I can say now that I was young and foolish, but I had an existence called a boyfriend between my second and third years of middle school.
It all began with a book. I was in the school library, and I was too short to reach the book. Instead, he grabbed the book for me, and our paths intertwined because of this old cliché.
Even so, we didn’t both like the same things. I was focused entirely on pure mystery novels, and he was someone who read all kinds of genres. Well, the creatures called middle schoolers would deem everything other than those they liked as taste (biased), and that man’s choice of genres appeared an utter lack of self-control to me.
Even so, I started a romance story that ill befit the times, while going through a period in life darker than anything Seishi Yokomizo committed to paper. Annoyingly for me, it was because he and I had something we could bond over other than our interests.
That man and I had something in common besides our love for reading.
Which was one reason why both of us ended up in this farce.
In other words, we were both from broken homes.
I don’t remember my parents ever arguing since I was young.
I did live in a common, harmonious family until my early years in elementary school… My parents never argued too loudly, and of course, there was no family violence to speak of. Thus, I totally failed my Spot check.
My parents were no longer family.
…I never asked for the specifics, but looking back now, I can somewhat understand how it happened. In hindsight, there was nothing particularly impressionable, just some little differences that slowly built up over time, and the passion they once had faded and cooled off, blurred, vanished…and they ended up unable to get along with each other, that’s all.
It’s just something really common…and I also have personal experience with that.
I didn’t understand this as a child however. I was extremely anxious because I was really lonely, and spent every day with tears. Mom embraced me, gently apologizing to me again and again, and I was sad about that. I did not want mom to keep apologizing, and before I knew it, I stopped crying.
There was a large void in my heart…because of what happened in my childhood.
It was a void caused by the sudden absence of something I naturally once had.
I could still meet dad again. Even now, I can meet him about once a year…but mom never joined me. Mom and I are family, dad and I are family…but mom and dad aren’t family.
On that certain day, my parents were no longer family.
It was not misfortune, nor was it the mischief of fate…but, this void was ingrained in my heart.
That was why I couldn’t help but ask about his feelings.
—Don’t…you feel lonely?
I cautiously asked such a sensitive, delicate question hesitantly, and he answered.
—I’m not sure what ‘loneliness’ is.
That was what he answered back then. In hindsight, it was a stupidly foolish answer completely befitting our age, but back then, the expression he showed on his sidelong face was of complete ’emptiness’, nary a bluff in it.
Nothing at all.
It was an expression of ‘nothingness’, of one who was unable to convey his own loneliness, an anxiety he could not vent.
His sidelong expression blew strongly into the void in my heart.
He did not have the void I had. The void I had definitely did not exist in his heart. Surely he would not cry because of loneliness, like I did. He could not possibly do so.
There was no need for others to embrace him, to console him.
Such was his loneliness, his aloofness, which blew into my heart, leaving behind a certain numbness. Just as wounds would hurt because of the medication, my heart too reacted since it was a point of contention.
…I did not know anything about his actual mother.
I did not know why he ended up being such a twisted person.
After mom married, I moved into this house, and there was this once when I ended up sitting there.
A corner of the first level.
It was the Japanese room with tatamis, the room nobody ever entered.
I sat before the Buddhist altar that stood quietly there.
It’s said that most high school boys wouldn’t know the significance of the second Sunday of May.
It was the most important day of the year to me, officially elevated to this position after happily, thoroughly dethroning the prior crown date: August 27th, the ‘Day I Became Irido-kun’s Girlfriend’.
It was the first Saturday after Golden Week. I finished my daily revision, went to the first floor, and found my little stepbrother lazing on the sofa, reading. I spoke to him with a frigid tone.
Mizuto didn’t look up from his book, and instead gave an impatient reply.
“Hm? What trouble’d you get into this time?”
“Can you please not assume I got into trouble!?” And speaking of which, didn’t he too get into some trouble before? “…Anyway, it’s not that. I’m wondering if you prepared anything. Tomorrow’s the day.”
“Present! For Mother’s Day!” I answered as I looked down from the back of the sofa, and he ended up blinking away.
