One more hour. Maybe two more.
It’ll be fine.
He’ll be alright. He won’t give up. He won’t drop out. He has to make it into that high school.
It’ll make his mother happy. It’ll make her proud. It’ll make her smile.
He’ll get those good grades. He’ll grow up fast and be someone mature enough to protect his mother. He’s going to stay right here, not ending up like his father. There’s no way his mother should lose the last bit of solidarity in her life, so he swears that he’ll help her keep it, and build it, so that she can have a reason to stop her tears.
Don’t worry, Mom. I’m right here. I’ll always be right here...
Up the remaining hours, focus, so he tries. But, he’s getting sleepy. No, no, he can’t yet! He’s not done going over this page, these concepts. So far behind, always behind, no, he just needs to get that perfect score. Tiredness, go away... Leave... Don’t let the words be so blurry, don’t let his head hurt so much.
It’s okay, the coffee will wake him up, alongside a good slap to his cheeks. It always does. The sleepiness will wash away, the letters will become clear again. So, down the hatch it goes, his hands patting his face soon after, one, two... his eyes close, and for some reason he sees splotches of red, their lines fanning out like petals of flowers.
They look familiar, but he can’t remember why. Where has he seen them before? A text, a call, interrupt him, he can’t answer those. Let them have their fun without him. Leave him alone… Leave him be… He has no time to be a kid, not anymore. They wouldn’t enjoy their time with him anyway, so why? Why do they insist on telling him to rest? Why do they insist on trying to pull him away?
His usual wake-up techniques aren’t working. The red isn’t leaving. If he could move, he’d look up the explanation. But he doesn’t know enough… he can’t do it…
He heaves and the air in his chest leaves him, replacing itself with heavy pain.
When he comes to, he finds himself seated, with a reference book in hand. That’s all he needs. This is fine. He can keep studying. Stop? Why should he? Even with loud noises all around him, he can’t let up. This is all that’s keeping him together. All that’s keeping him constant.
“All right… got that memorized.”
“Would you keep it down? Some people are trying to study!” He snaps, eyes not lifting, “Okay… trust … having faith in others. Truth … what is real and genuine…”
Despite the fact that time seems to pass, he doesn’t get sleepy. And he doesn’t pay attention to anything but his book.
“Unaware … to not pay attention to what is around you...”
A girl’s voice continuously rings in his ear, not ending. Focus, focus, just let her do her thing. Study, study, he doesn't get tired, it’s perfect... he can continue... and make his mom happy...
“She sells seashells by the seashore, ” he recites, practicing his English. Everything... he must work on everything.
“She sells seashells by the seashore. ”
“If you don’t mind, just a few seconds... There’s something... I don’t---”
“She says stop bugging me!”
Rinka steps back, trying to bite her tongue. Really, she’s drawn to help him, to not leave him alone in this messy world. So when he decides to be so loud , so harsh , it’s very... she thinks something else suits him more, that it’s not all him.
Noticing how hurt she looks from him yelling that loud, Satoru hesitates on looking back to his book. He doesn’t understand why she’s being so insistent on such things, but she has his attention. That face... he doesn’t like it looking so upset... That’s worrisome...
“..!” She quickly realizes she has his audience, if only just for a second, “Shikishima-san drew this today. I really don’t understand it though...” Instead of a canvas, she holds up a grey-scale flower, “I think... He tried to explain to me what it was, but I didn’t get it...”
A peculiar flower, red as the crimson we spill, taking root to defend those adored from squeaks that they cannot fly from... how beautiful, this symbol is, waving goodbye to the sun for all that cannot speak...
Satoru blinks, looking at the drawn flower. He doesn’t really know who she’s taking about, and the riddle itself goes past him. No, even if it’s strange, he can’t not get it. What if he’s being tested on it? What if...
Paper ruffles, fast.
“Red spider lily,” he says, almost automatically, “ Lycoris radiata . The bulbs... poisonous... planted at graveyards...”
Rinka looks between the flower and Satoru, her lips curling into a smile. Why is she grinning like that? What’s so fun about this? About being with him?
She’s... She’s cute...
“...Weird...” But it’s hardly anything more than a whisper.
“I, um, I-I think that’s right!” She doesn’t seem to hang on his comment, but it had probably been too low to hear, or she’s just used to it, “Shikishima-san’s words still don’t... make more sense, but that has to be it.”
That’s why Satoru decides simply to keep reading, “Poisonous... ill-tidings... lost memories, these flowers are associated with death and loss... some call them ‘resurrection’ lilies because they disappear and then reappear in the late summer.”
“...Satoru-kun?” Rinka looks at him, curiously.
He ignores her, choosing to continue turning the pages. What does this remind him of? What is it? How can she be so happy... so happy when this flower, this place... it means they’re...
He closes his eyes, and again he sees those red, spreading blotches. Oh, that’s it.... The day they apologized, the day his mother began to weep, he saw those flowers... on his father’s grave.
