"I-Iwanako!" Molly stammers, her swarthy complexion suddenly going unusually pale. "I didn't… I mean… I didn't—well, I knew you were back from the hospital, but, er—you—I didn't expect to find you out here!" Her last words are all rushed together, like it was some final, desperate push to get to the end of the sentence.
I quirk an eyebrow at her, puzzled by her seemingly totally unwarranted air of panic. Her eyes are bugging out like I caught her with both hands in the proverbial cookie jar. It's the first time I've seen or heard from her since the hallway collision, and her behavior is troublingly odd.
"Um. Sorry about that?" I blink at her, nonplussed. "I was just, um, sitting here, enjoying my book. …As one does."
For a while, I was trying to aimlessly wander the school grounds, being careful to maintain a wide berth around the mural (which I began thinking of as the "Tezuka Zone,") but any student I passed by would shoot me looks, so I decided to make my way someplace quieter. Wandering behind the dormitories, I found an obscure, forgotten-looking little gate that led, delightfully, to a shady, wooded park. It didn't look like anybody was around, and I was eager to get out of the sun, so I blithely made my way in. The path carved in a whole lot deeper than I was expecting, and once I realized that all this walking was becoming painfully close to meeting the Nurse's forbidden standards of exertion, I decided to break off the beaten path and find some place to sit down and relax.
That was how I came across this quaint, earthy little grove with plenty of shade and a flat, smooth boulder of gneiss right in the center, just perfect for sitting on. I'd meant just to cool down for a couple of minutes and make my way back to the school grounds, but the air was so nice, and the light was just perfect, and it was so quiet out here that I decided to take the opportunity to finish the book I started last night; I knew that if I didn't finish it soon, I never would.
A character had just been executed for stealing a teapot when Molly stumbled out from the trees, saw me, and suppressed a startled squeak. It was surprising for both of us, but evidently horrifying for her.
"Is… everything okay? Am I not supposed to be out here or something?"
"N, no, you're fine!" She holds her arms out, as if pushing the question away. "I just—I just didn't think I'd run into anybody out here, that's all! And certainly not you, I mean… you look well! That's great!"
"Um. Thanks…?" I say, unnerved by her weird enthusiasm. "I came back from the hospital a few hours ago. I only needed a few days to recover."
"Yeah, hey, it's great to see you! I was really worried about you! You looked pretty messed up when Ibarazaki slammed into you. It was really scary."
"I—" I pause, contemplating what I should say. Molly's being so transparently nervous, bordering on shady, that this whole conversation feels uncomfortably phony. "Well, it wasn't as bad as it probably looked," I say, finally. "You know, I really wasn't doing much in the hospital. You could have come by, if you wanted."
"Right, uh," she stammers again, fingering one of her pigtails nervously, "I really would have! But we've been so busy with Festival preparations that there wasn't really time and—"
"No, sorry, I didn't mean to come off as trying to guilt-trip you. It really wasn't that important."
She seems to ignore my placating comment, though, as she glances over her shoulder for something in the distance. All right, I'm starting to get really sick of this. I've never seen somebody who so obviously had something to hide.
"Molly, seriously," I say, putting some steel into my voice—well, it's aluminum at best, we're not all blessed in the lower octaves—"Is something wrong? What is it you're doing out here?"
"No, no! Nothing's wrong!" She waves her arms again for emphasis. "I just came out here for some air, and—I really am happy to see you, but the reception on my phone is terrible out here, so I'm going to head back to the school. See you tomorrow, maybe? Or on Monday, right?"
"Have a good evening, Iwanako! I'm glad you're doing all right!"
"See you!" she says, moving sharply back in the direction from which she came. It's kind of awkward, because the slope of the ground against the gait of her prosthetic legs results in the most lackadaisical-looking retreat I've ever seen. I suppose we're both supposed to participate in the illusion that she's sprinting away, because that's apparently what she'd be doing right now, were it possible. This is profoundly awkward.
What on earth was that, Molly? Are we still friends, or…?
Well, I suppose that for now it's not really that important, one way or the other. I'll run into her again eventually, and sooner or later I'll find out why she keeps having these suspicious, frantic, moments. Not that I think it's any of my business, but, well… she's been doing a really poor job of establishing the boundaries of whatever kind of friendship we were supposed to be building, and it would be nice to know more clearly whatever's going on with her.
