The sky is so bright, milky and beautiful.
"Oh," I say.
"Oh – oh - - oh," echoes back to me.
How curious! I have been lying down - I must have been sleeping. Goodness, sleeping outside? But the grass is lovely, soft, perfectly tended to. Surely there must be a gardener? I look around and see no one. No one and nothing. Not a building, not a car, not a bench or streetlight. There are a few trees, though they don't cluster and wouldn't hide anything. When I get up I notice I am barefoot. I am barefoot and my dress – the one I put on this morning – has lost all of its colour, now white as the sky.
There is a faint smell of spring flowers, though I can't see any and it isn't spring, or is it? I make the decision and walk towards the trees. Even the sound of my feet on the ground ripples in the air. Nothing and no one and yet I don't mind. When I try to picture the faces of those I want to see, they grow murky, warped; reflections on an agitated surface. I begin to wonder if there was ever anyone but me. Someone must have made this dress – or did I?
I realise I have been walking some time and the trees aren't getting any closer, truth be told, it seems they are painted onto the sky. How strange. If they are painted, there must be a surface. If there's a surface, there must come an end. I continue. The air moves gently, not hot, not cold. There are no insects, no buzzing, just the sound of me; my breath, my feet, my strange white dress rustling as I move.
The new sound comes as a wonderful surprise, like a clarinet in a symphony (where did that come from?) It is a humming, a thud-thud-thudding. I laugh and the air laughs back at me. I run towards this other sound and there it is!
The someone sits with their back to me. They have thin shoulders, a white shirt and hair the colour of the sun. They are humming a song, the tune of which waits at the edge of my memory.
I approach and sit beside the someone; they don't seem to mind. The thud-thud is from the someone's heels, which bounce against the ground in a distracted way. They turn to look at me.
"Haruka." I say instinctively.
The person tilts their head and smiles. "Yes? Is that me?"
"I think so," I say, "And I am…" I lose my words. "I don't know. How funny!"
It is funny. We laugh for a moment, or maybe a day, and the sound bounces back, starting the joke again and again, like splashes from a waterfall.
"It's fine," says Haruka, "It's very simple. I am called 'Mi' and you are called 'Yu'.
"So I am Yu?"
"Yes," she says, "Then we can always know."
"How long is always?" I ask.
"Well, as long as we are here."
"How long have you been here?"
"I'm not sure, but I don't remember anywhere else."
"Oh," I say, "oh," and tears spring to my eyes and they fall and fall and make a sound like thunder. But I can't explain them.
"You're raining," says Mi.
"Yes," I say, "Isn't it strange?"
Mi looks up at the sky. There is a black patch growing, expanding like spilt ink. It stretches and melts the white of the sky and little points of light prick through. They are… they are the scars in the sky…?
"I have to go now," says Mi and she gets to her feet.
"Oh," I say, "Please don't."
She smiles and puts a hand on my head and looks above her.
"What is 'don't'?"
Before I can answer she has jumped up, leapt, and nothing, not gravity nor wind nor the force of my wishing prevents her ascent. She gets smaller and smaller in my vision until I can't distinguish her form from the twinkling little lights.
Air floods my lungs. Light, warm, true light rushes in to distort my sight. I am in my room, in my bed. It could be afternoon. I breathe out and - oh - there is pain. Rippling and rising pain. My chest feels irreparably crushed; I could have been strung up as a punching bag and felt better. I cough. Somehow I can still taste smoke. With every little movement a new injury is discovered. Bruising, torn muscle, raw flesh; I will survive. It is my next thought that sends me wishing for unconsciousness to return, or at least a return to that strange dream location.
Free me of these pains and absolve me of my sins. Wipe away my memory for it is here that Haruka loses the light in her eyes. It is this place that she leaves me.
I sit up, cringing through the sharp and dull pains. I put my hands to my eyes, gasp as though air is scarce; weep as though the world has ended. No consolation in safety or familiarity. I am lost in sadness, drowning.
It isn't long before the noise attracts footsteps. My mother comes in to the room and – shockingly – my father follows. He looks ruffled, clothes unusually creased. I think he is wearing a sweater I had bought him. I sniff. I try to gather myself. My mother rushes to me.
"Oh darling!" She holds my face, "Is it the pain? Shall I call…?"
"No, no." I say. There is no doctor. No fixing this. "Hello?" I look up to my father.
"Hello, trouble." He breaks into a smile, blinking a little too often. "Do you ever cause your mother grief?"
"So it would seem." I say, swallowing down the word grief.
"I hear you ran in to save a friend, what on earth were you thinking?"
I can't stop myself. I start to try and explain and begin to cry again. "I thought I could… that I could… help."
And what help had I been after all? All the power and hope invested in me and what had I done? My parents stay with me for some time, ask too often whether I am hungry (no) or thirsty (all the time) and calm me back to sleep. I awake sometime the next morning to a foreign sound. Elza? My mother? I can't make out words, but the voices are certainly raised. What can it be? My heart pounds. They draw closer, footsteps louder.
"Is that what it takes?" Elza's voice, "What if I were a husband, huh? A boyfriend?"
"Please, she's just sleeping at the-"
The door to my room crashes open, hits loudly against the wall. I flinch. Elza pauses in her tirade, her face awash with concern. My mother follows at a little distance. They are in the same space, in my space. I am breathing quickly, panic taking over.
