Unlike the dreams in storybooks, most real-life dreams don’t have much structure. Dreams are usually fragments of thought and feeling, scattered images with the rare spoken words. This was one of those dreams, where I relived memories of Bianca. I experienced her with all my senses, lay in bed with her, read a book with her, went for a walk with her, sat beside her in class. A sense of relief permeated the whole dream.
She never died. That was all a mistake. She’s still alive, and always will be. We’re going to live together and love each other until we’re old.
But that feeling was ruined by the only consistent part of the dream, right at the end. I faced Bianca, grabbed her shoulders and implored her.
“What were you going to say?” I asked. “When the aphasia hit you for the last time, there was something you wanted to tell me. What was it?”
She smiled, reached up and touched my cheek. The feel of it was so bittersweet, my stomach twisted and my eyes burned.
“It doesn’t matter now,” she said. “I love you. That’s all.”
I awoke with a start, my eyes snapping open, and I gasped as I tried to climb out of bed like a drowning man fighting to get his head above water. I ended up on the floor on my hands and knees, my chest heaving for breath.
“Oh god,” I said, pressing a palm to my face. “Why did that feel like a nightmare?”
Giving myself some time, my heart slowed. This wasn’t a terrifying dream of love and happiness. I was back in the comfortable world of dreary, depressing reality.
I pushed myself to my feet and meant to head to the bathroom, but a blinking light on my tablet caught my eye from the writing desk. I tottered over, tapped the screen and saw a new email.
I’m sorry about last night, Cheryl. What I said about Bianca when you left the council room... that was way out of line. I feel awful about it, and I want to make it up to you.
I blinked, cleaning the sleep-blur from my eyes, making sure I understood the email. I sat at the desk and wrote back.
Apology accepted. You can make it up to me by leaving me alone forever plus one day – war, famine, pestilence and bad hair days not withstanding.
That didn’t make any sense, but it was the best I could do having woken up two seconds ago.
I want to do more than that. Will you let me take you to Getty’s today? I’ll buy you lunch and get you a book, if you want. I have a driver from my family, so we don’t have to walk out in the cold.
My eyebrows raised. She was willing to spend actual money to apologize to me. Maybe she meant what she said last night, about wanting to be my friend. But you can’t buy friendship.
Thanks but no thanks. I enjoy food and books, but Getty’s is where people go when they LIKE each other. You and I don’t have a super good history in that respect.
I don’t care if you like me. I just care about righting a wrong. Look, let me take you out today. You can hate me the whole time if you want. But if I don’t do something for you today, I WILL try again later. It’ll be less annoying for you to let me get it over with.
I let out a scornful laugh, pffahah! Much to my surprise, I liked that attitude.
Where/when are we meeting?
From: Alice Aihara
To: Cheryl Tilly
RE: Good morning
At the parking lot
in 45 minutes. That enough time?
From: Cheryl Tilly
To: Alice Aihara
RE: Good morning
I’ll be there.
I second-guessed myself as I showered and dressed. Why did I just accept Alice’s invitation? Did I really want to do this?
The pros outweighed the cons. This would cut into writing time, but I had no idea what to put on the page. Captain Jared’s kabooming-exploding adventures in space would have to wait until I knew what was supposed to happen next. Maybe getting away from school for a few hours would help, clear my head and get the creative juices flowing.
That, and it’s hard to pass up free books. Writers have to read a lot, and all the digital text in the world never beats the charm of having a physical-bound book in hand. When I thought about it further, I realized an opportunity in meeting Alice today. She was chairman of the student council, which meant she worked closely with the school staff. She might know most or all of the people who had administrative access to the school network. I could show her the love letter and see if she recognized its handwriting.
When I got out of the shower, I dressed in my weekend clothes, which included a pair of plain blue jeans. We’re not allowed to wear denim on school days, so I indulge in the comfy blue menace whenever I can. With that went a cotton cap and puffy coat to keep me warm, and out I went.
