The metal sliding doors got caught about halfway as Isao tried pushing it open, having to redouble his efforts to get it the rest of the way. Dust danced in sparkling patterns in the tawny light of the sinking evening sun about the newly opened room.
“I didn’t know this room existed,” Taiga mused as he peeked in head into the doorway after the antagonistic upperclassman had entered in nonchalantly, dropping off his backpack and a rolling cart to the side before beginning to search the walls for a light switch.
“Yeah, I have been by this door when I am heading to the gym for class,” Akemi answered while following behind the train of students entering the dimly lit room, squinting to help her eyes adjust to make out her surroundings, “but I have yet to see anyone in here before.”
“This used to be the practice space for the bowling team back in the day,” Isao explained, though being more distracted by trying to find the light source for the room, “Since we got a deal to practice at the actual bowling alley nearby, we haven’t used this space in more than a year. Ah, there it is.”
With a sharp CLICK under his fingers, suddenly flickering fluorescent lights above began to shine and give shape to the room as the four students standing just inside the entrance finally got an idea of the size of the room they had entered.
It was oddly shaped to the majority of the classroom and other spaces the freshman had experienced at the school so far. Though like most of the rooms it was mostly rectangular, this one was vastly longer than wide. The room was only a short 10 meters or so away from one end to the other. But it was the length that was surprising, a staggering 30 or more meters down the length of the hall. It looked like a slightly wider hallway that was attached parallel to the main hallway they took to get there.
And no wonder, it was that shape to hold the most important feature of the room itself. Two complete lanes for bowling, with a ball return located in between them. The freshman stood in awe at the sight in front of them, unaware that something like this had existed in the same building they had spent so much time in, completely unknown to the student body at large.
This easily would have been big talk in the halls during breaks by pretty much anyone if they only knew.
“Where did something like this come from?” Akemi questioned in utter amazement, while Taiga whistled beside her, also bewildered by the sight.
“It’s a long story,” Isao tried to brush away some dust that had collected on the center table in front of the lane, “But it was given to the bowling team years ago for them to practice. The goal was for them to win games and make money for the school in return, but long story short, it's been a long time since that’s been in tea leaves.”
“What does that mean-?” Taiga tried to raise the question but was quickly cut off by the sudden whirring sound coming from the far end of the lanes. The motors had sprung to life and made a high-pitched squealing sound as they slowly worked out their kinks of not being used for so long. As the roaring mechanisms calmed to a dull hum, Akemi began to speak again.
“Wow, this is pretty impressive, right, Kōsuke?” She asked her friend, turning a glance over her shoulder to get a look at his reaction.
The poor boy was standing, eyes glued forward like a deer in headlights, completely unmoving while his bags slowly slumped their way over his shoulder.
“It’s-It’s…” he began, but stopped to wipe away a tear and sniffle a bit, “so beautiful.”
Seriously, Akemi’s felt one eye twitch, this is what you think is beautiful? Are you really that simple?
“Don’t worry about the lanes. I oiled them before classes let out.” Mrs. Yamato called out to the students, specifically the only team member amongst them, as she entered through a door on the far side of the lanes. As the door shut behind her, all had seen the components that made the lane itself work in the room she had just left. “Just make it quick, got it, Ishinabe?”
“Thanks again, Coach,” Isao bowed as he answered the older woman but cut his eyes sideways into a devious glare through his blond bangs at Kōsuke, “and don’t worry, this will be pretty quick.” It seemed as if Mrs. Yamato did not hear her students' reassurance as she headed out of the room through the main door.
“Right, about that,” Akemi retorted to that underhanded comment. Taiga, on the other hand, waved his hand in front of Kōsuke’s face, trying to snap his best friend back to reality. “Why are we doing this? And why did you have Taiga and I come along for this as well?”
“Well, the answers to your questions are quite simple,” Isao answered while beginning to do stretches by himself. “I want Kiyota on the team. If I hadn’t heard of him before, I probably wouldn’t have bothered talking to him at all. But since I do know how good his skills for lane reading are, he needs to be on the team.
“And since he hasn’t yet joined on his own,” Isao continued, squatting down to get a better stretch on his legs, “Well, let’s just say, I had to force his hand. I will keep true to my end of the deal. If he wins, I will keep quiet, and he is free to do whatever he wants. But if I win, he has to join the team. Fair enough?”
Akemi crossed her arms and studied the senior student in front of her while he was preoccupied with getting warmed up for his match. She hummed in frustration at being unable to tell if she could trust him or not. “Fine enough, for now,” she narrowed her eyes as she asked her next question, “But still, why did you drag us two along for this?”
“Oh, that!” Isao popped up onto his feet again in one bounce and continued stretching, now working on his back, “These lanes are pretty high-tech when it comes to the ball return and pin setter, but there is no sensor for the foul line nor tabulator for the score. So somebody has to be a foul line judge and the other will take down our scores. I let Kiyota pick who he wanted to fill those roles. You know, people who he could trust.”
