Cass left someone else in charge of the café when she went to pick Tadashi up from the first day at his new school. Hiro had finally fallen asleep for his nap or she would have brought him along with her. It was hard enough raising her sister’s boys while still dealing with the grief of her loss – Cass was only realizing now that it would be even harder, with Tadashi in school all day and Hiro home with no one to play with.
Tadashi was waiting out by the school gate with twenty other kids, exactly where the teacher had told Cass they’d be when she’d spoken to her on back-to-school night. He noticed her and waved, almost shyly, like he wanted her to notice him but didn’t want to draw any more attention, and she waved back.
As he slipped his backpack onto his shoulders, some of the other kids pressed their faces to the gate to stare out at Cass. One of the boys tugged lightly on Tadashi’s shirt sleeve, and though she couldn’t hear what he’d asked, she could hear Tadashi’s response perfectly well.
“She’s not my mom,” he said, voice laced with pain, and it was almost enough to stop Cass in her tracks.
It was true, of course. Tadashi was plenty old enough to remember his parents well, to still miss them after less than a year since their death. He hadn’t adapted as well to living in Cass’s house as Hiro had. Cass didn’t hold a candle to her sister when it came to motherly devotion and displays of affection, but she tried, and hearing Tadashi’s voice almost angry at the very thought of Cass being his mother cut her deeper than she’d expected.
Tadashi yanked away from the other kids and stomped off to meet her, avoiding her eyes and staring at the ground. If he’d looked angry a moment ago, now he just looked tired. Weary, even.
“Do you want to stop and get some ice cream before we go home?” Cass asked, awkwardly ruffling her nephews hair. He didn’t answer right away, seriously considering the options. He always seriously considered his options. It was both adorable and heartbreaking, the look he got on his face when he was acting too grown-up for a kid not yet eleven. At that moment, with his hair still sticking out at odd angles, it was leaning more towards adorable.
“OK,” Tadashi finally said. He gripped the shoulder straps of his backpack and looked up at his aunt, and she smiled at him.
He got a scoop of strawberry, in a waffle cone, and Cass ordered a cup of chocolate for herself. They rarely ever got ice cream – too many sweets already sitting around in the café at home – so this was a special treat, and Tadashi spent a good five minutes just trying to decide. “We have to finish up before we get home,” Cass told him as they walked, “or Hiro will see and get mad we didn’t bring any for him.”
Tadashi nodded. He was losing the tension she’d seen in him when they left the school, to her relief. “I won’t tell Hiro,” he said, “but we should get him some next time.”
“When it gets a bit cooler,” Cass promised. “So it doesn’t melt on the way home.” She paused, trying not to be too pushy, then asked, “so, how was school?”
When Tadashi didn’t answer right away, Cass wasn’t sure if he was just still swallowing, or if he was trying to figure out what to say. “It was good,” he finally said.
“How was your teacher?”
One word answers were a bad sign, Cass had learned that much. Plus they’d already met the teacher, decided together that she seemed like a kind lady who he’d get along with. She tried a different approach.
“How were the other kids?” she asked. They’d seemed friendly enough to Tadashi when she saw them all waiting out in front of the school.
“OK,” was all he said. He was focusing on his ice cream, as if pretending he was too distracted to talk would save him from his aunt’s questions.
She was never sure what to do when he got like this, all closed up and unwilling to engage. Cass had never seen him like this before his parents died, not even when she babysat him and he complained about missing his parents. Sometimes she tried to give him his space, let him work through his emotions, but there were two more blocks before they got back to the Lucky Cat, and if she was going to find out what was wrong, now was the time.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Cass asked, getting straight to the point. The ice cream was gone and there was nothing else Tadashi could pretend to focus on to ignore her. Instead, he looked up at her, real quick, then back down at the uneven cement beneath his feet.
“I miss my old friends,” he said. His voice was small. Cass instinctively touched the stone pendant on the necklace she wore so often now it felt like a part of her. It was a familiar gesture that calmed her, soothed her nerves, and did nothing to quiet her worries and fears.
The empty ice cream cup went into a sidewalk garbage can and her arms went around her small nephew’s tiny shoulders. “I know,” she said softly, squeezing tight. The sidewalk was hot against her knees where she’d bent down, but the feeling almost didn’t register. “It’s OK. I know you do.”
Tadashi didn’t hug her back, but she felt his forehead press against her shoulder and it was almost the same. She could feel him take a shuddering breath, and when he spoke, he said, “I’m sorry.”
Cass pulled back to look at him. “For what?” she asked.
“It’s… it’s not your fault,” he said with difficulty. Cass sighed, and pulled him into another tight hug. The sidewalks weren’t empty, but she didn’t care who walked past them, or looked on curiously.
“It’s OK,” she said again. “I want to listen when you’re unhappy. If something makes you sad or upset, I want to help, if I can.”
“But it makes you sad too,” Tadashi said.
Tadashi had actually yelled at her, months ago, when he and his brother had only been living with Cass for a few weeks. He was handling his parents’ deaths about as well as one would expect a ten-year-old to, and she was only just managing to stay strong for them, but one night the stress of it all had become too much for him and he’d snapped. Shouted at her, in her own home, about how unfair it all was. Mostly about having to share a room with Hiro, and not getting to finish the school year with his friends, and having to take online homestudy lessons, but they both knew what the real issue was.
He’d managed to hold off crying until the shouting was over but Cass hadn’t been as firm. Tadashi was always so quiet, bright and kind in a way she hadn’t realized little kids could be. Even Hiro was crying, listening to his brother raise his voice for possibly the first time ever. Tadashi stormed off when he realized his eyes were wet, and Cass wasn’t sure if she should have sent him to his room, shouted back to him, or possibly just apologized for everything. The only thing she was sure of was that she missed her sister, missed her brother-in-law, missed her family the way it was supposed to be.
