"Thank you for your patronage," the FamilyMart clerk said as I picked up the change. As I was putting it into my wallet, someone tugged my skirt.
"Mama, can we go home now?"
The girl tugging at my skirt was almost five, and was staring at me with an adorable pout on her face, topped by a halo of black hair.
Ao, of all the places where you could have said 'Mama', why here? We're in the most visible place in a store. A clerk to our front, a line of mothers to the right. A fluorescent lamp above, and very shiny glass cabinet doors behind the clerk.
Then again, maybe it is my fault. I didn't tell her to not call me mother in public because she was always silent around strangers...wait, isn't this an improvement?
That's good. I just wish you chose another time Ao.
"Yes we can, but you have to help me carry the groceries."
Ao nodded, grabbing the plastic bag containing the spices I picked up earlier. And as I picked up the other one and followed her I felt the familiar stares drilling into my back.
Here we go again.
The reason why people were staring is because even though I'm wearing normal clothes, I'm clearly only seventeen years old. Too young to be called 'Mama' as certainly as Ao just did.
Also, Ao looked so much like me. We had the same shoulder length, straight black hair, brown eyes, and heart shaped face. The only difference between us was that Ao got her father's white skin while I got my mother's medium brown skin.
Look all you want, judgemental women. I'm just ignoring you – yikes.
I caught my reflection on the convex mirror above the door. My blue t-shirt is rumpled, and some sticky rice had attached themselves to the end of my jeans. I looked sloppy. Unmotherly.
"Ao, stay here for a little bit. I'm just going to fix my clothes."
As I quickly fixed my shirt using the mirror, I saw the clerk shaking her head, while two mothers were whispering to each other and giving scandalized looks in my direction.
Pff. Well, that's irritating. Ok, fix your shirt faster, girl...don't forget the rice...done.
"Let's go Ao."
Upon her nod, I grabbed the grocery bags in my left hand, held her hand with my right, and walked out of the store onto the streets of Matsumoto. And then I noticed it's already twilight.
Seems we spent too much time there. Note to self. Always check the time on the cellphone.
As we turned right and walked towards home, Ao asked a question.
"Mama, why are those old women looking at us like that?"
Pfft. Old women. Hah! The teller and half of the women in that line were only a few years older than me. That doesn't make them old. Hmm...maybe Ao meant older than me when she said 'old women?' Well, that's still funny.
"Don't worry about those 'old women.' If we just mind our own business, they couldn't do anything more than look."
"But you feel angry when they look at you like that, Mama. That means there is something wrong, right?"
I had to agree. I'm angry whenever I see those kind of stares.
Judgemental women. Just because I got pregnant before I'm fifteen doesn't mean I'm a slut. We're just too stupid at the time. And I have been a mother for four years by now, that shows I'm responsible enough.
Anyways, it's not right to let her see me get angry that easily. It's setting a bad example for Ao...I wonder…
"Ao, what would you do to those 'old women' if they look badly at me again?"
"I would run up to them and tell them to stop picking a fight with you, Mama."
...so sweet. That's so sweet! It's times like this that I'm glad I'm a mother. Unfortunately…
"Don't do that Ao."
Ao blinked. Obviously, she thought I will praise her for filial piety.
"Why Mama?" Ao asked as we sidestepped an old man walking his black haired dog.
"Because that would just create more trouble where there is none. Those 'old women' probably had been taught to be like that to people who didn't conform to society's rules, like me."
I gave her a sad smile, when I saw her looking at me in puzzlement.
"Society? What is that?"
Right. I forgot that Ao is still four. Let's see...how to explain this...how, how, how – Ah! Let's try the style of my Social Studies teacher.
"A society is a group of people with a set of rules that they all follow. Still with me?"
"Now, I did something outrageous by society's standards. Because of that, many people...would not be nice to me."
"That's mean. What does outrageous mean, mama? And what did you do?"
"Outrageous is something so bad that people become angry upon learning what that was."
