The Alliance of the 15s Part 2 (pg 49-103)

Chapter 2

        After school on Friday, Tetsuya once again showed up in the music room.
        “I’m counting on you to tape tomorrow’s game too, you know that, right?”
        “I know. I’m charging the batteries right now.”
        Next to the grand piano were the video camera and tripod. Tetsuya gazed at them curiously as he asked, “Hey, how do you tape videos with this thing?”
        “You look into the viewfinder and just press the button.”
        “Oh, so it’s pretty simple, huh?”
        He took the video camera into his hands and crouched down.
        “If you think it’s so easy, why don’t you tape your own game?”

        When I said this, Tetsuya laughed out loud. In the next instant, his face suddenly became serious as he said, “Naomi was saying how she wanted to see you again.”
        I didn’t know what to say to that.
        “Why don’t you go? Ever since elementary school, she’s only been to private all-girls’ schools, so I’m pretty much the only guy friend she has.”
        “I’ll go,” I replied.
        I thought about how much courage it would take though to go to visit her in her hospital room by myself though. I didn’t know anything about her, so what would there be to talk about even if we saw each other again?
        “Yo!” Tetsuya suddenly said in a loud voice.
        “Does this thing have tape in it?”
        “Yeah, it does.”
        “You just have to press this button to get it to start, right?”
        “Yeah.”
        He crouched down and took a few steps back.
        “Okay then. Play something.”
        “What do you mean ‘play something’? What would be the point in taping it?”
        “I’m going to show this to Naomi, so zip it and start playing already.”
        “Fine, fine.”
        I began to play Ravel. I played it because it was a favourite of mine, and since it was the only one I had fully memorized and could play from heart.
        Thinking back to it later, I could have just played a simpler melody like “Traumerei,” “Fur Elise,” or the song I had been practicing until a while back: “Love for Three Oranges.”
        At any rate, since I had already begun playing this song though, there was no way that I could stop mid-way.
        In the beginning, I was overly conscious of the camera that Tetsuya was holding, but as I got into the music, my heart became swept away by the song.
        When the last of the note drifted off, Tetsuya placed the video camera down and clapped.
        “Hey, you’re not half bad. I bet you could even go pro.”
        I was silent.
        A tense expression flashed on his face. He sensed things better than I thought. He twisted his lips and commented in a more thoughtful manner: “But, well, I guess going pro isn’t as easy as it sounds.”
        And with that, he added onto that in a joking tone: “After that game the other day, THREE recruiters for private high schools came up to me. They told me that they’d be willing to recommend me as a scholarship student so that my class and dorm fees would be comped. In other words, they’ll feed me for three years on their dime. Since they’re all famous high schools with a track record for going to the Nationals, the chances are good that I’ll be able to make it to the finals. And if things go my way, I might even be scouted to go pro. My future is looking pretty damn rosy. How’s that for a good story?”
        “Yeah, that’s a good story.”
        I guess he didn’t expect me to react the way I did, because his gaze turned serious. Then, he grinned: “You’re pretty weird, you know that?”
        “You think so?”
        “Yeah.”
        He shifted his eyes away and let out a small sigh.
        “I was able to hit two home runs during the game, but the other team was a public junior high after all, so it’s a no brainer that I was able to hit ‘em. When it comes to my pitching and batting, there are probably dozens of guys my age in this city alone who have what I have. If you look at it from the entire country, there are probably more than you could count. From that countless number, only a few pitchers and a handful of fielders’ll be able to become a top-class pro. I don’t know if I’ll be among them. It’d be a lie to say that most guys who play baseball didn’t have a dream of making it big. I guess you could call it one of those crazy dreams that rarely ever come true.”
        He raised his voice: “But you know, let’s say that you wanted to become a professional baseball player. That would just be a one-off dream, you know? Compared to that, my dream is a lot more likely to come true. Right? You agree? But it’s the same for the other way around. If I said I wanted to become a pianist, I could never reach your level. That’s what it comes down to.”
        As he said this, he began to laugh out loud. I wasn’t in the mood to laugh along with him, so I stayed silent.
        His laughter suddenly trailed off as a serious expression transformed his face. His emotions were constantly changing.
        “It’s a sure thing that we’re gonna lose tomorrow.”
        “Is the other team strong?”
        “Yeah. Unbelievably strong.”
        “But they’re in junior high too, right?”
        “Theirs is a private school, so they’ve been practicing with high schoolers. It’s not just that either; their equipment’s completely different. They have muscle training machines, and they’ve gotten used to batting balls that are way faster than any of my pitches from using a pitching machine everyday.”
        “Oh.”
        “And our baseball activities come to an end tomorrow. I’ve got my recommendations, but the other guys have to study for the entrance exams.”
        Just as Tetsuya said, at our municipal junior high school, all club activities for the grade nines ended before the summer break. Most of them would then in turn begin attending cram schools.
        “But it’s not as if the loss is a sure thing, right?”
        “No, it’s a done deal.”
        He said this with a dark look on his face.
        “Even when we lose though, make sure to tape it all so Naomi can see it, got it?”

