Along Dream Paths
Seiji Amasawa quietly skims the vast shelves of musty library books before him, absently running his index finger over the spines as he travels. The stony silence of the library, sporadically broken by a cough or a rustling of pages, hangs around him as her lingers in front of a section of fantasy novels. None of the titles interest him much, but he pretends to be deeply absorbed in them while trying to ignore the burning feeling at the back of his neck. Seiji waits for a few minutes in front of the fantasy novels, pretending to read and not doing a very convincing job, but soon he can't take any more. He casually turns his head towards the table directly behind him, nervously running his fingers through his black hair, but quickly turns around again in ill-concealed disappointment.
The girl has not looked up at him yet.
Her eyes do not leave the book she is holding, she is reading it with laser-beam concentration. Whatever world she has escaped to, it is oceans away from Tama New Town, from the library and from Seiji. After a few moments, he resignedly leaves the fiction section, making a deliberate attempt not to look at her as he goes.
Seiji has almost forgotten the reason he's here. The history project, of course. Pick a famous Japanese historical figure, and write a report about them. While others had chosen war heroes and scholars, he alone had chosen a poet. Ono no Komachi, the celebrated waka poet. The book of her poetry he had found still lies open and untouched. Plopping down in his seat, he gives a small sigh and begins to read.
Though I go to you
ceaselessly along dream paths,
the sum of those trysts
is less than a single glimpse
granted in the waking world…
He looks up from the poem, feeling increasingly unsettled at the way the poem and his current situation went together. Oh, he had set foot into the library with the very best intentions. But she was something he had never counted on. One glimpse of her and he had lost himself completely.
Something about her had instantly appealed to him, thought it was hard to pinpoint something specific. It could have been the fairness of her skin, or they shiny dark hair cut just above her chin. It could have been the dreamy, far-off look in her brown eyes as she pored over her book. Whatever it had been, it had cost Seiji what little focus for work he had left after toiling over a violin at his workbench. He suddenly had needed to make her look at him, needed to see her smile for some nameless reason. Not that it mattered, because she hadn't looked anyway.
"Why do you care so much?" he silently demands of himself, as if he will really be able to supply an answer that doesn't imply something very frightening. "What does it matter if some girl is too spaced out to notice you?"
Seiji knows he will not be getting any work done today, not with his mind so troubled and unfocused. The project is not due for another two weeks; he is not worried about it. It can wait. Quietly he rises from his chair and heads for the exit. "I can always come back tomorrow," he tells himself as he walks out the door without looking back.
Knowing full well he will not be getting any work done tomorrow, either.
Seiji is back at the city library like clockwork the next day and so is she. Sitting at the same table as before, though reading a different book. The same intently focused look still etched on her face, the same impenetrable look in her eyes. She is lost again, gone to another world that no one else is allowed to know.
Seiji glances at her from behind a book he's picked up, trying his best not to be too obvious. He silently wills her to look up, to tear her eyes away from the pages of her book for just one second. He wonders what school she goes to, noting (with some disappointment) that she is not wearing a school uniform. "She probably goes to another school," he thinks. She has her own life, a life that will never cross paths with his. She probably even has a boyfriend. But Seiji doesn't think about that. He can't.
He studies her face little by little during these short glances. The delicate shape of her face, the small, straight nose, the Cupid's bow mouth and, most of all, the large brown eyes that display a blissful sort of detachment. Seiji wonders what emotions are behind them, and how aware of her surroundings she truly is. Does she actually notice him behind that book? Is she just not letting it show? Does she simply delight in driving him crazy?
Book safely in front of face, Seiji casually ambles by her table. He only manages to catch a glimpse of what she is reading as he strolls behind her; it is a thick, old-looking volume of fairy tales. He does not know which tale she is reading, but he is instantly reminded of the old grandfather clock back at the Earth Shop. Of the story of the cursed fairy and the dwarf king, and their doomed romance.
Seiji has never been one for sadness or drama, but he can't help but wonder if the girl might like the story. If he told it to her. But as he once again walks away from her, he more importantly wonders if he would even have the nerve to break his silence.
