Chapter 11:

Ch.9 Mae-chan

Sleeping Princess

There I stood on the platform waiting for the train to sweep me away to school. It is a Tuesday morning and knowing I still have four more days of this made my shoulders slump the more. Not only that…this morning was uniquely hectic. Seems mom and Mari-san couldn’t find anything and of course they turned to me. Never thought you could lose your briefcase under the sink…Bookmark here

“That’s ridiculous…”Bookmark here

I scold. Those two need to get it together. I breathe out as the train pulled up. The bags in my eyes weighed me down. But the train was too crowded so finding a seat would prove to be near impossible. So, I just idly drifted as I looked around, trying to keep my mind entertained.Bookmark here

“Hm…”Bookmark here

Now that I thought about it…that ash-haired girl isn’t on today. Or maybe she is but I just haven’t spotted her yet. I thought back to yesterday…how I chased her. Now I felt bad about it. I wanted to find her and apologize for scaring her or whatever I did to her…Bookmark here

With a sigh, I plead…Bookmark here

“I hope school goes by fast today…”Bookmark here

Not to my liking the morning dragged on. With Conway-san skipping also, it left me with few people to chat with. It persisted until lunch. As the cold wind nipped at my thigh, I sat there…waiting.Bookmark here

“Where is she?”Bookmark here

At the front gates of the school, the cloudy day eagerly prompted me to go inside. All morning I haven’t seen Mae-chan. I tried my best to call her earlier, but she wasn’t picking up. I got a worsening feeling in my stomach and it wouldn’t let up. It was lunchtime and we usually met out here before making our way into the cafeteria. After the third time calling her phone a voice ruggedly breached the phone.Bookmark here

“Mae-chan, where are you?”Bookmark here

“Oh! Hey Mado-chan. What’s up?”Bookmark here

“Ah… are you off-campus for lunch today?”Bookmark here

“Oh… no… I actually didn’t come to school today.”Bookmark here

“Oh… are you sick?”Bookmark here

“Y-Yeah, I just… didn’t feel it today. Hehe…”Bookmark here

This isn’t the first time Mae’s done this. Now looking back on my first day of school, Mae was as healthy as a horse one day then completely out of energy the next. As if jigsaw pieces were lining up in front of me, now I began slowly unraveling this new Ma-chan…Bookmark here

“Are we still going to go to karaoke?”Bookmark here

She paused for a moment. I could hear her inhaling. Then with a slight sigh, she promptly responded to my expectations…Bookmark here

“Probably not. How about tomorrow instead?”Bookmark here

“Sure, we’ll go tomorrow.”Bookmark here

We both hovered on the line for a few seconds before I caved in disconnected. Knowing full well what I planned to do, I nodded with conviction. My fingers moved across the phone’s screen and clicked another name. It only took a ring or two before she answered.Bookmark here

“Hello, Madoka?! Is everything alright?!”Bookmark here

“Mom calm down. Everything’s fine.”Bookmark here

“I just got a little worried. You never call during school hours.”Bookmark here

I stroked the back of my neck. She completely forgot that she was the one who told me to call her?Bookmark here

“Remember you told me to call you and tell you if I was still going to karaoke?”Bookmark here

“Oh, have your plans changed, Madoka?”Bookmark here

I searched for the drab clouds dancing about the sky. They’re low in spirit, not mirroring my resolve.Bookmark here

“No, they haven’t. I’m still going out with Ma-chan right after school!”Bookmark here

I nearly shouted, causing my mom to respond with a slight giggle. It’s already been decided. Mae just doesn’t know yet.Bookmark here

“Oh, that’s good. You both have fun and be safe. And if anyone tries to talk to you-”Bookmark here

“I know mom, run… Have fun with Mari-san. I’ll call you when I’m on my way home.”Bookmark here

“Oh, glad to know you’re listening to my advice. Okay Madoka, I’ll see you when you get home, okay?”Bookmark here

“Okay. Bye, mom.”Bookmark here

I have to say…mom certainly is overbearing sometimes. But now with a new resolve, I turned back to the school. I’m getting tired of having delinquents as friends. I’m making that blue-haired troublemaker go to karaoke with me if it’s the last thing I do. I wanted to sing STARS music today and I’ll get what I want. But even if I say that it wasn’t the case…Bookmark here

I want to know what’s truly going through Mae.Bookmark here

Because her smile now reminds me of one person…Bookmark here

Koda Mari-san….Bookmark here

And that scares me.Bookmark here

As soon as class was over, I raced out without a second of hesitation. Conway-san never showed up either leaving no need for an explanation for why I wasn’t taking the same way home today.Bookmark here

