Implication 4: Promise

 I can sense freedom passing through my fingertips. I grip the podium, and it feels like day one all over again. I started with a short speech before, tried to sound eloquent and inspiring because I needed that scholarship to keep going. The teachers initially all loved me, but no sooner did they grow to hate me. I’m sure the principal is nervous about what I’m about to say. She’s wiping her sweat that’s dripping down my forehead with her silk handkerchief. Talk about using silk the wrong way.
I scoff, and off I announce, “Most kids here don’t know what they want. They have too much that they don’t need to think. I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about.” I take a pause and lick my lips. “What I’ve always wanted to say is that you should cherish what you have already and continue to work hard to keep what you have. You never know when you’ll lose everything.”

Yes, you never really know when you’ll lose everything. I know it from experience. Living a life with maids and chauffeurs, I was forced to deal with cooking for Hisashi, taking on extra jobs and looking after my mother. After my father was imprisoned for stealing money from the company, my mom had grown weak mentally and physically. She frequently had headaches and stomach pains. She’d be gazing out the window most of the time and sighing. She was probably dreaming what had been, and I don’t blame her for thinking that way. It’s just too much for her to lose all at once, particularly when she came from an affluent family. She married my father out of love and out of disobedience from her family. If she had listened to her parents, she would still be living the high life. Actually, she had always been striving to return to that old lifestyle of hers. I actually think that’s why my father manipulated his employers’ money. He wanted to give us all that he could offer, and this was the simplest way to satisfy all. We were happy then; we truly were. 

I take a deep breath now and continue to explain, “I’m sure you all know who my father was. You probably know him as a swindler for stealing from his company. And I agree that what he did was wrong yet what he intended to do was right. He wanted our family to be better, and so he took a shortcut. From him, I’ve learned that we can’t cut corners. We have to work to achieve our potential. I honestly don’t see that happening for the majority here, but I hope my words have had some impact on you. That is all. Good-bye and may we never see each other again.”

I throw away my cloak and hop off the stage. The principal is yelling at me and probably cursing me in her mind. Honestly, I don’t care. They can mail my awards to my house. I’m finally free. I’m done with this stupid school filled with fakeness. I’m off to do better things in life. I hope university will be more interesting. I’ll take the courses I like and study what I want. 

I’m walking down the hall of the theatre and pushing past its golden doors. The sun shines right in my face, almost blinding my eyes. It feels good to have light attacking my sight. I think to myself that this is good. I think I’d like a drink. Maybe a beer to clear my throat. Nah, I think I’ll stay sober for now and go with some coffee.

Bring an extra kick to the morning. The question is where? This question ultimately leads me to venture around Tokyo, hop around stations and walk till I’m too exhausted. Ironically, I go past the sub shop, where I first met that girl. I guess I should stop calling her that. Fan Girl . . .

Out of curiosity, I enter the small restaurant. My stomach growls just in time, so I guess I should stay here. I’m greeted by a tall, almost too thin waitress. She looks like she hopped off of the runway; I’m sure she’s aspiring to be there. Why else would she be here?

“What would you like to order, sir?” she asks me in a polite, quiet tone.

“I think . . . why don’t you pick for me?” I suddenly suggest. “Just make it within 2000 yen.”

I feel like treating myself today. I deserve a reward right? I mean, usually this is around three or four times greater than what I’d spend for a meal. Still, it’s a special day today. I finally graduated. The girl, though, doesn’t take my surprise very well. She looks almost petrified, and I’m completely confused. Are choices too hard to make? My frown forces her to rush to the kitchen without a word. I wait for her return because I’m feeling nice. Usually, I would have stood up and left because of her indecisiveness. Today, I’m feeling a bit generous, so generous that I wait for at least ten minutes.

Then, she dashes back to my table, wondering, “How about a café bombón and a po’boy?”

“Umm . . . sure whatever those are,” I mumble under my breath. 

I am really too hungry to even think about what I'll eat. Anything served to me at this point would have been delicious. Several minutes later, I see the plate of food along with my drink. Without thinking much, I take a huge bite into my sub. I don’t expect crunches and the taste of fried seafood filling my throat. There’s a bit of gravy mixed into this messy delight, and the more I eat, the thirstier I become. I take a gulp of the drink served and a burst of coffee flames down my throat. This mix of food is odd, but I don’t dislike it. It’s a bit of a surprise. I really didn’t expect to be thoroughly awakened. 

