Chapter 32: Where Home Is (8)
—–Translated by daydrop. Please read on the original site at daydrop.nowaki.net.
Kei came back to his senses when his cell phone alarm went off. It was early noon—the time that he would always wake up. He was sitting on the sofa with his coat on, but he wasn’t clear if he had slept or if he had just simply blanked out.
Ahhh, it’s noon. It’s already noon. I have to go to work.
Kei staggered to his feet and felt something shift inside his coat pocket. When he shoved his hand in to check it, he found a key, cold and hard—the spare one to this apartment that Kei had given to Ushio. Ushio had been clutching it in his fist. When he did drop it into Kei’s pocket and leave? Kei tapped on it as it rested in his hand. The sound was unsatisfyingly light. They had talked only a few hours ago, but his memory was blurred behind frosted glass. And despite all of that, he could calmly analyze the state of his mind, recognizing that he probably didn’t want to face reality right now.
Kei showered, quickly checked the news from the morning, and ate a breakfast of egg drop instant miso soup poured over rice. He got dressed and left the apartment at his usual time. It was probably because he had left the TV playing a regularly scheduled weekday show that he was able to go through all the motions to get ready.
The front door was locked. Ushio couldn’t have locked it, so Kei must have done it himself. Surprisingly, he could still function properly, but his memory from the time was completely blank. The key for Ushio’s house was still hanging from the key hook on the inside door of the shoe cabinet. If you’re gonna go, then take it with you, Kei complained bitterly to himself, but when he thought that Ushio probably wasn’t in the state of mind to think of such a thing, he finally felt the clear pain of his heart aching. Kei grabbed the keys and started running. It was so cold outside he could probably draw full lines with his breath. The days were short, and he couldn’t feel any warmth from the sun already starting to hide behind the clouds.
As long as it didn’t snow, that was all that Kei wished for. Because Ushio hated the snow. Kei clutched the key in his fist like a child off to run an errand as he headed to Ushio’s house. The metal probably left dents in his skin. If Ushio happened to be at the house, would they only repeat the same goodbye as yesterday? What would he do if Ushio wasn’t there? Should he collect his things at the house—it was only clothes and such—and then drop the key off in the mailbox?
Kei fully understood the situation that had happened, but inside his head, Ushio was smiling. Smiling while doing work in front of his computer. Or doing his work in the kitchen, or doing the laundry, and saying, Hey.
“Did something happen to make you rush all the way here on your hind legs?”
“I had a bad dream.”
“A dream where you couldn’t eat cows or tuna?”
“That would be a nightmare.”
If only Kei could give the thoughts inside his head some kind of form like Ushio. If he could mold reality from his thoughts like making candy, then they could live there together forever—in a miniature garden just for the two of them. He didn’t need anyone or anything else.
Kei ran and arrived in front of Ushio’s house.
But to be precise, it was more accurate to say the place where Ushio’s house used to stand.
The first floor with the elevated ceilings, the large storefront shutters, the quiet second floor sitting on top of it, the machine oil stains, the leftover bird nests—Kei could picture them all in his head, but the square plot of land was a blank, empty lot between two buildings like it was peeled even from his memory. There was no signboard, no fence; all that remained was parched dirt and gravel as if it had returned to its original state 10 or 20 years ago. It seemed to say that the days that he had spent here were all an illusion.
There was a vortex centered at the back of Kei’s head, swirling the air and making him dizzy. He didn’t collapse, but he couldn’t pick up the key that had fallen out of his hand.
Did he really do this? No, did they make him do this? What happened to the equipment, the computer, and the sofa? The chairs, the table, the pots, the frying pan, the espresso maker?
If they’re safe somewhere for the time being, then lock me away there too.
That way I can sleep surrounded by all of our things until you come and see me again.
There was a break in his consciousness once again, and he was sitting on a train to work when he realized it. He checked the date and time on his cell phone and saw that it hadn’t even been an hour since he left his apartment. Which probably meant that he had stood in a brief stupor, took the path that he normally took to the station, and got on his usual train. He didn’t feel any stares in his direction, so that probably meant he hadn’t behaved strangely. It seemed a little half-baked. He didn’t rage, hole up at home, or run away; he just completed his normal daily routine.
Is this what you meant when you said I could do anything?
He couldn’t even feel the self-derision in his words, like half of his soul had disappeared from him.
As the train rocked along the tracks, a thought came to his mind.
