My dad nearly dropped his spatula when I tackled him. Laughing, he patted my head and asked if I had a good day. He asked if everyone liked the lamb skewers.
He blinked when I did not let go or start blabbing. Then he saw my face.
Serious, he leaned down. "Is everything okay, sweetie?"
My lips were pursed tight. My eyelids were puffy.
This got my dad concerned. "Did something happen in today's checkup?" he asked. He was ready to spring for the phone and call Aunt Mikoto.
I didn't mean to make him all panicked. I held onto him so he would not go.
Once we were settled down at dinner, I told my dad about the new doctor. I told him everything the doctor said. My dad was so happy to learn that my heart was going to be okay, he spilled rice all over himself.
"The doctor said something else too," I said. "He said there was something I could drink that would let me do ninjutsu."
"Is there!" my dad laughed, still picking the rice off his shirt. "Well, promise that as soon as you figure out those cool moves, you'd give me a demonstration!"
For my dad, he was okay with whatever I chose to do. Wherever I chose to go. All that mattered to him was that I was happy and healthy.
Happy and healthy. I bit into my spoon. I asked him what if I could only choose one of those. If so, which would he rather me choose?
My dad seemed confused by my question. He did not understand what I meant by choose. He told me, not everything can be split in two. Not everything is one or the other.
For example, happy and healthy are best friends. Where one goes, the other follows. There is not one that is more important, because they are important to each other.
Sometimes, we need to understand how things work in opposition. By doing so, we can achieve balance and harmony. But we should also understand how things work in unison. Because it is only through individual parts coming together that we create something great.
My dad stopped scratching his cheek. He asked me if everything was okay.
I furiously nodded my head. "Daddy is very smart, I want to hear more!"
My dad laughed. Of course he was very smart, he told me teasingly. His snazzy glasses were not just there to be snazzy, you know.
For the rest of the night, we cleaned the dishes and did house chores. I listened carefully to what else he had to say. He told me complements were everywhere. They can be things you can see and taste, like cream and sugar. They can be things that you feel, like love and friendship. They can even be ideas. Stories, for example, are just many little thoughts that build off one another. By themselves, they do not do much. But put together, they become mystery and romance and adventure!
The outside lamps had turned on. My dad and I dumped the last bag of garbage. Done, he looked proudly at the house and all our work.
"Thank you, sweetie, for all your help tonight," he told me, patting my head.
"No, thank you, daddy," I said. "Dinner was really yummy."
It was bedtime. I stopped midway up the stairs.
My grip on the banister tightened. "Can… can I come with you to grocery shopping tomorrow?"
My dad blinked. Then, a slow, wobbly smile settled on his face.
"Of course you can."
I let out a breath I did not realize I had been holding. Nodding, I wished him a good night.
In my room, I sat on my bed for a long time. Utako sat next to me, in the same position by the pillow as always.
My hands clutched a button. I had seen it on my desk as I was changing and couldn't put it down.
'Peace is not the absence of war.'
It read like a reply. A response to something someone else said. Sadly, I had not been there to hear the conversation. I could not talk to the girl who spoke those words. I could not ask her what she had meant.
… and war.
Both words were so fuzzy in my mind. The only times I ever heard about one was when someone was talking about the other. It was not possible to think about one without thinking of the other.
I thought back to what my dad said.
Not everything can be split in two. Did that make peace and war… complements?
I closed my eyes. But peace did not want to be with war. And war did not want to be with peace.
So not complements. Then they must be... opposites?
My shoulders lowered. I reopened my eyes, defeated. I could not figure it out.
Sighing, I stared out my window. A thin rain had started, leaving pitter-patters against the glass.
I thought of Itachi. He must be gone by now. Another mission.
I hoped the rain missed him. I would not want him cold. Maybe if he traveled fast enough, if he managed to get far, far away from here…
I shrunk into myself.
No. I was lying again. I wished Itachi never left at all. I wished he was still home, in bed, together with Aunt Mikoto and Sasuke.