Please forget the question. Please –
"Mama, you didn't answer everything. What did you do that is outrageous?"
Was I like this as a child? If so, I hate you karma. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.
"Ao, not now. Maybe when you grow up, ok?"
Ao pouted, and started dragging her heels down.
Oh come on!
I quickly looked around us for anyone who could see this tantrum.
I already had a hard time maintaining some kind of respect when people figure out I'm a teenage mother. If they saw me letting my daughter run roughshod over me, they'll say I am a bad mother.
After a few moments of looking, I saw that the nearest people around are the drivers of the occasional car, and the old man we passed by earlier.
I whirled around.
"Ao, is this something that you really need to know now?"
Alright. How do I do this...ah! A little truth would do the trick.
"Ao, the answer isn't something you will ever like. Trust me."
I put down my plastic bag and raised my left hand in a pledge.
"I, Ikeda Kurumi, do swear that the reason why other people aren't nice to me is something that would make you sad."
Ao's pout completely faded away into a frown.
"But if that is so, shouldn't you say sorry so those people would stop being not nice to you, and maybe not make me sad?"
"I wish some things happened differently, but no. I'm not going to apologize."
I'm not apologizing for giving birth or for taking care of you. Nope. Never. I'm your mother, and mothers take care of their children.
Ao looked confused.
"So, you aren't sorry for the reason some people are not nice to you?"
I picked up my plastic bag and started walking again. Ao started skipping at my right side.
"...most of the time."
There were times in the past when I regretted becoming pregnant. Like when the ostracism at school became too much for me. Or when I had a very bad fight with my Monster in law...I mean Mother in law.
But I had a piece of advice that got me through all those times, alongside my daughter and my fiance's love. They were Mama's words when I left home. She said "Firmly hold onto yourself, and stay resolute. The path you are walking is a righteous one."
Since I decided that I will be the mother of my child...then I would be her mother, damn it.
We walked home in silence.
Around a minute or two later, we're near our home. Just past a three way junction of two side streets.
"Hello, Mr. Moriya!" Ao waved at the sentinel on the other side of the street. I gave the nice man a smile.
Pvt. Moriya briefly smiled back, and resumed guarding Camp Matsumoto's gateway. At the same time I tightened my hold on Ao's hand, just in case she tries to bolt across the street.
"Ok Ao. What do we do first before crossing an intersection?"
I want her to learn things like crossing a street or navigating at an early age, so that she can have some advantages over other kids her age...and to rub that in the face of those who say I'm a bad mother.
Ao looked up.
"First we look for the pedestrian lanes."
"And where are they?"
She pointed to the pedestrian lane for the first side street.
We walked over to it, sidestepping a boy in middle school uniform who just crossed the street.
"Now what do we do?"
"First, we look for any incoming cars."
We looked for vehicles on the road.
We're lucky our home, which was almost right in front of the base's gateway, is located at a side street so it doesn't get much traffic in the first place. And when it's around twilight, there were almost no vehicles.
"Now that we see there are no cars, what do we do?"
"Cross the street!"
We quickly did so.
In a few moments we're already in front of our home.
The house was two stories high, with white painted concrete walls, and a typical Japanese roof made of ceramic tiles. Inside, it contained a living/dining room, a kitchen and an extra storage room at the ground floor, and a Western style room, a Japanese style room, in addition to a bathroom, a toilet and a washroom that came complete with a washing machine, on the second floor.
Outside, the house is separated from the street by a low stone fence, a garden that separates the wall from the house, and an empty garage that could accommodate two cars.
As we were about to enter, something soft and wet hit the back of my head. That froze me in the act of turning the doorknob.
I did not just get bird droppings on my head, right?
"Ao, can you look behind me and see if there is something white on my hair?"
While she padded off to my back, I forced myself to –
Stop girl! Don't think about it. Don't think about it. Ok, let's distract ourselves by looking at the door. The door is so clean that it's as white as bird droppings – shit! Now I want to run to the bathroom.
