She Comes And Goes As She Pleases (Part 4)
The best word to sum up today's events would be crazy.
I'd been subject to physical and emotional strain that would have crushed lesser men. Carrying bundles of heavy cloth made up my physical burden. The emotional torture came from knowing that Shiki had a boyfriend and that they had been going out for at least three months without me knowing about it. And to sweeten the deal, I even had to put up with them being lovey-dovey and all over each other. Sickening to say the least.
Now, to add even more weirdness to an already peculiar day, my gal pal Eri had apparently felt sorry for me so she took the liberty of taking me out for what she called a date.
Of course when she said the word "date", the first thing that came to mind was both of us doing things like relaxing at a park bench at night and holding hands, only to doze off peacefully leaning our heads against each other. I knew Eri wasn't my romantic interest by a long shot but it was still a tantalizing image that I couldn't get out of my head.
But that was it: Eri wasn't my dream girl, so no matter how romantic it was, it would seem as right as pairing a duck with a beaver. We hardly matched each other, and if we were ever together we would make the oddest couple since, so to speak, my friend Beat and a bowl of curry.
Still, I was curious to know what she was up to, so I went along…
"So, Eri," I said, "remind me again where we're going?" I had rushed out of the house with her, not knowing what was in store for me, and now we were on the bus heading to goodness-knows-where. She could spirit me away to some far-off rural place and leave me to starve on a deserted mountain and no one would be the wiser.
"Sorry, can't tell you," she chuckled. "Dates that have the element of surprise are the riskiest to attempt, but when they work, they can work really well."
"If by date you mean shopping trip where I'm going to have to carry your things, then I must politely decline."
"I wouldn't do such a thing, I promise," she laughed. "I mean, you just don't do that during a date! And if ever I break that promise and turn our friendship into a twisted slave-and-master thing, then on those times when I come over to crash at your place for the night, you can bar me from setting foot in your house."
I deadpanned, "I think I'll enjoy that."
"Geez!" she huffed, puffing up one cheek in mock annoyance. "Play along, will ya?"
"Why are we going out anyway? Don't you already have a boyfriend?"
Her fingers were tweezing and playing around with a lock of her pink hair. "Okay, first things first, Neku: we're not going out. And yes, I have a boyfriend. But I can't stand seeing you all depressed like the world's ending, so I thought by having some fun together I could cheer you up."
I almost didn't believe it. Eri would go out of her way just to lift my battered spirits? Perhaps she valued me as a friend much more than I thought. Somewhere inside me I was touched by her actions. There was certainly more to her than just being a lunatic, I guess.
Then I just remembered something. It got the hair at the back of my neck standing on end and I made sure she knew. "Your boyfriend will murder me if he sees me with you, Eri."
But she just grinned and said nonchalantly, "Oh, Neku! You're so paranoid. My sweetie is as gentle as a lamb! Sure, he might get a little ruffled, but he wouldn't do something like break your bones or knock out your teeth. I mean, that'd be just barbaric, right? !" And she gave a hearty little laugh and a slap to my back that did little to ease my worries. If anything, her words just made me feel a lot worse. Maybe I should go into hiding…
A scant few minutes had passed and we alighted in front of a… cinema? Hmmm, so we were going to watch a movie, eh? Typical date stuff…
…except I didn't like horror flicks.
"Is this your idea of a date?" I sighed. "Watching 'The Haunted Village'? Why can't we watch something more… normal?"
"There's nothing like a good scare, Neku!" squealed an excited Eri. "And good scares are meant to be shared, so what better time to share those chills up the spine with another person than on a date? Besides, the film is said to have this really hot shower scene, so I took your perverted nature into account and chose this. See? That's how nice and thoughtful I am."
I seethed, "I'm not a total sleazebag like you put it!"
She just giggled mischievously. Then, in a totally unexpected move, she looped her arm around mine, causing me to flinch a little in surprise. No girl had ever done this to me before, and the very action was making me blush.
"Come on!" she said, grinning and pulling me along. "What're we waiting for? It'll be a blast."
