Ritual

“Just follow me,” she’d said, and I’d followed her without looking back.

Today is our one-year anniversary. Technically, we’ve known each other for much longer, but exactly one year ago, we’d made it official. Sometimes it matters to make things official – something about the formality, the gravity of it, the sudden sense of responsibility. I don’t know. I’m not the type to wonder about stuff like that. I’m just saying that today is our one-year anniversary.

In the morning she surprised me with flowers and my favorite breakfast foods; in the afternoon I surprised her with flowers and a lunch reservation at her favorite restaurant down the way. Our apartment is filled with flowers now, and we’re stuffed with great food that took a lot out of our wallets, but no matter. Rituals are important, and flowers and food are ritual.

Tomorrow I’m going to surprise her even more. I have all kinds of things lined up – presents I’ve made, experiences I’ve ordered and reserved. I can bet she has more surprises for me, too. And that doesn’t come from any narcissistic, self-important heart I might have; we both just have a penchant for surprising each other with gifts, especially on important days like our one-year anniversary.

Anyway, right now, we’re cuddling on the couch. She has her head buried deep into my layers of polos and button-up shirts – it’s been incredibly cold lately, so don’t you judge me – and I have my arms around her. That’s what’s happening, nothing more, nothing less. People don’t touch each other as often anymore, that’s what I think. Hugging, holding hands, touching, cuddling. Never see it. Especially among people who aren’t in a relationship. Isn’t it sad? We could all use some more of this stuff, don’t you think?

So there we were, all cuddled up on the couch, and after a while of this my girlfriend suddenly lifted her head up and looked me in the eyes.

“Haku,” she said.

“Mmm?” I replied.

“I’m glad I met you.”

I smile a little. “I’m glad I met you, too.”

She reaches up to touch the side of my face; I close my eyes, savoring the touch. Then, as usual, she starts to play with my hair. Long and brown and curly, some typical nondescript girl’s hair. She twirls it around her slim fingers, studies it for a while in great concentration. I watch her and wonder what it is about my hair that she could possibly find interesting.

Well, when you think about it, there’s a ritual contained in that, too. She knew it, and I knew it, and that’s all that ever mattered. Right?

That’s all that ever mattered.

Borderlines

“You will not remember me.”

You will not remember me.

It wasn’t the words themselves that gave me pause; it was something in the way he said it, the way he spoke, the way his mouth moved to give form to the sounds. The boy looked at me and said, with absolute certainty, “You will not remember me.” It wasn’t arrogance, or stupidity, not a false assumption nor some dumb superficial pride. He wasn’t trying to impress or intimidate, either. He was just stating a fact. He spoke his line in exactly the same way he would have recited Newton’s universal law of gravitation from last year’s physics class. You will not remember me.

It gave me chills.

It’s not that foreign of a phrase. Maybe I’ve read it in a book before, I don’t know. Maybe I’ve heard it in a movie. But those were always fake, always on the other side of reality, and this boy was certainly here, on my side, and he was very real to me.

“Wh-what’s that?” I managed to reply.

“Don’t worry,” the boy said. He patted me on the arm in an oddly mature, adult way. “I’ll be gone soon, so you don’t have to worry about anything. Your work, your girlfriend, nothing like that.”

I shook my head. “Okay… But I don’t understand.”

“I just wanted to see you,” he said. “I’ve missed you.”

I choked a little in surprise and confusion. “Sorry, but I don’t know you. You have the wrong person.”

“No, no,” he said. “See, Haku, here’s the thing – we haven’t really met. Yet. Right now you don’t know me, but one day you will. Except you won’t remember.”

“What?”

“I just came to see you,” he said. “And I wanted to tell you this: it’ll be alright.”

What will be alright?”

“Everything. School – you’ll graduate, promise. Work – you’ll get a good job. And then you’ll get fired, but you’ll get another one. Family – they’ll come around eventually. Your mom will love you again. She still loves you now, and it’s very hard, but one day it won’t be hard anymore. When your girlfriend dies she’ll realize how much you loved her. Your girlfriend’s death will be alright, too, by the way. And eventually yours. You’ll get through it all. Everything will be just fine.”

