Nebulous Nights

April

It had been a trying day. Well, any first day of school would be pretty trying. Especially if you were a first-year, like me. Guess I should introduce myself, huh? My name is Nozomi Kikuchi.

I recently moved to the town, and being the new girl makes me stick out like a sore thumb. For two reasons, mainly. One, I'm the obvious outsider, and will remain that way until someone else moves out to this rural town and takes the crown from me. And two, I'm pretty cute. No, I'm not gloating... well, maybe a little.

Still, that second point is almost more trouble than it's worth. On my first day alone I was approached by no less than three guys, all of whom started talking up praise of my looks while offering a "helping hand". I might never have had a boyfriend before, but I wasn't stupid. I turned them all down politely, which broke at least one heart. To be honest, that made me feel a bit fiendish on the inside.

At lunch, I was approached again, only this time by a girl. She was a bit shorter than me, as was her fluffy brown hair. Her eyes were a bit droopy, like she hadn't gotten enough sleep the previous night. But her smile was still just as vibrant as my own, were I to smile.

Her name is Yumi Fukazawa. And she was willing to be my first new friend there. It was a bit sudden, sure, but I was in no position to turn down the offer. When I accepted, she plopped right down next to me, and helped herself out to half my lunch. I didn't do anything, which might've been my first mistake with Yumi. After she finished, she looked at me with those droopy eyes of hers.

"Thanks, new friend," she said. I almost couldn't believe the nerve of this girl.

But the damage was done, so I figured there was no sense causing a scene on my first day there. I swallowed my words, and went about the rest of my day without saying much else. You know, outside the obligatory "new student" speeches.

When the end of the day finally arrived, Yumi made herself available to me. I instantly feared she'd try to leech dinner off me as well, but that wouldn't be the case. She actually wanted to talk with me; to get to know her new "best friend" better. I admit, I was genuinely surprised.

I told her I was living in the town alone, that my parents had passed away recently and left me quite a sum to get me through schooling. This knowledge made Yumi more than a bit uncomfortable, which is why I was at first reluctant to share. At my last school, people distanced themselves once my history became public knowledge. It hurt, you know?

Well, not that I lost my parents. I loved them, don't get me wrong, but I was never particularly close to them, either. I'm an only child, a mistake of their youthful fling. Having another child was out of the question, especially since they did a poor job of looking after me. I learned to be self-sufficient, and depended on them to do little more than provide me with money to buy what I wanted or needed.

When the police arrived at my house two years ago, with the news that they had passed away in an accident, I hardly cried. I'm pretty sure those officers thought I was psychotic or something, but it was hard to shed tears over two people that were hardly in my life. I worried more over how I was to live, or where for that matter. In time, I was informed that the house I lived in was paid for, and I was given full charge of my parents' money. They had amended their will to grant me everything, regardless of my age.

Things got hard to deal with at school when people found out. The people I was closest to didn't want to hang out with me anymore, and I always had a teacher or two letting me slip up on purpose out of pity. It annoyed me more than anything. When the school year ended, I sold my old house, and moved away. When my past followed me to my new home, I decided that upon entering high school, I'd go somewhere my parents' memory wouldn't be a hindrance.

Ironic that the first thing I share with someone in this new town, this new life... would be these memories. I guess that said more about what I really thought of my parents than anything else. All of this was shared with Yumi on the way to my house, and what scared me the most was if she'd end up telling this to the others. I didn't want a repeat of my last school.

"Sounds rough, but it looks like you're holding up okay," she said to me right after. "I'll keep your secret, if you want me to."

Yumi really meant to be my friend.

To seal our friendship, she showed me something up on my apartment's own rooftop. From there, I could see the entire town, as well as the night sky. It was breathtaking.

"How did you know about this?" I asked her, wondering if she lived nearby, if not in the same building.

"I come up here specifically to see this," she told me, "Which is why I knew you before you introduced yourself at school. I saw you move in!"

