“I am not smart, I am not pretty.” This is what Kiyoshi Toyoda’s sister had written before leaping from the top of their twelve-story apartment building some time before dawn, leaving her body to be discovered by an old man on his early morning walk. Kiyoshi woke to the sudden commotion of wails and pounding feet, the heavy clang of their apartment door opening and slamming shut. They did not find the note until several hours later; Mai had propped it up on her desk, next to a box of tissues. She had been fifteen years old.
Although Kiyoshi had never been close to his sister, he felt the ripping of something inside him, the rending ache of shock and disbelief. Only yesterday he had seen her as he set his schoolbag down on the kitchen table and got himself something to drink out of the refrigerator. She was sitting on the living room couch, still in her school uniform, watching television while eating from a bag of potato chips. He had not spoken to her. Although he was only a year and half older than Mai, he took no real interest in the dull minutiae of her life: the silliness of her Ayumi Hamasaki albums, the clutter of fashion magazines, lip glosses, and hair elastics that she left strewn about the house. He had gone with his soda to his room and closed the door. That was the last time he saw his sister alive.
Kiyoshi’s mother stayed in bed for almost two weeks after Mai’s death. He would come home from school to find the curtains and blinds drawn and his mother curled up lifelessly on her futon. She no longer got up to cook or clean, and Kiyoshi and his father survived by buying instant noodles and sandwiches from the corner Daily Mart. They did not talk during those meals: they did not discuss Kiyoshi’s mother’s depression, nor did they attempt to make idle conversation. The silence was heavy and stupefying, as if the dust quickly accumulating on the furniture was also settling with an astonishing weight on the surface of their skin, impeding both their movements and their thoughts.
Mrs. Toyoda finally left her bed without a word one morning. When Kiyoshi got up to go to school, his mother was at the stove preparing breakfast as though nothing had happened.
“Hi, Kiyoshi,” she said. “Are fried eggs okay?”
He nodded, confused, glancing at his father, who sat at the table eating toast. Kiyoshi sat down next to him, hoping for a reassuring look or nod that would make all of this not quite so alarming. But his father quickly finished his breakfast, wiped his mouth, and left to finish getting ready for work.
“Here you go,” said Kiyoshi’s mother, setting a plate of perfectly fried eggs in front of him, two buttered pieces of toast on the side.
Kiyoshi began to eat, concentrating on the precise, familiar movements of his knife and fork, the mechanics of chewing and of swallowing everything down.
The door to Mai’s room remained closed, the things in it untouched. One afternoon, Kiyoshi slipped inside while his mother was at the market. He looked at the walls covered with posters of the pop star Ayumi Hamasaki, her face as cute as an anime character: huge, long-lashed eyes, tiny nose, a small, heart-shaped mouth. There were stuffed animals and comic books propped up on the bookshelves, cheap plastic bracelets and bobby pins littering the top of the dresser. Nothing he saw indicated a young girl desperate enough to kill herself.
He had not been in this room for a long time, not since the day several months ago when he had come home jubilant from running well in a track meet, anxious to share his elation with somebody, anybody. He had opened Mai’s door, surprising his sister, who was sitting on her bed reading.
“I told you not to come in here,” she said, annoyed. He ignored her and wandered around the room inspecting all of her girlish possessions, staring at the calendar of Hawaii on her wall and rifling through her battered textbooks. He picked up a frosted glass bottle of perfume from her dresser and grimaced at the sweet, overripe smell.
“What do you want?” she demanded. Her shoulder-length hair was gathered into a messy ponytail, and her face was pale except for a few bright red spots that marked her forehead and chin.
“Did you know that your brother is a star athlete?” he asked. “I won the 200-meter race at the track meet today.” He stretched his arms above his head, feeling the flex and pull of his muscles.
“I’m happy for you,” said Mai. “Now will you please leave?”
“It’s good that someone in the family has some physical ability,” he told her. “You can hardly walk down the street without tripping. Don’t you have one of the slowest running times in your class?”
Mai scowled and flipped a few pages in her book. “You’re a jerk,” she said.
“What are you so hostile for?” he said. “I only wanted to share my good news with you. I ran like the wind.” He demonstrated by making a whistling sound through his teeth. “How’s your new school, anyway?” he asked her. He had not heard anything since the school year had started in April. “Are all the students a bunch of airheads like you?”
