Chapter 8:

Episode Eight

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.
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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!Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“What a smart match!”Bookmark here

“Nakashima-san, better you than anyone else here to get his nose out of those books!”Bookmark here

“Okamoto-kun is a good boy. He’ll be so good to you!”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

For the fact that Okamoto, soon Masa-chan, was single at the time was a lucky break.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

Hiromi didn’t know what to do.Bookmark here

“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!”Bookmark here

“Inai-kun, that’s… mean.”Bookmark here

“Plus, I don’t think anyone really asked for your opinion. It’s not like you’re Okamoto-kun’s girlfriend or anything.”Bookmark here

“Does he even know you exist?”Bookmark here

“Well, beyond a joke, that is!”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

So, she did.Bookmark here

“She’s a bit obsessed over Okamoto-kun… it’s a little weird.”Bookmark here

“Isn’t she a chuuni? Ew, if I were a boy, I would never date her!”Bookmark here

“I’m surprised boys even go near her still!”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

Ah, so that’s why people avoided Mariko. Now Hiromi understood. She understood it all. So she decided to stop being friends with her. Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

It’s okay to be a little selfish, right?Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

Eventually, Mariko got the message.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“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!”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

“Inai-kun! How dare you say such rude things!”Bookmark here

“Hiromi-chan worked hard!”Bookmark here

“Unlike you, she focuses really hard on her running!”Bookmark here

“Does running even require that much brainpower?”Bookmark here

“Maybe if you weren’t so weird, you’d actually have friends!”Bookmark here

And she kept pushing it and the girls took the bait. However, Hiromi had enough of it.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

But Hiromi had enough.Bookmark here

And she thought that. She thought that every day and, in every practice, they shared and she still wouldn’t leave Mariko alone.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

And yet she didn’t reach out anymore. Hiromi, for once, knew what she should do.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

It disgusted her to her core.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

After this, she’d think to herself, Masa-chan and I would leave Okutari and back to Yamakoshi. And leave everything behind.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“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.” Bookmark here

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:Bookmark here

Dear Mari-chan,Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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!Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

Hope to see you soon,Bookmark here

Asari HirotsuguBookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“What is that you’re reading? Did someone else confess to you?”Bookmark here

A quick lie sealed both their fates.Bookmark here

“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.Bookmark here

“A-are you seeing Hirotsugu-san?”Bookmark here

“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.Bookmark here

“You couldn’t … let me have anything, Nakashima-kun. If you want to go see Hirotsugu-san, then be my guest.”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

She had to turn down an invitation from friends. She had to turn down an invitation from Masa-chan.Bookmark here

“I’ll wait for you then. Like I always do!” He smiled brightly and kindly, as he always did.Bookmark here

“No, Masa-chan, you shouldn’t. You need to go home, okay?”Bookmark here

“Are you sure? Hiromi, I promise I’ll wait for you.”Bookmark here

“Yeah. I’ll call you when I’m home. Please don’t wait for me.”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“Mariko has bewitched me! Y-You are just a common girl!”Bookmark here

She didn’t remember when she finally closed her eyes. She didn’t remember when she let go of her last breath.Bookmark here

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?Bookmark here

Oh, I’m dead now. And it was all because of a cruel witch named Mariko Inai.Bookmark here

To Be Continued…Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.