This is a continuation of PART 11.
Overtime wore on late that day, and by the time Douno left the office, it was past nine at night. An accident had happened along the route home, closing off an entire lane and bringing traffic to a standstill. Douno did not get to his apartment until past ten.
The asphalt in the parking lot still carried a damp smell from the heat wave during the day. Exhausted, Douno climbed the stairs with a drooping head, and when he opened the door to his apartment, the first thing he saw was a familiar pair of shoes. Dirty white runners―Kitagawa was here.
“I’m home,” Douno called as he entered the kitchen. Mariko was there preparing Douno’s portion of dinner. He peered into the living room beyond to see Kitagawa asleep, lying on his back on the sofa. Curled up like a cat on his chest was Honoka.
“I wonder if he finds that heavy?” Douno whispered to Mariko as he loosened his tie. Mariko smiled wryly.
“Honoka was practically jumping up and down when Mr. Kitagawa came over. She wouldn’t leave him for a moment. At around nine, I think, he tried to go home, but Honoka had a crying fit, and he’s been keeping her company since. I guess they must have tired themselves out. They’re both fast asleep.”
Douno sat at the table with his bowl in one hand, gazing at them absently. From a stranger’s eyes, the two looked like a real father and daughter.
It was now about two months since Kitagawa first came to Douno’s house for dinner. After his first visit, Kitagawa began to come over at least once or twice a week to eat dinner.
At first, Kitagawa would telephone Douno, and would wait at the bottom floor of Douno’s apartment until Douno arrived home, at which point they would go up to his apartment together.
Kitagawa was as taciturn as ever in Mariko’s presence, and hardly spoke. When he did talk, it was during the seven-to-eight-minute walk with Douno back to Kitagawa’s house, and even then, he only spoke a few words at best.
Kitagawa still talked to him, but no longer mentioned anything about loving him or feeling lonely. Douno reckoned it was because Kitagawa had been able to draw the line in his heart.
Eventually, Kitagawa appeared to grow more comfortable with Douno’s family, for he began to come over for dinner even when Douno was not home. It started first when Kitagawa had stopped by on his way home from work with sweets for Honoka, saying he had gotten them as a gift. Since it was conveniently dinner hour, Mariko had invited him over.
“My husband’s not home yet, but would you like to stay for dinner with us anyway?” she had offered. Kitagawa did not decline. By the time Douno got home, Kitagawa had already eaten and left.
Douno was surprised to hear the story from Mariko. He could not believe that Kitagawa had visited and stayed for dinner without him present. Douno took that as a sign that Kitagawa was beginning to feel at ease at his house, and it filled him with happiness.
After that, Kitagawa began to bring over all sorts of things, claiming they were from his workplace. According to him, when they worked with non-commercial clients who had custom home projects, they often visited the construction site and brought fruits, snacks, and juice for the workers. Kitagawa would bring what was left.
Douno once told him not to feel pressured to bring things. Kitagawa dismissed it, saying they were only leftovers anyway.
“Mr. Kitagawa brought watermelon today,” Mariko informed him. “We had some already, and it was very sweet and delicious.” She lowered her voice a level as she sat across from Douno.
“Mr. Kitagawa is such an enigma. He was a little scary at first, but once you get to know him, he’s not like that all. Today, he even offered to wash the dishes because he said I’m always the one cooking for everyone.”
“Kitagawa did the dishes?”
“Yes. You could learn from him, too, hubby.”
“Oh, no,” Douno murmured jokingly. Mariko giggled.
“But he’s like a big kid.”
“He takes playing with Honoka so seriously. I feel like he’s more of Honoka’s boyfriend than your friend. Is it rude to think of a grown man like that?”
Douno had nothing to say in answer.
“You should have seen him earlier,” Mariko continued. “It was so funny. Honoka was proposing to Mr. Kitagawa. She said ‘Will you marry me?’ and everything. You know how kids just say those things. Mr. Kitagawa should have just brushed it off, but he was actually giving her serious answers. ‘But we’re thirty-one years apart’ he’d say, or ‘You’ll feel different about me once you’re older’. I thought I would split my sides laughing. I could barely hold it in.”
Douno laughed, too, as the image rose in his mind. It was past ten-thirty when he finished eating. Douno gathered Honoka in his arms and lifted her off of Kitagawa’s chest. The movement woke Kitagawa up. He looked at Douno with sleepy eyes.
“I heard you were keeping Honoka company until now. I’m sorry for keeping you so late,” Douno said.
The man’s lips, twisted in a half-tearful frown and a half-smile, moved slightly to speak.
“I had some of that watermelon, too. It was delicious.”
Kitagawa got up on the sofa and gave his head a vigorous shake.
“I’ll take you home.”
Douno left Honoka in Mariko’s care and left the apartment with a sleepy-eyed Kitagawa. There was really no need to walk Kitagawa home since he was a man, but after doing so the first time, it was a custom for Douno to take Kitagawa home after he ate.
“I want to take the car today,” Kitagawa said, which was unusual for him. They normally walked, but Douno was grateful for the man’s request to take the car. He was a little tired from working overtime today.