“Shut up,” Mai said half-heartedly, obviously used to his teasing. “All the girls are rich snobs. All they do is talk about boys and roll up their skirts until their underwear is practically showing. I hate them.”
Kiyoshi laughed. “You’re just mad,” he said. “You’re mad because they probably think you’re ugly and don’t talk to you. I bet you want to be exactly like them. I bet if they wanted to be your friend, you’d be so excited you’d piss on yourself.”
“Asshole. You don’t know anything. They’re a bunch of idiots; just your type, probably.”
“You know,” he said, “your attitude is very unattractive. Just like your face.” He ran out of the room as Mai threw her book at him.
“Get out of here!” she yelled. “I hate you!”
Now, standing in the center of his sister’s room, everything so disturbingly the same, he could not quite grasp that she was dead, and that possibly he had helped to make her life unbearable. But, surely, his sister’s problems had been much larger than anything he could have done to her. She was a poor student, unpopular, and homely, besides. Not ugly, really, but clumsy looking, as though her features were growing into their adult contours at varying speeds, giving her morose expression an unbalanced quality. And her timidity, combined with the resigned curve of her shoulders, almost inspired a feeling of loathing in people, as though she was being obstinate in her awkwardness, in her very inability to get through life with at least a small measure of grace and skill. She had been a cute little girl, Kiyoshi remembered, thinking of how they used to play together at their grandmother’s house in the countryside, catching small frogs and cicadas during the summer months, and lighting the humid night sky with sparklers and firecrackers that spun frantically on the ground, turning different colors like magical flowers. They had been friends then, or at least companions. But the days and years had passed, and although Kiyoshi had neither wanted nor expected his sister to grow up to be so unhappy with her life, he knew he had not done anything to prevent this from happening.
It was only a few days after this that he met Misako for the first time. She had come to their house and asked to see his mother. She was very small and thin, with a pale, angular face and a birthmark on her right cheekbone. Her brown eyes were alert with an energy that seemed to hum from within the very core of her bones.
Her name was Misako Imada, and she told Mrs. Toyoda that she had been a good friend of Mai’s.
Kiyoshi’s mother flinched, a wing of darkness flitting across her face. “Misako,” she said, recovering her composure. She smiled at the girl. “I’m not sure if Mai has mentioned you before, but please, come in.”
Kiyoshi brought out a tray of refreshments just as Misako was in the middle of offering his mother her condolences. Her poise faltered as her voice shook, and fat tears swelled out of the corners of her eyes.
“I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am. I’m so horribly, horribly sorry. I can’t imagine how you must be feeling.” Misako reached into the pocket of her denim skirt for a handkerchief. She pressed it to her eyes, her head bowed.
“Thank you,” Mrs. Toyoda said. “Thank you so much. It means a lot for me to meet you. Anything, you know, that we can learn about Mai’s life gives us great comfort.”
The girl nodded, silent.
“Were you in Mai’s class?” Mrs. Toyoda asked. “Is that how you met?”
“Yes, we sat across the aisle from one another. We became friends immediately, at the beginning of the year. She was shy at first, but once you got to know her she was really funny. She was always making me laugh.” Kiyoshi was surprised. He had never thought of his sister as the joking type. He watched as his mother broke into a grateful smile.
“Misako,” she said. “You must stay for dinner. Please, it won’t be much but …”
Misako started to protest. “Oh, no, I don’t want to put you through any trouble. Really, you don’t have to …”
“I insist,” Mrs. Toyoda said. “Please. Please stay. It will be so nice to have you; it will mean a lot to me.”
So it was settled. Misako sat and watched television with Kiyoshi while Mrs. Toyoda made a trip to the market. Every so often, he slid quick, appraising glances at her. The girl wasn’t bad looking; she was actually pretty, in a way. Her small, sharp chin, and the way her eyes focused directly on who she was talking to gave the appearance of a wide-awake intelligence. He wondered what she and Mai had had in common.
For dinner, Mrs. Toyoda made a small feast: sashimi, miso soup with clams, and small medallions of steak fried in butter. Kiyoshi ate hungrily.
