My hair was now tied back from my face with a twilight-blue length of cloth. Only a few stray locks of crimson hair swung free. I felt insecure without all that long hair hanging down in front of my face, but Jien assured me that any change was an improvement. He kept his arm around my shoulders, and I didn't feel so lonely anymore.
The sunset was over. The sky was a darkening shade of violet, and Jien and I had no more excuse to hang around in the village. We took the long route to Mother's house.
It was like I could feel the negative energy from Mother's house, even all the way out here. With every step, I felt worse. My good mood slowly crumbled away and my steps got shorter and shorter until I was barely moving. I kept my eyes down on the road and on the grass by the side of the road. I looked anywhere but ahead of me.
Jien released me, wanting to get to the house quickly to forestall one of Mother's apocalyptic temper tantrums, and with his long strides he was soon several meters ahead of me. I felt tears well in my eyes, the tears I'd struggled so hard to hold back early in the day returning with a vengeance. I didn't want to go to Mother's house. I didn't want the day to end. I didn't want… I didn't want…
My eyes burned, and I felt a hot tear slide down my cheek and hit the road. Once I'd started, I couldn't stop. And I couldn't be quiet. I could hear myself sobbing and thought I'd die of shame, and finally I just stopped moving. My vision was too blurred to continue. More than ever I wanted my hair to block my sight.
Jien turned around, and I could see his face fall for a split second before he hid it and returned down the path to me. I couldn't hide the desolation in my face, so I didn't try, but I wiped away the tears, as fast as they came.
I knew my tears hurt Jien. I knew it, and I felt awful because of it, but I couldn't help it. He'd tried so hard to make me happy today. I felt heavy, weighted down. He had made me happy, but I'd had to forget myself to achieve that joy. With every labored step, I felt my arm complain as it hadn't in the company of Jien's friends, felt my side hurt as it hadn't while I was occupied with eating my ice cream. I remembered who and what I was, and the knowledge was crushing me.
"Gojyo, what's the matter?" I was aware that Jien had crouched down a bit so he could see my eyes, as I was looking fixedly at the ground, still and tense in my misery.
I was silent for a long moment, my fists clenching and unclenching, tears sliding down my nose to paint the dirt. "Why doesn't Mother love me, Jien?" I choked out, so tense I was trembling. "I'm sorry for whatever I did. I'm sorry. I can't tell her it enough and she doesn't believe me and she won't listen to me and I know it's all my fault." I sounded pathetic. "I'd fix it if I knew how," I whimpered, feeling sick. "I try really hard, Jien."
"I know you do, Gojyo. I see it. Shhh." He sat down on the side of the road in the grass and gathered me in his lap, careful not to jostle my arm. "I know," he murmured. "I'm sorry, kid. I'm sorry."
I started sobbing, my face pressed into the worn fabric of his shirt. He stroked my hair and held me as I tried to understand why the only mother I had ever known wanted me dead. Was I really that bad a person? Was I as terrible as she told me? Did I deserve to die? My soul cried out, yes, yes, it's all true! I clung to Jien like I'd cling to a rock in the middle of a hurricane. I don't want to die, I tried to say. I don't want to die. I was crying so hard I had trouble breathing, sucking in breaths whenever my wracking sobs gave me a chance. I know I'm bad. I'm sorry. I'm scared. I don't want to die.
My breathless sobs wore me out, and when I was too weary to cry any more, I pulled back and wiped away my tears. Jien's shirt was soaked.
"You feel better?" he asked.
"Yeah," I answered dully, but he knew I was lying.
We got moving again. I dreaded going back to Mother's house, but I knew it was inevitable when I saw the dark, untidy smudge the ugly abode made on the delicate horizon. At the door, Jien stopped. "Gojyo," he began, "when we go in, I want you to go to your room. Lock the door and stay in your bed. Try to go to sleep if you can."
I nodded. He looked at me and a helpless desperation flashed over his face, but he pushed open the door and called, "Mother, I'm home."
"Jien!" she cried happily.
