Chapter 18:


ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls

For a few minutes, I stood still as a statue, watching Ebifry to see if there was any movement. But there was none. No whisker twitches, no tail twitches, not even the gentle rising and falling of his stomach from breathing.Bookmark here

I backed up and shakily stood upright. What do I do? What do I do? I decided the best course of action would be to find Mako, and fast. Maybe he could be saved.Bookmark here

I dashed outside to the hallway and pounded on Mako’s door. She answered, obviously alarmed at the fact that I had awakened her at an unusual hour. I could barely blurt out anything coherent, but she understood that she needed to follow me.Bookmark here

When we arrived in my bedroom, Ebifry had still not moved. Mako dropped to her knees. “Ebifry, wake up. Ebifry, do you want some catnip?” Her voice started to quaver. She got up and looked at me.Bookmark here

“Twenty-four hour vet. Down the block. Get dressed,” she ordered.Bookmark here

Fifteen minutes later, the two of us were seated in the deserted office of the nearby emergency veterinary clinic. It smelled of medicine and animal waste, but I barely even noticed. The two of us were staring at the wall, hoping against hope that everything was all right.Bookmark here

The door to the examination room opened, and the two of us turned our heads. The vet stepped out of his office, holding a shallow cardboard box. His expression was grim.Bookmark here

“I’m very sorry,” he said, as the two of us ran up to him.Bookmark here

Ebifry was resting peacefully inside the box, looking like he could get up and yawn and stretch at any moment. But he was in the world beyond the world of dreams now, where nothing would ever awaken him.Bookmark here

I stared at his lifeless body as the vet droned about how feral cats like Ebifry would often find a secluded place to spend their last moments, where they felt safe and protected. “He chose to spend his last moments with you,” the vet said, looking into my downcast eyes. “You made him safe and protected. You should feel honored.”Bookmark here

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We left the vet’s office, with Mako carrying the box with Ebifry’s body. Neither of us spoke as we made our way back home. My footsteps felt like lead, and my expression was completely blank. The weather was warm, the air was full of the smell of summer rain, but I couldn’t feel anything. Bookmark here

Mako opened the door to her apartment and carefully laid the box with Ebifry’s body on the table. She pulled out her phone.Bookmark here

“I’m…gonna let my parents know what happened,” she said. “They loved him too.” She started dialing as I sat on the floor, my back against the wall.Bookmark here

This feeling was all too familiar to me—the same one that overcame me when I first learned about my father’s plane disappearing. This time was different—it was a beloved pet, so why was it affecting me so much? You need to be strong, I thought to myself as I looked over to where Ebifry was lying. You will get through this. Put a mask on and hide your pain.Bookmark here

Mako pressed a button on her phone and looked down at me. “My mom said there’s a temple near here that will conduct a…funeral…” It was hard to hear her say the word.Bookmark here

“Yeah,” I replied.Bookmark here

“She started crying when I told her…I felt so bad.”Bookmark here

“Yeah…”Bookmark here

“I’m gonna call and make the arrangements...I want to do it today so we can both be there.”Bookmark here

“Yeah…”Bookmark here

“You…wanna know what I was thinking to myself earlier?”Bookmark here

“Yeah…”Bookmark here

“I was thinking, ‘Ebifry, I’d do anything to see you get up and wash your butt again.’”Bookmark here

I giggled through my tears, remembering all the times I’d see Ebifry washing himself with everything out there to plainly see. “Oh, yeah…” I said. “He was such a boy cat, wasn’t he?”Bookmark here

Mako went over to the kitchen. “Oh man…I just realized I haven’t eaten since last night. Do you want something?” she asked.Bookmark here

I honestly didn’t feel hungry, so I shook my head as she poured herself a glass of orange juice. Suddenly, I was reminded of something…Bookmark here

“SCHOOL!” I jumped up to my feet and grabbed my phone. It was 9:30—well after the start of class. And I had missed call and message alerts on my phone. “Oh, crap!” Suddenly, I felt dizzy. I stumbled and fell down again, dropping my phone.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan!” Mako ran over and helped me up. “Come on…Sit down over here.” She guided me over to a sofa, and made me lay down on it before she handed me my phone.Bookmark here

