Tokyo Ghosts: Grow Up
A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #040 back issue.
December 1st, 2005
Ayase rubbed her eyes. A lumpy pile of keys, linked together by a metal ring that had lost its sheen over three years, glinted from her palm in the faint light of the doorway.
I need to get rid of half of these, she thought blearily, annoyed that she’d hoarded so many over time. In her exhaustion and the outdoor darkness, the keys blurred together in her vision. A breeze ruffled her coat, sharp in the nighttime cold; she squeezed her legs together and shivered against the icy chill that clawed up her skirt.
This one? she thought. She poked a key, revealing a red spot of paint–no, that was the old dorm key she’d forgotten to hand in. The one beside it was a key to the church, although the locks had been changed there; the one underneath it was for Mitsuko’s parents’ house, which she also hadn’t used in years. She pulled out another key until she saw the telltale scratches signifying that it opened Hikaru’s apartment…for those increasingly rare emergencies where someone had to check on Kadoyuki.
Ayase’s jaw clenched. She pinched the last key–the new one–and pulled it from her palm. Its unfamiliarity was still a little jarring.
I feel the same way about this house, she thought as she slid the key into the keyhole.
The door unlocked with a click. She swung it outward, stepped into the barely warmer interior of the house, and pulled the door shut behind her with a ka-chunk.
She rested her bag on the floor and slipped out of her flats. Most of the shoes were gone–strange for that hour–but she recognized Jo’s leather loafers lined up neatly in their place. After shrugging off her coat and hanging it in the closet, she nudged her toes into her house slippers and clap-clapped up the single step of the genkan.
“I’m home,” she called, not sure if Jo heard her.
The hallway was dark; she flipped on the nearest light, illuminating the stairwell to the second floor. The faint rumble of a male voice drifted from the living room, so she shuffled past the stairway, gripped the living room’s door, and slid it open on its floor-bound track.
It was the TV. In the darkened living room, a male newscaster rumbled in his reduced volume, the soft glow from the screen bathing the futon couch and its curled occupant.
Ayase strained her eyes in the dark. That was definitely Jo on the couch–his body twisted away from the television light, his shoulder rising and falling in the slow breaths of slumber. She flipped open her phone to check the time.
Eight o’clock? she thought. Where is everyone? She smelled the lingering heaviness of cigarette smoke in the air, the evidence of which was stuffed into the overflowing ashtray on the coffee table.
Ayase sighed. She crossed her arms, a new irritation welling in her gut.
“You said you were trying to quit,” she said flatly.
A little jerk from the body on the couch; Jo rolled deeper into the futon, the line of his shoulder disappearing under the rising curve of his back. He let out a heavy breath.
“Huh…?” he murmured, his voice muffled by the futon.
“It’s too early for bed, and too late for a nap. Are you sick?”
Jo slowly pushed himself up, his tousled head swinging from his neck like a pendulum. His eyes blearily rolled up to Ayase.
“When’d you get home?” he grunted.
“Just now. I had to close the shop. Where is everyone?”
Jo frowned and rubbed the scant, carefully trimmed beard on his chin. The gold wedding band on his hand winked in the dim light.
“What day is it?” he mumbled. “Wednesday? Everyone’s at karaoke.”
Ayase scowled. “What day is it?”
Jo grumbled and rolled into a sitting position. “Please don’t nag me the second I wake up.”
“Are you sick?” she repeated.
“No.” Jo leaned forward to fumble with the box of cigarettes on the table. He slid out a stick, grabbed his lighter, and fell back against the couch with a sigh. He slipped the stick between his lips and lit the end before snapping his flame away.
Ayase felt her frustration rising, but suppressed the rude comment bubbling in her throat.
“We’re doing karaoke on Wednesdays now?” she clarified. “That’s new.”
“Did the cheap night at Sachi’s work change?”
Jo shook his head. He dug out the remote control from the crease in the futon by his side.