The day was clear, bright and cold. A bare breeze ripped the white puffs of my breath away. I crossed the campus to the parking lot, and there stood Alice. She was dressed in her own casual clothes, dark jeans and a black jacket. She wore no hat, letting her perfect-messy hair stand against the cold. Best of all, she wore a pair of solid-black sunglasses.
“Nice shades,” I said, stepping up to her. “Didn’t know you were a red pill.”
“Bright sun hurts my eyes,” she said. “Anyway, I’m glad you came. Hope I didn’t take you away from other plans today.”
“Nothing more important than a free trip to Getty’s. Didn’t you have someone to drive us?”
“Yep.” She pointed to the road. “Here he comes now.”
A black sedan turned into the parking lot, rolled through the empty stalls and pulled up to the curb beside us. The car was sleek, pretty and clean. Sunlight glinted off its seams, and the windows were dark as Alice’s sunglasses.
The driver’s door opened, and a man stood up from it. As he stepped around the car to meet us, I noted the man’s appearance. He was Asian like Alice, but looked nothing like her otherwise. He seemed to be in his early twenties, wore a suit with a hat and gloves that were all black, all pristine and well-kept.
The man bowed, said something I didn’t understand.
“Ohayou gozaimasu, ojou-sama to tomodachi.”
Alice snapped up a hand, as if irritated by the sound of his voice.
“Don’t greet me like that, not when my father isn’t around.”
The man smiled, standing up straight. “Gomenesai. Aihara-sama instructed that I remain formal—”
“And I instruct that you be quiet and drive.” She pointed to the car. “You know where Getty’s is, right?”
The man nodded, did as he was told. He went back around and got into the driver’s seat. Alice pulled open the rear door and climbed into the back.
“Come on,” she said to me. “Make sure to buckle up.”
This was more than I bargained for. I didn’t think a trip to the bookstore would end up showing slivers of drama from Alice’s personal life. But, whatever. None of it was my problem. I was just in it for the free stuff.
Sister Carissa Literary School for Girls is far from public education – which is to say, all the students come from well-off families. Only a few of us could be called rich, but none of us are poor. The tuition fees alone are prohibitive, not counting all the expenses of keeping students fed, clothed, and supplied with the right technology to participate in classes.
That in mind, I hope it carries some weight when I say that, just by sitting in this car, I could tell Alice’s family made mine look like filthy rag-wearing paupers.
Every bit of the car’s interior was designed for tasteful luxury. Every surface was gorgeous doeskin or polished mahogany paneling. The armrests sported a whole keyboard of controls for everything from powered windows, individual climate control for each seat, and massage motors in the backs. There were even charging ports for plugging in a cell phone or tablet. Above all that, the car was quiet. What little noise came from the front wasn’t the rev-up-rev-down of a gasoline engine, but the constant hum of a hydrogen fuel cell system.
I didn’t want to make a big deal of this, but I couldn’t bite my tongue longer than it took us to leave Carissa’s parking lot behind.
“This is impressive,” I said, looking around the car’s interior. “I guess the Aiharas are doing all right for themselves.”
“Depends how you define all right.” Alice took her sunglasses off, hooked them on the collar of her shirt. “If you mean money, then yes. My family runs an import business, bringing organic foods and herbs from Southeast Asia and reselling them in the States. It was modest work before I was born. Then Homewrecker’s hit, and everyone thought they could cure it with natural medicine.”
I let out a low whistle. “Booming business for you guys.”
She nodded. “Suddenly my father has more money than he knows what to do with, which is wrong in so many ways. You know there are smart, educated pediatricians who can’t put food on the table? All because there are no more kids, and people are blowing their money on herbs that don’t work.”
“But isn’t that good news for you?” I said. “Now your family is set forever, at least until Homewrecker’s ends it all.”
“Money isn’t everything. In fact, I wish the family business never took off. Then my dad wouldn’t care so much that I don’t want to take it over.”
