When I was little, my mom took me to a festival; it was the first time I ever heard ohayashi, and it sounded to me like a wicked witch who lived deep in the forest chanting a curse, so I was scared.
The lyrics in unfamiliar old words. The woman’s somewhat hoarse voice. The low rumbling of the taiko drums leading the chan-chan chiki-chiki rhythm made for an awfully cheerful accompaniment.
Summer was hot, and my hand holding my mother’s was sticky with sweat; all I could see as we walked through the crowd were people’s butts, and it was so uncomfortable...
Hey, let’s just go home. I wanna go home and watch anime. I’m hungry and hot and I wanna go home.
Just as I was about to appeal to her with every reason to leave I could think of, my field of vision opened up. The wave of people in front of us had neatly broken at that moment.
Though it was after seven p.m., the sky retained some faint light. On top of that, light fixtures that had sprouted up all around, the light they shone, brightly illuminated the women—
Beautiful women in elegant, violet yukata bound with crimson obi.
Anta kono goro yomeiri shita de wa nai kai na
Yomeiri shita kotsa shita batten
[Otemo-yan / Didn’t you get married recently? / I did, but...]
My eyes opened into the horrible muggy air.
Sunlight streaming through the gap in the curtains announced morning’s arrival. Well, not like that mattered. Grouchily casting my eyes next to the bed, I saw the seasoned fan turning its head with a pitiful clacking sound.
“Himawari, you up?”
Mom’s voice rang out from the first floor. Answering with a listless “I’m uuuup,” I finally stood and stretched my arms hard toward the ceiling. As I sighed out my breath with a groan, another lackluster day was beginning.
White shirt, clunky black skirt with only a few pleats. A thin, limp ribbon. All I had to do to my pitch-black hair that I’d never once dyed or permed was smooth it down, and I was ready to go. A cookie-cutter high-school girl with her entire body prepped to dress code was complete.
When I went into the living room after washing my face, my parents had already finished breakfast. I entered with an untroubled yawn, and my mom, who was completely dressed and presentable, gave me an exasperated look.
“Hey, can I have the a/c on in my room when I sleep, too? It’s so hot every night. I’m gonna end up a boiled octopus.”
“No. You always get an upset stomach.”
“Aw, c’mon. No, I won’t—I’m not a kid anymore!”
“Oh! Wait, dear! Your lunch! Ahh, whatever, just hurry up and eat your food.”
With that obedient reply, I sat down. At our house, breakfast is toast far more often than it is rice. I spread some strawberry jam on a slice of bread and mechanically put it into my mouth. The living room had the a/c on, so it was comfortable. Ahh, it’s like heaven... is what I was thinking when—
“Oh. Hey, Himawari. It’s almost summer vacation, huh?” said my dad, who had been on his way out the door at that second in a white button-down but suddenly turned around for the oh-so-awkward remark. I was so surprised, I froze with my face in the “ah” shape I was about to take my second bite of bread with.
“Y-yeah. Why, all of a sudden?”
“Ahh, ahem... If you have plans with your friends, make sure to let me know. I’ll give you as much allowance as I can.”
“...Oops, look at the time. See you all later!” Dad said as he checked his watch and rushed off to work. In his wake I felt like I had been bewitched by a fox or something. “What was that about?” Did the heat drive him nuts? I was thinking, not really concerned, when my mom spoke up with that irritated look on her face still.
“Your father’s worried because you don’t go out much.”
“He’s worried you would rather spend time with your friends, but hang back because we’re here. I know that’s not true. He was on the soccer team in high school, training hard every day, palling around with his friends—he had a picture-perfect youth... So, he seems to think, ‘Himawari must want that, too! So why doesn’t she go for it? Is she holding herself back?’” Mom gestured, doing an impression of Dad that was nothing like him.
Watching her, I couldn’t help but frown. “Yikes, nope, no way. I’m not cut out for that pleasant school days stuff.”
“...Doesn’t it make you sad to say that about yourself?”
She looked at me with pity. “L-leave me alone,” I said and glossed over the moment by taking a huge chomp out of my bread.
My name is Himawari. That’s “sunflower” in English. Flower of the sun. What a shining name.
But in reality, I’m nowhere near the sun. I’m not great at school, and even less great at sports. In shojo manga, the hottest guy in school always has a crush on a loser like me, and she falls in love, and so on, but of course there’s nothing like that in my life. No, nothing like that.
“Oh, Sumi. Morning.”
“It’s so hot out again today.”
The one who called out to me in her adorable voice while I was waiting for the train at Kumamoto Station was a girl I’d been friends and classmates with since kindergarten, Sumire Itoi—Sumi for short. The chunky black glasses covering her cute features were her trademark.
We always met in the station and went to school together. The 8:10 local train. We set a rule that if one of us was late, the other wouldn’t wait... Well, regardless of how I did, Sumi almost never—or really just never—came late.
When the train arrived, we saw off the wave of people who disembarked before piling on ourselves. As we stood side by side watching the scenery out the windows, big, huge cumulonimbus clouds were floating in a clear blue sky that seemed to go on forever.
The name of our station was called over the speaker. On the way to school, the number of people wearing our same uniform grew. Maybe because of the heat? Everyone seemed a bit sluggish.
When we went through the gate after finally arriving, I noticed a girl getting caught by the guidance counselor.
