The shop on the seashore was packed with people. Since there were no seats inside, we bought curry and cola and went outside. Under the parasol, I imitated Mister and sat cross-legged. The curry tasted like something I’d eaten somewhere before, and even though we’d just had curry yesterday, it still tasted super good.
After we ate, we swam for a bit. Mister had started napping in the shadow of the embankment, so I played with the inner tube by myself. But it got boring quickly, so I dragged the inner tube over beside Mister, and took a nap with him.
Once the sun had started setting in the west, they began to prepare to go home. They returned the inner tube, and retrieved their belongings from the locker. When Nao and Mister arrived at the bike racks hand-in-hand, they discovered that the bike was gone. They circled the bike racks three times and spent about thirty minutes searching the area, but they couldn’t find the bike after all. Nao began to tear up while they searched. Today had been fun. It had been so unbelievably fun that he was angry that he’d have to feel so horrible right before going home.
“Why’re you crying?”
As Nao burst into tears, Mister squatted down in front of him.
“Whoever stole your bike should die,” Nao said.
Mister ruffled Nao’s hair, took his hand, and stood up.
“We’ll just have to take a long walk home.”
“What about your bike?”
“I’ll report it to the police, then I guess I’ll come back to look for it tomorrow.”
Nao walked along, his hand drawn by Mister. They had flown down the slope by bike on the way here, but now they walked the way back up, digging their heels in with each step. The hand that held Nao’s was hot. But he wanted to keep holding hands. If a stranger saw us, I wonder if he’d think Mister and I were father and son, Nao wondered.
“Today was like life itself.” Mister wiped the sweat off his forehead with his right hand as he climbed the slope.
“You have fun things, then you sometimes have not-so-fun things.” Not-so-fun, Mister had said, but his face didn’t look annoyed or angry at all.
“Aren’t you mad that someone stole your bike, Mister?”
“Of course I am.”
Nao peered at Mister’s face. “But you don’t look it at all.”
“Well, I might not be angry enough to cry about it. Starting tomorrow I’d have to do my shopping on foot. That’s about all the inconvenience it’ll cause for me. It’s no big deal.”
Since the owner of the bike wasn’t angry, Nao felt weird being the only one, so he decided to chase the angry feelings out of his heart.
Mister went into the police station that Nao had gone to for directions before. The officer inside wasn’t the young one from yesterday. During the thirty minutes it took to file the complaint, Nao stood beside Mister and clutched the hem of his shirt.
By the time they exited the police station, the sky was starting to look a lot more like evening. When Nao tugged at Mister’s shirt, he took Nao’s hand in his. Even if they weren’t talking, it was okay. Just holding hands was enough.
If Mister was my dad, or if my dad was someone like him, every day would probably be so fun.
When they arrived home, the light in the entrance was on. Dad’s home. Nao’s heart quailed.
“We’re home.” Mister rattled the sliding door open. Dad came out, wearing a scowl that instantly gave away his bad mood.
“Matsuo from Sakubunkan phoned,” he said.
Mister suddenly looked at his feet guiltily. Dad put on his shoes.
“You stay here,” he said to Nao. He took Mister outside and closed the sliding door tightly shut behind them.
Left all alone, Nao could do nothing but stand still. He could hear a voice on the other side of the door. It sounded angry. Maybe he’s talking about me. Nao quietly opened the door a crack.
“Matsuo called three times asking about your progress. He told me your deadline is tomorrow! You said yesterday you’d only finished two drawings.”
In the middle of the concrete walkway, Dad and Mister were standing across from each other.
“I was planning to do them this evening.”
“You said this morning you weren’t sure if you could finish them all today. You said so yourself that you don’t like rushing because your work gets messy.”
Mister scratched his head.
“...Unexpected turn of events.”
Dad glared at Mister from head to toe. “You didn’t answer the phone when I called once before lunch. Where were you all this time?”
“We were at the beach... you know, for a bit.”
Dad pressed a hand to his forehead in exasperation. “This isn’t the time to be going on a leisurely trip.”
It’s my fault. The thought made Nao’s chest ache. Mister stared at his feet like a scolded child.
“I know you’re doing this out of consideration for me. I appreciate that. But I don’t want you to neglect your work because of that.”
Unable to stand any more, Nao threw the sliding door wide open. The two of them turned around almost at the same time.
“M-Mister was keeping me company. That’s why...”
Dad only glanced at me, then went back to glaring at Mister silently with his arms folded. Mister scratched the back of his head again.
“...I’ll do my work properly. And I won’t cut corners.”
After a short silence, Dad let out a measured sigh.
