Monday, June 12, 2017

Enjoy Chapter Thirteen of The Angel's Guardian!


What do you say when you go to greet an angel for the first time? What do you say when you know that protecting that angel is the very reason you were born?

If you read Book One of Melody and the Pier to Forever, you may recall the first time Yaeko meets Elizabeth as the plane they were on descended towards San Diego. The point of view was Yaeko's.

The chapter following is that same fateful encounter, but from Elizabeth's point of view.

Enjoy.

~~*~~

13
~~*~~

THE WEEKS that followed were spent working. It was her anchor, her sanity. She put in the maximum time the airline allowed each week, and kept well ahead of evaluations and other tasks Elaine Kitness had her do. She lived for being in the air.
She took Christmas off, which she spent alone. She treated herself to a matinee (The School of Rock) and thawed turkey from Thanksgiving with a fresh batch of scalloped potatoes. Isao sent her fine wine; she opened a bottle and shuffled to the living room and popped in Love Actually and relaxed in peace and solitude.
She had spent more holidays alone than with anyone. It no longer even registered with her. Aunt Madelyn, who spent most of her life alone, always told her: “Much better to spend time with a single good friend—yourself—than a room full of false ones.” As with all advice, it came with a stern nod.
She took several trips to I.B. to look over her new condominium and the work being done on it. She met her new neighbors and found them entirely likeable; they invited her over for a “Christmas leftovers dinner” and she accepted.
On her way home from New York just before the New Year, she took a connecting flight to Oklahoma City. She hadn’t been there in almost a decade. For some reason she felt a strong urge to visit the graves of Karla and Madelyn, and to be with her first love, Owen.
It was a typical winter day in Oklahoma: cold, gray, and breezy. She wrapped up as warmly as she could and sat on the snow-dusted lawn next to the road and leaned against the rental car.
Aside from her, the cemetery was deserted.
She wondered why she came here.
The frigid breeze offered no answers. She stared at each headstone for a long time, then closed her eyes and let herself speak without thought. What came out surprised her.
“This … I’m here … I love you, all of you … so much … so much … but I’ve come … to say … goodbye.”
She blinked her eyes open. “Goodbye … yes … yes … this … this is … goodbye … goodbye …”
Where am I going?
She forced her eyes closed and quieted her startled mind. A long moment passed. A magpie squawked far off.
“I mean … you three … you’re always with me. You’re never not part of me. You’re in me, in my heart. I know it. I feel it. I just think … I feel … I feel …”
Where am I going?
Was she merely tired of life and work and wanted an escape? Was she frightened because any day now Isao was going to call to announce the flight that Yaeko was going to be on and she still had no idea what she could possibly say to her that would have any meaningful impact whatsoever? Could it be that she was seeking an escape from such a huge responsibility and so something inside her simply needed to express it? Or was it something more?
“I’m so scared … God help me, I’m terrified …”
There was no denying it, and there was no getting around it: she was approaching the fulcrum of her life. She knew it without a doubt. The moment would come, and like all moments, it would pass. But this one promised a tremendous wake of life-altering consequences behind it.
“I …” She opened her eyes, then crushed them closed once more. “… I … I’m … leaving. I don’t know where … I don’t know where … don’t know where … don’t know ...”
She took a shaky breath. “I’m leaving … I don’t know where … don’t know where … I don’t know. I … just know ... I know ... I won’t be back this way … ever again. I need … I need to save a beautiful little girl. I need to save my angel.”
Her mind went still. That was all it had to say. She pondered the odd notion that “it” and “she” weren’t one and the same, not completely at least, and for a moment considered the possibility that she was going insane.
No. She wasn’t. As scared as she was, never had she felt so sure of herself or her purpose. The moments blowing away in the stiff breeze … the frozen earth pressing against her butt … the unyielding steel of the car against her back … everything felt solid and certain. But not as solid as what was pushing her forward.
“This isn’t a drill,” she murmured, echoing Madelyn. “All hands on deck. This isn’t a drill.”
She stood after a time and went to the headstones and knelt and kissed each, holding her lips against each slab of frosted granite for a long moment. Her soul wanted to say something more; she let it. No words came, but she knew it had spoken nonetheless, something that went beyond language. When she stood over the final grave—Owen’s—she felt drained and soothed.
She started the car, cranked up the heater, and gazed one more time at the graves.