I checked the GPS on my phone and follow my way to Mae-chan’s house. They still lived in the same part of town, but I wanted to be safe rather than sorry.Bookmark here

As I listened to the robotic voice directing my steps, I contemplated what I’ll say. I’m coming over unannounced and I knew it. I’m forcing my way into her personal life. But I don’t care. I’m her childhood friend and I should know more about her than anyone else, dang it!Bookmark here

Okabe-san’s tease riddled through my mind and it irritated me. I’ve been complacent and enough is enough. I need to stand up and learn what I want to learn. No matter who stands in my way!Bookmark here

As I walked down the sidewalk, I came to a house with an iron gate encapsulating a small home. As I followed it around it led to a twin door opening. I pushed it in, letting my slender body merge inside before shutting it behind me. Flowers of teal and fuchsia withered by the seasons greeted me. I wandered on the ash cobblestone steps leading to the burgundy wood porch. Before I made my way up the stairs, the scent of dewy flowers resonated passed me. It was nothing short of nostalgic.Bookmark here

I recanted a fond memory, me running in this very garden, chasing after Ma-chan. Usually, I was too timid to do things like this with others but Ma-chan was different.Bookmark here

That same day I was stung by a honeybee. I kept crying and nobody could calm me down. But then Ma-chan walked through the door. With a stick in hand, she revealed to me that she, in her words, destroyed the hive. Her arm was covered in stings, but she didn’t cry. No, she smiled like a warrior returning from battle. I couldn’t help it, seeing her hurt. So, I ran to her and scolded her.Bookmark here

I yelled at her about being reckless and saying, “You could have died!” over and over again. Now looking back with the mind of a teenager, I doubt she would have died…but what can I say, I was young and ignorant…Bookmark here

But it warmed my chest nonetheless…Bookmark here

She…protected me. I felt safe around her.Bookmark here

I suddenly came back to reality. There I stood looking at the door. My legs trembled a bit knowing…that the simple times were behind me and now complicated things faced me from here on. Shaking off this uncertainty, I approached the door. With a knock, I step back. I wasn’t sure if anyone heard it, so I went for a second set when the door pushed forward. From within a figure emerged.Bookmark here

“Yes?”Bookmark here

“Oh, hello Mr. Watanabe.”Bookmark here

A familiar face came into view. He stood around 6.2ft. He was burly and had a beard. With big arms and legs full of muscle and a rugged voice mirroring the roaring oceans. Despite seeming like a man who could lift me and throw me he was kind and a bit of an introvert. Last I heard he worked for a computer tech company that’s been booming recently. He makes a decent wage and their family lives comfortably.Bookmark here

“Ah, Mado-chan. It’s great to see you!”Bookmark here

He stepped outside and wrapped is broad shoulders around me. I wasn’t expecting this but then we have known each other for just as long as I’ve known Mae-chan. So, I returned his embrace.Bookmark here

His smell was ashy yet calming. One could tell he was a smoker but that added to his charm. It reminded me of when I was young. Specifically, a time when dad dropped me off at Mae-chan’s house.Bookmark here

My parents had business to do but I wanted to play with dad, so I pouted and cried because I didn’t get my way. Then out of nowhere, Mr. Watanabe picked me up. It was that day I learned how to fly. We soared together around the neighborhood.Bookmark here

The memory made my heart tense.Bookmark here

He then let me go, waking me up from my recollection.Bookmark here

“Ah, are you here to visit Mae?”Bookmark here

“Yeah, that was my intention.”Bookmark here

“Please, come right in. I’ll show you to her room. She wasn’t feeling the best today, so we let her stay home.”Bookmark here

I followed him in, and to my surprise, the place is full of ellipticals and other exercise equipment. Mae’s mom is an exercise junky and tends to buy different methods of workout until she gets bored. Seems she hasn’t changed much since I last came over their place. The odor in the home was full of something I could only compare to melancholy.Bookmark here

As if being drawn in by the past, my eyes were captivated by the kitchen table. I reminisced about sitting there with Mae-chan making origami. I was slightly better at it than Mae and we would fight because she couldn’t make cranes as good as me. That was a slight ego boost that I was still proud of today. But now I look at it and it’s burly red color faded into a somber brown by the sun. Time has taken its toll on it…Bookmark here

“Hey…”Bookmark here

Her father broke my idle thoughts as we walked down the hall. The grim light from outside didn’t reach this impasse so, it felt like journeying down a dark cave.Bookmark here

