There was one point in those months when Shigeo welcomed any kind of change.
The TV was out of question: it had to stay downstairs, there wasn’t much on at that time of the day anyway, and he didn’t want to wake his family up just because he wanted to hear the statics. The big tuner was in his parents’ bedroom, so he couldn’t use it either. He contemplated saving up for a small radio, but with how frequently his power acted up lately during mealtime, his pocket money would have to go towards compensating for silverwares first.
Ritsu saved him from worrying over that, first of all by returning the spoons to their original shape whenever an accident like that happened, then by teaching him how to listen to radio on his phone. “The quality’s not too good, but it’s an alternative while we’re saving up for something better,” he said after pointing out to Shigeo the way to change the stations. “I think the pro-wrestler league has a website too, all of their podcasts should be there in case you need to find an older one… If that comes up I’ll help you with it. Don’t worry, nii-san.”
The pro-wrestler podcasts weren’t totally a lie. Everybody in the Body Improvement Club was at least mildly interested in them, after Onigawara introduced them to Musashi. Of course Shigeo wasn’t as familiar with the sport itself as Onigawara or Kumagawa, so in the end the podcasts became not much more than white noise to him; but as they were, they suited him just as well as a blank station sounding nothing but statics, so there wasn’t anything he could complain about.
He put his phone under the pillow the first few nights, the volume on as low as possible, then Master Reigen gave him a pair of headphones after their next venture. “Don’t listen to music for too long,” he told him, his tone spoke of someone who had made that mistake before. Shigeo believed him. There wasn’t any reason not to.
He listened to the podcasts through the night. The night was longer than what he used to remember of it.
There was something in the district. Something new.
It wasn’t the bus stops. The bus stops were pristine clean but always smelled of presences. Somehow presences made everything a bit older, a bit more private to an anonymous party outside of his knowledge. No trace stayed at the bus stops for too long; winds chasing after the last buses of the day always carried them away before any night lurkers cared to pursuit them.
It wasn’t the lampposts. They were like dust piled up, and people saw through them most of the time. The part that would ever attract attention to them was far enough above eye level to avoid scrutiny most of the times. They couldn’t carry indications of something new.
The bushes thrived and the tree kept standing quietly. Doors opened and closed. Pen scratched on paper.
There was something new.
Shigeo had gotten into the habit of listening to the radio while walking home. He started off looking for something cheerful, but then he realised he wouldn’t pay much attention to it anyway, so by this moment anything was good to him. The headphones Master Reigen gave him couldn’t keep out much of the noises around him, so as long as he still paid some attention to the road, there wasn’t any real risks.
Kurata had been talkative recently. Shigeo was glad of it, mostly. She came into club meetings with brimming enthusiasm for some urban legends said to be rather popular recently, convinced they were aliens in disguise. “We need to find a way to communicate telepathically as soon as possible,” she said to Shigeo, then put another chip in her mouth. She continued after swallowing. “We just gotta establish communication. Then it’d all work out fine. Just tell them they’re welcomed here with open arms.”
Her enthusiasm didn’t lead to a breakthrough in their ‘researches’, but it had to run its course before dying down. Shigeo was okay with hearing voices he was familiar with, so he didn’t stop her. For the rest of Telepathy Club, it was already par for the course.
When there wasn’t any clients at the Office, Shigeo put on his headphones. He could hear the keyboard and the cup of tea being put down on the desk every now and then through the music. It suited him just as fine.
His power kept acting up during dinner. That shouldn’t be something new.
“You shouldn’t listen to music that late at night,” Ritsu told him one day on their way to school.
It really shouldn’t have come to Ritsu telling him this, really; he hadn’t been replying to people as fast as he used to do. He hadn’t noticed Ritsu being disturbed by the sound at night - these headphones didn’t work too well anymore. Good thing he put the volume on low anyway.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Must’ve been keeping you up.”
