She was still the same slender, yet softly vanishing Woman. Now that I am twenty-five, she must be twenty-seven. The back of my former Senpai, wearing an egg-colored sweater, was catching the gentle afternoon sunlight. The intricate road in the residential area was a gentle climb, and we proceeded slowly so as to confirm it. Her loosely tied black hair was swaying through the light. It was a weekday afternoon, and there were no other people in sight. It was as if I was on a stage. I quickened my pace to catch up with her.
“Senpai? You’re Sakashima-senpai, aren’t you?
Senpai crinkled her convenience store bag and turned around to look at me with a smile that was more tired than it had been back then. It’s been less than five years since Senpai’s graduation, but the memory of how close we were still remains vivid.
“Could it be, Tsukada-kun? Wow, how nostalgic! I’m glad you recognized me.”
“I recognized you right away.”
Because Senpai was the one I’ve always admired, but I gave up without telling her anything. I’ve been watching her back for so long that I’m confident I could recognize her even if she were an old lady. The way she walks with her left shoulder slightly lowered and the shape of her fingers when she relaxes. The fact that I didn’t have the courage to stand next to her, instead, burned the sight from behind Senpai into my memory.
“What are you doing now?”
I thought I would casually ask whether she got married or something.
Touching her cheeks was a habit of hers when she was troubled. There is no ring on her left ring finger.
“Preparing to die, I suppose.”
It didn’t seem like she was joking. When I was a college student, I would have laughed back even if she was half-serious. When I was a student, I would just stand there and wonder about the future. As an adult, I easily lose to the rough waves of society, that’s why I’m walking through an unfamiliar city at this time. Death has become more urgent and imminent. I’m sure it’s the same for Senpai.
“Why does Senpai have to die?”
“It’s been decided. Unfortunately.”
Quitting my job made me feel strangely big-hearted. I spoke in a strong tone the words I couldn’t say in my student days.
“Tell me. Please tell me why. I’m going to stop it any way I can.”
Senpai nodded with a hint of resignation in her faint smile.
“Let me contact my mother.”
And, a phone call is made on her mobile phone. “I met my Kouhai by chance, so we’ll have a cup of tea, I might be late, but don’t worry.” She said across the line in a soothing tone. Exhaling With a long breath, Senpai shoved the device into her pocket.
There was a small coffee shop at the entrance, blending in with the uniformity of the houses. Only the name of the store and the menu written on a blackboard hung on the black door. Senpai held the doorknob without hesitation. Klyn, the bell rang lightly. The inside is dark, and a red brick staircase leads to the basement. All of the lights were old-fashioned, and lit up as if they were guiding the way. Perhaps they were antiques, the design was irregular. The aroma of coffee tickles my nose.
The brightness of the shop spilled over to the dead end of the stairs. It’s like a tunnel exit. Piano music reaches my ears. The sound of tableware touching, and the low voices of people talking.
Once we reached the end of the stairs, the light dazzled us. The heavy furnishings arranged on the honey-polished floorboards makes you feel the depth of the years. The 40 or 50 years old master, who was wiping a cup at the counter, shakes his dark mustache and says, “Welcome”.
The inside of the shop is large enough that even one person can run it. The seats are all occupied. Senpai sat at a table in a corner where she could hide in the dark. She points at me with a deep red cloth menu.
“I’ve made my choice.”
As could be seen from the atmosphere, most of the menu was coffee variations. I didn’t have time to think about the minor differences.
“I’ve decided too.”
By raising your hand in a familiar way, the master will come to take your order right away. Senpai opens her mouth while sending a glance at me.
“Café Au lait and…”
“I’d like a blend, please.”
The answer came back in a muffled voice. If you look back at the counter, the piano and other guests’ chatter are all that’s left around us. I didn’t know the title of the song, and couldn’t get the content of the talks, but it was appropriate as BGM.
“‘Why?’ you asked.”
With her fingers crossed on the table, Senpai squinted.
