Tokyo Ghosts Book 1: Chapter 1, Part 1
A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #067 back issue.
October 15th, 2006
Ayase Watanabe, her hand already lifted in the air in a silent protest, her lips already parted in the formulation of a plea, felt the strength snuffed out of her as reality closed in like a dark, heavy fog.
And she closed her mouth, no longer sure she could save Jo.
Mitsuko was furious. Her flirty white dress, a “deconstruction” (her words) of the elaborate Western gown she’d worn on her wedding day, whipped over her bare knees as she twisted and paced, marched and stomped through the alcove hallway. Her daintily manicured fingernails radiated white as she clutched her mobile phone in a death grip against her ear, the delicate lines of her make-up twisting with her features in fury.
“He won’t even answer his phone!” she snarled. “He was supposed to help me greet people. He was supposed to get some one-on-one time with my father. Why is that asshole two hours late when he knows this thing is so important to my parents?!”
Sachi chewed on his lower lip, strangely silent as Mitsuko paced back and forth. Ayase didn’t know if it was because Sachi, in a rare moment, had no idea what to say; he glanced at her, and Ayase shrugged in helplessness. He tugged on his suit jacket.
“I hope…nothing happened to Jo,” Sachi said at last. “Maybe I should go look for him?”
Mitsuko growled. “He’s fine!” she snapped. “Half these calls are being declined. He’s literally seeing my name on his phone and canceling me, like I’m a fucking cop.”
Mitsuko finally dropped the phone from her ear. “Did he say anything to you two?!” she demanded. “Like this morning, or just in general? Anything that made you think he’d pull this stunt today.”
Ayase searched her memory in respectful silence, but she didn’t really need to. Although Jo hadn’t explicitly implied that he might skip his own vow renewal ceremony, he’d been quietly grumbling about this event for weeks. Something about how he didn’t want to perform weird Western marriage traditions at the request of Mitsuko’s parents, even if the vow renewal event was, in essence, supposed to make up for their disastrous wedding. He insisted that he didn’t “owe” Mitsuko’s family a nicer event after one of his former foster siblings and one of Mitsuko’s old gang buddies had seen each other at the wedding and unexpectedly rekindled a blood feud brawl at the reception.
“It’s creepy for her parents to ask me to recommit to her in front of them,” he’d said, although Ayase didn’t pass that line on to Mitsuko. She didn’t think it would help. She didn’t know what would help.
It was no secret that Jo and Mitsuko’s young marriage was on the rocks. Sharing a house with them meant Ayase witnessed the snide comments at breakfast, heard the loud arguments behind their bedroom door, saw Mitsuko storm off to “sleep elsewhere” on nights that left a sullen Jo chain-smoking on the couch. No, Jo hadn’t said anything about skipping this important party, but things had been poised to explode for a while.
“I-I can try to call him,” Sachi offered at last, avoiding Mitsuko’s question. “Maybe he’ll answer if it’s from a different name. Ayase, did you bring your phone?” As Sachi flipped open his mobile, Mitsuko made a frustrated cry and twisted around to face the end of the hall that opened into the huge restaurant.
“I can’t stop this party–guests are starting to arrive. My mom’s gonna have a stroke if Jo doesn’t show up soon.”
“We’ll find him, senpai.”
“I’m counting on you, Sachipi.” Mitsuko paused to grip her sinuses, delicate enough that she wouldn’t–assumedly–smear the powder puffed over the bridge of her nose. She sniffed and shook her elegantly shaped bangs from her forehead.
Mitsuko had spent so long planning this party with her mother. She’d spent so long convincing Jo, arguing with Jo, ignoring Jo when he dragged his heels about it. Hell, she’d spent so long in their shared bathroom that morning getting clean and plucked and painted and perfumed before she even stepped into that expensive dress, grabbed the hair dryer to perfect her hair. As Ayase had learned through sharing homes on and off with Mitsuko Hoshino, she was a woman who put in a lot of labor to make things seem effortless to everyone else.
