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(MARCH 26, 2042, TAITO WARD, TOKYO, JAPAN)
In Japan, the word kokuhaku is synonymous with a love confession, but to Alice Suzuki, it defined a troubled heart. Devotion and doubt, as inseparable as sakura and spring, compelled her to clutch the letter like the pin of a grenade she had decided to pull. As frightening as falling for a childhood friend might be, it paled before the thought of another admirer overcoming any such reservations first.
Don’t say it, Alice implored herself. He doesn’t have to know. Unlike friends at school who protested the cluelessness of their love interests, she placed her faith in Keiji’s total lack of awareness. Swinging astick he had found on the ground; his imagination seemed primarily occupied with thoughts of being at-bat for the Tōkyō Giants, the championship resting on his shoulders. Alice’s fingers rubbed the necklace thatKeiji presented her when she turned sixteen. Its angel pendant glistened from attention, and while the gesture was probably insignificant, perhaps it held supernatural properties to have so altered her view of their relationship. Alice was embarrassed that of all the boys at school, she had fallen for the one that embodied the most complications. She wished she could channel her feelings in a less precarious direction, but their gangly shadows overlapped like a pair of grease pencils, uncertain of the future they might draw.
Keiji’s feelings were indeterminable, most of all, to himself. Oblivious to her internal turmoil, he only became aware that she no longer walked beside him when the click-clack of her heels fell silent, a clear sign she had stopped under the gnarled cherry tree they used to play beneath as children.
“Suki desu!” Alice cried, then covered her mouth in horror. Eyes wide, her small fingers failed to hide her astonishment at what she had done.
Keiji wondered if a bolt of lightning had suddenly flashed before his eyes. His ears rang as if caught inside a temple bell. While what she had said could be understood as, “I like you,” neither doubted heractual intent contained a far more potent expression of affection.
“Suki desu. Tsukiatte kudasai,” she clarified. There had not been a day in the last month when those words had not tried to ram their way past her clenched lips. The pin had been pulled. There was nothing to do now but see if either of them would survive, shards of their friendship blown to the four winds.
Saturday was when Keiji would join Alice’s family for a day trip to Hakone and ride the ropeway to where they sold the famous black eggs; ones said to ensure a long life. How a black egg performed better than a brown or white one didn’t so much matter, as that it provided her courage with a deadline. Unrequited love was a prickly thing, and her feelings had developed beyond what their platonic relationship could embrace.
The only reply was the wind whistling softly through the branches of the old cherry blossom tree. ToKeiji, Alice had transformed into something that solicited both fear and desire. It was a simple high school confession, but to him, her words carried the weight of a marriage proposal.
“Ano…” he mumbled. “Would it be okay—can I think about it?”
“Hai,” she said, a quick response in the affirmative that was more automatic than sincere. Alice wanted the matter resolved immediately. It was like when her dad said he’d consider getting a kitten. She didn’t want to bother picking out names if the whole matter was a moot point.
“Gomen,” apologized Keiji. He started to leave but realized the situation would become even more strained if he dropped any pretense of social protocol. “Mata na,” he said with a quick wave, his adolescent way of dealing with the ungainliness of the exchange. There was no point in making light conversation with the unavoidable truth finally breached.
Alice was a coin balanced on its edge. She watched Keiji run past a row of vending machines and wondered if the future would reveal her to be relieved or destroyed. Love, she had determined, was a cavity that signaled you were alive, but in pain. Whether it was worth the sweetness remained to be determined. She shook her hair and watched sakura petals fall like pink tears upon her black loafers.
A bright, gallows morning signaled to Alice that her day of reckoning had arrived. She opened her closet and selected an outfit appropriate for either light hiking beside Lake Ashi or total humiliation. Prepared for the possibility that Keiji might opt out of the opportunity to experience new frontiers of embarrassment, she struggled to determine how she might explain his absence to her parents.
“The car is here,” her father shouted downstairs. “I reserved it for the whole weekend.” Mr. Suzuki found it more convenient to subscribe to a self-driving car service than for the family to own outright. It arrived at their residence, like the autonomous cabs that salarymen ordered when they missed the last train. Only the affluent, hobbyists, or criminals retained a vehicle since autonomous car-sharing services had arrived.
“Chotto matte,” said Alice, checking her vanity mirror one last time for any straggling messages. Unfortunately, the only thing displayed from behind the glass was a meme from Keiji that she was still trying to figure out. She wondered if Yuki had heard anything, but when she taped her avatar, a funny animation appeared that indicated that, once again, she wasn’t available. Alice was seriously considering accepting applications for a new best friend, seeing as Yuki had been so persistently absent lately, not unlike her self-esteem. Alice clicked on Keiji’s profile page to check his relationship status, but it remained unchanged. Not sure if she should be angry or relieved, she pretended to hit the mirror, which created a satisfying, shattered-glass effect. When she turned back again, it had already restored to its previous,undamaged form.
