Chapter 2:

Ch.2 Koda-san

Sleeping Princess

“Oh no, I’m going to be late!”Bookmark here

My ragdoll body sprung out of bed. I nearly tumbled to the floor as I bounced to my feet. My neck clicked back and forth so far; it would put an owl to shame. After breathing deeply to settle my nerves I opened the door and listened down the steps. It seems even though it’s been two years Mom still can’t get up in time to save her life.Bookmark here

“Where is my book?! I can’t remember where I put it!”Bookmark here

My neck angled further now. There’s a different voice in there than I previously remembered. Is that…Hana-san?Bookmark here

“Now hold on everyone…has anyone seen my left stocking?! I swear I just had it.”Bookmark here

“That couldn’t be…Koda-san too”Bookmark here

I grumbled.Bookmark here

Before my accident, I would always get my mom up and ready for work. She used to work plenty of jobs. So, I was there to support her by getting her well prepared beforehand. But it seems this entire group can’t get their act together in the morning.Bookmark here

I held my head, not doing any favors to my morning bed hair. Not that I could criticize, still being asleep at this time. I stayed up too late, and this was my punishment. With no other obligations to attend to until my entry exam date, that’s to be expected of a junior high…no, high school girl.Bookmark here

I stepped out of the door and ventured down the steps only to come face to face with my new reality. The hallway is in shambles as the three in question race back and forth like gerbils in a cage, likely looking for various things. Hana-san has her butt sticking out from under the sofa. Mom, with her tall body, is searching through the cabinets in the kitchen. Koda-san seemed to have given up all hope and rested on the side of the kitchen table.Bookmark here

“What’s going on here?”Bookmark here

Like deer in headlights, they all turn to me.Bookmark here

“Oh…honey, did we wake you?”Bookmark here

Mom feigned ignorance. With a clap of my hands, I tried to gather the three around the living room. Koda-san, however, stayed put still leaning on the side of the table.Bookmark here

“First off, what’s going on?”Bookmark here

Hana-san was the first to approach, like a dog with her tail between her legs.Bookmark here

“I can’t find my math book. I was studying last night and thought I left it on the table in the kitchen, but it wasn’t there when I woke up...”Bookmark here

“Is it the one with the deep green cover? The hardback?”Bookmark here

“Yes!”Bookmark here

Hana-san explodes, hopping six feet in the air.Bookmark here

“It’s on top of the TV stand. You must have left it there by mistake. Now, Mom?!”Bookmark here

Like Hana-san before, Mom bobbed over to me.Bookmark here

“I had a report typed and printed out. I don’t have the time to reprint it before today’s meeting, Madoka!”Bookmark here

“And you think you left it in the kitchen cabinet?!”Bookmark here

“I-I got desperate!”Bookmark here

“Wait, weren’t you doing laundry yesterday? This might be a shot in the dark, but…have you checked the washroom, on top of the washing machine?”Bookmark here

Her eyes lit up as she raced in there without another word. Soon enough a shriek came bursting out after.Bookmark here

“I found it, Madoka! It’s right here!”Bookmark here

My palm whacked my forehead. There’s no way she could be that ditzy, right? I turned to the final trial. Koda-san smiled at me, daringly.Bookmark here

“Wherever might my stocking be?”Bookmark here

She snickered as if challenging my powers.Bookmark here

“You’re sitting on it, aren't you?”Bookmark here

“Really?!”Bookmark here

Koda jumped up from the side of the table and long behold she found what she’d been looking for. Why it was on the kitchen table in the first place is a whole other problem.Bookmark here

“So reliable!”Bookmark here

Mom took hold of Hana-san's hand.Bookmark here

“C’mon Hana, it’s too late for breakfast! Mari, start the car!”Bookmark here

“Wait!”Bookmark here

I shouted, earning their attention. The mood of the morning was in ruins. My offer was torn to pieces… I checked the refrigerator and held out three boxes of lunch bentos.Bookmark here

“Here you three…”Bookmark here

I had planned to give this to them all as an apology, but now I had to shove them out the door. It's the reason why I was so tired. Because I stayed up late into the night making these for them.Bookmark here

“I can’t stop you all from starvation in the morning, but for lunch…I know you won’t go hungry…”Bookmark here

The look in Mom's eyes was soft. My fingers trembled as I set them on the table. I found it hard to look at Hana-san and Koda-san too, so I wouldn't know the expression on their faces.Bookmark here

“Thanks, Madoka-san.”Bookmark here

Hana-san spoke up first.Bookmark here

“M-Madoka…”Bookmark here

Mom held it close to her chest like a treasure. This reminded me of back then.Bookmark here

“Mari, Hana, we have to go.”Bookmark here

Mom took their hands and like a whirlwind, they all flew out of the home. From level 10 to 0 in an instant. It was silent now, but the home was still left in shambles. There I stood in a sea of the disaster known as my living room.Bookmark here

“Since I have nothing else to do…”Bookmark here

I bent down and lifted a shoe. With a sigh, I aimlessly picked up the clutter. Before I knew it, I was making my way to each room, straightening up the chaos from the recent hurricane. With a towel, I found myself wiping down the windows to dusting the hall. It took me a minute to realize that these normal things have not been done in a while. Being cooped up in my room with my books may have played a part in not noticing it sooner. These three were something else.Bookmark here

“So…this is normal life now?”Bookmark here

Feeling the loathing like a brick to the head, I continued without another word. I eased my way to Hana-san’s room. A tad guilty at first, I opened the door.Bookmark here

