The Web Novel Club
The temperature steadily escalated. Most of the summer so far had been low-to-mid 80 degree days filled with cool breezes. But as July marched on, so did the temperatures - at Fuyuki’s softball game, the temperature reached 94 degrees, and according to the radio, there would be a full-blown heat wave starting next week.
Sitting in the bleachers, Natsuki wiped the sweat off her face. Fortunately, she overcame her self-consciousness enough to wear a Sparrows baseball cap (I never wear a hat! So wearing one for the first time in a while will make me stick out and people will comment on it!), which blocked the worst of the sun from hitting her. But the heat clung to her like some sort of animal simile (Natsuki’s mind was too blurred and scattered to come up with said simile).
Okay, okay, she told herself, trying to concentrate. The game will last another two hours so I’ll be home around 1 PM. I’ll clean the apartment and make dinner for tonight - that takes me to 2:30. That gives three and half hours of writing until I need to leave for the station to hang out with Mitsuko. I’ll be back around 10 PM - would that be enough time for another study session?
She scratched her head aggressively. I can make up for lost time tomorrow. Right?
Natsuki suddenly gasped. The hitter from the rival town of Amisawa struck a pitch at full force, but at the wrong angle - the ball sailed high into the air, disappearing into the sun. Even though she wasn’t playing, Natsuki tugged at her collar; the ball would be heading right for Fuyuki in the outfield.
Fuyuki, cool as a cucumber, waved her fellow outfielders off and calmly ran toward where she predicted the ball would land. With shallow breaths, Natsuki watched Fuyuki raise her glove with a strong arm. The ball emerged out of the sun and plunged toward the ground like a rocket-
“That was amazing!” Natsuki exclaimed as they walked home from the game. “How can you catch something that high up?”
Fuyuki shrugged with a smile. “We practice catching pop-ups a lot. When you do something a million times before, it’s not so bad.”
“But you had like a million people watching you!” Okay, Natsuki knew that was an exaggeration - there were only about fifty people in the stands, just friends and family. But if Natsuki had that many eyes on her, it would certainly feel like a million.
“I told you before - when you’re focused on the game, you block everything else out. You can only focus on what’s in front of you.”
Focus. That’s what I’m missing. Focus. My mind is racing in a million different directions. And even when I want to sleep, I can’t because I can’t help but think of what I didn’t do today and what I need to do tomorrow.
Natsuki rubbed her eyes. She knew Fuyuki was explaining how she struck out at her first at-bat, then adapted during her second at-bat to hit a double, and Natsuki knew that she was now answering that, but her mind seemed detached from the conversation. She just couldn’t focus.
“A double, that’s nice.”
“I hit a single, Natsuki.”
“Oh…oh, right. Sorry, I just can’t focus-”
“Oi….Natsuki,” Mitsuko said, lazily waving a hand in Natsuki’s face.
Natsuki blinked. What? Wasn’t I just walking home with Fuyuki?
She realized she was in a fast food joint with Mitsuko. Night had settled in over the city, plunging the streets outside into a darkness mixed with city lights. Natsuki scratched her aggressively.
“Sorry. I’m just having trouble concentrating.”
Mitsuko ate a fry from her tray. “That’s alright. I know you’re working hard with your studies and writing.” A concerned element arose in her deadpan voice. “I just hope it’s not too hard.”
Natsuki rubbed her sleepy eyes. “Working hard or hardly working,” she said with a chuckle.
Mitsuko nodded, sipping through her drink’s straw with her eyes hidden behind her glasses. As she started talking about the forecast for the upcoming heat wave, Natsuki’s mind started to wander.
Okay, so in the next scene I’ll write, the knight is running out of gas in his fight with the cave goblins. The princess gets wounded and he’s forced to protect her. He’s so tired, and there’s so many of them, that he can’t even swing his sword anymore. When the last goblin of that first wave arrives, he has to get down and dirty and use his bare fists. Not only does that make him level up, but he unlocks a special berserker perk, too-
“Huh?” Natsuki rubbed her eyes again. “Oh…sorry.”
Mitsuko opened her mouth, looking like she had something to say. But all that came out of her was, “Never mind.”
Natsuki raised her hands. “Sorry, don’t mind me. I’ll try to focus now. What did you want to say?”
