Her mother had pushed the sugar bowl back to make more room on the countertop for the cookie dough bowl. Ami noticed that her motherís back was turned. Her fingers crept forward and flicked a few grains of sugar off the countertop and into her mouth.
"Ami-chan," her mother said softly. Amiís eyes jumped up to look at the back of her motherís head as she licked the sugar off her lips. "You know that eating pure sugar isnít very healthy, donít you?" Ami hid her hands behind her back and silently nodded. Her motherís head turned toward her and she sighted audibly with relief. Her mother was smiling, so she couldnít be very angry. Her mother heard her sigh and laughed, then reached down to ruffle her hair. "No, Ami-chan, Iím not upset with you. I just want to make sure you wonít open the sugar container and try to eat spoonfuls of sugar.again." Amiís shoulders slumped as her mother suddenly straightened up and waggled her finger at her. Her mother had that lecturing expression on her face again. "Sugar in moderate amounts is all right, but I donít want you overdoing it, Ami-chan. It could be dangerousóthere are many foods that are unhealthy in large amounts, such asó"
"Hai, kaa-san!" Ami interjected quickly, hoping to forestall yet another sermon on proper nutrition. They were so boring. Her mother blinked a couple times in surprise, her mouth still open, then her face relaxed into another smile.
"All right, musume, Iíll forego my lecture. After all, it is Saturday."
"Cookie day! Cookie day!" Ami did a happy dance on her footstool. Her motherís lips turned up a little moreóshe almost broke into a full-fledged grin.
"Yes, Ami-chan, itís cookie day." She handed a cut crystal glass to her daughter. "Now, Ami- chan, be very careful with this glass. You mustnít drop it. Do you remember what to do next?"
Ami ignored her motherís condescending tone and leaned as far forward as possible, stretching her small hand out toward the sugar bowl. She know what to do next! She didnít need any help! Well, except maybe to reach that sugar bowl.it was too far back for her short arms to reach it. Even with her tiny pink tongue clenched firmly in her teeth she couldnít stretch her fingertips far enough forward to touch it. "I canít reach the sugar bowl, kaa-san. Onegai?"
"Hai." Her mother pushed the bowl closer. With one hand firmly on the flour covered countertop, Amiís fingers finally curled around the lip of the sugar bowl and she pulled it close to the edge. She put the decorative bottom of the crystal glass into the sugar and twisted it around to coat it with sparkly grains, then she brought the glass gently down on top of the ball of cookie dough her mother had prepared for her on the half-full cookie sheet. Her tongue again forced itself between her lips as she tried to apply even pressure on the glass. She wanted to make at least one perfect cookie. When she felt that the glass had smooshed the dough out to about the right diameter she lifted the glass back up. A thrill of triumph ran though her,. She carefully placed the cup down on the countertop before turning to her mother with a proud gleam in hr eyes.
"Look, kaa-san, itís perfect!" She examined her perfect cookie more closely. A fine dusting of sugar lay on top of it, deposited by the glass. The impression was as symmetrical as a snowflake, and just as beautiful. The sugar even made it sparkle like a snowflake. Ami smiled. Her cookie wasnít even a bit lopsided. It made the rest of the cookies on the sheet, no matter how misshapen, worth the effort. She nodded happily to herself. "Perfect."
She looked up and caught a glimpse of another smile as it chased itself across her motherís lips. She didnít look down at Amióshe was making another ball of cookie doughóbut she nodded. "Yes, Ami- chan. Very good." Her mother deposited the finished ball of dough on the cookie sheet, next to Amiís perfect cookie. "Now, can you make another one?"
"Look, tou-san! Look at the cookie I made!" Ami hopped from one foot to the other with glee as she waited for her father to look. The cookie she held hopped from one hand to the other as wellósheíd grabbed it off the sheet as soon as her mother had said she could, but it was still terribly hot in her hands.
"Mmmmmm.just a second, musume, Iím painting." Ami craned her neck and looked up at her father in his dumpy painting clothes. The dropcloth on the floor felt funny to her feet. It was stiff yet unstable, not soft and comfortable like the bathroom rug or smooth and steady like the hardwood floor in the hallway. She squinted and blinked as she examined the canvas sitting up high above her head on the easel, then tilted her head from side to side, trying to decide what the painting was supposed to be a picture of. Sometimes he pained real life things, things she could recognize, but lately heíd been painting with weird squiggles and splatters that she couldnít interpret. She stood on her tip-toes and craned her head to try to get a better look, but it still didnít look like anything. Maybe if she crinkled her nose just so, and tilted her head back far enough sheíd be able to see what it was. Her father watched her antics out of the corner of his eyes, and finally couldnít hold his laughter in any longer. He shoved his brushes into the dirty brush can, dropped his palette on the brightly spotted old table and swooped down to grab Ami around her waist and heft her up in his arms with a chuckle. "Well, Ami-chan," his eyes were still sparkling with barely suppressed mirth, "what do you think of it?"
