Chapter 8:

My Childhood Friend Really Does Care.

My Dad is an Otaku, My Mom is a Fujoshi, and I Wish I Was Dead

The first thing I notice when I step outside is that it's surprisingly chilly. The sun has already gone down, the wind is fierce and it's already stinging my cheeks. I didn't dress for's really lucky I brought my hoodie. The second thing I notice is that I really didn't think this out. For starters, where am I going to go? I'm sure there are manga cafes around here- and wouldn't that be ironic- but I only have 20000 yen and that's got to go for food, too. And I don't want to go to the park, because then I'd probably get hassled by some homeless geezer. The list of places I can spend the night for free and not stick out is very, very short.

Wait a minute, I know where. The train station. It'll be filled with drunk salarymen sleeping it off, so I won't be bothered much.

On the way to the train station, I pass by the convenience store at the crossroads and stop for a second. My stomach groans in protest. That's right- I didn't even touch that poison my mom made for dinner, and I haven't eaten since noon. The temptation is too much to bear, and I quickly run inside for a pork bun. While I'm browsing, something catches my eye- it's one of those little ice cream pops I used to eat all the time as a kid. I haven't had one in so long, but it would look kind of weird for a high school boy to- oh, who am I kidding? It's not like I would care who saw me. I just cut the only people who I wouldn’t want seeing me out of my life.

The bun is soft and warm and the pork inside is perfectly seasoned, and the more I eat, the calmer I get. The ice cream pop is exactly how I remember but nostalgic. It's doing more than just cooling off my hands- but thankfully, with my jacket on, it’s only chilling me just enough to get me to take some deep breaths. Now that it's been a few minutes, I honestly can't believe I said what I said to my own parents. I mean, it's not like I said anything that was outright wrong...but still, implying they would rather have your best friend as their child than you is crossing a major line. I basically told them that they never wanted to have me at all.

Maybe it was my fault. Maybe Ayame truly didn't pick up on what I wanted. Maybe my mom and my dad really wanted to know what was going on with me, but they couldn't say it. And now I've run, instead of trying to fix it, and left my little sister all alone to deal with it. I've cut my closest friend off over what might just be an honest mistake.

I forcibly shove that thought out of my mind. What a paragon of Japanese masculinity I'm being. Not even fifteen minutes and I'm already having regrets.

The train station is still lit up from the front, but there's nothing on the rails. Figures- at this time, the trains only run every thirty minutes. I don't often come here, but once when I was very, very young we took the train from here to Tokyo to go see the cherry blossoms in Yoyogi Park, all of us as a family, and I remember that I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. The station hasn't changed much since back then.

That's right, we used to do family activities together. A long, long time ago, I guess we were a normal family. Before I was old enough to know what normal was.

Thankfully, the station is not too full of passed-out drunks, since it's not early enough for that. There are a few salarymen, already swaying and red in the face, but none of them pay me any mind. I quickly find an empty bench and lay down on it, with my bag as my pillow. In a few hours, I'll just look like one of the many people who stayed out too late and missed the last train. The platform is open to the air, and I have no blanket, but I'll live. My great-grandparents trekked through Burmese leech-infested waters and got malaria, or so I assume...I can tolerate a little cold.

The far-off city noises lull me to sleep pretty quickly. Or they would, if my mother's crestfallen face didn't stop popping into my mind. And then my father’s, and then Kaede’s. Why am I thinking about them now?

...I'll deal with it in the morning.

The city noises are soothing: cars rushing by, the wind in the trees, and someone running- huh, that's odd. Some drunk's probably having fun. I can hear the pitter-patter of the footsteps gradually get louder until they're the same volume as the drunks slurring on the platform. One of their friends? Who cares? I roll over toward the wall. It's quieter this way, but the footsteps are still coming, they're coming and coming until they're as loud as applause in my ears, or gunshots, and then they stop, and in their place I hear heavy, labored breathing. It's right next to me, but of course the drunk guy is worn out after running all this way, so I don't care. He'll probably go get on the train with his buddies.



"huff, huff...oh, thank God...pfff..." She can barely get any words out, she's gasping for air so bad, and she sounds...scared...that can't be her. Not in a thousand years would she ever act like that.

"Chisato-san called me and she was in such a panic she didn't know what to do and she told me you'd run away and if I knew where you'd gone and you were in trouble and you needed help and...hic...I couldn't call you and I was searching everywhere's all my fault...hic...if only I hadn't said that to her...hic...and I wasn't so stupid and realized you wanted me to keep my mouth shut...hic…no, if only I’d never brought up that idea in the first place because I thought it might be fun...and if I wasn't so annoying and selfish and such a bad friend that I didn't realize how much you were suffering this wouldn't have happened...hic...I'm so sorry...I really am..." The only noises after are muffled whimpers.

Is she...crying? The great Ayame-sama would never do that. She'd never call me by my full name without any honorifics or nicknames in the first place. 

I'm dreaming. I'm in that state halfway between waking and sleeping and my guilty mind has hallucinated something so painful to imagine I can't stand it. I’ve never seen her cry because she never gets upset enough to…and just the thought in my mind that I’ve possibly done something unforgivable enough that she could is ripping me apart. I know what I did was awful. My brain could at least tell me in a more tactful way.

