The Web Novel Club
Three years ago. In Miyazawa Metropolitan Middle School, a homeroom teacher gestured at the transfer student standing next to him.
“Please introduce yourself,” he said kindly.
The transfer student bowed clumsily. “My name’s N-Natsuki Kondo!” she exclaimed. “I look forward to working with you all!”
A tiny part of Natsuki celebrated that she only stuttered a single time during her introduction. But, displayed in front of a classroom with all these new faces in this new city in this new region, the vast majority of her felt like she was standing on thin ice. One wrong move and fall right through.
The classroom mostly gave her bored stares. Natsuki expected people to laugh or make fun of her, but Miyazawa was a city of over a million people, which was almost a million more people than her old hometown. She would come to find out that city people weren’t malicious like she expected; instead, they just didn’t care. She was just another person in a sea of them.
The homeroom teacher scratched his head. “Hmm…you see those two open seats? The one on the left belongs to a student named Mitsuko, who’s out sick today. You can take the one next to her. Sora, could you help Natsuki out?”
The student named Sora wore a blank face, as did everyone else in the classroom. She helped Natsuki throughout the day, of course - gave her notes, showed her around the school, even let her sit with her friends at lunch - but she did it all robotically. The whole school seemed to move robotically. There was a distinct lack of personality to life in the city.
The next day, that Mitsuko girl was still out, but Natsuki decided against bothering Sora anymore. Natsuki knew she really wasn’t bothering her, that Sora was a nice girl, but Sora lived life like she was sleepwalking. The whole city seemed to do that. Sora didn’t verbally offer Natsuki a spot with her lunch, she just sort of gestured with her head; Natsuki didn’t verbally reject her offer, but just sort of gestured no with her body.
City life was fast-paced, but people moved along predetermined routes. Natsuki knew Sora was going to lunch, and Sora knew that as well - words weren’t needed. Time is money and routes needed to be traveled in Miyazawa.
Sleepwalking. By her second week at her new school and city, Natsuki had gotten used to the pace. People didn’t really talk to each other on the route to school; everybody knew they were going there. Sure, there was idle talk about baseball scores and politics, but there was little passion in this gray city.
That second Monday, however, was different; for the first time, the seat next to her was occupied. Mitsuko turned out to be a short, quiet girl with glasses. A few girls nodded at her to welcome her back; Mitsuki nodded in recognition. There was idle chat about her flu, about homework she would have to make up, but Natsuki was slowly losing herself to this sea of gray people and paid it no mind.
Mitsuko nodded at Natsuki to welcome her; Natsuki nodded back. That would be the extent of their interactions until a few days later during a study period.
“Hey, Natsumi,” Mitsuko said, her voice deadpan. “Can I borrow your notes? I’m still missing some info about Japanese history class last week.”
Natsuki felt too awkward to correct her. Instead, she wordlessly handed over her notebook.
Mitsuko opened it up, took one long look at it, then handed it back to Natsuki.
Something like that was enough to pull Natsuki out of her city-induced slumber.
It’s my handwriting! she realized. My penmanship is all chicken-scratch. She couldn’t read it!
Natsuki rubbed her hair erratically. I just want someone to talk to. Everybody here already has their routes - there’s no room for me to join. I’m stuck looking on the outside. And here was my chance - Mitsuko reached out to me. And I blew it, just because I can’t write legibly!
Feeling utterly defeated, Natsuki moped around during the rest of her classes. When the last bell of the day rang, she dragged her feet to the lockers. She hadn't joined a club - she didn’t want to intrude on any of the friend groups already established within them - so she would be going home. Today was the first time she actually talked in school since she first transferred there. Hearing her own voice felt nice. But she wasted her chance just because she had a C in penmanship.
“Hey, Natsumi,” Mitsuko greeted, joining Natsuki at her locker.
Natsuki nearly jumped out of her skin. “M-M-Mitsuko!” she exclaimed.
“You going home?” Mitsuko asked.
“The teacher spoke with me - I think we get the train at the same station, just in different directions,” she explained. “We should walk there together.”
Natsuki was briefly touched - but then her tendency to self-sabotage kicked in.
Wordlessly, Natsuki shook her head. As Mitsuko tilted hers in confusion, Natsuki packed her bag and stormed off. She exited the lobby, arriving in the urban jungle that surrounded the middle school. She balled her fists as she walked, tired of this stupid city and the emptiness of its noise.
