“ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR! ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR!” the voice was harsh and cold and my lungs burned from the strain as I moved from position to position like a ballerina. “NO! WRONG! DO IT AGAIN!”
“I-I can’t keep up,” I mumbled, my muscles burning from exertion. “Please, just a moment.”
“You’ll never be as good as she was. God, you’re just such a disappointment to everyone,” the tall woman with dyed brown hair sniffed, amber eyes staring at me coldly. “This is basic stuff. You can’t dance, you can’t sing, you’re not tall or pretty or smart. You’re useless! Why are you here?”
“I-I’m useless,” I moaned, my hair matted and stuck to my forehead. “I’m sorry! I’ll try harder!”
“You are a failure little lamb. You’re a pale shadow of what your mother could have been if not for you. You’re wasting my time.” She turned her back on me and walked toward the door to the room, her heels clicking on the tile.
“I’m sorry! Please! I’ll try harder! I don’t have anywhere else to go! I’m sorry!” My eyes snapped open and my vision immediately swam sickeningly.
“Shhh,” a voice soothed by my ear, a hand brushing my hair from my forehead tenderly.
“Momma?” I croaked, my throat was dry and my tongue seemed stuck to the roof of my mouth. I turned my head slowly to find Sachi sitting beside my bed, her face pinched and worried. “Oh, I’m sorry, Sacchan.”
“It’s ok, Akarin,” Sachi whispered, running her hands through my hair, tears glistening in her eyes.
“Where am I?” I mumbled in confusion, trying to look around as slowly as possible. Every time my head moved jolts of pain ran down the side of my face, through my neck and down my back like lightning.
“You’re in the hospital, honey,” Sachi replied. “You collapsed at the TV station and hit your head pretty hard on the table.”
“Oh,” I croaked. “Did I live?” Sachi giggled through her tears and put her forehead gently to mine.
“Not this time,” she whispered back, completing the little joke we always told when one of us got hurt during rehearsals or didn’t feel well. “Can I get you something?”
“Water would be nice, thank you,” I rasped, licking my lips to wet them as well as I was able. She nodded with a smile and poured a cup of water from the pitcher on the table beside me. I tried to raise my head but the act made me immediately sick to my stomach and I nearly vomited. Sachi cradled my head gently and lifted it enough for me to get a drink before lowering my head to the pillow again. I closed my eyes and waited for the wave of nausea to pass.
“I’m so sorry, Akarin,” Sachi murmured. “We tried to save you but you took Mari and I by surprise.”
“You know how much I like to be spontaneous,” I replied, keeping my eyes closed to fight back the waves of vertigo spreading through my head.
“Is she awake?” A new voice called as the door opened. I recognized Mari’s voice immediately. I raised my hand, the tubes in my veins seeming to drag my hand down and waved gingerly.
“If she wasn’t before she is now,” Sachi sighed.
“Oh my god, Akari! You scared the hell out of us! Don’t ever do that again under any circumstances,” Mari lectured me.
“I’m sorry!” I mumbled, opening my eyes as the nausea passed. “Where’s Yuki?” I caught the odd; sideways look Sachi and Mari exchanged and cocked my head painfully to one side.
“Um, Yukiko is with the managers,” Sachi replied uneasily.
“Th-they’re going over the tour details,” Mari chimed in.
“Oh, I see,” I murmured, racking my brain for details that simply wouldn’t come. “What tour?”
“Memory loss is common in concussion victims,” the doctor said to the small knot of people who had gathered around my bed. “Especially so in a grade three case like that of Ms. Kitamura where there was loss of consciousness and blunt head trauma. A few centimeters to either side and she might have died. Even so, the concussion is as bad as they come.”
“When will it come back?” I asked, trying to make my brain remember things it coyly refused to even contemplate. As near as I could figure I’d lost nearly a year of my memories. I had fragments of things, bits and pieces floating in the back of my mind like flower petals on the breeze, but nothing concrete. The last thing I recalled with certainty was our first commercial. Evidently there had been quite a lot which happened in the meantime.
“There’s really no answer to that question,” the doctor said with a shrug. “The usual time for recovery is about a week depending on the stress and activity level of the person. That varies widely, though. Symptoms, as well as recovery are as varied as the individual.”
“Is it possible her memory won’t ever come back?” Sachi asked, an odd, unreadable look on her face.
“It is possible, yes, though unlikely,” the doctor replied. “I wish I had more answers for you, but, truth be told, our understanding of concussions and their effect on the brain is woefully inadequate. Honestly, we simply don’t know. With rest your recovery should be quicker.”
“We have a tour starting Monday!” Mari exclaimed with a start. “What do we do?”
“Exercise of that sort is completely unacceptable,” the doctor intoned. My heart ached as I watched Mari’s face fall. “The CT scans aren’t showing any damage to the brain of a permanent nature but that sort of stress and physicality could lead to some severe consequences. I cannot in good conscience clear her for that sort of thing.”
“You’re useless!” The cold voice echoed in my mind as I watched Mari sag under the weight of the doctor’s words. “Why are you here?” I closed my eyes as I felt the tears well up. I will not cry! I decided. I will not! A tear slipped out against my will and slid down my cheek and I brushed it away fiercely. I put my hands to my face and lowered my head, pressing the palms of my hands against my burning eyes to hold back the tears. I couldn’t cry. Not now.
“She needs rest, now, so I’ll have to ask you all to give her some time,” the doctor intoned.
“I just need a moment to talk about a private matter with Akari,” Hiroto said in his slightly whiny, high pitched voice. “I promise it’ll be brief.”
“Very well,” the doctor finally said. “I’d like everyone else to leave, please.” I heard Sachi whispering but couldn’t quite make out what she was saying.
“…forgive you,” she finished, and then her hand gently brushed my head. “I’ll be back to check on you soon, Akarin.” I reached up to touch her hand in gratitude, desperately keeping the tears at bay.
“I know this is all a shock, Akari,” Hiroto said softly when everyone had left, his bulk causing the bed to sag slightly as he sat beside me. “Although, ironically, you can’t remember most of it, you four have worked harder than anyone I’ve ever seen to get here. To reach that pinnacle so many groups never see. The song you wrote is even being played in America.
“When you came to us we weren’t sure you’d make it. I mean, you were this small, skinny girl from the middle of nowhere but we saw something in you. A fire few other prospects, and there were thousands, trust me, showed. You were pretty, were good at dancing and could actually play guitar, piano, sing and write songs! We were impressed. Impressed enough to take a chance on you and put you in the group we felt had the best chance of success.
“You’ve been a huge part of that success,” Hiroto continued. “You wrote all the lyrics on a number one album and most of the music. Sachi may be the leader of Kunoichi, Akari, but you are the heart. You four are standing on the edge of greatness. Are you going to let a bump on the head keep you from taking that next step toward the very top?
“Are you going to let Kunoichi try to go on without a heart?” Hiroto patted my hand paternally. “All the work you four have put in is in your hands. Think carefully about what this moment means not just to you but to the other three as well.” With that the bed shifted slightly as he got up and I heard his footsteps retreating. The door opened, then closed again and the dam broke on my tears. My body was wracked with heaving sobs that made it feel like my head was going to explode and made my lungs burn and ache but I couldn’t stop. Finally, more out of exhaustion than pain, I fell into a fitful sleep.