Shoko opened her eyes. She was warm, cocooned in thick sheets, soft material on her skin, and a scrap of sunlight poking in through a crack in the curtains. It was very dark, a sweet smell of cologne and underlying sweat hanging in the air. It all felt a little unfamiliar; it didn’t feel like her room, and every time she swallowed, her throat felt like harsh sandpaper. Her head was pounding uncomfortably, like the world was spinning. It was a somewhat familiar sensation, and there were vague memories of flashing neon lights and loud music at the back of her head. She had been out with the others… had said she’d have a light night since she wanted to use that weekend to catch up for work. The dry throat, headache, and slight nausea were all products of a heavy night of drinking, but there were some unexplained parts - her location, the stiffness of her muscles.
She lay there for a bit, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness. It was easy, given the small bit of light she did have. Stifling a yawn, she turned her head and almost flinched. The shape of another head and shoulder were visible, a second person occupying the bed. Shoko’s heart stilled. The hair was too light to be Utahime’s, and far too short to be Mei Mei’s, and judging from the broadness of the shoulder, the angle of the jaw… this was a man. She had to do her best to contain the inward groan; a light night out had turned into a one night stand.
How do you always manage this? she questioned herself bitterly, staring up at the ceiling. She had only wanted a bit of time with her friends, to let her hair loose after a long week working in the shop on top of studies. It had been a long time since she’d been this wasted.
She chanced a glance to the side once more. Lover Boy at least appeared to be younger than forty, although it was difficult to tell from the back of his head. Some men had a full head of hair way into their sixties - not that she believed there was a possibility she had slept with some old geezer. No matter how old he was, he was still asleep, which meant she could sneak off without having to endure any awkwardness.
Slowly but surely, she snuck out of bed, catlike, cold air biting at her naked skin. A small exhale from the bed made her freeze and glance around, but Lover Boy slept on. She searched the dark room, finding pieces of her clothes here and there, but no matter how hard she searched, she could not find her underwear. It was too dark to see, and she remembered they were black. It was fine, she had jeans, she would just go commando for the trip home. Who cared if he found them when he woke up, so long as she wasn’t on her hands and knees searching?
Shoko was dressed within a minute, and was about to head towards the door when a knot of curiosity built up in her stomach. She turned at the door, seeing Lover Boy hadn’t moved, and figured that, since Mei Mei and Utahime would ask, she could at least give a description, or lie that he hadn’t been over forty. She snuck across the room, footsteps feather light, and looked at the man she had slept with. Shoko’s breath was almost snatched from her lungs. He was angelic . He was about the same age as her, with soft white hair tousled in his sleep, and long, pale lashes rested against his skin. His lips, slightly parted, definitely looked soft and kissable. How on earth had she snagged a man this hot last night? She was already envisioning the envious expressions on Utahime and Mei Mei’s faces when she revealed that her sleaziness had ensnared a real-life god.
Pushing back her smugness, Shoko crept from the room, wincing as the door handle clicked, but otherwise escaping the bedroom unnoticed. The rest of the apartment, open-plan and not in darkness, was significantly more impressive. It appeared to be a penthouse of some kind, a modern black-and-white theme ongoing. Bright light beamed in, a little sensitive on her eyes. Not only had she slept with someone handsome, but he was rich, too. A large, flat-screen TV showed a distorted reflection of herself on the dark screen, the sofas were wide and comfortable-looking, and a huge window drew her in like a fly, overlooking the city. Her eyes grazed over other immaculate tall buildings, with coloured cars far down below looking like a child’s playset. She was certain the tiny black blobs were people. It felt like she was on top of the world.
But she really didn’t have time to be taking in the views. Lover Boy could wake up at any moment, and she hated it when she had to make smalltalk with someone she’d drunkenly fucked. She spied a staircase at the other end of the room and hastily approached it, feet pattering lightly on each wooden step as she hurried to find the rest of her things. Downstairs she was met with a fancy kitchen that even had a bar set into it. Two crystal glasses sat on the counter, one bearing traces of her lipstick. Her cigarette pack lay next to them. Her heels were unceremoniously dropped on the floor, her handbag sitting beside the kitchen island. She stuffed the cigarettes into her pocket, slung the bag over her shoulder, and pulled on her shoes, knowing that she was going to be getting some looks on her walk of shame home.
