It’s the 8th of April, and as I enter my classroom, my second day at St. Stephen's begins. As I entered, I noticed, many students were already there, among them I see some familiar faces, one of which is Kenzo Ishiguro. He noticed me on the door and put on a little smile. So, I went to him.
‘So, what do you think of the school?’
‘Well, it’s only my first day, but for a first impression, I’d say it’s good. The girls here are really cute!’
‘That’s the first thing you notice?’
‘Well, what can I say? My eyes naturally seek out beauty.’
‘Anyways, our class will start soon, so we’ll talk later during the lunch break.’
And with that, I return to my seat. The seating arrangement is probably the only thing that isn’t based on ranking here. I don’t sit behind Kenzo. he sits on the first seat in the fourth column, while I sit on the second seat in the second column.
Minutes after I settled on my seat, our teacher entered the classroom. Then one by one just as tough as yesterday, the classes went by until finally, it was lunchtime. This time it was he who approached me.
‘So… wanna head to the cafeteria?’
‘Nah, I’ve brought lunch, and it’ll be pointless anyway.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The cafeteria gets way too crowded within minutes after the bell rings, we won’t be able to buy anything if we go now.’
‘Wow, looks like you’ve learned a lot about this place in just one day, but then again that’s your specialty, right? Learning things quickly.’
‘I didn’t get that information for free, I had to entertain someone rather annoying for the whole lunch break as payment.’
‘Knowing you I’m surprised you survived that long.’
‘Anyway, let’s go eat outside.’
‘Well, we can go outside but I haven’t brought my lunch and you’re saying no cafeteria either.’
‘Weren’t you listening? I said I’ve brought lunch, I didn’t say it was just for me. I’ve got enough for both of us.’
‘Wow, thanks, but since when have you become so considerate?’
‘Sis packed it, she thought you’d be too tired to make one for yourself, considering moving and all.’
‘Now that isn’t surprising at all, Seina has always been sincere and it seems she hasn’t changed. I’ll thank her when I see her today.’
‘Yeah, there’s something I need to talk to you about after we’re done eating, shall we get moving then?’
‘Sure, let’s go!’
That’s right Kenzo Ishiguro the class topper, rank one, and I, Akio Takase the second topper, rank two, know each other. We are cousins. Kenzo is the only son of my aunt and uncle from my mother’s side. And today we’re meeting after 5 years since we last saw each other.
The first time I met him was about 7 years ago when I was 8. I along with Sis and mom used to live in Takayama, while our father worked and lived in the U.S. Even then, everyone around me used to compare me with them, I was always regarded as second class, that I don’t have what they’ve got. There was just one expectation. The only person who didn’t compare me with anyone was my mother. She always praised me for my achievements however small they might be, talked to me about my mistakes and how I should avoid them and improve myself. Every time looking at my scorecard she never questioned if I was the topper or not, nor she ever mentioned if my score was less than my sister’s. When everyone around me labeled me as second class my mother alone looked at me for who I was.
Back then, Kenzo used to visit our house from time to time to deliver fruits from his garden, and one day my mother introduced us.
‘Akio, you remember aunty Kyoko? He’s her son Kenzo, say Hi to him.’
His forehead frowned, his eyes narrowed, his expression was somewhat of disgust. I figured he’s just like everyone else, but that was of no surprise to me. Most people I’ve met in my life were like that, although it is the first time when someone isn’t even trying to hide it.
‘Okay, you two talk and play, while I’ll go get something to eat for both of you.’
We said it simultaneously. And since it was my mom who asked, I tried talking with him.
‘So, would you like to play a video game or go outside?’
‘First, let me make it clear I don’t wanna do anything with a Chump like you, I’m going along with it just because Aunty told me to.’
‘What? well, just so you know, I don’t wanna do anything with an idiot like you either.’
‘What did you call me?’
‘Exactly what you are, an idiot!’
‘You’ve got some nerve, Chump! You looking for a fight?’
‘Right back at ya, Dumbass!’