As I am about to finish my meal, the waitress hands me pudding bought from the convenience store. “This is a treat from someone,” the lady explains before I can even question her. 

“Someone?” I raise an eyebrow, wondering. “May I know who that person is?” The woman looks back towards the kitchen with an uneasy gaze. Immediately, I reveal a smirk and pretend to excuse myself to the washroom. Just as I’m making my turn towards my supposed location, I take a detour to the kitchen. 
Bursting open the door, I announce, “I’d like to know who wanted to give me a treat.”

The old chef with a trimmed moustache answers, “It is simply a treat from us.”

I skim the area and see an older woman. There’s no other person that could have wanted to give me this, except I know that this person is hiding. I’m pretty sure that it’s a girl too. So I holler loudly, “I know that you are hiding whoever you are. Don’t do this sort of cowardly act. If you want to give me something, then give it to me in person! I’m not going to accept gifts from a stranger who I’ve never seen. Sorry.”

Then, I head out and pay for the bill. The waitress, who was in charge of my table, has a disheartened stare. I’m not sure who she pities, but eventually, she opens her mouth to say, “Can you . . . come back a year later?”

“What do you mean by that?” I directly frown at her.

“The person, who gave you the present, isn’t ready to face you yet,” she carries on explaining. 

I cock my head to the side, grumbling, “What’s the difference between giving it to me now and later?”

The waitress leans in towards me and whispers, “I’m . . . not supposed to say this, but she’s pretty self-conscious, so she wants to—“

“I get it,” I interrupt her before she finishes.

It has been a while since I’ve ever felt shy and weak in front of others. I had forgotten what it was like to be the outcast and to constantly worry about what others thought of me. Essentially, I didn’t know how to be myself. I wasn’t even sure who I was at that point. I only knew that every day, I’d be called names like the liar’s son, the cheapskate, and the corrupted. People would laugh at me for no reason. Whenever I saw people whispering or chattering, I’d wonder if they were talking about me. From time to time, I’d wonder what it was like to die. Would I be happier on the other side? Then . . . someone reached out to me: Ayane. 

It was from her that I learned what I was good at, what I needed to improve on, and who I was. Without her, there wouldn’t be me today. I’ve never thanked her because it seems so awkward to be thanking someone so close to you. I keep saying to myself that one day, I’ll let her know how I feel. I’m just waiting for the right moment, but somehow, I feel like that girl who gave me the pudding. I’m not ready yet. I don’t feel good enough to match with Ayane yet, and so a few years go by. We’re graduating soon. Luckily, she’ll be attending an affiliated university of where I’m going, so she’ll be on campus with me. She’ll be in a different faculty, but at least there’s a chance of us seeing each other often. 

“Sir, your change . . .” the waitress reminds me to snap out of my thoughts.

“Right.” I retrieve it from the plastic tray, but before I do, I walk over to my table, which hasn’t been cleaned yet. I grasp the pudding in my hand along with its small plastic spoon. “Tell her . . . that I’ll take this for now, and that next time we meet a year later, don’t get me pudding. I actually don’t like sweets. Fries or takoyaki would be nice.”

“Okay!” The waitress gives me a brightened smile. “I’ll definitely tell her that! Is there anything else?”

Walking towards the counter, I note, “Mm . . . let me think. I guess . . . she has to be confident to be herself.”

“Will do! I’ll make sure that happens!” 

She does a sailor wave at me, and I mimic her. Then, I say goodbye to her and leave the restaurant. There’s the unopened pudding in my hand. I toss it up and down, catching it every time. I’m thinking that Hisashi will be happy to see me bring this home, yet I’m not exactly sure if I want to give this to him. So, this is what I settle on doing: I’ll just have a spoonful and he can have everything else. After arriving home, I suggest this plan to him. He has gotten home from elementary school and is eager to gobble up any snacks if possible. Hisashi pouts his lips trying to guilt trip me to hand him all the pudding. 

“No, I’m getting the first bite,” I tell him once I plop myself down my usual seat in the kitchen.

“But, Oniisan, you don’t even like to sweets!”

Hisashi is charging at me with his arms stretched out to steal the prize. Since I know my brother’s every move, I manage to stop him with my palm which sticks to his forehead. “Don’t get greedy now,” I warn him. “You can’t be selfish.”

“F-f-fine,” he lets out a tiny sigh.

