On the street outside the Kisarazu city hall, a paperboy made his morning deliveries before class. There were only a few people walking around at this hour. After making the larger deliveries in the office buildings, the paperboy passed a run-down van parked at the curb on his way into the residential area. The van door slid open abruptly. A middle-aged man in a ratty knit hat stumbled out and yawned. He staggered to a standing position and threw up his arms.
Across town, Mister woke up with a wet diaper and promptly started crying. Master rubbed one eye and rolled over in his bed. He had the unmistakable look of an overwhelmed parent.
“When is your mom coming home?”
Somewhere around Bussan’s house, Ucchi was running down the road. No one knew why. He was chanting in time with his steps.
“U-chi! U-chi! U-chi!”
...No one knew why.
In yet another part of town, the seven Yamada siblings and their mother sat down to a meager but cheerful breakfast of rice, furikake and natto. The oldest, Taro, helped pour out cups of water and tea for the children. He was a bright-looking youth, though his school uniform was a little frayed on the edges and the inside pocket was patched with a scrap of striped cloth from his mother’s sewing basket. As the family finished up, someone made his presence known at the door.
Gouda Takeshi was Taro’s best friend in school. He belonged to the dance club and went to Tokyo on the weekends to audition at dance companies. Taro didn’t know any other kid in Kisarazu with such big dreams. His poofy hair and graceful manner always seemed to stand out wherever he went. He stood on the Yamada front step, swinging his bag impatiently.
“Ta-kun!” Taro’s younger sisters rushed out to tug at his school jacket. A regular favorite in the Yamada household, Takeshi grinned and knelt down so he was at their eye level.
“Good morning! Are you being good?”
They giggled and patted his hair. “Ta-kun, give us a pony ride!”
Takeshi nodded as Taro came out of the house. “After school, okay?”
“We’re going now! Bye everybody!”
The pair walked along their usual path towards the school. There was a Giants game last night and they talked excitedly about the 3-2 pitch at the bottom of the sixth inning. As they turned the corner, Ucchi happened to be running from the other side. They collided and all three went sprawling.
“Ucchi-senpai?” Taro was the first to recover. Ucchi and his classmates were still known (mostly infamously) at the school, but Taro was possibly the only person in Kisarazu who called Ucchi his senpai.
Ucchi shook himself. He waved at Taro and Takeshi apologetically. Without another word, he got up and kept running.
“What was that all about?” Takeshi wondered as he held out a hand to pull Taro up.
At this point, the action conveniently fast-forwarded from the introductions to mid-afternoon, where the scene opened at Master’s pub. Tired from this morning’s running, Ucchi was dozing in a chair off to the side. Setsuko, Master’s wife, had been out of town on family business for the past four days. She was due back this evening. Mister was sitting in his high-chair, eating a snack. Like most children around food, he was getting pretty sticky. Master side-eyed the mess. He wondered if it would be ok to hose Mister down. While Master loved his kid, he was certainly glad it’ll be over soon.
“You had a guy come over yesterday to put in all of this?” Meanwhile, Bussan was looking at a brochure from a security company in Tokyo.
“Yup, state of the art.” After Setsuko complained that the pub wasn’t a safe place, Master got a new security system installed. The guy from the security company was a bit of a weirdo, but he got the job done.
“Hmmm....” Ani and Bussan shared a look. Fatherhood changed a man.
“Say, isn’t Bambi supposed to be coming by later?”
“Yeah, after he finished some stuff for class.”
Meanwhile, the local high school had just let out. Taro waved goodbye to some classmates and headed out the front gate. To help out at home, he worked at the Nakagomi Kimono Shop in the afternoons and on weekends. It was just easy stuff like sweeping the floors and cleaning the glass cases holding the most expensive accessories. However, Taro didn’t mind because he got to see Nakagomi-senpai sometimes. Taro admired Nakagomi-senpai because he went to university and was very smart. He also liked how --
“Hey wait up, Taro!” It was Takeshi. He waved and jogged over. “Are you going to work now?”
Taro nodded. “What’s up?”
Takeshi shrugged, looking down the road. “Oh. Uh, y’know that person I met at my dance audition last month? He’s having a recital at his school next weekend. Do you wanna go?”
In reality, Taro didn’t care at all for modern dance but he didn’t want to hurt Takeshi’s feelings. How could he decline gracefully? Then he remembered that free food might be a possibility at these types of events. Well, that settled it. “Sure, I’ll go.”
