He still had to get up though. Kamio wrinkled his nose and tried to work up the energy to sit up. Mornings sucked. He easily ignored the fact that if he was able to get to bed at a decent hour, then he probably wouldn't hate mornings as much as he did. Still, if he lived to be a hundred years old, he didn't think he'd ever become one of those irritating morning-type people – the ones who woke with smile, a jump out of the bed like it pained them stay there a minute longer, and a perky 'good morning' before they'd even had their coffee.
Oh no. His dream job wouldn't require him to start working until after twelve o'clock in the afternoon. He wasn't sure what job that would be exactly, but then he had a few years to work out the best way to avoid mornings for the rest of his natural life.
Muttering curses under his breath over having to get up in the middle of the night – at least, what he considered five-thirty AM to be – Kamio swung his legs off the bed and rolled over, falling to his hands and knees on the floor, groping about blindly for his practice jersey, and then heading to the bathroom.
The shower was hot, the spray was strong and it did the trick of waking him up, at least a bit. Checking the clock on his phone, he saw he was dressed and brushed and it wasn't even ten to the hour yet. Perfect.
Kamio slapped the batteries back into his clock, adjusted the time, and then trudged into the hallway, stopping at the door next to his room. Two taps, and then he turned the handle, opening the door and letting light from the hallway stream into the bedroom, mixing with the weak morning rays from the window.
Against the far left wall, a plain wooden bunk bed was set up, draped with plush animals and soft, fluffy blankets, even though it was the beginning of September, and fairly warm for it. His little sisters were still asleep, naturally – if there were any people who hated mornings more then he, it was his sisters. Unless it was a Sunday morning, with all their favorite TV shows on, and then they would beat the alarm clock.
Kamio watched his siblings sleep with a small smile on his face. Walking softly into the room, he peered at the upper bunk.
Eight-year-old Sachiko was sprawled out on top of her blankets, a foot dangling over the edge, both arms flung as wide as they could go. One pajama pant leg was pulled up around her knee, exposing the small band aid on it, a souvenir from the trip to the park the day before. Kamio smirked, and then reached out to grasp her shoulder, shaking gently.
“Sachiko-chan, time to get up.”
A murmur, a whimper, and then Sachiko opened bleary eyes to glare crossly at her brother. “Wanna sleep more, 'nii-chan. S'too early.”
Kamio chuckled and ruffled her hair fondly, hair that matched his in color but far outstripped him in length. “C'mon kiddo. Don't make this an issue today, okay?”
Sachiko pouted but nodded, and yawned hugely, stretching her arms above her head. Her pajama top pulled up a bit, already getting too small and threadbare for her. Kamio sighed at the thought of a new expense, but decided to worry about it later, and instead, poked a finger into the uncovered belly, making Sachiko squeal and curl up in an effort to get away from him. “Nii-chan!”
“Up!” Kamio repeated, and flexed his fingers warningly. “Or I'll be back for the ribs too.”
Sachiko giggled and sat up, snapping a salute. “Yessir!”
Satisfied she wasn't going to go back to sleep, Kamio turned his attention to the youngest household member. Michiko, six years old, was able to sleep through almost anything, and he was unsurprised that the noise he and Sachiko made didn't wake her up. He reached down and did the same shoulder shake to her, “Miki-chan,” he called softly. He drummed his fingers on her shoulder, knowing that while she didn't react to noise, she did react to touch, and sure enough, her eyes fluttered open and she blinked up sleepily at her big brother, focusing on his face.
“Time to get up, little girl,” Kamio said with a smile. Michiko nodded, yawning and sitting up, without a fraction of the fuss and drama that Sachiko liked to put on. He sometimes worried that she was too serious for her own good, but every now and then she'd turn around and give him a shining, gap-toothed smile that erased the worries for a while.
With both of them up, Kamio walked over to the closet and took out their respective uniforms, draping them over the battered dresser. “I'm gonna get breakfast ready. You two, get dressed and be downstairs in ten minutes, okay?”
“When the big hand is on the twelve and the small hand is on the six,” Sachiko recited, grinning cheekily at her big brother. “Kitakara-sensei made us practice time last week.”
Kamio nodded, still grinning, and then left them to get ready. About to go downstairs, he hesitated, and then turned around, walking back down the hall, past his bedroom to the door at the far end. He raised his hand to knock and then paused for a second, as though working himself up to it. Then he shook his head, rapped his knuckles against the wood, and opened the door a crack.
