The Web Novel Club
The feeling never left Natsuki’s face. It remained there throughout the day, while she wrote, while she tried to fall asleep. The uneasy feeling below the surface of the skin especially sharpened when she looked at her new story’s view count.
It wasn’t like she checked it a whole lot. Just when she woke up, while riding the train to school, in-between classes, during classes, during lunch, during club, the train ride home, while she was studying, while she was writing, during dinner, while talking with her sister, and while trying to fall asleep.
302 views. 316 views. 384 views. The view counter steadily ticked upward, but it wasn’t enough. The brief moment of dopamine that rushed through her after each increase in number was drowned out by the empty feeling that surrounded her. She should’ve had more views, more followers, more ratings.
I did everything right. Why isn't it working out?
Same thing with my studying. I worked so hard at it - why do I still feel like I know nothing?
“Time Cop was so fun,” she mumbled one night, resting her head on the desk in her room, the bright lights of her computer illuminating her in an otherwise dark room. “But it feels like I’m pulling teeth writing this one. What happened?”
Between the feeling in her face and a perpetual on-and-off again headache, Natsuki could only sigh.
The lights to the apartment turned on. “Natsuki?” Fuyuki called out, baseball bat in hand in case there were any intruders.
“Welcome home,” Natsuki called out weakly from her desk. When Fuyuki entered their room and turned on the lights there as well, Natsuki kept her eyes closed while Fuyuki changed out of her softball uniform.
“Your finals start tomorrow, right?” Fuyuki asked when she was finished.
Natsuki glumly nodded. “I’ve been studying so hard, but I don’t know how they’ll go.”
“You’ll be fine!” Fuyuki encouraged. Natsuki recoiled at the sudden increase in the volume of Fuyuki’s voice.
Fuyuki noticed this and leaned over to peer at her sister’s face. “Are you feeling okay? You look exhausted. I picked up some headache medicine from the store for you.”
“Thanks, Fuyuki,” Natsuki managed to say. She rubbed her face, running a hand along the numb pain below the surface. “Say, do you ever feel something right below your face?”
Fuyuki sat down on her bed, sighing in relief after a long day of school and practice. “What do you mean?”
The effort required all her strength, but Natsuki slowly lifted her head off her desk and spun around to face her sister. “I don’t know. It’s not like a real pain. It doesn’t even truly hurt. But there’s a feeling there. I already have trouble concentrating, but this feeling makes it even worse.”
Fuyuki thought about it, then nodded in understanding. “Is it really bad when you think about someone else?”
“Someone else…” Natsuki repeated. She ran a hand through her hair, making yet another mental note that she still needed to shower, but that note - as were all the others - was soon lost in the void of her thoughts.
“I guess…I have this friend from the club. Yumiko. And her stories are so popular. Her grades are so good, too. Yet…”
Natsuki wanted to finish by saying that it just wasn’t fair, but she left the unfinished thought hanging in the air.
“I see,” Fuyuki realized. She had a goofy smile on her face. “You’re just jealous, Natsuki.”
Natsuki blinked. “Jealous?” By now, her computer had transitioned to sleep mode. She looked at her reflection in the dark monitor screen and saw weary eyes staring back at her.
“The first baseman on my softball team is so good,” Fuyuki said. “She never misses a catch and is the strongest hitter we have. She aces all her exams and everybody likes her, too. When I think of her, I get the same feeling in my face. I’m so jealous of her.”
Jealous, Natsuki repeated again. At least she had a name for it now. Since she never before had something she felt proud of, something she dedicated her time towards, she never had a reason to be jealous of anyone else. Or, at least, a reason to feel it so strongly.
“What do you do to get over it?”
Fuyuki shrugged. “I’m not sure. It goes away and comes back. I practice the same amount as her. So, it’s not really fair that she’s far better than I am, right?”
Fuyuki laid down on her bed. “But it is what it is. If I try to forget about her and focus on how much I’ve improved each year, it helps the jealousy go away.”
Natsuki looked away from her tired reflection on the monitor. “Why do you play softball?”
“Hmm…” Fuyuki looked at the ceiling in thought. “I just love to play.”
“But what about the long-term?” Natsuki asked, a hint of desperation in her voice. “Are you ever worried that you’ve hit a plateau? That this is the best you’ll ever be?”
Fuyuki spoke more softly now. “Sure. I get into slumps sometimes and think they’ll last forever. But forever is a long time.”
Natsuki leaned back in her seat. “Maybe I should try looking at things the same way. When I first started writing this year, I wrote because I loved writing. But ever since I started publishing and saw those numbers on the screen, all I can think about it is making them go up. This story was designed to get as many views as possible. I like writing this story, I look forward to writing…but now that I really think about it, I feel like this isn’t a story I really want to tell.”
