Chapter 8:

Are Your Dad and My Mom...?

ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls

During lunch, I told Kei and Yomogi about my encounter earlier that day, and as soon as I said the name Nadeshiko Enomoto, Yomogi went rigid. The color drained from her face, and her hands started trembling so much, her chopsticks clattered against her bento box.Bookmark here

“You’re going to die,” she said.
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“…Really?” I said. “She’s the size of a fifth grader, and you’re afraid of her? Why?”Bookmark here

“You haven’t heard about her at all, have you?” Kei said. “Even the Wagashi Division fears her.” She closed her bento box and began to tell me all about her.Bookmark here

The Enomoto family operated a major sugar production and distribution company, that distributed and controlled the flow of sugar from all over the world into Japan. They produced everything from one star table sugar to five star organic demerara sugar flavored with the finest bourbon vanilla. Naturally, with all that sugar in the family, many of the Enomotos were bigwigs in the pastry and confection industries.Bookmark here

Nadeshiko was no exception—she was adept in the art of sculpted sugar candies, which look like blown glass, as well as baking. She was the only daughter of the family’s current head, and was spoiled rotten. Rumors abounded as to if she had her own pink car waiting for her in the garage when she reached the age to get a driver’s license. She also surrendered a dog to an animal shelter after it grew up because she saw a much cuter puppy at a pet store. And her rank as a gourmet battler was three and a half stars.Bookmark here

“All right. So I just have to beat her,” I said.
“You don’t understand,” Kei said. “She’s got a very big fan following online. Have you heard about Lolita fashion?”
“Kinda,” I said.
“Apparently she’s a major style icon and model on top of all that. Of course, she’s able to afford all the really top of the line dresses and accessories with all that money her father gives her,” Kei said. “And with all those fans…she can summon them at a word to wreak havoc with someone’s online presence.”Bookmark here

I looked over to see Yomogi, who was still frozen in place. “Yomogi-chan, how do you defeat the Cinnamon Bunnies in Monster Slayer?” I asked.
“There are no Cinnamon Bunnies in Monster Slayer!” Yomogi yelled back.
“You’re back with us, great,” I said. “Did she ever challenge you?”
“Well…she was overseeing a class I had a few weeks ago,” Yomogi said, “and she was barking orders and yelling at all of us.” She took a deep breath before continuing. “She yelled at me for the way my macaron batter wasn’t flowing correctly. ‘You’ll never survive as a baker, you’ll be draining French fries at WcDonalds for all eternity!’”Bookmark here

“She said that? Oh,” I said.
“Vanilla-chan, why are you being so nonchalant about this?” Yomogi said, looking extremely agitated. “She’s a serious competitor! You could very well lose against her, and if you win…she might decide to take it out on you!”
“A serious competitor that can’t read an expiration date,” I said.Bookmark here

“Yomogi-chan, you’re getting riled up,” Kei said. “Calm down, we’ve got class this afternoon!”
“I can’t! She’s going to die!” Yomogi said.
“Literally or figuratively?” I asked. Yomogi grew silent.Bookmark here

“Well…not literally. What Kei-chan said about her fans is really true, though. They can destroy someone’s reputation by a few well placed rumors,” Yomogi said. “And I heard a few people transferred out just to get away from her.”
“I see…” Nadeshiko did come across as rather forceful and assertive. “That probably means she’s a sore loser, too, right?” I said.
“She sure is. And I wouldn’t be surprised if she decided to do a little bit of cheating to win,” Kei said.Bookmark here

“Has she cheated before?” I asked.
“Well…she does have access to some five star ingredients, despite her only being a three and a half stars,” Kei said.Bookmark here

“Not surprised after you told me that her family’s in the sugar business.” I wish my father was still around; that way she could get a taste of her own medicine. He’d have been able to pick up the five star ingredients that would have given me an edge. “But it’s not against the rules to use high quality ingredients if you’re below rank. It’s…impolite, but it’s not illegal,” I said. “Also, the challenge could be anything. Who knows, we might both be making salads or something.”
“That’s true,” Yomogi said. “Maybe I am overreacting a bit…but she’s just such a spoiled brat, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” I said, nodding gravely. “Very spoiled.”Bookmark here

