“Ohno-san, I was hoping to find you.” She bobs, stepping into line behind me at the grocery store.
My spine goes rigid, because people are staring. Are the looks disapproving as I give a speedy, awkward bow? “G-good morning, Shibasaki-san.”
After the initial pleasantries, she indicates that the checker is waiting. “Meet me outside.”
Joining me in mere moments, she motions for us to head down the narrow road toward her home. “It’s about the salve.” When we’re out of earshot she asks, “Can we buy more from you? In quantity. I mean… I assume your family made it, right?”
“We did. B…but we don’t advertise it. Family secret.”
“It’s amazing stuff! So do you think our hot spring could be the market for it?”
“W-we have our reasons for keeping it quiet. How is y-your throat?”
“Healed, thanks to you.” Pulling away her scarf, she exposes her neck to show where the marks should be.
The cool spring breeze doesn’t dampen my burning cheeks from the memory of how vulnerable she was that night. Out of respect, I focus on the barren cherry tree denoting the edge of her family’s property. “I’m glad you’re b-better. You aren’t having bad dreams, are you?”
In my peripheral vision, I spot her head droop. “A few. But my father is helping me recover with magical treatment.”
“Good.” I leave the distressing topic behind us. At least she confirmed that her family too uses the flow and storage of ki as magic. I still can’t figure out how we didn’t know of others in town with the same skill.
“Will you ask your parents if they’ll supply our onsen with that wonderful balm?”
“S-sure.” Good luck. The balm has never been sold.
Dad returns from the Shibasakis’ to announce that we’ll send a sample batch to the onsen. My jaw drops. Did the owners use magic, forcing him to relent?
Mom sends me to deliver the salve sample, telling me to hurry home since she’s making curry rice, my favorite. The thick payment envelope the proprietor hands me stirs my curiosity. But I resist the temptation to look.
My friends and I stay at the onsen. To make up for the previous debacle, the Shibasakis treat us to any amenities we like.
When we’re heading to the bath, Tanaka pulls me aside. “Yukiko-san turned down the latest omiai with my cousin, giving no explanation. He was shocked, expecting to seal the deal.”
Why does Tanaka insist on torturing me with such information? “I hope sh-she finds a husband who is good to her.”
“She’s a strong one. Doesn’t seem to need to lean on a man.”
Time to change the subject. “L-let’s get a massage.”
We end up in the same room. Yukiko’s mom works on Tanaka, while Yukiko kneads on my back. Laying on the table while my muscles are kneaded, I feel naked despite the towel covering me. Though the discomfort was a waste of energy because she’s straight business. Not one extra word. Even with the excellent massage, I’m not relaxed. The place seems a little warmer after she leaves. Was I found lacking?
Beyond that mild coldness from her, the stay is a terrific memory before Tanaka leaves for Tokyo. After that Dad and I’ll venture into the high country to select trees for Kitamori Lumber. As a group, we decide to gather over Obon since we’ll all be in town. So we book another night.
Shibasaki-chan ignores me in the store. If she’s that fickle, good riddance.