“Mother’s…Day…?” Mizuto closed his book, took his cellphone from the table, and brought it to his lips. “Hey Google, Mother’s Day.”
“You don’t have to google it!”
“Hmmm, second Sunday of May…a day of appreciation to mothers for their usual hard work… Think I’ve heard of it.”
“Meh, haven’t had a mother since forever.”
“Do you even know when Father’s Day is?”
“……Hey Google, Father’s Day.”
“You don’t have to google it!”
Seriously, this guy was way too disinterested in all humans, including his own family. What kind of miracle enabled someone like him to get a girlfriend? Hey, you listening? Middle-school me!?
Mizuto averted his eyes, and said “Well, I don’t think guys do stuff on those days. Yup, should be why.”
“Nope.” I snatched Mizuto’s book when he tried to go back to reading.”I won’t let you ignore Mother’s Day, not while I can still tell black from white!”
“…Mother’s Day Police now? What a weirdo. What, this some part-time job for the Van Dine’s Twenty Rules Secret Service?”
“Don’t mention that again…!”
The tragic girl who berated every novel that broke those rules had died.
“…Anyway, you haven’t prepared anything for Mother’s Day at all, right?”
“I wouldn’t know a thing about presents.”
“Hm~? This the same guy who came up to his girlfriend’s place in the middle of the night, just to deliver a Christmas present?”
“…Don’t mention that.”
I smiled once he stared at me. We both knew of each other’s dark history, and we had lots of ammo.
Mizuto sighed, finally pulled himself up, and almost touched me while I was leaning over the backrest of the sofa.
“Let’s get to it. What do you want?”
“There’s no way you’ll prepare a present if I leave you be. Let’s go shopping together, like right now.”
“Huh?” Mizuto gave me the look of one witnessing a mystical beast. How rude. “…You? With me? Together?”
“Yep. I can watch over you, and maintain an impression to mom that we’re on good terms. You don’t have to feel embarrassed about giving presents if it’s from the both of us, and we can cut costs in half.”
“Oy, that last bit is what you’re really aiming for, right?”
“The important thing about a present isn’t the price, but the heart.”
Truth be told, my finances were a little tighter compared to before, since I started going out with my classmates.
Haa, Mizuto sighed. If what they said about people losing some luck when they sigh was true, this guy’d have a date with Truck-kun to Isekai land some day.
“No thanks. Buying something? With you? Huh!? Have you gone senile in your teenage years? You alright? You remember to eat?”
“…You. Annoy. Me…!”
He‘s a genius at riling me up.
…Alright, if that’s how you wanna play, I’ve my own ways.
I left the living room, returned to my room, quickly got changed, had a check in the mirror, saw that my getup was complete, and went downstairs again.
I brushed my bangs, and looked down at his face while he was lying on the sofa again.
“Hello there, Mizuto-kun?”
“Huh? Didn’t we just… Huh!?”
Mizuto lifted his head, saw my face, and immediately blinked away.
I was dressed in a one-piece dress, a cardigan, and a hat with a wide brim, a necessity for a lady who wanted to avoid the heat.
It was the getup that perfectly matched his tastes.
I gently put my hand on Mizuto’s chest as he looked towards me dumbfoundedly. Thump thump thump. I could feel his heartbeat moving faster by the second.
“Oh my. Oh my my my. That’s weird. Your heart’s already beating this wildly when your stepsibling’s just changed clothes? That’s a strikeout, little brother?”
“Nnn…!? You’re counting heartbeats as part of the rule?”
“There’s no sub-rule that says that ‘involuntary muscle movement is not considered’.”
The only rule was that if either of us did anything beyond stepsibling stuff, they had to be the younger sibling. Nobody in their right mind would falter just because their own sister’s wearing a one-piece dress.
I curled my lips, and said, “Besides, leaving aside your heartbeat, I do see you spacing out quite a bit, no? It appears you really like such an innocent appearance. I suppose as an otaku, you do have some fantasies of a girl, no?”
“Yeah, and a certain someone already smashed all those fantasies to bits.”
“Hm, who can that be? There is only one older sister here.”
Mizuto cursed, stood up, and said while ensuring he was not looking at me, “…I just need to go buy a present with you, right?”
