“Hey, stop,” a high-pitched voice yelped. “Don’t touch me!” I barely heard her over the sound of basketballs crashing against the gym’s floor, but I was close enough to the opened door to faintly make out what was being said. I let the ball that I was dribbling bounce to a stop and roll away from me to the nearest corner of the room as I turned my head to listen.
“Why do you always wear stuff like this?”
It was another girl’s voice. I crept across the hardwood floor and over to the door before I poked my head out of the doorway. I was just in time to see a short girl being surrounded by two upperclassmen. I watched silently as the shorter girl stepped back, her back meeting the wall of the next building over. Her long, blonde hair, which was tipped with red, was draped over her shoulders and her blue eyes widened as the two older girls stepped closer, staring at the neat bow atop her head.
“Some little hair clips would look a lot cuter,” one of them reasoned.
“Yeah,” the one who had spoken before agreed. “That bow is too big and it’s plain.”
The shorter girl’s hands trembled as she reached up to touch the ribbon.
“But I like my bow.”
“Well, at least try some of these out.” The second girl pulled a clip out of her own hair and began to reach for the shorter one. “Here, take that off and I’ll let you borrow mine.”
As soon as the older girl’s fingers pinched the corner of her bow, the shorter girl yelped again. That was when I stepped out of the gym.
“Hey!” All three of the girls jumped and turned to look at me. The one who had grabbed onto the girl’s bow immediately withdrew her hand, leaving it hovering in the air with its fingers spread wide in shock. Even though she had let go, I wasn’t finished.
“She said to leave her alone,” I growled. “Didn’t your parents teach you not to touch people?”
“Well, I—” The two upperclassmen exchanged frantic glances, then stepped away from the shorter girl. My glare sharpened as I said my next words.
“Get lost.” They both nodded and fled back to the gym, leaving the shorter girl and me behind. Ryoko watched as she reached up with shaky hands to readjust her bow. “Are you okay?”
She looked over at me and this was when I realized that they were in the same grade. We were both dressed in the same uniform with green skirts and ties that all first-year students wore at our school, the only difference being the blonde’s hair accessory. When our eyes met, I also noticed that some tears had welled up at her lower eyelids and that her cheeks were red, but she nodded anyway.
“Thank you,” she replied, nearly whispering. She tugged at the hem of her skirt and wiped her eyes with her sleeve.
She’s actually really cute.
“What’s your name?”
“Nekomura,” she answered. She smiled at me briefly before the sound of the gym teacher’s whistle pierced the air. We both looked in the direction of the sound.
“We should probably get back to class.” I nodded and we walked back into the gym.
I wasn’t sure if it was the look in Nekomura’s eyes when she thanked me, or the uniqueness of her hair, but something kept me thinking about her. However, I didn’t talk to her again until nearly two years later, when we were in our final year of high school. That was when I learned Nekomura’s secret.
For some context, my name is Ryoko Okazaki. I was never particularly good at sports, but my grades were decent and I was quite the bookworm. I only had one real friend at that point in my high school days, Harumi Iwamoto, and she was hanging out with me right before my second encounter with Nekomura.
It was nearing the end of lunch on a sunny afternoon in April. School had started only a few weeks ago and Harumi and I were at our usual hang-out spot; the back of the main school building with a perfect view of the track and the grove of trees gathered beyond its chain link border. Harumi, who was sitting on the ground next to me, finished scooping her last bite of rice into her mouth as I rummaged through my schoolbag.
“Damn, I forgot to bring some change again.” I let out a sigh and leaned back, my head resting against a concrete wall.
“What were you planning on getting?”
“A drink or something.”
While I was staring up at the sky, I failed to notice Harumi unzipping a pocket on her own bag. I looked over when she held out a small coin pouch to me. I raised an eyebrow at Harumi as she shoved it into my hand.
“Go to the cafeteria then. They just restocked the vending machine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Go ahead,” she said with a nod.
“Thanks.” I stood and was about to leave when an idea popped into her head. “Do you want me to get you something while I’m there?”
Harumi pursed her gloss-covered lips as she thought for a moment. She ran her fingers through her dark, wavy hair.
“Sure. A coffee or something. Take the back way, since there isn’t much time left ’til class.”
“All right, I’ll be right back.”
The back way to the cafeteria looped around one of the back corners of the school and skipped the courtyard entirely. This would have normally saved me a few minutes if she hadn’t caught a glimpse of Nekomura along the way.
