But I Love Her
“W-what’s going on?!” Mariko suddenly yelled as she almost lost her footing due to her shock. Her voice bounced along the empty walls as though they wanted to say that for years. All she saw was a grown man hugging that most other adults would call an imaginary friend but there was so much malice for her that she felt she was about to get strangled herself.
Masahide turned to her, as though she was the one interrupting such a tender moment, and gave Mariko a soft smile and chuckle. He whispered something to the malicious air and he helped her steady. The sight was so strange to her that she nearly fell - she had to use one of the closed homerooms to keep herself up.
“Inai-san, what are you doing here?”
The strange question made her feel she was seeing things wrong, that she was going crazy, and that she shouldn’t trust what her own brain showed before her.
“Masahide-san, that’s not important! Who are you talking to? What’s going on?” She had to slap his hand away - if she accepted his hand, she would have to accept his strangeness. This wasn’t the Masahide she loved back then!
He seemed genuinely surprised that she had slapped his hand away. There was a flash of annoyance and probably anger in his face but Mariko didn’t care. Her eyes couldn’t be fooled! Her eyes were to be trusted! Masahide did something strange and she deserved an explanation! He let out an annoyed sigh - maybe to him it’s obvious, but not to her!
Masahide let out a tired sigh. He then turned to his shoulder and muttered something and all Mariko could feel was malice, malice, and more malice. She shuddered and tried to shrink back into the locked homeroom as it moved to lean in. He didn’t seem to feel the malice and acted as though they had a disagreement until she could finally hear him.
“Just let me explain it to her. She will understand!”
Finally, he turned to her with a half-smile, eager to tell her.
“Well, remember Hiromi? I know she had a terrible accident years ago but she’s been here the whole time!” He opened his arms and acted as though Nakashima Hiromi really did roam around idly. This was the first time she had seen this serious teacher become so animated; it was as though he was a completely different person.
Mariko’s eyes widened. She didn’t say anything. She couldn’t say anything. That voice… it couldn’t be, could it? It truly unnerved her; she didn’t expect such a strange turn of events from her old high school crush.
“You see, after the accident, they wouldn’t let us students stay after school anymore. Clubs were canceled. Some students fought and protested but our parents wouldn’t let us stay anymore until they caught the culprit!” Mariko remembered that. “However, one day, rather I should say, one night, I snuck to a school as part of a dare… a dare to see if Hiromi actually haunted the school so soon!”
Mariko hardly remembered there being any dares. However, immediately after the body was found, classes were immediately canceled. They tried to teach students at the local community recreation center but there was a feeling of awkwardness and the bullying seemed to have started immediately.
It didn’t take long before they caught the culprit and the classes resumed back at the building. Before the autumn ended, Mariko had the tack stuck her foot. Shortly after, she and her family tried to fight the school and lost. They moved out before the first frost that year.
If there was anything else that happened, including any strange dares, she would’ve never known about it.
Masahide went on, even during her short flashbacks.
“Oh, I cried out for her and I was worried that the police were still here. But, thankfully, I had stumbled onto the track field. And then, that’s when I saw her! I saw my precious Hiromi! She was questioning me what happened and I had to tell her… she was in an accident… but I told her not to worry because I’m here again!”
He sounded like a madman. He sounded nothing like the Masahide then and now. Mariko shivered under her scared sweat and she wanted to leave, right now and right then. She didn’t have friends from that era, only the ones she somehow made at her new school, so she couldn’t validate that.
“And we’re together again… but the problem is that… I’m growing older and she’s still the same age… It’s a bit strange, isn’t it? Then I decided to become a teacher. It was hard for those years - but I always recommended this school for my assistant years and I did my best to get hired here.”
Mariko still couldn’t say anything. This story sounded so strange - and she shouldn’t just accept it.
“Masahide-san… Nakashima-san… she’s...well, she’s dead…”
“I know that. I’m okay with that. She’s okay with that.”
“Is the school okay with that?” She asked as she tried to stand on her own feet. Mariko decided to keep her high heels off and she could feel her old high school self trying to take over. She felt the cool linoleum floor against her skin and the hose she wore to maintain a facade in the school. She tried not to wince at the sudden cold touch but she had to make a point. “Masahide-san, this is strange! What do you tell the Head Teacher? What do you even tell the others?”
She wanted so much to pull back in fear, to hide away the strange images and words of a sad man who had lost his love tragically - but she had to at least stand up for herself and for the living. This behavior was strange and he had to know that.
However, before Masahide could answer her, the malicious wind came in between them as Mariko tried to force herself in front of him with her index finger.
“How dare you! How dare you!”
The voice was clear. It was Nakashima Hiromi’s voice that was clear as the night that gleamed in the school. She then started to appear before Mariko and the image caused her to scream.
