Well, here's a look at an old manuscript...I began writing "The Other Roads Club" trilogy back in 2008 or '09...after a number of years of edits, and fooling around with it, I realize it's got a long way to go. But I wanted to play around with it again...it stands up pretty well. I can see where my style has changed over the years. I wonder what you think...this is the introduction from Book 1, "Take Another Road." Let's meet a new/old heroine, Aimi, and her interesting friends...
Dear Kira-chan: I have only a short time before breakfast, so I must make this note a quick one. I was up late into the night reading The Bonesetter’s Daughter. Amy Tan is a wondrous writer; the story was at times sad, but one that really made you think. I will see if I can find more of her stories in the library.
So yes, I still read a great deal. It helps in these days, but I am well, and I hope you are the same. I miss you very much, yet each day I do my best to move forward.
Kaz will be meeting up with Kaldera today, and I just might get to meet this other boy who has been taking lessons from him. Kaz says he is very different, but someone he’s sure I’d like. He too likes to read and is very much into the western classics.
Mother is calling me; I must go. I love you, Kira-chan, as always…Aimi.
Aimi Okuda set her writing aside and cast a brief glance at the framed photograph that looked down from the top shelf of her desk. Smoothing back her long black hair, she turned and stood before the mirror above the dresser. Aimi clipped two metal barrettes in place, adjusted the collar and matching blue neck ribbon of her school uniform and the waist of the short, pleated skirt; she then made sure the level of her blue legwarmers matched at the knees. Aimi then picked up her book bag and stepped out the sliding door into the narrow hallway.
Moving past her parents’ bedroom, Aimi looked out into the front of her home. To her right was the small, threadbare living room. To her left in the kitchen, a woman had just finished packing lunches for the family.
“Good morning, Mom,” Aimi said as she slid past the breakfast table behind her mother.
“Good morning.” Madoka returned her daughter’s greeting and closed the three wooden bento boxes before setting them on the counter next to the stove. “Aimi,” she asked, “would you shout down the basement to your father? Breakfast is ready, and we’ve got to leave soon.”
“Okay.” Footsteps clumped up the steps now, so Aimi took her place at the low table. Tucking her long pigtail securely inside her red morning robe, Madoka sat beside her daughter, and the two began to serve three plates of rice rolled in seaweed, setting them beside small bowls of soy sauce, along with last night’s leftover baked fish.
“Here I am, no need to yell for me.” Aimi’s father, Goro squeezed himself through the tiny door that led to the cellar and slid it shut behind him. Dressed in blue jeans and a dark blue work shirt, he entered the kitchen and sat down across from his wife. Goro was in his early forties, short but strongly built. He ran his hand through his black hair, which had a few grey streaks in it and picked up his coffee cup. “The new flutes are packed and ready,” he said before taking a sip of the black brew. “They should go over well today.”
The Okuda family owned and operated a small shop in the Ameyoko section of Tokyo. The area was once the source of black market goods following World War II, but had since evolved into a colorful, bustling place of business. Their shop specialized in traditional and modern Japanese artwork. The more popular items were prints of certain scenes the tourists favored, but Goro’s handmade flutes or shakuhachi were popular, as were Madoka’s calligraphy paintings.
As the three began to eat, Aimi told them, “I will be over after school to help.” She related to her parents of the meeting that was scheduled to take place.
“Good.” Goro nodded approvingly and said, “Tell Kaldera if you see him that I may have some money for him. I believe a buyer is coming for that guitar of his.”
“I will.” The family discussed the upcoming day’s work at the shop, and the activities at Aimi’s school. “The class trip to Koga is next weekend,” she commented, “it’s all anyone’s been talking about.”
Madoka looked with sympathy at her daughter. “I’m sorry we couldn’t afford for you to go, Aimi. It would have been good for you.”
Aimi shrugged. “It’s okay,” she replied, her expression and voice sincere. “Kaz and Mei aren’t going, either. Besides,” she went on, “I have a feeling something else is going to happen that will beat going to see the Ninja Museum!”
All three laughed as a knock came on the door, which slid back a moment later. “Morning, all,” a female voice called.
The Okudas welcomed in the new arrivals, a uniformed boy and girl. “Hello, Kaz, Mei,” Aimi returned.
“Come sit,” Goro told the pair, and the two removed their shoes and took up spaces on either side of Aimi.
“Yes, and help yourselves,” Madoka told them. She motioned to the plates on the table, “there’s plenty.”
“Oh no, thank you,” the one called Kaz returned politely. “I’m well-fed.” Kazuhiro Ogawa was tall and thin; his black hair was worn long, but not so much to become a concern for the school district’s regulations. He lived next door to Aimi, as he had all their lives.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Mei said as she helped herself to a piece of the nori and dipped it into Aimi’s bowl. Meiho Maeda was another neighbor on the street, the most outgoing of the group. Mei was thickset in her build, the product of years of martial arts training. The uniform showed off her musculature, in particular her well-defined thighs and calves.
