Tokyo Ghosts Book 1: Chapter 1, Part 2
Ayase snapped her phone closed. Letting out a breath, she pushed it back into her pocket and glanced up at the crosswalk signal.
The outline of a greenish man lit up the box, releasing a chirping noise into the crisp afternoon. A pair of kids dashed into the crosswalk right before Ayase, laughing as they shoved each other’s randoseru backpacks.
She took a long inhale of the cool air and walked into the street.
The older she got, the more she appreciated the outdoors. It helped clear her head in a way she hadn’t appreciated as a teenager, when her anxiety had clung to her like a second skin. Nature could strip the angst from her now, in a way she couldn’t quite describe. She felt…calmer outside. Freer. Like it was perfectly fine to break off into insects and fly off at any time, leaving all her problems on the earth far behind.
It was a ridiculous mental image; she felt her lips twitch.
As she neared her narrow little house, she noticed movement in the open communal garage she shared with her neighbors. It took a moment for her to realize it was Sachi, digging through a few clear garbage bags resting on the concrete floor.
He glanced over his shoulder, the crease in his brow melting as she walked up. “Hi,” he said back, a hint of a sigh on his voice.
“What are you doing?”
“Separating the trash again. Man, we are bad at this.” He rummaged through bags, transferring damp plastics from container to container, the faint stench of garbage swirling through the air. “I don’t know who keeps dumping these PET bottles in with combustibles, but we’re gonna get our trash rejected if we don’t stop. And the little old ladies on this block have already lectured me about what paper is recyclable and what isn’t, so they’re gonna give me hell if they see that. I bet it’s Adam who keeps–”
Ayase snorted down a laugh, which made Sachi cut himself off. He smiled awkwardly.
“Anyway. I didn’t know you were out.”
“Yeah,” Ayase replied. “I had a class this morning.”
“After how late the party went last night?” Sachi raised an eyebrow as he dug through garbage bags again. “You must be tired.”
“A little. Hey, can I…help you with that?”
Sachi shook his head. “I’m almost done, and it’s an exact science, weirdly.”
Ayase took a small step back, allowing him more room to work. “Thanks. I’m sure I’m screwing up some of our trash, too.”
Sachi shrugged. “Same.”
“I appreciate you…jumping in to fix stuff like this for us.” She pursed her lips. “Without you to take care of us, we’d be living in a much bigger mess.”
For a long moment, Sachi didn’t reply, the garbage bags rustling as he stared intently at his trash. When he finally glanced up through his glasses, there was something soft in his eyes.
“How’s Jo?” he asked quietly. “Did you talk to him this morning?”
“Sort of. I’ve been texting back and forth with Kiyoshi–Jo’s mostly sleeping off the alcohol.”
Sachi sighed. “I guess that’s the best that can be expected,” he said as he started tying the bags shut again. “Mitsuko-senpai seemed okay at breakfast. Annoyed, but not, like…ready to storm off forever.”
“Good,” Ayase murmured, not sure if that was the right way to react to news like that.
“Last night could’ve been worse. Their actual wedding was way more of a disaster.” Sachi shoved the bags back into their color-coded barrels. “But I think Jo needs to do some soul-searching first. He’s obviously bottoming out.”
“About what?” Ayase wondered aloud. “Did something happen to him recently?”
“Not that I know of. Maybe just old stuff catching up to him.” Sachi frowned. “And he’s refusing therapy. Well…therapy with Hikaru, anyway.”
Ayase mulled over that. “I think it’s more than just that,” she commented. “I mean, yeah, he’s definitely dealing with something. But I’ve been getting this sense from Mitsuko-senpai that she’s, I don’t know…pulling away a little. She’s been gone a lot lately, and when she’s around, she’s on edge. Maybe she’s dealing with something, too?”
Sachi closed the last barrel and dusted his hands. “I didn’t want to say it if you didn’t notice,” he murmured, “but yeah. She is. And their marriage is a whole separate issue on top of that. Long-term relationships are…hard.”
Ayase felt the air grow heavier as Sachi’s voice trailed at the end. She tried to avoid his eyes, hoping this conversation would end.
Thankfully, it did. Sachi clearly didn’t want to talk about their own on-again, off-again romantic relationship. Or the weird and secretive relationships they both had with Kadoyuki.
It was just…too much. And there was nothing left to say other than I love you but I don’t know where the three of us stand now.
Memories tried to crowd into her head, but she pushed them to the back of her mind. Not now, she thought. Not now. They had to focus on Jo and Mitsuko’s relationship at this point, so it was dangerous to unearth more romantic angst in their house. Everything could wait. Her heart could wait.
Sachi gestured for her to leave the garage and followed her, pulling the door closed as he went. He ducked by the side of the house and turned on the outdoor faucet, rinsing the garbage juice off his hands.
“I’m going to work,” he said over the soft hissss of the water. “Short shift. I’ll be done at five, and I’ll stop by the grocery store on the way home. Do we need anything?”
