In which we wander deeper into an ancient labyrinth filled with images of those we used to know.
Akiko 3b: Breaking News (T +20)
Saturday 12 March
“Hi, Sunshine! Don’t call me that!” says Meiko Ibarazaki, sounding and looking quite spritely for an octogenarian child of the 1960s.
“How have you been?” says Akiko, somewhat guiltily. Work has kept her away from Gramma for two whole weeks.
“I’m good! Your friend Rin has been with me all the time! We’ll celebrate her birthday tomorrow!”
Akiko sighs. Ever since poor old Dr Kaneshiro had passed on two years back, her grandmother has become increasingly erratic in her grasp of time and relationships.
“That sounds good. I will drop by as usual on Monday?”
“Monday? Ah, for our special lunch! I’ll be sure to buy some really good ingredients. Can’t trust the mass-market stuff.”
“What have you been doing?”
“Oh, this and that. I was just chatting with Rin about how fun it was to design your engagement ring. She’s such an artist! Such vision!”
“Really?” she replies, confused. Engagement ring?
“Yes! Your young man wanted something that would highlight your eyes and your inner fire. And of course I asked your father’s blessing, and then we got some help from that wonderful Akio Mutou for materials. So romantic!”
It’s with some dismay that Akiko watches her grandmother’s beautiful face as it creases into a smile of delight. Resigned, she uses the old trigger phrase: “Have you had your coffee today?”
“Emi! Aren’t I perky enough as it is? You always say I embarrass you by acting like an eighteen year old! But your birthday on Monday won’t make you anywhere near half my age.” Meiko giggles and thrusts her chest forward suggestively. Then her face changes suddenly. “Who are you? You’re not my daughter.”
“This is not Emi, Gramma. This is Akiko.”
“Who? Oh, this person apologises. So embarrassed. One thought that this was one’s daughter. Sorry to have taken up your time. Goodbye!”
The display fades to nothing as Akiko watches. Sadly, she sets her comms to standby mode and gazes out over Sendai from her apartment’s little balcony. A distant memory of Mutou-sensei filters into her head: “So much has been lost, and there is much yet to lose,” he used to say.
Monday is the day that she normally accompanies her grandmother to visit Mother’s grave. Mother would have been fifty-six. It has been fourteen years since she left, two months before Mutou-sensei’s own untimely passing.
Monday 14 March
Then it’s Monday, and Akiko finds herself meditating on the few things that are true about her life. One of these things that calms her mind is this: that there are days on which Hanako Ikezawa makes the effort to be in Japan. How old is the famously quiet, acerbic food writer? Few people actually believe that she is fifty-five this year. Few people who knew her in the past believe what she has done with her decades either.
But the lanky athlete with the copper hair believes it all, because the pen that terrorizes restaurants is also the pen that once wrote reassuring notes, from ‘Aunty Hanako Godma’ to ‘Aki-chan’. This is mid-March, and this lady who was once a close friend to Father will be here, as she is in most Augusts.
Akiko Nakai, national heptathlete, unlucky in love, subject of envious whispers, is going home now, but not to her own little apartment. She’s not driving, nor being chauffeured. She’s taking the bus, just as she used to when she was a little girl. The public bus is a little slower; no attention needs be paid to fellow passengers, surroundings or traffic. It allows her to meditate on the warmth of affection she has for strict, wise Aunt Hana. It allows her to remain silent as she thinks of her grandmother, once strong and practical and happy, now frail and worn. They say she has her grandmother’s hair.
It was Meiko Ibarazaki who brought Akiko up, Emi’s summer mother rearing Emi’s summer child. But Emi Ibarazaki had left the game early, as Akiko once heard her adoptive half-mother say in an unguarded moment. Akiko remembers asking Gramma once: ‘Why was I left behind?’ Gramma had no answer then, but at least she had been there.
All these thoughts glow like milestones, some warm, some terribly cold, as the bus trundles along to Gramma Meiko’s home. The summer lady wonders what her grandmother will be doing — maybe she has found the energy to fire up the kiln, or make a pizza, or some soba. Maybe she is working on the other earring, the uncompleted left side of a pair that she’d been working on forever. Oh, how Akiko regrets not having pierced her earlobes earlier!
