Chapter 8:

Stolen Vows II

Backward Steps

First Memory: Kazuta Takeda, 2015Bookmark here

Kouyama Ren was my age, and a little taller than me. We didn't live near each other, and yet we were close friends. I felt more like a friend to Ren than I did to all the others, even though I liked them too.Bookmark here

The Kazuta of the time is already quite like me: his hair already has the dark luster and volume usually maintained by me, and his face already has developed features, even if not yet fully molded. Height aside, this Kazuta already has a mature appearance, and I certainly appeared to be the most mature of my friends. On closer observation, perhaps even too different from them.Bookmark here

Maybe I was.Bookmark here

In front of that scene, me next to Ren, and everyone eating peanuts, I became aware of what we were experiencing: The second year of Chuugakkou in Kitagawara. I was thirteen years old, one of the youngest in the gang, and the year was 2015. And we were on summer vacation.Bookmark here

Yes, all of this could be concluded from the simple notion of Ren and I being together, and going out to buy something to eat for our friends... because that was a background to an event that, in a way, was something remarkable. In a negative way.Bookmark here

As I said, the content of the bag in my hands was something to eat: mochi. As soon as we got close to the rest of the group, Kenji took the bag from my hand, looking at what was inside. In front of all the noise, we grabbed our snacks and hurried out of there, leaving the frantic movement behind. The old man and I followed them closely.Bookmark here

"Hey, the today's mochi is really good!" comments Rena, popping one in her mouth as she walks.Bookmark here

"Shouldn't you eat the peanuts first?" interjects Ichise, glaring at the girl. He had a crush for her, I remember that, but Rena was a very serious girl, and didn't give him much opportunity to try anything.Bookmark here

"She says she leaves the best for last," says Yui, the quietest child in the class. And the most direct too.Bookmark here

While they talk about what order they eat their snacks, my past self and Ren walk further back, talking to themselves about something. Ren and I were very fond of sports, but he just watched and talked about it, while I was a player who took my performance very seriously. He liked to encourage me, telling me that I was improving my pace and serves, and that soon I would be able to play on professional teams, and I used to appreciate his encouragement. Being very intelligent, Ren was very aware of the most technical terms in the sport, and he was very good at explaining things. He knew how to express himself, and I admired that.Bookmark here

Ren was one of the few that I really paid attention to what he was saying.Bookmark here

"We've decided we're going to the creek, is that okay with you, Takeda, Ren?" Rena questions us, without looking at us. Being the youngest of the group, Rena didn't study with us, she was one grade under us, and yet she was a friend who always hung out with my friends, probably because of me. I always made it a point to ask her out with us, and she, responsible, always accepted when she was free of assignments.Bookmark here

"All right, Rena," says Ren, in her soft, friendly voice.Bookmark here

"Young Kouyama is very nice, don't you think?" the old man asks me, as we look at the children from behind. "The way he talks, the way he moves, everything he does passes on a great sense of comfort. And your period's self seems to like that a lot."Bookmark here

I feel a little ashamed, with him saying that. But it's true, Ren was a great friend, and how things turned out in the future makes me a little sad.Bookmark here

"At this pace of you two, we'll never get there!" shouts Kenji, starting a run soon after. Rena and Ichise start running along with him, shouting for him to stop before he kneads the remaining mochi in the bag, and even Yui quickens her pace without saying anything. Ren and I look at each other, then smile and run after everyone.Bookmark here

"This was your second year at Chuugakkou," the man comments, and I affirm. "You were thirteen, so were Ren and Kenji, and Yui and Ichise were fourteen." I affirm again. "It's the same grade as Hina, in the last memory we had. Um" the man scratches his chin, perhaps demonstrating that he is creating a line of reasoning " that time you hadn't yet meshed with the more influential classmates in school, right?"Bookmark here

I had started hanging out with my new friends only at the end of Chuugakkou, and I remembered it well. At the time, Ren was no longer with us, Rena was still in her last year of junior high, and Yui and Ichise got new friendships as well, although we still talked to each other a little. As for Kenji, he had sort of not accepted some of my attitudes, and because of this we quarreled a few times, and stopped being friends. Now that I am reviewing several of my attitudes, and hating myself for it, I can imagine that I must also be the wrong one in the matters of fights with Kenji, which won't even be a surprise exactly.Bookmark here

"A star still in discovery, I see."Bookmark here

"I am not a star. You must know well how...things ended."Bookmark here

I bow my head. Volleyball has become a complicated subject for me. But the man just looks away, with an expression of amusement.Bookmark here

"Of course I don't know; that's why I come to see everything with you."Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

The children had already reached the creek. Quite isolated from the rest of the road, in the midst of many trees and the clear environment, a small river was hidden, with clear water and stones splashing its surface. The water was cold and refreshing, ideal to face the sweltering Japanese summer. Taking off our clothes revealed the bathing suits we were wearing underneath our normal clothes. And we dove into the water, disconnecting from our surroundings.Bookmark here

Young Kazuta is one of the first to get out of the water. I remember how I was not so interested in staying in the creek for a long time. I only went there when everyone else wanted to go, and I preferred to watch them swim and throw water at each other rather than join in the games. I hated getting wrinkled fingers, and going home with a wet body was unpleasant.Bookmark here

I sit next to my past self, looking at the same things he does. Ichise plays with Kenji, dunking his head underwater only to see his desperation trying to escape, and Rena bets race with Yui at the other end of the river. My child self stares intently at his friends, his eyes indecipherable, his expression wintryly solid. Not unlike how I have always acted, at this moment I am taking in every sound around me, the rustling of the leaves as they move with the faint cool wind, the waters that renew themselves before us, and the voices of my friends. And certainly, I am enjoying this landscape.Bookmark here

