My chopsticks poked at the food in front of me. I wasn’t in the mood to eat breakfast so instead, I morphed into a taller version of Hana-san.
“Eat up, Madoka.”
The friction between me and mom lingered at the table. I would occasionally gaze at her and she’d look at me with that relaxed smile. As if I’m the only one who found this situation suffocating.
Mari-san didn’t have her normal morning high either. Her body slumped a bit…as if she’s been up all night. I never seen her so drained. Needless to say, this morning wasn’t as lively as the others.
“Be safe on the way to school!”
Mom cried out from the car like she always did…but I didn’t reply. My body just kept going without acknowledging her.
I spun around. Mom’s voice didn’t stop me though…Mari-san’s did. She pushed her head out of the window. Her eyes looked fatigued and it worried me a little.
“Be safe, okay?”
Mari-san’s tone was gentle, but she wasn’t as enthusiastic as usual.
The engine started as the fumes trickled passed my nose. Mom waved goodbye as they rode off, leaving me alone on the sidewalk.
“That wasn’t fair, Mari-san…”
Mari-san siding with mom made my frustration seep out. A lot of things have been coming out from my mouth without rhyme or reason lately.
As if a second person was inside of me, crying out to be heard. I’ve always had a habit of saying things without thinking it through…But this was different. Like when mom and Mari-san are…enjoying their time together. I can’t settle down and it’s tiring…these strange feelings flowing through me.
“…Get with it, Madoka.”
I scolded my odd behavior. Only then did I realized that I haven’t moved since Mom and Mari-san drove off. So, I began my journey alone.
My hand was empty as it swung in the wind. How I missed having Hana-san by me now. I wanted someone I could talk to. Someone who knew the family situation I was in. That little flower who’d listen to me and give me the attention I…craved.
“…I need to stop acting like a kid.”
There was a lingering piece of me from the past. The spoiled brat that would make problems for mom, dad, and Mae-chan. The part of me that wanted everything while giving nothing. And I…hated that part of me.
I told myself last night that I wasn’t a kid. And I’m technically not anymore. But I’m not an adult either. I’m supposed to be in that fine line where I make my own choices while still being guided by my parents.
Annoyed, a groan escaped again.
“I’m…a high school girl.”
But then these feelings always come back. These strange, selfish feelings. They’re so childlike…and I want to grow out of them. But it’s hard. Even if I’m mad at mom, I’m still craving for her to tell me everything.
“I…want to change.”
I needed to make up my mind. Show my mom that I’m not a kid who couldn’t take what happened to her in the past, whatever that might be. I want to move forward from my coma. I hate always looking back and being reminded that I lost those years of my life. But I also don’t want to hide from that either…
“I need to change…”
Finally, my feet began moving again. Like Mae-chan who is slowly trying to put her life together, I need to follow her example and…grow up. I need to show mom how much I’ve grown. That I’m not the same kid I was…before my coma.
The train screeched into the station breaking my thoughts.
“Ah! Oh no!”
If I didn’t run, I’d miss it so, I rushed off and luckily hit the gate before it pulled away. When I stepped on the train, I looked around, but Mihara-san was nowhere to be seen.
“Is she out sick today?”
I thought briefly, but then I recalled what she said the other afternoon.
“That’s right, she said she had to be at school for the upcoming festival. So, I’ll have to wait until lunch to ask her about her visits.”
My mind swirled now that I was certainly alone. I can’t say it was unpleasant, but I can’t say it was pleasant either. The train pulled me along in its inertia and there was nothing I could do about it. I found myself dragging along like a zombie to school.
From behind, a certain, busty, intern approached me. Walking alongside her now, I bowed slightly.
“Oh, hello Taylor-sensei.”
“Are you alright? You look a bit down.”
Was it showing on my face? This…conflict that was swirling in my chest?
“Oh, no. I’m fine, Taylor-sensei.”
“Hm…remember, you can always talk with me if you have troubles.”
That’s right. Taylor-sensei said the same thing the other day. I almost wanted to say something, but I held my tongue. We strolled through the halls in silence now, contrasting the bustling of the students around us. Decorations of the festival sprawled out around the school flooding the walls with unique colors. Greens, blues, yellows, and all kinds of unmatching displays.
“It’s something, Cultural Day.”
Taylor-sensei observed. My guess was to break the strange mood between us now.
“This will be my first time seeing Japanese Festivals.”
“Yep! I was hoping I’d enjoy it with Sophia.
The whitecoat’s shoulders drooped as she clenched her clipboard.
“But…Sophia’s not too pleased with me coming here…”
I adjusted my scarf as I veered to her.
“Why is that?”
Sensei snickered and gave me a wink.
“If we chat someday, maybe I’ll tell you my secrets too? I mean, you already caught me yesterday. We can be partners in some way, Nakagawa-san!”
