Chapter 1:

The First Game

28 ml

It was spring.

The air was warm. The sun shone brilliantly in the sky above. And cherry blossoms slowly fluttered their way to the ground.

With quick steps, a young school girl skipped along the sidewalk, kicking up fallen pink petals from where they collected in small piles on the edges of her path.

Laughing softly to herself, she could hear the hum of the school anthem still ringing her head.

She had just left her middle school behind on her final day there, and in two short weeks she would officially be a high schooler.

Her heart was racing as her face turned a slight shade pinker while she thought about the journey she was about to take in life.

Though it was not her trepidation about her school future that was filling her cheeks with such a color.

“Akemi! Isn’t it right from here? Not left?”

The future high schooler, Akemi Ōzora, caught herself, spinning on her heels to face her companion. A bespectacled boy her age, with messy hair that was supposed to be combed neatly, but no one believed him when he said he tried to. He is Kōsuke Kiyota, Akemi’s childhood friend. He glanced around, pushing his glasses back up his nose, trying to get a better grasp of his surroundings.

“Um, yeah, I think you are right!” Akemi answered hastily, as she quickly turned away from Kōsuke to hide her reddening face. “I’ve been by it so many times, but I have never gone in before. I guess I just wasn’t paying attention to where I was going and only wandered around, right? That makes sense, yes?”

She did her best to keep her emotions from showing, even though she was not entirely sure what emotions those were.

It wasn’t her first time being alone on a journey to try out new things with him, but this time it was… weird. She was unable tell what was causing her heart such trepidation, but suddenly the feeling had descended on her, and she could not shake it no matter how hard she tried

This was supposed to be a special day. A celebration of their graduation. All of their friends were going to be there, but gradually, excuses came up, until it was just down to three. Akemi, Kōsuke, and his best friend, Taiga Natsumi.

But then, while on the train ride over, Taiga said that his parents were calling for him to come home early. Though, Akemi did not believe that for a second. Especially, since Taiga flashed a wink and a thumbs up to Kōsuke as he exited the train a stop early.

“Akemi?” Kōsuke asked with some trepidation, “Are you listening? It’s right. Why are you going to the left?”

“Um, haha, you’re right. My bad?” Akemi snapped into reality as quickly and tried running a bit further ahead, with Kōsuke close in tow. “Look, Kōsuke! There it is! Doesn’t it look exciting!?”

Further, up ahead, as they crossed one more street, a shopping center opened up to the right. Among the white wall shops stood a massive building in the back of it all. With bright red letters above the entrance reading the words “Inazama Grand Bowl”.

It was a massive bowling alley. And that was not hyperbole.

As they walked in through the sliding front doors, the sheer scale of the building opened up to them. As far as the eye could see in either direction were bowling lanes, some in use, as the crashing of the pins by the thrown balls reverberated in the air.

Akemi’s eyes shone bright as she took in all the stimulus. “Wow, it really is so big! Like they said it was on T.V.”

Yes, that is where the grand idea had started. A newscast was reporting on world records held in Japan, and the one that caught Akemi’s attention over her morning breakfast was Inazama Grand Bowl, which held the record for the most consecutive bowling lanes at 116. It wasn’t the record that caught her attention, but rather how close it was to her, and how she had never gone before.

Actually, she had never really gone bowling much. Maybe once a year, as a party with friends or family, but it had been quite some time since her last outing to a bowling alley.

Akemi’s heart was racing, all the excitement unfolding before her. But then it skipped a beat.

As Kōsuke caught up behind her, “Akemi! Please don’t run off like that. You know running isn’t something I can do for long.” He was breathing heavily and barely stood up straight as he clenched his chest, trying to prevent his lungs from collapsing. He had surprised her, but that feeling was quickly replaced with pity for him.

“You are looking more pitiful than normal, Kōsuke,” Akemi said curtly, looking over the sweating mess before her, “It wasn’t that far of a run. Come on now.”

Akemi knew Kōsuke wasn’t the definition of athletic. In fact, he was commonly the last to finish in the school fitness test consistently.

But that was the point of being here at the bowling alley. Bowling didn’t take much athletic skills to perform. Even Akemi had gotten a strike before, so she reasoned that even Kōsuke could have a chance to not look like a total failure in front of everyone.

Not that it mattered much anymore. They were alone. Just her and Kōsuke, who even drenched in sweat and barely kept his breaths even, was slowly becoming the only thing she was capable of thinking of.

She needed a distraction. Some friends to keep her mind focused, but that had fallen apart before she had even thought of the idea.

