As soon as her eyes snap open to a dark ceiling and her body registers the sense of unease, she knows the Dream has begun.
She climbs off the mattress and slides the bedroom door open to reveal a short stretch of hallway, dimly-lit; at the end of it is a staircase descending into the light. Any time now, the seconds will start to tick down.
And I’ll only have ten.
It’s a small house, and from her vantage point she takes in the sight of the open kitchen by the front hall, the only light source at this hour—unfinished dishes half-drowning in soapy neglect, the night hanging like icicles outside a window, a fridge pockmarked with once-cherished memories.
And Mother, sitting with her head down as she sheds tears onto the kitchen table.
The front door slams shut just as the source of Mother’s sorrow leaves the house. A timer inside her comes alive, one that never did fade away like the rest of her scars. She flies down the stairs, two steps at a time, reaching the front hall in a single second. She could save some time if the door opened outwards; instead, she has to skid to a halt on the welcome mat before wrenching it inwards.
Three seconds gone.
Clad in her pajamas, she plunges into the night. She’s long since grown numb to the embarrassment, though it’s not like the pedestrians milling about even acknowledge her existence.
Four seconds gone.
A horn punctures the midnight stillness. She cuts a path through the crowd, swerving around as many jostling shoulders as she can.
Five seconds gone. Five seconds left.
She watches the train rumble onto the platform ahead—as out of place in a suburban neighborhood as ever, but dreams don’t have to make sense. Four seconds remain.
The crowd thins. Three seconds.
Feet scuffed from the asphalt and heart thundering in her chest, she trains her gaze through the ever-shifting masses until she finds her target—a tall figure in a trench coat, briefcase in hand as he places one black heel on a step.
“Dad!” she yells with everything she can muster.
For the millionth time, the horn blares her defeat and the train rumbles into the distance, fading with the rest of the dream.
She wakes up in bed to sunbeams spearing her eyes.
“Rei-chan,” calls Mother from the kitchen. “You’ll be late for school.”
“Coming.” Rei rubs the tears out of her eyes, replacing them with the courage to sit up.
I’ll get there in time even if it kills me, she vows as she wriggles into a blouse and pulls on a pleated skirt.
Rei is sixteen years old when a piece of chalk ricochets off her head, snapping her gaze to the front of the class. It’s not the first time she gets humiliated like this, and it won’t be the last.
“Head in the clouds again, Nakajima-san?” scolds Sensei Fujimoto.
Rei releases a frantic apology as she returns the chalk stick to an expectant hand, her forehead throbbing.
“Sticks and stones,” reminds Kano as the two of them abandon the laughter nipping at Rei’s heels in the hallway after class.
“You’re right about the sticks,” mutters Rei as she rubs her head.
(“Want one?” Kano had offered an eternity ago, with the sort of casualness that longtime friends share even though it’s the first time he’d decided to sit next to her during recess.
Rei had stared at the egg sandwich glowing in his hand with surprise and confusion, both of which had melted away like hoarfrost in spring as something beautiful blossomed between the two students.
Kano had chased away Rei’s tormentors, shared notes with her during lazy afternoons in that one coffee shop, buzzed his way onto her phone screen the night before deadlines.
In other words, the years spent floundering in the wake of her father’s departure could have been unbearable, but weren’t.
And Rei can never repay him for it.)
Kano studies Rei’s face as they walk, and there’s no hiding her demons from the boy that can read her like a textbook.
“Rei-chan, talk to me.”
They reach a landing in the stairwell, and the silence hems them in. Rei hasn’t told a soul about the Dream, even though it’s been visiting her in the dead of night for the past two months. Since the school year started, in fact.
Last night, she was one second too slow; she could feel it, her built-in timer screaming for her to make the final stretch. Each and every failure would eat her up for the rest of the day. One second from grabbing the back of his trench coat. One second from changing everything.
One second forever out of reach.
The first time Rei was forced to relive the cursed memory, she had done the same thing her eleven-year-old self had done—crouched in the shadows and watched her life splinter into a million hopeless shards.
Days had turned into weeks, and the nightly torments had gradually evolved into something else—something magical and crystalline and very closely resembling a second chance.
Rei sighs as she gazes up at Kano’s face that somehow remains soft under the worry lines, and she considers telling him.
I need to be faster.
“I… I’m going to join the track team,” she decides then and there.
The years have gifted her the key to deciphering his face as well, and it’s plain to see the surprise—is this the same girl he had to wait for outside the locker room to the tune of her echoing sobs? The one that would splinter like rock sugar under the endless jeering, all because news of her father’s disappearance had mutated into a rumor he’s had to deflect too many times?
It’s not like Kano to stop prodding Rei until her problems become his as well.
He nods after mulling it over. “Trainers.”
“You’re going to need shoes. Proper ones that don’t wear away easily.”
She can’t help but smile. Please never change, Kano-kun.