Running down the stairs, she almost slammed into her mom. “I guess Keiji can’t make it. Can you tell dad we’ll go on without him?”
“Are you okay, Alice-chan? He’s already in the car.” Mrs. Suzuki looked as if she had eaten a jar of umeboshi plums.
“Any other boys you were planning on bringing today? We can always cancel if you’re not feeling well…”
Relief washed over Alice as she realized she had received a second chance, albeit one to humiliate herself. Yatta! She kissed her mom’s cheek and skipped down the stairs. Being an only child, her parents had nothing, with which to compare her occasionally curious behavior. Additional cultural differences between her parents also kept them guessing, something of which she readily took advantage.
The door of the car flipped open to reveal Keiji grinning like the Cheshire Cat. He handed her a pair of augmented reality glasses; aware her parents considered AR contacts to be rude. “Did you download Smash Jumpers?”
“Hai,” replied Alice. She couldn’t tell if his arrival indicated deeper feelings or was merely a gesture of respect towards her family.
The mixed-reality game was something of a classic, and no longer one of the entertainment options that came with the car. Alice made sure it was available whenever they traveled further than the tonkatsu restaurant they frequented. “I get to be the kangaroo with the monocle.” Unlike other girls, the request wasn’t intended to appear enduringly immature.
A camera in the dashboard scanned Mr. Suzuki’s face and matched his identity to his car-share account. He checked to determine if he had uploaded the route into the car’s GPS. “Don’t worry. There’s more than enough charge to get to Hakone and back.”
“I’m not pushing,” said Alice, who remembered a trip to Nikko, where roadside assistance had to charge their batteries. That was the time they had reserved the car for a week, and it had completely slipped her father’s mind. He was used to the batteries being topped off before the car arrived. Her mom’s disapproving glare reminded her to refrain from making acerbic observations.
“Autonomous-drive engaged,” said a soft, feminine voice through the speakers. The car pulled out of the driveway, and background music faded-up. The vehicle’s intelligent assistant reported, “Estimated time en-route – one-hour forty-eight minutes.”
The only sound they heard as they eased down the road was the patter of rain against the aluminosilicate windows. Alice’s mom increased the tint level of the glass so she wouldn’t strain her eyes as she read. Though she could just as easily project her novel inside her prescription glasses, she enjoyed the pleasure of turning the pages; the almond and vanilla-like scents the paper made as its compounds deteriorated with time. She called up the weather map. “I don’t think the rain will last. The cell seems to be over Atsugi and Hadano. Well…mostly.”
Alice and Keiji played their game as if the previous day had never occurred. It was reassuring to sit beside him, though Alice wondered what Keiji would do if she took his hand. Death from mortification seemed the most probable outcome.
The day Keiji gave her the necklace, was also the Wednesday that her friend Yuki hid in the school gymnasium. Being from Osaka, Yuki proudly embodied the brash personality found in comedians from that prefecture. She would do things at lunch, such as put chopsticks in her nose or place snails on her forehead until one day, a few of the girls decided to rob Yuki of her smile. The video they sent to the entire school featured Yuki’s head on the body of a cow wearing a stereotypical Kansai leopard print. Keijidiscovered her behind the bleachers crying with the same enthusiasm she brought to telling a well-crafted joke. When he walked her home in the middle of the day, he was nearly suspended. Seeing how he had risked himself for her friend, Alice discovered something new in Keiji. He wasn’t remarkable because he played baseball, or scored well on tests, but for the way, he cared about people. She could not bear the thought of his attention wasted on one of her flighty classmates whose idea of culture began and ended atpurkura booths.
Keiji paused the game, flipped up his glasses, and for a brief moment, they locked eyes. “Alice-chan,”he whispered. “If you win the next game…I’ll give you my answer.” There was no need to provide any context. It was the first time he had addressed the unanswered question that lingered between them like an eye-floater of the heart.
Alice bit her lip. “Un.” She wondered if losing might not be the better option. Unlike other girls, her taste in fashion began with her school uniform and ended with gym clothes. Her voice brought a karaoke party to its knees. She didn’t have any particular talent other than speaking English, which she had learned from her mother and visits to cousins in California. The more she thought about it, she could not imagine any particular reason Keiji would like her at all.