“No, it’s fine for me,” Ritsu said. “It will disturb your sleep, that’s all. Putting music on while sleeping like that isn’t good for you.”
What he thought at that moment was it’d still be an improvement, but that seemed to be something people might worry over. So he said “I’m okay like that, don’t worry” instead.
He put the volume on even lower that night. Ritsu still worried. That was just him.
Kurata told him about the urban legend she was still interested in lately.
Shigeo could imagine it.
It was a cat. Well, half of one, if they could go by what the footages and the articles online said. White fur, chopped off tail, tiny human hands where paws should be. A stomach full of fireflies still lighting up feebly, if what the article said about that sagittal anatomical plane that should’ve stayed hypothetical was to be trusted. Usually spotted running down dark alleyways, the witnesses (four in total) having only two or three seconds to observe.
Some people had been digging up alleyways and crossroads to find the source of the legend. “Fools,” Kurata said, scrolling down the blog currently opened on her phone leisurely. “This can’t be a haunting. This description fits an interdimensional being too well to be anything else. Just you wait and see.”
Shigeo just thought the creature shouldn’t be disturbed like that. It wasn’t harming anyone, even if it was an urban legend. At least not until people started thinking it brought death or misfortune, like the human-faced dog. Beliefs were powerful stuffs.
He forgot most of it by the end of the day. It was hard to retain things nowadays. Almost like his brain was set on a monotonous track towards silence; if he didn’t actively try to remember details, they’d fall away as easily as dust. He didn’t want that - details should worth more than dust - but his wants wasn’t much to the rest of this show either.
Between that venture and the day he started listening to the radio, his dreams typically went like this:
He woke up alone. The streets he walked were quiet. The punches and kicks landed, but he didn’t feel them. People’s faces were muddled and faded. Some of them laughed, but he didn’t hear it. He was always on the ground sooner than he anticipated - or maybe his perception was just warped, this wasn’t real, and the road here was just too uneventful and too quiet to remember, this wasn’t real, and it broke out too quick, and it wasn’t real— and someone pulled out a knife, and it ended up in his hand. So he swung it.
Then he woke up. Alone.
He didn’t remember much of his dreams since he started using the headphones.
Dimple came in through the window while he was putting his notebooks away. “There’s something new in the district,” he said, floating idly near the desk lamp. “I don’t know what, but it sure leaves a strong smell.”
“You haven’t seen it?” Shigeo asked him. He shrugged.
“Haven’t run into it yet. Might just be a new kind of pest - you gonna meet it the moment it causes a ruckus, knowing you and your ‘master’.”
Shigeo pulls the zipper on his school bag closed. “Maybe it’s the new urban legend. It seems pretty popular lately.”
“Oh, you’re interested in those things? Didn’t think you’re that kinda kid.”
“Kurata-senpai tells me about it everyday.” Shigeo didn’t know what the kind of kid the spirit spoke of was. “People’ve been seeing it around a lot more frequently. Kurata-senpai said someone in her class saw it yesterday on the way home.”
“Don’t tell me you believe all of that,” Dimple said.
“It doesn’t matter if I do or not,” Shigeo told him.
“Yeah, well, guess you’ve got a point there. Maybe that’s the thing I smelled, if that’s what urban legends smell like. Can’t tell. It’s been quiet around here.”
That reminded Shigeo - the Office hadn’t had a venture in a while. Most of their problems now were Master Reigen’s specialty more than his, and he had had a lot of opportunities to listen to the radio while in the consultation room. That wasn’t very usual, considering their record streak before.
Maybe that was the something new he had been feeling. Maybe.
There was a stray cat near their house. It started coming around recently.
Shigeo had seen it before, in other parts of the city. At least he thought so - it looked and acted like the same cat, but it never stayed near him long enough for him to actually get a good look at it. It always appeared a bit ragged and roughed up, and it could act really difficult, but he liked to think it trusted him somewhat.