        The humid air swept over the baseball ground, causing a cloud of sand to dance in the air.
        The pitcher for the opposing team wound up his first pitch.
        A fastball flew past the batter’s chest and landed in the catcher’s mitt with a dry thud.
        A series of “whoa” could be heard in waves from the bleachers. Although the umpire’s call was a ball, everyone was taken aback by the speed of the pitch.
        Although the pitcher didn’t have a large frame by any means, his pitching form was smooth, and it was clear that he was well trained.
        The second pitch was a strike. The hitter’s bat didn’t have a chance to move an inch.
        The murmurs from the crowd became even more pronounced.
        The sound of bells and drums could be heard from the side of the bleachers for the opposing team. Since their school was one that was affiliated with a high school that had gone to the National High-School Baseball Tournament, they even had a proper cheering team.
        Compared to their bleachers, the crowd that shown up to cheer on our school’s team was a sparse one. Even the girls who would normally have made a fuss squealing and yelling looked to be in low-spirits today.
        Two batters struck out in a row.
        Even when it came to Higashiyama, who was third to bat, he struggled just to hit the ball, and his turn ended with a foul fly.
        Tetsuya stepped up to the pitching mound.
        After he warmed up with a few practice pitches, he lowered his eyes. It was clear from the way he was levelling out the dirt of the pitching mound with his feet the tenseness he felt. He also showed a quiet fighting spirit. Although he had said it was a “sure thing” that they were going to lose, deep down, he was probably pitching with the focus on winning.
        The first pitch ended up being a low ball. It was a swift pitch that was aimed at the inside corner. The speed of his pitch was just as good as the pitcher before him for the opposing team. The second and third pitches were strikes. The batter repositioned his hold on the bat to hold it closer to him at a low angle.
        The fourth pitch was a foul ball and the fifth was a foul tip that was more like a swing and miss, but the ball slipped from the catcher’s mitt onto the ground.
        The six pitch also ended in a foul. The only difference was that it was a powerful liner that went in the direction of the third base.
        Tetsuya carefully kneaded the ball that he had received back from the umpire.
        He pitched a curve ball for his seventh pitch. The batter swung into thin air. The girls from the bleachers let out a loud squeal.
        Tetsuya inhaled deeply.
        The second batter went from two strikes to a foul for the third pitch. The last was a fly to the right, but he met Tetsuya’s fast pitch cleanly.
        The third to bat was a muscular, agile-looking batter. He had sharp eyes, and he gazed steadily at Tetsuya’s pitching form. He allowed two balls to pass by him for two strikes, but there was confidence in his stance.
        After he watched a pitch that was a ball fly past, he took a full swing at the fourth pitch, which was aimed for the outside corner. The baseball made a bee line over the head of the right fielder. If it had been a professional outfielder, he might have been able to catch it, but this was a municipal junior high school baseball team. The player held up his hands in a pitiful “banzai” pose as the baseball rolled its way towards the fence.
        A triple-bagger. If Higashiyama, the shortstop, hadn’t intercepted the hit would have turned into a homer.
        Tetsuya called over Funabashi, the catcher, and exchanged a few brief words. Funabashi then resumed his original position, but this time, he didn’t sit back down; it was going to be a walk.
        It would take special circumstances for Tetsuya to back away from a challenge from the get-go when he had the personality that he did. His obsession with winning the game was clear.
        The fifth person up to bat ended up landing a ground ball. Higashiyama’s knee touched the ground as he caught the ball with a solid thud before quickly tossing the ball to the baseman who was covering second base.
        When Tetsuya retreated back to the bench, he was breathing heavily.
        In the bottom of the second inning, it became Tetsuya’s to act on the offence. He inhaled deeply and he gazed intently at the pitcher who was warming up.
        I never took much of an interest in baseball. Back when my family still lived in an apartment complex, I used to read a book while sitting next to my brother who would be watching a live baseball game.
        There were times when my eyes were drawn to the screen when the announcer shouted excitedly about a play that had been made. From time to time, my younger brother explained the state of the game, but I couldn’t understand what was so fascinating about it.
        But watching Tetsuya step up to the plate, I felt my heart beat wildly as I followed his form through the viewfinder of the video camera. It made me realize what an impressive sport baseball was.
        Was he going to be able to bat those fast pitches?
        The pitcher who assumed position at the pitching mound looked nervous. He was tense, and his first pitch ended up being a wild ball that bounced onto the ground. The second pitch was a curve ball; it was the first time this pitcher had thrown a curve. It seemed like Tetsuya hadn’t expected this either, and although he slightly moved his bat, he watched it fly past. And despite the official verdict being that it was a ball, it was a tricky throw.
        The pitcher looked disappointed as he spent some time kneading the ball that had been thrown back to him. Eventually, he moved into form for his third pitch. It may be that he wasn’t focused fully on the pitch, but the next ball ended up being a curve ball that was way off to the corner. The catcher had to stand up to receive the ball.
        It seemed that the opposing team’s strategy from the very beginning to be behind in the count to allow a walk. Similarly, Tetsuya had allowed their fourth player to walk. The opposing team wanted to win just as badly as his team did. Tetsuya made a mad dash for the first base.
        Funabashi stepped up to the plate. The pitcher checked the catcher’s signs before stepping up to the pitching mound.
        In the next instant, the pitcher who had assumed a wide stance made a pick off throw to the first base. Although his lead was a relatively small one, Tetsuya’s focus had been on the second base so he was momentarily late in retreating back to first base; however, his movements were swift once had switched to sliding back to base, and with not a second to spare, he made it safely back to the first base. A dust storm rose in the air, and his uniform became covered with dirt.
        He was more careful this time, and when the pitcher began to move, he instinctively moved slightly back towards the first base. However, the pitcher threw the ball this time towards the batter.
        Funabashi folded his body closely as he assumed a bunting position. It took everything he had just to graze the ball with his bat, and the ball went flying into the backstop.
        He took two practice swings before stepping back to the batter’s box.
        He tried going for a bunt the second time, but this time, it ended up being an empty swing.
        Before throwing his third pitch, the pitcher once again threw a lightning fast pickoff throw towards the first base. Tetsuya was nailed to the first base.
        The third pitch was a wide curve ball. Funabashi seemed to have been aiming towards the right field, but his timing was off, and it ended up being another pitiful empty swing.
        It was the same for the second clean up batter; he tried for bunts twice, but they both ended up being fouls.
        After a ball, Tetsuya began running after the fourth pitch.
        The batter took an empty swing. And with a swift throw from the catcher, the attempt at stealing a base ended in failure; that was three strikes.
        Tetsuya began heading for the pitching mound breathing heavily in his dirt-covered uniform.
        He ended up having to pitch against the opposing team without having a chance to recover; however, his pitches were strong and the batters ended up launching one infield fly after another. He easily put out three batters and it wasn’t long before there was a change-up.
        In the third inning, both teams put out the other team’s batters.
        In the end of the fourth inning with two players down, Higashiyama hit a first base grounder that missed its mark. There was confusion between the pitcher and the first baseman, which led to it becoming an infield hit; It was the first clean hit of the game.
        Tetsuya stepped up to the batter’s box.
        The catcher stepped forward towards the front of the home plate and signalled towards the pitcher. The pitcher gave a brief nod in response.
        It was a walk.
        Funabashi was struck out once again.
        At the end of the inning, Tetsuya put his all in his pitching and brought down the cleanup batters.
        The all out pitching war continued, and Tetsuya continued to aim for the corners. Although there were times when the count reached three balls, he didn’t allow a walk.
        The latter batters got two hits off of him, and there were two instances where an error lead to a player getting on base. The rest were commonplace fly balls or strikeouts, and the errors that were such a concern earlier in the game were kept at a minimum.
        There was no shortage of hard pitches from the opposing team. When it came to Tetsuya’s third time at bat, there was once again an intentional walk, with the rest of the batters being struck out with easy fly grounders.
        At last, it was the start of the final inning. The batting order was from the first one up.
        The opposing team’s pitcher was in fine condition, and he struck out two batters without breaking out a sweat.
        Higashiyama stepped up to the plate. The infielder took a step forward in a defensive position. He held the bat close to his body, and the ball met the bat cleanly and slipped past the fieldsman.
        One player was on base with another two struck out. Tetsuya stepped up to plate for the fourth time.
        The catcher called for a time out and walked towards the pitching mound. The pitcher shook his head; and the catcher looked wary as his gaze drifted towards the dugout. From the dugout, a benchwarmer was called over to the mound.
        The pitcher once again shook his head furiously.
        The catcher returned to his position, and the game was resumed.
        The first pitch was a fast ball aimed at the outer corner. Unlike his previous turn at bat, it was pitched squarely into the strike zone. Tetsuya studied the course of the ball thoughtfully before turning back to the pitcher.
        For an instant, Tetsuya and the pitcher made eye-contact.
        The pitcher, who received the ball back from the catcher, glanced over to the base runner. Tetsuya stepped away from the plate and dusted down his hands with the sand.
        The pitcher got into position for his second pitch. Tetsuya’s upper body moved slightly. His shoulders were tense, and although the pitch was a chest-level ball, he instinctively swung his bat, and it turned into a third baseline foul ball.
        The third pitch was a wide curve ball. He lost his balance, and just hitting the ball was a challenge, with the ball becoming another foul ball. It was a precarious throw that might’ve been called a ball had he just let it pass.
        The fourth pitch was a fast pitch aimed at the outer corner. This was also another risky pitch, and Tetsuya allowed it to pass without a second glance.
        The fifth pitch was like the previous one. It was a slight shoot, and it looked like it might have just barely made it into the strike zone. Although he was somewhat late in swinging his bat, he managed to hit it. The sluggish batted ball rolled in the direction of the backstop.
        The next ball was a sharp curve ball aimed at the outer corner. His bat twitched, but he let it pass without a swing. The umpire declared it a ball. It seemed that with every pitch, he was becoming used to the outside corner pitches.
        Tetsuya readjusted the bat in his hands.
        I sensed that there was going to be a pitch soon aimed at the inside corner, and my guess was that Tetsuya sensed this as well.
        In the seventh pitch, it was a fast ball aimed at the upper inside corner. The bat made a smooth motion forward, and a dry cracking sound rang in the air. The ball went flying in the air towards the left bleachers. At the same time, a stir akin to shrieks arose from the bleachers.
        The left fielder, who had taken a defence position right in front of the fence, took another few steps back.
        From the left center field towards the direction of the home plate, there was a gentle breeze. It was a sluggish batted ball. It lost its momentum before it reached the fence, and the left fielder, who had been stationed nearby, caught it easily with his glove.
        I had my viewfinder focused on the left fielder, but in one quick movement, I redirected the focus towards the direction of the first base; I had turned into a cool headed camera man. It was a camera man’s job to capture the disappointed look on the batter’s face.
        However, the moment I captured Tetsuya’s form in my viewfinder, I gulped. Tetsuya was holding onto the thumb area of his right hand with his other hand.
        I didn’t know much about baseball, but from what I learned watching the game on TV while sitting next to my brother, even I knew that jamming a batter with an inside pitch numbed your fingers.
        Tetsuya was standing in front of the first base with his left hand supporting his other hand and he made no effort to move.
        The players who were in the coach’s box came running, but he waved them off with his hand as if to say that he was fine.
        But his steps towards the pitching mound were slow ones. Everyone other than Higashiyama, the short stop, weren’t confident when it came to defence so there was a stream of pitchers who went all out in trying to get a strike-out; it was same for the other team. This lead to a unrelenting repetition of foul balls.
        The batting eye was good and they weren’t deceived by ball pitches. Other than for the walk at the end of the first inning, there were no other walks. That being said, the majority ended up being full counts, so when it came to the number of pitches, it must have been twice that of the last game.
        From his practice pitches, there wasn’t much of a difference when it came to the speed; at least, from what I could see. What did concern me was the fact that the single curve ball that he had pitched ended up being a wild pitch that bounded.
        Finishing up his practice throws, Tetsuya couldn’t hide the exhaustion from his face as he inhaled deeply.
        The opposing team began their heavy offence. The player at bat was overflowing with confidence. When he realized that his swing for the first pitch, which was a curve ball, was significantly off base, he swung his bat at the next swing as if he were expecting a straight pitch. He took a full swing for the next pitch, which was a lower inside corner throw.
        Although it wasn’t a clean hit, he hit a fierce line that flew past the left fielder. The left fielder fumbled the ball, which bounced once on the ground, and the batter managed to slide into second base.
        Funabashi, the catcher, edged closer to the mound.
        It was clear Tetsuya was in pain as he leaned his body to the right. He coughed briefly before shaking his head. The opposing player didn’t take a walk and instead took Tetsuya up on his challenge. That player was now standing at the plate. I understood how Tetsuya felt.
        It felt as if I myself were up at the pitching mound.
        Funabashi’s gigantic figure joggled as he made his way back to his regular position. The fourth one to bat stepped up to the plate. Tetsuya glared at the batter. He then glanced briefly at the thumb of his right hand.
        It was probably the case that he had lost all feeling in his hand; at this rate, he couldn’t throw a curve ball. Even if that weren’t the case, he probably would have chosen to face the batter head on with a straight pitch.
        A fast ball was pitched in the lower inside corner. It was a strike. The batter showed composure.
        Tetsuya wiped the sweat from his face with the sleeve of his undershirt.
        The second pitch was also one that was pitched on the inside corner of the plate. It was a slightly high fast pitch. The batter almost looked as if he were stepping away from the plate as he let the ball fly by. It was a ball. It seemed that he had decided on waiting it out for a ball thrown on the outside corner.
        Tetsuya pitched a fast ball in the outside corner for his third pitch. The batter’s bat moved slightly.
        It ended up being a ball. The batter calmly studied the pitching style.
        Funabashi had taken a step forward towards the home plate and was trying to gauge Tetsuya’s condition. Tetsuya once again shook his head furiously.
        The next ball was a fast pitch that leaned towards the inside corner. Although its placement was good, its height was the perfect position for batting. The batter had predicted that it would be an inside pitch, and he gave a swift swing.
        The batted ball flew high in the air. Tsunami-like cheering rang from the opposing team’s cheering section of the bleachers. It wasn’t long though before those cheers turned into sighs. Because the player had decided on going for an inside corner pitch, he had taken a wide stance, so the batted ball began to lose its power all too quickly. It flew quite far, but it made a wide arc and it ended flying past the left field foul pole.
        Tetsuya, who had received the ball back from the umpire, glanced briefly in the direction of the camera. And with that, he reached over to his head and readjusted his hat. He inhaled one deep breath before settling back into position.
        It was the fifth pitch; the pitches were similar to the ones thrown previously; they were low pitches and there were even some fast pitches thrown in the mix. However, the player at bat was ready this time. In a swift swing that was a step above the past swings the ball met the bat with a distinct crack.
        There was a stir in the crowd before they began cheering.
        Tetsuya didn’t even try to look behind him to see where the batted ball went.

