House of Remembrance
It was a breezy Sunday afternoon that brought a slight tang of rain in the air. Only a low overcast proceeded forth, however, endless blankets upon blankets of bleak, matted gray. The streets were still quite dry and dusty, crackling with dried leaves and twigs that Nagisa, feeling herself somewhat better, raked into a crammed heap that she would sack later. On that same street, trampling unswept litter, came the heavy footsteps of a pregnant woman nearing her term. Closely folowing behind were other footsteps, those of a boy carrying two large paper bags laden and heavy.
The woman approached Nagisa, who did not seem to notice despite the sound caused by the crumpling leaves. Perhaps, she might have thought, it was just another passer-by, especially as she didn't expect anybody to drop by on an hour and day when everybody else would rather nap.
"Nagisa-chan," greeted Ryou.
"Eh?" Upon seeing who it was, she brightened up. She then immediately laid eyes on her friend's belly; it now looked much larger than the last time; and rushed at once to caress it. "Oh dear, how much she has grown!"
"Nagisa-chan," said Ryou delightfully, "Your recovery is going well. I'm so glad." To her son, "Taro, greet your Aunt Nagisa."
He was very obsequious. He put down, almost dropped, his bags promptly and bowed low to the mother of his interest. "Konnichiwa, Nagisa-sama. I'm so plased to see you today."
Ryou laughed at his formality. "Come on, Taro dear, she's no stranger to us."
Nagisa chuckled indulgently. "It's alright, Taro-kun, feel at home with me."
Ryou stared meaningfully at her son. You better, dear, if you want to be at home with her for real someday. "He's shy," she said to Nagisa, "but it will wear off."
Nagisa took his arm and motioned him up to the house, eliciting a bashful smile from him. "Come in, come in."
Inside, Nagisa prepared for them some hot drinks. The two women chatted together about their families, Ryou proudly announcing that Kappei is up for promotion and she herself preparing to become a hospital intern late next year. Nagisa told her that Ushio's grades are improving and that Mizuumi was already a candidate for honors. Afterwards, she perfomed a perfunctory examination; seeing nagisa as she was, she felt no need to be worried. She only asked her if she was affected by sudden changes in weather.
"It's getting colder these days, especially early in the morning. I can't even feel warm at high noon anymore."
"Yes," agreed Ryou, "it could be a problem. You should start wearing those sweaters now."
As if on cue, Taro took out a large one from one of the bags. "Will this fit you, Oba-san? Oh... maybe it won't fit... then perhaps," he fumbled, picking another one, "this one. It would look great on you, Oba-san."
"Are these clothes really for me?" asked an astonished Nagisa.
"Why yes," smiled Ryou. "Ah, wait, the others are for Ushio, and, some are Taro's. Oh my," she chuckled embarrassingly, "I pretty mixed everything up."
"You don't have to bring so much," said Nagisa, blushing. "The capsules alone must be such a bother to you, Ryou-chan."
Ryou laughed. It was something she did not usually do, but whenever she does, it unnerves Nagisa such that she could dimly sense that something's afoot. Ryou took out a plain, short-sleeved dress, a rose print skirt and a large necklace—obviously for Ushio. It made for a pretty combination when put together. "Let's try this on Shio-chan," she said with muffled excitement.
A while later, the girl appeared. She was not a little surprised to see the visitors, and so much clothing laid out on the seats and the coffee table. "Shio-chan," smiled Ryou, "You're growing up real fast and I think you need something new to wear."
"Uh... thank you, Auntie," was all she could say.
"Your Aunt Ryou wants you to try this on," said Nagisa picking up the dress Ryou brought out for her. "Come on. It's not everyday you would come across somebody as kind as your Aunt."
"Go on, Ushio dear," encouraged Ryou.
Yes, but there's a boy here. "Uh, hai," she mumbled uneasily. She took the dress gingerly as though it was a letter bomb and made her way awkwardly back inside her room.
After some fifteen minutes, the girl came out fully dressed. Taro marvelled at her so much he had to look away just to hide his admiration. Ryou mouth hung just a tiny bit in amazement and her eyes shone with delight. Ushio never looked so charming. She hurriedly took a sports jacket and slapped it on her son, much to his consternation. She zipped it up, pulled him up and led him right beside the girl. He for his part clamped his lips shut as he tried mightily to prop up his composure. He managed somehow.
