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Not Left To Stand Alone

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No matter how many times he traveled to another country, Saguru had yet to get used to the jet lag. He sank into his new desk—in the far corner of the teacher’s room right next to a window. The desk was empty except for his briefcase and two fountain pens looking lost in the wide space. He was sure in a month it would look well lived in. Desks, no matter how much one organized, never remained neat for long. He always ended up with students’ late papers or notes from colleagues in one place or another; loose pens and books stacked up until the space didn’t seem like nearly enough. He sighed, massaging his bad right leg. His knee was aching again. It looked like rain.

On the outdoor track his window overlooked a group of students ran erratically. He was sure that in a month they would be running in unison, back in proper strength and the new members adapted to the pace of the older members. Saguru stopped rubbing his knee. It wasn’t getting any less sore. Tomorrow would be his first day teaching English to Japanese high schoolers. There was a certain irony returning almost sixteen years later to Ekoda high to teach.  It was a bit strange to think that Konno-sensei was still teaching 2-B. Although she was Shizume now, not Konno. She had asked him to call her Erika. It felt a bit unreal.

Saguru sighed again. He should have stayed in England. He taught chemistry not English. He slouched in his chair. It needed a cushion. He was going to have to teach the class standing and moving from classroom to classroom for seven hours. Just one day of meetings and he was exhausted. He should have stayed in England, except there was nothing there for him anymore. Mum moved to Japan two years ago after retiring to live with Otou-san, and after his last case… He wouldn’t be taking any more cases. He probably should have left sooner.

“Hakuba-san,” another English teacher for level two classes said from the door of the staff room. He could barely see her face through the stacks of paper. It was Kate, he thought, a woman from the United States that came to teach as a college graduate and never left. She was married to the level one math teacher if he remembered the flurry of introductions correctly. Kate—no, Takata, he wasn’t in England anymore—smiled. “How’s your desk?”

“Fine.” Saguru smiled stiffly back, the muscles protesting with disuse. “The window is nice.”

Takata laughed. “Ishida-san thought you would like it. Kenta was eying it when Yumi-san left on maternity leave. I told him he wouldn’t even be able to clear his desk off before you arrived let alone move into Yumi-san’s.”

“I like the view.” He smiled a bit more genuinely, tinged with bittersweet emotions. “It’s nostalgic.”

“You used to go here, right?” Takata leaned against her desk. It had photos of cats and her husband and a four year old boy with brown hair and eyes rounder than most Japanese. She had a good looking son. Saguru hoped he wouldn’t go through the same problems Saguru had had as a mixed race child. Those had led to him spending his formative years in England rather than Japan. He had spent so much time in England even he sometimes forgot he was born in Japan and spent the first six years of his life there. Saguru tore his eyes away from the photo.

“Yes. I was in Shizume-sen—Shizume-san’s homeroom. I was only at Ekoda for around a year. My transcript says two years,” Saguru said, “but I spent much of my time in England for familial and job reasons.”

“You had an international job in high school?” Takata whistled. “Wow. Why the heck are you here teaching then?”

Saguru played with the clasp on his briefcase, lips tight. “I would prefer not to discuss the specifics of my circumstances.”

In an instant Takata was on her feet bowing. “I apologize, that was rude of me. We have plenty of time to get to know each other. I am sorry for being nosey.”

Saguru waved a hand. “No. It’s all right.” He turned away, effectively cutting the conversation short with his body language. “We have time to get to know each other more.” Outside on the track the students had taken a break. They milled together on the side of the field drinking water and laughing as one boy chased another in a circle squirting water at each other from their water bottles. He had a moment where their images overlapped with Kuroba and Aoko, the water bottles replaced with a mop and confetti bombs. He shook his head. “Thank you for your concern,” he said. “I think I will settle in fine here.”

“A-ah… I hope you do.”

He smiled, a fake, polite smile. “I should be going. There is not much I can do until I have met my students.”

“Of course. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She stepped away from his desk, trying and failing to hide her curiosity as Saguru reached for his cane. The polished wood was firm and smooth in his hand as he levered himself upright. His knee throbbed. Saguru let his breath out through his teeth and picked up his bag with his free left hand.  Maybe Otou-san was right. He should get a knee replacement. There wasn’t a guarantee that it would solve the problem though. His doctor had recommended it years ago, but he had been young and stubborn. Now he was getting on middle aged and stubborn. Thirty-four wasn’t quite middle aged was it?

Saguru blocked out the ongoing ache in the joint—compounded issues with muscles, tendons and a kneecap that had never quite healed properly after being shot—and walked as briskly as his leg allowed him for the door and the stairs to the ground floor. He wasn’t going to take an elevator, leg be damned. He wasn’t that old yet. “Have a nice evening, Takata-san,” he said over his shoulder. He didn’t bow, which he really should have since she had been working there longer, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. He wanted to be home and finishing his unpacking in his new apartment that he’d failed to complete the two previous days due to his body insisting he was supposed to be sleeping when the rest of Japan was awake and moving.