“I’m coming in.”Bookmark here

I didn't expect a response, but I said it anyway. Likely to soothe my conscience a bit, if anything. The room is in a stable condition, unlike how the living room was earlier. So, all I did was straighten up her pillows and fix her sheets. As I hovered my body over her twin mattress, I caught the scent of fresh flowers. The aroma wafted into my nose causing me to think about the dew after a rainy day. The smell fit Hana-san's coy yet firm image. Not just because of her name, but Hana-san had always reminded me of a flower. One in a clearing, away from the others.Bookmark here

I lifted my head up from the sheets and searched the room now. Video games and manga flooded her bookcases. Was Hana-san a bit of an otaku?Bookmark here

“Hm…”Bookmark here

That question would be left for another time, I concluded. The detective in me now searched her nightstand as if looking for clues. A picture of her and Koda-san faced her bedside. With the tip of my finger, I nudged it.Bookmark here

“Hm…I wonder what happened to Hana-san's dad?”Bookmark here

I never asked the question. Well, it’s not as if I had any interest in her before last night. She and I might be far more similar than I first imagined. Finishing up in her room, I shut the door leaving everything else the way it was.Bookmark here

I lumped myself down the steps and walked over to Mom’s room…Well, hers and Koda-san’s. I entered to see the room in a similar condition to Hana-san’s. Now immune to the guilt, I enter in and head right to the bed. As I was fixing the covers, a picture caught my eye. It sat on the nightstand next to the bed. The picture had mom and Koda-san in an establishment of some kind. Most likely their job. I know that they work for the same editorial company so that’s the conclusion I came to. Behind them, a banner read, “Congratulations.” I wondered what the occasion was for briefly before putting the picture back down. Right now it wasn’t my goal to snoop around about their personal life.Bookmark here

My goal was to fix the sheets and that’s it. I turned back when a tender lemon floated into my nose. The citrus bath soap seems a bit childish, so I intuitively know it isn’t my mother’s…It must be Koda-san's.Bookmark here

“So, they do sleep in the same bed…”Bookmark here

I didn’t think much of it until now. It’s so strange to think my mom is…with another woman in that way… I wonder what she saw in Koda-san that had that kind of attraction. I couldn’t even imagine being enticed by a person of the same sex. It just doesn’t resonate with me. But who am I to judge my mom? I’ve always put my mom on a bit of a higher plane than others. That is something I was aware of. So, seeing her make this change in her life is…Bookmark here

Putting my mean-spirited thoughts at rest, I fix the bed and leave the room.Bookmark here

“I'll have to apologize properly, won’t I?”Bookmark here

A sigh escapes my mouth.Bookmark here

“A bento box won’t fix everything…”Bookmark here

I’ve always been hard on myself, so what I did last night was no exception. I shouldn’t have made my mom, Hana-san, or even that weirdo Koda-san feel that way. My mind raced back to last night. She handed me those sandwiches and made strange comments all the while. That unnerving smile was plastered on her face as if she were a lion buttering up her prey.Bookmark here

Koda-san... just rubbed me the wrong way or something. Maybe it was because she’s seeing my mom? I guess I’d feel this way even if she was a man. Anyone who is there in place of my dad I’d probably have some animosity against. But no, Koda-san is just…strange. She’s pretty…enough to get the attention of a bunch of other people. I’m sure Nakagawa Ayumi wasn’t her only suitor. Why did she choose my mom then?Bookmark here

I’m not downing my mom's looks at all either. Mom is an exceptionally beautiful person, and I’m not saying that because she’s my mother. There were plenty of people who tried to get in contact with her when dad died. Vultures came and went, and I had to protect her from them.Bookmark here

“Lose this number, punk!” was a phrase I would say to get them off her back. Then I look at Koda-san and can’t even recall when the two of them met. When did Koda-san enter my mom's life? And when or why did it bloom into something like this? Could you call this…love? I don’t even want to imagine those two…Bookmark here

I stop myself before I go down that thought. Imagining my own mother in that kind of scenario is beyond obscene. But there had to be something to make her…want that with Koda-san.Bookmark here

“…I just don’t know!”Bookmark here

I screamed, falling back onto the sofa. My arm shielded my eyes from the morning rays as I sank into the cushions. A part of me wished I would just fade deeper, away from this bizarre world. There are so many questions that I have, but I’m not sure how to ask. I don’t think Mom and the others are hiding things from me out of malice, but I think they’re not telling me because I haven’t asked the right questions yet.Bookmark here

It’s like being the only sports fan in a group that plays games. While one could still socialize with them…everything they speak about is fundamentally different. As they speak about their games the rest of the group understands already…there is no need for explanations because everyone is on the same page. All the while, the lone wolf of the group doesn’t understand their world and why it’s so different than their own...Bookmark here

Mom, Hana-san, and Koda-san…They’ve been together for a while now. They must have been through things that I don’t know about… and I can’t be a part of their conversations because I don’t understand their world...That made me the lone wolf.Bookmark here

“I feel…alone.”Bookmark here

I said it. Like a spoiled child, I admitted it to myself. I certainly am the odd one out. With a sigh, I closed my eyes. My body relaxed as my eyes drifted off into an ocean of my thoughts. I removed my glasses and set them on the table. Before I knew it, I fell into a light sleep.Bookmark here