        Like I had the last time, I brought out the VCR player from the storage room and connected it to the portable television.
        When I tried to fast forward through the first part of the tape, Tetsuya called me out on it saying: “Yo, play it from the very beginning. It has the part that I taped, right?”
        I was reluctant to do so, but I rewound the tape as he requested and replayed it from the very beginning.
        It was the part that Tetsuya had taped of me playing the piano.
        The window of the music room was small, so the room looked even darker than it did in reality. There was a sombre looking boy looking downward playing piano in a dimly lit room. I couldn’t stop myself from looking away from the screen.
        “Oh, how lovely!”
        Naomi exclaimed. She said this in a genuine, passionate tone. I felt a gentle warm breeze make its way into my heart.
        As I continued to listen to myself play though, my spirits once again dampened. Watching yourself play on the screen didn’t bring about such a nice feeling.
        The song was a monotonous one that droned on. When I was playing it, I was focused on the song so I didn’t feel the length in its entirety, but watching myself play on the screen, I prayed that the song would draw to a close soon.
        I should have played Schuman or Prokofiev…
        And it was only now that I realized what a horrible song selection I had made. This wasn’t the kind of music one listened to in a hospital, especially if that patient were a young girl.
        “What’s the title of this song?”
        Naomi asked when the song had ended.
        I didn’t reply.

