She looked at the handsome man with the glasses standing beside her. He wasn't doing as well as she was. His hands were trembling terribly and he kept looking at the grounds beneath him. Chika reached for his hand, and the trembling lessened. She could see tears flowing down his cheek, grief etched on his handsome face. His face looked so tired that it seemed that he was older by a few years.
Chika held on to her father's hands. She had to be strong, and she knew that her father was crying for the two of them. She had to be stronger for him.
The hours of the ceremony passed by silently. A few people said their condolences to Chika and Soushi and they all had sympathetic faces. Chika wasn't intimidated by it. She held back her tears and smiled to everybody. Her mother's memory would be in vain if Chika were to cry now.
With one hand still holding her father's, Chika gently placed the morning glory bouquet on her mother's tombstone. Chika closed her eyes and prayed, Please rest, mom. I will take care of dad for you.
"Chika." said her father with a hoarse voice, "Could you please return to the car, dear? I want to stay here for a while."
Chika gazed at her father's miserable face, and then nodded obligingly. She picked up a folded umbrella on her purse and opened it. Slowly, she walked away from her mother's grave to the parking lot.
It was then that she noticed someone standing behind a tree near her mother's tomb.
It was a tall figure of a man with short amber hair. Chika couldn't help but admire how good-looking that man was, standing there without an umbrella, drenched in the cold rain. It should be noted that Chika never gives compliments about looks easily, since she had always thought that there were nobody who could compare her father's.
The man gazed sadly at her mother's grave.
Is he mom's relative? thought Chika inwardly, while continuing her gaze. The man seemed to have realized it, as he had turned his dark eyes to Chika. Their eyes met for a while, but the man turned his back and walked away.
"Wait!" Chika rushed to the tree where the man was standing. Who is this man?
But when Chika got there, the man was no longer there.
Chika was stunned when she saw the feast on the dining room the next morning. Dozens of onigiri, tamagoyaki, fruit salad, parfaits, grilled fish, egg rolls, even pizza, pho, pad thai, kebabs, and other cuisines lined up on the table. Chika rubbed her eyes, and the view remained. So it wasn't a dream. On the table, she saw a card with her father's writing.
'You're late, Chika. For your punishment, you have to finish these. I'm off to the restaurant.
Chika sighed as she gazed at the abundance of food on her table. It must be enough to feed a third world country with those. Her uncle Masaki once told her that her father had two things he would do whenever he's depressed: cook and cook some more. Chika looked at the clock hanging on the table. It was still seven in the morning, way too early for her father to open his restaurant.
"Well, we can't possibly finish all these." Chika voiced her thoughts aloud. She picked up the cordless phone and began to dial her uncle's phone number. "Uncle Masaki would be more than happy to take some of them."
As she waited for the dial tone, Chika walked to the living room. The curtains were still closed and the room was still a mess. Usually her father would never forget to clean the room, especially on a Saturday morning like this. Chika slowly opened the shutters, allowing sunlight to enter the room. She then walked upstairs and opened the door to the veranda. She closed her eyes as she let the cool spring wind brush against the raven hair that she had inherited from her father.
It seemed that her uncle was either still asleep or had left early as well, since the machine had picked up Chika's phone call. Chika sighed and turned it off.
"Maybe I should give some to the neighbors. Aunt Miyabe from next door seems to like dad's cooking." said Chika to herself as she gazed at the view from the veranda.
Chika then noticed something move from the trees on the garden below her. Curious, Chika looked at the trees closely and then she saw him again. That same man from the funeral! He was looking at Chika's direction but after Chika realized his existence, he quickly turned away.
"What is this guy, a stalker?" murmured Chika. But she was couldn't deny her curiosity about this person. He had a mysterious air surrounding him, drawing her nearer and nearer.
Chika then snapped out of it. Feeling like there was nothing to do on a beautiful Saturday morning, Chika looked at the mess in her living room and drew an exasperated sigh. "I guess I'll do some spring cleaning after I deliver food to the neighbors…"
Chika used the back of her palm to wipe off the drops of sweat on her forehead. She had scrubbed the two-story house clean and had even picked out some gerberas from the garden and put it on a vase. Chika was exhausted, but somehow she still had some energy left to clean. That was when she remembered the attic. People rarely clean that room, not even her cleaning-obsessed father.
