Extended Summary: He knew that he was far from welcome in Mineral Town; though as long as he had Popuri for a best friend, he also knew that he could deal with anything. However, a summer would soon come and shake a town to its core... and bring one man to his knees. A one-shot song-fic based on Richard Marx's "Hazard", and rated K+ for slight language. Warning: This story is very long!
From The Author: This story is based on Harvest Moon: Friends (and More Friends) of Mineral Town. It takes place before the arrival of the new farmer and as such, either game can apply. Also, time in this story follows real life, where one year is twelve months rather than four. It's a very long piece, but I assure you, it's worth it. Please enjoy!
Kai rested his head on the flat pillow, closed his eyes, and sighed. It hadn't exactly been a long day, or busy for that matter, but it had tired him nonetheless. It was a little too early to go to sleep, but he didn't care. It wasn't as if he had anything else to do at the moment. He could hear the radio playing in the other room and resigned himself to the lullaby of the 80's station. He certainly didn't feel like listening to anything at the moment, but he didn't have much of a choice. It wasn't his home, it wasn't his room, it wasn't even his radio. Plus there was no use complaining; he'd only switch to a folk station and Kai would be even more miserable than he already was.
The current song ended and another began. It was only a moment before Kai realized exactly which song it was. His eyes snapped open. No, not this song. Kai did not know the author, but was almost certain that he would go back in time to write and sing it. It mirrored his life so perfectly at the moment, and never failed to have him in tears by the end of it. Since his prayers for the spontaneous combustion of the radio had never yet been fulfilled, Kai knew his only other option was to listen... and be swept away by the song...
My mother came to Hazard when I was just seven;
Even then the folks in town said with prejudiced eyes,
"That boy's not right."
Kai was actually seven when he first visited Mineral Town one summer with his parents and older brother Antoni. Moira, his mother's best friend from college, was living there with her husband Gotz, and their 2 year-old daughter. They had a quaint little cottage in the woods just outside the village. The place was very small, so Kai and his family stayed at the local inn. Kai was always easily bored and would run off to the beach to play in the water. Thanks to Mineral Town being such a safe place, he was allowed to go by himself, much to the relief of his older brother/reluctant babysitter. As long as Kai was by the water he was happy, though he wouldn't actually talk to people or any of the kids in town. He was a shy child, and a little afraid of strangers.
Kai had grown up in a bilingual household and as such, he grew up learning both English and Italian. His mother, Lissa, was African-American while his father, Silas, was Italian. Since it takes children longer to speak and speak correctly when they're learning two languages at once, Kai for years was often teased at school for "talking funny". It had left him with a slight case of stranger anxiety. Even now, being completely fluent in both languages and without a trace of an accent, he was still a little uncomfortable around people he didn't know.
The people of Mineral Town seemed nice enough, especially Doug, the owner of Doug's Inn & Bar, and Moira, and Kai was slowly becoming more comfortable there. Then one evening, his parents went to have dinner at Moira's house. He had a nightmare and woke up abruptly. On the verge of tears, he slipped downstairs to ask Doug for some hot milk. The first floor of the inn was actually a bar/restaurant, and Kai saw several people sitting at the tables. No one noticed the little boy, and as he passed one table, he overheard their conversation.
"He never talks to anybody; he just clings to his mother and stares at you."
"Yeah, well, I've actually heard the boy talk and it's better he's quiet."
"I know his mother is Moira's friend, but do you think she's raising him properly? I mean, she lets him and the older one run all over town without supervision. It's ridiculous. I'd never be so lackadaisical with my own child. And you know how kids from the inner city usually turn out."
"We'll just keep an eye on them. Make sure they know that we don't tolerate any mischief in this town."
"Good thing we only have to deal with them until the end of the summer."
Kai went back upstairs. From then on, he made no effort to be nice to anyone in town. After all, who else might be smiling at him, but secretly thinking mean thoughts? He told his brother what they had said (at least his little 7-year old self's version), and they decided not to tell their mother. They knew it would make her sad. Besides, they wouldn't be staying very long and he, at least, had no plans on coming back.
But they did come back; every summer afterwards for two years. Then the winter after their third summer in Mineral Town, Moira and her daughter had an accident on the mountain near the town... and didn't survive. Kai and his family attended the funeral service. It was the first time he'd been to Mineral town in a season other than summer, and the first time he ever saw his mother cry. They never took another family vacation to Mineral Town again, though his parents still kept in touch with Gotz and visited him briefly on occasion.
Three years ago when I came to know Mary,
First time that someone looked beyond the rumors and the lies...
And saw the man inside.
While there was a Mary in Mineral Town, his "Mary" was actually named Popuri. They had met three summers ago when Kai first opened his restaurant on Mineral Town beach. While Kai's mother was a professor at a university, his father owned and operated string of restaurants around the world. And though his new adorable baby girl was excluded from this demand, he expected his sons to work in and continue the family business. Kai had no problem with that, he loved cooking, but he also wanted to do his own thing. As such, when he got older, his relationship with his family changed. They seemed to be more critical of him, more demanding, more dependent – and they seemed to have a hard time accepting that their little boy was now a grown man. He understood that it was difficult for parents to truly see their children as adults, but it was still frustrating, and it strained his relationship particularly with his father. He loved and admired his dad, but they just couldn't get along anymore.
Kai decided to assert his independence, and asked to be allowed to run his own restaurant. His father had a furious opposition to the idea, and it was months before they came to a compromise. Kai could open his own place on a trial basis, so long as it was only open for one season out of the year. The rest of the year, he would continue to work the family business back at home. Kai decided on a summer snack shop, and his mother suggested the idea of building the restaurant in Mineral Town.
"Mineral Town?!" Kai exclaimed.
"Hear me out, now. I'm not just being sentimental. You need a location where you won't be competing with or constantly compared to your father's restaurants. You're in the city all the time, so a little country place would be an ideal break from routine. The kids in town would be around your age right now, and would probably enjoy someplace that's more tailored for them. Doug is a wonderful man, but his inn and bar isn't exactly the hippest joint."
Kai smiled. "'Hippest joint', Ma?"
