In my dream, I’m ten again. Aki and I are playing in the middle of the street in our small city in Japan, drawing with the chalk he swiped from school. That’s strictly forbidden, but he does it anyway since his mother doesn’t have enough money to buy such pricey things. He takes the white chalk and carefully places its tip on the ground, dragging it to make out a vague shape.
“What’s that?” I ask curiously.
“It’s a fighter jet. Common sense. Don’t tell me you don’t know it?” he asks back, not even caring to look at me. He’s three years my senior, so he should probably be a little kinder, but I can’t blame him in this situation. I would do that, were I him. He’s like a kid now.
I sigh and take a pink chalk stick and a green one. I wonder how he was able to take all of these chalk sticks without getting noticed. Besides, I bet the teacher has so many of them, to begin with. I stare at them glumly, then begin to draw flowers and grass, and people walking. Half-way through, Aki looks up at my drawing.
“Who are those two people?”
“That’s me and you!” I say, smiling at him, a little too fakely. I finish the last touches to my drawing. I admire it. It’s been a while since I last drew, and I like to think that it’s improved.
“Oh,” he says, totally uninterested. His eyes linger a little longer on the two pink figures who are smiling against the sun, then starts working on his jet-a-majig again (I myself was totally uninterested in jets back then).
Aki’s mother sits quietly on the grass, a far-away look in her eyes. Probably thinking about Aki’s father, who left to become a soldier a week ago. Even though I’m disappointed at his reactions to my friendliness, deep in my heart I know that Aki cries every night, that his father is in all of his prayers and that he just doesn’t have any time thinking about me. We’ve been friends since we were babies, and trust me, I’ve never seen him this sad before. Even his name is 明, which means brightness.
Recently, I’ve been noticing that his mother is acting weird, and I feel like he notices it too. She says the strangest things sometimes. That look never leaves her eyes, and she’s always mumbling things no one says, like “that dumb old Emperor doesn’t know what he’s thinking! Taking my husband away from me! It’s all because of the Emperor!” Even I know that you’re not supposed to say things against the Emperor. I mean, we’re not even supposed to say the word lightly. We have to hail him and this country with our hearts. We have no freedom of speech.
I look up at Aki, and I’m not surprised to find a big fat tear rolling down his cheek and falling onto his drawing. The kind words get stuck in my throat, and the smile gets stuck on my lips. He quickly wipes the next tear away when he notices me staring.
“Aki-kun… You know you can cry, right?” I say in the best way I can. I swear, it’s sincere, but it comes out not as good as I wanted it to. It sounds like I’m judging him for crying like a baby even though he’s older than me.
He doesn’t say anything, but he stands up and sits down next to me and buries his face in my shoulder. He’s silent for a moment, but not before long, he starts wailing. He sobs and sobs, and it’s enough to wake his mother up from her curse-the-Emperor daydream. She wobbles over to us and looks at us for a moment. Then she gets all mad. Not crazy mad, angry mad. And it’s not at the Emperor this time, for once. It’s at me.
“Natsuko! How dare you make my baby cry!”
I look up at her in shock. Wait, but I didn’t make him cry, he was sad because of his father… She doesn’t mind me.
“Eh? You gonna say something? YOU MADE MY BABY CRY! No one gets to do that. I thought you were his friend! He’s going through a lot already! Why did you do that? Tell me! I need an answer. And if you aren’t going to give me one, you better get away from him!” She tries to drag Aki away, but he resists and screams back,
“She didn’t make me cry, Mother! You don’t understand! I was just thinking about Father and she was nice!”
A small sigh escapes my lips and I regret it the moment it comes out. Aki’s mother glares at me with those bloodshot eyes.
His mother looks at him in awe. Mad awe. Horror awe. She whispers something inaudible and then shakes her head like she’s finally letting something go. What is that thing? I feel like I’ll never know. It’s not just Aki. Something unclear.
She looks at Aki longingly, as if for the last time. Nodding slightly, she turns on her heels and wobbles away from us, then starts heading down the street.
Aki looks up. “Mother?”
She turns around, tears glistening in her eyes. “I’m sorry, I’ve been meaning to tell you this for a while. I can’t take care of you. I’m not even the one you look for comfort for anymore. Plus, I barely have any money to feed the two of us. Look at you, skinny little thing. There must be people who can take better care of you. I love you, Aki, forever. But I just can’t. I need to say goodbye.”
Aki gets up and goes to hug her. She’s full-on crying now, too. Just for a second, a pang of pain hits me. She’s also a human. She’s— No. She’s not human. She’s not loyal to the country and not patriotic and people say that that is the same thing as being a madwoman. A madwoman is not a human. She is crazy. Everyone knows that she is.
Yet it feels horrible watching the two hug and cry.