Yeah, I’ll submit my resignation. If that’s the decision you want to make, then I can make my own decisions too. I’ll be watching you on TV? Damn moron. If I can’t see you, then there’s no point. If there’s no one I can gloat in front of, then why should I keep trying? There are plenty of people out there who can replace me. I have enough savings that I don’t have to work right away. If I hurry back to being a nobody, then it won’t hurt too much no matter what it is that they try to expose on me. So you better take responsibility and support me.
Kei felt like it was a really good idea, and he immediately brightened up. Was there such a thing as a break-up high? Even though he knew that half of him was running away from reality, unable to settle his heart, it was better than being down in the dumps. Maybe he should announce it live on the air. I am sorry for the sudden announcement, but as of today, I will be moving on from my role as an announcer—yeah, that sounded good. There would be no going back after that either.
So what if he wanted him to remain an announcer? Kei was under no obligation to grant the wish of a man who planned to disappear on him. He might as well destroy everything.
This is all on you. Take a look and realize what a terrible thing that you did, that it’s all your fault, then come running back to me and cry how you’ll never do it again.
Kei arrived at his desk at the announcer department at his usual time. Tatsuki showed up a little later and headed straight for Kei’s desk.
“Kunieda-san, how did that thing that we talked about yesterday go?”
“The thing from yesterday?”
He thought once again how easy it was to make a smile compared to any other face.
“He really did drop it in some water. He’s pretty busy right now, but he’ll probably contact you soon.”
“Okay, if you say so.”
Tatsuki looked unsatisfied with the explanation, and Kei thought to himself, Hurry up and scram. He was afraid if he spoke too much that he would blow his cover.
“Kunieda, a moment.”
The manager called Kei to his desk with impeccable timing, and he was relieved as he got up.
“We’re heading to Conference Room D.”
Kei didn’t spare a single thought for what he was called for, but when he arrived at the conference room, he saw the familiar lineup of high-level executives from the other day. Except today, Shitara and Asou weren’t present.
“Thanks for coming. Come on in and take a seat,” the News Director greeted in an excessively friendly voice, and the Announcer Department manager went out of his way to pull out a chair for Kei.
What the hell is this special treatment for?
Could it be that I already submitted my resignation? Unconsciously? And so they hurried to stage an intervention? Sorry, I’m quitting. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. I’m not going independent, so you can relax about that.
“Kunieda, could we have you sign this document?”
A single sheet of paper was placed on the table in front of him.
“It’s not that we don’t trust you, Kunieda. Let’s just call it a simple piece of mind for both our sakes… All right?”
Kei understood the contents of the brief, straightforward document in two seconds. It was a written agreement pledging that he would not run for office.
“You don’t have to give it any serious thought. Oh, did you bring a pen with you?”
See, fucking garbage, right? What’s the point of even clinging to this place? God, I’m so sick of it all.
Kei opened his mouth while maintaining the smile that was fixed on his face.
“Excuse me, coming in~”
That was when the door opened without a knock. Everyone focused their gaze over Kei’s shoulder, and Kei hurried to turn around.
“I hope I’m not interrupting anything~?”
“Shitara…” The News Director sighed. “We’re in the middle of a meeting.”
“I believe I have the right to attend matters when it comes to anything related to Kunieda.”
Shitara picked up and waved around the document. “So this your so-called meeting?” He laughed, the anger clear on his face.
“There are still people who feel uneasy about it within the network. Kunieda is young, and it wouldn’t be good for his image if it looks like he has political ambitions.”
“But he already denied everything on air.”
“It also fanned the flames in return. I warned you not to bring it up on the show.”
“And I have full authority as Producer for what goes on my show,” Shitara countered without hesitation, and it startled Kei.
Oi, oi, are you gonna be okay? …But it doesn’t matter anymore anyway, because I’m quitting.
“So you’re making him sign a written pledge. Want to make it public? Direct from Asou’s mouth?”
“Shitara, that’s enough out of you.”
“Oh, look, so you’re aware of how bad it is to say it on air. Of course, it is—it would stir up an outcry about his personal rights if this ever comes to light. You just want a show of submission from him, t0 bend his head down to you, so you’re forcing him to sign this scrap of paper with no legal binding power whatsoever. It’s an absolute insult. I have the duty to protect my presenters as the producer of the show, and I can’t let Kunieda sign this thing.”
Shitara balled up the paper and took it with him as he left the room. Kei took a sidelong glance at the bitter faces in the room and followed after Shitara.
