Chapter 22:


ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls

I caught a Ginga TV broadcast while I was waiting for my train at the station before school the next morning; a panel was discussing online bullying and public shaming. They were obviously alluding to what happened to Yomogi as screenshots of the online bulletin board were being shown on screen. I wonder how Yomogi-chan is doing right now, I thought.Bookmark here

Passing through the gates of Umami Gakuen was like being smothered in fog. Everyone was walking around talking in hushed tones, and there were a lot of whispers of unfounded rumors. No one was mentioning Yomogi by name; all I heard was “that first year girl” or “the girl in 1-C” or something like that. It was strange.Bookmark here

“I heard she mugged some old guy.”
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“No way! That’s completely out of character for her.”
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“Someone posted that she used to go on paid dates with older guys to raise the money to go here.”
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“Ugh, that’s so degrading."
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“Well, how much do you really know about her?”Bookmark here

My morning classes were subdued. There was hardly any energy from anyone doing readings or writing answers up on the board. Even the teachers seemed to have a strange lethargy to them.Bookmark here

Eventually, the bell finally rang for lunch. I sprang from my seat and made my way as fast as humanly possible to our usual lunch spot, and sat on the rocks there, waiting. My fingers tapped both impatiently and nervously.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-san. I’m here.”Bookmark here

Michael was standing outside the door to the school. I jumped up and ran over to him, seeing his face masked with concern. “Have…have you heard anything new about Kisaragi-san?” he asked.Bookmark here

I thought for a moment to just tell him the truth, but then I remembered, I had a job to do. I faced him, hands folded, and glared at him.Bookmark here

“You need to come clean, Valentine,” I said.Bookmark here

“Come…clean?” Michael seemed puzzled until I decided enough was enough. I slammed my hand against the wall next to him, blocking him in.Bookmark here

“Only you, Yomogi-chan and Kei-chan knew about Ebifry dying. Who are you, really? And what’s this about reporting me to your superiors?” I yelled.Bookmark here

“Wha…Reporting? What do you…” Michael was obviously surprised and taken aback by how forceful I was, but you’ve got to consider the amount of emotional pain I’ve endured these past couple weeks.Bookmark here

“You’re not the only friend of mine that speaks English. One of my friends is British and Japanese. She heard everything.”Bookmark here

“Ghh…” He swallowed nervously. Aha, found you out! I thought. “Sakamoto-san…I can explain,” he stammered.Bookmark here

“Then talk. And if you’re the one that’s been putting us through hell—”Bookmark here

“I am not,” Michael said. “Sakamoto-san, trust me.”Bookmark here

“Trust you? Are you crazy? With all this…these horrible things happening?” I protested. “Compared to what happened to Tsukiko-sempai and Yomogi-chan, I got off easy! Who’s going to be next?”Bookmark here

“Sakamoto-san…”Bookmark here

“Is there a bomb? Are one of the judges going to be poisoned?”Bookmark here

“STOP IT!” Michael yelled angrily. It was completely out of character for him. His face was a mask of rage, and I flinched, thinking he was about to threaten me. He regained his composure and looked into my eyes.Bookmark here

“Listen to me. I want you to trust me because there are circumstances that we’re in that could mean trouble.”Bookmark here

“Circumstances we’re in…”Bookmark here

“You, me, and everyone else in the tournament,” he said. “I can’t tell you everything but I just want you to trust me. There will be a time when everything will make sense, and it’s coming soon.”Bookmark here

I removed my hand from the wall and looked him in the eye. “I want to trust you, but I can’t,” I said. “There’s too much happening right now.”Bookmark here

Michael nodded sadly. “I figured as much,” he said. “I’ll…take my leave.”Bookmark here

I watched him as he walked away towards the cafeterias.Bookmark here

Just then, my phone buzzed. I pulled it out to see that a new email had been delivered to my National Professional Gourmet Battle Association account—and it was from Matsudaira. With nervous fingers, I tapped the app and opened it up:Bookmark here

Dear Ms. Vanilla,
I’m listening to you.
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It is as you feared. There is outside interference in the tournament that we are actively investigating. It’s not only been happening in Japan, but worldwide. I fear they may be targeting the upper tiers of the NPGBA too.
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Any information you have would be greatly appreciated.
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My superiors have instructed me to keep a low profile, so we will need to meet somewhere secluded. Tanpopo Park is right near Umami Gakuen. I am available tonight after eight. If you’re nervous, it’s a well lit area and there’s a police box nearby.
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Sincerely, Kentaro MatsudairaBookmark here

