She had been travelling for over 5 hours, she was tired and achy from the uncomfortable seat. She was listening intently to all sounds surrounding her: rustle of the water knocking on the metal sheet of the car’s body, monotonous sound of the engine and the music from the walkman of a person sitting somewhere in the vicinity. Lightning had been flashing brightly in the semi-darkness of the vehicle’s inside every couple of minutes and somewhere further inside the bus a child afraid of the storm was crying. Rei straightened her black hair, looked out of the window musing about her travel.
She didn’t know exactly why she had left her home and why she traveled so far North. One night, when she had meditated at the fire in her temple she had seen visions - she could see a small town located in the North Hokkaido and had the feeling that she needed to visit the girl in her vision and she was absolutely needed there. She knew that she would understand what the vision had been about only when she visit the place. She also understood that she had to go there alone, telling nobody where she was going, neither what caused her to travel there.
Rei came to the conclusion that she wouldn’t be able to fall asleep, so she came back to reading the book. She peeked through the window. She noticed that some buildings appeared which meant, that she had approached the target of her expedition.
After a moment a noise sounded and the bus shook. People started talking loudly, somebody swore, the child being afraid of a storm was crying even louder. Rei put the book down. She started to look around. The rain outside was already too heavy that it wasn’t possible to see anything outside. The driver ran out from his vehicle and after a moment, came back into the shelter of the bus. He was enraged and drenched entirely.
“We got a flat tire. We’ll have to wait until this downpour calms before we can fix it. I’ll try to repair the breakdown as soon as possible, but it’s incredibly slippery and hard to see with the rain. I apologize for all impediments”. The man announced with irritated voice. Somebody cursed loudly. Two young men offered to help the driver change the tire.
“How long is it from here to a hotel?” Rei asked the incredibly obese person sitting closest to her, taking up almost two seats on her own.
“I think it’s about half a kilometer”. The woman replied with a deep voice.
“In that case...” The girl took her knapsack and rose from the chair. “I don’t intend to wait hours here”. She announced. Squeezing past the fat lady she went to the exit door.
As soon as she left the vehicle, cold air enfolded her and her legs got stuck in wet mud. Streams of rain wetted her hair and clothes, but in spite of it she didn’t go back to the bus. She knew that the breakdown of the bus exactly in this place had to have some meaning for her. It was meant to be.
She was walking along the road toward the small town fighting with the rain and cold wind. Men repairing the car and watching her depart whispered something to each other and laughed quietly, but their voices were deafened by the howling of the wind and streams of water falling down from the sky.
Rei slowly made her way to the first offering of shelter of close by storefronts. Lights from the nearby buildings were her only signposts in the surrounding wave of rain which seemed to be an endless fog of water.
The girl was drenched, freezing cold and angry at herself. She should have just stayed inside the warmth of the bus, sheltered from the rain. The road turned into a river of dirty water and mud. Rei was moving alongside it with an effort. She stopped in order to sweep wet hair aside from her face. In the same moment a wooden house hidden in a clump of trees appeared in a front of her eyes. Light was shinning in its windows and somebody was standing on the porch.
Surprised girl went up closer and it turned out that it was some older woman. Something suggested the black-haired girl to come closer to the stranger. Seeing the approaching dark haired beauty, the old lady ran out ahead of the porch spreading her hands.
“Mei, Mei! Is it you? Did you come back?” She asked delighted. Rei came to the old woman with fast steps and led her back to the porch.
“You shouldn’t go outside in such a downpour”. The girl tried to lead her back into the dry place. The woman looked at the eyes of the black-haired girl, her face quickly turning sad.
“You aren’t Mei, you aren’t...“The old woman said almost crying.
“I’m sorry that I’m not a person which you waited for “. Rei announced being pleased in her heart of hearts that she found at least a momentary shelter from the rain, yet sad for the obviously upset older woman.
“Are you expecting guest?” She asked.
“Yes... my granddaughter Mei! She’s supposed to come back! She’ll certainly come back to me this night, I prepared her favorite dishes...” The woman said almost crying from longing and joy at the same time.
Rei opened her knapsack and took the map of surroundings out of it. She really wanted to go inside the stranger’s home to warm herself up. She tried to establish a closer contact with her.
“Aren’t you cold on such a night? You’d better go inside your house...”
“No, no! I cannot move from here! I cannot! Because I’ll miss my granddaughter’s arrival then!” The girl was surprised by the behavior of the old lady. She became nervous.
“But she knows the way home. It doesn’t matter whether you’re waiting for her here or inside!”
“That’s not true! I cannot miss her arrival! I cannot!” The old person insisted.