“Oh,” she replied, grateful for a mundane question. “Um…yeah. We could use more eggs, and we’re almost out of mirin. Maybe cabbage, if it’s on sale.”
He nodded as he stood, shaking the excess water off his hands. “Got it. I locked the door behind me, so make sure you have your key–I don’t know who’s home.”
Ayase nodded and unzipped her purse, although she was sure she’d taken her keys with her. Taking the opportunity to focus elsewhere until her heart slowed back down, she fake-rummaged through her purse as Sachi walked by her.
She heard the tap of his shoes on the pavement, felt the whoosh of the air as he passed. His belt clinked as his clothing rustled. Time seemed to slow for a moment as he stepped past her: one step, two steps…
So did Ayase’s breath.
She swallowed and slowly turned her head.
His cold fingers slid over her cheek, dragging across her jaw and onto the nape of her neck to send an electric shiver down her spine. Before she could process she’d closed her eyes, tilted her head back, let him slowly and softly brush his mouth over hers.
Conflicted heat rose to her face, and his fingers loosened on the back of her neck. He pulled back and rested his forehead against hers, letting her breathe heavily against his mouth as she felt the edge of his glasses dig into the ridge of her nose.
“Okay,” he whispered.
“O-okay,” she whispered back.
“I just…wanted to remind you. In case nothing changes with Kado.”
Ayase swallowed and gave a small nod, rubbing against his forehead.
“Maybe that’s the last one. I don’t know. I don’t really know what to think these days.”
Gently, she reached up and closed a fist on his chest. Perhaps he felt her emotions cool, because he slowly pulled away.
Before he could turn, a thread of panic jumped in her. She threw her arms around him, burying herself in his chest.
She both heard and felt the air release from his diaphragm, as if in relief. He wrapped his arms around her and squeezed her tightly for a moment.
And then they parted, like they had so many times before.
“S-see you at dinner,” she breathed.
He smiled, and it was only a little pained. “Yeah,” he agreed.
Ayase watched him leave, an old and very familiar worry tightening her chest. Was that weird? she wondered. I don’t know…why we did that.
But she knew, honestly, why she hadn’t pulled away. She hadn’t been intimate with Sachi in so long, and she still had the sneaking suspicion that the end of romance between them meant the end of her closeness with him. And she couldn’t bear the thought of losing him, even if her heart had changed since the first time she’d fallen in love with him.
She went back into the house and made a beeline for her room. After locking her door behind her, she stepped over to her closet and pulled back the sliding door to reveal the low set of drawers inside. She squatted down on shaky legs.
In the very bottom drawer, she pushed aside packed-away summer clothes. There, hiding behind them, was her painful reminder. Her fingers slid onto the home-burned DVD locked snugly in its plastic case.
She tilted it into the light, revealing Shouri’s scrawled handwriting in thick black marker.
For Ayase, it read, in proper Katakana. Birthday party.
Ayase bit her lip. Shouri had recorded a home video of her own twenty-fifth birthday party, partially to record her prank of spiking the punch. Ayase had been a senior at Fukuhashi High at the time and got wasted before she even realized what she was drinking.
Maybe Ayase could’ve brushed off the night as a drunken mistake if things had ended there, but…then she’d had that mortifying DVD to watch the next day. And then Kadoyuki was waiting for her when she returned to her dorm, sitting on her dorm steps with a cigarette between his lips.
“Ayase-san. We need to talk.”
She’d let him in. She’d changed everything.
Did she regret it?
As she opened the case, she reminded herself–as she always did–that the past couldn’t change.
She slipped the DVD into the laptop resting on her desk. As she lowered herself to her chair, she reduced the volume to barely more than a whisper.
The video snapped onto the screen, revealing half of Shouri’s booze-reddened face.
“Yo, is this on? Is this working?” Shouri drunkenly smiled into the camera. “Testiiiiing.”
The room behind her was dark, loud with the instrumentals from some American music thumping through the speakers. Shouri’s face disappeared from the camera before the view swung around the room, catching the smeared shapes of people and furniture before landing on Adam, yawning beside her.
“Dude, are you tired already? It’s only like two A.M.!”
Adam smirked at the camera and replied in English. She laughed and said something in English back, jostling the camera as she playfully slapped his shoulder.
“Pay attention to my Japanese, Adam,” she admonished with a slight slur, dragging the camera back to the room. “I’m looking for some hilarious memories to keep until my next birthday party. This is the big TWO FIVE for me. I’m a quarter of a century old! And I don’t look a day over a fifth of a century old.”
Adam murmured something off-camera in English, and Shouri scoffed. “Learn your damn numbers in Japanese, Adam!”
People moved in the room, not more than dark shapes against a dark backdrop. Shouri’s fingers moved by the camera to adjust some settings, and the view lightened and clarified just as Sachi walked by.
“Hey, Sachiiiii!” Her hand darted out from the camera and grabbed his arm, making him stumble. “How’s it hanging? Enjoying the punch?”
Sachi hiccuped and smiled, covering his face awkwardly. “Oh, boy. Now I get it.”