Ushio tried to calm down as well, but her eyes shifted nervously here and there. "Uh, Auntie," she said, "Are you going to put us on the cover of a catalogue or something?"
Ryou did not reply. Instead she whispered to Nagisa, "They look so cute together, don't you think?"
Nagisa was stunned. Her cheeks seemed to burn with embarrassment. "R-Ryou-chan! What does this mean?"
"I'm right, am I not?"
"Well, yes, they're both good-looking young children, but, you know, Ushio is used to being around girls."
"Hm? I guess being around boys is no different. After all, they're nearly of the same age, anyway."
"But Ryou-chan, I think she must be a little more familiar with Taro first, don't you think?"
"Precisely! That's why I think they must spend a little more time together. You know, doing homework, walking to school, going out..."
"Going out?" Now she's really uncomfortable. "Aren't they too young to date?"
Ryou laughed again. "Oh, silly you. It's never too late to make childhood friends. And I didn't say they would date, I only said they should spend time, like Ushio does with her girl friends. I'm sure Taro would also like to have a girl friend for a change."
"Friends that are girls or girls that are friends?" blurted Ushio, startled.
"Ummm..." said Ryou playfully. "You could look it both ways." It seems Ryou was the one getting the most enjoyment out of this scene, lording it over mother and child, and even her own child as well. "You two shouldn't restrict your social circle now, don't you think?"
In the end, she took pictures of Taro and Ushio together wearing each of the dresses Ryou brought over. The boy was getting used, delightfully used, to standing beside Ushio, and the girl relaxed as she at least enjoyed being in front of a camera.
With her missions accomplished, Ryou took everything back into the bags and prepared to leave with her son. "I might be back in a week to check on you again, but after that I will be away, to Osaka."
"Osaka?" said Nagisa, hushed. "Isn't that...?"
"Yes, Nagisa. I'm about to give birth. The hospital here is getting crowded and I heard of an excellent facility there."
"But Ryou-chan, at least you could give birth at a clinic somewhere close, or even at home, perhaps, like I did Ushio. You don't have to go, really."
"The pregnancy's a bit too advanced for that now. Don't worry, I'll send you a picture of the baby as soon as I can after birth."
With that, they exchanged greetings and Nagisa shut the door. The thud effectively cut off any sign that there had been any visitors. After making such a ruckus, the house fell unusually silent with Ryou gone.
"Tomoya-kun," said a much concerned Nagisa over the phone, "are you not coming home tonight?"
"No, I'll be staying overnight at work. I got a very important routine right now."
"I see," she replied, somewhat relieved. "So that's why you took some clothes and other things with you this morning. Why didn't you tell me? I would have woke up early even if you were in hurry."
"Nagisa, you need to get exactly nine hours of sleep everyday, didn't Ryou say so?"
"You have brought so many clothes. The cabinet was already half-empty when I saw it. I think there were about enough changes worth for two days. Will you be away that long?"
"Uh... well... Let's just hope... that the project will not be drawn out for so long. You never know..."
"Please come back home soon, Tomoya-kun."
"I... I'll try. Let's just hope for the best."
"Tomoya-kun, I'll miss you very badly."
In a firmer tone, "Yes. So do I, Nagisa."
Ushio was very much surprised when Doctor Ichinose called her up to her office one afternoon after school. She was wondering if she had some particular work she herself presided over that was left unfinished. She was quite apprehensive as she stepped into the office, but, much to her astonishment, the doctor herself stood up from the table and beckoned her in. She didn't look explicitly happy, she wasn't one to be often so. Still, her face wore a very contented expression, and it was easy see through and find that she was pleased underneath.
However, looking around just a bit, she immediately saw that something was amiss. Nichi wasn't there. Perhaps...
"He just left on yesterday's flight," Doctor Ichinose informed her. "But don't worry, Ushio, I'm not asking you to take up what he has left. I have already called my old aide and he will be back tomorrow."
"Er... how long is Nichi staying abroad?"
"It depends," the doctor dismissed. "Well, I do have to ask you just one favor. I hope you don't mind."
