The boy in the narrow bed tosses and turns, displaces the bedclothes, kicks at his sheets – and stills, just as the alarm clock on the side table comes to life with a shrill, insistent beeping. The digital display reads “06:00”. In the five minutes it takes for the alarm to switch off, the boy does not leave the bed. He does not jump to his feet, snap his sheets into rigid folds, or arrange his pillows. In intervals of five minutes, the clock repeats its alarm – but Arakita Yasutomo does not get up until the clock reads “07:15”.
In brisk, efficient movements, he takes a shower, puts on his uniform, and grabs his book bag with his left hand. He checks the time – twenty minutes before classes start. The dormitory’s cafeteria would still be open, and the walk to Hakone Academy’s school building would not take ten minutes.
Perfunctorily, Arakita considers eating breakfast on the run. Terrible for the constitution, he remembers. His prescriptions demanded a full stomach before they were taken, however, and he contemplates the white plastic pillbox with a lidded stare.
At fifteen minutes to the start of classes, he decides against the thought, and takes the pills nestled in the partition marked “Monday” into his palm, then swallows them dry.
Arakita is not late for his first class of high school.
He is, however, absent for the second – he spends the full sixty minutes dry heaving in the boys’ toilet, his right arm stiff and shaking as it scrabbles for a grip on the linoleum walls.
Three months after suffering the injury in the game that would have sent him to a seeded school headed for Koshien, and the pain had not faded.
Buoyed by the excitement of living close to the home stadium of one Japan’s premier baseball teams, the Yokohama DeNA Bay Stars, Arakita Yasutomo had grown up cheering for loaded bases and homeruns. With a love of the sport shared by other boys his age, it was easy to abandon aimless running and games of pretend for the chance to stand on the mound and win innings with heightened senses and adrenaline rushing through his veins.
All throughout his elementary school days, Arakita played. In his first year of middle school, he was awarded the title of best pitcher. During his second year – with his pitch count at a solid 80, his breaking balls feared, his at-bat’s more than capable of sweeping the visiting team’s confidence off the field – he and his team made their prefectural debut. By his third year, high school teams had begun to scout him, wanting his skill for their bid for Koshien.
In the last game of his last year in middle school, Arakita throws what would be his last pitch.
The bat connected with ball, just as Arakita fell, knees dragged down by the uncontrolled motion of his follow through. The pain that had been building since the second inning, weakening his grip and forcing him to compromise his pitches and shake off his catcher’s signs at nearly every turn; that same pain had doubled, and, unfiltered by the thrill of the play wracked through his right shoulder, firecracker-quick down to his wrist, leaving his arm stiff, immobile, and useless.
The pain did not stop, and Arakita fell further, his body curling over his right arm, and he screamed out at the feeling of something coming undone in the only limb that felt, paradoxically, alive, even as it died.
The coach called for a time out. Paramedics came and bore Arakita away on a stretcher, and as they carried him by the dugout he saw the second year they’d been training as a relief pitcher take up a mitt.
Later, he’s told that his team had won the game. After fourteen hours, a physical exam, and an EMG to see if he’d damaged his nerves or his muscles, Arakita finds out that the attentions of a seeded school was not the only thing he’d lost.
In the summer before high school, with his former team sending get well soon cards and flowers and never once stepping into his hospital room, busy as they were with acclimating themselves to the high schools that had accepted them, Arakita struggled to come to terms with what the doctors had called an irrefutable fact – he would no longer be able to use his right arm as he’d done before.
The complications stacked together, and against them, his baseball career crumbled: he would suffer partial loss of movement in his wrist and hand, his grip strength would not even be half of what it used to be, and the repetitive motions necessitated by pitching would only lend to the further battering of his nerves.
But, the doctors assured him, with the proper medication and a strict adherence to the prescribed physical therapy, he could avoid losing all feeling in his arm for good. He would not have to live as an invalid, as his mother had feared, and with enough time, he could slowly progress from using splints or slings and be able to support his arm on his own.