“I think she’ll appreciate you coming today.”Bookmark here

I didn’t know what he meant by those words. His voice felt warm but also distant. It gave me a chill as he knocked on her door.Bookmark here

“Ah, Mae. Someone’s at the door for you.”Bookmark here

“If it’s someone from my class then tell them I’m sick with an incurable disease! They shouldn’t come in.”Bookmark here

“Honey, that’s not going to work every time…”Bookmark here

“…I know, dad.”Bookmark here

“Well, she’s coming in.”Bookmark here

He jarred the door then glanced at me. His shoulders slumped as he made his way back down the hall. He reminded me of a boxer who just lost a match, defeated and tired.Bookmark here

With a sigh, I invaded Ma-chan’s room. In the dark cavern, an impression of a human’s body lied under the blankets. With slight fake coughs indicating sickness, she warily slipped her hand from under the covers and pointed to the desk on the other side of the room.Bookmark here

“Just lie the paperwork over there. Thanks for coming.”Bookmark here

I crept over without a word. With a soft plop, I sat on her bed. She shriveled from under the covers before lifting her head in seeming confusion. When our eyes met, I saw the fear capture her eyes.Bookmark here

“Ah?! Mado-chan?!”Bookmark here

I pushed the blankets back over her face and forced her under. As I lied on top of her, I tossed my bag to the floor.Bookmark here

“How dare you stand me up!”Bookmark here

I cried as I attempted to drown her in her covers. The scent of Mae filtered in my nose as we tussled. But I couldn’t let the nostalgia take me away from this fight. The battle was growing fierce as I suffocated her underneath the fluffy sheets.Bookmark here

“Mado-chan! Forgive me, please!”Bookmark here

“Like heck, I will! I wanted to sing STARS music and you ruined my plans!”Bookmark here

Suddenly, my body felt weightless as she pushed up causing me to fall to the other end of the bed. Darkness took over my sight as the covers engulfed me now.Bookmark here

“How does that feel?!”Bookmark here

“Wait, Ma-chan!”Bookmark here

We tussled for a while longer before it all suddenly ended. There we lied in a messed-up bed panting like dogs. But then Mae-chan started cackling like a hyena.Bookmark here

“Wow, that was fun.”Bookmark here

“It’s been a while since we’ve done something like that, huh Mae-chan?”Bookmark here

“Yeah…too long, Mado-chan...”Bookmark here

I looked at her now. She wore her gym clothes. White with pink strips, something comfortable to laze around with. It felt like something Mae-chan would wear, bringing me back to the old days. Now the mood was calm. So, I stood up and walked over to the wall. I searched for the light and when I found it, I discovered the utter terror of the cave of Ma-chan.Bookmark here

“Why are all the people in my life’s room a mess?”Bookmark here

I thought about my family and how they kept themselves. Mom called me a neat freak, but I couldn’t get how people lived like this.Bookmark here

“Don’t touch anything! I have everything where I want it Mado-chan.”Bookmark here

“That’s just a lazy person’s excuse! I’m straightening up in here.”Bookmark here

Dejected, Mae sat on her bed and watched me collect the clutter. It only took around five or so minutes for the room to look suitable for a guest. Once I was finished to a satisfying point, I noticed Mae wasn’t saying anything. She was just watching me without a word. So, I finished up and placed the bags down by her computer desk.Bookmark here

“I remember…”Bookmark here

She spoke in a whisper.Bookmark here

“I remember when we were so close…that we could tell each other everything.”Bookmark here

My eyes opened wide. I couldn’t understand what she was saying so, I just sat there like a stone.Bookmark here

“I…missed you cleaning my room, Madoka.”Bookmark here

Her cheeks shined in the light as tears raced down her chin. Only then did I rush over and sit next to her in the bed.Bookmark here

“Mae, what’s wrong?”Bookmark here

“I don’t know…there’s just days that I can’t be bothered with doing things.”Bookmark here

She looked at the wall across the way as if it were feeding her answers.Bookmark here

“I just wake up and I have no energy. All I want to do is lie in bed and disappear. It’s…so exhausting.”Bookmark here

She then put her hand on my thigh as her voice tried to escape.Bookmark here

“Mado-chan…I want to apologize.”Bookmark here

“For what? You didn’t do anything wrong, Mae.”Bookmark here

“N-No! I did. You just don’t remember.”Bookmark here

I could feel my chest tighten...Bookmark here

“I wanted to tell you today but then I…had one of these moments when I couldn’t get out of bed. I tried so hard to get up, but I couldn’t be bothered to. I couldn’t…smile right either.”Bookmark here