Ara ara, that’s honest of him. I thought he would have pouted a little longer.
“Do you really like this outfit?” I grinned.
“Shut up,” Mizuto muttered under his breath.
“Wait wait wait! You’re going out like that!?”
“Huh? Can’t I just wear a sweater?”
“Of course not!”
Mizuto got changed, styled his hair, and we finally went out.
I thought he might dress up as he did when we went to the aquarium, but he wore an ordinary outfit consisting of an ordinary shirt to go with an ordinary vest and ordinary chino pants.
Well, if he put in much effort to dress up just to get out with me, people might misunderstand that we were dating, and that was a little too much…I didn’t find it a pity though.
I looked up at the sky under the brim of the hat.
The weather was getting hotter recently. Kyoto’s heat was rather humid too, so I guess the airy one-piece dress was an appropriate choice.
“Let’s go then.”
“…Alrighty.” Mizuto answered as he looked aside, and hurried off. It seemed he had completely decided to ignore me, who was dressed like this.
And I walked next to him, giggling away.
He put in lots of effort the last time, throwing me off my pace. This time though, it seemed I would be the only one attacking. Very good.
“So, where are we going? Kawaramachi? Or Kyoto station? I usually cycle there by myself though…”
“How am I supposed to cycle in a skirt? Are you an idiot?”
“That’s why I’m asking you, where are we going? Connect the dots.”
“If we’re going to the station, can’t we just take the train? Are you an idiot?”
“That’s a brand new way to end a sentence. Can I beat you up?”
I pulled my distance slightly, fearing the threat of violence, and went to the nearest station.
We were headed towards Kyoto station. There’s a gift shop we would visit every year at the station building.
We could cycle there from our house, but the fastest way there was undoubtedly the subway. It was a 200+ yen trip, but we would arrive within 10 minutes.
I waited for Mizuto to buy a single trip ticket, and went past the gantry using my IC card.
“Why do you not have an IC card?”
“It’s a waste to top up value and not use it, right?”
I guess he never had the chance to use one since he never went out to play with others. How pitiful.
There were a lot of people on the platform, and I had to slip through the crowd if I wanted to move forward. Mizuto kept groaning away as we navigated through this labyrinth of humans.
“There’s a lot of people…”
“You might not know this, being a hikikomori and all, but there’s a lot of people out here during the weekend, you know?”
“I’m a hikikomori because I know…” Mizuto said weakly. He really hated crowded places like usual. Well, I don’t think there’s anyone who does like them.
I latched onto the elbow of my little stepsibling, whose sanity points had dropped, and pulled him aside.
“Alright, pull yourself together. Don’t get lost now.”
“If that happens, I’m going home.”
I dragged Mizuto through the platform, and queued up. It really felt like I was taking care of a little brother. If I had to, I hoped to raise a younger, cuter, more honest little brother.
“Ugh.” Mizuto groaned in repulse once he saw the train arrive at the station.
“Do we have to ride this one…? How about the next one?”
“It’s all the same no matter how many trips we wait.”
There were countless people grabbing onto the hand straps on the train. With us joining in, it was a full house.
Despite that, the full house here seemed a lot better than the rumored full trains of Tokyo. It wasn’t like we were pressed together like sardines. There was simply little breathing space. A jam-packed train’d probably leave him in despair. A Tokyo train’d would leave him in despair.
We waited for the passengers to alight, and went into the train. Mizuto was the last in line, and once he boarded, the doors closed.
The train slowly accelerated, and there was some trembling beneath our feet.
At this moment.
I made such an embarrassing noise, for someone tugged at my arm from behind.
My back hit the door.
What the!? Seriously!?
I lifted my head, feeling incensed, only to gasp.
Mizuto swapped positions with me, putting his hands on the door to maintain his balance, and peered at my face up close.
Right before my eyes was a neck that was somewhat slim for a boy, and an Adam’s apple that truly emphasized the existence of a boy. The steady breathing sounded so close, as though it was a whisper by my ear.
And then, the eyes that were driven insane by the crowds moments ago seemed a little furious as they stared deep into mine.
Mizuto and I were positioned in a kabedon.