So that was how I met Yumi Fukazawa, my new best friend. From that day on, we'd hang out not only at school, but outside of school, as well as on the rooftop of my building. From there, we could watch the endless starry sky. I had a feeling there were answers to our problems up there, and it seemed Yumi thought so as well.

~o~

May

It's amazing how quickly you settle into a routine in life. Once Yumi learned where I lived, she paid me a visit almost every night. At first, I thought she was doing it to get in on my dinner (which I offered her like a good hostess). Then, she started helping out in some way around the house. From cleaning up after us both to bringing food of her own to make for the two of us. Remember, money wasn't the issue; I just didn't want to give Yumi a reason to become a full-time leech.

We were sitting at lunch one day in May, when this little exchange happened.

"You think I'm just being friends with you to eat your food, huh?" Yumi's question out of the blue caught me so far off-guard, I'm thankful I didn't have to go to the bathroom at the time. What's worse, my initial reaction was more than enough to answer Yumi's question.

"So that's how you feel," she said, her droopy eyes seeming even sadder, if that was even possible.

"No!" I told her, trying to redeem myself. "I don't think that at all!"

"Sure you do. If you didn't, you wouldn't have been so surprised when I asked." She was right, of course. But I had to save face and come up with another reason for it all.

"N-No! I get like that anytime someone asks me a random question! Go ahead, ask me something else!"

"Do you like anyone?"

Maybe Yumi did it on purpose, a masked sign of friendship. Of course that question surprised me to no end. I could instantly feel my entire face light up, my childish innocence relating to the question clear for her to admire. And admire she did, a smirk plastered on her face.

"So who is it?" She asked, forgetting entirely about the line of questioning that came before. I looked around the classroom, though that was just an act to reduce the redness of my face.

"I-I don't know what you're talking about!"

"Go on, Nozomi... spill it!" She tried to follow my gaze around the classroom, but it would be in vain. The truth was I didn't like anyone there, not because they weren't my type, but because I hadn't spent time looking in the first place. Sure, I was at that age where swooning over the boys was not only commonplace, but also expected. Yet with everything I had been through in the past couple years, I guess I hadn't bothered to mature in that regard.

I once read somewhere that children mature as fast as their surroundings demand. I guess if this was true, it was also pretty selective about what parts of the children mature, as well. I was smarter and more capable than the average teenager, yet when it came to matters of love and romance, I might as well've been sucking on my thumb. I didn't know much about the subject outside the fairy tales you read when you're in preschool. And admitting that to Yumi... well, I could always try to lie my way out.

"There's no one," I finally said to her, feeling the heat on my face grow more intense. Her smirk did not vanish, only expand into a full-on smile.

"Oh, really?" I knew Yumi was about to go into an all-out attack.

Thankfully, it was time to return to class, so her interrogation would have to wait until after school. And I wasn't looking forward to it. This irrational fear consumed me for the rest of the day, so much so that I tuned out most of my afternoon classes to come up with an excuse to not hang out with Yumi after school. And no matter what excuse I came up with, it would always hit the same brick wall.

"I'll go with you!" Would be Yumi's response. Be it a sudden doctor's appointment, grocery shopping, visit to the school counselor, anything. With Yumi as my only friend at the school, I had dug my own grave on this one. I had no choice but to play it cool and hope she forgot about it by the end of the day.

"So, Nozomi," Yumi said as we left school together that day, "We were talking about something during lunch."

I swallowed hard. "Were we?"

"Yeah, but..." Yumi looked off into the distance for a moment. "It's on the tip of my tongue, argh!"

Could my luck really be that good? I knew Yumi would be desperate to grasp onto something to talk about, so I gave her something.

"Remember? We were talking about how you thought I thought you just wanted to eat all my food."

Yumi snapped her fingers, laughing at herself for being so silly. Of course that's what we had been talking about, how could she have forgotten? She talked about my reaction at school for a bit, before I carefully steered the topic toward something else. I couldn't believe how lucky I had been. But there was something I didn't know at the time.