“Goodbye,” she whispered. “I love you.”
~~*~~
She flew from the second to the fifth, with the sixth off.
She slept in that morning. She had no evaluations to do and planned to spend the day in Imperial Beach. The repairs on her new condo were ahead of schedule and she wanted to pop in to get a proper lay of the land and start planning. It was possible she could move in in just two months or so.
The old owner left a small dish of yellow rose petals with a note informing her that a medicine man from the Kumiyaay tribe had blessed the condo. It finished with: “You’ll love it here. God bless!”
The note was now next to her laptop. She glanced at it, smiling, and then booted up the computer.
An email from Isao. The subject line:
Take a DEEP breath before you open this!
“Oh, boy,” she muttered. “Here we go …”
She thought of Owen and Karla and Madelyn, and her final time with them.
“All hands on deck. This is no drill.”
Her heart pounded. She took the recommended deep breath and opened the email.
There was no greeting.
JAN. 10 2004
Flight 1296
New YorkSan Diego
NONSTOP
Departs 10:36 a.m.
KENNEDY INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Arrives: 1:49 p.m.
SAN DIEGO
Flight time: 6 h 13 m
****
YAEKO MITSAKI
****
Seat 4a (minor)
Addendum: E. Finnegan (supervisor; in-flight guardian)
January 10 was just four days away.
The fulcrum was here.
~~*~~
She sat in her car across the street from Adele D. Hoffman’s home.
It was January ninth, just after six in the morning. She was supposed to be on her way to the airport, but stopped here first. She had to.
She had time. She had woken an hour earlier just to be here.
Hoffman’s home was shrouded in extra darkness, as though the wasting night knew just how horrible this woman was. It draped warningly over her lair.
As with the cemetery, Elizabeth let herself speak without her mind censoring her mouth.
“Yaeko will win. You will not destroy her. You will not finish her. You will not kill her like you did Izumi’s brother. She’s stronger than you can possibly imagine. And she has me. I’m her true protector. I’m her true guardian. I’m going to make sure she knows how to contact me. She will never be alone, ever! If I have to, I’ll lay waste to this entire neighborhood to protect her, do you hear me, you bitch?”
Her mother’s visage flashed in her mind.
She was raised by an Adele D. Hoffman. There was no appreciable difference between her and this monster, she was absolutely certain of it.
“Shit is shit is shit.”
She started her car and roared away.
~~*~~
In her hotel room later that evening in New York, Isao phoned.
“I’m going to fail,” she cried. She sat on the floor and leaned against the foot of the bed.
She had been a high-strung, short-tempered fuse on the flight here. Hearing his voice, that fuse dowsed itself in tears.
He let her cry without comment. The static of thousands of miles whispered an echoing counterharmony in her ear. In a couple hours Yaeko was going to board a plane and begin crossing the Atlantic to America. She was completely unaware of Elizabeth’s existence. She would land at Kennedy and wait to board Flight 1296—Elizabeth’s flight.
It was all so simple, so ordinary, so mundane. And yet … not. What happened during the six hours, thirteen minutes the plane was in the air would determine … hell, everything!
“I’m sorry, Elizabeth, what did you say?”
She sniffled. “I didn’t say anything.”
“I heard you say something about ‘everything.’ What was it?”
She didn’t answer. When she got hold of herself, she took a sippy breath and cried, “I’ve wanted to meet her for so long … and now I’m wishing tomorrow doesn’t come!”
“It isn’t tomorrow you fear; it’s yourself. Tomorrow is nothing more than an arbitrary time period in an age-old chain that was determined billions of years ago when the Earth coalesced in a particular orbit around the sun and began spinning at another arbitrarily determined rate, also billions of years before you were born. Tomorrow is inevitable. It will come and it will go.
“But you, Elizabeth, are not arbitrarily determined, no matter what the scientific community, currently and tragically blinded by the absurd religion of materialism, believes. You are nothing less than a child of God. You possess free will. Within all the causal events that make up our universe, our solar system, and our Earth, and all the minuscule ones that push personal matters in a certain direction, you have freedom to move and create your life.
“Tomorrow is tomorrow. It has no choice in coming. But you, my dear friend, you can choose. Your yesterdays and the lessons and the people in them are only as dead as you want them to be. And that includes the lessons they tried imparting to you during the brief time you knew them.
