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Nanao opened the door, blinked. Runa found herself staring at her older sister, realizing that she would have to give an explanation.
Seeing Nanao's expression, concerned and surprised, Runa wanted to tell her things she knew she could not. She sniffed a couple of times, kicked her foot casually against the doorstep.
"Hello, Nanao. It's been ages." "Runa. What are you doing here?" Nanao's right hand moved up to her cheekbone, a gesture from childhood that always gave away her shyness in uncertain situations. Her perfectly straight eyebrows-justlike Runa's-rarely betrayed her feelings, unless you knew her.
"I don't know." Runa stepped up into the doorway. "I just wanted to visit you."
"Of course. That's nice. Sorry, I wasn't expecting you. Come in then." She let Runa pass her, then went ahead to find slippers. "It's good to see you. You know you can come any time." "I haven't seen you for months." Runa groped for something better. She should have thought of this before she arrived. She'd had two hours on the train and all she'd done was look out of the window at the darkness, having imaginary conversations with people she knew, trying to explain, to justify what she had done.
"There was a book I wanted to borrow, but I can't remember what it is now." She put her feet into the cotton slippers, wriggled her toes inside them. Her shoulders were hunched and she felt weak. She stepped forward nervously and bumped into Nanao. Their arms touched and separated quickly.
"Runa, are you all right?" "How's Hiroshi?" "Fine. Still in Taipei, looking around factories." "Of course. How's the university?" "The same as ever. Well, no. Not quite the same, since I'm only teaching part time now." "Why's that?" Nanao looked at Runa as if she was stupid. "The baby, Runa." "Baby?" "I'm pregnant. It's due in five months, in winter. And Hiroshi's away for another month at least, so I don't want to risk working too hard. I know I told you-"
How could Runa have forgotten? She had known about the baby for weeks. Even as she left the school building she'd been running names vaguely through her mind. But seeing Nanao looking no thicker than a sheet of paper, with circles under her eyes from working, it was hard to believe that anything was changing.
"You did tell me. I wasn't thinking." "Come through and I'll get you a drink. I seem to spend the whole time writing exam papers. Still. How is school?" Runa shrugged. She was about to say that it was fine but had already paused long enough for Nanao to know that something was wrong. She followed Nanao into the living room and knelt at the table. Nanao had switched the light on but there were trees outside the window and the room felt dark. "How is it?" Nanao fixed her eyes on Runa.
Runa noticed specks of silver glittering in Nanao's hair and wondered how it could have got there. From paper, perhaps, or some kind of packaging. Surely Nanao would not have decorated her hair on purpose; she never wore a trace of make-up. Sometimes she didn't even brush her hair.
Runa tried to think. "I suppose nothing much has changed." "You've traveled a hundred kilometers to borrow a book whose title you can't remember?" "I'd love a drink." She wished she knew how to lie. "There's some of Hiroshi's beer in the fridge. It's been there for ages. It needs drinking up." "Yes, please."
Nanao stood to go to the kitchen. "I'll do it, since I'm the guest." Runa overtook Nanao on the way into the kitchen and took a large bottle of beer from the fridge. She wasn't thinking about what she was doing and its cold wetness in her hand shocked her so that she almost let it slip through her fingers. Her legs wobbled and she felt hot as she grabbed for it.
"Where's the bottle opener?" "In the drawer." "Where are the glasses?"
Nanao sighed and appeared in the kitchen. "Let me." They sipped from tall glasses. Runa peeped over the top of hers and wondered at her sister's solitary life in this little old house. The village was tiny and the university was miles away. Nanao didn't seem to know her neighbors. When Runa had asked about them in the past, Nanao simply shrugged and looked blank. Hiroshi spent more time away than at home and when he was there, he hardly spoke. He would come home from work late at night, watch game shows until the early hours of the morning. He was never rude; if you spoke to him he would answer but he never started a conversation, except with contestants on the television. So when he went away, it couldn't be much of a loss to Nanao. She never seemed to mind. But Runa would be lonely within five minutes if she were married to a man like Hiroshi. She would have to go out or bring people in.
