But I Love Her
The next Sunday, Mariko woke up after a surprisingly restful night, not even a hangover. She didn’t remember any of her dreams but it was nice to have a sleepover again - and in Okutari, of all places! Her high school self would’ve pinched herself three times to make sure she’s awake! Maybe four times to ensure her that she wasn’t part of some cruel prank.
She soon realized that she had to put on her contacts. She had to make do and put them in some water solution since she came to Yukari’s place quite unannounced. She did feel a bit bad that she had to come to her friend’s house like this - shaken up about Okamoto’s secret… about the angry malice Nakashima-san had for her and how ‘ugly’ she grew up.
Mariko remembered as she cleaned her contacts and put them on when she first arrived on that first day of school. People thought she was a boy who was confused about their gender just because she didn’t have the stereotypical long hair other high school girls had. Her glasses probably didn’t help since they were rather big on her back then…
Once they were in, she had to adjust her eyes as she started to smell something delicious coming from the kitchen. The fact that Yukari could cook shouldn’t surprise her as much as it did but when she remembered how Yukari reacted to her mother’s bento box, she couldn’t help but smile. She was glad she was by herself because she felt so giddy about having a sleepover… especially at her age.
Even though Nakashima-san’s words hurt, and they cut deeply, she realized as she put on her clothes from the day before that she had not grown up ‘ugly’. She’s bold to think that she grew up to be a pretty woman. Her hair is a lot longer than it was in high school. She exchanged her big glasses for contacts. She grew a few inches and learned how to put on makeup after finally begging her older sister to teach her.
Mariko was bold enough to say she grew up pretty - and that’s something Nakashima-san would never take away from her. Maybe she spoke with jealousy that she got to live and Nakashima-san didn’t. She didn’t get to leave Okutari and realize that there was a whole world out there that was waiting to be explored. Even though Mariko was back in this poor provincial town, the town that accused a teenager a witch, she could at least say she has been outside of there at least once.
And even to an outsider like Yukari Tsukada, she could see that she’s human and the town itself was wrong. There was nothing to fear anymore. Okutari was wrong. They were wrong to call her a witch. They were wrong to chase her out and now that she’s back - she could finally say they were wrong. And more importantly, she was wrong.
At least, that’s what she thought until she saw Okamoto talking to Yukari when she stepped into the den. The smell of breakfast still wafted through the room - and now that Mariko thought about it, they must be in an apartment so it might’ve been more appropriate to say this was the living room. After all, a teacher’s salary may not have been enough to live in one of the houses that scattered around the town… and she remembered she heard about some new apartment buildings when she first arrived back.
Before she could question Okamoto’s intentions, he immediately turned to her and gave her a creepy smile. No, it was a regular smile… was it? But she had grown uneasy when he did. He was the last thing she wanted to see first thing in the morning.
“Inai-san,” his gentle voice was laced with something that sent shivers down her spine though she did her best not show it, “how are you feeling? You didn’t seem well last night.”
Mariko didn’t respond. She wanted to look at Yukari’s expression and wanted to question why she let him in - even after their little pow-wow the night before. However, her expression was stuck on Okamoto as she wanted to immediately understand his purpose for being there more than anything. However, due to her lack of answer, Okamoto’s smile slowly and surely became a frown - something that terrified Mariko even more.
“Inai-san? Are you feeling that ill? I didn’t realize you were so sensitive about staying up late. I only came by to check on you and to drop off your shoes.”
He pointed towards the general area of her door. He moved his head along with his finger and slowly turned back to her. His frown got darker and suddenly, for the first time ever, she felt malice from him - almost as though Nakashima-san’s essence protected his aura.
Finally, Mariko was able to swallow her silence and answer him. She couldn’t resist the tears that covered her cheeks but she wanted to stand strong in this malice he apparently had for her now.
But before she could answer, she heard Yukari’s voice after she blew some smoke out of her mouth. The bitter smoke wafted around their nostrils as it tried to penetrate the malicious aura Okamoto apparently had.
“She had a surprise last night, Okamoto-kun. She finished her grading earlier and called me to pick her up. She probably forgot her shoes on the way. It’s rare for her to go out. Thank you for bringing her shoes, but next time, please don’t be so rude to my guest.”
She blew out some more smoke.
“Tsukada-san,” he kept his frown; it really bothered Mariko, “I’m your guest too. Maybe you should be a better host.”
“And maybe it’s time for you to leave. You dropped off her shoes. Get out. And next time, call before you come over.”
Mariko remained frozen but instead of fear, guilt once again covered her heart as she had someone defend her yet again. Before she could turn away from Okamoto, he turned to her and gave her a smile again as he said his goodbyes.
But this smile still didn’t sit right with her this time. Usually, that meant all the time prior to this, his smile undoubtedly brought a smile to her own face but this time… she was fearful and she looked away as more tears came out.
Wordlessly, the man left. He let out another soft chuckle that used to comfort her but he slammed the door out and the couple heard his footsteps walk down the steps. Very soon after that, they heard the rumble of a nearby car and they could hear it drive away to some random direction.
