The Web Novel Club
Natsuki kept a snug grip around Masako, but realized that the club president pedaled at a reasonable pace. Smoothly, Masako brought the bike out onto the avenue, passing by other students walking home. They then passed under a set of traffic lights, bringing the duo out into the wider city of Miyazawa.
Natsuki lived in the northeast of the city; the high school was at the western edge. The coast was to the south, and that’s where Masako headed, taking a right at the traffic lights at the first major intersection near the school. Having only moved through the city at walking, train, or car pace before, Natsuki found herself gradually loosening her grip as the sights of the city surrounded her.
Apartment complexes and tall buildings ringed the sides of the road. They passed by crowded convenience stores, students stopping at the occasional vending machine, delivery drivers dropping off packages at stores and homes. They weaved around cars pulling in and out of parking lots, making Natsuki tense up again at first, but Masako kept such graceful control over the bike that the tension nearly left Natsuki entirely.
They passed underneath an elevated rail line making a perpendicular crossing over the avenue; just before the shadows fell on them, a train rumbled by; when they arrived on the other side, Natsuki looked back, and caught the tail end of it before it disappeared behind tall apartments.
Going beyond that line meant they were now in South Miyazawa. Despite living in the city all her life, Natsuki had only been here a few times. She knew the city gradually sloped downwards in hilly layers until it reached the sea; this current street was the highest layer, and right as they rounded a corner, Natsuki’s eyes widened.
The Pacific Ocean could be seen in all its glory at the bottom of the slope, calm waves stretching out until they met an equally calm sky. The sun was to their backs; white clouds rolled across the sky, seagulls darting around below them.
“So, Natsuki,” Masako said, slowing her pedaling to a leisurely pace to better enjoy the view. “When did you start writing?”
Natsuki realized Masako asked a question and tried not to fumble her response. “Um…a few years ago. I used to write fanfiction. I…used to write a lot more in general, recently.”
Masako grinned at a few young children on the sidewalk as they passed by. “Oh? What happened? Take a break? Lose interest?”
“...lost interest,” Natsuki admitted, her grip tightening around Masako again. “Nothing I wrote seemed to click with me. All of it seemed lousy.”
“I see,” Masako answered, her voice in her usual carefree tone. Natsuki supposed by keeping that tone constantly, Masako never gave anything away. “So, you’re trying to pick it back up again?”
“I used to like it so much,” Natsuki said, fond memories of late night writing sessions in early elementary school coming back to her. “I used to like a lot more things. I thought that since high school would be a big change of pace, I would try to change myself, too. I wanted to give writing a try again.”
“We’ll help you get back in the saddle,” Masako encouraged. She usually kept her eyes off to the side, looking at the sidewalk and the ocean, but she shifted her eyes forward. “So, you haven't done in writing recently?”
Natsuki’s face burned red with hot shame. “...no.”
Natsuki blinked, but before she could question that, Masako gasped. Natsuki’s sense of danger exploded when Masako took a hand off the bike to point down the slope. “Hey, look! A cat!”
Natsuki started sweating. “...please don’t let this turn into a cat chase-”
“Let’s chase it!” Masako exclaimed. Natsuki sputtered in fear when Masako took a hard right onto a side street; she then turned green when she saw the side street went down in what seemed like a complete 90 degree angle (in hindsight, Natsuki would have to admit that was an exaggeration).
“M-Masako!” Natsuki exclaimed, but then the club president pedaled harder, leading her bike - and Natsuki along with her - plunging downward, zooming downhill. Rather than apartment complexes, this side of the city featured residential neighborhoods and green trees. It was a quiet street, the ocean still visible in the distance, the loudest sound being Natsuki’s cries as they descended.
They found the cat - an orange cat, nothing crazy - strolling along the top of a brick wall on a road connected to the sidestreet. Natsuki felt her stomach roll as Masako hit the brakes hard, the screeching sound roaring through the neighborhood as she turned the bike on a dime.
Their sudden arrival startled the cat, who immediately ran off down the wall, disappearing into a backyard. Masako turned the bike down another small road, narrowly dodging parked cars. Crowded power lines passed overhead, long clouds behind them, sending splotches of sunlight into a patchwork-like fashion all over the road and neighborhood.
Natsuki realized that she wasn’t whimpering anymore. Sure, she was still holding onto dear life, since a lot of things could go wrong, but as she adjusted to this new pace, she realized that a lot of things could go right, too. She had never been down this street; she never knew neighborhoods like this could exist. She never knew the feeling of wind rushing by her face, pushing through her hair. She never knew what it felt like to glide through patches of sunlight or even how pretty power lines could be.
Masako weaved her way around the labyrinth of side roads; Natsuki watched them go by, utterly mesmerized. When they burst out of the residential area into the coastline, it almost felt disappointing; but when Natsuki turned her head, she realized she never knew just how infinite and endless the ocean looked from up close.
Masako pulled the bike off to the side of the coastal road. She caught her breath, then looked back up at the slope and the crowd of houses that stretched all the way up to that first road when the chase started.
“He's a slippery one,” she mumbled, shaking her head at having lost her target. While her sharp breaths became more measured, she looked back and saw Natsuki gazing out into the ocean.
“You act like you’ve never seen it before,” she supposed in amusement.
Natsuki never took her eyes off of it. “Not from here.”
Masako pondered that. “How long have you lived here?”
“The past three years,” Natsuki said breathlessly. She managed to peel her eyes off the ocean’s beauty, but immediately became entranced by the sight of the hill they just rushed down.