“…Well, you should be the one standing by the door, right?”
Only after those stiff words of his did I finally understand his intentions.
…Wait? He’s worried about perverts?
I smiled, and lifted my eyes slightly, looking back into his.
“You’re protecting me?”
“Well.” Mizuto curled his lips sarcastically, as though he was being rebellious. “Well, isn’t that what a little brother should do, big sis?”
…Yes. He’s the little brother at this point.
I pursed my lips unwittingly.
“…You’re rather cocky for one.”
“There are cocky little brothers out there in this world…woah!?”
The train passed a curb, and the passengers tumbled sideways.
Mizuto lost his balance, and stumbled…and before I knew it, my face was buried into his shoulder, pressed against the wall.
Mizuto’s voice stung at my right ear.
I had grown quite a bit since middle school, but I hadn’t grown as much as he, who had passed his puberty phase. Given our high differences, my forehead might hit his lips, and this little if that happened…I was completely covered by him, so should I say that I recognized how slender I was, uuuuuuuu……
“Anyway, I’ll pull away a little.”
“…Ah, wai, stop…!”
I hurriedly tugged at Mizuto’s shirt once I saw him getting ready to straighten up.
I wanted to remain as I was…yeah, that’s a big nope from me fam.
…It’s just that, if he pulled away from me, my expression’d be visible.
And I would have to be the little sister.
“An-anyway, this’ll happen after every shake. You’re a beansprout after all.” Of course, I couldn’t come out and admit to that, so I tried to baffle him with bullshit instead. “You can just stand however you please…whatever, we’re getting off soon.”
The voice and breath reached my ears in unison, and so both of us went silent.
Thereafter, the train never shook again.
After an eternity had passed, we finally arrived at the station, alighted, and went straight to the underground street linked to the station.
We slipped through the crowds, and went towards the alley filled with female fashion goods. There was a gift shop I often visited and bought presents from.
Mizuto seemed a little restless, either because of the crowd, or because the alley was filled to the brim with fashionable goods for women. Well well well, otakus sure are useless again.
“…You said you wanted to buy a present.” Mizuto suddenly said, as though he were hiding something. “So what do you intend to buy? You probably have an idea, right?”
“A bouquet or a photo frame or something…or a frying pan? Mom likes to cook after all.”
“But you never asked her about what she wants.”
“…Shut up. The idea of girls having to learn how to cook is long gone.”
“Haa, you say that… but I recall a certain woman going ahead and making bentos I never asked fo─ow!”
That pissed me off a little, so I kicked him in the shin. I’ll remember this.
We arrived at the gift shop. There was a floral shop opposite, and I could choose a bouquet from there, but I decided to visit this side.
I reached out to grab my little stepbrother, who was hesitant about entering a shop awash in femininity.
He looked around at the products displayed.
“…Hmmm~ Thought there’d be weird stuff here, but there’s a lot of useful stuff. Like notebooks and such.”
“We don’t usually give others ridiculous stuff. I’m not you.”
“When have I given weird stuff?”
“You didn’t exactly ‘give’ it to me, but you do remember recommending some weird movie, right?”
“Come on, ‘Memento’ is a masterpiece, alright?”
“That’s what you say. I can’t believe you’d recommend a middle school girl a weird movie with its chronology all out of whack.”
That was back before we dated. The movie ‘Memento’ depicted the story of a man who could only preserve his memories for ten minutes, seeking out the culprit who murdered his wife. It really was a masterpiece, and suited my tastes, but recommending that to a middle school girl was a step too far. I couldn’t help but recall his annoying aspects from back in middle school.
“Look, I recommend based on your personality. Not your age or social standing.. Don’t you like movies like ‘Butterfly Effect’ or ’12 Angry Men’?”
“I do remember the movies, but I don’t remember who recommended those movies…”
“Tch. If I’d known, I woulda recommended those easy-going romance movies and made you give awkward smiles to begin with…”
“If you could have done so, everything that went wrong wouldn’t have happened…”
I wouldn’t have confessed to him. Wouldn’t that be the Butterfly Effect at work?
