The more Touko hears about Natsume Takashi, the more confused she becomes.
“We didn’t ask to have him,” seems to be the refrain from everyone she speaks to. “We had to take him. We did try to be good to him, but he’s such an unloveable child.” The reasons for him being unloveable are varied: he’s needy, dishonest, starts at shadows and screams at nothing, has strange seizures and high fevers, and never acknowledges the affection that his foster family pours over him. The more fanciful stories say that he’s demonically possessed, or worse, which Touko thinks must be exaggeration.
However, none of the stories seems to explain the lost child that Shigeru saw at his distant relative’s funeral. The boy Shigeru talks about is quiet and wary, slipping away from crowds like a ghost and trying not to be seen whenever possible. She wonders whether a large part of Takashi’s problem is that he never stays in a place long enough to put down roots. It’s little wonder his mind is unsettled if he never is in a place long enough to make friends.
She asks for a photograph, and his current foster family give her a yearbook page. He seems uncertain, looking away from the camera with a worried frown pinching the space between his eyebrows as if there is something disconcerting lurking just outside of the frame. It takes her a moment to realize what is wrong with the picture: Takashi is wearing a different coloured tie to the rest of the students, and the shirt is slightly too small around the shoulders.
“That’s his old school uniform,” his foster mother says. She shrugs. “We just never got around to getting him the right one. He was only going to outgrow it anyway.”
Touko finds that very strange given that he already had outgrown it. Surely, even if Takashi was too afraid to say something, someone would notice?
“Did he get into a fight?” she asks, pointing at the butterfly bandages holding a cut on his face closed. They’re inexpertly placed, as is the bandage wrapped around his left arm, so clearly the school nurse didn’t do it. She wonders who did.
“Oh,” the woman says, “he does that to himself. We were told he hurts himself for attention. He stopped doing it when he came to live with us though.”
It’s an answer that creates more questions, and Touko decides that she has to see him for herself to determine what kind of person he is. She thanks his foster mother for the photograph, and studies it carefully after she leaves, to commit his face to memory. She plans to see him the next day.
Instead she sees him on the streets, late at night without a scarf to ward off the chill and looking too afraid to go home, and she wants to tell him to come home with her this very minute. She tells him that they would like him to live with them if he will have them. The way that he reacts to this makes her wonder afterward whether she had said what she wanted to say: we have wanted you ever since we heard about you, and if you’ll have us we will give you the love that you have been denied for so terribly long. Maybe he had heard what she meant behind her words and that was why he blossomed like a flower under gentle spring sun.
Then she hears that he fell off a cliff, and she wonders whether she should have told him what she wanted to say instead. Maybe if he had come home with her then and there, he would have been safe. At the very least she would have made sure he had a scarf to wear. She buys a scarf anyway, and keeps it aside for when he is ready to come home.
A week later, they’re told that he’s ready.
When Touko and Shigeru arrive, they expect to fill out some paperwork transferring guardianship to them. Touko hopes that they can ask some questions of Takashi’s old foster parents before they leave. There are so many questions she has been saving up over the last week, ranging from food allergies to what symptoms to look for when Takashi is about to have one of his seizures.
Instead, they are greeted by a small number of boxes piled haphazardly in Takashi’s hospital room. Takashi, looking wan and tired as he sits on the edge of his bed, looks up at their arrival. His eyes widen.
“You came,” he says.
“Did we just miss your foster parents?” Shigeru asks, looking around.
Takashi shakes his head. “The boxes were here when I woke up.”
“They didn’t say goodbye?” Touko finds this very strange. He has been living with them for a month, and simply leaving his possessions behind seems pointless and cruel.
“I think they wanted a clean break,” Takashi says. He smiles, a fragile thing, before his face settles into its habitual anxious expression. “It’s really okay.”
It’s hard for Touko not to say what she thinks of that. There may be a very good reason why his previous foster parents weren’t able to stay, and wish him well on his new placement. She simply cannot think of what it could be.
A hospital orderly meets them at the hospital entrance as they leave and asks if they still need the wheelchair.
“Do you want to take the wheelchair to the car?” Shigeru asks, his hands still resting on the handlebars ready to push.
