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THE DIVING POOL

It's always warm here: I feel as though I've been swallowed by a huge animal. After a few minutes, my hair, my eyelashes, even the blouse of my school uniform are damp from the heat and humidity, and I'm bathed in a moist film that smells vaguely of chlorine.

Far below my feet, gentle ripples disrupt the pale blue surface of the water. A constant stream of tiny bubbles rises from the diving well; I can't see the bottom. The ceiling is made of glass and is very high. I sit here, halfway up the bleachers, as if suspended in midair.

Jun is walking out on the ten-meter board. He's wearing the rust-colored swimsuit I saw yesterday on the drying rack outside the window of his room. When he reaches the end of the board, he turns slowly; then, facing away from the water, he aligns his heels. Every muscle in his body is tensed, as if he were holding his breath. The line of muscle from his ankle to his thigh has the cold elegance of a bronze statue.

Sometimes I wish I could describe how wonderful I feel in those few seconds from the time he spreads his arms above his head, as if trying to grab hold of something, to the instant he vanishes into the water. But I can never find the right words. Perhaps it's because he's falling through time, to a place where words can never reach.

"Inward two-and-a-half in the tuck position," I murmur.

He misses the dive. His chest hits the water with a smack and sends up a great spray of white.

But I enjoy it just the same, whether he misses a dive or hits it perfectly with no splash. So I never sit here hoping for a good dive, and I am never disappointed by a bad one. Jun's graceful body cuts through these childish emotions to reach the deepest place inside me.

He reappears out of the foam, the rippling surface of the water gathering up like a veil around his shoulders; and he swims slowly toward the side of the pool.

I've seen pictures from underwater cameras. The frame is completely filled with deep blue water, and then the diver shoots down, only to turn at the bottom and kick off back toward the surface. This underwater pivot is even more beautiful than the dive itself: the ankles and hands slice through the water majestically, and the body is completely enclosed in the purity of the pool. When the women dive, their hair flutters underwater as though lifted in a breeze, and they all look so peaceful, like children doing deep-breathing exercises.

One after the other, the divers come slipping into the water, making their graceful arcs in front of the camera. I would like them to move more slowly, to stay longer, but after a few seconds their heads appear again above the surface.

Does Jun let his body float free at the bottom of the pool, like a fetus in its mother's womb? How I'd love to watch him to my heart's content as he drifts there, utterly free.

I spend a lot of time on the bleachers at the edge of the diving pool. I was here yesterday and the day before, and three months ago as well. I'm not thinking about anything or waiting for something; in fact, I don't seem to have any reason to be here at all. I just sit and look at Jun's wet body.

We've lived under the same roof for more than ten years, and we go to the same high school, so we see each other and talk any number of times every day. But it's when we're at the pool that I feel closest to Jun- when he's diving, his body nearly defenseless in only a swimsuit, twisting itself into the laid-out position, the pike, the tuck. Dressed in my neatly ironed skirt and freshly laundered blouse, I take my place in the stands and set my schoolbag at my feet. I couldn't reach him from here even if I tried.

Yet this is a special place, my personal watchtower. I alone can see him, and he comes straight to me.

I pass the shops near the station and turn from the main road onto the first narrow street heading south, along the tracks. The noise and bustle die away. It's May now, and even when I reach the station after Jun's practice, the warmth of the day lingers in the air.

After I pass the park-little more than a sandbox and a water fountain-the company dormitory, and the deserted maternity clinic, there's nothing to see but rows of houses. It takes more than twenty-five minutes to walk home, and along the way the knot of people who left the station with me unravels and fades away with the sunlight. By the end, I'm usually alone.

A low hedge runs along the side of the road. It eventually gives way to trees, and then the cinder-block wall, half covered with ivy, comes into view. In the places where the ivy doesn't grow, the wall has turned moss green, as if the blocks themselves were living things. Then the gate, standing wide open, held back by a rusted chain that seems to prevent it from ever being closed.

In fact, I have never seen it closed. It's always open, ready to welcome anyone who comes seeking God in a moment of trouble or pain. No one is ever turned away, not even me.

Next to the gate is a glass-covered notice board with a neon light, and on it is posted the Thought for the Week: WHO IS MORE PRECIOUS? YOU OR YOUR BROTHER? WE ARE ALL CHILDREN OF GOD, AND YOU MUST NEVER TREAT YOUR BROTHER AS A STRANGER. Every Saturday afternoon, my father spends a long time looking through the Bible before carefully grinding ink on his stone and writing out this Thought. The smell of the ink permeates the old box where he keeps his brushes and grinding stone. He pours a few drops from the tiny water pot into the well of the stone, and then, holding the ink stick very straight, he grinds the stick into a dark liquid. Only when he finishes this long process does he finally dip his brush. Each gesture is done slowly, almost maddeningly so, as if he were performing a solemn ritual, and I am always careful to creep quietly past his door to avoid disturbing him.

Attracted to the neon light, countless tiny insects crawl on the notice board among my father's perfectly formed characters. At some point, evening has turned to night. The darkness inside the gate seems even thicker than outside, perhaps due to the dense foliage that grows within. Trees are planted at random along the wall, their branches tangled and overgrown. The front yard is covered in a thick jumble of weeds and flowers.

In this sea of green, two massive ginkgo trees stand out against the night sky. Every autumn, the children put on work gloves to gather the nuts. As the oldest, Jun climbs up on one of the thick branches and shakes the tree, and then the younger children run around frantically amid the hail of nuts and dried yellow leaves. Passing near the trees always makes me think of the soft skins surrounding the nuts, squashed like caterpillars on the soles of the children's shoes, and of the horrible odor they spread through the house.

To the left of the ginkgo trees is the church, and at an angle beyond, connected by a covered corridor, the building we call the Light House. This is my home.

The pale blue moisture I absorbed in the stands at the pool has evaporated by the time I reach here; my body is dry and hollow. And it is always the same: I can never simply come home the way other girls do. I find myself reading the Thought for the Week, passing through the gate, entering the Light House-and something always stops me, something always seems out of place.

Sometimes, as I approach, the Light House appears fixed and acute, while I, by contrast, feel vague and dim. At other times, I feel almost painfully clear and sharp, while the Light House is hazy. Either way, there is always something irreconcilable between the house and me, something I can never get past.

This was my home. My family was here. Jun, too. I remind myself of these facts each time I surrender to the curtain of green and open the door of the Light House.

