Rumiko Makino held her expression in the bright smile she'd assumed and concentrated on not blinking as the camera flashed around her.
"Turn your head just a little to the left! All right, raise your chin! That's it - perfect! Hold that pose!"
She held it, even though her arms were starting to seize up from staying in this unnatural but supposedly graceful pose for so long. Being a model might be a glamorous job, but that didn't make it easy. Having to stand in exactly the same position for such a long stretch of time, holding a forced smile, was, in its way, as exhausting as having to scrub floors. She took her orders quietly for a few more minutes, allowing herself to be turned and repositioned until the cameraman finally called a halt.
"Thank goodness," said Rumiko. "I'm about to drop."
"You were fabulous," the cameraman assured her. "These pictures are some of your best ever. They're going to look absolutely stunning once the editing crew is done."
Rumiko nodded silently. It was one of the irritating but unavoidable parts of the business that no matter how good she looked, there was someone with a computerized airbrush trying to make her better.
"Anyway, take a break," he continued. "You've got about an hour and a half before you need to get ready for the next shooting."
"Great. I need a chance to stretch a little," she replied. "I'll see you later. Bye!"
She hurried off to her dressing room to shed the diaphanous gown she was wearing and change into something more comfortable. It was only on her days off, when she had nothing to do but hang around the house, that she actually unbent enough to wear ordinary things like jeans and sneakers, and even those had to be the very best brands. For now, she settled for a simple blue turtleneck and a skirt that, while plain, didn't leave her feeling she was going to tear it if she even moved. She glanced into the mirror long enough to make sure her makeup was still all right and her hair in place before setting off for lunch, carrying her purse and, of all strange things, a laptop.
There was a cafeteria in the studio complex that catered to all the models who worked there, serving them nutritionally balanced, low-fat wonders in hopes that none of them would be tempted to go out and eat anything ordinary, like cheeseburgers and fries. Most of the time they tasted fairly good to Rumiko, but that might have been because she seldom paid much attention to them. She collected a dish of whatever the special was that day and sat down at a table, setting her meal aside long enough to start the laptop booting.
*What would anyone think if they knew what I was doing with this thing?* she wondered.
The use of the laptop was her little secret, a precious thing to someone who lived such a public life. It contained several months' worth of work, documents tapped out furtively during lunch breaks at work, on airplanes and busses, or late at night in the safety of her home, whenever she could get some quiet time and any semblance of privacy. They were her books, as she mentally called them, though they would never exist in any form other than bits of computer data and would never be read by anyone but her.
*Not like there's any problem with that,* she thought wryly. *I doubt anyone would ever get past the first page, anyway.*
Sometimes, particularly after tiring days when her spirits were low, she wondered why she bothered writing them at all. They weren't good, she knew that much. How could they possibly be? When she was young, she'd been nearly as wild as her daughter, and school had never been of particular interest to her. She didn't have any special training in how to write a story; she just got images in her head that she liked, and they ran around in her mind until she set them down in black and white. The plot was nothing deep or moving - similar things could probably be purchased at a corner variety store.
*And I'm just not talented,* she told herself, looking over the few pages she'd managed to write down yesterday. *Well, I know I'm not stupid, but I'm no brain, either. I've never been good at anything literary and I never will be.*
She sighed and put that point out of her mind. What did it matter if she was good at this or not? She already had a good job - much better than being a writer, by a long shot. Writers didn't make any money, nor did they get a whole lot of respect unless they managed to be the one in a million that could pull off multiple bestsellers. And why would she want to be a writer, anyway? Even when she was young, no one had ever made a fuss if she did anything interesting or clever - if anything, they told her to quiet down and be a good girl. It was when she was making herself decorative that everyone around her said, "Oh, what a beautiful child!" and looked on her with favor. After a while, she'd learned the benefits of making herself attractive.
