Original post: http://ks.renai.us/viewtopic.php?f=52&t=7281&p=199014#p199014
Standing outside the school gates, not much is said between any of us. It’s not due to a sombre mood or any such thing – though, I guess it should be, given the context – but more a result of the excess of alcohol the five of us consumed last night. It has had varying degrees of impact on us all; notably, Emi’s usual pep is greatly diminished. Least affected is Rin, as it would seem. Not that that helps to create a conversational mood at all.
Even as Lilly’s taxi arrives and it comes time for us to say our farewells, our exchanges are brief. Hangovers and lack of sleep aside, the circumstances aren’t exactly appropriate for emotionally-charged departures. Given Lilly’s aunt’s illness, this might be the last time they spend together. It won’t help anyone to go getting all worked up about it.
Still, I can’t help but feel a twinge of anxiety as I watch the cab disappear into the distance. Lilly’s never been far away like this before. She’ll be reachable by phone, of course, but it’s not the same. The physical distance – or, rather, the inability to be close – is the worst part. I can’t go with her. I can’t travel such great distances on my own. To have someone so important to me essentially walk out of my life, even temporarily, reminds me of…
Hisao smiles tiredly. “I said, ‘what do you want to do now’?”
“I… don’t know.”
“How about we call it a day?” Emi suggests, looking no less tired than Hisao. “I don’t know about you, but I’m going to take a nap. My head is killing me.”
The relief on Hisao’s face tells me that he agrees. I’m not so set on just going to bed, though. It’s still mid afternoon. I turn to Rin to ask her opinion, but by her expression I’d guess that she hasn’t even been listening. By the time I look back, Emi has already started walking back to the dorms, calling ‘g’night’ over her shoulder. Hisao shrugs and follows, quickly catching up to her.
Now alone with Rin, I’m not entirely sure what to do. Should I just leave, like the others did? Should I ask her what she wants to do? I’ve never really hung out with just Rin before. It would probably be… awkward. Either way, I should probably say somethi-
“Do you want to go into the city?”
Beaten to the punch. Rin poses the question without so much as turning to face me, which I guess is pretty normal for her. But what could Rin want to do in the city? Much less with me? A nagging voice in the back of my head beckons me to do my own thing instead, to prevent this matter-versus-antimatter-esque collision of social ineptitude. I silence it.
Rin does turn to face me now. If she were anyone else, she might look somewhat surprised. “Really?”
“Really. Let’s go.”
The short wait for a bus and the following ride to the city both pass less catastrophically than I expected. Nary an awkward silence in sight – or earshot, as it were. That isn’t to say it wasn’t quiet, but silences with Rin feel different than silences with others, somehow. It’s as if there’s nothing to be said, as opposed to nothing being said.
As Rin and I step off the bus, it strikes me that this is the second time in two days that I’ve done such a thing. Once, I would never have even considered it. Funny how things play out.
“So, where to now?” I ask.
Rin looks around slowly, eyeing off a number of signs, buildings and random pedestrians in turn. After a good ten minutes, Rin responds “This way,” and starts walking. I have no choice but to follow.
The jostling crowds make me uncomfortable as it is, but it’s all I can do to keep up with Rin. She somehow manages to slip between the throng with ease. It’s as if she isn’t even there. She carries herself with such an air of nonchalance that it must be reflected by the people around her.
Rin’s ability to be completely unperturbed by everything is astounding, which makes it all the more significant that she seemed hurt when I told her to leave me and Emi alone this morning. I’ll have to apologise to her when I get the chance.
We seem to wander aimlessly through the streets, walkways and back alleys of the city, going everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I’m reasonably sure that we pass several places more than once. A few times Rin stops – I tell myself that she’s simply regaining her sense of direction – but never for long. When she does stop outside one place for several minutes, I figure that we must have arrived at our destination.
“‘Othello’s Antiques’?” I ask.
“No. Next to it.”
Honestly I didn’t expect as straight an answer as that. Turning slightly left, I notice a small art supply store next to the antiques shop. Trust Rin to be looking in a different direction to that which she’s facing.
“Oh. Do you want to go in?”
“You’re not sure?”
“I’m sure that I’m not sure.”
She almost looks as if she’s chuckling inwardly. I can never quite tell when Rin’s being witty or just being… well, Rin.
“Let’s just go inside.”
Rin’s vacant stare conveys a response that I’m sure is an implied shrug, so I head into the little art store, holding the door open for Rin to pass through.
The interior of the shop is like something out of a fantasy novel, with various artistic instruments and materials adorning every available surface. I’m astounded to see stock even hanging from the ceiling. It’s almost as if I’ve fallen through the proverbial looking glass and descended into Rin’s wonderland.
While I’m standing awestruck, Rin has already gone ahead and started browsing the store. Not unlike the way she walked around the city, she wanders through the cramped aisles seemingly at random, stopping briefly to examine certain kinds of brush, or paint, or canvas. Occasionally Rin asks me to grab something from a higher shelf, but, for the most part, she doesn’t say much. Silence seems to be a recurring theme with her.
Or maybe she’s just mad at me.
Should I say something? I don’t really know how to proceed with something like this. What if I’m wrong, and my assumption just makes things worse? No. I can’t second-guess myself. Whether or not Rin took offense to what I said, I need to relate to her.
“Hey, Rin…?” I receive no response – outwardly, at least – but I press on regardless. “Um, about this morning… I was probably too harsh on you.”
“You were?” Rin stops inspecting some kind of knife-like device to look me in the eye. “Huh.”
“You weren’t bothered at all?”
“Things don’t generally bother me. I can’t say for sure that I wasn’t totally unbothered though, because using absolutes is always wrong.”
“Are we… on the same wavelength here?”
“Probably not. What were you talking about again?”