I shook my head again, speechless. The boy gazed into my eyes and smiled gently.

“I have to go now,” he said. “You won’t remember me, but that’s okay. We’ll meet again. I just wanted to tell you that it’ll all be alright.”

It’ll be alright…

He nodded and walked away, and that was that.

Taiga (Chapter 5)

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When Taiga came back from his class, he found me on my feet, pacing around, struggling to outsmart Isabella while dealing with a throbbing headache. She wouldn’t let me out of the room – Taiga’s orders, but also her own – and I’d attempted practically everything short of violence in my wild desperation to leave. I didn’t want to face Taiga so soon, but it seemed Isabella would make sure of it.

He opened the door, looked at Isabella, looked at me, and smiled. That’s right – he looked at me and smiled. Ever graceful, he closed the door quietly behind him, took off his backpack, and set it on his chair. Then he took off his navy blue windbreaker and hung it up in his closet. I stared at him, waiting, wondering what he was going to say. Isabella vigilantly continued blocking my path to the door.

Taiga brushed back his hair with one hand, then nodded at Isabella. “Thank you, Issa.”

“My pleasure,” she replied.

They both stared at me. I was itching to leave – I couldn’t stand this strange tension, the air feeling like it would right before a great storm or earthquake, something unnatural getting ready to be released. Of course, it was all in my head, but that didn’t make it any less real to me. I just felt an overwhelming urge to run.

An animal – trapped in a cage, or cornered and on its way. That’s what I thought I was. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Taiga spoke softly at me. “How are you?”

There was no edge to his voice, no sense of anger or even disappointment. I shook my head slightly, confused at the question, but answered anyway.

“My head hurts.”

He nodded. “That’s how it is,” he replied simply.

“Why’d you come?” I asked.

“Why’d you go?” he countered.

I frowned. Taiga swept on before I could say anything else.

“It’s not any of my business what you do with your life,” he said. “You want to join a gang, spend your nights drunk and high and committing crimes, throw away any possibility of you being happy and content in the future, well, go ahead. That’s your prerogative.”

I nodded along with his words, growing more confused by the second. When I didn’t respond, he leaned toward me slightly, a gentle smile crossing his face.

“That’s what you think, right?” Taiga said.

I blinked. “Um. Yes?”

“That’s the problem,” he replied. “I think you’re wrong there. It is my business what you do with your life. And it’s your business what I do with mine. You’re human, aren’t you? And we all know humans are social animals. See, whatever you choose to do with your life affects me, and Isabella, and everyone else around you – even the family you claim to hate, the family you claim hates you in return. What do you think will happen if you get yourself killed? You think the world will just keep spinning, time will just keep flowing, all these people will just keep living as if nothing ever happened? Because if you do, you’re wrong. Human life doesn’t work that way.”

I tried to cut in, but he raised a hand and continued on.

“And what if you, in one of your criminal sprees or drunken antics, end up killing someone else? Accidental or not, you stole someone’s life away. You think the universe isn’t going to care? Listen, I’m not going on about karma or anything religious – these are basic fundamentals of human existence. We all have a responsibility towards each other, can’t you see?”

I stared at him. After a moment he sighed and looked away.

“You can go now,” Taiga said. “I just wanted to talk to you. Just think about that, okay?”

He turned to Isabella, his speech apparently over, his tone lightening. “What’s for lunch?”

“Oh, I was thinking some kind of stew or curry,” she replied. “Let me go see what we have in the fridge.”

“Sounds good. I’ll help. I don’t have work until three.” He glanced at me, smiled, and then followed Isabella out to the kitchen.

Alone in the room, I found my urge to run away had vanished. I sat back on my bed, tired, drained. My head hurt for more reasons than one. I drank some more water and then laid back and closed my eyes. Gazing into the internal blackness, I thought about nothing – I just breathed. In, out; in, out. Some kind of weird meditation, I guess. It actually relaxed me a lot. But I didn’t go to sleep.

