“Oh, you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me!”
My irritated exclamation seemed to almost echo in the small bookstore as I vented my frustration at the young cashier lady. I’m sure my yell would’ve turned some heads if it wasn’t for the fact that I was the only customer there. As one would expect, she was taken aback, and was quick to bow apologetically.
“I-I’m sorry, but as I said, we’re out of stock for that specific volume, and the next shipment won’t arrive until next week,” I could hear her apologizing.
I sighed as I slipped my hands into my hoodie’s pockets, and glanced at the cashier. Well, if we’re being completely honest, it’s not her fault. I was pissed because this was the third damn bookstore I’ve visited today. Third! I almost ran here just to make sure I’d get here before the place would close for the day! And it’s always the same story: out of stock for the second volume of Warriors of Lotus. Who the hell has ever heard of a novel selling out in multiple bookstores? I mean, the first volume was probably the best shit I’ve ever read, but still, this is ridiculous…
Seconds passed by as I stood there, musing on the hours I had just wasted, all the while listening to the low, high-pitched humming of a fluorescent lamp mixed with some B-grade pop song quietly playing from the speakers.
Slowly and unsurely, the cashier raised her head. “…A-As I said, I’m truly sorry—”
“Yeah, yeah,” I cut her off with a wave of a hand. “Heard you the first time…”
It was no use to stay here and keep giving her a piece of my mind, so I saw for the best to make my leave. Just before I exited the store, I happened to spot a poster on the wall, advertising the second volume of Warriors of Lotus. It was like one last ‘fuck you’ to me and the hours of walking I had to go through today.
If my tired legs didn’t give away the fact that I’ve walked a ton today, it’d be the darkened sky. The sun was halfway through disappearing on the other side of the horizon, painting the clouds in darker shades of orange, and making way for the night sky. I glanced around, looking at the unfamiliar neighborhood I was currently at. I was at the other side of the town, about an hour away from my home. All for one fucking book…
My gloomy face broke into a faint grin. “Heh, getting this worked up over a book…” I quietly muttered to myself. Oh well, even though I wanted to get it today, I can always get it next week.
As I kept glancing around, my gaze came upon a vending machine, not too far away. At the same time, I was fiddling with the money in my pocket. Eh, might as well get a drink. After buying myself a can of orange soda, I decided to head around the corner to the riverbank to enjoy my drink, sitting on some stone steps. Facing east, it was a prime spot to witness the setting sun’s light slowly disappear from the buildings on the other side of the river. Ugh, after all that frustration, I felt like having a smoke. If I had known this would’ve taken so long, I would’ve taken my cigarettes with me. I took my time to finish my drink, after which I threw the can away and stood up, stretching my legs. It’s gonna take another damn hour just to walk home…
About half an hour of walking later I woke up from my thoughts, finding myself in yet another unfamiliar neighborhood. Seeing how dark it had gotten, I realized to take a look at my watch, seeing just how late it was. Well, I wasn’t in that much of a hurry. As long as I headed east, I’d eventually find a place I’d actually recognize, and thus find my way home. As I strolled along the dimly lit street, I quickly noticed how peaceful it was. Though it was a Friday night, it still had been a while since I came across another pedestrian... Or, at least that’s what I thought, until I saw someone appearing from around a corner, a bit further ahead of me, and completely ruining the mystifying atmosphere. Yeah, of course there are other people living in this town.
As I kept on walking, I noticed how the said person was heading towards me. One of us needs to yield and make way, unless we want to crash into each other. I decided to stand my ground and let the other person do it. As we were closing in on each other, I started recognizing some of the person’s features. Like the fact that it was actually a girl. A young one, maybe the same age as I. She was carrying a grocery bag. Oh, and she also had a small, bushy-like ponytail. I only noticed that because she was constantly glancing around her… shoulder…
All the while looking scared…
I only had seconds to wonder about it, until we finally came face to face with each other. I quickly halted to let the girl pass, completely forgetting my plans of standing my ground. The girl, however, also came to a stop, right in front of me. The whole scenario surprising me, I just stood there, unsure what to do, what to say. The girl was glancing downwards, a worried expression on her face. I just knew she had stopped in front of me for a reason, but it took me a few seconds too long to actually ask her about it.
My lips ajar, it took me a moment to cough up the question: “Uh, what—?”
