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For me, there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart. There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length, and there I travel, looking, looking breathlessly ...
A Different Reality
A Different Reality
Yaeko stared at the pretty girl standing at the end of the Pier. Her sense of place, of balance, was teetering precariously, that now-familiar rush of vertigo washing through her vision, making her feel dizzy, almost woozy. But the girl’s presence seemed real—more real than real—like the colossal Pier to Forever from which she had just come. She looked into those teary eyes and said:
“I’m … I’m Yaeko.”
The girl named Melody glanced behind her, at the violin case in the wheelchair’s back pouch.
“That was you playing violin? It was so beautiful…. But—where were you playing? It sounded like it was right next to me.”
But Yaeko wasn’t listening. She was taking one more slow sweep about herself, as though to verify and place the particulars of this more familiar existence: the placid fan of light rising from the western horizon, the city’s skyscrapers to the north, the haphazard sprawl of Tijuana to the south…. The fact that the Pier … ended … here…. No infinite silver-green extension, no ridiculously tall, thin spires, no Great Arch, no jagged black rocks with broken ships dropped forgetfully upon them; no watchtowers, Saturn, oddly-shaped moons, or that terrifyingly close horizon just to the east that marked the very edge of the world. She completed her deliberate turnabout, coming to rest her gaze once again upon the girl who was watching her patiently.
She was a very pretty girl. She was thin, perhaps even a bit lanky, her frame making her appear taller than she actually was, with round dark eyes that offset soft features. Her smile was unsure but genuine, her mouth small, the voice coming from it diminutive as well. But those eyes … Yaeko hung onto them without really thinking about it. She asked, “I’m … I’m sorry, Melody. What did you say?”
“You were playing violin?”
“Umm … yes.”
“Wow! You’re … you’re really good … but … but you must’ve been playing on the other side of the restaurant … and yet it sounded so close—like you were right here, right next to me. Were you playing for the restaurant?”
“I … well … uh … I …I, uh … you—you are feeling better, Melody?”
Melody wiped her eyes. Her cheeks were still red, but a slight smile had formed on her mouth. “Yes, much. Thank you.”
“Why were you crying?”
“I was listening to you. I couldn’t help it.”
“I—I mean, I just had a fight with my mom too. I came down here to get away for a while; it’s where I come when I’m upset. I was really mad at her. I was just standing here, getting madder and madder…. I mean, I love her, but she can be so—” She stopped herself, growling in frustration, balling her fists. “… And then … out of nowhere, you started playing … and something … it was like something changed in me. The anger went away. And the more I listened, the more I …”
“The more you what…?”
“The … more … I … oh my gosh.”
“What?” asked Yaeko. Melody’s eyes had grown huge.
“You … you’re the missing girl!”
Yaeko’s heart leaped in her chest. For several seconds neither said anything. Then Melody asked, “Why did you run away, Yaeko?”
“But—!” Yaeko was having trouble getting her voice to work. She shook her head, glanced around again. “But—but I was only gone a day! How—? I mean, it’s just been a day! How … how could you—?”
Melody’s eyes softened with concern. “The signs have been up for days, I think … maybe even a week…. Everybody’s looking for you, the police, everybody! I thought I recognized your face; the posters are in all the store windows along the street—”
“It’s the thirtieth today, yes? Yes?”
“No, it’s—” Melody looked down for a second, thinking. “It’s … the seventh today. Of July. Yes, July seventh. I’m sure. I’m going to go see my grandparents next week, on the fourteenth.”
The color drained from Yaeko’s face. “Please don’t joke with me, Melody …” She looked as though she had just witnessed a murder. “I crossed … I mean, I left only this morning! You are not joking with me, Melody?”
She watched Melody shake her head, feeling a sickly desperation wash through her.
Melody watched the pretty Japanese girl steadily, wondering what her new friend was so frantically searching for, because she was glancing around again, but this time with a thoroughly panicked gaze. When Yaeko stared back into her eyes, anxiously seeking the lifeline they provided, Melody asked again, sadly, her voice very quiet, “Why did you run away, Yaeko?”
Then it hit her. It was a revelation, nothing less, sourceless and mysterious but sure as her own breath.
“You didn’t come here to run away,” she said without being aware that she had spoken.
Yaeko’s uncomfortable silence only confirmed the statement’s final, grim truth. The girls faced each other, just two feet away from one another, staring into each other’s eyes, lifeline and survivor clinging to it, the rolling sounds of the sea and the high-pitched cries of a seagull on top of the restaurant like distant echoes between the painful understanding passing wordlessly between them.
