Chapter 49:

"Rolling Thunder, Rock and Rolling"

Vibrancy x Vibrancy

Well, that’s all she wrote, right? Not quite. Always time for an epilogue or two.

I’m sitting with Shizuko in a dusty old room filled to the brim with old newspapers, records, child’s test scores and drawings. We got the lights off and the shades pulled down - only the fuzzy glow of the television provides us with any light. Shizuko’s fiddling with a device nearby, and after looking back at me, she nods and slips the VHS tape inside its player. The static disappears, replaced by a brief blue screen, time ticking upwards in one corner, PLAY plastered across another.

And then the tape starts. The factory worker from the photo on the shrine comes to life, moving, smiling, coughing. Her father recorded this in some electronics store in Soga; he’s dressed his best in a suit. But unlike the photo, the man on the screen looks a lot more haggard, rundown, death closing in on him.

“Is this thing on?” her father asks someone offscreen. He raises an eyebrow. “You sure? Oh, that red light blinking means we’re recording? Okay, uh…”

Her father coughs into his fist, then nods into the camera. It looks like he has something pre-rehearsed, and even pulls a paper from his pocket to read his script over, but then he shakes his head and slips it back inside. He’s going off script, shooting from the hip, speaking from the heart.

“Hey, kid,” he greets Shizuko from beyond the grave. She’s sitting next to me, hands trembling, eyes transfixed. “By the time you’re watching this, I’ll be gone. But that’s just the way it is. Been keeping it secret because I know we haven’t been on the best of terms lately. And I know you’re gonna do great in Tokyo. I don’t want to hold you back or nothing. Your pops screwed up your childhood, huh?”

Her father runs a hand through his hair, which is little more than a wisp of white puff by this point. “When you left, I realized I had so much more to say to you. But I didn’t want to make you come back to Yoshiaki because I was afraid you’d never leave if you did. I hope, if you ever do come back, it'll with a new perspective of things you've gained from elsewhere. I rarely left the village and never left Yoshiaki. But when I see the people in Soga, the postmen in Shuten, I can tell their view of the world is a lot bigger than mine. Or of this village. I want you to gain that same view before coming back.”

Shizuko hugs her knees next to me. Her father twiddles his thumbs, wondering what else to say in his last message. “You’re gonna be fine, Shizuko. You just need somebody to get you started. But once you get that momentum, well, you can do whatever you want. I know I was pissed at you for wanting to paint. And I know you’re going to school for it, but I can tell your heart’s not in it anymore. Maybe I killed your love for it.”

He sighs and pauses, looking away, almost choking up for a second, but he swallows it back down. He looks into the camera much more confidently now. “I’m sorry. For that, and a lot of things. But if you meet the right person, they’ll get you going, and I’m sure your love will come back. Your passion will come back. For that and for everything.”

He smiles and nods. “That’s all I got, Shizuko. Just think of your old man once in a while. And be nice to your mother. She told me that, if she ever sees you again, she’s gonna be a lot nicer to you. And…yeah, that’s all I wanted to say. I’m just a guy who hammers steel, not a wordsmith or a film star.” He says his final message. “Love you, Shizuko. Make good choices, don’t be afraid to try something new, stay gold, et cetera…” 

And then he gives the camera an honest smile. 

“Et cetera.”

A moment later, as he’s standing there with a bittersweet smile on his face, the tape comes to an end, and static fills the screen once more. The ghostly, black-and-white-and-gray glow covers Shizuko’s face. She doesn’t cry; she just slowly stands up and walks toward the television. She wears her own bittersweet smile and looks like she’s about to say something, only to chuckle and just shake her head at fond memories.

“You alright?” I ask.

Shizuko turns the television off, plunging the room into darkness. As my eyes adjust, I see her standing there before me. “I think that was the last thing holding me back. Closure. Still a lot to unpack there…but I’m ready to keep going.”

I feel happy for her. Immensely proud and happy. When I turn the lights on, she looks serene, at peace. I remember the thousand yard stare in her school photos; the way she remained mute the day I met her. And now she’s looking like a Buddha, a picture of tranquility. She’s ready for her next chapter. As am I.

We leave the storage room, head down the stairs, and leave the house for the yard behind it. Where are we? Who let us borrow their VHS player? None other than the Yamazakis in Tsukamoto. In his backyard, the officer himself is carrying burgers to and from a grill, sneaking bites from a hot dog as he places the plates along a long table. I still can’t believe this is happening - Mrs. Yamazaki, Kentaro and Ayako sit at that table; Ume’s helping Yamazaki with bringing the food over from the chef.

And who’s the chef, you might ask? When I walk by, the man in the apron and white cook's hat stops to hand me his new business card.



“No more bodyguarding?” I ask.

He shakes his massive head. “Indubitably.”

“Those goddamn kids,” Yamazaki spits out as he sits down to eat. “Thinking they can take over the Soga Festival. They should try that in my town!” Then he leans back in his seat and looks up at the sky. It’s a perfect shade of blue, not quite summer, not quite autumn, but on the rare hinge of the seasons that exists for just a moment. He speaks quieter, content. “Awfully boring around here with them in Soga.”

Mrs. Yamazaki puts a sympathetic arm around his back. As Ume learns how to flip burgers at just the right moment from the Hawk, Ayako waves to us from the picnic table. Shizuko slips in next to her on one side while I sit with Kentaro on the other.