By the time he reached the ground floor, his leg felt all but useless, but this would be life from now on. This had been life for the last sixteen years. It took twenty minutes to get to the train where in the past it would take him ten, and then another thirty to reach his stop. The apartment where he was living was closer to the station than his father’s home. He supposed he could have returned to live there again, but the idea of living with his parents after so long had not appealed to him, and he hated how they looked upset whenever he visited. It was another twenty minute hobble from the station to the apartment building, past a small park with children playing on it, an optometrist’s office and a bakery before he reached the right building. It was a new apartment complex converted within the last decade from four shops-and-above-residence style rooms into a series of twelve livable one to two room apartments. Hakuba had rented a one room. He hadn’t brought many things. He had a desk, a kitchen, and a futon with a western-style bathroom attached to the entry way. Unfortunately it was on the first story, not the ground level.

He glared at the steps. The steps remained present and narrow. He stumped up them, knee aching every time he bent it after a full day of use and leaned on his cane as he looked for his keys. It only took a minute to unlock the door, toe off his slip-on dress shoes and barge through the entryway to toss his briefcase on his desk. Two packing boxes sat next to it and an empty suitcase that had been full of clothing. They were now hung neatly in the closet space behind his futon with non-perishable food items his mother had sent along and a box of his old case files he wasn’t sure why he took with him. He should have burned it with Mel’s body in some kind of symbolic gesture or something. He hadn’t been able to let go, and he was still mildly disgusted of himself for it. If he was going to let go he should let go completely.

His futon was still rolled out, put in some semblance of order before he left. The morning’s breakfast dishes were dry in the dish drainer. Saguru stared at them as if they held the answer to why he was in Japan teaching English when he’d never planned to return at all.

There was no real answer in a porcelain teacup, so he put the dishes away in the cupboard before turning the desk chair around and sitting.

The room’s former occupant had scorched a corner of the tatami next to the stove. It was a half circle, like a black moon, from a sauce pan from the looks of it. The wall above the stove was stained with flecks of grease and sauce and he could picture someone cooking there, day after day, young and inexperienced and figuring out what worked and didn’t the hard way. He wished he could turn off his brain. Then maybe the deducing and observation would stop.

The cane slid through his loose fingers. It fell to the floor but he didn’t bother to reach for it. Saguru knew he should start dinner, but he wasn’t hungry. His knee was past the stabs of pain and had settled into the numb phase where so long as he didn’t move all he would feel was a dull tingle.

There was a noise coming from outside, a neighbor returning home. The sound of a key in a lock and a click of a door opening and shutting. Strange. The walls must be thin to make out so much sound. Saguru’s eyes slid closed. He couldn’t sleep yet. But a few minutes couldn’t hurt, right? His breathing and thoughts slowed. His knee stopped hurting as everything felt a bit disconnected from his body. Just free flowing thoughts and half-formed ideas that spun in and out of oblivion. Somewhere distant a phone rang unanswered.

Saguru was jolted into wakefulness at a loud pounding from near the entryway. He slid half out of the chair, catching himself on his bad leg and ending up on the floor anyway, swearing. The pounding continued, but not from his door. It was the neighbor’s door. It was dark now. Saguru could make out nine o’clock on the blinking LED numbers of his alarm clock. He hadn’t meant to be out that long.

“Open the damn door!” whoever was outside the neighbor’s apartment yelled—a woman. “Takumi was due home two hours ago!” She hit the door again as Saguru was searching the ground for his cane. “I don’t have to get Tou-san again do I?”

There was something familiar about her voice, Saguru thought. He staggered to his feet and clicked on the overhead light, blinking in the sudden brightness.

“Kaa-san!” a young male voice said from the neighboring apartment. “Just a minute! We lost track of time!”

“Don’t give me that. You say that every week—” Dear lord, Saguru hoped this would not be a weekly occurrence. Was that why there had been such a small down payment for the apartment? “—but you both know when you’re supposed to be home. It’s not the weekend, Takumi.”

Well, if he could hear everything anyway, he might as well be nosy. Saguru limped into the entryway and cracked open his front door. The woman’s back was to him, her hands planted on her hips with wild brown hair falling halfway down her back barely restrained by a hair elastic. The neighbor’s lock clicked and a teenager wearing the Ekoda high school uniform tumbled out, struggling to hop into his street shoes while holding his school bag in the other. Saguru had a moment of déjà vu as his door swung open out of his limp hand; he could swear he was looking at Kuroba. Perhaps a year or so younger than when Saguru had known him, but definitely Kuroba.  The boy met his eyes and looked away fast, embarrassed as his mother continued berating Saguru’s neighbor.

“You have four clocks in every room, don’t even pretend you don’t. I’ve seen them. You should have sent him home for dinner. That’s your responsibility if he stops by after class.”

“Maa, Aoko…” a male voice said from the doorway. Saguru felt chills go down his spine. There was a god laughing at him somewhere. Maliciously. Because there was no other way to explain how he ended up neighbors to Kuroba Kaito. Who apparently had a son and some sort of messy relationship with Aoko.

“Don’t you ‘Aoko’ me, Kaito, I—what’s wrong?” She glanced over her shoulder and Saguru was sure that he must have attracted the negative attention of some spirit because they were all staring at him as he stared at them. “Ha…kuba?”

Saguru blinked, shut his gaping mouth and reached for the door. “Excuse me,” the part of him that had had manners drilled into his skull said. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.” The door clicked shut.