It was the beginning of winter 1986 in Yokosuka, Japan. Above the small, inoffensive buildings of Dobuita, the November skies hung grey and heavy, and though everyone constantly had their umbrella at hand, the weather seemed to find keeping them waiting more interesting.
Passing the corner and Aida Florist, Ryo expected to see Nozomi, and was dreading a conversation. Conversations with her were awkward and felt painfully acted, although recently he hadn't seen so much of her. Fate, it seemed, was giving him a break. Seeing that she wasn't there yet again, he upped his pace to a run and didn't slow until Tom's hot dog truck was in sight.
The accented voice reached Ryo from a distance. Tom's dance was the same as it had been yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that.
"How 'bout a dog, man? I'll make you a special!"
Ryo shook his head politely.
"Sorry Tom, I'm late for class. Maybe next time…"
Tom looked sullen, and there was an unusual pause.
"The thing is…" said Tom eventually, looking at his feet. "I'm closing down."
"What?" Ryo turned to face Tom. "Closing… down?"
This was truly a tragic occasion, and called for a momentous gesture. Ryo pulled a few notes from his pocket. Tom stopped his music.
"Yeah," replied Tom. "Tonight… I won't be here."
Ryo, with a sudden sense of emotion, patted Tom's shoulder and handed him 3000 yen.
"I'll have one," said Ryo. "Keep the change."
Not wanting to miss the bus, Ryo told Tom he'd see him later and hurried off. Of course, as Ryo sprinted, he remembered that he'd never see Tom again, but he was already too busy running. And what could he say? Standing at the bus stop, the rain was finally unleashed from it's heavenly cage, and Ryo gazed up at a plane.
"My friend…" said Ryo softly. "Tom."
School had been it's usual, routine self. Ryo had avoided Fukuhara-san all day once again, but no one's luck can hold out forever. As Ryo passed through the school gates on his way out, his name was called, and running footsteps were followed by panting breath as Fuku-san caught up with him.
"Going kinda deaf eh, my dojo pal!"
Ryo made a non-committal noise, as they turned left outside the entrance and began down the pavement towards the bus stop. As winter was now upon them, the air was fresh and the sky was rapidly darkening.
"So how were things in your new grade, eh?" asked Fuku-san, as they made their way past Yokosuka Fastfood and sampled the aroma of fat, which like the warm yellow light from the window, filtered outside. Ryo shrugged.
"Have you seen Nozomi lately?" persisted Fuku-san. Ryo slowed for a moment with realisation.
"No, I haven't…" he replied slowly.
"Well when you see her, can you tell her I've still got the book she lent me last…"
Fuku-san's voice faded away in Ryo's mind as he stared blindly ahead.
By the time the bus had pulled up to Dobuita, Fuku-san was talking only to himself. Stepping off the vehicle together, the pair began the long walk up to the Hazuki residence, a journey usually punctuated only by Fuku-san's obsessive visit to the Tomato Convenience Store; he was apparently very much in love with the girl behind the checkout. But before Fuku-san had the chance to go and make another pointless purchase (his last one was a box of matches), Ryo suddenly seemed to see something, and grabbed Fuku-san's arm. Motioning Fuku-san to follow, Ryo sneaked towards Tom's hotdog stand slowly, keeping out of sight.
They stopped at a safe distance.
"What are we doing, Ryo-san?"
Ryo hissed and told Fuku-san to shut up.
They listened. Fuku-san saw nothing unusual; Tom was dancing as normal, the music was pumping, the smell of food tempting. Nothing happened for a whole minute. His attention span being shorter than Ryo's, he was ready to go. But just as he decided to make a move, a potential customer approached from the opposite side of the pink truck, and Ryo pulled Fuku-san back.
"Hey! How's it goin' man?" spoke Tom, grinning. "You look healthier than e-ver!
Ryo listened attentively, out of sight.
"How 'bout a dog, man?" asked Tom cheerfully.
"Do I know you?" replied the man.
And just then, Tom's act was revealed.
The dreadlocks flopped, the dance slowed to a halt, and Tom's eyes scaled soberly to the ground behind their dark shades. Ryo's blood heated with each familiar word that Tom's mouth emitted, but it refrained from boiling. Just as his father was always telling him to do, he held back his emotions until he could be sure of his judgement.
Tom's gaze rested on the ground next to his trainers.
"The thing is…" said Tom after a dramatic pause, "I'm closing down."
The customer's mouth dropped open.
"Yeah," said Tom, ignoring his lack of cue, "Tomorrow… I won't be here."
The sombre words were too much for Fuku-san. His eyes turned sadly to Ryo.
"Ryo…" whispered Fuku-san with emotion. "Tom's-"
Ryo could only watch dazedly as the customer bought a hot dog, and gave a generous tip. Just as he himself had done.
The customer passed Ryo and Fuku-san in the shadows, but was too preoccupied to notice. Ryo's eyes widened as his head turned slowly back to look in the direction of Tom's truck. As soon as the customer rounded the corner and disappeared, the music went back on. Tom's dancing resumed. He chanced a satisfied laugh. And Ryo could hold back no more.
"Toooooommmmmmm!!!!!" yelled Ryo, running towards him in an uncontrollable rage.
"Ryo!" replied Tom cheerfully. "Guess what, I'm-"
But the words were cut off as he noted Ryo's terrifying advance.
"Ryo!" stammered Tom again, unconvincingly. "I'm, er.… still in business! It's a miracle!"
Ryo strode towards him, and Tom backed away until he felt his back press against the truck.
"You were never out of business, were you Tom? It was all a big lie!"
"Ryo!" gasped Tom, looking shocked. "The hotdog air, it's making you crazy!"
Ryo looked back at Fuku-san, who was standing a few metres away and already losing interest, his gaze gradually sneaking in the direction of the Tomato Convenience Store. Ryo turned back to Tom.
"How much money have you made today, Tom? How many people have you tricked, deceived, with this foul scam?"
"Ryo, the hotdog air-"
"Shall I ask, Tom?" said Ryo, more controlled now. "Shall I ask the people of Dobuita if you've done the same today to them?"
Dobuita was cold and dead at this moment. So this threat may have proved useless, had not Tom spotted an old woman visible about 800 yards away, dropping her bag of oranges in the street. He had accepted a 500 yen cheque from her that morning, and then added an extra 0 himself for fun.
Tom let his head fall back against his van.
"O-k man, you win."
Ryo backed away, and Tom relaxed. Fuku-san was saying something to Ryo, but he wasn't listening. Opening the rusty door of Tom's hotdog truck, Ryo spotted the cash register and pressed the release. With a chink of silver, it sprang open and Ryo's eyes fell on the largest amount of money he had ever seen.
"I was wrong!" sobbed Tom, "Please Ryo, don't kill me!"
"I'm not going to kill you, Tom," said Ryo. "I'm just very disappointed. Give this money to charity. Come on, Fuku-san."
But Fuku-san was talking. "Hey Tom, can I have one special and one-"
Ryo pulled him away.
Epilogue: the next day
Ryo stepped inside the Yamanose telephone booth and, from memory alone, dialled Nozomi's number. As he could only press one number at a time, and always waited for the dial to rotate all the way back round by itself, this took a while. When he eventually heard the dialling tone, Ryo felt slightly anxious. But then he heard Nozomi's voice.
Ryo sighed with relief. "You're alive."
"What?" said Nozomi.
"Sorry. Where have you been?"
When he hung up five minutes later, Ryo realised that for the first time he'd actually taken a genuine interest in Nozomi's welfare. He smiled to himself. Christmas was coming. Things could only get better!
December was closing in.