Ayase wanted to say something, anything, that would make Mitsuko feel better. The longer the silence went on, the more the anger on Mitsuko’s face drained into uncharacteristic hurt.
“Mitsuko-senpai,” Ayase mumbled at last.
Mitsuko fluttered her long eyelashes and rolled beautiful eyes to Ayase.
Ayase frowned. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “You don’t…deserve this.”
The crease in Mitsuko’s brow softened. She let out a long breath and brushed a hand, gathering herself once more.
“I appreciate you saying that.”
Sachi, his mouth pulled into a thin line, dropped his mobile phone from his ear and thumbed a few buttons, which made Ayase think he was redialing. She reached for her purse to pull out her own phone but stopped when she heard someone call from the restaurant behind them.
“Senpai!” Kiyoshi ducked into the alcove hallway, leaving behind the fancy seating area that made up the main body of the restaurant. He beamed, clearly relieved that he’d found Mitsuko as Adam wandered in behind him, looking equally out of place. “Happy, um, vow renewal day!”
Kiyoshi was damp. He’d obviously been in the bath recently, since his overgrown red hair with its extremely noticeable black roots was still limp from being washed, and the shoulders of his buttoned shirt were darkened from being dripped on. He wore wrinkled dress slacks, the cuffs of his pants not long enough to hide the tops of mud-speckled sneakers.
Adam had managed a bit better, with a sports jacket and dress shoes, but his forehead was a little smudged and he seemed to have dust in his hair and beard. He waved. “Congratulations,” he said in his thickly accented Japanese. “For Mitsuko wedding number two.”
Kiyoshi bounded up to the stunned Mitsuko. “I guess we’re not late,” he said. “You look great, senpai.”
Mitsuko clenched her teeth. “Did you seriously come to this party wet, Kiyoshi?”
“We had a last-minute problem at the construction site, so we had to work late. We jumped in a public bath right after, but I didn’t have time to dry my hair.” Kiyoshi jerked a thumb at Adam. “And Adam didn’t realize how gross his work hat was when he put it on, so I’m sorry if his head’s kinda messy.”
Ayase winced as frustration radiated off Mitsuko. The woman grabbed Kiyoshi by the collar. “Neither of you is even wearing a tie!”
Kiyoshi grimaced. “We, uh…forgot those.”
“How?! It’s one of the only things you need to dress formal and you couldn’t–wait, you came to this place in your muddy sneakers?! Kiyoshi, for the love of–”
“I got it,” Sachi interjected, reaching into his jacket as he balanced his phone on his shoulder. He stepped over to Adam and pulled some silky fabric from tucked inside his suit. “I brought spare ties for emergencies. Red or blue, Adam?”
Adam grinned. “The color that is making me most handsome, please.”
“The blue, then.” Sachi tossed the maroon tie to Mitsuko before looping the azure tie around Adam’s neck. He finally snapped his phone closed, clearly frustrated, and instead focused on tying Adam’s Windsor knot. “Ayase, can you try calling a few times? I’m not getting through.”
“Who are you trying to call?” Kiyoshi looked around as Mitsuko angrily buttoned his collar up. “Wait…where’s Jo?”
Ayase’s heart sank. She unzipped her purse and dug around for her phone; she was surprised to see a notification for missed messages on the little preview window. Swallowing hard, she nudged her thumb into the phone seam and flipped the phone open.
There were two missed messages. Both from Jo. She scrolled to the first one, which had been sent…an hour ago. When he was already late. She selected the tiny message to expand it on her screen.
I don’t know if I can do this, Ayase.
Dread swirled in Ayase’s stomach, crystallizing into a hard lump of helpless worry. No one else was cced, and she suddenly felt terrible for not checking her phone, which she was used to feeling buzz in her pocket. Her modest cocktail dress, which she rarely wore, was cursed with no pockets.
She slowly scrolled down to the next private message, sent three minutes ago–in the midst of Mitsuko’s furious call attempts.
I’m such a fuck-up.
Ayase stared at the message for a long moment. She remembered Jo that morning, unusually late to rise, not yet bathed and with new face stubble as he stood over the kitchen stove. He’d clearly been lost in thought, staring down at the tea kettle as the gas flame flickered beneath it, the water audibly rumbling as it heated inside its metal cage. His eyes had been so…distant.
Slowly, without a word, she’d pulled him back a step before the incoming swirl of steam could burn his face.
Ayase finally looked up from her phone. Mitsuko was yanking a small brush from her white leather clutch, Sachi was helping Adam rub dirt from his forehead with a handkerchief, Kiyoshi was running his hands through his damp hair in a poor attempt at untangling it. She didn’t know what to tell them. She didn’t know what Jo meant.
But she could guess.
“Um…Mitsuko-senpai?” Ayase called, hesitant.
Mitsuko shoved the brush at Kiyoshi. “Yeah?”
“I heard from Jo.”
Mitsuko’s eyes widened as Sachi’s head snapped to her. “You did? What did he say?!”
“He, um…” Ayse swallowed. “Well, Jo…”
“…is almost here.”
The rasp behind Ayase’s head raised the hairs on the back of her neck. She shivered, twisting around in surprise.
Kadoyuki stood behind her, like a ghost risen from the dark. He caught her eyes, his own gaze burning from beneath the rim of his cap.
When did you…
“Kado,” Sachi blurted, interrupting her thought. “Did you just get here? Did you come with Jo?!”
Kadoyuki blinked, once, then dragged his dark eyes to Sachi. He shook his head. “I came from class. But Oda-san is on his way.”
Mitsuko’s tense expression shifted into new hope. “Do you have an ETA?”
“He’ll arrive in ten minutes.” Kadoyuki gestured behind Mitsuko. “The hostess said she’ll take him in the back way, so he doesn’t have to cut through all the guests to join you at the head table.”
A breath of relief wheezed past Mitsuko’s teeth. She quickly marched up, her high heels clacking as she brushed past Ayase to clamp her hands down on Kadoyuki’s shoulders, lower than Mitsuko’s own. He stiffened slightly as she stared him up and down.
From Ayase’s perspective, he looked…very together. His short hair was combed, he’d washed his cap, and he wore the pressed outfit that Mitsuko had laid out for him on his bed that morning. Since she’d learned that she couldn’t wrestle that ratty newscap away from him, Mitsuko had opted for dressing Kadoyuki around it–he wore a soft buttoned vest instead of his suit jacket, which opened him up from his usual look of being swallowed up in heavy layers. His carefully done necktie disappeared down into the vest, tucked neatly in its place. He even straightened his posture as Mitsuko sized him up.
She squeezed his shoulders in approval before releasing him. “Good boy,” she murmured. “And thank you for looking into the future where I don’t murder my husband.”
Mitsuko spun on her heel. “Follow me,” she called to everyone. “I wanna get you all settled so I can join my mom for damage control.”
Ayase pushed her phone back into her purse and followed Mitsuko, her kitten heels clacking on the polished floors. Kadoyuki shuffled along beside her.
His steps swirled the air around him, bringing an unexpected waft of some pleasant fragrance. Ayase couldn’t remember Kadoyuki smelling like anything better than cigarettes or soap before; it was such a surprise that she paused for a second, her heels catching against the floor. He noticed, because he glanced at her.
Are you wearing…cologne? she thought dumbly.
He creased his brow, as if in worry. “Is it weird?” he whispered.
No! It’s nice, I’m just not used to… Her thoughts began to trail in a very different direction, and she cut off her brain before it could get there. She didn’t want Kadoyuki to hear those thoughts.
Although she suppressed her mind, she couldn’t suppress the feeling. A little wave of warmth burbled up in her chest, like bubbles rising to the surface of a glass of champagne.