“We’re very happy that you decided to come see us, Misako,” Kiyoshi’s father said, looking pensively into his glass of Johnny Walker Black. “It’s been very hard these last few months. It’s helps to know that Mai-chan had such good friends. We’ve been very—very confused, you know, with everything that has happened …”
Misako gave a slow nod. Then she said, “I just want to say that—that Mai always talked about all of you … that she loved you very much. She always told me how grateful she was for her family.”
There was a long moment of silence as Mrs. Toyoda closed her eyes. “But why,” she said, opening them again. “Why did she do what she did? Why didn’t she come to us if she was so unhappy? You were her friend; maybe you can …”
The girl shook her head. “I’m sorry, I don’t know. She didn’t come to me, either. But I know that it had nothing to do with any of you, that it wasn’t your fault. I’m sure of it. She was just very unhappy, I think, inside herself. She didn’t talk about it, but you could tell. I wish I could have done something to help her; I feel like I should have known what to do.”
Mrs. Toyoda reached across the table and clutched the girl’s hand. “Let’s not think this way. We can’t. Maybe someday we will understand what happened, but for now, we just have to get past it. We have to accept what’s happened.” She let out a long, shuddering sigh and looked around the table. “Isn’t that right?” she asked, her voice beginning to unravel with bewilderment. “That’s what I should be saying. That life will go on. Right? That life will go on without her?”
Mr. Toyoda touched his wife’s arm. “It’s okay, Shizuko,” he said gently. “Everything will be okay.” Kiyoshi glanced at Misako, whose hand was still grasped in his mother’s. She was watching his parents with the calm gravity of someone much older, her lips held in a tight, pale line. Kiyoshi looked down at his plate, unsure of what he was supposed to do or say. He sat quietly, waiting until everyone else finally picked up their chopsticks and continued their meal.
Kiyoshi began to hear things. His high school was on the other side of town from Mai’s, but still, the things people said began to reach his ears. Mai had been bullied, they whispered. She had been teased and harassed by a group of girls in her class; they had made her life so miserable that she felt there was no way to endure it.
“What?” Kiyoshi said, the first time he heard this. “That’s ridiculous. She would have said something to my parents, or a teacher even.”
“I don’t know, man,” his friend Hitoshi said. “This is what Yamada told me, and he said his sister was the one to tell him. Someone she knows goes to the same school that your sister did. If I were you, I’d want to find out what happened.”
Kiyoshi went home that evening after track practice disturbed by what his friend had told him. Could such a thing have been possible? He pictured his sister in her uniform, a gray pleated shirt with a maroon tie and maroon blazer. She had always hated school, hated the lessons and the afternoon club activities. She had stayed home as often as she could, claiming to be ill. He remembered his mother’s exasperation as she yelled at Mai to get out of bed, telling her that she was fed up with her laziness and excuses. He recalled one morning in particular when he had stopped and looked into Mai’s room, staring at his sister, who lay in bed making no move to start getting ready.
“What’s with you,” he said. “Did you not do your homework?”
Mai looked as though she was about to cry. “I just don’t want to go,” she said. “I just don’t.”
Kiyoshi became annoyed. “Grow up,” he told her. “Deal with it.”
He had thought, like his mother, that Mai was simply being difficult, that she had an aversion to hard work. He winced, now, remembering this.
Kiyoshi thought of Misako, the perfect straightness of her posture as she had sat next to him at the dinner table, so different from his sister’s defeated slouching. Had she known what was going on? And if so, why hadn’t she said anything? Perhaps she had been bullied herself, although her steely composure seemed to deny the possibility.