She looked at him full in the face. "It doesnít look like anything," she complained. "I could do better myself!"
"Oh you could, could you? Well then, Ami-chan, what would you paint?"
"A cookie!" Ami smiled beatifically and thrust her perfect cookie in his face. "Itís beautiful, ne, tou-san?"
"Hmmmm." Her father drew his eyebrows down in a serious expression, but Ami wasnít fooledóshe could still see that he was laughing inside. He examined the cookie very carefully, turning her hand this way and that to get a good view of the cookie from every angle. "Ee, Ami-chan," he finally intoned. "itís very beautiful." Ami buried her face in his shoulder and giggled. He gently plucked the cookie from her grasp.
"May I eat it, Ami-chan? Is that why you brought it here?"
Amiís head shot back up. "Hai! Mommy and I just finished them!" She watched him carefully as he put the cookie in his mouth and began to chew. She started squirming when he didnít say anything right away. After a couple seconds of silence she couldnít stand it anymore. "Well, tou-san? Is it good? Do they taste all right?" He just looked at her. "Ne, tou-san, is it good?" Still he didnít respond. "Ne! Ne! Tou-san!"
He winked and grinned. Ami growled with mock frustration. Heíd just been teasing again. "Yes, Ami-chan, itís very good. But I think I need another one to make sure. Donít you think so?"
Ami twisted her torso around and pointed toward the kitchen. "Hai! Theyíre in there!" Her father carried her into the kitchen. Kaa-san had set them out to cool, and was washing some of the dirty dishes while she waited. "Kaa-san, tou-san needs another cookie!"
`"Thatís nice, dear. Go ahead," her mother replied as she set the large cream colored mixing bowl in the rinse water. Ami loved that bowlówhenever it was pulled out she knew it was time for kaa-san and her to begin baking. Amiís father put her down on the footstool as she gazed at the bowl.
"Why donít you pick one out for me, then, Ami-chan?"
Her fatherís voice pulled her out of her reverie. Ami deliberated over her choice. Finally she picked another one of her better cookiesóit was only a little bit lopsided. "Hai, tou-san!" She held it out to him. He took it from her with a smile, but then he stepped up to the countertop and picked up one of her worst cookies. She couldnít hide a small wince. It was so uneven and lumpy.
"This cookie youíve handed me is very nice, Ami-chan, but donít you think this one" he held the ugly one up in hand, "is nice too?"
Ami shook her head. "Iie."
She hung her head. "I messed up on that one. I pressed too hard and it smooshed funny."
Her father leaned close. "But that just makes it special. Look, not another cookie looks like this one in the whole batch. That makes this cookie beautiful too, donít you think? You can tell it from all the others, canít you?" Ami looked up at him with wide eyes. Wasnít it better to make things perfect? Her father saw the confusion in her eyes and tried to explain. "You have to learn to see beauty in things like this cookie too, Ami-chan. Perfection isnít the only beauty there is. In fact, perfection can often be sterile and boring compared to the beauty you can find in something thatís flawed."
"Stop confusing her, honey. She worked very hard to make those cookies look nice."
"Well, I donít want her thinking that perfectionís the only answer. One person in the house like that is enough."
"What are you trying to say?"
Ami looked back and forth at her parentsí faces. They almost seemed to be angry, but she couldnít really understand why. Suddenly her father picked her up again.
"Címon, Ami-chan, weíll each have a cookie, and then Iíll get back to painting." As her father carried her out of the kitchen Ami looked over her fatherís shoulder at her mother, who was washing the dishes with sudden vigor, as if theyíd offended her somehow.
"Look, Iím trying to work here!"
"Canít you work without making such a mess? This is simply terrible!"
"Iím painting! It canít be helped. Iíll clean up when Iím done."
"Thatís the problem, youíre never done! You just keep giving up and starting over before you pick up your mess from your last great project!"