Silence and a few beats later, Mariko squatted down and cried her eyes out. The contacts burned and she tried her best to hold in her tears but it overwhelmed her. She couldn’t hold it in anymore. Immediately, Yukari put out her cigarette in her ashtray and went to Mariko’s side. She tried to whisper comforting words to Mariko but she couldn’t hear her.
Mariko wasn’t allowed peace in this town, wasn’t she? Every time she tried to get along with someone past a certain boundary, the forces in Okutari found a way. She was always the odd one in her classes ever since she started school. Her parents had to defend her every time something happened. Somehow, everything was always her fault instead of them - they just couldn’t accept her! There was nothing wrong with Mariko! Nothing!
She was a good student! She did her studies diligently! She followed the trends as much as she could diligently! She tried to get into the things good girls were supposed to get into! In fact, she has irrefutable proof that there was nothing wrong with her! The city of Yamakoshi accepted her fully! She had friends! There were better career prospects! In fact, had she been able to stay there, had her mother had not gotten ill, she probably would’ve found a suitable husband.
At first, the students at the high school she moved to were awkward because she had transferred before the winter break but the students there accepted her. They even found her strange habit of reading horror stories acceptable and people would turn her for recommendations. Yamakoshi was the ideal place for her… maybe Okutari just never wanted to accept her. It wouldn’t accept a witch but the mountains did.
Yukari still stayed with the crying woman and helped her back into the living room and comforted her to the best of her ability. Soon, Mariko had stopped her crying. She apologized to Yukari as they ate their now cold breakfast and after she washed her face. Once she washed her face, the two made their way back to the kitchen.
“I’m sorry for dragging you into my problems. I feel like I’m a high school kid again…”
“Eh, how do you mean? Friends help each other out, don’t they?” She took a bite of her rice. Then it seemed to hit her. It was something Mariko didn’t want to bring up to her friend but she didn’t regret her previous statement until Yukari opened her mouth. “Wait, were you bullied? Here?”
Mariko could feel her heart crushed. This was something she wanted to hide from Yukari. She didn’t want her involved in the first place. She didn’t want her to know about her bullied past. Sure, she would tell her that she went to high school there - but to be bullied, to even admit to being bullied, and to work there on top of that, made her seem weaker than she really aimed to be. It was a rough position to be in.
Mariko regretted calling her that time. She should’ve just called her mother like the child she still was. However, she realized she couldn’t lie to Yukari. Somehow, the other woman seemed to see right through her and slowly, she nodded her head.
The gears in Yukari’s head slowly turned as she started to make the realization of Mariko’s current position. She placed her chopsticks down on the table, gently. She let out a gentle sigh and reached out to Mariko, who at first, flinched at the soft touch.
“I’m sorry, Mariko. I didn’t realize the full story.”
Then Mariko allowed Yukari to touch her shoulder and rubbed it. She gave her a gentle smile and let out another sigh. She didn’t realize that globs of tears started to come out again and she, once again, burst out crying.
Then she told Yukari everything that happened, including the teachers’ incompetence and why the older ones had been so wary about her. She said that when she was young, she understood all that her parents did for her - all they asked her was to become team captain as per tradition. She said that the superstition is that when a daughter of the Inai family becomes the team captain of any sports team - which happened to be track - they tend to be more successful in life. However, when Nakashima-san was alive, she had received that honor instead of her.
And the way Mariko reacted was worse than when she found out about her and Okamoto getting together. She was the only one who had bad things to say about her - she wasn’t smart enough to keep up with him was an example she gave. She continued on to explain that when Nakashima-san became team captain, she had the audacity to ask if she slept her way to the top as the coach was a man who had quite an interest in Nakashima-san. It turned out to be wholly false but regardless, people’s opinions on her changed from someone who was just really odd to someone who had a bad attitude. It only fueled Mariko into being an outsider.
So when Nakashima-san passed away that night, that’s when the bullying began. It didn’t help matters that she was late to class that morning, of all mornings, because she had started her period and had to take care of that. When she gave the medical reasoning to the teacher, people became suspicious and started passing rumors that she had done something occult-like. People called her a chunnibyou because of all the horror novels she read and the belief became reality when they started to call her a witch.
And then, things escalated. They excluded her from as much as they could. They made sure that she knew she was an outcast. They started to invite her to parties that didn’t exist only to laugh at her that she believed they would include her. Mariko would learn quickly to say no.
Eventually, the teachers started to fall in line with the students and did their own form of bullying. They would grade her assignments harsher than they would any other students’. They would nitpick until Mariko would get 100 points for her grades - but even then, they would try to find something to pick on. It didn’t take until after Mariko moved away, she’d realize how hard the teachers pushed her. As a matter of fact, the teachers in her new school in Yamakoshi praised her for getting such high marks and encouraged Mariko to keep up with her studies.
