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Visit View From the Den

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CHAPTER 4: TRUST EXTENDED

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Four and a half hours after admission, Nakamura is awake, and we’re allowed to visit. The doctor intercepts us as we pass the privacy curtain, explaining that her femur had multiple fractures. Because of her age, he had to do a total hip replacement. He’s prescribing physical therapy and a walker.

A huff escapes my mouth, despite the looming threat of my return to the slammer. The proud old kitsune will be a handful for anyone watching over her. How will Satou manage?

“Do you have any family near to assist with her recovery?” the doctor asks.

His head hangs.

So, my hand raises. If I say what I know, I could stay to help. Sure, she’ll probably insult me every day just like she did before, but it would take pressure off my boss. Then my arm falls and my heart aches. I break a promise to either Satou or Nakamura no matter what. He wouldn’t believe me, anyway.

His gaze flicks to me, then resolutely to the doctor. If I won’t share the whole truth, then I’m not worth his time.

Finally, we’re able to see her. She’s paler than the hospital gown as she squints against the harsh fluorescent lights. Instead of the old biddy who could get even me to back down, she looks more like a child in the gigantic bed. On top of that, the IV poking from her skin adds to the sense of fragility.

As Satou pulls up a chair, he takes her hand, just as mine reaches out to do the same, then falls. I have no connection with her that would warrant such intimacy.

His voice drops low. “How are they treating you, Auntie?”

“Terrible! They tried to tell me I’ll have to use one of those stupid walkers!” she sputters.

Coughing, I smother the snort and spasms of laughter at her fiery spirit only to get a glare from my VPO.

“Yakuza, the irony of being wrapped in the very coat I cussed you out over isn’t lost on me. Did I hear your name was Umeji?” She pats the bed for me to move closer.

“Yes, Ma’am. I’m here to let you know you got your wish. I’ll leave Nonogawa soon.” My chest tightens at having to verbalize the impending doom.

As her brow wrinkles, she grabs my coat sleeve. Her grip isn’t as strong this time, but I stiffen. She asks, “What do you mean?”

“He’ll be returning to where he came from.” Satou scowls.

“Where might that be, Nephew? Tell me this instant!”

We’re drawing too much attention. Running my free hand through my hair, I stare at the floor and whisper. “Prison, Ma’am.”

“There’s no reason for that! Too busy with work, visiting the shrine, and cleaning that dojo. No time for friends, trouble, or a girl.” She ticks the items off on her fingers.

I wince. Sure, I didn’t have much of a life. But it’s still preferable to the slammer. How does she know all of this? My parole officer wouldn’t share that kind of info.

Satou’s eye twitches and he takes a few seconds to answer. “Aunt, he and I made a deal. I’d be his volunteer parole officer as long as he was frank with me. I can handle all manner of things, but not deception.”

Squeezing the wrist she hadn’t released yet, she bites her lip. “And you’ll go to prison for a secret this old lady asked you to keep?”

My voice fails, so I swallow. My boss observes our interchange like a hawk.

“Unacceptable!” Her outburst startles both of us men and has the nurse running to fetch help. “I finally find a replacement shrine keeper and YOU, Nephew, are punishing him for a favor. I won’t stand for it!”

The pitch stresses of his Osaka accent deepen. “Aunt, what the hell is going on? What secret is he keeping for you? Now you want to keep ‘the yakuza’ around?”

“Satou Kazuo, do not take that tone with me! No amount of bullying will compel me to divulge a confidence I’ve kept from all but my husband!” Her finger, with its bent knuckles, waggles at him like a snake warning before it strikes.

“But you shared it with my parolee instead of me, your family?”

In response, her lips purse and her eyes narrow in the same glare she used to give me at the store.

“Aunt…” A solid wall of frustration is contained in that single familial moniker.

The standoff halts when the hospital staff ushers us out and urges quiet for the sake of the other patients. Needing the last word, she hollers. “You will not send him back. You hear me, Kazuo!?!”

My head whips around in her direction as I’m pushed from the room. She just commanded him? To keep me here?

In the waiting area, my boss paces around the formation of chairs. He’s not shown so much vulnerability before. Me? I press my fingers into my pockets so hard that they rip through the seams.

Satou’s circles stop abruptly in front of me. “Is there anything you can share? What really happened? Why are you so loyal to her?”

He’s only concerned about her safety. How about being vague? “I witnessed something. Walked in on it after the tree fell, and I heard a scream—an event I have a hard time understanding. Maybe from the spirit world. Beyond being pinned with a broken hip, I think she was ok. That’s all I dare say, Satou-san.”

Non-plussed, he lets his stare bore into me. “You’re suggesting the supernatural?”

“Something I had a hard time believing, Sir.”

A patient’s buzzer goes off at the nurse’s station and we hear a calm answer to the request for aid. With hands covering his mouth, he lets out a few deep breaths. “Any details?”

“Sorry.”

My answer makes him kick the floor, and he does another round of pacing muttering about ‘paranormal bullshit on his watch’ and ‘why him’. When he swings back around, he says, “I can’t put a finger on what there is between the two of you.”

“Not sure I understand it either. I expected her to be ecstatic I’ll be gone.”

“Can you tell me about replacing her as shrine keeper?”

“No clue, Sir. She’s the one that tends the little shrine across the field, right?” My hands leave the safety of my ruptured pockets to spread in helplessness.

“She is.” After closing his eyes for a few seconds, the spasm above his cheek stops. “I’ll inform Aunt Hisako you can’t do this again. Your loyalty almost cost you. Because it’s to my relative, that’s the only reason I’ll renege today. And only this once. NO MORE SECRETS. Do you understand?”

