Story 6: Other Short Stories – Part 4
Translator Note: This part contains ficlets that take place after Volume 3 of Yes, No, or Maybe Half?
A Light at Home
Even now Kei wasn’t sure if what he saw was only a dream. But whatever, he didn’t care either way.
There was a doorless entryway that connected Kei’s and Ushio’s rooms, and a hanging roller shade was pulled down between them, faintly illuminated from the other side.
Kei unexpectedly woke up, noticed the light, and shook Ushio awake who was sleeping next to him.
“Hey, you left the lights on in your room.”
“Huh…?” Ushio squinted his eyes. “But I turned them off.”
“They’re on right now.”
“Seriously…? I wonder why. Shut them off for me.”
“Do it yourself.”
“Kunieda-san demanded too much from me earlier and I’m too tired to move.”
“That’s what I want to say about you, dammit!!”
Normally Ushio never struggled to get up, but somehow tonight he was apparently bone-tired. No matter how Kei called out or shook him after that, his eyelids never even twitched. It didn’t seem like he was faking it, so Kei reluctantly got up himself. Ushio was footing the electric bill for that side of the apartment, and leaving the lights on for a night wasn’t a big deal, but for some reason, the lights next door strangely bothered Kei that night.
Kei walked across the wooden floors, pulled the cord to roll up the shade, and what he saw in front of him was Ushio’s room, but not.
The kitchen didn’t have the extra counter space. He had never seen the wallpaper, the hanging lamp shade, or the dining set before. And there were people sitting there in the room—three of them.
Kei was, of course, surprised as he stood there holding onto the cord for the shade, but he wasn’t scared or panicked. It was more of a Huh? Is this 1) a dream (2:1 odds), 2) a hallucination (10:1 odds) or 3) a supernatural phenomenon (100:1 odds)? …At least that was what he had the presence of mind to think.
The scene before him could have been real or unreal—it was like watching moving drawings inside a diorama or a puppet show in the middle of a garden. For some reason, the only thing he could clearly ascertain was that he couldn’t interfere and that he was only an observer.
There were two men and a woman. They were probably in their 20s.
One of the men looked a lot like Ushio, and the other one looked like the man called Saijou. The woman had a few traces that reminded Kei of Ushio’s grandmother. It looked like they were enjoying some drinks at home with bottles of beer and tumblers on the table and a number of small plates of food. Chopsticks moved; the beer poured freely, and the three chatted away into the night—but there was no sound coming from them, almost like a silent movie.
What the heck is this? Kei wondered. They had to be Ushio’s parents and that secretary of theirs (in the future), right? If they showed up as ghosts or spirits, they should be haunting their son instead. Did they make a mistake somewhere…? But, then again, two of the three were still alive.
Kei wondered what would happen if he just barged into the room, but he hesitated because the three of them looked like they were having so much fun together. Ushio’s parents (or the couple that appeared to be them) sat on one side of the table next to each other, flirting rather blatantly for a married couple. They touched either other’s shoulders, their hair, laced their fingers together—their display of affection seemed almost a little Western-like, but Saijou (it seemed to be him) sat across from them and didn’t appear to mind. And strangely enough, the atmosphere didn’t seem like it was two versus one. It just looked like a quiet, good time at home.
If an image could burn itself onto photographic paper in an instant, then maybe afterimages of the past could lurk behind in their homes. Maybe when the cosmic channels of the seasons, days, time, and weather somehow miraculously lined up, it could play the images back like a rare astronomical phenomenon.
Kei wanted to show the images in front of him to Ushio, but if he stirred or even uttered a word—anything to disturb this precious equilibrium—he felt as though it would vanish before his eyes. That was why he could only stand there stockstill, but then unexpectedly, the profile of the woman’s face turned directly at Kei.
She was looking at Kei. No, she wasn’t—her gaze was far lower. She was looking at an additional person in the room who was in existence there that night. And she smiled.
Kei suddenly heard her voice as if the switch to a mic flipped on. The voice was soft and sweet, like flowers.
“I’m sorry, did we wake you? What’s wrong? Do you need to go potty?”
Kei unconsciously release the cord, and the shade, which hadn’t raised all the way up, came falling back down.
It turned suddenly dark behind the shade.
Kei raised the shade again, but he only saw Ushio’s room, unchanged, with no one around. Maybe this was what that phrase, to be bewitched by a fox, meant—he could hardly trust his senses. Kei shook his head softly, headed to the kitchen to drink a glass of ice water, and then went back to the bed. Kei climbed over Ushio who was still sound asleep and settled down on the side next to the wall. He reached out to run his fingers over their handprints.
When they woke up in the morning, would Kei tell Ushio about what he had seen? Probably not. It wasn’t that he didn’t think Ushio wouldn’t believe him; it was that he himself might think that it was all a lie once he put the experience into words—that it would crumble and disappear like a house made of sand if he trespassed on it. A fleeting vision of happiness that flickered like the flame of a match.