Kitagawa yawned incessantly in the passenger seat. He wearily rubbed his eyes over and over. Douno asked him what time he usually slept, and to no surprise, the man answered that he slept at nine.
The seven- or eight-minute walk to Kitagawa’s house took only two or three minutes by car.
“Your wife was saying she wants a second kid,” Kitagawa said, just as Douno parked the car in front of the man’s house.
“A second kid.”
It was true that Mariko had mentioned wanting to have a second child. But he had no idea why Kitagawa was telling him this.
“We’re already on a tight budget, so I think a second child would be hard to have,” Douno sighed.
“Mm-hmm,” Kitagawa murmured before closing his eyes. “Let me know when you feel like having another one.”
“So I can die.”
“Die, as in...” Douno hesitantly asked the obvious. Kitagawa gave him a sidelong glance.
“Stop living,” he answered.
“Why would you want to die if I have a second child?”
Kitagawa scratched his head.
“If I die, I might be reincarnated as your kid.”
“As if that could ever happen!” Douno found himself yelling angrily.
“But it might, right? It said so in a book I read yesterday. This kid died and was born again to the same couple. That’s can’t be all a lie, is it? Why would you say it’s impossible?” Kitagawa’s face was serious.
“But that means you’ll die, right?”
“There’s no point if you’re not alive anymore.”
“Yeah, but,” Kitagawa insisted, “I’d rather be a kid in your family instead of going on living as me. That way I’ll be able to live with you forever.”
Kitagawa let out a short sigh.
“Your house has this warm feeling. I like how it smells inside, too. But every day when the time comes, I have to go home. Your house is somewhere I’m allowed to go over to play, but not stay at forever, right?”
Douno pounded the steering wheel.
“I didn’t invite you to my house to push you to extremes and make you talk about dying. I just wanted you to experience what a home was like―”
Kitagawa fell silent.
“What can I do to make my love disappear?” he asked quietly. “I’m starting to get tired of it. I’m sick of thinking about you all day. Should I go somewhere far away where I can’t see your face? But I know where your house is, so I’ll probably end up coming back whenever I want to see you. Oh, I know, I just have to get thrown in jail again. In there, I’d―”
“Stop it!” Douno cut him off desperately. “Don’t mistreat yourself like that, talking about dying and getting yourself into jail.”
Kitagawa let out a long sigh.
“I never mattered much in the first place. It doesn’t matter if I live or die. You're the only one who tries to attach some weird meaning to me. That’s why I can’t help thinking about you, too.”
Kitagawa got out of the car. Douno scrambled out of the driver’s seat as well.
“Don’t do anything rash, you hear?” he yelled at the man’s back as he made his way to the gates.
The man passed through the gates without turning around. Douno felt crushed as he climbed back into the car. “I’ll die so I can be reincarnated into your family.” Douno’s heart trembled with grief at the way Kitagawa thought.
Kitagawa was far from insignificant and hopeless. His existence had meaning in itself. Why else would I involve myself this much in your life? It was because Kitagawa had his own charms, and for no other reason than that.
Was being ill-treated in childhood enough to make a man despair this much? Enough to make him want to die?
Someone―won’t someone please love this man? Douno wished in earnest. Won’t someone love him so much and bind him from head to toe in love and responsibility, so much that he would never be able to mention his own death again?
In the end of August, Mariko quit her part-time job. It was a sudden decision, and when Douno asked why in case anything had happened, Mariko only stared at her feet and said she didn’t get along with the people at work. She said nothing more, and since she appeared reluctant to talk about it, Douno let the topic drop without pursuing it further.
In the first week of September one Friday night at ten, the phone rang. When Douno picked up, a man’s voice spoke on the other end.
“Hello, this is Taguchi from Sun Supermarket speaking. May I speak to Mrs. Mariko?”
Douno wondered what an ex-boss might want with her, but passed the phone over anyway. Less than a minute passed before Mariko angrily slammed the phone down.
“What did Mr. Taguchi want?” Douno asked.
“I don’t know,” Mariko said angrily. It was rare for her to get so emotional.
“What do you mean, you don’t know? Didn’t he call you to talk to you about something?”
Mariko sat down across from him. She knitted her brow in a frown, and sighed several times. She glanced at Douno briefly.
“He comes to me for advice about his wife.”
“She hasn’t been well this past year. I think she’s entering menopause. She’s always in a bad mood, and she takes it out on him. He’s been talking to me about it before, but I can’t believe he’s still calling me to complain even after I’ve quit. It’s not even my problem.”
Douno stood up, went to sit down beside Mariko, and put his arm around her shoulders.
“Don’t say things like that. If he’s going to feel better by you hearing him out, just let him talk until he feels better.”
“But―” Mariko still looked furious. “I hate his wife. She used to be a model, and she likes to show off about it. She’s tall and pretty, but she talks down to everyone.”
Douno kissed Mariko, unable to stand listening to his wife badmouth someone in this way. When he stroked her hair gently, the younger woman apologized.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know you hate these kinds of conversations. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. You need to vent, too.”
