.
  1223. Misha had engaged her in a multi-limbed death grab.
  1224. “You’re hugging me, Misha,” the artist said.
  1225. “I missed you so much!  What’s it been, two years?  Wahaha, I’m so glad to see you!”
  1226. The artist shrugged loosely.  “I’ve been around.”
  1227. “Oh!”  Misha startled herself, “I’ve brought two students from the school with me.  “Kocchan, Hideacchan, come over here!”
  1228. I walked over slowly.  Hakamichi appeared out of nowhere next to Misha.
  1229. “Rin, this is Hideaki Hakamichi.  You know, Shizune’s little brother.”
  1230. “Their hair is the same sky, but different weather.”
  1231. “Uh, what?  Anyway, Hideacchan, this is Rin Tezuka, artist extraordinaire.”
  1232. “Pleased to meet you,” he said.  He didn’t hold out his hand like he had to me.  He never made any blunders, it seemed.
  1233. “And this is Koji Kawamori,” Misha continued.
  1234. I nodded.  “N-nice to meet you too.”
  1235. Tezuka squinted at me.  “How do you see,” she said, “with only one eye?  Is it much different than how people with two eyes see?”
  1236. I did see differently than before.  I lacked perspective, I couldn’t judge distance and it took longer to get used to the dark.  That and everything was shifted left.  Left was most jarring, at first.  My vision used to be straight in the middle, now it was skewed.  Everything was off by just a little bit.  It even took my body a while to get used to it, to re-coordinate myself.
  1237. “I-it’s more… left.”
  1238. Tezuka nodded.  “That would make sense.  Life lived on the left side.  Interesting.”
  1239. Misha was confused and Hakamichi looked bored.
  1240. “Are you going to get one of those false eyes?  The ones that stare ice?” Tezuka continued.
  1241. “N-no, I don’t think so.  W-why hide?”
  1242. “Good, good.  I never hide.  It’s hard for me to explain sometimes, but I never hide.  Not anymore.”  She nodded a goodbye and then turned around and went to speak with some other guests at the gallery.
  1243. “I can never understand her,” Misha said, “But she always seems to understand me.  So I think that’s why we’re friends.
  1244. “My curiosity is satisfied,” Hakamichi replied, “Can we go now?”
  1245. I was about to reply when someone tapped me on the shoulder.  I turned around.  It was Okawara, and another girl and boy, all three in Yamaku uniforms.  The girl had a cane but the boy seemed, outwardly, normal.
  1246. “[Hello Kawamori,]” Okawara signed, “[Odd seeing you here.  With a teacher no less.]”
  1247. “[She’s not a teacher.  Just part-time to finish her studies.  Why are you here?]”
  1248. “[We’re the three members of the Yamaku Art Club.  Membership… isn’t very high these days.  Tezuka was a member of the art club when she was a student and is something of a legend to us.]”
  1249. “[Did you get to talk to her?]”
  1250. “[Yeah, before.  Kinue,]” she motioned at the girl, “[Interprets for me when I don't want to read lips.]”
  1251. “N-nice to meet you, Kinue.  [What is your other friend’s name?]”
  1252. “[Miyu Nishigaki.]”
  1253. “N-nice to meet you too, Nishigaki.”  He nodded and smiled.  The crowd had grown, apparently people were starting to come in now that it was after dinner.
  1254. “[Well, we better get going if we want to catch the bus back to school.  Oh, and Kawamori?]”
  1255. “[Yes?]”
  1256. “[Miyu doesn’t live the school but in town.  He’s having a get together… well, party… this weekend.  You and Frederson should come.]”
  1257. I didn’t want to go to a party, but saying no was more awkward.  I just said “[Okay,]” instead.
  1258. The three art club members took their leave.  I went to find Misha.  She was outside with Hakamichi.
  1259. “Friends of yours, Kocchan?”
  1260. “N-not really… j-just people from school.”
  1261. “Well they seemed friendly enough.”
  1262. I shrugged.
  1263. “Ready to go?”
  1264. *       *       *
  1265. Jess made spargel again.  I was getting quite used to the taste, especially when she made enough for two.  Although sneezing once in a while, she was doing much better.  Crisis avoided.  Any small infection or bacteria could be a serious problem for her, or either of us really.  Her without an immune system and myself still trying to rebuild mine left us quite compromised.
  1266. “So I heard from Miyuki that you went to an art gallery last night?”
  1267. “Y-yeah, well Misha, er, Mikado took me.  I think she wanted me to g-get out of my room for once.”
  1268. She was beaming.  “Great for you Koji!  I’m so glad you’re out and making friends.”
  1269. Friends, eh?  I hadn’t made new friends in a long time.  Here I was with a girlfriend and potential new friends.  My life was turning around; for once everything wasn’t complete shit.  Maybe I should tell Jess about the party.  Maybe it could be fun.
  1271. “A-and she invited us to a party at Nishigaki’s… o-on Saturday.”
  1272. Jess nodded, with a look like she had already known.  “He’s been planning it for a couple of weeks, or so I’ve heard.  They actually invited me a while back.  I was planning on spending that day with you though…”
  1273. I just shook my head in agreement and continued eating.
  1274. “Did you want to go?  I mean we don’t have to, I don’t really know anyone who’s going that well anyway.”
  1275. Did I want to go?  I wasn’t sure.  Did Jessica want to go?  I wasn’t sure of that either.  But it was better than having to think of ideas for dates.  I didn’t want to let Jess run everything either, wasn’t it the boy’s job to think of things to do occasionally?  I was so goddamn awkward at this.
  1276. I just shrugged.  “I g-guess so.”
  1277. Apparently content with my answer and done with her food, Jess hopped up a bit and crawled across the grass of the alleyway.  She propped herself up on the brick wall that I was sitting against with her arm and planted a kiss on my lips.  That soft feeling penetrated my lips as they met hers.  Then she sat back down kneeling and stole my fork, stabbing a piece of asparagus and plopping it in her mouth whole.
  1278. “H-hey now I c-can’t use that fork!” I said, grabbling her and trying to wrench the fork out of her hand.
  1279. “More for me then,” she said giggling.
  1280. After a bit of wrestling (which was mostly just Jessica keeping herself balanced while pushing me back against the wall) her eyes met mine and one of those rare moments happened where everything stops and you can’t help but examine the soul of the other person through the windows of their eyes.  She dropped my hand and raised hers to my face, where she brushed my growing hair off my forehead and then rested it on my cheek.
  1281. “I’m so glad I met you Koji.”  Her smile was soft and warm like a sunset.
  1282. How could I properly express that?  How could I tell her about the warmth that was radiating from her hand and warming things inside me?  That had been warming things inside me and awakening me from my slumber?  How could I ever thank her for that?
  1283. The bell rang before I could say anything.  She just kissed me and ran off to class.
  1284. I had to do something, tell her somehow.  Find a metaphor.  Find some way to explain.  I couldn’t do it with words, I’d stutter and flail about and it’d become a poor realization of what I really wanted to say.
  1285. I’ll ask Jake or Misha or Ms. Ito.  Someone could help me.
  1286. *       *       *
  1287. “H-How do I l-look?”
  1288. “You look handsome as hell.”  She stood up on her tiptoes and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
  1289. I was wearing clothes Jess had somehow procured for me.  Apparently she wanted to go and make an impression, as tonight we’d formally admit to our relationship.  I was nervous and scared out of my mind.
  1290. “I think we’re ready,” she had said at dinner last night at the Shanghai.
  1291. “R-ready for what?”
  1292. “To go public.  I think we’re ready.”
  1293. “A lot of p-people know already.”
  1294. “Yeah, that’s why I think it’s best to do it soon.  Otherwise people will start thinking weird things.  I think we should just go to the party tomorrow, together.  No holds barred, arm in arm when we show up.”
  1295. “Uh… I-I guess.”
  1296. “It’ll be cute!  Plus, don’t you want to see me in a nice dress?”
  1297. Jess’ flair for fashion was starting to grow on me, considering how well she pulled them off.  It was strange that she dressed down so often though.
  1298. “Y-yes… yes I do.  Why don’t you wear things l-like that more often?”
  1299. She shrugged.  “There’s a time and a place for dresses and yukatas and the like.  Plus, I think I rock jeans and sweaters, don’t you?”
  1300. So I was here now, in Jessica’s room.  After being stripped down (“We slept nearly naked on each other, stop squirming!”) she gave me a pair of really nice jeans, a light cotton shirt with some sort of strange design on it and a black blazer.  I barely recognized myself after looking in the mirror.
  1301. Jessica kept her word.  The blue and white floral print dress she was wearing showed off her, uh, curves well.  A light grey cardigan, left sleeve sewn up, finished off the classy look.  Whatever party this was going to be I think we would be the best dressed.
  1302. She took my hand and we left her room.  I stopped by the guard desk to sign out.
  1303. “You two look fancy,” Fujiyama said, “Going somewhere special tonight?”
  1304. “Just to town for dinner,” Jess replied.
  1305. “And not to this party I’ve heard rumors about?”
  1306. Jessica went bright red and started scratching the back of her neck.  “Uh… No, haven’t heard about that at all.”
  1307. “Suuure you haven’t,” she said winking, “Well have a good time tonight and be safe you two.  Wouldn’t want anything to happen to my new favorite couple.”
  1308. It was just half past six, but being a Saturday and a warm night there were some students hanging around the courtyard and gardens.  We weren’t exactly in a suit and cocktail dress, but there were still stares.
  1309. “T-they’re looking a-at us,” I whispered to her as we walked through the gardens.
  1310. “Let ‘em,” she laughed off.
  1311. I could feel her soft fingers clench against mine as we walked to the gate.  She was trying to stay confident but she was still a great deal nervous.  Good, at least I wouldn’t be the only one.