"Um, no," she replied softly, still thinking of Nichi.
"You know where Mimi-chan's school is, right? Take me there. I'll drive you. I just want to see her again."
Goodness. So many people are doting on Mimi. "Hai. I'm sure she'll be glad to ride on a car again." Then, she remembered something. This was her chance. "In fact," she added cheerfully, "Uncle Youhei just took us on a trip the other day. Isn't he gallant, Doctor?"
"About your Science teacher, I'll talk to her straightaway. It appears a few complaints have seeped in into the principal's office, and I'll snip it off before it becomes an issue."
Eh? Just like that? Well, sorry Uncle Youhei... "OK then! Shall we go now?"
As the car approached the school grounds the children, preparing to go home, turned from talking to their parents to gazing in wonder at the incoming vehicle. The grownups were even more amazed. "Isn't that a Vercedes?" they all seemed to chorus. The car eased to a stop. They were even more stunned at the driver when she came out. "How lovely!" quipped one of the older women. "She must be a celebrity," whispered others.
"No," asserted another older lady. "She hails from right here. She was the genius girl of Hikarizaka High School. Aha! And now she's a big professional in America! How much she has grown."
It was bad timing for her. She had always detested gossip. She went back inside the car and waited for them to drift out to the street.
When the crowd has thinned enough, she went back outside and made quickly for the school building with Ushio trailing her. Before she could get in, however Kyou and Mizuumi were already at the door.
"So your Onee-chan still isn't here? Bah, I didn't expect her to be so lazy this time around." When she saw Kotomi, "Ah! Konnichiwa!" she yelled as she rushed to hug her, embarrassing her terribly. "My, you have never lost your figure! I envy you, honey. By the way, how's the courtship going?"
"Courtship?" said an astounded Ushio.
"We came for Mimi-chan, Kyou-sensei," fumbled Kotomi.
Ignoring her, "Ushio did you know that Kotomi-san's got a secret lover?" Giggle. "Miss Professional keeps a thing or two about her lovelife from us poor ignorant ladies. Why don't you try finding out who it is for once?"
And then, realization. Oh that! Urrr... ah... don't look at me now. I'm through with that. Nervous laugh. "I think we should respect other people's privacy."
Kyou frowned, then shrugged. "You're such a killjoy. Just wait till you get a relationship. Anyway, what took you guys so long to fetch little Mimi? She was about to cry and she said she doesn't want to sleep in the classroom."
Kotomi instantly softened and sat down to the little girl's level. "Don't worry now, Mimi-chan, we'll get you back to Mama in no time. Your Onee-chan's here to get you."
The two took Mimi's hands as Kyou escorted them out to the yard... when suddenly a bottle flew and broke against the wall, making them instantly drop to the ground.
"What's going on?" cried Kyou.
From their awkward position down in the grass, they could make out people running frantically to and fro, others, shielding their children from harm, and... people chasing each other. Gangsters? "I thought Yukine-san has fixed them already!"
"Some people don't have 'listen' in their vocabulary," muttered Kotomi. As soon as a hush fell, she immediately pulled them all up and led them dashing for the car before any more gangsters spotted them. At which point they spy a group of them clambering up a wall and making for the car, perhaps thinking to loot the vehicle."
"Kotomi-san!" screamed Ushio.
"Into the car!" ordered Kotomi. "Drop down!"
They hurriedly complied. Oh mother! thought a frightened Ushio, a firefight!
Kotomi immediately took from the driver seat a violin and played—RAHHHRRR!-throwing the attackers to the ground in agony. She immediately rushed into the car and dialled for the police as she drove quickly away with her charges.
She was able to bring home Kyou, however, the Okazakis were in the most need of safety, and reports over the radio buzzed on and off: skirmishes flaring everywhere in Hikarizaka all at once. One particular report caught her ear: there was a rock fight at the very street where their apartment stood! Whether the house itself was affected, she couldn't tell from the radio.
Frantically, she called the Okazaki residence as Ushio watched on nervously. Mizuumi was already sobbing in her sister's arms. The ringtone was there, but there was no answer. Kotomi was now quickly getting frightened herself. Nagisa... please, tell me you're alright. Think of your children...
"Uh, who's this?" asked the nervous voice.