“Satoru-kun!” His eyes open and he realizes she’s leaning close, trying her best not to spend too many tears. Why is she..?
He feels warm moisture on his cheek, and he looks down, seeing droplets on the desk in front of him. So he’s crying...
It registers then, too, that her hand is holding his...
“H-Hey...” She moves her hand, using her sleeve to wipe his eyes.
They hang, inches from the other, his green eyes widening as he casts his gaze away, quickly. Rinka pulls her hand back, excusing herself, saying that she needs to head back, and that he should take care of himself, please .
Ticking, he turns back to his book, but it lingers on his mind, the riddle, something that isn’t...
“Coarse , rough or loose in texture. Course , path, route, direction... progression... dish... procedure, series of lectures. Change , to make or become different, to pick another choice instead.”
He’ll keep studying. That’ll keep his mind at bay. That’ll keep him where he needs to be, where he’s trying to go.
The gears slowly click and “time” passes. He keeps getting pushed down, trying to lock himself in his own world before he goes further, further away. Worthless, not enough... why does he try?
But she, stubborn, raises her broom for him, regardless of the situation.
Well , he gives what he can to help her, without realizing it entirely, right to the last letter, until he’s been numbed so much, until there’s no chance of her reaching him immediately. She got hurt... and he seals himself off, gets ready to let go.
No more... It doesn’t matter.... Meaningless...
Fortunately, that doesn’t stop her from making the call to wake him up.
Continuance, effort, it’s not long until she finds him the day of the “Graduation” Ceremony, and gets that “mask” to fall right off. That’s when he realizes how much life he’s been missing. She unclogged the machine and broke him from the dulling trance that had blinded him.
How dead was he inside?
How many people cared about him that he brushed off?
How could he leave them behind?
No matter how much he studied, it took being face to face with those flowers, with this afterlife, to realize what he’d missed.
“Satoru-kun... I’ve learned that I really like putting in effort in life. I really love to live..!”
“...Even though we’re dead?”
“Even though we’re dead.”
She’s weird, she’s really weird. Just when he wanted to let go, she decided that she found the most in life in this afterlife ? Any amount of studying never could have told him that, but he pauses, examining her, her movements, the area around them.
Living means to fight... and he, he’s broken a promise, hasn’t he? He gave all his life for the sake of his mother, that he fell into the pages she hadn’t wanted him too. That’s not right, he wants to live, he wants to have fun, it’s strange, allowing himself more of those thoughts after so long, but with a peck of her lips, and the squeeze of her hand, he knows it. He can see it now.
There’s too much in life left, it’s not worth giving up.
He has to breathe again, to apologize for making them worry, to finally pay attention more to fun, to relaxation, to enjoy what’s been given. In this second chance, he’ll remember to step back, to enjoy himself, to listen to the warning signs... because he doesn’t want someone to say goodbye to him, and have to come back to seeing those red spider lilies growing there.
Promise, he’ll do his absolute best to track her down after they leave NEVEAH, to see her again, despite how uncertain he is of the time, and place.
Bite the apple, return home .
Tomorrow is another day...
His eyes flutter open, and he sees his mother sobbing over him.
“It’s... okay, Mom,” he trembles, looking through everything his classmates left for him, “I’m right here. It’s really me... I’m so glad to be alive, Mom.”
There’s no helping his sobs, the one catching in his throat as his mother squeezes his hand. He almost left her alone, he almost lost his shot at living before he even began.
“Now, now, let’s check up,” the nurse says, softly, “Name?”
“Satoru... Kuragari Satoru,” he answers. He didn’t forget it, thank goodness he really had it, his grip still on it. His identity, the one Rinka helped him try to keep. That’s right, his name is Satoru, he’ll be a first year in high school soon. The teacher that cared so much about him... yeah, he’ll listen to his recommendations, because switching schools doesn’t mean dropping out -- he’ll still be in the fight. And... there’s a good feeling about that, one that echoes and mixes with the lonely ping in his chest.
The young boy is so grateful that he’s alive, that he’s still able to experience things. The girl that he has come to miss, the one he likes , the one that helped him learn to live again, by showing him that she, herself, has come to love life, he’ll find her, no matter what it takes. He wonders... how close to where he’s always lived she is. Close? Far? Does that matter?
His eyes close. No longer does he see those red blotches that sealed his fate before. Instead, he imagines a scene. There he sits, shutting the reference book he had been using to prepare for a test, his smile growing as she settles into leaning against his shoulder. Embarrassment sets in, flying away for them both as they simply enjoy the comfort of each other.
It’s certain: he’ll definitely find her.
Being happy like that, pressing on with care, and not pushing himself to the bare limits, being there, growing up right.
That’s what will make his mother, and him , happy.
So he hopes... that their final goodbye will be far, far away.