Shadows swaddle a white concrete building after school. There is green, a series of bushes, plus banyan trees farther on behind. A beige gravel path runs alongside the dusty structure, which has a red-shingle roof in the old style. There are footsteps. A boy rushes up and slaps Etsu, who carries a book and a pen, behind her white, clammy ear.
“Half-breed,” he says.
Etsu doesn’t hesitate; she cowers into a ball and cradles the book to her chest. Above, the late afternoon sun throws gold over the children, blessing them equally like a god who never learned the names of her progeny. The wall beside them is blank.
“Where’s your dad?” says the boy, thrilled by his own shout. He circles her, watching, wishing he had a stick to prod. “Hey come here.”
He fetches a nearby group of students. Three boys, a girl. They stand around and pass the killing judgment of kids. The day fully dwindles to a close.
“Your mom did it with a soldier.”
Kicks. Someone spits on her shirt. They are excited by their own meanness, drawn together in the pride of a powerful crowd. They understand nothing of what they are doing, and at the same time they are perfectly aware. They hurt this girl who is different, because she is different, and it seems easy to do. The teacher doesn’t punish them when they laugh at her in class, so they believe they are sanctioned to expel outsiders.
“Hi there,” says a young Reiko Shinsato with a rock, and she bludgeons the instigator’s face. Blood steams freely from his nose; he cries. Reiko does not laugh. She is serious, fueled by unsettled balances.
“What the hell?” says another boy, and Reiko leaps upon him. She makes herself watch the blood pour out of the second nose, and she does not smile, does not feel any joy in the motion. She takes the kid’s head and slams it against the ground.
The remaining boy and girl run off. Reiko kicks the two attackers on the ground until they, too, scramble away, vowing revenge in weepy, nasally tones.
“Don’t ever touch her,” yells Reiko after them. Sun sweeps over her face, across her body to where Etsu is curled on the asphalt.
“Are you okay?”
Etsu blinks up into Reiko’s gray eyes. She nods.
“Those kids are assholes. They always will be.”
Etsu sits up with her back to the supply shed she’d been passing when they jumped her. Reiko drops down beside her, arms crossed over drawn-up, gangly knees.
“Maybe they’ll change.”
Reiko laughs. Even at age eleven, she has no faith in humans. “If only things were that simple. People enjoy hurting each other, no matter how they pretend different.”
Etsu sniffles, looks over to the hero’s sneer. “Did you enjoy hurting them?”
“No, not really. I mean, I was angry, and getting out my frustration on them. I don’t know. I wanted to keep them from hurting you.”
Etsu smiles. “You did that. Thank you.”
Reiko takes her by the hand, strokes it with the free one. “You and me, Etsu. We’re ‘off,’ it’s just how it is. People will notice that, and take advantage of that, and never forget it. Even if we do our best to fit in with the island.”
“Maybe when we’re older it’ll get easier.”
Again Reiko laughs. She is not condescending towards the other girl, just nostalgic for her own dou shield of innocence. With sparring parents, there is precious little joy to expect from the wider world, and you learn that lesson ahead of time.
Etsu watches her hand being squeezed by the taller, tougher classmate. She wonders what meaning is hidden in the motion. She wants to write this episode down so she can claim it as her own, memorialize the pain and safety, but for now she tells herself it is okay to enjoy what is happening. She smiles, her cheeks low and chubby.
“I think if we try to make it better it’ll get better.”
Reiko shrugs. She is no activist. She just wants to stay sane. “Maybe.”
“I’ll help you see it. I promise.”
“For some reason I believe you when you say you promise.”
They both laugh. The sun retires, sloping behind the fukugi trees, shooting the clouds through with lavender in a final act of compassion. Shadows overtake the two friends.
On the off-white sofa littered with clothes, Reiko filed her nails, stressed, distracted from stress by an anime about teenage vampires. Through the bay window the sun shrugged below red-tiled roofs and balconies, plunging the den into navy gloom. A courteous knock prevailed upon her door, by chance at the same moment a demon hunter onscreen hammered a stake into a voluptuous bloodsucker’s heart, so Reiko sped over in a flurry of panic to admit her guest.
“How’d it go?” She ushered her friend into the den and hopped back on the couch, lowering the TV volume to spare Etsu the more gruesome sound effects.
“Dr. Tamashi was very understanding. He’s letting me finish the paper whenever I want, basically.”
Reiko’s scoff carried a loving frustration. “I’d kill someone to get my boss to tell me that. But what’s the point of a stress-free journalist? You’d just disappear.”
Etsu relocated a blonde-streaked lock of hair from her eyes before tugging her green EPMD shirt into a more comfortable position. “You can be one, I suppose.”