"It's humid tonight." "Did I wake you? Had you gone to bed?" "No. I was getting some work done. To be honest I'm glad to have an excuse to stop. I've been working since I got up this morning and haven't accomplished anything yet. I found I'd made a mistake in one of the exam papers that affected everything else so I had to start again."
Sometimes Runa could not believe that she was Nanao's sister. Nanao the physicist, so hardworking, driven, responsible, married, and pregnant. She couldn't imagine her making a mistake. Nanao's glass caught her eye and she stared. The liquid lit was orange.
"You're not drinking beer? I just noticed." "I'm pregnant, Runa." "Oh, yes. Of course. You can't have alcohol now. That's a pity." "You could look at it that way." Nanao ran a finger around the base of her glass. "Never mind. I'll drink for you."
As they drank, Runa realized how tired she was. She had taken the bus from school at four o'clock and dashed to the train without eating. Not that she was hungry. She hadn't eaten much for days. She became more tired and more drunk and found she wanted to tell Nanao everything. How good it would feel to share the load. The secret kept fizzing up inside her and she was only just able to keep it in. "So, what's happening at school?"
Nanao's voice was smooth and liquid. It reminded Runa of their mother's voice and it made her feel different, as if there were less of a hurry. Listening to that voice, she could almost doze off and sleep all night. So much had happened to her. She would tell Nanao a little of it, but not all. She spoke and her voice came out in a whisper.
"You know. It's not a perfect life. Everybody watches you all the time. It's not easy to do the things you want to, living in that village where there's nothing except the school." Nanao was listening intently. "And then, things happen." "What things happen?" Nanao's voice lowered to match Runa's.
"Things. A lot of gossip." "What kind of gossip?" Runa couldn't stop. There was always part of her that wanted to break every promise she made to herself, or to anyone else for that matter-like snipping off all her hair every time she'd grown it to the length she wanted.
"You see, they're saying that a teacher has been having an affair with a pupil. One of the fifth years." She paused. "What do you think of that?" Nanao didn't take her eyes off Runa. "What do I think? Why are you asking me? I think it's wrong, of course. If it's true then I hope they've been found out and the teacher sacked."
"Mmmm. But it's not quite in the open yet. It was a secret affair but someone took a photograph of the couple together. Now that person has written to one of them anonymously and is threatening to expose them. They can't tell anyone about it. Their lives will be ruined."
The air conditioner clanked into action and blew cool air across Runa's face. Nanao sat absolutely still. Runa knew she was working hard to hide her shock. Nanao was always calm. Amazement registered like the slightest ripple across a pond, then a moment of extra stillness as she adjusted. She opened her mouth slowly to speak.
"So in fact no one knows for sure apart from the teacher, the pupil, and the person, or people, with the photograph." "It seems so." "So then, Runa, this gossip is about you. Unless you're the anonymous writer."
"Of course I'm not. I would never do anything so underhand." Nanao folded her arms and looked out of the window as if she thought someone was out there. Runa knew it was possible. A person determined to ruin her life could have followed her here. Nanao turned her head back but didn't look at Runa. "Are you still seeing him?" "No. Not really." "Not really?"
"I have to see him every day. I can't help it. He's there. It's not a serious relationship. If this letter hadn't come it would have blown over in no time." "Tell me about him."
"There's nothing much to tell. I like him. He's very sweet and good-looking. We were just attracted to each other. We have fun. I can't explain. It doesn't matter. It's going to happen sometimes, isn't it? Especially when there are so many bored people out in the middle of nowhere. Some teachers and pupils are bound to be close in age. I expect it's happened lot of times before."
Runa felt better. It was so reasonable when she said it aloud. "That has nothing to do with it. It's wrong. I can't even be bothered to think about why. It just is. Runa, you are planning to go back there, aren't you? You're not running away?" "I am going back." That was half true. "I just wanted to get away this evening."