Mitsuko just ate a fry. “Nothing really. I have to tell you soon, but I guess I don’t need to tell you now.” She observed the empty space on the table in front of Natsuki. “What I will tell you is that I’m surprised you’re not eating anything. You usually get more here than I do.”
Natsuki shrugged. “It’s funny. I haven’t really been eating, but I’m never hungry-”
Natsuki poured the crumbs out of a convenience store potato chip bag down her throat, then wiped her mouth. She then looked around.
What? Wasn’t I just with Mitsuko?
As always, she checked the time - 2 AM. She realized she was at home, in her kitchen so she wouldn’t disturb her sleeping sister while she worked. As she took big gulps of an energy drink, Natsuki tried to reflect on the day.
Today, I studied, went to a softball game, wrote, went out with Mitsuko, studied, and now I’m writing. But why do I feel like I wasn’t there for any of them?
Natsuki could tell you the time for all those events, but she felt like the clock existed more than she did. Somehow, she was doing so much that she felt like she wasn’t doing anything at all.
But I’m close to publishing, she realized with an empty grin. My backlog’s finally big enough to publish tomorrow night. And I have everything I need now - the cover, a good description, and once I finish editing everything tomorrow, it’ll be good to go!
She rubbed her face. Shoot, I wanted to get my uniform cleaned this weekend. Oh well, I can do it over break. And speaking of cleaning…when’s the last time I showered?
Natsuki couldn’t answer that. She just yawned, then shook the sleepiness out of her. She just wanted to write a little more tonight, so she cracked open another energy drink-
Yumiko finished hers, slamming it down on the table.
Natsuki blinked. Huh? Wasn’t I just editing at home?
She checked the time on her phone. 6 PM, Tuesday, July 18th. Finals would start soon. This was the last week of club before the school suspended them for finals week. She was out with Yumiko at the Miyazawa Mall’s food court after that day's club session. Yumiko wanted to catch up with her; she said she felt like it had been a while.
Yes, that’s where I am right now, Natsuki realized. For once, her counterpart seemed just as worn out as she was. Natsuki and Yumiko sat at the edge of the food court in dirty uniforms with messy hair, energy drinks piled next to them. From their dazed looks and blank facial expressions, they almost looked like a pair of worn-out junkies.
“How do you think Masako is doing?” Yumiko asked, rubbing her eyes.
Natsuki did the same. “I…I don’t know. I guess I’ve been so focused on finals and writing that I haven’t really seen her.”
Technically, they did see her every day at club. But club time was much more of a business affair now. Gone were the days of endless, noisy conversation and shenanigans. When Natsuki and Yumiko arrived, they immediately went to work.
“Yeah, come to think of it…” Natsuki reflected. “I feel like I haven’t seen Masako actually do any of her own work. She helps us with ours, but I’ve never seen her work on hers.”
A J-Pop song came over the food court’s speakers - something electronic and far too energetic for the lethargic girls, filled with a fast beat and a high-pitched singer. Yumiko opened another energy drink and took a long sip. “I have a funny story about Masako from last summer.”
Natsuki nodded and listened.
“During the break, I hadn’t heard from Masako in a while,” Yumiko explained. “She wasn't answering my texts or calls or anything. So, I went to her house to visit her. She lives in the southern part of the city.”
“You mean near all those houses on the slope?”
“Sort of. She lives on the outskirts of the city, so right after them. There’s a lot of public housing over there. Not the best kind, either.”
Yumiko scratched her head, trying to concentrate on the story. “So, I get to her house and knock on the door. Her dad came to answer. I never met her dad, but I knew it was her dad, because you know…he’s dad-age, right?”
Natsuki nodded, half-asleep. When it came to the story, Yumiko was clearly struggling with the telling and Natsuki was clearly struggling with the listening.
“And he smells like smoke, you know, like he’s been smoking cigarettes. And when he spoke, I could smell the beer in his voice. I could hear it, too. It was 10 AM on a Sunday morning. I’m confused, but I go, hey, do you know where Masako is? And you know what he does? He shrugs.”
“Shrugs and says he doesn’t know. He says she was out late last night and out early this morning.”
The J-Pop picked up in intensity, the beat swirling around the girls. Natsuki started sweating - it was too loud. The whole food court seemed too loud.
“And then he goes - maybe she’s upset because the family goldfish died.”
It took Natsuki a moment to register that. “What?”
