Chapter 11:

Episode Eleven

But I Love Her

He finally lifted his head and Mariko could see how his face went back to its gentle state. She couldn’t help but feel her heart flutter - but maybe it was the peach magic that did that.Bookmark here

“Honestly… I want to kill myself… but I can’t… bring myself… to do it...I-I just can’t… I wanted to talk to you about that, Inai-san… not to scare you, but maybe… if there was another way… Th-that’s… what I wanted to talk to you about.”Bookmark here

This seemed to enrage Nakashima. She floated up and the face she tried to hide for so long came out directly at him as she released a very frustrated growl - one that pierced everyone’s ears. Everyone covered their ears from the screeching sound, up and including Okamoto. It seemed more of a howl than a growl but it was hard to really tell the difference.Bookmark here

Soon, she finally stopped. She floated towards Mariko once more and picked her up by her collar. Her peach glow came and went as she struggled in her grasp.Bookmark here

“Why do you want to take him away from me?! It’s because you came back! It’s all because of you! I should kill you myself and exchange your life for mine! I don’t know how I can do it but I will figure it out! Do you hear the whispers of the demons? They tempt me with promises that I know are bad for my soul but-but you’re making me desperate! Your bewitching powers continue!!”Bookmark here

“Hiromi… cut it out!” It shocked both of them and they both turned to Okamoto. Yukari moaned in pain as she was knocked down. It felt like the earth shook with her howl while Mariko was still trying to get the ringing out of her ears. “Cut it out…”Bookmark here

“No! Just commit suicide now, Masa-chan! See, I’ll even help you! I’ll help you!” She dropped Mariko as she floated back to him. As she did, she lifted him up and started to choke him. No, it was better to say that she was strangling him. As she got closer, she firmly put her hands around his neck - probably similar to how the old man did to her. She tried to shush him as she strangled him however, Mariko could see that it hurt her spirit by the way it flashed red.Bookmark here

“Don’t do that!” Mariko finally yelled. Okamoto struggled and tried to pry her hands off but eventually, Nakashima did stop.Bookmark here

His body fell to the floor once again and he coughed and struggled to breathe as much as he could. Her arms hung next to her ghostly body as now the only other thing everyone could hear was her sobbing.Bookmark here

“Why… did I die, Mariko? I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to die!” She covered her hands and sobbed as she started to talk more and louder. “I wanted to live...and... maybe be your friend again… maybe we could’ve been friends for way longer… I wanted to be your friend…” She wept over and over. She started to repeat herself under her breath - if they didn’t know where it came from, surely, they would’ve been terrified.Bookmark here

Instead of a terrifying poltergeist, she became a ghost who was lost. “What am I doing? Why… am I trying to kill Masa-chan…? Who am I anymore?”Bookmark here

“Hey! Don’t try to be sympathetic! Just because you’re crying now doesn’t mean anything! You hurt Mariko, Okamoto-kun, and me!”Bookmark here

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”Bookmark here

“Yukari…”Bookmark here

“Ehhh, you’re apologizing now? How strange! How strange you suddenly care about your own feelings but not the well-being of all of these living humans! Seriously, what’s wrong with you? I get that Mariko said some messed up things - but we all did! You even admitted in your own flashback that you did!”Bookmark here

“Yukari!”Bookmark here

Even through her pain, Yukari managed to puff out a lecture to the ghost before them who now seemed small. It took them a few moments to realize that the hallway went back to normal. There weren’t any more eyes floating around. Their voices echoed in equal amounts. Bookmark here

They were all back at Keisetsuin High School.Bookmark here

“Mariko, you can’t feel sorry for someone like that. She’s just an angry high school girl. If she weren’t dead, we’d probably just ignore her and move on with our lives. Just… get over it.”Bookmark here

“Yukari… she can’t. She is dead… that’s the problem. If I weren’t so me back then, maybe she wouldn’t have felt to protect me with her life.”Bookmark here

“You had nothing to do with her death. Rather, she’s angry at the wrong person. She should be angry at the adults who failed both of you guys. Actually… she should just be angry at her killer.”Bookmark here

Nakashima sniffled or rather made a sound like she did, and started to speak normally. “You make it sound so easy. You didn’t know Mariko back then. Of course, you’d say that. Of course, you’d say I’m just a dumb high school girl.”Bookmark here

“Well, I was a dumb high school girl too. I came here to this shitty town for a man who ended up with someone else while I foolishly believed that he’d be true to me. And as a result, I’m stuck here. The world of adults is very complicated, you know! Mariko may have done and said things that were bad - and sure, it may have cost your life… but that’s still no reason to take it to the extreme! It wasn’t Mariko’s fault that the old man was a piece of shit!Bookmark here

“He’s the one who should take responsibility! Didn’t you say he died before he was convicted?” Yukari never gave anyone a chance to answer. “So I can definitely see why you’d be angry - but seriously, you’re angry at the wrong person. Don’t take it out on her and don’t suggest suicide to your boyfriend. Geez, I wish you would reincarnate already so you can have a proper life.”Bookmark here

They could all see that Nakashima was getting angry again but instead of what happened earlier, she seemed to consider what Yukari had said.Bookmark here

“Is it really that simple?”Bookmark here

“Yes? Of course it is. We all said and did things we regret - some more than others.” Mariko was a bit downcasted at that comment. “But she’s atoning for her sins, for your death, by living. And you’re also punishing Okamoto-kun - you’re trying to kill him in a weird sacrifice. You need to cross the River Styx.”Bookmark here

Nakashima went from anger to sadness. She looked at Okamoto as Yukari lectured her and seemed to have realized, finally, how he really looked. She remembered when she had first died, he was there - surprised to see him. He was just as disheveled with sadness back then as he was now. And upon inspection, he definitely seemed a lot… older. Not ugly or anything just… older. In the years since her death, before he left to study, he always tried to break into the school at night and always had a run-in with the security guard.Bookmark here

