Chapter 19:

Confronting the Past

ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls

I came to on top of a cot in what appeared to be a nurse’s office.Bookmark here

For a moment, I couldn’t remember where I was, but then some groggy snatches of memories came back: loud voices yelling for people to clear the stage, someone picking me up and putting me into a wheelchair, hurried footsteps, the feeling of being rolled on the ground.Bookmark here

That’s when I remembered where I was: the Ginga TV studios, and I was supposed to be out on stage. Making ebifry. Competing against Maria to get the win so I could have my rematch against Michael…but then, something happened. Seeing that word, the same name as my dead kitty friend, flashing on the screen had made me into a total mess. It was like a time bomb that was holding back all the memories and the hardship and pain of dealing with my father’s loss had finally gone off, and at the worst possible moment.Bookmark here

As I shifted around, I heard a man on the other side of a fabric barrier. “I think she’s awake, Sakamoto-san.” A man wearing a Ginga TV identification badge on his lapel was leading my mother from behind the barrier. She looked frightened.Bookmark here

“Vanilla, are you all right?” she asked.Bookmark here

I couldn’t respond. What was “all right” supposed to mean, anyway?Bookmark here

“Talk to me. Did you hit your head?”Bookmark here

I shook my head. It didn’t feel like I bumped it or anything—otherwise I’d be in the hospital, rather than the company infirmary.Bookmark here

I got off the cot and my legs felt like jelly. I took a few steps towards my mother, who hooked her elbow. I took the signal and put my hand through the crook, resting my hand on her forearm. My hands were shaking.Bookmark here

“Vanilla, they’re waiting for you outside,” my mother said as she led me towards the door.Bookmark here

Who was waiting for me? Was the competition over? How long had I been out? She pulled the door open to reveal…Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan!” Yomogi shrieked.Bookmark here

“Are you all right?” Mako asked.Bookmark here

“What happened!?” Kei asked.Bookmark here

My closest friends that had been rooting for me in the audience—Yomogi, Kei, Mako, Hanabi, and even Auntie Yumiko—had been waiting outside the infirmary for me. They all looked panicked and concerned, and there were even a few blurry red eyes from crying.Bookmark here

I didn’t even want to look at any of them, but then Kei spoke up again. “Are you hurt?” she asked. I shook my head. “We…we just saw you freeze up and drop to the ground…” Her voice trembled.Bookmark here

“I’m glad you’re all right,” Yomogi said. “But…” Her voice trailed off. “The judges named Masuda-sempai the winner. The rules say…if you are unable to compete and your opponent’s already started, then…”Bookmark here

Everyone was silent as I found myself forcing the words out. “Michael-san and Maria-san…are they…”Bookmark here

I heard the muffled applause of the crowd and the indistinct voice of Ryotaro coming from the studio, far down the hall.Bookmark here

“Yeah.” Yomogi said. “Masuda-sempai was hysterical, though…she wanted everyone to wait until you recovered. She was even willing to take the forfeit herself…but the rules stood.”Bookmark here

“I…I see,” I murmured.Bookmark here

“Vanilla, what do you want to do?” my mother asked.Bookmark here

I had no idea what I wanted to do, but right now…I felt like a rock at the bottom of the ocean. Activity swirled around me, but all I wanted to do was lie there and stare upwards at a world beyond that I couldn’t reach.Bookmark here

“Take me home, mom,” I murmured.Bookmark here

My mother understood exactly what I meant, and nodded.Bookmark here

“Come on. The car’s waiting.”Bookmark here

She led me past my friends towards the entrance of the studio as they all watched me. There were a few sniffles, and Hanabi was getting a reassuring shoulder pat from Auntie Yumiko.Bookmark here

We walked past the studio where the battle was being recorded. I thought about peeking in to see how the battle was going, but my mother urged me past it. “Come on…You need to take your mind off cooking for the night,” she said.Bookmark here

She was right. That urge to become a rock at the bottom of the ocean was overwhelming.Bookmark here

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A few hours later, I was at home, in my own bed. Not the apartment, but my childhood bedroom.Bookmark here

Apparently, Ryotaro was the one responsible for my mother making it to the taping. He hired a car and driver to take her directly from work to the Ginga TV studios and back home after everything was over. Unfortunately, she found herself going home far earlier than expected—and with an unexpected passenger.Bookmark here

I stared out the window the entire car ride home. My mother was looking down at her feet, nervously twisting the hem of her skirt in her hands. Occasionally, she’d look over at me with concern, but I just wanted to gaze out the window.Bookmark here

