VII. THE LAND OF THE LIVING
"What in the—"
"It's 8 a.m."
"Ah!" I hissed as the sun assaulted my eyes, forcing me to roll over. "Go away…" My voice trailed off as the smell of scrambled eggs, hash browns, bacon, French toast, and best of all, coffee, filled my nose. Opening my eyes I saw the food sitting on a tray right beside my face. I was so mesmerized by it that I didn't even notice her until she put a blue origami bear right next to the cutlery set she'd not only laid out but folded into a napkin.
"Sit up and eat before it gets cold," she stated as she rose from her place in front the tray and I saw her dark green leg warmers with the words Lieber Falls written down the sides of them in white disappear into my bathroom.
"What hell are you doing?" I asked as I sat up and I was dismayed to find that it looked nothing like my bathroom. It was immaculate. I didn't think wood could shine and yet the floors of my bedroom were so perfect I was sure I could see my reflection. I glanced over to the side—
"Where are my paintings?!"
She popped her head back out my bathroom. "In the art room."
"Art room? What art room?"
"The empty room next to the guest room. I also unpacked the rest of the boxes there."
There was an attic…wait, no. "You can't just move my things—"
"And you can't just die." She snapped grabbing the trash from my bathroom and heading towards the door. "You are alive. You might want to die. You might feel like you're dying but you, Malachi Lord, are alive. And you are my responsibility. I didn't come here for a vacation. I came here because I promised my grandfather that I'd help you produce your best work yet. However, in the week I've been here you haven't written a single thing. You don't even know what day it is unless I tell you."
"I managed to write well enough and live perfectly fine—"
"What day is it?" she asked, her brown eyes staring at me. Her hair was pulled back into a thick curly ponytail.
"I don't need to answer to you. This is my house—"
"Nope." She pulled out her phone and read. "Property #283, Lieber Falls, Montana. Ownership: Penohxi Publishing House. Renter: Malachi Lord. I'm sending you the contract you obviously didn't read."
I heard my phone vibrate on the ground but didn't look at it as she continued with her commands.
"You do not own this home. My grandfather, the man who has looked out for you since you were a child, owns this home. So I won't let you treat it as badly as you treat yourself. The books you write, are also owned by Penohxi Publishing House, and maybe you don't care about your work. But I care. Millions of people care. And we promised them that you would have a new book next year. I confirmed it online. So if need to spoon-feed you, I will. If I need to carry you on my back, I will. Not for you. But for my Grandpa, and for all the women I've become friends with who are waiting on you. I'm not going to let them down!"
As she spoke her eyes teared up and I felt the urge to back away from her.
She wiped her eyes with the arm of her maroon sweater. "What are you looking at? Eat! Join the land of the living. I had to ride into town for that breakfast."
"You rode my bike?!"
"No. I bought a bicycle while you were trying to become one with your bed!" She hollered back. "And thanks for being grateful. I'm taking out the trash!"
She muttered something in a language I didn't understand as she exited. I stood there stunned for a moment before I slowly sank back into the middle of my bed. Reaching for the plate I took a bite of the bacon.
"Damn it." It was good…really good. I stuffed my face like a savage, eating the French toast in two bites before reaching for the fork before I once again noticed the blue watercolor origami bear.
Carefully I opened it reading her ironically graceful handwriting in the center of the paper.
"Gavin's Law: Live to start. Start to live." ― Richie Norton." I read the quote before reading her instructions under his name. "Step One: Eat. Step Two: Shave and shower, please. Step Three: Dress comfortably for a walk."
Subconsciously I reached up and touched the growth of hair that had sprouted on my cheek.
Dropping the paper, I picked up my fork and ate quickly…a habit I couldn't break apparently. Why? I wasn't sure. But reaching for the coffee I drank it like I normally did but nearly gagged.
"What in the—"
"It's decaf." She walked back into my room like she owned the place…well, apparently she thought she did, though I'm sure Alfred probably didn't intend for her to use that fact over me. Since I could pick up and move at any time Alfred rented places out for me so there wouldn't be a paper trail in case I really wanted to disappear.
"It's not coffee if it's decaf."
"Coffee is not good for you."
"Living isn't good for me."
She made a face at me. "That because you're living wrong."
"Really? And what makes you an expert at living—"
"I've stepped outside." She sat in front of me and placed a water bottle on the tray. "You don't get to be an asshole because you're in pain. Everyone has been or is in some pain—"
"Not like this. You have no idea—"
"My mother tried to kill me when I five," she blurted out and I froze as she reached onto my plate and stole a piece of toast from me. "I don't remember it much, I've blocked it out. I just remember her telling me it was bath time, and when I got in she held me under the water."
"I…" I wasn't sure what to say to that.
She nodded slowly as she chewed then swallowed. "You know how…well you probably don't know, but the children of big time Hollywood people…some of them don't really do well when they grow up. Some say it's the pressure, others say it was all the money and no supervision. Drugs, drinking, partying…one day when she was seventeen she was raped. She didn't know by whom or how many. My grandfather was heartbroken and devoted his time to try and help her. He tried to find the men but they never did, and when she found out about me she wanted an abortion. She asked for money for the procedure but instead she used it to get high. She used me to get money out of my grandfather before I was even born."