She rolled her eyes. "Yes. Hippest joint. Anyway, supplies aren't as expensive there as they are in the city, and Gotz is the town's carpenter, you know. While I wouldn't feel right asking him for a discount, I know that no one can match him as far as quality. And since the town is so remote", and she smirked at this, "I wouldn't be able to constantly check up on you."
Kai told her that he'd think about it, which of course she immediately took to be a yes. As much as Kai didn't want to go back to Mineral town, bad memories still lingering, he also didn't want to hurt his mother; and she was just becoming so enthusiastic about his new endeavor. She was constantly bringing home some new item that would be "just perfect" for his restaurant. She became his biggest supporter, and soon even had his father warmed up to the idea. Kai half expected her to have coordinated a grand opening parade with the town's mayor as well. No. There was no way he could let her down. He would open his shop in Mineral Town.
The whole acquisitions process went rather smoothly. There was an abandoned, run-down shed on the beach which was reasonably priced, and Gotz was even gracious enough to give him a discount on the renovations. Kai put all of his affairs in order and went to the little town a few days early to set everything up. He saw his new shop for the first time and couldn't be happier. Gotz had really done a wonderful job. All it needed now was to be painted. Kai knew the perfect color: basic white. Not the most artistic and graphic design-oriented color, he knew, but for Kai it represented a clean slate, a beginning. It was the start of his independence, and Kai was excited.
Who would've thought there would be such a strong negative reaction to the color white in such a mono-ethnic town?
Opening day it seemed that people were determined not to visit the "Snack Shack". They were curious, certainly, but no one would actually step into the place. He did have some customers: Zack, who was the town shipper and deliveryman, Won, the Chinese merchant who sold rare items from his small, makeshift shop (both men lived next door to Kai), and travelers who came ashore when the ferry was docked. Mineral Town was a rest-stop port, but the ship was only there for an hour twice a day. So, there weren't many people who got off the small ferry to stretch their legs. And also, Kai was kind of hoping to be accepted in the town. A whole week later, he was leaning dismally against the counter when he heard a commotion outside.
"I don't care, Rick! It's stupid and it's wrong and you know it!"
"What's stupid and wrong is him being here at all! He's bad news."
"How can you say that about someone you've never even met? That's nothing but rumors, and you listen to rumors too much anyway."
"Rumors can be true, Puri."
"Oh really? So I guess that you and Karen really do fool around in the cemetery at night."
Kai didn't hear anything after that as a girl abruptly opened the door to the restaurant and walked in. He could see a bespectacled young man, with a face as red as a tomato, fuming in the sand as the door closed behind her. She was a really beautiful girl around his age, with long pink hair down to her hips and tamed back with a red headband. Her dress, also pink, came down to the floor and was accented by a burgundy corset. She smiled warmly as she approached him.
"Hi! I'm Popuri. My family runs Chicken Lil's, the poultry farm down the road there."
"Kai. Pleased to meet you."
"I've been itching to get the chance to try out your new restaurant. May I see a menu?"
"Sure!" Kai handed her a menu from the counter and smiled when her eyes grew wide.
"I've never even heard of some of these things!" she exclaimed. "S-spa-getty?"
"Spaghetti, yeah. Noodles with sauce on top. I've got three kinds of sau--"
Suddenly she gasped. "What's a snow-cone?!"
"You like strawberries?"
"Just a minute." Kai proceeded to make a strawberry snow-cone and held it out to her. "Here you go. On the house."
"I spread this on my house?"
Kai laughed. "No! On the house; it means it's free. A gift for my very first customer."
"Really?! Thank you so much!" Popuri took a spoonful and tasted it. "Wow! It's good! It's like ice cream without the cream."
"That's why they're also called ices."
The two of them laughed and talked amiably for a while before Popuri had to run off to do chores. She left with the promise that she would be back the next day. He had no more customers that day, and didn't even make any money from the snow-cone because he had given that as a gift, but for some odd reason, he started thinking Mineral Town wasn't so bad after all.
We used to walk down by the river...
She loved to watch the sun go down.
We used to walk along the river...
And dream our way out of this town.
As time went by, the people (mainly the ladies) in Mineral Town warmed up to Kai. They would patronize his shop every so often, but Popuri was the only one he saw regularly. The two had become fast friends, much to the chagrin of her older brother Rick. Kai had never felt so comfortable with another person before, like they had known each other for years, and Popuri felt the same. Their feelings for each other were never romantic (though they did try dating the next summer), but it was more than best friends, more than family... Kai couldn't explain it, as much as he wanted to, for his own benefit at least, but he thought that perhaps the term "soulmates" was closer to the reality.
Every summer when Kai arrived in Mineral Town, Popuri would be there at the dock to greet him. May, the cute little eight-year old from Yodel Farm, the neighboring cow/sheep ranch, would be there tagging along. Other than Popuri, she was Kai's biggest fan. He would always bring her a simple present from the city, like a new box of crayons or pretty stationary. For Popuri, it was always the same thing: a single Poppy flower. He was the only person who called her 'Poppi', and she loved it. Everyone else tended to call her 'Popuri' or 'Puri'. Not that 'Puri' was a bad nickname; it wasn't at all. It's just that to her, it had a slight childish connotation to it. When she was a baby she couldn't say her full name, she could only say 'Puri'. Maybe because she didn't hear it as often, or maybe because it was only uttered by her best friend, 'Poppi' seemed to make her feel just a little bit... special.
They often relaxed on the beach (usually sans May), and Kai would tell her all about his travels. His family's business was not the only reason Kai had seen much of the world, but he had an insatiable desire to explore. To not just see the world, but to experience it. Popuri shared that desire with a passion, but she couldn't leave her family. Her mother, Lillia, was chronically ill, and her father, Rod, had run off to find a cure. That was some years ago, and he hadn't returned. As such, Popuri and Rick had been trying to run the poultry farm as best they could, and take as much of the weight from Lillia as possible.
The siblings shouldered a heavy burden at such young ages, and the stress only escalated the normal arguments that siblings have. Rick slowly became overprotective – treating his mother like fragile glass and Popuri like a child (though she was only two years younger than him), and took the role of 'man of the house' a little too strictly. In a sort of causality loop, Popuri unconsciously responded to being treated like a child by acting like one, which in turn caused people to treat her like a child. She wanted so desperately to get out from that shadow, all their preconceptions, and see for herself that she could be an adult.
