Chapter 22—The Long Road
Asuka walked beside Aimi through the city. So far, Aimi had said little about where they were going, and even less about Kira. The stop Aimi needed to make on the way was at a floral kiosk; Aimi bought a small bouquet of pink tulips, which she said were Kira’s favorite flower.
Asuka decided to purchase a mixed bouquet as well. “As I’ve not met her,” she explained, “I think it would be a good gift.”
Aimi smiled approvingly. “Yes, it will,” she said, “Kira will be pleased.” The two again walked on in silence; Aimi had still not yet told Asuka where they were headed. Aimi had grown quiet as they left the business area near the Metro and walked toward a section where Asuka knew there was a temple.
As they approached the wrought-iron gates, Asuka realized that this was their destination, but she said nothing as they entered. They moved along a stone walkway, past a small gazebo and through some of the immaculately manicured gardens until they came to a section of tombs. Down a specific path, Aimi stopped, and Asuka did as well.
It was a family plot, with the name “Matsushita” centered on the shiny marble stone. There were spaces for five names, but only one was engraved upon it. Two large floral arrangements sat beneath the name, and incense had once burned there in a dish of salt. The previous visitors had been here some time before.
Aimi bowed before the stone, and Asuka did the same. Kneeling down, Aimi placed her bouquet next to the others. Asuka did this as well, then politely stood back.
She examined at the stone and its details; Kira would have been the same age as she and Aimi. The girl had passed away two years ago this day.
“Hello, Kira,” Aimi greeted the stone. “This is my friend, Asuka; she came with me today. I think you and she would have been good friends, as she has been to me.” Asuka watched and listened as Aimi carried on a conversation with “Kira.” There of course were no answers back, and Asuka felt as though she was listening in on one half of a conversation. Aimi spoke of many things, some of them very personal; Asuka wondered if she should move away, but remained where she was, fascinated by the scene.
At its end, Aimi reached out and touched Kira’s name on the stone. “Goodbye, Kira,” she whispered, “I love you.” She stood, and the two girls held their palms together and bowed once more.
Asuka looked over at Aimi, who continued to stare at the marker as tears welled up in her eyes. She pulled Aimi to her and rested her friend’s head upon her shoulder.
“I didn’t know,” Asuka said quietly. “I’m sorry, Aimi; but I’m glad you asked me to come here with you.”
Aimi wept quietly; she was trying to hold back, but could not. “I’m glad you did,” she said finally, “and I’ve come to a decision--I have to let Kira go.”
They turned and slowly walked back toward the temple entrance. As they reached the gazebo, Asuka saw it was unoccupied and led Aimi in there. “Tell me about Kira,” she said as the two sat together on the wooden bench, “what was she like? What books did she read, what kinds of things did she like to do? For you to hold to someone’s memory in this way, she must have been very special to you--I’d like to know.”
Aimi pulled a handkerchief out of her bag. As she wiped her eyes, she explained: “Kira grew up on our street. She was the fourth of us, Kaz, Mei and me. I often say they are almost brother and sister to me; Kira was too, but we were closer. The two of us were like one. We liked the same TV shows, the same books and we looked a lot alike; you’ve seen the picture of us.”
Aimi looked to Asuka. “Kira was wonderful,” she said. “She had a smile, or could manage one even when she didn’t feel up to it. There was always a good feeling when she was around. She had two little brothers, and her parents were very nice. I never felt so comfortable around another person, but for Kira. That is, until recently.”
Asuka nodded. “I think I know what you mean,” she replied, “and I appreciate that. But…” Asuka paused; she didn’t want to ask this question, but had to. “What happened to Kira?”
Aimi wiped her eyes again. She stared down at the stones in the gazebo, and replied: “One day, Kira didn’t come to school. She usually came over to my house to get me, the way Kaz and Mei do now. We thought she was ill, and when I went over to her house that afternoon, there was no one home. I tried calling the house that evening, but no one was there.
‘Kira didn’t come around the next day either, or the next. I began to get really worried, and Dad finally made a call to Kira’s father. He only said that Kira had gotten very sick, but that she should be home soon. I thought then she’d be all right, she’d just gotten a bad illness and had to go to the hospital or something.
‘After school the next day,” Aimi went on, “I went over to Kira’s. The car was there, but her mother would not let me in. She apologized, and told me that she would come over later and explain everything.”
Aimi put her arms about her shoulders to control their shaking. “Now I was really worried,” she continued, “I knew something bad had happened, but I didn’t know what.”
Asuka put her arms around Aimi as she shuddered. “Her mom came over,” Aimi managed to say, “and we all sat down. Kira had complained of a stomachache, a bad one the night before this. The next morning, they found her lying in the bathroom, unconscious. They rushed her to the hospital.”
Aimi fell silent. “What did they find out?” Asuka asked.
“Cancer,” Aimi replied quietly. “I don’t know what kind; all I know is that it had spread through her body very fast. The doctors couldn’t do anything for her; they said radiation might be the only way, but they weren’t sure that Kira was strong enough to take it. So Kira’s parents brought her home; they didn’t want her to die in the hospital.”
“I can understand that,” Asuka said.
“I asked to see Kira,” Aimi mumbled, now barely able to keep her words formed, “but they wouldn’t let me. I insisted, and finally her mother said it would be all right, but only for a few minutes. We went over, and I remember the house being so quiet; even her brothers weren’t making any noise. It was like walking into this temple; it was so quiet, but there I could feel no peace.”
Tears dripped from Aimi’s eyes onto the wooden deck before her. “Her mom took me to her room,” she explained, “the door was closed. She warned me that Kira was being given a lot of medication for her pain, and that she might not wake up. I went in; the room was dark. The only light came from the crack between her window and the shade. There was a chair by the bed and I sat down. Kira was lying there, and even in that dim light, I saw all I needed to see.”
Aimi sat up; tears continued to run down her face and stained her dress, yet she remained composed. “Kira looked so sick,” she said. “Her face was all drawn in, and I could tell by the outlines of the covers how thin she’d gotten. Kira had been wasting away, and none of us even knew. One arm was over the covers; and it was connected by a tube to a machine that was injecting medicine. I took her hand and called her name. At first there was no answer, then her eyes opened.
‘She smiled, and said, ‘Aimi…you came.’ She tried to squeeze my hand, but couldn’t, she was too weak. So I held it and talked to her, tried to make her feel better and let her know that it would be all right.
Aimi sniffed. “You wouldn’t believe what she told me.”
Asuka held Aimi tighter to her body. “Try me.”
‘“No,”’ Kira said. ‘I know that I am going to die, but don’t be sad for me, Aimi. While I still can, let me say I have had a wonderful life, and you are a big reason for it. I love you, Aimi; remember me to Kaz and Mei, and your family.’”
Aimi sniffed and wiped her nose with her soaked handkerchief. “Then Kira did something,” she said. “She raised her hand and pointed toward her dresser. That photo of us, the one in my room? It belonged to her.
‘Take it,’ she said. Her eyes closed, her hand fell back down into mine, and that was all. I kissed Kira on the forehead, and I took the frame. Kira didn’t wake up again; her parents told me she died later that night.”
Aimi leaned over as she cried out again, her body jerking with sobs. Asuka held Aimi to her and said, “I’m sorry, Aimi, I am. I think I know what you meant back there, about letting her go. Let it all go Aimi, now! You can always have Kira in your heart, that won’t change. I can’t be Kira, but I can be me.”
Aimi cried out and buried her face in her handkerchief, and her body convulsed as she screamed and cried without shame. Aimi let everything she’d held in for two years out of herself; the last image of Kira, not the one she wanted to remember before eyes, which made Aimi cry out even louder.
It was some time before Aimi was able to regain control. Using Asuka’s handkerchief now, she dried her eyes and whispered, “Thank you, Asuka. You’re right; Kira will always be with me, and that void in me has been filled. I can stand on my own, too—I will do it.”
“You have your family,” Asuka told her, “and you have your friends. There they are now.” She pointed to the walkway. There, approaching was the Other Roads Club; Kaz, Mei, Minoru, Midori and Kaldera.
All filed into the gazebo; Minoru sat on the other side of Aimi, and Midori went to her knees before them. “You followed us here?” Aimi asked.
“We told them,” Mei replied. “We kind of had to, but it was time.”
“We’re here for you,” Midori told Aimi as she took her hand, “the club is here for whichever of us is in need.”
Aimi smiled, though it was hard to at this point. “I am so happy to hear that,” she said. “At a time when so much else has happened, your being here for me is wonderful. Thank you all.”
“I have an idea,” Kaldera said. Indicating his guitar case (Aimi noted that Kaz and Minoru each had their instruments), he suggested, “Shall we give Kira the send-off she deserves?”
“Yes, Kaldera,” Aimi replied she and the others rose. “That’s a wonderful idea.”
The group followed Aimi and Asuka back to the stone. All stood in silence as the three unpacked their guitars and shamisen and tuned. Standing before Kira’s resting place, Kaldera began to pluck the strings with his fingers. Kaz and Minoru followed in their own fashion, and Kaz sang:
“There are the ones you call friends
There are the ones you call late at night
There are the ones who sweep away your past
With one wave of their hand…”
Others visiting the graves of their loved ones stopped to listen, even from a distance. They knew a tribute was being paid, and did not move out of respect.
“There are the ones you call family
There are the ones you hold close to your heart
There are the ones who see the danger in you
And won’t understand…”
Kaldera then sang the chorus, with Kaz doing a harmony and trading some of the lines:
“I can hear your voice in the wind
Are you calling to me, down the long road?
Do you really think there’s an end?
I have followed my dreams, down the long road…”
Aimi kneeled again before the stone; something was drawing her to it. As she reached out her hand, Aimi saw what she knew no one else could. She wasn’t even sure herself, but there it was.
Before her eyes was a transparent image of a girl, emerging from the stone. Kira was smiling, and reaching for her hand with both of hers. Aimi silently drew in her breath; this can’t be real.
But it was; Aimi felt Kira’s hands, those soft hands take her outstretched one, just as Aimi had felt them in the past. Staring at the apparition, Aimi watched Kira as she leaned down and kissed her hand, then looked into Aimi’s eyes and smiled. It felt real, it was happening!
“Got to find you tonight
Are you waiting for me, down the long road?
I have followed dreams (I have followed my dreams)
I have lived my whole life, down the long road
Are you waiting for me…?”
Aimi smiled back as she watched the picture before her eyes change. She was now standing at the side of a dirt road, with fields on either side, plus a fence along the right-hand edge.
Kira was there, too, but now she was walking down the road, into the distance. The road had a slight rise, and just before she went out of sight, Kira turned once more, smiled and waved.
Aimi waved back; then Kira was gone.
Aimi blinked; she was now back with her friends before the stone. She felt the song fill her being; Aimi’s body and soul had both quieted, her mind was calm. With all this, Aimi felt stronger than she had in some time.
Dear Kira: this will be the last time I write to you in this way. But I will still write in my journal; it is good for me, I know. This does not mean I have forgotten you; as Asuka says, you will always be in my heart, and you will always be my friend. Here and now, I have new friends, and some old; they will help me in times when I need it, and I hope to always be there for them if possible. Thank you for your friendship, Kira, and your love--perhaps we’ll meet in Heaven someday.
“I can hear your voice in the wind
Are you calling to me, down the long road?
Do you really think there’s an end?
I will live my whole life, down the long road…”
(Writer's Note: "The Long Road" is written by Cliff Eberhardt. It first appeared on the album of the same name in 1990, as a duet with Richie Havens. The song was re-recorded by Eberhardt on 500 Miles: the Blue Rock Sessions, 2009.)
There you have it...let me know your thoughts, please...