The first time Lori saw Rin, she recognised him immediately.
It wasn’t because he looked identical to the photograph his mother had sent some weeks ago, or because he was the only child among a sea of adults that pushed him without even realising, as if he were but a lost suitcase.
Lori knew the boy who grabbed his backpack and his suitcase as if he were to sink if he let go was Rin Matsuoka the moment she saw the scared glint in a pair of eyes that looked around frantically, when she noticed the way he was slightly trembling and biting his lower lip –already bruised and about to bleed– as he tried to read signs written in English and probably failed.
She walked towards the kid cautiously in order to not scare him, but also rather quickly so that lost expression vanished from his face as soon as possible. Rin took a few steps towards her, stopping when Lori crouched down a bit so their faces were at the same level.
“You are Rin, right?” She spoke slowly, because even though Rin’s mother had told her that he knew a bit of English Lori wanted to make sure he didn’t feel excluded. After a few seconds, the boy nodded. “I’m Lori.” She smiled when she heard her husband get close to them as she offered a hand that Rin hesitantly clasped with shaking, sweaty fingers. “And he’s Russell.”
Rin was a bit faster this time.
“Welcome to Australia,” Russell said, as he let go of the kid’s hand. “It’s been a long flight, hasn’t it? Are you tired?”
Rin hugged his backpack tighter and nodded again.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
As she walked with Rin and Russell to the car, Lori hoped the cheerful boy his mother had described showed up soon.
It seemed Rin liked his new room.
What he liked most about Russell and Lori’s house, though, was their pet. After they went to the beach and Russell showed him their place, Rin asked to play with her and got to the garden while Lori made dinner. Every now and then she would look through the window, feeling calmer as the nervous wreck they’d picked up at the airport melted into a relaxed smile and he laughed when he pretended to throw a stick and Winnie broke into a run to find it.
“He looks happier now,” Russell pointed out.
At dinner time, it was Russell’s turn to chat with Rin; he asked him what he wanted to see in Australia. For Lori it looked like Rin wanted to say way more than what he actually managed, and the way he stopped in the middle of a sentence, frowned and resumed talking when he found the right words was endearing.
Later, Lori called Rin’s mother to tell her how the day had been, and she confirmed her thoughts when Rin grabbed the phone started talking without pause to the woman in Japanese.
Before classes started, Lori and Russell showed Rin the most famous places in Australia: the Opera House, Ayers Rock, the Great Barrier Reef… and it was the last place the one which got Rin most excited; for the first time, he spoke without being prompted.
“Haru will be green with envy when I tell him,” he mused, smiling as wide as he did when he played with Winnie.
“Who’s Haru?” Russell asked from the passenger’s seat. Lori paid attention too; neither Rin’s mother nor sister were called like that, and she knew the boy’s father had died years ago.
“A friend. He swims too, and he’s so fast!” Rin explained, his nose pressed against the car window.
“Is he faster than you?” Lori asked, looking at the rear mirror just in time to see Rin’s indignant expression as he looked away from the window.
“No! Well, he is now,” he admitted. “But I’ll beat him when I get back!”
Neither Lori nor Russell could know then, when they asked Rin about that Haru to help him get more fluent in English, what they were getting themselves into.
Later, Lori would think about what happened throughout the next months as a roller coaster.
It started at ground level, the day Rin started school. He arrived home looking dejected, and he told them he had made a lot of mistakes when he’d introduced himself to his classmates, that they had looked at him as if he had grown a third arm, that some of them had laughed. He spent the afternoon with Winnie, and it was only minutes before Lori called him for dinner that a smile appeared on his face.
During the next few weeks, there was a slow but persevering rise of Rin’s mood. At first, there were failed exams that he tried to hide, but both Lori and Russell knew about them before Rin gathered the courage to admit it, the day he passed an exam for the first time; he wasn’t good at hiding things. There weren’t any more fails.
