Chiyo took a deep breath before running towards the spring board. She attempted to focus even with a gang of eyes bullying her with their presence. She jumped on the spring board and leapt to the first bar, spinning around it like a wheel. She turned her body around at different angles as she went round and round the bar. She performed a handstand on the bar before whipping her body towards the second bar.
The next thing she felt was vinyl slapping her face as she crashed onto the mat. She had not reached the second bar.
Her coach helped her up. “Not your best, though I’m sure you know that.” he said, writing on a piece of paper attached to his clipboard. He twisted his head towards the line of girls waiting to run to the springboard. “Next!”
Hoshi ran so fast it was as if she was sprinting, but with no noticeable exertion. She pushed her legs against the springboard and, with legs as straight as planks of wood, jumped perfectly to the first bar. Her movements were quick as she altered her grip on the bar and spun around it so many times that the journey to the second bar was as graceful as it was effortless.
She landed as if she had been standing there the entire time. The parents gave her a round of applause. Chiyo clenched her teeth.
The coach wrote down some more notes. “Your form is good, but your handstands are over too quickly. In fact, the entire routine is performed too fast.”
“Yes, coach,” Hoshi said in her nasal, high-pitched voice. She smirked at Chiyo before tightening her dark green ponytail and brushing past her with the airiness of a ghost.
Chiyo began fixing her own black ponytail and, avoiding her parents glance, ran to the back of the line for another practice.
When the session ended, Chiyo noticed a homeless man sitting beside the door. His lips were chapped and his messy hair covered his young face as he pulled his blanket towards his nose.
‘What a pain,’ she thought as she moved past the man, wondering why no one had bothered to shoo him away from such a prestigious place.
The next sight that scratched her eyes was that of Hoshi kneeling down and handing the man two 1000 yen notes.
“I hope this helps.”
Hoshi stood up and realised that Chiyo was standing there. “Why haven’t they shooed you away?” she asked her.
“Excuse me? I’ll have you know that I was about to give that man more money than you did.” She rummaged through her bag and pulled out three notes worth 1000 yen each. “I think you’ll need this amount of money much more, Sir.”
Hoshi scowled at her. “Really? You’re making a competition out of generosity?”
“And what if I am?”
Hoshi grinned and chuckled. “Fine. We both have one month and whoever’s the most generous wins.”
“Who will decide that?”
“We’ll tally up what we did and we’ll get the coach to decide what actions are worth more.”
“But he likes you! That’s not fair!”
Hoshi shoved her hands in her pockets. “I guess we’ll never know who’s more generous. What a shame. I was looking forward to pounding you into the dust like I usually do.”
Chiyo growled. “Then it’s a deal! The coach decides at the end of one month. You better not lie.”
“Why lie when I can do?”
Chiyo inhaled slowly, as if preparing to perform another routine. She held up her hand and waved her rival goodbye with a passive-aggressive smile before walking home with her parents.
She had a feeling that Hoshi would play dirty, so she needed to make a plan to catch up. She slammed a piece of paper against her desk and wrote furiously.
“Let’s see… there’re tourists who don’t understand Japanese and need to find the way to the temple. What else? How about that elderly woman who never has enough money to feed the birds? There’s also that girl who keeps getting picked on at school. What a great start! Soon I’ll be the most generous girl in all of Japan! Hahaha…. Hahahahaha!”
Her mother stood straight up against the wall outside her daughter’s room, trying not to be seen by her.
“She’s gone mad,” she whispered to her husband. “Has the failed routine finally made her crack? I told you she shouldn’t have become a gymnast.”
The next day, Chiyo put her plan in motion. She stood outside, waiting for a tourist to approach her. Minutes passed, then an hour.
Chiyo fidgeted with her hair, her clothes, her fingers and anything else she could to pass the time. ‘I bet Hoshi’s already done her first good deed,’ she thought bitterly.
“Excuse me,” a man spoke in English with a strong Southern American drawl. Chiyo turned around and saw an overweight, dark-skinned tourist with a mobile phone in his hand and another hand in the pocket of his gaudy yellow shorts.
“I don’t speak Japanese, but…. where is the temple? Tem-ple.”
Chiyo grinned at him. Her mind danced wildly as she comprehended the man’s words. ‘I bet Hoshi didn’t learn English at her prissy all girls’ school.’
“The temple is, uh, around that corner to your left. If you keep going past that red building you should find it.”
The man’s bright blue eyes were wide with astonishment. “You know English?”
Chiyo nodded. The man thanked her and ambled to his destination. The girl ticked off the first item on her list and ran to the park, banknotes in hand.
She sat on the bench next to a woman with short, curly grey hair and bright brown citrine eyes. She shook her hand, passing the notes.
“I hope you can buy some birdfeed with his.”