I inspected a mug that had some letters on it, and asked my little stepbrother, “So? Little stepbrother who recommends based on personality and not on age or social standing, have you decided on what to give mom?”
“Dunno what Yuni-san likes. Got the feeling it’s not mugs you buy a set of as lovers, and then dunno what to do with after you break up.”
“Yeah. We need to consider everything else after we give the present.”
If there’s anything praiseworthy we did back in middle school, it’s probably that we never bought a couple set. I guess those would be as difficult to do with a shared SNS account for couples.
“I don’t know what she likes,” Mizuto said as he looked up at the cabinet.
“But I got some idea of what Yuni-san…what they need.”
“Mom, they?…including Minneaki-san?”
“Yeah.” Mizuto nodded. “Let’s forget about gifts for now. How about we go window-shopping? I got some things to talk about.”
We took the escalator, and went to the first level of the Kyoto station building.
“Ah, a bookshop.”
“Stop! We’ll lose all track of time if we go in there!”
I stopped Mizuto, who was being baited into the bookshop like ants to a trap, and we walked down the path with lots of local gifts around.
“Hey, say, what are we doing here? Why do I feel like we’re just wandering around aimlessly?”
“Well yeah, we are wandering around aimlessly.”
“Huh!? So, in other words, I’m just accompanying you for fun and laughter, peace and joy?”
“But you look rather happy though? You’re as excited as a dog.”
“…If I’m really a dog and you’re the owner, I would have bitten your hand off.”
“I see. Guess I better be careful about feeding you,” Mizuto said as he passed me the canned coffee he had been drinking while strolling. Who’s going to drink the coffee you drank?
I shoved it back in refusal, and Mizuto snorted, tossing the can into the trashbin…wait, it’s empty!?
“I don’t really have an objective for strolling around, but there’s a purpose. I’m looking for inspiration.”
Mizuto kept avoiding the crowds as he said, “I’ve been thinking…Yuni-san and dad seemed to be concerned about our feelings ever since they remarried.”
“…Yes, they are. It feels like mom has been returning home earlier after she got married.”
“Same goes for dad. I guess they’re very worried about the idea of a teenage boy and girl living together under the same roof. Especially Yuni-san. Would anyone really allow a daughter, whom she single-handedly raised, stay together with a boy her age?”
In fact, mom asked me before it was decided that we would stay together.
“He has a son. Are you fine with that?”
I never thought it would be a boy my age, and let alone him, but I wouldn’t have agreed to stay with him if he was any older than a middle schooler. Truth be told, those were my earnest thoughts.
It so happened that I just broke up with him. How could I live together with another boy under the same room at that point of time?
But if I never agreed, mom wouldn’t have chosen to stay with uncle Mineaki, and the thought about remarriage wouldn’t have come to pass. I chose to bluff my way through back then, and told mom that I would decide after meeting him.
And then I decided to endure once I saw him.
I knew that if it was him, I wouldn’t be in physical danger, though I would have mental issues.
…Of course, mom wouldn’t have known about this. She trusted Mizuto because of uncle Mineaki, but she obviously was concerned about it.
“Look, the only way we’ll erase this suspicion is through actual action. It’s not going to be settled in a single day.”
“Oh, yes. Don’t visit my room in the middle of the night.”
“Right back at you…yeah, if we really need to contact each other, do it by phone.”
I looked up towards Mizuto, who stared back at me, showing a troubled look on his face.
“What? Is there a problem?”
At night, in the room, contacting each other discreetly…wait, I don’t think that’s any different from when we’re dating, you know?
……But if I mentioned that, he would have jabbed at me for deliberately misinterpreting it.
“Well, that’s that. Now then.”
Mizuto continued on, probably because he never noticed my feelings.”
“Well, I guess it’s a pity…that they’re so concerned about us.”
“I mean, they finally remarried, and could have spent more time together.”
Well, mom and uncle Mineaki were newlyweds. Because of us though, they weren’t able to enjoy their time together…that was real awkward on us.
“So.” Mizuto put his hands into his pockets, and walked on, saying with a really calm tone, “The best present we can give them is time…time for dad and Yuni-san to spend together as a couple, right?”
