Chapter 10:

"Empathy for the Devil"

Vibrancy x Vibrancy

As the night continued on, Shizuko continued her tale of woe and lost dreams:

“And the winner of the Tsukamoto Summer Race is,” Mrs. Yamazaki proclaimed out of her megaphone, “Shizuko of Soga High!”

The torn finish line littered the ground behind her. Shizuko, four months after meeting Ume, now stood on a concrete road outside a small town, huffing and puffing from the exertion, her face now a bright red sheen. But that paled in comparison with the noise of the cheers, both from the general crowd around her and her teammates on the Soga track club. It all felt like a blurry dream, and it wasn’t just the sweat getting into her eyes now that she tossed off her headband.

“You did great, Shizuko!” they all said. “First place as a first-year!”

The world shone, and it wasn’t just from the sun. Now that she could finally let her focus relax, the world rushed in to fill the vacuum. The fields had never been this gold; the grass never this green; the mountains never this welcoming. Colors popped out at her, the sky felt endless and infinite, the warmth rushing through her could last forever.

Ume panted into second place behind her. After placing her hands on her knees for a moment, she glanced up at Shizuku. The winner felt a pang of guilt; if Ume never recruited Shizuko, then Ume likely would’ve won. But Shizuko put in the five months of training, staying late with Ume until the stars settled in overhead, and her effort bore fruits - Mrs. Yamazaki placed a medallion around Shizuko’s neck.

Ume still stayed back, letting Shizuko enjoy the attention. They made eye contact; Ume grinned and gave her a rugged thumbs up. To the delight of the track team (and its shipping contingent), Shizuko gave one back in return.

A day later, Ume squirmed in the sunset, having been told to stay still for ten hours now. “C’mon, I gotta go study,” she whined (but not all that seriously). “I got a test to study for, and my dad wants me to ace it.”

“Almost done,” Shizuko answered. She sat with her back against the metal of a utility pole in the countryside near Soga High. Ume stood in the grass ahead of her, looking off into the mountains. A breeze sent ripples through her sailor fuku; with a loose grip on her pen, Shizuko captured her impression with them on the paper.

“All set,” Shizuko declared. Ume immediately flopped backwards into the grass; Shizuko crawled over and displayed the drawing over her friend’s head. Ume arched her neck backwards.

“I’m upside down.”

“I’m right-side up.”

Ume flipped over and her eyes widened. “Wow, Shizuko, that’s great! It’s like one of those old-timey French paintings. Art and running, you got it all.”

Shizuko looked away, still not used to the praise. “I know we’re still two years away, but I want to go to school for art.”

“Do the schools around here have art?” Ume asked, shifting so she could sit in the soft summer grass.

Shizuko scooched over to sit next to her. “Not here. I’d go to Tokyo. My aunt used to live out there and knows a place where I could live near the school.”

Ume followed the power lines with her eyes until they disappeared into the mountains. “Wow, all the way out in Tokyo. Any weekend you want, you could go to Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku, even Kabukicho.”

Shizuko’s face went as red as the lights in that district while Ume just laughed. “Okay, maybe not that last one,” she said, taking another glance at her friend’s drawing. The sunset shone on her face. “Is it selfish of me to want you to stay?”

“It’s two years away,” Shizuko supposed. “We have time. And it’s all just a dream anyway.” She laid back on the grass. “I have to take that test tomorrow, too. I wish I could stay in this field forever.”

Ume joined her. Clouds rolled overhead. “Yeah, me too.”

Two years later, they were at that field again, taking the long way to the local bus depot. Shizuko’s face had a heavy tan; she was always outside, training, since the Summer Race would be in a few days. Ume’s hair was now dyed a bright orange and there was a dark fire to her eyes, much like the ones she set off in the woods while the groups went on long runs.

Shizuko went to say something about the familiar field and the nostalgia of yesteryear, but Ume appeared to be on a mission. She walked on silently, slightly hunched over, hands in pockets. Shizuko had no choice but to follow.

The fine layer of sand and gravel radiating out of the Soga Cement Complex sifted across the platform for their buses home, Shizuko going one way, Ume the other. To rest her weary legs, Shizuko took a seat on a bench; Ume remained standing. There was an invisible tension in her clenched fists.

Shizuko hesitated for a moment. “Ume…are you okay?”

After a long while, Ume sighed. “My dad’s coming to see me run the Summer Race tomorrow. Guess the fires and the hair finally caught his attention.”

“That’s good, right? Usually he’s away for work.”

“He’s always away,” Ume said softly. “He’s been in Cambodia for two years now. Last time I saw him was during our first-year sports festival. My class came in second. He told me he only wants winners in the family.”

Shizuko’s heart twang. When Ume wiped her eyes, Shizuko raised a hand out towards her. “That reminds of me my own family-”

“I need you to drop out of the race tomorrow.”

The platform was utterly. Shizuko’s hand paused halfway towards Ume. “...huh?”

“My dad will just go back if I come in second place to you yet again,” Ume almost whispered. She was talking at the concrete ground of the platform. “I need to win this race. But I can’t beat you. Not only did you win again last year, you might even break the record this time. You HAVE to drop out. So I can win.”

For the first time in a long while, Shizuko felt the disconnect between brain and mouth. She knew what she wanted to say, but all that came out was a weak, “But I want to run.”

Ume slashed the air with a hand. “Shizuko, why do you hate me? Can’t you just do this for me. And run for what? To feel popular? To be well-liked? So you don’t have to go back to being Dioxin? You’ll always be Dioxin. And anybody could’ve won. Those people don’t care for you. They just like winners. If I never recruited you, they would’ve been cheering for whoever took your place.”

The bus rumbled in the distance. Ume blinked in slow recognition of something bubbling in her subconscious. “Me. I would’ve been the one to take your place. For these past two years, I could’ve been a winner. I could’ve been the one everybody celebrated. Who my dad celebrated. But I had to recruit you, didn’t I? Because I’m kind.”

Because it’s a kind world.

“ don’t need a reason for kindness,” Shizuko repeated.

“And that’s the issue, ain’t it?” Ume supposed. “Things should be transactional, because doing something good without anything in return, that’s just getting ripped off. That’s another thing my dad told me.”

The bus came closer and closer, its lights bathing Ume, sending her uniform and hair shaking in the wind. “You can’t change who you are. I can’t, and neither can you.”

Ume waited for the others to get onto the bus, then she hopped on the stairs last. She took one last look down at Shizuko. “I shouldn’t have befriended you. But I did you that kindness, so now you gotta do one for me in return. Don’t run the race. Just drop out and we’ll be square. And then you can go off to Tokyo for the rest of your life while I’m stuck here. The bright lights can keep you company and you can forget about all this.”

The bus doors closed behind her.