I placed my hand over hers.Bookmark here

“You can tell me what happened, Mae-chan.”Bookmark here

Her lips trembled as she turned away from me.Bookmark here

“I…just don’t want to lose your friendship again. I… don’t want you to remember that time…”Bookmark here

There was something that happened between us that I have completely forgotten due to my memory loss. Something that severed the bond we have today. And Mae is afraid of bringing that back to the surface? She… didn’t want me to remember it.Bookmark here

Somber hiccups leaped from her chest. I had to do something to tell her that no matter what it was, we will always be friends. Right now, Mae-chan is hurting…and I’m not sure how long she’s been hurting for…Bookmark here

So, I turned to her and put my hand on hers. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but what came out even surprised me. I turned to the side and invaded her space. With a tilt of my head, I pecked her moist cheeks. Something I used to do to her in elementary school when she would…save me.Bookmark here

I recalled a time when Ma-chan chased a few boys away from me on the playground. They were chasing me with a bug when she stepped in and chased them away with a stick. I remember running to her and thanking her with all my heart. Then at that time, out of sheer happiness, I kissed her cheek. Mae-chan was…my hero.Bookmark here

Now I sit on the bed next to her doing the same today. But her cheeks aren’t as fruity as they were that day. No, they’re salty and miserable. Nothing like the Ma-chan I know…Bookmark here

“Madoka?”Bookmark here

“I love you Mae-chan…so, don’t worry. You can tell me anything.”Bookmark here

She didn’t respond. Tears just kept trickling down Mae’s swollen cheeks. She then held my stomach and sobbed somberly for a while. I didn’t have to convey my feelings anymore. That was enough for Ma-chan to understand what I was saying I hoped. That I will always love her no matter what happened. That Mae-chan would always be my hero.Bookmark here

The stuffy room entrapped us now as I sat on her bed with her. After settling down we pushed up against her wall on the floor. I waited calmly for her to gather her composure. Mae held my hand as if pleading for me not to run.Bookmark here

“A few months before your accident I was offered the high school scholarship that was supposed to follow me all through college.”Bookmark here

Her voice grew faintly.Bookmark here

“But the stipulations kept growing and I was always watched for my performance. And not only that… my teammates suddenly went from my best friends to my worst enemies in time.”Bookmark here

She closed her eyes as if trying to banish the past away.Bookmark here

“I…I started working more on my performance after school…I spent hours fixing my flaws. I even started not talking with you to focus on keeping up. There’d be times that you call, and I would…ignore it. You would catch me at school and I’d always tell you I was busy…”Bookmark here

She sighed, deeply.Bookmark here

“But it still wasn’t enough. I was called into the principal’s office one day and explained that if my performance didn’t improve in the next few games I would be removed.”Bookmark here

Mae’s shoulders drooped. She still wouldn’t face me. As if she was ashamed at looking me in the eyes now.Bookmark here

“And then a few days later you stopped showing up to school altogether. Only then did I start to worry. I called you when I found time and you picked up...”Bookmark here

Mae-chan’s fingers entwined with mine. They trembled, so I tightened my grip.Bookmark here

“You told me that you wanted to see me for a long time, but I wasn’t around. You cried about missing me…and…and…”Bookmark here

Mae swallowed.Bookmark here

“You sounded panicked now that I looked back at it. But you kept going on about me not giving you attention…”Bookmark here

Mae leaned her soft blueberry hair on my shoulder.Bookmark here

“But all I heard was…that you wanted something from me…like everyone else, Madoka. And so, I did what a stupid child would do…and lashed out at you.”Bookmark here

I gazed at Mae’s face. It twisted in a warped smile I can only describe as fake.Bookmark here

“I said, 'Why are you…always like this, Madoka?! I have problems to deal with! Why don’t you ever think about others before yourself?!'”Bookmark here

With her free hand, she covered her mouth. But her words came out as clear as day.Bookmark here

“I said, 'Stop being such a spoiled brat! We’re not kids anymore!'Bookmark here

Mae’s body began quaking. So much that I had to hold her shoulders with my free arm.Bookmark here

“You went quiet and didn’t say a word. No, you couldn’t even if you wanted to. You were too busy crying to answer me. I tried to take back my words, but you hung up.”Bookmark here

“Mae-chan…”Bookmark here

“I tried to visit you afterward, but Ayumi said you locked yourself up in your room and…haven’t left the house for a week. I tried to call out to you but of course, you didn’t want to speak with me.”Bookmark here

Her voice faded into the stuffy room. Then her green eyes gazed at me as if pleading me to listen.Bookmark here