…Also, I need to figure out a tactful way to communicate that whatever brand of mascara she had on really wasn't working for her.
Sighing, I return to my book. It only takes me another thirty minutes or so to get to the ending, which is kind of pointless and depressing. I guess that's supposed to be a metaphor, but I'm not really in the mood to puzzle it all out, so I close the book and set it back in my school bag.
Checking my phone, I note that it's almost five-fifteen. (I also note, wryly, that I'm getting fairly decent phone reception out here, so perhaps Molly uses a different carrier.)
Really, though, perhaps it's been absurd of me to think of Molly as a "friend." We've known each other for, what, three days? Honestly, maybe even "knowing each other" is describing it a little too strongly. Getting right down to it, all I really know about her is that she's from Kobe, has no legs, and belongs to the main clique of girls in our classroom. She was (mostly) welcoming and amiable for the first two-and-a-half days I was in class, and today she was blatantly disinterested and weirdly evasive. That's breaking even at best.
Then again, the pendulum also swings the other way. How much does anybody here know about me? Just that I'm from Shibuya, and that I'm bad at science class, and that I can't swim, and that I have a potentially fatal heart problem. I've been intentionally holding back, both because I don't truly believe there's enough time left in the school year to establish fulfilling friendships and because I don't want people to know how much of a disaster I am.
(Really, though, the cat's kind of out of the bag with that. The Ibarazakis saw my tantrum the other day, and Nurse definitely knows something's up… If Yamaku really has "an industrial-strength rumor mill," like Momomi said, it's probably only a matter of time…)
Of course, if I really want to be bold and self-critical—and I may as well, it's a longish walk back to the dorms—I have to at least entertain the notion that my whole reckoning of the idea of "friendship" is and always has been absolutely godawful. I've always used the word "friend" to describe two starkly different collectives: those people I had absolute faith in and would follow straight into Hell (group membership: one), and those people I could tolerate long enough to chat with over afternoon tea on a semi-regular basis (group membership: literally every other friend I've ever had, ever.)
That really was the dichotomy, before my heart attack—an enormous group of people who meant absolutely nothing to me, and a single person who…
Hey! In fact, let's not go there.
At any rate, none of those friends are a part of my life anymore. My larger group of friends, particularly the girls from my old club, pretty much spat me out right after my heart attack, just as soon as I started to become emotionally needy…
No, wait, I can't absolve myself of responsibility for that. I rejected them. After the trauma of my heart attack, none of them seemed to know how to adapt… but even still, there were girls who continued to trickle in for a while… I think they were trying to understand, but I couldn't be patient enough to wait for them to figure it out…
…God, I can't even trust my own memories. Did I really care? Did they really care? Were our friendships really as meaningless as they now seem, or was I the one at fault, for holding them to such an impossibly high standard?
Small wonder I don't have any friends right now. I can't even get a grip on what it is I would even want from such a person, and even if I did, I bring so much baggage to the table that who even wants to deal with that?
…My stomach starts to growl, cutting me off from any further introspection on the subject. I guess it's been a while since I had anything to eat. Since the cafeteria would have reopened for dinner almost a half hour ago, I should probably avail myself of a meal before the room gets too crowded. Not that there's ever a real dearth of open tables, but I really don't want to deal with all of the staring and whispering I'd be subjected to during peak hours.
The strap from my bag is starting to cut into my shoulder, though… It's not especially heavy, but I'm not especially strong. What was I even thinking, bringing along the entire parcel of books Hanako brought me on my nature walk? I'd already finished two of them, and the fourth… The fourth book I didn't enjoy enough to finish.
I'm tempted to take the elevator back to my room and leave the bag on my bed, but then I realize I'm fooling myself—I'm done with them, and the cafeteria is in the main building anyway, so I might as well hit the library first and drop them off before they close. Not that I have any idea where the library is, but libraries are generally central locations in academic buildings, so if it's here I'll find it.
As soon as I enter the first floor lobby, I find myself wishing I'd changed out of my school uniform. Even this late on a Saturday, when by all rights there should be nothing of interest in this part of the building, there are students lingering around, and as I pass them by they look at me like I'm literally on fire.
