Chapter 20:

"We Have to Get Out of This Place"

Vibrancy x Vibrancy

I finally make it back to the unofficial Museum. It’s late in the evening, and Okada looks exhausted - must be her long commutes to work finally catching up to her. As Shizuko and I bid our farewells, I notice my tour guide has the big Aki-chan plushie stuffed under her arm. No way it can fit in her backpack. I raise my eyebrow in amusement.

“You gonna carry that all around the prefecture?”

She holds Aki-chan up into the light. “I guess I’ll have to mail her home.”

We add going to the post office to our list of errands for tomorrow morning. On the way out the door, Okada yawns and gives a tired smile. “Living the good life!” she calls out. “May you live the good life as well!"

I sure hope so, for both of our sakes.

We arrive in the ryokan. You know the drill - bath, yukatas, dinner. While Shizuko holds up little Aki-chan to big Aki-chan, I step outside through the shoji into the garden. On the wooden steps, I light up an Orange. The stars can’t shine through the cloud cover, and the trees sway in a breeze that can’t decide if it’s late summer or early autumn.

Autumn. We’re as close to autumn as we are to midsummer, yet I feel like there’s a lifetime of difference.

Shizuko steps outside. I wish I could see her in that red yukata under the moonlight, but under the cigarette glow is just as good, except not really. She sits next to me and I turn away so I don’t get smoke on her.

“Why do you smoke?” she asks. Not judgmental. Just curious.

“Not sure,” I answer. “I started once I got to college. I guess it’s just nice. When the world gets stale, you can alter your perception of it, just a little bit. Things feel relaxed during the headrush. Things feel soft during a body rush. Sometimes, you can even feel it in your thighs.”

She goes to answer, but the words don’t come out, so she just nods. I stare down at the dainty cigarette in my hand. Is making your thighs feel lifted and floaty really worth it? I’m doing it just because I’m getting bored of the world around me. And even now, because of this, I have to turn away from Shizuko. I can’t see the part of the world that interests me the most.

“Maybe I’ll quit,” I tell her. I drop the cigarette, half-full, into the portable ashtray. “Maybe I will.”

Shizuko says nothing, but I see a slight nod of approval. With that settled, we sit on the wooden steps and soak in the silence. There are occasional breaks in it - cricket chirps, bird calls, leaves rustling - but it’s phenomenally peaceful. I’m feeling pretty good when we finally step back inside and sit on either side of the table in my room. Well, maybe only mostly good.

Shizuko must’ve noticed the way I’m twiddling my thumbs. “Something bothering you?”

"Something is bothering me,” I admit. The conversations with Ume and the wanderer are stuck on replay in my mind. “Am I selfish for going to this dying prefecture, not really caring about rescuing it? Just wanting to use it to save myself? I thought some new scenery would do me some good. But that scenery has feelings, too, and I never considered them when I decided to go here.”

After a moment of mouth movement but no words, Shizuko leans over and puts both Aki-chans to bed, sliding them below the table (Ken-kun has been a good boy and remained quiet on my backpack this whole time). Then she brushes the hair off her face and smiles. “As your tour guide, I advise you to listen.”

She’s changed. A lot more talkative now. A lot more assertive. She’s a far cry from the quiet woman I first met in Mabuchi.

“I think it’ll help if I told you why I came here,” she begins. “When I went to the regional high school, I thought the new scenery would change me. It lasted for a while. But it burned out by my third year. So I went to college with the same hope. Tokyo has many people but few friends. I couldn’t fit in with all the city kids at my college.”

I nod in understanding. I remember President Frogface and his taunts.

Shizuko speaks softly. “Aunt Azawa helped set me up with an apartment there. I only ended up ever leaving it for class and for groceries. Nothing else. Because there was no point in leaving it. I had nobody to talk to.”

Quiet memories appear in my mind. “I used to stand at train crossings, watch the trains go by, and pretend I was waiting for somebody on the other side.”

“Loneliness,” she merely says, because that’s all she needs to say.

“Here’s to that,” I say, extending my hand. She looks away, then gingerly reaches her hand across the table. We shake, but then, as our hands slide away, our fingers end up intertwining, one by one. We don’t say anything; it feels natural. Soft and warm to touch. Our hands stay that way for a long while.

Shizuko continues. “A professor had me stay after class once. My grades were slipping. My art just didn’t have soul in it. I knew I didn’t have soul in me, either. So he taught me something.”

With her other hand, she lifts three fingers. “Anxiety. Hesitation. Patience.”

I tilt my head. “What does that mean?”

“It’s how we can react to things. The first two come naturally. But as long as we remember the third. He said we’ll be okay.”

“Patience,” I repeat. I try to take stock of the situation. I’m anxious about losing my belief that the world is as good as it used to be; I’m hesitating on finding a solution to it. I can offer solutions to other people, but I can’t accept any myself.

“The anxiety and hesitation never went away,” Shizuko admits. “But because I was patient. I was able to stop myself from doing anything I’d regret. And then a solution appeared. Aunt Azawa stopped by. She got it out of me that I wasn’t doing so good in Tokyo. She said she had a project for me. A nice young man was going to write about Yoshiaki. I should come home and be his tour guide for the summer break.”

I chuckle and point at myself. “A nice young man?”

She laughs in turn. “She meant President Frogface when she said that. He hadn’t told us about his summer vacation and declined yet.”

I tease her. “Are you still with a nice young man?”

“Shunsuke,” she complains, looking away, squeezing her fingers against mine. I squeeze back and let her finish her story. “I didn’t want to go. I was so used to the apartment. But I was patient. Yoshiaki would be a nice change of scenery. I didn’t care about saving this prefecture, either. But I went because I thought it would help myself. I’m glad I went. I’m glad I was patient. Slowing down is the only way to see what’s around you.”

“Patience,” I repeat again. The word rolls off the tongue.

Shizuko taps her fingers against the wooden table. “What I’m trying to say, to give a roundabout answer to your question. I don’t think it’s selfish to start off something by thinking of yourself first. But by coming here, you made me feel better. You made a lot of people feel better. But if you don’t recognize any of that, if you think making other people feel better wasn’t worth coming here, if you go home and don’t give a second thought to anybody here…if you never think about me again…I think that would be selfish.” She looks away again. “And maybe it's selfish of me, but I would be very sad.”

I can feel the heat pouring from her heart. I can feel the heat from mine. I slowly reach over and intertwine my fingers with her other hand. She slips hers into mine.

“I couldn’t forget any of you,” I say. “Not Yamazaki, not Kentaro, not Ayako, not Okada, not Azawa, not Johnson, not the old man. And definitely not you. I hope, once we go back to Tokyo after this, we’ll still see each other.”

Shizuko closes her eyes. A sea of sighs escape her lips before she opens them. “Oh, Shunsuke. I’m your tour guide for the summer break. But after that, I’m staying in Yoshiaki for good.”

Steward McOy