Popuri and Kai would exchange their similar problems. He would tell her about his relationship with his family, and how he longed to be fully independent from them. They both loved their families so much, but felt confined and trapped more and more each day. Kai didn't have anyone other than Popuri that he felt comfortable with telling his feelings. He always secretly wondered whether it was the same for her, even though she actually had close friends in Mineral Town. Still, whenever things got too tough, and they sat on the beach, her crying into his shoulder as he stroked her hair and murmured soothing words in Italian, those doubts were quelled.
No one understood what I felt for Mary;
No one cared until the night she went out walking all alone...
And never came home.
Kai and Popuri were with each other so much during the summers that the townspeople started to talk, to speculate. They spent an awful lot of time together. Alone. And that's probably what bothered Rick and the others the most. It wasn't proper. After all, a man and a woman just can't be platonic. It's only natural. Still, many people were optimistically expecting engagement news any time now. But it wasn't to be. Neither Kai nor Popuri wanted to get married anytime soon, least of all to each other. It just wasn't like that between them. But for all the rumors, no one would actually ask them outright what was going on.
Late one evening, Kai had closed up the Snack Shack for the night and proceeded to the inn. He stayed there during the summer months. Just as he reached the front door, Popuri came running up to him, panting heavily with tears rolling down her face. She clutched onto his shirt.
"Goddess, Poppi! What happened? Is it Lillia? Is your mom okay?"
"S-she's fine. Oh, Kai... I-I just h-had the most... horrible fight w-with Rick!"
"Okay, let's go inside and you can tell me about it."
"No, not here. I know he's going to... going to come here a-and I really don't want to see him. Can we... go somewhere else?"
Kai walked with Popuri back to the beach, the whole way quietly imploring her not to cry. They went to the farthest end of the shore and sat down in the sand.
"Now, what happened, Poppi?"
Popuri looked down at the sand and ran her fingers through it as she spoke. "Well, mom had one of... her attacks. Me and... Rick helped her through it, b-but she felt really weak after, so she... so she went to b-bed early. Rick went to tend the chickens for the night, and I cleaned up downstairs. He... came back in and sat by the fireplace. I could tell he was upset because he... didn't start r-rambling on about stuff... like he usually does. I know to give him space when he's like that, so I just kept sweeping. Then he... started talking. About how he was... worried about mom, and how... hard it was to take over the farm, and about how he was really feeling it. And I felt so... so bad, Kai, because I was feeling the exact same way, but we never... we never talk about it! And so I told him that. And w-we started talking, and it was really nice. It was so nice. Then I said that d-dad would be so proud of us when he g-got back and oh, did Rick go off! He said that... that dad wasn't coming back, that he had... that he had run off and left us. I-I said he was only saying that because he was upset and... and he... and he said that he knew I was naïve, but he... he didn't think that I was that... that brainless to believe in dad. That the chickens have more sense than I do. And then I... called him a ja— a jac— and then I swore at him and I ran out."
"Jeez, I can't believe he said that to you!"
Popuri cried into Kai's chest as he held her quietly and stroked her hair. After a while, when her sobs started to quiet, he said, "It's getting late, Poppi. I should walk you home."
"Dun wollah o-ohm," she mumbled into his tear-stained shirt.
She lifted her head and sniffled. "I don't wanna go home."
She sighed. "I know, I know. But can't we... stay here just a l-little longer?"
"All right," Kai relented. "But only ten more minutes."
They sat in silence, watching the waves as they lapped up onto the rocks.
"You believe my dad's gonna come home, don't you Kai?"
"You agree with me, don't you?" She looked up at Kai with big sad eyes, red from crying, waiting for an answer. Kai had always believed that honesty was best, but now though probably wasn't the best time for it. He knew exactly what she wanted to hear, and he intended to skirt the question a bit, but apparently his mouth had other plans.
There was no point in backtracking now. "I don't think he's coming back either."
"Kai! How could you say that?!"
"Poppi, he's been gone, what, six, seven years now? He barely even writes to you guys--"
"He's searching for a cure! He doesn't have access to post offices."
"Poppi, the reason he's not writing is because he doesn't want to. Lillia was sick and she got worse and he got scared. He couldn't handle it, so he made up an excuse and he bolted."
"That's... that's not true! Daddy loves us!"
Kai's temper was rising along with hers. He wasn't mad at her, but at Rod. In his eyes, Rod was the lowest a man could sink to, and he didn't deserve the unwavering loyalty of Popuri.
"If he loved you, he'd still be here!"
Tears were welling up in Popuri's eyes again and her face was all red. "He's t-trying to help Mom!"
"You know this already, Poppi! He abandoned you! You're trying to force yourself to believe that he's coming back, but he's not! He's not coming back!"
Kai was nine years old the last time he was slapped. He had been in the store with his mother, whining about a video game he wanted. She wouldn't buy it and he threw a fit in the center of the aisle. She told him he was now grounded for the next two weeks, and as she turned to walk away, Kai muttered an expletive under his breath. She heard.
Kai stared at the sea as he raised his hand to his cheek. Popuri's eyes were filled with tears and fury, and she quivered as she spoke. "Go away."
He turned to look at her. "Popuri..."
"I-I don't want to h-hear this anymore. G-go back... to the inn."
"GO AWAY, KAI!!" she yelled, startling him. She then whispered softly, "Please. I just... want to be alone." She plopped down dejectedly to the sand. "Please just go on back to the inn."
Kai hated to leave her, but he knew his presence wouldn't help. Not anymore.
"All right," he said quietly as he started off to the boardwalk. He kept looking back at her figure in the sand, wanting to go to her, but knowing he couldn't.
They had never actually had a fight before, and this one completely shocked him. In fact, he barely realized when he had gotten back to the inn. It was already officially closed for the night, so he let himself in and proceeded upstairs to the room he shared with two other guys. Both boys were around Kai's age. Gray was a rather taciturn blond guy and the grandson of the town's blacksmith. He had been living in the town for a year now, but as his grandfather's house was way too small for the both of them, arrangements were made so that Gray could live at the inn. He and Kai had a lot in common, and Gray would frequent his shop whenever he had the opportunity. Cliff was a wanderer, traveling from town to town with his pet falcon, Cain. He had only arrived in Mineral Town the previous week. The brunet was very shy and didn't talk much at all, and he apparently slept like the dead as well. His light snores didn't falter as Kai entered the room.