Arakita stared at his mother’s tearfully smiling face, listened to her voice as she assured his father that he would be alright, everything would be okay – and he found that he was grateful, for the first time (and perhaps, the last), for the painkillers which coursed through his veins, and how they dulled his senses enough to make it seem like he wholeheartedly agreed.
In the spring of that same year, Arakita entered Hakone Academy – an hour’s travel by train from his hometown; featured prominently for its school grounds, curriculum, and relatively young but prolific cycling team; and, most importantly, lacking any semblance of a diamond or a baseball team.
With thoughtless ease, he shrugged off his parents’ concern, distracted his sisters with the prospect of redecorating his room beyond recognition, and ticked the “yes”-boxes on the dorm information sheet where it asked if he would be staying for the year’s vacations.
The rest of Arakita’s first day passes in a muffled, irritating blur. None of the other students in the classroom knew how to approach the scowling boy in the fourth row, not when the health representative’s pleasant greeting only earned her a vicious comment on her eyesight and lack of common sense.
Arakita preferred it this way – even exchanging customary greetings with people who kept shooting him suspicious, fearful glances was taxing; actual conversations would be like pulling teeth without anesthetics. And it wasn’t as if he came to Hakone to make friends, or even learn anything. The teachers were easier to fool, and if he straightened the corners of his mouth and gave them the barest minimum of a nod in acknowledgement, they were satisfied and moved out of his way.
His schedule gives him early dismissal on Mondays – his doctor advised against unsupervised individual or team sports this early on in his recovery, so instead, he would go to the nearby hospital to have sessions with a physical therapist on the days supposedly slated for physical education. The doctor had given him the therapist’s number, and, disgustingly prompt, his phone alerts him with a message half an hour before their scheduled session.
Arakita turns his phone off and stalks around the school, avoiding students and teachers alike until he finds an out of the way shed and settles there. It’s nearly dark when he treks back to the dorms, and with one last faked pleasantry for the dorm manager, he returns to his room and flushes the night’s pills down the toilet.
“Of course, we’re aiming for mobility, but pitching is entirely out of the question.”
And the doctor started in on his physical therapy regimen, how the prognosis was hopeful but they shouldn’t stop being vigilant, and how it was imperative that Yasutomo-kun took his medication without waiting for the pain to become unbearable.
“In most cases, three months of treatment would yield positive results. Perhaps, even within the school year, we’ll see some improvement.”
His mother was happy. His father relaxed at the news, and the hand he settled on Arakita’s shoulder was clearly meant to be encouraging. Even his doctor smiled, as if he’d just solved all of his patient’s worries.
“Isn’t that wonderful news, Yasutomo?”
Pitching is entirely out of the question.
He would never play baseball again.
“Yasutomo, aren’t you happy?”
Arakita stares at the ceiling, keenly aware that he had not fallen asleep at all, that the ‘dream’ he’d had was actually a memory – and he takes another deep breath, one more than he thinks he has any right to take.
In four hours, he would have to get up again. It would only be the second day of classes.
The boys’ bathroom is usually empty in between first and second period, and sometimes, he doesn’t even have to lock himself in a stall and wait for the bile to rise in his throat. Sometimes, he simply stands and digs his nails into his idiot arm for fifteen minutes, or until he’s satisfied. It’s not as if there’s anything entertaining in the bathroom – Hakone Academy students aren’t delinquents, so there are no cleverly hidden or arrogantly obvious graffiti in any of the stalls or the linoleum walls.
Even the mirrors are clean, unblemished, and perfectly honest when they reflect back the slightest of tremors in Arakita’s right hand when he reaches up to run his damp fingers through his hair.
Only the first broken mirror is an “accident”.
(The words “I was trying to fix my hair, I must have slipped on a wet patch, I’ll be more careful next time” are spoken as easily as “I’ll be okay, just give it time and space, I’ll be okay”.
No matter if Arakita has to repeat them twenty-two times.)