  1312. The grounds of the school were very peaceful that Saturday evening.  There were a couple of male students playing catch, some girls clustered about catching up on reading or homework for school and a few (other) couples enjoying the nice weather.
  1313. As we left the school and headed down the hill, the setting sun bathed the surrounding hills with a gorgeous orange light.  I was at peace.  This was shaping up to be a beautiful evening.
  1314. Passing the convenience store and the park in town, we headed towards the Nishigaki house.  A turn down a street and then an alleyway, we came upon the small two-story residence.  Like most of the houses around here, it was close to its neighbors but isolated behind a simple fence.  I opened the gate and we passed through the very small front hard.  For a party it seemed to be very quiet.  I pressed the doorbell.  Jessica turned to me and gave a small but contented smile.  I took in a deep breath as I heard the door unlocking and exhaled as the doorknob turned.
  1315. “Ah, Frederson, Kawamori, I’m so glad you two decided to come!  Please come in.”  For the first time I had actually spoken to Nishigaki, he was quite friendly.
  1316. “Please, call me Jess and Koji doesn’t mind if you use his first name, either.  Do you Koji?”
  1317. “N-no, it’s fine.”  How awkward.  The words were fumbling out of my mouth.
  1318. Nishigaki turned and led us down a small hallway to the living room, where there were ten or so other people playing some sort of music video game.  I recognized Okawara and Kinue Shii amongst them.
  1319. He continued, “Well great.  You can surely call me Miyu then.  Okay, here’s everyone else.”
  1320. Jessica seemed to know most of the people there and gave a small bow, not releasing my hand from her death grip to give them all a wave.  I tried to see if I knew anyone else in the room.  There was a boy in the corner, who had turned his head vaguely in our direction, I recognized him from my class.  Someone was leaned over to him and explaining what was going on, he was blind.  There was a member of the Girl’s Soccer team sitting at the plastic drumset for the video game, apparently doing just fine with one hand
  1321. “…boyfriend, Koji Kawamori.”  Hmm? What I had I just tuned out of?  Oh, Jessica was speaking, introducing me.  There were some polite smiles and hellos.  Nobody was questioning anything yet.  I’m sure that’d come in time.
  1322. Miyu broke the small silence.  “Well I’m going to order the pizza now, if everyone’s hungry?”  A few nods and yes’.  He took off for another room to make the phone call.
  1323. Jess took me over the drum-playing girl.  There were a couple of other instruments scattered around.  We sat down in chairs around the focused drummer.
  1324. “Haruna,”  Jessica said, “This is Koji.”
  1325. “Pleased to meet ya.  Haruna Inoue, at yer service.”
  1326. “W-what are you playing?”
  1327. “Oh, Miyu’s a big fan of these American rhythm video games.  He’s a musician, too...”  She seemed almost wistful when talking about him.
  1328. “Oooh, someone’s got a crush!”  My girlfriend was anything but subtle.
  1329. “Shut up!  It’s not like that!”  Haruna tried to hit Jess with a drumstick, but missed completely.  I ducked over any picked it up.
  1330. “Anyway,” she continued, “This game is called Rocks Bands or something, I’m not good at reading English.  Miyu had it imported from America to play it.  You take an instrument and you play the note when it appears on screen.  It’s pretty simple but takes a lot of practice.”
  1331. “Wanna play, Koji?”  Jessica asked.
  1332. “S-Sure.”
  1333. Haruna handed me a plastic guitar and a felt it out, pressing the buttons.  Six different notes where the frets would be, a little switch where you’d strum the guitar and a few other little buttons.  Seemed easy enough.
  1334. “Ready to go?”  Haruna seemed ready enough to break the sticks on the first note if necessary.
  1335. I nodded.  I think this would be pretty easy.  Haruna slammed the stick tied to her right forearm down, starting up the song.  The intro to some American rock song started playing and then there were glowing notes on the screen.  When they lined up with the thing at the bottom, I strummed the switch.  Or so I tried.  Within about 30 seconds I failed us out.
  1336. “Damn Koji, you suck!”  Haruna laughed at me and so did Jess.
  1337. Luckily Jessica stuck up for me though, “This isn’t his kind of game or controller.  He’s more used to a mouse and keyboard.  Keep trying though Koji, I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it.”
  1338. So we played again.  I beat it this time, though not very efficiently.  Then there was another song, and another.  I was enjoying myself.  I looked away from the screen and noticed Jessica was gone.  I turned around and looked behind me, she was now sitting on the couch talking to Okawara and Shii.
  1339. “Hey, get your head back in the game!  I’m losing over here!”
  1340. Right.  Gotta focus back in the game.
  1341. So we kept playing, for the better part of an hour.  Some other people tried to play but they couldn’t keep up, Haruna and I were too good.  Miyu himself refused, saying that it was his party and he wanted other people to have fun.
  1342. There was a knock on the door and Miyu returned from answering it with a stack of pizza boxes.  He carried them to the dining room, which was right through an arch in the room next to the living room.  Haruna and I finished the song we were on and then joined everyone else in the dining room.
  1343. “You’re getting pretty good at it,” Haruna said.
  1344. “N-no, I just p-play a lot of video games…”
  1345. As soon as I stepped into the dining room, a blond blur came over and gave me a peck on the lips, then handed me a slice of pizza on a plate.  Such a public display of affection was… well it was new.
  1346. “Making friends?” she asked.
  1347. Haruna had gone off to get food for herself.  I shrugged.  Jessica smiled.
  1348. “I’m glad we came then.  Now eat, before you starve to death.”
  1349. After dinner I sat down on the couch with Jessica, who introduced me to a small girl named Kei, apparently a good friend of Kinue Shii’s.  Kei and Kinue seemed the gossiping type and were all too eager to pick apart our relationship.
  1350. “Who confessed to who?” Kei was saying.
  1351. “And where, when?” Kinue continued her thoughts without even thinking.
  1352. “Koji did,” Jessica said smiling, “On the hill outside school.  He’s so gushy inside.
  1353. I’m sure my face turned bright red.
  1354. “Did he kiss you then?!”
  1355. “Yup!”  She gave my hand a little squeeze.  More flush.
  1356. Someone walked over.  I looked up, it was Miyu.
  1357. “Hey Koji, why don’t you come play mahjong with us?”
  1358. I hadn’t played in years, but anything to get out of this situation.  I got up and gave quick goodbyes.
  1359. “T-thanks,” I said.
  1360. “No problem, it looked like you were in trouble.  Girls, right?”
  1361. I turned and looked back.  Kinue had taken my seat and Kei looked like a vulture, ready to tear Jessica apart.  Girls, right?
  1362. Miyu showed me into a seat at the table.  A couple of the other guys at the party – from left to right, Tanaka, Hajime, and Saito – as well as Haruna were already sitting down.  I sat in a free chair between Haruna and Miyu.
  1363. “The buzzards were going to tear him apart,” Miyu announced.
  1364. There was a knowing laugh from the group, even Haruna.  Kinue and Kei’s reputations preceded them.
  1365. “Anyway, let’s get this game started, shall we?  First round is me, Haruna, Tanaka and Hajime.  Saito and Kawamori can get in next.
  1366. There was a clatter from the kitchen.  Almost instinctively, Miyu shielded his eyes and one ear.  Someone shouted “Sorry!  I dropped a plate!”
  1367. “It’s fine,” Miyu called back.
  1368. “Hey, are you okay?”  Haruna seemed concerned.  I guess that crush was real.
  1369. “It’s nothing…  It’s just… well there’s a reason I’m at Yamaku, too.”  He gave her a small but fake smile.
  1370. *       *       *
  1371. “Bye! Bye! Bye!”  
  1372. We were walking out of Miyu’s house, at about 11:30 PM.  A few others had left already but I think our departure kickstarted the “party is over” mentality.  As I looked back I could see a few other people putting on coats or gathering belongings.
  1373. Jessica was wrapped around my left arm, perfectly content.  The night air was crisp but not cold and I could see a lot of the stars.  I hadn’t really been out at night to see the stars in a long time.  Yamaku’s isolation really made it easy to appreciate nature and the environment around us.  It was like being nestled in a soft bed.
  1374. “I think that went well,” she piped up after a few minutes of walking, “Everybody seemed to give their approval.”
  1375. “E-even Kinue and Kei?”
  1376. “After I told them how sweet you are, of course they did.”
  1377. “G-good.  I think the guys l-like me too, they invited me to play baseball with them next week.  I’ll be pretty useless though.”
  1378. “Don’t say that, I’m sure you’ll do fine.  I’ll come cheer you on!”
  1379. “I-it’s not that,” I sighed, “But my eye… I-I have no depth perception.”
  1380. “Oh… right.  Well, I’m sure it’ll be fun anyway.”
  1381. I shrugged limply.  She wasn’t letting my arm go to do it completely.
  1382. “I think you’re making real progress though, Koji.”
  1383. “I-if only I wasn’t so nervous about w-what I say.”
  1384. “You’ve not stuttered once before.  I think you can do it again.  Just have to practice.
  1385. “R-right.”
  1386. “You could start now.”
  1387. “Uh… o-okay.”
  1388. “Just tell me something, anything.”
  1389. There were a thousand things I wanted to tell her.  About myself.  About Katsuo.  About my life before.  In the end I just went for the easiest one.
  1390. “I’m glad… I’m glad I met you too.”
  1391. She stopped short.  I turned around to face her.  She looked stunned.
  1392. “W-what is it?”
  1393. “Why’d you have to go and say something like that?”  Tears were welling up.
  1394. “W-what?”
  1395. “The second thing you’ve said without stuttering is about how much I mean to you… You’re trying to make me cry, aren’t you?”  She tried to laugh but it came out as a sob instead.  “You jerk.”