When I try to put my memories in some kind of order, I realize that the earliest ones are the clearest and most indelible.

It was a brilliant morning in early summer. Jun and I were playing by the old well in the backyard. The well had been filled in long before and a fig tree planted over it. We must have been four or five years old, so it was soon after Jun had come to live at the Light House. His mother had been a chronic alcoholic, and he had been born out of wedlock, so one of our loyal parishioners had brought him to us.

I had broken off a branch from the fig tree and was watching the opalescent liquid ooze from the wound. When I touched it, the sticky emission clung to my finger. I broke another branch.

"Time for milky!" I said to Jun.

I made him sit on my lap, and I wrapped an arm around his shoulders as I brought the branch to his lips. Nothing about Jun's body then hinted at the muscular form later shining in the transparent water of the pool. My arms remember only the softness of an ordinary small child. Like a baby at the breast, he pursed his lips and made little chirping sounds, even wrapping his hands around mine as if he were clutching a bottle. The milk of the fig had a bitter, earthy smell.

I felt myself suddenly overcome by a strange and horrible sensation. It might have been the fig milk or the softness of Jun's body bringing it on, but that seemed to be the beginning-though I suppose it's possible this terrible feeling took hold of me even earlier, before I was even born.

I broke a thicker branch with more milk and smeared it against his mouth. He knit his brow and licked his lips, and at that moment the sunlight becomes intensely bright, the scene blurs to white, and my oldest memory comes to an end.

Since that time, I've had many similar moments, and I can never hear the words "family" and "home" without feeling that they sound strange, never simply hear them and let them go. When I stop to examine them, though, the words seem hollow, seem to rattle at my feet like empty cans.

My father and mother are the leaders of a church, a place they say mediates between the faithful and their god. They also run the Light House, which is an orphanage where I am the only child who is not an orphan, a fact that has disfigured my family.

Occasionally, perhaps to stir up this feeling that haunts me, I open one of the photo albums that line the bottom shelf of the bookcase in the playroom. I sit on the floor, amid the picture books and blocks, and select an album at random.

The photos were all taken at Light House events- picnics under the cherry blossoms, clam digging at low tide, barbecues, gathering ginkgo nuts-and every one is full of orphans. As in pictures from a class field trip, the faces are lined up one next to the other. And there I am, lost among them. If it were really a field trip, it would end; but these orphans came home with me to the Light House.

More often than not, my mother and father stand smiling behind the children. My father's smile is calm and even, and perhaps a bit perfunctory. Though that's to be expected for a man who spends half his life presiding over religious services and church functions. He is almost always praying his endless prayers. I gaze at the photograph of my father just as someone might gaze at the altar from the pew.

I flip sadly through an album, studying the photos. Each one is just like all the others, but none of them records my weight or length at birth, or contains a copy of my tiny footprint, or a picture of my parents and me. I slam it closed.

Sometimes I have thought it might be better if I were an orphan, too. If I could have one of the tragic histories so common at the Light House-an alcoholic mother, a homicidal father, parents lost to death or abandonment, anything at all-then I would have been a proper orphan. Then, like all the other children, I might have imagined that the nice couple who ran the Light House were my real parents, or pretended to be sweet and innocent in the hope of being adopted. Somehow, that would have made my life much simpler.

From the time of the incident with the fig tree, I wanted only one thing: to be part of a normal, quiet family.

Still, when Jun disappears into the locker room and I gather up my schoolbag, watching as the surface of the pool becomes calm and glasslike again, or, on Sunday nights, when I listen quietly for the sound of Jun coming home through the green darkness after a diving meet-at such times I feel my desire for a family evaporate like the mist.

I grope after it, though I know it's pointless. There are so many useless things in this world, but for me, the most useless of all is the Light House.

Jun came home. He had a meeting after practice, so he was an hour behind me.

Once a week or so, I managed to guess when he'd show up, and then I'd be waiting for him, casually perched on the couch or standing near the telephone in the hall. If the children or the staff or my parents-or most of all Jun himself-had realized that I was waiting for him, things would have been terribly complicated, so I was careful to make my presence seem accidental. I felt ridiculous, but I kept to my post, making pointless calls to school friends or flipping through magazines.

The front hall was usually quiet and empty in the evening. It is a plain room, with nothing but a frayed sofa and an old-fashioned telephone. The floorboards have a yellowish cast under the bare lightbulb. This evening, I gave myself permission to wait for Jun. He came through the door, dressed in his school blazer and carrying his backpack and gym bag.

"Hello," I said.

"Hi." Even the most ordinary words seemed to move me when they came from Jun's mouth. The fresh, clean smell of the pool clung to his body, and his hair was still slightly damp, the way I loved to see it.

"I'm starved," he said, dropping his bags and slumping onto the sofa. But even this was done in a good-natured way, and his exhaustion was scented with the bright smell of the pool.

"I envy you," I said, leaning against the telephone stand. "You work up an appetite. But I do almost nothing and still eat three meals a day. There's something pointless about that sort of hunger."

"You should take up a sport," he said.

I shook my head without looking up. "I'd rather watch," I said, wincing at my own words.

Those hours at the pool were my private indulgence, and I made a point of sitting as far as possible from the diving platform in order to keep them secret. I was also careful to avoid running into Jun or his teammates at the entrance to the gym, so it was possible that he'd never realized I was there. Still, it made me sad somehow if he hadn't, even though I was the one taking all those precautions.

He'd never put me on the spot by telling me he'd seen me, or by asking what I was doing at the pool. But I felt our bond would be somehow stronger if he knew and had made a point of letting me go on.

"I hurt my wrist today," he said. "I must have hit the water at a funny angle."

"Which one?"

He shook his left wrist to show me. Because his body was so important to me, I lived in fear that he would injure it. The flash in his eyes as he was about to dive, the glint of light on his chest, the shapes of his muscles-it all aroused in me a pleasant feeling that usually lay dormant.

"Are you all right? The preliminaries for the inter-high meet are coming up, aren't they?"

"It's not serious," he said, leaving it at that.

To enter the pool like a needle, creating the least possible splash, Jun had to align his wrists perfectly at the instant he hit the surface of the water. Because he had been diving for so long, he had the strongest wrists I'd ever seen.

Just then, we heard the sound of slippers along the corridor, and Naoki ran into the room.

"Hi, Jun! Could you do a handstand?" He danced around Jun like an excited puppy. He was three years old and suffered from asthma, which left his voice hoarse.

