The earthquake happened in the evening, just as I was getting ready to close up shop.
I was at the register transferring coins to the coin counter, but stopped what I was doing the moment the tremors began. The lights hanging from the ceiling shook, and the old building groaned with an awful grating noise. There was no one else in the building with me.
The shaking continued for some time, but the packed shelves in the shop did not so much as tremble. That was thanks to the reinforced metal fasteners we installed a few days ago to fix them onto the floor and walls. Not a single book had fallen onto the floor. The swaying finally settled down, and I debated whether or not I should go outside to take a look.
I turned on the radio behind the counter and tuned into a broadcast about the earthquake. The epicenter was in Ibaraki prefecture, and due to the distance, the impact here in Kanagawa wasn’t too bad.
I took out my cellphone and began to write a message.
I, Goura Daisuke, worked part time at a bookshop in Kamakura, Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia. I had started working here summer of 2010, and had been here for over half a year now.
There was no one else watching the shop with me today. The owner—Shinokawa Shioriko, had gone with her sister to a hotel in the Landmark Tower in Yokohama to attend their cousin’s wedding ceremony.
At 25 years old, she was two years older then me. When she gave me my instructions for the day earlier this morning, she wore an unusually formal beige dress and white jacket along with neatly applied makeup.
Her pale skin and attractive features made my heart stop for a moment.
That said, the plain, thick framed glasses she wore were the same as always.
I asked her if she was going to take off her glasses, but she turned the question back on me, asking why she should. It seemed Shioriko herself wasn’t too happy about dressing up for the special occasion.
They were probably in the middle of the wedding ceremony around now. While they weren’t as dangerous as old 50-year-old buildings like this one, I had heard that skyscrapers tended to sway violently during earthquakes.
I sent them a message to make sure they were alright. However, just as I was about to hit send, a text came in for me. It wasn’t from the shop owner, but from her younger sister, Shinokawa Ayaka.
“Is everything OK at the shop? There was pretty big jolt here, but everything’s fine now. Don’t worry!”
Nothing major happened then. Just as I let out a sigh of relief, another text came in. This time it was from Shioriko.
“Are you alright? Everything’s fine here.”
There was no need to send me separate messages, but the two sisters had been keeping a distance from each other right before the earthquake. Their relationship was currently a little strained.
I messaged them both individually telling them that the store was in no danger.
Reports on the earthquake continued on from the radio in the background. Now they were saying that the train service in the greater Tokyo area was resuming service. In addition to that, they reported that there had been no casualties among those continuing to work on the Fukushima nuclear accident, and there were no fears of another tsunami.
I finally turned off the radio and went back to balancing the register when the news turned to predictions about when the cherry blossoms would bloom this year. That’s when I received another message. It was Shioriko again.
“I was asking about you.”
I stared at her message for a short while before I realized she wanted to know how I was doing. I’m fine of course, is what I sent back. It had been awfully cold for spring, but somehow it felt like things were getting warmer.
Twenty days ago, a large-scale earthquake disabled the JR East railway, and there had already been a few aftershocks like this one. We were now just a few days into the month of April. Compared to the damage in Tohoku, this area was better off, but that was still the first major earthquake I had ever experienced.
Shioriko and I were behind the counter as usual when the ground started swaying. I had been using an eraser to clear out writing from inside some books, but the tremors quickly intensified to the point that it became difficult to even stand.
My memory after that point was fragmented. By the time the shaking stopped and I came back to my senses, I found myself with my knees on the floor and my hands pressed against the wall, my entire body stiff. Shioriko was squeezed in the tight space between me and the wall. I must have moved to cover her after she’d fallen from her chair.
“Are you alright?” She asked.
Her normally pale face was even whiter than usual.
“Don’t worry, this is nothing.” I felt a twinge of pain in my back the moment those words left my mouth. The mountain of books behind the counter had fallen in an avalanche during the earthquake; some of them must have hit me at an angle.
“What about you?”
“I’m alright…but the books…”
Asking about books even at a time like this…Shioriko wasn’t called a “bookworm” for no nothing. I shook my head in sheer amazement and stood up to survey the damage, only to be shocked speechless. All the shelves in the shop had fallen forward, and countless books lay in a heap on the floor. It looked like power had gone out too, which made the aisles look all the more bleak—it was like I was standing in front of a collapsed cave. It was horrifying to think what would have happened if someone had been buried in there.
Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia was back to normal now. We put the scattered books back in their shelves, and reopened for business three days later. There were less aftershocks than expected, so we didn’t have to go through any planned outages as the city restored power.
We anxiously listened to news about radioactivity for a while, but eventually we returned to our daily lives. The neighborhoods we lived in also slowly went back to normal.
Fortunately, all of my family and friends were safe, and it seemed to be the same for Shioriko as well. However, the safety of her mother was still uncertain. Her name was Shinokawa Chieko—and like her daughter, she was a bookworm. It had been ten years since her whereabouts became unknown, and even now there was no news on her.
A few days before the earthquake happened, Shioriko had gotten her hands on a certain book. I was the only person present at the time when it was found in the living room.
It was the copy of Cra Cra Diary that Shinokawa Chieko had left behind for Shioriko—the same book that we had thought was thrown away. The book eventually found itself in the care of her younger sister Ayaka after it had gone through several people. Written on the endpaper was an email address, Shinokawa@chieko-biblia.com, which ostensibly belonged to Shinokawa Chieko.
“Dad left this book in my care when he was discharged from the hospital,” Ayaka told us.
“That’s what he said…that Shioriko was going to regret throwing this book away one day, and to give it back to her when that happened.”
“…Why did you wait so long to return it?” Shioriko wasn’t saying anything so I asked in her stead.
“I had no idea Shioriko was even looking for it. I was afraid she’d throw it away if I chose the wrong time to give it back.”
She had a point. There were few people that knew Shioriko was searching for the book. In fact, it may have been just me who knew.
“…Aya, did you send any mail…to this address?” Shioriko quietly asked.
The question must have hit a sore spot, because Ayaka flinched, and then quickly ran out of the room. she returned shortly after carrying a notebook computer.
I looked at the monitor and was struck speechless. On the screen was a mail application showing the long list of emails that had ben sent out. Ayaka had sent mail to her mother almost every single day.
“I’ve been telling Mom about the things that happened every day for a long time…”
If she was doing that, then Shinokawa Chieko was aware of everything we did.
—But there was something else I was concerned about before that.
“Did she reply to your emails…?”
Ayaka simply shook her head in response to my cautious question.
“No, there wasn’t. It’s just…I thought she would want to know how our lives were going.”
“There’s no need to call her mom,” Shioriko said in a low voice. “She left us behind and walked out on us, didn’t she?”
“You’re right, but…”
“That woman doesn’t deserve to be called a mother.
“You don’t have to go that far. Mom is still Mom.”
“She’s no such thing.”
“It’s not like she had a choice either!”
“She absolutely did have a choice!”
And so the argument continued, which neither side giving up an inch. As a result of this argument, the two sisters stopped talking to each other for a while. The atmosphere between them had cleared up a little by the time the earthquake happened, but it seemed there was still some animosity remaining.
Anyway, Shioriko was now in possession of the Cra Cra Diary. Immediately after the earthquake, and after some hesitation, she decided to send her mother an email saying, “We’re safe,” and nothing else. However, she never got a reply.
When I told Shioriko that this was worrying, she smiled bitterly and said, “It’s not like she can’t contact us, that’s just the way she is.”
I didn’t say it aloud, but I thought it was absolutely bizarre.
Shinokawa Chieko had been receiving emails from her second daughter for about a year, but she didn’t even try to send a message after a disaster to see how they were doing. That wasn’t something a normal mother would do.
I couldn’t imagine the kind of nerves she had to ignore her daughters for so long.
Well, there was no question that she wasn’t a “normal mother.” Nobody really knew why she abandoned her family and left home in the first place. From what I heard, she was brilliant person, but had an enigmatic nature.
I could see the train platform dyed in the evening sun through the glass door. The shop was right next to the JR Kita-Kamakura station. The next train would probably be coming soon. There were a great number of passengers standing under the deep shadow of the platform roof.
I went back to the register and started counting the cash in the register when the sound of the phone ringing resounded throughout the store.
“Thank you for your continued patronage. This is Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia.” I picked up the phone and greeted the caller. After a brief pause,
A familiar woman’s voice came through the phone. It was Shioriko.
“What’s going on?” I asked, and then remembered the message she sent me earlier. Was she worried enough to go out of her way to give me a call?
“If you’re calling about the earthquake, then everything’s fine. Aren’t you supposed to be at the wedding reception right now?”
