Natsu is gifted with brains and good looks but has no desire for relationships and no aspirations. His only directive in life: stay a loner to keep his mentally ill mother stable. But when his 18th year rolls around, into his life wriggles an eccentric boy who claims to talk with birds, and gradually, Natsu's cold shell is cracked.
But his world soon crashes down along with the pillars of his mother's health. Having lost everything and everyone, Natsu is whisked halfway across the world by a mysterious "family friend" and has to quickly adapt to a new identity and makeshift family. But his guardian throws in a major wrench when he divulges a reality-shattering secret about Natsu's identity.
Natsu's new directive in life: find a directive in life. But can he when the ghosts of his past prove deadly?
Copyright © 2018 by Lena M.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
Monday, January 8, 2007
This is my five-hundred and twenty-third start. Of course, that is technically an exaggeration, but I promise that it feels no less than that many. For most people, a new beginning means a fresh start, changes, and a turn for the better. However, for me, every "new beginning" is no different from the last.
'I'll be good,' my mother says whenever she returns from the hospital. She promises to change. She never does. 'We're starting over,' she says anytime she gets paranoid about rumors around the neighborhood. She promises things will be better. They never are.
This time, we've settled in Tokyo. My new homeroom teacher smiles up at me, clearly unfazed by my impassive expression, as I stand before her in the teachers' office. She seems to be in her late 20s and nothing about her is distinctive. I've already forgotten her name. Oops. It can't be helped though. I've seen so many faces like hers and had so many teachers, that they all blur into one, and the details fade out of my memory.
"It's good that you got your uniform so quickly," the teacher says, standing up from her cluttered desk that is sandwiched between those of other staff. She hands me a stack of textbooks and I pack them into my new schoolbag. My arm sinks under the weight. "You won't stand out as much."
That's the point. To blend in as much as possible. I'm thankful this school has blazers and not the traditional Japanese gakuran.
She grabs the attendance sheets off her desk and clutches them to her chest. "Shall we go?"
I follow the woman out of the office and down the hallways to my new classroom. Above the door hangs a sign printed with "2-B." Year 2, class B.
In April, I'll be starting my last year of high school. Why my mother couldn't wait 3 more months to move, I don't know. I stopped questioning her actions years ago. At least it's the start of a new semester, rather than the middle of one like she's done in the past. I won't bring as much attention. I hope.
I hear the students inside chatting and laughing as my teacher slides the door open. The noise turns into a deafening silence as I walk in behind her. This lasts for all of three seconds before they start whispering, their voices buzzing in my ears like bees. I look around the standard Japanese classroom. About 30 students in neat rows, sandwiched between large windows to outside and a wall with sliding doors at either end. All of it---the classroom, the whispering students, and my impending introduction---is, again, nothing new.
"Write your name on the board," the teacher instructs me quietly. She stands in front of the wooden podium and tells the students, "Settle down."
I do as I'm told and write my god forsaken name on the chalkboard.
Surname first, as is standard in Japan: 刀(Katana. Literally meaning sword. Rare, but it's a real name.)
Then my given name beneath it: 名津 (Natsu. You'll mostly see girls with this name, but I swear, it's unisex.)
My new classmates stare at my name with looks of confusion, amusement, and disbelief. As expected. It's silent except for one student who has the nerve to mumble, "For real?"
I turn my attention to my fingertips and stare at the chalk dust, internally hating every particle... along with my ancestors and my parents.
"This is your new classmate, Katana Natsu," the teacher says cheerfully. "He moved from Osaka and this is his first time in Tokyo. Katana-kun, introduce yourself."
"Please take care of me," I say, as standard in Japan when meeting someone. But without smiling and without sincerity. Because the truth is, I don't care how they treat me.
"Katana-kun, you can sit in the empty seat in the back. Yamaguchi," she calls a student's attention, "as the class rep, give Katana-kun a tour of the school during lunch, alright?" She looks down at her folder on the podium. "Now, I'll call attendance."
