Mirai Sugita had, in his admittedly short, ten-year-old life, figured out a few things.
Sure, there were the things he learnt in school, but everyone knew those. It was the other stuff that was important: like which gachapon machines at the convenience store ate your coins, or the best way to sneak vegetables off your plate. Or how to tell when his Mom was kind of mad, and when she was really angry. But more than any of that—
“I… still don’t get it.”
Mirai’s forehead met the wall with an audible thunk. Uncle Satoru was probably the coolest, most awesome person he knew—but that didn’t mean that Mom wasn’t right. He really was an idiot.
“I already told you!” he whined into the phone, pressing the receiver against his ear. “I just need to ask you a few questions for my essay! It’ll only take a few minutes, I promise!”
“It’s just—you said it’s about heroes,” Satoru started, the sound of papers shuffling on the other end of the line. “You know your Dad literally saves lives, right?”
“Yeah,” he groaned, twirling the phone’s cord through his fingers. “But Takeshi’s dad is also a doctor and he’s totally going to do him because he’s a suck-up. Besides, everyone thought you were cool at show and tell that one time!”
“I still think you’re supposed to bring something, not someone ,” he pointed out, an amused huff coming over the speaker. “But… I guess if you’re sure—”
“I’m sure!” Mirai hastily added, clutching at the phone with both hands. “Can I come over tomorrow? Mom already said it was okay!”
Kayo looked up from her place at the kitchen table at that, giving him a dry stare. There was no bite to it, more vaguely annoyed than anything; Mirai offered a small grin, and she rolled her eyes with a smile. He mouthed a quick ‘thank you’ in her direction, bouncing on his heels as he turned his attention back to the phone.
A defeated sigh met his ear, and Mirai’s face broke into a grin.
Which is how he ended up on Uncle Satoru’s doorstep the very next day, his backpack slung over his shoulders and a care package from Mom tucked under his arm. Arching up on his toes, Mirai pressed the apartment’s buzzer, before stepping back. It took a second until the locks began to click, and the door cracked open.
Mirai had seen pictures of Uncle Satoru from when he was younger; his face had been pale and thin from being in the hospital for so long. Sometimes, it was hard to believe they were really the same person. This Uncle Satoru’s face was full and warm, and when he smiled, small wrinkles curled at the corners of his eyes. There was a bit of stubble dotting his jaw; Mom always said he forgot to shave when he was working on deadline.
“Hey Mirai,” he greeted happily, sticking out his hand. He eagerly launched into their secret handshake: a series of high-fives, back-hands, elbow nudges and fist bumps that they’d learnt from Satoru’s friend Kumi that one time. Only once they were done did Satoru step aside, his gaze zeroing in on the box under his arm. “What’s that?”
“Mom said you’re probably not eating right,” he chirped, dumping the box in his uncle’s hands. “It’s curry.”
Satoru’s face brightened. “Thanks for carrying it over,” he said, marching back towards the kitchen. “Do you want some tea? I just picked some up.”
“Yes please!” he chirped, toeing off his shoes. He dropped his backpack on the floor before padding off into the living room, calling over his shoulder. “I’m just gonna say hi to Grandma first!”
Mirai trotted across the apartment. The shrine was small, but well cared for: there wasn’t a speck of dust to be seen, the little shelf filled with an offering of rice and a single flower in a glass. In the middle, Sachiko’s picture smiled out at him, her eyes shining in a way that reminded him of Uncle Satoru, her dark hair streaked with grey.
Mirai’s knees sank into the pillow, clapping his hands together and closing his eyes. Grandma Sachiko wasn’t really his grandma, but she also kind of was. She’d been there ever since he was born: showing up on their doorstep on holidays and birthdays, usually with gifts and Uncle Satoru in tow. No matter what was wrong, Grandma always seemed to understand.
It had been a year since she’d left them, but he still felt an ache in his chest whenever he saw her picture.
The kettle whistled in the kitchen, and Mirai pushed himself to his feet, scrubbing at his face with his sleeve. Satoru was already carrying the teapot to the kitchen table, setting it down with two little mugs. Mirai scurried back to the kitchen, snatching up his backpack and rifling for a notebook and pen. Slapping them both down on the table, he scrambled up into his seat, feet swinging above the floor.
Satoru carefully poured the tea, peering over the rim of his glasses. “So… how does this work?”
“I just have to ask you a couple of questions,” he explained, flipping to an empty page.
“Okay,” Satoru muttered, settling into his seat. His raised his cup to his lips, taking a sip. “Ask away.”
Mirai beamed up at him. “How did you figure out there was a killer?”
Satoru choked. Tea splattered onto the table as he coughed, and it would have been funny if Satoru didn’t look so horrified. One hand moved to cover his mouth, wiping at his lips with wide eyes. “You’re asking about that?”
