Chapter 17
Jang Jae Woo

The Tokyo pavement falls away behind me with every step and all I hear is Claire's voice in my headphones. I listen to her when I go to new places; it's like taking her with me. Despite her words—the way her voice catches towards the end—when she fades to a whisper at the end and says my name, pleading with me and God, I always forgive her a little more for leaving me. And my heart feels her presence, that oneness and now that is usually so far away.

I smile to myself as I pass a group of girls in cosplay posing for tourists. Claire would have loved that. I imagine her smiling with me.

The impact catches me by surprise; I was too busy glancing over my shoulder once more at the tourists and missed the petite girl directly in front of me. But my reflexes are good and I grab her by the shoulders before she can tumble into the street. Unlike my mp3 player, which takes Claire's voice with it as it clatters to the cement and shatters under the oncoming traffic. I am frozen, staring at it, unable to comprehend.

"Oh! Oh," the girl is jabbering at me in that sweet high-pitched way that Japanese girls use. She's apologizing, I'm sure, but I don't understand Japanese. It's only her distressed tones that make me tear my gaze away from the crushed technology and look down at myself and her, taking account of anything else that might be missing.

"I'm sorry," I automatically say in Korean, then again in English without catching her eye, "I don't speak Japanese." I cannot shake my frown so instead I start gathering the things she dropped: a book tucked full of notes that have now scattered over the sidewalk.

"Oh," she says again, "I—I'm so sorry. I didn't—I mean, I'm so sorry about the mp3 player. You don't have to do that. I can pick them up myself." Her tiny hands join in the work, and my head snaps back toward her because her English is nearly flawless, I think her accent is even better than mine and mine has become quite good in the months since I knew Claire. The girl before me is small, shorter than Claire was, but older by a year or two.

"It's alright," I lie, because I want to convince myself and a part of me logically knows that it wasn't my only copy of Claire's recording. Plus, there is something about this girl. I can barely tear my eyes away. Her dark, feathered bangs fall into her eyes, wide with worry and innocence. She is earnest in a way that not even Claire could achieve. I collect her book for her and pause, reading the cover. The young woman pauses also, and from her stillness I know that she's uncertain what I'll make of the heavy volume in my hand.

I meet her querying gaze and wave the book, title displayed, in front of her.

"Religious?" I ask casually. She smiles tentatively and nods, taking the book from my hand and stuffing her notes back between the pages like an embarrassed scholar.

"Theology student," she whispers. And there's something in the furtive movements, as though the contents of her book were some precious secret, which suddenly makes me want to know what she does. I'd never really thought of it before but suddenly it feels important, and maybe it's that innocence combined with the sincere love of her book that makes this girl's opinion matter to me.

"Do you believe in a heaven?" I ask, clearly startling her. But I am impressed because she doesn't walk away or brush me off. Maybe she just still feels guilty about the mp3 player. In any case, she nods. And she waits. While I think about her answer and this growing anxiousness fills me.

The question spills out my mouth before I even realize it: "Do you think that someone can get to heaven even if they don't believe they deserve it?" The girl's expression softens and I'm embarrassed by the compassion I see there, but somehow it doesn't offend me. She is thinking carefully, composing her response with thought and intellect and not what she thinks I want to hear. I can see that in her face and her warm eyes, nothing like the cool blue of Claire's.

"I don't believe anyone deserves to go to heaven," she answers me finally, slowly, "And I don't think anyone ever really gets themselves there. I believe that knowing you don't deserve paradise is the first step to accepting it; to accepting God's grace to make it possible anyway." My eyes flicker back to the broken music player that had last been playing Claire's words, Oh, God, please forgive me. And this girl's assurance that it is possible. For anyone.

It's strange, but I feel it, like a weight lifted off me, this worry that I didn't know I had for Claire's sake. And for my sake, in a way. I am feeling this vague notion of... hope.

The girl stands with me and the new vantage makes me realize just how small and delicate she is in her pale pink skirt and clunky cute shoes. For no apparent reason, I reach out a hand to her shoulder and move her away from the edge of the street, placing myself between her and the passing cars.

"I really am sorry," she says again, gesturing toward the mp3 player, by now long destroyed. My hand drops away from her automatically, but I immediately want to touch her again; soft, warm, comforting.

"It's really okay," I say, and mean it. I am almost grateful. "I'm Jae," I introduce myself, "and you are?" Her smile is shy and sweet, those straight silky wisps of hair are a curtain that she hides behind, to glimpse out curiously with intelligent eyes. Eyes full of so many answers and questions and hope.

She shines. She is more than now she is promise and to come. She is Claire's light but steady and bright, not fleeting. She is comfort. And I want to hold her and feel my heart heal as it basks in that light that trips off her lips with every soothing word. When she takes my hand in greeting I can feel her spirit calming mine and I have no choice but let the corner of my mouth curl upward.

"I am Michiko," she says; and it seems to me that somewhere nearby, Claire smiles with me over the sweetness of her voice. A sigh of relief in a light spring breeze, like the passing on of a final responsibility. I cannot keep the smile from reaching my eyes and Michiko's cheeks blush a healthy rose as I shake her hand for too long—and yet just right.

"It's nice to meet you Michiko. Very nice to meet you."