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"Oh God, I really don't want to..."

A mumble leaked out involuntarily as I got off the train and left the station. There were no more people around.

Thinking that my mother would probably give me a direct talking-to when I got home, I couldn't bring myself to go straight home, so I chose to take a long way around.

I turned my head and walked in silence.

I found myself standing in front of the park where I had met the boy.

But he was not there.

"There's no way... he's there..."

Did I subconsciously want to see him?

I want to hear his voice like that gentle spring light.

I want to see that transparent, glassy smile.

Maybe that's what I was thinking.

What am I doing?

I stood there for a while in the middle of the empty park, looking at the winter dead cherry trees, when suddenly, as if to break the silence, the ringtone of my phone came on.

I picked up the phone and heard my mother's high-pitched voice piercing my ears.

[Hey Haruka, why aren't you home yet? You should be here by now. What are you doing, are you taking a detour? What time do you think it is? Where are you? Where are you?]

I was bombarded with questions, none of which I could answer properly, so I just mumbled a small, "I'm sorry."

[What do you mean? If you have time to apologize, come home early.]

I interrupted my mother's frustrated voice with, "I'm sorry.

"I'll be home late tonight, so I don't need to eat."

I knew she would say no, so I hung up the call without listening to her reply.

Silence returns.

I exhaled and slowly left the park.

It's not that I have anywhere to go, but I didn't want to go home anyway, so my feet wandered off in the opposite direction from home.

After walking for a while, I suddenly arrived at a narrow alleyway.

On both sides of the street, so narrow that not even a single car could pass, old houses and small restaurants were crammed together.

It was definitely a familiar sight.

I stepped into the alley and walked slowly, checking each house one by one, until I came to a store called "Junshocha Akari."

The moment I saw it, all my memories came flooding back.

When I was in kindergarten, my grandmother, who passed away about five years ago, used to take me to this coffee shop.

My parents both worked, so my brother and I were always left with her when I was little, and we would always stop by here to rest after shopping.

I peek inside through the store window as if I were being sucked in by nostalgia.

I see that there are still some customers in the store, which has the same relaxed atmosphere as I remember.

There was a woman in her forties at the counter, brewing coffee carefully.

I recognized her face.

Whenever we went there, she always greeted us with a smile and offered us an extra cream soda, saying, "Special service for children."

So, my brother and I used to call her, "Cream Soda Lady", which was rude.

Looking back, she was probably still in her thirties or late twenties, so it was really rude of us.

Our eyes met, and I almost reflexively averted my gaze due to the awkwardness of peeking through the window, but I managed to hold on and bail her out.

She looked surprised, then smiled and beckoned me over.

I wondered if she remembered me. But it was ten years ago and I was still a child, so she would not recognize me.

As I was puzzled by this thought, she left the counter, opened the doorway, and peeked out.

"It's Haruka-chan, isn't it?"

I was surprised to hear her mention my name so casually.

"Eh, ah, yes, that's right… you know?"

"I do, you've been here dozens of times."

She laughed as if it was natural. It was a friendly smile.

"I see... How could you recognize me when I was such a little girl?"

"You haven't changed much, and have always been pretty as a doll."

"Oh... thank you."

I desperately tried to suppress my face, which seemed to be getting tougher, with a smile, and lower my head.

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For a long time, I have occasionally had people tell me that I have a pretty face.

I have been told several times that my friends are envious of me, and Kana and her friends often praise me.

When I look at my own face, I have a complex feeling that it looks a little tight because my eyes are a little bit pinched and my nose and jaw are too sharp, but I am happy that people say I am pretty because I am a girl.

However, there is still a part of me that cannot be honestly happy.

Because no matter how many times I had a face that made people say I was cute, my love did not come true. I couldn't get the person I love to look at me. 

Even though I was blessed with good looks, I was a flabby person on the inside, so I could never get him to like me.

To the eyes of a decent person who looks at and evaluates people on the inside and not on the outside, I am not at all attractive.

No matter how I looked at it, if the person I really liked didn't like me back, then there was no point.

As I was sinking into such thoughts for what seemed like the umpteenth time, I suddenly came to my senses when I heard my name, "Hey, Haruka-chan."

"Are you on your way home now?"

"Uh... Oh, yes."

"Then, if you don't mind a curfew or something, why don't you stop by for a bit?"

I rolled my eyes at these unexpected words.

"I haven't seen you in years, and I want to talk to you. But I wonder if your parents will be worried if I don't go home soon."

"No, it's fine."

I answered immediately without thinking. Then, thinking it was a bit unnatural, I continued my words.

"Um… We don't have a curfew or anything. As long as you call in, you can stay until… nine o'clock or so, no problem." 

She blinked silently and slowly in response to my answer, and then smiled.

"Yes, then you're good for an hour or so. Well then, come on in."

I nodded my head in agreement, though I felt as if she could see right through me.

Anyway, I didn't want to go home. I was sorry, but I thought I would take advantage of this invitation.

I sighed inwardly, thinking that I was being a coward, but justified myself by saying that it was no use since I had nowhere else to go.


I stepped into the restaurant, greeted by a warm voice.

"Please, have a seat."

She then sat me down at a table by the window and walked to the counter.

An old man drinking coffee at the next table looked up from his evening paper, at me.

I bowed lightly and the old man smiled back.

Then he motioned to the counter.

"Hey, Akari. Such a cute customer, you didn't snatch her, did you?"

With those words, I knew that the name of the restaurant, "Akari", came from her name.

I was so sorry for calling her "Cream Soda Lady" so rudely when she had such a wonderful name, Akari-san.

"She was so cute, so I picked her up."

After teasing, Akari laughed and continued, "I was just kidding.

"She is the granddaughter of one of our old regulars. He used to come here with his grandmother. Haruka-chan."

Akari turned to me and I nodded in haste.

"Oh, yes. Thanks for taking care of me at that time. I am very much indebted to you for that."

"I'm so impressed that you can say such mature things now. I am deeply moved."

"No, it's nothing like that…"

"Hey, what would you like to drink?"

When she asked me this question, I immediately responded, "Cream soda. 

"Do you have any?" I added hastily, to which she replied, "Of course."

Then, with a ticklish smile, she muttered happily, "I'm so glad you remembered. You remembered me."

"Of course," I nodded broadly toward her.

"I was a little girl back then, so I didn't really understand what was going on, and I took it for granted, but thank you so much for everything."

When I bowed to her, Akari replied, "It's okay," as she moved her hand inside the counter.

"I did it because I wanted to. It's an old store that has been in business since my mother's time, so there are many elderly regulars. That's why it was refreshing and happy to see young customers come. All the other customers were happy too."

"I see... Thank you."

I nodded and looked around the restaurant.

As I remembered, the atmosphere was very relaxing.

The tables and chairs were old, but that made them look stylish, and the interior was elegant.

There were paintings and foliage plants decorated here and there, a pillar clock standing by the wall, and a piano quietly placed next to it.

I suddenly remembered that I was allowed to play that piano several times.

I took piano lessons when I was little, and I wasn't very good at it, but I wanted to try it because it was rare to be able to play outside of the classroom and at home.

It's embarrassing to think that I was letting Akari-san and the audience listen to my poor piano.

But as I sat deep in the soft chairs in the quiet restaurant, I felt my shoulders relax for the first time in a very long time.


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