The Web Novel Club
And so summer continued on. Natsuki’s first book saw an abrupt finish, but it was still finished - a completed novel, produced by her own hands. The initial feeling of disappointment about not finishing the long-term story soon gave way to feelings of pure giddiness over having something you could read from start to an actual finish, rushed or otherwise. She finished a story!
“Yes you did,” Masako said in sage approval at the club room that Friday, the day after Natsuki published her final chapter.
Yumiko clapped. “That calls for celebration!”
Natsuki eyed Yumiko wearily, suspicious of any further party poppers. Yumiko waved her hands defensively. “By celebration, I mean we should go out this weekend!”
Masako nodded. “Our first club outing.”
Natsuki gasped - somebody besides Mitsuko was inviting her out somewhere over the weekend! That had never happened before in recorded history! Excited thoughts about a girls’ day out flashed through her mind - ice cream, the beach (she really wanted to copy anime by yelling the stereotypical Umi Da! once they saw the sea), and fireworks!
But then she remembered that this was a club outing. “Are we going to do something like visit a writer’s convention or something like that?”
Yumiko shook her head. “I was thinking more like hitting a shopping mall, a long session at a karaoke booth, then throwing rocks at passing cars-”
Yumiko received yet another manga-style knock on the head courtesy of Masako. “What my esteemed colleague is trying to say is that it’s only a club outing in the sense that this will be the first time we’ll be hanging out together outside of school.”
“Ooh, that’s right,” Natsuki realized. So, this would be a girls’ day out! For a moment, Natsuki realized how far she had come so far during the school year - from a nervous wreck to actually making friends. Because Masako and Yumiko really were her friends by now.
She wanted to thank Mitsuko profusely for giving her that initial courage, and then realized she wanted to invite her along, too. Natsuki clammed up though; having never been invited somewhere by someone not named Mitsuko before, she wasn’t sure how asking to bring another friend to a club outing would go.
Yumiko rubbed her chin. “If we do karaoke, it would be nice to have a fourth person. It would be easier to split the costs and we could get a good singing rotation going.”
Natsuki immediately raised her hand to pounce on the chance. “I know a fourth person! She’s my friend Mitsuko. We’re really close.”
Masako and Yumiko briefly imagined the chaos of two Natsuki’s in the same room and giggled.
“Sure, that’d be great,” Masako said. “Let’s meet up at Arima Station at 11:45 this Sunday.”
When 11:45 on Sunday came, Natsuki found herself sprinting out of the train right when it arrived in Arima Station in downtown Miyazawa.
I’m late, I’m late! Natsuki groaned in her head as she rushed by the other people. Sure, it was only three minutes late, but this was the first time her clubmates saw her outside of school - she really wanted to make a good impression.
Fortunately, this was the same station Natsuki normally met up with Mitsuko at on Sundays, so Natsuki knew the layout well (and had gotten used to the sheer amount of people there). She took a back staircase, slightly out of the way but would be far less crowded, and got to the main lobby quickly. Still running, she burst out of the doors and into the June day.
The friendly sun still shone brightly; all of downtown Mizayawa seemed to sparkle in front of Natsuki as she arrived at the exterior of the station. Masako mentioned meeting by the statue of the ancient poet Kenko; she found his laidback gaze rendered in bronze watching over the crowd, Masako standing next to it.
“Masako!” Natsuki called out as she slipped through the crowd and arrived next to her friend. She put her hands on her knees and panted. “Sorry…sorry I’m late…”
Masako shrugged and smiled. “It’s alright. You see, I wanted to meet up at noon. That’s why I said 11:45. Yumiko Standard Time runs about fifteen minutes later than everybody else’s. She won’t be here until noon, so it all works out.”
Natsuki caught her breath and sighed in relief.
“Is your friend coming?” Masako asked.
Natsuki shook her head. “I asked, but she said she would be busy with family stuff today.”
“Ah, I see. We’ll have to meet her sometime.”
Natsuki nodded in agreement. She felt relief rush through her body - she was very much afraid that a lot would go wrong today. Fortunately, she wasn’t actually late, and her fears of awkwardly explaining Mitsuko’s absence turned out to be unfounded. As for her other concern - feeling a little self-conscious about just showing up in a t-shirt and skirt - Masako wore the same thing.
Now that all her fears were out of the way, Natsuki relaxed a little and soaked in the summer all around her.
This is amazing, she thought. I get to hang out with Yumiko and Masako!
