"Yeah, she's definitely not happy with you," Emi comments as we start walking again.
"You think?" I say sarcastically, and Emi retorts by doing a full-on akanbe. I just shake my head and chuckle, and a few steps later we're standing outside my parents' house. As I expected, there's no indication that anyone is home, but I ring the doorbell just in case.
From next to me, I hear a soft whistle. "Not bad, Hisao," Emi says quietly. "Your parents must do pretty well."
"Yeah, you could say that," I say as I pull out my key. I can understand, since this house is about the same size as hers, but with an additional floor. I never really thought about it before, because my friends and I all come from pretty similar backgrounds, but I suppose we were all from reasonably well-off families. Not that any of us had anything like Lilly's upbringing, but none of us ever really wanted for much growing up. I can only hope to do as well once I'm out of school.
Opening the door, I take in the sight of a place that I haven't seen in eight months. "I'm home," I say in a subdued voice, but I'm not entirely sure how much it feels like home to me anymore. At Emi's urging, I've been able to make the room that used to feel like it belonged to nobody into something of my own. Even today, part of our mission is to augment that process by taking things from here back to Yamaku.
That's when it hits me.
I'm probably never going to live here again.
I'm...not sure how I should feel about that.
Emi finishes removing her sneakers, then clumsily slips into a pair of indoor shoes. Taking a couple of steps forward to stand next to me, she says, "So, this is where you grew up, huh?"
"Mostly," I reply. "This was my grandparents' house, and my family moved here when I started primary school. At first, it was so my grandparents could be here for me after school, but soon enough we
were taking care of them
." I'm not quite feeling ready to continue this conversation, so I hoist my bag back up onto my shoulder. "Let's drop off our bags, then I can show you around the place."
"Sounds good," she says, shifting her burden with a slight grimace before following me up the stairs. Mom told me she'd cleared out what's now the guest room, which we'd been using for storage since my grandparents passed away. When we get there, I realize how literally she meant it, as there's not much beyond a small night table and a fresh futon within. Boxes are stacked around the outside of the room, floor-to-ceiling, except for the window that faces the back. "Well," I comment, "at least it still has a good view."
Emi drops her bag next to the door and moves over to the window. "Yeah, that's a nice garden," she says quietly. "Your mom's?"
"Yeah," I reply as I come over to stand next to her. "It's pretty much the only hobby she's got – the only one she has time for, I suppose – so she spends a lot of time out there, especially during the summer. She's never liked air conditioning – too artificial, she says – so she goes out there with a pitcher of chilled tea and watches the birds. Dad used to join her once in a while, but lately he'll just watch TV, especially if there's a Giants game on." I hang my head slightly at the thought. "I don't even know if Mom cares."
"Huh, I wonder if she'd get along with Rin," Emi says, continuing to look out the window. "But it sounds kinda lonely to me. Like, even when they were here, they weren't here." I frown, because that accurately describes how it felt here too often. Looking back over at me, Emi smiles nervously, "Um...s-sorry to be so grim, Hisao. So, how about that tour?"
I take a deep breath, trying to throw off my doldrums, and straighten up. "Right! Since we're already upstairs, I guess we might as well start with my room."
"I'll do my best not to get my hopes up," Emi says wryly as I open the door. As I expected, the room looks exactly the way I left it, only cleaner. I toss my bag onto the bed as Emi enters behind me. "Wow," she says, almost sounding awe-struck, "that's a serious
collection you've got here. You weren't kidding about not having any empty space."
"Yeah, I suppose so," I reply neutrally. "My parents always made sure I had plenty of spending money when I was growing up, especially once I got to high school. I used some of it on meals, and the rest pretty much went into this." I gesture to indicate the shelves full of video games, DVDs and CDs. "I don't know if I've played or watched even half of them."
"I gotta say, I'm a little jealous – or at least I would've been a few years ago when I was laid up. But if you didn't watch 'em, why'd you buy 'em?"
I respond with a shrug. "I guess I was just bored, and wanted stuff to fill my time when nobody was around."
Emi looks at me with a hint of sadness – or maybe it's pity? – but quickly looks away. Her eyes move around the room and light on one of my posters. "You a baseball fan, too?"
I shake my head. "Not particularly. I only watched when Dad watched, and only if I wasn't doing anything else. That's Utsumi," I say, indicating the poster. "On one of his rare days off, Dad brought me to a game last year, and he was pitching that day. Dad's favorites were always the pitchers. I was happy enough to get to go somewhere with him that he went ahead and bought the poster for me, then put it up himself. It was the last empty space on the wall, but right at that moment I didn't care." I look up at it nostalgically. "I think he was trying to tell me something," I say, walking a few steps away, "but now that I think about it, if I'd listened to him I might be dead now."
I sigh as Emi stops running her finger along the spines of the game cases to look at me. "Hisao..." she murmurs, taking a step toward me.