“We’re not going to Sachi’s place anymore. He’s afraid his boss’ll fire him if we keep sneaking in extra people.” He muted the TV, cutting off the quiet twitter of a high-pitched commercial. “We’re going to a different karaoke parlor now–two train stops away, I think.”
“And you stayed here to sleep.”
Jo rolled his eyes. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep, but I guess no one woke me. Because they didn’t feel the need to lecture me.”
Ayase decided to drop it. She instead pondered over the other thing that didn’t feel right–she couldn’t imagine Sachi paying to sing somewhere else, considering how many shifts he worked in one of the nicer karaoke clubs in the city.
“Did Sachi go with them, or is he working?” Her gaze trailed back to the hallway and its stairwell. “Unless he’s in his room, but I didn’t see his shoes.”
“Neither. He’s got a date.”
Ayase stopped, feeling that familiar blip in her stomach. She smothered it as she swallowed.
“With…what’s her name?” she asked, her voice a little unsteady in her ears. “Harada-san?”
“Harada… Oh, the girl with the scars on her arms.” Jo made a face. “No. I think Harada was two girlfriends ago.”
Ayase’s arms unfolded in surprise. “Sachi had her over for dinner last week.”
Jo shrugged and finally lurched from the couch. He turned to her, long fingers twisting the cigarette between his lips.
“Most of them are one-night stands, Ayase.”
In the long stretch of silence, under Jo’s loaded gaze, Ayase felt a phantom echo of the icy wind that had swirled around her outside. She shivered, squeezing her knees together.
Jo opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off by her stomach growling.
Ayase grimaced in embarrassment, automatically folding her hands over her belly. “Sorry,” she mumbled, turning on her heel. Her sandals clapped beneath her as she stepped back into the hallway and grabbed her abandoned shopping bag. “I skipped dinner.”
She didn’t wait for his reply as she headed for the kitchen. When she shakily rested the bag on the kitchen table, she heard the soft pads of his socks as he followed her.
“Everybody was gonna grab food on the way to karaoke,” he said.
“I figured.” She dug the small cardboard box out of her bag, the edge of one finger hooking on the string tied around it. “It’s fine.”
“But I…usually cook on Wednesdays,” he murmured, a new guilt constricting his voice. “Let me make you something.”
“I have leftovers,” she retorted, more forcefully than she meant to. She tugged at the string on the box, but she’d accidentally tied it in a knot; she started picking at it with her nails in frustration.
“What leftovers–cake? That’s not dinner.”
“Pastries, too.” She scratched uselessly at the knot. “I need scissors.”
“You probably had that shit for lunch,” Jo argued. “Let me make you something before that bakery gives you diabetes.”
“I said I was fine.”
She slammed her hands on the table. “Just back off!” she snapped, her voice echoing in the empty kitchen.
The resulting silence felt too heavy. Guilt hardened in her stomach like a stone. She stared at the white box from the bakery, its string askew from her frantic pawing, and found herself unable to look Jo in the face.
Slowly, his hand rested on the box, his long fingers splaying down the sides. He slid it away on the table before lifting that hand to grip her curled shoulder.
He gently, but firmly, pushed her down into a chair.
Ayase sighed. She rubbed her face as the familiar chak of the rice cooker button and the chik chik fwoom of the gas stove snapped on behind her.
“Long day?” he finally asked over the clatter of a pan.
Ayase wiped an eye. “Long trimester,” she mumbled in reply.
“You’re working a lot of hours, considering how many classes you’re taking.”
“I want to be independent.” The wooden chair creaked beneath her as she leaned back in her seat. “I need Zayd-san’s money for school, but I want to at least cover my living expenses. Eventually.”
She heard his feet pad on the floor behind her, the fridge open and close. “Then take fewer classes,” he argued as a bowl hit the counter with a faint clunk. “You don’t have to rush through your bachelor’s program in four years.”
“I don’t wanna drag it out. I’d rather rip through these years, like a bandage.”
