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She Can't Smile

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Minako was six-years old and her parents took her the amusement park for the first time. It’s the best time of her life ever and she had so much fun. She’s very tired when dad drives them home, but she’s still very much awake. She asks and bounces around, if they could go again soon. Her mom laughs and smiles. “We’ll see about that, dear.” That’s what her mom often called her. She likes the sound of it. Her eyes are a little drowsy and she’s very sleepy. She sits down in her seat, and was about to sleep. Unfortunately, she didn’t as the car makes a sudden stop. She’s awake now, and the sky is a horrible green.

Her parents are gone or she thinks. In place of them are weird objects. She’s not too sure what they are, but her mom and dad aren’t here. They went out, so she gets out. She has no idea why, but the car’s feels very hot and she burns. But she runs to look for  her parents. She can find them, and they’ll read a story to her. That’s what she believes. She breathes hard, as she hears a noise. A noise of a clash, but she can’t move. Her little legs tired and she’s about to fall to the ground. Before she does that, something or someone approaches.

She can’t see well now, her hair is in her face and she doesn’t to move it. She’s tired, she wants to take a nap. But someone holds her by her neck and she struggles to breathe again. She hears something mechanical, yet a little humanlike. Then pain seeps into her. She screams and everything stops. The horrible green is gone, and her pain is gone. But where’s her parents? She hears screams. The voices sounds familiar and turns around. Her parents and the car crashes into another. Everything is a flames and Minako, age 6 hits the ground, her head now bleeding.


 

Rescuers came late, and Minako is hugging her knees. Her voice is raw from crying and screaming. She can’t process what she has seen and she’s not sure if she wants to. The little girl wants to go home, but she hurts. Where was dad when he could kiss the boo-boo away? Where was mom when she could sing her to sleep? She wants to go home. That’s her only wish right now and she crawls upright to stand up. Even if she’s in pain. She walks around the ruined bridge and sees no one. The little girl feels tears crawling down her dirty and unwashed face. She yells and yells, and someone answers back.

It’s the sound of helicopter wings and there’s a light. Light. Finally light, in this darkness. It shines on her and she feels better for worse. Yet, her parents are still gone, even as the rescuers exclaim their surprise. Her mom and dad are still out there somewhere and gone. She wants the rescuers to rescue her parents. But no, the rescue helicopter only came down for her and only her. She doesn’t understand why. But her eyes are drowsy again. And despite her protests that they need to find mom and dad. She sleeps for the first time ever.


 

When Minako wakes up in the hospital, she causes a ruckus. There’s strangers all around her poking at her, talking over her. No, she doesn’t want to hear about the fact she’s the only survivor on the bridge. She wants her parents. But no, they tell her that her parents are gone from this world. She doesn’t want to believe them. Of course she doesn’t. She’s six years old and too young to face the idea of loss and death. But she does, because in the bottom of her heart she knows their right. Yet, all she can do is protest and protest. Because her mom said that they would take her back to that fun place again.

Even, if it was a promise that has no worth now, she wants to believe in it. Because it was her parents that made that little promise to her. It was important and she was adamant about it, too. But… promises can break as well, much too soon as Minako realizes. There was a therapist who came to talk to her about it. Even if she didn’t want to. Even if she refused to remember it. Yet, she had to remember it anyway, even she had a steadfast denial. Even if she wanted to keep wishing that mom and dad would come and hug her. To take her away from all these strangers.

But no, they couldn’t come. Because their bodies were never found. They were gone. And Minako couldn’t smile anymore.


 

The funeral was dreadful. The coffins were empty. Of course they are empty. Minako knew why they were empty. She saw them wrapped in flames as their car crashed. Their bodies were gone. Nothing left, besides her. Their only daughter, a still young six years old, left to live with her remaining relatives. She looks at the coffins and she remembers before leaving the car, she sees the same kind of object there. In her parents place. She wonders why, they were there. She doesn’t bother trying to know. It’ll hurt her even more to even think about it. 

She prayed, but she didn’t cry. She was already out of tears. It was a long process of tradition, and praying and praying. During all that, her aunts and uncles talked amongst each other. They whispered and pointed. “Look how skinny she is.” “Her hair is very red much like her fathers.” “She looks nothing like Tane-san. She looks more of Hiromasa.” They nitpicked and talked and talked.

If she could, she would have yelled. Throw things or even throw a tantrum. But she doesn’t. She didn’t like them. But she will be a good child. She won’t cause any trouble. In fact, she won’t do anything against them. She didn’t…. want to deal with it, anyway. 

