Dojima wasn’t in the mood to go home. It was past midnight. He had started drinking on Saturday, and now it was Sunday. Time had stopped for him while he drank, and when he woke up, the drink was gone, and four hours had vanished beneath his fingertips. Adachi left a note for Dojima to read, right on his desk. “Don’t worry about Kubo’s prosecution, it’s in the bag. I put the files away while you were sleeping.” Dojima spent almost five minutes staring at it, trying to remember what he had done and what had happened before deciding it wasn’t relevant. People forgot things for a reason, even more reasons than they remembered things.
Something was bugging him, right at the edge of his mind. He wanted to go home, but he didn’t want to go home disoriented and confused, slipping from one day to another, the stench of whisky on his breath and on the collar of his shirt, and the stain of it on his tie. No, he couldn’t go home until he was a man again. His thoughts normally stayed off those trails, but it was late, and he could smell his failure with every exhale. Self-reproach felt good. It made him feel like he was doing something right. He meant to be better, but he was always so bad, always so… always so adrift, without...
Her. He needed to see her. He had a destination and a place to home into, even if it wasn’t home, a place he hadn’t visited since the anniversary of her death. He took his car and drove out to the graveyards. The graveyards were a scant block away from Inaba’s hospital. Blasted pea-brained administrators. Damn inconsiderate of them to put those two so close together. Dojima sometimes looked out of the windows of the hospital at night and saw rows and rows of memorials and graves, silent witnesses to the slow process of dying. Born, and then dead straight away. Sad at best. Despairing at worse.
Dojima parked the car just short of the gates, and went in. He knew where Chisato was. He could have found her with his eyes closed. In the dark, the trees were as full as the clouds, and the grass bent cleanly under his feet, and sprang back up again. He was… He was… one of two people in this graveyard.
“Hey!” he yelled, fumbling for a flashlight that wasn’t in his pocket. The person—tall with short hair—jumped. Flinched, even. Made a run for it, then stopped, and turned back. The hospital provided just enough light for Dojima to catch a glimpse of silvery hair and serious grey eyes. Yes, he knew that person, he…
“Uncle?” Shouko said cautiously. She was still dressed in her janitor’s uniform, a plain, bland jumpsuit that clashed horribly with her hair. In the dark, the jumpsuit as though it was trying to eat her alive, but slowly: first by widening its jaws, and then swallowing her in.
“Shouko?” he said. “What are you doing here?”
“I was… visiting someone.”
Dojima said nothing. He reached for his pockets, and found only an empty box of cigarettes, and a barely functional lighter.
“My homeroom teacher,” Shouko said, when the silence became oppressive. “Now that Mitsuo Kubo’s been caught I thought I’d see him.”
“Morooka?” Dojima said.
“Yeah.” She shifted from one foot to another. She didn’t look as though she was bothered by being caught, Dojima noted with wry amusement. If anything, she was uncomfortable because she admitted being here for Morooka. “Sorry for worrying you. My shift ran over, but I really wanted to come here.”
Dojima didn’t have the heart to tell her that he hadn’t been home yet. “Why did you come here?” Dojima said.
“I feel bad that he’s dead.” Shouko looked like she wanted to say something, anything. She looked like a kid who had been caught doing something wrong, and was ten times guiltier than she needed to feel for being caught out in a graveyard late at night. Maybe she was faking it. Shouko, as far as he knew, had nothing to do with Morooka. Their only relationship had been one of student-teacher. He waited a little longer to see if she’d say anything, but she was quiet. The summer heat buzzed and hummed in his ears, and the wind made him faintly aware of the sweat on his lip, and the dampness on the back of his shirt.
“Do you miss him?” Dojima said.
Her shoulders pinched up to her ears, tensed, and then sank down again. It wasn’t a shrug: it was a tension. But what for, he wondered. That was always the question. Shouko had a way of looking guilty about everything. “I don’t think it’s fair that he had to die like that. And I feel a little…” Guilty, was probably the word at the tip of her tongue. She didn’t say it. Probably because that word would have invited questions that Dojima still wanted to ask. “When—when I had a late night at the hospital,” she said carefully, just carefully enough so that Dojima wasn’t sure if she was remembering something or making it up, “I forgot to study for one of his quizzes and bombed it. He called me down to the office. I thought he’d destroy me. But he made me sit down with the handout on Sartre that I was supposed to read the night before and said, ‘You’re not going anywhere until you finish this, Seta. And don’t think I’m going to go out of my way for you again. The next time you spend all night trying to get guys into your skirt, you’re on your own.’ He was a jerk about it, but he cared about teaching. Even if no one liked the way he taught.” She looked down at the ground, and then said, “What are you planning on doing with Mitsuo?”