Rei is eleven years old when her father leaves for the first time.
She jolts awake with an inkling that something isn’t right in the house. The haunting melody of Mother sobbing confirms it, and lures her tiny feet out of her room to the edge of the staircase.
She watches Mother’s shoulders shudder in the kitchen below while Dad slams the door on his way out.
She watches, and that is all she does for ten seconds.
Ten seconds that could be spent consoling Mother.
Ten seconds that could be spent running after Dad in one final attempt to turn him around.
Ten seconds that could have saved the five years to come, but instead destroyed them.
All because she stopped moving.
Rei pants her lungs dry at the end of the dirt path, hands clutching bare knees. Each breath mists ahead of her in the encroaching autumn chill.
Kano jogs over to her side, stopwatch in hand. “Rei-chan, you sure you haven’t had any practice before?”
Oh, you have no idea. “Why?”
He glances approvingly at the timer. “Run like that for the qualifiers and you won’t be a laughing stock.”
“How fast was I?”
“You didn’t reach the end of the path in under ten seconds like you wanted, but you came close. You’re 1.44 seconds over.”
The lakeside path at the park seemed a similar distance. Even with running shorts and a Pocari Sweat at her disposal, here her demons are, wrapping chains around her ankles.
“Again. Time me again.”
“Maybe we should take a break.”
“Not yet. I’m not fast enough.”
She runs until her body gives in (even though her spirit doesn’t) and he is there for her until the blue sky wilts into a cozy maroon. She manages to shave off a few milliseconds.
“You saw?” asks Kano as they split an egg sandwich on a bench.
Rei nods, too exhausted to string words together. Hana Ishikawa and her cronies had been there. Ishikawa, the star of the girls’ track team, had watched Rei panting like an idiot and didn’t laugh.
“Let’s hope she’s only the beginning,” remarks Kano as he munches away. “How are the shoes?”
Rei might just join the sweat puddling inside them, so all she responds with is a wobbly thumbs-up. Again, she has Kano to thank for her trainers—a hand-me-down from his brother studying in Kyoto, not brand new but leagues better than anything she has.
Or anything Mother would be willing to buy her, anyway. Not with the grades she’s getting. And especially not after her father’s departure, which hasn’t exactly made Mother bitter enough to go over the edge (thank god), but bitter enough for Rei to seek solace at Kano’s house on occasion.
“Ready to go home?”
Rei nods, glad that she‘ll always have a reservation on the back of her best friend’s bicycle.
“Dad, don’t go! DAD!”
Night after heart-pounding night, the Dream ends the exact. Same. Way.
With her flailing in the darkness and the horn of a train, low and ominous, splitting her soul in half.
No matter how many seconds she annihilates (her record is 8.16 in the park) and how many litres of sweat she bleeds building her calf muscles in the school gymnasium, she’s always one second too slow.
Every night, she sinks into her pillow eager and expectant, sometimes with her shoes on from after-school practice.
And every night, the Dream finds a way to snuff out that spark.
Sometimes the path leading to the train platform stretches on for longer than usual, and other times the crowd of pedestrians thickens, jostles her too much to keep a lightning-fast pace.
It’s as if the Dream doesn’t want her to win.
She sheds tears every morning, the sun bursting through each droplet before they hit the bedsheets.
What would I even do if I reached him? she wonders one lethargic afternoon as she studies sparrows frolicking outside a window instead of numbers on a chalkboard. Hug him? Make him apologize? Ask him if he ever loved us?
“Nakajima-san,” thunders Sensei Fujimoto. “Solve the equation on the board, and I might spare you the chalk today.”
A stillness descends across the class as everyone holds their breath.
“X is equal to... four.”
Sensei Fujimoto’s nod of approval is as surprising as the fact that the class manages to hold in their collective gasp. Rei’s track sessions had unlocked something inside her—a desire to stretch her legs, to no longer be confined to the shell of a girl made of glass and crystallized tears. That, and Kano’s bottomless well of kindness have made her grades… better.
(“You’ve got some status now that you’re on the team, but why stop there? Once we get your grades up, everyone will want to be friends with Rei-chan.”
She had blushed at the thought, but had loved him for saying it.)
In the hallway after class, Jin Sato pushes Rei against a locker. “Everyone knows that was a fluke, Nakajima-san. Why don’t you drop the act like your dad dropped your mom for another woman?”
She waits for Kano to come to her rescue, only to find slender, glossy fingers pulling Sato off her.
“Piss off, Sato-kun,” orders Hana Ishikawa.
Sato does as the star of the track team says.
“Thank you, Ishikawa-san,” breathes Rei.
“You’re one of us now. Please, just call me Hana.”
In the corner of her eye, Rei catches Kano flashing her a thumbs up.
She concludes one day, as she basks in an ocean of smiles shining brighter than the golden trophy in her hand, that it doesn’t matter what she says to her father.
