On the anniversary of the day her mom left, Fuyumi signs a lease on an apartment across town.
Every year on this date, she’s a little out-of-it. The week or so around it on either side bring a sharp haze that infiltrates her family home, seeping underneath doors and through cracked windows, settling into the food and pouring into her nose and mouth when she wakes up from an uncomfortable dream.
This year, Fuyumi has made more of an effort to regularly visit her mother. She thought that knowing her mother was safe and feeling a little better would be helpful to Fuyumi’s general mood around this time of year, but instead, she just feels more vulnerable. Her skin smarts like it’s been rubbed with sandpaper when she washes it in the morning.
Rarely does she need to deal with her father during the work week, but their brief conversation over breakfast is enough to put her in a tailspin. He leaves the house with a cloud of hot air sweeping around him, and he slams the door as he goes, and Fuyumi is left with shaking hands stuck in the kitchen sink, hands reddened and numbed by the steaming water pouring onto them.
All she can see around her is the memory of her mom, crying, screaming over the trembling form of her baby brother, and hearing Enji running towards them, angry enough to make the kitchen’s paint sweat because Rei ruined his favorite creation.
As if Rei didn’t do most of the fucking creating . As if Rei would ever do that if she had been in her right mind. As if Rei hadn’t been a bright and brilliant and successful pro hero until Enji did all but break her spine between his hands.
Her hands are going to be raw for the rest of the day, and maybe she’s burning them. Fuyumi stares down into the sink, where the soap has all but washed down the drain. She wonders if it hurt like this, when Touya burned alive like a screaming pile of matchsticks. Enji yelled then, too, even though it wasn’t Rei’s fault.
If it had been Rei’s fault, Enji would have done much worse than throw a glass at her head the following night. Even he knew that he just wanted to hurt someone.
Fuyumi shuts off the water. It’s not good to waste.
Her hands feel too big for her skin. They throb, adjusting to the loss of heat, as she crosses the kitchen floor with near-silent feet to find her phone. Calmly, without her voice wavering, she calls out sick for work, and then goes and finds her laptop, leaving the dishes unwashed in the sink.
She’s had an eye on an apartment for about a week now, and she’s been emailing the seller for the last couple of days. Lining up her apartment search with this anniversary is only a coincidence, but Fuyumi only takes it as a sign that she’s doing the right thing.
“You don’t need to stay there with him,” Shouto told her the last time they talked on the phone, almost a month ago. “I’m an adult after this year. You don’t need to be my mother.”
Fuyumi, filled with a sudden vicious anger, had hung up on him. She doesn’t agree with him, but she recognizes that staying in this house isn’t going to be acceptable for the rest of her life.
Hence, her current interest in this apartment.
This particular apartment is in a quiet sector of town, out of the way and unassuming. From the looks of the pictures, there are several large windows, two bedrooms, a tiny tiled bathroom, and a sweet kitchen that takes up half the living room. She’s been afraid to let herself want it, but today is a tipping point.
Now, feeling like a vase falling off of a shelf, Fuyumi responds to the latest email, confirming that she’s going to come by to see the place in person today.
Within ten minutes, she gets a rushed response-- I’m in the neighborhood now and could give you a tour, if you’d like to make your way over soon within the hour. Otherwise, I could do so this afternoon-- and Fuyumi sends an emphatic agreement to the former suggestion before slamming her laptop closed and hurrying up the stairs to grab her things.
The woman selling the apartment greets Fuyumi with a friendly, if harried, smile. Their walk up the stairs is punctuated by the seller explaining her topsy-turvy schedule for this morning and apologizing for the late notice for the apartment tour. Fuyumi nods along politely and reassures her at the correct times, and the chatter is actually very soothing. It keeps Fuyumi from getting too overwhelmed about the way that everything about the apartment complex is exactly as she’d dreamed.
“Most of this complex is made up of students,” the seller says, as she carefully makes her way up the stairs. Her soft shoes barely make a noise. It reminds Fuyumi of the quiet steps she takes in her own home, finding the right spots to keep the wood from creaking underneath her. “Are you studying right now?”
“No, but I graduated recently,” Fuyumi says. She smiles politely at the congratulations she receives for this, but ends up ducking her head shyly anyway. To salvage her awkwardness, she says, “So do most of the people here only stay for a few years?”
