The Last of Our Summers
Kazuha's dreams have been vivid lately. The world, huge and unknowable, stretching out under her feet like a magic carpet, only to pinch into a narrow pinpoint.
Kirigiri is holding her hand. He is smaller: stuck in that awkward phase in her memory where he was shorter than she was, and resentful about it.
I'm going to be a hero one day, he tells her.
Roads and roads and roads, all converging into the same timer. 00:00:00.
Seawater in her lungs.
She wakes up.
Rise and shine, says Yoshioka, from her mirror.
It's said in sarcasm; her room is in total darkness except for the slice of light that sneaks in through the gap under her door. Her phone's still off and the digital clock on her nightstand stopped working a while ago.
Luminescent sticky notes catch light from her desk. Some of them are in her own handwriting: catch up on History during summer break! but some are in hands that are less familiar. STUDYBOT CONTAINMENT AREA, keep out!!! with a trail of doodled alarms. You can do this, Kazuha! reads another.
She lies in bed, and dozes.
Minutes pass. Hours? Maybe days, even.
The next thing she knows, her door is clicking open. An angled slice of light cuts into her room.
"Kazuha?" a voice whispers.
Kazuha stays quiet.
The door closes. Natsuki leaves.
Almost immediately after, the door opens again. More force this time, a slam as the door hits wall. A switch flicks on, a sudden flood of light.
"Wake up," says her mother. Kazuha flinches upright. "Good, you're awake. Eat this."
She's handed something. Kazuha accepts it, bewildered to find a bowl of rice porridge in her hands.
Her mother tsk's. "It's getting cold. Eat."
Kazuha raises the spoon to her mouth. The texture is comforting to eat, and it's nice that it doesn't taste of anything. She eats another mouthful.
Her mother's picking up the clothes on the floor. "It's a mess in here. When did you last wash this?" She looks at Kazuha. "When did you last wash those clothes you're wearing now?"
Kazuha shrugs. She holds the warmth of the bowl close. She likes it.
"Give them to me. Go wash up."
"Eat the porridge first."
Kazuha nods. She polishes off the rest of the bowl and sets off towards her bathroom.
Near the door, she lingers. She looks back at her mother. "Don't you have work, Mom?"
Her mother looks pained. Kazuha thinks, that's the face I make when I don't know what to say.
She settles on, "No."
Kazuha nods, and goes into the bathroom.
The shower helps. She doesn't have the energy to adjust the warmth, so it's slightly cold, but it isn't too bad. This must be the temperature Natsuki showered at.
When she gets out, her clothes are gone from the pile she left them in. They've been replaced by some of her comfy shorts and collection of T shirts stolen from Natsuki.
Back in her room, her mother's checking the windowsills for dust, moving aside some of the candy Yoshioka had handed out.
"Don't move those," she says. Her voice is rusty.
Her mother frowns. "I didn't move anything. Just cleared out the mess a little." She moves things some more while Kazuha goes back to sit on her bed. "You used to be such a neat child."
Kazuha nods. True enough.
"Your teachers don't give me good reports anymore, but from what I gather you didn't even fully complete some of your papers for finals."
"That boy–your Maths teacher– he said you still had plans for a decent university. What I don't understand is why you never discuss these things. Say something," she finally bursts out, turning back to face Kazuha.
Kazuha shrugs up at her. "My world's pretty small, Mom. I talked to all the people I needed to."
Something passes across her mother's face. Guilt that wants to be anger.
"You should have–"
"I don't want to go to Kyoto and be alone. I've had enough of being lonely."
Her eyes dart to her mirror. Yoshioka's sitting cross-legged next to her, listening with a rueful twist of her mouth. Yoshioka, who won't be going to university at all.
She almost doesn't notice when her mother sits on her other side. She makes an aborted move, as if to brush away Kazuha's hair, but catches herself.
She looks like a robot. Like an android.
"You know that I only want you to live up to your potential."
"I don't really care about that stuff. I just want to be happy."
Want to be happy is a strange way of putting it. What she actually wants is to be free of muck: to drag herself out of the heavy sludge that weighs her down.
"Lying around feeling sorry for yourself won't make you happy, you know. It won't make you feel anything."
"I know, mom."
"You know I don't want to see you unhappy, either."
"You know, when most parents tell their children that they could do anything, they mean it as a platitude. For us it was always fact. You were always so good at anything, to the point where it was almost impossible to guide you."
"Seeing you like this is like seeing a star go dim in the night."
Kazuha doesn't say anything.
A sigh, a dip of the bed. Before she leaves, her mother lingers at the door and adjusts her glasses.
"I always thought I'd be able to tell if I was a bad mother," she says. "But the past fifteen years seem to have been an exercise in willful blindness."
Kazuha doesn't know what to say.
"It strikes me now that my failures as a mother rise from having too good a child," she says. "Both you and Natsuki have soldiered on without a word of complaint."
"I didn't know complaining was an option."
"It's my wish that you both live a little more selfishly," says her mother, and hesitates. "I'm glad you decided to go to Nagoya. I hope Natsuki will give me good news soon, too."
Kazuha thinks of Natsuki smiling up at Mr. Narumaki. She wonders if Mr. Narumaki will get along with her mother, or get awkward and resentful like Kirigiri does.
They're a family of robots, awkwardly assembled and ill-fitting. When it comes down to it, the best they can hope for is that they won't hurt each other too much, and that the memory of love will be enough to hold them together.
