The Bike Ride of Doom
The next few days all of us stayed at the new house, setting our things up, or occasionally going out to run errands. People—especially little kids—would inevitably watch us whenever we went to the local grocery or convenience store. Apparently it was even a big deal when we appeared on the playground that sat in front of our house. Nathan and I were out there with Alexis a few days after we arrived when we saw a pair of young faces peering around the corner of a neighboring house.
"Hey, look!" Nathan blurted out, pointing toward the kids, who immediately disappeared back behind the edge of the house. "Someone's watching us!"
"Nathan, you dolt," I said, "that was rude. Now you scared 'em off."
"I wanna get down," Alexis cried, seeing that Nathan and I had turned our attention away from playing with her on the airplane-shaped jungle gym. I picked her up and swung her around before setting her on the ground. As she cried, "Wheee!" the two faces appeared again.
"Hi!" Nathan called. He was trying to make up for scaring them off before, I guess.
The two faces looked at each other, wide-eyed in surprise, and then burst into giggles.
"Hi!" Alexis echoed, seeing that her brother had gotten a reaction from the two kids. This time they stopped laughing and one of them cried, "Ah, kawaii!"
Taking Alexis by the hand, I approached them. One of the children was a girl who looked a little younger Nathan's age; the other was a boy who looked younger still. They exchanged words I couldn't understand—the little boy sounded a bit anxious—and the girl giggled again before waving to us with a cheerful "Ha-ro!"
"Hello," I replied, then looked back at Nathan, who stood behind me. "Uh...what do I do?"
"I don't know. Talk to them," Nathan said.
"I don't speak Japanese! You say something if you think we should talk to them."
"Your Japanese is better than mine. You say something."
"Oh-ho! So now you admit it!"
"Yeah, okay, I do. So say something!"
"But-!" I didn't know what else to say, so I stopped and listened. Amusingly enough, it sounded like the boy and girl seemed to be having the exact same conversation we were having, based on the tones of their voices.
"Hello!" Alexis said again. "What's your name?"
The boy and girl giggled again and said something in Japanese that I understood: "Eigo wo wakaranai...." I don't understand English.
"Ano...." I said, using the Japanese word for "um." Well, there's a start, right? "Onamae wa nan desu ka?" What's your name?
"Ah! Nai-su! Japanese! Nai-su!" the girl cried, and it took me a minute to realize she was saying "nice."
"Tondemonai," I said, using the "not at all" expression of modesty my Japanese textbook taught me, and thereby impressing them all the more, which was rather embarrassing.
"Namae wa Kitada Hanako desu," the girl said carefully so I could understand her.
"Kitada Raidon desu," the boy said. This I could understand: their names were Hanako and Raidon Kitada.
"Raidon ga watashi no otouto desu," Hanako added.
I thought for a moment and then it clicked. "Ah! He's her little brother. Her name is Hanako and his name is Raidon," I translated for Nathan.
"I could understand that. Your Japanese isn't so much better than mine, you know."
"What? Hey! You just said—"
But Nathan wasn't listening. "Namae wa Nathan Pascal desu," he said with a horrible American accent. Apparently now he was going to show me up. How typical.
"Watashi wa Chloe Pascal desu," I said, introducing myself as well. "Nathan wa watashi no otouto desu. Kono kodomo wa watashi no imouto desu. Namae wa Alexis," I said, and then I stuck my tongue out at Nathan. The little boy saw that and laughed, sticking his tongue out as well, at no one in particular, while the girl was too impressed by my Japanese to notice. Not that I wanted to show off to her, as I'm sure she could hardly understand my Japanese, but Nathan sure couldn't top that.
"Ohhh, sugoi! Nihongo ga totemo jouzu yo!" She then rattled off a bunch of Japanese I couldn't understand.
"Ah! Chotto! Wakaranai," I said, cutting her off and explaining I didn't understand. Nathan smirked. I ignored him.
"Arek-shissu," Hanako said, trying to pronounce my little sister's name. "Konnichiwa, Arek-shissu!"
"Say 'konnichiwa,' Alexis," I told her. She did so, and the two kids squealed with delight, which made Alexis laugh, and then Nathan and I started laughing too, which in turn lead to the Japanese kids' even greater amusement. After much laughter, we quieted into an awkward silence, until the Japanese kids started talking to each other hesitantly and then finally said, "Bye bye!" and waved as they walked away.
"Bye!" All three of us waved as the two of them ran off, obviously pleased that their mission to meet the Americans was such a success.
"That was kinda cool," I said. "We actually talked to some Japanese kids!"
"Yeah, and you're a big showoff."
"Oh, like you aren't all the time when you can be. You're just mad 'cause I'm obviously better than you are at Japanese."