An answer!!! I sighed with relief as I tapped back a quick reply agreeing to the time and place. I’d have plenty of time to see him after I visited Yomogi. He seems pretty nervous, I thought as I sent the message. I don’t know who these people are, but…if it’s worldwide, then…Bookmark here

“Hey, Vanilla-chan. You all right?”Bookmark here

I looked up to see Kei approaching me, with a couple of boxed lunches in her hands. “I got the lunch you wanted me to pick up,” she said. (This was my diversion to ensure a private meeting between me and Michael.)Bookmark here

“Thanks, I really appreciate it,” I said. “By the way, I got a message from Yomogi-chan’s sister yesterday.”Bookmark here

“Really? How is she?” Kei asked, looking anxious.Bookmark here

“She’s fine. She’s at Musashino General Hospital. I’m going to go visit her this afternoon.”Bookmark here

“Can I come with you?” Kei asked.Bookmark here

“Well…” I hesitated, because of my impending meeting with Matsudaira that night. “I’ve got work first,” I lied.Bookmark here

Kei nodded. “Then tell her I’ll come to visit tomorrow,” she said.Bookmark here

We opened up the lunch boxes and started picking at them. Neither of us had much of an appetite over the past couple of days. “I wish there was something we could do for her,” Kei said.Bookmark here

“Yeah…” I gazed at the sky, looking up at the drifting clouds.Bookmark here

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As classes ended and students streamed out the gate, I took a different direction and headed towards the nearest bus stop. Musashino General Hospital was a little too far to walk to on a day like today. Luckily, the bus came fairly quickly, and it would only be a short ride before I got there.Bookmark here

I got off at the stop in front of the hospital. They always made me kind of nervous; everything was sterile and quiet. I opened the doors and proceeded to the front desk.Bookmark here

“I’m…I’m here to visit Yomogi Kisaragi-san,” I said, my voice hesitant.Bookmark here

The receptionist smiled. “Are you a classmate of hers?” she asked. I nodded. “She’s in room 523. Do you need someone to take you up there?”Bookmark here

“I’ll be all right,” I said, as I made my way towards the bank of elevators. I waited for them to open and stepped inside, pressing the button for the fifth floor.Bookmark here

I got off and stepped into a quiet hospital ward. I saw the directory on the wall, and followed the arrow to the wing where Yomogi’s room was, trying to gather my thoughts.Bookmark here

A nurse was emerging from Yomogi’s room, and her eyebrows raised in recognition. “Oh, you’re…”Bookmark here

“Is she awake?” I asked. I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself.Bookmark here

“Yes, Kisaragi-san is awake,” the nurse said. She stepped aside and I walked into the room.Bookmark here

Yomogi was leaning back against a pillow. She was wearing a hospital gown. Her glasses looked dirty. Her hair was slightly disheveled and not in its usual pompadour. She looked pale and almost devoid of all the passion I saw in her when she was competing. Around her lower arms were tightly wrapped surgical bandages.Bookmark here

Her head turned to see me. “Vanilla-chan…” she gasped, eyes widening.Bookmark here

In that moment, I did something that in hindsight I never should have done. I was just so blinded by all the emotions that had been churning inside of me the past couple of weeks that I marched up to Yomogi and slapped her.Bookmark here

“WHAT MADE YOU THINK THIS WOULD BE ALL RIGHT?” I shrieked. “Do you have any idea how horrible losing someone feels? I just had to deal with losing my father all over again…And…” My words began to falter as I saw Yomogi beginning to tear up. We stood there looking at each other for a few moments as the slap mark on her cheek began to fade.Bookmark here

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t…I shouldn’t have…” I stammered.Bookmark here

Yomogi reached out and hugged me. Both of us were crying. I was glad she was alive; but angry at the circumstances.Bookmark here

After a few moments, we pulled apart. I pulled a chair out and sat in it so I could look at Yomogi at eye level. “Aiko-chan told me what happened,” I said.Bookmark here

Yomogi nodded. “The other girls in that photo…they were my so-called friends,” she said. “When I first entered junior high school, I was very shy…A lot of people picked on me in elementary school because of my glasses, so…it was hard for me to make friends. Those girls started being nice to me, but…it was a ruse. I was their decoy when they went to shoplift…they had me ask questions to the staff while they grabbed things and snuck out. When I found out what they were using me for, they threatened me into going along with them, or they’d beat me up. They started getting bolder and bolder…”Bookmark here

She looked down at her arms laying on the bed. She took a few deep breaths before she continued.Bookmark here