The sound of the front door opening slowly nudges me from my brief slumber. I lifted my head up then my body sprung up after. I reached for my glasses to reveal who was coming through the door unannounced.Bookmark here

“Ah, K-Koda-san?”Bookmark here

“Oh, I didn’t see you there, N-Nakagawa-san.”Bookmark here

Koda-san wobbled over, pulling off her heels as she approached. After nursing her ankles, she set down her briefcase on the counter.Bookmark here

“Why aren’t you at work?”Bookmark here

Alarmed, I questioned. I wasn’t aware, but my body scrunched itself up to the arm of the sofa. Koda-san put her hands up in the air like I had pointed a gun at her.Bookmark here

“Oh, all I had to do today was enter in a report and do a small speech. Since I came from overseas and haven’t had a day off, I took two of them.”Bookmark here

My guard didn’t waver as I clinched the pillow, peeking my head out from behind it.Bookmark here

“I…was looking forward to having some alone time with you, Nakagawa-san.”Bookmark here

“Why is that?”Bookmark here

I held the shield closer. But all Koda-san did was giggle softly and sat at the other end of the Sofa.Bookmark here

“That bento box you made was delicious.”Bookmark here

“O-Oh, …it was nothing. Just a few things I used to whip up for mom.”Bookmark here

“I’ve always wanted to taste one of your bento boxes. Your mom would talk about them all the time.”Bookmark here

"She would?"Bookmark here

I felt my face become warm and before I knew it, I turned to the side.Bookmark here

“Stop saying such embarrassing things.”Bookmark here

The snake leaned her body towards me, causing me to clinch the pillow even tighter. I scrunched up, furthering my distance from her.Bookmark here

“Nakagawa-san…”Bookmark here

“What…”Bookmark here

“Would you make my bento box every day?”Bookmark here

“Wha?!”Bookmark here

The devil snickered, holding her stomach.Bookmark here

“Sorry…You looked so cute; I couldn't help it!”Bookmark here

She smiles sinisterly. I could have sworn I saw horns appear on her head.Bookmark here

Annoyed now, I tossed the pillow. Only by chance, it hit her square in the face.Bookmark here

“Ouch!”Bookmark here

With my chance to escape in front of me I stood up and attempted to make my way to my room when she called back to me…Bookmark here

“W-Wait! Nakagawa-san, I’m sorry!”Bookmark here

I raced up the steps and slammed my room door.Bookmark here

“Gosh, she’s a freak!”Bookmark here

I couldn't believe my mom was with that kind of woman.Bookmark here

“Nakagawa-san! I wanted to tease you a little, that’s all!”Bookmark here

“You’re horrible!”Bookmark here

I shouted at the top of my lungs. I wasn’t sure, but I swear the roof shook by the vibration of my rage.Bookmark here

“Please forgive me! I-I was wondering if maybe we could go out and get to know each other better.”Bookmark here

“Forget it! You lost your chance!”Bookmark here

Now I was pissed. I locked the door and took out my iPod. It’s time to drown out the annoyance on the other side of the door. I lied on my bed attempting to zone out. Cheery idol tunes filled my mind. Cute girls dancing about in frilly clothing. This was the world I wanted to be a part of. I’m super into these kinds of things, and I was proud of it too.Bookmark here

But after the third song or so I grew self-conscious. Thinking about it more, if I make Koda-san upset…mom might get mad too. With butterflies of that scolding coming forth, I grumbled.Bookmark here

“Damnit…”Bookmark here

I stood up, escaping from that perfect world of idol bliss. Reluctantly, I made my way to the door. I peeked in downstairs to witness the person in question with her head against the wall.Bookmark here

“Smooth move, dumbass.”Bookmark here

Koda pushed her forehead to the wall. It irritated me knowing I just cleaned that earlier too. But could it be that she’s…self-loathing? With a sigh, I ventured down the steps. Even being so close, it seemed she hadn't noticed me yet.Bookmark here

“Ah…Koda-san.”Bookmark here

“Eh?!”Bookmark here

Like a kangaroo, Koda hopped five feet in the air as she turned around. Even when she is acting so wildly, she seems to have a cute side to her, too. Is it strange to say that this weirdo is a bit entertaining to watch? But I digressed, letting that thought pass me.Bookmark here

“What…did you have in mind.”Bookmark here

I muster up the courage to ask.Bookmark here

“O-Oh?! Ah…I was just thinking about us making a meal for the family!”Bookmark here

“For the family?”Bookmark here

Oh…that’s right. They are considering themselves as a family: mom, Hana, and this weirdo that is, in a sense, my stepmother. No…without them being properly married, there’s no way I’d ever consider either of them as a family in any way.Bookmark here

I look at her again. Koda-san pushed her fingers together, acting like an elementary school kid who got caught with her hands in the cookie jar.Bookmark here

“F-fine, let’s get going!”Bookmark here

How was I supposed to say no to someone with that look on their face? Geez, this Koda-san is a handful!Bookmark here

“Yes!”Bookmark here

She pumped her arm.Bookmark here

“I need to get dressed…and put my contacts on so give me a minute.”Bookmark here

“O-Okay Mado…Ah…Nakagawa-san.”Bookmark here

I’ve noticed this before, but now it was more apparent. Koda-san would occasionally make the mistake of saying my first name then switching to my family name. I don’t know her well enough to even consider calling her…Mari-san, so I would like for her to respect my boundaries and stop acting so informal with me. However, I don’t voice my opinion on the matter. Instead, I sighed for the thousandth time today and made my way up the steps. I’m never like this, getting irritated over little things like that. But Koda-san is like a different breed of human. I can’t put my finger on it, but she just seems…like something is off with her.Bookmark here