  1396. She grabbed me with her arm and pulled me close, hugging me and burying her head in my chest.  I’m still not sure what was going on but I just hugged back.
  1397. After a minute or two she pushed back.  “Sorry about that.”
  1398. “N-no problem.”
  1399. “Let’s get back home.”
  1400. We were at the foot of the hill already.  She pulled my head down into a brief kiss.  I took her hand and we walked up the rest of the way.
  1401. *       *       *
  1402. VariableValkyrie: <How do I tell someone my deepest and darkest secrets and fears?>
  1403. Deaddrop1911: <thats some heady fucking shit man>
  1404. Deaddrop1911: <your deepest and darkest secrets>
  1405. Deaddrop1911: <I wouldnt even want to know that shit>
  1406. VariableValkyrie: <I’m serious here.  I need to tell Jessica thing or else I’ll be hiding things from her the rest of my life.>
  1407. Deaddrop1911: <already thinkin about the future are we>
  1408. VariableValkyrie: <Okay, you were the wrong person to ask.>
  1409. Deaddrop1911: <wait Koji>
  1410. Deaddrop1911: <i’m just avoiding the question I think>
  1411. Deaddrop1911: <ive got secrets too and they tear me up inside>
  1412. Deaddrop1911: <you know, about that day?>
  1413. Deaddrop1911: <ive never told anyone them>
  1414. VariableValkyrie: <You’ve always been there for me man, if you need to get it off your chest, I’m here.>
  1415. Deaddrop1911: <yeah I know>
  1416. Deaddrop1911: <its just>
  1417. Deaddrop1911: <you know what fuck it its easier to type then tell you over skype or phone or a shrink or my mom>
  1418. Deaddrop1911 is typing.
  1419. And he was typing for a while.  Five or ten minutes, probably.  I was tempted to ask if he had left his computer but thought better of it.  Finally the response came.  It wasn’t anything like I had expected.
  1420. Deaddrop1911: <so I told you about that day.  I told you what I told everyone else.  I was locked in a classroom while my best friend shot up the school.  This would be traumatic as fuck, and it was for all of my fellow classmates.  Thing is, he told me he was going to do it.  A few weeks before.  Said he was getting a gun.  I didn’t believe him, who would?  We were the nerds, we talked about that shit all the time.  But he came in that day, before first period.  Just before eight on a sunny texas morning.  His backpack was unusually full that day.  As usual I asked him what was going on, how was whatever he was doing the night before, I can’t remember exactly.  He looked calm and cool and collected as fuck.  Whatever.  I went to class.  We had third period together, English.  That’s where I told everyone I hid.  That’s where I came back to later, said I had been waiting in another class until it was all clear.  Anyway, he goes to the bathroom the begging of class.  20 minutes later he’s not back.  Teacher tells me to go find him, so I do.  He was flighty like that, needed reigning in occasionally.  So I find him in the bathroom, strapped down with military gear, two handguns and more ammo in his backpack than I had ever seen.  Good that you're here, he said, wouldn't want you to miss the show.  I asked him what the fuck was going on, even though I already knew.  He just looked at me and smiled.  Follow me, he said.  He made me follow him.  He made me watch as he walked down the hallway and shot one of the teachers walking down it.  As he busted in a classroom and fired shots into the assembled students.  Made me watch as he executed the teacher of that classroom.  Two dead teachers, one student dead later and another four permanently injured.  Plus the psychological damage.  Enough is fucking enough, I told him.  It’s never enough he said, not until everyone had given their share.  I didn't know what the fuck he was talking about.  He left that classroom and dragged me with him.  At this point the school was on full lockdown.  He wasn’t even watching me, all wrapped up in his fury.  So I ran into him and knocked him to the ground.  He dropped the gun and scrambled to pull out the other one.  I grabbed the gun off the ground and shot him in the face.  I could have held him there, waiting for someone, police maybe, to show up.  But I felt it was my responsibility.  Still feel like that.  Didn’t warn anyone.  Anyway, I put the gun in his hand, not looking at the damage I’d caused.  Walked quickly away and back to my classroom.  Nobody noticed the blood, or nobody cared.  They all knew what was going on.  So I didn’t go to college, I didn’t do anything for the next five years.  Now I live in a shitty apartment and my parents pay for everything, thinking I’m all kinds of ptsd fucked up.  Which I guess I am.  I don’t fucking know.
  1421. VariableValkyrie: <Holy shit man.  I don’t even know what to say.>
  1422. Deaddrop1911: <there is nothing to say>
  1423. Deaddrop1911: <that's all there is too it>
  1424. Deaddrop1911: <well now you know, the first to ever know>
  1425. VariableValkyrie: <I didn’t mean to make you tell me.>
  1426. Deaddrop1911: <naw man I told you because I wanted to tell you>
  1427. Deaddrop1911: <I needed to tell someone>
  1428. Deaddrop1911: <catharsis and shit>
  1429. Deaddrop1911: <I just hope whatever your secret is its not as fucked up as mine>
  1430. VariableValkyrie: <It’s not fucked up, just… different.  I’ll figure it out.  Thanks though, Jake.>
  1431. Deaddrop1911: <I’m gonna go get drunk now anyway.  Its morning, nothing like hair of the dog.>
  1432. If Jake could share something like that with me, I could share my problems with Jessica, right?  I could do something.  Maybe I couldn’t email or IM her, but I could still put it into writing first.  To gather my thoughts together.  I grabbed a pen and paper and started writing.
  1433. *       *       *
  1434. Wednesday afternoon.  It was humid out.  There was a whistle somewhere behind me.  I turned around to look.  A thin girl with short blond hair and blue eyes had her hand hung on the chain-link fence surrounding the bottom section of the baseball diamond.
  1435. “Come on Koji!  You can hit that ball!”
  1436. Right, I can do this.  I hunched down and readied the bat.
  1437. “Kawamori tell your girlfriend to shut up, we’re playing a game!” Hajime yelled from the pitcher’s mound.
  1438. “Say that to my face, asshole!”
  1439. “Whatever!”  He turned to face me.  “Here comes my fastball!”
  1440. I had two strikes already.  I had taken two swings and both were terribly aimed.  I had a plan this time, though.  As the ball approached, I move the bat and held it at each end.  It connected and bounced harmlessly in the space between home and the pitcher’s mound.
  1441. “A bunt! Hahaha!”  Jessica was marveling at the surprise play.
  1442. “Oh shit,” Saito said behind me in full catcher’s gear.  His hemophilia made full-body protection a necessity.  He dashed after the ball as I hit the ground running towards first.
  1443. Saito and Hajime practically crashed into each other and threw the ball wildly towards Miyu at first.  Too bad I was already there.
  1444. “Nice one dude,” Miyu said as he caught the ball, “You tricked those numskulls good.”
  1445. “I-it’s just something that w-would always work on my b-brother,” I said.
  1446. “Your brother must be as dumb as them, then.  Hey Koji man, you okay?”
  1447. At the mention of my brother I guess I had dazed off into a sad memory.
  1448. “What?  Y-yeah I’m fine.”
  1449. “It was a nice play, is all.”
  1450. Despite that, I was still taken out between second and third.  Oh well, next time I was at bat I’d try again.  As I walked back behind the fence to get my glove (I was stuck playing right field), I noticed somebody watching from the sidelines.  Kaneda was leaned against a tree, silently watching from 30 meters away.  Jess took my attention away from him with a kiss and praise.
  1451. “Awesome bunt!  You really got those guys good!”
  1452. “Haha, i-it was nothing.”
  1453. “I didn’t know you were this into baseball.”
  1454. “I’m not, I just p-played a lot when I was a kid.  Hey, what’s t-that Kaneda guy d-doing over there?”
  1455. “Who, Takeshi?”
  1456. “I g-guess.”
  1457. “I’ll go talk to him.”  What?  “Just get back into position and don’t worry about it.”
  1458. I shrugged and she took off running.  I wandered back into right field, there wasn’t much of a rush, rarely had a ball even come close to me out there.  I looked over at Jess, who had just reached Kaneda.  They were apparently getting into some sort of argument, with Jessica balling her fist and stomping on the ground.
  1459. “KOJI, LOOK OUT!”
  1460. Wha-  A ball hit me in the upper arm.
  1461. “Dude, pay attention!”  Miyu yelled from his position.
  1462. I picked up the ball and threw it back, though it landed a few feet short.  Stupid depth perception.  I checked back on Jess and Kaneda.  Jess was halfway back to the field and Kaneda was walking – no, limping – away.  What the hell was that about?
  1463. *       *       *
  1464. “Good game everybody, I had a lot of fun,” Miyu was saying.
  1465. “You cheated,” said Tanaka.
  1466. “So did you,” Hajime was nudging him in the side.
  1467. “Shut up, dude,” Tanaka shot back.
  1468. “Whatever, we all cheated,” said Miyu, “I’d say we should play again on Saturday but I think we’ll all be busy with festival preparations then.  Speaking of which, I gotta get back.  Art club needs me.”
  1469. “Fag,” said Hajime.
  1470. I’d forgotten what it was like to hang around guys my age.  The put downs, the joking, the casual fighting.  It was fun.  It was fun to be part of something, too.
  1471. I’d also forgotten about the festival, too.
  1472. “H-hey Jess, is your d-dad coming on Sunday?”  The group had started to dissipate after Miyu had run off.
  1473. “Yeah… I think so.  I’ll call him later.  Excited for the festival?”
  1474. I shrugged.  “I g-guess so.  It’s m-my first one.”
  1475. “You’re in for a real treat then!  There’s food and fireworks and art and games to play and all sorts of things.  Maybe you can win me a prize, your arm is good even if your aim isn’t!”  She stuck her tongue out at me, apparently the last comment was some dig at my disability.
