The Alliance of the 15s Part 4 (pg 149-192)

Chapter 4

        The gruelling days of summer began.
        I decided to take the summer course for five subjects targeted to those studying to get into a municipal high school at a major cram school. There were mock exams in the morning, and classes in the afternoon. It didn’t finish until the evening, so I had it arranged to have my private lesson for piano and listening moved to the evening. On the days when I didn’t have those lessons, I spent that time studying music theory. After that, having waited for my mother’s private lessons to finish up, I went down into the basement and played the piano into the early hours of the morning.

        I didn’t give any of it much thought; I just cleared the tasks that were given to me. Nothing more. I usually spent the time to and from the cram school on the train sleeping.
        When I finished practicing the piano, I took a shower and would collapse onto the bed to sleep.
        I dreamt from time to time. I didn’t have many dreams with Naomi in it. Who did show up frequently though was Tetsuya. They were pretty boring dreams of playing catch with him and of running alongside him. In my dreams, my body moved effortlessly, and I was able to keep up with him. Well, I guess that’s dreams for you.
        There were times though when I dreamt of Naomi. She had on the prosthetic leg that her father had talked of, and she was running. Tetsuya and I would chase after her, but she would run at a speed that made it hard for us to catch up to her. In my dreams, my asthma never reared its ugly head.
        Since they would show up in my dreams, it was probably the case that they were on my mind. Despite this, with my busy schedule, I didn’t have the energy to give the dreams much thought.
        Right around the time when summer break was almost drawing to a close, I ran into Higashiyama at the train station on my way back from cram school. He was also heading home from cram school, but he wasn’t attending a cram school like mine that would accept anyone who applied. He was attending one of those top-ranking city cram schools that you had to pass a series of difficult exams to get into.
        Since our homes were in the same direction, we had a conversation as we walked. We had been in the same class back in the second year, and when we had the choir competition, he was the conductor, and I did the piano accompaniment, so we knew each other enough to exchange short greetings when we saw each other in the halls.
        We talked briefly about the contents of the classes we took at the cram schools. We then moved on to the topic of the schools we were trying out for. For Higashiyama, a top-ranking private school was within reach. The decision he had to make was whether he would choose a high school oriented towards preparation of university entrance examinations or whether he’d choose a high school affiliated with a university.
        “I haven’t decided yet,” he confessed. “If I choose a university prep school, I wouldn’t be able to play baseball.”
        It was his dream to enter one of the big-six universities and play at Jingu Baseball Stadium.
        “But if I can go to Tokyo University, I would be able to get a position as a regular. I want to become a first batter and hit one of Tetsuya’s pitches. He probably has the best chances of making it pro though.”
        “If it were you though, I’m sure you could become a regular even at a municipal school.”
        I didn’t know much about baseball, but he was pretty fast and he was also good at defence, so I figured he’d probably be play an active part of any team he was in.
        “I haven’t got a chance in hell. Tetsuya’s got it great— he’s got a bunch of high schools fighting over him. The reason why I haven’t gotten any offers is because I’m not up to scratch. To be honest with you, I’ve actually gotten an offer from a track and field team, believe it or not.”
        “Of which school?”
        “None worth mentioning. When I told then my academic deviation value though, they dropped me like a bag of hot rocks. And anyway, I’m not interested in doing track and field. For me, it’s baseball or nothing.”
        “So what, if you get an offer from a school to play for their baseball team, you’re going to go that school?”
        “No, since it wouldn’t be a guarantee that I’ll be able to make it big. I’m going to enter a top-rate university and get a job. That’s why I’m doing all this studying for the exams. Tetsuya’s taking it easy showing up for baseball practice, and cracking the whip on the first years to get on the coach’s good side.”
        “So he’s still showing up to practice?”
        “Yeah. Oh, that reminds me. When I went to check out how the team was doing the other day, he mentioned you. You’re pretty good buds with him, right?”
        I wasn’t sure if we were what could be called as “good buds.” I didn’t know why, but my mood suddenly took a turn for the worse. Higashiyama didn’t notice that I had stopped talking, and continued in a light-hearted tone: “He talked about wanting to see you. He was wondering if it was okay for him to call you or not. It was weird for him to be so indecisive like that, you know?”
        I tried to change the topic by asking: “How is Funabashi doing?”
        “He seemed to be helping out the coach too. I guess he gave up on doing the entrance exams.”
        Higashiyama lived at a pretty luxurious high-rise condominium. It was a ten-story building and there was an Italian restaurant on the first floor. I spotted the sign for that restaurant in the street a short distance away.
        “Your first choice for university’s a municipal one, right?” Higashiyama asked.
        “Yeah, but since most of the questions will be a multiple choice from A to E, the only thing I can do is just try to cram it all in.”
        “You’re still going to try out for a private school as your back up, right?”
        “I’m trying not to think about private schools, since the second term is when we get our internal school reports. Math is my weak point, so it’s taking everything I have to just focus on the stuff we get at school. I’d never be able to handle the math problems you’d get at the entrance exams for private schools.”
        “Well, it’s true that the problems for private high schools are a lot harder, but even if you get a deviation value higher than seventy and get into a university prep high school, you’re going to be studying alongside people who’ve been studying grades ahead since they were in elementary school; it’s going to be hard to catch up to people like them. And besides, your younger brother goes to a private junior high school, doesn’t he?”
        “Yeah. He’s a year younger than me but they’re leaning ‘Bohr’s atomic model’ in science now.”
        “Pretty impressive. Even I’ve never heard of that.”
        The restaurant sign became increasingly closer. As we parted ways, he turned to ask me: “What are you going to do about your music? Are you going to forget about it and try out for a regular school?”
        “I haven’t decided yet, but I’ve been studying for the municipal entrance exams with the intention of trying out for the music course at a municipal high school.”
        “You’ve got your piano studies too though, right?”
        “Yeah, so I’ve been doing both.”
        “Really? Well, you’ve got it tough.”
        Even though it was but a short conversation, I was glad to have had a chance to have a talk with him.
        To be honest, I’ve never had many friends.