She walked back to the kitchen as I scrolled through the missed calls on my phone: both the school’s main offices and my mother, who the school would have called as soon as I was reported to have an unexcused absence. Ugh, what am I going to tell them? That I missed the first hour of classes because of Ebifry? I thought.Bookmark here

Mako came back from the kitchen and set a plate with a slice of castella and a glass of orange juice in front of me. “Eat up,” she said. “You need your strength.”Bookmark here

I nodded as I reached for the glass of juice. Calling them could wait, and I honestly felt like I couldn’t make it through the day at school without breaking down. Even Mako seemed to be having trouble functioning.Bookmark here

Mako came over and sat next to me on the couch. “When…when you’re ready we’ll take Ebifry down to the graveyard,” she said, hesitantly.Bookmark here

I nodded. There really wasn’t much more I could say.Bookmark here

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After I had called out sick from school and left my mother a message about my status, Mako and I wrapped Ebifry’s body in a soft blanket and we took one last walk outside to his house. His food bowl was still there, filled with crumbs of cat food that would forever remain uneaten, as well as a chewed up matatabi stick and a ball with a bell in it. With tears streaming out of our eyes, we picked up the plastic bin that had been Ebifry’s house and took out the cushion that was inside. It still smelled like him, and his fur still clung to it.Bookmark here

“I’ll…wash this,” Mako said, sniffling.Bookmark here

We picked up the remaining toys and food to take back inside, and made our way to the temple that would be Ebifry’s final resting place. The attendant met us outside as we arrived, and guided us to the altar, where we laid Ebifry’s body. A priest came out and directed us to light incense and kneel, with our hands clasped in prayer, as he prayed over Ebifry’s soul.Bookmark here

After the prayers were over, the temple took Ebifry’s body, which would be cremated and interred on site. He gave Mako a wooden tablet for her family altar in exchange, and the three of us exchanged bows.Bookmark here

Mako stared at the wooden tablet all the way back to our apartment building. I stared down at the ground, feeling completely numb. We went inside, and Mako set the wooden tablet on the altar. We stared at it together for a while, until I glanced at Mako and asked, “Do…you want to go to the arcades?”Bookmark here

Mako nodded. “Yeah…I need to take my mind off things. Come on. Let’s go blow our money on crane games and take print club photos.” Her smile was half hearted, but we had made our decision. We left the apartment building to take a walk down to the shopping street.Bookmark here

We tried to have fun, but the death of Ebifry was lurking in the wings, making itself known every time we saw something cat related. Mako and I played the latest rhythm games and blew money on the crane games, trying to win figures. (I saw a bunch of Banana Cat plushies and immediately averted my eyes.) We decided to spend a couple hours at a karaoke box, where the two of us started singing random songs. Neither of us can sing very well, so there were a lot of laughs to be had.Bookmark here

After our karaoke session, the two of us ate at a WcDonalds. It was about the time that I’d be getting out of school for the day. As I stood up to throw the empty papers and boxes away, my phone buzzed, and I pulled it out to see a message from Yomogi.Bookmark here

To: Me From: Yomogi
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Are you OK? I heard you were sickBookmark here

I decided to write her back and let her know the truth.Bookmark here

To: Yomogi From: Me
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Ebifry passed awayBookmark here

From Yomogi: To: Me
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Oh no! I’m so sorry :( He was such a handsome cat :(Bookmark here

“One of your friends?” Mako asked, and I nodded.Bookmark here

“Yomogi-chan…I wonder if she’ll tell Kei-chan…she’s going to be heartbroken. She fell in love with Ebifry when she came to visit me.”Bookmark here

The mention of Ebifry again made both of us go silet. “I’d…better call Kei-chan myself,” I finally said.Bookmark here

Mako nodded. “That reminds me…we should head back. Do you want to be home in time for the matches tonight?”Bookmark here