*And see where it's got me? I've got a wonderful job, I'm wealthy, I'm famous... how much more could a person ask for? I'm so much better off doing this than I would if I'd kept up all that tomboyish business.*
Another young lady, walking past with her tray, stopped to look over Rumiko's shoulder.
"What's that?" she asked.
"Oh, I downloaded one of those e-books last night," said Rumiko glibly. "I like to read them in spare moments. Just some silly spy story."
"Ah. I didn't know you liked that kind of thing," the other model answered. Rumiko heard a faint trace of disapproval in the woman's voice, and she blushed a bit.
"It passes the time," she answered, shrugging apologetically.
The other lady was still peering at the screen. "Hisoka Hata. Is that the author? I've never heard of him."
"He's not very popular," Rumiko said, and something of her old rebelliousness made her add, "yet."
"You don't say. I always thought you had more refined taste than that. Oh, well, I suppose we all have our little quirks. Ta-ta."
Rumiko watched her co-worker saunter off, feeling stung. She was glad she'd chosen to write her stories under an assumed name, guarding against the chance that someone might ever find the documents and look at them. She couldn't resist putting some mark of ownership on them, but she couldn't bear having someone find out that she was responsible, so a new name had to be found. Hata was her maiden name, before her long-ago and ill-fated marriage, and Hisoka... she wasn't sure why she'd picked that name, except that it was the name for someone silent and secretive, that little locked-away part of herself that nobody ever needed to see.
*Why am I getting all offended now?* she thought, still trying to shrug off the veiled insults. *I know they aren't good, so why do I care if someone tells me so? Drat, I can't write when I'm all flustered.* She sighed deeply and closed the program without adding anything. *Just one more sign that I shouldn't be writing at all.*
It was entirely too quiet in the house, and Seiko Hata felt moved to go investigate. She went and rapped on her daughter's door.
"Rumiko? Aren't you supposed to be getting up?" she called.
"Wha?" said Rumiko, with early-morning incomprehension.
"It's past seven already," said Seiko. "I thought you said you had an early photo-shoot this morning."
"Oh, no!" Rumiko wailed. "I forgot to set my alarm! I'm going to be late!"
There was a frantic scurrying on the other side of the door as Rumiko bounded out of bed and began searching for wearable clothing. Seiko sighed and shook her head, musing that some things never changed, and went to check on the house's other inhabitant.
"Ruki? Are you awake?" she called.
"Well, you'd better be getting up. It will be time for school soon."
"Do I have to?"
Seiko paused. She was used to Ruki's sullen moods, but the girl still never complained about going to school under ordinary circumstances.
"Is something wrong?" she asked.
Ruki hesitated, not sure how to answer. She and Renamon had been out late the previous night, performing their usual ritual of stalking and destroying stray Digimon. It had rained yesterday, drawing out an entire pod of Orcamon, silly-looking but fairly strong Armor Digimon, and it had taken over an hour for Renamon to round them all up and dispatch them. Unfortunately, it had continued to rain the entire time. Ruki was not the kind to let herself be worried about a little thing like water, so she had gotten soaked to the skin, and even after she had returned home to change into dry clothing and hide under her blankets, it had still taken a long time to stop shivering. She was still trying to muddle through an answer that wouldn't require admitting she'd been purposely standing in the cold rain, when she accidentally solved the problem by sneezing loudly.
"Are you sick?" asked Seiko.
"Yeah," Ruki admitted. She sniffled unhappily.
"Well, I guess you don't have to go to school, then," her grandmother answered. "You just stay right there and rest - and don't sniffle; you'll get an earache. Let me get you some tissues. Would you like me to bring you breakfast?"
"Honestly, Grandma, it's not like I'm dying or anything," said Ruki, and sneezed again. "It's just a stupid cold."
"You still need your breakfast," her grandmother said. "I'll have it ready in a minute. Heaven only knows what your mother is going to eat, the way things are going."
She wandered up the hall, talking to herself. When she was out of earshot, there was a warping in the air in Ruki's room, and a golden fox stepped out of nowhere.
