The street back to my home is empty.
Only a few street lights are shining in this dark, chilly night.
“Are you feeling better now?” Chiaki asked, walking beside me, awaiting my answer as she looked at me.
“Yes,” I pinched her cheek.
As usual, she slapped my hand away playfully. “Good then,” she replied.
“Shin!” Suddenly I heard my mother yelling my name at a distance, standing in front of our house’s entrance, cheerfully waving at me. “Shinnn!”
“Mom,” I shout back. “It’s cold outside, at least put on a scarf.”
“Welcome home,” she said, with her gentle smile.
“I’m back,” I replied.
Her toes are a bit red with her wearing slippers only, and her nose as well. She’s also slightly clenching her fists; she must had been waiting outside for us, at least for the past 15 minutes.
“Shin’s mom,” Chiaki rushed to her as she took off her blue jacket. She then wrapped it across my mother’s shoulder and covered her back. “Let’s go inside.”
“Thank you, Chiaki,” my mother nodded, as Chiaki led her back in.
After I washed my face and hands, I sat in front of our square dining table with four seats. Chiaki offered to help my mother in heating up the dishes, so I just sat there, without anything to do.
I looked at my watch.
I then set a timer again to 12:00AM.
I stood up from my seat and helped them serve our dinner to the table.
After everything’s set, Chiaki sat beside me, as my mother sat in front of me.
“Thank you for the meals,” Chiaki and I said before digging into our dinner. My long-awaited dinner. Vegetable and seafood tempura, ramen, deep-fried pork cutlet, and sushi. As always, a weird combination.
Chiaki started coughing, as I saw a half-eaten tempura in between her chopsticks. So it’s tempura this time. Her face is a bit red; she looks kind of cute.
“Oh dear, are you ok?” my mother asked.
I went and poured her a glass of water. “Are you ok?”
She only nodded as she drank it.
“Is the tempura too salty?” my mother asked, as she took one and tested it.
She paused for a moment. “Too sweet.”
“Shin, you shouldn’t laugh at your mom’s cooking,” my mother said.
“I’m sorry,” I said, as I continued to hold my laughter in.
“Sorry Chiaki,” my mother continued. “Maybe we shouldn’t eat the tempura.”
Chiaki shook her hands in denial. “No, it’s ok, Shin’s mom. Just that… It's been some time since someone cooked for me. So, that’s why… I might have rushed a bit in eating just now.”
“Oh?” my mother said. “You could come here anytime you want, Chiaki. We always have an extra pair of chopsticks.”
“Right, Shin?” my mother grinned at me. She probably thought that I brought Chiaki because of her nagging this morning.
“You could even be a permanent member of our household,” she said, with a soft voice.
I choked on my ramen.
I looked at Chiaki; she didn’t seem to hear it.
“What was that?” Chiaki asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “My mom is just glad to have you here.”
“Oh, thanks for having me, Shin’s mom.” Chiaki said.
“Yes. My son would be glad to have you,” my mother answered bluntly. “Say, Chiaki. Do you have a boyfriend?”
Chiaki choked on her tempura, as she quickly shook her head.
My mother passed me an obvious look: she shifted her eyes to her, and back to me. Back, and forth, trying to hint at me to confess without worrying.
I mouthed a “stop” at her.
She mouthed a “fine” back at me.
“Sorry Chiaki,” my mother said. “Shin’s the type that needed a push. When he was small, he planted a small tree in his kindergarten. But when his teacher asked who did it, he thought he did something wrong, and wouldn’t raise his hand up. He came home with a flustered face that day, and I had to accompany him to clear his misunderstanding with his teacher. Oh, he was so cute back then.”
“Mom,” I said. “Can we not do this while I’m just sitting right in front of you?”
“But it’s true,” my mother said. “Right, Chiaki?”
“Yes,” Chiaki looked at me. “It’s true.”
I felt my body heating up, as I continued to slurp my ramen.
After about half an hour, I washed my bowl and plate, and was already heading upstairs for a bath while Chiaki and my mother were still chatting about my childhood at the table.
I took off my watch.
3 hours left.
After my bath, I walked past my mother’s room. She had a dress hanging outside of her closet. Is she planning to go somewhere tomorrow?
Without overthinking it, I went back to my room and napped for 10 minutes or so. Then, as I laid on my bed I heard a bunch of notification sounds from my phone. A pile of texts from Hideki came flooding in, asking if I’m free on New Year’s Eve, saying that he heard the shrine at my town has very effective amulets. He wanted to come.
I said yes.
It’s easier to handle them this way—if they are all within my reach.
After a few seconds, he replied to me with a ‘:)’.
“Shin,” Chiaki suddenly knocked on my door. “Can I come in?”
I changed my posture to sitting on my bed. “Yeah, sure.”
Then she opened the door; I stared at her, a bit surprised.
“Are you wearing my clothes?” I asked.
“Is it weird?” she said. “Your mom said I should bathe here before I go home, in case I catch a cold. I didn’t bring extra clothes with me, so…”
Even though she is only a bit shorter than I am, my white sweater looked quite big on her. The sleeves are longer than her jacket, enough to cover both her hands.
“Don’t stare at me like that,” she said, flustered as she turned her face away from me. “Is it that weird?”
“No, of course not. It suits you just fine,” I replied. “So, ummm… want to read some books?”
I gestured at my bookshelf: a whole collection of myths, mysteries, and miracles recorded around the world. Wow, I’m such a nerd.
“Is that… is that ‘Percy Jackson’?” she asked, as her eyes stopped at one section of my shelf. “You also read novels?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I have all five of them. You can borrow them if you want.”
“Really?” she asked, now standing in front of my bookshelf and taking the first ‘Percy Jackson’ book out from it.
She then sat in front of the bookshelf and started to read. Her eyes locked on every word in the book, and some water droplets on her wet hair sparkled under my room’s ceiling lamp. Her mouth would always mumble something, when she read. It’s like she’s telling herself all these little stories that she has experienced before her eyes.
I stood up, grabbed a “Tales of Eros” and sat beside her.
My mother would be mad if she saw us like this. I bet she somehow persuaded Chiaki into my room, wearing my clothes, in order to motivate me to make a move. She’d never have thought we are just reading like this, like we are two 10-years-old children.
Chiaki leaned a bit towards me. Her wet hair rested on my shoulder, as she flipped the next page, eyes still locked on her book. I can smell the scent of my shampoo on her hair.
I didn’t open my book. I just sat there, beside her.
The room was quiet, devoid of any sound but her reading the stories quietly, and my heart thumping loudly.
I wished times like these would last forever.