Chapter 9:

"A Yoshiaki Childhood"

Vibrancy x Vibrancy

For the rest of the night, Shizuko gives me the rundown on her recent adolescence. It’s a tale as sad in the telling as it is in the hearing, and goes a little something like this:

“Speech disruption…emotional, possible neurological causes…factories outside the village…”

Walking through school, her arms across her chest, Shizuko gripped the short sleeves of white summer sailor fuku tightly. It had been years since she heard those doctor’s words in a slight daze since she was so young and her parents so disappointed, yet the message behind them still rang clearly. Growing up in a house on the outskirts of the village right where factories used to produce industrial equipment = not a good time. Shizuko was still feeling the effects to this day, to this very moment, keeping her head low, since there was no reason to keep head high.

Her house occupied a lonely spot in her hometown. Nobody went near that contaminated area and nobody liked having Shizuko around, either. It was a tiny town where everybody knew everybody and oddities and curiosities were treated like circus freaks and whipping boys. Nobody liked Shizuko’s parents, either, and in a small town like that, rumors and hatred got passed down the generations.

That’s why going from the village school to a regional high school might very well have been a nice change of pace. Maybe, just maybe, the days of the silent treatment and rumors and missing shoes would be gone. The high school was bigger, where everybody didn’t quite know everybody, and perhaps that would be enough for a self-reinvention.

Unfortunately, not really. The girls from the local towns like to make fun of the girls from the local villages as country bumpkins; the girls from the local villages were desperate to prove they weren’t just country bumpkins; and so, armed with nicer clothes and nicer phones and nicer knowledge, the kids from her middle school served as les collaborateurs for the town kids. What did this all mean? It meant that Shizuko was once again on the outside, looking in, since she was a nail that stuck out, and you all know that phrase about hammering the upright nails downwards.

On a rainy day in early June, standing in the school lobby, Shizuko eyed her empty locker with dismay. Her sneakers should’ve been in there, but they weren’t in there. Replacing her shoes was a small school photo of herself with the word DIOXIN scrawled across the bottom of it. A chemical pollutant, an unwanted contaminant.

Shizuko looked outside at the endless wall of summer rain, then back down at her indoor shoes, where the remnants of DIOXIN once written in black marker and rubbed out by her own shaky still hand remained. All she could do was slowly close her locker door and rest her weary head against the front of it. Wouldn’t it be nice to just disappear? Just head out into the rain and get washed away, disappear like mist.

A slight tap on her shoulder brought her back into existence. Shizuko rubbed her eyes and glanced over.

A tall brunette stood next to her - Ume, the class’s vice representative (of the world). In her delicate fingers she held the tied laces of an old, worn down graying pair of sneakers.

“You can wear these,” she offered.

Ume was part of the track and field club, after all, so that part made sense. But the kindness didn’t.

Shizuko raised her hands. “No…no, it’s okay.”

Ume eyed the rain. “Our club got canceled today because of the rain, so I don’t need them. And these are pretty old, so I’m getting new ones soon, anyways. I’ve been hoping I could give them to someone.”

“Why me?”

Rain continued to fall outside. Ume just shrugged. “Well, why not?”

After a moment, Shizuko took the sneakers gingerly in her hands and slipped off her indoor shoes. Ume watched with delight as Shizuko tried the sneakers on - they were just a bit tight, so after managing to get the first one on, she ended up tapping the front of the sneaker against the linoleum tile below her, finally knocking the sneaker into place.

“Not bad, huh?” Ume asked.

Shizuko looked off to the side and nodded. “Yeah, not bad.”

Ume glanced at the long hallway leading out of the lobby. “I gotta run…heh…’cuz I got vice rep business to attend to. But if you’re looking for something to do, you should join the track and field club. You can swing by the clubroom tomorrow morning, even.”

“I’m no good at running,” Shizuko, who had decent grades in middle school physical education, answered.

“You don’t have to be,” Ume answered. “We’re a small team. We’re just trying to have some fun.”

Shizuko peered down at her new sneakers, then back up at Ume. The whole thing just didn’t make sense.

“But…why me?” Shizuko tugged at her sleeves. “I can’t speak well. Or run. Or do anything, really.”

“Who told you that?” Ume asked. “Is it something you’ve been telling yourself just ‘cuz other people have been telling you that?”

Shizuko didn’t answer because the look on her face spoke for her. A teacher appeared in the hallway, beckoning for Ume, so she took off and glanced back. “Kindness doesn’t need a reason, you know!”

The sight of her smiling face and flowing hair, along with the sound of her footsteps, disappeared down the hallway. Still struggling to process it all, Shizuko put away her indoor shoes and looked for her umbrella. Of course, the collaborateurs took that, too. She would have to brave the rain.

But it was a summer rain, so when she took that hesitant first step out into the wider world, it felt warm. Or maybe she felt warm, because kindness was real, and kindness was out there, too. It wasn’t just a world filled with negativity and contamination.

As she headed down the hill, the rain surged, with distant thunder rolling towards her. She was drenched straight through, but it didn’t really matter, because there was a fire in her heart that spread through her body, right to the fingertips. She headed through a meadow, the grass blown this way and that by the wind, the flowers struggling to keep their heads lifted through the storm, and soaked dirt squelched beneath her sneakers. It must’ve been the shoes, because Shizuko was running now, under and through the rain, because the trees swayed and the mountains loomed over and the sky was full of gray and yet it was all connected - because there was friendly people, because the world was kind, because the entirety of existence was filled with vibrancy.

Lightning flashed downwards, hitting distant mountaintops, and the wind howled, but everything felt just so pleasant, like the eye of a storm, swirling energy and even trumpets played by spirits. Shizuko ended up before a giant utility tower, the long lines connecting to the rest of the country, to everywhere. She hit escape velocity and she danced.


“You danced?” I repeat, a wide grin on my face.

Shizuko looks away and nods. There’s a red tint on her face. “Yeah…I had to take the train home after that, so I left a huge puddle below me on the platform…I don’t like dancing that much, anyways…”

I already checked the weather for the week earlier today. “It’s supposed to rain in a few days. I want to see you dance in the rain.”

The crimson on her face surges while she shakes her head. “No way. I haven’t danced since then.” She crosses her arms and thinks about it. “If you want me to dance. Then you need to give me a reason.”

“Noted.” Outside the ryokan, crickets chirp the night away while a pale sliver of moon appears through the midnight clouds.

There’s a look of deep nostalgia on Shizuko’s face. “Ume was a great friend,” she says. “It was fun while it lasted.”

Steward McOy