  1476. “[One-arm]”
  1477. “Wait what does that mean?  You know I can’t understand sign language!”
  1478. Now it was my turn to stick my tongue out.
  1479. “Jerk.  Now I get choice of video game we play tonight and you have to cook dinner.”
  1480. “W-what?  How d-does that make any sense?”
  1481. “Because I’m the girl.”
  1482. “I s-still don’t get it.”
  1483. “And you never will.  Now come on, I want some of your delicious instant ramen.”
  1484. We walked from the field across the track, the gardens and the courtyard back to my dorm.  Jessica practically skipped the entire time back seeming giddy beyond belief.
  1485. I threw my books on my bed once we got back to my dorm and Jess took the opportunity to flop out on my bed while I searched for some ramen packages.
  1486. “Summer’s practically here, Koji.  It’s my favorite season of the year.”
  1487. “I-I like it too,” I said with my head in a cabinet.
  1488. “We should do something, it’ll be our last before we graduate.”
  1489. “What did you h-have in mind?”  I left the cabinet with two packages.
  1490. “I dunno.”  She sat up.  “Did you want to go home?  Like, Kagoshima?”
  1491. “M-maybe”  I hadn’t given much thought about it.  I’d stayed here the two weeks between second and third years, back in March.
  1492. “I think it’d be nice.  I’ve heard it’s great in the summer.”
  1493. “Okay t-then.” I went over to my computer and turned it on.  “I-I got a new g-game.”
  1494. “Yeah?”  She asked, suddenly attentive.  “Which one?”
  1495. “I-It’s called Audiosurf.”
  1496. “What’s it about?”
  1497. “You s-surf on your o-own music tracks.”
  1498. “Uh-huh…”
  1499. “It’s f-fun, and then I haven’t e-even told you the b-best part.”
  1500. “What’s that?”
  1501. “You only need the mouse.”
  1502. She thought about it for a second, then it hit her.
  1503. “No way!  Really?”
  1504. “Y-yup.  Now you play, I’ll go make us the soup.”
  1505. She gave me a bearhug as I left the room.  I went down to the kitchen, filled a pot up and let it boil.  Added the ramen once it was ready and let it cook.  After it had all gone limp, I poured it out into two bowls and brought it back to the room.  Elbowing the door to my room open, I found Jess focused intensely on the game, deftly dodging wrong colored blocks.
  1506. “Y-you’re pretty good,” I said coming up behind her left shoulder and putting my arm on the chair – her usual spot.
  1507. “It’s easy once you get the hang of it.”  
  1508. Her face was tight and focused, like when she was playing soccer.  Clearly she had missed something like this dearly.  I was glad to give it back to her, if only partly.  I watched her finish out the song.  As the menu music came back on she turned to me and kissed me.
  1509. “Thanks Koji.”  Her expression was not her usual happy, but a more…meaningful?  Like in the cave, or that night after the party.  It quickly changed back to hungry.  “Soup’s ready?”
  1510. I nodded and brought over her bowl.  We ate like that, her in my chair and I sitting on my bed, sitting across from each other contented and just happy to be there.
  1511. *       *       *
  1512. My alarm went off.  Jess stirred in the blankets next to me.
  1513. “…so early, Koji?”
  1514. “I-It’s so nobody catches you l-leaving.”
  1515. “I thought being official meant you could sleep next to the person you’re dating,” she said without even opening her eyes.
  1516. “I-it’s still against the s-school rules.”
  1517. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”  
  1518. She threw the covers off and into my face and quickly got changed next to me.  She’d taken to wearing my old undershirts to bed while her uniform remained crisp in the closet.  Apparently someone had noticed the wrinkles that first time (Fujiyama was my guess).  I have to say though, seeing her in a t-shirt far too large for her was really cute.  And the way it lifted up when she stretched out… I might have had a heart attack the first time.
  1519. After she got dressed (“You don’t have to shield your eyes, you dope”), I helped her sneak out the usual way.  It had become almost routine, her staying over two or three nights a week the past few weeks.  She claimed she got lonely in her room.  I couldn’t complain.
  1520. *       *       *
  1521. Before lunch, I was stopped by Ms. Ito as I was leaving her classroom.
  1522. “Kawamori, I take it you’re going to the festival this weekend?”
  1523. “Y-Yes,” I nodded as well, though full knowing she couldn’t see that.
  1524. “It’ll be your first one, correct?”
  1525. “Y-Yes.”
  1526. “It’s a pretty old school tradition and everyone tries to help out, in some way.  I know you’re not a member of any clubs, but perhaps you could assist the art club?  They’re so low on members these days that I think they could use some help.”
  1527. I knew the art club, at least officially.  Jess had an away game – her last before post-season – so I had nothing else to do this afternoon.  I wasn’t creative in the least but at least I could help out.  If it was just the three of them, why not?
  1528. “O-okay then.”
  1529. “Good, I’m sure it’ll be fun for you and will really help you get into the spirit.  Run along now, don’t want you to miss your lunch.”
  1530. *       *       *
  1531. The Art Club met in the art room.  Apparently a few years back they had a different advisor, a man named Nomiya.  He left under unexplained circumstances and now they were under the guidance of a woman named Sae, who had been appointed by Nomiya upon his departure.  Sae owned the gallery in the city but had no previous teaching experienced.  Rumor was she chain-smoked to alleviate her stress.  It was an odd rumor.
  1532. I stood in front of the wooden door into the art room.  I could hear the occasional fragment of a sentence from within, but for the most part it was silent.  I guess that was Okawara’s doing.  I felt nervous, not sure whether to knock or just enter.  After standing outside for a minute, pacing the hall (quietly), I took a deep breath and knocked.
  1533. “Who’s that?” Asked a muffled voice from inside, not to the door but to the other people inside.  I couldn’t place it.
  1534. There was no audible response, as I should have guessed.  ‘I don’t know,’ I would wager.
  1535. “Who is it?” called the voice.
  1536. Shit.  What do I say?  I guess my name?
  1537. “K-Kawa… Kawam-m…”
  1538. The door opened before I could finish.  I was prevented from continuing by a “Hey Koji,” before the door was even open.  Miyu was standing there, holding the door open.  “Come on in,” he continued.
  1539. That was weird.
  1540. “[Hi Koji,]” Okawara signed to me.  Kinue waved a hello.
  1541. “What brings you here?” Miyu asked.
  1542. “I-I uh… I w-wanted to h-help out.”
  1543. “Did you hear that Sae?” Miyu called out to the back of the room.  Someone stirred from sleeping at a desk.  “We’ve got ourselves a living, breathing volunteer!”
  1544. He motioned me over to the table where the others were working.
  1545. “[Why did you decide to help us?]” Okawara asked.
  1546. “[I figured with only three people you needed the most help,]” I replied.
  1547. Miyu looked confused.  Oh, right, he couldn’t sign and Kinue hadn’t thought to translate.
  1548. “Y-You guys probably needed the help,” I said aloud.
  1549. Miyu laughed.  “You’ve got that right.  The student council usually takes care of most of the posters but we’ve still got a few to do, as well as assemble the gallery section tomorrow, where we’ll have past and present student works of art on display.”
  1550. “And we have to clean up the Tezuka mural,” Kinue piped in.
  1551. “Right,” Miyu said, “So why don’t you help me assemble these sections of the gallery and then later we’ll go clean the mural.”
  1552. “I-I can do w-whatever you need me too.”
  1553. “[We plan on making sure we exploit you to the fullest extent.]”
  1554. I had a feeling I was in for one hell of a day.
  1555. *       *       *
  1556. ‘hey we’re almost back, what are you up to?’
  1557. ‘Just helping the art club set up for the festival.’
  1558. “Who’s that?” Kinue asked.  Still the gossiper, despite her outrageous skills with watercolors.  I’d seen some of her paintings – some of all of their paintings – and was floored.
  1559. “J-Jess, the team is on t-their way back.”
  1560. “Can you get them to help?”  Miyu was joking.  I’m pretty sure, at least.
  1561. “I-I don’t know about that.”  
  1562. Miyu laughed and went back to washing the mural.  We were almost done, but it was getting close to 8:30 PM.  Roughly four and a half hours of working and there was still more to do tomorrow.  What had I got myself in to?
  1563. “[Well we finished inside,]” Okawara signed as she walked up with Sae.  
  1564. The two had been doing some sort of digital design in the school’s new computer lab, putting together some sort of booklet with advertisements from donors.  It was the first I’d heard of the computer lab (apparently buried in the basement somewhere) and had been eager to check it out.  But no, manual labor was needed since Kinue couldn’t reach the high sections of the mural on account of her leg.
  1565. Kinue’s story was quite tragic, I’d found out.  A myocardial infarction in her calf had made walking extremely difficult and painful.  The cane did little to alleviate her pain and so took a low dosage of painkillers daily.  Miyu still declined to talk about his condition, saying it was too difficult to explain.  Okawara could talk, she just was ashamed of her voice, according to Kinue.  They were all so upbeat and focused though, in spite of their conditions.  Miyu was a brilliant musician and sketch artist and Okawara was really interested in modern design.  She could sketch out plans for a building in minutes, with proportions and material strength all accounted for.  In their own ways they had way surpassed anything their disability would have hindered.  To be frank, it was inspiring just being around the group.
  1566. “[The mural looks great, you guys did a great job cleaning it up.  Being outside it gets all covered in dirt and stuff, I’ve never seen it this glowing.]”
  1567. Sae had lit up a cigarette, which was against the rules on school grounds.  She didn’t really seem to care.
  1568. She finally spoke up.  “The first time I ever saw this piece I was floored.  That girl – well, woman now – has such talent.  She’s going places.”  I think she realized who she was talking to.  “Not that you guys won’t, but Rin really has the capability to transcend her own mental limits.  Anyway, I think we’re done for today.  There’ll be more tomorrow.  Kawamori, are you going to be free tomorrow?  We could use your help again.”
