If I recall correctly, I was fifteen at the time. Sitting restlessly on my chair as I revised my mid-term papers dejectedly. A flock of pigeons cooed as they soared aloft, and the soft, evening sunlight poured in through the half-open windows. Basking in the elements of nature, I thought the classroom was empty then, but a chuckle jolted me straight. Looking up from my math paper with second-rate grades, I saw a group of girls encircling in on me.
One of them bashfully nudged another, giggling all the while. The one that’s been pushed seemed to be holding a piece of paper. A confession note, perhaps? My mind raced at the thought. I’ve no idea I would be such a ladies man.
She twirled her short hair and gave me a gentle smile, closing in to my desk with a model-like gait, periodically glancing back to her group of friends.
If a heart monitor was strapped on my arm back then, it would’ve gone over one-sixty. Tension shot through my body. My legs were rooted in place. I tried to avert her gaze for a while; the floor looks like a nice place to rest my wavering vision.
It’s not that I have a problem with women, it’s just a mutual male thing, per se.
I’ve surmised that this is what you usually call ‘the moment’ in high-school where life makes a U-turn for the better. Every high school student must be given this right in equal measures, I thought. And I’m getting mine right now.
This is it. Here she comes.
She sat on the edge of my desk, carefully placing the piece of paper down. I was hesitant to move my eyes to meet her face. All the while, my brain was groping for the right words to form a reply; the sentence must be perfect for this to work. Then, as if she read my mind, she finally spoke.
“Hey, I’m sorry to bother you,” she said, blushing. “… but could you… could you… do this English assignment for me? I’m planning to go on a date this evening, so I can’t really catch up to the deadline. I’ll treat you to something later, I promise.”
I gestured the O.K. hand sign at her. My vision was still of the floor
“Thank you! I knew I could count on you.” she replied.
In my peripheral vision, she seemed to curve her lips to form somewhat of a smile.
After that, one of her friends called out to her, she said that they wouldn’t make it in time for the screening, so they had to quickly bounce.
“See you later!”
“See yo-“ they slammed the door shut.
As I slowly looked up, they’ve already left the classroom. I leaned back on my chair, crossing my legs. Glancing at the blackboard, I clutched the English paper tentatively. Now was I alone.
Well, being trusted by someone like that is an honour, of course. She must’ve felt I was dependable enough that she went out of her way to entrust me with her assignment. Truly, a magnificent score. I pumped my fist victoriously.
Following that debacle, my intestines were in an uproar, the cafeteria it is, then. I made a stop to my locker first. The sounds of chattering in the locker room were deafening then, so I hung my head low as I walked, avoiding prying eyes in the meantime. Reaching my locker, I heaped a couple of things I need for tomorrow’s classes.
While I was shoving my gym clothes inside, my ears shot up intently when I heard Nasagawa from the end of the bustling hallway. He was babbling at full volume about yesterday’s football practice to his clubmates. When I looked up, our gaze met and he changed himself to an even cheerier demeanour. He raced towards me and playfully strangled my neck.
“Hey, how you doin’, Satou? Doing good? Yeah? Okay. Nice!”
I assumed the pleasantries and exhilaration was due to the fact that he was going to invite me to watch the first Terminator in his house this weekend. We’ve been putting it off for a while due to the mid-term tests, and now that we’re free, he’s planning to put together a date with a couple of his buddies.
“Wha-what’s up, Nasagawa?” I blurted out from the chokehold.
He let me go brusquely, pacing a few steps backwards.
“Nothing much.” he gave me a smile. “I was just wondering… I was wondering if I could borrow some money. Not too much- just for this evening’s mealtime. My parents cut me off from my allowance this month, I mean, you should know them by now.”
He pulled his pants pocket to illustrate.
“Yeah. I know how they are.” I laughed hesitantly
I pulled out my wallet and gave him a ten-thousand yen note.
“I knew I could count on you. I’ll pay you back next week!” he said as he darted back to his circle.
Well, maybe he had cram school this weekend, so I shrugged it off. I didn’t have any money left to buy some snacks, though. With nothing left to do, I retreated back to the classroom to fetch my things and quickly go home. Spending time here is a waste. After all, I didn’t really have much to do besides playing with myself. As I was walking to the slightly open classroom door, I felt a tug at the back of my collar. It was Mr. Todou.
