Takayama Hoshiko sat anxiously in the hospital wing, numbly staring at the wall as her father patted her knee in comfort.
This couldn’t be happening.
It was just 96 hours ago that she had hugged her brother, his wife, and their child goodbye, right before they boarded a plane, off to start the next chapter of their lives.
It was just 72 hours ago when she got the phone call. There had been a crash, and there didn’t seem to be any survivors.
The next thing she knew, she and her Dad had caught the next flight to Brazil.
48 hours ago, while stepping off the plane, they were both notified that the respondents identified her brother and his wife,
but their son, Takayama Sou, was missing.
They said there was a trail of two bloody footprints leading off the plane, then just...disappearing.
12 hours ago, with a rescue team searching the forest floor, they found a 10-year old boy sitting by a stream, unharmed.
“It was like a horror movie,” She overheard one person say. “He turned around and his eyes were just bright red.”
Now, she waited.
A nurse and a translator stepped outside of her nephew's hospital room.
The nurse clears her throat, says something quickly in Portuguese Hoshiko doesn’t quite catch.
“It’s practically a miracle.” The translator starts. “He had no injuries whatsoever.”
“He’s fine?” Her father croaks.
“He’s in physical top shape. We’ll just run a few more tests to make sure, ask a few questions about the crash, and he should be released in no time.”
“When can we see him?”
“Now, if you would like.”
They both spring up, following the staff into the room.
The room is expansive, with white walls, and a hospital bed sitting in the center. He looks so small, compared to the rest of the room. His hospital gown hangs loosely, a little too big. He sits with an empty tray in his lap.
The nurse lets out a little exclamation of surprise, chuckling as she takes the tray.
Hoshiko catches the words “quick eater.”
Turning his eyes from the window to see his grandfather, Sou’s face twitches a little in surprise.
Her father practically runs to wrap Sou in a hug, yet the other doesn’t move to return it: something he would have only 96 hours earlier. Hoshiko glances nervously at the nurse.
Physically, Sou was fine, but...
Something tells her more than just a plane crash happened.
The words on the screen read bright as day.
“ In the case of some event in which my wife, Takayama Aya, and I, Takayama Yua, are no longer alive, I leave my son, Takayama Sou, to be in the care of my younger sister: Takayama Hoshiko.”
“Isn’t it a bit too early to be drafting a will, Yua?” A girl asks.
The older brother sits back in his chair and laughs. “It comes with the responsibility of being a parent.”
“Hmph.” The 20 year old says, crossing her arms. “It’s not like you’re going anywhere.”
“I don’t plan on it, but…” The man looks across to the kitchen, watching his wife bounce a four-month-old on her hip, cooing as she heats up tea for herself. “I want to think of what’s best for Sou, if anything happens.”
“Why trust me, then?”
“...We both know Dad’s getting too old, he would never be able to keep up with a child, especially now that Mom…”
“Yeah.” They didn’t need to say it.
“Besides, you know what Aya’s family is like, they’d never take him.”
Hoshiko pats her brother on the shoulder. “Don’t worry,” she promises, “if worse comes to worse, I’ll take care of him.”
Yua smiles. “Thank you.”
A week after the crash, Hoshiko opens the door to her apartment, allowing for both her and Sou to walk in.
Sou grapples with his box full of things, putting it down on the table with a thump .
“I don’t have a spare room or futon on hand, so would it be okay to sleep on the couch until I can buy one?” Hoshiko asks, setting down her purse on the counter.
“That’s fine.” Sou responds, quietly opening his box and taking out the first item: On the Origin of Species , Darwin. Odd , Hoshiko thought. Sure, his parents were biologists, but this was above his reading level, wasn’t it? She watches her nephew flip through a couple pages, tab a particular section and continue on.
“How about we have some take-out?” Hoshiko starts, trying to make conversation. “I don’t feel like cooking. Do you want some burgers? Fried chicken?”
“...I think I’m getting burgers. You like cheeseburgers, right? And fries.” She shifts her feet as the silence grows. His curt nod helps lighten the stone in her gut.