Maybe it had something to do with Rin joining the swim club, something he loved. Now he was busy in the afternoons too, so he wasn’t home then; but he almost always arrived smiling, talking about swimming and his teammates, and about how Haru is better than them, though and about a lot of things about that friend of his.
One day, Rin didn’t smile.
Lori should have worried more then. But when Rin barely touched his dinner before claiming to be tired and went to his room, she supposed it was just a bad day. Rin got bothered when he made mistakes in English, so maybe it was that, she reasoned. Russell agreed with her, but he was more surprised by the absence of Haru that night.
Lori didn’t realise then that the car had passed over the highest point and Rin had started his fall. There were more days when he got home sad, sometimes with weeks between them, sometimes so frequent Lori felt the need to talk to him.
She didn’t do it, though, until one afternoon, when she found Rin sitting on his bed, writing something in Japanese.
“What are you doing?”
Face and neck turning red, Rin tried to cover the paper with his hands, even though Lori didn’t understand it anyway.
“It’s a letter,” he eventually answered. “For Haru.”
“You haven’t written to him yet?” Lori smiled. “He’ll think you’ve forgotten about him.”
It was strange that Rin just looked down.
“I bet he has already forgotten.”
Lori frowned, but decided against commenting about it.
“What is the letter about, then? The Great Barrier Reef?” Rin stared at the letter; after some seconds, he erased some characters and wrote different ones on their place. Lori would’ve liked to know what he’d just done, but she knew she couldn’t keep ignoring the elephant in the room. “Rin, is anything wrong? At school, or with swimming–”
Rin raised his head so suddenly Lori almost heard his neck creaking.
“No. I’m fine. My marks are good.”
She squinted, then sighed.
“Russell and I are worried, Rin,” she admitted. “Lately you look sad when you come home and we don’t know why.”
“It’s…” Rin started, but he bit his lip and looked down again.
“Rin, you know that if you need something, anything, we’re here for you, right?”
Rin nodded. He looked at Lori and smiled a bit.
“Thank you. But it’s nothing. Really.”
There weren’t failed exams. Rin stopped coming home without smiling. He stopped leaving food on his plate.
But he was still falling.
Rin went to Japan for Christmas.
When he landed on Sydney again, Lori thought he looked like he’d left half of himself in his home country. Despite not being as scared and lost as the first time, despite the way he smiled and hugged them when they greeted him and he told them he’d had a good time in Japan, there was something off with him.
He didn’t play with Winnie. He just hugged her, looking at the wall, and when they had dinner Lori was worried he would throw up every time the spoon got into his mouth. After the desserts he forced a smile on his face and announced that he was tired and wanted to sleep.
“Hey, Rin!” Russell called after him when Rin had his foot on the first step of the stairs. “Did you see Haru?”
Rin went so still that at first Lori thought he hadn’t understood the question.
“Russell asked if y–”
“I’m going to sleep,” Rin cut her, climbing the stairs.
Later, when Lori passed next to his room, she could hear his sobs, muffled in the pillow.
Most likely, Rin believed he could fool them.
Lori wasn’t sure if she and Russell allowed him to keep putting on that cheerful face because it was painfully obvious how hard Rin was trying, or because they didn’t want to know what Rin so desperately wanted to hide.
But even if it was difficult, even if Rin didn’t tell them anything but cried too many nights, he advanced. His marks were still good and he started spending more time at the pool, and when he got home exhausted he didn’t cry; and as time passed his voice got deeper, his back wider and his body bigger.
Lori wanted to think that the problem, whatever it was, would fix by itself. Rin was at a difficult age, after all, and sometimes his smiles looked easier, and maybe that meant the cheerful, talkative boy he’d been during the first months in Australia was finding his way back.
If only she had known.
That only meant that Rin was getting better at pretending.
And Rin did it so, so well that Lori almost forgot that he was still falling and the car was out of control.