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On my way back to the academic building, I saw Nadeshiko standing outside, looking very perturbed. “Remember our challenge, Vanilla Sakamoto!” she yelled as I approached.Bookmark here

“What challenge?” I yelled back."
"You…You FOOL!” Nadeshiko shrilled back, and a few of the other students around me snickered. “You and me, Monday after class, right here! Of course you remember! Stop making me look like an idiot!”Bookmark here

“You’re doing a very good job all by yourself,” I yelled back. Suddenly, fifty pairs of eyes were staring directly at me, and I felt my skin crawl.
“What did you just say, you lowly first year scum?” Nadeshiko muttered as she stepped down from her lofty perch. She looked up at me, and I felt like I was a mom being scolded by her daughter.Bookmark here

“I said, you were doing a very good job of making yourself look like an idiot,” I said.
“Do you know who I am? I am the heiress to Princess Crystal Sugar!” Nadeshiko yelled back.
“Do you know who I am? I am the heiress to five star chef Yoshiaki Sakamoto, and all of his techniques live on inside me!” I yelled back, drawing myself up to my full height, and mentally summoning a brass band to play a special fanfare, complete with pretty girls throwing confetti and jet fighters flying in formation overhead, trailing red and white contrails.Bookmark here

“Hmmph.” Nadeshiko snorted. “I knew your filthy peasant name sounded familiar. See you later.” She yanked open the outside door, stalked in, and flung it closed as everyone kept staring at me.
I picked imaginary confetti out of my hair as I followed her into the building, my nose in the air, as if a bunch of pageboys were carrying my train inside. Everyone kept staring at me, the girl who didn’t back down in front of a bully who was three quarters of the size I was.Bookmark here

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The rest of the week pretty much passed without incident, if you didn’t count the random pointing and shouting from Nadeshiko every time I walked outside. It got to the point that everyone in my homeroom class was imitating her.Bookmark here

“Remember to stir clockwise, Vanilla Sakamoto!” said Watanabe.
“Remember the proper way to punctuate, Vanilla Sakamoto!” said my English teacher.
“Remember to bring a bottle of that new clear tea at lunch, Vanilla Sakamoto!” Yomogi said during lunch one day.Bookmark here

The weirdest part was that they weren’t doing it within earshot or vision of her. I guess they really did fear her wrath.Bookmark here

The reason why I decided to hold off on the challenge until Monday was to allow myself the weekend to visit my family. (Kei’s dojo was hosting practice for a tournament that weekend, which meant Kei’s plans to host the two of us for a study group were off until later. I was a little disappointed.) Apparently, Ryotaro's daughter was on school break and would be visiting as well. Her name was Caroline, which I thought was weird until I remembered that her mother was British, and she was a year younger than me.Bookmark here

I packed my overnight bag Saturday morning and waited at the door. Mako noticed me and came over, lighting her morning cigarette. “What are you waiting for?” she asked.
“I’m being picked up,” I replied. “I’m staying overnight at my mom’s place in Chichibu so I can meet her new boyfriend and his daughter.”
“I see…I’ll watch over things for you. Expecting any packages?” Mako asked.
“Nope.”Bookmark here

A few minutes later, a shiny black Cadillac came driving slowly up the street, causing everyone to stop and stare at the gorgeous car. The driver’s side door opened to reveal Ryotaro Koizumi, making them stare even more. He looked a lot different than what I saw on TV—a lot more relaxed and not as uptight. Basically, he looked like a dad.Bookmark here

“You must be Vanilla-chan,” he said, smiling. “I’ve heard a lot about you from your mother. Are you all ready to go?”
“Uh, yeah,” I said. Mako was continuing to stare, and behind me Ebifry was sitting on the fence, giving his nether regions a bath as usual. I felt my face redden as I put my overnight bag in the trunk, then I opened the backseat door to sit down.Bookmark here

