Kaede’s palms were slick against the handlebars as she circled her bicycle up to the front of the Miyauchi house. A cloud of dust rose around her, coating her bare legs in a gritty film. She swung herself off the bike, letting its frame drop onto the parched ground.
Her t-shirt clung to her body with sweat, and she pinched at the fabric, wafting air up and under to her stifled skin. Her lips tasted like salt, and she desperately hoped that there was a pitcher of something cool to drink inside. It was the hottest summer she could remember, a kind of dry heat that seemed to seep up any moisture, different to the smoggy heaviness she’d left behind in Tokyo.
She knocked on the Miyauchi’s front door. The year before, when she’d still been at school in the village, she would’ve just let herself in. Now she felt a step detached from that way of life. That’s not what people did in the city. They locked their doors and feared intruders. Letting herself into somebody else’s house felt uncomfortable now.
The door was thrown open by Hikage.
“Why did you knock? I thought you were the mail man.” She said without greeting, her face turning to a disappointed pout. That was right. People around here would get excited when someone announced themselves with such ceremony as to knock on the door.
“It’s country-ish to just come in,” Kaede said, taking the tone of voice she heard other countryside girls in her dorm use, looking down on their old lives and shedding their old manners like embarrassing childhood secrets.
Hikage looked thoughtful at this, taking it in.
“I can’t wait until I can go to the city,” she said after a moment, leading Kaede deeper into the house. “It’s so boring here.”
Kaede didn’t think it was boring. She liked the predictability. She knew how life worked here better than she understood Tokyo, where things moved so fast they made her head spin. Her first few weeks at high school, she’d come back to the dorm after classes and just crash out on her bed, exhausted. Visiting her hometown now felt like a chance to catch her breath.
Hikage took her into the back room looking out onto the porch, which had its doors cast open to let in what little breeze there was. The low table was covered in a few exercise sheets adorned with Hikage’s fancy, loopy handwriting that she’d wasted much too much time practicing during school hours. But far more of the papers on the table were completely blank. Kaede sighed.
“You want me to help you with all of this?” she asked as she plopped down on the floor. Hikage seated herself opposite.
“It’s not that much,” the younger girl said in a bare-faced lie. “And you’re so good at Japanese.”
When they had been at school together, Kaede had indeed been the best at Japanese of all of them, largely by virtue of being the oldest rather than any innate talent.
“You know I have tons of my own summer homework, right?” she said, as she glanced down at the first exercise sheet immediately in front of her. She thought guiltily of the untouched pile on the desk in her bedroom at her grandma’s place.
“Just help me a bit,” she said, and then, “Please?” she added for good measure. Kaede rolled her eyes.
“Fine,” she acquiesced. She was here now, after all. “Bring me a cold drink, though, before we start. I’m about to die of thirst.”
Hikage clapped her hands together, clearly pleased to have got her way.
“Sure thing, senpai,” she said, as if she ever called her that, preferring “Candy Store” most of the time.
She skipped off to the kitchen, humming to herself. Kaede picking up a mechanical pencil and clicked the lead a little longer. It had been a long time since she’d read most of the books and poems the papers were asking about, yet she reckoned even her half-memories might still beat out the chances of Hikage having read any at all.
There were footsteps, causing Kaede to look up. She almost held her hands out for her glass of whatever Hikage was bringing, but was surprised when she saw the person in the doorway was much taller than Hikage. Her heart stumbled when she recognized who it was. She hadn’t seen Kazuho in almost a year, and the last time she had, it had been weird.
Many years back, she’d been the older sister of Hikage and that was it. They’d been at school together for a bit but the four year age gap had Kaede relegated as one of the little kids while Kazuho was one of the older ones, a bit removed from the jokes and games the rest of them played. Kazuho had been an uninteresting figure, nearly an adult in her eyes, not one for pranks or teasing the teacher. She passed out of the village school and disappeared to Tokyo and Kaede thought little of it.
