The chirping of cicadas and the chattering of people reached my ears as I waited outside the station for Maneki. It was a bright Saturday afternoon and the sun was high in the sky. The streets were busy and there were crowds of people taking over the sidewalks. I leaned against the wall of the station, standing a few feet away from the entrance, as I looked down at my phone. It read 1:30 PM.
She’s running a little late . . .
“Hey, Ryoko!” I looked up to see the girl that I was just thinking about approaching me. I was immediately taken aback by how cute she looked.
Today, a pink ribbon was wrapped around her hidden ears instead of the usual blue one and her short, white dress swayed around her legs with every step she took. The hem and neckline of it were both bordered with lace and she wore a thin, pink cardigan over it. Even her hair appeared to be shinier than usual and her feet were covered by flats that matched the cardigan. At this point, I had never seen Maneki in anything other than her school uniform, so this really threw me through a loop. I was still staring at her, taking it all in, when she finally made it over to me.
“Sorry I’m late.” She played with her hair a little, a look of embarrassment on her face. Suddenly feeling self-conscious from wearing a basic short-sleeved button-up and regular pants, I scratched the back of my neck and smiled awkwardly.
“It’s all right, I haven’t been waiting long. You look really cute.”
“Oh, thank you,” Maneki replied quietly. I could see that she was blushing a little.
“So, which way is the garden?”
“Just follow me.” Maneki turned and began to lead me down the sidewalk. We began to make our way through one of the crowds when I realized that I couldn’t see her anymore. I was tall enough to where I wouldn’t get lost on my own, but Maneki was short so it was a challenge to see her when she was surrounded by other people. When I spotted her again, I reached out and grabbed her sleeve without thinking.
“There you are.” She looked back confused. Her eyes drifted down to my hand, which was still gripping her sleeve.
“Oh, did you get lost?” she asked.
“I lost you, so kinda,” I answered. “Sorry, I’ll let go now.”
“No, it’s fine,” she chimed. “If that makes it easier for us to stick together, go ahead.”
“O-okay.” I continued to hold onto her sleeve as we made our way through the crowd, my face and ears burning along the way. I hoped that she wouldn’t look back to see me as I tried my best to calm down. Before long, we made it to the entrance to the garden that Maneki had talked about. A stone path led through a large wooden gate, which was left open for the public. People strolled by and walked in as Maneki and I stopped at the edge of the road. By this point, I had let go of her sleeve. I was looking around at all of the trees surrounding us when Maneki spoke again.
“Ready to go in? It should be less crowded.”
“Sure.” We walked side-by-side as we strolled through the gate, entering the garden. I was immediately met with the sight of hundreds of hydrangea bushes, all of them blooming in blue, pink, and purple. We wandered down the path, taking in the sights and the tranquility of the garden. I was even taking a few pictures of the flowers when Maneki grabbed onto my arm.
“Hey, look over there!” I followed where her finger was pointing with my eyes and saw a little stand further down the path. “We should go get some souvenirs!”
“Okay.” I nodded in agreement and Maneki let go of my arm. We made our way over to the stand and found that everything there was hydrangea-themed. I was looking at a paper fan with a hydrangea pattern on it when something caught Maneki’s eye.
“These are really pretty,” she said quietly, picking up a small jar. It was tiny, about the size of the tip of my finger past the last knuckle, and inside it there were small flowers from the hydrangeas. The one that she picked up had pink flowers, but there were also blue and purple ones as well. “Look, it even has some straps on the cork to tie them to our school bags.”
“You’re right.” I picked up a blue one and looked at it. I then saw the sign that listed the price. I let the tiny jar rest in my palm. “Do you want one? I can buy it for you.”
“Really? Are you sure?” I nodded and she handed me the pink one that she was holding. “Thank you.” Her voice was quiet and the only other way that I could describe it was cute. She wandered over to the other side of the path as I paid for them.
“I have an idea,” she said. “Give me the blue one.”
