Chapter 5:

Hello From the Gutter

An American Survivalist in Tokyo


The situation with Hayakawa Haruka bothered Jacob so much that, all throughout the rest of Golden Week, he couldn't focus on much of anything else.

On Constitution Memorial Day, while fishing by the Tama River, all he could think about was what could drive a young girl like her to attempting suicide...which was a surprisingly easy question--other young girls, duh, bitches be mean--and then his brain swapped to figuring out how the Calligraphy Club was going to help her in any meaningful way. But it was no good. Jacob just had no knowledge of how to navigate such delicate waters, and so he ended the day with no real ideas.

On Greenery Day, Jacob encountered Chinatsu on his jogging route and mentioned to her that he was planning on taking a day-trip up to Mount Takao in a few hours (despite his thinking that the pre-school year trip would be his last hike for a while). Because what better way to spend Greenery Day than to surround yourself with greenery?

"Ooh, is that an invitation, Jake-kun?" she crooned, "I dunno if I'd be safe, all alone with you on such a romantic outing!"

She batted her eyes at him.

His frown was deafening.

She punched him on the arm, in that buddy-buddy sort of way. "I'm just yankin' your chain, Jake-kun!" she laughed before straightening up and adding, quickly, "Unless it actually is an invitation and it really is a romantic outing, in which case, I'm all for it."

But that, too, seemed to be in jest, as Chinatsu went on to explain that she and her parents would be taking a flight to Hokkaido in a few hours for the end of Golden Week. There was some kind of conference going on there in Sapporo today, and her mother--in a rare fit of actually doing something pleasant for her family--decided it would be a convenient excuse to take a few days' trip.

"Sounds interesting," Jacob said, trying to remember what exactly it was that Hokkaido and/or Sapporo were famous for. Something about crabs? "But shouldn't you be, y'know, at home, getting ready to leave?"

"Oh, pffft, you underestimate me, Jake-kun!" Chinatsu proclaimed, taking her eyes off the sidewalk, "My stuff's been ready to go for 2 days now. All I need to do is be home within 2 and a half hours, and unless we...nah, nevermind, you don't care for jokes like that." She stopped herself, though the flushing of her cheeks gave the game away as to what the joke might have entailed.

Before long, the two parted ways, and by noon, Jacob was once again making his way up Mount Takao along the trail. Damn! Now that he thought about it, he should have asked Chinatsu how the club was going to handle the whole Hayakawa Haruka situation, but Jacob took some solace in the fact that the subject wasn't raised during their jog--to him, this seemed to indicate that she and Fujiwara had a pretty good plan. Or at least, he hoped so. For the rest of the day, he just couldn't get these worries out of his brain, so much so that he completely forgot to fantasize about fashioning a spear from a fallen branch to hunt a wild boar with. Which was always one of his favorite idle hiking daydreams.

And so, on Children's Day, Jacob paid a visit to the Hamazake Library--all decked out in his battle vest, blue jeans, and black Motorhead bandana--to voluntarily crack open a book for the first time in...well, probably, ever. Surely they must have some resources on how to help suicidal people, right? The answer was yes, they did, but as Jacob skimmed through the volumes, it all sounded like new-age psychobabble to him.

"Affirm their individuality"? Well, that's alarmingly vague. Pretty sure bullies and abusers do enough of that already, as they turn their target into an outcast.

"Assure the victim that their life has meaning"? Why, yes, Person-I-Barely-Know, I don't know anything about what you're going through, but your life is totally meaningful. Whaddaya mean you've been locked away in your room for months, languishing away and doing nothing because your life's been stripped of meaning? How is this not helping?! Blech. More vague, unspecific nonsense.

If only Jacob knew more, he could cook up a more refined search. Come to think of it, he remembered Shinji-kun saying he heard about Hayakawa attempting suicide before the school year began, but how? The news, maybe? Hmm...Jacob's seen detectives poring through old newspapers at the library in the movies, so it was time to put Hollywood to the test and see if he can dig through those periodicals! But, long story short, he found nothing of any real use. The news articles on the incident were just as vague as the platitudes the "help" books offered.

