Chapter 9


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A Place Next to You

“……san.”

Huh? Someone’s calling me.

“……Hinata…sa…”

I need to wake up. My mind’s already awake, but my eyelids feel too heavy to open.

“Hh!!!”

Finally, I manage to prevail over the sandman. When I open my eyes, a nostalgic face comes to my vision. Startled, I raise my body vigorously.

“Kyah?!”

Surprised by my sudden action, that someone jolts back. Then I’m hit with another surprise to know that it’s actually Tsubaki——I place my hand on my chest and repeatedly take deep breaths. On the surface, I may look fairly calm, but my heart is actually beating like crazy.

“S-sorry. I’ve startled you.”
“………”

She doesn’t say anything. She only stares at me with a serious expression. Umm, could it be that I’ve made her angry? Tsubaki comes close to me and reaches out her hand. Wait, is she gonna hit me—?! or so I thought for an instant, but that’s not the case. She wipes some liquid from my eyes with her finger.

“……Eh?”
“Hinata-san, you’re crying.”

I place my hand on my eyes, and I find out that she’s right. It’s damp around my eyes, my tears have made traces along my cheeks. I didn’t even notice that I was crying.

“I thought that you were having a sad dream, so I decided to wake you up… I’m sorry.”
“Nah, thank you. It wasn’t a sad dream, though… it’s just so nostalgic that I ended up crying, I think.”
“A nostalgic dream?”
“Yup. Maybe I feel homesick.”

It’s true that I’ve been having those nostalgic dreams ever since I moved here. But, I know that it’s not the real reason.

“Do you want to return? To the city?”
“No, that isn’t it.”

…Well, I can’t return to [that place] anyway. Not anymore.

To quell the gloomy mood, I give a smile to the worried girl. Then, I start to stretch my body. Now that I’ve awakened, there is something that tugs my mind.

“By the way, Tsubaki, what are you in my room? ——Huh?”

Right after I say that, I realize.

“Aah?!”

I grab my cell phone from nearby to check the time. It’s now already past the promised time.

“Uwah, aaah…”

What the hell have I done! I’m the worst kind of idiot for breaking my promise, goddammit!! Aaaah geez, [she] had scolded me time and time again in the past, but why do I still mess it up like this?

“Sorry… I’m ready to commit seppuku.”
“I-it’s okay! Please don’t do that!! Please don’t mind about it!! Please calm down!!”

Tsubaki gets flustered as she tries to stop me, which cools me down in the meantime.

“Haah.”
“Um, please, cheer up.”
“Haha, you’re so kind, Tsubaki.”

She’s so kind even when dealing with a no-good human like me. What a good girl, too good even.

“You know, in the past, I had a childhood friend who’s strict with time. Scratch that, she’s strict everything. She’d chew me up if I’m late to a meetup, even if it’s only a minute. So, I’ve always been trying to be on time… but it doesn’t really work out.”

She’d get angry at me every time. She would get in an ill humor, and wouldn’t listen to what I say. But, she’d always forgive me in the end.

“So that’s what it is about.”
“I’ve been meaning to try, you know…”
“I know, it can’t be helped.”

She doesn’t get angry at me for being late, heck, she actually worries about me instead. Her kindness makes me happy, but any more than this will make me feel guilty instead.

“I’m sorry… Next time, I’ll do my best.”
“Fufu, yes.”

Knock, knock. With a good timing, I hear the sound of someone knocking at the door.

“Saki?”

When I call her name, the door opens, revealing Saki behind it.

“Lunch’s ready—said Mom. Tsubaki-san, come join us if you don’t mind♪ she said.”
“Eh? But…”
“Actually, Mom has already prepared the meals. It’ll make her happy if you join us.”
“……In that case, I’ll be taking up on the offer.”
“I’m gonna change my clothes, can both of you go ahead without me?”
“Yes.”
“Hurry it up, okay? I’m hungry~”
“Okay, okay.”

I watch them leave the room. Then, I get changed in a hurry, before Saki gets angry from hunger.

*

“Pardon my intrusion—”

After lunch, I intrude on Tsubaki’s place as planned. This would be my first visit to my neighbor’s house. Uh oh, I’m getting nervous.

“Over here.”
“Ah, thank you.”

From the front door, she leads the way the living room. It’s wide, beautiful, and elegant. I feel so out of place, but I reluctantly sit on the sofa after she told me to.

Tsubaki goes to the kitchen to brew me some tea. Stuck here with nothing to do, I end up looking around restlessly. The room is wide, and because it is furnished only with the essential things, the place feels needlessly wide. It would be rude if I look around too much, so I quite myself down.

“Thank you for waiting.”

She returns, carrying tea on a tray before passing it to me.

“Thanks.”

She’s already made it for me, so I take a sip right away————Yup, it’s delicious. I can’t really tell which tea is delicious or not, but I can feel that this one is especially delicious. It must be a good stuff.

“Ah, please wait here for a bit.”

And so she goes away again somewhere, leaving me alone in this wide space once more. Anyway, I drink the tea again and calm myself.

(So, they’re living in this large house, just by the two of them.)

Since her mother seems to busy working, is Tsubaki always by herself in this room? ——If she is, how lonely it must be for her.

“Hinata-san, here you go.”
“Ah!!”