She skillfully swung back to that. Taylor-sensei wasn’t as airheaded as I might have thought. No, she’s observant to a level that’s beyond me. She…was telling me that she’s worried about me even though we only met briefly yesterday. I couldn’t help but smile.
I coughed, clearing the look on my face. There was a shell I built up at some point in time. Likely around the time, I lost my father. One that wouldn’t let others in so easily. Like when Conway-san asked me about my family problems.
“Well, I have to take this turn. I’ll see you around, Nakagawa-san.”
“Oh, sure Taylor-sensei.”
Her perfect figure faded into the nurse's office. She could turn the heads of any guy with how she kept herself. She was…quite mature. Something I in a way hoped to become someday. Not this…spoiled kid from the past anymore.
The day went on. Conway, not to my surprise, wasn’t in class. She never skipped this regularly so I could only connect that it had something to do with Taylor-sensei. As I took my notes, the classes went by sluggishly. It felt like a lifetime passed before the bell rang, bringing about the lunch period. So, I grabbed my premade lunch and rushed to the spot Mihara-san suggested.
Near the top of the school were a couple of steps that led to the roof. It is closed off to students, so nobody comes up here. A perfect landing to relax in solitude. As I went up the hard steps, I heard a cute noise. A deep sigh coming from a small mouth.
Startled, the ghost dropped her food on her lap. Luckily, it didn’t spill.
“Sorry to scare you, Mihara-san.”
Her soft voice etched in my ear. This afternoon greeting was starting to become natural and didn’t feel as forced as it had the other previous day.
I took a seat on the wall next to her. We didn’t say a word as we both revealed our box lunches. As we rustled with our meals, I closed my eyes, wondering how I’ll approach the subject. Then I thought back on how Mae-chan just blurted out what she wanted to say to Conway-san. Maybe that method would work?
No, it’s a bit strange if I just say, “Hey, I heard you visited me plenty of times while I was in my coma.” It just isn’t natural…but then again…what’s natural about a coma?
“Are you tired, Nakagawa-san?”
“You’re closing your eyes. Did… you get enough sleep last night?”
“Oh…that’s not it! I’m fine.”
I waved off her concern. Well, fine wasn’t the truth at all though...
“If…there’s something wrong…you…”
I turned to see a shaky Mihara-san. Her fingers trembled to the point that she had to set her chopsticks down.
“Y-You…can talk to…me about it.”
Her concern turned into action. Mihara-san was shy, but she has a way to push herself through and get her mind out in the open. I’m even envying her too. Why can everyone around me convey their feelings so clearly? Why is everyone around me so…mature?
My neck craned to the floor. I wanted to grow and be able to speak my mind like her and Hana. So, I turned to her.
“Did you visit me while I was in the hospital?”
Her mouth opened and closed before opening again. She lowered her sticks and her eyes escaped to the side, veering away from me. With a huff, she admitted it with a nod.
Her face went a tad pink.
“I see…thanks for coming to see me then, Mihara-san.”
“Y-You don’t have to thank me. Plenty of people visited you. I was…just one of them.”
Plenty of people? I take it she was talking about previous friends and such.
“Mihara-san…do you know why I stopped coming to school?”
Mihara shook her head, still looking at the floor.
“No. Ah…you were just fine one day then the next you…just stopped coming...”
I guess that would make sense. Mom did say it was a “family matter” to Mae-chan. If she wouldn’t even tell my best friend…I doubt she’d mention it to a basketball teammate who visited me occasionally. Dejected, I angled my head down to my bento.
“But I do remember…that you started leaving practice earlier than usual. Normally you would stay late…well after the rest of us left.”
“Is that right, Mihara-san?”
Mihara nodded, her long white hair tattered across her face.
“I would see you working hard at the gymnasium. That’s why you were so talented. You…pushed yourself hard. I…admired that about…you.”
Her lips hid under her scarf again.
“Before you stopped showing up you started leaving the same time as everyone else…I just figured you had…other obligations, Nakagawa-san.”
“Other obligations outside of my scholarship?”
So, I had been doing other things besides working for my scholarship? That reminded me of what I would talk about with Mari-san. This sparked an idea in my head.
I might not be able to figure out what made me stop coming to school, but I could figure out more about a certain…someone. So, I took out my phone. The screen lit up as I held it out to the apparition beside me.
“Have you met this person? The one with the black hair?”
On the screen was the photo of Mom and Mari-san. The picture I showed Mae-chan when I first woke up. One of the three that I had still uploaded on my phone. I pointed to the black-haired troublemaker.
“So, you do know Mari-san?”
She pushed her neck in her scarf deeper and nodded softly.
“I don’t know her personally but she…was always at the hospital when I showed up.”
“Is that right?”
“Did you two talk about anything?”
Mihara-san looked out the window next to us then turned back to me.
She then took a deep breath and spoke.