“Why thank you, Miss. You’re very kind.”
The woman frowned and stared at the girl like she had grown a hand on top of her head.
Chiyo jumped up, feeling like Kwan-yin, and rushed to the middle of the town, where many homeless people lived. She handed each of them coins accumulatively worth at least 2000 yen.
“I am the nicest person in the world,” she sang in no pre-existing melody. Before she could pat herself on the back, her eyes picked up a dark emerald colour.
Hoshi was giving the homeless people 3000 yen’s worth of money. She also handed a little girl a toy rocket. The little girl responded with a hug.
“How did you-”
“It’s all about taking the time to get to know people. She’s wanted a Super Turbo Rocket for months but her parents couldn’t afford it. Why don’t you actually pay attention to what people want instead of running around like a maniac?”
Chiyo blinked, forgetting to mention her knowledge of the bird-watching lady. “You’ve been watching me?”
“Anyone with half decent eyes can notice someone as much of an eyesore as you.”
“I’ll… I’ll show you!”
“Like you did yesterday when you fell on your face?” Hoshi rotated away from the fuming teenage girl and, laughing like a noblewoman, promenaded to a bakery to buy a loaf of bread for a sick family.
Chiyo looked down at her list and decided that the next course of action would be to buy some flowers for her next door neighbour.
She forked over the money and received a beautiful bouquet of lilies. She started to run, but remembered her enemy’s words. She walked as if moving in slow motion, her mind screaming abuse at Hoshi.
She eventually arrived at her next door neighbour’s home, a small and shoddily built wreck that stood, or leant as the case may be, in stark contrast to Chiyo’s own expertly built mansion. She remembered years ago when the house was also grand, but as money began to slip out of the owner’s fingers she had a smaller one built, refusing to move to another block of land.
She knocked on the door, part of her afraid that it would collapse, taking the rest of the shack with it. It was opened by a woman with a crooked smile that revealed several gold teeth.
“What’s going on?” She asked in a thick Osakan accent. Chiyo presented the flowers to her. “Oh… thank ya kindly, but… are you sure you want to send that kind of flowers to me? I mean, they’re lov’ly and all, but they are lilies. You don’t, ya know, harbour any feelings of the puerile kind, do ya?”
Chiyo’s cheeks lit up like the top traffic light. “N-no! I was just trying to be nice!”
“Oh. Well, like ah said, thank ya kindly. Come in, come in.” Chiyo followed her to the kitchen, where the woman made her a cup of tea. “Ah’m sorry ah don’t have enough money to make tea in a fancy way no more. Ah hope this’ll suffice.”
“There’s no need,” Chiyo said apologetically, waving her hand in opposition. “I don’t think I can take anything in return.”
“Well, um, you see, there’s this competition between me and this other girl to see who’s the most generous.”
The woman frowned. “So that’s the only reason ya were being nice to me.” She pushed the bouquet against Chiyo’s chest. “Ah don’t want ya charity. There ain’t no point in being nice if it’s just to beat someone else at somethin’.”
“Fine,” Chiyo snapped. “I’ll take this somewhere else, then.”
She stormed out the door. She hated that woman, but she hated Hoshi even more. She hated that stupid shiny hair of hers, those perfectly toned legs and those beautiful glossy lips that begged to be punched, or something like that.
“Thinking about me, huh?”
Hoshi was casually leaning against a wall, wearing her typical sneer. Chiyo finally realised that she was muttering Hoshi’s name.
Hoshi stepped closer, her rosy fragrance almost shoving Chiyo to the ground. “Are those lilies for me?”
“Shut up. You don’t know what you’re talking about, dipwad.”
“Ooh, I’m scared. Someone just called me a ‘dipwad’! How crude.”
Chiyo put on a smile. “I’ll have words even more crude for you once I win this competition. Now, if you don’t mind, I have some generous acts to fulfil.”
Hoshi grabbed her arm and pulled her close, catching a whiff of her apple-scented hair. “Don’t think you can beat me at this. The only thing you know how to do right is pick good shampoo.”
Chiyo huffed and tore her arm away from Hoshi’s grasp. “What’s up with her?” she wondered aloud, her heart disobeying her by beating loudly at the comment about her shampoo choice.
She ran home and placed the lilies in a vase.
The next day was a school day, so she decided to befriend a girl whose weight and shyness made her a social outcast.
“Hi, there,” she said, her eyes sparkling.
“H-hi,” the girl said, eyeing the Chiyo’s lunch.
“Keiko, is it?” The girl nodded, too nervous to insist on being called by her surname. “Mind if I sit next to you? I’m sure you have plenty of offers, but this could be fun.”
“Leave me alone.”
“You’re just going to pick on me, aren’t you?”
