At the Station
by Patrick Drazen

Please Note: No Shabon Spray, no Aqua Illusion, and no Sailor Mercury.  This is just a story about Ami-chan’s chance encounter at a railroad station.  I don’t know if the writing merits a Kleenex Alert, but there are definitely WAFFs ahead.

The train’s horn sounded.  The girl screamed “IYAAAA!”  The two sounds blended into one.

The train was gone.

Mizuno Ami panted like a racehorse after the big race.  She’d run as fast as she could, all for nothing.

If only she’d never agreed to come to this juku while her regular after-hours study-school was on break.  If only she’d picked one in the city, rather than an hour’s ride away in Yokohama.  If only she hadn’t been swayed by the reputation of the teacher, who was supposed to be well-versed in sub-atomic physics.  If only the school had let out at the proper time, instead of running ten minutes longer tonight while the teacher went on about pions and muons.  If only there hadn’t been that truck accident, which tied up traffic and brought a crowd of onlookers right in front of the train station, which she then had to push her way through, but not hard enough or fast enough…

It can’t be helped.  Still, there was one consolation.  She went to the Yokohama juku on Thursdays mainly because that was the night her mother would have rounds at the hospital.  She wouldn’t be home until…

Oh no!  When was the next train back to Tokyo?  She checked the schedule; not for another hour.  But after switching trains to one that would take her to her neighborhood, she’d still be arriving home after her mother.  Ami decided to call the hospital.

She looked for change in her purse, then her pockets; not enough.  She had an emergency phone card, but at first she couldn’t find phones that used cards.  Finally she saw two, near the ticket machines.  One was being used by a slim, middle-aged man.  His hair was a bit long and unkempt, but otherwise he reminded her of one of her old teachers.  She set her school-bag down, inserted the card and dialed the number for the hospital reception desk.

“Moshi moshi … Is this Nurse Hiwatari?  I’m Doctor Mizuno’s daughter Ami … I’m fine, thank you, but I just missed my train.  I won’t arrive home now until after 2300.  Would you please tell my mother … She’s with a patient? … That’s such a shame. … Then maybe I’ll get home first after all.  But if she leaves early, please tell her about my train so that she doesn’t worry. … Thank you.”

So.  Nothing to do but wait.  She picked out a bench in the station, sat down and started reading her Japanese history homework for the next week.  It was about the Shimabara tax revolt.  She’d heard about it for years, though, and the textbook didn’t really say anything new.  After about five minutes she gave up history and went back to the sub-atomic physics she had studied that night.

As she switched books, she noticed the man who had been using the other card telephone was seated on the bench opposite her.  He was sketching on an art pad.  She went back to sub-atomic particles, trying to hold in her head what she had just spent two hours absorbing.  Again, it only lasted about five minutes.  She leaned her head back, her eyes closed.  She was trying to decide whether to take out her flash cards and go over her English words now, or wait until she was on the train.

“Excuse me.”

Ami opened her eyes.  The man was standing right in front of her.  “Sorry if I disturbed you, but I just wanted you to have this.”  He was holding out a page from the sketch pad.

Ami didn’t speak, didn’t move.  She knew the risk of talking to complete strangers.  But then she glanced at the sketch, and broke into a smile.  It was a picture of her—she couldn’t see the face, but the hair was perfect—with her head buried in the history book.  Yet she was sitting not on a bench, but on another, giant sized book, spread open like the wings of a great bird.  She rode the book among the clouds yet didn’t pay them any attention.

She couldn’t help herself.  Ami got to her feet and bowed as she accepted the picture.  “It’s beautiful.  Thank you.”

“No, I should thank you for being such a perfect model.  Do you mind if I…?”  He gestured toward the empty spot on the bench next to Ami.

There was no more mistrust; she felt quite sure about him now.  “Please.”

The man walked back to his other spot to fetch a pair of bags, which he brought over to his new spot.  Out of politeness, Ami asked, “Are you going on a long trip?”

The man sighed.  “No, I’m still on it.  It’s a very long trip.”  All of a sudden a look of complete melancholy came over him.  “But what should loneliness matter to a child like you?”