I had nearly made it to the cafeteria when I saw the shorter blonde standing alone in an empty hallway.
Maybe this is why I haven’t seen her around much, I wondered. I had never seen her much around school after I first met her. I reasoned that she probably ate her lunch alone, away from everyone else. I would, too, if people harassed me for the way I dressed like they did to her. I could have said hi and waved when I saw her, but for some reason, I didn’t. Instead, I hid around the corner and watched as she stared at her reflection in a pocket mirror in her palm. Little wrinkles formed between her eyebrows as she fidgeted with her hairbow, a plain one that was similar to what she was wearing when we first met.
Huh, I didn’t think she was so invested in her looks.
But in the next moment, I came to understand why, because she untied the ribbon and revealed two triangular ears that were hidden underneath.
At first, all I could do was stare as she rubbed one of them gingerly with her fingertips. They resembled the ears of a cat since they were covered in soft-looking fur and everything. They even matched her hair color perfectly and were tipped with red. The inside of them were pink with tufts of fur sprouting up from their bases. I didn’t realize that they were real until one of them twitched on its own.
The sole of my shoe made a scratching sound against the pavement as I turned to leave and one of her ears snapped toward my direction. The next thing I knew, Maneki was staring at me with wide, light blue eyes.
“Wait a second!” she cried, rushing toward me. I was frozen in place for a second and all I could do was raise my hand to point at her.
“Those things are real,” I stated bluntly. I know, not one of my brightest moments. She stopped in front of me, already panicking.
“Please don’t tell anyone!” she pleaded, her voice wavering. “I’ll do anything, just don’t say anything. If this gets out, I’ll be screwed!” I looked from her ears, which were now folded against her head, to her face. Tears were already escaping her eyes and I noticed that she was gripping the hem of her skirt again as she stared up at me.
“Really?” Her ears sprung back up, but the tears didn’t stop.
“Yeah. I mean, it’s not really my place to tell anyone—”
“You promise?” She leaned in closer to me and I could see down into the canals of her ears. There was no faking that.
She stepped back and let out a sigh before wiping away her tears. She sniffled and her eyes narrowed a little as soon as she finished drying them. “You look familiar,” she began.
“Oh, um, we met when those two girls were trying to take off your bow in our first year.”
“Ah, that’s right. I remember.” She reached up to touch one of her ears, then looked down at the ribbon that was still in her hand. “I should probably put this back on.” I nodded silently and watched as she looped the ribbon around her ears and fastened it to her hair as a bow. She took out her pocket mirror again to double-check it.
She let out another sigh of relief and returned the mirror to her bag. She turned her attention back to me.
“So, what are you doing all the way back here? It’s usually empty.”
“I was heading to the vending machines,” I answered, holding up Harumi’s coin pouch.
“Oh, you’re running out of time”—her voice was cut off by the sound of the school bell’s chiming—“then. Sorry about that.”
“It’s all right. I should probably head to class.”
“Which class do you have?”
“Really? Me too.”
“You do?” I tried to remember if I had seen her in class before, but nothing came to mind. She must have seen my confusion because she spoke up again.
“Yeah, I just sit in the back,” she explained. “Out of sight, out of mind, you know?”
I nodded, unsure of what to say next. She wasn’t wrong, especially since I hadn’t noticed her there before.
“Come on, we don’t want to be late.”
Ryoko and I made it to class before the second bell had a chance to ring. Most of the other students were already inside the classroom, crowding around desks in clusters and chatting with their friends, but there was one girl who was standing by the doorway. I noticed that she perked up a little the moment her gaze fell on Ryoko.
“Hey, where’d you go?” she asked. “I was waiting for you.”
“Sorry, I ran into Nekomura by the cafeteria,” Ryoko admitted, scratching the back of her neck. “I didn’t get a chance to get anything from the vending machine.”
Well, she’s not lying, I thought as she handed the coin pouch that she was carrying back to the girl. Ryoko then looked back at me.
“Oh, Nekomura, you haven’t met Iwamoto, have you?”
“No.” Before Ryoko could introduce me to her friend, the bell rang to signal the beginning of class.
“I’ll introduce you two later,” Ryoko promised, walking toward the door. “I’ll see you later.”
