Hisao absently rolled the chess piece between his fingers as he stared out the window of the train, observing the landscape as it spun by at 300 kilometres per hour. Autumn was coming, but for now the countryside and suburbs were still lush with green and as the sun continued to rise higher into the sky, its warm orange haze pierced through leafy boughs that would soon turn brown and gold with the passing of the season. It was a serene setting that contrasted starkly with the brooding nature of his thoughts.
"It was really her. I can't believe it."
Hisao inhaled deeply in an effort to steady his raw nerves. His shock encounter in the train station with Hanako had set him on edge and brought back to the surface a whirlpool of emotions he had long thought suppressed.
"Those eyes… for as long as I live I'll never forget those eyes."
He had heard at one time that a person's eyes were the "windows to their soul" and while he wasn't the type of man to wax poetically about such things, he couldn't help but admit that from the very first moment he had met Hanako he had been drawn to those deep pools of black and violet that she hid under her long fringe. For Hanako was a person who spent most of her active energy being still, almost as if she was shrinking into herself in an effort to become even smaller than her already slight frame and build. She never emoted; her face was almost always blank – when you could see it anyway. It was only in those few brief moments, like when she was peering over the edge of a book to try and sneak a look at Hisao that he was able to get a glimpse at those eyes, and when he did he couldn't help but notice the inquisitiveness and tension in them. For reasons he couldn't quite explain, just a look from her could instantly draw him in and capture his attention so completely that it felt more like a compulsion that he was powerless to ignore.
For what must have been the fiftieth time since parting with Lilly that morning, he stared in wonder at the small box cradled in his lap. Lazily he ran his fingers across its surface, feeling his fingertips slide across the smooth lacquer finish. As his touch grazed closer to the edge he noticed a few spots where the wood had cracked, either from use or by accident and he marvelled that Hanako would have kept such a thing for so many long years.
"I wonder if she kept it to remember me by…"
Hisao snorted and dismissed the idea outright. The two of them had not parted on the best of terms and indeed hadn't even spoken since. Given how violently Hanako had demanded that he leave and the way she had screamed at him with such fury and anger, he doubted that she had held on to any sort of feelings for him – at least, not positive ones. That she still owned this chess set, a birthday gift from Hisao – the one and only he had ever given her, was more than likely due to the fact that it was rather nice as far as chess sets go, and doubtlessly had little to do with any remnant of affection she may have had towards him.
Hisao's fingers reached for the clasp on the side of the box. With a gentle twist he opened it, both sides separating neatly to form on its back a proper chess board. With some care, he replaced the chess piece he had been holding into a small plastic bag that contained its brethren and then examined the rest of the contents of the box.
"Not much here… chess pieces, a passport with no stamps and a couple of hanko cases"
Hisao reached for one of the cases and opened it. Inside was a sturdy cylindrical stamp laid flat alongside a pad of ink. It was quite clear to him by the style and the name on the stamp that it must be Hanako's jitsuin, or official registered seal. He paused for a moment to stare at it before replacing it in its case – the current situation posed a problem that was perhaps greater than just his unsettled emotions and absently chewed his lip as he wondered how to proceed.
"The passport alone isn't that big of a deal, but losing your jitsuin can be a pain. I wonder if we'll be able to find her?"
He had posed the same question to Lilly just a scant few hours before.
"What?!" exclaimed Lilly as she tried to keep herself upright against the stream of businessmen weaving their way around her.
Hisao tucked the chess set under his arm and grabbed Lilly's hand.
"Hanako… she was just right here – we nearly came face to face," he said. With a gentle urging he started to guide Lilly down the corridor once more.
Lilly's brow furrowed as she concentrated both on navigating through the masses of commuters as well as on which one of the million questions racing through her mind she wanted to ask first.
Finally, she settled on the most important one.
"Did you see where she went?"
Hisao held Lilly's arm and gently guided her around a corner out of the path of another group of oncoming commuters, the crowd here was thinner, providing the duo with a small respite in which to continue their conversation.