These, however, weren’t the first things people tended to notice when they saw Mei for the first time. Her face was plain, but bore the bloodlines of Korea as well as Japan. Her hair was black, thick and very long, held in place by several bobby pins and a black plastic hair clip. Her dark eyes were accented by the black eye makeup she wore; this plus her larger than normal girth gave Mei a menacing image. “How is everyone?” She asked, taking care to swallow before speaking.
“Another day,” Goro replied and rolled his eyes to the ceiling, “another day poorer,” which again drew laughter.
“How is your mother doing, Mei?” Madoka asked. “I feel sad I’ve not been over to visit in a while.”
Mei nodded. “Mom’s better today,” she replied, “and she says hello to all of you.” Mei’s mother had been ill for some time and was no longer able to work. As a result, Mei looked after her, especially on her more difficult days.
Aimi looked to Kaz. “How are your mom and dad, by the way?” She asked.
Kaz shrugged, and the look on his face showed right away. “They were both out the door before I was up,” he replied, “the usual.” Kaz’s father was lead mechanic at an automotive repair center in the city, while his mother worked in a downtown department store. The Ogawa’s of late were rarely seen, due to their schedules.
Aimi had known that her first question had struck a nerve, and inside she wished she hadn’t asked it. Changing the subject, Aimi then asked, “How about today? Kaldera’s coming over to school, right?”
At the mention of Kaldera, Kaz became more like himself. “Yes, and Minoru’s coming by, too,” he said. “You guys will love him. He’s quite the musician.” Kaz went on to explain that Minoru went to the exclusive public school near theirs.
Seated between her friends, Aimi detected the barely perceptible growl that came from her left, from Mei. She made no reaction to it, and Aimi continued to listen to Kaz. “He’s very good on the shamisen,” Kaz explained, “and he’s been learning guitar like I have from Kaldera. Oh, and another thing: Kaldera wants to take the boat out next weekend. He wanted to know if you would be interested.”
Madoka smiled. “Well, Aimi,” she said, “you just predicted something different might happen.”
“What does Kaldera have in mind?” Goro asked, equally interested.
“I don’t know,” Kaz replied. “He just mentioned it in passing the other day. He’s also planning to play out this week. I hope he’ll let us know more about that, too.”
Aimi then turned to Mei. “What’s up with your Tae Kwon Do?” She asked. “Did you hear about the testing?”
“Yes.” Mei smiled, probably her first broad one of the day. “Matsunaga-Sensei says I’m all but ready for my test, the big one.”
All voiced congratulations. Now sixteen (the same age as her friends), Mei had risen through the junior ranks to the red belt. The aforementioned final test would come soon, and if all went well, Mei would gain the long-sought black belt. “I’ve been waiting for this a long time,” she said, “and I’m hopeful; but I’m not gonna believe it until Sensei says so.”
“Well,” Kaz said, “we’ll be there to see it.”
The group broke up, and Madoka invited the pair over for dinner that evening. A regular occurrence, as Kaz’s parents tended to work long hours, and it gave Mei a break from home.
The three watched and waved goodbye to Aimi’s parents as they drove down the narrow street in the old white Suzuki mini truck. With the Okudas on their way, the three teenagers headed in the other direction. In addition to his book bag, Kaz also carried his acoustic guitar in its hard case.
“So we’ll finally get to meet Minoru,” Aimi said. “You’ve spoken so well of him; I am anxious to find out what he’s like.”
Mei nodded, but said nothing. Her gaze appeared fixed ahead, but as Aimi was a little shorter, she could note that her friend’s eyes were downcast. Reaching out, she put her hand into Mei’s, the other into Kaz’s.
Aimi noticed that Mei’s smile returned, and Kaz had one as well. That made hers even larger. It will be a good day. I am glad to make my two oldest friends smile. Then I can smile a little more, too.
* * *
The silver Jaguar pulled up to the curb and stopped without a sound. The rear door opened, and the tall girl alighted. Bending from the waist, she leaned into the window and thanked the driver, then stood to watch him drive away.
She turned to look over the main courtyard of Katsuhashi Academy. The fan-shaped yard which led to the main doors of the impressive brick building was populated by numerous uniformed students. Most talked in small groups; a few were seated on the grass or on benches, studying or socializing before homeroom.
The girl checked her face in a compact mirror before walking in, and noted with some satisfaction that the eyes of many of the male students and older passerby were on her lean, athletic body. She ascertained her white and blue uniform blouse was straight, the red scarf and the seams of her short dark blue skirt in line. Shouldering her book bag, she walked into the courtyard and brushed back her long, flowing black hair with careful casualness.