"Okay, but not right now," Jun said, rising from the couch and catching Naoki in his arms. The children at the Light House loved Jun, perhaps because he was extraordinarily good to them. They loved him just as I loved him, and everyone seemed to want to touch him. As he headed off, Naoki still in his arms, I whispered that he should take care of his wrist.

"Then when?" Naoki whined. "And you have to walk on your hands, too." The rough sound of his voice disappeared down the hall.

To my mind, dinner was the strangest part of life at the Light House-beginning with the fact that the kitchen and the dining room are in the basement.

The church and the Light House are old, Western-style wooden buildings, their age apparent in every floorboard, hinge, and tile. The structures have become quite complex through frequent additions, and from the outside it is impossible to grasp their layout. Inside, they are more confusing still, with long, winding halls and small flights of stairs.

The foyer of the Light House leads to a maze of corridors that snake through the building and eventually to a hall on the second floor that looks down on the courtyard through a window. At the end of the hall, there is a trapdoor in the floor with a heavy iron handle. The door makes a dry creak when it's lifted. We would fasten it to a hook on the ceiling before going down the steep flight of stairs to the dining room and the kitchen.

The children loved the secret staircase. Before every meal there was a race-often ending in a fight-to see who could get to the trapdoor first. The director or one of the teachers hurried the children along as they disappeared down the staircase, one after the other.

When I pulled on the rusty handle, heard the creaking of the trapdoor, and smelled the odors of the kitchen coming up the stairs, I was often reminded of The Diary of Anne Frank: the stairs hidden behind the revolving bookcase, the plan of the secret house as convoluted as that of the Light House, the yellow Star of David, the pins in the map tracking the advancing invasion of Normandy, the gloomy, inadequate meals with Peter, the van Daans, and Dr. Dussel. Like Anne, I could feel my appetite diminish with each step I took down the secret stairs of the Light House.

Though the kitchen and dining room are partially underground, they were neither dark nor damp. There are a number of large windows overlooking the garden to the south, and from the windows to the north, light filters in through the woods.

Yet here, too, there were inescapable signs of age and decay. The frying pans and pots lined up on the drying rack were scorched and discolored, and the appliances- mixers, ovens, refrigerators, and the like-were sturdy but old. The surface of the enormous table that dominated the room was covered with scratches and, in places, hollowed out by deep gouges.

I found breakfasts in this dining room almost unbearable, amid a crowd of noisy children and scraps of scattered food. At dinnertime, my father, who went to bed early in order to be up for morning services, would eat with the dozen or so younger children; and afterward I would eat with Jun, Reiko, who was in the third year of middle school, the night proctor, and my mother. But even among the adults, after the tables had been wiped of the children's spills, I still found the meals disgusting.

My mother was the heartiest, most cheerful person at the Light House. Particularly talkative during dinner, she was not one to cast about for topics that would include everyone, preferring to talk about herself and her interests from the moment we sat down until the meal was over. As she would grow increasingly excited and out of breath, I often wondered whether she in fact hated herself for talking so much.

Eventually I began worrying that Jun and the others were growing weary of her. Her lips were like two maggots that never stopped wriggling, and I found myself wanting to squash them between my fingers. It was pitch black outside and the glass in the windows had turned a deep shade of green, but her voice tumbled brightly on in the darkening world. Reiko and the night proctor stared down at their plates and mumbled acknowledgments from time to time.

Jun's hair was dry by then. His body seemed smaller and more vulnerable when it wasn't wet. Unlike the rest of us, he never looked bored or sighed when my mother talked too much. Instead, he listened intently to her overbearing voice, nodding politely, eating with gusto, and even breaking in from time to time to ask a strategic question that encouraged her to talk even more. His voice seemed to blend with hers, and she turned to face him as her babbling grew more and more frantic.

Meanwhile, I sat studying his profile, wondering how he could be so kind while I felt nothing but the cruelest sort of disgust. He would come down from the diving board and return to the Light House, where his muscles would warm and soften like silk floss, and then he would soak up all the things that set my nerves on edge-Naoki's raspy voice, the scraps of food flung about by the children, my mother's endless chattering. It seemed strange that he could be so good when life had treated him so badly: a father who ran off when he was born and a mother who had abandoned him for the bottle. I prayed desperately to be bathed in his kindness.

The sound of children's feet came through the floor from upstairs. It was bath time: I could imagine them running around in great clouds of talcum powder. I stared at my mother's glistening lips and nudged my chopsticks against the fatty bits of meat left on my plate. Then I passed a sauce bottle to Jun, hoping to hear him say "Thank you"-the sound of his voice could wash away the sour feeling in my stomach.

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon. My mother and father had gone out to record a radio program for the church. Reiko, who shared my room, was stretched out on the top bunk reading a science magazine. Jun was at the ballet class he attended every week. He had started recently at the urging of his diving coach, who said it would help him with form and flexibility. I have trouble imagining him at ballet class, accustomed as I am to seeing his body framed in sparkling water at diving practice, but I found myself feeling jealous of those flat-chested little girls in white leotards, their hair pulled back in tight buns.

In Jun's absence, these Sunday afternoons seemed somber and endless. I kept busy by reviewing for my English class; when I became bored, I flipped through the dictionary at random, studying the simple yet strangely realistic illustrations: an albatross, a still, a wood box, a waffle iron.

It was a beautiful day outside. Sunlight covered the ground like a shower of gold dust. The shadows of trembling ginkgo leaves were etched sharply on the wall of the church, and the breeze blowing through the curtains carried the first hints of summer.

"Are you going to the hospital today?" I said, turning toward Reiko.

"No, not today," she replied without looking up from her magazine.

Reiko had come to the Light House less than six months earlier. My parents had carried in boxes stuffed with books and tired, out-of-fashion clothes, and then Reiko herself had appeared at the door of my room. She was heavyset and taller than I was, and she wore thick glasses. Though she was only in middle school, her flesh seemed to sag in places, like the body of a middle-aged woman.

"Pleased to meet you," she said, lumbering into the room as if her body were a burden.

It was rare for someone as old as Reiko to come to the Light House. Most children were brought as infants and were adopted while they were still young. Jun was the first to reach high school age while still living here.

Reiko's parents were both in a mental hospital. Their problems were apparently very serious, with no hope that they would recover and return to normal life.