“Caroline, this is Vanilla,” Ryotaro said as he sat back down in the driver’s seat. Caroline didn’t say anything, so I decided to introduce myself in English, just in case.
Hello. My name is Vanilla Sakamoto. Pleased to meet you,” I said. “Sayuri Sakamoto is my mother.
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“I can speak Japanese,” Caroline said, in perfect Japanese. She sounded bored.Bookmark here

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“Oh, okay,” I said, switching to Japanese. “You’re in junior high, correct?”
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“The equivalent,” Caroline said. “It’s a school that uses the British system. You’re a year ahead of me, right?”Bookmark here

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"Yes, I’m in my first year at Umami Gakuen.”
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“Oh, the cooking school?”
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“Well…It’s more than that. A lot more.” I laughed a little nervously, wondering what she knew. I decided to change the subject. “How long have you been living in Japan?”
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“We moved here from England about two years ago,” Caroline said, looking very distant. “After Father got his TV presenter job. He wanted to get out of England.”Bookmark here

Ryotaro nodded from the driver’s seat. “It was getting hard for a foreigner like me to raise a young daughter abroad, so…we had to return here. I’m glad that they were able to seat Caroline at the British school.”
“I miss home, though,” Caroline said. She started looking out the window, so I figured now would be a better time to keep quiet.Bookmark here

Ryotaro was a very careful driver. We exited our narrow residential street and within a few minutes were on the highway. “It’ll be about an hour to Chichibu,” Ryotaro said. “If either of you need to use the restroom, let me know.”Bookmark here

“I’m fine,” Caroline said, yawning politely. I settled down and began thumbing through pictures on my phone.
“Caroline…-chan?” I said, and she looked back at me. “Do you want to see some photos of the food I’ve made for school?”Bookmark here

I handed her the phone and she thumbed through the gallery. She looked fairly interested. “That looks like a delicious omelet rice,” she said, pointing to an omelet rice I had drawn a ketchup picture of Ebifry on. “Have you done any other kinds of cooking?”Bookmark here

“I’ve tried baking, but it’s pretty hard,” I replied. “You’ve got more room to experiment when you cook, and if you get something wrong during baking, it affects the finished product. I can make a cake in a rice cooker, though.”Bookmark here

“A cake in a rice cooker? How do you do that?” Caroline asked.
“You start out by using pancake mix,” I said. “I can show you once we get to my mom’s place.”
Caroline pulled out her phone. “I don’t really like cooking, but I can show you some of my artwork,” she said, pulling up a photo gallery. Her drawings were mostly those of people in elaborate costumes. “I like to design costumes for some of the plays my father has been in,” she said.Bookmark here

I took the phone and started scrolling, but Caroline reached her hand out. “Ah, wait,” she said, but as soon as she did, I had scrolled to a picture of her wearing a very frilly dress—in fact, it was almost the same kind of dress that Nadeshiko had been wearing when I encountered her at the grocery store. I showed the picture to her.Bookmark here

“Is that you?” I asked. Caroline put a finger to her lips and shook her head, so I decided to talk to her later.
I decided to swing the subject back to Caroline’s artwork. “So what play is that one from?” I asked, scrolling back to a drawing of a woman who was wearing ethereal looking robes strewn with flowers.Bookmark here

“That’s Titania the fairy queen, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Caroline said. “Have you ever heard of that one?”
“Not really. Can you tell me about it?” I asked.
“Sure!” Caroline said, brightening up. She started talking about the characters and general plot, and I listened all the way until we reached the exit to Chichibu.Bookmark here

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My mother was waiting for us at the door as Ryotaro pulled his car into the driveway of our house. “Did you two have a good ride?” she asked as Caroline and I exited.
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“It was fine,” I said, rolling my eyes.Bookmark here

We removed our bags from the trunk, and I saw that Caroline’s luggage was very cute: it was a pink rolling container that looked like an old steamer trunk, with suede-like straps and trims. Bookmark here

“My friend Kei-chan would like that,” I said, as we both carried our bags inside.Bookmark here