The security guard was an older man at the time who eventually passed away after Okamoto left for university. He always kept Nakashima company, whether he realized it or not. After he had left university, the school figured that would’ve been the end of it. They tried to hire another security guard but she unintentionally scared him off. The school never bothered to hire another security guard. And yet, they surely must’ve been surprised to see that Okamoto returned, not only as a certified teacher but selecting Keisetsuin even after what happened in that year.Bookmark here

She knew Okamoto was always devoted to her. And yet, she never really realized the strength of that love, rather, desperation than at that moment.Bookmark here

He always stuck to his high school ways. They always listened to the same music as kids. They talked about dramas that had long since gone off the air or gained multiple seasons. Favorite actors and idols had passed by while Okamoto forced himself to never change. Women surely had to have approached him - but he always rejected him, didn’t he? He did it for her.Bookmark here

Guilt overcame her ghostly heart as Okamoto gave her that classic confused face of his. With almost a half-smile and his head cocked a little bit to the right, he never changed for her and always seemed to keep his eyes always on her. But there was a secret, even if no one else knew - she knew that secret.Bookmark here

He always liked Mariko. Mariko was so strange to all their classmates and Okamoto always asked about her at some capacity - he was drawn to her. He had always been drawn to her.Bookmark here

“Aren’t you friends with Inai-san?”Bookmark here

“Yeah! Why, what’s up? I know she likes to read horror books so did you have a question about that?”Bookmark here

“Well, yes and no… I wanted to ask her who her favorite author is because she always seems to bring different books every day so I was often curious.”Bookmark here

“Oh! Yeah, I think she likes Stephen King? I don’t remember, why don’t you ask her yourself?”Bookmark here

“I try but my friends won’t let me near her. They always have plans for us to do or they just tell me to never hang out with her. I ask why, but they never tell me. Must be an Okutari thing. So… as someone else from Yamakoshi, what do you think of her?”Bookmark here

“Mariko is really kind and funny… but Okamoto-kun is very kind and optimistic and she’s… well, she’s gloomy. I think she’s still in her chuunibyou phase because she draws these weird symbols in her notebooks and on our notes. I mean!! I don’t mind them!! I actually think they’re pretty interesting! My other friends tell me the same thing but I ignore them. You should just go after her!”Bookmark here

But clearly, he never did. Nakashima would forget little things like that in his devotion to her. Maybe his friends influenced his emotions the way she eventually did herself, even as a ghost.Bookmark here

And maybe that’s why… that’s why she was jealous of Mariko back then. Maybe that’s why she tried so hard to justify dating him - even though she knew better. In the end, she and Okamoto weren’t meant to be - and she knew it. She knew it when that old man placed his hands around her fragile neck.Bookmark here

Yukari had started to then scold Okamoto for listening to someone like her, an apparition, the regrets of an enraged high school girl when Nakashima realized her bandages around her neck were gone. She was shocked and she looked to Mariko who, just for a moment, smiled at her the way they used to smile at each other.Bookmark here

Flashes of the small amount of time they were friends came around her mind and she started to cry. Then, finally, an image of a gravesite - her gravesite with some incense burning and someone who looked both younger and older than the Mariko she knew.Bookmark here

She prayed at the tombstone, the young adult without her glasses. She apologized to the gravestone and never asked for forgiveness. For a flicker, she could see the regrets in the young woman’s heart and heard whispers.Bookmark here

“I’m so sorry, Hiromi-chan.” “It’s my fault you’re dead.” “I regret saying those things to you.” “I wanted to be friends with you… Truly, I did. “...and I can’t understand at the time why I did that.”Bookmark here

“Please allow me to live in your place.”Bookmark here

No… that’s not what I wanted. I just wanted to be friends. I wanted me, Masa-chan, and you to be all together. I would’ve been okay to be outcasted if it meant I had both of you by my side.Bookmark here

When she opened her eyes, she realized her ghostly body glowed and the chains started to become undone.Bookmark here

She felt much lighter and she felt… free. Anger was still there but it wasn’t towards Mariko anymore - only regrets. She realized soon that she was back in the hallway. Mariko was scolding Yukari for being too harsh towards her and Okamoto and, for another moment, she saw a glimpse of her past friend.Bookmark here

Another memory flashed of them walking to school and Mariko being utterly surprised that Nakashima was walking by her side. They were making plans together to read about witches of the past and planning a sleepover.Bookmark here

But that was the day she and Okamoto became official. But that was the day she lost her friend. But that was the last time Mariko called her Hiromi-chan.Bookmark here

“Mariko.”Bookmark here

“Nakashima… you’re glowing… does that mean…?”Bookmark here

“Please... Call me Hiromi-chan again. One last time.”Bookmark here

Tears filled Mariko’s eyes as she realized what’s happening before her. Okamoto was distracted by Yukari’s lectures so Nakashima knew she had to disappear quickly. He needed to change. He needed to grow. He never allowed himself to decide for himself what he wanted to do - always at the beck and call of others.Bookmark here

Mariko seemed to realize this. She nodded and whispered to her old friend.Bookmark here

“Take care, Hiromi-chan.”Bookmark here

The sun rose in the distance as the trio finally realized that she was completely gone. Her presence. Her voice. Her face. Everything.Bookmark here

It hurt to see the sadness in Okamoto’s heart breaking as he gave one final wail to send her off. But he eventually settled as they all decided to go to Yukari’s apartment - to soothe his pain over.Bookmark here

It took the trio several days to really parse exactly what happened that night, especially Okamoto but eventually, they slipped into an everyday routine once more.Bookmark here

Bookmark here

And even after all that, things started to slowly change.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.