Instead of going straight home after he leaving the library like he'd promised his parents, Seiji gets on his bike and pedals up the hill towards Tama Hills, the secluded neighborhood that towers over Tama New Town. Perhaps he is technically disobeying his parents, but he is going to a place that feels more like home than his real home does. A place where he can quietly realize his real dreams, and momentarily escape the constant pressure to get his head out of the clouds, pick a real career, pick a future. The sky is beginning to darken, and the cooler air on his face is a welcome relief.
He stops outside the Earth Shop (open, for once), carelessly propping his bike against the building and going inside with a single-minded purpose, giving a brief nod to the Baron (something about the old cat statue demands that it be respectfully acknowledged) and nearly colliding headfirst into his grandfather.
"Why, Seiji," Grandfather Nishi says dazedly, straightening his glasses, "What are you doing here?" Seiji anticipates a small lecture on disobeying his parents, but receiving none, proceeds.
"I… I needed to come here," he replies. "I had to… I had to finish my violin." No further explanation is necessary. Grandfather Nishi merely nods and steps to one side, allowing him to descend the stairs to the workshop. Seiji is somewhat surprised to see Moon lazily perched on the workbench and regarding him with characteristic indifference, but neither is much bothered by the presence of the other. The large, grey cat simply dozes as Seiji takes the half-formed violin and begins shaping the world, carving his heart with every stroke. He relishes the silence and concentration of the manual labor as he begins to forget everything, even losing track of time itself until he is interrupted by his grandfather's footsteps on the stairs. He silently appraises his own work: the violin is nowhere near finished, but has the potential to be good. Only now does he realize how tired and hungry he is; when Grandfather Nishi suggests food and a ride home, Seiji, who can no longer recall the girl's face, gratefully agrees.
Three months. That's how long it's been since he first laid eyes on her. Three full months. Spring has given way to summer. Seiji hasn't been to the library every day, but he's come pretty close. And he still hasn't spoken to her. He hasn't even been all that near her, unless walking by her table counts.
He can't help but feel completely ridiculous about his total lack of nerve. Should it really be so hard to introduce yourself to someone? To talk to them? Perhaps not, but her loses all semblance of courage whenever he is near her. Seiji observes her quietly from a safe distance, ridiculous feelings looming large, as he realizes just what about her is so unsettling. At her table, the girl is furiously writing something, stacks of books all around her. She gives every impression of being very difficult to reach, especially in the confines of the library. Intruding on her when she is concentrating so deeply just seems… wrong.
But of course, the library is the only place he sees her. If he wants any sort of chance with her, the barrier has to be broken. Seiji grabs a random title from the shelf and, moving quickly, sits down in the chair beside her and pretends to read. His heart is pounding, but the several inches between them could be miles, for all the notice she takes of him.
He feels awkward at the silence between them, though it is no less than what he expected. If he were someone confident and brave, he would already be speaking to her. He would be introducing himself, asking about her book, complimenting her, anything. But he is not. All he can do is sit with her in silence until he has to leave.
Seiji begins to check out books. All sorts of books. Fantasy, mystery, romance, sci-fi, horror- any and all books he can get his hands on. He doesn't read most of them; he's never been that much of a reader, certainly not to the extent that she seems to be. Some simply lay on his nightstand for the three weeks, untouched, until it is time for them to be returned. As long as his name is on the card, he doesn't really care. All he wants is his name on the checkout cards inside the books, as many cards as he can get.
In the continuous cycle of borrowing and returning books, he is forced to admit one thing to himself: his plan is crazy, borne of shyness and desperation.
For one thing, he doesn't even know her name. Any name he sees on any checkout card could be hers; she could have read all these books already. For another, she certainly doesn't know his name, and would be unlikely to ever notice it. And what if the library finally decided to get with the times and adopt a computerized system?
But despite this he continues to check out book after book, contenting himself with the impossible dream that one day she might pick up a book she's never read before and finally see him.