Gray, on the other hand, woke with a start and looked at Kai with sleepy blue eyes. "You're just now getting back? Everything okay?"
"Yeah. It's a little much to go into right now, though."
"Hn. Just glad to know the dogs didn't get ya."
"Wild dogs. Ever since that farm went vacant, the wild dogs from the forest have been edging closer to town. Grampa was telling me about it earlier. Harris is having trouble keeping them in check."
Gray turned over and drifted off to sleep, and Kai lay down in his bed and stared up at the ceiling. He was worried about Popuri. It was late, she was upset, and now there were wild dogs potentially running around? He regretted leaving her by herself the entire walk back, and decided he had to go to her. Unfortunately, sleep overtook him before he could act.
Kai slept rather hard and roughly that night; his dreams filled with wild dogs, dragging his bound and gagged body under the floor of his restaurant (which was as liquid as water) while his father stood there laughing. His mother, who for some reason looked like Popuri, watched with pity in her eyes. Kai fought to keep afloat, but he just wasn't strong enough. He couldn't scream... couldn't breathe... And by the Goddess, he was so tired...
Man with a badge came knocking next morning;
Here was I surrounded by a thousand fingers suddenly...
Pointed right at me.
The next morning Kai severely overslept. He quickly washed up and changed clothes (having slept in the ones he was wearing the other day), splashed on a bit of cologne, and rushed over to the Snack Shack. He let himself in and had just enough time to set up the restaurant before it was time to open. He decided he would seek out Popuri during his break and make amends. Two customers stopped in from the 11:30 ferry, and twenty minutes later, just as they were leaving, Harris, the town's constable, walked into the shop. This surprised Kai, as Harris was one of the townspeople that had never been to his restaurant. He was a tall man, about ten years older than Kai, and though Kai didn't know him well, he knew that Harris was very amiable, and dedicated and constant in his patrols.
"'Morning, Harris," Kai said with a smile as he handed out a menu. "What can I get for you?"
Harris waved a hand, rejecting the menu. "Nothing, thank you. I'm here about Popuri."
Kai looked quizzically at Harris, and then in surprise as a sudden realization dawned on him. "You've gotta be kidding me..."
"It was just a little argument! I can't believe she's so mad at me that she would involve you."
Harris raised his eyebrow. "And do you two fight often?"
"No, never! Well, we've had disagreements before, but this was our first real fight."
"I thought you just said it was a 'little argument'..."
"It was little! Well, maybe not so little... I mean, she was pretty angry last night."
Harris took out a small notepad and retrieved a pencil from behind his ear. "Last night? What time was this?"
"Huh? Well, we didn't get to beach until nine, and we must've been there for a good hour... I guess it was sometime after ten..."
"Really?! That's a little improper, don't you think? I don't know what it's like in the city, but respectable couples here don't have late night rendezvous."
Kai rolled his eyes. "It wasn't a rendezvous. Besides, Mineral Town has gotta be one of the safest places on earth. What would happen?"
"It's only natural for a man and a woman, who are attracted to each other... and alone... Hormones start racing..."
"Okay, first of all, it's not like that between us. Second of all, we were just... Wait a minute. Did she tell you that I tried something? Is that why you're here?"
Kai began pacing behind the small counter, gesticulating with his hands. "Oh. My. Goddess. I could strangle her; I really, really could. Wrap my hands around that neck of hers..." He looked at Harris and stopped. "...in a completely legal, loving, and non-violent kind of way, of course. Look, Harris, I don't know what she told you, but we had a small argument and that was it. Nothing happened."
"Kai..." Harris closed his notepad and put it in his shirt pocket. "I'd like you to close up shop for the day and come down to my office with me."
"I want to ask you some more questions."
"You've gotta be kidding me..." Kai whispered to himself.
"I'm sorry, Kai. Please don't make me have to make this a formal arrest."
Kai lifted his head and looked at Harris in utter shock. "I'll just... get my keys..."
Kai retrieved his things and left the Snack Shack. Although it was a bit of a walk north, he barely registered anything as he walked with Harris to the town jail.
The town jail wasn't really a jail, but a small room attached to the side of the house Harris shared with Thomas, the mayor of Mineral Town. There was a desk with a radio and some papers on top, three chairs, a couple of file cabinets, and in the back was a barred section enclosing a tiny cot, a sink, and a toilet. Mineral Town was a very secluded place with a close-knit community, and therefore, also very peaceful and safe. They honestly had no need for a real jail, so this holding cell housed prisoners until they could be transported to the neighboring town.
They went inside and Kai sat down in front of Harris's small desk and rubbed his hands absently. Harris sat down behind the desk and took out a notebook from the top drawer. He anxiously clicked the button on his click-pen several times before sighing and looking up at Kai.
"Okay. Now please tell me exactly what happened last night between yourself and Popuri."
Kai closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and related to Harris the events of the evening. Harris made no comments or interruptions as the story was told; he just wrote notes into his book.
"I was going to find her during my lunch break and apologize, but then you showed up," Kai finished.
"Mmm-hmm," Harris muttered. "And you thought I came there because..."
"I thought she was being spiteful. That she wanted to get me in trouble with you."
"Why would you think that? She never seemed to be that type of person."
"No, no! Poppi's a real sweetheart. She's great. It's just... why else would you want to talk to me about her?" Suddenly, Kai slightly narrowed his eyes. "Why would you want to talk to me about her, Harris?"
"We'll get to that. But first, you say you left her at the beach and walked back to the inn. Did you pass anyone along the way?"
Kai thought for a moment. "No. No one. Even the inn was quiet by the time I got there."
"And what time was that?"
"Umm... about 11:30."
"And you didn't see her or talk to her at all today?"
"Do you have anyone besides Popuri that can corroborate that for you?"
"Well, I woke Gray up when I came into the room, but I doubt he noticed the time. He may not even remember it."
