“Play with me.”
It was a command, not a request, and he did not like being ordered around.
“Play with me.”
He scoffed. She did not even have the courtesy to say “please.” If she was talking to his mom, she would get a mean scolding.
“Play with me!”
Besides, he did not want to play with girls. Girls were gross. His big cousin said they had germs, and his big cousin knew a lot of things.
“I said, play with me!”
He felt her chubby little hands on his arm, squeezing him tight, just enough to hurt a little. He opened his eyes. She was plopped down beside him, her billowy dress dirt-stained. Her lower lip was protruding slightly, and her big, blue eyes looked down at him, pleading, begging, to play with her, please, please, please, please, please—
“What do you want?” He looked at her fingers, the nails sloppily painted bright pink, and wondered if he had girl-germs now. He would ask his dad later. He knew everything there was to know.
She rolled her eyes. “Didn’t you hear me? I said, play with me!” Louder this time, and he winced. “Come on! Play with me!”
She was half-standing, half-sitting, and with all her might, she was trying to pull him to an upright position. But he was so comfortable lying there, and he did not want to budge, especially not for a girl. So he fought her valiant efforts and refused to be lifted.
She gave up after a few minutes, panting and sweating, blunt bangs sticking to her forehead, glowering at him. He shrugged, smirked at her, and made to resume his afternoon nap.
For a few moments, nothing happened. She was not moving or speaking, and he liked it that way. But then she started to make a noise he didn’t like. It made his eyes fly open in panic. He sat bolt upright and watched as the tears poured out of her eyes. Her shoulders bobbed up and down and her lips trembled. She opened her mouth and was about to wail, but he was fast. He jumped up and clapped his hand to her face. He cringed. If he didn’t get her girl-germs before, he would certainly get them now.
A muffled “wah” came out of her, and he looked back at the house to see if any adults heard, but nobody came to the garden to see what the fuss was about. He heaved a sigh of relief, but he still had to deal with her. He looked down at her and frowned and wondered what to do with a crying girl.
He could ask his dad. He knew everything there was to know.
But his dad was not here right now, and he had to figure it out quickly, because he was getting her tears and snot and saliva on his hand. He scrunched up his nose. Girls really are gross.
“Stop crying!” he hissed, but she didn’t stop.
He tried his big cousin’s tactic. “You’re such a sissy!”
But it only made her cry harder.
“You’re going to get me in trouble!” he whined to no avail.
He furrowed his brows, panicking, thinking hard. Anytime now, someone would look out the window and see that the precious Yamanaka girl was crying, and it would all be his fault. His mom would scold him, and his dad would be mad, and now he felt like crying too.
But of course he knew what to do. It was simple enough, but he didn’t want to play with a girl. Why did she have to be a girl anyway? Couldn’t his dad’s friend just ask for a boy?
For a full minute, he just stood there, his hand, wet and sticky, clamped over her mouth, debating whether to say it or not when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a curtain move.
“Ugh, fine, I’ll play with you!”
It was like pressing the power button on a mechanical toy.
She sniffed. “Really?” Except it came out slurred and muffled, because he still had his hand over her mouth. He let it fall back to his side.
“Yes,” he nodded vigorously as he wiped his hand on his shorts. “Really.”
She blinked and her eyes were bright again. “Great!”
She slipped her hand in his and squeezed tight. He wondered if she was just pretending to cry to force him to play, but there was no time to think, because he soon found himself half-running, half-being-dragged to a shady spot underneath a tree where she had set up shop. A pink, polka-dotted blanket was laid on the grass and around it sat three stuffed animals, two dolls, and a robot. She pointed to an empty spot in between a black bear and a brown-haired doll, and he sat there without protest.
She gave him a wide, toothy smile, adorable and genuine on her tear-stained face, and he managed a half-smirk in return. She dove behind the tree and returned, a few moments later, with an exquisite porcelain tea set. He watched as she sat down and arranged the items among the eight of them. She cooed happily when she was done.
“Okay, let’s start,” she chirped and turned to the doll propped up beside him. “How are you, Yui-chan?”
She looked expectantly at the doll, but Yui-chan, of course, did not answer. He frowned. This was a stupid game.
She cleared her throat and repeated her question. He wanted to shout that Yui-chan would never answer because she was just a doll, but he stopped himself. He did not want to risk her crying again.
“Yui-chan,” her voice was strained now. “How are you?”
She threw him an inscrutable look, and he stared at her blankly. What did she expect him to do? Perform a jutsu to get Yui-chan to talk? He didn’t even know how to control his own shadow yet.
So he just sat there.
And she glared.
Finally, “You have to act like Yui-chan.”
He frowned at her, then at the doll. He has to play with a girl, and now he has to act like a girl. He didn’t like it one bit, but her eyes were watering again, and he thought of his mom and dad being mad, and so he squared his shoulders and said, in the most girlish, sweetest voice he could muster, “I’m fine.”
She giggled. “Thank you, Yui-chan! What about you, Goro-san?” This was directed at the robot. “Anything new at the factory?”