“If you say so...“Rei sighed and looked at the map. She realized that it had slowly stopped raining and the air became warmer and more pleasant. The girl picked her backpack up and decided to move on.
“Goodbye, safe journey”. The old woman shouted back, looking at the girl walking back.
“What a strange woman...” Rei said to herself. She started sneezing. The water from the rain wouldn’t do her much good. She thought that it was her own fault. She had left the bus and gone into the heavy downpour on her own.
After a few minutes of the walk, she stopped on the crossroads and looked at the sky. Clouds yielded, slowly carrying their burden away to cleanse the land further South and the large silver moon appeared over the dark horizon. The girl looking at its oval shape felt a strange sense of calm and serenity.
She noticed the building with a lot of lights in the distance. According to the map which she had, it was the hotel in which she was supposed to stay at. It meant that she had finally reached the small town.
She smiled and hurried in the direction of the hotel building. Entering the hotel, its reception was small, decorated only with a few scarce flower pots. At this late hour of the night the place was completely vacated not counting the receptionist hovering near the desk. The girl came up to the woman standing by the wall.
“I’m Rei Hino, I have a room booked here”. The woman looked at the drenched figure with a backpack standing before her. She laughed up her sleeve.
“How did you got here in such a scolding rain?” She asked.
“I’m unlucky”. Rei answered.“Can you just give me the keys to my room please? I must change”. Rei added impatiently.
“Of course. Come with me. I’ll lead you to your room”. After these words the two women went toward the stairs leading to the upper floors of the building.
In the reception, a completely bald man in sunglasses, dressed in a bright short-sleeved shirt and white trousers was reading a newspaper next to a potted plastic tree. Seeing the raven haired girl walking away deep into the building, he put the newspaper down and looked at her carefully.
Meanwhile the girl entered the room allotted to her, quickly closed the front door and not even putting the light on, she entered the bathroom. She took wet clothes off and immediately stepped under the shower. After a few minutes she came back to the room in purple, summer pajamas. She was worn out after the journey and didn’t even bother to dry her hair. She lay down in the bed, trying to fall asleep as soon as possible.
Rei was dreaming unusual dreams. She was on the huge market place enclosed from the rest of the city with a high fence. She was a little girl and everything around her seemed very tall. She looked all around trying to found somebody.
She got lost. Walking from building to building searching for a familiar view, or a person who would help her to find the road. The houses which she passed were grey and dirty and the street was full of dust and sand.
Somebody called her by her name from a distance - voice of another child, trembling, desperate, begging for a help. Rei followed the sound, going faster and faster. She was running. Near passers-by looking down on her, spectral figures with horrifying, grotesque smiles.
She ran up to the little gate by which the fair-haired girl was standing. The little girl smiled at the sight of Rei and she extended a hand to her.
At that very moment the body of the child caught fire. The huge flames consuming the stranger and spreading to the buildings nearby. Rei could not move. She started crying seeing the tragic death of the girl. The fire came closer and closer, forcing Rei to escape. Flames burnt everything on the road. Huge grey buildings and motionless ghost-like figures. The specters while dying to the hungry flames never lost their horrifying smile stuck to their pale faces. Rei stumbled and the flames licked her body.
Rei woke from the nightmare.
It was already bright in the room, the Sun was slowly moving above the horizon. Rei turned to the other side of the bed. She felt ill, her head and throat were aching. She sat down on the bed, hair falling on her forehead. She was sweaty and her fast heartbeat was slowly calming down.
“What’s this dream was supposed to mean?” She thought. She got up and looked at a wristwatch which was lying on the night table. It read 5:45.
“Nice... I slept probably around three hours.” She moaned in displeasure.
She decided to find some medicine in her backpack and take it as soon as possible. She felt the cold taking over her slowly, she knew that she couldn’t let herself fall ill. She put the knapsack on the bed and started digging around in it.
She unfortunately could not find the bags with pills neither a box in which she held her ofuda which she used to the fight against supernatural powers. She became nervous. After a moment of slightly panicking she remembered her night-time meeting with the older woman last night.
“It had to fall out from my hands, when I took the backpack.” She thought and calmed down. She was safe, because such an old woman certainly wouldn’t find an application for her magic accessories. She was feeling ill and weakened, therefore she decided to lie down and sleep a few next hours.
The rest of the morning she spent in a calm sleep. She woke up some time after nine o’clock. Feeling a little better, she decided to get dressed and come back to the house of the old lady for her things. She put new jeans and a blue shirt on.