She grabs her phone “I’m going to go order, so I’ll step into the other room so you can read in silence.”
After ordering, she starts to head back before stopping.
“The food should be here soon,” She beams, holding some sheets and a pillow she grabbed from the closet. “How’s unpacking going?”
“Okay," he responds. He didn’t have much. A lot of his belongings were on the plane, and those had burned up in the crash. He had a few books, a photo or two, and a couple of clothes her Dad had bought for him.
She sits down on the couch, grabs a book from the top. It was a worn illustrated encyclopedia on bugs. Hoshiko recalls Sou’s initial discomfort to bring it, but he still decided to keep it. Opening it to the cover, she’s greeted by a sweet message from his Dad and Mom, wishing him a happy 8th birthday.
Hoshiko quietly closed the book and places it back where it was. Sou keeps his eyes on the ground, back slightly hunched, quietly picking at his hands. An old habit. She could feel his restlessness from here.
“I’m going to check if the foods here.” She states, standing up. He might need some space right now. She walks out into the hallway, here’s skitter of movement inside the apartment, but ignores it as she briskly climbs her way down to the main entrance.
When she comes back, bags in hand, she’s surprised to see the couch empty, no movements.
A couple things are knocked over, and the window is open. On the floor laid the boy’s shirt, shredded.
“What in the world….?”
She peers out out the window, not seeing anything below.
“Sou?” She asks to the outside world, louder.
“Here.” Sou voices behind her, causing Hoshiko to whip around.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine-” He’s cut off by a pair of arms reaching down to wrap around him in a hug. She notices him stiffening.
“Haha, sorry.” His aunt says, placing a hand on his shoulder, using the other to wipe her eyes. “Just got a little scared there for a second. What happened to your clothes?”
“Uh.” Sou starts, face nervous. He shifts on his feet, tugging on a shirt he must’ve grabbed from the box. “Is the food here?”
He’s really bad at switching topics . She sighs, deciding not to push it.
“Yep, it’s on the counter. I hope you're hungry.”
“Okay, let me grab us some plates.” She drops her hands from the boy’s shoulders, walking back to the counter to take out the two burgers and a couple dishes.
She sets the burgers and fries on the counter when it hits her she didn’t buy any drinks.
Taking a seat at one of the stools at the counter, her nephew sits, seeming to not notice it yet. He seems preoccupied, staring off to the side and rubbing his neck.
Opening the fridge and freezer, Hoshiko notes she has a half-empty carton of milk and some ice cream.
“How about a milkshake?” She calls from inside the fridge.
Hoshiko grabs both items before setting it on the counter.
“Yeah! What better way to eat a burger and fries than with something cold to wash it down with?”
Sou looks at the tub of vanilla. “...Alright.”
“O-kay! Two milkshakes coming up. You can start eating if you like! Oooh, I think I have some chocolate sauce around here too…”
Her nephew waits patiently for her to sit down as well, watching as she fumbles making milkshakes by hand. When it’s done, he gingerly takes the milkshake.
Hoshiko takes a bite of her burger, reveling in the first proper food she’s had in the past few days, before taking a sip of her milkshake. She glances a look over at the younger one.
“Woah!” She laughs, looking over to see Sou’s burger already gone. “When you said starving, I didn’t think you actually meant it!”
Sou stills a bit, freezing on a fry he was about to inhale. “...Sorry.” He begins to put the fry down.
Hoshiko feels like she just kicked a puppy. She quickly backtracks:
“It’s not a bad thing! Eat as quickly as you would like. Here, here. I’ll even race you.”
“You’ll get sick, Aunt Hoshiko.”
Hoshiko raises her eyebrows in surprise. “I’ll have you know I used to win all the eating competitions against Yua, and my father too! I will not surrender so easily to my nephew.”
Sou stares at the fry in hand. “Your rule is soon to be over.” He says, face completely serious, brimming with determination.
Hoshiko grabs her nearby kitchen timer and turns it to two minutes. “You’re on!”
