Chapter 56:

My Crush is Somewhere She Shouldn't Be.

My Dad is an Otaku, My Mom is a Fujoshi, and I Wish I Was Dead

Thank the gods for sales at the grocery store. If they didn't exist, my whole family would starve. But because the God of Seibu smiled down on me, I just picked up three dozen eggs, a whole bag of fresh veggies, pre-sliced beef and fish, enough Instant Yakisoba containers to make my lunch for a whole name it! And all it cost me was ¥8500. Didn't even have to say goodbye to Yukichi-san. I had to push my way through stampeding crowds of middle-aged housewives, but my karate training proved surprisingly useful. I've saved so much money, I've got enough to go buy a melonpan or something at the cafeteria one day this month if I want!

I wonder what Mom's making for dinner tonight? Maybe she'll salt and grill the mackerel...or the sea bass...or maybe the squid I picked up...or she might make stew or something, or even turn the beef into mouth is watering just thinking about it...

Oh. Right. She can't cook, she's sick. That means I'm gonna have to do it. I guess the only thing that’s simple enough for me to make with these ingredients is a stir-fry with the chopped beef and the veggies or something. And then Tasuku and Tamaki won't eat the green peppers and I'll have to make them because it's rude to waste food and then they'll both pitch a fit about it and then that'll start Touya and Touka going and they'll all wake Mom, I don't even like green peppers! Why do I have to be the one who forces all of my siblings to eat them?

...It's rude toward Mom to waste the food she bought and made, but she's not making it tonight, I am...I guess I can leave the green peppers off.

Man, the whole neighborhood's deserted. I know it's the middle of the work day, but it's still kinda pathetic. Normally, you'd see kids and parents running around, but the only people I've seen are two old guys standing out in front of a rickety old apartment building smoking.

The hastily-written paper sign on the front of the dark salon reads "CLOSED TODAY, WE APOLOGIZE GREATLY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE". Ugh. I wonder how much money we've lost from this? We don't have the budget to pay a part-timer anymore, and I can't run the whole place by myself, so whenever Mom goes down we're hosed. She never says anything about finances because she doesn't want us to worry, but I bet we're all the way in the red. Sooner or later, we'll have to turn this place into an izakaya or something to pay the bills. I would hate that, though. It was Mom's dream to open up this place, and Dad saved so much to buy the building so that Mom could run the salon...if she had to close it, it would break her heart. I just know that.

As I'm halfway inside the dark store after unlocking the rickety wooden door, the sound of frantic footsteps blows by me from behind. Even though I immediately turn around and try to crane my neck out, all I can see is the backside of a tall, lithe figure, running down the street. I think it's a girl. There's a green hoodie tied around her waist, and her hair's messy and being blown by the wind, but it's tied up in a...ponytail?

That's not-

There's no way Ayappi would be all the way out here. Oh, God. I'm so lovesick I'm starting to hallucinate. Man, I've gotta get it together. Just forget about her, dude. There are more important things to worry about today.

Nobody answers me when I climb up the stairs and say "I'm home". Ugh. I really hope the kids haven't gotten into any mischief. Tamaki was watching Mom when I left, but she couldn't keep her eyes on everyone at once. I'm preparing myself for the mess of a lifetime while I'm putting the food in our old fridge that sounds like a jackhammer whenever you open the door, but when I climb up the stairs to the second floor...nothing. Then, the door in front of me opens and my little sister comes marching out, holding a half-empty bowl and spoon.

As soon as she sees me, she instantly scowls. "Took you long enough, Onii-chan."

I immediately return her glare. "You can go fight through the rabid housewives at Seibu next time, then."

"That wasn't funny," Tamaki scoffs as she puffs out one of her cheeks.

Behind her, in the dark room, I can just make out the shape of my mother's sleeping body, her chest rising and falling with every breath. She's overworked herself, I bet. She does way too much trying to keep our family afloat.

I wish I could help her more.

I didn't realize Tasuku was clutching the side of the door frame, staring intently into the room, until Tamaki cries, "Move it, poop face! You're in the way!"

Tasuku's face immediately contorts like he's about to yell back at her, but he doesn't get anything out before I hiss, "Both of you, shut up! You'll wake Mom up!"