As we stepped outside the door, Koda-san nearly met her face with the cement but caught herself. It would seem as though she’s been looking for a pair of shoes and finally found them. Which led to her doing her best to put them on while walking. I acted as if I didn’t see anything and continued my march.Bookmark here

“Nnngg…”Bookmark here

The rays of sunlight darted into my retina. I haven’t been out of the house since we came home from the hospital, so it was a new sensation seeing the morning streets. I’ve been too buried in my studies, trying to make a good impression of the new school that I plan to enter. As I walked, I felt an unease go across my neck like ice running down my spine. I turned to catch Mari gazing in my direction. Our eyes met briefly before I broke contact and turned back to the streets.Bookmark here

“So, where’s your car?”Bookmark here

“Oh, I don’t have it. Ayumi is the one who takes the car for the day.”Bookmark here

“Well, you lead the way then. I’m actually not sure where anything is…”Bookmark here

Shamefully, I admit.Bookmark here

“There’s a shopping district a few miles that way. We’re going to hop on the train and make our way there. It drops us off right where we need to be.”Bookmark here

With a nod, we began our journey to the station. Now that my mind had calmed down, I found myself thinking about all the questions I wanted to ask Koda-san. One being…Bookmark here

“Ah…Koda-san?”Bookmark here

“Hm?”Bookmark here

We stop on the sidewalk as I turn around to her.Bookmark here

“Ahh…H-How did you meet my mom?”Bookmark here

Koda put a finger to her mouth and tilted her head.Bookmark here

“Hm…”Bookmark here

The edge of her mouth curled, and her eyes relaxed as if being possessed by an unknown force.Bookmark here

“Heh, are you interested in me?”Bookmark here

“H-Huh?”Bookmark here

“Nakagawa-san’s interested in me?”Bookmark here

Koda rubbed her cheek as if nursing a toothache. My blood boiled as I flipped around 180° then began marching again.Bookmark here

“Never mind! I could care less!”Bookmark here

“Oh?!”Bookmark here

It was thoughtless of me to try and have a serious chat with this kind of person. It’s like for everything I say, Koda-san has a list of outrageous retorts in her back pocket. It honestly makes talking with her…tiresome. There’s still a lot I want to ask Koda-san, but unless I want to be the bud of her jokes, I’ll have to put them off for now. I’ve always been quick on the uptake and right now the mood reads that she wants to use this time to tease me.Bookmark here

“Hehe, aren’t you going to ask my favorite color too?”Bookmark here

“Arrggg…”Bookmark here

We continued to walk wordlessly for a bit after that. Koda-san lagged a tad, making me feel as though I was walking too fast. I slowed down to meet her pace, but she just lagged more.Bookmark here

“Am I walking too fast?”Bookmark here

“Oh no, I’m just admiring you”Bookmark here

She rubbed her cheek again. Not sure why this irritated me so much.Bookmark here

“Weirdo.”Bookmark here

“Ouch, that one hurt.”Bookmark here

We kept walking. The station was around ten or so minutes from our home. But with her acting this way, this quick walk was going to feel like a years’ time. When I leaned my head back a bit, a brisk feeling captured my hair.Bookmark here

“Ah…”Bookmark here

“Huh?”Bookmark here

Koda-san’s slim fingers wrapped skillfully around my hair like a ninja. I stood there silently. I felt like a needle could fall a mile away, and we both would be able to hear it clearly. That's how tense the moment was between us. It didn't take too long before I spoke up.Bookmark here

“What…the heck are you doing?”Bookmark here

“Feeling…your hair?”Bookmark here

I don’t know where she’s learned manners, but this is beyond inappropriate. I forced myself away from her, but all she did was giggle like a schoolgirl. Why does she insist on being so creepy?Bookmark here

“You’re supposed to be showing me around, anyway, get to the front! Go! Get!”Bookmark here

I point forward as she rushes past me like a dog off her leash. She continued to lead for a moment, then abruptly turned around.Bookmark here

“Oh, I have an idea! Here!”Bookmark here

Here we go...I spoke internally.Bookmark here

She held out her hand. There was nothing in it, so I just stared blankly.Bookmark here

“C’mon!”Bookmark here

Still unsure about what she wanted me to do, I angled my head slightly.Bookmark here

“Take my hand so you won’t get lost!”Bookmark here

“What am I, five?!”Bookmark here

“Don’t you want to hold my hand?”Bookmark here

“No…No, I don’t. I didn’t even consider it.”Bookmark here

“But I want to hold yours, though.”Bookmark here

I put my hands on my waist. This is going to be an extremely long outing. I silently punished myself for making this decision in the first place. It’s apparent now, if anything is, me and Koda-san's personalities thus far do not go hand in hand. How did my mom ever get involved with such a troublesome person?Bookmark here

We got on the train and took our seats. It was in the morning and most of the business commuters were already at work finding a seat easy enough. As I searched my phone, an aroma trickled into my nose.Bookmark here

“Hm…lemon?”Bookmark here

“Oh, you smell my shampoo, Nakagawa-san?”Bookmark here

“Eh?”Bookmark here

It would seem I said something aloud without thinking again. Koda-san perked up like a puppy.Bookmark here