“The two of you, come in through the back door and take a shower. I’ll keep the door unlocked. Then we’ll have dinner afterwards.”
Mister beckoned, and Nao followed. They entered through the back door and went to the bathroom, which was right beside it.
“Since we don’t have time,” said Mister, and they bathed together. As warm water was dumped over Nao’s head, grains of sand formed thin streams on the tiles at his feet. He had no idea where they’d been stuck to him.
“I hate Dad.” The sentence naturally escaped his lips. Mister cupped Nao's face with his hands.
“I love your dad lots,” he said.
“But... but... he was so mad at you.”
“That was my fault. Takafumi wasn’t wrong about anything.”
Despite how much he’d been yelled at, Mister didn’t seem angry at all. Nao had no idea how he could go without getting angry.
“B-But Dad is a grouch. He just thinks I’m a nuisance. It’s written on his face.”
Mister smiled slyly.
“That’s not the look of someone who thinks you’re a nuisance. He just doesn’t know what to do. Adults need time to mentally prepare, too.”
“You know, for a lot of things.”
Once they finished their bath, they went to the room with the table, where dinner was laid out. Dinner was somen noodles, fried chicken, and fruit salad. It was awkward with Dad there, but Nao was starving, so he ate a lot. The food on their plates disappeared gradually, but it remained very quiet. Both Mister and Dad didn’t talk, so Nao didn’t talk, either.
Once the meal was over, the table was cleaned off immediately. Mister brought out the cookie tin. He was going to start working.
“It’s time for you to go to bed,” Nao was told by Dad, and was kicked out of the room.
Faced with no other choice, Nao headed to the bedroom. He found a new futon laid out on the floor. He wondered if it was for him, but since no one had told him so, he couldn’t bring himself to climb in. He paced around the futon for a while until Dad came in afterwards.
“You can sleep there starting from today,” he said, pointing to the new futon. Yesterday, Nao had felt cramped sleeping in the same futon. But now that he had his own set, he felt like he was being told that they didn’t want to sleep together with him, and it made him feel unhappy.
After Nao wriggled into his new futon, Dad turned out the light and turned on a small desk lamp instead. He lay on his stomach and opened a book. Nao started to get nervous when he realized he would be alone with Dad until Mister finished his work. He had played a lot during the day, so his body was tired and heavy; he felt like he could fall asleep right this moment, but his mind was strangely wide awake. He tossed and turned every few minutes until his eyes met with Dad’s. He quickly looked away.
“...Is my lamp too bright?”
Nao didn’t know what he meant.
“Do you have trouble sleeping if it’s bright?”
At home, Nao always turned out all the lights and slept in the dark. But Dad was reading a book; he couldn’t ask the room to be darkened.
“Was it fun going to the beach with Kei?”
Dad had been so mad at Mister for going to the beach, yet he was asking if he had fun.
“...Yeah,” Nao answered, though he didn’t feel like talking.
“I see,” Dad murmured before going back to his book. Nao tossed and turned for a while longer, and fell asleep before he knew it.
In the middle of the night, Nao woke up wanting to go to the washroom. He rubbed his eyes in the dark. It felt like no one was in the room. When he turned on the light, Dad and Mister were nowhere to be seen.
Wondering why no one was here, Nao went out into the hallway. The room with the table had the light on. He crept closer and peered through the crack of the open sliding door. Mister was drawing. Across from him, Dad was sitting against the wall and reading a book. Scratch, scratch, scratch.... The sound of Mister’s moving pen echoed loudly.
“Kei, why don’t you take a break?” Dad had sounded so angry before, but now the same voice sounded really gentle.
“I’ll be done soon. You don’t have to wait for me, Takafumi. Go ahead and go to sleep.”
Dad shut his book with a soft fwump.
“I can’t sleep. I feel nervous when he’s there. And he―I can tell he’s trying to be on his best behaviour in front of me, and he looks so rigid and uncomfortable. I feel bad for the poor kid.”
He’s talking about me. Nao felt his pulse drumming right to his fingertips.
“Just don’t let the small stuff get to you,” Mister drawled.
“...Maybe you’re right,” Dad nodded. “But I’m afraid I might let something slip by accident. And I still haven’t been able to get a hold of Mariko yet.”
Silence fell in the room. I’ll go pee and then go back to bed. Nao turned his back to the strip of light.
“I swam in the ocean for the first time. Waves are pretty interesting, huh? Have you swam in the ocean before, Takafumi?”
“I have. ―If you enjoyed the beach, we should go together again sometime.”
“The two of us?”
“The three of us, if Nao’s here.”
“Sure. But if it’s just you and me, Takafumi, I’d rather be in bed.”
