Chapter 1:

Ch.1 Two Years Later

Sleeping Princess

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I touched my face. It felt…fake. The mirror reflected who I was now. This caused the memory of who I used to be to skew as I questioned my looks. These features told my mind that this was me, but the small distortions and growths told me something else…My short brown hair is now longer, down to my back. My cheeks were slimmer than I remembered. Only my sapphire eyes reminded me of who I was. Bookmark here

“Is this...really…me?”Bookmark here

The nurse who held the mirror up gently pressed on my hand. As if to keep me from falling back into the endless abyss. I was visibly confused. There was no other way to interpret it. Bookmark here

“Nakagawa Ayumi, right this way ma’am.”Bookmark here

I heard a voice from the other side of the door. My neck turned rigidly, like rusted gears grinding together. The room door opened. A figure stood outside the doorway. It was a woman with eyes as bright as the new morning’s sun and a beam from ear to ear. Her movements were clumsy as she approached. Her long brown hair swayed back and forth like waves in the ocean. With tears flooding down her puffy cheeks, she stumbled into the room and fell at my bedside.Bookmark here

With a lift of her body, she held me tight, dragging me towards the floor. Her long brown hair mirrored the girls in the mirror moments ago. It took me a moment to process who she was.Bookmark here

“M-mom, is that you?”Bookmark here

Her horrid wails stabbed my chest, causing my body to tremble. It now came to my understanding that I was in a white room with cream curtains surrounding us. It was like waking from a dream, and my mind wasn’t fully aware yet. Slowly, I was piecing together everything. There I was, lying in the stiff hospital bed, unable to move my body from the neck down.Bookmark here

From what the doctors told me, I, Nakagawa Madoka, have been in a coma for around two years. Today, by some miracle, I have woken up. The woman who held me, Nakagawa Ayumi…my mother.Bookmark here

“Madoka! Madoka!”Bookmark here

Her tears eventually dried up, but the hiccups set in, threatening to rob her voice. Bookmark here

“I’m so happy you’ve come back.”Bookmark here

“What happened to me, mom?"Bookmark here

I do not remember how I fell into a coma. My memory was rigid as I tried to comprehend that what was happening was, in fact, reality. My head swirled, but I couldn’t lift my hands to stop it. It felt as though I had lapses of spinning in a whirlwind as my vision grew stale. My neck gave in and fell to the side, causing me to drift back from dream to reality. Like a jolt of energy had surged in my eyes, they popped open minutes later. Bookmark here

“Are you with us?”Bookmark here

The male nurse asked, blinding my eyes with his light.Bookmark here

“Yes, I’m awake…”Bookmark here

“Thank goodness.”Bookmark here

Again, I couldn’t comprehend everything around me. The medications may have played a part in my mind being hazy. I recalled hearing voices while I was asleep. They started loud, then sobered like whispers. The thought made me woozy. With dried lips, I begged. Bookmark here

“Mom, what happened to me?” Bookmark here

She gripped my back as if to never let me go again. I can’t remember if my question was answered right then because I closed my eyes and drifted back to sleep. I had little to no energy, and even speaking felt like a grueling task. The next thing I remembered is the doctor speaking to me. He held up a calendar, and sure enough, it said September 12th, 20XX.Bookmark here

If two years went by then…life went by too. My mom who sat at the foot of my bed explained to me that everyone was supportive of me when I fell into my coma. She did not go on to tell me, but I could already understand... My friends must have moved on with their lives. The mental image of me in a field formed. There I stood while people in front of me marched forwards with smiles on their faces. I did my best to move, but chains bounded me to the ground. Bookmark here

“I’m so happy that you’ve come back to me, Madoka.” Bookmark here

Breaking me from my delusion was the somber voice of my loving mother. Before I became aware, warm tears trickled down my cheeks. Too much was happening, and I couldn’t compartmentalize it all.Bookmark here

“Mom…I-I don’t remember much…”Bookmark here

Mom placed her hand on my head. The bliss of her touch soothes my heart. My mind wouldn’t settle down, but having a moment of peace with my mom helped my anxiety. It all felt surreal that so much time has gone by without me being a part of it. Bookmark here

“What do you remember, Madoka?”Bookmark here

I stared up to the ceiling trying to recall all that I could.Bookmark here

“I remember, you were working at the insurance agency…”Bookmark here

“Anything else?”Bookmark here

“…After that, I don’t remember much. Bits and pieces of you coming home late then everything gets hazy.”Bookmark here

To ease my anxiousness, mom started explaining what happened while I was asleep. She told me about how my friends graduated from middle school and how they are all in their second years of high school now. She explained that uncle got a new job at a big editorial company. So, he helped her get a position there. We used to be struggling to get by. But now she has the money to support us since father died a year ago…no... three years ago now.Bookmark here

But then her face turned dark as if a cloud had shadowed the sunny day.Bookmark here

“Madoka…I have something to tell you.” Bookmark here

She murmured.Bookmark here

“What’s wrong, mom?”Bookmark here

At first, she didn’t say a thing, as if some unknown entity was stealing her voice away. Instead, she adjusted the ring on her finger.Bookmark here

“…You’re with someone else?” Bookmark here

It didn’t take longer than a second to figure it out. My mother shifted the ring on her finger. All the hurt of losing my father wailed up in me like it happened yesterday. It may have been three years for my mom but for me… Bookmark here

“Yes Madoka, I…someone…at my company.” Bookmark here

Mom captured my arm in hers. Her voice shriveled up; lips pursed together.Bookmark here