        It was partly because since I was a kid, I rarely played outside; my family also moved a few times. Since my younger brother was able to make friends right away when we moved in elementary school though, I guess the reason why I had no friends was more because of my personality than anything else.
        It’s not that I was particularly gloomy all the time; it’s just that I couldn’t find it in me to force myself to be cheerful all the time. There was also the fact that I didn’t take interest in the things that were popular with the others in my class like video games, role playing games, the stories that came from the extras that came with snacks, and the historical dramas that would air every Sunday evening. I didn’t know anything about those things that almost everyone else seemed to know so well. So it was no surprise that I couldn’t take part in the conversations in the classroom.
        Higashiyama, who was the top student and who was also good at sports, always acted aloof to things that were popular at that time. It was probably the case that with his busy life of sports and studies, he didn’t have time for stuff like that, so I felt at ease talking to him.
        After we had parted ways, my mood darkened even more.
        The municipal schools stressed rankings even more than private schools. At least with private school, there was the choice of going to a university prep one or one affiliated with a university; the commuting times also varied. Municipal schools were based on the school district system, and there were no individual differences between schools so all the schools lined up neatly based on deviation values. So it goes without saying that your teacher would decide which school you would try out for based on the results of your mock exam.
        I felt heavy-hearted. I felt that I had tried my best these past forty days of summer break, but math and science were my weak points, and no matter how hard I studied, I couldn’t seem to raise my scores for those subjects. If I were to try out for a regular municipal high school, my teacher would probably only let me try out for one that was likely ranked more than halfway down the list.
        When I opened the door to my house, I could hear Mahler’s music echoing the room.
        My brother seemed to have decided after quitting baseball to focus on his junior high school entrance exams that he would never again play it, because when he entered junior high school, he had joined the tennis club, which had relatively easier practice sessions. Even then though, there were training camps and matches in the first half of summer vacation, so he didn’t have very much time to study. It was probably the case he had a stack of homework to be completed.
        From the basement, I could hear a song by Czerny being practiced.
        I wanted to talk to someone so I went up the stairs and headed for Kousuke’s room. Knocking was pointless because he wouldn’t be able to hear it, what with the music so loud. I stepped into his room and yelled out: “Hey! How’s it going?”
        “Not too bad. What’s up with you?”
        Kousuke lifted his head and answered. We were only a year apart, so since we were younger, we talked casually the way friends would.
        “Would you mind turning down the volume a bit? I want to ask you something.”
        “What? Is it another math problem?”
        His junior high had an integrated school system. Halfway through his second year, his class was almost finished covering the studies for the coming year, so the kind of questions that would show up on a municipal high school’s entrance exams were easy for him. Whenever I ran into a math problem that I couldn’t solve no matter how hard I tried to work through it, I would sometimes go and ask him for some pointers.
        Kousuke had turned down the volume so I went over and sat at the edge of his bed.
        “Why do you study?”
        “I’m guessing you’ve run into some sort of mid-life crisis with a question like that?”
        He spoke in a mature way. Back when we were kids, people used to mistake us for being twins because we looked so alike, but lately, he had grown taller and his face had lost its baby fat, so his features were edging towards that of an adult’s.
        “I don’t need your psychological analysis; just answer my question, all right?”
        “Even if I were to give you an answer, it wouldn’t be of much use for your life.”
        “Just answer it already.”
        “Okay, okay. Geez.”
        He threw the mechanical pencil he had been holding onto the table, and turned this way.
        “There’s a guy called Hanegi Tetsuya at your school, right?”
        I didn’t expect his name to be brought up in the conversation, so I tensed momentarily.
        “Yeah. So what?”
        “I had a chance to play against his team once back when I was still playing baseball.”
        “Oh, I didn’t know.”
        “He was already a star then. He was throwing these unbelievable pitches, and his batting was beyond the league of a kid that age. It wasn’t just that either; he was literally oozing with self-confidence. He was already giving off this atmosphere of a top player. I was a year younger, but I realized that even if I were to put my all into practice, I could never reach the level that he was now in a year. Since this was right around the time when I was deciding whether to continue with baseball or not, it gave me the push I needed to make my decision.”
        “So that’s how you decided to start studying for the entrance exams? But there are probably people in your class who are better than you at that too?”
        “Sure there are. There are five geniuses in my class alone; they’ll probably end up becoming experts in their fields. My abilities are about right dab in the middle of the class. If things go well, I’d probably be able to somehow manage to get into a top-rate university. After I graduate from there, I’ll enter some company, and I’ll become your run-of-the-mill business man.”
        If he were to have said this to anyone else, it probably would have grated on their nerves; but the reality was, he was my younger brother. He grinned as he told me this.
        “I’m fine with things being this way. I can’t become a star– I realized that back when I was in grade five.”
        It was my first time having this kind of conversation with him. It surprised me that even though he was younger than me, he had already had a resigned view of the world. It made me feel that much younger.
        I became visibly dispirited.
        He was studying my face. He switched topics as if he were trying to take my mind off of things: “Hey bro, you know Hanegi Tetsuya?”
        “Why do you ask?”
        “Oh, ‘cause he called earlier.”
        “He did? Really?”
        I finally figured out the reason why he had suddenly started talking about Tetsuya earlier.
        “When I picked up the receiver, he just began talking my ear off so I was taken aback. I guess he mistook me for you. He talked as if you were really close though.”
        “He talks to everyone like that.”
        “Well, at any rate— I’m impressed! I didn’t know you were friends with him. He’s definitely gonna go pro in the future.”
        He said enthusiastically. Back when Kousuke was in elementary school, he loved baseball, and he watched the baseball games live on TV everyday. Perhaps he looked up to Tetsuya when he was still active on the baseball team. For me to be friends with someone like Tetsuya was impressive to him.
        Hearing this from him cheered me up just a little.