I release an inaudible sigh of relief, seeing I'm not near the door where too many students crowd, or by the windows where it's cold in the winter. I walk to my seat—in the center of the aisles, the very back row—hang my bag on the hook attached to the desk, and sit down.
As teacher calls attendance and starts making a generic start-of-semester speech, I ignore the eyes glancing at me from all directions. Instead, I stare at the grain patterns of the wooden desk and remember the past.
On the way back from kindergarten, I see some kids my age playing in the park. "Mom." I look up at my mother who holds my hand. "Why can't I play with the other kids?"
She stops in her tracks. "They're... bad kids. You can't trust them." I can't be the only good kid on the planet. I stare at her and watch her expression turn fearful as she can tell I don't believe her. "Hey..." She crouches down and grips my hand tighter. "Just listen to Mom, okay?" My arm trembles as hers does, like an aftershock from an earthquake. Her eyes are scary. "Don't do this to me."
"Get along with your new classmate," the teacher says as homeroom ends. She leaves the classroom. With her departure, our short break before the next class begins. I pull out a novel from my bag before anyone can start trying to talk to me.
"Do you speak Kansai dialect?" I hear from my right.
Seems I've failed. Maybe if I pretend to be distracted. Keeping my head down towards my book, I glance quickly at the person speaking from beside me. Some flashy guy with reddish dyed hair and an earring. This school must be lax in their rules.
"I'm originally—" Crap. I answered without thinking. Saying the truth will propel a series of more questions. More questions mean more interest in me, which I have to avoid. But it's too late to recover now. "...not from Osaka," I finish.
"Ah, really? Then, where are you from?"
I hate this question. The first time I was asked, many schools ago, I wasn't sure what to say. America, since that's where I was born and spent the first years of my childhood? Or Nagoya because it's the place I first lived when we moved to Japan? I quickly realized that my lack of a Nagoya accent would end up in me explaining my American origins; so since then, I've been left with no choice. "America," I say. "My parents are from Tokyo and I learned Japanese from them."
"Eh?!" The student sitting in front of the flashy guy straightens his back, eyes wide. "Then, you know English?"
At that moment, I realize half the class is staring at me, at least 6 students crowded around my desk. "Yeah," I answer in affirmation. Please don't ask me to say something in English.
The flashy guy leans onto my desk. "Du yu raiku Amerikan futtobooru?"
I stare at him coldly. "No," I reply in Japanese.
The boy in front of him smiles bashfully and asks, "Um, can you help me in English? To be honest my grades..." He tilts his head and shifts his eyes as he trails off.
"I'm a bad teacher," I refuse plainly.
"Ah, I see." His shoulders slump.
I hear one classmate whisper to another, "Maybe he's lying."
Whatever. I don't need to prove myself to them.
That flashy guy is staring at me intently, his eyes appraising. "You're the stoic type, huh?"
Staring at him blankly, I stay silent. What a weird guy. Who would just say that?
It seems my stoic attitude doesn't put him off though, as he leans forward and rattles, "So, what do you like? Games? Music? Manga?" He smiles, then widens his eyes as he exclaims, "Ah! That's right! I'm Mori Takuya. Please take care of me, yeah?"
I hesitate before answering his first question: "Books." I look down at the novel open on my desk. From my peripheral, I can see his expression that clearly says he can't relate. Good, maybe he'll leave me alone. He scratches his head and turns to face forward in his chair.
As I stare at my book, I notice that others must have lost interest because they also turn around forward or to their friends to chat.
Good. I'll get reading then.
"Do you have a girlfriend?" a different male voice asks in a dull tone as if reading off lines in a script.
Suddenly, several students turn back to me, most of them girls.
If I say no, that gives girls an opportunity to be interested. Up to now, I've been saying I have one and it's worked in deterring my female peers. I look to my left at the guy who asked. Although he isn't as flashy as Mori, his black hair is cut in a trendy, fairly long style. "Yeah."
He turns to the girl beside him and tells her with a bored expression, "He has a girlfriend."
She blushes and jabs his arm with her elbow. "Why are you telling me?!"
