A Song of Falling Petals
Hikarizaka is called a city by its residents. Others, those who drop by from such places as Osaka and Kobe, insist that it is a town. The metropolitan people may well be right in a sense, for at the crack of five, right after the end of a busy and bustling day at work and school, many neighborhoods fall silent as a quaint country hamlet.
Not so a chattering foursome of girls, three high school freshmen and one grade schooler. They had just been to a short visit at the salon after school. Only one of the freshmen, however, had her hair done. Not that it was very much "done", though, just a simple cut.
"My, Ushio," marvelled Kiyomasa Tomoe, "you look so awesome with shoulder-length hair. I just got so used to having it long, but now you look just like a fresh, new you."
"Of course," Okazaki replied, proudly bouncing the ends of her mane on one hand. "I always have good fashion sense, don't I?"
"Haha!" taunted Nakayama Minako. "Like when you picked that lizard stuffed toy at the arcade? Great taste, indeed." Laughing.
Ushio made a face. "Yeah, yeah," she sneered. "So what? Lizards are great creatures. They're just like spiders. I don't understand why girls hate them. They're beautiful if you ask me. In fact, I like it that there are so many in our city."
"Yeah. There's one inside the back of your uniform now."
"What!" Ushio turned around and found herself frantically groping her back—"Where? Where?"—as the rest looked on laughing. Even Yoshino Megumi, the grade schooler, could hardly keep herself from bowling over.
When Ushio realized she'd been tricked, she chased Minako round and round, hitting each other with their schoolbags whenever they got close, while the other two were already coughing themselves out from mirth. Child's play can't last, though, as sun sank behind the mountains and night started to gather. It was already evening when the two freshmen dropped Ushio and Megumi at the Okazakis' apartment.
"See ya tomorrow, losers!" called out Minako smiling.
Ushio smiled back. "Yeah! Lose your way home, OK?"
As soon as the two went out of sight, Megumi handed Ushio a paper bag. "Mom told me to give this to your dad."
She peeked into the bag. "Whoa. Uncle Yusuke's old power drill? Say, I think I remember Dad mention getting one to fix our roof." She sighed as she glanced in the direction of their apartment. "Man, we've living there since the beginning of time, and now the place's just so ancient it's falling apart. Why doesn't papa just look for a bigger place? I say, I'd rather stay at grampa's bakery."
"Come on, Onee-chan," Megumi chided. At times she seemed to be the elder of the two. "If Uncle Tomoya hears you, I shudder to think what he'll say. You know you're not that well-off to look for another house. Aunt Fuko won't be pleased."
"It's been sooooo long! Dad's been working almost as long as yours. We should have been rich already. Why can't he be promoted, anyway? By gad, if he were just like Uncle Yoshino, he would have been assistant manager by now."
Megumi just gave a sad, knowing smile. She already knew why, from a conversation she accidentally overheard between Tomoya and her mother Kouko. She would have wanted to explain to her, but she also knew Ushio was not one to care bearing with a rambling elaboration that could only lead to more questions, and hard feelings to boot.
"See? Even you can't answer that." She whimpered in frustration. "Anyway, be sure to return my pencil case tomorrow, OK? My pastels' just ruining the inside of my bag pocket." She dashed up the stairs. "See you around."
She fumbled for the keys. Much to her surprise, the door was open, and right upon opening the door, she found her father sitting on the sofa, obviously waiting for her. "You're half an hour late, Ushio."
"Papa..." she mumbled, at a loss for words.
"I told you to arrive at six because your mother is staying awhile at Akio- and Sanae-san's."
"Haven't I told you?"
She earnestly gestured a 'no'.
"Bah. That's what you get for having that headset on while I'm talking to you. Shouldn't you be watching over Mizuumi as soon as she gets home?"
Mizuumi again? she thought ruefully. "Dad, she's already seven. Megumi's already been to Tokyo and back at her age. She's no invalid."
"Don't you understand? Your sister's weak."
"It's not my fault that she's weak," she muttered under her breath.
Tomoya caught her. "What is that?" He went over to her and took her shoulders. "You're becoming cheeky and you're only a freshman! Don't be saying things out of my hearing, is that clear?"
Just then he noticed her hair. "And when did I tell you to cut your hair? What will your mother say when she sees this? I haven't even given you money for a haircut."
"I saved for it, Dad." She smiled. "Aren't you proud your daughter's learning to handle her money?"
He sighed. "Nobody's laughing at your wit, bigshot." He motioned to Mizuumi's room. "Go see her. She's waiting."
The girl flung her bag on the sofa and marched to the room.
That girl, he thought. Sometimes I just want to give her a memorable slap or two. But he knew Nagisa would not approve, not at her age, anyway. He hated to add to her stress. Recently her fainting spells had returned with a vengeance and this time more often, even more so than some years back. He didn't like to think that his wife's strength couldn't help but dwindle with the passing of time. He already had such a fright with her giving birth to Ushio, and even when she got to the hospital with Mizuumi's, the staff had to observe her for over a week before allowing her home.
