A thunderous chorus greeted Dan before he could fully open the door to Kenji’s Restaurant.
“Irasshaimasu!” Kenji and his staff yelled.
Embarrassed to receive so much attention from so many people at once, Dan smiled sheepishly, raised his arm and flashed the palm of his hand to thank everyone for the welcome.
“Detective Dan-san,” Kenji said from behind the sushi bar. “Please, wait a moment. Your order is ready, but I want to make you something special. For you and for Sam-san. Hamachi. Here, try.” He plated a small, beautifully cut piece of yellowtail on hand-rolled rice, placed the dish in front of Dan and bowed.
“Domo, Kenji-san,” Dan said, thanking the chef with a smile and a polite nod. He put the piece of nigiri in his mouth and closed his eyes as it exploded with flavor.
It was a small, unexpected gesture and after everything Dan had been through, he could have kissed Kenji right then and there. “Oishi, Kenji-san. So, so tasty.”
“Yes?” Kenji said as he smiled widely. “Dozo.” He motioned to a seat at the bar, inviting Dan to sit, before disappearing into the back kitchen.
A server placed a mug of green tea in front of Dan, but before he could decline, she had already walked halfway across the restaurant. His eyes followed her until he noticed a pair of shoes outside a tatami room in the corner.
There was nothing particularly special about the shoes themselves. They were black boots, typical of the style preferred by members of the department. Hanging out of the room was a jacket sleeve that was identical to that of the standard issue police uniform. He wondered if he should he pop over to say hello. The boots were the only shoes outside the room, indicating that the officer inside was alone. Why not, he wouldn’t be interrupting anything, he reasoned. Dan walked over and poked his head around the door.
“Dan, how… how are you?” The look of surprise on Chief Constable Joe’s face was unmistakable. But when the Chief fumbled his disposable chopsticks as he tried to rub them together, Dan sensed a hint of nervousness in him as well.
“Good, sir. Glad I ran into you. Could we talk about the Black kidnapping case for a moment? The reports in the Times—”
“Listen, Dan. I’m sorry about how that worked out, but trust me. Don’t pick this scab. Sure it’s itchy, you bet it’s ugly and yeah, it might stink just a wee bit, but leave it be. It’ll fall off when nobody’s looking and everyone’ll have long forgotten about it.”
“Dan, the Times will run out of headlines soon enough when there are no new leads. Stories get stale and old news doesn’t sell. I thought we were all good on that. We shook on it in my office, didn’t we?” Chief Constable Joe rubbed his chin and a crinkle appeared between his brows. “Now, I’m off-duty, had a real tough day today, and I’m just going to have a quiet meal to myself. Rhonda’s out of town and I’d like to enjoy my dinner, if you don’t mind?”
“Of course, sir. Enjoy your evening.”
“Night, Dan.” The Chief had a smile on his face that looked to be a little forced, and when he slid the door shut, he used a bit too much force and it banged against the frame.
As much as he hated what the Chief had said, Dan knew he was right about the news reports. He had a long list of bigger, more important battles he had to fight already and taking on the Glacier Times wasn’t a priority.
He walked over to the register where his order was waiting for him and paid for the meal, leaving a tip in the jar. As he stood at the restaurant’s entrance, he glanced back to the Chief’s tatami room. The door was still closed, but now a second pair of black boots sat under the bench. They looked similar to the Chief’s, but they had an unusual pattern of heel drag. The left heel was significantly more worn than the right. That was strange, he thought. He had come straight to the register by the front entrance after leaving the tatami room, passing no one other than a couple of servers, so how had he missed seeing someone join the Chief? And why was the Chief now dining with someone when he had just said that he was eating alone? The questions flashed through Dan’s mind, but he soon forgot about them completely.
Sam arrived home to find take-out containers of sushi laid out on the coffee table in the living room in front of the TV. The dining room table, just a few feet away with a layer of dust coating its surface, hadn’t been used for months. She and her dad had tried having dinner there once after the shooting, but it felt so big, so empty, so wrong. Now they always sat on the living room carpet or sofa and ate off their knees while a random television show relieved them of the need to speak to one another.
The sound from the television speakers was louder than it normally was, so much so that it was almost overwhelming. Sam took her shoes off and saw her dad pat the spot beside him on the floor. He smiled and handed her a plate with chopsticks. As she sat down, she reached for the TV remote control, but her dad grabbed it.
“Let’s leave it on, okay?” he said, tossing the remote away from them and onto her mom’s lounge chair.
She wondered why her dad had changed his mind about having a talk tonight and thought about how she could find another way to sneak in her questions.
“Check these out, Sam,” he said as he passed a small box to her. “Kenji made them especially for us.”
She took a bite and for a few seconds, she couldn’t speak as she savored the flavors popping in her mouth. “Wow, Dad. This is amazing. I could die right now.”
“Oh no! My one and only precious daughter. I am so sad,” Dan joked, feigning horror. He grabbed the container back and added, “I guess you won’t miss eating the rest of these then.”
“Hey! Hands off my sushi, you old fossil! If you love your Soduku, you’ll pass the box back to me, nice and easy, mister.” Sam laughed as she plucked a piece out of the box and ate it before it could get stolen again.
“Right? Kenji surprised me with a piece while I was there. I swear, I could have married that man on the spot.”