“When she was there…it was like she was your guardian or something. It made it a little hard to speak with you, Nakagawa-san.”
“What do you mean?”
The ghost looked at me and touched my hand suddenly. She then nibbled at my fingers with hers. I wasn’t expecting this, so I pulled away slightly. Only then did I notice that I probably did something wrong.
“N-No, I didn’t mean to…touch you like that…”
Mihara-san rubbed her hands together.
“What I wanted to say was…She would…always hold your hand…like keeping you to herself.”
My chest fluttered. I could feel my body tense up. The picture on Mari-san’s phone came to mind.
“That person didn’t seem to like me, Nakagawa-san…As I sat there, she wouldn’t leave the room or…give me a moment alone with you…”
Mihara-san eyes glared at the floor as she recalled the past.
“She would just sit in the seat next to you while doing other things like looking on her phone or reading the paper, watching tv, and other stuff. “
“But she wouldn’t…let go of your hand, Nakagawa-san…”
She went silent for a moment then finally spoke up.
“Eventually I…stopped coming because of her. I don’t think she’s a…very nice person…hogging you like that…”
“Mari-san did this?”
She nodded softly then looked back at me.
“…I remember this time when I brought in a bunch of flowers one day she was there. There were already plenty of other flowers from friends and family around you “
Mihara-san’s fingers danced around the side of her lunch as she continued.
“But then the next day I came…they were gone…My flowers were the only ones…missing. I… couldn’t gather up the courage to ask her about it though.”
She then angled her head down.
“She just smiled at me when I came. She didn’t say a word to me, but something told me…”
Mihara-san pushed her neck down deeper into her scarf.
“I could…only imagine that it was her that took them away when I left. She…didn’t like me…giving you flowers…”
I looked at the wall across the small room as if trying to gather the pieces to her tale.
“S-Sorry Mihara-san, I don’t understand…Why do you think Mari-san would do something like that?”
That seemed out of character from the Mari-san I knew. To be honest, would she even care if someone brought flowers in the first place? She seems like the type to just say, “My, my how lovely.” Then go about watching TV and lazing around the hospital room. Occasionally ordering herself some food or whatnot.
But as my delusions went on, I realized that was mean-spirited and cut myself off. Mihara-san shook her head in protest. Her hair waved back and forth.
“No…I understood what she meant by it.”
Her eyes shot to the window again as if being beckoned by the winter light.
“She wanted me to know who you…belonged to…Nakagawa-san”
Mihara-san’s lips hid underneath her scarf.
My mouth opened faintly. I wanted to grasp her words, but they filtered away before I could make sense of them.
“What…do you mean by that, Mihara-san?”
She shook her head gently this time. Her mouth opened but no words escaped.
Is she saying that Mari-san was being…protective of me while I was in my coma or something? No…Mari-san held my hand with that look on her face. It was something more than being…protective of me, wasn’t it?
This is so confusing. Why is she so difficult to understand? I found myself rubbing my temple now.
From Mihara-san’s experience, Mari-san would constantly watch over me. I know from Hana-san that she would talk with her daughter about me to the point that Hana-san held me in high regard. She then acted all flirty with me when I finally woke up. But after we had our chat…now she’s…paying me little attention like it never happened?
I kicked my feet in frustration. Why can’t I figure her out?! Why is she such a mystery?!
Mihara-san spoke gently causing me to relax. I could hear a slight tremble in her voice.
“So, I decided to… leave you alone. Even though…that hurt…”
Her voice turned to a sincere whisper. I could barely make out her last sentence.
“I’m…sorry for not coming more often Nakagawa-san. Could you please forgive me?”
The corner of her eyes started welling up. Maybe I breached something I shouldn’t have? I’ve concluded that there are topics about my coma that will make others feel uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to make my new friend cry.
“Oh, don’t worry. Here, Mihara-san. Take a bite of this!”
“Aren’t we sharing lunch? That’s what you said you wanted to do, right?”
A quick way to change the topic.
“We’re friends, aren’t we?”
Her eyes lit up as she pulled back. I couldn’t see her lips, but I could see her cheeks grow red.
“Oh, was it too early for me to think that?”
She shook her head, vigorously.
“N-No not at all! I…I’m happy to be called your friend.”
“Good. That makes me feel better.”
I couldn’t find out much about the incident before my coma. But I found out more about…Mari-san.
It seems that Mari-san would stay beside me for a long time. Even hold my hand as I slept. Nothing is normal about how she treated me when I was in my coma. Nothing is normal about the way she treated me after I woke up. I needed to confront her and find out what’s going through her mind.
With a groan, I leaned my head back.
Out of everyone I knew…Mihara-san had been truly honest with me so far. Even Mae-chan was hiding things from me. But Mihara-san doesn’t seem to be hiding anything. No, she’s like an open book…and it’s refreshing.
“Thank you, Mihara-san.”
