Chapter 9:

Stolen Vows III

Backward Steps

The old man enters the house, along with me. The young Kazuta is quickly removing his shoes as quietly as possible. There are whispers coming from the kitchen, which is right next to the entrance, but they are unintelligible to us. 

After removing his shoes, Kazuta appears at the kitchen door, and we look there too: My mother, Tachibana Kaori, is standing next to a man, who says something to her, very close to her ear. The man is strong and in fit, with dark hair speckled with persistent gray and a thin but marked beard. He stops talking when he sees the child in the doorway, and my mother looks too.

"Good afternoon, son," my father says, approaching the child. "Would you like to go out with me tonight?"

The young Kazuta is watching his mother. She is looking at the floor, while something behind her, on the stove, is squeaking ardently, hoping it will be stirred in the pot. My mother is a very beautiful woman: still in her 30s, her face still shows no signs of aging, and her silky black hair falls over her shoulders, straight and shiny. She looks embarrassed.

"No, thank you," Takeda says, in a voice that seems to be straining hard to keep controlled. The man insists:

"Come on, little one!" he reaches out, to touch my younger self. "It's been so long since we've been out..."

"Don't touch me!" Mom widens her eyes, at my sudden shout. My father silently retracts his hand. We all now have our eyes on the thirteen-year-old Kazuta Takeda, his teenage mind shuffling through millions of simultaneous thoughts. "Why do you keep visiting us? I don't want you here!"

I rush up the stairs, and remember that at that moment there were tears in my eyes trying to fall on the ground. The parents who stayed behind watch each other, standing in silence for a few seconds that seem endless to me.

"Let's go upstairs," the gentleman in the top hat instructs me, breaking the long silence, and I obey him.

The upper floor is not much different from any second floor of an ordinary middle-class Japanese family home; in fact, the entire house can be placed in this pattern. In the second room at the end of the hallway is my bedroom, which now has its door ajar. My companion and I enter there, followed only by the silence of our non-existent footsteps.

The room does not have many things that distinguish it from any other room, only, perhaps, a poster of a very popular volleyball manga that is next to the window. Other than that the room is simple and tidy, as it had always been. I was not a perfectionist or a messy person, but I liked to keep the rooms I stayed in clean, and I did not have any addictions or collection crazes. So it was to be expected that my room would be somewhat simplistic.

Kazuta is sitting on the floor, his head resting on the bed. He doesn't cry or make a sound, he just thinks. I understand this Kazuta, because his hatred is not something particular to the past; the anger I feel toward my father still exists in my current self, even if much less present. It is no longer an issue that really stresses me out.

Perhaps due to the fact that my father is already dead.

"You used to get very nervous when the subject was your father" says the man next to me, more affirming than asking. "You felt a lot of anger towards him, and that is remarkable."

I affirm. I can't take my eyes off little Kazuta. His anger is very real, it is as if I am feeling it again, in this current body of mine...I really am feeling anger again, aren't I?

"He came here to the house rarely" I comment. I was planning to say something else, but it is very difficult to speak. Not only because of the weight that the words about my father still have on me, but also because I feel that I could end up spoiling the moment of my teenage self. I know, this is impossible, but I don't want to cut the relationship I am establishing with my past. I don't want to stop connecting to my own self through our congruent feelings.

My father was a complicated man. He had married Mom, had made me together with her, only to discover three years later that he didn't like married life. My father was a man who hated feeling trapped, stagnant. So he separated from my mother. Because of fights? No. Because of financial problems? Not at all. He got divorced only because he wanted to... "enjoy life".

And his conception of enjoying life was incredible, no doubt about it; there wasn't a single inhabitant of our town who didn't know the womanizer Kazuta Naoki. Partying, going out to all the nightclubs in neighboring towns, being seen with different women every day... he never stopped. And obviously, he had no desire to stay home and play the father to the son he put into the world. For him, it was enough to pay his monthly pension and show up at our house whenever he felt like going out with my mother. And this relationship we had with him, like a kind of bond that tied us to this man, made me angry.

"I don't need a father like him," I say softly. "I don't need one and I don't care."

We hear footsteps coming up the stairs and gradually getting closer, until my mother knocks on the bedroom door, even though it is ajar. One of her eyes appears in the gap before any opportunity for response.

"Takeda..." My memory self, hearing her mother's voice, hides his face more. "Can we talk?"

"I don't want to, leave me alone."

"Son... I... You can't act this way with your father. He has helped us so much with our expenses, you know that..."

Kazuta stands up, his eyes turned downward, avoiding exchanging glances with his mother. Without even asking her to leave, the young man closes the bedroom door in the woman's face.

"I already told you I don't want to talk," he recites, already turning to walk away from the door.