“Idiot,” Dad muttered in exasperation, and the room became quiet again.
The next day, Nao was woken by his father. It was seven-thirty. He washed his face and went to the room with the table to find only him and Dad there. The table was laid out for two.
“What about Mister...?”
“Kei was working ‘til dawn. I want to let him sleep in for a bit.”
Today, Dad was wearing a T-shirt with buttons and beige pants. He wasn’t wearing a suit like yesterday.
There were only the two of them, so they sat across from each other and ate. Nao felt just as nervous today. I wonder if Dad’s nervous with me around, he thought while he nibbled at his toast, remembering the conversation he had overheard yesterday. The toast and salad were delicious, but he wasn’t able to finish all of it. His portion was a little bigger than how much he usually ate.
The floorboards creaked. Nao turned around to see Mister emerge, rubbing his red eyes.
“...Where’s my breakfast?”
“You should have slept in. Can you eat?”
Dad got to his feet with the dirty dishes and left the room. Mister sat himself down heavily in front of the table and gave a big yawn. Nao felt relieved. The atmosphere changed with Mister around.
“How about... we go to a haunted house today?” Mister asked lazily, slumped over with his cheek on the table.
“A haunted house!”
“You afraid of ghosts?”
“No! I wanna go, I wanna go!”
“Looks like they’ve opened one at the department store. It’s about a thirty-minute drive from here. Takafumi took the day off today, too, so the three of us can go together.”
The three of us, with Dad. That bothered Nao a bit. It would have been fine with just Mister and him.
“I don’t have a problem with that, but you can’t go out until Matsuo comes to pick up your work,” Dad said as he placed a tray with toast, salad, and a glass of milk in front of Mister before leaving the room.
“...I completely forgot. Oh yeah, he said he’d come by to pick it up,” Mister said to himself as he slathered a generous amount of jam on his toast and stuffed it into his mouth in three bites. He ate the second piece in three bites, too. He ate the salad in two. He finished by drinking his glass of milk in one long draught, then lay down on the spot.
His closed eyes opened just a crack.
“What time are we going to the haunted house?”
“At nine I have to phone Mr. Matsuo and ask him what time he’s coming... so it’ll be after that. Nao, go help Takafumi.”
“Help him put away the dishes we ate out of. The stepping stool’s in the kitchen, right?”
Dad had already tidied the dishes Nao had eaten out of, so Nao gathered Mister’s dishes and stacked them. He carried the dishes in his arms and went into the hallway. Shiro the cat meowed and hung about his feet. She had been so aloof before, but now she wove between his feet and rubbed her face against his shins.
“I’ll end up stepping on you if you keep doing that.”
Nao lifted his feet up as he walked so he wouldn’t step on the cat. His body teetered precariously. Oh no―he thought, but it was too late. He lost his balance and fell forward. The dishes cascaded to the floor with a loud crash. The sound startled Shiro, and she bounded away outside. Dad came out of the kitchen in a hurry, wearing an apron.
He approached Nao and helped him up from the floor.
“Are you hurt? Does it hurt anywhere?”
Dad’s face was scarier than any pain Nao could feel. The plates and glass were all broken. I’m going to get in trouble.
“Th-The cat came around my feet...”
“Cat? You mean Shiro? I don’t see her anywhere.”
“She was right there. She came right close to my feet, that’s why I tripped and...”
Dad let out a sigh through his compressed lips, a kind of exasperated sigh that made Nao’s heart feel like it was being wrung.
“Anyway, the cat doesn’t matter right now. Does it hurt anywhere?”
Dad sighed again at my reply.
“You don’t have to worry about this here. Go back to the room.”
“I―I’ll help clean up.”
He reached out to the broken dishes, but was slapped on the back of the hand. Dad instantly grimaced as if to say, ‘I shouldn’t have done that’.
“I’m sorry for hitting you like that,” he apologized. “But broken dishes are dangerous. I’ll handle this, so go back to the room.” His voice was quiet, but scolding. At least to Nao’s ears, it sounded like he was being scolded. Mister was the one who told me to help you. I only did what I was told, but the cat had to come along. If the cat wasn’t there, I would’ve been able to take the dishes to the kitchen just fine. I wouldn’t have broke them. It’s not my fault. It’s the cat’s fault. Nao wanted to say so, but he couldn’t. Dad thinks it’s my fault. That’s why he’s mad―because he thinks I did it.
Nao went back to the room with the table. Mister was stretched out on the tatami floor, fast asleep with his mouth half-open. Listen to me, listen to my side of the story, Mister. Nao shook him, but Mister only growled and said “Mmmmmm,” in his sleep, and wouldn’t wake up.