"Aren't you going to get up?" she asked, looking at Ruki with concern in her eyes.
"No," Ruki answered disgustedly. "Not without getting fussed at by Grandma. I've got a cold, so I've got to stay home today. No school... no fighting, either. Rats. Better hope nothing really serious shows up, because those goggle-headed boys are going to have to deal with it today. We could be in trouble."
Renamon looked amused. "If it will make you feel better, I will patrol the city today and deal with anything that arises."
"Fine. Don't let anyone spot you."
"I am very good at not being seen," answered Renamon. She bowed her head and phased quietly into the shadows.
Ruki sighed and settled back into bed. She knew Renamon was capable of taking care of herself, as well as anything else that came along, but it just felt better when Ruki could be there and fight alongside her. Even more than that, it would have felt good just to be able to get up and go through her normal, everyday routine. Instead, her grandmother was going to make her stay indoors all day - she might be able to leave her room if she was very lucky - and make a fuss over her as if she were an invalid. She sneezed explosively, sniffled, and made a face.
"I hate being sick," she muttered.
Meanwhile, Rumiko was dashing out of her room, looking faintly breathless. Her clothing was a shade or two less elaborate than usual, her hair was pulled into a simple ponytail, and she wore no jewelry at all.
"Just toss me a bagel," she said to Seiko. "I'll eat on the way there!" She was busily applying lipstick with one hand and trying to pull on her jacket with the other.
"Don't forget your purse," Seiko replied, obligingly handing over a bagel from the breadbox.
"Thanks! A day like this, I'd forget my own head if it wasn't screwed on," answered Rumiko. "Bye! Have a nice day!"
She scampered away, hurrying towards the car and wondering why she still felt like she'd forgotten something. She'd remembered to brush her teeth; she had her house keys; what else was there that she'd forgotten? Oh, yes, she'd forgotten to put her watch on. She hated when she did that, but there was no time to turn around and get it now. It would be annoying, but she could get by without it for a day. Driving as fast as she dared, she rushed off to work, while in her room, her precious laptop sat unguarded in the middle of her bed.
The day was half over, and already Ruki was bored out of her wits. Her grandmother was one of the old-fashioned sorts who believed that when someone was sick, no matter how mildly, it was vitally necessary for them to stay in bed. It was also just as important that they subsist on wholesome, uninteresting food like toast and soup - the most flavorful thing she was allowed to have was orange juice, unless one counted the vile-tasting cough medicine she'd been administered. Right now, she was breaking the rules by actually getting up and prowling around her room a bit, but except for stretching her muscles a little, it didn't do her much good.
"I'm am going to go nuts," she muttered. There was nothing in her room to interest her. She didn't have her own computer, though her grandmother had offered to get her one if she wanted it. Neither was there a television, which was no great loss, considering that there would be nothing on this time of day but soap operas, talk shows, and children's cartoons, none of which held the slightest interest for Ruki. There were a few books, but they'd all been read and reread so many times that she nearly knew them by heart. They certainly wouldn't provide much entertainment for her in her brain-fogged state. She caught herself walking in circles like a caged tiger and shook her head in disgust at the whole situation.
"Ruki?" called her grandmother's voice.
"Yes?" Ruki croaked back.
"I'm going to go do the grocery shopping, all right? I'll be back in a couple of hours. Can you take care of yourself until then?"
"Sure, I'll be fine," said Ruki. "It's not like I really need help to hang around doing nothing."
"All right," her grandmother replied. "And Ruki?"
"If you're going to get up and wander around, just don't overdo it, okay?"
She smiled a little; sometimes her grandmother was really all right. "I won't, Grandma."
"Okay! Back in a little while, then."
There was the sound of the front door being opened and closed, and Ruki found herself alone in the house. She was still a moment, appreciating the total silence.
"All right," she said to herself, "now what do I do?"