I couldn’t see any intent to joke or act cool on his sidelong face. All I could see was an earnest feeling and a tell-it-as-it-is attitude.
……I never thought he would say such things.
I’m not sure what ‘loneliness’ is. He, who once said such words, actually…
“…Well, the problem is that I can’t figure out how to do it exactly. It’s easy if we have a food voucher or a trip ticket as a present, but they have to work, and the stuff we can buy with our pocket money is so pitifully little…”
“So you’re here for inspiration?”
“Pretty much. I feel I’ll get some ideas I usually won’t think about if I visit some places I normally wouldn’t visit, see some things I usually won’t see.”
Seriously, what kind of thoughts did he have to live till this point?
He forgot all about Mother’s Day until I mentioned it, but he thought far more than I ever did in such a short time.
I guess the reason for that much thought…was because nobody else could think of those questions.
There was no one who was worth taking up his mind, other than himself.
…The void in my heart jolted.
And also, an answer peeled off, like a wound scab.
“…If that’s the case, can’t we just reverse the thought process?”
I seemingly muttered to myself, and Mizuto looked at me.
“We just need them to be alone, right? We don’t need them to go elsewhere…”
At that moment.
The scenery outside the station building was within sight, and we saw another building beyond the passing cars.
That shop’s signboard appeared in our eyes.
It was perfect timing, but it was really a complete coincidence.
We were walking in an area we usually wouldn’t be at, and saw things we usually wouldn’t see…and somehow, we thought of an idea we usually wouldn’t think of.
Mizuto seemed to have realized something, and saw the time on his phone.
“Today’s…a little too sudden. I guess we can wait till next Saturday…”
“Eh…? Wa-wait. You serious!?”
“Isn’t this your idea?”
“No-no-no, I just want to say, there’s this thinking too…!?”
“I’m all ears if there’s any other idea you have.”
I couldn’t think of any. My mind’s just swirling, but I couldn’t think of any good idea he could agree with.
I didn’t think he would say such things…!
Once again, I looked towards that signboard opposite us.
The obvious words over at the second level of the building were ‘internet’ and ‘manga’. I could feel some gloomy vibe from that, but I guess it’s just because of my own presumptions being at work. I did know that those with no money to do that would use such a place.
Right before our eyes was……a net cafe.
“……Mom, thank you for everything. It’s your Mother’s Day present…from me, and Mizuto-kun.”
It was the following day, a Sunday afternoon, in the living room.
I said the same words I would say every year, and delivered a little bouquet I bought yesterday to my mom.
Mom received the bouquet that was the size of a hand, blinked away, and looked towards me, and Mizuto, who was next to me.
“Eh…? Mizuto-kun too?”
He himself was looking away…wait, he’s a shy guy?
I elbowed my little stepbrother’s flank, prompting him to act.
Ultimately, Mizuto never managed to look mom in the eyes, and said with a teeny-weeny voice, “Well…you’ve been making bentos for me every day, taking care of me in every way, so…it’s just to express my thanks for everything…yeah, that’s about it.”
Seriously, can’t this guy just say an ordinary ‘thank you’? He’s still being stubborn.
I guessed that was enough for mom however.
Large tears started to fall from mom’s eyes.
MIzuto was taken aback, clearly flustered by this.
And I…more or less expected this.
Mom was still quite a crybaby, even though she already had a daughter of this age.
“Guuuu…uuuu…waaahhhhhhhh…!! I should…I should be the one thanking you twwwwoooooooo……!!!”
Mom was bawling out loud, holding the bouquet in one hand, and hugging Mizuto with the other. Mizuto looked a little perturbed, but he took mom’s embrace silently.
Mom never asked Mizuto to call her ‘mom’. Mizuto himself was aloof to just about everyone, but mom definitely was feeling uneasy that Mizuto couldn’t properly acknowledge her as his mother.
…After all, she once failed to form a family with someone else.
And that was one of the reasons why I made sure Mizuto too contributed to this Mother Day’s present,
“Thank you very much too Yuuuummmmmeeeeee!!!”
After hugging Mizuto for quite some time, mom went towards me.
“Sorry mom, don’t dirty the clothes.”