“Great, it’s a date then.” Takeshi seemed pleased with himself.
Takeshi looked over, suddenly shy. “Is that ok with you?”
Taro stopped walking to consider this. To him, the answer was clear. “You’re my best friend.”
“What if that’s not enough for me? What if I thought...you didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell with Nakagomi-senpai?”
“What?” Taro sputtered. He felt his cheeks get warm. Despite being best friends, they had never, ever talked about Nakagomi-senpai.
Takeshi pushed Taro’s forehead back with one finger, but it was not unkindly. “Silly. It’s obvious, isn’t it?”
Then he leaned in closer, so their faces were nearly touching.
“I can read you like a book.” And before Taro could say or do anything, Takeshi kissed him on the lips. It lasted only an instant, but Taro’s breath still hitched as Takeshi’s soft lips pressed against his. Taro jumped back as if shocked by an electric spark. He clapped one hand over his mouth.
“I-I have to go to the shop now!” He turned and bolted down the road.
Bambi was just leaving the shop when Yamada-kun dashed inside, bumping shoulders in the process. Rubbing the sore spot, Bambi looked back and shrugged. His parents weren’t strict on tardiness, and the worst someone like Yamada-kun would do was come in ten or fifteen minutes late. That wasn’t something to be worried about. The kid must really like working or something.
Ani and Bussan were playing cards when Bambi arrived at the pub. Master was cleaning off Mister by the sink.
“What's with the racket up the road, Master?” Bambi asked as he sat down to watch the cards. Two lots closer to town, some heavy machinery had appeared this morning to level the dirt.
Master wrinkled his nose. “Got a new neighbor. Some hot-shot from Tokyo wants to open a bar here.”
“But we already have this one, and hardly anyone comes anyway,” Ani said. Then he reconsidered. “No offense.”
“Yeah, but this one’s fancy. With wine and shiny chairs,” Master ignored the comment and dried off his kid.
“And...girls...?” It was a known fact that nicely-dressed girls were instinctively attracted to wine and shiny decor. Maybe it wasn’t a bad thing after all.
“Dunno. Anyway, the bartender looks suspicious to me. He came by in his fancy vest asking which delivery services I use.”
“Sounds like a fair question to me,” Bambi said. Ani and Bussan started a new round, and they dealt him a part in the game.
Master shrugged. Whoever this Sasakura guy thought he was, Master had already decided that he didn’t like him one bit. He probably had something more to say, but that was when someone started honking their horn outside. All of them went outside to look.
“What d’you want?”
It was Nekota. “Tomorrow’s game is cancelled. The other team went to some salad place and got diarrhea. Doesn’t look too good.”
“...And that’s why people are not meant to eat salad,” Ani murmured. Bambi snickered.
“Okay, that was all I wanted to tell you guys.” Nekota waved as he hurriedly got back in his car and drove off.
“Oh, well.” Bussan was in a hurry to go back inside the pub. There was something ominous about that meeting, as if they were all drawn outside for a reason. He rattled the door. It was just as he feared. “Hey, it’s locked.”
“I had a new self-locking lock installed.” Master reached into his pockets for the key. “Just hang on a minute...”
And that was when he remembered that he took out his keys and placed them on the bar before washing off Mister.
“AHHH! The keys!”
“They’re inside!” Master rattled the door violently. Suddenly, a siren blared once. A series of clicks could be heard in the door frame and in the window frames. “Crap, the security system activated! All the doors and windows are gonna be locked down!”
They were all outside. Except for Ucchi, who was still sleeping in his corner, and Mister, who was sitting in his high chair. Bambi and Bussan banged on the front window.
“Ucchi! Let us in!”
Master shook his head. “He can’t! You can’t open the doors from the inside if the system’s activated!”
“Why can’t you open the doors from the inside?”
“Because if a burglar comes in, I can escape and trap him inside until the cops come!”
Ani would have been yelling, but he was too busy looking shocked. So, Bussan did it for him. “That must be the STUPIDEST thing I’ve ever heard!! He’d drink all the booze before the cops can get within fifty meters of the place!”
Master slapped his forehead. “SHIT! WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT?!”
Inside, Mister whined. His father glued his face to the door. “Mister? Mister, you ok? Ucchi!”
“P-poop...” They could already imagine the look on his face.
“There’s a diaper bag in the back room!”
They heard Mister’s whining fade away, as if Ucchi was carrying him to the back. The cell phone in Master’s pocket suddenly rang.