“I guess…”Bookmark here

“Do you like it?”Bookmark here

“It’s nice.”Bookmark here

“I could let you borrow it sometime.”Bookmark here

I honestly didn’t know how to reply to that, so instead, I took my phone out and acted like I didn’t hear her. It seemed that Koda-san likes fruity scents like these. A bit immature for her age, I think. Now that I think about it…how old is she exactly? I repress the urge to ask her. She’d just come back with a witty tease anyway.Bookmark here

The train ride doesn’t take as long as I thought at first. We make our way to the shopping district of town. I followed her as we entered the shopping mall.Bookmark here

“So, what are you in the mood for Nakagawa-san?”Bookmark here

Koda-san looked at me, tilting her head.Bookmark here

“Hm…I don’t know. What does Hana-san like to eat?”Bookmark here

I veered the conversation towards her child instead.Bookmark here

“Hana is actually a pretty picky eater. She’ll take a couple of bites of everything then refuse to eat anymore.”Bookmark here

Koda-san ponders with her hand on her chin.Bookmark here

“I swear that’s the reason why she hasn’t developed much yet…”Bookmark here

Now that she mentioned it, Hana-san came right to my room after I left. With that in mind, I can see why she made it up there so quickly. She must have taken a bite of food then rushed up the steps before Koda-san and Mom could say anything about it. Now thinking like that, did she use me as an escape to get away from the table without eating much? Hm, thinking of things that way makes me a tad depressed. That’s only my conclusion.Bookmark here

“So, what do you think we should have?”Bookmark here

The question swung back and hit me in the back of the head. Great…I didn’t want to be the decider of this occasion but…Bookmark here

“How about we do something simple. White rice, miso soup, and fish?”Bookmark here

Simple yet effective. Nothing can go wrong unless Hana-san is secretly a fish hater.Bookmark here

“That’s perfect, Nakagawa-san.”Bookmark here

Koda-san clapped her hands together. Seeing a grown woman act this way puts me way out of my comfort zone. Now that I think about it and that we’re here…Bookmark here

“Oh.”Bookmark here

“What’s the matter?”Bookmark here

Koda-san looked at me as she picked up the bag of rice for tonight.Bookmark here

“Do you mind if we pick up more pickles?”Bookmark here

“I don’t mind. Not sure how you and your mother can eat those though.”Bookmark here

“Hm? What do you mean?”Bookmark here

“I don’t like pickles.”Bookmark here

Koda-san giggled as she strolled on without me. But what about last night? Didn’t she make a sandwich with pickles in it? Is she telling me that she made food that she didn’t like? This woman is bizarre.Bookmark here

“Hey, we need more aprons around the house. I’ll pick this up for Hana.”Bookmark here

Koda-san wrapped a polka-dotted apron around her waist. With a nod, she put it in her basket. I could care less about what else she wanted to waste her money on. She was the person buying everything in the end.Bookmark here

After we bought all our ingredients, we made our way out of the grocery store, bags in hand. The wind blew softly on the warm September day. Now closer to the afternoon, we approached the station. My shoulders slumped, and I could feel my legs begin to grow stiff.Bookmark here

“Nakagawa-san, are you by chance tired?”Bookmark here

I tried to hide it from Koda-san, but my feet were sore and my arms were starting to hurt. It’s one of the few reasons why I stayed inside for the week after coming from the hospital. Physically my body wasn’t too built to do much labor because of the bedridden state I was in. Shamefully, I had to admit by giving her a slight nod.Bookmark here

“Hey, let’s go rest over there.”Bookmark here

Koda-san pointed to a small park, one that kids played at. The place was empty, being a weekday, and most of them must have been at school. The swings brought back a hint of nostalgia. We found our way to a bench as I sat on the far right and Koda-san on the left. The wind pulled the swing back and forth. I watched as if there were a parent and child enjoying the fall breeze. For some reason, that back and forth made my heart ping for a moment.Bookmark here

“I remember taking Hana here when she was young.”Bookmark here

Koda-san interrupted my idle thoughts. Not as if she’d done it on purpose. I looked back at her. She was watching the swing set as well. Ah, that’s what the swing set reminded me of. When dad was still around, he would take me here when I was young. Even though he worked long hours, he’d find time to do mundane things like this with a whiny little girl like me. I still remember pointing at the slide and demanding him to take me on it as if it were the wildest thing in the world. Then I’d climb up to the top and start crying my eyes out. At that age, looking down the slide was like veering down the building of a skyscraper. Back in those simpler times, all I thought about was how I was going to have fun. How…I wish for a remnant of those days to return.Bookmark here

“Mmm…”Bookmark here

“What’s going on in that head of yours, Nakagawa-san?”Bookmark here

But then I looked back at her…and the annoyance flooded back into my mind.Bookmark here

“Nothing…”Bookmark here

I turned back away from Koda-san. Now might be the best time to question her but for some reason, I can’t bring myself to ask her. I don’t want my simple thoughts to be ruined by her unreasonable teasing.Bookmark here

“Are you sure it’s nothing?”Bookmark here

She pressed on.Bookmark here

“Yeah, it’s…nothing.”Bookmark here

Koda-san, still with that ridiculous smile plastered on her face, closed her eyes and nodded.Bookmark here

“You seemed as if you wanted to ask me something earlier but stopped yourself.”Bookmark here

Koda-san looks away from me; the wind takes hold of her short locks.Bookmark here