That night, as Jacob tried to get some sleep, a thought bubbled up to the surface of his brain: 'Why do I care so much? Peanuts and Fujiwara will probably take care of it. I just gotta play nice with the new kid, and hopefully it all works out?'

But then another small part of his brain replied, 'Do you really think either of them could relate to being so hopeless that death is preferable to facing a new day? After all, you were pretty down yourself, 20 or so years ago...' Which, damn, was a pretty strong counterargument to his do-nothing plan. But before he could question whether he really had ever reached that point or not, the sleep switch was flipped, and he was out like a light.

***

Monday, May 8th. This was it. Hayakawa Haruka would be inducted into the Calligraphy Club that afternoon, and Jacob still had no ideas on what he could do to help the kid out. During the Math period, however, a horrifying thought crossed his mind: What about Cream-Puff--er, Yuuko? Oh, God. That chick was positively thermonuclear with Mean Girls energy, it radiated from her so strongly. How was he gonna keep fussy, judgey, snooty Yuuko from eviscerating the newcomer on Day 1? Memories of one of Jacob's favorite TV shows as a young man came to mind, as he asked himself, "Am I gonna have to choke a bitch?"

And so, when final homeroom was dismissed, Jacob was out of his seat in a split-second, racing for the door when he was stopped by Shimada-sensei.

"Young-san?" she called to him before gesturing him over. "Hayakawa-san will be joining you today. I'm going to go meet her and bring her to 2-7, so I want you to be on your best beha--"

"I'm a goddamn saint!" Jacob interrupted her, "It's that Yuuko I'd be more worried about! I gotta go make sure she keeps her damn mouth shut!" He then sped off, exiting the classroom and making for the stairway in an awkward manner, apparently trying to earn a world record in the great schooltime sport of sprint-walking.

Nearly half an hour later, as the Calligraphy Club nervously waited, Shimada-sensei finally made her appearance, gently ushering in a positively forlorn-looking girl, who seemed to be shrinking before their very eyes as she held her arms close to her chest and stared determinedly at the floor.

This timid, unimposing figure was none other than Hayakawa Haruka. She had rather curly and light brown hair that went unstyled, and her eyes were a striking shade of blue--if she hadn't borne the telltale almond-shaped eyes and pointed chin that Japanese girls from this area tended to have, she might have been confused for someone of European descent. At least, one of her parents definitely was. Jacob also privately thought that she would've been a very good-looking girl, if she weren't currently looking so downcast and, well, prone to leaping out the window at any moment. And unless Jacob was mistaken, she was also visibly trembling with fear. Geez. Poor kid.

"...Now, if you have any problems, don't hesitate to visit me in the faculty office, okay?" Shimada-sensei was saying to Hayakawa, before she concluded to the room at large, "I hope all of you will get along with Hayakawa-san--" There was an implicit 'or else' etched into her face. "--and with that, keep up the good work with the competition preparations, and have a good afternoon." With that, their supervisor gave a small bow and left the room, at which time Chinatsu descended upon Hayakawa like a hawk.

"Hey, hey, Haruka-san," Chinatsu began, full of her boundless natural pep, "Let's get you set up over here, and we'll spend today gettin' you all settled in!"

Jacob, Shinji, and Yuuko got their usual workstations (Read: two desks placed together, to allow for practicing larger brush strokes) set up to get some work done on their contributions to the Shodou Performance, though they could hardly be blamed for being distracted. Meanwhile Chinatsu and Fujiwara were giving Hayakawa her orientation, explaining about their entering the Shodou Performance Koshien, filling her in on her rights to join or abstain, and giving the grand tour of their modest classroom clubroom. And just as Jacob feared, Yuuko was giving Hayakawa a rather unpleasant stare from her station.