Halfway through the competition, Hoshiko purposefully throws it. Maybe she lost her title, but she doesn’t mind. Besides, the look on her nephew’s face, a milk mustache with a grin to rival the sun, warms Hoshiko’s heart. It’s the first time he’s smiled like that all week.
Maybe , she thinks, we’ll be okay .
“When did you get that scar?” Hoshiko asks, a month into living with her nephew.
Sou sits abruptly up, flipping back upright on the couch, pulling his shirt over his stomach to hide the long swipe of a scar.
“‘It’s nothing’? Why does it looks like something sliced your stomach open?”
Sou keeps a hold onto his shirt. Hoshiko glares as if she has x-ray vision, and then notices the band-aids plastered crudely on his arms.
She grabs her coat off the hook, pulling it on. “Did something happen last evening?”
“No, Auntie...I..fell out of tree.”
“In the dead of the night.”
Sou looks like he wants to run. “...Yeah…”
It’s too early for this. “Does it still hurt?”
“No.” He refuses to look at her, instead choosing to peel a bandage off.
Hoshiko sighs, but guess she has to take his word for it.
“No more climbing trees at night, okay? You might injure yourself even worse, and I don’t want to go to the hospital again.”
Sou stares at where his band-aid was, as if shocked to see no wound underneath it.
“Okay, Aunt Hoshiko.” He complies, voice hollow, too distracted from inspecting his arm. He wordlessly grabs his backpack, following her out the front door.
He continues peeling them bandages off as he walks, marveling at the fact no semblance of any wound is left behind.
Sou’s teacher voice crackles to life through the phone. “He’s adjusting fine, albeit Sou's a little shy .”
“Has he made any friends?” Hoshiko asks, nervous.
“ Not that I’ve noticed, he mainly just stares out the window, or does his work.”
Hoshiko glances towards Sou, whose scribbling away on his notes. Large marks of black wings appear over and over.
“Well, as long as he’s not causing trouble, I suppose…”
Hoshiko doesn’t quite get it.
Every once a month, Hoshiko wakes up to find Sou littered in bruises, scratches, sometimes minor wounds.
Yet, by the time she gets home later that day, they’re always gone.
She tries bringing it up, but he only stares back.
What was he doing?
Questioning it causes only sheepish stares, half-hearted apologies.
“You should be careful, out there.” She tells him, one night over dinner. “People have spotted some really weird things happening.”
He stiffly nods. Hoshiko desperately wants to press, learn what goes on in his life, in his head, but knows it would only make him retract further back.
She has to let him grieve, she supposes.
Hoshiko is in the middle of folding laundry when she pauses.
She looks down at the basket full of Sou’s clothes, which had dwindled a bit over the year.
Did...Did Sou stop wearing underwear?
Hoshiko decides this is something she might omit bringing up to him.
Opening the door, Hoshiko is once again greeted by the sight of an empty apartment.
Recently, Sou’s started to come home at later times. Hoshiko didn’t notice at first, due to work, but it became more and more evident as time went.
It was weird. If it weren’t for the obvious sheets and pillows on top of the couch, one would never guess that a 12 year old boy has been living here for two years.
Sometimes she half-expected him not to come back.
Maybe that would be better. She loves Sou with her whole heart, but she desperately feels inadequate, struggling to stay afloat as she navigates the treacherous seas of parenting. She previously had no kids, no type of precious experience other than the occasional babysitting as a highschooler, and sometimes babysitting a toddler-version of Sou in college. Did that really make her viable to care for her dead brother’s son? She feels herself sink to the floor, back against the apartment door, thinking back to how the past couple years have gone: living with Sou felt like living with a ghost.
Her thinking briefly pauses, she notices that the faucet is running from inside the bathroom. Muffled, she hears a couple hiccups.
She gets up immediately, abandoning her train of thought like it was nothing. She moves closer, quietly opening the door.