Arakita is asked to visit the nurse on the first Sunday of his second month in Hakone Academy. Ostensibly, so that the bandages on his right hand (once around the knuckles of his ring and middle fingers, twice over the back, right above a thick, pulsing vein) could be changed, but Arakita does not hope for anything so simple from the visit.
When he arrives, his physician – who looks like a grandfather, smiling benignly even when he told Arakita he would never pitch again – is there too, taking the time to explain the minute changes to his prescriptions, the expected side-effects, and, nearly as an afterthought, he asks how Arakita is doing.
(There is a system – one, three pills behind is “Pretty okay”; an entire day’s worth is “Alright”; two days is “Fine”; a week, the current standing record, is “I think I’m doing better”)
Arakita straightens in his seat, gives the kindly old doctor an easy, practiced smile, and says, “I think I’m doing better.”
This is how Arakita figures his ‘system’ out:
By the second week, most of his medication has either caused him to dry heave into the toilet or live through classes by biting his tongue to keep him awake. Sleep is a luxury, and so is a day when he doesn’t want to shove a sniveling student down a flight of stairs because they take so goddamn slow when they walk in front of him. Arakita is no stranger to bruises, but everyone else is, because the school blazer is at least good for covering them up when they appear on his idiot arm.
His phone is off more than it’s on, but his physical therapist has caught on to his avoidance, and comes to pick him up before his last class ends.
The only truly quiet place Arakita has is the shed he’d found on the first day.
He opens his eyes on his third Sunday at Hakone, takes one look at the array of pills he’s scheduled to take – and with a flick of his wrist, empties them into the toilet. That’s three pills down, he thinks almost giddily to himself.
Arakita visits the library to do his homework, spends lunch picking at the grass growing behind the shed (no one seems to have noticed that he’s practically claimed it as his own by this point), and walks around the school grounds three times before he starts to feel the ache in his bones.
It was, all things considered, a pretty okay day.
He experiments, and the rest of the ‘system’ branches out from there. When he starts wanting to gnaw his idiot arm off, he sits by the shed. When his arm starts to feel like one giant sore spot, he sits by the shed. He never truly gets used to the ache, but somehow the days aren’t as bad as before.
(The students in Arakita’s class stop noticing the scowling boy in the fourth row – he does not intimidate them so much nowadays, and if he’s perfectly fine with ignoring them, well, they’re perfectly happy to return the favor)
On days when he feels “pretty okay”, he’s even able to fake his improvement in front of his physical therapist.
That morning, the hallways buzzed with students asking each other about their plans for winter break. On instinct, Arakita checks to make sure his phone is off, and after class, he stays at the shed another extra hour.
When he comes back to the dorms, the dorm head, a third year with smiling eyes and a good, solid handshake, leads Arakita into the dorm manager’s lounge where the telephone is. He tells Arakita that his mother had been calling, and that he’d asked her to call at this specific time since he knew Arakita would be done with classes already. All this, as if Arakita had not turned his phone off to avoid this very situation.
“She was asking if you weren’t going back for a break. I saw your information form, and you said you’d be staying all throughout the school year, but she seemed to really want your company for the holidays. I hope you’ll take the chance to talk it over with her.”
He leaves Arakita alone in the lounge to speak with his mother.
Today is a “fine” day, so Arakita chooses to indulge his mother – he listens to her talk about the decorations they’ve put up around the house, how his sisters and his dog miss playing in the snow with him, how they swear they haven’t gone too overboard with the redecorations in his room. He hm’s and ah’s and produces a sound that successfully passes off as a laugh at the correct intervals.
Because it’s a “fine” day, he feels largely disconnected from the majority of his surroundings. Arakita starts to think that he is talking with his mother, face to face. The phone, the distance between them (Only an hour by train), dissolves, and the words, unburdened by even an ounce of sentiment, come easier.