Seiji can't help but do a double take at the creased scrap of paper he holds between his index and thumb. Though the summer heat could be messing with him, he is fairly certain that the paper still reads Seiji Amasawa. His first and last names, scrawled in black ink like a reminder. He had found it crushed between the pages of a rather thick book, along with several other loose sheets of paper. The book had been lying under a bench near the school baseball field, as if someone had dropped or forgotten it.
Checking the inside cover, Seiji notices that the book is one of many that his father had donated to the school library many years before. Looking at the Amasawa stamp with a familiar twinge of resentment, he removes the checkout card from its pocket. On it there is a solitary name: Shizuku Tsukishima.
He's never heard the name before in his life. Wondering how in the world Shizuku Tsukishima would know his name, Seiji opens the book and begins to read what's written on the pieces of paper. They look like poems but aren't exactly; the words are poetic but they more closely resemble song lyrics. He soon recognizes them as alternate lyrics to that cliché graduation song, "Country Roads". The first set is nothing special, the words are nice, but generic. Another set is a clever parody entitled "Concrete Roads". But it is the final set of lyrics that really captures his attention. Though hastily written and only a few lines long, the words are beautiful, full of emotion and unmistakably real.
I dreamed of living alone but fearless,
Secret longing to be courageous.
Loneliness kept bottled up inside,
Just reveal your brave face, they'll never know you lied…
Seiji has been reading the book so intently-he doesn't know for how long-that he is badly startled by the sound of someone's sudden sharp intake of breath. He looks up at the intruder and feels his stomach plummet.
She is standing a mere few feet away from him, nervously. Seiji's heart gives a small leap as he takes her in. She is wearing a simple yellow cotton dress, and her hair shines in the mid-afternoon light. She looks beautiful, but the expression on her face makes Seiji want to burst out laughing. The girl is gaping at him, wide-eyed, in a manner so baffled it is almost comical. Her eyes suddenly fall on the book in his hand, and she gasps.
"You've got my book," she stammers at him, still staring as though she's never seen a boy before. Two things occur to Seiji at once: he finally knows her name, and he has finally heard her speak. Trying to keep cool, he gazes from the book to her.
"Ohh," he replies. "This is yours, is it?"
She nods dumbly in response. Seiji hoists himself off the bench and walks towards her, suddenly feeling as if everything is moving in slow motion. Silently struggling to keep calm, he hands the book to her, unable to look her in the eye as he says the only thing he can think of: "Here you go."
Feeling profoundly embarrassed, he quickly turns around and starts to walk up the steps, inwardly chastising himself. "Shizuku Tsukishima," he adds, deeply glad that his back is turned to her as he inexplicably blurts her name. She speaks up again.
"Wh… how do you know my name?" he hears her say. A little amused, Seiji smirks as he turns around to face her again. "Gee, take a wild guess," he replies.
Flushing crimson, she looks at the inside cover of the book. "Oh. The checkout card," she says in a small, embarrassed voice. A few awkward moments pass before Seiji is suddenly struck with inspiration.
"By the way, great lyrics," he says in a gently mocking tone, an eyebrow raised mischievously. "They're even cornier than the original version."
Seiji quickly turns around and walks away before he can see the indignation register on her face, although he can almost see it in his mind. He hears the sudden shriek from behind him, followed by the loud, shrill, "You READ this?!", yet he can't help but feel triumphant, like he's won a battle with himself. He's finally stopped all the secret longing and been courageous. If he had simply listened to his fear and handed her the book without a word, he would have never crossed her mind again.
How could she ever forget him now?
"So," thinks Seiji as he walks through the schoolyard, "all I need to do now is prove I'm a nice guy." Perhaps this glance granted in the waking world wasn't quite the stuff dreams are made of, but he has a great feeling that winning her over will be an adventure in itself. Off in the distance, he swears he can hear someone yelling "STUPID JERK!", but all he can do is grin.
Because although she doesn't know it yet, Shizuku Tsukishima knows his name.