Having only known Yumi for a few weeks, I could not have foreseen what was to come that night atop my building. We sat up there like we did so many times, just staring into the sparkling night sky. Then Yumi spoke.

"So, who do you like again?" The question came out of no where, leaving me in the same state of stupefied surprise I had experienced earlier that day.

"Wh-What! You remembered!"

"Of course I did, silly," Yumi said, that fiendish smirk on her face. "I just played along when you changed the topic after school. My memory's not that bad."

I sighed.

"I don't like anyone," I said. I could feel Yumi about to deny my declaration, but it sounded as if she held herself back.

"See? Was that really so hard?" I looked to her, confused by her words.

"What do you mean?"

"You didn't have to say what you did back at school, Nozomi. I wasn't going to stop being friends with you if you told it to my face; that you thought I was hanging around you for the freebies."

"But..." She changed gears quicker than an automatic car.

"You didn't have very many friends growing up, did you?" It was as if Yumi was hitting all the right marks. I went silent, and just shook my head.

"It shows, you know? I mean, you're nice and you know how to be polite to others, but you're not a good people person." She went on.

"Aren't you contradicting yourself?"

"I just don't know how to say it. It's like... you know what you have to do for friends, but you've never actually done it before, you know? There's a word for this, I just know it..."

"Socially awkward?" I thought that was the term she was looking for. She snapped her fingers and pointed at me.

"You're like a kid, always trying to impress and please. I bet you were worried about what I was going to say after school, huh?"

I couldn't take anymore of this embarrassment.

"I was," I whispered, feeling my face getting hot. I could shrink into oblivion at that point.

"Let me tell you something, Nozomi," she said, sitting down in front of me.

"This is something I heard in a movie, but it was so amazing I'll never forget it. You listening?"

I nodded, though I confess I didn't think she'd say anything remotely introspective to begin with.

"You don't have to please anyone else but yourself. The minute you start worrying about what others think of you-"

"-You'll never stop worrying about it," I finished for her. "I saw the same movie."

"See? Then why were you so worried about it?" Yumi's smile was inviting, so I couldn't betray her trust now. What's worse, I could feel my eyes welling up.

"I didn't want to lose you," I said, feeling my breathing getting heavy.

"I didn't want to say something and make you hate me."

I tried my hardest to hold in the tears and the sobs, but they were forcing their way out. I felt Yumi's hand on my shoulder.

"It's okay," she whispered, giving me a small hug, "It's okay. You've never really poured your heart out to anyone, huh? Not since your parents died."

I shook my head, the tears and sobs preventing me from speaking. Prior to Yumi, I never had a single, true friend in my life. I shielded myself from everyone, fearful of interaction thanks to my mostly neglectful parents. All those emotions, bottled up inside me. If there was ever a time for them to escape, it was now. Yumi stroked my hair, and leaned in close to whisper something.

"Well, that's why you've got me."

~o~

June

By June, as was natural, I started feeling the summer air over the spring air. Nights weren't as cool anymore, and the days were quickly going from warm to hot. Beautiful though some people found it, I didn't like the summer. I was more of a winter fan. Yumi said she agreed, but every time the subject came up, she contradicted herself.

"I totally love the cold more," she would say at first, only to come up with, "but sometimes I can't stand the cold, and wish it were summer again."

And did I call her out on this?

Of course not. Why bother? Yumi would just laugh it off, stick out her tongue in a cutesy fashion, and change the topic of conversation. Not that it bothered me, but it did keep me on my toes whenever I spoke with her. Had to make sure she didn't try to change her stories on me.

Speaking of stories, ever since that night when I told Yumi everything about my past, she'd become quite vocal whenever I was the topic of conversation. I thought it was a nice gesture, her looking out for me the way she did. At least, it was a nice gesture at first, before it turned on me. Once people took notice of Yumi's police rounds to make sure my name didn't come up, they started attacking me personally.

