Chapter 23:

Not What She Seems

The Web Novel Club

Grounded, Natsuki repeated in her head. Come to think of it, I’ve never been grounded before.

According to Masako, she had called up Yumiko when she wasn’t answering her phone. Yumiko’s mother finally picked up the phone and told Masako in no uncertain terms that Yumiko would be remaining at home for the time being, if not the whole August break. She hadn’t used the word, but grounded obviously applied to a situation like this.

As the train rumbled westward toward Yumiko’s station, Natsuki wondered what being grounded would feel like. Her parents’ recent long-term assignment to research in America was just the culmination to years of working long hours and being away for days or even a week or two at a time. Her parents loved their kids but also loved their jobs and loved each other.

Is that what being alive means? Natsuki reflected. Doing what you want to do? She herself wondered that this past month, but that’s when she truly realized what responsibilities were. Wasn’t taking care of Natsuki and Fuyuki considered a responsibility?

Natsuki wasn’t sure. She wasn’t a kid, but she also wasn’t an adult, either. And she and Fuyuki seemed to take care of themselves just fine.

But, to conclude her thoughts as the train arrived at the station, Natsuki supposed that her parents being away meant that she never got grounded. It also meant they never pressed her too hard on her schoolwork because they weren’t there to press her. Natsuki knew that Yumiko faced a lot of pressure to achieve in school. If Natsuki’s parents were there too little, maybe Yumiko’s parents were there too much.

With thoughts like that, Natsuki stepped out of the train and looked around the station - they were in a residential area, so the station was more or less just a small, open-air platform. She found Masako waiting for her as planned by a vending machine; Natuski frowned when she smelled cigarette smoke on her, but being between everything going on, she let it be.

“You ready for Operation Free Yumiko From Her Grounding?” Masako asked.

With the sun setting to their backs, Natsuki couldn’t tell if Masako’s eyes had a twinkle to them or if they just looked tired. “You really think we can free her?”

The two started walking toward Yumiko’s house. Masako just shrugged. “Probably not. But I guess it’s worth a shot, right?”

Natsuki nodded, all the advice her clubmates and friends had given her these past four months coming back to her. “That’s right. Everybody’s been telling me that writing isn’t a waste even if it doesn’t work out. It’s been tough advice to follow, but I don’t know…now that we’re doing something like freeing a friend for summer vacation, I can kind of understand it better now.”

Masako nodded along as Natsuki talked her thoughts out. They passed under powerlines and passed through neighborhoods, the ones featuring thin streets and high stone walls shielding a mixture of traditional and modern homes, not a single crack or pothole in the concrete.

There was that feeling again, Natsuki realized. It was just a little hint, but the colors were slowly returning to the world. That feeling of being alive was still there.

“I don’t know,” Natsuki admitted. “It’s like…now that I’m not stuck doing the same thing everyday, now that I have some free time…now that I’m just walking around, seeing the world…now that I’m not stuck moping around a house…I’m feeling a little better about everything that’s happened recently.”

Masako mulled her words over. “That’s good,” was all she said.

Natsuki scratched her head at her response, but soon enough, Masako brought them to Yumiko’s house. The whole neighborhood featured slim buildings packed together like sardines, giving them just enough space for a driveway and front walkway. But Yumiko’s family had their own house! Natsuki couldn’t even imagine what that must feel like.

A locked fence serving as a stalwart guard stopped them before they could even reach the walkway up to the house. As Natsuki looked on, trying to figure out what exactly to say to free her friend, Masako rang the doorbell next to the fence.

A second-floor window in the house opened. “Hey, you guys!” Yumiko called out, leaning her head through the window.

“Yumiko!” Natsuki called out. “Are you okay? Are they feeding you enough?!”

“I tried to go on a hunger strike, but I only lasted three hours!” Yumiko yelled back. “It’s malarkey, you guys! They’re grounding me because-”

The front door to the house opened. A small, middle-aged woman stepped outside - her face looked serious. One glance toward Yumiko made her yelp and close her window.

The woman walked toward the two students, but she stopped about halfway down her walkway to keep space between them, as if to say, there’s an obvious gulf between where I am and where you guys are.

“Hello, Mrs. Yoshioka,” Masako greeted cordially.

The woman - in hindsight, Natsuki supposed it was obvious that this was Yumiko’s mother - gave the girls a neutral stare. Mrs. Yoshioka seemed incredibly smart, the way she stood there completely calm, knowing exactly how the situation would go and knowing exactly how right her decisions were.

“Yumiko has no time to play with you two,” Mrs. Yoshioka explained. Her words weren’t vicious - it was like she was just stating the facts.

“But it’s summer break,” Natsuki protested. One look from Mrs. Yoshioka made Natsuki realize how weak of an argument she made.

