But I Love Her
Nakashima Hiromi didn’t know what to do. The only person who gave her kindness at Keisetsuin High School was the strange girl Inai Mariko. Everyone seemed wary of her at first which shouldn’t be that strange - Okutari was the closest town to Yamakoshi after all. Wouldn’t it be normal for people to transfer in and out? Wouldn’t it be normal for those to commute to either settlement? However, Mariko, or Mari-chan as she wanted to call her, was always considered odd by the other students. Maybe it was her association with the other girl that drove away the other students - but, to Hiromi, Mariko wasn’t that strange.
Granted, she had extremely short hair and a strange habit of putting in horror references here and there, but it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t annoying. In fact, she found it charming in her own way. Maybe she’ll grow out of it and become a normal high school girl but for the most part, she was the most welcoming part of Keisetsuin High School. If it wasn’t for her, she wouldn’t have joined the track team!
But when she asked for Okamoto Masahide’s tutoring services, she didn’t expect the other classmates to push them together as hard as they did.
“What a smart match!”
“Nakashima-san, better you than anyone else here to get his nose out of those books!”
“Okamoto-kun is a good boy. He’ll be so good to you!”
Truth to be told, she wasn’t initially interested in him. She only fell for him because of how Mariko, and their classmates, talked about him. He was a prince in a fairy tale as far as she knew. However, Hiromi could tell that Okamoto could easily fit that trope - he was kind, caring, handsome, and everything a girl could want. At her old school in Yamakoshi, she never had a boyfriend. Even in junior high, any boy she was interested in always had their own girlfriends.
For the fact that Okamoto, soon Masa-chan, was single at the time was a lucky break.
But she had forgotten how much Mariko liked him. Most girls felt bad and would abide by unwritten rules not to steal their friend’s crush but Hiromi had forgotten about that. As soon as he said he was single, Hiromi went in for the kill, so to speak.
She had the burden of being the one to tell Mariko but the instant Masa-chan said yes to going out together, a student overheard them. That student blurted it out to everyone who stayed over at the time and soon enough, their class congratulated them, almost seemingly non-stop. It was only supposed to be those two there in that classroom at that time. Clubs were going and they were supposed to be alone.
Hiromi didn’t know what to do.
“If you asked for my opinion, I don’t think they’re going to last. I mean, think about it! She’s too dumb! She’s a jock and he’s extremely smart! There’s no way she could keep up with his conversations, right? All she ever thinks about is running anyway!”
“Inai-kun, that’s… mean.”
“Plus, I don’t think anyone really asked for your opinion. It’s not like you’re Okamoto-kun’s girlfriend or anything.”
“Does he even know you exist?”
“Well, beyond a joke, that is!”
Hiromi wasn’t supposed to hear that either. Did she really think she was dumb? Just because she found her passion for running didn’t mean anything in particular about her intelligence, right? That was cruel…It hurt. It hurt that it came from her only friend.
And they saw that hurt and dove right in. The other girls found Hiromi and comforted her. They found that as a way to talk badly about Mariko and encouraged Hiromi to vent about her.
So, she did.
“She’s a bit obsessed over Okamoto-kun… it’s a little weird.”
“Isn’t she a chuuni? Ew, if I were a boy, I would never date her!”
“I’m surprised boys even go near her still!”
They cackled. Hiromi cackled along with them. It was only supposed to be for venting but it also felt good. It felt so good to take something for herself for once. For once, it was justified - Mariko always had a bad attitude, her new friends revealed. She had done something disgusting when they were in elementary school to solidify that and Mariko doubled down on it ever since.
Ah, so that’s why people avoided Mariko. Now Hiromi understood. She understood it all. So she decided to stop being friends with her.
When she was interested in a boy that had a girlfriend, she’d be angry at herself so it was nice to take something for herself. It was nice to finally be the one to choose her prince instead of being the lone princess. After all, a strange girl like Mariko wouldn’t know what to do in a normal relationship. Okamoto-kun deserved something more normal. And Hiromi was the one to give it to him.
It’s okay to be a little selfish, right?
Slowly and surely, Hiromi tore herself away from Mariko. Excuses to hang out with her ‘smart’ boyfriend, excuses to do better on her homework to ‘keep up with him’, anything to separate herself from the bitterness Mariko apparently carried in her heart. If she wanted to carry such bitterness, then she will face the consequences alone.
Eventually, Mariko got the message.
At a distance, Hiromi still cared about Mariko. At a distance, she still tried to be friendly towards her. They still had to see each other at the track meetup under the summer sun and so, Hiromi could at least expect civility from Mariko there.
“Oh, Nakashima-kun, you’re doing so great! You’re so talented! I’m blown away! Why, if you keep this up, you could easily be the next track captain in your second year!”
It happened quickly. She didn’t even have time to say anything in return. That wasn’t her aim. Her participating in the track was just supposed to be for fun - not a career. That wasn’t her goal at all.
