A/N: Hello readers and (what I assume to be) My Neighbor Totoro fans! This is my first and possibly last story in this fandom, so I thank you in advance for reading the work of an unfamiliar author :) As I mentioned in the summary, this story deals with some thematic elements, so if you're not comfortable with mild violence and teenage angst, I would suggest that you go find a happier read :P Hope you guys enjoy the story!
"Thanks for the ride, sir."
As Mei turned to swing her long legs out the taxi door, the driver suddenly grabbed her hand. She turned to him with questioning eyes and he offered her a smile.
"Things will get better sweetheart. I promise. Just keep your chin up, alright?"
Mei's half-hearted smile bordered on a grimace. She hated the way rumors spread about her. "I really hope so," she replied. And with that, she yanked her pink and yellow polka dot suitcase from the car and took her first few steps on the dirt path that led to her childhood.
Mei stepped through the open doorway of the run-down cottage, lugging her suitcase behind her. She poked her head around a corner.
"Daddy?" she called.
Mei frowned. She hoped her father hadn't forgotten about her visit. However, the unmistakable smell of sushi soon beckoned her into the kitchen, where she found him hunched over a table with a knife in his hand and her mother's old apron tied around his neck.
Mei approached her father cautiously and gently placed on hand on his shoulder. He spun around in surprise, sending fish guts flying everywhere.
"Oh, Mei!" he exclaimed, his wrinkled face pale with shock. "I wasn't expecting you to be here so early!"
Mei shrugged her shoulder. "I left as soon as I got your telegram."
For a moment his gray eyes clouded with confusion, but they quickly sparkled with remembrance. "Oh, of course, the telegram! How could I have forgotten?"
Mei nodded absent-mindedly while her eyes traced her father's features. It had been almost five years since the last time she had seen him, but it looked as though fifty had passed. Time was obviously not on his side.
Suddenly unable to contain herself, Mei threw her arms around her father passionately, tears flowing down her face. He stumbled back a few steps, caught off guard by this sudden display of affection.
"There, there..." he mumbled awkwardly as he patted her on the back with his free hand. For a brief moment it rested on her waistline. "My, you have lost quite of a bit of weight, haven't you?" he remarked, intending it as a compliment.
Mei cried even harder.
"Grow up, Mei."
"When are you gonna realize that nobody likes you?"
"You're fat and ugly."
"Just go home, crybaby."
Mei cringed as the hurtful words rung in her ears like a thousand tolling bells. Carefully she rolled her sleeves up and stretched out her arms so that the pale lines covering them were illuminated in the light of a nearby lamp. Her eyes roamed over the mass of scars intertwining above her veins with a sort of horrific fascination. Had she really done this to herself just because of some stupid kids she had met at a park?
No. It had been much, much more than that. Maybe the swing set incident had been, as her therapist called it, the "tip of the iceberg", but it certainly hadn't been the solo catalyst for her turning into a cutter.
Cutter. Mei despised that word more than anything else in the entire world. It sounded so crude and shallow, like the person whom it described sat around and pierced herself with a razor blade just for kicks and giggles. At least the way Mei's guidance counselor described her habit actually made her sound semi-human.
"You were emotionally traumatized as a child by the people you cared most about, and now all those hard feelings that you never let go of are starting to resurface, kind of like sand in the ocean after a bad storm. By cutting yourself, it's almost as though you're releasing some of those negative feelings in a physical way, so for a temporary time, it actually feels good. But in reality, you're only hurting yourself more."
Well, duh. Mei had wanted to say. What I wanna know is how to make it stop.
That solution to that hadn't come until months later, after her worst cutting incident took place inside of the dormitory she shared at the all-girls' boarding school her father had sent her after her mother's death. Deprived of her razor blades by her concerned roommate, Mei had desperately resorted to slicing her wrists with butter knives she had stolen from the cafeteria. One wrong move later and she found herself nearly unconscious from blood loss on the linoleum floor. With what little strength she had remaining she feebly dialed 9-1-1 and left it to ring, praying that someone would find her.
After what seemed like hours a group of paramedics burst into the room, and after a long night in the local hospital she was transferred to Jules' Rehabilitation Center for Troubled Females. It was there that she met Miss Annie, who helped her to identify the real causes of her downward spiral into self-affliction: her mother's surrender to a mysterious illness she had battled with for years, her sister leaving for college immediately after their mother's death in order to escape from their grief-stricken home, her heartbroken father absorbing himself in his work to keep his mind off the pain and eventually becoming as distant to her as the moon is from the sun.