At first I pretended not to notice, that I didn't know Yumi was defending me behind my back (or oftentimes right in front of me). That didn't stop the others from pulling pranks. I turn away for a moment, and my pen goes missing. I get up from my desk, and my backpack ends up on the other side of the room. I open my locker, and out comes a pile of blank papers which I have to clean up before they scatter to the winds. After the second paper incident in my locker, I took Yumi aside at lunch one day.

"Yumi, I've been the target of more than one prank recently," I started, but never got to finish. She quickly jumped in.

"Don't worry, I think I know who's behind it," she said, "I'll get back at them!"

"No, Yumi! It's not about getting back at them!" I screamed after her, but she was long gone before her name even left my lips.

I knew this was going to come back to bite me somewhere unpleasant, I just wasn't sure how badly or how soon. Turns out, it was much sooner than I ever would've imagined.

As I walked back into the classroom, I noticed some of the boys looking away from me, while others couldn't keep their eyes off me. The girls were giggling, but not a soul in the room had the heart to tell me why I was the sudden center of attention. Instinctively, my hands fell to my sides, and I made sure my skirt was still around my waist. That's when I noticed the back hem wasn't down where it should be, concealing my undergarments from prying eyes. No longer caring, I looked to my back as far as my neck would allow, and saw the hem of my skirt taped onto my back. I reached around my back and undid the tape, then looked to the rest of the class.

I was embarrassed, of course, but more angry than anything else. Unfortunately, the teacher walked in before anything else could happen. He asked what was going on, but when no one spoke up (as I had expected), I chose not to start a witch hunt. The last thing I wanted was another reason for the class to pick on me. So I bit my lip, and took my seat. Yumi didn't show up for class after lunch that day.

I saw her again outside the school on my way home. She was hiding out under some trees, and joined up with me when I passed by. At first, she didn't say anything, probably expecting me to ask about what she did for me. I didn't, which made her uneasy at first. Then she just started talking about what she had done.

About how she had tracked down the ringleaders behind the pranks, and forced them to confess their actions to the disciplinary committee. Feeling rather proud of herself, Yumi threw her arm around my shoulder, saying that everything would be back to normal before long. While it might've been mean of me to rain on her parade, she had to know what had happened to me earlier that day. But rather than make the trip back home unsettling, I kept quiet until then.

By now, eating at my place was practically the law. Yumi often said she only went home now to sleep and bathe, since she spent so much time with me. I let Yumi talk my ear off all night, biding my time until I dropped the bomb on her. Perhaps that was a bit cruel of me, and maybe I shouldn't have done that to her, but I wanted to prove something. When we went up to the roof the building that night, I asked her to sit down.

"Yumi," I said to her, "I have something to tell you."

"Sure thing, Nozzy," she said, using a pet nickname she just made up for me. "What is it?"

I hesitated for a moment. My first instinct was to sugarcoat it, to use my polite tone of voice and let her know how I felt without resorting to insults. But Yumi would expect that. I knew her; she'd have a response lined up in seconds. She'd say I worried too much, or that she'd be there to look out for me, or some such nonsense. I couldn't have her turning this on me, so I had to say it outright, even if it was blunt and mean.

"I don't want you looking out for me anymore." I said. Yumi was left more than a bit shocked.

"Wh-What? What are you talking about, Nozzy?" I felt my eye twitch at the sound of that nickname.

"I know you're just trying to help," I continued, catching myself as I was about to sugarcoat my words, "but you're only making it worse for me. Did you know that the pranks only started because YOU went around acting as my bodyguard?"

Yumi looked away, her lips puckering up like a toddler who knew she'd done something bad, but was trying to play it off. I didn't give her much of a chance to come up with an answer, though.

"Look, I'm happy you're being such a great friend," I grunted, angry with myself for trying to soften the message. "But I don't need you to do all this, okay?"