"Nagisa-chan," she breathed in relief. "How are you there? Has anybody attacked your place?"
"Hah?" said Nagisa, the concern returning to her voice. Kotomi rebuked herself for making her friend worry. "W-What's going on?" followed Nagisa.
"N-No no, never mind. Can I have your girls here with me for the night? There are riots breaking out everywhere right now, but don't worry, they're right here with me. We're close to my house."
There was a gasp at the other end of the line. Arrr, Kotomi, what have you done again? "Nagisa, please listen. They are al...right. You get me? Al...right. It's you we're worried about. Lock all the doors and windows and don't go out. Don't. I will bring the children over first thing in the morning."
"Can I talk to Shio-chan?"
She immediately handed over the phone. She could make out some sobbing, whether from Ushio or from the end of the line, she didn't care. At long last, it seemed the children have already calmed down again and Ushio was carrying on a normal conversation. The girl returned her the phone.
"Hai, Kotomi-chan." The voice has returned to normal.
"I want you to sleep well, OK? If you can't rest, I'll have the children talk to you later tonight so you can rest assured."
"But your bills will rack up."
"Never mind, Nagisa darling. Family is more important than any amount. By the way, where's Tomoya-kun?"
"He's on a project somewhere. He says he might not return soon."
At a time like this? Tomoya-kun, what do you think you're doing? "Try to contact him immediately."
"He's using a company phone. The line's always busy. I have no idea just from where he's calling."
"Well," she sighed, "I'll have to assume he's fine wherever he is."
They finally arrived at the house. The wall has been scratched from shards of broken metal and some graffiti have been smeared, but the inside of the yard was unscathed. Well and good.
Kotomi had Otsu deposit the children and their things at the spare room upstairs. She also told her maid to bring the cordless phone over at the room she can let Ushio talk to her mother, as well as her own laptop so they surf or watch videos and stuff. But the girls just lay there hugging each other, Ushio still trying to comfort and reassure her shocked sister.
The tension downstairs did not help. The doctor received a call for the chairman of the board and the principal, too, conferring with her on whether to suspend classes. She agreed. Two days, if it could be helped, but no more than a week. Perhaps there would be enough time to apprehend all the culprits, hopefully enough.
At about seven Kotomi called the girls down for dinner. It was all quiet now, and the streets outside were empty. Kotomi of course did not trust this. All the windows and doors of the house were locked as well. Ushio by now was already sufficiently composed to eat, but Mizuumi could not take a bite.
"Come on now, Mimi," consoled Ushio. "We'll talk to Mama after we eat, 'K? You can talk and talk as long as you like."
"Papa..." She was still worried about Tomoya.
"Mimi, Mama said Papa will be back tonight or tomorrow night. Stop worrying now. He's just somewhere around here in Hikarizaka, he'll be fine."
She gestured an earnest "no". "Iwaki," she said plaintively.
"Iwaki?" echoed Ushio incredulously. A smile crept up on her face and she wanted to laugh at her utterance, but she herself knew that whatever Mizuumi spills, she spills it as she hears it, without dissembling. So... Iwaki... street? Hotel? Department Store? Maybe Iwaki Noodle House? But she knew no such places existed in Hikarizaka, or anywhere else she has heard of. The only Iwaki she knows is... no, that's impossible.
"Two months," added Mizuumi. "Papa told me I mustn't tell anyone. Sorry."
It can't be.
"Fukushima," Kotomi quietly confirmed. "Iwaki, Fukushima. The earthquake-hit city. Now I see. Your father's a lineworker, right? He must be in the reconstruction project, installing new electric lines. Trying to commute from here to there and vice versa on a daily, even a weekly basis, is way too exhausting and expensive. He likely will indeed stay there for months on end. Reconstruction pay in some companies are considerably higher-paying than the average.
"It must be your mother. Or your rent. Or both."
Ushio was dazed.
Gingerly, Kotomi stood up and went over to the girls where she crouched down to their level, and took their hands. "Ushio, Mizuumi, you must be strong from now on." Pain stabbed at her chest as she spoke. "Your mother has nobody to lean on now but you two. And possibly, if worse comes to worse, you will only have yourselves to rely on."
