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Monday, November 28, 2011

Take Another Road, Chapter 24--"Coming Together"

Been a while, I know...but we're getting right down to the near-end of "Take Another Road."  Here follows Chapter 24...enjoy!


Chapter 24--Coming Together
            Aimi stared through the glass door, and looked over the harbor and sea beyond.  The clouds were heavy, and their color was very odd.  To her right, Kaldera’s marine radio played at high volume, and the reports coming from it were not good.  The man himself sat before his drafting table and made notes with a compass and pencil on the nautical chart clipped to it.
            She then turned and surveyed the room:  Kaz sat on the couch and idly played guitar, but his primary attention was the radio, too.  Most of the club had been due to come over this evening, save Asuka and Minoru, who had gone for a sail with their parents.  Mei and Midori were due, but had not yet shown up.
            Aimi turned back to the window.  Lightning flashed on the horizon, and rain was just beginning to fall.  She thought of what shaped up to be the dark, stormy night she’d read of many times, in light novels and other books. 
            This weekend had arrived on the heels of events that saw nearly everyone go to pieces in some fashion.  The revelation of Minoru’s actual parentage, Asuka and her family’s varied reactions, her own breakdown over Kira, and then the news that Kaz’s parents were breaking up.
            As bad as it all felt, Aimi’s own pain had been lessened by having Asuka at her side when she made her decision.  The others too had found their own strength, in the knowledge that friends were there for them, if needed.
            Things had brightened since then, and culminated to the day before, when all gathered at the Matsunaga Dojo for Mei’s testing.  Aimi was not about to miss her lifelong friend’s test, and Kaz had seconded that emotion.  The rest of the club had indicated they would be there; Aimi could tell Mei had the largest contingent of supporters by far.
            The parents, families and other spectators had crowded into the back of the room, plus the spaces in the foyer where they could look in.  Reiko was there, and while she did not look well, she did not let her illness stop her from attending.  Mei’s father was also there, and sat beside his former wife.  There appeared to be no animosity between the two, which was a good sign.
            Kaldera was on hand as well.  While waiting for the tests to begin, the uniformed students stretched and practiced; during this Mei came over to speak to her parents and thank everyone for being there. 
            “Are you nervous?”  Aimi asked.
            “Scared shitless,” she whispered in Aimi’s ear, then pulled back and added, “but if I wasn’t I’d blow it.”  Mei had little else to say, and was clearly preoccupied with what lay ahead.
            A gong sounded, which silenced all loose talk by the spectators.  Everyone took their seats, and the students lined up in rows by rank.  Matsunaga and three fellow instructors, resplendent in their black belts and gis stepped in front of the judging table before the mirrored side of the wall, and announced the testing would now begin. 
            Starting with the lower ranks, each group demonstrated their forms.  The students then paired off in a series of maneuvers against attack (known as “one-steps”); the same duos then were called one at a time to spar in mock combat.  At the end of each rank test, the four men would confer, and then announce which students had passed on to the next rank. 
            Fortunately all the students were doing well, and Aimi was glad to see there had been no failures among the less-experienced students.  While she had never been a fan of martial arts, in films or otherwise, these events always interested Aimi, especially as Mei was involved.  She noticed that as the tests moved into the higher ranks, the forms were harder, and students were required to demonstrate their technique by breaking boards, both with their fists and feet. 
            This portion of the test was spectacular in itself.  Aimi had seen Mei do breaks before, but some of these students did not look big or strong enough to be able do it.  Yet pine boards were shattered again and again, the pop of the wood reverberating off the walls of the dojo. 
            Finally, it came down to Mei and the other young man, known to them as Ishikawa:  the two stood side by side before the judges, and began the form.  Each worked at remarkably the same speed, as they executed the required punches and kicks.  Both did it the same, and Aimi guessed flawlessly, for Matsunaga allowed himself a slight smile at the end of it.  The one-step demonstration was then conducted, and the two then sparred for three minutes. 
            This was not full contact, but Aimi could tell Mei was fighting Ishikawa as if it were a real battle.  Mei was laying her kicks in, but pulling back before she really stuck her opponent.  Ishikawa responded in kind, and there were some in the crowd who wondered aloud if the two would “go cement” on one another before it was over.
            “Time!”  Matsunaga called the halt; Mei and Ishikawa returned to their face-off position and bowed to each other, then to the four.  Now came the breaks; Mei was first to demonstrate hers. 
            Students were enlisted to hold four sets of three inch-thick pine boards at heights designated by Mei.  Two students each held one set, and clamped their hands around all four edges of the boards.  Two sets of boards were set side by side to Mei’s right, and two to her left.  The distance was about two meters apart, the same as the posts in Mei’s back yard, Aimi noted.  
