Fifteen apparitions have I seen: the worst a coat upon a coat hanger
The main door of our home was at the side of the house, not the front. As you came in, the hallway stretched to your right and left and the stairs were just in front of you. A hop and a skip from the genkan and I could be on them and up to my bedroom. That's what I always did when I came home from school. Mother nagged me to hang up my coat properly. There was a narrow space between the stairs and the back room and Dad had put a bunch of hooks in there for that purpose. I never did. From the time I was very young I knew something was hiding in the darkness back there. It couldn't get me if I was in the hallway; it couldn't get me if I was on the stairs. But if I went into the space where the coats and jackets were piled one on top of the other, several hangers to a hook and always slipping off, it'd grab hold of me. I'd be pulled in among the dark heavy cloth and never able to come out again.
It was taking a long time. I suppose these things do. We're not practising Buddhists at home- we rarely even visit the cemetery where my mother's family's buried- so I wouldn't really know. But it felt like we'd all been standing there for hours while the incense burned and made my nose itch and the priest's loud voice droned like a saw. He had a sour look to him as if he found the world outside his monastery disgusting. Maybe he just didn't like university students. Who knows?
"Who is this guy anyway?" I whispered to Motoya.
"Chief priest at Enshouji," he whispered back. "Supposed to be good. Hirose got him here."
I snorted. "Hirose knows a lot of temple people."
"She'd better," he said meaningly. Hirose's cousin-- Iijima-- turned his head in our direction, though I'm sure he couldn't have heard us with the chanting and bell-striking and all. He gave us one of those expressionless looks of his, the way he does, like he's looking through you at something standing at your back. That kid gives me the creeps. I really wish he hadn't joined our department. Now, Hirose ought to weird me out too because everyone knows she's psychic. Sees ghosts and all. But her I can feel sorry for. Nasty stuff keep happening to her that isn't her fault at all, and somehow she manages to be sunny and cheerful in spite of it.
Like this ceremony we were having for the rest of departed souls, exorcising the bad vibes from the storage closet in the department research room. Yeah, storage closet. It's not a nice place to begin with-- no windows, full of mold, dark and smelly. And then there was a dead body that some nutcase stashed there, and Hirose found it, and so---
Yeah, well. So after all that went down naturally we kept the room closed up. But we don't have much space at the best of times, with a growing collection and more books than we have bookcases. So the higher-ups decided to exorcise the store room and start using it for, well, storage. And now here we all were, the faculty and students of the Folklore Department, waiting for this monk to dispel the yucky feelings and turn our closet back into a closet again.
And the chanting and bell striking went on and on and at last it was over. Our head was thanking Reverend Cranky-pants and we all bowed or bobbed as he went past and then we were free to go. Somehow I found myself next to Iijima as we were pushing through the doorway out into the corridor.
"Not going to work, is it?" he said to me, and then he was past me. I really do *not* like that kid.
"You can come back with me, Ritsu."
I sighed. "Yes sir." The abbot acts like I'm one of his monks when it suits him. He undertook my 'training' when I was in high school, which mostly meant running errands and watching him do exorcisms. Not totally useless, I suppose. I'm sort of a channel for things that shouldn't be there, and sometimes it's a relief to be in the non-conductive environment of a temple. Ghosts and goblins still wander in occasionally but they can't do much under the reverend's steely eye or in striking range of the reverend's rosary. I have to say the old man's pretty good at what he does, which means he has no illusions about his limits.
"Most of the negative atmosphere in the room was caused by the child," he said as the novice Kano drove us back to the temple. "Left-over emotion, not from the present. All that stuff's been taken care of."
"The professor wasn't there at all. Odd maybe, but the man was quite mad. That can lead, paradoxically, to a sort of psychic absence."
"So what is it that's still in that room?"
I shrugged. "Another ghost?"
"Didn't feel like it to me." He gave me a look. Times I could wish the abbot was a fool. "A youkai?"
"Nothing I can see, if so."
"Easy not to see if you don't look," he said severely.
"Best way of dealing with them, *my* grandfather always said."
