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Beyond the Shadow of No. 6

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     The crack in the window looked bigger today. Shion eyed it as he hefted fertilizer into the greenhouse, peered at it as he watered the daphne, and finally planted himself in front of the basil and thyme to squint at it up close.

     Shion wasn’t sure exactly where the crack came from, only that it had been there a while. One of the other Forest Park workers told him a rock must have hit the glass during the hurricane they had some years before. But since the damaged wall of the greenhouse couldn’t be seen from the park walkways, they never bothered to replace the pane. Shion was glad they hadn’t fixed the crack.

     Truth be told, he was a little obsessed with it.

     The point of impact was jaggedly circular with seven long, ruler-straight lines pinwheeling out from the center. The crack looked different every day. On good days it looked like a flower or a neuron. On bad days it was just a pane of fractured glass. Today it looked like space. The cloudy March morning warped behind the spider web cracks, making the pasty gray sky and roiling clouds into a brocade of dust mote stars over a fragile crystalline sun.

     The corner of Shion’s mouth quirked up. Today would be a good day. He pushed away from the counter to water the anemones.

     Although anemones weren’t the prettiest flowers, they were among one of Shion’s favorites, along with baby’s breath and camellia. Despite having no particular medicinal use or fragrance, the white, crimson, and blue blossoms had a powerful visual appeal, and as one of the first flowers of spring, they brought with them a sense of vigor and renewal.

     Still, even though he had seasonal favorites, Shion was attached to every plant in the greenhouse. It was impossible not to be. Things were simple with plants; what you gave, they returned indiscriminately. Tending the garden had become one of few daily satisfactions. Here he was at peace, here his hands could do nothing but help.

     “Hey, Shion, what’s this one?”

     Shion jolted and turned to Eiji. The boy had been so quiet he hadn’t even heard him come in. Or maybe he had just been too spaced out to notice. He had grown chronically scatterbrained in recent years, as Safu and Kaoru never failed to point out. Although surprised, he wasn’t surprised to see Eiji. He and Saki came by often after school let out.

     Eiji visited because he was legitimately interested in Shion’s work. He even mentioned once he was thinking about interning with the Forest Park. But Saki, even though she showed curiosity toward the botany lessons Shion shared with them, seemed like she was just tagging along these days. Despite the years and pressures of the city, the siblings remained close. Still, since Saki had turned sixteen, she was starting to spend more time away from her brother, sometimes alone, sometimes with her numerous friends.

     Today, Shion guessed, she was wandering somewhere out of sight with one such friend. He could hear faint conversation near the back behind the flower stand.

     Shion never minded when the kids dropped by—or anyone else for that matter. Even Kaoru made an appearance when they had free time. He enjoyed the company. It got lonely sometimes when he returned home and there was nothing and no one to distract him from his thoughts.

     Eiji poked a cluster of purple flowers, pretending to prick his finger on the end of the spiny-looking calyxes.

     Shion moved towards him. “That’s comfrey.” He pointed to the bell-shaped flowers. “It’s a very versatile plant. It contains a compound called allantoin, which helps your body replace cells, so you can use it to treat arthritis, broken bones, burns, and a number of skin conditions. Even acne.”

     “Weird…” Eiji murmured, his eyes narrowed at the drooping blooms. He leaned closer to the plant, and pushed his glasses up with the heel of his hand when they slipped down his nose. “So, to use the, uh, compound, do you eat them?”

     “No. It’s dangerous to eat comfrey. You use it topically, as a salve. Some plants, though, are all right to eat. Like…” Shion glanced around the greenhouse, and spotted Saki just at the end of the row. “Like that species of chamomile, over by Saki.”

     Saki furrowed her brow. “I thought these were daisies.”

     “Easy mistake. The flowers are very similar, and both are edible.”

     Saki frowned and eyed the small white and yellow flowers with an air of betrayal. “Weird…”

     “What about these, Mr. Shion?” piped Saki’s friend, a stout girl with wavy brown hair and freckles.

     Her name was either Rumi or Ruki; she was a twin, and Shion could never remember who was who, despite being told multiple times. He felt he should feel bad about his inability to remember, but mostly he just avoided calling either of them by name.

     Shion fixed the girl with a polite smile and glanced at the flowers she pointed to. He smiled for real. “Those are asters.”

     The girl beamed back. “Like you?”

     “Like me,” Shion confirmed. “They were my mother’s favorite.”

