My throat still hurts from screaming so loudly. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I screamed at the top of my voice like that. My body is in shock in more ways than one. I’m sitting on my bed, staring at nothing, reliving the previous event in my head over and over.
Why did I see a lamppost where there wasn’t one? It was clear as day, I wasn’t delirious or deep in thought and it wasn’t a dream. It might have been an optical illusion, or some kind of weird prank, but no-one else was around before or after it happened. Was it one of those hidden camera shows, recording my reaction from somewhere in hiding? But aren’t you supposed to still ask permission from the person you filmed? The only people I saw after that were my parents - who could clearly tell that I was upset as soon as I arrived, but chose not to pry.
It’s better that way. What would I have told them?
‘I just saw something in the road that wasn’t actually there and scared myself into thinking there was going to be an accident. Now I’m traumatised.’
There’s no way I’m telling anyone about this. I put my parents’ minds at ease by saying that I suddenly got light-headed on my way home - which is a half-truth. It’s best that I forget about it, but I can’t seem to do so. I struggle to concentrate on my homework and it takes hours before I fall asleep.
A month goes by, and I still haven’t managed to delete the memory from my brain. I didn’t see anything out of place during that time. Everything just went on as normal.
“Hey, did you take notes at the start of the chapter on statistics?” Saori asks me at my desk. “Of course you did, you’re Ayato. Can I please take a look at them?”
It looks like she’s scurrying around to try and complete her own notes from a mosaic of her classmates’. She’s cutting it close, since exams start next week and this is the last chance for us to see our classmates at school before then. It’s not particularly out of character for her, but I really wish that she’d plan better for these things. Regardless, I hand over the book containing the notes in question without much resistance.
“Thank you so much!”
She runs back to her desk, where Suzaku also seems to be polishing up his notes. For once, it seems like Misu isn’t turning Saori’s panic into a show for the whole class. Instead, he’s leaning over her shoulder, periodically pointing at parts of the pages she appears to be copying from.
Yep. This is definitely exam time.
Of course, I feel prepared. I have been putting even more time into studying over the past few weeks, but I won’t let that show.
Once I finish the last of the practice problems, I pack up and make my way over to Saori’s desk. It appears that the three of them are now arguing about which of them got the correct answer for a certain problem.
“Aya, help me out here, tell them that the standard deviation in this one is 1.64!”
“Misu’s full of it, the answer has to be 1.65.”
Suzaku points at the problem in question. It wasn’t rewritten with the problem number, but I remember that this is the last problem in exercise 7. I scan over Suzaku’s calculations just to be sure.
“The answer should be 1.65.”
“What? How?” Misu groans. “My calculator gives 1.644, so shouldn’t we round down?”
I look over his work and soon spot the problem.
“You calculated the population standard deviation, but we’re only given a sample, not the entire population.”
“I did? So I used the wrong formula?”
Misu puts his page down on the desk so that he and Saori can both read through it. He corrects it and makes a note in the margin of the page.
“Are you gonna join us, Ayato? Clearly we could use some help with this,” Saori laughs nervously.
“I’ve already done that exercise. I’ve got history to study for, so I just came to take back my notes.”
“Wah, look at this guy, already studying for the second exam paper as if the first is gonna be a breeze!” Saori rummages around on her desk to try and find my notes in a sea of papers.
“I haven’t worked through the last two topics in history yet, so I’m stressed about that one.”
It’s not true, of course. I am going to study history, but I’m not behind at all. I would have considered staying behind and studying with them if I hadn’t already completed that exercise.
“Aya’s not even stressed about the maths exam! If he joins us, we’ll do nothing but infect him with our panic! Hahaha!”
Misu still seems very cheery for someone who is allegedly panicking for exams.
“It’s fine, Ayato.” Suzaku chimes in. “Leave us at the mercy of this maths exam. We relish the challenge.”
Saori either doesn’t pick up on Suzaku’s sarcasm or just doesn’t care.
“Speak for yourself! I’ve had enough challenges already. I would trade my whole manga collection for an easy exam this time around!”
“Would you really?” Misu scoffs.
Saori thinks for a second before replying, “Okay, maybe a quarter of my collection…”
“Or you could have just started studying earlier,” Suzaku retaliates.