"I was just trying to help, Nozzy," she mumbled. That nickname set me off again.

"Stop calling me that! I'm not some baby you need to watch twenty-four-seven! Look, just don't bother with the people at school anymore, alright? I don't need anymore headaches."

A police car's siren echoed in the distance, the typical background noise when you're on the roof of a building, I guess. Yumi didn't say anything, which made me feel more and more guilty as the silence between us lingered. Had I gone too far? She was just trying to help, regardless of the outcome. As I stood there awkwardly, contradicting myself silently, I noticed something on Yumi's cheek. It was a tear, crawling down her face. I felt my heart sink to the pit of my stomach. What had I done?

"Y-Yumi?" I reached out to her.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, "I was just trying to help."

Those words tore me asunder. I was the worst friend imaginable. I was about to scramble for an apology, when all of a sudden Yumi chuckled. At first, I thought it might've been a sob, but another one followed. Within seconds, she was trying to contain bouts of giggles.

"You know," she finally managed, looking up at me with tears in her eyes and rolling down her cheeks, "You probably think I'm pretty evil or something right about now."

"Not exactly, but I'm getting there...?" I wasn't sure where she was going with this.

"You know why I became your friend, Nozzy- sorry, Nozomi? It's because you reminded me of my sister." I was taken aback by this sudden revelation.

"You have a sister?"

"Had a sister," she corrected, "she's dead."

"Oh god, I'm so sorry!"

"Forget about it, it's silly." She wiped away the tears on her face.

"No it's not! How could you say that? I'm so sorry, I didn't know!" Now the tears were forming on my eyes, and threatening to escape down my cheeks.

"Not that, silly. I mean what I was doing. You reminded me so much of my sister, that without realizing it, I sorta pretended you were her. That's why... I'm sorry."

Yumi got up, and took a deep breath. She looked up at the sky and smiled.

"Her name was Nozomi, you know."

"Creepy coincidence," I said, not realizing what escaped my lips. Yumi laughed a bit at the comment.

"I know, right? You look nothing like her, but I don't know, I was just drawn to you. For the best, right? We ended up the best of friends."

"Yumi... am I your best friend?" I asked, fearful of the answer to follow.

"Of course you are, Nozzy," she said with a smile that warmed my heart.

"Why would you ever doubt that?"

I gave her a smile, which she saw clearly under the glittering stars that night.

"Oh! I got something for us yesterday and hid it in your fridge! Hold up, I'll be right back!"

Before I could even ask what it was, Yumi was gone. I looked back to the night sky, still somewhat shaken by what had just happened. I felt so selfish about everything. Which wasn't exactly true, since for better or worse, Yumi had been the cause of all those pranks at school. But she was just trying to make the best of a situation, just like I was.

After a while alone on the roof, Yumi returned with ice cream bars in her hands. She handed me one, and then took a seat to enjoy her treat. Truth be told, I wasn't exactly hungry, so the sweet flavor of the ice cream wasn't all that enjoyable that night. And maybe it was a bad idea, but I had to ask Yumi all the same.

"How did she die?"

There was a moment of silence before she answered.

"Car accident two years ago. Mom and Nozzy both; I heard a couple also died from the impact they shared."

I couldn't believe my ears. Was it fate? Coincidence? Could my parents have died in the very crash that killed Yumi's mother and sister? What were the odds?

I threw her a glance, but Yumi's demeanor hadn't changed. She continued to enjoy her ice cream without a hint of worry or surprise in her eyes. Either she didn't pick up on it, or she chose not to.

Or maybe, she had realized it as early as April, when we first met. It would explain her desire to be my friend so openly, name notwithstanding. But one more look at Yumi, and I knew something else: she'd probably never tell me if she reached the same conclusion.

Perhaps there really was no need to say it.

Suddenly, the ice cream in my hand didn't taste so bad. After all, it had been given to me by not only my best friend, but by my newfound sister.