They always warned me that something like this would happen. Dad liked to pull me aside and tell me, "Now, honey, a lively imagination is a beautiful thing—"
Mom would pop up and add, "—but a rambunctious one will land you in prison."
"Or the nutbarn, whichever comes first," my brother Farley would sometimes chime in.
Me, rambunctious? Pshaw! In my defense, all I ever did was find something to talk about, then talk about it like it was. It wasn't like I picked these things up out of thin air.
…Though the part about having a lively imagination, I could agree with, for sure.
But now I started to wonder if they were right, about everything else. Had I cracked? In my search for the one story that would finally get people to start taking me seriously, had I lost it?
I sure picked a fine place and time to lose it: in the middle of a foreign country, thousands of miles away, nautical or otherwise, right when I was just starting college as an exchange student. It probably wouldn't have been so bad if I'd done it at home, where all my friends and family were. Here…it sucked. It plain sucked the big one. For once, what more could I say about it? I couldn't, especially with the language barrier between me and the kids at To-Oh, the school I attended.
The instant I barged into the office, I headed straight for the desk and slammed my hand down. "I need to speak to the editor of the school paper, A-SAP!" I didn't exactly have the credentials for a bigger news printing group—yet, but I figured that I ought to start somewhere. Stephen King started out writing for a school paper…in his native country.
The girl at the desk, who had been typing something at her computer, stopped in mid-type, her fingers hovering over the buttons as she looked up to give me this funny look, like I had moose antlers spouting from my head or something. For a minute, I was too caught up to figure out why.
After a pause, I found my palm smashed up against my face, a grunt squeezing out of my throat. The Japanese press must not have worked the same way as the American press. I couldn't just storm in yelling, "Stop the presses!" when I wanted the presses to stop, the way I was used to.
I yanked the brim of my hat over my eyes with one hand. The other gestured the girl to give me a minute while I stumbled out the office door. Seconds later, I slunk back in, trying as best as I could to approach the desk like a normal person. My legs and feet twitched and tingled viciously, like I was walking across a bed of hot coals.
As soon as I was a safe distance from the desk, I did a bow, making sure to do it at my waistline. While I was down there, I tried to remember what the word for "Sorry" was, and then tried to say so when I pulled back up. It came out like a coil of garble in my ears, probably because I was repeating it two or three times, for good measure. With that out of the way, I slid up a little closer to the desk, pushing my hat up out of my face.
"Listen, can I see the editor of the school paper? It's—it's kind of urgent. Really urgent, actually." The twitching in my limbs had shot up into my voice box, while my cheeks burned as red as stoplights.
The girl said something in her quick native tongue, that funny look stuck on her face. She must not have understood me. I hung my head as I fished in my bag for that damn dictionary. Squinting at the small print, I frantically scanned for the right words to convert my request into Japanese, sensing the girl's eyes on me the whole time. The phrases with one or two words were decent enough, but anything else beyond that was a strict pain in the ass.
I might've stood there all day hunched over if someone hadn't popped out from around the corner. "You need help?" he asked me in wobbly English, but in English, nevertheless.
Phew! I quick closed the dictionary and drew my hand out of my bag. "Yes, sir! I need to see the editor of the school paper. Is he in?" I blurted, forcing a grin to mask my sheepishness.
He smiled at me. "This is him: Inoue Hayate."
I took off my hat and bowed, the base of my spine moaning in discomfort from all the bowing I'd been doing all day, never mind since I'd touched down in Japan. Courtesy is pain, what more can I say?
"Erin Blogger…er, Blogger Erin," I said with a tight-lipped titter, still not entirely sure how I was supposed to introduce myself. "I'm not exactly with you guys, before you ask, but I-I've got something I think you'll want to look at, in regards to the paper." My voice started to quake again as I dug into the seams of my bag for my folder. I opened it up with trembling hands to pull out the picture.
I gave him a fair warning before handing it to him: "Don't bother sitting down, because you'd just stand right back up."
Hayate stared silently at it for what felt like hours, cocking his head to one side. The girl at the desk stood up to lean in for a look. Neither of them said a word, or if they had, I couldn't hear them over my pulse roaring in my ears.