"Hnn." Harris absently clicked his pen a few times before continuing to ask Kai questions about the previous evening. After about an hour, Kai was dismissed, though Harris never did answer his question of why he came to visit him about Popuri in the first place. Harris escorted him to the front door and sighed.
"I may have more questions for you later, okay?"
"You're really freakin' me out here, Harris. What's this all ab--"
Kai was interrupted as Mayor Thomas trotted up to them. He was a short, bespectacled man in his forties, with a thick mustache under his big nose. He was dressed in a very neat suit with matching top hat.
"Excuse me gentlemen. Harris, I need to speak with you. It's rather important."
"Sure. We're just about done here. I'll be in touch, Kai."
Harris and Thomas walked into the house, leaving Kai standing confused on the road. He stood there for a bit debating on whether or not to go back inside and get more information from Harris. Instead, he opted to walk straight over to Popuri's house and find out exactly what was going on.
He walked down the road, past the grocery store and the clinic, and was so wrapped up in thought that he didn't notice Stu, May, and Father Carter standing outside the church. Stu was the same age as May, as well as her best friend. His personality was a lot different, though, as he was a lot louder and a lot more rambunctious. Father Carter was the pastor to Mineral Town's only church. A benevolent, smiling man, he also tutored the two children during the day.
"No, it's really true! Elli didn't know I was there when she was talkin' to the doctor."
"Stu, that doesn't necessarily mean--"
"Wow... I can't believe Popuri's missing. I wonder where she could be..."
Kai stopped dead in his tracks. "What did you say?"
It wasn't long before Thomas opened the door, as Kai had been pounding on it rather obnoxiously. He was surprised to see the young chef back so soon, and even more surprised when Kai pushed past him and made a beeline for Harris.
"Popuri is missing?!"
Harris ran his fingers through his thinning hair in exasperation. "Aw, hell..."
"Is that what you were questioning me about this whole time? Why didn't you tell me?! Why are you wasting your time here? You should be out looking for her!"
"Look, Kai--" Harris stopped short at the sudden knock at the door. Thomas opened it and Rick stepped in.
"Hello, Thomas," he said distractedly. "Harris, we still haven't heard anything from Popuri. Mom's really getting worried. Any news on your end?"
"Unfortunately not so far, but I don't think there's any cause for worry right now."
"No cause for worry?" Rick interrupted. "She didn't come home last night and no one's seen her the entire day! How can there be no cause for worry?!"
"Wait." This time it was Kai who interrupted. "Popuri didn't come home at all?!"
Rick turned and looked at Kai as if he had only just noticed that Kai was in the room. "What are you doing here?"
"Trying to find out the same thing you are: what happened to Popuri. When I left her last night--"
"You saw her last night?! What the hell were you doing with her last night?!"
"Don't start with me, Rick! If you weren't such a fuc--"
"Ah... perhaps we've stopped by at a bad time?" Everyone turned towards the door to see three ladies, Anna, Manna, and Sasha, standing there. Anna was a very good-looking, elegant lady and the wife of a rather famous botanist. Manna ran Aja Winery with her husband, Duke. Though quite friendly, she could also talk the ears off a statue. Sasha owned the town grocery store with her husband, Jeff. She was a very sweet, community-oriented woman. The three best friends were also known in town to be as attracted to gossip and rumors as bees were to flowers.
"Madams!" Thomas exclaimed. "Welcome, welcome. No, you are... uh..."
"So the rumor is true, then?" Sasha asked with a look of concern on her face.
Thomas held his hands up. "I don't know what you've heard, but I can assure you that Harris and I have everything under control and there is no cause for alarm."
The ladies looked at each other with skepticism.
"His assurance is incredibly reassuring... and rehearsed," Anna pointed out.
"He's holding his hands up and he won't meet my eyes," Sasha noted.
"There's only one reason why those boys would be standing there about to kill each other," Manna chimed in.
"It's true," was the general consensus. There was a flurry of commotion as the women ran over to pry information out of Harris, Rick, and Kai.
"And I heard Rick say that you saw her last night," Manna said to Kai. "Did she say anything strange to you? Did she seem upset at all? Were you the last person to see her?"
"Yeah, Kai!" Rick interjected. "What the hell did you do to make her run off?!"
Kai glared at Rick before turning his attention to Harris and the three housewives. "Look, I know we were out late, but even though she was upset, when I left her at the beach I swear she was fine. She was sitting in the sand and she just wanted to be by herself for a little while. I swear it! I--"
I swear, I left her by the river.
I swear, I left her safe and sound.
I need to make it to the river...
And leave this old Nebraska town.
Once the rumor was confirmed true, the town was thrown into frenzy. Everyone was swapping stories about their last encounter with Popuri and speculating on what, or who, had caused her to disappear. Volunteers were gathered to form alternating search parties. Popuri had to be declared officially missing for three days before the nearest town would send Harris any assistance, but everyone prayed that assistance wouldn't be necessary.
Kai found it difficult to concentrate, but managed to keep his shop open through the day. He wanted to be out there looking for Popuri, but he knew he couldn't financially afford to shirk his responsibilities at work. He figured the least he could do was to comb the beach on his lunch break and off hours, and offer free meals during the day to those on active search duty.
Three days later, there was still no sign of Popuri.
Speculations about what happened grew wilder and wilder. Unfortunately, as he was the last person to see her, most of the rumors involved Kai. He certainly wasn't the most well-liked person in town, and his relationship with Popuri had always been a source of tension with the townspeople. No one accused him of doing anything intentionally to harm Popuri, but suddenly she was remembered as a sweet, but fragile girl who would fall into hysterics at the slightest hint of a mean word.
After closing on the fourth evening, Kai walked down to where they had their argument at the far end of the beach. He'd never been so depressed as he watched the sun begin to dip under the horizon. He slowly walked towards it. The water lapping at his feet rose higher and higher as he continued on. When it reached his chest, he started swimming. He didn't know why, nor did he care, but he kept going. After a while he stopped, turned over, and stared up at the emerging stars.
"Goddess, Poppi... Where are you?" he whispered. He sighed heavily and began his way back to shore.
He wound up coming back a little farther down than he had started out, closer to the rock face/cliffs that helped to keep Mineral Town so secluded. The water was almost shallow enough for him to stand up when he got snagged on something. He dipped under and came back up with the offending item, blanching when he realized exactly what it was.
