I was not one to deviate from the standard. Dressed in my cerulean threads, I too read the tabloids, too painted my nails a shade of fruity plastic, the toxin brush in one arm and my familiar pink Docomo the other. I too shopped department racks, took, and take, the word clearance like the bubonic plague – all those things, marked down, unwanted, on the fast track to obsolete. That being said, I begin this retelling with all the necessary components in order. A girl, dead and forgotten and on clearance, floating in her miniature cosmos; her anonymous friends, merely fodder for whatever stasis existed before it all happened; and a wolf, dangerous, scavenging, beautiful. It's enough set-up for any imminent conflict. Teeth filed.
And so this horror story arrives in thick rubber boots and neon grey jersey, bandana-tied hair wild and matted and embarrassing to anyone over the age of thirty. It has a bright-sounding voice, loud, not nasally but getting there, which has a penchant for insults and trigonometry; its face is angular and feline, I think it's pretty. It tells me I'm pretty, or wants to. But before it does this, it barges in drunkenly with a revolver and laughs in our faces. We are all fifteen. We have not yet learned how to be afraid of things.
"You hectopascals!" His wings jut out like melting salad forks. "You think you have a chance at survival?" And he scans over us with palpable contempt. Akane, mousy with bright pink lips, flanking me down the streets of the shopping district, plays this game also. She is looking up like the rest of us are looking up, at the record store rooftop whereupon sits this week's catty Game Master, legs crossed and pleased as punch. She barks back at him,
"Hey! You're that fucking reaper in charge of things! Your missions are absolute shit! Just wait, asshole, we'll see you at the end of the week!" and her tongue and a choice finger spring out in unison, which makes the reaper laugh. I think I am holding onto Akane's free arm, suggesting we continue on to Cat Street, where our cell phones promise some arcane reward. Of course she pulls this arm out and wraps it around me.
"Anyway, gotta go, this bitch here is getting antsy. What a total bitch."
The reaper eyes me with an expression unreadable. My heart flutters for a moment when I consider it to be lust; from the moment I crossed the threshold into the Underground I had been met with all kinds of reactions, so this is not unthinkable. My vision traces the edges of his tan skin and I imagine how warm it must feel in the summer sun. This is the first time we have encountered, and yet I am already daydreaming.
"Yeah, she's an ugly little digit," he says. If you are familiar with the feeling of missing a stair and stepping into gravity so that your stomach lodges itself in your throat, such is precisely the sensation I felt when he declares this and folds his arms and looks strikingly better than anyone I've seen in the whole city. I tow Akane's arm and tell her we should definitely, definitely be going, but this man makes another barrier, throwing Noise for us to take care of – impossible waves of Noise – before vanishing into the summer afternoon.
There are other players prepping now, consulting their partners and getting into a defensive stance to enter the other plane. I try to do this with mine, and she reluctantly obliges. We enter.
"What's your deal, bitch?" says Akane. I hear her from somewhere off, fighting her own monsters. I am stuck with crabs and tadpoles and kangaroos of energy.
"It's nothing," I tell her. "He was just getting on my nerves." The last part of this is true. I sense Akane nodding enthusiastically, and I add, "Besides, we have a mission to take care of."
I remember first pulling out a yellow flip phone that morning to find
64 CUPS OF Q29mZmVl
T = 120 MINUTES
FAIL AND FACE DELETION
staring at me. I did not know what a Q29mZmVl was, or whether or not it fit in a cup, and evidently neither did anyone else. My own partner dismissed the message with a few choice terms and promptly sat on the pavement. Other pairs, the fourteen or so left, stared at their screens with a similar disbelief. I was good at algebra, many were, and hearing of the infamous mathematician in charge from one chatty, intrusive, red-headed reaper, had felt a flush of pride at being prepared for the challenges on the first day. When it had been some stupid system of equations. But here I was at a loss for where to start.
"Damn straight, girl," says Akane, and one of her kangaroos perishes.
Luckily there had been one stubborn kid, who blankly asked why we didn't just try reasoning this one out. That there were only so many Shibuyan landmarks featuring cups. A group had been sent to report back on Ramen Don first. They said the whole street was blocked off. One sugar puff in a magenta bear hoodie said it might have meant "like, totally cups of love," but she was dismissed vehemently. There was chatter of beverages, hot beverages, and Hanekoma's place. Akane and I were among those being sent to scout there.