“You girls probably know it more than I do,” Mrs. Yoshioka said. “Yumiko has an amazing amount of talent and dedication inside her. She could go on to do great things. But she can only go on to do great things if she does all she can now. High school decides the rest of your life. I hope she remains friends and makes fond memories with you two - once she graduates. I already let her sacrifice some of her studying time by letting her join a club. She’ll make up for it this August break. Rather than waste time goofing off, she’ll stay home and study.”

Natsuki looked at Masako for support, but Masako had a look on her face that suggested that there wasn’t any further point in arguing. Natsuki frowned, because they just got there. There had to be something she could say.

Something I can say? From the way Mrs. Yoshioka spoke, this would be more of an intellectual debate than the sort of arguments Natsuki was used to, and Natsuki rarely argued. Natsuki had no idea what to say to a mother who thought she knew what was best for her child.

But Natuski also realized that she herself thought she knew what was best for her friend.

“Is this what Yumiko truly wants?” Natsuki asked, trying to make her voice sound strong. “Do you think she wants to be locked up studying all summer? And this is one of the last summers as students we’ll ever have.”

The words just seemed to bounce off Mrs. Yoshioka. “You three are all children. How can you say you truly want something when you haven’t even had a full-time job yet? I’ll tell you what every adult wants - to be able to freely choose how they spend their time. That’s the true want of every person past school age. Yumiko just doesn’t realize it yet. But I don’t blame her. How could she? How could any of you? It’s my job as her mother to give her the most options in the future as possible. When you get to my age, anyone would sacrifice a high school summer for more freedom in their adult lives.”

Once again, Masako kept quiet. Even though Mrs. Yoshioka made many good points - or, at least, made her points confidently, with such conviction that Natsuki, already a weak debater, had little to counter them with - Natsuki didn’t want to give up just yet.

“Yumiko wants to be a writer,” Natsuki said as her final Hail Mary. “That’s what she wants to do. Did you know that?”

For once, Mrs. Yoshioka seemed just a little stumped. She looked over Natsuki for a moment, then her academic demeanor returned. “Then, if she sacrifices now, she’ll have the option to work as a writer later on rather than fall into working as a desk jockey all her life.”

That concluded the argument. Mrs. Yoshioka gave the two girls one last look - it was almost sympathetic, but firm in her disagreement with them - and then stepped back inside her house.

Wordlessly, Masako walked off down the street. Natsuki, who took a long look at the house, not just believing that things could end just like that, realized Masako’s departure after the fact and had to jog to catch up to her.

She found Masako leaning against a streetlamp, a lit cigarette already in her mouth. She had her arms crossed and she looked away, towards the ground. The sunset had given way to a gray twilight; both girls were caught in the hinge between day and night as they stood underneath the glow of the streetlamp.

“Masako…” Natsuki called out as she arrived. She caught her breath and looked back in worry in the direction of Yumiko’s house. “What do we do?”

Masako shrugged. “Nothing. There was nothing we could do in the first place.”

Natsuki felt confused. “Then why did you have us come here?”

Masako gave her an empty grin. “That’s the real kicker, isn’t it? Every time, we know we’ll fail, yet when the next opportunity arrives, we convince ourselves that this time, it’ll finally work out. And, as always, it doesn’t, and the cycle repeats itself.”

She stood up from the lamppost. Smoke trailed the tip of the cigarette. Dozens and dozens of loose strands of hair covered her forehead. “I told you during that first bike ride, Natsuki. Everybody only cares about the end results nowadays. But when the end results aren’t even guaranteed to be positive…in fact, if the end results are never good…then what’s the point? What’s the point of anything?”

Natsuki took a timid step back. “What are you saying, Masako?”

“If you know that, no matter how hard you study, you’ll never make sense of math equations or be able to memorize formulas, what’s the point?” Masako asked. “If you’re not good at finding the meaning within the books we have to read for school, then why read? If effort and no effort give you the same result, then why give effort?”

Masako sighed and dropped the cigarette butt from her hand; a few embers remained on the concrete for a moment before she crushed it with a sneaker. As she lit up another one, Natsuki tried to collect herself.

I’ve been in these situations before. Masako’s struggling right now. I need to be her Mitsuko or Fuyuki.

“I don’t know how to answer all that,” Natsuki admitted. “But there’s a point to things, I think. You welcomed me to the club and you were the first friend beyond Mitsuko that I made. You’ve been a huge inspiration to me. I guess…there’s no endgame or results to friendship. Our friendship is about the journey, and it’s only thanks to you that I’m realizing that.”

Masako sighed and stepped out of the glow of the streetlamp, the darkness of twilight now covering her face. “You want to know why I’ve been saying all those positive things to you? It was just to make myself feel better. I thought if I made you feel better about things, it would make me feel better about things. It’s all just a self-serving act, Natsuki. And, of course, it didn’t even work out.”

