“I’m heading out now,” I called over my shoulder as I slipped on my shoes. I was standing in the doorway, watching my mom as she pulled some bento boxes out of the refrigerator. She placed two on the table in front of my younger brothers, Jun and Ken, who were still eating their breakfast. The twins gave her matching smiles and each muttered a quick “thank you” as they finished their food. She then met me by the door.
“Take care,” she chimed, handing me my own bento box. “You almost forgot this.”
“Oh, thanks!” I took it with both hands and gingerly put it in my school bag.
“Make sure to come home right away after school,” my mom continued. “Taro should be here by the time you get back.”
“All right. I’ll be back soon.” I stepped outside and before I closed the door behind me, I caught a glimpse of Jun and Ken waving at me. I waved back before the door blocked my view.
I stepped out onto the street and looked back at the house. The wooden lattices that covered the windows were beginning to splinter and crack and the shingles on the roof were either missing, broken, or covered in dirt. Even the walls on the second story of the building were becoming discolored with dark streaks running down them.
I’ll be somewhere better someday, I thought as I turned my back to it, beginning my walk to school.
Ever since I was little, I walked to and from school alone, which was fine since our neighborhood was quiet and relatively safe. I never even walked with my siblings since they all went to different schools than me. Taro, my older brother, attended the same high school as me, but he was so much older than me that he graduated before I even started my first year, so I never had anyone to walk with me. At least Jun and Ken got to walk together. I felt my envy of them begin to grow as I crossed the train tracks. That was when I spotted Ryoko and Iwamoto walking ahead of me. They were chatting with each other, smiling and laughing as they strolled down the street.
Do we live in the same neighborhood? I pondered this for a moment, then reached up to adjust my bow as my eyes focused on Ryoko. It had been about a week since she found out about my ears and, as far as I knew, she hadn’t told anyone. Even Iwamoto seemed oblivious. I was watching them from a distance and walking along when Ryoko happened to glance over her shoulder and see me.
Both girls stopped and turned to face me. I froze and for a moment I wished I were a shadow so I could sink into the ground.
“Good morning,” I greeted them quietly. They briefly said it back before Ryoko continued the conversation.
“Do you want to walk with us?” she asked. I felt my cheeks begin to burn a little as they both stared at me for what seemed like an eternity. Iwamoto must have noticed my hesitation because she spoke up next.
“Don’t worry, I won’t bite.” I then noticed that they were both smiling at me.
“Sure,” I finally answered. They waited while I caught up to them and we continued on our way together. They resumed their conversation almost immediately as I walked between them, my eyes downcast.
“Nekomura, what did you do this past weekend?” I lifted my gaze to see that Ryoko was looking down at me.
At that moment, she looked so pretty. Her brown eyes turned an amber color against the sunlight and the front of her matching hair framed her face perfectly. I didn’t notice until then that she was actually a bit taller than me and that she had a small beauty mark under her left eye. I couldn’t help but compare myself to her at that time. Then, another thought arose in my mind.
Why does she want to talk to me? Doesn’t she think I’m a freak?
“I, um, hung out with my younger brothers and cooked with my mom.” A smile crossed Ryoko’s face and I quickly looked away, trying to find something else to focus on.
“Ah, so you have younger siblings too?” Iwamoto chimed in. “I have a younger sister.”
“I’m an only child,” Ryoko added.
Why are you being so kind to me?
We parted ways after we made it to our classroom, but I saw them again as soon as math class ended. Lunch had just begun and I was leaving the classroom when I spotted them standing in the hallway, leaning against the wall as they chatted. I went to walk by them, but stopped when I heard Ryoko’s voice.
I turned and saw both of them looking at me, smiling. I waved feebly and the same sinking feeling that I had that morning came back as they walked over to me.
“Is something wrong?” Ryoko asked.
“No, I’m fine.”
“Do you want to have lunch with us?” Iwamoto offered, tilting her head.
“I’m not sure,” I replied hesitantly, looking down at the floor. “I should probably catch up on some homework . . .”
“Then we can do it together,” Ryoko cheered. “The place where we have lunch is pretty quiet.” She stared at me expectantly, her eyes practically shining, and I felt my face begin to burn again.
“Okay,” I finally answered, giving in.
Ryoko and Iwamoto led me to their usual hang-out spot, which was toward the back of the school. It was on the steps at the back of the gym and it overlooked the track. I was surprised to see that there were actually some students running laps and I concluded that they were probably from the track team. Iwamoto sat down on one of the steps and began to dig through her bag as Ryoko took what I assumed to be her regular spot by the back door. I stood there, clutching the strap of my bag and watching them silently.
“Hey, why dontcha come sit down?” I jumped a little at the sound of Iwamoto’s voice. I nodded.