        As the base runner stepped onto the home plate, the camera panned out from the opposing team who had gathered together to celebrate their win and settled on Tetsuya who was standing on the pitching mound. It’s not as if his shoulders were drooping or that he was hanging one’s head; he was just staring at the home plate in silence.
        Higashiyama, the shortstop, came running over to him and patted him on the shoulder.
        A smile formed on Tetsuya’s face. The camera did a one hundred eighty degree turn to show those on the bleachers. Behind them was the setting sun. The eye-blinding light of the sun slowly gave way to a white screen…
        “Whoa! Now that’s a cool ending!” Tetsuya said in a joking tone.
        “Yeah. Well, that’s about it.” I replied.
        He patted me quite strongly on the shoulder.
        “Hey, you could become a director!”
        “I don’t want to become one.”
        “You’ve got good taste.”
        “You’re just making a half-hearted comment, aren’t you?”
        “Well, I guess you’re right.”
        His enthusiasm deflated as he easily agreed with me.
        That was when the conversation trailed off.
        After a short silence, Naomi commented: “Well, that was a close game.”
        She said this in a casual manner, but the room became enveloped in silence for a brief moment.
        “That’s baseball. Where there are winners, there are losers.”
        He said with a serious look.
        Naomi, who looked more like a snowman bundled up with a blanket sat on the bed as she asked naively: “Why didn’t you give the batter a walk?”
        He answered after pausing to think: “To not do that is the usual thing to do.”
        “Why?”
        “Since there were no outs, they’d score one point with two bunts. It’s no wonder since we hardly did any practice to defend against bunts. If we were to try our luck with the fourth one at bat, that guy would have come swinging. The ideal situation would be to get a strikeout, but as long as I could get him to hit a grounder or a fly ball in the direction of the inside left corner, the base runner can’t advance to the next base. The only chance we had to keep the score at zero was to place our bets on that.”
        When it came down to it though, it was probably the case that he wanted to face the fourth batter head on; of course, I didn’t say this out loud.
        “It feels better to lose because they got one on me rather than lose from a bunt.”
        It seemed that Naomi was satisfied with his explanation.
        “That’s so like you, Tecchan.”
        “What? That he got one on me?”
        “No. The fact that you didn’t try to run away.”
        “I let them walk in the first inning.”
        “Oh yeah. Why did you let them do that then?”
        “Because it was still the first inning. With our team making as few hits as we were, I knew we were done as soon as they got one point on us. I did it because I wanted to at least get some fun out of the game.”
        “So you were getting a kick out of doing that? You looked like you were pretty stressed out during the game.”
        Naomi glanced at Tetsuya. Depending on the way he took it, her words were harsh; there was a bite to her comment. Tetsuya shook his head furiously as he smiled wryly.
        “Oh geez… you really don’t get it, do you? Baseball’s all about overcoming hardships to win. That’s what real baseball’s all about.”
        “But you ended up losing.”
        He once again shook his head strongly.
        “That’s where you’re wrong. What’s at stake here wasn’t whether we lost the game or not.”
        “Then what is it about?”
        Naomi persisted. This wasn’t something she could have asked if they weren’t so close. But I couldn’t help but think this was a tough question for him to answer. He looked offended as he said: “What I was talking about was winning against yourself.”
        “Winning against yourself, huh? Oh…”
        She puckered her lips and had a dissatisfied expression. Her eyes sharpened slightly as she asked: “What are you going to gain by winning against yourself?”
        “It’s not something physical that you can touch. It’s just the self satisfaction that you won.”
        Naomi broke out in laughter. It was a high-strung laugh. Their conversation came across as a light quarrel between close friends, but there was also an edge to her tone.
        “Hey, don’t laugh. I’m being serious here.”
        Tetsuya seemed genuinely upset by her reaction.
        She stopped laughing. Instead, she turned away and became silent.
        The room became enveloped in an air of awkwardness.
        She turned my way.
        “Hey, Kitazawa-kun.”
        I looked at her silently.
        “Are there times when it’s difficult for you to play the piano?”
        It was an unexpected question. After a brief moment, I replied to her honestly: “If I played normally, all I feel is pleasure. When I think about how I want to get better though, it becomes difficult.”
        She gazed at me as if she were studying me.
        “Are you saying there are people out there who are better than you?”
        “Well, there is also that, but it’s more basic than that. When there’s a music score in front of you, you can imagine the sounds. Even with that image, if your fingers can’t properly reflect the song that’s playing in your mind, there’s nothing more frustrating than that.”
        “So it means that even if it’s not easy, you have to practice?”
        “I guess you could say that.”
        “What do you mean ‘I guess’? Either it is or it isn’t!”
        She suddenly raised her voice. She was on the brink of hysterics, and I didn’t know why she would be so focused on my choice of words.
        What she asked me was a difficult question. It would take time to explain in proper detail.
        In other words, it breaks down to this: when it comes to this thing called life, I had three doubts. The first one being that although I loved to play the piano, the chances were slim that I could become a professional player with the skills I had at this current time. The second being that even if I were able to turn it into a career, I was worried that I might lose the joy of playing the piano by turning it into a profession. The third being that even if I were to become a famous pianist after going through many hardships, everything would come to an end as soon as I died.

        Everyone’s
        Going to end up in the end anyway.

        The message of the boy who committed suicide echoed in my mind. The boy, who had only been eleven years old, had already seen through the veil to what the real world was like. There was nothing good that came from living. Who in this world then could criticize the boy who yelled “idiot!” to this world?
        There was no point in saying this to Naomi though.
        I shifted my gaze away and remained silent.
        She broke the silence by saying: “You two have got it so great…”
        “You both have hope.”
        She said this in a small voice. Her words pierced their way into my heart.
        Her eyes glistened with tears.
        It appeared as though my words had hurt her, but I didn’t know what to say or do.
        “I…”
        As I opened my mouth to begin to say something without fully comprehending the situation, Tetsuya cut in: “Naomi, you’ve got a warped personality, you know that?”
        “Oh yeah?” She glared at him.
        “Yeah. It’s warped, all right.”
        Naomi suddenly became quiet, before nodding her head in silent agreement.
        “You’re right; I probably do. I’m sorry, Kitazawa-kun.”
        She apologized to me as she smiled my way. The tears that had gathered in her eyes though formed into drops as they slid down her cheeks. Her lips were formed in a smile, but the tears continued to flow.
        Her eyes gazed at me. The eyes that focused on me were bright with tears, and they made my heart beat faster. Although she was smiling at me as she apologized, her eyes showed how guarded she was. She was looking at me as if she were testing me. And in that gaze, I couldn’t help but feel there was a tinge of ill will.
        “Kitazawa-kun, you think I’m a bitch, don’t you?”
        She stared fixedly at me as she asked me this. I was so shocked by her words that I couldn’t think of an immediately reply. In her eyes was a mysterious light that seemed as if it were challenging me.
        “But I hope you can cut me some slack. I’ve given up hope on my future, so whenever I see someone who is brimming with promise for the future, I can’t help but be jealous. Because…see this?”
        Naomi lifted away the blanket that was covering her body.
        From the pink pyjamas, I could see a pale leg. But what I immediately realized, was that there was only one. The area where the other leg was supposed to be was missing from below the thigh, and the fabric for the pyjama for that leg was flat.
        She pulled the blanket back up to cover herself.
        “What’d you go and do that for? Nothing’s going to come out of you showing that to him.” Tetsuya said hastily.
        Naomi giggled mischievously as she peered up at me.
        I couldn’t hide the shock from my face.

