The story is divided into thirteen sections and in simple past tense. There are some shifts in POV. The setting is Japan with a present day time frame. Toru returned home from work one day to find a former classmate waiting for him. First of all Toru was surprised Masato, now Saki, found him. There's some backstory about their relationship in high school. Saki is trans and asks if she can stay with Toru because she's been abused brutally by her boyfriend when he found out she's trans.
The story seems to be about whether or not there is an afterlife of some sort. And, also, guilt and justice, faith and faithfulness, suicide, depression, friendship, and kindness. Saki had been bullied and abused and later tells Toru that he was her only friend. Toru has two jobs, one is refilling vending machines and the second one is cleaning the grave sites for people who are too busy to do it themselves. When Saki leaves, after several months, Toru wishes that he could reach out to her on some other plane of reality. Saki had a recurring dream and it is through that that Toru wishes he could reach her.
"On This Side" was first published in the Iowa Review and then included in the 2016 edition of The Best American Short Stories.
"The evening air outside the open window smelled vibrant, as though the intensity of the heat had been skimmed off its surface and all the living things underneath were finally allowed to breathe. Occasionally trains went by just a few blocks away, but they sounded strangely muted and distant."