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TOKYO FLASH FICTION - ONE PHOTO, ONE STORY - Issue #14

Alex Lund
Alex Lund
Hi there,
Hope you’re doing well!
I was inspired to write this story a few weeks ago around the time of the anniversary of the 2011 Tohoku/Fukushima earthquake and devastating tsunami. Many survivors who were only kids at the time are still suffering from trauma as life goes on, sometimes without their loved ones who perished that horrific afternoon.
My main character was in elementary school at the time, and although it is not based on a true story, in fact it could just as well be.
It turned out a bit longer than usual, but please bear with me until the end…I promise it’s a story of hope!
As usual, feel free to let me know what you think.
All the best,
Alex

Path leasing down to the beach in Hayama
Path leasing down to the beach in Hayama
A GIRL AND HER DOG
“Toby, wait!” I yelled as the leash tightened and threw me forward with a jolt.
 
Toby was almost my own weight, and compared to my skinny build still resembling that of an elementary school girl, he was a prime specimen of muscle. I was no match for him when his instincts took over.
 
“Toby, stop! Sit! No!” I desperately tried all the commands that usually worked as he accelerated down the narrow path ahead of us. I probably felt like little more than a streamer blowing in the wind behind him, and I knew his entire mental capacity had instantly been overtaken by a vain conviction that he could actually catch the cat that leisurely strolled in front of us. Even without dog eyes, the arrogance in the little black beauty’s strut, not bothering to acknowledge the charging Saint Bernard, was unmistakable.
 
“Toby! Please!” I heard myself begging between sobs, on the verge of panicking as I found myself further down the path than I had ever had the courage to go before. My heart was pounding, but not due to lack of stamina.
 
Tears started rolling down my cheeks and my body struggled to take long enough strides to avoid falling over as Toby continued his wild pursuit. It would only be moments until the cat disappeared out of sight at the end of the path, and I knew only too well what was waiting for us down there: the beach and the Sea - the source of all my anxiety.
 
I almost gave in to the voice of fear that always lived inside of me, shouting to let go of Toby to save myself, but my thin, bony fingers remained clenched like cement around the leash. Toby had run off before, and how dared I even think of releasing him, knowing it was he who had saved my life that horrific day now over six years ago?
 
Toby was the only one alive who knew what happened to us that afternoon when we miraculously survived the tsunami together; the tsunami that took Mom, Dad and our home. I often wondered why I was still alive. Why had the Sea spared me? Why me when it had taken so many of the other kids from my school? What had been a leisurely walk with Toby had suddenly turned into a desperate dash for our lives from the roaring, giant fangs of the Sea reaching out and drowning everyone and everything in its way. It was Toby who had somehow managed to pull me to safety up a hillside, and I owed him my life and my sanity. I knew he would always remain my best friend and companion – my brother in suffering - helping me slowly heal my heart, although nothing would ever fully fill the gaping void inside of me that the Sea had created.
 
Still after all this time I wasn’t able to go near the beach. The tormenting memories and fear were too strong, and there were still so many questions unanswered. Would the bodies of Mom and Dad ever be found? What had they ever done to deserve such a terrible fate other than loving the Sea too much? And how could I ever forgive the Sea for it? How could I ever play in the waves again, trust the Sea, let it hold and caress my body like it once used to?
 
And again, why had it let me and Toby escape? Was it because it would have been too cruel to Makoto, my ten year older brother, if it had taken away his entire family? 
 
A week after the tsunami disaster, Toby and I moved in with Makoto and his wife, Ana, in their cozy little house in Hayama, a sleepy beach town just south of Yokohama. They were newly married and had moved there just a few months before the tsunami hit our fishing village in Fukushima Prefecture. Ana was from a neighboring village that had fortunately been spared from destruction, and she took me in like a little sister whose life had just been shattered. I had nothing but love for Ana, but now with their little daughter, Mai, just learning to walk, I knew that I couldn’t stay with them much longer. They had done so much for me already and of course they would never ask me to leave, but I was soon starting university, and Mai would eventually want her own room.
 
