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Tokyo: December 24, 1968

            "Merry Christmas."

She waited for him to speak again but the line went dead. 

A cold sinking feeling formed in her stomach as Sanae held the receiver in both hands.

This was the first time she had heard her husband's voice in days.  Since filing the lawsuit against his father, Teppei had been consumed with work, sometimes spending nights at his office.  

If only they had been allowed to go to trial…

But Daisuke’s connections proved too strong.  Teppei’s company was merged with Imperial Steel, his lawsuit was dropped, and he was dismissed from his position as director of Hanshin Steel. 

Having heard nothing from Teppei for several days, Sanae had begun to worry.  Just hearing his voice on the other end of the phone filled her with immense relief, as if she was waking up from a bad dream.  But in between the long static silence, she had perceived her husband was trying to tell her something. He had already endured so much, risking everything by filing a lawsuit against his own father and simultaneously trying to find ways to rebuild Hanshin Steel, which by itself seemed like a monumentally impossible task. Now that he had lost everything, even the chance to simply reveal the truth of his father's misdeeds, Sanae wondered if his last glimmer of hope was completely gone.

A voice deep inside was telling her that Teppei was in trouble - the worst kind of trouble.

He’s not coming back.

Sanae felt her eyes sting as tears began to spill over as the nightmare returned with that dreadful thought. Hastily, she wiped them away.  Sounds of laughter erupted behind her where Tarou was playing in the living room.  Discreetly, Sanae left the room and found her mother, Mrs. Ookawa, in the hall.

            "Mother, I’m deeply sorry but I have to leave tonight. Can you watch Tarou for me?"

            "What?" Mrs. Ookawa asked in surprise, "Where are you going?"

            "I'm afraid that something is very wrong with Teppei. I must go find him."

            "Why should you be the one to go look for him?" Mrs. Ookawa asked, "Isn't there anyone else that can do it? What about his family?"

            "They wouldn't understand." Sanae exclaimed, dropping her troubled gaze to the floor as she thought of Daisuke Manpyo… that man would actually be pleased if Teppei killed himself.

In Sanae's plaintive expression, Mrs. Ookawa recognized a familiar spark – the fighting spirit that Sanae inherited from her dear father. 

Until his last breath, Mr. Ookawa had been both a friend and father to Teppei, and after being slandered by Daisuke Manpyo, Mr. Ookawa was left with only Teppei by his side.  Sanae had been fortunate in life to marry someone who was both a good and loving husband – life was not always so kind to women.  Knowing what it was like to lose a beloved spouse – and what she would give to have him back – Mrs. Ookawa placed a comforting hand on Sanae's arm. 

            "I do not understand why it must be you, Sanae.  But if you must go, then go. Don't worry about Tarou.  We will look after him."

Sanae hugged her mother gratefully, fighting tears once more. But she put on a brave face, clenching her jaw and smiling as best she could when she met her mother’s gaze.

It didn't take her long to pack her belongings. She didn't know how long she would be gone or how far she would go, but she stuck with necessities and packed lightly because she wanted to leave as soon as possible. She would visit Fusako first, and then catch the train to Kobe. Teppei had friends there who might have seen him since his dismissal at Hanshin Steel.  Then she would visit the Manpyos.  Her stomach turned at the thought, but Sanae was willing even to humble herself before Aiko-san herself if it meant that Teppei would come home.

Managing to unzip the back of her red knitted dress, Sanae changed into a simple black wool mid-length skirt and ivory-colored turtleneck with lilac flower embroidery on the sleeves.

After she pulled on her black dress coat, Sanae went once more into the living room where Mrs. Ookawa was sitting with Tarou.

His arms were crossed over his grey knitted sweater, and he let his legs dangle from where he sat on the sofa, refusing to smile or talk with Mrs. Ookawa.  Now four years old, Tarou had begun to sense the unnatural hostility that existed in the Manpyo family.  It had invaded his small world with subtle conversations and glaring absences.  When Mrs. Ookawa explained to Tarou that Sanae would be leaving suddenly, Tarou stubbornly bowed his head and said nothing.  It was only further confirmation to his young mind that something was terribly wrong.

When Sanae saw Tarou, his head slumped onto his little chest and his arms crossed in moody silence, it reminded her of the same depressed look Teppei would have after a bad day at work or an argument with his father.

It was never supposed to be this way. 

            “Tarou,” She said, kneeling on the ground so their gaze would meet, “what did Papa say to you?”

Tarou spoke without raising his head.

            “He said that I will be strong.”

            "He’s right, Tarou.  You will be strong… like him.  Look at those muscles - so strong!”

Tarou couldn’t help but giggle as Sanae playfully squeezed his arms.