As he rolls his eyes, I realize she must have told him to ask. Skirt rolled up, a scrunchie on her wrist, a mole on her neck. Taking a mental snapshot, I remember to stay away from this girl.
"So," the trendy-haired boy continues, "is Katana your real surname?"
"Keiichi..." Mori winces at his friend's tactlessness.
'No, I made it up,' I want to say, combating his rudeness with sarcasm. But I manage to keep myself in check. My mask of no emotion is perfect. "Weird, isn't it?"
He shifts uncomfortably. The polite thing would be to insist it isn't, and he knows that's what's expected of him. For whatever reason, he has it out for me, so he's reluctant.
"It's fine," I say, letting him off the hook. One point for Natsu.
From my right, I hear, "Katana-kun." It's Mori. Of course. "Your hair... Where do you get it done?"
"Eh?" I look at him slightly confused.
"The perm and dye?"
An "Oh" escapes as I realize what he's talking about. Self-consciously, I touch my wavy, medium brown hair. I don't know the name of any hair salons in Tokyo. And is a perm something you can do on your own at home? I don't know, so I opt for being honest. "It's natural."
"Ah, really?" He peers at me. "You're from America, your hair is light and wavy, and your eyes are light too. Maybe... you aren't full Japanese?"
In my head, red flags are waving and alarms ringing. Crap. No one has had the nerve to ask me this before.
It must have shown on my face because he quickly apologizes. "Ah! Sorry!" He covers his mouth with his fist. "Sorry."
"I'm... haafu," I decide to lie. The word simply means half Japanese without any specification to the other race, but its connotation is half white. In actuality, I'm only a fourth white and my mother is Zainichi Korean. But it makes me uncomfortable, telling people all my business. It also brings up memories of my father, and thinking of him always puts me in a bad mood.
"Oh?" Mori looks cheerful again. "That explains your good looks. But," he frames his face with his hands, "you can't beat this. I'm still the most handsome guy in 2nd year." He then laughs haughtily.
A girl near him scrunches her nose, looking at him in disgust. "Gross."
"Ehh? Kanna-chan, you don't think I'm handsome? Look cloooser." He leans towards her, invading her personal space.
"Annoying," she sneers, leaning back while waving him away.
Despite her words, I can tell they get along. And I am on the sidelines, as always, having never experienced that familiarity. While he's distracted, I look at the clock on the wall. Maybe I can escape before I'm asked more questions.
When I stand up, Mori turns to me. "Where are you going?"
"Um..." None of your business. "Bathroom."
"Eh? Is it an emergency?" he asks as if he's an elementary school teacher. "Class is going to start soon."
My eye twitches in annoyance as I sit back down. Picking up my book, I hold it closer to my face to look engrossed.
Luckily, the students—including Mori—are chatting with each other and now ignoring me. I make it safely through the rest of the break.
Unfortunately, after first period, there's another break. Having gone through this routine several times, I know what's to come. Students from other classes have heard of the arrival of a new haafu student and come to class 2-B, peeking through the doors to get a look at me, the majority of them girls. I ignore them all.
"Oh, Katana-kun," Mori calls. "Let's exchange email addresses." He reaches in his schoolbag for his cellphone. "Do you have infrared?"
I hesitate, trying to think of an excuse and settle with, "I left my cellphone at home." In truth, I don't have a cellphone. I don't need one; after all, no one is contacting me and I am contacting no one.
He pouts. "Ehh... Liar," he accuses as he turns around forward in his seat again. Good call, me. I wonder if I've now made it clear that I'm not looking to make friends.
"Don't stand out." I hear my mother's words echo in the back of my mind. But I'm exhausted. Tired of being deliberate in everything I say and do. Pushing people away without seeming too rude. Figuring out how to get homework and test answers wrong without seeming too obvious. I'm tired and I feel like I'll break soon.
My mother is home when I get back from school. She's sitting in the living room at the chabudai, watching TV. "How was school?" she asks without looking towards me.
I stare at her blankly. How dare she ask such a question. 'I'm struggling because of you, you know,' I want to say. It's less mean, but still honest when I tell her, "I hate it."
She turns to me, half-moon eyes wide and lips parted. Her mouth forms into a sad smile. "Just one more year, yeah?"
'Just one more year,' she says, but I wonder if we can even hold on that long.
Cultural Note: In Japan, it's customary to call people by their surnames + an honorific suffix. Packed into an honorific suffix is a person's title or rank in a social hierarchy, their age in relation to yours, and/or your relationship with them. There are certain suffixes to default to in certain settings (school settings, business settings, etc.). As you get closer to someone, the honorific suffix may change to one connoting a closer relationship. If you get even closer, you may start to use their given name plus an honorific suffix. Using simply their given name implies a very close relationship. Nicknames also show a close relationship. At the same time, using someone's surname without an honorific suffix can be rude if you aren't close to that person. It's less rude if you are above or equal to them in age or station, but still not very friendly. Please keep this in mind as the story goes on!
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
When I arrive at school in the morning, I open my shoe locker to find cookies in a cellophane bag decorated with hearts. Ah, that's right. It must be that day. After a little over a month, I've barely spoken to anyone, especially girls. So whoever has given me these is shallow—impressed only by my looks or the mystery that surrounds me. Didn't she hear I have a girlfriend? Wow, she's got guts. I put the cookies in my school bag, then change into my indoor shoes. I won't eat the treats, but I'm not cruel enough to throw them away now when she's probably around a corner watching.
During break, a couple of my female classmates are handing identical-looking small bags of cookies to the more popular boys in the class. "The girls made them after school yesterday," explains the girl who was joking around with Mori on my first day.
One guy peers into the bag. "Hey, aren't these a little burnt?" The other girl is the one who indirectly asked if I had a girlfriend my first day. She holds up her fist in a threat to hit him and he flinches. "It's a joke, joke!"
I try not to tense when I see her coming over to me. Oh, god. This can't be good.
"Katana-kun." She holds a bag out to me. "Here." Although everyone is watching, her expression is calm.
"It's okay," I refuse, without making eye contact.
Her arm falls a bit. Unfortunately, she extends it to me again. "It's just obligatory." Meaning there are no romantic feelings attached.
Seemingly, the easiest thing would be to accept them. But if I accept them, that means a month from now, on White Day, I have to adhere to the custom of returning the favor by giving her candy. The exchange would be getting along beyond my comfort level.
The memory of my mother's teary gaze flashes across my mind.
Beyond what I'm allowed. This time I meet the girl's eyes momentarily. There's a nervous hopefulness in them. "I can't..."
Her expression shows disappointment before she forces a small smile. "Oh, that's right. You have a girlfriend, right?" Her arm falls to her side. "She'll get angry, I guess."
"Sorry." I try to keep my tone sincere but not too friendly.
I wonder if I've failed as I notice her teeth clench and mouth flatten into a line. "No, it's fine." She strides to her own desk and everyone returns to their conversations.
As I move my eyes back to my book, I notice a male student glaring at me. What was his name? Ke-something. The guy who asked if I had a girlfriend in that girl's place. When he catches my gaze, he turns his attention to the bag of cookies he received.
Even if she claims they're obligatory treats, the fact that not every guy in class received one is proof that they hold a least a bit of special meaning. People like Ke-something are common. Males who hold a grudge against me for being somewhat popular without doing anything. But that's the thing―I haven't done anything. Little does he know, I'm as unhappy about it as he is.
There was a time when I actually did have a girlfriend. It was my last year of middle school when I discovered one of my female classmates, Kawasaki, had a crush on me. I had my suspicions. The way she always glanced at me. How her eyes sparkled when we got paired up in art. How she blushed when I handed her a pencil she dropped. Then I overheard some other girls gossiping about it. The next thing I knew, she was volunteering at the library I frequented.
My mother had recently poisoned herself with alcohol and was staying in the hospital again. I was angry. So I decided to betray her.
"Hey," I said one day to Kawasaki, who was shelving books behind me. "Want to date?"