There is a sigh from across the room, and the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs. By the silence downstairs, the family's troublemaker is no longer at home. Kazuta returns to his original position, dismayed, with only silence left, the silence he has always hated, to serve as his support.

"What was the reason you were against your mother going out with your father?" the elderly man asks me. "Jealousy? Fear that they would remarry?"

I certainly wasn't afraid that they would remarry. Naoki would never decide to return to what he had run away to, years before, let alone with the woman he had left behind. So that certainly wasn't my concern, knowing well the figure that was my father.

"I can't tell; but I guess I felt defeated." Speaking of my father, I feel very small and frustrated. I didn't like him, I didn't enjoy his company, and I would never want to help him in any way. In every way, my father was like an unpleasant person to me.

We stood in silence in that already silent room, which held the hatred of a frustrated teenager. The peanuts, the remaining mochi, the day with his friends... everything had been forgotten. Now only frustration remained, and I remember that day well. That day it had been hard to look into Mom's eyes, to go down to dinner, and it had been even harder to accept that I was dependent on that man I hated.

As much of a jerk as Naoki was as a father, he was a man of integrity when it came to pensions and benefits, and my mother and I were dependent on his money at the time. As if this wasn't enough, he was also a very handsome man, who was not entirely Japanese, and had smooth and well-defined features. He was a hard person to criticize on the outside.

So the feeling I had when I looked at him was one of humiliating defeat, as if it would be impossible for me to ever let go of him, to ever stop depending on the perfect man that was Kazuta Naoki. The weight of powerlessness in front of my father was pressing me, forcing me to grow up; but I was a child, and dealing with that pressure had never been something I could do.

"I want to travel with you some more" the man comments, after a long moment. The young Kazuta remains motionless, showing no pretense of moving. "For a few weeks after this day."

I state, without looking at him. He extends his hand to me, offering me another past. Unlike all my other memories, this one had shown me that my past was not only made up of the bad character attitudes of a Kazuta Takeda in the making. Watching my friends having fun on their vacation had certainly been the most invigorating experience I had encountered since meeting the mysterious man in the top hat, and this was a more powerful memory than any disrespect towards my mother, any shouting at my father. For it was a rare moment of happiness, one that I would very much like to preserve fresh in my brain.

And even though things with my friends did not end well, and we are probably going to see it happen before us right now, this part of my life was somewhat forgotten, and now they are vivid moments in my mind. They are crucial memories, showing me the value of my interactions and how the past is still worthwhile, even if it is mostly painful to keep track of.

It is part of the tower-breaking process, after all.

Already a little more sure of what is happening, and aware of the weight of my decisions, I promptly take the reaper's hand. There is a flash before my eyes as I close them, and suddenly we are no longer in Kazuta's room, but in that creek again, standing in front of the place. The old man and I are standing in front of the children, the same children who were once here, swimming and sinking their heads under the water. This was like our secret base; even if we were not the only ones who knew about this gift of nature, we were still the most frequent visitors, and certainly the most excited too.

On this day, the children had no intention of swimming: they were just chatting. Sitting on wooden stumps, which they had arranged themselves by the trees, their voices are strongly audible to us:

"Who's got the treasure map?" asks Kenji, only for Rena to shake her head quickly, impatiently.

"I've told you a thousand times that the map belongs to Ren's family" she says. "Can't you wait? Say, Kazuta, were you with Ren yesterday? Did he warn you that he would be late?"

The child Kazuta shakes his head in denial. On that day, a Sunday of the 2015 summer vacation, we had gone a few days without seeing each other, as Rena was preoccupied with her homework, and had influenced all of us to start ours together with her. I don't remember so well how the week had gone, but considering that I always left my lessons for the last week of vacation, I certainly hadn't done anything school-related during that period.

And because of this interval in which we were supposed to do our homework, I hadn't seen Ren for quite a while.

"So we'll just have to wait for him," Rena finished, putting her arms behind her back. "Ren said he would come, and he's not one to lie, is he?"

"Not really," comments Yui.

"Ren is very kind" says Ichise, sort of not paying attention.

"Is there really a Kouyama family treasure hidden around town?" Kenji questions, looking at all of us. His makeshift wooden bench is the closest to the river. "Maybe he just wants to fool us."

"It's probably some worthless crap," the child Kazuta remarks, and the others affirm, in unison.

Ren's family wasn't particularly wealthy or anything, so it was hard for us to believe that there would be some valuable Kouyama treasure hidden somewhere. But it was a fun activity, and we, after days of not seeing each other, wanted something to do besides the usual games. As soon as Ren arrived, we would begin our search, the first treasure hunt of my life.

But I knew that it would not, in fact, happen. And I knew, too, that Ren would never arrive.

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