“What about this, Hana?”
The bustle of people brushed past us as we find ourselves in the mall downtown. It being Sunday the late October afternoon and Hana’s trip being this next week, mom asked me to go with her and pick out all her camping gear. Probably a little last minute on their account but seeing how they wake up every morning it’s no surprise.
“Hana, all these sleeping bags are pretty much the same.”
“No! I want a certain one! It’s the one with the fluffy inside.”
Hana has been fighting tooth and nail for a certain “fluffy inside” camping bag and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. Suddenly my phone rings and I answer.
“Madoka-san! How’s Hana doing at picking out her gear?”
“Eh, …she’s being picky, Mari-san.”
“I am not being picky!”
Hana’s cheeks flared up as she attempted to pull the phone away from me. I pulled away and give her a sharp flick on the forehead.
“Tell Hana that she needs to settle for what they have.”
I hold my hand over the phone.
“Hey, Hana-san, your mom said you’ll have to settle for what they have!”
“But I want the one with the fluffy inside!”
I put my head back to the phone.
“Fluffy inside? What the heck is that?”
I can hear Mari-san groan from the other side of the phone.
“Listen, Madoka-san. Your mother and I seriously appreciate you for taking Hana to get her stuff. We didn’t expect to end up working this weekend.”
“No, it’s just fine.”
I eye Hana walking around the corner. Before I could react, she opened the sleeping bag and looked inside. She’s being a little terror and I’ve had it up to here with her. So, I walk over and pulled her ear.
I hate being the “mean older sister” but Hana-san can be a handful at times.
“Madoka-san, let me speak to her.”
Mari-san’s tone gave me a chill. I was reluctant to hand it to Hana, but I did as I was told.
“Hana…your mom wants to speak with you.”
Unlike beforehand where Hana wanted to steal the phone from me, she timidly held out her hand and took it.
“…Yes, mom…yeah, mom…I know mom…but mom…okay, mom.”
Dejected, Hana-san handed me the phone.
“Okay, she shouldn’t give you any more problems, Madoka-san. Now make sure you don’t buy too much. You both have to get home somehow.”
I could hear some rustling over the phone. I leaned my head back as the tension started to hurt my ear.
“Madoka! You two be safe! Don’t talk with strangers and…”
Mom busted on the line out of nowhere.
“Mom, I’m not five…”
“But you’re still my baby! Watch over Hana. Mari and I will be back home late tonight so...”
“Ayumi, give me my phone back!”
The tension grew louder as they tussled. Finally, it relieved and Mari-san’s soothing voice trickled back in.
“Madoka-san have fun and don’t spend too much. Ba’ bye!”
The call was finally over. I took a sigh, that honestly felt like an ordeal…
“I found the one with the fluffy inside!”
Hana lifted the open camping back with pride, turning the heads of the customers nearby. Despite the hassle, it’s going to be explaining her motives, the smile on her face was one that could not be mirrored.
The mall continued to grow thicker by the minute. Together we waved the storm with our bags in our hands. Hana insisted that we buy a bunch of different camping accessories. I just had to buy what my cute little sister wanted. I’m weak Hana-san asking me for things, I guess.
“Hana-san, do you want to get dinner?”
I pointed over to a fast food cart. Us being home alone this might be a good chance to get some food and relax.
“Sure, let’s go Onee-san.”
We got in line. I scanned the menu and seen that this place serves burgers and other fried goods. I’ll probably end up taking a lighter meal though and Hana will most likely pick at everything and call it good. With that in mind, I’ll most likely end up getting her the kids’ meal.
“Oh, is that you, Nakagawa-san?”
I turned around to see her deep almond eyes gazing at me. With her ivy hair flowing harshly behind her back, Okabe Kusumi towered over me with a smirk.
“Oh, Okabe Kusumi-san? What a coincidence.”
Only then did I catch eyes with a smaller version of her. She hopped up and hid behind her taller version. Her straight hair down to her back trembled. While sharing the same color hair and eyes as the taller version her demeanor came off as pure, innocent even.
“Oh, is this your little sister, Okabe-san?”
“Yep, this little twerp is mine for the weekend. We just went to play some games in the arcade and now we’re getting some food.”