He himself had never been the victim of such cruelty; he received good marks, had diligently attended after-school cramming sessions to prepare for the college entrance examinations, even excelled in sports. He was going to a prestigious university next year in Kyoto, and he was generally well-liked and respected by his peers. The only thing that ever troubled him was the fact that he had never had a girlfriend, that somehow, he could not seem to get up the courage to ask the girls he liked out on a date. There were girls he knew who were interested in him, who would have been overjoyed by his attentions, but they reminded him of his sister, awkward and eager to please. They were not the kind of girls he wanted, so he chose to remain single, keeping busy with his studies and with track practice instead. His resoluteness had eventually earned him a reputation for being serious and highly disciplined, an image he found he could live with. But sometimes at night, as he stood in front of the mirror brushing his teeth, he felt a pang of disgust for his thin frame, the narrowness of his chest. He was fast but not really muscular; his body inclined instead towards a wiry, almost girlish slenderness. And his face, too, sometimes troubled him, with its narrow eyes and thick, shapeless brows, the way his nose would flatten out unattractively when he smiled. But, he always consoled himself, he was not as much of a loser as his sister—his sister, who, as far as he could tell, seemed to have nothing special going for her, nothing that justified her existence. And now, he acknowledged with a shiver of guilt, it seemed that she had always thought that, too.
After that first dinner, Mrs. Toyoda had insisted that Misako come to visit them often, that she stop by for tea or dinner as often as she pleased. And, to Kiyoshi’s surprise, the girl did just that; she seemed to be over at least every other week. Her prettiness unsettled him, the way it seemed to saturate everything in the house like a kind of smell. It made him feel disloyal to his sister somehow. But he watched her closely, waiting for her to mention the real circumstances of Mai’s death to his parents. She never did, however, and he began to wonder whether the rumors had been unfounded. Surely, having a friend like Misako would have saved his sister from being completely despised, would have earned her some measure of respect from her classmates. He could not help but wonder, however, what Misako had gotten from the friendship. He concluded that she, in the way of many pretty girls he knew, had befriended his plain sister in order to set her own charms off to their best advantage. He disliked these kinds of girls; they were the ones who hardly bothered to notice him.
Kiyoshi saw how during Misako’s visits a look of peace would be restored to his mother’s face, as though for those few hours some kind of truce was negotiated between her memories and the ruthless lashings of her conscience. Although she had been especially attentive to him ever since Mai’s death, cooking his favorite foods, wanting to know where he was at all times, asking him at least twice a day how he was feeling, Kiyoshi was resentful that it was Misako, not him, who seemed to strengthen his mother’s spirits. He adopted an aloof dignity while Misako was at the house, hoping to give the impression that he, at least, was indifferent to her presence.
The girl, of course, noticed his resentment. One day, instead of helping Mrs. Toyoda with dinner as she usually did, she sat down on the couch next to Kiyoshi, who was lazily flipping through the pages of the newspaper.
“Hi,” she said.
There was a minute of quiet, during which Kiyoshi pretended to be absorbed in reading an article.
“Kiyoshi,” she finally ventured. “I hope you don’t mind that I’m here so often. I’m not trying to replace your sister, you know.”
“I never said you were.” He gave the pages of the newspaper a loud snap. “It doesn’t really matter to me whether you’re here or not.”
Misako frowned. “I’m just trying to help,” she said.
Kiyoshi put down his paper and looked at her. “You know, you’re free to do what you want, but my sister is dead. She killed herself. Nothing you do now will make any difference to her. And I doubt it will make much of a difference to my parents, either.”
“How do you know that?” she asked him. “Your parents, your mother, especially, wants someone to talk to, someone who can remind her that your sister was loved, that there were people who cared about her. And I like being here. I like being here with your family, and with you. But if it really bothers you that much, then I won’t come anymore. Okay?”
Her words brought an unexpected happiness, a bliss of achievement. Kiyoshi considered the thin girl in front of him, the way she held both hands, palm side up, in her lap. They were so small, baby hands, really, open and vulnerable looking, the delicate fingers curled slightly inwards. The way she watched him with those careful, candy-dark eyes, he wanted to believe everything she said. He wanted to believe that anything was possible.
“Look, I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just been a hard time for me. It’s been good that you’ve been coming, I think. It’s been, I don’t know … helpful.” He glanced at her, embarrassed. Misako was smiling at him, a gentle, understanding smile that, for the rest of the night, lingered on his mind like the white circles of light left by the sudden brightness of a flashbulb.