“Don’t give me that. It’s too late for me, my dear. If I have any hope of reaching the Asahi Shimbun, I better get used to three hours of sleep. On a good day.”
Etsu stood in the small, cluttered living room as if lost, until Reiko motioned for her to sit beside a bra and a pair of dirty workout shorts. “You can always sleep on a bench outside Shinjuku Station,” she said.
They laughed at the lives of mainland Japanese. Then Etsu fried hirayachi so they could eat while watching the news.
“More updates on the disappearance of young Kumiko Natsuharu. A witness claims to have seen an American in a white van talking to her near her house. Police officials are investigating the claim and have asked representatives at nearby Heiwa Air Force Base and Camp Furusato to cooperate. No comment from the bases at this time.”
Reiko allowed herself a weary hum. “Another abduction, imagine that. One of my reporters wrote an article on the girl yesterday. Nine years old. Mom sells homemade jewelry, dad is a construction worker. He managed to speak on the phone with the mother, actually; she was holding up pretty well.”
Etsu had balled herself up on the couch. She buried her hands in her voluminous shirtsleeves and waggled them like flippers. “I can’t imagine. I’d want to die if I lost my daughter. After losing Lucy I cried for ten hours.”
Reiko lit a cigarette, inhaled, and hissed away smoke through her nose. “Remember when that car ran over John?”
“Yeah, he always had that gunk on his eyes.”
“Shih tzus get those a lot. They go blind, you have to give them eyedrops. I think I was angrier about John, at fourteen, than any of the deadlines I deal with now. I don’t know why. I didn’t even care about the death as much as the unfairness. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I loved him, he was an amazing dog, but it was the question that really messed with me. Because it was answerable.”
“You never caught him.”
“Great practice for journalism, though.”
“He was really thoughtful. Polite, when you walked in the door.”
“I still remember the notice I drew up: ‘Wanted for murder and fleeing the scene of a murder, driver of a gold Toyota Camry, missing hubcab on back right tire, license plate beginning with XC.’ With a photo of my buddy underneath. That’s how it goes, though. Mom probably made up the license plate numbers.”
“I made him a eulogy, too.”
“Oh shit, that’s right. Say it, I haven’t heard it in years.”
Etsu bit her lip.
“Come on, you brought it up. I forget the words, but it meant a lot to me at the time. It still does.”
Etsu took a breath and brought herself back to that patch of earth they’d buried the shih tzu under, in a pet cemetery near Hosa Beach. “Okay, but only because he was a great dog…let me think…
“John is gone, but we all still love him
I’ll cook him chinsuko in my mom’s hot oven
I’ll visit his plot, and leave him fresh pots of tea
Because I know Don John would do the same for me
If there’s a rhythm in life, then this dog is the drum
Because his heart beat strong ‘til the day it was done
Even though we know his killer still remains in the streets
We’ll drink a toast to this beast, so his spirit finds peace
I remember the day Reiko first brought him home
He had big buggy eyes and a bigger pork bone
Hanging out of his mouth, ‘cause John loved to chomp
He could hustle on the beach, in the city, in the swamp.
Well I can only hope he gave it to some lady at night
So his little, little puppies can see the light
Either way, here today, we all celebrate John
Even if he always sneaked out and peed on the lawn.”
Reiko applauded, the color in her chin reddened by the verse. “Shit, you really said that at the funeral.”
“I mean, you had a funeral for your dog.”
“Shut up. Or sorry, I know Lucy just died. Sorry.”
They sat on the couch, one smoking, one crawling into her shirt to hide from new memories, while the news scrolled by on television. Tropical Storm Ayara crept towards Okinawa, lit up in wild colors by the weatherman’s radar.
“Let’s throw a storm party,” said Reiko at last.
Etsu pulled at her cheeks until the muscle showed under her eyes. Her brows met in a hesitant V, and she thought of Jay-Z, the Brooklyn rapper, drinking Cristal from a champagne flute and pinching a cigar in his other hand. A gangster, is what they called him. She puffed out one of her cheeks and popped it with a soft hiss. “If it’s all right with you, I think something calm would be better. My nerves have had all the excitement I can stand.”
“That’s understandable. However, I propose we at least get very drunk.” Before Etsu could protest, Reiko hopped up and pulled two bottles of beer from the fridge. She stood in the raw light of the sunset snapping off the tops. “I have off all day tomorrow. I’m meeting a friend at some point, but you can obviously crash here.”
“Yeah, just someone I know.” Reiko shrugged. She couldn’t tell her about Jin now; better to wait until this mess went away. Etsu would be mad, sure, but she was always livid over some injustice. Mother’s wages, deadbeat dads, the future of Okinawa.