“You then told me from the other side of the door…that…you were afraid of me, Madoka...And that you didn’t want to see me anymore.”Bookmark here

“…I said that, Mae?”Bookmark here

She nodded, accepting what she did.Bookmark here

“Then you had your accident later on…And I never apologize to you.”Bookmark here

With her free hand, she touched my hair, caressing it gently.Bookmark here

“After your accident and I visited your room. It was then that I realized how much pain you were in. You had all of your belongings huddled in one side of the room. As if that were your world now and nothing could take you away from it.”Bookmark here

Her hand fell onto the floor with a balled fist. She bashed the carpet senseless.Bookmark here

“A few weeks later I couldn’t take it anymore and punched one of my teammates in the face. She criticized me saying… “The Worthy One plays like crap.” All the hard work I built was gone from that day. They stripped my scholarship and I was kicked off the team…”Bookmark here

Mae clenched her fist. Now coming back into reality fully.Bookmark here

“So, I not only ruined my friendship with my best friend…but also my future. Isn’t that…hilarious, Madoka?”Bookmark here

Mae’s smile came back…it felt like the same smile she’s been showing me since day one. The smile that’s been constructed to not look hurt. In other words, …Mae’s been hurting for a while now. So long that she’s perfected her smile…Bookmark here

My best friend Mae…had a porcelain smile…Bookmark here

And I didn’t even know.Bookmark here

“Nakagawa Madoka…”Bookmark here

Mae looked at me beaming a more natural expression. The ends of her lips weren’t curled. Her tone was more leveled, professional now.Bookmark here

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. Please…forgive me?”Bookmark here

My best friend bowed to me. So, I held her head in my arms. I didn’t have to say a word. No, my warmth should be enough. I loved her and that’s all that mattered. But to solidify her pleads, I replied.Bookmark here

“All is forgiven, Mae.”Bookmark here

I said, earning a sob from Mae-chan.Bookmark here

That was it…even Ma-chan has regrets from the past that I can’t see. I’m not the only one suffering from things. Regrets so strong that she’d do anything to hide them…even lie to me. We sat there for a while longer until she calmed down.Bookmark here

“So…I wouldn’t leave my home?”Bookmark here

Mae shook her head.Bookmark here

“Yeah…Your mom mentioned that you were involved in an incident and that you wouldn’t leave home.”Bookmark here

“An incident…before my coma?”Bookmark here

She shrugged, earning a bounce from her blueberry hair.Bookmark here

“I don’t know…I asked her countless times after your coma, but she was adamant about it being a family matter. The last time I asked…she nearly yelled at me…”Bookmark here

“Mom did?”Bookmark here

“Yep…Then after you woke up your mom mentioned that you couldn’t remember that time anymore.”Bookmark here

She sighed for the innumerable time today.Bookmark here

“And I…sighed with relief... I truly am the worst. I just figured I try my hardest to pick off from where we were…before my mistakes.”Bookmark here

So, I was involved in an incident before my coma? It was traumatic enough that I closed myself off to the world because of what happened? But what could that have been? Is that the reason why mom isn’t talking much about my coma? Could it be that she doesn’t want me to remember just like Mae-chan was doing?Bookmark here

Slowly pieces were coming together. But now I couldn’t worry about myself. I turned back to Mae-chan who angled her head to the carpet. Like her life had been ripped out of her and now all that lied there was an empty husk.Bookmark here

“Madoka…”Bookmark here

A voice echoed softly.Bookmark here

“…I can understand if you hate me for it. I mean…what childhood friend would lie to another like that? I…used your amnesia to make me feel better…”Bookmark here

Violently, Mae pounded her fist into her head.Bookmark here

“What kind of friend…am I?”Bookmark here

“A great one!”Bookmark here

I shouted unconsciously as I ripped her hands away from her. I couldn’t stand seeing Mae-chan abuse herself like this.Bookmark here

“Someone who wanted to be with me…no matter what. Someone who…I love it even to this day. My best friend…Watanabe Mae.”Bookmark here

Her mouth opened but then suddenly she began giggling.Bookmark here

“You are…so corny, Madoka!”Bookmark here

“S-Shut up!”Bookmark here

Taking away one hand she rubbed the loose tears.Bookmark here

“But you’re so bubbly and it makes me happy.”Bookmark here

She chuckled but it died down. Searching the window, the grey clouds rolled by above us.Bookmark here

“I’m…going to need your help to get out of this slump, Madoka.”Bookmark here

She pleads to me now.Bookmark here

“It’s …hard most days. But…it’s been better since we’ve started seeing each other more.”Bookmark here