Looking back on it, Itachi never did come back happy. Even though he traveled the world, he never had any exciting tales to share. He never said he wanted to go, just needed to. He should not need to do anything he did not want to.
The first strike of lightning hit. The rain now pounded hard on the roof tiles.
Under my covers, I stared at my ceiling, the moving shadows against mismatched paint. My chest ached.
"Mommy," I whispered, just loud enough that she could hear and no one else.
"Mommy, one of my friends is in a bad place. Until I can help, can you please watch over him?"
Just until I could reach him...
Just until I could help...
I needed to help.
The air smelled clean in the new day. Water sparkled on top of leaves, the streets open and friendly. My dad and I slipped on our shoes. Puddles gathered in the crooked parts of the road. We made sure to hop over those or go around.
Everywhere we went, people smiled or waved. The man sweeping the street. The lady wrapping the papers. Some even stopped in the middle of their jobs to chat with my dad.
The most enthusiastic was a skinny grandpa with goldfish eyes. He was a gossiper, running over to greet us with news of old man Futoshi. It was scandalous; Futoshi had officially declared his niece the inheritor of his estate. Not a single ryou for the wife, who took care of him throughout his disability. Poor girl has no job, and soon won't even have a roof over her head!
The grandpa shook his head. "It's indecent. Plain indecent. Just because it don't matter to you no more, don't mean you go about doing what your heart fancies. Got to think of others, you know? Eighteen years she cooked and cleaned for him. Had she known he'd leave her empty, she would have gotten trained. Looked for work and some skills to feed herself. Now how will she survive?"
I jumped when the grandpa turned to me. He warned me to not make the same mistake as her. When the time came for me to marry, I should ignore any man who comes bearing only a full pocket.
I nodded. "You should marry for love!"
I jumped back again.
The grandpa told me to definitely, definitely ignore any man who comes bearing only his heart. Feelings are fickle, he said. They are states, not qualities. Those who act on desire and admiration are just as easily controlled by resentment and spite. In terms of reliability, love is even worse than money!
No, the correct choice, he said, is a man of honor.
The grandpa nodded proudly. He said the best man was the traditionalist. Someone honest and upright. Someone virtuous and pure.
My mouth closed.
I walked away.
"Ayae? Honey?" Laughing nervously, my dad waved goodbye to the grandpa.
I felt a pat on my head. I looked up to see my dad had caught up to me. "Is everything okay, sweetie?"
"Yeah. Why do you ask?"
"You left without saying goodbye."
I did. I did not feel very sorry about it either. Only under my dad's watch did I end up a bit embarrassed with myself.
"Do you want to tell me what is on your mind?"
I shook my head. Even if I did, my thoughts were too jumbled to explain. I was still struggling to fit everything into words.
My dad nodded. "Okay. I'm here if you ever want to."
We reached the marketplace . The grocery was open for business. Fresh produce was being wheeled in and stacked for display. Further down were the fish and meat markets.
My dad patted his shirt until he found our list.
First item. Eggplant.
My eyes darted left and right. Aha!
"Found one!" I cried, holding up one of the eggplants on display. My dad rushed over.
"That's a good one!"
The rest of the morning, I zigzagged across the streets, picking up all things my dad had put on the list. When I saw anything in more than one place, I would report back the cheapest price.
The last stop was the bakery. The owner there handed my dad a bag. "Ah, Kenta, saved you the last one!"
My dad took a long sniff. "Oh wow! Is that nutmeg?!"
She wiped her hands. "They were selling a small batch in the last merchant convoy. Shipped all the way from the far southern islands. I would have walked away from the price alone if it hadn't been for all your raving."
They chatted more like old friends. The bakery owner told my dad of what she heard of the islands. How they put spices in everything, even their water. One of their drinks was this dark bubbly concoction made from leaf juice, fruit oils, and lots and lots of spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla.
My dad said that sounded absolutely brilliant. She laughed. She knew he would say that.