“T-They helped pay for the medical bills. E-Even visited you every day with me when they could.”Bookmark here

Her attempts to resolve the growing problem became glaringly obvious to the point her sentences became muddied in her own desperation. Mom’s eyes darted from one side to another as if looking for an escape. Her fingers trembled, rubbing against my hospital gown.Bookmark here

“Mom…”Bookmark here

I tried to force a smile, one to comfort her, but I couldn’t. Bookmark here

“I-I was lonely with you gone, so soon after your father died. I didn’t know if you’d ever wake up either, and t-they supported me...Madoka.” Bookmark here

“I…see.” Bookmark here

With the shock still capturing me, I could not build up any other response. I fell silent even though I didn’t want to. My lips dried up and my throat shut tight. My mother is a strong woman. After my father died, she took the burden and prepared to pay for my schooling. She took on plenty of part-time jobs along with a full-time job at a small insurance business. Mom pushed herself hard…but even she yearns for companionship. So, it’s okay, right? Bookmark here

“I know it’s a lot to take in, Madoka...”Bookmark here

Mom begged, clawing at my shoulder. What kind of daughter would I be if I did not at least tell her that…It’s okay? I nodded, which was all I could do at the time.Bookmark here

“Yeah…I…understand mom.”Bookmark here

It came out stale, even though I tried my best. I could see the expression on her face darken. I must be a horrible daughter if I put a face like that on such a sweet woman. Bookmark here

“Y-You know what, we’ll talk about it another time, Madoka.”Bookmark here

She shifted her ring and cast down her eyes. It felt as though a weight had been pushed on my stomach. Unable to move, this weight would eventually crush the lower half of my body, mercilessly. I was more confused than angry if I had to tell the truth. I wanted to speak and tell her that I just didn’t understand, but she lifted her eyes. She spoke before I could…Bookmark here

“Madoka.”Bookmark here

“Y-Yes, mom?” Bookmark here

“There is someone else I’d like to introduce you to soon though...”Bookmark here

“Someone else?”Bookmark here

“I’ll explain later, okay?”Bookmark here

Mom’s face brightened up.Bookmark here

I didn’t want to upset her again. So, I did my best to smile. But that pain pounding at my chest wouldn’t go away. This anxious feeling of not knowing what happened in the time stolen from me was tormenting me. I’m sure there were things mom did while I was gone…that I couldn’t share with her.Bookmark here

Once my dad died, mom and I were inseparable. We wanted to share as much of our lives with each other as we could. I’m not sure if this goes for all who’ve lost a close loved one. I began thinking, “What if today was mom’s last day?” Meaning I wanted to make sure I had no regrets or secrets with her. I ignorantly believed she was the same.Bookmark here

"Madoka, why don't you go outside?"Bookmark here

After sessions of physical therapy for a few days, I was finally able to move the lower half of my body again. Mom prompted me to go outside for some fresh air when she saw me walking around my hospital room. So, to appease my mom's worries, I made my way to the botanical garden of the hospital. Bookmark here

Down the steps, near my hospice room, was the outside door. As I made my way outside, the air filled my lungs with a bliss freshness my body hasn’t experienced in so long. So, I took the offer of the flowers and walked outside. The pressure of the rock pathway shook my bones. The sensation I haven’t experienced in years rose in me all at once. In front of me stood a tall tree centered with flush flowers of all assortments. My legs were still weak as I ventured into the mystical sea of beauty. Bookmark here

“Wow.” Bookmark here

My breath escaped me. I’ve always loved flowers, and even when I was younger, I wanted to be a florist. Perhaps that’s why this sight of colors scattered about the garden took my breath away. I continued to journey through, but not long after, my legs began to quake. I guess I have been overexerting myself and needed to rest. Bookmark here

But instead of choosing the benches laid about, I went over to the large tree in the center of the garden. I had the overwhelming urge to touch it. Its roots raised high above me, reminding me that I was tiny compared. As I brushed the wood, a sensation jittered within me. "How long has it been since I touched a tree?" The thought made me nauseous, and my head began to grow foggy. Bookmark here

“A-are you okay?!”Bookmark here

I heard a young female’s voice, but I was too exhausted to turn around. My body faded into the grass as I leaned up against the tree. A warm touch embraced my shoulder as another felt my forehead.Bookmark here

“I-I can’t tell, but you might be running a fever.” Bookmark here

The anxiousness in her voice made my stomach turn, wailing up a slight sense of concern. With all my might, I turned in her direction. Bookmark here

“Don’t worry, I’m okay.” Bookmark here

With a forced smile, I looked at her. The girl who could be no older than eleven or twelve gazed back. Her long, lovely, dark hair wrapped around her back. She was like a flower that’s come to life. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say she belonged in this garden.Bookmark here

“Who are you?” Bookmark here

I muttered. Bookmark here

“Me? My name’s Koda Hana.”Bookmark here

My heart pulsed harder than ever. The name rang a bell deep in my chest. Not only was the name fitting for the person who owned it (Hana means flower) but who she was. There’s no way that this beautiful flower is…Bookmark here

“...My stepsister, Koda Hana?”Bookmark here

Fatigued, my mind went hazy. All I could remember was that I was being pushed along in a wheelchair before waking up in my cold bed. When I came to, mom had a blanket around her, asleep in a chair at the foot of my bed.Bookmark here