When I got home, all I wanted to do was sleep. I tossed my uniform aside and crawled into bed, but sleep was eluding me. All I could think about was my father and the events of the evening playing over and over again in my mind. I tried every trick in the book to get me to fall asleep, except counting sheep turned into counting orange and white cats.Bookmark here

Finally, I gave up, resigned to the horrible feeling of grief that had made itself at home in my body. I listened to the gentle hiss of leaves in the summer breeze, and now and then a passing car. It was different than what I was used to back at the apartment.Bookmark here

After what seemed like hours, I turned around and checked the clock—it was around midnight. I needed something to calm me down, and remembered my father’s house shrine. I shuffled out of bed and into the hallway, quietly, so that I wouldn’t disturb my mother. However, as I came close to the room where she had set up my father’s altar, I heard her talking in a low voice, distorted from crying.Bookmark here

“…It’s like I can’t even reach her,” she said. There was a pause, and I heard the low buzz of what I thought was Ryotaro’s voice. “What do I do, Ryo?”Bookmark here

I tiptoed past her door and went into the room. I sunk down on the floor in front of my father’s altar. His face was smiling at me from a piece of photo paper behind glass, all that remained of his life and livelihood. I reached over and put my hand gently onto the glass, wishing that instead it was cold and hard, it would be my father’s warm, soft embrace…Bookmark here

“Dad…” I murmured.Bookmark here

The dam holding back my tears burst and I started sobbing, not caring if my mother could hear me from the other room. After all this time, I knew that he was well and truly gone, and never coming back. There was no room in my heart for the little girl who was hoping against hope that her father would suddenly appear at the door of their house, like a happy ending to a story.Bookmark here

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I woke up to hear the sound of someone inexpertly chopping vegetables on a cutting board.Bookmark here

I lifted my head to realize that I’d been asleep in front of my father’s altar all night. The room was bright with morning sunlight, and as I looked around, I saw that it was almost 8 AM. I guess my mother excused me from school, I thought, as I carefully stood upright.Bookmark here

My eyes were puffy and red, and my face felt gross from salty tears. I shuffled into the bathroom and washed it, feeling refreshed as I splashed my face with cool water. As I dried it off, I heard my mother call for me. “Vanilla, are you awake?”Bookmark here

“Yeah,” I said.Bookmark here

“Come into the kitchen.”Bookmark here

I shuffled into the kitchen to see her standing in front of the stove, stirring something in a frying pan. She had a whole bunch of vegetable scraps on the counter, a pile of chopped vegetables in uneven sizes, and empty eggshells dripping with whites. It was the kind of prep work that would make a student at Umami Gakuen scream. Bookmark here

“Mom, what are you—” I said, but my mother pointed the spoon at me.Bookmark here

“Sit down. I’m making you breakfast,” she said. “And after you’ve eaten…we need to talk.”Bookmark here

I did so, but not before getting myself a cup of tea. I watched as my mother poured a bowl of beaten eggs into a frying pan, recoiling at the loud sizzle of eggs hitting overheated oil. She swirled it around inexpertly, then added a clump of cheese and mixed vegetables to one half before carefully lifting the other onto top, sandwiching it.Bookmark here

“It’s…a Western omelet,” she said. “I hope I made it right…”Bookmark here

She gazed at the bubbling cheese in the omelet before turning off the burner and carefully sliding the finished omelet onto a plate. It was brown in some spaces, and there was a crusty bit of cheese that had leaked out of the filling and landed on the surface of the hot frying pan.Bookmark here

“Eat it, please,” she said.Bookmark here

I looked down at it, picking up my fork and knife. “Itadaimasu,” I said, half-heartedly. I cut a small slice and put it in my mouth.Bookmark here

Well, I hadn’t lost my sense of taste or smell, like in that one shoujo manga where the heroine lost hers after the boy she loved died in front of her eyes. Everything tasted good, albeit a little overdone. My mother sat down beside me, a cup of coffee in her hands. She looked down at the steam rising from it.Bookmark here

“You said you had to talk to me,” I said, as I paused in between bites.Bookmark here

She sighed, and her whole body slumped. Something was bothering her, and when she looked up at me, I could see her eyes were somewhat moist with tears.Bookmark here

“Vanilla, the truth is…there’s something I’ve been keeping from you all this time,” she said. “I know that…this isn’t the best time to let you know about it but…you need to know the truth.”Bookmark here

She grew quiet. It looked like she was struggling to say something.Bookmark here

“Is it about Dad?” I asked.Bookmark here

She nodded. She picked up her cup of coffee and took a gulp, then set it down and looked into my eyes. “The truth is, Yoshiaki and I…we were beginning to grow apart around the time you entered junior high school. He always wanted to be a pro, and tour the world, but I wanted him to be home for you more. We could never agree on anything…so a few weeks before your father went on his last tip, we…we decided to start the divorce process.”Bookmark here

My knife and fork clattered onto the plate as I jumped up. “WHAT?! Why didn’t I know about this?” I shrieked.Bookmark here

“Vanilla, it was my idea to keep this a secret from you. We wanted to make sure you had as normal a childhood as possible. Yoshiaki was reluctant to go forward with it…but I did everything I could to convince him.”Bookmark here

“Why…Why did you think that keeping it a secret was all right?” I said. I clenched my fist angrily.Bookmark here

“I thought at the time, my intentions were good…but they were wrong.” She started taking deep breaths, in order to calm herself down.Bookmark here

I pushed the food aside. My appetite had been totally lost by now. “You lied to me,” I said, beginning to cry.Bookmark here

“I know.” My mother looked down at the table. She was obviously fighting back tears of her own. “I’m sorry, Vanilla.”Bookmark here

“How can you just say ‘sorry’ and think that’s enough?” I shrieked. “This is what you’re doing to my heart!”Bookmark here

I swept the plate I had been eating from off the table. It clattered on the floor and broke, sending bits of porcelain and uneaten omelet everywhere. I turned around and walked back into my room, shutting the door. Everything was turning red. I felt like I had enough power to destroy the world as payback for taking my father from me and making my mother lie to me.Bookmark here

I sat with the back to the door, slumped on the ground. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the huge banana that my father had given me as a present on a trip abroad. “Why did you lie to me too, Dad?” I yelled at it. I grabbed it and started hitting it against the floor, trying to beat the stuffing out of it.Bookmark here

“I HATE YOU! I HATE THIS WORLD!” I screamed.Bookmark here

The banana’s seam split, and a bunch of Styrofoam pellets flew out, landing softly onto the ground. I tried to stem the tide, but the banana was getting more and more smushed as the stuffing leaked out. I sunk back down to my knees, all the fight gone out of my body. I wanted to lie on the floor forever. I wanted to become a rock at the bottom of the ocean, and just let everything happen around me.Bookmark here

I heard the sound of footsteps outside my door as my mother approached. “Vanilla-chan,” she said. “Can I talk to you again?”Bookmark here

“You’re just going to lie to me again,” I said, my voice breaking as tears were streaming down my face.Bookmark here

“Vanilla, the reason why I was so reluctant to let you go to Umami Gakuen was because I thought you were becoming more like Yoshiaki,” she said. “He…he never had much time for either of us. It was like…he loved cooking more than his family. When you started battling, I was beginning to see that in you, too. But then…last night when I was at the taping, I met your friends. They told me all about how much they enjoyed being with you. They told me about how much you loved to share your knowledge. And all of them…they were all afraid for you and crying when you collapsed.”Bookmark here

My mother sighed. “Vanilla-chan…I understand if you don’t want to forgive me, but I was wrong to dissuade you from Umami Gakuen. Going there and seeing you thrive…it’s the best thing that could’ve happened to you.”Bookmark here

I turned around and opened the door to reveal my mother. She was wiping tears from her eyes as she looked at me.Bookmark here

“I’m sorry I doubted you, Vanilla-chan,” she said.Bookmark here

I nodded.Bookmark here

“I need to borrow the vacuum,” I said, looking behind me to the deflated banana.Bookmark here

“It’s in the closet next to the bathroom,” my mother said.Bookmark here

I stepped outside into the hallway. My mother looked like a heavy weight had been lifted from her shoulders, but she was still struggling with my reaction to the truth.Bookmark here

“I was hoping you would win last night,” she said.Bookmark here

“I didn’t want to win. I just wanted a rematch with Michael,” I said.Bookmark here

“The American boy? He seems nice.”Bookmark here

I rolled my eyes. “We’re rivals. Honest.” And besides…there’s already someone I kind of like, I thought. It was probably not a good idea to shock my mother with the revelation that I had my eye on an older boy.Bookmark here