Kadoyuki let out a breath. “I’ve had this cologne a while,” he murmured, and he sounded embarrassed. “But before now, I was…nervous to wear it, I guess.”
Nervous? she repeated.
He didn’t reply. Her eyes flicked up to Sachi, ahead of them, but Mitsuko was talking to him in hushed tones and he seemed preoccupied with her marching orders.
If Ayase had felt a little jolt at seeing Kadoyuki pulled together like the 20-year-old he was, she could only imagine the feeling that was rolling through Sachi. Kadoyuki had lived in their shared home for six months now, and seeing him in his home habitat–either locked away in his room or buried in a blanket when he curled up on one edge of the couch–had given Ayase uncomfortable echoes of the fragile teenager she’d met in high school. She knew Kadoyuki was enrolled in a university program somewhere, and he seemed to have a job or internship, but he rarely talked about any of it. He was just a quiet presence in the background of the house, coming and going at strange hours like an outdoor cat with a secret life outside.
But now, something was different. It wasn’t the clothes–she’d seen Kadoyuki in formalwear before, both at Jo’s wedding and at that weird black-tie party Mitsuko had dragged them to for her father’s scholarship foundation. It was the way he seemed to…fit into the evening, unlike his usual state of a boy wearing the ill-fitting role of a man. He seemed a little more comfortable in his skin, in the space.
The day had been so stressful that seeing a calm Kadoyuki materialize without angst or problems was such a relief. He felt adult. Reliable. Ayase was strangely dizzied with the thought of Kadoyuki buttoning his vest in the mirror and dipping cologne on the inside of his slim wrists, a quest out of his comfort zone to respect Jo and Mitsuko’s relationship.
Kadoyuki was staring at her now, and a wave of embarrassment flooded through her. I didn’t mean to…think anything uncomfortable! Ayase offered in a silent apology, unsure of how many of those thoughts had formed as unspoken words instead of mental images.
To her surprise, his eyelids drooped. He averted his gaze and cleared his throat.
“I’m not uncomfortable,” he murmured. “I like when you think of me that way.”
A flush of blood rose up Ayase’s cheeks; she yanked her purse strap higher on her shoulder, suddenly very self-conscious. Her short heels put her eyeline almost even with his, and feeling him walk beside her at almost the same height added to the sudden, unexpected closeness amidst her other friends.
The alcove hallway opened into the private event room of the fancy restaurant Mitsuko had reserved. It was the kind of high-end establishment Ayase could never afford for lunch, let alone for a private party, but Mitsuko’s family was loaded. A dozen tables had been set in the slick, softly lit interior, with giant windows along the back walls revealing the twinkling night lights of the city. Ayase’s eyes lingered on the view from their twenty-third floor, overlooking the Roppongi district and the stretches of rippling Tokyo in all directions.
A number of guests were already seated, others standing to mingle as waitstaff apologized and slid past them. Ayase recognized some people from Jo and Mitsuko’s wedding–she wasn’t sure if they were family or colleagues, but they were probably a mix of both, a generation older than Ayase and politely bowing as they greeted Mitsuko’s parents. As Mitsuko ushered Ayase and the others to a table with little namecards, Ayase started to realize why Jo had been so hesitant about this thing. The place looked big enough to sit fifty or a hundred people, and the guest list sorta looked like the one from their wedding…but minus anyone Jo and Mitsuko’s age. The table awaiting Ayase and her roommates was tucked away toward the back.
Ayase grimaced as a waiter pulled her assigned seat and gestured politely for her to sit. Her eyes wandered from Mitsuko–who had pulled herself together and was now all fake smiles as she approached her mother–to Kiyoshi tugging his tie loose, Adam scratching a few flakes from his hair, Jo’s seat at the head table noticeably empty. She sighed and pushed her cheap purse under the table, trying to feign some sort of class as she settled in her seat between Sachi and the window.
I can see why renewing your vows here would totally creep you out, Jo.
Proceed to Chapter 1, Part 1, page 2–>