"No… as soon as she saw us she bolted like a scared rabbit…" Hisao replied.
The two of them were silent for a moment, each wondering if Hanako's reaction due to their own presence, or the presence of the other. Eventually it was Lilly who broke the silence.
"Hisao… leave me here and go look for her," she stated rather matter-of-factly.
"Right… like that's going to matter," groused Hisao as he leaned back against the wall next to Lilly.
"You know how fast she can run when she wants to disappear…"
Lilly wanted to voice some sort of objection but she knew that Hisao was right. Hell, she wanted to scream at him to do it anyway.
"Augh!" she wailed, "This is so frustrating! Do you know it's been almost 10 years Hisao? 10 years!"
Lilly's fist tightened around her cane, her knuckles going white as she battled her feelings.
"One minute she cuts us out, then the next… she just disappears! That's it! Gone!"
Hisao sighed. He knew how Lilly felt – it was one thing to have a fight with a friend, but the way that Hanako had literally disappeared from Yamaku afterwards was simply inexplicable. At first Hisao was just certain that she was avoiding coming to class – Lilly had told him that this wasn't uncommon when Hanako was feeling exceptionally stressed, but as the days and weeks went on it soon became apparent that Hanako was just simply… gone. It was as if she had finally discovered a way to make herself completely disappear through force of will power alone.
They had both tried asking the staff and teachers about when Hanako would return to class, but every single time they were rebuffed. Even Mutou, whom Hisao had felt exceptionally close to, had regretfully claimed to be unable to provide the answers the two teenagers had wanted. Eventually the discussion between the two changed from "when" their friend would return, to "what had happened to her." It was at this point where Lilly had truly begun to break down as her mind started to concoct dark fantasies around Hanako's disappearance…
Hisao gently put a hand on Lilly's shoulder.
"At least now we know… right? We know…." He said.
Lilly nodded. At least now they knew that Hanako was alive.
"Oh Hisao…" she said, her shoulders slumping slightly, "What do we do? What can we do?"
"I don't know," he stated flatly, "But… she did drop something."
"What?" Lilly asked.
Hisao took one of Lilly's hands and rested it on the box he was holding. A look of puzzlement came across her face as her delicate fingers began to gently probe and discern what Hisao was trying to "show" her.
"Is this…?" she began.
"It's the chess set, the one I got her for her birthday."
Lilly gasped, "Oh… Hisao!" her voice was overwrought with emotion as she remembered the one and only "birthday party" that she had ever managed to give her best friend. It seemed like almost a lifetime ago.
"Open it," Lilly said. She didn't know exactly why she said this, but she had a hunch.
"Um… okay? I guess…" Hisao flipped the box sideways so its contents, whatever they were, wouldn't spill as he undid the simple clasp holding it together.
"Well… will you look at that…" he began.
"I can't Hisao!" exclaimed Lilly with an almost un-Lilly-like hint of agitation, "Just... What is it? What's inside?"
Hisao smiled to himself. There were a few miscellaneous things inside the chess set – obviously Hanako had been using it to store some very important items, but one thing immediately leapt out at him. Maybe this was going to be easier than he had thought.
"A few things… but most importantly, it looks like we have Hanako's passport!" he exclaimed.
"A passport? Then that means…" added Lilly, her voice trailing off as she considered the implications of this new information.
Hisao grinned to himself and flipped the passport in his hand open. It was indeed Hanako's, and it did indeed have an address.
"Yep. Tell me – do you want to go now, or now?"
Hisao was obviously trying to be amusing, but Lilly actually paused for a moment.
"Hisao… maybe it'd be better…" Lilly didn't have the heart to finish the sentence, but Hisao immediately knew what she meant.
"Maybe it'd be better if you didn't go."
It hurt, but it was probably the truth. After all, he had been the one to have the fight with Hanako; he had been the one that she had been so angry at, and besides… Lilly had known her longer, been more of a friend to her…
Yes, it all made perfect sense, but for some reason, he didn't like it one bit.
"Yeah… you're probably right," he replied.