He made irritated hrrmphing noises in his throat. I understand his dilemma: he can't decide which is more dangerous, me exercising my talents or me ignoring them, and it annoys him. "The kind of person who doesn't actively attract spirits can get away with the 'La-la-la I don't see you' approach," he said at last. "There's nothing there to interest them. But people like you who have strong psychic energies-- unnatural things flock to you like cats to cream. And it's not just you who's at risk-- any vulnerable person near you is in danger too. You've got a moral duty to be more active about dealing with these things."
"How much more active can you get than calling in an exorcist?" I asked innocently. He glared.
"I'm a last recourse. We're talking daily prevention here. You have to work at keeping them away from you-- by, for instance, focussing your attention on the present life and the present world. Friends, family, social occasions. When people surround themselves with living human beings, the dead and the nonhuman have fewer ways to get at them."
"Mhh-hmm." I wasn't going to give him an argument. Friends are something I don't need, and family-- hah. You should see my family, live-in youkai and all. "Well, the research room is always full of people. Lots of living spirit there."
"Not enough to weaken whatever's in that store room, not for someone susceptible. Not when she's already got herself attached to someone who isn't of this world to start with. Couldn't you encourage her to take up with one of the students there?"
"Wait-- she? You mean-- you're talking about Akira?"
"Yes of course," he said testily. "She's the most vulnerable. Your grandfather's granddaughter: she's got the same soul strength you do but nothing to protect her from what it attracts. You at least have that--" he sniffed "--guardian youkai, and your wits about you. Hirose-san is an innocent and a romantic, and that makes her a walking target."
"Akira's innocent and romantic if you like, but she's also my grandmother's granddaughter. Anyone who even thinks of stopping her from doing what she wants to do gets flattened like a tank."
And that ended the conversation, as I knew it would. The Abbot's met my grandmother.
"Why's the storeroom door shut?" Motoya said, and went to open it.
"Keep it closed, dammit!"
"Huh? Whaffor? That place needs air in it."
"I can't work when the door's open."
"You're neurotic, you know that?"
"I am not! I just can't concentrate when there's-- when it's like that."
Hirose looked up from her reading. "How come?"
"It's those damned coats. I keep seeing someone standing there, out the corner of my eye, and then I see it's just the coats hanging there. It makes me edgy."
"Neurotic," Motoya said. "Coat-rack complex."
"Don't be stupid," I said.
"But seriously-- if it distracts you, just turn around and sit the other way," Hirose said.
"No way!" And leave my back unprotected? "Don't you know *any* feng shui? You never sit with your back to an open door."
"Since when have you been a feng shui expert?" Motoya asked.
"No expert," I muttered. "I just read a lot."
"Well, it's true," Hirose said. "Open doors behind you are supposed to let evil influences in. Maybe we could just move the coatrack farther into the room so it doesn't catch your eye--" She got up to look. I gotta hand it to her, walking into the room like that, just like nothing'd ever happened to her there.
"There's no space. The floor's all covered with boxes," I said, watching her uncomfortably from the door.
"That's true. But we could move them around--" She started lifting things out of the way.
"You're taking a lot of trouble for this idiot," Motoya said. Sounded annoyed. Henh. I went in to help her, feeling pretty pleased with myself. It's not like I have a thing for Hirose-- I mean, she *is* a bit strange-- but I don't mind people thinking she maybe has a thing for me.
So we got the boxes all moved to the one side of the room and the coat rack moved to the other, in the corner by the door where you can't see it from outside. Then I went back to reading about money-washing rites in Aichi prefecture and Hirose went back to reading about Meiji period shamanesses in Akita prefecture and everything was cool.
Except next day all the boxes had been moved back where they were and the coat rack was still halfway in sight again.
If the abbot wants me to act as his messenger boy, the least he could do is lend me the temple car. He won't, of course: cheap with the gas, the old man is. But seriously: "Kano has a cold, I need you to take this letter out to Aikawa-san in Mukou-ga-oka."
"The Japanese Post Office has a well-earned reputation for efficiency," I started, and he frowned me into silence.
"I want it there as soon as possible." Yes well, fine. Mukou-ga-oka is a fast run over from the university by car, if I'd had a car. From home it's two trains and a hike from the station on foot, and then up three flights of outside stairs-- spiral stairs, so there's actually double the usual number of steps-- to the fourth floor. I walked down the long outside corridor, panting a little, looking for 415. There was a guy in a black coat hunched up against one door, knocking on it. A regular rhythm- tapTAP pause tapTAP pause tapTAP. I couldn't see his face but I knew he was smiling while he did it because that's what he does. A lot.