I nodded. “Yeah. Come on, let’s get going.”Bookmark here

I came back into my apartment and brushed cat hair off the blanket of my futon, and found myself crying. I hardly ever let my feelings out in public, and now that I was alone, it was time to.Bookmark here

Everything that happened the last few days was weighing heavily on my mind, and now I needed to mentally prepare myself for the championships on Thursday night. It was good to have a day where I could just think about nothing, I thought. I wiped away my tears and went to call Kei-chan with the bad news.Bookmark here

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Meanwhile, in the apartment upstairs…Bookmark here

Shinji Tenmyouji was looking out the window at the courtyard below, his gaze fixed in the spot where Ebifry’s house once stood. A buzzing from his phone behind him made him turn back, and he grabbed the phone to check the number—it was Taiga Shirogane.Bookmark here

“Evening, Shinji-kun,” Taiga said. There was a lot of background noise behind him—it sounded as if he was somewhere crowded.Bookmark here

“Evening, Taiga-san,” Shinji muttered.Bookmark here

“Aren’t you going to wish me luck tonight?”Bookmark here

“Why should I? We both know you’re going to win.”Bookmark here

“Heh. That confident, huh? By the way, is it all set?”Bookmark here

“It’s all set, but…I think we should wait until Thursday night,” Shinji said. “Something very sad happened to Sakamoto today. Something that I think will affect her performance.”Bookmark here

“Hmm? Go on.”Bookmark here

“Ebifry went to kitty heaven.”Bookmark here

“Oh, that’s such a shame. And you’re right… we should hold off until then. Well, I’ve got to run. They’re about to let me in.”Bookmark here

Shinji touched the screen to hang up the phone, and flopped back on his futon, sighting. Their plan was so dangerously close to fruition it was beginning to scare him.Bookmark here

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I spent a while talking with Kei on the phone until she reminded me that the Washoku Division matches were on, so I hung up and pulled up the TV feed on my computer. The matches for the Washoku Division Championships were thrilling. The first year students, which were two boys who I didn’t know all too well, were locked into a battle over who could make the better egg-based dish. The winner had made a delectable looking chawanmushi—a savory steamed custard that he had filled with bits of mushroom and vegetables—and the runner up, who managed to score one vote, had made a delectable tenshinhan—a Chinese inspired crab and rice omelette. The second year battle featured Sonoko Kinashi, the girl who had been sitting next to me at the banquet. She was so calm and stoic during her battle, where she and her opponent—someone I vaguely recognized as being in the karate club along with Kei—battled over the subject of black beans. Sonoko’s unanimous win was through the creation of black bean burger patties sandwiched between a steamed bun sliced in half and served with various quick sauces, and her unworthy opponent was forced to concede when no one liked his black bean soup.Bookmark here

Finally, it was Taiga Shirogane’s turn. As the stage was rapidly cleared, Ryosuke announced the final battles. “Ladies and gentlemen, it is now time for the third year championships of the Washoku Division! If you have been a longtime watcher of the Umami Gakuen tournament finals, this next competitor needs no introduction. Please welcome Taiga Shirogane!”Bookmark here

There was a huge roar of applause—he had many fans in the audience. He stepped confidently onto stage, and politely bowed to everyone, which made a lot of women squeal in delight.Bookmark here

“His opponent tonight has already decided to join the Umami Gakuen culinary teaching track to teach the next generation of young gourmet battlers. Presenting Keisuke Iida!”Bookmark here

I remembered him from the banquet. He stepped out on stage to a more modest round of applause from the audience, looking very nervous. He waved to the crowd and swallowed as the graphics showing both of their statistics appeared onscreen.Bookmark here

My eyes widened. Taiga Shirogane had a four star ranking. That was extremely rare, even for a third year student—three and a half stars, like what Michael was ranked, was above average for a third year student. (And once again I shall mention that my three star rank upon entry was even rarer than that.)Bookmark here

Then, the spinning wheel appeared, with both of their faces in vignettes on screen as the wheel started to spin slower…and slower…and finally stopped on a space marked “Salmon.”Bookmark here