I nodded rubbing her hair softly. Like a cat, she followed my movements. It was cute but ever so touching at the same time.Bookmark here

“Count on me anytime you’re feeling down.”Bookmark here

A sob escaped her mouth.Bookmark here

“D-Don’t leave me again…okay?”Bookmark here

I couldn’t promise that one day we wouldn’t be together like this but for her sake…for my best friend, I nodded with determination.Bookmark here

“Never again, Mae-chan.”Bookmark here

Our warmth connected as she smiled back at me. Now it was time I take the place of Mae-chan. She needs someone to help her move forward. So, I gripped her hand and gave her the widest smirk I could.Bookmark here

“Now Ma-chan, let’s throw all this away for now and sing to STARS music!”Bookmark here

Warily, Mae chuckled.Bookmark here

“Hehe…who is STARS again?”Bookmark here

“Are you serious Mae?! STARS is my favorite idol group!”Bookmark here

My excitement bubbled over as I rubbed my feet together in anticipation. All Mae-chan did instead was pet my hair. Feeling slightly annoyed, I pulled back and to my feet.Bookmark here

There, I reached my hand out to Mae. She took it with a grin on her face.Bookmark here

I wasn’t afraid of this smile. No, this one was filled with different emotions. It wasn’t tasteless like her porcelain smile. It was the Mae-chan I knew. My best friend who I never want to see be hurt.Bookmark here

We opened her door and stepped out. From down the dark hallway, I could see her father sitting at the dining room table. As we approached, he lifted his head from his laptop. At first, he smiled casually but then seeing a certain blueberry his expression changed to a grin.Bookmark here

“Ah, so you’ve finally come out?”Bookmark here

Mae pushed her shoulders down and nodded tenderly.Bookmark here

“Yeah…”Bookmark here

“Are you going out, Mae?”Bookmark here

She nodded again with less enthusiasm as before.Bookmark here

“Yeah, dad.”Bookmark here

“We’re going to karaoke, Mr. Watanabe.”Bookmark here

I explicitly stated. For some reason, Mae-chan squeezed my hand when I said this. I wasn’t sure why, but her touch felt warm.Bookmark here

“Okay, have a lot of fun you two. Oh, and Mae, your mother will be home late tonight. She had some errands to run.”Bookmark here

“Okay, dad.”Bookmark here

“Bye Mr. Watanabe.”Bookmark here

With a wave, we walked to the door when the burly man called out to me.Bookmark here

“Mado-chan!”Bookmark here

“Yes?”Bookmark here

With a sly grin and a sharp chuckle, he beamed back.Bookmark here

“Thank you…for always taking good care of Mae.”Bookmark here

“S-Shut up dad!”Bookmark here

Mae finally burst with embarrassment. I’m sure that’s why she was acting so docile. She probably expected her dad to say something like this. Mae had always got along well with her dad. Her mother, on the other hand, those two would fight often. I’m not sure if it’s still the same so, I wouldn’t know. With another squeeze of my hand, she led me out the door.Bookmark here

As we stepped out, I realized that it’ll probably be a little weird to hold hands the entire way. So, I relaxed my grip only to find out that Mae had no intention to let go.Bookmark here

We continued walking down the street aiming to catch the train that’ll take us to the shopping district. Back in the past, in elementary school, I would sometimes beg to hold Mae-chan’s hand. She…spoiled me like that. Bookmark here

But today it felt as though it was my time to spoil her.Bookmark here

“I feel much better.”Bookmark here

As we rode the train Mae spoke. Still, hand in hand as we both sat down. Mae-chan leaned up on my side and rest her head on my shoulder again. We didn’t say much at first. It felt like we didn’t want to ruin a nice moment between us. This calm was a blessing for both of us. Then Mae suddenly started giggling.Bookmark here

“What are you laughing about?”Bookmark here

“I was just thinking… didn’t you use to beg me to hold your hand?”Bookmark here

It was like she read my mind. Of course, I was too embarrassed to admit that so instead I puffed my cheeks.Bookmark here

“That never happened.”Bookmark here

I lied, crossing my arms.Bookmark here

“Back in elementary, you use to be an introvert, Madoka. We shared the same class and during gym, you wouldn’t approach anyone to pair up with.”Bookmark here

I grumbled.Bookmark here

“Mae, do you seriously have to tell this story?”Bookmark here

Ignoring my pleads, Mae continued.Bookmark here

“So, I was asked by the teacher to play with you. When I approached, you got so scared that you started crying."Bookmark here

The class thought that I did something to you, and I got in trouble.”Bookmark here