Instead, a half an hour later, I got up and went to class.


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Chasing Life With You (Chapter 7)

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After a relaxed, delicious morning meal, Katsumi and Tadashi headed out to the market. I cleaned up the kitchen a bit – it was the least I could do, if I’d be boarding at their place for free all summer – and then grabbed my laptop and settled on one of the soft chairs in the living room. First I checked my email. There was one message from someone I didn’t know, asking me to write an article for some sort of private publication. I made a note on my to-do list to look them up later.

After emails, I settled into actual work. I was in the middle of writing about an interview I’d held of a pretty popular local musician. Like I’ve said, I’m pretty far removed from the world of music, so doing interviews with musicians or writing articles on music always made me nervous. But lately I’d been trying to get out of my comfort zone. I opened up the transcript of the interview on one side of the screen, and my work-in-progress article on the other side, and just got to it.

Time passed smoothly, silently, at a perfectly unhurried pace. Occasionally I would take a break and look around and stretch out my neck. Several times, I closed my eyes and listened to the birds chirping outside. I found the natural soundscape out here incredibly interesting. I knew there was silence everywhere, but it hadn’t really occurred to me that different places filled that silence in different ways. Here in the woods, in the middle of nowhere, the sound of the birds was layered on top of a silence that was in itself complete; the birds weren’t necessary for the auditory environment to be in balance, but they were still an integral, valued part of what kept the air at peace. Very different from the city, I thought.

I finished my article in a little over an hour, and saved it to be proofread and revised later. I’d learned that it generally wasn’t a good idea to spot check your work right after you’ve written it – you need to look at it at another time, with a pair of fresh eyes, and a clearer head. I figured I’d look at it tonight or tomorrow, and submit it to the magazine editor tomorrow afternoon.

With that assignment done, I checked my email again, studied my to-do list to see if there was anything important, and then closed my computer. There wasn’t much to do; I decided I’d go out for a walk. I went up to my room to put on a hat and sunscreen, slipped my Swiss-army knife and phone into my pants pocket, and ventured into the semi-wilderness.

Given that this was my first day, I didn’t feel brave enough to just go wandering in any particular direction, so I just followed the walking path down to the lake. Various little birds and insects fluttered in the air amidst the trees. I walked slowly, observing, drinking it all in. The path got a little steep in places, and there it had been buttressed by human hands, with planks and ropes tied taut between nearby tree trunks. I watched my footing, moving carefully, and held onto the ropes as I made my way down.

Several minutes later, the woods spit me out onto the sandy, pebbly lake shore. I exhaled in slight relief, glad to have reached my goal, and walked up to the water’s edge. The clear blue water lapped gently at my feet; I took off my shoes and stepped into it, relishing the sharp chill. I gazed out at the perfectly flat surface of the lake, and smiled at the woods on the opposite shore.

What a place to be…

Staring out into this seemingly untouched, perfect wilderness, I was overcome with a sudden urge to just throw myself into it, to flee the rest of the world, to flee human society and just go. Not a very unique or creative feeling – I’m sure anyone in my shoes would have felt the same, and certainly many people have done so throughout history. But it was a strange, surprising feeling for me. I’d been pretty content with my life back in the city. The same old, boring routines, the same environment, the same people – this kind of static existence suited me, and I hadn’t given it a second thought. So I was pretty unsettled that I suddenly wanted to run off and become a hermit. I stood there quietly, slowly adapting to the temperature of the lake, testing out this newfound urge inside me.

This is dangerous, I realized.

Don’t lose your head.

I blinked slowly, backed out of the water, and started heading up the path towards home. I wasn’t prepared to face nature like this. Not yet.

Once I was back in the house, I went to the bathroom, splashed water on my face, and crashed again onto the living room couch. Needing a distraction, I opened up my computer. After a couple minutes I found a pointless movie to watch and quickly pressed play. I didn’t actually care about the movie. It was one of those films that go in one eye and out the other, so to speak, just something you put on to waste time. I just needed some human connection again, so I put the movie on and stared at it until I heard Tadashi and Katsumi pull up in the driveway.

“We’re home,” Tadashi announced as he entered the front door. His arms were full with four cloth grocery bags. Katsumi came in right behind him, carrying an equal amount.

“Welcome back,” I said happily, standing up. “Need help?”

“That’s okay,” Tadashi replied.

They set the bags on the wide kitchen counter, and started stocking the fridge and freezer.

“What’ve you been up to?” Katsumi asked.

“Oh, nothing much. I got some work done, then I walked down to the lake for a bit.”

Tadashi flashed me a look. “Really? Alone?”

“Not the greatest idea,” Katsumi put in. “Especially on your first time.”

“Well, you had to do it eventually,” Tadashi said.

I nodded, glad that they both seemed to understand. “Anyway, how was the market?”

Katsumi grinned. “We had to wait a bit for them to open, but the upside was that we were the first customers in, so we got first dibs. Look at all this good fruit and stuff!”

Tadashi said to him solemnly, “If you don’t make us a good lunch, I’ll be mad.”

“I’ll make something disgusting,” Katsumi replied assuringly.

“Yeah, disgustingly salty. How about you teach Chas how to make something?”

“Oh no,” I cut in quickly, “I can’t cook for my life.”

Tadashi laughed. “Yeah, that’s why I told him to teach you.”

“I’m down,” Katsumi said. “I’ve got just the dish.”

“Whatever I make will actually be disgusting,” I warned them. “It’ll test the limits of disgusting. I’m serious!”

I kept insisting, and eventually the pair gave up, to my great relief.

Tadashi sighed. “One of these days, Chas, you’ll have to learn. But I guess for now it can wait.”

“Can it wait ‘till I die?”

He laughed at that. “What’s so scary about learning how to cook?”

“It’s not scary,” I replied, shaking my head. “I just can’t be bothered. I don’t want to deal with it.”

Don’t want to deal with it,” he repeated with great interest.

“Weird,” Katsumi said.

“Right?” Tadashi replied.

They both grinned sympathetically at my embarrassed face. Having just about finished unloading the groceries, Tadashi closed the fridge, and Katsumi folded the cloth bags and went to put them back in the car. I looked at Tadashi, and he smiled gently at me.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “We won’t force you to learn how to cook.”

“Phew. And here I was thinking–”

“At least not yet.”

“Hey, wait!” I started.

He grinned mischievously and fled from me. “We’ve got all summer, Chas,” he sang as he ran up the stairs.


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Taiga (Chapter 4)

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I woke up the next morning, in my own bed, with a terrible hangover and practically no memory of the night before.

I opened and closed my eyes, stretched out my mouth, pressed my fingertips to my temples. I was hoping I’d feel better enough to fall back asleep, but no such luck. I lay on my messy sheets, incredibly awake, incredibly pained, and starting to get nauseous. Normally I don’t have such a bad reaction, but that just goes to show how much alcohol I’d really consumed the night before.

Somebody had opened the window blinds to let the sunlight in, and in my state I couldn’t stand it. I opened my mouth, swallowed an aching dryness, and managed to say in a surprisingly capable loud voice, “Close the window!!”

Nobody answered me. I didn’t know if anyone was even in the room. I sighed in my head, tried to fall asleep again, and failed again. After a while, with some of the pain and nausea fading, I rolled over onto my side and spotted Isabella, sitting on her bed across from mine, doing work on her computer.

She looked over at me, her expression completely impassive. She didn’t say a word. We stared at each other for a moment, and then she lowered her gaze back to her computer screen and went on working. There was a strange tension between us that hadn’t existed before, and I couldn’t comprehend the meaning of it. I kept staring at her, my mind completely empty, and after some five or ten minutes she closed her laptop and met my eyes.

“Good morning,” she said.

Her voice wasn’t cold – it was just neutral, and that alone startled me. Normally her tone was friendly and open. On this morning it was closed off and unreadable.

“Good morning,” I replied slowly, nursing my dry throat.

Isabella sighed. “Hungover?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t throw up. I’m not cleaning it for you.” Her voice curled up a bit, prodding me. “Do you want something?”

“Can I have some water?” I asked timidly.

“That’s five words out of six.”

“Please?”

She nodded, got out of bed, and went to get me some water. I waited for her to return, gazing around at the empty room, feeling alone and scared for the first time in years.

“Where’s Taiga?” I asked when she came back.

“Class,” Isabella replied. She handed me a glass and I gingerly sat up in bed to drink it. Immediately I started to feel better, though I knew the pain would probably last for quite a long time.

“Does he always go to class?” I said, amused at that idea.

Isabella sat on her bed to face me and scowled a little. “Don’t underestimate him. Taiga’s not some stereotypical snobby teacher’s-pet rich kid. He goes to the classes that are necessary and productive for his education, and skips the ones that don’t help him.”

Her words rolled over my head. “Okay, okay. Whatever.”

She started prodding me again. “Do you remember what happened last night? Anything at all?”

“No. Why?”

“Do you not think that’s a problem?”

“No,” I said honestly.

She sighed. “What are we going to do with you? Really.”

Something in that irked me. “Nothing,” I said, annoyed. “You have no business getting involved in my life. It’s mine and no one else’s, and I can do whatever I want with it. I’m the only one responsible for me, and I like it that way.”

“Keep telling yourself that,” Isabella replied. “But one day you’ll understand that it’s not true.”

“What’s not true about it?”

“Take last night,” she said. Now her voice was edging on cold. “You say you don’t want people getting involved in your life – well, last night, Taiga got involved. You’d have died if he hadn’t saved you. Do you understand that? You’d be dead – dead and gone – and he might be dead too, on account of trying to save your worthless self, and for the rest of the semester I’d be living in a single at a discount rate because both of my roommates went and died on me for no reason at all. Are you listening?”

She was talking too fast, and I couldn’t keep up. I closed my eyes, fought off an intense desire to just flop over and go back to sleep, and spoke slowly.

“Isabella, what happened last night?”


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Previous: Chapter 3

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Chasing Life With You (Chapter 6)

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Previous: Chapter 5

Next: Chapter 7


I woke up the next morning to the first rays of sunlight filtering through the window. Tadashi had told me not to put the blinds down – way out here, there were no city lights to interfere with one’s sleep, so there was nothing to block out. Most of all, I discovered it was a genuine pleasure to wake up with the sunrise. I sat up in bed, gazed out the window for a bit, and smiled.

After showering and washing up in the bathroom, I headed downstairs. Tadashi was making breakfast. He was wearing a loose gray shirt with a simple geometric design that seemed to complement him nicely. He glanced over at me and said good morning.

“Sleep well?” he asked.

“Yup. What are you making?”

“Scrambled eggs. Want some?”

“Sure.”

I sat at the counter and watched him cook. He threw some mushrooms in with the eggs, turned off the heat, mixed them well and portioned them evenly onto three plates. Then he turned the stove back on.

“Breakfast potatoes?” he asked, turning toward me.

I nodded. “Okay. Thanks. Do you need help?”

“Nope.”

“Where’s Katsumi?”

“In the garden. You can go see him if you want. This will take a while.”

“Alright.”

I got up and headed out the side door, following the well-worn path Tadashi had pointed out the day before. The air was slightly cold but incredibly clean, and I drank it in happily. Wandering slowly through the woods, I imagined that I was a hermit, living in the middle of nowhere.

The gardens came into view after a couple minutes of walking. There was a huge variety of plants, most of which I couldn’t identify, and a lot of them were flowering or bearing colorful fruit. They had obviously been planted with care, lined up initially in even rows, but the paths between them had been heavily overgrown since the last summer. Katsumi had started weeding and clearing them out, but it looked like he might have given up. I wandered among the plants, admiring them, until I found Katsumi at the far end. Kneeling on the ground, he was up to his elbows in dirt, digging up enormous sweet potatoes.

He raised his head as I approached. “Morning,” he said.

“Good morning,” I replied.

He seemed calm and content, even as he wrestled with the plants and the earth. For a moment he looked like he was smiling – at me, at the sun, at no one. I’d noticed yesterday that Katsumi didn’t smile as much as the average person. He’d only really looked happy when he was making jokes, playing music, or bantering with Tadashi. I wondered what his reason was for smiling now.

“Those potatoes are huge,” I remarked.

“Yup. Haven’t been bothered in at least a year.”

“Are these for breakfast?”

“Lunch.”

He grinned. “I’ll make something real good, then you can tell Tama I’m the better cook. Okay?”

I laughed. “We’ll see.”

“Is he making me breakfast too?”

“Yup.”

Katsumi nodded, looked back down into the dirt, and started digging again. He continued speaking without facing me, his expression now shielded by his long hair.

“We’re going to go to the market afterwards. Do you want to come?”

I thought about it. “I’d love to, but I have some work to do. Maybe next time.”

“Okay.”

I squatted down beside him. “Can I ask you something?”

He glanced at me quickly. “Yeah.”

“How did you two meet?”

“Me and Tama? We almost killed each other.”

I started laughing, but Katsumi looked at me again with a completely straight face and added, “No joke.”

“Oh.”

In my head, I was thinking: should I be alarmed?

“It’s kind of a long story,” Katsumi admitted. “You want to hear it?”

“Um… yeah, I guess.”

“So this was sometime during our second year of high school…”

He leaned over and gave a firm yank, and a pink-and-purple sweet potato came out of the ground. I clapped. The potato joined the growing pile at Katsumi’s feet, and Katsumi sat back on his heels, brushing the dirt off his hands.

“I was walking home from school one day,” he said. “And I saw this guy. He was one of our upperclassmen. He was leaning against the wall of a big building, and he was harassing this other girl in my grade. I mean, totally harassing her. He was calling her names, laughing at her, throwing things at her, and eventually he started coming closer to her and touching her. Both intimately and violently. And all throughout it, she didn’t leave – maybe she was too scared, maybe they were boyfriend and girlfriend, who knows. But she was asking him to stop and he didn’t.”

“Did you call the police?” I asked.

Katsumi shook his head slightly and held up a finger, as if to say, I’m getting there. He went on, “Regardless of who you are or what your relationship with the other person is, you can’t treat people that way. At least that’s what I think. When I saw this happening, I got really mad. And when I get mad, I get really mad – like, I can’t control myself. I went right up to him and punched him in the face. He hit the ground, and I started kicking him. I told the girl to run away and she did, and meanwhile I kept beating the guy up. I might have killed him, really.”

Listening to his story, I remembered the look he’d had in his eyes when we’d first met – wild, dangerous, on the edge. I wondered if it was a sign of him losing control. I wondered what had set him off.

Katsumi continued, “While I was just about killing this guy, another person appeared. It was Tama, who was also walking home. He arrived basically right after the girl had run off, so he didn’t see her; he didn’t get any of the context. All he saw was a guy beating up some other guy who looked bloody and helpless. And you know how he is – the way he can go on about peace and human love and all that. He tried putting himself between the two of us, and I got mad and punched him, too.”

I scratched my head. “Great way to meet someone.”

“Right? So at this point in my madness I gave up on the other guy and started beating on Tama. I thought he would be an easy target – he’s pretty small, and he looks really feminine, which society traditionally equates with being weak. But my assumptions were entirely wrong. Tama fought back, and he fought hard. It turned out he was just as strong as me – in fact, he was exactly as strong as I was at the time, and because of that, neither of us could really win. We just beat each other up really badly until we were both too tired to continue.”

“I can’t really imagine it,” I said. “Tadashi fighting…”

“You wouldn’t dream of it now, right? But back then, we almost killed each other. The fight ended with both of us lying on the ground, broken and exhausted. We mutually agreed to not call the police on each other, because neither of us could afford that. Then I asked him why he had intervened, he asked me why I had been beating up the other guy in the first place, and we realized it was just an unfortunate misunderstanding. We started talking about other things – school, family, music – and bonded over them, and now, several years later, we’re closer than anyone could have imagined. It’s kind of crazy.”