"They'll miss you if you don't go." I knew that she didn't like talking about her parents, but I brought them up as often as possible. The children here suffered from almost every imaginable misfortune, yet it struck me as particularly bad luck to have both parents go crazy, one after the other.

"I wish they would miss me," she said. Closing the magazine, she sat up on the bed and took off her glasses. "I'd be glad if they did." With her glasses off, her eyes were so small it was hard to tell where she was looking.

"And that's what makes you so sad?" I asked.

She blinked nervously but said nothing. Her vacant stare confounded my efforts to understand what she was feeling. Her lips were pursed in what might have been a faint smile, but it might also have been a wounded frown. There were several seconds of icy silence.

"The hooks have come undone," she said at last, as if talking to herself.

"Hooks?"

"That's right. The ones that kept my mother and father and me together. They've come undone and there's no way to get them fastened again." Sometimes she spoke like a young lady from a good family.

I wondered what sort of sound was made when the hooks holding together a family came apart. Perhaps a dull splat, like the sound of a ripe fruit splitting open. Or maybe it was more like an explosion, when you mix the wrong chemicals.

Reiko was still looking down at me blankly, the fat on her cheeks and chin hiding her feelings. She put her glasses on again, stretched out on the bed, and went back to her magazine.

Perhaps the wounds she'd received when the hooks broke were still raw. But since I'd never been hooked to anything, I couldn't see much difference in our luck.

I turned back to the desk and began writing unintelligible English words in my notebook. The children were even louder now, but their noise had no effect on the silence that fell between us.

The Light House was always noisy: a mixture of shouting and crying and pounding feet filled every corner of the building like some resident spirit.

Just then, an urgent knock sounded at the door, and the part-time nurse came in carrying Rie in her arms.

"We're going to take the children to the bazaar at the church, but Rie seems to be coming down with a cold. Could we leave her here with you?" She spoke quickly, rocking the child in her arms.

"Sure," I said, getting up from the desk to take Rie. "I'll look after her."

"Do you want to go with us, Reiko?" the nurse said, looking toward the top bunk.

"It's very kind of you to invite me, but I'm afraid I have other things I have to do today." As always, Reiko's refusal was excessively polite.

At a year and five months, Rie was the youngest child at the Light House. She wore a bright red playsuit over her white shirt, and her nose was shiny and damp.

The din from the children reached a crescendo and then subsided as they left with the three nurses. I took Rie downstairs and out in the backyard.

The brilliant sunlight made the shadowy places seem fresh and clean, and the objects in them-a tricycle, a broken flowerpot, every leaf and weed-stood out vividly. Cases of bottles waiting to be recycled and an empty box with a picture of asparagus were piled by the kitchen door.

After the fig tree had stopped bearing fruit, it was cut down, leaving only a small mound of earth where the well had been. Rie was amusing herself by sticking a little shovel into this mound while I watched from a short way off, seated on one of the cases of bottles.

The tiny legs protruding from the elastic hems of her pants looked like pats of smooth, white butter. Whether they are dark and blotchy, covered in a rash, or rippling with rings of fat, I am always fascinated by a baby's thighs. There is something almost erotic about their defenselessness, and yet they seem fresh and vivid, like separate living creatures.

Rie was scooping up dirt with the shovel she held in one hand and dumping it into the bucket she held in the other. She had been doing this for some time, but when she missed the bucket and spilled the dirt on her hand, she came staggering toward me on unsteady little legs, crossing the boundary between bright sunlight and quiet shade. She made little pleading noises as she held out her soiled hand. It seemed clean enough to me, but I blew on her palm anyway.

Children Rie's age have a peculiar odor: the dustiness of disposable diapers mixed with the pulpy smell of baby food. But in Rie's case, there was an added scent, like fresh butter at the moment you peel away the foil wrapper.

She went back to her game, yet every few minutes she would stop and come over to have me dust off her hands. The simple regularity with which she did this gradually put me in a cruel mood. However, I didn't find the feeling particularly unpleasant; in fact, there was something agreeable about it. This cruel impulse had been coming over me quite often then. It seemed to be concealed somewhere in the spaces between my ribs, and the strange baby smell brought it out, almost as though plucking it from my body. The pain of its emergence comforted me as I stood watching Rie.

Then, while she had her back turned, I slipped behind the kitchen door. After a few moments, the dirt on her hands began to bother her again and she dropped the shovel and bucket at her feet and stood staring at her palms. Finally, she turned for help toward the spot where I should have been sitting. As it dawned on her that I wasn't there, that she'd been left alone, she began crying in earnest. Her sobs were violent, seemingly about to rupture something inside her, and they were satisfying my cruel urge. I wanted her to cry even harder, and everything seemed perfectly arranged: no one would come to pick her up, I would be able to listen to my heart's content, and she was too young to tell anyone afterward.

When we grow up, we find ways to hide our anxieties, our loneliness, our fear and sorrow. But children hide nothing, putting everything into their tears, which they spread liberally about for the whole world to see. I wanted to savor every one of Rie's tears, to run my tongue over the damp, festering, vulnerable places in her heart and open the wounds even wider.

A dry breeze tugged at her straggly hair. The sun was still high in the sky, as if it were no longer setting, as if time had stopped. She continued to sob violently, barely able to catch her breath.

When I finally appeared from behind the door, she wailed even louder and came running to throw herself in my arms, her buttery little thighs churning all the way. As I lifted her up and held her, the sobs subsided into pitiful whimpers that barely hinted at her vanished anger. Damp with tears and snot, the little cheeks pressed against my chest, and with them came that strange child smell. The arrogance of Rie's self-assurance restored my cruel thoughts.

My eyes wandered to the large urn abandoned at the edge of the woods in back. Once a decoration in a hall at the Light House, it was a Bizen pot, nearly as tall as a man's chest. I carried Rie to it, rubbing her back to quiet her ragged breathing. Then I removed its lid of rotting boards and slowly lowered her inside.

I wanted to hear her cry louder. I wanted to hear every kind of howl or sob she could produce. Her legs contracted in terror, as if she were going into convulsions, and she clung to my arms.

"It's all right," I said, shaking off her tiny fingers. "Don't be afraid."

Inside, the urn was cool and damp. She flailed about, screaming at the top of her lungs. Her cries came pouring up and into me like a stream of molten steel. I gripped the mouth of the urn with both hands to keep it from toppling over and stared down at Rie's futile struggles.