“Oh, are you awake?” Bookmark here

My eyes were blurry. I tried my best to recognize the voice, but I couldn’t. As if to answer my needs, I felt the touch of my glasses on my hand. After I put them on, I turned to the side to see the little girl from before. She was holding a bright blue and red game system in her hand with an earbud still in one ear. Bookmark here

“You fell asleep after I found you, so I asked the nurses to help me bring you back.” Bookmark here

Setting the game aside she made her way back to my bed.Bookmark here

“Ah!” Bookmark here

“Oh?”Bookmark here

I jolted. Not intending to, it seemed I startled Koda-san too. Bookmark here

“S-sorry, I didn’t mean to approach you so suddenly.”Bookmark here

Koda-san waved her hands up, backing away from the bed.Bookmark here

“Oh…no.” Bookmark here

“Hmm…Oh, Madoka you’re awake!” Bookmark here

Mom jerked out of her seat like a wrecking ball. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say she was a jack in the box, springing out from the side.Bookmark here

“Geez, mom, that startled the heck out of me!” Bookmark here

I squealed, earning the eyes of Koda-san. Not that I mind in the least.Bookmark here

“S-So sorry, honey!” Bookmark here

Koda-san tilted her head and pointed to the waking cub still rubbing her eyes.Bookmark here

“Ah…mom, you have drool on your cheek.” Bookmark here

“Ehhh?! Geez, Hana, tell me that sooner!” Bookmark here

Mom vigorously rubbed her arm against her face to the point that it looked painful. I felt a bit sorry for her before turning my attention back to the flower that piqued my interest.Bookmark here

“Mom?” Bookmark here

Koda-san glanced at me briefly before turning away. It didn’t occur to me, but…She was speaking to my mother when she said “mom.” …Right? Why was she calling my mom…mom? No, I already knew the answer to that, but it still pulled at my chest. Our time together alone had ended while I was away. I had to remember that…she wasn’t only my mother now, was she?Bookmark here

Mom approached us with a beaming smile.Bookmark here

“Hana, have you finally met your big sister?!” Bookmark here

We face one another. Our eyes meet, but I shy away and turn to the side. Bookmark here

“Yes, we’ve met.” Bookmark here

I nodded. My neck moved artificially like a machine mimicking human motions.Bookmark here

“I want you two to get along.”Bookmark here

“Yes, mom.” Bookmark here

Koda-san replied like an officer in the military. There was no sign of hesitation in her voice. That directness sent a shiver down my skin for some reason. This girl I’ve never met before is readily calling my mom…mom. The feeling is surreal if anything. And before I knew it… I'm an older sister? And my mother is with a man I haven’t met yet?Bookmark here

My head swirled as I tried to put two and two together. This is just a strange dream, right?Bookmark here

The nurse came in with a clipboard in hand a few minutes later. She explained to us that my rehabilitation is coming along nicely, but she’d still like me to do more tests before releasing me by tomorrow. My mom and our new plus one watched as I went through a series of exercises. It was kind of embarrassing when doing the sight test though. Bookmark here

My eyesight had always been bad, and today was no exception. I usually wear contacts, but I wasn’t allowed any aids, like my glasses, during the examination. Mom giggled from the side, knowing full well how horrendous my eyesight was.Bookmark here

After walking that path of shame, we signed papers, and by the next day, I came out in a wheelchair. Mom’s warming smile melted my heart as I approached them. The only thing I could want with my naïve heart was for her to be beside me. But the flower, the little girl that bloomed up while I was away, made me a tad bit bitter.Bookmark here

“This is the start of a new day.”Bookmark here

I told myself with a sigh. Whatever happened two years ago was in the past. I’ll move forward and try to make the best of this new life. My mom is with a new man, and Koda-san is my new little sister…Or whatever they want to call it.Bookmark here

“Soooo, tell me all about it!” Bookmark here

“There’s nothing to tell you about. I felt like I was in a long dream. That’s about it, Ma-chan.”Bookmark here

The one on the other line of the phone, Watanabe Mae. She is my best friend who is away on a family outing for now. I rolled over to my side and gazed upon a cheery idol poster that I remember all too well. It used to hang up on the left side of me and my mom’s room in our old home. But now I lie in my own room, my own bed.Bookmark here

“Geez, I wish I could just hold you right now! We cried all day and night when you wouldn’t wake up!””Bookmark here

“S…sorry.”Bookmark here

“Well, it wasn’t your fault.” Bookmark here

I pondered, staring at the fluorescent singer on the poster. Her bright pink frilly dress made me a little nostalgic. Mom bought this for me after we went to a show together. It was a little embarrassing being a 13-year-old girl at an idol consort with her mom.Bookmark here

“Hey Mae-chan, do you know what happened to me?”Bookmark here

“Hm? Your mom didn’t tell you?” Bookmark here

She hesitated for a moment as if falling back to that time. I could hear her breathing softly. Bookmark here

“To be honest, my family got the call from your mom that you were in an accident and that we should come to visit you.” Bookmark here

Mae took a sigh, likely becoming depressed from the reminisce.Bookmark here

“She said you hit the back of your head and paramedics rescued you. But that’s all she would go into.”Bookmark here

I looked up at the ceiling as if my mind were searching for the answers there. Reactively, I touched the back of my head. There wasn’t any sign of an injury that I could feel. But then again this did happen…years ago now. It likely healed up while I was asleep. With a nod, I continued.Bookmark here