Finally, Hayate said, "Nice shot of the sky. But what's this have to do with To-Oh? Was this taken on campus?"
The grip on my hat tightened. "Well, uh, no, not exactly, but I—I'm not talking about the sky! I mean the thing in the sky!"
Hayate placed a thoughtful finger against his cheek. "The clouds? They look nice, too, a bit crooked, though. Your angle looks hasty."
His peer whispered something into Hayate's ear, and he nodded. He turned back to me and said, "You can see Himura-sensei at the Art Department, maybe? He'll help you hone your skills. I'm sorry, but this otherwise isn't news-worthy."
What the hell, were these two screwing with me, or what? I was practically sputtering. "But—but—the thing in the sky! What about the big, ugly thing in the sky? Isn't that news-worthy?"
I almost choked. "L-let me see that!"
Now they were both looking at me like I had moose antlers as I ripped it out of his hand. I jabbed a finger at the silhouetted skeletal monster in the corner, dangling in mid-air like a hideous marionette on invisible strings as its tattered bat-wings eclipsed the sunlight.
"This thing! This thing, right here, clear as spit! Sort of. C-can't you see it?"
Hayate muttered something to the girl at the desk, and she said something that sounded like, "Yeah."
"Yeah." For a far-too-short second I felt an inkling of hope…until I remembered that over here, "Yeah" or whatever actually meant "No." She reminded me of this when she shook her head.
"What's wrong with you guys?"
Forget antlers; I might as well have gotten donkey ears with the new look they gave me. Hayate only had this to say: "What's wrong with you?" I think the girl said something about a nurse, but I didn't have it in me to figure that out for sure.
I wasn't getting anywhere with these guys. More pairs of eyes appeared from all around me to see what the commotion was about, backing me into the figurative corner. Suddenly, it felt like somebody had jacked up the thermostat five or six degrees.
Damn it! It looked like I was going to have to bail, again.
Crushing the picture in my fist, I gritted my teeth and snarled, "Ugh, you know what? Forget it. Just…forget I ever came in here, go back to your business. Adios!" Humiliated and pissed beyond belief, I slapped my hat back over my head and stormed out before they could say anything else.
Only when I was outside did I realize that "adios" wasn't even Japanese.
All right, so maybe that little outburst didn't help to boost my credibility. On the contrary, I probably could never show my face in that office again. I'd only been here for a few weeks, and I was already getting in trouble: something my folks had made me promise up and down not to do.
But it wasn't all my fault! How could those guys not see that…that thing? It was right there! Were they screwing with me, because I was a new kid? I squeezed my eyes shut and saw the two of them behind my eyelids, snickering to each other in their native tongues, "Oh, that American asshole, we sure showed her what for."
The more I thought about it, the more the arteries in each side of my brain throbbed, threatening to take out both sides of my head with them. I felt like passing out, so I propped myself up against the wall to simmer down.
I unraveled the picture in front of me. Huh! Not news-worthy, my ass. At the very least, I should've gotten a twitch or a gasp or a white face, something subtle, anything at all! How could I not? I know that's how I reacted when I saw it. I could only come up with three possible explanations: 1) Japanese people were really good at playing cool; 2) they saw big, ugly monsters flying around all the time; or 3)…
…they honestly didn't see it.
No, that couldn't be. I saw it, and I was clean and sober, I swear I was. And if it really was just a hallucination, a trick of the light, then why would it show up on a photograph?
I reached up to tug on the brim of my hat. My fingers traced the well-loved fabric, looking for the luck this Fedora had graced me with over the years. Unless I'd finally worn that out, too…?
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted two girls passing my way. I recognized them as girls from my dorm: Yuki and…Kyoko, yeah, that's it, Yuki and Kyoko. Their English wasn't spot-on, either, but it was good enough to strike up a conversation.
I looked back to the wrinkled photo in my hands. Maybe I could get a second opinion, a third, if possible? I didn't think either of them was into journalism, but I had to admit, at that point, I was starting to get desperate. Surely they could see the thing?