Mei had rattled off all of these reasons without even realizing it while Miss Annie smiled and nodded encouragingly. By the time she finished, it felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders. While her therapist finished with her note-taking, she busied herself examining the fresh bandages wound around her arms, deeply absorbed in her own thoughts. After a few moments of hesitation she met her scared eyes with those of her therapist.
The woman immediately sensed something was wrong.
"What is it, dear?" she pressed kindly. "Is there something you want to ask me?"
Mei took a deep breath. "Yeah. Miss Annie, what's it called when you eat a bunch of food and then throw up to make yourself skinnier?"
"That," Miss Annie replied matter-of-factly, "is an eating disorder known as bulimia. It's most prevalent in young teenage girls such as yourself and is often caused by low self-esteem."
"Oh," Mei said as she lowered her eyes to her waistline, which had sunk several sizes within the past few months. She began to think about her sister Satsuki; her older, smarter, more perfect sister Satsuki, the one with the gorgeous black hair and great personality. She then thought of herself; her dumpy little red-haired self, whom nobody seemed to see as more than an incompetent child.
Mei looked up again. "Miss Annie?"
"I think... I think I'm bulimic."
It seemed like eons had passed since Mei had finally come to terms with her eating disorder, but six months of intense emotional therapy later and here she was, sitting cross-legged on her sleeping bag, watching the fireflies perform their nightly dance. She paid particular attention to one that seemed a little off-balance from the rest and giggled as it struggled to stay in step with its friends.
Suddenly it disappeared. Mei gasped and scrambled to where the poor flickering creature had fallen and landed on the soft bed of a dandelion. Cupping her hands together, she gently lifted it up from the ground and began murmuring as she stroked its battered wings. The firefly seemed to sense her concern. Quickly it leaped into the air and flew away to join its friends again.
Mei smiled, glad that the firefly had once again found its place. She then shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. The cool breeze had suddenly picked up, rattling the various pots and pans randomly strewn about on the porch. Mei's eyes traveled across her porch until they reached the edge, then continued on past her yard to the nearby forest of trees that overlooked her house. Her mouth immediately formed the word that her mind thought.
And suddenly she was a child again, sprinting barefoot across the dew-covered grass towards the bushes that surrounded the forest. As she neared one particular bush hope began to well in her heart just as tears welled in her eyes from the stinging force of the wind. Closing her eyes, she whispered a prayer and dove into the brush...
...only to reappear on the side facing her house.
Confused, Mei decided to try again.. and again... and again... and again, with the same result every time. Disappointed and covered in burrs, Mei slowly trudged back to the house, tears of hurt streaming down her face.
Maybe Satsuki was right. Maybe there was no such thing as Totoro. Maybe he had only been a figment of her imagination, a fairytale from her past. Perhaps looking for him was the same as trying to chase a white butterfly against a snowy background- hopeless. After all, what had trying to convince anyone otherwise gotten her last time? From her father, doubt. From her mother, a sort of false excitement over her daughter's new "friend". And from her sister...
"A botanist? That is so selfish of you, Mei!" Satsuki cried as she stared at her sister in disbelief over the top of an overflowing suitcase. It was the night before she left for medical school, and Mei had foolishly confided in her sister with what she wanted to do when she grew up.
"Seriously, though. Think about it. There are people like Mom who are dying every single day, and all you care about is watering a bunch of stupid flowers? That is just... so... ugh!" Satsuki slammed down the lid of her suitcase and glared at Mei with flaring nostrils.
Mei's face turned the color of a freshly picked cherry. She wished she could curl into a ball and disappear. "But Satsuki..." she said timidly. "T-totoro likes flowers..."
At this her sister's angry eyes softened. "Mei," she said slowly and sympathetically, as though she was talking to a two-year-old, "When are you going to get over those silly childhood fantasies? It's time for both of us to move on in the real world."
Mei's eyes widened and she began to back away from Satsuki. Her voice trembled as she whispered "W-what? You-you don't believe in T-totoro anymore? But he's... he's our friend!"
Satsuki rubbed her temple in frustration, as though she couldn't believe the stupidity of her younger sister. "No I don't, and neither should you Mei," she snapped. "Don't you see? Totoro was just a part of our imagination, something to occupy us from thinking about Mom while she was in the hospital. Now that she's gone, you don't need him anymore. We don't need him anymore. So I want you to stop talking about him. Okay?"
Speechless, Mei fled her sister's room, tears of fury streaming down her pudgy cheeks. Suddenly she cried out in pain as she stumbled over something sharp and metal. Looking down at her foot, she gasped to see scarlet-colored liquid oozing from a gash in her toe. Numbly she picked up a bloody razor blade from beneath her foot.