“That’s the same story she told me…”Bookmark here

No matter how I tried to brush it off, it felt like Mom was not telling me everything. Despite how we used to always share everything with each other when dad died. She’s my mom and she wouldn’t intentionally hide things from me, would she? Bookmark here

"Hm...."Bookmark here

As I was collecting my thoughts, I could hear Mae prop her feet on the wall from the other side of the line. She had a bad habit of doing that. Mae used to do it in junior high and the boys would see her underwear all the time. Bookmark here

“Hey, are you still propping your feet on the wall after all this time?”Bookmark here

“Eh?! No! I swear, Mado-chan!”Bookmark here

I knew it…Does she still have that old habit? It’s a little refreshing knowing that one of my friends is still the same though.Bookmark here

“Well anyway, I still don’t know what happened around that time.”Bookmark here

“What’s your last memory?” Bookmark here

“Mmm…” Bookmark here

I did my best to search back, but all I could see was a blank. I could clearly remember my dad dying and me going to school a few weeks later. From there, I recalled mom coming home late at night. She used to work long hours and I would stay up late, studying until she made it back home safely. But then everything would get shaky going forward.Bookmark here

“Hmm, hey do you remember Nakagawa-san buying that new phone for your birthday?”Bookmark here

“My mom?” Bookmark here

My head angled towards the door as if she would be standing there. Bookmark here

“Nnn…no, I don’t remember that. Could it be the phone I’m using now?”Bookmark here

I searched the phone with extreme prejudice now. I wasn’t sure if this is the one or anything, but this might have been a clue to what happened.Bookmark here

Thinking like this put me in an off mood though. As if there were secrets that won’t be revealed unless I distrust mom’s words.Bookmark here

“Go check the pictures, Mado-chan!”Bookmark here

The devil egged me on, nudging me forward. Despite my reluctance in the matter, I nodded gently.Bookmark here

“Ahh, okay.”Bookmark here

I surfed through the phone trying my best to locate the gallery. There I discovered three photos in the data leftovers. Bookmark here

“Mmm…There are only 3 photos in here.”Bookmark here

“You never were the one to take a lot of pictures…Well, what are they?”Bookmark here

Photo 1 is of me and Mae. It seems I’m wearing my old school uniform, and we’re posing by a pond. Mae’s hair was short and dark. She had it tied up in a ponytail with her sleeves raised up. Being taller than me and into sports, she was always considered the tomboy for sure.Bookmark here

“There’s a photo of you and me by a pond.”Bookmark here

I could hear Mae abuse her room wall with her feet. It seemed like Mae got excited and turned around. That or the blood in her head finally caught up to her making her woozy.Bookmark here

“Ohh! That was a month before graduation!” Bookmark here

She paused, taking a sigh. I didn’t recall taking the picture or who it might have been that took it in the first place.Bookmark here

“Hey, Mado-chan…”Bookmark here

“Hm?Bookmark here

“You see, a few weeks after that picture…was when your accident happened.”Bookmark here

“Really?”Bookmark here

Looking at the photo a hint of nostalgia captured my chest. I looked so happy despite knowing earlier that year my father died. There was something that kept me going and sure enough, Mae had to be one of them. Bookmark here

“What’s the other photos?”Bookmark here

I closed my eyes, washing away the guilty feelings. Determined to uncover more gold, I tapped at the phone. The 2nd photo came into view.Bookmark here

“Ahh…It’s of mom and a woman. She seems younger than her. A friend?” Bookmark here

Mae grumbled from the other end. The vibration tickled my ear. I pulled away and clicked on her name to send the image to Mae.Bookmark here

“You know…I’m not too sure who that is with Nakagawa-san.”Bookmark here

“Have you seen her before?”Bookmark here

“She was always with your mom at that time from what I could tell.” Bookmark here

“Was she her friend?”Bookmark here

“That’s my guess. I don’t recall her name, but she was a sweet girl. Maybe a business partner of your mothers?” Bookmark here

I stared at the photo, but nothing resonated in me like the previous one. It seemed that I was close enough to her to take a picture of her and mom together. So, maybe I would meet her one day? Unlike before, this one doesn’t bring many emotions back to me.Bookmark here

The last photo was of a billboard to an amusement park. No one was in it, but the day was sunny. Confused, I sent the snapshot to Mae-chan. Bookmark here

“Ohh, that amusement park is a prime spot for couples!” Bookmark here

“Eh?!”Bookmark here

“Are you saying you were with someone when you took that photo? A boyfriend or something?”Bookmark here

Annoyed, I rolled in my bed.Bookmark here

“I doubt that. I’ve never been with…anyone.”Bookmark here

“Really?”Bookmark here

“Y-You know that I’ve never had a boyfriend before.Bookmark here

I could feel the blood rise to my face.Bookmark here

“I mean, if I did, you’d be the first to know. We have known each other since elementary, Ma-chan.”Bookmark here

Like a hyena, Mae burst out in laughter. Seemed as though Mae baited me into confessing this.Bookmark here

“I’m just kidding, Mado-chan. Plenty of people go there. You must have been happy to take a picture of the billboard though.”Bookmark here

“You jerk.”Bookmark here

I searched the image trying to get into the mindset from back then. Growing anxious, I clicked out of the gallery.Bookmark here

“N-Nakagawa-san?” Bookmark here

A timid voice called me from downstairs. It was Koda-san’s. Bookmark here

“Dinner is ready!”Bookmark here

“Ah, I’ll be right down!”Bookmark here

A squeal resonated in my ear like nails ripping down a chalkboard.Bookmark here

“Oooh, is that your new cute little sister?! Have you bathed together yet?”Bookmark here