“I know thhhhaaatttt!!”
Mom tiptoed to avoid having her snot and tears all over me, putting her chin on my shoulder as she hugged me. I had to hunch over slightly just to ensure she could do so.
I was already taller than mom after my puberty phase in middle school. “You’re my daughter, but that’s despicable!” Mom seemed to pout whenever it came up…
“You’re good kids! Yume and Mizuto-kun are both good kiddssss…!!!”
I gently patted mom, consoling her. I had no idea who’s the mother, and who’s the daughter.
…And Mizuto just watched us, giving us the usual hollow look.
Mom continued to cry at us for quite a while, “Mineaki-zaaaannnnn!!” and this time, she called for uncle Mineaki, who was some distance away from us, giving us a gentle, wry smile, consoling her as I just did.
…Yep, definitely no problems this time.
So I thought, and in the corner of my eye, I saw Mizuto creep out of the living room.
Feeling incredulous, I left the couple in the living room, and gave chase.
Mizuto wasn’t in the corridor.
But at the same time, I saw the fusuma left open.
Beyond that was a small, delicate Buddhist altar.
I unwittingly hushed my footsteps, and went towards the fusuma.
Ding! There was a sound.
I recognized that it was a gentle, long echoing sound that seemingly granted people the time to recollect their body, mind, and the past.
I once made such a sound before.
—Right before the Buddhist altar in this Japanese room.
I peered past the fusuma.
There was no light in the room, but I could see the back of someone kneeling in a seiza on the tatami, as befitting a ritual.
Right in the room was a clean, delicate-looking Buddhist altar. I couldn’t see it clearly as it was dim…but there was a photo of a lady in her twenties.
Kana Irido—or so I heard she was called.
That was the Buddhist altar dedicated to the actual mother of Mizuto Irido.
Mizuto continued to keep his palms together for at least ten seconds.
He finally lifted his head, had a look at that photo, the deceased one, and after a while, he stood up, turned his head around, and noticed me standing at the entrance.
He gave his usual aloof, hollow expression, a reproaching look.
I ignored that, and entered the room.
I sat in a seiza, on the cloth before the altar, took the little rod, and gently tapped at that golden bell.
Ding……There was a long chime.
I put my palms together, and closed my eyes.
Once done, I lifted my head, only to notice that Mizuto, who had already stood up, sat cross legged next to me.
He remained silent, the emotionless expression still on his face.
He continued to look at the altar, and I cautiously began the conversation.
“…You, don’t remember already, do you?”
And Mizuto immediately answered my question that had neither purpose or subject.
“I heard that she wasn’t well to begin with.”
His answer too was tense, but I understood what he meant.
I supposed the pregnancy drained much of her strength after all.
And…she departed for the afterlife before he was aware of his surroundings.
“This photo’s the only thing I know of her appearance. I didn’t know everything about how she spoke, what she liked or disliked. Dad never really mentioned this—well, the name Mizuto is the only thing I’m certain on.”
I guessed it was more than a month ago. When mom and I first moved into this house, the first place we visited was neither the living room, nor our rooms, but this room.
Mom and I sat before this altar, and clapped our hands together to greet her.
Mom bowed her head deeply, and said.
—I’m sorry. Please take care of me.
This household still had room for this one person. Mom apologized before she knew that, asking for forgiveness as she lowered her head.
Mizuto was present back then…giving that same empty look.
His mother’s existence was etched into his name.
Both uncle Mineaki and mom both recognized the thoughts that person left behind.
But Mizuto himself had nothing.
He had no lingering thoughts, no memories, and knew so pitifully little of her.
He had nothing, but the fragment of the mother that did not exist was imprinted upon him…it was no wonder then that he couldn’t do anything.
It was no wonder that he had no thoughts.
What else could he say then? Other than nothing at all?
Nobody told him the answer to this question.
And thus—the empty expression.
Mizuto blurted out in confusion.
For I touched him.
I reached over, and gently touched his shoulder with mine.
“…What, are you doing?”
He didn’t really look overly rattled when he muttered by my ear.
“I’m consoling you…well, I’m the older sister.”