Without even realizing what she was doing or why she was doing it, Mei ran towards the bathroom, clutching the razor blade in her fist. Once safely inside she locked the door behind her. Heart pounding, she crouched beside the toilet and, after a moment's hesitation, slid the blade deliberately across her wrist. Blood gushed from the opening as a small, sick smile crept across her face.
Mei had been only eleven years old when that happened, and it had been a long and bloody battle since. Not long afterward the playground bullying incident occurred, which intensified the cutting as well as brought bulimia into the picture. Mei soon found herself regularly dealing not only with the searing pain from the blade but also with the sensation of fire burning in her throat.
As time went on, Mei's secret habits began to spin out of her control until they eventually became addictions that wreaked havoc on both her social and academic life. After word of her failing grades spread to her over-achieving sister, she began to receive nasty phone calls demanding what her problem was. However, her sister's furious rants weren't nearly as painful as the way in which her father expressed his disappointment- through tragic, unbearable silence.
And it had been that way ever since. Of course, neither her father nor her sister knew about Mei's dark secrets… not until the butter knives incident, anyway. Satsuki had been absolutely mortified ("How dare you treat your body in such a way! Don't you realize how lucky you are? You should be ashamed!") while her father merely handed her a pamphlet for rehab, and that was the end of that.
Of course, therapy had in no way cured Mei's self-esteem issues or the heartache she felt whenever she thought about her past, but it had succeeded in stopping her from lashing out at herself. Months had passed since she had picked up a razor blade or bent over the toilet with one hand clutching her stomach and the other halfway down her throat. She finally saw her habits for what they were- ugly attempts to fix her own brokenness.
As Mei crawled into her sleeping bag, she silently vowed to herself that she would cease believing in characters from bedtime stories. After all, she reminded herself, what good did Totoro do for me when I needed a friend the most?
And on that thought, Mei drifted into a dreamless sleep.
She awoke to the all-too familiar smell of freshly caught salmon. Mei rolled her eyes beneath closed eyelids. If there was one thing that hadn't changed about her father, it was the fact that he believed in eating fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and even dessert on occasion. Yawning, Mei stood up and shuffled groggily towards the kitchen to help her father with the first of the three meals.
However, as she passed the full-body mirror that had been given to her mother as a wedding present, Mei couldn't help but pause in front of it. Her eyes traveled up and down her reflection the same way they had done countless times in the past, absorbing every single detail along the way- her sleepy emerald-colored eyes, the patch of freckles that sat upon the bridge of her nose, a bedhead that overflowed with strawberry blonde hair.
But this time, it was with disgust instead of admiration that Mei took in the sight of her hollow cheekbones and pale, gangly arms and legs. She looked malnourished. It sickened her to think that she had once considered this emaciated shadow of herself even mildly attractive.
I'm even uglier than I was before the bulimia, she thought bitterly.
And then it happened. She was suddenly surrounded by a blinding flash of white light that caused her to stumble backwards from the mirror. When it finally cleared, she looked up to see something that caused her to gasp. Carved into the beautiful oak frame of the mirror was a crudely written message that read in Japanese:
Mei Is Beautiful.
She lie sprawled upon the warm shingles of the cottage roof, basking in the midday glow of the sun perched high above the cotton ball clouds. Every so often her fingers throbbed with the pain of the blisters that had recently formed on them. After months of being waited on hand and foot by people who feared her emotional instability, Mei had forgotten what it was like to do hard labor for hours under the blazing sun... not that she minded harvesting vegetables with Granny, of course. She had even gotten a chance to catch up with a now twenty-year-old Kanta, who was on summer break from the same college Satsuki attended.
That, of course, was no surprise. Kanta and her older sister had been inseparable since the first fateful summer they became neighbors. At this point, Mei was just waiting for their wedding invitation... that is, if Satsuki even decided to invite her.
Mei sighed as she rolled over onto her stomach, thinking of the carefree days when she and Satsuki had spent hours on end exploring every inch of the forest and prancing around the yard in gleeful pursuit of their furry friends. Imaginary or not, Totoro had done something that Mei could no longer do – he had kept the sisters together.
Wiping a tear from her eye, Mei struggled to her feet and turned to face the scarlet embers of the sunset that was slowly sinking beyond the horizon. Totoro isn't real, she told herself firmly as she turned to climb down from the roof.
And then it happened.
A loose shingle slipped from beneath Mei's foot, causing her to lose her balance. After a few terrorizing moments of attempting to regain it, she tipped to the side and tumbled, screaming, towards the edge of the roof. Miraculously she was able to catch hold of the storm drain before plummeting to the ground below.