“It’s a long story, you know. I’ll tell you more when the drinks come. Until then, why don’t you tell me your story?”
“It’s a boring story. I graduated normally, got a job normally. I thought it wasn’t a good fit, but I didn’t do anything about it. In the end, I quit after less than three years. Even though I left home to find a job, I got off at the station I don’t know and just walked around.”
“But that’s why I met you. It can be called fate.”
“I would be happy if my actions had any meaning. But there’s nothing Senpai would need from me.”
“Yes. There is. I’ve got a lot. People with one foot in the coffin are nostalgic about the past. For some reason, I can’t help but immerse in my youthful memories. As long as you’re someone walking from over there, I’ll be happy.”
Senpai touches the lid of the round ceramic sugar container and adds.
“I think that failure when you’re young is a treasure. If I say it, I’m sure you’ll agree…… Yes, if you were planning to look for a job, your body and soul would be intact. Then you’re a winner in life.”
A café au lait is placed in front of Senpai, and a coffee blend is placed in front of me. Senpai traces the edge of the cup. Her index finger quietly points to her temple.
“There’s a bomb buried here. A bomb in the shape of a flower. It’s a bud now, and when it opens, I will die. Branches are stretched to every corner of my brain, and there is no way to remove them surgically. Hey, what do you think makes a flower open?”
I was too overwhelmed to say anything. My glossy lips relaxed.
“Thoughts that accumulate undigested are what kill me. Everything that goes unsaid hurts me. The only medicine is to spit them out, to keep writing. It’s the only way to prolong my life. It’s funny, I’ve wanted to live by writing more than once, but I never thought it would come true.”
“I won’t laugh.”
“I know, you…”
“Don’t say it’s because I’m kind. I want you to live because you are a Senpai like no other.”
“That’s a harsh question.”
“You understand, don’t you” I said, sipping my coffee. Senpai did not answer.
“I’ll do anything. If only Senpai would let me.”
“You’re an idiot.”
I couldn’t even hold the hand of my Senpai as she lowered her eyes, but I was serious. I couldn’t tell her that I liked her or that I still do.
＊ ＊ ＊ ＊ ＊
I stared from the balcony and saw a row of pale red cherry blossom trees in the distance. The apartment I rented had another room with the living room, and the four-mat Japanese-style room was made into a space for Senpai. Senpai fabricated the fact that she was going out with me to persuade her parents, and my desire nominally fulfilled after an outrageous leap of faith. I was so nervous when I called her by her first name, Shiori-san.
Sitting tables, computers, printers and cushions, countless stuffed toys, and piles of books. The Japanese-style room was made into a shelter for Senpai. I just do the housework. Shopping, laundry and cleaning. Procurement of materials, proofreading, selection of suitable applicants, and dispatch. Anything else that Senpai required.
I thought she should just become a writer.
Make writing a job. Fortunately, Senpai has ideas that were to die for. As a commercial writer, she would have the support of editors and other professionals. Even if something happens to me, I could hire someone for the chores. I’m a manager. If only she could keep writing and spit out what’s in her head more efficiently. Then I thought that Senpai might be able to live her life with the flower in her skull frozen.
“I feel like I’m writing faster since I’ve been away from home.”
Senpai muttered while dexterously hitting the keyboard.
“When I’m in front of my parents, I think about a lot of things. I feel sorry for them.”
“In that respect, I’m here to meddle and push the hard sale.”
“It’s quiet here. There’s just me, you, and the story.”
I’m brewing a second cup of coffee today. Plenty of milk and sugar. I looked over her shoulder at the words which were driven out by the rainy rhythm. The story is being carved. Senpai’s novel, which had a raw and stiff impression when I was a student, is now fragrant and ripe.
It wasn’t a desire, I believed. This is a work that should spread to the world. Senpai should start rowing out into the wide sea.
Flowing, flowing. Black lines of text accumulate and fill the white screen. Novels are time. Senpai’s fingers go back and forth between every era through efficient typing. The princess smiles, the aliens ask for a handshake, and there is no context to the proof that is the exposition for living. As soon as the words of ‘THE END’ is written, the printer raises a growl and ejects the manuscript. I buy plain A4 paper every day along with daily necessities.