Maybe if Kei had a job like Ushio’s, he would want to create something that preserved what he had seen. Whether he used clay, carvings, or drawings—he remembered best the faint glow of light from behind the shade screen, the scene of a dinner table, and the sudden flash of that woman’s smile. He would want to search for a method to retain that warmth and intimacy somewhere. But he couldn’t, and so he simply tucked it away safely deep inside his heart.
Even when Kei pressed his chilled lips against Ushio’s, Kei could hear how Ushio’s soft and easy breathing remained unchanged.
(First published in a blog post celebrating the release of Dear Plus Bunko’s “Where Home Is” in June 2016.)
When Ushio went to visit his grandmother, he saw that she still had the sacred bamboo that he had given her last month. They were hung up on the kitchen wall, tied together with twine. The glossy, bright red berries were now a dull, subdued crimson.
“I hung them up, and they dehydrated to become lovely dried flowers,” his grandmother said.
“The bright red is beautiful, but this calmer color is easier on the eyes. It’s quite soothing.”
“Oh, but I brought over strawberries.”
“Then we should eat them while they’re bright red.”
“I’ll go get them ready.”
Ushio washed the strawberries and removed the stems and leaves. When he set them down in a glass bowl on the table, his grandmother brought up a name that he was planning to speak to her about.
“Kunieda-san visited me the other day.”
“Yeah, so I heard.”
“That can’t be all you have to say,” his grandmother protested as she speared a red fruit on a thin-handled dessert fork. “You should have told me that you two were friends.”
But we aren’t friends… Ushio thought, but he decided to apologize instead of arguing.
“Sorry. Since he appears on TV and all, I wanted to respect his privacy.”
“Yes, I understand that… well, it’s all right…”
“You don’t think it’s all right in the least.” Ushio smiled wryly.
“That’s because I’m not satisfied with the explanation. When I commented that you were closed-off and distant, Kunieda-san nodded and agreed with me.”
Ushio had never intended to put walls around himself—back then or now. He simply didn’t know how to depend on other people. Fundamentally, he liked to do things himself, and he didn’t want to talk about things that he couldn’t change—there was no use in bringing it up. But when he was bound with no choices left and Kei had saved him, he felt like he was finally released from something that had haunted him. Rather than feeling bad or pathetic, he only felt a great happiness.
“I heard that you returned to the house?”
His grandmother didn’t ask anything further. The tiny seeds from the strawberry crushed between his teeth. But those “seeds,” and not the red part, were the actual fruit with a seed inside. Just as he now realized that he had tried to live his life as a proper, functioning adult, but it was the people around him who allowed him to be closed-off so that he could get to where he was.
“In the end, I think I’m glad that I went.”
“I had a reversal of misfortune.”
“But according to your theory, wouldn’t you have other misfortunes?”
“Oh, what happened?”
“Just that I suddenly have to move, and I need to find a new place to live.”
“What kind of place are you thinking about?”
“Well, anything if it keeps out the wind and rain.”
“Child, why are you saying things like you’re a beggar on the street?”
His grandmother was exasperated at him, but if he started listing everything he wanted, it would be endless, and in the end, he could only conclude, That house had everything, bringing himself back where he started—which then angered him and it wasn’t good for his mental health. If he was going to find someplace new, it was important to start over from scratch, but he had to decide on a few basic requirements otherwise the realtor would have no idea what to show him.
“Grandma, have some more strawberries.”
“I’ve had enough. At this age, I’m satisfied with just 2 or 3 pieces. …I know, let’s turn the rest into jam for you to take with you.”
“Won’t that take time?”
“Only if it simmers in a slow cooker. But I can make it in the microwave.”
Ushio’s grandmother headed into the kitchen. She placed a canning jar in a pot filled with water and heated the pot. Then she roughly crushed the strawberries in a bowl, added granulated sugar and lemon juice, and placed the bowl into the microwave.
“Now we just wait a little… Hmm, I remember that Hana used to hate strawberry jam,” his grandmother said in a low voice.
“Did she really?”
“When she entered elementary school, she had it in her school lunch for the first time, and it seemed completely foreign to her. She said that it didn’t look like a strawberry and it didn’t taste the same either.”
“I see, just like how strawberry-flavored and the flavor of strawberries are different.”
“But when I showed her how to make strawberry jam at home, she finally understood, and she could eat it after that.”
“It was the same for coffee too. Once she saw the process of harvesting the beans, then roasting them, she seemed to be okay with the bitterness afterward.”
“She was so strange…”
“It seemed that Homare-san had found her amusing, and that was what he liked about her.”
