Fiction · fire keeper

Fire Keeper, Part 7 (Final)

Part 1 | Part 6

When Matsuoka-san leaves, I absent-mindedly clean up the tea and then return to my room to study. But I don’t study. I’m so lost in my own head that nothing sticks.

I keep shuffling through my flashcards, check the clock, then freak out that I haven’t made any progress. This cycle repeats over and over and I manage to waste away two hours with nothing to show for it.

“ARGH!”

I shout aloud and toss my cards into the air. They sprinkle around me as I get up and pace around the room.

Why am I so antsy? Why can’t I focus? I feel bad. I feel like I insulted Matsuoka-san somehow and now it’s hanging on my psyche. But I don’t think I was rude…studying is a serious thing for students in their last year. It’s a legitimate excuse. She even said there was no rush.

But, I don’t think that’s it. the longer I think about it, the more I start I feel the weight of my decisions. I’ve been worrying over and over what my family will think of me if I left to pursue beauty school, but I haven’t even considered Matsuoka-san.

I was the only one left in the ryokan that acknowledged her, that liked her, that treated her as more than a lazy employee! She was just a ghost to everyone and a burden to Kawaguchi. Mother never spoke about her, Father and Itsuki probably only knew her via a list of names. Yuuka, Shun, Mizuki – did they know her? Could anyone pick her out of a crowd? Did anyone really care about her?

No. Just me.

And I blew her off like it was nothing.

I can practically feel the guilt eating at my brain, so I rush out of my room, down the stairs, and out the door without any shoes.

Maybe it’s not guilt, maybe it’s just the terrible aftertaste of that visit. I don’t want that to be the last meaningful moment between myself and Matsuoka-san. I know I’ve expressed how I like talking with her, but I don’t think she know how much of an influence she’s been on me. I think all my recent goals and drive is because of the praise and encouragement she’s given me. I want to tell her that – before I possibly leave for a big city and she subsequently retires causing us to never see each other again.

I jog into the basement, catching my breath as I come to a halt.

“Matsuoka-san,” I huff, “I’m here! Is your successor still around?”

“Ah, Riko-chan…” She laughs lightly, but it’s not her usual boisterous one. My breath finally calms down, so I look up to her and see why she is so uncomfortable – mother is present.

A chill passes through me and I’m just as uncomfortable.

Mother clashes with the dark and dirtiness of the basement. I can tell she’s unhappy by the squint in her eyes and how she occasionally glances around. She’s probably worried about getting soot on her kimono.

“Riko.” She says firmly, “Is this where you’ve been running off to these past few weeks?” I don’t say anything. She shakes her head, “The employees are working Riko, they don’t have time to humour your whims.”

“Aah, no no,” Matsuoka-san intervenes, “Riko-chan has been lovely to have around, absolutely lovely!”

Mother keeps looking at me, not acknowledging what was just said, “This explains your ridiculous notions about having no place in the ryokan.”

“That’s not–!”

She cuts me off, “Enough, Riko. Go back to the house, I have business here.”

I bite my lip to stop myself and just as I’m about to speak up “Watanabe-san,” Matsuoka-san steps in, “Aaha, surely Riko-chan can stay, it won’t be any trouble haha…ha.”

Mother shots a fierce, palpable glare, “This is between myself and my daughter.”

“Ahahaha, yes of course.” Matsuoka-san slinks away and retreats to the tool shelf.

I fume, “Don’t treat Matsuoka-san like that! This is the problem I have with working at the ryokan! I can’t work in such a mean environment!”

Mean.” Mother echoes me and gets that pained look.

Matsuoka-san quietly leaves through the backdoor, excusing herself of the awkward scene. The atmosphere in the basement is suddenly very tense. I can practically hear a kettle coming to a boil – the crackling of the furnace is close enough though.

Mother takes a seat at the desk and folds her hands on her lap. She closes her eyes and takes a breath. “You don’t want to work in a ‘mean’ environment, Riko. That’s what you think about the ryokan. That’s how you describe our family’s hard work.”

I frown, annoyed by her generalizations. “The ryokan is important to me. The family is important to me. I want the best for us, but that doesn’t mean I can fit into the job you’ve left for me. I want to make my own mark on the ryokan!”