“You know,” Mariko lowered her eyes. “When I met you, I remember thinking what a gentle person you were. I knew for sure I’d be happy with you.”
“Are you happy?” Douno asked. Mariko nodded deeply and put her arms around him. Douno began to feel aroused for the first time in a while. His fingertips had just begun to gather heat when the phone rang again.
Douno made to pick it up, but Mariko stood first.
“I think it’s for me,” she said. She answered not from the main phone, but the cordless handset in the kitchen. She said two or three words into the phone before she pressed a hand against the mouthpiece and turned to Douno.
“It’s a friend from high school,” she told him, then left the living room.
Douno was a little disappointed at being interrupted in the moment. He felt like having a beer for a change, and opened the fridge. He was sitting and watching the news, sipping his beer, when Mariko returned to the living room twenty minutes later.
“My friend invited me to dinner the day after tomorrow. I told her I can’t because I have to take care of Honoka.”
She sat down beside Douno. “Let me have some of that,” she said, and took a swallow of his opened beer, and sighed. She had quit her job due to social problems in the workplace, yet here was her former boss continuing to come to her for advice. Douno felt like she deserved at least a day off to have dinner with her friend, chat, and enjoy some freedom.
“Why don’t you go have that dinner with your friend?” Douno suggested. “I can watch Honoka for a day, no problem.”
“Go on and enjoy your time out.”
Mariko appeared to hesitate a little.
“Thank you,” she mumbled with her face down.
On the day of Mariko’s dinner, Douno talked to his boss Tatsuta immediately after arriving at work.
“My wife won’t be home in the evening today, so I’m wondering if I could go home early to take care of my daughter,” he asked. Tatsuta was quick to give a positive answer, since it was not a busy time of year.
“Sure, that’s fine. I understand,” he reassured Douno.
The morning went by as usual, but things changed quickly in the afternoon when a part-time worker fell ill suddenly. She had been fine in the morning, so her sickness was likely due to the lunch she had brought. She was suffering from severe and persistent diarrhoea and vomiting, and was too weak to walk. Tatsuta took her to a hospital nearby, then sent her straight home.
Douno had to take on the part-timer’s share of the workload as well as Tatsuta’s portion, which he had dropped to accompany the girl. Suddenly, he was not sure if he could get home by six o’clock as he had planned.
Upon Tatsuta’s return, they split the bills and began sorting through them together, but even when five o’clock rolled around, they were not even through two-thirds of the work. Douno could not bring himself to go home early and thrust the rest of the work upon Tatsuta. He agonized about what to do. He felt guilty about calling his wife and telling her that he wasn’t able to come home after all. She was probably eagerly looking forward to going out to eat with her friend. He knew Mariko would understand and call off her plans if he explained his situation. She was not a child, after all. Yet―
Time ticked away as precisely as ever no matter how many times Douno looked at the clock. Amidst his distracted mind and the resulting frequent interruptions to his work, Douno’s ears caught the sound of rain. Great. Now it was raining, to top things off. It did not get worse than this. Rain... rain....
“When it rains―”
Suddenly he remembered. If the man was off work.... Once Douno got the idea of asking him, there was no second-guessing. With a word of apology to Tatsuta, he excused himself and went out into the hallway with his cell phone in hand, and made a hasty call to the man who lived in the single detached house on the outskirts of the residential neighbourhood.
Douno got home past ten o’clock at night. With a packaged meal from the convenience store in one hand, he opened the door to his apartment and was met suddenly with a burst of joyous laughter.
He peered into the living room to see Honoka sitting on Kitagawa’s crossed legs, reading a picture book in a loud voice. Her favourite picture books lay scattered in a circle around the two.
Kitagawa turned around slowly. He gathered Honoka up, who was still reading, and came walking over to the kitchen.
“Me and Honoka already ate the dinner your wife made.”
“Oh, that’s fine. I bought my own.” Douno placed the bag containing his takeout dinner on the table.
“I’m sorry for asking you to babysit all of a sudden.”
“I was off work anyway. I had nothing to do, so I gave her a bath.”
Douno looked at Honoka and noticed she was wearing her yellow pyjamas instead of her regular clothes. He had not noticed until now.
“I took a bath, too, while I was at it.”
“Oh... well, that’s totally fine. That saves me a lot of work.” Kitagawa grinned proudly when Douno thanked him. Douno had called his house in the evening. He had figured Kitagawa would be off early from work because of the rain, and he was right. The man had been home.
When Douno asked him to babysit Honoka while his wife was out, the man had agreed in an emotionless voice.
“Thank you so much for today. You’re a lifesaver,” Douno thanked Kitagawa properly.
“Your wife went out to eat or something, right?”
“Yeah. I wanted her to have a night out with a friend for a change. I’m sure she gets tired from looking after Honoka and me every day.”
“Mm-hmm, I see,” Kitagawa murmured.
“Daddy, daddy, guess what?”
“Me and Kei are gonna get married,” Honoka announced happily, with her arms wrapped around Kitagawa’s neck. Honoka’s marriage announcements had become somewhat of a regular occurrence.
“Is that so? Then, you’re going to become a proper little lady fit for Kitagawa, won’t you?”
“Yeah!” Honoka nodded deeply once. While Douno ate, Honoka set Kitagawa to work at his best skill: drawing. Noticing the sudden silence, Douno peeked into the living room to see Honoka fallen fast asleep in Kitagawa’s arms.
He looked at the clock. It was almost eleven. Mariko was not home yet. Perhaps she was getting carried away in nostalgic conversations with her high school friend.
“Your wife’s pretty late,” Kitagawa muttered.
“Yeah,” Douno agreed vaguely. “Oh, you must be sleepy, too. I’m sorry for keeping you so late. I’ll take you home.”
Kitagawa shifted Honoka over in his arms.
“What should I do with her?”
“I’m sure she’ll be fine alone because she’s sleeping, but I’ll take her in case. We’ll take the car tonight. It’s raining, anyway, and you won’t get wet this way.”
“Mm-hmm,” Kitagawa answered. Douno wondered if the man wanted to walk home, but he could not yield today since Honoka was with them.
“So, what about my thanks?”
“Huh?” Douno asked in surprise.
“My thanks. My thank-you. I watched your kid for you. I think I deserve something in return, right?”
Douno felt flustered. He had not expected to be asked for a token of gratitude for a four-hour babysitting session. He had simply seen it as Kitagawa coming over for dinner and staying longer than usual.
We invited you over for dinner so many times until now. With some effort, Douno restrained himself from sounding like he was the one doing Kitagawa a favour. Douno had been the one to call Kitagawa out suddenly, and it was true that the man had been a great help. But it seemed much too cold and impersonal to give him cash.
“Is there something you want? I’ll buy it for the next time you come.”
“I don’t need things. I want a promise.”
Kitagawa gathered a limp Honoka up in his arms. Honoka was nudged awake by the motion, and Kitagawa rubbed his cheek against hers like a dog.
“When this one turns sixteen, I want you to give her to me.”
Douno blinked in astonishment.
“That is, if she still likes me when she’s sixteen.”
Douno’s brain could not sort out the sudden statement.
“Y-Yeah, but―” he managed to stammer despite his stubbornly leaden tongue. “Honoka is only four. She’s just a little child. She says she wants to marry you, but she’s just gotten into a habit of saying that. It’s not something to take seriously―”
Kitagawa stroked Honoka’s hair.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a kid or an adult, they still feel the same love. ―Honoka, do you like me?”
“I looooove you!” Honoka clung to Kitagawa’s neck. The man’s eyes crinkled in a smile. “When you turn sixteen and you still like me the same, I’ll take you as my wife,” he murmured to the child with genuine sincerity, then looked at Douno.
“Promise,” he said.
Saying yes was the last thing Douno wanted to do.
“But really, Honoka is just a child...”
“I’m not saying I want her now. I’m talking about when she turns sixteen. She won’t be a child anymore when she’s sixteen.”
“There’s Honoka’s own feelings as well...”
“I’m only saying if she still likes me then. I won’t force her if she doesn’t want to.”
Kitagawa was not kidding. When Honoka turned sixteen, and she said she loved him, he would probably really take her away.
“B-But you’re too far apart in age.” Douno’s palms turned sweaty as he spoke. Kitagawa tilted his head in perplexity.
“Why are you so against it? You don’t wanna give your daughter away to an older ex-convict?” His voice rang out over Douno’s bowed head.
“That’s not what I mean.”
It did not matter if the man was an ex-convict, or someone far apart in age. If Honoka said she really loved him, Douno knew he would have no choice but to acknowledge him. But he had trouble coming to terms with the fact that “him” was Kitagawa. Was the man saying this because he really loved Honoka, or did he want her because she was Douno’s daughter? Douno could not help but feel Kitagawa was taking his daughter as a replacement for him. He felt himself shudder.
“You should have more kids,” Kitagawa said suddenly.
Douno raised his head.
“Two, three, more, it doesn’t matter. Make enough so you wouldn’t mind giving one to me.”
“That’s absurd!” Douno snapped. “I don’t raise kids to give them away to you!”
Kitagawa furrowed his brow.
“What’re you so mad about? You started this in the first place. You told me to love someone and start a family. I think this kid is cute. So if I’m gonna start a family, I’ll start it with Honoka.”
“She’s a little girl! Will you listen to yourself?” Douno yelled, wrenching Honoka away from Kitagawa.
“Noooo, I wan’ Kei to hold me!” Honoka whined, resisting her father’s embrace. She thrashed and flailed, and when Douno unwittingly let go, she went dashing back to Kitagawa. She clung to him desperately. Kitagawa bent his knees so he was level with Honoka, and gently stroked her straight hair.
“If you wanna be my bride, grow up soon,” he told her. “But don’t become pretty. It’ll be a pain in the neck if other guys started coming up to you.”
They heard a clatter at the door.
“I’m home,” called a voice brightly. Mariko came into the kitchen. “I’m sorry, honey,” she apologized. “My friend and I got carried away with our conversation. Mr. Kitagawa, you too. I’m sorry making you babysit on such short notice today.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Kitagawa answered in his usual brusque manner.
“I bought some cake on the way home. Why don’t we all sit down and have some?”
“Kitagawa’s going home now,” Douno answered before Kitagawa could.
“Really?” Mariko said, tilting her head and looking disappointed. Kitagawa gave Honoka a playful rub on the head before heading to the doorway. Douno watched as the man put his shoes on. Since did not mean to take him home, he purposely did not put on his own shoes.
Kitagawa finished putting on his shoes and stood in the doorway as if to wait for him.
“Walk yourself home today.”
Kitagawa cocked his head slightly, but said nothing. He exited the apartment by himself. When Douno returned to the living room, Mariko was talking on the phone with someone. She hung up immediately when she noticed Douno come in.
“I thought you were taking Mr. Kitagawa home.”
Mariko glanced out the window. “It’s raining pretty hard out there. I hope Mr. Kitagawa doesn’t get soaked on his way home.”
Douno approached the window. She was right―it was pouring outside, as if to wash something away. He spotted a black umbrella slowly walking down the pathway in front of the apartment. It stopped, then appeared to look up. Douno could not see the face very well, but he felt like it was Kitagawa. He quickly yanked the curtain shut.
Honoka was so preoccupied with the cake that Mariko had bought that she did not throw a tantrum when Kitagawa had to go home. Douno sank into his thoughts as he watched his daughter devour the cake with cream all over her mouth. One thing was for certain: Kitagawa’s asking for his four-year-old’s hand in marriage was not normal.
But in a decade and some years, Honoka would grow from a child to a woman. If Kitagawa asked for Honoka’s hand then, Douno felt like he wouldn’t be able to say no―even more so if they were serious about each other.
“Do you not like the cake much?” Mariko asked him, looking concerned that his portion was untouched.
“That’s not it,” Douno replied, then stood up. “I’m not in the mood for sweet stuff right now. I’ll have it tomorrow.”
As Douno moved behind his wife, whose head was down. He spotted a red mark on her neck. He tilted his head curiously, wondering if he had kissed that spot when they had sex two days ago. When he touched the reddened spot, Mariko’s spine tensed.
“Honey, stop that. Your hands are cold.” Douno hastily withdrew his hand.
“Sorry. It was getting red there.”
Mariko scratched her neck lightly with her pretty pink manicured nails.
“Is it a bug bite? It’s been itching since yesterday.”
“You shouldn’t scratch it,” Douno whispered into her ear, then embraced Mariko from behind. She smelled newly-washed, fresh and clean like soap. Douno did not recognize this perfume.
Mariko turned around. Her expression was stiff, for some inexplicable reason.
“What kind of man do you think Honoka will marry in the future?”
Mariko gave a pronounced blink before bursting into laughter.
“Are you worrying about that already? Honoka’s only four. You’re quite the handful, aren’t you, Mr. Papa?”
“Children grow up quickly. That’s why I was just wondering...”
Hmm, Mariko murmured as she placed both hands on Douno’s arms circling around her.
“I don’t know what sort of person she’ll love, but I do hope she’ll be happy. I want her to find a gentle husband, just like I did.”
Douno watched his daughter intently eating the cake. He thought, fleetingly, about how he would feel if Kitagawa bore Honoka away when she turned sixteen.
“When this one turns sixteen, I want you to give her to me.”
Even after angering Douno with this statement, Kitagawa’s visits to the Douno house did not cease. He continued to come over to eat dinner at a pace of once to twice a week.
Although Honoka continued to say she wanted to be Kitagawa’s bride, Kitagawa himself stopped saying he wanted Honoka as a wife ever since that day Douno had asked him to babysit. But Douno felt like the man was still serious about what he said, and had merely stopped putting it into words.
Douno reflected on what he did that rainy day and admitted he had acted immaturely. Kitagawa had not suggested taking her against her will, and he had said he would prioritize Honoka’s feelings. Even if Kitagawa was serious, this promise would be null if Honoka had no interest in him. In retrospect, Douno felt like he could have said yes―it was only an informal promise, after all.
Lately, Kitagawa had begun to visit Douno’s house on Sunday afternoons. He came not to eat, but to play with Honoka. Honoka knew Kitagawa came over on Sundays, so she was often restless since morning. When Kitagawa arrived, she was beside herself with joy and would cling to Kitagawa like a suckerfish, saying, “Let’s play outside” or “Draw me something.”
Douno sometimes had to work on Sundays, and occasionally he would come home past two to find the house empty, with Kitagawa and Honoka gone to the park and Mariko gone shopping.
Sometimes Douno had the impression that Honoka was closer to Kitagawa than she was to her own father. He sometimes accompanied Honoka and Kitagawa to the park on Sunday afternoons, but there was no way he could put up with child’s play patiently for hours on end like Kitagawa did.
Then came October, and its first Sunday. Douno left the house for work in the afternoon, then came back past five to find a rare sight―flowers in the vase in the living room. They were small purple flowers, the kind he would probably have seen in the back mountains in his childhood. The flowers made him feel strongly nostalgic.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“Honoka brought them home,” Mariko answered.
