The Celica pulled up to the inn's small parking lot. It was late at night, and Lake Towada looked like a void in the moonless sky. The cafe across from it had already closed up shop, too, and the vending machine by the road was out of service. Only the faint light of the inn signaled any signs of life.
Ryuuji had come here once before in his high school days with the walking club he had been a part of. They were called a walking club, but mostly they just lazed around and leeched off of the annual funding allotted to them by their school. The walking club had been established since the end of the war, and as such the clubhouse was full of all sorts of media to kill time--essentially the antithesis of walking. But, even still, to fulfill the requirements of their club's mission, they planned at least one walking excursion every year, and the final one of his senior year was here, by Lake Towada. It was also here that he had his first taste of alcohol, and where he first understood its effects. He felt like vomiting just looking at the place, but it was mostly nostalgic.
Travel bag in hand, Ryuuji made his entrance, carefully sliding the door open.
It was about an hour before midnight, and understandably no one was at the reception desk. The large grandfather clock behind the desk ticked away, looking older than time itself.
"Is anybody home?"
He took his shoes off and put on a pair of slippers, and looked around. The same arcade table where he and his friends took turns playing Galaxian was sitting by the window, but after fiddling around with it a little bit he realized that it had long been out of commission. In the communal room further in, Ryuuji could hear a clicking. The closer he got, he realized it was the sound of a camera shutter.
Click, click, click.
He peered in through the opening of the door and was greeted by the image of a foreign woman in a yukata that seemed one size too big slowly falling off her shoulder with each click. The contrast between the traditional robe and her blonde hair was vast, and Ryuuji found himself lost in the clicking.
Click, click, click.
She threw her head back a bit, noticed Ryuuji peering in form between the door's opening, and they made eye contact. He fell over into the room, exposing himself as a voyeur.
The photographer stopped to look at the crumpled man on the floor, who, quite honestly, was pretty disgusting. He hadn't showered for a few days, and his stubble had become unkempt. His hair had always been long, but now it had reached a length where one would question if it was intentionally kept that way.
"I, um, ah..." Ryuuji trailed off, but found no words to explain himself. He was caught.
An old lady appeared from the stairs carrying some bedsheets and made her way over to Ryuuji, who was now standing.
"Excuse me, sir, but do you have any business here?"
"Oh, right, um... I'd like a room."
"A room? At this hour?"
"Yes. I'm kind of in a hurry. My car is low on gas, you see, and I didn't want to drive through the night only to end up stranded somewhere..." This was a lie.
"You're on your way somewhere?"
"That's right. Aomori."
"That's a ways away..."
"Yes... which is why I need a room."
"Well, we only have the two upstairs and they're currently both booked out to this party..." she looked at him apologetically, but her heart was hoping to kick this rancid man out.
"Oh, that's alright," said the blonde woman in Japanese. "I don't mind kicking some of the crew out and staying in only one of the rooms."
The old lady was in a tough spot. "Are you sure, Ms. Bain?"
Ryuuji's heart dropped.
"I mean, you don't have to modify your reservation for..."
"No, I'm fine with it."
The old lady looked back at Ryuuji. "Well, it seems our guest has no issues with you staying here, so I don't either. What's your name, sir?"
"Daisuke Tanaka," he said immediately.
"Well, Mr. Tanaka, if you'll come with me..."
The blonde woman looked at Ryuuji the whole way he walked back to the other room.
The old lady reluctantly took Ryuuji's information down, and even more reluctantly accepted his cash payment. She led him to his room, which was exactly how he remembered it in his high school days. The second floor was essentially one big room with two big sliding doors between them to separate into two rooms if more than one group of guests were staying. The inn did not see much activity on any given night, hence the need for only two rooms.
Ryuuji unloaded his things and slipped into his own yukata provided by the staff. He gathered his bathing supplies and then stepped out into the hallway to go down to the bath before it closed. Opening the door, he noticed the faint glow of light in the room across from him where Ms. Bain was staying, and could make out the silhouette of her figure sitting by the table through the thin door. She had dismissed her camera crew and now was staying by herself across the hall, where Ryuuji could hear her flip the page of a book.
He went down to the bath and washed himself, cleaning his hair for the first time in a while and soaking in the warm water. He was alone for a little bit, and then an old man walked in.
"Oh, I didn't know there would be anyone else here. It's pretty late!" said the old man.
"I'm sorry! I came kind of late..."
"Don't worry, I'm a night owl too. This is the only time I can use the bath." The old man let out a small laugh to diffuse Ryuuji's nervousness. It seemed he was also a proprietor of the place, probably the husband of the old lady who ran the front desk. He washed up too and then joined Ryuuji in the bath.
"Where ya from, son?"
"Karuizawa," a lie.
"Karuizawa... that's a nice place. What brings you to Towada-ko?"
"Oh, my father's sick, you see... I'm on my way to Aomori, but I couldn't afford the bullet train. I'm just going the old fashioned way."
"Old fashioned, you got that right. There's nothing like a man and his car on his own. That's the way we all used to do it, just me and the road."
"Mm," Ryuuji said in confirmation.
They soaked for a while longer before Ryuuji worked up the courage to inquire further about the other guest of the inn.
"Is it rude if I ask about the foreigner in the room across from me?"
"A beauty, isn't she?"
"Yes, I suppose so."
"She came out of nowhere. Lately we've had an increase in foreigners from all those new booking apps, right? We had our friend Suzuki from the general store down the street help us write the profile, because his son is studying English to study in the States next year. Good kid. Well, we've had an increase in foreigners." And, as if looping back to his own thoughts, the old man stopped without offering anything substantial about Ms. Bain.
"Is she a model?" Ryuuji approached the subject again.
"Oh yessir, she is a model. That's the thing--she didn't use any app or anything, she called us straight up herself asking to use our lil inn here as a backdrop for her new photoshoot, can you believe it? Our lil place is gonna be in a magazine..." the novelty of print media had not expired with this old man.
"A model, eh..."
"Yessir, she is a model."
Ryuuji returned to his room clean shaven and smelling a bit better than before. As he reached the top of the steps, he noticed his neighbour's door was open, and they made eye contact.
"Oh, sorry," he said.
"No worries at all," she said with a smile. "Mr. Tanaka, was it?"
It took a moment for the name to register in Ryuuji's head. "Yes, that's me. Mr. Tanaka."
"I apologize for taking up so much of the facilities here, Mr. Tanaka. I didn't think anyone else would come by to a dreary inn like this."
"Oh, no, I apologize for intruding on your business. It just happened to be this way."
"Indeed it did," she said, and then there was a small silence between them where their gaze was unbroken. "Would you like some tea?" she asked, and gestured toward the pot on the table, and next to it her closed book.
So Ryuuji found himself sitting on the floor across from her with his wet hair and crumpled yukata. The aroma of the tea filled the room, and the light by the table was dim. Looking at her in the halflight, Ryuuji realized the girl could not be older than 20, but being a foreigner with a mature face he could not accurately guess her age. Her blonde hair was long past her shoulders, and glistened in the light. Dim blue eyes pierced through Ryuuji.
"There's nothing I love more about Japan than being able to sip tea in a place like this. It's so rich in history despite its quaintness."
"I agree. There's a lot of memories here..."
"Well, I meant in general, but yes, mine too."
"I came here once in high school. Actually, with a club of mine. Don't tell anyone, but I got really drunk." Ryuuji was opening up without thinking.
"Isn't the drinking age in Japan 20?"
"You got it. Keep it a secret--I don't want to get the old couple here in trouble."
"It's safe with me."
"By the way, I don't think I ever learned your name."
"Me? I'm Clara. Clara Bain."
"It's nice to meet you, Clara. Your Japanese is quite good."
"Do you think so? I still don't know about my keigo, though, and you're clearly my senior..." She bowed in apology.
Ryuuji laughed. "That's more than enough. I'm just some old fart anyway."
"What do you do for a living, Mr. Tanaka?"
"Oh, me? I, uh..." Ryuuji looked around the room. "I'm a carpenter."
"Yeah, I love to work with my hands. I make birdhouses and stuff like that. To tell you the truth, I kinda hit it big selling some software to a major tech corporation when I was younger, and now I just whittle away my time."
"Is that so? A nouveau riche tech mogul, hm?"
"Not so nouveau anymore," he said with a laugh. Ryuuji was going deep into his lie. It wasn't particularly untrue that he was a carpenter, or rather, that he wanted to be one--a fantasy he would escape to on occasion--but it was neither here nor there. Clara's inquisitive eyes peered deep into his own.
"What kind of program was it that you sold, if you don't mind me asking?"
"Program? Oh, it was a simple cybersecurity start up. It was phased out by the end of the quarter for something a hundred times better; they were pretty fast about the whole affair. I feel like a highwayman or something, because I basically robbed them!"
"Well, that sort of thing happened all the time back then, I suppose."
"Back then? Come on, it was barely ten years ago!" They both laughed.