The faint light from the microwave window reminded Ushio of a house. It was about 10 minutes when the jam was done, reduced down to about half the amount in the bowl. Its sweet scent filled the room.
“Can you fill the jar with the jam while it’s hot? Since it’s homemade, try to finish it as soon as possible.”
“Oh, when you mentioned moving, are you really okay with pretty much any place?”
“Yeah. Well, maybe not Brazil or somewhere. I won’t be able to visit you from there.”
He wondered what his grandmother was looking for as she pulled open a chest drawer, and then she smiled at him with a sparkle in her eye.
“Ushio, why don’t you try asking me for something nicely once in a while as your grandmother?”
Ushio walked as he fiddled with the set of keys in his hand. They seemed to grow heavier as he held them. He had lived in this area when he was just a toddler (or so he had heard), but of course, nothing looked familiar. His grandmother had foisted the keys on him, telling him to take a look and think about it, and so now he was here. He appreciated that it was a free place to live, but was it really okay? On the other hand, would it even be an inconvenience to anyone?
The only thing that Ushio knew for certain was that he couldn’t make up his mind about it, but he wasn’t bothered by the hesitation that he felt.
The jar of strawberry jam in his messenger bag was still warm. Tomorrow was Saturday, and he could have breakfast with Kei at his apartment. He could buy a fresh loaf of bread from the bakery, cut it into thick slices for toast, and slather it generously with butter and strawberry jam. He could fry up some bacon and eggs to go with the toast and make coffee for them.
Somehow, just by thinking this, Ushio mustered up some courage.
After taking the next corner, a candidate for his new home would be waiting for him.
(First published as a gift-with-purchase bonus paper for Dear Plus Bunko’s “Where Home Is” in June 2016.)
(Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. The situations and events described in this work have no relation to actual persons or organizations.)
1) Please stand by
“Hey, isn’t it about time that NHK fee collectors start making their rounds?”2 Ushio said in a low voice as he watched public programming over at Kei’s side of the apartment. “They might think that I flew the coop in a pretty crazy fashion without paying.”
“Why didn’t you put it on auto-payment?”
“Because I work from home. I thought it’d be better to force myself to see people and go outside to do errands. I still pay my energy bill at the convenience stores…but maybe I should switch everything to auto-payments.”
Kei could sense the unspoken meaning in his words: because Ushio would see Kei every day from now on—and it made him a little embarrassed.
“By the way, Kunieda-san, what do you do about your payments?”
“Everything’s on auto-payments, of course.”
“Sorry, what I meant was: do you pay the NHK?”
“Of course I damn well pay them!!”
“Oh, really? I wasn’t thinking about the actual amount of money, but more a philosophical reason maybe? You seem like you might not pay them out of a grudge or something.”
A grudge? Well, Kei admitted that whenever he encountered their crews on location for a story, the number of people on their team was a huge difference from the commercial networks and it was deeply attractive that they could have such sizeable budgets all funded by everyone’s license fees. However, Kei didn’t particularly care to be an announcer on NHK. They wrote out full scripts beforehand for their reporters to read on camera. For a report. On a scroll even. One of the paper ones that made him want to write We won the lawsuit!! on it.3 Wasn’t it a reporter’s job to report on the current conditions of the scene as they experienced it? To speak freely about what they saw and heard within what was permitted on air? It seemed like a really strict place to work.
…That was what he thought, but he didn’t care enough to grumble about anything he resented about them. But there was one thing.
“…I owe the NHK a debt of gratitude from time to time.”
Ushio suddenly got to his feet. Just as Kei wondered if he went to the bathroom, Ushio returned with a cotton swab in his hand. He swabbed both ears before making a serious expression and said, “Sorry, can you say that again?”
“Is it really something to be that shocked over!?”
“You said a debt of gratitude… I can’t imagine hearing those words coming out of your mouth… What kind of meat did they treat you to in order to make you say that about them?”
“It’s not about food!”
“—It is a brilliant achievement by AlphaGo, the AI-based Go program developed by a subsidiary company of America’s Google Inc… Excuse me.”
“Hmm? Is there a mistake somewhere?”
“No, not at all. I am wondering if there is a correct pronunciation for “AlphaGo.”
“…Hmm, yeah, it could sound like ‘Alpha Go!’ if you’re not careful.”
“The standard for a proper noun appearing in the news for the first time is to use a flat intonation.”
“Hmm, so like, AlphaGo… Hmm, I don’t know. It’s an English name in the first place, right? Maybe there’s no right way to say it.”
That was when Shitara happened to pass by and said, “Why don’t you watch NHK News at 9 and check there?”
Okay, problem solved.
“—We have breaking news to report. Police have apprehended a male suspect in the Tokyo metro area who they believe to have fired gunshots at a convenience store worker in Gunma Prefecture and fled with over 60,000 yen4 worth of cash.”