Okabe-san patted her on the back, pushing her forwards as she did.
“Nagumi, introduce yourself to Nakagawa-san.”
The mini replica approached. She stood just a tad shorter than Hana-san which made me conclude that she had to be in her early years of elementary.
“H-Hello, my name is…Okabe…Nagumi.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Nagumi-san.”
I turned to Hana-san who seemed to give me an unsure look. She approached next and nodded gently.
“I’m Koda Hana. I’m…Nakagawa Madoka’s stepsister.”
Okabe’s shined a bright grin and nodded.
“Oh, so you’re the girl that’s “So cute!”
“S-Stop it, Okabe-san!”
Flustered, I raced over trying my best to cover her mouth. The last thing I want Hana-san to figure out is that I gloat about how cute she is to everyone I meet! I…should probably do my best to not do that from now on...
“O-Onee-san said that?”
“Hana-san, don’t listen to her!”
After a brief denial session, we ordered our food. There we sat at a table eating our respective meals. The food was mediocre so instead, I found myself interested in something else. I watched Okabe-san’s little sister nibble at her food. She’s so cute that I couldn’t look away. Only then a felt a chill on my spine. When I looked over to shake it off, I caught eyes with Hana-san.
“Is everything okay, Hana-san?”
Without a word, she puffed her cheeks and began eating again. Not sure what that was about…
“So, Nakagawa-san, I heard you use to play basketball.”
“Oh, yeah. I started playing in elementary school and played all through middle school.”
“So, you still played up to your coma?”
“Yeah, I don’t remember quitting at least.”
Hana-san tilted her head.
“Onee-san, are you going to join basketball again?”
I shook my head.
“Probably not. I don’t feel it anymore.”
“That brings me to my next question. Sorry if I sound insensitive but…do you have memory loss associated with it?”
I found myself nodding unconsciously.
“Yes, I do. There’s a large gap in my memory due to it…”
“Hm, I see.”
Obake-san takes a fry from her plate and pushed it out to me. Confused I angled my head when suddenly she forced it in my mouth.
“Let’s not dwell on the past any more then. Only the best of times are ahead of us, Nakagawa-san!”
What an oddball… but she doesn’t seem like a bad person. I found myself chewing away at the fry. It was slightly cold by now but that couldn’t be helped.
I glanced at Hana who seemed to be holding out two fries of her own.
“What is it-mooph!”
Hana shoved her fries in my mouth. I almost gagged by the sheer force. What am I supposed to be, a pet that needs to be fed?
“H-Hana-san! What the heck?!”
I cried to no avail. Hana just kept pushing more in my mouth. I have to be careful around this one now.
“Aw, you see them Nagumi? We used to be like that!”
Okabe-san pulled on her little sisters’ cheeks, not to her liking. She moaned but continued eating her food quietly. Nagumi-san seemed to be more docile than her older sister.
“So, I met that Watanabe Mae-san a few weeks back…”
Abruptly, Okabe-san changed the topic as she tilted her head. I had to stop Hana-san from pushing more food in my mouth as I turned back to her.
“So, you both are childhood friends, right?”
“Yeah. We’ve known each other since middle school.”
“She’s something else with that wild hairstyle of hers.”
I chuckled thinking back to her blueberry colored hair. Wasn’t expecting to see that when I first saw her again.
“And I heard she has quite the temper too.”
My giggling stopped harshly as I looked her in the eye. The smirk cast on her face felt troubling to me.
“I’m talking about Watanabe. You know about the person she hit…right?”
My mouth opens slightly.
“She knocked them out and sent them to the hospital.”
“No, I didn’t know about that, Okabe-san...”
“Really? I thought she’d tell her childhood friend about it. Guess I let that slip then. Wow, she told me that in confidence too…”
Okabe giggled then continued eating her meal. Even if she said that…I felt that she mentioned this only because I didn’t know it. But thinking that would make her…a mean person, wouldn’t it?
“W-Who did she get in a fight with?”
Okabe-san still with her mouth full began waving her free hand. After finishing she answered.
“Nah, I shouldn’t keep going with that. She’s not here to speak for herself anyway.”