"Well, maybe I'd know about it! I'm also something of a tech mogul, you know.
"Oh? Is that so?" Ryuuji tried his best to make it seem like he didn't know who Veronica Bain was, which he was not very good at. Not one for lying, his usual tactic was to just talk enough that the other person would forget the very premises of the lie itself.
"Yes. To tell you the truth, my mother is the CEO of CyberConnect. Maybe you've heard of her? "
Ryuuji took a sip of his tea nervously. "No, can't say I have... but CyberConnect, wow! That's impressive. You must be rolling in it, if you don't mind my saying. I must be the equivalent of a matchstick girl to you, lurking around in your peripheral vision, begging you please miss please buy a morsel of a matchstick so I may feed my dying mother tonight!" He went too far again. Another sip. "But no, no, I didn't sell it to CyberConnect. Uh, I sold it to Umihara."
"Is that so? Well, that's good. I don't usually like talking about her--makes me feel like people only see me as some poor little rich girl."
"Really..." Ryuuji trailed on, uncomfortable with the topic.
"Well, I won't say I'm not used to the lap of luxury, but I don't like being looked down upon for it. Don't start making assumptions about me, please. I only told you because I figured you wouldn't be the type of person to judge." Clara exuded the same intense honesty that her mother did, Ryuuji noted.
"I would never, haha..."
"I'm glad we're in understanding."
Ryuuji continued rattling on about the software industry and how information technology was becoming too monolithic, to which Clara told him he sounded like an old man. They moved away from business, and Ryuuji told her about the time he destroyed the inn's bathroom with his vomit, and then the first time he liked a girl--which ended in rejection, because Ryuuji was always far too romantic. They laughed about the follies of his youth and her gaijin experience in Japan and his in Germany (though he made it seem like an extended vacation more than anything else). Then they talked about everything else in between: books, films, music, waxing philosophical and riffing on nothing in particular. Finally, after a myriad of topics were covered, the conversation finally came to a lull when they had exhausted small, medium, and medium-large talk. There was nothing left but to address the elephant in the room, which only grew bigger with every second of silence. The sound of grasshoppers filled the night air. Finally, Clara spoke.
"Why are you lying, Mr. Tanaka?"
Ryuuji choked. "Lying? Who? Me?"
"Yes. I don't think you've told me anything true tonight."
"I don't know how you've gotten that in your head, but..."
"Please be honest with me, Mr. Tanaka. I've been nothing but honest with you."
The clock downstairs struck once. The grasshoppers stopped.
"Well, for starters, I really did come here in high school, and I really did vomit until nothing was left to account for in my stomach. But there are plenty of good reasons I can't tell you the whole truth. I'm sorry, but I have no obligation to tell you anything about myself." Ryuuji said this firmly and with conviction, punctuating the matter.
"I understand that. But, should you need someone to confide in..."
"I wish I could, but it's impossible."
"I see." Between sips, Clara said, "You're a very interesting man, Mr. Tanaka. I like people like you."
Ryuuji looked at her, but she was looking down at the table. A chill went down his spine.
"People like me? You don't know the first thing about me."
"That's what I like about you. There's a certain depth to people who have to concoct lies even with strangers they may never see again. Though, I hope you'll buy the magazine I'll be on the cover of next month."
"Depth? I know you're young, but don't get caught up in silly ideas like that. I'm just a coward."
"A coward would have ended this conversation long ago, Mr. Tanaka. Whatever you're running from, I'm sure you're not running out of fear. There is something inherently brave about you--I can sense this sort of thing. Besides, am I not allowed to make wild and romantic stories up in my head about strange men I meet at inns in the middle of nowhere who deliberately lie to me? These sorts of chance encounters don't just happen to everyone, you know."
He let out a small noise in response. Her long blonde hair covered her face in the half light, and he could almost see Kaya behind the bangs. The face he remembered would always be her youthful self, while he sat across from the memory ten years older. Perhaps for the first time Ryuuji recognized his age. To the young girl in front of him, she was still his senior, and despite the iron wall she skillfully put up in defense, she was still far from refined like her mother. Ryuuji could still sense a youthful inexperience, almost a fear of him--and it was precisely that fear which drove her to know more about him.
"I have a favour to ask of you Clara, and if you've come to enjoy our time tonight you'll say yes."
"Forget about me."
The sun made its way over Mt. Fuji, and shone into Ryuuji's eyes. He rolled over and looked out over the lake, where clouds in the distance threatened the morning sun. His eyes made their way over to the table, where a small note with a solitary phrase written upon it lay: