Just a simple short story about a girl/woman is returning home to sorrow. No set on current Earth; maybe someday in the future.
When I look back, I can't help but wonder what I was thinking. Why did I leave? There was something for me here ‒ a future within my hometown. My life was here, in this metropolis and I eagerly left it all behind. Now, several years, a train plunged me back into this place, without hesitation. Memories flooding my mind, I watched as the city came into view ‒ skyscraper canyons, crammed housing, innumerable shops and all the rest. My home, which I fled as soon as I graduated from high school.
With my bag in hand and suitcase trailing behind me, I stepped off the train and headed for the street to hail a taxi. After my bags were stored in the cab’s trunk, the driver sped away from the curb, taking me to the 48th district, on the water. Places from my youth flashed by ‒ a karaoke place, trinket shops, all-night mini-marts and a crowded restaurant. The driver stopped the car by a cafe. I paid the fare, collected my bags and absent-mindedly watched the yellow bumper disappear around a corner. Eventually, I turned to watch the sea - that day, the waves were coloured a brilliant blue. The breeze dragged chilled fingers along my exposed skin. Shivers ran up and down my body until I clamped my jaw and forced them to break off. Determined to avoid memories that would trigger anything for now, I spun on my heels and marched into the cafe to buy something hot to drink.
I need somewhere to stay tonight, I thought, chopsticks tapping against the half-empty bowl. I suppose I'll find a cheap inn. Slurping down the rest of my dinner, I left a tip and strolled out into the night. People went past, walking or running. I glanced up at the sky; illuminated by the city lights, it was a gray-blue or perhaps that was simply how I saw it. That is the colour of my sadness ‒ not an overwhelming black sorrow, or an empty nothingness, but a pensive state, where I uncharacteristically consider life and all its uneven surfaces that humans continuously stumble over.
I started down the street, watching for a suitable but inexpensive inn as thoughts began to run through me head. I couldn't bring myself to go see them right then. I'm not ready yet. I still have much to think about, too much, but I cannot put if off any longer. Tomorrow ‒ I will visit the remnants of my family. Of whatever emotions still had yet to settle, each one would have to wait.
A potential inn was a few buildings ahead. I quickened my pace, hoping to get a bed for the night.
Hot water coursed down my skin in rivers, soaking me but the shivers wouldn't stop. I coated my body in soap, the smell clogging the air. I simply stood, letting the water wash the soap away. Soon, the quivering faded and turned the faucet off. I stepped from the shower, dried off and slipped into my pyjamas.
The one window in my cramped room offered a view of the street below. From it, I could see now-dark restaurants and clubs and people heading drunkenly home. Above, the sky had clouded over. Sighing, I pulled the curtains across the glass and dropped exhausted into bed. I buried myself under the heavy blankets and drifted into a dreamless sleep.
Early morning light leaked through the white curtains as a pot of coffee brewed. The smell was delicious and my stomach rumbled for bacon, eggs and toast to go along with it. The owners of the inn provided breakfast for patrons, so my imaginary meal might be possible. Coffee ready, I poured myself a cup and sat down by the window to watch the small section of city I could see wake. Some tourists were already heading out for the day ‒ hikers with worn shoes and backpacks, sightseers with cameras and shoppers with cash. Hundreds of thousands of people come to this city in under two months to get away from normalcy, while I am coming home to pain and grief.
Shivering in the bathrobe provided by the inn, I gulped down the remainder of the still-hot coffee and stood to get dressed.
Sometime later, cold under the warm sun, I stood before the entrance to a shrine. The chipped wooden gate loomed before me, the dilapidated stones steps that came after led up the slight incline. I took a breath and stepped forward, hunching my shoulders slightly as the gate's shadow hid mine. I took the steps quickly, dead leaves rustling under my feet, and paused when I reached the top. Once again, images filled my mind ‒ darting around the miniature shrine, shrieking with laughter; laying in the grass, out of breath and happy; returning home as the sun scraped the horizon, calling out goodbyes; murmuring simple prayers that wouldn't be answered, not matter how desperately I pleaded. Tiny, burning tears trailed down my cheeks. As I wiped my eyes, stones shifted underfoot behind me. And a voice.
I turned, not sure of what I was feeling. Ash stood there, sadness clearly painted on his face. I swallowed and gave a muted hello. Smiling gently, he walked over.
"It's good to see you again," he said, wrapping me in his arms.
"Yeah," was all I could say, trembling again. I pressed my forehead against his shoulder before pulling back.
Holding hands tightly, we walked back to the road. I didn't need to ask why he'd come up there. He was looking for me.