        Later that day, Tetsuya called my house once again.
        I had been expecting his call, so I picked up the call.
        “Yo! This time, it’s you, right?”
        I heard him say on the other line; it was our first time talking on the phone. His voice sounded a little different than it did when we talked face-to-face.
        “Yeah, it’s me.” I replied.
        “So the guy that picked up the phone earlier was your brother, huh? You never told me you had a brother!”
        “Well, you never asked.”
        “You’re always so quiet so I thought for sure you were an only child.”
        The way he talked was as usual, but his voice lacked its usual cheerfulness.
        Since our teachers at school always cautioned us to not waste our time talking on the phone too long, it was probably the case that there were a lot of people our age who loved to talk on the phone; Tetsuya wasn’t the type though to make lengthy calls. For someone like him to make a call must mean he had some special reason for doing so. It wasn’t like him though for him to not just cut to the chase right away.
        For a brief moment, there was a silence as if he were hesitating to speak.
        “You haven’t been going to the hospital lately, have you?”
        “I’ve been going to cram school, so I have no time.”
        It might just be that my words may have come off as being overly cold; the silence once again took over the conversation.
        “Naomi’s scheduled for surgery soon.”
        His voice sounded strained as he said this.
        “Surgery? What kind of surgery?”
        “It’s a kind of a check-up. They’re just going to take a small tissue sample, so it’s not a major surgery. But just the fact that they’re doing this is a sign that they’ve got their suspicions.”
        “What do you mean?”
        I still hadn’t asked yet what exactly it was Naomi was suffering from. Since it was something that led to her having to have one leg amputated, it must be a malignant one.
        “What kind of suspicions? Tell me already!”
        My voice raised without meaning to.
        “The doctor hasn’t been clear about it either, but it seems there’s swelling in the lymph node of her left armpit. They said they can’t say for sure unless they do the examination. Depending on what they find, it might lead to a bigger surgery. I can understand that you’re busy and all, but visit her some time, will you?”
        “Okay,” I agreed.
        Even after we had said our goodbyes and the call had ended, I remained standing there holding the receiver in my hand. I hadn’t visited her once this summer. It was because I was afraid of being hurt; I had only been thinking of myself.
        I placed the receiver back on the cradle, and returned to my room. I could hear the melody of Mahler through the thin wall. The soprano voice sang in a perfect tune that was almost mechanical in its perfection. I considered putting on headphones and playing the piano, but I instead chose to lie back on my bed and listen to the music that was playing in the room next to mine. I had never thought about why my brother was always listening to him.
        Until now, I had just brushed Mahler’s music off as being over-the-top and loud, but tonight, each and every note pierced my heart. The pain was a comforting one. I guess Kousuke had a lot of things he was going through and he had found himself at Mahler’s door.
        Now that I took the time to listen carefully to the music, I realized it wasn’t half-bad.