“We’re…family you know.”Bookmark here

“No, we’re not.”Bookmark here

I spewed. I could taste the bitterness in my voice. My thoughts about dad lingering in my mind must have been a part of me sounding so angry. Even I scared myself.Bookmark here

“You’re nothing but a stranger to me.”Bookmark here

Koda-san’s smile didn’t seem damaged one bit as she nodded, turning back to me.Bookmark here

“My bad. You’re 100% correct. We are strangers.”Bookmark here

Koda-san lifted her head in the clouds. Her short hair flowed into the wind. Looking at her I felt as though the wind would take her away…a blessing in disguise if that happened.Bookmark here

“But even strangers fall in love you know...”Bookmark here

“What?”Bookmark here

There she goes again saying weird things. Hana-san is nothing like her. She doesn’t blurt out weird things and make me feel outwardly uncomfortable. How could Hana-san turn into such a good child by this strange misfit?Bookmark here

“Hehe, that’s not really what I meant though, Nakagawa-san.”Bookmark here

“Is that right?”Bookmark here

She cleared her throat as if to make an announcement to a group of people.Bookmark here

“I wholly expect you to see me as a stranger, and that’s simply fine. But what I want you to know is…”Bookmark here

Koda-san turns to me.Bookmark here

“I do love your mother.”Bookmark here

“Hm?”Bookmark here

“I’m not sure if that’s the question you wanted to ask me, but I’ll give you an answer to this…”Bookmark here

Koda-san set her bags on the bench and lifted herself onto the ground.Bookmark here

“I, Koda Mari, do in fact love Nakagawa Ayumi.”Bookmark here

Koda-san shifted the ring on her finger. It wasn’t anything formal because it’s illegal for them to get married. But this was enough of a signal that they do in fact see each other in this light.Bookmark here

“And I’ll do anything in my power to make sure she’s never hurt again…”Bookmark here

Her last words strained off into the distance. If I were paying closer attention to her then they wouldn’t have easily faded into the warm windy day. Out of everything Koda-san confessed I could feel as if this statement was truly genuine. I turn back to her but now her head hangs low like a toy now out of power.Bookmark here

Unable to get any words out of my mouth, I turn to the side when I feel something touch the back of my head.Bookmark here

“Eh?”Bookmark here

“Oh! S-sorry.”Bookmark here

Koda-san seemingly reached out her hand again, touching the back of my hair. Is she fixated on my hair or something?!”Bookmark here

“S-Stop doing that!”Bookmark here

“Ehh…okay.”Bookmark here

Koda-san turned away looking into the distance.Bookmark here

“Koda-san…”Bookmark here

“Yes?”Bookmark here

“You’re a weirdo.”Bookmark here

I turned back to her, and she looked at me, seemingly flabbergasted at what I said. With that, I stood up.Bookmark here

“Let’s go home.”Bookmark here

Koda-san grabbed her bags off the bench and lifted them up with a guts pose.Bookmark here

“Nakagawa-san…”Bookmark here

I turn around only to find Koda-san closer to my face than I would have wanted her to be.Bookmark here

“Thanks...for waking up.”Bookmark here

Invading my personal space, once again, my brow curves on its own. Noticing my outward irritation, Koda-san pulls back. With her hands to her side, she mused forward, onto the road without a care in the world. Was it my imagination or was her face a bit pinkish? All I could do is make a sigh and mutter “what a bothersome person.” As I continued to follow her lead to the station. From there we took the ride and went back home.Bookmark here

I’m confident in my ability to cook a good meal. When it was only mom and me, I would make her dinner when she came home and breakfast before work. I watched plenty of videos online to help me strengthen my cooking skills. So, making this meal wasn’t going to be anything troubling but because of a certain someone, it was quite the opposite.Bookmark here

“You don’t have an apron?! Well, look at what I have for you!”Bookmark here

“You had this planned from the beginning, Koda-san!”Bookmark here

In my face, the cutesy polka-dotted apron stared at me stubbornly. If the situation was any different this would be my taste. It’s cute and even has frills on the bottom, but because it’s being held by this devil, I’m reluctant to take it.Bookmark here

“Hurry up now, put it on.”Bookmark here

I grumble and do as I’m told. I turn around to see the recipient lit up like a firework.Bookmark here

“Wow, you look wonderful in an apron, Nakagawa-san.”Bookmark here

Koda-san is making this situation more stressful than it needs to be. She sits at the kitchen table, watching me dance about the room.Bookmark here

“If I recall correctly, you said we both were making this meal.”Bookmark here

“Oh yes, let me just take off my dress jacket.”Bookmark here

Yet, she doesn’t move a muscle. She keeps veering at me from the side. Even as I cut up a small vegetable, I get oohs and aahs from the side. It’s seriously disturbing.Bookmark here

“If you’re not going to help cook at least get the bath ready.”Bookmark here

I scold out of irritation if anything.Bookmark here

“Aw, okay, I can do that much.”Bookmark here

Accepting defeat of her own laziness, Koda-san tramped down and made her way to the bathroom. Finally, I got a little peace and quiet. Perhaps that was Koda’s big aim for me to do the cooking in an apron? Nah, she was just being a strange person like always. Just as I blew away the eccentric thought, the front door opened.Bookmark here