Ami pressed her small hands over her ears as tight as she could. Theyíd been fighting more lately. She hated it when they fought. The yelling scared her. And it always happened after she was in bed. They never yelled at each other when she was awake. They sometimes sounded angry, but they never yelled, and that just made the night fights worse. She sat up in bed in her small room and listened to them in the dark. When the fights had first started sheíd turned her little bedside lamp on each time she woke up, terrified of the strange and frightening shadows in her usually safe room, but that only brought her parents into her room and made them yell at her instead of each other. She clutched her blankets close in the dark and listened to her parents fight as she tried to convince herself that the dark dragon shadow moving in front of the window really was just the tree branch waving in the wind outside her window.
"Well then, Iíll just leave!"
Ami heard a door slam shut, and shivered silently in the eerie darkness.
"Iím so sorry, Ami-chan," her mother murmured, trying to pull her close. Ami had finally fallen asleep from exhaustion in the early predawn light, and she felt tired and overwhelmed with the news her mother forced on her when she woke this morning. She pulled away from her mother, anger stiffening her back.
"No youíre not!" Tears fell from her eyes, but she was too angry to even notice them. "Youíre not sorry at all!"
"Ami-chan!" her mother gasped in horror, "How can you say that?"
"Ami jumped out of bed. The cold floor on her bare feet made her toes curl under her, but she ignored that as well as the tears. Her hands were in tight fists, and she was on the point of hitting her mother. "Youíre not sorry. "Youíre not! You said it was fine for him to leave!"
"Ami-chan, I never meantó" Her mother reached out toward her, her eyebrows pulled down in concern and tears forming in her eyes. They were already red from crying, but Ami didnít have the patience to notice that either.
"I HEARD YOU!" Her mother fell back, and even Ami was a little surprised at how loudly her cry came out. "I heard you! I always hear you! And I hate it when you fight! And YOU TOLD DADDY TO LEAVE!" Sobs finally overwhelmed Amiís anger, and she suddenly couldnít stand to be in the same room with her mother for another second. She ran out of the room, her loose pajamas nearly tripping her. She was so blinded by her tears that she practically had to feel her way into the living room, where she finally stopped running and fell to the floor to cry.
Ami punished her mother in every way she knew how. She left the room whenever her mother entered, sheíd disobey her as often as she dared, and when she had to be in the same room as her mother she refused to speak to her except in simple yes or no answers. It made for a miserable weekend for both of them. Ami woke Monday morning with eyes gummy from more crying. Her mother was knocking on her door.
"Címon, Ami-chan. Are you up?"
Ami blinked a couple times. "Hai."
"Hurry and get dressed honey, we have to go someplace."
Ami looked out the window. It was barely light out. Where could they be going? She undressed quickly, wincing at the cold floor and pulled randomly selected clothes out of her closet to put on. Tou-san had always helped her get dressed in the morning. Though she was finally old enough to do a reasonably good job of putting her own clothes on, even getting the buttons lined up right, tou-san still came in and laid out the clothes she was supposed to wear for the day. But tou-san was gone, kaa-san had to go to work, and Ami was home on vacation. Did that mean she was going to stay home all day alone? But kaa- san had said they were going to go someplace.
The door o her bedroom opened as she was pulling her first sock on, and her mother stuck her head in the door. "Ami-chan, you didnít answer me. Are you getting dreó" Her mother stopped talking and stared at her. "Ami-chan!"
"What?" She hadnít done anything wrong, had she?
"Look at yourself!"
"What?" Ami held her arms out and looked down at herself. She didnít see anything she should get scolded for.
"Youíve got two different colors of socks on! And why on earth are you wearing an orange shirt with blue and green plaid shorts?!" Her mother muttered angrily under her breath to herself as she opened Amiís closet and began to pull out different clothes for Ami to wear. "I want you to find another blue sock, like the one youíre already wearing, Ami-chan. You have to match you socks!" Ami sighed and did what her mother said. It looked fine to her. Tou-san had certainly never gotten so upset over different colors!
"Where are we going?"
"Hmmm? Her mother didnít even turn to look at her.
"Where are we going? You said we were going to go somewhere."
"Oh, I have to bring you to the day care center at the hospital. Youíre still too young to stay home alone, after all. Though goodness only knows what diseases youíre going to bring home with you, cooped up like that with thirty other children. Itíll be even worse than school!" Ami just stared at the floor as her mother tugged on a more appropriate shirt, muttering under breath the whole time. If tou-san would just come back, everything would be fine.
Ami shifted impatiently from one foot to the other. It was Saturday morningócookie dayóand her mother hadnít even gotten out of bed yet. She decided to get dressed on her ownóif she put on matching socks and made sure the colors of her clothes looked all right together, maybe her mother would be in a better mood for making the cookies.
That decided, she dashed noisily down the cold floor of the hall toward her room. As she changed her clothes her mind raced. What kind of cookies would they make this week? Theyíd made sugar cookies and oatmeal cookies the last two weeks. That meant that this week was probably going to be chocolate chip week. She couldnít resist a grin. She loved chocolate chip weeks! There were always plenty of opportunities to sneak more than a few chips from under her motherís nose, and who could resist chocolate chips? She examined herself in her mirror before stepping out. Her hair was wild from pulling her T-shirt over her head. Her face twisted up in an expression of mild annoyance as she ran her fingers through it. At least it was shortóthere wasnít too much there to waste time fussing over, just like kaa- sanís hair. That thought made her uncomfortable, for some reason. She quickly moved her gaze down. Her socks.well, they almost matched. Good enough. She opened the door of her room and stepped out. Something was different. She closed her eyes and sniffed. Yes, that was the smell of fresh coffee. Kaa- san was finally up!
Ami ran into the kitchen. Her mother was hunched protectively over her fresh cup of coffee. She was still in her grey terry cloth bathrobe, and her hair stuck out at weird angles from her head. Papers were scattered all over the small kitchen table, and a pen, pad of lined paper, and calculator were next to her right elbow. She looked up as Ami entered the room. Her face was deeply lined; she looked frightening and alien. Ami hesitated at the threshold of the kitchen door, then took one token step in.
"What is it, Ami-chan?" Her mother sighed and straightened up in her chair. "What do you want?"
"Are we going to make cookies today, kaa-san?"
Ami could instantly tell by the guarded expression that covered her motherís face that she wasnít going to like the answer. "Ami-chan, I donító"
"But itís cookie day!" When tou-san left, did the whole world change? Saturday was cookie day, one of the immutable facts of life Ami had learned in her six years.
Her mother swept her hands over the papers in front of her. "But I have all the bills to take care of. Itís the only day this week Iím not on call, musume, I have to try to get this household in order." Her shoulders sagged under an invisible weight as she scanned the buried table.
"Butóbutóitís chocolate chip week!" Ami desperately used her most powerful argument first. Chocolate chip week!!
Her mother just motioned helplessly toward the pile of papers again, a sad look in her eyes. Amiís spine stiffened and her hands turned into angry fists at her side. She narrowed her eyes and pressed her lips together. "I hate you." She spoke in a low, controlled voice, shivering with the sudden force of her anger. Her mother lifted her hand from the table as if she were going to reach out for Ami.
"Musume, you donít understandó
"Iíll hate you forever!" Ami spun around and stalked angrily back to her room. She stood just inside the door and closed it gently, still moving with cold deliberation, as if any quick motion would make her burst into flame. She felt like a barely contained explosion. How dare kaa-san say that she couldnít understand! There was nothing to understand. Cookie day had always been her special time with kaa-san, since her mother worked all week and she was usually home with tou-san after school and during vacations. Tou-san may be gone, but that shouldnít affect cookie dayóit was only kaa-san and her that ever baked! It wasnít fair, it wasnít fair at all! All Ami knew was that with tou-san gone, nothing in her formerly ordered world was safe.
She rubbed her eyes and sniffed. No more cookie day.
"All right. Youíll be there at six, ne?" Ami strained her ears as hard as she could to overhear her motherís telephone conversation. It sounded like she was talking to tou-sanóshe had that tight, controlled voice she always used when talking to him since he left. Itíd already been forever. Months ago. "Youíll show up this time? Iím sick of coming and thenó" She paused. It seemed like whoever was on the other end had interrupted her. "No, no, see, when I donít show up, at least I try to call ahead andó" Another pause. "That is just too much, youó" Ami saw her mother glance at her and lower her voice to whisper something vicious into the phone. "Donít you try to hold my career against me. At least I earned some money around here while you just sat around at home andó" She was interrupted again. She slowly calmed down as the other person kept talking. "No, no, youíre right, we shouldnít be doing this over the phone. Iím going to bring Amió" Ami heard the other person squawk loudly. Her mother pulled the phone a little way from her ear, then put the receiver close to her mouth as she lost her temper again and yelled into it. "I donít have any choice! You want me to leave her home alone? I donít have anyone to watch her, she has to come with me!" She took a deep breath. "Iíll be there at six. If you donít have the decency to show up, Iíll be seeing my attorney in the morning about getting a divorce." She paused, then said "Sayonara," grudgingly, as if sheíd rather just hang up without such niceties. She gently set the phone back in the cradle. Her shoulders slumped as her anger left, seeming to take her strength with it. She turned back to Ami, whoíd been hanging on every word. "Get your coat on, Ami-chan." Her voice was tired and quiet. "Weíre going out to dinner."