This isn't how I wanted this to go.
"Um...I've...heard the Giants are doing pretty well this year, but the guys in the common room are always watching Rakuten, so I don't really bother joining them."
Emi comes the rest of the way over and takes my hand. "You know, Hisao, if coming here was only going to make you depressed, maybe...maybe we shouldn't have bothered."
I sigh even more heavily. "Yeah, I know. I knew going in it wasn't going to be easy, but I need to see this through, for my own peace of mind if nothing else."
Emi wraps her arms around me, laying her cheek against my chest. "I understand. Just don't push yourself too hard, okay? And remember, if you need it, I can always spare you a little bit of my energy." She pulls away and flashes a huge grin at me. "I mean, Okinawa can stand a brown-out once in a while, right?"
I pull Emi back in and squeeze her tightly, a big smile on my face. For that moment, I think I can actually feel a little bit of that power of hers. Then, I lean down to kiss her, and I can't feel anything else but
After we separate, we pick out and pull down a couple of posters from my room – but not the baseball one – to take back with us. We stow those in our bags along with a few DVDs that Emi wants to watch. At one point, I try to call the number I had for Takumi, but I get a message that it's no longer in service. I make a mental note to see if Shin has his new number later.
Since there's not a lot of time before I'm supposed to meet Iwanako, we take the whirlwind tour of the rest of the house. After I give my face a quick splash of water, the two of us head out the door and back to the train. Fortunately, the trip to Harajuku isn't too long, so we make it there with a few minutes to spare. When we get out to the sidewalk, Emi turns to me and says, "So, where do you want me to wait for you, Hisao?"
That takes me by surprise. "Eh?"
Emi takes a step away and puts her hands on her hips. "Oh, come on, Hisao! You really think I'm going all the way to her house
with you? I know how this works: if you wanna talk to her without holding back, and for her to do the same, do you think that would really happen if your girlfriend
was standing next to you?"
Feeling a little sheepish, I rub the back of my neck. "Yeah, that's a good point."
"Now you're catching on," Emi says with a wink. "So, that means I wait close by, and when things get too hairy, or things just finish up, you come back and we talk about it. So," she says in an exaggerated fashion, "where do you want me to wait for you, Hisao?"
"Well, I've never been to this part of the city before, so I don't know if there's a good spot between here and there." I glance around, taking in our surroundings. There are a few shops and cafés along the sidewalk, so I say, "Her house is less than a kilometer away, so maybe you should just wait around here. It shouldn't take me more than ten, maybe fifteen minutes to walk there from here."
Emi looks around at the shopping district as well. "Yeah, that's fine," she replies. "I should be able to find something to do here. Hopefully it'll be enough to keep me from thinking too much about it, too. Just don't take too long, okay?"
"Okay." With a grin, I add, "If I'm gone for more than an hour, you have my permission to hunt me down."
"Ye be a brave man to say that, Hisao Nakai," she says in her pirate voice. "Good luck, matey!"
I give her a mock salute before turning around and heading off down the street. Between my own anxiety and having to focus on Mai's directions, nothing about my surroundings registers with me as I make my way toward Iwanako's family home, which the directions say is in Sendagaya. When I get to what's supposed to be her house, I can't help but note its odd appearance. I double-check the nameplate, and since it does indeed read "大道寺" I can only conclude that this is it.
The house itself definitely stands out as ostentatious even by the standards of Sendagaya, but to me it doesn't really look like something you could live
in. It's all metal and glass, strange shapes and angles, and it all looks so grey
. In a way, it appeals to the scientist in me, as if someone was performing an experiment to determine how closely you could make a house resemble a pop-up book version of Flatland. Eventually, I tear my eyes away from the construction and press the buzzer next to the nameplate. "Hello," says a voice that's somehow both familiar and alien to me.
"It's Hisao Nakai," I say, trying to mask my nervousness. "I'm here to see Iwanako."
"Yes, I'll be right there." The voice holds no emotion, neither excitement nor nervousness; just flat grey, like the color of the house. As promised, I don't have to wait more than half a minute before the front door opens and Iwanako steps out. Still, if her face hadn't been imprinted on my brain I might not have recognized her. The most obvious change since the last time I saw her is her hair, which is maybe a dozen or so centimeters shorter than before and put up in a side-tail, the tip of which sits precariously on her left shoulder. She also looks a few centimeters taller, and given the length of my old school uniform I can see that her legs have gained a fair amount of definition.
I guess I'm not the only one who's started exercising.
"It's good to see you, Iwanako," I say as confidently as I can with a brief bow.
Iwanako looks at me strangely, and when she returns my bow she seems a little stiff. "It's good to see you too, Hisao, although admittedly I never thought I would."
"After the letter you wrote, you mean?"