“I’m home.”Bookmark here

Her timid voice calls out as she makes her way through the home.Bookmark here

“Welcome home.”Bookmark here

I call back to no one other than Hana-san. It would seem Mom drives her to the station, and Hana-san takes the train from there to school. But coming from school she takes a little longer because of walking the extra mile or so from our home to the station.Bookmark here

“Oh, it smells good.”Bookmark here

Hana-san commented as she set her bag on the couch. I turned to see her in a black school uniform. Now looking at it, I love the design. I wish the high school I was going to have that kind of fashion sense. There are two things I’m super into and that’s good music and cute clothing. Maybe my taste hasn’t matured from middle school yet…Bookmark here

“Hana-san, put all your stuff in your room.”Bookmark here

“What?!”Bookmark here

Hana-san, taken aback by my motherly aura, leaned back slightly. Bookmark here

“That’s how you lost your math book this morning. Now, run upstairs and put your stuff away before you lay about.”Bookmark here

With a sigh and a slump of her shoulders, Hana seemingly admits defeat. But before she left, she stuck out her tongue while closing her eyes.Bookmark here

“Nnnnhhh!”Bookmark here

Then raced upstairs.Bookmark here

“I-I don’t think I deserved that…”Bookmark here

Downcast, I turned back to the food.Bookmark here

“Okay, the bathwater is ready.”Bookmark here

Great, she’s back…Secretly I was hoping she slipped and fell in buying me a few more minutes if anything. But lo and behold, Koda-san came back to the kitchen with her nose to the ceiling. If she was any taller, she’d break the roof with her pride.Bookmark here

“I even put my trusty bath shampoo in there if you want to try using it, Nakagawa-san.”Bookmark here

That lemon citrus soap? I can’t deny that the smell is sweet, but even I have a more mature palate than I would believe.Bookmark here

“No thanks.”Bookmark here

“Wah?! Shut down so quickly?! But you said you liked it!”Bookmark here

“Yeah I do, but…”Bookmark here

I taste the soup and it’s coming along…Bookmark here

“I just don’t think it’ll suit me, Koda-san.”Bookmark here

“It will suit you! You and I can smell the same, isn’t that wonderful?!”Bookmark here

“You stay away from me.”Bookmark here

I glared at her with the kitchen knife pointing her direction. Koda-san shivered as I approached slowly.Bookmark here

“Mom, I need you to sign something.”Bookmark here

Hana-san raced down the steps, catching the two of us in yet another conflict today. If she was any later, she might have only been calling one person mom from then on.Bookmark here

“Ah…am I interrupting something?”Bookmark here

“Nope, Koda-san was just about to take a bath.”Bookmark here

Koda-san slumps her shoulders and then reaches out her hand, taking hold of Hana’s paper.Bookmark here

“Hm, an outing to the mountains next month?”Bookmark here

“Yes!”Bookmark here

“Are you sure you’ll be okay up there? It sounds like a long hike.”Bookmark here

“I’ll be fine.”Bookmark here

Hana-san insisted, pumping her legs up and down. Gosh, she can be seriously cute at times.Bookmark here

“It seems you’ll be up there for a few days too. A bunch of activities along with cleaning up the public parks.”Bookmark here

I gaze at Koda-san as she dissects the page in front of her. Any other parent I know would have just signed the page and sent their son or daughter away.Bookmark here

“We’ll have to make sure you have plenty of water and sunscreen, so you won’t get burned. And conditioners for your hair are out over this weekend as well, Hana.”Bookmark here

“Yes, mom.”Bookmark here

“Stay away from cliffs and strange places. And promise me you’ll stay in a group-“Bookmark here

“Could you just sign it?!”Bookmark here

Hana-san gloomed at me. We mistakenly caught eyes and cast away at the same time. It seems Koda-san is a tad overprotective of Hana-san. A sharp contrast to her childlike personality that she showed all day long. I guess there is a mature side to this woman.Bookmark here

“Paper signed!”Bookmark here

“Yes!”Bookmark here

“Go put it back in your bag now.”Bookmark here

I chimed in from the stove. Hana-san looked at me again. Her tongue slipped from her mouth and her eyes slanted.Bookmark here

“Nnnnnh!”Bookmark here

She cried then rushed out, back up the steps.Bookmark here

“That’s just a bad habit of hers. Don’t think too much into it.”Bookmark here

Koda-san nodded her head.Bookmark here

“Nah, I won’t.”Bookmark here

I still feel as if it’s undeserved, but I’ll take it.Bookmark here

“I’m home!”Bookmark here

My body flinched. There’s a voice I was honestly happy to hear. She stepped into the kitchen.Bookmark here

“Welcome home.”Bookmark here

I smiled gleefully. It was truly natural. Something nostalgic caught my chest seeing my mom in a business suit coming home from a long day. That’s right…This is the image that stayed with me that year after my father died.Bookmark here

“Welcome back, Ayumi.”Bookmark here

From the sidelines, Koda-san jumped in, giving my mom an overly affectionate hug. Just the notion of her interrupting my moment with mom gave me a slight irritation. I had to let it go…they are together or whatever they want to call it. I didn’t mention it until now, but isn’t my mom a bit too old for her too? I mean she’s like 10 years her junior. For all I know, she could be trying to find a sugar mom or whatever they say in those western dramas. No matter how you look at this it’s…not right.Bookmark here

“Oh, look how cute your daughter is, Ayumi!”Bookmark here

“W-what?!”Bookmark here

I could feel the blood rushing to my head. It took me a moment, but she’s pointing out the polka-dotted apron that this moron bought for me. If I’d known that was her end goal, to make my mother swoon over me, then I would have shoved it down her throat.Bookmark here