Worse, her condition was passed on to her offspring. Ushio had frequent bouts of fever herself when she was Mizuumi's age and younger, but she quickly got over them once she was older. As for Mizuumi...
Ushio hesitantly opened the door to the room she shared with her sister, hoping that she's probably asleep or otherwise lost interest in seeing her. She goes to sleep way earlier than her, anyway.
Quite the contrary. She was sitting in bed and when she heard the door creak, she turned and slowly went to see if it was indeed who she was waiting for. Before Ushio could close the door again, Mizuumi took hold of the opening and pushed it apart.
She brightened up upon seeing her big sister and clung to her. "Shio-chan..."
Oh man, don't look at me like that.
"Shio-chan, will you hum to me again?"
"I... I'm tired, Mimi. Maybe I'll eat first, OK? Just hang on," she finished insincerely.
It only elicited a tighter hug. "Shio-chan," she entreated. "Hum to me. Please."
It's that voice. And those eyes. Oh no, was what she was wont to feel at times like this. She couldn't help but soften to that voice. You darned rascal. Why do you always have to melt me like that? You sure know your guns, huh. Soon enough her own deep brown eyes reflected Mizuumi's expression and she knelt to take her in her arms and rock her. Then, she even carried her to bed where she duly served her little sister's request. Mizuumi sure isn't one she could refuse for long. She really is cute. Her bluish hair and face reminded her so much of papa, who, she must say, was her model in the way of how men should look.
She laid her sister on the bed and smelled her face. "Mimi, you're so kawaii!" she whispered admiringly.
Still, oftentimes Ushio thought that her sister was such a burden, and it must be said that several times caring for Mizuumi prevented her from hanging out with her classmates or joining some other gimmick, but more than that the girl draws out all the sugar and spice and everything nice from her, at a time when she wanted to try out being a high school toughie.
Worst of all, there were also those times when Tomoya catches her in the act. Like now. She was startled to find him standing there at the door all along with that tender look on him. Papa, I'm not your little girl anymore!
That Mimi, you cheesy!
Nagisa was another figure she was rather uncomfortable being with at her age.
Every single motherly touch, every stroke of her hair, every kiss and hug, always has that effect on her. Simply put, it transported her back to that unenviable time when she would just, like Mimi, thirst for every inch of her. To compound that, every time she was directly reminded of her mother's health, seeing for herself when she went pale, or coughed, or stopped to catch her breath, she would just rush to hold her, and every time it just pained her. Just seeing Nagisa, that gentle, peaceful look and her simple yet touching, if weak, smile, made her heart skip a beat.
Then she would hear in the back of her mind, as though the air was suffused with music from a thousand invisible loudspeakers, that rich melody in which chimed the tune of that song of hers that the three of them, her and her parents, sang together when she was little.
"Hearing" it was a sign that she was in her presence. It seemed the wind suddenly stopped blowing, the clouds halted in their tracks, the trees did not rustle, the birds ceased their song, and only cherry petals were allowed to fall as everything came to a standstill, whenever she was near, and that tune played. She felt pretty sure, as she stood in front of Furukawa Bread that Saturday morning, though she saw nobody inside, that Nagisa Furukawa was within fifty feet of her. Somewhere...
Her mother's scent confirmed that she was inches from her.
A hand landed on her arm. "Ushio..."
"Mama." She instinctively turned.
She saw that her mother was paler than when she last saw her. Her eyes widened from shock. She embraced her trying to hold back the tears. "Mama," she whispered, "what happened to you?"
She smiled weakly. "Don't worry, Ushio. I'm fine. I can walk outside now, see?"
"No. You shouldn't." She remembered her father saying to her that he was once almost mad at her mother for being outside in that condition.
"Ushio," she also recalled, as she prepared to enter high school, though she was half-listening to him, enamored by the rap score over the radio in the apartment back then, "I honestly don't know what will become of you in Hikarizaka. In the world, some people will pass you by, others will use you, and most may throw you away. My high school life was rotten as hell. I could not get any good recommendation from my own school.
"But your mother, and you, and Mizuumi, were my proudest achievements. I could bear going to school if your mother was there. I could bear going up those electric poles over and over for the rest of my life if you and Mizuumi will always be there when I come home. I would not care for anything I missed in the world.
"Your mother took me in when nobody else would, and then I knew you were all I have.
"Ushio, take care of yourself. Take care of Mizuumi. Take care of your mother."
"Mama," she said tugging at her sleeve, "Let's go inside."
Just then, someone suddenly ran out of the bakery and bumped Ushio into Nagisa's arms.
The weeping lady ran on, followed by her husband who had stuffed several smoking ramen-filled donuts in his mouth. "I luf em!"
"Hey! Who did that!" Ushio retorted.
Nagisa giggled. "Don't worry, Ushio. It's only Akio- and Sanae-san. As if you didn't know them."
She whined. "Why do they always have to do that?" she grumbled.
