Rei looked up at her mother. She was so pretty! Rei knew she could never hope to be as beautiful. Her mother had long, thick black hair and such unusual purple eyes. Rei's hair wasn't anywhere near as long. And Mother was so tall! Rei had to stretch to hold her hand. Suddenly Rei noticed something.
"Yes, Rei-chan?" She loved it when her mother smiled down at her like that. She struggled to keep her eyes on her mother's face, and yet not trip as they continued walking.
"Why have we turned around so early? Don't we usually walk longer than this?"
Her mother's smile soured a little. "Yes, but I thought it'd be a good idea to go back early today, Rei. I'm a little tired."
Rei was worried by the small lines appearing on her mother's forehead, but she didn't want to cause any problems. "Okay."
When they reached the house, her mother looked down at her, and for some reason her lips looked pale. "Can you take your coat and shoes off by yourself, Rei-chan?"
Rei puffed her chest out proudly. "Hai! I'm big enough now!"
"That's good, Rei. Why don't you do that." Her mother sat down on the steps inside the door, and put her head between her hands. She's breathing so loudly! Rei thought, casting sly glances at her through the corners of her eyes. She struggled and fought with her shoes, and then after she put her jacket on the lowest coat hook, just within her reach, she ran over to sit next to her mommy.
"Um...kaa-san? What are we going to do next?"
Her mother raised her head, and Rei gasped when she saw her face. She was so pale! Rei knew something was wrong. Her mother raised a weak smile. "I think it's about time to take a nap, don't you?"
Rei made a disgusted face. "I don't need to take a nap!"
"I saw you yawning while we were walking back here, Rei."
"But-" Rei's mind raced, "that was a wake-up yawn!"
Rei watched her mother pull herself to feet with the stair banister and laugh softly. "And what exactly is a wake-up yawn?"
"You know, when you first wake up and you yawn? That's a wake-up yawn!" Rei wondered if this would work. Her mother reached down and fondly tousled her hair.
"Nice try, dear. C'mon, Rei-chan." Rei sighed and quietly slipped her small hand into her mother's long fingered, delicate hand.
Rei watched her mother begin to draw the blinds in her room closed She turned with a smile to look at Rei.
"Dear? C'mon, get into bed now."
Rei obligingly crawled into bed and pulled her covers over herself as best she could. Her mother walked slowly toward the bed and stiffly bent over to tug at Rei's covers, almost as ineffectually and Rei had. She brought her face down and gave Rei a gentle kiss on her forehead. "Sleep tight, Rei-chan."
Rei closed her eyes and tried to go to sleep as she heard her mother softly close the door. Suddenly she heard a loud crash. Her eyes snapped open.
"Kaa-san? Kaa-san? Where are you? Kaa-san? What was that?" When she didn't get an answer she slowly crawled out of bed. "Kaa-san? Kaa-san?" She quietly opened the door and looked down the hall.
"KAA-SAN!" Her mother was sprawled on the floor in the hallway leading to her room. Rei ran to her side and shook her. "Wake up! What's wrong?"
Rei realized, for the first time, that her mother was sick.
Rei quietly stuck her head around the corner to listen to her parent's conversation. They thought she was just a kid, but she wasn't-she was smart for her age! Why, she was top in her kindergarten class!
"I can't keep going myself. I can't even take care of Rei-chan when she gets home from school, I'm so tired. I need help. If you could just make sure you get home by five-"
Her mother's suggestion was forestalled by a violent shake of her father's head. "No. You know how important my job is. I can't ruin my career by coming home early every night to take care of a child."
"I'll hire someone to help you around the house. How's that?"
Her mother looked down at the ground. "I guess that'll be good enough," she said uncertainly. She looked up at her husband in surprise as he gruffly put a hand on her shoulder.
"You'll be fine, won't you?"
"I'm sure I will be."
Rei quickly backed back into her room as her father began to walk toward the hallway. She was faintly ashamed of watching the whole scene, and crawled quietly into bed.
"Um...otou-san...." Rei walked up to her father hesitantly. He was slouched in his chair, his face resting in his hands. Rei thought she saw his shoulders shake a little. At her uncertain question he raised his head suddenly. Rei only had time to notice that his eyes were a bit red before he started yelling at her.
"What are you doing up?!"
Rei shrank back into herself. "You were out late again, and the nurse leaves at five. She didn't cook supper for me, and I was wondering..."