Once he agrees, I rip open the lid of the pudding. Then, I stick the small spoon into the center. I scoop just enough and quickly slip it into my mouth. The pudding is a bit warm because I’ve been holding onto it, but on my tongue, it’s still relatively cold. It is particularly slimy, and after it melts in my mouth within seconds, I taste that wad of sugar. God, it’s sweet.

“Ugh,” I groan and stick out my tongue.

“See?” Hisashi mumbles. “Don’t eat it if you don’t like it.”

“Hey!” I flick his forehead. “Is that how you address your own brother?”

Hisashi with a wimpy voice murmurs, “N-n-n-no.”

Realizing that I have been too stern, I mess his hair up and tell him, “Make sure you finish everything and clean up before Okaasan comes home. We don’t want her saying that you’ll get cavities.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he agrees. As I stand up and head to my room, Hisashi suddenly asks, “Do you have to leave . . . for school?”

I walk back to the little kid and bend down to his height. Patting his head, I utter, “Yes, I do. That way, I can become smarter and earn more money in the future, so we can get our old house back. I’ll be moving out to a smaller place by myself, but it’ll be fine. I’ve saved enough money, and I’m on scholarship. Just promise me that you’ll take care of Okaasan, okay?” 

I know this little boy is trying his best to fight tears because his eyes are almost popping out and refusing to blink. I know it’s tough to do this, but it’s for the better. It would take too long to commute every day to school, and the selfish part of me wants my own life. I can’t always be protecting Hisashi. He has to grow up by himself too.

“Oh . . .” I hear him squirm.

Showing my pinky finger, I promise him, “I’ll try to visit as much as I can, and even if I’m not here, know that you’re always my little brother. Now, I’m entrusting you with protecting the family, okay? You can do that?”

He bobs his head up and down and up and down. Then, he hooks his pinky with mine, and shouts, “Yes! Of course I can! I am Nogiri Hisashi. I can do anything!”

I end up laughing at his silliness. Kids . . . they’re funny creatures.

---

None of my family is here on my graduation day. Everyone is too busy working to take time off, and I understand that completely. I kind of think it’s pointless how we’re all sitting here waiting to walk across that stage. No one will remember us anyways. I’m unlucky too that my last name is further down the list. I won’t be able to leave earlier, and just as I have that thought of skipping, it is time for Azuma to make his speech.

He seems overly confident like he knows something that we don’t. I’m pretty sure he is going to do something crazy. He doesn’t need to obey anyone from this school anymore. No one can touch him at all today. Indeed, there he goes, proclaiming:

“Most kids here don’t know what they want. They have too much that they don’t need to think. I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about. What I’ve always wanted to say is that you should cherish what you have already and continue to work hard to keep what you have. You never know when you’ll lose everything.”

People sitting around me are all gasping or opening their jaws. There’s so much rustling and whispering going on. Did you hear what he said? Can you believe it? Oh my god, did he really mean that? He’s so full of himself! He’s such a jerk!

They’re all talking about him or at least thinking about him in that way. I don’t, though. I kind of admire how blunt he is. I kind of wish I could be like him. I wish I could tell my classmates exactly what I thought about them because I agree completely with what he has said. It’s true. Our school is meant for the elite, and the kids here were born with silver spoons jammed in their mouths. Their futures are either set or don’t need to be. They don’t know what it’s like to be wondering how much cash to use today. They don’t know what it’s like to ever lose.

Then, Azuma continues to add: 

“I’m sure you all know who my father was. You probably know him as a swindler for stealing from his company. And I agree that what he did was wrong yet what he intended to do was right. He wanted our family to be better, and so he took a shortcut. From him, I’ve learned that we can’t cut corners. We have to work to achieve our potential. I honestly don’t see that happening for the majority here, but I hope my words have had some impact on you. That is all. Good-bye and may we never see each other again.”

Swindler? I never knew . . . wait, Nogiri. That name sounded really familiar for a reason. He was the son of Nogiri Atsushi scandal. This was all over the news around five or six years ago. Nogiri Atsushi was one of the seniors of an investment banking company. He basically managed to use inside information to trade illegally and also stole from the company’s funds. Everyone criticized him and berated their family. I still remember what my mom had to say about them: “See? It’s with people like them that the world is worse off. People with high salaries doing illegal stuff. I’m sure there are others, but that man was just unlucky that he got caught.”

