Masumi found himself stood outside the door to the library, his hand hovering over the handle and his body refusing to go the rest of the way. Despite the smile just waiting to happen, the fact that he’d been thinking about this moment all day, he found himself bumping up against a wall of anxiety.
There was a chance that Jellybeaner wouldn’t be there. There was a chance that Jellybeaner would think he was ugly without his makeup and his outfits. They might just not like him when he couldn’t be exuberant in public. There were a million things that could go wrong…
And he had to face all of them. It was what Low-Life would do. Masumi glanced either way down the hall, pulled the yellow armband out of his pack, and slid it on. He checked against, just to be sure, then performed his signature salute.
“You’ve got this, Low-Life!” He told himself, as his voice cracked down to a whisper. The silence in the school corridors would easily carry his voice to some curious students. “You’re going to go in there and it’s going to be great! It will be okay! Got it?” He inhaled, then nodded. “Got it!”
Masumi pushed open the door and took in the library. There were a couple of students lingering around the chest-high shelves lined up against one wall, a few others at the tables on the opposite wall, and the custodian stood behind his desk There wasn’t a sliver of yellow in sight. He strolled down the length of the library, peering between the shelves in the hope that he’d spot somebody crouching by the lower shelves, and still there was nothing. He got all the way to the other end and leaned against the desk. Still, there was nothing.
“Can I help you?” The custodian leaned over his desk and followed Masumi’s point of view over the library.
Masumi jumped as he was shook out of his reverie. “Oh, um. Sorry. It’s – I’m looking...have you seen anyone with yellow on their arm? I’m meeting a friend!” He flashed a nervous smile.
“I haven’t, I’m sorry. You’re welcome to wait if you make yourself look busy.” The custodian gestured to one of the more vacant tables.
“Right! Right. Thank you.” Masumi bowed to the custodian and moved over to the nearest table, where he opened up his homework. It was the best spot to see anybody come in.
Masumi found that focusing on his homework posed more of a challenge when he had to keep looking up at every shuffling of feet. The relative silence did nothing to help quell the dread that clawed its way out of the depths of his mind. His grip on his pencil tightened until his knuckles turned white, as he went over all the things he had to tell himself just to walk through the door. He was cute. They were going to show up. Everything was going to be okay. It had to be.
The seconds ticked by and Masumi’s quiet resolve was met with nothing. There was no problem to solve or monster to beat or mirror to face. In those moments, he was certain that he was going to be alone. He didn’t know how long, but it could have been forever for him. The other students in the library didn’t care that he was there, just like it didn’t matter if he was anywhere else. That was some small comfort as hot tears started to form in the corners of his eyes and his breath hitched in his throat.
The silence in the library was broken by a sudden tune from the depths of Masumi’s pack. He startled in his seat and the custodian tapped his pencil against his desk.
“Phones outside.” The custodian said, crisply.
Masumi clutched at his bag, his cheeks red hot, and stumbled out of his seat. “S-Sorry...” He mumbled in the man’s direction and hustled out of the library with his head hung low. The blurry corners of his eyes caught the sight of the other kids rolling their eyes before going right back to their work. Escaping into the corridor felt like the first rain of Summer.
Masumi scrambled for his phone and pulled it open. The blinking email icon drew his finger to it, then popped up with a message. Its sender made his heart skip a beat.
I’m sorry. Work called and I had to take an emergency shift and I left my phone on all day and I only just got to charge it. Please don’t be mad because I am sorry. If you would like to meet still come to the library in town and I will still be wearing the yellow armband. I hope I see you.
Masumi bit his bottom lip and read the email over a few times, just to make sure that he wasn’t missing anything. If what he read was right, then he wasn’t being abandoned. His fingers danced over the keypad as he figured out what he should say to them, an outpouring of the first words that came to mind, until he realized two things. The first was that, if Jellybeaner was at work, she wouldn’t see his message anyway.
The second was that he didn’t know whether he could go and meet Jellybeaner. The rules that he’d read, the rules that he set out, were to only meet somebody at school. That was for his own safety. But, on the other hand, the town library wasn’t a dark, decrepit alley where he could be put in danger. There were always people there, and it was right in the middle of town. If he was going to get attacked, it would be somewhere much less secure.
But if somebody was clever enough to lead him on for a month, they would have known that he wouldn’t go to somewhere like a warehouse or the hills outside of town. They could have plotted it out so that they set out two safe locations and would jump him inbetween.