“Please,” she cut me off with a quiet plea.
Her soft voice was trembling. The light of the street lamp reflected from her watery, light brown eyes. This gal was actually scared of something. But what?
My thought process was cut short by a noise coming from around a corner – the same corner around which this girl came from. As the noise drew closer, I could recognize it belonging to multiple people. Multiple men. Drunken men. Yeah, that’s drunken nonsense they’re talking, alright.
The approaching sound caused the girl to twitch slightly. “I… I think I’m being followed.”
“Yeah?” was the only thing I managed to say.
In retrospect, it might’ve come across as a bit cynical, but the truth is I was just too damn confused to think straight. I was thrown into this situation out of blue, I wasn’t given any time to think. Not that I wasn’t desperately trying to do so.
“Can’t you, uh, just run?” I gave a hasty suggestion.
“N-No, I can’t,” she shook her head.
To get her point across, she raised her knee. As she did that, she winced a bit. Ah, shit, there was some road rash on her knee, covered by a big band-aid. Right, now that I think about it, she was kinda limping when she walked. In an instant I was overcome by a small feeling of guilt.
And then they appeared, around that same corner.
Three guys, probably in their early twenties, completely shitfaced. They were dressed in loose office clothing, and one of them was carrying an open bottle of sake, taking a sip from time to time. Slowly wobbling towards us, they were sputtering some drunken shit to each other, giggling loudly. However, there was one sentence I managed to catch.
“Let’s get her.”
In an instant my vision blurred. I clenched my fists as the adrenaline kicked in. I walked a couple of steps past the girl, shielding her behind my back. I took a second to breathe and focus. Let’s see what we’re dealing with… Yeah, young, average office workers. None of them look too threatening, and they’re drunk as fuck, but still, there’s three of them. That sake bottle might pose the biggest danger, so I need to look out for it, in case they realize to swing it at me. I just hope this won’t turn too ugly.
I had only one instruction to the girl behind me: “Stay back.”
I didn’t get an answer, but I could still hear the girl slowly taking a step back.
…Now that I think about it, I wasn’t even sure why I was trying to play the hero, since this really was none of my business. Maybe I was trying to impress this unfamiliar girl I met just a second ago, or maybe I was just looking for an excuse to fight. Or, maybe even I couldn’t turn a blind eye to something like this. Well, whatever the case, I had already made my decision, and was ready to throw hands.
Hiding my trembling fists into my hoodie’s pockets, I stood there waiting, as the trio came closer and closer to us. When they were only a few meters away, one of them happened to make eye contact with me. That’s when I decided to act.
They halted, turning to look at me. I was just about to pull out my fist, until I noticed how… confused they were.
The trio kept glancing at me and each other for a moment, until one of them asked: “Uh… Wha?”
Playing innocent, huh? Ain’t gonna work with me, buddy.
“I told you to piss off,” I snarled at them, a bit louder than the last time.
Again exchanging glances with each other, another one stepped forward: “Are we, uh, bothering ya or sumthin?”
Oh, the nerve of this fucker… “Me? No.”
I pointed at the girl behind me with my thumb. “But her? Yeah.”
The trio took a look at the fearful girl, quietly standing behind my back. And, to my surprise, they got even more confused.
“Uh… Her?” one of them asked as he tried to keep his balance.
“Oh, cut the bullshit,” I muttered, frowning. “Stalking a young girl late at night? Seriously?”
Hearing this, one of the guys quickly started trashing his hands around in a haste. “Woah, st-stalking? Man, ya got it all whrong, we—”
“You what, exactly? I heard you talking about ‘getting her’, damn it!” I snapped, slowly revealing my fist.
Hell, I was getting sick of this. Better smack one of them, maybe that’ll get my message across, and they’ll finally—
The guy’s sudden, strange outburst bemused me so much I had to stop for a second. “…A what now?
“T-That’s right, a deal!” another guy swore, an audible panic in his voice. “We whus talking ‘bout a deal!”
Oooh, right, a deal! It all suddenly makes sense… not. “What deal?”
“Tha deal our chompany’s gonna make next week!” the guy elaborated. “We-we’re calling it ‘she’. It’sh gonna be our biggust achievement yet, that’s why we’re chelebrating.”