“Satou.” Mr. Todou said sternly. My social barometer indicated that he might be preparing to admonish me.
“Yes!” I quickly bowed my head in salutations.
“Uh. No need to bow, just listen to what I have to say,” he sighed. “Follow me to the teacher’s room.”
We were marching through the hallway in tandem. It was a stark contrast to what I saw when Nasagawa was there, now it looked desolate and abandoned. Some loiterers were seen squatting, then turned away when they saw Mr. Todou. I glanced at Mr. Toudou from time to time. His profile and appearance were grave. I thought I was going to get suspended and sent immediately back home right there and then. He must’ve seen my magazines.
Entering the teacher’s room in silence, he sat me down on a metal chair. After revising his notes, he propped his chin on hands. I’ve concluded that I was in a bit of a pickle. He tried to fix his gaze at me, but I stared at his desk evasively.
“It’s about your grades,” he finally said. “If you’ve at least looked at them by now you should know where I’m getting at. All of the basic requirements to go to university: Math, Japanese, Biology- I’m sorry to say this, but they don’t even mark in the average. Your English is pretty good, though, so you should keep going at that for a while.”
“I’m sorry, Sir.” I replied sombrely.
“Apologies won’t cut it!” he shouted as he timidly slammed his desk. He dropped his violent playact afterwards and gave me an anxious smile. “Uh. Sorry. Been meaning to try and practice that for a while. 3-A’s been pretty rowdy lately.”
“No worries.” I chuckled nervously.
“Anyway,” he continued. “You’re a good kid. I won’t just stand here and do nothing while you plunge yourself into ruin. You need to bump those numbers up. Unless you want to go to a God-knows-where university in the middle of nowhere, then you should hear me out. It’s important for me, and also my responsibility as a teacher to help you. Say… what about private tutoring? Just me and you in this room, every Friday, free of charge.”
I thought about it for a moment, then shook my head in rejection. I made up some excuse about visiting my cousin at the hospital every Fridays, but he didn’t bought into it.
“Eh? Come on… Don’t be shy. 20 minutes in and out. Nothing to worry about.”
“That’s not it,” I replied. “I just… I don’t know. I’ve been studying a lot lately and nothing seems to help me improve.”
“I see.” Mr. Toudou said serenely. He pinched his chin pensively for a moment, then looked as if he had just heard a divine revelation.
“Satou.” he said primly.
“What about a study group? A club. Well, no one’s in it right now. But I could assign some of your close friends as partners. Let’s see, um, who do you hang out with again?”
My legs grew rigid. I stared at the teacher’s room wall, contemplating.
“I think… I think I’ll pass on that one.”
Mr. Toudou sighed, then carried on. “Fine. I didn’t want to this at first, but I guess there’s no other choice. I’ll bump some of your grades up if you join a club. Any club. I’ve revised the rules for you and you only, so it’s mandatory now. You need to socialize a bit more, get a couple of new friends while you’re at it. Any hobbies that you like, Satou?”
“I guess I’ll take the club with the least members on it.” I replied, steering-off from a couple of questions.
He gave me a sour look, mentally flipped through the club forms, then jotted down some notes.
“Foreign literature.” he finally said.
“Well, I kind of like imported books, but I don’t know if I should take your offer on that,” I timidly replied. “May I I ask how many members are in there? I think it’s a need-to-know basis in my case.”
“Zero.” he replied nonchalantly.
“Zero?” I asked, taken aback.
He gave me a smile. Then he rummaged through his desk and plucked the key for the club room. He rattled it a bit before plopping it down to my palms.
“Class 5-B. Every day. 3:00-5:00. Don’t be late. I’ll supervise for the first few weeks, then leave you once you get the hang of things.”
I was about to hug him at first, but then I was pulled away by some sort of contradiction in his statement. My suspicion understandably grew. Mr. Todou wants me to socialize, yet why is he contempt with me joining a club with no members on it? This would be a prime example of a sly trick.
“Can I- um- see the registry.” I asked innocently.
“What for?” his tone signalled that he was nervous.
“Well. A club with zero members sh- should probably get dissolved, right?”
