But I Love Her
For her first day, it seemed to have gone rather well. The students seemed to behave as most students would - even if they seemed bored, something she could remember herself being. Even though she knew she had nothing to worry about, she was still nervous. It was always nerve-wracking during that first period, but she was happy she pulled it off.
When she came to the teachers’ lounge to eat her lunch, she saw Tsukada-san eating at her desk as she looked through some fashion magazines. Curious, Okamoto-san wasn’t there and, even though she didn’t say anything, the other teacher surprised her.
“I have no idea where that guy is so don’t even ask.”
“Eh? I wasn’t even going to ask…” Mariko caught herself being shy once again. She cleared her throat to calm down her anxiety, and even if she wanted to know where he was, she was surprised that Tsukada-san knew. “I-I just wanted to come in for lunch.”
“Mhm,” Tsukada-san mumbled as she took a rice cracker from seemingly nowhere and put it in her mouth. After she chewed it up and swallowed, she finally turned to her. “I haven’t been a teacher here for long, but I can sense crushes within a 5-kilometer radius. You still have one for him, don’t you?”
“No way! There’s no way! I was just surprised to see him after all this time!” Mariko tried to play it cool as she unraveled her bento box. Her mother was so excited for her grand return to Keisetsuin that she made Mariko the famous Mama Inai’s Bento Box. She wasn’t about to reveal that to anyone… It’s a bit embarrassing. “I would’ve expected to see some old faces, and maybe even some fresh ones, but truthfully, I didn’t expect him to stay here… especially after what happened.”
“What do you mean? Wait… don’t tell me this school is haunted!”
“Haunted? Who said anything about it being haunted? I was only going to say that a student died.” She had to lower her voice for the last part. The older teachers never liked that fact being brought up, especially now that Mariko the Witch was back. They always seemed to avoid the subject any time they heard students speak of such rumors in the short time she’s been there - even if they were talking about their usual seven mysteries.
However, when the other classmates bullied her about being a witch, the teachers silently encouraged it in their own ways. Any readings that had to do with witches, or other outcasted characters, they always gave her a look. Mariko was sure they believed it too since …
“Oh… no… I didn’t know… What happened?”
Mariko sucked in some air in between her teeth. Of course, Mariko would have to be the one to tell the new teacher this. On the other hand, would any of the other teachers be the ones who told her? Would Okamoto? Perhaps it was the guilt of it, but Mariko released a sigh.
“A student passed away years ago… she…” Mariko hesitated. She wasn’t sure if she should tell the new coworker this truth but… perhaps she had to. It was probably for the best it had to be her. Would Okamoto have the strength to do it himself?
“She was Okamoto’s girlfriend at the time. We were on the track team together but we weren’t close. She was the team captain and one night, she was found strangled on the track field one morning. But, Tsukada-san, please don’t tell Okamoto about this. Please continue to treat him as normal… I don’t know why he chose to become a teacher at this school since the incident happened so long ago, but please, I beg of you… don’t reopen his old wounds.”
Tsukada-san seemed to seriously consider this and then she slowly nodded.
“Did you have anything to do with it? Don’t you dare lie.”
The voice sounded like her but she didn’t see Tsukada-san’s lips move. It made her own breath hitch in itself and her eyes widen just a bit.
“What did you say?”
“I said, that’s terrible, for such a young girl to die! Did they ever catch the culprit? Do you know who it was?”
Mariko felt only half relieved when Tsukada-san repeated what she actually said. She really thought that she was accusing her of lying. Her heart had to relax a little bit from the comment. Mariko only responded by nodding. She then found the rest of her words to answer the question.
“Yes, they caught the culprit. He was an old man who lived by the track team.”
“Ew, how gross! That’s terrible… that poor girl! Ugh! Let’s change the subject! I don’t do well with ghost stories!” She trembled dramatically for effect.
“Tsukada-san, I said there are no ghosts here…” Mariko let out another sigh as she started to eat her lunch. “But please consider that promise, okay?”
