Chapter 14:

"Teaching a Shizuko to Talk"

Vibrancy x Vibrancy

Most of the crowd swarms Ume. Even the Soga High School Track Club heads for her, rather than Shizuko - which makes sense, since Ume was their captain for three years, after all, even if Shizuko is a fellow alum. But I don’t mind. I much prefer the little crowd we have going on here.

“You did great!” Ayako proclaims, nodding vigorously in reassurance. She has her camera set down for once, so both of her eyes are on Shizuko, glinting with admiration. 

Kentaro gazes off into the distance so he looks cool. “You did really great, Shizuko.”

The Summer race runner-up is busy with a water bottle. As she drinks, the Yamazakis walk by as they head for Ume. The officer gives her a nod of respect, while Mrs. Yamazaki smiles.

“Sugoi!” Johnson proclaims, still shirtless.

Shizuko’s also red in the face, and it’s not just from the exertion (or shirtlessness) anymore. “But…I didn’t win. You guys don’t mind that?”

I shake my head. “We just wanted to see you finish the race. You didn’t even know you were going to run this time yesterday, and you still did awesome.”

She looks away and scratches the side of her nose. “Yeah. It was fun.”

We become honorary members of the Kenji track club. Kentaro and Ayako take us back to their tent to relax, Johnson puts his shirt back on and resumes his stroll down country roads, the Mabuchi baseball team batted around the lineup for an eighth-inning comeback. Yamazaki and I clear out the remaining yakitori, Shizuko mows down a few oranges peeled for her by Kentaro, Ayako finds another beetle to film. The club offers Shizuko a Ken-kun pin, but she points at the one on my backpack and says we have shared custody.

As the two elder statesmen of the group, Shizuko and I eventually end up sitting on milk crates, people-watching the high schoolers. There are eight or nine of them in the club, girls with loose socks and dyed hair, boys with gacha games on their phones. They’re a motley crew, but that’s how all high schools are. It’s tough to describe. High school’s like a controlled burn. Everything’s so stressful and the world seems on fire and everybody knows everybody. But it’s fun, because you think it’s your entire world. Everything is important, everything is life-defining. The world is confined with known limits. Your sense of the world makes sense because it’s the only sense you’ve ever had of it.

But then you get older, the world gets bigger, and your newfound knowledge and sorrow grow hand-in-hand. People drift apart, everything loses purpose, the world makes less sense because the adults have let go of your hand - you’re the one driving the bus now, for better or worse. There are nights where all you can do is look out your window and think back on high school. What fun we had. And when I look at these students - what fun they’re having now. It’s a nice feeling.

Time goes by, and before we know it, the sun’s starting to set. To repay our hosts, Shizuko and I help take down the tent. We get sidetracked, however, when the winner of today’s race approaches.

Ume stands in the grass, facing Shizuko. The sun sets against both of their frames. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be part of the conversation or not, but they’re literally like two meters from me, so I decide to just help pack up the folding chairs. I take it very slowly, though.

“I won,” Ume says matter-of-factly. “I finally beat you, fair and square.”

Shizuko keeps her usual stoic expression on her face. “You did.”

Ume brushes strands of hair across her forehead. “I guess it doesn’t really matter,” she says. “The race our senior year didn’t really matter either. I won that race, too. But it felt hollow. The whole time, I knew it wasn’t a real victory. My dad knew, too. He told me he heard about this bigshot runner and that if I didn’t beat her, then I didn’t really win. And then he told me and my mother that he had a new family where he works in Cambodia, and that was that. Haven’t seen him since, and don’t think I will ever again.”

With night approaching, the crickets start their chorus of chirps. Shizuko’s face doesn’t change.

Ume reaches into her bag and pulls out a little medallion. “This was my medal for winning the race our senior year.” She tosses it over to Shizuko. “You take it. Shouldn’t have been mine to begin with.”

Shizuko glances down at the little hunk of medal, turns it over in her hands, and then tosses it back to Ume. “It’s not mine, either.”

Ume’s face appears rattled. “What do you mean? You would’ve won that race if it weren’t for me.”

It takes a moment for Shizuko to speak. “It’s not all your fault. I could’ve ignored you. I ultimately made that decision not to run.”

“Because I pressured you,” Ume protests.

“You did. You really did.” Shizuko briefly glances my way, then looks up at the orange sky with a smile on her face. “Somebody recently told me something. By default, the world is a beautiful place. It’s just that we remember the bad more than the good. Growing up, I came across a lot of bad things. So I started thinking the world was ugly and colorless by default. I should’ve been stronger. I shouldn’t have let other people affect my view that much.”

Her eyes go deep in thought for a moment. “No. That’s not right. Just being stronger isn’t an answer. I think it’s the people you’re around. You were my only friend, Ume. So I relied on you a lot. When we first met, you made me think the world was vibrant. But during our senior year, you made me think the world was ugly. I should’ve met more people.” She glances back at me and the rest of the Kenji tent again. “Meeting nice people. Maybe that takes strength. Or maybe being with genuine friends is what gives you strength.”

Ume looks at the medallion with tired eyes. “I’ve never heard you talk for this long. I guess you did get stronger.” She tightens her grip. “You go to school in Tokyo, after all. I work at an effing convenience store.”

She walks off, leaving us there, but it only lasts for a moment. Ume stops just as suddenly as she started and talks into the grass. “How can someone like me get stronger?”

Shizuko looks back at the road. “I'm not sure. What do you like to do? Is running still fun for you?”

Ume shakes her head and speaks quietly. “No. I don’t really like it all that much.”

“Then why are you still doing it?”

“Because it’s all I’ve ever done.”

Shizuko gives her an encouraging smile. “Then you just need to meet new people or find new scenery. I think you can do it.”

Ume glances back down at the medallion, then slips it into her bag. She hoists it over her shoulders. “Maybe,” is all she says. This time, she departs for good.

I’ve finally put that lone folding chair into place, so I step onto the grass next to Shizuko. I don’t say nothing, and that encouraging smile never leaves her face, even as Ume dons a helmet, slips onto her scooter, and drives out of here, across quiet roads and long shadows. 

Steward McOy