“Choose only the very highest among them, the topmost fruit in the tree. Struggle for them, for they are the sweetest. You have spoken many times of your Aunt Madelyn. You have spoken of how much you admired her, how tough she was, how independent. Tell me: Was she a courageous woman?”
“Oh God yes,” blubbered Elizabeth. “She was the most courageous person I ever knew.”
“Do you truly believe that she lives on in the afterlife, that she is forever in your heart and soul?”
“Y-Yes.”
“No horsing around now. I said truly. Is that something you truly believe, or are you like almost everybody else who might say something like that about a departed loved one but don’t actually live it? Which are you? Don’t just answer me; think about it! Make up your mind right now. Make up your heart! That’s even more important! Does she live in you, or doesn’t she?”
Elizabeth collected herself. She wiped her eyes and blew her nose, then brought the phone back to her ear. Her room seemed ten times larger than it was, empty, foreign, cold.
The whispering static waited for her to respond. A siren wailed far off.
“I believe,” she murmured. “I believe.” The words stung her lungs and brought fresh tears up.
“Then here it is,” he declared. “The truest test of that belief possible. It is what all heroes face in the end. Without that test the hero is not one; she is merely a pretender.
“But no hero faces the ultimate challenge or villain alone. No true one. They got to that hallowed spot on the battlefield only by the sacrifices of all those who believed in them and pushed them and cut and bled a way there for them. The glorious thing is—they are still with you. Aunt Madelyn is still with you. Listen to her! She will guide you. Listen, Elizabeth! If you truly believe that a soul survives death, that there is an afterlife, that loved ones don’t just vanish into oblivion once their physical bodies perish, then you must give her a voice. The greatest heroes are so because of the love in their hearts, not the steel in their grip. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes. Yes.”
~~*~~
She got to Kennedy just past nine. Two other attendants wanted to share a taxi; she turned them down and called her own. She hurried inside and found the nearest bathroom and sat on the toilet. She didn’t have to go; she needed to pull herself together.
Isao’s words echoed in the back of her mind.
Yaeko was already at the gate. Her plane from Geneva had come in an hour ago. She was waiting there.
Elizabeth stood, opened the stall, and walked to the mirror. She was alone save for a woman in one of the far stalls, whose colon sounded quite unhappy. Elizabeth had gone through that late last night. There was nothing left in her to expel.
She checked her face, then busily wiped nonexistent lint and dandruff off her uniform before tugging it down and standing up straight as though being inspected.
She wanted to say something inspirational to the reflection, but nothing availed itself to her. Instead what came out was:
“I love you, Auntie. Thank you for all you did to bring me to this point and give me this chance.”
She stared at herself for a moment longer, then turned on her heel and walked out.
~~*~~
Flight 1296 was at Gate 9, Terminal 4B.
The terminal was busy. She hurried to catch up to one of the attendants, Gwen, who had wanted to share a taxi. Gate 9 was a hundred feet away. She thought she saw a girl in a wheelchair, but a large crowd blocked the view.
“Gwen,” she said when she caught up to her. “I need you do me a favor.”
“Yeah, sure,” said Gwen.
“A young woman is waiting to board. She’s in a wheelchair. She’s …” Isao had made it clear not to reveal information about her. “She’s a bestie, super 1A. I need you to give her extra special attention. Can you do that for me?”
“Aren’t you working first class today?”
“You’re it,” said Elizabeth. “I want to have full run of the plane.”
Gwen nodded. “Will you point her out to me?”
Elizabeth took a deep breath and forced herself to smile. “Sure.”
They walked towards Gate 9.
The big crowd blocking the way dispersed.
There she was. Yaeko.
She was sitting in her three-wheeled wheelchair, gazing blankly out at the tarmac.
Elizabeth gasped. Her beautiful black hair had grown back, and her face was completely scar-free. Aside from her wheelchair, there was no evidence that she had just endured a year of hell, including a four-month-long coma, multiple surgeries, spinal traction, months of agonizing physical therapy, intensive trauma psychiatry, the loss of another loved one in Edward Goldstein, and the unbearable realization that her entire family, teacher, and beloved manager were gone forever.
Yaeko looked up at them as she and Gwen approached. It was the first time that Yaeko Mitsaki had ever looked at her.
She was afraid she might not be able to speak.
“... Yaeko?”
Yaeko nodded.