        The next day, I cut my cram school lesson short and made my way to the hospital.
        The sun’s rays which pierced the ground below was undeniably that of summer in full heat. The front garden of the hospital had already changed its colors and it gave off the atmosphere of fall.
        Izumi-san was at the nurse’s station.
        “My! Long time no see.”
        She flashed a pleasant smile. I had come to the hospital feeling nervous, having heard about the talk of surgery, so the calmness she exuded took me aback. But now that I thought about it, this might just be part of a nurse’s job. They couldn’t let their feelings constantly be swayed by the results of a patient’s exams.
        Naomi was alone when I went to her room.
        “Isn’t Tetsuya here today?” I asked. As soon as I said this though, I realized how he was never far from my thoughts.
        “He’s at baseball practice. He only ever comes in the evening.”
        She replied without emotion. It had been a month since I had last come to see her. I thought she’d be surprised, or at the very least grill me about why I hadn’t visited, but she remained emotionless. At the same time though, it looked as if she were struggling to hold back her emotions.
        I sat down on the chair by the wall as I usually did. She remained lying down. A heavy silence hung over the room. I couldn’t read her emotions. I was a little surprised by how healthy she looked. Since Tetsuya had said she was going to be needing a check-up, I thought that she would be visibly sick, but she didn’t look any different from she did a month ago… at least, on the outside. The only thing that hinted at something amiss were the dark shadows under her eyes.
        The day of her birthday, and the day before that when I had come to visit her with Tetsuya, she had been distant towards me. She and Tetsuya were childhood friends; I was just an outsider. Taking that into consideration, perhaps her treatment of me then was only natural.
        But she seemed different today. Was it that she was wary of me? Or was she in a spirit of despair from some kind of shock?
        I wanted to give her some kind words. But I couldn’t understand what kind of emotions she was feeling on the inside. If I were careless with my words, it would only end up hurting her. As I wracked my head over what to say, the silence stretched itself longer and thinner.
        I suddenly became aware of the tears that filled her eyes. Had I hurt her by remaining silent? Her face scrunched up. I thought that perhaps she might begin to cry, but in the next instant, her lips parted and laughter escaped. Her smile was a strained, fake one. She began to laugh out loud.
        “You really are weird, you know that?”
        She said between laugher.
        Her tears fell down her cheeks. I had a hard time keeping up with her kaleidoscope of emotions.
        “What’s so funny?” I asked.
        “It’s because you’re such a weirdo!”
        “Am I?”
        “Yeah, you are! You came to visit a sick person in a hospital and yet you’ve been silent this whole time! This couldn’t even be called a visit!”
        Now that she put it that way, she was right. I had no words to respond to her. She gazed at me with a malicious glint in her eye. Her lips were lifted into a smile, but the atmosphere held a tenseness that hinted that she may begin crying at any moment.
        “What were you doing this summer?”
        I could only reply with a dull response: “I was studying at a cram school.”
        “Oh really? Poor you.”
        “I’m just doing what everyone else is doing.”
        “What’s the point of studying so hard?”
        “I don’t know. If I began to think that, there’d be no end to it.”
        “So what? You haven’t given it any thought?”
        “No. I just leave my mind empty.”
        “Oh, so you forgot about me too?”
        “That’s not what I was trying to say,” I said hastily but she studied me closely with doubt.
        “So you were thinking about me…even if it were just a little?”
        “I thought about you.”
        “But you came here today only because Tetsuya asked you to, right?”
        That was true, but at the same time, it was also true that I hadn’t forgotten about her. It was hard to put into words so instead, I looked away and remained silent.
        She giggled, “I was the one who asked him to call you.”
        I turned her way.
        “I wanted to see you.”
        Her eyes remained fixed on me as she said this.
        “Kitazawa-kun.”
        She lifted her head slightly off the bed to gaze intently at me.
        “Do you still think about suicide?”
        I didn’t know how to answer. I always kept Haraguchi Junzo’s book within reach, but it was true that the frequency in which I flipped through the pages had decreased. I had been busy this past month. It wasn’t just that though; it was that I had lost the will to read after having met Naomi. It was because the problems Naomi dealt with were more real and serious than anything that could be found in the pages of a book. I didn’t know how I could explain that to her.
        I couldn’t find the right way to put into words how I felt, so I gave a slight nod instead.
        She lifted her elbow onto the bed to raise her upper body from the bed.
        “Why don’t we commit a double suicide?”
        Her stare felt like bullets as they bore down on me.

        I got off the bus and headed slowly up the narrow path towards my house. I didn’t feel like going home, but there was no where else to go.
        When I had rounded the corner and walked up the private walkway, I saw the white car parked up front. The light from the private lesson room in the basement was on. I felt a little relieved at the sight; usually, my mother would be in the kitchen preparing for dinner around this time. I guess she got a last minute booking.
        I wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone. My father was likely working, and Kousuke was probably lost in Mahler’s music as always.
        The moment I began walking up the stairs near the entrance, I heard my mother’s voice: “Ryoichi! Ryoichi.”
        She was calling my name. When I peered down at the basement, the curtains for the lesson room had been pulled to the side, and she was looking up at me.
        “Come down here for a second.”
        I had a bad feeling about this. It seems that she had been waiting for me to come home.
        I turned around and went back down the stairs that I had just begun to climb, and headed towards the separate entrance of the basement. Her private students entered and left the house through that entrance. I was praying for a student to still be there when I stepped in, but to my disappointment, we were alone.
        When the door shut behind me, the noise from the outside was cut off, ,and it felt as if I were underwater. It was a strange sensation. It was suffocating. On the opposite side of the room, there was a window to let light in, so fresh air was coming in, but with the soundproof doors and double-layered curtains, the atmosphere in the room was a heavy, humid one.
        “I heard that you left your class early today. I received a call from the cram school.”
        What an attentive cram school. I guess they included this kind of reporting service in their fees.
        “I had plans.”
        “What kind of plans?”
        “I went to visit my friend at the hospital.”
        “Oh? Is someone sick?”
        “You don’t know her; she’s been in the hospital for a while.”
        “Really…”
        Her voice trailed off. I guess she didn’t expect me to reply in the way that I did. But it wasn’t long before she regained her composure: “Well, that’s fine and all but I was worried, so I called your piano teacher as well as your music listening teacher.”
        It seems my fears were well founded.
        “Are you really planning on trying out for the exams for a music school?”
        She was forcing herself to speak calmly. When she did that, I knew that an outburst wasn’t far behind.
        I nodded.
        “What are you going to do about university?”
        When she laid it out for me like this, I didn’t know what to say. Even I hadn’t given it much thought. Since university was still years away, it was something that was still removed from my world.
        “Are you planning on becoming a professional pianist?”
        Her voice dropped even lower as she glared at me. Her eyes were sharp as she pressed the issue. I wondered why I hadn’t inherited this strength.
        “Why don’t you play a song for me?”
        I couldn’t find the power to move, let alone give a decent reply.
        “I haven’t heard you play in a while. I’ve been meaning to sit down and listen properly for some time now.”
        She was putting me on the spot; I couldn’t have felt more miserable. I thought: if only I were capable of giving a performance that would blow her away. I was furious at my lack of ability.
        “Well then, the stage is yours.”
        Her voice was rising. There was no escaping this. I walked towards the grand piano.
        “What should I play?”
        “A sonata. You’ve completed one, haven’t you?”
        “I don’t like that song very much.”
        “Well this isn’t the time for likes and dislikes. Just play it already.”
        I began to play Beethoven.
        It was “Sonata No. 15: ‘Pastoral’.” It was a song that didn’t move one’s heart.
        One day, I wanted to be able to play “Appassionata” or “Hammerklavier.” I wanted to be able to express all that I felt in my heart through the notes. Now though, I was only allowed to play the sonatas from his early days. Even among his earlier works, no. 8 or no. 14 were moving, but no. 15 was much too calm. I couldn’t get into this song from the very first time I had heard it.
        I knew that even for a song that was meant to give my fingers a work out could have dynamics added to it to make it more dramatic, but I knew that if I were to do that now, my mother would throw a fit. She was strict when it came to keeping the tempo, and she wasn’t one to allow interpretations of songs. She preferred a style that contained one’s feelings– a performance that was mechanical. All of her students played that way.
        I felt my fingers begin to tense. My feelings of failure as well as my feelings of not wanting to lose my tempo came to head, and I wasn’t able to focus on my performance to the very end.
        It pained me to listen to the last of the note. I lifted my foot off the pedal and stood up quickly.
        “Wait just a minute.”
        She stopped me from leaving the room.
        “With that kind of performance, you’ll never be able to become a professional pianist no matter how much effort you put into it.”
        “I know.”
        “Then what do you plan on doing about it? You’re not going to be able to find a decent job graduating from a music university. Or what? Do you plan on becoming a music teacher at a junior high?”
        I freed myself from her grasp and fled the room. I climbed the narrow stairs, and I thought how the person I hated the most in the world was my mom.

