"What will you do once you're back in Tokyo?"
Miyazono stood leaning against the door frame. Arms crossed, she watched me pack my suitcase. Not like there was much to pack. Before I left Tokyo, Aunt Reiko told me not to bring too much stuff. The clothes that you Tokyoites wear aren't going to help out here, she said. Bring a winter coat, some Uniqlo underwear and thick socks. And a laptop. I need a new laptop. Laptops out here are so expensive. You wouldn't believe what they charge.
I said to Miyazono, "The new school year will start. I'll be a second year student. I guess I'll need to study harder."
"Back to your old life, hmmm..."
Something in her voice. What was she suggesting?
I said, "And you? What are you going to do?"
"I'm going back tomorrow. Back to my little town, the little farms, in the middle of nowhere. I'll be going back to school, but honestly I don't want to..."
"I'm not good at studying. Sensei told me that I might be held back a year at this rate."
"Even English? I saw you talking to talking to those American tourists the other day."
"I learned English by watching American TV shows and movies and talking to tourists, but those tests at school ask me about grammar and whatever Hemingway wrote! How am I supposed to know what Hemingway meant by this or that?! He's dead! Leave him be! If the test asked me to analyze the character and intentions of Jack Sparrow or the cultural intricacies that How I Met Your Mother and Friends have in common, then I'd make to the top of the national mocks!"
I stared at Miyazono. This is the first time I've seen this side of her: a student and not a junior manager who is responsible for managing the most useless employee ever (me). All of the sudden she appeared less mature and more...real. Like a normal person. Like someone her age.
I said, "What about maths? I saw you helping Aunt Reiko tally up the register and incoming credit card payments and so on..."
"That's just normal maths! I don't need to know whatever Cos, Sin and Tan are to count money. Who the hell needs to know that stuff anyway?!"
Miyazono sighed and she spent another ten minutes talking non-stop about all the stuff she didn't understand in class (most of everything that is taught) and how much better she is at everything else compared to her teachers and peers (try whipping up a grilled eel meal in just ten minutes while apologizing to a costumer about a mistake your useless junior made!).
I finished packing my things and dragged my suitcase downstairs. Strange. It felt lighter than before even though I had to pack in all the stuff Aunt Reiko told me to give to my mother. Maybe Takeshi-something was right. Maybe I was stronger than before. I hope he is right about his other predictions as well.
We went down to the lobby and Aunt Reiko came from behind the front desk.
"Give me a call when you get back," she said. "Say hello to your father for me. Listen to your mother. Don't make her worry. Clean up your room properly."
She put her hand on my shoulder and there was almost a little tenderness in her movement. "You've grown a little, but you still have a long way to go before you can take off your diapers."
Miyazono suppressed a guffaw.
I was flabbergasted. This was the first time Aunt Reiko made a joke. Although I think she actually meant it.
She said, "I won't be able to accompany you to the train station. There's still some work I need to do. Haruka, you see him off. Don't let him die in the snow."
Aunt Reiko went back behind the front desk. Miyazono and I went out.
The snow crunched under my feet. I breathed in the fresh mountain air. All fatigue left me. My mind was clear as the sky. Something about the mountain air just wakes you up.
Beyond the little village houses, up on the gentle hill in the short distance, I could just barely make out the entrance to the forest.
The last things she said to me came to mind.
Leave this village and live your life.
Perhaps when you die we will meet again.
Someone who cares very much for you is waiting outside the forest.
"Hey, we should go."
I glanced at Miyazono. When I came out of the forest, it was her and Aunt Reiko who waited for me. Someone who cares very much for you...Yuki clearly meant one person. I wonder which one of them she meant.
Miyazono stepped lightly in front of me. She walked on with her hands behind her back, humming a tune I had never heard. I said nothing. There was something magical about walking in the snow, in this quiet village, with this girl.
We came to the main street, where all the tourists were. It was busy again. Holidays had ended and the bus and train stations looked like an exodus.
Miyazono turned around and there was something in her expression. An uneasiness. Like there was something she wanted to say.
She opened her mouth.
She said nothing because someone put their hand on my shoulder. Someone we both knew.
"Satoshi! What are you doing here?"
I turned and saw Takeshi-something. He stood there carrying his skis in a bag. Besides him was the 20-something year-old college girl. She stood behind him. She nodded at Miyazono, but didn't make eye contact with me. I can guess why.
"Satoshi, where're you going?"
I told him about how it was time for me to go home. Back to Tokyo.
Takeshi-something nodded. "Yes, we can't hide from the real world forever. At some point all of us have to go back, wether we like it or not. A dream can only be sweet if it has an ending."
Then he said, "I like you. You've grown up a bit." He gave me his business card. "If you need a job in Tokyo, call me."
He took the college girl by her hand and took her to the bus station. He said that they were going to take the bus to the next shinkansen station, and from there they had booked First Class seats.
Meanwhile I'm going to be sitting on a slow local train for the next eight hours.
Miyazono and I went to the local train station. Nothing fancy about it. A waiting area with a heater. A counter to buy tickets. Some vending machines with hot drinks. The indoor waiting area was crowded with people.
Would Yuki be alright? Would I ever see her again? Maybe someone else could help her pass on.
Her lonely smile can to mind. And yet...death gives us perspective. Nothing matters after death. But...I just couldn't...I -
"Yamata-kun! What are you doing? Let's go."
I blinked and came back to reality. Miyazono had taken my hand and was dragging me to the platform. Away from the heater. I looked back longingly at it.
I said, "Why are we out here, it's so cold."
She said, "The mountains couldn't kill you. A little more cold won't do you any harm."
We were the only ones who stood on the platform. All the other tourists were inside. Which made sense. It was cold.
Miyazono stood next to me, her every breath visible, her gaze fixed on the mountains, the houses, the trees beyond. For a moment the air around her felt like Yuki. The same serenity. The wistfulness.
For a while, we stood there, enjoying the silence. I think I'll miss this place just a little bit. Out here...there's just something about the snow and the mountains that silences any worries, any doubts. It makes you realize that there is nothing to worry about, that life is rather simple.
The speakers announced the incoming train. The only train to Tokyo. Tourists began to flood out of the cozy waiting area.
Miyazono said, "What will you do once you're back in Tokyo?"
This question. Again. What was she expecting me to say?
"I'll just hang out with my friends, study...hope I can get into a decent university."
"A university in Tokyo?"
"Yeah, and you?"
She said, "Are you coming back next winter?"
"Probably not. I'll have exams to study for. And getting this punishment one time is more than enough."
Miyazono smiled a little. It was a sad smile. "Right, I forgot. You were forced to come here." A moment of silence. Then she said, "I'm sorry for working you so hard."
"And I'm sorry for causing so much trouble."
The train arrived. The doors opened. I didn't move.
Miyazono said, "Will I see you again?"
Something in her voice. Something in her eyes. A sliver of loneliness. A quiet hope for a certain answer.
I got on the train.
I said, "I don't know. Maybe."
The doors closed and the train left.
A/N: And this is the conclusion for the first major story arc! But no worries, I will continue to update The Snow Maiden at 3 chapters a week. This weekend we'll launch right into the next arc.
FictionFan - thanks so much for your thoughtful review! Getting comments is always encouraging :) I started out writing ten years ago with fan fiction and I had a blast writing it. It is a great starting point and I'm so glad that you are starting to write. It will be hard, it will be difficult, but in the end it will be worth it when someone comments and you know you've made that person's day a little brighter.