“…No shit?” I muttered, slowly relaxing my fist.
One of the guys shook his head, waving his hands. “Nah, no shits, we swear! We were at a bar and were about to head over to my place, it’sh just around the corner. We-we didn’t mean to scare the lil lady, honest!”
…Huh. Seeing how drunk they are, they might actually be telling the truth.
The guy leaned to the side a bit to get a look at the girl behind me. “H-Hey, lil lady, shorry if we scared ya, i-it was just a coincidence we had the same route.”
The girl behind me twitched a bit in surprise. “Oh, um… I-If you say so.”
The guy scratched his neck, chuckling nervously. Meanwhile, another guy pointed forward with his finger.
“So, uh, we’ll just kheep going, then,” he said, glancing at me as if waiting for an answer.
Looking at them for a few seconds, I finally sighed, crossing my arms. “Yeah, get out of here.”
With that, the trio began moving, making sure to keep a good amount of distance to us. The girl and I watched as they tottered down the street, though not chattering and giggling as much as before, glancing over their shoulders once in a while. After a moment, I relaxed my arms, glancing up towards the dark night sky.
“That’s that, then…” I muttered, mostly to myself, though it was also directed at the girl.
Speaking of the girl, I decided to check how she was holding up. She was still looking at the trio as they slowly disappeared from our view, quiet all the while. Confusion was visible on her face.
“Hey,” I called out for her. “You okay?”
“Eh? Oh, um, yes,” she said, turning to look at me, and chuckling embarrassedly. “I’m just a bit shaken up.”
Yeah, I guess I get what she means. Group of drunk dudes tailing you late at night, and you not being able to run… Good thing it was only a misunderstanding. Or maybe those guys were just straight up lying. Ugh, whatever. It doesn’t matter much anymore.
“Okay, cool,” I nodded.
Something just clicked in my head. A stupid thought… Ah, what the hell, I might as well go for it.
“Hey, um… Can you get home by yourself?” I asked her after a bit of hesitation.
My question taking her by surprise, she was quiet for a second. “Oh, yes. Thank you for asking.” She then broke into a faint smile.
“I actually live on this street,” she explained, pointing her finger up the road.
I, however, quickly noticed something: “Hold on, didn’t you just come from that direction?”
“Eh?” she uttered quietly, taking a closer look at her surroundings. She then ended up chuckling out of embarrassment. “Ah, I guess I did… I must’ve lost my composure, and took a wrong turn.”
Must’ve been one hell of a scare to lose one’s sense of direction like that, huh. Well, no need to go escorting maidens to their homes. A stupid idea, anyway… Wait, now that I think about it, she was pointing east, wasn’t she?
“…Guess we have the same direction, if you’re heading that way,” I noted.
“Oh, is that so? Do you live around here?” the girl asked.
I shook my head. “Nah. I’m not even sure where ‘here’ is… But if I keep heading east, I think I’ll find my way home.”
The girl seemed thoughtful. “Um, are you lost?”
“Eh, kinda,” I shrugged. “I had some business in the western part of town, and happened to take a shortcut through this neighborhood.”
“Oh, I see…” the girl muttered, thinking for a second. “If you follow this street, you’ll get to the main road. And then, when you cross the river, you’ll find a train station. Does that help?”
Station? Wait, if it’s the shopping district’s station, then there’s no problem, since I actually know that area. Why not just take the train? Because I don’t want to unless I really need to. And I still got both of my legs, so there’s no need.
“…A lot, actually,” I said, glancing at the girl, and nodding. “Thanks.”
She gave me a smile for an answer. I tried my best to give something similar back, though I’m sure I only managed to come up with a half-assed grin.
Without further ado, we headed off. The girl hurried next to me, which surprised me a bit. Well, maybe she felt safer by walking with someone, so I let her do her thing. I tried my best to ignore her limping as we walked. I guess it was kinda awkward to walk side by side in complete silence, but then again, we were complete strangers, so there wasn’t really anything to talk about. Though, I still felt like asking something from her. Like, why the hell is she out shopping so late? Taking a quick look at the grocery bag she’s carrying, it doesn’t seem to contain snacks. Did her parents make her fetch groceries, this late at night? Do I even dare to ask? It’s none of my business anyway, but still…
Raising my gaze from the grocery bag, I was met with the girl’s puzzled face. Ah, shit, she saw me peering at the bag.