The silence continued. She seemed to be outside, since I could hear a noisy wind in the background.
“Huh? Was I mistaken? Today is your cousin’s…” I stopped myself midsentence.
Something was strange. The reception was supposed to be held at the Yokohama Landmark Tower’s Sky Garden. Even if she wanted to leave her seat to make a phone call, why would she go out of her way to leave the building?
“I’m not at the Landmark Tower. I’m somewhere else.”
It was an awfully cheery reply. The usual Shioriko never sounded like this unless she was talking about books…
Come to think of it, this person’s voice was a little lower than hers too.
An icy chill suddenly went down my back. Was the person I was talking to right now really Shioriko? It didn’t seem likely that there was someone who’s voice was this similar to her’s…
…Unless they had a very deep blood relationship.
“Who might you be?” Even I was surprised by the hoarseness of my voice.
“I suppose you’re Goura Daisuke.”
“Answer the question please.”
I licked my parched lips and slowly continued.
“Are you…Shinokawa Chieko?”
“Hah.” I heard a breath mixed in with a laugh.
So I was actually right. It still felt impossible even though I had asked her myself.
“You didn’t think I was some other relative?”
“I-if you were, then you would have introduced yourself at the start.”
“That’s a reason that you just thought up isn’t it. You just couldn’t think of any other possibilities.”
She hit the nail on the head and left me flustered. It felt like she could see through to me completely.
“But having the courage to keep the conversation going is very nice.”
Her praise didn’t make me happy at all. I sat up straight to calm my jitters and took a deep breath.
“Trying to keep calm like that is admirable as well. By the way, my daughters aren’t home, are they?”
“That’s a shame. I suppose they’re both doing well enough though.”
I felt bile rising in my through at her casual gossipy tone. I remembered the dark look Shioriko always had when she talked about her mother, and the huge number of emails that Ayaka had sent her mother.
“…You couldn’t even be bothered to contact them?”
“What might you be talking about?”
“Just what have you been doing for the past ten years!”
I regretted shouting at her right away. There might not be another chance to talk to her again if she hung up on me now. In other words, I had no idea how she would react if some stranger like me started shouting at her all of a sudden.
“No…I mean…where are you now?”
I was amazed at her flippant answer. That didn’t tell me anyth—no, that wasn’t true. The gears in my head finally began to move.
“So you were overseas until now?”
“That’s right. I got back last week.”
In other words, after Shioriko emailed her. There were plenty of people who were leaving Japan right now, it was rare for people to be returning.
“Then did you come to meet Shiori—“
“No, it’s for work.”
Her immediate denial shocked me.
“Of course. Dealing with old books. It’s that kind of time.”
I didn’t know what she meant by that, but there was one thing clear to me now.
“You’re running an antiquarian bookstore overseas, aren’t you?”
“Well, I suppose you could say that.”
She seemed to have no intention of going into detail about her recent activities, but she was at least willing to answer my questions. I desperately thought of the next question. I didn’t know when this conversation would end. For Shioriko and the others’ sake, I resolved to pull as much information as I could.
“Alright then, where in Japan are you now?”
“Oh, you still haven’t figured it out?”
What was up with that? What was that supposed to mean? I heard the sound of trains approaching. It felt much louder than usual.
“Ah.” I gasped.
The sound wasn’t only coming from outside the shop, I could also hear it from the phone.
In other words, Shinokawa Chieko was close enough to hear the train.
I raised my head and stared through the glass door. A woman with long hair was standing on the train platform with her cellphone. She was wearing a coat the color of shadow, along with a long skirt in the same color. She obviously looked a little older, but from a distance, she resembled Shioriko to a frightening degree. Rather than calling her Shioriko’s mother, it was like she was an ominous doppelganger.
“Pleased to meet you, Goura Daisuke.” Shinokawa Chieko was looking directly at me through her pale sunglasses.
I felt pinned in place; the sharpness of her piercing gaze left me unable to move.
I couldn’t clearly tell how long that continued. The train rolled into the station and the two of us lost sight of each other.
I could hear the sound of the train door opening through the phone.
“I’ll stop by again, alright? Say hi to my daughters for me.”
She hung up the phone with a click. I dropped the phone and ran outside the store, and saw that the train was in the middle of pulling out of the station. The final train car moved away and Shinokawa Chieko was no longer anywhere to be found.
The evening lights turned on one after the other in the almost deserted platform, dyed in the color of sunset.