“Are we going the right way?” Alice’s mother asked, tapping her husband’s leg like a woodpecker.
Mr. Suzuki was quite content to let the car go down the highway unattended while watching the baseball game. “Those damn Tigers are just so good this year…”
“Father,” Mrs. Suzuki pressed him again. They had met when she was an Army brat. Her plain-spoken personality had brought them together, although once married, her directness did not give him much room to maneuver. “Can you please check to see if we were supposed to get off at the last exit? This isn’t the way we went last time.”
Mr. Suzuki seemed unconcerned. “When are the Giants going to win? Can you tell me that? They actually lost to the BayStars. Does that even make any sense?”
“Otousan!” cried Mrs. Suzuki. “Did you update the maps?”
He gave an intentionally exasperated sigh and brought up the GPS database. “Of course. I did everything last night. It’s probably just taking us on a shortcut. There’s more than one way to get there,you know.”
Alice looked out the window and saw they were on a bridge so new that the concrete looked bleached.“I don’t remember this way. Maybe we’re lost?”
“Let’s pull over and check.” Coming from her mother, it was more a polite command than a request.
Mr. Suzuki sighed, swiveled his chair forward, and hit disengage on the car’s menu. The steering wheel emerged from the dash, but the vehicle accelerated. On its speedometer, the numbers advanced like a bathroom scale after Christmas.
“What’s wrong?” asked Alice.
“Otousan!” yelled her mother. “Slow down!” The car’s electric motors were silent, but she had an instinct for judging their speed based on the sound of the tires. It came in handy when her husband shut off the autopilot.
“I can’t—must be the new OS.” He tried to cycle through the menus, but his fingers bounced against the screen.
The time for a solution had already expired, as the car jerked violently to the left, and then crashed directly into the safety rail. Airbags exploded, and shoulders dug into seat belts. White powder and the smell of burning dust filled the air. The front half of the car dangled off the edge of the bridge, yet somehow managed to stay precariously balanced.
“Okasaan?” The silence scared Alice more than the sound of the impact.
Keiji was in a state of shock, but about to say something, when the car shuddered. They felt a sensation, not unlike going over the first hill of a rollercoaster, and Alice floated free of her seat. Their airbags already expended; it felt like they hit a wall, and immediately, a dark-green blanket enveloped the car’s windows. There was a sound like coffee poured down a sink and a thud as they came to rest on the bottom. Water seeped in from the car’s floor and bit at Alice’s ankles, but no one responded when she started to scream. Alice threw her shoulder against the door repeatedly, but the outside pressure held it fast. In the stuttering light, she saw blood dripping from Keiji’s hair. She kicked at the windows, but her loafers slipped on the sweating glass.
Within the murky depths, Alice could see a set of red eyes drawing nearer. When it finally reached them, a spectral black cloak passed through the front windshield and enveloped the cabin. Coronal filaments surrounded her father, as the specter worked unseen, before it shifted its attention to her mother, coaxing a tiny luminescent cloud from her gaping mouth. The dark water reached Alice’s chest,as moisture violated the car’s batteries. In the last flash of light, Alice saw a pale hand reach into the back seats. It grasped blindly between them, but then paused as if momentarily distracted. Outside, someone was attempting to force their way into the vehicle. Sensing help, Alice screamed, but the shadowy form increased its pace, moving their spindly fingers past her lips and pressing hard against the roof of her mouth. It tugged at something physically intangible, and Alice’s consciousness peeled like the skin of an orange. The phantom dragged her through the car’s window, past her unknowing rescuer, and into the primordial darkness.
Immobilized by a metaphysical neurotoxin, Alice’s panic quickly reached parity with resignation. When,finally, whatever it was that had been dragging her released its grip, her skin rubbed against porous stone until her progress abated. The first sign that she had regained control of her limbs was the realization that she could stand. The water’s surface rose no higher than her shoulders, which led to the discovery that she had emerged in a Greco-Roman courtyard. Corinthian columns supported a portico adorned with beautiful glass mosaics, a foreign but reassuring reality.
As her vision cleared, she saw blurred outlines and heard a multitude of tongues from various lands,many of which she could not place. To her great relief, she spotted her mother, sitting on a carved granite bench, drying her father with a thick towel. “Otousan!” she yelled. He returned the kind of non-committal waves fathers are known to give. “Have you seen Keiji-kun? Is he okay?”
Her mom gave a bewildered yet sympathetic look. “Alice-chan. Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick. Don’t you scare me like that again.” She waved, palm down, for her to join them.
“Where’s Keiji? Have you seen him?”
“I thought he was with you.” Mrs. Suzuki looked around, concerned.