She inhaled deeply and relaxed again. "I think she thought she could always just get rid of me but waited too long. When she gave birth she left me on top of my Grandpa's old Mercedes …right on top of the snow. My Grandfather named me Esther—the brightest star he'd ever seen—and relocated to New York, becoming my mom, my dad, and my grandfather.
"When I was five, my mother returned, she was clean, she really really tried to love me, but she couldn't heal, she resented me and she tried to kill me. My grandpa kicked her out and I haven't seen her since. But I love her. I forgive her. And I hope she's alright wherever she is…because I understand that my pain should not blind me from other people's pain. You're in pain, Malachi, but you aren't the only person on this planet suffering. No matter how many times it's happened, you don't get to say that no one hurts like you. That isn't fair. Anyway, I'll wait downstairs for you to get ready."
Reaching to take another piece of my toast I grabbed her arm. "If our pain is equal why should I have to give up my food?"
She pouted and I pouted back mocking her which caused her to laugh. "Fine, keep the toast. Tomorrow I'm getting double though."
"Tomorrow?" I looked up at her.
She stretched her back out and nodded. "Did you finish the book?"
"Has anyone told you that you're…" I paused.
"Oh…." She grinned and pointed at me. "You were going to call me annoying but you remembered my past and stopped yourself, right? Ah! So you do have a heart!"
Rising I took off my sweat pants. "Are you going to stay and watch too?"
She waved me off. "I'm going, I'm going. Not that you'd have any effect on me anyway."
"I like my men a little more…fit…and, you know, not currently in a perpetual epic love saga with some other mystery woman.
"She isn't a mystery. She's your co-worker," I said as I walked into the bathroom and closed the door.
"No bloody way! Who is it, Malachi?"
"Sorry I can't hear you, a dictatorial woman is commanding that I eat, shave and shower."
"Don't forget to go for a walk."
"Go away, Esther!" I hollered at the door rolling my eyes even though she couldn't see me.
"If you think I'm letting this go you don't know me!" she yelled back.
I didn't know her though. Though her personality…reminded me of Alfred.
"Give, keep giving, be dedicated even when you don't have to," I muttered to myself as I examined the brand new razor and toothbrush she'd bought and placed out on top of a brand new, deep green towel set.
Both of them were…the only two people in my contact list. They were the only two who knew my secret…our secret.
"Athena? Piper? Mei-Ling?"
"For the last time, I am not telling you!" he yelled at me as we walked.
Ignoring him I tried to remember the names of my female co-workers…snapping my fingers I turned back to him. "Chioma, from sales."
He sighed. "Yes. Chioma, from sales. That's her. My long lost love."
"It's no fun when you give up." I frowned as I stuck my hands into my vest pocket and inhaled the cool, fresh air.
"Has anyone every told you that you're immature?"
"Yep." I paused turning back to him. "I tried growing up but no one told me how terrible it would be so I decided to stop aging after my twenty-third birthday."
I laughed as I hopped over the fallen moss covered tree and dusted off my hands. He hopped over it too though he did it much easier and gracefully than me which was kind of irritating. I mean yesterday he was hunched over in pain and now here he was leaping over things better than me.
"How exactly do you plan to do that?" he asked as he bent down to tie my boots while I stood there in shock. "That's been annoying me for the last ten minutes."
"So your plan is to stay in your twenties?"
I grinned and pointed at him.
"You've lived nine hundred and ninety-nine times, right? Any chance you came across the fountain of youth in any of them?"
He'd looked genuinely interested in my plan until I said it aloud, it was then that he turned away from me and continued walking. "You're a lunatic."
"I'm a lunatic?" He couldn't be serious. "You are the one who claims to be living—"
"Claims? And here I thought you believed! You're all talk, Ms. Noëlle."
I wanted to kick him in the back of his knees but I glared at the back of his head instead, before I realized something.
"You don't even know where we're going, so why are you leading me?" I rushed to keep up with his pace but he stopped so suddenly that I nearly ran into him.
Turning slightly and his blue eyes narrowed at me. "I thought we were just walking so you could talk my ears off."
"Nope we are taking a shortcut, come on." I moved off the path and pushed the branches to the left and right of me carefully, while Mr. Giant fumbled through.
"You just got here, how do you have shortcuts…?" His voice trailed off as he stood at the edge of the forest clearing, and there, under the protection of the towering green trees, was a magenta lake of flowers that was so thick you couldn't see a single gap between them and so deep that they grew to my knees. It didn't matter the season, or even the weather, the magenta flowers which carpeted the ground stood high, bright, and proud.
Upon hearing my name I looked up with a smile towards the old couple who were standing on the other side of the lake of flowers.
"Mrs. Yamauchi!" I waved, watching as she turned and pushed her husband's wheelchair towards the only break in the lake, a path she'd created so that she could take her husband in whenever she could. Turning to Malachi who was now looking to them confused I grabbed his arm and pulled him. "Come on, I'll introduce you."