I leaned back now slightly irritated. Even Mae-chan is hiding things from me?
Suddenly I felt a brush on my lap. I turned to the side and see Hana-san caressing my thigh. Without saying anything I could understand she was telling me that “It’ll be okay.” I haven’t noticed it but…lately, Hana-san has been quite the support for me.
“So, Nakagawa-san, you’re still hanging around that Conway-san too, huh?”
Now prepared for her I crossed my leg.
“Yeah. I know you don’t agree with one another but she’s my friend.”
“Hm, that’s fair. But you seem like the kind of girl that will get involved in her problems. And I wouldn’t want that to happen to you.”
Taken aback, I tilted my head.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, Conway-san skips class on the regular for starters.”
She snickered. Her almond eyes peeked up from her meal.
“So? You skip class too, Okabe-san.”
I might have sounded more irritated than I was still with Mae-chan in the forefront of my mind. Thinking back now, Okabe has only shown up to class a few times since I got there. She is a delinquent too for sure. It’s like the pot calling the kettle black…
“Oh, you got me!”
She pointed to herself with a sly smile.
“But seriously, Conway-san isn’t the best of people to be around. I should know, I’m a former friend of hers anyway.”
She sneered brightly. It made me oddly uncomfortable with how openly…mean she was being. But I don’t think that was her intention...no I think I’m just starting to see the kind of person Okabe-san is.
“Well, Conway-san isn’t here either, so I rather not talk behind her back.”
Okabe-san’s eyes widen. I’m sure she realized my retort was in response to Ma-chan rather than Conway-san. With a sly titter, she answered back.
“Oh, you’re right. That’s rude of me. Sorry, guess I’m bad at making conversation. Seems all I do is hit on sore spots.”
She waved her hand left and right now finished with her meal.
“But I do have one more thing to ask before I get off topic...”
“And what’s that, Okabe-san?”
She pointed at Hana-san to my surprise.
“Has she asked you about your little sister?”
Hana’s eyes perked up as she turned to me.
“Ah…how did you know?”
Okabe leered at me for a moment then spat air to the side.
“…She seriously has issues. Even after all this time…”
With that, she stood up while holding the shoulder of her little mini version.
Her sister complained but reluctantly she raised, holding onto her half-eaten burger still.
“Watch out for that dirty blonde, okay Nakagawa-san?”
Without answering my question, she waved goodbye, leaving Hana-san at the table. Her little sister ruggedly pulled along with her as if she became a ragdoll.
“She’s rude, Onee-san.”
I turned back to Hana-san who sat staring in their direction.
“Yeah…I think I’m starting to realize that too Hana-san.”
With a sigh, I give her a brief hug on her shoulder.
“Thanks for having my back, sis.”
Watch out for Conway-san? My mind raced over it for a moment before I decided that it wouldn’t be best for me to continue this train of thought. Conway-san hasn’t done anything wrong to me so, I shouldn’t look at her in a negative light. But Mae-chan on the other hand…I need to ask her about that as soon as I can.
“Well, are you ready to head home, Hana-san?”
“We can stay up and make sure all your stuff is ready for Monday if you want.”
“O-Okay! That sounds fun. Can I put on an anime as we sort things out?”
Bags in hand we made our way back home. The night air was refreshing. It helped get that aftertaste of a conversation out of my mouth. When we stepped in the home Hana-san tossed her bags to the floor and raced over to the TV. I expected this so I decided to hold my scolding until later.
I made my way to the living room and sat on the couch when suddenly gore splashed on the screen. I do my best to keep my eyes off it but the cries of agony filter through the home. Yep, this was the anime she wanted to watch…
“Hana-san, could you please turn it down a little bit?”
“Oh, sorry Onee-san.”
With her compliance, we sat in the living room sorting out Hana-san’s bags.
Hana held in her hand a shampoo conditioner.
“Oh, sorry Hana, Mari-san said you can’t have any during this trip.”
Dejected, she puts it to the side. But then she lifted it back up to me.
“Can you hide this from mom? She likes to use my shampoos.”
With a shrug, I caved yet again. Hana-san smiled at me causing my heart to warm up.
“You’ve been getting along a lot better with mom, Onee-san.”