Ami couldnít keep the eagerness out of her voice. "Will tou-san be there?"
Her mother collapsed wearily into the living room chair. "Hai."
Ami jumped into the air. "Yippee!" She ran to get her coat.
"NO!!!" Ami fought to escape her motherís grip. "NO! I donít want you to!!!!"
"Ami-chan," her mother refused to shout, just kept on talking in a normal tone of voice, as if her daughter werenít screaming her head off. "Iím sorry, but weíve decided. It was finalized yesterday. Tou- san and I are divorced."
"But you canít!" Ami cried. "We saw him at dinner that night! You canít divorce him, kaa- san!"
"Musume," her mother shook her gently. "Itís done. That dinner was months ago, and we still canít work things out. Itís time to face the truth. Tou-san and I." she swallowed, "tou-san and I canít get along anymore. We just couldnít stay married to each other. It doesnít mean we donít love you. In fact, we both do. It seems to be the only thing we both agree on anymore. We just have so many problems with each other. You understand, donít you?"
Ami ignored the pleading tone in her motherís voice. She jerked herself form side to side as violently as she could in an effort to escape. Finally she pulled free from her motherís grip and ran into her room. She slammed the door shut as she skidded to a halt and sat in front of the door, effectively blocking it shut. She buried her face in her arms and sobbed. It was all a lie. Her mother was a liar. Kaa-san had told tou-san that she would get a divorce if he hadnít come to the dinner, but he had come, so kaa-san couldnít get a divorce. But she had, and that meant that kaa-san was a liar.
After a while Amiís sobs finally began to subside, but she hated the silence more than the crying, because when it was quiet she could hear her own thoughts, and right now they were telling her something terrible.
If kaa-san could lie about the divorce, then she could lie about why tou-san didnít want to be around Ami anymore, and Ami was scared she had.
Ami was frightened that the real reason tou-san had left was somehow her fault.
Ami stared up at her ceiling. Sheíd been in the dark long enough that her vision had adjusted to it, and could make out most of the shapes in her room as items that safely belonged in it. She smiled to herself as she waited. Bogeymen werenít lying in wait for her in the shadows anymore. Night was now one of her favorite times.
She was about to give up on staying awake until kaa-san got homeóher mother was working late, and had either been stuck doing a long emergency operation near the end of her shift or stayed there late to do paperwork. Both happened frequently. She closed her eyes with a sigh of surrender. Maybe sheíd see kaa-san in the morning before she went to school.
Just as she began to doze off she heard a clanking sound. She sat up. Kaa-sanís keys! She heard the door open and got up, quietly opening her bedroom door and peeking out with one eye. She listened to her mother take her shoes off and put on her slippers. Her mother dropped things on various chairs and tables as she made her way from the front door to the living room. Ami heard keys fall to the top of the dining room table, and then a soft rustling. She imagined kaa-san was taking her trench coat off and draping it over a chair as she read the papers Ami had proudly spread across the dining room table that afternoon. She shifted from one foot to the other, eager to see or hear some sign that this was true. The teacher had handed back a lot of papers today, and Ami couldnít help the pride that swelled within her. The teacher had been very happy, smiling down at Ami and congratulating her on her good grades. Sheíd gotten scores that were almost all in the 90ís. Sheíd received nothing below 87 percent, and even had a few 100ís! She opened the door a little wider and smiled to herself, still straining her ears as she listened for noise from kaa-san. The wonderful look of the big, fat zeroes in the 100 percent scores had looked so right on her papers!"
Ami hoped her mother would come in to her room tonight and say something to her about those papers. Maybe sheíd say she was proud of Ami. Maybe sheíd even.promise never to leave. Sheíd already lost tou-san, and it felt like she was losing kaa-san as well.
