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Letters to the Editor
© Scribbler, June 2006.
We have no reliable guarantee that the afterlife will be any less exasperating than this one, have we? -- Noel Coward.
Amane sometimes likes to drink tea out of little silver cups; the kind that never need polishing, and have handles covered in filigree so intricate it's like lace. It makes her feel very grown up, and she always keeps her pinkie out as she sips, just like a proper young lady.
Mummy always preferred china cups, but Mummy doesn't drink tea so much anymore. She spends a lot of time watching Daddy, or visiting Grandma. Amane finds Grandma tolerable, but she'd much rather drink tea, or play with Hokuto. Hokuto has ginger stripes and tickly whiskers and ran away when Amane was just a baby, but she seems perfectly fine now. She likes to drink milk out of filigreed silver saucers when she's not batting at mice, or chasing rainbows.
Sometimes Amane gets letters, and she always reads them out to Hokuto, deepening her voice and putting on different accents as though she's acting out all the parts in a play. She'll admit that she's peeped in on the characters once or twice to make sure she gets their voices right, but she's very discreet, and they never notice her. Some people up here spend all their time watching, but Amane thinks that everyone deserves their privacy, so she tries not to be a snoop – especially with people she doesn't really know.
She thinks her brother wouldn't mind her snooping a little bit, though. The letters are practically permission to drop in from time to time. After all, Hokuto appreciates the effort Amane puts into her performances, and it wouldn't do to disappoint her.
The letters used to always be boring, talking about school and role-play games and blah, blah, blah; but recently they've become very exciting. They sound like the storybooks she used to read a long time ago; the ones with colourful pictures of princesses, dragons and shiny heroes that Daddy read at bedtime or when she was sick and had to stay home from playgroup. She loves getting them, but at the same time each one increases a nagging worry about her big brother. He's the hero of her storybook, which means he always survives at the end, but he never gets the girl, and he never holds his sword aloft and swears to smite evil like most heroes do. Most of the time he fades away into the background and lets others take all the glory, even though he's worked just as hard as them, which doesn't seem right to Amane. Not at all.
The last couple of times she looked in on him he seemed sadder than usual. Ever since she can remember he's worn an expression like his heart is breaking, but now he looks like it already broke and he's learning to breathe around the pieces. Amane saw him act awfully strange once, too – his eyes were hard like slate, and he had a horrible, gurgling laugh that made her run home and hug Hokuto so tight she mewed and scrabbled to get free. She hates looking in when he's like that. You're not supposed to be scared of your big brother.
She's tried to talk to Mummy about it, but Mummy doesn't talk much anymore, and when she does she prefers to talk about the past. She can weave beautiful pictures of birthday parties, wedding anniversaries and moonlit walks with her words, and Amane can sit and listen to that husky, lilting voice for hours, but Mummy's eyes go blank when she tries to steer the conversation towards Ryou and the life he writes about in his letters. Amane would ask Grandma about it, but the old lady has slightly bulbous eyes the colour of slate, and makes Amane think of drowned kittens for some reason. She also likes to beat her chest with a fist when talking, as if punishing her traitorous heart, and Amane hates to be reminded of that sort of thing, so she tends to stay away if Mummy isn't around.
Kisara doesn't frighten Amane nearly as much, which is odd, as Kisara isn't family. She's a stranger, and both Mummy and Daddy always lectured her and Ryou about Stranger Danger. Strangers are people who snatch little boys and girls off the street, tempting them with sweeties and then bundling them into cars so that they're never seen again. Except that Kisara would never do anything like that. Strangers are terrible, scary people, but Kisara is nice. She was there when Amane arrived, as though she'd been waiting for her, and seemed like she already knew Ryou, too, and felt sorry for him before Amane herself did. She's also very beautiful, Amane thinks, like the princess in the tower from the storybook, and never objects when Amane shyly asks if she can braid her hair.
Kisara occasionally joins Amane and Hokuto for tea, and nods seriously when Amane explains about Ryou and his letters. Kisara never gets any letters, but she says she's been here a long time, so Amane supposes everyone who could write to her is already around to talk to.