With my icy eyes still wandering with my surroundings, I am surprised: Ren appears on the water, facing me. My past self was not expecting this, taking a visible fright on his face, which makes Ren laugh in a natural, jocular way.Bookmark here

"You should have seen your face" he says, stepping out of the water to stand beside me. "Let's join Rena and Yui's contest, what do you think?"Bookmark here

"I'm not really up for it..."Bookmark here

"I can imagine how boring it must be, being so much more athletic than us. There's not even a contest when your rivals are so weak, right?" He gives my arm a little nudge, and I look at him, smiling slightly. "You really don't want to? It'll be cool, I feel sorry for Rena, losing every time."Bookmark here

I look more closely at the girls: it's true, Rena is panting, while Yui is still swimming quietly, waiting for her opponent to get her act together to beat her again.Bookmark here

"Poor Rena. Doesn't she know that Yui is a swimming genius?"Bookmark here

"I think she's finding out the hard way." Ren holds my hand, trying to guide me into the water. "You need to make the most of your vacation. They're not forever, you know."Bookmark here

"Watching you guys is more fun for me," Kazuta comment, somewhat detached. "Go save Rena, I'll be cheering you on."Bookmark here

Ren arches his eyebrows slightly, as if feeling some kind of pity, then jumps into the water again. I am, as always, the supervisor of the clothes and snacks for the whole group, while they do what they like. Looking at the creek again, I don't feel much regret, I think that even today I am not so attracted by the idea of swimming, but the company of my friends does fill me with nostalgia. I feel that I could have enjoyed this period more, but maybe I really have, and I am just feeling that it could have been longer.Bookmark here

But everything passes, and people change. Not only vacations, Ren, nothing is forever; and the more enjoyable the things we do, the shorter they will seem in our eyes, and the more we will feel that we didn't enjoy them as we should have. And now I understand that very well.Bookmark here

"Thank you for bringing me here" I comment to the man in the top hat and tuxedo, who has been standing behind me the whole time. "I know I need to rethink about a lot of things in my life, but I'm glad to see that not everything I've built in my life is ugly stuff.Bookmark here

"I wish that was an example of 'pretty things', Kazuta" the man answers me, and a weight that wasn't there before falls on my shoulders. I almost forget about that, "I'm sorry that this memory of yours didn't have such a happy ending."Bookmark here

Truly, this period of my life had not ended very well. Who could have imagined that in just a few days, everything would change. We would no longer be such close friends, we would no longer have such meetings, and we would begin our arduous road called maturing. Bookmark here

All because of him.Bookmark here

After more time enjoying the moment, my friends finally decided to call it a day. After a somewhat noisy fight over who would get the spare mochi, which ended up with Kenji, we put on our dry clothes to return home. With the sun already setting, the six of us walked slowly through the city streets, somewhat tired. The day could be considered well spent by all of us.Bookmark here

We, the observing specters, followed the children closely. With the sun behind us, the landscape was colored by strong orange tones, giving a growing impression of the end of the day. The hot weather was easing, and the atmosphere was becoming more pleasant.Bookmark here

We separated as we got closer to each other's houses. First, Ren left us, followed by Yui and Ichise. Kenji entered one of the streets leading to the infamous square where I had talked with Hina, leaving only me and the older sister of the Kanzaki family on the street.Bookmark here

"My stuff stayed in the bag, right?" she asks me. We are now passing in front of the square, and the toys are fully visible from here, quite empty at the moment.Bookmark here

"They did, yes. Kenji had his eye on your peanuts, but he didn't get to pick them up."Bookmark here

Rena sighs, relieved, which makes my young self smile.Bookmark here

"Good. I left a mochi to give to Hina too, I imagine it's still there.'Bookmark here

"It is."Bookmark here

"Thanks."Bookmark here

The two walk towards Rena's house. Nostalgia was strong from the moment I arrived, but now, it weighs heavy on my heart. The nostalgia of that time almost makes me cry, and the feeling only gets stronger, the more I relive it. The young Rena is very different from the present, the attractive and imposing Kanzaki Rena, the girl of unwavering persistence and inexhaustible willpower. And perhaps this Kazuta is also very different from the Kazuta who fell into a coma, and now follows in his own footsteps again.Bookmark here

At some point, I started to make mistakes. And perhaps the trigger for my series of mistakes was here, in this very memory.Bookmark here

We arrive at Rena's house. She says goodbye to me, picking up her things, and goes inside the house, waving to me as I walk, alone, to the last stop of the Kazuta Express, my home.Bookmark here

"Great childhood, yours" the man next to me comments, as we watch the silent Kazuta walk.Bookmark here

"Only partially."Bookmark here

"You know what's going to happen now, don't you?"Bookmark here

I nod my head in agreement. The ugly part of this memory.Bookmark here

My teenage self comes home. It is a large house, with a yard and garage, and two stories. Because it was farther away from the main avenues, and far away from the condominium buildings, there was plenty of room for each family, which made for spacious houses and well-kept yards. The family dog, Lupus, is not outside, and there is a big red car parked right in front of our house. My child self stops walking.Bookmark here

"Sounds like this memory's Kazuta was already aware of who owned this car."Bookmark here

Yes, he did. Steps wide and hard on the ground, he approaches the house. His stiffness reflects all the anger the boy is feeling. He knows what is happening inside the house, just as I do.Bookmark here

Kazuta Naoki, my father, is inside.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.