The subtle tinge of sadness behind those words wasn't lost on Lilly. She reached out, her hand folding over Hisao's. She knew that this was hard for him, she knew probably better than anyone else alive how absolutely guilty he felt.
"Why don't you keep that chess set for now…" she said.
"After all, it was your gift… you should be the one to return it to her."
Hisao considered it for a moment and then asked "I suppose… but wouldn't it make more sense for you to give her passport back to her?"
"That depends Hisao", Lilly replied with a slight hint of mystery in her voice.
"Okay, I'm game… what are you plotting?" he inquired.
"You're going to Yamaku, right? Why don't you take that with you and try asking Mutou again about Hanako."
Hisao immediately picked up on what Lilly was suggesting.
"You think he might actually say something this time if I show up trying to return her possessions to her, right?"
Lilly didn't respond. She just smiled.
"And of course…" Hisao continued, "If you do find her… it gives us all another reason to meet, at least one more time."
Lilly reached out, and with an ease that belied her lack of sight, tapped Hisao directly on the side of his head.
"Glad to see that Todai education wasn't wasted," she teased.
Hisao chuckled and took Lilly again by the hand.
"You know Lilly… sometimes I wonder if you aren't actually the sneakier Satou sister"
Slowly she became aware of her surroundings. It started first with the pain in her fingers, they were clenched tight around something – she didn't know what. It then spread along her arms, as she felt the tension in her muscles start to abate, leaving behind a tired soreness that had become all too familiar. Finally she felt the soreness in her face and jaw as she ceased the teeth grinding she had been doing for the last hour.
As the fear and panic started to subside, Hanako's eyes, which had been open but unseeing, began to focus on the slate grey door just mere centimetres from her face. Without moving her head she immediately knew where she was.
That was the name that they had called her elementary school. It was a double entendre, a phrase meant to evoke both the fact that she could often be found hiding in the girls toilets as well suggesting that she was worth about as much as what you would find inside a toilet. As cruel as the name was, it wasn't as painful as when she would overhear one of her classmates suggesting that someone should "flush" her.
Of course, the most painful part of it all was the fact that she found herself agreeing.
There was a small moment of hesitation, a pregnant pause in her movements, and then she leaned backwards only to have her progress halted.
"Backpack on my back. That's good."
Slowly she uncurled her fingers and looked down at her hands. They hurt badly because she had been violently clutching her fists, but that wasn't what immediately concerned her.
Hanako gasped out loud and a swell of panic blossomed in her breast. She had set out this morning for the train station in order to retrieve her jitsuin so that she could secure an apartment and end her weeks of drifting among the ranks of the freeters that occupied the cities cyber-cafes. It was something so simple to do, a task so trivial, that her mind practically rebelled at accepting how everything had seemed to go so terribly wrong.
With a jerking motion she stood upright, the muscles in her body giving a brief protest as she exited the toilet stall. A woman was washing her hands at one of the sinks that lined the far wall and Hanako reflexively lowered her head and shifted away. Such actions were second nature to her. As she stepped out of the restroom and into the train station proper, her eyes darted around looking for some way to discern where she was. Unfortunately the train station, like most of them in the city, was a dull grey warren of various hallways and staircases and it took some time for her to retrace her steps.
Eventually she managed to find her way through the byzantine maze and arrive back at the hall that contained the lockers where she had stashed most of her valuable possessions. The morning rush hour was over, so the hall was eerily deserted, only the distant sound of footsteps from a passing commuter or other late morning traveller gave any indication that other humans were around. Of course, there was nothing on the floor – no chess set, or even pieces of what might have been inside. Despite the fact that she could tell this from a distance, she still strode forward towards the lockers and where she had dropped her future hopes.
"Nothing here… nothing here. In the locker? No, I took it out. I had it. It was in my hands and then I saw…"
She stopped that thought. She didn't want to think it. Turning on her heel she left the hall and headed towards the station masters office. A few travellers passed her by as she rounded the corner to her destination but thankfully they paid her no attention. It was a small blessing that allowed her to maintain some of her courage as she approached the large glass counter on the far side of the main foyer.
