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Kioshi lifted the hood of his Trans AM, wiped a trace of grease from his palm onto his previously clean white tank top and studied the steady movement of the engine. He had a feeling something wasn’t quite right, and over the last few years of owning it, he’d grown accustomed to trusting his gut on these things. He pulled the dipstick out, wiped it on a dirty rag he kept tucked into the back of his jeans, and checked the oil level. Satisfied, he slid it back into place and closed his eyes and listened. As he stood there, certain something would occur, without being sure what it would be, or why he knew, he found himself thinking about his mother. 

         The first thing the strokes took from Ayame Matsumoto was her speech. On a quiet December morning she wore her usual bright smile as she carried her breakfast towards the table to join her family. Kioshi vividly recalled the way one moment she was talking about their plans for the day, and the next she was on the ground, cradled in the worried arms of his father. He looked over at Ichigo, the two of them now standing over their mother, and wondered if his own eyes carried the same sense of fright. 

          Kioshi’s memories were just as vivid about the fear masquerading as anger in his father’s voice as he overheard him question several doctors at the hospital several days later. They repeatedly tried to calm his father, telling him some patients would overcome aphasia within a few days of a stroke, and assured him that despite her inability to speak, his mother was very much still present and aware of everything around her. 

          So he stayed in the hospital along with his father and his younger sibling for seven days and six nights, and then he stayed by her side when she was sent home, all the while hoping to hear even one syllable of his mother’s delicate voice. She never spoke again, but even in the face of her husband's growing frustration, she didn’t lose her smile. 

          The next thing the strokes took was her sight. The last time that Kioshi Matsumoto had ever shed a tear was as they flowed freely down his cheeks as he screamed for Ichigo to call 911. His arms around their collapsed mother, reassuring her that he was there, that she was safe, and that it was going to be ok. 

          These were the kind of promises a 15-year-old boy could make sincerely, and genuinely believe. It would be no fault of his own, wish as he might, he could not will them into being true. It would be no fault of his own that when she was checked back into the hospital, this time, she wouldn’t leave. 

         The most vivid memory of Kioshi Matsumoto’s young life would be two weeks after she’d checked in, as he sat alone in the private hospital room—precisely one floor up and across the hall from where Ichigo had been born—when his mother’s monitors began to issue their final warning beeps. 

          He dropped the book he’d been reading aloud to her and rushed to her side. Despite not being able to see and not being able to speak, her hands reached out and gripped his as he approached the bed. Her face frowning, her open, but unseeing eyes darting back and forth as though she were watching something play out in front of her. Then she smiled, and if he hadn’t known better, he’d swear she had turned to look him right in the eye, and a look of peacefulness crossed her face. She turned his hand over, and softly wrote on his palm with her fingertip. Then she patted him gently on the arm and departed from the world. 

         Kioshi stared down at his hand confused as a nurse rushed past him, and another pulled him away and out of the room as a crash team raced over to her in an unsuccessful attempt to bring her back. 

          In her dying moment, with a look of pure serenity on her face, his mother had written the Japanese kanjis 一, meaning one, and 護, meaning protect. He retraced her motions over and over on his palm for several weeks before he finally convinced himself that it must have been a cross firing of synapses that caused his mother, in her final seconds, to grab his hand, and write down the name Ichigo. 

          It had to have been a mistake, it had never made any sense to Kioshi, but it often crossed his mind. Kioshi opened his eyes and focused on the #8 cylinder on the passenger side of the engine a heartbeat before the misfire started. The steady movements of the engine were replaced with the shudder of an engine not firing on all cylinders. 

         With a deep sigh, Kioshi pulled the rag out of his back pocket and put it on his work bench, before leaning in through the open door to shut the engine off so he could set to work.


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