Chapter 17 – ‘This ,’

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                I’m hungry. That thought looped in Rea’s mind over and over, like a broken record. So much so that Lilly inadvertently caught it. They locked eyes from across the table. Lilly knew Rea wanted to leave soon.

                I thought you didn’t want to be in my head, Lillychi! She heard Rea think.

                “Like I can help it!” Lilly snapped back. It was louder than she had wanted. The others shot a look at her. She wanted to shrink away.

                Another day, another club meeting, which meant Lilly knew that Rea was sitting bored while the others talked about a random book off the shelf. Rea hardly cared to learn what title of the novel was. If it was any consolation, she brought a horror action manga. She was on the part where the main character had to protect his best friend from a serpent-like monster.

                Rea’s stomach grumbled, loud enough to be audible, but luckily the others were too busy to hear. She rested on the table, one hand gripped on her stomach and her manga half-open in the other. I’m really hungry. Burgers, cupcakes, ramen, and pie floated in her imagination, but none of them were quite what she desired. She wanted to scream out to the world, to let the universe know – down to its very fiber – the extent of her famishment. Her stomach grumbled again. She would give it another five minutes before she made a suggestion to eat. It’s the best she could manage.

                Those thoughts radiated from Rea so strongly Lilly thought she was getting hungry too.

                Lilly continued reading the book Megumi had lent her. After everything that happened that last Friday, she had been hopeful for a peaceful, uneventful week. So far, so good. To take her mind off those recent events, she delved deeper into the book.

                Megumi and Ayase conversed about one particular scene, although Ayase was doing most of the talking. Lilly flipped through the pages of her copy to find the part they were discussing. The protagonist is going into a police station… He runs into a colleague… Okay, okay… He’s offered… um…

                “Weird,” Lilly said.

                Megumi looked to Lilly. Either she had a feeling Lilly was trying to get her attention, or she just wanted an out from Ayase’s conversational grasp.

                “This page here, is it supposed to be missing a word?”

                Lilly handed Megumi the book, her finger on the page. Megumi scanned it over. She was right. A space where a word should be was simply blank. In fact, there were several of these blanks of the same page, all of the same length. Like it didn’t print that one word. Megumi came to that conclusion.

                “Misprint?” she said softly.

                “But you’ve read it before, obviously. Do you remember what was here?”

                “Yeah… I- It was… it was…” Megumi lightly grazed her forehead with her finger. How anyone had gone this long without noticing her intrinsic cuteness was beyond Lilly’s guess. And as quick as lightning, her eyes widen, if only a little.

                “I don’t remember.”

                That’s weird, Lilly thought. It isn’t improbable that Megumi just simply forgot what the word was, but she does a meticulous eye for detail when it comes to horror novels. She wouldn’t forget something like that so easily.

                “It’s probably just coincidence then,” Lilly said.

                Now curious herself, Megumi turned to the page Lilly was referring to in her own copy, skillfully getting in one try. Lilly was silently impressed. Megumi ran her finger down the page, following the sentences.

                “It’s not here either,” Megumi said. Lilly didn’t need her word for it, since she could see for herself. There were several blanks throughout the page, and they were placed in the same spots as in Lilly’s copy. And from the context between what the characters were talking about, it seemed to be only one word was victim to vanishing.

                “I guess it really is a misprint,” Lilly said.

                Shrugging it off, they both sat back in their chairs, the minuscule excitement that detour brought having ran its course. Ayase turned a page. Hearing a sound of a pencil writing on paper, Lilly turned to Rea.

                “What are you doing?”

                “I’m bored, so I started doodling here,” Rea said as she did so, now holding a pencil and drawing in a notebook. Her head still hasn’t left the table. When Lilly got a better look at her, she realized it was Megumi’s pencil and notebook.

                “Hey! Are you sure you’re allowed to do that?” Lilly scolded, “Those are Megumi’s things!”

                “It’s fine, it’s fine,” Rea said, waving Lilly away with one hand. Lilly checked with Megumi for confirmation. She gave a meek nod before going back to her book, fixing her glasses with a free hand. The expression was hard to read, but Lilly guessed that meant she really was okay with it.