"Psst! Cream-Puff!" Jacob hissed at her, but she didn't take notice. She did, however, shift her focus back to working on the performance choreography, since she was placed in charge of the inkwell, and thus wouldn't be focusing on writing any phrases. It took Chinatsu and Fujiwara a good 20 minutes to get Hayakawa all situated, but just before 5:00pm, it seemed that something was brewing.

"Can I get your attention, everyone?" Fujiwara spoke up, gesturing everyone to come to the center of the classroom, "Let's all gather and introduce ourselves to Hayakawa-san. Y'know, tell her our names and a little bit about ourselves--"

"Ooh, me first! Me first!" Chinatsu shouted, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet as they gathered.

"Peh! 'Course you're first," Jacob grumbled, "You're the Club President. What, you think we'd let Cream-Puff go first instead of you?"

"Hmph!" Yuuko hmph'd at Jacob's response, crossing her arms in the perfect comical pout, "I told you to stop calling me that, Yangu-san. I bet you think that name will sting me, because you just can't handle how sweet I am!"

"Uh-huh. Yup. That's the reason. You got me," Jacob replied flatly, before Chinatsu raised her hand, clearly indicating that she was about to begin. Hayakawa, who was placed in a chair facing the group, still looked rather uncomfortable.

"Alright! I'm up first! I'll be our club's best foot forward!" Chinatsu proclaimed. Already, Jacob hated it. "I'm Hirano Chinatsu, but you're free to call me Chinatsu, or even Chi-chan, if you want, Hayakawa-san! A little bit about me, though, hmm? Well, my mom's part of the school board, so I get to get away with dying my bangs whatever color I'm feelin', though she's not too happy about it. But hey, it's about who you know, am I right?"

"I will say," Shinji-kun spoke up, "I'm rather surprised at how liberal Kameda High is, with regards to hair color and piercings. Perhaps your mother's position has little to do with it, Chinatsu-san."

"Hmm, maybe," she conceded, "But anyway, I'm super into Girls Metal bands like Bridear, Mary's Blood, and Lovebites, along with a lot of other classic rock and metal bands, of course. If it's loud and has fast guitars, I'm there! And lately, I've been really getting into American TV shows like..." She stopped dead, apparently because the list she was about to spout off was rather lengthy. "...well, we can talk about that later. I've got a huge list of shows I've been bouncing between lately! Let's see, I'm also into painting and, well, calligraphy, of course! And when you're up to it, ask me about my art and about jogging or dancing sometime! But for now, I'd better let the others have a turn." Yup. Her interests were about as jam-packed and scattered as she herself was.

Fujiwara raised her hand and stepped forward, indicating it was her turn, adjusting her glasses as she settled herself into the center before suddenly looking a bit nervous to be put on the spot.

"R-Right. I'm Fujiwara Emi, though you're free to call me Emi, if you like. My father works as a business investment partner, working with the owner of Udon042, so I've been interested in making udon recently. But, to be honest, I'm still not very good at it." She brushed some of her long, straight hair aside. "When I do get better, though, I want everyone to try some."

"Aw yeah! That's our Vice-President, lookin' out for us! I can't wait to try it!" Chinatsu chimed in, and Jacob and Shinji nodded in assent.

Fujiwara, or rather Emi, smiled. "Though I've always been a bit...well, shy and reclusive, I've also always wanted to do something on a big stage, surrounded by people. To challenge myself, you see. It was 4 years ago, when my family and I were in Shikokuchuuou for a family trip, that we were there to see the Shodou Performance Koshien. We'd never seen one before, y'know? And immediately, I fell in love with it." This was obvious, as she now gripped a lock of her hair wistfully. "I knew, right away, as I watched the performers that day, that I wanted to try it at least once. And so, well, here I am." Emi's face was slightly red, but she smiled a big smile and stepped back, for someone else to take the stand.