He had been caught on Popuri's corset.
Police swarmed the area, combing as much of it as they possibly could. A reporter from the local news was there, and rumor had it that the story was gathering attention with the national media as well. The authorities recovered a ripped piece of cloth, thought to be part of Popuri's dress, as well as one of her shoes. However, they had yet to find a body.
Rumors grew wilder than ever. Was it a suicide, or a lover's quarrel gone horribly wrong? Whatever it was, Kai had become the direct cause in their wild speculations. Only a handful of townspeople would admit to being on the fence about his involvement, and even fewer who believed in his innocence. For the majority of the town, however, it slowly became a question of whether or not this "accident" was intentional, and no one wanted to associate with him.
"You can stay at the Snack Shack for the rest of the summer, right Kai?" Doug asked as Kai passed the counter.
"I don't have anything against you, Kai. You pay upfront and you respect my establishment. But I have a lot more paying customers who aren't comfortable with you being here than those who are. Nothing personal. I'll give you back the money you paid for the remainder of the summer."
Kai looked at him dumbfounded. "Uh, sure. I just don't have anything there to sleep on. Can I at least borrow an extra pillow and blanket?"
Doug glanced uncomfortably at Duke and Manna, and then at Rick, all of whom were sitting nearby. He looked down into the glass mug he was wiping clean and replied, "I don't have any to spare."
Kai stared at the inn's proprietor in shock before storming out of the place without another word. From that point on, Kai slept on the floor of his restaurant. The ferry to Mineral Town was halted for the investigation, but Kai kept the shop open for the officers.
A few days later, Kai closed early intending to walk over to the local hot springs. He knew he needed to relieve some stress, but also, the pond/waterfall by there was sacred, and said to be the best place for praying to the Harvest Goddess, Mineral Town's patron deity.
He walked past Yodel Farm and could not help but notice that May was hurried inside as soon as her grandfather Barley noticed that he was approaching. Kai continued on to the spring and spent a quiet half-hour soaking in the calming bath. Then, he sat down by the Harvest Goddess's pond and spent another half-hour in meditation.
Kai walked back past Yodel Farm, through Rose Square, and had just stepped out past the trees that divided the Square and Mineral Beach when he got a clear view of the Snack Shack -- completely engulfed in flames. Police officers were already scrambling to put it out as Harris rushed over to the stunned chef.
"Thank the Goddess, Kai. We were worried you might still be in there."
"We don't know just yet. We were all on the other end of the beach when Won alerted us to the whoa, whoa, WHOA! You can't go over there, Kai!"
Harris grabbed at him. Kai was in shock; all he could think about was getting back to his restaurant. He could hear Harris shouting, but shouting what exactly he could not tell. He watched as his dreams illuminated the beach.
I think about my life gone by,
And how it's done me wrong.
There's no escape for me this time;
All my rescues are gone... long gone...
When Kai awoke, he was on a tiny cot in a small room surrounded by bars. He sat up with a start. He was back at the town jail. The sound of folk music played faintly in the air. He vaguely remembered walking back there with Harris and Zack. Then he remembered the inferno that used to be his restaurant. The cell door was open, and Kai walked over to Harris, who was sitting at his desk.
"Well, Harris," he began, "how is it?"
Harris sighed and looked up at Kai. "We managed to put the fire out. The building seems salvageable, but Gotz'll have to look it over to make sure there's no structural damage. You definitely won't be able to stay there anymore."
Kai snorted. "Of course."
"I'd like you to stay here until the investigation is over. You can use the cot there."
"Are you sure? I could always move into the Spring Mine instead. Wait for someone to cause a cave-in while I'm sleeping."
"Look, Kai, I know you're under a lot of stress, and I know about all the rumors going 'round about you, but I need you to work with me here. There is no evidence that the fire was arson."
"Nevertheless," Harris continued, "until it's proven otherwise, I think that you'd be safer here than anywhere else. And Goddess forbid anything else should happen, you'll at least have an alibi for it this time."
Kai sighed. "I guess I don't have much of a choice, do I? Can I use your phone? I should let my parents know what's going on."
Kai reached for the phone on the wall with an unsteady hand and dialed out. It rang a few times before it was answered by an older man with a husky voice. "Good day. Can I help you?"
"Ah! Uncle Elmo! I didn't know you were visiting."
"Kai, my boy, is that you? Good! Good! How are you?"
"Uh, not that good at all. Is mom there? I need to talk to her."
"Si, si. I'll get her right now. Hold on."
Kai heard his uncle place the phone down and call for Lissa. There were sounds of footsteps.
"Hey, baby. What's wrong?"
"Oh, Goddess, mom, "Kai sighed. "Where do I even begin...?"
It had been a difficult, nerve-wracking phone call to make. Lissa, of course, was shocked at the news. She didn't know Popuri herself, but she knew how important the young girl was to Kai. And for Kai to be ostracized from the town-- suspected, even, of being involved somehow-- filled her with an indignant fury.
It had been awkward as well for Kai, explaining to her that while he was now in jail, he was not jailed. Lissa was not just distressed, but also completely livid about the whole situation, and Kai wound up on the phone for two hours trying to calm her down. Finally she decided that she would drive over to the restaurant his father was currently at and tell him the news. She left Kai reluctantly, but a lot calmer than she had started out. Kai let out a long sigh once he placed the receiver on its hook, and slumped to the ground.
He looked around at the small office, and then at the barred section which was to be his new home. He was completely alone now. Harris had left earlier to start his rounds and the mayor was probably still up the road visiting Ms. Ellen. And it was so quiet.
The longer Kai sat there, the more depressed he became. He really was completely alone now. Popuri, his best friend and confidante, was missing; he wasn't even allowed to help with the investigation. No one in town wanted anything to do with him. His restaurant, his sanctuary, was in shambles, and all he had left were the clothes on his back and the few items he kept in his fire-safe. His mother had reassured him that she'd be there "before he knew it", but Kai knew better. He knew she was teaching summer courses at the university, and that it was dangerously close to finals. The school would never let her leave so suddenly for something that, in their eyes, could wait. This was also a very busy time for his father. Not only had he recently begun the fiscal year, but also, he had just opened his latest restaurant. And his little sister was only three. They certainly couldn't bring her with them, or leave her by herself. It was too highly inconvenient right now for either of them to make a sudden trip out of the country for an unspecified amount of time.