“You didn’t really start very early either, Suku,” Misu’s volume escalates again. “We’re in the same boat here!”
“Yeah, but I planned to start late. You guys just forgot about it and now you’re panicking.” Suzaku mockingly crosses his arms.
“Oh, please, you’re delusional,” Saori says as she finally hands me back my notes.
Misu grabs my shoulder and puts on his version of a puppy dog face.
“You sure you won’t stick around and help us, Aya?”
“I would have, if we planned it ahead of time. But if I don’t study history for the rest of today, I’m not making it through that exam.”
“You are such a liar!” Saori points at me. “There’s no way you could fail any exam!”
I smile as I get ready to leave.
“Thanks for the support, but I think you’re putting too much faith in me,” I say, waving as I turn around. “See you guys next week.”
“Good luck, Aya!” Misu’s voice is the only one that reaches me as I leave the classroom.
Studying together really might not be that bad, they just need to plan it better. The rest of my day is reserved for doing history, so I make my way to the study hall, which is open until nine throughout this week. Because of that, I can get a lot of work done there before I go home.
I bump into Mr. Gary before I reach the study hall.
“Ayato, will I be seeing you back at the Shogi and Chess Club once exams are over? We haven’t seen you there in a while. Did I spook you the last time we played?”
“Not quite,” I smile at him, “I’ve been busy studying, but I’ll be back to play again soon.”
“I know,” Mr. Gary chuckles, “I’m just teasing. But I look forward to playing you again. I’ve gotta go now, though. Good luck on your exams.”
We greet each other and part ways.
I work undisturbed at the study hall for the rest of the afternoon, leaving just before dark. My mother has been telling me to get home earlier for the sake of safety, but I don’t like to interrupt myself once I get into the perfect studying groove - which I find much easier to do at the study hall. Home has too many potential distractions, like the book on machine learning that I was given as a gift two weeks ago by my uncle. I’ve refrained from starting it so far, but the temptation is great. Once exams are over, I can finally reward myself with learning about something that is genuinely interesting rather than all of the different mistakes that people made in the past.
There are only two days left before the exams start, the thought of which makes everything around me on my way home look even more lifeless than usual. I’ve gotten used to everything being a bit darker since I’ve been walking home later, so there’s even less colour to appreciate. There are still unexpectedly many people out and about at this time, though, and I can’t decide whether that adds to the mundane feeling or not.
I pass by the spot where I saw the lamppost that time, watching the road’s surface closely as I walk by. As always, there’s nothing out of the ordinary.
At dinner, my father asks me about my day. I give him a paraphrase of the answer I always give, since school is usually pretty uneventful for me. I feel bad, but he asks the same thing every day, and there simply isn’t anything worthwhile that I could tell him that often.
“Are you ready for your exams?”
At least he has a new question for today.
“I think so. I studied the last bit of my history work today, so I can focus mainly on the maths papers for the weekend.”
“You sure aren’t taking things easy. You sure you’re not gonna die of exhaustion on us?”
“Yeah, I’m getting enough sleep, don’t worry.”
“After next week you can relax a bit, can’t you?” my mother joins the discussion.
“I think so. We have a bit of time after the exams before we start with preparations for the festival, so I can take a bit of a break then.”
“Thank goodness. I worry about how hard the two of you work sometimes. It can’t be healthy.”
It’s funny that my mother is the one saying that, considering that she has a half-day job and also does most of the chores at home. She’s a hard worker, just like me and my father.
“Don’t worry about me, dear,” my father speaks up after finishing his plate. “At least when I get home, I can relax. Ayato just goes right back to studying. In fact, you should give him seconds, he needs more energy than we do, hahaha!”
My father helps out with the cleaning after dinner each night, so I also don’t see how he’s any better than me with regards to extra work.
I lift my plate up to accept another serving.
“Well, if you insist.”
“I think I should make some snacks,” my mother says while collecting their empty plates. “You’ll be having a few late nights this weekend, right? The least I can do is make some snacks to help you stay awake. Although I would much rather have you get some sleep, I know I’m not talking you out of that one.”
“Thanks, but you really don’t have to, I’ll manage.”
