The Last of Our Summers
After that first time, it doesn’t happen again for a while. Kazuha forgets.
She stays indoors the whole weekend, locked in her room with her worn textbooks, a kaleidoscope of highlighter pens, and the pictures of Kyoto University that she'd stuck to the wall.
When it gets dark she pads out of her room as quietly as she can and eats instant noodles standing up in the kitchen, lit only by the streetlights outside. She eats quietly, efficiently. When she's done she goes back up to her room and locks the door.
Monday morning, she’s switching off her second alarm, crunching on some bitter burnt toast that leaves a residue of ash in her mouth when her brother comes shuffling in.
She doesn't want to say anything. Since Natsuki had got married and moved out they'd been as good as strangers. She hadn't even texted him for his birthday, and his own texts sit in her inbox, unread.
She wishes she'd left earlier.
He startles when he spots her. He's nearly thirty but he looks younger than she is, especially with his eyes creased with sleep like this, his hair messy.
"Ah, Kazuha," he says. He attempts a smile. "Good morning."
She inclines her head. Eats her toast.
"How's the, um, studying going?"
"That's good," Natsuki says. "You must be doing well. You're so smart, after all."
He had been the highest scorer in his year, the golden boy of the school. Their teachers still talked about his entrance exam scores. Natsuki was a prodigy, after all. Kazuha, make sure to follow in his footsteps.
More toast pops out of the toaster. Kazuha plucks it out: burnt again.
"Yeah," she says.
They slip into silence. It's only easy to exist with Natsuki when he isn't talking. She imagines she's five, or nine, or twelve years old: looking up at his cheerful face as he made them both breakfast. Tracing the contours of his features, and the thought that used to echo in every corner of her heart: I want to be just like you one day.
The sound of their doorbell rips through the silence, and it's Kazuha's turn to start.
“Kajiura!” bellows a voice, equally loud. “We’re going to be late!”
For a moment their eyes meet, Natsuki and Kazuha, two versions of the same person. They share a grin.
Then Kazuha catches herself. This is not her brother, she reminds herself. This is a stranger.
"See you," she says, and picks up her bag.
Natsuki nods. The corners of his eyes hold a melancholy lilt.
Outside, her childhood friend Kirigiri greets her by ringing his bell as violently as he’d rang their house bell, a grin on his face. He looks terrible otherwise–his hair's messy from the wind, there's dark circles under his eyes and his tie looks like his kid sister tied it for him.
“Come on come on come on,” he nags at her as she mounts her own bike. “You’re making us late! Nishimura’s waiting for me to drop by the courts.”
She shoves her toast in his mouth to shut him up. He chews, obediently.
“Did you stay up late again?" she says. Before he can reply, she says, "Come on, let's just go."
She glances at the front door as they pull out of their driveway. Natsuki hadn't followed her out.
The road is a little wet from the rain last night: leaves are still stuck to the ground, and every now and then their tires crunch over twigs. The air smells of damp and crushed leaves and the wind that stings at their cheeks. They're still a little ways off from the school, but Kazuha can see the slow-moving masses of uniforms near the train station at the base of the hill.
Like she’s done her whole life, Kazuha pedals behind Kirigiri and prepares to grab him by the scruff of his neck if he slips and goes flying. Kirigiri wouldn’t know road safety if it came up to him and tipped him over.
Case in point: he’s looking at Kazuha, not the road, as they go. A strip of toast hangs out from his mouth. Boys are disgusting. “Do you think it’s about my grades? I studied this time, I swear.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in Midterms.”
“I don’t,” he says, promptly. “They’re like exhibition games, everyone's yelling and hyping you up but it doesn't really matter if you don’t make the three-pointer."
"You're saying multiple stupid things right now."
"Exams aren't as cool as you think they are, Kajiura!"
"Then why do you even care?"
"I don't!" He's sulking now. What a child. "It’s just that Mr. Narumaki might take it as an excuse to make us all retire before the summer tournament.”
“You’re so full of youth it's disgusting."
Kirigiri makes a face. "You're so mean to me. I heard you quit the orchestra."
Kazuha scrunches her nose. “And?”
“Nothing.” Kirigiri is looking back at the road. “It just seemed like you—” but he’s too far away, and his voice gets drowned by the sound of the wind.