I don’t think Aki understands what exactly is happening, and I don’t either. I just know that his mother isn’t coming back and that it’s “all because of the Emperor”.
They part, and she lumbers down the street uncertainly and then turns right at the end of the street. It’s the last I’ve seen of her.
Aki comes back and cries into my shoulder again. He’s still young, only thirteen years old, but this is going to be one of the worst turning points in his life.
“Hey,” I look at him sternly. “You can’t let this ruin you.”
“I know, Natsuko-chan. But I don’t have parents anymore.” The realization makes me feel guilty for saying that.
“You don’t know about your father! I bet god would never let your father die. He's a great person. And! You can stay with me.” I say something I never thought I’d have to. At least not to Aki. I also slap myself internally for mentioning god, but he doesn’t notice.
His eyes brighten just a little bit. “Thank you.”
We stand up and head towards my house, not to look back at where his mother was seen last, not to look back at his house or the drawings.
“Natsuko!” I see Mother, Aki, and my sister Shizue staring into my face. Aki and Shizue go away once they make sure I’m awake. “What happened? You’re sweating a lot.”
I smile. I can’t say this in front of Aki. “Oh, it was just a dream.”
Mother looks at me worriedly. I nod my head towards Aki, who has his back to me, preparing for school. She understands and nods back. “Breakfast is ready for you guys downstairs.”
It’s hard to believe that it’s only been three years since Aki’s mother walked out on him. We haven’t heard anything from her, so we have no way to go look for her. Their old house is still there, on that lonely road, but it’s so un-cared for, it looks like a haunted house. Some people have attacked it, and there are obvious remnants of rocks that have broken some of the windows. Despite all of this, Aki sometimes goes to visit that place.
I turned thirteen —just as old as he was at that time— a couple of months ago, but I didn’t get any presents. No complaining. My parents already have enough mouths to feed.
And oh, the war. It’s not getting any better. America’s been bombing literally every city that has a military base or factories, and I’m scared for my family’s lives. Just past the park where a lot of people spend time having picnics, there’s a huge factory that makes I-don’t-know-what. It’s painted black, supposedly so that it “blends in” and isn’t very easy to spot, but anyone could see that huge raven-black building planted awkwardly into the middle of the otherwise peaceful town.
But right now, I can’t be worrying about that. School is much more than enough to worry about. I’ve never been called smart before, and I know I’m not. The numbers just don’t make sense to me in my head, and the homework is always burdening me.
During breakfast, Shizue and Aki devour their food like lions that haven’t eaten in months, but I leave some of it for later. Thankfully, although she gives me a look, Mother doesn’t comment on it.
We run out the door, just like usual, and head for the school, which is a few minutes’ walk away. It’s such a sunny, nice day, but the conversation happens only between Shizue and Aki today. I should enjoy this walk since I know for sure we won’t be able to continue it for long— the government is going to make all middle schoolers and high schoolers, even girls, work in farms or factories.
As I walk, though, I can’t stop thinking about… her. Her, of whom I was reminded in my dream. It was so vivid that it almost seemed real. Her red eyes, her lingering look on Aki… I shake my head free of the vision. She’s gonna haunt me someday, I swear.
I’m also scared about something else. It’s my father. He got a very bad leg at war, and they sent him back home because he was “no use”. When he arrived, we cried tears of joy, but he could barely even walk. I can’t even imagine the time and pain it took him to get from the station home. But his leg is healing now, and I feel like they’re gonna come get him again.
But. School now.
My first class is Japanese, which I used to like so much but now is boring because of the kuronuri-kyoukasho. It’s this strange system where the government covers the ‘bad’ parts in black ink that’s supposed to be used only for calligraphy. Censoring. They do that to letters, too. Aki sends letters to his father all the time, and he says things he’s not supposed to, so his letters must be almost completely black. He still writes it, probably because he thinks his father’s not going to get the letter, and also because he has to spill his complaints to someone.
I stare at the illegible textbook. Everything blurs. Why do I have to be here, now? Why couldn’t I be born in the future, when hopefully war doesn’t exist? When is this going to end? As I ask myself endless questions that I’ll never be able to answer, I see a tear fall on one of the drawings (now covered in ink) that I remember vividly that I used to love so much. The drawing was… peaceful. Two people, on a swing (which the government also took from us, since they needed material for bombs and bullets), holding hands. In the background there was the sun, shining brightly, and the green grass was alive under their toes. The blue sky showed no clouds, but the grass was a little wet, glistening in the light like it had just rained. Some flowers were to be seen here and there. It was just so different from the world now. I don’t know why the government decided to erase it, and I don’t care. They erased it, and now I’ll never see the drawing again. I’m mad. At the government. At war. At Japan. At the world.