Yuuko was next, and aside from learning that the Mizuhara family operated a hair salon here in Ota City, Yuuko was pretty much exactly what Jacob expected: She liked K-Pop, fashion and beauty, and was generally all about all things beautiful, and she finished by saying that the beauty and elegance of calligraphy was what drew her to the Calligraphy Club back in middle school. While she was there, she, of course, made friends with Chinatsu, as their interests in art aligned. And they've been close ever since.

Interestingly, whatever it was that was making Yuuko glare daggers at Hayakawa-san was apparently gone or irrelevant now, as her introduction was quite friendly and pleasant. And this was a girl that, Jacob could just tell, couldn't act wet in a thunderstorm, so it's not like she was simply playing nice.

"She hates men, though," Chinatsu whispered to Jacob with a mischievous grin, intentionally loud enough for the others to hear. "It's not just you, specifically, Jake-kun--I wouldn't be surprised if she either turned out to be gay, or turned out to be physically attracted to clothing."

"I heard that, Chi-chan, and it's not true!" Yuuko huffed, "I just...I haven't found the right man yet! That's all!"

Shinji-kun was up next, and if Emi hadn't tugged on his sleeve 5 minutes into his introduction, he might have used up their remaining half-hour giving a detailed course on his favorite styles of calligraphy and the subtle intricacies employed by his favorite calligrapher, the famous (in the calligraphy world) Kaneko Sachiyo, upon whose design his 'moon' earring was based.

"So, in a way," Shinji said in his low, soothing voice, "Yuuko and I are much the same, for it is beauty and elegance that I cherish above all else. And so, Hayakawa-san, I hope you will enjoy yourself as we pursue it as a team."

Jacob was somewhat relieved to see that Hayakawa looked a bit less woebegone than when she had entered (though that was probably just due to being in an environment that wasn't actively hostile to her), but when he stepped forward to introduce himself, he saw a shadow of fear on her face. Oh, geez, you're scaring her. Alright, think fast, idiot! Be as reassuring as possible! And do it now! Go!

"Alright, so, um, hey." He gave a feeble wave of greeting. "I'm Jacob Young, and well, ya might've noticed that I'm not exactly a normal student. Y'know, being an American and being in my 30s, and all--"

Chinatsu then leapt up onto Jacob's back, wrapping her legs around his middle and her arms around his shoulders. It would've been impressive if it wasn't done deliberately to piss him off. "Yeah," Chinatsu said, "Jake-kun looks real scary, but he's actually a nice guy!"

Jacob's eye twitched. "Yup. That's me. And since I'm so nice, how 'bout I give Hayakawa-san here a demonstration of a perfectly-executed Mountain Bomb, my willing volunteer?"

Interestingly, Chinatsu knew exactly what a Mountain Bomb was, but as usual, she found a way to twist it in that evil manner of hers. "Ah, so you want to be down on the floor with me, Jake-kun? Hehe, how inappropriate!"

Jacob sighed. A deep, weary, exasperated sigh. He decided his best tactic was to just ignore Chinatsu and press on. "So anyway, Hayakawa-san, I'm here because I dropped out of high school back in America, and I need a high school diploma to enter the workforce, so..." He shrugged. "It is what it is. Like our glorious leader, Peanuts, here..." He jerked his head at the grinning demon wrapped around him. "...I, too, enjoy listening to hard rock and metal and all that classic shit,. I mean, no surprises there, right? And in my free time, I like to go jogging around the neighborhood and, when time permits, sometimes I'll go hiking over at Mount Takao."

Jacob immediately knew that he had struck gold, as the mentions of both 'hiking' and 'Mount Takao' caused Hayakawa's eyes to light up like she had just come to life.

"D-Do you go there often...?" came Hayakawa's meek and thin voice--the very first words she had uttered since entering Room 2-7, nearly an hour ago. Shinji, Emi, and Chinatsu were all staring at Jacob, gobsmacked that he was able to elicit this response. And he was about to press the advantage.

"Hm, every now and then," he said, feigning a casual tone, "But it can be pretty boring when you're by yourself, so I'd probably head out there more often if I had a group to go with..." That light in Hayakawa's eyes was now a burning flame, and Jacob decided now was the time to capitalize on it. "So anyway, that's enough about me. Boring-ass adult in a room full of kids. Alright, Hayakawa-san, the floor's yours! Take us home!"