Leaving the hotel, she noticed that in front of the building a bald man was reading his newspaper sitting on a bench. He had white trousers and a T-shirt with the inscription “Fuck Communism” on it. Exactly like the night before, he looked at the girl walking away avidly.
Rei quickly found herself by the old house. Before she decided to knock, she stopped for a few minutes and chose to watch the homestead very well visible in the sunlight of the morning. The building was in a very bad state, its walls were cracked and windows were covered by planks. The path leading to the door was overgrown with grass and weeds.
Rei noticed her things lying in the thickets. She took them and decided to talk with the woman once more. She knocked at the door. Nobody came. She tried once again, with no effect. She looked through the window, but she saw nothing through the little slits in the boards. She leaned against the wall and felt the cold again.
“It’s a ruin! Nobody has been living here for a dozen years!” She heard someone’s voice. She turned around and saw a young boy standing close by. He had brown hair and was wearing jeans and a black shirt.
“Nobody?! Bu yesterday I...”
“Rei!? Rei-chan?!” The boy cut her off in mid-sentence.
“Do we know each other?” The surprised girl asked.
“Rei, I remember your face! Don’t you remember me? I’m Masanori”.
“Nobody with such a name is coming to my mind...”
“You forgot... I shouldn’t be surprised. So much years has passed since we’ve last seen each other. You were a little girl then, we both were children”.
“I had to be very small, since I remember nothing. And apart from that I don’t think that I’ve been in this area for any moment in my life”. Rei continued the conversation not very satisfied with the new company...”
“Listen, perhaps we’ll go somewhere to talk? I’m sure that if I tell you how we played here you’ll recall everything”. The stranger suggested.
“Maybe not today... I caught a cold and I’m not feeling well”.
“I know a good café. The hot chocolate they’re serving there will help you for sure”. Rei put her box with the ofuda into her backpack.
Recent events seemed strange to her. The meeting with the mysterious woman, the strange nightmare, the disappearing of the old lady and the appearance of the boy who claimed that they were good friends in the past. She knew, that all of this could correlate with the premonition and the vision which caused her to go to this neighborhood.
“Ok, I’ll go with you to the café... but first tell me one thing... why did you say the house by which we’re talking by now was an abandoned ruin?”
“Because that’s true! An old woman used to live here in the past, but she died many years ago... I don’t remember her too well, but people are saying that her granddaughter died in the mountains. The woman waited for her a long time, until she died of the worries”. Rei’s face paled. She swallowed hard.
“It’s becoming stranger and stranger...” She thought.
“Rei... Did something happen?” The boy asked.
“No, nothing... I just felt a bit dizzy. Fever is probably starting to overwhelm me. Perhaps we’ll go to that café now?”
“Ok.” the boy agreed willingly.
“I cannot tell him I talked to the apparition of this woman yesterday. He’ll think I’m nuts”. Rei was thinking. She decided that she would visit the house of the elderly lady later, armed in accessories to fight against preternatural powers.
Masanori and Rei reached the small café with its own garden. Because of the early time, the restaurant wasn’t crowded. Only a few guests were tranquilly drinking the coffee. The bald man who earlier had observed Rei was sitting in the corner of the small garden in front of the building. He was reading his newspaper, probably the same one as the day before. The girl stopped nearby the entry and looked around. As it turned out the café was surrounded with a little coniferous forest which cast the pleasant and cool shadow to the route.
“It’s nice here”. The girl announced.
“I’m pleased that you like it. Let us come in”. Rei and her friend took the place at one of tables far from the road in the small garden. A calm, quiet music was coming from loudspeakers somewhere in the vicinity. The bald man finished reading the newspaper and geared himself up to leave the café. Passing by Rei he cast a brief glance at her. Rei noticed it and she was a little surprised that she had met the same man once again.
“Rei-chan? Did something happen?” Masanori asked.
“No... I simply fell into a pensive mood”. She announced.
“And don’t call me ‘chan’, ok? I don’t know you or I don’t remember you!”
“Ah... I thought that something had already started to appear in your memories...” The boy replied.
“Nothing at all... this is the first time I have been here and I cannot remember you. When will you finally understand that? I don’t know why I agreed to meet with you in this place!” Rei told him with a raised voice and tried to rise from the table. Masanori stopped her.
“Why did you come here?” He asked.
“I don’t know... I mean I know, but I don’t think that you would be able to understand it”. The girl sat down on the chair deciding to stay.
“I think, that somewhere in your heart of hearts you remember this place and me”.
“Tell me. Tell me how you got to know me and when it was.” The girl suggested.
“It was years ago, when we both were children. You came to us with your grandfather for the holidays. I remember that I met you the first time in the nearby park when you were bored, because your grandfather meditated somewhere in the mountains and you didn’t know what to do with yourself.