Mr. Okazaki was notoriously strict. He always wore a white track jacket over a black t-shirt and red sneakers as he stood outside the gate with a frown, and when he found a kid who seemed to be doing anything even slightly against the rules, his eyes would bulge as he called them out—“Hey, you!”—and then he would begin his lecture. He talked so loud that the kid who was singled out would end up getting stared at by everyone in the area, which made for a mortifying start to their day.
“It’s Mugi,” Sumi murmured.
The girl who got nabbed was Mugi Natsui from our class. The reason was clear at a glance. Her soft hair, with a gentle wave in it, had been dyed a bright chestnut brown that was obviously not her natural color.
“But, but, Mr. Okazaki. I reallllly like this color! I don’t want to dye it back! C’mon! Please! Seriously! You see what I mean, right?”
“I’m not asking if you like it or not! You have to dye it black by next week either way!”
Mugi looked totally shocked, like Noooo. Other kids on their way to school snickered at her as they passed. You could search through the whole student body, but I think the only kid who didn’t take it seriously when Mr. Okazaki got mad at them was Mugi. Perky, cute, friendly—if this were a manga or an anime, Mugi would be the protagonist; she was popular with kids from every grade.
But to be honest, I didn’t really like her. I had no idea if her cheerful energy was genuine or calculated, and that freaked me out.
For example, say someone said to round up people who were free after school to go to karaoke. What that really means is, “Round up people who are free after school and fun to be around, and let’s go to karaoke.”
But then. No sooner would Mugi smile and reply, “Sounds fun,” than she’d be going around to every single person in class.
Of course, that would include Sumi and I who don’t stand out at all.
“Hey, Hima, Sumi, wanna go to karaoke after school?”
She’d ask us as if it didn’t even occur to her that we might say no. Behind her, the girls from the cool clique would wince.
The whole series of events would make me feel like my bottom-level caste status was getting rubbed in my face, and I’d end up feeling weird about it. And then I’d always think twisted things like, Is that really just that much of an airhead? Or was she making fun of us beneath that angelic smile?
Despite having a totally summery name like Himawari, summer is my least favorite season. The world is full of bright colors, and I always feel pressured to do something meaningful even if I don’t want to, to make sure to enjoy the time. Since becoming a high-schooler especially, that anxious sense has gotten more intense.
“Hey, Sumi. What’re you up to this summer?”
“Hm? Uhh, going to my Grandma’s house in Hakata and that’s about it. You?”
“Ahhhhgh! Hey! Can we really go on like this?!”
“Huh? W-what? What do you mean, ‘like this’?”
“I mean, just look!”
From the glass connecting hallway we had a clear view of the school grounds. The track and field team was bounding over wooden hurdles, and the baseball team was chanting in deep voices as they jogged. The girls from the dance club were all headed for the gym in loud matching T-shirts, and from the floor above us in the building we were in, the honks of the band kids’ instruments echoed.
“Everyone’s giving it their all. But us? We don’t do anything after school. We don’t go anywhere. All we do chill at one of our houses and watch YouTube. We’re supposed to be in the ‘bloom of youth’! Aren’t we taking it a little too easy?”
“Taking it easy is fine. I like taking it easy.”
“I mean, so do I, but still...”
I glanced outside again. And just at that moment, gleaming chestnut-brown hair came into view. Mugi. She was alone—which didn’t happen very often—and watching the grounds intently.
I found myself staring at her profile while I listened to Sumi rattle on on her own, “So then do you wanna join a club now? I wonder what’d be good. I’m kinda interested in the home ec. club. I like cooking. Or maybe...”
Mugi was holding up an overkill black camera. And at some certain timing, she reacted in a flash to close the shutter. She made a motion as if she were checking the data, then cocked her head and peered through the lens again.
“Oh, it’s Mugi. Taking photos again.”
When Sumi popped her face out from behind me, my heart pounded for a second in spite of myself.
“She’s awesome, so cool. She has 10,000 followers on Insta.”
“What?! That many?!”
“Yeah. Rumor has it she’s going pro after graduating high school.”
Seeing Sumi talk so entranced, I couldn’t honestly reply, She really is awesome.
Mugi was in the same grade as us, but she already had 10,000 fans.
Meanwhile I did and had nothing.
Mugi would probably graduate, leave Kumamoto, and hurry on to Tokyo. People who have a clear idea of what they want to do are so lucky. Will I ever find something? Is there even something for me to find? ...What’ll I do if I never find anything?
“W-well, no worries, Himawari. We’re still second-years. There’s no rush. Oh, look, the festival poster’s up!”
Once we had descended to the entrance, Sumi spoke up brightly to cheer me up.
She was pointing to a big, flashy, red and black poster hung on the wall. It was the yearly poster for the local festival. When I saw the illustration of the kimono-clad woman, I recalled the dream I’d had that morning.
That vivid scene...
Hinokuni Matsuri Aug. 2, 3, 4
Otemo-yan Open Dance Aug. 3, 7:15-8:40 p.m.
Venue: From Suidomachi intersection to Ginza-dori intersection (Densha-dori)
In addition to gold, silver, and bronze, there will be a special judges’ award, so we’re looking forward to seeing you all there. Please come!
“...This is it.”
“Sumi, let’s do this together.”
For a few seconds, the dopey sound of a trombone—I couldn’t call it good even as flattery—rang out.
Then calm, quiet Sumi, whose easy-goingness was a selling point, screamed so loudly that he voice echoed in the school building after hours. “What?!”