The girl, however, smiled a bit as she explained: “It’s for curry.”
“…Curry?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
She nodded. “Yes. There was a sale for curry ingredients today, but I heard about it only half an hour ago, so I had to hurry to the store before they closed.”
…Wait, seriously? So, no abusive parents or anything? Man, I should stop being so pessimistic about everything.
“Ah, I see,” I muttered.
That’s that conversation over, then. With nothing else to talk about, we kept on walking in silence. I occupied myself by looking at the surrounding scenery. Yeah, nothing too special about this neighborhood, but nothing bad either. Just an average place. Though… that three-story house looks kinda weird. Tall, but thin. Whoever built it didn’t want any cubic meter of land to go to waste, that’s for sure.
“Ah, here it is,” the girl next to me said all of a sudden. “My home.”
Stopping, I turned to look at the girl, and found her facing the… the house I was just wondering about. Huh. Well, I was ready to leave her there and move on, but to my surprise, the girl turned to look at me, having something to say.
“And, well, thank you,” she said, giving me a nod of gratitude.
I’m not sure if it was the unexpectedness of it or what, but something in that got me a tad embarrassed, which I was quick to hide by turning my head away. “Eh, I didn’t really do anything, but sure.”
My head happened to be turned towards the house, so I managed to spot the house’s name plate, on which read Hirasawa.
“…Hirasawa, huh?” I thought aloud.
“Yes. I’m Hirasawa Ui,” the girl introduced herself.
I glanced at her from the corner of my eye, and couldn’t help but grin slightly. There’s just something about her seeming naivety and innocence that amuses me. In a good way, I mean, though I’m not sure why. You just don’t run into people like that too often. Anyhow, my business here seemed to be done, so better for me to make my leave.
“Alright then, Hirasawa Ui -san,” I said, giving her a wave of goodbye. “Take care.”
The girl – Hirasawa – answered the gesture. Turning around, I headed off eastward, trying my best to remember the directions she gave me. I didn’t manage to buy that book today, but at least I got a bit of action, though not as much as I’m used to. Maybe that’s a good thing. Anyway, better hurry up and go home. I told the guys I’d meet them at the park before midnight, and I’d like to grab a bite before that. All this walking’s got me hungry.
…Couple of months passed, and the weather started getting colder. Soon came December, the end of the year 2006 being only a few weeks away…
A cold wind struck against my face as I opened the front door. Shit, the winter’s coming early this year. Good thing I only have to take out the trash. I got the job done quickly, and just about sprinted back indoors to keep the blood flowing. Shutting the door with a slam, I sighed out of exhaustion before kicking off my shoes. Ah, that’s that, then. Now I’ll just head up to my comfortably warm room to play video games, and—
“Hey, by the way,” my brother said. “It’s your turn to take Dash for a walk.”
With a frown, I turned to look at the living room, where my brother lied on the couch lazily, watching TV. Damn buzzkill… Not that there’s anything wrong with Dash itself, it’s a very obedient dog. I just didn’t like the idea of going out in that freezing weather. And my muscles… Ugh, they’re still aching from that fight the other day. Quietly mumbling curses to myself, I headed upstairs to my room.
I crashed on top of my bed, yelling out a sigh into my pillow. I stayed like that for a while, until I rolled over to my side, inspecting my room from my sideways view. My collection of music and video games on my shelf, all the shit on my computer table, and the coffee stain on my carpet… Guess that should be washed sometime. After I felt like I had pondered on my few earthly possessions for long enough, I slowly got out of the bed, and moseyed over to the wardrobe, taking out my red hoodie. Putting it on, I thought for a moment, and dug deeper into the closet, finding my secret stash. I took my cigarettes and lighter, slipping them into my pocket. I had a lot of stuff on my mind, so I felt like this walk would end up being a long one.
Returning downstairs, I headed to the foyer, and picked the harness and the leash hanging from a wall.
“Dash! Come on, girl!” I yelled, shaking the harness a few times.
In an instant, a gray husky could be seen excitedly running to the foyer. Even though this dog is the laziest dog I’ve ever seen, and spends most of its time just lying around, it still enjoys going out for walks. Attaching the harness to Dash, I put on my winter coat and boots before stepping outside.
After we stepped off the porch, I crouched down, scratching Dash behind her ear. “What do you say, girl? You feel like going for a long walk?”
It just panted for an answer. Chuckling quietly, I stood up, and headed off with my canine companion. With no specific destination in mind, I decided to head south-east for a change. I’ve already explored every nick in this part of town.
Yeah, it sure is cold, alright, but not cold enough for there to be any snow just yet. There’s still a couple of hours of daylight left, so I need to pick my smoking spot carefully. Not that I care about what other people might think when they see a 15-year-old smoking, but I’d still prefer to be careful. Who knows, maybe some old motherfucker who has nothing better to do with their life might actually call the cops or something.
After what felt like half an hour, I decided to slow the pace a bit. Dash didn’t seem to have any complaints about the route I had chosen. Actually, it seemed to enjoy these longer walks more than the regular ones. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was, but I’m sure I can retrace my route back home. Anyway, I felt like having that cigarette now, so I set off to search for some secluded side alley.
Dash’s sudden bark made me jolt in surprise. I would’ve told Dash to shut its damn mouth, if it wasn’t for the fact that there was a surprised yell following the bark.
Confused, I directed my gaze at the direction of the voice. It came from ahead of us. Ah, yeah, there was another pedestrian, who seemed to have come around the corner all of a sudden. Situations like that sometimes surprise Dash, which explains the bark…
“Oh? Why, hello again.”
The pedestrian, to my complete surprise, turned out to be a young girl. And not just any girl; a girl with a ponytail. She was that same gal who I had… Well, I’d like to say ‘saved’, but that’s not exactly the truth. In any case, it sure was an astounding occurrence. Though, now that I think about the route I took, this might just be her neighborhood. Huh.
And… What was her name again…? Hirasawa? Ah, yeah, that’s the one. Hirasawa was standing a few meters from us, still a bit startled by Dash’s bark. However, the moment she had recognized me, she had broken into a warm smile, and had waved, accompanied by that greeting. Still a bit stunned by this reunion of pure chance, it took me a second to react, and answer the greeting.
“Ah, yeah, hi.”
Hirasawa cocked her head a bit as she smiled. “Nice to see you again.”
“Yeah, sure,” I nodded, trying my best to come up with something to say. “…How’s the, uh, knee?”
Oh, real smooth, you damn moron.
It earned me a giggle from Hirasawa. “Oh, that? It healed ages ago.”
“A-Ah, right…” I muttered, scratching my ear embarrassedly.
Hirasawa turned her attention to Dash. “Ah, is this your dog?”
I nodded. “Yeah. Its name is Dash.”
She crouched down a bit, giving a small wave. “Well, hi there, Dash. Nice to meet you.”
Dash only yawned for an answer. It, however, didn’t seem to offend Hirasawa, who chuckled at the dog’s reaction.
“So, you two are out for a walk?” Hirasawa asked.
“Right,” I nodded.
Eh, this conversation’s getting kinda forced and dull. It’s only the second time we’ve met, after all. I don’t feel like wasting any more of her time. I’m sure she has somewhere better to be. I mean, why else would she be outside in this weather? I nudged the leash to inform Dash that it was time to go.
“But yeah, we’ll keep heading home now.”
“Oh? Okay,” Hirasawa said.
Turning around, Dash and I headed off. I kinda lied: Yeah, we’re heading home, but not before I stop for that cigarette. Hopefully I’ll find that side alley on the way…
Halting as I heard the girl’s voice, I turned to look behind me, finding her still standing there.
“Feel free to stop for a visit if you ever find yourself around here,” she said to me, cocking her head with a slight smile.
“Uh, sure, I’ll keep that in mind,” I muttered over my shoulder.
Seemingly glad due to my answer, Hirasawa then gave me a quick wave of goodbye, before crossing the street and heading off. I kept looking at her for a short moment, before resuming my own walking.
Well, that was… something, I guess. I’m not entirely sure what to feel about that. Sure, a young man’s mind could come up with lots of unmature inferences, but I’ve always tried my best to keep that side of me in control. Maybe she’s just a kind and welcoming person, that’s all. Or, well, innocent and naïve. Eh, maybe I’ll take her up on her offer someday, who knows. Anyway, about that cigarette…