“Akemi?” reality flickered back in as Akemi found Kōsuke only inches from her face, “You OK? Your face is really red. You aren’t getting sick or something?” He adjusted his glasses to get a better look at her.

Akemi could feel her heart about to leap out of her chest as Kōsuke reached out his hand to check her temperature under her bangs.

Unsure of what else to do, Akemi withdrew hard against the opposite wall, far from Kōsuke, “Hahaha, never better! Now go get us a lane, please! I will go and find myself a bowling ball!” Akemi laughed awkwardly as she took off quickly across the alley to where the balls were stored in racks. Her near running ended up causing the staff to softly reprimand her along the way.

What am I doing? Why am I acting like this so suddenly? She castigated herself inwardly as she tried to hide her face in increasing self-shame.

Kōsuke, on the other hand, was left there by the front doors, not sure of what to do himself, but just smirked and sighed to himself. Yeah, she is her normal self. Excitable as always.

He then walked over and reserved a lane for the two of them. But when asked for shoe sizes, he was unsure of how to answer for Akemi. Turning around, he searched the alley in order to ask her.

He found her in no time, but unfortunately, she was not by herself. There was a rather large guy with slicked back blonde hair standing over her with his arm propping him up on the wall next to her. There were two other guys flanking her, preventing her from leaving as the main guy leaned in closer.

“Well, hello beautiful. What’s a pretty girl like you doing in a place like this?” one of the guys asked with a smug look in his eyes.

“Heheh, looks like she is from the middle school a couple of neighborhoods over,” the other chuckled to inform his leader.

“Middle school, eh?” the blonde guy laughed to himself, “And today’s graduation day. So tell me girlie, you a high schooler now? I don’t want to creep on little girls.” He leaned in closer and ran his fingers through her long hair, “Or who knows, maybe I will make an exception this time.”

Akemi shivered, dying inside. She closed her eyes tightly trying to wish these guys away, but no matter what she did they were still there, with their awful smelling cologne filling her nostrils making her gag.

Someone, please… she prayed silently to herself.

“Hey! Leave her alone!”

Cautiously, Akemi opened one of her eyes. As her vision came into focus, she saw the three guys surrounding her had scowls on their faces, hunching their shoulders to accentuate such a mean look. Their gazes were locked not on Akemi, but on the person who had stepped between them and her with arms spread wide to separate them as much as possible.

With that matted, messy hair, there was no way she could mistake who had intervened.

“Kōsuke?” His name fell near silently from her quivering lips.

“What’s with you, punk?” “You got a death wish, kid?” “What, she your girl?”

The three guys began ganging up on him at once, questioning him on why he had stepped in like that.

“Uh, she is clearly uncomfortable. So please, leave her alone, OK?”

Akemi was unable to see Kōsuke’s face from this angle, but she was glad he was there to protect her.

“You OK, kid?” The blonde guy asked halfway under his breath, “You look like you are about to puke.”

“... I-I don’t like confrontations…” Also, at almost a whisper, Kōsuke answered.

“Heh, do you know who you are messing with, kid?” One of the two goons surrounding the blonde dude began boasting, “This is Kentarō, the best bowler in this joint. He practically runs the place.”

“Yeah, don’t think you can get away with taking Boss’s new girl away from him and get away with it. His average is so high, that it's mind-boggling how good he is!”

At the praises heaped on him, the blonde guy, Kentarō apparently, smiled with pride and pulled out a comb, setting his hair back into place.

Boss’s? New girl away? High average? Mind-boggling?

What is with these guys? Those questions swirled between Akemi and Kōsuke ending with the two of them asking each other the final question together in unison.

“Let me show you how good I am, kid!” Kentarō challenged by pushing his pointer finger into Kōsuke’s forehead, forcing his head back a little in the process, “I’ll beat your ass in a game of bowling, and then take off with your girl while you cry in my dust.”

“Uh…” Kōsuke tried asking, “... What?”

“I have a name you know…” Akemi retorted, clearly upset, “and why am I the trophy all of a sudden?”

Before Kōsuke could raise a complaint, a black bowling ball was dropped in his hands, nearly felling him to the ground. Struggling to keep himself upright, Kōsuke turned the ball over to get a better look at it, “16 pounds? That’s heavy!”

“16 pounds? What do you mean?” Akemi asked curiously, looking over his shoulder at the number 16 etched into the black plastic shell of the ball.

“Don’t know much about bowling, do you, girlie?” The rounder punk answered her with a question of his own, “Bowling’s a foreign sport, all the weights and measurements are in American. And 16 is the max you can get here.”