"Oh, darlin' what's happened, huh?" Elza drops down beside the bed, kisses my face.
I am too shocked to respond. I look to my mother, she turns, arms folded, looking to the window as though some great abuse has been done to her.
"Elza," I manage, "Elza wait, I…"
"I'll be downstairs." My mother walks out. My chest aches.
We listen for the footfalls as they grow quieter.
"She wanted to keep me out!" Elza starts.
"She was only trying to look after me."
"What to save you from – "
"No, probably so that I could get enough rest to re-join… the living."
"Been a bit zombified, on your meds, huh?"
"I don't think I've had anything…"
"You don't? Honey, you were sure rigged up to some good lookin' stuff."
"When? What happened?"
"Sunday. Bombs went off on Sunday."
"What day is it today, then?"
"Honestly, when I saw you I was sure you were done. A goner. Don't know how they scraped you out but they did…"
"Not sure. This woman with a baby."
"Someone from the school?"
"No, it was weird, definitely not one of the teachers, I thought she must have been nuts taking a little kid into that kind of situation…"
Or out of it, I wonder? I close my eyes. My head spins.
"The woman, did she have long - really long - dark hair?"
"She did, yeah, someone you know?"
"I'm not sure," I say honestly, "Elza?" I swallow.
"Yeah?" She says softly. It only makes this feel worse.
"What happened with… with Haruka?" I don't change her name. It feels wrong to do so now. I think of Ikeda's story of her, how she was denied the right to send off her deceased lover. Is that how I see myself? How I think of her?
Elza adopts the same quiet look of my mother's. Hurt.
"I don't know, to be honest. I haven't heard anything. We've all been reallocated to different schools, hostels. They're pretending that we'll be giving the final exams a good go. Pretending it's all a minor set-back.
"I'm sorry. I liked her too, y'know? I'm hoping she used the whole thing to get away to some tropical island or something. Took that damn noisy bike a million miles from here."
"Sounds good," I whisper, "Thank you."
Elza watches me for a while, smiling in that same unhappy way. Then she sighs, runs a hand over my hair. I close my eyes, and take a moment to enjoy this small feeling of familiarity. Another goodbye.
"The thing is, I came here with this speech in mind. Got real fired up, y'know?" She sits on the edge of my bed. "I was going to wake you like Prince Charming, or somethin', I was going to tell you I'd been called back home after the school went up in flames. I was gonna say how they could all go to hell, how I didn't need a school to keep me here, and how I was old enough, I could find a place, and anyways I was… in love… with this girl. With you."
She pauses, looks over cautiously. I'm not shocked. I'm not overwhelmed, I just look back.
"But… you were already awake and – I guess – you weren't waiting for me. You were always waiting for someone else, so…"
"Elza, it didn't feel like that – "
"No, no look, it's okay, it's okay to know and I can go and – we'll write won't we? – You've got to keep me updated on this crazy country and, y'know, Ikeda…" She gets up.
She smiles in the saddest way I've ever known.
"I'll miss you I say."
"Yeah," she walks to the door, "I've been missing you for a while."
Elza leaves. Time and misery swirl around my bed. Even if I were able, I don't think I want to get up. I don't want to wander through a strange and ignorant world. I fall into a dreamless sleep. I am awoken by my mother with a tray of soup and rice. The smells are too intense. I am overfilled with sadness; I have no space for anything else. She sits on my bed all the same and we watch the night air play with the curtains, revealing and concealing a sky salted with stars.
"You never told me you had… someone special."
"I'm sorry." I say. The thick depression that had grown over me dulls these other things; fear, shame, physical pain. "We've broken up if that helps."
"Oh," says my mother, "Oh was that…?"
"My decision." I say. "Well, in as much as any of these things are as simple as a decision."
"There's someone else?"
"There," I swallow, "I suppose, yes, someone else." Neptune. I guess I will learn to think of her as someone else, an apparition to wash away in my memory.
"Also not a man?"
"Also not a man." I confirm.
"Oh." She says, looking outside again.
"I'm sorry she barged in like that. She can be a little bit…"
"Very." I confirm.
We laugh. I feel a little warmer, a little closer to being human. We talk a bit. My mother with stories of her first boyfriend, of my father's methods of wooing. Just as I feel closer to sleep she presents the card.
"Perhaps tomorrow," my mother says lightly, "Perhaps you'd like to write a thank you note? That woman was so lovely waiting with you at the hospital…"
"Which woman? Who?" My heart pounds. Could she still be…?
"Meioh Setsuna," my mother reads out, "I asked for her business card, she seemed happy enough that you contact her…"
"She had long hair? That was her?"
"Yes, she did, yes, a lovely-looking woman. Beautiful little baby too, such big eyes." My mother pauses, a suspicious look growing. "She's not your…?"
I am stumped. Could she know, did I somehow reveal the content of my dreams? Did she see me as Neptune and...?
"You're not seeing a… married woman are you?"
"Michiru, I would have thought you had been brought up better than to break up a – "
"Mother, no." I actually break into a smile. "No, she's an old friend."
The dubious expression doesn't leave. I have to stop myself from laughing.
"She's lovely," I say, nodding slowly, "only, not really my type."