Every day of my life I had heard someone crying at the Light House. In the brief pauses between roughhousing and fights, between laughter and screaming, there had always been tears. And I had tried my best to love every one of them because I was the orphan no family wanted to adopt, the only one who could never leave the Light House. Still, Rie's terrified tears were particularly satisfying, like hands caressing me in exactly the right places-not vague, imaginary hands but his hands, the ones I was sure would know just how to please me.

"Just a little more," I said, the words disappearing into the urn. As I watched her reach imploringly for me, my chin resting on the rim, I felt a giggle welling up inside.

I had been asleep for some time that night when suddenly I woke. The room wasn't hot, nor had I had a bad dream. Still, I was immediately awake and alert, as if I'd never slept, as if I were shining brightly in the darkness.

It was so quiet I thought I could hear the children breathing next door. Reiko seemed to be sleeping peacefully, and the springs groaned as she turned heavily in bed. I took the alarm clock from the bedside table and held it close to my face: 2:00 a.m. I'd slept just two hours, but I felt refreshed. It seemed impossible that morning was still far off.

Then, in the darkness and silence, I heard the faint sound of running water-so faint I suspected it might disappear altogether if I stopped listening. As I lay in bed picturing this stream, my mind became calm and clear.

I got up and looked out the window. The world was still; everything seemed to be asleep-the ginkgo tree, the Thought for the Week, the rusted chain on the gate-except for the water in the distance. I slipped quietly out of the room, following the sound.

The upstairs hall was dark, lit only by the bare bulb on the landing. The doors to the children's rooms were tightly shut. The floor was cool against my feet.

As I descended the stairs, the sound grew more distinct. I stood at the end of the longest hall in the Light House, the one that led to the underground dining room, and spied Jun at the sink across from the bathroom, washing his swimsuits under one of the four faucets.

"What are you doing up so late?" I said, staring at his wet, soapy hands.

"Sorry, did the noise wake you?" Even here in the dark, in the middle of the night, his voice was clean and sharp. "For some reason, when I'm washing my suits and the house is still, I can think about diving."

"About diving?"

"I go over the dives in my head-the approach, the timing of the bounce, the entrance." His hands went on with their work as he talked. "If you picture a perfect dive over and over in your head, then when you get up on the board you feel as though you can actually do it." He washed the suits carefully, turning them inside out and rubbing them against the tiles in the sink. I loved the look of his fingers, moving so vigorously. When I was with him, I found myself wondering how he could be so pure and innocent.

"You love to dive, don't you?" I couldn't think of anything else to say.

"I do," he said. Two words, but they echoed inside me. If I could have just those two words all to myself, I felt I would be at peace. "When I'm diving I get completely absorbed in the moment-at least for those few tenths of a second." There was no doubt that Jun suspended in midair, from the time he left the board to the time he entered the water, was the most exquisite embodiment of him, as if all his good words and deeds were wrapped around his beautiful body and left to fall free through the air.

We stood in our pajamas, our images reflected in the line of mirrors above the sink. The house was utterly still, as if only the air around us were alive. The light, too, seemed to have collected on us; everything else beyond the windowpane and down the hall was pitch black. We inhabited some separate, extraordinary moment in time.

Jun had splashed water on his pajamas, and I could see the muscles of his chest even through the loose material. I felt like a weepy child, longing to be enfolded in his arms.

"Let me help you," I said, forcing myself to sound cheerful, afraid that unless I spoke I would be crushed by desire.

"Thanks," he said. I turned on the faucet next to him and rinsed the soap from one of the suits. I let the water trickle in a thin stream, cautious not to make noise and wake someone else, ending this moment with Jun. There were three suits, and I knew the pattern on each: the one he got when he first joined the diving team, the one from a big meet the previous year, the one the children had given him for his birthday. I knew them all by heart.

As I stood with my hands submerged in the water, feeling Jun next to me, I had a deep sense of peace. Perhaps it was the pleasure of holding something that had been so close to him. I thought back to a time when we were younger and could play together innocently, a time when Jun's body held no particular significance for me.

"Do you remember the day we had snow here in the hallway?" I asked, staring at the soap bubbles as they slid down the tiles.

"Snow? Here in the hall?" He turned to look at me.

"It was about ten years ago. I'd had a wonderful dream, and I woke up early. When I looked outside, everything was covered with snow, more than I'd ever seen. The children were still asleep. I jumped out of bed and ran downstairs, and the hall was completely buried in snow from one end to the other."

"Really? But why would there have been snow in the house?"

"It blew in through the cracks in the roof. The repairman came after the snow melted to nail boards over the holes. You really don't remember?"

Jun looked thoughtful for a moment. "I suppose it does sound vaguely familiar."

"Try to remember," I said. "It would be a shame to forget something so beautiful. The best part was seeing the hall before anyone came along to make footprints."

I finished rinsing the suit and set it on the ledge above the sink. Then Jun handed me the next one.

"It was amazing. I just stood there feeling like I was the only one awake in the whole world. But I wasn't; someone else was looking at the snow."

"Who?" I could feel his eyes on me.

"You. At some point I realized you were standing behind me, and I had the feeling you'd been there all along. You were wearing those blue pajamas with bees and bear cubs."

Jun's hands stopped moving for a moment. "And yours were polka dots," he said.

"That's right. We stood there, just the two of us- like we are now." I put the second suit next to the first one.

The memory of the soft snow-another extraordinary moment we had shared long before-came back to me through the soles of my feet. It had seemed like a dream, far removed from reality, and yet there had been something amazingly vivid about the snow and being there with Jun. I remember being delighted to be alone in that special place, just the two of us; but I'm sure it must have been even more wonderful then, when we were young and knew nothing about the pain of growing up.

"You said we should dive into it," I continued. "I was afraid, but you said it was safe, that it would be wonderful-and then you spread out your arms and fell in. You left a perfect print of yourself in the snow-we couldn't stop laughing, but we were quiet, so no one else would know. Then you pushed me in and I got snow all in my eyes."

"It was fun, wasn't it?" He sounded as though he would never know that sort of pleasure again. And perhaps he was right. It was hard to know what was coming, where our lives would lead, and it made me sad to think about the future.

I doubted that we would ever have a quiet chat about the night we washed out his swimsuits. One after the other, the children at the Light House all went away, leaving me behind. I had no idea how many of them I had watched go, standing alone at the window of my room; and there was no reason to believe that Jun wouldn't leave like the rest. One day he would go, dressed in his new clothes, accompanied by his new family, disappearing around the corner where the Thought for the Week was posted. And that was why I wanted to remember the happiness we'd had together while we still could.