It bothers me that she’s so frank about it. “This morning. When I told you to leave me and Emi alone.”
“Oh yeah. That.” Rin shrugs and turns away to continue browsing the shop. I have to follow her to keep myself in the conversation. “Yeah, that happened, huh. I think. Maybe I was still dreaming.”
“No, no, you were awake. Anyway-”
“Really? How about that. No.”
“No it didn’t bother me. Or if it has, I haven’t thought about it yet. It doesn’t really matter. I could hear you anyway.”
“Well, I said I would be downstairs, but then I descended the first step and got to wondering exactly how many steps constitutes ‘downstairs’. While I was thinking about it, I heard you and Emi talking.”
“I see. So, you know then…”
“I’ve known for a while that I’m good at forgetting things, yeah.”
“That’s not – oh, forget it.”
“Can do. Will you help me take this stuff to the counter?”
The rate at which Rin changes or otherwise negates subjects leaves me unable to vocalise a response. I simply nod and do ask she asks. At the very least I can be sure that I didn’t offend her in any noteworthy capacity. In fact, I’m pretty close to certain that Rin is entirely incapable of taking offense.
Watching the cashier scan through Rin’s purchases with a slightly confused expression, it strikes me that I have no idea how Rin is going to pay for this. Almost as soon as I realise, however, she clears her throat at me.
“Could you get this? I didn’t bring any money.”
Of course you didn’t, Rin. Jeez, what would she have done if I wasn’t here to cover her? Probably not have bought anything at all, I bet. Sighing, I withdraw enough money to pay for Rin’s purchases; there are a handful of different oil paints, brushes, a small painting canvas and a canvas bag.
The cashier loads the purchases into the bag, which Rin slings over her shoulder before walking out. I thank the cashier before quickly following Rin back out into the street.
“Do you always do this? Buy stuff, I mean. I’d have thought the school would give you art supplies.”
“Yeah. But that means I have to ask Mister Nomiya. What he gets is usually not the right thing. I’d rather just buy my own stuff. Besides, I get another bag.”
“I didn’t know you had any.”
“I have lots. I like them because I can paint them. People get mad when I paint other bags.”
I have to admit, she has a fair amount of logic behind that reasoning. She might not show it in the way people expect, but Rin’s actually pretty intelligent, if a bit roundabout. Nevertheless I’m not surprised when the conversation drops off, leaving us to find our way back to the bus stop in silence. It’s not until we’re on the way back home that Rin speaks again.
“Do you want one?”
“A bag. I’ll paint this one for you. I don’t need it, really.”
For me? I dread to wonder how that might turn out, after that painting she did for my birthday.
“Oh. Um… sure! Thanks.” The thought of innumerable canvases and satchel bags littering Rin’s dorm room piques my curiosity. “Say, Rin… why do you paint?”
“Why do I paint?” Rin cocks her head at the unusual question. “Why does Emi run? Why does Lilly drink tea? Why do you cook?”
“I… I just do. It’s fun. I like it.”
That doesn’t answer anything! How is it that I’m the one that asked the question and yet Rin’s the one that got an answer?
“There’s a boy,” Rin continues. “In the art club. He is blind.”
“Really? How does he paint?”
“With a brush. What a strange question. But he doesn’t paint much. He sculpts. He is an interesting person.”
“Oh… good for him, I guess.”
“I think that’s the reason. He can’t see what he makes, but he does it anyway. Doing things you can’t do, just because you can. That’s why I paint.”
“So you paint because you don’t have any hands to paint with?” I inquire hesitantly.
“What? No. Yes. I guess that’s true too. I meant something else. I am not good at talking with words. I think you’ve noticed. But I can paint, and I paint how I feel and what I think. So, for me, that is the same thing as that boy.”
I don’t really see how it’s the same, but… I guess I understand the point. Kinda.
“Doing things you can’t do, just because you can… That’s really deep.”
“People say that to me all the time. I don’t think so. I’m really a shallow and thoughtless person.”
“Well, whatever kind of person you are, I think you’ve got a good philosophy to live by.”
I nod in response. Rin nods – slowly, and with her eyes shut – before turning back towards the window of the bus. In her reflection, I can see the faint curved outline of a smile on Rin’s lips. Maybe hanging out with Rin isn’t so bad after all.
“Right then. For the remainder of this class I’d like you to work in groups of three or four on the problems in chapter twelve. I’ll be here if you need me.”
While Mutou seats himself behind his desk, the students in the classroom begin shuffling their own around to form groups. As has become the norm, I shift my desk over to join Naomi and Natsumi. They both greet me in their usual cheery manner, which I return in kind.
Nearby, I spot Hisao looking uncomfortable next to Hakamichi and Mikado. It looks like they’re trying to recruit him into their group. He looks over at me with a pleading expression, so I wave him over. The relief on his face is painfully obvious.
“Thank you so much,” he whispers as he joins us. “Good morning Natsume, Naomi.”
The girls return his greeting and we set about completing the assigned class work. The questions are centred on redox reactions involving a number of different chemicals. It’s somewhat difficult, but having Hisao around makes things that much easier to understand. Thanks to him, the allotted time is only a little under two-thirds gone when we finish.
The quiet chattering from the surrounding groups – and the not so quiet Misha Mikado – is all the justification the four of us need to begin talking idly among ourselves. It’s just inane small talk, but it’s nice.
“Do you know how long Lilly will be away for?” Natsume asks.
“I’m not sure,” Hisao answers. Turning towards me, he continues, “She said she’d miss Hanako’s birthday, so…”
Lilly didn’t give a specific return date when she left, but, from what I’ve gleaned from our few short phone calls in the past week, “It’ll be around this weekend at the earliest before Lilly gets back.”
“Right, there you go.”