We carried our bags inside my mother’s house. It’s fairly roomy; my father had it built when I was in my later years of elementary school with a huge open kitchen and dining area, a traditional tatami room for entertaining guests, a hinoki paneled bathroom, and two bedrooms upstairs—each of them larger than my entire apartment.Bookmark here

“Do you mind sleeping in my old bedroom, Caroline-chan?” I asked, as we went upstairs to put our bags away. “I have a futon that I used to use when I had company.”
“That’s fine,” she said.Bookmark here

My old bedroom contained my bed, most of my cold weather clothing, a few of my remaining toys (like the giant stuffed banana my father won for me at a carnival in America once), and my desk, along with a small low table for use in entertaining people. I’d probably be rolling it off to the side in order to accommodate Caroline’s futon. As I entered, it seemed strange to me: my apartment felt more like home now than my bedroom did. Maybe it’s because I had my most important stuff stored there, or was it because I had a kitchen there?Bookmark here

“Sorry about earlier,” Caroline said quietly. “But my father’s not entirely happy that I’m into Lolita fashion. He thinks it’s a waste of money.”
“I see. I know someone who’s into that, too. I think her dress might be the same as the one you were wearing,” I replied.Bookmark here

“Oh, is she a friend of yours?” Caroline asked. She was unpacking and taking out a charger for her smartphone.
“Ugh…no. Not really.” I went on to tell Caroline about gourmet battles, and how Nadeshiko had challenged me, when Caroline suddenly cut me off.Bookmark here

“Wait. Nadeshiko Enomoto goes to your school?”
“Don’t tell me…you’re a fan of hers?” I said.Bookmark here

“No. Not at all,” Caroline said. “She’s…well, she did some shady stuff to one of my friends. It’s nothing to be concerned about.”
We walked downstairs to find out what was happening for dinner, and I told Caroline about how all of my classmates were imitating her grandiose attitude behind her back. We were laughing as we went into the kitchen, where Ryotaro and my mother were sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee.Bookmark here

“Looks like your Caroline and my Vanilla are making friends,” my mother said.
My Vanilla. The words stung—the only way I was my mother’s was through her looks.Bookmark here

“We thought that maybe you’d be interested in helping us make dinner sometime this weekend,” Ryotaro said to me.
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“Father! That’s rude! She’s a guest here,” Caroline said.Bookmark here

“That’s no problem with me. I really like cooking,” I said. “What are you in the mood for?” I asked.
My mother turned to me, holding a package of some very high quality beef. “This was on special at the grocery store we normally go to,” she said. There were four steaks in the package. I looked closely at it, smiling as I realized what I could make using it.Bookmark here

“Do you need any help?” Caroline approached me from behind. “I haven’t cooked in a while, but if you need me to chop vegetables or anything…”
“Yeah, that would be great,” I said. “Wash your hands first, if you could.”Bookmark here

“We’re going to step out for a walk,” my mother said. “I’m curious about the new construction project going up nearby. Ryotaro , are you ready?”
“Let me get my shoes on, Sayuri,” Ryotaro replied, tying the laces on a pair of canvas sneakers.Bookmark here

They’re already dropping the honorifics, I thought to myself. It kind of disgusted me on the inside, and my hands started trembling. “Um, Caroline-chan, I need to use the bathroom,” I said. “Could you maybe start by seeing if we have any garlic?”
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“Okay,” Caroline replied. “What do you want me to do with it?”
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“See the cutting boards and knives by the sink? Take a couple cloves and start cutting them into small pieces,” I said. Bookmark here

I walked off towards our house’s toilet room until I knew my mother and Ryotaro had left. Then I came out, and silently sneaked towards our house’s altar for my father.
“Hello, Father,” I said, kneeling in front of it and looking at his face. It was the last photograph that had been taken of him; a promotional shot for a TV show he was going to be in that was cancelled after his disappearance. “Are you…are you watching all this? Are you…are you okay with this?”Bookmark here

The tears started falling, and I didn’t realize that the sound of chopping had stopped. Caroline shyly approached and noticed me crying in front of the altar.
“That’s…your father, isn’t he?” she asked.
I nodded.Bookmark here