“That thing’s still going on now…”
“We never had a rule stating that it’s annulled on the next day.”
—Lovers will break up one day.
—Even husbands and wives would not necessarily be together forever.
But family and siblings were the only relationship that could last forever.
So, if I didn’t have him next to me.
So, if he didn’t have me next to him.
Surely there would be a void formed in our hides.
Not that we didn’t have one to begin with, but that we lost what we once had.
—And I wouldn’t think that he would say anything like “I don’t understand” again.
Tick, tick, tick, the sound of a clock ticking away could be heard in the room, from somewhere.
I pressed half my body weight onto my little stepbrother in this dim Japanese room, as though engraving my existence in his house.
And finally, I heard a surrender up close, at this distance where neither could ignored whatever the other did.
“…Ah whatever, I guess I don’t have a choice.”
I felt strength in the shoulder, and was nudged back slightly.
“I guess since I took some poison, I might as well eat it all.”
“Who’s the poison here?”
While we continued to lean upon each other, Mizuto Irido smiled.
So, our Mother’s Day present was delivered successfully, or so it appeared.
But, there’s a secret present.
“Say, we’re doing that?”
It seemed our parents were still chatting in the room, so we remained in the dim Japanese room, and never left.
We already moved our shoulders away from each other, and were at a distance appropriate for stepsiblings.
“Of course. The best scenario is if we have a study trip or so, but it’ll take us a long time. If it’s because of school, I don’t think we’ll be able to do this again.”
“Do this again……wait, how many times do you want to do this?”
“Well, it’ll be better if we can do this once in a while, so that they can ignore us and have the time to themselves. We just need to leave this house.”
Yes, that was the idea we came up with.
To disappear from this house for the time being.
To stay outside.
So that they could spend their time as a couple during this period.
“We just need to hang on for a while. All we need to do then is to gain their trust, and when that happens, we can say that we’ll be eating out together.”
“Well, this, sorta, works out…”
“That’s vague from you. You got problems with that?”
“All-all kinds of them? Look, we don’t really have anything going on, but, look, we-we’re a boy and a girl…camping out…for a night…at a net cafe…?”
Within the dim room, Mizuto tilted his head in surprise.
“Wait, are you still planning to spend the night with me at a couple suite in a net cafe or something?”
My mind went blank.
That’s not it!?
“Are you an idiot…?”
Haaaaaaa, Mizuto exhaled long and hard, seemingly deliberately, and said,
“Look, the law states that those under 18 aren’t allowed to stay at net cafes. If we somehow try to do that, we’ll end up rejected by the reception, the police will send us to counselling, and our parents will be notified. That’ll be all for nothing, right?”
“Eh…ehhhh!? You’re kidding, right!?”
“And we can’t really stay at a hotel, since we need our parents’ permission…though I can’t say that there’s no place where high schoolers can stay out at…”
“A love hotel.”
I froze up, and Mizuto repeated again.
“A love hotel. There won’t be issues if we don’t reveal that we’re high school students under cameras…so I heard.”
“Are we going?”
“Like hell we can!!”
I smacked Mizuto on the shoulder, but he did not appear to be in any pain.
“Well, I did some investigation, and a room at a love hotel might be a little too expensive for us. Either way, that’s impossible too.”
“…What in the world did you investigate? Are we seriously going to stay at a love hotel if it’s cheap enough? With me?”
“Worst case scenario.”
Did this guy just say that staying with me at a love hotel’s the worst case scenario!?
I glared at him, and was met with a snicker. Grrrrrrr……!
“Well, that’s how it is. We’ll just sort out our stayover places normally.”
“Enough with the suspense. What do you mean, normally?”
Mizuto answered with an inexplicable expression and tone.
“As they call it, friends?”
Mizuto showed me his LINE screen.
Shown on it was his conversation with our classmate Kawanami-kun, who said.
“Alright. If that’s the case, I can let you stay over for a night.”
“As for Irido-san, just leave her to Minami!”
“Minami’s house is next door, so you don’t have to worry now.”
I looked over at Mizuto in shock, and he nodded with a look of intrigue.
“I’m shocked too…seems like those two are neighbors.”