Tsubaki returns with books in her arms, and she places them on the table. From the cover, they seem to be recipe books for making confectioneries.

“These are the books that I mentioned yesterday. Please feel free to take anything you like.”
“R-really?! Is it really okay?!”
“Yes.”

I flip through one of the books right away, and I discover so many sweets that I’ve never seen before. It’s intriguing how even the ones that I know can actually be made with different ingredients and methods. Reading the steps alone already excites me, so much that I want to go and make some right now.

“…You seem to be having fun.”
“Eh? You can tell?”
“Yes, your eyes are really sparkling, and you are looking very energetic, too.”
“……Uwah— I think I’m getting embarrassed now.”
“When I see Hinata-san having fun like this, it makes me feel happy, as well.”

Her dazzling smile makes her words that much convincing to me. This is making me feel sheepish.

“Do the books take your interest?”
“Yup! Can I borrow this, this, and this?”
“Of course you can.”
“Thank you!!”

I’ll read them slowly after I get home later. I store the books that I’ve decided to borrow into my bag, and that is when I remember.

“Here, eat them together with your mom if you’d like.”

I take out what I had previously kept in my bag—the puddings that I made yesterday. Rather than just normal puddings, I made two varieties, custard pudding and cheese pudding. They’re both mildly sweet, and I have confidence that they’ve turned out good.

“Waah! Thank you very much!!”
“Haha, though I hope they will suit to your tastes.”

I’m getting bashful, so I divert my eyes from her. Then I notice a notebook lying on top of the table. To sate my curiosity, I open it up without much thinking. I can find lots of lovely pictures every time I turn the pages.

“Ah, aah, t-that’s-?!”

The moment she sees the book that I’m looking at, her face suddenly turns beet red and she seizes the book away from me. Perhaps not wanting me to see, she is hugging it close with both her hands.

“D-did you see?”
“Yes, pretty much.”
“Auu.”

I answer her honestly. Although, from the way she gets flustered, I’m sure that those were the pictures that she drew.

“You’re the one who drew the pictures in that notebook, right?”
“Yes, you’re right… I’ve never let anyone see it, so it’s embarrassing…”
“The pictures are really cute, you know?”
“T-that’s not true!”
“I’m not kidding, I think you’re really good at it. The pictures seem warm, and gentle.”

I don’t really know how to say it, so I just tell her my honest impression.

“………”

But her blushing face turns even redder.

“It’ll make me glad if you’ll let me see them again sometime.”
“……Yes.”
“Promise?”
“It’s a promise.”

We both turn abashed as we laugh. After that, we watch the TV, talk about each other—we had fun for a while.

 

“You know what, when I was the food sampling corner of a souvenir shop…”

It’s when I’m talking about my middle school trip, I hear the sound of the front door opening.

“Ah…”

Is Tsubaki’s mother home? I hear someone walking in the corridor and a beautiful lady enters the room not long after.

“Mom… you’re early today.”

The way Tsubaki talks feels distant, and cold somehow. She had been talking so lively until just earlier, but I can’t see even a speck of her liveliness now.

“Yes, I finished my work early… Oh.”
“Hello, I’m sorry for the intrusion.”

After she notices me, I stand up and greets her. Now that I look at the clock, I’ve been here for quite long. It’s about time for me to go home.

“…I’ll be heading home then.”
“It’s all right for you to take your time.”
“No, it’s already late, after all. Thank you for today, Tsubaki. It was fun.”

Tsubaki was making such a merry face earlier, but she looks as if she’s lost a bit of her energy. I wonder if it’s just my imagination. When I am staring at her, she smiles, like she’s trying to gloss it over.

“What’s the matter?”
“No, it’s nothing.”

I grab my bag and head towards the front door, and Tsubaki comes to send me off. I wear my shoes and turns towards her.

“Then, see you.”
“…I’ll accompany you to the front.”
“Nah, my home is just next door, you know.”
“It’s all right. I insist.”
“……Ah, okay.”

It doesn’t seem that she’ll take a no as an answer, so I take up on her offer. We leave the house together, soon we reach my home next door. I glance at her face, which is looking downcast and meek. There’s clearly something wrong with her.

“What’s wrong?”
“Eh?”
“It seems to me that you lost your energy all of a sudden.”
“……That’s, not true.”
“…I see. Sorry, I must be imagining it.”

I’ve failed to ask her further, so I shut my mouth. It might be something that she doesn’t want to tell me, someone she’s just met a few days ago. Also, I think I shouldn’t stick my head in it too much. We stop in front of my house, and I turn to face Tsubaki. She doesn’t look dejected anymore, instead she looks like her usual, gentle self.

“Thank you for going out of your way for me.”
“Yes, see you again.”

The sight of her back as she walks away faintly overlaps with the silhouette of my childhood friend. My heart thumps as a result.

“………hh”

I unconsciously press on my chest, and I wait for my rowdy heart to calm down.

(Am I just running away…?)

I’ve always been weak at thinking deeply about things. I’m an idiot who acts before I think. But the me right now is perhaps just a coward who averts her eyes and flees.

(I can’t stay like this, can I?)

I’ve finally managed to calm down, so I walk to the front door with my shaky feet. After returning home for a moment, there is a place where I want to go to. So I end up stepping outside again.


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