“Depends on whether the DA can do anything,” said Dojima. “We did all the dirty work. Now it’s up to them. You and your friends were the ones who found Kubo. Where did you find him?”
“He was just in Junes. On the rooftop. Dunno what he was doing there.”
“You keep finding people in that shop,” Dojima said. “What are you doing up there?”
“Hanging out,” she said. “The usual stuff. I don’t have a clue how he got there. Swear it, Dojima-san.”
… Let it go. He’d have the truth out of her someday, when she was ready to tell it.
“I’d better not get any more thank you notes from Daidara-san again,” Dojima said. “Or from Shiroku.”
“What can I say?” Shouko said. The hospital lights lit her from behind, catching the curve of her mouth, the cockiness of her grin. “I like collecting things.”
Collecting things. Dojima had asked Daidara how much Shouko and her friends had bought from the metalwork shop, and the total was well over twelve hundred thousand yen. He knew that Shouko was getting an allowance from her parents, but one million two hundred forty-two thousand four hundred and four yen? Insane. Then again, people always made money for their hobbies. Money and time.
The aftertaste of alcohol in his mouth suddenly felt foul.
Shouko was standing closer to him now, and sniffing the air. Her brow creased, then became smooth. “You’ve been drinking again,” she said, but without any judgment. The alcohol in Dojima’s mouth went even fouler. “I guess you’re under a lot of stress because of work. Can you drive?”
“Hey, kid, I can drive,” Dojima said. “I know for sure that you can’t.”
“You never know, Dojima-san,” Shouko said. “I’m pretty good with cars. I think. That one time—”
Dojima laughed before she could talk herself into a hole. “You,” Dojima said, “are supposed to be staying out of trouble.”
“Your car’s side window is dented, your pupils are overly dilated, and I’m not sure if you’ve noticed this or not, but someone’s written ‘drunk bastard’ on your forehead.” She pulled out a handkerchief from her pocket, and wet it with her tongue. “Come over here, please.”
Dojima blinked at her. The order came as such a surprise that he moved on instinct. He bent over a little so she could wipe his face without having to reach too far.
“Yukiko-san uses that technique to make me do things like that, too,” Shouko said. He could feel her breath on his lips and chin as she worked. “Once I was down on the floodplains with Chie. We were sparring, and she kicked my hand at a bad angle. My thumb bent just like this.” She crooked her thumb at an awkward angle, and made a sharp, breaking sound with her tongue. “I tried to laugh it off, but Yukiko-san almost dropped a rock on my head.” She looked down at her thumb fondly. “She had Kanji-kun give me one hell of a handshake, and it was all better. You know how big his hands are.”
Somewhere in there was a lie. Not the words people said, or the people who were there, but the injury, or maybe the activity. He didn’t want to point it out. There were so many things he could say, but that was the only one that he wanted to tell her. Probably wouldn’t be able to drag the truth out of her, anyway. Shouko was like a snake, or maybe a very, very clever cat. She was both, she was neither. She was slippery and evasive, hard to pin down, and harder to understand.
Shouko continued to work until the tip of her handkerchief was black with bits of marker and grimy with sweat, and Dojima’s forehead felt raw, but clean. She folded up the handkerchief back into a neat square. And then she said, “You came here to see your wife.” Her eyes were bright with a strange power of perception that he wanted to have, yet was too afraid to own. He could hear words echoing from her suddenly: you came here to see your wife because you felt pathetic, but even if you stopped being pathetic, that doesn’t change it, does it? It won’t change that you are a lonely man. When he blinked, she hadn’t said anything except, “That’s what I think, at least.”
He didn’t bother asking how she could guess. He was a widower, lost without the woman he had nearly worshipped. Anyone could have known.
“I can wait outside,” Shouko said.
“No,” he said. “We should go.” No point on wasting time on the dead. He had people to attend to, living ones. His daughter was at home, and probably wondering where he was.
“I found what I was looking for here,” he said.
“Have you?” she said, without defiance.
“I can come back and get it later,” he said. “Chisato isn’t going anywhere.” Of course she wasn’t going to be going anywhere. The dead didn’t move, they didn’t breathe, they didn’t think. He didn’t have a wife anymore, he had a memory and a daughter and a niece who was drinking out of Chisato’s cup. He wished, suddenly, that Shouko had been born male instead of female.
