At The Junction, I Met You


Chapter 1: Apricot Trees

It’s 16:02. The Hisakawa family’s apricot bounced on a tree branch. Miori’s knees hurt from trekking up the slope of the hill. She had been doing so since 15:45. All around her, flora and fauna embraced serene solitude, drowning out the bustle of the village behind. Miori grasped the bark of a pine tree, hoisting herself over thick shrubs, catching a few of its needles in her cotton skirt. Miori grimaced, imagining her parents’ inescapable grasps.

“Hisakawa Miori! Don’t wrinkle your clothes!” they’d chide.

‘Where are we going, Obāsan1?’ Miori thought instead. The wind, still and silent, didn’t reply. She felt no breeze. She did, however, feel her.

Her Obāsan’s eyes lingered on her neck, a heavy weight pulling her closer from afar. Miori felt it ever since she bit an unripe Hisakawa apricot a week ago. The rancid aftertaste burned her taste-buds. It had not left her mind, and neither had the eyes. 

Miori finally followed them after days of hesitating, waiting for her parents’ footsteps to change from stampeding race-horses to shuffling autumn leaves. Contrary to popular beliefs, not all days in the Hisakawa residence were peaceful.

‘Eccentric people like us should stick together. Right, Obāsan?’ Miori pondered, rubbing her thumbnail like how Obāsan always did. She felt the eyes flutter against her skin. 

When Miori stepped into the forest, thick walls of flora seemed to part, creating traversable dirt paths. The path ended at the top of the hill, where a lone apricot tree stood. The forest stretched for miles, lofty pine trees denying Miori a view of the village below, where the Hisakawa’s residence stood extravagantly proud amongst the humble houses. The eyes tugged her up the hill.

Miori hoped the thick trees could block out her thoughts from reaching the residence. She hoped no one heard the young Hisakawa that wasn’t the bejewelled, beloved heir.

Certainly because sneaking out would not be in favour of her parents’ wishes. But, seventeenth birthday or not, Miori couldn’t resist the tempting pull of the eyes. Their intangible warmth felt kinder than the dancing candles of her expensive birthday cake. Obāsan was the kindest, the only one who understood her. Miori bit her fingernail – a habit of Obāsan’s. 

Perhaps biting into the unripe apricot was serendipity, although the Hisakawas would argue it was a curse. It’s a sacred tradition – every Hisakawa has to eat a family apricot. They were treasured like gold and none were allowed to be rotten. They are refreshing, vibrant, and rich. All Hisakawa apricots are the same. All Hisakawas should be the same. When Miori spat out her rotten apricot, she saw her relatives’ portraits in the reflection of her glass cup, glaring from the walls. 

All except Hisakawa Tsubaki, Obāsan. Her portrait smiled reassuringly, reminding Miori of the nights spent in Obāsan’s room, listening to her stories as the moon illuminated their soft laughter. Nights she couldn’t afford anymore now that Obāsan had departed. 

However fleeting those nights were, Miori’s memory never failed her. She remembered Mother saying that, as a child, Obāsan often soiled her Mary Janes and dirtied her fingernails. When Miori returned home bemired, Mother would laugh wryly, saying Miori was just like her Obāsan. 

Miori felt herself pause as she trekked up the steep forest ground alone, recollecting herself as she calmed her heartbeat. Her ears picked up children’s laughter, steam trains whistling, pine leaves rustling. She heard her deep breaths. 

Did Obāsan hear those, too? 

Carefully traipsing, Miori’s tainted Mary Janes crunched and crushed the fallen autumn leaves. She desperately dusted her shoes, remembering her parents’ subtly scrunched faces. Grime burrowed beneath her fingernails, and she tried not to pick at them. Her calloused hands then caressed the tree bark, the way Father once instructed her to. It’s how the Hisakawas connect with the deceased. 

Miori tried to feel her Obāsan’s spirit. She closed her eyes, imagining roots grounding her, bringing her through the earth, Heaven and Hell, and connecting her living soul with the departed. She searched for Obāsan, but could only feel a coarse bark. 

Miori squinted through the dappled sunlight. The eyes were still watching, but she couldn’t sense Obāsan’s spirit around her memorial tree. Miori stood still, feet grounded like roots, shoulder-length hair grazing her cheeks like pine-needles as the breeze twirled some dead leaves into the air. 

She couldn’t feel Obāsan. Miori’s breath stuttered. 

Father would berate her incompetency. Miori shut her eyes.

Father taught Miori from young that apricots were the Hisakawas’ way of remembering the dead. They were bigger, redder, fresher than other apricots, like the one on Obāsan’s tree.

“Apricots, you ask?” Obāsan mused as Miori sat on her bed. It was 21:00, three hours before Miori turned eight. Obāsan held Miori’s hands, warm and safe, gently caressing the uneven skin of Miori’s fingers. “They are lovely, alright. A little sour and bitter, here and there, but it never fazes me. Oh! It’s best to savour them with company, as I do with my dearest friend!” Obāsan’s voice was tender with affinity. “I would love for you to meet her. But, now, she lives in my memories. I planted her an apricot, though. A sweet, sweet goodbye.” 