Mr. Toudou hesitantly fixed his blood-red tie, then went on to rummage some more. As he searched, he held his head back a bit, then sighed in relief.
“Here you go.” he said, handing me a navy-blue folder.
I flipped through the folder and pulled out the registry. As I was reading it, I held my head in disbelief. It’s true. Foreign literature doesn’t have any members yet. I felt like I was in a bed full of roses, making flower-angels while I flapped my hands. I was speechless. It was a godsend!
“Well? Anymore demands, Satou.” Mr. Todou sarcastically said.
“No, no. Let me carry my novels first. I’ll nest right now.”
I traced my steps back to the classroom and picked out some novels to bring up. Alright, The Invisible Man? Sure. Salem’s Lot? Why not. It occurred to me that class 5-B would virtually be a private study, or a mancave, so to speak. I did a little jump and tapdanced through the empty locker-lined hallways. Let’s see, library over there. Pool table over here. I mused and mused as I ambled through the hall and made a right to the narrow staircase.
Leaping from the stairs, I made a left to the third-floor hall. It was empty at this time of day.
Okay, 5-D, 5-C, 5-B. Ah, here it is!
I impatiently inserted the key to the keyhole, dropping it in the process. Then I realized the door was unlocked.
Pushing it made a creaking sound, so I gently nudged the nozzle and made my way through. The brilliant evening sunshine bathed the room in a serene glow, the windows on this room were also half-opened. A singular potted plant stood sentinel on the windowsill, gently dancing as the mild winds of spring blew timidly. I heard a couple of birds cooing in the distance.
Feeling refreshed, I made myself at home and sat on a wooden chair propped against an empty bookcase. While paging through Salem’s Lot, I vacantly listened to the birds overhead. I’ve concluded that they were doing some sort of mating ritual. So, I put the book down and went to the opening to take a look out of curiosity, propping my elbows on the sills next to the potted plant. A couple of sparrows were perched on a telephone pole. Then, upon hearing the sounds of roaring engines, they fley away.
It really was my own personal heaven.
As nature ceaselessly caressed my eardrums, I heard a harrowing sound.
Like a balloon popping on a birthday party, the sound of moaning blared the empty classroom, my eardrums almost gave in. On the far-left corner of the room, a girl was watching porn on loudspeaker. No, more importantly: a girl was in the classroom. I staggered backwards and accidentally knocked the plant on the sill, well, I almost fell to the ground floor if I’m being honest.
Hearing the shattering pot, she shot her head up like a cat on alert. She carefully eyed me for some time, then painted a smile across her petite face.
“You must be the new guy.”
“Th-the what? I’m so- sorry. Wrong classroom.”
I darted out of the club room.
I made a screeching halt on the way to the teacher’s room. I saw that Mr. Todou was strolling quietly, reading a book all the while. He didn’t seem to notice me.
“What is it, Satou?” he closed his book and produced a sincere smile.
“C-class 5B? Right?”
“Of course.” he said matter-of-factly. “You should get going now, I’ll have to do a couple of things before I get there.”
I brought up his rear and raced towards the third floor again.
5D, 5C, 5B. What?
Peeking my head into the classroom inaudibly, I saw that she was still there, grinning as she voraciously peered into dimly lit screen. Then, a notion came to mind: the signs must’ve got mixed up somehow, that’s it. I peeped into room 5-D and 5-C from the door windows; they were chock full of people. One of them spotted me and made a beckoning gesture. I ducked my head, then went on all fours and crawled towards 5-B like a limping cat, ocassionally glancing to my rear to make sure I wasn’t being followed.
“What are you doing?” she asked in an affable tone.
I stood up in attention.
“N-nothing. I ju-just lost my keys, that’s all.”
It was hard to look her in the eyes, but I made out a somewhat correct profile of her: she appeared to be decked out in long-sleeved sweater; in the middle of spring, no less. Gently touching her earlobes; short and sleek jet-black hair which lavishly fluttered in the soft evening winds. I’ve no mental aptitude nor the requirements necessary to describe her facial appearance, so let’s just leave it at that.
“There it is.” she said gleefully, pointing to my hands.
I seem to be holding said key.
“We-Whew. That’s embarrassing.”