Her father looked somehow apologetic and angry at the same time. "I can fix you something to eat before bed. I'd rather have a nurse that would do a little more, but this is the best I can afford. You're going to have to learn to fend for yourself, Rei-chan. I have to stay late at the office to move up, and I'll need the promotion to pay for better nursing care. Watch what I do now, Rei-chan. You're going to have to fix your own meals from now on."
Rei watched her father fix the sandwiches, and followed him as he carried it to the table. She ran up to one end and sat herself down as her father placed one sandwich in front of her. "I'm going to need you to help your mother and the nurse, Rei-chan. You're getting old enough to start doing chores, like keeping the house clean and doing dishes."
Rei nodded and looked down at her plate. Now she was sorry she wasn't a child in her father's eyes. But she would be helping mother. Rei polished off her sandwich and carried her and her father's plates to the sink, then quietly went off to bed, leaving her father still sitting on the floor by the table, staring out into the night.
Rei stifled tears as she watched her mother slowly turn her head toward her. Her hair, once so long and thick, was cut short, since she was bedridden, and it was thinner, limper, than it had ever been before. Her eyes, once a bright, striking violet, were almost black with pain and fatigue. Rei forced a smile to her face as she walked up with a bowl of thin soup. "Are you ready for supper, kaa-san?" Her neck was thin, and her bones seemed to be trying to push their way out through her skin.
"Rei-chan...." her voice was so soft, weak. "Where's the nurse?"
"It's after five, kaa-san. It's time for supper. C'mon," she urged gently, "I know you have to be hungry." She held a spoon with a bit of fragrant broth enticingly under her mother's nose. She stubbornly resisted the urge to help her mother sit up. The nurse said she had to keep doing it herself as long as she could. Rei couldn't stand to see the cords of her mother's muscles struggle so hard, though, simply to allow her sit up. Finally, after a few seconds, Rei put down the tray and helped her mother. A single tear fell down her face, but she quickly wiped it off before her mother could see. "There we go. Here, let me help you."
Rei sat on the bed next to her mother and spoon fed her. When the bowl was finally empty her mother laid back down and closed her eyes. In less than a second she was asleep. Rei hurriedly grabbed the tray and empty dishes and ran out of the room toward the kitchen. She threw the dishes into the sink and sank to the floor, crying.
"Rei-chan! Rei-chan! Wake up!"
Something was shaking her. She groggily opened her eyes. "H-hai?" she mumbled as she tried to make sense of where she was.
"Rei-chan, why are you sleeping on the floor?"
Rei looked around, confused, then realized what had happened. "I-I was crying, and I guess I just-fell asleep." She looked up sadly through her eyelashes, hoping her father would reach out to her.
Well, you haven't done dishes or anything yet! It's late. Go to bed, and you can do them when you get up in the morning." Rei got up, and was walking toward her room before her father began to speak again. "It's probably better if you don't give into your emotions like that, Rei-chan. My daughter should be strong."
Rei nodded at her father. "Hai." She held out her hands in front of her as she stumbled toward her room. They looked so small compared to her parents' hands. Too small to take care of things? Rei clenched her hands into tight fists. No! She would make her father proud. She would handle everything.
Rei woke with a start. Something was wrong. She'd heard a strange noise.
She quietly crawled out of bed and pulled on her small kimono. She padded to the door, opened it, and peered out of her room. Something was wrong. The light in her parent's room was on. Fear gripped her chest and she ran as fast as she could toward the soft, yellow glow. She burst through the door.
"What is it? What's wrong, tou-san? Kaa-san?"
Her father stood silently over his bed. Her mother was quiet-she didn't even stir at Rei's shaky query.
"Tou-san? Kaa-san?" Rei took a hesitant step forward. Her father raised his head, and his face looked frightening in its rigidity.
"Rei.....chan....." her father whispered softly. He took a deep breath. "Rei-chan, your mother....is dead."
Rei brought a shaking hand up to cover her mouth. "What?" she breathed softly, almost inaudibly. "Kaa-san? Dead?" With a strangled cry she dashed forward. "No! She can't be dead! Kaa-san! Kaa-san!" Rei jumped up onto the bed and knelt next her mother's side. "Kaa-san! Kaa-san! Open your eyes, Kaa-san! Wake up!" She shook her mother's still, heavy body. "You're making Papa think you're dead! Kaa-san! OPEN YOUR EYES!" Rei raised her head into the air and began to keen in grief. "KAA-SAAAAAAAN!"