“Who did she get them from? Don’t tell me she’s picked them from someone else’s garden.”
“Of course not, Mr. Kitagawa was with her,” Mariko said with a laugh. As Douno touched the purple petals, he heard the pattering footsteps of Honoka running up to him. She pulled at Douno’s pant leg with her tiny fingers. She cupped her mouth as if about to tell a secret, and when Douno crouched down, Honoka put her cupped hands to his ear and spoke in a low voice.
“I got the flowers from Kei’s house.”
“There’s lots in his garden.”
Douno looked at her and saw sitting atop her head a small crown of flowers about ten centimetres wide, made with the same purple flowers. He picked it up to take a closer look, and saw that several threads connected the small flower stems together to make a ring. It was quite a piece of handiwork.
“Daddy, it’s mine.” His daughter stretched her hands out and stood on her tip-toes. When Douno set the crown on her head, Honoka giggled with glee.
Kitagawa’s house―the old rental property with a yard. When the real estate agent had shown it to him, the garden had been dark and overgrown with weeds.
“Mr. Kitagawa’s your Prince Charming, isn’t he?” Mariko pinched her daughter’s cheek lightly.
“I’m Kei’s fee-an-say,” Honoka pouted, having apparently picked up the mature word from somewhere. “Next, he’s gonna make me a crown with yellow flowers. He promised.”
Every time Honoka squeezed her crown of flowers, the purple petals loosened and scattered to the floor. Douno watched those petals fall, feeling somewhat conflicted.
On the next Sunday, in the afternoon, Douno went to work on his day off. A female part-timer had quit suddenly, and they were having trouble finding a replacement. A week’s worth of menial tasks had piled up over that time, and Douno was heading in to get those done.
At past five thirty, Douno began to clean up his desk with a mind to get home soon. Just then, his cell phone rang in his bag. It was from Mariko.
“Honoka’s missing,” she said, her voice trembling a little. “After we ate lunch, I nodded off for a bit on the couch. I woke up past two, and Honoka was gone. She was watching a video right beside me. The front door was open, and... I thought at first Mr. Kitagawa had come by and taken Honoka out, but it’s past five and I haven’t heard anything from him. He usually brings her home around this time.”
Douno tilted his head.
“Maybe Honoka’s still dragging Kitagawa around. Have you tried calling his house?”
“I have, but no one’s picking up. I don’t think anyone’s home. Besides, Mr. Kitagawa always says something to me before taking Honoka out. Sure, he might have come while I was sleeping, and Honoka might have unlocked the door, realizing it was him, and they might’ve gone out to play together. But isn’t it a bit careless to leave the door unlocked? I think there’s something wrong.”
Douno tried to calm his wife, who insisted that something was off.
“Have you tried looking for her in the park?”
“I went once, but she wasn’t there. I couldn’t bear leaving the house, just in case Honoka came home.”
“I’ll head back right away,” Douno told her, and hung up his cell. He did not take Honoka’s disappearance very seriously at the time. It was only five-thirty, and he figured she was likely over at Kitagawa’s house.
Douno stopped by Kitagawa’s house on his way home. He phoned the man once, but no one picked up. He parked his car in an abandoned lot close to Kitagawa’s house, and pushed the limp ornamental gates open to enter the property.
There was a concrete path about five metres long from the gates to the door. The sun had begun to set, and it was growing dark. The garden was dense with tall, overgrown plants. Douno felt like he could easily overlook a small child hidden curled up in the shadows at his feet.
There was no doorbell at the entrance, but there was a palm-sized plank of wood with “Kitagawa” written on it, serving as a nameplate.
Douno knocked the sliding door a few times. There was no response. On a whim, he pulled the door sideways, and it slid open easily without a sound. It was not locked. Kitagawa was astonishingly careless.
It was dark in the doorway, but Douno could make out Kitagawa’s white running shoes. Honoka’s small shoes were nowhere to be seen.
“Kitagawa, are you home?” he called loudly. He heard the floorboards creaking further down the hallway. The light in the entrance turned on with a click.
“It’s you.” Kitagawa was naked from the waist up, with pyjama bottoms. He narrowed his eyes in a disgruntled manner. “What do you want?”
“Did you come over today?”
Kitagawa scratched his head.
“What time is it right now?”
Douno checked his watch. “Ten past six,” he answered. Kitagawa clicked his tongue irritably.
“I was drinking ‘til morning with the guys from the construction site. I came home and was sleeping ‘til now. I haven’t gone to your house.”
Only then did Douno realize his wife’s misgivings were coming true. He swallowed hard.
“Honoka’s been missing since about two this afternoon. I was totally under the impression that you were with her.”
Kitagawa put on a pair of bamboo setta sandals and slipped past Douno to go out into the yard.
“Hey, Honoka. Come out if you’re there.”
Kitagawa walked around the dense and jungle-like garden while calling Honoka’s name. Douno joined him. They even checked under the elevated porch, but Douno’s little daughter was nowhere to be found.
Douno panicked. He had supposed all long that he would find Honoka at Kitagawa’s house. If she had gone out alone and gotten lost, there was still hope. But if she had, by chance, been kidnapped―Douno was unable to keep still at the thought.
