1000 Words: Missing Pieces (2013 April)
It’s in the middle of helping clean the Doujima family’s bathroom that Yousuke realizes he’s going to miss Inaba when he leaves for university.
Not the liquor store that reminds him – still – of Konishi Saki, or the lack of any real music store, or the mediocre fare that Souzai touts as specialties; he won’t miss any of that. But he’ll miss the drifting cherry blossom petals in springtime, and the open streets that let him race Arashi for all she’s worth, and the clear nights when he can look up and see the stars, with the reverberant sounds of his bass singing for him into the dark.
And the friends he’s made, the ones staying behind in this sequestered hamlet. He’ll miss them, too. Especially the three girls (he can’t quite bring himself to consider Naoto as anything but one of the guys, despite the truth and her newfound bearing).
Rise is beautiful and bubbly…but decidedly unattainable for anyone except Souji, though, that alone makes the thought of leaving her behind a lot easier. Still, he’ll miss her giggly smile, her sparkling eyes, and her all-for-one attitude.
Yukiko is genteel and gracious, especially during these last days. She even offered to bring obento from the ryokan for today’s spring cleaning, extending a smile as she recalled his favorite dessert. (“Strawberry cake, right?”) He’ll miss her demure propriety, her charming attention to family and tradition, even the way that her incongruous laughter rings out over what feels like the whole town sometimes.
And then there’s Chie.
He pauses in cleaning the window to turn and consider her: bent over the tub as she scrubs it, making little grunting noises because she’s too short to reach all the way to the other side without straining. She stretches one leg, muscles shifting beneath her smooth skin, from her bare ankle all the way to her high-rising shorts cuff.
How many times has he watched those legs – running, jumping, kicking, swaying – without her even knowing, without her ever looking his way, totally oblivious to his attentions and affections…?
Unfortunately, he can never just talk to her. Every time he opens his mouth around her, he says something stupid and insensitive and completely counter-productive to the things he really wants to tell her:
I’ve really liked you for a long time.
You’re the best thing about this place.
I don’t want to be just friends anymore.
But he’s too scared, and that makes him sound blithe and unaffected, and he’s spent the last two-plus years trying to figure out a way to just be a damn man for once and not let this girl slip through his fingers, like the last one.
“You all ready to leave tomorrow?” Chie asks of a sudden. Her tone is conversational, but she doesn’t look around at him, he notices. Maybe, she doesn’t want to…?
“Yeah,” he replies. And he has to cough, because his voice squeaks for a second. “The last train to Tokyo. Will you meet me at the station?” he jokes.
She doesn’t get it. (It’s a dumb joke anyway.) “If you really want me to…I guess,” she says with a quizzical hum. Now, she does turn around, resting her cute butt on the tub’s rim.
“I’m kidding,” he says, his mouth once again jumping to speak before his brain can stop it. That was a perfect opening, and, like the moron he is, he missed it. So, he backpedals, trying to recapture the moment:
“You gonna miss me?” he asks, mostly teasing because that’s the way they’ve always communicated.
“Yeah,” she says. Her plainness is startling. She glances down at her adorable wiggling toes, almost…shy? “I’ve gotten used to having you around.” She giggles. “I mean, who else am I gonna argue with?” And she shrugs, regarding him with a faint smile.
He doesn’t know how to read that smile. “Well, you’ll visit me at school, right?” he asks, moving to sit beside her on the edge of the tub. They’ve sat like this before – side by side – but it’s never felt quite like this: weighty, uncertain, almost portentous. He tries his best to cover it up, with his familiar winking grin. “I’ll take you to my favorite steak place. They make the best korokke ever!”
She shrugs again, murmuring, “Souzai makes pretty good korokke.”
He laughs. “Yeah, if you want to be chewing all night!” Shaking his head, he leans back on one hand, using the other to make a definitive sweeping gesture. “Rare Heaven’s way better. They know what they’re doing in the city, trust me!” And he grins, pleased to impress her.
She doesn’t react as he hopes.
At first, her smile simply fractures, at the corners of her mouth. Then, it falls completely, and she rises, clenching her fists at her sides, and he wonders what he’s said to offend her, this time.
“Well, I’m sorry that our simple, country korokke isn’t good enough for you, Mister Metropolitan Hotshot! But there’s still some stuff we’ve got that the big city can’t even touch! Like a…a ryokan with real hot springs! And… And, our very own river! And…and TVs to other worlds! And…and…”
You? he thinks. But, of course, he doesn’t say that. He can’t. Not now. Not the day before he has to step onto a train and say goodbye to this strange, pathetic, beautiful little town that’s so full of laughter and heartache for him.
But, he also can’t stop himself from standing up close to her, laying a hand on her shoulder. “Satonaka.”
As if sensing how silly this argument of one-upmanship is, she sighs heavily. “What?”
He smiles. “I’ll miss you, too.”
She blinks, then drops her forehead against his chest. And, even though this is not as sweet as the lingering farewell kiss he was hoping for, he knows he’ll miss her most of all.