"No, before that, on the day I walked out of the hospital for the last time. I'd made up my mind that I'd had enough, and I thought you had, too."
"So did I," I say honestly. "Until a few days ago, I had no intention of ever coming to see you, either." I close my eyes for a moment and take a deep breath. This may be my only chance, so I forge straight ahead. "I know you wrote that it might be better that way, but at the time it made me angry because I thought you were just brushing me off. I know now that I was wrong, that the letter was probably your way of trying to get some closure that you couldn't otherwise. I came here to apologize for not being able to do that for you myself, and maybe, even if it's selfish of me, to find my own closure as well."
I bow deeply, and for a while I do nothing but listen to the sounds of the cars passing behind me. After a while, I risk raising my head, only to see Iwanako wearing a small smile. It's a sight that, for a moment, brings me back to that day in the snow that started all of this. "I believe that's the most you've said to me at once," she says quietly. "Are you sure you're Hisao Nakai?"
I straighten up, chuckling in spite of myself. "Well, yes. I'm not sure I'm the same
Hisao Nakai I was eight months ago, though."
After staring at me for a moment, she responds, "Noooo, I don't think you are, either. For one thing, you're talking to me. For another, you don't sound like you're feeling sorry for yourself. For a third..."
"I—" I try to interrupt, but Iwanako continues talking.
"For a third
, you look healthier than I've ever seen you, even before...even when you were playing soccer. For that, I'm grateful. I suppose that school your parents sent you to was the right choice."
"Given everything that's happened since I started there, I think so. Actually, I could say the same thing about you; you look a lot healthier than you did the last time I saw you."
Iwanako smiles bitterly. "And, for a fourth, you're noticing things that wouldn't have even registered with you back then. So tell me," she says with a sigh, "why didn't I ever have the chance to see this Hisao Nakai? I always knew it was there, but I could never bring it to the surface. I couldn't even tease out one iota
of it. Why?"
"That's why I wanted to apologize. That wasn't your fault, any more than my heart attack was your fault." Iwanako sighs and shakes her head, but this time it's me who doesn't allow the interruption. "Before you confessed to me, I'd had a crush on you for months, but I thought you were out of my league. If anybody was going to get through to me back then, it should have been you. I'm honestly happy you tried as hard as you did, but I just wasn't ready to handle anything yet."
Iwanako hesitates for a moment, probably to make sure I'm done talking. "I know that now," she says. "I just didn't know if you'd
know. Neither did Mai, and that's why she didn't think I should even talk to you."
"That...explains some things. I can't blame either of you for thinking that, and it did take me a while to figure that out. If I hadn't had some special people around me these past three months, I doubt I ever
Iwanako looks away for a moment, then says, "Actually, I think we're the same on that account, Hisao." She turns back to me, an unreadable expression on her face. "You tell me you're not the same Hisao Nakai you were eight months ago, and I believe you. Believe me as well when I say that I'm not the same Iwanako Daidouji I was. Do you think either of us can find closure from each other?"
Even as she says them, I'm struck by the awful realization that her words are entirely correct. That she's changed a great deal had been obvious from the moment I saw her, but I just didn't put two and two together. I suddenly feel like the entire world has been snatched out from underneath me. The thing I wanted, the reason I needed
to come here in the first place, is something that was never here. "I suppose I don't," I reply, my voice sounding hollow.
"Neither do I," Iwanako says with a wry smile. "As superfluous as it might sound, I'm sorry."
I tilt my head to the side, but don't ask what she means, because I think I already know. From somewhere in the depths of my mind, I dredge up the other thing I wanted to ask. "In that case, maybe you'd be willing to answer something else."
"If I can."
you ask me out in the first place?"
"That's...a bit of a long story. Maybe I should walk with you back to the station while I answer, so you don't miss dinner with your parents."
I scoff at that. "They won't be home for at least a couple more hours, but you're right, I should get back. I have someone waiting for me down by the station."
"Your girlfriend?" she inquires.
"Good guess," I reply.
"Then we definitely shouldn't keep her waiting," Iwanako states, and the two of us start retracing my steps. "Also, it wasn't too hard to guess, after all that talk about 'special people'."
I nod in response. After everything that's happened, walking with Iwanako feels strange. Thinking about it, this is the closest we've ever been to being on a date, and it's in the service of going to meet my current girlfriend. It reminds me somewhat of my meeting with Lilly at the Shanghai after her return from Scotland. It doesn't take much for my mind to jump to the idea that this may be just as much of an experiment. It's then that I notice Iwanako looking at me, and realize that we've been walking in silence for a couple of blocks now. "My mother still speaks highly of you, you know," I muse. "I'm pretty sure she wishes we were still together."
Iwanako grimaces. "I'm intimately aware of it, believe me. I stopped answering her messages months ago, but she keeps trying."
That information should surprise me, but it doesn't somehow. "I'll talk to her about that."