“Ugh, who else are you going to sleep with, Nakashima-kun? Is there anyone else I should be wary of? First, Okamoto-kun but now the coach? Disgusting. I thought you were better than that.”
“Inai-kun! How dare you say such rude things!”
“Hiromi-chan worked hard!”
“Unlike you, she focuses really hard on her running!”
“Does running even require that much brainpower?”
“Maybe if you weren’t so weird, you’d actually have friends!”
And she kept pushing it and the girls took the bait. However, Hiromi had enough of it.
She would’ve kept an eye out for Mariko behind her back but it’s clear that she didn’t even want that. Did she even notice Hiromi’s eyes behind her head? Did she realize how talented she was? If Mariko grew out her hair, she could’ve been a beauty that rivaled even the prettiest girl in their year. If Mariko’s personality wasn’t so chuuni and so bitter, she would garner so many friends - being alone would be a dream, a boorish nightmare.
But Hiromi had enough.
And she thought that. She thought that every day and, in every practice, they shared and she still wouldn’t leave Mariko alone.
The two ended up seeing each other more as the season for track closed far more than they wanted. They ignored each other although Hiromi still watched her. In truth, Mariko was more suited to be the track captain than Hiromi would be. And it’s just as well - Mariko was the one who frequently put in more work than her but the coach never saw that.
Instead, like Hiromi, he saw a strange chunni girl who read horror novels and who refused to grow her hair out. She refused to grow up. Unlike Hiromi though, the coach didn’t know about beyond what they saw. Hiromi’s own hair was short but it still retained the image of a cute, youthful high school girl. It was normal for Hiromi’s hair to be as short as it was but it was abnormal for Mariko as it is.
And yet she didn’t reach out anymore. Hiromi, for once, knew what she should do.
Suddenly, as it turned colder and colder, Mariko appeared on the track less and less. Hiromi had thought it was because maybe she finally found a friend or even a boyfriend, but when she saw Mariko step out of a house with an old man… The alarms in Hiromi’s head started to bang very loudly.
From what she remembered; her teammates had told her that the old man who lived there was a pedophile. At the start of the school year, the coach had tried to dissuade him from watching the girls run. The upperclassmen corroborated this story and told them further that the only reason why the Head Teacher, or anyone besides the coach, didn’t do anything is because the creepy old man used to be a coach himself.
“They said, we can’t force him to move away. When his wife was around, it was worse! She always used to defend him! But nowadays, they just… ignore him. I mean, he stays far enough away from us but coach always warned us to be careful when we stayed after school.”
Did anyone tell Mariko not to stay after school, much less avoid him? Most likely, she ignored the warnings. Most likely, the other students just stopped caring. If she wasn’t going to listen, then why force her to? That was what everyone else said when Hiromi brought it up with the others.
“Well, she probably wants to be touched by that creepy old man. After all, that’s the only form of contact she’ll probably ever get from a man.”
None of them said it out loud, but Hiromi thought of it. And she was disgusted with herself. In an effort to make up for what she thought about, Hiromi decided to put herself in danger. She was scared to talk to the coach - would he even care about someone like Mariko? Would he use his authority to punish Mariko if she went to the house anyway? Would Mariko even listen to the coach? And even now, Hiromi referred to her as Mariko in her head. At least she knew she still cared about her… but she didn’t want to admit out loud.
Because Mariko bad-mouthed her and pushed her away, Hiromi was worried that Mariko might do something more reckless and would even hurt herself. However, she didn’t want to burden anyone else. She hated that she was really the only one who would protect someone like Mariko from a creepy old man.
Hiromi felt disgusted at herself the closer she got to the old man’s home. She could even feel bile run up her throat as she reached up to ring the doorbell.
Asari Hirotsugu would be a name Hiromi would always remember and perhaps she should’ve been madder at him. But the instant, when the door opened and that old man saw Hiromi for the first time, something told her that her fate was sealed. She didn’t know at the time what that fate was, but it was sealed. And it was inescapable.
Hiromi only started to visit when she knew Mariko wasn’t around. This took a lot of planning on her part and a lot of grinning. She bared it for as much as she could but found that this old man was infatuated with Mariko - from the way he talked about her techniques to the weird obsession of her short, boyish hair.
It disgusted her to her core.
The old man never touched her. That’s about as much as Hiromi could take away from it. As a matter of fact, he seemed disgusted by her and was way more fascinated with Mariko. If this old man was their age, or maybe even a bit older, it would be understandable that Hiromi would grow jealous of the infatuation - but it’s different when it’s a way older man.
For the times she visited, the only relief she had was seeing her precious Masa-chan’s face afterward. He’d always think that she found a secret path to run at that he shouldn’t visit. But unlike Mariko, he trusted her words and intentions. Most of the time, she would be upset but seeing his smiling, handsome face as they made plans for the future soothed her soul.
