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Hanako Extra: The Fireman

mehkanik Oct 8th, 2012 3,582 Never
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  1. The Fireman
  2.  
  3. I imagine few think about the person who answered the call, who pulled Hanako out of the fire. The person who saved her after her mother did. I decided I want to give that person an existence and fill in the gaps. I hope you enjoy!
  4.  
  5. =====
  6.  
  7. Late night alarms are always the worst. Everyone's half-awake, but programmed to respond. We lurch out of bed, fly towards where our uniforms are. We're never less than already half dressed, anyways.
  8.  
  9. Being fire captain, I'm already rounding up the younger firefighters and rushing them. Deputy Chief is already shouting.
  10.  
  11. We throw on the usual orange garb, slamming air tanks and helments onto our bodies. Our masks dangle around our necks.
  12.  
  13. We need to get going as fast as possible. The organization we have still astounds me sometimes. All we have is an alarm and a few barked orders and we're already out in the night air, sirens blaring.
  14.  
  15. Dispatch says someone called in a serious fire on the outskirts of the city. I zone out the address and unimportant things. I'm struggling to keep focus on staying awake. Someone's life may depend on it tonight.
  16.  
  17. When we arrive alongside the other pump truck that we were following, we're appalled.
  18.  
  19. The house is already nearly consumed by flames.
  20.  
  21. I leap out of the truck, heading straight for the deputy chief. "What's the situation? Do we have anyone inside?"
  22.  
  23. He's folding his arms, looking frustrated. "According to the census, there's three residents. As far as we know, they're all inside."
  24.  
  25. The trucks are already assailing the flames with the hoses that are installed into the trucks. I can hear one of the guys on radio calling for another truck.
  26.  
  27. "Then why the hell haven't we sent anyone in?"
  28.  
  29. "We don't have fancy rescue or scouting robots like Tokyo's fire department, kid. The house is already falling apart. People will die if we send them in."
  30.  
  31. The night's cold. I can feel it, even though I shouldn't with my suit on. There's something wrong about all of this. The harsh fire against the soft darkness. The streams of colorless water trying to push back the flames.
  32.  
  33. "And people will die if we don't. I'm going in there."
  34.  
  35. "Hey, don't get rash now -- just because you got promoted to Captain doesn't mean you can go all gung-ho."
  36.  
  37. "My rank has nothing to do with it. I've got more field experience than most of these guys. I've been here longer, I know when something's not salvagable. I just can't stand out here and pretend there's nothing I can do without seeing it with my own eyes."
  38.  
  39. The deputy chief is glaring at me, but I'm not looking at him. All I can see is the fire and whoever it may hold captive.
  40.  
  41. "Fine, but you're not going in alone. You can't watch your own back. I'm going to send in the other squad's captain with you."
  42.  
  43. He turns towards the other group. "Daisuke! Get your ass over here, you're going into the building with Ryuichi." The huge man strides over towards the two of us, looking down at me.
  44.  
  45. "Alright."
  46.  
  47. "Not going to question my order?" The deputy chief arches an eyebrow. Daisuke shrugs.
  48.  
  49. "An order's an order. Plus, this is what the job is about. Saving lives. Can't do that without taking risks."
  50.  
  51. The deputy chief looks over to me, slapping me on the shoulder. "Fight fire with fire, I guess. Don't get killed in there, alright?" I nod, rushing to my truck, grabbing a fire axe and donning my mask.
  52.  
  53. I motion for Daisuke to follow. I hack down the door with ease, it's already mostly gone from the flames.
  54.  
  55. Even before entering, I can feel the heat billowing out at me. Fire has always felt mindless to me, like a hungry animal that doesn't know better.
  56.  
  57. Tonight, though...
  58.  
  59. It feels angry. There's something about how it's moving, how it's tearing down the structure around it, how it's hissing against the water trying to extinguish it. It feels a live and it feels like this is where it should be. And that it's mad we're trying to dislodge it.
  60.  
  61. "Second thoughts, kid?"
  62.  
  63. I chuckle. "Never." Donning my mask, I kick down the remainders of the door and head on in. We don't have a floor plan or any idea where the rooms might be. We can't split up. The first floor already has fallen supports from the second floor littering the narrow halls, burning brightly.
  64.  
  65. Fire can kill us without a second thought. We have nothing but our wits, a fire axe and a tank of oxygen to keep us alive.
  66.  
  67. Splitting up would be a deathwish if either or both of us wind up in a bad situation. Two people watching each other's back, being alert for one another can vastly improve whether we get out of here.
  68.  
  69. As well as whether we can save the people who are in this house.
  70.  
  71. Most houses in this area have a living room and a kitchen on the first floor, the bedrooms on the second. Quickly, I push through the flames, keeping low and looking for a stairwell.
  72.  
  73. Bingo. Didn't take long, the first floor is pretty small. Over the roaring of flames, I can barely hear something. Calls for help? I strain my hearing.