“Madoka, you’re so adorable!”Bookmark here

“S-Shut up, mom!!!”Bookmark here

I screamed at the top of my lungs.Bookmark here

“Today was exhausting…”Bookmark here

“Sounds rough…”Bookmark here

On the other line, Ma-chan comforted me. I could hear her spinning on the chair in amusement though...Bookmark here

“So, let me get this straight…When you went into a coma your mom and that girl from her job got together? Who to think your mom swung that way?”Bookmark here

“Yeah, …it’s pretty weird. But…she sounded as if she actually cares for my mom.”Bookmark here

“Oh? ”Bookmark here

My eyes closed, imagining the face Koda-san made in the park. Even though I can’t envision them as having that kind of relationship…it seems that they do.Bookmark here

“Well…Koda-san’s a special case. She’s nothing but trouble, unlike Hana-san who is so much sweeter than her mother.”Bookmark here

Air escaped Ma-chan’s gut followed by a shuffle of noise. I take it she’s moving to a more comfortable position.Bookmark here

“Hey, I’ll be home by Sunday, you want to hang out this weekend?!”Bookmark here

Surprised by the sudden proclamation, I lift my head, off the warm pillow.Bookmark here

“Cool. I need a break after I take the exams.”Bookmark here

“When are you taking them?”Bookmark here

“This Saturday. I’ll get the results immediately and will likely have to be a 1st year while you’re a 2nd year.”Bookmark here

“Don’t worry, big sister will show you the ropes. You’re going to my school, right?!”Bookmark here

“For the fiftieth time, yes.”Bookmark here

I could hear Ma-chan kick the wall relentlessly. Yep, she’s putting her feet up again. I’ll scold her if she does it at school.Bookmark here

“Oh, I probably should warn you.”Bookmark here

“About what?”Bookmark here

“I dyed my hair a few weeks back. My teachers are calling me a delinquent. But I need to express myself!”Bookmark here

“You did what?!”Bookmark here

“Yeah, It’s all bright now. I think it’s cute! I’ll send you a picture.”Bookmark here

As if she’d pre-planned this, an image showed up in my email. I checked it, and lo and behold, Ma-chan with a twist. Her bright blue hair looks out of place with the environment. She reminded me of a blueberry, and I didn’t even understand why. She looks like a troublemaker for sure. Now I wonder if I should associate with her…Bookmark here

“Don’t I look like a gaudy girl who’d punch your lights out?”Bookmark here

I sighed, shaking my head back and forth.Bookmark here

“You used to be such a sweet girl, Ma-chan.”Bookmark here

“I’m still Ma-chan, Mado-chan! Just needed a change of pace.”Bookmark here

Mae sighed. Not sure what made her want to make such an abrupt change. She used to have black hair in a single ponytail. Even if it was average, I thought her dark hair was cute. I click on the photo again to see Ma-chan’s new look. It seemed a bit over the top even for her. It’s like night and day came crashing together creating an abstract Ma-chan.Bookmark here

“So, how’s that flower of yours doing?”Bookmark here

“Huh? Why are you so interested in Hana-san?”Bookmark here

“Well, both of us are only children so I’m vicariously living through you now.”Bookmark here

I found myself scratching my own head.Bookmark here

“Do you seriously want my life?”Bookmark here

My head ached…I wouldn’t wish this life on anyone. Not even my worst enemy.Bookmark here

“Well, you’ve always been the cuter of us two Mado-chan. So, there’s a plus.”Bookmark here

“Really? I always thought you were the good looking one Ma-chan.”Bookmark here

“Nah, I’m too much of a tomboy.”Bookmark here

“But that’s your best quality.”Bookmark here

I thought back to middle school. Ma-chan would always hang around the boys. I found myself too shy around the opposite sex, so I never had any close guy friends. Then Mae started focusing on her clubs, leaving me in the go-home club alone. It was around that time when I noticed how much I’d relied on Mae’s company.Bookmark here

“You know…I only played basketball because you spent all your time in clubs, and I needed something to do too, Ma-chan.”Bookmark here

An awkward laugh seeped out from the other side of the line. It took me by surprise a bit before Mae continued.Bookmark here

“Speaking of which, are you going to try out for the basketball team again?”Bookmark here

“Hmm…probably not.”Bookmark here

“Why not?”Bookmark here

My neck craned to the ceiling.Bookmark here

“Not feeling it anymore…I guess.”Bookmark here

Like a log, I rolled to the side.Bookmark here

“You were into it though, Mado-chan.“Bookmark here

“Let’s just drop it, alright Ma-chan?”Bookmark here

“…Sure. Well anyway, it’s getting late, and I have school tomorrow. I’ll see you on Sunday?”Bookmark here

“Sunday! Where should we meet?”Bookmark here

We discussed various spots and ended up deciding on the station store that sells pastries. We figured we could get something to snack on while we head to the mall or something. I don’t really know what we will end up doing. We would usually figure it out while we're there. That’s how it always is when I hang out with Mae. We just go and our feet take us places.Bookmark here

“Oh, one more thing…do you mind if I invite a…friend?”Bookmark here

“Hm, sure…I don’t have a problem.”Bookmark here

I wonder why she waited until the last minute to mention a friend. The way she sounded though was like she had a gun to her head. Hm, guess I’ll find out when I cross that bridge.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.