So what I did was, I stood up and wiped the tension out of my face. Then I headed towards Yuki and Kyoko and fell in step alongside them, hiding the photo behind my back as I laughed with them.
It didn't take them too long to notice me. When they did, they stopped to look me over, neither looking too happy to see me. "You're rude to cut in, you know," said Yuki.
"Who, me? Oh, tch, I'm not cutting in," I said, innocent as I could possibly act. "I just think, uh…whatever it is you were just talking about is funny, is all."
Kyoko raised an eyebrow. "You saw Arata blow up in Chemistry, too?"
"No, she's not in that class."
I got tight-lipped for a minute as I fiddled with the brim of my hat. "Well, you guys are laughing about it, so it must have some chuckle value. Hey, you know what else is worth talking about?"
Before either of them could answer, I scooted behind a cherry tree shedding its bright pink blossoms. Shifting my eyes back and forth, I beckoned for them to join me. For a moment there, it looked like they weren't going to bite, but they did in the end. Kyoko looked genuinely intrigued; Yuki must've only went along because they were friends and all.
As soon as all three of us were under the discretion of the shade, I held onto Yuki's shoulder, earning me a cringe from her. I warned them both, "Brace yourselves: what you are about to see may leave you questioning everything you've ever believed in." I know I am…
I let go of her shoulder. With a flick of my wrist, I held out the photo for the two of them to see. Like Hayate and the girl at the desk, they were silent, though not for quite as long.
Yuki spoke up first: "What's questioning about the sky?" She was glaring at me, like she'd been expecting something juicy the whole time. "It's over our heads every day."
Jesus Christ, you've gotta be—
It was the office all over again. "No, no, f-forget the sky! What about the thing in the sky?"
Kyoko adjusted her glasses and leaned in for a closer look, particularly at the corner. "This cloud looks a little like Ryuga," she murmured, her cheeks flushing with almost the same shade of pink as the cascading blossoms.
Meanwhile, the blood in my own cheeks burned them from the inside-out like acid. "Fuck Ryuga! Fuck the clouds! Come on, don't tell me you don't see it, either! If it were the real deal, it would've ripped your faces off by now!" I squinted at them as I tried to remember the words for "monster" and "right there;" maybe they'd listen, then?
Kyoko recoiled, a hand over her mouth. Yuki folded her arms across her chest as she pieced together the garble tumbling out of my mouth. "'Monster?' Hmph, what a joke, not even a joke. If you'd have altered this picture a little, maybe it'd be remotely funny. Let's go, Kyoko."
They abandoned me under the tree, but not without Kyoko turning her head to glare forks and knives in my direction. All I could do was stand there with my jaw unhinged, no doubt looking every bit as stupid as I felt. I slumped up against the tree, taking off my hat to rub circles into my temples.
Not them, too! Either something's wrong with them, or something's wrong with me…and it's sure not me. Can't be. The entire student body can't all have the same thing wrong with them, can they? They can't ALL be out to screw with me.
I held the damn picture over my head like a shield from the bleaching sunlight leaking through the branches. If I could be sure of any brain-screwing, it would have to be from the monster itself, deeming me unworthy to even look in the eye as it silently mocked me from the safety of the grainy skyscape.
Who're you trying to kid? Even at home, you were a crackpot. What made you think it'd be any different over here…or better, for that matter?
Going to Japan wasn't really my idea, to be honest; it was my folks'. I went with it because it'd sounded like an adventure. They saw high-quality education and practicality, "something that can't possibly hurt you to try, Erin." I saw a huge neon sign promising a gold-mine of stories in blinking white and red. I would see things my friends hadn't seen, do things they hadn't done, find things they hadn't found. And at the end of it all, I'd return home with stories about those things to pass on. That is—was—the thrill behind journalism. I thrived for that thrill.
But now here I was, wondering if I'd snapped. I'd taken a couple "monster photos" in the past, only to have it turn out to be a float or a fly on the lens or some other PS (pigeon shit; where I came from, there was a lot of that, and not just on the sidewalk and the statues in Central Park). I finally had a genuine monster photo in my hands, and no one else could even see it, sohelpme, why couldn't they see it?