Shouko said nothing in response to that, only a quiet, implied, ‘but you’ll want to see her’ in her eyes as she went into the car with Dojima. She was right, of course. There was something in the water that made kids today smarter than the kids before them. He went to bed with Chisato’s ghost wandering the halls of his mind, calling out his name and saying that all was forgiven, everything was forgiven. Tendrils of fog hid her face. He waited for the wind to blow the fog away, but it stayed there, with her cold hands wrapping around his face, around his neck, around his chest, until all he could feel were hands seeking him out. He was floating, he was with her, he was dead. When he woke up, it was summer again. Cicadas were buzzing. Shouko had gotten up early, made coffee for him, and left a note on the fridge. “Took Nanako with me to hang out with Kou and Daisuke. Will be in Okina City until dinner. Sorry, but left my phone at the hospital night before. Will get it tomorrow. Hope you’re not hungover, and that this is still hot.”
It was cold. He took a sip, choked, and banished it down the drain. He showered, found his last pair of clean pants, and drove to the graveyard before going to work.
When he got back off from work, Shouko was there, taking his pants back down from the clothes lines. Nanako was asleep on the couch. There were Junes bags folded on the kitchen counter. At the foot of the couch was a bag full of Shouko’s bizarrely expensive hair products. City kids, Dojima thought, unsure if he was displeased or humored by it.
“Welcome home, uncle,” Shouko said.
“I’m back,” he said, belatedly. She gave him a half-smile. Her normally wild, lion-like hair was pulled back into a sad attempt at a ponytail. It made Shouko look like her mother fresh out of college, but he wasn’t going to tell her that. “What did you do today?”
“Not much,” she said. “I was out until the late afternoon with Nanako-chan and Kou and Daisuke. They took her home while I filled in a shift for someone at the daycare center.”
“Do you normally dress up like that when you’re working there?” he said.
“Have to,” she said. “The manager thinks I look like a bad example if I don’t. The kids don’t seem to care, but that’s kids for you.”
“That so,” he said, and set his briefcase on the table.
He didn’t know what to make of Shouko sometimes. His sister had described Shouko as a serial killer in training. A person with ten faces, she had said. A girl who sweet-talked her way out of trouble. The kind of girl that you’d warn your sons against. Dojima found Shouko to be, for the most part, pleasant and well-mannered. Perceptive, which was always dangerous, and kind-hearted, even if she had a few rough edges. A wicked, dangerous combination. She could turn into shades of different people at will, cycling from one to another at the drop of a hat. Her supervisor at the daycare center couldn’t praise Shouko’s work ethic and good humor with the children enough; Mrs. Nakajima thought Shouko was subversive, a bad influence on that young Shu; the hospital said that Shouko was quiet, mousy and nervous; Shouko’s teachers thought Shouko was alternately a no-good, constantly exhausted lout, or a human magnet for good fortune. And Shouko was good at knowing what to say and when to say it and how to say it. Manipulating people for her, he realized, wasn’t a game. It was nature. She probably didn’t know that everyone could see right through her and how easily she could lie and shift and change. Or maybe he was the only one.
He didn’t know. He knew that Shouko was family, and on most days that was good enough. And on other days… and on other days, he wanted to drag her down to the police station and make her be one person, and make her tell him everything.
“Are you hungry?” Shouko said, taking down the last of his pants from the line and laying them out on the couch. “I’ll make something.”
She stopped, halfway to the kitchen. “Uncle?” She looked at him. Blinked. Something was flickering inside of her, and then became steady again. “Dojima-san?”
“No,” he said. “It’s nothing. Go sit down and watch TV. You look tired. Relax. I know how to make rice, at least.”
“I’d make a damn lousy parent if I worked you down to the bone,” he said. “Consider it a favor that you don’t have to pay back.” She actually looked annoyed at that. Dojima took a look at Nanako napping on the couch, and said, “Chisato… she used to tell me that it’d be nice if I’d cook for her one day. In the end, I never could cook for myself. Not in the way she could. It made me remember that she’s still gone.”
“And now?” Shouko said.
And now? And now he had his chameleon niece living with him. He laughed, real and genuine, and said, “A real man wouldn’t make his children do all the work.”
“Well, I hope you remember how to blanch pork. There should be a fresh cut of meat from Junes in the fridge.” Settled onto a cushion, and let her long legs sprawl out in front of her, and let herself fold inward.
“Man,” she said, her eyes focused on the blank screen of the television. Strands of hair fell darkly across her face. “I’m beat.”