I showed you nearby forests, mysterious tracks and other places which fascinated you then. Next day you turned up in the park again, and we had been meeting every day through your time in the city. The three of us playing every day: You, me and Mei-chan. Did you recall something?”
Rei’s emotions were confused, on the one hand she thought that the boy had found a very strange way to hit on her and invite her to coffee, but on the other hand his story and the name Mei-chan meant that there was a slight possibility that the connection between his appearance and strange premonition, which forced her to go to this small town existed. All events of the previous days seemed to be tied together: The old woman awaiting Mei-chan, the boy who claimed that the woman died a long time ago who also recalled Mei’s name and the meeting with the strange bald man appearing everywhere she went.
Rei thought that she would try to be close to the boy and believe in his story or discover what was actually hidden behind his behavior. She also knew, that if everything turned out to be his whim, she would know how to defend herself against him.
“Unfortunately, I don’t remember anything, sorry”. She refuted after a moment of thought.
“Don’t worry. If you stay here few days more you’ll remember everything”. Masanori said calmly. Rei changed her sitting positions. She felt that the cold was affecting her more and more.
“Maybe... I’ll show you one place which we visited together during your stay here?”
“No... I don’t think so. Not today. I told you that I caught a cold and my throat still aches”.
“It’ll take no more than a few minutes, no more... I promise. After this I’ll buy you some medicine”.
“Ok, if it’ll be no more than a few minutes...”
Masanori and the girl left the café. Rei looked around in question for the bald man. She realized with a relief that this time he hadn’t tracked her. When Rei and her companion entered the nearby park, the Sun went up high above the horizon and her surroundings were filled with its warm rays.
The girl didn’t tolerate increasing heat because of her cold. She came up to the short stone wall along the road seeking the cool shadow. She stopped for a moment, passing fingers over the uneven surface of the structure. The boy came up to her alarmed with her behavior.
“Did something happen?” He asked.
“I told you that I was feeling bad. Probably it overwhelmed me for good...”
At the same time a vision appeared in her mind, memory of a past years from a long time ago. She could see herself as a little girl in the red dress standing by the same stone low wall. She could see the smile on her face and rays of sunshine falling on it. She could see two other children keeping her company: the boy and other girl.
“Rei... Rei! What is happening now?” Masanori asked.
“I don’t know... I remembered that I’ve been in this place before... it’s so strange...”
“You see! I told you! You’ll certainly remember it all! It’s our wall from childhood.”
“If you say so... Is this the place you wanted to show me? In that case let us return to my hotel. I’ll lie down for the rest of the day...” Rei announced. She was too weak to investigate the case of the boy further.
“Ok, but we’ll take a shortcut. Ok?”
“Ok, it’s your city, take the lead”. The girl agreed. The boy led Rei into the side lane which very quickly transformed into the trampled route in the hills covered with trees. The shadows cast by the green trees gave the effective protection from the heat of the summer’s Sun.
Rei was satisfied with this shortcut, the coolness from the trees causing her to feel slightly better. After a few minutes Masanori stopped and asked Rei to do the same. He showed her the small footpath disappearing into the forest thicket.
“Let us walk there, I must show you something.” He said. Rei unwillingly agreed and they both were on a forest path covered from both sides by high grass. The path was steep and mud from yesterday’s rain was everywhere. The girl had to go down very slowly in order not to slip.
“I like it less and less!” She announced. Masanori showed her with a gesture of a hand to be quiet. After a moment they both found themselves on some enclosure overgrown with bushes. Instinctively Rei clutched fence so she could walk on the wet mud. The boy stopped and he swept thickets growing before him aside.
“Look Rei, do you remember?” He asked. An abandoned funfair appeared before the eyes of the girl. Wooden buildings with faded paint, wiped out by time and the nature were standing on both sides of the road overgrown by diverse weeds.
Colorful, plastic objects and a poster showing a very fat woman in a pink dress was fluttering on the nearby pole. In the distance one could see the rusting devil’s wheel and the roller coaster structure covered in green ivy.
Rei felt that this place was familiar for her and she has been there before. She couldn’t however remember details associated with it.
“Do you remember?” Masanori asked her again.
“No, but I like this place. When I feel better, I’ll come here” The girl announced. Her friend admitted that she was right and he led her to a main road going to the small town and the hotel. In the meantime the boy stopped by the nearby drug store in order to buy the medication he promised the girl. After a dozen minutes of walking they reached their destination.
“Thanks for the coffee and the brief trip.” Rei announced gearing up for the return to her room.