For god's sake, people. I almost died and then I didn't. Get the hell over it. On the other hand… 'Physician, heal thyself.'
On the other hand… 'Physician, heal thyself.'
Well, as long as I have their attention, I might as well avail myself of it. One girl I pass by in particular is close to my height—so, almost certainly a first-year, I reticently admit—with a long ponytail superficially resembling some kind of Mesoamerican serpent deity. When my eyes meet hers, she freezes in place like I'm one of the Gorgons.
…Seriously? What is with people today? What is with this school?
"Hello," I say to the girl, politely.
A pause. "…Hello," she finally squeaks back.
Good, she's probably not deaf. "You wouldn't be able to tell me where the library is, would you?"
Another long, bug-eyed pause. "Um. It's… on the second floor, between the wings, past the double doors."
"Wonderful," I say, bowing slightly in gratitude. "Thank you for your help."
I turn to head up the central stairway, but her voice rings out behind me. "Wait—"
"Hmm?" I murmur, glancing back at her.
Her lips part, as though she intends to say something else, but all she does is stand there, her jaw hanging ajar, for one long, immeasurable moment. "Sorry," she says, at last. "…Never mind."
Then, before I can even narrow my eyes, she spins around and strides out of the lobby with surprising alacrity for somebody with… yes, that is, indeed, another prosthetic leg. Impressive.
All right, then.
Rolling my eyes with almost enough momentum to capture a quick glimpse of my frontal lobe, I head towards the staircase and make my way to the second floor. Thankfully, that's the last uncomfortable encounter I have with anyone in the halls. There are people making an impressive racket in the various classrooms, though. Festival preparations, I guess.
I keep forgetting how much tomorrow's event seems to matter to the student body. For everybody else, it's going to be the culmination of weeks of hard work and excitement, but for me… it's just been this weird thing that people have been preoccupied with, this ostentatious distraction happening out in the far periphery of my increasingly-complicated life. Like Momomi, I've made no emotional investment in it whatsoever, but unlike her, I'm going to be participating in it nevertheless.
But I think it's that very ambivalence that's making me stand out from everybody else. It makes me Other, makes me different. It makes Momomi different, too, but… Look how much shecared: she's completely gotten the hell out of Dodge. That isn't the same precedent I want to set. If I'm going to keep attending school, I don't want to keep feeling… so aloof from everyone else's lives.
Heh. "Aloof." Like my family is from me, now. Zero involvement whatsoever.
That reminds me, though… If I'm not mistaken, Father's secretary has a key to our home in Shibuya. On Monday I'll have to call and ask if she swing by and have the rest of my old school uniforms express-delivered to Sendai. With Mother still gallivanting across the Occident, that's the only way I'll get my hands on them without taking the Shinkansen home myself, and there's no way I can wear the same uniform for an entire fortnight.
I don't think that fabled "new shipment of Yamaku uniforms" is showing up before the end of the year, either, so I shouldn't expect to switch over any time soon. Perhaps that's for the best, given all the time I've spent perfecting the Windsor knot.
Making a mental note of it, I push open the double doors to what almost certainly has to be the school library, if only because it's the only room on this floor that isn't blaring noise. And, indeed, the musty smell that immediately breezes into my face proves my intuition was correct.
…Huh. Wow. This is actually a really, really nice library. I'm not entirely sure now what I was expecting. It's quite a bit larger and nicer than the one at my old school, with high ceilings, lots of varnished wood and plenty of natural light. (That isn't to say the previous LRC was terrible, but it was harshly fluorescently lit with tiny windows and lots of tacky motivational posters everywhere. This place is an elegant sanctuary in comparison.)
Traditionally, I haven't spent a lot of time in libraries. It's not that I don't enjoy books, but I wouldn't call them my passion, and if I do want to kick back and enjoy a book, I'd rather take it someplace where I can order a bubble tea or something, or at least where I can enjoy some fresh air. Libraries seem so single-mindedly fixated on the sole purpose of reading that it just turns me off from spending a lot of time in them.
This place, though... this is the first library I've ever been to where I could actually picture myself doing things. It just has this really inviting atmosphere.
…Which makes it all the more puzzling that it's a complete ghost town in here. Where is everybody?
"…Hello? Is anyone there?" My voice softly cuts through the silence and goes unanswered.