“You put…alcohol in it, didn’t you?”
Shouri released him, breaking the physical contact. “Of COURSE not!” she cried in the fakest possible tone.
Sachi looked up at Adam and waved tipsily, even though they were less than a meter apart. Shouri seemed to jump on that, this time grabbing Adam and shoving him closer to Sachi.
“Practice your Japanese, Adam,” she cooed, a strange tone behind her voice. “I bet you’ve got all KINDS of things to say to Sachi in a dark room.”
Adam threw a look at the camera, and the unusual gravity in his eyes cut through the camera lens.
“Sheesh,” Shouri muttered, moving the camera away. “Relax, would ya? We’re all friends here.” The camera bobbed passed Emi and Nick, who were trying to hold a conversation under the blasting music, and a very pleased-looking Daniel, who danced alone with a drink. “Everyone’s having a good time,” Shouri narrated with a hum, moving toward figures on the couch. “Snugglin’ up, all innocent and shit.”
Kadoyuki and Ayase were sitting on the couch, both red-faced and clearly inebriated. They were strangely close together, pushed off to one side when there was plenty of room to spread out.
Ayase murmured something the camera didn’t pick up; Kadoyuki murmured something back. And then, slowly, she rested her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes.
Kadoyuki went stock still, his chest puffing out with heavier breaths. He rolled his eyes down to stare at her, half-sleeping on his shoulder, the flush to his face rapidly deepening.
“Whoa,” Shouri grunted. “You okay there, Kado? I know you don’t like the touchy stuff…”
Kadoyuki’s dark eyes flicked up, boring into the camera.
“Go away,” he rasped. “Leave us alone.”
Shouri whistled. “I stand corrected!” she laughed as the camera swung back in the direction she’d come in. “Hey!” she called, interrupting Sachi’s conversation with Adam. “Sachi! You’d better keep tabs on your boyfriend tonight!”
Sachi visibly stiffened, which made Shouri laugh again. Someone jostled by her and made her stumble, forcing the camera downward as ruffling fabric cut over the speaker. By the time the camera dragged up again, Sachi was mere centimeters away from the lens.
“…not my boyfriend!” he whispered harshly, his voice high-pitched in almost panic. “So please don’t scream that across the room!” His eyes snapped to the camera before he pushed it away. “And could you please stop recording this?!”
“Quit being so biphobic, damn. It’s okay to enjoy dick alongside your muff, my dude. Embrace your gay.”
Sachi squawked out a frustrated noise. “You think everyone’s gay!” he accused.
“That’s because there are two kinds of people in the world–kinda gay and SUPER GAY!”
The camera perspective dropped again; more fabric rustled over the microphone. The perspective swung up to Shouri’s raucous laughter.
“Too slow!” she cried triumphantly. “You’re not gonna stop me from…” As the camera zoomed back in on the couch and pulled its two figures into focus, Shouri’s voice–uncharacteristically–trailed off in surprise.
Ayase wasn’t resting on Kadoyuki’s shoulder anymore. They were curled toward each other on the couch, staring into each other’s eyes, one of her hands slowly pushing back the newscap from his forehead. She slid her other fingers up his cheek, and he visibly trembled under her touch.
She murmured something, but the camera didn’t pick it up. When she carefully pulled her hand back, he grabbed it, splayed it against his jaw, and dragged it down his neck until the tips of her fingers disappeared below his collar.
He rasped something inaudible, and Ayase’s eyelids drooped. She leaned in and slowly, delicately, opened her mouth against his.
“Whoa.” Shouri’s voice echoed from behind the camera as the perspective shifted down. “Uh… Sachi, I didn’t really mean…” The view trailed back up to Sachi.
Ayase rammed her hand against the spacebar, pausing the video before it could continue. She fell back in her chair, not sure when she’d gone stiff.
She’d seen this video so many times. And now, several years later, she didn’t think she had the strength to watch the next few seconds…and once again see the heartbreaking look on Sachi’s face.
A breath wheezed out past her teeth as she closed the laptop. She shifted in her chair, pushing the heel of one hand up through her bangs.
Did she regret it? Her life before that kiss felt like a distant dream of youthful innocence. Sachi had left her to be with Kadoyuki, she had gone on one stupid date before ending things with Kiyoshi, and she had resigned herself to just being friends with everyone. She had broken free of her weird love triangle to be alone, and that was okay. She could love these boys without romance messing things up.
And then the world had tilted ever so slightly, tumbling her into Kadoyuki’s arms.
She slumped down deeper in her chair, dragging her blurry eyes to her window. The sun was blazing now, out of view but lighting up the brilliant blue of the sky. She stared out at that sliver of an endless expanse, feeling that tug to fly up into the blue and leave all her troubles behind.
She tapped her feet against the floor, a gentle reminder to the buzzing cells that pieced together her fleshy frame.
Her life was here. Her friends were here.
And no matter the challenges, she would never choose to leave them.
To be continued in Chapter 2, Part 1.