But I Love Her
Inai Mariko walked with a more trained hesitation as she explored the familiar school. The ghosts of her past echoed in the halls along with her heeled shoes. She couldn’t be mad at the fact that her parents chose to come back to this town after she had left for college. It was hard to leave their family behind, especially when her grandfather had gotten sick. By then, she was an entry-level university student and she did visit when she could but ultimately, he had passed away shortly after.
She didn’t stay too much longer - just long enough to clean the house, help with the legal matters, and the funeral itself. Maybe she had ventured out on the town with her cousins and other family members, but the funeral was for her mother and her siblings. However, years had passed after her mother inherited the house and it was her turn to be ill. She wasn’t as drastically ill as her grandfather was, but it was enough for her to move back.
“But your past, I don’t want you to be haunted by those demons anymore, Mari-chan,” her mother pleaded. “I’m okay. Papa is here to help me. Your aunties are here to help.”
The move surprised even herself only for the fact she didn’t want to go back to this school. The only thing she would curse was her career choice - becoming an English teacher was really the only path she could’ve taken with her degree and it led her back to where everything started.
In these halls, she was accused of murdering a girl she admired - not by the police, but by her own classmates. The police didn’t quite understand the politics of the students and their silly witch idea but Mariko had eventually embraced the idea she’s a witch. She created a career with a degree that most people would look down on, that foreigners used to gain entry to her country, and was damn successful at it.
In these halls, she walked with her head held much higher. She was surprised that she hadn’t run into anyone from her high school considering how small Okutari was - or if she had, she hadn’t recognized them and they hadn’t recognized her.
And she wished to remain that way. She figured that most of them would have small children who were still in elementary school. There’s always a chance to run into them and maybe their childish ideals remained in the past but even thinking about it, Mariko could feel the phantom sting on her left heel even now.
Any ghosts that lingered in this school would be familiar with this witch, wouldn’t they? Witches and ghouls often went hand in hand and… Mariko shook her head. She didn’t want to tread that path again. That was more than ten years ago and Mariko decided to embrace the rumored witch she was. She wasn’t going to allow them to win again, not with the magic she wielded.
Her long hair swished with her as she made her way to the teacher’s office. She had just accepted the job after a pretty rigorous interview. A lot of the staff had recognized her once they found out that she used to be a student there and were quite shocked to see how much she has changed. Mariko Inai, who was once a meek loner and who was chased out of school, had come back to school as an adult whose head was held high and pride intact. The elders who still remained made comments about her being bullied and them probably justifying what happened.
But Mariko let it slide. It was pointless to argue with them at this point. She needed a job and this was the only school that’s close to her home.
They sent her with well-wishes to her mother’s health and she thanked them as etiquette dictated but it still didn’t sit well with Mariko that even after all this time; they acted like they didn’t understand why the students bullied her and she couldn’t understand why they didn’t stop them.
But that was the past. She’s only here until her mother was better. It was projected that she would be better within a few years as long as she took her medication so Mariko had to be prepared for such comments. Most likely the older teachers who remained at the school would complain about the current generation of students instead of her past anyway… there was nothing to really worry about.
It was nearly time for the teachers’ meeting in the morning and she had preferred to be there earlier. Mariko wanted to build good habits early but the emptiness of the hallways only brought her memories of the past.
When she arrived at the door to the teacher’s lounge for their morning meeting, she stopped herself and took in a deep breath. She had to push away a lot of the more sorrowful memories and focus on being the adult she grew to be. There were a time and place for such memories -- but as she reached for the door, she heard a noise.
There weren’t any students that she knew of, so she tensed up and turned around.
To her surprise, she saw a very familiar face - Okamoto Masahide. The only difference was that he was certainly older than when she last saw him. However, his hair was a bit shorter and more work appropriate and he wore glasses. She remembered he used to wear glasses only when he read and studied - but it seemed his eyesight became worse as time went along. However, he was still very handsome - probably a more refined look than the scruffy teenaged version she knew.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” She moved out of his way and bowed politely. She hoped that he didn’t recognize her right away - at least it didn’t seem that way, but her hopes were dashed.
“Ah, aren’t you Inai-san? It’s been a while. Congratulations on getting the job here. I didn’t expect to see you again.”