She decided the best thing to do would be to leave her room - at least it would be a change of scenery. She wrapped herself in a robe and began wandering up the hall, idly poking around. It surprised her to think that she barely knew what some parts of her own house looked like, preferring to spend most of her time in her own room. Now, just because there was nothing else to do, she wandered through the other rooms. There was nothing much in her grandmother's room that was of interest to her; it was so spotless it could have been featured in a magazine, and Ruki was afraid to touch anything lest she damage it. She left the room quickly and moved towards safer territory.
Once she was back in the hallway again, she noticed what she hadn't before: that her mother had left her door open. She'd missed the earlier chaos and didn't know why her mother had been in such a hurry that morning, enough so that she'd uncustomarily left her door ajar. Ruki couldn't recall having ventured into her mother's room in a while, so she went in to have a look.
The space looked very much like she remembered it, though rather more disorganized than usual. The closet door was open, and a few rejected outfits were thrown over the back of a chair. The makeup box stood open with a few stray eyeliner pencils strewn over the dresser. The bed was unmade, and in the middle of it rested an unfamiliar flat box. Curious, Ruki went for a closer look.
"A laptop?" she wondered. "I didn't even know Mom had one of these. I wonder what it's for?"
Since there was no one to answer, she turned on the laptop and went browsing through the files. Computers weren't her thing, but she had to use them at school and could manage one without crashing it. She skimmed through the programs and found nothing but the basic calculator and word processor and so forth. Digging a little deeper, she inspected the items in the documents folder, and got a surprise. Here were several hefty-sized text files with names like, "The_Mask_of_Death" and "DarkHallway3". They didn't sound at all like the kind of thing her mother would keep in her room. Curious, she picked one and began to read.
From the opening paragraph, she was hooked, and by the end of the first chapter, she had sprawled out on the bed and was well settled in for an afternoon's reading. Where the story had come from, she didn't know or care, but it was one of the best things she'd ever read. It was a spy story, dark and tense, full of secrets and conspiracies and shady characters. It was impossible to guess who could be trusted, and plot twists abounded.
Ruki jumped. "Don't do that!"
"Sorry, did I startle you? I just wanted to let you know I was home," said Seiko. "Where are you?"
"I'm in Mom's room."
"Really? What are you doing in there?"
"Just playing with her laptop," answered Ruki. "She's got some stories saved on it, and I was reading."
"Stories?" her grandmother repeated. "What kind of stories? Who wrote them?"
"I dunno. Some Hisoka guy; I didn't look too closely," Ruki replied. "I can read them, can't I? I promise I won't hurt the computer."
"I'm sure it will be all right," Seiko replied. "I'm glad to know you found some way to amuse yourself. I know how much you hate to be cooped up inside. I was just wondering... you know, your mother used to like to write stories when she was little. I always hoped she would continue with it, but I think she got discouraged."
"Oh, Mom couldn't have written these," said Ruki. "They're just too exciting and scary and... not her."
"Ah," said Seiko. "Well, as long as you're having a good time. Call me if you need anything."
"Okay," answered Ruki. She sounded distant, and Seiko went to peek into the room. There was here granddaughter, stretched out full-length on the bed, eyes glued to the computer screen. Seiko smiled a little and walked away again.
"Hisoka, the secretive one," she murmured. "I wonder..."
Rumiko arrived home in an unhappy mood.
"Mother, have you seen my laptop?" were her first words upon entering her home.
"You left it in your room on your bed," Seiko replied. "It's just fine. Ruki's been keeping it warm for you."
"What? What do you mean?"
"Apparently she found some stories saved on it and decided to read them," said Seiko. "She's been in there reading all afternoon."
"Oh," said Rumiko, looking pale. "Oh, dear."
"Is something wrong?" Seiko asked. "You don't have anything... inappropriate on that machine, do you?"
"No, no, nothing like that. It's just... I need to talk to Ruki. Excuse me."