“My name is …” She stopped herself, because she damn near said, “My name is Madelyn Stores.” She pushed a professional smile past the interruption (having buried the other one, which couldn’t have been anything other than total elation mixed with wide-eyed terror for what this poor girl was facing) and started again. “I’m Elizabeth Finnegan. I’m the supervising attendant of the flight you’re on. This is Gwen. She’s going to take care of you today. Is there anything we can do for you before we board?”
Yaeko smiled weakly and shook her head. She had learned English during her hospital stay and was, according to Isao, completely fluent. She had apparently approached the task of learning English as she had mastering the violin.
“Well, if you need anything, please don’t hesitate to let any of us know, okay?”
Yaeko nodded.
Elizabeth reached for her shoulder and gave it a squeeze, and left her in peace. As she and Gwen walked into the entry tube for the plane, she viciously castigated herself.
Yeah. Great. Wonderful. What a HUGE first impression. Could I GET any lamer than that? COULD I?
~~*~~
The flight from New York to San Diego was six hours, thirteen minutes. The flight time was so precisely uniform, typically, that as a fun extra a pool was set up: for a dollar one could guess the exact time to the second between takeoff and landing, with touchdown being the finish line. The winner typically pocketed two hundred dollars. Given the wild fluctuations of ticket prices, oftentimes the winner ended up getting a free flight.
Elizabeth usually took responsibility for the money, while another jotted down the guesses from participating passengers. Today she gave that responsibility to Gwen. Her stomach was upset. She hurried into the bathroom and sat. Diarrhea—again.
She cleaned herself up and hissed at the mirror: “Get a hold of yourself!”
She checked her watch. It was two hours into the flight.
She had passed Yaeko six times. Yaeko didn’t notice her. She stared out the window almost constantly, her face sad and resigned.
The seat next to hers was empty. Isao had bought it to keep anyone from sitting next to her save Elizabeth.
“What a sweet girl,” Gwen commented later, after lunch had been served. “She’s so respectful! I served her some 7-Up; she bowed her head like I had just honored her ancestors! I served her lunch; she bowed and took it with a very sweet smile and thanks.  I felt like I was feeding her a five-star steak and she hadn’t eaten in a week! Who is she?”
Isao had warned that this would happen—that despite winning four Grammy Awards, no one would recognize Yaeko Mitsaki. Classical music was reserved for soundtracks featuring rich villains eating dinner at the ends of long tables while plotting the destruction of the free world, or to snoot up a department store. Yaeko’s star had burned brightly. But it had died away almost instantly, and the world, as the world does, promptly forgot about her. The thought infuriated her.
Gwen waited for an answer.
Elizabeth grumbled, “She’s a burning star whose light can only be seen by those with eyes to see it.”
She marched away as Gwen, blinking, watched her go.
~~*~~
Every time she went to sit next to Yaeko and talk to her, a strong inner voice warned her off:
Leave her alone.
Four hours into the flight, she wheeled about and hurried back into the bathroom. Her gut burned; she had to go again. She dropped her head in her hands and, against every effort not to, cried. Her makeup would be ruined; she’d have to touch up.
Damnit. Damnit! DAMNIT!
There was nothing left for it, so she prayed. It was the same prayer she had prayed countless times before. The urgency in the words this time was more leaden and acidic than ever.
I was meant for her, dear God. I was MEANT for her! I would lay my life down for her! There is nothing that I want more than that: to be her protector and guardian. She thinks she has no one. SHE—HAS—ME! But the words are not there! What can I SAY that will bring her to me? What can I SAY that will see her through the coming hell?
Speak through me! Take my voice! Say what you will! PLEASE! I am weak and my words mean nothing! Speak through me, Lord. Speak through me … speak through me … speak through me …
She stood after another minute, flushed the commode, then touched up. Her eyes were red; her cheeks too. It wouldn’t be difficult to see that she had been crying.
She glanced at her watch. There were still a couple hours to go. Then … she’d take Yaeko through customs and make sure she got to her new guardian—Adele D. Hoffman.
… And then she’d watch her wheel away in the care of a woman she knew was a vile, uncaring shrew.
Whatever words she needed to say had to come within the next two hours.
Words that seemed so far away and unreachable now as to be pointless.
~~*~~
But no words came.
The plane began its descent for San Diego.
~~*~~
The supervising attendant’s seat was attached to the bulkhead in first class, directly in front of Yaeko’s seat. Elizabeth sat in it and strapped herself in.