“So you came to Carissa’s to get away from Daddy?”
She scowled at me. “No. I really want the education Carissa’s offers. I want to be a historical author.”
I snorted. “History? That sounds boring.”
“It’s not. History is the only thing that really matters. We can’t well live our lives without knowing how it happened before we got here.” She tilted her head at me. “What about you? Why did you come to Carissa’s?”
“Novelist,” I smiled. “To me, the thing that matters is the adventure. The romance, the swashbuckling tale, the wrong righted, the evil overthrown, the lesson learned. That’s what I’m in it for.”
Alice nodded, thinking it over. “That’s good. But that’s why I study history. Those kinds of stories mean so much more when you know they actually happened.”
“Not really. In real life, the good guys lose more than half the time.”
Alice laughed, and it sounded like the chortle of a princess. Heeheehee.
“History teaches you there are no good guys, just people. Though I agree with you on one part. The romance of it all. That’s always the most important thing in human events. People act because they care about something, because of what they love. Understand that,” she held up a finger, “and you understand the world.”
This felt strange. I never expected to spend a weekend trip to Getty’s with Alice. We weren’t acting like the best of friends, but at least we weren’t at each other’s throats. The lack of enmity was enough to put me off balance.
The drive was short, a thirty-minute walk made in five minutes by car. Getty’s Books and Café was less than two miles from school, a huge old-fashioned bookstore that dominated the biggest building in a strip mall complex. Too few stores like Getty’s exist anymore, with the dwindling population and inefficiency of brick-and-mortar compared to online shops. I’ve heard rumors that Getty’s stays in business largely because Carissa’s is so close, making it a favorite spot for literary schoolgirls to come spend their pocket money on a few paperbacks and a slice of cheesecake with hot chocolate.
Alice’s driver brought us to the strip mall, pulled up in front of Getty’s and stopped.
“Would you like me to wait here?” the driver asked.
“No,” said Alice, unbuckling her seat belt. “Give us two hours, then come back. You have my cell number?”
Alice climbed out of the car, and I followed. The black sedan drove away behind us, and we were left standing before Getty’s entrance.
“There’s one book in particular I want you to see,” said Alice, pulling open one of the big double doors.
In we went, past the clearance items in the front corridor, then past the best-sellers arranged on tables near the entrance. The feel of this place was both comforting an exhilarating, for I was surrounded by books on all sides. Countless authors had sculpted the written word with various motives and meanings, and all of it was in my grasp. This was my element, my place in the world.
I glanced at Alice, meaning to say this to her, but my voice died when I saw her face. Her expression, that glint in her eye, showed that she felt the exact same way. This girl was no stranger. She and I knew more about each other than we could verbalize. It was easy to forget at times, but students at Carissa’s had more in common than not.
“Over here,” she said, leading me into the historical section. She scanned the shelf for a second, then pointed to one hardbound volume. “This is it. I’ll get this one for you. Take a look.”
She pulled the book out and handed it to me. I held it up, read the title with a knotted feeling in my gut. Sengoku and Sekigahara: The Feudal Tale of the Waring States Era of Japan, part of the Wonder Tales of History series.
“Ugh,” I said, twisting my upper lip. “When you said you’d buy me a book, I thought you meant a book of my choice.”
“Look.” Alice pointed across the store, over to a lounge section. “Take a seat and read this for five minutes. If you’re not hooked, I’ll get you something else. Come find me when you’re done.”
That sounded reasonable. I took the book underarm and left Alice, headed to the collection of lounge chairs on the other end of the floor. There I took a seat and opened the book in my lap. I flipped past the title pages and started on the introduction.
You have purchased (or are about to purchase) one of the bestselling Wonder Tales of History, and you won’t regret the investment. This series has received numerous awards and critical praise for making dense historical subjects accessible to the average reader. Before you start, take a moment to read this introduction, so you can understand this book’s methods and goals.
