“Riko! How many times do I have to tell you? You cannot monopolize this bath!”
My mother, dressed elegantly in her kimono, rushes into the room and smacks me over the head a few times with some rolled up papers. I try to shield myself. I drag my arms up from the water and cause a bit of splashing. My mother recoils and this and smacks me some more.
“Out! Out this instant!” She takes out a handkerchief and grabs me by the ear with it, pulling me up.
“Oi! Owowowow!” I gripe, scrambling out of the bath. A towel is tossed at me.
“Stop acting like an old man!” My mother berates, dragging me through the door. “Someone clean this room before the guests arrive!” She clicks her tongue and turns her attention back to me, “Honestly, you are unbelievable! You’re not allowed to bring snacks into the baths anymore!”
“Whaat?!” I groan, “It was just a drink and some chocolate! It was nothing!”
I’m booted into the baths reception. A couple of customers are milling around and they look my way.
My older sister, Mizuki, is sitting in the reception chair and looks down at me extremely amused. She laughs, “I told you.”
I scowl at her and stomp away, back to the house.
I am the youngest of five. Our family runs a traditional style onsen-ryokan. My older siblings all help; bath reception, inn reception, restaurant, and general management. I’m still in school and I use the bathhouse amenities as much as possible. My mother says I’m a delinquent, but she only thinks that because I don’t listen to her.
I used to want to help the bathhouse. When I was younger I’d always ask, but I’d always get denied. In the rare times I was allowed to greet a guest or make a meal, my parents would always say I was doing it wrong. At 14 I realized there was no point in trying, I could never be as good as them or my siblings. All the family positions were filled and I wasn’t needed.
My clothes are back in the bath cubbies, but someone will pick them up and dump them in my room. Our house is right next door to the bathhouse and is basically an unconnected extension of the business. Employees come in and out like its nothing, grabbing things for someone in the family or taking things from storage on the rare occasion.
I’m so used to the people and the path that walking home in a towel is normal. No one pays me any attention, except for my father who sees me as I pass the back of the restaurant. He shouts at me to stop troubling my mother. I just roll my eyes and shake my head for added effect – splashing water on the walls.
“What did I just say?!” He shouts again from the kitchen, slamming a pan on the stovetop.
My older brother, Itsuki, comes to the door, effectively placating the two of us. “Go get changed please,” he says quietly, “I’ll bring you a snack.” I scowl, bothered at the childish bribe, but thank him nonetheless and continue home. He calls after me, “And dry your hair properly!”
I’m lounging in sweats, watching t.v. and checking LINE. There’s a quiet knock and the door slides open to reveal Ayano, a younger employee I’m close with.
“Eh? My brother couldn’t make it?”
Ayano shakes her head, “A large group of guests came in last minute so he couldn’t get away. He told me to tell you he’s sorry.”
The strawberry cake she’s carrying grabs my attention and I sit straight up and move towards the table. I shallow in anticipation, “Well, he knows how to keep on my good side.” I dig in. “Have you heard anything new?” I ask covering my mouth.
Ayano and I both like to indulge in bathhouse gossip. It’s how we became friends; other employees were too “proper” to discuss the guests and my siblings didn’t want our parents to yell at them. It was a natural attraction.
She nods, “A few things. There’s this one girl – Kawaguchi do you know her? – she’s been badmouthing another employee lately. Like, a lot.”
“Eh?” I remark, “That’s all?”
“Well, this employee – I don’t know their name – is never seen. They work in the basement, with the furnace. Kawaguchi only knows them because she delivers them meals. Now there are all sorts of rumours going around.”
“Eeeh? What about?”
“Small things. Dumb things. Nothing too exceptional. How this employee has terrible scars and they smell disgusting so that’s why they don’t come upstairs. Oh! I think I heard that they live in the basement? Something like that.”
An employee in the furnace room. In my sixteen years, I’ve never really thought about the bathhouse basement. I knew the door but had never bothered to open it. I guess I never thought to go down; there was nothing there for me. Why is this person only mentioned now?
“Kawaguchi bad mouthed them?”
Ayano nodded, “She says they’re rude and ungrateful. I think I heard they said something bad about her … eyeshadow! That was it.”
“So why does she keep bringing the meals? Can’t someone else do it?”
She shrugs and gets up, taking the tray with her. “It’s your father who keeps telling her to go. Maybe it’s some type of punishment!” She laughs, says goodbye and makes a quick exit back to work.