As we waited in line for our tickets, I became aware of the people staring at us. I thought at first that they were disgusted by what they thought was an overt display of affection between the two of us. But when I heard bits and pieces of their conversations, it occurred to me that they were simply awestruck by Eri's beauty… and that they were mighty jealous that an "unworthy twerp" like me could be so "damn lucky" to be with her. Gee, thanks, people.
I took a furtive sideways glance at Eri, and the way she was looking so chipper made her look even prettier than she already was. Being in such close proximity to her allowed me to take a quick whiff at the perfume she was wearing. Hmmm… vanilla had a nice flavour… exquisite and addictive… must… smell… more…
"Um, Neku?" squeaked Eri.
"Huh? What is it?"
She was red-faced and fidgeting uncomfortably. "C-Could you stop sniffing me? I know we're on a date, but… you're not a dog."
Uh-oh. I had gotten too physically close to her in trying to take in more of that beautiful aroma of hers. Everyone was staring and possibly thinking I was some weirdo. Whoops!
"S-Sorry," I gulped. "My… My bad. D-Don't mind me. My common sense just took a temporary nosedive. It happens."
"Um, yeah… I figured as much."
We spent the next few minutes in awkward silence, with her occasionally looking at me in a suspicious way, until we finally vanished in the darkness of the theater.
"Is it gone?" asked the girl anxiously. "We need to get to the bell tower to activate the sirens!"
The boy, young for his age at fifteen, was as frightened as she was. Huddled together with her in the abandoned hut he tried to act brave, but the unearthly presence of the vengeful ghost could be felt everywhere. Alone in each other's company with limited supplies, they never felt more hopeless in their lives.
He mustered all his courage to take a peek through the rotten slats of the window. All he saw was the village, enshrouded in fog, with only the moonlight shining from above. Otherwise, the entire place was deserted.
"I… I think it should be safe," whispered the boy, turning to look at the girl.
When he turned his attention back to the window just to be sure, he couldn't have been more wrong about his earlier words.
Suddenly, a shadow appeared outside the window, right before their eyes. The badly deteriorated face of the ghost hung upside-down, its empty eye sockets squirming with maggots. And it was staring straight at them!
"Shhh!" hissed an annoyed Eri, slapping me lightly on the arm. "Quiet!"
"B-But I couldn't help it," I whispered back, shielding my eyes with trembling fingers. "It's too much! This movie is too scary!"
The other movie patrons were probably fed up to the teeth with my involuntary screams by now, but 'The Haunted Village' was simply too frightening for words. If it was a campy zombie film I might enjoy it. But Eri had a penchant for the strange and, apparently, for the macabre as well, and that was why we were watching this. I could tell the chills were giving her thrills as well, but it wasn't the case for poor old me.
"Geez, it's fine to be scared," huffed Eri, "but that doesn't mean you can yell the whole place down! Can we not have one more scream out of you for the rest of the movie, Neku? Please?"
My hands were gripping the armrests so hard they could disintegrate into dust. "I'll… I'll try."
Following the obligatory chase sequence by the angry ghost, the film cut to a relatively calmer scene where it was daylight and our two hapless protagonists managed to survive (that's the boy and girl in the movie, not me and Eri). The moment that had allegedly gotten the media in a buzz had finally arrived and it was the much-ballyhooed steamy shower scene. And of course to sensationalize things further, it had to be the girl who was taking the bath.
As a normal guy, I naturally grew a little excited with the anticipation of some nice flashes of skin. There was a little pang of guilt and a part of me was saying that I shouldn't be looking at things like this, but whatever reservations I had melted away when the… um… uh… Wow… no actual nudity here… The steam obscured her body in a very tasteful way… Very… interesting…
Then the camera got a good clear shot of her face. It never crossed my mind before, but upon closer inspection, the girl looked a great deal like Eri.
The resemblance was uncanny. The high cheekbones, that fair skin, and that smoky bedroom gaze. The girl turned to the camera, and for the briefest second, her eyes met with the audience. In my fuzzy head I imagined it was Eri who was beckoning me with that come-hither look. I shuddered.