Mei whimpered as she dangled a good thirty feet above the earth. She knew that if she let go, there was a good chance of her breaking quite a few bones, one of these being her neck. But she also knew that she couldn't hang on forever, and her father wouldn't be home from his teaching job for another few hours. It was pointless to scream for help; the nearest neighbor lived miles away. Maybe letting go would be for the better... maybe her family and friends would be better off without her... maybe no one would even miss her or remember her name. Maybe...
Mei Is Beautiful.
The words flashed in Mei's mind at the same time a wave of dizziness crashed down on her like a ton of bricks. No. Someone out there cared. Someone out there didn't want her to die. She had to fight. She had to hold on. For... for...
"For Totoro," Mei whispered before losing her grip on the storm drain as well as reality.
It felt as though she was falling in slow motion. Brightly-colored images of Mei's childhood danced through her mind while she waited patiently for the brutal impact of the hard surface below. She had surrendered to her fate and could only hope that whatever heaven had in store for her could make up for all of the crap she had experienced here.
She landed on something soft and fluffy.
Mei's heart pounded inside of her chest as her fingers curled around the tufts of fur that had somehow cushioned her fall. Her body moved up and down in a sort of rhythmic pulse, as though she was lying on top of some humungous creature's swelling chest. Hardly daring to breathe, much less believe, Mei slowly opened her eyes...
...and was met with another pair that was twice the size of hers.
Mei's eyes goggled and her mouth flapped open and shut. Despite the fact that she knew she was staring straight into Totoro's eyes, part of her refused to believe this was actually happening. Maybe she had been knocked unconscious when she hit the ground and this was merely an elaborate dream that she would eventually wake up from.
...But then again, if this was indeed a dream, why not enjoy it while it lasted?
Mei's mouth spread into a delighted grin that for once reached her eyes. "Totoro!" she squealed, a note of triumph in her high-pitched voice, and threw her arms around her friend's great fluffy chest. Tears cascaded down her cheekbones and were immediately absorbed by his cotton-like fur.
Totoro let out a small grunt of disapproval.
"Sorry about that," Mei sniffled. "It's just that I... I really missed you." She buried her face in his chest to muffle to sobs. "I didn't think you were ever coming back."
Totoro's large, unblinking eyes showed offense at the girl's apparent lack of faith in his loyalty.
"Sorry," Mei apologized yet again. "It's just that a lot of people have been leaving me recently. Mom, Satsuki, Dad..." Her voice trailed away sadly. "I did bad things to myself, Totoro. Really bad things. I'm sorry." She hung her head in shame.
Totoro tilted his head and licked his lips, and Mei knew from the kindness in his eyes that she had been forgiven. She smiled. Suddenly a burning sensation shot through her wrists. It felt as though her entire arms were engulfed in flames. She gasped in pain and yanked her arms in front of her face. Her mouth dropped open in amazement at what she saw.
The milky white scars on Mei's wrists were shimmering as though lined with hundreds of miniscule diamonds. She looked from her arms to Totoro's eyes and back again and was shocked to find that the scars had melted away as though they had never even been there.
Mei was speechless as she stared at her scar-free arms and then at Totoro's twinkling gaze. She had always known that there was something magical about her friend, but even she could hardly believe what had just happened.
"H-how d-did you..." she stammered. But instead of finishing her question, she simply hugged him again and whispered "Thank you."
Totoro squeezed his eyes shut and grinned, then opened his mouth and drew in a long, noisy breath. Instinctively Mei covered her ears with her hands as he let out a mighty roar that shook frantically cawing birds from the distant treetops. She then clutched Totoro's fur tightly as he leaped to his feet and shot into the sky. He wrapped his large arms around her protectively, but Mei knew there was nothing to fear. She had taken flights like this countless times before and knew that all she had to do was hang on and she would be safe.
Mei watched in awe as the sun made its final descent and the first stars of the night made their humble appearance. A cloud of soot sprites flew past, and she giggled as one went out of its way to tickle her feet as if to say hello. The wind whipped through her hair and filled her mouth with the glorious taste of summer. She shivered, and Totoro wrapped his arms even more tightly around her. And it was then that Mei knew that this was far, far from a dream. This was real life, and for once it was even better.
After what felt like a wonderful eternity, Mei felt the thud of Totoro's gigantic feet settling on the uppermost branch of the gigantic tree that loomed over her home and knew that it was safe for her to depart from his chest. As she stood teetering on top of what what seemed like the entire world stretched out like a map beneath her gaze, Mei felt tears, these ones of happiness, welling in her eyes.
"I can't wait to tell my father and Satsuki about this," she whispered.