We ended up fighting and being scolded by my mom for it. After that I didn’t expect to ever see him again, neither did I wanted to, but he showed up as usual none of the less. We didn’t get along right away as apparent from our first encounter but as time passed and we talked to each other I started to understand him better. He was short-tempered and a bit foul-mouthed, but he wasn’t a bad guy, he wasn’t like everyone else. Even though we didn’t like each other at the beginning, he didn’t belittle me, he never said anything about how inferior I was to my father, actually we never even talked about studies. Kenzo wasn’t the type to hide anything, he always spoke his mind without any hesitation.
And soon we became best friends, we were in the same school but never talked to each other but now we were pretty much inseparable. The school, playing outside or at my house, we were always together. I was weak as a kid and was bullied by other kids often, probably because of jealousy. And every time it happened, he stood up for me, and though he particularly wasn’t very strong himself, he never backed down from anything. He was just that stubborn.
When we had our exams, Sis tutored us together, sometimes we ditched her and went to play outside. When we didn’t have exams, we goofed around. Thanks to his foul mouth, we often got into trouble and had to make a run for it, but still, I believe that those two years were the best time of my life. He was the only other person than my mom who didn’t compare me with anyone and saw me for who I was and accepted me. I could talk my mind with him with ease, not as much as he does, but I opened up a little bit. It was all going so well but then mom fell sick.
She had a weak heart, and that had caused a lot of problems for her in the past but this time father decided to move her to Tokyo for better medical care. That meant us leaving here for good. And though I didn’t want to, I didn’t have a choice. I knew it was for my mom’s sake, so I couldn’t oppose it.
As the sunset and the daytime were about to end, we were standing next to a tree, taking shelter in its shadow, as we caught our breath after what was going to be the last foot race we would have in that town. Drowned in sweat, both Kenzo and I were facing the same direction as we leaned on the tree with our backs to the setting sun.
‘So, you’ll be moving out tomorrow, huh?’
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘I’m gonna miss you.’
‘I bet you will.’
‘I mean it.’
‘You should be a little more honest with yourself, it’s not gonna kill you, you know?’
‘I will die of embarrassment if I just said everything that comes to mind as you do.’
‘I’ll… miss you too, I guess…’
‘What? What did you just say?’
‘Wow, so you can speak your mind, huh? Hahaha…’
‘Hey, I said shut up!’
After that we moved to Tokyo, and though we couldn’t spend time together like before we stayed in touch through phone calls and chatting and remained good friends. He even came to visit us from time to time. And then sometime around August, my father got an invite to a science conference in Switzerland, and he asked me to come along with him.
We went to Switzerland and stayed there for about seven days. I expected it’d be boring but to my surprise, it was fun. I got to see a lot of amazing things and for the first time understood the true beauty of nature. That was where I drew my first painting, of the lake from the top of a hill. I had never painted anything before so I was pretty excited to show this to my mom when I return home. The next morning, when I woke up, I got the news, my mom had died.
We left in a hurry or so I think, to this date my memories of that day are still hazy. I couldn’t feel anything, couldn’t understand anything, couldn’t think anything, after those words entered my brain, it completely froze. Throughout our way back I didn’t say a single word. Tears flowing constantly covered my lifeless face. I don’t think I even blinked through the entire journey. My mind, unable to process anything anymore couldn’t even let me mourn, complain to God, or regret not being by her side. All I could do was sit as uncontrollable tears kept coming down from my eyes.
Even at her funeral, nothing changed for me. People came to me, gave their condolences, Sis tried to comfort me, but all that was to no avail. Nothing felt real to me. I wasn’t able to accept, I didn’t want to accept, that I was in a world she was no longer of. But in that state of mind, I believe that I caught a glimpse, a glimpse of Kenzo standing alone away from everyone else. People I despised, people I don’t even remember names of, came to me, even if only out of curtsey, but my best friend didn’t. He just stood there alone the entire time. Without even glancing at me, without even flinching, He just stood there alone. That was the last time I saw him.
After that day, he never visited us. He didn’t call or text me. And for some reason, I didn’t either. Since then, we have never talked to each other until now. After five years he came to Tokyo again, he moved here and is now living in the school dorms.