Come to think of it, Eri was a regular presence at my home, and as such, she often showered at my place too. Maybe… this was how she took her baths… first the neck, then the shoulders, then moving down to…
Argh, stop! I didn't know how many times I had to shake my head to clear it, but it was enough to jiggle my brain stupid. Why… Why did I have to think about Eri like this… Why did –
"Neku," whispered Eri, "what's wrong?"
"Whoa!" It just burst from my mouth. Eri had to shush me up urgently.
"Wh-What's with that outburst? !"
"I-It's because you're naked and in the shower!"
"Huh? !" Her eyebrows were knitted in confusion.
"Um… oh, shoot. N-Never mind! Ahaha!"
Eri shot me a weird look before shrugging and returning to the movie. I dug into my seat as far as I could go, so mortified was I. Remind me not to mix up reality with fantasy again!
My trials weren't over yet. Something was creeping into my personal space… I thought at first that it was the ghost from the movie coming to haunt me, but it turned out to be Eri's hand, reaching out slowly for mine. I could have gasped then, but fear of being reprimanded kept me silent. I knew couples often held hands during movies, but was she seriously going to do this to me? !
I watched her hand creep further. The closer her hand approached mine the harder my heart thumped. Was she really going to hold hands with me, even when she was fully aware that she had a boyfriend? I didn't know what to think. Or rather, there was so much to think about that I didn't know which thought was right. The cacophony inside my head was a giant jumbled chunk of nonsense that went something like this:
Even though Eri and I were on a pretend date, it might be nice to know what it feels like to touch a girl's hand. However, my feelings for Shiki, while slowly dwindling, were still swimming about in my heart, so it was confusing. What exactly should I feel? And of course there was the matter of whether Eri's boyfriend might be watching us, and if he did, I would be a goner. She had reassured me that he wouldn't break any of my bones or teeth, but she never said he wouldn't wring out my intestines and wrap them round my neck like a garland, right? Such a gruesome death might turn me into a vengeful ghost like the one in 'The Haunted Village'. And the last thing I wanted was to spend my life – er, death? – hunting down scantily-clad teenagers and scaring the heck out of them by hanging upside-down in front of a window with a fistful of worms in my eyes! The horror! And then –
Oh god! She was getting dangerously close! I braced myself for the feeling of her hand on mine… and whatever terrible fate would await me afterwards.
But she didn't touch it. Instead she was reaching for the tub of popcorn on my lap. She rummaged for a fistful of kernels and popped them into her mouth.
I could only stare at her blankly. Whether it was in confusion or disappointment because I expected something good to happen out of it… I didn't know. I just stared. And she quickly noticed.
Another weird look from her. "Wh-What?"
"You're creepy, Neku. If I didn't know better, I'd have thought you were a ghost yourself."
Darn it… This was getting out of control.
At least keeping myself busy with all those thoughts in my head lessened the brunt of the fright caused by the ghost appearing behind the girl right in the shower.
"Save for the odd scream or two from you," quipped Eri, "I'd say that was one heck of a fantastic movie!"
"Uh… well… good for you…"
The movie had reached its bone-chilling conclusion (in the end, the ghost always wins), and all the moviegoers were trooping out of the cinema, going their separate ways. Eri was as lively as any other day, but the film had scared me so much that I almost looked like a phantom myself. And yet the film was one thing. Having Eri hovering around in my thoughts was another, and frankly, that might be the greater issue of the two.
Why in the world was I constantly thinking about someone I knew I wasn't interested in?
She nudged me in the ribs to get my attention, but it caused me to recoil comically. "Ow!"
"Ow indeed," she chuckled, liking my reaction. "Ow indeed."
"Don't do that!"
"Hey, I could use a drink, maybe an ice cream. And since the movie must have dehydrated you to the max, how about we go for sundaes at the family restaurant down the street?"
At the nearest ice cream parlor, over a banana split for her and a regular chocolate sundae for me, we took our time to discuss 'The Haunted Village'.
"I loved the part where the girl was exploring the hidden cellar," giggled Eri in morbid glee. "You could feel the tension oozing out of the screen as she was walking over all those dead bodies! Neku, which part was your favourite?"
