Robert pulled his foot off the accelerator and slowed to a stop as the village came into view. Seven months of waiting for the war to end - he could recall so clearly the panic and despair he'd felt when the atomic bombings first occured, and the relief he felt when he found a map and knew the village was far from the danger areas. Four more months and four days of waiting and planning followed. Four final days of airplane rides and borrowed vehicles, and finally he was here.
Bringing the car back up to speed, he pulled as close as he dared. He didn't want anyone to hear the car. As he climbed the rest of the way on foot, he remembered Sarge's words the first day they were made to work.
"I just barely remember my mother. She died when I was a kid. My dad, he was always passed out... Nah, this here's my home. McManus, United States Army Air Corps."
At the time, Robert couldn't imagine not wanting to go home - why would anyone sign on a second time? After the month he spent in the village, he knew more about home and about war. He knew he wanted nothing to do with the army - but he also understood Sarge's idea of home. His mom was still back in the good ole United States, but she'd given him her blessing. He was so thankful she understood.
By this point he was standing at the door of the main house in the village. One knock and she could be standing in front of him. How would she respond? What would he say?
It didn't matter. All that mattered now was that he was back, just like he promised, and he had to see her. He knocked quickly, nervously, and waited. The door slid open to reveal her perfect, milk-white face and ink-black hair.
They stood there for hours, it seemed, just looking at each other. How many times had he hoped for this moment? How many times had he prayed for the chance to come back? Finally he couldn't stand it any longer. "Say something."
Instead she flew into his arms, and he breathed her in. One year and eight days had never felt so long and so short as they did right then, standing there holding her. It was like an eternity and yet no time at all had passed since they last held each other at the dock.
Miyoko was preparing her father-in-law's supper when she heard the knock. She laid the spoon in the pot and slid open the wood and paper panel. That was when she froze, and it had nothing to do with the frigid Japanese winter.
It had been exactly a year and eight days since she last saw the man in front of her. A year and eight days of prayers. Of hopes. Of dreams and fears and longing. A year and eight days in which she reminded herself daily of his promise. A year and eight days in which she wondered if he would even be alive to keep it.
It was his voice that made her realize he was real. This was not another dream. Her dreams, which paled his tan American cheeks and darkened his blond American hair - which washed out his wide blue eyes - could never mimic that strange American accent so perfectly.
She stumbled forward, forsaking customs and propriety. Who cared if the entire village saw her clinging to this man? Although none had spoken of it since he disappeared, they all knew him from his days as a prisoner. They also knew the rumors of his escape. Many of them were unusual, but the truth was even more extraordinary.
"Come in." Never releasing his hand, she pulled him inside and slid the door shut behind him. "Otoo-sama, sugu nikite!"
The second paper door in the main room of the house slid open to reveal Fukushima-san, Miyoko's father-in-law. His expression of anxiety at her call was soon replaced by one of shock. "Robert-san!"
She turned from face to face, nearly unable to take it all in. Robert smiled his amazing grin. "Fukushima-san. I..." He glanced down at Miyoko, then back at the elderly man to whom he owed his life.
The older man padded across the matted floor to the threshold and patted Robert's shoulder. "You come back."
Robert smiled again, gently this time, and pulled Miyoko to his side. Draping his arm around her, he replied, "I promised."
"Miyoko." Robert stepped out of the main room, where dinner with Fukushima-san had just concluded. She began to pass him to clear the dishes. He grabbed her hand. "Miyoko."
Slowly, remembering the first time he took her hand in his, she looked in his eyes. "Miyoko, the dishes can wait. Come with me."
With one last glance at the main room and a nod from Fukushima-san, she followed him to the door. He draped her woolen black wrap around her neck before shrugging into his own leather American coat and taking her hand back. They slipped out the door into the clear, ice-framed night.
He turned to her and smiled. "I remember everything... perfectly. It was so amazing."
She smiled and nodded, replying in her halted English, "We played-snowball-there." She pointed to the thin, bare trees clustered but a few steps away from them.
He nodded and laughed. "Yes, and I helped build and bless Mrs. Ogata's house." He turned and pointed to the home that was only a pile of wood when he was first captured.
"You helped Masato - baseball - too."
"Yes, he was a great kid."
She nodded. "Not much change after you leave."
He slid his empty hand into his coat pocket and ambled toward the cemetery, pulling her close with him. They walked in silence, both remembering a time when they were enemies in country but lovers in heart. Many memories were not so happy - Robert's beating at Fukushima-san's hands; Sarge's death; Robert's escape from the country, almost foiled by a man now dead.
They reached the cemetery and Robert broke the silence. "I wanted to remember and be with you tonight, but I also need to talk about my plans."
Reluctantly, she looked up at him. It had been three weeks since he arrived at her door, and she dreaded this conversation.
Her face looked like a ghost in the moonlight. "Miyoko, I have a job in America - a life, my mom. I can't live here forever. I don't know your customs and I can only communicate with the few who speak English."
She breathed in deeply, refusing to cry. He was right, she knew, but she couldn't let him go again. "You could live in village. Write letters to mother. Live like before, with us."
He shook his head. "That would work for a while, but not forever. Miyoko, I belong in America. As much as I love it here, I can't stay."
She nodded and drew in another ragged breath, looking down at the snow. "How long until you leave?"
"I'm not sure. Depends."
Looking back at him, she replied, "Depends on what?"
He smiled and pulled his hand out of his coat pocket. "Well, I spoke to Fukushima-san. He helped me write your father. He also told me that it was custom here for him to... inform you of our discussion, but I asked him not to. Where I come from, the man talks to the father, but then... well." Letting go of her hand, he bent on one knee in the snow and opened his hand to reveal a ring, sparkling in the moonlight.
"In America, the man buys the girl a ring." He cleared his throat nervously, and she clutched at the cloth wrapped around her shoulders. "Miyoko, will you be my wife?"
She gasped, barely audible, and brought her hand to her mouth. "Robert..."
He stood slowly, still holding out the ring. "I know this means you'll have to leave your home. Fukushima. Masato. But please. Please say yes."
For several moments they stood there, like sculptures in a gallery. He was asking the world of her - but her heart was willing to give it. Finally she nodded. "Yes. Yes. Yes!"
Grins broke out on both faces as he took her left hand and slid the ring onto her finger. "Now, where I come from, we're engaged - engaged to be married." He bent down and kissed her before adding, "That's called an engagement ring. I guess it tells everybody else that you're taken."
She smiled curiously. "Taken?"
He laughed. "Mine. You're taken by me, and I'm taken by you."
He kissed her again before slipping his arm around her waist and leading her slowly back to the house.