“It’s amazing how many people we’ve met this summer,” Ayako muses. For once, her camera isn’t in hand, nor is she wearing her director’s beret; she’s just sitting there, feeling the breeze on her face. “Aren’t you glad I organized this whole thing?” 

She crosses her arms, closes her eyes, and nods. “They say your network is your net worth. And they say the price of a human life is over a trillion yen. When you put it that way, I’m basically a millionaire.”

“Penny-wise, pound-foolish,” I tell her. Don’t want her to get too big for her britches.

She raises an eyebrow. “...I don’t know what that means.”

I sigh. “Never mind.”

While Shizuko and Ayako converse, I pull Kentaro off to the side, just me and him. He looks confused, but then I explain the situation. 

“You win, kid.”


“My contest story went off the rails there, especially by the end,” I say. “Supposed to be about cool spots in the prefecture, but it got way too personal at certain points. Some of that stuff shouldn’t be published. So I’m gonna have to chop it down, remove particular parts, redact others. I entered this contest representing this school and my name’s on it, so I’m still gonna submit a good entry. But that version will lack its heart.”

I expect him to tease me, call me a carpetbagger or something. But instead, he slowly nods. “I’ll be honest, I was looking forward to reading your entry. I already know it would be better than mine.”

“Says who?” I tell him. “And who knows? I might release the full version one day. When the time’s right.”

“You sure you can’t release it now?”

“You want to read about Shizuko and I making out?”


I chuckle and shake my head. Kentaro grows serious; he rubs his face, his fingers trembling. “You keep calling me the future Proust. But I don’t think I could even be as good as you in the future. You’re so much older and you know so much more. I feel like I can’t catch up.”

“Don’t worry about being the future Proust then. Or the future me. Be the future you. And be the present you, too. I think you oughta make your time in high school with Ayako fun.”

Kentaro looks back at her; Ayako’s showing Shizuko how to play chopsticks with their fingers.

“Does Shizuko glow when you look at her?” he asks. When I say yes, he smiles. “When it comes to Ayako, it’s the same for me.” 

Kentaro walks over, behind the unsuspecting Ayako, and in a flash, hauls her up by the back of her neck.

Ayako squirms, thinking it’s me, but her face grows red when she realizes it’s Kentaro. “Wh-wh-what are you doing?”

“Getting the torch passed down to me,” he answers.

Ayako relents and relaxes, enjoying the nice day from her view up on high.

“How’s the revolution going?” Shizuko asks her as she steps to my side.

Ayako lifts her head. “Well, it’s so nice out right now, and I got school tomorrow…” She laughs to herself and looks out into the Tsukamoto countryside, a sea of golden and green fields. “I can put it off another day, just this once.”

Kentaro lets her down and the Yamazakis pack Shizuko and I a lunch for the road - we can’t stay too long because I got multiple trains to catch. Shizuko’s escorting me back to Mabuchi from here, reversing our steps from so long ago, taking the train out of here. As we exit Yamazakis’ backyard, smoke rises from the grill; the Hawk flips a burger; the officer and his wife share a drink; Kentaro and Ayako wave goodbye with smiles on their faces. It’s tough to turn away, but it’s time, and so, with smiles on our own faces, we leave them to their lives and head home.

Ships that pass in the night. We’ve crossed paths multiple times this summer; we'll cross paths again. Unlike my friends from high school - I'll make sure of it this time. But until then, they’ll be steaming across the waters, this way and that, living their own lives, our adventures together a nice memory as the sun sets.

One more ship trails after Shizuko and I. Ume walks with us to the station; we take our walking slowly. She’s trying to find the right words.

“Hey, Shunsuke…you live in Tokyo and all…have you seen the Tower? The Skytree?"

When I nod, she fidgets slightly.

"Have you flown in an airplane?"

When I nod, she exhales and shakes her head in wonder. "That's crazy!" But then she coughs her collects herself.

"Ah, and…it's Tokyo, you know, and ah...can I, you know come to visit?” Her face grows red. “Ah, Shizuko can come too. But I’ve never left the prefecture. I’ve never seen Tokyo. Maybe because once upon a time it would’ve pissed me off too much, comparing life in Yoshiaki to life in Tokyo. But I think I’m over it. Or getting over it. It’ll be nice to go to Tokyo because I know Yoshiaki is waiting for me when I get home.”

“A woman visiting me?” I say. “Only if the chief allows it then.”

Shizuko waves my teasing away. “You should go for it, Ume. I think you’d have fun running around the city.”

Splotches of sunlight cover the train station ahead of us. When we make it to the plaza outside its entrance, we turn and face Ume. She stands there, tall, her hands behind her back, brown hair blowing in the wind, and I realize that all the cynicism has disappeared from her face.

“I’m glad I reached out to you that day, Shizuko,” Ume says. “I’m glad you entered my life.”

Shizuko realizes something. She reaches for my bag; I hear a metallic clink, and the little Ken-chan keychain from the race is in her hand. She tosses it over to Ume. “A souvenir and a memento. So we’ll always remember the summer we made up.”

Ume glances down at the little keychain, turns it over in her hands, and holds it close. “Thanks, Shizuko.”

“We better go,” I realize, checking the time displayed on the plaza. “Take care!”

Ume waves at us in farewell. As we head up the stairs into the station, I hear her call out from behind us.


Steward McOy