Mae snickered.Bookmark here

“The entire class went to comfort you. That was the first time that I saw everyone pay you attention.”Bookmark here

Mae-chan rubbed her nose as if putting herself above me.Bookmark here

“Later that day…you approached me as docile as a dove. You…apologized and told me that you were scared. It was then that…”Bookmark here

Mae abruptly put her hand on my head. I couldn’t tell but I think she was bullying me by this point.Bookmark here

“I wanted to protect that little thing.”Bookmark here

“You’re stretching this story, Mae!”Bookmark here

I flicked her nose in irritation. She flung back then recoiled back to her spot. With a light smile, she rests her head on my shoulder again.Bookmark here

“I don’t think I told you why those kids in our class never wanted to approach you…”Bookmark here

My head perked up as I looked at her.Bookmark here

“Hm?”Bookmark here

“Behind your back…everyone would always say that you looked like a princess.”Bookmark here

I thought back to those days. The boys in our class would constantly pick on me. They would tease me and call me names. Sometimes they would call me, little princess. I just figured I got the name because I was the so-called, Teacher's pet. The girl who wouldn’t associate with the class and only the adults.Bookmark here

“Well, …that’s embarrassing.”Bookmark here

“It’s because you’re a beautiful person, just like your mom.”Bookmark here

My mouth opened a bit. I rarely compared my looks to mom. When I look at her, I always felt as if I could never measure up to her. But hearing that from Mae-chan put a bit of a flutter in my chest. But she is my friend…so maybe that’s just how she sees me?Bookmark here

“Is that right…?”Bookmark here

I said this unconsciously. Mae lit up in response.Bookmark here

“No, it’s true! All the boys would pick on you because of it!”Bookmark here

“What are you talking about?”Bookmark here

Mae giggled.Bookmark here

“I didn’t know you were this innocent, Mado-chan!”Bookmark here

“What are you talking about?!”Bookmark here

I repeated while whacking her head.Bookmark here

“Boys often show their affection by picking on the girls they like. So, all the boys who bothered you…you know the ones I chased away with a stick, they just liked you.”Bookmark here

My face heated up slightly.Bookmark here

“Even girls pick on people they like too. It’s just a way for us to say…’ Hey, notice me.’”Bookmark here

I don’t know why but this brought me back to a certain someone. The black-haired troublemaker, Koda Mari-san. Was that her way of saying, “Notice me?” But as fast as that thought came, I pushed it out of my head. I’m not sure why I even thought about it to begin with.Bookmark here

“Hm, I guess you don’t have that strong of an affection reader, Mado-chan!”Bookmark here

“Oh please, it’s not like you do either.”Bookmark here

We both giggled as we enjoyed the ride to the shopping district together. When our stop arrived, we both walked out. Mae finally let go of my hand then. The cool season air traced along with my fingertips as they laid bare to the elements. With my GPS in hand, we made it to a homely looking shack. The place was called, Bellows which I felt was aimed more towards the older clientele. The sign was a silhouette of a man with his arms stretched out holding a mic. It was a tad funny and corny all at the same time. A unique charm. Once we entered Mae rushed up to the front.Bookmark here

“Room for two!”Bookmark here

The woman at the counter brushed the hair from her eyes as she jotted it down.Bookmark here

“How long are you staying for?”Bookmark here

Mae turned to me with quizzical eyes.Bookmark here

“Hm, might as well get more than we need. How about 2 hours?”Bookmark here

“You heard the woman!”Bookmark here

Taken aback the woman jotted down more. She then led us to the back where around 6 or 7 rooms were. The colors were a dark royal red. The tiles a cream orange with a dim atmosphere. She unlocked a room revealing a room with similar colors. The booths stood out a dark red. All easy on the eyes. The screen glamour with a bright blue.Bookmark here

I rushed over and took the remote. Punching in the words STARS revealed a selection of songs even I couldn’t imagine.Bookmark here

“Heck, yes!”Bookmark here

I fist-pumped.Bookmark here

The woman turned to Mae.Bookmark here

“Would you like anything to eat?”Bookmark here

“Mado-chan, what do you want?”Bookmark here

“I would like some chips maybe. And oolong tea?”Bookmark here

“That sounds like it’ll hit the spot. A pack of chips and two oolong teas please!”Bookmark here

She nodded then left the room.Bookmark here

After a brief time, she entered back and set our food down. We both took a sip and sighed simultaneously. Now ready we both stood up. The first song was going to be a duet. We both looked at the screen holding our mics in hand. I turn to the side to see Mae-chan’s grin gone. Her lips quivered a bit. Something in me made me reach out and hold her hand.Bookmark here