"For all the good it will do," Iwanako says under her breath, and I can't help but silently agree. "So, you want to know why I confessed to you. That started with Mai, and how she used to talk about you back in middle school. It was so divergent from the image everyone else had of you, so it was like I knew a different Hisao Nakai than everyone else did." Iwanako half-giggles and continues, "How many Hisao Nakais are there, anyway?"
I resist the urge to say "too many" and instead reply, "Only one at a time, really. I know there were rumors about me, mostly because I only had a few friends." I think back to what I've heard about the Yamaku rumor mill, and some of the things it generated about Hanako and Noriko.
People really are pretty much the same everywhere, aren't they?
"Yeah," she replies pensively. "That's why I wanted to get to know who you were. I'd put you up on a little pedestal, like you were my own Le Penseur
. I wanted to be the one to bring that side out of you, where nobody else could. I wanted to be the one to show the world who you really were, and have everyone deify me in turn for doing it." She barks out a laugh, then continues, "I guess that wasn't my destiny after all. It was someone else's instead."
"I guess so," I say, laughing a little myself. "So...you liked the idea
of going out with me more than the reality?"
Iwanako immediately turns serious again. "I don't know anymore, Hisao. I never knew the old Hisao Nakai well enough to say for sure."
Her words have a very familiar ring to them, and I can't help nodding. Once again, I've lost track of where we were, and I can already see the station from here. Narrowing my eyes, I can see Emi sitting at a table on the sidewalk, and before she notices us I stop walking. "That's her," I say as I turn to face Iwanako. "My girlfriend, I mean. Her name is Emi Ibarazaki; she's a track star at Yamaku, and we've been running together to help me get into shape, hopefully enough to..." I let my voice trail off rather than bring up that subject again. From the look on Iwanako's face, it didn't help much. "Anyway, do you want to meet her?"
"That's probably not the best idea," Iwanako replies. "Track star, huh? I didn't expect a place like that to..." This time Iwanako lets her voice trail off, and her face reddens. "Well, then, I shouldn't keep you from her," she says, her voice reflecting her obvious embarrassment. That, too, is very familiar to me, and while I'd like to alleviate it, I know it's not that easy, so it's probably best to let it pass. "It was good to see you again, Hisao. Goodbye!"
She bows deeply, and I return both the bow and the sentiments. "Goodbye, Iwanako. It was good to see you as well." By the time I straighten up, she's already turned back and is striding briskly up the street. I realize that I didn't even hear about how she's
doing now, or who her
special people might be. As I turn myself around and continue my journey back to the station, I think that, too, is probably for the best.
As I approach the table where Emi is sitting, staring at a magazine with a nearly empty glass of something pink in front of her, I try to sort out what Iwanako told me about why she confessed to me. It reminded a bit of something Emi said, when she accused me of trying to "fix" her. In a way, maybe I was, just not in the way she thought. Really, "fixing" might be a good way to describe what's happened to me during my time at Yamaku, because there were parts of me that were broken, but it was more like Emi was just helping me along in my own do-it-yourself project. If Iwanako had tried something similar, either at school or in the hospital, I would have been pretty angry.
ESPECIALLY in the hospital.
I'm nearly on top of her when Emi finally sees me, and she immediately springs to her feet and waves energetically. Wishing I could respond in kind, I just smile and pick up my pace to meet her, and we give each other a quick hug. Emi pulls back and looks at my face, then frowns. "Ummm...Hisao, did you...get what you came for?"
After thinking for a moment, I say, "I'm not sure. I guess I'm going to have to think about it."
"Yeah, I was afraid you'd say something like that," she says resignedly. "Do you want to do anything else while we're here? You know, to take your mind off things?"
I sigh, saying, "Do I want to? Yeah, but I don't think I have the energy for it. I think I just want to get back home."
Emi nods in understanding. "All right, then, let's go," she says as she links her arm with mine again, and we return to the subway.
Neither of us says much until we pull up to the station nearest to my house. When we get out to the street, my eyes light on a shop I haven't been to in ages. "Hey, Emi, you like sweets, right?"
Immediately, her eyes light up, and she says, "Of course I do, Hisao! Ahem...in moderation
, of course," she says, nudging me in the side. "I need to keep my girlish figure, after all!"
I laugh as I reply, "In that case, come with me." I lead Emi into a little candy store about half a block from the station. The last time I was in here was just before White Day last year when I helped Shin pick out something for a girl who liked him. Shin insisted to me that the gift had nothing to do with their breakup a week later, but that didn't help my self-image at the time. The shop itself looks almost exactly the same right down to the short, balding, middle-aged man behind the counter. "Hey, Shigeo!" I shout to him as we enter.