Find a simple typo and mark it up in red. Put a question mark where the wording is odd. Senpai didn’t have time to waste. If the manuscript is slowly revised, the buds will surely swell.
So we worked on the manuscript only during meals. I wondered if her parents would cry or faint if they saw her. She swallows bread and rice balls while answering my questions. Because hot foods had to be cooled, they ate her time, so most of the side dishes were simmered dishes, cold stewed dishes, and tofu. I don’t know how long it will last, so I started to leave bento boxes.
As soon as she finishes eating, she begins to knit the rest of the string I had been working on. Senpai hardly stopped until she was physically exhausted and falls asleep. I always exhaled deeply when I lay her body, which was lighter than I imagined, down on the futon.
I didn’t know if it was a relief that Senpai was still alive today, or depression at the fact that her life had been stripped of all leeway.
Her parents contacted me in advance and asked to visit. There were many cases where I could not clean up in time and they complained about the messy living space. They often thought that Senpai should be in treatment, and be hospitalized. I explained. They may not have been convinced, but the frequency of visits dropped according to the wishes of their dying daughter.
Senpai continued to write. Day and night. The speed of her typing was mind-blowing. There was almost no time or hesitation. She continues to spit out, continues to produce, long and short, endlessly inscribed in letters.
At the end of summer, she stopped going to her monthly medical examinations. Senpai throws a picture of a brain scan in front of me. The white pattern on the black background is a CT scan. A strange shape is reflected between the gentle light and shadow. Geometry, plants, it could be either. Intricate, thin branches overrun the inside of the skull. Here and there, floral patterns like eyelashes extended, with small circles tied to their tips.
“I wonder what kind of flowers will bloom.”
“Cherry blossoms, of course.”
The twisting branches and long floral patterns are reminiscent of cherry blossoms. When I was a student, the last time I had a cherry blossom viewing party with Senpai was just before they graduated. While I was eating some dumplings and cookies that couldn’t be reduced because of all the drinking, Senpai who picked up a bottle of jasmine tea called out to me.
“Is Tsukada-kun more into dumplings than flowers?”
“Because these people leave them behind. Why buy dumplings for a cherry blossom viewing party if you won’t eat them?”
“You’re so serious.”
I was too dazzled by her satisfied nodding to say anything else.
“Flowers, like bones, remain even if you burn them. They are so thin and fragile. If cherry blossoms blow out of a white skull, they would be as beautiful as a lie.”
“You’ll be fine, Senpai. You’ll grow old and die with a bud.”
“Your words are strong. Your words are so strong, I almost dream that it will really happen.”
Moreover, her thin body turned to the personal computer, and I gave up on continuing the conversation. The two rooms of the apartment are enveloped in a drizzle of key-type rain. While organizing the printouts, I think about the big swells in Senpai’s work. Each one is an independent novel, but the mood varies depending on the time of year. Light, dark, intense, calm. I envisioned a wave of graphs stored in my head.
I felt that the critical moment was approaching. When the style becomes the heaviest, Senpai’s brush becomes slightly dull.
Texts are lined up on the screen. A white screen filled with 400 characters that creates a stark contrast of the brightness of hiragana and the darkness of kanji. I keep reading Senpai’s novels. Keep picking up small mistakes.
On the day the first snow was observed, she won a small prize for a short story. Although it never led to her debut, the warmth of the reviews encouraged me. Senpai didn’t seem to care much. After overcoming the end of summer, the flamboyance of the work reaches its peak with the color of the autumn leaves, and now it is fading as if it is drying up and scattering.
I was afraid of the recoil of the big and rich waves. If she falls again, she might not be able to come back. I dismissed my imagination many times
The reviews were framed and hung on the wall, as if to hold on to the clue I had finally obtained.