She pretend-sipped her pretend-tea as she said this, and if he was drinking real tea right then, he would have sputtered and burned his tongue because of how foolish she looked.
“Nothing new, Ino-chan,” she said, in a low voice that was supposed to sound like a burly man’s. “We’re still making lots of chocolates for good, little girls, like you.”
She brought a hand to her chest and feigned surprise. “You flatter me so, Goro-san!” He had to give her credit, because she truly was blushing. “Thank you! Ooh, what about you, Kuro-san? Did you find lots of berries this year?”
He waited for her to talk, but she was quiet again. He looked at her and she looked back at him, eyes wide. She tilted her head to the left, and he remembered the bear beside him. Its fur was black, was it not?
“Erm.” He tried to think of what a real bear would say, tried to remember if he saw a lot of berries when his family hiked up the mountain shrine last week. “Uh.”
“Kuro-san?” she set her cup down in alarm. “Is there something wrong?”
“Oh my, I shouldn’t have asked,” she said, sheepishly. “Of course, of course, you were just telling me last week… Right, sorry.”
He didn’t know what happened, but it put him out of the spotlight, and he would rather pretend-sip his pretend-tea than figure out Kuro-san’s back story. He brought the tiny cup to his lips and swallowed.
Her eyes shone and she reached for the teapot. “More tea, Shika-kun?”
He shrugged, and she giggled as she poured air into his cup.
“You should drink slowly,” she chided him, trying to sound all serious and adult-like. “You’ll burn your tongue if you drink all of your tea too quickly, and that hurts a lot. That’s what my daddy said.”
The she prattled on and on about the things her daddy said to her, and if she was pouring real tea, it would have overflowed already and the blanket would be wet and all the guests would be disgusted and leave. But he didn’t tell her off, because she was smiling as she told him stories, and he decided that she liked her smile, even if the rest of her was funny and stupid and girly.
After five minutes, she ran out of breath, so she laid the teapot down and handed him back his tea. She nodded in his direction, and he took it as a cue to start a conversation. He looked around the group. He only knew the names of three toys so far, and he couldn’t very well talk to two of them because they were, well, him too, so he turned to the robot.
“Goro-san,” he started, but when he tried to think of what to say to a robot, he came up blank, so he just decided to follow her tack. “Um, what is it that you do in the, ah, factory?”
“Good question,” the robot replied, still a little breathless, “Our factory makes lots of candies, chocolates, and snacks for children. If you’re good and you play with Ino-chan a lot, you can have some too!”
He smirked. Smart, that. If he was some other kid, like Chouji from the Academy, he probably would fall for her neat, little trick.
“We make kompeito, amanatto, manju, higashi, mizuame, taiyaki, karinto, eclairs, and cakes, too. Do you like wafers? Because we make those too! Huh, what else?”
Now she was just listing her favorite snacks, not bothering to use Goro-san’s voice anymore. He listened and nodded and pretend-sipped his pretend-tea, slowly, so as not to pretend-burn his tongue. It was such a stupid game, but her daddy hadn’t fetched her yet, and she seemed to be enjoying herself immensely, so he stayed put and oohed and aahed at the appropriate places in her story.
When she finished, she was breathless again, and he wondered why she did that – talk on and on and on until she was panting, pause for a while, and do it all over again. Didn’t she ever get tired?
“You shouldn’t talk so much,” he said. “You’re out of breath, see?”
She glared at him and took a great gulp of air. “It’s only because you don’t talk a lot, Shika-kun,” she pointed out, pouting. “You’re so quiet, it’s like you’re not here at all!”
“That’s such a weird to thing to say, because I am here,” he answered, placing a hand on his chest, “So even if I don’t talk you can just look here and see me.”
She frowned, momentarily confused at his reasoning. “What?”
“I said, just because I don’t talk it doesn’t mean I’m not here.”
She raised her eyebrows. “I know that,” then she muttered something that sounded like, “Boys are so stupid.”
“Huh?” he narrowed his eyes at her. “What was that?”
But she was looking at the other doll now – red-haired, pink dress – and starting a conversation with it.
“Akane-chan, would you like some tea?”
She held the doll’s head and bobbed it up and down.
“Wonderful! Doesn’t this tea taste great? It’s made from one of daddy’s plants! Do you want to hear about it? Of course you do!”
She started another story, about the process of choosing the tea leaves and how to dry them properly. It was long and winding and boring, but he listened nonetheless, because, maybe, if she caught him not paying attention, she would call him stupid again and he hated it when she said that.
He was also looking for an opportunity to insert himself into the one-sided conversation, so she would know he was definitely here, even though her concept of “being here” was weird.
As she took in a gulp of air, he blurted out, “I like this tea, too,” even though he did not know what kind of tea it was or what it tasted like. “I think it’s delicious.”
She gave him another smile, encouraging this time, and said, “It really is refreshing, isn’t it, Shika-kun?”