“Because I’ve been lonely too.”  Ami knew she should hold her tongue, yet she went right on talking to this stranger.  “I was at a juku tonight because I need to get excellent grades; nothing less than the best.  But that means I’ve been alone studying for a long time.  But I have friends now, and they see to it that I get out and have some fun.”

“School friends?”

“Some of them go to my school.  My friend Usagi…”  Ami stopped herself just in time.  She almost told him about Usagi and the Sailor Senshi!  I don’t believe this! she thought.  “Anyway, I have friends now.”

“That’s good,” he nodded.  “What do you plan to do with these excellent grades?”

“I’m going to become a doctor, like my mother.”

“Good for you.  How does your father feel about that?”

Father.  That word hadn’t come up in months, but every time it did, Ami felt as if she wasn’t ready for it.  “My father is gone.”

“Well, I’m sure that he’s watching you in Heaven.”

“No no!  I didn’t mean it that way.  He’s not dead, but…”  Ami couldn’t stop herself, even though she knew she shouldn’t tell him.  “He and my mother are … apart.”

“Now I understand.  How do you know he’s still alive?”

“He sends me a painting or a drawing from time to time.  I got one on my last birthday.  He’s an artist.”

“And the doctor and the artist couldn’t work things out together?”

Why are you talking about this?!  It was as if Ami could hear her mother screaming inside her head.  Because I have to, and it’s been so long…  “I’m not really sure.  It all happened when I was three years old.  I know that for a little while I blamed myself.”

“I’m sure you know now that it wasn’t your fault.”

“I know, but I was just sad all the time.  My mother helped me, though.  We’d bake cookies, or she’d read to me.  She’d make me feel better, then we’d go on to something else.  When I was seven, she told me about how they just couldn’t stay together.”

The artist just nodded.  “I know that my long trips would be hard for the most patient woman to put up with.  Do you think that he was to blame?”

“Maybe there was no blame at all.  She never speaks badly about him.  But something must be wrong between them, because he never comes to visit.  It’s been about ten years since he left, and I haven’t seen him since.”

“Do you want to see him?”

“Yes, just so he can see that we’re all right.  So many things have happened…”

Ami stopped, remembering bits and pieces of her life.  There were things that she took for granted while she was growing up, before she even realized that they weren’t part of everyone else’s childhood: how mother would come and go in the night, sometimes leaving a breakfast on the table under a napkin; how mother sometimes slept at the hospital or in her office; how mother would arrive late at Field Days at school, leave early, and seldom score very well in the parent-and-child games, but would always make jokes about her performance later, at home.  But then…

“What is it?”

“What?  Oh, I’m sorry, sir.  I was just remembering something that happened to my mother.  It was Field Day at school and I was in second grade.  There was a platform in the middle of the track where the winners got their prizes.  My mother was just getting ready to leave when the platform collapsed.  It came down on a little boy from my class who was standing next to it, and it broke his leg.  My mother ran to the platform, saw that his leg was broken, took two pieces of the platform and used them as a splint to hold the leg after she reset the bone.  It was a hot day and she wore a scarf on her head to keep out the sun.  She used her scarf and her belt to hold the splint, and she and I went with the boy to the hospital.  I’ll never forget it.  It was so amazing to watch her try to fix that boy’s leg.  I think that’s when I decided to become a doctor like her.  Later I found out how much hard work it would take, but I was determined to get the grades I needed.”

“She must be very proud of you.”

“I think she is, even though she doesn’t say it much.”

“Well, we all like to hear that what we’ve done is worth something to somebody.  She’s waiting for you at home?”

Ami shook her head.  “She has hospital rounds tonight.  I called the desk there, and they said that one of her patients will probably die tonight.  There’s just nothing left for medicine to do.  My mother will sit with the patient until the end.”

“You say that as if she’s done it before.  Does it bother you that she spends so much time with her patients?”

“It used to, but not any more.  My mother … please don’t take this the wrong way, but she believes in medicine the way other people believe in religion.  She’ll do whatever she can to help me if I need it, but she thinks the world runs on medical science.”