Suddenly, she felt guilt apply itself over her pain. Why did you have to say this? They're only children. Perhaps, if you only let Tomoya fool them into complacency... But a child as sensitive as Mizuumi is not to be fooled. A youngster on the threshold of high school and prone to asking questions is not to be fooled. And his own better half—he shouldn't have fooled her.
"Children, you won't stay young for very long. I know you have seen the kind of problems that visit your household. You yourself have seen everything, Ushio. And, Mizuumi, if you could get sick, how much more your mother..."
"No!" shouted Mizuumi. "She will not get sick! Not ever! Papa," she sobbed, "Papa will save her. Papa will save her! He will buy a whole hospital with all his money... and he will save Mama. He'll save Mama..." And she dissolved into tears.
Kotomi turned to Ushio. For some reason, she was more, far more, worried about the freshman. She would want to choose her words carefully with this one. "Ushio," she said tenderly, caressing her arm, "I know you're strong..." Her words hung in the air. Strong? How strong could somebody you douzed out of the blue with ice-cold water get? She was at a loss for words. She only hoped Ushio would hang on to that one word, however improbable.
"I want to call Akki- and Sanae-san," she said softly.
"Ah... oh yes, you're right," sighed Kotomi abruptly relieved. Of course. Her grandparents were still there. Nobody could better handle this than the Furukawas. After all, they often turned to them for help whenever Nagisa fell sick. But it was somewhat too often. How long would they hold out?
At about half past ten Kotomi was in her study in front of the TV. The news has ended about an hour ago. Usually, she would watch only the broadcast, as she wasn't one for game shows or any other stuff but tonight she had been viewing nonstop, falling asleep often, and now a sitcom flickered before her, of all things. But she couldn't bring herself to turn it off. She wanted to forget everything for now.
In those brief interludes of rest, she would dream of the Okazakis. Tomoya. Nagisa. Ushio. Mizuumi. Pictures of family picnics... pictures... games... attending school events... Ushio's amateur recital... laughter... Ahhh, everything was jumbled up! Perhaps, it's about time she just got up from the couch and checked up on them before she finally bring herself to go to bed... if she could.
She tread softly as she went to the spare room. The lights were off. She gently opened the door, turned on a single miniature lamp, and went to the bed quietly. In the soft light she could see that Ushio, still in her uniform, has fallen asleep in an awkward position, her hair messed up, cradling the phone on her belly, and was sleeping soundly. It seems that she has nothing more to worry about the freshman. She must have talked her heart out already to Akio- and Sanae-san such that she forgot to call her mother. Or maybe she really didn't call her on purpose, hating to have to break it to the lady directly, and hoping that her grandparents would have more finesse in revealing the truth to their daughter.
She fingered the loose strands of hair on her face back in place and carefully put her legs on the bed, before covering her with the blanket. The girl only whimpered faintly and fell back to deep sleep. Nagisa's innocence shows as clearly as the morning sun on Ushio's face as she slumbered. It was a far cry from the prankster that showed up in her office not so long ago. "Nagisa," she said warmly to her.
When she came to Mizuumi... what? Is she awake?
Her breathing was constricted by little sobs and hiccups and her body heaved almost imperceptibly. Kotomi couldn't help but notice her face. Oh goodness... It was Tomoya. Tomoya shone forth from her gentle face. Kyou once remarked how handsome Tomoya was when asleep, and his daughter clearly inherited his knack. She's so lovely. Kotomi almost immediately began to tear up. She couldn't bear to see the crying of someone who looked like, who could almost pass for... her beloved Tomoya.
"Mizuumi," called Kotomi softly, gently shaking her awake. "Mizuumi."
After about five miuntes of persistent nudging, Mizuumi finally got up clumsily like a broken doll and looked at her through the matted tangles of long bluish hair in an expression that half-queried and half-scolded her for the untimely rousing, even as the dried trails of tears scarred her countenance. She looked so funny that Kotomi felt peals of laughter bubble from within her, only to have them suppressed, for the tears also trickled freely down her cheeks.
She wiped them off as well as Mizuumi's with her thumbs. "Come," she said lovingly to the girl. "I'll tell you something about your father."
This piqued her interest at once. She quietly and meekly let the lady dress her up and carry her as she turned to go down to the garden.