I had to express what I was thinking, be honest to honest people.
“Thank you for being honest with me.”
Her eyes gazed down at her meal. With a slight chuckle, she turned back to me.
I wasn’t expecting that response, so I turned back to her only to see that her face was crimson now. Her teeth nibbled at the bottom of her lips as she peered at me from the side.
“Have you…ever loved someone?”
My mouth opened as I thought about her question. This came out of nowhere and I was unsure where her mind went from one place to the other. But then I closed my eyes and thought about it hard. It seemed at some point in my gap of memory I had a sort of attraction to someone…
“I don’t know…”
I was honest.
“I can’t remember being attracted to anyone in that way in middle school.”
I danced around my box lunch with my chopsticks. I wasn’t hungry anymore. Too much was speeding around my head to focus on the mediocre meal.
“Boys’ kind of scared me when I was growing up. The only boy I could get along with was my dad.”
I chuckled, remembering his childish antics.
“He was an immature man but always played with me. Even when I got a bit older, he would treat me like I was five.
I giggled now.
“There were such good qualities to him. He was playful and would tease me at times…He reminded me of…”
I stopped myself before her name could assault my mind again.
“I guess that doesn’t answer your question though, does it Mihara-san?”
She nodded and turned back to her food. So, I swung the question back on her.
“What about you? I can’t be the only one to be questioned.”
She stared at me like I grew six heads.
“I… wasn’t too fond of anyone in middle school. All the boys were too energetic for me. They were nice…but I couldn’t keep up.”
She giggled softly.
“And…I was so close to my grandma that I…closed myself off when she passed away.”
Mihara-san then did something I wasn’t expecting. She touched my fingers again. This caused my face to warm up.
Her eyes glanced at me then sped away as she balled her fist. My body grew warm for a moment and I could tell she felt uncomfortable, so I spoke up.
“You don’t have to say anything. I’m just teasing you, Mihara-san.”
Her mouth opened, harshly.
“S-Sorry! I didn’t mean it.”
Mihara-san silently pouted so, I stuck out a bit of my food towards her.
“Are we friends again?”
Not as though we suddenly became mortal enemies to my knowledge. Mihara-san’s face perked up as her lips parted and bit into my food.
“…Yeah, we are.”
It was like feeding a puppy just like Mari-san said. She was adamant about me being friends with Mihara-san. I still can’t for the life of me figure out why she had to make that a point.
I giggled now.
“Oh…it’s nothing Mihara-san.”
I can’t lie, this time with her was relaxing. If anything, I do want to know more about Mihara-san though. After our lunch, the remainder of the day wasn’t anything to note.
Before I knew it, the twilight sky peered in as I rode back home on the train.
With Mihara-san staying late I would be alone until Hana came back. My phone chimed my favorite STARS song, causing me to shake. It was Hana-san. I looked at it and seen a picture attached to it.
[“Title: Meet my best friend.”]
A picture of a fiery-haired girl came into view. She was holding Hana-san from behind. Seemed they both were muddy but were having a great time. The attached name on the bottom was “Sora-chan.”
My lips curled. So, this is the “Sora” that likes the fluffy? That’s cute. Maybe one day I’ll meet her. She seems like a good friend.
I reply: [“I hope to meet her one day!”]
Suddenly I get another text. I expect it’s from Hana, so I open it.
On the contrary, it’s Mihara-san. I open the attachment and what I found was a beautiful painting. It was a flower with cream pink petals. It was simple but detailed. It wasn’t a Picasso, but it wasn’t an amateur’s work either. I didn’t know the name of the flower, but it was pretty. On the bottom of the attachment it wrote:
My chest felt warm. Did she draw this for me? That’s what this message implied, right? But then I thought about the story she told me from the hospital when I was in my coma. Was this her way of…giving me those flowers again? I curled my lips and replied:
[“Thanks, it’s very pretty Mihara-san.”]
An emote came soon after. One with a cat that smiled with cute flowers around it. It was a bit of a western toon kind and complimented Mihara-san. Her honesty is one that can’t be mirrored.
I clicked on the flower and set it as my new phone’s background so, when I turn it on, the flower will bloom. I’ll have to give Mihara-san a return gift someday. Even though the winter was in full motion, my cheeks grew warmer as I entered my home.
I wasn’t expecting anyone to be home because the car wasn’t here, but Mari-san’s voice streamed into the room.
There she was lying on the couch in her lazy red sweater. Her body was slumped on the armrest and a strange karate movie was on. The African American actor reminded me of a famous man from the west. I wasn’t sure of his name, however.
As I set my bag down, I questioned.
“Ryuji’s girlfriend asked her to stop by after work. She wanted to try on some dresses or something. So, she dropped me off and here I am…”
With a yawn, she continued watching the movie. She seemed exhausted and I couldn’t put my finger on what was making her so tired. But one thing I did realize…Mari-san watches a lot of TV…
“So, it’s just us, huh?”