Unlike the warm welcoming feeling she remembered, he sounded so distant to her - but she chalked it up as being an adult. After all, they are in the workforce now. Perhaps if she had seen him around the town, he’d be more relaxed. However, she still gave him a warm smile in return. She kept bowing as he tried to open the door.
“T-thank you, Okamoto-san, err, Okamoto-sensei,” Mariko said as she tried to follow him in.
He chuckled softly, “There’s no reason to be so formal around me. We were classmates and now we’re coworkers - looks like our destinies are intertwined.”
There was darkness in that statement that Mariko couldn’t understand the origins of. However, she quietly nodded and entered the teacher’s lounge with him. Once she found her new desk, she then realized that she’s also next to him as well - if she were her former self, before the bullying, she would be ecstatic. But after the comment he had made after coming in, she wasn’t sure if it’s a good thing anymore.
After all, Okamoto-san was deeply in love with a girl who was murdered. From her memory, he didn’t partake in the bullying - he was too depressed and busy grieving for her to stop it or even consider it. She wouldn’t blame him; she would never blame him for that.
There were quite a few teachers who recognized her and those she recognized first. There was maybe one other younger teacher but she kept her distance from her, especially outside of the polite conversation.
It was the beginning of the school year, after all. She had to focus on getting her curriculum together and make sure that she leaves with a better impression. She wasn’t able to do that as a student, but as an adult, they managed to give her a chance even though she had to make heavy accusations towards them back then.
She knew that the Head Teacher and the Vice-Principal and other senior-level teachers kept their peripherals on her - she was not only a new teacher but the Mariko Inai - someone who threatened their position as teachers and educators so she knew she had to play it safe and be polite as best as she could.
However, she was relieved to find out that the meeting went on as normal and the Head Teacher introduced her to the staff. Everyone said their hellos and offered advice to her but she could tell they only did it because of etiquette. She did feel a bit like her younger self when she attended her new school in the nearby city as she stood there and asked for her fellow teachers to take care of her.
She knew that the older teachers and maybe that included Okamoto, didn’t want her to go to them for help. After all, in their minds, Mariko might turn against them and claim different harassment… But she internally shook her head as she tried to fight off the thoughts.
But she tried to calm herself down further when she realized that she was also placed next to the other female teacher. She had to go over with the Head Teacher as she did somewhat drop in after the semester had started a little bit but she knew once he caught her up to speed, she did feel a bit more prepared. Even after that though, sitting next to the other teacher, she felt awkward as she tried to reach for her supplies and lecture plans.
Although, that still didn’t stop the awkwardness. She got her materials ready while she saw that Okamoto didn’t say anything to her as he seemed to be busy with some possibly last-minute work. The female teacher on her other side seemed to prepare her makeup further. She didn’t seem to have any materials around but regardless seemed to be more focused on her makeup.
She was about to say something to her when she felt a soft hand on her wrist and she immediately turned to Okamoto who, even though touched her with the tips of his fingers, still left quite the impact. She gave him a confused look but he whispered to her.
“Don’t worry about Tsukuda-san. She does her own thing and prepares for her class her own way.” Mariko didn’t understand why he whispered since they were close enough to hear each other just fine but she nodded her head.
“What class does she teach?”
“I teach Japanese. Really, Okamoto-kun, there’s no reason to be shy around me. I already had my coffee. I can actually be nice.”
The two teachers whipped their heads around to see that the other woman had finished putting on her makeup. Mariko found herself being surprised at the smirk that the other woman wore. Before Mariko could say anything, the other woman spoke. The other teachers didn’t seem to pay attention to them and had their own conversations.
“My name is Tsukuda Yukari. And as I mentioned before, I teach Japanese.”
Mariko gave her a confident smile as she felt comforted by this woman’s presence and became more comfortable in her setting. At first, she was worried she and this woman wouldn’t get along but she got comfortable once she realized that she’s just not a morning person. She did not want a repeat of her time as a high school student…
“Oh, I’m Inai Mariko. I’m the English teacher here--”
“So you’re the famous Inai-san! These old fogies couldn’t keep their mouths shut about you when you first put in your application! I wasn’t here for that but wow, you must’ve been wild back then in order to get them like that!” She nudged Mariko with her elbow and gave her a playful chuckle.