The cat was just a rustle in the bushes near his window at first. Soon it showed up near the pipes outside his window sill, looking inside with a wild look. It would run off the moment someone went near the window.
Shigeo made a bowl with an old plastic bottle. He put the milk he couldn’t drink outside for the cat.
It came around for the milk, but never stayed.
Sometimes he woke up in the middle of the night, startled by something. Might be his dreams, might not. He didn’t remember enough of them to tell.
What he remembered of them usually went like this:
He woke up alone. Statics filled the air. The streets buzzed. The punches never came, and he just walked the streets until he was on the ground, in front of an alleyway. The dusty lamppost stood between him and the entrance. The light flickered the way usual household light bulbs did, but slower.
Then he woke up, alone, the newest podcast playing on loop in his ears. The light was always off.
It really wasn’t much to go by.
“Whatcha listening to?”
Shigeo blinked slowly. It took him a moment to look up again. Master Reigen was looking at him from the desk, intertwined hands propping up his head. Music was still playing on the phone.
“Mob?” Master Reigen called again.
Took another beat for his mouth to work. “It’s just… music, shishou.”
Master Reigen stood up from where he was sitting. “You’ve been really into that lately, huh. ’S gonna hurt your ears if you wear those headphones for too long. Put them away, we’re going out for something. How does oden sound for you?”
Took him a moment to answer. “It’s… good.”
The evening didn’t feel real without his headphones on. He ended up home, under his blanket, staring up at the ceiling before he knew it. Maybe his perception was just warped.
Kurata showed him another footage the next day. It was low-quality and shaky, and the only thing they could make out from the whole two minutes and thirty-seven seconds of it was a yellow-green-glowing white feline-looking small figure dashing past near the end.
“It’s awful fast,” Kurata remarked. “Even cats aren’t that fast.”
Shigeo and the club let her go on with her researches. By now she had filled up a whole notebook with citations, descriptions, images she printed out, notes, and drawings. She read them what she had collected, and somehow her enthusiasm was just a bit contagious. It kept the club’s spirit higher than usual.
In the end Shigeo ended up spending more time with the Telepathy Club than the Body Improvement Club anyway. While he was present for training, they talked about the podcasts in passing words. Onigawara and Kumagawa liked the same wrestler. There were more than 70 episodes of those podcasts by now.
Shigeo didn’t really listen to them anymore. It was now an unending track of mismatched sounds playing whenever he put on the headphones. It matched the noises outside well enough to blend into the environment whenever he stopped paying attention. And since the sounds didn’t make any real sense anymore, he was always inclined to do that.
“You haven’t been listening to the radio,” Ritsu said to him on a day when they went home together.
Shigeo was a bit slow to answer, “I… haven’t.”
He had. The headphones were always in place when he woke up.
Ritsu worried anyway. Shigeo wished he would stop worrying, but his wishes weren’t much to this show anyway.
After a night of rain, Shigeo put the makeshift bowl of milk on the window sill instead of near the pipe.
The cat was a bit wary, but soon it jumped up on the window sill to get its usual meal. Shigeo sat at his desk while it lapped at the milk. It looked dirty and malnourished, its tail (the tip chopped off crudely and healed just as messily) kept near its legs, as if it was trying to stop it from swishing around nervously.
When the milk had been finished, the cat looked up at him, body still as a statue. It dashed off the moment he stood up. He filled up the bowl again anyway.
The cat was back again while he should be sleeping: in the morning, the bowl was empty.
“I think I saw the Half Cat just now,” their dad told them over dinner. “When I came across the convenient store on the way home.”
That was what the urban legend was called now. Shigeo found that name a bit more amusing than scary. Ritsu wasn’t into urban legends in general, so he didn’t care much.
“I can’t believe you actually believe those stories,” their mom said with a sigh. “I’ve had enough of the neighbors telling me about that thing. It’s like the whole city had run out of things to talk about.”
“Well, it’s big.” Their dad shrugged. “The story, I mean. Not Half Cat. Still bigger than the normal half of a cat, but not huge.”