“They can be charms for us,” she explained. “You get the pink one and I get the blue one so we have something from each other.”
“So, like a friendship thing?” I asked, passing her the blue one. She held it gently in her hand and smiled, seemingly to herself.
“Something like that.” I tucked the pink one into my pocket and Maneki put the blue one in the pocket of her cardigan. We were about to start walking again when something wet hit my forehead. Suddenly, rain began pouring down from the gaps in the canopy of trees above.
“But it wasn’t even cloudy earlier!” I shouted, exasperated.
“Do you have an umbrella?” I looked over to see that the lady that was running the stand was talking to us. I raised an eyebrow at her.
Does it look like we have one?
“No,” Maneki answered.
“Here, take this.” The lady held out a brand-new umbrella, which of course had a hydrangea pattern on it.
“Thank you.” I took it from her with my right hand and opened it as quickly as I could. I held it over Maneki and me. We thanked the woman again and began heading back toward the gate. I noticed from the corner of my eye that Maneki was looking down at the ground while we walked.
“Are you upset? We can go somewhere else for a bit, if you want,” I offered. She lifted her head at the sound of my voice before shaking it.
“It’s not that.” She gripped the hem of her cardigan, just like how she usually did with her skirt when she was nervous. “I wanted to tell you something.” She stopped walking and I did the same to make sure that she wouldn’t get rained on. We were about halfway to the gate and there was no one else in sight. She looked up at me with determination on her face despite her cheeks being bright red.
“Ryoko, I . . . I really like you.”
My heart skipped a beat. There was no way that this was real.
“Like friends?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“I don’t think so,” the shorter girl admitted. “I’ve never felt this way before. I think it’s more than that.”
What is it then? I tilted my head as I stared at her. She looked down again.
“So, are you asking me to be your girlfriend?” She nodded, confirming my greatest fear and my deepest desire at the same time. My mind went blank for a moment. How was this really happening? I felt my arm lower the umbrella I was holding as I shook my head.
“Maneki, I need to think about this.”
“Is it because we’re both girls?” She was looking at me again and I could almost see the hope in her eyes.
“No, that isn’t an issue. I just need to think this through.”
“Will you have an answer for me soon?”
“Yes, I promise.” I handed her the umbrella and smiled at her warmly as I got pelted with not-so-warm rain. “Will you be okay heading home alone?”
Maneki, clearly confused, nodded.
“Okay, I’m going to head home. Text me when you get back, okay?” Maneki nodded again silently and I turned and walked away, still trying to process what had just happened.
A few days passed and I avoided the topic with Maneki, but she didn’t really push it either. In all honesty, I had no clue what to do. It was true that I still liked Maneki . . . Okay, it was more than “liking,” but I never expected to get that far. I couldn’t even talk to her a few months ago and now I knew her biggest secret and somehow won her affection. My mind was boggled, to say the least. But even in my amazement, one ugly thought still managed to burrow through my brain to taunt me from the back of my mind.
She deserves better. You weren’t a good girlfriend before, what makes you think it’ll be different with her?
This thought had popped up in my head while I was eating lunch with Maneki and Harumi the following Tuesday, the last one before summer break. It was true that I had been in a relationship before, but it had ended horribly and I definitely didn’t want that sort of situation to happen to Maneki and me. I must have been thinking about it too hard because Maneki grabbed my shoulder and shook me a little.
“Ryoko, are you okay? You look mad.”
I realized that my shoulders were tense and that my brows were furrowed while I glared at the ground. I looked at Maneki and saw a look of concern spread across her face. I shook my head and tried my best to put on a smile.
“I’m all right, just lost in thought.”
“Well, listen up, ’cause we’re planning a trip!” Harumi cheered.
“A trip?” Maneki sounded just as confused as I was.
“Yeah, for us to hang out over summer break. We can go on a day trip or something.” Maneki shifted a little bit in her spot, scooching away from me slightly. She looked down at her hands, which were folded in her lap.