I can kind of understand why people call Azuma the Akuma. He bears the family shame with his last name. Maybe, that’s why he rebels so much. He wants people to know that he’s different, that you can’t judge someone based on his or her parents. Azuma isn’t born a devil. If he were truly evil, then why is he telling us such valuable advice? Why isn’t he lying and pretending?

Now, Azuma jumps off the podium, landing loudly onto the wooden floor. He makes a grand exit and pushes his way through the doors. The principal is frantically trying to explain what happened, but no one really pays attention to her. At least, I’m not. In fact, I sort of want to get up from my seat and follow Azuma. I want to tell him that I really liked his speech. I also want to say that I hope . . . he and I can meet one day. I still haven’t thanked him for that time, and I still haven’t started to change myself. I’m not really sure where to start. My hair? I guess I’ll grow it out. I guess I’ll start flipping through fashion magazines to know what to wear. I can’t always be in jeans, hoodies or a t-shirt. I’m already too old for that. What about makeup? 

I’m probably getting too carried away because I don’t even notice that the people ahead of me have already made their way to the stage until someone taps me from behind. As I trail behind and finally receive my graduation certificate, I walk down to my seat again. Just before I sit down, I decide to stand up again. I walk the same way that Azuma has. I see the cloak that he has left behind. Uncannily, I pick it up and walk out while unzipping my cloak. It’s done and over with; I’m free.

And . . . I wonder what I should do? What should I do with this cloak too? It’s so long that I have to almost fold it in half to hold it properly. I’m not even sure why I decided to keep it. There’s a tradition over here where girls ask guys for the buttons on their uniform. Usually, guys give one to their beloved. Obviously, Azuma would have had a lot of requests, and he’d probably only give out one to Ishikawa-san. In the end, he surprises all of us by just leaving. He doesn’t let us bid him farewell. He doesn’t go out to please his fans or even Ishikawa-san. 

I can kind of see why they only have been friends for so long. Azuma isn’t someone you can keep by your side. He is too wild to handle, and in that sense, he’s like a devil. We never really know what to expect from one anyways. Azuma probably doesn’t even know this himself. He probably has no idea that it is much more pleasant watching him soar freely than binding him in a cage. He would be unhappy being grounded in any sense, and if he were so rigid, I don’t think that would suit his personality. He’s an inspiring person; how can you be inspired by someone who doesn’t risk anything and who doesn’t dream?

I know already that Azuma is bound to do great things in life. I’m sure Ishikawa-san feels that way too. After all, she has known him for much longer. She most likely knows that if they were together, he would never fully reach his potential. His attention would only be on her. Maybe, I’m guessing or reading too much into her. Maybe, she’s plainly ignorant and dense, but if she saw potential in Azuma when he was nothing but a victim of bullying, then surely she thinks the same way as me.

My feet carry my body towards where I always go: the café. I guess I can work today then. I’m sure Rei will be surprised to see me there. At least, I’ll get paid. Then, I’ll use the money to buy a new piece of clothing. A start of a new day means a tiny change. For now, I’ll just go with a waitress’ attire and that’s what I intended to do, except I notice Rock Star, no, Azuma, enter the store before me.

What is he doing here, I can’t resist thinking. To avoid him, I wait at least five minutes before entering from the back entrance. Endo-san, the chef and owner, and his assistant, Hamaguchi-san, give me an odd look. The back door happens to be connected to the kitchen, and before they can start questioning me, Rei bursts into the kitchen, stuttering, “O-o-oh my god. Oh my god. A hot guy just came in and asked me if I could pick his order. I don’t know what to recommend to him.” Suddenly, she grabs ahold of my hands, begging me, “Can you just deal with him, Sumiko? You’re good with all clients. I’m getting all nervous and—“

“It’s okay, Rei,” I reassure her. “Just take a deep breath and let’s think what would be good for him. What’s his budget by the way?”

“2000 yen.”

My mind goes through our list of dishes. I can picture the menu clearly. There are so many subs to choose from, but I know I can’t pick something too mundane. It’s Azuma. He thrives on surprises. So, I select the po’boy, which is made of fried soft-shell crab and creole, and the café bombón. This should total 1800 yen. Good enough. Once I tell Rei and the chef what to do, I wait for the results. I know I should stay in the kitchen or go out to help, but instead, I rush out, excusing myself, “Wait! I need to give this customer something! I’ll be back!”

I sprint to the nearest convenience store and snatch the last pudding on the shelf. Paying with all the spare change I have, I dash back through the back door. It just so happens that Rei is returning with another customer’s dish. 