Of course it was 415 he was leaning against.
"Why not ring the doorbell?" I said. "That's what it's there for."
I won't say he jumped but it was a near thing. I'd have been pleased by that, only that somebody usually pays when you catch him at a disadvantage.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded, puzzled more than angry.
"I could ask you the same." I rang the doorbell; heard the ping-pong of the chimes inside, and a little later feet in the genkan. Nothing happened. Aikawa-san must be looking at me through the peephole. I was just about to announce my mission, though I'd rather have kept it to myself, when the door opened. A short grey-haired woman looked over the chain on the door.
"Ahh- Aikawa-san? I just have a letter to deliver. I needn't come in if--" But she was unhooking the chain to let me in. I gave Black-coat Guy a look that said 'See?', stepped in and took off my shoes. And caught the scrap of white paper blown in on the wind, crumpled it and tossed it back out. Sorry, guy. Entrance by invitation only.
She led me through the kitchen to the six mat room at the front and laid out a cushion for me. "I'll just put the kettle on," she said, and disappeared, leaving me kneeling by the table. There was nothing else in the room but a small television set-- not switched on, for a wonder-- and a household Buddhist altar. Massive and dark and highly polished, it took up most of the end wall opposite the windows. The scent of incense was strong: obviously Mrs. Aikawa talks to her dead family beyond just the usual morning hellos. I guess old people do that a lot when there's no one else to talk to. I wondered if Mrs. Aikawa's chats had any connection to the other thing I noticed: or sensed, rather, because it was in the next room behind the closed sliding door. Something large and heavy and... asleep, I'd have said. Or possibly comatose. I didn't want to think too loudly in case I woke it up. There was no clanging sense of danger or malice to it: just a feeling it was something I'd rather not have near me.
And that, I fancy, was what Black-coat Guy was after in here.
Mrs. Aikawa came back with the tea and some small Lotto cakes that looked pretty dry and musty. I drank my tea, politely ignored the cakes, and finally said, "The head of Enshou Temple sent me with a letter for you." I took it out of my shoulder-bag and handed it over: properly with both hands because I am, after all, a nice well-brought up boy.
"Ah. Thank you very much." She put it beside her without opening it because she's a nice well-brought up lady. But it bothered me. There was no sense of either curiosity or satisfaction to her; there was no sense of anything, come to that, and hadn't been from the moment she first peered out over the chain.
"Are you in training at the temple?" she asked, making what would have been polite conversation with anyone else. With her it felt like 'at the sound of the beep, please leave your message.'
"Ahh, no. I'm a university student. But we have an old house and some of the furnishings aren't quite what they should be-" which is one way of saying that they've killed people- "so occasionally we consign them to Enshouji. That's how I got to know the reverend."
"He's a very able man."
"Yes, he certainly is." Especially if you have large dark things asleep in the bedroom of your apartment and other things trying to get in to wake them up. I wondered how much she knew or sensed of that. Frankly I didn't get the feeling she was capable of sensing anything, even ordinary human stuff. "He's been a lot of help to us with some of our problems," I continued. "You know, old houses, they build up an atmosphere over time and there are things that shouldn't be there..."
"Ticks," she agreed, unmoved. "All through the tatami. I don't know how often I had to replace the mats in our old place. My son would be covered in bites when he was little." It was weird listening to her. She sounded like any old lady nattering away, but there was no resonance to it. A computer-generated voice programmed to make the blandest of conversation.
"And mold," she continued. "It's impossible to get it out of the closets once it's in. The old house was terrible that way. We eventually had the boot-box rebuilt just because the shoes turned green if you left them in more than a day or two."
"Oh yes. Mold's a terrible problem," I agreed. I was getting weirded. "I'm awfully sorry, but I really must be going."
She saw me to the door. Black-coat was still standing outside. I waited till I heard her putting the chain across inside and then said, low-voiced, "You're wasting your time there."
He smiled, unperturbed. "I don't think so. Eventually she'll have to stop pretending I'm not there."