“I’ll help, dear,” my father chimes in, clearly ignoring what I just said. “We can bake those biscuits that we made before! The ones that flopped and we said we wanted to try again.”
“That’s a good idea, I think we should have all of the ingredients we need.”
“Yes, I’ll go get started for us!” my father exclaims as he leaves the table, seemingly excited.
My mother soon follows suit.
“Sorry, will you excuse me too? I can’t leave your father alone in the kitchen. Besides,” she leans in closer and whispers through a giggle, “it’s because of him that the biscuits flopped last time.”
I giggle in response and excuse her from the table. I finish my food to the sounds of kitchenware clanging and my father’s voice, clearly excited by the prospect of baking biscuits.
Thanks to the snacks, my weekend of studying goes by a bit easier.
Finally, the exam week comes and goes. The test questions seemed exceptionally dull this time around, very much the same as the questions I had practised. There were one or two questions in the maths papers that looked a bit new, but nothing to worry about, I’d say.
We return to school the week after, finally relieved of the exam pressure.
“Aya, we survived!” Misu re-enacts a scene of long-lost lovers reuniting after making it through an apocalypse. “I never thought that this day would come…”
Misu falls on me, fake-wailing so loudly that the entire school can probably hear. I push Misu to get him off of me, but to no avail. So, I decide to play into the act instead.
“Oh, Misu, you know that nothing can possibly separate us!”
I can make out Saori’s voice coming from behind Misu.
“Don’t feel special, he did the same thing to both of us too!”
“Aw, you spoiled the fun,” Misu says as he drops the melodramatic act. “I am glad the exams are over, though!”
The whole class’ attention is still on the two of us, so I respond.
“Same here. Do you think you did fine?”
“I mean… I think so? How about you?”
“Well, it was rather difficult to stay calm with how badly you guys were panicking before each test.”
“Hey, hey, don’t rope me into this,” Suzaku speaks up, “it was these two that were panicking every day!”
“I couldn’t tell if you were panicking or not because I was too busy panicking!” Saori responds. “But if Ayato says you were panicking, then you were.”
“Everyone would be panicking compared to Ayato. I’m surprised that his monstrous concentration allowed him to pay enough attention to us to notice that we were stressed,” Suzaku says as he gets ready to take a seat.
“Aya’s just focussed when it comes to tests. I think it’s kinda cool!” Misu says as he makes his way over to his desk.
Suddenly, a raspy voice addresses me from behind, making the whole classroom fall silent.
“Mr. Shirase, may I speak with you for a moment?”
I turn to face Mr. Miyazaki.
I follow him out of the classroom.
“May we speak in my office?”
Oh no. It is never good news to go to Mr. Miyazaki’s office. Even worse news if he comes to collect you in person. His office is on the same floor as the second year homeroom classes, so the walk isn’t long, but it feels like an eternity.
I gulp as we enter his office. He doesn’t sit down.
“This will be quick, no need to take a seat.”
I freeze in place as he turns around to face me, wearing a frown that seems etched into his forehead.
“You are aware of how serious exam results are in this school, right? Surely you must know, since you’ve been the model student of your year since you started here.”
“You’ve become quite valuable to the school, thanks to your consistently high marks and clean academic record. Let’s just say that the rest of the school staff and I have expectations, since your performance can directly influence our reputation.”
I hated every word in that last sentence.
“To get to the point, there was a question in the second maths paper you wrote last week that you got completely wrong. One that I was certain you of all people would be able to do. You still did well overall, you got ninety-five percent, but that is two percent lower than you got in the last exam. And frankly, I thought that you were going to be able to improve on your last mark easily.”
What the hell are you saying? I have to listen to all of this garbage because I got ninety-five for a maths test? Is this some kind of joke?
“I just want to make sure that you’re aware of how highly we value your performance. I know how much work you put in, so I beg you to not let all of that go to waste.”
I’m frozen in silence.
Mr. Miyazaki raises an eyebrow.
“Do you understand?”
“I do, sir,” I strain to control the tremor in my voice.
“Good. Then you are dismissed. Tell Mr. Osborn that the reason you’re late to homeroom is because you had to see me.”
“I will, sir.”
I leave the office and make my way back to my classroom, trembling.