“Salmon, ladies and gentlemen!” Ryotaro announced. Taiga looked thrilled, while Keisuke looked somewhat apprehensive. I was amazed—it was such a topical subject for the final Washoku Division battle of the night. Bookmark here

The final countdown started, and at the start of time, both of the boys ran towards the refrigerators. Taiga strode confidently back from his refrigerator holding two Styrofoam trays, while Keisuke had an armful of ingredients. The camera focused on Taiga as he began the cooking process, while a window with Ryotaro, the panelists and the translator appeared on the bottom of the screen.Bookmark here

“Shirogane-san was the runner up last year, correct?” Cherry-tan said.Bookmark here

“Yes. He’s quite the accomplished gourmet battler. No one expected him to improve so dramatically after he narrowly lost the Washoku Division first year championships,” Shinnosuke Hashimoto said.Bookmark here

Ludovic St. Germaine started speaking, which prompted the translator to speak up. “His father and grandfather were also gourmet battlers,” she said.Bookmark here

“Don’t forget his mother,” Cherry-tan said. “Wasn’t she a major player in Japan’s victory in the Gourmet Battle World Cup ten years ago?”Bookmark here

“Yes…” Shinnosuke Hashimoto looked hesitant. “It’s a shame her career suffered, and losing her was an even greater blow.”Bookmark here

Taiga’s mother was dead? And what was this about her career? I grabbed my phone and opened up the web browser, looking up for any information about a Shirogane who was a gourmet battler that died. Unfortunately, all I could find were the obituaries of various people named Shirogane, which was probably a fairly common family name.Bookmark here

Maybe I should ask about her, I thought, as I turned my attention back to the match. I had been watching the panel intently, but now the camera had switched to Keisuke, who was brushing what appeared to be a miso-based marinade on a couple of delectable filets of salmon. The camera switched back to Taiga, who was intently rinsing a strainer filled with something bright under a sink.Bookmark here

“Looks like…That’s salmon roe! It looks beautiful!” Cherry-tan said.Bookmark here

Sure enough, there were beautiful crimson orbs of salmon roe running through Taiga’s fingers as he washed remnants of tissue from them. They sparkled under the light of the studio spotlights, and the way he handled them was like watching a concert pianist’s delicate fingers tickling the ivories. He gently shook them out in a wire strainer and poured them out on a double layer of kitchen towels. His attention then turned to a shallow dish, where he was turning what appeared to be thin slices of sashimi-grade salmon around in some sort of marinade.Bookmark here

The action returned to Keisuke, who was putting a wire mesh over a tabletop charcoal brazier. I could see a few coals burning inside, which must’ve been lit right at the beginning of the battle. He brushed the mesh with what appeared to be oil, and then carefully laid the pieces of basted fatty salmon on them with tongs. There was an audible sizzle as they hit the heated grille.Bookmark here

“Such a wonderful sound,” said the translator. “He will have to be very attentive to the grilling, as miso is very easy to burn.”Bookmark here

“St. Germaine-san, who would you say has the advantage at this point?” Ryotaro asked.Bookmark here

“At this point, it could go either way. Both of these competitors have several years experience, and the skills to back it up,” the translator said. “However, it all depends on which interpretation the judges find more appealing.”Bookmark here

Now the camera was focused on Taiga, who was busily fanning a tub of rice with one hand while rapidly scooping, cutting and turning the rice using a bamboo rice paddle. “Sushi rice!” Shinnosuke Hashimoto announced happily. “It appears you’re right, St. Germaine-san. He’s going for some sort of sushi or sashimi based interpretation.”Bookmark here

As Taiga finished cooling and seasoning the sushi rice, he picked up a small bowl and sprinkled green shavings into it, gently folding them evenly through the rice. “Those were the shiso leaves he was chopping earlier,” the translator said.Bookmark here

The camera moved back to Keisuke, who had finished cooking one filet, and was then moving to another. “That filet looks beautiful!” said Cherry-tan, as the camera focused on it. The edges were lightly charred, and the flesh was salmon pink (of course) mottled with the miso marinade. Keisuke added a tiny wad of what appeared to be marinated seaweed and cucumber to the plate as well.Bookmark here