"Sometimes I wanna talk to him," Amane admits. "I wanna tell him it's okay. Y'know, even though it's not."
Kisara nods and looks thoughtful. She often looks that way. Amane thinks Kisara must think especially big thoughts if she has to spend so much time on them – like Noa, the boy she met not so long ago. Kisara introduced him, but he didn't talk much and smiled even less, so Amane made it her duty to play games and invite him to join in until he lost that gloomy expression. Noa has hair the colour of Amane's eyes, and thinks absolutely huge thoughts, but he's used to having a lot more brain to fill up, he says, so he's still learning how to make his thoughts small again. He's teaching Amane how to play chess. Kisara can't play, but she sits and watches them and gently corrects Noa when he snaps at Amane for getting things wrong.
"Why can't we go back and talk to people?" he asks in response to Amane's admission.
Amane shrugs. "I dunno. We just can't. That's just the way it is."
He folds his arms. "That's stupid. Haven't the bigwigs around here ever heard of ghost stories? I'd have thought there was some seed of reality for a concept like that to grow out of. It's a basis for most modern cultural ideas of life after death. Plus there's all that stuff about evil spirits and avenging phantoms and junk. I mean, hel-lo? You mean all of that's a crock of sh-… hokum?"
Noa often talks like that. Amane can't always follow him, but she thinks she understands what he means right now.
"Things are as they are," Kisara says simply. "They are as they've always been. And they'll continue this way until the end of all."
"So melodramatic," Noa mutters, folding his arms.
"I can't explain how it all works," Amane says, moving her bishop after a long period of careful planning that Noa undoes a second later. He takes her piece, making her frown. "Humph. Maybe it wasn't always like this. Maybe once upon a time, things were different. But, y'know … things change." She spirals a hand at the wrist. Philosophy isn't her favourite topic, but Noa's big thoughts seem constantly snarled up in it. It's tiresome in the extreme, since most of the time Amane would rather play hopscotch or doctors-and-nurses. Noa despises this last game, but won't say why. He actually ran off the last time she tried to insist they play. Perhaps she'll ask Kisara about it sometime. Kisara's smart. She always seems to know the answers to stuff like that.
Hokuto mewls, and Amane bends to stroke her. Her fur feels soft, a little comforting, and realer than it should. She feels realer than real, which isn't really real at all. Noa calls it overcompensating.
Noa clears his throat. "Will you, uh…" He falters, the previous conversation forgotten as something new takes hold of his mind. He's always so weird about asking for help.
Amane gives an exaggerated sigh and stands up from the chessboard. She doesn't mind leaving it unfinished. She was losing anyway. She much prefers games without a clear winner or loser. "Sure, I'll show you. But you really should know how to do it for yourself by now."
"I'm learning," Noa retorts, a trifle defensive. "I just … haven't completely got the hang of it yet. Yet," he repeats, putting extra emphasis on the word, as though they shouldn't doubt he will master the technique someday.
"Whatever. Give me your hands." She grabs for them when he's too slow. "So, where do you wanna go today?"
Noa frowns. "Uh…"
Amane rolls her eyes. "Kaiba Corp. again? Doesn't that brother of yours know how to take a vacation?"
"He's not my brother. And you're one to talk! Your brother keeps walking around with a face like a wet weekend, and he doesn't even have any stressful business deals to blame it on!"
Amana hesitates, and Kisara warns, "Noa…"
"Okay, okay, I know, I'm sorry." And to his credit, Noa does look a bit contrite. Amane reasons he's just not used to acting like he cares about anything or anyone, and so pushes thoughts of Ryou away as she fades out and guides Noa along the Soul Roads all spirits can use to look in on the loved ones they left behind.
"But you have to promise to come to tea with me later. I think today feels like a day for anpan, too."
"Aw, man. I hate tea. And your cat has it in for me…"
Anpan – Sweetened bread stuffed with azuki bean paste. A common Japanese dessert or snack food.