“We’ll get through this, together Mae.”Bookmark here

Her eyes gazed at me. The startup timer was already in motion. Now isn’t the time to think about where we were in the past or who we’ll be in the future. No, this time was to live in the moment together. Enjoying cheery music with friends and letting all our worries fly into the mics.Bookmark here

“Thank you…Mado-chan.”Bookmark here

The music started and we screamed the words into the mic. Our passions flared at the melody blaring from behind us. Mae didn’t know the lyrics, but I knew them by heart. But simple things like that didn’t matter. What mattered was that our friendship was renewed today through this. After more than 10 songs and our voices starting to grow horse we settled down and lied back on the booth.Bookmark here

“It was when you were gone…”Bookmark here

Mae started speaking suddenly.Bookmark here

“That’s when I realized…how fragile life was. How every day could be my last.”Bookmark here

Still gripping on the mic, she closed her eyes.Bookmark here

“Mom would reprimand me for ruining my opportunity…she’s relentless about me screwing up. But dad supported me…”Bookmark here

With a groan, she took in a deep breath.Bookmark here

“A few weeks before you woke up, I decided…I didn’t want to be that Watanabe Mae any longer. The one that had nothing to live for…”Bookmark here

She touched her blue locks.Bookmark here

“So, I dyed my hair…and started doing things that I wanted. Like skipping class when I felt it was too bothersome…going off campus to eat what made me feel good…or staying home when I felt like things were too much that day.”Bookmark here

Mae spoke up with a smile on her face. This one was honest; it was pained but ever so true.Bookmark here

“But of course, that didn’t change the fact that I am…Watanabe Mae…”Bookmark here

“And I don’t want you to be anybody else, Mae.”Bookmark here

We looked at one another. Mae’s leaf eyes went wide as I said that.Bookmark here

“I won’t reprimand you for anything you’ve done because you’re my best friend and that’ll never change. So…let’s keep looking forwards, together.”Bookmark here

“Madoka…”Bookmark here

She nodded.Bookmark here

“I’ll…be strong and push through…for you.”Bookmark here

Her words faded out under her somber sobs. A smile came to my face as I held her tight. Mae was declaring her stance to combat her depression. Her hopelessness. That she wanted to change and I’m here to support her.Bookmark here

We didn’t listen to any more music. We spend the remainder of our time chatting about stupid meaningless things. Like movies, games, and the like. When we stepped outside the sun was nearly gone. It was time to separate before mom sent out the Koda Mari search squad to apprehend me for being out too late on a school night.Bookmark here

Mae jumped forwards like her childhood days. She then put her hands behind her back and tilted her head.Bookmark here

“Hey, let’s do our best to get to know Conway-san better too!”Bookmark here

Even at times like this, Mae-chan was looking forward.Bookmark here

“Yeah. I want to get to know her too.”Bookmark here

“Mhm! I still have the plushie she gave me from the arcade! I want to repay her.”Bookmark here

Our excitement dissipated in the cool evening. Our trains were going two separate directions so, we both waved our goodbyes. When I turned around, she suddenly called out.Bookmark here

“See you tomorrow, Mado-chan!”Bookmark here

I turned back…now moving forwards with Mae-chan.Bookmark here

“Yeah! See you tomorrow, Ma-chan!”Bookmark here

As I rode back on the train alone the night cleaved in. I’m expecting a call from mom soon and I prepared for a bit of a scolding also…Bookmark here

I thought about what I learned today. That something happened to me that made me shut myself away. Even Mae didn’t know what because at that time she pushed me away too. As I danced around the thought of what could have happened to me a text came through waking me up from my idle thoughts. It was from Mae.Bookmark here

Attached was a photo she took today. Us cuddling together in the warm karaoke booth. I almost forgot this happened by this point.Bookmark here

“Mae-chan.”Bookmark here

She’s my best friend. But even she has struggles she needs to overcome. I doubt today will fix everything…but I hope it was a breakthrough to her feelings. I always saw Mae as someone who was looking forwards, expressing themselves honestly all the time. But no, that wasn’t true. She’s human. She has problems just like the rest of us. And sometimes it’s hard to go about them alone. But that’s why I’ll stick by her until she gets out of this slump. Because I love Ma-chan and she’ll always be my best friend. I will stop at nothing until Mae-chan is genuinely happy…like her smile shows.Bookmark here

“Everything will be alright, Mae-chan.”Bookmark here

I touched the screen and it lights up, glimmering a bit of hope back into Mae's world.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.