Hanako Epilogue; Finale
Nothing Has to End
I can't help but feel blessed.
Flipping through the aged paper of our scrapbook, I can't keep count of the memories. The binding struggles to contain the life Hisao and I have made together. So many days have passed, more than I can possibly count.
I sit alone on the couch, soft light flowing through the opened curtains in the living room. Particles of dust float by as I turn each page. Everything is chronological. I spend most mornings like this; sifting through memories, talking a walk through the past.
Photos of us when we started dating seriously, vacations with Lilly, moving in together, pictures of when I was just a fledgling at the social worker's firm...
Time rewinds as I replay everything in my head. I can see myself walking down the aisles again, marrying Hisao and our kiss. The party afterwards, all of our friends celebrating with us.
My heart swells. This is why I can't help but feel blessed. My life was once focused on never remembering. On never thinking about the past.
My life was a series of yesterdays. There wasn't much left for me in tomorrow, aside from watching everyone else's lives unfold.
I flip through the pages, smiling at memories of Hisao.
The day I told him I was pregnant, the pictures of my belly growing -- Hisao wouldn't go a day without taking a picture. It was so embarassing. Then one day, I gave birth to our twins.
The older of the two was our daughter. Megumi, my little treasure. And then shortly after came the boy, Hiro. I realized that Hisao hadn't just given me the gift of love, but he had also given me the gift of a new family.
I'm old enough now that my children have had children. Some of their children are just starting families now. I gave a small sigh, flipping through the pages, watching my children grow up and create their own families, leap their own hurdles and conflicts in life.
There's pictures of our old friends in here, school reunions over the years. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty... in each of the pictures, the attendance starts to lower bit by bit. Some of our closer friends pass away.
It hurts to think about all the people I've lost.
But at the same time -- I've gained so much. Not just from Hisao or this family, but from all the people I've helped in life. I find myself going to the market and people approach me, thanking me for things that I've done long ago.
I constantly meet people who are the children of children I once counseled. Children who had become adults, thanks to the clarity I managed to help them find in their lives. I have trouble finding people who don't know me in some way or another. It's nice though, they're all very kind to me.
Sometimes the younger ones ask me what it's like to be old. I just smile and tell them the same thing as everyone else. 'Everything just seems a lot slower. Every minute feels like two. And for someone who's had a great life like me, I can't ask for anything more.'
No one mentions my scars anymore either, even though they're still visible despite how they've faded. The texture of my skin will never return to normal, but most of the coloring has evened out. I run a hand along my cheek, closing my eyes. I can still feel Hisao's hand on caressing it. Reminding me that he loves me no matter who I've been or who I will be.
After reaching the end of the packed scrapbook, I close it, eliciting a puff of dust from within it as I place it on the coffee table in front of me and lean back into the couch.
The house is large. Hisao being a doctor eventually made enough money to buy us a house like this. When Hisao had this house built, he planned for the future. Our children grew up here, our children's children were raised here when their parents were busy with work. It's on the coast, overlooking the beach and ocean. It's beautiful. We have a housekeeper, but he's very good at staying out of sight.
I sigh. Sometimes it's too quiet here...
"Hey, Hana. Want some tea?" I hear from a distance, presumably the kitchen. I smile as I turn my head towards the source of the voice. "I would love some, Hisao."
"Mr. Nakai! Please, go rest. You don't have to make the tea, I can. You pay me to do trivial things like this." I giggle to myself. Here we go. The constant arguing between my husband and our housekeeper.
"I hired you to help, not treat me like an invalid!"
"I am not, I just think having to do this is below you."
"Oh give me a break. I'm not some kind of legend. I just made some medicine when I was a kid."
"Some? The government named a GRANT after you for heart research. You've progressed the field more in your lifetime than most people have in decades. You're a testament to how much the field has grown. What'd they say you'd live to? Thirty, most? You're eighty-five."
"They said twenty-five. And nonsense, stop it. Get away from my tea kettle."
"Please listen to Hisao, Kazuo." I call out and it seems that Kazuo reluctantly gives up at my words. Hisao grumbles after him. "Why don't you listen to me, huh? I'm the one who pays you."
"But she's not a grumpy old coot." I then hear Kazuo dash from the kitchen. Much to his surprise when he turns around, Hisao is chasing after him. Judging by the shock on his face, he wasn't anticipating such a response.
Horrified, he bolts. On the other hand, Hisao stops when he reaches the living room and passes me a grin. "Calling me an old coot. I can still run. Nothing's stopping me." He tells me, leaning over to give me a kiss. Thankfully he hasn't lost his hair, it's just turned a gray-white. I ruffle the mess as he leans forward and plants a second kiss on my forehead.
"Is our family arriving later today?" I nod. Every year, everyone spends a week here with us.
"They should be. I've been reading up on some new recipes, I'm looking forward to trying them out." I put on a small smile as I look to Hisao. "Also, the tea?" I ask. Hisao laughs, snapping. "Right, right. Almost forgot. French vanilla, like usual?"
I nod, an intangible sadness growing in my chest. "Yes. And make a third cup, please." Hisao's silent for a second, his typical smile folding into the crease of a frown he sometimes wears.
I sit in the living room on the couch, looking at the paintings that adorn the walls. Tezuka classics, they're called now. Hisao was one of the first people to buy her paintings. Whenever he could, he would try to help her out financially with her dreams. And in part thanks to him, she achieved those dreams.