“It varies, but we do have a lot of people coming and going every year, yes.” As they crest the stairs to the third floor, the seller takes a turn, heading down the hall. Fuyumi follows, surreptitiously glancing around at the doors they pass. Plants adorn a couple doorsteps, and mail is scattered across others. “It’s mostly female students. I tell you this because it makes some tenants feel safer.”
Fuyumi blinks, torn between comforted and embarrassed that she’s so easy to read.
At the end of the hall, the woman unlocks a door, and invites Fuyumi inside first.
Fuyumi, suddenly a little wobbly on her feet, steps over the threshold.
The entryway opens out into the living room, unfurnished with blank white walls but filled with natural light. Fuyumi passes the kitchen, which is smaller than the pictures made it out to be but masterfully organized to fit all the appliances neatly, and stops in the middle of the large front room.
“This is a corner apartment, so there are a few issues in this room with heating in the winter, but it shouldn’t be a problem if you’re staying in one of the bedrooms,” the seller says. She pauses to give Fuyumi a moment in this room, and then resumes her silent steps towards the hallway. “If you come this way, I’ll show you the rooms.”
Visions of what she could decorate the space with begin to dance in Fuyumi’s head. She thinks about a cozy blue sofa, a matching kotatsu, a floor lamp with a red shade on it. Finding herself misty-eyed, Fuyumi swallows hard and follows behind the seller, finally finding her voice to ask, “I remember you mentioned that you don’t mind if I hang things up with screws. Is it alright to paint the walls?”
“Oh, I love when my tenants make it their own. You have a two-year lease, so I don’t mind. It’s going to be your place, after all.” The woman smiles, as if remembering a joke she told once, as she stops to open one of the bedroom doors. “I’ll come have a look at the place about a month before you leave, and if I like any of the painting or other changes you’ve made, I won’t make you repaint or undo it. Deal?”
The way she says it is so kind, so nonchalant. If Fuyumi asked the same thing of her father, she’s sure it would have turned into a lecture full of shouting. Fuyumi nods, too eager to please, and hopes that the woman understands how much it means to her.
“Deal,” Fuyumi says. Her voice sounds choked. She clears her throat, and peers into the first bedroom. It’s smaller than the one at Enji’s house, but the carpet looks soft and at the far end, a screen door opens onto a tiny, tiny balcony. It’s one of the eccentric parts of the apartment, because the balcony doesn’t even connect with the one outside the living room. Fuyumi imagines going out onto her bedroom balcony in a dramatic robe, waving mysteriously at her guests who are confined to the living room balcony.
Fuyumi smiles. At this point, she and the seller both know she’s going to sign that lease today.
On the train ride home, Fuyumi finally succumbs to her urge to cry.
Now that she’s stepped into the apartment, she doesn’t want anything less. She can imagine coming home to it, safe and sound, with nobody to be scared of. The windows would be perfect to sit next to while the sun rises, and on the tiled kitchen floor, there are no memories to push aside or paint over with flaky, crumbling paint.
Shouto and Natsuo could come visit her there. Fuyumi could let them sleep over without a looming threat of violence. She could have friends over. Maybe her mother could even come live with her, if she’s released.
Oh. Yes. Fuyumi, with a permanent residence of her own, could bring Rei home to somewhere safe.
Fuyumi curls forward, burying her face in her hands, clenching her jaw to keep her crying noises to a minimum. It’s humiliating to cry in public, actually, but it’s unlikely that anyone will see her over the high-backed seats in this train. The feeling of others’ eyes on her would be stifling--it would be enough to keep her from breaking down. Here, she’s alright as long as she’s quiet.
Fuyumi’s breath catches, crackling in her throat. She takes a breath, and then another, and then feels like she’s got some control over herself again. With that burst of emotion over with, she wipes her eyes and sits back up, keeping her eyes trained on the floor. Prolonged fits have never been a luxury that she’s had, so she’s used to shutting down outbursts.
In her own apartment, she’ll be allowed to cry as long as she wants to. The thought almost makes her smile.
The woman sitting in the row across from her pats the seat next to her, a small motion that catches Fuyumi’s attention. She glances over, and finds the woman smiling softly at her, concern painted over her features.
“Is everything alright?” the woman asks.