“What the heck are you talking about? That’s creepy, Ma-chan!”Bookmark here

“Warm bodies of pseudo sisters merging as one! I read a manga like that last night-”Bookmark here

“Hey, I got to go. Let’s chat later, Ma-chan!”Bookmark here

I hung up before she could attempt to give me another creepy image. With that, I flipped off my bed and made my way to the door. When I opened it, the little flower in question was right outside.Bookmark here

“Ah?!”Bookmark here

“O-Oh, I didn’t hear you call back, so I wanted to make sure you heard me…”Bookmark here

Without waiting for my reply, the petite rabbit scurried back down the steps. I followed her trail. It’s been a few days since we returned home. Well…the home my mom bought while I was away. We used to be in a small apartment. But ever since my mom got a job at her editorial department, she had the funds to get into a nice home. But the dynamic between Koda-san and I have been…strange, to say the least. We would bump into each other in the halls. But all we would do is pass one another and occasionally say, “Hello.” then walk off to do our own things. We mixed as well as oil and water.Bookmark here

“Madoka, have you been studying for your entrance exams?”Bookmark here

Mom greeted me, pointing her spatula to my seat.Bookmark here

“Yes…I have, Mom.”Bookmark here

So much that my head’s been hurting. I’m trying to cram two years’ worth of knowledge in my head in a few weeks. I’ll likely be held back one year and go in as a freshman. But because it’s already September, I’ll be entering in the 2nd term. It’ll be embarrassing being older than my classmates too.Bookmark here

“Hey…when is mom coming home?”Bookmark here

As she lifted herself to the table, Koda-san questioned.Bookmark here

“Mom’s right here, Koda-san.” Bookmark here

Seemingly annoyed, she turned to me with a scowl then back to Mom. It made me feel a bit belittled if I had to say.Bookmark here

“Oh… that’s right, mom hasn’t told you yet, has she?” Bookmark here

“W-well, that’s actually what I wanted to do tonight, Hana.”Bookmark here

Confused, I tilted my head and looked back at mom. Bookmark here

“Told me yet? Do what?”Bookmark here

“Madoka, I wanted to introduce you to someone…they’re on their way now.”Bookmark here

Her words from the hospital a few days ago fluttered back to mind. I looked back at the ring on her finger. It had to be the man she is with. Was he coming home today? My heart began to race. It was one thing being around Koda-san, but I hadn’t wanted to ask her about her father yet…Bookmark here

“I’m finally home, Ayumi! I heard everything, how is she?!”Bookmark here

The door flung open. I expected the gentle voice of a man, but instead a tender woman filtered through. Holding a suitcase and in business wear, she strode in with her head held high. Her short black hair complemented her youthful appearance. Koda-san and mom stood up from the table. I did too, albeit late. Instead of acknowledging them, she tossed her briefcase to the sofa, rushed over to me, and held me tight. Bookmark here

“Eh?!”Bookmark here

She was taller than me but not by much. Her arms were slender with a toned figure. Her scent was citrusy like lemons.Bookmark here

“I wanted to come home immediately, but they wouldn’t allow me to.”Bookmark here

Dramatically she cried out. It felt as though she’d break my shoulders if she held any tighter. Despite her arms like twigs, her grip was monstrous. I struggled a bit until she finally let go of me. I gasped for air as we faced one another. Only then did it occur to me who this was. The woman who was in the photo with my mom. Wasn’t this her business partner? Well, that’s the conclusion I came to with Mae anyway. Bookmark here

“Who…are you?”Bookmark here

The smile on her face waned. It seemed she was a tad upset by that. Bookmark here

“O-Oh, you don’t know who I am?”Bookmark here

“Mari, we’ve discussed this over the phone...”Bookmark here

She put a finger to her mouth and leaned to the side. Her mannerisms reminded me of a little kid.Bookmark here

“I-I know, Ayumi…it’s just…”Bookmark here

The one named “Mari” turned to Mom. The look on her face seemed pained if I had to describe it. Mom shook her head without uttering a word. With that, she took a step back, and bowed deeply.Bookmark here

“I am Koda Mari. I am your mother, Nakagawa Ayumi’s, partner.”Bookmark here

“Partner? Like a business partner?”Bookmark here

Mom came in from behind her and held her slender shoulder. Bookmark here

“No, Madoka. Mari and I…are together.”Bookmark here

“…Huh?”Bookmark here

My head tilted to the side.Bookmark here

“Madoka, Mari, and I are a couple.”Bookmark here

Together, a couple? I couldn’t comprehend what she was saying so I turned back to Koda Mari-san as if for a translation.Bookmark here

“I don’t get it.”Bookmark here

Mari didn’t speak, she instead put out her finger, and the ring filtered into my vision.Bookmark here

“Mom…is with you?”Bookmark here

Didn’t she tell me that the person she was with was a man? No, that’s the conclusion I came up with on my own, wasn’t it? This didn’t make sense. I searched back to mom then Koda Hana. She was glaring at me…like I was her mortal enemy.Bookmark here

“Madoka…”Bookmark here

Mom touched my hand.Bookmark here

“T-That’s not true...right mom?” Bookmark here

My words escaped before I could pull them back. Again, I blurted out something without thinking. Is my mom…like that?Bookmark here

