Akira was biking to school alone, because Shuuji went for a walk in the rain without his umbrella that weekend and was at home sick. And now poor Akira would also have to eat lunch alone today.
You say that like it was my fault, a groggy voice said in Akira’s head. How was I supposed to know my umbrella was going to break?
Shouldn’t you be sleeping? Nobuta’s voice asked.
Whoever thought telepathy was cool was wrong. It was actually kind of creepy. Like, part of the time it’s this booming voice of god in your head -
You were falling asleep in class, idiot. How else was I supposed to get your attention?
- and other times it’s a small treacherous voice you can’t distinguish from your own -
We thought the same thing at the same time, it wasn’t that creepy. Nobuta actually sounded a little hurt. Whoops.
- and early in the morning or late at night, or all the time, if you were Akira, it's easy to accidentally broadcast all of your thoughts.
If he were sharing thoughts with anyone other than his two best friends, it would be unbearable. But he wasn't and it isn't, so even though it wasn't cool, it was shaping up to be pretty fun.
It all started on a Tuesday. Not just any Tuesday, but one that had been circled on his calendar for months.
That morning, he rolled out of bed (literally) (luckily, it was not a day where he landed on something pointy or fragile) and brushed his teeth with the manic energy of the sleep deprived. He had been too excited to sleep the night before.
There was a knock on his door. It was Shuuji, dressed in their old school uniform with a bulky backpack. He was also wearing a page boy cap.
“Who do you think you are, a poet?” Akira snickered, pointing.
Shuuji swatted his finger away. “I was cutting my bangs yesterday and Koji barged in the room. The scissors slipped.” He held the front of his hat protectively. Akira was tempted to snatch it off his head, so the gesture was warranted.
Akira invaded his personal space to examine the hat at all angles. “Let me see! It can’t be that bad.”
“No, you can’t see.” He handed Akira a ticket and pulled him out the door. “Come on, we’ll miss the train.”
They were going to Tokyo.
It was no problem sneaking onto campus in their old uniforms. Possibly this was related to Shuuji making Akira take off his genius disguise of large sunglasses and curly wig outside the school gate.
They arrived just at the end of morning classes and walked unnoticed through the chaos of lunchtime crowds. Akira hummed the Mission: Impossible theme under his breath. They came to a stop outside of Nobuta’s classroom. They could see her in the back of the classroom, sitting with two other girls.
“Shuuji, Shuuji, she has friends!” Akira whispered, pawing at Shuuji's arm.
“Of course she has friends, she had to talk to someone once we left.”
“You don’t think either of them is secretly evil, do you? They don’t look evil.”
Shuuji flipped open his phone. “She probably would have called us if bad stuff was happening. And she can handle herself by now.” He pressed 2 on his speed dial, and after two rings they watched Nobuta lean over to pull her phone out of her bag.
She lifted it to her ear. “Shuuji?”
Akira grabbed the phone. “Happy birthday Nobuta!!”
“You guys remembered?” she looked at the ground. “Th-thanks.” Akira couldn’t see her face at this angle, but she sounded solemn, in a happy-Nobuta way. Akira cackled to himself with the joy of a great plan about to be executed.
Shuuji pushed him away and wrested his phone back. “Where are you right now?”
She looked around “I’m in the classroom, eating lunch. Why?”
“Go to the roof!”
Akira didn’t bother taking the phone this time, he just hooked his chin over Shuuji’s shoulder and said “Just do it!!” into the speaker.
Shuuji shushed him and batted him away. That was all the time it took for Nobuta to grab her lunch and start their way. Akira and Shuuji both froze in panic as they realized their miscalculation. If Nobuta ran into them now, not only would their plan be way less cool, but it would draw the attention of her classmates, Shuuji would be mobbed, and they would fail.
Nobuta was halfway across the room, a mere 10 feet from them. Shuuji said a quick “Gottagobye” and flipped his phone shut. He and Akira exchanged a look and sprinted down the hall to the stairwell and up, up, up to the roof.
They had just sat down on a ledge and caught their breath when Nobuta appeared. She was looking around for whatever she thought they had planned for her. It took her a moment to notice them.