＊ ＊ ＊ ＊ ＊
February. I came home in the snow and took off my boots, shivering. I put my shopping bag in the kitchen to quickly take a shower.
I realized it was unusually quiet. The typing rain that should have filled the room every day had stopped. The sound will not have been sucked by the snow either. The blood drained from my veins. My fingertips, which were already cold, freeze.
Senpai was facing the screen. She has her hands on the keyboard. However, there is no movement.
I touch her shoulder. It felt like it was about to break. Slowly Senpai turns around. Her cheeks are wet. Quietly, as if it were a soundless world, she continued to shed tears.
“What should I do?”
Sobbing only once, Senpai cried endlessly.
“What should I do, I can’t write.”
I can’t write, I can’t write. I’m going to die. What should I do? Only crude words without decoration, color, and no story spill over.
Why should she die if she didn’t write? She hit her hands, her head, her legs, with all her strength. She hit herself. I hugged her hurt arm and tried to stop her, but this time she hit my chest with her fist. It’s been a long time since she left the house, but the uncontrolled violence is so intense that it almost stops me from breathing.
“If you can’t write, I’ll listen. Please talk to me. If you’re that panicked, you must have a story in your head.”
“It’s not coming together. I can’t do it.”
“I’ll ask you a question, so you can just give a piece of it. Hey, let me hear it. Don’t worry, you’re not going to die just because you can’t write for a day. I’ve done my research, you know. I even went to ask a doctor about it. It’s okay. Senpai won’t die.”
The slender body of Senpai slowly relaxes in his arms and eventually spits out a few words. What started out as a bunch of scattered words grew into short sentences, the short sentences grew into a series of poems, and the poems grew into stories. There was little room for me to interject.
Senpai blushes her cheeks and spins her words. I was finally relieved to find a hint of light in the story being told. This is the bottom. All that’s left is to rise.
Senpai’s novel regained its brightness. She wrote a number of free, relentless, and light stories. I read them with rapture. The freshly picked fruit was sweet, fresh, and I was likely to get drunk if I didn’t pull myself together.
I gripped the red pen and Senpai kept hitting the keyboard.
At the first sign of spring, I noticed that Senpai was sleeping longer. As if the scent of the plum blossoms was making her wake up later and later. As she was reluctant to go to the doctor, I ordered a house call. No new illness seemed to have appeared.
No further examination can be performed unless at a well-equipped hospital. Of course, the flower in the skull is suspicious, but that would require a CT scan to determine the situation. Senpai shook her head. Once the diagnosis is made and the life expectancy is known, there is no way to gain more time or improve the situation. So she chooses to keep writing here.
“Because this person has expectations of me. Because he believes in me. I have to write as much as I can. Besides, writing is the only thing that will keep me going, isn’t it, Sensei?”
Senpai kept writing as much as she could. She doesn’t even sit down for meals any more. Sleeping little by little and occasionally going to the bathroom. There was little human movement left, and I was able to touch Senpai’s soul only through her novels.
It was becoming clear to my eyes that she wouldn’t last much longer. The results of the open call for participants were not as good as I had hoped. She’s been shortlisted as a finalist a few times, but she couldn’t reach the next step. One evening, I couldn’t help but notice how small her back looked. I hugged her lightly so as not to interfere with the movement of her hands.
“Senpai, I like you. I’ve always liked you, ever since the days when we were fooling around at school.”
“That’s too corny to be used as dialogue. That’s why it’s you.”
“Don’t die. Please don’t leave me.”
“I’m sorry, I’ve always noticed. I knew. Thank you for saving me. For being there for me.”
“Did I do something terrible? I cut Senpai off from your parents and the outside world.”
“That’s what I wanted. Let me assure you of this.”
Senpai’s typing doesn’t stop during the conversation. In the Japanese room where the spring night air crept in, we just shared our body heat.
“Tsukuda-kun, don’t carry my life on your shoulders. Promise me. You don’t have to forget me, I’d be glad if you remembered me, but after my death you have to live your life. Your life will truly begin from now on.”