Then, the one-on-one interview with Keisuke appeared at the bottom of the screen. “What was the biggest factor that led you to going into the teaching track?” Ryotaro asked.Bookmark here

“My younger brother and sister,” Keisuke said. “They’re both budding athletes, and proper nutrition at their age—at any age—is important. Food can be just as important as medicine.”Bookmark here

Then, the scene changed to Ryotaro’s interview with Taiga, as the camera focused on his actions. Taiga had moved on to putting the seasoned rice into three deep bowls, and was now carefully arranging the sliced marinated salmon sashimi and salmon roe on top. “This is your third time competing in the finals,” Ryotaro said. “What have you learned from your efforts?”Bookmark here

“I have learned that how your food looks is just as important as how it should taste,” Taiga said, in that same measured, gentle tone. “That is why everything I make is both beautiful and delicious. Why have one or the other? Because, it’s dangerous. You will get something that tastes good and looks terrible, or something that’s terrible and looks good. And you’re making it for a complete stranger, so you need to have a good first impression.”Bookmark here

I smiled. Taiga’s speech struck a chord with me, and it seemed to strike one with Ryotaro as well. The camera panned back to the clock, and there were five minutes left to the round. Both of the boys were scurrying around, putting the finishing touches and garnishes on their dishes.Bookmark here

“Like St. Germaine-san said, it’s going to be tough for the judges to choose a winner,” Shinnosuke Hashimoto said. “The techniques shown by both these competitors are almost professional. Five years from now, I wouldn’t be surprised if they both had their own restaurants or were competing on the pro circuit.”Bookmark here

I gripped the edges of my bedsheet. Silently, I was rooting for Taiga, but what Keisuke had made also looked incredible. I found myself hating it when the camera shifted to Keisuke instead of him. Watching him move about onstage, I finally began to realize what Emi meant about how “sparkly” I could be. I could see that same sparkle in every one of Taiga’s movements. My face grew hot as I remembered his reassuring tone and gentle hands.Bookmark here

Then, the final buzzer sounded! I was jolted from my daydream as the audience applauded. “And that’s time! Three judges will be chosen among the lucky crowd outside the Ginga TV studios, and in minutes we’ll know who will be moving on to the Division Championship! Stay with us!” Ryotaro announced, as the program sponsors appeared on the screen and the show switched to a commercial.Bookmark here

I picked up my phone and noticed that I had gotten a text message from Michael.Bookmark here

To: Me From: Michael
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How are you?
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You weren’t in school today? Everything OK?Bookmark here

The drama of the past day came back to hit me again, like a punch in the stomach. I decided the best thing to do would be to tell him the truth.Bookmark here

To: Michael From: Me
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My cat died this morningBookmark here

From: Michael To: Me
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Oh no, that sucks! I’m so sorry!
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I know how you feel.
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My first year at Umami, my dog back home I had for 12 years died.
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It’s so sad to say goodbye to a pet.Bookmark here

To: Michael From: Me
Yeah :(
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I didn’t want to go to school. I was crying so much.Bookmark here

From: Michael To: Me
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Will you be back tomorrow?Bookmark here

To: Michael From: Me
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Yes. My mom will get mad if I take more time off lolBookmark here

After one last commercial, the broadcast returned with Ryosuke standing in front of the judges table. Two men and a woman were seated, all of them looking like they were about my mother’s age. “We’re back for the final round of judging for this evening!” Ryosuke said. “I have here, randomly chosen from the crowd, our judges from the evening. Please welcome police officer Kanai-san, elementary school teacher Moriuchi-san, and barista Takamura-san.” There was a polite round of applause.Bookmark here

The video screen showed that Keisuke would be the one to make the first presentation, and he got up and placed his three dishes in front of the judges. “I absolutely love salmon, and have made for you today a grilled salmon filet that’s been marinated in a miso and sweet butter marinade, seasoned with a few sprinkles of hot pepper. To cool down the heat, I’ve made a simple marinated salad of cucumber, cabbage and wakame seaweed marinated in seasoned rice vinegar.”Bookmark here