He heard the clink-clink of the broken dishes being cleaned up in the hallway. Nao couldn’t bear to listen it, so he went out to the yard through the porch. He put on a pair of bamboo sandals that were a bit too big for him, and fled into the bushes under the tree. Ao barked at him, but eventually stopped when Nao hugged his knees and stayed still.
Dad hates me after all. The thought made tears spring to his eyes. He already hates me, but he hates me more now because I broke the dishes. No matter how many times he wiped and wiped his tears with both hands, fresh ones streamed down his face.
I looked up to see Dad calling my name from the room with the table. Mister was still sleeping. Dad called my name a few times, then left the room, still calling my name. I heard the front door rattling open. Crunch, crunch. Someone was coming closer through the grass.
“Nao, there you are.”
Since we weren’t playing hide and seek, he found me right away. I didn’t want him to see me crying, so I didn’t look up.
“Didn’t you hear me calling your name?”
I didn’t want to talk to him. Not with someone like him. I curled up like a rock and didn’t even shake or nod my head.
“You had me worried because you disappeared suddenly like that. You’re still in primary school, and you don’t know your way around here. It’s dangerous to go out alone. Next time you want to go out to play, let me or Kei know first. We’ll go along with you.”
I didn’t answer.
“You understand what I’m trying to say, right?”
“No, I don’t!” I yelled loudly. I felt Dad’s presence there for a while, but after a while he went back into the house without saying anything. I regretted it as soon as I was left alone. I shouldn’t have yelled like that. Now he hates me again. Just thinking about it made more tears fall from my eyes.
I hated Dad. I’d never wanted a dad like that. He wasn’t nice, he was cold. He was distant to me. He didn’t play with me at all. He was always scolding me, treating me like I was a burden.
I wanted a dad like Mister. He let me ride on his shoulders, he patted me on the head, and he held hands with me. I wanted a dad like him.
Still crying, I curled up on my side in the grass. When I lay sideways, my tears streamed sideways, too. After a while, Ao suddenly started barking.
“Excuse me for bothering you so early in the morning. This is Matsuo from Sakubunkan.” I heard a man’s voice over at the front door. I heard the rattling of the front door opening, and talking voices. As I watched the room with the table through the blades of grass, a man in a suit and glasses came in. He looked like an office worker. Mister was being shaken awake by Dad, and he sat up with a big yawn.
“I should have taken them to you... sorry.”
“No, no, you don’t have to worry. I was in the area to pick up another author’s work. I should be apologizing for coming over so early in the morning.”
The man in the glasses took out the papers from the envelope and slowly went through each one.
“...Your drawings are as detailed and beautiful as ever, Mr. Kitagawa. Right now the only project we have for you is Mr. Hori’s serial, but other authors have been asking me if you could illustrate their books.”
“...Mm-hmm,” Mister said in a disinterested way.
“Are you still reluctant to illustrate for novels, Mr. Kitagawa?”
Mister scratched his head.
“I’m not very educated. Novels have a lot of words I don’t understand. If I tried to read one properly, it’d take too much time and it would tire me out.”
“I remember you telling me that before. This is just a personal opinion―many of these kinds of detailed drawings tend to look like they’ve just been copied from something, but your work has none of that. Your drawings have a unique atmosphere about them. Call it a sort of sensuality, if you will. I think that’s what people are attracted to.”
“You can flatter me all you want, but you’re not getting anything from me.”
The bespectacled man opened his mouth laughed out loud.
“It’s been five years since you started illustrating professionally, isn’t it? I really have to thank Douno for introducing us. We’d drifted apart after graduating from university, but one day I ran into him at an izakaya for the first time in over a decade. I remember the first thing he said to me after finding out I was a magazine editor was, ‘Do you need anyone who can draw really well?’. I have to admit I was taken aback at first. But I took a look at a few of your pieces, and though they were a bit rough around the edges, I knew I had the beginnings of something. I said to myself, ‘This man is made for illustrating books.’ Some people say illustrations are just extras, but I don’t think so. They’re an important factor in helping the imagination.”
“I don’t really care, as long as I can make enough money to keep myself fed.”
The man in glasses shrugged. “That’s the strange thing about you, Mr. Kitagawa. From looking at your drawings, I would never get the impression that you were only doing this to feed yourself. ―Well, I’ll take these with me, then.”
The bespectacled man put the papers in the envelope and stood up.
“Oh, I saw a pair of small shoes in the doorway. Is a child over? Yours?”
―Dad and Mister fell silent at the same time.
“A distant relative is over for the holidays,” answered Dad. Nao felt like someone had stabbed something through his already-swollen and aching heart.