Natsume nods in acknowledgement. “I see. Thank you.”
“I’m a little bit jealous, in a way,” Naomi muses. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful? Travelling to faraway places and sightseeing and buying neat souvenirs…”
“I don’t think Lilly will be doing much sightseeing.”
“Oh! No, I didn’t mean-”
“Don’t worry about it,” I interject. “I’ve known Lilly for a long time and I still do it sometimes. Besides, Lilly’s not exactly going on holiday, you know.”
“Well, yeah, but still… don’t you ever think about how fun~ it would be?”
“Not really. Going on holiday is… something I can’t really do.”
“I can understand that,” Hisao says. “I went on a trip with my parents once, when I was small. Let’s just say flying doesn’t agree with me.”
“I’m the same,” Natsume agrees. “Trains are about the only mode of transport that doesn’t make me ill.”
“Oh~, trains! We should go on a train ride! One of those long-distance ones with the cabins. There’s a certain charm to them, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Yes, I’d say so. There’s a bit of romanticism about them, even.”
“That settles it! Natsume, we’re going on a train ride!”
“We’re not invited?” Hisao asks.
“Well~, Hanako already said she can’t, and it’d be far too scandalous for just two girls and a boy to go on holiday together…”
“Why would it be – oh. I wasn’t planning anything, before you say it.”
“Sure you weren’t~.”
The girls and I have a little giggle at Hisao’s futile attempts to argue his innocence. Even after the conversation returns to its previous, meandering, time-killing role, the topic lingers in my mind. Travelling to distant places… it would be a lot of fun. But I couldn’t. Who would I go with? How would I afford it all? It’s just not feasible. No, I can’t do it.
Long after class ends for the day, I find myself distracted by thoughts of my lack of independence. Even though I live alone, I’m not nearly self-sufficient. Other students have their parents or other family to back them up. I don’t. It almost amuses me that such thoughts occur to me at a time like this.
Tomorrow is the anniversary. Tomorrow is the day of my birthday. Having already celebrated the latter, the former had slipped my mind. It was as if I had skipped the time period entirely. But, now that it’s nearly here, I can’t help but think about it. I can’t focus like this. How do I distract myself from a distraction?
Instead of spending time with Emi and the others, I say a curt farewell and head over to my dorm room. It’s the best thing to do whenever I feel like this, as I’ve learned from experience. The smaller the risk of something setting me off the better. Even though it’s been ten years, and so very much has changed in that time, I don’t want to bear the shame of freaking out in front of everyone.
Once inside my room, I lock the door and flop onto my bed without bothering to change. I hate myself as soon as I do it. Emi wouldn’t back down like this. This amounts to giving up, just like every other year. I’m better than that. I’m stronger than that.
I propel myself into a sitting position and look around my room. There has to be a more productive way to spend some quality alone time. Stepping over to my desk, I flip through several papers that Naomi and Natsume sent me for digitisation. Working on them would require a computer, or a laptop at the very least. I guess that’s out of the equation.
The only other things I have lying around are my schoolbag and the small pile of birthday presents that I never expected to receive. Deciding to abstain from any homework I might have, I take a seat, cross-legged, in front of the gift pile and examine each one in turn.
From Naomi and Natsume, a copy of the school newspaper. Not just any old paper, though; the very first copy of the very first edition to which I contributed. And, with it, a fountain pen inscribed with a journalistic quote. Trust those two to choose something like that as a gift. They have significance, though. The paper is a record of my first step towards making a new life for myself, and the pen is the tool with which I might inscribe the life I have ahead of me.
From Rin, the canvas depicting an angelic version of myself, shedding my clothes as I rise into the sky. Apparently. It’d be more than a little risqué if not for the strategically placed maybe-wings covering my possibly-body. I’m not entirely sure if that’s what I’m even looking at. According to Rin, though, it’s meant to be symbolic of how I’ve changed. I can’t say I see that here but… I guess she’s right. I have.
From Saki, the hand-made, purple patterned yukata I wore for a commemorative photo at the festival. Even though plenty of girls most likely wore it on the same day, Saki thought that, out of all of them, it suited me so exactly that she didn’t even hesitate to give it away as a gift. I can still recall the gleam in her eyes when Emi and I emerged from behind the curtain. ‘You look wonderful,’ she said. For the first time, I actually felt like it was the truth.
From Hisao, a stunningly crafted chess set. I’m not familiar with wood crafting, but I can see that it is made from very high quality wood, with different coloured wood for the white and black pieces. I haven’t had the chance to play much chess in recent times, or anyone else for that matter, but it brings back fond memories of my childhood. Dad and I used to play together back in the day. What I wouldn’t give for one more game with him. Hisao might not have known it, but this chess set carries a lot more meaning than simply being a nice present.
And from Lilly, an adorable porcelain doll adorned in gorgeous fabrics. I have no doubt that it cost a significant amount of money. Normally I would resist such large expenditure, but, if it’s from Lilly… I’m willing to accept it. Being unable to see the doll, it means that she had to have had the utmost confidence and trust that it would be appealing to me. And, of course, she was right. This doll is no mere thing of beauty; it represents the bond that Lilly and I share.
Not present among the pile are three other gifts. Akira’s was cracked open and emptied, right down to the last drop; a combined effort between most everyone at the party. Illegal thought it may have been it certainly helped to make the night enjoyable. Kenji’s ‘offering’ didn’t last much longer, going towards a decidedly fattening breakfast the following morning. Not that Emi was complaining.
Emi’s present is the last one not with me. Understandably, it still resides in the Ibarazaki household’s lounge room. It doesn’t exactly fit in these little dorm rooms, and leaving it out in the common room might not be the best idea. Still, the expense involved is not lost on me. Not only was it a birthday present, it was a bonding experience with everyone who joined in. Most especially of all, with Emi Ibarazaki.
