“Hey, what are you doing?”

I called out to a boy I knew not of.

I was strolling around to a nearby park, and saw a little silhouette running there for who knew how long.

It’s probably an elementary school kid. A small body, slender limbs, pretty face, grim looking the entire time.

The sweat on the kid fell like tears, and the kid wiped it off with the jumper sleeves. The sweat danced in the air, giving an orange glow, becoming increasingly dazzling. What hurt me most however was the sidelong face of a person working really hard, unhappy and unwilling to compromise.

That reminded me of a certain person.

That person was more mature than the boy before him, but was still a child. That person kept wouldn’t give up, and kept running─

Struggling towards a place that existed nowhere.

The sweat stung the kid’s eyes, but as the blue skies of summer were too vibrant, even the tears were dried away. I could vividly remember that scene just by closing my eyes
.
I recalled what transpired on that hottest day of summer, when I quietly swore that I would never forget what happened on that day.

The sun that day was vicious.

The scent of the dirt was overwhelming.

The sweat continued to fall. It was really salty..

For a while now, the kid had been repeating the actions of a certain person. His fingers were on the ground, and he was looking forward, adjusting his breathing, and sprinted off. Right when he was about to accelerate, he slowed down, and returned to his old posture. This happened over and over again.

It seemed he was focused on practicing his starts, and my voice never reached him. I got up from the bench, and took a large breath of the spring evening air. The sakuras had yet to bloom, but I could have sworn I smelled that.

“Hey, what are you doing?

I then called out with a voice much louder than before.

The kid was startled, tumbled over, and looked up at me.

“Eh?”

The sweat fell down his forehead. The wind blew. And the long hair covering his large eyes fluttered along.

My silhouette got bigger in the black eyes resembling a starless night, and was obviously distinct with the ambiguous world, a proof that I, a part of the background just a moment ago, had entered his world. Just like that, an encounter was made, and a relationship was formed.

“Hi there. I’m Segawa Haruyoshi.”

I greeted the kid.

“Huh? E-erm, are you as-asking…er, me?”

The kid tilted his kid in confusion, and I nodded in confirmation. He then answered me.

“He-hello there, I’m Haruto.”

It happened during the spring near the end of my university life.

And just like that, I made an elementary school acquaintance.

 

“Well, that happened yesterday.”

“Can I open the window?”

“Sure.”

Takuma, seated in the co-driver seat, then pulled down the car window. The spring air was still a little cold, purging away the warm air inside, even blowing back Takuma’s bangs.

“This breeze sure feels good.”

This buddy of mine said with his face by the window, humming the tune of an idol song. It’s a love song signaling the start of spring.

“It’s spring now.”

“I know your name man. How long have we been friends to begin with?”

“Enough with that dumb act man. Were you listening to me anyway?”

“I am, I am. So you spoke to that pretty kid, and got a tea session with the police, right?”

“Who said that?”

It seemed he had no interest in my encounter with the kid.

I borrowed my dad’s car half an hour ago, and went to fetch my high school friend from the train station.

The local station was already empty, and that tall friend of mine walked out. It’s been a while since we met, but I recognized him immediately. He had grown from a kid to a teenager, but his laughter was exactly the same as it was before.

“Yo!”

He waved a hand, casually greeting me, so I responded in kind..

This reunion was the same as before, but time distanced us. In a second, our relationship was good as new, and of course, it’s something for us to be happy about.

I put Takuma’s luggage into the boot, and drove the car out of the parking lots. We went down the same county road we always took at a speed of 54km/h. If this was the speed we spent our three years of high school, the same could be said of our three years of university.

And surely, the remaining year would pass at the same speed.

Takuma might have sensed something while looking at the usual scenery outside the window, for he reeled his face back in, asking,

“Say Haru, how long will you stay here?”

“About another week or so. I came back once spring break started, so I’ve been here for a while. I’m going to start looking for a job soon. What about you?”

“I can’t say. I do have time, so I might stay around for a while. I got an offer.”

“Huh?”

He said those words with such ease, and I frowned. I was so rattled, my hands shook the steering wheel, and of course, the car reacted, nearly veering off the middle line.

“Woah, that was close.”

Takuma’s voice was filled with shock and reproach.

“You don’t have to be shocked about that. The fast ones already have the best jobs, and now they’re slaves to society.”

“I haven’t filled any application forms.”

“You’re more serious when it comes to weird stuff after all. Probably having the same thoughts as a middle school kid there, wondering what you want to do in life, right?”

“Ugh…”

“Bullseye. You know, I always thought you’re pretty stupid about this. Why can’t you just go first? Go and you’ll reach somewhere. There might be a place more interesting than what you imagine. The thing about roads is that they lead somewhere, but I don’t think you get that.”

I do man, so I quietly refuted without saying, and swallowed my words. I knew very well that we could keep going and meet something, but a lot of strength would be needed , or courage.

The big talk from my friend was a little too much, so I argued back.

“You returned because you argued with Hotta-san, right?”

Once I said this, Takuma was left speechless. Simply put, Makoto Hotta-san was Takuma’s girlfriend. Takuma was at a Tokyo university, and was already dating Hotta-san in Golden Year. She’s three years older than us, and studying for her Masters. I met her a few times. She’s pretty and intelligent, and was very reliable, an ideal adult.

After all, there were few on this world who could actually treat Takuma as a kid.

“How did you know? Did Mako tell you anything?”

Takuma’s glare was piercing through my face.

“No, that’s not it. I just got the feeling that what you said wasn’t just directed at me.”

“Ugh”

“Bullseye. I think you’re pretty clumsy at that too. Did she disagree with you?”

Takuma exhaled, and leaned into the seat. Well, it’s a big company we’re talking about, so he said in a rare, feeble voice.

“The pay’s good, and so are the benefits. It’s just that the vocation’s different from my major. She said it’s a waste of my talent to go there, but I find it pretty interesting.”

“Just to ask, was that your first option?”

“Unya, the third.”

“So that’s why she’s objecting, isn’t it?”

“You think so too?”

“She doesn’t want you to regret it, Takuma.”

“But this is the answer I got after thinking through it. I hoped she would give me a nudge in the back.”

“What?”

I made a right turn at the cross junction, into an alley, and stepped on the brakes to slow down a little. The car’s shaking as the road wasn’t really paved well, and so did Takuma and I. We were shaking at the same place.

“What?”

“Time for a breather.”

“So, what are you saying?”

“You’re lost too, just like me.”

“Shut up.”

Soon after, we saw a sign board indicating expansion roadworks leading to the city. Oh. I was delighted. We wouldn’t have to wait for the opposite vehicle to pass, and there would be fewer traffic accidents.

But we would have to destroy some nearby things to build this road extension. It’s impossible not to lose anything. The expansion area was not barricaded, and not leveled, but it was an empty ground. I could no longer remember what was at this place.

“Haru, was there something over here?”

It seemed Takuma had the same thought.

“I don’t remember anything, even though we often passed by here.”

“It feels empty. I can’t think of anything.”

“Anyway, you noticed? The convenience store outside the station has closed.”

“No it’s not.”

“It’s closed alright. Just that there’s a new shop there. The town’s slowly changing without us knowing. Nothing Is eternal, and change is the only thing that’s most likely to continue.”

There’s something flowing between us. It’s a common feeling, and easy to express as an idiom.

But if I expressed it as words at this point, that thing would have gnawed through our hearts, and it’ll be really, really painful. That’s why we didn’t choose to do so.

After a while, Takuma muttered in the same manner he did before.

“Yep, I see it. Still the same old place.”

Before us was the unchanging silhouette of our high school, which we spent three years at. We knew that would happen, but Takuma and I let out little sighs.

 

It’s been a while since I came to high school. There’s no reason for me to return, if not for Takuma saying he had something for Watanabe-sensei, advisor for the basketball club, and asked me to come along.

We greeted the uncle at the guard house, and went to the staff room. It’s Saturday, but there’s Watanabe-sensei and a few others waiting for us.

The office tables were not exactly rearranged, but there were a few teachers who were reassigned. For example, there was a table, once decorated with children photos, now replaced by gunpla figures or something.

Looking into the office through the open windows were the sakura buds that were within reach. There were a few days until they bloomed.

It would be days after when the white flowers would begin to turn pink, fluttering in the air.

“Anyway Midou, you’ve grown again. Are you going to be above 2m anytime soon?”

“Impossible. I’ve stopped growing already. It’s just my manliness that has increased.”