Akemi’s eyes flew upward in surprise and caused her head to turn towards her childhood friend, amazed that he trusted the two of them the most to do an important job of officiating their match.
But that small joy that burned in her chest was quickly extinguished by the sight of Kōsuke and Taiga both laying on the ground prone, facing the lanes individually. Behind her, Akemi could hear Isao snickering, having seen the two idiots playing on the floor.
Letting a disheartened sigh escape her lips, Akemi turned back to Isao, with eyes focused. “I don’t know what you are really planning,” she spoke resolutely, “But I know Kōsuke will win, no matter what. Because I trust him as much as he trusts me.”
As Isao finished spinning his arms to warm up, he smiled back at his underclassman, “Oh, I like where this is going.”
Not letting his words get to her, Akemi turned with a huff and moved to pull Kōsuke off the ground and prepare him for the match.
“C’mon, Kōsuke,” she struggled to pull his weight up as he was still strangely transfixed on the distance of the lane, “You gotta wipe that awful grin off his face. You got this.”
“Huh?” the bespectacled boy wondering what was happening as he found himself being pried from his spot studying the condition of the lane, “Oh yeah, I need to get ready.”
Pulling himself to his feet by allowing Akemi to be his counterweight, he rushed over to where he left his bags on the table before planting himself in front of the lane. Next to his normal school issued bag was a strange one. It was of a black material with a handle on either side of a zipper that cleaved the oblong shape in half.
Having unzipped it, he retrieved a golden orb from within. The amber bowling ball had the words “Shooting Star” emblazoned above the drilled finger holes.
“Whoa, dude!” Taiga called out ecstatically at having seen the shining sphere for the first time, “You got your own bowling ball? That’s so cool!”
“Uh, yeah, I guess?” Kōsuke chuckled at his friend’s excitement, moving to place his ball in the ball return, “It’s quite common for bowlers to have their own balls to use. Even professionals get paid to use specific gear during tournaments and such. But yeah, this is my favorite one.”
With eyes still sparkling, Taiga turned enthusiastically toward his upperclassman and asked, “You got your own ball too, right?”
“You could say that,” Isao smirked as he pulled the rolling cart around for Taiga to see as he unzipped the seal that covered the entire front of the case. As it opened, Taiga couldn’t help but gasp in surprise and wonder. Inside were nine different bowling balls of a rainbow of colors and designs held in their individual holders. Even the finger holes had different colored rubber grips in them.
“Whoa! That’s so many!” Taiga squealed at the sight, his mind possibly melting at the thought of how many of them there were, “Hey, Kōsuke, why don’t you have more than just this?”
“I left the rest of my arsenal in Hokkaido with my uncle,” he replied, averting his friend’s gaze, looking only at his singular ball, “If I had known that I was going to be bowling competitively, I would have brought others too.”
“You only have one to use, huh?” Isao snorted playfully as he squatted down in front of his own ball collection, “Well, to make things more competitive, I will only use a singular ball myself, no spares or alternating leads. Fair’s fair, right?”
“I suppose so?” Kōsuke agreed apprehensively, while wondering what plan Isao was concealing.
As soon as he answered, Isao pulled out a navy blue ball with lighter blue swirls on it from his rolling bag and placed it on a plastic ring to keep it balanced on the table. Reaching further into a pocket in the bag, he retrieved a rag and began to clean it, especially above the finger holes, where the word “Wanderer” was etched.
“Is this a normal singles match?” Kōsuke asked, more resolved than he had previously.
“Indeed,” the blond senior began to clarify, cleaning his ball with a rag at the same time, “Best of three 10-pin games on alternating lanes. Any disagreements?”
“Good,” the smirk on Isao’s lips returned, “As the senpai here, I will go first, OK?”
Kōsuke said nothing in reply, only nodding and stepping aside to allow him to pass by unobstructed.
“Thank you,” Isao turned to the other two still in the room, “I am guessing the boy is going to be our foul judge and the girl the scorekeeper? If that’s the case, take your places. Please.”
Akemi and Taiga shot glares at the blond bowler approaching the lane, but curiously looked over to their friend for reassurance. He didn’t say anything, only furrowed his brow with resolve and nodded in reply.
Sighing, unsure of what else to do, the two of them moved to their designated spots. Taiga, on the side of the lane in the walk space that lead to the far end of the lane, eyes focused on the black line that separated the approach from the lane itself. Akemi then took her seat at the table between the two lanes and pulled out a piece of graph paper and readied it to take their scores as they played.
Ishinabe glanced around the room, and only once he saw everyone in position and waiting for him to make his move did his mischievous grin return. “Let’s get this game going.”
He approached the lane with his ball in his hand, carefully lining his feet with the target down range. After a couple of seconds of finding his spot with the dots lined up on the floor, he raised the ball to his chest and readied his approach.
Suddenly, he began moving swiftly towards the lane, with precise steps, and meticulously rotated his arm behind him. With one fluid motion, he slid to a stop right before the foul line and swung his arm from behind him to up front, his hand resting near his ear as it came to its highest point.