On the way, Mizuumi turned her head noticeably to a particular room. She must have somehow sensed it. That place was important. Kotomi followed the girl's gaze. She knew. Now she couldn't restrain herself. She knelt down, and tenderly, yet at the same time earnestly, kissed little Mimi over and over. She pressed her cheek against hers, feeling the child's warmth merge with hers. "Hush now, dear, don't cry. Mama is here. She will stay with you. Always." Kiss. Hug.
The room before which she fell on her knees was that place where she had posted all those articles of her parents' death. At times she missed her family so much, even now. And right now she missed the one who did the most to get her over with it. She missed the one who could have been a family to her, the one with which she would have made her own family. And this girl. She was what could have been... the child she and Tomoya would have had.
Every emotion in her that should have been laid to rest were now stirred by the decision of the man who she never thought would leave his loved ones alone.
Her world was her parents, her house, her yard, and her friend, who came over that day, chasing butterflies.
When her parents left, her world was dashed apart. Tomoya put it back together. When Tomoya left—what will happen to these children? Who will put them back together? What can I do?
Tomoya, who will put your family back together?
The dew lay heavily on the garden as midnight settled over everything. Kotomi put on a coat to stave off the dew and she also put one on Mizuumi. It was deathly quiet. Perhaps no gangster would be bold enough at this hour to bother breaking into the yard. She hoped.
"Mizuumi darling," she said, "look. Isn't the garden beautiful?"
"What flower is that?" asked the girl.
"It's a California poppy," she smiled. "And over there is a pansy. And the flowerbed over there is filled with snapdragons. Has your teacher taught you the names of the flowers yet?"
"Umm," she affirmed. "There is... ah! Roses, Daisies, Orchids... ah! Cherry blossoms."
"Of course," smiled Kotomi, "who can forget the cherry blossoms?"
Kotomi caught the girl up in her arms. She now proceeded to tell the girl about things past, things that transpired long ago, even if it pained her a bit. It did not matter. "You know, your Daddy was once almost the same age as your Onee-chan."
Kotomi quietly assented. "We were in high school. We studied where your Onee-chan is studying now. Do you know the cherry petals? They're very memorable to your father and mother."
Mizuumi gaped in amazement. Surely, what this beautiful lady was telling her was important, but she could not grasp what she meant. She wanted to.
"On a certain road leading to your Onee-chan's school, you can ask her if you like, the path slopes upward on a hill. On either side grew the cherry trees. One day in the spring, your father said, when the sakura fell from the trees, he met your mother.
"She was a crybaby. She just stood there because she was scared of going to school. Would you believe that?
"Then, your father said something. To your mother. Whatever it was, I don't know, but from then on, your mother grew strong. She didn't want to climb the hill, but your father made her strong, so she climbed the hill. He led the way, and she followed.
"Your father gave the strength your mother very much needed."
Mizuumi was further mystified when she saw the lady swallowing a lump, as if she was about to choke.
"And then, there was another girl... I think she was also a crybaby... who stuck herself up in the library. She was very afraid of going outside. She spent all her time with books. Would you believe that? And then, your father came into the library one day and found her, barefoot, kneeling with her books and cutting out pages with her scissors."
Mizuumi made a face. "What a bad girl. Teacher always told us never to take pages from our books."
Kotomi laughed. Such innocence. "Indeed. And then, he made friends with her. He was the only one ever to do it. Ever." She paused to wipe away a tear that stung her eye. "Then, he introduced the girl to other friends, too. One of those friends was your mother. She was such a kind, sweet girl, just like you. Just like Onee-chan.
"One day, the girl got very, very lonely. She shut herself up in a dark room. But your father came. He couldn't reach her. The girl wouldn't go down even if he called so he did something different. To catch the girl's attention, he restored her garden. The garden was overgrown with grass and weeds and was tangled and dirty. But your father, he, and the new friends he brought for the girl, and yes, your mother was there, too, they all cleaned up the garden and planted beautiful flowers everywhere. When they had finished, see that? It looked exactly like this garden."
"Exactly. So you see, Mizuumi, your father was a kindhearted man who helped everyone he knew. He never leaves them alone. He will never leave you alone. I'm sure he will come back, so promise me, darling, even if there are many, many nights when he's not around, he will come back. Tell it to your Onee-chan, OK?"
