Act 1 - Chapter One: Introductions
Another day. It starts so simply, like any other, I wake, I wash, I dress. I meet Lilly. I go to class. The teacher, Mutou-sensei, starts his lectures, as always. I avoid the looks of the others in the class. I try to ignore Misha's constant voice in my ear. Since I sit at the back of the room it's not so tough, however loud she can be. But there seems to be something different about today. I can't quite guess what it could be, but soon I don't need to. Just as homeroom ends, Mutou makes an announcement.
"Something I should have mentioned earlier, I guess, but we have a new student joining us today. Should be here soon, so please, try and make him feel welcome."
A new student. Great. Someone else to avoid.
It's not long before he arrives. A young man, tall, with mousey brown hair. As Mutou introduces him, I notice that there doesn't seem to be anything outwardly wrong with him. That's not so surprising. Yamaku is home to so many, with all sorts of disabilities and issues. We have deaf students, like our class rep Shizune. Some, like Lilly, are blind. A girl in another class has a severe heart condition. With others, it's more obvious. Missing limbs, stunted growth. Me.
As I look, I notice the new student looking back at me. I cover my face with my hands. I suppose I've always been a bit self conscious. Hardly a shock given my... condition. As I try to hide, Mutou speaks up.
"...please welcome our newest classmate."
And I realise that I have barely paid attention to what he was saying. He claps his hands together, and dutifully I do too, as does everyone else in the room. Except for those that can't, of course. In response, the new student bows his head a little.
"So... I'm Hisao Nakai. My hobbies are reading and soccer. I hope to get along well with everyone even though I'm a new student."
He says nothing more. After a pause, Mutou continues talking, about everyone getting along, and I space out again, though I make an effort to at least look like I'm listening. At least things are better here than in my old life. It never consoles me much.
As he finishes, everyone starts to clap again. And again, I clap too. I suppose he's not so bad. I always try to avoid other students where possible, save for Lilly, but the teachers are much more understanding. It often throws me, since almost none of them have a condition like the students at Yamaku do. And adults could often be as cruel to me in my early years as the other children were. But I've never been shown anything but kindness from Mutou-sensei, or the other faculty. It's like a small ray of light in the darkness. I notice Mutou talking to the new student. Hisao Nakai. When he turns away he announces that there will be group work, that we are to form sets of three.
What I do next surprises no-one. It's my usual reaction to group work. I simply can't handle it, and there's a sort of... understanding between me and the school. As I quietly leave without a word, I glance at Mutou, who nods silently before turning his attention to the rest of the class. A few eyes follow me, but it's nothing new. I keep on top of my other work, and my grades are always at least average. As long as I can show that I'm still learning something, then nobody questions me.
Yamaku claims to not accept students with mental disabilities. They simply don't have the resources or staff to deal with those people. A missing leg is fine, but if you have Down's Syndrome then you're out of luck. But it's not entirely true. There is a line, of course. But in some cases you can't go through the experience that disables you without some emotional damage. Some instability. I'm hardly an exception to that rule. And allowances can be made.
I go to my usual place of retreat, where I can feel safe from the world outside. Yuuko nods in greeting and we make the usual quiet conversation that has become a feature of my visits. We never have a lot to talk about. I ask her about new books that she promised to order, and then head to the back of the library, where I settle down on my favourite cushion. I start reading the textbook from Mutou's class, so as to catch up on what I miss by being here. A mere chapter later, I put the book down and pick up a new one, that I had started just a few days before. It's an old classic by Mary Shelley, an English author, but translated into Japanese. The time seems to fly by, as I lose myself in the pages. I almost feel a sense of empathy with the creature in the story, misunderstood, but treated as a monster by the ignorant masses. Scared and alone. But as I read, I notice something. The villagers, the doctor, they're scared too. And in their fear, they lash out.
I've read through almost the entire book by the time the bell rings. With a start I am brought back to the physical world, and I remember that it's now lunch time. I put the book away and gather my things, saying a brief goodbye to Yuuko as I leave the library and make my way to the tea room, to meet Lilly.
Lunch is finally over. I make my way back to Mutou's classroom and return to my seat at the back of the room, avoiding everyone's eye. Not many people have returned anyway. As I sit down, I look up and notice someone else enter. It's the new boy, Hisao Nakai. As our eyes meet, I blush a little and try to look away, when another figure crashes in. Misha always has a tendency to be loud, something I learned long ago. When Lilly and Shizune still spoke without daggers in their eyes. All the excitement is too much for me, and I sink further into my seat, making every effort to become invisible. How easier life would be if I could really do that! Misha and Shizune walk past me to their own seats, and I simply sit still as a rock, my nerves tense. In the corner of my eye I notice Hisao looking at me with a curious look on his face. Slowly, the room fills, Mutou arrives, and classes begin again.
A new day. Classes begin, same as always. More group work. I get up and quietly leave, with Mutou's silent blessing. This time,however, I can feel a new pair of eyes on me, watching me leave. I take the opportunity as I reach the door to glance sideways. I see Hisao looking at me with concern. He doesn't seem to notice me looking back. I wonder what he makes of my disappearances during class? He hasn't been at Yamaku long enough to realise it's a normal habit for me. I open the door, step out into the corridor, and make my way to the library.