“My name’s still not ‘girlie’,” Akemi sneered back, “How heavy is that then?”

“About 7 kg, I think?” Kōsuke whispered softly to her.

“Seriously!? That heavy!? How are you supposed to throw that!?”

“Heh,” Kentarō laughed while holding a similar black ball up in the air with one hand. He was looking down his nose at Kōsuke struggling to hold the ball in two hands. “Can’t handle the weight, kid? This will be a seriously easy bet.”

A moment passed as Kōsuke struggled with the ball, until he took a long breath and moved the fingers of his right hand into the holes drilled into the ball, and raised it upright, still holding it with both hands to balance it.

“I think I got it,” Kōsuke spoke evenly, no evidence of struggle in his voice, “It is very heavy, but you just caught me off guard.”

Kentarō narrowed his eyes on Kōsuke and clicked his tongue in frustration.

“So,” Kōsuke sneered at the thug before him, “We are bowling, right?”

Who was that? Akemi thought fervently to herself with her fingers covering her lips and her cheeks. She had never seen Kōsuke act so cool and valiant ever in her life. Normally, she was the one having to stick up to bullies for him, but now…

Whoever it was standing next to the mechanical ball return, adjusting his glass, was not the same timid boy she had grown up with. Akemi barely kept her racing heart from escaping her chest.

“You got this, Boss!” cheered the pudgy thug.

“Yeah, this will be a cakewalk! Show him how it's done!” Also cheered the scrawny delinquent.

Luckily for Akemi, or maybe unfortunately, the cheering from the peanut gallery still flanking her from the viewing seats at the end of the lane brought her back to reality.

“Yeah, you guys know it.” Kentarō cheered himself on as he raised his bowling ball up to rest on his shoulder, like some sort of cool pose. “You ready, kid? I’ll go first, only to show you the ropes.”

“Uh, alright, sounds fine to me.” Kōsuke replied nonchalantly as he stepped away, giving Kentarō the entirety of the lane.

“Heh, take notes, kid,” Kentarō called as he took his stance. Standing in the middle of the walk-up area of the lane, he held the ball up in front of him with a foot in front and a confident grin stretching his face out.

Without warning, he launched out, feet moving quickly across the lane and his arm sweeping back behind him in a wide arch. As his toes came to the foul line, his arm ripped its way from behind to put down the lane, muscles rippling all the while. The ball launched over the lane, making a loud thud on the boards below before rocketing at a high speed towards the pins. In a flash, the ball disappeared among bouncing pins that collided with each other, leaving none standing in their wake.

Upon seeing the empty lane being blocked by the lane sweeper, the goon squad began raucously cheering on their leader.

Akemi was amazed as well. “Wow, what was that? He launched that heavy ball down the lane like it was nothing. And got a strike, too!?”

“Heh, what do you think, kid?” Kentarō came back from the lane just to stand over Kōsuke and boast, “If you don’t think you can’t beat that, you can go ahead and quit now. I’ll let you off easy, but girlie will still be mine though.”

“I have a name!”

Kōsuke said nothing, eyes solely focused ahead of him. Without a word, he walked right by the towering Kentarō to the lane and picked up the black ball and prepared himself, much the same way Kentarō had.

Kch, whatever.” Kentarō clicked his tongue as he walked away from the lane, giving Kōsuke his room.

You’ve got this, Akemi prayed quietly between her breaths as she watched him steadily readjust his posture and his grip on the ball. I believe in you.

She could tell something was different about the way Kōsuke stood on the lane. It was in the way he held the ball, like he was cradling it in his hands. In the way he bent his knees adjusting to the weight of the ball. The minute movements of his feet as they took their position.

There was no way he was able to fail.

And like that, he began to move as well across the lane. Each step slowly propelled him down the path in a straight, deliberate movement. His arm arched behind him, too.

And with a thud, the ball fell right to the ground behind him before he made it even halfway to his mark.

“HAHAHA! What was that!? Can’t handle the weight at all!”

The three thugs began howling in furious laughter at the sight of the ball slowly rolling backwards away from the pins and Kōsuke.

Sheepishly, Kōsuke lurched backward, trying to chase after the ball. All the while, Akemi was trying to hide in her hands from embarrassment, only peeking out fingers to see him pick the ball up and also trying to hide his nervousness behind adjusting his glasses.

“You sure you wanna try again, kid? I’ll give you another chance, just try holding on to the ball this time!”

With a long sigh, Kōsuke shuffled his way to the starting mark on the lane. Once again, he readied himself to throw the ball.

But this time, as he arched his arm back, his throw made its full swing. The ball falling down in the center of the lane and moving fast across the lane.