        I had planned on leaving early like I had the other day after putting back the VCR player in the storage, but Naomi stopped me that day from going. As a result, I ended up staying there until evening.
        I just sat nearby listening to Naomi and Tetsuya talk; I still didn’t know anything about her. I didn’t know much about Tetsuya either, since I had only just recently talked to him for the first time. This was why I didn’t really know what to say.
        Even when I stayed silent though, the atmosphere was never awkward. Tetsuya continued to talk in high spirits. He talked about everything from school to sports, and no matter how much he talked, he never ran out of things to say. As a conversationalist, he was light-hearted and to the point. He spared no details when it came to talks about the screw-ups made by his friends and team mates, so there were multiple times when Naomi burst out in loud laughter.
        As the sun began to set, Naomi’s mother came into the hospital room. She was a woman with beautiful eyes who was the perfect likeness of Naomi. She had a certain nervous disposition to her. Since she had a daughter who was in junior high, she had to at least be in her thirties, but she didn’t look her age. She came across as a fragile and shy child-like woman. If I were to be honest, the mother was more beautiful than her daughter.
        Since Tetsuya introduced me to her, I gave my greetings. The mother only gave a slight bow my way. It appeared that she wasn’t particularly social; it might just be that she wasn’t good with strangers, since she was able to have a normal conversation with Tetsuya. Even when she came into the room, Tetsuya continued to talk in an upbeat manner. Naomi’s mother, who seemed to be a slightly dark mood when she came in, even showed traces of a smile at Tetsuya’s mindless jokes.
        It was some time after that Tetsuya and I left the hospital room.
        The moment he closed the door behind him, he did a complete turn around and became completely silent. Naomi and her mother were both a bit different from your every day person. But on second thought, Tetsuya was also someone who had a bit of mystery to him.
        We walked down the long hallway in silence. We passed by the outpatient’s meeting room, and we didn’t exchange a word until we had gone out the front entrance of the building.
        The front garden was showered in the warm yellow evening rays. Bright red sages grew in abundance.
        The moment we stepped out into the courtyard, he stopped and turned to me.
        “Kitazawa,” he said.
        “What do you think about Naomi?”
        I asked, “What do you mean?”
        “She’s cute, huh?”
        I didn’t reply, and he didn’t press for an answer.
        “She’s been all nerves lately, and it’s no wonder. She got one of her legs chopped off, after all. Not only that, but she’s pretty sharp, so she’s sensed that this might not be the end of it.”
        “What do you mean?”
        “There was a tumour in leg; I don’t know if it was malignant or what. I’m pretty sure they haven’t told her anything, but she could probably figure out from the endless tests she’s been having to undergo that it’s not looking good for her.”
        “Does that mean she might have to undergo another surgery?”
        “As long as there’s hope.”
        “Hope?”
        He had a fierce look as he gave a small nod.
        “Naomi seems to have taken a liking to you. Come and visit her again, will you?”
        And with that, we walked in silence towards the direction of the bus stop.

        I feel a bit down whenever it comes time for PE.
        When it came to the iron bar or mat exercise, I could hold my own with others, but since I had asthmatic tendencies, I was terrible at long distance running. At our junior high, our PE block consisted of us simply running around the school grounds. It seems to be the case that the teachers figured that they could prevent juvenile delinquency if they tired out the students to the point where they were too tired to think of such things.
        A few years back, a violent incident had occurred at the school; it was even picked up by the mass media. As a result, the school policies became even more strict, and something called a “juvenile violence prevention group” was formed by the PTA. The running during gym was one of their measures.
        The school grounds were pretty big for a municipal school. Everyone ran in a neat row at the same pace for the first couple of laps. When the teacher blew the whistle though, it was an indication that everyone could run at their own pace.
        The one at the front was always Higashiyama. It couldn’t have been any easier for him; his pace had a flow to it, and he was considerably faster than anyone else in the class.
        Behind him was the group that was vying for second place. It’s not as if placing second was reflected in the grades, and it wasn’t as if there was anyone else watching them run, but it was a group that consisted of those who insisted on always being in the top tier. They were running at such a fast pace that they were running short of breath.
        I wondered if they thought that being fast meant being cool. In my opinion though, the only one who looked cool was Higashiyama alone.
        I ran slowly at my own pace. I was worried about my asthma acting up so even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t run at top speed.
        That’s why I always ended up being last.
        Although I couldn’t have cared less about who was first, even I had to admit that being last was pretty pathetic. If I focused on running, I could, at the very least, beat Funabashi. Funabashi did training to prepare for baseball,, and he was pretty quick for someone of his size. He was quite fast when it came to short distances, but he ran out of breath when it was long distance. Whenever I tried to run past him though, he would always grab the sleeve of my gym uniform.
        “Don’t go in front of me.”
        And since he was the leader of the group of juvenile delinquents, after all, I couldn’t go against his demand.
        That’s why on this day, we ended up running tied for last side-by-side.
        “Yo.”
        When I glanced over in the direction where the voice came from, Tetsuya was standing behind the backstop. He looked casual with the first three buttons of his shirt unbuttoned, and he was gazing this way.
        He said in a joking manner: “Kitazawa! Don’t lose to Funabashi!”
        “Shut up,” Funabashi yelled.
        Tetsuya laughed, “You do your best too, Funabashi. If you end up dead last, you’re gonna give the baseball team a bad rep!”
        The PE teacher came running up to us.
        “What are you doing during class?”
        Tetsuya was laughably overboard in the way he straightened up his posture.
        “Oh, Mr. Ooyama from English class told me that I have to run three laps around the school because I forgot to do my homework.”
        “Is that right? Then quit yakking and get to it.”
        Tetsuya began to run alongside us in his regular school uniform.
        It was just then that Higashiyama, who was leading the pack, came running by to pass us.
        “Oh, so this is the group that’s leading the rest?”
        Tetsuya ran alongside Higashiyama and left us behind.
        “Huh, Higashiyama. I hate to say it, but have you gotten slower lately?”
        Tetsuya continued to talk as he ran.
        “Look, I’m faster than you!”
        Tetsuya backed up slightly before running past Higashiyama. Although Higashiyama didn’t say a word, he suddenly sped up his pace and passed Tetsuya.
        “Oh? You’re finally putting some effort into it? Hold up, hold up.”
        At this point, Higashiyama had already made multiple laps around the school grounds, whereas Tetsuya had just begun. It was obvious who had the advantage, but Higashiyama was also focused on running.
        “They’re going down to the wire! And in the lead is player Higashiyama. Can he continue to keep his lead? Player Hanegi is hot on his heels so player Higashiyama better watch out!”
        Tetsuya gave ongoing commentary as he ran. Even then though, he gave no signs that he was beginning to be short of breath. It must be that his lungs and trachea were strong and healthy. He continued to talk non stop as he did his required three laps before yelling, “Well then, sayonara!” and ran back in the direction of the school.
        To be honest, I feel a bit envious when I see someone who can run very quickly. As for me, I was always vying for the second to last place along with Funabashi.
        I’m glad that Naomi didn’t have to see me like this…
        This thought ran through my mind for a brief moment.