Coasting entirely on the momentum of the last minute or so, Hayakawa jumped up out of the chair she was sitting in, pressing her fists against her chest like she was clutching an invisible clipboard, and she was off.

"I-I am Hayakawa Haruka, and I love Mount Takao!" she shouted, her face flushing and her formerly diminutive frame bouncing with each new word as she stood nearly on tiptoe. "I love the trails, and seeing all the different flowers and plants, and I-I saw a boar there once! People think boars are scary and gross, but they're very family-oriented and their little noses are so cute! It's because of my visits to Mount Takao that the boar is my favorite animal, actually! M-My father and mother took me there all the time before..." And so the deflation began. "...before Mom died, and...and the business suffered, so Dad couldn't take any days off anymore...and then...that's when the others..."

Just as quickly as it had come, the moment had passed. Hayakawa had fallen mostly silent once again, and there wasn't quite enough time left to try to coax some more out of her. But at least she's given Jacob some material to work with: She loves Mount Takao, clearly. Her mom's dead, and her dad's struggling with some kind of business. And then 'the others'...well, using context clues like, say, a suicide attempt, he can infer that Hayakawa's been bullied by some other kids, likely also attending Kameda. He'd have to find out who they are, and while society would frown upon him throwing those brats out of a window, he could at least make them think he would...

***

"Hmm, that sounds rough, Jay-kun..." Hirano-san said as he wiped down a glass, with Jacob staring cross-armed at an icy-fresh glass of Jack Daniel's in front of him. He looked like he was trying to coerce some suggestions out of the tiny crystal cup and its frosty contents.

"I can't help but feel like her father's business struggles are the key to it all..." Jacob finally decided his whiskey wasn't about to whisper new insights to him, so he snatched it up and downed it in one go, wiping his mouth afterward. "When your shop's going under, you can't hire people to help you, so you can't spend much time with your kid. So not only are your business numbers going down, your own numbers are, too, and I can tell you from experience that the more well-off kids are not kind to the poor kids in school..."

"Oh, I hear you, there, Jay-kun. Jogamu's havin' some troubles, as well," Hirano-san said, before leaning in conspiratorially. "Between you and me, it's because the big man himself, Jogamu-san, has refused to change suppliers since the pandemic, 3 years ago. They hiked the going rate on our beverages, charging us a high amount because we're a bar and not a distributor." He chortled mirthlessly. "At this point, we'd probably be better off going through a local distributor than through the companies themselves."

"Hm, damn, times are tough everywhere, I guess," Jacob concluded lamely.

"If only I could convince the boss to go through Hayakawa-san again, it'd work out for both of us," Hirano-san said, pouring a tad more whiskey into Jacob's glass. As the denim-clad American reached for the glass, he stopped.

"Wait...you know Hayakawa's father?" Jacob asked.

"Oh, yes," the bartender replied, "I was quite adamant that Jogamu-san shouldn't move his business away from Hayakawa-san, especially considering the tragedy that had just occurred in their family, at the time..."

"When Hayakawa's mom died..." Jacob almost whispered.

"Yes, I believe that was it," Hirano-san replied with a solemn nod, "I told the boss that it would be a callous move to pull out from doing business with the Hayakawas right then, but he was insistent that the direct purchase rates were too good to pass up. Well, then the pandemic hit, and the supply lines got all messed up, and now we're paying nearly double what Hayakawa-san used to charge."

"Well, ya know what, Hirano-san?" Jacob said, standing from his stool and plopping a few 1000 yen coins onto the bar before cracking his knuckles. "I think I'm gonna go talk directly to the manager about how outrageous these prices are..."