I don't even see a librarian in here. What's going on? Am I not supposed to be in here? Did somebody forget to lock the doors?
Walking over to the library counter on the left side, I idly knock on the wood a few times, for the lack of a bell to ring or anything, but nobody shows up. Odd. Very odd.
At least there's a "book return slot" set into the counter, so I can dump the books off and let somebody check them in later. That'll suffice, I suppose. I won't be able to check anything out without a librarian present, but at least I accomplished what I set out to do.
I gingerly slide each of my books down into the abyss behind the desk, and the reduced strain on my shoulder is of considerable relief. Not that a mere four books could ever be called "heavy," but…
Wait, who am I trying to fool? I'm a thirty-eight-kilo weakling with a heart condition. Four books are heavy.
Anyway, with that taken care of, I'm free to head down to the cafeteria, but as long as I'm here, and the place is deserted, I really… just want to look around a little. This place is just…really neat, and it's not like I'm in any hurry to get back to my dorm room.
Maybe they have a selection of movies somewhere? I still have a giant stack from the hospital I haven't watched yet, but with a library this size, there's bound to be a couple films I'll be dying to check out later.
Let's see… so these shelves have… Braille books? I think? They look like three-ring binders, right out of an office supply store or something. I kind of want to look at one, but I feel like I shouldn't be messing around with them if I'm not blind.
And these would be… audiobooks, probably also for the blind students. Oh, this one is narrated by one of my favorite actresses, though! I wonder if only blind students are allowed to check these out…
I still can't find where the videos would be, or if this library even carries them. I wind up drifting into an aisle full of large-print books, and have to loop back around to get back to where I started.
Okay, let's try the other side of the library, then, and start from the back, working my way in. All right, there's a couple of reading desks arranged out here, and beyond them, you have the back wall—
—a loud gasp! rings out, right from under me, and—!
"Aiieee—!" I shriek, jumping back in horrified surprise. Chills rise up and down my body—
…Oh. Oh god, my heart is pounding. Leaning on one of the desks to steady myself, I glance over and realize that only a meter or two next to where I was idly staring at shelves, there's somebody—
"Hanako. Oh god."
There's a cluster of beanbags on the floor that I didn't see before, and she was sitting on one so silently I didn't even notice her until she was right under my nose, and, judging by the look on her face, we scared the hell out of each other... Oh god, I'm hyperventilating.
"I'm so sorry," I wheeze out. "I had no idea anybody was—"
My chest clenches, and hand reaches instinctively for my chest—
This… this is not good. There's a telltale ache swelling under my sternum and slowly spreading out. It's not unbearable yet—
thump thump Oh, crap. No no no no no nonononononono shut up shut up SHUT UP STOP IT—
Oh, crap. No no no no no nonononononono shut up shut up SHUT UP STOP IT—
Hanako's eyes widen in fright and she rises straight to her feet. "Iwanako? Are y-you all right?"
"Trying to," Inhale. "figure that," Inhale. "out," Inhale.
Breathing, that's all it is. Just breathing. Don't panic…
"S-should I get the N-Nurse?"
"Please don't," I manage to utter, clenching my fist so hard that my nails dig painfully into the skin.
With my other hand, I vigorously massage my sternum, as though erasing a chalkboard. Supposedly that works. Come on. Come on…
As quickly as it started, the scare fizzles out, as if to say we now return you to your regularly scheduled abnormality.
I can feel the oxygen returning to my bloodstream, as though it were cool water putting out a fire. Gradually, mercifully
my heart rate slows back down to what I'm told is its clinically-recommended level of awfulness.
Ha! Not this time, you worthless piece of crap.
Still breathing heavily, I make the "victory" sign with my hand to inform Hanako that the threat has been quelled. (For now.) Standing up a little straighter as my breathing returns to a more comfortable pace, I glance back at her and… Oh.
Hanako looks absolutely terrified. She's white as a cloud, and her hands are quivering.
Good work, Daidouji, you stupid airhead jackass. Let's just go around traumatizing people, since that's apparently your M.O. now.
"Hanako," I breathe, "it's over. It was just a scare. These things just… happen sometimes. I'm really, really, really sorry."
I can't tell if my words wash over her or not—she's just standing there, ramrod-straight, meeting my eyes with this utterly unconvinced expression. Is she holding her breath or just breathing shallowly? I can't tell. Damn it.