Chika pulled her sleeves, "Yosh! I'll clean that attic until it's spotless. Perhaps that will cheer him up a little."
Chika took her broom, brush, and mop to the attic. As she thought, thick layers of dust filled the room. She scratched her head, wondering which part to clean first. Slowly, she made her way to the edge of the room. The room itself was packed with old furniture, books, and photographs.
Chika couldn't help but grin looking at the old photo albums as she put down her broom and sat down. There were pictures when she was still a child, running around with her mother after her. There were also pictures of her father giving her a piggy back and the three of them walking on the amusement park. Chika gently touched the photo of the three of them in summer yukatas. It was lively back then, as her mother was a cheerful woman. Her sickness didn't affect her carefree nature until the end.
Chika exhaled. Deep down, she really wanted to cry, but she couldn't. Her grief just welled up in a secluded place inside her heart, and remained there –locked and untouched. Chika then reached for an older photo album. It was of her parent's wedding. Chika smiled when she saw the blushing bride that was her mother. Her hair was longer then. Her father looked very dashing on a tuxedo, and both her parents had looked very happy that day.
As she flicked through the photographs, she then encountered an even older set of photographs. It was taken when both her parents were still children. Chika then remembered that the two of them had been best friends since childhood and had grown up together.
It must be fun, to marry your childhood sweetheart. a voice in Chika's heart said. Yes, Chika had always been jealous of her mother and father. They had devoted their lives to each other. Chika remembered how diligently her father had cared for her mother when she was sick. He would cook her favorite meals everyday that her mother felt weak.
Chika closed her eyes, remembering the words that had slapped her in her face just a week ago. Matsuda, her boyfriend ever since middle school had dumped her for someone else. It was a bitter experience. Finding that love that would last a lifetime. Marrying your first love. Is it impossible for me, mom?
Chika stood up, but her elbows hit a cardboard box that was placed on the table and the box tumbled down with everything inside of it. Chika picked up the box carefully and realized her mother's writings on it. Night. It was written in katakana. Based on the thickness of the dust, the box must have been sitting on that desk untouched for a very long time.
Then Chika noticed that there were a few things that had fallen out from the box, among them were a small photo-sticker album, a book that looked like a journal, and a small wooden box. Chika picked up the small wooden box first and opened it curiously. She was surprised to see two identical heart-shaped rings inside it. It wasn't her parents' wedding rings. Gently, Chika picked up one of the rings and noticed a carving inside. 'Night'. This time it was in alphabet.
"Is this a person's name?" asked Chika aloud. What was this doing inside that box? Two identical rings. Then it meant that it was a pair of lovers' rings. Intrigued, Chika picked up the other ring, and was shocked to find a familiar name. 'Riiko'.
Chika nearly dropped the box and the rings. Why is her mother's name carved on that lover ring? And the other's name isn't Soushi, her father's. It was 'Night'. Chika raised her eyebrows, thoroughly confused. Does this mean that mom had loved someone else before dad? But how is that even possible? They told me they were childhood friends!
Chika scratched the tip of her nose, puzzled by the whole thing. She then opened the book that was lying on the floor, and noticed more of her mother's writing. What's this? 'Zettai Kareshi?' Slowly, Chika began to read.
In it she found her mother's old journal that she had been writing when she was sixteen. Chika was surprised to see at first how her mother would complain about her being flat-chested and extremely ordinary at the beginning and how her mother had dramatically wrote about getting rejected over and over again. Chika was surprised because though her mother was not really that goddess-like beautiful, as far as Chika knew her mother never had any confidence issues whatsoever. Chika raised her eyebrow when she found a few entries about her father. She had expected a lovey-dovey entry, but it was actually a spiteful entry about how 'Soushi' was always cruel to her mother, making fun of her. Chika's jaw dropped. In that instant, all her image of her parents as a legendary teenage couple vanished into thin air. So this is what they were really like in high school?
On the tenth page however, Chika found an extraordinary entry that glued her attention to the maximum. Teenage Riiko had written about her encounter with a cosplay salesman who had given her a trial product of a lover figure. Chika almost had a heart attack when she saw what her mother named the figure. 'Night'. Does that mean that, this ring belonged to this 'Night'? My mother fell in love with a figure?? The information was too much to handle and Chika's head began to spin. But she mustered enough strength and continued to read.