Her eyes were dry by the time Tadashi came downstairs, on his own, to apologize. For yelling, for making Hiro cry, and for making her cry, too. It wasn’t fair, he admitted, cheeks still puffy and red, because what happened hadn’t been her fault.
It wasn’t fair for him to be holding in his emotions either, Cass knew. She squeezed him again, then pulled back so he could look into her eyes and see how sincere she was being. “I don’t mind if I get sad,” she told him, “because it makes me more sad to think about you being sad alone. It’s my job, as your aunt, to do whatever I can to make your life better. And if you being sad makes me sad too, it’s only because I love you. Understand?”
Tadashi stared back into her eyes, and considered her words seriously. “I think so,” he finally said, and before she could stand he wrapped his arms quickly around her waist. “Love you too, Aunt Cass.”
“Awww,” Cass said, and ruffled his hair again once she stood up. Tadashi furiously set it back into place, and they continued the walk home.
Barely two years later Cass heard the words coming out of Hiro’s mouth for the first time, too, and they still hurt to hear.
“She’s not my mom,” Hiro said, but his voice wasn’t laced with pain or anger the way Tadashi’s had been. He stood by Cass’s side on back-to-school night, just reaching to her waist in height, and stared up at the older woman as if he would be educating her, and not the other way around.
“Excuse me?” the teacher said. She didn’t sound offended, Cass noted with a sigh of relief, just surprised at the five-year-old’s direct attitude. Hiro was always direct. They knew right away he was smart, like his brother, but as he’d gotten older, or perhaps just as Cass had spent more time with him, it became obvious that he was just as different from Tadashi as he was similar.
“She’s my aunt,” Hiro corrected, “Aunt Cass, on mom’s side, which means she’s mom’s sister, but mom died, and-”
“OK,” Cass interrupted, “she doesn’t need the whole story right now, Hiro, thank you.” She patted his head, as if there was an off switch there somewhere, or maybe at least a snooze button. That had started as a game back when he finally picked up talking, but if she kept at it long enough, she might just find the secret switch.
“But-” Hiro started to complain, but Cass squeezed him tighter to her side and spoke over him.
“It’s lovely to meet you,” she said. It was a testament to the teacher’s professionalism that she didn’t look flustered at Hiro’s continued rambling, and returned Cass’s handshake with a smile. “I hope he doesn’t give you too much trouble this year. He’s a smart kid, but not always bright.”
“What does that mean?” Hiro asked. He tugged at Cass’s shirt.
“I’m sure we’ll love to have him in the class,” the teacher said, and Cass quickly led Hiro away so they could find the first form she needed to fill out. Hiro watched the teacher from behind Cass’s back, then returned to staring around at everything in the room. For all Cass knew, he’d have it memorized by the time they left.
There were pockets of other families wandering around the room, filling out forms and looking at the colorful posters put up on the walls. “Why don’t you go and talk to someone?” Cass asked. “These are going to be your future classmates.”
Hiro looked at the other kids. Some were obviously older siblings, probably dragged along because they had their own back-to-school nights to go to. Tadashi would have been here too if he didn’t have soccer practice. But the younger ones, the ones Hiro’s age, stuck to their parent’s sides the same way Hiro was sticking to Cass.
“They look stupid,” Hiro finally concluded. His conclusion was given with an air of finality, like there was no point arguing the matter, because he’d considered every possible angle and come up with the only reasonable answer. It was the same way he spoke about almost everything.
“Hey,” Cass said, “that’s not nice. You don’t call people stupid, Hiro.” He pouted, but she wasn’t buying that. “We’ve talked about this, Hiro. It isn’t nice to call people names-”
“But what if they are-”
“No buts. It’s disrespectful, and hurts people’s feelings. You wouldn’t like if they said those things to you, would you?”
If anything, Hiro looked like he just wanted to argue more. He always wanted to argue, it seemed to Cass, ever since he realized he could form a half-decent argument. If Tadashi had surprised Cass by displaying his level of kindness at such a young age, then Hiro’s surprise was his stubborn, direct, intelligent single-mindedness. He was irrational as any five-year-old, but managed to rationalize his actions and opinions with worrying skill. He thought highly of no one but Tadashi and Cass, who’d earned his opinion by virtue of being family, and the librarian, who could find any book on any subject he’d ask about.
But they’d had this conversation already, enough times that Hiro knew there was no way of winning it. Cass had learned how her boys’ minds worked, how to counteract the sometimes destructive ideas they got. Hiro muttered “…no,” in a defeated tone, and kicked at the carpet with his toes.
“Then you have to be nice. And they’ll be nice to you, they’ll be your friends.”
He risked another glance around the room, at the other five- and six-year olds milling about with their parents, and apparently didn’t like what he saw. For a second Cass wasn’t sure if he was going to complain again or not, but he must have seen the look in her eye, and decided to back down. The argument wasn’t over – it was never over – but it was at least postponed for later.
“Can you promise to be nice to your classmates?” Cass asked. “And to your teacher?”
“Yes, Aunt Cass.” It was the practiced response. It didn’t mean anything other than that Hiro was bothering to pretend to play along – which, sometimes, was enough.
“Thank you,” she said, and pulled him into a one-armed hugged. He squirmed out of it in moments, but not before Cass was able to express her feelings with the gesture. “I love you, Hiro,” she added vocally, because it was important, to her, that she say it. Whenever she had the chance.
“I love you too, Aunt Cass.” That was also a practiced response, said in an insincere monotone more for the purpose of saying it than because he actually felt the words. But Hiro had only bothered learning to say them because he knew she loved to hear them so much, so Cass felt like that still counted.