Glen rented a van. Pigeon-spatter white, no markings, in decent condition. The suspension creaked like a football player’s knees, but that was all right. The brakes stuck, which he’d expected, too. Still overpaid. Couldn’t find a ride for an honest price on the whole island.
He bought lunch from a Mos Burger and hunched in his tobacco-sweet vehicle, gorging himself like a lion. He was hungrier than he’d ever been.
Imagine one of those Ospreys crashed into his CO’s apartment. Surprise! No RSOP drills today, motherfucker.
Glen laughed with processed bun and ground chuck in his mouth. Dirtied up the dash a little, but no matter. Roll in mud, shower off, roll in mud. The world soiled its pants as often as it flashed a smile.
He drove to the schoolgirl’s house and killed the ignition. Jeans and Affliction t-shirt. Earring in: a gold stud. Hands shaking in wait for signs of life. The prospect of touch was worth more than any yen. All the ogres inside clamoring for a walk. Take me out, take me out. Provide flesh and air.
Stone shisa dogs guarded the door. What were they, tokens? Guarded against bad spirits or something. Or one kept out bad ghosts, the other let in good ones. As if ghosts could be good.
“Bullshit,” he said, in high spirits. On the hunt once more and what a precious thing it was. Tonight, later, was a night exercise, but why not? Raise the missile and lower it down. Build over everything for all he cared; blot out the beaches and rocks and jungles. Make it a giant nuke storage.
In the meantime: sun, brave, cheeping birds, shadows dappling the street. Why could a moment be perfect and no more? The peak of orgasm doomed all other work to purgatory. Time bunched into terrible folds with glimmers of joy at the crest; then a bottomless trough. So what people were icebergs? You only saw ten percent at a given time, but teachers never told you the inside was all hollow, never mind if it broke the surface or not. Probably they didn’t know it for themselves.
Glen started awake; dozing again. Not on the clock, at least. That pissant Arnhauser wouldn’t complain tonight, when Glen would be full of energy. He snorted and laughed, groped for cigarettes. He’d forgotten them. He dug around in the fast food bag and licked salt from his fingers, sucking noisily.
Imagine living in a house like that. Little Kumiko. Walk to school, walk home. Plenty nicer than Jersey City. Lucky girl, free, without blemish. He grit his teeth.
Man is dumb enough to think a child’s life is all one way or the other: the good years, building sand castles and trying fries for the first time, or cuddling with various stuffed companions; and the other end of the spectrum, swats and beatings, trash in the street, dark melancholy. A man forgets he has good days and bad at age five, just like any other.
Glen craved a drink. Whiskey, preferably. He sucked down his Boss coffee and opened another. Bring a manga next time, one of the books with schoolkids tweeting about their problems. I hope papa buys me that miniskirt!
Glen needed to pee. He drove off to a McDonald’s, passed through a group of rowdy students. Girl with a sea-green bow in her hair.
In the bathroom, he studied the second hand of his watch and snarled. Picking brains out of a rifle in Fallujah. Moving in formation through bazaars, backs together, muddled crowd swarming in robes to screech for justice, blood, reward. Bodily thud of a mortar jarring the roof, windows splintering like the bottles he used to break as a kid, mom’s empties. Tip them out the window and hear them crack.
“I’ll have a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. No mustard.”
“Yes. You heard me the first time. And no mustard.”
“Ah, sir…” The young cashier cocked his head to the side and squinted.
“Sir, ah…the mustard.”
“No mustard, right.”
The kid looked back toward one of the fry cooks and said something. The other man shrugged.
“Quarter Pounder with Cheese comes with mustard.”
Glen stared the man dead in the eyes, checking to see if he was being made a spectacle of. “And I want you to give me one without it.”
“What do you bums not understand about the customer’s always right? I’m giving you money for this!” He raised his voice. The knot of students giggled and moved away.
Sweating now, feeling the line behind him, Glen slapped the counter. “I just want you to make me a burger with no mustard. Is that so damn hard? Well is it?”
The cashier labored to understand. He tapped his manager on the shoulder and whispered in trembling, low tones.
“Sir,” she said, smiling with too-purple lipstick. “The sandwich has mustard.”
“I know that, goddamnit, I want it without any! Jesus.”
“Ah, sorry, sir…”
He drove the van furiously, flying up and down the streets without checking the numbers, blaring his speed metal mixtape. Dokken, too, obviously: “Dream Warriors.” Smacks from early life, the dripping towel or back of a spatula. Sure, kids can play games and eat pogey bait in the park, but he was cooped up inside, shackled with punishment. Windows shut. Always watching through the portal the gutter life moving without him. Sneak out and catch a whipping. No brothers or sisters, he took the brunt of it all. An only child is emperor of a puppet government; forced to act against his wishes, except in those matters of his own conscience.
Pick up the girl, engage, go to work. He had the spot picked out, near the water but secluded, lots of ferns. Three hours until the peak. He checked the blankets in the back, the water bottles and duct tape. Big bag of gummy bears.
The sun beat hot and steady into the van, and the air conditioning didn’t work. Think of the smell. Glen got shivers from the idea. He watched his eyes in the rearview mirror, watched them pin down the girl and undress her. Work would be relaxing for once.
The car broke down near a hotel.
“Shit shit shit shit! God damn it!”
He popped the hood, waved away the steam with furious slaps. Low coolant, bet a hundred bucks. Which was how many yen? Nine thousand? He prodded the radiator hoses; leakage-free.