“The man does not appear to have associations with organized crime, but we are still awaiting the explanation for how he had obtained the gun. That’s it for our show, we will see you again tomorrow night.”
They were able to wrap up the show with a last-minute breaking news item at the end. Kei had expected a chorus of people celebrating Good work tonight!, but instead, a nervous atmosphere pervaded the studio.
“Is there anything wrong?” Kei asked a nearby director.
The director returned an uneasy half smile and answered, “We’re still the only ones who have broken on that story just now.”
“No one else has followed after us to report it.”
“But it’s only been a short while since we broke it.”
“Well, if we’re really the first ones to break the story, that’d be great, but I wonder if our liaison to the Metropolitan Police Department is really that good. …They’re having him check it again just in case.”
If they had messed up, it would be a false report. Thank god, the show was already over. But then again, would he have to issue an apology on tomorrow’s show?
Tch, what a pain in the ass. Don’t make me have to apologize on behalf of your mistakes.
Kei stopped by the news floor to see how the situation was going, and it seemed as if everyone had their eyes glued to the television monitors, praying with their faces looking serious and grim.
“Come on, please!! I don’t care who it is, but someone please follow up!!”
Will this network really be okay?
“Hey! NHK is reporting breaking news!”
“A suspect arrested in the Tokyo metro area… Thank god, it matches…”
“If NHK is saying it, then it has to be right…”
“All right! Let’s thank NHK all day today!”
“Thanks, NHK! You’re the best!”
“Thanks, NHK! Confidentially speaking, I always use you to cheat on the traffic reports.”
“Thanks, NHK! I promise to stop getting so jealous about the fancy lunch boxes that you order for your crews.”
All day today? There’s only one hour left until the day ends though.
“…That’s what I meant by debt of gratitude.”
“…Ohhh, okay. I’ll just say that you have it pretty rough.”
2) It was an unfortunate sight witnessed on the show for which we deeply apologize.
“…We have reports on the summer campaign conditions for the House of Councillors elections. Announcer Minagawa is standing by at Candidate Takita’s campaign office, where it was just announced that he had lost the fierce battle for Tokyo 3rd District. Minagawa-san, please tell us what the conditions are like.”
“Sure, I am at the campaign office of Candidate Takita from the True Progressive Party. As you can see, there are only a few supporters here as most have already left the office. Let’s see, I would describe the mood here as a birthday party where only a few guests have shown despite dispatching plenty of invitations.”
(*According to follow-up conversations with Minagawa Tatsuki, he thought that it might be imprudent to compare the office conditions to a wake.)
“…Is Candidate Takita currently present at the office?”
“Yes. Candidate Takita, please join me in front of the camera. You must be exhausted from your hard work on the campaign.”
“You were defeated narrowly in a close contest this election; please tell us how you are feeling at the moment.”
“Yes, well— Let’s see, I suppose that my appeals weren’t able to reach the voters, and I can only blame that on my own inadequacies as a candidate… *sniffle* P-Please pardon me.”
“Oh, it’s all right. Please continue.”
“*sniffle* I just wonder. What exactly was it that I lacked…?”
“Hmmm, let’s see, I wonder if it’s related to how you can ask others such questions without thinking?”
“!! … *sniffle* …waaa…”
“Oh, please pardon us for a moment. It appears that Candidate Takita is a little choked up with emotion. Uh, well, I don’t have a handkerchief, but you may use my sleeve.”
“*sniffle* …T-Thank you very much…”
(The feed cuts out.)
“…All right, next we have election results from notable races in the Kantou area.”
“Oi, you were trending like mad for wiping the tears of an old man, Minagawa. People are saying that it sparked this men tugging on sleeves craze.”5
“Totally~ The department manager chewed me out right after the interview, but after seeing the spike in the ratings, he couldn’t stay so mad anymore. It was seriously a life saver.”
“Why the hell do you always run off with the damn spotlight!?”
“Let’s just say I learned it from watching you, Senpai~”
(First published in a blog post celebrating additional printings of Dear Plus Bunko’s “Where Home Is” in July 2016.)
—–Translated by daydrop. Please read on the original site at daydrop.nowaki.net.
- This title refers to the Japanese version of the John Denver song “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” The original and Japanese versions of the song have different meanings, but based on the “Daydream Believer” story that comes later in Off Air, I think Ichiho-sensei had both versions of the song in mind when she wrote this story.
- NHK is publicly funded by a television license fee, however, the law that enables their funding doesn’t list any penalties for non-payment. When people don’t pay, they send out fee collectors who have gained a notorious reputation for being aggressive.
- Lawyers in Japan will hold up a long sheet of paper or a scroll with large characters that says 勝訴 to announce their wins.
- 60,000 yen – Approx. $600 USD.
- You know how in shoujo manga, the girl will reach out shyly to tug on the boy’s sleeve? This is that.