  1569. The whole art club turned and stared at me.  Awaiting a response with bated breath.  No pressure, right guys?
  1570. I shrugged.  “O-okay, I guess.”
  1571. Four gleaming smiles.  They were really starved for help.
  1572. *       *       *
  1573. “So did you have fun today?”  Jessica’s voice was a bit tinny over the cell phone.
  1574. “Y-yeah, the art club is r-really nice.”
  1575. It was about 10:30.  The bus had broken down a few miles away from Yamaku.  Jess was calling to check in.  They had won and were going to the post-season.
  1576. “That’s soo great, I’m really happy for you.”
  1577. “T-thanks.”  I wish she were here.
  1578. “Oh hey, this girl came to the match.  She used to be on Yamaku’s track team but now goes to college out there.  Listen to this: she’s missing her left hand!  It was like… meeting an older sister or something too.  She was a real inspiration to me and some of the other girls.  You should have met her, she was really cool and I dunno, a total bro about everything.”
  1579. “S-sounds like a fun person, I’m glad you met.”  I would see her tomorrow at lunch but this was almost cruel in a way.  I guess this is what happens when you’re separated for hours.  Was I being stupid?
  1580. There was a loud hum, and a crash.
  1581. “Oh hey the bus started working!  I’ll see you tomorrow Koji!  Byebyebye!”
  1582. But before I could respond the line died.  I threw off my shirt and pants and lay in bed.  I really was tired.
  1583. Fifteen minutes later?  A half hour?  I couldn’t be sure: ‘<3’ by text message.  I fell asleep with the stupidest, goofiest smile on my face.
  1584. *       *       *
  1585. My phone chirped.
  1586. “[Who’s that Koji?]” Misha asked.
  1587. “[It’s probably just Jessica.]”
  1588. “[Well, answer it, silly!] Wahahaha~”
  1589. “[Aren’t we in a lesson?]”
  1590. “[Technically it’s not on school hours.  And besides, it’s a holiday weekend.  Of sorts.  Just answer it!]”
  1591. I shrugged and pulled my phone out of my pocket.
  1592. ‘Woods.  5.  Be there.’  Unknown number.  What the hell?
  1593. Misha was staring at my confusion.
  1594. “[It’s not her,]” I signed as I put the phone in my pocket, “[Unknown number.]”
  1595. “[Very strange.  What did they want?]”
  1596. “[To meet me at five o’clock in the woods.]”
  1597. “[So go.  Woods are school property, it has to be another student.  And it’s safe there, I used to go there from time to time to think.]”
  1598. “[Alright then, I guess I’ll go.]”
  1599. “[Good!  Back to drills!]”
  1600. *       *       *
  1601. The wooded part of campus was already getting dark by the time I got there.  I had told the art club I was taking a break for dinner and I’d help later.  The trees were heavy and thick with spring growth, ready for summer.  The shadows danced upon the ground under the slowly rustling leaves and the just beginning to set sun, though it wouldn’t be fully down for another two hours.  It was eerily still and quiet.  From what I understood, it was a popular hang out for students but I guess today most were busy with festival preparations.  I couldn’t see a single soul around.  A dilapidated fence marked the edge of Yamaku property, though it was clearly more of a guideline than proper boundary.
  1602. I trudged through the small layer of dead leaves and other built up plant material, my paranoia getting the best of me.  I was checking behind every other tree.  Someone stepped out behind a large tree, the sound of branches breaking and leaves being crushed distorted and unusual due to a pronounced limp.  Takeshi Kaneda.
  1603. “So you came,” he called out while walking towards me.
  1604. “H-How did you get my p-phone number?”
  1605. “It was easy enough,” he said walking around me in a slow circle, “I just merely took the information from Jessica’s phone when she wasn’t looking.”
  1606. “W-what do you want?”  This was like confronting a villain.
  1607. “I tried to warn you Kawamori, I tried to prevent you from falling into the same trap I did.”
  1608. “W-what… what the hell are you talking about?”
  1609. “Jessica, your ‘girlfriend’,” he made quotation marks with his hands, “Is using you.  Not for money or anything like that, but she has this compulsion, this desire to fix people.  She tried to fix me, make me normal.  But this school isn’t normal, everyone can see that.  It’s full of freaks, like you and me.  Why be normal?”
  1610. “N-No, she wouldn’t do that…”
  1611. “You think she loves you?  You think she cares?  As soon as you’re ‘adjusted’ enough she’ll dump you for the next poor sap who needs help.”
  1612. “I d-don’t believe you.”
  1613. “I’m not even the first, she’s done it ever since she got to this school.”
  1614. “Why s-should I believe you?”
  1615. “That is the question I was waiting for.”  He pulled a small cell phone out of his pocket.  Pressed a few buttons and turned and showed it to me.  It was a picture taken of him and Jessica, holding each other.  She was kissing him.  On the lips.
  1616. “T-that doesn’t m-mean a-anything…”
  1617. “Sure it doesn’t.  I didn’t want it to get this far, man.  I was looking out for you.  But you have to listen to me.  She’s bad news; she’s just going to break your heart.  Better that you found out from me first.”
  1618. “F-Fuck you… F-Fuck you.”
  1619. “Why are you attacking me, man?  I’m the one helping you out here.”
  1620. I turned and ran off, tears in my eye.  I couldn’t believe this.  It couldn’t be true.  I suddenly remembered Okawara’s signs.  Her hand movements appeared before me, in that space that’s not quite imagination and not quite your real vision.
  1621. “[She’s had… other boyfriends before, and it blew up in her face… she’s hounded by the school’s gossip mill.  Previous boyfriends would barely last a week.]”
  1622. Previous boyfriends.  Kaneda?  Others?  Was it true?  It couldn’t be true.
  1623. I didn’t know what to think.
  1624. I got back to my dorm, ignoring the art club gathered around the mural outside it.  I think they tried to call after me but nobody followed me into the building.  I opened my door, went inside and locked all the locks.  All of them.  Then I pushed the dresser over enough to block anyone from coming in.  I couldn’t see anyone today.  Or ever again.
  1625. I looked at the envelope on my desk.  My letter to Jessica, the one I’d worked so hard on.  I tore it open and re-read my words.
  1626. “Dear Jessica,
  1627. There are a lot of things I need to tell you about myself.  A lot of things I need to tell someone.  When I was eight years old I was diagnosed with an extradural spinal tumor that was dangerously close to metastasizing.  Emergency surgery removed the tumor, though I spent a lot of the time in the hospital with chemotherapy to destroy all the remnants.  The children’s oncology wing was my first experience with death.  Nobody made friends there and nobody wanted to be friends.  Any one of us could go at the drop of a hat.  Many of us did.
  1628. The cancer and the treatment essentially cut out a great deal of my childhood.  Things I used to enjoy now seemed banal and foreign.  I found it hard to maintain my previous friendships and became a recluse, focusing on computer games and the online world.
  1629. When I was sixteen, I collapsed during gym class.  There was a massive and sudden pain in my back.  I also began to stutter and found it hard to properly express my thoughts, though I’ve always had a problem like that.  It suddenly became much worse.  After x-rays and a MRI scan, the doctors told me that a small clump of cells from my first cancer had survived, despite all odds.  They had grown and multiplied again.  My only option was again surgery.  It worked this time, or so they said.  I still couldn’t tell you.
  1630. While recovering after surgery, there was an outbreak of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the deadly MRSA bacteria.  The skin on my neck was infected and the infection soon spread, eventually claiming my right eye and permanently scarring the skin on my right side.  After further hospitalization for treatment, I was sent to Yamaku as a ‘fresh start.’  That was close to seven months ago now.
  1631. In the between my second cancer and infection, my younger brother Katsuo stopped visiting.  When I asked my parents where he’d gone, they said he thought the hospital was too depressing.  He’s two years younger than me.  When I got out, Katsuo wasn’t at home.  My parents refused to speak about it.  I was immensely concerned, he’s my brother.  My mother told me he’d gone to live with her sister, in Tokyo.  He couldn’t deal with the stress.
  1632. Two weeks ago I called my mother to find out what really happened.  Katsuo did indeed go to Tokyo, but after a few weeks with my Aunt he’d ran away.  The police eventually gave up on him.  They still don’t know where he is.  I don’t know where he even could have gone, but he’s just that now – gone.
  1633. These are things that I don’t want to burden you with, but I feel you have to know.  These things are part of me and contributed to what I am today.  I hope you’ll understand.
  1634.         I love you,
  1635. Koji.”
  1636. I took the sheet of paper and crumpled it into a ball and tossed it in the corner.  I couldn’t care about garbage right now.  I couldn’t care about anything.  I just wanted to be alone and be asleep.  I needed to sleep.
  1637. *       *       *
  1638. Saturday afternoon.  I think.  The blinds are drawn tight and I can’t get an approximation of the time.  My phone rang three times through the night and there were countless text messages.  Jessica.  Concerned for me.  More lies?  I couldn’t know.  I didn’t want to know.  All I wanted was to continue to be alone.
  1639. I think I ate.  Maybe it was one of those boxed meals.  Maybe I left to go cook something.  I didn’t go to class, I remember that.
  1640. I mostly just thought about how stupid I was.  I was hurt, I was crushed.  I should have just stayed as I was, content with drifting through life.  There was nothing painful there, just blessed ignorance and the comfort of convenience.  Maybe being a hikikomori wasn’t the worst option.  Their hearts were still intact.  They were safe not taking any risks.