        The second term of school began.
        After the opening ceremony, I headed to the music room and touched the piano there for the first time in a while.
        It was quite an old instrument, and its tuning was slightly off. Despite this, it usually gave off a pretty decent sound because the room was so big, but today, I couldn’t lose myself in the music. My fingers kept tripping up time and time again while playing the scale.
        I played Bach, Czerny, and then finally, Beethoven.
        I was nervous playing in front of my mother. Now that I was alone, I tried playing as freely, and as dramatically, as I could. My fingers, though, refused to listen and I couldn’t fully focus on playing the song.
        I just couldn’t convince myself to like this song.
        Even a genius like Beethoven wrote some duds every once in a while. I tried thinking it that way, but I realized that a top-level pianist could turn any song into a masterpiece of his own.
        When it came right down to it, I didn’t have the talent.
        The door opened, and Ms. Miyasaka came into the room.
        “What’s wrong for you to be sighing like that?”
        She asked; she was always cheerful. It had been a while since I had seen her smile.
        “Ms. Miyasaka,” I said.
        “I know this might come off as a bit rude, but…”
        “Yes, you’re being rude.”
        She cut in before I could continue further.
        “If you ask something knowing it might be rude is itself a rude gesture.”
        “Then forget I ever said anything.”
        “Stopping mid-way would be even more rude. At any rate, just ask me and I’ll be the judge of whether it’s out of line or not.”
        Her expression became increasingly bright. Seeing her smile filled my heart with a gentle warmth, and I felt as if I could talk to her as I would a friend.
        “Is it fun being a teacher?”
        I saw her expression tense for a brief moment; but it was quickly covered up by her smile from earlier.
        “It’s fun. You know the kind of atmosphere the class is like, don’t you?”
        The atmosphere of our classes were like this: I think this was probably the same case in most public junior highs, but first off, if you didn’t sit in the very front row, you couldn’t hear the teacher. The new teachers would go hoarse yelling at the students to be quiet. The more veteran teachers would wait for a break in the talk and would spend the rest of the time talking to those in the front rows.
        When the students began their last year of junior high though, the classes for the five main subjects would become quiet. It’s because most of the students were starting to put a little effort into their studies since the entrance exams were not too far off. The music and art classes were, though, an utter wreck. The ones who were always looking for trouble would be making noise in the back of the class, and the honour roll students who were aiming to get into top-rate private schools would be studying English or Math during this time. It was only the handful of people who were trying out for the top public universities that would sit in the front row and try to get on the teachers’ good sides because they needed their recommendations.
        Ms. Miyasaka let out a small laugh.
        “I know what you’re trying to get at, but…”
        Her expression suddenly turned serious as she continued: “It’s true that among the music teachers, there are those who wanted to become a professional musician but who couldn’t and only became teachers after their dreams had been broken, but there are teachers who have dreamt of becoming teachers since they were young, and who put their all into their work.”
        And that, her smile returned, and she let out another laugh.
        I felt as if the thing that was being harboured deep inside my heart softened, even if only slightly.