Her father took a step forward and picked her up. She was getting large enough that he had a hard time hefting her up in his arms. "Rei-chan, stop it. Rei-chan!" Rei didn't respond. Instead, her sobs only grew louder, and more desolate. "REI-CHAN! YOU'RE BEING WEAK!" His strangled shout reached her ears, and at his accusation she began to quiet. "You must be strong, Rei-chan. You can't lose control like this! Haven't I raised you to be strong?"
Rei nodded slowly, and sniffed. She wiped her tears and runny nose with the back of her hand and watched him with wide eyes. Her father took in her soggy face and made a slightly disgusted face. "Go clean yourself up. I have some calls to make." He set her down on the ground.
Ashamed by his attitude, Rei walked slowly into the bathroom to throw water on her face and clean up. When she finished washing her face, she looked at herself in the mirror.
She was still so little-she looked so much like a little kid. But she felt as if she'd become an adult tonight. Her eyes looked darker somehow. When she had a serious expression like this on her face, she thought she looked more like her mom. She reached up to touch her hair. It was too short. If she let it grow out, she'd look like kaa-san more. Kaa-san had had such beautiful hair. Rei would always remember her hair. She felt tears sneak into her eyes again, and she closed her eyes as tightly as she could in an attempt to hold them back. Tou-san wanted her to be strong. She could do that. She slowly reached into the drawer and pulled out her hairbrush. She walked into her parent's room. Her father's deep voice drifted in from his office as she slowly climbed onto the bed next to her mother's cooling body. She knelt by her mother's head and slowly began to brush out her dark, limp hair. There were snarls in it-she'd been too weak to brush it out the last few days. The last....last....
Rei shoved her threatening tears back a little farther, and kept brushing.
Rei wanted to tug at the ill-fitting black dress, but she kept herself from doing it. Her father would frown at her if he saw her. Instead she sat as still as she could and tried not to cry. Her mother looked better in the casket than she had the last few weeks she was alive. Rei wondered how they did that. Anything was better than dwelling on the fact that it was Mama lying in that coffin. She felt her nose begin run again. It was easier to hold back the tears. She reached into her pocket and blew her nose as inconspicuously as she could.
"Well, if you blow your nose like that, you'll never clear it all out!"
Rei lifted her face up, startled by the voice right by her side. An old man, a little shorter than her, stood at her side. "Who are you, ojii-san?" she asked. He was old enough to be her grandfather, after all.
The old man smiled happily at her soft question. "You look so much like she did at your age."
"Nani?! You knew my mother when she was little like me?"
The man smiled wider. Rei opened her eyes wide. He seemed so silly, but his eyes were red, as if-
"She was my daughter. I really am your ojii-san. Oh, Rei-chan. I'm so sorry I never even got to meet you before something terrible like this happened!" He pulled her close in a sad hug. "It's so hard to meet your for the first time at my own daughter's funeral!"
Rei stood stiff for a minute, surprised by this development. "Kaa-san never talked about you," she said accusingly.
"I know. Your father didn't like me that much, so out of respect and love for him, she didn't bring me up." He took a step back from her and looked piercingly at her. "You look so much like her, except-" he cocked his head, and Rei saw the concern hidden deep in his eyes come forward a little, "you're so serious, Rei-chan. So quiet." He reached down and took the forgotten handkerchief out of her hand. He held it up to her nose. "Now, to take care of one problem at least. Blow, Rei-chan." Rei looked at him for a second, almost angry. She wasn't a little kid! She could blow her own nose! She brought her hand up to take the square of cloth back. "BLOW."
"Rei-chan! The bus is out front! I'm leaving now! Are you ready?" Rei blinked her eyes open, and sat up with a groan. She'd forgotten to set her alarm! She jumped out of bed.
"No, tou-san! I forgot to set the alarm! I just woke up!" She jumped out of bed as fast as she could and tried to find her school uniform. Her father burst into the room, muttering dark words under his breath. He found her clothes and began to roughly tug them on.
