Chapter 19

3-3 Her bed felt like a thin mattress laid out on a tatami mat. Youko fell asleep once, then woke up later in the middle of the night.

Her benefactor was sleeping soundly on the other side of the room. Youko sat up and clasped her knees, her clean nightshirt rustling against her clean skin. The shutters were closed. The room was dark. The night was quiet. Sheltered by the heavy roof and thick walls, not even sounds of small animals disturbed their rest. The air lay calm and still around them. The room felt like a place of sleep.

Youko got out of bed. She retrieved the sword from where it was stashed on the shelf, went into the kitchen. She had quickly formed the habit of waking herself from a sound sleep, and until she felt the hilt of the sword in her grasp again she could not rest easy. She sat down in a chair, wrapped her arms around the sword--now covered in a new cloth Takki had given her--took a deep breath.

Takki said it was a three-day trip to Kasai, where her mother ran the hotel. When they got there Youko would have a home of her own in this world. She had no experience working for a living, but her sense of expectation was greater than her anxieties. She wondered what kind of people she would be working with.

She'd sleep in a real building, wake up in the morning, work all day, go to bed at night. Once she started working she probably wouldn't have time to think about anything else. Maybe she wouldn't be able to go home, to her home in that other world, or be able to look for Keiki. But right now she couldn't care less.

Having finally found herself a place in this world, she let herself drift off into sleep. As her forehead rested against the shrouded sword, a high, clear note sounded from within the steel.

Youko awoke with a start. A faint light was shining out from under the layer of cloth. She timidly undid the cloth. As on the night before, the sword was glimmering with a ghostly light. She could see small, dim images flickering across the blade.

Her eyes focused in the dark. The images drew into shape. Before her eyes, like a movie projection, was an image of her room. It looked so real she imagined that if she stretched out her hand she could touch it. But it wasn't real.

The cavernous echo of falling water continued incessantly. The figure she saw in the sword was, as before, her mother. Her mother moved aimlessly around Youko's room.

She opened a drawer, moved things around on the shelf as if she were looking for something. About the umpteenth time she opened the bureau drawers, the door opened and there was her father.

He said, and Youko heard his voice clearly. "The bath ready?"

Her mother shot him a quick glance and then resumed searching through the drawer. "Should be. If it's warm enough, go ahead."

"I need a change of clothes."

"If that's all you need, then get it yourself."

There was a caustic edge to her mother's voice. Her father's reply was no less barbed. "Hanging around her room won't do a damned bit of good."

"I'm not just hanging around her room. I have things to do. If you need a change of clothes, you're perfectly capable of getting it yourself."

Her father said, his voice low, "Youko left. Spending your every waking moment camped out in her room isn't going to bring her back!"

I left?

"She didn't leave."

"She ran away. She met up with that strange boy at school, didn't she? Then they had some of their friends go outside and break the window. She got mixed up with a gang and hid it from us, isn't that the best explanation for what happened?"

"She isn't that kind of girl."

"What you mean is, you never noticed. Like her hair. She's been dying it all along, hasn't she?"

"She didn't."

"It happens all the time. A kid starts hanging out with the wrong crowd and finally she runs away from home. She'll come home eventually, when the fun wears off."

"She wouldn't do something like that. That's not the way I raised her."

They both glared at each other. Her father said, "Every mother says that. That kid that broke into the school, they say his hair wasn't a natural color, either. Those gang kids are all like that, and she was one of them, too."

Dad, it's not true!

"Stop slandering your own daughter!" Her mother's words boiled over with resentment. "What do you know? All you know is your work. But my work, everything to do with our child, I had to do!"

"That's the way it is. That's the father's role."

"Father? Who's being a father?"

"Ritsuko . . . . "

"So you go to work, you bring a bunch of money home, and that makes you a father? Our daughter disappears and you didn't even bother to take the day off! What kind of a father is that? Don't lecture me about what Youko is or isn't when you don't know a thing about her!"

Her father seemed more surprised than angry, "Calm down, you're being hysterical."

"Oh, I am calm. I'm as calm as I possibly can be. Just imagining what Youko is going through, what do you expect me to do?"

"You have your responsibilities, too. You calm down, you do what you have to do, and then you can worry."

"And doing your laundry is my responsibility, I suppose? Rather than worrying about my child, that's what I should be concerning myself with? All you can think about is yourself!"

Her mother stared at her father. His face flushed with anger but he said nothing.

"You say she was one of them? How can you say that? She's a good, proper girl. She never talks back or acts up. She never gave me cause to worry, never. She could talk to me about anything. She's not the kind of child who would run away from home. Because there wasn't anything she'd want to run away from!"

Her father turned away, still holding his tongue.

"Youko left her backpack at school. And her coat, too. How can that be called running away? Something must have happened. That's the only thing that makes sense."

"If it did, so what?"

Her mother's eyes went wide. "So what?"

Her father answered bitterly. "Let's say she did get caught up in something. Even so, what could you do about it? We informed the police about everything that happened. Running around like chickens with their heads cut off isn't going to bring her home any faster."

"Why do you have to say things like that!"

"Because it's the truth! Handing out flyers and slapping posters on telephone poles, do you really think that's going to make a difference? Be honest!"

"Stop it."

"If she didn't run away, if she got wrapped up in some kind of conspiracy or something, she'd be dead already."

"Please stop!"

"You see it all the time on the news. Do those kids ever turn up alive? That's why I say she ran away from home!"

Her mother burst into tears. Her father stared at her, then stomped out of the room.

Dad . . . Mom . . . .

Seeing them like this cut her to the core. The scene blurred. She closed her eyes and felt the tears tumble down her cheeks. When she opened her eyes, her vision was clear. The images had already vanished.

All she could see was the sword, the light gone out of it.