“Looks like it...”
I’m not sure why I said that. Growing conscious of the last time we were home together Mari-san…teased me with that stupid lemon scent I gave her from the arcade. But since that chat we had, she’s certainly been acting like an adult.
“Hm, do you want something Madoka-san?”
She didn’t move or even turn to me. Why did it feel as though I was bothering her? My chest clenched a bit at her response. I’m happy she’s been acting proper but…I don’t know. It feels as though…We’re still on two different sides of an ocean…
“Oh…it’s nothing. Just a little tired from school.”
“Head to your room and I’ll fix you something to snack on. Are you okay with not having a big dinner tonight?”
“Oh, that’s just fine.”
With that, I began walking to my room. I don’t know why but…I felt as though I wanted her to offer me to at least watch that strange movie with her…or something.
I blurted out her name from the steps. That habit is getting me into trouble…
“What’s up, Madoka-san?”
I’m not sure why I called her out and didn’t know what to even say. It’s like I just wanted her to…turn to me at least...or something…
“I’ll make us some curry. So, go settle down, Madoka-san. Make sure you call your mom and tell her you made it home safe.”
As my body moved up the steps, I found my eyes veering down to her. She didn’t move from the couch, no she just sat there like a stone. I would have at least liked for her to ask how my day was…Even though at that time she was acting like a weirdo I can’t deny that I, in some way, relished that attention in hindsight…
A groan pushed out. It’s even I wanted Mari-san to bother me all the time or respect my distance…like I asked. I scratched my head as I opened my door.
“What am I going on about…?”
There I lied on my bed, tired from the day. So, I lifted my phone to see the name Mom on my call list. I wasn’t particularly fond of having to call her right now. I didn’t learn much of anything about the incident before my coma either…
“I’m sure Mari-san talked with mom a lot last night…about my incident…”
I shook off my irritation. I don’t know why but the way Mari-san just brushed me off earlier was getting under my skin. But she’s was behaving just how I asked her to. I can’t have it both ways. Not like I would want it another way, right?
Reluctantly, I clicked the name and stood up as the phone started buzzing.
“Madoka? Did you get home safe?”
“Yeah… I’m in my room now.”
“Oh, I’m so glad to hear. Are you and Mari going to make dinner?”
“Mari-san said she’ll cook us up something. So, I’m going to finish my homework and relax since she has it tonight.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“Is everything alright? You sound upset…”
Leave it to my mom to catch me off guard.
“N-No, I’m just tired.”
For a moment she paused. I could hear her breathe in sharply before her voice came back in.
“Madoka…I know you’re upset with me but I’m only doing this to protect you…”
“One day we’ll talk about it. I promise Madoka, so please don’t give Mari-san a hard time.”
I was slightly annoyed by her last sentence. Like I was causing Mari-san problems….
But then like a whirlpool the idea came flooding into my mind. That’s right, Mari-san said in the past that we use to talk with each other about various things. Wouldn’t this time be comparable to when mom was out, and Mari-san would talk with me? If I make her open up to me like in the past…
“I’ll be home late tonight so once you’re done eating clean up and get to bed early.”
Mom’s voice didn’t register to me at first. So, I gave her a haphazard reply.
“Oh, and Hana called me earlier. She’s enjoying her time in the mountains. Make sure to at least text her.”
Hana and I have been exchanging messages all day. She didn’t have to remind me…
“Okay, see you later Madoka...”
With that, mom hung up the phone leaving me on the empty end of it. I got undressed and decided to wear my light blue casual gown. Now with my comfortable attire, I breezed through the work for the night. After finishing up my homework, I heard the humble voice of the chef call out to me.
“Madoka-san, foods ready!”
I made my way downstairs and met her at the table. There lied chicken curry with veggies and rice. She grinned as we both sat across from each other. Mari-san didn’t say a word, she just enjoyed the food while looking at the newspaper from the side. But then the fox yawned again making it apparent that she hadn’t had enough sleep.
“Are you sleepy, Mari-san?”
“Oh…sorry…I just had…a lot on my mind recently.”
She sipped away at her tea. This was a new side to Mari-san that I wasn’t sure how to approach.
“How was your day, Mari-san?”
“Pretty good. I got all my work turned in, so the boss gave me a far easier assignment. I just slacked off most of the day afterwards.”
“That doesn’t sound good for an office worker to say.”
“Hey, you’ll learn that you take small victories when you get them, Madoka-san!”
Mari-san pointed her chopsticks my way with a beam before turning back to the paper. It seemed that there was something more interesting than our conversation in there…
With a sigh, I stopped myself. Lately, I’ve been sounding a bit spoiled. I need to keep that side of me in check. Mari-san hasn’t done anything to me so there’s no reason why I should be thinking this way about her.