“Crap, it’s Setsuko! I’m supposed to pick her up at the train station!”
“How much time do we have?”
“A couple of hours, at the most...”
Ani picked up a rock. “Let’s break a window and climb in!”
“We can’t. I had the glass replaced with the unbreakable kind used by banks!”
Ani held out the rock to Bambi, as if making a challenge. Bambi took it and nodded curtly. Master looked like he was going to interfere, but decided to duck for cover instead as Bambi wound up and threw his fastest pitch. The rock shot like a bullet out of his hand. It hit the window with a sharp ping before bouncing back directly at Bambi.
“Shit!” As one, Ani and Bussan dragged him down to the ground. The rock sailed over their heads and out of sight.
“Why the fuck did you spend so much money securing this dump?” Ani shouted from his position on the ground.
Master ignored him as he came out into the open again. He was dialing his phone.
“Hello, is this Enomoto-san? It’s Okabayashi in Kisarazu. You came out to install a system yesterday...yeah, yeah, it’s working just fine. Listen, I’ve locked myself out just now...yeah, I know that was careless...could you come out to help me unlock it? Oh...you’re working on something else right now? For a lawyer? Oh...I see...”
The other three kicked the ground as they waited for the conversation to end. It didn’t sound good. Finally, Master hung up. He sighed heavily.
“He can’t come until later tonight...but by then, Setsuko will home.” He fell silent and paced the walkway leading to the front door of the pub as he thought of what to do next. Suddenly, he snapped his fingers. “There’s a trapdoor on the roof!”
Moments later, they were standing on the roof, looking down at the trapdoor. It was just a small square opening with hinges on one side.
“It looks awfully small.” Bussan bent down and knocked on it. “And you say the security company overlooked it when installing the system?”
“Even I forgot about it until just now, so I’d say yeah.” Master tugged on it, but it didn’t budge. “It’s probably just stuck...I’ve never used it, to be honest.”
He put his weight on it, but the door held fast. Ani disappeared down the ladder leaning against the pub. A few moments later, he came back with a metal rod.
“Here, I found this in the junk pile out back.” He jammed one end of the rod into the gap between the door and the roof. He pushed down on it experimentally, but nothing happened. He repositioned himself and leaned on it harder. The door popped open sharply, causing Ani to fall on his face.
“Motherf--” he mumbled, rubbing his nose. The others had already gathered around the opening.
“It’s too small. None of us can fit in there.” Bussan peered down into the darkness. It looked like an attic. “Ucchi! U---cchi!”
There was no answer. “I guess he can’t hear us.”
Master stepped into the trapdoor. “Maybe I can squeeze in somehow.”
His legs and hips got in without too much trouble, but progress stopped when it got to his chest. “I’m stuck!”
“Should we try pushing you through, or pull you back up?”
“Try pushing me --- ow, ow, ow, stop it! Ok, pull me up!”
“If only we had someone with narrow shoulders,” Ani said. Meanwhile, Master was sprawled on the roof rubbing his entire torso.
That made Bambi remember something. “I think I know who can do it. Just wait here.”
Taro gripped the broom with unnecessary force as he swept the kimono shop floor. He didn’t want to think about what had just happened with Takeshi, but his mind kept going back to it unconsciously. Did he ever really think of Takeshi as more than just a friend? He bit his lip. They still tingled with the sensation of that kiss. He didn’t know what to think. Maybe? But more importantly, was he really that obvious about Nakagomi-senpai?
“You’re overdoing it a little bit, aren’t you?”
A voice snapped him out of his thoughts. Nakagomi-senpai was right there with an amused expression. Taro looked around him. The floor was clear of dirt, but Taro had swept so much that some of the broom bristles had come off, littering the space.
“O-oh, Nakagomi-senpai! I’m sorry,” Taro shook himself mentally. He had to get himself together.
“Uhh look, Yamada-kun, can you do me a favor?”
“What?” Taro replied almost breathlessly. Bambi had such a cute, troubled expression in his face. He couldn’t tear his eyes away.
Meanwhile, Takeshi was sitting in his bedroom, looking at his cell phone. He wanted to call and apologize. After a few more moments of staring, he sighed and put his phone aside.
Another meanwhile, Ozzy was playing with his new cellphone. He got it this morning. He thought a panda wallpaper would look good on it.
“Who’s this kid?” Ani looked up as Bambi reappeared on the roof. He was followed by a slim high school student.
“This is Yamada. He works at the shop now, remember?”