“Because the ocean is nice here, and there’s a beach,” Dad explained.
“Oh, I see,” said the man in the glasses, nodding knowingly to him. “I came by train today, and I saw the beach full of people. It is the summer holidays, after all.”
Their guest left. As soon as the man went home, Mister rolled over on the floor and went back to sleep. Dad came back into the room and―when he saw Mister sleeping, he left again without saying anything. A little while after that, I heard the door rattling open. The wooden gate slammed shut. Mister was still sleeping. Dad was probably the one who’d gone out.
The cicadas whined. I felt like the buzzing would worm its way into my head too, so I clapped both hands over my ears. My friend had told me before that divorce was what happened when your mom and dad didn’t like each other anymore. Dad didn’t like Mom anymore, and Mom didn’t like Dad anymore. Since Dad hated Mom, he probably came to hate me, too, even before I was born. That’s why he didn’t tell the man that ‘his son’ had come over to play. He probably didn’t want to think of me as his son. Even if I wasn’t born―no, Dad would probably have preferred that I wasn’t born.
I had two other kids in my class whose moms and dads were divorced. Both of them lived with their moms, but they told me they saw their dads once every two or three months.
“We’d go to a theme park, or go watch soccer games together. And we’d talk and talk. I love my dad lots. ―Nao, aren’t you gonna meet with your dad?”
If I could meet my dad in person, we’d play together, talk about lots of things―I was supposed to be able to be like those kids, too. I thought my dad would always be my dad, even if my parents were divorced.
I was excited when I got on the train two days ago. I’d only thought of what kind of fun things were waiting for me. I’d never even imagined what kind of upsetting or bad things might happen.
I heard rustling. Shiro came close enough for me to touch her. Her tail was pointed straight up, and she had a snobby look on her face. I fell down in the hallway because you got in my way. If you weren’t there, I wouldn’t have gotten in trouble by dad. If you’d still been there when the dishes broke, dad wouldn’t have thought I’d just blamed everything on you as an excuse.
Nao grabbed Shiro’s tail and yanked it violently. Shiro snarled and bared her teeth, and scratched Nao’s hand with her sharp claws.
Nao let go. Blood welled up on the scratch marks on the back of his hand. A hot surge of anger rose to his head. Nao grabbed a baseball-sized rock close by and hurled it as hard as he could at the white cat.
He was not good at sports. He was a slow runner, and couldn’t jump very high. He wasn’t good at throwing balls, either. He could never pitch straight, yet today of all days, the rock flew dead straight ahead of him. The rock hit Shiro squarely on the head, and the cat let out a strangled meow before arching like a bow and collapsing on its side.
“...What’re you doing?”
All this time I’d thought Mister had been sleeping, but now he was up and staring at me from the porch. He’d seen me throw the rock. Mister had seen me―Nao twisted his face like he was about to cry.
Mister came down into the yard, still barefoot, and hurried towards the cat. The snowy fur above Shiro’s right ear was dyed red. ―It was bleeding. Nao felt his whole body turn cold.
“Hey, Shiro. Shiro―”
At Mister’s voice, Shiro tried to get up, but fell down again. After doing that twice, she lay still and stopped moving.
“Sh―She’s dead...” My hands shook violently in the grass at in front of my knees. “Is―Is Shiro dead?”
She was Dad’s cat, but I’d killed her. I had killed her. Oh no, oh no... Dad would never forgive me now. Tears flooded my eyes.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I...”
Mister went back into the house and came back with a small cardboard box lined with a towel.
“―We’re taking her to the hospital.”
He put Shiro inside the lined cardboard box and ran. He ran because he didn’t have a bike anymore. Nao ran after him, panting. They crossed the small bridge and immediately turned right. After running for a short while, they could see the sign for the animal hospital up ahead.
Once they arrived at the hospital, Shiro immediately went into the examination room. Since owners were to wait in the waiting room, Nao sat side-by-side with Mister on the brown sofa. Nao had been crying the whole time up to their arrival at the hospital. Shiro, Shiro, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. He’d apologized over and over in his heart. If Shiro dies, Dad will hate me even more. The thought made more tears spill over.
“Is Shiro gonna die...?”
“I dunno,” Mister muttered.
“Is Shiro gonna be saved?”
“I couldn’t say.”
No matter how many times he asked Mister, all he said was “I don’t know”. No other animals or people were in the examination room. It was very quiet. The sun seeping through the crack in the blinds felt hot on his feet.
“Why did you throw that rock at Shiro?” Mister asked quietly. Nao shook his head vehemently.
“―I don’t know.”