‘So, what did you wanted to talk about?’
‘You know it’s Sis’s birthday today.’
‘Yeah, so since she’ll be moving abroad with dad after her graduation, this will be her last birthday in Japan. So, we’re having a little party tonight, local relatives, and her friends will be coming. And we’d appreciate it if you’d join us as well.’
‘Sure, I’ll be there.’
‘Cool, So I guess we should get moving, class will be starting soon.’
‘Ok, Let’s go’
We never talked about studies, but I knew that in almost every school test we both got a perfect score, so at the time it was unclear which one of us was superior and I didn’t care either, but never I knew his true potential. And now we’re rivals.
After all this time, I didn’t expect to see him again. I have no idea what to make of it. I don’t know what happened to him that day, but he didn’t seem like the Kenzo I have known, who was my best friend. If he is the no. 1 student of this school, he is my most formidable rival. As far as I could remember he bested me in almost everything, I could never beat him in a fight, he is better at social interactions, always speaks his mind without any hesitation, and most of all never back down from anything. I on the other hand have always lost to him, can’t make a conversation with almost anyone, always hide my true feelings, and have always run from my problems and the people who cause them. I couldn’t fight like him, I couldn’t find a way to fight it. The only people with whom I spoke my mind, my mom and him are gone, one is no longer of this world, the other is no longer at my side. I have no one who listens to me, who understands me.
After school, I went home and was relaxing in my room after making preparations for the party, when suddenly the door opened and Sis entered my room carrying several dresses. As she entered, she was talking on her phone confirming the time of the party with her friend, she hanged up the call immediately to ask me a question.
‘Hey, which one should I wear tonight, Akio?’
‘I don’t know much about dresses and I think you’ll look good in all of them.’
‘That’s no good at least give me a suggestion.’
‘Fine, the blue one then.’
‘Blue… hmm… but I think red will look better though.’
‘Then go with the red one.’
‘But you first said blue, do you want me to wear the blue one?’
‘Sis, I don’t care, just wear whatever you want.’
‘Ok… Akio. Try to enjoy the party, ok? I want to enjoy my birthday with you. Because we won’t be able to celebrate together for the next three years.’
She sat down next to me on the bed I was lying. I felt bad for taking out my frustration on her. Although she doesn’t give me much of her time, I know deep down she cares about me.
‘Yeah… I’m sorry Sis, I was being rude’
‘Oh, No, no need to apologize, it’s fine. Hmm… Oh, you’ve invited Kenzo, right?’
‘Yeah, I did. He said he’ll be here.’
‘Oh good, I was worried about you. That after I graduate, you’ll be lonely in this mansion, but now that Kenzo is here, I’m relieved. I’m sure he’ll visit from time to time. You, be sure to invite him, ok?’
‘Yeah, I will Sis.’
‘Ok, then I’ll get dressed for the party, you get ready too.’
‘I will in a minute’
In three years? Well, at least Sis’s optimistic. I’m not even sure if I’ll be able to stay in the top five, so what are my chances of getting into the same college as her? And the one who relieved her tension is the same person who caused stress for me, she thinks Kenzo will be there to give me company in our big empty house. After all that time, will he come back here, now? And when I’m his biggest rival? I don’t think so.
I do understand why she was worried though, our mansion is really big, it’s a family property whose current owner is our father. It’s three stories with about five rooms on each floor, my room is on the second floor right next to Sis’s room, but we didn’t use it until five years ago when we moved here. Father worked in the U.S. and mother preferred to live in a quieter place with fresher air.
As the party started the living room was filled with familiar faces, most of whose names I couldn’t remember. There were our local relatives and Sis’s friends, and amidst them, another familiar face emerged and walked to me, it was Kenzo.
‘Yo! Where did the birthday girl go? I lost sight of her after the cake cutting’
I didn’t know either, but I could recognize some of her friends at a little distance in front of us, so I pointed him in their direction.
‘Her friends are over there, she must close by as well’
‘Where? I don’t know who her friends are.’