“No,” Takashi says, startled. He stands up, carefully, using the chair for balance before he stands on his own. “You don’t have to do that. I can walk.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Takashi says. “Thank you.”
Touko isn’t sure that Takashi is going to be able to make it to the car, but she cannot force him to stay in the wheelchair based on a hunch. She leaves the wheelchair with the orderly and sees that Shigeru has his hand to Takashi’s elbow as he guides his unsteady steps.
“We’ll have to go back for his things,” Shigeru says to Touko. “I can take care of that.”
Touko nods her agreement over Takashi’s bowed head.
“I can help with the boxes,” Takashi offers. He’s all but mumbling at this point, wavering on his feet even as he leans against Shigeru. He is pale and shaky, and Touko wishes that she had followed her instincts when it came to his health.
He makes it to the car, barely, and Shigeru guides his descent to the car seat rather than the car park surfacing.
“Can you stay here and keep Touko-san company?” Shigeru asks.
Takashi’s head has lolled forward on his neck, and he straightens with a visible effort.
“Yeah,” he says.
Touko climbs in on the other side, and lets him lean on her. He’s shivering. She’s not sure if it’s because of the cold or the exertion, but it’s something she can fix. She casts her eye around the backseat of the car until the flash of dark blue catches her eye between the driver’s seat and the door. She pulls on it, and the scarf she had purchased as a gift slides out from where it had slipped during the car ride.
“Takashi-kun, your scarf,” Touko says, and hands the scarf to him. He accepts it automatically, but he makes no move to wear it. Instead, he stares at her with wide eyes behind his too long fair hair, and she wonders if he is having one of his episodes already. She wishes that Shigeru’s family had told her how to recognise them. She remembers the mention of a sudden high fever, and she rests her hand against his forehead. He looks at her, puzzled, but doesn’t move away.
No fever. It must be something else.
“What’s wrong?” she asks gently.
“No-one’s said my name like that before,” Takashi says slowly, and her heart hurts to hear it.
“I’ll say it that way always,” she says, and then laughs at herself at how awkward she sounds. “That sounded so silly, didn’t it? But it’s true. Shigeru-san and I will always say your name this way.”
Takashi smiles. The way he smiles is strangely performative; his mouth moves but his eyes close to hide the fact that the smile doesn’t reach them. Touko wonders what true emotion hides behind his eyelids, and makes a note to always look to Takashi’s eyes to see what his true emotions are.
“Thank you, Touko-san,” he says. He says nothing more, but the silence between them is not tense at all, and by the time Shigeru returns to the car, Takashi is drowsing in the back seat and Touko is draping a picnic blanket over him to ward off a fever. As she tucks the blanket in around him as best she can, the pinched, worried frown between his eyebrows eases. It’s the first time it’s been gone since she met this strange, sad child.
“He’s to take it easy for the next few days,” Shigeru says as Touko buckles herself into the front passenger seat.
He starts the car’s ignition and steers it through the car park.
Touko glances over her shoulder to the back seat as they enter the street, to make sure that Takashi is asleep. They keep their voices low as the ordered streets of houses give way to forests, and he sleeps until they are nearly home, passing through the fields that give the area its name. He starts in surprise as they hit a rough patch of road, and opens his eyes. As she watches, he frowns at the unexpected scenery.
“We’re almost home,” Shigeru says, keeping his eyes on the road now to avoid any more bad patches. “It’s not as busy as the city, and there’s not as much to do, but there are a lot of good kids here. You’ll make friends.”
Takashi says nothing, his face unguarded as he stares out the window.
“Your grandmother lived here when she was a girl,” Touko says. “They say that she was very beautiful.” She’d heard so much about Natsume Reiko’s mental illness when she was looking into Takashi’s family. It feels right to be able to say something to balance the negativity out, especially as Takashi does look like her. In town, the older generation still talk about Natsume Reiko, but mostly now it’s with regret. Adults often regret the cruel actions they took as children towards an unusual girl, and Touko is fairly confident that now they will tell their grandchildren to be patient with people with faraway gazes. After all, Takashi is easy to love, regardless of what Shigeru’s family say.