"No, seriously. It was nothing," I tell her, trying to salvage something out of this mess. The last thing I need right now is to give somebody a panic attack over my stupid arrhythmia.
Well, then? Think FAST.
"I… look," I say, pulling off my uniform blazer, exposing my short-sleeved shirt and vest. "You can feel my heartbeat and see for yourself. Completely back to normal…"
For a couple seconds, she still doesn't respond. Then, finally, mercifully, her right hand delicately reaches towards me a few centimeters, then ragdolls back to its previous position, as though she's still unsure how to proceed.
Well, it looks like I've gotten my foot in the door, at least.
"Here," I say gently, reaching out for her hand with my own. She glances down at it skeptically, but very carefully holds out her hand again for me to take it.
I wrap my thumb and forefinger around her wrist as though it were a flute of champagne—as always, my hands are ice-cold, and even worse in this air-conditioned library, so I only place my hand on the fabric of her sleeve to give her less of a shock—and, having met with no resistance thus far, I gently guide her hand to the area over my heart.
As I slide her fingers under my necktie, I quickly note in passing that her still-shaking hand is covered in the same sort of burn scars that cover her face, but now isn't the time to think about that.
You got me into this mess, heart. Only fair you get me out of it.
Heartbeats are usually hard to detect without a stethoscope, even if it's your own, but ever since my heart attack, my heart is, well, for the lack of a better word, loud, like an engine that seriously needs maintenance. Which is pretty much what it is, frankly: a clunker held together with what Hikaru would have called 'duct tape and penetrating oil.'
That is, if he'd shown up once during the entire time I was in the stupid hospital…
As soon as her fingers are firmly planted upon the part of my chest where the heartbeat would be strongest, I can see her posture gradually begin to slacken, though concern remains on her face.
After what feels like a miniature eternity, she finally speaks. "I-It's… It's not…"
Since she's obviously uncomfortable talking about it, I try to fill in the blanks for her. "…Not on tempo, right? Like there's… an absurdly unskilled drummer living in my ribcage."
Quietly, she nods, and pulls her hand away. Though I meant for that comment to be amusing, the reaction I get is merely a slightly more relaxed look of concern. Well, progress is progress.
"That's more or less what arrhythmia is," I tell her, trying to sound as casual about it as possible. "That's my 'normal.' When my heart beats any faster, that's when things start to get scary."
It's not that this is anything close to being the kind of thing I'm comfortable talking about, but Hanako has this preternatural ability to catch me during moments of weakness, so I guess that makes it easier. She already saw me in bloomers, without any makeup on, and my scar fully visible, so she might as well have seen me buck naked for all the added difference it would have made.
"B-but," she asks softly, "you're okay n-now?"
No, I feel like that would be too transparent a lie. She saw me during the hospital on the lowest day of my life, at least in recent memory, and now she's witnessed this stupid mistake. Better just to tell the truth and keep her in confidence. Hanako seems trustworthy in a way that Molly, for example, definitely doesn't, though it's not like my parents raised me to be a flawless judge of character.
"To be perfectly honest," I sigh, "'okay' isn't really in my repertoire. But, yes, I'm soldiering on."
Hanako simply gives a knowing nod, as though that's a concept she's extremely familiar with.
After all that excitement, I'm feeling a little lightheaded. "Hey, umm," I add nonchalantly, "that took a lot out of me. Can we take this to the beanbags?"
There's a bit of lag as she parses my words, but she exclaims "Oh!", and nods again, sitting back down on the beanbag she was on when I stumbled in. There's a book sprawled open on the carpet, which I assume she must have been reading and dropped at some point during all that excitement.
As much as I'd like to just plop backwards onto the beanbag beside her, I think my chest has suffered enough punishment for this week, so I do the responsible thing and lower myself gently. I just succeeded in defusing what was almost certainly a crisis situation. No need to risk throwing that all away by taking irresponsible—if cathartic—actions.
If anybody else were around I wouldn't dream of doing this, but I take my tie off, too, and undo the top two buttons of my shirt. I'd like to be able to breathe a little more easily.
Okay, now this is refreshing.
Hanako takes her book off the floor but lays it dormant on her lap. As I stretch out on the beanbag, she watches me carefully, still closely monitoring me for any signs of distress.