Wordlessly, Mitsuko followed her. As Natsuki rounded a corner, she saw Mitsuki behind her and frowned. “Stop following me.”
Mitsuko shrugged. “I told you, we go to the same station. I’m just walking there at the same time you are.”
“What do you want?” Natsuki asked harshly.
“Well, I want to walk there with you,” Mitsuko said. “And I want to thank you for the notes.”
That just made Natsuki even more bitter. “You didn’t even use them.”
Mitsuko shrugged. “You don’t thank someone for the quality of the notes. You thank them for giving them to you.”
Natsuki picked up her pace. When Mitsuko picked up hers, Natsuki looked back and glared at her. “Knock it off, a-alright? I know you’re only doing this out of pity. The poor new girl. It’s not genuine friendship. It’s not even genuine pity! You’re all programmed to feel pity - you don’t actually feel it! Everyone here is a robot. Everyone here just sleepwalks through life! Nobody here is alive-”
Natsuki kept ranting. “Moving to another city for my parents' work? No, I didn’t want that! Since my old town was so small, you got used to being alone. There was far more land than people. But here…I see so many people everyday that it reminds me of how alone I am!”
“I want to go home! I want to forget about how lonely I am!”
In a huff, Natsuki finally looked where she was going - and power-walked straight into a telephone pole. She collapsed to the ground in a heap.
Mitsuko stood over her, peering at the bruise forming on Natsuki’s forehead. “Maybe I’ll buy you a bandage as thanks for the notes.”
Natsuki would never allow herself to cry. But as she laid on the ground, her forehead stinging from the impact, she came very close.
“Don’t you already have your route?” Natsuki asked, her voice much softer and closer to breaking now. “Your own people you sleepwalk with?”
Mitsuko crouched next to her. “You know how I was sick last week? I moved here in March, so this is my first school year in Miyazawa, too. I missed the first few days because I was sick back then as well. By the time I made it to school, everybody already made their routes. I was on the outside looking in. But that was alright. I’m used to being alone.”
But then she shrugged and smiled. “Who knows? Maybe seeing somebody less comfortable with their loneliness than I am made me realize how lonely I am, too.”
Mitsuko fetched her handkerchief and wiped Natsuki’s forehead gently. “You got a cut,” she explained. She then offered her hand; after a moment, Natsuki accepted it and Mitsuko brought her to her feet.
“Everybody in the city sleepwalks,” Mitsuko explained as if she resigned herself to it. “People live, but nobody’s alive. But you get used to it. And when it comes down to it, sleepwalking with someone else isn’t so bad.”
She held out her hand. “Friends?”
All the bitterness slowly drained from Natsuki. Sure, she would have to get used to sleepwalking, but she had someone else there alongside her. And as their friendship lasted into months and years, bits and pieces of them woke up, one at a time.
She took her hand and smiled. “Friends.”
Natsuki would finally awaken when Masako took her on the bike ride her first week of high school. But Mitsuko was the one who got her to that point, something that Natsuki would forever feel grateful for.
Hitting her face off the pole was the worst head pain Natsuki ever felt. The second-worst would be the morning after the karaoke session. After a rough night of sleeping, Natsuki dragged her feet to school, then dragged her feet through school, her face a sickly shade of green for most of the day. Fortunately, Mitsuko noticed her situation and kept supplying her with water, and after eating one of Fuyuki’s hearty lunches, Natsuki gradually returned to normal.
When school ended, Natsuki gathered her things, but took a different route than usual. Instead of going to the club room, she headed to another school wing - the one containing the room for the Graphic Design Club.
When she arrived at that closed door, the fear of making a fool of herself momentarily made her hesitate, but then she remembered Mitsuko would be inside. Gathering her courage, Natsuki opened the door that seemed far larger than it should’ve been and stepped into an unknown world.
The Graphic Design Club was only slightly larger than the Web Novel Club - four members to the Web Novel Club’s three. When Natsuki answered, she saw several girls crowded around a computer.
“Um, pardon the intrusion,” Natsuki greeted.
“Oh, Natsuki,” Mitsuko greeted, emerging out of the pack of girls. “I’ve made some progress on the cover.”