  74.  
  75. No, it's the sobs and cries of a child. No words, only terrified crying. I motion quickly up the stairs, charging up them. I keep close to the sides of the stairwell, my hands close to the handrailing. The stairs could easily give out at any time. If they do, I'd like something close at hand to hold onto.
  76.  
  77. Luckily, nothing's going wrong. Glancing over my shoulder, I don't see Daisuke anymore. Where'd he go? He was right behind me at the base of the stairs. I grunt to myself, continuing down the hall I've climbed up to.
  78.  
  79. The crying is getting louder as the fire's getting stronger. There's a knot in my gut. All of my instincts are screaming for me to get out of here.
  80.  
  81. I just can't abandon whoever's still alive in here.
  82.  
  83. Reaching the end of the hallway, I'm presented with a partially collapsed hall. The ceiling's given way in front of what I can only presume is a bedroom door. Within it, I can see a figure. Without hesitation, I move towards it.
  84.  
  85. I can't. The fire's too strong and it rebukes me almost immediately. Looking around, I don't have many options. I could try and cut through the wall and bust into the room from the side...
  86.  
  87. From over my shoulder, a gust of white.
  88.  
  89. What in the hell?!
  90.  
  91. Whirling around, I see the massive Daisuke with a small fire extinguisher. "Was in the kitchen, I saw it from the hall before we went up the stairs."
  92.  
  93. He focuses the extinguisher as much as he can on the rubble, trying to make it so that we can bust through the debris and to the other side.
  94.  
  95. Once the fire's mostly put out, I try pulling the heated rubble off of the figure. I get a crumbled, charred beam out of the way. Blanching, I pull him from the rubble.
  96.  
  97. He's already dead, no need to check. The amount of burns and stillness make that clear.
  98.  
  99. With the man's body out of the way, I raise my axe, bringing it down on the debris. The cries are getting louder. I get low and pull off my gasmask to avoid breathing in any toxic fumes. "Don't worry! I'm coming!"
  100.  
  101. Mask back on, I start hacking away at the burned wood. It's been so eaten by the fire, it gives way pretty quick. Pushing past it, I kick the door clean off the hinges, a burst of fire rushing at me.
  102.  
  103. I recoil, throwing myself backwards and onto my ass. This room's being chewed away, most of the floor collapsed. The heat is stifling. Peering through the floor, I can see wherer the source of fire likely came from.
  104.  
  105. An oil heater is billowing fire and smoke. How the bed tucked in the corner of the room is still being supported is beyond me. It must be light, or the floor there must be strong. All I know is the crying is coming from there.
  106.  
  107. A heavy shoulder pulls me back as I climb to my feet and make to enter the room.
  108.  
  109. "Ryuichi. C'mon, that's suicide."
  110.  
  111. I push his hand off of mine. "And watching some kid die, huddled in their bed is no better than being a murderer. I'm lighter, I can get in there if I ditch some of my equipment."
  112.  
  113. "Okay, now you're sounding crazier."
  114.  
  115. "We don't have a choice!" I drop my oxygen tank and axe at the doorway, switching my gas mask's intake to a rebreather.
  116.  
  117. I can tell Daisuke's getting antsy, which is rare for the stalwart firefighter. Before he can stop me, I rush into the room.
  118.  
  119. From the way it looks, the heating tank is in the bottom right corner of the room. The bed with the girl crying in it is directly across from me, in the top left.
  120.  
  121. It's nearly impossible to see through the haze of smoke, but I'm being led by the sound of a little girl's cries.
  122.  
  123. I follow the beams in the room, looking to see where there's the most support left. I have to walk on those beams, nowhere else.
  124.  
  125. Anywhere else paired with my weight and the fire could give way and I'd fall into a burning room. I'm sure any exits from that room would have been blocked off, too. Or there'd be no oxygen for my gas mask to rebreathe.
  126.  
  127. So I'm walking a tightrope, making sure to keep one foot directly in front of the other, along where I hope there's a support beam that hasn't been weakened by fire.
  128.  
  129. My heart's beating. I could die here. I could REALLY die.
  130.  
  131. I've never been more afraid in my life.
  132.  
  133. But I've never been more motivated, either. I'm the only one who can save the trapped girl, scared and terrified. I walk cautiously towards her bed, fire crackling all around me, ceiling burning and dropping pieces of ceiling near and far from me.
  134.  
  135. I figure the man outside of her room was her father, trying to get in. Where's the mother? We'll have to look for her once we get the little girl out.
  136.  
  137. The crawling walk towards the bed feels like it takes an eternity, the only frame of time I have being the time between loud thuds as more parts of the ceiling and floor give way.
  138.  
  139. Reaching the bed, I feel like I'm going to have a heart attack. Ceiling has fallen onto the bed, still burning. With complete disregard for my own health, I grab the burning wood.