Rumiko hurried to her room and found the scene just as Seiko had last seen it, Ruki still in her nightclothes, scrolling down the screen. She didn't even look up until Rumiko cleared her throat.
"Mom!" Ruki exclaimed. "I was just... um... you don't mind, do you?"
"You found the stories, didn't you?" asked Rumiko.
"Yeah. I didn't think you'd mind," Ruki replied. "Where did they come from? I never saw this author before. Not that I've really been looking, but..."
"Well, the truth is," said Rumiko, "um, well... this is hard. You see, Ruki... I wrote them."
Ruki stared at her mother. "You didn't. The name isn't yours."
"It's a pen name," Rumiko replied. "I didn't want anyone knowing they were mine. I didn't think anyone would believe it if they saw my name on something like this... You don't believe it, do you?"
Ruki shook her head. "No, not really. I mean, these are just so..."
"They're awful, aren't they?" said Rumiko, hanging her head in shame. "I don't know why I do it; it's just that I get these scenes in my mind, and they won't leave me alone until I write them down..."
"Oh, no, Mom, these are great!" Ruki assured her. "I can't believe you wrote this yourself - it's fantastic!"
"You're just saying that because you don't want to hurt my feelings," said Rumiko.
Ruki gave her mother a glare. "Since when do I not want to hurt people's feelings? And why would I spend the whole afternoon reading this stuff just for your sake when I didn't even know you wrote it?"
Rumiko looked meek. "You were bored?"
"Yeah, right," Ruki replied. "Listen - you're going to get this published, right?"
"What? No!" Rumiko exclaimed. "I just couldn't."
"Why not? This is better than most of the junk they sell these days."
"No it's not. This is - well, I enjoy writing it, and it might be good enough for someone your age, but a real trained critic... they'd never look at it. And I can't just walk up and ask for it to be published; I'd have to find an agent and convince them it's worth backing..."
"So do it," said Ruki. "You know about agents and stuff. You can find one somewhere, right? And it's not like you don't have the money to pay for one."
"That's not the point. The point is, I'm just not good enough, and that's all there is to it."
Ruki gave a snort of disgust. "Whatever."
"You'll understand when you're older, Ruki. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about."
"You're just afraid," said Ruki. "You're scared of being turned down, so you're never going to do anything. That's so like you."
"Ruki! How dare you speak to your mother that way?"
"I say stuff when it's true. And it is, isn't it? Somebody said you couldn't write, and you believed them, so you're sticking with your stupid modeling job when you could be doing this."
Rumiko flushed. "I'm being realistic. Now, turn that off and go to your room. What are you doing in here, anyway? Weren't you supposed to be in school today?"
"I was sick," said Ruki, grumpily shutting down the laptop, "which you would know if you took some time for me instead of always worrying about yourself."
"That's it, young lady, I've heard enough from you. Go to your room this instant."
"Fine," Ruki snapped, and stomped away.
Fuming, Rumiko hid the laptop and shut the door to her room. She went into the den and flopped onto the sofa, pressing a hand to her forehead.
"Why does she always have to be so difficult?" she complained.
"I think she's a little disappointed in you," said Seiko.
"Disappointed? What has she got to be disappointed in? I'm good at what I do. Isn't that enough?"
"Not to Ruki," Seiko replied. "She's a bit of an idealist, I think. She won't let herself settle for second best, and she doesn't like seeing you do that, either."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Rumiko asked irritably.
"For just a moment, she saw you doing something that she really admired. Our Ruki, she's not interested in the way things look, and your job is just too superficial for her to understand. Your writing is different. It comes from inside of you, and she values that. Instead of accepting that, you rejected it all. That's what frustrates her. For just a little while, you showed a flash of being the kind of person she'd look up to, and then you denied you were any such thing."
"She doesn't understand," said Rumiko. "I'm not giving up on anything; I just know I don't have a chance, so why should I try?"