                “At least draw something decent,” Lilly said, trying find something to chastise Rea over. “What is that?”

                “A giant monster, lookie here, a skeleton that can shoot fire!” Rea swiped her final pencil mark across the paper and then showed it to Lilly. It was a rudimentary sketch, with the amateurish scribbles of an outline of a skeleton, and some other lines that Lilly couldn’t make out.

                “What are these supposed to be?” she asked, tracing her finger over some of the lines. The graphite smeared on both the paper and her finger.

                “Fire, it’s coming out of its body!”

                What an imagination.

                “Ah! I’m starved!” Rea exclaimed, suddenly changing the subject on a dime. Anyone less experienced with Rea would have gotten whiplash. “Let’s go get some snacks now!” Rea straightened her back, stretching. She almost hit Lilly right in the face, who instead dodged it skillfully.

                Ayase clapped once. “I agree, I think now would be a good time to call it in. Why don’t we all go somewhere?” She put down her book on the table. She looked to Megumi, who appeared uneasy.

                “It’s not every day we get to do something like this, don’t you think?”

                Megumi drooped her head.

                Rea absentmindedly pointed to Ayase. “Yeah what she said c’mon!” She packed her school bag and was out the door before she finished her sentence.

                Ah. Lilly stretched. I could go for a snack.

                Leaving the school, the group took a stroll through the neighborhood, passing by convenience stores and smaller shops before settling on a French-style corner bakery in a shopping district. It was an appealing, pristinely designed establishment. The theme was ‘old and wooden’. Jazz manouche played in speakers in the corners of the ceiling.

                “Django Reinhardt,” Rea pointed out.

                A voiced peeped out from behind the counter and register, into the kitchen. It sounded female. “Welcome! Sorry about the case, we’re a bit short of stock right now, but I’m working on it!”

                Inspecting the display case, Lilly saw that it was indeed empty. Not even any labels to inform future customers what should be there, should they decide to come back at another time. Seeing menus by the register, she grabbed a few for the others.

                Ayase bought an apple-flavored crêpe, Megumi declined to eat, and Lilly bought a blueberry muffin. And after much, much deliberation, Rea got two of the same thing. Lilly could tell it wasn’t even close to her third choice.

                “If you wanted to, we could have gotten ramen instead, if you’re that souper hungry,” Lilly said, completely serious.

                Rea punched Lilly in the arm. “That was so bad I could see your pun.” She downed her first muffin whole in one ferocious bite, like a chain-chomp who saw red.

                “You can ask her you know,” Lilly said, referring to the baker, “If they have what you want in the back.”

                “But that’s the thing,” Rea said, “I can’t remember. It’s on the tip of my tongue, shit!”

                Watch your language, Rea!

                Thinking it over, Rea decided to give it try. She scurried over to the counter to get the baker’s attention. “Miss! Hey! Hey!”

                Rea what are you thinking?!

                The baker came out from the back. She was young, maybe late twenties. Her cheeks were smeared with dough. Definitely the budding, passionate, entrepreneurial type. “Yes?” She smiled when she saw it’s just a kid.

                “Do you have anything else back there? Like what was supposed to be on display?” Rea pointed to the empty window case.

                She scratched her head. “Actually, I’m coming up with some new recipes to showcase. I’m trying to recall what we used to have here. We’re newly opened you see, ha ha.”

                Is that an excuse for forgetting? Lilly assumed. How do you not know?

                “I do see,” was all Rea said.

                Ayase finished taking a picture with her crêpe, and turned to the rest. “Let’s go find a good place to eat!” The others nodded in unison.

                The bakery had some tables and chairs in front of the store, so it was a good a place as any. They munched along contently. Ayase offered Megumi a bite of her snack, but she refused. Megumi was like a wary kitten, challenging anyone who tried to lower her defenses.

                “Here Megumi, want a piece of mine?” Rea gave it a go.

                Her fingers twitched ever so slightly, but Rea noticed. Megumi wanted a piece of Rea’s muffin. She wanted to eat some. Taking off a sizable portion, Rea fed Megumi herself. Rea snorted haughtily. She counted that as a one up on Ayase, not that Ayase cared.