On the bathroom floor, Sou sat silently, blankly, staring at the tile floor as he scratched at his hands in a daze. They were bloodied from repeated pickings, and it was obvious he had been crying.
“Sou?” Her voice sounds distant to even herself.
Her nephew blinks, movements slow, eyes unfocused, as he looks up at her. His face reminds her of that day at the hospital.
“Oh, kid…” She reaches into a nearby cupboard, pulls out a box of bandages. She crouches, softly grabbing his hand, starting to apply them to the numerous scratches and pricks of bloody skin.
Sou says nothing, watching as the aunt diligently covers each cut with a different colored band aid.
After a couple minutes, she smiles warmly, although there's a hint of sadness in her eyes.
“Alright! All patched up. How about we have some ice cream?”
She notes that he perks up a bit at the mention of possible dessert: “Aunt Hoshiko...don’t we need dinner first?”
Hoshiko puts a finger to her lips, winking: “Let’s break the rules today, it’s been a long one.”
She stands up and offers him a hand, her long black hair falling in front of her face.
“I’m thinking strawberry. And you?”
Sou takes a shaky breath in before he shows a hint of a smile: “Chocolate.”
“A perfect choice! Let’s go to the kitchen and whip up the best milkshake you can imagine.”
Hoshiko leads them into the kitchen, chirping away at how her day at work was. Sitting him down in a chair, she proceeds to open up the freezer and pulls out a tub of Neapolitan ice cream, and a carton of milk.
She closes the doors with a swipe of her foot. Holding the milk in one hand, and the ice cream in the crook of her neck, she pulls two glasses down from the cupboard.
Turning around and placing them all on the counter, Hoshiko notices her nephew already starting to pick at the band-aids.
“You have to let them heal, Sou.” She hums, grabbing a spoon.
“They are already.”
Hoshiko laughs, ignoring the pit in her stomach. “Unless you have super-cells or something, I don’t think so!” She plunks a couple scoops of chocolate into the glass, her voice growing soft. “Things take time, you know.” She pours in the milk, and stirs it together with the spoon, before placing it in front of him.
“Thank you.” He says, looking up from his hands, and quietly wraps them around the glass.
“Anything for my favorite nephew~” She takes a seat next to him, her own shake in hand.
I’m your only nephew. The punchline goes unsaid, used so often over the years it no longer needs to be voiced. She sees from the corner of her eye him lifting the spoon and shoving a spoonful into his mouth. He visually softens.
Continuing to eat in silence, Hoshiko can’t help but question what caused him to get so upset. She notes the injury on his arm, healing up. Has he been getting into fights? She hopes not.
The spoon clinks against the glass as her nephew sets it down. He rests his head on the table, starting to doze. She finishes up, grabs both of their glasses and washes them, before walking back and draping a blanket over his shoulders. He shifts, pulling the blanket closer, murmuring a soft thank you.
“Doesn’t it hurt?” She asks, as the younger Takayama thumbed through his math textbook. “Not having friends?”
“It’s better this way.” He responds, jotting down the equation and punching in a few numbers.
“I think it’s nice to have people to fall back on."
Sou stills. “I have you, don’t I?” It sounds a bit forced.
Hoshiko shakes her head. “We both know you don’t. Call it a Takayama curse, we’re always trying to put everything upon ourselves, denying it all the way.”
Sou thinks about it for some time. She watches his face rise in hope, to only immediately get pushed down again, shaking his head as he negates the thought.
“What’s holding you back?” She pleads, desperate in trying to help.
He stands up, walks to the door. “I’ll...be back later.” He whispers, before opening the door and practically bolting.
Hoshiko sighs, looking out the window, and watches as a large bird flings itself into the sky.
“It’s great to see you again, Hoshiko.” Her Dad greets, pulling her into a hug.
“Have you been doing okay?” She says, placing her hands on her Father’s shoulders. She had gotten the news: his lifelong friend, his partner to his business, died suddenly last week.
“I’ve been worse.” He reassures, patting her hand. “My, you’ve gotten big, Sou!”
Sou shifts the strands on his backpack. “Hi, Grandpa.”