Sitting here amongst the assorted items, I find myself reaching an intense revelation – an epiphany of sorts: this was the first normal birthday I’ve had since my parents passed away. For one night, I was not ‘Hanako Ikezawa the skittish burned girl’, I was ‘Hanako Ikezawa, the mighty Iron Chef of Yamaku Academy’; I was ‘Hanako Ikezawa, the Yamaku Pop Princess’; I was ‘Hanako Ikezawa, the rough ‘n’ tough rock star’. Most importantly, I was ‘Hanako Ikezawa, average eighteen year old girl’.
Fountain pen in hand, I rise from my position on the floor and take a seat at my desk. I find a blank sheet of paper amidst the pile from the Newspaper Club and begin putting my thoughts into words. It’s tough going, with numerous crossings-out and rearranged sentences. By the time I’m done, my writing has filled both sides of the paper and most of another one.
It is only in putting my pen down and leaning back in my chair that I notice the knocking on my door.
“Hanako? You awake in there?”
“Emi? Uh, yeah. What’s up?”
“Can I come in? Door’s locked.”
“Oh, sure. One sec.”
I hastily stash the scribbled-on papers under the rest of their original pile then unlock the door to let Emi inside. She slips inside and hops onto my bed in lieu of any other seats. She swings her legs alternately as she looks around my room.
“So… what’s up?” I prompt.
Emi stares at me hesitantly, like she doesn’t want to say what’s on her mind. “Are… you okay?”
“Huh? Yeah, I’m fine. Why?”
“Well, you were kinda distant at lunch, and since class finished you’ve been shut up in here all day.”
“Sounds like a normal day to me,” I counter jokingly. “Trust me, I’m fine.”
Emi sighs, breaking eye contact with me. “Look… I know you’re not fine because this is what I do when I’m not fine. Kind of. I mean, I run instead of hiding, but… the end result is the same.”
“Don’t you believe me?”
“No, I do. But… I know what day it is tomorrow, and I know that it has an effect on you. I just want to make sure my best friend is alright.”
“Like I said, I’m good. I wasn’t before, but I worked through it. Like you would.”
Emi smiles and returns her gaze to mine. “Well, great! I’m glad to hear that.” Taking on a more serious expression, she continues, “Are you going to do anything? For the anniversary I mean.”
“Like what? What would I do?”
“I dunno. Visit your folk’s graves? Do a memorial thing? That’s what I do. Don’t you do anything like that?”
“It’s not that simple. They’re in my hometown, which is pretty far from here. I’ve never really been able to do anything.”
Emi buries her chin in her hands in thought. She seems to wrestle with an idea, since she makes to speak several times before cutting herself off. Evidently, she decides to voice her suggestion anyway.
“Hmm… the Marine Day weekend is coming up, right? I normally visit dad then, but I’m sure we can arrange to visit your folks too.”
“You’d do that? You’d go with me?”
“Of course! I’d do anything for you. I know better than most how important something like this can be. So, whaddaya say?”
“It’s cool if you wanna take some time to think about it. It’s a big decision.”
“Yeah… I’ll let you know when I make up my mind. Thanks, Emi.”
“You’re welcome.” Jumping up from my bed, Emi adds, “I’m gonna head back to my room. You should get some sleep; it’ll make tomorrow go easier.”
Shortly thereafter, I’m alone with my thoughts once again. Visit my parents? It’s something I was never able to do. The last time I saw them was… just before I went to the orphanage. I’m sorry, mom, dad. I didn’t mean any disrespect by it. This’ll be my chance to finally move on. It’ll be the final proof that I’ve become more than what my past defines me as.
As opposed to her departure, Lilly’s return is considerably more chipper. It’s due in part to the fortunate lack of alcohol intake the previous night, but more due to the news that Lilly’s aunt has pulled through her illness. It’s hugs and handshakes all around as Akira and Lilly pull up outside Yamaku.
After the usual ‘welcome back’ routine, we make small talk about our respective activities in the last two weeks or so. While rather mundane on both groups’ parts, it still fascinates me to hear about what Lilly and Akira have experienced in Scotland. It sounds so exciting to visit somewhere new.
“I’ll have you know it was rather hair-raising; every step I took was tinged with apprehensiveness,” Lilly huffs.
Hisao nods in understanding. “I guess it would be pretty disorienting, being somewhere unfamiliar like that.”
“Quite right, Hisao. I did become somewhat accustomed to my parents’ home after a few days, but I still never felt truly comfortable.”
“Heh, it didn’t sound like you were complaining while you were out sunbaking on pops’ private beach,” Akira chuckles.
“Your folks have a private beach?” Emi asks.
“Yeah, you could call it one of the perks of big business.”
“It was quite the struggle to convince father to let us use it, mind you,” Lilly adds.
“I’d still have gone, whether he let us or not.”
“You know very well that that would make him unhappy.”
“Ah, screw ‘im. All work and no play make Akira into an alcoholic.”
Emi raises her eyebrow questioningly. “Your dad wouldn’t let you use your own beach, even after your aunt turned out okay? Doesn’t sound like much of a holiday.”
“Well… it wasn’t meant to be in the first place,” Akira sighs, scratching the back of her head. “If anything, I’d need a holiday from it. Right Lils?”
“I suppose you’re right. Speaking of which, am I correct in saying that we have a long weekend coming up?”
“That’s right,” I answer. “For Marine Day. We get Saturday and Monday off.”
“Wonderful. Might I propose a holiday of our own, then? A proper one.”
“Ah, thinking about the house up North, are ya sis?”
“‘House up North’?” I ask.
“Yup. Our folks own a property out in the Hokkaido countryside. I was gonna pay a visit myself soon.”