I turn back to the t.v., but I zone out pretty quickly. I thought I knew the bathhouse and everyone in it. My parents have nothing to talk about except the business and the staff. Why was this mystery person only being mentioned now? There was no way they didn’t know about this person. Had they forgotten about them? Had everyone forgotten about them until now?
“Posture Riko.” My mother says during dinner.
The family is always working, so I usually eat dinner alone at the house. Sometimes, when I’m feeling like company, I’ll eat with one of my siblings. It’s only on rare occasions does everyone eat together, like new years or a very important anniversary.
I chose, against my better judgement, to have dinner with my mother tonight. We’re in the main office, eating at a small table for two. Even though she is the owner of the ryokan, she never eats in the restaurant. She says it’s to respect the guests but I don’t understand that traditional thinking.
I rarely see her eating, so she glares and chides me for staring, “Don’t be rude,” she says, looking down at her food, “be respectful Riko. And eat slower! You’re making a mess.”
I glower and keep scoping rice into my mouth. She never nags my other siblings like this. I think she’s forgotten that they’re her children and treats them like employees. She doesn’t care what they do during their off hours, so long as they’re professional while working. With me, she only knows me as a child and treats me like it. I may be her daughter, but I don’t think she’d ever let me work.
“Who’s working in the basement?” I ask, hoping I can leave sooner rather than later.
“Not you too,” she murmurs, shaking her head.
“Eeh? What’s that mean?”
“It’s not as exciting as everyone is making it seem to be.”
“If it’s not that exciting then tell me! I’m part of this family I should know–!”
“Stop shouting.” She cuts me off and her glare shuts me up, “Matsuoka-san works with the furnace and prefers solitude. End of discussion.”
“Eeeh? That’s it?”
Her tone means the conversation is over. I want to believe she refuses to keep talking because she’s hiding something, but I know it’s because she thinks all the rumours and stupid and childish. She probably thinks I’m stupid and childish for listening to those rumours.
But, she’s said more than I thought she would have. Honestly, I thought she was going to scold me for gossiping (as she always did) and tell me to not start trouble. Which makes me think that she thinks I’m satisfied with her answer. Is she hoping I’ll spread this information around? I don’t think so … if an employee wanted privacy, my mother would likely respect that.
I rush through the rest of my food, “Thanks for the meal!” I shout as I rush out the door. I’m gone so fast my mother doesn’t have enough time to yell at me.
It’s Saturday. It’s 11:30 in the morning and I’m waiting around the kitchen. Itsuki is working the front and our father is way in the back. I’m doing my best to be inconspicuous. I don’t know how often my parents talk, or if they talk about me at all, but I don’t want them to know I went to the basement.
“When does Okaa-san get her lunch?” I ask Itsuki through the serving window.
“Around 1.” Right, she likes to eat after the lunch rush.
“What about Aunty?”
“She’s already got hers.”
“About thirty minutes.”
“In 15 minutes.”
“Can I take it?!” I’m excited, knowing I haven’t missed my opportunity. At his words, I nearly jump up over the counter and through the window.
He looks pleasantly surprised, “Sure! Wow, you usually never want to help out…”
I’m not sure if he’s heard about the rumours of Matsuoka-san, but Itsuki is probably too happy to care. He’s always wanted me to help around the bathhouse; it’s his only solution to building a better relationship between me and our parents. I better not tell him I’m only doing this for selfish reasons.
He laughs lightly, “Kawaguchi will be pleased.”
“Happy to help!” I grin, “Hm? … Is-is Matsuoka-san that bad?”
He laughs but avoids looking at me, “No, no. Not that bad.”
Fifteen minutes later I’m standing in front of the basement door, holding the lunch tray in both hands. I’m at a small loss, wondering how Kawaguchi balances such a weight with one hand and opens the door with the other. I don’t want to take that risk, so I gently place the tray on the ground.
I open the door and immediately a gust of warm air passes by me. It’s quickly followed by the strong smell of smoke. Not like cigarette smoke, but a wood fire. It’s nice.
With the tray I slowly go down the stairs. Again, I marvel at Kawaguchi – the lights are off and I’m relying on a strong orange glow from below. The stairs creek and bend with each step. I can tell it’s a very old part of the bathhouse.
Something is making a weird ‘tonk tonk tonk’ noise. It’s absolutely foreign and I can’t picture its source. I don’t know why, but my heart is beating fast. It’s a sense of anticipation, but I’m not excited anymore. I think I’m in over my head.
I step onto the concrete basement floor and see the crouched, shadowy being that could only be Matsuoka-san.
“I’ve brought your lunch.”