            Standing between these, Mei began from her “set” position and gave a “Hah!”  She rounded on the first two sets of boards with a pair of vicious instep kicks.  Both were with the right foot, a middle and a high kick, and each shattered the boards with ear-ringing impact. 
            Mei then turned, gave another shout, and put her each of her fists through the other sets, and those too gave way.  She then returned to her starting position and bowed.  The assembled applauded.
            Ishikawa was next.  A tall, lanky man with short, spiked hair, he set up two pairs of students in the same configuration.  This demonstration however, was different:  one set of boards was held in front of Ishikawa at eye level, while the others were at the level of his solar plexus.  As Mei had done, he practiced each move:  a reverse high kick, then a knife-edge attack on the other set with his right hand. 
            Aimi’s eyes widened as she saw what Ishikawa was planning to do.  “He’s not--” she whispered.
            “--he is.”  Kaz breathed back.
            Ishikawa took the set position, spun and shattered the first set of boards with the high kick, then turned.  With a roar, he took one step and thrust his right hand forward, fingertips first. 
            The crack of the boards was deafening, but Ishikawa made the break look like he was putting his hand through a lace curtain.  The crowd applauded enthusiastically, as Ishikawa returned to the set position and bowed.
            Mei was then called to stand beside Ishikawa.  There was silence as Matsunaga and his colleagues spoke quietly among themselves and compared their score sheets.  The four judges stood up, and two of them moved before the students.  There was a command, and both men began to untie the red belts around Mei and Ishikawa.
            Mei had been on automatic from the beginning of the competition.  Her form went well, and she’d accomplished the breaks, the biggest concern for her.  She looked out the corner of her eye at Ishikawa.  He was looking down, and watching as his belt left his waist.
            Hers too, was now gone.  Matsunaga stepped up to her and began to tie a new belt around hers, as the fourth judge did the same for Ishikawa.  She looked up; Matsunaga was carefully and mindfully tying the knot but he looked up for just a moment too, and grinned.
            “Turn!”  One of the judges called.  Mei and Ishikawa did so, and faced their fellow students and the others.  The judge called their names, and their new rank. 
            There was a long moment of silence; Mei thought she would faint, but she remembered herself.  She and Ishikawa turned back, bowed to the judges, to one another, and then they embraced.
            The two were mobbed by their fellow students, and the full room stood, applauded.  Eventually, Mei found her way through the crowd to Reiko and her father; both hugged and kissed her, and told her how proud they were.  Mei then went for Midori, got a kiss from her and the congratulations of the others.
            “You were great!” Midori exulted.  “You earned it.” 
            “Yes, you indeed deserved it.” Aimi told her.
            Mei was jubilant, inside and out.  Then as she excitedly spoke with her friends, she received a tap on her shoulder.  She turned, and looked up at the dark-haired man standing there.
            He was an older man, taller and heavier than most of the men here, but still had an athletic build.  Though in a suit, Mei recognized this man (as did nearly everyone else in the place).  She stared; Mei could not believe he was here. 
            “I understand we share a name,” he said in a quiet, but deep voice and offered his hand.  “I don’t believe we are related, but Sensei Matsunaga invited me here to see this day.  You did an outstanding job, and you carry our name very well.”
             Mei remained speechless, and the man grinned at that.  “Thank you Maeda-san,” Mei replied when she finally found her voice, and she shook his hand and bowed. 
            Maeda did the same and wished her luck.  He then moved on to speak with Ishikawa and some of the others.
            Aimi smiled, despite the dark and threatening weather before her eyes.  The day ended with a party at Tanaka’s, which Asuka and Minoru’s family threw for Mei as a surprise.  Mei deserved it after all her hard work, and yet there was a change in her:  Midori had been a big part of that change, it was clear, but Mei was softening; not in a bad way, but she was letting others see what she and Kaz had long known about her.
            Rain spattered hard against the window, and lightning crashed.  This, plus the crackle of the radio brought Aimi back to real time.  Kaz had joined Kaldera at the table; their eyes were on the computer screen, which was linked to a weather service radar scan.  “This storm came together really fast,” Kaldera commented, “faster than I’ve ever seen.” 
            He indicated with his pencil the line of heavy showers, and tapped the screen on the red area.  “That’s over us right now, guys,” he added.  “If this doesn’t become a typhoon, I’d be damned surprised.”
            Kaldera looked worried, Aimi noted as he went to the window and stared out.  “This is bad,” he said, and as if he knew what Aimi and Kaz were about to ask, went to the radio and picked up the mic.  Using a mixture of radio jargon and plain language, Kaldera called up the Kiyomi and asked for their position. 
            There was a long silence, but for the crackling of static; then there came a response, and Keru’s voice:  “Kaldera, Kiyomi here; seas are very heavy, but we should be able to make the harbor.  We are only about ten kilometers from the entrance.”