She looks at her mother, the older version of herself. She doesn't smile. You don't need to smile, at family.
The next day she wakes up early. Brushes her teeth, watching her reflection and the light over her head flicker in the mirror. Puts on a T-shirt that belongs to her brother and her baggiest jeans.
She turns her phone on, and ignoring all the notifications, types in the group chat: café today at 10?
Chizuru's reply is immediate: Kazuha?
Sugino takes a while. Kazuha has finished brushing her hair into the bounciest ponytail that she can when her phone chirps with a notification.
sure, Sugino has said.
She takes the bus. It feels strange to be outside, even though it's a beautiful day. She watches the surroundings as they pass by, filtered through the flickering numbers above her head.
She gets off near their school. She wonders where Kirigiri is now. Practicing? Summer break meant one of his tournaments, she's sure.
She walks to their usual café, and finds Chizuru already waiting.
She stands up to give her a hug, which Kazuha's surprised by but quite likes. She hugs her back. They stay close for longer than it's polite to. They stay till people stare.
"You haven't been replying," Chizuru says, as they slide back to their seats. Her eyes are dark and knowing.
Kazuha nods. In a mirror behind the counter, she can see the timer flicker restlessly above her head.
Before Chizuru can say anything else, Sugino shows up, wearing shorts and a yellow hoodie that comes down to her thighs.
Chizuru stands up to hug her as well. After a beat, Kazuha follows suit. Sugino is very small in their arms, fragile. She looks even worse than Kazuha does.
They sit, and in the silence Kazuha plays with some sugar packets.
"You didn't come to the funeral, Kajiura."
Kazuha inclines her head.
"Not that she would have cared. She was the type to blow off her own funeral if she could. But you were the one who was with her last. I–everyone wanted to know how she was."
Chizuru's voice is even. "Mr. Narumaki was there. He told us what happened."
Sugino's eyes flash. "I wanted to hear it from her."
In the reflection, Yoshioka is frowning, puzzled, at Sugino.
Kazuha's never seen Sugino like this. Even-keeled, sensible, the type of normal girl that Kazuha sometimes dreamed of being.
But there's also this: she looks lopsided, almost, without Yoshioka beside her. Without Yoshioka leaning down to whisper something in her ear.
"Childhood friends are a curse," Sugino says, brushing her hair back with her hand. Her hand is trembling.
Kazuha thinks, Yoshioka, you liar. You were loved so very, very much.
"She had a timer," Kazuha finds herself saying.
Sugino goes still. Chizuru, next to her, places a warning hand over hers.
"I–it was too bright, and it must have started late, but–yeah. She had one."
Sugino's hands curl into fists. "Kajiura–"
"I tried to catch her," Kazuha says, her own voice going almost dreamlike. "I tried and I tried. She looked so scared. I didn't want her to die. But her hand was just half an inch too far."
"Kazuha," says Chizuru. "Yoshioka died from a heart attack."
"Her timer counted down to zero after she fell, and then it started a new one. It gave her minus five minutes. I haven't seen it show negative numbers before. And at the end, she died for real."
Sugino's eyes are wide, shocked. "You watched her die twice?"
Kazuha stays quiet.
Something dark lifts from Sugino, and she shudders as it passes from her.
"Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was wondering if it was a coincidence that she died around the girl who sees death countdowns."
Chizuru frowns. "That's not fair. Kazuha–"
"I know it's not fair, Aonuma! But it's been weeks and Kajiura's been quiet about it, and all I can do is wake up and wonder–" she bites down on her lip till it goes white.
"Yoshioka wasn't just some dumb jock who flirted with boys," Sugino says, her voice quiet and sad. "I know you guys were her friends too, but you didn't see her. She was annoying, bad-tempered, and laughed at everything, but she was Yoshioka. There's no one in the world who's going to shine brighter than her."
Shaky-voiced, teary-eyed, Sugino looks vividly alive. Her mouth a gash chipped out of stone, and her eyes, so luminescent they could light up a dark night.
Out of the corner of her eye, Kazuha sees that Yoshioka's leaning forward in the reflection.
Sorry, Sugino, she says.
"We were going to go to Europe together," Sugino says, in a soft, hurt voice that makes Yoshioka shake with distress. "We were going to eat bad food and sleep in tiny hostel beds and live."
"Yoshioka would want you to still do those things," says Kazuha, watching the reflection of her dead friend sigh, and sit back. "Those places are still waiting for you, Sugino."
"I don't--that means nothing, now. She didn't get to do any of those things. Fuck, she was so young."
Chizuru drinks a mouthful of her frappe. She looks so peaceful, even amid this storm. Kazuha is awash with love for the way she raises her straw to her lips, the careful shape her hands make around her cup.
She says, "I think the reason that everyone calls these the best years of our lives, is because we'll always carry parts of each other with us as we go. We might never see each other after high school, because we grew apart, because something bad happened, whatever. But for a short time we were all in the same space together, and we were all burning bright."
Kazuha feels like her chest has been cracked open. The voice that comes out of her is a guttural cry:
"I miss her."
Sugino tips her head to the side. She closes her eyes. "Me too, Kazuha. Me too."
Out of the corner of her eye, Kazuha sees Yoshioka grin.
See you soon, Robo-Girl. Make the best of what you got left.
The next time she looks, she's gone.
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