“What was he like?”
“He…was one of the world’s best chefs,” I said. “I grew up at his side and I learned how to do everything from him…”
Caroline nodded. “Your mom was telling me about how he disappeared.”
I nodded. I wasn’t surprised that she hadn’t said anything about his life or career—she had moved on, and now Ryotaro was what she pursued.Bookmark here

“We left my mother behind in England,” Caroline said, as she leaned over and looked into the altar. “She died when I was ten.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, what happened?”
“Cancer,” Caroline said. “A pretty nasty case of it, too…she just declined. Like that.”Bookmark here

We continued looking at the altar and the flickering LED light candle, until I spoke up.
“Caroline-chan…I want to say something,” I started, “but…it might sound pretty mean, or uncomfortable, so…I want to say that I’m sorry first.”
Caroline nodded, so I continued.Bookmark here

“I’m glad that you and your dad were able to be there when your mom passed away,” I said. “All we did…was kiss my father goodbye and watch him board a flight out of Japan. You have a grave to visit…we don’t. We just have a death certificate that they issued because they’ll never be able to find his body. And this altar that I made my mom put up…”
“I understand how you feel,” Caroline replied. “It was…it was hard to leave my mother behind when we left England for Japan,” I said. “I had to leave all my friends behind…but my father was suffering the most.”Bookmark here

I nodded. “Sorry…it’s just that I never let anyone see me cry,” I said. I got up, wiping my eyes. “How are you doing on the garlic?”
“I chopped up a couple cloves for you. What are you going to do with them?” Caroline asked.
“You’ll see.”Bookmark here

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My mother and Ryotaro returned from their walk just as the rice cooker’s timer was beeping. “You’re just in time!” I said. Four plates were on the table, and Caroline was just about to transfer the steaks from a platter where they were resting. I had showed her how to make a simple chimichurri sauce, which was a South American sauce made from chopped parsley, garlic, vinegar and some spices. It pairs really well with a lot of cuts of beef.Bookmark here

My mother pulled out her chair as I served a dollop of freshly cooked rice, the steak, and a spoonful of the chimichurri sauce. “That sauce’s color…” She dipped the tines of her fork into the sauce, and took a brief taste. “It’s very brisk. Is this something you learned at Umami Gakuen?”Bookmark here

I nodded. “It’s amazing. I’m learning so much more about food and technique than I ever thought I would.” Of course, having my father as a teacher for most of my life helped.Bookmark here

The four of us sat down to eat, and hardly a word was uttered. “Vanilla-san gave me the recipe for this,” Caroline said. “If you ever want to try it again, I’ll print it out for you, Father.”
“I will. This sauce is wonderful,” Ryotaro said. “I’m looking forward to being the commentator at your tournament finals.”
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“You’re going to commentate?” I was surprised.Bookmark here

“They’ve had me do a few horse races and baseball games when I was still starting. They didn’t think I was a good fit until they had me do the commenting on a Celebrity Gourmet Battle,” Ryotaro said. “Umami Gakuen’s governing board approached Ginga TV about doing it months ago.”Bookmark here

My mother snorted a bit. “Everything about that school gets under my skin,” she said. “Fighting for ranking and survival and fame when you could have decided to stay here and take things easy, Vanilla-chan.” She looked me in the eyes.Bookmark here

“Maybe I didn’t want to take things easy. And maybe I do want to keep my father’s legacy alive in some way,” I replied.Bookmark here

She was silent as she continued with her steak. I hardly ever got the chance to enjoy the fruits of my labor, but in this case, it was delicious. And as long as everyone else thought it was delicious, that’s all that mattered.Bookmark here

“I admit, you make a good steak,” my mother said as she cleared the last bite off her plate.
“Shall we do the dishes?” Caroline asked, and the two of us got up to clean while Ryotaro opened a bottle of sparkling juice and offered it to all of us.Bookmark here

