Title: Game Over
Theme: Hide and Seek (October 29th)
Genre: Family Drama
Version: Manga (pre Classic)
Rating: PG (for grief, orphans and family troubles)
Where are we?
What the hell is going on?
The dust has only just begun to fall.
Crop circles in the carpet,
Spin me around again
And rub my eyes,
This can’t be happening…
The sweeping insensitivity of this still life.
Imogen Heap, Hide and Seek
It should not have happened. They should have been safe. They should have been alive. Helga knew all this. Just as she knew that they were dead and never coming back. But she didn’t understand it and she was a grown woman. How could she ask a six-year-old boy to understand, to accept that his mama and papa were never coming home? It was hypocritical.
She hadn’t wanted to bring Taba back here, but he’d insisted on coming, and she found it difficult to say no to him at the moment. Perhaps he knew that, perhaps that was why he’d been so stubborn. Digging in his heels and staring at her with his father’s eyes. She looked around at the living room, or what was left of it: blackened walls and soot streaked window frames empty of glass. That had shattered in the heat. A shell of a place, empty of any life. She bit her lip against the wrench of memory and slowly picked up a photograph. The frame was blackened and the glass was cracked, but… She pulled the paper out. Yes, the picture was intact.
Astrid and Hiro smiling at the camera, Astrid looking tired but triumphant, her eyes brilliant with pride, Hiro with his arms around her, head leaning against hers, and in Astrid’s arms…
Helga carefully put the picture into the photo album she kept in her bag. There wasn’t much left. If only she could go upstairs into the bedrooms, but the stairs weren’t safe. Her throat closed up. Astrid had fallen down those unsafe stairs and broken her neck. Killed on impact, that was the phrase they’d used. That was something. Better than lingering on life support for a week as Hiro had done, but why? Why did they both have to die? Didn’t he deserve at least one living parent? She looked up at the ceiling and took a deep breath, swallowing the tears down, tipping them back inside her heart, then turned and went out into the corridor.
“Taba?” she called.
There was a scuffling sound from the direction of the dining room. Then he called out, the first time she could remember him raising his voice since he’d been told his father was dead. “I’m hiding. And I’m not coming out until you find me.”
Helga almost smiled. She put her bag down in the corridor (nobody was going to steal it, after all) and walked into the dining room, making as much noise as possible. It wasn’t really necessary but she often found herself wanting to baby him at the moment. Even though he was good enough to make her search for several minutes. She knocked on the dining room wall, because the door had been taken away. It had buckled and warped in the heat but that meant the rest of the dining room furniture was almost unmarked. “Anyone in here?” Helga said.
He didn’t answer. No more scuffling, no giggling. He took his games seriously. And it struck her that Astrid or Hiro must have stood here like this, calling for him. Grief swept over her and she closed her eyes for a moment before moving forward. She knocked on the cupboard doors and made a show of looking under the table, even though that was far too obvious. Then she looked around seriously, considering the room. He was small and thin, so he could fit into awkward places, and he was good at holding himself still so that nobody knew he was there. Sometimes it was almost like he made himself invisible. Helga bent sideways, looking at the gap between the grandfather clock (still working) and the wall. And there he was, blinking back at her. She smiled gently. “Found you,” she said. “Coming out?”
Taba eased out of the gap and hugged her around the waist. “Did you find what you wanted?” he asked, voice muffled.
Helga put one hand on the silk of his hair, pure platinum. “There isn’t much to find. Did you find anything you wanted to take back?”
He shook his head. “They’re not here.”
The disappointment in his voice was so deep and fresh that Helga bent down and picked him up, holding him close. “No, my darling, they aren’t here.”
“I thought they would be,” he said simply. “I could almost hear them calling me. I could see them out of the corner of my eye.” He touched his eyelid gently. “Like they were just out of reach. I thought if I hid, they’d come out. Then it would be them trying to find me, not the other way round.” He stared at her, his eyes huge with tears. “Why won’t they come out, Bestemama? Why won’t they play with me?” He buried his face in her shoulder. “Why did they go away?”