Nagisa's giggle bloomed into an open laugh. Ushio was startled by that, and her annoyance became happiness. It actually relieved her to see it, and the color returning to her cheeks. If it made her this happy, she felt, I don't mind if grampa and grandma chased each other every day. She just might join in herself.
"Ma," she said as she rested herself against her bosom, "you'll be alright, trust me."
Sanae served hot chocolate as the four of them sat down to eat. Ushio was overjoyed. No matter how gross her bread gets, she was just expert when it came to hot drinks. She in fact already downed three cups in a row.
"Ushio," said Nagisa, "Don't push yourself. You might be full too soon."
"Ah..." she breathed as she finished her fourth cup. "That's fabulous! Sanae-san, can I just live here instead? I'll even help you pois—er—improve the bread." She already thought of pranking some customers and to her there was no better prop.
"Oh, Ushio," replied a flattered Sanae, "if only I could let you." She still looked at fifty what she was at twenty, and it was quite another thing Ushio loved about her. To her she was a second mother, and no doubt Sanae returns the favour.
"You sure have a thing to Sanae's drinks, huh," remarked Akio. "To think that Mizuumi hates chocolate."
"Bleh," she scoffed. "That girl's just weird. Do you know, Akki-san, that she digs plenty of cauliflower in her bento?" She laughed. "For a kid!"
"Ushio," chided Nagisa, "don't speak of your own sister like that. And what's so wrong with vegetables? You should be glad it helps her condition."
She then winced. She never liked hot coals on her conscience, most especially from her mother. "I'm sorry."
Akio laughed. "I should expect some sibling rivalry for a change here. Though I can't really vouch for that. You're Mizuumi's hero, you know that, Ushio? I can't imagine her hating you at all."
Really? Now you just made me look morally worse.
"Your grandfather's right, Ushio," seconded Nagisa. "It really warms me to see the two of you together. And she's really cute, don't you think?"
Yes, she is, Mama... Times I just want to cuddle her myself... Wait, what am I thinking? Ahhh! No!
But if it really makes you happy... well... Grrrr, I'm getting sappy—again!
"By the way, Ushio," broke in Sanae, "Kyou dropped by the other day and she asked me to tell you something about Mimi."
"She said you should fetch her every day after school from now on."
"Er... What was that again, Sanae-san?"
"Mizuumi's not getting any stronger after almost a year in Grade One. Your father might be working overtime to pay for overdue bills on the rent. And your mother, of course we can't let her out too long for now.
"Kyou-chan just thought you were old enough to take some responsibility."
This was not her idea of maturity. It would mean being permanently cut-off from her friends' afterschool adventures, and who knows what other chores have to be done for the little girl on weekends? What could she possibly make of herself if she kept company with a timid and clinging little girl? She remembered how her father described her mother once... a crybaby, shy, and had difficulty in making friends. I'm sorry, Mama, but I can't bring myself to follow in your footsteps.
"Ushio," said Nagisa, reflecting her daughter's thoughts, "you should be the one to lend your sister strength. You can make your own way in the world...but Mizuumi can't stand on her own, not until somebody helps her up. The best one to do it will be you. If I get better I will be there but even then she will be seeking understanding from a sister as well."
Ushio twirled a lock of her hair in her fingers. "I don't know, Mama..."
"Ushio, please, do it, for her. For your own sister."
She wanted to reiterate her dream of being her own self, but those pleading eyes of Nagisa and concerned look from Sanae was too much for her to bear. To top it all was Akio's pin-sharp stare, daring her to make up her mind.
And she did.
She tramped at lunch break to the school where Kyou was teaching and where Tomoya dropped Mizuumi off every morning, intent on politely giving her former teacher a piece of her mind. Why can't Fujibayashi-sensei just look after Mimi and strengthen the child herself? After all, she was the teacher. She hasn't yet gotten wind of the fact that Mizuumi was not in Fujibayashi's class.
An arm appeared out of a bush and yanked her into the greenery.
"Hey! What—" she ranted, struggling in the bush as a hand gagged her. It was none other than Hirano Shinichiro, aka Nichi, the troublemaker. Truth to tell, the boy looked pretty uniformed decent outwardly and tries to maintain some decorum at school, which aided him to elude suspicions for a number of pranks that even put Hikarizaka High on the newspaper once. Things like setting off fire alarms for nothing, that sort of stuff. And he is notorious for pulling along hapless bystanders he knows into his schemes. One of the more frequent customers happen to be an equally mischief-minded...
She managed to put his hand away. "If you don't let me go, I'll tell everyone you're molesting me."
"What? Molest someone with dorky hair like yours? Forget it."
"Listen, I got some important things to do so if you have another cliché plan, bug off. Your traps are really old now, you know."
"No! I swear to you this will be fun. I just learned how to hack the circuitry on a bike."
Suddenly, the annoyance on her face was turned into fascination, and finally the intent registered on her a smirk. "Sounds fresh. Count me in!"