“Hmm?” Shitara turned around, and he was back to his easy-going manner as usual. “Sorry about that~ There’s probably an uptight board member or someone who kicked up a fuss about it. Well, I’ll do whatever I can to support you. I suppose you can think of it as a sign of your incredible value here, so try not to let it bother you too much.”
“…You didn’t have to do that for me.”
“Hmm? Why not?”
I want to quit, so it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to recklessly cover for me.
“…I’m not the person that you and everyone who works on the show think I am.”
“Huh? But I think that goes without saying for pretty much everybody, don’t you think?” Shitara said absentmindedly. Maybe he was sidestepping Kei’s explanation, or maybe that was how he really felt. “Geez~ You’re always so serious, Kunieda~”
“But it’s different for me.”
“No, it’s not,” Shitara said as he tossed the ball of paper into a trash bin in the hallway. “You could be a terrible person, and that’s fine. Well, if you were a horrible criminal, that would be bad… But it’s enough if you’re sincere only in front of the camera. The camera never lies. The viewers can see through so much more than what we think they see. You haven’t betrayed anyone or anything, Kunieda. That’s why I and all the staff here enjoy working with you so much. That’s all there is to it. Is there anything else that we need?”
Kei couldn’t find any words to respond to him. He just stood there facing Shitara when a staff member came running down the hall.
“There are reports of a mass food poisoning from a chain restaurant in the metro area. About 20 people were sent to the hospital and even a few are unconscious. A similar case happened at the same restaurant last year, and the CEO will be holding a press conference at 6 pm today…”
That was when Kei’s mouth moved by itself.
“I’ll go and cover it.”
Kei shouted Oi at himself in his mind.
“I was the one who covered the case from last year, and I can uncover all the information that we need. I also have the direct number of someone in the public health center who I can contact.”
“Great, you can take it, Kunieda. We’ll break on the evening news with live coverage of the press conference, and at night we’ll round up the details including the case from last year.”
What the hell am I saying “Understood” for!? I’m quitting, so why am I happily accepting an assignment!?
Kei’s arms and legs moved on their own accord, contrary to what he actually wanted. He went to gather footage, appeared for the live coverage, and remarked on the question and answer portion of the press conference. When he returned to the network, he worked on the structure for their clip with the director, had a rushed pre-show meeting, and went on the air.
That was how a day without Ushio had started and ended in a flash.
“Excuse me, but may I remain in the studio for a little while longer?”
“Oh, sure. Please call me on my extension when you’re done, and I’ll come lock up. Is it okay to leave the lights turned down?”
“Thank you very much.”
The set was tidied, and the cameras were covered. Just an hour ago, the studio was bursting with activity, but now it was empty, like it had forgotten everything and had gone to sleep. Until the next night.
And what will I do tomorrow night? Kei asked himself. He didn’t even have to think about the answer.
I will be here. I will be here reading the news. The next night and the night after that.
Because I’m an announcer.
Kei wanted to scream out loud until the ceiling shook.
Dammit. What should I do about Ushio’s father? Can he just go to hell in a way that wouldn’t hurt my conscience?
This is where I want to be. I can’t think of a world where you’re not here with me. And I want to be here with you always wanting me. I want to be here always giving you more than you ever expect from me. I don’t ever want to betray you. Whether you’re watching me or not, whether you’re here with me or not.
So what is this? Were you right about me all along? Should I just thank you for letting me stand here in this place and allow you to throw away everything for me? So that you’re the only one who’s throwing away the work that you want to do?
Is there really no choice where we don’t have to throw either one away?
There was the sound of a faint machine-like buzz in the deathly silent studio. Kei looked around the area and realized it was coming from his bag sitting in the corner. It was his cell phone ringing—his private one, which meant that it was either his parents or Ushio. Parents, Ushio, parents, Ushio, parents, Ushio… With each step that Kei took, two possibilities alternated as they crossed his mind. He took a deep breath, reached into this bag, and grabbed the vibrating device.
The LCD screen displayed the name Dad. Kei told himself, Hold it in. Don’t get depressed, as he answered the phone.
“Kei, I’m sorry for calling so late. Do you have time to talk right now?”
It was extremely usual for Kei’s father to call him directly instead of going through his mother first.
“Um, I wanted to tell you that your mother will be having surgery tomorrow.”
“Oh, at this time it would be today. She was admitted into the hospital yesterday.”
“She has a myoma in her uterus. It’s an endoscopic procedure, so the doctor said she should be released after 2 or 3 days.”