I didn't have a cellphone, so we didn't mail each other. And we didn't go on dates. I just ate lunch with her alone, let her tag along with me to the bookstore after school some days, and walked her home after school every day. Sometime in the third week, she asked if we could hold hands. Two days later I had an awkward first kiss, as she tried to kiss my cheek at the same time I turned my head. After she escaped into her house red-faced, I walked home wondering why other boys were so excited about dating and kisses. Thinking about how my peculiar mother didn't want me dating anyway. Feeling more abnormal than ever.
I entered my house and my mother, who'd returned home a week before, came rushing to the entrance as I took off my shoes. "N-Natsu? Who was that girl you were with?"
I nearly tripped over the step to the genkan. "Eh?" How did she find out, I wondered.
"I saw you... I went shopping... You were... Hey, Natsu."
Shopping? I recalled holding hands with Kawasaki as we walked through the shopping district on our way home.
"Hey, Natsu," my mother repeated. I noticed her shoulders trembling. "Didn't... didn't I tell you... Do..." Her eyes began to glisten. "Do you like her?"
I shook my head vehemently as I stared at my mother's tremorous hands, feeling they were surely about to grab me.
They did and their grip was vice-like around my wrist. "Break up with her."
My gut told me to agree. To obey and stop my mother from shaking. From crying. From snapping. But my brain wanted answers. So against my better judgment, I asked, "Why?"
Her eyes widened. She stared at me and the tremors spread to the point where even her head was bobbing. "Hey, Natsu. Just listen to me, okay? Don't do this to me." A tear spilled down her cheek. "Promise me."
The same words. She always pleaded with the same words. "I'll break up with her. But... why?"
More tears spilled out of her eyes as they bore into me in shock. "Do you want Mom to die?"
I frowned and tried to take a step back, not understanding where such a question was coming from. "What are you—"
"Do you want me to die?!"
My body jerked as she shook me. "No..." I answered with fearful eyes.
"Don't talk to any girls. Don't—don't talk to anyone. You can't get close to anyone."
Staring into my mother's eyes, which displayed no signs of sanity, I nodded obediently.
Her shaking hand tried to stroke my hair but ended up tapping a disturbing rhythm instead. "I'll be your friend, yeah? All you need is Mom."
I nodded again. "I promise." I thought about promising to stay with her as well. But she was so frightening, I couldn't make that promise.
I broke up with Kawasaki the next day. Of course, I couldn't tell her about my mother. My excuse was that it was improper to date when I didn't really like her. She cried. I haven't disobeyed my mother since.
Friday, March 23, 2007
Today is the final day of the school year. It's the day when people feel it's their last chance to get me to like them.
"Katana-kun," Mori sings during the day's final break between classes. He puts his hand on my shoulder as I sit at my desk. "We're going to karaoke after school. Want to come?"
"No." My answer isn't going to change just because it's the last day.
"Well, let's exchange email addresses." He leans on his desk beside me, pressing buttons on his cellphone. I glance at his foot against the legs of my desk. He's acting a little too familiar. "I'll invite you to a group date. Oh, that's right; you have a girlfriend. Then, karaoke."
"My cell phone's broken," I lie.
"Katana-kuuuuun," he whines, acting cute. It's the type of behavior that makes him look friendly and popular with everyone. "How do you talk to your girlfriend then? Hmm..." He peers at me. "Which one's a lie?"
I evade his eyes. Why doesn't he catch on? No matter which is a lie, I'm trying to avoid you all, aren't I?
"Ka-ta-na-kun." That annoying idiot is putting his hand on my shoulder again. Upon receiving a glare, he removes his hand as if it's been burnt. "Ah... No karaoke then?"
Suddenly, Ke-whatshisface appears, grabbing Mori by the sleeve of his blazer. "Leave it be, Takuya." His eyes scan me. When they land on mine, I see disdain. "Some people like being alone." They leave the classroom, but Mori sends me a salute before turning away.
Well, he isn't wrong.
Sunday, April 1, 2007
I'm about to go to bed when my mother knocks on my bedroom door. She peeks her head between the door and its frame."What do you want for breakfast tomorrow: American style or Japanese style?"