“Who is she, Obāsan?” Miori blinked with sparkling eyes.

Obāsan smiled. “Her name is Yui.”

The eyes tugged at Miori’s skin. She blinked back to reality, Obāsan’s apricot tree rustling softly before her.

The eyes tugged Miori forward. She looked up, and noticed an abandoned train station further up the clearing. One that felt… eerily familiar, like an archived memory shelved in her mind. She heard whispers flutter beside her ear. A chill swept down her spine.

Miori looked around. Endless flora enveloped the horizon. “Is someone there?” she asked, noticing a path of maple leaves blanketing the ground. They led to the station. “C-Could you show yourself?”

A train whistle echoed through the dense forest, resonating from behind the train station. Miori lingered at the apricot tree, her fingers tracing the bark. 

“…Obāsan?” Miori tried, pressing her forehead against it. The eyes responded to the whistle instead, launching leaves into the air and towards the station, tugging Miori forward. Miori heard the sound of wheels against tracks, chugging past trees, rushing through the wind, and slipping through her fingers. 

Miori frowned, fist clenching against her Obāsan’s tree. Her fingernails grazed the bark, chipping a splinter in the process. Father’s voice suddenly blared in her mind. “Did you cut those nails with a razor? They are most definitely jagged. Clean them now!” Miori whispered an apology to the tree – to Obāsan – and dusted her nails, her skirt, her skin. She glanced up, where the maple leaves twirled around the ground.The eyes urged her to move. 

In her periphery, Miori caught the shifting of a silhouette inside the station. A flare of something blue, a flutter of something white. A whisper in the air. Leaves swirled around her feet and brought her closer to the station. “Will you show me I’m not alone?” Miori whispered back.

Sunlight filtered through the clouds, caressing her cheeks, kissing her nose and soothing her eyes. Miori looked back, where pine trees blocked the horizon. ‘I’ll be back by four-thirty, Mother, Father,’ she thought, slowly walking down the path of fallen, fragile, maple leaves. ‘I promise, I won’t disobey you.’

The station clock chimed loudly. 16:15. The eyes blinked once, twice, then disappeared into the still air.

–– ⊱ ❀ ⊰ ––

Silent, solemn, and suffocating. The air inside the train station was thick with cobwebs and dust, dust and cobwebs. An old, fading signage board creaked gently from the ceiling, welcoming Miori. She squinted and tried deciphering the faded characters on the sign.

‘Sachiyo Station.’ 

The old wooden tiles groaned beneath her shoes as she traced her hands over the patchwork of cracks on the dusty wall, its history sinking beneath her fingers. All the while, the eyes faintly fluttered against her skin. Miori felt someone walking in tandem with her heartbeat. As her shoes thudded, someone’s bare feet padded. She walked past the vacant benches, the empty ticket counter, and dusty notice boards behind glass panels. Miori paused, eyes lingering on the surface of the panel.

“I always read the weekly pieces at the station,” Obāsan recalled, stirring a cup of oolong in her bedroom. “About train rides, sunsets, people. The regulars jot down memories and pin them there. I wrote many pieces with Yui a long time ago.” Miori oohed and aahed. “She’s a journalist, so she wrote very professionally! Albeit she had some trouble with the typewriter. Had a unique, short finger. Yui believed all quirks of the human body are beautiful and unique. She inspired me to think the same for myself!” Obāsan laughed heartily, earning a giggle from Miori. “I’m sure she would’ve loved to journal with you, my apricot,” Obāsan’s eyes softened, forming wrinkles, tenderness. She gently carded her fingers through Miori’s hair. “The night is still young, Mio-chan. You’ve got a whole life. Go make all the memories you can – both pleasant and foul.”

Suddenly, the pitter-patter of footsteps ceased. Miori snapped out of her reverie. It was eerily quiet – too quiet. She wanted to pick at her fingernails.

Echoing whispers scattered around, as if elicited from between the cracks in the walls, beneath the station’s rotting wooden tiles, or the still and dusty air engulfing Miori. She vaguely heard someone whisper, ‘Tsubaki.’

She emerged from the facility. Evening sunlight penetrated between the wooden beams above the platform. She shielded her eyes, looking around. The clock behind struck 16:27. 

Miori gazed down at the rusted iron tracks. Weed and white clovers coiled around them, swaying gently. To her right, the tracks stretched on for miles, the nearby mountains obscuring what lay beyond. 

Then, there was a whistle of a train. Her skin prickled as the eyes blinked.

“You might want to step back, Tsubaki,” a voice whispered from behind.

Miori jumped. “Who’s th-there?” 