"Because your daughter will be more impressed with someone who tried and failed than never tried at all," Seiko replied. "Honestly, Rumiko. You try so hard to make Ruki the kind of daughter you want. Why not try just once to be the mother she wants?"
Rumiko opened her mouth to answer, then shut it again. She thought a while.
"Do you think it would do any good if I just submitted something to an agent and let them decide?" she said at last.
"It wouldn't hurt."
"If I was rejected, it would."
"You know, a lot of the greatest writers were turned down several times before they finally got their break," said Seiko.
"Well, I'd rather not do that," Rumiko replied. "But I'll take one chance. Just one. If it will make Ruki happy, that might just balance it out."
"I think that might just work," answered Seiko. "And who knows? Maybe luck will be with you."
"I doubt it," Rumiko replied. "Thanks anyway, though... Mom, was I ever as much trouble to you as Ruki is for me?"
Seiko smiled. "You were more trouble than Ruki ever was, and you still turned out wonderfully."
Rumiko smiled. "Thanks. Now I'm going to go to my room. It's been a long day, and I need the rest. Call me when dinner is ready?"
"Of course. You rest. We don't need you getting sick, too."
"I won't, I won't."
Rumiko went to her room, but she did not do any resting. She took out her laptop, turned it on, and began busily editing one of her books.
The next day was not one of her mother's normal working days, so Ruki was surprised to see her mother going out of the house.
"Where are you off to?" she asked.
"I just have some errands to run," Rumiko replied. "I'll be back this evening, okay, honey?"
"Sure, whatever," Ruki replied. "Grandma, can I go to school today? I feel better, I really do."
Her grandmother put a hand to her forehead. "Your fever seems to be gone. All right, you can go to school, but come straight home afterwards, do you understand? No more running around outside until you're completely well."
"Oh, all right," Ruki muttered. "Anything to get out of this house for a while!"
Even so, school was never particularly exciting, and she was relieved to get out of it. she walked home slowly, savoring the few minutes she had to be outside. She was surprised to get home and find that her mother still hadn't returned. No matter what she was doing, she usually managed to get home nearly the same time Ruki did.
"Grandma, where's Mom?" she asked.
"Oh, out and about, I suppose," Seiko asked. "Actually, she had something she wanted to do today; I'd expect her to be a bit late."
"Oh. Okay," Ruki replied.
She went to her room and tried to think of something to do. With her grandmother's restrictions on her, she didn't even dare go out into the garden, much less out into the city to do anything interesting. Irresistibly, her mind went back to her mother's story. She hadn't been able to finish the one she'd started yesterday, and she was itching to find out how it ended... but how could she? The last thing she needed now was for her mother to come home and find her ransacking her room in search of the laptop.
*And knowing her, she gave up on the story and never finished,* thought Ruki bitterly. The sun was going down outside, and there was still no sign of her mother's return. *Where is she, anyway?*
Even as she was thinking that, she heard the front door open and close. Moving quietly so as not to attract attention, she left her room and went to investigate.
Sure enough, Rumiko had returned, and was now shrugging off her coat and putting on her slippers, looking exhausted but pleased.
"There you are!" Seiko was saying. "I was beginning to worry about you."
"Sorry," answered Rumiko, dropping into a chair. "That took longer than I thought it would. Well, it didn't exactly, but it was just that once I started it was hard to stop again."
"I think we all want to hear a little more of an explanation than that," said Seiko, sitting down opposite her daughter. "Including the person who's watching from the shadows. I think she's been wondering where you were. Come out and join us, Ruki."
"You weren't supposed to see me," said Ruki grumpily, coming into the light.
"I'm good at noticing things. Besides, you might be interested in this conversation."
It was on Ruki's tongue to say that she didn't really want to hear about her mother's trip to the mall, or wherever she'd been, but then she realized that there was no sign of any shopping bags anywhere, nor was there any evidence that she'd been to the salon or any of her usual haunts. Where else would she have been? Why had it taken so long? Almost against her will, she went and found a seat next to her grandmother.