I glance over my shoulder, behind me. The only painting she ever did in the style of realism hangs proudly over a smaller table adorned with countless photos of our old friends. It's the painting she promised us as a wedding gift. She did it that night and gave it to us the following day.
A picture of us at the altar on our wedding day, kissing.
'I was going to just paint whatever came to mind, but when I saw you two kiss, it felt like someone put a fire in my chest. It felt like it was stuck in there, so I painted until I got it all out.'
Some time goes by, and I can hear the whistling of a tea pot. Shortly after, Hisao exits the kitchen with a small tray carrying a familiar porcelain tea set. Quietly, he sets out the three the tray carries, two where I sit and one from across us.
Sitting to my left, he takes the teacup and raises it to his lips. "Like old times, huh?" I smile, bittersweet happiness filling me. "Just like them. I miss her a lot."
Hisao stares at his cup, a look of ponderance on his face. "I do too. I guess that's what happens when you get old. You start living in memories. Just so you can make it to tomorrow."
It's sad, but it's true. So much of what has felt like an irrevocable part of our lives is now just a memory. Memories we're holding onto direly.
If I didn't have Hisao or my family, my current day to day life would be nearly impossible to cope with.
I reach over and squeeze Hisao's hand. He knows instinctively how I'm feeling and raises my hand to his lips, kissing it. "Don't worry, I'm still here."
"Thank you. For holding onto your promise." I don't let go of his hand, but instead drink my tea. Hisao and I always drink a cup around lunch, like we used to with Lilly at Yamaku. The teaset we were using was actually a gift from Lilly, during one of our wedding anniversaries.
'My, my, Hisao. Hanako tells me about all the coffee you drink. Tea is better for you, you know. So I'm giving you our old tea set and some nice loose leaf teas as a gift! You must keep your health in mind, after all.'
Hisao joked that it was a silly gift to give, but from that day forward, he switched his usual coffee for tea.
My cellphone starts to ring and I glance over to it. It reads 'Megumi'. I've finished my tea, so Hisao picks it up and takes it to the kitchen while I answer the phone.
I place the phone to my ear.
"Hey there, mom."
"Hello sweetie. What time are you getting here?"
"Probably around five or six in the afternoon."
"Anyone not coming?"
"Nope, everyone's arriving."
"I'm glad. So how's everything been?"
Megumi makes a point to do what I used to when I was younger. She plays mother goose for the family, keeping a watchful eye on everyone to ensure that everything is going smoothly for the family. And she calls often to keep me in the loop. Hiro often calls and chats, but he doesn't keep as much of an eye on things as Megumi does. His job doesn't really allow him to.
She tells me how my grandchildren are doing. Megumi and Hiro are doing well for themselves. They're both in their late fifties, now. She has three children, where Hiro only has one.
Megumi has two girls and one boy and Hiro has an only son. Most of their children are in their mid or later twenties, just getting their lives settled. A couple of them are married, and one already has a child. It feels strange sometimes to think that I'm a great grandmother.
"How's Ayano's daughter doing?"
"Ah, they're both good. Izumi is handling the divorce well, which is surprising for a little six year old. I told Ayano that man she married was no good, but that girl never listens to her mother."
"I remember you being like that, once."
"Don't remind me." She gives a soft laugh. "I wound up being a lot like you, though. I'm glad I did. Not many adults can say that about their parents."
"I'm happy to hear you say that, hon. Will you be cooking with me for dinner tonight?" I glance towards Hisao's cup of tea. He didn't drink much, it looks.
"Yep, I will. Ayano and I will be helping. It's funny, Minori still can't cook to save her life." We both share a chuckle. The poor girl's never had a knack for cooking, even though she lives on her own. She's always complaining about how she wishes she could cook better so she didn't have to live off of take-out.
"Nothing else has changed with any of your little ones or Hiro's?"
"They're not so little anymore, but not really, no." I smile a little. My grandchildren have grown up, but it still feels like just a few years ago they were little things who would always visit.
"My son's wife is still expecting, Ayano's coping well and Minori's getting by. Hiro and his wife are doing well and his son's going into law school. Seems Akira rubbed off on him while she was still around and visited the family constantly." I smile. That's good to hear.
"Glad things are calm for everyone. So, around five or six you said?" I ask.
"Yes, seems that way. That's what I told everyone to meet up here for. Are you sure your house has enough room for all of us? There's going to be ten of us, although at least four of us are going to use one room."
"Of course. The second floor was built to have plenty of guest rooms. Remember, Hisao built this house so we could always have some family or foster kids here. He knew how important it was for me to provide for anyone who needed it."
A soft sigh. "I remember, mom. Well, I look forward to seeing you and everyone else seems excited too."
"Glad to hear it, darling. I'll see you later. Ah, sorry, what time is everyone showing up again?" I giggle softly.
"Around six, mom." My daughter's understanding. She knows it's hard getting old sometimes.
"See you then."
We both hang up and I place my phone on the table. What should I do in the meantime? It's only noon. I could possibly watch somethng on television, or I could always go on the internet. Er, not internet anymore.
It's called the ethernet now. It's pretty different, but I've kept up with it over the years. It's not the same as the old term from when I was younger, either. They use the term ethernet now to refer to the fact that the entirety of the internet is hosted on some cloud-processing server and it's all wirelessly distributed by satellites. It's like ether, mist. Everywhere and impossible to contain.