Natsuki liked Yumiko, but to put it bluntly, Masako was her true inspiration. She seemed to be everything Natsuki wished to be - calm, collected, confident. She carried a wise air about her that signified that she understood her place in the world. She knew what she wanted and, all in all, had her affairs in order-
Natsuki sniffed the air. “Cigarettes? Hey, Masako, you smell that-”
She stopped mid-sentence when saw Masako let out a puff of smoke, a dainty cigarette held lightly in her hands. As smoke trailed from her mouth, she smiled at Natsuki. “Sorry, what was that-”
Natsuki yelped and plucked the cigarette out of her hand. She threw it towards the ground with such force that had a Miyazawa Sparrows scout been there, he would’ve asked her to try out for the team.
“Bad! Bad! Bad!” she exclaimed as she stomped it out.
Her dirty work finished, Natsuki sighed. But then she went red.
“S-sorry, Masako!” Natsuki apologized with a bow. “My dad told me it took him years to quit. Those things are bad for you.”
Masako pondered that for a moment, then smiled. “You’re right. Thanks for looking out for me.”
When both girls went quiet for a moment, Natsuki worried that she had made things awkward. Fortunately, a plane conveniently flew overhead, so both girls spent a moment watching it soar across the blue sky, leaving a white plume in its wake.
“You ever want to travel anywhere?” Masako asked.
Natsuki watched the plane disappear behind skyscrapers. “I heard Kyushu is really nice this time of year.”
“Somewhere beyond Japan, I mean.”
Natsuki scratched her head. Truth be told, she didn’t know a whole lot about the rest of the world.
“I’m not sure. What about you?”
Masako rubbed her chin, then with a tranquil voice, described places Natsuki had never heard of - particular states in America, coasts in Europe, even cities in Asia. Natsuki tried to imagine them all, but her mind came up empty.
Wow, Natsuki thought as Masako kept going. Each of these places brings a clear, unique picture to Masako’s mind.
Deciding to ignore the moments Masako seemed like a normal girl - getting flustered around Yumiko’s antics and the whole cigarette thing - Natsuki’s admiration for her only grew.
“Hey guys!” Yumiko called out as she arrived, wearing a white sundress. “I’m only thirteen minutes late, that has to be a new record!”
Masako checked the time on her phone. “Well, from a certain point of view, you’re two minutes early. Good job.”
Yumiko clapped. “I like that point of view! Now, let’s go! There’s a dress I want to buy at a store down the street…”
Seven hours, four clothing stores, three manga shops, one restaurant, one arcade, and one candy store later. In a downtown karaoke booth, Yumiko stood in front of the television, microphone in hand. She moved her body slowly at first, getting used to the rhythm. As tropical-sounding instruments and trumpets joined in, Yumiko picked up the pace, her body moving in time to each beat. As the initial instrumentals reached their crescendo, Yumiko looked away, mimicking an idol, then looked back at Natsuki and Masako right as the lyrics began.
"WHEN YOU FEEL LIKE YOUR HEART IS ABOUT TO POP!" she sang in her raspy voice. "JUST STICK SOME LOVE AND A CHERRY ON TOP!"
Sitting in the booth at the back of the room, Natsuki clapped along while Masako lounged next to her, resting her arms across the back of the booth.
“What are you going to sing?” Natsuki asked, watching Yumiko slide into a kneel and screech out the chorus.
"WE'LL CALL IT FUDGE SUNDAE...LIKE A SUNSET ON SUNDAY!"
Masako shrugged. “Not sure. I’m not really that big on singing. I like watching Yumiko sing. She sure has a way about it.”
Natsuki watched Yumiko belt out more lyrics, then glanced back at Masako. In the dark room, strobing green and blue and purple lights illuminated Masako’s face in turn. Natsuki couldn’t put her finger on the realization she made at that moment. Sure, Masako was smiling, but…
The buzz of the intercom interrupted Natsuki’s thoughts. Masako answered, then let in an employee who brought in sodas and snacks. He ducked respectively out of the karaoke room as Yumiko's voice reached an even higher pitch.
When her song finished a few minutes later, Yumiko caught her breath and sat next to Natsuki in the booth.
“Hold on,” Yumiko said to them. Natsuki felt a small pit in her stomach when she saw the devious look on her friend's face.
The club vice president searched through her purse and pulled out something that made Natsuki’s heart race. In fact, she pulled out several somethings.