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“She’s really hard on you,” Caroline said, as the two of us were getting ready to go to sleep.
After dinner and the dishes, Ryotaro and Caroline taught me and my mother how to play koi koi with Hanafuda cards. Then my mother and Ryotaro had to leave—apparently there was a big concert downtown that my mother had two tickets for, so Caroline and I set up my old video game system in the living room and we had a blast playing a kart racing game. After that, I showed Caroline some family pictures of ours in an old album.Bookmark here

“It’s because I remind her too much of my father,” I said.
“Were they ever happy together?” Caroline asked.Bookmark here

“Well…there always seemed to be some sort of strain,” I replied, thinking back to my childhood. “When I was a little girl, my dad was always busy with something or another during the day, so my mom had to go to a lot of my childhood events. But when my dad was home, he’d spend all his time with me teaching me all his recipes and techniques and such. I think the three of us only did a few big vacations together. We went to Hawaii one year when I was in elementary school, and then we did a ski resort up in Hokkaido…but yeah, the two of them moved in different directions. It’s weird, I never really saw them all lovey-dovey together.”Bookmark here

Caroline nodded. “My family and I were all involved in theater in some way, so we at least had that in common.”
“Do you do any acting?” I asked.
“No, I’m more of a behind the scenes person. My mom and dad took me backstage and I helped out with doing the actors’ makeup a few times. It was fun.”Bookmark here

My phone buzzed, and I paused to check to see what was happening. It was a photo message from Michael, displaying what appeared to be some sort of custard pie. “Sweet potato pie?” I read as I noticed the description.
“What did you say?”Bookmark here

“Oh, nothing. One of my classmates showing me a picture of something he made,” I said. “He’s half American, half Japanese, actually. If you ever want an English conversation partner—”
“That’s fine. My school’s mostly English speaking,” Caroline said. “I go to a cram school for Japanese language study, and my father and I only speak Japanese to each other…” She drifted off.Bookmark here

“Hey, Caroline-chan. What if my mother decides to marry your dad?” I asked. We had to take care of that question. “Are you OK with having a crazy food otaku for your big sister?”Bookmark here

Caroline laughed, but then sighed. “I’m not sure. All I know is that I’m going to stick it out here as long as possible in Japan and come back to England after I graduate high school,” she said. “That’s what I’m working for.”Bookmark here

I leaned over to my bedside light. “OK if I turn out the lights?”
“Yeah. I know where the bathroom is now,” Caroline said. “Night, Vanilla-san.”
“Night, Caroline-chan.”Bookmark here

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I woke up at my usual hour to see Caroline still fast asleep. Slowly, I tiptoed out of my bedroom to do my morning freshening up, then went into the kitchen to make breakfast. The rice cooker was still half-full from last night, so I grabbed a fresh egg from the fridge to make my usual tamago kake gohan breakfast.Bookmark here

As I was finishing, I noticed Caroline shuffling sleepily out of my old bedroom. “Good morning, Vanilla-chan,” she said, yawning. “You snore a lot.”
“Sorry,” I said. “It’s a perk of living alone.”Bookmark here

“I think my father and your mother got home early this morning,” Caroline said. “I woke up around 2 hearing voices.”
“They must’ve had fun,” I muttered. “Do you want anything for breakfast?”Bookmark here

“Um…can you do a soft boiled egg and toast for me?” Caroline asked. “And some hot water for tea?”
“Sure,” I said, opening up a cupboard and taking out a box of tea bags. “The dispenser’s over there. I’ll start up an egg for you.”Bookmark here

I put an egg into a pot filled with water and set it on the stove at a low simmer, setting the timer for three minutes. I then turned to another cabinet and took out my father’s old French press, which he used to make coffee. I put a scoop of grounds in and poured some water from the dispenser over it, then set it on the table to steep. Caroline found the bread box and inserted a slice of bread into our toaster oven.Bookmark here

The door to my mother’s bedroom creaked open, and Ryotaro, who was wearing a rumpled pair of pajamas, emerged. “You’re awake, girls?” Ryotaro said.Bookmark here

“Good morning, Father,” Caroline said.
“Is my mother still asleep?” I asked.Bookmark here

Ryotaro nodded. “She’s hard to awaken, that one,” he said. “Oh, is that a French press? Could you make me a cup of coffee, please, Vanilla-chan?”Bookmark here