“Wahaha. This kid’s quite the talker now.”

Watanabe-sensei slapped Takuma on the shoulder.

“Ow.”

Takuma said as he slapped sensei back on the shoulder. It’s a sight we never saw while we were in high school.

Takuma was often lectured during club activities, and always grumbled. But the time they spent together truly existed, and that’s why they’re able to talk just like old times. Since the efforts of the past had led them to such a future, I guess Takuma’s hard work in high school must have been really valuable.

So both of them started chatting about the juniors I didn’t know, and I kept my distance so as not to disturb them. There’s no need for bystanders when talking about the past.

At this moment, I met a teacher in the eyes.

She was smiling, somewhat bemusedly. The harsh eyes behind the glasses remained, but the vibe around her was much kinder than before.

It’s Kozato-sensei.

She’s been a teacher for almost four years, so she’s a lot more experienced at her job. Looking back, that stifling presence of hers must have been a defense mechanism for her serious personality.

All to prevent being underestimated by her students. All to be an independent contributor to society.

We were too distant from her when we were in high school, and that’s why we never noticed, but three years since, I had a feeling I could understand her.

“It’s been a while.”

“Yes, it’s been a while since I last saw you, Segawa.”

“Me?”

“Midou does come back to play whenever he has time.”

“Ah, I see, but there aren’t many like Takuma out there.”

“Yes.”

Kozato-sensei smiled as kindly as she did before, pulling the lengthened hair behind her ears.

“Truly there aren’t. Your daily life doesn’t revolve around here. You graduated, grew up, and found your place elsewhere. I too was the same, but it’s fine to come back once in a while, isn’t it?”

“I’ll think back to the past. Lots of it.”

So I said, but I hardly had any memories of going out with my friends back in high school.

No, I didn’t lose my memories, and wasn’t bullied by my classmates.

I remembered that I would go to school as usual, attended the summer festivals with my friends, prepared for the exams seriously, went to pray at the shrine before the big exam.

It’s just that, whenever I stepped out of school, I often acted independently. I went alone to many places, did various things, and smiled alone.

It’s been a long while, but these memories continued to flow within me like warm blood, never fading away.

I narrowed my eyes at the blue skies beyond the window, immersed in my memories.

I harbored many emotions during those days. There was elation, rage, anxiety, sadness, but added together, these were part of my youth. It’s this adorable time that formed this present me.

“Yes, I was careless there. I thought you were an honest student to begin with, Segawa, but I never expected you to participate in the news club conspiracy.”

“I think conspiracy is just stretching it. Anyway, you know about ‘that’, Kozato-sensei?”

Even as a graduate, I couldn’t just openly mention about the ‘pageant contest’ in the staff room of all places. The teachers just appeared not to know, and didn’t press on regarding the matter.

Kozato-sensei chuckled, probably understanding what was going on as she brought her face close to me, intending to whisper something, it seemed. My ear gets a little tingling.

“I’m the advisor to the news club now.”

She sounded really happy, and even I grinned without thinking.

Kozato-sensei’s definitely more popular than when she was teaching us.

 

Watanabe-sensei and Takuma had much fun talking, so I left them behind and wandered around the school.

There were a few people in the teaching block even on this rest day, and nobody in particular minded about me in plain clothes. There was a boy dressed in that nostalgic school uniform passing me by, and he ran down the corridor with his head lowered.

In this place called the school, whether it’s the past or present, there’s no one who would actually abide by the ‘no running down the hallway’ rule.

I suddenly recalled the face of that female teacher who was of similar age to the present me. That face was replaced with an effervescent smile.

Ah, better correct myself here. There’s no such person around. I guess Kozato-sensei’s skipping down the hallway without anyone noticing.

I ascended the stairs, and went to the classroom we were once at. This classroom was completely empty because of the graduation ceremony, but there were traces of our juniors, whose names I knew not of. There were traces of congratulatory words on the blackboard, and the class goals different from our time.

Suddenly, I bumped into a table with some scars on its surface. I guess someone used a penknife to cut the surface while bored or something.

It so happened to be the position of the seat I sat at.

Since it’s a rare opportunity, I sat down. The desk and chair weren’t the ones I used though, so I guess that’s why the scenery before me was different. No, perhaps it’s because there’s nobody sitting around me?

Everything I should have been familiar with looked a little faded. In any case, it’s after the seasons passed that we knew the value of such importance.

The wind blew in through the open windows, causing the curtains to flutter, and the blue of the sky to seep into the deem classroom.

My world had returned to the time I was still a high school student. The teacher reciting the words on the textbook, the ruckus occurring during the breaks, Takuma making fun of me, Akane calling me.

But when the curtains covered the windows again, the dim classroom returned to the future three years later. The illusion vanished, never to be reached.

Time certainly had passed. This was no longer my seat.

I feel so lonely. So I thought. There truly was a memory that I was prone to recalling.

But I no longer am sad about this.

At 21 years old, I knew very well it was the right thing to do.

I laid down on the table, having a nap, but the cellphone in my pocket shook and woke me up. I didn’t check who was the one calling as I moved in the usual manner, receiving the call.

“Pwoahhh~”

“Where are you now? What are you doing?”

Naturally, it’s Takuma.

“Just napping in the classroom.”

“Nice going man.”

“Sorta. You done?”

“Oh, I guess I want to go to the gym before we go back. You coming over?”

“Got it. Let’s meet there.”

“Ui~”

I got up from the chair, and left the classroom. I took one last look at the classroom, ingraining the sight into my mind, and closed the door.

 

I then arrived at the stairs, descending it one step at a time.

I arrived at the first level, scanned the judo room with the corner of my eye, proceeded ahead and arrived at the gym.

As promised, Takuma was waiting.

“Kept you waiting.”

Takuma opened the door with the key he borrowed from Watanabe-sensei, and a court too big for the two of us appeared.

I was a little emotional thinking how I once stepped onto the court for the graduation ceremony, singing the school anthem and thinking I wouldn’t return to this place. Takuma quickly hurried to the equipment room as though it was his house, and took out two pair of somewhat old sneakers and a basketball. He tossed a pair that was not firmly tied high towards the tall ceiling of the gym, and I caught it, asking him what was going on. The voice quickly echoed in the room.

“Seriously, what now.”

“There are guys who forget to bring their shoes sometimes, so we hid the spares there. Lucky for us, our juniors did the same. Is that size big enough?”

I checked the number on the sole as he told me to, and it so happened to fit my feet.

“Uh, yeah.”

“Really? Good good, let’s play ball.”

“No I’m not playing.”

“Why?”

It felt like he really didn’t understand, but those were the words I wanted to say.

There’s not much of a contest between a guy who only played basketball during gym class, and a guy competing as a club member in high school and university.

“I’ll definitely lose.”

“How about one on one, you attack, Haru. Offense ends when the ball gets stolen. I give you ten chances. For me well…just once is good. The one with most points win.”

“How did you link what I said to this anyway?”

“Loser has to pay for today’s drinks.”

“Pay for today’s drinks? Stop ignoring what I have to say.”

Takuma then seemingly took what he said as final and put on his shoes. Feeling peeved, I did the same. I thought the spare shoes would have been worn out and tattered, but this one was well taken care of. It felt good wearing this pair.

We tied our shoelaces, stood up, and our tiptoed on the floor. The somewhat rigid sound quickly vanished

Takuma began to stretch towards his toes, checking on how his condition was. I too began to stretch, which I hadn’t done in a long while. Soon after, my body began to heat up.

 

After our warm ups, Takuma threw the orange ball at me. I threw it back, and Takuma threw it back. This check ball signaled the start of our match.

Takuma pulled some distance from me, and waved to taunt me.

I batted the ball onto the court, and it quickly rebounded. The light shone through the ceiling window of the gym. I looked up and saw the sky outside. It’s the spring blue I felt before, our youth. Some might call us immature, but unexpectedly, I didn’t dislike this.

Ah, yeah, I didn’t dislike this.

I took a deep breath, and exhaled hard. Then, in one motion, I charged to the hoop.

Of course, Takuma slid to block my frontal offense. There’s a body length between us, and I kept dribbling while ensuring his hands could not touch.

“You talked so much, but you ended up playing anyway.”

“If I don’t play along, this friend of mine will cry.”

“Ah really? Thanks then. Hah!”

Takuma brushed by my left hand, and reached his long arm towards the ball, so I spun around to break through.

“Ohhh!”

I could hear Takuma’s shocked voice from behind, and I too was shocked. It felt good dribbling past someone. Well done.

