The Web Novel Club
Natsuki and Masako made it back to Miyazawa High with about a half hour before school closed for the day to spare. The sky was just starting to change color as the sun began setting.
“Do you think Yumiko is still here?” Natsuki asked as the two entered the building. “It’s awfully late.”
Masako chuckled. “No doubt about it. We left Yumiko to herself to decorate the club room. She’s one-hundred percent waiting inside to gloat about it to us.”
“Gloat?” Natsuki repeated.
Masako sighed. “You’ll see.”
When they entered the club room, they found Yumiko waiting inside to gloat about it to them. She stacked the few desks inside the club room into a large pile, sitting with a smug look in her eyes on the top desk, looking down on her fellow club members. Natsuki very much felt like a peasant brought to a throne room.
Natsuki managed to take her eyes off the throne and its haughty queen to look at the rest of the room. She realized several slips of paper had been taped to the wall around the chalkboard. As Masako rolled her eyes, Natsuki stepped forward to look at one.
“Thank you for the chapter,” Natsuki read aloud. As she scratched her head, she realized this was a screenshot of what must’ve been a writing website. The screenshot featured dozens of people making this same comment.
Her eyes glanced at another taped sheet of paper. “Two hundred thousand views,” she read aloud this time. “Four thousand favorites.”
As she kept looking, Natsuki realized every paper depicted a screenshot of something praiseworthy - enthusiastic comments, statistics with high numbers - about a web novel. She slowly connected the dots and looked back up at Yumiko. “Are these about you?”
Yumiko crossed her arms and grinned. “Of course. If you look at WebWriters.net, you’d see a story of mine currently featured as #3 in trending. If you look at PencilArchive.com, you’d find another story of mine listed in the Top 50 Most Popular of All Time. And that means for all time - I wrote the 48th most popular story on that website in the past four billion years. Nearly fourteen billion, really.”
She shrugged. “But, outside of my gracious looks, comedic wit, and writing ability, the quality I favor most is my humility.”
Masako yanked a desk out from the pile. Yumiko cried out as the whole thing collapsed and crashed together in a heap. Yumiko raised a defiant fist out of the pile, then emerged out of it entirely, standing proudly, looking no worse for the wear. “In fact, if we elected the president by popularity rather than vote, I would’ve won.”
Natsuki tilted her head. “How’d you lose the vote if there were two of you?”
Yumiko opened her mouth, then closed it. “...I liked her campaign policies more than my own.”
Masako rested an arm on the shorter Yumiko’s head. “What my esteemed colleague is trying to say is that her web novels are pretty popular.”
Natsuki looked back at the comments. Screenshots of anonymous praise danced around in her head as she imagined receiving the same. She looked back at Yumiko. “What did you write? How did you get popular?”
Yumiko gave a confident chuckle. “I come up with a few wacky characters, get them into strange hijinks, and then…”
Her eyes darkened as she leered at Natsuki, and she let out a small guttural groan. “~Romance~ ensues.”
Natsuki decided against asking Yumiko to elaborate on that.
“Your definition of romance is why we can’t hang these screenshots up,” Masako reminded Yumiko. “If the school ever decides to look too deep into these, our geese would be cooked.”
Yumiko tilted her head backwards, sighing towards the ceiling. “I’m unappreciated in my time.”
But she acknowledged Masako’s leadership and the three girls removed the papers from the walls (and cleaned up the desks). At Yumiko’s urging, they placed all the screenshots into a manila envelope so she could look at them later.
“I’m impressed,” Natsuki told Yumiko as she swept up some dust caused by the desk collapse. “I think it’s neat how popular your stories are.”
Yumiko watched Masako carry off a desk toward the back of the classroom, then looked back at Natsuki. “You should really be impressed with Masako,” Yumiko said, her voice a lot quieter now. “She’s the one who helped me get into writing web novels.”
“I used to just watch and read romance anime and manga and get all these ideas,” Yumiko reflected. When she saw the look on Natsuki’s face, she quickly elaborated. “Real romance, not ~romance~.”
“Masako helped me in a lot of ways. Thanks to her, I learned how to get words on paper. Well, digital paper.” Yumiko smiled. “And now, we’ll both help you.”
Natsuki felt a little embarrassed to hear that and with a red face, slid her shoe around the floor. Yumiko suddenly raised a fist, snapping Natsuki out of it. “However, the training will be hard! Writing is a skill, like any other, that must be honed and trained!”
Yumiko giggled. “That’s actually a line from my current web novel. Except I didn’t say writing, I said it about when a man and catgirl get together and start-”
Masako accidentally banged a desk off the wall.
In spring, the sun still set around seven. Compared to winter, the days still felt unimaginably long. You forget that the sun can set that late, that sunlight can last that long.
Natsuki and Masako walked Yumiko to her station - she was the odd one out, using a station to the west since she lived further out in that direction. The sun began setting as they left the school; by the time they reached the station, it had almost dipped below the horizon, bathing everything in orange.
“Same time tomorrow?” Yumiko asked as her train pulled into the station, headlights briefly illuminating the trio.
“Always,” Masako answered. Natsuki nodded along.
Yumiko grinned at Natsuki. “Don’t forget what we talked about. And tomorrow, your training from hell begins.”
