In Chiba Prefecture’s Domino City, there is a train that leaves at midnight. No tickets are collected; the conductor never visits your carriage. This train will carry you away from the city, away from the ocean, deep into the countryside. Deep into the mountains.
Are you intrigued? Then remember: if you decide to board, then don’t speak to anyone. Don’t let the rattling and clanking of the train lull you to sleep. Keep your eye on the horizon, on the living grass outside.
If you decide to board, then make sure you alight before dawn. Otherwise, you’ll be riding for a long, long time.
So: if you are undaunted, if you are foolhardy, if you are tired of the city and the ocean on this side of the world, then you can find the train waiting for you in the station beneath Domino Plaza. The last stairway to the old platform has been boarded up, so you’ll have to do what Bakura Ryou has done tonight, and pry the nails out one by one, until you can move the boards and squeeze your body through the merciless gap.
The boards will tear at you like hands trying to hold you back.
Standing alone on the platform, Ryou can feel, somewhere overhead, beyond the heavy overhanging concrete and asphalt, straining towards the vast night sky, the second hand of the Domino City clock shuddering into place. He draws back his sleeve to peer at his watch. The watch is digital, and it is dead: its screen is dull and black.
Good, he thinks.
He looks up and sees the train.
It waits at the platform, sleek and silver and silent, like any of the many trains that run through Domino during the day, but when Ryou blinks, he sees something else behind his eyelids: a red and glowing afterimage.
The doors open. Ryou steps inside.
The interior is modern, with cheerfully orange plastic seats and bright lights overhead. Advertisements line the sides in regular intervals, a parade of toothy smiles beaming down into the aisles. Ryou does not look at them. A figure waits in shadow at one end of the car; Ryou turns his back to it. He finds a seat by a window.
The train lets out an antiseptic, electric beep, and the darkened platform seems to melt away before Ryou’s eyes.
Not long after they depart—Ryou thinks it might have been twenty minutes, but he has no way of really knowing now that his watch has stopped—a school-girl sidles shyly up to him. He thinks it’s a school-girl, anyway, because of the worn black mary-janes that shuffle up the aisle, and the pleats of her skirt, unfashionably long, that just brush against his shins. He doesn’t dare look up, unsure of what might he might see in her face—or not see, as the case might be.
“Excuse me,” she says, in a soft and sleepy voice. “I dozed off. Do you know when we will stop at Futomi Station?”
Ryou stares steadfastly at the floor, suddenly fascinated by his feet in their scuffed blue trainers. Just in front of his knees, he can see the dark green of the girl’s pleated skirt, her rumpled black stockings, and her old-fashioned shoes, as she waits for his reply. He bites the tip of his tongue between his teeth.
Finally, she says, “Don’t help me, then,” and steps away in a huff. Out of the corner of his eye, Ryou sees her stride to the far end of the car, reach for a handle that isn’t there, and vanish.
Ryou will never know whether the train stops at Futomi Station. He gets off long before, on a deserted country platform. He is the only one who leaves the train at this stop.
There should be insects at the station, hurling themselves into the lone electric light swaying overhead, but there are none. The air should be alive with the singing of crickets and frogs and bats, but the only sound in Ryou’s ears is that of the night air filtering lethargically through the grass.
The moon is round and high and far, far away in the sky. Only a few hours before, as Ryou picked the lock at a service door in Domino Plaza, the moon was a low-hanging crescent over the clock tower.
Something has changed, though Ryou isn’t sure what. Time, perhaps.
He sees a gleam in the distance: the moon shining down on the black waters of a river. The night air is humid, and he pushes up his sleeves as he walks toward its banks. The reeds rustle and part before him.
There are lights on the far shore. Ryou doesn’t spare them a second glance. His real object is elsewhere: by the river, beneath an iron bridge that has appeared as suddenly and magically as a droplet of ink spreading on rice paper, an ogre of a man is drinking a beer.
The man sits cross-legged on a dais, above the mud of the bank. Three attendants cluster around him, hoisting red lanterns on long poles.
Their feet do not touch the ground. The first carries a carved wooden mask, its face contorted into a howl; the second is wearing round tinted spectacles low on its nose. The third, the shortest, is small and spindly, the skin of its face stretched tightly over its bones.
All three are soaking wet. The lanterns cast red light on their glistening hands and feet, their bulging eyes. They look at Ryou and say nothing.
The man crumples his beer can and throws it into the river.
For the first time in hours, Ryou speaks. His voice comes from deep within him; he can feel it resonating in his belly, even as it cracks and shakes.
