A Midsummer's Equation

ONE

Kyohei found the transfer gate from the bullet train to the express line without any difficulty, and by the time he ran up the stairs to the platform, the train was already there. The sound of people talking inside the car spilled out through the opened doors.

He stepped on at the nearest door and immediately frowned. His parents had said it wouldn’t be that busy, now that summer was almost over, but most of the four-person booths were already full. He walked down the aisle, scouting for that elusive booth with only one or two people in it.

Most of the passengers were here with families. He saw a lot of kids his own age, all looking far too happy.

Idiots, Kyohei thought. What was so great about going to the ocean? It was just a lot of salty water. It was way more fun to play in a pool, especially one with a waterslide. They didn’t have those at the ocean.

At last he spotted an empty seat way in the back. There was someone sitting across from it, but he would have a whole two-person bench to himself.

Kyohei threw his backpack down on the empty seat and glanced at the man sitting opposite him. He was wearing a dress shirt and blazer and didn’t look much like a tourist. His long legs were crossed, and he was reading a magazine through rimless glasses. The cover of the magazine had some complicated pattern on it and a bunch of words Kyohei didn’t know. Nose buried in his reading, the man hadn’t noticed him.

Across the aisle, a heavy, older man with white hair and an old woman with a round face were seated across from each other. The woman poured from a plastic bottle into a cup and handed it to her husband. He took it from her with a scowl and drank it down, mumbling something about her giving him too much. These two weren’t dressed like tourists, either. They looked like old folks from the country, going home.

The train lurched into motion. Kyohei opened his backpack and took out a plastic bag with his lunch inside. The rice balls wrapped in aluminum foil were still warm. A small Tupperware container held some fried chicken and grilled egg, both favorites of his.

He drank some water out of a bottle and crammed one of the rice balls into his mouth. He could already see the ocean outside the window. There was a blue sky today, and sunlight glittered off the waves in the distance, beyond the white spray closer to shore.

“It’ll just be for a little bit, while we’re in Osaka,” his mother had told him. That was three days ago. “You’d rather go play in the ocean than stay up here alone, wouldn’t you?” Until then, Kyohei had never considered the possibility of going all by himself to stay with relatives so far away.

“You sure he’ll be okay?” his father had asked, tipping back a glass of whiskey. “Hari Cove’s a long way away.”

“He’ll be fine. He’s in fifth grade already. You know, I heard that the Kobayashis’ little girl Hana went all the way to Australia by herself,” his mother had replied, her fingers typing away at her computer. His mother made a habit of tallying sales for the day in the living room each evening. “Hari Cove is only in Shizuoka. That’s practically next door.”

“Yeah, but her parents took her to the airport, and her relatives picked her up at the other end. All she had to do was ride on the airplane. That’s easy.”

“It’s the same thing. He only has one change off the bullet train. And they’re not that far from the station once he’s there. I’ll give you a map.” She said this last part to Kyohei directly.

“Sure,” Kyohei said, his eyes glued to the game in his hands. There was no point in protesting. No matter what he said, his fate was sealed: he would waste away in the boring countryside while his parents were in Osaka. The same scene had played out many times before. Back when his grandmother was still alive, they’d send him to her house west of Tokyo. But she’d passed away the year before, and now it was the same deal, only he had to go further to stay with his aunt and uncle.

Kyohei’s parents ran a small clothing boutique. It kept them busy, and they were forever running off to this place or that, trying to sell their latest designs. Sometimes Kyohei would go with them, if he didn’t have school. He was fine spending a night alone by himself, too.

This time, they would be gone all week. They were going to Osaka to open a new shop.

“I guess you are in fifth grade already,” his father had said with a shrug. “Listen, Kyohei, have fun at the ocean. You get a whole week. The food’s great down there. I’ll tell your aunt to stuff you full of fresh fish.” His voice was a little slurred with the whiskey. And that was the end of it. His parents might have given the appearance of having an actual discussion, but its conclusion was set in stone from the very beginning.

Like it was every time.