He nodded, unsure how exactly it was refreshing, but she was smiling at him and that was great, “It is,” then he added, “I think you should talk to them too.” He gestured at the last two stuffed animals – a rabbit and a squirrel. “You haven’t asked them how they are yet.”
“Of course!” she squealed. “I’m sorry I forgot to ask you, Shiro-san, Kin-san, but how are you?”
“I’m okay,” he said in a squeaky voice, or what he hoped passed for a squirrel’s, “I found a lot of nuts and hid them all over the forest.”
“Good thinking,” she nodded sagely, “That way, you won’t get hungry even if you get lost, because you’ll always have snacks around. What about you, Shiro-san?”
“Nothing much,” he spoke in a breathy, whispery voice, “I just ate a bunch of carrots and now I feel full.”
“Eww, I hate carrots,” she scrunched up her nose in disgust, “They taste so weird! How can you eat so many of them?”
“My mom said I should eat all my vegetables so I can grow up tall and strong.”
“Doesn’t make them any less yucky,” she stuck out her tongue. “Blech!”
“I know, but they’re good for you.”
A few moments passed, then she relented, sighing deeply, “Oh, fine, maybe I’ll try eating a few pieces next time.”
He waited for her to speak, but she didn’t. Instead, she brought her hands to her mouth and laughed, a tinkling sort of laugh that was infectious and made him want to join her, but he didn’t, because it was weird, and he didn’t know why she was laughing. Also, he was a boy, and she was a girl, and she has germs, and maybe he has them too. But he found that he didn’t mind so much, as long as they came from her.
“You’re a great guest,” she said later, wiping happy tears from her eyes. “I haven’t had this much fun in weeks!”
She waited for a verbal response.
But he had nothing else to say.
“Didn’t you have fun?” she asked, eyes wide.
He looked at her, and he didn’t know how to answer the question. Just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question. If he wanted to make her happy, he could say, yes, yes, yes, he did, but if he wanted to spite her, he would say, no, not really, your game is stupid. The truth was somewhere in between, but he would never admit that to a girl.
Instead, he jumped up and ran to the house. She yelled something after him, something he didn’t catch, but something that sounded like, “I’m not done with you yet!” and it struck a kind of dread in him, like the feeling he has when his mom is about to scold him, but he found that he didn’t mind so much, as long as it came from her.
The adults in the room barely paid him any mind, so he headed straight for the large chest in the corner and rummaged through it. It took him only a few moments to find what he was looking for. He shut the chest closed and placed the item under his little arms. He lugged it out of the house and into the garden.
She was throwing a mini-tantrum when he got back, replacing the cups and saucers and pots and various tea items back in their containers none too lightly. He was afraid she would break them in her little fury and cry about it, so he cleared his throat, even though it was silly to interrupt when a girl was mad.
She swiveled around, pouting. “Where did you go?” She pointed an accusing finger at him. “You didn’t say! Akane-chan is really angry at you!”
He bowed to the red-haired doll. “I’m sorry, Akane-chan,” then he turned back to her. “I got us this.”
She tilted her head to the side, wondering at the folded, wooden block he held out to her. “What’s this?”
“It’s a shogi board,” he explained, sitting back down. “My dad teaches me how to play. It’s simple, really. Each of us has 20 pieces—“
She raised her hand. “I think this game is boring.”
“But I haven’t even told you about—“
“It’s boring,” she said simply. “Can’t we play tag or something instead?”
He frowned. He put up with her stupid tea party, so he expected her to at least listen to his explanation of how shogi works. “But I played with you! You should play with me too!”
She blinked at him, thinking about this suggestion. Then, “Not a chance,” and she tapped him on the shoulder and ran away, laughing.
He glared at her, but she just stuck out her tongue and laughed some more.
She was being unfair, really. He wished he didn’t pretend-sip her pretend-tea (slowly, so as not to pretend-burn his tongue), or act like a girl, or wonder at how bears, squirrels, and rabbits sounded like if they talked, or ask a robot a question, or tell her how refreshing the tea was, or have fun with her. She was not being nice, and he didn’t like it one bit.
So he dropped his board, jumped up, and chased after her.
It took him quite a long time to catch up, because even though she was a girl, she ran like the wind, as fast as her legs could carry her, up, up, and away, until he was breathless and she was not. She laughed, and the tinkling notes reached him, and he was incensed at how adorable she was and yet so, so, so annoying.
By the time he managed to tap her head, it was time for her to leave, and there was no time to play shogi, and he was too exhausted to protest. She held her daddy’s hand and she turned to wave and smile at him, but he only scowled back. His mother reprimanded him for it, but he didn’t care, because she was being rude and mean and unfair, and he wanted her to know that.
But she didn’t care that she was being rude and mean and unfair, and she wanted him to know that.
Defeated, he shoved his hands in his pockets and glared at her as they left, but she only laughed in return.
Later that night, he tugged at his dad’s deerskin coat, never stopping until the man finally looked at him, a bored kind of look on his face.
“Dad, do I have girl-germs?”
And his dad, who knew everything there was to know, shrugged, cracked a smile, and said, “You’ll find out soon enough.”