The Web Novel Club
After spending a calm moment on the bridge, watching the river wash out to sea, Masako and Natsuki got back on the bike. Masako kicked off and pedaled over the Forest Bridge, arriving on the other side into a maze of residential homes. Before criss-crossing power lines and treetops blocked their view of most of the sky, Natsuki spotted incoming gray clouds rolling in from the horizon.
“Is it supposed to rain today?” Natsuki asked.
“The weather channel said after midnight,” Masako answered. “Maybe the storm’s coming early. Let’s hurry!”
Masako grinned and pedaled even harder. Natsuki wondered about just how much stamina this girl could have, but her thoughts were replaced by the sights and scenery of yet another neighborhood. The sidestreets here eventually led to a long, curling road that moved upwards, with the occasional view of the ocean visible before disappearing behind houses and trees.
This upward ride was much less steep, so Masako seemed only slightly winded as they reached the top, which connected back to the highest layer of the slope. Masako pedaled out onto the main avenue, the slope to their right, the cityscape to their left. Natsuki took one last look at the neighborhoods they crossed through, a mixture of roofs and trees and people, before looking up at the tall buildings to her left. Even the cityscape seemed to have an allure it didn’t have before.
Sure, it smelled and there was some trash littering the sides of the roads, but the way it all came together, the aesthetic of it all, Natsuki had never noticed it before.
As Masako moved deeper into the city, vending machines replaced trees; apartment complexes replaced houses; parking lots replaced views of the ocean. Yet the city felt so very much alive.
At last, she pulled to a stop in front of a danchi-style apartment building. Natsuki saw a woman leaning against a balcony railing, smoking a cigarette - she would be one of those characters in a manga who kept their eyes perpetually closed.
Masako gave a yell and waved; the woman smiled and waved back.
As Masako locked the bike in place at the apartment’s depot, Natsuki watched the woman snub her cigarette and disappear back into her apartment.
Masako led the way up the concrete danchi staircase, spiraling upwards. Natsuki, who lived in a much more modern apartment, enjoyed the breeze on her face and the sight of the city from the staircase as she ascended it. She wondered if people moved up and down the staircase without enjoying those sights. Of course, unlike Natsuki, they had to climb those stairs every day.
Natsuk glanced at the approaching gray clouds, which looked a lot closer to the city now. Masako seemed undeterred, excited to see her aunt. They exited the staircase a few floors up, then Masako brought Natsuki to a particular door.
“My aunt’s really nice,” Masako explained as she rang the doorbell. “My uncle works all day in the factory and her kid moved out recently, so she’s been picking up hobbies.”
“Hobbies?” Natsuki repeated.
“Cooking and painting. Perhaps you’ll see both of them today.”
Natsuki supposed Masako's aunt was trying new things when her life changed, too.
The door opened and the woman from before peeked her head out with a grin. Natsuki could immediately see the resemblance with Masako - the dark hair, the loose strands of hair on her forehead.
“Aunt Masatake!” Masako greeted. She gestured at Natsuki. “This is a new member of our club, Natsuki.”
Natsuki bowed. Despite how friendly Masatake looked, Natsuki wasn’t good with new people, so she mumbled out a “pardon the intrusion.”
“Nice to meet you, Natsuki. Will you be using my old laptop?”
Natsuki straightened up and mechanically answered, “Y-yes.”
Masatake smiled. “Come in, come in,” she said, gesturing inside. Masako and Natsuki followed her, trading their loafers for slippers.
“Pardon the mess, I’m still tidying up,” Masatake explained, gathering loose items like blankets and jackets in her hands as the two girls followed her into the rest of the apartment. Natsuki peeked her head inside the living room and found a large easel covered in a sheet standing in front of an open window, the curtains moving slightly in the breeze.
“Oh, you found my painting,” Masatake realized. A startled Natsuki recoiled, making Masatake laugh. “You remind me of a newborn deer.”
Natsuki just scratched her head at that. “Ahaha…”
At Matasake’s urging, Natsuki followed her into the living room. “I’ve been looking for something to fill my free time,” she explained. She made a theatrical performance out of the whole thing, positioning Natsuki in a prime spot to see the painting below the easel while Masatake stood next to it.
