Hideki had been travelling for hours. First by bus, then by train, and now by taxi. It was nearly 10pm as the taxi drove down narrow suburban streets, between small houses built nearly on top of each other. The streets were dark, but for the occasional passing street lamp that cast a glare across his dimly-lit smartphone screen. His thumb slid across pictures and farewell notes, piling up on his Facebook page.
“We’re here,” the driver said as the car’s brakes faintly squeaked.
Hideki looked up from his phone, and saw that they had come to a stop in front of a well-maintained older home. The light over the front porch was on, when nearly every other house on the street had gone dark.
Getting out of the taxi, Hideki quietly settled the bill for the ride, before shouldering his duffle bag and approaching the door. He stood on the welcome mat for a moment, and lifted his hand to knock, before he noticed there was an envelope taped to the door. On the envelope, was the name ‘Sorato Hideki’. He looked around for a moment, before taking the envelope down and opening it. Inside, there was a folded note, and a key.
Sorato-kun,I have work in the morning so I’m not able to stay up and wait for you. I had the movers put your boxes where they were marked, they’re mostly in your room but there’s a box in the kitchen and one in the bathroom too. I loaded the rice cooker for breakfast. If I don’t see you in the morning, we’ll meet when I get home from work and I’ll help you unpack.~Hirano Shion
Hideki read over the words for a moment, before softly exhaling. He unlocked the front door and slipped inside quietly, toeing off his sneakers in the tile foyer before creeping onto the wood floor in his sock feet. He was greeted by a long, narrow hall, and an equally narrow flight of stairs going up to the second floor. The old-fashioned house felt claustrophobic to Hideki, who was decidedly more bulky than the average Japanese man. In exchange for the muscles and bulk he had sculpted, he was used to having to tuck his shoulders inward to not take up too much space on the bus, or turn slightly sideways to slip through narrow doorways. Though his broad shoulders still fit between the handrail and the wall as he ascended the flight of stairs, he couldn’t help but feel that the house was simply too small for him.
It wasn’t difficult to tell which room was which. The bathroom door was left open to his left, the door at the end of the upstairs hall was closed, and the door to the right was left open to a room filled with boxes, alongside a desk and twin-sized bed. Hideki lowered his duffle bag to the floor and whispered to no one in particular, “...’I’m home’...”
When Hideki woke the next morning, he gently groaned and stirred on his twin-sized mattress. He had grown accustomed to something larger, and it felt like he was sleeping on a child’s bed now. At first, he tried to stretch out, but winced when his elbow gently bumped the wall. He grabbed up his cellphone from the nightstand, and turned on the screen.
‘It’s almost 6:30am,’ he thought to himself, 'My alarm never went off… so Iguess I’m not getting a jog in this morning.’
Hideki found the automated rice-cooker in the kitchen to be filled with two servings worth of rice. Unfortunately, these were two normal sized servings, and significantly smaller than what he was used to eating to maintain his size. Leaving half the rice for Shion’s breakfast, he consumed a small bowl of rice with a raw egg on top, and a chicken breast that he cooked in a pan on the stove. The meal left his stomach feeling unsatisfied, but it was all he had time for, before embarking on his walk to school.
Midorioka was a hilly town; it seemed like every road he took toward school was an uphill climb. The more he walked, the more he could see that the sleepy town barely seemed to have been touched by the last twenty or thirty years; banks of out-of-order payphones were still easy to spot along the sides of the road, and most of the houses and businesses looked like they hadn’t been updated since the 80s. The further he climbed, the better he could see that at the bottom of the hill, the sister city of Kibitani was a sprawling metropolis.
‘No wonder this town is dying,’ Hideki thought, ‘Who would want to live up here when they could live down there?’
Hideki rounded a corner and paused, looking down at the map on his cellphone. He only then realized that his GPS marker had not moved since the last turn he made.
“What the heck is going on with this thing?” Hideki muttered to himself, “I’ve got a signal, but seriously…”
Slipping the phone into his pocket, Hideki looked ahead and instead decided to go in the direction that other uniformed students were travelling. He fell into step with other boys in gray slacks and white shirts, and girls in gray skirts with white blouses, all made to match by their striped black and blue ties. There were no different uniforms, because there were no other schools in Midorioka.
Soon enough, the crowd lead him to the gates of the town’s only high school, Fuurin Gakuen.
‘It’s that time again,’ Hideki thought as he passed through the gates.
The process was not new to Sorato Hideki. He went to the administration office, he confirmed his paperwork and details, and soon enough, he was waiting in the hall outside of his new classroom. Through the door, he listened to the muffled sounds of the morning’s business; the class representative instructing the other students to stand, bow, and sit again after the teacher entered, the squeaking of their chairs on the floor, and the typical morning roll call. He already knew that his introduction was nearly there.
“We have a new student entering our class today,” the home room teacher said, “Sorato-kun, please join us.”