That is, until it petered off, slowly turning to the left and falling off into the gutter about halfway down.

The whole alley seemed to fall silent at that moment as the lane sweeper fell to clean up the pins, but since none of them were touched, it only popped back up with nothing having changed.

And once again, the peanut gallery burst into uproarious laughter at the sight.

“Didn’t even hit a single pin!”

“You aren’t going to win if you don’t hit any pins.”

“Heh, victory is in the bag,” Kentarō scoffed, shaking his head but ending on Akemi giving her a wink at the end.

Akemi shivered, trying to keep herself from gagging. She smacked her cheeks to get her nerves under control and called out.

“Come on! Kōsuke, you still got it! Just knock them all over this time, you get another throw!”

“Right, right!” Kōsuke nodded in agreement and flashed her an all-knowing look as he grabbed the same black ball that popped its way out of the ball return. This filled Akemi up with confidence in him as she smiled on, giving him a thumbs up in return.

Once again, he prepared himself. And with eyes focused down the lane, he made his second attempt. And this time he did it. The ball stayed on the lane the entire way. But it had drifted from the center and collided with only the last pin on the left side.

And once again, all hope drained from Akemi.

On the scoreboard above a sad pin displayed his pitiful one point score saying “try again next time”.

“Come on, kid,” Kentarō playfully chided him as he stepped up to take his turn, “You ain't got a chance in hell. Just give up now and go home.”

And without another word, he launched another powerful shot over the lane, causing another cascade of pins to fly. Another strike.

In her mind, Akemi could only picture Kentarō like a professional pitcher, sending fast balls successively past Kōsuke with blinding speed and precision. With a gulp, her heart sank.

We might be in trouble…

“I can handle it,” Kōsuke tried arguing back, “It's only heavier than I am used to.”

“Is that all?” Kentarō sighed, shaking his head in playful disgust, “If that is all it's going to take to make this game interesting, then go find you a better weighted ball. The pink ones down at the front desk are the baby weight balls.”

“Seriously? Got it!” Kōsuke’s eyes lit up behind his glasses as he took off across to the other end of the alley, “I'll be right back, promise!”

“Uh, the kid’s not seriously going to get a baby one, is he?” “Can his fingers even fit into the holes?” The peanut gallery asked each other over Akemi, who was slowly sinking into her seat, hoping nobody would notice if she slipped out quietly.

After several minutes, Kōsuke returned with a new ball in his hands. One of a swirled golden pattern and the number 14 etched into plastic.

“That’s only 2 pounds lighter. Is that really enough, Kōsuke?”

“Yeah, this ball feels so much better! I got it now!” Kōsuke beamed to his friend with such a glow and a powerful thumbs up that it was hard to argue back with that. Akemi only gave a tired smile back, trying to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“If you are done wasting my time, just hurry up and take your turn, kid.” Kentarō scoffed with his arms crossed over his chest. Clearly he was not too happy with how long it took for him to return.

“Sorry, I had to find one with the right finger holes. Hard to do with house balls, you know.”

“Whatever,” Kentarō rolled his eyes as he left the lane so Kōsuke could take his second turn.

Again, Kōsuke took his start, a small grin peeking out of the corners of his lips.

And this time as he stepped up, he moved more gracefully, each step methodical and perfect in their placements, that he ended with a steady plant on his final step and beautiful swing of his arm ending barely over his head.

The ball seemed to leave his hand in such a graceful manner that it didn’t even make a sound as it came in contact with the boards. Its path was straight and decisive, leading evenly from his hand right to the pins at the other end.

Though the release was pristine, and much slower than the extreme speed of Kentarō’s, he had only knocked over 6 pins.

“Whoa, what a change.” “Yeah, that was crazy different from last time.”

Kentarō was frozen for a moment in disbelief at the sudden increase in skill from his opponent, but quickly regained his composure and turned his nose away, “Whatever. Beginner’s luck…”

Akemi on the other hand, felt a sudden weight lift off her shoulders. Maybe Kōsuke actually did know what to do, and maybe bowling might be a sport for him.

I mean, it is a sport anyone can play, right? With a little practice, maybe he might be really good at it? But right now, he has to keep being good just like that, and maybe we have a chance.

But those hopes and aspirations came crashing onto her shoulders when she saw what Kōsuke did next.

“Umm, kid, you OK?”

Kentarō asked with great worry about what the answer would be as he watched Kōsuke lay near motionless on the ground perpendicular to the lane. His eyes were locked tight down the length of the lane.

Akemi quickly hid herself in her hands once more. Maybe nobody will think I know him if I leave now?