History, as a subject of study, too often has the reputation of dry blandness, of old men signing papers and young men moving across maps like pieces on a chessboard. This is an easy but dangerous trap to fall into. It’s safe and blameless for the historian to relate a sterile series of facts, but it wholly misses the point of human endeavor. History happens because people do things, care about things, expend their time, their effort, their very lives. History would be nothing without passion, radical ideas and stern beliefs. It is that feeling, that zeal, which Wonder Tales of History strives to capture and put on a page.
Another barrier to historical study is alienation. It’s difficult for modern people to understand the contexts of life hundreds or thousands of years ago, whether in the same geography or across the globe. The book addresses this separation in two ways. First, it takes liberties with language, transliterating to modern meaning so as closest to match what historical figures might say if using today’s dialects of English. Second, the text is generously sprinkled with pictures, maps and illustrations of relevant people and events. These together create an impression of who these men and women truly were, not only what they did, but why they did it.
The book conveys events as a narrative, like a novel. While this does technically class Wonder tales of History as historical fiction, all the facts are double- and triple-checked with historians and academic authorities. The book reads like a story, for a story it is, and history presented as a story will always give the reader a better idea of events than cold facts do, even if facts are marginally more accurate.
With this in mind, embark on the grand tale of the Japanese Waring States period, full of colorful characters, war and intrigue, loyalty and betrayal, death and victory. You will know Sengoku like they did.
I blinked at the book. I had never seen a history title open like that. I flipped to the start of the first chapter, and soon I was lost. The full-color pictures and well-written text captured me. I was absorbed by the deeds of people I had never heard of, Tokugawa and Toyotomi, Ishida and Date, Sanada and Takeda, Honda and Oda, in places like Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku. The writing understood that all these strange names wouldn’t easily hold in an English-speaker’s mind, so it was slow and deliberate in letting the people and their deeds unfold.
“Cheryl?” said a voice.
I started, taking in a sharp breath, and looked up. Alice was standing over me, holding two books of her own underarm.
“What?” I said, still shocked at being brought back to the present.
“You’ve been here a lot longer than five minutes.” She smiled. “I take it you like the book.”
“Um, yeah.” I handed it to her. “Never seen history like that before. I’ll want to read it later.”
“Told you so,” she said. “You have a favorite yet?”
I stood up, stretching out. “Favorite? I just started reading.”
“You’ll have a favorite. I’ll tell you mine – Date Masamune. That guy was a monster.”
I arched an eyebrow at her. “And that makes you like him?”
She nodded. “Not only was he an incredible tactician, but he had a heart of steel. There was one time, his father got kidnapped by their enemies. Date went after the kidnappers, and he killed every single person there, including his father.”
“What?” I said. “Doesn’t that kind of defeat the point?”
Alice shrugged. “Not to them. Destroying the enemy was more important than their own lives. It was a different time.”
Looking up to a man who killed his father. Surely that had nothing to do with Alice’s frustrations with her own dad. No chance, not at all.
“That and, well.” Alice looked away. “Date kind of reminds me of you.”
I laughed. “Wow, thanks. I’m not guilty of patricide, you know.”
“Not that. Just, Date had this unstoppable quality. He always did everything, no matter how hard the world tried to stop him. I admire that.”
In a weird way, she just said something nice about me. I wasn’t sure how to take it. Alice saved us both from an awkward silence by pointing to the second floor.
“All the fiction sections are upstairs,” she said. “Want to poke around before we get food?
We climbed the stairs up to the second level, and found a whole new floor of bookshelves. I immediately headed toward the sci-fi and fantasy section, and Alice followed me. I scanned the shelves, looking through the alphabet for my favorite authors. There was nothing new in any series I followed, and none of the unfamiliar titles caught my interest.
Alice grew bored, so she walked past me to the next section over. That happened to be manga, Japanese comic books. On a whim, my eyes followed her, and something stunned me.