"By the way," I say drolly, leaning my head up to face her, "in case nobody's told you yet, I've been discharged from the hospital."
Finally, finally, the ghost of a smile. The first one I've seen from her so far, I think. I don't think I've ever had to work so hard for one in my life.
"God, Hanako," I sigh, "I'm really sorry about this. I totally crashed your reading session, didn't I?"
That apology doesn't seem to sit well with her, because she suddenly gets a little more animated, shaking her head. "Y…you don't h-have to apologize…"
"No," I say softly, "after what happened this week, I should have been more conscientious that a lot of people would be really concerned about… that happening to me again. And then, here I am, practically dropping it into your lap like this—"
"It's… it's fine," she says, not wanting me to take it any further than that. "I'm just… happy you're b-back."
I smile at that, and though it's always kind of hard to tell with her given how often she obscures her face, I think she brightens a little in return. "Thanks! I'm glad to be back. Even though people are making it really weird…"
I wave the comment off dismissively. "I just seem to be attracting a lot of strange behavior today, that's all."
"Um… what do you mean?"
Since I brought up the subject, I may as well tell her. "Well, for one thing, a lot of students have been staring at me lately, or whispering to each other, like I'm literally—"
I stop myself in my tracks. I almost reused the metaphor I thought up earlier, that the students were looking at me like I was 'literally on fire,' but my internal censor stepped in at the very last second to remind me that I was about to plunge into the most tasteless simile ever.
Hanako blinks at me for a moment. "…Huh?"
"You know," I deadpan. "Bigfoot."
She gives me a stare so blank I could print a resumé on it.
"Um… that's kind of like a yeti."
She furrows her brow, and those huge amethyst eyes of hers track the ceiling in thought before locking with my own. "Y… you mean like they're s-scared?"
"No… not scared, I don't think," I answer thoughtfully, shaking my head. "Well, now that I think about it, maybe some of them are worried—or apprehensive, I guess, is the better word. As though they think that if they so much as brush past me, I'll… spontaneously combust."
Well, I guess that's a fire-related simile too. Maybe I should have said 'explosively decompress.'
Hanako's gaze pensively drifts from my face to its reliable position on the carpet. She seems lost in thought, pondering my words. Maybe she doesn't believe me? It's so hard to get a read on her.
"Er, I don't think any of them are actually worried for my own sake, or anything like that. I'm not that egotistical." But I'm probably pretty close. "I suspect that it's all very self-interested. Nobody wants what happened to Ibarazaki to happen to them."
As soon as I say 'Ibarazaki,' she seems to snap out of her thoughts and her head turns to face my own with enough torque to send her hair-fringe whipping out of her face for a moment, giving me a quick look at her ever-elusive right eye, which is awash with concern. "W-what happened to Emi?"
What on earth…? I can feel myself grimace in befuddlement.
Hanako is on a given-name basis with Ibarazaki?
Are they actually friends? How friends many does Ibarazaki have?
It just makes me wonder: how many people—at this school or elsewhere—would hate me if they knew what I said to her? More people than the ones who hate her for what she did to me, that's certain.
Even if things had turned out... badly for me, that would almost surely be the case. For god's sake, I'm part of a culture that practically forgave a man for murdering and cannibalizing a Dutch woman. Had I taken a dirt nap on Wednesday, people would still be more concerned about her. I've read more than enough true crime novels to understand how 'public sympathy' works.
Momomi said Ibarazaki was a "beloved star athlete," right? And now she's off the track team. Maybe that's why I've been getting all those looks; people just blame me for taking their school idol out of commission. Perhaps they even suspect she's not coming back at all, and they'd much rather have her around than me. (There's a chance she won't come back, after those things I said to her.)
Is that what the rest of the school year is going to be like, then? A struggle to justify my continued presence over that of the girl everybody admired? If that's going to be the case, maybe Ishould just drop out. I don't even know who would blame me.
My parents might not even notice for months…
Hanako's soft, but increasingly alarmed voice derails me from that train of thought. Oh, that's right. She asked a question, and it's obviously eating away at her.
"Ibarazaki's with her mother," I answer honestly. "Supposedly she'll be back in time for exams. I don't know the details."