        When I had stepped through the school gates, the wind assaulted my face; it was a lukewarm, humid wind. Ash coloured clouds invaded the sky. It would most likely rain tomorrow.
        I could hear the batters from the school grounds. It made me want to see Tetsuya. I had spoken to him over the phone, but it had been over a month since I had seen him face-to-face.
        I walked towards the backstop.
        I thought it was probably be the case that he would be out on the grounds having fielding practice, but he was still in his school uniform standing on the other side of the backstop. He was surrounded by a group of girls from our school.
        It wasn’t anything new to see girls chasing after him; it wasn’t anything unusual. Back when he was practicing for an upcoming game, he would focus solely on the practice and he’d turn a deaf ear to the girls that were cheering for him, but once those games were over, he would pay them attention since he had a naturally outgoing personality.
        As for me, I rarely ever talked with the girls in my grade. It wasn’t as if I were purposely avoiding them; it was just that I didn’t have anyone I was particularly close with, so I didn’t have much of an opportunity to have conversations with them.
        The girls who were surrounding him were all third years. I recognized some of them as being in my class. I recognized them, but since I wasn’t friends with them, I didn’t feel comfortable going up to them to interrupt them.
        There was a large burst of laughter. Tetsuya had probably cracked a joke. The girls’ shoulders were shaking slightly as they laughed, and the comedian himself seemed to be having a pretty swell time.
        I thought back to the way he had sounded over the phone when he had told me about Naomi’s surgery.
        It was as if the Tetsuya from that day had been another person all together.
        On the school grounds, the first and second year baseball members were putting their blood, sweat and tears in to the practice. Their enthusiastic yells echoed. I could also hear faintly the cheers of students who belonged to a different sports club. Despite the heavy, threatening sky, the school ground was brimming with energy. Perhaps the only one whose mood mirrored the weather was mine.
        I turned my back to the school ground and began to walk back towards the school gate.
        “Kitazawa! Wait up.”
        I heard his footsteps draw near as he jogged towards me, but I kept walking.
        He caught up to me just as I neared the gate.
        “Wait. I want to talk to you about something.”
        I stopped. Tetsuya walked around to stand in front of me and stared at me.
        “You mad or something?”
        Tetsuya asked; he had a serious expression on his face.
        I remained silent.
        “What? You didn’t like the fact that I was surrounded by girls laughing when Naomi’s in the hospital suffering?”
        “It’s none of my business…”
        “This is just the kind of person I am; I don’t plan on making excuses. But just hear me out…okay?”
        I nodded. Tetsuya averted his eyes and continued to talk:
        “My parents have been living separately for as long as I can remember. My old man just upped and left and never came back. He’s pretty impulsive, and he’s a womanizer. He’s always chasing after some woman or other.
        He doesn’t earn much, but he’s pretty popular with women, you know? He’s over forty, but he doesn’t show any signs of settling down. I hate the kind of person he is; but at the same time, I realize that we’re father and son. I’m just like him. I can feel the same impulsiveness running in my veins.”
        He turned to me and drew closer as his voice grew stronger:
        “Naomi supports me emotionally. It’s because she’s there for me that it doesn’t phase me to be surrounded by girls. If she suddenly disappears from my life, I’m going to end up becoming a good-for-nothing like my old man. Now though, I’m only thinking of Naomi.”
        His eyes that gazed at me were unwavering in its seriousness. He wasn’t someone who lied. I became uncomfortable and averted my eyes.
        “Kitazawa.”
        He grabbed my shoulder.
        “Look this way.”
        He pulled me to the side before he said this so I had no choice but to look his way.
        He had a tense look on his face that frightened me.
        “Do you love her?”
        He asked in a low voice.
        “Yes,” I answered instinctively.
        “Huh, is that right? Well, that’s good then.”
        His expression didn’t change as he continued:
        “She feels the same way about you.”
        I didn’t know what he was trying to tell me. His lips twisted slightly. It could have been perceived as a smile, but his expression wasn’t one that came naturally.
        “But you know, no matter which way you look at it, I’ve known her for a lot longer than you. I know everything about her. You have no chance of winning against me, you know that right?”
        “I don’t plan on going against you.”
        “Well, okay then…”
        The look in his eyes softened slightly.
        “If you do intend to go up against me though, I want it to be a fair fight. Do you want to head to the hospital with me today?”
        “I can’t today.”
        Even I felt how cold my tone sounded.
        He frowned. Akin to a child, he didn’t try to hide his confusion.
        “Hey, don’t sulk.”
        “I’m not.”
        The strength of his hold on my shoulder suddenly loosened.
        “Okay then. I’ll go alone today, but you better go and visit her tomorrow or the day after. It’s not looking good for her right now.”
        “What do you mean?”
        “That’s all I can tell you now.”
        He turned away.
        This time, I was the one who grabbed his arm.
        “Did the doctor say something?”
        He did answer. He shook off my hand and walked through the school gates.

        The atmosphere he gave off as he walked through the school gates was a cold one that discouraged me from going after him to press the issue.
        I walked slowly towards the gates, and watched as he disappeared into the underpass directly under the highway; his house was located in the opposite direction. He was probably intending on going directly to the hospital.
        After a short while, I also began walking in the same direction. I felt a little hesitant. It was a lie when I said I couldn’t go today; I had no plans. If I were to make a run for it, I could probably catch up to him and head to the hospital together. Two buses passed by me as they disappeared into the underpass. This was the main road, so a lot of buses passed this road as part of its route. The one that would stop in front of the hospital was only the #1 bus. I sped up my pace thinking that I could perhaps catch it.
        When I made it out of the underpass, I didn’t see him at the bus stop.
        I had no where I had to go; I stood at the bus stop with my head in the clouds. A few buses passed by. At last, the bus that would make a stop at the hospital arrived; this was the same bus I took when I had piano lessons.
        I got on the bus without giving it much thought. I had no intention of going to the hospital. I thought it would be fine if I went, but there was still a part of me that hesitated to do so. The bus eventually came to a stop at the hospital, and as it departed from this stop, I felt a heaviness fall on my shoulders.
        I got off the bus at the last stop, which was the station for the private railway. I got on the train. I stayed on as it passed by the station I usually got off of to go to my piano lesson. That was the first time I realized I was attempting to go there.