What was holding me back was mainly the nightmares. Always the same visions of the Sea coming to take me, too, that were almost unbearable to cope with even with Makoto’s soothing voice in my ear and Toby’s warm body pressing up against me when I woke up in a cold sweat. I knew I couldn’t take Toby with me to a university dorm, which was all I’d be able to afford, but how could I live without him? And how could I make him understand that I would be back sometimes to visit him, and that it wouldn’t be like when Mom and Dad disappeared?
 
We were nearly at the end of the path, and Toby was now galloping at full speed, all senses bent on not letting the cat escape. Keeping my eyes down, away from the horizon where I knew there was nothing but vast ocean in all directions, I followed Toby as he took a giant leap through the air, landing in the soft sand where he came to a full stop with me tumbling down on top of him.
 
Toby immediately got up, panting heavily in the summer heat, looking all around for his prey. After a moment we both spotted the cat walking slowly on the top of the wall next to the path, his tail straight up in the air while looking down at the spectacle playing out in the sand below him at his expense. Bracing myself for another wild dash, I renewed my grip of the leash now with both hands, as my body shivered to the sound of waves rolling in further down the beach.
 
What happened next surprised me. I knew Toby better than any living being, including Makoto who after the disaster had become almost like a father to me, and there was no doubt in my mind that Toby would continue his pursuit of the cat. But instead, he turned towards me and looked straight into my tear filled eyes with a peculiar expression. He then proceeded to moving his large, brown body and placing it firmly between me and the Sea, almost like a wall, as if he was trying to protect me from an imminent assault, paying no attention to his foe up on the wall anymore.
 
Was Toby’s memory as vivid as mine of the tsunami? Did he actually understand my fear of the Sea, the reason I hadn’t been able to take him down to the beach to play ever since?
 
I stared into his large almond colored eyes in amazement, as a calm, almost serene feeling came over me. When I started wiping my tears with the back of my hand, Toby stood up again and pressed himself against me, his tail wagging from side to side like a soft broom. Without warning, he then jumped up right on top of me, and as I embraced him, we started rolling around in the sand like two wrestlers, just like we had so many times when he was a puppy. As the sand made its way into every crease and pocket of my dress, it felt like the dark shadow that had veiled my heart for so long began to yield to my laughter ringing out in the calm, late afternoon, accompanied only by Toby’s excited barking and the rhythmical, soothing sound of waves rolling in. Soon the brown-furred giant looked like he had become one with the beach, too busy playing to care to shake off the sand in his thick fur, until he finally ran out of energy and cuddled up next to me, completely out of breath.
 
We were now facing the Sea, and I found myself unable to resist the urge of slowly raising my eyes, in spite of knowing the pain and torment it usually caused even from a safe distance high up in the hills. For the first time in over six years I allowed my vision to take in the awesome beauty in front of me; the steep cape, Choujagasaki, to my left with its sharp cliffs reaching out into the water like a huge arm of a sleeping giant protecting us from the wild waves beyond, the massive blue-gray body of water spreading itself out, interrupted only by the vague shape of Ohshima Island, all the way to Izu Peninsula far in the distance to my right, with Mount Fuji majestically towering behind it like an ancient sentinel quietly watching over its domains below and beyond. As if to perfect the beauty of the moment, an intense orange glow from thin clouds forming a halo around the setting sun was hanging over the horizon, reflecting in the calm surface below it.
 
By this time there was nobody else on the beach, although I heard faint voices in the distance of kids playing, and I started wondering whether the Sea was putting on such a spectacular show only for me in an attempt to ask for forgiveness for taking away Mom and Dad. At the same time, slowly the importance of what I had just accomplished - thanks to Toby and ironically a cat – started to dawn on me. I had finally overcome my fear of, and I dare say hate towards the Sea for what it had done to me and so many others, and I now felt ready to rebuild our relationship; a relationship of love, and love only, as it had been in the beginning when Dad taught his little girl to swim back home at our local beach.
 