Fuyumi sniffles. She uses her sleeve to wipe her eyes again, and then chances a small smile. “It’s a long story. But I’m crying because I’m happy.”
“Oh, good. As long as they’re tears of celebration.” She seems relieved that Fuyumi’s not carrying some new, devastating heartbreak. Her voice barely carries over the space between them. Fuyumi wonders if her voice is naturally so soft, or if she’d had to learn how to keep it down, like Rei did. Like Fuyumi did, too.
Fuyumi’s heart aches to tell someone, anyone, who won’t have the power to ruin what she’s about to do next. She wants to tell everyone on this train that she’s about to be free. That she’s going to find a way to get her mom free, too. She and her brothers will have a safe place to run to after disastrous holiday dinners. Fuyumi will be allowed to lock her bedroom door.
“I just signed a lease on my own apartment,” Fuyumi says. She can’t quite look the other woman in the face, because just saying that sentence out loud has overwhelmed her completely. “I saved up enough to move out.”
“That’s so wonderful,” the woman says. Her voice is warm, heavy, understanding. “Really. Good luck to you.”
“Thanks,” Fuyumi says. Her face hurts from how hard she’s begun to smile. “Thank you.”
The most difficult part of the process begins two weeks later, when the apartment becomes officially hers. Somehow, Fuyumi needs to move her belongings across town without Enji noticing that her things are disappearing from the house.
The plan ends up being that she takes things across town in shifts, one duffel bag and suitcase at a time. Enji leaves in the morning, and then Fuyumi takes that day’s load with her to work, laughing it off to her coworkers and stowing the bags under her desk until she can take the long way home, stopping at her apartment to dump the things out there.
Every single day, she gets more and more paranoid that Enji’s somehow going to be able to tell that her commute home has gotten three times longer, but he never says anything. Usually, he’s still at work when she comes home, so she can start on dinner without worrying about that.
She saves the hardest items for the final load. It’s a Sunday morning when Fuyumi goes to the kitchen and takes the things she wants to keep--a bowl she made in the fifth grade, a painting on the wall, several photos from the living room, among other things. They barely fit into her suitcase, but she squeezes them in and then puts her bags by the door.
The house she grew up in has always felt empty. Now, with all of her things safely stowed away in her apartment, it feels even more hollow. She’s triple-checked for things she doesn’t want to leave behind, but she knows that checking over and over is just a way for her to stall before the worst part of this. Fuyumi’s only putting off the inevitable: the confrontation with Enji.
Vanishing without a trace is not a smart course of action. Especially because all the police will be on his side. Fuyumi’s head has been aching for days now, in anticipation of this conversation, but this is the last hard thing she has to do before she doesn’t live in this house anymore.
Do it for Rei, she tells herself sternly. Come on, buck up.
Feeling like her teeth are about to start chattering because of how shaky she is, Fuyumi sets her backpack down and takes slow, deliberate steps towards her father’s office. When her knock receives an affirmative noise, she pushes the door open and stands there, one hand white-knuckled on the edge of the door.
Enji looks up at her, annoyed at her interruption. Not a great way to start the interaction, but Fuyumi’s taking the dive anyway.
She breathes in, and on the exhale, she says, “I’m moving out.”
The room stills. Even Enji’s phone, which normally pings with nonstop messages from people who work for him, lays deathly still.
“What?” Enji asks, his voice suddenly much, much angrier.
“I’m moving out,” Fuyumi repeats, and pushes her shoulders back to stand up straighter. When he doesn’t say anything right away, she forces herself to breathe again, and then says, “I need my own space.” Her voice doesn’t waver. She sounds brave. “It’s already taken care of.”
“Your home is here, ” Enji says. He stands up from his desk.
Fuyumi, her backbone steel, stands her ground. Her hand leaves the doorway, and drops to clench at her side, but she makes sure her face remains neutral. “You can’t change my mind. I’ve already moved.”
Enji stares at her, startled, like she’s just iced the floor underneath his feet.
“I thought you were smarter than your brothers,” he finally seethes.
Fuyumi doesn’t rise to the bait, and doesn’t let herself fall under the words. Touya’s rebellion had been short-lived and justified. Natsuo’s gone because he understands how to survive. Shouto’s breaking the news to Enji soon that he’s going to emancipate himself and it’s the best decision he’s ever made.
