A Call in the Night
Kotomi eased the car onto the driveway of her childhood home. She had the place renovated while she was in the States. The sloping roof was set off gently to one side. Large windows took up the other side of the house that faced the street, presenting what seemed to be a wall of glass to the admiring passer-by. At night, different colors of light shone from within the great pane, giving it the appearance of a crystal house made of gems.
Beside it was the carport, and behind the house was the old garden, the only place left undisturbed (along with a certain room upstairs), her guarded and cherished treasure chest of memories.
It was not that large, actually. Only a single maid was required to maintain the place, and there was still little furnishing in most of the guest rooms. It testifies to her expectation, and preference, that no one would bother to visit her.
"Otsu," she called after she got out of the car.
The maid hurried down and went directly to the trunk of her car to take the baggage. Kotomi herself went straight to a private study. She rested there and stayed inside for about an hour, as was her custom and her way of unwinding after a day's work.
Also routine, since she came back from the States anyway, was a question she asked Otsu as soon as she had rested.
She came out of the study and went to the dining room where the maid had prepared the table. She sat down to eat and took some pasta before asking it. "Otsu, have anyone tried to contact me again?"
Otsu tried to hide a knowing smirk. "There were a couple of messages that came in through fax." She coughed. "Illustrations, actually."
This unwelcome detail sent fresh chills down Kotomi's spine. She was somewhat torn between fear of whatever sickeningly sweet sight she might encounter, and hidden curiosity on to what heights (contrary to her prevailing attitude) the courtship was progressing.
"You can disconnect the fax. My communications are mostly by e-mail these days."
"But Madam, I also found a number of letters on the mailbox. There was even a bottle with a note at the driveway one time." Seeing Kotomi's irate and disbelieving stare, she quickly followed up, "M-Madam, I-I didn't say that to you, because, uh, you were busy that time and I don't want to add to your stress."
"Am I not always busy?"
"Y-Yes, but… Please forgive me for saying this, but I'm afraid we got a stalker on our trail."
"I already know that, so you shouldn't have bothered." She twirled some pasta on her fork, as though to eat it, but instead kept twirling some more. "On second thought, he might be less of a stalker than an amateur who isn't clear about what he's doing."
"Madam, I believe we should set up those CCTVs once and for all."
"No need," she dismissed, irritated that Otsu found another chance to insist what she felt was the maid's mere whim, when she didn't keep any money, jewelry or such in the house. However, she was somewhat surprised by her own words.
Normally, a prominent figure like her, who had cash to spare, and shadowed by an unknown person, would grab at the chance to install a camera at every turn of the house. She asked herself just why she felt it wasn't worth it. Perhaps she's not really that famed; after all, only the academic world would be likely to even hear of her. It's even more unlikely that she's cash-strapped. How else would she be able to make frequent trips, gas and all, if she wasn't supported?
So perhaps, then, the person is not really unknown… right?
How would someone even bother to fish out her number if he didn't know her in some way?
And whoever he was, he really was such an amateur! Normally, men do not bother to court a high-falutin professor who might be more inclined to career than love, no matter how attractive she may be. Only an amateur would do that. Yes! Someone who would blurt out that he had feelings for a girl first out as soon as or almost as soon as he met her the first time. And who would thus gain not a single girl thereafter. She knew the standard "polite" response (the other was to get a good fist or foot into him) to such a guy: "Thank you very much, but I think you'll find someone who's better for you."
Argh! I knew it! It's him!
She cleared her throat and announced solemnly, "Dear Otsu-san, I think you should officially cease concerning yourself with this from here on. Leave it to me. If I'm free, I just might go to him myself."
Ushio almost turned her bag inside out looking for the speech she has prepared from weeks ago and due to be delivered today in English class. She wanted to show off her relative skill in speaking the language. But now it was just absent. Four times had she emptied all the pockets of her bag, to no avail, putting the contents under her desktop so she wouldn't look like an automotive repair shop with tools spilling all over her seat.
"Ushio," said a concerned Tomoe, "maybe you left it home."
"Probably," she muttered. It was possible that she was disoriented enough to leave things at home after the ruckus she had with her father last night…
"Ushio, tell me. Are you dating?"
"No, Papa! Why should you believe a seven-year-old? Please don't be so alarmed."
"You know well to think that Mizuumi would say lies."
"I'm not saying she's lying, she just messed up the facts! Dad, please, believe me, for once! I'll even have Minako witness for me."
"I just wonder what biased testimony a close friend would say in your defense."
"He's getting paranoid," she murmured.