“Huh, maybe that’s it. I thought it was a little odd.” Kōsuke said, while still laying mostly prone on the ground, after what felt like a small eternity to everyone who was watching on. In fact, a small crowd had been growing around this match for some time, but it suddenly was noticeable with Kōsuke acting so strangely like that.

Without warning, Kōsuke sprung back up to his feet, nearly knocking Kentarō, who was leaning over him to see if he might need to call an ambulance, back hard. Moving with quick vigor, he fetched his returned ball from the rack and readied himself on the lane.

This time though, as he came to the center of the lane, keeping his head down, watching his steps and moving what seemed like only a fraction of a step over to the left. All who were watching began to wonder what difference that would make.

But as Kōsuke made his approach, nothing else seemed different in the slightest. But as the ball moved across the lane, its trajectory was noticeably different. Even with the same starting point it did not land in the same spot, where no pins were standing, but a little over a pin’s length to the left, slamming into the remaining line of pins. Each one was hit by the ball as it grazed by them separately, flying off into the black of the back of the lane. He had knocked them all down with that.

A flawless spare.

“Yeah, I was right. No problem now.”

The goon squad had gone quiet as they exchanged nervous looks at each other. Only Akemi made any real noise, and she pumped her arm, cheering on Kōsuke, who had just turned around to leave the boards and take his seat next to the lanes.

Akemi gave a smug look over at Kentarō, raising her eyebrows in a try to get a rise out of him. Kentarō narrowed his eyes further, the side of his nose twitching up. He was keeping his cool, but he was still frustrated.

“Don’t get cocky. It’s only the second frame, and I am up by 19 points right now.”

“It's your turn.” Kōsuke turned and politely offered the empty lane to his opponent. Kentarō, though, did not take it politely. Snorting hard, he stomped his way, and pushed past Kōsuke, to pull his ball from the return and readied it for his throw.

Even though the throw looked near identical to his other throws, this one did not result in the same conclusion. Pins flew everywhere, and once the cacophony of crashing pins had ceased, a lone pin stood at the end of the lane in the right corner.

Frustrated, Kentarō clenched his fists, wanting to punch something, but he was too far away from the wall to use it, so he turned to kick the ball return.

“Oh, a stone ten pin. Tough break. That’s a right-hand bowler’s nightmare.”

Kentarō nearly jumped out of his skin, as he saw Kōsuke standing right beside him on the lane, hand on his chin as he studied the reset rack working on the end of the lane. He then turned to look up at Kentarō, saying, “Don’t forget to cross lane.”

“What are you…!?” Kentarō began to yell out, swatting at Kōsuke to give him some room, but Kōsuke was already heading back to his seat. After sitting, he flashed him a thumbs up. Kentarō could almost hear him saying, “You got this!”

Gritting his teeth, Kentarō gripped the returned ball with white knuckles and hurled the ball across the lane with almost no prep to approach at all.

“Don’t tell me what to do!”

He roared as his fingers left the ball. Another loud thud echoed throughout the alley as the ball made contact with the boards and hurtled off towards the final pin.

But his aim was off. The ball started moving further and further towards the gutter next to the ten pin. Kentarō felt his breath catch in his throat as the ball began to tip and fall. But before it touched the gutter, it barely bumped the pin, which wobbled side to side, before finally toppling over.

Placing a hand on his chest, he let loose a sigh of relief instinctively.

But catching himself, he puffed up his chest and turned around to face Kōsuke.

“Beat that,” he smirked, pointing back down the lane with his thumb over his shoulder.

Kōsuke only nodded as he rose from his seat, taking his place on the now vacated lane. With his golden ball raised, he took another couple of seconds to adjust his foot placement. As his feet came to a rest, his eyes focused intensely over the lane.

After breathless seconds, he began his approach.

Akemi sat motionless and watched. His steps were so precise and well executed, it seemed like he was gliding over the wooden surface. As he wound up his throw, in her eyes he was a traditional archer, going through the rigorous movements that had been honed deep after years of training. The bow was pulled taut, creaking in anticipation, until it was finally released. The arrow flying over the large divide between the bow in his hands to the target ahead.

Within a blink of the eye, it sat snugly in the red circle of the bulls-eye.

The cartoon bowling pin on the screen did a little jig on the screen as it became covered with a large red X.

No one was sure who said that, but everyone agreed on this. There was no way this was the same kid who only 2 frames earlier could barely roll the ball straight, let alone land a perfect strike like it was the most natural thing for him to do.

“What was that!?”