"Take that, fucking bastards!" she continues. The Noise fizzles out and we are sent back to the Underground, the five pairs of us sent here, the sunlight as harsh as ever. I hold my steady baseball bat, my however fortunate psych, in two hands. Akane takes a breath; she has never been so exhausted. "What a dickhead, sending those on us," she says. On the first day I was told, with the only emotion she could foster, she and her family had moved to Japan some time ago, devout Christians – though she phrases this more like "that bastard Jesus Christ is my fucking savior," – from somewhere in Canada, here because her dad got a job as a university professor at such-and-such institute. She had never gone out after dark, or smoked a cigarette, or left the tap running; she did not watch TV and ate only whole grains; she snacks on carrot sticks during the week. She was on honor roll. When she died prematurely, hit by a bus, she entered the Game and lost her purity as a token.
She wears her shirt low, now, so the large, wooden crucifix round her neck bounces over undersized cleavage with her strides, and I am certain she has slept with at least three other players since the start of the week. "Didn't even hurt," as she told me.
A hooded reaper in blood red lets us submerge into the Miyashita Park Underpass. The other groups run, so I pick up my feet at a suggestive pace. Akane grimaces at me and says she's too tired, though not in those exact words. So we'll walk. She flips open her cell phone and clicky-clacks away to her harem. I never realized the phones could text until she started doing so, saying "You could figure it out too if you weren't such a fucking dumbass," with a girlish wink. There isn't anyone I'd love enough to text anyway, so it doesn't matter.
I wonder if it's worth it for her to come back to life. The tunnel is dark and the cars of the living world tear past with a frightening velocity.
Suddenly, there are screams from up ahead. I have to run. I turn to tell Akane this over the smack of her now applying cherry balm, but she has already heard it too and saunters forward with the grace of a thin, injured gazelle.
At the end of the park bridge where the sprawling highway meets Cat Street's smoky retreats and sinewy alleyways, a grizzly the size of a skyscraper casts its shadow over a girl sobbing at its feet. Her partner is gone. There are 9 of us on Cat Street, soon to be 8.
"Shit!" says Akane, and not even texting has gravity over the situation. Her eyes and hands are focused on this bear, this noise, which she regards with impish fear. The other kids stare at it too; they haven't seen something this big, they had no idea that the GM would throw this at us. I grab her bracelet-covered arm and run forward, bat loosely gripped in the other hand and targeted towards static skull. Its massive fur ripples like oil in an empty sky.
We enter the battlefield, I on my side and she on hers. I hear the other players in dim chorus, saying they too will join the brawl for their lives. First I charge forward and feign to the roaring side, narrowly avoiding a ferocious swipe that would have torn my eyes out and dealing a charged blow to the flank. It gathers up its aura to smash my opposing body and does so with arms like hammers. I swivel behind the thing just before its angry paws mold the concrete back into cement. I hear Akane from another plane, trying all the tricks in her sleight of hand. She has told me she holds a bible out, the same one she always carries in her Chanel bag, and exorcises the noise until their energy folds into pages. After battles, she has shown me this; the fallen line up beside the gospels like stickers, a picnic line of ant corpses.
And I got a baseball bat.
"The power of Christ fucking compels you, bitch!" she screams at the top of her lungs, while I wail on the grizzly's back as it unfastens its claws from earth. Evidently she's having trouble.
"Hold on, I've almost got it!" I hear myself say.
I leap onto its back as it rears up, which causes it to howl with beastly rage and shake me off. My legs wrap around the bear's waist to get a grip, but it wrings the rest of me wildly. I hold onto my bat as though it were my own soul and slash it randomly. Swoosh. Swoosh. Nothing but air being sliced apart.
Crack. A homerun on its cranium. Grizzly collapses with a nauseating thud and dissipates into nothing-ness. Akane goes, "What an absolute bastard!" before we, too, disappear.
Outside the J of the M, in the dead beat of August, the girl who lost her partner is still there, crouching till the tears rake her spine, transparent. Less than ten minutes left to die. The other girl players are clucking mother hens around her, whispering their condolences and broken promises.