This didn’t surprise her in the least but Mariko decided to go along with it. There’s no sense of dredging up the past, especially the negative aspects of it.
“Oh? Did they mention that I’m the Witch of Okutari?” her voice went comically low and even Masahide was surprised at this side of her. She felt a bit silly doing this with a fellow adult but it also felt good. The older teachers and even Okamoto were much too serious for her return - she wasn’t happy to return any more than the older teachers were.
“Eh? Okamoto-kun, you didn’t mention that!” She seemed to have grabbed something and threw it but Mariko was too slow to tell what it was. “That would’ve been important to know! That way we could’ve been friends faster!”
Okamoto dodged whatever Tsukada threw at him and bent down to pick it up while chuckling at the women net to him.
“Hey, Tsukada-san! Be more serious! Classes haven’t started yet but you need to control yourself at least a little bit! Stop acting like a child!” One of the older teachers cried out. Mariko recognized that as her old science teacher.
“Yes, yes, I’m sorry!”
Friends? Are we already friends?
“Tsukada-san, you really need to settle down. It’s still the beginning of the semester. You need to have a better impression.” Okamoto said gently. “It’s exciting to have Inai-san here, but you need to show some sort of restraint.”
“Eh, whatever, Okamoto-kun. I hear you, I hear you.” Tsukada rolled her eyes and Mariko felt a bit better in her situation. While she’s here to do a job, maybe someone like Tsukada could keep the ghosts at bay. Plus, it’s a nice change of pace from her high school days. Mariko couldn’t help but laugh slightly at the bantering couple.
It didn’t take much longer for the sounds of students to echo in the hallways. Even though Mariko was unable to fully enjoy her time there, she got the nostalgic feeling of being back in high school - when she first met Okamoto Masahide.
As the teachers rose and left for their respective homerooms, Mariko included, she remembered when she first met Okamoto.
It was the entrance ceremony and she was sad. She had found out her middle school friends were placed in a separate homeroom than her. And then, they told her that they only included her because they were in the same homeroom together. They weren’t actually friends. And that hurt her even deeper than being separated from them.
Instead of celebrating the beginnings of high school, Mariko was alone and was jealous of all the smiling friends and their hopes of staying that way. After the announcements and song, Mariko chose to sit away from the crowd and silently watch the bright green sway with the winter wind that remained. She shivered even through her uniform coat. Mariko forced herself not to cry as she soaked the warm spring sun.
The wind blew through her short hair and glasses and there was a solemn bitterness to the scene before. However, like a ghost, she felt someone’s presence. She turned and saw a very handsome boy. His hair was very scruffy and he seemed very thin but handsome. He had a peaceful smile on his face with his eyes closed and Mariko felt awkward about being there with a gloomy mood. Before she could get up to leave, he caught her even more off guard.
“Stay with me. The wind feels good, doesn’t it?”
She didn’t respond with anything but maybe a few short gasps. She stood her ground as the wind blew a little harder. Her skirt fluttered and she was happy that it was a little more conservative than what her fashion magazines suggested. The two stayed in silence and finally, he spoke once again as he stood up. He finally opened his eyes and he stared directly at her and gave a bigger smile.
“What homeroom are you in?”
Finally, Mariko remembered to talk. “Oh, uh... I’m in 1-B…”
He smiled brighter if it were even possible. “Oh! I’m in that class too along with my friends! Do you want to join us?”
Slowly, her head turned and she made a decision that still regrets - she said no.
“Oh, no, it’s okay. I’m okay… on my own.”
Then he got up. It was then Mariko saw how tall he was. He glowed like the sun in her eyes and she could feel her heart squeeze. Maybe it’s because of the novels and stories she read about first loves, but… something told her this was it.
But she chose not to go with him. Maybe if she had, maybe she and he would’ve gotten together instead and that wouldn’t have happened. He seemed very kind and fun to be with and it felt natural to talk to him instead of the other boys she interacted with. As far as she could tell, they never gave her a passing thought unless they wanted to copy her homework - and she’d let them.
And yet in the present time, there was no way to go back. She may be the Witch of Okutari now but back then, she was a lonely girl who sought safety in books and tales. Maybe that added to the rumors but…
“Good morning, everyone. I’m your new homeroom and English teacher, Inai-san!”
To Be Continued…