It was worth all of the hassle. Nobuta dropped her bag and ran up and hugged them both at once. She quickly shuffled away a moment later. And smiled. Smiled!
Akira was so happy he vented some joy by doing a few fistpumps. He would have done more, but after the third, he tripped over a pipe.
Nobuta’s hair still fell forward and shielded part of her face, but her expression looked more open. Akira had known she was doing well when they left, but he felt lighter actually seeing it. He suppressed a pang of jealousy that everyone in the school got to see this Nobuta every day. Her smile was still only for them. Probably. Hopefully.
“Ah!” she said, pointing at Shuuji. “A poet?”
Shuuji tugged at the brim of his hat self-consciously and set an irritated glance at Akira.
“That’s just what I said!” Akira said, and laughed.
Rather than dignifying that with a response, Shuuji pulled out a box from his backpack. “Do you guys want cake or not?”
It took very little wheedling to convince Nobuta to skip the rest of the school day.
They were changing into their outdoor shoes when they heard a cackling and the flapping of a fan.
A shadow fell over them even though they were indoors.
“Kiritani, Kusano” Catherine said. “I was wondering if I’d see you here again.”
She looked over at Nobuta. “You came to visit your friend, I see. Good of you to come again so soon.”
“It’s been three months,” Akira corrected her.
“Ah, to be young! I bet it feels like forever since you last saw one another.” She leaned in and lowered her voice “When you’re young, time passes slowly. An eternity passes between one year and the next. How easily your connections fade. As you get older, time will pass more quickly and you’ll find it easier to keep friends but harder to find the time for them.”
She thunked the end of her fan onto Akira’s shoulder. He jumped and snapped to attention.
“Cherish the eternity you have with your friends now, because you will never have this much time or t his much leisure with them again. Don’t let the flame of friendship burn out.”
Catherine paused, and the three of them looked up at her. The moment stretched out, the inspirational glow shifting to awkwardness.
She looked meaningfully at where they were putting on their shoes, clearly planning skip class, and then at the box sitting next to Shuuji’s bag.
Shuuji cleared his throat. “Uh, would you like some cake?”
“I thought you would never ask, Kiritani,” Catherine said, and accepted a slice of cake. She tossed her hair as she turned away, cake plate in one hand and fan in the other. “Ah, youth.” She walked away down the hall, humming off-key.
They all looked at one another and scrambled to get their shoes on before she could change her mind and made Nobuta go back to class.
Shuuji paid his respects to his good luck willow, they said hi to Delphine, went to the tofu shop. Shuuji picked up stuff for his family.
Akira was learning how different it was to live in a place than to visit. Visiting felt like you should have a purpose and make something of every moment, even though all they were doing was meandering by all of their old haunts. It was an annoying feeling. Once he put his finger on it, he started dragging his feet and walking extra slowly until Shuuji told him to cut it out and Nobuta asked him what was wrong. Akira spent the rest of the walk to the bookstore meditating on the different dialects of Shuujis and Nobutas. It was funny, how many different words could mean the same thing.
Delphine was happy to see them. Well, Akira guessed he was. When they stopped by the bookstore, he raised his eyebrows at them in askance. It was impossible to tell whether it was at Akira and Shuuji’s return or their playing hooky, because he stayed silent for a quarter of an hour while they browsed, until he suddenly said, “Do you want to buy this book?” He pointed his stick at a trolley they’d been giving a wide berth.
The cover proclaimed it to be about sea cucumbers. It was ten million yen.
Shuuji laughed politely. “No, thank you.”
Delphine stared at them until Shuuji backed out of the shop, pulling Akira and Nobuta with him.
They ended up at Akira’s old place by habit. Old man Hirayama cried with happiness at seeing them. Maybe Akira should have called ahead, whoops. Shuuji and Nobuta got by with a bow and a clap on the back, but Akira was swept up into a hug and squeezed within an inch of his life. Shuuji and Nobuta went upstairs while he was being hugged tightly.
When he walked up a few minutes later, having assured tofu guy he was giving life his all and maybe shedding a few tears as well, Nobuta and Shuuji were hunched over some papers and talking seriously. It looked suspicious. Nobuta’s voice was still naturally quiet and Shuuji had matched her volume, so Akira couldn’t hear anything they were saying from the doorway.