But all that about Aunty Rin? How chilling. Akiko hasn’t seen her for years, now; her mother’s reclusive best friend left them one day and never came back. If Meiko has begun hallucinating, that’s a serious thing.
The bus purrs softly as it arrives at its destination. Akiko alights, adjusts the loose shawl and environment-sensitive silk wrap around her brown skinsuit, and slowly finds a comfortable stride that will bring her to the familiar gate in about five minutes. She could do it in one, but where would the fun be in that?
Five minutes later, she dings the old-fashioned bell at the gate firmly, to give her grandmother sufficient time to get to the door, as she always does. The gate unlocks as Akiko’s biometrics engage the house’s proximity links. The paving stones are clean, recently swept by human hands. Meiko won’t use bots for work she can do herself.
The door is open, but Gramma’s not there. Frowning a little, Akiko enters the house.
Efficiently, firmly, quietly, Koji Setou makes tea. “I’ve called the police.”
“Why?” she whispers, sitting in a daze at the kitchen table. It hurts him to see her so hollow and vulnerable, like an autumn leaf in her brown and white outfit. She’s always been so strong and alive.
“It’s a mysterious death. They’ll want to get the coroner to say it was old age or whatever coroners do.”
“We can’t just leave her there!”
“It’s good that you did.” He’s seen her shawl over the still, awkward body in the workroom, and he hasn’t touched anything.
She looks up at him, trembling. He knows that she’s physically much tougher than he is. But as he looks back into her eyes, all he knows is that he wants to hold her tight and tell her that all will be well. The problem is that he doesn’t know how she’ll take it.
He sits down next to her. Carefully, he cups her elbows in his hands. Her triceps twitch at the touch of his fingertips. “Aki-chan, I’m here for you. You called me. I came over. Let me take care of things for a while. Please, have some tea.”
He’s also contacted Akiko’s brother. Young Akira is driving up from Nagasaki, of all places. But Koji doesn’t question why; he just mutters a silent prayer for safety on the road. What really is on Koji’s mind is the last piece of completed work on the workbench. Meiko had made pots and vases and other large items, whenever the mood seized her. That piece is none of those things.
On the workbench is an exquisite little butterfly, sculpted in clay and yet so fine that he’d thought it alive at first. It’s been painted in oranges and browns and lines of yellow and white. It is a very Meiko thing. But it’s clear that this is not Meiko’s work. Someone with microscale tools must have crafted it, and Akiko’s grandmother had been a traditionalist in that regard, if not in other ways.
He keeps his thoughts to himself. He has found, over the years, that this is the course of action that brings the least pain, the smallest chance of disaster. As Akiko leans towards him instinctively, he enfolds her in that most measured of embraces—one that offers everything, but which forces nothing.
They are sitting like that when the police arrive to take a statement—which is to say, they record the state of everything in the space-time volume of interest. The drones arrive first, establishing a perimeter. Then the humans come, asking questions; then the human fatality suite assesses what remains. It’s all routine, although Akiko’s heart feels as hollow as her veins.
The site inspector is kind and competent. But even he is discombobulated by the sudden appearance at the door.
“Ms Hakamichi? Err, many apologies, Ms Ikezawa, this site has been sealed, ah…”
Akiko turns toward the commotion. “Aunt Hana!” she says, and then stops, looking confused. That’s not…
“Hello, Aki-chan. Hello, young Setou. You’ll find, Inspector Fukumara, that I indeed h-have clearance.”
“… Aunt Hana?”
Akiko’s pretty godmother
, Koji is thinking, who has only one disconcerting flaw.
From the angle at which he sits, he’s unable to see what Akiko has already noticed.
Hanako Ikezawa grimaces as her heart sinks. What a foolish thing to do
, she thinks. This just isn’t me.
Yet, it is. The Nakai Foundation has finally persuaded her to undergo restorative treatment. Age-old burn scars just go white and smooth and sometimes lumpy. But in this age of the nanomachine, she has been able to go and do something that she felt would be a nice surprise for her very dear husband. He is still recovering from that surprise.
“D-Don’t stare, dear, it’s impolite. I came as soon as I realized you weren’t going to turn up. I was worried, you know. Why are your comms off? What’s happened?”
Lovely Aunt Hana
, Koji revises, awestruck, completely beautiful with the reflected noonday light illuminating her. Flawless.