“It’s been a while since you’ve visited Tokyo, yes? C’mon, let me show you around.”
“Dad, you don’t have to-“
“Nonsense,” He says, nodding, “just look at him.”
She glances a look over her shoulder, and spots Sou, looking out into the alley with an eye of bewilderment.
The twinkle in his eye doesn’t leave him as his Grandfather leads the way, pointing out things as he goes.
“And there’s a middle school, close by. The kids should be getting out by now.”
They keep walking, and reach a tiny bridge with water running under it.
“This is nice.” Hoshiko says, watching the water churn underneath.
Sou doesn’t take his eyes off the sweeping buildings and busy streets, teeming with life.
“Yeah” He gasps.
After visiting Tokyo, Sou becomes more distant.
“He hasn’t been coming to school.” His homeroom teacher says, hands folded in his lap.
“He hasn’t?” She already knew.
“Yes. He shows up occasionally, but he doesn’t pay attention, only stares out the window, head in the clouds. At times, during passing period, he’ll leave in the middle of the day, to go who-knows-where.
He hasn’t been turning in homework, either. He could’ve gotten away with it more in primary, but he is in 8th grade, now. His high test scores won’t keep him afloat.”
“I’ll speak to him.” Hoshiko says.
The homeroom teacher doesn’t acknowledge it, just continues shuffling papers. “You're his guardian, right? It says on his file his parents passed away, and we didn't exactly cover it last year."
“Yes, that’s right.”
The man sighs. “That explains a little bit, I suppose. No matter.” He stands, shaking hands with her.
“Until next time, Miss Takayama.”
Hoshiko grits her teeth. “Until then.”
Sou didn’t come home that night. She never got around to telling him what the teacher said. He must have knew already, though, as she saw him doing his homework a bit more after that.
Another uneventful year passes. Sou appears and disappears like nothing. He doesn’t stop to talk like he used to, he hides scars better, knows how to avoid a conversation like no other.
Sou stands in the kitchen while his aunt makes dinner.
“Aunt Hoshiko…” He begins. “I want to live in Tokyo.”
She freezes, holding the pan off the heat.
“What?” She was waiting for this, actually. Counting down the days since they visited Grandpa last year.
Sou fidgets picks at his fingers absentmindedly, “I want to work in Tokyo, I’ve already talked with Grandpa and he’s willing to let me stay and work with him in his shop.”
Jeez, don’t these two tell me anything? “Are you sure? You’re only 14, Sou.”
He leans his head down a bit, looking off to the side and smiling. “I want to help people, working allows me to do that.”
The unspoken And my grades were never going to get me anywhere anyways hangs in the room.
She glances at the couch, which had been Sou’s bed for the past 4 years. She never did get around to buying him something as simple as a futon.
Maybe the change in atmosphere would do him some good. It was too quiet here, and Sou’s restlessness buzzed like a hornet’s nest.
“...Okay.” She says. Sou smiles. “But, two conditions.” She raises a finger.
“One. You have to finish middle school. I’ll work with Grandpa to enroll you in that nearby school we saw during out visit.” Sou’s nose wrinkles up at this, obviously hating the idea.
“Two.” She smiles, bittersweet. “Call me every once in a while, okay? I’m going to miss your dumb face.” She moves her hand to scruffle his hair, causing a chuckle out of the boy.
This time, the stack of books on the table are gone, the the couch is just a normal couch. The framed picture no longer resides next to it; the one of her brother smiling at his wedding, his wife linked in his arm, both holding onto a two-month old baby boy.
Even though Sou’s presence had dwindled over the years of his stay, the apartment somehow felt even lonelier now that he actually left.
“How is it over there?” She asks, flipping through the channels of TV.
“Noisy .” The voice speaks through the line. Hoshiko laughs.
“Yeah. Can you believe your father and I grew up there?”
“It’s very you.”
“Loud, obnoxious, and busy? Sou, I’m offended.”
She hears soft chuckling through the phone.