"I don't have the time to spend on this!" she heard him say to himself. Did he think she couldn't hear? "I have to be at the office early! This is ridiculous!" Rei felt tears of shame gather in her eyes. She wasn't as grown up as she'd hoped. She was causing problems for her father. He threw her books into her bag and dragged her out of the house. "Hurry up! The bus will leave any second! I don't have the time to drive you to school too!"
"But-" Rei turned around and halted her dash to the bus. "but what about my lunch?"
"This will teach you to set your alarm for the mornings," her father replied. "You don't have time to fix yourself one. Go on!" He motioned her away with his hand, and turned his back on her to walk toward his bus stop. Rei stared after him silently for a fraction of a second, then heard the bus driver honk at her and turned back to run for it.
Rei looked up when she heard someone at the door. She was nervous. It was dark out, but it wasn't late enough for her father to come home. She hated being alone all the time like this, but she didn't dare tell her father about it. She didn't dare disappoint him. She slowly walked up to the door and looked to see who stood on the other side of it. She almost smiled when she saw who it was. She eagerly pulled open the door.
"Ojii-san! I haven't seen you since-since..." Rei couldn't bring herself to say it. She stood back from the door. "Come on in! You've never seen the house before, have you?"
Her grandfather looked around, and he seemed to be a bit on edge. He looked around the room. "I'm happy to see you too, Rei-chan. Um...is your father home?"
Rei shook her head. "No. He's very busy at work. He won't get home for a while. Would you like something to eat or drink?"
"What?" Rei's grandfather looked at her oddly. "You're home alone? Until when?"
Rei shrugged, used to it after a month or so. "He gets home by eight some nights. He'll stay out 'til after I go to bed a lot. I don't usually know when he gets home."
She thought she saw a look of anger cross her grandfather's face. She didn't know him all that well. She pulled back a little, but his expression smoothed and he smiled at her. "I'm not that good a cook, but I've had to learn to make some meals after your obaa-san passed away. Why don't you and I make something together?"
Rei's face lit up. She wasn't going to be home alone tonight after all! "Hai!" She bounced off toward the kitchen.
Her grandfather sent her to bed around eight, and she fell asleep quickly, feeling safe in the knowledge that her grandfather was in the house. Suddenly she sat up in bed. She blinked and waited for her eyes to start working. She'd been woken up by a door slamming. Suddenly she heard voices. She clutched her blankets close to her body and strained her ears to try to hear what was being said.
"What are YOU doing here, old man?" Tou-san.
"Why weren't you here? What kind of man leaves his eight year old daughter home alone almost every night?" Ojii-san.
"That's none of your concern. I want you to leave, and take your archaic ideas and religious ideals with you, priest!"
"I can't leave my granddaughter like this! I can't abandon her like you have. I'm going to take Rei-chan to live with me at Hikawa Jinja."
"A shrine is no place for a young girl, especially when she's MY daughter!"
"Neither is an empty house. If you stay home with her, I won't insist, but if you continue to work these ridiculous hours, I have to take her."
"I can't come home early! Not when I'm so close to this promotion! Don't you understand how important something like this is?!"
"Don't you understand how important your own daughter is?"
The shouting got louder. Rei put her hands over her ears and tried to block it out while she thought. She felt warm, salty tears begin to run down her face, but for once she didn't try to stop them. No one was here. Father wouldn't see them. Father wouldn't think her weak if he didn't know. What would she do? Leaving her father was kind of frightening, but living like this until she was a grown-up was just as scary. At least she wouldn't be home alone in the dark with her grandfather. Rei heard a different sound, something other than shouting. She raised her head and saw her grandfather poke his head inside the door. Her father didn't come.
"Oh, Rei-chan, I'm sorry you had to hear that. Have you been crying? Oh, come here, honey." He pulled her close in a light hug. Her father hadn't come. Rei tried to hold back her tears now that someone was in the room.
"I-I'm fine, ojii-san. Are you going to be staying the night?" He hadn't come.
"No, Rei-chan. I have to go now. Your father and I still don't get along, it seems." He smiled sadly. "Are you sure you're all right?"
Father didn't come.
Rei-chan broke down, and hugged her grandfather to her as tightly as she could. He hadn't come. She began to sob into his chest. She gave herself over to her tears for a few minutes. Her grandfather let her go as soon as she made small motions that she wanted to pull away. She sniffed softly and began to rub her eyes.