“I’ll be right back. I promise.” Not predisposed to imagine the worst, Alice set off with unwarranted expectations.
Racing to the other side of the courtyard, Alice apologized to a stocky lad wearing lederhosen over whom she had tripped. As success eluded her, she searched ever more frantically. An open door gave her momentary hope, but inside was only a slightly balding, silver-haired man who appeared prepared to attend a toga party. He gestured emphatically at someone she could not see, but his eyes telegraphed well his general displeasure.
To better understand the source of his ire, Alice leaned forward and caught a glance of a man who looked more out of his era and element than she felt. He wore a sharkskin suit, and his hands clutched a trilby hat. A loose bow tie hung upon his wingtip collar, and though he appeared only a handful of years older than Alice, he looked like he had just stumbled in from an off-strip casino. He offered a crooked grin before the older gentleman in the toga noticed they were being watched and slammed the door.
That is when Alice became aware that her environment had an odd hiccup as if time were a wheel that slipped from omniscient fingers. When she finally made it back to the bench, it was only to find it empty. All that remained was her mom’s towel and a small pool of water where her dad had been sitting. Alice started to panic, but then she spotted her parents on the opposite side of the courtyard, being led through an imperial-looking door crowned with an archway of heavenly stars. Alice yelled for their attention and took a determined step forward, but then a hand reached out and blocked her way. Its owner had thin lips and placid eyes. “Those are my…”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” replied the androgynous figure. “You won’t be joining them—not yet.” Their tone was sympathetic but firm.
“Why not? Where are they going?” Alice found her body afflicted by the same paralysis she had experienced earlier.
The door hissed as it sealed behind her parents.
“I believe they have something different planned for you.”
“I’m ready to go home,” she replied. “Why are you doing this to me?”
The Vegas lounge lizard’s browbeating had apparently reached its conclusion. He came over to intercede, shooing away the guardian with an obnoxious clicking sound that implied he had the situation under control. “Hey there, kiddo. You’ve had a rough day, but remember…worry is like weeds.” He picked at something caught in his teeth. “Tears only water them, am I right, doll?”
Alice was more confused than insulted. “This place isn’t real. I’m dreaming. Right?”
His lack of eye contact served as his passive-aggressive response. “Have you ever wondered why zombie flicks are popular? Because people can relate.” Something about her encouraged his tendency to ramble. “Did you ever see a movie where the actor has already adiosed in regular life? They’re up there running from something, and you want to yell, ‘Hey buddy. Take a breather. You’re already dead.’ I don’t know where I was going with that.” On his wrist, two strands of beads, one side white and the other black,began to spin. They formed patterns that meant something to him because he appeared to protest.“C’mon. Seriously? Are you yanking my chain? Why do you hate me?” The beads cycled through various combinations. “That? Oh, I can explain that…”
“Who are you?” asked Alice. “What am I doing here?”
“Vegas Jack. Yeah, that’s what they call me…Honest Jack. A few other things I’d rather not repeat in the company of a lady.” He produced an old cigarette lighter and flicked its wheel a couple of times to no effect.
Alice dry swallowed and asked the question whose answer she feared the most. “Where’s Keiji-kun?”Something told her that he’d know whom she meant.
Jack paused to consider what information he was at liberty to share. “That other kid? He’s great…just fine. Never better.”
A wave of relief washed over Alice. “Thank God.”
“You, on the other hand,” his eyebrows formed a wave, “are dead.” He glanced back at his toga-wearing companion, who smacked his forehead. “The old guy in the dress says I’m supposed to work on something called bedside manners.”
Alice had already assumed as much, but her current environment seemed designed to aide in the acceptance of such a conclusion. “But who are you?”
“Weren’t you listening? Your ears must still be plugged up from the ride. I’m Vegas…”
“Jack. Yes, I know. What are you, though? Some kind of angel?”
The Rat Pack reject’s eyes laughed a moment before his mouth. “That would be a big negatory. Look,you’ve had a hard day…you fell off a bridge. You died.” He glanced over at the gentleman in the toga,who signaled for him to continue. “It’s complicated. There’s metaphysics and quantum mechanics to consider. I don’t think I could explain it to you in a way you’d understand. Not that I’m saying you’re stupid—just ignorant.” He let out an exasperated sigh, rolled his eyes, and transmogrified into the wraith that she had first encountered in the car. Peals of smoke leaked from robes comprised of funerary shrouds,and his coal eyes smoldered red. Thin fingers, as pale as freshly marked gravestones, punctuated his every word. “Best soul harvester in the business, that’s what they call me. Jack.”