Natsuki nodded and followed Mitsuko to her desk. Last week during Masako’s lessons on publishing, Natsuki realized the importance of a good cover. One session with a basic computer picture editor later, Natsuki realized her own inexperience with making covers. Fortunately, she had a friend well-suited to help her.
“I know it’s only been a couple of days since I asked you,” Natsuki said. “I have to make a backlog for this story and we got finals coming up and I know you’re busy with your own club work, so there’s no rush.”
Mitsuko gave a stoic-looking grin as she sat down and brought up her picture editing software on her laptop. “I finished my…family stuff a little early on Sunday, so I had time to take a crack at it.”
“Oh, how did the family thing go? You guys go out to eat or something?”
Mitsuko kept her eyes on the computer. “Well, we got it delivered to our house. But…I did spend a lot of time with my family, yes.”
Natsuki briefly thought Mitsuko was keeping something covered up. But between her own lack of social skills and Mitsuko’s occasional oddities, Natsuki thought nothing of it beyond that brief moment.
“Here,” Mitsuko said. Had Natsuki been showing something she made, her voice would’ve been high-pitched, on-fire, full of excitement tempered with fear; Mitsuko was just nonchalant about the whole thing.
Natsuki’s story would be about an unfortunate boy who got hit by a truck and then reincarnated into a fantasy world, since that’s what seemed to be “in” these days. He would wield a sword and fight dragons and toss around arrogant young masters at auctions - it would be fun and should be popular! Natsuki already wrote out several scenes, with a dozen more planned and in the works.
Natsuki gasped in delight at Mitsuko’s cover. “This is great!” she exclaimed, grabbing both of Mitsuko’s shoulders from behind and shaking her in excitement. Mitsuko kept her deadpan face as she and Natsuki admired her work.
Thanks to the collaborative efforts of the club - especially the president, who excelled in drawing - Natsuki’s cover featured an anime-looking knight facing down a dragon, with an equally anime-looking maiden behind him. Compared to Natsuki’s efforts of slapping a title on stock photos and calling it a day, this new cover astounded her.
“Thanks, everyone!” Natsuki exclaimed. The Graphic Design Club members grinned and told her it was all in a day’s work.
This is amazing, she thought. One day, I hope I can reach the writing equivalent of this drawing.
“Once you figure out the title, I can stick it on here,” Mitsuko explained. “You ought to do one of those long-winded titles. Something like I Wanted an Easy Life, But Instead Got Reincarnated into Another World. Or I Died on the Toilet and Ended Up in the Seventh Layer of Hell.”
Natsuki rubbed her chin. “Hmm…now that you mention it, maybe I really do need a gimmick like that. Not that they’re bad, of course. But I do need something to separate my story from the others.”
“You’ll figure it out,” Mitsuki encouraged. “What about I Transferred to Another School, and If It Weren’t For My Dear Friend Mitsuko, I’d Be Lighting Up Spoons Beneath a Bridge By Now?”
“Ha-ha.” Natsuki shook Mitsuko harder, but Mitsuko offered no resistance outside of the usual neutral look on her face.
Natsuki realized the other three club members were staring at her.
“Oh, sorry!” the club president exclaimed. “We’re not used to seeing Mitsuko be so open with someone else.”
Natsuki grinned as she ruffled Mitsuko’s hair. “I guess we’re just good at opening each other up.”
Mitsuko sighed with a small smile. “Yeah, yeah…”
Natsuki let out a calm sigh full of love for her friend, then let go. “Thanks for everything, Mitsuko. I have to get back to my own club now.”
Mitsuko nodded. “I’ll let you know if we make any edits to the design.” When Natsuki went to depart, Mitsuko raised a hand. “Uh, Natsuki…”
Natsuki looked back at her, smiling. “Yes?”
Mitsuko did the very un-stoic motion of rubbing the back of her neck. “Um…it’s June now, but at the end of July, uh…”
Natsuki waited for her to finish, but Mitsuko just waved her away. “Never mind. I can tell you later.”
Natsuki frowned. “Not knowing is going to drive me up a wall, Mitsuko!”
Mitsuko just shrugged. “Patience…they say patience is a virtue.”
Natsuki pouted at her as hard as she could, but Mitsuki operated in the same manner as a brick wall when it came to things like that.
Natsuki finally relented and smiled.
“I won’t force it, then. Tell me when you’re ready.”