They never got to talk much anymore. Her mother was usually gone before she got up to get ready for school, and on the rare occasions she was still home sheíd been grumpy and uncommunicative. She rarely got home before Ami went to bed, either. She never showed up for school functions. Ami had started staying up later and later in the hope that sheíd see kaa-san before falling asleep, but most nights she still went to bed in an empty house, falling asleep while she listened for her mother to return.
Amiís head jerked up. She heard a tired sigh, then the sound of soft footsteps making their way down the hall. Ami closed her door most of the way, leaving only a small crack open. Kaa-san was saying something. Ami put her ear to the door and listened.
"I canít believe that child," her mother muttered. Her voice got louder as she got close. Ami got ready to dash for her bed and pretend sheíd been asleep if kaa-san came into her room. "Why would she leave all that trash spread out on the table like that? Itís so annoying!" Ami gasped and felt tears sting her eyes. "Sheís old enough to know she should clean up her own messes, for goodnessí sake! Itís not like I have the time to take care of things like this." Ami choked and ran from the door. She dove into bed as she heard her mother approach her bedroom door and pulled her sheet up over her shoulders, clutching it tightly to her throat. She buried her face in her pillows to hide the silent tears that squeezed out of her and tried desperately to keep her breath even as she drew her body up into a tight ball. She heard her door open and listened to her motherís tiptoeing footsteps. She heard kaa-san place something on her deskóprobably her papers. She hadnít even looked at them. Ami pulled herself into a tighter ball and bit her bottom lip to keep the sobs from coming. She couldnít let kaa-san know she was still awake! Her mother stepped up to the bed. Ami froze, wondering if sheíd been caught, but her mother only bent down to pull a couple of her warmer blankets up over her. She thought she heard her mother whisper something that sounded like "Kawaii", but that couldnít be right. Her mother hated herówhy else would she stay away from home all the time? Ami heard the soft rustle of cloth and a sigh as her mother bent down and she barely dared to breathe, but kaa-san only kissed her cheek and patted her shoulder softly, then turned and left the room, shutting Amiís bedroom door behind her.
Safe and alone at last, Ami began to cry in earnest. As the tears flowed out, resolve began to fill her. She would force kaa-san to notice and love her! She would do even better!
"Ah!" Ami stumbled forward, dropping her books as she reached out to prevent herself from falling to the ground. She quickly regained her balance and turned her head to look back at the two giggling girls behind her.
"Iím so sorry, Mizuno-san! I must have bumped into you on accident!" one of the exclaimed with wide eyes. Her friend snickered into her hands. Ami looked down at her books and sighed. One had landed in the mud. She swept it out, yanking out her handkerchief to wipe it off as much as possible. She examined it as she quickly cleaned it. At least it had landed while closed, so the pages inside should still be fine. She bent down to pick up the other books, keeping a wary eye on her two tormentors. Sheíd retrieved the next two and was about to pick up the last when she saw an expression of expectation wash over the girlsí faces. She snatched up the last book and stepped aside in one smooth motion. She whirled to face this new threat and looked up into the face of one of the boys in the upper class. He looked surprised by her quick evasion. His arms were poised to push her, but he quickly straightened up and assumed an air of innocence, walking off with his hands shoved into his pockets. Ami cast another glance back at the two girls and clutched her books to her chest as she walked as quickly as she could to the relative safety of the school halls. At least there the teachers tended to stick up for her. She hurried with her head down, trying to ignore the whispers she heard as she hurried by.
"Sheís so mousy! All she ever does is study."
"She thinks sheís better than us. I think she needs to be taken down a few notches."
Ami closed her eyes and walked faster, choking down tears.
"Iíve heard she cheats on her tests!"
Yes, Iíve heard that thatís why her grades."
Ami gave in to her cowardice and ran the rest of the way to the building. She didnít want to hear another word! Nobody understood her! Nobody liked her! No wonder tou-san had left! She slammed the doors to the school building open in her haste, skidding in a wild left turn to dash into the girlsí bathroom. She locked herself in a stall and wept, where no one could see her.
Ami looked up from her book. A classmate was standing next to her. Ami couldnít even remember her name, which meant her grades werenít that good. Ami remembered the smart ones like herself. Sheíd learned by now that it was safer to ignore the others. "Hai?"
The girl smiled brightly and sat down on the bench, sitting very close to Ami. Ami moved back a few nervous inches. Nobody smiled at her like that unless they were about to pull an especially nasty practical joke, or.