Before my eyes was an empty, brand new world. I guess anyone who played basketball had such a feeling, and endured much training to repeat that experience again.

My mind suddenly recalled the falling face of that kid I met the previous day.

But the kid didn’t seem to have such a feeling. More like an earnest wish.

I charged into that empty paradise, slowed down, and with the shoes rubbing friction against the floor, I stopped, jumped, and threw the ball at the hoop.

The ball spun nicely as it gravitated towards the hoop. I clenched my fist in excitement. Good, there’s no way I lose then. Since Takuma had only one chance to attack, he could block the ball another nine times, and the worst case scenario would be a draw.

But that naïve thinking was swatted away by an outstretched arm from behind, along with the basketball. As for whose hand that was, it’s obvious; unless there’s a ghost roaming around, the only other guy on this court was Takuma.

That friend ran after the swatted ball, caught it, and grinned away.

“9 times.”

Before I realized it, I was being all serious.

 

I was at my best condition during the first round.

Following that was the second, third, fourth…and the longer it kept up, even I knew that my offense was not as sharp. My legs were aching, and my arms were heavy. During my university lessons, I participated in the sports elective, and never actually had other opportunities to exercise. That elective ended in the first half of my first year, so playing basketball this time was a proper exercise after two and a half years.

And most importantly, Takuma had set his distance well after the first round, maintaining an impenetrable defense. I didn’t have much room to shoot.

“You, physical freak.”

I was panting hard, glaring at the nonchalant looking friend.

“Hu hu, I’ll take that as a compliment.”

The eighth offense ended, and the result was still zero. In the blink of an eye, I had two chances left. I really had the urge to punch the me who thought ‘I just need to score once’.

Takuma threw the ball at me. I caught it, and retreated to the three point line. If I didn’t regain a little of my stamina, even the winnable rounds would be unwinnable. So I wanted to buy some time as I spoke to Takuma. I didn’t know if it was useless, but I was shaking. Mental strength has a big impact in sports.

If there’s someone cheering me on, I could have performed better than my usual usuals. If there’s someone I love waiting for me at the finish line, I definitely could finish a 100m sprint in five seconds…wait, that’s impossible.

At the very least, such things could have nudged me forward.. There’s definitely a moment when I could use that.

“Say, Takuma.”

“What? You giving up now?”

“No way man. I just thought of something.”

I thought of the sidelong face of the kid I met the previous day. Takuma raised an eyebrow.

“About why Hotta-san wouldn’t let you work at that company…”

“Don’t talk about that now.”

While Takuma said that and let down his guard, I threw the ball at him. Due to his many years of experience, he instinctively received the ball. I charged forward.

“Ah, hey, that’s despicable.”

“Don’t call it despicable. I’ll prefer it if you call it tactics.”

I charged towards Takuma in two steps, saw that he reacted instinctively, and shifted my center of gravity elsewhere as planned, breaking through his defenses. Even with his overwhelming physical capabilities, there’s no way he’s not tired in the slightest. His knees buckled, and he lost balance. Seizing this opportunity, I approached the basket.

A little later, I sensed Takuma giving chase. If I were to shoot at this point, it would be a repeat of my first attempt.

I waited for him to catch up, and held the ball with two hands. Takuma assumed I was about to shoot, and could only jump. I straightened my legs, my soles still stuck to the floor.

“Ah.”

Takuma cried. I delayed my movements, and jumped behind Takuma. Everything appeared to be in slo-mo, whether it’s the slightly loose laces, Takuma’s peeved look, the gym ceiling, the blue skies, and a step further back, the basket I was aiming at. I shot the ball.

“Go!”

My shirt was soaked in sweat before I knew it. My throat was parched. Yet this was the best moment for me.

The orange ball touched the rim, bounced, and tried its best to maintain balance as it swirled a few rounds before landing through the hoop.

“Ah damn it. Got bluffed by such a simple pump fake.”

I ignored my groaning friend and started my final offense, but that too got blocked. There’s nothing more meaningless than a second miracle. Most importantly, I was out of stamina.

“Now I got two points. You want to continue, Takuma?”

“Of course. Why are you making it sound like you’ve won?”

We slapped each other on the palm, and switched over. Fuuu, Takuma caught his breath, and threw the ball over. I threw the ball back as Takuma did, but he was so fast, the moment he caught the ball, he shot it as naturally as he breathed.

“Huh?”

I couldn’t do anything as I watched the ball fly in an arc, and gravitated through the hoop. It didn’t hit the rim, silent and pretty. Once the net shook, time finally returned and began to move.

“Hm, I win.”

Takuma clenched his fist, declaring his win.

“How? Isn’t it a tie?”

“Are you stupid? I shot a three pointer. That’s three points. You got two. The rules say that more points win. So I win.”

“Feels like I saw this scene in a manga or something. Man, that’s low of you. You’ve been aiming for this right all the way, haven’t you?”

“Uhahaha, sorta. Ahhh, good game.”

It seemed his grumbles from before was an act. I didn’t like it, but it’s my loss. Takuma grabbed the bouncing ball beneath the hoop, and slammed it down. That technique was completely different from mine as an amateur.

The ball seemingly came alive in his hands, was sucked back in, and left.

“Oh yeah, Haru. About the penalty for drinks later,”

“Got it. I lost, I lost. I’ll treat today.”

“Ah, not that. You don’t have to pay for drinks. Let’s continue with what we talked about.”

“What we talked about?”

“Ah, you forgot about it completely? Was that just a bluff?”

“So what was that all about?”

“About the reason why Mako wouldn’t let me work there.”

“Ah that.”

I completely forgot.

“Rather than a bluff, I’ll say that I have a thought. Hasn’t Hotta-san been nudging you from behind?”

“Which part did you hear that makes you think so?”

“Hmm, well, I don’t think she’s the type to stop you from moving on just because it’s a waste of talent or something.”

I said as I wondered if he had noticed this. He didn’t know why she did so, sensed that she was acting differently from usual, and escaped back here.

Takuma stopped dribbling, and started spinning it on his fingertip.

“I see. And then?”

“So I was wondering, why would she be opposed? I’m not Hotta-san, so this might not be the correct answer, but I get the feeling she’s nudging you over the last hurdle.”

If Takuma’s thoughts were to be shaken because of Hotta-san’s opposition, he’s going to regret his decision down the road, surely. If he ignores her opposition and insists on going down this road, he might encounter some hardships, but he should be able to keep moving on. If he keeps reaching out to the future as earnestly as the kid’s wishes, then surely—

“Haru, you’ve changed.”

“Have I?”

“You do. But thanks. I feel a lot better.”

“That’s good.”

Our voices echoed clearly in the gym with only us inside, and then vanishing completely.

I drove to Takuma’s house, and dropped him and his bags there. We’re supposed to split and attend a drinking party later that night, but we were earlier than expected. The reason was that Takuma was physically present in the car, but he was spacing out completely. He probably had things to think of, and had someone he wanted to talk to. For that reason, it seemed he wanted to be alone for a while.

“See you tonight.”

“Oh, thanks. Sorry about that.”

“Don’t worry. It’s a small thing.”

I started the car, and in a blink, the guy much taller than me shrank. I could see him waving in the rearview mirror the entire time.

 

I returned home to find Natsuna glaring back at the oven.

The long black hair tied in a ponytail was swaying left and right, conveying its emotions like a dog’s tail. She hummed away, her voice crisp like a rising oriole. The room was filled with a delightful humming and the sweet scent of sugar.

Until middle middle, my little sister had the personality of a boy. Ever since she joined club activities in high school, she changed completely. It seemed like the excessive energy that had nowhere to go was depleted thanks to her club activities.

So Natsuna became an ordinary high school student, the change in demeanour so sudden it was depressing.

She had more female friends, knew what shame was, and worked hard on cooking and cosmetics. I never exactly talked to her, but she might have a crush.

“Ah, Haru-kun, welcome back~”

And despite that, she showed an innocent smile once she noticed me, one I was most familiar with.

“I’m back. What are you baking?”

“Apple pie. I just saw it on the TV. It looks interesting, so I tried baking one of my own.”

“Heh~sounds good. I want to try it out.”

“Eh? You’re not eating dinner at home tonight, Haru-kun?”

“Yeah. Got a beer party for uni students tonight.”

I took out a milk carton from the fridge, and poured its contents out. The white liquid splashed away, and its level rose in the glass cup. The carton in my right hand was lighter, and the last drop fell onto the surface, causing a ripple.