After the government applied all sorts of arbitrary laws on the internet, the internet moved to a privately owned series of satellites, all running in tandem. The company has refused to allow the internet to be regulated. With advances in technology and how inexpensive manufacturing has become, it isn't a long-shot to connect to the ethernet.
I just don't use it very often because I have a hard time reading the fonts and I don't care to wear my glasses all the time.
As I realize my mind has been wandering, Hisao approaches me, a chessboard in hand.
"I figure you'll want to brush up before the kids get here. We both know that Haru has declared it a life goal of his to defeat you at a game of chess." I stifle a laugh. "Hiro's son is far too young to think he'll ever be able to beat me." One day he would though, but until then, I had fun teasing him about it.
"Well then, lets see if I can beat you. Remember back in the day when I used to be able to?" He opens up the chessboard, setting up the pieces for me. I smile, nodding. "And then I started reading up on theory. You did good keeping up with me though, you started reading up whenever you could, between work."
"Yeah, but then you started going to tournaments in your spare time. Remember that time you almost took grandmaster?" I feel a blush creeping into my cheeks. "I d-did not! I just placed in the top eight, was all." I move my pawn to c5 and Hisao moves without hesitation and chuckles a little at my embarassment.
He's responded with the Sicilian Defense. Hisao's always been a cautious kind of person. I doubt he'd be here if he wasn't careful and knew exactly where to stop pushing himself. The Sicilian Defense is good, but it leaves Hisao striving for equality and simultaneously, the advantage. But because I've started first, it leaves him susceptible to quick counters that can tip the game in my favor and break the defense.
The game goes along exactly as I plan, as I catch him off guard with a bishop and leave a gaping opening in his defense.
"Ah, that's unfortunate." But he doesn't look thrown like he normally does. A few turns later, he's flanking me with a rook and a knight, taking one of my own. "Well, that's a little unexpected..." I said, my smile folding a little. Although he's equalized the playing field, he hasn't won yet.
The match goes on for a half hour until it becomes a game of cat and mouse with my rook chasing down his king. Eventually, I force him into a corner while he tries to take the advantage with what few pawns he has left, a majority of his other pieces claimed in my conquest.
"Checkmate." I proclaim as I pin his king. He sighs. "As usual."
"Well, I'm thirsty. I think I'm going to pour myself another cup of tea."
"But you didn't finish the cup you already have, Hisao." I motion towards the cup to my left. He laughs abashedly. "Ah, you're right. It's probably cold by now. I couldn't remember where the chessboard was and didn't want to bother you during your phone call. Megumi?" I nod as we reset the pieces for another game. I pass him his teacup and he heads to the kitchen, presumably to heat it up or to refill it. I smile a little at him. His memory's pretty shaky nowadays. It's kind of cute.
While I finish setting up the pieces and moving the pawn directly in front of my queen two spaces forward, Kazuo reenters the room. I figure a Queen's Gambit would make for a very interesting game this time.
"Playing chess, Misses Nakai?" I nod at him. "Yes, I am. And you don't need to call me Misses Nakai, I always tell you to call me by my first name." Kazuo looks away for a second. "I don't feel that's respectful, though." I glance towards the kitchen. "Don't worry about it, you've been tending to our house for long enough. You're more than welcome to use my given name."
I glance towards him and he's frowning a little. "Is something the matter, Kazuo?" He shakes his head. "Nothing's wrong. Is there anything in particular you'd like me to do today? I've done most of the general chores already." I pause for a moment. "Well, my family should be arriving within the evening, so would you mind preparing the guest rooms?"
He nods. "How many will I be preparing?"
"Well, Megumi and her husband Satoshi will be taking up a room of their own. Their son and his wife will need a room of their own, especially considering that she's pregnant. If you could, please make sure her room is made very comfortable for her." He nods with a smile.
"Of course, Misses Nakai." I frown at him for calling me Misses Nakai again, but he sighs. "I just can't do it, Miss. Even if you request it of me."
I shrug and smile, I guess nothing can be done about it. He feels like a part of my family as well, I wish he'd just call me Hanako.
"Ayano and her child Izumi will share a room. Hiro and his wife Sayuri will share a room, and their son Haru will have his own. Who am I forgetting...?" I wonder, tapping a finger to my chin.
"I believe the only person you're forgetting is Minori."
"Ah, you're right."
"That's about six rooms, then. I'll make sure the sheets are fresh and nothing's dusty." I smile at our housekeeper. "Thank you, Kazuo." He nods and leaves the room to attend to what I've asked of him. Just as he's leaving, Hisao returns and sits back down on the couch. "Oh, this looks interesting." He says, sipping his tea.
An hour or so passes and Hisao and I decide to stop playing chess. We both wind up sitting close to one another on the couch, my head on his shoulder while he flicks on the television with a remote. I wrap my arm around his, lacing my aged fingers between his. I try and watch the movie, but I wind up dozing off.
I can hear Hisao teasing me. "I remember when you used to get mad at me for always falling asleep during movies."
"Sh-shut up. I'm old, or did you forget?" He places a kiss on my forehead. "I forget all the time, love." Never lost that charm of yours, did you Hisao?
I slip into the quiet easiness of sleep, but can feel Hisao's hand still holding mine.