"It's more a question if *she's* really there. Me, I don't think she is. Whatever's sleeping in that apartment, it's not going to wake up."
"I intend to see that it does."
"Come on. Why do you think?"
"You're bored. You want to make mischief."
"Mischief, good lord. What a narrow viewpoint you have. I suppose it's because you live so short a time."
"Ok, not that. You're just hungry--"
"Don't judge me by that garburetor at your place!"
"Youkai are youkai. You feed on our feelings--"
"What's wrong with that?"
"Just, you'd think there'd be easier ways of getting a meal--"
"There are, but the easy ones aren't as satisfying. Rice crackers and pocky sticks, while something aged and tender like this--" His eyes slewed over towards the door with a look of pure greed. Normally he's kind of an oddity. He's spent centuries knocking around the human world and that screws youkai up in ways it's hard to describe. But just then he could have been Aoarashi: he was all but drooling. "Who'd settle for MacDo's when you can have kaisetsu ryouri?"
"You've been living way too close to humans if you know about fast food and haute cuisine," I tutted. "Maybe you should take a little vacation in Youkailand: go search for your roots, get back to nature-- your own nature, I mean-- that sort of thing."
He looked at me like I was mad, turned and went back to knocking on the door- tapTAP pause tapTAP pause tapTAP. I shrugged and left.
"You're looking pale these days, Seki-senpai," Hirose said. "Have you been sick?"
"No. I'm fine."
"Is it the closet still? There *is* something a bit odd about it, you're right."
"There's nothing odd about it. It's gotta be the janitor moving the boxes back at night. It's just-- I really hate that feeling that someone's standing in there."
"Yeah, I can imagine. Feeling like someone's watching you all the time..."
"It's not that they're *watching* me. It's that they're there where I can't see them. Hiding. And-- you know-- maybe going to jump out suddenly."
"Jump out? Look, was this something that really happened?"
"No-- well, I mean, yeah, sort of. My dad, right? When I was a kid he hid in among the coats at home for a joke, just when I was going to put mine away, and then he jumped out at me making this scary face. I don't know why he thought it was so funny but it sure backfired. I screamed and screamed and couldn't stop. They had to get the doctor in finally."
"What an awful thing to do, frightening a child like that."
"Yeah, well. Fathers-- you know." I knew she'd be sympathetic. I didn't try to explain that it wasn't just the shock that'd made me scream. I'm pretty sure of that, though my memory of it has gone blurry over time. But what I remember clear as day was the feeling of pure horror, knowing that something awful was going to happen right after. You shouldn't have done that! Don't you know what happens if you do that?! The only other time I've felt that way was on a trip in first year with some upperclassmen, when the car slid off the road and landed in the ditch. We were kind of shaken but we all got out OK. I stood looking at the thing lying on its side, showing the under bit you never see that's kind of yucky, like a bug on its back, and smelling the gasoline leaking out of it, and suddenly realized the guy next to me was shaking out a cigarette and going to light it. I couldn't move-- don't you know what happens next??!!!- and then someone else grabbed the asshole's arm and asked him what the fuck he thought he was doing. It was like that: certain death one minute away.
"Anyway, I always hate seeing coats hung up together. I keep thinking there's something-- I mean, someone-- there."
"Mhh. You know-- I know they call me a psychic around here. Only I'm not, not really. When I was younger I'd see things, but it's all pretty much faded since I turned twenty. But some of my relatives really are, well, that way--"
"Like your cousin." I suppose I growled it.
"Mh, yes. Or my uncle. But the thing is, if something from your past is still hanging on to you like this, maybe they can get rid of it for you."
"I'm not asking Iijima for any favours!"
"Well, no, Ritsu's actually kind of young, but--"
"Sheesh. I don't know what's worse- Motoya saying I need a psychiatrist or you saying I need an exorcist. I'm fine. I just need to-- to settle down with an ordinary girlfriend and lead an ordinary life like everyone else--"
"But that's what you're doing now--"
"I don't have the girlfriend."
"Well, there's lots of nice girls in the faculty, why don't you ask them out?"
She didn't get it. She didn't get it at all. All she can think of is that guy from the temple, the one who dresses like an extra in a samurai TV show. I thought if she was unconventional enough to go out with him, she wouldn't mind about someone like me. I mean, it's not like my parents got divorced or anything, and *we* don't go around seeing things that aren't there like the Iijimas do.