“Is beer nice to drink?”

Natsuna reached her hand out to me, so I tossed the empty carton over, and she soaked it in water, washed it, and dried it.

“Can’t say. I guess if it’s you, the apple pie might taste a lot better.”

“I think I’ll skip that. Do you really want the apple pie?”

“Of course. There’s still some time until the beer party. I just exercised, so I’m a little hungry.”

I nodded as I gulped down the milk. Once I finished the entire glass, I found myself thirstier than expected.

“Alright. It should be done in another five minutes. I’ll get it ready, so go get changed. It’s going to be good fresh out of the oven.”

“Sounds good.”

I placed the glass back at the kitchen, and Natsuna naturally washed the glass. I thanked her, and she waved her hand, staring at the oven as excitedly as she did before.

I heard her continue to hum as I left the living room, and returned to my room.

I had a nice hot shower, returned to the living room, and found Natsuna seated on the sofa, puffing her cheeks, looking furious. I apologized, and sat down next to her.

There’s an apple pie cut in a triangular slice and placed on the glass dining table. Next to it was a serving of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce on it. Due to the heat from the apple pie next to it, the ice cream melted a little, and it’s probably the reason why Natsuna was fuming.

“I bought the ice cream.”

Natsuna might have misunderstood the intent behind my expression as she said sheepishly.

“No no no, I’m just thinking that it looks good.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. So I’m thinking, let’s tuck in.”

“Yep, itadakimasu.”

“Itadakimasu.”

So we said, and used our forks to stab at the pie, causing a crisp sound. The sweet scent of the pie got richer, and the apple was so soft, glowing golden.

I cut a slice of the pie, and brought it to my mouth. First I tasted the butter, and after chewing twice, thrice, I tasted the sourness of the apple. I might be biased towards family, but I thought it’s tastier than the one sold in the shops.

“Hm, it tastes really good.”

“Great.”

Natsuna saw me eat a mouthful of pie, and took a mouthful too. She chewed it carefully, swallowed, and boasted her own pastry skill.

We sat together, sharing the apple pie as we switched the TV on. It’s a Saturday evening, so there wasn’t any show that really drew our attention. We swapped channels, and finally ended up at the local news section. The reports I saw a few times were visiting unfamiliar towns.

“They look happy.”

“Really? Reporting is a job. It’s tough, isn’t it?”

“No, I’m talking about you. Did something good happen?”

“Eh, I think I can call it a good thing. It’s because you said the pie’s nice, Haru-kun.”

“Just because of this small thing?”

“It’s a small thing, but I’m glad to be praised for putting my effort into something, moreso if it’s something I like.”

I took another bite of the apple pie, chewed and swallowed, and called my sister’s name,

“Natsuna.”

“What?”

“It’s really good.”

“Oh.”

“You happy?”

“Very.”

“Then thank me.”

“Thank you for saying my apple pie’s good.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“Eh? I’m the one treatin you. Why do I have to thank you?”

“Finally realized it?”

I giggled. Natsuna had the fork in her mouth as she pouted unhappily. At this moment, something happened, like instant karma for me teasing Natsuna.

There was a familiar face on the TV appearing in my eyes, and I was so shocked, I nearly choked on the apple pie. I started coughing, my chest in much pain, and I only manawas thanks to Natsuna frantically patting me on the back, giving me some iced red tea. Even on the brink of death, I stared intently at the TV.

That guy’s hair was short, his beard trimmed, but there remained the hulking body, deep voice, and childish eyes that were sparkling like stars. I could still remember them vividly.

It’s the director.

“Wooooo! I finally did it!”

He’s on the TV, shouting loudly.

“Yo-you alright, Haru-kun?”

Natsuna’s worried voice sounded so vague.

“Director.”

“Eh?”

Natsuna stared at the TV along with me. The words appearing on the screen were :Amateur Movie Producer, recipient of XXXX prize, movie title XXXX, genre XXXX.

Entering my mind were some fragmented messages, and I couldn’t sort them out completely.

The only thing I was certain about was how he was a youth who had immature dreams like a kid, kept pursuing it, and was about to fulfill it.

“Ahahaha!”

I burst out laughing. I was really moved, shivering, and though my little sister was looking at me worriedly like I was a madman, I couldn’t help it. I just burst out laughing; that’s all I could do in this situation, no?

He might have placed his fingers on the starting line, but I was moved to see the director after so many years.

Those that put in hard work reaped their rewards. I really loved such obvious stories.

“Haru-kun, you know him?”

Once I stopped laughing, Natsuna, who knew nothing, asked me while looking terrified. Her expression was really bemusing, so I pinched her little nose. She didn’t seem comfortable with that, since she was struggling, lashing out,

“What are you doing!?”

The news then proceeded to the next section.

It was a brief reunion after many years. The next time I see the director, he will surely be on another stage.

I really wanted to meet the director who stood on that vast stage, not noticing me. I hoped to see his name while strolling around town, seeing the movie posters, or in other media. If it was possible, to whom would I speak of this pride nobody else knew of?

—I have a temporary actor in this film.

So I quietly prayed for that little miracle in my heart.

 

I left home a little earlier than the agreed time, and went to the park.

Present was a little silhouette sprinting furiously towards the sun. It seemed he didn’t notice me, so I went to a vending machine to purchase a sports drink and a hot cocoa, the latter for myself. I held the cold PET bottle in my right hand, the hot can in my left, and went to the boy, calling his name.

“Oi, Haruto.”

“Eh, ah, woah!!”

Haruto was startled by this, tumbling over. He flailed his arms about to stop himself from falling over, maintaining his balance. His face was a little red, neither because of the sunset, nor that he was holding his breath, and naturally, not that he was bashful. It was the best proof of him working hard alone.

Soon, he heaved a sigh, barely managing to hang on, and smiled, calling my name in a prepubescent voice,

“Segawa Haruyoshi-san.”

“Why the full name?”

“Why, you ask? Hmmm…because you’re older than me?”

This reason was a little ridiculous.

“Well, you can call me Segawa, or Haruyoshi, or if that’s still no good, you can call me Haru. The full name is very long to read, right?”

“Hm…I’ll call you Segawa-san.”

“Why?”

“Well, because my name sounds similar.”

“Hm, I’ll call you by your name then. Your name is?”

“Eh?”

“Hm?”

Haruto stared at me, looking a little stunned, and then,

“Guess I’ll keep it a secret for now. Please call me Haruto for now, Segawa-san.”

He said, looking a little happy.

“Is that good enough?”

“Yep, that’s good enough.”

“I’ll call you that then.”

I said, putting the PET bottle on his red cheek. Startled, he made a girlish shriek,

“Wh-wha-wha-what are you doing!?”

“Encouraging for you from this big brother here, Haruto. Drink up.”

“Really? Thank you.”

It seemed he had forgotten he was teased, as he took the PET bottle quickly, and began drinking.

“Huu…so good.”

“That’s good.”

Haruto drank it down in several gulps, and meekly dropped the bottle into the trash bin. I finished the cocoa, and sat on the bench. Haruto appeared to be at a loss of what to do, but once I patted the seat next to him, he sat down, leaving a human-sized gap between us.

“It hurts seeing you so far from me.”

“I’m covered in sweat after all.”

“I don’t mind.”

“I do. Very.”

I cautiously focused on my nose, making sure Haruto wouldn’t notice that I was being sensitive. There’s a scent of ‘spring’ becoming richer on this spring day that was becoming warmer. Of course, I didn’t smell any sweat.

“St-stop smelling!”

“You found.”

“Are you a weirdo, Segawa-san?”

“What are you saying? It’s the first time anyone has said this about me.”

“I told you not to smell, and you’re smelling my sweat.”

Haruto gave an utterly disgusted look.

“Sorry. Didn’t think you’ll hate it. I won’t do that again.”

“You swear?”

“I swear.”

“I forgive you.”

“I shouldn’t be the one saying this, but you should learn to doubt others a little.”

“Well, you’re a weirdo, Segawa-san, but you aren’t a bad person. I’m a kid, but I can still tell.”

He grinned.

“I see. You’re an honest kid, Haruto. I’m an adult, I can tell.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“If that’s true, that’s great.”

“Say, Haruto?”

“What?”

The swing continued to swing, the see-saw heaving up and down, the anonymous butterflies flying over the flowers. I watched these silently, and after some time, I voiced out the doubt I had,

“Why are you running so hard?”

“Eh?”

