Fumi writes ghost stories obsessively all through the summer. The bookshelves fill with horror DVDs and manga, novels and reference books. Even when Akira takes the late train home, she’ll find her awake, hunched over her laptop while a period-costumed Naoto Takenaka grimaces on the TV screen.
Her interest, however quietly maintained, is infectious. Akira’s not immune. “Let’s go to the haunted hospital in Fujiyoshida!” she suggests. That Sunday, they ride the three hours to Fuji-Q Highland in a state of steadily increasing excitement. By the time they arrive, they’re as giggly as high school girls. It is a struggle to keep their composure and not embarrass themselves or the other passengers.
The haunted hospital is exactly as promised. Akira screams a lot more than Fumi, whose extensive research has left her partly inoculated to scares. By the end, though, they’re burying their heads in each others’ shoulders like children.
It turns out the picnic spoiled in the heat, so they recuperate over tea and ice cream. Neither of them wants to go home yet; they spend a while walking around, just watching people. On the ride back, Akira puts her head on Fumi’s shoulder, and no one even cares.
By the autumn equinox, Fumi has written 63,000 words, sold two stories, purchased the complete oeuvre of Junji Ito and Kazuo Umezu, and thrice woken up to the conviction she was being strangled by her own hair. To be fair, Akira did too, once. (She dreamed that Fumi’s hair was strangling her, not that her own hair was. It is important to differentiate these things.)
Akira works every Saturday in October. The month passes in a blur of rain, deadlines, and nightly bar runs with her coworkers.
She and Fumi seldom see each other. It sort of starts to feel like she’s living with a stranger, albeit a familiar one. They clean the apartment together on weekends, cook each other dinner, and occasionally kiss or watch a drama, but that’s it.
Culture Day arrives. The office is closed, and Akira wants to do is relax. She comes home on the night of November 2nd, reads part of a magazine, and falls asleep to the sound of Fumi still typing.
When she awakens, Fumi has made breakfast: Coffee, tamagoyaki, and rice. It’s simple, nothing special really. But Fumi's whole face changes when Akira walks in, and she's set the table so neatly--there's a centerpiece even, an empty bottle with what must have been the last flower in the tiny vacant lot down the block--and--
Fumi's mouth falls open under hers, sweet. She hasn’t even drunk the coffee yet, Akira thinks. She takes advantage of Fumi’s parted lips to slip her tongue between them. Her hand slides under the curtain of Fumi's hair, to cup the base of her skull. She can feel the blood rushing there, can almost taste the flush that rises to Fumi’s cheeks.
As it turns out, they don't get to the food before it's cold. But that's all right; they do, after all, have a perfectly functional microwave.
In the time between Culture Day and Christmas, Akira receives seven e-mails on the subject of marriage. Four are, predictably, from her parents; one is from her grandmother, who celebrated her ninetieth birthday that July; and two are from college roommates who have recently started families. Akira fields their inquiries with a distinct lack of aplomb, choosing instead to distract them with her coworkers' foibles and the neighbor's plumbing woes. She has no intention of mentioning it to Fumi.
"Okaa-san called today and asked when I'm going to have babies," says Fumi one night over Indian takeout. It comes out in a rush, like she's been bottling it up. Akira freezes, a bite of butter chicken halfway to her mouth. Makhani drips onto the tablecloth.
"Mine asked the same thing last week," she admits.
"What did you tell her?" Fumi's fists tremble at the table's edge.
"I said that Mochizuki-san's sink was still clogged, and she came over and washed two of her cats in ours."
"Ah-chan," Fumi admonishes, but her tone is relieved.
“I don’t really know what to tell them.”
“We’ll have to say something eventually.”
Akira sets down her chopsticks. “We will, won’t we? Eventually.” She reaches across the table, palms out flat to receive Fumi’s hands.
“Yes,” says Fumi, tangling her fingers with Akira’s.
“But not now. Now, we’re just too busy. We’re focused on our careers.”
“Very focused,” says Fumi quietly.
They end up going to a miai arranged by one of Akira’s coworkers. Afterwards, they drink a whole bottle of plum sake. Fumi’s alcohol tolerance hasn’t improved since high school; Akira’s has gotten worse. They sing all the old songs they can remember—high school songs, elementary school songs, folk songs, children’s songs, even the national anthem—and pass out together on the couch.
The animal shelter where Mochizuki-san volunteers has just obtained some intriguing new residents. Namely, two half-feral kittens.
“It’s so sad. It’s terrible. I wish I had room for them.” Mochizuki-san, a well-preserved woman of fifty, has one grown-up son and five adopted stray cats of varying breed and temperament. The meanest, Momo, is currently glowering at Akira from the safety of Fumi’s lap.
Mochizuki-san launches into a speech on the importance of spaying and neutering domesticated animals. Fumi listens politely, scratching under Momo’s chin. Akira sips her tea and waits for it to be over.
Perhaps Akira should have paid more attention, because it’s not quite 24 hours later that Fumi suggests they visit the shelter.
“Um,” she adds, blushing, “I do like cats.”
Akira recalls how softly Fumi regarded the top of Momo’s head, and weighs that softness against the sharpness (a sharpness she experienced firsthand) of the same animal’s vindictively wielded claws.
That weekend, they go to the shelter. They look all over for a cage with two kittens, but there is none. The head volunteer wilts a little when they ask. One of the kittens died yesterday, he says. The survivor has been hiding, mostly. It’s in a cage at the back, alone.
Despite its ostensibly being in hiding, the kitten totters up to see them. It’s not a pretty cat. Rather than small, it’s underfed; rather than sleek, it’s rangy and knobbly. But Fumi’s eyes widen anyway.
At their request, the volunteer unlocks the cage door. Fumi stretches out her hand, and the kitten approaches it. For a second, it looks like it’s going to bite her; instead, it sniffs her fingers cautiously. Akira has to admit, it is a very cute cat. And rather smart, as well! The delicacy of its movements is mesmerizing.
“Ah-chan,” says Fumi, turning to her. “Can we—”
“You’re paying for the cat training courses,” says Akira, and smiles, and resigns herself to fate.