I washed the suits with great care, as if by doing so I could wash away my cruelty to Rie that afternoon. I needed to pretend to be myself at a younger, more innocent age, when we had stood marveling at the snow in the hall. I was sure that Jun would dive into only pure water, and I wanted his dive into me to be perfect; I wanted him to enter with no splash at all.

Once we'd finished talking about that morning so many years before, we couldn't think of anything else to say. The sound of time flowing between us became the sound of the water trickling quietly from the faucet until dawn.

Spring passed, and soon it was raining every day. A fine mist, like fluttering insect wings, dampened the trees and bushes that grew around the Light House. The days dragged by; the rain seemed always on the point of stopping but never did. I felt as though I was sleepwalking at school, waking only when I spotted Jun at the library or by the vending machines. As soon as classes ended, I headed for the sports center and the diving pool, and it was there alone, seated in the stands, that I felt myself come to life.

Life at the Light House was monotonous. After the rains set in, mold began to grow down in the kitchen and dining room: a lovely shade of green on a leftover roll and a snow-white variety on the apple pie one of the nurses had baked three days before. The sight of a garbage pail full of this decay aroused my cruel streak again, and I found myself imagining how Rie would scream if I sealed her inside. She would cry until she was covered with tears and sweat and snot; then a coating of mold, like colorful fuzz, would spread over her silky little thighs. Whenever I saw the pail, I imagined the mold on Rie's thighs.

One Sunday afternoon, I was in the playroom. Three of the youngest children, still too young for kindergarten, were playing together in a sea of toys. Rie was among them.

An early typhoon had passed to the west. The rain had stopped for the moment, and I was sitting near the window, listening to the wind.

A fight broke out over one of the toys, and Rie began to cry. I went over to pick her up. As she sobbed, she wriggled her fingers between the buttons on my blouse, searching for the comfort of a breast.

"You can't go outside to play," I told the other children. "The wind would blow you away." Then I took Rie to my room.

Reiko had gone to see her parents at the hospital and wouldn't be back for hours. Rie cheered up almost immediately and began to paw at the things Reiko had piled under her desk-cassette tapes for practicing English conversation, pennants she had collected on school trips, a flashlight with dead batteries. As I watched her, I wondered whether she had forgotten that I had shut her up in the urn and let her cry.

The wind shook the trees around the Light House. The roar seemed to wash over the building, amplified by the dense mass of leaves.

Under the desk, Rie was sorting through her discoveries, bringing each object to her mouth before moving on to the next. Her legs were stuck fast to the floor. Little children are like a different species, and I watched Rie the way another person might watch a rare specimen in a zoo. I wanted to pet her, to spoil her, but I didn't know how to do it.

I noticed a box wrapped in white paper that was peeking out of the open drawer of my desk. In it was a cream puff I had brought home four or five days earlier.

A fine rain had been falling on that day, too. The line of poplar trees around the sports center was veiled in mist. As I walked, I thought about the dives that Jun had been practicing and their degrees of difficulty. The soccer field and baseball diamond were deserted and silent, the only sound coming from the cars on the road beyond the trees.

A new pastry shop had just opened outside the center. The building was made entirely of glass, more like a greenhouse than a shop, and every detail of the kitchen-the knobs on the oven, the frosting bags, the knives and spatulas-was clearly visible. Large bouquets of flowers lined the doorway to celebrate the opening.

I'm not sure why I went in. I hadn't been particularly hungry. But the afternoon was dark and gray, and the rain hung over everything like a thick cloud of smoke. The shop, by contrast, was bright and cheerful, reminding me of the glittering diving pool; it was almost too bright. There were no other customers, and the display case was nearly empty. Like everything else in the shop, it was immaculate.

The cakes were like exquisite lacework. I bent over to examine them while a young woman in a frilly apron waited to take my order. I pointed at the last three cream puffs, lined up modestly in one corner of the case.

"I'd like those," I said.

The frilly young woman carefully transferred the cream puffs to a box, wrapped it in paper, affixed the shop seal, and then tied the whole thing with ribbon.

Carrying the cake box along with my schoolbag was somewhat difficult, and the safety of my new package obsessed me until I reached home. I ate one cream puff and gave one to Reiko, who, after thanking me with her usual exaggerated politeness, retreated to the top bunk to devour it. The third one I left in the box, which I put in the bottom drawer of the desk. Every time I opened the drawer, the white box seemed out of place, there among the ruler, the stapler, and a stack of photocopies; but I had almost forgotten about the cream puff inside.

I carefully removed the box from the drawer, as if I were handling something fragile. I expected it to be heavier, yet the box was as light as… a cream puff. I also expected to find a mass of brightly colored mold inside; however, the pastry looked almost as it had in the store-puffy and golden.

"Rie, come here. I have a treat for you."

She turned to look, and when she realized what was in the box, she came running happily to jump into my lap.

It wasn't until I cut the cream puff in half that I realized that the sweet smell of eggs and sugar and milk had been replaced by an acrid stench, like that of an unripe grapefruit. As Rie's lips sank into the cream, the smell filled the room. It nearly made me sick, but Rie devoured the pastry. Her eagerness was almost painfully sweet to see.

"Is it good?" I asked, but the wind drowned out the question.

I put the uneaten half of the cream puff back in the box and took it down to the garbage pail in the kitchen.

The wind continued to blow as the night wore on. The heat and humidity made sleep difficult. Every time I started to doze off, the sweltering air would drag me back from my dreams. Reiko had returned from visiting her parents, eaten a few pieces of chocolate, and gone to sleep without even brushing her teeth. As I listened to her sugary breathing, I could feel any chance of sleep slipping away.

I was about to check the clock to see how much time had passed when I suddenly heard footsteps in the hall. A door opened somewhere and then closed again, and I could hear anxious whispering. I kicked off my damp quilt and unfastened another button on my pajamas. Staring at the slats of the bed above me, I tried to make out what the voices were saying. I was wide awake now, my nerves jangling.

After a few minutes, I could distinguish my mother's voice over the rest. The others were muffled and subdued, but she sounded as agitated and sharp and somehow self-satisfied as ever. Even Reiko was roused from her deep sleep and leaned over to look down at me.

"What's happening?" she said.

I got out of bed, ignoring her question. My body felt strangely stiff, and I realized that I was exhausted from so many hours of trying to get to sleep. I opened the door and stood for a moment with my eyes closed, waiting to adjust to the light.