“I’m not sure if I can go. My family doesn’t have a lot of money for things like that.”
“I’ll pay for you,” I offered. The blonde looked at me with surprise, then her cheeks began to redden.
“Are you sure?” I nodded.
“Yeah, I have plenty saved up from work. I can cover you if we don’t go too far.”
“Great!” Harumi nearly shouted. “I was thinking that maybe we can go to Omihachiman.”
“Yeah, I went there last summer with my parents. It was a merchant town way back when and it was preserved. It also has a huge lake and some boat tours going through the canals. We can get there by train, if you guys would like.”
“Sounds good to me,” I replied. Maneki, who was still looking at me, nodded in agreement and smiled. It was decided that we were going to Omihachiman.
That night, Harumi decided to put Maneki and me into a group chat with her to discuss the trip. It was after dinner and I was lying in bed, reading a book that my boss let me borrow, when I got the first text.
Harumi: Hey, I wanted to get the itinerary started. Is there anything that you guys want to do?
“Harumi is never this organized,” I mumbled to myself. I slipped a bookmark between the page I was on and the next one and closed the book, setting it aside before quickly sending a text back.
Ryoko: What is there to do? You mentioned boat rides . . .
It didn’t take long for me to get a reply.
Harumi: There’s a lot more to do. We can check out Lake Biwa and probably go swimming too!
That was when my mind conjured up the image of Maneki in a swimsuit, her ears and tail exposed. I shook my head, trying to get rid of the thought when my phone pinged again. When I looked at the screen, the first thing I saw was Maneki’s name.
Maneki: Actually, I don’t really like swimming. I wouldn’t mind checking out the lake, though.
Oh, right. She’s a cat.
I let out a sigh and looked at the time displayed in the corner of my screen. It was getting late.
Ryoko: I’m heading to bed. Let’s talk about this more in the morning.
I plugged the charger into my phone and placed it on the headboard of my bed. I got up, shut off the light, and was about to snuggle up under the covers when my phone buzzed and the screen lit up.
Maneki: Goodnight. See you tomorrow!
I smiled and set my phone back down. I crawled into bed and began to think about Maneki as I drifted off to sleep.
The following Saturday, the day after we got out of school on summer break, I found myself waiting at the same train station that Maneki and I had met up at the weekend prior. I leaned against the wall in the same spot and everything looked just about the same as it did when Maneki and I went to the garden.
Talk about deja-vu, I thought as I turned on my phone screen. It lit up after I pressed the power button and the time was displayed as 1:30 PM on the lockscreen. Okay, that’s really weird, now I’m seriously getting deja-vu.
“Hey!” I looked up, just like I had before, but this time I saw Harumi instead of Maneki. I noticed that she was wearing a yellow off-shoulder top that tied in the front with blue shorts and black sandals. Her hair was also styled in pigtails and her makeup was done. I hadn’t seen her dressed like this since the last time we hung out outside of school.
How long ago was that again?
“Have you heard anything from Maneki yet?” she asked as she walked up to me. I gave up on trying to count the months and checked my phone again. There were no new notifications.
“No, not yet. We’re going to miss the train if she doesn’t get here soon.”
“Sorry I’m late!” We both looked over to see Maneki running toward us. This time, she was wearing a pink skirt with matching sneakers and a white shirt. She also wore the same pink bow that she had worn to the garden. Her ponytail swayed as she ran up to us and she also had her hair pinned in a way that would hide where her human ears would be, if she had any. When she got closer, Harumi whistled.
“Looking adorable, Maneki,” she teased, looking her up and down. Maneki scratched the back of her neck and laughed.
“You think so? My brother picked this out.”
“Your older one?” She nodded. I smiled.
They must have made up then. I opened my mouth to say something else, but I was cut off by the ringing of my phone’s alarm.
“That’s our cue,” I told them, silencing my phone. I tucked it into my pocket and we headed inside the station, Harumi cheering and telling us how much she couldn’t wait to show us Omihachiman.