Without a word he allowed me to drag him over. I prayed he wasn't about to collapse again. Please…he needed this more than anyone. The path Mrs. Yamauchi had created through the flowers only ran from her side of the field towards the center, meaning that Malachi and I had to walk through the knee-high magenta flowers, sadly damaging and messing up the field as we did. Mr. Yamauchi sat quietly as she pushed him forward. His white face was wrinkled as much as hers though he wore a few more age spots on his face and hands, which he kept folded in his lap. His pinstriped brown golf cap covered his silver-gray hair. Mrs. Yamauchi's matching pair was on her head too. Her salt and pepper hair pulled into a bun.
Letting go of Malachi I clasped my hands together as I bowed in greeting. "Ohayō!"
"Ohayō!" Mrs. Yamauchi laughed as she moved around her husband's chair to give me a hug. She broke away from me after a few seconds to look at Malachi. "And hello to you handsome."
I panicked hoping he wouldn't be his normal rude self, but to my surprise he clasped his hands like I did and bowed. "Ohayō gozaimasu."
He knows Japanese? Most people I'd met who didn't know the language either repeated what I said or said 'Konnichiwa,' even though that was more for saying good evening. Ohayō or Ohayō gozaimasu was for greeting people in the morning. She greeted him back, smiling kindly as she brought her husband closer towards us.
"Malachi Lord, meet Kikuko and Kosuke Yamauchi, future legends and the oldest couple of Lieber Falls."
"Who are you calling old? Oshaberi."
Malachi snickered and I turned to glare at the traitor as he pretended to think it over. "Oshaberi? A chatterbox? It fits."
"No one asked you."
"Sorry, Oshaberi." He smirked as he looked to them both. "It's a pleasure to meet the future legends and sweetest couple of Lieber Falls."
"I like you." She came over and hugged him which made Malachi stand as stiff as a board.
Crouching down beside Mr. Yamauchi I gently placed my brown hands over his wrinkled ones telling him in English, "I need back up. They will gang up on me if you don't come help."
He turned to face me, his black eyes were like dark caves. I could look in but I couldn't see in.
"Do I know you?" He spoke for the first time since we'd all met. But then he glanced up at Kikuko and Malachi asking again. "Do I know you all?"
Kikuko squeezed his shoulder and said, "Yes. I know you. You know me too. Just wait, it will come back to you."
He returned his gaze once more to the flowers, and Kikuko, who was not the least bit phased, pulled out a thick, dark colored blanket from the backpack that hung off the chair.
Malachi took it from her. "Where do you want me to put it?"
"Right here is fine, thank you."
With a nod, he carefully put it down, ensuring that there wasn't even a wrinkle...because apparently he could think of other people. It was apparently only me who didn't matter.
"Yes?" I looked back to her as she held out bento lunchbox for me. I stared at the clear containers. "No, you didn't—"
"Chopsticks or a fork?" She lifted them both, purposely cutting me off which meant she wasn't taking no for an answer.
"Chopsticks please." I gave in accepting them and the bottle of water she handed me. "I hope you're hungry, Malachi."
"Starving actually." He walked towards her and accepted the lunchbox and chopsticks.
"Esther, how can you let him starve?" Kikuko frowned at him as she gave him a bottle of water as well.
My mouth dropped open. "What? I'm not his…" I trailed off and she noticed him snickering at me.
"Nurse? Maid?" she asked, as she put a napkin around Mr. Yamauchi's neck, and gave him a spoon along with his food.
"I'm not his wife. Yet still I somehow ended up making him breakfast this morning."
"Somehow?" Malachi took off his shoes and left them at the edge of the blanket before he sat down. Which I would have given him credit for if he wasn't currently picking on me. "So you don't remember that no one asked you to barge into my room, force me out of bed and demand I eat this morning?"
"I was asked. I was asked by my grandfather, remember? Can you believe it? Girls my age are getting giant teddy bears and twenty dozen roses. Me? I'm trying to keep a thirty-year-old man alive. Aigoo." I sighed tiredly.
"Thirty," Mr. Yamauchi whispered and I immediately stopped talking to hear him. "Good age. Thirty. Standing on the cliff."
He nodded to himself as he spooned a tiny rice ball into his mouth whilst looking out at the flowers. "I think I've been here before."
Kikuko smiled as she took off her shoes, and sat on the blanket by his legs as he went back into his mental haze. I followed suit and removed my shoes and sat down as well. I wanted to ask her something but Malachi cut me off.
"Why is thirty a good age if it's on a cliff?"
Kikuko took a deep breath and turned to me. "Can I tell him now?"
"I'm guessing based on the four lunches for the four of us that this meeting isn't a happenstance?" Malachi asked looked between us. "So what do you need to tell me?"
Kikuko's black eyes looked back at him. "Why Kosuke and I are the future legends of this town."
Giving her my full attention I eagerly waited for her to start. After all, when else would I get to see a real master rakugo? Long before theater, films, and even novels, there was rakugo—the art of storytelling. Everyone could tell a story, but very few people could become one. Rakugos could act the part of dozens of characters making you believe that each and every one was a separate individual contained in one being.
Not anyone…but Kikuko Yamauchi.
Malachi and I is now up for pre-order on all book site!