Maybe if he just crept up to them silently, he could investigate. Or jump out and say “Boo!” Each plan had its merits.
He hit a chair on the way over. “Ack!” he tried to grab his leg and regain balance at the same time and nearly fell over.
By the time he was safely upright, the papers were gone and Shuuji and Nobuta were bent over a partially completed puzzle. Akira rubbed at his eyes. Was he going crazy?
“Hey, what were you – is that a puzzle of Delphine’s face?!”
Nobuta looked up from where she was putting together one of the eyes. “Yeah, while we were waiting for you, we found this box under the table.” She held it up.
Akira grabbed the box and turned it over. Surely it couldn’t be – but it was. There in the corner, was a barcode and a five million yen price tag.
Hirayama poked his head into the room. He was carrying a tray of snacks and a bottle of soy milk. “Ah, that. It was a gift from your dad. Nice of him, wasn’t it? Although an odd choice of gift.” He scratched his bald head.
At sunset they had to leave so Shuuji would be home in time for dinner. Akira may have clung to the doorframe a bit as Shuuji dragged him out.
Akira had forgotten how fun it was when the three of them together. Catherine was right, time apart did seem to stretch into forever…
Shuuji and Akira returned to their life in the other town by the sea. It was only two hours from Tokyo, but it felt like a world away. Nobuta’s birthday had been an adventure, like even the most mundane things with the three of them felt, but now he was back to dull reality. BLAH
Thursday meant boring homework night for all the stuff due on Friday Akira hadn’t bothered doing during the week. He frowned down at his homework, tongue peeking out of the corner of his mouth.
The cosine of ninety degrees. Hmmmm, the cosine of ninety degrees is…?
The sea breeze drifted through his window. He could hear the sound of waves gently crashing in the distance. He tugged at the pineapple-like ponytail his bangs were in. Pineapple. He could really go for some pinapple bread even though he’d eaten only half an hour ago.
The cosine of ninety degrees…
He asked his hand what the answer was. “Kon,” it replied dejectedly.
Maybe he would know the next proble-
Ha! He’d known it after all!
We learned that today, how could you not remember?
Yeah, we had…wait, we?
Akira looked around wildly and fell out of his chair.
“Ow ow ow,” he said to his maybe-not-empty room.
D-don’t hurt yourself, he heard a solemn voice say in his head.
“Nobuta?? And Shuji?” Akira said. “Akira shoockkkk.” He sat down on the floor.
Do we have ESP?! Was this like in the X-Files? Was the government going to come for them?!
I don’t think I can see the future, Nobuta said – no, thought – man, this was confusing. And I can only read you guys’ thoughts, not anyone else’s.
They had telepathy, cool! He could read Nobuta and Shuuji’s thoughts, and he could read theirs…Akira gasped and put his hands around his head and tried not to think of the time he’d got his head stuck between the bars of a gate at the zoo when he was eight or how he’d been too lazy to buy new deodorant for the last week.
I didn’t want to know that, Akira, Shuuji thought.
I think I can only hear what you guys are trying to think at me, Nobuta was the voice of reason, as always. And now she was literally just a voice. What they didn’t have telepathy, and really Shuuji and Nobuta had disappeared and turned into voices in his head? Akira could hear someone giggling hysterically. It was him. He slapped a hand over his mouth.
If that was true, he was going to have to break the news to Shuuji's family that he didn't physically exist any longer.
Akira got up and ran to Shuuji’s place. The building Shuuji’s family had moved to happened to have an extra apartment for rent. With his dad’s money, it hadn’t been difficult to secure on short notice.
He barged into the Kiritani household. His t-shirt had come untucked from his pajama pants, but he payed it no heed. He breezed by Shuuji’s dad who was in an apron and dusting.
“Shuuji!” he yelled. Akira didn’t see him anywhere. SHUUJI WHERE ARE YOU?
Jeez, calm down, I’m in my room.
Shuuji was sitting at his desk, with an open notebook and the same textbook Akira had been looking at earlier in front of him. He’d ditched the lame hat – his bangs weren’t that bad after all. Akira couldn’t even see what was supposed to be wrong with them.
He looked very unruffled for someone that had just developed magic powers.