“That’s what I said,” Yumiko told her. “And he goes, yeah, the family goldfish died yesterday. Their family’s currently in mourning. He sparked up a cigarette right in front of me and said he was in mourning. And he completely meant it! It wasn’t a joke - he was feeling some sort of way, this early on a Sunday morning. He had to flush it down the toilet. His own goldfish. That’s how he told it to me.”
“Right? How am I supposed to react to that?” Yumiko rubbed her eyes. “So, I asked if he could tell Masako to respond. Just to let me know that she was alright, because maybe she was upset about her goldfish dying. Masako never really tells us about herself, you ever notice that? Oh, she’ll give you esoteric knowledge about life and death and all that jazz, but about her family or how she herself is doing - nothing.”
Yumiko sighed. “But, to make a long story short, I wanted to make her feel better. We didn’t hang out that summer, so when we got back to school, I got her some stickers.”
“That's what I'm saying. What do you get when someone’s goldfish dies? A card? There’s no goldfish dying cards. But she seemed to like the stickers, I guess.”
The story didn’t really have a conclusive ending, but Yumiko had nothing more to say, so she just finished her energy drink. The two girls sat there in silence for a long time, Natsuki continually glancing at the clock.
“I can’t keep doing this,” Yumiko finally said, staring down at the table. “I’m usually on your schedule - you know, staying up late and all that - but now I’m staying up even later to include extra studying time. How are you holding up?”
Natsuki shrugged lethargically - since when did that motion take so much energy? “I’m alright. We’re almost at the finish line. I published my story a few days ago.”
“Oh, really?” Yumiko said. “Did you mention that at club?”
“...I don’t remember,” Natsuki admitted. “Even publishing a story feels robotic now. I was so happy to publish Time Cop and read my own writing. But now, it feels like I’m doing it just to do it. I don’t know.”
“I see," Yumiko said, because she understood the struggle. “That’s good. I mean, good you published it. I hope it goes well.”
As of half an hour ago when Natsuki checked her story, she was currently at 67 views. That was more than triple Time Cop’s views, but it felt empty. Nowhere near enough for all the work she put in.
“Maybe it’s just starting slow,” Natsuki told herself aloud. “But how are you doing? You look tired.”
“You’re not wrong,” Yumiko said. “I think…I think I’m going to take a break from writing.”
That woke Natsuki up a little. Well, maybe the energy drink she just finished did. “But you love writing! I thought you wanted to make that your career.”
Yumiko rubbed her temples. “I do. But I just can’t keep up with this. I pulled two all-nighters last week on school nights. I think I’ll just do writing on Sundays now and study the rest of the week. I do have a little bit of a backlog, and I can just cut down my posting schedule to once a week or something.”
For some reason, that upset Natsuki. “But…to get more views, don’t you need to post a lot?”
“When you’re starting out, sure,” Yumiko said. “But I think I’m established enough now where I can do a few weeks with slow updates and I don’t think that’ll hurt me.”
A new feeling washed over Natsuki. It burned hot in the center of her face, stretching from her forehead to her nose. The feeling already made her muddled thoughts even more confused, as if something threw a roadblock between her support for her equally-struggling friend and her own dark thoughts.
Because Yumiko really wasn’t equally-struggling, was she?
“Must be nice,” Natsuki said with a sharp tone, crossing her arms. “Because you’re already so successful, you don’t have to worry about posting.”
The lack of sleep also put a roadblock between Yumiko’s ability to recognize her friend was in a difficult spot and her own repressed feelings over wanting this terrible grind to end.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Yumiko answered with a sharper tone. “You think I like writing just for the success? Writing is fun for me. That’s why I write. Success and views are just collateral to that.”
Maybe it was the stupid song blasting through the mall that wouldn’t end, but the feeling in Natsuki’s face grew more intense. “That’s easy for you to say. Of course it’s easy for someone successful to say they don’t care about success.”
Yumiko jabbed a finger at her. “You know what, Natsuki? Go look in a mirror sometime. I know why I want to write. But why do you want to write? Is it just for success? Do you write just to see that number go up?”
“Is that so bad?”
“If it makes you a colossal jerk, then sure!” Yumiko stood up. “You know what? You’re stupid!”
Natsuki stood up to match her. “Oh yeah? Well, you’re stupid!”
The two girls glared at each other. The feeling in Natsuki’s face reached a crescendo the same time as the song did.