“Didn’t the doctor tell you? I’m doing better, mom. I want to stay over for the holidays – the dorm heads and everyone else who’s staying are talking about a party, and I’ve been working really hard, I deserve a break! Yeah, yeah, I take breaks. This is a break! I know. I know you do. I do, I do, but – I’m okay. I’m feeling better. Yeah, I’ll try to call. I won’t forget. Yeah, yeah. Bye, mom.”
When he returns to his dorm room, Arakita keeps his phone off. He stays awake until after lights out, lulled into half-consciousness by the droning buzz in his head. The day ends on an “alright” note.
Arakita’s parents receive a phone call from the school, a few weeks before summer break. Recently, the calls about Yasutomo have only seldom been on a good vein, but this call isn’t from the dorm head or his physical therapist or his physician – it’s from his homeroom teacher.
“There isn’t anything wrong with Yasutomo-kun’s grades, you must understand. He’s performing acceptably well, and just the other day he approached me to inquire about the summer classes we offer. Personally, I think it would help him to sign up for them. They’re set up to act as introductory classes for the subjects he’ll be taking in his second year, and it’s admirable that he’d like to prepare for them ahead of time. I do hope you’d give the matter some thought.”
Warmed by the thought that their son had started to take his studies seriously, a possible sign that he truly was getting better, Arakita’s parents gave their approval.
With his back against the shed which was his only comfort for the past year, Arakita receives the call from his parents – he listens to his mother gushing about how proud she was, his father promising to send his scooter over as soon as his physical therapist finished her assessment, and even speaks briefly with his sisters, who are, in their words, taking the best care of his dog.
Arakita dry swallows a pill, the last one he’ll be taking for another week, and manages to pretend that he’s as happy as his family is.
It’s daunting to think that he would have to face another year – the last was bad enough, why did he have to take on another?
Another year of hauling around a dead limb. Another year of accidentally breaking glasses or cups and pretending to be well-adjusted. Another year of waiting for night to fall behind a shed that, curiously, has begun to seem like a cage, for all the comfort it gave him before.
But then – it’s only another year. If he didn’t want to, he could even opt out of finishing it.
It isn’t as if he has anything to live for, anyway.
Summer classes are less of a pain than regular classes – only a handful of students from his year had signed up, and they were content to continue the mutual agreement of ignoring Arakita if he ignored them in return. The exercises and assignments are hard, but doing badly is not an option, so Arakita grouses and grumbles while he finishes them up in the library or behind the shed.
But the weeks pass by too quickly, like the road racers Arakita had once seen while driving up Mount Hakone on his scooter, and all too soon Arakita finds himself contending with a new set of classmates and another adjusted schedule and teachers who smiled too widely at the “quiet, diligent boy” in the last row.
Just to spite them, and the classmates who apparently still hadn’t gotten the memo about how they could survive the year without getting shoved down the stairs, even after two months of Arakita ignoring them, Arakita cuts the afternoon half of his classes and visits the shed.
It occurs to him that, because of the hectic work-arounds filling up his schedule, he hadn’t had any time to himself behind the shed. A tragedy, and, upon reflection, that was possibly the reason why he’d taken to crushing his pills between his teeth instead of dissolving them in cans of bepsi – he’d fix that today.
Arakita turns the corner, and – stops in his tracks, when he realizes that he is no longer alone.
There, in what was obviously a recently-erected hutch in the shade and comfort of the shed he’d come to think of his own, was a rabbit. In lieu of a greeting, it twitches its nose at Arakita, who, in shock, simply lets his limbs sit him down across the hutch.
After a few moments, Arakita realizes that he couldn’t keep referring to the rabbit as ‘rabbit’. Painted across the top of the hutch was a name, and, if he were to acknowledge the fact that he would be sharing his shed with the rabbit from thereon in, he would have to acknowledge its name, too.
With a sigh, a muttered curse, and only a moment’s hesitance, Arakita leans over and extends his right hand towards the rabbit. It sniffs curiously at the air, before inching closer and nudging its nose against Arakita’s hand.