As she sipped, the grad student said, “It is kind of soothing.”
“See? And maybe your terrible date will get run over by a car, save us all a lot of trouble.”
“Don’t say things like that! He’s still a human.”
“He’s a psycho. You’re such a pacifist, you don’t even realize we’re getting nowhere by sitting down to consider everybody’s feelings. No one gives a shit about ours.”
“This beer has made you sour already.”
“I’m always sour on that topic; I write politics every damn day. You know that old activist, Wasayama?”
Etsu fought the nausea that twisted her insides like a windlass. “I suppose so.”
“You suppose so. She’s not on the news or anything. Look—that’s literally her right now on the screen.”
A replay of Hidari’s speech for base relocation. Etsu couldn’t help but see the woman punctured with bullets, dripping blood into the packed sand. She flicked the bobble-head doll Yoshio had given as a gift and turned away from the plastic face.
“That old lady is crazy. She’s nice, but you know—not all there. She told me she’s running a petition for complete Okinawan independence.”
“No one wants that. You’re talking about economic collapse. Like it or not, we need Japan, and the bases. You can’t just cut it off cold turkey. It would put the island in shock.”
Etsu drifted into layers of sadness. The officer zipping her cat into an evidence bag. The thock of pulling the nails from Lucy’s paws, sponging them clean of blood.
“Maybe I should go home,” she said.
“Now? Sure, a guy broke into your house and spiked your cat, and a typhoon’s on its way. Let’s go home.”
“We can handle typhoons.”
“This is a Category 4, probably. You want to take the bus in that?”
Etsu turned out her bottom lip.
“I’m sorry, I’m loud and insensitive, it sucks. I’ll be good. I’m just used to living alone and screaming. Practice for Tokyo, I guess.”
Etsu drew her knees to her chest as she leaned into her friend’s embrace. Globalized world aside, it pained her when someone left the island. “Would you even like it there?”
“Here, there, wherever. I figure I work at Asahi for a few years, come back here, maybe get a higher salary. I’m Okinawan at heart, I guess. Lame.”
“It’s not lame, it’s beautiful.”
“So poetic. Why don’t you march on the streets with Wasayama?”
“I could, if I quit my job…”
“Blame me for putting the thought in your head. I’ll cover your protests, but don’t worry—I’ll put you in a favorable light. Good thing you photograph well.”
Reiko drained her beer and snapped a picture of Etsu with her cameraphone. She snorted with laughter.
“One of your eyes was half-closed.”
Etsu met her face in the tiny screen: pale, drooping, misty-eyed. She’d forgotten Reiko’s playfulness when she drank alcohol.
“I look tired.”
“No, you look like you’re about to celebrate through a storm. Or we have to be quiet? I’d make a lousy psychologist.”
“You’re a great reporter, though.”
“Junior editor now, thank you.”
“I’m sorry. I—”
“Don’t apologize! Be angry for once. Hit something.”
“I am angry enough. At him.”
“Okay, good. Say what’s on your mind.”
“I’ve had to do that twice out loud today, and about a thousand times in my head. I’m angry that he wasted my time when I was exhausted, that he scared me on the beach, violated my home, and killed a defenseless animal who I loved. I want him to make a public statement of apology, and to perform at least six months of community service.”
“That is impressively specific.”
“It’s what I think.”
“Well, I love your ideas. You’ve got one of the few competent minds I know.”
Etsu turned her face away, wrinkled her nose in awkwardness at the compliment. “That’s not true.”
“Just because you’re smart you assume everyone is. Not so. Most people are ignorant, close-minded, damaged, and occupied solely with themselves.”
“We probably are, too.”
Reiko swung her legs on the coffee table, tapped her beer, and peered into the ceiling like her words had lodged in the concrete. “I mean, we perform a public good and don’t nail cats to walls.”
“Sorry, sorry. Jeez, what am I going to do if someone’s mom dies?”
“Pretend you have a sore throat.”
Reiko talked straight through the joke, but got it after a few seconds’ delay. “This must be the alcohol talking. I’ll get you another drink.”
“I knew you could do it! Still some happiness to be had around here. Come along, little pacifist; let’s dance.”
Etsu shut her eyes, desires warped from the cold beer, twirling in her partner’s arms. The room blurred. The breeze of her own motion sang past her ears. Reiko was strong; you’d never know from looking, but she could fight a man into submission. Not surprising why she’d called the editor first, and not her mother, after finding Lucy mutilated. Come to think of it, she hadn’t called her mother at all. Blame grad school and its relentless tunneling.
Yet Reiko she hove to like a magnet. If anyone could shield her from a man who butchered clients on direct deposit, it was this vital, garrulous, steel-jawed example of power, gripping her by the wrists.