  140.  
  141. It's heavy. Hard to lift.
  142.  
  143. I should stop. Turn back.
  144.  
  145. No, I can't. Gritting my teeth, I tighten my grip and strain my arms. I manage to lift the seething hot length of support and hurl it away. I can hear it crack as it falls through the floor and down below. A billow of smoke rises from where it landed.
  146.  
  147. My hands should hurt right now, but they don't.
  148.  
  149. Looking to them, I can see that the wood burned through my gloves. They're melted into my hands and the flesh of my hands are already peeling.
  150.  
  151. I'll have those burns for the rest of my life, I'm sure. I'm glad for how hard my heart's beating. If it wasn't for all these endorphins and adrenaline, I'm sure I'd be in some serious pain.
  152.  
  153. I reach for the charred sheets, pulling them back. Don't worry kid, I gotcha.
  154.  
  155. Much to my horror, I'm not greeted by the girl.
  156.  
  157. Well, not at first. Someone's shielding the little girl with their body, shuddering in pain and burned something awful.
  158.  
  159. My god. It's the mother.
  160.  
  161. I have seen people die. I have heard people screaming for rescue and heard them burn alive. I have carried people as they've passed away, choked by carbon dioxide poisoning.
  162.  
  163. It's terrible, but I've always gotten through it. Console their loved ones and families. Always told myself that they'll live on in me while I save more and more people.
  164.  
  165. This?
  166.  
  167. This is something that will never leave me. In that single moment, seeing that woman, I could feel something in me crack under the weight and break.
  168.  
  169. Most of her back is burned black, the hair and skin of her skull mostly gone. She's barely breathing.
  170.  
  171. I can't move.
  172.  
  173. She turns towards me lethargically. How she's moving... I can't. I'm at a loss. Her eyes are glazed over, mostly shut. She can barely speak.
  174.  
  175. I manage to snap out of my shock and lean towards her. She's trying to tell me something. It's always been my duty to hear her the last words of the dying, if no one else can.
  176.  
  177. "Sa... sa... ve... h-her..."
  178.  
  179. My eyes are tearing up in my mask. Why? Why do these things happen to people? This isn't right.
  180.  
  181. I grip her shoulders reassuringly, nodding. I won't let your little girl die, miss. I'll save her, I promise.
  182.  
  183. A faint smile and a shuddering exhale. She's gone.
  184.  
  185. My hearing is brought back to the cries of the little girl. Just under her mother and shielded from the direct flames is a little girl.
  186.  
  187. Her skin is boiling over on the side of her body that wasn't shielded from the ambient heat, her cries stifled as she's exposed to the smoke of the room.
  188.  
  189. Had she asked her mother to sleep with her to protect her from a bad dream? Had her mother rushed in after they awoke to the smell of fire and sound of crying? Did the father get trapped outside when he rushed to help them, but was too late?
  190.  
  191. I lift the little girl from the bed, huddling her to my chest and keeping low. I crouch-run out of the room, retracing my safe steps. I rush by Daisuke, who's bewildered as I shoot out of the smoke.
  192.  
  193. I'm not stopping for anything. Everything else is lost, but this little girl. I'm going to make sure she gets out of here alive, at any cost.
  194.  
  195. =====
  196.  
  197. "You're a fucking maniac, Ryuichi."
  198.  
  199. My CO is scolding me while medics tend to my hands. Third degree burns. They fucking hurt like hell now. They're already pumping me full of medicine.
  200.  
  201. He spends the next fifteen minutes telling me off, calling me rash and a moron for endangering myself and other people. Says I'm addicted to the rush of danger, or some shit. I catch him inbetween a breath and interject.
  202.  
  203. "Chief?"
  204.  
  205. "What?!"
  206.  
  207. "FUCK OFF!" My roar of frustration throws him off. I stand upright, getting right in his face. "Go away. What I saw tonight was horrible. I want you to get out of my face before I get you out of my face."
  208.  
  209. My fists are clenched despite how much it hurts. I don't want to deal with him right now. I'm going to have nightmares about this for a while.
  210.  
  211. He scowls, but raises his hands and backs off. "You'll hear about this later. You're going in for a psych eval once you've recovered. Until then, you're on paid leave."
  212.  
  213. I don't care. I look towards the medic who looks a little shaken. "How's that girl? What's her name?" I can just barely see the unconscious girl being loaded into another ambulance and being shuttled away.
  214.  
  215. "Hanako Ikezawa. She's definitely not in good shape, but she's alive. Thanks to you."
  216.  
  217. Of anything I've ever felt, that's most important. I give a sigh of relief, letting myself fall back to a sitting position in the ambulance.
  218.  
  219. The fire's nearly put out. Two dead, one severely injured.
  220.  
  221. "For what it's worth, I think you did the right thing."
  222.  
  223. She's an orphan and severely burned, the kind of burns that will probably not go away within her lifetime.
  224.  