A doorbell shakes me from my sleep. I've got a blanket draped over me and Hisao's nowhere to be found. I guess he got tired of the movie. He's so antsy. Hisao's never been able to deal with not doing something all the time. I guess that's what happens when a workaholic retires.
I get up and start walking towards the front door from the couch in the living room, the blanket draped over my shoulders. It's a little chilly in the house. I check my watch as I make my way slowly to the door. It's five thirty in the afternoon. The light coming through the windows is a little dimmer, to match the setting sun. Kazuo is opening the door when I get to it and I smile at the people standing there.
It's Megumi and Satoshi. Megumi's hair is the same shade as Hisao's but slightly lighter. She has my eyes though. Hair pulled into a french-braid and slung over her shoulder, she gives a wide smile to me that exhibits a kind of energy that betrays the age in her features. "Hey there, mom. I like the fashion statement." She says, pointing to my blanket.
"R-really? I think it's pretty chic." I say, twirling it a little bit, as if it were a mantle. Satoshi laughs, moving towards me and hugging me. He's a plain looking man, but he's got good features and a heart to match.
"How're you hanging in there, mom?" I peck him on the cheek. "I'm doing better than you, I bet." Megumi approaches and I kiss her similarly, hugging her with an equal amount of gusto that she shows me.
"I wouldn't doubt that. Work's got me slammed lately. Ten more years and I'm done with that company." Satoshi says, sighing in relief. "Your fault you settled for being a salary-man." He shrugs at Megumi, who shoves him playfully.
They have a few bags with them, which Kazuo takes. "You'll be in the same room you're always in, Mister and Misses Hara." They nod at Kazuo, although Megumi tosses me a glance when he's out of earshot.
"You think after ten something years of working for the family, he'd start calling us by our names?"
I shrug. "I think someone brainwashed that boy."
Thinking back, I can understand his formality. I helped his family a lot once upon a time, but I don't think it was quite enough... Too many hardships befell them anyways and lead Kazuo into our lives.
Well, Kazuo is Tomo's grandson. Tomo couldn't handle his life even with my help and his wife passed away of a broken heart some decades later.
And, well... their daughter lived a good life until she died of cancer when Kazuo was just a little boy. Kazuo's father, struggling to face his losses, abandoned his son.
That crying boy was an image I couldn't forget. He was a steadfast child though, he refused to let things get the best of him. I see a lot of his Tomo in him, although he has a much greater strength to overcome hardships than his grandfather.
Kazuo knows how much both Hisao and I tried to help his family, and I think that's why he regards us so highly.
"Well, make yourself at home, Satoshi. You know your way around the house, feel free to watch a movie or read something in our study." A strange look from Megumi. I ignore it though, I get those odd looks a lot lately.
"We should start preparing some food, Megumi. I didn't start prepping because I fell asleep during a movie." I admit. My daughter chuckles a little at me, nodding and walking with me towards the kitchen. Thankfully Kazuo had started to set out things he knew I was going to cook for the evening.
We all gathered around a large table, laden with food. Half of my family nearly had to tie me to my chair so I wouldn't serve and set the plates, something I just didn't feel right not doing. Instead, Megumi, Minori and Hiro set aside all of the plates while Kazuo served everyone who didn't serve themselves. Hisao sat besides me, smiling like a fool. He loved days like this. Twelve of us, just in our immediate family.
He was proud he'd come this far and done this much. I was too.
"So, how's law school, Haru?" I looked towards Hiro's son. He looked a bit tired and was eating pretty slowly, so I figured I'd try and wake him up a little. He scratched his head. He took a lot after his mother, a dark haired woman with bright blue eyes. "Tiring. I barely sleep with all the studying I have to do."
Hiro pats him on the back while he and his wife regard him warmly. "But he's top of his class right now. At this rate, the Satoshi family's company would be crazy to not take him when he graduates."
The Satoshi company has been doing well, taken over by Lilly and Akira's children. They've been doing a good job making executive decisions and making sure the company flourishes. They're still always in need of lawyers, they get sued for all sorts of silly things.
I glance over to Ayano and Izumi. My looks skipped Ayano and went right to Izumi. She has my violet hair and my dark eyes. Izumi doesn't seem to keen on eating, although her mother's trying to be as cheerful as possible in coaxing her to eat.
Izumi's upset, that much I can tell. I guess the divorce was taking more of a toll on her than Megumi admitted. Izumi crawls into her Ayano's lap, burying her face into her mother's chest.
Ayano sighs, a look of sadness creeping into her face as well. I meet eyes with her, but she smiles and mouths the words 'It's okay' to me. I give her a disparaging look. I know better than that. I've been around long enough. Still, now's not the time.
Minori's busy stuffing her face, unable to stop eating for a moment. Such a tomboy. Never really had manners, always full of some sort of energy. I never knew where she got it from. Maybe Satoshi was like that when he was young?
Everyone's chatting and enjoying themselves, Hisao included. I fold my hands after eating half of a portion of my food, enjoying the sight. It warms my heart. Everyone's together and happy. Minori's arguing with her brother Nao, who's trying to explain why she has such a hard time finding or keeping a job thanks to how she acts all the time.
His wife Suzume laughs and tries to placate the two, getting in the middle of the conversation and deflecting the topic tactfully. I'm a little impressed by her. She hasn't visited this house very often before, but she's got a good head on her shoulder.
