Even if Hayato had somehow slept through the last month (if only, he thought with a snort), he’d have still known it was the day of the festival the moment he stepped out of his house the next morning. The neighbours were throwing poles and canvases into the back of an old pickup van, along with boxes of what looked like cooking equipment.
“Morning, Hayato!” said the man as he wiped his leathery-hands on an oily rag.
“Good morning, Mr. Kan,” Hayato replied as he latched the gate shut behind him, “Are you doing the Takoyaki stall again this year?”
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said Mr. Kan, “Hey, good luck performing on the float today, I’ll try to watch if I’m not too busy!”
“Thanks, Mr. Kan,” said Hayato, clutching his bag of drumsticks tight, “Good luck to you too.”
Mr. Kan smiled a wide, wrinkly smile. “You’re a good kid. Listen, after you’ve finished swing by my stall. I’ve have some takoyaki ready for you, on the house.”
Hayato thanked him again and dashed down the street. It was a cool, misty morning, and the wind hissed through the trees like a sea breeze. He stopped at Nozomi’s house, and rang the doorbell. The door opened almost immediately.
“You’re on time,” said Nozomi as she slipped on her shoes.
“You sound surprised.”
“Well, to be honest I thought you’d make excuses and turn up late,” she said, closing the door behind her, “You haven’t been exactly thrilled about this festival, have you?”
“Ooh, I don’t know,” Hayato sucked in the fresh air and puffed out a plume of steam, “Maybe this festival will be different.”
“Oh!” Nozomi froze on the spot, turned, and dashed up to her front door. She poked her head through. “Mom, can you feed Shisha for me? I forgot, sorry! Thanks!”
She clicked the door shut and ran back to Hayato.
“I didn’t know you had a pet.”
Nozomi rolled her eyes. “Don’t change the subject! Won’t you at least give me a clue what you’re up to?”
Nozomi considered him through narrowed eyes. “Well fine then, Mr. I’ve-got-a-secret. If you’ve got a plan up your sleeve you can keep it there. Just…promise me one thing.”
She held out an arm, and they stopped in the middle of the street. She looked uncomfortable, fiddling with the straps of her drumstick bag while kicking at the street.
“What is it, Nozomi?” Hayato pressed.
“It’s just…my Father’s going to come to the festival today, just to watch me. He works in the big city, and he always comes home when I’m asleep and leaves before I wake up. So…it’s kind of important for me. I just…well, I don’t want to sound mean or anything, but…please don’t do anything rash, Hayato. This kinda means a lot to me.”
Hayato tried to reply but his throat was stuck. He managed a hearty laugh instead.
“Don’t worry!” he said, giving her a pat on the back, “It’s nothing like that!”
“Really,” Hayato repeated.
“Oh, thank you Hayato,” Nozomi smiled, “You’re the best friend I could ask for!”
Hayato swallowed, and felt a rogue drip of sweat run down his face. He ran through the plan in his head. It wouldn’t step over Nozomi’s chance to shine, would it? No, of course it wouldn’t. It wasn’t that bold, after all…was it?
“Come on, then!” Nozomi punched the air, “We don’t want to miss the start of the festival!”
She charged ahead, Hayato giving chase, and together they raced down the hill towards the centre of town.
The trees and rice fields steadily gave way to tarmac roads, modern housing of brick and concrete, telephone poles…and crowds. Hayato had never seen it so busy: surely Namerikawa didn’t have this many people? But then why would anyone from out of town want to come to their silly old festival?
And then the stalls started, first few and far between, then as they drew nearer to the town hall, they squeezed side-by-side on either side of every street. Their colourful awnings declared in big, bold letters what was on sale, and it was almost all food: takoyaki, okonomiyaki, soba noodles, fried chicken, and chocolate-coated bananas. Hayato hadn’t long had breakfast, but his stomach rumbled at the smell of the smoke wafting out at him from all sides.
It wasn’t all food, though. There were trinket stalls and flea markets, selling local wares and hand-me-downs: for the little kids there were even stalls that had catch-your-own live goldfish and a place you could make your own putty.