        It was my fourth time getting off at this station.
        The sky was darker than usual, and the wind just as strong. The school bag I was carrying felt heavy in my hand; it was my first time to visit in my school uniform.
        I got on the bus from the bus stop directly in front of the station, and I got off at the stop I always got off at. It was a shopping district that I was well familiar with. A light from the electric lamp could be seen from inside the store. I could also see the smattering of lights from the high-rise apartments.
        I didn’t know why I was here.
        I walked through the shopping district aimlessly.
        I could see the narrow path that led to the apartment complex a short distance away. Even I wasn’t sure if I would choose to walk in that direction. I was scared, because I felt like I was being pressed to make a decision. I shifted my gaze in the direction of the road opposite that path; it was another narrow road. Not only that, but it was a steep incline. I let my feet take me to the slope, and I began to climb.
        There were houses that lined both sides of the road. Small one-story houses were clustered together on the hill. Eventually though, the row of houses came to an end, and the slope became even more steep. A thickly wooded area came into view. The wind rushed past the treetops. The branches shook and there was an almost eerily calmness that enveloped the area.
        I couldn’t sense the presence of anyone else. I felt the sense of calmness that one felt when they were alone.
        I looked up at the sky. Although it was a cloudy sky right before sunset, it filled my entire vision and it was almost blinding in its brightness.
        I walked up the gently sloping hill. This was the hill I had seen from the hallway of the apartment. As the slope gentled, the thickly wooded area gave way to a grassland. It might have been a cultivated field that had long given way to weeds. Although the roads were also sprinkled with weeds, the deeply rudded road kept them at bay.
        Directly below, I could see the bus route and the residential neighbourhood. Beyond the hill on the other side, I saw the row of apartment buildings. Because of the distance though, they looked more like miniature buildings than true-to-life size.
        “Why don’t we commit a double suicide?”
        Her words echoed in my head.
        I thought about Haraguchi Junzo. I also thought about Nagasawa Nobuko and Oku Kouhei. Surely it must have been the case that all these people had an image in their minds of the ideal way of life. The gap between that ideal and the reality of their lives was what had driven them to suicide.
        What then, was my image of the ideal way of life?
        The wind bit into my cheeks. The clouds must have broken up because I could feel the heat of the sun on my back, and the apartment buildings within view began to sparkle in a unique array of colors. The sky in the background looked threateningly dark.
        I shifted my gaze over to the fourteen-story high-rise apartment building that towered over the neighbouring buildings. Since the hill I was standing on was slightly more elevated than the other hills, the rooftop of that high-rise building was right about eye-level. If I squinted, the doors and windows that were systematically placed made almost a mesh-like pattern.

        Everyone’s
        Going to end up dying anyway.

        It might just be that that young boy had been in a much deeper despair than the author of “Etude of Being Twenty.” The boy hadn’t chosen death after having lost faith in the ideal… he had no ideal from the very beginning.
        Who then would have had the right to object to the decision of the boy who had chosen death at the tender age of eleven?
        My fifteenth birthday was soon approaching.
        Was I trying to escape from reality? Why is it that I didn’t try to put an effort into putting up a fight? “Everyone’s going to end up dying anyway”? I knew that from the very beginning.
        Naomi was trying to live.
        She was fighting to live.
        There were emergency stairs to the side of the mesh patterned-like building. And I could make out a small bean-sized shadow of a human being standing behind the handrails. The person was leaning against the handrail looking directly down to the ground below.
        His shadow was a small, insignificant one.
        I shifted my focus to the dark sky beyond the apartment complex.
        Dark clouds melted against the coming dusk. The stagnant atmosphere hung over the sky.
        There was no denying though that the city of Tokyo was located directly under these clouds.