As everyone finishes, Kazuo takes the plates away and everyone looks to me, considering I'm sitting at the top of the table. "Coming with? I brought some movies for us all to watch." Ayano says, showing me a handful of thin discs with movies on them.
"I will in a moment, I like being the last to leave the table. I want everyone to finish eating before I get up." Once everyone had left the room, I looked over to Hisao. He had barely touched his food.
"Are you okay?" I asked, concern in my tone. He nodded. "Ah, I made an early dinner when you were asleep. Couldn't wait, I'm sorry. I'll have Kazuo wrap this up and I'll eat it another time, though."
I glance at him suspiciously. "You're not lying to me about this, are you?" He grins at me, leaning over and kissing me on the cheek. "I wouldn't dream of it." I stared at him for a second, running my hand along the creases in his skin up to his whitened hair. Past the age, all I could see was the young boy I had fallen in love with.
"Grandma! Are you coming? After the movie, I want to play a game of chess with you." Haru calls out as he enters the dining room. I glance towards the youth, as does Hisao. "Of course, sorry." I stand up, Hisao's hand in mine to go watch some movies and spend time with my family.
I yawn, feeling the wear of age on me. That game of chess might have to wait until tomorrow, Haru.
I awake to my bed with Hisao and myself in it, wrapped up in blankets, I'm facing towards him, as I always do. When had I gotten into bed...? I sigh. Hisao, Kazuo or one of my sons must've carried me to my room.
I turn my focus over to Hisao. There's something about his warm breath on mine and the feeling of his nose just glancing the tip of my own that I've come to love.
If possible, I would always find a way to fall asleep before him, but last night I had been feeling exceptionally tired. Still, I let him sleep in. He enjoys his sleep a lot more now that he actually has the time to sleep.
I exit my bedroom, smelling the scent of breakfast. Someone's cooking? I don't have my watch on, but I know it's earlier than most wake up. I wander into the kitchen and find that Kazuo's creating an enormous breakfast spread in the kitchen.
"Morning, Misses Nakai."
"Right, Misses Nakai." He grins at me over his shoulder as he continues making breakfast. I pick a little bit of it out of the pan, a piece of scrambled eggs that seem to have some kind of breakfast sausage cooked into it.
"Yummy. What has you cooking this early?"
"Well, I figured I'd have something out for everyone this morning."
"Very considerate of you."
"That's what you pay me to be." I pat him on the back. "Not so, I pay you to help us around the house. You're naturally a considerate person."
He smiles genuinely, turning back to attend to breakfast. "If you say so."
"But I have to ask,"
"Are you alright, Misses Nakai?"
He turns towards me, lowering the flame on the pilot. "Are you alright? You seem... really off, lately."
I furrow my brow and feel a sense of uneasiness. "What do you mean?"
He sighs. "You... don't notice it?" I feel myself pouting and putting my hands on my hips. I still wear a similar pink nightgown comparable to the one I wore as a youth, even in this age. "What are you talking about?"
"Nothing, don't worry about it." It looks like he has a pained expression on his face, like he wants to tell me something but can't. "T-Tell me!" Instead, he just puts a hand on my head.
"Like I said, don't worry about it."
I feel a blush creeping into my face. This young kid- he's treating me like a child, when I'm well over his age. "Y-you should be more r-respectful of your elders!" I declare, moving his hand from my violet hair, lightened with age.
"I am, that's why I'm doing this. Don't worry about it, Hanako. Just change and I'll have breakfast ready for the family."
I open my mouth to argue, but I can't find the will to it. He used my given name like I've always asked him to. I feel like it's his exchange. He'll lose a battle if I have to lose one.
An equal exchange, much like trading pawns in chess.
"F-fine!" I exclaim as I turn away from him and storm back to my bedroom to change. Kazuo laughs, probably due to how childish I'm being. No one said you have to act old when you get old. Some things don't need to change.
When I return to my bedroom, I take care to avoid waking Hisao up and change into some regular clothes. First, I don a long white gown and over it a high collar blouse. I was given this blouse by Lilly. Lace adorns it around the collar and sleeves, and I tie a light purple ribbon around the neck of the collar. I pull on some slippers and head out of the bedroom, not before smiling backwards at Hisao still sleeping in our bed.
The morning consisted of a delicious breakfast made by Kazuo, whom everyone thanked. I even forced him to sit with us and eat, something he always avoids doing.
"Fine, fine." He finally caved and sat besides Minori, who was appraising him.
"You know, you're kind of attractive when you're not rushing around and looking flustered. You have the whole serious thing going for you." Minori informs him, causing him to blush.
"Thank you." He doesn't respond right away, but Minori starts talking to him, trying to learn more about our mysterious housekeeper. Instead of talking and answering her, he tries to use the food he's eating as an evasive maneuver.
Ah, his Tomo was showing. It brings a smile to my face to see a little bit of his grandfather in him. I really wish Tomo had relied on us a bit more. Maybe we could've helped him. Everyone at the firm was devastated when we lost him.
I started playing matchmaker in my head, looking from Tomo to Minori. The two were fairly close in age and Minori could very well bring out the better parts of Kazuo that he was so intent on hiding from the world.
I smiled to myself. It could work...