Heels clicking on the wooden floor, Shoko let herself out of the apartment, and checked her phone to see where she was. Dismally, she was quite far from the nearest station. In fact, this was a totally different area of town, an upmarket one at that. People would definitely stare at her. Not only that, but going to the train station in no underwear just felt too grubby. Utahime and Mei Mei were probably still a bit jaded, so there was no point asking either of them for a lift. There was , however, one person who would definitely swing by to her aid.
She strolled along the hallway, scrolling along her contacts until she found him, and popped a quick message, just to check if he was in a good mood.
Can I have a lift? And she added a smiling emoji after that, just for good measure.
She gave him time to answer as she followed signs, taking a set of stairs to the eighteenth floor, and then towards an elevator that was made entirely of glass. Shoko marvelled at it as she stepped inside, pressing the “G” button. From here, she could see a fantastic hotel lobby, with stairs spiralling around should anyone decide they didn’t want to use the lift. It was almost magical, and if she raised her head, she could see the skyline. As the lift began a gradual descent, she checked her phone and, sure enough, there was a response.
Very simply, he had written, Where to?
Shoko breathed a sigh of relief before sharing her location. Her ride home was guaranteed. She looked out of the lift once more, idly people-watching. A lot of people here were wearing very nice clothes, and she could see flashes of brands of sunglasses, handbags, jackets, and shoes. Enthralled, she couldn’t help but compare herself, wearing last night’s clothes. It wasn’t until she noticed the light blue uniforms of the staff at the desk that she realised when she might be. There was a hotel line across Japan, one that had prices up to the skies but was supposedly the lap of luxury. They were called the “Paradise Supreme” hotels, so it was likely this building was Tokyo Paradise Supreme. She had only seen it from the outside, manned by security. She stepped out of the lift gazing around, awed by the sheer opulence of the place. Two men in business suits cast her a brief look, and a member of staff holding a tray of welcome drinks watched her carefully. Everyone else seemed to politely avert their eyes. Adjusting her bag strap, Shoko headed through the revolving glass door, out into the sunshine.
It was a relief that the weather was nice, whether she was getting a lift or not. She glanced skywards, remembering how the sun had glinted off the windows of the tallest buildings. From here, their windows were cast in shadow, the sun hidden from this angle. Shoko could have stood there longer, but a brief honk of a car horn alerted her to Suguru’s black car. Finally allowing herself to relax, she dashed across the drop-off, a different car beeping at her and slamming on the brakes. She reached Suguru’s car and climbed into the passenger seat, seeing him already pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Looks like I owe you,” she grinned, buckling herself in.
“You owe me many times,” he grumbled, indicating and driving away from the curb, “so don’t make it a habit to run blindly across roads.”
“Do you mind?” she lifted the cigarette pack.
“Yes, window open or not,” he said. “Get your own car to smoke in.”
“Maybe after I’ve paid my tuition fees,” she said, itching for a cigarette. “But at the moment, I get free lifts .”
He shook his head, but she was sure there was a wry smile forming at the corners of his mouth. She leant her head on the window, looking outside as tall buildings, cars, and pedestrians flashed past. Reliable Suguru… she felt a bit bad always calling on him out of the blue like this, but she knew that if he was really against it, he wouldn’t’ve come.
“Want to get barbeque pork?” he said after a pause, and she glanced towards him, wrist rested on the steering wheel, looking completely relaxed and in his element.
Shoko was about to say yes - barbeque pork was her go-to after a night out - but then she remembered the… clothing situation… and thought better of it. “I’m good.”
“Turning down barbeque?” he raised an eyebrow. “You must have drank too much, even by your standards.”
That’s an understatement , she thought, but said instead, “I’m just not feeling it at the moment.”
“How about some drive-through chips?” he offered. “It can be on me.”
“Wow, driving me around and offering to buy me food?” she flashed him another grin. “If it wasn’t us two sitting here, this could be a love story, Hei.”
He didn’t answer at first. “I just worry about you. That’s all.”
“We’ll get those drive-through chips, then,” she shrugged, but in reality all she really wanted was a smoke.
That seemed to satisfy him, as they fell back into a contented silence. The radio was on, but the music hummed softly, which Shoko appreciated. Loud music would’ve made her headache worse. The glass of the window was cool on her face, and she could’ve taken a nap there and then. Maybe she did, because her memories of the trip home were a little disjointed. She was aware when Suguru ordered a large portion of chips with cheese and a large coffee, and she snacked on them as they drove. The coffee woke her up more and more after that, and every now and then Suguru would steal a chip.