Floating from the ground, there she was. Instead of the healthy tanned skin, the runner’s tan Mariko kept in her memories, her skin was translucent and pale and white. Instead of her sparkling brown eyes, they were replaced with red and angry ones. Around her neck had the injury that ultimately killed her but it was patched up - probably due to some magic. There was a chain that wrapped around her waist and she still wore the old black uniform they wore back then - a sailor uniform that had never gone out of style for the town of Okutari. Her hair was still the same length it was when she died.
And her teeth were sharpened and strange… nothing like what a normal human would have!
This wasn’t Nakashima-san at all…!! This was a demon!! This wasn’t how Mariko remembered her!! Not at all!! She took a few steps back and hit the door to the homeroom again.
“Masa-chan wouldn’t dare to lie, especially about me! You know how much he loves me, Inai-san…Did you forget? You probably did, huh? Oh… you look so different… your hair… isn’t as short anymore. You grew your hair?” She got progressively angrier the more she inspected Mariko. “Your glasses are gone too…? Oh my… you grew so ugly!”
Mariko couldn’t really understand why Nakashima-san was so mean to her. She remembered the glittering smile and the kind eyes she used to have. Did being alone in the school for so long really warp her spirit so much? But Mariko was terrified; so terrified that she started to cry and mumbled her apologies.
“Don’t apologize to me!!! You already had me killed! How dare you show your face back here! How dare you make demands of Masa-chan! How dare you!”
Mariko’s eyes flooded with tears as Nakashima-san started to float around her. With how long the chain was, it didn’t make any noise against the floor. It seemed that Nakashima-san took some sort of sick pleasure as she taunted her and laughed. The laughter happened after a few more “how dare you”.
“Hiromi, isn’t that enough? Don’t be cruel to our old classmate. Didn’t I tell you too? She’s my coworker. She works here now.”
By now, Mariko was on her knees as she sobbed into her hands that she really couldn’t hear what Nakashima-san responded with. She could tell that the ghost, spirit, whatever of hers was not happy about it. She floated around Okamoto and played with his hair as though they were just flirting around… like back then… But Mariko was so scared at the images and words before her. She couldn’t handle it all at once. Everything was strange to her… everything was strange to her… why was this so casual? Why couldn’t she move anymore?
The ghost must’ve found some magic to curse her and to stun her, and Mariko was a witch…
“Inai-san is the Witch of Okutari? Is she really? What weak magic she has!”
“Now, now, Hiromi, I told you! Be kind to her…”
“Hmm… I’ll do it for you, Masa-chan... “ She whispered something again to him and he seemed to argue back. But Mariko couldn’t take it anymore as her heart slam against her chest.
She got up and screamed as she finally found the strength to get up and run the opposite way. All she wanted to do was to grade her students’ papers. That’s all she wanted!! She wanted so much to leave this school and never go back again.
Eventually, she found her way back to the teacher’s lounge and slammed the door shut. She probably left her expensive high heels behind and she felt extremely tired from the sudden running and crying and yelling. She tried to catch her heart up with her breath but it was really hard. However, she needed to understand what she saw before her. Mariko breathed in and out from the horrors of earlier, from the cruel words of earlier.
Clear as night, Nakashima Hiromi came back to her and wasn’t like anything she remembered. She was cruel and taunting and she seemed to relish the pain she was causing to Mariko. Even though she mumbled her apologies, it didn’t go through to her. She was angry with her, wasn’t she?
Mariko reached over to turn on the light and realized how comforting the light was for her. It was warm and then she found the irony of her turning to the teachers’ lounge for comfort when it was one of the places she dreaded the most once before.
She laughed at herself and locked the door from the inside. Maybe it wouldn’t do much for her since Nakashima-san could probably just phase through it but she didn’t know what to make of Okamoto anymore. She had become close to him again in the few months she started to work at this school and he was one who extended his kind hand once again. He was the one who introduced him to Tsukada, who became her first friend at this wretched school.
After she locked the door, she slid down to the ground and continued to sob her guilt and fear away.
How come Nakashima-san always came to separate them? In life, she took him away from her. In death, she still had him in her grasp. She haunted the school and she hated Mariko. She remembered a time where they got along as club members would. However, Mariko was the one who was envious of her - she had Okamoto, she had the position of team captain, she had popularity… she was perfect… she was everything her parents wanted her to be and more.
She wanted to leave this town and never come back but her mother… her mother was sick and her older sister already had a family to take care of. Her husband was more concerned about his image as a husband and a successful man than the well-being of his mother-in-law. She had to sacrifice an early career for a town that demanded the extermination of a witch.
Mariko didn’t know how long she cried but she needed her friend. She crawled over to the Rolodex the Head Teacher on his desk had for home numbers of the teachers and tried to find one particular one. Once she found it, she grabbed a spare notepad and wrote it down. Maybe she had gotten this number before but she couldn’t access it right then.
Then, she reached for her own phone and dialed it as she tried to calm her tears further with what little strength she had left.
“Mama, I’m sorry… but I’m going to stay at a friend’s place.”
“Mari-chan, what’s wrong? What happened? Do you want me to send Papa over to the school to deal with nasty teachers again?”