Tamaki just scoffs, flipping her hair as she descends the stairs with the dirty dishes. "Then you watch her."

"Tatsu-niichan, is Mama gonna be okay?" Tasuku's big, round eyes are full of worry. "She's not gonna...end up like Dad, right?"

"Of course not! She'll be fine- it's just the flu. More importantly, you should give Mom some space. You don't want to get sick too, do you?"

Tasuku shakes his cute little head vigorously. "Uh-uh!"

"Well, leave her alone for now, and she'll be better in the morning. Just hang out up here until dinner's ready."

Tasuku pouts a little bit, but finally nods and turns around. Poor kid. It must be torture for someone as energetic as him to have to lay around in his room, worrying.

The last memories he has of Dad are when he was hooked up to all those tubes in the hospital bed, breathing heavily, bald and looking like skin draped over a skeleton. That sticks in a six-year-old's head for the rest of his life. Of course he's terrified.

Tamaki's still washing the dishes when I come back down the stairs. The sound of the creaky one snapping instantly makes her stop and look.

"Oh, it's just you, Onii-chan." She immediately goes back to her dishwashing.

"How's Mom doing?" Time to get the ingredients out of the fridge. Beef, the vegetables (no peppers tonight), and the soy sauce, salt, mirin and oil are in the pantry...crap, how do you make the sauce again? I guess I'll just have to wing it like the chefs on TV do...

"Her temperature's gone down." Tamaki doesn't even look up. "She ate almost half of the rice porridge I made."

"You made that? I didn't realize you knew how to cook."

"I learned how to make this in home ec. Mom woke up and you weren't back, so I had to do something. I think I ruined the pot, though. I burnt the bottom of the porridge and it's not coming off."

I sigh as I go over to the sink and check it out. She's right- there's a black, charred mass stuck to the bottom of the pot. "If you'd waited a little bit, I would have helped you. You know, you don't have to do everything yourself. You can rely on me a bit more."

"It's because you're useless, Onii-chan."

"Huh. That's weird. It looks like we've got an unexpected guest tonight! You know what his name is? The Tickle Monster-"

"Oh, shut up! You're so gross!" Tamaki shuts the faucet off with a huff.

I ignore that. "Where are the twins?"


"By the way, is stir-fry okay for dinner?"

"I'm going to Ryoko's," Tamaki replies haughtily. "You can go wrangle Poop Face and the Twin Terrors."

"Whatever." I have half a mind to flick her or smack her for being rude, but seeing all the little kids stressing out is obviously making her nervous, too, so I'm gonna cut her some slack.

"See you later, stupid Onii-chan."

"Bye. Don't let the door hit you on the way out."

Tamaki's footsteps fade out going down the staircase behind me. Okay. Now comes the hard part. I've gotta cut all these vegetables...where's the knife? Oh, in the drawer right here. Just remembered. Man, I really hope I don't cut one of my fingers off...

Alright. Here goes. All I have to do is cut the onion...

But before I can bring the knife down, my concentration is broken by my little sister's scream.

"Tamaki!" In a second, I've already dropped the knife and bolted down the stairs. At the bottom, my little sister has dropped to the ground on her knees right behind the door, shaking in fear.

I bet she saw a cockroach, and now I'll have to kill it-

And then I slowly look through the front windows of the shop to see a man in sunglasses and a dark business suit, standing next to a punk-looking kid with his foot slammed against the front door.

"I know your mom's in there, kid!" the younger guy with the slicked-back, frosted hair screams. "Get her out here!"

Tamaki shrinks back, her eyes wide.

In an instant, I'm out the front door. "Get away from my sister."

"Well, look who it is!" the punk sneers, bending down to stare me dead in the face. "Mister Prep School finally showed his face around here! I thought you were too good for this neighborhood, huh?"

"And I thought you were smart enough to go to high school, Wahira, but we all know how that turned out."

"Huh?! What did you say?" the kid screams. "When we bash up this shithole, the first thing I'm kicking in is your face, Aikawa!"

"Try it." I'm not backing down from this guy. A couple years ago, when I didn’t know how to fight, he was scary, but I could probably take him right now.