The reminder was cruel. It was silent, too; because that morning, the last of June, nothing in the smile Rin painted on his face after breakfast was different. He even hugged Lori before going to school. It was cold, because for some reason one of the things she would remember most was that she couldn’t take Winnie out in the morning and Russell’s reading glasses misted up when he poked his head out the door to see what was happening.
Everything was fine in the morning. As fine as one can be without knowing, that’s it. Lori gave up on taking Winnie out and went to work, forgetting about everything until, in the afternoon, her phone rang and Russell told her the swim club had called asking about Rin.
When he hung up, Lori called to Rin’s school. Several minutes later she found Rin hadn’t been there that morning.
Rin was fifteen and he had never skipped class.
Fortunately, her boss understood the situation. Not that Lori was planning on staying there while Rin was missing, anyway. She rushed back home, where she only found Russell, waiting to get into the car.
“Have you tried to call him?”
“Of course,” he replied. “He doesn’t pick up.”
So they looked for Rin. They went over streets and parks, to places Rin had liked when he’d been there with them. They even stopped by the swim club, just to be told –again– that Rin wasn’t there. A coach said that today they were measuring times, which half-explained why Rin hadn’t attended.
It was already dark when they went to the police station to report Rin was missing, but it would have been the same if they had talked to a wall. Nobody would look for Rin until twenty four hours after he’d last been seen.
Trying to calm down, Lori called Rin again. He neither hung up nor picked up, and Lori didn’t want to wonder if it was because Rin was ignoring them or because he wasn’t able to.
“All teenagers run away at some point,” Russell muttered, hugging her and caressing her hair. Lori leaned against his chest, trying to get away from the coldest night of the year. “Rin isn’t stupid. He’ll be fine.”
No, he wouldn’t. He hadn’t been fine for so long that the enthusiastic little kid had become a blurred memory. And Lori had allowed it, had let him fool her and seen only what Rin wanted her to.
“He must be freezing,” she whispered, hiding her nose behind her scarf.
Russell kissed her hair and offered to drive.
It was almost dawn when they found him.
It was Russell who suggested going to the beach where they had taken Rin to when he arrived to Sydney for the first time, and Lori felt stupid for not having thought about it earlier. Her legs were shaking when she recognised someone curled up on the sand, but she ran towards him nonetheless.
“You were here!” She took Rin in her arms, shuddering when she caressed his cheek and felt it so cold. It was then when she noticed the state Rin was in. He was shivering, his eyes barely open, and he leant on Lori’s chest, seeking her warmth. “We were so worried, Rin.” Lori took deep breaths, trying to silence the sobs she had spent the whole night repressing. “Don’t do anything like this again.”
Russell put his jacket over Rin’s shoulders, ruffling his hair.
“At least pick up your phone, will you?” Rin numbly shook his head, burying his face into Lori’s shoulder. “Let’s go home.”
Rin needed help to get to the car; he had trouble moving, as if he’d got up for the first time in several years. Lori sat on the back seat with him, noticing his white knuckles as he clung to her clothes and refused to let go. Nobody talked in the car.
When they got home, Rin had fallen asleep and Lori’s shoulder was damp with his tears.
Lori asked for a free day. After a doctor saw Rin and assured them that he was pretty much alright and just needed to be warm and get some rest, she slept for a few hours and took over Russell’s place, on a chair next to Rin’s bed. She looked over him as he slept under three blankets, making him drink water whenever Rin awoke from a restless dream.
Rin wasn’t always willing to comply, but it was only after midday that he verbally refused.
“I’m hungry,” he explained after mumbling something in Japanese. He was looking at his intertwined fingers, that didn’t tremble anymore.
“Oh… Of course.” Lori smiled. “How long has it been since you last ate?”
It took Rin some seconds to answer:
“Since yesterday morning.”
Lori didn’t ask about the food she’d made for him. She took a plate of soup Russel had made to the bedroom, and Rin didn’t complain. He ate in silence under Lori’s gaze, not looking away from the food. His hands closed into fists when he finished.