I thought back to the night at the park a little over two weeks ago now. How Mari-san expressed to me how she truly feels for mom. How we finally came to an understanding that we…are family. But as I think back to that night my stomach begins to get warm.
“Yeah…Mari-san’s a weirdo but…she isn’t a bad person.”
“Will you call her mom one day, Onee-san?”
I chuckled by mistake.
“Not on my life, Hana-san.”
The thought of me cuddling up to Mari-san and crying mommy came to mind. Nope, she’s too young for me to even consider the idea of it. Likely, I’ll always call Mari-san, Mari-san and I think that’s simply fine. As I think about this, I lifted the sleeping bag.
“Oh, this is the one you wanted so badly, right Hana-san?”
“Yep! It has the fluffy inside and Sora likes the fluffy!”
Hana turned to the side away from my gaze.
“Is…she a friend of yours?”
“Ahh, yeah. She’s a …a good friend of mine.”
So, Hana-san brought the sleeping bag at her friend’s request? That’s the only thing I can think of. But why would that matter if it’s her bag and not this Sora’s? Before I could ask Hana jumped up and raced up the steps into her room. She then came back out with her game system in hand.
“Onee-san, can I bring my game?”
“Ah…that’s against school regulations, Hana-san.”
“Please! I won’t get caught! Mom and mom don’t have to know.”
A secret between sisters, huh? No matter how I looked at it, I can’t deny that I don’t like these interactions between Hana-san and me.
“…Sure, but if you get caught…I didn’t know a thing.”
Hana-san hopped up with joy then put it to the side.
“Mmm…I can’t seem to find the flashlights.”
“Oh, Mari-san bought a few earlier this week. I’ll get them and the batteries out of their room.”
I stood up and made my way into their room. There lied their bed in decent order. I checked the side for the bag full of flashlights and batteries. With a lift, I brought them up when an aroma caught my nose. It’s that citrus lemon soap Mari-san uses all the time. I closed my eyes as I wafted in the scent. When I first met her this scent had a different feeling behind it…but now for some reason, it’s a tad comforting. Maybe because my feelings of Mari-san changed I’m now able to slowly adapt to her or something?
“Onee-san, did you find them?”
My thoughts crumbled as I cried back to Hana-san.
“Oh, right! Yeah, I did. I’ll be right there.”
After a few more items we packed her bags good and confirmed that Hana-san was ready for war. She’ll be gone for 3 days and it’ll just be me, mom and, Mari-san at home. I won’t lie, it’s going to be a bit sad to not see Hana-san bouncing around the halls for a bit.
With a deep yawn coming from Hana-san it was time to get ready for bed.
“Think you’re ready for tomorrow, Hana-san?”
“Alright, let’s set your stuff by the door and head in for the night.”
Hana gripped all her bags and pulled them together. After she stood up, she huffed and lifted them off the floor. She then waddled like a toy, bounced over, and plopped the bags down on the floor next to the door. It was a bit surreal watching her do it. Like a wind-up toy spinning its gears and running out of steam at the finish line.
“I can’t wait!”
She cried. Her eyes flared with passion.
With our last words hanging in the air we both made our way up the steps. Hana-san broke off from me first as my room is the last one at the end of the hall.
“Oh, did Hana-san pack her game?”
I walked back in to see Hana-san on her phone. Her tiny feet kicked from side to side.
“Hey, did you pack your games?”
“Oh! I’m so glad you reminded me! I wanna play with Sora-“
It seems she let that slip too. This “Sora” person must be a really good friend of Hana’s. Maybe someday I’ll meet her.
With that, I gently shut her door. The cool breeze from her room reminded me that the winter was nearly in full bloom now. Before going back to my room, I stepped back down the steps to make sure everything was in proper order. I don’t know, doing things this late into the night had a hint of nostalgia in my chest. The feeling is both comforting yet melancholy all at the same time.
“They won’t be home until late tonight, huh?”
Lately…I’ve had a restless feeling and I can’t understand why. I took a deep breath and shook off these feelings before heading back upstairs.
I whisper to nobody as I made my way back into my room. There I lied in bed searching the ceiling. By the time we finished up, it was too late into the night for me to call Mae-chan and talk with her. I haven’t been a good friend to her…if I didn’t know something like that happened. I closed my eyes now thinking harshly.
