Photo by rose v dale
Akio pushed through the revolving doors and stepped out of the airport terminal.
A familiar blue convertible was idling just outside, top down in the cool late autumn air; Kate sat at the wheel, watching for him. Her short hair was even shorter, and the lines in her face etched just a little more deeply, but otherwise the past decade had hardly changed her. She saw him and got out of the car, vaulting gracefully over the passenger-side door without opening it, stepped up to Akio, and hugged him warmly. Her arms were as muscular as ever, her scent much as it had always been–clean clothes and sweat, natural but not unpleasant.
She pulled back and smiled kindly. Akio noticed a thin line running down from her lower lip to her chin–a scar. That was new. She picked up his bags without a word and walked back toward her car, placing them on the tiny back seat.
They were completely silent for the first few minutes of driving, both smiling but unsure of what to say. He spoke first, finally. “When’s the announcement?”
“Theme’s at eight. Then we have until the same time Sunday to finish our entry.” He checked his watch; it was 7:45. “I’ll keep an eye on it.”
“Thanks for doing this.”
“Saving the world from my attempts at artwork.”
Akio laughed, genuinely. “I liked your last one. Minimalism is in again–didn’t you know?”
“It’s nice to see you.”
“How does Jake feel about it?”
“He’s not thrilled I’m spending a weekend with you, but I think he understands.” Akio shrugged.
“He knows you’ll do what you want, either way.”
He realized it wasn’t the same car, after all. Of course it wasn’t.
It was almost an hour’s drive from the airport back to Kate’s apartment. They caught up a bit on the way there, mostly with things they already knew via friends, or Facebook: his marriage, now nearing its fifth year; her career since leaving the industry. He avoided the subject of Ama, which was easy, since there were so many other topics to talk about.
He only remembered to check for the theme announcement as they were pulling in to the garage of her apartment building, at which point it was almost 9. The theme was “flight.”
Kate’s apartment had hardly changed: small, cluttered with numerous bookshelves, but meticulously clean. A gigantic, L-shaped desk filled one entire corner, dominating the space. Two big flat screens, a pen tablet, a MIDI keyboard, and a variety of other gadgets were carefully arranged across its vast surface. She had an Aeron chair at her desk, but the rest of the furniture was Ikea.
Akio set down his bags and put on a pot of coffee. Kate got an energy drink from the fridge. They started talking about the theme, slipping easily into the creative back-and-forth they’d shared so many times when they were younger.
Before long, they had agreed on a kernel of an idea–a bird, flying through a dense forest, escaping predators–and it was time to get to work. Kate chugged her energy drink and leapt over the back of the sofa and into her fancy chair; she’d never liked going around something when she could go over it. Akio pulled his tablet out of his bag, turned it on, and started sketching.
They worked until dawn, slept for a few hours, and then worked the rest of the second day. By evening, a skeleton of a game had formed as they bounced files back and forth, a build from Kate, a new frame of animation from Akio. There was no sound or music yet, and there were no menus, but it was playable. Good progress.
Kate had changed into her pajamas for her brief rest and hadn’t bothered changing out of them (or showering, Akio noticed with mild displeasure).
He decided to clean up, himself. He grabbed his toothbrush and a change of clothes from his suitcase, locked himself in the bathroom, and turned on the water, waiting for it to warm up. He didn’t see any toothpaste on the counter, and hadn’t brought any, so he opened the cabinet to see if he could find some; several pill bottles tumbled out and clattered into the sink. He started to replace them in the cabinet, but noticed that one of them didn’t contain pills. Unable to restrain his curiosity, he opened it and extracted two tiny pieces of paper, each about two inches on a side.
They were photographs. The first, he was surprised to discover, was of the two of them, much younger, sitting together at the Navy Memorial on a sunny day. Her arm was around him, her head on his shoulder. It brought back a flood of memories, mostly pleasant.
The other picture was of a woman he’d never met, but had seen pictures of many times. Ama. She looked at the camera seriously, huge eyes wide, lips slightly parted, a look of intense curiosity and interest that she had in almost every picture he’d seen of her. She held a hand up against her chest, showing off a silvery ring with a glittering red gem set into it.