“That’s a wild story,” I said. “I just met him when he sat next to me during recess in fourth grade.”

Katsumi laughed. “Well, I bet you were less hot-headed than I was, especially at that age.”

“What happened to the other guy?”

“The first guy I beat up? Tama made an anonymous phone call to an ambulance service, and then we hightailed it out of there. A couple months later I caught a glimpse of him at school again. But I don’t think he recognized me – or if he did, he didn’t care. At least I know that I didn’t kill him. That would’ve been bad.”

Behind us a voice retorted, “You almost killed me. That would’ve been worse.”

We turned in unison to see Tadashi walking through the garden toward us. Katsumi laughed; I smiled, and my old friend smiled back, quiet and happy.

“Breakfast is ready,” he said.


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Next: Chapter 7

Connection

“Who are you?”

“Um… My name is Kohaku…”

The young man studies me. “Okay, but who are you?”

“I live in the apartment above you,” I say. “I just moved in.”

“Oh.”

He scratches his head for a second, turns to glance over his shoulder, and then looks back at me. He opens the door slightly wider but still won’t let me in. I shift my weight uncomfortably.

“What do you want?” he asks warily. Immediately he winces, recognizing that his question came off as rude in a way he didn’t intend.

I let it slide. “I just want to get to know my new neighbors,” I say.

“Oh.”

“I missed your name,” I suggest politely.

“Brandon.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Brandon.”

He nods in return.

By this point it’s clear he’s never letting me in. That’s okay – I understand. People generally aren’t willing to let strangers into their apartment, even strangers who live with them. But all I want to do is make friends with him, and how else are we going to do it?

“Do you want to come over to my place for coffee sometime?” I ask him.

He thinks about it. “Um… sure, I guess.”

“When are you free?”

He thinks some more. “I can do tomorrow afternoon. Around two o’clock. Is that okay?”

“Sure. Absolutely.”

“But I don’t drink coffee,” he adds suddenly. “Tea?”

I smile happily. “Tea it is.”

We say goodbye, and I head back up the stairs, rejoicing in my slight victory.

Shilah

Our paddles sliced through the water in unison, cutting the blue-green surface and setting the kayak on a smooth, silent glide. I gazed at the back of Shilah’s head, moving my arms in time with hers. The minutes flowed quietly by.

Shilah spotted the private beach and started to angle in towards shore. I followed. At a certain distance we both stopped paddling and let the waves carry us in. Then Shilah jumped out into the shallows and pulled the kayak up onto the sand.

“Been hot today,” she said, speaking for the first time since we’d set out.

“You’re right,” I agreed. “Glad I remembered to put on sunscreen.”

I got out of the kayak and stretched. The sand was incredibly soft and warm beneath my feet. Shilah splashed around in the water, and I watched her.

“When are we going back?” I asked.

She laughed. “Who cares? Whenever we feel like it. I hate planning. Life is better if you just go.”

“Hmm, yeah, I guess you’re right.”

It still gives me anxiety to not have a schedule. I guess it’s something I’ve yet to learn.

“Come over here,” Shilah said.

I went over to her, stepping into the briskly cold ocean. She extended her hands to me and I took them. Without warning she started to dance, pulling me along, and I followed her lead with surprise.

I guess a private beach is a pretty romantic setting for a dance. But I’ve never been good with romance. Shilah was always the more sensitive one.

We danced for a while and then fell back into the sand, tired. Shilah was beaming. I smiled at her, breathing hard, and part of me wanted to do it again.

“Haku,” she asked, “what do you dream of?”

I thought for a moment. “I don’t know.”

She lay on her back, looking up at the clouds, and nodded. “I dream of tiny little stars in the ocean that glitter and shine brighter than the sun.”

I laughed. “Why? What does that mean?”

“Whatever you think it means,” she replied. “It’s my dream, but you’re still free to interpret it however you want.”

She closed her eyes, leaving me with that.

“It’s kind of weird… but I like it,” I decided.

“When I die, I’m going to turn into one,” she said.

“A tiny star in the ocean that glitters and shines like the sun?”