Only Bussan nodded in recognition. His father gave the Yamada children free haircuts out of kindness. “Can he fit in the trapdoor?”
“Let’s find out, huh?”
Taro looked suspiciously at the darkness beyond. “This is it?”
“Please, Yamada-kun. For Master’s baby,” Bambi pleaded.
Taro seemed to melt a little under Bambi’s gaze, and he gave a curt nod. Bussan side-eyed Ani. So that’s what it was. Bingo.
Taro climbed feet first through the door like Master, and slipped through easily until he got to the widest part of his shoulders. With some help from the others, he finally fell through the roof with a soft thump.
“I’m in.” They could hear Taro shuffling around in the attic. “Now what?”
“I just realized something...” Master looked troubled. “Even if he got in, there isn’t anything he can do from the inside to turn off the system. I wanted to trap burglars, remember?”
Bambi blinked. “What? So this whole thing was pointless?”
“What?” Taro could hear only snippets of the conversation.
Master’s phone rang. He looked at it mournfully. “Setsuko’s here. I have to pick her up.”
“You can’t leave now!”
“What else can I do? If I pick her up like normal...and you guys get into the place before we get back, then she’ll never know, right? Please?”
It was a fifteen-minute drive to the train station. That meant they had just about 30 minutes to get the door open. Bussan rubbed a hand through his hair. “If that’s the only way. We could cut the electricity and disable the whole thing.”
“What? You can’t do that!” Repairing a cut line sounded expensive and awkward.
“Either way, you’re screwed. If we don’t get in, you’ll have to call your security guy. Then you’ll definitely be sleeping on the couch!”
Master nodded reluctantly. “You’re right. Ok guys, I’m gonna count on you!”
Then they climbed down the ladder to implement their new plan.
“Hello?” Taro called out towards the patch of sky above him. The talking seemed to have stopped. Furthermore, it sounded like they were all leaving the roof. Taro sighed. He felt around in the darkness, hoping to find a way downstairs. Takeshi was right. He didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell with Nakagomi-senpai. There was Mouko after all, and she was way cuter than him no matter what Takeshi said about how he looked in a dress.
By and by, he felt a slight breeze coming up from the floor. Taro followed it and found it coming from another trapdoor. He managed to open it without too much trouble, revealing the quiet living quarters upstairs from the pub. He stuck his head down.
There were only the loud voices of the guys outside.
Somewhere on the first floor, he heard a baby gurgling. Taro flipped down through the ceiling until he was swinging by his fingertips. He took a deep breath and dropped down to the floor below with a hollow thump. He had no idea what was going on, but he could check on Mister at the very least. He made his way through the upstairs towards the stairs leading to the pub.
Then, a lot of things happened at once.
In the pub back room, Ucchi had been messing around with something in the utility box. Putting the last thing in place, he patted himself on the back and stuck his head out to give Mister a thumbs up. He reached into his pockets for something and realized they were empty.
Where was it? He could’ve sworn he had it! He couldn’t disable the system without it! He scrambled over to the sitting area. He looked under the couch cushions and on the floor underneath the furniture.
That was when he heard the thump from upstairs.
Outside, Ani and Bambi were arguing over which wire to clip while Bussan decided on his own that it was definitely the one they were ignoring. He clipped it accordingly. Back in town, Takeshi took a deep breath and called Taro.
“Uchiyama-senpai --” Taro’s phone went off just as he entered the pub sitting area. The alarm system beeped once, loudly. Mister burst into tears just as Bussan burst into the pub. Ucchi forgot he was under the coffee table and jumped up, hitting his head.
Now, there was some explaining left to do.
First of all, Enomoto would never overlook the trapdoor on the roof. That would be very unprofessional.
We still don’t know why Ucchi was running around town like a maniac that morning, but we do know that when he collided with Taro and Takeshi on the street, his cell phone fell out of his pocket. As the three of them went on their separate ways, the phone was there on the pavement for some forty minutes until Ozzy came along and picked it up. Sweet. It was free electronics day in Kisarazu.
Some time later during gym class, Taro was having a flashback.
When Taro entered high school, Nakagomi-senpai was already a senior. Although just about everyone knew just about everyone else in Kisarazu, and most everyone did know the Nakagomi Kimono Shop since it was the only one in town, Taro had never spoken to Nakagomi-senpai until high school. There were only the stories of his intelligence and good looks. When Nakagomi-senpai passed his university exams, talk spread fast. Only a handful of students that year were going to high-class universities in big cities like Tokyo.