“That is indeed what I had in mind,” Lilly confirms. “Would you all be interested in coming?”
“It’s not too much trouble, is it?” Hisao says. “I don’t want to impose or anything.”
“Nah, it’s cool,” Akira replies. Smiling devilishly, she continues, “Besides, it hasn’t been used for a while, so you lot can clean it up for me.”
“I am not good at cleaning,” Rin states flatly.
Lilly covers a giggle with her hand. “I’m sure we can sort something out. So, will everyone be coming?”
I share a glance with Emi, hesitant to deny Lilly’s invitation. Almost stuttering a few times, I manage to speak up. “Actually, Lilly… Emi and I already have something planned for this weekend.”
“Yeah, but don’t let that stop you. You three can still go without us, right?” Emi adds.
“So just Lilly, Rin and me?” Hisao asks. “Wouldn’t that be, you know, scandalous?”
This takes Rin’s interest. “Why would it be scandalous?”
Lilly, being less Rin-ish than Rin, picks up on Hisao’s implication. Being quite Lilly-ish, however, she plays dumb. “Yes, Hisao, why would it be scandalous?”
Hisao staggers over his words, cutting himself off several times and stammering out what little excuses he does offer. This elicits laughter from the rest of us bar Rin; Akira, in particular, finds it extremely amusing. Rin looks at us all in confusion.
“I don’t get it.”
“Don’t worry, kiddo, you’ll ‘get it’ eventually,” Akira says, including air quotes for emphasis.
Rin just shrugs in response. “Okay. So, we’re going to this place, then? And Emi and Hanako aren’t?”
“Pretty much,” Emi confirms. “By the way, sorry about not coming, Lilly; if we hadn’t already made plans we’d go for sure.”
“No need to apologise, Emi. It is very short notice after all. I’m sure whatever you’ve planned will be just as enjoyable.”
Emi throws me a nervous glance. I respond with a reassuring smile. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I’m glad you understand.”
Akira clears her throat and claps her hands once for attention. “Right, now that you lot have that sorted out, I’m outta here. I’ll catch ya’ll later.”
With that, she turns and walks back towards her car, hand raised in a motionless wave. We watch as her car pulls out from the curb and makes its way down the winding road leading away from Yamaku, out of sight.
Lilly catches herself yawning and covers her mouth. “My, my, long flights certainly do take it out of you. Would anyone care to join me for tea?”
In the pinkish light of the early-morning sun, I wander around the Yamaku campus. Hours still remain until Emi and I are to take the bus to the city, but a restless night and the commotion of Lilly leaving for Hokkaido put an end to any chance of sleeping in. Knowing Emi, she’d probably be out at the track this early; if not of her own volition, then because Rin woke her. But running isn’t something I’m particularly keen on at the moment.
Having spent as much time as I have locked up in my room in the past, I’ve never really come to appreciate the simplicity of the outdoors. There’s a sort of contentment to be had in the sound of birds chirping. It makes me feel somewhat sleepy, in fact. Perhaps I can get that sleep in after all. Scanning the immediate vicinity, I pick out a shady-looking grove and head over to take a seat beneath it. To my surprise, the spot is already occupied.
“Oh! Good morning, Hanako,” the sandy-haired girl yawns.
“Hello, Saki. Looks like you had the same idea I did.”
“So it would appear. Please, sit down.”
I do so, leaning my back against the trunk of a tree and curling my knees up to my chest.
“Miss Satou is back, I hear?” Saki asks.
“Mhmm. She got back yesterday afternoon. But she’s already left again.”
“So soon? My, what ever for?”
“She’s taking Hisao and Rin to her family’s holiday house for the weekend. It’s up in Hokkaido.”
“You’re not joining her?”
The question is rhetorical of course, as my presence here makes the answer obvious, but I respond regardless. “No, unfortunately. Emi and I already made plans.”
“I see. It is unfortunate indeed, to miss out on a trip to Hokkaido. Very eye-catching place. Northern landscapes have inspired a few of my designs, you know.”
“Yes. In fact, that yukata I gave you was one of them.”
“Huh. Serendipity at work. Do you visit Hokkaido often?”
“Every chance I get. You see, my grandparents own a large farm up there, so I try to visit them as often as I can.”
“Must be tiring, going that far all the time.”
“Well, yes, but it’s not about how far you go, or how long it takes, or even the destination. The enjoyment comes from the journey. That’s what makes it into an experience.” Chuckling lightly with a hand covering her mouth, Saki adds, “Of course, seeing my family is also a plus.”
“I can’t say I’ve ever had an experience like that. Hearing you talk about it makes me Wish I’d gone with Lilly.”
“You could go somewhere on your own. Who would stop you?”
“I guess… I would. I’m scared to do it.” With an empty laugh, I continue, “Emi would get mad if she heard me say that.”
“Why not take her with you, then? You’re already doing things together this weekend, so just plan something next weekend. Then the next. And be more ambitious each time.”
“Listen to me.” Saki pushes herself out of her reclined position and moves in front of me, sitting on her knees. When she speaks, her tone is noticeably bitterer. “Everyone has a finite amount of time on this Earth. Some… have less than others. You can’t afford to waste time hung up on ‘what if’s or ‘but’s. Every hour is golden; every minute is a diamond. Life is wonderful, if you have the courage to live it.”
I don’t know how to respond. The way she said that – it's like she's said it several times before. Not like it's rehearsed, though. More like... a personal motto? Is that even a real thing? I wish I had that kind of conviction.
Noticing my lack of acknowledgement, Saki speaks again. “That was uncalled for. I shouldn’t have unloaded on you like that. My own circumstances get to me, sometimes. Sorry.”
“No, you’re right. I was just… thinking. That’s why you travel so much, right? To make the most of the time you have?”