"You're not that much better."
"Oh, no. You already admitted my superiority. Can't take it back now!"
"Is it lunch time?" Alexis asked. "I want peanut butter!"
Nathan gave a glare that was a lot less menacing than I think he intended as we walked back into our own house in search of lunch. Fortunately for Alexis, the local grocery store did have peanut butter.
"Chloe, are you awake yet?" Mom opened my door a crack and peered into my room, where she found me on the bed reading a Calvin and Hobbes collection. We had been here a week now and I was still jet lagged enough that I woke up an hour earlier than I had to in the morning. Without anything scheduled to force me to adjust, I hadn't really gotten on a normal schedule yet. Today, however, begam a schedule that would take full time-zone adjustment and more: it was my first day of school.
"You'd better come eat breakfast soon," Mom said. "Takara'll be here in a little while."
"Okay." I put the book down and climbed out of bed.
"Don't forget your uniform," she said, pointing to the outfit that lay over the back of my desk chair, sent over from the school yesterday. A white short-sleeved blouse, a navy vest, and—ugh!—a matching pleated skirt. I couldn't remember the last time I had worn a skirt.
Mom closed the door and went to wake Nathan up, while I changed into my uniform. The shirt and vest were fine. When I tried to put the skirt on, however, it was about fifteen sizes too small.
"Mooommmm!" I called down the hallway. "This skirt would hardly fit Alexis!"
She came into my room. "What's the matter? Doesn't it fit? Chloe, I thought you tried it on yesterday."
"Never mind. Hold on." She disappeared back into the hall, returning a minute later with a skirt in her hand.
"Here's a skirt that's about the same color as your uniform. It's just a bit too small for me now, so I think you'll fit into it."
I grudgingly tried the skirt on. It fit fine, but didn't look like a schoolgirl's skirt; looking at myself in the mirror, I looked more like I was trying to resemble a businesswoman and doing a very bad job of it. Though that was probably more because my hair wasn't brushed.
"Okay, so you'll wear this one until I can get you a replacement for the school skirt. It's almost the same."
"I look dumb."
"Suddenly concerned about your clothing, are you?" Mom gave me an odd look. She knew that I never cared about clothes, not unlike her at the same age. "You'll look just like everyone else at school."
"No, I look like I'm trying to be sophisticated or something. This skirt doesn't you know, poof out like the school skirts do." I didn't remember the word to describe what I meant, so I held up the way-too-small skirt and showed her what I meant, the way the fabric was sort of cut into triangles and sewn so it wouldn't be completely flat.
"Oh, I see what you mean—pleats. No, it's not pleated, but I don't think the school will mind if you wear a straight skirt for a few days. I'll go and get you a few replacement skirts as soon as I can. Now come on and eat breakfast; I want you to have some energy before you bike all the way to school."
I followed Mom downstairs to the kitchen, where a bowl of Kellogg's brand corn flake-ish cereal waited for me. They weren't strictly what I knew as Corn Flakes, as they had little flecks of chocolate—Japanese style, I guess. I sat on one of the stools at the kitchen table, next to Nathan who was almost done with his breakfast, and squirmed in that miserable skirt. It was way too hot and humid for an outfit like this. Aside from the fact that I could hardly move in it, there was a sticky lining on the inside of it that felt slimy in the saturated air.
"I hate skirts," I grumbled to no one in particular as I poured milk over the cereal.
"Ha ha, I get to wear pants!" Nathan gave me an obnoxious grin.
I cocked a fist at him. "Don't make me kill you."
"Like you could wearing that."
"Wanna see me try?"
"Heehee, you're a girly-girl and you have to wear a skirrr-ert," Nathan said in a sing-song voice.
"You are not going to live to see tomorrow," I said as he hurried out of the kitchen, jumping up from my stool to run after him—unfortunately for my dignity, the skirt caught on the stool, and I fell over, taking the chair with me.
Nathan broke into hysterics. "You mean, you aren't going to live to see tomorrow. 'Cause you have to wear a skirt!"
"That's it!" I jumped up after him, grabbed his sleeve before he had a chance to react, and was about to give the little brat a noogie when there was a knock on the door that distracted both of us. Looking over toward the genkan, we saw a familiar face peering in, watching Nathan and me with wide eyes.
"Hello?" she called. "It's Takara! Are you ready?"
Mom gave Nathan and me a dirty look as she brushed past us to get the door. I let go of Nathan's shirt, and he stuck his tongue out at me and grinned before scrambling away.
"Good morning, Takara!" Mom greeted her cheerfully. She opened the door for Takara, who stepped into the genkan. "Thank you so much for offering to ride with Chloe to school."
