Dad transfers to town. Recovery from the ill-timed heart attack and stroke has been slow. Though, the rest of his injuries—the concussion and broken leg—are healing normally.
My arm remains in a sling, but we need income. While the government health care and accident compensation cover a lot of our expenses. It doesn’t pay all the bills. The president of Kitamori Logging expressed his gratitude for rescuing three of the lumberjacks, hinting that our return would be welcomed with bonuses. Nightmares keep me from returning.
To apply at the sawmill, I hoof it across town since I can’t drive a stick-shift with one arm. I almost don’t recognize Shibasaki-chan with her hair down and dressed informally in jeans and a jacket, as she waves, trotting over. My stomach sours at the thought of dealing with her again, so I pick up the pace.
Her shoes pound the pavement behind me. “Hey, Ohno-san. Please wait. I just wanted to say I’m sorry to hear about the accident. We heard you were heroes. Is your dad still in the hospital?”
I mumble, “Yeah. In town,” but keep walking. “We d-didn’t save them all.”
“They’d all be dead without you.”
I shrug. She blurts, “I’m sorry for snubbing you!”
Sighing, I halt, forcing an answer. “It’s ok-kay.”
“No, it wasn’t! My parents insisted I distance from you because they wanted me to try another omiai. I did as requested, but I felt so fake.”
Granted, she couldn’t have refused her parents. Our culture doesn’t do that. “D-doesn’t matter. I hope th-the meeting went well.”
To measure my expression, she blocks the sidewalk. “It didn’t. He was fifteen years older than me. That wouldn’t have been so bad, but he whined about wanting a ‘mom’ to care for him. Won’t even pick up his own clothes.”
Why are her parents pushing this? Despite my resolve, her frustration makes me laugh. “That sp-spoiled?”
Her hands hit her hips as she scowls. “What’s funny about it?”
Sinking to tweaking her, I prod, “You’re g-going through a tr-traditional route to find a husband who won’t exp-pect you to take care of him?”
She droops, looking away. But we walk again. “My grandmother made us promise I’d let her approve the man I married. The old-fashioned way was the easiest for her to have input.”
“She foretold that if I didn’t find the right husband, disaster would befall our family. That a dragon would destroy the town.” Her eyes narrow and she squares her shoulders. “Don’t look at me that way. Her prophesies always come true.”
Biting my tongue, I nod. “S-so you take them by her house for approval?”
“Wh-why are you telling a dumb g-guy like me?”
“No one else in town would understand. And you’re not stupid.”
It’s not as if I comprehend the story. But I won’t insult her with disagreement.
“So, where are you headed?” she asks.
“To apply there?” Her question gets another bob of affirmation from me. Then her steps falter. “Ohno-san, do you think you’re stupid because you stutter?”
That freezes me in place.
“You’re not. Did you know King George, the ruler of England during World War II, stuttered too?”
Riveted, my lips purse with the inability to answer the painful topic.
“A friend assisted him, with his impediment and with speeches to the nation.” Her feet shuffle as she purses her lips and swallows. “I could help you. While I think you’re fine how you are, it might make you more comfortable in your own skin. Will you let me try a spell before your interview?”
How many times have I wished I didn’t stutter? My tongue turns to sandpaper, but I nod my consent.
“Let’s do this behind the park shelter, so we avoid gawkers.” When we’re out of sight, she commands, “Bend a bit. I can’t reach without things getting awkward.” Instead of looking at her, I focus on the last cherry tree with a few blooms as the wind whisks a few petals away.
My stomach tightens, but I do as told. Placing her hands on the sides of my face, she whispers unintelligible words. The warmth of ki flow fills my mind. Blue lines dance in my vision as twitching nerves jerk me to and fro, but she hangs on. As the glow fades everything seems to spin, and she releases. “Don’t talk. Let it settle until the vertigo dissipates.” When I dare to look, she asks. “How do you feel?”
Rolling her eyes, she sighs. “Guys. How do I get more than a one-word answer? Tell me about your friends. That should be easy.”
The words flow. With excitement, she claps. “Not one stutter! This first time will only work a few hours. But each session will last longer.”
When we return to the sidewalk, a group of middle school girls snickers about the stuttering idiot giant and the woman no guy wants. Shibasaki-chan pales, trying to ignore them.
When my fist clenches, the knuckles crack. Stomping into their personal space, I shout. “Shut up, brats! You wouldn’t know real friendship if it hit you over the head! I’d bet you’d betray each other if it’s juicy enough!” They scram, so I shout after them. “Cowards!”
“Look at them run!” Yukiko doubles over laughing, dissipating my anger like the sun burning off the fog. After catching her breath, she wishes me luck, striding away with a skip in her step.
Returning home, I shout the good news of my new job. Mom covers her mouth as she gasps. “You had perfect speech!”