"All right," she said. "Let's hear it. Where have you been all day long?"
"Mostly, running all over town," Rumiko replied. "I'm exhausted. I don't know where to begin, except... Ruki, I took your advice. I went looking for someone to handle my writing."
Ruki's eyes lit up. "Really? How did it go? Are they going to publish it?"
"I have no idea," Rumiko replied. "When I started out, I had the idea I was just going to talk to one person, and if he turned me down, that would be it, but the first person I talked to said he didn't handle that genre and wouldn't take it no matter how good it was. I almost went home after that, but I didn't think it was fair, you know? It wasn't a real try if he didn't even look at it, so I went looking for someone else. It was strange. The more I went looking, the more I started to feel I shouldn't give up, so I just kept looking... Anyway, one of the people I talked to finally told me he had an associate who was just starting out and would take material from new authors, so I went and managed to sweet-talk him into having a look at it."
"And?" asked Ruki. "Don't leave me hanging! What did he say?"
Rumiko looked dreamy. "He said it had potential. He's going to see what he can do with it. He can't make any promises, but there's a chance..."
"I told you so," said Ruki, looking smug.
"I know you did. That's why I'm doing this."
"I could live with myself if no one ever read what I wrote. It wouldn't bother me. What I can't live with is knowing I've let you down."
Ruki looked away, embarrassed. "Yeah, whatever... Do this for yourself. You've earned it."
And with that, she got up and walked away. Rumiko stared.
"Should I be flattered?" she asked.
Seiko smiled. "I think you should. And she's right, you should do this for yourself. Isn't this your dream?"
"It was," said Rumiko, "a long time ago, back when I was Ruki's age."
*I do have to do this for you, Ruki,* she thought. *if only so you can have some proof that dreams do come true, after all.*
A few weeks went by, and things went back to normal. Neither Ruki nor her mother mentioned the books that often, though the girl did occasionally catch glimpses of her mother alone in her room, tapping away frantically or scowling at the screen in thought.
Then one night there was a phone call. It came in the middle of dinner, and Rumiko dashed to get it, leaving the rest of her family to watch her inquisitively and eavesdrop.
"Hello? ... Oh, hello! I wasn't expecting... What? You did? ... Well, yes, I know, but... I understand. But this is wonderful news! Thank you so much for calling. ... They said that? ... Well, I'm sure I can come up with something. ... Don't worry, I will. Very soon! Thank you again. Goodbye!"
"What was that all about?" asked Seiko.
Rumiko beamed. "That was the book agent. He's got a publisher. My book's going to be published."
There was a small outcry, and Rumiko blushed a little and held up a hand.
"I'm not done yet," she said. "Actually, the publisher liked my work so much, they asked if there was anything else I could bring in. They're very impressed." She gave a small laugh. "I can't believe I'm saying this. It's like... Cinderella or something."
"Now, there's a story," said Seiko. "Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess, and her fairy godmother waves her magic wand and turns her into a novelist. And she lives happily ever after, of course."
"Well, this princess is going to be very busy for a few months," said Rumiko. "I've been assured that the editors are going to have things they want changed, so I'm going to be doing a lot of editing, and then there are going to be some other things that need to be finished... I'd better get started."
"In the middle of dinner?" asked Seiko.
"I'll take it with me," Rumiko replied. She picked up her dishes and hurried off to her room, humming to herself. Seiko and Ruki exchanged glances.
"You know," said Ruki thoughtfully, "I don't think I've seen Mom look that happy in a long time."
"Neither have I," Seiko replied. "Maybe this will be a more common occurrence from now on."
Both Seiko and Rumiko were right. For the next few months, Rumiko stayed extremely busy, spending every free moment on her laptop, adding and editing, wiping out whatever she had done and starting over again. She probably would have forgotten to eat if her family hadn't reminded her, and Seiko had to knock on her door a few times every night to remind her to get some sleep. They'd never seen her happier.