A long time passed in silence.
Melody broke it with another affirmation that presented itself to her lips almost before she knew that it was absolute truth. She declared in a near whisper:
“You can’t go home.”
Yaeko didn’t respond. She didn’t need to; Melody’s realization needed no validation.
Another stretch of agonized silence passed.
Melody stepped forward and kneeled. With no consideration that she had just met this person, she placed her hand on both of Yaeko’s, which were twisting nervously in her lap. There was nothing to be said now, no language that could surpass the simple gesture offered from one to the other.
The twisting stopped immediately. The lifeline had been pulled in; the survivor was safely aboard ship. There was wordless communication between them then, offered simply and unremarkably for both, as if, like another’s eyes or ears, this ability was implied and natural and therefore to be taken for granted:
—Come to my house, Yaeko. You’ll be safe there.—
The brown-haired girl stood.
Yaeko said, “ ‘Melody’ …”
Melody turned back around. She heard her name, but when she looked into the eyes of her new friend gazing up at her, she knew that the name was signifying more somehow, much more, something very familiar yet still untouched inside her soul.
Yaeko nodded, smiling surely now, as if she had realized something very important.
“ ... ‘Melody.’ ”
They moved down the Pier, which floated between two insubstantial azure layers of deepening twilight. The Pier’s lights were flickering on one by one along an invisible line running away from them, leaving cold orange circles on the knotted brown planks beneath their feet. Melody walked by Yaeko’s side; they passed underneath the lights without conversation, as if they had known each other for many years and had long ago exhausted the small talk and in their silent intimacy were merely taking a pleasant evening stroll together.
At the plaza they angled left towards Surfing Bessie’s, the ice cream shop, which was still open, the bright white lights inside it spilling through the windows like square patches of starlight into the early evening sea air. The store’s owner, Alexandre Sebond, waved at Melody as she approached before turning his attention to a group of excited kids waiting to be served. Melody waved back.
Yaeko’s heart thumped into her teeth: she stole jerking glances around, still struggling to believe she had lost an entire week while exploring the endless, now-invisible artifact beyond
Imperial Beach’s Pier. Instead of walking
into the ice cream shop, Melody stopped at one of its windows, pulling off a
sheet of white paper taped to it. The paper bore a black and white photograph
of Yaeko, taken this past January, a photograph which had been obviously—and
heavily—cropped to remove “Mrs. H.” and her family. Yaeko had sat at the
family’s periphery when it was taken; it had been the only photograph her
guardian had ever taken of her. Below the photo of the sad-looking
wheelchair-bound girl was the following in large black block letters:
LAST SEEN JUNE 29, 2005
KAEKO IS PHYSICALLY AND MENTALLY DISABLED,
KNOWS VERY LITTLE ENGLISH,
AND MAY NOT RESPOND WHEN CALLED!
PLEASE CALL THE IMPERIAL BEACH SHERIFF’S
DEPARTMENT (555-8323) IF YOU HAVE ANY IDEA OF
LAST SEEN JUNE 29, 2005
KAEKO IS PHYSICALLY AND MENTALLY DISABLED,
KNOWS VERY LITTLE ENGLISH,
AND MAY NOT RESPOND WHEN CALLED!
PLEASE CALL THE IMPERIAL BEACH SHERIFF’S
DEPARTMENT (555-8323) IF YOU HAVE ANY IDEA OF
Melody studied the paper for a long time. “But—this isn’t you …” she declared. She handed Yaeko the paper.
Yaeko looked at the poor girl staring hopelessly back, a girl caged both externally and internally, a girl whose forlorn, lifeless eyes now appeared utterly alien, as though they belonged to somebody else, as if somebody had cut and pasted their own over hers.
In just the few minutes her new friend had known her, she had seen through all that.
Melody asked, “Why did they—why would they—mess up your name?”
When Yaeko looked up to answer, peering into her eyes, her blood went cold. Because something deep and hidden within those round eyes had revealed itself just then: a towering, righteous rage, so furious that something clenched inside Yaeko just to sense it. Another wordless flash of understanding passed between them. Melody didn’t wait for her to answer. Instead she said, determination in her voice, “Come on, Yaeko. My house is just five blocks from here.”