“One night…they decided we’d try and shoplift from a new store. The old man behind the counter spotted us and chased us out…then one of the girls threw a rock at him and it hit his head. He fell down and wasn’t getting up, so she made us all run…I knew he was badly hurt and I needed to get him help, but they weren’t letting me go. Finally I gave them the slip. I went to the police station and told them everything that happened. He’d been taken to a hospital by someone a few minutes after everything happened, and he had remembered what we looked like…I spent hours answering questions and telling them I was completely unwilling…Eventually they told me I wouldn’t be charged, but I got suspended from school for two weeks…They arrested the girl who threw the rock and made her family pay for the man’s medical care, and everyone else that was involved was expelled…”Bookmark here

Yomogi paused. She wiped tears away with the back of her hand. “That…wasn’t the end of it. It got worse…I was practically isolated at school when I came back. No one wanted to talk to me or work with me…All that I wanted to do was study and practice hard enough to pass the entrance exams to Umami Gakuen. I made it my goal…I wanted to be a new Yomogi Kisaragi. I didn’t want anyone else to know about my past…and now…”Bookmark here

She got up and walked towards the window. I followed her, and as we both looked outside, I noticed the Umami Gakuen campus. She put her hand on the glass, as if she could touch it.Bookmark here

“I’m…not going back to Umami Gakuen. Not after what happened,” she said.Bookmark here

“Wait, no!” I protested. “You…This was your dream! You can’t just—”Bookmark here

“A person like me doesn’t deserve dreams, Vanilla-chan.”Bookmark here

I clenched my fists. “Yomogi-chan…remember. I told you…what happened in the past is the past. I don’t care about what kind of person you were…All that matters is the you right now…And…I don’t like seeing you this way! You are full of passion! You love competing! It’s like watching you…sparkle and dance when you’re in the kitchen! You…you can’t just give this up.”Bookmark here

I started crying again. “You need to recover…but you need to come back to Umami Gakuen. Please. Everyone’s waiting for you.”Bookmark here

“I don’t know, Vanilla-chan…” Yomogi looked down. Her gaze seemed to be fixed on a couple that was walking through the park underneath the window. “Do…they want someone like me to come back?”Bookmark here

I heard someone walking towards the doorway behind me and looked up to see another nurse. “Excuse me,” she said, “but I need to tend to Kisaragi-san right now.”Bookmark here

I didn’t want to go, but I got up, wiping tears from my eyes. “Kei-chan is going to come see you tomorrow,” I said.Bookmark here

Yomogi didn’t reply. I walked out of the room and back to the bank of elevators, feeling bitter and angry. I checked my phone to see that I still had a couple of hours to go before my meeting with Matsudaira. I decided the best thing to do was to blow off some steam, so I hopped on the bus back towards the city center. Best to drown my sorrows with arcade games and cheap sushi.Bookmark here

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When I arrived back at the shopping street, it was the beginning of evening rush. I wandered around somewhat aimlessly, trying to gather my thoughts.Bookmark here

My confrontation with Michael was still weighing heavily on my mind. It felt like I’d rushed to judgement. The subject of my challenge being ebifry really could have been a horrible coincidence, as well as the accident that injured Tsukiko. But then there was what happened with Yomogi, and with how computers and Internet message boards worked these days, anyone could have been behind it. Still…there was Michael’s warning. Circumstances that could mean trouble. What did this mean, and did it have anything to do about the chairman’s message about police investigation? And then there was Caroline’s report on him and how he dodged my interrogation about it. He was definitely not the person I thought he was when we first met. Bookmark here

I stared at my phone, wondering if I should send him an apology, when I felt someone tap me on the shoulder from behind.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan! What are you doing here?” said a familiar voice.Bookmark here

I turned around to see Maria Masuda. She had a school issued gym bag slung around her shoulder and looked as if she had just stepped out of the gym.Bookmark here

“Hey, Maria-san,” I said.Bookmark here

“You look like you’ve got your head in the clouds, sweetie. How have you been feeling?” Maria asked.Bookmark here

“Well…up and down,” I said.Bookmark here

Maria nodded. “I know. I’m sorry you had to drop out like that…but now I feel like I wish I never was entered in this tournament.”Bookmark here

“Yeah,” I replied.Bookmark here

We found a bench and I decided to sit down, with Maria sitting beside me. She opened up her gym bag and pulled out a mirrored compact decorated to look like a magical girl’s transformation brooch. She started pressing a powder pouf against her face.Bookmark here

“I just went to visit Yomogi-chan,” I said.Bookmark here

Maria fumbled with the compact. “How is she?” she said, sounding frantic.Bookmark here