And I had to face it: if I kept trying to push it, they'd probably want to screen me to see if I was strung out or something. Maybe they'd give me the boot while they were at it?
That sulfuric sensation returned to my cheeks as I mashed the picture into a ball. This isn't worth the paper it's printed on, I thought bitterly as I chucked it in a random direction, not even caring to toss it into a trash can. Hell, I didn't care where it landed, or who'd find it next, if anyone found it. Unless they had a thing for cruddy sky pictures, it was PS.
Pure PS. Strictly PS…
The burning shot up into my eyes. I was rubbing them out of their sockets long after the picture had left my fingers.
What else was a girl in my situation to do about it except eat out her sorrows before anything else? Oh yeah, To-Oh had a cafeteria and everything, but there also happened to be a coffee shop nearby. I couldn't seem to find the confidence to show my face around campus for the moment, so I headed up to the shop instead, just to get away for a while.
I made sure to get a table way in the corner where nobody came around. While I scanned the menu in one hand, I thumbed through my dictionary with the other under the table. I still wondered if I'd snapped, and if I had, should I blame my parents just for shipping me over here? A soft, shaky laugh escaped my lips, one without any real humor. I only laughed because it felt better than…you know. Besides, it wasn't really their fault. They didn't know about the monsters and robots and human-animal hybrids and talking sushi rolls running amok.
…Oh, and supernatural serial killers, too, but that'd all be in good time.
Still, if they wanted to dull me out, they probably should've sent me to someplace like England. At least over there, English was their official language. Funny how you don't think about the alternatives until it's too late to even consider them.
My gaze on the menu lingered on a tiny picture of a dish that looked like a sundae, topped with strawberries and chips and stuff. It looked pretty good; the perfect comfort food, to hell with the calories. As I tried looking up the name in the dictionary, I thought I could sense a presence next to me. Thinking it was the waiter, I turned and tipped my hat out of my face.
The first thing I had to say to him was "Yo!"
It wasn't the waiter. Actually, I didn't even see a person: just eyes, the hugest pair of eyes I'd ever seen, bulging behind a ragged curtain of thick, ink-black hair. Mere inches from the tip of my nose, they stared with a kind of drilling soullessness that could make an owl look tame.
I almost had an aneurysm; as if I wasn't already at the end of my nerves. What I did instead, though, was jar the cup of cream with my elbow on the recoil. The sloshing of milk, combined with a chilly wetness that pasted the fabric of my sleeve to the skin of my arm, ripped my focus away from the eyes for a moment, though I couldn't decide which was worse.
Another unintelligible yelp popped out of my throat as soon as I'd noticed the puddle of cream dripping over the edge of the table. In all my spazz-ness, I'd dropped my dictionary on the floor, so while one hand dove for a fistful of napkins, the other dragged me under the table to fish for my book…or what remained of it. The mess left a giant, soggy sinkhole in the middle of my book, blotting out just about all the text in almost half of the page count.
If I wasn't so busy mopping up the mess, I might've gone and turned both of those eyes black, if you know what I mean. "Aw, man, look what you made me do!" I didn't bother to even try to say it in Japanese; with my dictionary done for, how could I?
To my surprise, whoever owned those eyes replied flatly, "I didn't make you do anything. You jarred the cream entirely on your own accord." What made it surprising was that he'd said it in perfect English, no accent or anything. Was he an exchange student, too? Had to be: I had had yet to meet anyone who did…what he did.
I snatched up a couple fresh napkins to squeeze the cream out of my sleeve, like squeezing a wound. "I wouldn't have done it if you hadn't sc—oh, what's the big idea, anyhow, sneaking up on me like that?"
I got to take in more of the guy behind the eyes when I turned to glare at him. He was pale, lanky, kind of sickly-looking, and hunched over, like a question mark. His eyes couldn't get any blacker even with my "help;" layers of dark insomnia rings lined his eyelids like a raccoon's mask. His dilated pupils devoured almost every part of each eye until they were more like two holes in his head, like he'd spent pretty much his whole life in a cave or something.