In an instant, the train tracks creaked, rusty hinges groaning and vibrating. A gust of wind swept through the earth, forcing Miori to shut her eyes as her tousled auburn hair flew into her face. The weeds prickled and grazed her knees, splintering fingertips.

With her senses overwhelmed all at once, Miori flailed in bewilderment.

However, tugs on her cotton skirt made Miori snap her eyes open. Maple leaves grasped the hem of her skirt and sleeves. They were the same ones that led Miori to the station, the same ones that responded to the eyes. 

Miori’s perplexity flew when the sound of train wheels clacking against the tracks filled her ears. Steam hissed from a train’s chimney, warm air tickling Miori’s skin. She turned around, but there was no train in sight.

“No passengers today, too,” the voice from before suddenly mused.

Once more, Miori jumped out of her skin. Her fingers tingled with anxiety. A noise of bemusement from above made Miori freeze. She reached to pick her fingernails, glancing up. 

“None since Sachiyo closed,” a girl wearing a white kimono mumbled from the wooden beam above, “None since I revisited.” She locked eyes with Miori.

Evening sunbeams penetrated through the girl’s ghostly-pale skin, like glass, water, and the otherness the Hisakawas knew of. Her skin flushed scarlet because of the sunlight, making her white kimono ever-so blinding. The blood in Miori’s veins froze when she saw the girl’s eyes. They were of the deepest shade of umber Miori had ever seen, unwavering, probing, skin-tingling. Every nerve and muscle squeezed against the faint tremor beneath Miori’s skin. The girl leaned forward quizzically, her matte-black hair wafting in the air, rolling and coiling like waves behind her. Small blue flames lingered by her side, humming softly. 

She watched the girl’s fingers drum on the beam erratically, inquisitively. Drum, drum, dru-drum. One of her fingers was shorter than normal. Obāsan’s words from years ago resurfaced as the evening sunbeams flared. Miori had an epiphany, because she felt herself gasping, fingertips tingling. “Y-Yui?” 

The girl frowned. “You’re not Tsubaki… How do you know me?”

The maple leaves scattered around Miori shook against the wooden platform, the humming of the girl’s blue flames accompanying their crisp chatter. A knowing smile tugged on her lips as she asked, “Is it from my weekly pieces? They are lovely reads.”

The girl, Yui, clasped her hands, swinging her feet back and forth from the wooden beams, her white kimono fluttering. She donned a smile that twinkled like starlight. In that moment, Miori could see the person Obāsan had described Yui to be – enviously carefree.

Miori sheepishly rubbed her nape. “W-Well, she told me about you.”  

Yui’s smile slowly faded, replaced with pursed lips. 

“Then, you’d know she pities me,” Yui whispered. She pointed to another platform adjacent to the station, where a familiar apricot tree swayed gently. Miori widened her eyes, having not noticed it before. “That’s all she left me. I didn’t get to say goodbye properly, so I’ve been waiting here for that chance,” she chuckled humorlessly, “I’ve waited for so long. And for so long, I read our pieces, replayed memories. They aren’t as lovely anymore.” 

Miori felt the wooden tiles creak beneath her fidgeting legs. “That’s not true, Tsubaki doesn’t pity you,” she said. She remembered the nights when Tsubaki smiled at Miori as she recalled the memories of her youth. 

Yui clenched her fist. “How would you know that?” she mumbled. She glanced at Miori, eyes probing and piercing, unlike the amiable ones Miori saw before. “If you know that much about Tsubaki, then tell me where she is.” 

Miori trembled. “I… I can’t.”

“Why not?”

Phantom touches of coarse apricot tree barks lingered beneath Miori’s fingertips. The chilling absence of a departed spirit, the silence after Miori’s desperate call – empty, alone. She attempted to respond, but her tongue was tied. Her nails dug into her palms, and she hissed at the sharp pain.

She suddenly felt the hum of blue flames around her. Yui appeared before her, hands reaching out, voice quiet and mellow, like she knew Miori as an old friend. “What are you doing? Don’t do that.” Miori awaited a lecture, but Yui only said, “You’ll hurt yourself.”

Miori’s breath hitched. She looked at the clock. She remembered the birthday party. Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no.

Miori stepped back. “I-I have to go.”

Yui widened her eyes. The air became ever-so suffocating. “Where to?”

Miori inched towards the station. “Um, home. C-Curfew!”

Yui’s unmoving eyes were on her. “That’s what Tsubaki would say…” She frowned. “Who… exactly are you?”

Miori hitched her breath. The apricot’s red and orange faded into the evening blue. ‘M-Miori…” She scampered towards the station. “Hisakawa Miori!”

The clock chimes. It’s 16:30.

Quek Chie (Class of 2025) reveals her ever-changing, introspective world through stories and poems about tumultuous self-acceptance, unlikely camaraderie and idealistic perceptions of metamorphosis. Benign natural imagery permeates Chie’s writing, creating a sentimental writers’ voice inviting readers into her world. 

1 ‘Grandmother’ in Japanese