“It was nice to meet the friend from the childhood.” Masanori said.
“I’d better go now... my throat is killing me, as if something’s burning inside it , I must take some pills”.
“See you later, Rei”.
The raven haired girl crossed the gate of the hotel, when the boy stopped her.
“Listen... don’t open any windows at night. It can be very cold here... better not to catch another cold... and one more thing... if you can’t fall asleep, I bought a sleeping pill for you, take it... ok?” The boy seemed confused and very serious.
“Ok...“The girl replied being surprised with the last statement of her companion.
Walking up the stairs, the black-haired girl met the bald man who also came back from a walk all over the city again. This time she didn’t pay any attention to him perhaps because she heard noise in her head and the next symptom of her cold announced itself - a very unpleasant runny nose.
Rei entered her room quickly and took her shoes off, swallowing pill sand laying down on the bed. She felt dizzy and had the sensation that her face was entirely immersed in hot air. The girl looked at the slightly opened window listening closely to sounds coming from behind it. She listened to someone’s conversation from other room. She recognized single sentences, but the whole thing had no meaning for her. She felt that she was starting to plunge in feverish sleep.
Words of the boy ordering her to shut a window for the night appeared deep inside her subconscious mind, but she didn’t want to get up and hadn’t enough strength to do it. She fell asleep.
Her dream was restless and the images she saw in it were chaotic, devoid of any meaning. It was the middle of the night when she woke up again. The room plunged in total darkness was lit only by the street lamp casting anxious shadows on the wall opposite to the girl’s bed.
Rei turned on her back. Not knowing what to do with herself she stared at the ceiling. She was feeling better than she had during the day. Her fever had subsided, but her body was still battling with the virus.
Not being able to fall asleep, she sat down on the bed. She started listening to the sounds reaching her ears. Somebody was watching TV somewhere in spite of such a late hour. Somewhere else a feral cat was mewing.
Rei lay down again and returned to analyzing the shadowed black patterns appearing on the walls and ceiling of her room. Her thoughts granted them new names and meanings. It took her a long few minutes. She could not fall asleep again and on top of all of that her head started aching because of her runny nose.
“Insomnia.” She thought raising from the bed once again. She took a walk around the room holding the watch with the shining digital display in the hand.
“1:21, a beautiful hour...” She thought. She looked one more time in the direction of the window and went into the bathroom. When she came back, she noticed that a slight wind was shaking the curtains.
Passing by the table she took the sleep-inducing pill. She knew that taking them would be inevitable. She approached the window and stuck her neck out of it. The street close to the hotel was completely empty, there was no light in any of the windows.
“Such places really fall asleep at night.” She thought comparing this view with the image of the city in which she was brought up.
She lay the head on her arms and decided to stay in the window for a little longer. She noticed some strange shape flashing across the street. She watched it more closely noticing that it was a small man dressed like a circus clown.
She was surprised, but she observed the shadowy figure until the it disappeared around the bend of the road. After a moment another runner appeared. It seemed strange to Rei, so she decided to hide herself in the window all the time observing the surroundings.
Bizarre sounds, laugher, strange singing, voices reciting something were flooding through her ears. They were becoming louder and louder with every consecutive second. Something very unusual was spotted by the girl’s eyes. A parade of extraordinary individuals was marching on the street.
Circus clowns dressed into colorful costumes, bizarrely twisted gymnasts, fire-eaters brightening their surroundings with the spark of their flames over and over again. Rei observed the entire incident and her awareness started escaping somewhere. The sleep-inducing pill started to work.
Laugher and conversations of the mysterious procession became exceptionally loud and unpleasantly horrifying. It appeared to the girl that somebody amongst the assembled company was calling her name. Although she was horrified, she continued her observation.
A bearded, fat woman was walking in a pink dress along the street together with a giant carrying weights and a few Lilliputians dressed up as children. Dwarfs on leashes were attached to his legs. Three-legged dancer leading a dog with two heads was running on the pavement. In the crowd one could see gentlemen in tuxedos carrying hats from which different things were jumping out.
Strange, children’s voices were flowing into the ears of the girl, they seemed to call from behind her back, from the inside of the hotel accommodation.
“Rei, Rei, Rei...” They were reciting in a trance. The girl in the same moment noticed a dozen colorfully dressed people with little heads carrying richly ornamented sedan chair with some young woman with a long, fair hair.
“Rei-chan, join us...” Rei heard. Her eyes started shutting up, therefore she peeled off from the window and having closed it came back to the bed. She pressed her head to the pillow trying to hush the children’s voices. A dream slowly embraced her and sounds from the outside became more and more quiet until they were at last completely silenced.