She gripped the sheet with the two hands. “I call it - The Surging Youth of Springtime!”
Masatake made a sharp pull and the sheet slid off the painting. Natsuki wasn’t sure what to expect, but the painting…well, it made her smile. It didn’t look completed yet, but it depicted two students walking hand-in-hand on a riverbank, a calm river to their right. Cherry blossom petals fell all around them. The whole thing had a sort of abstract quality to it, the lines that ordinarily divided one thing from another blended together in watercolor.
“It’s beautiful,” Natsuki commented. Would it win any prizes? Probably not. But the amateur work was filled with care and dedication, that much was obvious.
“You’d have no idea how long it took me to get here,” Masatake explained, moving over to admire her own work alongside Natsuki. “I must’ve killed so many trees with the amount of canvasses I had to discard. Well, I guess they’re actually made out of cloth, but you get the idea.”
Natsuki got a different idea. She slowly scratched her arm. “What made you keep going?”
Masatake raised an amused eyebrow. “Oh, are you an artist, too? You must be, if you joined Masako’s club.”
Natsuki went red and raised her hands. “N-no. I’m just a writer. Not a very strong one, either.”
Masatake let out a disarming laugh that made Natsuki feel at ease. “Anyone who makes something out of nothing is an artist. No matter the quality, you should always feel proud of your work. Even the ones you discard.”
“Really?” Natsuki asked.
“There are so many paintings where I got frustrated at the start,” Masatake explained. “The picture in my head…I just couldn’t get it right on the canvas. All art starts as an abstract idea. The actual act of art is getting into a tangible form. The actual act is where we struggle.”
She patted Natsuki on the shoulder. “But, when it really comes down to it, the actual act is the best part. When you’ve reached the tangible, you can only read your writing or look at your art. The actual act is where you can create.”
Between the body contact and esoteric knowledge, Natsuki could see even more of the resemblance between aunt and niece.
Speaking of niece, Masako arrived in the living room, a laptop in her hand. “I see you showed her the painting,” Masako supposed. She tilted her head at Natsuki. “Did she do the whole theatrical thing with you, too?”
Natsuki twiddled her thumbs. “Well…I liked it, at least.”
Masako wore the same smile as her aunt. “Me too.” She stepped close to the painting and gave it a good look. “I like this. One student looks one way, the other student looks the other way.”
Natsuki gave it a second look and realized the girl in the pair looked at the cherry blossoms while the boy looked at the river. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Natsuki mumbled aloud, wondering about the symbolism.
Masatake shrugged. “That’s up to you, Natsuki. All I can do is create. It’s up to you guys to interpret it. Of course, I have my own interpretation, but once I put my art out there, everybody can find their own meaning in it.”
Natsuki rubbed her chin, trying to decipher the meaning, but came up empty for the moment.
Masako had her own interpretation. “It means it’s time to go,” she supposed, handing the silver laptop over to Natsuki. She held it in her hands with care - it felt smooth in her hands.
“I’ll take good care of it!” Natsuki promised to Masatake, who only laughed again.
“A painter has his brush, a writer has his pen, but these new-fangled web-novelists have their computers.” Masatake patted Natsuki on the shoulder again, making her blush. “In exchange for showing you the painting, I hope you’ll show me your story.”
Natsuki seized up, since showing her story to anyone instantly made her want to disappear and ride the rails into Hokkaido and work as a deaf mute at a gas station. But reassuring smiles seemed to be a common characteristic of Masako and her family.
“Alright,” Natsuki relented. “I can’t say it’ll be good.”
“That’s alright,” Masatake said. “But you can say it’ll be yours.”
As they left the apartment, Masatake took a worried look at the sky. Gray clouds now covered most of the city, but as now, no rain appeared. “Are you guys sure about leaving? You can stay at my place until the rain comes and goes.”
“That’s alright,” Masako said. “Natsuki knows how fast I can ride my bike.” She then shuddered. “And giving Yumiko free reign over the club room for several more hours is a scary thought.”