After all, it wasn’t the fault of the Sea that it had during those disastrous hours been transformed into a monster. I looked at Toby, now peacefully asleep, his warm belly slowly rising and sinking against my leg as my hand stroked his neck, and I realized that the Sea had reacted just like a dog that attacks a bully poking at it with a stick. Not knowing what else to do as it was suddenly shaken from deep below by a giant earthquake upsetting its equilibrium, violently jolting it out of its calm existence and setting it into a panic, it released its awesome, uncontrollable power. How could I blame it? It was instinct, just like when Toby bolted after the cat.
 
Almost as if my body moved unconsciously, I found myself clasping my hands in front of me, closing my eyes and bowing my head towards the Sea. Between the tears that were now flowing freely down my face - not out of sorrow or fear this time, but out of gratitude to the Sea for having let me survive - I heard myself whispering, “I’m sorry I’ve been angry with you for so long. Forgive me, please, I didn’t realize…I just couldn’t think clearly…”
 
I repeated it over and over to the peaceful sound of the waves washing in a few feet in front of me, almost as if the Sea was trying to offer me comfort in my struggle and letting me know that my apology was accepted.
 
I must have remained like that for quite some time, and started as I suddenly heard Makoto’s voice right behind me, “Mari! Are you alright? I’ve been looking all over for you.”
 
A warm smile came across his face as he seemed to realize the significance of the place where he had found me. He sat down and put his arm around my shoulders as Toby, who woke up again, started licking his other hand.
 
“You did it, Mari! Finally after all this time. I’m so proud of you,” he said, pressing me closer.
 
I told him what happened and that it was thanks to Toby that I had finally been able to make it down to the beach.
 
“Toby, old boy. We can always count on you!” he burst out and pulled him closer to us.
 
We remained like that without speaking for a long time, watching the sun, now resembling a giant orange light bulb, having shaken off the clouds around it, as it in solitude slowly retired beyond the horizon, taking its warm glow with it and leaving behind only the vague contour of Izu Peninsula and Mount Fuji in the distance.
 
“I wonder if they’ll ever find Mom and Dad,” I said, finally breaking the silence.
 
“I don’t know…it’s been so long,” Makoto said.
 
After a pause he added softly, “Maybe it’s best if they don’t.”
 
He continued slowly, “You remember how much they loved the sea, right? Dad even said once that when he dies he wanted his ashes scattered in the waves…I guess that’s how strongly he felt about the sea, having been a fisherman all of his life.”
 
After another pause, Makoto said, “Maybe it’s the most natural place for them to find peace, after all.”
 
He then took a deep breath as if he was trying to recharge his whole being with the fresh ocean air, turned to me with a gentle smile across his tanned, handsome face, almost identical to how Dad looked in a photo when he was young that I always carried with me, and said, “You know, when I look at where the sea meets the horizon I sometimes get this strange feeling that they’re out there somewhere watching me…watching us, smiling at us and telling us that everything will be alright.”
 
He continued in the soft tone that he used when he woke me up from my nightmares, “That’s why I come down here every time there’s something troubling me, you know. And from now on we can finally come here together!”
 
Pressing me closer again, he added with a warm smile, “I’m so proud of you, Mari, after all that you’ve been through.”
 
I quietly watched the last orange glow fade away over the Sea, and I knew that now was the time to tell Makoto. I also knew that he would try to stop me, and that he’d be worried sick about me living alone, but I didn’t want to be a burden for him and Ana any longer.
 
“I think I’m ready now. I mean, to go…to move into a dorm,” I said in a voice so low that I wasn’t sure he heard me.
 
Makoto remained motionless next to me.
 
When I finally looked at him, he turned away and ran his arm across his face in the same way he used to wipe sweat from his forehead when he was younger. Since the tsunami took Mom and Dad, he had never once cried in front of me, although I knew he sometimes did, since I had heard Ana comforting him late at night.
 