        “Yo, Kitazawa. How’s it going?” Funabashi asked.
        Sixth block had turned into a self-study block. If we had been in grade seven, nobody would have bothered to study, but since we were in grade nine and the high school entrance exams were just around the corner, most of them had pulled out a collection of problems handed out by their respective cram schools to work from.
        Funabashi didn’t find this amusing. He went around bothering his delinquent friends and baseball team members who were diligently working through their collection of problems.
        Almost everyone began to attend a cram school once they entered grade nine. The school even handed out pamphlets for cram schools. Funabashi wasn’t attending one though, and it seemed that he wasn’t even planning on trying out for a high school.
        I wasn’t attending a cram school either. I had told my mother that I would start attending one come summer. My mother didn’t nag me about attending one; I guess she’s had her doubts soothed by the fact that Kousuke managed to enter a prestigious junior high school without having attended a cram school. Either that, or she had already deduced that it would be impossible for me to attending a prestigious high school seeing as how my grades are the way they were, and had promptly given up.
        I wasn’t attending cram school, but I did have books with practice problems. I couldn’t get in the mood to work on them though, so I had pulled out a novel from my book and was reading it. Funabashi happened to see this and began talking to me:
        “Yo, what are you reading? That’s not the assigned reading, is it?”
        He peered down at me.
        I didn’t reply.
        “Aren’t you going to try out for the entrance exams?”
        Since he wouldn’t stop asking questions, I reluctantly replied: “I am.”
        “But you’re not going to cram school, are you?”
        “I don’t have to attend.”
        “Oh right. Since you can study, huh?”
        “Well, I won’t be able to get into a well-known school.”
        “Oh, so you’re trying out for the municipal one? Your brother goes to a private university-prep school though, doesn’t he? Doesn’t that piss you off?”
        I didn’t reply. He knew about my brother since we had attended the same elementary school.
        Funabashi said in a bitter voice, “All the egg heads pretty much go to private schools from junior high. The ones who come to the municipal school are the failures. You tried out for the private junior high school exams too, didn’t you?”
        “No.”
        “For real?”
        “I didn’t want to go to a school that focused so much on preparing for entrance exams.”
        “No need to be a sore loser about it. Coming to the municipal school means you have to do high school entrance exams, and all the club activities end in the first term of the last year. Those guys in private schools though don’t have high school entrance exams, so they can keep practicing. In the fall, there’s even a tournament that only they can take part in.”
        He did have a point. It had been a surprise when I had suddenly skyrocketed in the grade school ranking after entering a municipal junior high. Now that I think about it, almost all the people who had better grades than me in elementary school had gotten into private schools.
        Of course, that being said, there were students here who couldn’t try out for the private school entrance exams due to family circumstances; and of course, there were those parents who still believed in the tradition of the prestigious municipal school. There were also some students who had put all their hopes on one prestigious private school without keeping a backup school ready. This is why not all the students were the “failures” that he was referring to.
        If it weren’t for these special circumstances though, most elementary school students who were confident about their grades usually tried out for the private schools. That’s why over half of the students who ended up going to the municipal schools were the ones who hadn’t attended cram schools in elementary school and who hardly ever studied at school.
        They were the kind of students who were pretty well-informed when it came to video games or the names of idols, celebrities and professional baseball players but were a lost case when it came to written tests. When the third year of junior high came along though, even those students buckled down and began attending cram school and completing a book of practice problems. This led to everyone becoming stressed, and there was a tense atmosphere in the air.
        When it came to Funabashi though, he was pretty laid-back about this whole thing. He looked as if there was nothing for him to fear.
        “Hanegi’s got it so great. A lot of schools have come to check him out. Even though I played right alongside him, it’s like night and day. There’s nowhere for me to go.”
        He said this quietly. Even though he always talked in a manner that showed his leader status when he was with his delinquent group, he seemed to make a special exception for me and talked to me as if we were on equal footing. It might just be that he might be feeling indebted to me since I’m always letting him copy my English and math homework.
        Every school year, there were class changes but strangely enough, we had been in the same class for all three years.
        I don’t play video games, and I don’t watch television either so I don’t have a lot in common with the people in my class. There would be a lot of times when I would be off by myself in class. Funabashi didn’t hesitate to come and talk to me though. To be honest though, I can’t say I completely welcomed him acting friendly around me since he was the delinquent leader, after all.
        “You’re still going to play baseball in high school, right?”
        When I asked him this, he frowned and said “Hah! Yeah, right. I’m not even planning on going to high school.”
        “So what are you going to do?”
        “Who knows. I haven’t thought about it.”
        “Are you going to try job hunting?”
        “The jobs you can get with a junior high school degree are all shit.”
        I wondered if he was planning on joining a gang, but I didn’t ask him out loud. There were former students of this school who had dropped out of high school to join the yakuza gang. But the ones who did join were usually the weaker ones rather than the leaders. Funabashi didn’t have very good grades, but he wasn’t weak willed. He wasn’t the type to be dragged into things.
        Back when we were in grade seven, he was nothing more than the leader of brats who always got themselves into trouble. When we began grade eight, he began to show more leadership. Since he had physical strength on his side, there was never a time when he lost a fight. The people around him would suck up to him, so he let that get to his head. Since he couldn’t thrive in the academic side of school, he probably got his release from being the boss.
        And eventually, the time came when he went head to head with the grade niner who was the present “leader” of the group.
        One day, Funabashi showed up to class with a dark bruise on his face. I didn’t know it then, but I heard later from the grapevine what had happened. It seems that the grade nine leader had been sent to the hospital with broken ribs. Since that day forward, Funabashi was named the new “leader.”
        Even though he was the leader of a group of delinquents, it wasn’t on a big-scale. They were more just students who pulled up the hem of their pants slightly and walked down the halls with a swagger. Although they didn’t have their hairstyle set in the standard way, they didn’t dye their hair either, and it wasn’t permed. They were more or less following the school dress code.
        After school, they would go to the park to smoke, and they would head to the shopping streets to hang out at the arcade.
        Lately, there haven’t been any big incidents that have occurred at the school. As for Funabashi, he hadn’t gotten himself into fights since he became a regular player on the baseball team. Even then though, he was in top shape physically, and he kept a watchful eye over the group, so the others in the group didn’t try to defy him. He had a straightforward personality and he also had a comical side to him. That’s why those who followed him looked up to him. I guess in that way, he couldn’t have been a better “gang leader.”
        But his internal school report probably couldn’t have looked any worse. He was often late to school, and his past fights must have gone on his school record. The municipal schools placed a heavy emphasis on the internal school record. Even the private schools would check to see what was the problem if a student had too many absences on his record, and it was the case that the lower the level of the private school, the higher the emphasis placed on the school recommendation to get in.
        He had spirit and was popular; he wasn’t a bad guy. For a person like him not to have anywhere to go because he had a school record and wasn’t good with written tests was an indication of how flawed the current school education system was.
        I couldn’t help but feel sorry to see someone like him who always put up a tough front acting so depressed.