  225. "But... did I?"
  226.  
  227. =====
  228.  
  229. I'm brought to the hospital so they can try and separate the bits of rubber that I've melted into my flesh, while doping me up with painkillers. I don't want to stay here though and I refuse admission. If I need treatment, I'll come back. They give me some prescriptions and wrap my hands like bandage mittens.
  230.  
  231. I sigh. Doors are going to be a bitch now.
  232.  
  233. I drop my suspenders, my fire department shirt tucked into my burn resilent pants. Wandering into the hall, I look for the nearest orderly or nurse.
  234.  
  235. Stopping them, I ask them the question that's been burning through my mind this entire time.
  236.  
  237. "You guys had a little girl admitted recently, right? Hanako Ikezawa. Where is she?"
  238.  
  239. The nurse thinks for a second and seems to jump to a realization. "Oh, yes. She's in ICU right now. Are you on the team that rescued her?" I nod. "I'm the one who carried her out. I want to see how she's doing."
  240.  
  241. The nurse nods, motioning for her to follow. "We're really not allowed to let non-family members into the ICU, but... she doesn't really have any family now." Her tone is somber as she leads me through the halls.
  242.  
  243. "Well, no parents... but what about cousins? Grandparents? Anything?"
  244.  
  245. The woman frowns. "That's the thing that's so sad. Any other family have passed away or aren't reachable. Both sides of her family were pretty small. Single children on each side, their parents deceased. There was a brother on the fathers side, but he's nowhere to be found..."
  246.  
  247. My stomach drops. "So what's going to happen to her?"
  248.  
  249. "Probably going to be given to a local orphanage until she's adopted." I place a hand -- er, a mitt to my forehead.
  250.  
  251. "What is she, like six? Seven?"
  252.  
  253. "Six, yes."
  254.  
  255. "And in a single day, a kid that young has to deal with the pain from her burns, losing both her parents and being sent to an orphanage?"
  256.  
  257. "It's tragic, isn't it?"
  258.  
  259. "I don't think that's a good enough word to describe it." My voice trails off.
  260.  
  261. "Why don't you adopt her? I mean, you seem like a good guy. Closest thing to family she does have now, considering you saved her life."
  262.  
  263. I frown. "I'm not... really good with kids. They're usually scared of me. And I don't really know how to play with 'em."
  264.  
  265. The nurse laughs as she scans her ID card, letting us both into ICU. "I could see that. You look so stone serious all the time."
  266.  
  267. "Job kinda demands that."
  268.  
  269. I'm lead to the outside of her room. She's still unconscious, a gaggle of doctors buzzing around her, checking vitals, treating her wounds -- there's not much I can do but watch from the window outside.
  270.  
  271. It's horrible. I wish I could do something, anything. Her mother asked me to save her, but I'm not so sure whether I have yet.
  272.  
  273. I don't think my responsibility has ended, has it?
  274.  
  275. =====
  276.  
  277. I retired from the department. Well, 'retired'. I've had such a good track record, but ever since that day I saved Hanako, my mind's slipped.
  278.  
  279. In short, I bombed the psych evaluation. Everyone on the force understands though, especially the captain. They brushed the report under the carpet and gave me the option of retiring from the force without any blemishes on my record.
  280.  
  281. I took that option.
  282.  
  283. In the meantime, I've taken up construction to make ends meet. The nerves in my hands are all dead anyways, after they healed up comletely. Carrying wood, hammering things in -- can't really feel it anymore. It works out and pays the bills.
  284.  
  285. Which brings me to where I'm standing. Our city's orphanage. I have an envelope in pocket and a gift.
  286.  
  287. I take a deep breath, walking in. There's always a bunch of kids running around, trying to look happy and having fun. That's how it works in orphanages.
  288.  
  289. It's fucking depressing.
  290.  
  291. They want to look like the best kid, they want to play with you, get to know you, take them away from this place.
  292.  
  293. But I can't, because I know I wouldn't be a good parent.
  294.  
  295. So I stop by every now and then, pretend I'm a friend of the person running the orphanage. Which honestly? That's become the case lately.
  296.  
  297. After all, I come here so I can donate money. If I can't raise Hanako directly, I'll do my best in any other way to make sure she's happy. Or at least, fed.
  298.  
  299. Pushing the door open, the kids look excitedly towards me. Their expressions droop a little when they see me, but they're still happy. It means tonight they get a good dinner.
  300.  
  301. I glance over the kids, giving a little wave.
  302.  
  303. And there she is, sitting in a corner with a small box of crayons and a piece of paper. Coloring alone.
  304.  
  305. No one seems to want to play with her. Maybe they're afraid of her and her burns. Kids are cruel, maybe they pick on her?
  306.  
  307. I turn towards the owner of the orphanage, a kind old lady.
  308.  