"When I left the cinema."
"Psh! You just can't appreciate a good horror flick." She swiped a wad of ice cream into her mouth. "You're missing out on a lot!"
"If it'll give me nightmares later, I don't mind missing out."
"You're no fun…"
The whole time she was talking, she seemed to be making quite a few glances at my ice cream bowl. I didn't think much of it until, without warning, she jabbed her spoon into my sundae, robbed me of one precious spoonful, and shoved it into her mouth. She closed her eyes and moaned in delight at the flavour, "Mmm…! God! Chocolate is sooo yummy!"
"Wh-What are you doing? !" I snapped.
"Don't 'huh' me! Why'd you take from my ice cream with your own spoon? !"
This caused Eri to pause and stare at me blankly for a second before replying, "Your ice cream looked delicious, so I just wanted to take a small bite…"
"But it's unhygienic! You don't touch another person's food with your own spoon and stuff!"
"Oh, my bad…" It seemed like she understood, but I was wrong. "It's mean of me to steal from you, so… here." She hastily scooped a generous spoonful of ice cream from her banana split and extended it towards me. "This is to pay you back for what I took. Now, say 'Ahhh'."
I recoiled in my seat, growing steadily redder. "Just what sort of devilry are you up to this time? !"
She sighed in slight annoyance. "What do you mean, 'this time'? Look, there's gotta be a healthy mix of give and take in this world. That's how life works. So to make up for what I did, I'm happy to part with a little of my own ice cream."
"Are you expecting me to eat from your spoon? !"
"What's so weird about it?"
"Everything!" Lack of hygiene was one thing, but the bigger picture, which she failed to see, was that feeding someone like this was strictly reserved for couples in a very loving relationship. Plus, it simply was too embarrassing!
Our little 'dispute' gradually became known to the rest of the patrons in the parlor, and though they must have done their best to ignore us, I could feel their sideways glances. The blush on my face was hot enough to melt the ice cream in my bowl. Eri, however, neither minded nor cared. She had an amazing immunity to embarrassment.
"Come on!" grumbled Eri impatiently. "Trust me, the banana split is heavenly! Besides, one bite wouldn't hurt. There's no way you'll catch a lifetime of colds from something as harmless as this."
This was getting seriously unbearable. Yet there was no way to break myself out of this situation, because Eri was a stubborn girl. She wouldn't stop until she got what she wanted. I couldn't run away, because she wasn't the type to look to the skies if I were to point upwards shouting "Look! It's a flying elephant!" No matter which way I sliced it, escape was impossible. I had to grin and bear this ordeal.
Defeated, I sighed, "Got it…"
That wide sunny smile of hers returned. "Good! Now, Neku, say 'Ahhh'."
I pried my jaws ajar. "Urk…"
She only 'tched' and frowned at me. "You have to say 'Ahhh', not that weird squawk!"
Fine. I squeezed my eyes shut and hoped for the best. "Ahhh."
The world was pitch black all around me but through my closed eyelids I could almost see her spoon approaching at a snail's pace. My only thought was for her to get the whole thing over with already. As soon as cold metal touched my tongue, I hastily closed my lips around the spoon, and the sweet aroma of her banana split filled me up. The moment the spoon slipped out of my mouth, I felt a little more relieved. Finally it was over.
"Well?" cooed Eri. "How was it? Bananas sure are the bomb, huh?"
I didn't know where to look, though I had to admit it was my first time tasting a banana split, and it was great in more ways than one.
She just chuckled. Dammit, I knew she was enjoying this! Making a complete fool out of me and – wait, she just scooped up another dollop of ice cream from her bowl and shoved the thing in my direction.
"Wh-What is it now? !" I gulped. "You just fed me, you know! That's more than enough!"
"Well, I did say there's got to be give and take," she shrugged, "but in some instances, it's not so simple. You know how you have to pay interest when you borrow from the bank? Life works like that too. So right now, I'm paying interest."
"Y-Your logic makes little sense."
"Whatever." She poked her spoon in my direction. "Now say 'Ahhh'."
I had little choice but to give in again. Oh god. Was this heaven… or was it hell?