This is like that dream thing. Is someone going to die?? Akira collapsed onto Shuuji’s bed.
They had all shared a dream once where Aoi had committed suicide. When they all woke up everyone was okay, but there was an imprint in the grass where she had fallen. On some level, it had all still happened, and Akira had the disturbing dreams to prove it.
Nothing was out of the ordinary that time, Nobuta pointed out. You can’t tell it’s a dream when you’re dreaming, so this must be real life.
Either way, Shuuji thought, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.
I guess you’re right, thought Akira.
Immediate source of stress gone, Akira reached for the curry bread he’d grabbed on the way out the door. He took a bite even though he was full. He chewed it a few times, feeling simultaneously uncomfortably full and still hungry. He frowned down at the bread. A theory started to form in his head. He looked up at Shuuji, who had gone back to studying. Books and papers surrounded him, like he’d been there for a while.
“Shuuji, eat something! You’re hungry!”
Shuuji cocked his head. Maybe a little? He started counting the hours since he’d last eaten on one hand.
I guess things other than thoughts come across.
Akira did not have time for this. He just wanted to stop feeling hungry. He shoved the partially eaten curry bread in Shuuji’s face.
A wrestling match ensued.
Nobuta ignored them with the ease of long practice. I’m going to sleep, guys.
Goodnight, they both said in their heads.
This was nice, Akira thought, as quietly as he could. It’s like we’re all together again.
Shuuji didn’t seem to hear, but Nobuta did.
Yeah, she agreed. I missed you guys.
THIS IS NOT NICE. Akira whined an hour later as he rolled over in bed for the nth time. Shuuji was up darning socks and had a song stuck in his head. It was incredibly annoying.
I’m so tiiired Akira whined as he rolled over and clutched at his body pillow. It was red, like his eyes would be tomorrow if he was forced to stay awake a minute longer. Please listen to any other song, Shuuji. Any at allll. He thrashed around in frustration and put his other pillow over his head.
When he finally did get to sleep, he dreamt. It started with a familiar dream. Or at least, he dreamt that he’d dreamt it before. Old man Hirayama had turned into a block of tofu and was dancing around the store, crying tears of soymilk. They had won a houseboat made out of clouds, and as they were moving in and bringing their rice cooker, he was suddenly surrounded by newspaper clippings and shadow and there was a willow tree getting hacked into pieces and his little brother was being chased by bullies and he was watching Aoi fall, fall, fall….he jolted out of sleep and sat up, panting. The clock next to him read 2AM.
That was- he thought.
-weird, Shuuji finished.
Very weird, Nobuta joined in.
Akira had never had someone there when he woke up in the middle of the night. Even as a kid, he’d been the type to lie petrified in silence after a nightmare, too terrified to make a sound or crawl into bed with his dad. Was this how people like Shuuji, who shared a room, felt? The reassuring presence of another human. Maybe he’d been lonely without ever realizing it. Shuuji…Nobuta….
Yeah? Nobuta thought at him quietly, like she was whispering across the room and Akira just couldn’t see her in the darkness.
Akira had stopped having nightmares when he was 10, so Akira couldn’t miss what he didn’t need. Your dreams are TERRIBLE. You get an F in dreaming!
You too, Shuuji!
Shuuji gave a sound of protest.
I’m going to go drink some tea, and when I get back, you two will have fallen asleep again and won’t dream at ALL.
“Kon kon!” his hand agreed grumpily.
He walked into the kitchen, scratching his side and grumbling to himself. Hopefully tomorrow morning his superpower would go back to being cool again.
And it did go back to being cool. Nobuta was there, all the time, even when they weren’t talking, and he could share jokes with Shuuji silently during class.
Occasionally feelings spilled over to another person, like when Shuuji silently handed him his drink during a break between class periods or the time his knee had started to hurt when Nobuta scraped hers during PE. What came through and who felt them seemed to be completely random, and none of them could figure out a pattern.
After a few days, Akira started to be able to tell who was feeling what apart.
That afternoon as he was grocery shopping, there was a sudden flare of happiness from nobuta. He kept walking through the produce aisle and picked up a green pepper to examine. He had this undercover telepathy thing down.