“There’s a lot I want to discuss with you, Madoka.”Bookmark here

“Huh?”Bookmark here

My mouth opened like a fish. I’ve never even imagined doing something like that with someone of the same sex. I know my mom better than anyone, she’s not like that. An alarm went off in me. It’s like someone took the world I was in and turned it upside down. They then forced in on me and called it my reality.Bookmark here

“Your mom and my mom have been together for over a year and a half now.”Bookmark here

Koda Hana-san stepped in, arms crossed. It seemed she planned to voice her opinion by the way she glared at me before. Bookmark here

“That’s how it is. They aren’t technically married, but they are together.” Bookmark here

Mom took hold of Koda Hana-san’s hand, putting the rabid dog back on a leash.Bookmark here

“Madoka, there’s a lot I wanted to tell you, but I thought it might be best that we talk once Mari came back from overseas.”Bookmark here

So, what mom was saying was, “It was better to keep me in the dark.” At one time, mom and I had only each other to rely on. What about all the times we trusted each other? Why couldn’t she tell me? The person I looked at wasn’t the mom I knew, was she?Bookmark here

“…Who are you?”Bookmark here

I instinctively stepped back like a sheep caught in a din of wolves.Bookmark here

“I… don’t know you anymore, mom.” Bookmark here

The truth of my feelings came bubbling out. My mom and I used to be close enough to tell each other anything, especially once dad passed. It’s as if she sees me as a stranger now. This entire situation is bizarre.Bookmark here

My mom is with a random woman I have no recollection of. And I have a fake little sister who is from her? Everything is too weird to put into words. The atmosphere grew suffocating as my chest felt as if it was being pressed down with a weight. Bookmark here

“Madoka...please listen to me...” Bookmark here

Mom approached, I backed up. But before I could escape, she gripped my hand. Her eyes pierced me like a knife to the chest. Bookmark here

“Please settle down and hear us out.”Bookmark here

Mom whispered to me. It brought me back to the days when I was young. By condition, she would speak to me like this when “…I was out of line…” Koda Mari-san pulled up a chair and sat across from us. She still had a smile on her face despite the uneasy chat so far. Bookmark here

“Madoka, this may seem hard to grasp, but Koda Mari is the one who helped me pay for your medical bills…”Bookmark here

“I don’t understand…”Bookmark here

I turned to my mom. I wanted our conversation to only be between us, but I could feel the stares of these two strangers bleeding their way into our lives.Bookmark here

“What happened when I fell into a coma, mom?” Bookmark here

My fist began to shake. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. My blood started to boil as the confusion wrapped around my mind.Bookmark here

“You decided to get with some…some woman? Even one who’s far younger than you?”Bookmark here

My body had to be shaking like a tremor by this point. Nothing was making sense and I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted to disappear but instead, I kept speaking. I pointed to Koda Hana-san still glaring at me from her seat.Bookmark here

“You even chose to take in her daughter?”Bookmark here

I chuckle despite not feeling as if this was funny in any way.Bookmark here

“You two can’t even get married…There’s no way this “family” could work.”Bookmark here

“Madoka, listen to me…”Bookmark here

“Mom, this isn’t normal! This isn’t you! These…people don’t belong here! They’re…strangers!”Bookmark here

Everyone got quiet. I did it again…said something that was on the top of my mind without thinking. Koda Mari-san put her head down and nodded.Bookmark here

“It’s not normal at all Mado…Nakagawa-san, you’re right.”Bookmark here

I turned to Koda Mari-san, who sat stubbornly in her chair, her legs now crossed. Bookmark here

“But this is the truth…Ayumi and I have become a couple in the time that you were asleep. You can try to deny that, but it’s the truth.”Bookmark here

The flower stood up from the back with her arms crossed.Bookmark here

“So, like it or not, that’s how it is. My mom loves Nakagawa Ayumi-san, and that’s final.”Bookmark here

Even she barked from behind me. Bookmark here

“And even you don’t have a say in it.”Bookmark here

Her words felt like needles burrowing into my stomach. Koda Hana-san’s expression was threatening. I’ve never seen her have such a scowl on. It…scared me.Bookmark here

The walls enclosed further. Mom looked at me, Koda Mari-san stared at me, and I could feel Koda Hana-san’s eyes bleeding into my back.Bookmark here

“C-Can I please…. go to my room?”Bookmark here

My throat tightened as I tried to squeeze out my escape plan. Bookmark here

“I’m not hungry. Please, excuse me.”Bookmark here

I pushed out my chair. My fingers slipped out of mom’s grasp, and I made my way up the steps before waiting for a reply. There was no other safe place I could think of. I opened the door and closed it behind me gently. No matter how one looked at it…I’m the one who made that situation awkward, wasn’t I? I’m the wolf wedged in the din of sheep…but I couldn’t help feeling like this.Bookmark here

Mom and the others forced this strange situation on me. Anyone from the outside looking in can clearly see that this “family” is fake. Feeling a weight of exhaustion, I make my way to the bed and lay on the pillow. Slamming my head into the sheets, I screamed internally.Bookmark here

“…Dad…Take me home! I want to go back home…” Bookmark here

I cried for my…dad. The only person I could think of who’d understand me now. His death was too soon, and now nothing felt real anymore. Mom isn’t acting like herself. There’s certainly a gap in my memory around the time before the incident, and I could acknowledge that, but still…Bookmark here

“I just don’t get it…I don’t get it.”Bookmark here

After several minutes, there was a knock on my door. After that pitiful display, I didn’t want to see anyone. So, I blatantly ignored it. Bookmark here