“It’s Grandmother, she… you…”
Hanako remembers Emi telling little Akiko once, “Hey, remember the living people, don’t just think of the dead ones! Dead can’t be fixed.”
“Dear, don’t worry about me—is Gramma gone?”
Koji has a natural sense for avoidance. Sometimes, that’s good; sometimes, bad. Today, he very naturally moves out of the space between Akiko and her godmother, coming to rest at a standing position between the still-surprised Inspector Fukumara and the two women holding each other. Then he bows.
Fukumara nods, understanding, and follows Koji out of the door. The inspector is of the same generation as Koji’s father, and feels oddly pleased that somebody is being polite and sensitive, which isn’t quite his thing. He knows the Ibarazaki name by reputation. He knows the Setou name by personal experience.
“My regards to the General,” he says to Koji, watching carefully for a response. This will determine his consequent approach.
“Ah? Oh. You know my father. Sorry, yes. Will convey your regards; thank you, Inspector.”
“How are you involved in this event, Setou-san?”
“My parents and Akiko’s parents were friends. Akiko’s late father was my godfather.”
The inspector raises an eyebrow just enough to indicate interest without unseemly curiosity. “I see. Do you have any cause to suspect foul play?”
“Errr… no, not, I don’t.”
“Do you know who is registered as next-of-kin?”
“No… wouldn’t that be Akiko?”
Fukumara’s implants tell him that the young man is sincere. Puzzled, but sincere. Probably the whole thing about coming face to face with death. And he’s right about the registered NOK. He sighs tactfully, and tactically. “No further questions. Seems straightforward. The fatality suite reports death within natural parameters. I regret to have intruded upon your loss.”
“Our privilege, Inspector,” Koji Setou says, distractedly.
Such a polite young man
, Fukumara thinks. Pity he’s taken. Or is he? He’d be a good match for Suki.
Fukumara shakes his head, dispelling the unprofessional thought of his unmarried daughter from this place of recent grief.
“Thank you. I’ll take my leave once we’ve completed the formalities.”
All Koji can think of is butterflies. Butterflies. A faint memory stirs within him, but he is unsure as to its provenance and truth.
“What were you and Koji talking about just now?”
Her godmother smiles a little stiffly, as if unused to her own face. This is indeed the case, for both of them. “About butterflies.”
“Oh. I think I remember seeing one in the room.”
“It reminded Koji of your Aunty Rin.”
“Aunty Rin? Ah. She used to keep butterflies a long time ago, before she left. She had a window-box in the staff quarters.”
“She used to paint butterflies as well.”
“Koji asked about you. He was worried about you.”
“Koji has always been a bit of a nag. He is like an elder brother.”
Hanako looks her goddaughter in the eye. Akiko is taller, but seated, she cannot evade that innocently piercing gaze.
“He used to think of himself that way, dear.”
Akiko blinks. “Used to?”
“That’s what he told himself for many years. He would p-protect you, watch over you.”
“I do not need that kind of thing.”
“In this family that we have become, none of us need anything of that kind. But it may be unkind to spurn help offered.”
There is heat in Akiko’s eyes now. If only people would stop mothering, fathering, brothering and everything
, she fumes. “What help? There is nobody left. When Grandmother’s house is sold, I will make it my life’s work to retire Principal Hakamichi and run Yamaku myself. That is all I will be fit for.”
Hanako has heard harsh words in her time before. She herself has used such language on various Hakamichis. But these are sharp indeed. She lets her lips open in dismay, breathing in and then out so that she won’t say anything regrettable. What could have made her goddaughter so bitter?
The answer is unexpected, and even worse. Gasping, neither crying nor screaming, Akiko speaks, and the words rush out like poetry gone bad.
“They’ve taken everything. My brother is somewhere else with his two-toned slut, Koji is probably sleeping with his aunt, my family is gone. I was adopted by two people who should never have been parents, and you, you were never around. Always away, Godmother. Whatever is best of others, I never got it. I had to be my own best, the way Mother taught me.”
It’s at times like this that Hanako feels the rage within her. Very few know that she carries in herself an anger that is like a lance of blood and steel. She has killed dragons with that spear. She has to bite her lip to hold it back now. Akiko doesn’t deserve that.