He says, “I want to make a trade.”
“Fuck off,” the man says. He frees another beer from the plastic bag beside him and opens it with a noise like a spark.
“Er,” Ryou says.
“You heard me,” the man says. “Get out of here.”
Something huge and black is winging down from the sky. Ryou thinks it might be crane, until—
It slams down onto the dais with a blast of wind that knocks Ryou off his feet and blows the attendants back several meters. As he picks himself up and the attendants drift back, the moonlight flashes on the glossy violet feathers and glossier golden hair of the winged woman.
“Keith, you shit,” the woman says.
“Mai,” the man says, unfazed. “Wanna beer?”
She slaps it out of his hand and kicks it, still frothing, into the river. “You idiot,” she says. “Where’s the soul? I went where you said he’d be, and there was nothing there. Nothing except this!”
She throws down a small figurine, no bigger than a game piece. It bounces across the dais and into the mud. The man shrugs; he reaches into the bag for a new beer, then yelps as the woman, Mai, impales his hand with a taloned foot.
“Ow, what the fuck,” he shouts.
“Is this your idea of a joke, bozo?” Mai shouts back. “Not laughing now, are you?”
While they bicker between the stone-faced attendants, Ryou picks the figure up and rolls it around in his palm. The wood is rough and unpolished. It’s been painted, somewhat abstractly, with strokes of navy blue, and three black dots, to indicate a gakuran uniform. There is a dark stain on its featureless face.
It’s not Ryou’s best work. But he was in a hurry.
“Are you looking for Jounouchi Katsuya?” Ryou says. “You won’t find him.”
The woman turns on him. Her eyes flash in the lantern light. Her pupils are blown: a hawk’s eyes, focusing on the kill.
“Who the hell are you?” she demands.
“I want to make a trade,” Ryou repeats. He sets the figure down on the dais. “My soul for his.”
Ryou’s watch reads 5:18 p.m. against the afternoon sky. He pulls his sleeve down and looks back through the chain-link fence. Club activities are over, and his classmates are flooding through the gates below, a sea of blue uniforms hurrying back to their homes or to the arcades or cram schools. The ones with illicit part-time jobs left hours earlier.
The setting sun casts a red haze over the rooftop. It turns Jounouchi Katsuya’s bleached hair into flame as he hovers in the doorway, shifting from one foot to the other, his eyes darting left and right. Eventually he steps outside, slamming the door behind him.
“Jounouchi-kun,” Ryou says, nodding in greeting.
“I didn’t think you’d come,” Jounouchi says. He jams his hands in his pockets and looks at his feet. He’s been brawling again: there’s a bruise on his cheek.
“Is this a love confession?” Ryou says.
Jounouchi’s head snaps up. “I’ll kill you,” he says instantly. “Of course not.”
“Oh,” Ryou says. “I thought that might be the reason you put thumbtacks in my shoes, or threw my books in the incinerator, or pulled my hair…”
The sun is red on Jounouchi’s cheeks. “I never put thumbtacks in your shoes,” he says. “No, wait. Is that what you think people do? When they like someone?” His eyes are wide. “Is—do you—do you like—”
“No! No, but—” They’re not getting anywhere. Ryou frowns. “Never mind. Why did you need to see me?”
Jounouchi looks at his feet again.
“I heard that you see things,” he says. “I mean—see things.”
“Okay,” Ryou says, and waits.
“I need your help,” Jounouchi says. “Please.”
Ryou takes him to a nearby konbini. He has Jounouchi buy himself a bento box, a family-size packet of seaweed crackers, a toothbrush, and two liters of water. They walk down a side street to Ryou’s apartment and climb the rickety old stairs in silence.
“I’m home,” Ryou says, out of habit. There’s no reply. The only shoes in the entryway are Ryou’s—the beat-up black slides he uses when he takes out the trash.
“You live by yourself?” Jounouchi says. “Wow.”
“My dad got transferred,” Ryou says, setting Jounouchi’s bag of food down on the tatami. “All the way to Kobe.”
“I live with my dad,” Jounouchi says. He rubs at his cheek. “I wish I didn’t.”
“It’s only for another few months,” Ryou says. “Right?”
“Yeah,” Jounouchi says. “One more semester. If you can save me, that is.”
“I can save you,” Ryou says. He goes to his desk, and Jounouchi trails after him, unbuttoning his uniform jacket.
There are a few unfinished models scattered across the work surface, starships and robots, spiraling outwards from Ryou’s model village.