"I gave Mrs. Aikawa your letter."
"She wants an exorcism?"
"No. Why do you think she would? Did you sense something--?"
"Something, yup, but I don't know what sort of something it is."
"If it's not your kind of thing then I won't worry."
"There's a lot of things that aren't my kind of thing, and they still make trouble." Especially if Red-haired Guy wants to get his hands on them. "Is she a widow?"
"Probably? She doesn't know?"
"Her husband was a gambler who took off when their son was small. He's not in the picture."
"Then who's that on her family altar?"
"None of your business."
"Sheesh. Just asking."
"Her son. Sad case. Inherited the gambling bug from his father, stole from his firm to pay his debts, killed himself when it came to light. The wife went back to her own family with the grandchildren and hasn't been heard from for years. Mrs. Aikawa's had a rough life."
"Mh." I thought of the life she had now-- an empty apartment, the TV turned off, a home altar with incense burning. No interest in anything: that flat dull voice. Letters to and from the reverend, looking for some kind of interaction with the only person-- no, the only human being-- who'd be likely to give it to her. Yeah, maybe he was right. People-- OK, ordinary people-- if they don't have other humans around, they attract attention from places you don't want it.
"I suppose that's why she's turned to religion. If she's lost everything, what else has she got?" I didn't realize until I'd said it how rude it sounded, given who I was talking to, but apologizing would've made it worse.
"People who've lost everything usually gain something in return," he said.
"Ahh yeah, of course. Detachment, enlightenment--"
"Bitterness. Envy. Festering rancour."
"You'd know." His field, after all-- Oh crap. Not my day. *Not* my day. And this time there was no hiding the fact I knew I'd put my foot in it.
He smiled with the satisfaction of a man who's manipulated his opponent into checkmate position. "No, I wouldn't. I was only a baby when my family was murdered. I don't remember them at all."
Yeah, well. Sucks to be me. "Sorry. That wasn't what I meant." He snorted. "But she doesn't feel like that. Far as I can see, she doesn't feel anything. It... kind of bothered me." The not-thereness of her and the concentration of energy somewhere else: that kind of thing is dangerous.
"You don't see very far," he said, smug. "I wouldn't worry about her if I was you."
I grunted, and he could take that any way he liked. None of my business, and not something I wanted to get involved in anyway. Only... I don't know what was up with my grandfather and Redhair, but I know Grandfather did his best to stop him from doing exactly as he pleases. Seems like I should at least try to do the same.
It was getting worse. My course work was going all to hell. I tried working in the university library but the books I need are in the department. I'd close the cupboard door whenever I came in but people kept opening it. And soon it didn't matter. Even shut I could see those coats hanging there in the dark, like stretches of flayed skin. Human skins hung up on a coat rack-- no wonder awful things hide between them.
People were looking at me funny. Even Hirose was drawing away from me. It's not fair. I'm just like everyone else. Mom's a widow, what's wrong with that? But people have always looked at us strange and whispered behind our backs, even at my grandparents'. People suck, is what. Stupid smug bastards, thinking they've got it made, thinking they're so wonderful because nothing bad's ever happened to them. Wait till it does, is what I say. Wait till it all goes pear-shaped on them. Accidents, earthquakes, fires-- bankruptcies and losing your job-- stuff like that happens to everyone, even the oh-so-clever Motoyas and Iijimas. And I'll laugh when it does. Boy, how I'll laugh at them then.
I pulled up in the parking lot outside the apartment complex. Chauffeur, delivery boy, moving man-- that's me.
"Nice trees," the reverend said as he got out.
"Yeah, not bad." Three sakura in full bloom in the lot next door. They were kind of cool, just sitting there by themselves all loaded with pale blossoms. We stood for a moment and looked at them.
"They'll fall soon," he said.
"Yeah. Won't take much wind to scatter them." I know it's a cliché but, hell, sakura really are neat, the way they blossom so exuberantly and then just blow away in drifts like snow.
"Ah well. Mrs. Aikawa's waiting."
We climbed the stairs to her apartment. Redhair wasn't anywhere to be seen, but the Reverend slapped his rosary against the overhead lintel before ringing the doorbell.