“N-no, no… It’s nothing like that. I’ve had a rough night and I think I drank a little too much. I’m sorry for calling so late.”
“This isn’t like you, Mari-chan! If you’re sick, if something’s the matter, please come home and talk! You can talk to Mama about anything!”
“Ah, didn’t I tell you? I have a friend now. My coworker, Tsukada-san, and I went drinking after we finished grading papers and I think we got a little too much in our systems… It’s better this way. It’s safer. I know Mama doesn’t want me to drive in such a state.”
Her mother breathed into the other receiver. “Just come home tomorrow, okay? You know you can talk to Mama. Please don’t forget.”
“Of course, Mama. Please get some sleep.”
When she hung up, she placed the receiver on its hook. Her face was sullen from the crying and the fear she had to deal with earlier. A worried Tsukada waited for her on the sofa as she watched her come back from the den.
Mariko felt comfortable in the clothes that she borrowed from Tsukada and she also felt guilty for it, even more, guilt than she already had. Once she reached the den, she sat down on the sofa next to her and looked down at her lap.
Her hair was still a bit wet from her shower earlier and she could see the difference in their shampoos already as it already disagreed with her hair by looking frizzy. She didn’t want to face Tsukada. For her to call her at such an hour, crying, talking about ghosts and Okamoto… she still couldn’t believe it herself.
She didn’t know how Nakashima-san didn’t do anything, much less say anything, before she left. And neither did Okamoto. In fact, she didn’t see them for the rest of the night so it didn’t feel real anymore. Did it happen or did she see some strange shadows and make up a story? She is the witch of Okutari and she knew that authors had magic in their words.
Mariko could see her bangs, still wet, hang from her head and she shook with so many different emotions, she didn’t know which to articulate first.
Tsukada, with her shorter and more styled hair, was the first to say something.
“Are… you sure you saw Okamoto-san?”
“I don’t know if I believe it myself… but he was there. He spoke of dares and acted like Nakashima-san being there this whole time was completely normal.” Mariko slowly brought her legs close to her. The pajamas she wore were white… ghostly white but that was all the pajamas Tsukada had to spare. “Tsukada, I’m so sorry to involve you but I just didn’t know who else I could call…” She buried her face in her hand and thought she had no more tears to cry.
Tsukada came closer to Mariko and stroked her hair and patted her back in a comforting way, her playful smile long gone.
“Oh, it’s fine. I know I said before I’m not okay with ghost stories and hauntings… but you’re my friend. You’re my only friend in this small ass town so I can go head to head with this bitch of a ghost if I have to!” She flexed her arm, which surprisingly had some muscle on it when she looked up. She gave her a playful smile to really drive home this fact. “And call me Yukari from now on, okay? I don’t have any exorcism tips but I’m going to fight for you!”
Mariko shouldn’t feel good after the words Nakashima-san told her but… Tsukada, well, Yukari’s words comforted her. She really wanted to understand Okamoto but now she was terrified of him. He wasn’t himself. She understood that people change as they get older but that was such a drastic, almost maniacal, change that she wasn’t sure it was the same person.
“I’m glad you called me, Inai-sa--”
“If I can call you Yukari, you can call me Mariko.” Mariko interrupted her slightly and Yukari smiled brighter.
“I’m glad you called me… Mariko. From what it sounds like, maybe Okamoto-kun just couldn’t let her go. From what you said, he seemed to really love her. That’s a pity, but it’s time to move on! Hmm… I don’t know what we should do from now on.
“When you told me that his girlfriend was the one who died, you told me not to treat him any differently. But after this... I don’t know if I could continue being friends with him after that. Well, more like acquaintances. Now I know why he’s always late at school or where he goes during lunches…. It’s really fucking creepy!”
Mariko nodded slowly as she listened to her.
“I think the best thing we can do is continue to treat him the same way.”
“What? No way! No, no, no way! We have to talk to him tomorrow!”
“Yukari, I know we probably should but it’s too soon… plus Nakashima-san haunts the school. Even if we could, we couldn’t do it there. We have to do it off campus.”
“Dammit… you’re right. Hey, come on. Want some beer? I can get you more and considering the night you just had, you really need a drink!”
“Usually, I would say no… but I think I’m going to say yes this time. Thankfully, tomorrow is Sunday so maybe it’s okay.”
After she picked her up from the school, Yukari listened to her on the way and bought her some dinner. Some patrons were nosy and asked why Mariko was shoeless, why she cried, and why they were out. Luckily, Yukari handled it pretty well and had a pretty good excuse for that but it’s none of their business… Mariko wished Yukari was a bit nicer towards the older generation but she also realized that’s just who she was and, honestly, she was happy for it.
The two tried to talk about other things besides the events of that night. However, when the two went to bed, Mariko was sure she heard some chains rattling against the window… but eventually, she realized it was her imagination. After all, the chain that wrapped around Nakashima-san was constrained to the school.
To be continued…