That was not Kentarō or his friends who had rushed up to shake Kōsuke’s shoulders questioningly.

“It was a strike, Akemi. Please stop hurting me!”

“What do you mean ‘a strike’!?” She screamed in a voice loud enough to get her in slight trouble with the staff of the alley. “Where did that come from? Why didn’t you tell me you knew how to bowl earlier!?”

“I did,” he answered as she shook him more violently.

“Huh? You did? When?”

“I told you. My uncle, up in Hokkaido?”

Akemi recalled this. During the summer, Kōsuke’s family would go up north to Hokkaido to visit with family for a while, and normally Kōsuke would stay behind with his uncle for the remainder of the break.

What had slipped her mind was what his uncle did for a living.

“You mean the one that owns a bowling alley?”

“Yeah, that uncle.”

“Oh, my bad.” She sheepishly said while dusting off his shoulders, readjusting his glasses for him. Then stepping back to bow in apology, she went and took her seat between the peanut gallery who only silently watched on with confused looks on their faces.

“Wait a minute!” Kentarō finally took his cue and grabbed Kōsuke by the collar, messing up his glasses once again. “You mean you knew how to bowl all along? You tryin’ to hustle me, punk?”

“No! I didn’t even want to play against you!” Kōsuke tried to get his shirt free from the other guy’s grasp as his feet were barely touching the ground. “You challenged me! I was just protecting Akemi!”

“Then what was with that first frame?” Kentarō tossed him back, leaning down on him, still wanting answers.

“I told you already, that ball was too big and heavy for me. Of course, I wasn’t able to bowl well with it.”

“Yeah, and that second turn?”

“Oh, you didn’t notice it either?” Kōsuke asked, looking up through his skewed glasses.

“Notice what?” Kentarō forced out through gritted teeth as full of restraint as he could muster.

“The oil.”

“Oil? What oil?” The thinnest of the peanut gallery asked the other, who only answered with a shrug and an equally confused face.

“The lane oil,” Kōsuke answered almost as if everyone already understood it already, “I thought it was a normal house pattern, but it seems like it might be a specialty pattern. Or more likely, a house pattern that is terribly broken down.”

“Uh, I don’t think any of those words make any sense.”

“You idiots are here all the time and still don’t know about lane oil?” Kentarō scoffed at his friends, then turned back to his real opponent, “So what are you saying about the oil pattern?”

“Look,” Kōsuke tried coaxing Kentarō to the ground level with him by waving his hand enthusiastically.

“I am not getting on the ground,” he grumbled, as he squatted down low enough to get a good view across the lane. “So, what are we looking at?”

“You see the oil on the lane? It's all over the place. Normally it's heavy in the center and light on the sides. But as things are now, the oil has broken down and dispersed more evenly across the end of the lane. And look, there are even some strange light spots randomly in the middle.”

“Huh? What are you talking about,” Kentarō side-eyed the fool who had laid himself back down on the ground, then turned to look down the lane, seeing nothing out of the ordinary to the lane itself. No part seemed to be any different from the rest in terms of sheen or gloss. “The lane looks normal to me.”

“Oh, it's anything but normal.” Kōsuke disagreed, pulling himself back up. “With those random splotches all over the place, my ball was getting pulled in odd directions. That’s why I was unable to land a strike the first time. But now that I see it, I can correct for it. No problems.”

Kentarō kept looking out over the lane, but no matter how he moved his head, he wad unable to see anything like what his opponent was talking about. “You can see the oil?”

“Yeah!” Kōsuke beamed with a glow in his eyes, “It’s so easy to notice, but I forget that most other people have a hard time reading the oil, so my bad for not saying anything earlier.”

Without warning, he ducked his head in a form of apology. And at that moment, something snapped in Kentarō.

“Quit bullshitting me!” he roared once again, marching to the ball return. “I don’t care if you are hustling me, I will still beat you with my own skills!” Faster than he had with previous throws, he charged across the lane, chucking the ball hard down the lane. Luckily, Kōsuke had gotten out of the way of the speeding ball, but barely as he sat just on the side of the lane, eyes wide with terror, following the ball's trajectory.

When the lane sweeper fell, only 2 pins remained together in the left-hand corner of the lane.

“Hmm, 4-7, huh?” Kōsuke spoke up while Kentarō did his best not to try and rip the ball return from its mounted position. “You hit that light spot I was talking about. Should try placing the ball about 2 boards over. That should counteract it. But for now, pick them up with a cross lane throw, OK?”

Stomping hard, Kentarō readied his second throw.

“Shut up already!”