"People," he grunted.
Mrs Aikawa let us in, looking a bit surprised to see me.
"Ritsu can carry your bags," the Reverend said.
"Oh, I only have the one suitcase. It's in the living room." I went to get it. The apartment was almost empty, just a couple of cushions scattered on the tatami. The doors to the next door room were open. Nothing there at all, visible or invisible. Somehow that made me feel a little unwell. It wasn't gone. I just didn't know where it was any more.
Until I picked up the suitcase. It weighed a ton, except it didn't, except it did. I gritted my teeth and dragged it down the hallway.
"All ready?" the Reverend asked. She nodded, and we left the apartment. She didn't lock the door behind her.
I manhandled the suitcase down the outside hallway, wondering why the reverend didn't sense what was in it. And in fact when we got to the head of the stairs he said, "You having trouble with that?"
"It's kind of heavy."
Mrs. Aikawa looked at me. "There's only a few clothes and a book or two. I'll carry it."
I gritted my teeth. "No, it's fine."
"If you're sure." The dull not-there-ness took any inflection from her words. We started down the winding concrete steps. This high the wind kept blowing my hair into my eyes so I had to shake it free to see the steps in front of me. It was just as we came round the outside curve between the third and second floor that it happened. A sudden gust blew, making something bang against the side of the building. Mrs Aikawa gave an "Oh!" of startlement. I shook the hair out of my eyes again and saw it.
A wave of pink was blowing past us, the blossoms from the cherry trees next door. A cherry petal snowstorm, the phrase is, and it looked like that for a minute-- pinkish white flakes whirling about and dancing away. It *was* stunning, I have to say. But Mrs Aikawa stood with hands half up, eyes and mouth wide open.
"Oh!" she said, "Oh!" Her mouth opened and closed several times.
I dropped the suitcase. It banged down the stairs to the next floor and flew open. I didn't see what came out of it-- it was dark and fast and disappearing even as it appeared, smoke blown away on the wind. I *did* hear the scream of fury and protest that came from the floor somewhere above us.
Mrs. Aikawa didn't seem to notice either of those. She was standing looking at where the cherry blossoms had blown away. The reverend poked me and pointed at the fallen suitcase, and I ran down to scoop its contents back inside. I didn't look at them too closely-- old ladies' clothes and underwear and socks aren't something I want to be handling too much. The book that had fallen out was the Lotus Sutra. I put it on top and closed the clasps. Mrs Aikawa had turned and was looking at the abbot, still wide-eyed amazed. It seemed to me as if she wanted to smile but had forgotten how. The reverend was looking grimly pleased by something. And I hadn't a clue what was going on. All I could do was follow them down to the car
"We're going out to Ome," the reverend said when we were inside. I glanced automatically at the gas gauge but Mrs Aikawa had already said, "Oh, no. Just drop me at Kichijouji. I'll take the train from there."
"It's a long way--" he protested.
"That's fine," she said. "I like trains. There's no scenery on the highways." All of a sudden she sounded exactly like anyone else. As we drove she kept looking out the windows at the unprepossessing buildings on either side of the street, as if she'd never seen anything like them before.
I got us into Kichijouji and managed to find the station in amongst its twisty streets.
"We're parked illegally," I said. "I should stay here in case a cop comes by."
The abbot looked sour at having to carry Mrs. Aikawa's suitcase, but when I went to get it from the trunk she said, "Oh, just leave it. There's nothing in it I need."
"But--" the abbot began.
"My papers are in my purse and the nuns will be giving me new clothes when I get there," she said briskly.
He gave her an assessing look. "I'll keep it and send it on if you ever want it."
"Oh-- thanks, but I don't think I will." Her eyes had gone to the flying clouds over the station. She turned back to him. "Thank you for all your help, your reverence. I appreciate it. You too, young man." She hesitated a second, then said to the abbot, "Just like that?"
"Just like that," he said, and smiled.
She nodded her head once or twice, bowed to us both, and turned to join the crowds going in and out of the station.
"Just like what?" I asked as the reverend got back into the car.
"You've heard of satori?"
"Hunh? That's Zen. You're Nichiren."