＊ ＊ ＊ ＊ ＊
This became Senpai’s last will and testament. In the afternoon, when she had finished writing the end of a feature length story, she lowered her eyelids forever. Like a long sleep. The row of cherry blossom trees seen from the room was already dyed light red. She looked so neat, as if it was a lie that she was dead, and so doll-like, as if it was a joke that she was ever alive.
Her parents didn’t blame me. I even wanted her mother, who had her eyes pressed and bowed with her handkerchief, to kick me out. I’m the one who took their beloved daughter away and made her spew out stories so that you may not see her death.
In reality, all I did was keep my head down, trying not to be seen, and let out what could not be described as gratitude or apology. Such a coward!
Not only that, they even invited me to her cremation. On the day of the funeral, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom and scattered petals in the blue sky. Many young women waved goodbye to Senpai, their pale makeup ruined by tears. She must have had a lot of friends, unlike me. Speaking of which, no one contacted me during the year-long disappearance. Even my mother didn’t even ask to meet me, as long as I answered her occasional emails.
I feel lucky to have touched the light of Senpai. I was able to put myself in a world that I had given up on ever reaching. I was always illuminated by the brilliance of Senpai.
Adults who were predeceased by their daughter, granddaughter, or niece clutched their handkerchiefs in grief. All humans seemed to lose their facial expressions when standing in front of the unacceptable and irrational.
I couldn’t talk to anyone at the waiting area where only her relatives gathered. Perhaps this was a punishment. Instead, I remembered Senpai in the coffin. She had a much brighter, gentler face than in the year without makeup. In that room, Senpai had always been possessed by words. If she had lasted another year, she might have become a demon. I was horrified.
A call came from the grill. Senpai’s bones, exposed on the stainless steel table, were white, and the skull retains its approximate shape.
A flower was spilling out of the opening. It was a colorless cherry blossom. There were crumbled branches, loosened petals, and parts that still retain their shape. How could this be real? I teamed up with a girl about elementary school age to pick up the bones. No one touched the flowers. From the innocuous parts such as hands and feet, the bones are put in a glossy ceramic or porcelain urn.
Senpai has done her duty as the deceased, and is put in a splendid cloth bag. While waiting for the car to go to the ceremony venue, I was looking at the cherry blossom trees at the entrance of the funeral hall. The wind was blowing and petals were falling.
I took my smartphone out of my pocket and took a picture. I felt closer to Senpai than the bones or remains. As I looked at it, it suddenly trembled in my hand. An incoming call is displayed on the screen. Tokyo’s area code.
“Yeah? Hello, is it Sakashima Shiori’s phone?”
“Yes, it is.”
“I’m ‘Seito’, an editor at a publishing company called… you’re not Shiori-sama, are you?”
“I am acting as her agent. Is this about the open call for novels?
“Well, then, Excuse me. The work submitted to us by Sakashima-sama was selected as a masterful entry, and we contacted you. May I have a moment of your time?”
“No, I’m a bit tied up…”
“When you do, please let us have another opportunity. Thank you. What time would you be available?”
“If possible, I’d like to call you back.”
“I understand. Can I give you our phone number?”
I grab the ballpoint pen I found. The only paper I could find was a crumpled receipt.
The number that was repeated twice was similar to what was shown on the display earlier. The phone was hung up.
The sky was clear blue. There were no clouds in sight. The wind was lukewarm. Senpai was nowhere to be found. Yes, now? It’s a masterful entry? Senpai, you had to live one more year after all. Even if you had become a demon, you had to make it that much longer. You had to be there the moment when your work would hit the world, and the moment when someone other than us could carry expectations and trust.
I wanted your life, more than flowers, more than a well-dressed dead face. I only needed a year. No, I want
ed to run together until we reached farther. Five years or ten years? If only we had more time, Senpai’s work would have been welcomed more widely, more intensely, and more radiantly.
Senpai. How should I reply to him? Sakashima Shiori is dead. She’s not coming back. What else?