After we finished eating, I had a sudden urge to go to the balcony. It was that same urge I always had; to go watch the crashing waves in the morning. Our home overlooked a beach, one that Hisao and I loved visiting.
I dabbed at my mouth with a napkin and started towards the door that lead to the balcony. "Where are you going, mom?" Hiro asked me.
I gave him a distant smile. "To go look at the ocean. It's always so pretty in the morning." They all gave me a bit of a worried look, but I went out to the balcony anyways.
I stood out there, in the brisk morning breeze which ruffled my gown and pushed my hair from my face. I always enjoyed the view of a blue horizon. I liked the idea that the world didn't have an end, that there was always something unexplored where the eyes couldn't see.
I heard a yawn from behind me and saw that Hisao was approaching. He had tossed on a plain white shirt, another of those damned sweatervests and a pair of jeans. I tugged at the seam of his sweatervest. "I though I got you to throw all these away." He half laughed, half yawned.
"I keep a few for special occasions."
"Oh, like what?"
"In this case, when I really need to talk about something important."
I was silent, appraising the old man beside me. I could practically hear his heart beating over the soft crashes of ocean beneath us. I had that sound memorized, even with the changes that medicine and pacemakers had caused for him. I couldn't forget it.
"Yesterday, when you asked if I was lying about something?"
"I sort of was."
I frown at him and grab hold of his sleeve. "So, something is the matter?"
Hisao nods. "Something is the matter."
"What is it?" My grip intensifies. Worry is filling my body. We've made it this long, can't we keep going?
"I think it's time for me to go." His eyes look tired as he glances out over the ocean. My grip loosens a bit in defeat. "I can't eat as much anymore, I'm always tired."
"I think it's time I went."
He turns to me with a smile. "C'mon now, don't cry." He puts a worn finger to the corner of my eye, wiping away a premature tear.
"It happens to everyone, sooner or later."
"B-but, your p-promise!"
"I know, I know. It's gotten me this far, but everyone has their limits. I'm sorry. I just don't have the same amount of energy that I used to. I remember that I have to do anything you say for breaking the promise."
"Would you listen if I told you not to leave?"
He sighed, pulling me forward and kissing me on the forehead. "I wish I could, but I can't." I sob once into his chest as tears escape me. He feels so warm. I don't want to lose this, no matter what.
"Just... don't worry, okay? I'll always be here. Don't forget that, Hanako."
"O-okay... I w-won't." I stammer out, my tears choking my words.
Then I hear a voice behind me while I bury my face in the warmth of his chest.
"Gran-mama?" I turn to see that Izumi is behind me, looking confused. I wipe my eyes, kneeling in front of her with a weak smile.
"Why are you crying?"
I don't like lying, and it'd be a bad example, so I tell the little girl the truth.
"Saying g-goodbye is hard. That's why I'm crying."
She tilts her head a little, her eyes narrowed in confusion.
"But... who are you saying goodbye to, gran-mama?"
What? A sense of confusion washes over me as a small realization fills me. I turn around and see that nobody's there. Hisao...?
I turn back to Izumi as something escapes me, something intangible. Like someone unplugged me and there's no more energy in my body. Just as I kneel, Nao turns the corner.
"There you are, you little punk! What're you doing out here?"
Izumi pouts as she turns to her uncle. "Talking to gran-mama! She was saying goodbye to someone who isn't there." Nao looks from Izumi to me worriedly.
"Alright, go back to your mom. You know she gets worried when you wander off." Izumi nods quietly as she reenters the house. Nao approaches me.
I smile at him, but the smile feels empty. "Yes?"
"Who were you saying goodbye to?"
"Grandpa's been dead for around ten years."
"I hate asking you this, but have you been taking your dementia medicine?"
I open my mouth for a moment, placing a hand to my lower lip. Without thought, an ashamed smile appears on my face.
"Ah, no. I've forgotten for a while, actually. And I hadn't asked Kazuo to refill it recently."
In my mind, something cracks under a great weight. The memories start to peel themselves back, revealing what was really there.
Hisao was just a memory I had been projecting into my life, to give me some kind of solace in my loneliness.
The teacups were set by Kazuo, one for myself and my lost loves.
The happenings between the two of them never happened.
The chess game, I had played with myself.
Kazuo draped the blanket over me while I slept alone on the couch.
Every time I said 'our' or 'us', everyone realized I was talking about Hisao and I, and I was the only one who didn't know he wasn't there.
They set his plate and filled it with food to entertain my delusions.
The space besides me in bed had always been empty.
Kazuo and everyone else knew that I was steeped in a lie and encouraged it, because it made me happy.
But I could see it in Nao's features. It hurt him to see me lost in my own mind.
"I'm sorry, grandma... I just,"
He scratches his head, frustrated. Finally, he sighs. "I don't like seeing you like this. And you're always telling us to tell the truth."
He's right, though. It's wrong to live like this. To keep lying.
My eyes were overflowing.
Hisao was gone.
He said he was always there.
But he wasn't, other than in my crumbling mind.
Nao stepped towards me, to try and console me. I stepped away from him, tears falling as I moved.
'I guess that's what happens when you get old. You start living in memories, just so you can make it to tomorrow.'
It's sad, but it's true, isn't it?
Nao steps towards me, trying to apologize, but I recoil from his touch. A tremble that I haven't felt since I was back in highschool returns to my body.