"Don't you have work?" It took a month, but my mother finally got a job at the grocery store. We actually don't have to worry about money. Every month, a check comes, providing plenty for our living expenses. When my mother is in the hospital, it's mysteriously more than normal. For a while, I thought it was from my father. Using his money made me sick, so I never accepted the allowance my mother offered me. But the fact that she always was expressionless upon receiving the check told me that it wasn't him. If it was from him, I know she'd show that victimized frown she always gave when looking at the wedding ring she kept hidden in a drawer. So, her working is just to keep her busy. To keep her seeming normal. Feeling normal.
"They let me have the morning off," she tells me.
"Japanese," I answer her earlier question. Wouldn't American remind her of our past anyway? When we were a happy family of three; the time she'd be better off forgetting?
I climb into bed, wondering why she's in the mood to make breakfast, and why she bothered to ask about my preferences. As I'm about to drift off to sleep, I realize tomorrow's my birthday.
Monday, April 2, 2007
Today, I turn 18. I stay in bed for a while, not wanting to see my mother. Most years, I don't know what to expect. Will she smile and congratulate me? Or will she pretend it's any other day? When she ignores my birthday, I feel regretful I was born. Though, based on her question last night, I guess I don't have to worry.
The smell of grilled fish wafts up my nose as I head downstairs to the bathroom. After freshening up, I hesitantly enter the room where my mother is waiting with breakfast on the table.
"Happy Birthday." She smiles.
"Thanks," I say, looking at the table. It's a standard setup: grilled salmon, miso soup, pickled vegetables, and rice. My appetite has always been small, but in the past few months, it's gotten even smaller. Not finishing my meal has always been a trigger for my mother. She learned that by giving me smaller portions, she can trick herself into thinking I'm eating normally.
I do as I'm told and pick up my chopsticks. She picks up hers and begins eating.
Discreetly, I watch her. There's a small smile on her lips, but a hint of flatness in her dark eyes. She's trying, but not hopeful.
When I start eating, I feel her observing me. "The school year starts soon," she says, trying to make conversation. "Would you like me to come to the entrance ceremony?"
"Only first years' parents come." She should know that.
Her expression falters, then she gives a pitiful smile. "Oh, that's right. You're a third year already. Next year, you'll be going to the college entrance ceremony."
Now is not a good time to tell her I don't plan on going to college.
"Shall I pick up a cake on my way home?"
"I won't eat it." Again, she should know that.
After a few minutes, I've finished my small portions and put down my chopsticks. "Thank you for the meal."
"You don't want more? There's rice left."
I'm confused for a moment because I've never asked for seconds. And she. Should. Know. "I'm full."
Her eyes glass over for a moment and I notice her grip tighten on her chopsticks. "Mn," she sounds, forceful and short. Having relented, she stands up and begins to take up my dishes.
I leave the room, still not understanding why she'd ask if I want more. Wasn't the smaller portions deal working out? Why would she set herself up to get upset by asking me that? But there are a lot of things about my mother that I don't understand. And I should be thankful that her reaction wasn't extreme.
Monday, April 9, 2007
If I could skip these school ceremonies, that'd be nice.
As I sit in the gym set up with rows of chairs and people, I hear someone whisper from beside me, "Hey, Katana-kun." I look to my left and a few seats over is Mori. He waves. Why is he so persistent?
Some people are the opposite of me—they want everyone to be their friend. He probably won't leave me alone until I show some sign of wanting to get along with him. I wave back. He gives a satisfied smile and turns to face front again.
I watch the principal's mouth move but don't take in anything he's saying. The new and established teachers are introduced. The new first year students get their names called. The parents look very pleased.
I try to remember back to when I was a first year. Did my mother come? Where were we? I can't remember.
I haven't sung once yet, and I still don't sing for the final school song. Not like I've bothered to learn the words anyway. When all the ceremonies have finished, I escape.
I don't expect this year to be different from any of the others that have passed. I plan to get by as quietly as possible and alone. But I'd like to get through this year without having to transfer again. Here's to hoping nothing―or rather, no one thwarts my plans.