“Idiot...” Masumi muttered to himself as he walked down the corridor to the bike rack. Jellybeaner wasn’t some criminal trying to capture him. Not with all they’d talked about, not with the records that the police would find. They’d spent too long building up trust.
But that trust had been broken by Jellybeaner not showing up to the library. There was just enough of a crack for his good sense to slip in. Maybe he was being paranoid, but it was better to be paranoid and safe than not paranoid and not.
He ran back down the hall to the school library, then hustled to the custodian. “Do you need anything taken to the town library?” He asked, as he peered up at the lanky man.
“...yes?” The custodian said. “I have some books used for last term. Are you volunteering to take them back?” Masumi nodded vigorously. “Hm. Sign here.” He said, as he pulled out a notebook and pushed it over to Masumi. “Just to be sure you’ve taken responsibility.” He reached below the desk and retrieved a box stuffed with small books, then pushed it over to Masumi.
“Thank you! Er, I mean, you’re welcome!” Masumi lifted the box and just about managed to fit it into the spare space in his bag. “I’m going there now! Right now! Um, write it down, that I’m going straight there.”
“...okay.” The custodian said.
“Okay!” Masumi nodded, then hustled out of the school library and back along his original path. As he walked, he sent an email to each of his parents detailing the exact time of his departure and where he was going. There weren’t many bikes left in the racks, but there was a pair of girls just getting theirs ready as he swung his leg over his own. “I-I’m going to the library!”
“Oh! Have fun!” One of the girls waved at him. Her friend raised an eyebrow at her. “What? Being nice is not lame.”
“I am not!”
Masumi pulled his cap on and heard the pair bickering as he rode out of the school proper and pulled up his mental map of the town. None of the direct paths between the school and the library were viable if he wanted to stay safe. He’d have go to the outskirts of town, then come at it from the back. There was no way somebody would think he’d take such a circuitous route. And so he set off.
As he rode, he had a lot of time to think about what he was doing. Whether he was actually concerned for his safety or just occupying himself with something so that the potential heartbreak would stop looming over him. Whether he was taking it all too seriously to begin with. It was just a new friend from school. His only friend, but still just a friend. Lots of people made and met them every day. And there he was, riding all the way around town just because one couldn’t make it to a meeting.
His body started to rebel against him just as he reached the other side of town and realized that he was only really halfway to the library. Away from the clear outskirts of town, he’d have to take into account turns, people, stopping, actually paying attention to where he was going and avoiding anywhere that wasn’t brightly-lit and surrounded by people. All with the extra weight of the books in his pack, which seemed to be growing heavier by the minute.
“C’mon, Low-Life.” Masumi breathed in and rolled down the hill. The rest of his trip went about as well as he’d expected, with a few close calls where he might have rode straight into a wall or a person, or almost tipped right over after slamming too hard on the breaks. But those gave him something to pay attention to, so it was almost worth the aches in his legs and shoulders.
He parked his bike in the racks outside of the library and took a few moments to center himself. He hadn’t been attacked. He’d arrived safely. The sight of the town library should have filled him with some sense of accomplishment, but instead it was like he was right back outside the school library. All of the things that could have gone wrong there could have gone wrong here, and just as easily. His first attempt at the door resulted in a detour for a snack and a drink from the vending machine.
Now he was ready.
The Yamamura was one of the oldest buildings in town, and one of the more beautiful. It was set up in three tiers, immediately opposite the doors that flanks the counter. Each tier had their own sections devoted to genres, with shelves of books and a few spots for reading, the largest by far at the very back. There were a few doors marked for employees only on each tier, presumably leading to the space below the tiers.
Masumi scanned the tiers from the bottom floor and didn’t spot anyone with yellow material around their arm. But if Jellybeaner was working, all hope wasn’t lost. They’d be out soon enough, and looking for him, or that was what he told himself. He couldn’t go to them right away regardless.
“There are from Retsuko Academy.” Masumi pulled the box of books out of his pack and slid it onto the counter beside the entrance. “They were borrowed for last term and, um, I volunteered to bring them here, so...there y’go!”
The woman behind the counter turned around to face Masumi. She was quite tall, with her long black hair tied in a braid and a neat uniform. Her face seemed solemn at first, then her eyes landed on Masumi and seemed to light up. Masumi’s instinct was to shy away, until he saw the yellow ribbon wrapped around her right arm.