Tomoya, please, come back. Come back to your family. Come back to your child. Come back to our child.
She started to tear up. Mizuumi stared at her, bewildered. Kotomi caught her stare and wiped away the tears with her thumb. "Was my story too long? Did you remember all of it? Well, maybe not. But someday, darling, someday, I will write everything I remember in a big book so when you grow up, you can... you can... oh gracious..." She finally broke down and pressed her cheek against Mimi's. "I love you, darling. Always remember that."
After a good long while, Kotomi finally hushed. Mizuumi's eyes were heavy-lidded and she was about to fall asleep again in her arms. Kotomi caressed her face to wake her and stroked her long, bluish hair, the hair of his father, whom she loved. "Wait, Mizuumi, I'm not done yet. Look," she urged, pointing to the vast heavens. "It's just like what Aunt Tomoyo showed you. Do you remember the planetarium?"
Mizuumi instantly brightened up remembering that particular place. It was a peculiar spot, a dome on the rooftop of a department store. She squealed with delight seeing so many stars tonight that looked just like those in the planetarium. "What do you think of the view? The beautiful twinkling over the vast emptiness that will not fade, no matter when. All the stars in the sky are waiting for you."
"It's like a garden of flowery stars!" marvelled Mimi. "There are so many."
"Yes. It's just like the garden right here. You could say the planetarium was a garden of the stars."
"The lady there was so nice," reminisced Mimi. "She led me to the planets and galaxies and even one thousand years to the future!"
"Really, now?" Kotomi's eyes shone as she thought of a plan for the girl. "Well then, tonight I'll make a promise to you. I will make a computer program that talks to you and is nice to you just like that lady. And she will show you the stars, too. What do you think?" It was easy for her.
Mizuumi squealed, overjoyed. "Onegai shimasu!" Her voice went out to the midnight sky, as if to reach out to the very edge of the heavens. Yes, Kotomi-san. Please do!
For a long while after Akio hung up, Nagisa stood there, neglecting to return the receiver onto the cradle, stunned.
Her unseeing eyes stared into an unknown distance forward.
Her hands were white and trembling.
Akio was furious that night. "That brat haven't told you where he was going? Tch! Men could be so irresponsible!"
"No, Otou-san, you must be mistaken. He really told he might come back in two days."
"If you have a private jet, you could very well come back in two hours. Bah! What was it that Ushio told me then? And she told me it was Mimi who said it. You know she won't lie!"
She felt her knees tremble as if they were about to give.
"Tomoya..." she uttered.
A number of gangsters were arrested by the police over the night and a few were caught at daybreak. The streets were unusually quiet. A few workers ventured out timidly fervently hoping they wouldn't meet with trouble as they hurried on their way, but then no more. The mothers did not come out even to sweep the front yards. The stores were closed, including Furukawa Bread. The windows were shuttered. Only a fine mist shrouded over the streets greeted the early passer-by, a very glum salutation. The events of yesterday were a very bad shock to this town that has never seen any crime for years, and now, people will have to live with the fact of violence at their doorsteps.
Through the mist shone the headlights of an oncoming car. It was driving slowly lest it hits something in the murkiness. In the back seat sat the sisters, Ushio and Mizuumi, and in the driver's seat Kotomi sat beside Otsu, meaning to help Nagisa prepare the day's meals for the children's sake.
The house was quiet as they went in. The lights were on.
"Mama must be awake by now," said Ushio.
But nothing stirred at the kitchen. "She could be awake," replied Kotomi, "or she just left the lights on all night."
Ushio's chest constricted. "Why would she do that?" she said very much afraid. "Mama never did that."
They rushed to the Okazaki couple's room. The receiver of the telephone dangled listlessly even as the warning tone could be heard screaming forth demanding the handset to be returned to its cradle. At the foot of the table, like a little child who fell in the mud, a woman lay face-flat on the floor. Her hair antennae lay limp like withered leaves.
"Nagisa," gasped Kotomi.
Otsu, shocked as she was, was still clear-headed enough to turn to Mizuumi and rub her back frantically in desperate reassurance.
No hand touched Ushio, save her own. It put itself over a mouth hanging open.