  1641. My dreams were no longer of sunsets and aesthetically pleasing views of the world.  My dream was dark and smeared, like paint cast upon a wall and pushed together into clumps that resembled human beings.  Human beings that fought and bickered and betrayed and lusted and were selfish, pitiless creatures.  Were these dreams mine?  They had come out of my head; my brain was a place of malcontent and horror.  Nobody deserved a fate like this more than me.  I’d failed my parents with my physical body, I’d failed Katsuo by not being a proper older brother, I’d failed myself by not being everything I could be.  I was a worthless husk, a Cyclops doomed to failure.
  1642. I didn’t deserve even Jessica’s shadow.  Her warmth had given me false hope that I was a normal person, that I deserved something good in my life.  I was a waste of space.  I didn’t even deserve her pitied affections.
  1643. I might have thrown up in the sink.  It seemed likely, something was starting to smell.  I got up from bed and went over to the bathroom.  Sure enough, there was something clogging up the toilet.  I’d forgotten to flush it.  I turned the knob and the matter swirled downwards and away through the pipes.
  1644. There was a noise outside my door, like someone had been listening for any sign of life inside my room and had excitedly received the first pictures of a mythological creature stirring within.  A knock followed shortly after.  I didn’t answer, I went back to lay on my bed.
  1645. “K-Koji?  Are you in there?”  That voice.  Her voice.  What could she want from me that she hadn’t already taken away?  “Koji look, what’s going on?  I’ve been trying to reach you all day and all night!”  Her voice started getting choked up.
  1646. “Open up, I need to talk to you!”
  1647. I got up and pushed the dresser out of the way.  I sat down and leaned against the door.
  1648. “I-Is it true?” I asked.
  1649. “Koji! Koji is what true?”  She sounded on the verge of tears.
  1650. “Everything.  E-Everything Kaneda s-said.  You f-fix people?”
  1651. “Shit, that’s what this is about?  That fucking ass-“  She started crying then, I could hear the sobs.  “I-it’s not true.  Not like that.  I want to help people, after I… after I couldn’t help my mother… or my f-father… and there were so many people at Yamaku to help.”
  1652. “Did you love h-him?”
  1653. More sobbing.  “At one point, I could say so.  Before I saw what he was really like.  I-I fucked up with Takeshi.  I fucked up real bad.”
  1654. “Did you j-just want to fix m-me?”
  1655. “At first… yes.  As much as it pains me to say that now.  But that day, that day with the sunset… Everything changed the way you reacted to it.  To seeing me.  I don’t fucking know.  At that point I realized there was so much more to you, than someone who needed helped.  You needed flourishing a-and I wanted to be there for that.”  
  1656. A long pause, interrupted by sobbing.
  1657. “I-I… I think I love you, Koji.”
  1658. I didn’t know what to say to that.  Who could know what to say to that?
  1659. “Koji please let me in.”
  1660. “I-I can’t.  Not yet.  I’m n-not ready.  Not yet.”
  1661. There was a sniffle.  Tears subsiding?  I couldn’t tell what she was thinking.  I didn’t know what I was thinking.  Some part of me wished I didn’t destroy the letter, another was glad for it.
  1662. “I’ll be waiting,” she finally responded.  She got up and went away.
  1663. What was I supposed to think?  What was I supposed to do?  I had no one I could ask.  Not now.  I went back to bed.
  1664. *       *       *
  1665. There was a knock on the door.  I checked my watch.  Five o’clock, Sunday.  The festival was in full swing.  I sat up in bed to listen to the door.
  1666. Two voices, mumbling in… in a foreign language.  Didn’t Jess’ father say he was going to the festival?  Could this be him?
  1667. I got up stealthily and checked the peephole.  Sure enough there was Felix standing behind Erwin Frederson.
  1668. I unlocked the door, but left the chain attached.  Just enough room to talk.
  1669. “Ah, Koji.  Zere you are boy.  Ve’re looking for my daughter.  She’s not picking up her phone and she’s not in her room, so naturally ve assumed she might be here,” Erwin said.
  1670. I shook my head no.  The lights in my room were clearly off and there was no one else stirring about.
  1671. “Are you all right, son?”  I guess there were still tears dried on my cheeks and my hair was out of whack.  My right eyelid was also shut, my patch sitting on top of my dresser.
  1672. “N-No… no sir.”
  1673. “Vell open up, talk to me about it.”
  1674. So I did.  Both things.  I told him everything.  It was completely cathartic.  I don’t think I’ve said that much at one time to one person in years.
  1675. “Zat sounds like my daughter,” he said after I finished, “and I do truly zink she cares for you, in as much as love can be shared between two young people.  I don’t zink either of you are really to blame, but this Kaneda fellow sounds like a bad apple anyvay.  Listen.  You say he has been following you two around?  Zis is perhaps the reason for her disappearance.  I hate to jump to conclusions but zis fellow hardly sounds stable.”
  1676. Kaneda had kidnapped her?  I couldn’t believe that.  Jess was too strong.
  1677. “I say ve split up zen, yes?  Felix and I vill go to zese voods vere you met him ze other day.  Two of us on one.  Anyvere else is likely to be public and zus you can confront him on your own.”
  1678. I nodded in agreement.  I may not know what my feelings were anymore but if she was in trouble I had to help her.
  1679. I grabbed my shoes, patch and phone.  Locking my room, I escorted Felix and Erwin down the stairs where they took off for the woods.  I headed for the festival grounds themselves.
  1680. There was quite a hustle and bustle of people around.  Townspeople, parents, siblings, alumni and students.  A woman with scars far worse than mine was leading a tall blonde woman around.  I only realized after they passed that the blonde woman was blind.  The nurse playing some sort of ball-toss game with a very attractive middle aged woman.  Another young woman was sitting a chair, passed out.  Maybe she was a narcoleptic?  Wait; there was Hajime and Saito.  I walked over to them, meandering through the thick crowd.
  1681. “H-hey guys have you seen Jessica?”
  1682. “Hm?  Oh hey Koji, we were all beginning to think you weren’t going to show up.  After all you’ve been awol for two days,” said Saito.
  1683. “I-I was busy.  Have you seen her?”
  1684. “What?  Oh, no.  We pretty much just got here.  Maybe check over at the art club booth, Okawara’s been looking for you anyway.”
  1685. “Right.  W-Which was is that?”
  1686. “Just back over there, take a left at the yakitori stand.”
  1687. I dashed off; past the stand where they were frying what smelled like delicious fried chicken.  The art club’s booth was quite visible, and being as I helped make it, it was clearly recognizable to me.  All manner of works were on display.  Okawara had set up a computer monitor so people could take virtual walks through her houses.  Miyu was selling off-the-cuff sketches – for a price.  He was also wearing sunglasses, despite the fact that it was getting pretty dark.  Kinue was exhibiting some of her larger pieces as well as classics of the Yamaku collection (some original Tezuka works were on prominent display).
  1688. “Oh hey Koji, where’ve you been?” asked Miyu as I ran up.
  1689. “D-don’t have time to explain.  Have you s-seen Jessica?”
  1690. “No…”
  1691. Okawara came up next to me and started signing rapidly.
  1692. “[Koji, we really could have used your help yesterday and Friday, we were in a bind!]”  Her facial expression lightened up.  “[But we thank you for your service anyway.  There’s something we’d like to ask you, as a group.]”
  1693. “[I don’t really have time for it, I’m very sorry.  Something very important.  Have you seen Jessica around?  Or… or Kaneda?]”
  1694. “[I’m sorry, I haven’t seen either of them.  What’s so important?]”
  1695. “[No time to explain.]”
  1696. I was starting to walk away when I heard an ear splitting “KOCCHAN!”  I looked over a Miyu, who had visibly flinched.
  1697. A mass attacked me and enveloped me, no time for me to even react.  Then as soon as it began it stopped.
  1698. “Oh right, no touching,” said Misha.
  1699. “I-it’s okay I-I’m just in the middle of something…”
  1700. “Well,” Misha said, turning to two other people, “You already know Hideacchan and this is Akicchan.”  She pointed to a shortish blonde haired woman… in a suit.
  1701. “Yo, Koji was it?  I’m Aki-“
  1702. “I’m v-very pleased to meet you but I’m in the m-middle of something.”  Wait.  Hakamichi, that observant little twerp.  He of all people would’ve noticed.
  1703. “Hakamichi,” I said turning to him, “H-have you seen a blonde haired g-girl, about your height or a boy m-my age with a  distinct limp in his right leg?”
  1704. “Nice to see you Kawamori,” he said dryly, “But now that I think of it I did see a kid with a limp earlier, leading a girl up the stairs inside.  Didn’t catch her hair color.”
  1705. It wasn’t much to go on but it was something.  I had to get going, fast.
  1706. “B-bye everyone, I’ll be b-back later!”  I yelled, running off.  I’ve never seen more puzzled faces.
  1707. I pulled out my cell phone and dialed Mr. Frederson.
  1708. “Koji, have you found something?”
  1709. “I-I think they’re on the roof, I’m h-headed there now.”
  1710. “Ve’ll meet you as soon as ve can.”
  1711. I hung up and took off running.
  1712. *       *       *
  1713. I burst through the door to the rooftop with more courage than I thought I had.  My mind had been clear and focused, nothing was distracting me or worrying me except the task at hand.
  1714. “Koji!”  Jess’ voice.
  1715. She was standing in the middle of the roof.  Kaneda was holding her wrist tight.  She couldn’t force her way out of hit.  She looked scared, frustrated and helpless all at the same time.
  1716. “Shut up,” Kaneda said.  He shouted towards me, “So you found us, did you?  We watched the fireworks here together last year.  It was beautiful.  It was there I realized I was in love with her.  Then she betrayed me.  She took from me everything.  Don’t you know how that feels Koji?  Don’t you?”
  1717. “N-no.”
  1718. “What was that?”