“Hey Nakagawa-san, I’m coming in. Is that alright?”Bookmark here

I expected it to be mom planning to scold me, but it wasn’t. The voice surprised me more than anything... Bookmark here

“It’s… open.”Bookmark here

I weakly reply. Entering in wasn’t mom like I expected. It was Koda Hana-san. She shut the door behind her and strolled in. Her footsteps were gentle.Bookmark here

“Do you mind if I sit down, Nakagawa-san?”Bookmark here

Trying to hide the tears rolling down my cheek, my head still buried in the pillow, I nod. My nose rubbed against the fabric. I can hear her lightly sitting down in my computer chair. She didn’t say a word for a few seconds as if trying to study her prey before attacking.Bookmark here

“…I don’t know you, Nakagawa-san.” Bookmark here

I was confused by her sudden statement. So, I lifted my head from the pillow and looked at her.Bookmark here

“I’ve watched you in a bed since mom and…your mom started seeing each other.”Bookmark here

Koda Hana-san patted her skirt.Bookmark here

“You're nothing but a stranger to me even though I’ve visited you in the hospital countless times.”Bookmark here

She took hold of her long locks of hair and bit the bottom of her lip.Bookmark here

“I’ve known you for a year and a half…and never spoke a word to you, Nakagawa-san.”Bookmark here

“Huh?”Bookmark here

“And then you call me…a stranger. It’s a little difficult to take in.”Bookmark here

I felt a tad resentment in her tone. Doing one last sweep of my tears, I sit up in my bed and look away from her, the heat of my face softly dissipating. Bookmark here

“But…mom…my real mom would tell me all about you.”Bookmark here

“Koda Mari-san would talk about me?”Bookmark here

For a moment she looked away as if finding that memory then turned back and nodded sternly.Bookmark here

“She told me that you were a hard worker at school and even joined the basketball team. She even said you were up for a scholarship…before your accident.”Bookmark here

I looked at my legs. Antipathy wailed up in them as they trembled. I could feel it rapturing my body. Embarrassed by this childish emotion, I looked away towards the window.Bookmark here

“Yeah…I was...”Bookmark here

“I don’t know how things were for you two years ago. And I can only imagine how strange it is for you to see all this now…”Bookmark here

Her voice trailed off as she looked away from me now.Bookmark here

“But mom liked you a lot, and I want to know…why Nakagawa-san?”Bookmark here

I searched for her expression. Koda Hana-san glared at the ground as if trying to burn a hole into it. Her faces were always filled with a sense of determination that scared me. Bookmark here

“Is that…true?”Bookmark here

I muttered.Bookmark here

That would mean that I met Koda Mari-san before my incident. Just then, I remembered the phone and the picture of Mom and Koda Mari-san. I wonder if they were dating at that time. Bookmark here

“Yes, mom would always talk about you…like you were her daughter or something.”Bookmark here

Her fingers gripped her skirt. I couldn’t tell what it was this time. But there was a hint of something in Koda Hana-san’s expression.Bookmark here

“So, I want to get to know you, Nakagawa-san. Because something about you made my mom think about you so much…”Bookmark here

With all confidence, she confessed. I wouldn’t say that she sounded jealous of me. More like…curious if anything. With thoughts soaking up in me, I started questioning my actions, “How could I let it get to this situation?” My mouth filled with bitter self-loathing, looking at this flower tremble with uncertainty. Clearly the younger of us two, she’s acting like she’s the oldest, by confronting what she finds mysterious. She didn’t run away as I had moments ago. The sourness doesn’t go away as I continue to compare the two of us.Bookmark here

“It’s hard…I’ll admit.”Bookmark here

Reluctantly, I spoke.Bookmark here

“I went to sleep with just mom and me and woke up with the two of you.” Bookmark here

I stand on my feet and walk over to Koda-san, still prompted in my chair. Bookmark here

“B-but I do want to get to know you too…Ah, Hana-san?”Bookmark here

I needed a way to differentiate the two, and it came out. Hana-san perked up at me. It might have been my imagination, but I could have sworn a light came on, brightening up her face. I sat on the bed and waved to her to do the same. Hana-san stood up and sat on the other side of the bed. Now that we’re doing this for the first time, it’s a little embarrassing. But I wanted to keep trying. Bookmark here

“So, mom said you’re in junior high?”Bookmark here

“I’m thirteen. I'm currently in my first year of junior high.”Bookmark here

“Really? Could have fooled me.”Bookmark here

Hana-san puffed her cheeks like a blowfish.Bookmark here

“I don’t have the luxury of having a developed body, yet!”Bookmark here

Hana-san raised her voice, crossing her arms as she looked away. It looked like I hit a sore spot.Bookmark here

“Heh, sorry I didn’t mean to make you mad.” Bookmark here

But Hana-san didn’t seem mad. In all honesty, she seems a bit pleased. I could read the mood enough to play along. But no matter how I looked at it, Hana-san looks like she could pass as a 4th grader. But I stopped myself before I got that far.Bookmark here

“And how old are you again…Madoka-san?” Bookmark here

Hana-san picked up quickly. Now bouncing the question back, she points at me. Bookmark here

“Fourteen- “Bookmark here

I waited for a moment then put my fingers up. I recalled that I wasn’t fourteen any longer, which was a strange sensation.Bookmark here

“Sixteen, turning seventeen this year. It’s a little strange knowing that…” Bookmark here

The doctors explained that it will take some time for my mind to catch up with everything. My body and mind are still two years in the past and it might be like that for a while longer. It was difficult to say the least.Bookmark here