The home they approached on
Edgemont Street ten minutes later was
small and humble and reddish-pink, with a sandstone-red stucco roof. The yard
was enclosed in a waist-high white picket fence, the paint on it chipping in
spots, the yard’s grass overlong and underwatered. A single soft yellow light
poured from the home’s middle windows. A tan sedan, definitely not new, sat
parked in the short driveway. Yaeko, who was feeling enormous, stomach-turning
anxiety, certain Adele D. Hoffman’s home was very close by, negotiated her
chair around the vehicle with Melody’s help; Melody then opened the gate into
the yard itself. Yaeko wheeled towards the front door nervously, following
right behind Melody, who said, “It’s okay, I promise. C’mon, Yaeko….”
Melody opened the screen door, then the front door.
“Bug?” came a disembodied female voice. “You’re late for dinner … I was getting worried.”
Melody motioned again at Yaeko. The front door was barely wide enough to admit her; but, thankfully, Yaeko at least didn’t have any impossible steps to deal with. She edged inside the house and into a small, narrow hallway that opened into a modest dining nook on the left, a pleasant, open kitchen with a bar to the right. The home smelled of Mexican food—and she suddenly realized she was famished, her stomach yawning widely and growling loudly. Past the hallway, the nook, the kitchen, and down a couple steps was the living room, unlighted but very welcoming; it reminded her of her own living room back in
Japan. A middle-aged woman with
shoulder-length brown hair sat at the dining room table to her left. The table
was cluttered with old mail, glossy catalogs, and many books. Melody’s mother
was reading a very thick book; she was bent over it in concentration, a chipped
white coffee mug issuing lazy curls of steam next to her head. As Melody
entered, her mother looked up and said, “Melody, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to
yell at you—”
Yaeko wheeled hesitantly into the room.
“Oh. Hello …” said Maggie Singleton, startled. She smiled uncertainly at her, then looked up at Melody.
“Momma,” said Melody, “this is … Yaeko.”
“Hello, Yaeko,” the woman said, smiling surely now and rising. She came around the table and extended her hand, shaking Yaeko’s gently. Melody’s mother’s hand was soft and warm. “I’m Maggie. That’s a really interesting wheelchair! Are you a friend of Mellow Yellow’s, Yaeko?”
Melody sighed in exasperation. “No, Momma, she’s an enemy.”
“I’m sorry, Yaeko. My daughter and I have been quarrelling today. A little family drama. She’s still a bit sore at me—”
“Am not. You just ask really dumb questions sometimes,” retorted Melody. She came to stand next to Yaeko. “Momma, this ...” She took a deep breath, steeling herself. “... this is the missing girl from the posters, remember?” She spoke quickly next, the words almost running together incoherently: “But she can’t go home, it’s horrible there, don’t make her, Momma, please …”
Melody’s mother glanced from her daughter to Yaeko and back again. Her smile dissolved; her face was suddenly very grave.
“Is this true, Yaeko?” she asked. “Are you the missing girl?”
Yaeko nodded after a time, her eyes fixed on her hands in her lap.
“Your parents must be just sick with worry,” said Maggie gently, “just sick….”
“She is not my mother,” replied Yaeko quietly, not looking up. “She is my guardian. I do not wish to go back.”
Melody crowded closer to her, as if to protect her.
“Bug …” her mom shrugged helplessly, “we don’t really have a choice…. We must call the sheriff, at least.”
Yaeko’s hands were twisting in her lap again. She glanced at Melody imploringly, who looked at her and then back. Yaeko whispered, “Please, no …”
“It’s bad at her house, Momma. We have to do something to protect her.”
Melody’s mom pulled a chair from the table and placed it in front of Yaeko’s wheelchair, where she sat. Softly she asked, trying to look into her eyes and failing, “Yaeko, are you being abused at home?”
Yaeko stared hard at her hands. A long, silent moment passed, thick with tension. Then, almost imperceptibly, and with what appeared to be grating reluctance, she shook her head.
“Is that no, Yaeko?”
Yaeko nodded, still not looking up.
“I need to hear it, Yaeko. Are you being abused at home?”
Melody sniffled. “Momma, please …”
Yaeko gave a resigned sigh, and then whispered, “No.”
Like her daughter had earlier, Melody’s mother reached for her twisting hands. She said: “I’m going to call the sheriff—Melody, let me finish first, please—I’m going to call the sheriff, and when he comes we will tell him why you ran away and that you may stay with us anytime you’d like, okay?”
“She can’t go back, Momma, please …”
“—The sheriff will come and will ask us some questions and then will likely take Yaeko back to her home after he contacts her—guardian? Is that right, Yaeko? Guardian? We will follow the sheriff and introduce ourselves to her. We can even tell her it’d be okay for you to stay with us tonight—though I’m sure that won’t be acceptable in the least. That’s what we can do, Bug. Yaeko, you must trust this: You aren’t alone now—and you won’t be again. Okay? Okay?”