Helga touched his hair, his neck, his cheek, trying to comfort him, even though she knew he didn’t want her. The people he wanted to comfort him were dead. “They didn’t want to leave,” she said, forcing herself to be calm. “But they didn’t have a choice. If I could do something, anything, to bring them back, Taba, I would do it.”
“No!” His arms tightened around her neck. “I don’t want you to go.”
Helga put him down so she could look straight into his eyes. “I’m not going anywhere, Taba.”
“That’s what Mama and Papa said and they went away.” He glared at her, and through her. At the people who’d dared to break a promise like that. The anger in that gaze was heartbreaking.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Helga repeated. She knew that only time would reassure her grandson on this point, but it didn’t hurt to say the words out loud. “I wouldn’t leave my beautiful boy all on his own,” she continued, stroking his hair. “What would Bestepapa do? Can you imagine him trying to make breakfast for you?”
Taba smiled at that, tiny but real, and shook his head.
“Exactly.” She went out into the hallway and picked up her bag, then held out her hand. “Come on. You’ve been a good boy. I think we can leave now.”
They left the house and Helga locked the door behind her, even though there was nothing left to take. She could see Taba’s head turning occasionally as they walked down the street, waiting for one of his parents to come after them, waiting to hear their voices call out his name.
“How about I take you to the Hikawa shrine?” she said as they stopped at some traffic lights. “We’re near there, if you’re not too tired.”
“Why?” he asked, swinging their hands as he considered the proposal.
“You’ve always wanted to go there, haven’t you?” she asked, thinking back on all the times he’d talked about walking up the steps and finally walking under the tori gate.
He nodded. “Mama said she’d take me.”
For a moment, Helga hesitated, but then she reminded herself he wouldn’t have any bad memories if Astrid had never taken him. “I’m sure she won’t mind me doing that instead,” she said, watching for the green light.
“But you’re not Shinto, Bestemama,” Taba said, looking up. “Are you allowed?”
“I think I have the right to visit a shrine with my bestesor,” Helga said, pretending to be offended. “We all go to the same destination, even if we take different paths.” She stopped herself. Taba didn’t need to hear her rant about freedom of religion. What she’d just said was quite enough. He was already turning it over in his mind.
“So, it’s the same god?” he asked.
Helga nodded. “I think so.”
“But what if you believe in lots of gods?” he asked.
“They’re all aspects of one,” Helga said. “Doesn’t mean they’re not gods, just means they’re not the only gods.”
Taba considered this for a moment, then nodded, satisfied. “What about angels?” he asked.
“I think angels are one of the few subjects every major religion agrees upon.”
“Do you think Mama and Papa are angels?”
Helga didn’t answer right away, as she was making sure they crossed the road safely. She thought of Astrid’s warm voice and Hiro’s quiet smile. “Yes, I think so,” she said. “But angels stay invisible unless they’re truly needed.”
“But I need them!” Taba said immediately, his voice high.
“I know, Taba.” She squeezed his hand, heart aching.
“I need to see them, why isn’t that enough?”
“Maybe they can’t manage it right now. They’re very new angels. We have to give them time.” She couldn’t believe she was spouting such sentimental rubbish, but he needed these words and she would tell him what he needed to hear. She would do whatever she could to make this better.
“Can you see them?” Taba asked suddenly.
She shook her head. “No. Not even out of the corner of my eye, like you can.”
He squeezed her hand back. “It’s okay, Bestemama. They still love you. I know they do.”
“Yes, but you need them more,” she said, thinking of how alike they both were, underneath it all. Both waiting for the knock on the door, the foot on the stair, the phone to ring. Both waiting for this horrible game to end, waiting to be found. But nobody would come. She had to be the one who rescued him now. She had to show him that she would always find him, no matter where he hid, no matter how lost he was.