“Yes. I’m afraid of missing out. I want to experience as much as I can, and I want as many people as possible to experience it with me.”
“‘Every hour is golden’…”
“And every minute is a diamond. Carpe Diem. Seize the day. I can reel these off long after it starts sounding like a cliché.”
“So you’re telling me I should do it?”
“I’m telling you that there are opportunities out there. Whether you take them – and which ones – are up to you.”
Hmm. Now that I think about it… there are opportunities out there; opportunities that I previously passed up. I know what I have to do.
“Thanks for the advice, Saki. It helps a lot.”
“Glad I could be of help. Enjoy your weekend!”
I bid Saki farewell and make my way towards the school building. In particular, towards two people who – most likely – currently reside in it. I’m sure they of all people would be awake and getting to work by now. Yes; if I am to begin taking the opportunities presented to me, then they are the ones I need.
“You’re late,” Emi scolds jokingly.
“I’m not late, you’re just early. Besides, I got caught up speaking to some people.”
Emi puts on a melodramatically shocked expression. “You? Getting caught up speaking with people? Say it ain’t so.”
I roll my eyes at her. “Yeah, yeah, whatever. When’s our bus arriving?”
“Not much longer now. We’ll be arriving in time for lunch, by the way. Apparently, Mom’s cooking up something special.”
“Oh, that’s great! I actually forgot to have breakfast, so I’m starving.”
“You’re tellin’ me! I got up early for my run and ended up losing track of time. I had to rush getting back, only to get here half a minute before you did.”
“And you were calling me late…”
It is Emi’s turn to roll her eyes now, just as the bus comes into view. The two of us get on board and chat idly to pass the time. It doesn’t go unnoticed by me that, every time the conversation seems to move towards today’s destination, Emi immediately changes the topic. I make no effort to force it; I understand full well why she wants to think about other things.
When we arrive at Emi’s house, her mom greets us at the door. More importantly, we're also greeted by the heavenly scent of whatever the elder Ibarazaki was preparing moments earlier. Before I can speak a word of greeting, my stomach utters its own. Mrs. Ibarazaki looks at me in shock but quickly takes it in stride, bursting out in laughter.
“Ohoho, it sounds like you two are hungry! Come on in, girls, you’re just in time for lunch!”
The spread on the dinner table is clearly too much for three people – much less three women – so it’s a testament to Emi’s and my appetites that a fair chunk of it is gone by the time we’re done. What’s left over gets packed into a pair of plastic containers for later consumption as Emi and I let our stomachs settle. A couple of shameless Ibarazaki burps later, we all get in the car and begin the journey to visit Emi’s dad.
The trip isn’t particularly lengthy, so it is easily filled with smalltalk catching Mrs. Ibarazaki up on recent events. She seems particularly interested to hear about Lilly, Rin and Hisao going to Hokkaido. When we pull up outside the cemetery, however, the conversation stops immediately. Emi and I get out of the car, but Mrs. Ibarazaki makes no move to follow. She catches sight of my concerned expression.
“Go on ahead, Hanako, dear. I’ll be waiting right here.”
“You’re not coming?” I ask.
“I prefer to visit my husband alone.” With a wink, she adds, “Besides, it wouldn’t do any good to let you two see me with my makeup all ruined, now, would it?”
Mrs. Ibarazaki certainly knows how to lighten a mood. I crack a little smile. “You’re wearing makeup? I couldn’t tell.”
“Oh, psh, stop flattering an old lady like me. Go on, Emi’s waiting.”
I do as I’m told, jogging slightly to make up the short distance between Emi and me. Once I’m at her side, Emi leads me off to our right, then along several winding paths to a smallish area bounded by hedges about a metre high. Emi comes to a stop in front of a grave marked by a long, flat base and a headstone atop something that kind of resembles a winner’s podium as seen from the side.
Emi kneels down, lays a small handful of flowers – where did she even pull those from? – and bows her head in what I assume is silent prayer. Unsure of what I should do, I hesitantly place my hand on Emi’s shoulder. She looks up at me, and I can see the shiny wetness of as-yet-uncried tears in her eyes.
“Hanako, meet my dad. Dad, meet Hanako.”
My response draws a tiny giggle from Emi. “Are you going to say ‘it’s nice to meet you’ next?”
“Well, I… I didn’t know what to say, so I just said the first thing that came to mind.”
“It’s okay.” Looking back towards the headstone, Emi adds, “Dad would have done the same thing, and meant it.”
“He sounds like a funny guy.”
“Not really. He just had a knack for saying funny things at completely inappropriate moments. He was a bit of a dork.”
“Oh. Are you saying I’m a dork?”
Emi turns to face me once again, cracking a smile. “Maybe a little.”
She makes an almost-pinching motion with her hand to punctuate the statement. I roll my eyes in response.
“You’re welcome.” Emi pauses briefly, adding, “Did I ever tell you why I can’t stand listening to old music?”
I shake my head in response. Looking back to the headstone before us, Emi continues.
“It’s because Dad used to play it all the time. It was ‘his era’, as he used to say. Whenever we went anywhere – and even when we were at home, if he wasn’t working – he would always crank that stuff up to eleven.”
“My mom used to do the same thing.”
“Uh huh, I remember you telling me.” As she pauses briefly, a sad smile emerges on Emi’s face. “Naturally, on the day of the accident, he was blasting it, as usual. I still remember the song that was playing; down to the exact verse and line. Whenever I hear something he used to play, it always reminds me of that.”
“Must be hard, then, if your mom still plays his music.”
“I guess so. But she doesn’t mean any harm by it. It’s her way of remembering Dad, a bit like how I run.”