"Mama, I don't see anything white on your hair. But I think there is some jelly on your hair."
Thank Heavens it's not crap – jelly?
I quickly wiped my hair with my left hand. As soon as I brought it to my face, I sniffed at it.
It's Konyaku. How…
I stepped back, leaving the shopping bags at the door, and looked at the sky.
It's not from the kitchen. The kitchen is at the ground floor. Did someone drop konyaku from an airplane? No, that's –
The streetlights around our home suddenly flickered.
Ao grabbed my left arm. She is scared of anything that is horror movie like. Such as flickering lights.
"Mama, what is that?"
"I don't know."
Across the street, I saw Moriya walking out of the guardhouse with a flashlight in hand.
Obviously he's preparing for any power outage to come.
The lights flickered again, the headlights of a passing car the only source of light for a second.
A loud squeak interrupted her.
Oh dear freaking, fucking, no, no, NO!
I hate mice!
"Where is the mouse? Do you see it?" I asked her, my eyes looking everywhere around us.
The lights flickered once again, and I finally saw the mouse...no. Worse.
It's a rat.
A furry grey rat literally as big as my foot, with a blue ribbon tied around its neck. It was standing up on its hind legs, looking at us with intelligence that does not belong to an animal.
Look at that face! It's...it's disgusting. Yeesh.
"Look at the cute mouse! Can we keep it, Mama? Can we?"
Ao looked at me pleadingly.
It's my bad luck that Ao loves rodents twice as much as I hate them. I can only blame this on Ichigo. He's the other source of Ao's genes.
"No. You know I hate mice Ao. Why not something else, like a cat? Or a dog?"
The flickering streetlights interrupted her.
Power seems unsteady today. I should recharge all our cell phones and flashlights right now.
When the lights came on again, I saw the rat looking at us and standing on a faded pink cotton wallet... nylon zipper whose paint has peeled off long ago...Hello Kitty keychain…
Isn't that my wallet?
"Is that your wallet Mama?" Ao herself asked in surprise.
I quickly patted down my left pocket. Nothing. I looked down and pulled the pocket inside out. Still nothing. That means...
...how did it fell out?
Upon hearing something, I looked back at the rat.
It had in its teeth a ten thousand yen note, and its dirty paws, on each side of its mouth, were clutching the note. It looked like it will tear the money apart.
"No! Bad mousey! No biting Mama's money. Put it down, put it down now."
Ao walked nearer to the damn rat, lecturing it like it is a trained animal.
The rat suddenly tore the note apart.
"The money," I mumbled.
Ever since I moved in with Ichigo and his parents, I had been using the money in my savings account to supplement what the Ota family can spare for me and Ao, which wasn't much. Father in law's income was good for three people, not five.
"Don't you dare break the money card!" Ao suddenly shouted.
This time the rat was holding my JP Bank ATM card in its jaws.
Oh no you don't! I need every single yen for living expenses and future emergencies, not for replacement fees!
I'll get you!
I took one step forward, and leapt into the air, hands outstretched to catch the fucking rat.
Time slowed down for me, enough to notice a very bone-chilling detail. The rat looked at me with an expression of incredulity.
And then it jumped between my closing hands.
Ouch. Bellyflop. Pebbles. Stomach. Shitshitshitowch.
Ok. Breath in. Breath out. Breath in. Breath out. Ssswhoo. Ssswhoo.
...ok. Pain gone. Was it worth it?
I took a look at my hands.
Yes! I got both wallet and torn paper bill. Now to retrieve the ATM card, and exchange the torn paper bill for a new one at the bank.
"Give the card back!"
I looked at where Ao's yell –
Across the street! Car!
Many thanks to the people who had helped me with this at the start.
These are: Thy-Robocop, Swordomatic, Tempera, and Strypgia from Spacebattles . com
Lady Tevar from Stardestroyer . net