Kiyoshi now waited for the days when he would see her. At first, he tried to deny his eagerness, but his relief when she appeared, so close to gratitude, forced him to admit that Misako was on his mind most hours of the day. And, it seemed, he was on hers as well, for although she still regularly came to the house for dinner with the whole family, she would often suggest they meet privately after school at a park or a quiet café where they could talk. Kiyoshi had never been friends with a girl before, had never confided in anyone, really, the way he found himself confiding in Misako. The thrill of intimacy, of unburdening himself, surprised him, and Misako’s poised exterior, too, seemed to shed itself during their time together, an observation that always made him imagine taking her, trembling and naked, in his arms. They would sit and talk about books or movies, places they had been or wanted to go. Misako said that one day she wanted to travel to Australia and scuba dive at the Great Barrier Reef. She said that breathing underwater would be like being on some distant planet, and that she wanted to float peacefully through the slow-moving quiet and see for herself the colorful forests of coral and swaying seaweed. Kiyoshi told her of his ambitions to be a writer, ambitions he had until then barely allowed room to breathe. He was not sure what he wanted to write, he said, only that it would be profound and truthful, and that everybody would be surprised to learn the passion and astuteness with which he perceived the world, since, always the quiet type, he had never ventured to express any of his imaginings out loud.
Throughout all of this, Mai hovered like a thin, dark cloud, threatening, yet easy to ignore. Sometimes they tried to talk about her, but their words seemed vague, without substance. Mai was dead, while they were both so spectacularly alive; they resisted the grip of her memory as much as they could.
They took it slowly, at first, both of them cautious about an attraction that had been born out of such tragic circumstances. But one evening, walking Misako home from a movie, he stopped and kissed her; it was his first kiss. Her lips met his with a soft sweetness that lifted him with an indescribable joy.
“Is this wrong?” she whispered.
“I don’t think so,” he said, breathing in the warm fragrance of her hair. “I’m pretty sure Mai would approve. I think she’d be happy for us.”
“Sometimes I forget that you’re Mai’s brother,” she told him. “You’re so different from her.”
After that, they could not stand to be apart. Kiyoshi was impatient for each school day to end so that he could meet Misako at their regular spot in the park; everything else in his life was overwhelmed now by his feelings for her. What he felt was so new to him, so terrible and wonderful, that it was all he had room for. And he was so protective of this feeling that he did not share the news of their relationship with anybody, not his parents, not even his friends.
“So this is what it’s like to be in love,” he thought. “Nothing else matters.”
But he was wrong. Although he fought against it as hard as he could, Mai, stronger in death than she had been in life, pushed herself upon his mind. Sometimes, as he lay in bed at night, or tried to read a book, or even when he was holding Misako in his arms, Mai floated before him, her face petulant and accusing. He thought about all the things he had ever done or said to her, the mean remarks, the way he enjoyed outshining her in whatever endeavor she attempted. He remembered how one day, when he was about ten and she was eight, she had come home from her violin lesson and was trying, with cacophonous difficulty, to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Frustrated, she had put the instrument away, whereupon he had taken it and picked out the simple tune by ear, without reading a note of music. Delighted, his parents had immediately signed him up for his own lessons, although he had insisted on quitting after only seven months. The pressure to talk about these memories was building in him as though he were at the starting line of a race, his body tense and coiled, waiting for the sound of the gun. So he began to share them with Misako, like how excited Mai would be when autumn came and the roasted sweet potato vendor began making his neighborhood rounds, or how he taught her how to swim one summer, or about the time when he had tried to cut her hair and it came out so badly that their mother had spanked them both. He also told Misako how irritating Mai could be, how, for the last couple of years, he had believed her ineptitude to be a kind of moral failing, as were her shyness and bad skin. How he would see the disarray of her room or the sloppiness of her handwriting and be faintly repulsed.
While he talked, Misako fell silent, her face fragile and still beneath the dark fringe of her hair.
“Are you okay?” Kiyoshi asked, worried that his candidness had changed her view of him.
“No,” she said. “I just get sad thinking about her.”
“Maybe you’d feel better if you talked about her, too,” he suggested, but Misako refused to speak. “I don’t know what to say,” she said. She would not look at him.
“You know, I’ve felt so guilty ever since Mai died,” Kiyoshi confided. “I don’t think I was a very good older brother. I teased her a lot, gave her a hard time about things. I didn’t have to, but I did. I don’t know why. I just felt like being mean, I guess.”
