Third and Final Time
I arrived two hours early to the train station and not by choice.
The itinerary called for all students to be at the station by 10AM at the latest and ready to leave on the 10:30AM train, but I arrived at 8AM.
I wish I could say it was entirely out of excitement, but it was more out of anxiety than anything.
Late last night, I finished packing my bags with the help of my mother and spent the next four hours restlessly rolling around on my bed, waiting for tomorrow to come.
When it came at 6AM, I was too fidgety to stay at home, so I got ready very early and left for the station at a ridiculously early time.
The next person, our homeroom teacher Mr Yamamoto, came at 9AM and laughed a little when he saw me.
“I didn’t expect you to be so excited for this, Akane.”
I froze up and simply nodded stiffly at his comment.
Sensing my awkwardness, Mr Yamamoto changed his tone and asked me if I had everything, had my permission slips, got food and drinks for the train and just if I’d been looking forward to the trip.
I nervously gave shortform answers, trying my best not to let my voice tremble, but his expression made me think he could tell.
It was a stiff, difficult one, one that said ‘I regret trying to talk to this person’.
I’d seen that sort of face hundreds of times in my previous lives at school, university and work, but it didn’t make it any less painful.
Oh - not a good start to the day.
It hasn’t even gone 9:30 and I already want to crawl into a hole and hide.
I prayed that someone else would show up, preferably Hinata or her friends.
Hinata, the girl who invited me to her group, and two other girls showed up about 9:40, though I noted that altogether there were only four of us in our five-person group.
Mr Yamamoto noticed this too and asked our group leader, Hinata, where our fifth member was.
“Rei’s got a really bad cold, so he won’t be coming.”
Mr Yamamoto said he’d give his parents a call just to confirm and walked away, leaving me a little bit stunned.
I thought for sure our group was going to be all girls, not four girls and one guy.
More than that, I didn’t actually know who this Rei person was.
I silently pulled out my phone to check the group chat, which I had only sent a single message to, and tried to see his profile picture. Alas, it was just the generic one you get when you make an account.
Still, in my mind, it was for the best.
I’d feel more comfortable without a guy around, at least for a while.
Though, of course, I didn’t say anything about that to my group - I didn’t want them to think I was strange.
I smiled a little bitterly at that and touched my chest, exactly where I knew that birthmark was.
It burnt a little bit harsher today.
Hinata Watanabe - a cute girl who, from what I’d seen as we shopped, was a bright, energetic girl, the type who everyone could get along with easily. I saw just how many friends she truly had at our school as dozens of people greeted her, and a few spoke with her at length.
Inori Ishikawa - a fashionable girl who wore her uniform at the very limits of the dress code, with her top button undone, long curly dyed red hair, and several discreet piercings. She appeared to be quite an easy-going person and always had something to say about everything.
Kana Eguchi - a quiet, studious girl with thinly rimmed glasses and her black hair in braids. Whilst she spoke softly and looked like a reserved, anti-social person, she had no difficultly maintaining the same energy as the other two girls.
As for me, I tried my best to join in with their conversations where I could, but 90% of the things I said were variations of: ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘I see’.
I imagine I must’ve looked so out of place to everyone else.
When I saw the way a few people looked at us, I thought that perhaps it was a mistake to join this group, even if I was invited.
I don’t know what kind of expression I was making, but I was trying my best to smile and go along with the flow - I’d learnt just how important that was in my second life.
Still, it was hard for me to keep up with them, mentally at least.
Physically speaking, I was more fit than all three of them combined, so much so that I ended up carrying their heavy shopping bags for them after they overindulged.
They all thanked me a little awkwardly and Inori even asked if I was alright carrying all that, but I said, perhaps a bit too bluntly, that I was fine.
I say that because Inori’s reply was, “R-right.”
A spike stabbed into my chest.
Every time someone looked or spoke to me like that, another one was plunged inside, like needles into a pin cushion.
It hurt so much, but I couldn’t let it show.
Even if I was struggling to breath and wanted to run away, I had to keep still and pretend I wasn’t being crushed at the bottom of the ocean.
This time, I told myself, I wouldn’t lose my friends.
I wouldn’t let what happened with Ami ever happen again.
When we finally boarded the train, we were sat at a four-person table seating arrangement and the girls eagerly tucked into their sweets.
I had a few bites here and there, but largely left them to their vices.
After they’d had enough, Hinata pulled out a pack of cards and said we should play a few rounds of something.
Ultimately, we agreed on playing President with special rules.
1 - if you won a round as the President, you got to ask someone around the table any question, within reason, and they had to answer it honestly.
2 - if you came in dead last in any round, you had to answer 3 yes or no questions that the other 3 decided.
The rest of my group agreed to those rules much faster than I did - with a thin smile, I nodded and said, “That’s fine,” after they all stared at me.
In the first round, I came 2nd and Hinata came 1st; Inori was dead last by a landslide - she still had 7 cards left in her hand.
“Okay, so, how many times have you and your boyfriend kissed?”
I almost spat out my water.
Inori was blushing wildly, but the other two were looking at her with anticipation, eager to know about her love life I imagine.
Then, it hit me.
Of course, these sorts of things would be the types of questions teenage girls would ask one another, especially if they were close friends.
Though, I will confess, I knew them all so little I didn’t even know Inori had a boyfriend.
Perhaps, however, I could use this game to get to know them all a lot better.
In fact, if I won every single round, I could find out whatever I wanted about them, within reason.
Conversely, they could do the same with me and that meant running the risk of opening certain doors I’d rather leave bolted shut.