“Chef, we need—“

“Wait, Rei,” I pant and try to say, “can you . . . can you give this to him?” She eyes me quizzically. I don’t blame her for looking at me weirdly. This is beyond bizarre, but I know I have to do this. This is the least I can do to thank Azuma. I continue to explain, “I actually know him, but he doesn’t know who I am. He helped me out before, but I never got the chance to thank him. If you give this to him, I’m sure he’ll understand. Please?” 

I’m holding out a cup of pudding like a fool. Rei is standing there too dumbfounded to move. Just when I think she’ll say no, she mutters, “O-okay. I’ll give it to him.”

“And, and,” I chirp while passing the treat to her, “don’t say it’s from me! Just say it’s from someone!”

“Okay, okay, but what if he won’t accept this?”

Right. I should have considered that. Knowing Azuma, he would probably want to understand everything before accepting this gift. He doesn’t go easy on anything or anyone. So, how do I get him to say yes? I’m trying to recall everything I know about him in a matter of seconds. I don’t know how to formulate this, but I just think he’ll understand.

My voice chokes up as I stammer, “J-j-just . . .” I look directly at Rei. Suddenly, I’m not afraid to declare, “I want to be better, Rei. I want to change because of him, and I want him to see my change a year later. Then, I’ll tell him myself.”

“All right.” Rei flashes her sweet smile to calm me. “I’ll help you out.”

The chef and his assistant are rambling and wondering who that special customer is. I kind of ignore them because I’m too nervous about what will happen. Luckily, there’s a little window from the kitchen door, so I can peek occasionally to the outside world. Now, I see his dumbfounded expression and soon, he grimaces. I already have this bad feeling churning in my stomach. Why do I think he’ll come here?

“I’ve got to hide, Endo-san,” I urge desperately. “Is there some spare counter that I can duck in?”

“Well . . . there is the cold room,” Hamaguchi-san answers.

Without a word, I run to the specified area. Immediately, I feel the blast of cold air pinching at my skin. I know I’ll probably catch a cold, but I can’t let Azuma see me right now or know of my existence. He’d think I’m a creep. I already feel like one anyways: a freezing one that is. Fortunately and unfortunately, my intuition is right. Azuma has charged into the kitchen. I can’t hear what he says exactly. However, I do manage to listen to his last statement: “I know that you are hiding whoever you are. Don’t do this sort of cowardly act. If you want to give me something, then give it to me in person! I’m not going to accept gifts from a stranger who I’ve never seen. Sorry.”

I feel my throat grow sore and as I gulp, I find it hard to breathe. He thinks I’m a coward. I guess I am. I can’t even say thank you to him in person. I can thank a stranger who holds the door for me, but I can’t do that for him. I feel like a complete failure. As I crouch down, I bury my head in between my arms. It’s cold here, yet my heart feels even chillier. That’s right. I’m just a stranger who he has never seen. I shouldn’t be caring about him at all. I’m being foolish like always, like admiring Takeshi, who thinks I’m atrocious. Maybe, maybe . . .

“Sumiko!” I shift my focus towards Rei, who kneels down to where I am sitting. “What are you doing here? You’re going to freeze to death!”

“I-I—“

“Oh my god! You’re crying? What happened?” Rei shrieks.

“D-d-didn’t you hear what—“

Rei breathes a sigh of relief. “Oh, you mean, him. He accepted it! He’s nicer than I thought, Sumiko! He even said that he’d come back a year later. Oh, he also said to treat him to fries or takoyaki once you guys meet then.”

Takoyaki?” I sniffle and blink a few times.

Rei giggles to reveal her rabbit teeth. “Yeah, you heard me right. Takoyaki. He doesn’t like sweets, so he’d prefer takoyaki. But, he still took the pudding in the end. I’m not sure why though. Anyways, it doesn’t really matter, does it? The important things are that he accepted your gift and that he is willing to meet you in the future.”

“R-r-right.”

Then, I can’t control my sneeze. Rei laughs at me, commenting, “Let’s get out of here before we freeze like these meat.”

When I leave the cold room, I’m embraced by a sense of warmness. It’s a shocking yet pleasant feeling. I take a deep breath to remind myself that this is it. I have to change now, and I have a year before we’ll actually meet. University will mean a new and improved Sumiko, one that hopefully Azuma will accept.
Reactions: