Taro wished he could dream. Since being at the university in Tokyo he hadn’t been able to dream let alone travel to the Unseen Realm. After five years he wasn’t sure he would ever do it again. He had hoped to Soul Traveled when he reached the island. His sleep was plagued by the pain in his chest.
He used the sleeve of is coat to clear the condensation from the glass as he looked at the passing scenery. He focused on the mountains. They seemed to have aged thousands of years in the time he’d been gone. He couldn’t see the shrine hidden among the trees. He wondered if Miyako would even be willing to talk to him again. He pressed on his chest and gasped as another round of pain threatened to crush his heart.
No one stood at the bus stop. He hadn’t told anyone he was coming home.
The winding road up to his house was slick from the light rain. Every step increased his heart rate. Puffs of breath accented the raspy breathing.
He watched the still from a distance, trying to regain his breath. People milled around the brewery, their focus on the product. One person paused in their movements and looked over at him, standing in the yellowed street light.
“Taro, is that you?”
Taro dropped his bags to accept a hug from Kei, the Master brewer. She nearly bowled him over.
“Why didn’t you tell us you were coming? We would have sent a car to meet you. Come on out of the rain.” She kept an arm around him. He couldn’t even his breathing. “Are you alright?”
“Did you hear about Miyako?” she asked. Her brows were drawn together.
“Yes.” Taro picked up his bags again and hurried to the house.
The next morning the sun peeked out over the trees as Taro rode his old bike into town. The pavement still showed wet patches but would be gone before lunch. The newsroom was packed with desks and chairs. One man sat in his chair with his feet propped up on the desk typing on a laptop that looked like any movement would send it crashing to the floor.
“Can we help you?” someone asked.
Taro tried to catch the eye of the man who was typing. “I was just hoping to have a few words with Masayuki.”
The man’s head popped up and a grin split his features. “Taro, why didn’t you tell me you were coming for a visit? How long are you here?” He just caught the laptop before it fell and set it on his desk.
Masayuki directed Taro to a small bakery down the street from his office.
“You’ve gotten taller,” Taro said as he looked at his friend. “And you cut your hair. I almost didn’t recognize you.”
Masayuki ran a hand through his hair and grinned. “It just wasn’t cutting it for me anymore. It’s good to see you. How long are you in town?”
“I’m back. I just graduated and got a job.”
“You got a job back here? Why would you do that?”
“I’m the high school’s new psychological counselor,” Taro said peeling his pastry apart and hiding pieces of it in his napkin.
“Have you visited the others? I’m sure they would love to see you as well.”
“I plan on visiting everyone. But there’s something else.” Taro tossed his uneaten pastery in the garbage. “Have you seen anything in the Unseen World?”
Masayuki let out his breath. “I haven’t had an O.B.E. for almost three years now.”
“Do you know why?” Taro looked up, searching for any sign of pain on his friend’s face.
This time it was Masayuki who paused. “I moved in with Reika.”
Taro counted to three before he felt his voice would be normal. “I hope you and Dr. Otori are happy together.”
“We are,” Masayuki replied. “Most of the time.”
Taro sat on the steps leading up to the shrine. He held a letter in his hands that he had folded and refolded hundreds of times over the years. The year after he started his Masters he had received the letter in the mail: Taro, I’m getting married. The pain in his chest had started shortly after this.
“Taro? I hadn’t heard you were visiting.”
Taro was shaken from his reverie by the low voice. Makoto had gotten taller but nothing else had changed. His long hair was pushed back from his face, and no smile lines even hinted. He held a guitar case in his hand.
“It’s nice to see you, Makoto.” Taro stood and brushed at his trousers to clear the dirt. “What are you doing here?”
“I always come to the shrine at this time of day.” He paused and raised an eyebrow. “She’s not dead.”
Taro stuffed the letter back in his pocket. “I know she’s not dead.”
“Do you regret leaving?”
They started the climb up to the shrine. The steps had been repaired in a few places and Taro focused on the new patches as he tried to keep his breathing even.
“I didn’t think it would be this hard.” Taro paused on the stairs, trying to regain his breath. The stairs continued upwards into the trees. “I feel the weight of everything I left behind. I wonder if I made a mistake and lost something irrevocably.”
“College made you speak in big words.” Makoto stood a few steps above him, his breathing catching only here and there.
“Did you ever want to leave?” Taro asked and winced at an especially sharp pain.
Makoto turned his back and started up the stairs again. When Taro reached the top Makoto was there with a glass of water.
Miyako stood a few feet from him. She looked exactly how Taro pictured her. Her hair was still tied in two parts behind her ears. She didn’t wear her shrine maiden’s regalia, but rather plain clothes. There were holes starting in the knees of her trousers. Her mouth was the thin line of somberness that often covered it when she was young.
“Miyako-san.” Taro winced as he stuttered. “I hope I am not disturbing you, but I would like to talk to you and your husband.”
She folded her arms and looked him up and down before giving a nod. “Come into the shrine.”
Miyako’s husband was a thin fellow who often had to push his glasses back in place. He explained that he had come to the shrine to study with Miyako’s father. Taro nodded and clenched his hands. He had chosen to leave. There had never been anything between him and Miyako more than Taro’s childish infatuation.
He looked up and met her steel gaze. It was the same look as always. When she turned towards her husband it soften. A faint smile played across her lips and the corners of her eyes crinkled.
“I wish to express my congratulations. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to make it to the wedding.” Taro held out a gift and bowed his head.
“That was thoughtful of you,” Miyako’s husband said taking the gift. “I have heard a lot about your adventures when you were all in high school. It is good to finally meet the last of the group.”
Taro smiled, taking in the sight of Miyako smiling. He still wondered what would have happened if he had stayed. Voices of children could be heard outside. Makoto sat in the corner the case across his lap. He set it aside and stood up.
Miyako’s husband waved him back in place. “I’ll go take care of that. Would any of you like something to drink or eat?”
All three shook their heads. Taro stared at the floor, a buzzing in his ears. He held his breath.
After Miyako’s husband disappeared, Miyako turned towards Taro.
“Are you alright?”
Taro shook his head, his breath coming in labored gasps.
“College made you soft. We used to run up and down those stairs all the time,” Makoto said.
Taro pressed a hand too his chest. “It hurts. It’s like part of me is missing and my body can’t fix it.” His vision blackened around the edges. “I can’t do this anymore.”
Taro lay on a futon and stared up at the ceiling. Candlelight flickered across the rafters and he could just make out thin trails of smoke. Music thrummed. He tried to sit up and settled for rolling to his side. Makoto sat in the corner a child asleep on the floor in front of him. He held a guitar and picked at the notes softly.
“Is she yours?” Taro asked in a hoarse voice.
Makoto looked up from what his fingers were doing and nodded, not missing a note that Taro could tell.
“I didn’t realize you had a child. Are you married?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“There are a lot of things you would know if you had bothered to keep in touch,” Makoto said.
“I tried — I wanted to. I didn’t want to leave.”
“No one forced you to.”
“Once I decided not to take over the family business, I had to find my own path. I always planned on coming back.”
“At least you could have come to visit us.” Makoto’s voice was soft. “You were the glue that held us together.”
“You and Miyako still seem close.”
“Our daughter’s enjoy each other’s company. And my wife is religious. She finds it important, so I find it important.”
Taro pushed himself up and his breath caught.
“You should see a doctor.”
“I have. There is nothing physically wrong with me. I thought that seeing Miyako—” he trailed off. “But that was apparently a stupid conclusion.”
Makoto strummed another chord. “How is your spirit doing?”
Taro shook his head and lay back down. “Nothing’s there. I can’t enter the Unseen World anymore.”
“We all tried to leave. And we all came crawling back. Even Masayuki can’t last more than a month away from the shrine.”
“What do you think it is?”
Makoto leaned his head back and closed his eyes. “Our spirits are tied here. Our bodies can go, but our spirits stay. I’ve seen flashes of your spirit in the unseen realm. I didn’t realize it wasn’t your conscious self. I thought you were just ignoring me.”
“I wouldn’t ignore you.”
“That’s what I kept telling myself, but then you never contacted me in the Apparent World.”
Taro sat on the steps and looked down the long flight.
“I won’t carry you.” Makoto said. His still sleeping daughter was on his back secured with some cloth. From the way Makoto moved, Taro assumed he had often carried her in this fashion.
“But you would give me a push?” Taro said with a half-smile.
“See you around.” Makoto gave him a small smile and started down the path. His flashlight beam focused on the stairs.
He turned to look at Miyako. He rubbed the back of his head and blushed.
“I’m sorry I was such a bother this afternoon. I really am happy for you.”
She brushed a strand of hair from her face. “I want you to have this. Whenever we go visit my husband’s family I feel ill. This always helps make it better. Wear it especially when you sleep.”
Taro took the small charm bag from her. “Thank you Miyako-san.”
With the borrowed flashlight, Taro crept down the stairs. His bike rested at the bottom, leaning against the arch. How he always left it. A note lay in the basket. Makoto’s address and phone number.
“Come to dinner next week.”
Back at the still Taro lay on his old futon. His crystal radio sat on his desk untouched save for his mother’s habitual dusting. With the charm around his neck, Taro realized that his breathing hadn’t been quite so labored as he walked up the hill. The pain in his chest eased just enough that Taro slipped into a dream.