“I guess you’ve never seen that either,” Masako said. “You lived here for that long but never saw this side of the city?”
Natsuki reflected on Masako’s question. “I…never had a reason to,” she supposed weakly.
By now, Masako had calmed her breathing to normal levels. “I’ve been here lots of times.”
“Oh, that’s because your aunt lives here, right?”
Masako looked back out over the ocean. “That’s true. I live on the east side but I come here to visit sometimes. But the real reason I bike around here…I’ll show you.”
Masako pushed off again, pedaling down the coastal road. Natsuki felt confident enough to keep her grip on Masako loose. Her eyes ventured toward the ocean again; the road was located on cliffs situated maybe fifteen-twenty feet over the ocean. She could hear the sound of waves gently lapping at the base of the cliffs. Up ahead, parts of the cliff gradually tapered down into the ocean, featuring groups of large rocks that eventually reached the water. Natsuki knew there were beaches further up the shoreline, but seeing the ocean up close never really interested her until she actually saw it up close for the first time today.
Masako took a left, venturing back into the residential hills. Natsuki looked in amazement; every house and every road had their own quirks and qualities. One featured an under-construction stone wall; others had a particularly bumpy sidewalk; she even smelled the scent of firewood burning.
Natsuki realized the smell of the ocean had been wafting around, a salty scent that wasn’t unpleasant, but very new to her nose. The scent of the ocean was very faint up high; this close to the sea, it followed her around in a way Natsuki didn’t know scents could. All the sights and sounds that day followed her around.
“They say your brain acts as a filter,” Masako explained as she pedaled uphill. “All sorts of information comes in through your senses, but since we’re animals, we’re wired to prioritize information relevant to our survival.”
Natsuki saw squirrels dart across power lines, one of them leading to a telephone pole that housed a bird’s nest at its top.
“So, our brain filters things that don’t seem useful for survival,” Masako continued. “You look at a wall, the brain filters out the cracks. You take a journey, you focus on the destination rather than what’s along the way during the journey. You only look at clouds and sunsets in passing, your mind focusing only on what's ahead rather than what's around you.”
Masako spoke almost sheepishly for once. “Oh, by ‘you’, I don’t mean you, Natsuki. I mean…well, everyone.”
Natsuki never took her words that way, anyway. She realized Masako had a point; she never took the time to just stop and look around. The cityscape was never beautiful - it was just passing scenery along the way to school. Neighborhoods like these didn’t exist - Natsuki never had a reason to go here.
Yet, here they were, the world and its beauty.
“Why don’t we ever just stop and look around?” Natsuki wondered aloud.
Masako managed a brief shrug as she pedaled. “Everything’s about results nowadays. Everybody’s too focused on the end rather than…than…the…oh boy…”
Masako wheezed out the end of her sentence as she struggled up a long side road built at a steep incline.
“I can help,” Natsuki offered. “I can get off and push. Or maybe we can just walk up it.”
Masako shook her head. “I always…want to push myself…”
Masako wheezed and panted harder; Natsuki wanted to help but wasn’t sure how, so she started rubbing Masako’s back.
“...thanks, Natsuki, but I’m all set.”
Natsuki went red and looked down. But the sight of the surrounding neighborhood and the person in front of her working so hard managed to cheer her up.
At last, they made it to the top of the hill. Masako struggled to catch her breath, but she kept the bike rolling along, passing by a few houses next to some chain-link fences. On the other side of that fence was none other than a bridge over the Miyazawa River, a winding stream of dark blue that ran through the center of town.
“Oh, wow!” Natsuki exclaimed at the sight. “I knew that river connected to the ocean, but I never saw it for myself.”
Masako kept trying to compose her breathing as they pedaled past the end of the neighborhood, moving by fences that prevented people from reaching the edge of land that overlooked the river.
They went over a slight bump and arrived on the Forest Bridge. It was a large steel thing, built decades ago, small signs of rust showing on the metal. Down below, the Miyazawa River muddled along calmly. It lapped at the edge of the riverbank sometimes, splashing the occasional fisherman and playing children.
Masako brought the bike to a stop in the center of the bridge. She took one final deep breath, then smiled as she used a loafer to set up the bike’s kickstand. She slid off the bike, Natsuki following along.
Masako ran a hand over the guard rail at the edge of the bridge. From the look of comfort, Natsuki supposed Masako must have done that action hundreds of times. Natsuki then looked down and saw the river, following its course until the water opened up into the ocean. She could see another bridge down below, this one belonging to the coastal road.
Masako gestured backwards with her head; Natsuki looked up and, through crowds of trees growing off the cliffs, saw the city’s other bridge - the aptly named City Bridge, located at the top of the slope.
“The Coastal Bridge is considered the most beautiful,” Masako reflected, resting against the guard rail. “And the City Bridge is considered the most useful. But the Forest Bridge is the one I like.”
Natsuki looked around and saw more neighborhoods on the other side of the bridge. “So this is why you bike around here?”
Masako nodded. Natsuki knew she had a lot to learn, but for a brief moment, it seemed like Masako actually had to try to keep that carefree look on her face. The club president looked at the sky, then back out into the ocean.
“I just find this area really calming,” she explained. “Quiet enough for reflection, yet there’s so much life around me that it’s also comforting.”
“I see…” Natsuki said, not seeing.
There certainly was a lot more to Masako than met the eye. But there was a lot more to the world than met the eye, too.