Yaeko was looking right at her.
Elizabeth gazed back. With supreme effort, she gave her the brightest smile she was capable of. It made her feel like throwing up.
She was certain she had failed utterly. The realization created an emotional flatland inside her, desolate and colorless.
She wasn’t a hero. She was the furthest thing from one. She wasn’t meant to be this angel’s guardian. It’s why Izumi never explicitly said as much in his Blueprint. Because it wasn’t true.
Yaeko was gazing out the window again. The plane was turning for final approach. Elizabeth looked out with her.
The Imperial Beach Pier was beneath them, a long, thin brown arrow thrusting confidently into the vast blue sea.
Fire and distance.
~~*~~
Isao had warned her: do not push Yaeko unless she asks!
Elizabeth stood behind her. She was one of three handicapped passengers to offload, the one in the middle. She wasn’t in her own wheelchair, but one provided by the airline, designed to help attendants get the passenger into his or her chair with as little hassle as possible. Yaeko had, according to Gwen, seated herself back in New York; she had done the same just minutes ago as Elizabeth gawked, astonished.
The flight was over. Her chance to say something was nearly gone.
She glanced at her watch. “ … got a few minutes yet …”
Yaeko looked up behind her. She probably thought Elizabeth was speaking to her.
They entered the entry tube, which was inclined.
Without thinking, Elizabeth reached for the handles on the wheelchair.
Yaeko turned her head slightly, as if detecting Elizabeth’s hands, and nodded.
Elizabeth pushed her up the tube into the gate. Gwen was there with her regular chair. Yaeko pushed ahead, out of her grasp, and stopped at it.
It was quite a sight to watch her move from one chair to the other. She moved as though light as a feather, as though she was a member of Cirque du Soleil performing an acrobatic trick of some sort. She got herself comfortable as Gwen, never one to be emotional, leaned over and kissed the top of her head and hugged her. “You are a very lovely young woman,” she said, releasing her. “Please come see us again.”
Yaeko smiled shyly.
Gwen gave Elizabeth a concerned smile, then walked away.
It was just she and Yaeko now.
“Let’s go this way,” she said, pointing to the right.
How utterly profound, Elizabeth. How life-changing. How inspiring. You should join the lecture circuit!
They left the gate.
Not far ahead was another, unused and unlighted.
To hell with it!
“Honey,” she said, “let’s go this way.”
She motioned for the gate. Yaeko glanced up at her, confused, then followed her, stopping next to a row of seats. Elizabeth came around and sat in the one closest to her and gazed into her eyes.
She wasn’t a hero. She was a flight attendant. She was a working stiff and a single woman desperately seeking meaning and inspiration and love. She was honest and authentic and simple. There was no mystery to her. There were no hidden depths to her, because the depths were right there, on full display, for anyone to notice, which almost no one ever bothered doing. And what was most on display now was her undying love for this beautiful young woman.
It would have to do. Because there was nothing more real or profound than that in her entire spirit. And there never would be.
She took a steadying breath.
“I—well, we—were given very specific orders regarding you, so it could mean my job if I were caught.”
She looked nervously past Yaeko’s shoulder, then back. “But … I think it’s worth the risk.”
She winked.
Now WHY say something like THAT? What?—why wink? What total crap!
She wouldn’t get fired for what she was doing; she was supposed to be doing it! Yaeko’s very life was in the balance, for Christ’s sake!
What—the—hell?
She rallied.
“I know who you are, Yaeko.”
A tiny glimmer of gratitude peeked through the ever-present sadness in Yaeko’s eyes. It stabbed at Elizabeth, and she couldn’t help more tears from spilling.
She wiped them fitfully away with her sleeve. Yaeko watched.
“You have suffered such a terrible loss,” Elizabeth whispered, wanting with all her soul to tell her of the months she had been at her bedside, watching over her, “... and I am so, so sorry.”
She sniffled and grasped her hands, which were in her lap. They brought back a flood of memories of holding them while Yaeko was comatose.
“But Yaeko … the world was blessed beyond all meaning with your music, with your joy, your incredible talent.”
… days, weeks, months … always there, always watching over her … bathing her, tending her wounds, helping the nurses change her bed, talking to her, kissing her and crying over her, praying, praying, praying, God Almighty, praying …
Almost to herself she said: “I have every CD, every televised performance on DVD.” She shook her head blankly. “When I listen to you, I feel as if every cell in my body is listening too, not … not just my ears.”