He took a deep breath, his eyes fixed at a point far away beyond the horizon as he said in a low voice, “I was afraid you’d say that. You know you can stay as long as you like, right? Ana loves having you here, and Mai of course…not to mention Toby.”
 
“I know, but I’m already eighteen. I can’t live with my older brother until I start walking with a cane, right?” I tried to smile and make it sound like a joke, but only tears came rolling down my cheeks, as I wondered how I could ever thank Makoto.
 
We both fell silent again as our eyes were getting used to the darkness around us. Suddenly Toby jolted in surprise at an unusually large wave that reached all the way to the tip of his tail, and Makoto exclaimed, “Oh, Toby, you must be starving. Let’s go back and have some dinner!”
 
We slowly made the short walk home in the balmy evening, accompanied by voices and laughter coming from gardens and open windows of the pretty little houses lining the narrow street as it climbed up the hill that I now knew so well and had called my home ever since the disaster.
 
The end of the summer was quickly approaching and I spent the following weeks preparing for my move to a dorm near my university in Yokohama. Not wanting to upset Toby, I pretended that everything was normal, but I wondered whether he actually understood, or somehow sensed, that our time together was soon coming to an end. It felt like he chipped away a small piece of my heart every time he looked at me with those warm, sweet eyes, as if he was trying to read my mind.
 
Then finally in early September the day I had dreaded arrived. It was a clear and crisp morning when I picked up my backpack and stepped out on the porch, feeling the fresh autumn sea breeze playing with my long, black hair as if the Sea also knew that this was farewell.
 
Toby seemed nervous and confused, and when I knelt down to hug him, he started sniffing at me and my backpack as if he was looking for the leash, maybe clinging on to a last desperate glimmer of hope that it was all false alarm, and that I was just taking him for our usual morning walk. I showed him my empty hands while looking deep into his eyes, wondering how I could ever thank my wonderful companion – my best friend and savior – and make him understand that it wasn’t goodbye forever. I’d be back again sometimes to see him, not like Mom and Dad.
 
“Toby, I’ll visit as often as I can, I promise,“ I repeated as he pressed himself against me, licking my hands and refusing to let me go. As I struggled to hold my tears back, Makoto came to my rescue, and with an effort managed to lift Toby off of me while speaking soothingly into his ear. I looked at Makoto, his eyes shining in the morning sun, and it seemed like he was trying to comfort himself just as much as Toby. Mai was crying and wildly protesting in all ways she could against my leaving, as Ana was trying to calm her down. 
 
Putting a brave smile on my face, I took a deep breath, straightened my back and said my goodbyes, and then resolutely walked down the steps to the bus stop below just as I saw the bus approaching. I went all the way to the back of the almost empty bus where I had a clear view of the porch and the house through the rear window. To my surprise, Toby wasn’t barking or even looking in my direction, but was now busy sniffing at Mai’s hair as Makoto was holding her in front of him. Mai’s tears seemed to have turned into laughter, as her little feet were kicking in the air.
 
Just before the bus turned away, I looked back again and saw Ana waving to me with both hands high above her head. Makoto was busy not dropping Mai with Toby now licking her feet and wagging his tail, and as my eyes met Makoto’s, he managed to raise one hand while balancing Mai with the other to give me a thumbs-up.
 
A smile spread across my face as I turned my gaze towards the Sea and then Mount Fuji, only the tip of it visible through the white clouds hovering far above Izu Peninsula. I opened the window and felt the fresh air on my face and in my lungs one last time and said out loud, my voice drowned by the murmuring bus engine, “Thank you, Toby…and thank you, Mai,” knowing that she would now take my place and become the focus of Toby’s love and affection. 
 
I closed the window, turned my eyes to the road ahead and tried to focus my thoughts on the next chapter of my life, as the bus started the climb up the hillside leaving the Sea behind.
 
THE END
For more information about Alex Lund and his books, please visit:
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Alex Lund
Alex Lund @AlexLundAuthor

TOKYO FLASH FICTION - ONE PHOTO, ONE STORY

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