Enji must have forgotten at some point that Fuyumi has just as much nerve as her siblings--she just knows when to bend with the wind, instead of standing rigid and being snapped in half.
“I guess not,” Fuyumi says flatly, refusing to crumble. She turns, and walks towards the front door, mindfully keeping her steps even. Any falter in her gait would betray that her skin is vibrating with fear as soon as she loses sight of Enji.
“What’s the address?” Enji asks, calling after her. His footsteps begin to sound, signaling that he’s following her. “I expect you aren’t disappearing off the face of the earth.”
Fuyumi’s heart skips. He can’t ever know. Her apartment is safe and clean and he can’t touch it or it will be ruined. Fuyumi will not let her mother come visit an apartment that Enji’s touched. She feels sick at the very idea of the possibility that she could leave her building and be confronted by her father.
“I don’t know the address by memory, yet,” she lies, without turning around. Fuyumi stoops and picks up her bags, and slips on her shoes, both of the motions businesslike and unafraid. “I’ll text it to you as soon as I can, but the taxi is here and I need to go.”
“Cancel it,” Enji says. “I’ll drive you.”
Fuyumi’s stomach rolls. She swallows, and says, “No. Thank you. No.”
He takes another step towards her. Fuyumi’s hands move before she can think--she opens the door and lunges outside. Her bag almost gets caught, and she stumbles and lurches across the porch, but then she’s in sight of the taxi and the driver has made eye contact with her, and the two of them exchange a clear look.
Fuyumi will be safe if she can make it to the car.
“Get back inside,” Enji says, his voice low and dangerous.
Fuyumi says, “I’m late. I can’t right now,” and she leaps off the porch, hurrying down the walkway without saying goodbye. Enji wouldn’t make a scene outdoors, where a neighbor could see him. Fuyumi’s brain still doesn’t stop screaming, reeling through potential scenarios until she’s inside the taxi, her bags deposited on the floor next to her, her hands free to wrap around herself in comfort.
“Everything alright?” the driver asks, looking back at Fuyumi in the rearview mirror. Her voice is low, too, but not in a threatening way like Enji’s. More in a please-don’t-run-away-like-a-feral-animal way.
Fuyumi nods tightly, forces a smile. “Could we hurry?”
“Sure.” The driver smoothly pulls out into traffic, and doesn’t ask any more questions. But Fuyumi notices that she takes some weird turns, and squeezes her way through traffic, and Fuyumi can’t help wondering if the driver’s deliberately trying to shake off anybody that could be following them.
When they reach Fuyumi’s building, the driver looks up in the mirror again, and gives Fuyumi a nod. Fuyumi nods back, and thanks her, and then makes a break for the front door.
She doesn’t fully catch her breath until she’s in her room, curled up on her new futon under the covers with her door locked. She’s never had a bedroom door that locked, before. It makes her feel even safer than she thought it would. There’s the building front door, then the stairwell door, then her front door, then her bedroom door. Enji will not get her here. Fuyumi’s even texted the building manager to say she’s not expecting guests, so that nobody will act courteous and let a stranger in.
Here, Fuyumi gathers the covers around her and squeezes herself into them like a cocoon, and finally lets out a huge shaky breath, stabilizing herself. Her phone has begun to buzz, so she turns it off and buries her face in the pillow and lets out a loud, relieved laugh that’s just for her.
The room is so quiet, but she can hear cars beeping outside, and music from one of her neighbors. Someone that lives above her laughs, and Fuyumi laughs again too, loving the way the happy noise bounces off her bare walls. It bounces differently than a raised, angry voice.
It takes Fuyumi a few hours to recover from her morning, but when she does, she rolls out of bed, unlocks her door, and ventures out into the living room. She doesn’t really have any furniture yet, so she sits on a cushion on the floor of the kitchen and calls her brothers.
The video chat screen is laggy, slow as it starts a group call, and two of the three brothers answer her. Natsuo’s blinking like he’s just woken up, and Shouto’s crunching on some kind of vegetable snack and appears to be sitting upside-down.
“What,” Natsuo gripes. It’s his fault for leaving his phone off of silent mode. Shouto crunches obnoxiously.
“Hi,” Fuyumi says. She feels like her face is glowing. “Do you want to see my apartment?”