She nodded, still staring down into her lap.
“I’ll be frank with you, Yaeko. I’m not sure I believe you when you say you haven’t been abused. I think perhaps you don’t know what that word means. You are a very pretty girl, obviously precious ...” Maggie reached out and gently touched her cheek. “… and I can see that something is very seriously troubling you. One doesn’t just run away for kicks. But let’s take a deep breath and plunge ahead and trust that all will be fine. Okay? You’re in good hands now, safe hands.” She glanced at Melody. “Once Melody commits to something, as it’s obvious she’s committed to you, she’ll not let anything happen to it, believe me. Can you trust that?”
She looked up at Melody, and Maggie felt something very intimate pass between them, something she had never witnessed before with her daughter and any of the few friends she had made over the years. It was powerful and moving, and she now felt the same desperation to protect this girl as Melody did.
“But Momma, do we have to call right away?” Melody asked, wiping her eyes. “Yaeko’s been gone a whole week. She’s probably starving. Are you hungry, Yaeko?”
Yaeko’s mouth had been watering since she entered the home and smelled what were probably refried beans and cheese and warm tortillas and rice. But … now she was aware of another, even greater need: it felt suddenly as though her bladder were going to rupture at any moment. She hadn’t thought of eating or using the bathroom all day (week?).
Her glance communicated the more urgent need. Melody nodded. “Oh. Right. Follow me, Yaeko.”
Two hours later, Yaeko sat in a sheriff’s car and watched, her heart sinking into her stomach, as the home she was sure she had left forever—had sworn never to return to—grew large in the vehicle’s front window. Melody only lived three blocks from this detestable house.
The cruiser was slowing. Stopping.
The sheriff followed her up the wheelchair ramp to the front door. Adele D. Hoffman hadn’t even bothered to turn on the porch light or even to be waiting there, door opened, ready to welcome her wayward charge back home. Her heart was in her stomach, her hopes crashing like the great ships had on the angry black boulders in a very different reality just a song away. She wished she could return to that reality—now.
The sound of an approaching vehicle. She whipped her head around to look for the tan
that she knew Melody was in, but watched another car, a large white sedan with
tinted windows, park across the street, its bright yellow headlights going out.
Then … there it was. The Toyota was just turning
the corner, was pulling up behind the mysterious sedan. Its headlights also
went dead; and now Melody stood in front of it, waving unsurely at her, her
lithe figure almost lost in the darkness … Melody’s mother was stepping out
now, was closing her door….
Yaeko felt nauseous. The sheriff was ringing the Hoffman household’s doorbell … and now she was looking into the bitter, gaunt, lifeless face of her guardian, a visage screwed up into fake joy—“Oh my God, thank God you’re back! Oh, I’ve been so worried, so distraught, we’ve missed you so so much—mm! …—” and then a desiccated girlish innocence for the young uniformed man speaking to her…. The sheriff was explaining something—Child Protective Services—mandatory visit for all runaways returned home—appointment next Tuesday at ten a.m.—thank you for your time, ma’am…. Hoffman’s daughter and her SEAL husband were glaring from the kitchen table … the sheriff was leaving … was gone … “Mrs. H.” was closing the front door … was turning to face her …
Adele D. Hoffman’s hand arced downward out of nowhere and slapped her face very hard. It felt as if a hot iron brand had slashed across her head. Tears welled involuntarily in her eyes.
“You conceited little bitch!” the woman spat venomously. “To your room—IMMEDIATELY! To accuse me of child abuse after all I’ve done for you! I have half a mind to—”
The doorbell rang. Yaeko’s spirit cried: Melody! I’m here! Please save me, PLEASE!
The SEAL had risen and was answering the door—Adele D. Hoffman stood in front of her, glaring downward at her, skeletal hands on her emaciated hips—
She craned her head around her thin body to look, her face stinging sharply, her vision full of hot tears.
Five individuals stood at the door, close together. She recognized two of them at once: Dr. Akimoto and Elizabeth, the flight attendant who had introduced her to Adele D. Hoffman. Elizabeth was holding the letter she had mailed to her a week (day?) ago, her eyes bright with tears of joy, but her countenance severe with anger. Behind them stood two women, Swiss nurses she remembered fondly from
and a short, very powerfully built Japanese man with a stiff crew cut and cold,
Dr. Akimoto was saying “… here to take Yaeko Mitsaki … clear violation of Mr. Ishikawa’s terms of guardianship … please stand aside….”