“Miniatures,” Yumiko proclaimed with a cheeky grin as Natsuki wearily eyed the alcohol warning on the bottles. “So strong, so wild, so full of teenage dreams and aspirations that they’re actually banned in several American states.”
She held one out to Natsuki. “Want one? I won’t force you, obviously.”
Natsuki swallowed. She had heard tales and saw media about high schoolers drinking, so in the back of her mind, she always knew it was a possibility. Well, Mitsuko probably wouldn’t offer, so it seemed impossible without other friends - friends Natsuki now had.
To make a long story short - she was a little afraid, but she also wanted to try.
Oh, but that would make me a hypocrite! I just Masako not to smoke and here I am.
“It’s alright,” Masako said, as if she was reading her mind. “I’ll keep watch over you guys. Just don’t overdo it.”
To make a longer story even shorter, Natsuki overdid it.
That night, Fuyuki watched a late night baseball game half-asleep on the couch when she heard the doorbell ring to her apartment. Since she was young and it was late, she grabbed her softball bat and then advanced toward the door. Gripping the bat tightly, she peeked through the keyhole and saw a tall girl with the same uniform as Natsuki standing outside.
Setting the bat down (though still keeping it within reach), Fuyuki opened the door. She sighed in relief when she saw her sister with the tall girl, but then gasped when she realized that the tall girl was carrying Natsuki in one arm like a sack of potatoes. She held another girl in her other arm.
“Hi, I’m Masako,” the tall girl greeted. “I’m the president of Natsuki’s club at school. Please forgive me. I let them out of my sight for a minute when I went to the restroom at karaoke.”
Masako set Natsuki down. She took a step, then collapsed into her sister’s arms. Fuyuki did a double take at the smell of Natsuki’s breath. “W-what happened?”
“I’m sorry,” Natsuki said in a loose yet strangely happy voice. “Your older sister happened to discover the joys of teenage life tonight and had too much to drink…”
Fuyuki patted her on the back, then tried her best to bow toward Masako. “Thank you for taking care of my sister!”
Masako shrugged. “It’s alright. I’m used to taking care of people in this state back at my place.”
Natsuki giggled in Fuyuki’s arms. As Masako talked, Fuyuki noticed a different smell, the smell of cigarettes, radiating off Masako.
Fuyuki realized then and there how different high school life was from middle school.
“Um…it’s late!” Fuyuki realized. “You two can stay here as well. My parents are working on an assignment overseas right now, so it wouldn't be a problem if you stay!”
“Sleepover at Natsuki’s…” the other girl mumbled.
Masako hoisted her over her shoulder. “It’s alright. I don’t mind bringing her home either.”
“But you’ll be home so late!” Fuyuki protested.
Masako gave her a disarming smile. “It’s alright. I’ll be fine.”
Natsuki had told Fuyuki many pleasant things about her club president - and at that moment, all of them seemed be true.
“Well…alright, then.” Fuyuki waved goodbye. “Please be careful.”
“Careful’s my middle name,” Masako answered with a grin.
“Bye-bye,” Natsuki mumbled pleasantly.
Masako and the other girl gave their farewells and departed into the night. Fuyuki shut the door and hoisted her sister over to a chair at the kitchen table. While she fetched a glass of water, Natsuki rested her head against the table. “So cool…”
Fuyuki handed her the glass of water. Natsuki drank it haphazardly, but she finished it. A little strength seemed to return to her-
Her head slumped back on the table, so maybe not.
“Fuyuki…” Natsuki said quietly, happily. She reached out and ruffled Fuyuki’s hair. “You’re my favorite sister.”
As Natsuki withdrew her hand, Fuyuki held it with a mixture of concern and gentle kindness. “You told me that the other day, Natsuki.”
Natsuki looked at her with glazed eyes and smiled. “You’re the best sister in the whole world.”
Fuyuki smiled in turn. “We should get you to bed.”
She hoisted her sister up again and the two walked toward their room. Natsuki suddenly stopped for a second. The pleasant sound to her voice was gone.
“Say, Fuyuki…you think people can fake being happy?”
“Masako seemed happy almost the whole time we were out today…but it seemed like there were times when she was forcing herself to smile.”
Fuyuki wracked her young brain for answers. “I’m not sure. I didn’t know faking happiness was possible.”
“Until today…me neither.”
The two sisters got moving again. As they entered their bedroom, Natsuki had one more thing to say.
“Fuyuki…you think I’d be able to ride your bike sometime? I really want to ride a bike for some reason…”