“Okay.” I did as she asked and sat down beside Ryoko. I had opened my bag and was looking for my bento box when Iwamoto’s arm jutted out toward me.
“Here.” I looked up, startled, to see that she was trying to hand me a water bottle.
“Oh, thank you, Iwamoto.”
“Just call me Harumi.”
“Okay then. Thanks, Harumi.” She giggled and smiled at me and went back to searching through her bag.
“Hey, Ryoko! Heads up!” And without warning, she flung another water bottle straight at Ryoko’s head. To my surprise, the taller girl caught it.
“Thanks!” Ryoko set it down on the ground and pulled a plastic bag out of her backpack. “Nekomura, did you forget your lunch?”
“No, I’ve got it right here.” I pulled out my bento box and set it down on the concrete. Ryoko and Harumi stared in amazement when I took the lid off, revealing all of the food that my mom made for me.
“Woah, did you cook that?” Harumi asked, hints of awe in her voice.
“No, my mom made it for me. She likes to meal prep and make lunches for me and my brothers. Saves money.”
“Lucky,” Ryoko groaned. “All I have is stuff from the konbini.” She emptied the contents of her plastic bag onto the ground, showing that her entire lunch was basically prepackaged snacks. One in particular caught my eye.
“Is that dorayaki?” I asked, pointing to one of the snacks. Ryoko nodded. “I’ll share some of my bento with you if you’ll split that with me.”
“Okay.” Ryoko grinned as she opened the package and ripped the treat in half. I noticed that she handed me the bigger half, but I didn’t say anything about it. “I’ll have some of your chicken then.”
Lunch continued on like that where we traded food and chatted about random things. Over the course of the lunch period, I learned that Harumi was from a relatively well-off family and that Ryoko’s wasn’t far behind hers. They also lived in different neighborhoods and I was surprised to find that Ryoko lived the closest to me.
“So, where do you live?” she asked me.
“Ah, nowhere in particular.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Harumi mumbled, taking another bite of her sandwich. I laughed it off.
“Actually, I don’t think I live that far from you, Ryoko.”
“Maybe you can walk home with us then,” Harumi suggested, “since we’re all heading in the same direction until we get to the train tracks anyway.”
“I can’t today. I have to get home early to see my brother. This is the first time that he’s been home in a few years.”
“Yeah, I can’t either,” Ryoko admitted, scratching the back of her neck. “I have work today, so I’ll be heading in the other direction after school.”
“Oh, I see. I’ve been ditched,” Harumi joked and the three of us laughed. I went to take another bite of my food when the bell rang.
“Time to get to class.” Ryoko stood up and stretched, then bent over and began collecting all of her food and trash. “We should do this again sometime.”
“Yeah,” I replied, closing my bento box. I realized that I didn’t work on my homework, but then another thought drifted into my head.
That was actually kinda fun.
As soon as school ended for the day, I hurried home. Along the way, I began to remember the last time that I had seen Taro.
It wasn’t long after he had graduated high school himself. He was standing outside of our house beside his clunky, old truck with all of his belongings packed away in boxes and loaded into its bed. Jun, Ken, and I were there with him, crying as he hugged us goodbye. We knew that he was going to be moving to Yokohama, but it didn’t feel real until he was actually leaving.
“It’s all right.” He chuckled as he held us close and rubbed my back. “I’ll come back to visit, I promise.”
I still remember the way he smiled when he looked down at me, his ears hidden underneath a snapback hat. His orange hair shimmered in the spring sunlight and his eyes looked calm and caring, but they had an energy I had never seen in them before. He had been waiting for this move for over a year. After he left, he never came home to visit. Over the past two years, he was absent for every holiday and event imaginable since he was always so busy with work.
That is, until now.
I made it to the front porch to see that Taro was already there. He was facing the door, so he didn’t see me right away, and I noticed that he was wearing a long-sleeve shirt with some baggy pants. He was holding his hat loosely in his fingers instead of wearing it so his ears were visible. They still stood upright like I remembered, but now the fur on them seemed scruffy rather than smooth. I stopped walking and he turned his head to look at me from over his shoulder. His eyes narrowed when he saw me and that was when I noticed the dark circles underneath them.
“So, you’re still trying to be like them.” His eyes wandered down to my shoes, then back up to my face. “Might as well give up now.”
“You look ridiculous. Humans aren’t as accepting as you might think.”
I felt my split tail drop down from where I had wrapped it around my waist. I gripped the hem of my skirt as I looked down at the ground.
What the hell is he talking about?
“Look, school isn’t going to get you anywhere. Trust me.” He turned back around and opened the door to head inside. I pulled the ribbon out of my hair, touched my ears, and followed him silently.
What has gotten into him?