There was a melding of memory and sight. For an instant, I was thrown back in time while standing in the same physical place. Two months ago, while it was still warm enough for a walk to Getty’s without wearing a coat and gloves. I stood in this very spot, looking for novels by the same authors, and Bianca had wandered over to the manga shelf. She found one volume she had been waiting for, so she picked it up and held it out for me to see.
“It’s finally out!” She said, smiling. “This is the one about the daughters from two families who hate each other, but they fall in love and have to hide it. Kind of like Romeo and Juliet, except they’re both girls.”
That feeling came back, the one from this morning, when I fell out of bed after dreaming about Bianca. My chest felt sour, and my eyes burned. I squeezed my eyes shut tight, then blinked rapidly. The image cleared, and I saw only Alice standing there.
“Then there’s this,” she said, looking around the manga selection. “I know my blood comes from the country that writes this stuff, but I don’t see the appeal—”
She turned back to me, and her voice cut off. I must have looked miserable, because she had a sympathetic and confused expression. Then she seemed to realize something, and she covered her mouth with her hand.
“Oh, god. I’m sorry. Bianca liked Japanese stuff, didn’t she? I’m prodding wounds.”
“It’s fine,” I said, hoping my eyes looked less wet than they felt. “But how did you know? About Bianca liking manga and such.”
“Nothing about you two is secret.” She stepped back to me, leaned a shoulder against the bookshelf. “I mean, people called you friends to be polite, but everyone knew it was more than that. That time you kissed in the courtyard, right when school started? People talked about that for weeks.”
I turned back to the bookshelf, pretending to look for something. “I’m surprised people care.”
“Of course they do. The school is full of girls – we’re interested in everything romantic. Especially you two, since you had this match-made-in-heaven thing going.” She paused, and her eyes shifted down. “We were jealous. We want what you two had.”
I had nothing to say, so I kept scanning the same shelf, as if new books would pop up if I glared hard enough.
“What was it like?” she said. “Being with someone like that?”
“Go find someone and see for yourself.”
Alice blew air through her lips, lifting her bangs. Pfft. “Not that easy. It’s not like the love of your life shows up just for the asking.”
I glanced sideways at her, trying for a wry look.
“Sorry, I did it again.” She sighed, rubbed her temple. “Anyway, I’m done with books. Should we go eat?”
We went downstairs and to the rear of the store, where a portion of the floor was marked off for the café. There were few people here, and no line at the counter. I ordered a breakfast sandwich with an orange juice, and Alice ordered a soup and salad. She paid for the food, then we took a table near the back windows while we waited for our order.
“You know, yesterday,” she said, “when I said that about us being friends? I meant that. I have enough enemies at school.”
“And other places, seems like,” I said. “I noticed that conversation with your driver.”
Why did I just say that? I didn’t need to dig up Alice’s family troubles. Maybe that was the lesser of two evils, and I didn’t want her turning the conversation to my past with Bianca. She had done that twice today.
“Yeah, well.” She drummed her fingers on the tabletop. “You’ve heard the story before. Dad is old and controlling and stuck in his ways, daughter wants to go live her own life.”
“Hilarity ensues,” I said. “Except, not hilarity so much as bitterness and self loathing.”
Alice almost laughed. “I lied before, you know. I really did come to Carissa’s to get away from my father. It’s not just the family business. He disapproves of everything I do. He hates the books I read, the stuff I try to write, the things I want to do when I grow up.” She shifted in her seat, looked away. “I and guess, that’s why I joined the student council too. Maybe part of me thought that, if I could excel at what I’m doing, I could show him how wrong he was.”
It hadn’t worked out that way. Instead, she had buried herself under mountains of work and older council members who didn’t respect her. I bet that her dad didn’t care either. She would never, ever win his approval. He sounded like the kind of parent who constantly berates his child, because that’s what’s best for her in the long run. Stupid nonsense like that.
“Sounds rough,” I said, feeling more sympathy than I wanted to.