            Kaldera seemed to be the only one who understood exactly what Keru had said, as he made notes on a pad.  “Call for assistance if you require it,” Kaldera responded, “out.”  Replacing the mic, Kaldera began to take measurements, then made a mark on the chart.  The others leaned over, and he pointed to the small “X” he had made, the rough latitude and longitude beside it.  The mark appeared to be in open water, but not that far from shore. 
            “That boat in high seas is gonna be impossible to do anything with,” Kaldera said, more to himself than his companions.  “Keru is a competent sailor, but he takes chances.  Today was one of them, though in fairness this storm was not predicted.”
            There was a knock at the door; and Kaz went to get it while Kaldera picked up the telephone and made a call.  While he was busy, Aimi turned and saw Kaz leading Daisuke and Saki into the room.  Both were in raincoats and drenched from the short run from Daisuke’s car inside. 
            “It was pretty bad getting over here,” Saki said as she kicked off her heels and crossed the room, her long, wet hair trailing behind her.
            “Have you heard from Keru at all?”  Daisuke had dropped them off at the dock earlier in the day, and his face was concerned. 
            Kaldera turned as he hung up the phone.  “Dangerous seas all across the region,” he reported. “I just talked to a friend at the Coast Guard station.  All units are out dealing with distress calls, up and down the seaboard.  They’ve even appealed to the Americans for help, it’s that serious.  As for Keru, it sounds like they’re holding their own, but the last few miles will be a crawl with these winds.”
            They all stood at the windows; the rain was now almost parallel to the water, and struck the glass harder than before.  Then the radio crackled again.  “This is Kiyomi, a voice called, “we are in an emergency situation!”
            All looked at one another, as Kaldera rushed to the radio.  It was Minoru’s voice.  “This is Kaldera,” he responded, “what is your situation?”
            They crowded around the receiver, and Kaldera turned the volume to maximum.  “We’ve hit something,” Minoru said, “and we are listing.  The motors are stalled, and my father’s hurt.”
            “What is his condition?”  Kaldera asked.  He ignored the reactions of those around him and listened hard.
            “He fell when we struck.”  Minoru had to shout to make himself heard.  “He has an arm injury.  The rest of us are okay; we’ve got lifejackets on, but we need help!”
            “It’s on the way,” Kaldera replied, “stay on this channel.”  Kaldera picked up the phone again. 
            Everyone backed off to give Kaldera the space he needed; Aimi suddenly felt afraid for Asuka and Minoru, as well as their parents. 
            “They’re out there,” she whispered to the others, “what are they going to do?”
            “They’ll have to wait until the Coast Guard gets there,” Daisuke replied, “Kaldera’s relaying the distress call.  But don’t worry; that boat has a double bottom, it’ll stay up until help arrives.”
            Kaldera hung up the phone, and all turned.  His hand remained on the phone as it sat in its cradle, and he was staring off.  “What is it?”  Kaz asked.
            “My friend at the guard station,” he explained.  “There’s been a collision up the coast, between a cruise liner and a freighter.  No one’s hurt, but they’re evacuating the liner because she’s taking on water.  There’s two thousand people on board her; just about everything’s gonna be headed for that.”
            “Then,” Aimi asked, trying not to sound panicked, “they’re leaving Minoru and the others out there?”
            Kaldera shook his head in disgust.  “Said they’d get there when they could!”  He again went to the window and stared out at the storm.  The others did the same; there didn’t appear to be anything anyone could do.
            As she stood there, Aimi felt Kaz’s arm go around her waist.  
            “I know,” he whispered in Aimi’s ear, “I’m thinking the same thing you are.”
            Minoru secured the steering wheel of the Kiyomi with a line, and checked to ensure the engine throttles were down.  It was hard enough to do even the most simple of tasks, in near-total darkness and the boat listing to port. 
            He shone the flashlight from the emergency kit over the cabin; everything was out of kilter by the list and being tossed about by the storm.  Keru was leaning back against the wall, as Nanae and Asuka fitted his left arm into a sling.  He also had a gauze bandage wrapped around his forehead.  All were in lifejackets over their sailing clothes or bathing suits, and while the women busied themselves in looking after Keru, Minoru could tell they were frightened.
            He was, too--the day had been cloudy, but there were some breaks of sun and the weather report only mentioned the possibility of rain and some swells.  Minoru of course knew that Pacific storms could come up out of nothing and the sudden ones could be as rough as any. 
            The Kiyomi lurched, and Minoru gripped the lashed wheel to keep from sliding into the others.  Keru groaned over the screeching winds, and in the dark he heard the fearful cries of Asuka and Nanae; he could nothing, but hang on.