He shrugged. "Whatever works. Some people keep chiselling away at it with their rosaries, others suddenly just see. I don't complain so long as it happens."
"You're saying Mrs. Aikawa... achieved enlightenment back there?"
"Evidently. Why'd you drop her suitcase?"
"It jumped out of my hands."
"I'll believe it."
I glanced towards the trunk. "So what's in it?"
"Her clothes and toilet items."
"Alright, what *was* in it?"
"What you'd expect from the kind of life she's had. Anger, misery, resentment-- the nasty stuff that turns so easily to spite and malignance. She's been fighting it for a while: keeping it at bay by sheer force of will, I'd say. Finally she decided to join a convent as the safest place for her to be. I wasn't sure. Ill will grows in monasteries as easily as in offices. But I think she'll be alright now."
"And what'll you do with her suitcase?"
"Put it in the temple for a bit, just in case something got left behind. Or whoever that was back there tries to come for it."
"I don't think he'll bother. He's the kind has other fish to fry."
He gave me a deeply suspicious look. "You met him?"
"Yeah, we've met."
"Seki, you're going to have to stop this. You're a mess these days."
"Stop what? I'm fine."
"Looking at that closet. Jumping at every little thing. You're heading for a breakdown."
"I am not! There's something *in* that closet. The exorcism didn't get rid of it. C'mon, you can feel it yourself, right?"
"No, actually. I don't sense anything there. And yes, I'm psychic."
"So you're saying I'm crazy! Just like everyone else-- weird Seki and his weird family. Who the hell are you to talk--"
"Seki, calm down." She looked me straight in the eye. The tight feeling in my chest eased up a little bit.
"But there really is something there. I can tell. And your cousin *said* the exorcism didn't work--"
"Oh, Ritsu. The eternal raincloud." She shrugged, dismissing him.
"Yeah," I said, feeling better, "yeah, he is. But that closet--"
"Look, you don't need an exorcism. What you need is to change your associations."
"You keep thinking about your father jumping out at you when you were a kid and you feel scared all over again. Suppose you had pleasant memories of coats and closets? Then you'd feel good every time you saw them."
"Yeah, well, I don't have any pleasant memories."
"So let's make them." She held out her hand to me. I couldn't believe it-- I told myself that she couldn't mean what I thought she meant-- but of course I took her hand. She started leading me to the closet.
"Wait!" I said. There was a weird buzzing feeling in my head and I couldn't think straight. I knew something wonderful would happen if we went inside. I knew something horrible would happen if we went inside. And I couldn't think--
"Don't be silly, Seki." She shook my hand in a friendly way. "There's nothing to be afraid of in here."
She gave me a lovely smile-- god, she *is* cute. The fluorescent lights overhead found reddish highlights among her curls that I'd never seen before. Her eyes were bright and excited. She wanted it-- she really did. I couldn't be wrong. She wanted to do it--
And every nerve inside me said NO!!!
"Come on," she said, and gave me a little tug.
I don't know what I was feeling more, terror or excitement. They felt exactly the same. My legs were like wood but I made them move. Tottering, like I was going to fall any minute, I walked with her into the darkness of the storeroom. My heart was going like a jackhammer and I was sweating with cold and there were funny dark spots in front of my eyes. But Hirose was holding my hand, I had to be brave, in spite of the big shapeless forms that loomed dimly by the wall. My stomach lurched. Coats it's just a bunch of coats hanging on the coat rack, what else could it be but coats-- Only it wasn't coats. It was one tall form separating itself from the black mass, one tall form that was going to jump out at me with its horrible face and then-- and then-- I couldn't breathe and I couldn't move and I couldn't feel Hirose's hand any more because my hands were ice and couldn't feel anything. It was going to get us and I couldn't even *move*. The thing came another step closer and the face moved out of the shadows. My gorge rose and then just as suddenly dropped.
"Iijima!" Half-fury and half-relief, fuck that kid giving me a shock like that--
"Yes?" he said. His voice sounded funny. He came fully into the weak light reaching in from the outer room and I saw the sharpness of his cheekbones, the pale circles under his eyes, the hair thinning-
"Iijima, what're you-- what happened--"
He was old. He must have been near fifty. Fifty, when he'd been a teenager yesterday. Time warp, was all I could think. I've got into the future somehow--
"You have some odd friends," he said with that sly crook to his mouth that I hate so much.