"Oi, Hisao!" he shouts back, followed quickly by, "And with a cute girl on his arm! One who isn't Mai, too," he finishes, glancing around as if to look for her. Shigeo always used to tease Mai about how she should act more feminine, and she'd always act offended. Thinking back, it might not have been
an act, but it always looked
like one. "Where is Mai, anyway? I haven't seen her or the other two in ages!"
"Eh, it's a long story. Anyway, this is my girlfriend, Emi. We're visiting from school out in Sendai, and I wanted to get her something good while I was here."
"Girlfriend, huh?" he says with an exaggerated wink. "No wonder you ain't with Mai! I didn't think you'd ever find someone else to put up with you!"
Emi grins and adds, "What can I say? I'm a glutton for punishment!" I roll my eyes at both her and Shigeo.
"Well, then, in honor of one of my favorite customers finding love, here, have some on me!"
"You don't have to do that, Shigeo," I say, but he just holds his hand up.
"I don't hear you, Hisao. And you," he says to Emi as he hands us a couple of small boxes, "you make sure to bring him back here for Christmas!"
I say, "She probably will, too!" Emi elbows me playfully, and this time all three of us laugh. "Thanks, Shigeo! We'll definitely be back!"
At least I hope so.
The shopkeeper waves heartily at us as we leave, and Emi immediately sets to work at opening the first sample as we walk through the shopping district. The area is a little less crowded than it was at lunch time, and a couple of other vendors call out to me as we pass them. "Huh, you're pretty popular down here," Emi says as she disposes of the first box in a nearby receptacle. "I thought you said people thought of you as a delinquent."
"Eh, that was mostly at school or over in Shinjuku, where I met up with my friends. Most of the time I spent down here was either the very rare occasions when Mom asked me to do some shopping, or to buy dinner for myself. By the time I got to high school, I was doing that almost every night. That ramen shop we just passed was a regular haunt when I got tired of leftovers or going to the convenience store."
"So you never learned to cook for yourself?"
"Unfortunately, no. Mom wouldn't let me near the kitchen when I was younger, so pretty much all I learned how to use was the microwave."
"Heh, so you must've been really
happy when I made lunches for you, right?" Emi says with a wink.
"Yeah," I say honestly. "Hanako, too," I tease, and when Emi glowers at me, I hasten to add, "although yours were better. Trust me, that's not just because you're my girlfriend, either. Hanako's still learning, and she has a tendency to experiment, with...well, let's just say mixed
Emi giggles. "I see, I see. Well, at least I have her beat in that
"Among others," I say, smiling at her. A couple minutes later, we're back at my house. Stretching, I say, "Well, we've still got a couple of hours before Mom gets home. What would you like to do?"
For a second, I'm afraid I'm going to regret those words, but instead Emi gets a stern look on her face. "What I would like, Hisao, is to see you
get some rest!"
I raise an eyebrow and say, "Hey! I thought I was the one who liked to watch people sleep!"
Unfortunately, Emi is now in no mood for joking. "I mean it, Hisao!" she says, crossing her arms. "You look like you're dead on your feet, and I don't think that's how you want to look when your parents get back. When's that supposed to be, anyway?"
"Mom said they couldn't get time off on short notice, so probably around eight o'clock or so, maybe seven-thirty if she can catch the earlier train."
"Okay, then we've got a couple hours. So, go upstairs, get some sleep, and I'll just hang out in your room and see if I can find a manga I haven't read on your shelf and be ready to wake you up."
I sigh heavily, because I know she's right about this. Between my lack of sleep and my conversation with Iwanako, I'm feeling more than a little like a zombie. With a weary sigh, I turn toward the stairs. "Yeah, all right, let's go."
As the two of us reenter my room, Emi says, "Sorry if I sound like a killjoy, Hisao. I just want everything to go well later, you know?"
"Yeah, I know," I reply as I lie down on top of the covers. "Actually, I was trying to play host, wanting to make this trip more fun for you, so..."
Emi sits down next to me and starts to stroke my hair. "I wasn't expecting
this to be fun, Hisao. We'll save that for next time."
Finally, for the first time since I got here, I start to relax. As I drift off to sleep, my final thought is that it's good to hear Emi being so positive about there being a next time, how negative I've been about the same thing since we got here, and how the one thing not
contributing to the negativity is the one putting me to sleep right now...
* * * *
The next thing that registers on my consciousness is Emi's shouting voice. "Hey, Hisao! I see someone coming up to the front door! Is that your mom?"
"Ugh...yeah, let me look..." I respond. I totter over to the window, and I see Mom just getting to the front door with bags in hand. I blink a couple of times before I realize it's still light out. "Crap, she's early! We'd better get down there!"
"Huh? Oh!" Emi says, realizing the precariousness of the situation, and then living up to her name as the Fastest Thing on No Legs by getting to the front door before I've even made it to the stairs. Still a little disoriented, I carefully negotiate the steps and reach the first floor hallway just in time for the front door to open.