He scoffed behind her, the sound clipped by the cigarette in his mouth. “You’re sure living up the university experience.”
“What?” she asked bitterly. “Like you, taking three classes a term and sleeping half the day? Like Sachi, partying every night with girls he barely knows?”
She regretted the words as soon as she said them. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to soothe her roiling gut.
“I’m…sorry,” she said at last. “That was mean. And don’t tell Sachi I said that.”
Jo audibly grunted over the crackle of something tossed into hot oil. The alluring smell of garlic and sesame drifted from the stove.
“You know,” he said evenly, “if you wanted Sachi to stop banging half the people on campus, I’m sure he’d be happy to settle down.”
Ayase winced. “Not this again.”
“I still don’t get why you two aren’t together.”
“Jo, how many times do I have to tell you? If it was gonna happen, it would’ve happened by now. We’re just…not compatible or something.” She pulled the sagging clip from her hair and shook out her bangs. “And it’s not like I can make that decision alone.”
“Oh, right,” Jo said sourly. “You guys let Kado make that decision for you.”
“Hey!” She twisted in her chair to glare at his back. “That’s not fair!”
He glanced over his shoulder at her–his brow furrowed slightly, the cigarette down to a stub between his lips. He took a last drag before tossing the butt into the kitchen sink.
“It’s just weird that you’re single,” he muttered. “That’s all I’m saying. Make a damn move so you can fill your lonely bed at night.”
Ayase rolled her eyes. “You’ve got newlywed syndrome. Now you want the rest of us to couple up.”
Jo snorted. “No. I got married so I’d have a job.”
“You don’t have a job.”
“I’m your landlord,” he said shortly. “That marriage got me this house.”
“…Please tell me you didn’t just get married for the money.”
“Of course not. But I was trying to be pragmatic.”
Ayase scowled. “Don’t say that, Jo–ugh! That makes you sound like a…” She trailed off.
Jo dumped his bowl of diced vegetables into the pan, releasing a loud crackling of hot sesame oil. “What?” he asked darkly, snapping his wrist to toss the contents of the pan. “Go ahead and say it, Ayase. Oldest profession in the world.”
The quiet tone of the rice maker cut through the sizzling from Jo’s pan. Ayase’s stomach grumbled as marvelous smells rolled through the kitchen.
She swallowed hard, her guilt returning.
“I’m…sorry,” she said again as she scraped back her chair. She lurched to her feet. “I don’t know why I’m in such a bad mood.”
Jo didn’t reply. She shuffled to the rice cooker, checked the warmer button, and shut it off. Swirls of steam rose from the machine as she lifted the lid.
A half-eaten mound of rice stared back at her, warm and comforting. She pulled two bowls from the cabinet and scooped out the remaining rice, divvying it out in the bowls in identical, heaping portions.
The stove snapped off. As Ayase carried the bowls to the table, Jo lifted the pan from the burner. He took her wooden spoon and pushed two portions of sizzling stir fry on top of the rice mounds.
He finally met her eyes. He looked more awake now, and less irritated–a new softness smoothed out his forehead.
“I’m sorry, too,” he murmured. “For the…cracks about your love life.”
Ayase shook her head and turned back to the cabinets. She pulled down two glasses as she heard Jo open the fridge again.
“I know you’re just trying to help, Jo.”
“It’s not my business.”
“Whatever.” She dropped back into her chair and slid the glasses onto the table. “Between the psychic powers and Hikaru’s therapy sessions, we’re all in each other’s business.”
Jo leaned over her to pour oolong tea into her glass. “Fuck that,” he muttered as he filled his own cup from the giant fridge pitcher. “Cling to whatever privacy you’ve got left. It’s precious.”
She felt a smile curl one side of her mouth. “True.”
He fell into the chair beside her and wiped his hands on a napkin. Ayase handed him a pair of chopsticks.
“Thanks for the food.”
Proceed to Tokyo Ghosts: Grow Up, page 2–>