The last straw was the tack that struck her while she put on her shoes one day. She limped to the nurse’s office and, while unaware of the bullying going on, the nurse patched her up and immediately alerted the other teachers. It seemed that the nurse was the only adult in the school who actually cared about her well-being… because Mariko had revealed to her about the bullying first before her own parents. A fact she didn’t realize she shared with Yukari until that moment. Her parents had always believed they were the first to know but even when the nurse told them, the teachers did nothing.
It was the nurse who encouraged her to open up to her parents.
But even after she explained it, even when it became past lunchtime, Yukari listened intently and quietly. She was shocked to receive such a heavy confession, especially about why Mariko was called the Witch of Okutari. Mariko, though, didn’t and couldn’t know what Yukari thought about her now.
Nowadays, she had been more confident and she worked hard to clean her image of how she was in high school - a chunnibyou with a bad attitude. She was kinder to people and tried to be more empathetic. She tried to withhold her opinions of things, and while that did lose her some friends, others still chose to be around her - even past graduation. However, being back in Okutari, she realized that she would’ve had to eventually face her ugly self. She was only human after all that and it was unsurprising she had skeletons in her closet that even she’s not proud of… but she had to face them.
And she had to conquer them, especially if she wanted Yukari as even one single ally in this town.
Once Mariko was finished with her life story, she took a drink of water. She figured Yukari probably wanted her out of her house - she was a witch after all who practiced blood magic. Maybe the students of Keisetsuin of the past had every reason to ostracize, even bully, her. After all, she was a chunnibyou with a bad attitude…
Yukari sat back, crossed her arms, and seemed to think for a moment. Every moment the other woman didn’t speak, Mariko could feel her old feeling of shrinking back. It was going to happen, wasn’t it? She was going to lose her only ally, wasn’t she?
“Hm… I figured something must’ve happened back then. But I didn’t think it’d be that intense.” She cracked an eye open and let out a sigh. “Well, you’ve seemed to grow out of that bad attitude and I don’t want to say ‘it happens’ because bullying is awful.” She seemed to have trouble with something. Mariko had to include the most important factor.
“Even though Okamoto...san said what he said, he was busy grieving. He wouldn’t bully me. I don’t even think he even noticed it at all… I can’t blame him for that. And I don’t. I didn’t want to reach out to him after what I’ve said.”
“Do you think he would’ve done anything about it?”
Mariko sighed. After earlier… “After earlier, I don’t think so… Maybe I was wise to do so.” She smiled bitterly as the tears didn’t seem to stop flowing. Yukari released yet another sigh and reached out to her again. This time, Mariko allowed her without flinching.
“We all did stupid shit as kids. In fact, the reason why I’m here is because of that.” For the first time, Yukari had a hurt expression on her face.
Mariko gave her a worried look but she knew better than to ask what happened. However, Yukari continued.
“I had met my ex-boyfriend in high school. He had actually moved into my city, all the way in Nagakita, in the middle of our second year. I fell instantly for him and he fell for me. I was one of those gyarus so I had the crazy dyed hair and everything.” Mariko had trouble picturing it since her hair was much shorter and, well, not dyed. Yukari laughed slightly at Mariko’s confusion. “Well, I can imagine it’s hard to see me with blonde hair, but it’s true! One day, remind me to show you - I have pictures!
“But anyway, I fell for him pretty hard and he said he wanted to come back to Okutari one day. He hated the city and from what he told me, it sounded beautiful and quiet. I loved the city myself but from the way he described it, it was like a world outside of our own. You’d think it was made up.
“My grades weren’t so great but he convinced me to move to Okutari with him. I did my best and managed to finish high school. While we went to separate colleges, I studied my ass off and became a teacher. I told him that I would meet him in Okutari so we promised we would do that.
“When I finally came to Okutari last year, who do I find him with? A whole family! We’ve only been separated for two years! Two years! Needless to say, I was hurt. I had just accepted the job at Keisetsuin and settled in this apartment. He tried to beg for me back and said he only did it because his parents manipulated him - they were set in their old ways! It was only supposed to be a few dates… a few dates my ass. I ain’t an idiot.”
She let out a sigh. It’s still clear in her voice and her wavering tone, the wound was still fresh. Now it was Mariko’s turn to extend her arm to her and Yukari rubbed it. She gave Mariko a smile.
“To be honest with you, we both screwed up in high school. We let these men alter these roses to take root in this shitty town. I miss Nagakita so much. That’s where my family are, all my school friends, and hell, even my original dream of being a fashion photographer is stuck in Nagakita! I know you’re here taking care of your mother, so I wouldn’t ask you to leave with me. Maybe when she’s better, you can visit! Okay? Can you promise me you’ll visit me in Nagakita, Mari-chan!”
It was as if Mariko never experienced a ghost tell her how ugly she grew up to be. The thought of Yukari abandoning her after she confessed what happened worried her so much that she started to cry again, even through her smiles and happy tears and the promise of visiting her.
Because she knew she would have to eventually go home and face Okamoto-san and Nakashima-san… but she wouldn’t have to face them alone anymore.