In the journal, she followed her mother's adolescent journey. She was betrayed by a close friend, had dodged murderous attacks from her boyfriend's fan club, been forbidden to see her boyfriend by her parents, was anxious on keeping her virginity, and had a love triangle that included Soushi. It should have been an ordinary journey, if not for the sci-fi nature of this boyfriend and the company that produced it. In the last entry, her mother had written something that caught her eye.
'He will always be my 'Zettai Kareshi'.'
Chika smiled and closed the book. All her life, she had been thinking that her parents were perfect. They had a perfect life together, and even seemed to have been destined to be together. But after reading that book, she had discovered another side to her parents. How her mother slowly fell in love with someone else and how her father had fought hard for her affections, and had actually lost once.
Chika then realized the photo album that was lying beside the book. She hastily opened it. At first she doubted that she would want to see a picture of her mother's former lover, but her curiosity later won the inner battle. All her interest on cleaning that day had been thrown out the window.
When she opened the first page, her heart nearly stopped. It seemed that her heart had been tried over and over again that day. Really, the mother's secret past is never good for a maiden's heart. Inside the album, Chika discovered pictures of her teenage mother with a man. It wasn't her father. It was a man with short amber hair and dark eyes, and had handsomely smiled to the camera. A man that was too familiar to be true. A man that was supposed to be dead almost twenty years ago.
Chika suddenly had an odd feeling and rushed to her window. Her hunch was right, and she wasn't surprised to see the same person near that tree again. Quickly she put on her shoes and ran outside. When she got to the tree, that man was still there. And when he saw her, a sweet smile adorned his handsome face.
Chika hesitated, but the words finally slipped from her mouth. "Tenjou Night?"
The man nodded. He didn't change at all from the picture. So it's true that he's a figure and didn't have the ability to age.
"My mother… is not here." said Chika slowly. She didn't know what else to say.
The tall man before her smiled rather bitterly and patted her head. It was like being patted by a big brother, not your mother's former lover. "I know. I was at her funeral." His tone of voice had a hint of sadness.
"Then why are you here?" Chika couldn't help but ask, hoping it didn't sound impolite.
"I first came to see how she has been living." answered Night gently, "I wanted to see if she was happy with Soushi, and she really was. She even had a beautiful daughter like you. Your name is Chika, right?"
Chika blushed. No one had ever called her beautiful except her parents.
"You look so much like her, but you have Soushi's hair and eyes. You know, Riiko was as tall as you when I first met her." continued Night with an excited smile on his face. "Actually, I was going to leave after the funeral but I changed my mind when I saw you."
Chika was surprised when he suddenly pulled her into his embrace. It wasn't a lover's embrace, but it was still warm and comforting.
"Cry it out." he whispered to her ear, "Why keep it inside you when you want to let it out?"
Chika could feel her heart beating furiously and a familiar wave of sadness engulfed her. She had been avoiding it all night, causing her lack of sleep. But this time, in this person's arms, Chika felt secure enough to accept it. And as she did, slowly tears began to form on the corners of her eye and fall on her cheeks.
"Let it out. Riiko would be sad if she sees you suffering while holding it all in." said Night as he stroked Chika's raven hair, "You have been a good girl, a strong girl for your father. But it's time for you to let it all out."
And Chika did. She must have cried in that embrace for half an hour until she wiped her tears with her index finger and lifted her face to see Night. The tall figure beamed at her, "Are you alright now, Chika-chan?"
Chika chuckled and nodded. "Thank you, Tenjou-san."
"Just Night is okay." He had a cheerful face that was like her mother's description: Easygoing, always extraordinarily happy when he sees me, reminds me of 'hachiko' the faithful dog. Both of them released each other from the embrace.
"Well, I've done what I came here for." said Night suddenly, "This is goodbye then. Please don't tell your father that you saw me."
He then turned his back to leave, and Chika never saw him again ever since. She realized that that man had returned only to check on her former lover's grieving family. At that moment, Chika understood why her mother had fallen in love with him. He truly did care about her mother. And not just her. He also genuinely cared for the people that she loves, treasuring them as if they were his own.
He may only be a figure, but he had a gentle heart that most real men lacked.
'Yes, you're right, mom. He truly is an absolute boyfriend. A zettai kareshi.'