“Rin, why did you do that?”
Rin closed his eyes, leaning on the headboard. It was red and blue, too childish and bright for the tired teenager in front of Lori. She didn’t want to think about what colours suited him instead, though.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I didn’t want to…” Rin frowned, running a hand through his hair. “I just needed to think.”
“You can’t just ignore everything whenever you need to think.” Lori turned around. Russell was leaning on the doorframe. His words weren’t harsh, he wasn’t scolding Rin, yet the boy flinched. “And if you do, we need to know where you are.”
Rin nodded again. He didn’t speak as Russell walked into the bedroom and put his hands on Lori’s shoulders.
“Did you tell my mother?” he asked abruptly.
“Not yet,” Lori admitted, “we didn’t want to scare her so soon.”
“Don’t tell her,” Rin raised his voice, hoarse after spending the night at the beach. “I won’t do it again. But please, don’t tell her. Please.”
Russell’s fingers dug into Lori’s skin. She looked at him and knew they were thinking the same thing. They had tried to ignore it for years, but they couldn’t do it anymore.
“Don’t you miss Japan?” Rin tilted his head, confused. “Maybe it’d be good for you if you got back.”
“I’m fine now,” Rin quickly replied.
“We aren’t kicking you out,” Russell clarified. “We love you, and we love having you here. But there are things we can’t do.”
Rin look at his empty plate again, without seeing it. His mind wasn’t in that room, though.
“Can I ask you something? I’ll go back… but when the school year ends. It’d be too troublesome now. Let me stay until then, please.”
And if you moved back now, your mother would worry, Lori guessed. Rin’s kindness never ceased to amaze her. God knew what he was keeping to himself, yet there he was, not wanting to bother anyone with his problems.
It hurt Lori, but she could only nod.
“You know you can stay here as long as you want.”
Rin had never been a troublesome boy.
After that incident, though, Lori couldn’t find anything problematic in his behaviour. He didn’t skip more classes, he went to swim every day; he always got home at the hour he’d said he would, and if for some reason he took longer than usual he let them know. His marks were still fine.
Lori would have been happy for him if she didn’t already know that there were many things behind Rin’s decorative smile. She once asked him about Haru –Haruka–, the friend he had talked so much at first, the person he no longer mentioned.
Rin’s back tensed at the sound of that name.
“I haven’t seen him in years,” he answered, his voice barely audible, though Lori could tell it was shaking. “He’s probably fine and swimming with his friends.”
Lori had never thought Rin’s voice could hold so much venom, and she never brought Haruka up again.
And the year ended, and finally Rin went back to Japan.
Lori asked him to write, to keep in touch with them, even though she knew he wouldn’t. It had been years since the last time she had seen him writing to his friends.
Lori didn’t see Rin until almost two years later. It was an evening in August when someone knocked on the door, when she expected to see anyone but him.
At first, she didn’t recognise him. Despite he had been living on her and Russell’s house for four years, despite he appeared in as many photos as any other member of their family, it took Lori some seconds to take in that the smiling young man that walked straighter than she had ever seen him was the same person as the miserable boy that had ran away for a whole day and had tried to make them believe he was alright.
But it was Rin indeed: taller, happier, Rin-er, and his eyes were full of excitement instead of unshed tears.
This time, when he said he had been well, Lori didn’t feel guilty for believing it.
And it was a surprise that he’d brought Haruka, who Lori felt as if she already knew.
“So this is Rin’s friend?” Russell asked while Rin was going to see his old bedroom. He looked through the window, where Haruka was playing with Winnie; there was a tiny smile on his lips, but Lori didn’t think he was half as talkative as Rin.
Lori loved her husband, but sometimes Russell was terribly dense.
“Yes, honey. His friend.”
“Nothing.” Lori smiled. “Rin is fine.”
And now, it was true.