"E-excuse me," she uttered in a small voice, her eyes staring at the counter and not at the middle aged woman who was sitting behind it.
"I…I…. lost something," she paused for a moment, gathering her breath and courage.
"I-it was a b-box. A c-chess s-set," she finally managed to stammer.
The woman behind the counter seemed to consider this for a moment, "When was this?" she asked.
"T-today… t-this m-morning," replied Hanako.
The older woman sighed. From the way Hanako was holding her head down, with her hair in front of her face and speaking so awkwardly, she assumed that the younger girl was a shy student and probably fairly upset. Unfortunately she didn't have any happy news for her.
"Sorry miss, no one has turned in any property this morning"
The station employee was a kind woman and she flinched visibly when she saw how Hanako reacted to this news. Quickly she added, "But if you leave your number… I'll call you if anyone returns anything."
"T-t-thank you," said Hanako. Truthfully she wasn't surprised, she had been having an incredibly run of bad luck for pretty much her entire life, so such disappointments were rather common place. With few words spoken, Hanako scribbled down her mobile number and left it with the attendant and then made her way out of the station. She didn't have much time left today before she had to get to work and certainly not enough time to solve her immediate problem and get back to the rental agency.
"I'll probably lose the apartment… maybe I should call them and explain."
As she stepped onto the street in front of the station she pulled her phone from her pocket. For long moments she stared at it, wonder what she should do.
"It's not use. It won't work out. I was stupid; I made a mistake… why do I always screw up like this?"
She put the phone back in her pocket and continued down the street. The euphoria and optimism that she had started out the day with had all but evaporated and in its place dark clouds of depression gathered above her.
"Why did I freak out like that? Just because I saw…"
She still didn't want to think about it. Part of her brain, maybe the sensible part, wanted to avoid the issue all together. Maybe it was because she subconsciously feared that the stress of her life combined with dredging up long buried emotions would push her over the edge that she was so precipitously balanced on.
Hanako turned another corner and came upon a busier street with more people. In Japan, getting away from people in a city is a preposterous idea so she simply did her best to ignore everyone around her and hope that they would return the favour. Eventually she made her way past the mid-morning foot traffic and entered a promenade that had been blocked off from car traffic. It was a long and somewhat narrow street that had been turned into a "little China town" style pedestrian mall of sorts, complete with dozens of strands of faux paper lanterns hanging above and the occasional tacky golden lion statue or Buddha. The hour was still early, so she wandered over to a bench and sat down and pulled out her phone, flipping it around in her hand while she considered what to do next.
Hanako ran her thumb over her phone, sliding it up the side slowly and over the power button. With a slight gesture, she turned the stared at the picture of her daughter. She focused on Haruka's smile, remembering the joy of that day, remembering why she continued to press on despite all of her failures. With a tap she entered into album mode and started to scroll through the digital scrapbook of her life as a mother.
The two of them at the park, on Haruka's birthday.
Making funny faces at animals at the zoo.
Her daughter, fast asleep in her lap and clutching onto Hanako's stuffed rabbit, Petra.
The last photo in particular brought a small smile to Hanako's face. She still had Petra, safely tucked away in a locker and she waited for the day where she could give her back to Haruka and the three of them could lay down together and snuggle. It was a wish, or a dream both small in scope, yet seemingly impossible right now to achieve.
"Is it really impossible? All I have to do…"
She paused for a moment. Her finger hovered over the screen of her phone, hesitating at what to do next.
"All I have to do is… face my fears."
She tapped the screen again and brought up a popular searching application. Even if she didn't want to think about it, she had known who she had seen at that train station. The fear that was still twisting its way through her stomach left little doubt that she wasn't prepared for what she was about to do, but she started typing in the letters anyway. This was something that she had always told herself that she would do one day, but kept putting off until "things were better". And while things weren't better, her desperation finally managed to override her fear and shame.