‘Can’t you see that group of girls her age over there? Never mind come with me.’
I took him to them, and when we got close, I noticed Sis was standing among them.
‘Hey there, big Sis, wish you a very happy birthday!’
‘Thanks a lot… Kenzo.’
‘What? you have another brother, Seina?’
‘No, he is my cousin.’
‘Did you say, Kenzo? Do you mean Kenzo Ishiguro? The top ranker of the entrance exams?’
‘Yeah… That’s him’
‘Wow, he seems more like your brother.’
Here we go again, just like always, people never miss a chance. But at this point, I’m used to this, but I still try to avoid people like them, or at least any conversation with them.
‘If you’ll excuse me.’
I moved back to the sidelines, and I’d prefer if no one else reached out to me. I’d just avoid everyone until this party is over. As I was thinking that I saw my sister coming towards me.
‘Hey, Akio have you seen my phone? I can’t remember where I put it.’
‘No, I have no idea. Wait I’ll try calling it, if it’s close by we’ll hear the ring’
‘I don’t think it’s here, I’ve already checked and we won’t be able to hear it in all this sound anyway. Will you go check in your room? I might have left it there when I came in earlier.’
‘Yeah, sure, I’ll go look’
‘Give me your phone for now, I wanna click selfies’
‘Ok, sure, here you go.’
I gave Sis my phone and left to check my room. When I think about it, she was talking on her phone when she came into my room, it might just be there.
Both our suspicions were right. When I arrived in my room, I found her phone on my bed. She must have put it there when she was talking to me.
‘Why are sulking alone in there?’
As I heard the familiar voice, I faced up to see a girl with open long dark brown hair and in a red dress, standing before me was the class vice rep Chizuru Yukawa. With no glasses and her fair complexion on a red dress, she looked really pretty. Maybe Sis would’ve looked better in red as well. But right now, it’s her standing there, asking an unusual question. And why is she here? I didn’t invite her, is she acquainted with Sis?
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Your sister invited me.’
‘That’s not what I meant, what are you doing here in my room?’
‘This is your room? Really? it’s so plain. Doesn’t boys make a mess of their rooms and has posters and stuff on their walls.’
‘I think you’ve been watching too much anime, I prefer my room clean and organized.’
‘But it isn’t just clean and organized, it’s downright bland. Don’t you have any hobbies? I don’t see any video games or manga. Get a life dude.’
‘Again, what are you doing in my room?’
‘If you’d like I could lend you some of my favorites. I think you’ll enjoy them.’
‘What, are you trying to reduce competition by getting your rival addicted to manga?’
‘You think I’m that kind of person? And besides, if I wanted to, there are more effective ways for a girl to mess with a boy’s mind.’
‘Wh… What do you mean??’
‘Want me to show you?’
‘Hhh… No! just tell me why you’re here?’
‘I was going to the bathroom and got lost’
‘Oh! for god’s sake, just tell me what you’re do… wait what?’
‘Your sister gave me directions that it’s this way but your house is crazy huge so I got lost’
‘Oh, come with me I’ll show you.’
I took her to the bathroom and was about to leave but…
‘Wait here for me.’
‘Can’t you go back by yourself?’
‘Nope, what if I got lost again?’
‘You can’t go back the way you just came from?’
‘Hey! I’m giving you a chance to escort a lady such as myself, just be grateful and wait here like a gentleman.’
What’s with this girl? and what’s wrong with me? When I’m with her, my mind goes blank I couldn’t process fast enough, so I just speak out without thinking. What is this? Have I been infected by Kenzo or something? Normally I wouldn’t even have a conversation with someone for this long, and not only I did, but it didn’t bother me either. Why?
‘Ok, let’s go.’
The girl said as she grabbed my hand, almost simultaneously. Again, I couldn’t think of any response and just went with her flow. The vice rep of our class, the girl whom I see as nothing more than a rival, who sees me as nothing more than a rival. I wonder why I can’t think straight when I’m with her. Unable to resist, I just go along as she leads me somewhere with a hold of my hand. I don’t know why, but for some reason, it feels nostalgic.