“Ah, don’t worry, don’t worry. I may seem brazen but I can hold secrets remarkedly well!” Mariko was relieved once more and then the Japanese teacher finally changed the subject as promised. She looked over to Mariko’s lunch and made impressed sounds. “Your bento box is so cute! Did you make that? Inai-san, you must teach me!”
“Ahaha, thank you so much… but no, my mother made it for me.”
“Well, you see, she’s sick right now so that’s why I came back to Okutari… she was super excited to have me come back to this school so she made me lunch. It’s a bit embarrassing, to be honest… but I can still teach you if you’re interested. I know how to replicate this.”
“Man, Inai-san, you’re the dream wife! That’s totally sweet of your mother to do that! We need to plan on that! Let’s do it on our next off day, okay? Whenever we get one…” At the end of the sentence, she glared in the Head Teacher’s back and then he sneezed.
Mariko smiled brightly, something she thought she would never do in these halls.
In the end, she still didn’t know where Okamoto went to eat lunch. Ever since Tsukada-san pointed out her ‘crush’, she started to question herself as the day went on, and especially when she saw him again. Did she have a crush on him still? He’s still very much the kind Okamoto she knew back in high school, before the incident, but with a more mature glow. She hadn’t seen him since she left. She hadn’t kept in contact… maybe she felt her heart flutter as it once did back then. Maybe it’s because she never confessed to him before she left.
If the situation had been different, had she survived, the two would’ve been married already. That much was obvious but death separated them and she was disgusted with herself that she saw this as a chance to air out her feelings.
But why did he work at the school?
Mariko was unlucky enough to choose a career that restricted herself back to these cruel halls and even more unlucky, her mother was sick. But Okamoto could’ve chosen anything else, as she remembered him always being so studious, so why a teacher?
These questions bothered her for the rest of the day and for days after that. As the spring semester sprang forward, she and Tsukada-san became closer to each other and she kept her promise of never treating him any different.
As time went on, the question kept springing up; she wondered if she still had a crush on him. However, her feelings said no. They didn’t want to focus on love at that moment as she wanted to make sure her mother was getting the medicine and treatment she needed to heal quickly. Progress was painfully slow as medicine was wont to be but that kept her mind occupied apart from the occasional thoughts of where Okamoto ate for lunch.
Her schedule ran smoothly as could be. She tried to finish her work early but with the summer break coming, she had to make sure her students had the appropriate information they needed in order to pass their exams - so they could enjoy their vacation and so she could spend more time with her mother. Thus, she would assign a little extra homework to make sure they understood the material very well. She even talked to Tsukada and Okamoto about it and the teachers worked along with her. The other teachers scoffed at her and gave the students the usual amount but as long as she had both of them by her side, it was enough.
That day, she had to stay over a little longer than she usually did. She would usually leave before the clubs were over for the day as she didn’t want to take on club responsibilities her first year at Keisetsuin right away. However, for as hard as she was pushing her students, she had to reflect her words and work harder as well.
She let out a big yawn as Tsukada was leaving.
“Are you sure you don’t want to join me for a drink tonight? You can just take those reviews home to grade. You don’t always have to do everything here.”
Mariko waved her hand as she finished her yawn. “No, no, it’s okay. Go on without me. It’s better this way. That way, I can focus on helping my mother.”
Tsukada gave her a gentle smile. Since becoming friends with her, Mariko never realized how many sides this eccentric teacher truly had.
“You’re such a good daughter, Inai-san. Ah, that means I have to give my own mother a call…! Hmph, I suppose I can give her a call later then. See ya! Don’t stay up too late!”
The two said their goodbyes as Tsukada left the room. The other teachers had long since left except for one. She could never remember his name, especially since he was older and was actually a newer hire, but he walked up to her. He had a potbelly and a buzzcut. He usually kept himself although she sometimes remembered he laughed at Tsukada’s more crudes jokes from time to time.