Should she tell her about her very special song, that most special one, the one that came only when her anguish struck rock bottom and the very shadow of doom loomed over her, the song that lifted her higher than she’s ever been lifted before, the one that…?
“I know that sounds silly,” she went on, silencing her arguing mind, “but … it’s so amazing … listening to you makes me feel as though I could …”
Should she tell her? Should she?
“… could …”
Yaeko was listening very intently. Her dark eyes were wide and she had leaned forward a little. Her mouth had opened slightly.
Stop there, something in Elizabeth warned her.
With grating reluctance, she released her hands (would she ever get to hold them again?) and composed herself, dabbing her mascara-streaked eyes with tissue pulled from her jacket pocket. She took a deep breath and leaned forward again, determined to share with her that she felt that Yaeko was meant to be in her care, and that she would do anything to see that that happened.
“Sweetheart … there is something I must tell you. I …”
Go no further, the voice told her, even more strongly than before. Let her go.
She stopped and reached one more time for her hands and patted them.
“I won’t impose any longer on your time. Please forgive my outburst. Let’s go and meet your guardian, what do you say?”
She released her and went to stand, but Yaeko reached and grabbed her hand.
It was the moment that would stand for all time as the single most important in Elizabeth’s life, for it was the moment that Yaeko Mitsaki, for the very first time, reached for her.
Yaeko’s eyes were wide, a scared and lonely smile on her lips.
“Thank you.”
Elizabeth didn’t remember standing or smiling; she didn’t remember the moment when their hands separated. Something very deep inside her made sure of it, offering protection against the unbearableness of it.
~~*~~
Customs. Elizabeth scowled at the agent, who seemed particularly interested in rifling through Yaeko’s underwear. The man glanced up angrily when it became clear that he was being glared at. He grunted, “Clear,” and stuffed her clothes back in and yanked the suitcase’s zipper closed, but not all the way. Elizabeth, her glare intensifying, grabbed the zipper and closed the case completely without taking her eyes from him, then yanked it off the table.
They left the terminal.
They walked without speaking. Yaeko kept up with her easily. Elizabeth self-consciously tried to walk slowly so as not to press her. Isao told her not to make such allowances, as Yaeko would take them personally and get upset. It was incredibly difficult to walk “normally” once she became aware of her behavior. She gazed up, and all thoughts of walking vanished.
A hundred feet on a wrinkled, made-up shit stick in ridiculously tight designer denims held a sign:
YUCKO MYSICKI
‘Yucko Mysicki’—?
What the f—?
She couldn’t even complete the swearword. She couldn’t even draw another breath.
She stopped walking and put Yaeko’s luggage and backpack down. Yaeko stopped and glanced up at her.
Adele D. Hoffman was walking directly towards them.
“She’s late,” murmured Elizabeth. “Ah. Here she is, coming towards us now.”
Yaeko didn’t look ahead at her new guardian, but kept her gaze fixed on her. She must have heard the outrage in her voice.
Elizabeth came around and knelt next to her.
The darkness was here. The next, even bigger shitstorm was here. If Izumi was correct—and he had been about virtually everything else to this point—Yaeko was about to face loneliness, depression, and misery so crushing that even he couldn’t see if it destroyed her or not. It was a crap shoot, a roll of the dice. That’s how bad what was coming was going to be.
What prayer could she utter this moment that would awaken the heavens to protect this precious girl? What final thing could she possibly say to her that would provide inspiration and guidance to survive the coming nightmare?
She had a business card in her pocket, one prepared specifically for this moment. She snatched it, pulled it out.
“Thank you for all your extraordinary music, Young Master,” she said, absolutely determined not to melt into a big pile of weepy goo. Aunt Madelyn was with her. Aunt Madelyn was helping her … Aunt Madelyn … Auntie … Auntie! ...
“Please remember what I said,” she said, pressing the card into her hand. “My phone and address—if you ever need them. I’m based right here in San Diego, in Mission Hills …”
Should she tell her she was about to move to Imperial Beach? Should she?—
“It’s not too far away from Imperial Beach—just a few minutes away by car. I’m … going to be moving to Imperial Beach myself very soon. If you get in any kind of trouble or need help, please call. Okay? Okay?
She forced herself to smile. The effort made her toes ache. She stared in Yaeko’s eyes.