The ball flew high from his release, before crashing to the ground and racing over the lane. It looked like it was going to crash right into the remaining two pins. But once it touched the front pin, it bounced off to the right, while the pin flew to the left. Being spared from the collision was the other pin, which stood tall and untouched.

Hot air was pushed and pulled hard from Kentarō’s flaring nostrils, while his face turned a bright shade of red.

“You held on with your thumb too long. Next time, you should-”

Kōsuke was ready to give more advice, but was quickly cut short by his collar being yanked up high in the air.

“Don’t you dare tell me what to do.”

Kōsuke could only nod after that, as he was dropped to his feet once more.

“Take your damn turn.” Kentarō turned on his heels, and marched to his seat, throwing himself into it with his arms crossed and a glare of daggers aimed at Kōsuke.

“Alright,” was all that was said from Kōsuke for the rest of the match. Taking up his ball, he proceeded to strike once again.

At that point, the score was 76 to 51 in Kentarō’s favor.

But the rest of the match did not go as well for him as one would have thought from the onset of the game. He kept a high game going, but as soon as he would gain some ground, Kōsuke was quick behind to close the distance and keep him on his toes from that point on in the match.

With each passing strike from Kōsuke, and the close misses from Kentarō, the gap narrowed further. It was like the first couple of throws from pitcher Kentarō were just a test for Kōsuke to warm up on. And now he was knocking them clear out of the park.

Kentarō was afraid that the next pitch might be a line drive right back at him, to take him out of the game permanently.

By the time the 10th frame came up, it was clear that he was on the ropes. The score was 159 to 163. Nearly neck to neck. Running the numbers through his head, Kentarō came to a single conclusion.

I need to strike out in order to barely have a chance of winning.

He prepared himself, but his hands were becoming drenched in sweat from his thoughts swirling through his head. Never had he been back so far into a corner just from bowling.

Shaking his head, he brushed the sweat off his palms by rubbing them briskly against his pants. As he approached the lane, he smacked his cheeks with his palms twice.

Now with renewed energy and rosy cheeks, he took his ball up into his hands. Waiting as he finally got his breathing under control, he readied his throw. With measured steps and precise arm movements, 3 strikes followed one right after another. Watching the dancing turkey on the screen above his head, Kentarō felt an immense weight lift off his mind as he finally relaxed his hands and let out a sigh of relief.

Closing his eyes and inhaling sharply, wiped the sweat that had gathered on his brow to the ground. He tried to keep his joy at getting exactly what he wanted, and just barely at that, from showing on his face. Behind him, his friends erupted into massive cheering, as the onlookers applauded for the strong finish they had witnessed.

199 raced through Kentarō’s mind. Not his highest score by a long shot, but higher than his average. He would have had an even better score if he hadn’t choked starting in the 3rd frame, but there was nothing he was able to do about it now. All he had left to do was hope his opponent wouldn’t do the same.

As he took his seat across from Kōsuke, he was reminded that was going to be a tall order to ask for. For the most part, he had striked, and if not, they were bad breaks that should have been strikes. Either way, he had no open frames after his first frame.

His chances were slim at best.

But as he locked eyes with the person sitting across from him, Kōsuke pushed his glasses back into place and stood, walking towards the boards. With his back to Kentarō, the blonde bowler’s calm facade fell as he began to shake in nervous frustration.

Kōsuke, on the other hand, was the picture of grace under pressure. His face stone and focused solely on the pins before him. His hands held the ball with the precision of a master craftsman admiring his work. Taking his position on the starting marks by the ball return, Kōsuke prepared his final throws. With steps to be admired by aspiring dancers, he approached the foul line. And on the last step he swung his arm forward.

But it did not go like his previous turns.

Normally, there was a bit of sliding on his last step, where his foot slid forward slightly and this other swung behind and to the side for balance as his hips and chest rotated into the throw.

None of that happened this time.

Instead, his foot came to a sharp halt early, This threw Kōsuke off balance as his arm swung wildly trying desperately to keep his balance. With less than graceful movements, he released the ball, in order to not fall, and thus cross the foul line, causing him to lose the frame almost in its entirety.

The ball meandered its way down the lane, finally crashing into the pins. When the pinsetter rose up again, only four remained in a cluster together on the left. The score above read 185.

Akemi rushed across the lane to help her friend who was still waving his arms to balance while still standing on a single foot, rocking side to side.

“What happened? Are you OK?” She asked with great urgency, pulling Kōsuke onto his feet.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he answered nonchalantly as he raised his foot up to look at the underside of it.