The judges started cutting into the salmon. “It’s so flaky,” said Moriuchi, as she loaded a bite onto her fork and examined it in the light. “You cooked it to the perfect doneness, too. It’s still a little dark pink in the middle, just the way I like it.”Bookmark here

“There’s a delicate crispiness,” Kanai said as he tried a bite of the salmon. “And the miso and butter mix together perfectly. What kind of miso did you use for the marinade?”Bookmark here

“I used a light and sweet low sodium miso that’s produced in small batches by a little place in Kyoto,” Keisuke said. “That way, it wouldn’t overpower the butter, and vice versa.”Bookmark here

“And these vegetables have the perfect amount of seasoning and crunch. It’s a perfect contrast with the fish’s marinade,” Kanai said.Bookmark here

The three judges all seemed to be very happy and satisfied with their food, putting aside their plates after having picked them clean. Then, it was Taiga’s turn.Bookmark here

“Good evening,” he said, smiling, and carefully placing each plate down quietly on the table in front of each judge. He made a polite bow to the judges as he began his speech.Bookmark here

“I’ve made oyakodon for everyone tonight. No, not with chicken and eggs, but with salmon and roe. I’ve marinated the salmon in a mix of light soy sauce with freshly grated wasabi root, and the roe is marinated in a darker soy sauce for a more robust flavor. Everything is served atop my special sushi rice blend, which includes shredded shiso leaves for a refreshing flavor.” He smiled. “I hope you enjoy my cooking."Bookmark here

The cloches were removed, and the audience—and I—gasped as we saw how beautifully arranged the thin slices of salmon sashimi and sparkling salmon roe were arranged atop the rice. In the center of the bowl, a few slices of salmon had been twisted and molded into a shape resembling a rose, with a single bead of roe in its center. Salmon roe was in a ring around the bowl, looking like a jeweled necklace, and bits of the salmon sashimi were in a fan pattern, with the bits of green shiso leaf in the rice showing through faintly.Bookmark here

He’s amazing, I thought.Bookmark here

The judges each picked up a set of chopsticks and picked up a clump of the salmon, rice and roe. Slowly, as all of them were admiring the beauty, they put it into their mouths. Their expressions changed to those of awe and wonder.Bookmark here

The judges and the audience were completely silent, except for a few brief murmurs. Finally, Moriuchi spoke up.Bookmark here

“This…this is the best thing I’ve ever tasted,” she said.Bookmark here

There were nods between the judges as the three of them continued eating, each in awe. The camera focused back on Taiga, who was still smiling his same, sweet smile. Bookmark here

Behind him, I could see Keisuke, his head hung low and resting in his hands. I felt bad for him—he was probably realizing that he’d already lost.Bookmark here

The vote was practically a formality, too. All three of the judges rang in their votes in almost record time and in record speed, all of them for Taiga Shirogane.Bookmark here

“We have a unanimous winner, with cuisine that took our panel’s breath away! Taiga Shirogane is the third year Washoku Division champion!” Ryotaro announced as the audience cheered.Bookmark here

“Thank you,” Taiga said, smiling. “This has been a great battle, and I can’t wait to see what happens later this week when I get to find out who my opponents are.” He winked at the TV screen, causing a whole bunch of girls in the audience to squeal.Bookmark here

But I wished that wink was directed at me.
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Thursday evening, Ginga TV StudiosBookmark here

A group of us were waiting in front of the studios. Most of the competitors had come to support their peers in the final round, while our families and friends were being seated in the studio audience.Bookmark here

Best of all, Tsukiko had been released from the hospital. She had gotten a black eye, which was still puffy and discolored, and her arm was in a sling due to her broken collarbone. “At least now people can tell us apart,” she joked as she poked Yukiko with her free arm.Bookmark here

“But it’s a shame you had to withdraw,” I said.Bookmark here

“Yeah, I was looking forward to facing you in the finals,” Yomogi said.Bookmark here