Hideki slid the door open and stepped into the room, before going to stand next to the teacher’s podium, facing the class. He stood plainly in front of all of their appraising gazes, not making eye contact with anyone in particular, just glancing around the room until he spotted his empty desk. Three rows back, on the column second from the window.
“Sorato Hideki just moved to Midorioka,” the teacher said, pushing her silver-framed glasses up her nose, “You’re from Tokyo, yes, Sorato-kun?”
“I was born in Tokyo,” said Hideki, “I’ve spent the last few months in Fukuoka, before that I lived in Hokkaido off and on for a few years and sometimes in Osaka.”
The teacher looked surprised, and so did the students.
“Does Midorioka seem ridiculously tiny to you?” one of the students asked with a laugh.
“You’re big!” said a guy in the back, “Are you a wrestler?”
The teacher sighed and said, “You can save your questions for the first break. If you would, please take your seat, Sorato-kun.”
Hideki nodded, and began to walk down the aisle between the desks. Japan was a very ‘compact’ country, and it frequently reminded him that it was not designed for a bulky person like him, especially when he had to turn sideways slightly to not risk swinging his arms and bumping another student. When he came to his desk, he hung his bookbag on hooks on the side, and glanced at the student sitting in front of him. He was surprised to see another student who didn’t fit into the narrow profile of most people here, for an entirely different reason.
The girl seated in front of Hideki was rather pudgy. By Japanese standards, she was actually quite large. She had a full figure hidden under her long-sleeved blouse. Her black hair was cut in a chin-length bob, and only made her soft face look more round. She had turned her head to watch him, following him as he moved past her, and now her cheeks slowly reddened as she realized Hideki’s gaze was lingering on her, before she fidgeted and turned to face forward again.
‘She’s kind of cute,’ Hideki thought as he slid into his seat, his eyes now on the back of her head.
The first class of the day came and went uneventfully, but for the quiet grumbling of Hideki’s empty stomach. Luckily for him, the gurgle was faint enough to not attract the attention of his neighbors, but he knew that holding out until lunch would be a struggle.
“Stand,” the class representative said, “Bow.”
The students stood and bowed as the teacher left the room, leaving them with a precious ten minutes to themselves before their next teacher would arrive for the following class.
“So how’d you get so big?” a voice asked, “Is it all the beef and potatoes in Hokkaido?”
Hideki was surprised to see a boy at the desk next to his, leaning over and asking him a question so forwardly. He smirked a bit and said, “It takes a little more work than that.”
“But really though, are you a wrestler?” a girl asked as she walked over beside his desk.
“No, I’m not a wrestler,” Hideki said quietly, “I watch it sometimes, but…”
“Don’t inundate him with questions,” a voice said, as another girl approached his desk.
Hideki had seen her from behind, and thought nothing of the girl with long, straight black hair, but when the class representative approached his desk, he was surprised by the sight of her. Though high school girls were usually banned from wearing makeup to school, this girl was obviously wearing eyeliner, and her eyelashes seemed unnaturally thick and likely fake. Her thin black eyebrows were drawn with a pencil as well. It seemed strange that a girl would not only be allowed to wear such obvious makeup to school, but even stranger that she would be chosen as the class representative.
“My name is Yamamoto Fumi,” she said, “I’m the class representative, and if you need anything, you should contact me. Since you’re joining a month late, I’ll see to collecting my notes to help you catch up to what we’re currently studying.”
Though Fumi continued to talk, Hideki’s eyes drifted to a group of girls crowding around the desk ahead of him. The group of pretty girls crowded around the chubby girl’s desk, smiling and laughing as they chatted.
“Suu-chan, I forgot my lunch today!” one of the girls said, “Can you help me out?”
“Um, well I don’t have any money to loan you,” the pudgy girl said with a shy smile, “But I packed extra for lunch, just in case.”
“You’re the best, Suu-chan!” the girl said, “Your lunches are always so good.”
Suu smiled and rubbed the back of her neck, saying, “I’m glad you like them…”
Hideki felt the hunger pang again, winced at the miserable idea of trying to find a satisfying lunch at school.
‘I have to make sure my alarm is set so I can pack my own lunch,’ he thought to himself, before he blinked out of his hungry daze. He was surprised to see a business card being offered to him, and his eyes traveled up from the card, to the hand, up the arm, and to the face of Fumi.
“My number,” she said, “In case you need to ask questions about class.”
“Wow, class rep is giving the new guy her number already?” a nearby guy asked with a chuckle.
Entirely unstirred by the teasing remark, Fumi said sternly, “I would do the same for any new student. I’d hate to see him fall behind and be confused with the students who simply don’t care to keep up.”
Hideki grimaced as he pulled the metal card carrier from his book bag, and tucked her business card inside. He watched Fumi trade sharp remarks with another student, and thought to himself, ‘I’ve met a lot of bossy class representatives but this chick might just take the cake.’