They laughed together for a beat, but as the thought settled in, they fell silent.
“I … I don’t think I could ever marry anyone else, Sam.” Her dad’s voice was solemn. “Your mom… she was everything.”
The two sat without speaking, once again allowing the sound of the television to fill the room, which suddenly felt hollowed out by loneliness. Sam looked at the remote in her mom’s chair and felt a light tingling sensation that told her that tears were not far.
“I know why you went up there alone to look for that boy, Sam. And I… I’m asking you to stop. Stop blaming yourself, stop taking on responsibilities like they’re yours alone, stop thinking that everyone else matters more than you do. Your mom’s death was not your fault.”
Her dad’s last sentence seemed to fly out of his mouth and hit her right in the gut. She had been prepared to talk about the Challenge and the mistakes she had made, but they had nothing to do with her mom. What happened with Mom was totally different, she thought.
“See, that’s the thing. It was my fault. She’s dead because of me. Because of what I did. You weren’t there, Dad. No matter how many reports you read or how many times you watch that surveillance video, you will never truly understand what happened that day.” The tingle had moved to the front of her eyes and she could feel the tears forming. The memory of her mom’s last moments, spent just inches away from her, flooded into her mind. She could feel the grip of her mom’s hand in hers and the tight squeeze her mom had given her, telling her that everything would be okay, just seconds before nothing was okay. And nothing would ever be okay again.
“Did you pull the trigger on that gun?”
“No, but I—”
“Then it wasn’t your fault,” her dad interrupted forcefully. His chest puffed up as he took a deep breath and sighed. When he spoke again, his tone was much softer. “You’re right, Sam. I won’t ever know what it was like to be there with your mom. All I know is that… no matter what happened, no matter what you did….” He paused before speaking again. “I’m not saying this because I’m your dad. This is just me being one hundred percent with you. You have been the best kid in the world. You have amazed me every day since you were born. And I’ve never doubted your judgement — until the shooting. You’ve always had a level head. But something’s changed in you, Sam. Maybe it’s survivor’s guilt, maybe it’s some other psychological term, but you are putting yourself in positions that are so dangerous. You scared me to death, Sam.”
“What do you care anyway? Where are you all the time? What are you doing? I should have been the one who died that day, not Mom. That’s what was supposed to happen.” Her dad’s face was a blur as tears flooded her eyes and poured down her cheeks. “Then you would be happy because Mom would be here now… and the baby. You wouldn’t be stuck with me to deal with or have to avoid me like I’m poison ivy.”
“What are you talking about, Sam? That’s not true at all. None of it. I’m just so angry that that shooter took your mom away from us and changed you so much. I wouldn’t know what to do if I ever lost you too, Sam. Just the thought of it…You are my world, my heart, my life. I love you.”
Sam knew that her dad loved her through his kindness, but he rarely said it. She could count the number of times he had told her that he loved her with one hand and she would still have fingers to spare. Looking up, she saw that his eyes were now pink-rimmed and glassy, that he had meant what he had said. She hadn’t realized how much she needed to hear the words until they touched her ears and floated around in her head, swirling in dizzying circles before their weight pulled them downwards, making her throat tighten and her chest feel full.
“I love you too, Dad.” She flung her arms around his neck and sobbed. What started out as a small spot on his shoulder grew into a large, dark patch where Sam’s tears had fallen and soaked into his shirt.
“Not everything is your fault, Sam,” her dad said softly, holding her at arm’s length and looking into her eyes.
“I know what I did was stupid and I’m sorry.” Sam took a breath before continuing, “I saw what you were wearing when Lorne and I got off the chopper. So, weren’t you going to do exactly what I did? You were going to risk your life to find me? Or put someone else, like Sunny or Lorne, in danger because they might have had to come up after you?”
“Sam, you are my child, my responsibility.”
“And Dad, Ben was in my group, my responsibility.”
“It’s not the same, Sam. Not even close. And, yes, I was ready to go up, but I didn’t. I would never put someone else’s life at risk in that situation. I was ready to follow our normal search and rescue protocol. I just wanted to be ready for the callout.”
Sam had seen her dad like this before. He was lying. He was heading up that mountain to find her and nothing was going to stop him. That, she knew for a fact. Shepherds are the most loyal creatures in the world, her mom used to say. She had picked the phrase up from a neighbor who had three German Shepherd Dogs, but her mom said it fit their family perfectly.
“Like I said, I know what I did was wrong. When I went out, the storm wasn’t that bad.” She matched her dad’s lie with a half truth. Technically, the storm had gotten worse after she had already ascended.
Her dad didn’t respond, although she suspected that he knew she wasn’t being entirely sincere. They had reached an impasse.
Sam’s eyes felt big, heavy and bloated. She went to the bathroom to wash her face and when she looked in the mirror, she saw that her eyes were red and puffy. The talk had not gone the way she had expected, but she thought about what her next words to her dad would be and steeled herself.
“So, you probably don’t have any appetite left, right Sam? I should help you finish these,” her dad said, snatching a piece of sushi from her plate as she sat down beside him.
She smiled and let him keep the food without protesting. He was always saying how important it was to pick her battles, she reminded herself. He probably thought their conversation was over, but she was just getting started.
“So who’s Aunt Marjorie?” Sam asked. Her dad had been lying to someone and she intended to find out the truth.
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