But even if they could manage to take the time off, travel to and from Mineral Town was still suspended due to the investigation. They would hardly be granted special permission. No. Kai was alone in this. He would just have to endure it the best he could.
A week passed with no news of Popuri. The investigation into the fire came back inconclusive. Kai began retreating into himself more and more. It had quickly become a daily routine. He would wake up late in the morning and let his mind replay the events of the summer. Sometimes instead of going back to the inn, he watched Popuri from the shadows and was able to stop an evil attacker hidden in the darkness. Sometimes the morning after the argument he'd go to her house with flowers and she'd be there to accept them with a warm smile. Sometimes, the fight had never happened.
Kai would cycle through different scenarios for a few hours and then take the short walk over to the library. Goddess, he was beginning to feel like he had never spent so much time in a library before in his life. Mary, the town's librarian, would let him sit and read until closing, but he wasn't allowed to borrow anything. Afterwards he would take a walk around the town, ignoring the dirty looks and whispers, and hours later wind up back at the jail. He'd go inside and have just enough time to wash up before Doug's daughter Ann stopped by to deliver dinner for Thomas, Harris, and himself. Then he would stare up at the ceiling until he fell asleep.
This particular Monday was very melancholy. Not only was the library closed, but it was also pouring outside. The sound of the rain and the scent of the air made for a very lazy feeling, but it was desperately needed. It hadn't rained the entire summer.
Kai lay listening to the patter on the window merging with the soft music from the radio. It distracted him from his usual daydreams, but he felt a little anxious. He decided that he would take his walk around the town despite the weather, and proceeded to get himself ready.
He took his usual path along the road surrounding the town, passing the library and eventually, Chicken Lil's. Even if Rick wasn't home, Kai couldn't bring himself to visit Lillia. She probably hated him too, but as long as she hadn't yet said it to his face, he could retain that one sliver of hope that she didn't. He couldn't bear to see hatred in those eyes that looked just like Popuri's.
He passed Yodel Farm and walked through Rose Square. Since everyone was avoiding the rain, it was turning out to be a rather pleasant walk for him. He turned the corner, just past the Church, and on impulse, turned back and stepped through the double doors.
Kai walked down the main aisle and looked around. The church was very quaint, about the size of a two-bedroom apartment, and was made of a beautiful polished wood, which Farther Carter had obviously recently finished cleaning. Everything shone in the candlelight.
Aside from being a very elegant church, it was also very empty. Kai was actually surprised as he knew that Carter rarely left the place. He kept it open and available for nearly the entire day everyday.
Kai walked up past the pews and respectfully bowed his head at the altar to the Harvest Goddess. He was about to turn back when he noticed the door to the confessional and a plaque with the hours tacked on to it. Kai had apparently arrived during confession. He noted the 'vacant' sign as well, and sighing, stepped through the door.
The room was very tiny and dark. There was only just enough space to sit. Kai sat down on the cushioned bench and noted the door to the Pastor's alcove to his side. "Good afternoon, Father."
"Well, now. This is a voice I haven't heard in my church before. Is something the matter?"
Kai fidgeted. "Just saying 'Hi'."
"Hello. How are you?"
"Are you really?"
"Sure. Why the hell wouldn't I be? My best friend's gone and I'm being blamed. My restaurant's gone and the police supposedly don't know why. The whole town hates me and I'm living in a jail cell. How could my life possibly get any better?"
Silence followed Kai's outburst and he began rubbing his hands. "I'm sorry, Father. That was rude of me."
"Hardly," Carter replied in his soft, quiet voice. "This is what I'm here for."
"To be yelled at?"
"To be there."
Kai's nose began to itch and his eyes stung. "Father, I... I want to confess."
Carter sighed heavily. "What do you wish to repent for?"
"It's my fault, you know. It's all my fault."
"What is all your fault, Kai?"
"Popuri. We had that argument and... and she told me to go away." His voice broke as he continued. "I never should have left her by herself. It was already so late; I should've refused to leave! If we had been in the city, I wouldn't have thought twice about it. It shouldn't've been any different just cause it's supposedly so much safer here. If I had walked her home like a real man, she would be safe now.
"I love Poppi... so much I can't describe it. She's the reason I come back every summer, not the shop. And now that she's... and now... I don't know how much longer I'm gonna last."
Kai took a deep breath and punched the wall in front of him. "Why, Father?! Why wasn't I there when she needed me?! Why the hell didn't I protect her?!" Kai buried his face in his hands and let out the emotions he'd been holding back for so long.
Kai walked back to the jail feeling a little shaky. His 'outburst' was very unsettling, but in a way, it was also freeing. He felt like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Not a huge weight, but something, and all he wanted to do now was to get some sleep.
Kai walked inside the jail and stopped short when he saw Harris talking with an officer from the next town. Whatever they had been talking about was obviously not good, as both policemen looked very upset. The officer excused himself and left the room. Harris exhaled and ran his fingers through his hair.
"What's going on?" Kai asked.
"We're at the end of our resources. If Popuri doesn't turn up in the next five days, her case will move from 'active' to 'inactive'. All the officers will be sent back to their towns and I will resume my normal patrol."
"You're going to end the search?!"
"It won't be ended, just slowed. We just don't have the resources to keep the investigation a top priority any longer."
"I don't believe this..."
"Trust me, Kai. I'm not happy about this either."
Kai walked over to the cell and leaned up against the bars. Closing his eyes and lifting his head, he focused solely on breathing. He heard Harris moving around and clicking on the radio. A song wafted through the air. Kai had never heard it before. Its melody was so sad, so penetrating... Kai listened, entranced...
I swear, I left her by the river.
I swear, I left her safe and sound.
Oh, I need to make it to the river...
And leave this old Nebraska town.
Ooo... hoo... hoo...
The song ended, its haunting melody fading slowly away. Kai turned over on his side to stare at the dreary gray wall, and blink back the tears that were welling up in his eyes. It had been one long, miserable summer, and every passing day seemed to drain more and more out of him.