She noticed one of her relatives wasn’t doing any of that. It was her cousin, fourteen years older than her. Her cousin didn’t stare or talk, but she seemed to observe her. Then she stood up and talked to someone. Minako supposes one of the relatives. She doesn’t know because she’s going home with the Hiranos.

Home. It sounds foreign in her mouth because in the back of her mind, she’s not going home at all. She’s simply living with them for the time being. It’s all she can do for now, as a orphan and the only Arisato left.


 

Minako decides that she doesn’t like the Hiranos. She’s seven, still too young to feel like hating the people who’s taking care of her. But she does. They have two older kids, a boy and girl who act like good kids in front of their parents and other relatives. 

But after that, they bully her. They tell her she’s a waste of space. They pick on her, calling her Red.  The boy pulls on her hair a lot when her aunt isn’t looking. He threatens to cut her hair off before her eyes. The girl, his sister and accomplice calls her creepy because her eyes. She tells her, “You might as well be the spawn of a demon.

She doesn’t understand what she did to get this treatment. Sure she doesn’t belong here in this household. She doesn’t want to be here. She wants to be at home, but home is no more and far away. So she’s here.  Sometimes, she hears her aunt and uncle say, “That girl doesn’t smile at all. It’s a bit unnerving.” “She’s too detached. We shouldn’t have kept her.” “But we’re getting money for supporting her live here.

She doesn’t understand much of everything, but somehow it make sense a little. So she endures. Somehow, she’ll get through this.


 

Minako is eight, when she moves to Osaka prefecture to live with her cousin. Her cousin Kaoru Miyazaki, put in a formal request for her to live with her. With that, Kaoru became her caretaker. At first, she’s unsure what to think of her new caretaker. She lost trust in adults and kids older than her when living with the Hiranos. 

But, Kaoru is different. Kaoru… gives off a presence like her parents does. A feeling of home. Instead as if she doesn’t exist, Kaoru acknowledges she’s someone, a person. She’s treated as someone normal who has problems, not someone who’s a waste of space. Minako tries to understand the difference.

But, it’s hard to yet she realizes that’s okay too. She learns it’s okay to talk to her cousin. About anything, but sometimes it’s hard to get it out of her. But she works it out together with Kaoru, talking little by little. She’s moving at a snail’s pace. Even though slow, she has Kaoru to support her from her behind. Yet, it still hurts inside of her heart. She’ll heal though, little by little.


 

Minako’s nine years old. She’s been going to the therapist with Kaoru-neechan to talk about her feelings. To simplify and understand what’s going on. She made a scrapbook about her parents and used it to release her pain, and finally said goodbye to them. She still missed them but she feels much better. 

Yet, she still can’t smile. She looks herself in the mirror sometimes. And wonders why she can’t. Her smile never seems real enough to be true, or natural. Sometimes, she remembers what her aunt and uncle said. About how she doesn’t smile, being a little too unnerving. Was… she a freak? She doesn’t think so, but it bothers hers and makes her sometime not breathe. 

Because sometimes, she hears the same things from teachers at school. Expressing the same concern. She falls back onto thinking she can’t trust adults, she can’t. But, she has Kaoru. She might as well depend on her as the only adult she could trust. Even then, even more than adults, kids… can be cruel as well. She knows this well, by first-hand experience. She even then experiences it more. 

Once she’s told to her face, “Why is it that you can’t smile? Don’t you know how to?” She’s been shook to her core. Yet she knew that she wasn’t able to smile now. But, sometimes she sinks lower and lower. Before she does actually melt to the ground, she finds… something she likes to do.

She finds volleyball. Or rather, it found her. It’s taught during physical education and she dances around the idea in her head. She wants to do something like that. To hit the ball with force, to receive it, or even block it. She wants to do all that. For it to be more even clearer, she falls in love with the idea of playing it.

So, she begs Kaoru to sign her up anything volleyball related. Her eyes are blazing and she wants to do anything right away. So Kaoru does so, looking around and finds her a class of how to play volleyball. So Minako goes into the class with some kind of intensity. Of wanting learn it, of wanting know what she could do.

She’s not good at it right away. She’s clumsy and stumbles. Her form is bad. But the teachers and students, they don’t blame her. They tell she’s still learning after all. It in a way encouragement for her to get better. And better. 

She finds that receiving is something she can do best and as of setting the toss. Blocking and spiking are her lowest, but she works with it. She isn’t tall nor isn’t short, but she’s average. She’s okay with that. 