  309. "Ahhh, Ryuichi. How're you doing?" A warm smile. I force one in return. It's hard nowadays, I don't really know what I'm doing with myself. This is really all I'm alive for, realistically. Otherwise, I'm just taking up space, air and food.
  310.  
  311. "Getting by. How're the kids doing?"
  312.  
  313. "Well, although they break toys like they're going out of fashion. And eat me practically out of house and home!" A laugh that belies the true nature of how much this place is struggling.
  314.  
  315. "Well, this should help then." I hand her an envelope. She smiles, putting her hands together.
  316.  
  317. "You do the work of angels, you do know that?"
  318.  
  319. I shrug. "I don't think so. I can't sleep at night knowing..." I glance over towards Hanako. She's not happy. I can feel it from here. I want to see her smiling instead of seeming so unhappy.
  320.  
  321. "Yes, Hanako. She has a hard time with the other children. They bully her because they don't understand. She's made a few friends, but they always get adopted. I think she's given up." I frown.
  322.  
  323. When the owner of the orphanage opens the envelope, she nearly drops it. "Goodness! Ryuichi, are you sure this is for me and not your bills or something?"
  324.  
  325. I shake my head. "No, that's for the orphanage."
  326.  
  327. She lowers her voice. "This is nearly a hundred thousand yen." I nod.
  328.  
  329. "I got a bonus. Built a house for some rich shmuck and he liked me or something. Said I was one of the best foremen he's met before."
  330.  
  331. "Bless you." I smile a little.
  332.  
  333. "Think she'll let me talk to her for a second?" I ask, referring to Hanako. The woman pauses. "Perhaps if I come with you. Let me talk to her first. Why do you want to, anyways? I was under the impression you were bad with children."
  334.  
  335. I nod. "I am. I just have something for her. I'm hoping I can at least make her smile with it."
  336.  
  337. The woman nods, walking towards her with me shortly behind. "Hanako, Uncle Ryuichi wants to talk to you. Is it okay if he does?"
  338.  
  339. She's hiding her face with her hair, which is still a bit uneven ever since the fire. How long has it been since then? Four months?
  340.  
  341. She shrugs.
  342.  
  343. I walk towards her, kneeling down.
  344.  
  345. "Hey."
  346.  
  347. She seems to flinch at my voice. Too rough? Damn it.
  348.  
  349. "Sorry, uh --"
  350.  
  351. "I like your drawing."
  352.  
  353. It's of three people standing in front of a house. Hanako seems to pick it up and place it close to her chest, as if she's embarassed.
  354.  
  355. Its of her parents and her, isn't it?
  356.  
  357. I've made a point to keeping my identity secret from Hanako. She's been through so much and treated half-assedly by so many child psychiatrists it's absurd. I don't want her reliving that horrible night any more than she has to.
  358.  
  359. So to her, I'm just a stranger.
  360.  
  361. "I got you a present."
  362.  
  363. She looks towards me, silent confusion displayed on her face.
  364.  
  365. Reaching into my coat pocket, I fetch a little hat I saw being sold by a street vendor. It's a little beanie with cat ears and eyes on it. I saw her playing with a stray cat the other day and it reminded me of her.
  366.  
  367. "Do you like it?" Her face lightens a little when she unfolds it and sees what it is.
  368.  
  369. She nods frantically, pulling it onto her head, tugging one side a little lower than the other.
  370.  
  371. "It looks cute on you. Matches your dress." I give a small smile and she seems to be fixated on my hands.
  372.  
  373. "Y-You're burned t-too?" She covers her mouth, almost embarassed of herself.
  374.  
  375. I turn over my hands. Oh yeah, I had almost forgotten about them. I hold them out.
  376.  
  377. "Yup. Like you. Two of a kind, right?"
  378.  
  379. She reaches out with her own small, burned hand. The skin is still peeling a little and cracked, much like mine. Touching my hand, she smiles a little.
  380.  
  381. "And you said you weren't good with kids."
  382.  
  383. I sigh. "I'm usually not." I pat Hanako on the head. "Well, I gotta go. Be good, alright?" I ask Hanako and she silently nods.
  384.  
  385. As I walk to leave, the owner stops me. "You should come by more often and play with her sometime." I frown. I don't think I could. I already feel guilty. Being around her more often would only intensify that guilt.
  386.  
  387. I guess this distance was for the both of her. I am a connection to a memory I'm sure she wishes she never had and I have to live with the guilt and weight of saving her.
  388.  
  389. I spend so much time wondering if it would've been better to turn back like I had been advised to do.
  390.  
  391. No matter which way I look at it, I feel wrong. It all feels wrong. All I can do is this. Give money to the orphanage to ease my guilt and her suffering.
  392.  
  393. Life isn't all it's cracked up to be, sometimes.
  394.  
  395. =====
  396.  
  397. It's gotten colder and we've been getting a little bit of snow. Two years since and Hanako's still in that orphanage. It's going to be Christmas soon.