I've made peace with it, but I can't go back to my own home, not now, or I'd go insane. I'll give it a few days and then come back.

When you come to terms with your own wrongdoing, the turmoil in your heart and mind fades and you are able to achieve inner peace, or so they say. I've taken responsibility for it now. I won't even wait a few days. I'll go back and apologize tomorrow.

The sobbing doesn't stop. In fact, it gets louder. I don't understand. I thought accepting my own failure would calm me, but it seems to have the opposite effect.

Aaaaah, I see what it is...that drunk I’ve imagined as Ayame is getting more belligerent...if he doesn't stop I'm going to get up and yell at him...

But the next thing that follows is not weeping, but a plaintive whisper. "Please, Haruto. Haven’t you realized I l-"

And the sound is drowned out by the roar of a train as it grabs me and jerks me from my pitiful dream and back into the waking world, where the tinny yellow lamps cast their artificial glow on the platform.

As I come to, there is no drunk salaryman wobbling onto the last train in front of me. Instead, Ayame Shiritori is silhouetted against the steel gray and bright light of the passenger cars, her hair and clothes in a disheveled mess, her eyes red and swollen.

I rub my eyes and she doesn't disappear.

I open my mouth to say something and before I even get a sound out she jumps at me and pushes me down with all her weight, her arms wrapped so tightly around me I'm struggling to breathe.

I can still hear her muffled sobs. "I'm so glad you're safe...hic...Chisato-san made it sound like you were dead...hic...and if it was because of me I'd die too...I'm so glad...I thought you hated me...hic...I'm sorry..."

Stop it, you idiot. Now the drunks are starting to stare. My cheeks are burning.

What did I say? Don't come looking for me. Oh yeah, that really does sound like something someone who's about to jump off a building would say...and if she was headed toward the station that means she thought I'd...

I've got to comfort her somehow, and the first thing that I can choke out of my idiot mouth is "Stop that. What do you think Miko Mikono would think of you?"

The crying ceases and suddenly she breaks into another peal of her birdlike, twittering laughter. "I can't believe you, Haru-kun. Now you want to talk about Mikono-sensei?"

I suddenly realize that my entire front is wet, and then I realize in horror that it's sticky. She's blown her snot and tears all over me. "Get off me, stupid. You're ruining my clothes and everyone is staring."

She suddenly jumps back like she was shot from a cannon and turns the brightest shade of crimson I've ever seen. I didn't realize she was part chameleon. "I guess I was being pretty pathetic...ahahahahahaha...sorry, Haru-kun..."

If that’s pathetic, then what am I? Dirt?

Just as I feared, there is a giant, gooey wet spot on the front of my shirt. "Now I'm going to have to crawl back home and clean this off..." Or, if I wanted to be really stubborn, wash it in the bathroom of the convenience store. But I'm not going to do that. I can't, after all the trouble I've caused everyone. I realize now that my parents thought that was honestly the last time they would ever see me, and Kaede too. I might not like them, I might still be mad at them, but…absolutely nobody deserves to be stuck waiting like that, wondering if their own child’s mangled corpse is going to appear in some vacant lot soon, or if they’ll never know. Imagine if I was a parent, and that was the last time I ever saw my son? I need to go back home, get down on my hands and knees, and hope they ground me for less than a whole kalpa.

"You can use my washer and dryer."

"Your what?"

"Don't look so shocked. I'm just helping a friend out. Since this is my problem too. You should be thankful. Baka-Haru." She’s still a pretty bright shade of pink.

Now she's acting more like Normal Ayame.

"Are your parents okay with that? Are mine?"

"Well, on the way here, I got a call from my dad, and he said he had talked to your dad, and he said if I found you and you didn't want to go home for a while, you could stay with us. My dad sounded pretty hesitant about it, but...he said your dad didn't want to force you to be around him if it was causing you that many problems, and so long as you’re safe it didn’t matter. My dad finally agreed- he’s doing a favor for his old friend too. So it’s okay. I promise."

The next emotion that washes down on me is a wave of guilt stronger than any I’ve faced this entire time. On top of every way I made people worry, I'm going to be a mooch. But a girl is offering to help me after going to so much trouble to search for me...I need to keep my honor as a man!

Okay. Now I'm sounding like Tatsurou. This is just really, really sad.

I finally stand up. "If your family is okay with it...I humbly accept your generous offer."

She smiles slightly. "Of course! My dad's going to be there all weekend, so it's not like it'll be trouble...wait, were you thinking of making a move or something? Perv!"

"I- I didn't-" I cry.

"Gotcha, Haru!" She laughs, half from relief, half from juvenile glee, so hard she nearly doubles over. "You're beet-red! I wish you could see the look on your stupid face!"

Well, that's the Ayame Shiritori I know. And now it's definitely time to leave. I take a look around- the drunks have fully stopped their slurring conversations and are watching the both of us like spectators at a baseball game. One of them whistles and his buddies laugh. Another one with a tie on his head starts clapping.

Her laughter finally peels off. "Come on, Haru-kun. Let's go home.”

"Yeah," I nod. "Let's."

Pope Evaristus
Steward McOy