Iwanako Daidouji: Resident Subject Matter Expert on the Girl Who Almost Killed Her, apparently.
I like Hanako, but I swear, if anybody else tries to hit me up for information on Ibarazaki's whereabouts… No, scratch that. I don't swear anything, because that's absolutely going to happen over and over again and I won't be able to deliver on whatever it was I was about to threaten to myself.
"Anyway, she won't be around for tomorrow," I tell her, since she still has that horrible troubled look on her face. "With how things are going, I might skip out on it too," I add, almost as an aside.
"B…because of the s-stares?"
"That, and other things," I sigh. "I think my heart is in… I don't know, a state of heightened sensitivity or something, after what happened. Or maybe I'm just expecting heart flutters to happen now, and that makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy…"
'A disaster waiting to happen.' That's what the Nurse called me just a few hours ago. Loathe as I am to admit it, he's probably right, at least about that part.
I glance back to Hanako, who looks as though there are a million things she's holding back on saying. I don't think she's finding a lot of joy in this conversation. I'm about to apologize again for dragging her into my vortex of depression when she suddenly speaks up.
"I'll… be in here, I th-think. It's… quietest in here."
It takes me a second to realize what she means by that. "Tomorrow, you mean?"
She nods silently. "I…I'm going to bring something to eat, s-so that.."
"Ah," I nod in understanding. "So you're kind of like Momomi, then…"
At my words, she stiffens in her seat, looking at me like I just suggested the Bombings were politically justified. "Wh-what…?!"
"Um, you know," I say cavalierly, raising a puzzled eyebrow at her reaction. "You're both… boycotting the Festival, in your own ways. She left for the University a few hours ago."
"…Oh," she murmurs, settling back down on her beanbag like a mother hen. "I g-guess so… It's… going to be c-crowded and noisy. Even… even in the dorms."
I quietly nod at her words. Right, because everybody's going to be bringing their families over... Well, with Momomi gone, and my family absent, our hallway should be relatively clear of guests, but beyond that…?
God, this Festival-aversion is contagious. The more I hear about it, the more I want to get away from it.
I could probably take a bus into the city, but if I did that, I'd be on my own. It's not like that would really be much of a problem—I'm not scared of getting lost or accosted or anything—but if somebody on the streets of Sendai crashed into me the way that Ibarazaki did… well, without an informed medical staff present, and in my current state, the smart money says that I'd be done for.
And I could probably walk down the hill into town, but… I'm not so sure I could walk back up the hill without exerting myself, which would normally be fine, if I could avail myself of Mr. Ufu's services, but I doubt the shuttle will be going tomorrow. I'd either have to hitch a ride back up or make phone calls until somebody was sent to collect me, most likely afterhours. Not really an ideal situation.
Geez, talk about a gilded cage.
"I think I'll have to play along tomorrow. For a few hours, at least," I mutter, ending my contemplations. "You know I already told Lilly I would. Misha and Shizune want to see me out there, too."
Hanako nods somewhat vigorously, apparently in full agreement that, if nothing else, I shouldn't disappoint her friend.
"M-maybe… you shouldn't wear th-that uniform tomorrow?"
"If y-you're casually dressed, then… maybe the other students won't stare as much…"
"Oh, right," I nod, smiling. "This thing—" I say, tugging on my vest for emphasis, "makes me way too conspicuous. I'll definitely wear something different."
Honestly, I should have taken it off as soon as I got done with Momomi… I'm naturally so accustomed to wearing it that it didn't occur to me it was going to be a problem until I went wandering the school grounds.
Ostensibly pleased at having offered me some useful advice, Hanako actually smiles back at my words—a real smile, albeit a hard-to-see one. It's a surprisingly uplifting sight, though she does her best to hide it.
You really have a gorgeous smile, though I know you'd never believe me if I told you. That's just our burden as women, I think…
"Um, Iwanako? Wh-what were you… doing in the library before…?"
I snort. "Before I almost walked on top of you?"
She nods, looking like she's still trying to decide whether it's okay to find that funny or not.
"I came to drop off the books you checked out for me, actually. I didn't want you to get saddled with late fees, or anything like that."
She quirks her head at me, puzzled. "They w-wouldn't have—" she pauses as something occurs to her, and the whole tone of her voice changes, the pitch rising slightly. "Y…you read through them all?"