I wanted to nosedive from the third-floor at this point, but she gestured me to come inside. I bashfully followed suit, hugging myself as I hung my head low. She sat down on one of the chairs, and beckoned me to sit next to her. I sat a pool table length away. She gave me an inquisitive look, then moved her chair next to mine.
Like magnets on the same pole, we repelled each other when in close proximity, well, in a more comical way, I guess. She positioned her chair next to mine again, then I skedaddled off with my chair intact.
The process was tiring, but I was determined not to give up, until finally she strapped me down with a strap-on thingy? I’ve seen one of these in an adult magazine somewhere, a strap-like contraption which the S and M guys use for shameless debauchery. I forgot what it’s called, though. It was uncomfortable and tight around the Johnny. It might wrinkle and pop out any time now. Not a pleasant view to think about.
“U-uhm. Where did you get this?”
“I stole it from the principal’s office,” she replied amiably. “Well… I forgot my tightrope at home, so this’ll do for now.”
I tried to break free from the rope to no avail.
“No need to worry. I’m just going to ask you a couple of questions.” she said, fixing a cough.
“Number one,” she continued, holding what looked like her notes. “Do you have any allergies or supposed inborn illnesses?”
I racked my brain over it for a while, then shook my head, looking down in the meantime.
“Good. That’s good.” she said, typing it down as if she was a psychiatrist.
“Two,” she followed it up. “Do you love penguins?”
“Penguins. Do you love them?”
“We-well I don’t mind- I like them, I guess.”
“ ‘I like them?’ “ she replied in an exasperated tone.
“No, I mean, I saw them in a nature documentary once, let’s see… um- Chinstraps, Gentoos, Emperors.” I tried to list every penguin knowledge that I’ve acquired, but she held up her hand, signalling me to be quiet.
“That’s preschool apprehension,” she interjected. “In order to love, not to like. One must sacrifice all that’s necessary to comprehend the essence of ‘love’. Love is not a feeling, it’s an emotional response. An emotion that’s produced only because one is willing to give up their lives to protect said emotion. It’s not a warm, tingly feeling, butterflies in your stomach or whatever. It’s tangible happiness that everyone will long for. You get me, right? U-um. What’s your name again?”
“Satou.” I replied, my mouth was gaping in surprise.
“So, Satou. Fundamentally, I love penguins.” she said, reddening.
“You’re willing to give up your life for penguins?” I asked in awe. As I was waiting for an answer, I saw that she was hiding a notebook that was scribbled with her monologue in her back.
“Probably. Which brings me to the last question,” she continued. “Would you be willing to help me on this super secret project? It pays well, of course.” she handed me a brown folder, inscribed with some characters that I didn’t recognize.
“We-well. I would be glad to read them if I could.”
“Oh whoops, sorry.”
She untied the strap contraption and let me go for a stretch.
I opened the folder to read the contents. It was heavily stained by streaks and X'es. I've absolutely no idea what I'm looking at.
OPERATION PROJECT PENGUIN
Weather modification: Cloud Seeding (Not Plausible)
Contraption (In Progress)
Budget: One-trillion yen. (Affirmative)
Penguin Type: Emperors (Antarctica)
Distance: Tokyo-Antarctica (13.233km)
Members: Nakahara, Otome
“W-what is this all about?”
“It’s my project, of course!” she replied cheerily.
She handed me a blue pen, nagging me to sign at the bottom right.
“Once you’ve signed the contract. There’s no going back.”
“Th- the hell does that mean?”
“This is a contract that is bound by law. Breaching said contract would result in a lawsuit. I hope you understand. You’ll be helping me, and me only. Every club day, rain or shine, night or day. I’ll give you my number just to make sure.”
She was the first girl that’s ever given me her phone number.
I didn’t know what to respond with, nor what to say. Declining her offer here would not be an option, she's viable as a new friend after all, so, I signed away with no second thoughts. I blanked out my given name, to which I was scared that she would protest, but I saw a look of approval from Nakahara instead, well, she grimaced, I think. After I was finished, she patted me on the back, and sat me down once more. She fixed a cough again and curved her lips into a broad smile.
“Welcome to the project, Satou .”
A couple of sparrows cooed in the distance.