            Minoru’s thoughts traveled back to the days before; he knew his mind had brought him there to help keep him calm.  He took refuge in them, though his nerves remained on alert for the slightest change in the Kiyomi’s disposition.
            After meeting up with Aimi and Asuka at the temple, the group had paid respects to Kira, the girl no one knew apart from Aimi.  On the way back to Kaldera’s van, Minoru had taken Asuka aside, and the two hung back from the others.  He again apologized to Asuka for running out on her and for causing such drama. 
            Asuka stopped walking.  “I don’t think you could have done it less dramatically,” she told him; and then she smiled. 
            Her arms went about him, and much to Minoru’s relief Asuka embraced him, this time in a different way; it was one that felt more comfortable than any. 
            “You are my brother, Minoru,” she said, and held him at arm’s length.  “To me, that is a greater honor than any I can think of.  I still love you, and I will, always.”
            Minoru could only pull his sister to him and hang on.  It was what I needed to hear, so desperately.  I felt painfully guilty for not telling Asuka the truth about Keru and Ebissan.  Thank God she forgave me; I ran away that day because I feared her reaction.  Even after I knew it would be all right, I still couldn’t believe it.
            What was even better was the talk he had that evening with his parents.  All four spoke again that night at the house; Nanae also embraced Minoru and welcomed him into the family.  Keru had changed, too--he seemed chastened by all that had occurred and promised to make amends.  The conversation that night had been a long one, and there was still much left to be decided, but for once Minoru felt like he was in the family that he’d always needed.
            But now that family was in dire straits, and no pun intended, Minoru thought.  The clouds had gathered suddenly, and Keru prudently turned the Kiyomi about and headed for home with all speed.  As the rain began to fall harder, the helm controls were transferred to the inside cabin.  Everyone put on sweatshirts or warmer clothes, then their lifejackets and found the best spots they could inside to ride out the waves, which increased in height with every pass.
            Minoru had joined Keru at the helm.  Wedged into his chair before the wheel, Keru feathered the throttles against the waves as the Kiyomi was being thrust over them; the conditions were causing the screws to turn too fast.  “It’ll be slow,” Keru admitted, his voice a shout over the sound of the waves and wind, “but we should make it.  The channel is a clear one, and it’s deep enough until we get into harbor.”
            Minoru had nodded, and set his feet so he could stand beside Keru and help if needed.  The marine radio was blaring and there were increased reports of boats in trouble on the emergency channel, which Keru had turned to just in case it was required.
He wondered how Keru could see at all through the Kiyomi’s windows.  Visibility appeared to be zero to him; Minoru had learned how to gauge distance from sailing with Kaldera, but there was none here.  He also wondered about Keru’s assurances as well--there were shoals around here, and Minoru knew of at least one sunken wreck that was not yet on the published charts.
            Then it happened.  Minoru didn’t know if the Kiyomi had been blown onto the shoals or what, but the sudden heeling over of the boat changed everything.  Minoru found himself on the deck, and he saw the world tumbling before his eyes.  He heard Nanae and Asuka scream.
            Minoru rolled onto his back.  Once his eyes focused he realized the lights were out.  He was lying on a slant; the Kiyomi was listing, and the entire vessel shuddered as the engines whined in protest. 
            He rolled over, grabbed the rail and pulled himself to the empty chair, and yanked down the throttles.  The boat had struck something, and the hull had to have been breached.
            The radio was at an angle, but still secured in its housing, the receiver dangling.  Without power from the boat, the radio’s battery had taken over; as a result, the light was dimmer.  Minoru grabbed for the swinging mic and looked to his left, where he heard a moan. 
            Keru was down, and Nanae was trying to pull her husband to a sitting position.  Asuka scrambled up to the helm, where the first aid kit was located.  As she did so, hers and Minoru’s eyes met in the radio’s light.
            Neither said a word.
            Mei found it almost impossible to stay on her feet, despite her girth.  Her arm was hooked into Midori’s as the two struggled through the boatyard.  Using some of the boat hulls and parked vehicles as protection, the two made their way down to the dock area. 
            “We’re almost there,” Mei shouted to Midori as they arrived at the corner of the street before the turn to Kaldera’s.  Midori indicated she understood, and both adjusted their rain jackets and hoods.  At a momentary lull in the wind, they turned and were about to make a run down the pier, when they stopped.
            It was not what they saw, but what they didn’t see that stopped them.  The storm kicked up again and blew both girls back, and the rain blinded them. 
            Clinging to each other, they wiped their eyes and looked again.  “Oh my God,” Midori shouted, “it can’t be!
            Mei couldn’t believe it, either.  “The boat’s gone!”


And there you have it...there are only two chapters left to go in Book 1 of The Other Roads Club series; I'm interested to know your thoughts.

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