My mother walked over to me and put a hand on my shoulder. “There’s always next year, right?” she asked.Bookmark here

I nodded. “Yeah. Next year, for sure.”Bookmark here

She smiled. “I’m proud of you, Vanilla-chan,” she said.Bookmark here

Those words were ones I had waited to hear for years. I felt my eyes liquefy as I grabbed my mother in a hug, sobbing as she stroked my head. I hadn’t cried this much since my dad died, but now…these tears were for a much better reason.Bookmark here

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After I had my good cry and spent the morning helping my mom clean the kitchen, I finished cleaning the deflated banana pellets from my room. I managed to salvage what was left and stuffed a bunch of old rags into the cavity, then carefully stitched it up with a needle and thread. It looked okay.Bookmark here

I was heading into the kitchen to get a drink when I heard our doorbell ring. My mother was watching TV, and went up to get the door and opened it.Bookmark here

“Hello, may I help you?” she said. I couldn’t see who was there.Bookmark here

“Are you Sayuri Sakamoto?” said a faint, but familiar voice.Bookmark here

“Yes, I am. You’re the young lady from last night. Mitsurugi-san, right?”Bookmark here

“Yes. Is Vanilla-chan here?”Bookmark here

“Yes, she is…” My mother turned, and saw me standing there. “Vanilla, it’s your friend from school.”Bookmark here

I ran to the door to greet Kei. She was in the Umami Gakuen uniform and was carrying her school bag. This would have been completely normal behavior, except for the fact that she was over a hundred kilometers away from Umami Gakuen—and it was a school day.Bookmark here

“Kei-chan? What are you doing here?” I said, incredulously.Bookmark here

“I had to see how you were doing,” she said. She looked as if she hadn’t gotten much sleep last night.Bookmark here

“You cut class for this?!”Bookmark here

“Come on! Do you honestly think anyone’s going to bother Umami Gakuen’s scariest face about skipping school?” she said, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “I’m here to take you back for the tapings tonight. There’s no way you can skip out on your promise to support Yomogi-chan!”Bookmark here

I nodded. “Right…Of course! Let me get dressed and packed and…” A thought suddenly occurred to me. “Do you mind taking a trip with me before we go to the train station?”Bookmark here

“No, not at all,” Kei said.Bookmark here

I let Kei in as I dashed into my bedroom and grabbed my school uniform from yesterday, folding it up as neatly as possible and sliding it into a reusable tote bag. I put on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt I had left behind when I moved into the apartment, along with an old pair of sneakers, and went outside to the living room. Kei and my mother were seated on the couch, and Kei was telling her about her karate school and training, even demonstrating the right way to punch.Bookmark here

“When’s the next train to Ikebukuro?” I asked.Bookmark here

“It’s not gonna be for another hour and a half,” Kei said.Bookmark here

“Great…That’s plenty of time.” I looked over at my mother. “Thanks for taking me home,” I said.Bookmark here

My mother nodded. “Are you feeling better?”Bookmark here

“Yeah…somewhat,” I said. The air between us was not as heavy as it had been. “Thanks for letting me know the truth.”Bookmark here

“Be careful on your way home, both of you,” she said.Bookmark here

She showed us to the door and we walked out to the street. I looked behind me to see my mother watching the two of us, and waved at her again. She waved, closing the door behind her as we walked off around the corner.Bookmark here

“Your mom seems different somehow. Like she changed in less than 24 hours,” Kei said.Bookmark here

“Well…we had a talk,” I said. “We cleared the air between each other. It’s kind of personal, so…”Bookmark here

“That’s fine. I understand,” Kei said.Bookmark here

We passed by a park that I used to play at when I was a kid. The two of us looked over at the swings, then nodded to each other, and ran into the park to try them out. They were a little small for us, but we still managed to fly pretty high.Bookmark here

“How’s Yomogi-chan doing?” I asked.Bookmark here

“She’s all right. She couldn’t get out of class, though,” Kei said.Bookmark here

“What about the others?” I asked. Kei jumped from her swing and executed a perfect landing, while I scraped my feet against the ground, slowing me down until it was safe for me to get off.Bookmark here

“Well…everyone’s worried about you,” she said. “So I decided that I’d sneak out during lunch and get the express train here. I’ve been keeping them posted.”Bookmark here

“You…you didn’t have to do this, Kei-chan,” I said, and as I started to talk again, Kei stood in front of me, glaring down at me intimidatingly.Bookmark here