He had his hands buried in his pockets, quietly rustling as he started pulling something out of there. He held out at arm's length a tiny, wrinkled sheet of paper folded over several times, pinched between his pointer finger and thumb like it was a piece of used toilet paper.
"You dropped this," he muttered. He was a soft-spoken kind of guy.
Furrowing my eyebrows, I balled up the soggy napkins and set them aside. Then I snatched the paper from him and started to unfold it. Sure enough, that goddamn picture greeted me underneath the folds, the last thing I wanted to see.
I pinched the bridge of my nose. "I might've, I might not have. Either way, you can have it. It's trash." I started to hand it back, but he wouldn't take it.
"So you did throw this away."
"No, I said I might or might not have dropped it. Big difference."
"But you acknowledged this picture as 'trash.' Obviously, you wouldn't have lost track of it so carelessly if you regarded it as something valuable. For that matter, you wouldn't have made this judgment so quickly unless you were the previous owner, therefore already having a clear concept of what it is. Might I add, the least you could've done was make an effort to place it in a proper receptacle."
Was this guy joking? I couldn't tell from the look on his face. In fact, it was about impossible to tell what he was thinking, if he was thinking. His affect was flatter than stale soda.
I made a face. I couldn't say I was too fond of the idea of such a weird guy tailing me, especially over something so stupid. "Wait. You're telling me that you followed me all the way over here, over some litter? Hey, if it bothered you so much, why didn't you take care of it yourself?"
"Because everyone is responsible for their own litter. They must be held accountable for its disposal," he said, as blank-faced as can be. Was he for real? He sure was a funny character, in a screwy kind of way.
"Who are you, the Litter Law Enforcement?" I snorted.
"Not exactly. I'm Hideki Ryuga."
Hideki Ryuga…why did that name sound familiar? Oh, wait…
"You mean, Ryuga, from To-Oh?"
I could remember now: Ryuga was supposed to be one of the top dogs at To-Oh, one of the only two kids who allegedly scored perfect on the entrance exam that year, and also, the crappiest dresser. He stuck out like a scarecrow in a department of mannequins, with his clothes dangling off him at odd angles like they were way too big for him. As a matter of fact, he was wearing the same wrinkly white shirt and faded baggy jeans that he'd worn to the opening ceremony. And the day after that, and the day after that, and the…ahem. Up until this point, I'd only gotten passing glances of him around campus, but he always wore that same outfit, every time. I wasn't a fashion freak or anything, but it is kind of hard not to notice when someone comes to your school every day wearing the same thing.
Either his family was barely scraping by financially, or he got off on messing with people's expectations. Maybe he was just that lazy. The smart kids tended to get a little complacent in all the schools I'd gone to. Ryuga sure was an extreme example of that.
I was originally going to tell him to get lost, but as soon as my memory clicked, I caught myself, which was a rare instance. Even with his place as a top student, he was sort of an anonymity, as far as I knew. The picture had been a flop, but maybe, just maybe, I could make up for it with an interview, an exclusive interview, with Ryuga? What more did I have to lose?
So I worked up a smile. "You know what? I'm sorry. You're right. I should've taken better care of my trash. Thanks, pal! Thanks for setting me straight! In fact, I think I'm going to go drop it off right now." I stood up to gather the ball of napkins and my destroyed dictionary. Boy, did I feel dumb saying that, but if I was going to talk to him, I had to butter him up a little. If he could be buttered up, that is.
Suddenly remembering my manners—or lack thereof—I threw in, "Oh, hey, by the way, name's Erin Blogger. Or, uh, Blogger Erin?" I liked "Erin Blogger" better; "Blogger Erin" sounded too weird for me. But then what? Was I supposed to bow, or offer a handshake? Oh, hell, why not do both? All I was doing was being polite. With all the trash gathered in one arm, I bowed as deeply as I could without dropping everything on the floor, then held out my free hand.
Ryuga stared down at my hand like it had the nastiest case of gangrene or something. He had a way of making the most ordinary things extraordinarily uncomfortable.