"There, now. Doesn't that feel better?" He patted her on the back gently, then got up off the bed. "Gomen, Rei-chan. I have to leave now. We'll talk about tonight some other time. Go to sleep, huh?" She lay down on her bed and nodded. She watched him tenderly tuck her in and check to see if her alarm clock was set. Then he turned out the lights, and before he closed the door, he turned around to look back at her, through the crack, like her mother had always done before she got too sick to tuck Rei in. Rei turned her face to the pillow and cried into it, so her father wouldn't hear.
"You're going to keep going to the same school, Rei-chan. That way things won't be quite so difficult. Isn't that nice?" Her grandfather turned to her with a smile. She smiled faintly back. It'd been almost two months since that one bad night, and she'd gotten better at self-control since then. She kept her face more blank than not the whole ride there. She was going to live at a shrine. That was more than a little daunting. "I think you'll like Hikawa Jinja. Your mother did, when she was a girl." Rei nodded politely[JD1]. Her grandfather gave her an odd look out of the corner of his eyes and sighed softly. "Well, I do think you'll like it."
Rei smiled and nodded again. He seemed to be expecting more, so "I'm sure I will, ojii-san."
"There will be some chores for you to do. I'll need you to help keep the place clean, and you'll have to help me cook sometimes. Actually," his voice suddenly held a hint of amusement, "you'll probably be glad to help me, because that means you won't have to eat my cooking!"
Rei smiled. Her grandfather stood up and began to walk to the front of the bus. "Well, here we are! C'mon, Rei-chan. This is your new home!"
Rei looked up the gray stone steps, in between the imposing stone columns into the courtyard beyond. There were beautiful cherry trees on the grounds. Rei stood rooted to the spot for a second. She could make this her home. She could feel herself being drawn to it already. Her grandfather chuckled as her purple eyes began to sparkle with wonder. "I told you you'd like it!" He grabbed her hand and led her up the steps into her new home.
"Ojii-chan! You should leave those girls alone! They're here to see the shrine, not have you ogle at them!" Rei seemed to get more bad-tempered as time went on, her grandfather thought sourly as she came to stand over him, hands on her hips. He couldn't seem to break through to her. That son-in-law of his had ruined her for life, he was afraid. His lips twitched a little as the oddity struck him. His eleven-year old granddaughter was scolding him. She sniffed when she caught his slight change of expression, then went back to sweeping the steps.
He shook his head. He didn't know what to make of her. He was sure she loved him, but it was so hard to see. He shaded his eyes and looked up at the sun. For some reason it was really affecting him today. He felt so hot....
Rei looked over toward her grandfather, and caught a glimpse of him just as his knees crumpled and he began to fall to the ground. "Ojii-chan! Ojii-chan!" She couldn't keep the panic out of her voice. She COULDN'T lose him too! "Ojii-chan! Hold on!" She ran inside and called an ambulance.
Rei's grandfather groaned almost inaudibly and opened his eyes. There was a black shape next to him. He turned his head and saw what it was. "Rei-chan? Are you all right?"
She lifted a tear ravaged face to him. "Ojii-chan! You're awake! How do you feel!" Now that he was watching her, she wiped her face off and assumed her usual commanding attitude. Her grandfather sighed. This was how she showed her love. Her father had made it next to impossible for her to show affection.
"I'm fine Rei. I was just out in the sun too long, that's all. You know your silly grandfather. I'm sorry I worried you." He smiled at her. She let a small smile break through her mask for a second, then she opened up her mouth in a wide yawn. "Whoa!" her grandfather laughed gently, "That was a huge yawn! You should get some sleep, Rei-chan."
"I don't need any sleep!" Rei protested, "That was a wake-up yawn!"
"A wake-up yawn, what's that?"
Rei looked down as she was suddenly overcome with hr last memory of a conversation like this. With a sob she leaned in and gave him a tight hug. "Ojii-chan! I'm so glad you're all right!" She sobbed onto him again, and didn't quiet down for a long time. Finally she was finished. Her grandfather looked at her in surprise when she didn't pull away, and saw that her eyes were still closed. Her breathing was slow and even.
She'd fallen asleep.
He tenderly put his hand on her head, on her long, thick, black hair, so like her mother's.
"Someday, Rei-chan, you'll find a friend that you can show your feelings for. Someday, you'll find someone that can draw you out of this shell, forever.
"Someday." He closed his eyes, and fell asleep too.