His father used an extremely mild tone of voice, but as far as Kei knew as their son, it would be the first hospitalization in the family (excluding pregnancy). Hearing that it was a surgery made it hard for him to remain calm, plus it was related to an organ that men didn’t possess. He couldn’t help but accuse in his distress, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“Oh, well, you seemed pretty busy the last time we talked.”
Kei was the one who had brushed his parents off and told them to save it for later.
“Your mother said she would call again another time, so I thought she took care of it and told you. But while she was eating dinner at the hospital, she saw you appear on the news and remembered that she completely forgot to tell you.”
“What kind of timing is that…?”
“I’m sorry, I should have double-checked with her.”
“It’s fine. …So when is the surgery?”
“11 in the morning.”
“I have a narration job tomorrow first thing in the morning, but after that, I’ll head over to the hospital. Which one is it?”
“Really? Your mother says that you don’t have to come.”
“It’s fine, I’ll go. I have to be back at the network in the evening, so I can only stop in before leaving again.”
“All right, okay, thank you. I think your mother will be happy to see you too.”
They ended their call. Everything seemed to be falling on Kei all at once, but he was glad at least to have things to keep himself busy. He was able to snap out of his feelings and start moving forward, and so he thought to himself, Let’s go home for now.
Kei finished his recording session and in the taxi on the way to Shinagawa Station, he received a LINE message from his father that said, The surgery just finished without any problems. He rode the Shinkansen over and took another taxi from the station to the hospital. His mother had already woken up from the anesthesia and was back at her hospital room when he arrived. But nevertheless, hospitals were out of his ordinary routine for Kei, and he became anxious once he saw his mother lying on the bed even though the surgery was already over. She was wearing an oxygen mask and looked pale. The only times he had seen her sick were when she had caught a cold and wanted to sleep.
What do I do if Mom dies? It surprised Kei that he could still have such a childish worry going through his head. He was a working adult living on his own, and he had the means to live a very comfortable life. He should be worrying about his father: he was probably lost and at his wit’s end. But his mother just shifted her mask, unconcerned about her son’s sentiments, and said delightedly, “Oh, you’re here, Kei? Dear, come bring that thing you took for me.”
“I think it’s probably not a good idea,” his father said.
“Uh, what do you mean by ‘that thing’?”
“A picture of the myoma that the surgeon removed. I had your father take it for me. You want to see it, right, Kei?”
Fortunately they were in a private room, and Kei replied, “Don’t be stupid.” It was a waste of brain cells that he even felt forlorn about her for a moment.
“Don’t you dare show it to me. Dad, don’t take pictures of those things in the first place!”
“But your mother really wanted me to take it for her…”
“Oh, is it already past 2? Kei, have you eaten lunch yet?”
He couldn’t work up an appetite to eat a boxed lunch on the train.
“You must be starving. Dear, go take Kei out for some food.”
“Okay. Kei, some of my co-workers stopped by and brought us a castella sponge cake. Do you want to take it with you?”
“Isn’t it the one with sugar sprinkled on top? He doesn’t like that gritty feeling from the sugar, so he won’t eat it.”
What am I, a child? Well, I guess I am their child.
Even though Kei appeared on national TV every night, it was the farthest thing from his parents’ minds right now, always worrying if he was hungry or not, always remembering what he liked to eat or not. It wasn’t a given that all parents cared for their children; Kei’s parents cared because that was the type of people they were.
“Oh, let’s go then?”
Kei didn’t have time to stop and eat a leisurely lunch, so he asked his father to drop him off at the train station.
“Thank you for coming. I know you’re really busy.”
“It’s not a big deal. I didn’t even bring anything.”
“We’re the happiest just seeing you well.”
Kei looked at his father’s happy smile, and he couldn’t remember a time when his father was angry at him. His mother would scold him when it was necessary, but it was always within the bounds of common-sense discipline. The two of them never did anything like deny or reject Kei or impose their will on him. They gave Kei a place where he could be himself and never made him feel lonely.
Ushio’s voice saying, I was lonely, echoed in Kei’s ears, and he suddenly wanted to cry. But he forced his emotions back down, telling himself, No, now’s not the time. He didn’t know when that time would come, but for now he had to push through it.
Kei made a decision. He needed to find out more about Ushio. More than what Ushio had told him. Whether a path would open up for him or not, he could think about it later.
“Kunieda-san.” Tatsuki came up to Kei after the broadcast with a serious look on his face. “I want to talk to you.”
“…You’re hiding something, aren’t you? About Tsuzuki-san.”
Kei smiled in reply at the whisper in his ear.