There wasn't an answer, but really, Kamio wasn't expecting one. He opened the door wider and stuck his head in. Clothes were scattered all over the room, empty bottles and dishes stacked haphazardly on every available surface. On the bed, surrounded by faded pillows, he could see the lump of blankets that was his mother. One hand hung over the edge, and Kamio could see a bottle on the floor where it had finally fallen from her lax grip. The smell of alcohol in the room was almost overpowering, but Kamio breathed through his mouth and waded through the junk to the window where he opened it enough to let in some fresh air.
Kamio Yuriko slept the sleep of the over-indulgent, open-mouthed snores telling Kamio that yes, she was still alive. And probably still wearing her clothes from work, but that wasn't his problem. Kamio eyed her for a moment, and then stepped over to the floor where her jacket was lying in a heap. He picked it up and casually rifled through it for her wallet.
He didn't bother to silence what he was doing, but he was still surprised when a bleary eye opened and peered at him balefully from under the blankets.
“Wh'trrya doin'?” she slurred. Kamio sighed. She was still drunk. It probably hadn't been that long since she'd gotten in.
“Sachiko and Michiko need to give their trip fees to their teacher today,” Kamio said calmly, withdrawing the cash from the wallet sleeve, noting that there wasn't much in there. He'd done this so often before there was no need to hide his actions from her. “They're going to the museum tomorrow. I already signed their permission forms for you.”
“Wha'ver,” she groaned. One hand flapped at him awkwardly. “Go'way. Noisy.”
Kamio bit back a growl, and nodded instead, dropping her jacket back to the floor and heading back to the hallway, closing her bedroom door behind him.
Away from the smell of his mother pickling herself, Kamio took a deep breath and tried to erase her from his mind. She wasn't worth thinking about anyway. She hadn't been for a very long time.
In the kitchen, Kamio set out bowls and spoons, taking down a box of generic rice cereal. He could cook a proper Japanese breakfast but only when they had the ingredients at hand, and Kamio made a note to himself to go grocery shopping after practice. He couldn't get much, but the cereal was almost gone – today would be the last of it for sure – and the girls had been eating it for three days in a row anyway. His mother had left cash on the table from her late night out two days ago, and that would do for the essentials at least.
It was six-oh-two when the girls made their appearance. Kamio mock-glared at them and they giggled at his exaggerated face. “I ought to beat you with wet noodles for being late,” he said, scowling, and Michiko smiled.
“I like noodles,” she declared, and Kamio rolled his eyes.
“Threats are wasted on you two, you know?” He poured milk for Michiko but let Sachiko do it herself, watching to make sure she didn't spill it all over the table. “Eat up – we gotta get movin'.”
“I want braids today, 'Nii-chan,” Sachiko said by way of response and Kamio nodded. He ducked into the living room where he'd left her brush from the day before and then moved behind her, brushing her hair out, gently pulling the tangles apart.
He was actually quite good at doing a girl's hair. He used to be so very, very bad at it, to the point where he'd had to practice and prove to Sachiko he could do proper braids by twisting up his own bangs (the only part that was actually long enough to do), after she'd come home in tears over being laughed at for having such a lopsided and messy hair style.
He quickly and efficiently separated and then plaited the thick red hair on each side of her head, wrapping the ends with colorful elastic bands and then tying her favorite blue ribbons over them. “All finished. Michiko?” He tapped the table to get her attention from where it was solely focused on her cereal bowl.
Michiko held up a small headband and Kamio nodded, brushing her much shorter, reddish-brown hair out and slipping the headband on, pushing it back, sweeping her bangs to the sides so they wouldn't get in her eyes. She could probably do it herself, but if he did Sachiko's hair and didn't offer to do Miki's, she'd get jealous and then precious time would be wasted having to get her stop whimpering over the unfairness.
“You too, eat quick and then go brush your teeth. I'm gonna go get my player, okay?”
Twin 'okay's' rang out and Kamio jogged into the living room, scanning it for his MP3 player. It had been a gift from the team at the end of the year, when Tachibana had handed the reigns of team leadership over to him, Buchou to newly promoted Buchou. It sure beat using his ancient walkman that had developed the tendency over the years to eat the occasional mix tape on him. He spied the ear phones hanging over the sofa arm, and he picked them up, following the wire to the floor and around the back where his MP3 player lay under his homework. Snatching it up, he shoved it in his pocket and then stuffed his homework into his schoolbag. The girls' bags were already mostly packed, something he'd trained them to do as soon as they finished their homework. It made for one less hassle to deal with in the morning.
Twenty after six. Kamio heard his sisters racing each other up the stairs and he brought their bags to the front door. Then he snapped his fingers – laundry!
“Guys, bring your dirty clothes down!” He shouted. Sachiko shouted back 'Okay' and he knew she'd prod Michiko. He went into the small room that held the washing machine and loaded his own clothes into it, adding soap and turning it on. The cycle would finish in thirty minutes and he'd add a bit more soap and restart it. Then it would sit there until he got home that night, but it was an old machine that didn't always do such a good job. Since everything needed to be done twice anyway, he might as well get one finished before he left.
Sachiko waddled into the room, an armful of clothing past her nose nearly eclipsing her vision. She dumped it in the corner and then Michiko appeared, little arms lugging as much as she could. Kamio helped her stack it next to Sachiko's pile.
“Go make sure you have everything you need for school,” he directed, and they bustled back out. Kamio headed for the kitchen, and ultimately the rice cooker, to get their lunches ready.
Making a bento was another acquired skill that had taken him nearly a month in the beginning to, well, not master, but at least produce something that looked as edible as it really was. Rice balls, octopus-shaped sausages that were all the rage among school kids, and lunch meat cut into shapes with cookie cutters (cheating, but it did the trick). Kamio searched the fridge and came up with the last of the carrots which he washed, peeled and then sliced up. He took out the small carton of strawberries he'd splurged on the night before and cut the tops off, before slicing them vertically and sticking them in the compartment he'd always used for their desserts. It wasn't a fancy lunch, but it wasn't the worst thing he'd ever done before, and the girls wouldn't go hungry which was the main thing. There wasn't enough of everything to make a bento for himself, but he rarely ever did make his own – bread was cheap at his school, and he didn't care what he ate as long as it was edible and before the sell-by date.
By the time he'd finished wrapping Sachiko and Michiko's bentos, he could hear the washing machine beeping at him. It was ten to seven and they had to be out the door in five minutes. He called for his sisters as he reset the washing machine, and they ran out of the living room where they'd been watching TV once they'd finished getting ready.
“Got everything? Teeth brushed?” he asked, handing them their lunches. They nodded, and Kamio made shooing motions with his hands. “Shoes, shoes! Let's go!”
They giggled and raced for the doorway, Kamio on their heels. He had to take them down the street to his neighbour, Minagawa-san. Minagawa-san had a little girl in Sachiko's class named Hana, and the two were firm friends. Long ago, Kamio had asked Minigawa-san if she wouldn't mind taking Sachiko and Michiko to school with her own daughter, as Kamio had responsibilities as the Fukou-Buchou of the Fudoumine tennis club. Now that he was Buchou, he had even more, and he was never more grateful to the woman for agreeing.
Granted, she had done so with a pitying look on her face, but Kamio had long since learned to block those out. The girls stayed at her house until seven-thirty when she'd take the three of them to school.
“Practice is until five-thirty tonight,” he told them as they walked out of the house and he locked up behind them. “I have to pick up some stuff for dinner, so I'll be home by six. Come straight home and do NOT leave the house until I get there, unless you go to Minigawa-san's house and stay there. Got it?”
He said the exact same thing every day, and every day they nodded and said they wouldn't go anywhere. Like Kamio before them, they were the stereotypical latchkey kids. Minagawa-san would take them to her house and they would walk to their home only five minutes away. His mother would most likely be out of the house by one o'clock, and wouldn't be back until well after midnight, sometimes stumbling through the door at three and even four in the morning. Being considered a latchkey kid wasn't something Kamio was proud of, and he didn't like his sisters to have the same stigma thrust upon them, but it had to be borne. The only solution would be for him to get home first, and that would mean quitting tennis, which was NOT an option.
As they left their yard and Kamio locked it behind them, he turned to them and handed them each an envelope. “That's the money for your trip tomorrow. Give it to your teacher as soon as you get to class, okay?”
Under his stern eyes, they dutifully tucked the packages in the inner flaps of their book bags. They knew that if they lost the money, Kamio couldn't guarantee a replacement for it, and they were very careful not to let their brother down regarding such things.
Money and bags secure, Kamio held out his hands, and let them grab hold for the walk to Minagawa's home.
Another day had begun.
End Chapter 1