"Aya!" my mother called, pressing her hand to the front of her worn nightgown. "Rie's sick. She has a fever and terrible diarrhea, and she's been vomiting all night. Her lips are dry, and she has a strange rash. I don't know what's wrong with her. I wanted to call an ambulance, but your father said we should get that Dr. Nishizaki, the one with the clinic near the station. He says Nishizaki's a member of the church, so God will look after her. They're calling him now, but it's terrible, and in the middle of the night-all we can do is pray. Oh, Aya!"

The words came spilling out in one breath. The night nurse and the other employees who lived at the Light House stood around her, their faces drawn with fatigue and anxiety. There was something in my mother's tone hinting that she found the emergency almost thrilling.

I pressed my hands over my aching eyes, wondering why she insisted on chattering like that, why she had to explain everything when I already knew what had happened.

At that moment, Jun came up the stairs.

"I got through to Dr. Nishizaki. He said to bring her right away." He went into the children's dormitory and came out holding Rie. She lay like a limp rag in his arms. Her cheeks and hands and thighs were covered with pale pink spots, as if her body had rotted with the cream puff and was growing pink mold.

Jun carried her down the stairs, and everyone followed. My father was waiting in the car out front, the engine already running. Jun climbed in beside him, still cradling Rie.

Though I was responsible for her condition, I found myself watching Jun instead. He seemed so brisk and decisive, and his arms were muscular as they embraced Rie. His sincerity was almost more than I could bear.

Whenever there was an emergency-the time I fell in the river, the grease fire in the kitchen, or the earthquake that knocked over the china cabinet-Jun always managed to calm and reassure the rest of us. It was sad that someone could be so kind. The sound of the car engine faded into the night.

The others returned quietly to their rooms while my mother continued to call after the car. "Call me the minute you hear anything! I'll wait by the phone! If they send her to the hospital, let me know so I can get her things together!"

When they were gone, she turned to me, ready to launch a new soliloquy. "I hope it's nothing serious…" But I just nodded vaguely and said nothing, wanting to be alone with my thoughts of Jun.

I returned to the pool as soon as I could. It seemed all the more precious after I'd tasted deeply of my own cruelty. The ripples reflecting on the glass roof, the smell of the water, and above all the purity of Jun's glistening body-these things had the power to wash me clean. I wanted to be as pure as Jun, even if for only a moment.

In the end, Rie had gone on to the hospital. They said she vomited until there was nothing left and then slept for two days, as still and cold as a mummy. My mother went to the hospital to take care of her and came home with long reports. I wondered whether they'd found any trace of the cream puff.

I'm not sure how I would have felt if Rie had died, how I would have made sense of what I'd done. Because I had no idea where the cruelty came from, I could look at Jun's arms and chest and back without feeling the slightest remorse for having hurt Rie.

I was alone in the bleachers. It was as warm as ever. Voices and splashing hung like fog over the competition pool and the children's pool beyond it, while here there was nothing but the quiet splash of a diver entering the water, and then another.

Jun was wearing a navy blue suit with the insignia of our school embroidered at the waist, one of those we'd washed that night in the hall as we'd talked about the snowy morning. It was wet and clung to his hips. He had a habit of pulling at the wristbands he wore on each arm as he made his way to the end of the board. Then he would spend a long time getting the position of his feet exactly right.

"Back two-and-a-half in the pike position," I murmured.

It was a beautiful dive. His body was straight and perpendicular to the water at entry, and there was almost no splash. A few bubbles rose from the bottom, and then the surface was glassy again.

I liked pike dives better than tucked or twisting ones. When the body is bent at the hips and the legs and feet extended, the tension in the muscles is exquisite. I liked that shape of his body, with his forehead pressed lightly against his shins and his palms wrapped behind his knees.

As his legs traced a perfect circle in the air, like a compass falling through space, I could feel his body in mine, caressing me inside, closer and warmer and more peaceful than any real embrace. Though he had never held me in his arms, I was sure this feeling was true.

I let out a long breath and crossed my legs. The other members of the team took their turns diving, and between dives the coach shouted instructions through a megaphone. The swim team was practicing in the competition pool. A girl, apparently the team manager, was leaning out over one of the starting blocks and timing the laps with a stopwatch. Everyone except me was hard at work-but I, too, had a purpose in being here: to heal myself.

It wasn't until I'd passed the dressing rooms and the line of vending machines in the lobby that I realized it was raining. A hazy sun had been shining all day, so I was surprised by the sudden change; sheets of rain drenched the sports center, turning the poplars and the scoreboard and the soccer field dark gray. The enormous raindrops sent up miniature detonations as they hit the ground.

I stood helplessly by the door. It would take at least five minutes to get to the station, no matter how fast I ran; in rain like this I'd be soaked in five seconds. The prospect of riding home on a packed, rush-hour train in wet clothes seemed too depressing.

The couch in the lobby was already full of people waiting out the storm, while others were lined up at the pay phone to call for cabs. Seeing no alternative, I went outside. The air smelled of rain, of earth dissolved in rain. I sat down on the steps under the eaves and watched the drops pelting the ground. From time to time they splashed up on my socks.

Jun would still be at the team meeting or taking a shower, but I was worried that he would come out before it stopped raining. I had no idea how to face him if he found me sitting here. He would appear as he always did, fresh from his beloved practice; and I would be stained with the traces of Rie's tears and her rosy pink rash, which the pool had failed to wash away. I was about to run out into the rain when someone called my name.

"Aya!"

Jun's voice stopped me. I turned to find him standing above me on the steps. He looked fresh and clean, exactly as I'd imagined him, and for a moment I only watched him, unable to think anything to say.

"This is unbelievable," he said, his eyes moving from me to the rain.

"It is," I said. We stood on the steps, watching in silence. We had to stand close together to avoid getting wet, and through my skirt I could feel his gym bag rubbing against my leg.

I was grateful that he hadn't asked me why I was here, as if I had been forgiven some trespass. The rain was falling even harder, blotting out the world beyond the eaves.

"What happened to the rest of the team?" I asked. He was too close for me to turn to look at him.

"The coach gave them a ride home," he said, still gazing out at the rain.

"Why didn't you go with them?"

"Because I saw you leaving."

"Oh," I muttered. I wanted to apologize or thank him, but the words that came out of my mouth were the most dreary, practical ones: "Do you have an umbrella?" He shook his head.