Emi trails off, leaving the maudlin mood hanging. In lieu of anything to say, I just stand quietly by Emi’s side, leaving her to her thoughts. We remain this way – Emi kneeling, me standing – for a long time; how long exactly, I don’t know.
In the mean time, I ponder today’s events, trying to figure out what I’m going to do tomorrow, when it’ll be time to stand before my own parents’ graves. Nothing in particular comes to mind. There doesn’t seem to be much to do, at least in a physical sense. It’s just a lot of thinking, remembering… basically what I do now. What do I do that makes visiting that much more meaningful?
I still don’t have an answer as the sun begins to dip below the surrounding buildings and trees. Emi takes note of the ever-shortening daylight, and gets to her feet.
“C’mon, let’s go home. We’ve got a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”
The gate looks far too clean for where it is. In this – a place for the dead to rest, and for the living to cling to the past – it is the entrance that looks most alive. The green metal, polished to a high shine, seems to bridge the neatly trimmed hedges on either side of it. It almost feels as if they’re trying to fool people into believing that, beyond the gate, there is something more than just buried remains.
It makes me feel uneasy. They say green is meant to be a calming colour, which is why they paint hospitals with it. Maybe it is, I don’t really know. But this greenness looks artificial more than anything. Just another way of faking the appearance of life after death. Most unsettling, however, is that the cemetery doesn’t look familiar at all.
“Something like that. I haven’t been here in a long, long time. I don’t even know if I could find the right place.”
“It’ll be alright. I’ll help you look.”
“Keep an eye out for a twin headstone under a wide tree. That’s all I can remember.”
Emi nods in acknowledgement and approaches the gate, pushing it open but not stepping through. Taking the hint, I make to pass through, but end up hesitating with my foot hovering millimetres off the ground. I make a fist to steel myself, and finally enter the cemetery grounds.
Unnaturally vibrant grass stretches across the hilly ground, with the tan gravel path winding around the headstones like a spider web. Several trees dot the landscape, all varying in size, shape, and greenery, but none looking familiar.
We decide to search the cemetery systematically. The grounds are somewhat circular, so we start by heading along the path to the left, spiralling inwards in a clockwise direction. A couple of times we spot something that could be my parents’ grave, but they all turn out to be belonging to someone else. One tiny headstone even appears to be for a baby, lost at birth; Maya something-or-other. We pay our respects as a matter of courtesy before moving on.
Shortly before we complete the second rotation of our spiral, I experience a flash of déjà vu. I frantically turn back towards the direction I was looking when the feeling hit me. A tree with branches that extend over a huge radius twenty metres away hangs over half a dozen headstones, two of which are joined together at the base.
“Emi, I think… I think I see it.”
“Yeah? Let’s go check it out.”
We make our way over to the tree, having to take a slightly longer route so as to stay on the path. As the tree draws nearer, I find myself almost breaking into a run. In no time at all, I’m kneeling before the twin headstone.
It’s decidedly plain. The base is a single piece of light-grey stone, six inches in height, three feet wide and two deep. Overgrown grass frames the edges, obscuring a grimy plaque on a bevelled front edge. Twin columns of white stone stand tall out of the top of the base, each two feet tall and one square, topped with a pyramid. Inscribed on the columns are two sets of names and dates.
1961 – 1997
1959 – 1997
It’s them. My parents. I start to tear up, when I feel Emi’s hand on my shoulder. She kneels next to me, her hand sliding across my back and gripping my other shoulder gently in a consolatory embrace. Leaning forward, I extend a hand towards the plaque and wipe away the built-up muck staining it, revealing a third set of text.
Passed away tragically in a house fire
Survived by a daughter, Hanako Ikezawa
From my back pocket, I withdraw a couple of folded sheets of paper. They’re a little creased, but more or less in good condition. I open up the folds and smooth out the creases as best as possible, but, no matter how hard I try, I find myself unable to read the words printed upon the paper. Not just aloud, either; my eyes refuse to trace the characters across the page.
“Whatcha got there?” Emi asks, trying to sneak a peek. “A speech?”
“Not really. I wrote this while I was cooped up in my room the other day. I guess it’s a letter to my parents.”
Emi nods her head in acknowledgement. “I see, I see. Are you gonna read it to them? That’s a pretty good idea. I’ve never done anything like that before.”
“It wouldn’t be appropriate.”
“Oh. If you want me to give you a minute, I–”
“You don’t need to do that. It’s just because… this was more for me than for them.”
“So… what do you want to do with it then?”
“I think just leaving it here is enough. I’ve said everything that needed to be said in that letter. You don’t need to have heard a tree fall for it to have fallen, right?”
Emi just shrugs and goes quiet. If I’m going to leave this letter here, then I have to find somewhere to put it. I take a quick look around the immediate vicinity and spot a knothole in the tree looming over my parents’ grave. That’ll do. I get to my feet, refold the sheets of paper and slot them neatly inside the hole.
“It’s almost like their letterbox,” Emi states. It makes me smile.
“Yeah, I suppose it is.” I throw one last glance at the twin headstones behind me before turning to Emi and catching her in a hug. “I think I’m done here for today.”
It takes her a second due to the shock, but Emi returns the favour. When we break apart, Emi begins leading the way out of the cemetery. “Aren’t you glad you did this? Takes a weight off your shoulders, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, you’re right. Thanks for coming with me.”
“No, thank you for letting me come. This is usually a pretty personal thing, so it’s good to know you want me to be here with you.”
“We’re friends. We have to support each other, right?”
“‘Have to’, eh?” Emi jabs me in the shoulder, chuckling, “So you’re only doing it because you’re meant to be? Because that’s what friends do, huh?”
“You know what I meant.” With a little jab of my own, I add, “I’d have done it anyway because I want to, not just because I should.”
“Aww Hanako, ya big ol’ softie.”