        “I thought you wouldn’t come to see me anymore.”
        She said this in a biting tone as I stepped into her hospital room.
        Tetsuya told me to come see her no matter what, but I hadn’t gone to see her. Perhaps the best thing would have been for me to have gone with him that day to visit her. What was I supposed to talk about with her one-on-one? Just thinking about it left me with a sinking feeling and I couldn’t convince myself to visit her earlier.
        I stood in front of the door in silence.
        She looked at me as if she were challenging me. It was a look that made me want to run out of the room that very second. The lingering heat of the weather had receded to be replaced by the cool autumn rain that left a fine film of condensation on the window. That chill had seeped its way into the hospital room. Contrary to the temperature of the room, a heat emitted from her pink-tinged face and body; it was my first time seeing her like this.
        There were no other visitors. Until I had stepped into the room, she had been alone, and yet her mood was foul as if she had been expecting me.
        “You’re always quiet.”
        I let out a weak laugh.
        “It’s not that I don’t say anything for no reason. It’s because I’m thinking. As I’m thinking though, you switch topics.”
        “I was waiting for you this whole time, you know.”
        “I was thinking about you this whole time too.”
        “Oh really? That’s great.”
        Despite her words, she didn’t sound happy at all. It seemed as if she were fighting to hold back the feelings that were coming to surface.
        “Well, don’t just stand there. Have a seat.”
        She said this harshly. I hastily sat down, and waited to see what she would say next.
        “You said you were thinking about me? Well, okay then. Let’s hear what kind of things you were thinking about then.”
        She said this to me as if she were testing me.
        I couldn’t respond right away. It wasn’t a lie when I said I thought about her. But there were so many factors that were included like her illness, Tetsuya, and my personal problems, that it was hard to explain in one sentence.
        As I pondered over my words, words suddenly slipped out of my mouth:
        “Tetsuya’s popular with the girls.”
        “Why are you talking about Tecchan now?” She asked with an edge to her voice.
        It was a surprise to me as well that I would start off by talking about him. But on second thought, I realized this was exactly where I should begin my explanation.
        “Just hear me out, all right? Tetsuya’s the ace of the baseball team. Not only that, but he’s outgoing and he’s a really nice guy. It never even crossed my mind to compare myself to someone like him…”
        A serious light emitted from her eyes.
        “But when I think about you, I naturally end up thinking about him too. And when I do, I feel miserable.”
        “Why?”
        “ ‘Why’? It’s because…”
        I turned my gaze to her. I asked her silently why she would ask something like that. For an instant, a look of fear flashed across her face. She was waiting in anticipation. Her demeanour gave me the courage to say my next words:
        “It’s because I love you.”
        She closed her eyes. Her flushed face turned crimson.
        I looked away. I fought to keep my voice from shaking: “But there’s nothing I can do.”
        After I said these words, I wondered what it was that would satisfy me? I felt as if I were facing a problem that had no answer from the very beginning.
        I could hear the sound of her breathing.
        There was a faintly sweet scent that wafted in the air. She was lying down on the bed but the sound of her breathing echoed nearby as if she were right beside me.
        “I feel the same way about you,” she whispered.
        I didn’t look her way. I was happy, but at the same time, it felt as if I had been placed in front of a large obstacle.
        “But you care about Tetsuya too, don’t you?”
        I kept my eyes trained on the view from the window as I said this.
        She let out another small sigh.
        “Yes.”
        “He’s special to me,” she said this in a rush.
        “I know. I like him too. We can just continue as we have been until now — the three of us being friends.”
        I turned my head in the direction of her bed.
        It seems she wasn’t pleased by the way I had phrased this, and she snapped: “That’s not what I meant. I…”
        Her words trailed off.
        I gazed at her; and she returned the gaze. A tranquil calmness swept the room. She looked my way with a calm expression that could have been construed for coolness. For an instant, her expression took on that of an adult’s.
        “Ryoichi-san.”
        She said my name; it was the first time anyone had ever said my name like that. Her intense gaze didn’t waver as she began to speak softly:
        “If I had never gotten sick, I might have never met you. It’s probably the case that we probably would have lived lives completely separate from each other. But through some twist of fate, I became ill, and we met. Should I be grateful for this turn of events?
        If I had never gotten sick, I’m sure I would have led a happy life with Tecchan by my side. Thinking about it now, I’m not sure if that could have been called true happiness, but that’s irrelevant. The truth of the matter is, I did meet you and it’s probably the case that I’m never going to get better. Those are the facts.
        But I’m selfish, so even when I’m facing the kind of situation that I am, I couldn’t help but dream a dream where I still had Tecchan, I still had you, and my illness was completely cured. If that were to happen though, I wonder… what then? It might just be that hardships would await.
        I might end up hurting someone, and being hurt… and after all is said and done, I would probably be crying as I think this is what it means to be alive. Even if trying times await, I want to continue to live… but it’s out of my hands. The right to choose was taken away from me.
        Although the drama has just begun, the channel’s been changed before the climax. Don’t you think that’s such a heartless way to treat someone’s life? But I can’t bear a grudge against this fate because this fate was what brought me to you. That’s why I’ve decided to accept this fate with open arms.”
        A smile graced her lips; it was effused with an odd brightness. It was a smile that was less like a real human and more like a statue.
        “I found out the results of my test.”
        Her smile didn’t waver as she said this.
        I waited for Naomi’s next words as if I were a man awaiting his sentencing.
        “They told me that they found a tumour in the lymph node under my arm.”
        A tumour…
        The word didn’t immediately register.
        Naomi’s leg. The malignant tumour that had been growing in her leg that had been amputated had already begun to spread to the rest of her body.
        “Are they going to perform surgery?”
        She didn’t answer immediately; she gazed at me for a short while before responding: “I’m so blessed to have been able to meet someone like you.”
        In the next instant, she said in a solemn tone that made it clear she wouldn’t take no for an answer: “Help me up.”
        I rounded the bed to her side.
        “Sit right there.”
        When I had helped her to sit up on the bed, she ordered me to sit down in the same tone. I did as she said.
        She was wearing light pink pyjamas. I was struck by the paleness of her nape.
        She fixed her eyes on me as she said: “It won’t stop at just the lymph nodes. They’ll probably end up removing my breasts next.”
        Her hand moved to the buttons of her top.
        “Look at me.”
        She swiftly unbuttoned her top, and her breasts were revealed. Her small breasts that looked like they would fit perfectly into the palm of your hand were in front of me.
        “Look at them closely… and please remember them. I wanted you to see them before they cut them off.”
        Tears welled up in her eyes, and yet, her voice rang clear and strong. The inner strength to stand up against this war that was looming closer was reflected in her voice. I gazed at her chest and that strangely calm expression on her face. In that moment, I thought that this sight… of her pale, small breasts, and the fierce expression on her face would forever be seared into my memory.

TO BE CONTINUED…
[NEXT: Chapter 5 – 192 – 247 (end)]

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