"You're welcome, Mrs. Pascal. I've looked forward to it." Turning to me, she said, "Hello, Chloe! Are you ready to go to school? Do you have your bike?"
I did. Dad had taken Nathan and me to purchase used bicycles that we could use to get around while we were in Japan, the same way the way the Japanese kids did. This was how I would get to school today. (Nathan, meanwhile, would get a ride to his junior high from Mom. So not fair.) I stepped outside and wheeled the bike out from under a small shelter next to our house.
"It's raining," I observed as Mom and Takara followed me outside, looking up toward the tumbling greyness above until a fat drop of water plunked right into my eye.
"Yes. Don't you have an umbrella?" Takara held a pink and white checkered one, folded up but covered with drops of water, in her hand.
"Here you go, Chloe," Mom said, hearing her cue to hand me an old black one of ours. She pressed a button on the handle that made it shoot open into its deformed shape, its spokes bent from years of use and abuse.
"Mom! You knew it was raining!"
"Of course I did. We do have windows in our house. Haven't you noticed?"
I rolled my eyes and sighed. "I knew it was cloudy but I didn't know it was actually raining.... I don't suppose...well, maybe you could drive us to school or something."
"Mom's driving meeee," Nathan said, appearing behind Mom, safely inside the genkan where he'd stay dry. I glared, then decided not to acknowledge his presence anymore.
"It's okay," Takara said. "You have an umbrella. You see?" She opened her pink and white one over her head. "So you'll be fine."
I sighed again, quite wearily. "Okay. I don't mind getting wet, but I'm not sure about riding with an umbrella."
"Oh, it will be very easy for you! Your umbrella opens with a button! So you can press it while you are riding. You only need one hand."
Mom nodded as she closed the umbrella and handed it to me. "You'll be fine—it's just a little water, and since Takara did offer to show you the way to school...."
"I know, I know. I'll be okay." I set the umbrella in the large metal basket that was mounted on the front of my bicycle, next to my almost completely empty backpack. All I was taking to school today was a notebook and some pencils, and a box lunch my mom had packed for me.
"So are you ready?" Takara didn't wait for an answer. "Let's go!" she said as she hopped on her bike and took off.
"Wait! Chotto matte!" I cried, remembering the Japanese equivalent. But Takara didn't hear either language.
"Bye, Mom. Bye, dear little spoiled brother." Mom waved and Nathan made a face at me as I tried to get on my bike. This was much more challenging than I expected. The bike was measured to my size, but I had been wearing shorts when I went to get it, not a straight skirt. With my legs virtually stuck together above the knees, climbing on to the bike was a challenging exercise indeed.
"Takara! Wait!" I called again, watching her pedal off down the street as I struggled with the bike, trying to jump up onto it as it wobbled precariously. It took me three tries to get on it that way—the first time I splashed in a puddle and soaked my socks, and the second time I jumped too high and nearly fell over on the bike—but I finally made it.
Unfortunately, once I was on, it was even scarier. My seat was wet and frighteningly slippery at first, until my skirt soaked it all up (which wasn't necessarily an improvement). Since I had to keep my knees together—cursed skirt!—only the tips of my toes could reach the pedals. I couldn't stand over the bar, again because of the evilness of skirts, so I couldn't hope to put my feet on the ground. I had no idea how I'd get off when I got to school, but I could worry about that later—right now I was about to fall off of it if I couldn't get it going fast enough to stop wobbling.
Takara finally looked back, from quite a way ahead by now, to see if I was following. Seeing that I was at least on the bike and moving, she didn't stop but merely slowed down, weaving back and forth across the road ahead. Pressing as hard as I could with the tips of my toes, I forced the bike onward. Takara waved her pink umbrella back at me, shouting, "Come on! We will be late!"
Now that I was successfully moving on the bicycle, I could pay attention to the fact that I too had an umbrella. The rain had been fairly light when we left only a few minutes ago, but it seemed to be getting heavier. A drop rolled of my nose as I reached into the basket and grabbed the umbrella. Holding it out to the side as I struggled to pedal that creaky old bike and stay upright, steering with only one hand, I pressed the button, causing the umbrella to shoot open.
"Aaaaah!" I screamed as the wind caught the open umbrella and pulled me with startling force, nearly knocking me off the bike.
Takara turned around. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine!" I shouted back. Which wasn't true, but it seemed like the right answer anyway.
"Okay! We turn here." She waved her pink umbrella toward the right—against the wind, how the heck was she managing to stand?!—and then made a sharp turn around a corner into a little town-like area. I followed her, and—
"Oh my God!" I cried out as I swerved to avoid a sheer drop-off into a raging river. Seriously! Along the edge of the road, without so much as a little gate to keep someone from running off the road into it, the cement pavement suddenly dropped straight down about six feet into a gully. The rainwater was rolling off the road in sheets and coursing rapidly through the channel. My heart pounded inside my soggy school vest as I tried to stay as far as I could from the drop at the edge of the street.