Realizing I didn't want to be consoled, Nao turns and leaves. I can tell he isn't sure if he's done the right thing. Moments later, Megumi and Hiro approach me, trying to figure out what's the matter.
And why I've dropped to my knees, crying incoherently.
Everything started going downhill the next couple days.
I guess it's natural though, isn't it? I've been here for a long time. I've outlived all of my friends, all of the loved ones who have meant the world to me. As much as I love my family, I can't keep living like this. It's time I moved on.
I've been bedridden for the last three days. I can't eat, I can barely find the strength to get out of bed. Hiro called a highly-recommended doctor who checked up on me, but the only thing he could tell them was that it was my time to go.
As he spoke to them, he left my door open a sliver.
"It's just... natural causes. Her body's shutting down. Nothing painful, just gradual. She's an old woman, it was bound to happen eventually. And judging by that look on her face..." He says as he turns back towards me through the sliver, making eye contact with me.
"...I'd be willing to say she's just lost her spirit to live. It happens all the time when the elderly get to a point where they just get tired of living."
"Truthfully, it's best this way. She'll probably pass away one night in her sleep. Keep vigil and make sure the ones she loves are with her when she finally lets go."
I can hear the resounding sobs from my family. I'm sorry, everyone.
I just want to see all of my friends again. This is your life to live now, not mine.
The first night was painful. All of my children and family surrounded me at my bed, holding my hands and arms. Their grip was so intense yet gentle, like they refused to let me go to the other life.
I couldn't let myself pass that night, they were all too shaken up from how I had suddenly let go of myself.
And I had to tell Nao that he did the right thing.
The next day, everyone seemed to have come to terms with what was happening. They were still crying, but they shed tears with smiles for me.
Nao wasn't here, though. When I asked, they told me he was outside of the room with Izumi. I told them it was fine. Everyone was grieving in their own ways, he deserved his.
When I told them I was sorry about all of this, my daughter told me otherwise. "It's fine. It's best this way." Megumi said, her cheeks streaked with tears.
Even Hiro was getting choked up. "Be happy over there, got it?"
Everyone else spent the night with me, but as I felt the time drawing near, I asked all of them weakly to leave the room. Except for Hiro and Megumi.
Both of them crouched on each side of my bed.
"I'm still s-sorry." I force a smile for the two of them. Megumi squeezes my wrist gently.
"Don't be. This... this is good for you."
I smile as I close my eyes.
"I'm really happy."
"I've had such a good life with all of you."
"I can't tell you how happy I've been..."
I want to say that they're responding, but their voices are getting duller. Are their grips getting looser? Ah...
I think they're shaking me and shouting to me. But I can't feel anything. It just feels like someone's draped a warm blanket over me and it's blinding me from the entire world.
I want to come back to them, I wish I could. I would spend the rest of my life with you all, but... all of my life has already left me.
Hisao, Lilly... Everyone I used to know and love. Even Takara had passed on before me.
It was time.
I love you all...
The darkness begins to soften, as if something's trying to peel it apart. Someone's drawing back the warm swath of comfort from my body and returning my sense of feeling.
A voice is calling to me. Who...?
"Come on, wake up."
My eyes snap open as I loose a gasp. I haven't heard that young voice in such a long time.
Where am I?
I glance around quickly and realize that I'm surrounded by bookshelves and sitting in a familiar beanbag.
"Y-Yamaku H-High?" A hand shoots to my mouth. My stammer's back? Was that all... a dream?
Looking straight up, there is no ceiling. Just a pearlescent whiteness that I can't seem to explain. What's going on? I have a book in my lap. Life of Pi?
The scarring on my hand... it's gone?
I hear footsteps across from me and see a man in a suit with a driver's cap on.
Looking to my hands, the look like they did when I was in highschool, but minus the scarring. And it looks like I'm in Yamaku's library, but I remember getting married to Hisao.
What's going on? A knowing smirk from the man.
"I said welcome! Welcome. Like to a new home."
"That's basically what this is for you, anyways."
I was so glad that I had finally defeated my stammer in my older age, but now it's back. That didn't explain everything I remembered, though...
"It'll go away if you want it to."
"Wait, I didn't say that out loud. How did you-" The stammer vanishes minute I started to think about how nice it'd be if it'd actually disappear if I wanted it to.
He smiles politely at me as he removes his hat with a flourish and makes a curt bow towards me.
"Aren't you the limousine driver from my wedding?"
"Indeed I am, Misses Nakai."
I am so confused.
"If you want to understand, follow me." He informs me, cheerfully placing his hat on back on his head. I oblige, not knowing what else to do. As I walk, the pearlescent ceiling shifts colors and I realize that there aren't any walls, just bookshelves.
As the limousine driver leads me through what seems to be a maze of bookshelves, I can't help but ask a stupid question.
"Who are you? Are you God or something?"
He pauses, looking to the left and retrieves a book. He flips through the pages silently and puts it back.
"Easy answer? Sort of. Complicated answer? Not at all." The driver repeats the process, pulling books from the shelves and perusing them for a few moments before the book floats back to its place.
"People usually call us things like 'guardian angels' and stuff. But that's not really right. People like me are just drivers leading you to your destination. Just not always in the literal sense."
"Us?" I pause and note the pleased smile on his face.
"...Are there others like you out there? And why did Hisao recognize you?"