            “Listen, Tarou, Mama will be back in a little while. You'll be staying with my family here, so be good.  Remember what papa told you."

            "Mama, will Papa be home for Christmas?" Tarou asked hopefully.

Sanae hesitated, and then replied, “I don't know, Tarou. But we'll try to spend New Year’s together, alright?"

With that, Sanae lifted him into her arms and hugged him tightly.

            “Tarou’s getting so heavy!” She huffed as she dropped him and bopped him on the nose.  Tarou grinned, he couldn’t help it.  He looked like Teppei when he smiled, and Sanae brushed the tears away, turning so that Tarou wouldn’t see her crying.  Glancing one more time at Mrs. Ookawa, Sanae gathered her things and left.

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Carrying her leather duffel bag in one hand, Sanae came to the entrance of the Tsurunoya restaurant where Fusako Tsuruta worked.  There were people in the street everywhere, chatting and drinking with celebratory zeal beneath the warm glow of scarlet paper lanterns and yellow street lights.  Customers were pouring in and out of Tsurunoya and Sanae was beginning to wonder if it would be possible to meet with Fusako on such a busy evening.  As Sanae was about to turn to leave, she heard someone call her name through the din of the crowd.

            “Sanae-san, is that you?”

Sanae looked around until she spotted the elegantly dressed Fusako standing at the entrance of Tsurunoya.  Outfitted in her traditional kimono with delicate flower patterns, Fusako walked towards Sanae with short, graceful steps, an inquiring look on her pleasant face. 

            “Fusako-san,” Sanae exclaimed in relief, “Forgive me for distracting you from your customers.”

            “It is alright, we are well staffed tonight and I was taking a short break.”  Looking at the luggage Sanae was carrying, Fusako asked, “Are you going on a trip, Sanae-san?”

            “Yes, I am travelling to Kobe,” Sanae said, “but before I go, I wanted to ask you if you have seen Teppei at all during the past few weeks.”

            “No, I haven’t seen him… are you worried about Tecchan, Sanae-san?”

            “Well, yes.” Sanae replied, “He called this evening and wanted to talk to Tarou, but he didn’t say where he is.  I know he has gone through a lot these past few weeks and may need some time alone to process it, but…” Sanae trailed off, not sure whether she should express her fears openly with Fusako.  As if sensing what Sanae was about to say, Fusako said confidently, “Sanae-san, I know Tecchan well.  He is my brother, after all.  He is someone who would never give up on anything, no matter how impossible the odds.  Tecchan will be fine and he will return.” Fusako finished with an encouraging nod. 

Sanae smiled appreciatively.  But the pit in her stomach was still there, as if she were waiting in a hospital for the doctor to give her bad news.  Fusako may have known Teppei well, but apparently, she did not truly know Sanae.  If she had, she might have understood that Sanae’s intuition was what Teppei valued most about his wife. 

            “Before my father died,” Sanae said, “my mother said to me… ‘Father will beat this sickness and quickly become elected!’  Every time she said that, I felt something heavy in the pit of my stomach,” Sanae placed a hand over her abdomen and looked at the gold wedding band on her finger, “Every heartbeat was painful and my body was restless.  But I covered it up with a smile.  When father was sick, there was nothing I could do to help him but stay by his side.  Now Teppei is suffering and I don’t even know where he is.” 

Sanae stared at the cobblestones on the street beneath her black suede heels.  She hoped that Fusako would understand what she meant.  As she looked up, she saw that Fusako was smiling.

            “I’m glad that Teppei has someone like you, Sanae-san.  You are a good wife.”

            “Thank you,” Sanae said softly, bowing her head, “I’ve kept you long enough.  Good night, Fusako-san.”

            “Good night, Sanae-san.”

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            “All passengers may now board the train,” a worker at the train station called out. 

Walking down the aisle of the high-speed train, Sanae settled into her vinyl-upholstered seat and placed her luggage on the floor in front of her.  Not long afterwards, the train rolled forward with a slight jerk and began its long journey through the countryside.

It was 10 p.m., and Tarou was surely in bed by now.  Sanae’s heart was still heavy from so many things – losing her father, the destruction of her family’s reputation, Teppei’s lawsuit and his removal from the steel company – but she had endured it all because she believed in her husband and his dream of elevating the Japanese steel industry.  More importantly, Tarou would not suffer the same fate as Teppei had… raised by a loveless father.

Hang in there, Tarou, Sanae thought, Mama and Papa won’t be long.  All of this will be over soon.

Sanae placed a hand over her stomach instinctively as if she was going to be sick.  It was useless to rationalize.  As she rested her head against the vinyl seat cover, she closed her eyes and tried to sleep.  Soon the lights of the city turned to effervescent streaks as the train departed Tokyo, bringing her closer to Kobe and the Manpyo family.