“Is there a reason?”

“You can tell?”

“Well, sorta. I experienced such things before.”

Haruto looked hesitant to talk, wondering if he should. I silently waited. The minute hand of the park just passed 5pm. My meetup with Takuma was at 7pm, so there’s still some time.

Soon after, Haruto hopped off the bench. His toes touched the ground, and he stood firmly, but his legs were wobbly. He turned towards me, looking troubled, teary, yet putting on a forced smile. It was a strange sight.

“Segawa-san, have you experienced being alone?”

There was a little shadow formed behind Haruto, by the sun shining upon him. His shadow remained lonely over there, not tied to anyone. I had a thought, and answered honestly,

“…Nope.”

“Really, that’s good. I experienced that. About a year ago, the friends I got along well with suddenly stopped playing with me. I know the reason, but I can’t solve it. I still want to be with them though, so I imitated everyone, but I couldn’t get along with them. So I end up all alone.”

What Haruto spoke of was a common situation of people becoming alone. To him, this might be more unbearable than the apocalypse. I casually gauged Haruto’s mood, and because of this, I couldn’t just console him.

I was thinking, it would be great if the world was simpler.

If only reality was a video game, where a kind spell could heal all wounds.

“But I got a chance. They say if I want to join them, I’ll have to run a 100m race against him. If I win, I get to join them. This is the reason why I’m running.”

Ah, but I guess this is the reason. There’s no such spell on this world, and that’s why the boy kept running, baring his fangs to the world, resisting, working hard with his trembling legs, slender, fragile limbs.

“That’s cool, Haruto. Real cool.”

I stood up, messily ruffling Haruto’s head.

“Woah. What are you doing!?”

Haruto grumbled, but looked a little happy, frowning a lot less before. Nevertheless, it didn’t mean something was settled.

It’s one thing if he won, but if he lost—

A confused Haruto looked at my hand that stopped, and grabbed my hand with his little hand. Our shadows overlapped.

“I hate being alone. I’m scared about that. I’ll feel a lot better if I die.”

Then, Haruto lifted his head.

I was the one who started this conversation, but I couldn’t find anything to say to him. I guess my expression was weird. I should be the one encouraging him, but it’s him, the suffering one, who was worried about me.

“I was joking.”

So he said in a tone that implied otherwise.

 

Haruto and I went our separate ways, and I walked alone.

The day was long, yet to be dark. The world remained engulfed in light.

I arrived near the station, and even though it’s not time yet, I took a long route to the bar we’re supposed to meet at.

“I hate being alone.”

The boy’s voice continued to echo in my ears, never fading. I felt conflicted, sickened. My emotions were out of control, fluctuating irrational, not caring that I might be hurting myself.

“Hate being alone…”

I muttered to myself, and suddenly thought of something.

Why did I answer so? No, what prompted me to answer?

 

“Segawa-san, have you experienced being alone?”

“…Nope.”

 

Isn’t it weird? I’m alone, always alone, but never lonely. I was never truly lonely. There’s no way I couldn’t have anyone accompany me all the time.

Before I knew it, I walked too far past the bar.

“Let’s go back.”

I called out, lifted my head, and found a white cat before me. It’s a kitten, small in size, and had blue eyes. I looked into those blue eyes, and soon after, it turned away, not even purring. For some reason however, I got a feeling it was calling me along. The white cat never looked back, as though knowing I would follow along.

Cats aren’t really anything special to me. I don’t really like cats. White cats in particular however left a little scar in my heart, one I can’t say could be called a memory.

The white cat sauntered into the shopping arcade, so I hurriedly gave chase. The uncle at the fish shop called for it, and it splendidly ignored him. That uncle however wasn’t angry, and instead was impressed, as though thinking that stray cats should behave this way.

“If ya hungry, come look for me.”

I couldn’t understand cat language, but the cat finally purred.

It’s been a while since I came to the shopping arcade. It felt so distant from me ever since I started driving.

I saw the bookstore I shopped at a few times. It’s a small one, didn’t have much stocks, but had books other bookstores wouldn’t have, so I would occasionally visit.

And then there’s the Antiquarian bookstore I read books at for free. The uncle’s still reading a book, as usual.

There was the taiyaki-selling granny I occasionally visited after school, chatting with a customer. I remembered buying one back then, custard cream flavor. The sweetness of that taiyaki remained memorable.

Then, I followed the white cat to a building I never saw before. It purred, as though saying this was the end.

I stopped in my tracks.

This used to be an empty space.

I once buried a white cat here.

At 14 years old, I faced death for the first time, and this was the only thing I could do.

If only,

I didn’t know if this assumption had meaning, but if that cat didn’t die, what could I have done for it. Could I have saved that white cat from its loneliness?

The boy’s voice continued to ring in my ears.

 

“I hate being alone. I’m scared about that. I’ll feel a lot better if I die.”

 

Ah, yes.

It’s frustrating to be alone.

I didn’t know when exactly did I become such a person. But starting from a certain moment, my heart would ache whenever I saw a lonely one. I spoke to Haruto because I could sense the loneliness from his sidelong face.

It’s completely unrelated, but my mind suddenly recalled Takuma’s voice,

“Probably having the same thoughts as a middle school kid there, wondering what you want to
do in life, right?”

What I want to do.

What I could do.

What would that be?

There’s an unspeakable feeling giving me the urge to yell. Once I relax, it would tear through my body from within, gnawing through my organs, bones and skin, breaking into the outside world.

But as an adult, I knew it was pointless to do that. Thus, I looked up at the sky.

The night stars started to poke out. At this point, I couldn’t see all the spring stars. I sought out the α Boötis, Arcturus. The Polynesians once used that start as their guiding beacon, leading them to Hawaii, and it was called the Hōkūleʻa, Star of Gladness.

Could Haruto and I arrive at a certain place? Would the Star of Gladness shine upon us? My eyes had yet to capture that orange light.

 

Before I knew it, the white cat had vanished.

I arrived at the bar about 30 minutes late, and found 2 empty bear mugs on the table. I lowered my friend, whose face remained unchanged, in apology.

“Sorry for being late.”

“It’s fine. These two are on you.”

Saying that, Takuma waved a hand, ordering another glass. I too ordered the same.

A minute later, the cold beer was served to us, so we brought our glasses together, giving the usual cheers,

“”Cheers!””

I gulped down half the beer, giving a hearty voice before slamming the glass back onto the table. The beer shook, and so did the bubbles. I could sense the alcohol moving all over my body.

“What dishes did you order?”

“Hm? Edamame and broth broiled eggs, stir fried beansprouts, takowasa, and then six different kinds of sashimi. I wanted to order meat once you showed up. Anything you don’t eat?”

“Anything except for konjac.”

“That’s weird. Konjac’s nice.”

“I just hate the feeling.”

We started chatting away like it was during the day, talking about things that we would forget once we woke up. Once we leave the shop, we might forget what we talk about, and the next time we show up, we’ll talk about the same things.

After drinking for an hour or so, Takuma, who could hold his liquor, switched from beer to Japanese wine. I just took a cup with him, and the rich aroma of the wine stung at my nose.

I had a gulp, and the liquid slipped past my tongue, entering my throat, causing my body to heat up. Hey, can you take another? Takuma chirped, so I played along and brought my empty cup. He tried to get me drunk as he poured another cup of clear liquid.

Right when I was about to drink the second cup, I heard a voice from the neighboring table.

There were partitions between the seats, but I could hear the neighboring conversation as it was too thin. We shouldn’t be eavesdropping. It’s basic etiquette, but I heard of a familiar name, so naturally, I responded. So I quietly made up such an excuse for myself.

Takuma didn’t speak up, instead checking with me using his eyes. I grinned back, and finished my half glass as response. We quiet down, eavesdropping on the neighboring conversation.

“Ahh, never thought this onee-san has the chance to come to a bar with you, Matsuu. I’m moved.”

“Eh, erm, actually, I still can’t drink beer.”

“Eh, really?”

“Yes, I’m only 20 in June. Sorry, Miya-senpai.”

“Ah, don’t worry. It’s stupid making a fuss out of it. But you’re right, I’m 20 now. Hmm, we should have gone to a trendy restaurant.”

“No, it’s fine. I do like such a place. And…”

And the girl called Matsuu, maybe the junior, exhaled, making it feel like she’s going to confess or something.

“Rindou-senpai and Miya-senpai are my benefactors. I’m happy to be with you.”

“Well, I can understand if it’s Akane-senpai, but why me?”

