“Remember: be idols. Be happy.” were Maya-san’s parting words. And as I staring into the flare of the spotlight as tingling energy surges through my body, I wonder. Is this happiness? Even if it isn’t, it will have to do.
“Hey, hey, hey! Let’s make lots of happy memories together at this last concert!” I waved wildly at the sea of swaying, glowing lights beneath me; hoots and hollers filled the air. My head spun with joy. I couldn’t stop smiling. As my group mates screamed their own hellos to a crowd that was positively jumping out of their seats, I trotted leaned down and waved at some of the front row audience, letting my gaze linger on each sweat-beaded face for just a single beat of the thumping intro music.
After a few moments of meet-and-greet, as if on autopilot, I straightened up, feeling the end of the music drawing nearer and casually trotted towards the center of the stage. Beneath the glare of the spotlights, I could see two pairs of feet coming to meet mine: Kairi-chan and Yuuka-chan pressed their backs against mine, and raised their mics to their lips just as the intro faded into an empty hole of silence.
It was sort of weird, but the thing I loved the most about performing was that millisecond just before the music blasts. I loved the one moment in time when I could feel the dampness of sweat already wetting our frilly costumes as we stood back to back, could feel the heat of the spotlight frying my hair, and the dull ache of my feet as they stood pinched and tip-toed in white, high-heeled dress shoes.
“Please listen to our song…” Yuuka began the sentence the three of us had to complete together. Always.
“Strawberry Shortcake Love!”
The music exploded through my headset, jolting me into action as the three of us bounced our separate ways. My arms and legs danced as if possessed with minds of their own, pumping and swaying at all the right moments though I could only hear the jarring repetitions of a single set of counts playing like a broken record in my head: One, two, three, four; five, six, seven and eight. One, two, three, four; five, six, seven and eight…
I sucked in a jarring, burning breath, and sang.
“… All right! This is the last song! Everyone, please sing along!” I raised my arms above my head, leaping up and down on center stage as the opening riffs of Bai Bai Bai began to play. Suddenly, a stream of pink-clad Junis flow steadily in from either side of the curtains, and I nod to three before turning around and taking ten measured steps up the stairs to the upper stage.
As I put one foot in front of the other, the shouts of the fans seemed fainter, and I could feel my body being sapped of its energy. It’s just you, I told myself determinedly. Don’t look back. I forcing myself to keep walking up the stairs.
My heart is thumping in my head. My skin is slick with sweat. Suddenly, my vision clouds and red hot tears are flaming in my eyes.
Suddenly, my foot steps onto empty air and a breath is strangled in my throat.
A clammy hand grabs my arm, and I look up. Yuuka’s face, coated with a glassy sheen of sweat, flashes me a sympathetic look that lasts for less than a second before defaulting back to a broad, toothy grin. I give her a tiny nod, and the two of us make our way up to the stage hand in hand.
As Kairi, Yuuka and I sway together while the Junis enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame, I could feel the dull throb of my left ankle pulsing as I slowly shifted my weight from one foot to the other. Just keep smiling. I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy.
The music swelled, and I knew my solo was looming a few beats away. I bit my lower lip, feeling it tremble dangerously. With as much confidence as I could muster, I held my mic up and took in a tremulous breath.
On my left, Kairi squeezed my hand- a bit too hard.
My verse tumbled out of my mouth in a warbled mess, jumbled by my muffled sobs. Luckily, Kairi and Yuuka quickly draped their arms around me, filling in the voiceless void in the music for me while I hastily wiped away the tears streaming down my face. It was at times like these that I realized how much I loved them. Even as I sniffed and wiped away any traces of my pain and frustration, I could their arms linked behind me, an unbreakable shield for me.
Down below, a collective bellow sounded in the audience called out my name. Willing my eyes to dry, I gazed gratefully into the stands, hoping the camera focused on my face as I put on my cheeriest smile as I joined the entire cast of the concert for the final chorus.
It seemed like mere moments later when I found myself waving my third (and final) goodbye to the unappeasable audience, the atmosphere still as electric as when I first stepped out onto the stage. Of the three of us, I was the last in line as we jogged towards the gaping exit beneath the stairs leading up to the second stage, and as Kairi-chan disappeared into the portal between this magical world and the realm of the mundane, I paused, and turned to capture this moment in my mind.
“Bye bye!” Blowing a kiss to the crowd, I savored the last tide of overwhelming cheers before stepping into the lightless tunnel backstage. But it was not long before I felt the heat of the spotlights fading from my back, and as if my batteries had died, I couldn’t stop my legs from sinking to the ground.