“Um, you sure you're OK?” She questioned again, eyes cut in concern to his mental well-being. But that changed as she looked at the strange spot on the ball of his foot on his shoe. “Something there?”

“Looks like it,” he replied, lowering his foot and squatting down to look at the boards below him better. “Some water on the lane somehow. Need to clean that up.” He started brushing his foot hard on the wood, trying to dry the spot on his rented shoes.

“A bit of water like that was enough to stop you in your tracks? Seriously?” Akemi asked incredulously.

“Yeah, if the padding on the toe isn’t dry it causes too much friction and I get stuck, so could you grab me a towel please?”

“Oh, right, got it” She hurried off to the front counter to grab one.

Kentarō, on the other hand, was beside himself. His mind raced, doing the math of the possible outcomes.

185 was what was throwing him off at that moment.

If Kōsuke closes this frame, that is, picks up all the pins including his extra turn, they will tie. This realization caused Kentarō’s throat to almost completely seize up. All he needed to win was for his opponent to choke. But so far, that hasn’t happened. All failures were equated to equipment failure, nothing on Kōsuke’s part to make a mistake.

So the best he could hope for was a tie.

But what then?

Kentarō kept his face unwavering as these thoughts flooded over him. He was unable to let on that he was worried in the slightest.

Soon, Akemi came rushing back with a sweat rag in hand, and gave it to Kōsuke to clean with. She did have to get onto him once more as once he had finished cleaning, he lay prone on the ground to make sure it was perfectly cleaned.

Brushing the dust off of him, he readied his next throw. This time, his feet slide perfectly into place. With a seamless release of the ball, it collided with the remaining pins, a solid spare.

At this point, Kentarō began quietly sweating bullets. It was not looking good for him, and Kōsuke was picking his ball back up from the ball return like he had so many times before, he got a strike.

Kentarō wanted to stop, to prevent him from doing what he knew was going to crush him harder than losing.

But there was no way he could stop it and keep his honor and faith amongst his friends.

It was an utter lose-lose situation.

Without hesitation, Kōsuke launched another ball for the final time into a perfect strike.

Final score: 199-199

A Tie

Kentarō’s knuckles were white as he clenched his fist in utter frustration. He had been outplayed and he knew it. It was possible for him to ask for the best of three games, but he knew that this was his best chance. And he lost. He stood up ready to grab his jacket, which he took off when he knew things were about to get harder for him to win, and head off quietly, until…

“Alright, that’s half a point for the first game to each. Time to start the second.” Kōsuke nodded as he pressed the button on the display that read “Start Next Game”.

“You’re up.”

Kentarō’s voice caught in his throat as his jaw nearly hit the ground. “Huh?” he weakly choked out.

“Huh? A tie? No way we can stand for that!” “Yeah, it was just a fluke. Kentarō will show you how things are done this time!”

Shut up, you idiots!  Kentarō screamed inwardly to his friends, who were about to get him into a huge heap of trouble.

He was about to head over to bash his friends' heads in to keep them quiet, but instead turned to Kōsuke and got right up in his face.

“What do you mean next game?”

“Huh?” Kōsuke asked, confused, “Bowling is the best of 3 games normally. Pin tally making the difference. Was that not the plan this time? Also, we are supposed to be on two lanes, alternating sides with each turn. Should I ask the staff to get that set up for us?”

“Ergh?” Kentarō choked, trying to come up with a good excuse as to not continue. “Uh, I mean whatever…!” he finally got out, screaming in frustration and throwing his jacket over his shoulder and headed for the entrance, “I don’t care anymore. We will leave as a tie here for now. Don’t let me catch you loitering around here without my permission again.”

“Weren’t you the guys who were loitering in the first place?” Both Kōsuke and Akemi asked in unison. But no one heard it, as the peanut gallery had hurried off to catch up with their boss, throwing sneering looks at them as they left.

When the sliding door finally closed shut, Akemi let out a long sigh, “Finally, that’s over with! And as for you!” She turned to Kōsuke, who began to nervously back away, afraid of what she was going to do next, “Congrats, Kōsuke! You won!”

She wrapped her arms tight around him and squeezed with all of her strength. She wanted to thank him, but this would have to be enough for now. No way she was going to admit she was worried about what would happen if he had lost.

“Yeah, I guess I did,” He chuckled and readjusted his glasses, “No problem. Just glad you are OK. So, are you ready for our game?”

“Well…” Akemi peeled herself from Kōsuke and refused to look him in the eye as she answered, “Honestly, I am exhausted and only want to go home. Can we take a rain check?”

“But… I already paid?” Kōsuke asked as he stood on the lane alone.

28 ml cover

28 ml