                “Anyways,” Ayase said, moving the conversation along, “Miss Akiyama, I’ve always wanted to say, you really do have lovely hair. I’m jealous of the color.”

                Lilly felt everyone’s eyes lay on her. She coyly brushed her hair and pushed a lock behind her left ear. “Th-This? It’s nothing.”

                “That’s not true. Have you ever thought of cutting it short? I think it’d suit you.” Ayase played up an example by running her own hair through her fingers.

                “No way!” Lilly waved, rejecting the very idea. My hair already makes me stand out, cutting it would only attract more attention. “I like it long, it’s better if I keep it this way.”

                “Aww, that’s too bad.”

                It was minute, but Lilly thought she saw Megumi nodding in agreement. Are you saying I look better with my hair long, or the point about standing out?

                Rea flicked her ponytail. “Yeah, we have our own long-hair club! Just the two of us!” She put an arm around Lilly and sneered.

                “Ugh, whatever,” was the most Lilly could get out.

                “If you say so,” Ayase said. She sat back in her chair, and bit into her crêpe. The others did the same for their own food, Rea also feeding Megumi more of her muffin.

                Conversation died down for a minute before Ayase brought it back up again.

                “Can anyone say ‘toy boat, toy boat’, five times fast?”

                “Toy boat?” Lilly repeated.

                “I can say the plum and peaches one!” Rea proceeded to fumble over her words.

                “Toy boat, toy boit- peh! Toy boy, toit boy- ack!” Lilly accidentally spat out a piece of muffin. Rea almost choked in laughing too hard.

                “Toy boat, toy boat, toy boat, toy boat, toy boat…” Megumi said, once again too quiet for anyone to hear. They all laughed at the absurdity of their game. After a while, their shadows began to lengthen, informing them that it would be dark soon.                                        

                “Will yah look at that!” Rea shouted, “The S.O.O.L. snack time has now concluded!”

                “Now now,” Ayase said, trying to hide her annoyance, “We really don’t need to keep calling ourselves that.” Rea chortled away anyways. Lilly thought it was kind of funny.

                As they finished up their food, they threw away any loose paper and wrappings. When they were all done cleaning up, the girls went their separate ways. Megumi and Ayase went down one way, Lilly and Rea the other.

                “Ah,” Rea said, patting her stomach, “That was good…” Her tone at the end suggested uncertainty.

                “You didn’t like it?” Lilly asked.

                “I did, but,” Rea placed her arms behind her head, “It didn’t quite hit that spot.”

                “Really, what did you want then?”

                Rea closed her eyes to focus, and Lilly pulled her towards her to avoid running into a light post. “Be careful, geez.”

                “Hehe, sorry.” Rea knocked her head and stuck out her tongue.

                “Don’t try to act cute.”

                Rea gave a robotic laugh in response. “Ha. Ha. Ha-ha.”

                “Come on, try to remember,” Lilly continued, restating her point, “Maybe we’ll get it tomorrow.”

                “Yeah, maybe tomorrow I’ll remember.”

                Rea stroked her ponytail, and adjusted her glasses.

                “Either way, you still owe me for ditching me last week!” Her tone was light, and she softly pushed Lilly to accentuate her teasing.

                “Eh? I didn’t ditch, I got held up with club stuff,” Lilly tried to keep out as many details from that day as much as possible.

                “How do you get held up with talking about books? Or did you have too much fun looking into her eyes?”

                “I wouldn’t call that fun.” A part of Lilly wanted to tell Rea about Ayase, and how much she really knew what was going on between herself and Rea. Another part of her just wanted this to all go away. Before she knew it, they were already at Rea’s place.

                “See you tomorrow,” Lilly said.

                “Buh-bye.”

                As Lilly returned home, the first thing she did upon arriving was wander into her kitchen. She opened the pantry. Scanning over the different snacks it offered, she discarded most of them without a second thought, mumbling along the way.

                “Hm? Lilly, what are you doing? Are you just getting home?” Her father entered into kitchen after her. He was halfway through the process of getting out of his jacket. You’re home early, Lilly noticed.

                “I’m just looking for some snacks,” Lilly answered distractedly, putting away a box of cookies. Crap, now I’m hungry all of sudden again. This isn’t good.

                “Don’t we have anything else?”

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