The Web Novel Club
The bath felt great. Natsuki ensconced herself in the hot water, feeling some of the negativity wash away. Getting clean always felt good, and so did changing out of her clothes for the first time in a week. And maybe, as she collected herself, she felt a little hungry again, too. What a feeling - to enjoy the feeling of hunger.
But, overall, she still felt lousy. That’s the thing about encouraging speeches and personal hygiene - that make you feel a little better, but they don’t automatically cure you. But maybe Natsuki only felt 90% lousy now compared to the earlier 100% lousy, and she’d take the 90% any day of the week.
And feeling 90% lousy meant that she felt 10% okay. And 10% okay gave her a good foundation to work with. After a week of filling her mind with negatives, she started to work on some positives.
Breaking things down into smaller pieces makes sense. Finding your life’s purpose is tough, especially when you haven’t even finished your first year of high school.
One day, I’ll die. But right, now I’m alive. That’s a good start. You can’t do anything when you’re dead, but you can do lots of things when you’re alive. Maybe you can even find lots of purposes.
Maybe I can find lots of purposes for the August break. Maybe I can even find lots of purposes for tonight.
She sank lower in the water. But that’s not necessarily true. You have responsibilities and things you don’t want to do but you have to do them anyway. That’s also part of being alive.
But then she remembered Yumiko’s words about each day having their own unique feeling and Fuyuki’s words of encouragement.
Even when there’s things you don’t want to do…I bet you can still find the time to do at least one thing per day. Each day can have at least one purpose that's important to you. What would today’s purpose be? It’s already close to midnight…is it too late?
What would Mitsuko say here? But she’s gone…but I still remember her. She can still help me through memories of her. I bet she would say it’s never too late.
One thing. One thing I can do.
Natsuki sighed when she couldn’t come up with anything. She decided to change strategies.
What was Fuyuki’s purpose today? Helping her spiraling sister come to her senses? I feel bad for making her do that.
But she said she didn’t have to do it. She said she wanted to help me. Her purpose, the one she chose for herself, was to lend me a hand.
Can I do that tonight? All my friends are going through something. Can I give someone else a hand?
Natsuki gasped and immediately rose out of the tub.
Natsuki emerged from the bath faster than Fuyuki expected. She changed faster than she expected, too. What she didn’t expect was her sister immediately heading for the door.
“I’m sorry, Fuyuki!” Natsuki apologized. “I know you just got back and have lots to talk about. But there’s something I want to do right now for a friend!”
Watching pasta boil in a pot, Fuyuki smiled at the sight of the fire in her sister. She only got this kind of fire when she was about to write. There was clearly something she believed in and wanted to accomplish at this moment.
“It’s alright,” Fuyuki said in understanding. “But it’s after midnight, the trains won’t be running anymore.”
That didn’t stop Natsuki as she slid on her loafers. “I’ll figure something out!”
Natsuki rushed out of the apartment, spiraling down the staircase to the ground floor. This time, she kept her head up as she spiraled, and saw all the distant city lights blinking and glowing, forming a constellation of stars that swirled and whirred around her. She leapt down the last few stairs, landing on concrete and transitioning into an immediate spring.
I know where she'll be, but how do I get there with the trains done for the night? A taxi?
Her eyes darted toward the apartment complex bike rack and she immediately swerved over to it. She found Fuyuki’s red bike locked up; one entry of the numbers of the players in the Miyazawa Sparrows' top of the batting order later, the lock came undone.
Natsuki wheeled the bike out of the rack and angled it toward the open road. She gripped both of the handlebars and realized her hands were trembling.
You hate riding bikes. You don’t feel safe.
She tightened her hands and swung one leg over the seat. That’s the thing about riding a bike - you never forget how to do it, no matter the years. The question was - did you need to do it?
Natsuki didn’t need to. But she wanted to.
With a deep breath, she kicked off; the bike lurched forward, but both of her loafers found the pedals shakily. As she biked toward the road, she tried to keep her breathing even, not from the exertion, but from the anxiety. She hadn’t ridden a bike in over a decade; even though she still could, the actual act of doing it took some time to get used to.