She looked at the words on the screen for a long minute before confirming the search and when the first result came back, it never occurred to her to imagine how easily she done something that Lilly had been trying to do for years. The only thing that remained was for her to place the call to the number she was staring at and ask for her friend by name. It was just that easy.
At least, it would be, if she had the courage to follow it through.
The morning sun was warm on her face when Lilly Satou entered the foyer of the building that bore her family name. She was supposed to be "off sick" today but the near miss encounter with Hanako that morning had sent her here instead of home. Lilly guided herself along to the elevators mostly by memory, but also with the tapping of her cane, its sound echoing off the granite floor in between the clacking of her high heels. It was a trick that many people didn't know, but in a familiar environment she could actually determine where she was by the familiarity of the echoes – almost, but not quite like a bat using sonar.
"Good morning Miss Satou," came a familiar voice to her left. Lilly instantly recognized it as the usual lobby receptionist.
"Good morning," she replied with unusual curtness. She wasn't rude; it was just that her mind was occupied with other thoughts. Chief among these was her imminent conversation with her sister and how best to avoid ridicule for last night's escapades.
With practiced ease Lilly made her way up the elevator and to her sisters office. One of the things that she liked about this building was that every floor was laid out the same, making it easy to navigate for someone who mostly did so by memory. Outside Akira's office, she felt for the door – it was open. She strained her ears, but not hearing anything she decided to rap loudly on the door frame.
"Akira? Are you there?" she asked into the empty office.
"Nope, right behind you" came the whispered reply right into her ear.
Lilly lurched forward in shock, cursing her sister under her breath.
"Don't do that to me!" she complained as she turned to face her sister.
"You must have really tied one on last night Lil's if you let a lead foot like me sneak up on you," smirked Akira as she walked past Lilly and into her office. Lilly followed her and moved over to where she knew was a waiting chair.
"I didn't expect to see you today, I thought that you were sick," said Akira – the teasing tone of her voice and the emphasis on the last part of that sentence leaving no doubt in Lilly's mind that Akira had (correctly) deduced what had transpired last night between her and Hisao.
"Akira… I've had a really strange morning, can you please not?" asked Lilly.
"Please what? Not mention that you're obviously wearing the same clothes as yesterday? Honestly Lil's I'm impressed – it's not like you to be so brazen around the office! Just think of what your fan club will say!"
Lilly groaned. In her haste to track down Hanako she had decided to rush straight to work and enlist her sister's aid. She had reasoned that while it was one thing for her to travel by herself to places where she knew she was going, that it'd be much more difficult and time consuming for her to attempt to do the same thing when tracking down Hanako. Simply put – she needed someone to be her eyes until she resolved the situation.
"Akira! This is serious!" snapped Lilly. This got the elder sisters attention. After a life time of teasing each other, Akira knew that Lilly wasn't so easily frazzled.
"Okay, fine. What's wrong?" she asked.
"Well, it's not like she didn't suspect we were together anyway…"
"This morning, Hisao and I ran into Hanako."
"What?" asked Akira, obviously shocked.
"Well… more like she ran into us, and then ran away," said Lilly. Akira could sense the disappointment and frustration in Lilly's voice. The subject of Hanako had always been a sore point between the two sisters. To put it simply, Lilly blamed herself for how things had ended and Akira blamed Hisao. Because of this, it wasn't something they talked about often.
"She probably took one look at Hisao and ran to Hokkaido," Akira stated with palpable displeasure.
"You might be right… I don't really know," replied Lilly. Akira winced a little bit; it was unlike her younger sister to not reprimand her for the suggestion that Hisao had caused the breakdown of the friendship between the three. She immediately regretted her comment; after all, even if Lilly had lost a friend, she had gained a boyfriend… and maybe more out of it. At least, if Hisao could finally figure out what a great thing he had in front of his bloody face.
"What happened?" she finally asked.
"She didn't say anything. Hisao saw her, she saw us, and then she ran away," said Lilly.
Akira got up from her desk and walked around to sit on the front, just a couple of feet away from Lilly. She took her sisters hand – it was how she had learned to express compassion to a sibling that couldn't see the look of grief on her face.