"That's the only way I made it through the rest of my stay there without losing my mind," I say, smiling gratefully. "The one with the telepathic dragons was kind of grim, but I loved the other three."
She seems so surprised. "R-really?"
I nod emphatically. "Really. I spent all of yesterday and most of today reading through them."
Hanako abruptly twists her head away, staring down at the carpet by the wall, precluding me from getting a good look at her face. Out from under her blanket of hair, though, I can just barely make out a dancing glimmer in her left eye.
"I'm… I'm glad," she says, so softly it's almost a whisper.
It… it really means a lot to her that she was able to help out, doesn't it?
Inwardly, I sigh. One really doesn't need to be a good judge of character to know that Hanako is a genuinely good person. I've been aware of that since she suddenly dropped in on me in the hospital.
There's something about her… I can't quite pin down what it is, but… it's like whenever I see her, I can't help but be reminded of that ten-year-old girl who died of cancer, the one I thoughtlessly tormented. Momiji. Her name was Momiji. I'll never be able to forget that.
Maybe that's the point; maybe that's why I keep coming back to it. It took me until after my heart attack to realize that I was… not a good person, but the arrhythmia isn't what made me that way. It's just what brought it into the open, like a termite-infested building that looks sturdy until a light earthquake shakes it into splinters.
I don't want to be aloof anymore, and I do want to have friends again, but—
Just then there's a strange rumbling inside me, and I jerk upwards from my supine position on the beanbag, startled. I almost reach for my chest again before I realize that the rumbling is coming from a little further south.
Oh, that's right, I'm starving. False alarm.
Worriedly, Hanako glances back at me, my sudden motion having caught her attention.
"Sorry," I say placatingly. "I'm just a little jumpy right now. I need something to eat, is all."
"Oh… I see," she says, relaxing slightly.
"I think I'm ready to grab dinner," I say, pushing myself off the beanbag and back to my feet. "Would you like to come along?"
Her eyes narrow like she's suppressing a wince, apparently not enthused about the invitation. "Um… w-well, I'm almost done with my book, so…"
"Sure," I nod, buttoning my shirt. "Some other time, then."
"Y…yes," she says, nodding with just enough conviction that I believe it. "Some… other time."
"I don't know how much time you generally spend in the dorms," I mention casually, as I lethargically re-knot my necktie, "but my room number is three-fourteen, if you ever feel like swinging by."
Her lips quietly curl into a bashful, almost childish smirk, as if there's something about that she finds particularly amusing.
"…What's so funny?"
"Hee, I guess it is," I muse, pulling my blazer back on from where I set it down on the waist-high shelf. "I honestly hadn't given it any thought."
Wrapping my school bag back over my shoulder, I turn to face her. "Well, I guess I'll see you on Monday, then? Or tomorrow, if I get sick of people."
"Y-yes… I'll be here."
Turning around, I take a few steps to turn back down the main aisle when her soft, reluctant voice rings out behind me again, quietly enough that I'd never have heard it if we weren't in an empty library. "Iwanako?"
"T-thank you," she says, a genuine smile warmly showing through her curtains of hair. "F-for showing me… your..."
She nods silently, clearly relieved I finished the sentence for her.
"You're welcome, Hanako," I say, with a wan smile. "But… I should really be thanking you, you know."
Her dark-purple brow furrows in my direction in obvious puzzlement. "W-why?"
"Well, for a lot of things, really," I say wistfully. "For the books, obviously, but also… for visiting me in the hospital at all. Honestly… until you and Lilly showed up, things… things were going pretty badly. So I suppose what I'm saying is, thank you for caring."
I'm not sure if she looks surprised or concerned, but I don't have long to decide before she glances away from me again. In the ensuing silence that follows, there are several moments where she looks like she wants to tell me something, but each time she stops herself.
"T-then…" she says, not meeting my gaze again, "you're w-welcome, Iwanako."
As dare I ponder to ponder what she's thinking, another silence passes over us awkwardly, as though neither of us knows how to end the conversation. Finally, I decide to take the initiative.
"Good night, then."
Leaving it at that, I turn down the aisle and make my exit, pushing all of this out of my mind. There's so much about this that I need to seriously contemplate, but not when I'm tired and malnourished.