"What? Where are we?!" Oh my *God* what about *me*-- I tried to look at my hands but they seemed the same as always, but hands don't change, what was my face like-- "Take me back! Get me back! I want to go back!!" I was just about crying.
"Certainly. Here, give me your arm." I didn't want to do it but if that was the only way back to my time--
It hit me. "Hirose! Where is she-- She was here a minute ago--"
"Hirose Akira? I think you'll find her waiting for us outside. We were supposed to meet this afternoon." He was walking me towards the door of the store room-- it seemed miles away-- but at least Hirose hadn't been caught in this thing inside the cupboard, she was waiting for us back in our own time-- We came out into the reference room. It was empty. I looked at Iijima and my blood went cold.
"You haven't changed back!"
He blinked at me mildly. "Changed back into what?"
"The way you were."
"Ahh-- no. That doesn't happen." He sounded matter-of-fact about it. I thought I was going to be sick.
"You said you'd take me back!"
"And I have."
"Uncle Kai! *There* you are!"
I jumped at the sound of Hirose's voice as she came into the room.
"Hello, Akira," he said. I must have been gaping. 'Uncle Kai'? Then everything kind of fell into place. This wasn't Iijima, it was his father. No wonder they looked alike.
"Seki, are you alright?" she said. "You're sweating."
"Well yeah. Why'd you go away and leave me on my own like that?!"
"Leave you? When?"
"Just now. We were in the storeroom together--" She looked blank and Iijima's father gave a cough.
"I'm afraid you're mistaken. That wasn't Akira."
A shudder went up my spine. "What? Then what was it? A ghost? Was that the ghost from before, that kid--?"
"It can't be," Hirose said. "The reverend exorcised it--"
"I'm sure he did," Iijima's father said. "This is something else that seems to have attached itself to your friend. Mischievous spirits--they will make nuisances of themselves." He shrugged dismissively. That must be where Iijima gets it from.
"You mean something's stalking Seki?" Hirose asked. "Why?"
"Probably because Seki-kun attracts him."
"I do not!!" Screw these Iijimas--
"Not deliberately. But spirits feed on spirit strength. What's easiest for them to draw on are the negative emotions. Obsessive grief- a long-held grudge- a childhood terror: that's their food."
"Yeah, well, I don't do that!"
"But there's that thing you have about the coats," Hirose said. "And that trick your father played on you. Maybe some spirit wants to get a rise out of you by reminding you how frightened you were as a child."
"What trick was that?" Iijima's father asked.
"Your father jumped out at you? Mh." Iijima's father cocked his head. "What was his face like?"
Huh. "It was-- I don't remember. He was making a scary face, I guess."
"Purple. Eyes bulging. Tongue sticking out--"
it!" I didn't want to remember that part. "Yeah, he was making a
scary face, so what?!"
Iijima's dad just looked at me. He wasn't smiling. I hate the way the Iijimas look at people even when they aren't making fun of them. It's like they see things and if you aren't careful they'll make you start seeing the same sort of stuff as them, and it's not true, it isn't like that, the way they see things.
"He was making a face to try and scare me!!"
"I suppose so." He finally looked away. I felt myself shaking all over. He was making a face to try and scare me. That's all. He did scare me, because something awful lived in that dark corner by the stairs and he'd made it real. And nothing was the same after that. We couldn't live in our house any more. We'd had to leave. I had to leave my school and all my friends and live with my mother's family and change my name to theirs, and nothing was the same as it had been before Dad pulled that silly trick.
"You'd better stay out of the cupboard," Mr. Iijima was saying. "At least until what's there gets tired of playing with you." He looked back at the cupboard and added, "You'd think he could find someone more suitable to try it on with. But those who can't afford kaisetsu ryouri have to make do with MacDo's."
I nearly lost it again. "What're you implying--??"
And Hirose said in the same moment, "Uncle Kai, haven't you had enough trouble already--" and didn't finish the sentence.
He smiled at us. "Well, I do prefer kaisetsu ryouri myself. A meal should be worth what you pay for it."
And I couldn't make any sense of that at all.
Dec 06-Nov 08