Mari-san’s food was remarkable, but the silence was deafening between us. I wanted to bring up my incident…so I circumvented and started with something lighter…
“I…made friends with Mihara-san, Mari-san.”
Mari-san looked up at me, surprised but then her smile returned…but it didn’t feel genuine.
“She even made me this.”
I showed her the picture on my phone.
“Oh, she drew you...carnations?”
Mari-san’s smile didn’t react well with her voice. That’s when I could tell that she was forcing herself. But I couldn’t for the life of me tell why…
“…How do you know Mihara-san again?”
“It’s like I said yesterday, you told me about her. About her losing her grandmother and how you were supporting her.”
Mari-san then continued reading the paper.
“Yeah, she told me about it. It was around the time I lost my dad so I’m sure we could have connected because of that...”
With a groan, Mari-san replied.
“Yeah, that’s what I figured. It’s sad to think that though, Madoka-san...”
This conversation about Mihara-san wasn’t going anywhere. It seemed Mari-san wasn’t interested in her. As if the very mention of Mihara-san was causing her…discomfort. So, I gathered up the courage after taking a bite of my food. We were alone, I wanted to…open up to her.
“Hey, Mari-san…about my trauma...”
For the first time in the chat, she put her paper to the side, giving me all the attention.
“It’s just us…so, can we talk?”
The fox closed her eyes.
“Why are you and mom withholding things from me?”
Mari-san rubbed her fingers together.
“It’s because you suffered a trauma and it made you afraid to leave the house. Ayumi decided it’ll be best for you not to remember it…and I agreed.”
“So, you’ll agree with mom over me…?”
That outburst even surprised me. I was sick of hearing her always put mom first, so I lashed out as if something inside me was protesting. This left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth.
“I’m not a kid Mari-san…”
Mari-san shook her head causing her soft hair to wash over her face.
“…No, you are a kid, Madoka-san…”
I was taken aback by her candor.
“You have the rest of your life to sort that out but right now you are just a kid who should be enjoying her youth.”
The room felt unusually heavy. This atmosphere was different than when we watched that drama together. But the outcome was still the same… I wanted to escape from the table. Mari-san’s tone was gentle but very systematic like she was answering to an irate customer. We gazed at one another now however, her presence was dominating. I found my eyes backing down from her.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you again Madoka-san.”
She beamed at me, but the tone of her voice didn’t mirror her look. There were so many contradictions to Mari-san…that I couldn’t understand.
“…Ayumi and I just want you to be happy, Madoka-san. So please, don’t be upset with us.”
With that, she stood up and put her plate in the sink. She then walked around the table attempting to exit, leaving me with my lingering questions. My body moved on its own as I reached out to her and took her soft hands. I didn’t know what I wanted to say. When I saw the surprised look on her face…it came out.
“Why did you hold my hand in the hospital?!”
I couldn’t stop thinking about that picture on her phone. The one with the daydreamer’s gaze. Then back to Mihara-san’s story about her holding my hand while I slept. How she…wouldn’t let me go.
“Why did you hold my hand while I was in my coma? Mihara-san told me all about it… That isn’t normal, Mari-san!”
“You said we were so close. So, why can’t we go back to the way we were?
I lashed out like the child they kept calling me. Before I knew it, tears laid around my cheeks. I hated the way she treated me now. I couldn’t stand how distant she was being to me. So, I pouted like the kid I was. If that’s how she saw me then I’ll beg like the spoiled child I am.
“Why do you keep pushing me away?”
As I understood my past more…she was so much closer to me. I couldn’t understand anything anymore and I wanted answers. I could feel her tugging away, but I stayed firm and took to my feet, pushing my body closer to hers.
“What changed between us, Mari-san?”
“It’s like you…hate me now, Mari-san.”
Our eyes met, only then, in the dining room’s light, did I realize that Mari-san…was crying. All my anger subsided as it washed away to guilt.
Her calm manners shattered, face flushed and, her expression didn’t seem toned anymore. Our noses nearly touched as our eyes held each other. I could see her long lashes flicker as she blinked her moist eyes. Her lips were pinker than… Mihara-san’s. That lemon scent raised in my nose causing my heart to slam against my chest.
Nothing is normal about me…when I’m around Mari-san. I let go of her hands but to my surprise, she pulled me in, wrapping her arms around me. Her soft cheeks rested on my shoulder.
“I could never hate you, Madoka-san!”
Her thin fingers caressed my back.
“You’re special to me... so special to me.”
She rested her head on my shoulder, I couldn’t see her face. I didn’t understand what this situation was. This warmth fluttered in my chest to the point I couldn’t breathe. She held me tight, but I still wanted to be closer to her for some reason. This wasn’t the first time I felt this way either. No, that was apparent. This feeling between us was too familiar.
“…Then why can’t you be honest with me, Mari-san?”