Misako bit her lip, her small pea-shaped birthmark dark against the paleness of her cheek. “Kiyoshi,” she said slowly. “You know her death had nothing to do with you. I haven’t said this yet to you or your parents, but the fact was that Mai was bullied at school. She was bullied by a bunch of girls in our class.”
Kiyoshi stared at her. “I had heard that a while ago,” he said. “But I didn’t think it was true, since you weren’t saying anything about it. I figured you would have told us.”
Mai shook her head. “I know, I’m sorry. I just didn’t know how to, really. I thought maybe it would cause more sadness for everybody, you know, to learn what a waste it all was. To know that Mai’s death didn’t have to happen.”
“It was a waste either way,” he said. “You should have said something. Maybe it would have been easier for all of us if we had known that we weren’t responsible. Did you think of that?”
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “But that’s why I’m telling you now. I didn’t want you to go on believing it was your fault.”
Kiyoshi leaned back on the bench, watching a teenage girl ride by on her bicycle. She was wearing four-inch-high platform heels, and for a moment Kiyoshi wondered if they didn’t make it difficult for her to peddle. “You might as well tell me what happened,” he finally said. “Those girls, what did they do to her?”
“It was awful.” Misako’s voice was flat with disgust. “They were evil, really evil. I don’t know why they chose Mai to pick on, maybe because she was so quiet, and a little different sometimes. I think it was probably because she got upset so easily, you know, because she let everything she felt show on her face. But it was about five girls in the class, and they would say horrible things to her, how ugly and stupid she was, that she must be retarded. They would corner her somewhere and say stuff like this, day after day.” She went on, describing how the girls would steal Mai’s assignments or the brushes from her calligraphy set, how once they even managed to cut holes in her gym shorts.
Misako began to cry. “Kiyoshi, it was so horrible what they did! They got everyone in the class to stop talking to her. They were popular girls, so people listened to them. Once they even tried to make Mai kiss one of the retarded boys in special ed. They told her they made a beautiful couple. She wouldn’t, though. She managed to run away, I think.”
“What about you,” Kiyoshi finally managed to ask. “Why didn’t you say anything to anybody?”
“Mai begged me not to. I wanted to at first, but she was so scared that something would happen, either to me or to her. And to tell you the truth, I was afraid.” Misako grabbed his arm with cold fingers. “Please don’t hate me, Kiyoshi. But I was afraid for myself, too, that they might turn on me if I told on them. It was horrible …”
“But now we have to say something,” he said. “We’ve got to. Mai killed herself because of these people. They should be punished. My parents should know the truth.”
“Those girls … I don’t know. I’m not defending them, but Kiyoshi, I know beyond a doubt that they’re already being punished, that they will suffer for the rest of their lives for what they made happen.”
“That’s not enough,” Kiyoshi said angrily. “Those girls killed her. They killed her without even thinking about what they were doing.”
“I know they did,” said Misako. “But how do you really punish something like that? A lot of people will say that Mai could have defended herself, that no one forced her to go up to the roof and jump. And in some ways it’s true. Mai could have gone to a teacher; she could have gone to you or your parents. If it were me, I would have. I wouldn’t have let myself be stepped on like that. Those girls kept it up because she never stopped them. It’s not right, I know, but you don’t want people saying that your sister was weak and cowardly, do you?”
Kiyoshi stared at her.
“Don’t worry, Kiyoshi,” Misako said, entwining her fingers in his and giving a reassuring squeeze. “Those girls will never forget. They’ll never forget any of it. They’ll probably be unhappy for the rest of their lives.”
“So is that enough?” Kiyoshi asked slowly.
Misako bowed her head and sighed. “I don’t know. I guess you should do what you think is right. All I’m saying is that nothing you do is going to make those girls feel worse than they already feel. And think about what might happen if you told on them. They might come after me, try to make my life as miserable as they made Mai’s. The only thing I do know is that the only reason I told you about any of this is because I’ve grown to care about you. I really have, Kiyoshi. I wanted you to stop blaming yourself.”