Fuyuki rose from the bed and maneuvered around Natsuki’s chair to hug her sister from behind. “Hang in there, Natsuki. Your finals start tomorrow. Maybe you should get to bed early tonight.”
But there’s still so much to do…
Natsuki eyed the energy drinks piling up around her desk and sighed.
“Maybe you’re right.”
As always, Fuyuki provided good advice. After finally getting a proper amount of sleep for the first time in a month, Natsuki arrived at school and felt a little more clear-headed as she gazed down at the test in front of her.
Math. It stinks that the hardest subject had to be first. Well, at least I can get it out of the way.
The question before her was worded simply - solve for x.
Natsuki’s pencil moved easily as she broke down the equation in front of her. But then she paused. A feeling sifted through her subconscious, enveloping her whole body, until it finally made itself known in her conscious thought.
You won’t pass this test.
Natsuki blinked and tried to focus.
You won’t pass this test.
Natsuki furrowed her brow. It felt like she was split in two as she made her way down the test. One part of her worked diligently, solving each question as they came. The other part told her that she couldn’t. At times, that second part took over, making her vision blurry and her thoughts muddled. But Natsuki kept working. She felt like she could answer everything on an individual basis - but overall, her mind kept telling her that she would fail.
All that studying time was wasted, Natsuki told herself. Because you can’t perform now. Why did you work so hard?
Natsuki finished the last question. Finished? She couldn’t believe it. She had never finished a test on time before now. But her continual glances at the clock told her that she had several minutes to spare.
It took Natsuki a moment to remember that she should double-check her answers when she had spare time. As she looked through them, her own voice in her head, full of negativity, told her that she forgot the proper formulas or that her signs were wrong.
But the one good thing about math is that the answers are definite. Natsuki knew they were right, despite also knowing she would fail the test.
When she finally passed the exam in, she had a bad taste in her mouth. She walked through the hallways frowning and rubbing her temples. While she was done for the day, Mitsuko and her clubmates had another exam session that day, so Natsuki left the school early by herself.
With all that extra time, she knew she should’ve gone home to write or study more, but she instead passed by the train station and kept walking. She could catch the train at a different station, or walk all the way home. Or maybe she could walk as far as she could, past her home, out of this gray city, all the way north until she reached Hokkaido. Anything to get away from here.
A gray city. Back at the start of spring, Masako showed her how colorful the city truly was. But as she passed through intersections and walked past stores, the color seemed to have drained away. The laughter and lively conversations she heard as she walked just seemed grating to her ears. The city was just gray skyscraper after gray skyscraper, muted building after muted building. Even the sun, bearing down on her with all its might as it gripped the city in a heat wave, seemed less friendly and inviting as before.
Natsuki found herself down a street that seemed oddly familiar. When she passed by a small shrine, she realized this was where she and Masako got caught in the rain on their bike ride back to school. Back then, the shrine seemed so full of warmth, but now it just looked like an aging little temple that had seen better days.
She sat down on the wooden bench inside. What’s happened to me? Nothing’s as fun as it used to be.
With nothing else to do - well, she had everything else to do, but she just couldn’t do it anymore - Natsuki buried her face in her hands. Even alone, Natsuki wouldn’t let herself cry, so she just sat there, utterly exhausted. For once, she didn’t check her phone - the time drifted by, the day marched on.
The ringing of her phone brought her out of her thoughts. With weak hands, she checked the caller and saw that it was Mitsuko.
“You sound excited,” Mitsuko deadpanned. “That test must’ve been something, right?”
Mitsuko paused for a moment. “You alright?”
Natsuki scratched her head. “Yeah…just tired.”
“Are you too tired to make the trek to my house?” Mitsuko asked. “My mom said she’d make spaghetti for us. And you know how good her spaghetti is.”
Natsuki did know that. She wasn’t eating, but she wasn’t really hungry.
“I’m alright, but thanks.”
“Natsuki…could you please see me today?”
Natsuki raised an eyebrow. Mitsuko had never pleaded with her like that before.
“Is something wrong?”
“...not really, I guess. But I’ve been holding you off on telling you something. But I decided I had to tell you today. I can’t put it off anymore.”
Natsuki scratched at her skirt. “...you’re not confessing your love to me or something like that, right?”
Mitsuko didn’t answer. Natsuki wiped the sweat off her forehead.
Natsuki could imagine Mitsuko cracking a small grin on the other side of the phone. “Sorry, just wanted to make you sweat. It’s not like that. But it is something important.”
“Alright. I’ll be there soon.”
The two hung up. Natsuki felt too exhausted to move, but she had somewhere she needed to be. Or maybe she wanted to be there. Her wants and needs had gotten all mixed up this past month.
After a long while, or maybe it was just a moment, Natsuki managed to lift herself off the bench.