“If she’s not here, that’s fine. I’ll go home and try searching around there.”
Douno made to go home, and was grabbed firmly by the shoulder from behind.
“If you’re gonna look for her, I’ll help.”
“Isn’t it better to have as many hands as you can for these things?”
Kitagawa was right. Two was better than one; three was better than two, for they could split up to look for her.
“I’m worried about the kid, too. Once I get changed, I’ll look for her on the way to your house.”
Kitagawa went back into his house. Douno hurried to his car outside, and drove it home while keeping a cautious eye out in case his daughter was squatting curled up on the sidewalk.
It was 6:45 by the time Douno got home, and Honoka had still not returned. When Douno told Mariko that she had not been at Kitagawa’s house either, Mariko paled and sank weakly to her knees at the door.
“Kitagawa’s out there searching for her, too. I’m thinking of going to the park and the main road again. I want you to stay home and keep watch.”
Before leaving the house, Douno reassured Mariko that Honoka would definitely be found, and that she had to remain strong.
However, in the end, Douno could not find Honoka around the park or along the main road. He tried going to Honoka’s kindergarten, but the gates were shut tightly on weekends, and there were no small gaps that a child might fit through.
The clock struck nine as Douno frantically searched the vicinity of his house. He called Mariko to let her know he was coming home before heading back to the apartment.
Mariko was sitting on the floor in the doorway clutching her cell phone. When Douno entered the apartment, she looked up at him, close to tears.
“So Honoka hasn’t been found yet?”
“I’m going to go out again and look for her.”
“Honey, why don’t we go to the police about this?”
Douno turned around.
“The police are the specialists when it comes to finding lost children, right? I’m sure if we tell them how she disappeared, they’ll give us tips on how to find her, or some advice.”
The police―Douno recalled his bitter past with the police when he was framed as a train groper. He was still overcome with anger as he remembered the interrogation. It had been as if they were trying to make him out as the perpetrator.
He had a lingering aversion to the police, but now was not the time to be trapped by his past; there was a chance he would end up regretting putting his ego first. Douno followed his wife’s advice and called the police. When he told them that his daughter had been missing since this afternoon, they told him that they would send an officer his way in order to get the details. It was a much better response than he had expected.
A young officer arrived at their house not more than fifteen minutes after the call. He spent a good hour asking Mariko for all the minute details about when Honoka went missing, and left.
In the end, Douno ended up filing a missing persons report to the police. Four officers arrived after he filed it, and they searched all the places that Honoka might go.
By that time, the news of Honoka gone missing had reached the entire neighbourhood. Other residents of the apartment, along with the landlord, came out to help. They searched for Honoka all night, but she was not found.
Amidst this ordeal, the only saving grace was that it was not winter. If Honoka had gotten lost and was sleeping outside, at least she would not freeze to death.
The night sky lightened into dawn. Douno was exhausted from walking around all night in his search.
“They should start sweeping the bottom of the river,” muttered an elderly neighbour who had been helping him. The river bottom―Douno’s heart contracted at the thought that Honoka might not be alive.
At seven in the morning, an officer who had been searching with him spoke to Douno.
“Sir, why don’t you go home once and take a rest? I’m sure you’re worried, but get some sleep, even for one hour. If you don’t rest up, you won’t last for the days ahead.” Feeling pressured, Douno rushed home. This time, Mariko ran up to him, asking him if Honoka had been found.
He had told her that he would call her immediately if he found Honoka. But it seemed Mariko could not help but ask him every time he came home.
“The police told me to take a rest,” he told her. “I’m going to take a short break. After I call work to take the day off, I’ll go out to look again.”
Douno poured himself a glass of tap water in the kitchen and drank it. He turned around to see Mariko standing dazed by the dining table.
“Have you eaten anything?”
She shook her head, then stared at Douno.
“You’re angry, aren’t you?” she whispered quietly.
“You’re really angry at me. You’re angry because I fell asleep, because I wasn’t watching Honoka. You probably think none of this would have happened if I did my part properly―”
His wife’s lips were pressed firmly together in a line, and she was trembling. She looked like she would burst from the tension that seized her whole body. Douno had been so intent on searching for Honoka that he had neglected to think about how his wife would feel being left alone at home.
“I don’t think it’s your fault that Honoka went missing. I would probably have fallen asleep in your situation, too. Don’t beat yourself up.”
He gently embraced his wife’s tense body. Mariko clung to Douno and wept aloud. Douno comforted her like he would a child and laid her on the sofa. Mariko’s crying seemed to have released her built-up tension, for she fell asleep some moments later.
Douno called his work and explained to Tatsuta that his daughter had gone missing. If Honoka was not found, he would have to get several days off in a row. Tatsuta appeared shocked at the news, and was speechless at first.
“You don’t need to worry about work,” he eventually said. “I’ll do something about it. You focus on your daughter.”
Douno changed out of yesterday’s clothes and left the house with his wallet in hand. He bought sandwiches, rice balls, and tea at the neighbourhood convenience store and came back home. He left the food on the dining room table with a memo that read, “Make sure you eat something when you wake up.” As for himself, he only drank a can of coffee.