A crashing sound startles me and wakes me from my reverie. It's been some time since I last looked at a clock, but the windows show the sun appears to be setting. I look around but see nothing that could have caused such a sound. Perhaps Yuuko just banged her head again – common enough with her clumsiness. I look back at the book I'm reading. I finished the Shelley book early on and soon moved on to a new topic, my interests ever changing as new reading material presents itself to me.
Going back to my reading, I hear footsteps. These aren't the footsteps of Yuuko, but rather a louder, heavier sound, more fitting of a tall male than the petite librarian. I realise that hearing people in the library is a rarity. Aside from the library staff the only people to come here regularly are myself and Lilly. Instinctively I raise the book to my face, hiding myself away while continuing to read. Over the top of the book, however, my eyes are still able to peek out and see who else is here.
Of course. The new boy, Hisao. I begin to shy away, sinking further into the beanbag cushion and keeping as much of my face hidden as possible. My eyes dart between the book and the newcomer, unable to focus on one or the other. I try to ignore him and continue reading but it proves impossible to avoid his gaze. He sits down on another beanbag, setting down a pile of books he has clearly picked from the stacks. His eyes meet mine, before they flick away to the book covering most of my face. I am unable to feel insulted, since my embarrassment far outweighs any injury I could feel at his actions.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."
His voice cuts across and tries to calm me down, a soothing sound almost tailor-made to put me at ease. The best I can do is stammer a quiet whispered response.
"It... it's okay."
"So, um... do you mind if I sit here?" He replies. To be perfectly honest, I don't know. I can hardly lay claim to the beanbags, or the library, but nevertheless I feel as though I would be unable to withstand such an attack, however unintended, on my own private space. He seems genuinely sorry to disturb me, though, and the look of concern in his eyes is enough to disarm me. I nod gently and say, "Oh... okay."
Hisao sits next to me and I bury my head once more in the book. As I try to concentrate, his voice resonates once more in my ears.
"Life of Pi... never heard of it." A pause. "So, errr... sorry again for startling you. I'm Hisao."
I already know this, of course. He introduced himself to the class, after all. Even so, I hesitate before replying.
"I... know. We... are in the same... same class." I can barely speak, so nervous and timid as I am. But Hisao is making an effort to be nice. It's more than anyone has ever done for me since I met Lilly and her sister. The least I can do is make an effort in return. "H-H-Hanako. I'm... Hanako."
The conversation stalls again. It's as though neither of us knows what to say. I know I don't. The silence is broken once again by Hisao.
"Don't let me interrupt your reading. I'll... just check these books, if you don't mind."
His voice sounds so uneasy. I nod, relieved, and sigh just a little. Silence falls once more, but I can't concentrate. My gaze flickers from the book to Hisao to the stacks to anywhere else. Like a deer caught in headlights. I feel as though just being here is uncomfortable for us both. Every time I see Hisao, his eyes are drawn to me, to my scars. It's unbearable. It isn't long before our eyes meet again.
I stand up, as if our eyes had caused an electric shock to run through me. I take a deep breath.
"I... I..." I stammer. Hisao responds with the same short sound. Then it comes rushing out of me, in a single breath.
I can't take it. The pressure, the nerves, the awkward silences. Hisao noticing my scars. As soon as the words leave my lips I run, reaching the counter and fleeing past Yuuko and Lilly, out of the library and away. As I leave I notice that Hisao has followed, much too late, and looking back in the corridor I see he hasn't followed far. He hasn't even left the library. I'm glad of that. I couldn't face seeing him again after what just happened. I slow down, walking to the tea room. As I reach the door, Lilly appears in the corridor behind me. She must have left to find me after I ran. She can't see me, of course, so maybe she assumed I would come to the tea room, the closest place where I can feel safe. I wait until she gets closer, then gently call her name. "Lilly!"
"Hanako? Is that you?"
"Yes," I reply. My voice is weak and soft, as always, but there can be no mistaking me for anyone else at this point. Since it's so late, most students are in their dorm rooms, or club meetings, so chances are Lilly and I are among the only students still roaming the hallways.
"Hanako, is everything alright? What happened just now?"
"It's fine," I tell her. "Everything is okay. I just... just panicked a little."
"Why? Did something happen to you?"
"N... no. I'm just... not used to people being in... in the library."
I know my words sound false. But it's the truth. I go there for books, yes, but also because it's a quiet place to hide away. Sometimes I've wondered if my behaviour could be considered... healthy. My experiences and the trauma were enough reason for Yamaku Academy to request a therapist see me at weekends, to help me work through it all. But it hasn't helped much at all. Still, it's not as though I have no friends. I have Lilly, and Akira. And Yuuko. Even if I do keep them rather distant at times.
Lilly doesn't appear to be too happy with my explanation, though she knows I really do mean it. Nevertheless she decides not to push the topic. We go into the room and drink tea, and talk about various things. Classes, Akira's work, the school festival. I realise that I left my school bag at the library, in the rush to escape, so Lilly convinces me to return for it. I dread seeing Hisao again, but thankfully he seems to have left, so I am able to retrieve my bag without incident. I say goodbye properly to Yuuko, and head back to my dorm room with Lilly.