As we approach, Mom doesn't notice us right away, since she's facing the door and her bags are making a lot of noise. I decide it'll be more fun to surprise her, so I face Emi and put my finger to my lips. She nods in response as my mother sets the bags down on the cupboard and changes into slippers. The first thing I notice is that she's finally given up on keeping her hair dyed black, as the iron gray that's been slowly taking over has finished the job. She starts to pick up the bags, and I quietly make my way up behind her and say, "Let me take some of those, Mom."
"Tha—Hicchan!" she shouts, clubbing me in the back with a couple of the bags as she throws her arms around me. "It's so good to see you! Before you called, I thought I wouldn't see you until New Year!" She pulls back enough for me to be able to start breathing again before continuing, "How was your trip? Were you able to make all your train connections all right?"
"Everything was fine, mom," I say, kissing her on the cheek as I take two of the bags from her. "It's good to see you, too," I continue, and as I turn around Emi is right behind me with her hands out. I pass the bags to her, then take the rest, and the three of us move toward the kitchen. "Mom, this is Emi Ibarazaki, my girlfriend."
Unfazed by my abrupt declaration, Emi bows and says, "Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Nakai," in as polite a tone as I've ever heard her use.
"The same to you, Emi," Mom says less formally, inclining her head, and the three of us head toward the kitchen. For a second, it strikes me as odd, as I seem to recall her speaking differently when she met my other friends. It doesn't seem to bother Emi, who happily goes about helping us put away the groceries, so I shrug it off.
Once that's done, Mom begins preparing to make dinner. "Is there anything I can do to help, Mrs. Nakai?" Emi says, still more politely than usual.
"That's not necessary," Mom says somewhat tersely.
"It's no trouble, Mrs. Nakai," Emi replies, still smiling. "I've been helping out with the cooking at home for years, and..."
Mom puts down the pot she had just retrieved from the cupboard rather loudly and turns around. "Please, make yourself at home," she says, gesturing toward the living room. Although her tone remains even, I can see that she's straining to keep a neutral face. "If you don't mind, I would like to speak with my son for a few moments."
Here it comes.
Emi's smile wavers a bit, but firms up again quickly. "Thanks, Mrs. Nakai, I'll do that." While my girlfriend is obviously doing her best to go with the flow, I'm finding myself feeling angry on her account. It's now fairly obvious that these slights have been intentional, and while I have my suspicions as to the motive, I don't want to make any accusations until I've had the chance to talk to Mom.
Mom pulls me further into the kitchen, but not so far as to be out of Emi's earshot. She obviously doesn't care if my girlfriend hears what she says – or perhaps she wants
her to hear. "Hicchan," Mom says, her face quickly becoming stern, "why did you bring her
here? It's bound to cause misunderstandings with Iwanako."
"Mom, I've already met with Iwanako..." I start to say, but she cuts me off.
?" she exclaims, her face brightening up. "Is she well? What did you talk about? Do you think she's willing to reconcile with you?"
Having expected this onslaught, I weather it as best I can. I know how I need to respond, but I know it's unlikely to be convincing. I take a deep breath and steel myself for what's to come. "Mom, there's nothing between Iwanako and me anymore. If her last visit to the hospital wasn't enough to demonstrate that, she sent me a letter back in June that reinforced it, and just a few hours ago put the final seal on it. Even if I wanted
to reconcile with her now, which I don't, it's simply not going to happen."
Mom puts a hand to her face and says, "Well, of course
not! After the way you treated her, who can blame her for acting cold toward you? You didn't see how heartbroken
she was when she left that hospital the last time. I watched
her walk out that day, you know; she looked so distraught, clinging for dear life onto that apple..." Mom sighs, laying a hand on my shoulder, then trowels the guilt on even more thickly. "She kept coming to the hospital for weeks, but you never really talked to her, never gave her the chance to show you how she really felt. I'm sure that if you just apologize sincerely, she'd be willing to accept your feelings just like before. She just needs...time to recover
apologized, and I told her how much I appreciated her coming to the hospital, but I don't have
feelings like that for her. I'm not sure I ever did. Besides, I'm dating..."
"Oh, Hicchan, that's just because you haven't seen her for so long. I'm sure, now that you have, you'll start remembering, and soon enough everything will be like it was."
was, Mother?" I say, raising my voice as I start to get upset. "It's not like we were even going out! I never accepted Iwanako's confession, so I can't..."
"Hisao," Emi says quietly from the entrance to the kitchen. "You need to be careful about getting too worked up."
Mom's head swivels to look at Emi. "This is a private conversation, and no business of yours."
Mom's words shock me a bit. They were said quietly, and seemingly without malice, but they're as wrong as they could possibly be. "It's very much
her business, Mom. She's my girlfriend
. Without her..."