The timers fade away from our hands. It seems Cat's Street was the Game Master's trick after all, which makes me laugh that we could guess it.
"You totally saved us," cries a boy in blue, noticing our return. His smile is temporary, concerned, pink clouds behind an airplane. Akane struts over to him.
"We did it all for you, handsome," she says unabashedly. Somehow her arms wind around his neck already, and she's purring to him.
I approach the dying girl.
"What's your name?" I ask.
She looks up at me tearfully. You were too late, she says. "Yukiko," she says.
I'm not sure why I wanted to know. I, too, mutter that things will be alright, for good measure, not because it means anything. Her nod is so minute I barely see it.
Freed of my partner, the dried ink of countdown, and the threat of imposing death, I wander off in the direction of WildKat with the pretext of spending money on calories. The paint on the door is flaking, and a tiny inset window holds an OPEN sign in neon pink handwriting, framed with tacky metal signs bearing catchy slogans like "U.S. Route 66" and "Sorry, we're open!"
Entering, I find the place empty, not startlingly enough, yet the building still has the breath of life inside it, as though there are invisible people sitting in the booths. The big banner of menu hangs over the barista counter, screaming pastries and a pumpkin soup special.
There's a little bell sitting on the marble countertop, tantalizing in the fluorescent light. Next to it is a folded placard which pleasantly says, "Gone a' fishin'! Please ring!" Taking a seat in the first black leather barstool, I look around again to ascertain the room's apparent vacancy, and then I tap it once. The silver sound rings out in a clear high note before fading out.
A moment's pause. The invisible people seem to hush and look up from their coffee, ghost talismans around their heads clattering ominously. From a hallway on the other end of the room hover the sounds of footsteps.
"Just a sec'!" says that hallway. The voice is young and rough, like stubbles on a beard. Sure enough the man is poorly shaven when I first see him, rolling up the stained sleeves of his cotton dress shirt and peering pleasantly over the rim of a pair of sunglasses. Indoor sunglasses. He cracks a smile at me as though we were long time friends. "Hey! Nice to see you!" he says. He triple long-jumps behind the bar and presses forwards on his elbows to get a good, long look at me.
"Lemme guess… Your name starts with a… an E. Am I right? Is it an E?"
I stare back with doe's eyes. "I'd really just like some bouillabaisse please," I tell him.
"That's definitely an E face. See, I can tell. I got a lot of experience, boss. Fifty years in the business makin' big bucks. It's a good life. It's an E, right?"
"It says on the menu you sell bouillabaisse here."
"I'm just kidding. You didn't really think I was older than fifty, did you? Also I'm poor."
"Can I get some soup please."
"Word of advice, champ. Don't flunk out of college. Yeee. Bad times." But his hands set to work on prepping a celery-colored bowl and he walks towards a bubbling pot of something warm on the back stove, ladling in some of the syrupy orange stuff loaded with mussels. He loves this moment, and takes a minute to smell the vapor of fish stew rising through the café air before returning to me. His smile is so frank when the stuff reaches my hands that I can't help but feel the same way.
"That's 580. But for you, 280. I like the E's. I'm an S, but I like the E's." I fish through my summer shorts pockets for the money and hand him three bills, but rather than taking them he extends a hand and shakes mine cordially.
"Sanae. Sanae Hanekoma. I can tell you're someone with a good story. And I know just what's wrong with you." He won't tell me what this is.
"I'm not really particularly noteworthy," I offer. Sanae only nods.
He says, "That's it, that's it exactly."
The next time I'm back on Cat Street with a seafood belly and 280¥ cheaper, everyone else is gone and only the last of the RG pedestrians filter in an out of the sidewalk. The Shibuyan sun is setting somewhere behind the high rise of bigger and more business-like buildings, and here the shadows are cast as tall as strangers. Without thinking I wander daftly in the direction of the Scramble, a lost sheep. I pass under Miyashita's highway, and in the flaming orange evening, it scares me. Towa Records looms distinctly; it is the color of cowardice and has brought stars down from the sky to show on an LED screen, where its met with CAT's charismatic scribbles. Even the usual passers by can't help looking up.
Someone taps me on the shoulder. It's the sugar puff, one of the players. Her bear hood sticks out as horrible as ever, and even its looming pink cannot hide her hair that's split down the middle in two colors. She has the face of a baby.
"Hi, like, I totally couldn't help but notice you. Are you like, looking at Towa Records? I love Towa Records. They sell records." I don't hear this, however. Her skirt looks like a living mis-painted traffic cone, a color that can match only the cheap plastic Necco Wafer bracelets on her wrists.
"I don't know. I was just staring at the building." She wraps her arm around mine and rests her head on my shoulder, brushing the platinum blonde strings out of her blue eyes.
"Totally." I sense the moment was, like, so deep.
Suddenly the most important thing in the world happens, apparently, and she tears away from me, jumping up and down, having hatched an idea.
"Let's go up to like the roof!" Rainbows begin to pour grotesquely from her eyes.
"I've always wanted to go up to the roof. Come on, I think there's like, stairs inside! Awesome!" I am pulled unwillingly through the door. It's cool and dark and musky inside. On a better day I might have stayed in a place like this forever. A disc spinner who looks half asleep eyes us like delinquents, before Sugarpuff waves at him with her high voltage enthusiasm and begins bolting up the stairs, five steps per leap.
I am tired by the second floor, I am out of breath by the third, I am dead by the fifth and by the seventh I am crawling immensely. Sugarpuff calls me a slowpoke and assures me it's only a flight further, then resumes her star-chasing frenzy.
"Found it!" There's an unceremonious bolted metal door, with one of the bulletproof windows that don't serve much a purpose except to let the night air in. She yanks on it with the muster of her ten-year-old arms, and by some god's blessing there's a satisfying unlatching and the thing clicks. "Come on, like, silly goose!" Her pink goofy shoes carry her through the doorway and onto satisfying concrete.
"Wow! It's like, so amazing up here, k!" Sugarpuff spreads her arms and twirls around in a fairy ring, giggling all the while. I worry the shop owner might see what we're up to, but the skyline grabs my attention before this can unnerve me. The sun had set during our trek through Towa, and in its place is the enormous royal blue cloak of early evening, as dulled by virtue of the blaring city lights and trumpets. There's a gentle breeze, like a spoon stirring through melted chocolate, that makes a gentle tarp at the backs of our legs. I have to step out and immerse myself, I leap to the edge to peer over the railing, glimpse the flashing streetlights directing traffic so many stories below.
But first, I stumble on something.
And not just any something. A something hard and metal and the size of a toaster that utters a noise when my foot connects with it, the cry of a distressed
And then goes silent.
"Wow, like LOL," and Sugarpuff already has her kitten nose all over the artifact, which makes a covetous part of me bubble just under the skin. "It's that, like, reaper's megaphone!" I crouch down beside it and cradle it in my hands before she gets to, assessing for damage and replaying the sacred message again.
"He's goin' to be like, totally lookin' for that thing, everywhere. What are you goin' to do with it?"
I remember the man in his grunge get-up and the way he stepped up to lean over the roof balcony like he meant to fall, and soon I'm balancing up on his bird's perch. The entire world is silent. I take a breath with the grace of the conductor lifting his baton. And then the fireworks roar.
"Listen up, Shibuya!" I tell them. The megaphone crackles with angry static. "Things are about to go to hell! You're looking at this week's player champion!" Japan is listening. They tune into their radios and televisions. From far off, someone turns on an apartment light switch, and the scene turns yellow in a distant window.
"What else should I say?" I mouth to Sugarpuff. She shrugs at me, and then covers her mouth to suppress an irresistible giggle. "Um.
"Hey, reapers! There's a new kid in charge now! So you better… get ready to go back to Friday night dinners at Ramen Don!" I don't know what reapers do or what's insulting to them, so I'm not really sure what to say. "Um, sine! Cosine! Tangents!" I stick my hands on my hips and burst my chest out for extra good measure, taking care that the tips of my toes aren't sticking out over the edge, and Sugar applauds.
"That, was, like, totally wicked!" she screams. "I don't like, get it, but it was totally wicked! Seriously!"
I open my lips to respond, but in that moment the drowsy haze of cold blackness folds over us like a thick butter. The Game Master puts a close to the day, and I realize in those last moments of fleeting consciousness that the reaper will want this back that I'll have to answer.
And I don't mind so much.