What matters is that she reaches him at all. Because that’s what should’ve happened five years and an eternity ago.
Every tree in town sheds their leaves as Winter rests its weary bones over the world, and Rei sheds her fears alongside them. When Spring sprouts of the snow, bringing with it glowing cherry blossoms and a sky that sings of new beginnings, Rei sings a song of her own.
She thanks Kano as she clambers off the back of his bicycle one star-kissed evening.
“What for?” he wonders, because it’s not unusual for them to fill in each other’s silence on the way home from after-school study sessions.
“For being there,” Rei answers as she wraps skinny arms around him.
Because even with her new life, even with the people she never thought would populate it but do, it’s the warmth of the boy that has never left her side that she cherishes the most.
All is right in Rei’s world except for one thing. And tonight, she will make it right.
When the Dream dips her into the past, she doesn’t hold back.
I can do this, she tells herself as she slides down the banister—a tactic she’d discovered a few weeks ago to be marginally faster than running down the stairs.
I can do this, she tells herself as she speeds past Mother and bursts into the night.
“I can do this,” she pants as the crowd looms ahead.
She imagines shoes hugging her bare feet, and the track instead of harsh asphalt. She imagines watching Kano and the rest of the spectators in the bleachers go wild as her ponytail flies behind her like a cape.
Every second of every day since the beginning of the school year has been shaped by the Dream. Every heartbeat, fifty-three of them per minute, dipped in the ten seconds she spends here. How can she hope to move forward if those ten seconds have stretched taut across her world and flooded every corner of her life?
That’s why I have to reach him.
The back of his trench coat is there, teasing her through a gap in the crowd. One second left.
The gap fades, plugged by cold grey bodies. She throws her own against them, only to be brought to her knees.
“No! NO NO NO NO NO!”
She doesn’t have to endure the sound of the horn to know the train has arrived. Nor does she have to watch her father board it to know he’s gone.
Later that day, Rei is late for school.
Rei is seventeen years old when she passes her exams and watches her mother’s face light up at the news; not quite as much as when her father was around, but enough to make golden bubbles tickle at her insides.
She’d decided to stop running for good. Not for the track team; if she tried to cut that part out of her, she’d bleed to death. Nowadays, when the Dream begins, she lies in bed and waits it out.
It hurts. But failing hurts more.
Maybe the Dream will stop coming to her if she stays defiant.
She and Kano and a handful of other students sneak onto the roof for one last get-together before Summer. A year has passed and, for Rei, nothing has changed.
Rei takes in the earnest grins surrounding her, the text message inviting her to binge-eat every type of street snack in Osaka, the tinkling melody of Hana-chan giggling at one of her corny jokes.
Rei takes it all in and realizes she’s… happy.
She’s happy, and her father isn’t here.
That night, after she smooths out her skirt and watches Kano pedal away, Rei allows the Dream to take her.
She is calm as still water when the door slams shut downstairs. This time, she doesn’t get butterflies from the pressure of beating ten seconds, even though the timer ticks down somewhere inside her. Like an apparition, she floats down the stairs, one hand on the banister.
Instead of destroying the welcome mat, she turns left and drapes a comforting arm around Mother.
Mother, who glances at her daughter six years too old and too late, eyes brimming with tears.
“It’s going to be okay,” soothes Rei. “The two of us will get through this. I promise.”
Mother fades away like smoke caught in the breeze, leaving Rei alone in the kitchen.
Before she heads out, she glances at the memories strewn across the fridge. She pictures the blank slate of her current fridge, and vows to decorate it with new ones.
Ten seconds have elapsed by the time she steps into the night, and the Dream hasn’t shattered.
Rei strolls onwards, a straight line towards the man that waits. The pedestrians mill about as usual, a perpetual barrier, and she ignores them. She passes through each jostling figure like they’re only a gust of wind.
When she reaches the platform, she glances around to find that the crowd has disappeared, leaving the emptiness of the night to accompany her. That, and the horn heralding the train’s appearance.
Her father should have boarded by now, but hasn’t. One black heel hovers over the step, frozen in time.
Until Rei tugs his arm, making him turn towards his daughter.
His face has never left her thoughts, so she isn’t surprised to see the plainness of someone that has torn a family asunder. He blinks a few times, as if waiting for her to speak.
Look how many friends I’ve made, she wants to say.
Look how good my grades have gotten.
Look how fast I can run.
But she’s grown wings since then, and it’s time she sheds the dead weight so she can fly. Instead of opening her mouth, Rei holds her father’s gaze until he fades away like Mother.
Never to board a train again.
There are no tears when she wakes up. Only sunbeams, and a peacefulness that caresses her heart to beat at a gentle pace.
“Rei-chan,” calls Mother from the kitchen. “Breakfast is ready.”
After pulling on fresh clothes, Rei wriggles into her trainers.
And hits the ground running.