I slipped off to my room as Jien greeted her with a hug, knowing I would only poison her happiness if she saw me. As Jien had ordered me, I locked my door and climbed into my bed, pulling the thin scratchy sheets over my legs and huddling back into the corner. My room was the size of a closet and the walls were unpainted, cracked plaster.
Mother wasn't one for aesthetics.
Feeling cold as I always did in this house, I clutched the blankets to myself tightly when I heard Jien say, "Mother, what did you do to Gojyo this morning?"
"Why do you have to bring him up?" Mother complained. "You always bring the brat up. You never ask about me anymore."
"I had to bring him to the doctor today, Mother. His right side was covered in bruises, he's got broken ribs, and his arm's got a real nasty break." He sounded exasperated. "Why did you do that to him? What did he do to you?"
"He woke up this morning," she snarled. "What right does he have to live?"
"The right any of us has to live! Gods above, Mother, Dad told you to take care of him! He didn't mean to treat him like garbage, to make him feel like shit. It's not Gojyo's fault he's alive!"
"He's a terrible child," Mother shot back. "I told him to clean up the kitchen and he left it a mess! And the bathroom, he promised me he'd clean up the bathroom, and you can go in and take a look at it for yourself. He's so untrustworthy and irresponsible!"
"You broke his arm," Jien gritted out. "What do you expect?"
"Even if he has an ugly human bitch's blood in him, he's still half youkai and he needs to act it!" Mother retorted. "Tsuneji was strong. That disgusting thing is a weakling through and through!"
"Gojyo is stronger than most youkai I know and he'll only get stronger as he grows," Jien told her.
"I don't care what you say, he's weak! Weak! Weak, like a human! I hate that boy!" Mother shouted. "I wish he were dead! I'll kill him myself!"
"You'll kill him over my dead body," Jien growled.
Mother switched tactics, and she tried to sweeten her raspy voice. "You're my only son, Jien, I only love you, you know that. That brat causes so much trouble. Don't make this so hard for us, Jien, just ignore him and we'll be happy together. He's the reason everything's gone so wrong."
"That's quite a bit of blame to assign an eleven year old boy," Jien said sarcastically. "Gods, Mother, do you realize how hard he tries to make you happy? If for one day you could just treat him with the love he deserves--"
The words infuriated her and she screamed, "He doesn't deserve anything from me! I don't owe Kazusa's brat jack shit!"
"He has to answer for everything he's done wrong! He has to answer for making my life a living hell! He has to do everything I tell him!"
"A god couldn't do the things you force him to!"
"Jien, stop it, just stop it!" Mother started to cry, sobbing loudly. "Why do you have to hurt me like this? You love him more than you love me! I gave birth to you, Jien!"
Jien groaned. "Mother, stop -- gods, Mother, don't cry!"
"You hate me," she wailed.
"No, I don't hate you," Jien tried to say. "But you can't just--"
"You love that half-breed taboo filth more than you love your own mother!"
"That's not true," Jien said desperately. I could hear his control, his edge over the situation, fall apart. I couldn't stand seeing Mother cry, and I knew Jien couldn't either, and I knew Mother knew that perfectly well. I heard him sigh as he gave up the fight for tonight, and I could guess that he'd taken her into his arms. Jien was a gentleman. He couldn't stand seeing anyone in pain.
Mother was right. All the problems in the house were because of me. If I died, Mother wouldn't be unhappy anymore. If I died, Jien wouldn't have to fight this hopeless, exhausting fight every time he came home. I caused the two people in the world whose love and approval I wanted most in the world immeasurable pain and difficulty. If I really loved Jien and Mother, I'd just die.
I shut my eyes before my tears could fall and pulled my knees to my chest. It was all my fault.
I pulled the blue hair-tie out of my hair and let it dangle on my thin wrist. My hair fell around my face, comforting in its familiarity, hiding me. My breath made the crimson strands sway. I lay my head on my knees.
I remembered being back in the ice cream parlor, Jien sitting across from me, telling me about my parents. I remembered feeling safe and happy. I remembered the sweet taste of vanilla on my tongue, and the rest of the world just fell away. I was in a void of vagueness kinder than this harsh reality, and in that void of nothing, I finally fell asleep.