“She’s…” I tried to think of the best way to describe her condition. “She’s given up.”Bookmark here

“Given up?”Bookmark here

“She told me she doesn’t want to come back to Umami Gakuen.”Bookmark here

Maria’s shoulders slumped. “I can’t believe how much things have changed in such a short time,” she said. “You know…she went to my family’s restaurant last weekend after her victory.”Bookmark here

“Your restaurant?”Bookmark here

“Yeah…a Brazilian steakhouse. But…seeing her so happy and animated and now…” Maria sighed. “I’m afraid. I can understand how she’s feeling right now…”Bookmark here

“I wish there was something I could do for her to convince her to stay,” I said.Bookmark here

“Even if you did everything…it’s still her decision to make,” Maria said. “If time off is what’s best for her, then…”Bookmark here

I nodded. “Yeah…but I have a feeling that she thinks everyone at school is against her.” My mind drifted back to seeing her looking out the hospital window at Umami Gakuen, until I remembered the park underneath her window. “Hey…”Bookmark here

“You’ve got that gleam in your eye,” Maria said, looking at me. “Like when you’re competing.”Bookmark here

“Do you think…we can get enough people together to show up at the hospital to give her a message?” I said.Bookmark here

“Like storming the hospital or something?” Maria said, quizzically.Bookmark here

“No. Outside. Where she can see us,” I said. “Just like the crowd that supported us at the competition…we get a crowd to support her.”Bookmark here

Maria smiled and suddenly hugged me rather tightly. “I like the way you think, Vanilla-chan!” she said. “Tomorrow. Let’s plan this.”
“Right,” I said. “You know where I usually eat lunch, right?”Bookmark here

Maria nodded. “It’s a plan. I’ve got to head back home. See you tomorrow, lindaza.Bookmark here

I watched her as she dashed through the shopping arcade, and I felt my heart getting a little lighter. I pulled my phone from my pocket and glanced at it, realizing there was still a little time for dinner before the appointed hour.Bookmark here

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My last stop of the evening was a kaitenzushi restaurant, where I sat and watched colorful plates scroll by on a conveyor belt as I picked up all the ones with my favorites while I constantly checked my phone for the time. At 7:35, I took my stack of plates up to the counter to be rung up and wordlessly handed the cashier a ¥1,000 bill, pocketed the change, and walked out. It’d take me a few minutes to get to my destination, Tanpopo Park. It was in an area that was somewhat unfamiliar to me—it was off the main street and very close to a highway overpass. The streets were fairly well lit, though, and there was a police station within walking distance, just like in the message Matsudaira sent to me. I kept doing deep breathing exercises as I approached the park.Bookmark here

Tanpopo Park was pretty big—there was a children’s play area closest to the entrance, but beyond that were a tree lined grove (which must’ve been a great place for flower viewing) and what appeared to be a baseball diamond. I passed through the gate posts and wandered over to the children’s play area, which had some rusty looking swings, a play structure with a slide, and one of those domed jungle gyms that looked like a modern art installation. I saw some benches near the swings and decided to sit there and wait—I had some time left.Bookmark here

The air buzzed with electricity and I watched as moths danced around one of the street lights. Aside from the noise of cars driving along the overpass and the chirps of night insects, it was fairly quiet. Bookmark here

I heard the sound of footsteps on gravel and turned my head. Someone was approaching. They were wearing a hooded sweatshirt, and as I got closer, I noticed a bandanna tied around their face.Bookmark here

This is not good, I thought. I grabbed my phone and pretended to receive a call on it.Bookmark here

“Hello, Emi-chan!...You missed it? Oh no! I’ll come pick you up!” I said. As I got up and was about to walk away, I heard a voice shouting from behind me.Bookmark here

“Damn it! She’s going to get away!”Bookmark here

Suddenly, I heard the sound of running footsteps from behind—from more than one person. I dashed towards the entrance of the park, but suddenly I was tackled.Bookmark here

“GUH!” I landed hard on the grass, the wind knocked out of me. I tasted dirt and grass mixed with my own blood as whoever it was had me pinned down. As I finally caught my breath, I tried to scream, but my head was yanked back by my own pigtails.Bookmark here

The person that tackled me clamped their hand tightly across my mouth as I struggled. Two people were approaching me, and one of them was coming closer. As I looked up into their face, I vaguely recognized them…Bookmark here

“Long time no see, Sakamoto-kun. Remember me?” they said.Bookmark here

He pulled the bandanna from his face and lifted the hoodie off his head. As the light hit his hair, my blood ran cold…Bookmark here

It was Frosted Tips Boy.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.