  398.  
  399. The owner of the orphanage, Arisu, managed to con me into being 'Santa' this year. I grumble, sitting in my small apartment, staring at the outfit.
  400.  
  401. I don't want to be Santa.
  402.  
  403. Arisu assures me that Hanako would love it, though. Apparently Hanako talks to Arisu often, feeling like she's the only person who won't leave her.
  404.  
  405. I sigh, sipping away the end of beer as I turn back to the television. Forecast is light snow for the rest of the day.
  406.  
  407. I glance back at the suit. What else can be done? All I can do is put it on and act the way I've been practicing for the last week.
  408.  
  409. Cheerful.
  410.  
  411. Ugh.
  412.  
  413. =====
  414.  
  415. I burst through the door, a snowy wind at my back.
  416.  
  417. "Ho ho ho!" I bellow, waving to all the children while wearing my convincing attire. They all practically shriek in excitement, screaming 'Santa! Santa!' as if I was some kind of messiah.
  418.  
  419. Honestly, it's a bit heart warming. Sack of toys slung over my shoulder that I bought, kids are practically climbing up my red slacks.
  420.  
  421. "Ho ho, come on now kids, Santa can't get inside if you block the door!" The move out of the way and I walk in, shaking the snow off of my boots and clothes as I remove my boots in the front hall.
  422.  
  423. They follow me into the main room where a Christmas tree and tables are set up. "So, who's been a good boy or girl this year?" I ask, looking around with a critical eye at all of them. They all cheer that they have been and I laugh heartily.
  424.  
  425. Honestly, I'm enjoying this act. I could get used to it.
  426.  
  427. As I lay down the sack of gifts, I turn towards the only person who didn't greet me at the door. She's standing in front of a chair with a little sign on it saying 'Santa's Chair'.
  428.  
  429. In her hands, a tray of cookies and milk. On her head, the hat I had bought her some years ago. It looks like it's getting a little small for her, though.
  430.  
  431. "H-Hello Sa-Santa!" She puts on a brave smile as I walk towards her. "Hello there, little girl. Are these for me?" I ask, pointing towards the cookies and milk. She nods frantically. "I-I tr-tried my b-best to make th-them for you."
  432.  
  433. She's such a cute kid. How has no one wanted to adopt her?
  434.  
  435. I pat her on the head, taking a cookie and a bite from it. Not the best cookie I've ever had, but I couldn't care less. I'd eat a million of these if it meant keeping that brilliant smile on that unfortunate girl's face.
  436.  
  437. "Delicious!" I boom, patting my belly.
  438.  
  439. "You did an excellent job with these, Hanako." She gasps when I use her name. I smile.
  440.  
  441. "H-How did you...?" My smile grows even wider.
  442.  
  443. "Well, of course I know the name of the girl on top of my 'Good Girl' list." She looks ecstatic, as if I had already given her the gift she'd always wanted.
  444.  
  445. "Now, kids! Everyone gather 'round so I can give you your gifts! You've all been good kids, so get ready for some presents!"
  446.  
  447. =====
  448.  
  449. After everyone's had their gifts, Arisu and a couple helpers bring out some Christmas dinner. I live cheap so these kids can have the best I can give them. All the fixings.
  450.  
  451. Once dinner's over, I invite the kids to take a sit on my lap and tell me what their wishes are for next year's gifts. I tell them I will do my best to get them whatever they ask for.
  452.  
  453. If you've ever wanted to hear the most human desires you could find, ask an orphaned child what they want.
  454.  
  455. Socks.
  456. Food.
  457. A cheap toy.
  458. A book.
  459. Crayons.
  460. Clothes without holes.
  461. A warmer blanket.
  462. To be happy.
  463.  
  464. "Santa, I want to have a family."
  465.  
  466. That's the sincere wish of a girl who has nothing. I have to restrain myself from tears. Hanako sits on my lap, leaning in to softly tell me what it is she wants.
  467.  
  468. A family. Even if they aren't blood related, she wants parents. Maybe a brother or sister. A pet. A yard.
  469.  
  470. I rub her back a little. "I'll do my best, okay?" She smiles and nods. I can't make any promises, sweetheart. I wish I could.
  471.  
  472. =====
  473.  
  474. Every year, I do the same thing. Quietly donate money and play Santa every year.
  475.  
  476. Every time, Hanako's still there. Waiting in front of that chair with a tray of cookies and milk. They get better every year.
  477.  
  478. She's too old now to sit on my lap. She always leans in and whispers the same wish, though.
  479.  
  480. "Santa, I want to have a family."
  481.  
  482. I feel like a little part of myself dies every time she makes the same wish and I come back to see she's still here. No other children are around since she's been here. She's become Arisu's assistant.
  483.  