“Ah, how can I help you?”
“Are you sure you’re going to stay? It gets a little bit creepy at night.”
“Oh, no, no, it’s fine. I can just lock up if you tell me where the keys are.”
“Hm, well, you might want to let Okamoto-san know.” He pointed his thumb somewhere behind him. That statement surprised her - she had thought she was the only one in the building apart from the leaving teachers. “He likes to stay at school at night so the Head Teacher gave him a key after we lock everything else up. It’s nice to be devoted to your job but that guy seems to take it too far.”
“What? Oh, I didn’t know he stayed that late… I had always assumed he was gone or he was attending a club.”
The teacher shook his head with his own confusion. “No. I don’t believe that’s the case but you always leave early, don’t you? Just let him know you’re here. I heard he’s somewhere by the track field.”
“How nice. The track team is still around!”
“I don’t know,” he shook his potbelly for added effect and added a self-deprecating laugh. “I’m probably the wrong person to ask after all but I heard they demolished the track team after a few years. I wonder what happened…”
This made Mariko’s blood go ice cold. She didn’t know that they did that. She knew that Keisetsuin wasn’t known for its sports or academics but, at least her family, were prideful about the track team.
“Uh… I… I think I know what happened…” Mariko said as she turned back to her half-graded paper. She could feel her body heat rise up and she felt her heartbeat quicker against her chest. “Did… did anyone tell you yet?”
“No, no one told me anything.” Should she tell him too? She had told Tsukada a few months ago and her attitude seemed to be the same since then. She hadn’t done anything different but would this teacher do anything differently? “It’s not a big deal. As long as Okamoto-san locks the school at the end of the night, it doesn’t bother me.”
And then he took his leave. Her heart still beat against her chest as he merely shrugged off her fears and Mariko couldn’t help but think it unfair. He got to remain in ignorant bliss while Mariko… wasn’t but those feelings passed. For a flare of a moment, she reverted back to her old high school self and she had to relax and stay calm.
Maybe it was Okutari’s weather influencing her - her mother always used to comment on how easily influenced she was by it.
“Relax, Inai-san, it’s only the literal ghosts of your past.”
Mariko looked around her, just in case, someone came in to do another cruel prank on her. But there was no one there. That voice was someone who she didn’t expect but there’s no way she could be around.
She could feel herself get scared. There was no way it could be her.
Mariko got up and immediately went towards the old trek to the track field. However, on the way, she tripped on her heels and she groaned for maybe a little longer than she originally intended. She could feel tears crawl up to her eyes and she could even feel some tears go down her face.
“Nakashima-san… I’m sorry… I’m sorry…” She managed to speak in between her sobs. She slowly got up after a cry and she realized how dark the school got. Even though the sky was still beautifully orange and purple and pink, there seemed to be a never-ending void that threatened her. It didn’t want her to go in further. However, Mariko wasn’t going to let it win.
Mariko took off her heels and decided to walk, or somewhat limp, the rest of the way towards the track field. She knew she wasn’t hurt too bad but she felt at such a weird angle, weirder than how one normally would fall from a trip, so she slowed down to make sure she wasn’t hurt too badly.
With determined and fearful courage, Mariko made her way down the familiar hallways. Maybe there were still students in their clubs or maybe they designated a certain time for them to leave, Mariko never stuck around that long until that night.
“Are you really sorry?”
Mariko ignored it.
“If you’re not going to give me an answer, then I guess…”
But before the voice finished its taunting whispers, she saw Okamoto who came out of the cafeteria, where she would’ve had to cut through. He seemed a bit irritated and turned towards Marko’s direction.
“There you are,” he said with a gentle smile. Mariko didn’t answer but gave him a smile in return. She couldn’t have said anything because Okamoto ignored her completely and walked a little past her… and hugged seemingly the empty air.
The only person in the world, in death and in the living, who would call him that… was Nakashima Hiromi.
To be continued…