“God damn it,” he said. He beat his pockets for cigarettes, but he was still out. Sweat blasted from his ears, the corners of his eyes. He stalked off to find a car shop.
“Coolant,” he screamed at the attendant. “Cool. You know cool, make things cooler? Ant. Coolant.”
The man waved gracefully to a shelf filled with the stuff.
Lugging the container, he stopped at a Family Mart for cigarettes. At the counter he bought a cheap plastic doll, a tchotchke with goggling anime eyes. Call it a memento for a swell day.
Pour in the coolant, bang the hood, spruce up the dashboard with bobble-head. Cigarette dangling from his jaw. Life had its ups and downs, but you would flatten it all out for a serious peak. Here he was ascending the mountain, winding his way back to 4-chome, ahead of Kumiko’s routine.
Shuttered bars and woefully sweeping grandmas along the road. Dirty white high-rises with square balconies hemming in cotton-ball clouds. Jersey City looked worse and felt worse, famous battle or no. His muscles seized up with greed.
You wrap your hands around the summit, cradle the world in your palm, and crush it to the size of an embryo. That’s how you soothe a man’s injured soul.
Kumiko was late. Or she’d gone home by a different route? Panic washed out his mouth. He drove around the blocks a little faster than was wise, not caring anymore. Today was the day.
His hands clenched round the steering wheel.
There! Black hair and blue skirt. Little Kumiko, taking her lone but not lonely stroll up the Matsumoto district. He drove in the opposite direction; resist urge to wave. He puttered round the block, met her at the corner with white houses all around. She walked unheeding of the silence, the van a million miles away, not figuring into student events, her pretty mind whisking her about the cosmos, into the oceans, across time to an ideal future. She heard a car window slide down.
She turned her head. Smiling white man with flimsy sunglasses. Unknown. She turned her head away.
“Sumi, ah, sumimasen!”
She looked back at the man. Her feet were splayed at odd angles, almost a pointe stance.
“Can you help me find the park? Akemichi?”
Kumiko hesitated, then pointed to the road running perpendicular to them. The man followed her finger and grinned.
“Can you help me? Show me?”
The girl didn’t understand. Blinking her brown, depthless eyes.
“What’s that in your hand there? Candies?”
A piece of wax paper balled up between her fingers. She studied it with the intensity only experts and children can manage.
“Here, you can hop in and show me the park. It’ll just be a second, right? I have some candy to share too, if you help me.”
He motioned to the side door of the van. He leaned over and threw it open.
Kumiko peered into the van. She saw the blanket and bag of gummies. She looked at the man’s creased forehead, his pointy teeth. She kept walking.
“Hey, hey, what’s the deal? I’m just lost, okay? Ah, sumimasen!”
He followed behind with the door still open. A little dangerous now. Need to finish before the house is in sight.
And how could he tell these houses were empty? He knew it was old folks, mostly; they hung around on the beach or shopped in Kokusai-dori. But what if some grandma was spying out her window?
No time for that anyway. Move. Go.
Kumiko turned. Glen stepped from the driver’s seat with the bobble-head doll.
“See? I just—”
She turned and ran.
He stood open-mouthed on the sidewalk, engine idling, watching the girl’s skirt recede. Then he sprinted after her.
Silent doors flanking the road, a razor of blue sky over converging figures. Glen grabbed the little girl with one arm and felt her plastic backpack crumple against his chest. He clamped a hand over her mouth and rushed back toward the van. Anticipation never greater than at the threshold of injury. Up until then he could have turned around, feigned ignorance, a gaijin without manners. He could have run away. Now he had a girl in his possession; a squiggling fetish of respect. The gear missing from his fucked-up, shuddering clock.
She opened her hand with the wax paper. A nightmare creature leapt onto his face.
“Oh Christ, Jesus, get it off!”
He dropped the girl. He ran into a random porch, biting back his screams. Slam into a support beam. He opened his eyes next to a stone shisa dog with his mouth closed: be gone, motherfucker.
Glen frisked himself for signs of the assailant. Huntsman spider, bane of plumbers and nook-priers. Was she a fucking zoologist or something?
His smile was one of pain, a deranged man’s grin behind bars. The weight of his actions hammered against his head and he wanted it gone. There—pink backpack fleeing toward the park.
He didn’t shout again; risky enough as it is. The park bloomed before him, heavy and green, promising life. She could hide under a thousand bushes or cut straight through, across the highway to the sea. She’d be too afraid for that.
Her fat little hands outstretched, knees pumping like gangly cams. Silent windows on either side.
I am about to do something very bad.
She was the parasol to the ordure poised over his head, the inevitable avalanche. He would still die, but he’d be happy, he’d offset the death.
Kumiko tripped and fell. The smack of her palms on the asphalt lifted his renegade soul, spurred him on to snatch the bony heel and dig his fingers into the sock. Summit touched.
With her other foot she kicked at his eyes, but he hoisted her up so her head wobbled above the ground and tossed her over his shoulder. Sunlight pinwheeled over their skin.
The girl loosed a snarl that rattled the soldier’s insides. Her fists beat at his back. He slid her down to face him and clamped a hand over her hallowed mouth. He ran full-speed to the open van.
The wet towel snapped against his skull, promising headaches, and mom sneered down with a twitch in her livid eye.
He was sweating pools onto the road, the world turning faster around him, but the stale rental smell meant safety, and the girl’s darting, illimitable eyes meant peace and perfection.
“Shh, you’re okay.”
The door clacked shut.