Four days had passed since he had broken down at Confession. Popuri had still not been found and the investigation would be officially called off if nothing changed by the next evening. Kai went into his usual cycle of daydreams and was entertaining a new scenario when he was jolted from his reverie.
"Your father is here."
"My father?" Kai got up and turned to see Silas standing next to Harris. Kai was out of the bed in a flash and at his father's side. "Dad! What are you doing here?"
"You didn't think I'd abandon you at a time like this?"
"No, but the business? The restaurants?"
"Will be there when I get back. Your uncle cancelled his flight plans and is taking care of things for me. The troublesome thing was getting here."
"That's right, the ferry's still halted for the investigation. How did you get here?"
Silas grinned mischievously. "Magic."
Kai laughed for the first time in weeks. Tears began to well in his eyes when the laughter subsided. "Oh, Dad..." he sighed.
Silas grabbed his son into a hug. "Come, my boy. We'll go sit outside with your mother and talk under the stars."
"Ma's here, too?!"
Silas nodded. "She couldn't bring herself to see you in the jail, so she waits for us on the bench by the supermarket."
Kai and his father went outside and walked a short ways down the street to the town's grocery store. When Lissa saw them, she stood up from the bench and hugged her son.
"I thought you--" Kai began.
"I changed the final to a take-home. All the students have to do is drop it off at the department and Antoni will pick them up and hold on to them for me."
"Where are you staying?"
"Gotz's living room."
Kai let out a half-hearted chuckle. "I'm not even going to lie; I'm really glad you two are here."
"Come," his father said, pointing forward. "Let's sit and talk on the benches in Rose Square."
The three began their walk along the road and ended at the village square. It was empty this time of evening, and they had no trouble finding a place to sit together. Lissa removed a large thermos from her backpack, poured the contents into three small cups, and passed them out. Kai took a sip.
"Goddess, I've missed your pineapple iced tea. I feel like it's been a lot longer than a season."
"I can imagine," she said softly.
"How long are you two staying?"
"We bought one-way tickets," his father answered. "Our return depends on you."
"We're not going back without you," he explained. "We understand that the investigation will be halted soon. Since they cannot formally charge you, you'll be free to leave with us. Then we will get three tickets for home."
Lissa held up a hand. "We'll leave Harris our home and work information should there be any news. He can call us if the find out anything. But my dear, there's nothing here for you anymore."
"Yeah, I know mom. I know..."
The three sat on the benches for a while longer before parting ways. Kai headed back to the jail, and his parents went to Gotz's for the evening.
The next day the entire town was filled with anxiety. People crowded the Harvest Goddess's pond praying for a last-minute miracle. They even prayed to the Kappa and the Harvest Sprites, just in case. Harris gave all the officers an inspired motivational speech, revving them up to become last-minute heroes.
But ultimately, the day began and ended without any sign of Popuri or any additional clues. The investigation was officially called off.
Depression pervaded the town and no one slept easily that night. In the morning, Kai and his parents prepared for their trip and then sat on the beach to wait. Many of the officers were already nearby waiting for the ferry as well, and the rest were talking with Harris and the mayor.
The ferry arrived promptly at 11:30. Silas went to pay for their tickets while Kai and Lissa sat in the sand, watching the water lap onto the shore. Kai stared down at the far end of the beach, reliving the night that started it all.
"Can we... go somewhere else?"
"...only ten more minutes."
"You're trying to force yourself to believe that he's coming back, but he's not! He's not coming back!"
"GO AWAY, KAI!!"
Lissa gently placed a hand on her son's shoulder. He turned his head to look at her, and then at his father who was heading their way with three ferry tickets. He stood up and brushed off the sand, then helped his mother up.
"We can board at any time," Silas said, handing out the tickets. Lissa and Kai nodded, and the three began their way over to the ferry. Suddenly, Kai stopped. "I'll be right there. There's just one last thing I have to do."
His parents nodded and proceeded to the ferry. Kai walked into Zack's house and over to Zack who was counting the latest packages that had been delivered.
"Thanks for everything, big guy. You've been a good friend and neighbor to me the past few years. I just wanted to let you know I appreciate it."
The huge, muscular man grinned. "Thanks, Kai. I'm real sorry 'bout the way things turned out, but hopefully we'll see each other again. Sooner than later, and with good news."
Kai nodded and handed Zack a small stack of envelopes tied with a string. "Would you see that these get delivered, Zack?"
Zack took a peek at a couple of the addresses. "No problem. See you around, Kai." They shook hands and Kai walked over to Won. "Same goes to you, Won. It was nice knowing you."
"You're a good man, Kai. But no parting gift discount! You want something for the trip, you pay full price."
Kai chuckled at this and the merchant did a rare thing for him-- he grinned. "But maybe you'll get a discount if you come back."
Kai smiled and walked out the door. He shook hands with Mayor Thomas and thanked Harris before boarding the ferry and rejoining his parents. The ferry began moving and the three went to the top deck of the ship. Lissa sat down and took out a hardcover book from her bag, while Silas began talking with one of the ship's crew. Kai stood at the railing, took in a deep breath of the ocean air, and watched with regret as Mineral Town slowly faded out into the distance.
From The Author: Hi! I hope you enjoyed my song-fic. The song used was the 1991 hit "Hazard" by Richard Marx, off of his album Rush Street. I started this story as a quick one-week thing to pass the time while I was visiting my Grandma out of town. It soon became a monster project that took a year and four months to complete. Words cannot express my feelings now that it is done.
For those that may be wondering, yes, I do know what happened to Popuri, and, no, I'm not telling. ; )
Many thanks to everyone in advance for reading and/or commenting. Special thanks goes to my fantastic betas: TheLaughingLibra and OffCenterFold, as well as my cousin Peaches for her advice on police investigations.
This story is dedicated to my mother, whose own tragedy makes this song now even more poignant and closely tied to my heart.
Disclaimer: Harvest Moon and the Harvest Moon characters are copyright Natsume, Inc. and Victor/Marvelous Interactive Software, Inc. I do not own them; I just occasionally fiddle with their lives. The games are great. Buy them. "Hazard" was written by and is copyright Richard Marx. He is awesome. Buy his albums.