"It wouldn't help much anyway," he said. "It's raining too hard. We should just stay here awhile."

Stay here awhile, I repeated slowly to myself, and with each repetition the meaning seemed to change, becoming "I want to stay here," then "I want to stay with you."

A taxi stopped in front of the building, its wipers beating frantically. A group of children who must have finished their swimming lessons came running out past us and dove into the cab, trailed by their mothers. But all the sounds-the hurried footsteps, the drone of the taxi's engine-were drowned out by the rain. The only noises that reached my ears were Jun's breathing and the thunder rumbling in the distance.

The raindrops continued to assault us, soaking Jun's shoulder; the fabric of his shirt clung to the curve of his back; but he seemed oblivious, listening for the thunder with childlike enthusiasm.

When I was with Jun, I often thought about our childhood: I recalled all the games we had played, just the two of us, in various places around the Light House. I had been alone with him when he drank the milk from the fig tree, and when we discovered the snowy hall. None of his school friends or his teammates or the other children at the Light House shared these memories; I was the only one who had seen the expressions on his face at these moments, and I kept those images locked away like a bundle of precious letters. Then, from time to time, I would take them out to go over again.

Still, as time passed, the letters were becoming faded and brittle in my hands; and at some point, I stopped adding new ones to the bundle. Perhaps it was when Jun and I stopped being children-when the mere thought of him began to cause me pain, as it does still.

The thunder rumbled off into the distance; the rain, however, was as heavy as before. The damp spot on Jun's shoulder continued to spread, and I began to worry that he was getting cold.

"We should go inside," I said, tugging him by the elbow. He took one last look beyond the eaves and nodded.

We passed through the lobby and headed back to the pool. There was no one left in the diving well, but several men in swimsuits and T-shirts were collecting the kickboards and mopping the deck. The lights had been turned down; it seemed like a different place. Evening had arrived here even sooner than in the rainy world outside. We sat in the highest row of bleachers, our backs against the railing. The surface of the pool rippled gently below.

"This feels strange," I said, staring at his profile.

"Why is that?" he said, turning to look at me.

"I'm usually the only one up here in the stands. I sit here all alone and watch you on the board. But today, here you are, sitting right next to me."

"You always come to watch me practice, don't you?" His voice was so warm, so full of gratitude, that I could only nod.

Your body falling through space touches the deepest part of me. I murmured in my heart the words I could never say aloud.

"I come here straight from class and just sit and watch. I don't have anything else to do. I don't exercise, I don't do much of anything. I must seem like a useless old woman to you."

"You shouldn't be so hard on yourself," he said. "You'll find something that's right for you eventually. You just seem uncertain right now."

"Is that what you think?"

"It is," he said, nodding.

I wasn't at all sure whether I was uncertain or not, but he seemed so completely convinced that I let it drop. I suddenly felt quite peaceful, and I didn't know what to do next. My desires seemed simple and terribly complicated at the same time: to gaze at Jun's wet body and to make Rie cry. These were the only things that gave me comfort.

The mops scraped across the floor. The water level in the pool had fallen, as if a plug had been pulled, revealing a pattern of tiles in the wall.

"You never seem uncertain," I said, kicking my toe against the schoolbag I had left at my feet.

"There's no time for that when you're diving." He gripped the railing with both hands and raised his body, as if about to do a chin-up. "Maybe it's because there was something so uncertain and twisted about my birth, but when I'm up there on the board I just want to dive as straight and clean as possible, with no hesitation."

I was watching Jun's powerful fingers as they gripped the rail.

"Do you resent what your parents did to you?"

"No," he said, hesitating for a moment. "How can you resent someone you don't even know?" I suddenly felt terribly sad, as if I were only just learning that he was an orphan. No matter how kind he was to people, no matter how perfectly he performed his dives, he would always be an orphan. I wanted to breathe on his damp shoulder, to warm it with my breath.

The rain was beating on the glass above us. The pool was empty then, and the attendants had climbed in to scrub the bottom. The diving well was larger and deeper than I had imagined. They had turned off the lights above the bleachers, as if we were descending further into the night, and we were left in the dim glow that reached us from the pool.

We rambled from topic to topic-the extra math homework, our class trip, the school assembly-and occasionally we would look up at the rain. It seemed to be slowing.

"I wonder when Rie will get out of the hospital," Jun said at last, as if this were simply the next topic in our long, meandering talk. But the mention of her name pierced me like a thorn.

"I wonder," I said.

I pictured the scene in her hospital room from the one visit I'd paid her: the walls decorated with crayon drawings, the stuffed Mickey Mouse on her bed, and Rie herself stretched out lethargically on the wrinkled sheets.

"It was you, wasn't it?" His tone was so matter-of-fact, so unchanged, that I didn't understand immediately. "You did that to Rie, didn't you?"

The voice was the same, but this time the words began to sink in, as if they'd been replayed at a slower speed. There was no hint of blame or reproach in his voice, yet I felt a chill come over me.

"You knew?" My voice was hoarse.

"Yes."

"How?"

"I was always watching you." This could have been a breathless declaration of love or a final farewell. "I've known what you were doing to her for a while now." His eyes were fixed on the bottom of the pool. "Rie's had a hard time," he said, his voice low and even. "Her mother was mentally retarded, and she had Rie in a restroom."

If he had attacked me outright, I might have been able to defend myself. Instead, he exposed my secret as if offering himself to me. I was left mute, listening to my heart pounding in my chest.

I wanted him to stop talking. Anything he said would only make me sadder. Rie's sharp cries echoed in my ears, cutting Jun's shining muscles all to shreds. The world was spinning in front of me, as if I were falling head over heels into the empty diving well.

We sat for a moment, saying nothing. The railing had become warm against my back.

"We'll be locking up soon," one of the men called from the bottom of the pool. The spinning slowed.

"Okay!" Jun called back. "I hope the rain's stopped," he added, looking up at the ceiling. As I traced his profile with my eyes, I realized that I could never ask anything of him again: not caresses, not protection, not warmth. He would never dive into the pool inside me, clouded as it was with the little girl's tears. The waves of regret were gentle, but I knew they would ripple on forever.

"Let's go," he said, resting his hand on my shoulder.

"Where?" His palm was almost painfully warm.

"Home, to the Light House."

His voice reached me through the hand on my back. It struck me as a terrible joke that we were going home together, but I rose, nodding obediently.


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