Minako may not be the best, but she’s playing volleyball. Before she knows it, she’s on the team for her elementary school. It’s nothing much special, but more rather a few small matches. But it feels definitely something to her. Because she’s feeling very into the sport now than ever. She becomes obsessed with it.


 

Minako’s twelve years old and she’s scouted for a girl’s private junior high school. Before she even finishes sixth grade. She’s not sure why, but her life is going too fast for her. She wants it to slow down, but it doesn’t. The girl doesn’t feel like she going, but the school seemed like a great place to go. Kaoru encourages her to do it, and she does.

She got recruited to the school to join the volleyball club. She doesn’t feel as her skill set are exceptional. But the coaches claim they will train her to be a better player than she already is. She feels good about it, a little. Yet somehow, she feels pressured. Minako… feels scared the moment she’s introduced to the members of the club. She hates the fact she’s stared at with utmost intensity. She might as well shrivel up on the spot. The coach introduces her as a free-trial member, whose position is setter. 

All of a sudden, she feels a glare upon her and she almost flinches. But she stands still and introduces herself. She loves volleyball and that’s her only reason for being here. Yet, somehow her being here hurts a lot more than she expected. She’s mostly the benchwarmer for her first year which is fine. She doesn’t feel ready enough to play with everyone on the team. For some reason she’s scared than ever before. Volleyball… is painful for her, and she doesn’t understand why. It’s not as if she’s isolated from the rest of the members or senior.

She gets along with them during practice, but… it feels lonely. In her heart, she’s still scared of those her age or older. She’s going to have to deal with it somehow, as she lives at the dormitory alone. More than ever, she misses home.

Minako doesn’t have much friends, but she’s doing well in the volleyball club. She’s somehow eased in a little but the pressure hasn’t gone down. She keeps feeling anxious but she feels like she can trust her seniors. The club practiced and practiced, and she played in a few practice matches. She’s gets more practice in, but she feels as if she’s at a cliff’s edge peering down below and about to fall.

She’s getting better at not trying to be afraid, but sometimes she falls back those habits. Sometimes, it feels her presence in the club feels more like a pain for her seniors, who knew that she got recruited. She doesn’t want to think about it, but she finds it hard to concentrate on volleyball. 

She’s diminishing a little, even though she’s still a first year.


 

Her seniors graduate, and she’s weary. They apologize to her but she can’t help but feel the pressure as a second-year. She has to be the setter as the current third years are only middle blockers, wing spikers and a libero. She wants to leave the club, but she’s reluctant. 

Her hands look torn apart from blocking, spiking and setting balls. But that’s her excuse. Minako had been cutting them.  Out of desperation, and her not knowing what to do. She’s might be a little tired, but she still wants to play.

Even if it were to tear her apart. A little part of herself asks her why she’s doing this? Why keep doing it, even though it hurts her this much? She concludes it that she wants to keep going at it. To keep playing, even if she were to feel like retching. She’s the current setter now, and she’ll keep doing her job to help the club going.

Minako’s fourteen and she has the responsibility to help her team win their matches, and not make her seniors regret their last year of middle school.


 

She’s in the ninth grade and high school entrance exams are right around the corner. The coach thinks she should apply to the sister school of the junior high. But Minako tells her that she has no plans for that. 

After the tournament, she finally drops the volleyball to the ground.  Her juniors don’t know what to think and her teammates who’s been there since she was in first year are angry. Yet she refuses to say why, and graduates leaving the volleyball circuit all together. 

She goes back to Osaka city, to home and to Kaoru. She’s tired and she doesn’t feel ready for high school. But she feels relief, that she finally could free herself from that pressure. That anxiety that had been hanging down on her. 

But, not a lot of things changed immediately. She looks at her beaten up hands with lined scars. They are almost blemishes now, and unnoticeable. If anything, they are nothing but a bad memory of her suffering. Still, she’s scared that she might do the same thing again.

Minako’s fifteen and she hopes that she won’t have to go through something so hard again.


 

Minako’s nearing the end of her first year of high school. She gets sent a scholarship letter from Gekkoukan High School. It’s location is at Tatsumi Port Island and her memories of her parents flashes back hard. She longs to see her original home again. Yet, she’s unsure. The pamphlet sent its stated for a certain offer to stay at the dormitory.

She feels unsure again, whether, she can able to adjust living amongst those her age. Would she able to make friends? Somehow her heart and mind tells her to go. Home is waiting for her to be re-explored. The memories of the past waits and she decides to transfer to Gekkoukan High School. 

It’s not like as if there was any strings attached right?