"Is the picture absolutely incriminating? Is it not possible to make something up to explain the fact that you were together?" Runa shook her head. "We were leaving a love hotel." She pulled an envelope from her pocket and took out the photograph and letter. The picture showed a small building decorated like a fairy castle, flanked by a shoe shop and a hair salon. The two lovers were leaving, not touching but walking very close. Runa's face was visible and her lover's profile was clear. Their expressions were serious, guilty, almost comically so. There was a mikan tree right next to the hotel with ripe orange fruits hanging down. Runa noticed for the first time how nicely the tree framed the picture.
She realized that she must have intended to show Nanao the picture. Otherwise she would not have brought it. Sometimes she surprised herself.
"Of all the places to walk out of together. A love hotel. How are you going to explain that one away? How could you be so stupid?" Nanao threw the picture down. "It's indefensible." "You don't understand, Nanao. I wasn't thinking about what anyone else was doing. We just went there to be alone together. It was what we both wanted and it made us happy. It wasn't any more serious than that. We didn't actually use the love hotel in the end."
"You changed your mind?" Nanao looked hopeful. "No. All the rooms were full. It was a small one." "At least you didn't use it." "We went to others, on different occasions, but they were far away so I guess they were safer." "Are you in love with him?" "In love? No, I don't think so. What does that matter?"
Nanao seemed disappointed and Runa realized that if she had been in love with Jun then to Nanao that would have been a kind of justification. It would have been better. If love were involved the whole affair would have been understandable, but it wasn't. Love wasn't part of it.
"What shall I do?" "You have to stop seeing him. Apart from that I think you should do nothing. The letter may just be something spiteful. Are they asking for money or anything?" "No. They're saying they want to kill me." "That's ridiculous. If your relationship ends immediately, perhaps they won't bother you again. But if any more comes of this you'll have to go and talk to the principal." "There are only a few years between us. It's nothing. It's nobody else's business. If we'd met in a different situation-" "Teachers and students can't date each other, Runa. You know that."
"It happens all the time." "That's not the point. It's wrong." "Wrong? What have I done wrong? I've been nice to him from the beginning. I've done everything right. The problem here is that someone is threatening me, that I can't be left alone to do what I want." "Have you any idea who took the picture?" "No." "Who might have a grudge and not have the guts to say so?"
Runa fidgeted with the corner of the tablecloth. Nanao rolled her eyes. "Is there anyone in particular?" "Maybe an ex-boyfriend, I don't know. They get so jealous. You can't predict what they're going to do." "You'll have to hope for the best. I can't believe you've got yourself into this. Don't you ever think about the consequences of your actions?"
"Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't." Her period was late, a consequence she refused to think about yet. "You should calm down. One day you'll want to get married-" "Married? Whatever for?"
Nanao looked exasperated, as if the answer was obvious. "If for no other reason than to allow me a rest from worrying about you." "But if I was married, you'd have to worry about me a lot more." Nanao laughed. "You're probably right." "You know I am." Runa looked around. She mustn't forget why she had come. "Can I stay here tonight?" "Of course. It's too late for you to go home now. Sleep on it.
We'll think about what to do in the morning. You've been irresponsible, but you're my sister and I will help you." When Nanao had said goodnight and gone to bed, Runa waited for a few minutes. Then she searched the room in darkness looking for Nanao's passport. Nanao kept all her documents in one drawer and, sure enough, the passport was there. She took it and pressed it to the bottom of her bag. Nanao wouldn't know it had gone, not for months and then it wouldn't matter. Runa wrote a note for Nanao saying that she had decided to go back to the school and that she would call the next day, which was true.
She thought of the person, the letter writer who wanted to hurt her-who may have followed her-and it occurred to her that one more item could be useful. She went into the kitchen and looked through the drawers. She found a penknife-Hiroshi's perhaps-wrapped it in a cloth, put it into her bag, and slipped out of the house.
Goodnight, Nanao, she said in the blackness. She would head back to the school, but only for as long as it took to get a visa organized.
Excerpted from Water Lily by Susanna Jones Copyright © 2003 by Susanna Jones
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.