Chiyo batted her eyelashes. “I would never dream of doing such a thing. I only want to be your friend. You seem cool.”
“What’s cool about me?”
“I… like your hair. It’s so fluffy. Can I touch it?”
As soon as Chiyo’s hands made contact with Keiko’s hair, Keiko blushed. Her eyes darted about and her breathing became shallow.
“Are you okay?” Chiyo asked in the most soothing voice she could. Keiko nodded. Chiyo’s eyes were graced by a little hair that stuck out of the top of Keiko’s head. She gently stroked it and Keiko immediately stood up.
“I-I think that’s enough.” The girl’s voice was hoarse.
Chiyo nodded her head. “So what are your interests?”
“Well, uh, I like fishing and hiking.”
“Really? I never pegged you as a hiker.”
“I come from a whole family of campers. You should meet them sometime.”
Keiko continued to chat, or, rather, monologue, about camping and fishing. Chiyo stifled a yawn, reminding herself of the importance of befriending this girl.
She had heard many a rumour about Keiko attempting suicide. It all lined up, what with her being bullied and the added rumours of an abusive family. Chiyo wasn’t sure what to think about the allegations, but she as sure as hell was not going to ask Keiko about it now.
When lunch ended Keiko grimaced then smiled. “It was nice talking with you.” ‘At me,’ Chiyo thought. “Do you want to hang out after school?”
“Sorry. I can’t. I have gymnastics practice.”
“Of couse. See you later, then.”
Gymnastics practice was intense that day. Because of her recent failure her coach was increasingly strict with her, forcing her to do warmups for longer than everybody else and making her stay after practice to do some balance work. Seeing Hoshi smile maliciously at her before exiting the building made her want to throw the balance beam at her.
“You must lessen that fiery spirit of yours if you want to keep balance,” the coach instructed. “Is something on your mind?”
Chiyo lied with a shake of the head. “Then there’s no excuse. Do five handstands on the bar. Then you can go.”
Chiyo groaned but complied. When she was finished, she raced out of the building and plucked a rose from the garden outside, giving it to a passer-by.
When she saw that Hoshi was standing in the moonlight, she almost screamed. “Why the hell are you still here?”
“I need to find out what pleasant acts you have gotten up to, don’t I?”
“You sound more like a stalker than a normal rival.”
Hoshi gulped, her eyes wide and her cheeks pink. “I-Is that so? That was completely unintentional.”
Chiyo pointed to her. “Ha! I managed to make you flustered about something. I finally win a conversation against you!”
Hoshi sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “You know, not everything’s about winning. Maybe I’m flustered because you noticed something about me.”
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
Hoshi turned her head. “You wouldn’t understand. You know, I was worried when you had to stay back. I thought maybe you’d be kicked out, or worse.”
“You’d like me being kicked out, wouldn’t you?”
“What’s the fun in that? We’d stop being rivals and… I wouldn’t be able to see you again.”
Chiyo’s heart pounded in her ears. “I have to go. More generous deeds and all that.”
“Yes. Of course. Good night.”
Weeks passed and the lilies began to wither, but Chiyo had no idea what to replace them with, especially since they were so beautiful at first.
She listened to Keiko’s boring talks about fishing and received a little thrill every time she moved closer to her and forced a blush to cover the girl’s cheeks like a rash. She had no idea why but it was so entertaining.
One cold day Keiko stopped her rambling and looked Chiyo in the eye. “What about you? You must have plenty to talk about when it comes to gymnastics.”
Chiyo scratched her chin. “Well, hmm…. I’m not really good at it. I mean, I used to be, but there’s this girl, and…. I can feel her staring at me and it’s distracting. I can’t concentrate and I mess up.”
“You must like her a lot.” Keiko’s voice had a stinging quality to it that almost made her sound angry.
“No, I hate her. She’s always there, making me feel like crap about myself with stupid remarks until she actually compliments me for once, and then I don’t know what to do. It shocks me and makes me feel this horrible warmth. I hate it.”
“Sounds like l… Anyway, heheh, have I told you the story about when Grandpa got the hook caught in his shirt?”
“Oh.” The bell rang. “I’ll talk to you later.”
Chiyo lightly touched her arm, smiling at the blush on Keiko’s cheeks. “Say, do you want to hang out after school? I’m thinking of going shopping.”
“Of course! I’ll meet you at the gate.”
When the day ended, the two friends met and began their stroll to the shopping district. Keiko was happy to try on clothes, but for some reason she felt uncomfortable sharing a dressing room with Chiyo. Chiyo chalked it up to her shyness.
“Gorgeous!” she exclaimed genuinely when Keiko pulled the curtain and revealed herself in a short pink summer dress.
“Do you really like it?” Keiko began fiddling with the straps. “I would love to buy it but I ran out of allowance.”