“Must be all those little jabs of yours. They’re tenderising me.”
In the dying echoes of our shared laughter, the train station comes into view. Just before I pass through the gates to the platform, something in the back of my mind gives me pause. I turn to look back the way we came, but nothing of note grabs my attention. So then what made me turn around?
“What’s up?” Emi says. “Wanna stay a while longer?”
“No, I just… it’s been so long since I was here last. Things have changed so much. This town is nearly as unrecognisable as the cemetery.”
“We could take a look around, if you want. The last train isn’t for another few hours.”
I scan the buildings around us and into the distance. It really has changed a lot. It’s almost as if it isn’t even the same town. “There’s nothing for me to see here. Not anymore.”
“Not even your house? Or where you went to school? Nothing like that?”
“I came here to reconcile with my past. Looking around would just be dwelling on it even more than I already have. Besides, there was nothing left of my house. It’s probably an apartment block now.”
“Yeah, but… reconciling doesn’t mean you have to forget! It’s about closure, and closure is about knowing.”
“I know enough. What might be there now doesn’t pertain to me anymore. It’s like you said, way back when: ‘these things happen’.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Things happened here, once. This town has moved on. And so should I.” I say the words with a little more force than I intended. It leaves Emi with a pouty look on her face. I sigh, bringing a hand to my brow. “Sorry. I just want to go home.”
“It’s okay. Let’s go.”
The two of us pass through the gate and board the train home. ‘Home’. It’s funny; when I think about ‘home’, I no longer think about the place in which I grew up. Instead, I think about the tea room, where Lilly awaits us with freshly brewed tea. I think about the roof, where Rin both says everything while meaning nothing and says nothing while meaning everything. I think about room 3-3, where the friendly smiles of Hisao, Naomi and Natsume await. And I think about Emi Ibarazaki’s house, where – if only fleetingly – I feel as if I have a family once again.
Now’s the time to ask. I know that I should take the opportunity. I know what needs to be said. And I know that I can do it, even if I think I can’t.
Tentatively, I ask, “Taking the train like this is pretty cool, huh?”
“I guess. I prefer to take the Shinkansen. It’s faster.”
I stifle a small giggle. “I should have expected as much. I like these older trains. There’s a certain charm to them, wouldn’t you say?”
Emi looks over me with one eyebrow arched. “That sounds like something Lilly would say.”
“It was Naomi. But Lilly would probably say something like that too.”
“Yup, she definitely would. Why do you ask?”
In spite of my certainty in Emi’s answer, I struggle to form the question. “Would you… uh… would you want to travel around the country? With me. By train.”
“Travel around the country? Like, up to Hokkaido?”
“Maybe. Well, more than that. A bunch of places.”
“So, kind of like a European backpacker? Sounds pretty hard to organise.”
“You see, that’s the thing. Naomi and Natsume were planning to take a trip around Japan, travelling entirely by train. We could go too.”
Emi taps her chin thoughtfully. “Have you talked to them about this? You can’t just show up and expect them to change their arrangements.”
“Actually, they’re the ones I was speaking to yesterday morning, and about this exact thing.”
“You planned this out in advance, huh? Do I need to ask what they said?”
“They’d be happy to have us join them. That is, of course, if you’ll come with me.”
“Are you kiddin’? I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“So you’ll do it? You’ll come with me?”
The sound of someone approaching catches my attention. I open my eyes – which I hadn’t realised I had closed, albeit lightly – and look over to my companions. Emi and Rin appear to have come bounding over from a pit stop at the vending machines and have taken up position on the bench next to me. While Emi opens a packet of some snack for Rin, she steals glances at the large clock suspended from the ceiling nearby. It seems it’s almost time to go.
What I wouldn’t give for it to be nearer and, at the same time, further away. The allure of travelling abroad attracts me like a magnet, and though staying here with everyone does as well, it’s not for the same reason. The idea of seeing amazing places inspires such excitement in me. Exhilaration, even. I know that Lilly has been abroad before, both within Japan and across the globe. How many places have I gone? Zero, that’s how many. But now that’s gonna change.
I look over my shoulder towards Lilly, reading peacefully on the bench behind me. Of course, she would travel more than I would. Her family lives in an entirely different country, after all. I wonder what Scotland is like? I’ll have to ask her about it when I get back. And when I do, I can tell her all about all the fantastic things I’ll have seen. Heck, I can tell everyone.
But why did they all even come to the train station? It’s not an easy trip. ‘It’s what friends do,’ they said. I guess they’re right. I did insist that seeing us off at school would be more than adequate, but they refused to just let us leave like that. That’s what makes me wish I weren’t leaving so soon; having friends that would shell out for an expensive taxi ride just to see us off, and then gift me a custom-painted bag filled with snacks – which, apparently, is supposed to come back filled with souvenirs.
It makes me smile. Normally, my fringe would cover a fair amount of that up, but today it sits above my ear thanks to a cute hairclip recommended by Saki. People will stare, most likely. Emi was certainly caught by surprise when she saw it. I’m quite glad Naomi managed to capture her expression on camera. But it doesn’t matter. If not me, then they would be staring at someone else. That’s just how it goes. Why get embarrassed about something that happens to everyone?
The imminent departure of our train bears down on me mercilessly, even as I wish for it to hold on a little longer. Still, I refuse to let anxiousness get the better of me. I rise from my seat and, along with Emi, Naomi and Natsume, say my farewells. It’s a struggle not to cry, especially when Lilly whispers that she’ll miss me, but my resolve holds long enough for the four of us to board the train. As it departs from the station, and I return the waves of those on the platform, the realisation sets in; I’m actually leaving. I’m actually going to see the world. This really is goodbye. I crack a smile.
I knew this was a good idea.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. You’ve been a wonderful audience.