“Someone help!” I called out, feeling an inexplicable giggle rising in my stomach. I couldn’t move, my body piled like a blob of jelly on the ground. Glancing up, I noticed the red eye of the camera bearing down at me while I was plopped helplessly on the ground.
“There’s a difference between doing your job and neglecting the hurt, you know.” I whined into the camera, covering my face with an open palm as I looked up at the balding cameraman. But just as I was about to beg him to help me up, I heard the patter of Yuuka and Kairi’s footsteps hurrying down the corridor.
“Azami-chan!” Came Yuuka’s exasperated sigh. I smiled back at her.
“Sorry, Yuu. Help me?” I offered her my best puppy-dog eye look before dissolving into a strange, uncontrollable laughter.
“You’re hopeless.” Kairi-chan muttered with a laugh as she skidded to a stop by my side, grabbing my arm and gently propping me up against the wall. I tried to stifle my laughter.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” I admitted, letting them drag my rag doll body forward.
“No kidding, genius.” Yuuka rolled her eyes at me as the three of us approached the light of the dressing room at the end of the tunnel. “Maya-san!” She called out hopefully as we paused at the door. Our dance instructor (or all-purpose mother, actually) appeared almost instantly, a stern expression perpetually plastered on her face.
“Oh, Yukigawa-san.” Her eyebrows knit together. “What happened?”
I shrugged, looking down. Honestly, I couldn’t quite remember. Maya-san followed my gaze.
“Oh, your ankle! My lord. Sit down.” Sounding positively horrified, yet in an odd way completely unruffled, Maya-san swept me off me feet before I even had a chance to notice what had shocked her, and carried me to the one cushioned bench that wasn’t covered in sparkling costumes.
“You have to be more careful.” She scolded me mercilessly, propping up what I could now see was a grotesquely swollen left ankle. I grimaced at the very look of the discolored, stretched skin. It hurt, but not that much.
“You’re twelve years old, for god’s sake. Do I need to keep treating you like a child?” She continued as she abandoned my leg for a moment, scanning the room for the first aid kit. Someone always got hurt at concerts- so it was pretty much a must-have at any performance. I could feel my bottom lip wobbling again as I let her words sink in. As I peered over at Yuu and Kairi-chan, who sat on the other side of the room, they could only give me nods of encouragement- the kind of encouragement that says I-pity-you and Just-endure-it. Acknowledging their silent sympathy, I turned up the corners of my lips in a tiny, resigned smile before bracing myself for Maya’s net angle of attack.
“And how are we going to attend the NiSo auditions tomorrow with a cripple? Do you realize the gravity of your actions?” Maya sputtered at me as she turned back to me with an icepack in hand, her long, jet black hair whipping around forcefully at her jerky movements. I swallowed. I was supposed to say something here. But what?
Noticing my lack of response, she folded her arms, prompting an answer as she looked down her nose at me. From the corner of my eye, I could see that the curious eyes of a couple Junis peering in through the doorway. How I wished I could switch places with them. I shut my eyes for a moment.
“You know what? You don’t want to answer me? I’m going to have to inform your father about this.” Maya-san threw up her arms and spun around, ready to storm out of the room.
“No, don’t tell my dad!” I let my mute lips speak, keenly aware of the tinge of desperation in my voice. Daddy couldn’t find out about this. I couldn’t give him any reason to drag me back into his life.
“Yukigawa-san, I meant informing him about the injury. It’s company policy, remember?” But by then my two group mates were by my side. They knew what I meant.
“Please, Maya-san. It’s not a serious injury. In fact, Azami-chan usually gets better really fast. She’ll probably be walking be tomorrow.” Yuu-chan insisted.
“He’ll probably just be troubled for nothing if you tell him tonight.” Kairi-chan supplied. Maya-san eyed the three of us suspiciously, but her gaze softened, and she shook her head.
“I don’t know what you three are up to sometimes,” she muttered. Hearing the gentle tone of her voice, I felt the tension that constricted my body evaporate. She understood.
Just like a mother.
“Maya-san, I promise, I’ll get better for the NiSo auditions tomorrow.” I swore solemnly. Well, I would probably fake it, but whatever. All’s fair in the idol business.
“Well, I do have a twenty-four hour leeway for these things…” Maya began, and a tiny, almost conspiratory smile broke out on her face. “I suppose I could keep our secret if you keep your promise, Yukigawa-san.”
I beamed at Kairi-chan and Yuu in turn, mouthing thanks to them.“I will. I definitely will.” I assured Maya-san, smiling. Happily. Is the feeling of relief washing over me the same as happiness? I guess even if it isn’t it’s plenty good enough for now.