After a few more embarrassed seconds, Inori whispered, “I-I didn’t keep track, b-but maybe…thirty times.”
The other two squealed a little and pressed for more details.
I, however, wasn’t wowed by such things.
I had lived two adult lives and had sex multiple times.
Kisses were, to put it bluntly, boring.
The media and society as a whole put so much depth and meaning behind the act of two touching lips, but I rarely felt that spark.
After my divorce, I definitely never felt it again.
In a way, I envied my classmates.
They were still young, naïve, full of hope for their futures - and here, right beside them living their passionate youth, I’m spiralling deeper and deeper into the darkness.
Maybe I should have just called in sick, or asked my mother to phone the school and say that I was.
But then I’d have to tell her.
After the 2nd round ended and I’d failed to ask both my questions, I left the table and went to the bathroom.
I reached into my chest pocket and pulled out a little cuddly toy my mother gave me when I was five, and started squeezing it in my palm.
Whenever I did this, it calmed my nerves a little.
I don’t know what exactly it was about it, but it just helped me focus my mind elsewhere.
Maybe it was because it was something my mother had given me in all of my lives and I’d always treasured it.
I stood there, eyes shut tight, for a whole two minutes before I stopped.
When I opened my eyes, I came face to face with myself in the mirror and winced.
I looked awful.
I wet my hands, washed my face a few times and then dried myself off.
Maybe I should just feign illness and-
“Akane, are you okay?”
A small, flickering light broke through from behind the closed door.
“I-I’m sorry, for following you to the toilet, but I just thought you weren’t feeling well or maybe we’d upset you, or something.” She laughed gently. “B-but I guess I-”
I surprised myself with how loudly I cried out.
I took a few deep breaths, unlocked the door and stepped out.
She looked up at me with warm concern as I tried to force a smile back across my lips, but.
I couldn’t do it.
Oh, God, I almost felt like crying.
“A-are you okay?”
Did it show?!
I panicked and covered my face, retreating a few paces.
“…I’m fine. Thank you for worrying about me.”
I peeked through the gaps in my fingers and felt another knife pierce my heart.
Her face, that smile, it reminded me of my second life, of-
“I’m not okay.”
I couldn’t meet her eyes, so I stared off at the corner by the door.
“…Thank you for inviting me to your group, but I’m just a bother, aren’t I? I barely say anything, barely look at you guys and don’t do anything other than mumble a few times. You’d probably have been happier without me in your group, right? I’m just too shy to talk to other people and I probably look like a cold-hearted person, but that’s not it. I’m just-”
Why, I asked myself, am I saying this?
Why am I springing this on Hinata?
Nothing brought this-
I’m an idiot.
I’d bottled this all up for too long and I’d finally sprung a leak.
It just happened to be Hinata who’d sprung it.
I felt a few tears fall from my eyes. “Did Mr Yamamoto ask you to invite me? Or did you ask me out of pity?”
“That’s not it, Akane.” Hinata put her palms against my cheeks and firmly held my head, making us look into each other’s eyes. Then, with a bright smile, she said, “I just always wanted to talk to you, that’s all.”
“Do I really need a reason?”
I sniffed. “Y-you do.”
Hinata giggled a little and let go of me, though I didn’t break eye contact this time.
“Well, I’d always wanted to talk to you, but never found the right moment to.”
“What was different when you-?”
She pointed at her ears. “You left your headphones off.”
She’s right - I hadn’t even noticed it at the time because I was so lost within myself.
“…Was that really all it took for you to talk to me?”
Hinata laughed. “Yep. That’s all.”
“What a stupid reason.”
I covered my mouth and went to apologise, but Hinata didn’t look upset or mad; she just kept smiling at me.
Didn’t I just insult you?
“Have you always been shy?”
“…I don’t know if that’s the right word for it, but sort of. I just…didn’t know how to talk to girls my age.”
“…To be honest, I was going to use our game of president to try and learn more about all of you, and hope we had something in common to talk about.”
“Hinata Watanabe! 15 years old! Blood-type, O! My birthday’s the 5th June and my favourite food is chocolate cake!”
“…I wasn’t going to ask that.”
“Still, at least you know a little bit about me.”
Is this the part where I respond in kind?
Though, I can’t respond with my real age.
I must be nearing a hundred by now, I imagine.
“…Doesn’t it bother you?”
“That…I don’t tell you about myself, or join in with the rest of you, or-”
“No. Everyone has their own pace, so you just need to go at the one you’re comfortable with.”
“B-but! Wouldn’t it annoy you or-?”
“Nope, not even a little.”
Hinata grinned. “You don’t have to match our pace to be our friend, Akane.”
I wish I could share her view on life, but-
“I don’t want to mess up this time.”
By the time I realised what I had said, it was too late - though, Hinata reacted in a way I didn’t expect her to.
She grasped my hands with hers and said, “It’s okay. We want to be your friend too, so don’t worry about silly things like if you’re a bother or if we don’t want you there. We do, so don’t ever forget that, no matter what anyone else says. Okay?”
“…Thank you, Hinata.”
“You’re very welcome.”
Once I’d calmed down properly and Hinata helped me fix my makeup, we went back to the others and kept playing cards.
Whenever I won, I asked very stiff, formal questions, though the girls seemed to find this funny more than anything.
Whenever I answered a question, I was, unfortunately, quite blunt but the others accepted the answers and joked about them.
Honestly, it wasn’t a bad feeling, but it wasn’t a pleasant one either.
But, as time went on and we drew closer to Kyoto, I felt less tense around them and my smiles started to come more naturally to me.
Thank you, Hinata.