He had told Mariko to eat, but when he imagined how hungry Honoka must be at this moment, he could not bring himself to eat anything.
Douno continued to search the vicinity of his house like he had done last night. Before noon, he was called back by an officer who told him he had something he needed to discuss.
When Douno returned home, he was met with the officer who questioned him the previous day, along with a detective in his fifties. The man’s hair was thinning at the top. He was about as tall as Douno, but his beefy stature made him look stout. His eyebrows and eyes drooped slightly, and his gentle face resembled the god, Ebisu.
“Ehm, I’ll be handling your case. My name is Kashiwai. Nice to meet you.”
Kashiwai ducked his head. Douno and Mariko sat beside each other on the living room sofa, and Kashiwai sat across from them.
Kashiwai jumped right into his explanation. Throughout yesterday and this morning, they had searched almost every possible place within half a day’s walking distance for a four-year-old child. Since she had still not turned up after this much searching, they had concluded that it was unlikely she had wandered away. As there had also been no request for a ransom, it was more likely that this was an accident or a kidnapping for unsavoury purposes.
When Douno heard “unsavoury purposes”, he felt a shudder down his spine. To think of his own daughter in the hands of someone else―just the thought made him feel ill to the point of nausea.
“There might also be the possibility of a grudge. Has there been conflict with your relatives, acquaintances? Can you think of anything?”
“No,” Mariko replied immediately.
“And your husband?” Kashiwai encouraged. The groping incident flashed in the back of Douno’s mind.
“No. It’s just that...”
“Just that...?” Kashiwai repeated Douno’s words and looked up from taking notes in his notebook.
“I’ll go ahead and talk about it, since it would probably come up eventually. I was in prison for ten months.”
Kashiwai’s narrow eyes widened in surprise.
“I was accused of groping and I got a guilty verdict. But I’ll keep insisting on my innocence until the day I die. The first thing I thought of when you mentioned ‘grudge’ was the so-called victim at the time, the woman. But I don’t think she has anything to do with this case.”
“And why are you sure about that?”
“It happened about eight years ago, and I don’t think the woman knows my current address. I also lost a lot more to that incident than she did.”
Kashiwai scratched his balding head. “Alright, well, would I be able to get the name of that victim, just in case?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Those were horrible memories for me. I had no freedom for close to two years while I was in the detention centre and in prison. It was... incredibly hard to go through, and I wanted so badly to forget... that I actually forgot.”
“Well, nothing we can’t look up,” Kashiwai muttered. “Well then, seeing as how a grudge is also an unlikely motive, would I be able to hear from both of you what you were doing at the time of Honoka’s disappearance? Starting with you, ma’am.”
While Mariko talked, Kashiwai jumped in at each moment with the question, “Is there someone who can testify to that?” which bothered Douno.
“Um―” Douno interrupted, wondering if it was rude to do so while his wife and Kashiwai were talking. “Are my wife and I under suspicion for kidnapping as well?”
Kashiwai narrowed his eyes even more. “Well, you see, this is our job. I hope you’ll bear with me,” he said briskly, bowing his head.
Eventually, Douno was also asked what he was doing when Honoka disappeared. Kashiwai’s questions were incredibly detailed, asking for things like the distance between Douno’s house and his work.
The doorbell rang partway through Douno and Kashiwai’s conversation. Mariko hastily got the door.
“Honey,” she called from the doorway. “It’s Mr. Kitagawa. What should I do? He’s been helping to look for Honoka since yesterday, hasn’t he? We can’t force him to keep helping us like this. Should I just tell him that we’ve decided to leave it to the police?”
“Oh, I’ll talk to Kitagawa myself.” Douno excused himself with a short apology to Kashiwai, and stood from his seat. At the door, he explained to Kitagawa that it did not seem to be a case of Honoka wandering off, and that they were going to leave the search to the police. Kitagawa exhaled shortly, his brow still furrowed in a difficult expression. His eyes were bloodshot from walking around with Douno all night.
“If Honoka’s found, I’ll contact you right away. So for now, I want you to go home and take a rest.”
“’Kay,” Kitagawa mumbled shortly, then went home. When Douno turned around, Kashiwai was peering over from behind the door to the kitchen.
“Who was that tall man?”
“He’s my friend. He lives nearby, and he’s very close to Honoka. He’s been helping us look for her ever since we found out she was missing.”
“Uh-huh,” Kashiwai nodded. “And have you known each other long?”
“Six... seven years, I think.”
“Oh?” Mariko murmured. “Didn’t you say he was your friend from high school?”
Douno’s heart jumped. He had forgotten about his lie.
“Oh, right. Sorry, I was thinking of something else. ―We’ve known each other for close to twenty years now.”
“We might have a chance to talk to him later on,” Kashiwai explained, and wrote down Kitagawa’s name and address.
- Changed slightly. In the original Japanese, Douno asks, “Who dies?” and Kitagawa answers, “Me”, which would make no sense in English. (back)
* See the project page for In the Box (Hako no naka).