“You don’t think so?”

Ami glanced at her schoolbag.  She knew it contained what looked like a palm-top computer, but was actually a communicator to the other Sailor Senshi.  “I believe in medicine, but I also believe in destiny.  I know that things can happen in our lives that began a thousand years ago.  I’m sorry; that probably sounds stupid.”

“No it doesn’t.  So you believe in medicine, and you believe in destiny.  Do you believe in love?”

Ami blushed, recalling her crush on Mercurius.  “Well, I’m not even in high school yet, and I don’t have time…”

“Never mind; I shouldn’t have asked.  I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.”  Actually, they both seemed embarrassed as they sat silently for a minute.  Then the artist cleared his throat.  “I’m glad you liked my sketch of you.  Perhaps you’d like another?”

Ami began to blush again, in spite of herself.  “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I have time to pose or anything…”

“But you already have.  I did this while we were talking.”  He tore another sheet out of his sketch pad and handed it to Ami.

This time he had made Ami’s face the center of attention.  He had drawn her in the style of a manga heroine, with huge round eyes and lots of black.  The background was also black; he had drawn her against a field of stars.  Whole galaxies shone in the background, and in Ami’s eyes.  The rest of her face was nothing less than perfect.  It captured her pleasant disposition and her fierce determination at one stroke.

Ami stared at the portrait, so different from the other sketch, yet both having caught her so fully.

“As if I’m naked,” she muttered to herself.

“Beg pardon?”

A flustered Ami jumped to her feet, bowed deeply to the artist and held out both pictures.  “If you please, could you sign these?”

“Now I feel honored,” the artist said as he dashed off a signature on each sketch.

Ami looked: Tanaka Reiichi.  Tanaka was only the most common Japanese name; it would be like “Jones” in America.  It could be real, or…

He interrupted her thoughts.  “So how do I compare with your father’s paintings?”

Ami looked at the sketches, unlike each other yet from the same hand, and thought about the one oil painting that her mother allowed her to hang in her bedroom, and the other works kept in a closet.  “I think I really don’t know much about art,” she finally said.  “Every thing he sent me is different, as if he hadn’t chosen a style to paint in yet.”

“I see.  By the way, what’s your father’s name?  Maybe I’ve seen some of his work.”

Something in his voice when he asked that struck Ami as odd.  Still, she had no reason to suspect him of anything improper.  “Mizuno Kentaro.”

“Ah!  Yes, I think I have seen his work.  He found a gallery in Kobe that showed some of his paintings.  I saw them the last time I was there.  Not too many people cared about them, but I was satisfied.  He seems to be settling into a pattern now; the works are in different styles, but based on a single theme.”  He stopped a second.  “I envy him his ability to focus; yours, too.  And even though I worship art the way your mother worships medicine, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to focus enough to be a real artist.”

“No!” Ami was on her feet and lecturing Tanaka without realizing it.  “You can do it, I’m sure of it.  You just have to keep trying.  I wasn’t born a genius or anything, but I just work hard and keep trying.  Surely you can do the same.”

Tanaka smiled sadly.  “Maybe I can after all.  I’m glad that you have confidence in me.”

A clock in the station chimed the hour.  Ami seemed to wake up out of a dream.  “Oh no!  My train leaves in three minutes!”  She put the sketches in her bookbag quickly but carefully, made a quick bow to Tanaka and ran to the platform.  When she was almost at the gate, she turned; the artist hadn’t moved.  For once in her life, Ami didn’t care about appearance as she called out as loudly as she could: “Sayounara!  Ganbatte ne!  Keep trying!”  Then she spun and ran, onto the platform, then onto the train.  Only a few seconds later, the train jerked away from the platform, headed for Tokyo.

The artist had used all of his self-control during his meeting with Ami.  Now that she was safely gone, he could afford to let the tears fall from his eyes.

“Thank you, Ami-chan,” he muttered.  “You’ll be in my prayers tonight, as you have been every night since the day you were born.  And I will keep trying.  And someday I will come home.”