A Shrine at the Inn

The year I quit my job and followed Yui to Hokkaido was the year my stepmother’s father was dying. I couldn’t find the right way to phrase it; stepgrandfather, maybe—my grandfather by obligation, not my grandfather by birth. It was the year before the quake, and for reasons I couldn’t explain, the distinction felt significant.

My stepmother called and asked if I could drive my younger sister, Hotaru, out to my stepmother’s hometown to visit before the end. Yui had left days earlier, and my apartment was scattered with memories—trinkets and photographs, an old sweatshirt that still held the scent of her perfume. I told my stepmother I would be happy to take Hotaru. I needed the distance.

I borrowed a van from a friend and picked my younger half sister up from a private dormitory near her prestigious university. It was a swanky part of town—perhaps the most international of Tokyo’s districts—and the streets were crowded even at the early hour I arrived. She climbed into the passenger seat and shut the door behind her. She was wearing a lot of makeup and her hair had been elaborately curled. It would have taken her a long time to do; she must have woken up at five or even earlier.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I replied.

It was a long drive to my stepmother’s hometown and not one I had made before. My stepmother lived with her parents in Ishikawa prefecture, a few hours through the mountains, and had since her separation from my father nearly six years earlier. Though they had stopped living together, the divorce was never finalized. We weren’t what you could call close, but we were family.

“When did you last see Mom?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Probably Golden Week.”

“It’s been a while, then.”

Hotaru shrugged and didn’t say anything. I turned on the radio and flipped through a few stations before settling on one broadcasting American rock. Sometimes understanding only a handful of the lyrics makes it easier to concentrate. Hotaru cracked her window and wind whistled through the van. Clouds were gathering. It seemed as though it was going to rain.

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