“There’s no way you wouldn’t know. I saw you throw it at her.”
Nao clenched his fists on his knees.
“...Because I was... mad...”
“And why would you throw a rock at a cat if you’re mad?”
“Because―because I broke the plates because she was hanging around my feet. I said it was the cat’s fault, but Dad made it sound like I just tripped by myself.”
“Takafumi said you tripped and fell because of the cat. You explained to him properly, didn’t you?”
“I did, but...”
“Takafumi didn’t say you were lying.”
“But―but the look on his face said so!”
Mister was looking at me in a troubled way. The door to the examination room opened with a click. The young veterinarian smiled at me when our eyes met.
“Shiro’s going to be fine. There are no abnormalities in her X-rays or CT scan. The wound on her head is small. I think it’s more like a concussion. But I’m worried about the bleeding that might follow, so we would like to keep her for the night to see how she fares.”
As soon as Nao heard that Shiro was going to be alright, he was so relieved he felt like all the strength had left his body. When he saw Shiro lying lifelessly in the white cage after the examination, tears streamed from his eyes again.
Mister took Nao by the hand as he continued to cry, and led him out of the animal hospital. Instead of going straight home, they entered a small park. Nao was sat down on the bench, and in the next moment, received a stern knock on the head with Mister’s fist.
“Now you’re even. I’m sure it hurt a lot more for Shiro, but cats can’t punch humans back.”
“Ow, it hurts... it hurts...” Nao sobbed.
The throbbing pain spread from his head to the rest of his body.
“Does it hurt?”
“If it hurts, don’t ever do what you think is mean or hurtful to other people or animals. Shiro went through much, much more pain than that.”
“...I’m sorry... I’m sorry...”
“You should be apologizing to Shiro, not me.”
“B...But... Shiro wouldn’t understand...”
“So it’s okay to do nothing if she doesn’t understand?”
Nao felt a pang in his chest. He thought hard. "Meow, meow" was all Shiro could say. What am I supposed to do? What should I do?
“I don’t know, I don’t know!” he cried in frustration.
A large hand plopped down on his head.
“When Shiro comes home tomorrow, be nice to her.”
“...Okay,” Nao answered in a small, but clear voice. Yes―he would be nice to her. He would give her lots to eat, pet her lots.... He looked up to see Mister no longer beside him. He had disappeared.
He ran around the entire park, but could not find him. Nao had been left behind, abandoned―when the fact sank in, Nao felt like he had been left all alone in the whole world. He was desolate. Lonely. Scared. ―No, no, no! Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me here.
As Nao ran out of the park, he was called by his name. He turned around. Mister was calling to him from across the street. Once the road was clear of cars, Mister crossed the street. Nao threw his arms around Mister’s waist and burst into tears.
“What’s wrong, hey?” Mister stroked Nao’s cheek worriedly. “I was gone buying these, since it’s hot outside. Here, eat it.”
Mister was offering him a large ice cream cone. Nao took a huge bite. Although it was sweet and delicious, and Mister was back with him, Nao’s his eyelids and heart still ached.
“I usually don’t do bad things like this. I don’t throw rocks at animals or bully my friends.”
Mister made loud crunching sounds as he pushed the rest of the ice cream cone into his mouth.
“Those are things you shouldn’t even do occasionally. Don’t do things you don’t like to other people. You have to understand that, or else you won’t become a good grownup.”
Mister was big, tall, grownup, too. Even though there was a grownup right beside him, Nao started to become unsure of what a grownup was supposed to be like.
“I don’t get what a good grownup is.”
“I just told you. Don’t do things you don’t like to other people. Don’t make other people do it, either. If you stick to those rules, you won’t go wrong anywhere. You’ll turn out a good kid.”
The ice cream in Nao’s hand melted and dribbled onto his thumb. He licked the dripping white cream. It smelled faintly earthy.
“I wanna be a grownup like you, Mister.”
“That’s no good,” Mister refused.
“Why not? If I do the right thing, I’ll be a good grownup like you, won’t I, Mister?”
“I did a bad thing in the past. I didn’t know the difference between good and bad, so I ended up doing something bad.”
Nao peered into Mister’s face and tilted his head.
“It doesn’t look like it.”
Mister’s eyes crinkled.
“I can’t tell you did something bad,” Nao insisted.
Mister opened his right hand and placed it on his chest. “Even if you can’t see it, there’s still something bad inside me. Because of what I did, I was taken away by the police, and I was in jail for a long time. But it also wasn’t good that I was the only one to go to jail.”
Nao didn’t know what Mister was talking about.
“I killed someone.”
A cicada was buzzing loudly above their heads. Nao knew this was something to be surprised at, but he was not surprised. He also didn’t doubt that it was true.