"Don't go too crazy on the experimentation there, Kenta." The bakery owner tilted her head. She noticed me coming up behind my dad. I relieved my dad of the bag of bread. "Is that little Ayae?"
"Good morning!" I greeted.
"My, where has the time gone. Last time I saw you, you were barely higher than this counter. Now look at you!"
I giggled. "When I get my growth spurt, I'll be even taller!"
She smiled, shaking her head. She said not everything has changed.
After my dad and I crossed off the last thing off our list, we took the main road back home. The sun was now much higher in the sky. An overcast still lingered, though, leaving the world bright and shadow-less.
As we walked, I noticed my dad was switching shoulders with some of the bags. So I grabbed the biggest one from him, the bag with the rice, and carried it instead. It was heavier than I expected, and I tipped back from the weight. After a little sway, I caught myself.
I didn't mind the extra weight. It was my thoughts that felt heavy. I was still very lost inside my head, but no matter how hard I thought, I could not find my way. Just a bunch of zigzags and circles.
Finally, I gave up.
I took a breath. "So I have a friend."
He nodded, encouraging me to go on.
"But he… he did some bad things. Terrible things." I swallowed. "What should he do?"
My dad thought this over. "Well, does your friend also think he has done a bad thing?"
I remembered yesterday, how quiet Itachi was, how broken he felt in my arms. He never hugged me back. Even as he walked me home, he never looked my way. It was like he was not allowed to anymore.
The ache was back.
"Yes," I whispered. "I think he does."
"Well, your friend is at a good start then."
My dad looked at the road ahead of us. He told me acknowledging a mistake is the first step. It is a hard step for many people. Which is understandable, because doing so often causes awful feelings inside us, feelings you can't ignore or return once there. And some of these feelings, you just have to bear.
But if you do bear them, you can move on to the next step. And that is to do whatever you can to make the bad, less bad. When you do something bad, very likely someone got hurt. One of the first, and most helpful, things to do then is to apologize. By apologizing, you are acknowledging their feelings and their pain. You are agreeing with them that they have been wronged. This can lessen their anger and allow them to heal faster.
There are other things you can do too. If something was stolen, maybe you can help return it. If something was broken, maybe you can help repair it. If something was lost, maybe you can help find it.
After you have done all you can, you can then go on to the third step. And that is to understand what caused you to do the bad thing in the first place. Once you do, you can go fix it and prevent yourself from making the same mistake.
"I see," I said. That all made a lot of sense.
"And there is one last step," my dad said, breaking me out of my thoughts.
He told me the final step is forgiveness. All those awful feelings earlier, you do not have to keep forever. It is okay to set them free.
We all makes mistakes. We all make wrong choices. We all have the capacity to hurt others, intentionally or accidentally. The purpose of the bad feelings is to guide us, so that by the time they leave, we have even more room for the good ones.
My dad let out a deep breath. We made our way back home. After carrying so many things for so long, he was wiped.
I went ahead and put all the groceries where they belonged. Meats in the freezer and vegetables in the fridge. Then I got the premade food we had for Doku and made sure he got fed.
Doku eagerly greeted me, even craning his neck to touch my fingers. I smiled back.
When I returned to the kitchen, I saw my dad with the rice bag. I rushed to help him heave it up and pour it all into the bin.
After all of it was in, we folded the bag for next time.
"You've become so strong," my dad said.
I glowed at the praise, until I noticed my dad looked a bit sad.
My dad put the bag aside. To me, he said, "I'm very sorry."
My dad asked me if I remembered what he said earlier about making mistakes. He said this trip helped him understand his own.
He put a hand on my head. "I know I haven't been able to spend much time with you. And that I haven't been there in times you may have needed or wanted help. But I want to let you know I very much do want to, and I will work harder so you can feel safe coming to me for anything."
With that, he smiled and was ready to get up.
I didn't realized what I had blurted out until after I did. By then, my mouth was already moving on its own.
"The friend I was talking about. It's Itachi."
I could not stop. That was when I finally told my dad.
I told my dad everything.