But she wouldn’t stop. She could only keep moving forward. Natsuki exited the parking lot and wheeled into a bike lane, as if it was just waiting there for her. The city was quiet; anxiety flashed through her like a lightning jolt the first time a car passed by her, but she soon got the hang of it.
The greens and reds of traffic lights illuminated her face intermittently; orange streetlights embraced her warmly. Natsuki picked up her face, feeling the warm breeze of a summer night on her face.
So, this is how the old me felt.
Natsuki raised her head, taking it all in. Of course, she had new worries now - riding the bike for starters, but she also carried with her the knowledge that things don’t always work out.
As she took a left and headed down a smaller street, passing by rows of apartment complexes, she realized that, while she missed the old her, she couldn’t never go back to it. April Natsuki didn’t exist anymore - she had transitioned into August Natsuki, who knew much more both to her benefit and sorrow. But that’s how growing up worked.
I wonder if I’ll miss the August me some day.
But that would be a question for a later time. Right now, she was content with simply being the August Natsuki.
She passed below crisscrossing telephone and electrical wires that formed a maze over a cramped sidestreet. As she pulled out onto a major avenue filled with commercial buildings, she cruised passed stumbling salarymen heading off to their next adventure after a hard day of overtime; she saw well-dressed men and women standing outside a bar, waving down taxis.
Her destination would be further to her left, towards the coast. And that meant the slope. The ride so far had been more or less completely level, but the slope would provide a new sort of challenge.
She turned onto the road that overlooked the coast. In between houses that lined the street, she could see the ocean, waves moving gently under the moon. Natsuki saw a street she could turn down, but her stomach lurched at the thought of going down such a steep incline. She kept cycling straight ahead, missing a turn.
I can’t go down the slope. It’s way too steep. I’ll crash or look stupid trying to go down it.
Natsuki knew there was basically nobody around to care about the looks of a lone girl riding her bicycle in the middle of the night, but the thought still clung to her. She saw another road, this one sloping down much more gradually.
Break it down into smaller parts.
With another deep breath, she took this road. Even though the decline was far less steep, the sudden downward motion sent more waves of anxiety through her.
Smaller parts. Go at your own pace.
She slowed her cycling down to a comfortable level; her breathing calmed at the same rate. She passed by parked cars and stone walls. She declined on taking another turn down a steep road; she declined a few more until finding one much more suited to her.
Another gradual descent. She saw houses with their lights off, some with their lights on, some with the doors open, hosts standing half-inside, half-out, waving goodbye to departing guests.
Natsuki took another road, this one a little steeper, but now that she had worked her way up to it, it didn’t seem all that bad. A sudden sight caught her eye - that orange cat from her first bike ride here sleeping on top of a wall. As she passed by it, the cat raised its head a little, making eye contact with Natsuki, a silent understanding passing between them.
The slope gradually leveled out as Natsuki arrived halfway down it. She moved through clustered residential homes and even more clustered park cars, the occasional backyard tree watching over her like a quiet sentinel, their leaves rustling in the breeze.
The trees steadily grew more concentrated; a chain-linked fence appeared; and there Natsuki was, at the Forest Bridge.
And there Masako was. She stood with her arms resting on the rusting guardrail in the center of the bridge, looking out towards where the Miyazawa River met the Pacific Ocean. Smoke trailed from a cigarette in her hand; Natsuki spotted several butts scattered around her sneakers.
The metallic squeak of Natsuki bringing her bike to a halt got Masako’s attention. She tilted her head; she didn’t look all that surprised, but she didn’t look all that happy, either.
“I guessed you’d be here,” Natsuki called out to her as she put up the kickstand and slid off the bike. “I bet you thought we’d drift apart from each other, too. But I came back because I’m your friend.”
Masako just shook her head. “Don’t go standing on your soapbox and tell me that it’s all about the power of friendship or something like that.”
“But friendship does have power,” Natsuki answered. She stepped toward Masako, who simply kept on looking towards the ocean. She stood in the darkness; Natsuki knew it would be pretty theatrical of her, but she stepped under the white glow of a streetlight on the bridge.
“Spirals are a one-person thing,” Natsuki explained. “It only stops when you stop it or get help from someone else. Every time I’ve felt terrible about things, someone’s always there to help me. I want to do that for someone else now.”