“I was nineteen. My mom asked me to kill this man. I didn’t think of anything, I just killed him. I didn’t tell the police that my mom had asked me to kill him. But that was wrong. Though I deserved to be punished for killing him, my mom should have been punished, too. It was wrong for my mom to ask me to kill someone. But at the time, I didn’t know whose fault it was, or what I was supposed to do. ―I had no idea.”
Mister looked at me.
“Nao, are you afraid of me?”
The pair of eyes on me smiled.
“Now I’ve taught you proper. As long as you keep that in your heart, you won’t go wrong.”
The buzzing of the cicadas didn’t stop.
“Damnit, it’s hot,” Mister muttered while wiping his forehead with his palm.
“Where’s your mom now, Mister?”
“I wonder? I haven’t seen her since I was nineteen.”
“Then where’s your dad?”
“He’s out there being a good-for-nothing.”
“Where do goodfernuthings live?”
“Who knows,” Mister shrugged, then took my hand and stood up. “I know your mother, you know.”
Mister gave an emphatic nod.
“Your mother is a good, kind person. Takafumi, your dad, is a good person, too. He’s kind, smart, upright. Much more than me.”
Nao pursed his lips.
“You have a father and mother you should be proud of. You have every right to brag about them to your friends. And all you need to keep in mind is what’s good and what’s bad. That’s all you need.”
We walked, holding hands. I squeezed Mister’s big hand as hard as I could. Our shadows fell short on the path. It was really hot outside, but I felt happy holding hands and walking like this.
“Mister, do you know about my big sister, too?”
Mister stopped in the midst of one of his big strides.
“Dad wouldn’t tell me about my dead sister.”
“You mean Honoka?”
“Was Honoka her name?” It sounded soft and light, like a fluffy cotton ball.
“...Honoka was cute. But don’t talk about your big sister in front of your mom or Takafumi.”
“Because it’s hard for grownups to remember their dead child, too. You don’t want to see your dad or mom looking sad, do you?”
“...No.” Nao shook his head.
“I’ll tell you all about Honoka,” said Mister.
I thought we were going home now, but Mister kept walking along the river. We walked endlessly down the pedestrian walkway until we arrived at the foot of a large bridge. Mister crossed it. From the large bridge which spanned the wide distance of the river, I could see the ocean in the distance. In the centre of the bridge, Mister stepped back a little from the rails and put his palms together.
“Nao, do what I’m doing.”
“It’s a jinx for good luck.”
I placed my palms together like Mister’s. Right afterwards, Mister took my hand and started walking. Mister had said he would tell me all about my sister, but I felt like I wasn’t allowed to ask. Mister had also looked sad when he talked about her.
When we got home, the gate was ajar. I thought Dad had come home, but we went through the gates and were met with a surprise. A white skirt, a big, wide-brimmed hat. Mom was standing in front of the door.
Mom ran up to me, crouched, and hugged me tight.
“I―I was worried about you!”
I could tell from how tightly she hugged me that she wasn’t lying.
“I’m sorry,” Nao mumbled in a small voice.
“When I heard the story from your grandmother, I thought my heart would stop. Coming all this way by yourself... what if you’d gotten lost? What if you’d been kidnapped?!”
Mom stood up. Still holding my hand tightly, she fixed Mister with an angry glare.
“You and Douno must be out of your minds! Why would I let such a small child like him come here by himself?! Why didn’t you call me or my mother?!”
“...I’m sorry.” Mister lowered his head to Mom.
“It’s not Dad’s or Mister’s fault,” I protested. “I lied to Grandma and came here. I really, really wanted to see Dad... that’s why...”
“This is a grownup matter. You stay out of this,” Mom snapped sternly at me.
“Takafumi’s been trying to get a hold of you,” Mister said. “He kept calling your cell phone. You were overseas, right?”
Mom’s face flushed red and I saw her bite her lip.
“So what if I was?” she said accusingly. “Are you trying to say I’m an irresponsible mother for leaving my child to go on a trip?”
“No, I was just...” Mister looked like he was at a loss.
“This is my life. This child is my son. This has nothing to do with either of you.”
Mom’s temper was rising. Mister couldn’t say anything back to her.
“Don’t you have any common sense? Why would you even think I’d let him come to stay in a household with two men? I’m taking Nao home with me. Please don’t ever involve yourselves with him again.”
Mom yanked my hand and tried to take me beyond the fence.
“Mom, wait―my backpack.” I dug my heels in. “I left my backpack, and it has important stuff in it. I’ll go get it now.”
