"What do you want for dinner, tonight, Naota? I can make curry."
"You know I hate spicy food."
"The mild kind, then."
Naota shut the door to the bakery and locked it behind him before turning to his wife, Eri. "All right, then. Canti, help me empty the cash register."
"You know, whenever I eat curry, I'm reminded of her."
"Her?" Eri blinked at him. "Oh, her. Your maid from back then... Haruko?"
Naota nodded. Mamimi had called her "strong stuff" then. Haruhara Haruko and Samejima Mamimi... those two had started the whole disaster, hadn't they?
"Somehow... I can't forget her."
Eri frowned crossly. "At the time... you loved her, didn't you?"
"Haruko... there was something about her that made every man around her fall in love with her, I think."
"Answer my question directly."
"Why are you so angry about this? It's been a long time already. She's gone."
"That's right... wherever did she go to?"
"She flew out of my life on her motorcycle," Naota muttered gloomily.
"You still love her, don't you?"
"She changed my life."
"You still think about her."
"Everything she touched turned upside down. You think I could have ever made it with someone like that?"
Eri stood so suddenly that the table shook and the dishes clanked. "So. This entire marriage is just a second choice for you?"
"Eri, it's not that, Haruko was..."
"I don't want to hear it. Get out."
"You're being unreasonable! I..."
"I said GET OUT!"
Naota cringed as the front door slammed shut behind him.
"AND STAY OUT!" Eri screamed.
"She'll change her mind by the time morning comes," Naota told himself. He glanced at the apartment and saw her silhouette against the curtains in the room upstairs. She turned the light off.
With his hands in his pockets, Naota wandered the streets of Mabase morosely, until he found himself standing on the bridge, looking out at the river. The bridge, he remembered, was where Mamimi always was.
He sat down on the concrete, staring up at the old Medical Mechanical plant, lying in the dark like a lopsided iron left on a stack of clothes. Yes, that's right. Haruko and the Pirate King... he hadn't forgotten it at all. In that short amount of time, he had changed forever. Naota touched his forehead with a fingertip. How long had it been since anything had come out of there? He wondered if his head was still empty, like Haruko had said it was, long ago. He wondered if he was still a kid, like the guy with the eyebrows... Amarao. The sound of crickets chirping eventually lulled him to sleep.
A noise or movement of some sort awakened him a while later. Naota blinked sleepily before he came to realize that there was someone standing in front of him.
She didn't look a day older than she had when she'd left him... back then, when she claimed she was nineteen. Her yellow Vespa was parked a few yards away; her guitar was slung over her shoulder.
"It's been a long time, hasn't it, Ta-kun?" She smiled.
Maybe I didn't remember her right... was she ever this gentle? Naota thought.
Then, in a sudden, swift movement, she unshouldered the double-guitar and swung it through the air, bringing it crashing down on his head. And again. And again. And again.
"HEY! That hurt, you know!"
Haruko's smile turned into a smirk. "But Naota isn't Taro-kun. So he'll be okay. Ne?"
Naota grinned in spite of himself. "I guess so."
"Naaaaaa, Ta-kun seems to have grown up a bit, hasn't he?"
"Have I? I don't know."
"If you're so grown up now... do you want to come with me?"
"Come with me." Haruko offered him her hand. "Would you do it all over again? Give up everything, and come with me. With your help, I can find Atomsk."
"You're still looking for him?"
"He's a tricky bastard, all right. Which is why I need you. Ta-kun."
Naota looked at her outstretched hand, then into her pale eyes. Without a word, he started to walk towards her Vespa.
She put her hands on her hips and grinned. "Ta-kun's still a kid after all, I guess. But you do a better job at faking it."
"Most people would fall for your adult act. But I know you too well. Don't I?" Haruko hopped onto her motorcycle and started it. "Climb on."
"Does that still mean I'm mature enough to come along with you this time?"
She pulled her goggles down over her eyes. "We'll see."
Naota thought of Eri, their home, the bakery that had belonged to his father, Canti, Tasuku. Would he still be willing to give all that up for her?
He got onto the Vespa behind Haruko. "Where are we going?" Of course. What was he thinking? Back there was just the same world he'd always known. Even his Eri was the same girl he'd always known. But this... this was Haruko.
Haruko shrugged. Naota noticed her glancing down at the shackle on her wrist. "Let's go to the beach. I can give you some mouth-to-mouth. Ta-kun would like that, wouldn't you?" She started the Vespa.
"You still remember all of that?"
"You bet I do!" Haruko yelled over the sound of the motor and the wind roaring by as they tore through the streets.
Maybe my head is as empty now as it was then, Naota thought, hanging onto her waist so that he wouldn't tumble off the motorcycle. Has anything really changed since then? This town was still nothing but a death trap to him. Mamimi rarely wrote, and he had lost track of his brother in America. But now, but now, his window to the world had returned. Naota held Haruko tighter.
Looking over her shoulder, Haruko beamed at him. "Missed me, didn't you?"
"Shut up and keep your eyes on the road!"
"Ah ha. So you have!" Leaning backwards, Haruko caused the Vespa to ride along on only its back wheel. Laughing with maniacal glee, she took both hands off the handlebars and pulled off her scarf, flinging it into the air, where the wind blew it directly at Naota's face.
"Haruko! Stop that! Stop!" Naota's yells were muffled by Haruko's scarf, but he didn't dare let go out of fear that he would fall.
"Haruko, why did you come back?" Naota, lying down on the sand, shot her a glance.
"To see Ta-kun, of course," she murmured sleepily.
"He's here, isn't he?" he asked skeptically.
"Dunno. Why are you worrying about that right now, Naota? It's just you and me here on this beach… ne?"
"How do I know you won't leave me tomorrow? Like you've done before."
"I'm here now. Isn't that enough for you?"
Naota nodded and closed his eyes, comforted by her familiar presence. "Even if you're gone in the morning... at least I know... Haruko is here now, and I'm happy now."
A red light flashed in the distance, probably from an airplane, or maybe a ship. The Medical Mechanica plant hissed as a cloud of steam rose around it.
"Ta-kun really is still just a kid, after all," Haruko said to herself.
Naota woke up in the morning to the sound of a car honking at him. Sometime during the night, he had rolled off the sidewalk on the side of the bridge and out partially onto the road. And now the car in front of him was blaring its horn at him.
He pulled himself off the ground painfully, limping slowly away from the bridge. He felt sore all over from spending the night sleeping on concrete.
And then he remembered the dream.
Haruko again. Always her.
Maybe it wasn't a dream, then.
Shaking his head, Naota rubbed his eyes and trudged home.
The car was gone; Eri had gone to work already. He knocked on the front door. "Canti!" The robot's heavy metal footsteps approached the door. "Canti, open up, it's me."
Puzzled images flashed across the monitor that was Canti's head, but Naota ignored them. He climbed up the stairs and opened the door to his old room.
The room had grown slightly musty from lack of use, and a fine layer of dust had settled over everything. He'd refused to let Eri touch anything in there. She'd thrown him out once for that, too. In one dim corner were the two things Naota was looking for... Haruko's old blue-and-white guitar, and the magazine containing the picture Mamimi had taken of him from fifteen years ago... "Fooly Coolly." Mamimi was a famous photographer now. Funny how back then, he'd refused to visit her to see the pictures she'd take.
Naota slumped down in the dust, guitar in his lap and picture in one hand, and wept.
In this town surrounded by dust, inching closer to death day by day...
But Haruko is here, so I won't forget.