I still have a bunch of questions regarding the events surrounding my comatose…and it’s not as if I don’t want them answered. But I find it hard for me to breach the subject now. The mood lately had been one of a simpler time. Ma-chan’s always smiling, Mom has been happier knowing I accepted Mari-san at face value now. Hana has been treating me more sisterly than ever…and Mari-san…
I closed my eyes and thought back to how she sounded on the phone. Her aura made me feel…safe. I can’t deny that she truly sounds more motherly now than how she did when I first met her…no…first seen her again. The events before that night still play in my head now and then. I can’t for the life of me understand what was going through that idiot’s head…saying all those things to me.
But I’m glad…that we reached a mutual understanding.
Yeah, a mutual understanding. Two ideas colliding and crashing into one solid truth. That we both want my mom, Nakagawa Ayumi, to smile.
“I wonder…when mom realized she loved Mari-san?”
My face went warm for some reason. I touched my cheek and a burning sensation went about my face.
“Mh…I need to get to bed.”
Noticing the clock on my wall leading me too late into the night, I do my best to settle my mind down. I closed my eyes and faded off to sleep...
The world went black as the somber noise of the November night faded away. Suddenly I found myself in a dark world. As I stood there, voices echoed in…
“Please…wait for me…”
When I opened my eyes, a hollow screech echoed into the distance as if it came from outside. But that was the illusion that my mind played as the dream promptly faded from my memory.
Now awake, I felt sick as I clenched my pillow, unable to remember what occurred only moments ago. The ominous night gazed back at me. I turned to the clock revealing the early morning of 1 AM. My hands stretched out towards the ceiling as I lied there in the tranquil room.
I lifted myself to the side of my bed. With a shake of my head, the perils that haunted me remained as I put on my glasses. My hands were still shaking from the imagination. I felt chills rattling my bones. When I touched my face, tears laced my cheeks.
Pushing through I stepped off the bed. I felt my legs wiggle like jelly. No matter how much I tried I couldn’t shake it off.
I found myself walking to the door and peering out into the dark hallway. My hand was groggy, and my mouth was dry. I needed something to drink, to wash away this strange sensation from my body. As I callously made my way down the steps a glowing light illuminated from the living room. Tiny tapping rang out from the room as I approached. Her deep black hair waved back and forth as her thin fingers hit the keys on her laptop in sequence.
She lifted her head and turned towards me.
“M-Madoka-san…what are you doing up at this hour?”
I opened my mouth, but the words didn’t come out right away. My head felt dizzy so, I clenched the sofa she was sitting on.
“Are you okay?”
“I…had a strange dream…”
I could feel Mari-sans warm hands take mine as she pulled me down into the sofa. I rested on the arm side now. My cheeks pressed against the headrest.
“I’ll get you some water, stay right here.”
As I lied there with my arms as a cushion, my vertigo finally subsided. Now if only that shacky feeling would stop assaulting me.
I grabbed the bottled water handed to me. As I took a sip it wasn’t as refreshing as I hoped. It was chilled but my body wasn’t cooling down. Yet it wanted to keep shaking and there was nothing I could do to stop it…
“Are you not feeling well? Should I call your mom?”
I lied there for a bit before continuing.
“Yeah, I’m okay Mari-san.”
After a bit, I lifted my body, but my hands were still shaking, relentlessly.
“Did you have a nightmare?’
“…I don’t know.”
I couldn’t remember what I dreamt about. I couldn’t tell if it was scary, strange, or anything. Just that I woke up and felt…nervous.
“Madoka-san, your hands are shaking.”
Mari-san cupped my hands in hers.
“How do you feel?”
“…Anxious, I guess?”
I glanced over to see a large document full of words on the laptop screen. It seemed Mari-san’s been up late doing work for her job. I felt bad interrupting her now.
“Here Madoka. Come over here.”
She took my shoulders. I wasn’t sure what Mari-san was doing at first, so I just let my body float down in the motion of her arms. She then lied my head down…on her soft thighs.