She looked over the knots of boys, they in the all-black uniform of the spring semester. The girl listened as well, but not to the chatter of her fellow students. She did not hear that other sound which she expected at this time of the morning
“Asuka-san! Ohayo!” The call of two girls’ voices broke Asuka from her search, and she turned to greet her classmates as they rushed up.
“Ohayo.” Homoka and Masami were two of her closest friends; like Asuka, both were in their second year of high school. The former was Asuka’s teammate in field hockey. She was short and had the classic, thin build of a Japanese girl. Her hair was long and black and styled much like that of Asuka’s. Masami was also thin, but she did not play sports. Her own straight hair hung past her shoulders, and she wore expensive eyeglasses, plus a black beret perched at the correct angle on her head.
The girls walked on either side of Asuka as they passed through the courtyard. Over the typical questions of how her friends were doing plus other matters of the school day, Asuka was paying only scant attention. She continued to search ahead of her; then near the main doors, she saw a boy sitting alone on a bench with a curious musical instrument in his hands.
“Minoru-kun,” she called as she moved quickly to his side. As she did, the boy rose, carefully set down his shamisen, bowed and smiled.
Minoru Higa was a teenager that would stand out in any crowd. He was tall, and looked even thinner than he was in the uniform. His hair was thick and naturally wavy, the ends just a little past his collar. This was actually against regulations at Katsuhashi; but then, Minoru seemed to get away with such things.
“Good morning, Asuka-chan.” Minoru accepted Asuka’s police kiss. He also hailed Homoka and Masami and bowed to them, which pleased the girls much more than a simple greeting should.
“How are you today?” Asuka looked into those dark, almost black eyes.
“I am quite well, thank you,” he quietly replied. “I’m glad I got to see you before school, Asuka. I wanted to ask you about something.”
Longtime friends, Minoru dispensed with the honorific, usually after the initial greeting. That to Asuka was just one of Minoru’s “ways,” of which there were many.
“Of course,” Asuka replied.
As on cue, Asuka’s friends made their excuses and stepped away. Minoru chuckled at this. “They are so tactful,” he joked. “You have them well trained.”
The two laughed as they sat on the bench. As Minoru placed his shamisen in a padded leather shoulder bag, Asuka replied, “They are not trained, I can assure you, Minoru. They are merely kind about giving us our space.”
“Yes, and carrying on with the Camelot-like nature of what they, and everyone else thinks our relationship is.” Setting the bag alongside his books, Minoru said, still smiling (though Asuka could tell its meaning had changed), “I gather you have heard what they’re all saying about us.”
“I care not what others say,” Asuka replied. “It is what we both think that matters.”
“Supposedly,” Minoru went on, “we are the Golden Pair. That perfect couple.” He snorted with barely hidden distaste. “I don’t know about you, Asuka, but frankly I am embarrassed by it.”
Asuka gently laid her hand on Minoru’s shoulder. “No one means anything bad by it,” she said. “Yes, I have heard that too, and it is rather juvenile. Let the others talk; it means nothing to me.”
She watched as Minoru turned slightly and looked into her eyes. They seemed sad and apologetic. “I didn’t mean to put down your friends,” he told her. “I’m sorry.”
“No, don’t think that. You are so decent to everyone,” Asuka said. “Don’t worry about them, or me. We have each other; that is what matters, isn’t that right?”
Minoru smiled. “Right,” he replied. “Oh, if I may now ask you about that certain something?”
Asuka smiled and nodded. “You may.”
“Kaldera is going to be over at Masuyo today,” Minoru explained. “I’m meeting up with my good friend Kaz over there, too. Why don’t you come with me? You know Kaldera already, and I think you’d really get along with Kaz and his friends.”
As he spoke, Minoru examined Asuka’s expression. At the mention of the name of the public school, her eyebrows raised and her face, slimmer in its lines than most Japanese, took on a slight change and the smile fell away. Minoru expected this; it was the logical, almost programmed reaction where Asuka was concerned.
“I…don’t know,” Asuka replied, but she looked away and said no more.
“Oh, do come with me, Asuka.” Minoru took her hand, and quickly added, “It is not like we would be exploring a wild world. Kaz is a fine person, and I’m quite excited to meet these friends of his. A few new friends are always a good thing, wouldn’t you say?”
Asuka turned to face him, and her smile returned. “You can talk me into anything, Minoru,” she replied. “Yes, I’ll gladly go with you. The hockey season is over, and the dinner party is not until later in the evening. By the way, you are coming, aren’t you?”
“Indeed.” The two rose, and Minoru shouldered his shamisen. “Your father has become rather a patron of my music, which I am grateful for.”
As he picked up his books with his free hand, Asuka noted the familiar leather-bound volume atop the stack. “Here I stand amid the roar…” she chided.
“…of a surf-tormented shore,” Minoru returned with a grin.
The outside loudspeakers then emitted the tones for homeroom, and the two entered the building hand in hand, awash in the mass of those wearing the school’s colors.