The next day, after enduring a rather embarrassing stretch of Japanese Lit with a bandaged left hand--wherein Jacob was asked to read a passage from Soseki's "Kokoro" which contained unfamiliar Kanji that he tripped over no less than 4 times--the end of final homeroom signaled yet another swift escape to Room 2-7. Maybe he was reconnecting with his lost youth, but in spite of his bandaged hand still stinging at the end of the day, Jacob realized how odd it must be for him to excitedly "run" to club like he was a kid again. Ah, to be Young...

When Jacob arrived, Chinatsu was nowhere to be seen, but Shinji and Yuuko were already at work, collaborating on brainstorming ways to spruce up everyone's designs, while Emi and Hayakawa were off in the corner, carrying on a relatively-spirited conversation. Upon seeing Jacob enter, Emi stood from her chair and called him over.

"Young-san, over here!" she cried out excitedly. Jacob had a feeling he knew what was up, but decided to play dumb. "Haruka-san was just telling me that her father got a call last night--one of his biggest clients from years ago suddenly decided to renew business with him!"

Hayakawa nodded vigorously. She still didn't look quite as rejuvenated as she did yesterday, when talking about her childhood visits to Mount Takao, but it was an improvement nonetheless.

"I-I thought Dad might lose the business and go under, but apparently the money we'll make from this client alone is enough to keep us going for quite a while," Hayakawa said rapidly, that latent spark in her stark blue eyes once more.

"It's incredible, isn't it?" Emi said, seemingly still awestruck. "Maybe God's trying to make up for the rough times you've been through, Haruka-san. Maybe this is a sign of good things to come!"

Ah, it was just such a wonderful moment that Jacob just couldn't help himself. He had to let them know about his, er, negotiations last night.

"Yeah, well, I may have had something to do with that..." he said with a mischievous grin. "That client your dad signed on with? Well, I've been buying from them for a few years now. When I heard that they used to work with your dad, I went straight to the top and...well, let's just say I filed a complaint about the crazy prices they've been pushing these past couple of years..."

"Wait, Young-san, you're the one who convinced them to do business with Hayakawa again?" Emi said, looking about as shocked as Hayakawa herself did. He returned a thumbs-up with his unharmed right hand.

"You've got yourself some powerful allies from today onward, Hayakawa-san," Jacob said confidently. "We're a team now, and that means we look out for each other. So if ya got a problem, feel free to come to one of us, and we'll sort ya out!"

Hayakawa's face turned red, and she gave Jacob and Emi a small, watery smile. "Th-Thank you, Emi-san, Yangu-san..." So she was yet another person who couldn't quite get his last name right. Oh, well. She probably won't be the last, either. "I was so worried we'd lose our house and the business. Our pharmacy's been open for nearly 60 years, and now, with your help, we just might be able to keep it alive..."

...Ph-Pharmacy...? B-But weren't the Hayakawas...running a...liquor...store...? Jacob's face fell. What in the world--he was certain Jogamu-san wasn't running a pharmacy! What the hell?!

It was at this moment that Jacob remembered: Hayakawa was actually a very, very common surname, not just in Ota City, but in Japan as a whole. Also, because of the pandemic and supply line troubles a while back, many small and local businesses have been in trouble as of late, constantly on the verge of collapse. As for the family tragedy, well, such a coincidence was hardly impossible with so many Hayakawas running around. So, then, had he put his hand through Jogamu-san's table during his "civil complaint" for nothing...?

"Is something wrong, Young-san?" Emi asked, concerned.

"N-Nah. It's, er, nothin'. Just an accident from last night," he said, eyes vacant, showing them his bandaged left hand. "Hurt my hand. And my pride."

Emi and Hayakawa didn't quite understand what he meant by that, but at the very least, the curly-haired newcomer was now more spirited than she was yesterday. It was still a bit of a long road for Haruka-san to walk, to escape the quagmire of her despair, but now she had some momentum going.

As Jacob rubbed his sore hand, all he could hope for was that Jogamu-san somehow possessed a psychic link to that unnamed pharmacy supplier, so that he wouldn't have smashed up his left hand for nothing, after all...Bookmark here

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