“Have you heard from Mei Mei and Utahime?” Suguru asked almost hesitantly after another pause.
“Good point,” she pulled her phone out and checked for more messages.
Utahime, wonderful and reliable, had of course messaged their group chat. Are we all alive?
Shoko chuckled under her breath and sent a quick response of confirmation, and that she was with Suguru.
“Utahime’s awake,” she replied, dropping her phone in a drink-holder in front of the center console. “Mei Mei probably won’t respond until much later.”
There seemed to be more he wanted to say, but Shoko could understand why he held his tongue. She could envision the disapproval on his face when she told him how much she’d drank, regardless of how much she had been trying to cut down. It had been quite a few years since she’d been able to tell herself to stop once she’d reached a certain limit. After the accident, alcohol had become a somewhat… sensitive topic to Shoko, and even then, sitting in the safety of Suguru’s car, with the one person she could spill all of her secrets, she didn’t want to talk about it. Besides, she was in a good mood right now. She didn’t want to spoil it with sour thoughts from the past.
“Do you want me to drop you off home?” Suguru asked uncertainly.
“Yeah, I need a change of clothes.”
“Do you have foundation on you?”
“I’m wearing last night’s, if that’s what you mean,” she cast him a quizzical look.
“We’ll stop by a KoKuMiN, then,” he said.
“Why?” she reached up and grabbed the sun visor, pulling it down and flipping the mirror open. “What’s wron-”
She almost choked on her own words as a deep, scarlet flush spread across her face. The strange looks she had been receiving all made sense, now. There were dark, purpling bruises along her throat and collar bone in places that weren’t exactly easy to hide. Lover Boy was apparently a biter.
“ Why didn’t you say anything sooner ?” she hissed. “I can’t let Dad see me like this.”
“It never seemed like the right time to bring it up,” Suguru said lamely, as if there would ever be a right time at all.
Shoko kept her head bent low, cheeks burning with embarrassment. How could she have not thought to check the mirror at Lover Boy’s penthouse, just in case? All of those people - those fancy Paradise Supreme people - must have thought her to be some tramp.
As promised, Suguru found a KoKuMiN, parked the car and dipped inside. The wait for him felt like hours, but he was back within moments, slapping a cheap brand in her desperate hands. She was quick to apply it, flinching at the still tinder marks on her neck as she touched them. Last night had clearly been a lot of fun. A part of her was gutted that she couldn’t remember it. Only when she was sure there was nothing left did she breathe a sigh of relief and close the sun visor.
“Am I allowed to ask if you’re OK?” there was hesitation in Suguru’s voice.
“I’m fine ,” she replied pointedly, and he didn’t seem keen to press onwards. “Thanks for coming to get me, by the way.”
She glanced over at him, reliable Suguru who had saved her from years of trouble. He looked like he’d just been about to go jogging, long hair tied up into a knot, wearing a hoodie and shorts. She had to appreciate that he’d upended his schedule for her. It felt good to be with the familiar: seeing the slight tension at his brow he reserved for her stupid antics, the stretch of his earlobes from the large earrings he started wearing towards the end of high school, and even the bag of chips she had - he just knew what cured her hangovers and bad moods. She relaxed into the chair all the way until they made it back home.
Home was the bakery, and as a family friend, Shoko’s father had always let Suguru park there. The sign read “OPEN” as always, and the pair of them walked in, the bell jingling as they did so. There was nobody inside, but her father quickly poked his head through the back door, and a smile lit up his features.
“Welcome home, Shoko,” he said cheerfully, “and it’s always good to see you, Suguru. A cup of tea for the both of you?”
“I actually have to be somewhere,” Suguru said apologetically. “I’ll take up your offer another time, though.”
“Always, always,” her dad said. “And again, thank you for always carpooling Shoko around. I keep telling her to get her license, but she doesn’t see-”
“We hear ya, Dad, we hear ya,” she said tiredly.
“It was nice to see you, though, Mr Ieiri,” Suguru added as he headed back towards the door. “And Shoko.” He was smiling, but the tension was back in his brow. “Look after yourself.”