They're too close to the school to continue, anyway: the school crowd has started to fill in the pedestrian walking paths around them, the summer uniforms standing out stark and bright in the growing sunlight. Straight ahead is the hill that leads to the gate, the building that their classes were in, and the school grounds a little beyond.
As they're outside the gates, there’s a yell. A figure comes running up to them, weaving through the crowd of students. Kirigiri slows his bike just enough to intercept his friend Natori.
Natori lunges on to the back of Kirigiri’s bicycle with a whoop. “Faster, faster!” he crows. To Kazuha, he inclines his head, half-laughing as Kirigiri picks up speed. “Good morning, Kajiura.”
The gazes of the surrounding students feels like a physical weight. It really is no joke, having someone as popular as Natori talk to her. She fights to keep her voice normal when she says, "Good morning to you too."
“See ya, Kajiura!”
They zoom off towards the bicycle racks, their laughter trailing behind them like confetti.
Abruptly, the atmosphere gets very cold.
She wishes she wasn't parallel to a group of girls just entering the gate: their gazes on her are a stark beam of light, making her too-aware of the skirt she'd rolled up a little, the way she'd pulled down the sleeves of her cardigan so that it looked cute.
She pushes her chin up and pedals.
Regal, she thinks. Poised. None of this affects me.
She moves through the school grounds and towards the back. Most of the spaces on the racks are already taken, but Kirigiri has parked his bicycle at an angle that made space for Kazuha’s bike as well.
It would have made Kazuha snort, but she's in a rush. She parks quickly and locks her bike, then rushes into the building and into the first floor bathroom.
Inside a stall, she rolls her skirt back down to her knees and pulls up her cardigan. The extra fabric that flutters at her legs feels like an extra inch of armor.
She kills a few more minutes in the stall, playing with her phone. She wishes she had someone to text. Sometimes she imagines a friend for herself– a girl, she thinks, who would touch her hand when she was feeling overwhelmed and cheered her on.
It's been so long since anyone had touched her.
She leaves the bathroom. She has to take a big breath before she enters her class.
Attention snaps to her, instantly. She's a moving target.
Kazuha breathes. She thinks of herself in university, wandering quaint, picturesque corridors in silence, alone and at peace. The quiet filling her like an empty vase being filled with cool water.
As she reaches her seat, she feels a tap on her shoulder. Kazuha starts. She thinks of a few spiteful things to say in the back of her mind, but when she turns it’s only Natori.
“Kajiura,” he says with a smile. “Kirigiri asked me to pass this on to you.”
He hands her the English textbook Kirigiri borrowed during third period yesterday.
"Oh. Right. Thanks."
It's awkward. Why isn't he leaving? It's a study in suffering to talk to him. On one hand, it's physically uncomfortable since he's a million feet tall and has the face of an idol; on the other, she can feel all the girls, led by Hikari, glaring right at her.
"Uh, I think class is about to start."
The bell rings right on cue. There’s half a minute of students shuffling to their places, and Natori leaves with a rueful wave as well. Kazuha breathes a sigh of relief.
Ms. Sawatani comes in, her long skirt flapping around her ankles with each step.
“Settle down,” she tells no one in particular. Her voice is as soft and clear as ever, but it doesn’t carry any better in a crowded classroom than it does in the music room. Kazuha has to lean forward in her chair to hear her.
“Before we take attendance today, we need to greet the newest addition to our class. Please welcome our transfer student, Chizuru Aonuma.”
The class breaks out in whispers. Kazuha feels a little incredulous herself: a transfer? In June?
The girl who strides in through the door is exceptional enough to make the questions buzzing in her mind fall silent. Her hair is in a neat, no-nonsense braid, her eyes behind big oval glasses and her skirt is unfashionably long. None of this does much to hide the fact that this is the most beautiful girl Kazuha has seen. There’s something about her height, her presence, that cuts through the room like a blade and makes Ms. Sawatani almost invisible in comparison.
But it's two very simple things that make Kazuha inhale sharply, and pay close attention:
First, the taste of salt that floods her mouth.
Second: Chizuru Aonuma, transfer student, has a light above her head reading 00:03:40.
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