I miss you. Hoshiko desperately wants to admit. It’s too empty here.
They’re silent on both ends.
A couple weeks go by. Hoshiko works and works, avoiding looking at the empty couch. On the fridge hangs a printed photograph of her and Sou, taken by her father on Sou’s 11th birthday.
“How’s he doing, Dad?” Hoshiko asks, holding the phone to her ear as she chops up vegetables for dinner.
“ I’m not sure. ” He quietly replies. “ He’s still absent from school a lot, but… ”
She stops chopping. “Hm?”
“He has friends, now .” His tone is full of pride, almost giddy to share the information.
Hoshiko feels the knife clatters out of her hands. She brings one up to her face. Tears spill out and roll over her hand. She feels over the moon. He was right, moving to Tokyo was the best course of action for him.
She takes a breath.
“...Could you tell Sou I’m proud of him, for me?”
When Sou gets home, her father hands off the phone to him.
“Could you tell me about them?” Hoshiko pleads, stirring up a milkshake for herself.
“Why are you so curious ?” She can practically see his creepy, wide-toothed smile.
“Oh please, this is an achievement of the highest caliber. You don’t see it, but I’m even making a milkshake right now!”
“Oh,” His tone is soft. “A milkshake sounds like a good idea .”
“I’ll wait to eat it if you want to go make one.” She hears movement, the clinking glasses and the thud of a pint.
“Don’t think I’m letting you off the hook, though. Dad already told me about one of them. Some polite boy that stops by a lot?”
“ It’s not…that often .” Sou pauses for a moment. "His name’s Karasuma Eishi. He’s...nice.”
“ Just nice? ”
“...He’s smart, and has a good heart, even if he doesn’t yet see it .”
He pauses to let Hoshiko comment. She doesn’t.
“Then there’s Kamoda Mikisada.” He continues. “He’s good at fighting, and he takes really good of his cats.”
Hoshiko feels her eyebrow shoot up. “Fighting?”
Sou hurriedly continues talking: “ Sagisawa Rei is a lot like Karasuma, they both score really high on tests. He’s...popular.
Umino Tsubame’s the only girl in the group. She...reminds me a lot of you, honestly .”
“She must be awesome, then.”
A snort sounds from the phone. “ Yes, she is pretty cool. She cares about people, a lot. ”
Hoshiko hums, taking a sip of her milkshake. “They all sound wonderful, Sou. I’m really happy for you.”
“Thank you.” He breathes through the phone, pausing as if to answer somebody else. “ I have to go now, but I’ll make sure to call sometime soon.”
The line ends and beeps, cutting off, leaving Hoshiko once again alone in her apartment.
She’s flipping through a few channels when it stops on a news channel.
Ugh, she’s never been a fan of these networks.
She’s about to click forward until something catches her eye.
A story, talking about the fated elusive “Birdman”, saving a train of people.
Some blurry images cross the screen, a couple of people share their thoughts and theories on his identity.
A clip of image rolls, a shaky camera from a witness asking the figure a question.
It ignores the camera, helping the last person out before turning around and clearing off.
The sight of its wings throws Hoshiko off guard. She quickly rewinds, landing on the clearest shot of the wing outline.
Standing up, she shuffles through a few papers she had yet to throw out.
There. She snatches the notebook paper Sou scribbled on when he was ten. She holds it up to the television, matching the symbol with the shape of the creature’s back.
Hoshiko tosses an empty container in the trash, before hearing the phone ring.
She reaches for it, and is delighted to see the number is of her father’s place.
She clicks it on, putting it to her ear.
“Sou! It’s been so long since I’ve heard from you! I have so much to ask you. But first, what’s going on?”
The line is silent, and she waits for him to speak, as usual. She thumbs the notebook paper she taped to the fridge, waiting.
“Hoshiko .” Her father’s voice sounds through the line, like a whisper.
“I’m so sorry, I can’t find him. I woke up to a note on my door with just the word ‘sorry.’”
Hoshiko feels like the wind had been knocked out of her.