Thanks to her argument with Yumiko, Natsuki now realized that people could say things they didn’t actually mean in the heat of the moment, when all that anger and sorrow and negativity catches you in a swirling vortex.

“You don’t mean that,” Natsuki encouraged. “I know that sometimes you fake a smile. But there have been a lot of times that you’ve helped me where you’ve been genuinely smiling.”

Masako shook her head. Her next movements seemed loose and a little wild; she took her current cigarette, still about halfway to go on it, and jammed the end of it into the streetlamp. With a frown, she watched the crushed remnants of the cigarette fall to the ground.

“How can you know what I mean?” Masako asked angrily. “I know what I mean far more than you do.”

Natsuki raised her hands defensively. “H-hey, Masako, we’re in a crowded neighborhood at night, we shouldn’t yell-”

“I’m not yelling!” she yelled, her hands balled into fists. “You don’t know anything about me!”

Natsuki tried to keep calm, something being yelled at made increasingly difficult. “That’s because you never tell us about anything.”

Masako pinched the bridge of her nose. “Then I’ll tell you right now. I’m insanely jealous of Yumiko. I’ve written for far longer than she has, but she got way more popular than I did. My writing’s better than hers! It’s not arrogance to admit that, I have three more years of experience than she does. But because she likes to write about what’s popular and I don’t, she becomes popular and I don’t. How’s that fair!”

As Maskao kept yelling, Natsuki noticed a counterargument. “It’s alright, Masako. I’m jealous of Yumiko, too. You’re not alone.”

Masako elected to ignore that. “And I miss my parents so much. They're ‘there’ but they’re not really. My mom’s always out and my dad just sits in front of the television all day and collects unemployment. I hate being there, and I hate coming back to it.”

Once again, Natsuki noticed another chance. “B-but, you’re not alone in that, either! I mean, I guess our situations aren’t exactly the same…but I miss my parents so much, too. I haven’t seen them in months.”

That’s when Natsuki noticed something else about anger and despair - they’re incredibly difficult emotions to come down from. It almost seemed like Masako wanted to stop yelling, but aggressive emotions like that tended to snowball.

“If we’re so alike, then you’re too naive,” Masako finally said. “Part of you realizes that things won’t work out, right? You hear a voice - not just a voice, but your own voice - telling you that you’ll fail, right?”

Natsuki didn’t want to admit it, especially when it seemed like she had come so close to breaking through to Masako, but she thought back to her finals and nodded.

“It’s telling the truth,” Masako explained. “You should listen to yourself more often. There’s nothing worse than trying to ignore it only to realize that you were right after the fact.”

When Natsuki tried to protest, Masako advanced on her, stepping away from the light of the streetlamp once again. Night had firmly settled in over the city, plunging the two in a layer of darkness.

“You really think you’ll do good on your finals?” Masako asked. She was a head taller, so she looked down on Natsuki. “You really think you’ll win this writing contest?”

Natsuki felt her defenses weakening. “B-but, you told me to have confidence-”

“I told you since I was trying to make myself feel better about it!” Masako interrupted. Natsuki knew she was lying, but at that moment, she realized that Masako believed she was telling the truth. In those moments, you lie to yourself so you'll feel even worse on purpose - Natsuki never understood why.

“You won’t win, Natsuki,” Masako told her. “Neither will I. None of us ever will. People like Yumiko might win, but people like us, we don’t. We just don’t get noticed. We don’t get the feedback we should. We get lost in the sea of new stories being published. Forgotten. You could enter a hundred contests and I’d guarantee that you’d never win a single one. Life is just impossible, yet none of us want to believe that. So we lie to ourselves over and over, and each time we just come away more disappointed. Life’s so much easier when you just give up on things, Natsuki.”

This was the deepest spiral Natsuki had ever seen, and Natsuki was incredibly prone to spiraling. How are you supposed to calm someone down when they’re throwing every one of their negative feelings your way?

“And it’s not even just that,” Masako concluded. “You’ll drift away from Mitsuko. You won’t ever be close with your parents. Outside of myself, you’re the person most obsessed with their story’s popularity that I’ve ever seen. You won’t succeed in anything, Natsuki."

What could Natsuki do besides stand there and tremble?

Masako turned away and raised her leg, bracing against the stone wall with a sneaker. Her voice was gentler now. "I’m not saying this to put you down. I won’t succeed in anything either. I’m just saying this so you’ll realize it before becoming a wreck like me.”

Natsuki tried to stay strong, to be a good Mitsuko in this situation, but Mitsuko had moved away, hadn’t she?

Masako lit up another cigarette and gave Natsuki one last look. “Next time you think about being alive, try to incorporate the fact that things don’t work out into your definition. It’ll help you see things far more clearly.”

What could Natsuki really do now? She just gave Masako a weak nod. Masako turned and started walking home, leaving Natsuki there all by herself.

Steward McOy