“Mitsuko moved away,” Masako reminded her gruffly.
"She's not the only one who's helped me," Natsuki said gently. “And Mitsuko and I had a great time together. While she was here, she gave me strength. And she’s still helping me, just in the form of my memories. And I’ll see her again.”
That didn’t convince Masako. “How do you know that?”
“I just hope we do,” Natsuki simply said. “And it’s not blind hope. She’s my best friend. I have to trust in my friend that we’ll see each other again. But you know what?”
Natsuki stepped out of the streetlight and stood beside Masako. She rested her arms along the guardrail alongside her. “Maybe we won’t see each other again. I can’t say for sure that I know we’ll meet up in the future. But that’s alright. Sometimes, things just don’t work out. But sometimes, they do.”
Natsuki looked up at Masako, who still stood stone-faced, a cigarette resting in the corner of her mouth. “I’ve been thinking about what it means to be alive. But you can’t narrow it down to one thing. Forever is a long time - to narrow down being alive to one definition doesn’t really work. Being alive means you die. Being alive means that you experience things. And those things can be good or bad.”
“They’re all bad,” Masako answered.
“Maybe right now,” Natsuki said. “But there has to be at least one thing you like that you can do at least once a day. And who knows? Maybe there’ll be times when you can that one thing you like twice a day. Maybe there’ll be two things you like that you can do.”
“You keep saying maybe,” Masako muttered, watching smoke drift from her cigarette.
That’s the thing about spirals - you go around in circles. And you fling back all the words that come your way.
But Natsuki realized that she had a spine inside her, too. She stood her ground.
“I won’t talk your ear off,” Natsuki said. “Sometimes, you just don’t want to hear it. But I’ll be here for you.”
The girls kept quiet for a few minutes, the only sounds on that bridge being the rustling of nearby trees and the slight crackling of paper every time Masako took a drag. They could see moonlight reflecting off the river below them as it flowed steadily toward the shore.
“What’s the one thing you like?” Masako finally asked, not taking her eyes off the river.
Natsuki smiled. “I like to write.”
“But you don’t get any views.”
Natsuki sighed and nodded, but the smile never faded. “I wonder about that, too. Before knowing about getting views and becoming popular, I wrote just to write. But I’m not sure if I could ever go back to writing just to write now that I know about that. That was the old me, and I’m the current me.”
She held the guardrail with relaxed, loose fingers. “But maybe I’m just too absorbed in the views. What if I put my phone down and stopped constantly checking for views? What if I just posted and waited a few days before checking? What if I wrote what I really want to write rather than write something designed to get popular?”
Natsuki nodded at her own words. “There are a lot of things I can try.”
“We don’t have a whole lot of time to try,” Masako supposed with a sigh. “We only have three years to finish our high school magnum opus.”
“I hope we can do it,” Natsuki said. “But maybe we won’t. But maybe we will. And if we don’t…I don’t have just the one thing I like. I like hanging out with you guys as well. If the writing magnum opus doesn’t work out, I bet the memories we all share together during the next few years can make for a pretty good magnum opus, too.”
Masako finished her cigarette with half of it still to go. She dropped it out of her hands; the girls watched it plummet into the darkness towards the river.
“What if I start writing again and find out I don’t like it anymore?” Masako asked. The firm tone in her voice had dropped to something much more vulnerable sounding.
“There’s only one way to find that out,” Natsuki encouraged. “And even if you write a whole lot and find out you don’t like it anymore, it wasn’t a waste. And you still have all your friends.”
Masako gave a brief hint of a slow nod. She reached into her pocket for another cigarette, but gradually pulled her hand away.
“Don’t think that you convinced me,” Masako said, a tiny grin in the corner of her mouth. A real one. “But maybe I feel a little better now.”
Natsuki smiled. “Only 90% lousy now?”
“Something like that.”
Masako turned around to let her back rest on the guardrail. “I don’t feel like going home, though.”
Natsuki’s eyes lit up. “Then stay over my place! We could have a sleepover!”
Masako lifted herself off the guardrail.
“You know, maybe I’d like that.”