“Well, at least I don’t have to face Enomoto-sempai,” Tsukiko said. “By the way…good luck on that, Yomogi.”Bookmark here

“Uh…thanks,” Yomogi said, sheepishly.Bookmark here

Taiga approached us from behind. “Good luck tonight, Sakamoto-san,” he said.Bookmark here

“Thanks,” I said. “By the way, congratulations on the other night. That was an amazing victory.”Bookmark here

Taiga smiled. “It was no sweat,” he said. “And I can’t wait until the grand championships begin.” He leaned in close to me.Bookmark here

“And if you win tonight, perhaps…would you like a victory dinner?” he whispered.Bookmark here

I turned bright red and made a quiet squeak as Taiga waved and walked off. Yomogi noticed the color of my face.Bookmark here

“What’d he say? What’d he say?” she asked.Bookmark here

“Erm…uh….” I could barely talk, but then the door to the studio entrance opened.Bookmark here

“Would Michael Furukawa Valentine, Maria Masuda and Vanilla Sakamoto please enter and proceed to the main studio,” shouted a production assistant from the door.Bookmark here

Saved by the bell, I thought as I waved to my classmates and followed Michael and Maria through the door.Bookmark here

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A few minutes later, we were sitting in the green room off the main studio, listening to the director give us the instructions for the last two rounds of competition.Bookmark here

“Whoever picks the red ball will immediately be brought back to this room for the duration of the round,” she said. “You’ll remain here for the duration, and if you need the bathroom or anything else, a staff member will assist you. Are there any questions?”Bookmark here

We looked at each other, and then back at the director.Bookmark here

“Well then, we’ll be bringing you out on stage in a few minutes.”Bookmark here

She turned and exited the room. With the tension gone, Maria let out a loud sigh.Bookmark here

“Oh my god,” she said. “I can’t wait until this is over with. I’m so nervous! What about you two? Are you at least a little nervous?”Bookmark here

I shrugged. “I’m going to treat this like any other cooking battle. I’ll give it my all,” I said. “So just you wait.”Bookmark here

Michael smiled. “Good to see you in such high spirits,” he said.Bookmark here

“Why, what happened?” Maria asked.Bookmark here

“Well…” I was about to explain when the door opened up again.Bookmark here

“We’re ready for you. Follow me,” the director said.Bookmark here

We walked down the hall towards the back doors to the stage, which were held open for us. A production aide guided us to one side of the stage.Bookmark here

“Koizumi-san will be introducing you one by one,” he said. “Go out and stand on the mark when your name is called. Sakamoto will have the yellow mark, Masuda will be on the green, and Valentine on the red. Everything clear?”Bookmark here

We nodded, and as we did the music started up. On the other side of the curtain, I could hear Ryotaro begin the introduction.Bookmark here

“Tonight is the night, ladies and gentlemen! We will be crowning the 20XX champion of the Yoshoku Division in the Umami Gakuen Summer Invitational! This is the first night of four where we’ll name a divisional champion, all to be capped off with the grand championship next week!” There were cheers from the audience. “And now, here to help me introduce the three champions is Umami Gakuen Chairman Mimori!”Bookmark here

There was another ripple of applause, and Chairman Mimori began to speak. “These three students have outlasted their peers and earned their rightful places in this championship competition. And now, may we present the first contestant from third year, class A, Michael Furukawa Valentine!”Bookmark here

There was loud applause and cheers as Michael stepped out from the curtains, disappearing from our view.Bookmark here

“And next, from second year, class D, Maria Masuda!” Ryotaro said.Bookmark here

Maria winked at me before passing through the curtains, as if to say “good luck!” I squeezed my hands into fists and tried to steady my breathing.Bookmark here

“Finally, from first year, class A, Vanilla Sakamoto!” Chairman Mimori said.Bookmark here

I pulled the curtains apart and strode on stage, confidently, imagining servants holding my train amidst showers of confetti and pyrotechnics shooting sparks from every direction. Then, I looked out into the audience.Bookmark here