After this, she’d think to herself, Masa-chan and I would leave Okutari and back to Yamakoshi. And leave everything behind.
And yet, Hiromi didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t tell her parents. She couldn’t tell her friends. She couldn’t tell Masa-chan. And worst of all, she couldn’t tell Mariko.
Finally, that fateful day arrived. Mariko was moodier than usual and Hiromi had to confront her about the old man. That was the only thing she could think of. The adults were useless, that’s what she believed. Masa-chan would try to do something unnecessary, that’s what she believed. She knew her friends hated Mariko and would doom her to that old man, that’s what she believed.
“Mari--er, Inai-kun,” Hiromi said. She had managed to catch herself from an old habit. She hadn’t called her by her first name in weeks, so she idly wondered why she did that. However, she continued in spite of that. “I need to talk to you about something.”
Mariko slammed her shoe locker door shut. Normally, it would bother the students around them but since it’s Mariko, no one paid any mind. Something seemed to fly out of the locker and landed almost literally in front of Hiromi.
“What do you want, Nakashima-kun? Did you come to humiliate me some more? Did you want to rub your relationship to my face? There’s nothing more you can say to me. Go away. Just...go away.”
Hiromi ignored the bile and picked up the letter. It was addressed to Mariko but it didn’t seem that the other saw the shaky kanji of her name. Hiromi opened the envelope and read its contents:
Lately, I’ve been thinking about you more and more. Your friend Hiromi is interesting but she’s not you. You have a natural talent in running that I want to be explored further. I may have failed the Olympics but you could take my place.
I’m glad you’re alone, Mari-chan. No one in that school can understand a jewel in the desert like you. I have to confess my feelings to you in this letter. Oh, you make me feel young again! You make my heart beat harder and you make me feel years, even decades younger!
If you can forgive an old man’s sudden confession, if you would come to me, please come after school after all the clubs are done for the night. I will treat you to a splendid dinner and a night you won’t ever forget.
Hope to see you soon,
She was disgusted at this proclamation of love. Shouldn’t he find someone closer to his age? However, she realized that Mariko was in the middle of asking her a question.
“What is that you’re reading? Did someone else confess to you?”
A quick lie sealed both their fates.
“Ah, yeah. You know that old man that sometimes watches over us?” Hiromi saw a jolt of surprise flash through her eyes. She had to pretend she didn’t see it. “He invited me to dinner tonight. Isn’t that weird?” She tried to play it off as something innocent.
“A-are you seeing Hirotsugu-san?”
“Well, yeah. You’re seeing him too, right? He used to be in the Olympics, right? It’s only natural us runners would visit someone important like that!” She could see the horror in her eyes - the very horror she’d read about in her books perhaps. Hiromi didn’t think she knew of Hirotsugu’s true intentions - but if this caused Mariko to hate her, it wouldn’t have mattered. She would’ve protected her at the very least.
“You couldn’t … let me have anything, Nakashima-kun. If you want to go see Hirotsugu-san, then be my guest.”
Unlike her fiery anger from before, there was something cold about her words. Something cold about the air she left behind froze Hiromi herself but she had to convince herself it was for her. It was the best option she had. Hiromi didn’t know what to do.
She had to turn down an invitation from friends. She had to turn down an invitation from Masa-chan.
“I’ll wait for you then. Like I always do!” He smiled brightly and kindly, as he always did.
“No, Masa-chan, you shouldn’t. You need to go home, okay?”
“Are you sure? Hiromi, I promise I’ll wait for you.”
“Yeah. I’ll call you when I’m home. Please don’t wait for me.”
She wished she allowed him to stay that night. For when it was she who arrived at Hirotsugu Asari’s doorstep, and not Mariko, it enraged him.
He always seemed to just tolerate Hiromi. He was kind to Hiromi’s face, even if he did seem annoyed at her. However, that was a side of him she had never seen, never anticipated. Truth be told, she didn’t know what she expected to do… but a question lingered in her mind louder than anything sensical. What was it about Mariko that he was so drawn to? In her own way, Mariko was a witch. People at school always joked about her being a witch - she was a chuuni and she believed she was a witch. And Hiromi started to believe that in that instant she saw his anger.
The old man’s hands were cold but he was hot with fury. Any logic that he had left once he realized that he had been duped. She didn’t remember what he complained about. She remembered she struggled but it was pointless against an adult. She felt like she flew off the ground as he said something that carried Hiromi to her grave.
“Mariko has bewitched me! Y-You are just a common girl!”
She didn’t remember when she finally closed her eyes. She didn’t remember when she let go of her last breath.
The last thing she remembered was watching the vicious and angry old man choke her body. She floated above them and watched them with almost a disinterested look long after she left that realm. She didn’t feel anything. She couldn’t feel anything. Was there anything left to feel?
Oh, I’m dead now. And it was all because of a cruel witch named Mariko Inai.
To Be Continued…