“ Bye, Hei ,” she said pointedly, waving him out of the door. Then to her dad, “I’ll have that tea.”
“Of course, of course,” she followed him into the back room, and was surprised to find he wasn’t alone. “Yes, Utahime dropped by just to make sure you’d made it back home alright.”
Unlike Shoko, Utahime seemed to have avoided looking like death. She looked fresh-faced and pristine, dressed in a flowing floral skirt and a pretty top. Shoko always questioned how she walked away from nights out fine despite her beer consumption. She had even found the time to tie her usual ribbon into her hair.
“Utahime was just telling me you stayed over at Mei Mei’s,” Shoko’s father lowered himself back down to sit. Shoko sat with both of them, watching as he poured them tea. “Said you’d had trouble finding your keys?”
Silently, Shoko thanked Utahime. She didn’t want her father worrying about her being at strangers’ houses.
“Did you find them OK?” Utahime segued. “I know it was quite dark, and hard to see last night.”
“Found them just fine,” Shoko smiled confidently, reaching into her bag and searching for her keys. “They were just at the bottom of my bag.”
She kept searching, but no jingling met her ears. Shoko worriedly upended the contents of her bag on the floor beside her, but there was no sign of her ears. Her ears began to burn, and she could feel Utahime’s wide-eyed stare boring into the side of her skull. Had she lost her keys last night? Had she left her keys at Lover Boy’s apartment?
“Silly me,” she checked her pockets and forced a laugh. “I left them at Mei Mei’s.”
Her father gave an exasperated sigh. “Your forgetfulness will be the death of you, Shoko, I swear. Make sure to pick them up before Thursday, I won’t be there to let you back in on Friday.”
“I hear ya,” she grumbled, although deep down she was panicking.
Shoko was then literally saved by the bell. The front door chimed and her father rose to his feet, heading off to serve the customer. As soon as he was out of sight, Utahime shuffled closer to Shoko.
“You lost your keys?” she said through gritted teeth.
“I didn’t mean to,” Shoko breathed in, trying to contain the rising panic. “Jesus, what am I going to do? I’ll have to go back to that guy’s apartment. Oh, the shame.”
“You’d better hope they’re there,” Utahime scolded. “Otherwise you’re going to have to pay for the locks to be changed.”
Lovely Utahime, with her rational opinions and her constant worrying about Shoko. The two of them had met at university when Utahime had been in her final year. Shoko had attended a Karaoke Society meeting, and their love of drinking had let the two bond quickly, especially when paired with singing the night away. Since then, even though Utahime had graduated, she and Shoko had remained close.
Shoko rubbed her temples irritably. “Jeez, this day couldn’t get any worse. I need a smoke.”
“Those things are slowly killing you on the inside,” Utahime nagged, and then a rueful expression appeared on her face. “Are you OK? You dipped on Mei Mei and I so fast last night.”
“Sorry ‘bout that,” she rubbed her aching temples.
“Some guy asked you for a drink, you spent ages at the bar with him, then you texted - not told - Mei Mei that you were going home with him,” she continued. “I didn’t even get a proper look at the guy. I bet he was super creepy. He was super creepy, wasn’t he?”
“No,” Shoko said irritably. “He was hot.”
“You idiot, attractive people can still be creepy!”
“I don’t remember what he was like,” she scowled. “And he was fast asleep when I left.”
“Well, let’s hope he’s nice, because you’re going to have to ask him for your keys back,” Utahime pressed. “In fact, we should go today. There’s no point waiting it out. Rip the bandage off before someone breaks into the bakery.”
“I really just need a shower and a proper sleep, to be honest,” she rubbed her temples again.
“This is important , though,” her friend pressed on. “I don’t know why you’re so relaxed about this.”
“At least let me have a sho-”
“You should be more concerned,” Utahime babbled on. “Also, heading off with random men is so reckless, you never know what’s going to happen. You should’ve at least let me and Mei Mei see him properly, instead of just squirrelling off with hi-”
“Hime, I don’t even know where my underwear is,” she smiled thinly. “Let me have a shower, put on some pants, and then I can think about my key. ‘K?”
Utahime deadpanned. “Your…”
“Yes,” Shoko hummed. “It’s been a day so far, and it’s not even lunch time. Give me a break.”
Utahime was still gawking, a little fishlike, when Shoko’s father returned. “Shoko, can you get freshened up? We’ve had a big order, so I need you at the desk whilst I make it.”