“Right . . .” My voice trailed off as I followed them into the classroom. As soon as the bell rang, all of the other students wandered over to their desks. Ryoko and Iwamoto took their own seats at the edge of the class near the door as I headed toward mine at the back corner of the room. At least when I sat back there, I was out of sight and out of mind to most. I couldn’t help but watch the two of them as class began, noting the contrast between them.
They both had brown hair, but Ryoko’s was short and tomboyish. Iwamoto’s, on the other hand, was slightly darker, long, and wavy. Another difference between the two of them was that Iwamoto wore some makeup while Ryoko didn’t. I never would have assumed that they were friends if I hadn’t seen it myself with the way they passed notes to each other and always paired up for group work. But my main focus was on Ryoko.
I wonder if she’ll keep my ears a secret. This thought passed through my mind every time I looked her way. About halfway through class, I shook my head and rested my forehead against my palm. It’s out of my control now. It can’t be helped.
At the end of class, Ryoko and Iwamoto left without giving me a second glance. I watched them head down the hall, laughing together at a joke that I couldn’t hear. It felt like my heart was sinking into the pit of my stomach.
I hope she doesn’t tell anyone.
School ended a little past 3:00 and Harumi and I started the trek back home as usual. We took our time, so the sun had started to lower in the pale blue sky and the birds were singing shrilly, offering their melodies to the approaching sunset. I walked silently, looking around and taking it all in. We were almost to the halfway point to my house when Harumi struck up a conversation.
“Are you going to sign up for any clubs this year?”
“No, I don’t really want to,” I admitted, my gaze drifting downward to meet the pavement.
“Oh, are you becoming lazy now?” Harumi teased. She nudged me with her elbow and I chuckled a little.
“Nah, I just want to spend more time at work.”
“I see . . .” The conversation died out when we made it to the train tracks, which marked the halfway point to my house. This was where our paths split.
“All right, I’m gonna hustle home now. See you tomorrow!”
We waved at each other and she ran off ahead. Then I was alone with my thoughts. As I walked along, the memory of my first meeting with Maneki ran through my head again. I brushed my hair a little with my fingers and realized that it must have hurt when the girl grabbed onto her bow.
She probably grabbed her ear with it.
“I’m home,” I called, pushing the front door open. I was stepping out of my shoes and into some slippers when my mom appeared in the entryway to the living room, which was down the hall from where I was.
“Welcome back,” she said, but my eyes almost passed through her. I stared into the room behind her, finding no one else home.
“Dad’s not back yet?”
My mom frowned and shook her head as she crossed her arms. “Not yet, but he’s on his way. He said he would be back by dinner.”
“Okay, I’m gonna go get changed then.”
“All right. Dinner will be done in a few minutes.”
And, as usual, we parted ways. She left for the kitchen as I headed up the stairs. On the way up, my eyes scanned the photos that were hung up on the walls, even though I had seen them at least a million times. Most of them were of me with a few pictures featuring my parents too. It was always just the three of us since I was an only child. The most recent one had all three of us and was hung next to my bedroom door. I glanced at it when I made it to the top step and remembered that it was from my first day of high school. It was also a little while after my dad started his new job, which was a bit farther from home.
My bedroom door was to the left when I stepped off of the top step and when I opened it my eyes immediately went to Sushi, who was swimming in the glass bowl on top of my dresser. I thought it was a miracle that I had managed to keep a goldfish alive for more than three years, but I did everything that I needed to. I closed the door behind me and sprinkled some food in his bowl. I watched with a smile as he gulped it down as quickly as he could. I opened the drawers to my dresser as my mind returned to Maneki.
I wonder if her family is like mine. I picked out a shirt and caught another glimpse of Sushi while I was taking off my school uniform. Do cat people keep pets? Is that even ethical?
I was pulled away from my thoughts when my mom shouted for me downstairs.
“Coming!” I pulled on a pair of shorts and left the room, making my way downstairs. When I reached the bottom, I saw my dad stepping out of his shoes. “Welcome back,” I said with a smile.
“Hey, Ryoko. Studying hard?”
Ugh, this again.
“I guess so.”
“Have you picked out a college yet?” he asked. I froze at the question and when I didn’t answer my father let out a sigh. “I’ll take that as a no. You’re already in your third year, so you should be thinking about this. I’m sure most of your classmates have already picked out theirs.”
“I’ll start looking,” I lied. “Dinner should be ready.”