"Hisao," Emi says, in almost exactly the same tone as Mom used. I take a deep breath and focus on my heart, and I can tell it's working harder than it should. I close my eyes, grab hold of a nearby counter, and let it calm down. Surprisingly, both Mom and Emi remain quiet while I do this, which goes a long way toward allowing me to avoid an attack.
When I open my eyes, I notice Mom looking at Emi appraisingly. I don't know if the way Emi handled the situation impressed her – it certainly impressed me
– but the atmosphere has definitely changed. "If it's all right, Mrs. Nakai," Emi says, "there's something I'd like to say."
For a moment, Mom seems taken aback. She looks back and forth between us with a clouded expression. "Please," I say simply, hoping it's enough.
Finally, after studying my face silently for a moment, Mom inclines her head in my direction. "Very well, Hicchan. For your sake, I will listen." I breathe a sigh of relief. I was fairly sure she wouldn't be able to refuse my request, but there was a chance she'd be stubborn enough to walk away instead.
Emi hints at a smile in my direction, but when she turns to face my mother her eyes are saying that this is going to be all business. "Mrs. Nakai, the first time I met your son was when I ran into him in the hallway. I mean literally – he even had to go to the nurse's office afterwards." My mother draws a sharp breath, but Emi keeps going. "That's the kind of person I am, or was, before I met him. I never really saw what happened to other people because of what I did, because I didn't want to get involved with other people. That's because everyone I did
get involved with left me behind, one way or another. Eventually, I figured it wasn't even worth the chance, so I started pushing people away even before getting
Emi takes a breath, gathering herself before continuing, "At least, that's what I thought until a few months ago, when I met Hisao. At first, he was just a guy the school nurse told me to keep an eye on. He was kinda lost when he came to Yamaku, maybe even more than I was. So, I wanted to make sure he got found
, you know? But then he had another girlfriend, and I figured maybe she'd find him instead."
Mom seems startled by that, and I realize I never told her about Lilly. Emi, however, doesn't slow down in the least. "The thing is, I don't think she really ever did, and then when she left school Hisao was even more
lost. That's when he finally decided he needed to take care of himself, and he asked me to help him. So, we started running together in the mornings, and talking to each other about all kinds of stuff, and I could see that...well, he just started looking more alive
, you know? That's when I discovered that Hisao was someone I
couldn't push away. We helped each other get past a bunch of stuff, and we fell in love. That's how it's supposed to work, right? People who love each other help each other?"
Emi grins her brightest grin, and at first Mom just stands there, staring at Emi with a strange expression. After a few moments, her whole body seems to relax, and she frowns a little bit. "Yes, it is," she says. "That is
how it is supposed to be, but it is not always that way. I certainly believe that you love my son, but..."
Before my mother can finish her sentence, the front door opens for a second time, and this time it's my father who walks through it. Unlike my mother, he doesn't appear to have changed a bit. If anything, he seems to be standing up a little straighter than the last time I saw him. "I'm home," he says, a little louder than he did in my memories. A chorus of "Welcome back" greets him as he walks over to me. Bowing formally, he says, "Welcome back, my son."
"Thank you, father," I say as I return his bow. I then turn to Emi, who has walked over to my side. "Dad, this is Emi Ibarazaki, my girlfriend."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Nakai," Emi says, bowing and using the same polite tone she did when she met Mom.
My father studies Emi for a moment, then replies, "Indeed, the pleasure is mine." I see him shoot a glance at my mother, who is still working in the kitchen. He then turns to me and, in a tactic I've seen him use fairly often, he raises his voice to make sure Mom hears him. "The two of you met at Yamaku, I presume."
"Yes, we did," I reply. In an effort to ensure his approval, I add, "Emi is the star of our school's track team."
My father raises an eyebrow and quickly glances at Emi's legs. "Quite interesting," he says, the corners of his mouth twitching upwards just slightly. "I wonder," he muses, "what other quite interesting things you might have found at your new school."
This is the question I'd been expecting, and I draw myself up to my full height. Like Emi earlier, I speak to him as formally as I know how. "Father, I believe I have found a course for my life. When I graduate, I am going to university to study the sciences. I'm not certain which one, but physics seems the most likely choice. I hope this meets with your satisfaction."
"Yes," Dad says with his voice still raised. "Yes, quite interesting." Emi looks at me questioningly, but all I can do is shrug at his ongoing demonstration. "Your grades in the subject were always good, but you never showed much interest in it. Did something happen to change that?"
At that, I return a somewhat proud smile. "Yes, Father. One of the teachers at Yamaku, Mr. Mutou, has been something of a mentor to me. He even approached me about forming a science club at the school." Again, my father raises an eyebrow in surprise. "Although I haven't yet given an answer, I hope the opportunity is still there in the new term."
My father finally shows as much of a smile as I've ever seen from him, which admittedly isn't very much. "I see," he says with a nod, "quite interesting indeed. It would seem that you have found a great many things at your new school that speak well of it." He glances over his shoulder again, and I follow his gaze to where I can see that Mom has given up all pretense of ignoring him.