His bike leaned against the gate. I sat behind him, arms around his stomach. Key in the ignition, Ash took us across the city.
I slid off the seat and looked at the well-kept house before me. Cold-weather flowers blooming against the iron gate, the place radiated deep sorrow. Tremors ran through me, more violently than ever before. Ash took my hand and touched his forehead to mine.
"It's okay ‒ this is home," he whispered.
"I know," I answered, trying to smile.
Together, we walked up the steps. Swallowing audibly, I opened the door.
As the scent of home flooded my nostrils, I squeezed my eyes shut before going inside. Visually, it was as I remembered it from when I'd been back a couple months ago to say hi. Clean and friendly. But then, this place had emitted an infectious joy. Now it was only a grief that continued to swell, like a tsunami.
We neatly lined our shoes on the mat. I moved farther in and softly called out, watching the stairs. Footsteps answered from above and a figure appeared. My father. He halted.
"Dad," I said, voice cracking.
As if my voice bade him to move, he descended the stairs and hugged me. Tears spilled down his face. I felt another's arms around me and turned slightly to see Aki, also crying. She laid her head on my shoulder. With me eyes, I beckoned Ash over. Awkwardly, he came and took my hand. We all stood like that, until eyes were dried. Dad stood back and nodded at the door.
We took Aki's car. My sister sped along, focused on driving. I watched blurred neighbours fly by ‒ houses of school-day friends I hadn't seen in years, Northeast-District High School and the nearby baseball field and park.
The sights changed, becoming more subdued – shrines and temples, private cemeteries and public ones. Aki turned the car down a wide drive and parked in the lot at the end. Climbing out, I looked around. To me everything – trees, vehicles, sky – looked tinted with gray. Maybe this is how I’ll see the world – overcast with despair. But I don’t want to, I thought as I felt Ash’s hand on my shoulder. I want to be happy. I held his hand in my own and we tailed my family up the stone steps. Unlike the steps at the shrine, these were maintained and recently swept. Just like home.
Shivers coursed through me again. I clenched my teeth and tried to ignore them as the temple came into view. A thin trail of smoke drifted from the chimney. Groups of people lingered outside, talking quietly amongst themselves. As we approached, the whispering faded as everyone watched us with sympathetic eyes. Turning away, I stepped into the wooden building, leaving my shoes outside, as custom says. My family followed, their own socked-feet shuffling across the floor. The one room that made up the interior of the building was bare except for a pedestal on which a clay jar rested. Carefully, my father hands picked it in his callused hands and the three of us returned outside, through a back door. All other visitors waited on the other side, amid a sea of graves.
Moving as if weighted down, my father went to a headstone, no different from the others surrounding but for the name etched into the stone: our family name – our family grave. He removed the jar’s lid and turned to my sister and me. We joined him. As one, we reached in and drew out handfuls of cold ashes. Trembling, our fingers spread the ash over the stone’s head. He set the jar before the stone and traced the name with a finger before bowing his head. When he stepped back, Aki did as he had done. Suddenly, I stood before the stone, looking down at ashes that the wind hadn’t swept away. For god-knows-how-long, I didn’t move, unsuccessfully trying to form words in my mind and every single one falling to pieces. Eventually, I dipped my head, with too little to say. Be at peace, I prayed. Goodbye, brother. Goodbye, mother. I love you.
I got several feet away before dropping to my knees and sobbing. Strength gone, I wept and whimpered like an abandoned child, until Aki knelt and hugged me. Then, I just cried.
Aki got me to stand and move out from the graves. I sat beneath an ancient oak, watching as others – friends, relatives – paid their respects, doing as we had done with the ashes. She and our father sat with me. It didn’t take long before Aki fell asleep, emotionally exhausted. As people began to leave, my father spoke.
“I’m glad you came today. I know you never liked this place, so I can imagine that being here now must be difficult for you.”
“It took me until now to realize that I never hated it here,” I whispered. “I just wanted to go somewhere else. It wasn’t loathing. It was...impatience.” And now my heart is full of remorse, I added to myself.
“Impatience isn’t a sin. It’s simply a part of life. There is nothing to regret.”
Even after not having me at home for four years, Dad can still read me all too well.
“Thank you,” I said, starting to cry – this time because I had been released.
We woke Aki and headed back to the car. As we made our way down the steps, Ash appeared at my side. Walking close to him, I realized my shivering had stopped and a heavy weight in my chest I never knew was there had lightened. For the first time in weeks, I truly smiled – not simply curved lips, but one tinged with understanding and faith. I had never really noticed until then how warm the sun really was and how much weight words could carry.