  484. Arisu has adopted her, in a technical sense. Arisu's home is small and on top of the orphanage. She's spent her life funnelling all of her money into this orphanage but she's too old now to run it. I've been keeping it afloat lately and while Arisu fades away, Hanako helps with the children as best as she can.
  485.  
  486. I sit in my Santa Chair, listening to the wishes of the children while they play with their toys, enjoying themselves.
  487.  
  488. Hanako's 15 now. 'Home'-schooled, so far. I bought the books, Arisu taught her.
  489.  
  490. I did some research. I've been looking for somewhere, anywhere that she could go to school, get away from this place. Get away from people who mistreat her because of those scars.
  491.  
  492. Arisu tells me how distraught and upset she is. The things she thinks about. I want her to be happy and this place can't do that.
  493.  
  494. "Santa?" She asks.
  495.  
  496. "Yes, Hana?"
  497.  
  498. "I-I'm going to b-be leaving come February. Y-You w-won't see me n-next Christmas."
  499.  
  500. "Oh ho! Has a family finally come to take you?" I feign excitement. I know it isn't the case.
  501.  
  502. "Ar-Arisu told me I-I'm going to a sc-school where th-there's people l-like me."
  503.  
  504. "Ohhh?"
  505.  
  506. "D-Did..."
  507.  
  508. "Hm?"
  509.  
  510. "D-Did you p-pay for that?"
  511.  
  512. "I have no idea what you're talking about!"
  513.  
  514. "A-Arisu said all th-three years of h-highschool tuition are p-paid off. How? Sh-She doesn't have that kind of money!" She manages to force out that last sentence in a stream.
  515.  
  516. I wink at her. "Maybe it was a Christmas miracle."
  517.  
  518. "Pl-Please, Santa." She leans in to whisper to me.
  519.  
  520. "I kn-know there is-isn't a Santa. You're just a r-really nice person. Ar-Arisu won't tell me who you are. Wh-Who are you...?"
  521.  
  522. I smile, placing a gloved hand on her shoulder. "I'm just Santa Claus."
  523.  
  524. I don't want you to know who I am. I've thought so much about telling you, but this is better. I can give you the chance to start anew. In a place where you can. So you can grow into the person you deserve to be. So you can be happy.
  525.  
  526. Ever year, I take a photo with all of the kids and any kids that want a photo on their own with me.
  527.  
  528. Hanako takes one every year with me.
  529.  
  530. "How about we take one last photo before you go, hmmm?"
  531.  
  532. Hanako's eyes are watering. "Wh-Why won't you tell m-me?"
  533.  
  534. I sigh. "Just trust me. You'll be happier no knowing. Go to Yamaku, start a new life. Forget about me, this place -- everything that's happened because of your childhood."
  535.  
  536. She wipes her eyes, standing next to me.
  537.  
  538. "Ho, ho. Miss Arisu? Would you mind taking a photo of me and the darling Hanako?"
  539.  
  540. The old woman is frail, but she still manages. "Of course, Santa." Hanako stands next to me, smiling for the photo. I can tell she has tears in the corners of her eyes.
  541.  
  542. This is our goodbye.
  543.  
  544. =====
  545.  
  546. "Hey, what's that?" I look over my shoulder at Hisao.
  547.  
  548. "What's what?" I dropped something from my old shoebox of keepsakes. Looked like a photo. Hisao turned it towards me. It was me, standing next to Santa Claus.
  549.  
  550. "There was some weird guy who'd always come to my orphanage. Donate money, be Santa. The owner never told me his name, so all I have of him are these photos."
  551.  
  552. They were the only photos I had ever taken, because then I hated how I looked. But I loved Santa, he was one of the few reasons I was able to push through year after year. I never wanted to forget about him.
  553.  
  554. How strange that I almost did.
  555.  
  556. Hisao and I are moving soon, out of this little apartment and to an actual house. He wants us to so we can live properly as a married couple. I look to the ring on my hand.
  557.  
  558. You know, Santa? I wished for the same thing every year, and I finally got it when you sent me away to Yamaku. I met Lilly, I met Hisao... I met his friends, I gained ambition and confidence. Here I am, a proper person who isn't coming apart at the seams.
  559.  
  560. I hear a knocking at the door.
  561.  
  562. "Mind getting that? I have paperwork I need to go through for work." Hisao asks from the other room. "Sure, n-no problem."
  563.  
  564. I approach the door, opening it.
  565.  
  566. An older man stands there, head of white and a worn, tired face greeting me.
  567.  
  568. "Are you... Hanako?"
  569.  
  570. I nod slowly. "Y-Yes, I am. Do I know you?"
  571.  
  572. He smiles brightly. "Well, yes and no. I was, uh. Looking through the paper. I saw the article about your marriage. I would've went if I'd known, but it's been so long."
  573.  
  574. I'm really confused now. Who is this?
  575.  
  576. "Is your husband home? I want to meet the lucky fellow."
  577.  