Wazzup? he asked. The middle aged woman down the aisle showed no sign of hearing him. Because he’d said it with brainwaves. He felt like a secret agent. 00Akira! He shot an imaginary gun and laughed to himself and the peppers.
It’s another postcard from Shuuji, Nobuta said.
A postcard from Shuuji? The rest of the sentence penetrated his brain. He dropped the pepper. Another?! “What? Bakayaro.” Akira said this last bit aloud to himself.
The woman down the aisle sent him a worried look and went to another aisle.
He’s been sending them every week since you guys left, Nobuta explained.
Shuuji! Akira mind-yelled, Why haven’t you been sending me postcards?
Shuuji’s voice sounded groggy and far away, like he’d been in the middle of napping. I see you every day, idiot. Plus, you never check your mail anyways. I’ve seen the postman open your box and have difficulty closing it again.
I have a box? thought Akira. That explained the small extra key on the keyring his landlord had given him.
His phone chimed from his pocket. It was a picture text from Nobuta of a wall lined with postcards. Each had a different picture of a pig. Akira liked the cartoon one, although the picture of a pig statue was pretty good, too.
Shuuji keeps me updated on what you two are doing, Nobuta thought. Waves of her happiness washed over Akira. He finished his grocery shopping with a dopey smile on his face.
By day, being reunited with Nobuta was great. The nights were another issue. Their dreams wouldn’t stop being a confused and disturbing mishmash, Shuuji often stayed up late doing chores and wouldn’t notice he was getting hungry. Nobuta usually woke up in the middle of the night and fell back to sleep half an hour later. It was terrible.
“This has got to stop,” Shuuji said during lunch, a week and a half after Nobuta’s birthday. They were crouched by the edge of the school roof, respective lunches in hand. “I’m exhausted.”
I’m getting a little worried, Nobuta said. The last time this happened, Aoi tried to kill herself, and even then it was only for a few minutes. What if us sharing thoughts like this is building up to something terrible?
There was no need to worry, Akira knew, because the only reason this was happening in the first place was – he stopped himself mid-thought. It was suddenly very quiet in his head. The kind of conspicuous quiet in a conversation that was an active lack of sound, where people sucked their words in hard enough to pull yours out to fill the void.
Had he been projecting that thought? Akira slapped his hands over his mouth, and then over his head, as if to muffle the sounds from his brain. He glanced over at Shuuji furtively. Shuuji did not look impressed.
“What do you mean, there’s no need to worry?!” Shuuji said and thought at the same time.
You know what caused this? Nobuta added.
Akira laughed nervously and slowly stood up. “Well, you see,” he said, scratching the back of his neck. Shuuji stood up as well. A cloud passed over the sun. Or maybe that was just Akira’s imagination.
“Well, you see…” Akira said, buying time. He feinted left and made a run for it on Shuuji’s right. He tripped halfway down the stairs, but didn’t stop until he was safely in the classroom.
He thought loudly about eggplants and tofu throughout the afternoon’s lessons. Possibly none of the three of them got any work done that day.
Shuuji had cleanup duty at the end of the day, so Akira whistled as he walked down the stairwell and changed into his outdoor shoes, but Shuuji must have pawned his work off on someone else, because he cornered Akira by the bikes.
Shuuji grabbed his arm as Akira was furiously working at the padlock. Akira flailed around and mostly tried not to hurt Shuuji.
“Just tell us-“ Shuuji panted, Akira’s recently vacated uniform jacket hanging from one hand, the other on Akira’s elbow, “-what’s going on.”
Akira wrestled him off and biked away madly, half-laughing and half-gasping.
Are you guys okay? asked Nobuta.
Akira just sent laughter in response.
The bike ride between his apartment and school was ten minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the afternoon. This was partly because Akira woke up and left for school as late as humanly possible and was thus sped his way there - this drove Shuuji, who biked to school alongside Akira at Akira’s behest, crazy – and also because half of the path was beautiful beachfront they wended their way by (and often on) on their way home.
It was this stretch of land that was his downfall.
Shuuji caught up to him and ran him off the road, into the sand. Shuuji stopped his bike, dragged Akira into the ocean, and dunked him.
Once Akira finished spluttering, he dunked Shuuji back.