“Sure,” she glugged down the rest of her tea, before shooting a glance towards Utahime. “I will go to Mei Mei’s tomorrow, OK?”
Her friend breathed a reluctant sigh of relief. “Yes, and if you need me to come along, I can.”
She smiled gratefully, and the two exchanged a brief hug before Utahime headed off. As much as she liked talking to friends, a part of Shoko was relieved. She could rush off to the shower and then plan out how she was going to tackle any damage control. She scurried upstairs and hopped underneath the shower, letting the warm water soak over her skin. It was good to be out of her old clothes, and it was understatement that she felt like she had shed off a layer of grime once she stepped out of the shower. She had dismally noted more hickeys peppered along the back of her neck and along one shoulder. Her muscles had ached and screamed as she’d washed, too, and she couldn’t help but wryly muse that she was somehow still a little worn out.
As she towelled herself dry in her bedroom, Shoko tried to remember what Lover Boy had looked like. The longer she was away, the more he faded from her memory. She could remember he was handsome, but it felt like a distant dream, or a painting she had viewed at a museum and vaguely recalled. It felt surreal that an hour ago she had woken up in a Paradise Supreme hotel. For a few seconds, she had been a part of the wealthy elites’ world.
An elite wearing a necklace of love bites …
She flushed just thinking about it. The blush rising up her neck only made the bruises seem darker, so she threw on the largest zip up sweater she owned and pulled the zip up to the neck. Any marks that peeped over the collar were concealed properly, and she was quick to chug more water until she had a brighter expression in her eyes. Rolling her shoulders back, she strode downstairs to man the reception desk.
For as long as she had been alive, Shoko’s family had owned the bakery. Ironically, she hated sweet food, so could never relate when customers gushed that they wouldn’t be able to stop themselves eating any baked goods that were made. The bakery was popular in the local area, so they received a lot of orders. It meant that Shoko had to manage the till in between lectures and studying, so that her father could bake to his heart’s delight. Because of that, there were days when Shoko didn’t leave the Med School until gone eleven in the evening. She needed her key back…
In the meantime, though, she busied herself with serving customers, mindlessly making exchanges and even helping herself to a sandwich during a quiet period, dropping her own savings into the till. The day dragged slowly by, and it didn’t help that her throat was still raw and her body threatened her with nausea. The feeling didn’t fade until much later, but it still came as a relief when her father returned from baking to take over once more and she could dash off to her room.
She wasted no time getting into the pyjamas, turning the lights low and seizing her laptop. She laid it on her bed, diving deep into the sheets with a tea nearby, watching programmes on catch-up TV. She did her best to not doze off, but when she was cushioned by blankets and pillows, it was hard not to. She drifted off a few times, so had to rewatch a few episodes of Mother each time. She felt a bit rubbish, and only checked her group chat on occasion. Since it was mostly full of Mei Mei tossing in quips about Shoko’s late night excursion, she decided that it wasn’t worth gluing her eyes to the screen.
A particularly deep nap was abruptly ended by her father calling out to her that dinner was ready. Bleary eyed, Shoko seized her alarm clock and saw that it read six in the evening. How had the time gone by so quickly?
“Coming!” she called out through a yawn.
She scrambled out of bed, snatched up the sweater once more and tossed it over her head. Shoko was almost at her bedroom door when her phone buzzed, alerting a new notification. It was probably Mei Mei throwing another remark, but still, her curiosity got the better of her. She could at least leave Mei Mei on read and steal the joy of her “final word”. She snatched up the phone and headed off towards the kitchen, barely watching her step as she went downstairs.
Shoko stopped on the stairs, feeling her brows knit together in bewilderment. It wasn’t from Mei Mei, but a number she didn’t recognise. As she read the text, she felt an odd jump in her chest and a lump in her throat. Her mind kept asking how? but she could barely remember last night at all, so it wasn’t beyond possibility. She had received it about an hour ago, before her lengthy nap, and if the number hadn’t stood out, it might have been buried in the many messages between Utahime and Mei Mei.
“Shoko?” her father called out.
“Yeah…” she murmured, and then louder, “I’m coming!”
She had to check her phone one last time, being careful not to open the message just quite yet. It was short and sweet, a simple and unassuming text. It simply read:
Hey, it’s me ~