        The rain continued on for days.
        Even the music room was blanketed in the humidity because of it. The notes still rang clear, but the wood of the piano let out a muffled noise.
        I played Hanon. The chords were thick. Even if I played Bach it would probably turn out the same way.
        It wasn’t just the humidity either. My fingers refused to move as I wanted them to, and my feelings weren’t in it.
        I stopped moving my fingers and glanced over at the window. Condensation had built up on the glass, and the ash-coloured sky looked even more dull than it already was.
        I reached out for the book I had placed on top of the piano. It was a book that I had read time and time again, and it felt familiar in my hand.
        It was “Etude on Being Twenty” by Haraguchi Junzo.
        It was a collection of posthumous writings by a student who had committed suicide at the age of 19 years and ten months that had been published in 1946. The man had been an avid reader who also wrote poetry, and when he chose to take his life, he left behind a short suicide letter along with three notebooks to his friend.

        To express one’s thoughts is nothing more than a sign of weakness.

        Although he had written this in the opening paragraph of the letter addressed to the friend whom he had left the notebooks behind to, he still hadn’t been able to keep himself from filling three notebooks full of his thoughts and feelings.
        From the very first page to the very last word he wrote in those pages, suicide had been on his mind.

        I want to make one thing clear.
        –I am, and forever will be, an artist first and foremost until the day I take my last breath.
        Even after I have left behind every last work of art, the task that would be left for me to complete would be to turn my life itself into art.

        The part when he said “until the day I take my last breath” must have been referring to the moment he committed suicide.
        Haraguchi Junzo had been planning to become an artist. He wasn’t focused on turning it into a profession though. He was an artist devoted to his craft who didn’t care if what he did brought in a penny.
        But he grew up in a time just after the war had ended that was filled with strife, and it was a period when it was a struggle just to find food to place on the table.

        There is no pain where there are no wounds.
        For me, to feel is to pierce the physical body… to bleed.
        And now that the test of sincerity had taken the form of my heart, am I to hesitate?

        My parents were born shortly after the year 1946, but I had heard stories of that time from my grandparents. When my mother had been born, my grandfather had gone to the black market to purchase a single bath towel. It had cost two months worth of wage.
        For someone with a delicate sensibility like him, it must have been a trying period to live in.
        In comparison, in the present time, everything was easily within reach. It was nothing like the period directly after the war. But just because we are blessed with wealth doesn’t mean that our hearts couldn’t feel pain. For the eleven year old boy who had jumped from his apartment, a small wound had been the last straw.
        I had two more books in addition to this in my room at home.
        One was titled “Dear Friends, Just Because I’ve Died…” by Nagasawa Nobuko.
        It was a book published in 1949 from the notebook of a seventeen year old female student who had committed suicide. She had pored over the book “Etude on Being Twenty,” which had been just been published at that time.
        If suicide were a kind of disease, it was infectious. It wasn’t something you caught from a virus or bacteria though; it was words that infected you.
        I found this book at a second hand bookstore.
        There was another book that I had discovered in one of the storage closets at home. There wasn’t enough space on the bookshelf for most of my father’s book collection, and the excess had been packed in cardboard boxes and piled high in the storage closets. There were many that had titles too difficult to read in Chinese characters, but there were also a sizeable amount of literature anthologies and novels so from time to time I would empty a box and take what I needed.
        From one of those boxes came “The Grave Marker of Youth” by Oku Kouhei.
        Oku Kouhei had committed suicide at the age of twenty one. The year he died was 1965. He had belonged to a student group called “New Left Wing.” At that time, there were many sects when it came to student activism, and they were often at odds with one another. His lover from back in high school had belonged to one of those opposing groups.
        The was no clear-cut reason for his death. Although one of the factors given had been that the internal strife between the opposing groups had led to his lover drifting away, but it probably wasn’t just that alone.
        If memory serves me right, he was five years older than my father. It was probably the case that my father had purchased this book when he was still in high school. I heard that my father had loved literature as a student, and when he was in university, he had even participated in some student movements. I wondered what he thought as he read this book.

        Honor — this fierce, egoistic principle.

        From the page of “Etude of Being Twenty,” the words came flying towards you at machine gun pace.
        Egoistic…
        I wasn’t one to get hung up on myself. I had no ideals of “honor” or “art.” It’s just that when I stood at the landing of the thirteenth floor of that fourteen story apartment complex, I had felt a tremor through my body. Was that this thing called “egoism”?
        It must surely be the case that that eleven year old boy had something that sent a tremor through his body. According to the newspaper article, the housewives who lived at that complex had seen the young boy coming and going in the hallways. He must have been battling some kind of inner turmoil as he wandered about near the stairs.
        It might just be that one day, I would be forced into a similar battlefield; it didn’t necessarily have to be on the thirteenth floor.
        There are many more places for that than one could count.