My mother was sitting in the front row. Next to her was Caroline, who was holding a large sign painted with “Go Vanilla-san!” on it. Behind her was Emi, Yomogi and Kei, along with Mako and Hanabi, holding a large bedsheet painted with “SAKAMOTO NO. 1” between the five of them. Behind them was practically the entire staff of Kotobuki Supermarket, and behind them were many of my classmates. I had no idea I could have such a huge cheering section.Bookmark here

“Now that our contestants have been introduced, we’re on to the random selection,” Ryotaro said. “If you please, Yamada-san?”Bookmark here

A man dressed in what appeared to be a busboy’s uniform wheeled a golden box onto the stage. “There are three colored balls inside this box,” Ryotaro said. “One of the balls is red, and the other two are white. You will be drawing a ball at random from this box. Whoever draws the red ball will advance automatically to the championship round. Whoever draws a white ball will need to battle in a qualifying round, and then the victor will go on to the championship round.”Bookmark here

I smiled, glancing at Michael. Let’s have that rematch, I thought.Bookmark here

“Sakamoto-san, please step forward,” Chairman Mimori said.Bookmark here

Slowly, I walked over to the box and stuck my hand into the fabric hole in the top. I felt around and felt my hand brush against one of the three balls, and closed my fingers around it, gripping it tightly before I yanked my arm out. I opened my fingers…nope, white.Bookmark here

“Masuda-san, if you please,” Chairman Mimori said.Bookmark here

Please be the red ball, I thought—I wanted that rematch with Michael so badly. She gripped one of the balls in the box and pulled her arm out—it too, was white. “Aww,” she muttered.Bookmark here

“And Valentine-san, please,” Chairman Mimori said.Bookmark here

“All right,” Michael said, shrugging, but it was a part of the show. He felt around for the final ball and pulled it out. Sure enough, it was red.Bookmark here

“Looks like that rematch we promised each other is going to have to wait,” Michael said to me as he held up the red ball.Bookmark here

“It’s been decided,” Ryotaro said. “Valentine-san will be waiting in the wings as Masuda-san and Sakamoto-san battle to qualify for the championship!” There were cheers, and then I heard the creaking of ropes behind me as the curtains we were standing in front of were pulled up to reveal the kitchens.Bookmark here

“If you two could assume your places, we will begin the round,” Ryotaro said.Bookmark here

I looked over at Maria and smiled at her. “Good luck, Masuda-san,” I said.Bookmark here

“You too, Vanilla-chan. Boa sorte,” she said, giving me a thumbs up.Bookmark here

I stood at my station as the spinning wheel appeared on the video screen behind us. It began to slow, until finally it stopped on a single wedge:Bookmark here

“EBIFRY!” Ryotaro announced happily.Bookmark here

I felt my stomach turn again as the uncomfortable thoughts of the past few days began to spill forth.Bookmark here

Ebifry is gone and he’s never coming back.Bookmark here

Ebifry is gone and he’s never coming back.Bookmark here

Ebifry my father is gone and he’s never coming back.Bookmark here

Wait, what?Bookmark here

Ebimy fatherfry is gone and he’s never coming back.Bookmark here

My father is gone and he’s never coming back.Bookmark here

My father my father my father my father my father….Bookmark here

Beep. Beep. Beeeeep!Bookmark here

The timer to start the round went off, but I couldn’t move. My legs were affixed in place. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see movement as Maria went to work on peeling and cleaning shrimp.Bookmark here

“Sakamoto, are you all right?” came a voice behind me.Bookmark here

I named you after vanilla because it’s sweet and universally loved.
Bookmark here

Face every loss as an opportunity to learn from your mistakes. Look your opponent in the eye and smile at them even when you want to scream at the world.Bookmark here

Want to go to that sukiyaki restaurant after I get back?Bookmark here

There was a roaring in my ears, blocking everything out, and I felt my vision swim and grow darker as these memories surged to the surface, like a carbonated beverage shook to the breaking point. Suddenly, my legs gave out from under me and I collapsed to the ground…Bookmark here

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