“I can only imagine…”Bookmark here

Hana-san nodded. She seemed to be truly genuine when it came to my disconnect with reality.Bookmark here

We talked for a little while longer. I told her that I used to play basketball since elementary and was thinking of trying to play again in high school. It seems Hana-san isn’t too physically inclined, but she enjoys fine arts. She showed me her grades, and she seems to get high marks across the board. We both seem to be good at studying if we had anything in common.Bookmark here

“You know…Madoka-san.”Bookmark here

“Hm?”Bookmark here

“You’re…a normal girl.”Bookmark here

“What do you mean by that?”Bookmark here

Hana-san closed her eyes like an old monk giving a lecture.Bookmark here

“No…it’s nothing.”Bookmark here

She nodded as if confirming something with herself. I could only imagine what though. With two more nods, I half expected her head to fall off at this point.Bookmark here

“Well, it’s getting late, and I have school tomorrow.”Bookmark here

“O-Oh, yeah. Thanks for chatting with me, Hana-san...and…”Bookmark here

Hana-san tilted her head. The words I wanted to say wouldn’t come out, though. So instead, I turned to the side.Bookmark here

“…No, never mind.”Bookmark here

Hana-san stood up from the bed and strolled to the door. Before leaving, she turned around.Bookmark here

“Night, Madoka-san.” Bookmark here

“Night, Hana-san.” Bookmark here

She waved, shutting the door behind her. There is still a bunch I wanted to learn about her. But tonight, felt like enough of a breakthrough in our relationship. I lied back on the bed and thought back to dinner. Hana-san's face came to mind. The glare that she gave me when speaking to Koda-san and my mom… Bookmark here

“I wonder if Hana-san expected me to react that way?”Bookmark here

There was no way of knowing what was going through Hana-san’s mind.Bookmark here

But her actions led me to think that this wasn’t the first time she had to step in and defend their relationship. The thought made me feel even more depressed. So, to get away, I checked my phone when my stomach growled.Bookmark here

“That’s right…I didn’t have dinner.” Bookmark here

Hating myself, even more, I opened the door. All the lights were off, so I took my phone’s flashlight and snuck down the steps. I have every intention to raid the refrigerator like a raccoon, even though it’s bad manners. A quick sandwich is all I needed.Bookmark here

When I got to the kitchen, lo and behold, I saw a figure shining her phone’s flashlight on the table. Like a deer caught in the headlights, she turned to me. Bookmark here

“Ooh, Ma-Nakagawa-san? This isn’t what it looks like…”Bookmark here

“Koda-san?”Bookmark here

“I was just having a midnight snack.”Bookmark here

“You’re raiding the refrigerator…”Bookmark here

I scold even though I was planning to do the very same thing. One could call me a hypocrite, but I wasn’t the one caught in the act.Bookmark here

I-I…geez, why can you never catch me in a good light?Bookmark here

Koda-san strolled over to the wall and touched the knob. She turned it, dimming the lights enough for us to see one another. My guess is that she didn’t want to alert Mom or Hana-san to us being in here. Bookmark here

“There, much better.”Bookmark here

Koda-san smiled at me. Now, looking at her, she’s quite beautiful. Hana-san must get her youthful appearance from Koda-san.Bookmark here

“Would you like a sandwich?” Bookmark here

She tempted me by sliding the plate over, filled with cut sandwiches.Bookmark here

“I was just going to make me something, then go back to my room...” Bookmark here

“Then go right ahead. I’m not going to stop you.” Bookmark here

Her eyes gazed at me. It’s as if she were trying to feed a bird, hoping it wouldn’t fly away. I reached out and took one small, fluffy sandwich from the plate. Bookmark here

“At least give it a bite before you go.”Bookmark here

At her request, I nibbled on the sandwich. To my liking, it’s filled with tuna and mayo. What surprised me wasn’t just how delicious it was, but the crunch of a fresh pickle tucked in. It brought back the memory of a simpler time when I had a small meal late at night, studying while snacking on cut sandwiches. Bookmark here

“How is it?” Bookmark here

Her voice caught me by surprise, bringing me back into the kitchen.Bookmark here

“It’s…really good, Koda-san.” Bookmark here

Koda-san tilted her head.Bookmark here

“I’m glad.”Bookmark here

“It even has a fresh pickle in it like I used to make...”Bookmark here

She giggled and put a finger to her lip.Bookmark here

“That’s because I know what you like, Nakagawa-san.” Bookmark here

“Huh?”Bookmark here

“Don’t they say: ‘The way to the heart is through the stomach?’”Bookmark here

The fox snickered as she tilted her head. She filtered her fingers through her hair. Her nails glistened from the dim kitchen light.Bookmark here

“I made it for you.”Bookmark here

Koda-san wrapped her pointer through her straight locks and twisted it. She didn’t say anything else as she put the plate into my hands and walked away, returning to mom’s room. There I stood in the kitchen with a plate of tuna and mayo sandwiches made with the fresh pickle in each. For some reason, her words continued to echo in my ear. Bookmark here

“For me?” Bookmark here

The eeriness sent chills up my spine. This woman, Hana-san’s mom, is a strange one. I looked at the kitchen, the place still foreign to me. Guilt crawled up my back. No matter how I wanted to deny it, I felt bad for saying all that earlier.Bookmark here

“Maybe…I can do something to…”Bookmark here

It was late at night, but I couldn’t leave things how they were…Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.