The ball silently released itself from his grasp and sped its way over the lane, nearing dangerously close to the right-hand gutter. It seemed like it was going to fall off and not hit a single pin.
But suddenly, its path changed sharply.
Without warning, the ball abruptly veered away from the gutter and blasted hard into the pins. As the cacophony of crashing pins ceased, the lane was left empty as the lane sweeper fell.
“Yo!” Taiga called out while jumping from his spot and running over to his friend’s side, “Did you see that? He cheated! His ball is remotely controlled!” As he shook his friend to see what he saw, he pointed his finger wildly in the direction of Isao, who in return crossed his brow in confusion.
“It’s not remote-controlled,” the Upperclassman quipped back, baffled where the accusation was coming from, “That was a standard hook from a super standard stroke.”
“Hook?” Taiga looked back, utterly lost at the words he had just heard.
“Do you not know that much?” Isao asked, shaking his head and began to explain, “That’s how most professional bowlers bowl. It’s the best way to get the ball cleanly into the pocket.”
“Pocket?” It wasn’t Taiga who was asking questions now, but Akemi.
“The pocket is the space in between the first and third pin,” Kōsuke took up the role of answering, his face solid and still focused on his opponent as he spoke, “Right at the head of the triangle. If you have the ball hit there first, your chance of hitting a strike skyrockets. That’s why most bowlers aim for there.”
“But what’s with the ball changing directions like that?” Taiga jumped back in with a question of his own, “It looked really cool- I mean, he’s cheating, right?”
“No, that’s also normal,” Kōsuke continued to explain, “Modern balls have special technology built into them, from the material of the surface of the ball is made of to the shape and placement of the weighted core inside, to affect how it reacts on the lane.”
“Exactly!” Isao interjected over the underclassmen discussing amongst themselves, “So I did not cheat.”
Taiga felt ashamed as he bowed in apologies to his senior.
“The more important question, Taiga,” Kōsuke spoke up again, bringing his friend back into the topic at hand, “Did he cross the foul line?”
Taiga turned back with eyes steadfast, “He was close, very close. But no. He didn’t foul.”
“He’s good. Guess he’s on the team for a reason,” Kōsuke sighed frustrated, “Akemi, go ahead and mark it down as a strike.”
Biting her lip, she hesitantly did as she was asked to do.
“Good, glad we got that cleared up,” Isao returned his grin, “but it’s your turn. Your lane is waiting.” He waved his hand beside him, offering the open lane opposite to him to his opponent.
Kōsuke did not speak, only nodding and walking up to the ball return, where his golden ball and the newly returned blue ball sat. Picking his up, he too readied himself on the lane. Taking a similar stance, he made a nearly identical approach.
But the outcome was not the same.
As the ball left his hand, it made a seamless roll over the lane at first, but it suddenly rolled off sharply away from the pins and fell with a loud THUD into the gutter.
“A bit rusty, I see,” Isao did his best not to snicker out loud, “But don’t worry, you can still pick it up.” As he finished, he couldn’t hold back his laughter anymore.
“Kōsuke, are you OK?” Taiga, who had kept his spot as judge, asked his friend from the side.
“Yeah, probably just an odd spot where the oil was laid down,” he answered, readjusting his glasses as he picked his returned ball up for one more attempt, “I saw a few of them earlier, but I thought I was just seeing things.”
He silently took his position again, then moved gracefully towards the lane. With confidence in his minor adjustments, Kōsuke released the ball ever so slightly over with a just a minutely different angle of approach.
But that didn’t have the result he had hoped for.
Reaching the same point on the lane, the golden ball made a similar lurch, but this time, instead of towards the right gutter, it rocketed down the lane and crashed into the far left pin.
“Seriously?” Taiga deflated as he watched the pin sweeper knock the remaining pins over, “Only one?”
“Well, I thought this would be an easy match, but this too much,” Isao sighed, shaking his head, all while still keeping that twisted smile on his face.
“Kōsuke,” Akemi left her post and rushed to her friend, “This isn’t like you. Is something wrong?”
“Did you mark me as open-one?” was his response.
“Sorry. I’m fine,” he sighed, and tried to reassure his friend, “I don’t know what’s going on with this lane. I just need to focus to figure it out. It will help me out if you just keep taking score for us, OK?”
For the longest time, Akemi clenched her hands tight, before finally nodding in agreement, “Alright, as long as it will help you.”
“Thanks, Akemi.” Kōsuke gave a quiet, half smile from behind his glasses, watching her take her seat and make markings on the graph paper scoresheet.
“Oh and I don’t know what you mean there is something up with the lane,” Isao’s voice rose up from behind Kōsuke as the Upperclassman prepared for his turn on the messed up lane, “It seems just fine to me.”
He kept grinning as he launched his ball down the lane, hugging tight to the gutter but never falling in. It passed by the same troubled spot unperturbed and moved right into the pocket. Another perfect strike.
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