The rest of the school day passes in a daze. I think I hear snickers and whispers of “It’s the apple boy” here and there, but I don’t really care. I can’t wake from the nightmare of how I botched up the whole thing. How could I have been so stupid? Why didn’t I check Shihoko’s schedule? Maybe Masashi’s right: I’m just a moron.
I end up in the nurse’s office, of all places. The nurse had left for the day, but I told a teacher that I felt sick so he let me in here. I didn’t go to the gym 'cause I know Takuya, Miki and them would look for me there, and I don’t know how to face them now.
I sit in a stupor for some time, till finally the sky begins to fade from orange to purple. I sigh and get ready to head home when a girl appears in the doorway.
Her eyes catch me first. Divine eyes, dark as the night, set in an oval face with perfect alabaster skin. Long, flowing hair tied in a simple pony tail. It can’t be. I look again. A flush comes unbidden. My heart races. My body burns.
It is she. Kaneshiro Shihoko.
“Shihoko,” I stutter. “You…you…are here.”
“I was looking for you,” Shihoko says calmly. “A teacher told me that he saw you here.”
“I thought you had an away tennis match.” I regain a little of my composure.
“We did. But our tennis meet got canceled this morning, so we came back early.” She looks at the sunset. “I saw your message.”
“You did?” I stand up in surprise.
“Yes,” she says. “Our dear principal thought it was cute. That more people should see it. They didn’t clear it till noon. You didn’t know?”
“I was kinda out of it for awhile,” I admit sheepishly. That doesn't matter now. My heart bursts with happiness. She saw it. She actually saw it!
I hold out my hand to Shihoko with all the drama I can muster, “Then…then…would you be my gir…girlfriend?”
She returns her gaze to me, and then politely shakes her head. “I’m sorry. The answer is no.”
“But you are the one I love!”
“You don’t even know me. How can you say you love me?”
Oh, I would give her an outpouring of love: a declaration that we are destined by fate, our paths guided by the stars. That I knew we were meant to be together the first moment I laid eyes on her! Like a hero in some TV drama, I begin my impassioned speech, but the words fall apart before I can form them.
What the? Yes, I am burning like a torch. Yes, my heart beats rapidly. Yet here I am, standing before the supposed object of my desire, and I cannot say the words ‘I love you.’ I cannot say them genuinely with all my heart. I cannot say these words true.
Because they’re not true.
I stand there dumbfounded, not quite comprehending what just happened. Yet slowly and with certainty, cold realization sinks in.
This was just a stunt, wasn’t it?
All of this was a game. I didn’t do this for love. I did it to prove I could catch the biggest prize in the school, and Miki’s silly bet simply sparked the fire. This whole thing was never about Shihoko at all. It was about me.
Shame floods me. I no longer know what to say.
“I'm sorry,” says Shihoko. “The teacher said your name is Machida?”
“Hiroto. Machida Hiroto.”
“Machida-kun,” she says. “What you did was sweet. I feel I owe you an explanation because you went through all that work to do this. I thank you for your effort, but I can’t accept it. I’m sorry.”
“No, I understand. You’re right.”
“You’re simply confused,” she says. “Don’t be sad. Eventually you’ll understand that I’m not who you’re looking for. Life will go on. I wish you the best.”
A silence falls between us then. She turns to go.
“Hey,” I say.
“Yes?” she halts.
“You’re right. I don’t know if I love you,” I say. “But I’m here. And you’re here.”
She arcs her eyebrow.
“I mean.” I press on, not really knowing what I’m trying to say myself. “You shouldn’t be here, but you are. You should be at the tennis meet. And you shouldn’t have seen the apples but you did. What I mean to say is…I don’t think we’re meant to be strangers.”
“So, uh, how about we start over?” I finish.
“Start over? What do you mean?” She blinks.
I stand up straight, like a first grade elementary school student miming a proper introduction. “My name is Machida Hiroto, 2nd year class C. Nice to meet you.” I bow stiffly.
She laughs at that. “If you insist.”
She gracefully and somehow playfully bows back. “My name is Kaneshiro Shihoko, 3rd year class A. Nice to meet you too.”
“Kaneshiro-san. I am not sure if I love you yet, but would you allow me the honor of getting to know you, as a friend?”
“You don’t give up easy, do you, Machida-san?”
“Not if I believe what I am doing is right.” I grin. “Would you be my friend, Kaneshiro-san?”
“I think that would be acceptable, Machida-san.”
“Then may I have your number, so that it'll be easier for us to communicate?”
“Let’s not go that far, Machida-san.” My face falls.
“However,” she looks amused, “I’ll see you around at school. Who knows? Perhaps one day I may say yes.”
“I will look forward to that day, Kaneshiro-san.” I smile.
“See you around, Machida-san.” She waves goodbye and gives me a mischievous smile.
My breath catches in my throat.
Ah. Yes. Now THAT’s true.