“Here we are,” she announced as they reached the steps to the shrine, thinking that she’d be happier to leave, she’d forgotten there were so many and his lungs were still weak after the fire…
Taba wasn’t fazed. He began to climb immediately, focused on the top, not thinking about his lungs at all. Helga followed him, watching for signs of exhaustion or breathing trouble, but there was nothing. She always forgot how tough he could be when he wanted something and he wanted to get to the top of these steps. “My brave boy,” she whispered under her breath, so he couldn’t hear her.
Taba reached the top slightly out of breath and stood waiting for her, cheeks flushed with exercise and pride. Helga smiled at him as she stepped onto the plateau, shifting her bag strap further onto her shoulder. “Well done,” she said. “You went up those steps all on your own like a big boy.”
“Yes,” he said, turning away as if this was nothing. “Can we go through, Bestemama?”
“Go ahead,” she said and watched him run forward, then stop and look around, taking everything in: the trees, the stone paving, the shrine in front of him. Helga caught a hint of incense as she walked forwards. Since it was mid-March, the cherry trees were only coming into blossom and still looked rather bare. Everything else was dark and wet from winter but the shrine itself was clean and welcoming. She took Taba’s hand again and led him forward towards the shop window, where a man of her own age was sitting and painting the characters on a new charm. He looked up with a small smile. “Welcome back, Helga-san.”
“Good afternoon, Kondo-san,” Helga said, bowing. Taba bowed with her, automatically following her lead. “How are the charms selling?”
“Ah, they’re proving popular, it’s the exams, you know.” He smiled and tapped his nose. “They all want a little extra help.” He smiled down at Taba, who’d been staring at his moustache. “And who’s this young man?”
Taba bowed again. “My name’s Takehiko,” he said. “Well, actually it’s Takehiko Balthasar, but nobody calls me that. Everyone calls me Takehiko. Except Bestemama, because she’s special.” He glanced up at her with a smile that made Helga want to cry, it was so full of trust. She smiled back at him; it was all she could do.
“Ooh, I see,” Kondo said, nodding. “You have a long name for such a little person, Takehiko-kun.” His voice was gentle, teasing.
Taba nodded. “Yes, but I’ll grow into it,” he said. “That’s what Bestemama always says. What’s your name?”
“This is Kondo-san, he’s the shrine priest,” Helga said, stroking his hair. “His family has taken care of Hikawa for many generations.” But perhaps not for much longer, she thought. Kondo’s only daughter had eloped and he was currently estranged from her and her husband. Helga knew that the husband was a rising politician but that was about it. It was sad, really. If anyone would make a wonderful grandfather, it was Kondo Hisoka.
Taba smiled, rare with strangers. “Pleased to meet you, Kondo-sensei,” he said, bowing.
Kondo chuckled. “Just plain ‘san’ is fine, Takehiko-kun. And it’s nice to meet you, too. Would you like a charm?”
Taba nodded, standing on tiptoes and inspecting the ones that were for sale. He picked up one and then another. Kondo and Helga smiled at each other over his head. His concentration was amusing and charming at the same time. Finally, Taba picked one that stood for “peace and acceptance” and held it up. “How much?” he asked.
“Oh, you don’t have to pay,” Kondo said, shaking his head. “It’s free for you.”
Taba looked at him and frowned. “But it says the amount,” he said, pointing to the label. “I can count, right up to 500. So I know I have to pay.”
Kondo smiled very gently. “I’m giving it to you, Takehiko-kun,” he explained. “A special offer. One time only. You just happened to come along at the right time.”
Taba looked at him, then at the charm. He turned around and looked at Helga, his eyes questioning. She smiled at him. “What a lucky boy you are, Taba. Now thank Kondo-san for his gift.”
Taba turned and bowed deeply. “Domo arigatou!” he said. “Can I hang it up now?”
“Knock yourself out,” Kondo said, winking, and they both watched as Taba ran across to one of the trees, which was already fluttering white with other peoples’ wishes and hopes. His hair shone even brighter against the black of his coat as he took a branch and began to fasten the charm to it.