The sun was shining, the water was only kind of freezing, and he found some seaweed to stick down the back of Shuuji’s back. If only Nobuta were here, everything would be perfect.
I AM here, Nobuta said. Also, I can’t swim, so this way is best.
Yeah, she was here. No matter what, it hadn’t been a completely bad decision to – Akira clapped one hand over his mouth and one on his head.
Shuuji dunked him again and held on when he came up again. “Are you going to tell us what’s going on now?” he asked.
Akira pouted and crossed his arms. “I don’t want to. I want to stay like this.”
“Akira, we all really need sleep. Alone. In our own brains,” Shuuji said gently. “We’re going to go crazy if we stay connected like this.”
“But at least we’re together,” said Akira stubbornly.
What if one of us gets sick or gets injured? It would make all of us miserable, Nobuta pointed out. Akira, please.
“Fine!” Akira started trudging across the wet sand toward their bikes. “Come back to my apartment and I’ll show you.”
Thank you. Nobuta did the telepathic equivalent of sending him a half-smile. Shuuji bumped shoulders with him as he helped pick up his bike. Akira’s insides fizzed with happy warmth.
Akira waded into the huge pile of miscellanea in the corner of his living room and pulled a monkey hand out from under a surf board. He thunked it on the table. “I found it the day after Nobuta’s birthday. There’s one wish left.”
They stared at it. Well, Shuuji stared, while Akira pouted unhappily.
“You wished for telepathy?” Shuuji asked skeptically.
I don’t think he did, Nobuta said. He seemed just as surprised as us when it started.
Akira mumbled what his wish had been.
Shuuji poked his arm. “What was that?”
Akira raised his voice to just below a shout. “I said, I wished we could be together all the time!”
“Ah,” Shuuji said.
That would explain it, Nobuta said.
“I don’t want telepathy, but if that’s how we can be together, then I’ll take it,” Akira said petulantly.
“Well, actually,” Shuuji said, and then fell quiet.
There was a sheepish silence on Nobuta’s end, as well.
“What?” said Akira.
Shuuji fiddled with a half empty mug of tea Akira had left on the table. “Well, actually…”
We found a college we could all go to, Nobuta said in a rush, her words jumbling together in her haste. We filled out your application and all you have to do is not do terribly for the next exams and we should all get in.
Akira didn’t know what to say. It was a lot to take in.
And if not, we have a backup school we would all get into as well.
“….You applied to college for me,” said Akira. If he hadn’t been sitting down already, he probably would have fallen over. They could spend four years together. A stay of execution and his dad’s board room for four years.
“We know you might want to take over your dad’s business,” said Shuuji. “but he can’t complain about you stopping to go to school first. We could all do business together!”
“Applying for someone else sounds pretty illegal.” Akira scrubbed at his face. His eyes were wet. “If you guys can drag me into your college, can I drag you guys into my dad’s business?”
“Uh,” Shuuji said. “How about you ask us that in a few years. For now, can we end the telepathy thing?”
What did you use the other wish for? Nobuta asked.
Shuuji cocked his head. “Other wish?”
Monkey hands usually have three wishes, remember?
“Oh, that,” said Akira. He flicked Shuuji’s bangs with a pencil. “I asked for your hair to grow back. Since you clearly didn’t want to be a poet.”
Nobuta laughed her awkward, halting laughter while Shuuji fingered the ends of his bangs and mumbled that Akira didn’t have to waste a wish on that.
“Yeah, well, I don’t like it when either of you are upset, so it was a wish for me.”
“Bye for now, Nobuta,” Shuuji said.
Bye, she said back.
Shuuji held up the monkey hand with regret. “I wish to cancel his wish for us to all be together.”
Akira pounced on Shuuji and clapped his hands over his ears. “Except for when we’re walking to school in the morning!” He paused and thought of the big picture. “Or work.” He cackled to himself at a job well done.
Shuuji shoved him off. “What was that for?? What did you just say?”
“Nothing,” Akira said. No need to spoil the surprise before tomorrow morning. He picked up the spent monkey arm by a gnarled, dehydrated finger. “Let’s throw this thing out. Gross!”
Shuuji and Nobuta were very happily surprised the following morning. Akira never had a boring commute ever again.