Alice gave an awkward smile. “Everyone’s got problems.”
Some worse than others, I thought.
The café worker arrived, dropped off our food. Alice and I dug in like hungry girls do. As I was munching on my breakfast sandwich, I remembered a reason why I was here.
“Oh!” I said, swallowed a mouthful. “I’ve got something that might cheer you up. Look at this and laugh yourself breathless.” I wrenched the love letter out of my jeans pocket, held it across the table to Alice.
“Oh? What’s this?” She took the envelope, unfolded it and pulled the letter out. Her eyes flicked over it, then grew wide. “This is a love letter.”
“Isn’t it crazy?” I said. “Got that yesterday, after class. I posted about it on the social board.”
Alice nodded, still looking at the letter. “I saw that. Wow, what would your lips taste like on mine? Someone is desperate.”
“It gets better. Whoever wrote this noticed my post. She sent me a message from an anonymous email address, which shouldn’t even happen.”
“It could happen.” Alice folded up the letter and handed it back to me. “Just, it would have to be someone with the right permissions on the school domain.”
I took the letter and stuffed it back into my pocket, then went back to breakfast. “That’s why I showed it to you. You’re the council chairman, so you know more people than I do. Do you recognize that handwriting from someone who has system access?”
“I don’t pay much attention to people’s handwriting. As for access, I could do it, but I’m the only student with those permissions. Everyone else is in the faculty or IT staff.”
“Ugh. That means there’s some sicko working at the school, or maybe someone stole a teacher’s password.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think that’s likely.”
“So I’m stuck with a stalker until this person decides to show herself.”
Alice swirled a spoon in her soup. “You’ll probably find her soon. Stuff like this doesn’t stay secret for long.”
Our two hours were nearly over, so we finished our food and took our books up front. There Alice paid for them, gave me the Sengoku book, and we headed outside to wait for our ride. The driver was already there, wise to be a few minutes early. We climbed in and rode back to Carissa’s, thumbing through our new books on the way.
The driver dropped us off in the school parking lot, then drove off to do other work for Alice’s family. I expected to part ways, but Alice walked along side me.
“Let me ask a favor,” she said. “You feel free to brush me off if I’ve bothered you enough today. The council inbox has already gotten some entries for the story contest, and I need to get started on judging. Can I hang out in your room as I work on them?”
I hesitated. Going out to Getty’s was one thing, but spending time alone together in the dorm was much more intimate. But who cared about that? Two people alone together was nicer than being alone by yourself. Alice had been good company today, despite a few setbacks.
“Sure,” I said. “But I’ll be working on something myself, so don’t expect a lot of attention.”
“Of course. Let me go grab my tablet, and I’ll be right over.”
“You want me to show you...?”
“No, it’s fine. I know which room is yours.” She gave me a quick wave and walked off. “See you in a bit.”
I watched her go, empty thoughts tumbling over themselves in my head. She knew where my room was. That should have bothered me.
I reached my room and left the door open. I put away my coat and hat, then sat at the writing desk and checked my tablet for new messages. Nothing had come in, and a shame that was.
Alice came by a minute later, now wearing only her casual clothes, holding her tablet to her chest. She paused outside the threshold. “Am I good to come in?”
I gestured her to come inside, then I gave a disgusted wave at my tablet.
“That anonymous person hasn’t emailed me,” I said. “I don’t think I’ll ever hear back. Person’s too much of a coward.”
“That’s not nice to say,” said Alice, closing the door behind her. She locked it too, snapping the deadbolt into place. “I did take you out to Getty’s.”
“Yeah, but....” I let my voice fade, because I didn’t understand what she meant. I looked at her, saw she was breathing nervously, trying not to shake. Then I looked down, saw her tablet, and realized she was holding its screen to her chest. This was the first time she had let me see the back of it.
The back cover of her tablet was dotted with pink heart stickers, identical to the one that had sealed the love letter.
<< Previous Chapter | Next Chapter >>