Let her go. Stand up.
She gave Yaeko’s hands one last squeeze and stood and faced Adele D. Hoffman, who was clearly put out by the delay. The woman glared, which only stoked the infuriated fire inside Elizabeth, who said, “You are YAE-KO’s appointed guardian?”
The tapping foot under Hoffman’s designer jeans halted.
“I am—mm!” spat Hoffman. She had a slight Southern accent, just like Elizabeth, who wondered if this hateful witch was also from Oklahoma. “I’d forgotten the name. It’s been what—three weeks?—since I’d last heard from Akimoto. And Izumi—”
Screw this.
“I’m required to check identification,” Elizabeth interrupted.
It wasn’t true. There was no requirement that Hoffman show identification.
“Mm!” the shriveled teenager wannabe grunted. “Very well, very well.”
She dropped the sign forgetfully against a chair and rummaged through her designer purse, shiny and black. She found it and thrust it at Elizabeth, who took it with the same attitude as that customs agent back there as he gruffly went through Yaeko’s personal things.
Elizabeth gazed at Hoffman’s driver’s license, taking note of particulars. The bitch was fifty-nine in a couple months, was five feet eight inches tall, and, apparently, weighed only one hundred nineteen pounds.
“Yes, yes, this is fine,” she only said when the speed of the tapping foot under those painted-on jeans increased (she waited for it to). “This is fine, thank you. And …” She went to demand that the woman recite Isao’s instructions for Yaeko’s care, which he surely sent ahead (Elizabeth had no idea if that was true or not; it just sounded like something he would do), but nixed it. Instead:
“Didn’t the hospital in Switzerland stay in touch with you during Yaeko’s stay there?”
It was a stupid question, but hey.
Adele D. Hoffman snatched her license back. “Yes, they did,” she snapped, stuffing it back into her purse, “but you can hardly expect me to understand a bunch of spineless, cheese-eating frogs, mm!”
That was it. That was the first time Elizabeth felt the real urge to violence, to lash out and pop this sun-dried sewer toothpick in the kisser. She could feel Yaeko’s stare on the side of her face.
Hoffman’s icy smile melted into uppity impatience. “Now that’s settled,” she declared victoriously, having correctly read the shock on Elizabeth’s face, “come on, come on, YAE-KO. I’m paying for all the time my SUV sits in that damn parking lot, and I’m not paying for more than half an hour—so come, come …”
Auntie and her devious smile flashed in Elizabeth’s head.
Make her pay for more. And then say good-bye to your angel—for now.
Elizabeth knelt to face Yaeko once more. Hoffman grunted angrily.
Elizabeth went to say something—anything. But then Yaeko reached and grasped her hands, and words were nowhere to be found.
She honestly thought she might not survive this moment. She did not know where the strength came to endure it, to speak, to know what to say. Somehow, at that very last moment, her spirit opened just a tiny bit and words issued forth.
“Listen. You’ve got my card. And Dr. Akimoto is available too. You have his number and email address, so call or write if you need to.”
Another grunt. The designer-encased piece of crumbling dog crap started tapping her infernal toe again.
“Remember the music in your heart, Young Master, no matter what you face now … or in the future.”
“Yes. Well. Enough hero worship for one day,” spat Hoffman.
Elizabeth stood to face her.
“Let’s be going—now,” the emaciated demon ordered.
She grabbed Yaeko’s suitcases and backpack and walked away. Yaeko followed immediately.
Elizabeth could not breathe.
Hoffman stopped suddenly and wheeled about. Yaeko nearly ran into her.
“Oh, and one more thing,” said Yaeko’s new guardian, squinting at Elizabeth’s name tag. “Ah. Elizabeth. I’ll be speaking to your supervisor tomorrow about your blatant lack of professionalism. And—you may wish to consider a higher-end line of mascara before you lose control of yourself again. You look like a depressed zebra—mm!”
Elizabeth blinked. She was not aware that she had been crying.
Adele D. Hoffman flashed a narrow, close-lipped smiled, then snapped about and began marching off again. Yaeko followed, pushing her wheelchair frantically to keep up.
Elizabeth stood still for a long time. She was shaking, and now there was nothing at all in this or any other universe that was going to stop more tears from spilling. She turned and walked away, the sign with YUCKO MYSICKI leaning against a chair.

~~*~~

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