"What was that, Ushio?"
"Huh? Well, no, nothing… Say, why don't you help me find my speech?"
Tomoe only gave her a worried expression. "Ushio, it's sad to hear you speak of your father like that."
She sighed. "Oh, brother. Your hearing's always keen… I don't understand him! What's the big deal if I'm too young? I heard he and mom met as lovers our age, right here in this school! And he's denying me the privilege!"
"Maybe your dad's expecting something better for you, so you wouldn't be delinquent like him. He was making sure you would graduate on time and land a career early. I also heard it was pretty tough for them being married so early."
"Yes. But if you truly love someone won't you be able to take it?"
"Uh-huh," smiled Tomoe. "You got a point. Still, are you sure you know what kind of love you have the first time around? I don't really want to be showbiz, you know."
"Eh?" She remembered all those celeb breakups. "But wait, if your love's strong enough, even if it doesn't last, and even if it's too tough, then it must be true."
"If I were to love someone, I would try to remove as much tough from him as life would allow instead of adding to it."
Ushio sighed again. "You sound like dad, alright." She started to return her things into the bag. "But I'm sure I couldn't bring my bag anywhere else but home, school, and…"
"You know I hate to bring a dumpy bag when I shop."
"Maybe you visited someone with your bag on? At Megumi's?"
"I can clearly remember Teacher assigned the speech right after the exams. I couldn't recall visiting anyone else… Wait… Yes, I did visit someone else…"
And the bag she brought there to put her clothes in was this schoolbag, as she was expecting school the next day.
"Ushio," cried Tomoe, seeing that aghast look on her face, "is anything wrong?"
"I visited Aunt Tomoyo's place," she mumbled, downcast, "Landlord's going to be furious if he sees me trespassing on his domain."
Tomoe just laughed this off. "Oh Ushio, I know only one person can work you up so much. You should be nice to him 'cause he's already enrolled here."
"What?" she blurted, outraged. Some of her roommates turned to look at them. But Ushio didn't mind them a bit. "No… He's going back with Aunt Tomoyo. Right? Right?"
But the onlookers were soon diverted from them as whispers arose. A silver-haired boy entered through the back door of the room to borrow a pencil from someone he knew. The girls squealed with delight.
"Oh my… His muscles show through his sleeves!"
"I think I saw his abs!"
"I know who he is!" cried one excitedly, who sat distressingly close to Ushio. "Sakagami Tenshi. In 1-C! Oh, if he could only be re-assigned here…"
Tomoe hugged her friend in sheer ecstasy. "Oh, girl," she whispered in a quivering voice, struggling mightily to keep it from breaking out in a yell, "look at him! He's here! Isn't he manly?"
Am I the only one who notices his chin?
Ushio clenched her hardest as she kept her fist under the desk and holding it at the wrist, as her father once did in a fit of barly controlled rage. Tomoe, if only you weren't my friend…
Now that she was sure Tenshi was in school, she slipped through the school gates against Tomoe's pleas and went out early. She was mad enough at her that day not to heed her. She hoped to catch enough time before he returns…
She rang the doorbell, expecting Aunt Tomoyo to come to the gate any time now. She might as well ask her why on earth did she choose Hikarizaka as her son's school.
Much to her pleasant surprise, it was Takafumi who came out.
"Oh hello. You must be, um, Ushio's your name right?"
"Mm-hm!" she agreed, pleased to hear him say her name. "Uh, where's auntie?"
"The station recalled her. She might come back in a week or so. What brought you here?"
"I left my speech. You know, that time I slept here with Mimi?"
"Oh, yes, I remember," he smiled, yet again tingling Ushio's nerves. "Good thing I was just about to clear everything out of the guest room. But it will be some work digging anything out of the mess. Why don't you get some snacks first?"
"Huh?" she said, turning away from him to hide her blushing, "N-No need! I'm full. I just want to find my speech and be out as soon as I find it. I don't want to be a bother, you know."
"Okay," he shrugged, "if that's what you want, but at least take home some goodies or Tomo might be sad. She's the one preparing all that."
"What?" she said, her blush instantly vanishing. "Who's Tomo? Your… cousin?" she added, hopefully.
"No. My stepsister."
Shoo. I thought you're taken already.
"OK," she sighed in relief, "if you insist. It's about time I returned the favour of your being equal to me."
Takafumi laughed this off. Of course, it sparked a mirror mirth in her. It never fails.
About ten minutes later she was seated at the sala awaiting his delivering the snacks. She was still looking out for Tenshi, though. It was not even half past four, however, and, granting that he would like to hang out with the "friends" he mentioned to his Mom, he could be home at about six or later. Fair enough. She even thought he would arrive much later into the night if Aunt Tomoyo was still here, presumably just to rile up his mother.
A while later she could hear a female voice conversing with Takafumi in the kitchen. Tomo. Sure, she was his half-sister, but when a girl admires a man, there is at least a bit of uneasiness with another female around. Not that she is letting it bother her any further. She's spending time with Takafumi, and that's what matters.
At last, they emerged from the kitchen with the refreshments and she got to see the lady herself. She looks so neat. Tomo had short, dark, hair, but it ringed her well-rounded head like a tiara. Later she would find out this was achieved with the aid of a headband (an accessory she did not bother using herself) but the result just looked so natural. Befitting, also, as it complemented her tall, slim body and an age just past her debut. Ushio was indeed greatly relieved she was just Takafumi's relative. Well, they look somewhat apart in age, anyway.
"Oh hello, Ushio-chan," she smiled. Their clan seem to have a penchant for beautiful facial expressions. "You look as friendly as Takafumi described."
"Not really," she found herself stammering in admiration, even more tense in the presence of a woman who has attained the prime of life teenage girls could only dream of. "You look so nice yourself, Ma'am."
Tomo laughed it off. She set down her tray of goodies, sat beside Ushio and took her hand. "You know, you should look unusually lovely once you reach my age."
She was even more pleasantly disoriented. Tomo had hit the mark of one of her fondest aspirations, something she could barely aim at with her haircut, and something people like Nichi could only scoff at. And they have only met! The woman's self-confidence was so toweringly above what she could muster on her own, and such a forward remark made so early only made the difference more plain.
"Come now, will you?" invited the lady. "You shouldn't go on home with an empty tummy."
"You're so kind, Tomo-san. You know, you remind me of a professor…"
"Doctor Ichinose?" she laughed. "Tomoyo had told me about her. You shouldn't go about comparing me to an accomplished figure."
"Well, come on, you two," interrupted Takafumi cheerfully, "the food's waiting. And the speech, too."
They answered him with amused laughter on their part, and with that they agreed to settle down to eat.
They had a short but satisfying chat over the desserts. It turned out that Tomo was a rookie fashion designer working some distance away and renting a flat there, but comes home every two weeks or so, sometimes being away for as long as a month. Regardless, she finds time to visit her family regularly.
After the meal Ushio promptly went about her mission. It really didn't take so long. She found the speech in the room where she and Mimi have slept and learned that it was left under the bed. Since it had been there for quite some time there were bite marks from mice and such but Ushio was only too glad to rewrite it, where she could insert any needed improvements.
"Arigatou gozaimasu," said Ushio at the doorstep as she prepared to leave. "It was a wonderful meal, Takafumi-san, Tomo-san."
"You can come back anytime you like," smiled Tomo. "Anyone who is dear to Tomoyo will always be welcome in this house."
At that junction, Tomoe passed right in front of the house.
Ushio wanted to call out to her, but hesitated, remembering how she supported Tenshi. Oh well, she's still her friend, so in a compromise, she shouted,
"Hey, Moe! Is that brat on the way now?"
Surprised, Tomoe turned to see where the familiar voice came from. "Ushio!" She rushed into the Sakagamis' gate going to her. "Konnichiwa," she said bowing to Tomo and Takafumi.
To Ushio, "Oh, girl, are you still mad at me? Why do you hate Tenshi so much?"
"What?" chorused Takafumi and Tomo. "Who's hating Tenshi?"
"Hah?" blurted Ushio. She looked this way and that anxiously, trying to find out if they really understood what they heard, but her discomfort got the better of her. She took Tomoe by the hand and ran away with her, calling back, "Thank you for the food! I'll be back!"
The half-siblings could only stare after them, mystified.
At length, Takafumi laughed it off. "Well, I guess some boy's jealous of Tenshi. Quite natural if you're too handsome for your own good."
Tomoe was already panting hard as Ushio forcibly led her further and further away from the Sakagamis'. "Ushio, calm down!" Ushio took it as a cue to stop. She was already getting exhausted herself. The two took time out to recover their breathing.
"Ushio, what's the matter with you?"
"You were just about to make me a persona non grata there! Asking me if I hate that brat in front of his uncle and aunt? Do you even have to say that?"
"I asked you why you hate Tenshi, Shio-chan. You're the only girl in school who doesn't give an iota about him."
"So you finally noticed?"