"There's more," added Lilly, "She dropped some things she was carrying. One of these things was a passport with an address on it."
Akira clicked her tongue.
"So… you want to go find her now, don't you?" she asked.
"Yes I do," said Lilly. Her tone was even, masking the indecision in her heart.
In an uncharacteristic moment of emotional maturity Akira tightly gripped her sisters hand and asked, "Do you really think this is a good idea? She probably doesn't want to be found."
Lilly took a moment before answering. "I know, but… we do have her passport, and at the very least I'd like to make sure she's okay," she said. She paused for a moment, then added, "And even if she hates me… I want her to know that I love her."
Akira sighed lightly and resigned herself to how this was going to turn out – badly. While Lilly was always the optimist, always looking for the silver lining and always believing in the best of people, Akira's natural cynicism just didn't allow her to see how this could turn out any other way. She hoped that for once she'd be wrong.
"Well, then, let's go. I'll grab my coat," she stated.
"Don't you need to clear your appointments?" asked Lilly, immediately switching back to "responsible sister mode".
"Naw… it's fine! It's fine!" said Akira with a grin. There was no need to tell Lilly that she had actually been planning on a long lunch and a trip down to the pachinko parlour anyway. Some things were better left unsaid, at least for appearances sake.
The two of them departed the building in haste. Lilly was confident that she had memorized the address that Hisao had given her, so she didn't feel the need to go back to her office and print out the email that he had also sent her as a back-up.
It's why she never checked her messages that day.
Hisao handed over a few crisp bills to the cab driver and stepped out of the cab, not even bothering to wait for his change. It had been a long time since he had found himself in front of these gates, so long in fact that it seemed like an entirely different lifetime, or perhaps upon reflection, he might have just been an entirely different Hisao. In either case, the result was the same – a feeling of both eerie nostalgia and déjà vu. As he strode towards the school grounds he tried to compare the Yamaku that was before him with the one from his memory. The buildings seemed the same, perhaps with just a new coat of paint. Thinking of paint and painting he looked around for Rin's mural, the one she had painted for his first school festival, but alas – didn't see it. He wondered if the school regretted painting over it, considering that Rin had gone on to achieve a small measure of fame.
"Oh well, people make stupid mistakes," he thought to himself.
It was a sentiment he was pretty familiar with.
Without even noticing it he had arrived at the main school building. Classes were still in session, but that was fine. He'd just go to the faculty lounge and see who was around. Maybe there would be someone else he could catch up with, or someone else he could ask about Hanako before he met with Mutou. In fact, Hisao really didn't want to have to bring up Hanako with Mutou if he could help it. The last time he had broached the subject of his "missing classmate" the look that had come over the normally amiable teachers face immediately made him both immediately regret asking as well as fearful about what the answer would be.
"He refused to talk about it at the time… I wonder if he'll talk now?"
Hisao halted in front of the threshold to the building with one foot on the concrete stairs leading up to the main entrance. The pose made him look like the textbook definition of hesitancy, which more or less summed up exactly what he was emotionally going through. With a deep intake of breath he tried to calm himself down, all this anxiety wasn't good for his heart. Ultimately, he decided that he'd just go forward and ask anyway – after all, he had promised Lilly and she had worked out a plausible excuse for him, so Hisao felt somewhat honour bound to go along with the plan.
With that thought in his head, Hisao put one foot in front of the other and ascended the steps to the school. This was something he had done a lot over the last decade, marching forward in the face of his own doubts and insecurities. The only difference he supposed was that this time, he wasn't sure he was going to like where he was likely to end up at.
This chapter was hard for me to get out, mostly because it's been a couple of months since I last touched this story. Thankfully, I don't think the writing suffered much for it as I'm fairly happy with the characterizations that I've put down here and the character themes (Hanako overcoming her fear, Hisao overcoming his indecisiveness, Lilly overcoming her selfless martyrdom). Expect to see more of this as I get further along in the plot.
Once again, thanks for reading and please leave a review. I enjoy reading them!