He carefully put the pictures down on the bathroom counter, far away from the sink, and hopped into the shower.
Kate couldn’t believe how long Akio took to bathe. Once he finally came out, she gave him a dirty look and went in to pee. When she went to wash her hands, she noticed the two tiny pictures sitting on the counter.
She picked up the picture of Ama, examining it closely. Where had he found it? She felt a familiar chill creep through her, jagged ice spreading from her bones outward, through the muscle and toward the skin. Her vision fogged over for a second, and she shivered; her eyes welled up just a little, and for a moment she felt like she might cry. She didn’t, and the freeze receded.
She looked at herself in the mirror. Her eyes were red, a little wet; she dabbed the almost-tears away with a tissue, and stood there, waiting for the redness to fade. After a moment, on impulse, she stripped off her pajamas and stood naked in front of the mirror, running a finger along the scar on her face. It stopped just under the curve of her chin, and then resumed near her collarbone, running all the way down to just past her navel, where it was thickest, wide as a finger.
“Hey, everything okay?”
Kate quickly put her clothes back on, composed herself in the mirror, and opened the door. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
He was sprawled across the couch on his back, head propped up on the arm, tablet and pen propped on his raised knee. “I’m sorry. They fell out of the cabinet.” He paused. She realized her emotions must have been more visible than she thought. “I shouldn’t have intruded.”
“It’s all right.” She made her best attempt at a warm smile, and he seemed to buy it.
“I think I’ve figured out the background. Want to see?” He motioned toward her with the tablet.
“Yeah.” She was grateful for the change of subject. She walked over to the couch and looked at what he was doing. A forest in autumn, angular and abstract, bright orange and red and purple leaves hovering in the air, sunlight dappling the ground. He kept filling it in as she watched, new shapes and colors appearing at a pace that had always amazed her.
The game was almost done; they both slept late the third day.
The music for their game came to her quickly. A simple, rising five-note minor key melody, its timbre mutating subtly over time, a low-pass filter gradually sweeping up and then down again, keys and then strings building gradually over it, with an occasional hint of distant, ethereal horns. It built to a frenzy, broke down, and started over. Four minutes of music, just over two hours of work. She disconnected her headphones and played it on the studio monitors for Akio to hear.
There was just an hour left on the clock, but they were done.
She stood by the window as Akio packed his things. A light snowfall had started outside, the flakes almost invisible until they caught the light of the streetlamps five floors below.
Kate saw herself and Ama walking down that street, huddled together against the cold, bubbling with joy from a successful second date, so enthused they could barely keep from talking over one another, snow collecting on their winter coats. Ducking under the awning of the Chinese restaurant next door and sharing a kiss, Ama’s lips against Kate’s cold but somehow also warm.
The blue convertible shot up the airport highway, through the falling snow, still light but getting heavier. Kate and Akio were silent again.
She parked in the lot this time, and they walked into the airport together. He turned to face her. Kate searched for words for a moment, but could only come up with pleasantries. “Thanks for doing this. It was great to see you again.”
“Trying to convince yourself?” The old sly grin.
“It was great for me, too. I really missed you.” He hugged her, tightly this time. “You should come to Denver. Jake would love to meet you. I wish we could have met…” He stopped, not wanting to say the name.
Kate felt the ice start to spread out from her bones again, but tensed her muscles and, with a great effort, forced it back. She wanted to say something about all the time that had passed, about how she’d spent the years since they’d separated alone, and then with Ama, and then suddenly alone again. Most of all, she wanted to tell him about how one bleak morning she’d woken up in a hospital bed to find that the little pilot light inside of her had gone out, and that she now had to fight every day to keep a deep chill from overtaking her.
Instead, she smiled. “That would be wonderful. I’d love to meet him.”
They hugged once more, and then Kate turned around and walked back out into the falling snow.
rose v dale is a neurodivergent, transfeminine Croatian-American game developer, photographer, writer and musician; in her spare time, she enjoys building silly gadgets and befriending stray cats. She was born in Washington, DC but considers Kyoto home.