“It’s not like how everyone says,” Nakagomi-senpai replied, when Taro boldly asked him about it during lunch one day. Nakagomi-senpai had a packet of candy on his lunch tray, a gift from one of the girls in his class. He held it up towards the younger student. “If you’re extremely smart, you could get a scholarship. I’m helping out my family by earning one, y’know?”
Taro nodded slowly and took a candy. Although he was a senior, Nakagomi-senpai always took the time to answer his questions. However, their meetings were usually cut short by Tabuchi-senpai dragging him off to some weird scheme involving the baseball team.
Today was no different. For some reason, Tabuchi-senpai was wearing a kendo mask. Nakagomi-senpai shared a long-suffering look with Taro as he gathered his things and followed his classmate. As Taro was left alone in the cafeteria with the sugary candy slowly melting in his mouth, he decided unconsciously that he liked kind people.
“I wonder why he wore a kendo mask?” Taro said to himself as he let a volleyball bounce out of bounds. Takeshi ran by and ruffled Taro’s hair with one hand.
Meanwhile, the oblivious Ucchi arrived at the pub and sat for a while with Bussan, Master and Ani before finding a comfy corner to take a nap. Ucchi was dreaming happily when the alarm system suddenly jolted him awake. He looked around. The pub was empty except for Mister, who was crying in his high chair. There was a commotion outside; Master was trying to get back in.
“...must be the STUPIDEST thing I’ve ever heard!”
Ucchi went over to pick up Mister. He bounced the baby up and down, like how he saw women do at the supermarket. That seemed to work a little.
“SHIT! WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT!”
Upon hearing his father’s voice, Mister started crying again.
“Mister? Mister, you ok? Ucchi!”
Ucchi bounced Mister a little more, and then realized something squishy was going on in the diaper area. He quickly held Mister at an arm’s length away from his body. “P-poop...”
Ignoring the continued banging on the door, he took Mister to the bathroom. This kid needed to be changed, now.
Moments later, Mister had a hand towel secured around his butt with some packing tape. It wasn’t ideal, but he was dry, which meant a lot to babies. Ucchi drifted off to the back room to take a look at the utility box. He fiddled with the controls and accidentally snapped a wire.
On the roof, Ani fell on his face as the trapdoor popped open.
Ucchi continued working on the security system controls. He seemed to remember something his father once said about these types of systems. They were controlled by satellite, so a simple rewiring could make it controllable by cell phone activity. Ucchi gave Mister one of the baby toys laying around the bar and he got to work. There seemed to be no more activity outside the house.
After some time passed, Ucchi finally got it done. It was a good thing he was reading random electronics topics the last time got caught in a wikipedia link maze. He reached into his pocket. Now all that he needed to do was make a phone call and the signal would ---
His cell phone was not in his pocket.
Second of all, Enomoto would never run the security system power cord along the side of the building. That was also unprofessional. He always put it underground.
The wire Bussan clipped was for the TV. It could have been worse. Ani and Bambi were arguing over the main lights and the thermostat. Convinced of his success, he went around to the front of the pub to open the door.
It just so happened that Takeshi was the one who made the disabling phone call to Taro’s cell. The system beeped as it turned off, letting Bussan inside.
...And so, everything was ok when Setsuko came back. Except for the part where Master had to sleep on the couch anyway thanks to Ucchi’s “diaper” made of Setsuko’s best hand towel and tape. She really liked that towel.
“...I’m going away to college, no matter what,” Taro said as he reflected on the day’s events. He easily escaped the mayhem at the pub amidst the shouting and went straight to Takeshi’s place. Although he loved his life in Kisarazu, he realized something very important today. It was a crazy town, sure, but it was because it slowly turned the people crazy. He hoped it wasn’t too late for him.
“Shall we plan our escape together?” A smile played on Takeshi’s face. He sat next to Taro on his bedroom floor. Their shoulders touched.
Taro didn’t reply immediately. Takeshi was his best friend, certainly. No matter what, he knew that much. He shifted slightly, biting his lip.
“Did you mean that? On the street?” he asked at length.
Taro’s heart beat a little faster as he leaned in closer to Takeshi. Is this what it meant to like someone? It felt different from when he thought of Nakagomi-senpai. This one felt wild. Possible.
“Don’t.” Takeshi pulled back a few inches. “Once I start, I won’t be able to stop myself.”
“I know.” All right, so Taro didn’t know exactly. But it was Takeshi. He could tell. “I can read you, too.”