Natsuki still wasn’t sure how to read Yumiko, so she just rubbed the back of her neck. “Ahaha…”
The three waved goodbye and Yumiko slipped into the train - literally, as in her foot caught the side of the train as she entered and she stumbled inside. The last Natsuki and Masako saw of her was her red face before the train doors shut.
As they watched the train depart down the tracks, Natsuki and Masako stood outside the open-air station’s turnstyles. Masako gestured at her bike. “Want a ride to your station?”
Natsuki raised her hands defensively. Now that an entire month's worth of adrenaline had been used up by that earlier bike ride, she decided to take the rest of the day slowly and on her own two feet. “N-no, I’m all set. Besides…”
She looked up at the sky. “I think I’d rather walk instead.”
“It’s a nice night for it.”
The two started walking back east. It would be about ten minutes back to the school and another ten minutes to Natsuki’s station. Had Masako ridden the train, they likely would take the same line - and maybe they would on a rainy morning or afternoon when it would be too tough to bike. Natsuki liked that. Since her friend Mitsuko also lived to the west, Natsuki always rode the train alone. It never bothered her before today, or maybe she didn’t realize it bothered her until today.
As they headed down along long sidewalks, passing through intersections and the occasional group of people, Natsuki took the time to walk around. More aware of her surroundings now, she wanted to find out what she could see. She found weeds growing out of sidewalk cracks; a flickering letter on the face of a tall sign for a local bank; puddles and temporary streams flowing into gutters produced by leftover rain from the earlier storm.
If Natsuki’s future web novel would be a blank canvas, then she would need to fill it in. But today’s joy ride made her realize that her life was a bit of a blank canvas, too, that got wishy-washy around the edges, like an unfinished painting with rough edges around the painting’s subject. If she wanted to fill in her book’s canvas, then she wanted to fill in the canvas of her life, too.
As they passed the school, the night sky settled in over them, darkness replacing the last of the sun’s orange. Masako looked up at the sky. “You know, in anime, they always depict the skies over the cities being filled with stars. But how many stars can you count up there?”
Natsuki joined her in looking upwards. The count was quick. “Twelve?”
“Twelve stars over Miyazawa,” Masako observed. “It beats zero though, right?”
Natsuki agreed, then thought about it. “Maybe in our stories, we can fill the sky with more stars than would really be there. We could put in two moons or six suns.”
Masako pushed the loose strands of hair off her forehead. “Your world’s your oyster. Some people want explanations for everything in a story. Like fireballs in your hands being created by your psionic manipulation of the atoms above your palm, heating them up until they create fire or something. But sometimes…isn’t it nice to just say that it’s magic, you don’t gotta explain shit?”
Natsuki involuntarily giggled at Masako’s language.
A green traffic light briefly illuminated Masako’s face as the girls rounded a corner, but it quickly switched to red, bringing the girls to a stop. Colors reflected in puddles and streams around them, traffic lights mixing with building lights.
“That’s what I like about web novels,” Masako continued. “It’s informal. You write a chapter, do some editing, then post. You can write the chapter the same day as posting. It’s quick and easy. There’s a freedom to it. If you want to just say its magic, if you want to say your two moons are the bodies of dueling gods or something, you can just do it. Nobody’s stopping you.”
Natsuki scratched her arm. “Is it really that easy?”
Masako gave a nonchalant shrug. “Well, writing a story and gaining an audience are two different things. But in regards to just writing and posting, it really is that simple.” She tucked her skirt as she crouched down, peering into her own reflection in a rain puddle. The loose strands of hair had fallen back onto her forehead again. “And writing a story and being satisfied with it are two different things, too.”
The girls continued, crossing several more intersections, passing by stores and tall buildings. Cars roamed around, as did a few cyclists; many more pedestrians crowded the streets, salarymen with briefcases moving in packs.
“And anyone can write a web novel,” Masako concluded. “There are some hugely popular ones that started out as office drones just blowing off steam after work. Age, beliefs…anyone can write and anyone can post.”
Natsuki saw the thoughtful look on Masako’s face and grinned. “You’re doing a very good job of convincing me to stay in the club.”
“Were you ever considering leaving?”
“...I guess not.”
The two girls laughed, then arrived at another open-air train station. Before Natsuki headed for the turnstiles, she stopped and faced Masako. Masako tilted her head upon seeing the serious look on Natsuki’s face.
“I couldn’t leave this club,” Natsuki admitted. “I’ve only been here for a day, and I haven’t even written anything yet, but you’ve made me realize something.”
Passing cars occasionally illuminated Natsuki’s face. “This entire day, ever since we left school for the bike ride, I’ve noticed this strange feeling. I got this feeling by looking around and noticing the things we rode by, and I’ve continued feeling it all day. The neighborhoods, the coast, the city, the rain, the shrine, the stars. It’s like…”
As Masako listened, Natsuki moved her hands around for emphasis. “It’s like everything’s coming together. Like it’s all part of one big system. And then I realized that I’m part of that system, too. How do I put it…”
She looked up at the stars. “I realized that I’m alive today.”
The two stood in silence. Natsuki’s face almost went red, but she ignored that anxiety because she felt confident for the first time in what she said to someone else.
Still, her face had a red scarlet hue to it as she looked back at Masako. “I want to do something with this feeling. I want to put all this feeling of being alive in something I made with my own two hands. I want to write my own magnum opus.”
They kept standing in silence. Cars drifted by. Lights flashed over them.
Masako cocked her head and grinned.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day. You better get ready for your training from hell.”