“Of course I had to do this!” Kei said. “I was worried about you! I wanted to make sure you were all right, and…there’s something I needed to tell you.”Bookmark here

“What is it?” I asked.Bookmark here

“I’ll tell you in a bit. Come on.”Bookmark here

Kei and I stopped as we reached the bus shelter where we would be boarding the bus to go to the train station. No one was inside, so we both sat down, and Kei turned to face me, her gaze serious.Bookmark here

“Listen. After your battle last night, Yomogi-chan and I were talking, and…we both came to the same conclusion,” Kei said. “Someone is messing with the competition.”Bookmark here

My eyes widened. “You…You think so, too?”Bookmark here

“Yeah. Tsukiko-sempai’s accident and what happened to you last night…That’s no coincidence.”Bookmark here

“Does anyone else have the same feeling you do?” I asked.Bookmark here

“We haven’t talked about it to anyone else about it,” she said. “You’re the first person we’ve told about our feelins.”Bookmark here

The bus started coming close to us, so we both got up. “Do you think we should talk to someone about this?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Yeah…but I don’t know who we can turn to,” Kei said.Bookmark here

“I’ll think of someone,” I said, as the doors opened.Bookmark here

As we got off the bus at the station, I pointed down a side street.Bookmark here

“This way,” I said.Bookmark here

“Where are we going?” Kei asked.Bookmark here

I stopped and looked back at her.Bookmark here

“I want to visit our family grave,” I said. “I want to talk with my dad a bit.”Bookmark here

Kei nodded. “Do you want me to come with you, or do you want me to wait outside?”Bookmark here

I thought for a few moments, then replied. “I’d…like to be by myself.”Bookmark here

We continued down the side street. It was very quiet. I saw what appeared to be a stray cat sitting against a fence. It was black and white, with the white fur dirty from the streets. He looked up at us and yawned.Bookmark here

“Hey, kitty,” I said, reading out my hand to him. The first cat I’d seen since I lost Ebifry. Maybe his name was Gomashio or something, since he was black and white. Gomashio stretched his head out to meet my fingers, and closed his eyes as I stroked his head.Bookmark here

“Well, that’s nice,” Kei said. “Must be one of those ‘everyone takes care of me’ cats.”Bookmark here

“Yeah…that’s how Ebifry was before I moved in, apparently,” I said.Bookmark here

“I only met him once, but I know I’m going to miss him,” Kei said.Bookmark here

The gate to the graveyard was coming up. I paused as I stopped at the posts.Bookmark here

“Can you wait here, Kei-chan?”Bookmark here

“Yeah.”Bookmark here

She leaned against the fence and watched me as I made my way inside the graveyard.Bookmark here

The summer air was hot and still, and I could hear the chirping of crickets. I knew where I needed to go, and made my way down the aisles of gravestones towards the tall one denoting the Sakamoto family. It started out as the memorial to my paternal grandparents, but then my father’s name was added to it a few months after his plane was declared lost. We weren’t able to inter any of his ashes, so his soul was resting here in spirit, so to speak.Bookmark here

I knelt down in front of the grave. “Hey…Dad,” I said. A cool breeze stirred the trees behind the grave, making them rustle.Bookmark here

“Hey…so Mom told me the truth,” I said. “And…I know you two had your reasons for everything. I’m really upset about it, though. I wish you two had told me what was going on. Mom seems really happy that she finally got everything off her chest. Oh yeah, she found a really nice guy. You’d probably like him…Oh, and I managed to make it to the finals of the Umami Gakuen summer tournament. I’ve even got a rival. He’s a big fan of yours. I’m going to beat him in a rematch someday. I didn’t get my chance during the competition…there’s some weird stuff happening, and I’d appreciate it if maybe you could look out for my friends. Especially Yomogi-chan, because she’s up for the championship. And…if you see a little cat with an orange spot on his head and an orange tail that looks like a fried shrimp…his name’s Ebifry and he was a really good friend to me. Can you take good care of him until I reach the Rainbow Bridge?”Bookmark here

The words kept spilling from my mouth, and I didn’t realize that I was crying until I felt the wind hit my face. “Dad…I hoped and wished and prayed that you’d come back someday…but now I know that there are many things in life that are impossible to achieve. Thanks for everything you taught me.”Bookmark here

The wind stirred some dead leaves by the grave, making them move in a tiny whirlwind. I lingered by the grave for a few minutes, enjoying the silence, before getting back up and making my way back to Kei waiting at the gate.
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