Quietly, she nods, and passes the test. “I am sorry,” she says, simply and honestly. “I should have been your f-friend, but I’ve missed my chance.”
Her goddaughter meets her gaze. Big eyes, of that oddly hazel hue, brimming but not tearing. The anger dies, crumbles into sorrow. “No. Not yet, Aunt Hana.”
Quick to wrath and quickly forgiving
, Hanako ponders. Akiko’s just like her mother in some ways, perhaps kinder.
On impulse, Akiko reaches out and hugs her godmother. Aunty Hanako Godma’s a lot smaller than I remember
, the little girl deep inside her whispers. It surprises both of them.
There are things to be done, and Aunt Hana handles them all. She fends off the Hakamichis, beginning with Uncle H. As the day creeps onward, as the wake arrangements unfold, half her face has begun to turn slightly rosy, as if remembering a past recently removed.
Koji had left much earlier. Akiko doesn’t mind. She needs things simple, and there’s something soothing about working with her godmother. Akiko is not in the mood to engage in formalities with her adoptive half-mothers. It shows, when they appear some time in the afternoon.
“Aki-chan… we’re sad for you. Come, let Aunty Misha give you a big hug!~”
She turns away from this half-mother, sees what she thinks is a stern look on her other half-mother’s face, and says something violent and obscene in the darkness of her head. What she misses is the look of wretched dismay that briefly flits over their faces. They do love her, whatever she might think.
Hanako doesn’t miss that. She knows them both very well. Behind Akiko’s back, she makes a sympathetic face at them.
It’s only then that they realize who she is, she sees sadly. Her friends have all learnt to live with her once-damaged face; it defines her to them. Now that her face has been remade, they don’t know what to say.
“Hana-chan!~” trills Misha, glad to find something to be cheerful about. “It’s you! You look so…” — as usual, she’s not thought it through. She’s suddenly aware that perhaps Hanako’s scarred face was a defining characteristic. Now that the scars have gone, how does one speak about them? Can you tell someone they’re ‘beautiful’ as if they weren’t before?
[Nice to see you. Sad that it’s on this kind of occasion. Do you need help?]
As Akiko steps away, Hanako finds enough in herself to produce the ghost of a smile and the memory of sign language. [Yes, it has been some time, Shizune. Thank you for the offer. Things are under control. Hello, Misha.] She doesn’t use speech at all, and avoids saying anything else.
Thursday 17 March
Funerals are brief, intensely ritualized performances. But even if you see them as some sort of drama, a form of theatre, you can still be surprised by unexpected actors. There are little scenes that play out by themselves, seemingly unconnected with the whole.
“Koji, thank you for being here. And tell your father that his p-presence is not as invisible as he thinks it is.”
All Akiko can think of, as Aunt Hana says all the polite things and collects the traditional black and silver envelopes, is that Koji shouldn’t have brought that woman with him. She doesn’t mean his mother—Mrs Setou is always welcome, so kind and sensible—but his mother’s half-sister, the young pretty one who has been Koji’s friend for such a long time.
It’s an intrusion on her grief, Akiko decides. Kaori Shirakawa has no place here. But what does it matter? Gramma’s gone, and the red paint that marked her name among the living has been removed. Now she’s with the grandfather that Akiko never knew, ashes with ashes, dust with dust, mingled for eternity.
It is worse when the woman comes over and sits next to her. She makes Akiko feel big and ungainly; Kaori is a classic modern Japanese beauty, petite with pale sharp features and magnetic eyes. Even worse, she reminds Akiko of Koji’s sister. And she has a ridiculous little mole on her left lower lip, which Akiko feels like scratching just to see if it will come off.
“Sincere condolences, Nakai-san.”
“Thank you, Shirakawa-san.”
Absurd formalities, between two people who don’t know each other and would probably prefer not to get close enough for that.
“It has been good to meet you, even under such circumstances. I will be returning to Saitama, but I think Koji is staying on for a while. Please forgive him. He doesn’t understand women.”
Akiko’s not inclined to understand the little nuances and subtexts hidden in such words. She has never been one for that kind of thing. She just nods, and wishes that Kaori would go away.
“You didn’t bring your girlfriend?” Koji inquires, as he and Young Akira walk together along a shaded path some distance away.