  578. I'm at a loss. "Yeah, l-let me call him."
  579.  
  580. "Hisao! Someone's here. Wa-wants to see you?"
  581.  
  582. Hisao walks towards the front door, as confused as I am. The older man seems to give my husband a critical examination with a face as hard as stone.
  583.  
  584. "I approve. He looks reliable." He extends a hand to him, which Hisao shakes.
  585.  
  586. "Do we know -- I don't want to sound rude, but who are you?"
  587.  
  588. The old man starts coughing. "I'm no one. I just wanted to see you two. You're ha--" His coughing intensifies. Behind him, there's a red sedan idling. Did someone bring him here?
  589.  
  590. More importantly, is he okay? He's coughing so much.
  591.  
  592. "Please, why don't you come in. I'll get you some tea. Re-Relax a little. I'd l-like to know who you are."
  593.  
  594. Hisao looks at me with an apprehensive look, but I shoot him one that wipes his away. I'm not letting some harmless man die on our doorstep.
  595.  
  596. After he's let in and sit down on the couch, he catches his breath. I place a cup of green tea in front of him.
  597.  
  598. "So, you are?"
  599.  
  600. "Ryuichi Hamada." He tells us after a small sip of the tea. "Sorry about the coughing, I have bad lungs." He gives a weak smile.
  601.  
  602. "It's fine. I don't know an-anyone by that name though." He nods. "You wouldn't. I won't be staying long, so I'm sorry for the confusion or worry."
  603.  
  604. "Don't be." Hisao says, waving it off. I think he's as curious as I am now.
  605.  
  606. "Well, like I said, I read the wedding article. And, well -- I couldn't be there for the wedding, even though I'd liked to have."
  607.  
  608. We're both silent. His eyes are low and he seems saddened.
  609.  
  610. "I came by so I could give you two a wedding gift." His face is screwing up, like he's struggling not to cry.
  611.  
  612. He retrieves an envelope from the inside of his coat. Holding it out with shaking hands, he attempts to speak.
  613.  
  614. "I'm sorry."
  615.  
  616. His head's lowered. We're more focused on him than the envelope now.
  617.  
  618. "I -- I wish I could d-do more. Th-This is all I can do. I have nothing else." His body's shuddering a little now.
  619.  
  620. Tears are falling onto the envelope that his hand is clenching.
  621.  
  622. "I've done b-better, you de-deserve more."
  623.  
  624. I reach out, placing my hand on his. "Please, don't worry. Whatever you're giving me, it's more than you should've. I-I don't even remember you. I'm s-sorry."
  625.  
  626. The old man wipes his tears, placing his hand on mine and putting the envelope in my hands.
  627.  
  628. "I should go. I just wanted to make sure you got this before, well," He pauses, his eyes shifting away from me.
  629.  
  630. "I snuck out of my hospital to get this to you. My lungs are failing.  When I read the article, I called the newspaper to figure out your address. They're probably worried sick."
  631.  
  632. I frown. "Why are your lungs failing?" He smiles.
  633.  
  634. "A job I spent most of my youth doing involved lots of smoke. My lungs barely work anymore." He takes his hands from mine and I notice the severe scarring on his hands.
  635.  
  636. Everything seems to slow down a minute. Why do those hands look familiar? He smiles at me as he stands up, asking Hisao to let him out.
  637.  
  638. There aren't many jobs that involve smoke. Was he a... firefighter?
  639.  
  640. I open the envelope as Hisao returns to me.
  641.  
  642. "Who in the world was that?"
  643.  
  644. There's a few thousand yen in the envelope, a folded piece of paper and something wrapped in Christmas paper.
  645.  
  646. I open the piece of paper, reading the first few lines.
  647.  
  648. 'Hanako,
  649.         Today, I'm happier than I've been in years. Ever since that day we got the call there was a fire on the outskirts of town --'
  650.  
  651. I stop there, my body feeling like someone dunked me in a tub of ice.
  652.  
  653. I throw the letter onto the table, frantically pulling open the Christmas package.
  654.  
  655. Inside are photos.
  656.  
  657. Of a stoic man with his fire crew.
  658.  
  659. Of a man struggling to smile outside of the orphanage I lived in, standing besides Arisu.
  660.  
  661. Of a bright, smiling man in a Santa costume with a younger me before I went away to my school.
  662.  
  663. Of an older man, smiling contentedly from his hospital bed.
  664.  
  665. On the back of the last photo, there are words.
  666.  
  667. 'I can leave this place happy, knowing I filled both your mother's wish and yours before I died. I'm sorry it took a few too many Christmases.'
  668.  
  669. I look to Hisao. Hisao has finished reading the letter. I have no words.
  670.  
  671. Instead, tears stream down my cheeks. I've been alive for around twenty-three years and I've cried a lot. But never like this.
  672.  
  673. Ryuichi Hamada.
  674.  
  675. That's who Santa was.
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