And then, in the summer Kaede turned 14, she came to the Miyauchi house at Hikage’s bequest to come play with baby Renge (and also help Hikage apply make-up she’d bought from the convenience store unbeknown to her parents). Kazuho had been back from college for the summer. Kaede had passed by her on her way to the bathroom. The older girl was loafing in front of the TV, her baggy t-shirt ridden up because of her slouched postured, and it revealed just the smallest sliver of the skin of her hip.
It wasn’t like anything about her had changed. She was the same as ever. But yet something caught in Kaede’s throat that made her feel momentarily suffocated. Her heart drummed in her chest so hard all of a sudden, spreading prickling heat all the way across her chest, up her neck and finding home in her cheeks.
Kaede must have made a noise because Kazuho had glanced over to see her watching her.
“Hi,” she greeted, unperturbed. If she thought it was weird that her younger sister’s friend was staring at her watching TV, she didn’t show it. “Would you like one?” She held up a packet of dried apricots.
Kaede shook her head. She felt like she might throw up a little. It felt like there were ants under her skin. She hated it.
“I’m good. I’m just helping Hikage with Renge.” she said, although Kazuho hadn’t asked. She felt awkward in a way she never remembered feeling before, like she couldn’t meet Kazuho’s eye or remember what normal human conversation should be like.
“Ah, I see,” Kazuho said, “Your hair’s different. It’s nice.”
Kaede felt a sensation in her gut so close between pleasure and pain that she didn’t know if she wanted to laugh or scream. She’d dyed her hair earlier in the year, much to her grandma’s dismay. Most people had told her it made her look like she was a delinquent, that she was too young to be dyeing it, and especially dyeing in blonde, so far from her natural colour.
She liked it though, and she’d thought that was enough reason to do it. But now it felt like the most important thing in the world that Kazuho had complimented her, had said it was nice.
“Thanks,” was all she managed to get out, her voice an octave higher than usual. Kazuho had smiled and turned back to the TV. And that was it, conversation over. Such a small, completely insignificant blip, a weird rush of sensations that had left her feeling antsy for weeks.
She’d had dreams different to any she’d had before. Detached scenes where Kazuho would be looking at her, smiling at her, and she would feel like the centre of the world. Or she’d walk up behind her and touch the back of her neck, stroke the soft skin there just to know what it felt like, and Kazuho wouldn’t pull away or be shocked or confused.
It was a strange summer.
But that was a year ago and it had been a long time since she’d dreamt anything like that, had thought anything like that. She figured she must have just had some kind of weird mental thing that had resolved itself, no worries. It wasn’t like she was someone who got caught up in stuff anyway.
Now she was one year older. She was a high schooler, practically an adult. She lived in Tokyo. Her world was so much bigger than it had been last summer.
And yet Kazuho stood in the doorway, Renge slung on her hip, and Kaede felt a white heat run to the pit of her belly, tingling into her legs. She forced herself to breath.
“Oh, I didn’t realize you were here, Kaede-kun,” Kazuho said, “Are you helping Hikage with her homework?”
“Yeah,” Kaede said, although her mouth was as dry as sandpaper.
“Do you mind if I take Renge out onto the porch? We’ll be quiet. It’s just so hot inside today,” she said.
“Hot, hot!” Renge repeated after her older sister.
“Yeah, of course,” Kaede said, turning back to the Japanese homework, trying to appear nonchalant and busy and not like she was seconds from some sort of internal combustion.
“Nee-chaaan,” Hikage whined, appearing with a pitcher of barley tea topped with clinking ice cubes, “Don’t bring Renge-chan in here when I’m trying to study. She’s always trying to get at my stuff,” Hikage complained, placing the pitcher and glasses in the middle of the table where some sloshed over the side and wet the corner of one of the pages.
“No, no, I’ll keep an eye on her. She’ll be good,” Kazuho said from where she had taken a seat on the porch, the tinkling of a windchime almost directly above her head. She had an arm around Renge’s tummy, trying to keep her close to her where she was already trying to wriggle away and towards the table covered in interested objects to play with.