"Shio-chan," frowned Tomoe, "this is not funny anymore. If I were you I would go to him and at least greet him. Show him that the row you had was over. Can't you just do it?"
"I'm amazed that you could be such a fangirl of him so quickly, Moe! You just don't know what kind of words spill out of that mouth of his."
And, as they walked down the road to Kyou-sensei's school to fetch Mizuumi, Ushio finally related to Tomoe what transpired that fateful early morning at Aunt Tomoyo's. Tomoe was bewildered, still besotted by the boy's charm, but quite sympathetic with Ushio's pain. Actually, for a while, she didn't want to believe what the girl said, but she knew it was completely unbecoming of a true friend to abandon her just like that.
"I think we should talk to him, girl," she finally said. "Maybe he's not so bad after all, we just had to make him see some sense for once."
Ushio only sighed in frustration. "As if he's the kind of person you can actually talk to. He doesn't even listen to his own mother."
"Still, somewhere in his heart is a chivalrous man who'll be willing to be gracious to ladies like us." She sighed dreamily even as Ushio winced at her hopeless admiration.
"Tomoe! Ushio!" called a young girl's voice. Megumi's. She ran to their place and said excitedly, "Papa's throwing a party tonight. I told him the whole gang's coming."
"Party?" said Ushio. "What's the deal?"
Megumi laughed out loud at her friend's memory. "Don't you know what day it is today?"
Tomoe took a finger on her lips as she tried to recall. "Oh yes!" She finally cried. "It's—"
"—your birthday," continued Ushio. She chuckled warmly and hugged her friend. "I was just kidding, dear." She kissed her lightly on the cheek. "So that means we're staying overnight at Uncle Yusuke's?"
"Nope," finished another voice. Minako arrived at the scene, again with Mizuumi tagging along. "Mimi-chan called her Daddy and he said he's picking you up at ten." Giggling, "Looks like daddy's a little strict on his kid now that she's got a suitor."
Ushio laid eyes on her sister and sighed in exasperation. "Oh, you Mimi, this is only the second time you ruined my day."
The little girl approached her with an apologetic expression. "Shio-chan. I'm sorry. Daddy said we must call him before we go anywhere, right?" More earnestly, "And your boyfriend. It's true, right?"
Minako managed to stifle a laugh before Ushio's annoyed look silenced her.
She took her sister's hand. "Next time, just don't listen to what Minako is saying, OK?"
"What d'ya mean?" said Minako, still trying to suppress the mirth in her voice. "It's you who said Nichi's your—"
"Just forget everything!" She led Mizuumi by the hand and went on ahead. "Come on, guys. To the party!"
As they tread their way to the Yoshinos, Tomoe carried Mizumi on her shoulders as the kid laughed with delight. Megumi ran around them trying to play tag with the little girl. The two other girls followed in silence.
Minako came up to Ushio, much to her surprise, and whispered plaintively. "Arata's getting his shots at home now. Ma and I almost had a fight again."
"I just wish you could cheer me up always when I come back to school."
"What are you saying? Of course we'll always have a good time with the gang."
"No, it's not that kind of cheer."
"Spit it out, will you?"
The laughter made by the people ahead of them bubbled and wafted into the gathering twilight sky.
"In normal times we can laugh and pretend and it's enough. But now, I just wish we won't pretend so often anymore, Ushio. There are problems you can't just pretend away. I need more. So I want you, too, to pretend less than what you're doing right now."
"Hey, Minako," she replied uneasily, "take it easy now."
"I know that you are as really sweet as Mimi-chan. I don't want to think that you're trying to outgrow that, too. Sweetness is something you never outgrow. It's not an old dress you hand down to your kid sister when you think you're too big for it." After a while, she looked back at her. "Well?"
They passed the last block to Megumi's house before Ushio could reply.
"OK, girl," she finally agreed. "I might think about it."
It was only two days now for Ushio before she finishes her term with Dr. Ichinose. Nichi walked a little slower than usual going home as he ruminated how he would sequence his work so he could more easily take a double load, now that he'll be left alone at the office.
To be sure, lots of times, Ushio imposed all the workload on him, but whenever she didn't their job was a piece of cake. They found time to chat or fight some every time the professor was away so the day at the office wasn't such a grind. Dr. Ichinose's just boring.
Yes, to his surprise, he found out just now that the girl was also a fun chum, albeit trollsome.
"He confirmed that he's the greatest man for me."
That's so ick. But now, to be honest, it wasn't such a bad idea after all. Pretending to be someone's boyfriend was actually an excellent prank.
"…you should be guy enough to face up to it!"
Hmmm… She's kinda right. How can he become a guy if he can't face things? Well, it does take getting used to facing up to the gangsters, and now to his responsibility for his misdeeds, but certainly that's not all. Right?"
"And don't do you dare be ashamed of me."
Yukine, along with Tomoyo, was one of two women from Hikarizaka who did not shun walking alone in the streets in the middle of the night. But it's only nine, she thought, surely they would still be up and about. Furukawa Bread, far as she knew, closed at midnight.
She was carrying a specially-wrapped box for the Furukawas, an apology gift. As she arrived at the bakery, she took a peek inside. There's nobody at the , if she went in and called loud enough, though it felt rude to do so at this time of the night, someone at the back might stir. She put her load down on the floor.
"Akio-san!" she called, careful not to sound too loud. "Akio-san!"
Footsteps told her someone's coming. It turned out to be Sanae.
"Oh, Konnbanwa, ma'am," she said. "You are a friend of Nagisa's, right? But I don't seem to remember your name."
"Miyazawa Yukine, Sanae-san," she bowed. "I brought a present for you," she added, lifting the box onto a table. She smiled as she continued, "Open it, Sanae-san, I'm sure you will love it for your house."
"Oh, no," said Sanae sheepishly. "You don't have to go to all the trouble."
"No, it's nothing… compared to all the trouble my friends did. Please, Sanae-san, bear with them. They're like children who love to play at other people's backyards. I myself will make sure this will never happen again."
"It's alright now," smiled Sanae. "I'm only glad someone could restrain them. You are a great help, Yukine-san."
"Sanae-san," she pleaded. "I ask you, open it."
Egged on by Yukine's earnest desire for her to open it, and nagged by curiosity herself, Sanae went over and gently peeled off the wrapping. She uncovered the lid of the box, and, to her delight, lifted out a bolt of purple satin cloth—a silken curtain! "Oh, Miyazawa-san," she said breathlessly, "this… such beautiful weaving…. How could you afford…?"
It was her turn to be subdued. "The cloth… it's just a gift to me by someone…" And, more cheerfully, "I made the designs. I hope it will lend some relief from the intense sunshine."
Her breath still racing from excitement, Sanae invited her to the dining room. "Come in, come in!" She quickly but carefully returned the curtain into the box and rushed to set the table.
It was almost ten but the house was steaming with hot dinner. The two women chatted away about such things as housekeeping and food prices at the market. It was as if, though years apart in age, they had been chums in high school, so comfortable were they with each other. (Sanae's looks helps even out the difference, of course.)
"But where's Akio-san?" asked Yukine at one point. "He should be waiting at the store at this hour."
"Oh. He went with Tomoya-kun at the Yoshinos to fetch Shio- and Mimi-chan. They even went earlier than they first planned." Her expression softened with recollection. "Tomoya's very anxious about his daughter now that's she's in high school. He knows how complicated it was being at her age."
Yukine only laughed softly. "But I suppose she would still love this." She produced a DVD from inside her coat and handed it to Sanae. The latter was very much pleasantly surprised.
"Oh my! This is a rare Dango Daikazoku disc! How did you find it? I never thought anyone could still find such an outdated show anywhere."
"Yes, it was an old show, and I just found it in a garage sale, but I know Nagisa always loved this."
Sanae's face fell. "I know Nagisa will need all the cheer she can get, now," she sighed.
"What's wrong?" she suddenly ventured, alarmed at this drastic change in mood.
Sanae told her how Nagisa was doing with her health. Yes, she is fine for now but her sickness is treacherous and uncertain. She said Nagisa went to Ryou to find a way to make sure she would never fall sick again, but fell flat in disappointment. She also said Kyou had an opinion.
"Yes, I think she must have a ligation. She may not make it with her next pregnancy."
"Nagisa said she is fine with two, but it's only after I nagged her out of having a third just after she gave birth to Mizuumi.
"Personally I think Nagisa was never built to bear any children. Perhaps it would have been easier on her. In fact…
It was almost eleven when Yukine went out to leave. Sanae wanted her to wait for the men (who might have been distracted by Yusuke into staying out late) so she can have an escort, but she said she could manage. Truth to tell, she was not in the mood to walk with anyone right now.
The midnight breeze turned into a gale as she walked down the silent road. It was getting hard to walk into the strengthening wind.
Finally, she stopped and stood there, and stayed that way for quite a while. She made no noise, but perhaps it was just because the violently rustling leaves muffled out any sound.
"Oh, Ushio," she sobbed heavily. "Poor girl. Poor… Poor Ushio."