He frowned. “What did you think I wanted to talk about?”
“Literally anything else,” he muttered to himself, hastily mopping up the stray tea. Uncle Satoru really had to break that talking-out-loud habit of his.
“Come oooon ,” Mirai caterwauled, flopping forward onto the table. His cheek smushed against the wood as he glared up at him. “You never talk about it. I’m not a kid anymore!”
Satoru raised a skeptical eyebrow. Mirai huffed, propping his chin onto the tabletop. “You were my age when you did it,” he grumbled.
“And it almost got me killed.” Satoru sighed, plucking his glasses off his nose and rubbing at his eyes. “Look, Mirai—”
“Do you regret it?”
Steam steadily slipped out of the teapot, disappearing into the tense air between them. Satoru’s face was frozen, staring down at his tea with his lips pressed into a thin line. For a second, Mirai wondered if he’d crossed a line, a spike of fear running through him—but then Satoru carefully replaced his glasses, a soft breath slipping out of his nose. “No. Never.”
Mirai stared up at him, scanning his face for a lie. Finding none, he straightened his spine, his elbows balanced on the table and notebook forgotten. “So… how did you know?”
Satoru’s eyes darted to the side, staring at the framed pictures on the wall. Most of them were taken by a friend of his, some photographer woman that Mirai had never met. But crammed in-between and yellowed with age, he could spot his parents’ familiar faces: still young and round, grinning from a group photo at a birthday party.
“It was… a hunch.” Satoru’s lips curled, like the word didn’t seem to fit right in his mouth. “I was just worried about Kayo and wanted to help. The rest was… a bit more complicated.”
“It’s—it’s a bit hard to explain,” he muttered, rubbing the back of his neck. “But even once your mom was safe, I just felt like someone was still around, trying to ki—do something bad,” he quickly corrected. “So I just did what I could. Kept my eyes open. That’s all.”
Mirai knew that was definitely not all. He was young, but not stupid: he heard the things the adults talked about when they thought he wasn’t listening. Sometimes, when Uncle Kenya visited, he’d stay up late, talking with Dad. Mirai couldn’t make out everything, but he knew enough. Something about a school bus and a secret base, a car and an overpass. Bits and pieces of a puzzle that no one wanted him to put together.
Least of all Uncle Satoru. The man still hadn’t met his eyes—his gaze moving from his own white-knuckled grip back to the photos on the wall, his shoulders tense underneath his wrinkled clothes.
Mirai opened his mouth, before slowly shutting it again. His own eyes dropped down to his forgotten teacup, and he took a quiet sip, considering. Mom always told him to pick his battles. Satoru obviously wasn’t going to tell him everything—but there were some things he needed to know, the curiosity itching under his skin.
He carefully set his cold drink down on the table. He just wished it was easier to ask.
“Did… did you know him?” His gaze moved to Satoru’s face. “The bad guy?”
Something flashed across Satoru’s expression. “Yes.”
Mirai’s eyes flicked up to meet his. “Is that why he hurt you?”
Satoru gave a dry huff, the question hitting him square in the lungs. “Not… why,” he explained slowly, idling spinning his cup around in his palms. “More like… how. He knew I trusted him, and he used that.”
“But… why would he want to?”
Satoru paused, but his finger began tapping against his cup. “Some people are just… bad,” he muttered. Mirai frowned, and his uncle offered him a small, exhausted smile. “I know. I wish it made sense too. But sometimes people just do bad things.” His finger suddenly stopped, and Satoru guiltily curled his hand into a fist. “If you try too hard to understand it, you’ll just end up hurting yourself more.”
Mirai opened his mouth, and then stopped, tilting his head to the side. Uncle Satoru was, usually, a tired-looking person, but this was the first time he really noticed it: the dark circles under his eyes, the invisible weight on his shoulders. Like he spent the night fighting against something no one else could see.
Mirai squirmed in his seat, his legs kicking at the open air. “You caught him when you woke up, right?”
“With help from Kenya and your dad,” he pointed out.
“You should have asked Mom.”
Satoru snorted, the ghost of a grin spreading across his face. “Probably,” he admitted, “but after everything… I wanted to keep her as far away from him as I could.” His eyes darted back to him. “And you, too.”
Mirai felt his cheeks flush. Right—it was easy to forget that all this happened after he was born. With the way the grown-ups talked about it, it always felt like something that took place a long, long time ago. “Did you ever… talk to him? After?”
“No.” Satoru worked at his lip, clearly thinking. “I thought about it. A lot. But I decided not to.”
Mirai shifted forward in his seat, leaning closer, pushing more. “Why not?”
“I think… he would have liked it, if I did,” Satoru admitted. “But moving on, pretending he doesn’t exist—it’s probably the worst punishment I could give him.” His eyes flickered off to the side again, staring off at nothing, his lips pulled into a small smile. “He must be an old man by now.”