"I donít know if you know who I am. Iím Harada Yamako. Will you help me with my homework?" She put a hand on her chest as she gave a depreciating little laugh. "Iím not all that smart, but you do so well in school! I thought maybe you could help me." She flashed another wide smile as she reached into her backpack to pull out a textbook and assignment sheet.
Ami continued her thought with an internal sigh. A practical joke, or they wanted something. She shrugged and offered a shy smile in return, already knowing how to deal with requests like this. After all, she didnít want to turn anyone away who actually wanted to learn. "Iíll be glad to help you study." She tilted her head. Would this girl finally be the one who proved her hopes correct? Would she be a true friend, someone who didnít want to claim her as a friend simply so Amiíd do her homework for her? Ami couldnít help the hope that fluttered in her chest, and she tried to quash it before sheíd be let down again. "When would you like to study? After school? Do you want to come to my house? Or maybe youíd like to study at home, in familiar surroundings."
The girlís bright expression soured. She pasted a sickly smile over it. "But I thought you could.you know.do it for me."
Ami felt her heart sink. If only she could stop hoping, itíd stop hurting all the time. "How would that help you though, Harada-san? You wouldnít know how to do you work, and youíd fail the test. I think itís a much better idea to study, so you can understand how to do things on your own. Iíll help you study. Iíve learned a few tricks that sometimes makes it easieró"
"I hate people like you!" Yamako shouted, shoving her book back into her book bag angrily. "You people that are just born smart, you all have it so easy, and when someone else just asks for a little help you get all high and mighty, like youíre too good to help us!"
"Thatís not true, Harada-san!" Ami protested. "I study for hours each night! It doesnít just come easily, I work hard for my grades! Iíll be more than happy to help youó"
"No thank you! I have better things to do than hang around with people like you!" Yamako spun her head away from Ami and marched proudly away. Ami pressed cold hands to her cheeks as she felt blood rush to them. Everyone in the school yard was staring at her again. She picked up her book and began to walk, trying to keep her pace calm. She wanted to get out of range of all those accusing eyes, but running would only encourage them. She bit her lip. When would she fit in?
"Ami-chan!" Ami looked up. Her motherís voice was coming from the kitchen. She was sitting on her bed, doing her homework. Kaa-san had always insisted that work on it right after supper, and while sheíd first studied out of an obscure fear that her mother wouldnít like her if she didnít, after sheíd forced herself to read her textbooks she began to realize that she liked learning. She set her books aside with a sigh. Her textbooks didn't expect the world out of her. They weren't jealous of her grades, and they didnít shove or pinch her at school.
"Hai, kaa-san!" She felt a twinge of faint grief as she passed her fatherís old studio room. Itíd been over two years since the divorce, and she stilled missed him, but sheíd gotten used to not having him around. It was just her and kaa-san. Her feet slowed as memories of him overwhelmed her, but she finished making her way toward the kitchen before long anyway. She walked in. Her mother was sitting on a stool by the countertop, papers spread from the edge of the counter to the sink. She must be paying bills again. She was holding up a single piece of paper, a look of surprise on her face. An open envelope with Amiís schoolís name written on it sat by her elbow. Ami felt a wave of anxiety wash over her, but she held her hands in front of her, making sure not to squeeze them together, but to hold them together lightly. Her mother hated it when Ami lost control of her emotions. She said it made for sloppy work, something Amiís mother could never afford, as a doctor. "H-hai, kaa-san?" She was proud at how even and calm her voice sounded, despite the small stutter.
Her mother waved the piece of paper in the air and turned a strange gaze on Ami. Ami couldnít interpret her expression. "Do you know what I have here, Ami-chan?"
Ami consciously repressed a gulp. "A letter?"