“Thank you,” Helga said in a low voice. “That was very kind.”
“Not at all. One of my visitors told me about the fire.” Kondo shook his head, his face sober and almost pinched. “Of course, we try to accept what life gives us, but death… death is very hard to accept, even when it comes for someone who has lived a full life. But for people who are young and have their lives ahead of them… and children…” He let out a long sigh. “I was so sorry to hear about it, Helga-san. This is the least I can do.”
“I appreciate it. But you can’t go around giving out free charms, Kondo-san, you have to make money,” Helga pointed out.
Kondo smiled at her. They’d had similar conversations before. He was a good person and absolutely dedicated to his job, but he was not a businessman. “Are you going to become my accountant, Helga-san?”
“You don’t make enough money to pay me,” Helga said, almost laughing. “But I might offer my services for free. Actually give the Christian religion a good name, for once.”
“Ahead of your time as usual,” Kondo remarked and that did make her laugh, briefly, dryly, but it was a laugh, a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, Kondo-san,” she confessed as Taba stepped back, admiring his handiwork. “He’s so small and he’s hurt so badly. How can I replace them?”
“You don’t need to replace them, you’re his grandmother,” Kondo said, which were almost the exact same words that Ryo had said when she’d voiced these doubts to him. “All you need to do is stick around. And you’re one of the stickiest people I know.”
It was a poor joke but she smiled for him. “Let me know if you need help with anything.”
“Sure you won’t be excommunicated?” he asked jokingly.
“That’s the Catholic Church, Kondo-san, I’m Lutheran,” she reminded him. “We don’t throw people out of our church for bad behaviour.”
He shrugged with the typical Japanese indifference. “Aren’t they basically the same?”
Helga bit her lip to stop the laughter. “No, and don’t ever let a Catholic hear you say that.”
Kondo smirked. “My son-in-law’s a Catholic, apparently. If I ever meet him…”
“Don’t you dare,” Helga told him, thinking how carefully they skipped around the issue, playing hide and seek with it, neither acknowledging the painful truth that Kondo would probably never meet his son-in-law, let alone talk to him. She turned to see what Taba was doing and found that he had disappeared. Panic roared through her like wildfire before she realised that he was standing behind the tree trunk, trying to blend in with the background. Only his hair betrayed him.
“I’d better get Taba home,” she said. “Thank you, once again.”
“Thank you,” he said quietly. “It’s good to see a child here. He’s a lovely boy.”
There was something in his tone that made Helga hesitate and open her mouth, but then she turned away. If he wanted her to know, he would tell her. She knew that prying would be the worst thing she could do, so she walked towards Taba, who was still hiding behind the tree trunk. “I see you!” she called.
He sighed and walked to meet her. “I thought that was a really good place.”
“It was,” she agreed, “but your hair gave you away.” She touched it with a fond smile.
Taba looked up at her and frowned. “Maybe I’ll dye it black when I’m older and then you’ll never be able to find me!” he declared, waiting to see her reaction.
Helga almost laughed but that would have been fatal. “I’ll always be able to find you, Taba,” she said gently, “dyed hair or not. Wave goodbye to Kondo-san.”
He did so and Kondo waved back. Helga nodded to him and received a nod in return. She turned away, watching as Taba began to go down the steps, wondering. Did Kondo have a grandson? A granddaughter? She’d never asked but that tone in his voice made her think that there was a grandchild. A grandchild he’d never seen. She reached out and pulled Taba into her for a hug.
He looked up at her. “Bestemama?”
“Don’t hide from me,” she said, looking into his eyes. “You don’t ever need to hide from me, okay?”
He blinked. “Okay, Bestemama,” he said. “I won’t hide.” He snuggled into her. “Not from you.”
Helga rubbed his arm and they walked on, pressed close together. He was so fragile and she’d already lost too much. She would never let that happen again. She would make sure that she could always find him.
Domo arigatou: Thank you very much
There you go.