She stayed there, holding me in her arms.
“You’re right…I should be honest with you.”
She relaxed her grip.
“Madoka-san, I have something to tell you...”
Without another word, she touched my fingers and led me to the couch. How this felt so natural to be guided by her now. She sat down and coursed me to do the same. For a minute we sat there without a word to each other. Then suddenly, her head rested on my shoulder. As if all her energy died in an instant. It didn’t feel the same as when Mae-chan did this the other day. No, this was different. But then she did something else I wasn’t expecting…
…Held my hand.
Entwined her fingers with mine…
“After our chat at the park, I’ve been trying my best to respect you. To be a mother…but it’s hard, Madoka-san.”
Mari sighed. Her hands were warm…almost hot and it worried me a little.
“It’s true…I held your hand just like this while you slept those years away…”
I could feel the blood rise to my cheeks. This was a new side to Mari-san. An honest side.
Her voice was soft now, like the time we watched that drama together. She whispered like there was someone else in the home.
“…Because it was my fault.”
Her lips pursed as she continued.
“I… shouldn’t have taken you to that amusement park that day…”
Her voice trembled. I wasn’t sure I heard her right but then she continued before I could open my mouth.
“…Then you wouldn’t have gotten hurt, Madoka-san.”
Only then did it register to me that Mari-san was…confessing to having a part in my coma.
“After the paramedics rushed you to the hospital…you wouldn’t wake up…”
Her body slumped deeper into my shoulder…
“I felt terrible as I watched you sleep your life away...and when you finally woke up…you forgot all about…me...”
Her tears continued to fall to no end.
“I… was too scared to tell you…because I didn’t want you to hate me…Madoka-san. So, I begged Ayumi to keep it from you…”
She took a deep breath…
Her words began to blur together now.
“…I’m sorry, Madoka-san...I’m…sorry. So, please…don’t hate me...”
She cried before she grew silent.
I turned to see her slumping over. Mari-san had been low on energy all day and with all this, it must have finally got to her and she fell asleep. So, I lied her on my lap…and brushed her soft dark hair. Her body felt hot but… couldn’t help but want to stay here.
From what it sounded like…The day I took the photo of the amusement park I was with Mari-san. Something happened and I got hurt while we were together. That would make sense…why she would stay by my side at the hospital. And why she would talk to Hana so much about…me.
I caressed her hair as tears kept falling from my eyes.
“So, did you feel guilty for being there, Mari-san? Is that why you stayed beside me?”
Feelings bled through me now. I felt warm and restless but shallow and cold. As I pet her hair it felt nostalgic but also distressing. Like there will always be a gap between us. I wanted to shake Mari-san awake and tell her to explain these feelings I have…when I’m around her.
“…You should get to bed, Mari-san”
I concluded before holding onto her and guiding her to her room. As I lied her down, mom’s scent captured my nose. Little thorns assaulted my body now. Mom’s scent…shouldn’t mingle with that fresh lemon’s…
Before I knew it, I was shaking my head, trying my best to brush that new side of me away. This ill-spirited child that’s been clashing when it came to Mom and Mari-san.
“Hm…I’m going to check your temperature, Mari-san.”
I made my way into the bathroom and found the first-aid kit in search of a thermometer. Once I found it, I raced back and met the sight of Mari-san huddling to the side. I’ve never seen her in such a vulnerable state. She was…cute this way. So, I kneeled by her and placed it in her mouth, revealing a temperature of 38C.
“Great, you have a fever.”
“I better not get sick because of you…”
Teasing her even though she’s unconscious. How low could I go? So, I got her a cold towel and lifted her.
“You’re running a fever. So, I’m going to have to put you in something lighter, okay?”
“Hm…I figured I was getting sick...”
“Hey…I cooked dinner.”
“I’m trying not to think about that, Mari-san...”
I unzipped her sweater revealing her lush back. It’s pure white skin mirroring that of a porcelain doll. Nothing like the fake smile she portrays. No, this was beautiful. I lifted her sweater from behind. Now I could see her exposed back as her sweat gracefully trickled down her. Glistening from the faint light in the room she could only be compared to a work of art.
Heat resonated from my cheeks as I stole glances of her figure.
“...W-What are step-daughter’s for?”
I tried to pass off my nerves but she didn’t reply, her head just angled to the bed. So, I handed her a shirt that should give her better airflow. But she spun it around in her hands and looked at it like it was a foreign object. Only then did It come to me that she might still be a little disoriented.
“Here, I’ll help, Mari-san...”
Doing my best not to look at her breast, I put the shirt over her head. Gently, I folded it over her slim shoulders. This wasn’t like when I was in the bath with Hana-san. No…this certainly was more intimate than that.
Now she lied back in bed and turned to me. So, I put a cold towel over her forehead and brushed her soft black bangs back. She lied there, staring into my eyes. I wanted to look away but her lush gems drew me in. When I pulled it away she spoke...