Kiyoshi said nothing for several minutes, his mind frantic with the squabbling voices of confusion. Misako was staring back at him with the serene, kindly authority of a doctor prescribing a cure. It would be so easy to trust her judgment, to trust in the beauty of their tightly clasped hands, although he knew that by doing so he would be delivering himself to something he could not explain. Something that had begun to grow and weave its way inside him, greedy and voluptuous, barely letting him breathe. He noticed how her hair lay against the pale column of her neck, and he wanted to put his finger there, to feel the warm rhythm of her blood kissing his skin. A small splinter of longing had wedged itself deeply inside him, and he knew that it would fester and swell until it could no longer be contained. He knew that he would do what he could to protect this exquisite pain, that what he was feeling was beyond his control.
A few days later, on his way to meet Misako at the park, he saw her standing next to their usual bench with another girl. She had not seen him, and not wanting to intrude, he stood in the shade of a tree to wait until the girl went away. He watched while Misako laughed and talked, her weight settled on her right leg in a charmingly confident pose. It pleased him to think that this was how she was in school, vivacious and dazzling, her smile seductively precocious. The other girl, too, was pretty, her slim legs accentuated by thick white socks she wore bunched at the ankles. They made an attractive picture together under the large, green-leafed gingko tree. Suddenly the impossibility of his sister’s having been part of this image struck Kiyoshi with a cruel certainty; he realized what he should have known all along. Misako had been one of the bullies. It was so obvious.
For as long as he could remember, Kiyoshi had never been the kind of older brother who tried to protect his sister from the perils of childhood. He had never dried Mai’s tears or taken her side in family arguments; as far as he had been concerned, the laws of evolution still held true: only the strong deserved to survive. Only the strong went to good schools, only the strong were offered good jobs, only the strong married youth and beauty, only the strong were really happy. And Mai had always proved to him that he might be worthy of this kind of life, that he, at least, was not at the bottom of the food chain. But now, what was he to do? Was he supposed to avenge his sister? Punish Misako, the girl he had fallen in love with? The girl who loved him back, whom any boy would be happy to be with. The girl he had kissed.
He wondered, though, in an instant of panic, if she really did care for him. Could it be possible that all of it was some kind of sick game, or that she had become intimate with him and his family to ease her conscience, to rectify, as much as she could, the damage she had done? It was too horrible to even consider. He could not reconcile the small, luminous face with that of a murderer. When she lifted it to him, all he could see was a gift so fragile and precious that he felt he could look upon it forever; there had been nothing else, no trace of evil, no demon hidden behind the darkness of her eyes. He had stared straight into them, and they had been pure, full of tenderness. He had been so grateful.
It was around five o’clock when Misako came looking for him. He knew she had arrived because he could hear the pleased tone in his mother’s voice as she greeted her. Misako tapped lightly on the door to his room and slowly pushed it open.
“Kiyoshi?” She smiled at him through the doorway.
“Are you okay?” she asked. “You weren’t at the park, so I thought you might be here. Your mother said you had shut yourself in here as soon as you got home. She’s worried you might be sick.” She approached where he was sitting on the bed and felt his forehead.
“You don’t have a fever.” She sat next to him and took his hand. Hers was cold from the outdoors; the tips of her fingers were red.
“I’m okay,” Kiyoshi said. “I just didn’t feel well earlier.”
“Poor thing.” She kissed him on the cheek. “I missed you today. I sat in class all afternoon thinking of you.” Misako playfully tugged his sleeve and tried to get him to look at her.
“Hel-lo. Are you there?” She peered at him from under the dark brown hedge of her bangs. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
Kiyoshi searched her eyes for signs of a person who could torment someone until they wanted to die.
“What?” she asked. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
He continued to stare, appraising her with the cool composure that he had learned from her. He saw her hesitate under his gaze, suddenly losing the sheen of confidence that straightened her spine, squared her shoulders. She seemed to edge away from him, her chin pulling into her neck like a small bird protecting itself from the cold.
“Kiyoshi?” she said. He could almost smell her fear.
He knew then that everything would be all right. His sister had been a casualty, but he, thankfully, was equipped to survive. He would love and be loved, and it was Misako, now, who would be grateful.
“I’m fine,” he said, and he could see her fear dissolve like a drop of ink in water. He felt a benevolence towards her that he had never felt for his own sister. Perhaps it was because of Misako’s loving expression, her pretty dark eyes, in which he could see the small, imperfect reflection of his own face.