“I don’t know what she looked like,” he says, softly. “People just said that I was too much like her.” After a moment, he adds, “Thank you. Thank you, for choosing me.”
“Thank you for choosing us,” Shigeru says. Touko watches as Takashi takes in a shuddery breath, holds it and lets it go, and wants to know who taught this child that no-one will choose him.
“That’s the school,” Touko says, pointing at the two storey building as they pass. “When you’re better, you’ll be going there.”
Takashi is studying the building intently. “I’m not going right away?” he says after a moment.
“Not until you’re well,” Touko says. “The class representative has been bringing your assignments home for you to work on, so you won’t fall behind.”
“Ah,” Takashi says. He sounds disappointed at the thought of homework, and in that moment he sounds like almost every teenaged boy that Touko has ever met. She laughs at this, and he starts for a moment, then laughs a little himself. “I didn’t mean it like that,” he says.
“It’s okay if you did,” Touko says, amused.
The rest of the short trip is spent pointing out landmarks and telling Takashi about them, so that when he is well once again he will know what his friends mean when they direct him to certain places. He doesn’t say anything, but his rapt expression says everything for him.
A week later, Takashi is starting school, wearing the new clothes that Touko had taken him to buy a few days ago. Her heart is in her throat as he wishes her a good morning and leaves. She wants him to make friends. She wants him to fit in. She wants him to be safe. She waits near the phone all day for a call from the school, and then once school is finished, a call from Takashi.
He doesn’t call, but instead stumbles in just before dinner, breathing heavily, before bounding up the stairs to change from his school uniform.
“How was school today?” she asks over dinner that evening. He looks pale and exhausted, and his gaze is distracted. He keeps looking over her shoulder, visibly afraid, and that makes Touko look at what’s behind her. There’s nothing. She looks again several times that evening but there is never anything there, regardless of how pale and frightened Takashi looks when he stares over her shoulder. She remembers how his relatives would say that he did this for attention, and she cannot believe this at all. She knows Takashi, and he is not that good an actor.
“You look pale,” she says after dinner, when Takashi has barely picked at his food. “Are you sure you feel well enough to go to school tomorrow? You don’t want to over-exert yourself.”
Takashi starts before smiling sheepishly. “I’m fine,” he says. “Really, I am.”
His eyes are closed as he smiles. That’s how she knows that his smile is false.
The next day, there are leaves in his hair, and dirt ground into his clothes.
“Oh, Takashi-kun, please change out of your clothes and have a bath,” Touko urges. “I’ll soak those for you.”
“Thank you,” Takashi says, after a long moment.
When he returns from his bath, dressed in his casual clothes, his face is flushed. Whether it’s from the bath or fever, Touko isn’t sure, and from the way he squints at light, he has a headache as well.
“Takashi-kun,” she says. “Do you have a fever?”
“It’s just a headache,” he says, the worried, pinched frown between his eyebrows as deep as she’s ever seen it, and this time he doesn’t even try to fake a smile. She gives him two tablets for his headache and fever, and makes a note to buy more from the pharmacy.
On Takashi’s third day of school, she gets a phone call.
“It’s Natsume-kun,” the school nurse says. “He collapsed with a fever. He’s sleeping now, but we were wondering if you could take him to a doctor when he wakes up?”
“Of course,” she says. She understands now what is going on. If only someone had said sooner, had described what his episodes looked like to her so that she could have taken him to a doctor sooner, before he got so ill that he collapsed at school.
She collects Takashi from the school infirmary and takes him to the doctor right away. Dr Sato listens carefully to what Touko says, looks at the beds of his nails and the sclera of his eyes. “We can test his blood to be sure, but he needs more iron in his diet,” she says finally. “He’s anaemic.”
“I am?” Takashi says, still looking pale and wan, and he sounds genuinely baffled at this. He brushes his hair out of his face, exposing the top of his left forearm under his jacket. There are defensive scratches there, shallow jagged ones like something clawed at his arms with sharp nails filed to points, and Touko wonders what kind of animal leaves those kinds of marks. He notices her gaze and drops his hand to hide the scratches, letting his hair fall over his eyes to hide his expression.