I nod several times, giving a belated, respectful bow. “I’m most obliged, Satou-san.” Inadequate, but the proper words don’t exist. With a curt bob, he chooses a seat.

Reprieve granted. Holy shit. My knees go weak and I flop into a nearby chair. Tremors cause any attempts at sipping my tea to dribble down my chin. The only hope is to recap it until the adrenaline withdrawal stops.

Under his breath, he mutters, “What is so damned important that she’s got to hide it from family? I’m not her favorite. Still, she’s never spoken to me that way before.”

 

***

 

Nudging my shoulder, the boss says he’s ready to go home. It’s past 6 AM, and the bags under his eyes make him look dead tired. The green-tinted fluorescent lights only give a sickly cast to his complexion.

Groggily, I yawn and uncurl from the uncomfortable waiting room chair that made my muscles stiff. “How is Nakamura-san?”

“Sleeping. I’ll come back late afternoon to check on her.” Satou stretches before striding off.

“Mind if I join you?”

“Neither of us will be fit for work today. I’ll let Matsuo-kun know you won’t be in.”

Oh yeah. I’m supposed to be at the store in an hour. Sure, I’ve done harder, more unpleasant tasks on less sleep, but the chance to catch up on rest is a good thing.

 

***

 

The sun tips under the rim of the hills into the valley when we return.

In the sterile, harsh-lit hallway, we wait for admittance to Nakamura’s room. My boss holds a vase of cheerful pink and yellow blooms, while I lean on the opposite wall with a small tray of white strawberries.

My boss said she won’t buy the fruit for herself—too expensive. But she loves them. So maybe she won’t return to cussing me out if she sees the attention-grabbing fruit.

When they allow us entry, Doctor Uehara greets us. “I’d like to discuss the length of Nakamura-san’s hospitalization and post-surgery treatment.”

Tilting his chin toward his aunt, he follows the surgeon. The mention of three weeks makes me shake my head. Is the doctor going to sit on her?

Nakamura’s color is improved, but she still looks fragile. Bowing, I offer the berries with both hands. Her face lights up at the sight of the fruit. “You shouldn’t have.”

“Please, enjoy them.” After they’re pushed toward her once more, she snatches them with the eagerness of a child. To ensure she doesn’t just set them aside for show, I add, “Don’t wait. The clerk said they were ripe.”

Nakamura breaks into the package and holds a berry out for me. Despite her gnarled hands, the gesture has grace. “Eat one, so this old woman doesn’t feel foolish.”

Since I’m here I’ll keep watch. Taking a seat on the far side of the room ensures a good view of the door.

With closed eyes, she savors the pale berry as if it was the nectar of the gods. How many people see her child-like side? Then, her countenance darkens as she sets the rest of the berries on the bedside tray. “Thank you for keeping me company while they talk about me as if I’m a deaf invalid. It’s not like I can’t hear them.”

The weight on me lifts. Her sauciness is an excellent sign, but I try to steer away from the topic. “How are you doing? Did the surgery cause problems?”

“With the transformation? No more than clothing does. I’ll be fine. Since they’re occupied, we can discuss a few matters.”

I lean in.

“Would you keep the shrine maintained while I heal?” She knows I can’t say no to an elder without being rude. But it’s not what I expected. An earnest nod from me lets her segue. “Next. A few nights ago, a dream revealed the symbolic tattoo that a man I loved many years before had. Imagine my surprise when I saw his ink design across your shoulders. You also willingly kept my secret. My spell didn’t have to be enacted.”

Wait. I got the design from a hundred-year-old photo!

“Now you know what I meant by ‘why did it have to be you’. You can see it wasn’t a coincidence.”

“But…” Then, that comment wasn’t about the rescue. Her stare is palpable, so I focus on the floor out of respect. “What does that mean? And what spell did you put on me?”

“Fate meant us to meet. The ward would have warned me if you broke that agreement and I would have taken actions to avoid being revealed. Nothing harmful mind you. So, just let that brow of yours settle back down before it flies clear off into space.”

Scrunching my eyes shut, I can’t help but laugh, deep and loud. She’s already stuffed another strawberry in her mouth by the time I look again, and her expression dares me to say something. When I don’t, she chews slowly, and her stare turns intense. “You’re humble for a yakuza.”

That makes me flinch. “I have to show remorse for what I’ve done, Ma’am. No room for pride.”

She nods to herself. “That settles it then. I pay my debts and have a picture of your character after this latest debacle. You could be so much more than a mobster. So I’ll train you for a different destiny—if you’re willing—to earn a proper place in society again.”

“Come again, Nakamura-san?” Is tempting me to hope her devilish alternative to cussing me out? As if I could be more. My family is as common as they come. I’m just a city slicker who made terrible choices that I’ll pay for with my dying breath. The yakuza label is permanent, just like my ink.

“I’m sure you’re aware of my tendency to be a busybody. So I researched you as a potential threat to my town. What I found is that you dropped out of school when you joined the yakuza, but you were also one of two survivors from your clan. My hunch says that was no accident. Too many coincidences lining up.”

“N-not an accident? Same design?” Lightheadedness kicks in. Before I can get an answer, the door cracks open.

Her whisper carries an intensity that sends chills through me. “Everyone has a choice, boy. Will you leave behind your past, to become someone others hold in high regard?”

Is she serious? Swallowing, I lean on the chair until the dizziness fades, then gesture to the seat for my boss. Satou’s voice echoes too loud after the hushed conversation. “How are you feeling, Auntie?”

“Better, now that Tatsuya will manage the shrine in my absence.”

Double take. Talk of strange things, then using my personal name without a suffix. Was that a jab, or does she feel we know each other that well already?

 


 

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