Mom was reluctant, but in the end she let me go. I stepped inside the house and got my backpack from the room with the table. Mom had said she was coming home this morning. I’d totally forgotten.
“Did you lie to your mother when you came here?” I heard Mister’s voice behind me. I couldn’t turn around. I couldn’t meet his eyes.
“...Mom wouldn’t even tell me Dad’s name,” I said. “I wanted to see him. That’s why I lied to Grandma and got her to tell me.”
I thought he would be like Mom and yell at me like a thunderclap, but Mister only patted me on the head.
“Don’t make your mother worry too much,” he murmured.
Once I slung on my backpack, I turned around. Mister handed me a paper bag.
“Take this home,” he said. I peeked inside and saw lots of fireworks. “Light them with your friends,” Mister said.
“’Kay,” I said, and nodded. So many fireworks. I wish I could’ve lit them in this garden, I thought.
“Takafumi bought those fireworks, you know.”
I looked up to see Mister crinkling his eyes in a smile.
“He also bought the futon. Takafumi was just surprised at your sudden visit. He doesn’t hate you. No one buys fireworks or takes time off work to spend time with a kid he hates.”
Inside my chest, something curled in pain. I clutched the fireworks tightly in my arms, on the verge of tears. Mister placed a hand on my head.
“I’m sorry,” he said. I didn’t understand why he was apologizing.
I was taken by the hand to the front door, and handed over to my mother.
“Mister, wh―where’s Dad?” I’d dreaded him so much, but now I wanted to see him. I wanted to see Dad.
“Probably gone to buy lunch. He should be back soon.”
I wanted to wait for Dad, but Mom kept pulling me by the hand. I managed to turn my head back.
“Can I come and play again? Can I come back? Can I say sorry to Shiro?”
“Sure you can,” Mister said.
“Mister, mister, can you tell Dad I said thank you? Can you tell him I said sorry? Please... please...”
Nao was half-dragged past the gates. His mother yanked his hand forcefully. I wanted to see Dad’s face, I wanted to tell him thank you for the fireworks. Nao resented his mother for not waiting until Dad came home. He hugged the fireworks to his chest and sobbed as he walked, and soon his mother began to cry, too. She leaned sideways on the wall, covering her face. Her shoulders shook.
“Mom, what’s wrong?”
She wouldn’t answer. It was Nao’s first time seeing his mother cry like this, and he didn’t know what to do.
“Don’t cry, Mom. Please?”
His mother cried even harder, and she pulled Nao into a suffocating embrace. A while later, her tears finally receded, and she wiped her red eyes with a handkerchief.
Nao heard a slam in the open lot beside the wall. Dad was climbing out of the white car parked in the lot. There was no doubt about it. It was him―he was back from shopping.
Nao’s feet moved before he could think. He left his mother’s side and ran up to the car. Just as Dad closed the passenger door, Nao yanked his jacket as hard as he could.
“Huh?” Dad looked surprised. “Wh―Nao?”
Nao hugged the bag to his chest.
“D―Dad, thank you for the fireworks.”
“Fireworks?” Dad murmured at first. “Oh,” he said, then nodded slightly. “Did Kei show them to you?”
“Let’s light them in the yard when it gets dark.” Dad hesitantly reached out and ran his hand over my head. Softly, carefully. My whole body tingled like I’d been shocked by electricity, and tears almost sprang to my eyes.
“Nao!” Mom’s sharp voice rang out behind me. She came up with a scary look on her face and squeezed my hand.
“...It’s been a while.” Mom’s voice was stiff.
“It really has been a while.” Dad’s voice didn’t change much.
“It looks like you’re still the same as ever... with Mr. Kitagawa.”
Dad dropped his gaze at Mom’s prickly tone.
“I’m taking Nao home,” Mom said. “Thank you for taking care of him.” She turned her back to Dad, and yanked at my hand. We were getting further and further away from Dad.
Mom’s shoulders flinched at Dad’s voice. She slowly turned around.
“I bought something for Nao. ―Is it alright if I give it to him?”
Mom pursed her lips in a line disapprovingly. She looked down in silence for a while, then released her grip on her child’s hand.
“...Go on,” she said in a small voice, giving me a push on the back.
I ran over to Dad. Dad took a hat out of the paper bag he’d been holding, and placed it on my head. It was a kids’ baseball cap.
“I heard from Kei that you didn’t have a hat.”
“You’re welcome.” Dad smiled. His eyes narrowed and small wrinkles formed at the edges of his eyes. It was a gentle face. It was the same face I’d seen in the photos.
“Bye, now. Take care...."
―Mom called my name behind me.
* See the project page for In the Box (Hako no naka).