“With…a spa.”

“Yes! It would be a great addition! We already have a massage service, how is this any different?”

“It would be a mockery to our traditional roots. Ridiculous nails and hair, artificial bronzing. It’s garish.”

I open my mouth, ready to fire back, but I consider her words. “Eeh? have you been doing research on cosmetics?”

I think I see the slightest flinch of her mouth, “Excuse me? Research on what?”

“You called it artificial bronzing, not fake tanning. That definitely sounds like you’ve been doing research.” I gasp, “Have – have you actually been considering my idea?!”

Mother doesn’t change expression, but I think she might be embarrassed or slightly flustered. “Nonsense. I’m familiar with societal beauty trends – simple as that.”

My attitude completely turns around. Has my mother, the hard-lined owner of this traditional, been-in-the-family-for-generations ryokan, actually been considering my spa idea? Has she actually been trying to compromise with me??

“I think a spa would totally boost our tourists!” I’m back to trying to sell her the idea, “We could promote it with packages by staying the night and using the onsen. The baths are already great for skin, we could use that in advertising!”

Mother looks at me with a hint of surprise, “It sounds as though you’ve done your research.”

I nod furiously, “Yes! I’m serious about beauty school and helping the ryokan! I think it’s the next step for us!!”

She folds her arms and looks at me. It’s not her usual glare or icy look of disappointment, but a seriousness that she reserves for business. “This is what you want Riko? This is the only way to keep you with the family?”

I can feel the culmination of all my decisions in this question, but I’m not nervous. My heart is racing and my palms are getting clamming, but I’m not nervous. It’s excitement. A newfound feeling I don’t think I’ve gotten before. This is the start of my adult life.

I nod firmly, “Yes, this is what I want.”

There’s a long pause.

“Very well.”

~

Things go better than I expected. Mother allows me to go to beauty school, fronting most of the tuition which I’ll pay off when I come back to the ryokan. She also gives the condition of business lessons from Yuuka, and even demands an expansion proposal before anything starts on the spa.

I keep up my studying. It’s how I manage to not start working part-time in the front of the restaurant. Mother was hoping I’d take over for old lady Momoko Tanaka, but now we’re looking for outside hires. All of my siblings are happy for me, even Yuuka in her own distant way.

Though, maybe the best thing to come out of this, was Mother being a little less strict with all of us. She even went as far as to find adult league volleyball for Yuuka to join. It’s the most loving act I’ve ever seen between them.

I do eventually meet Matsuoka-san’s successor: Ken Hito. He’s a young guy, in his early twenties, who wants to leave the fishing industry for something more stable. He’s working part-time alongside Matsuoka-san and will eventually take over the whole operation once she retires. He says he likes the work and the heat. According to him he never enjoyed how cold it got on the water. He showed me a picture of his boss with ice in his beard and I immediately sympathize.

Mako is equally excited about her programs. She’s newly decided that, not only will she be a travel agent, but she wants to be a travel blogger too. She says it’s an obvious choice for her career path. I admire her self-confidence.

I’m still waiting to hear back about my applications, but I’m hopeful. Nakashima-sensei says I’ll get into my backups easily which is incredibly reassuring.

I keep visiting Matsuoka-san in the basement. Our conversations have shifted from me to her and her retirement plans. She says she’s looking forward to spending time with her grandchildren and making new friends her age. Though, in her words, “It sounds easy but I haven’t been in that kind of scene in years, hahaha!” She says she’ll probably join a proper yoga class or start her own if she can’t find one. I’m glad she’s taking things in stride and doesn’t hold lingering feelings about her job.

I ask her about what business my mother had in the basement. It was to discuss Ken, but Matsuoka-san thinks there was another reason behind it. “She was asking me a lot of personal questions – I think she was thinking about you, Riko-chan. I guess she was worried what kind of person was influencing you, HAHAHA!”

Although I may not be close with my mother, I’m trying to show her a bit more respect. She was ready to crush my dreams, as heartless as it sounds, but I guess she did want the best for me and the ryokan (though she was probably more focused on the latter). I’m happy she initially considered my idea. I’m happy she’s giving me a chance.

I’m happy I can give back to my family in my own way.

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