The express train cruised down the coastline. Kyohei finished his rice balls and was playing his game when the cell phone in his backpack began to ring. He paused his game and fished around in his backpack until he found it.

It was his mom. Kyohei sighed inwardly and answered.

“Yeah?”

“Kyohei? Where are you?”

Now, that was a stupid question. She was the one who checked the schedules and bought his ticket for him.

“On the train,” he said, keeping his voice down.

“Glad you got on all right.”

“Yeah.” What were you expecting?

“Be sure to say hi to everyone for us when you get there. And give them the presents, okay?”

“Yeah, fine. Bye—”

“And don’t forget your homework, Kyohei. Do a little every day. If you let it build up, it’ll only be worse.”

“I know, Mom,” he said quickly and hung up. Why did his mother always feel the need to tell him the same things over and over? She had already given him the speech about the homework before he left the house that morning. Maybe all mothers were like that.

He threw the phone back in his backpack and was about to restart his game when he heard a low voice say, “Hey.”

He ignored it.

“Hey, kid.” The speaker sounded irritated.

Kyohei looked up from his game and across the aisle. The white-haired man was glaring at him with a frightening scowl on his face. “You’re not supposed to use cell phones here,” he said in a rasping voice.

Kyohei blinked, surprised. No one ever complained about cell phones in Tokyo. Wow, I’m really out in the boonies.

“But they called me,” he said, pouting a little.

The old man glared with anger at Kyohei and pointed a wrinkled hand over the boy’s head. Kyohei turned around, looked up, and read the small plaque: “Courtesy seats. Please turn off your cell phone in this area.”

“Oh,” Kyohei said.

“See?” the old man said, victoriously.

Kyohei pulled the phone out of his backpack and showed it to the man. “I can’t turn it off. It’s a kids’ phone.”

The man frowned, not understanding. His bushy white eyebrows drew closer together.

“Even if I press the button it just comes back on by itself. There’s a code you can put in to make it really shut off, but I don’t know it.”

The old man considered this for a moment before saying, “Then move to another seat.”

“Oh, leave the boy alone,” the old woman sitting across from him said. She smiled at Kyohei. “I’m sorry, dear.”

“No, no, no.” The old man growled. “The boy needs to learn his manners. There are rules that must be followed.” His raspy voice was growing louder. A few of the other passengers craned their necks to see what the commotion was.

Kyohei sighed. Just my luck to sit next to a grumpy old man. He grabbed his backpack and a plastic baggie he’d been using for a trash bag and was about to stand up when the tall man sitting across from him put an arm on Kyohei’s shoulder and pushed him back down into the seat. Then he snatched the cell phone out of his hand.

Kyohei looked up at the man in surprise. A blank look on his face, the man thrust his hand into Kyohei’s trash bag and pulled out the aluminum foil.

Before Kyohei even had a chance to say something, the man spread the aluminum foil out on his knee, then crumpled it in a ball around the cell phone.

“There,” he said, handing it back to Kyohei. “You can stay in your seat.”

Kyohei took the phone in silence. He felt like he was watching some kind of magic trick, but he wasn’t entirely sure what had happened.

“What’s that supposed to do?” the old man asked.

“Aluminum foil blocks cellular signals,” the man said, his eyes back on his magazine. “He won’t be able to send or receive calls. It’s the same as if it were off. Society lives to see another day.”

Kyohei gaped in shock between the two men. The old man looked a bit confused, but when he saw Kyohei looking at him, he coughed loudly and closed his eyes. His wife was grinning as if this were the funniest thing she’d seen all year.

A short while later, many of the passengers started getting up and pulling luggage off the overhead racks. An announcement indicated that they would soon be stopping at a popular destination for beachgoers.

The train stopped, and about half of the passengers got off. Kyohei considered changing seats, but the man across from him stood before he did. Pulling a bag off the rack, he moved to another seat further up the car.

Kyohei frowned. He couldn’t move too. He glanced across the aisle. The old man was snoring.

The coastline here was dotted with beaches, and at each station, the number o ...

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