Probably the worst thing about the impending holiday break was the harsh reminder it represented for me. I mean, my entire life had fallen apart in August; this was going to be the first holiday that I spent with Grandma and Grandpa in Hokkaido, and the first time since I entered middle school without Daichi.
I was looking forward to Christmas with a sort of vague dread--oh, up this way, they didn't really celebrate it the way they do in Tokyo, because the old traditions hold sway up here--and New Year's promised to be nothing but an angst-fest, regardless of what I wanted it to be. I had simply lost too much over the past several months: my home, my friends, my boyfriend, the entire life I'd planned for myself, it was all gone. How could I be grateful for the year had passed, and how could I look forward to the next year? What did I have to look forward to?
About a week before Christmas, then, Hotaru came into homeroom in an excited flutter.
"Suba-chan! Osaka! I got it!"
Ayumu lifted her head from her desk and said, "Don't call me 'Osaka'."
"What do you have?" I asked.
Hotaru brandished a sheet of paper. "An entry form for the annual sleigh race. I've tried to get one every year for the last five years, but most of them are given out by lottery. The first three finishers from the previous year get theirs automatically, but the other seventeen are always given out by lottery, and I won one!"
Ayumu lifted a skeptical eyebrow. "So?"
"'So'?" Hotaru asked. "So, we can finally enter the race!" She struck a pose. "I'll be Rudolph and guide us to victory!"
"You have the nose for it," Ayumu said dryly.
"Back up," I said. "What sleigh race?"
Ayumu said, "Every year they hold a sleigh race. You have a team of three people; one is Santa, in the sleigh, and the other two are reindeer, pulling the sleigh. The first one to reach the end of the course wins." She sighed. "The high school basketball team has won for the last three years."
Hotaru added, "I've just wanted to be in it for the longest time. Ever since I was little! But you can't enter until you're 13. Osaka, you agreed to enter with me, remember?"
"That was before you started calling me 'Osaka'," Ayumu said.
"That was before you got your hair cut like that--and it was before the esclator incident."
"I like this hairstyle. And the thing with the esclator, I said, was--"
Before they could get going further, I interrupted: "So who's your third member?"
They both looked at me. Then Hotaru said, "Our friend Junko. But she moved away two years ago."
"We don't have one," Ayumu said, "so we can't do it. Guess you'll have to turn the form back in."
"You could do it, Suba-chan! You can be Santa. Please?" Hotaru asked.
"Wait--why do I have to be Santa?"
"It's the easiest job. We'll pull you; you just have to lean at the right times and use the foot brakes to steer."
"I can think of about a hundred other things I'd rather do than run my butt off on Christmas Eve," Ayumu protested.
"What about the prizes?" Hotaru asked. "If we come in first, we win a trip to Okinawa."
"If you make so much as one joke about sataa andagii, I'm going to kick your ass," Ayumu said.
"Would I do a thing like that? C'mon, we could get out of this miserable winter for a week and enjoy some fun in the tropics!"
"If we win. The basketball team is the odds-on favorite; they win it every year." Ayumu sighed.
"Don't forget the after party. Everyone wants to go to that. It's why they have to limit entries in the first place; do you know how many teams just participate to get to attend that party?"
"Great, a party with a bunch of old farts. Pass."
"How about this? If we win, I stop calling you 'Osaka'? Forever?"
Ayumu's jaw dropped. Then she said, "What are the conditions for victory? I want to know exactly what you mean by 'win'."
"If we get first place."
Ayumu thought about it for a moment. "No, because the basketball team will win. They run all the time. How about if we're in the top three."
"First or second place," Hotaru said.
"Done," Ayumu said, and they shook hands.
Then they looked at me.
"I wish we'd had more of a chance to practice this," I said, sitting in the sleigh. It was a tight fit. The fake beard itched.
We were all wearing Santa suits, though Ayumu and Hotaru didn't have to wear the beards or hats. Hotaru was wearing a bright red false nose, but it had a tendency to fall off.
The sleigh was pretty small. It wrapped around the rider, supporting the back, and there were two pedals which shoved skegs into the snow, which would act like brakes. We'd had a couple of practice runs with the thing over the preceding week, when all the other teams were also allowed practice, but today would be the real thing--an all-out race to the finish line.
The course started at the top of the old ski hill outside town. It was about a kilometer long and featured several turns and switchbacks on its way to the goal at the base of the hill.
The MC on the stage was starting the countdown.
"Get ready; we've got to get out of the gate fast," Hotaru said.
The MC shouted, "Go!" and the starter gun went off; and both Ayumu and Hotaru leaned into the drawbar.
As we hit the edge of the slope, I began to realize why the driver was important: I had to use the brakes to keep the sleigh from overrunning my teammates. They weren't pulling the sleigh so much as running away from it, and helping to guide it through turns. And so the contest was as much about the skill of the driver as it was the speed of the "reindeer".
Hotaru and Ayumu were pretty decent runners. Of the twenty teams in the race, I think only about five were composed of kids, and the rest were adults of various ages. (Counting us as "kids", even though two of us were 18.)
Hotaru and Ayumu bounded down the slope gamely, taking huge flying leaps, and I hardly had to use the brakes at all. We approached the first turn and I leaned on the left brake while the other two angled in that direction.
"Shit! Turn," Ayumu yelled at no one in particular.
As we straightened out I saw the basketball team's sleigh was just ahead of ours. There was a noise from behind us, and I whipped my head around to see that the team from the liquor store had overturned its sleigh. It didn't mean they were out of the race, but it did mean they had to take time to right themselves and get moving again. And as they began to sort themselves out, another team piled right over them and embedded itself in the banked snow.
"Two teams are out, for now," I said.