“It’s thanks to you two. Three years ago, you lowered your head to Rindou-senpai with me, and I was able to keep swimming back then. I intend to continue swimming.”

Speaking of Akane Rindou, her fame in the swimming world was no longer limited to our town, but the entire country. She became an Olympic candidate, and coupled with her cheery disposition and appearance, her popularity had increased. She’s appearing in news, and sometimes, even on variety TV. Her light was no inferior to the models, idols or actresses, but it didn’t mean that she changed.

Ever since she was in high school, I found her dazzling. It’s just that her dazzling light was discovered by many. That’s all.

However, that alone made me really happy.

“Ehehe. Well, let’s take it as that. It’s awkward hearing this from a junior who made it to the Nationals. Ahh, but I feel redeemed hearing these words. Our batch didn’t have a talent like Akane-senpai or Matsuu. That’s why we’re called the ‘failed generation’.”

“But those are the words of those who don’t understand anything. You don’t have to care about that. Rindou-senpai and I are really grateful for you, Miya-senpai. Really. Ah, why are you giving me such a doubting look? We started chatting lots about you recently during our mealtimes after training. Eh, why are you starting to cry? The beer? Maybe you should stop drinking? Ah, I see. Drink a little more. I’ll have some orange juice. Eh, understood. If you say so, I’ll drink some ginger ale. It’s a little spicy for me, but I’ll do my best for you, Miya-senpai. Ah, sorry. Please give us one more beer and ginger ale. Yes, thank you.”

Soon after, we heard snivelling and giggles from the table next to us. It sounded like they were our high school juniors. We would cheer on Akane during her races, so maybe I had seen them before. Of course, we’re not going to check on their appearances.

Before I knew it, Takuma was already pouring one out for myself, so I snatched some for myself.

Finally, Takuma’s face turned as red as me. His slightly empty eyes were showing my face, and I got a feeling he’s drunk. Takuma and I were both drunk.

And it might for this reason, Takuma said such things,

“Hey, you didn’t go dating with Akane during high school?”

How did it go anyway, so he continued, but his voice couldn’t overcome the noise in the the shop. He suppressed his volume to a level only I could hear.

“Why ask this out of a sudden?”

“It’s not really sudden. I already asked you that. You know this very well.”

“Eh, well, it’s too sudden to ask this.”

I chuckled back, and Takuma exhaled a hot breath full of alcohol.”

“To be honest, it’s because of the conversation next to me. I thought I should just ask, while we’re drunk.”

“While we’re drunk, huh?”

“You get it, don’t you. It’s meaningless when it’s just guys gathered together, but we’re all curious. You guys are important friends to me, you know?”

“I know. I feel the same about you. What we feel about Akane’s definitely the same, same goes for the juniors next table. How about we just go 1, 2, 3 and say it out loud?”

Eh, seemed like we’re more drunk than we thought, since we’re able to say something so embarrassing like ‘important friends’.

It’s another matter if I were to say this to a girl at a special place, but we’re good friends who knew each other since middle school, and we’re in an ordinary bar.

The noise in the shop suddenly felt like it had weight, surrounding us. The voices of all genders and ages mixed around, but it didn’t feel dirty. It’s like there’s a marble floor separating us.

“Eh, but, Akane only acts like a brother around us, and a girl before you. You couldn’t not have noticed that, right?”

He struck me where it hurt. To be honest, I didn’t notice her feelings at all, I didn’t have the delicacy. It was only when she brought me to the empty classroom after school that I realized. I was immature and ull, and until the very end of the end, I could only hurt Akane.

I recalled in my mind, the classroom scene, Akane’s expression. Our conversation and the feelings I had remained unchanged. It’s just admiration, not love, that’s all.

“Hm, but Takuma. I think I fell for someone else back then.”

“That’s the first time I heard of this. You got someone else you like?”

“I guess so.”

“It’s like…you said it as though it has nothing to do with you.”

“That was Akane’s instinct though.”

“What the hell is that?”

“Who knows?”

Takuma frowned upon hearing that. He seemed a little angry. Eh, no? Befuddled? He emptied the glass, ordered another glass, drank up and ate the sashimi. Over this entire time, he was scowling.

“I don’t understand what are you talking about.”

Takuma downed a piece of sashimi and slammed the table. The shock caused the wine in the glass to shake. Then, he suddenly frisked out his phone, and made a call. It connected after a few tones, and in a drunken tone, he said,

“Yo, it’s been a while. You alright there? Eh? It’s only been two weeks? That’s long for me. Hm, right. Guhahaha, I’m drunk. Don’t be so merciless. Aren’t we good friends? Ah, yeah. Mako wants to go out drinking with you again. Yeah. Call her next time. I’ll handle the rest.”

Takuma then looked over towards me. I silently ate the fatty tuna he left until the very end, and he looked utterly devastated, but I ignored him. Once I heard the voice coming from his phone, I knew what he was planning. It’s just me making a compromise.

“I’m out drinking with that guy. Will have him say a few words with you.”

Once the phone left Takuma’s ear, Eh, who’s that guy? I could hear that voice. It’s a voice I’m very familiar with.

Takuma handed over the red phone to me, his eyes were clearly saying, don’t you dare run away now. You just ate my fatty tuna.

The last time we met was probably during our class reunion half a year ago, last year. I would see her on TV from time to time, so I didn’t feel really nostalgic. I swallowed the fatty tuna meat.

“Hello?”

I grabbed the phone, and greeted. Huh, Haru? And there was a very familiar girl’s voice, my good friend Akane Rindou. Her voice was filled with shock and delight.

“Yo, it’s been a while.”

“Eh, how? You’re in Tokyo now, Haru?”

“No way. I just came back home with Takuma. It’s spring break now.”

“Ahh, I see. Too bad, I want to see you too.”

Akane sounded like she really wanted to see me, and I was really happy, but I did my best to swallow back the ‘I want to see you too’ words, since it’s too sickeningly sweet.

Instead, I changed the topic with the words, speaking of which.

“I see you often on TV. That’s amazing.”

“I’m not. I’m just working hard.”

“No. I’m saying you’re amazing at this.”

“…A long time ago, probably in middle school, the guy I liked once said that he hoped for me to charge forward with all my might. That’s why I’m working hard.”

“Ugh, about that.”

“Sorry sorry. Just want to tease you.”

“I’m serious. Apologize now.”

“That’s why I’m saying I’m sorry.”

Akane laughed, and so did I.

Takuma happily stared at us. What? So I gave him that look, nah, it’s nothing, and he shook his head.

After that, we chatted about some other topics, about our common friends, when we are returning to our hometown, and the next time we’re going drinking together.

After that, I tried talking about the elementary school kid I met days ago, the sidelong face working hard, the loneliness he had, and what I wanted to do for him.

But could I really help him? What could I have done for him? I was really troubled, but I just couldn’t take the next step. Ehh, I just felt that I was grumbling, embarrassingly enough for me. It’s no wonder Akane replied such.

Once she heard my words, “Are you an idiot?” she chuckled,

“I can’t deny that.”

“Yeah. Why are you the one hesitating? The one troubled is the kid, right? Buck up. It’s your responsibility.”

“That’s an exaggeration.”

“It really isn’t. Since you took the first step, it’s your responsibility. Relax, I know that you’re someone who’ll help others really well. I was once helped by you, and I got the strength to move forward. The vocal support you gave me has been, and is still my motivation.”

“Akane.”

“What?”

“Are you drunk?”

I was embarrassed, and tried to pass it off as a joke. My face was so hot. Thankfully, Takuma said that he was going to the toilet, so I was grateful for some alone time. It’s not because of the alcohol. I was drunk on something more important. It’s because of this that I didn’t want others to see how useless I looked.

“I’m, not, drinking. Seriously. It’s rare to hear you actually discuss something with me for real, and that’s why I’m being serious here. How rude.”

Akane didn’t really sound angry when she said this. It seemed she knew I was trying to hide my own embarrassment, but despite that, she’s not going to respond jokingly like this. Yeah, Akane Rindou’s such an outstanding person.

That’s why I respected her. It’s nothing to do with like or dislike.

It might not be what Akane had hoped for, but I preferred to watch her from far behind, than to walk alongside her.

“Thank you.”

“Huhu. Don’t be so courteous now.”

“I’ll try that.”

“Yep, just do that, Haru. If you want to support him, do it. Cheer him on, give him a nudge in the back. People can move forward easily, just like this. Ah yes, I’ll try cheering up the timid Haru then.”