“Wow,” Jounouchi says, peering at it. “Did you make this?”
Ryou scratches at his ear, embarrassed. “Uh, yeah.”
The village is made from cardboard and papier mache, painted to look like stone and mud-brick. It is populated with little wooden figurines of humans and animals. Their faces have been shaped with varying levels of skill, some almost grotesque in their deformity. Ryou keeps his earliest, worst attempts hidden in a drawer, unable, somehow, to throw them away.
“These, too?” Jounouchi says, plucking Wasret the potter from his little shop and raising him up to the light. His arm is monstrous above the miniature desert.
Ryou snatches Wasret back and returns him to his wares.
He looks up and sees Jounouchi staring at him, mouth open.
Ryou can feel himself turning red. He steers Jounouchi away from his work station. “Here—I have the new Killer Instinct.”
Jounouchi plays video games, reads, eats, and naps. Ryou carves, sands, and paints a new figurine, then gently nudges Jounouchi awake. It’s 8:35 p.m.
“I need some of your blood,” Ryou says.
“What?” Jounouchi says, drowsy. “That’s crazy.” But he holds his arm out, waiting obediently for Ryou to slice him up.
Instead, Ryou pricks the pad of Jounouchi’s index finger with a needle. Their hands shake together. Then, still shivering, Ryou presses the bead of blood to the figurine’s forehead. They watch as the blood sinks in.
“Don’t you have to use a knife or something?” Jounouchi says, sucking on his finger. “And, like, cut open my palm? Isn’t that how this usually goes?”
“Only if you want to be dramatic,” Ryou says. He blows on his hands, stupidly, as though the cool air will calm them, stop their trembling. “I guess I could chant something. Do you want me to?”
“No,” Jounouchi says. “It’s okay.” He jerks a thumb at Ryou’s work station. “Why’d you make another one? Why didn’t you just use one of those?”
“It doesn’t work that way,” Ryou says, embarrassed again. He’s never had to explain himself before. “It—I—I kind of have to be thinking of you. Of the person, I mean. From start to finish.”
“Oh,” Jounouchi says. He looks back at the model village. “So who were you thinking about when you made them?”
“Those are different,” Ryou lies. There’s no time to tell Jounouchi about the dreams—no reason to either. He yanks open the top drawer and rummages through it, disrupting pens, stickers, erasers, mutilated figures, unsent postcards. “Anyway, do you want a bandaid?”
“Sure,” Jounouchi says.
Ryou hands him the entire tin. “They won’t be able to find you now,” he says. “Just stay here and be quiet. Don’t go outside until the sun rises.”
“Are you leaving?” Jounouchi says. “Where are you going?”
Ryou holds up the figurine. “I have to hide this in the playground, in the—the tunnel thing. Where you said you’d meet them. Otherwise there’s no point.”
“Oh,” Jounouchi says. “Oh—uh—okay.”
He’s sitting with his knees drawn up to his chest, shoulders slumped. He looks small and frightened.
“You’ll be fine,” Ryou says. “Just remember: don’t go outside until morning. And don’t answer the door for anyone. If they say they’re me and want you to open the door, then they’re not me. Okay? Because I have a key.”
“Right,” Jounouchi says, wide-eyed again. “Okay. Bakura,” he calls, as Ryou is doing up his shoelaces.
“Thanks. I really mean it. I mean, I really owe you. I’ll never…” He trails off.
“See you later,” Ryou says.
“A trade,” Ryou says. “My soul for his."
“Go home,” Mai says. “One.”
“I can’t,” Ryou says. “The last train has gone.”
“He may be your lover,” Mai says, “but he isn’t worth it. Two.”
“He’s not,” Ryou says. “He’s not even a friend.”
“This is your last chance,” Mai says. Her voice is changing, filling the air. She’s as tall as the bridge, now, and the ogre Keith is even taller, blotting out the stars. “Turn around. Go home. Three.”
Ryou breathes in. “Take my soul in place of his.”
“It is done,” Mai says, and her voice rattles the lanterns, flattens the grass.
The attendants move as one, spearing their lanterns into the mud. They seize Ryou with their wet hands and drag him onto the dais.
“What’s going on?” Ryou says. “Wait! Wait, what are you—”
The ogre cuts his throat, slicing so deeply that Ryou’s head flops to one side. He staggers and falls. The river fills his eyes, his ears, his nose. It chokes his gaping mouth and the grinning new mouth below his jaw.
As Ryou sinks down, he sees something silvery and gleaming bleeding from the wound.
Moonlight, he thinks. It must be moonlight.