Akiko’s brother grimaces. “My sister doesn’t approve. Neither does Uncle H. About the only people I can speak to about it are Aunt Hana and Aunt Lilly.”
“Oh,” says Koji with sympathy. “It’s a bit like that with me too.”
Koji thinks: What an earnest, decent kid. He deserves a chance of happiness.
Akira thinks: What a nice guy. He should be the elder brother I never had.
They do their thinking in silence for a while. Then Akira sighs. “I should return to my sister. She’ll need company. Heck, I need company.”
“Yes. I am sorry. It pains me to see her sad.”
“She called you before she called anyone else. Perhaps that means something?”
Koji shakes his head. “I think I was the only one within range.”
Akira looks sharply at his older friend, someone he’s known for a very long time—someone he’s always thought would make a good match for his broody sister. “You don’t really have another girlfriend, do you, boss?”
Koji stops moving. “You’re not yet twenty-two, small fart.”
The younger man laughs at this childhood nickname. But there’s a dogged determination behind his next words as he too comes to a stop. “My sister, she needs a friend. She thinks you’re in bed with your aunt. I’ve heard the story.”
“Well, you shouldn’t trust stories,” says Koji unhappily.
They stare at each other for a while. If a surveillance drone, by any chance, were to look at them, they’d look a lot like Hisao Nakai and Kenji Setou from a long time ago. It’s obvious they are both the sons of their respective fathers. Weighing up the burdens of his soul, his conscience, and his duty, Koji Setou makes a decision. He will tell what he can to young Master Nakai.
“I’ve liked your sister since we were kids. We’ve always been casual friends. Didn’t think we’d be lovers or anything like that. She didn’t think of it at all. But she’s a much nicer person to hang around with than she believes.”
“She is?” Akira asks innocently, and then immediately adds, “Sorry, I believe you,” when he sees the look on the older man’s face.
Koji looks at what remains to be said, and tries to put it in the right order. It’s more difficult than crafting historical narratives.
“Kaori, my aunt, my mother’s half-sister? She is like light where your sister is fire. But Kaori’s always not seen me as anything but a friend, she says. She told me some weeks ago that all I had was an infatuation from long ago, and I should stop. I’m beginning to think that’s true.”
“So who do you want to live with for the rest of your life, boss?”
“It won’t be Miss Shirakawa, I’m afraid. I am fond of her, and perhaps I do love her, but it doesn’t go both ways and life is too short for regrettable behaviour.”
Akira swallows slowly. It’s a moment
, he senses, on which lives might depend.
“Do you love my sister, then?”
“If she doesn’t love me, it doesn’t matter.”
“She loved someone else, actually.”
It’s against young Akira’s instincts to do this, but he knows he must. He reaches up slightly to the thinner, taller man’s scarf and seizes the dark stripes. “Koji, if you love her, tell her! You’ve always been my elder brother anyway!”
Slowly, very slowly, Koji removes the younger man’s hands from his neck. “I did. People are watching. I’ll talk to you later.” An unfathomable expression on his gaunt face, he turns around and strides down a different path.
Akiko’s brother stands unmoving for a moment. It’s a sad day, but it doesn’t have to become even sadder
, he growls to himself.
Friday 25 March
But it does, of course. In real life, or in stories, it is always darkest before the dawn. Days before the end of March, Akiko Nakai turns in her staff keys to Principal Hakamichi, her adoptive half-mother.
“It is with regret that this unworthy one requests leave of absence for an indefinite period. All access privileges have been rescinded. This one will understand completely if there is no vacancy left should she return at a later date. Arrangements have been made to cover all existing duties.”
[Daughter, you will always be welcome at Yamaku.]
Akiko returns a twisted, bitter smile to Shizune. The older woman, clad in her usual dove-grey suit, winces slightly. She has come to love this girl whom she adopted years ago. Affection not returned
, she thinks to herself, makes the heart sick. But I am used to that.
“Keep in touch?” says Aunty Misha, her other half-mother.
Akiko allows her lips to relax a little, into something closer to a genuine smile. She nods, but will not test her resolve further. And then she’s gone.
In the sunset, a last ray of light fades. Shizune and Misha sit silently in the room, alone with their many splintered thoughts. The one thought they have in common is: How did it all go so wrong?