He laughs a little. Getting a good look at his face, he does look familiar. Like someone I've known forever, like a parent or something.
"Well, when someone spends a lot of time watching and leading you, one tends to recognize them. I couldn't resist being your wedding driver, although showing myself usualluy breaks one of my main rules. But actually driving people is one of the things I love doing."
I'll ignore that he didn't answer everything I had asked...
Although wait- he had been watching over me, guiding me this entire time? I feel a sudden surge of anger. "Then why- why didn't you save my parents?" The driver stops in the aisle of books, turning towards me. He's frowning a little at me, placing a hand on my head.
"I would've, but do you think you'd have ever met Hisao otherwise?" I can't argue with that as he ruffles my hair a little. Would I have?
"Couldn't there have been a better way?"
"There might've been, but would it have lead to this happy ending? Probably not."
I remember what he said in the limo, what felt like forever ago. "You said you make sure that people get their happy endings, right? Do you do this for other people?"
"Hard to tell you the right answer to that. Yes and no. I do, but the people are the same and different at the same time." He sighs.
"I hate giving these kind of explanations, but the proper one would take way too long."
"Either way, you two have been my number one priority for a long time." When we finally exited the bookshelf maze, I was greeted by a sight that shocked me.
It was the lobby of the library, walls and ceilings entirely put together. It was like I had stepped into the past, a life I had lost long ago. A surge of something I couldn't explain coursed through me. Was it surprise? Shock? Anticipation? Or just exhilaration?
Everyone was standing before me, waiting to step from the pearlescent floor outside of the bookshelf maze and into a world I longed for.
Hisao waved to me, a soft smile playing on his lips.
"Jeez, took you long enough. We've been waiting forever, Hana."
Lilly, Akira, Kenji, Rin, Shizune, Emi, Miki, Misha, Tomo, Takara, all the people who I had lost to time and my memories. They were all waiting for me at an enormous table.
"Is this...?" I asked, walking slowly towards Hisao. He said nothing until I approached him, in which he embraced me.
"Yep, it's real. We've all been here, waiting for you."
"You broke your promise."
"But I did wait for you this entire time." His grip tightened around me.
I lurch as a sob catches me.
I remember that day... he died when we were in our sixties from a sudden lethal heart attack.
It was something I always denied. That denial spiraled out of control with my age and took on a physical form. I just pretended like it had never happened. Once I fell out of my own self-imposed illusion, I moved on.
"There's just one thing left!" That familiar voice rang out from behind us.
The limousine driver was holding out a piece of paper and pen to the two of us. "You still haven't gotten that happy end you both want. There's still people you have something you want to say things to, aren't there? It's my duty to deliver that message and make sure the people I love get their happy ending."
I looked from the paper to Hisao. There were things we wanted to say, wasn't there? Things we wanted to reassure our children about, to let them know we were happy and well in another life that we could share together.
That nothing had to end.
We both take the paper and turn towards the table. Hisao begins the letter and we take turns filling out the letter.
When we're both done, we hand the paper back to the limo driver.
"Can I ask you something?" I ask. I'm holding hands with Hisao, something I haven't in such a long time. It feels surreal and submerges me in happiness.
"What's your name?"
He laughs softly. "Well, I guess there's no harm in that, now that we're all here."
While he wears a smile, he removes his hat, looking into it as if in thought. Then, a moment later, he places it back on his head.
I'm sitting at the base of a tree, looking towards the sky.
"Think she's happy?" I ask, looking to the black funeral clothing that we've all been wearing. There was an enormous turnout to our grandmother's funeral. My father and my cousin's mother are all taking condolences from all the people who had known and been influenced by Hanako Nakai.
She's resting now besides her beloved husband, our grandfather, a great man.
"She definitely is, Nao." Ayano's holding her daughter's hand and I hope she's right.
I couldn't help but feel there's nothing on the other side. When you die, it's all gone. It's depressing. I never thought she'd die, but she's gone now. And it was my fault that I had broken the illusion for her.
"Don't look so down." Haru demanded. He was adamant that she was with our grandfather and all the people she loved. Still, he looked more defeated than any of us. "I... never got to beat her at chess, though." He mumbled. Haru always looked up to our grandmother, respected and admired her. He was taking the hit hard.
Still, I couldn't cope with the fact she was gone. "Whatever." I muttered to no one in particular. Minori was completely quiet, her usual pep completely gone. Across from our tree, in the street, a black limosine pulled up. Just another person paying their condolences and watching our grandmother being put in the ground.
Instead, a man wearing a well-tailored suit and driver's cap approached me.
"Hello there. You're of the Nakai family, right?"
We nod silently. Who's this?
He looks... kind of familiar.
He extends a hand, an envelope in it. "A message for your family. But the two who wrote it wanted to make sure you got it first. Make sure to show your parents afterwards."
As he puts it into my hand, he doesn't let go for a second. "She really would like it if you don't blame yourself." He takes his hand away and his words don't strike me until I'm glancing over the envelope addressed to us.
When I look up, the door to the limousine shuts closed and pulls away after the engine turns over. Glancing back down, I can't help but ask a simple question. Who wrote this?
I open the letter, each of us looking at the stationary. This handwriting... I recognize it from birthday cards and letters I've read from ages ago.
A lot has changed.
Then the handwriting changes to an even more familiar handwriting.
But no matter how much changes, we'll always love you.