With one hand she pets my head, gently. I wasn’t expecting anything like this, but I couldn’t move. My face became noticeably warm. It made me worry that Mari-san might notice.
“Mari-san…you don’t have to do this.”
“Hush now…this used to calm you down before. It might work now.”
She stopped working now. Not as if she would be able to reach her laptop now that she was handling me like this. I could feel the warmth of her legs heat my already burning face. A familiar scent captured me again. The fruity lemon that she wears all the time. This calmed me.
I wanted to sit up and face her, but I found my body didn’t want to comply. My mind was urging me to move even though I felt at peace on her lap. The jitters of my hands calmed down despite my heart beating at a faster rate than before. It was a strange sensation that nothing in my body was acting in sync. So, to not make more of a fuss I closed my eyes, letting my feelings drift away.
“I’m sorry…for bothering you, Mari-san.”
“No, don’t worry about it.”
I’m not sure how much time passed but I motionlessly stared at the illumination of her computer. Mari-san just kept petting away like soothing a puppy. That would make me the puppy though, right? Being Mari-san’s puppy? That’s a joke. I don’t have the energy to even keep up with her at the best of times.
“Hm, what’s so funny?”
A bit of my ill-humor seeped out. I groggily replied.
Her pets were calmer now. I’m not sure when it changed but it still felt good. Like nothing would hurt me as long as I lied here being pet like this.
“How are you feeling, Madoka-san?”
Mari-san whispered, causing me to come back to reality. I exhaled, releasing all the built-up tension.
“I don’t know what came over me. I just…felt scared suddenly. I never felt that way before.”
“Don’t worry…I’m here for you, Madoka-san.”
Mari-san sounded like she’s done this often...How close was I with her if that’s the case? Is it normal to lie on other's lap like this?
I lied there drifting in and out now thinking about it. Finally, I became lucid enough to lift my head.
“Ah, are you feeling better?”
I nodded. The heat from my face dissipated in the cool room. It was more refreshing than the water I drank moments ago.
“Yeah, much better.”
My body felt awake now. Which wasn’t a good thing, it being around 1 AM and all.
Mari-san reached out and touched the back of my hair. It was soothing but then almost immediately she retracted her reach.
She swallowed then turned back to her work. Now with a new resolve, she put the laptop back on her lap and began typing away.
“If you’re feeling better then you should get back to sleep, Madoka-san. You don’t want to be tired when you go to school.”
Her eyes didn’t leave the screen anymore. They focused intensely as she typed away.
Her fingers continued to move as she answered. I found myself wanting to ask her a few things about…us. How close we were to one another. The moment felt right if anything. My body was calm, and I was a bit curious now. So, I steeled my resolve and spoke…
“Can we talk?”
Mari-san’s fingers floated above her keys for a bit. She then bit her lip then turned to me. Her eyes weren’t as soft as before. No, they were stern, and it took me by surprise.
“You have school in the morning. You need to go back to bed right now, Madoka-san. I don’t want you feeling tired and not being able to focus on your studies.”
I was…taken aback by her words. They sounded less like the Mari-san I knew and more like…my mom.
“No buts. It’s not healthy for you to be up this late.”
Her tone was authoritative now. Only then did I realize that I misread the situation entirely. It made me feel a tad embarrassed. My face warmed up in shame.
“Oh…yeah, you’re right, Mari-san.”
“…Now get some rest. Try to stay in bed this time, okay?”
Was I scolded? I sat there for a moment before I stood up.
The meticulous typing persisted through her words. When I looked back it felt as if an invisible wall was put up between us now. No matter what I would say she wasn’t going to hear it. Mari-san wasn’t being cold…no, she was being a proper adult.
As I lied in bed now, I thought about what she did to calm my nerves…as if she’s been doing this for a long time. One minute she’s gentle…the next, she’s pointed and direct like a parental figure. I looked at the wall clock. It raced past the 2 AM mark and wasn’t stopping for me to figure my feelings out.
“Mari-san’s right…I need to get more sleep.”
My chest wasn’t pounding fast anymore. No, it felt as though it slumped down and turned cold. The corners of my eyes slightly welled up. I was like a child being put to bed in her eyes, wasn’t I?
And for some reason…
…that irritated me.