So Akane said,

“I’ll do my best. No, I’m doing my best now.”

I recalled the old Akane, back when she was in middle school, wearing the school swimsuit, looking a lot smaller than before, dazzling in the light. Each droplet falling from her was a blob of light.

She raised her fist, looking a little bashful, but smiling brightly like the sun.

–Do your best too, Haru.

So I responded.

“Ah, I see.”

Akane said that my voice gives her strength, but this shouldn’t be the case. At this point, I realized that I too received strength.

“What?’

“Well, I just feel that I’m able to work hard now.”

“Right?”

The Akane Rindou I could think of was giving a red, but gleeful face. Even though the silhouette was younger than she presently was, they were giving the same light.

It’s really great that I got to meet Akane and become friends.

But despite being drunk, I couldn’t spit it out.

 

The next day, Haruto was at the park, as expected, sprinting as usual.

Unlike the usual, he noticed me before I spoke to him. He kept moving his little body towards me, not hiding his delight in the slightest.

“Morning, Segawa-san. You’re early today.”

“Morning, Haruto. You knew I would be coming?”

“Actually, I was thinking that it’s great if you’re here..”

His expression softened, his nimble eyes curling into crescents as he showed a smile befitting his age. I guess it’s because of his honesty. Once he ran to me, he tilted his head, looking confused.

“Why are you wearing a sweatshirt?”

“Hm? Just want to train with you today. Ah, actually, to work hard with you. I was on the track team in middle school. I think I can teach you a few tricks.”

“Really?”

“Yep. Let’s work hard and win together.”

“…Can I?”

This time, I nodded firmly, answering,

“Of course.”

“Please guide me well.”

We made fistbumps, and despite the differences in size and shape, it’s as we promised. Nevertheless, reality’s not manga, and there’s no way to level up in mere days. It seemed Haruto understood very well, and kept practicing the starts.

“Well, Taiki…eh…Taiki’s the friend who want to race me. My 100m time’s about the same as him, but when we start, he always pulls away from me, and I just couldn’t beat him. If possible, please teach me how to perfect my starts…”

It seemed there was a reason why he was practicing his starts.

I demonstrated to Haruto, teaching him things like: not to raise the upper body immediately after starting, but to lower oneself, and stare at the ground, to wave the arms fully when running, and take large strides. He’s not used to starting from low positions, and stumbled over a few times running out. His exposed cheeks were cut a few times, bleeding. He frowned, looking in pain. But whenever I panicked and went forward, he stood on his own strength, and smiled saying he was fine. He would then put his hands on the ground, lifting his head towards the front. I would stop to watch.

“Ready!”

I clapped hard. Haruto was startled for a moment before running. The start was decent, but the response was slow.

“Still too slow.”

“Hm, it feels like I’m thinking of so many things. What do you think of when you run, Segawa-san?”

“Me? Well…”

I recalled the day that was so distant in the past, and put my fingers on the ground, something I had not done in a long while.

The older I was, the taller I got, and my distance to the ground instance. I was no longer like the current Haruto, not running without restraint, not falling over. It’s been a while since I touched the ground like this. The moment I exerted strength into my fingers, my fingertips were as red as that day.

I suddenly looked to the front, and the vision I had changed from the park to the track of my middle school. The season changed from spring to summer, the hot air, the smell of dirt, the strikingly blue sky, the clouds piled together. What was I thinking of back then? What did I see?

The silhouette of the one I called friend? Or something else?

All I could remember was the emptiness in the future (front) I could see. But…

“————wa-san,Segawa-san. What’s wrong? You alright? Did I say anything weird?”

“Eh? Ah, I’m fine. Sorry to make you worry.”

I apologized, stood up, waving my hand to dust off the dirt on my fingers. The season’s back to spring.

“What was I thinking? I guess I wasn’t.”

“it’s better not to think?”

“Ye…”

I wanted to say, yeah, but I shook my head, because I didn’t think that was the case. I didn’t do that, that there was a goal at the very end, a target there, for me to be motivated. A person can only improve when the heart yearns to be faster. I slapped my cheeks hard to pull myself together, and felt completely awake immediately. Haruto looked up at me in shock, and I smiled,
“Right, I’ll take back what I just said. What do you like to eat? What are you craving for now?”

“Why ask this now? I do like lots of food, but I really want to eat ice cream now.”

“Once you nail that perfect start, I’ll buy some ice cream for you.”

“Really?”

“I don’t lie.”

“Great, we got a deal. Let’s start. Hurry.”

It’s opportunistic of Haruto, who was finally motivated. He looked forward with the most serious eyes till now, and from his sidelong face, I could tell his focus was completely different from before. Ah, it’s fine now. He’ll be able to start running.

“Ready!”

Haruto tensed his body, getting ready to start.

“Run!”

On my mark, he shot out like a bullet. His diminutive body gently sprinted into the embrace of spring.

 

Finally, I brought Haruto out for ice cream. We went to the convenience store I would visit countless times on the way home after my middle school club activities. Some things have changed, but some haven’t. The mood here was like before, and I felt relieved as I went to the ice cream stand.

“Just choose whatever you like.”

“Hmm…”

Haruto brooded, folding his arms and groaning for five minutes or so.

It’s obvious however that he was looking at the cup ice cream that’s about 100 yen more expensive than the others. He’s probably trying to be kind, even though he didn’t have to worry about how much it is. So I asked,

“Strawberry, match, vanilla, rum and raisin, which one you’ll like?”

“Hmm…strawberry.”

“Got it.”

I spent 300 yen for two cups of ice cream, one strawberry, and one rum and raisin for myself.

“I said to choose whatever you want, but you mind sharing this with today?”

“Eh? But isn’t that expensive?”

“Well, I’m asking you because I want to share. Can I?”

“Of course.”

We paid, and sat at the parking lots, opening the lids. Haruto scooped a small spoonful, and brought it to his mouth, happily calling it delicious. I watched on as I too began to eat.

Haruto then continued to enjoy the ice cream, but at the last two mouthfuls, he stopped. I in turn had a completely empty cup.

“Segawa-san, hear me out. Actually, I’m fine with whatever ice cream, but I’m just happy to be able to eat with someone. My dad left, so my mom’s always busy, often not at home, and I often ate alone. I could take this because I still had friends at school, and we ate together. We could play together until night after school. I just have fun, and I didn’t feel sad. That’s why I’m sad and lonely now, but I feel happy these days with you around, Segawa-san. I even get to have some ice cream. So, thanks.”

Haruto said, and slowly brought the last two mouthfuls to his mouth, hiding his embarrassment. He took it to his mouth, cherishing this sweet time, but time would ultimately pass.

“I’m done.”

Haruto said, still looking a little lonely. I wanted to talk to him, ease some of his loneliness. There was a silhouette overlooking us, blocking the sun. I lifted my head to see three boys of similar age to Haruto, who called out a boy’s name,

“Ah,Taiki.”

The tall boy standing in the middle of the trio was Taiki. He’s probably 5cm taller than Haruto, and as the cap on his head was worn really low, it’s hard to tell what expression he was giving, but he looked a little gaudy. The other two behind him were looking the same. Those three looked like they were deliberating over whether they should hide the facts.

“What are you doing here?”

“Practicing. I’ll definitely beat you.”

“That’s impossible now, alright? Just give up.”

“I’m not giving up. I still want to hang out with you guys.”

For some reason, Taiki looked hurt hearing these words. According to what I heard from Haruto, I had assumed if he was being bullied, but it seemed there was some internal issue going on.

So, on whose side shall I stand by? I tried to stand up, but Haruto grabbed my hem, so I sat back next to him. I felt a shiver from the shirt being tugged at.

It seemed this was the moment Taiki noticed me. And he glared at me.

“Who are you?”

“Haruto’s coach, sorta? Say, can’t you guys just hang out together like before?”

“Like hell that’s happening. This one’s different from us.”

“You all don’t look so different.”

“Shut up, you outsider. You don’t know anything.”

Taiki’s attitude towards his classmate Haruto was completely different; he was defiant towards me. It was Haruto who was coaxing him.

“Taiki.”

“Wh-what!?”

“Apologize to Segawa-san. You’re too rude.”

With Haruto glaring at him, Taiki went silent. Something’s not right here, but I didn’t know what it was.

“Damn it!”

Taiki, who was being glared at the entire time, cussed away, and brought his two lackeys away from the convenience store. He didn’t apologize to me; instead, he glared furiously.

