"Seinousuke! It's time to wake up," a gentle female voice called into the boy's bedroom.
Eight-year-old Yamada Seinousuke wasn't sure what sound came out of his mouth, but he thought it was a random blend of syllables. He sighed as he wiped the sleep out of his black eyes. Reluctantly, he climbed out of his comfortable bed and freshened up at the washbasin on the dresser.
After changing into his school uniform, Seinousuke sleepily ran a hand through his dark hair. "I hate school," he muttered to himself as he sat down at the kitchen table. His mood improved, at least a little, when his mother, Mizuki, put the fluffy rice and hot miso soup on the table.
Mizuki smiled lovingly at her only child. "You like hachi miso, don't you?" she remarked as she sat to join her son for breakfast. "So why do you hate school?"
Seinousuke wrinkled his eyebrows and seemed to study his food intently. "The other boys make fun of me 'cause I'm smaller than them. They even try to take my lunch." He looked his mother in the face, his dark eyes glittering. "Everyone calls me 'devil boy' and says they feel sorry for you 'cause I'm so ugly."
"I'm sorry to hear about the teasing. Have you told your teachers about it?" Mizuki asked with concern.
"I tried, but they said I had it coming 'cause I don't belong there."
At this, the mother's black eyes took the same gleam her son's had. "Do I need to have a word with your teachers?"
"No," the boy mumbled.
"Well, we'll think of something." She squeezed his hand and smiled once again. "Finish your breakfast. You don't want to be late."
"Can't I stay home?"
"No, dear. But I'll have a surprise for you when you come home."
School went as expected, with the girls pinching Seinousuke's pudgy cheeks and the boys calling him "shrimp." He hated sitting in front because the teachers always seemed to call on him more than others. There was no sleeping in those classes. Math class was another story. The teacher had let students choose their own seats, and, naturally, Seinousuke had chosen a back seat next to the window. That last class period seemed to drag on. Finally, much to the boy's relief, the dismissal bell rang. Before any of his classmates could bully him into doing their homework, he rushed out the door and to his locker. If he was lucky, he'd get home with no trouble.
In the safety of his backyard, he sat down in the gazebo and stared out at the garden. Mizuki had always loved flowers, so she and the boy had planted a variety of daisies and bell flowers. She had set aside a small corner of the garden for him to take care of—an arrangement they both enjoyed. His corner had bell peppers and tomatoes, which he tended with the care of a seasoned gardener. His tomatoes were just starting to show a tinge of red.
As he got up to leave, he felt a nudge at his hand. A stray cat had curled up next to him and fallen asleep. A faint smile came to Seinousuke's young face as he stroked the cat. "Is this my surprise?" he wondered to himself. The cat purred contentedly as the boy scratched behind her ears. The youngster would have liked to spend even longer outside, talking to the cat and taking in the aroma of the flowers, but then his mother called him inside.
"You'd spend all day out here if I'd let you, wouldn't you, dear?" Mizuki smiled gently, tousling her son's hair. "Go wash your hands. Then come out to the kitchen." A twinkle came to her dark eyes. "I've got something for you." Excitedly he went to the washroom and scrubbed his hands. When he came out to the living room, Mizuki nodded. "Close your eyes and grab my hand." Seinousuke did as he was told, his excitement growing as his mother guided him to the kitchen table. "Open your eyes."
Eagerly, the child opened his dark eyes. "Grandpa!" he exclaimed delightedly, running around the table to hug the old man. The adults smiled at this uncharacteristic display of enthusiasm. "You came to see us?" Seinousuke wondered incredulously.
"Well...more like, I'm here to see you, kiddo," Grandpa told him kindly. "I have this big old tub of ice cream, but there's no one to help me eat it. You know anyone who could help me with that?"
"Me!" the youngster grinned. Mizuki smiled as her father and her son bonded over the ice cream. "Mama, you have some too," Seinousuke insisted. "It's good." He turned to Grandpa. "What flavor is this? I haven't had green ice cream before."
Grandpa smiled warmly at his grandson. "Would you believe me if I told you it's made of vegetables?"
"You can buy vegetable ice cream?" the child asked suspiciously.
"No, boy. This here's homemade. You can do all sorts of stuff with an ice-cream machine."
"And you made this for me?"
"Well...for all of us to share. I'm glad you like it, boy." Grandpa's expression became serious. "It's easier to talk about things when you've got a bowl of ice cream."
Mizuki took the bowls and spoons to the sink and sat down next to her father. "We've got some news for you, Seinousuke," she began softly. "It's about school."
Grandpa nodded. "Your mom told me about what's been going on at school."
"She did?" He studied his mother curiously. "Why?"
Grandpa's eyes twinkled as he handed the boy a packet of brochures and papers. "I called in a favor. You and I are going to visit the arts and sciences academy tomorrow. We'll make a day of it."
"I...can go to school somewhere else?" the child asked, his black eyes glimmering with hope.
"You and your mom just fill out those papers, and I'm sure you can get in there." Grandpa smiled conspiratorially at his grandson, who did look remarkably like him. "It's for smart kids like you."
"Thanks, Grandpa!" the grateful boy exclaimed. "But what's Papa going to say?" His expression darkened.
"If he has a problem, he can take it up with me," Grandpa asserted.
"Yusuke...stays so busy trying to build his medical practice that he doesn't have much time for me or Seinousuke," Mizuki told her father regretfully, her eyes clouding over. "He...doesn't keep up with things like school."
"Then can I come get you after breakfast?" Grandpa smiled.
"I'd like that," the youngster smiled faintly.