“Ugh,” Hikage said in dramatic exasperation. “I’m trying to study,” She said once more, something not much supported by how few in number the sheets with writing on were.
“It’ll be fine,” Kaede volunteered. “Let’s just start.”
Hikage made a noise of assent after another dramatic sigh. Kaede poured herself a glass of icy barley tea, her hands betraying her by shaking as she did so. If she could just not look at Kazuho, could lose herself in analysing authors’ intentions and what different sayings meant, then she could forget Kazuho was there entirely and not worry about what it all meant until she was in the safety of her bedroom.
“Help me with this one first,” Hikage said, shoving an exercise sheet her way. Kaede tried to focus and make meaning of the words in front of her, guzzling down barley tea in the desperate hope of appearing normal.
An hour later and “helping” had turned into Kaede giving answers and Hikage writing them down. She hummed merrily to herself as she did so, finishing her characters with cheerful flourishes and exacting full stops. They were making some progress through the mass of homework.
Hikage stood up after finishing an answer, stretching out her shoulders.
“Bathroom,” she said by way of explanation. “You can carry on while I’m gone, if you’d like,” she added.
“I’ll wait for you,” Kaede returned. No way she was going to end up writing the answers as well.
Hikage scurried off, a spring in her step, her plan to rope someone else into doing her summer homework for her evidently a success.
The pitcher of barley tea was almost empty. Kaede watched droplets run a slow progress down the outside of the glass. Although there hadn’t been any noise from the porch for half an hour or more, she didn’t want to risk glancing over and starting up that odd, awful feeling in its full intensity again. The background hum of it made her feel hyperaware, like she was play-acting at being herself, and that was bad enough.
But at the same time, she wanted to look. She wanted to see Kazuho. An almost delicious curl was swirling in her stomach at the thought. She was only here for the summer. In fact, she was only at the Miyauchi’s for today. Then she would go back to Tokyo and Kazuho would go back to college and it would be a full year before there was even another possibility of seeing her again.
She risked looking.
Renge was spread like a starfish on her back, her mouth slightly open in an O, the summer heat having won over her desire to play. And Kazuho …
Kazuho was leaning against a beam, her eyes closed, her face totally relaxed. Her hair was coming undone from its ponytail, dark strands laying loose on her neck. Her lips were slightly parted as she breathed slow in sleep. Kaede found her eyes drawn to her lips. The swirling in her stomach transformed into a buzzing kind of warmth that fell even lower, sparking a pleasant, anticipatory tingle between her legs.
She wanted to kiss her, she realized, all at once, her mind flooded with the thought as soon as it occurred to her. She wanted to know what it felt like to kiss Kazuho. Her lips looked so soft, so perfect. She wanted to touch her, to be touched by her. She wanted Kazuho to look at her like she was the only person in the world. She wanted Kazuho to hold her like something precious, to touch her and kiss her like she wanted her.
Her heart hammered hard enough that she didn’t hear Hikage’s return until a hand was waved in front of her face.
“Hellooo?” The younger girl said, “Don’t watch those two slackers. We’ve still got work to do.”
Kaede snapped her gaze away from Kazuho, immediately embarrassed like she had been caught doing something bad. Maybe it was bad to have thoughts like that. She must be going crazy. She tried to still the trembling that ran through her as she picked up the mechanical pencil once more.
“What’s the answer to number 12?” Hikage asked.
The sun was setting as Kaede made her way back to her grandma’s house. She pedalled slowly, feeling suddenly like she had no energy at all, even though she’d just been sitting around all afternoon.
She didn’t know what she was going to do. Her head felt jumbled. Her body felt like she was sick, but with a feeling that she didn’t quite hate, not like any sickness she’d ever had before.
She shook her head, tried to remove the thoughts, reminded herself that it would be another year before she likely would see Kazuho again. That was a whole year to get her head on straight, another year in the city to put her on the right path. By the time she came back next summer, she would have had plenty of time to get control of her pounding heart and her traitorous body, and everything would once more return to the way it was supposed to be.