     “They’re beautiful.” She rubbed the petals between her thumb and forefinger, and glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “I can see why she named you after them.”

     Saki scoffed loudly. “That was painful, Rumi.”

     Rumi glared at her friend. “What?”

     Saki shook her head and joined her brother near the comfrey. Rumi’s ears pinkened, but she said nothing and flounced away from the asters.

     Shion cleared his throat. “Asters are a powerful nervine. You can use them to treat pain, nervousness, and hysteria.”

     He held the light smile on his face until he turned back around to fiddle with whatever plant was behind him. After that he wasn’t sure what face he wore.

     Shion sighed, quietly, and his energy slipped out with the exhale. He no longer felt like entertaining guests. He wanted to be alone with the hush of flowers or curled on the couch with a book. But he commanded himself to bear it and appear at least amicable while the kids were here.

     I’m alive, he reminded himself. I’m alive and I’m safe and I’m healthy. That’s more than enough. That’s more than some people have. He drew in a fortifying breath.


     He turned to see Saki standing at his elbow, and Eiji not far behind.

     And I’ve got to stop spacing out, or I’m going to give myself a heart attack one of these days.

     Saki stared at him a moment before she said, “We’re gonna head out.”

     “Oh.” Shion’s stomach swooped in relief. “Are you sure? You’re welcome to stay...”

     “No, that’s okay. Rumi and I are going shopping.”

     Rumi had still been scowling a few feet away, but she perked up when she heard that.

     “And Eiji needs to write a seven page report. Due tomorrow. That he hasn’t even started on.”

     Saki’s face was nonjudgmental, her voice neutral, but Eiji flinched as though he’d been struck. His cheeks flushed red beneath the rims of his glasses.

     Shion gave the pair a genuine half-smile. “I see. Well, thank you for stopping by. It was nice to see you.”

     Eiji ducked his head and promised to come again soon. The group filed out, and Shion was once again left to the silence and scents of the greenhouse.

     And now he couldn’t tell if he was grateful or disappointed. Shion raked a hand through his hair and sighed. His mood swings were an enigma he’d stopped trying to understand.

     He grabbed the watering can from the counter and paced the circumference of the room, checking that all the plants were properly tended to. The sun had poked its head out from behind the clouds, and as he approached the counter, the crack morphed again into a dewy spider web.

     Halfway through the watering the herbs, Shion heard an excited shout. It sounded a bit like Eiji, but it could have been any one of the children outside. He could see them through the glass, playing in the park, laughing and hollering to one another as they ducked behind shrubs and chased each other around the fountain.

     He remembered the hours he and Safu spent as kids weaving through the rubble around the hotel. It seemed eons ago.

     Shion pressed his mouth into a line. And now, at the age of twenty, I’ve already turned into an old man... He chuckled drily to himself and tipped the watering can over the basil.

     “With a name like ‘Shion,’ I guess I should have seen this coming.”

     Shion’s mind blanked.

     That voice.

     He heard it all the time—in his thoughts, his dreams, in every walking hour he was left alone. But he had always known it wasn’t real. He knew now for sure that that voice had never been real, because this time, it was so clear and close Shion realized the voice in his memory had been all wrong. Its timbre was richer, the cadence smoother.

     God, that voice.

     Water started to dribble over the side of the pot he was watering. He could see it, cascading in rivulets down the ceramic, drops hitting the floor with a thump thump thump. Shion’s heart pounded in his chest, and each beat had his blood singing with feelings and hopes he hadn’t dared bring out in the light of day.

     He eased the watering can to the table, and turned.

     A flush of heat raced down his body when their eyes met. It had been so long since he’d been pinned by a look so sharp and dazzling and teasing, and so right Shion couldn’t feel his legs beneath him.

     Shion’s gaze wandered—from his tanned skin, to his pale feathery hair, to the coy smile—but he couldn’t concentrate on any of it for more than a few seconds. He kept returning to his eyes.

     Everything he had stored in the hollow between this second and the last were in those eyes. They were moonlit nights. They were hurricanes and butterflies, and tears folded into the pillowcase. They were snowstorms and Shakespeare and curling cold in the sheets.


      The sound of his name on those lips was enough to make Shion’s breath hitch, and the smile it was coupled with knew everything it was doing to him.

     It was that—the playful insolence—that convinced him the moment was real.

     An answering smile curled Shion’s lips.

     “Welcome home.”