“Sure,” I said. Caroline’s egg was finished, so I fished it from the water and set it in a small dish for her. She had already cut her toast into small pieces to dip in. I cleaned out the French press from my previous cup and refilled it for Ryotaro's coffee. “So you’re going to be commentating the finals of the tournament,” I said. “Well, you’ll just have to look out for me again. I’m going to get to the finals.”Bookmark here

“You’re only in your first year, correct?” Ryotaro said.
I nodded.
“Don’t get your hopes up quite yet,” he said. “Every winner in the past 10 years has been either second or third year. And the competition is intense. Last year’s winner was a second year, and he’s a strong contender again this year as well.”Bookmark here

“Really? What division?” I asked. “Oh, your coffee’s almost ready.”
“He’s an interesting one. Probably one of the only half-Japanese students at the school.”Bookmark here

“Oh!” The coffee splashed on the counter as I poured it from the press. “You don’t mean Michael Furukawa Valentine, do you?” I asked.
“Yes, do you know him?”
“Do I know him? I have a rematch against him! I managed to win a single point from the judges against him,” I said.Bookmark here

“So you were the one who broke his perfect streak. Interesting,” Ryotaro said, smiling. For a split second, I wondered if Michael resented me for it.Bookmark here

My mother emerged from the bedroom as the three of us were finishing our coffee and tea. “Morning, Sayuri,” Ryotaro said.
“Good morning, Sakamoto-san,” Caroline said.
“You can call me ‘Sayuri-san,’” my mother said as she came closer to the table. “I don’t mind.”Bookmark here

“Very well then, Sayuri-san, what time do you want us to get ready by?” I asked. My mother shot me an annoyed look, then took the coffee press from the table and started to wash it.
“Caroline-chan, Vanilla-chan, can you two be ready by ten thirty?” she said, her back turned.
Caroline and I looked at each other, and she gave me a sympathetic smile.Bookmark here

The four of us were on our way back into Tokyo, and the sky was looking fairly cloudy. “Glad I don’t own a convertible on a day like this,” Ryotaro said as we continued down the highway.Bookmark here

Caroline and I were still tired out from our late night, so we dozed in the back seat. Certain that the two of us were speaking, Ryotaro started speaking with my mother in a low voice.Bookmark here

“They seem to be getting along well,” he said.
“That’s good,” my mother said. “Have you given any more thought to what we talked about last night?”
“It’s only been six months.”
“I know, but think about it. You’ll be able to settle down permanently here, and Tokyo’s only a short commute away.”
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“Sayuri, you always seem to be in a rush.”
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“That’s because I don’t want to let you slip through my fingers.”Bookmark here

There was silence from the front seat, and in that moment I heard the first drops of rain hit the car’s roof. I squinted out the window to see the dark clouds overhead and the rain falling from the sky in buckets.
“I hope it’s not still raining when we get there,” Sayuri said.Bookmark here

The rain was still falling in sheets when Ryotaro car pulled up in front of my apartment building. “Here’s an umbrella,” Caroline said, picking one up from the floor of the backseat.
“Thanks, I said, getting out of the car and hitting the button to flip it out. The trunk opened automatically, and I grabbed my bag out of it.Bookmark here

“Nice to meet you, Koizumi-san, Caroline-chan,” I said. “Mother, I’ll talk to you soon.”
“Have a nice week, Vanilla-chan,” Ryotaro said.Bookmark here

My mother didn’t say a word, but nodded a goodbye as I sloshed up the steps of the walkway to the front door of the apartment building.Bookmark here

Fifteen minutes later, I had unpacked, and was enjoying a relaxing bath. The way my apartment is laid out has the toilet in the same room as the bath, which is kind of like how they do it in other countries. It’s convenient because when the seat’s down, I have a handy shelf to put books and snacks and other things while I’m soaking.Bookmark here

That’s when I remembered: I had a challenge tomorrow afternoon. A big one. I would be up against Nadeshiko Enomoto, and from what everyone was telling me, I was skating on thin ice.Bookmark here

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