Her mother settled her glasses more firmly on her nose and nodded. "Do you know what it says?" Ami wordlessly shook her head. She didnít trust her voice right now. What was wrong? Was kaa-san angry? The very thought made her tremble. She tried to be what her mother wantedóshe worked so hard for perfection. Sheíd already lost tou-san because she couldnít be as carefree as he was. She couldnít lose kaa-san because she wasnít good enough! Her mother stopped waving the paper around and grasped it firmly in both hands. "Ami-chan, this letter says that youóyou are." Ami gasped. Tears were falling down her motherís face! What had she done? What in the world had she done wrong? Amiís hands could no longer stay relaxed. Her knuckles whitened and her lips paled as she watched her mother choke back tears and clear her throat. "Youíre the top student in your whole school! It also says youíre one of the top five students in Tokyo!" Her mother dropped the paper from her hands and reached out to engulf Ami in a tight embrace. "Oh, musume, Iím so proud!" Ami nearly collapsed as the tension drained out of her. She sagged in her motherís embrace and closed her arms around her motherís neck as tightly as she could. Kaa-san. She closed her eyes and savored the hug. "Iíve been so worried about you since your father and I divorced. I thought youíd never recover." Her mother pulled back, a tremulous smile wavering on her lips. "Iíve been feeling like I failed you, and Iíve been trying so hard to make it up to you. And now you do something as amazing as this!" Ami blushed and looked down at the floor. She couldnít remember the last time she saw her mother so happy with her! Her mother shakily wiped her tears off her face, trying to restore her lost composure, but her sniffing seriously impaired her attempt at dignity. Ami smiled and ran out of the kitchen. She returned a second later with a box of tissues for her mother.
"Hai, kaa-san." Her smile widened as her mother took a tissue from the box with a shaky laugh.
"Arigato, Ami-chan." She blew her nose. Ami placed the box on the counter and bent down to retrieve the letter and handed it up to her mother. Her mother took it from her and reverently folded it back up, along its creases, then placed it back in the envelope. She propped the envelope up against the wall at the far end of the countertop and placed a hand on Amiís shoulder. "We have to do something to celebrate this, donít you think, Ami-chan?" Her mother gazed off into space. "I have a little vacation time coming.maybe a day or two at home wouldnít be a bad idea." She blinked and looked back down at Ami-chan. "What would you like to do, Ami-chan? Go to a museum? Take a short vacation somewhere? Go on a shopping trip?"
Ami looked down and blushed. What she wanted to do would sound silly to her mother. She should say she wanted to go on a vacation like other kids her age would say. She opened her mouth to say just that. "Iíd like to bake chocolate chip cookies!" Her eyes widened as she heard what came out of her mouth. She clapped her hands over her lips to push the words back in.
Her mother stared at her with wide eyes, her expression unreadable. Tears were still brimming in kaa-sanís eyes. Her mother reached toward Ami again, but her hands stopped just short of her, as if she were afraid of actually touching. "I havenít been around much, have I, Ami-chan? Gomen, musume, I havenít been a very good mother lately." She sniffed and ran her fingers through Amiís hair, then suddenly turned to begin clearing off the countertop. Ami watched her with surprise, tears still trying to push their way free. "Ami-chan?" Her mother sounded uncertain.
Ami scrubbed her eyes with her fists to push the tears back a little farther. "Hai?"
"I canít take any time off tomorrow,I have an important operation to do. But would you like to come to the hospital with me tomorrow?" Her motherís back was turned, but Ami could still hear the hesitation in her voice. "You couldnít come into the operating room, but you could follow me around during my rounds and maybe even watch me from the observation room. What do you think?"
Ami couldnít restrain herself. She threw herself at her mother and gave her an exuberant hug, nearly knocking her mother off her feet. "Iíd love to, kaa-san!" Her mother laughed softly and gently disengaged her hands, handing her the large pile of paper sheíd just cleared off the countertop. She bent down and began to rummage through the cupboards. "Put those papers on my desk in the office, Ami- chan. Then Iíll need you to get some things out for me." Her voice echoed hollowly through the cupboards on their way to Amiís ears.
Ami tilted her head to one side as she clasped the stack of papers to her body. "What do you want me to get, kaa-san?"
"Well." She drew her voice out in an unconscious mimicry of Amiís fatherís voice when he was teasing her. Ami was suddenly glad her motherís back was turned as she choked back a sob. She still missed tou-san so much. "I think weíll need flour, butter, vanilla, and sugar." Amiís mother got up off the floor with a large cream colored bowl. Ami gasped as she remembered that particular bowl, and her motherís eyes shone yet again with suppressed tears. "And chocolate chips. I think those are all the right ingredients for chocolate chip cookies, donít you?"
Ami closed her eyes. She finally let the tears go, and they fell, weaving a warm, wet track down her face. "Hai, kaa-san!"
Even this was worth her classmatesí petty jealously and her loneliness. She would do even better. Sheíd be the best student in all Japan for kaa-san! She hoped sheíd find a true friend someday, but until then she knew everything she suffered was worth getting her good grades. Worth making her mother happy.
It was cookie day again.