Mirai started. He’d never really considered that the bad guy who had hurt Satoru—the one that had tried to hurt his mom —might still be alive. The idea sent a shiver racing down his spine, and once more, he looked over at the picture on the wall. Satoru and Mom’s faces were crowded close to each other, smiling into the camera.
The bad guy didn’t beat them then. He wasn’t going to get anyone now. Mirai took a deep breath, and felt the knot in his chest fall loose.
Then he caught sight of the banner, hanging in the background. His brows furrowed as he squinted, leaning a little off his chair.
Now get married!
Slowly, Mirai turned back to look at Satoru. He was still quiet, staring out into space—but his words were still bouncing around in Mirai’s head, like a pinball with nowhere to go.
I was just worried about Kayo.
Mirai’s frown deepened, suspicious. “Hey, Uncle Satoru,” he started, “did you… like Mom?”
Satoru just stared at him for a second, before his cheeks exploded in red. “W-what—”
“Oh.” He straightened in his seat. “You did like Mom.”
Both of Satoru’s hands flew out in front of him, his face still burning. “I-it wasn’t like that! I just wanted to help!”
But now Mirai couldn’t help but think of everything his mom had told him: how Satoru had approached her one day and wormed his way in. How he invited her to his birthday party, only to have it be for them both. How they went, just the two of them, to secret places. A part of him never understood why Uncle Satoru had gone through all that for someone he didn’t really know, but now —
“You wanted to marry her?” he asked, pointing at the photo.
Satoru followed his finger, looking vaguely horrified. “T-that’s…”
“You know, you’re blushing a lot right now, Uncle Satoru.”
Which, of course, only made it worse. Satoru groaned, rubbing his hand alongside the bottom of his face. “It really wasn’t like that,” he said. His eyes flicked to the picture one more time, before he leaned his chin in his palm, a small, sad smile on his lips. “But… I do think things turned out for the best, in the end.”
That— how? Mirai frowned. When he thought about all the pictures without Uncle Satoru in them at home… he had missed out on so much. Not only whatever he had with Mom—but the chance to grow up, meet people, get angry and make mistakes. To spend time with Grandma while she was still here. He looked down at the table, and felt something burn in his eyes.
(He thought about the nights his Mom thought he was asleep, old picture albums in her lap and tears in her eyes.)
“You missed on out everything,” he said. “How can you even say that?”
Satoru blinked at him for a second, surprised—before his shock melted into a bright smile. “You’re here, aren’t you?”
Mirai’s mouth fell open, before he screwed it shut, scowling. “Are you an idiot?”
Uncle Satoru barked out at a laugh, leaning back into his seat. “Yeah,” he said, “always have been.”
“Mom always said you had a silver tongue,” he muttered. “I thought you only used it on girls.”
The buzzer rang, and Satoru looked towards the door. “I’m not that much of a smooth talker,” he said, pushing himself to his feet. Mirai huffed and shot him a disbelieving glance as he passed, kicking at the air. With his cheek in his hand, he watched as Satoru pulled the front door open, his face immediately breaking into a smile.
“Sorry for dropping in so suddenly,” a voice said. “Is now a good time?”
“Of course!” Satoru stepped aside, and Mirai leaned back in his chair for a better look, before giving a happy wave.
“Hi, Uncle Kenya!”
Kenya peered in from the entryway, sliding off his shoes with a wave. “Hi Mirai,” he greeted. Judging from his suit, he must have come straight from work. The hair at his temples was a shade lighter than the rest, a tinge of grey on blond—but otherwise, he looked the same as the pictures from Mom’s wedding. Stepping inside, he turned back to Satoru with a guilty look. “I’m not interrupting, am I?”
“Nah,” Mirai said, sliding off his chair. “I’d better go, anyway. I told Mom I would be home for dinner.”
“Oh.” Satoru’s shoulders sank for a second, but he bounced right back, beaming down at him. “Will you be okay getting home? I can walk you to the station, if you want.”
“I’ll be fine!” Mirai shrugged his backpack on, shoving his feet into his sneakers. Pushing the front door open, he paused in the doorway, giving a shallow bow. “Thanks for having me over today, Uncle Satoru! Bye, Uncle Kenya!”
Kenya gave a small smile, and Satoru leaned against the doorframe, his arms crossed. “It was my pleasure,” he said, waving with his fingers. “Oh—and good luck with your essay!”
Mirai froze, just as Kenya frowned, looking between them. “Essay?” he asked. “Isn’t it Golden Week?”
Mirai barely caught the shock on Satoru’s face before he dashed down the hallway, gripping at his backpack with a grin. He knew a lot more than he did yesterday, about a lot of things. But the one thing he still knew best was one small, simple truth.
Uncle Satoru was—just kind of —an idiot.