The trio then vanished among the crowd. Once they were completely gone, Haruto lowered his cute head, and apologized to me.

“Sorry Segawa-san.”

“Why are you apologizing, Haruto? You didn’t do anything bad.”

I patted him on the head as encouragement, since he was so dejected. It seemed to cause a tickle.

“Anyway, that kid called Taiki isn’t very popular with the girls, right? Unlike our Haruto here.”

“What do you mean, our Haruto? The girls hate me too, since I’m like this, and only play with Taiki and the others.”

“I don’t find anything weird about this. You enjoy being with them, right? Isn’t that good enough?”

“Well, I think so, but the girls and the teachers say it’s weird. Ahh, you don’t have to show such a face. I just need to win, and then I can play with them. Don’t worry. More importantly, you’re popular with the girls, aren’t you, Segawa-san?”

“Well, not exactly.”

To be honest, up till this point, there’s only one girl who liked me. No, probably two.

There’s the classmate who confessed to me, and another who didn’t say anything, didn’t identify herself, and just delivered chocolates into my postbox. These two memories were full of the presence of spring, and all that I had.

“Oh, I see.”

“Hey, why are you so happy?”

“I’m not.”

Haruto grinned, and stood up with much vigor again, stretching again. The sunset shone upon his little body, causing him to dazzle.

“Hey, Segawa-san. If I win, please give me a reward. I’ll be able to have a perfect start, just like today.”

“Okay. As long as it’s within my capability.”

“Really? It’s a promise then. You break it, and you’re a liar.”

“Don’t worry. Didn’t I say I won’t break a promise?”

So we promised using our pinkies. As we did so, we shouted like little kids.

Twisty twist, if we break it,

It seemed the pinky touching mine was a little hot.

 

The day of the showdown was pretty warm.

Right when I could see the elementary school I graduated from, my smartphone vibrated. I frisked my phone out, and it showed my good friend’s name. I looked up at the sakura that had already bloomed before I knew it, and stopped in my tracks.

“Yo, you free now?”

“For a moment, yeah. I got a contest coming up.”

Ahhh, it seemed Takuma understood immediately as he muttered, it’s about the kid you talked about.

“I don’t think I can disturb you for long then. I’ll keep it brief. I’m returning to Tojyo, and I’m going to talk it out with Mako.”

“So you made up your mind?”

A bunch of elementary school kids came running, brushing me by. They sounded really happy, and it would be great if Haruto could join them.

“Not exactly. Yep, I decided where I’m going, just lacking the determination. I’ll just sit down and talk it out with her; hope that she’ll understand.”

“Understand what? That you won’t regret it?”

“No, I can’t guarantee that I won’t regret it. Either way, I can’t be certain of the future no matter what my choice is.”

“Say, are you really listening to me? Hotta-san didn’t want you to regret…”

“That’s why I want her to understand. I may regret it, but I hope for her to be with me. I just feel that as long as I’m with her, I’ll be able to keep working hard.”

“…Why does it sound like you’re proposing to her?”

“Too early?”

“What, you intend too?”

“I think it’s more like a practice before I propose.”

“That sounds better.”

Ahh, I guess it’s fine to bless him a little on this comfy spring day.

It’s the perfect day to move forward.

“Ah but if you fail, we’re going drinking. I asked Akane out.”

“Of course. You guys will treat me, right?”

“That’s a different matter altogether.”

“Tch, that’s petty.”

We laughed. Takuma might have been feeling uneasy, since he notified me that he was returning to Tokyo, and I took the opportunity to nudge him on.

After this brief conversation, he hung up, and the black screen was his answer. I gripped the phone hard, and walked on. Like Takuma, I didn’t know where exactly I was going, but I decided to move on.

In any case, to the elementary school grounds. I took a firm step forward, all to encourage the kid who had been training hard on sprinting.

 

I slipped into the elementary school through the back door. The gym and the playground had changed in appearance, but what was left remained nostalgic. The bar that seemed so tall in the past could be reached without stretching. The black bar was a little hot, and I reeled my fingers back in.

Haruto saw me, and heaved a sigh of relief. Instead, it was Taiki and the others glaring at me.

“Why are you here?”

“I asked him to.”

“But he’s an outsider.”

Haruto approached me, and tugged at the hem of my shirt like usual. Taiki’s glare intensified once he saw that.

“I hate you.”

So I grinned back, responding,

“Now that’s a coincidence, I don’t like you at all but it seems Haruto wants to play with you lot. So then, please keep to the promise.”

I lowered my head at them as I said so. It seemed I was an adult to Taiki and the others, so my action was a little surprising. “We-well, unless I win.” It seemed I got him to honor the promise. My presence at this place finally had meaning.

I nudged Haruto in the back while the latter was looking up at me worriedly. Haruto’s really light, and stumbled a few steps forward, and that silhouette, having received some encouragement, stood at the starting line without looking back.

I stood at the finishing line along with Taiki’s two lackeys. They’re short, and looked even smaller from here. Do your best, Haruto, so I muttered in my heart.

The two got to the starting line, and positioned themselves to run.

“Ready~”

The boy next to me shouted. Despite the distance from them, I could sense their tension reaching me.

“Start!”

Both of them sprinted in unison. Haruto’s start was perfect; as practised, Haruto didn’t lift the upper body immediately, only lifting it once he sped up. But his expression showed him crumbling. He saw Taiki before him, and though they ran at the same time, Taiki’s acceleration was faster.

The minor difference was about 50cm wide, the distance Haruto had to reach out and cover.

But Haruto didn’t give up. He’s about to cry, and was suffering, but he gritted his teeth and continued running. He waved his arms, stretching his leg forward, trying his best to catch up to Taiki. Despite that, the gap didn’t shrink, and it caused despair to appear on Haruto’s face.

Despair truly has its own weight.

It causes people to feel heavy and unbearable, an increased urge to lower the head further.

Haruto’s eyes were looking further down.

Ahh, no.

He couldn’t do this.

The only way he’s going to run was by looking forward.

The only way he’s going to reach was by looking forward.

I knew that very well.

Was there no other way?

What could I, who had experienced that summer, do for Haruto?

At this moment, there was a chilly gust of winter air.

That breeze had me taking a step forward, nudging me forward.

Akane said that I just needed to voice out, to cheer him on.

I took a step forward.

Before I knew it, I was standing behind the finishing line.

I took a deep breath, and inhaled hard, causing my expanded lungs to hurt. I poured all my emotions in, and yelled towards the boy who was working hard alone.

For I wanted to tell him that he was not alone,

“HARUTOOOO!! LIFT UP YOUR HEAD!!!!!”

Haruto noticed me shouting, and lifted his head as told. The bangs pressed down by the wind fluttered up, and once he did, there was nothing blocking his sight, the spring skies and my silhouette appearing in his large eyes.

Haruto then showed a stunned look,

“LOOK FORWARD!!!”

He smiled.

Ah yes.

His smile had me realizing something,

“I’M HERE!!”

That summer, I definitely…

Did show such a face, smiling as I ran towards the future. Even though it felt hollow, I never regretted that moment. I might have grabbed something with that hand of mine.

The hard work I put in might have paid off.

My throat hurt.

I didn’t know how long it was since I shouted like this.

My voice would crack, and it was embarrassing.

But I kept yelling.

I opened my arms wide.

“CHARGE AT ME!!”

Haruto sped up. Taiki panicked and tried to speed up, but Haruto was faster, for Haruto was no longer looking at Taiki.

He was looking further beyond.

He took a first step forward, and a faster second step.

And finally, he gathered strength in his feet, leaping forward as I told him to.

“Oof.”

I fell backwards due to the massive impact, but I caught Haruto in my clutches, making sure he didn’t get hurt. At that moment, I scented upon a weak but distinct scent of spring.

I fell to the ground, and saw a spring day brighter than that summer day.

“Ow.”

My back hit the ground, and was aching away. Haruto was sprawled on my stomach, leaning on my chest, cupping my neck with his hands. He widened his eyes, and found us so close, our noses were about to touch.

“Woahhh, sorry!”

Haruto was flushed red, and hastily moved away from me.

“You don’t have to worry about that. More importantly…”

“Eh?”

“Congrats.”

“Eh? Eh?”

Haruto continued to blush, looking left and right, the thoughts unable to catch up to reality, so I kindly informed him,

“You win.”

This is the place we worked hard to arrive at.

Where no person would remain alone.

One thought on “[Hello X3 V2] Chapter 5

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