"Yes, Father. It's given me the opportunity to think a good deal about my future," I say, glancing at Emi before finishing, "on several levels. I doubt I'd have felt the same way if I'd returned to my previous school."
Father nods. "When we agreed to have you placed at Yamaku Academy, we were understandably concerned that the school might turn out to be inferior in some way, whether it be academically or socially. However, it seems that such fears were..." he pauses as he looks once more at Mom, then continues, "...well, perhaps misplaced
would be a strong word. Instead, let us say they are no longer needed." Dad puts a hand on my shoulder. "In fact, I think that perhaps we should look at that day, not as an end to your old life, but as the beginning of a new one. Wouldn't you agree, mother?"
"Yes, father," Mom says softly, looking back down at the stack of dishes she's holding. For the first time I can remember, I feel slightly sorry for her.
"I'll make sure to keep him focused, Mr. Nakai," Emi says as her way of echoing our sentiments.
Dad looks a bit surprised at her interjection, but his smile returns quickly. "That is good to hear. In that case, Miss Ibarazaki, we would be honored if you would join us for our evening meal. Though the hour is late, I hope you find it to your satisfaction."
"Thank you, Mr. Nakai," Emi says with a bow, "I would be honored, too."
Without bothering to ask – since I know she'd decline the offer – I immediately go to help Mom finish bringing everything out to the table. She remains silent, but she has always found it difficult to mask her emotions, so I can tell that she's seething inside. At times like this, I know the last thing I should do is try and talk to her myself, so I also remain silent.
When I return to the table, Emi is chatting happily with my father about her exploits on the track team. He seems particularly amused by Emi's "Fastest Thing on No Legs" appellation, and periodically asks Emi questions about her team and Yamaku in general throughout dinner. Of course, she's only too happy to answer them, and in turn I'm only too happy to let her
answer them. To my relief, he makes no further inquiries about her prosthetics, especially how she got
them, so at least one bullet got dodged.
After supper, Mom prepares the bath, and insists that Emi go first. I expected as much, of course, since she's our guest, and I settle in on the couch, watching the news as I wait for my turn. "Miss Ibarazaki seems quite spirited," my father says as he sits down next to me. "If you marry her, I will at least have someone I can talk to in my retirement."
," Mom says icily from the hallway.
"I was just teasing, mother," Dad says, stretching out a bit. "Still, I would say that this house could do worse than to add a little youthful energy, wouldn't you?"
"Father, you know too much energy isn't good for Hisao's heart," Mom says reproachfully as she walks in carrying an empty laundry basket. I shut down my retort, but it doesn't last long. "Speaking of which, are you sure all this running you're doing is the right thing? I remember the doctor at the hospital saying..."
The sentence pierces my shielding like a laser. I straighten up and turn around to look at my mother. "The nurse at Yamaku says I should be getting exercise as long as I don't push myself too hard," I say through clenched teeth. "Not doing anything would be worse. Before I started running, my heart acted up a couple of times..."
I regret the words almost as soon as they're out of my mouth. "And you didn't tell
us?!" Mom says loudly. "There wasn't any further damage, was there? Is there anything else we need to be doing for you?"
, Mom. It's fine
now," I say, my anger rising even further. "I just had to rest for a while afterwards. It was actually my fault that it happened, because I wasn't exercising like I should, and I forgot my medications a couple of times. Actually, Emi's..."
"Forgot your medications?!" Mom says, sounding like she's starting to panic. "Father, I knew
it was a mistake to send him so far away! If we'd been there, then..."
*** THUMP THUMP ***
*** THUMP THUMP ***
I block out whatever Mom says next and try to focus on my breathing, trying to make sure the stress doesn't get out of control. I think I can hear Dad's voice, too, but I can't tell what he's saying.
*** THUMP THUMP ***
I can hear Mom's voice starting to sound shrill, and in my ears it's echoing along with Iwanako's screaming from that day in the woods, and Hanako's in Hokkaido, and Emi's at the track a few weeks ago. It all starts to swirl around in my head like a cacophony of cicadas, chirping and buzzing and whining, with a blizzard of white flashing along with it...
*** THUMP THUMP ***
*** THUMP THUMP ***
Then there's a different voice shouting, clashing with the other two, and for a brief moment my head feels like it's going to shatter...
*** THUMP THUMP ***
...it doesn't. The din all around me slows, then stops, and for a moment I think it's because I passed out. Then, one of my senses comes back on-line...
Someone's holding my hand...
The other senses kick in one by one...the taste of coffee in my mouth...the scent of strawberry in my nose...the sound of someone asking me if I'm all right...and then I engage the fifth one and see Emi's face in front of me. She lets out a long breath and says, "He's back."