“…This reminds me of when we first met.”
“Oh, what happened?”
Mari-san gave me a dreary smile.
“I brought your mother in after a night of drinking. I was sober but…stressed out because of work.”
Mari-san touched my fingers. But it wasn’t like when Mihara-san did it. I didn’t pull away…no, I drew closer.
“I could barely move so you…took my temperature and found out I was running a fever. You…helped me into different clothing and…even called Hana-san’s babysitter and told her I’ll be late.”
Mari-san’s smile faded as she gazed into my eyes.
“You’re so mature…so reliable…so thoughtful.”
She then took my hand and brushed it against her warm cheeks.
“…You’re so special to me, Madoka.”
My body was so warm…no it was blazing hot now. If I took my temperature, I felt that I would be running a higher Celsius then Mari-san. I pet her hair as feelings of pain surged in my chest. A slight giggle escaped from my mouth despite how painful my body felt.
“We were closer back then and I think it took me until now to understand why…Mari-san.”
I bit my lip at what I was exploring in my head. I dove deeper in my soul and connected with that girl who’d been fighting to get out recently. The one I wanted to push away but now…needed to come out of her cage. Countless times I told myself that I never thought of another woman like that…but here I am, coming to the only logical conclusion to all my feelings. All the bitterness blooming from that mysterious girl within me.
Mari-san… used to be special to me too… didn’t she?
As I held her hand, she closed her eyes. That was the moment it all came to me. So, I reached for my phone and called a certain someone…
“Madoka, is everything alright? I’m on my way home soon…”
“Everything’s fine. But Mari-san…came down with a fever so I’m watching over her…until you get home.”
“Oh my… She did sound a bit out of it today. She barely slept last night too.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes. She was tossing and turning. Mari-san does seem to get sick…when she’s stressing about things.
“Well, I’ll be home soon to take your place. So, please take good care of her until then, Madoka.”
Mom hung up the phone…leaving me on the blank in…alone.
That’s when those awful tears started flowing down my cheeks again. It was obvious why I was crying the previous night now. Why I’ve wanted attention from her. Why she was always at the top of my mind and how I hated not understanding her. Now everything made sense…and I hated it.
“I think…I forgot something very important Mari-san…”
I hovered my lips over her ear.
“I forgot that I loved you, didn’t I?”
I leaned back and watched her idle away in that dreamy state. That girl within me wanted to lie next to her…hold her from behind but she couldn’t. I wouldn’t let her.
Soon mom will come and take my place, and everything will be right…
Because they’re perfect together…
And nothing I do will change that fact…
When I walked into the home, I passed the kitchen. Seems Madoka and Mari left the food out. I wasn’t planning to scold either of them, knowing the situation now. Once I pushed my room door open, a sight that reminded me of a certain day. Madoka sat there, holding Mari’s hand. It brought me back to that day in the hospital where Mari did the same to her. This…brightened up my day a little.
I called out to her who seemed to have fallen asleep, at her side.
When she came to, her eyes were cloudy. The poor thing must have overworked herself taking care of her stepmom. So, I rushed over and tapped her shoulder.
“You can go to bed now. I’ll watch over her, Madoka.”
She just stared at me blankly for a moment before nodding softly. When she raised to her feet, she tattered across the room without looking back.
I called out but she didn’t reply. Of course, she must still be upset with me for not telling her about…her trauma. With a sigh of my own, I bent down and pet Mari’s soft hair. This always made me feel safe like nothing could hurt me when I was with her.
Mari whispered before opening her eyes.
“Oh…welcome back, Ayumi.”
“What are you stressing about this time, Mari?”
She avoided my gaze. It was obvious to me that Mari is worrying about something. I’ve been with her long enough to know.
“It’s nothing, Ayumi...”
“Was it about Madoka?”
Her eyes perked up then gently fell.
“What was it about?”
Mari met my eyes this time.
“I just couldn’t stop thinking about how I was there…when she fell off that overpass and hit her head.”
I rubbed her head as she nuzzled closer to me.
“How it’s my fault…she went into her coma.”
A dry laugh escaped her mouth.
“But…I don’t remember what I told her…”
“I…just don’t want her to hate me...I don’t know what I’d do if Madoka-san…hated me for it.”
Her body was raised as she took a deep breath.
“Then Mihara-san…and her carnations…”
Shallow breathing met the cool room as Mari faded back into her dreams. I wasn’t sure why she brought up Madoka’s old basketball teammate though.
So, I shook it out of my mind and caressed her more.
“Didn’t I tell you that Madoka would forgive you, Mari…?”
I caressed her hair once again.
“Just like she’ll forgive me one day too.”
One day I’ll tell Madoka about her trauma. But right now, I want my daughter to enjoy her life…
…Not shackled by her mother's mistakes…
Volume 2 End