I guess I should explain. Motomu Wahira was the most annoying bully- or wannabe- in my middle school. He was obnoxious and threatened me a lot. I thought I had left him behind, because he flunked all his entrance exams, but now he's actually some small-time thug or something.

Wahira steps forward like he wants to do something, but the older man beside him flicks out his arm to stop him.

"I know he can't read-" I gesture dismissively at Wahira, and he lunges forward, almost foaming at the mouth, but his companion holds him back again- "but what's your excuse? The sign on the door says we’re closed. Mom is sick. Come back another time."

"I don't think you understand." The guy with the sunglasses glowers down at me. "You see, your mother owes us quite a bit of money, and she still hasn't repaid us for this month. So we can do this one of two ways. She pays, and we continue doing business like we have been, or we take what we're owed. Choose wisely."

My mind is racing. Mom owed money to these guys? She never said anything about it...probably because she didn't want us to worry, but we're in a bad situation now-

Behind them, a girl blows by, running past, and then stops and frantically looks around. She's got the same green jacket tied around her waist, and her hair's messily tied in a ponytail, and her body is lean and fit and her face-

That's Ayappi. That's absolutely Ayappi. There's no way I could ever mistake her.

But what in the world is she doing here?!

I want to call out to her, yell for her to run and that it's not safe, but before I can, she dashes off again, and I'm left staring at the space where she was. She doesn't even notice me.

"Hey, Aikawa, what the fuck are you lookin' at?!" Wahira growls.

My attention snaps back to the well-dressed man in front of me, and his not-so-well-dressed companion snarling beside him.

"None of your business. Like I said, my mom's sick today. She can't pay you right now."

"You think that's an excuse-"

Before Wahira can finish, the suited man shuts him up with a hand gesture. "I suppose I am feeling a bit merciful today. I'll give her a three-day extension. But no more."

I grit my teeth and bite my lip, but all I can say in reply is "Thank you."

"This ain't the end, Aikawa-" Before Wahira can finish, the man grabs him and pulls him away, leading him down the street as he rages.

Whew. Thank God they're gone. Off to shakedown the rest of the neighborhood, most likely. I wasn't showing it, but I was just as terrified of that big guy as Tamaki. I need to talk to Mom about her debt as soon as she gets better...

They went the same way that Ayappi went!

If they run into her, she might end up in big trouble!

"Tamaki, sorry!" I turn around, quickly making an apologetic gesture to my sister, who's still on the floor. "I have to run out! Please make dinner for us!"

I don't wait for a response, but I still hear the "What?! Onii-chan, you idiot! I hate you!" as soon as I barge out the door.

I've been frantically searching the neighborhood for a while, but I haven't seen Ayappi. Or the yakuza guy and Wahira, either. I couldn't go the same way they went, but I circled back and there's no sign of them. All I'm seeing are the same two old men, still smoking.

What was she doing all alone in this neighborhood? It's not a good place! And all three of them have disappeared...did they kidnap her or something? God, I hope not...

I frantically turn onto another street and instantly stop.

There she is. She's leaning on the wall outside a gray stucco house, fidgeting nervously. She looks like she's waiting for someone, but this whole street is nothing but apartments and boarded-up stores...

I dash back around the corner. I'm gonna come up through the alley that's closer to her and hide. I need to keep an eye on her, especially if those guys come by. Who knows what they might end up doing to her? But if I stand out in the open, she might get creeped out and run away. And I'll admit, if I jumped out of nowhere and saved her, I bet she'd think I was cool...and maybe she might start falling for me...

...Wow. She's been here a long time.

I think it's almost six at this point. She hasn't moved. She acts like she's waiting for someone, but there's no one around but her and me.

I bet I look like a suspicious person, but I have a really good reason for this, I swear. It'll start getting dark in a few more hours, and she shouldn't be out in this neighborhood so late. I'm not sure why she's here to begin with. She lives near our school. It must have taken her an hour to get here, at least.

Well, she hasn't noticed me yet, and the only things behind me are some trash and a rusted metal side door that's probably locked, so I think I'm okay.

Still, if it starts to get dark and she's still there, I think I'm gonna come out and talk to her. It's definitely not safe here after dark-


Behind me, the door swings open on its hinges, and a chill runs up my spine.

Then comes the voice: young, but still powerful.


Steward McOy