  1719. “No.  I don’t know what that feels like.  You lied to me, you took those things from me.  Made me hate her for no reason.”  I took a few steps closer.
  1720. “Don’t lie to yourself.  I just showed you the truth.  Now I have to make her pay.”
  1721. I took another step closer.  “Think about what you’re doing, do you really want this to be how you’re remembered?  Murder or torture or whatever it is you have planned?  You have your whole life ahead of you.”
  1722. Kaneda looked furious.  Jessica was stunned.  I was stunned.  I wasn’t stuttering, I didn’t have time to stutter.
  1723. “So no justice will be done?  No punishment for the harlot?”
  1724. “Do you even hear what you’re saying?  This is mindless babble!  You’re crazy!”  I was about two meters from them now.
  1725. “You can’t just do that to someone… you can’t betray their feelings like this!”
  1726. “You did it to yourself, Takeshi.  Jessica had nothing to do with it.  You drove her away.  You need help.  Let her go.”
  1727. “I can’t!  Something has to be done!”
  1728. At that moment the door burst back open as Erwin and Felix came rushing through.  I took that moment to run up to Kaneda.  His right leg was open – I hoped his right leg was the bad one – and I kicked it.  He released his grip on Jessica’s hand to brace himself as he tumbled over.  A prosthetic foot went flying.  He fell to the ground.  I pulled her into a hug and she began crying into my chest.
  1729. “KojiohthankgodIdidn’tknwowhathewasgoingtodo-“  She mumbled a stream of words into my chest.  I just held the back of her head softly and let her cry.
  1730. Felix was standing over Kaneda, preventing him from making any sort of quick movements.  Mr. Frederson was rolling over slowly.
  1731. “Zank <gott in himmel> zat Koji got here first.  Zis boy is dangerous.”
  1732. “Papa!” Jessica cried out and went over to him.  She hugged him close and continued her crying.
  1733. “Koji, I cannot zank you enough.  You showed true courage zere, standing up for her and yourself.  I am proud of you and I’m sure your parents are proud of you too.  Now go, there is still a festival to be enjoyed.  Ve vill make sure Mr. Kaneda here is taken in by ze authorities.
  1734. I took Jessica’s hand and led her back to the entry to the roof, then down the stairs.
  1735. “Thank you Koji.  If you hadn’t come and helped me, I-I don’t even what to think about what would have happened.”
  1736. “N-no… I’m sorry.  I’m sorry for believing him.  I’m sorry for locking myself away again.”
  1737. “It’s okay… he really is a manipulative person.  I didn’t want anything to do with him ever again… that’s why I never said anything about him or told you.  It’s why I was scared to go public with us dating.  I was scared what he might do to someone… or himself.”
  1738. We reached the first floor, and walked outside.  But before we reached the festival I stopped walking and turned to her.
  1739. “L-listen, Jessica… there’s stuff I need to tell you.”
  1740. “Can’t it wait?  I mean after all this I don’t want more bad news.”
  1741. I looked her firmly in the eyes.  “No.  I h-have to tell you this now.  I should have told you ages ago.”
  1742. She just nodded, accepting.
  1743. “I’ve had cancer.  Twice.  It’s what makes it hard to say what’s on my mind and causes me to stutter.  It’s also what led to the infection that brought me here.  I have a younger brother.  He ran away because he couldn’t deal with what happened to my family because of me.  We still don’t know where he is.  I’ve been close to death three times and narrowly escaped it each time.”
  1744. Her face changed from various stages of shock to acceptance.
  1745. “B-but most of all…  I think I love you too.”
  1746.  “You jerk,” she said crying, “why didn’t you tell me yesterday?”
  1747. I kissed her, long and deep.  My hand and hers were intertwined like the branches of two trees growing into each other.  Above us, fireworks went off.  Blue and red and orange and green light reflected off of her pale skin.  In the dying light of the world she was beautiful and I was happy.
  1749. Epilogue 1: Camera
  1750. I got to see that glorious sun setting behind the gently flowing plains of Kagoshima again.  I stood transfixed by it, watching it paint the sky.  It’s beautiful, more beautiful than I could have remembered.  My heart swelled seeing it.
  1751. And then I was hit in the face with a small wave of water.  The wave coming from Jessica’s arm, of course.
  1752. “This is the fourth sunset you’d been mesmerized by the whole week since we’ve been here.”
  1753. “I just need to remember to take a picture of it, is all.”
  1754. “Oh, look at you, Mr. New Member of the Art Club, specializing in photography!”
  1755. “Don’t be jealous that you don’t have a hobby!”  I splashed back at her.
  1756. “Yeah well if you’d actually use that camera on this vacation I might be tempted to believe you’re good at it.”
  1757. “If you left me any time to go take pictures I might have.”
  1758. Jessica blushes and I realized I was too.
  1759. “It’s not that… I just have a healthy adolescent sex drive.”
  1760. “Even if the first time you did it was just a couple of months ago.”
  1761. “Yeah yeah yeah, I won’t do it with you if you think it’s too distracting.”
  1762. “I-it’s not distracting at all!”
  1763. “You stuttered, I know you’re lying now!”  She tackled me into the water and kissed me under the surface.  Eventually we both came up for air.  “Well that was different,” she said giggling.
  1764. “Kind of fun, gasp, but you need, gasp, air,” I barely managed to get out.
  1765. “Not me, I’ve been an athlete for too long.  You’re the one still playing video games all day.”
  1766. “I’ve been… hiking and stuff.  To take pictures.”
  1767. “Riiight.  I’m hungry, let’s go see what your mom made for dinner.”
  1768. I shrugged.  “Okay.”
  1769. We got out of the water and dried ourselves off, then hopped on the bikes my parents used to get around town.  Jess was surprisingly good with one hand.  ‘A lot of practice,’ she’d told me.  My house was only a mile or so from the beach so it was a quick trip home.
  1770. My parents initially objected to me bringing Jessica home for summer break but when they heard she was paying for both our flights they yielded.  Traditional Japanese parents in every respect. My mom had admired how handsome ‘I’d grown’ and how beautiful my girlfriend was.  My father had given me a slight nod of his head in approval.
  1771. We waited the first night, out of respect.  Things broke down the second and I barely had time to sneak a naked Jessica into my closet before my mom woke me up the third morning.  Since then we’d done it only when they were out of the house.  Which was a suspiciously large amount of times, now that I was thinking about it.
  1772. “Race you back!”  I suppose I didn’t have time to think about it.
  1773. Once back, I went up into my old room and found my camera in its bag.  Well, it was technically Yamaku’s camera, but nobody else was using it so Sae suggested I take it with me.  Apparently I had a good eye for ‘framing’, whatever that meant.  As I walked downstairs, I heard the shower go on.  Jess wasn’t quite used to living at the beach yet.
  1774. I opened up the back door in the ‘yard’ which was pretty much just wide open space, considering there were no houses next to ours.  The nearest one was about 100 meters down the road.  The sunset was still lighting up the sky.
  1775. Pulling up my camera, I focused and started taking pictures.  It was an old model, still using film and no digital equipment whatsoever.  I liked how the pictures came out anyway, and the sound it made.
  1776. Someone walked up behind me.  I turned around.  Jessica, wearing one of my school uniform shirts.  Sleeves rolled up, most of the buttons undone.  No pants on underneath.
  1777. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she said, staring out past me.
  1778. “It sure is.”  I was resisting taking a picture of her so hard I thought my fingers might snap off and hit the shutter on their own.
  1779. She walked over to me and grabbed my hand.  I appreciated this gesture of comfort and honesty and most of all trust.  It meant that at this moment she put herself completely in my power.  Having only one hand will do that, I suppose.
  1780. “I love you,” I said.
  1781. “I love you too.”  She kissed me and then took me back inside.
  1783. Epilogue 2: Colors
  1784. I placed my fingers in the proper position between the frets and strummed once.  A wave of red-orange light reverberated from the guitar’s hollow body, filling the room with a soft light before dissipating.  A different chord, a slightly different light.  The guitar was a beautiful sound.
  1785.         A truck passed by the house and I ducked as a silver-grey wave shuddered over me.
  1786.         “Are you okay, Miyu?”  My mother shouted up the stairs.
  1787.         “I’m fine mom, it wasn’t that bad.”
  1788.         “I’m going to your grandmother’s, your father is meeting me there.  We want to make sure she’s prepared for later.”
  1789.         “Dad’s closing the shop early?”
  1790.         “Yeah, he doesn’t think he’ll get much business on a day like today anyway.”
  1791.         I went back to my guitar, but then my phone rang.  A soft white-blue sound, much like the color of the glow of the screen itself.  Saturday afternoon.  No class this morning in anticipation of the day’s predicted events.  I wonder who it could be.
  1792.         “Hello,” I answered not bothering to check the caller ID.  The sound was too close in color to the screen itself so I couldn’t have seen anything.
  1793.         “Hey Miyu,” said Haruna.
  1794.         “Oh hey, what’s up?”
  1795.         There was a pause, like she was trying to spit something out but couldn’t find the words.  The response finally came: “Want to go to the arcade?”
  1796.         What was going on?  We went to the arcade every Saturday.  She liked the games and the combination of lights and sounds was a mystifying experience for me.  Was it the upcoming storm that was worrying her?
  1797.         “Uh sure,” I replied, “But what about the storm?”
  1798.         “Forget the storm,” she said, “I’m bored.”
  1799.         Back to her usual self, I guess.
  1800.         “Okay, meet you there in fifteen?”  Haruna had to walk down from school; it was just around the corner for me.
  1801.         “Gotcha, see you then.”  She hung up on her end.
  1802.         I threw off my pajama shirt and old boxers and changed into a fresh pair, a fresh shirt and, well, not super fresh pants.  The worn jeans rustled, the sounds falling like small raindrops from them.  Checked my wallet.  Crap, not that much money.  I’d have to search the house.