The SEAL grunted, “Go to hell.” He went to slam the door—
The short, expressionless Japanese man stepped forward, pushed it back open—
The SEAL swung his fist at the man’s stony face.
It was over before Yaeko could blink. The SEAL was suddenly on the floor, face down, both his arm and leg broken grotesquely. He screamed and writhed in agony over growing smears of scarlet blood.
The expressionless protector pushed her out the front door and into the cool night air…. Elizabeth was suddenly all over her, hugging her tightly and soaking her cheek with her tears, repeating, “Why didn’t you call? You’re such a silly, stubborn girl …” Dr. Akimoto was speaking sternly behind her and over the racket of anguished yelling: “… will be back tomorrow to fetch her things—in the meantime, you will be forfeiting all previous guardianship payments from the estate as clearly understood in the contract …”
The SEAL’s bellows were quickly augmented by his wife’s and Adele D. Hoffman’s, who took turns swearing at both Yaeko and her rescuers, their high-pitched, shrieking voices echoing off the neighborhood’s houses. Melody stood at the foot of the yard, her mother behind her, their eyes wide with alarm. Melody’s hands were over her mouth, her mother’s hands gripping her shoulders. Yaeko burst from her crowd of rescuers towards them. Melody rushed forward against her mother’s protests. “It’s okay, Yaeko, it’s okay ... Mrs. Finnegan says you can stay with me tonight. We met when you went inside.”
Melody looked up, smiling unsurely at the young woman approaching Yaeko behind her. Yaeko turned to find herself completely surrounded by friendly faces—and knew at that very moment that not even death could keep her manager, Izumi Ishikawa, from watching over her.
They had stayed awake for hours, until Melody’s mother opened the door to the spare bedroom and poked her head inside.
“Bug, c’mon. Let’s go. It’s past two o’ clock. Yaeko has had a very trying day and probably hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in a week. She needs sleep—and so do you. Let’s go …”
The girls looked at each other, grinning. Yaeko was very sleepy, but it did not matter: she could’ve talked to Melody until the sun rose. It felt as though a fresh spring of life had suddenly bubbled up from frozen soil deep within her being and was now flooding the vast wasteland that had been the past two years.
Melody sat cross-legged at the foot of her bed. “Okay, Momma,” she said, standing. “G’night, Yaeko. Momma, can I help Yaeko move in with Mrs. Finnegan tomorrow? She’s just down the street, a couple blocks away. Please?”
“I’m not sure, Bug,” said her mother. “I think the network Yaeko told us about will be taking care of it. I’ll check with Mrs. Finnegan in the morning—provided, of course, that you get your tail to bed. Understood?”
“Goodnight, Melody. Goodnight, Mrs. Singleton …” Yaeko bowed her head with respect.
“Please call me Maggie, Yaeko.” Then: “I can see by your expression you’re going to have trouble doing that, am I right?”
She nodded shyly.
“It’s perfectly fine to call me by my first name; it isn’t disrespectful at all. Okay?”
Another shy nod.
“G’night, Yaeko. Sleep in all you want, okay?”
“Okay, Melody. Thank you.”
Melody waved back at her, smiling, before clicking off the light and quietly shutting the door.
Yaeko settled back into the guest bed, pulling the covers up to her chin, feeling like this was the most comfortable bed ever. She had much too much to think about; too much, way too much … Dr. Akimoto, for one. He had been none too happy with her—“You’ve learned nothing, nothing at all,” he had declared angrily after walking out of the total commotion inside the Hoffman house. “Clearly you are as pigheaded as ever!” And with that he ordered her to meet him at her new home tomorrow afternoon “for a very long talk—and possibly many, many more.”
But such concerns seemed, at least here, to be a breach of good manners.
She sighed contentedly and closed her eyes.
The problems will always be there. But … the shape of my reality has changed, Izumi. And now I know something incredible, something unbelievable, something I think you saw too. And now, Izumi, I—I have a friend! Did you see her too? She was waiting for me there, at the end of the Pier—the Pier that goes on ... forever. Did you see her too?
All that time, that horrible, endless time, she was just three blocks from me.
Her left toe itched. She tried scratching it with her right toe—until she remembered …
She sprang upright, her eyes huge. She stared down the blankets at the barely visible lump at the foot of the bed, waiting. Did she really just feel that? She waited breathlessly….
Her toe itched again.
She suppressed a wild scream of joy.
She tore the blankets off her body, staring as hard as she could at her feet past the turquoise pant legs of her pajamas, at her left toe, which was now itching furiously.She then watched in stunned disbelief as that toe barely wiggled.