“Minagawa-kun, are you hungry?”
“I didn’t get to eat anything today.”
“Oh— Should we go out to eat somewhere? If you want a private room, then we can…”
“I’d like to eat ramen. Do you know of any place still open around here?”
“I know of a place, but… um, it’s not very stylish or anything.”
Why the hell would a ramen place be stylish?
“All right, let’s go there together.”
They left the network and along the way to the shop, Tatsuki seemed flustered and kept asking, “Are you okay?”
“Don’t tell me that he really broke up with you and you’ve fallen into the pits of despair…”
“Say those words in front of me again and I’ll burn you at the stake.”
The workers at the shop all wore black T-shirts and towels tied over their heads. It was an extremely standard ramen place, and Kei didn’t hesitate to order an extra-large, extra-thick tonkotsu ramen.
“Um…” The waitress looked nervous as she double-checked with Kei. “Our broth is on the considerably heavy side, will that be okay?”
“I’d like lots of extra char sui too.”
It wasn’t even 10 minutes when a large bowl arrived, covered entirely in char sui. The broth was far beyond heavy; it was almost like a roux. Kei placed his hands together, said his thanks for the meal, and ate his ramen looking completely unruffled. He even ordered a second helping of noodles. After finishing up, Kei paid for their meals and left the shop in a good mood. Tatsuki continued their conversation from earlier.
“Seriously, what’s the matter with you?”
“I was hungry and wanted to eat. What’s wrong with that?”
“Without fat to fuel the brain, I can’t think straight.”
“Huh? …Does that mean you don’t plan on telling me anything?”
“Don’t worry. I’ve already thought of plenty of uses for you. As a pawn.”
“That doesn’t make me very happy, you know? Why are you treating me like a convenient tool!?”
Although Tatsuki complained, he stated with his usual cleverness, “Well, as long as you have the energy to eat,” and didn’t dig any further. “I won’t help out beyond the cost of a ramen.”
“For now, can you gather the politics bureau to go out for drinks like you usually do? Make it as natural as possible. It’d be great if you can get people from other networks and newspapers too.”
“The politics bureau~? That seems fishy~ Aren’t people still talking about you running for office? Wouldn’t it be bad for you to be seen with them?”
“That’s why you’re coordinating it. It’s fine if a few of the high-ups hear about it.”
Shitara just reined them in for now; they shouldn’t say anything in the meantime.
“Senpai, are you going to drop your act for people?”
“I’m not dropping it.”
Besides, it wasn’t a fabricated act for himself anymore. Not since Ushio told him that he loved both sides of him—they were both equally Kunieda Kei. He switched between the two of them depending on the situation.
“So, what do you want to talk about with them?”
“Not anything in particular. If I had to say something, then probably anything that seems vague or obscure, or things in an interview, I guess.”
It was fine if he didn’t get anything pinpointing Wakamiya Homare. He wanted any rough information that he could get—things like the mood and atmosphere that only someone who had stepped into that world would know, rumors or speculation about things that were too uncertain to go public yet. Fortunately, reporters were people who tended to like to talk. The more that they lacked evidence for a story to air to outsiders, the more they wanted to show off and preface their words with This is off the record by the way.
Perhaps due to the rich gasoline he had just used to refuel, his stomach and head were warmed up and primed. He wouldn’t give up, not by a long shot. Maybe it was a useless struggle, maybe it was all a show of bravado, but he would keep at it.
“Kunieda-san,” Tatsuki whispered. “You really don’t cry or complain about anything. Not about work, not about your private life.”
“If I’m gonna cry or complain to you, I’d rather cry and complain at the children at play sign over there.”
It was something everyone could do—cry and complain to others, ask others for advice, turn to fortune-telling for help. And, yes, it was a shortcoming of his that Kei couldn’t do this one thing that everyone could do, but at least he had found a single person in the world with whom he could cry and open his heart to.
How stupid would it be to find that person only to lose him?
To begin with, I never even knew that he was the son of a political family. It was your son who first laid his hands on me, and you want to treat me like this? If you had brought me 2 billion1 in hush money to break it off with him, apologizing for your moral failings, that would be one thing, but going around and spreading rumors about me? Snooping and spying on me? That’s what you come up with? Don’t underestimate us commoners.
Kei was filled with anger, and it made him happy.
“Just you wait, you’re not gonna get away with this…”
“Senpai, those are the words of a villain.”
—–Translated by daydrop. Please read on the original site at daydrop.nowaki.net.