We pedaled onward for what seemed like a very long time, but that was probably only because I was struggling to pedal while wearing that straight skirt on a bike that was too big for me, with the rain water blowing more fiercely into my eyes each minute, and with the umbrella doing absolutely nothing to help but merely making it more difficult as the wind continued trying to drag me over a sheer drop into a churning man-made river. I was beginning to get the hang of it when suddenly, a car approached. Takara moved over closer to the right side of the road: we were riding on the right, so we were facing on-coming traffic, as they drive on the left side of the road in Japan. This, of course, was not what I was used to, which was more confusing than I could take under the circumstances. As I inched closer to the drop-off, trying to avoid the car as it passed me with a good two inches space to spare, wouldn't you know the wind chose that moment to pick up?
The scream caught in my throat this time as I teetered over the sheer drop, looking down at the foaming rapids below. My knuckles turned white on the handlebar and on the umbrella as another car came on the tail of the first, giving me even less space to ride in.
I wondered if I would make it to Torahime High School alive.
"Takara! Are we almost there?" She didn't look back at me. I wonder if she could hear me over the pounding of the raindrops of the roofs and coursing of the water running alongside us. I wished I could wipe away the water dribbling down my face, but between controlling that ornery bicycle and clinging to the umbrella that ducked and swung every which way, I had no hands free.
An expanse of flat greenness opened before us as we left the cluster of shops and homes behind. Not so far in the distance, forested mountains rose out of the rice paddies, and thick wisps of white cloud hung between their peaks, flowing with noticeable speed down through the valleys. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. I would like to say that my gasp upon seeing this for the first time was due to my amazement, but I think it was more due our pedaling up a slope. Looking out at the surrounding rice paddies, I wondered why the road had to have so many hills in it. I guess the paddies were artificially flattened; too bad they didn't do the road, too. I never thought I was that badly out of shape, but I could hardly keep up with Takara as I panted up the hill—though I don't suppose it would be completely unfair to blame part of my difficulty on the conspiracy the bike, the skirt, and the atmosphere had against me.
Upon reaching the top of the slope, we then coasted down, picking up speed as we rushed toward the fields of rice. Normally I find that sort of thing exhilarating, but today I was--
HONK HONK! Chalk up another tally mark for yet another near-death experience on this bike ride! A car had appeared seemingly out of nowhere, thanks to a slight curve in the road that came from behind a hill just big enough to hide it. Oh, and double my surprise because it came opposite the side I expected it to be on, putting us on a collision course until the very last second when I dodged out of the way. Oh my God, my heart was really pounding now! Seriously, I have never been so certain that I was about to die in all my life. Yes, yes, I know that cars had already passed us and I had already noted that they were on what my brain perceived as the wrong side of the road, but just because my conscious mind noted that doesn't mean that the unconscious part in charge of sudden dangerous situations had fully registered that. You try remembering things like that when you're speeding downhill at ungodly speeds with rain blowing in your eyes.
"Takara?" My voice was shaky now, and I had to shout to be heard since she was so far ahead. "Are we almost there?"
She heard me. Thank God. "Yes! Almost there!" she called back to me without turning around.
We slowed a bit due to another slight slope, and I tried to regain some composure. I made another vain attempt to shake the rain out of my eyes as I tried to catch up with Takara. Fortunately, the rest of the way was rather flat, with rice paddies stretching for miles on either side of our path.
After what seemed like an eternity, we finally made it to another town. Naturally, it was one with more dangerous drop-offs into deep gutters like the one we left. This town was bigger than the one we had gone through near my house. The further we went, the denser the buildings became, until we reached a street where there was only about a foot's width of sidewalk—sometimes not even that—separating the pavement of the street from the stores that lined it. Vending machines selling everything from yogurt to what I think was some kind of sports drink—Pocari Sweat?—stuck out into the street every twenty feet or so. As we crossed a railroad track in the town center, other kids on bikes wearing clothes rather similar to mine (actually, lots of them were smart and wore rain jackets, but some only had umbrellas like Takara and me) merged with us and we formed a growing group of soggy students. Several of them stared at me, and one boy said, "Hello!" with a cheery smile and tipped his umbrella at me.
The group of student cyclists all turned down a street heading into another rice field and biked down this for a while, until finally I saw some students ahead of us pulling into a driveway.
"It's just ahead!" Takara called back to me. "That's the school."
Takara turned in to the driveway, and with more than a little trepidation, I pedaled through the gateway after her.