Finally, the finished manuscript was handed in, and a few weeks were spent waiting and hoping. Rumiko fidgeted; even though she knew in her mind that the story had already been accepted and was on its way to be printed, she still couldn't shake the feeling that something was going to go wrong. There was no one she could ask about the book's progress. As far as she knew, it was going to spend the next few years drifting in some printer's limbo, waiting for someone to have the inclination to print it. Even if they did, what if nobody read it? Critics had been known to make miscalls - the story could fall flat, and no one would ever want to take a chance on her again. They would all realize she was just a poser, a silly airhead who had gotten delusional one day and thought she could write. She passed the time working with some of her other projects, but after a while, her spare time was spent largely in nervous jitters.
*What's wrong with me?* she wondered. *I never cared this much before. I never thought it would matter this much whether anyone liked what I wrote or not. Maybe Ruki is right - I thought I was doing this for her sake, and I still am in a way, but now I want it to work for my sake, too. I'm so close, I don't know how I can stand seeing it not work now.*
She didn't know it, but Ruki was worrying about her. Worrying about people was not something Ruki often did, but lately she kept catching herself wondering how her mother was holding up, and if maybe there was something she ought to be doing to encourage her.
*I don't know why, but I'm going to be really ticked off if this goes wrong,* she thought. *I'm the one who started this. If I hadn't said anything, she wouldn't be so worried now. She's doing this because of me, and if she gets her heart broken, it's going to be my fault. What was I thinking? I should have kept my mouth shut.*
Even as she was thinking that, the doorbell rang.
"I'll get it!" she shouted, grateful for the distraction.
She scampered for the front door and found a deliveryman holding a box.
"Package for Ms. Makino," he said.
"She's kind of busy right now," Ruki replied. "I'll take it to her. I'm her daughter."
"All right. Sign here, please."
Ruki did so, and accepted the package. She shook it, trying to get a feel for what it was, wondering if it might possibly contain anything interesting, but it made no sound. It was simply a small, heavy box wrapped in brown paper. Curiosity aroused, she went and knocked on her mother's door.
"Mom?" she said. "You busy?"
"There's a package here for you."
"Who is it from?"
Ruki looked, wondering why she hadn't thought to do that before. "It looks like it's from a publishing company."
"Give it here!"
Ruki went in and found her mother right where she'd expected to be, curled up on her bed with her laptop. For once, though, she was not working with it, but staring expectantly at Ruki. The girl sat down next to her and handed her the package, watching as her mother ripped the paper to shreds without a care for her perfectly manicured nails. Out of the packaging fell a letter... and a book. Written proudly across the front was Rumiko's name. The two of them sat staring at it for a moment. Then, slowly, as if she thought it might disappear, Rumik reached out and picked it up, slowly opening it and riffling through the pages.
"It's different, you know," she said, her voice a little shaky, as if she were about to laugh or cry. "I'm used to seeing everything on the computer. It's different actually seeing it in a book. It's a little hard to believe this is really mine."
Ruki picked up the letter and looked it over. "They say this is your copy, to look over and make sure everything is okay. Once you give the thumbs up, they'll start printing them for real. You can spend lots of time looking at it."
"You look at it first," said Rumiko. She laughed a little. "After all, I know how it ends."
"Can I really?" Ruki asked. "I don't know. I mean, it's your book."
"No, I want you to read it," her mother replied. "Go on. Look at the first page."
Ruki took the book and opened it carefully, turning the pages over one at a time. There on the title page was a bit of writing - a dedication. It read, "To my beloved daughter, from a happy princess." Ruki stared at it a moment, then looked back at her mother.
"Mom..." she said.
Rumiko blushed. "It's sappy, I know. I just wanted to say something to let you know... how I felt. It doesn't really say it, but..."
Ruki smiled. "No, Mom. It's the best thing I ever read."