"Good!" Hotaru yelled. "Faster, Osaka! Faster!"
"I thought I told you to stop calling me 'Osaka!'"
"After we win!"
But the basketball team was pulling away from us. The three boys were all seniors in high school, and they were fast runners. The lightest one had gone into the sleigh and the other two had long, long legs; I found myself wondering how much brake they needed? But Hotaru and Ayumu were doing their best and I wasn't needing much brake, either.
Then it was time to stab the right brake pedal while the girls ran hard to the right. The sleigh's left runner got caught in the rut left by the basketball team's sleigh and tried to stay in it. For a moment, the sleigh felt like it might tip; I leaned hard to the right, though, and the front of the right runner gamely bit into the snow, pulling the left runner out of the rut. Then we were in the straightaway again.
"Aaaaigh," someone said, and a sleigh roared past us, "reindeer" piled haphazardly atop "Santa", and the whole mess sliding uncontrollably towards the raised berm of snow on the right side of the course. One of the "reindeer" fell off, the sleigh went sideways, and all three of them struck the berm in an amazing explosion of snow.
"How do people live through this?" I screamed.
"Just...keep...running,...Osaka," Hotaru panted. Ayumu just gave her a dirty look.
Then disaster struck: we hit an icy patch and Hotaru tripped.
I landed on both brakes. She kept her hold on the drawbar, so the sleigh was pushing her bodily through the snow. Ayumu was staggering under the load of holding Hotaru up, and as I watched she stumbled herself. The brakes weren't doing any good--there was a thick icy layer under the powdery snow--and the two of them were doing well just to hang onto the drawbar.
A couple of teams passed us, faring slightly better on the treacherous ground. We ended up hitting the berm on the left side of the course, just short of the third turn.
"C'mon, c'mon," Hotaru screamed, regaining her feet. "We can still do this!"
Ayumu turned to me. "You okay, Subaru?"
"I'm fine! Go!"
They leaned into the drawbar again and we resumed our trip downhill. Only three teams were in front of us, still--as Hotaru had said, many of the participants merely came to the race in order to be allowed to attend the party afterwards. But some of them competed for prizes; and the basketball team was defending its honor.
We caught up with the third-place team pretty easily--they were from the local Rotarian chapter--and passed them. Now in third place we had to contend with the fourth turn before we could think about passing the second-place team, which was a group of boys from the junior high soccer team.
"Let off the brakes," Hotaru yelled.
"I'll run you over!"
"Let off the brakes!" She caught Ayumu's eye. "Ayumu--run!"
I let off the brakes.
The sleigh accelerated. I could see that Hotaru and Ayumu were holding it back as best they could--or, rather, letting the thing carry them along as they did their utmost simply to keep their bodies off the ground. We whipped past the boys' soccer team, and I thought I saw them gape at us in wide-eyed disbelief for a few seconds before they lost control and rolled into the snowbank.
I gingerly applied the brakes, trying to help the girls steer. The basketball team's sleigh was getting closer.
"No matter what," Hotaru said around gasps for air, "don't hit those brakes! We can win this!"
The last turn was coming, and it was coming fast. The two of them tried to move sideways, but couldn't; I landed on the left brake--
--I was stepping on a loosely flopping piece of wood. The berm loomed closer and I stomped on the right brake, the only remaining control I had, with everything I was worth, but all that did was slew the sleigh around to the right.
There was a thud as the seat tried to come up through my spine, and then a beautiful, horrible silence that seemed to stretch on for a few decades. I could see sparkles of snow forming a dense cloud around me, seeming to enfold me in a chilling but comfortable embrace. I fell through this soft cottony universe for an uncountable time, wondering why I had never noticed how snow looks when lit by sunlight, how the shadows take on that icy blue color that makes a winter scene look so cold, even when lit by the warmest of golden sunlight.
When the smoke cleared, I found myself laying in a snowdrift. I was clearly on the other side of the berm from the racecourse. The sleigh was wrecked against a tree; Hotaru was laying over the top of the berm and Ayumu was nowhere in sight.
The head of one of the race referees popped over the berm. "Hey, are you all right?"
"Where's Ayumu?" I asked.
Her head appeared over the top of the berm. "I bailed out when I realized we were going to crash. Are you okay?"
"I...I don't know," I admitted.
"Hey, Hotaru," Ayumu said, slapping her on the rump. "Are you alive?"
"What happened?" Hotaru asked.
I got a picture of where I landed: I'd made a crater.
The sleigh had to be retired. At that, we won a trophy for the most spectacular wipe-out of the race. It wasn't a trip to Okinawa in the dead of winter, but it was something.
The basketball team won--again.
At the party afterwards, then, I stood on the hotel balcony and watched it snow. Ayumu came out to where I was standing and handed me a cup of eggnog.
"Be careful; that's not the unleaded stuff," she said, taking a sip from her own cup.
I sipped it; it was pretty potent.
"How do you feel?" She asked me.
"A little wistful, I guess. It used to be that Daichi and I would spend Christmas Eve together. I've got a lot of memories...." I sighed. "But you know, I only just realized, we made a really nice memory today, didn't we?"
Ayumu smiled at that. "I guess we did. We didn't win. At least we got something out of this."
"How about you? How do you feel?"
"My legs hurt. All I want to do now is go take a hot bath."
"The famous Fujisawa inn is booked solid tonight," I said, "but I think I know someone who could sneak us into the onsen."
"Sounds good! I'll go snag G-cup girl [Hotaru] while you talk to this mystery person. I have a feeling she can sneak us a bottle of sake."
...and so later that night, I went to bed feeling woozy drunk and wrung out, but good; and as I fell asleep I realized that I had been too busy to be melancholy.
I have good friends.