“I’ll buy it for you.”
Keiko’s mouth widened in a smile, showing off her beautiful teeth. “Thank you so much! I’ll pay you back.”
“No need. This is a gift from me.”
Keiko hugged her tight. When she noticed what she was doing, she backed away and her eyes rolled around looking for the appropriate words.
“You may as well wear it now,” Chiyo suggested. “Just take the tag off.”
When she bought her friend the dress, she grabbed her hand and tugged her outside, still holding her hand as the pair wandered through the district.
When Hoshi saw the two girls, she bit her lip in a scowl. Her eyes looked like war shields, her teeth swords.
“What have we here? What a wonderful couple. It really warms the heart, seeing a couple of lesbians take a romantic stroll through town. It’s so sweet it makes me sick.”
“Shut the hell up, Hoshi,” Chiyo barked. “We’re not a couple.”
“I thought for sure you’d want to make this girl feel special. You should plant a generous kiss right now.”
“You really think kissing someone’s generous?”
“Of course it is. If they like you, what’s a kinder gesture than a kiss? It would result in an instant win.” Hoshi had no clue why she was letting Chiyo do something she knew she would hate to see her do. Competition had the ability of making her change her priorities faster than a first-year university student. There was also the possibility of testing her feelings.
“Fine! I win!” Chiyo pulled Keiko close and planted a quick kiss on her lips. The last thing she was expecting was for Keiko to kiss her back, running her fingers through her coal black hair. As soon as she felt a tongue against her lips, she pulled away, wiping her mouth.
“What? Why did you… what the hell?”
Keiko stared at her with tear-filled eyes. “I… I’m sorry. I just… things got out of hand and I… I really like you, and I thought you liked me too.”
Hoshi finally allowed herself to smile, pushing back her own tears down her throat. “How adorable. You only befriended her to get back at me, didn’t you, Chiyo dear? And now she’s fallen for you. If only I had tear ducts. This is a real tragedy, if you ask me.”
“Is… i-is what she saying true?” Keiko asked, sniffling away her tears.
Chiyo’s voice cracked. “Well, yes, but… I didn’t think you’d fall for me. I didn’t even know you liked girl-”
Slap! Keiko glared at Chiyo, then at Hoshi with comprehending eyes, before she scampered away. Chiyo touched her cheek and glared at Hoshi. “That was low, even for you,” she said.
Hoshi laughed. “I’m the one being low? At least I didn’t pretend to like someone just so I could win a competition. Every person I’ve befriended I’ve genuinely liked. It seems like I’m going to win the competition, unless you can come up with something big before tomorrow.”
“Watch me, you horrible piece of-”
“Now, now. No need for bad language just yet. You haven’t won.”
Hoshi flipped her hair back and strutted away from Chiyo, who for some reason felt like the gods were punishing her.
Hoshi allowed a single tear to escape from her eyes. “You idiot,” she muttered under her breath. “Why do I even bother with you?”
The lilies had by then completely withered. Chiyo sat at the dining table and stared at them. Her mother offered to change them but Chiyo, for some inexplicable reason, screeched at her to leave them alone.
The girl spent the night flicking the flower corpses and reliving the day until she eventually fell asleep. When she woke up she knew she needed to do something to fix this.
She got dressed in some new clothes and dashed to the shopping district. She entered a gift shop and bought a keychain of a little gymnast that was smiling and in the midst of twirling her ribbon. It cost her 1500 yen, but she knew it would be worth it.
She moved out of the shop in a daze, stumbling to the gym like a zombie. After this she swore that she would apologise to Keiko, and perhaps she would let her continue their friendship.
But all that mattered was the girl in front of her. Hoshi gave her a small smile, her raised eyebrows touching each other. The two simultaneously presented their gifts.
“I… I didn’t go shopping specifically for you,” Chiyo claimed. “I just happened to see it and thought of you.”
“Same here. I don’t care about you. Heck, I don’t even like you, but given how sad you were yesterday I thought you needed a little pick-me-up.”
Chiyo opened the box and found a keychain of another little gymnast, this time blue instead of pink and holding a ball instead of a ribbon.
She, for reasons only the gods would know, felt ecstatic when she saw the glow on Hoshi’s face as she opened her gift.
“We’re insane, aren’t we?” Chiyo said.
“Could we… be insane together at the movies or something? It… it could be fun.” Both girls’ cheeks were redder and warmer than they had ever been. “You’ve been awful, but, for some reason I can’t hate you anymore. Maybe it’s because you’ve also made me happy and got me fired up for things.”
“Same. Does that mean the competition’s a draw?” Chiyo nodded. The pair walked into the gym together.
Meanwhile, Chiyo’s mother replaced the dead lilies with fresh new roses.