  1803.         After trawling through my parent’s bedroom, I found a 2000-yen note in a drawer.  Hopefully it’d be easily missed.  I looked up at the clock.  I was three minutes late.
  1804.         “Shit shit shit,” I said running out of the house.  I forgot to the lock the door, and turned around halfway down the block to do so.  It was hot and humid that day, probably close to 30 degrees and the humidity was rising until the storm got here.
  1805.         I finally got to the arcade and found Haruna already playing Dance Dance Revolution without me.  Her messy bangs were held away from her face with a clip but the rest of her hair just naturally sprung out in every direction but up.  She was dressed in a Yamaku skirt and a light tank top.  Her face was already masked with sweat from the walk down the hill.  Green and purple waves emanated from the speakers of the arcade machine, distorting my image of her.
  1806.         “You’re late,” she said not even looking away from the screen.  The words bubbled a soft purple from her mouth.
  1807.         “Yeah, I uh, had to find money.  My parents went to my grandmother’s.”
  1808.         “Oh.”  Flat and emotionless, concentrated intensely on the game at hand.  Well now I should kick myself, that was the wrong thing to say.  Though these days she was as good with a prosthetic as her other hand, though she had been a righty.
  1809.         An hour passed, just playing games and not speaking much.  This was normal, Haruna was never talkative around me, though I didn’t know why.  She seemed to like hanging out with me though, so I didn’t complain.  She was competitive though, which made it hard for me to really enjoy the game.  The rain started falling then, which created a brilliant spectacle of warm blue lights bouncing off the floor.  It was really spectacular.
  1810.         “Do you want to head back?  It’s started raining and it’s only going to get worse.”
  1811.         “Not yet,” she replied, not even bothering to stop trouncing me in the fighting game.  The purple in her voice was striated and ragged.  Something was the matter.
  1812.         Another hour.  The rain was harder, the lights a darker blue.  Some karaoke game, the purple of her voice much clearer and brighter but still ragged around the edges.
  1813.         “It’s uh, coming down pretty hard.”
  1814.         “Don’t worry about it.”
  1815.         A half hour after that and the manager came out to talk to us.  We were the only ones left in the arcade.
  1816.         “Hey kids… I love having you two here, you’re regulars.  But it’s going to get bad, I have to close up the shop.  I don’t want to kick you out but I kind of have to.  You gonna get home alright?
  1817.         Before I could say anything, Haruna interrupted.
  1818.         “We’ll be fine, sir.”
  1819.         Out into the spectacle.
  1820.         “Haruna!”  I yelled through the rain, “Come back to my house! Wait until it lets up or we get to the eye!”
  1821.         She just nodded and we took off through the rain to my house.
  1822.         We were both drenched by the time we got inside.
  1823.         “I’ll fetch us some towels,” I said, “Just make yourself at home.”
  1824.         She looked around.  She’d been here a dozen times before; I didn’t know what was wrong.  So I shrugged and went off to the hallway closet.  I picked up two towels and went back into the living room.  She wasn’t there.  Dining room, nothing.  Kitchen, maybe fetching a drink?  Nope.
  1825.         “Haruna?”  I started up the stairs.  “Haruna?”
  1826.         The door to my room was open.  I walked in and she was sitting on my bed, staring at my guitar.
  1827.         “This is some typhoon, right?”  I threw her the towel, which seemed to shock her out of her little trance.
  1828.         Again, a little nod.  Haruna was the most combative and talkative person in the world, any other time and she’d be at my throat about how the ones she’d been in were far worse (even if they were the same).
  1829.         “Hey, are you okay?”  I sat down on the bed next to her and started drying my hair.  “Haruna?”
  1830.         She turned to me.  “You don’t understand anything, do you Miyu?”  Ragged purple.
  1831.         “What?  What are yo-“
  1832.         I was interrupted by her grabbing my shoulders and kissing me on the lips.  What was this, what was going on?  My friend… one of my best friends… oh.  OH.
  1833.         “…Idiot,” slipped out of her mouth.  The word had become soft again.
  1834.         “Is this… Is this what you were trying to tell me before?”
  1835.         “For someone who sees so well, you really can’t see people, can you?”
  1836.         “I-I just… I never thought… It was…”
  1837.         “Shut up, Miyu.”  She kissed me again.
  1839. Epilogue 3: Catharsis
  1840. I looked over at the man walking next to me.  With his messy hair, growing beard and eye patch he really did look like Big Boss.  Combine that with the vintage military jacket and hiking boots and he could be the legendary mercenary in the flesh.  If he had muscles.
  1841. “Would you ever work start working out?” I asked absent-mindedly as we walked.
  1842. He seemed to ponder it for a second.  “If we ever had a house or apartment, probably.  But we don’t stay anywhere long enough.”
  1843. “Well isn’t that why we’re here?  Because we’re starting on that journey.”
  1844. “I suppose.  Why do you ask anyway?”
  1845. “No reason.”
  1846. I caught a glimpse of myself in the window of a restaurant we passed.  My blonde hair was getting long and it’d been a while since I’d really properly cleaned it.  It was about down to my shoulders, now.
  1847. “I need to shave, too,” he said.  
  1848. He’d gotten good at that, reading my mind.  After five years I guess that happens.  It had been five years, some of the best years of my life.  The places we’d been… the things we’d seen… I wouldn’t have rather done anything else with my life.  Thankfully most of the sights had been preserved digitally, as part of a travel blog Koji started up.  We had quite a following, to tell the truth.  Though when they had heard out next destination was Houston, well they were a bit confused.
  1849. “It’s the next block, right?”
  1850. “Yup,” I answered.  My curious ability to not get lost had saved us more than one time on our journey.
  1851. “Let’s hope he’s still living there.”
  1852. I took his hand and we walked together to the towering apartment building.  It reminded me from something out of Tokyo or New York, not Texas.  At least from what I’d seen of the rest of the city.  After walking into the lobby, I went over to check the directory for the floor and apartment number.  We’d need to be buzzed in before going up.  
  1853. T… Tr… Trella, Jacob.  4H.
  1854. “4H,” I said to Koji who had already picked up the phone for the intercom system.  He nodded.  That nod conveyed enough.
  1855. The line was dead for a while then I heard Koji talking.
  1856. “<Jake?  Jake Trella?  It’s Koji.  Koji Kawamori.  Yes, that Koji.  Yes, I’m downstairs.  No, this isn’t a trick.  Okay, we’ll be right up.>”
  1857. The door into the main building buzzed as it unlocked and we pushed through.  I pressed the up button for the bank of elevators.  After a short wait, one finally opened up.  Rode it to the fourth floor, walked down the hallway and found apartment 4H.  Koji took a deep breath and knocked.
  1858. The door was answered by a small girl, maybe four or five.  She was shocked to see us, obviously we were not someone she was expecting.
  1859. “<Hello there, miss.  Is your daddy home?>” Koji asked the girl.
  1860. “<Daddyyyyy!>” She ran off screaming.
  1861. “<Just a second, just a second, I’ll be right there.>”
  1862. A tall man with glasses and five o’clock shadow soon appeared at the door.  He looked about twenty-eight and tired.
  1863. “<Jake?>” Koji asked.
  1864. “<Well you certainly look Japanese.  Shit, Katawa Kawamori himself.  I have to say I never expected to see you.  Come on in,>” he said waving us to a couch in the small living room.
  1865. Koji and I took off our backpacks and fell into the couch.  I really was tired.  It’d been a long couple of days.
  1866. “<I never expected you to have a kid, Jake.  It’s unusual.>”
  1867. “<Well, pretty soon after the last time we talked I met Lisa,>” he pointed at a picture on the mantle.  A young woman with brown hair and glasses was holding a baby, Jake beaming next to them.  “<Things got complicated, little Anna came along and look where we are now.  Happily married by shotgun.>”  He laughed.  “<So what brings you to America, of all places?>”
  1868. “<Well, we’ve been traveling for a long time.  Four years now.  We’ve been pretty much all across the world, I’ve got pictures to show for it.>”  He pointed at the camera slung around his neck.  “<I figured I’d stop by and ask you a question, while I was in town.>”
  1869. “<One question?  You came all the way here for one question.  Shit dude.>”
  1870. “<Daddy stop saying that word!>”  Anna called out from the other room.
  1871. I couldn’t help but laugh.
  1872. Jake spoke up.  “<You haven’t introduced me yet, bro.  Who’s this… is it, well, her?>”
  1873. “<I speak English,>” I said,  “<And yes, it’s me.  I’m Jessica Frederson… Koji’s fiancé.>”  
  1874. I stuck out my hand to shake.  The small silver band around my finger was patently obvious.  Koji hadn’t been able to afford anything more, like it even mattered that he had a ring.  I would have said yes anyway.
  1875. He took my hand and gave it a soft shake.  “<Pleasure to meet you, frau.  You are German, right?>”
  1876. I giggled.  “<Yes, yes I am.>”
  1877. “<Anyway,>” Koji interrupted, “<About that question.  We’re going back to Japan next week and I was wondering if you’d like to come with us, be my best man.  It’s not going to be a big wedding or anything.  I’d just like to have you there with us.>”
  1878. “<I don’t even know what to say, man.  I’d love to go but being a stay-at home dad is a full time responsibility.  Anna can be a handful, you know?>”
  1879. “<So take your family.  We need a flower girl anyway,>” I said, “<My father would be more than happy to pay for it.  He wants to pay for a full scale wedding as it is.>”
  1880. Jake looked dumbfounded.  “<Let me call Lisa.>”
  1881. He got up and pulled a cell phone out of his pocket.  He walked into the other room.  There was a brief conversation.  “<So when do we leave?>”
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