But Hayato rolled his eyes at it, and could feel his cranky usual self waking up. It was the exact same as last year, and he could have sworn the stalls were even in the same order as last year. Did they even bother to mix it up? And, though he couldn’t deny the food at festivals were great, it was the same stuff repeated over and over again. He and Nozomi turned a corner onto another street, and had they not known better he’d have sworn they’d got turned around, because there was another Takoyaki stall, another selling shaved ice, another goldfish stand…and he would bet his drumsticks the next street along would be the same, and the one after that…
The road opened up, into an open square. The Town Hall stood at the far end, it’s green-tiled roof poking above the bustling crowd and stalls. It wasn’t a big building by any means, but it was by far the biggest in Namerikawa. In the centre of the square was an open green space, and in the centre of that was the Namerikawa Shrine. The torii gate stood as the entrance, shining a red so vibrant it nearly made Hayato’s eyes water. Beyond it lay the shrine itself; a small, ancient building of wood, the walls made entirely of frames depicting mythical creatures. It was ringed by a wooden walkway, currently overflowing with tourists, and the roof was thatched out of straw and wicker. Hayato rolled his eyes as people passed by the basin where they were supposed to wash their hands before entering the Shrine, too busy scoffing down a ramen burger. With all the squawking he’d heard about tradition, it all seemed so…phony.
Nozomi clicked her fingers in front of his eyes.
“Snap out of it, daydreamer,” she said crisply, “We’ve got some drums to drum. Now, where is that float…”
“Over there,” Hayato pointed at a garage on the west-side of the square. At least, it looked like a garage, only stretched taller. He must have walked past that a hundred times before and never once had he wondered what was in there. But now he throught about it, there was only one reason you’d want a garage with so much headroom next to the Town Square…
“The float’s in there, I think,” I said, “But what exactly do we do? Just wait by it?”
When they arrived next to the garage, though, they found Mr. Iitsuka standing next to it, tapping his foot and glancing at his watch. When he saw them, he gave an exasperated sigh.
“Where have you two been?” he hissed, pushing his glasses back up his nose so he could glower at them, “You’re running late!”
“Are we, sir?” Nozomi frowned, looking up at the clock on the Town Hall’s face, “I thought we were on time.”
“Yes, on time for when the float goes out!” he snapped, ushering them around the back of the garage, “Didn’t it occur to you to arrive earlier to get ready?”
“It’ doesn’t matter, now,” Mr. Iitsuka waved the non-existent apology away, “You need to get changed, quickly now!”
The festival clothes waited for Hayato and Nozomi on a rack inside the dark garage, the only two left; Hayato recognised the all-too familiar kanji-symbol for ‘festival’ emblazoned on the back of the yukata. The other students were already on the float, and they jeered and scolded the two of them as they quickly stripped off their casual clothes and slipped into the traditional garb:
“What are you two playing at?”
“We didn’t get to have a final practice because of you!”
Hayato glared at them, but Nozomi was quiet and pale: he felt bad for her. He’d never checked the times for the float himself; he’d always relied on Nozomi. So long as he was with her, he’d be on time in the right place: that was his policy. It had never failed before; she’d never been late for anything. The fact she’d forgot told Hayato just how nervous she really was.
As they clambered up the little ladder on the float, drumsticks in hand, he gave her a pat on the back. “Hey, it’ll be fine,” he said, giving her what he hoped was an encouraging smile. “Your Dad will love it, I’m sure.”
She gave a weak smile back. “Thanks,” she said, brushing the hair out of her eyes and adjusting the cap on her head.
They took their seats, front and centre of the float. Down below, big kids from junior high school picked up the ropes, shouting words of encouragement to each other in the dark. Then, slowly, the garage door slid open, and pale daylight spilled in. Hayato’s eyes adjusted to the light, and he felt his heart skip a beat. From up on the float, the crowd seemed so much bigger, and it seemed to go on forever. The sea of faces turned towards them as the float revealed itself to the crowd, and there was a deafening cheer. Hayato gulped.