“Takashi-kun,” Touko says carefully. “What happened to your arms?”
“Oh,” he says, and shrugs diffidently. “I found a stray cat on my way to school today and I wanted to try and feed it. It didn’t like it much.”
Dr Sato says to Touko, “I’ve cleaned the scratches but they don’t require stitches. They’ll heal better in the open air.” She then looks at Takashi over her glasses. “You can’t give your lunches away to stray animals. That’s likely why you fainted at school.”
“I’ll remember next time,” he says. He looks away from Dr Sato as he says this though, which tells Touko that he is being evasive about something.
“Have you been to a doctor about this before?” Touko asks gently.
Takashi shakes his head and smiles with his eyes closed. “No. But I guess it makes sense. It’s not the first time I’ve gotten dizzy and fainted.”
“It’s really anaemia?” Touko asks Dr Sato. She’s never heard of anaemia causing hallucinations before, but she has had dizzy spells where she’s seen mirages and shimmering objects when her blood sugar was low. It’s possible that Takashi’s illness is similar.
She watches Takashi from now on, looking for signs that he is feeling ill. When he answers questions promptly, even if his gaze is distracted by something only he can see, then he is as well as he ever is. However, when his answers come after a pause, and he is pale, then he may be ill later on. She tries to keep him at home on those days, because when she doesn’t, he will stumble in later, sweaty and feverish and injured, and utterly unable to tell her what — or worse, who — happened to him. He resists her in the peculiarly passive way he has where he smiles but then continues to push himself further than he should. She continues to try. She will teach him to value himself, regardless of how long it takes.
It is a slow process, teaching Takashi to be selfish enough to look after himself. It is a slower process to teach him that being as selfless as he is will not only hurt himself. It does not make life easier for others. He still keeps his possessions in boxes. He still tries to leave as little footprint on their world as he can.
She continues to make him bento boxes. Green vegetables, sautéed in soy sauce, for iron and to bring some colour into his cheeks. Salmon, for protein, because he needs to feed his fevers. Rice for carbohydrates because he needs some meat on his bones. She rolls sushi rolls and presses her love into them. Finally, she puts in a sprig of parsley, because it’s her favourite herb. It’s neatly compartmentalised, and the first time he returns an empty bento box, she is delighted.
“I’m glad you liked your lunch today,” she says to Takashi that evening as they do the washing up.
“I like your lunches every day,” he insists, blushing, as he wipes down the box with the tea towel. “I just don’t know how to say that they were good.”
It’s small moments like this that tell Touko that they are making progress.
Then one day, two large things happen: Takashi opens one of his boxes of possessions, and he brings home a fat calico cat. She had been hoping for him to open the boxes since he came to stay with them, because if he opened them, it would mean he believed that he will be staying with them permanently, and the sight of the opened box eases a knot of anxiety she did not know she was carrying.
However, the most unexpected thing is Takashi asking if he could keep the cat as a pet. Touko remembers the scratches from his third day at school, and has been wondering whether Takashi really does want a pet. She has been thinking about getting him one for his birthday, a small kitten that he can dote on with all the gentle kindness that he is capable of, without worrying what his friends might think. The cat he chooses to bring home is not what she would have chosen. But it is the first time that Takashi has asked for something, rather than starting in surprise when something is freely given to him.
She could never have refused the request.
Later, she stands at the doorway as he empties the box that he opened earlier, putting the books he had stored there onto his desk. A long, unusually shaped book that she has never seen before juts out of his messenger bag, and he hides it from her gaze when he sees where she is looking. She wonders who it came from. Perhaps a girlfriend?
“This is your home,” she tells him. “It will be your home for as long as you want it to be.”
She and Shigeru have been saying that to him for the whole time that he has been there, hoping that this time he will understand that they mean it.
He looks up from his now empty box.
“Thank you, Touko-san,” he says, and smiles. It’s a real smile, and she can tell this by the way that it suffuses his whole face. It is a beautiful, incandescent smile, and it is wonderful to see. “I’ll try to remember that.”