Brighter than the sun. Yeah. You should turn into one too.”

I laughed. “That’s kind of cute, actually.”

“I don’t think it’s cute. I just think it’s important. But if it’s cute to you, that’s alright.”

She opened her eyes and sat up.

“Let’s dance again,” she said.

“Okay. But the sun is starting to set. How long are we going to be out here?”

Shilah looked at me seriously.

“Who cares?”

Phone Call

“Haku. You’re not going to make it.”

“Wait, hold on, I’m getting in the car right now.”

You’re not going to make it. The hospital is over an hour away. Just shut up, sit still and listen.”

“Will you sing for him?”

“I promised I would. Put it on speaker.”

“Hold on.”

“Baby, it’s Kohaku on the phone. They’re going to sing for you.”

“Hey, Ari… just take it easy for me, okay? I’m gonna sing now. Here we go…”

I sang for ten minutes longer than I needed to, and so sent him away.

Girls’ Day Out

She lay on her back on the bottom of the boat, eyes closed, hair spilling around her shoulders in glowing curls. I slowed down my rowing and gazed over at her. She said nothing for the longest while, content to simply lay back and relax, and I tried not to disturb her. We glided through the water in companionable silence.

After some time had passed she began to speak softly. “You can hear it…”

“Hear what?” I asked.

“The rhythm of the sea.”

She opened her eyes and looked at me. I smiled.

“The rhythm of the sea, huh? I haven’t any idea what that sounds like.”

“Don’t be a goof. You live right near the ocean.”

She sat up and looked around us – the wide expanse of clear water, the forested shoreline still not too far away. The scenery was beautiful, as always, but I was only looking at her. And she knew it.

She turned to meet my eyes and smiled slowly, softly. “My mother’s not going to approve.”

“Your family’s like that, huh?”

“A lot of people are like that. Are you tired yet? Let me take over.”

I acquiesced, handing over the oars. As we switched places in the boat I stretched for a moment to relax my arms. She started rowing, in her usual quick, steady rhythm, always faster than me. I sat down and watched her.

“What kind of food did you bring?” I asked.

“It’s a surprise,” she replied.

I laughed. “Oh, good. I hope I’m not allergic.”

“Don’t worry, you aren’t. I made it myself. And it’s not like I’m trying to kill you… at least not yet.”

“Not yet?”

She shrugged in her soft, playful style. “We’ll see after today, won’t we?”

I rubbed the back of my head. “Sometimes I can’t tell if you’re joking.”

“Don’t underestimate me, Haku. I’m always joking.”

“Isn’t that like when people say every day is opposite day?”

She grinned. “Yeah, I guess so.”

I stood up and looked behind us at the distant shoreline. “We’re probably far away enough,” I said. “We can eat now if you want.”

She cut her oars into the water to stop the boat. “I’m not hungry yet, though. Are you?”

“Not really.”

“Why don’t we just lay here for a bit?” she suggested.

“Okay, sure.”

We got down next to each other and put our heads back. The sky above was a light hazy blue. I stared into it appreciatively, but soon I couldn’t help feeling disappointed.

“It used to be prettier,” I told her. “At night, too.”

“Pollution really knows how to mess with a girls’ day out,” she said. “Hold my hand?”

I took her hand. We both smiled into the sky.

“Do y’wanna adopt?” I asked.

“Gods, yes. Let’s have two!”

I was a little surprised. “Okay, but why two? Why not one or three?”

“Well, three is fine too. But at least two – one for each of my parents who are going to disown me when we get engaged.”

I choked a little. She turned her head to look at me.

“Haku, I can’t tell if you’re laughing or crying…”

“Both,” I said. “Let’s have two, then. And then we’ll see if we want more.”

“You’re lucky your parents aren’t like mine.”

“I know.”

Really lucky.”

“I know.”

“Well, no one can help that.”

She smiled, then lay back and closed her eyes. “I could just fall asleep here…”

I gazed at her resting face happily. What a day, I thought to myself.

If we at least could be happy with ourselves, we’d be okay, wouldn’t we?