"Kazu-kun, let's play catch!" Eijun's amber eyes sparkled with excitement as the kindergartener danced around in the doorway. Clutching a ball and his prized mitt, he waited impatiently for Kazuya to grab his gear and join him outside.
"Calm down, Ei-chan, I'm coming; hang on a minute!" Kazuya shouted, well used to his friend's enthusiastic greetings. He ran upstairs to his room, tiptoeing quietly past his parent's room where his mother was asleep, and grabbed his mitt. Heading to the front door, he slipped on his shoes, closed the door quietly behind himself and joined Eijun.
Together, they ran to the park at the end of the block, headed for the center—a large green field crisscrossed by chalk lines and baseball diamonds, currently empty. There in the warmth of the sun, beneath a blue, blue sky, the two boys began a simple game of catch.
They tossed the ball back and forth for a while—just enjoying the day and the exercise—when Kazuya remembered the subject he wanted to discuss with Eijun. "Ei-chan!" he said, holding both the ball and the boy's attention, "There was an assembly today at school talking about the clubs and after school activities we could join—there's a baseball team! One for little kids like us! We should definitely join, don't you think?"
Eijun grinned and nodded, before his face fell. "I can't join that, it's for primary kids…I'm only in kindergarten!" wailed Eijun, falling to the ground in utter defeat.
"Oh, yeah…"muttered the first-grader, sadly. "I forgot." Ruefully, he kicked at a rock in the grass.
The friends pouted, dejected.
Eijun looked up at his friend, contemplatively. "You could join, if you want to, Kazu-kun. I'll start next year when I'm in Primary. That way, you could teach me all kinds of stuff, and I can start off being better than ANYONE!" He grinned, climbing back up to his feet.
Kazuya pushed his glasses up on his nose, and smirked at Eijun. "Wow, Ei-chan, you really can be smart sometimes." He threw the ball back to his friend and the game of catch resumed, the matter being settled.
So it began.
Over the next year, Kazuya participated in the baseball club, learning everything he could about the sport, religiously teaching Eijun everything he learned.
During the second month of the school year, the club members were introduced to the different positions, and were asked to choose which one they'd most like to try. Kazuya decided that being the catcher, being able to see the field and direct the game, was something he'd like to do. He liked knowing everything that was going on, and analyzing the way people behaved. He was also beginning to realize that he enjoyed causing and predicting other people's reactions—it was so amusing, and he hated to be bored.
Eijun, for his part, soaked up everything he could learn from the catcher, learning about the basics of the game and all the positions, as well as their responsibilities. After learning that Kazuya wanted to be a catcher, Eijun declared that he wanted to be a pitcher, so they could always play together. They were best friends, it made perfect sense to the pair.
Their games of catch evolved to something that resembled baseball practice, even as the frequency decreased; Kazuya's time was being taken up by the baseball club.
The following school year, they played together. At club practice, on the weekends, during school breaks, whenever they had the chance, you could find the pair playing at any one of the local fields. This was their pattern and their life, the only thing either of them was interested in.
During their eleventh summer (Kazuya was only six months older, just enough to warrant the difference in grade, with birthdays in May and November), they found themselves in the park after the sun set, lying in the grass watching the stars.
These were the times when they could just be—speaking quietly, if at all. Dreaming about a future full of baseball and whatever comes with it; unsure about what was to come, yet secure—in the way that eleven year old boys are—that they would be able to accomplish whatever it was that they set out to do. Together, as best friends, they were sure they would manage.
"Ei-chan", Kazuya said, breaking into the silence that lay so comfortably between them, "My mom seems to be getting better. I think she may be able to come home from the hospital soon." His mother had been sick for as long as either one of them could remember, a constant demand for quiet speech and soft footsteps in the house and repeated visits to hospital rooms carrying flowers and fruit to cheer up the invalid.
"Wow, really? That's awesome!" responded Eijun, genuinely happy for his friend. He knew how much he worried about his mother, and felt badly about it, even if there wasn't really anything he could do to help. "Maybe she can come watch some of our games; we have the district tournament coming up soon!" Kazuya nodded and then shrugged.
"She'll probably be weak for a while; I don't know when she'll be moving around."
It was Eijun's turn to nod. Silence returned, and the boys continued to lie there, content to listen to the crickets and feel the cooling breeze, until one of them realized that it was time to head home. This was the pattern of their eleventh summer.
By that winter, things had changed. Kazuya's mother, instead of getting better, got worse. She never left the hospital; never got the chance to watch her son play the game that he loved so much. On the day she died, Kazuya found himself in the park, playing catch with Eijun. The familiar feel of the ball hitting his mitt, the sound of their feet in the grass and the wind in the trees lulled him into a sense of well-being, allowing him to lose some of the tension that had been weighing him down for the past week or more.
He didn't cry. He attended the funeral, carried out all of the formalities required of a mourning son, and didn't cry. He heard the talk, the "poor lost boy"s, the "who's going to take care of him now"s, and didn't cry. He didn't feel poor or lost. He'd learned to take care of himself. He didn't cry.
There were two constants in his life. Baseball, and Eijun. That was enough for now.
Life, as they knew it, continued. Kazuya's father, never overly involved in his son's life, withdrew further. Unbeknownst to the boy, his father decided to relocate his metalworking business to Tokyo—more work, more money…and most importantly, more hours, less time to think about the things he'd lost. Kazuya never even crossed his mind when he made this decision.
The day in January the movers showed up was the first time the boys knew anything was happening. There was no time for one last game of catch, no time for long goodbyes—just enough time for them to promise to keep in touch, to share one quick hug. Eijun wailed, tears flowing freely, as he watched Kazuya climb, dry-eyed, into the car.
As they drove out of Nagano's city limits, Kazuya cried.