Chapter 40:

"The Things We Carried"

Vibrancy x Vibrancy

That night, I dream of yesterday. A yesterday from years ago.

Was it a memory? I’m not quite sure. A dream? Most certainly. The edges of my vision are a cloudy white, a blank canvas to which the landscape surrounding me doesn’t quite reach. Fractals and imaginary numbers and red letters swirl about, the light reflecting through them, creating tiny, endless fireworks right there in front of me, a vibrant kaleidoscope full of color. I’m walking up through the grass to my high school’s baseball field - I’m in my high school uniform, all buttoned up, fresh as a Prussian officer in 1914.

Was I reliving a memory? Also too tough to tell. It certainly feels real. And you know what they say about reality - even when something is inherently untrue, it can represent reality so well that it might as well be true. Am I real? Is this all real? The person who’s reading this - I’m talking to you, wherever you might be. All I’m doing is telling you a story. Yoshiaki is nothing more than a word on a page for you. But can you see it? Can you see anything?

Does any of this matter? Imagine no Shizuko, no Kentaro, no Ayako, no Ume. No Mabuchi, no Eguchi, no story, no me. I’m somewhere else entirely. I’m someone else entirely. If everything you’re reading is untrue, but feels real enough, then could it be real?

That’s what this dream feels like. I’m dreaming of high school, not a particular memory, but a collection of them. This memory may or may not have ever happened, but it’s imbued with such a young spirit that it might as well represent those summer days when I was just a kid. Childhood - smokeless, efficient, condensed.

I’m walking up through the grass to my high school’s baseball field. It’s summer vacation, and the baseball team has already finished practice, so it’s open for anyone to use. That’s why it’s currently in-use. Suga (not to be confused with Soga), my friend from long ago, stands at home plate, batter-up. He’s untucked his white shirt, rolled up the sleeves, revealing the kind of strength that earned him a soccer captaincy.

The Class Prez is pitching. And don’t you see? I’ve been referring to her as the Class Prez because I don’t want to trudge these old memories up. But it’s time. It’s been years. I had to face them. Her name is Kanako, she’s just as tall as me, brown hair done up in the usual bun. She winds up and pitches, the ball sails through the air, but Suga strikes it with his bat all the same. It arcs over her, out and out and on and on, threatening to slip away into the summer sky. But it plops down way back in the outfield.

“Your journalism club free you?” Suga asks me as I approach. He grins and flicks up his cap.

I nod. “Had to do a story about a kitten getting stuck in a tree.”

Suga tilts his head. “They get it down?” He’s a big softie at heart.

“Of course.”

He flips the bat in celebration. By this point, Kanaka has bounded over from the mound to meet me. She must have been pitching for a while, because she’s sweating, and I feel heat rush to my face.

“Shunsuke, you’re late,” she complains, crossing her arms across her chest. “Suga has to leave for practice, which means I’m stuck with you.”

“Being stuck with me can’t be so bad, right?” I ask.

Chirping crickets answer for Kanako. Suga wraps a beefy arm around my shoulder. “You’re a lucky girl, Kanako. I’d kill to be left alone with the big man here.”

He’s a foot taller and about thirty pounds on me, but somehow, I stuck around with him, even when I suffered loss after loss in activities ranging from pickup basketball to video games.

Suga hoists up his bag. “Karaoke tonight? I’m in the mood for singing.”

He says that with a straight face. We, of course, nod in agreement. Suga, bag over his shoulder, hands in his pockets, bids us farewell and whistles his way out of the park, towards the soccer field.

Kanako and I. The two Ks in her name roll right off the tongue; it sounds feisty, energetic. Kanako. She’s the Class Rep and former candidate for Student Council President, so-

“What now, Class Prez?” I ask her, enjoying the teasing. I feel like she hates it whenever somebody else calls her that, but the perpetually bored look on her face softens when I say it. She wipes sweat off her angular face and gestures toward the outfield.

“Let’s get the ball. I want to strike you out.”

“Looking forward to it.”

We stroll, side-by-side, across the field. There’s a big batch of trees overlooking this section of the outfield from behind the wall; we leave the summer sun for shady grass. Patches of sunlight, mixed with those fractals and floating letters, individual vowels and all, dip and disappear and reappear in front of me, right where Kanako stands. She picks up the ball, then sighs as she enjoys the shade. She turns to face me, tossing the ball up and down for a moment, then rests her back against the outfield wall.

I step forward. Heart to heart, one to one.

“Does your journalism club know about us yet?” she asks, inviting me closer. “I know they have a gossip column.”

“Loose lips sink ships,” I tell her. Loose lips. Her lips. Red letters wash over her face, the early dawn of Shuten village calling me back, but I remain rooted in the dream. Because this part is undeniably real. I definitely, definitely, gazed upon her at this very moment, during this very memory.

“You ever kiss somebody before?” she asks, her breath restless.

I shake my head. She shakes hers.

My heart’s leaping out of my chest. Her chest. I’m a stupid teenager, so she lifts my head up because her eyes are up there. They spiral like galaxies, filled with letters, millions of them, floating fractals, white clouds all around my vision.

I still remember the kiss we shared that day. Summer was infinite, endless, amen, hallelujah. If only I could live in this dream, this moment, this memory, forever.

The next part is true, too. I pull away because I realize she’s crying. Gentle tears roll down her face; a plane flies overhead, casting a long shadow over the summer grass.

“What’s wrong?”

She rubs the tears away. “We’re third-years, Shunsuke. This is the end. So how come I'm not sad?”

I try to be cool. “Because I’m here, right?”

Kanako gives me a light punch on the shoulder. “Yeah, right. If that's true, then how come I'm not happy, either? I just feel an endless sense of meh. I can’t take it anymore. I didn’t even want to run for president. But my family said it would make everyone look good.”

She looks up at the sky, but the trees swaying in the breeze block her view of the plane. “I can’t wait for this to be over. Almost there. I’m gonna leave and never look back.”

I wasn’t aware of Kanako’s dreams of the future. “Where are you going?”

“Anywhere but here.”

“Can I come?”

Kanako looks at me and smiles. But she never answers.

Letters fly across my vision as I rocket out of my sleeping mat. I catch my breath, hyperventilating, rubbing my face. I’m in Shuten village in the mountains of Yoshiaki. The early dawn slinks in through the window. A desk blocks my vision of Shizuko, but suddenly, she’s there, resting her hands on it, peering down at me.

“What’s wrong?”

I don’t know where to start. Everything feels messed up.

“It’s just…I feel like I had the longest dream.”

And I need that dream to continue. I can’t let go. Because it’s those golden days of early summer that keep me going. I know I’m only remembering the good. But if those good days disappear from my memory, and all I’m left with is the future, then what the hell is the point of anything?

I need to finish things, flickering candles and dying daydreams. Settle this once and for all.

“I’m sorry,” I say softly. “But I can’t stay put. I have to see the temple with the eternal flame.”

Steward McOy