        When I got up to leave after my piano lesson, my piano teacher called out to me: “Wait, there’s something I’d like to talk to you about.”
        She was the type who had a sunny disposition that was almost a little too bright, and she always seemed to have her head in the clouds, but today, she looked a little serious.
        Her house was located on a quiet residential district in the suburbs. From the large windows, you could see the neighbour’s spacious garden. I sat in the sofa next to the grand piano, and I was slightly nervous as I waited for her next words.
        My teacher had long hair, and she was always wearing jeans inside the house. I heard that she didn’t want to become a school teacher, and she had even practiced jazz piano in the past. She married a dime a dozen business man, and now she taught from home. I heard that she had gone to the same university as my mother, but the way they taught was completely different. She gave me quite a bit of freedom. When it came to my interpretation of the song, she placed emphasis on feeling above all.
        The only time she stopped me to give a word of warning was when I put too much emotion into my performance and my tempo began to go off in a different direction. She wasn’t the type to lecture. For someone like that to tell me that she had something to talk about with me must mean that it was something important.
        She sat down in the sofa next to mine, and lit a low-tar cigarette using a lighter that was on table. She avoided my gaze and kept her eyes focused on the smoke she exhaled as she asked: “What’s wrong? Your concentration was off.”
        “I’m sorry,” I apologized. There wasn’t anything else I could do since I couldn’t get passing marks for either Bach or Czerny and would have to redo them next week.
        “Are your studies at school the problem? Are they too much?”
        “No, it’s not that….”
        I hadn’t been doing much studying at all when it came to school. The recommendation that I would need to submit to the municipal high school would be based off my marks from the second term. I knew that I would have to buckle down and start studying at least a little once the second term began, but at this point and time, I hadn’t even cracked open any of the reference or study books I had purchased.
        “Summer break is coming up soon, so it’s right around the time you have to decide what you’re going to do.”
        She turned to me as she said this. I lowered my eyes.
        “Have you talked it over with your mother?’
        “Not yet.”
        “She’s not going to approve; you know that.”
        “Yes, I figured that’s probably going to be the case.”
        “My daughter’s still young, but I know that I wouldn’t want her going to music school. And there is the fact that you’re a boy, after all. Since your mother knows how ruthless it can be in the music world, it’ll probably give her all the more reason to object to your plans.”
        I stayed silent.
        Her voice strengthened slightly as she said, “But despite all that, you’re still going to try out for that school, right?”
        “Well yes, I guess you could say that…”
        “Well, are you or aren’t you? Be a man about it.”
        She inhaled deeply from the cigarette. On any other day, she wouldn’t have smoked in front of a student of hers. She also knew that I had asthmatic tendencies. For her to start smoking like this meant that she wasn’t her normal self. I guess she couldn’t stop herself from reaching out for a cigarette when placed under a stressful situation like this where she had to say things she would rather not have to say.
        “I plan to apply for a municipal music school, since the tuition at the private schools are too high…”
        “You shouldn’t have to worry about a thing like money, since your mother’s making the kind of money that she is.”
        “I don’t want to burden my parents…”
        “I can understand how you feel, but the municipal entrance exams won’t be easy.”
        “Should I not?”
        “Well, since the entrance exams are still six months away, it’ll all depend on how much work you’re willing to put into it. I can’t help but feel from what I’ve seen up to now though, that you’re being half-hearted about this. Are you really serious about playing the piano? Are you sure you’re not just wanting to get out of the regular high school preparation course?”
        It was hard to believe such harsh words could come out of someone who was usually the kind of person she was. She might have a point though. In junior high, there are mock tests once a month, and each time, we would be given an academic deviation value. At the same time, we would be handed a deviation value chart that was put together by the people who made the test.
        On that chart, there would be a long list of high schools; the chart looked like a restaurant menu. Rather than the prices of meals though, on the list were the numbers of the deviation values beside each high school. Similar to how one had to pay attention to how much is in one’s wallet before ordering from a menu, we had to choose the schools we would apply for by comparing our deviation values to the one associated with the school.
        Even if ten points were to suddenly be added onto my current academic deviation value, it still wouldn’t be enough. For private schools that were based off of an elevator system, there would only be openings to fill one class for new students at the high school level. It was obvious it was a strait gate from the beginning, but that didn’t stop people from feeling miserable about it all the same.
        Since private universities had been gaining popularity in recent years, the deviation values for the affiliated high schools were in turn much higher than before. Even for a second-rate university-prep high school, for those that were focused on integrated education had few openings at the high-school level. This made the odds even slimmer. Even the school my brother had applied for as a back-up when he was studying for the junior high entrance exams would be far out of my reach at my current deviation level. And below those schools was the municipal high school mixed in with the third-rate private schools. And it should come as no surprise that within each school district, there were strict rankings. Just looking at the chart was enough to make someone want to kneel over. When you realized that this chart showed which rank you belonged to, it made you realize how insignificant your existence was.
        “It’s just…I never thought you’d try out for a music school…” She sighed.
        “If you’re going to apply for the entrance exams for a music school, you’re going to have to play Bach and Czerny more by the book. I’ve been letting the small things slide up until now because I wanted to respect your interpretation of the material, but once it comes to involving judges for the entrance exams, you won’t even be able to get your foot into the door if you can’t first play it perfectly first.”
        I could sense her frustrations. Even if I were able to somehow scrape by with my academic deviation value, music schools took into consideration another ranking. There were exams for piano and listening, and there was no doubt that they would give a numerical ranking to each student. I couldn’t bear the thought of someone putting a score to my performance.
        It was probably the case that a studious girl who played her song properly would receive a good score. That kind of performance wouldn’t be music, and it wouldn’t be artistic. As for me, even if it were a practice song, I would try to interpret the theme and put my heart into playing. If I couldn’t put my emotions into it, I couldn’t concentrate; but if I did that, there was a tendency to go out of sync. Even my teacher who “let the little things slide,” had stopped me time and time again to warn me that it was happening. If I had a teacher who was a rigid perfectionist like my mother, I’m sure she would have thrown a fit.
        My mother had been against me learning the piano from the very beginning. When I was in kindergarten, I kept on begging her to let me learn, so she had eventually relented. Instead of teaching me herself though, she brought me to her former classmate, my current teacher. When I was in grade four, my mother had suggested that I think about quitting piano; this was because my junior high school entrance exams were drawing near. I had told her that I was going to a municipal junior high; to make up for it, I had promised her that I would do my best when it came time for my high school entrance exams. It’s probably the case that my mother believed I would stay true to my word about this.
        My father hadn’t said anything about my playing the piano. When my younger brother Kousuke had been studying for the entrance exams to a private junior high school, he had been concerned about how his studies were going, and there were times when he sat down with him to complete a book of drills, and when it came time to fill out the application forms, he had stayed up all night along with my younger brother to help him fill them out.
        When my younger brother was thinking about whether he should quit his baseball team when his studies became too much, my father had spent an entire day talking it over with him. In the end, Kousuke had decided to quit the team, but my father, who worried about him becoming frustrated from focusing only on his studies, would sometimes wake up early in the morning to play catch with him.
        Kousuke had liked baseball even as a child, and my father always looked forward to playing catch with him. When my brother joined the local baseball team and became a regular even though he was only in grade four, my father woke up early to go and cheer him on. I had even overheard him bragging to others that my brother was capable of becoming a professional player. For my father, who had spoken so highly of my brother, it must have come as a shock when Kousuke quit the team out of his own volition. He then shifted his focus on to cheering Kousuke on with his entrance exam studies.
        My father could be serious when it came to Kousuke.
        As for me, I had never liked playing catch ball, and even now, I couldn’t catch a ball properly using a glove.
        My father and I had no shared interests. That’s why even when I saw my father around the house from time to time, we hardly ever talked. It’s not as if we bore any ill will towards each other; it’s just that we weren’t interested in the other.
        Even with our relationship the way it was, I was sure that he would be surprised if I told him that I would be trying out for a music school.
        “Well, at any rate, you need to focus more on your piano practice from now on. I won’t say anything about you trying out for the entrance exams but I have to be honest with you– if you still have doubts about it, you’re not going to make it past the practical skills test.”
        When she said it like that, there wasn’t anything I could say in response. Most of the students who would be trying out for music schools were girls. There were many who weren’t interested in becoming professional performers but were just doing it as preparation to become a bride. Those kind of girls were the studious types who put long hours into their practice and would play the song exactly as their teachers told them to. If it came down to accuracy alone, there was no way I could hold a candle to them.
        I just told her that I would try my best and bowed my head to her and forced a smile before leaving the lesson room.
        But as I headed towards the entrance, my smile froze; it was because I thought I heard someone’s voice.
        Idiot.
        No… it wasn’t a voice. It was those faded words that had been scrawled in felt pen that had flashed before my eyes.

TO BE CONTINUED…
[NEXT: Chapter 3 – 103 – 143]

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