So I tried picking at the ice some more: "What's the matter? Not up to shaking hands with a litterbug? That's understandable…I guess."
I was going to draw back when Ryuga finally extended his free hand for me to take. His grip was kind of limp, but it didn't feel much like the kind of limp you'd get from a wimp. No, it felt more like the kind of limp you'd get from a guy that didn't really feel like touching somebody else, much less shaking their hand.
When we broke the handshake, I saw him take out a handkerchief to wipe his hands clean. Germophobic, aren't we, I thought, trying to keep the smile on my face. Or just really snobby…
He kept his eyes on me the whole time he was wiping off his hands, as if he wasn't doing it. "It's too bad. The angle is crooked, but otherwise, that's a rather nice photograph of the sky you have there."
Now I had the picture in my other hand, held up to my face. Yeah? Only problem is, it wasn't supposed to be just a stupid picture of the sky. "I'm a lot better with the camera than that, you know. It only looks crooked 'cause I was in a hurry to take it…"
Ryuga slipped his handkerchief back in his pocket in one hand, while the other reached up to hook the tip of his finger in the corner of his mouth. Apparently, he didn't like shaking hands, but he had no problem with sticking his fingers in his mouth. "Is that so? Why the rush? Is the sky not over our heads every day?" Wasn't I supposed to be the one asking questions?
I felt like slumping down, almost to Ryuga's level. "Ppht, that figures. You couldn't see it, either, then…"
"Hm? I couldn't see what?"
"Ah—nothing," I said, starting to look around the place for a trash can. "It's nothing: just a thing I saw the other day—or I thought I did. No big deal. How 'bout you?"
I found a trash can. The next time I turned my head, I found his ghostly face back in my own, his unruly bangs casting a shadowy frame around it. Even the second time around, I felt like jumping six feet out of my skin. Something about him reminded me of the thing, for a minute there.
"What kind of 'thing' was it?"
"I don't know. Some stupid ghost or monster or something," I choked, while I squeezed the napkins and such into the flap. The picture remained clenched in my other hand. "Look, it's—it's not worth talking about. It really isn't. You know how those kind of deals work out: you think you've seen something interesting, and the next thing you know, you've got your face all over the Rag Mag of Shame."
I couldn't tell you how much I hated stringing those five words together in a sentence like that: "it's not worth talking about." That was partly why I was choking. On the other hand, I could only go for so long talking about something no one else could see.
Somebody must've loved going around screwing with thermostats, because once again, I was prickling all over with heat. Hell, now that I was thinking about it, why did I bring the thing up again in the first place? What a thing to say to one of the smartest kids in school, especially when he was supposed to be unloading on me, not the other way around!
Ryuga got quiet for a moment or two, which didn't help anything, to say the least. So I quickly tried to change the subject: "Hey, tell you what, Ryuga, how 'bout you and me have some lunch while we're here? I'll buy." Ah, the sacrifices I made in the name of journalism.
Some sacrifices, however, as much as I hated to say so, were made in vain. "I'm afraid I'll have to decline."
Trying not to look too disappointed, I said, "Do you really have to? You can have anything you want."
"It's not that your offer sounds unappealing. I simply don't have the time, at this moment. Perhaps another time."
Translation: "Never in a million years, sister."
I knew it. I knew I shouldn't have brought up the goddamn thing to an interviewee. And if I tried making him stay, I'd only look desperate, making everything all the worse.
"Oh. That's cool, some other time, it is, then. Any time in particular?"
Ryuga was already on his way to the exit when I asked, the weird bastard. "Yes. Any time but now," was all he was going to say on that. Wiseguy.
Before he left, though, he paused to look back intently at me. "By the way, you shouldn't discredit something of your personal knowledge solely on the grounds of the inability to convince others to believe you. There's always a chance that you may be right, nevertheless: at least five percent."
With that, he left as abruptly as he'd shown up. With him gone, I was free to huff and scowl and kick myself all I wanted. Five percent, he said. I didn't have too much faith in a number that low. Five percent was a PS number.
Still, everything else that crackpot said, about not discrediting what I'd seen…I couldn't shake that off nearly as easily.