Reluctantly, Masatake let them go. The smile returned to her face as Masako and Natsuki waved back to her, then disappeared down the spiral staircase.
Ten minutes later, as Masako pedaled through the city, Natsuki squeaked when they saw lightning strike in the distance, closely followed by the roaring sound of thunder. A drizzle sprinkled rain on their heads.
Summer rain was short, intense, and inviting; fall rain was a long drizzle mixed with cold; spring rain felt like the sky was shaking off the rust of winter - there was an uncertainty in spring rain, mixed with leftover cold from winter and approaching warmth from summer.
Natsuki supposed she needed to workshop that. Regardless of the descriptions, spring rain felt as wet as any other rain, and this storm threatened to open up immediately right on top of them. Incoming rain activates a primal feeling within, an intense urge to get to shelter.
The school was too far, so right as the drizzle turned into downpour, the girls found refuge underneath the wooden roof of a small shrine. Fortunately, their clothes weren’t too wet; they could leave them on as they stood within the shrine, watching the rain fall outside, hearing raindrops hit the roof with dull thuds.
“It’s not even the rainy season yet,” Masako complained.
Natsuki twiddled her thumbs. “Um…it can rain outside of rainy season…”
Masako supposed that was true and started giggling. Natsuki looked at the rain and realized she had never really looked at rain before. Just how many things had she never noticed before? A small feeling crept inside her, a gentle feeling that started in her stomach and rose to her heart, but she didn’t have a name for it just yet. But that feeling could be found in the neighborhoods they passed through earlier today, the city, Masatake’s apartment, the rain falling outside.
“I told you I hadn’t written anything in a long time earlier, right?” Masako rhetorically asked. Natsuki looked up at her, but Masako looked out into the falling rain. “I also told you about that magician’s academy story. Essentially, I thought it was going to be the one.”
Natsuki didn’t understand. “The one?”
“My magnum opus. Well, childhood magnum opus.” She tried to pace around the shrine, but being so small, she ended up just crossing her arms and tapping her foot slowly in pace. “Once childhood ends, it ends. I wanted to write something that I can look back on and say it defined my existence during that period of life. At the same time, I wanted to have something in the present that I can put everything into. My ikigai, raison d’etre, whatever you want to call it…I wanted to have something big and grand.”
Natsuki followed along, realizing that, despite seeming like she knew everything, maybe Masako still had many questions, too.
“I spent my last year of middle school working on The Magician’s Academy. Everything I knew about life went into it. People online liked it, but more importantly, I liked it. I thought I set myself up to go big on it in high school, spend all my time perfecting it and reaching a big conclusion.”
She gave Natsuki a small grin. “I only reached three quarters of the first act before calling it quits.”
That surprised Natsuki. “You stopped writing?”
Masako shrugged. “Lost interest. The spark wasn’t there anymore. It happened right around the time I realized I would be graduating middle school and going to high school. Or maybe I finally admitted it to myself at that time.”
The rain kept falling, with puddles coalescing in front of the shrine. The city seemed to slow down as cars remained gridlocked in traffic and pedestrians took shelter within bus stops and convenience stores.
“Not everything can be a magnum opus,” Masako supposed. “Every time I write, I wonder if it’s worth the time and effort. So, I just sort of stop writing.”
She shrugged again, suggesting a feeling of well, that’s life. “But maybe a break’s good. It’ll help me teach my young kouhai.”
Natsuki tugged at her uniform ribbon. Masako was the one who introduced Natsuki into this wider world. But if Masako herself could have issues with it…
“Don’t let teaching me interrupt your purpose,” Natsuki quickly exclaimed.
That just made Masako laugh again. “I like teaching. Maybe teaching somebody will help me get that spark again. Maybe seeing somebody get that spark will help, too.”
Natsuki's face turned a little scarlet, feeling embarrassed. “I don’t know anything about sparks.”
After the big downpour earlier, the rain seemed to let up, just a little.
“Again, my young Natsuki. That’s what we’re here for.”