“How’d you know? All it does is running past people, it seems. They can’t even tell if it’s a cat or not.”
“Well it didn’t move when I walked past it,” Dad said, absentmindedly tapping his chopsticks against the bowl. Mom scowled at him to make him stop. “It just lie in the alleyway, glowing like a bunch of fireflies together.”
Ritsu’s face told Shigeo that he didn’t much like that image. “Don’t say that during mealtime,” Mom scolded Dad. He just shrugged. “Sounds so gross— Shige!”
Shigeo looked down at his hand to see the spoon twisted into a knot. He blinked, then it seemed to vanish from his hand and into Ritsu’s. Another blink, and it was back into his grip again.
“Sorry,” he said, hazily, and wiped the spoonful of soup off the table with a piece of paper towel.
Statics woke him up.
He could barely catch the end of the buzz, but he remembered it even when his eyes had opened. Taking a deep breath, he held onto the memory of that sound, the rattles of empty sounds, so similar to rain he could almost lose it again in memories of downpours instead.
When he looked to the window, the cat was sitting there. It held itself awkwardly, as if it could tip out of balance at any moment, the short, ragged tail pointing straight up. Warm light from the lamppost outside made its ribcage look almost transparent. The bowl of milk sat in front of it idly.
The cat jumped off into the night the moment a knock sounded on his door. “Nii-san?” Ritsu’s voice cut through the wood, through the statics from the headphones. He took them off before standing up to open the door.
Ritsu looked inside. “I heard statics flaring up.”
Shigeo blinked. “My phone has never done that before.”
“I don’t think it can, actually… You’ve been listening to the radio while sleeping again?”
“I… have.” He didn’t know how else to answer. “Just to fill the silence. I sleep better when there’s noise.” He slept more when there was noise.
Ritsu looked at him. The silence seemed unreal after the buzz in the air died. After a moment Shigeo said, “Let’s go back to sleep,” and Ritsu apologized for waking him up, and he said he had been woken up by the statics anyway.
He checked out the bowl of milk after Ritsu had returned to his room. It was still as full as when he refilled it earlier. When he woke up again in the morning, it was empty.
Master Reigen bought a pair of speakers for his computer at the Office. When Shigeo arrived that day, a music station was playing.
“Oh, Mob, you arrived,” Master Reigen said as he walked in. “We’ve got a client in twenty minutes.
The music playing in the Office that day was probably the same as what Shigeo listened to on his phone everyday, but somehow it sounded different. He could actually hear the notes. They went through the shift without him putting on his headphones.
When he was about to put them on again for the way back, Master Reigen stopped him. “Let’s go out for some takoyaki. It’s been a while.”
It might really have been a while. Shigeo couldn’t recall.
“Weirdly clear night, don’t you think,” Dimple said while he was doing homework. He couldn’t concentrate enough on his homework or the spirit’s word to put his effort into either of them, but he tried anyway.
“Yeah, usually by this time of the year pests are already crawling around everywhere.”
“Maybe it’s the urban legend,” Shigeo replied, almost automatically, after a beat.
“You seems really for that huh.”
Shigeo was lost somewhere between his homework and Dimple’s voice; his head filled up with statics.
The cat came early. Statics flared right before it jumped up on the window sill.
Shigeo sat up, statics roaring from the headphones covering his ears. The cat stood under the light of the lamppost, dust floated up from its fur, glowing under the light.
Unplug it, a voice sounded hazily through the pouring buzz. Shigeo did what it told him to.
The statics stopped.
The cat stared at Shigeo, tail swishing around lazily. Then it looked down to the plastic bowl, and blinked slowly.
“You can drink it,” Shigeo told it. It tilted its head in a strange angle. “It’s milk.”
Something sounded in the headphones, like a person trying out a mic by tapping on it.
Shigeo stood up and went to his desk. The carton of milk was in his bag. He took it out, went back to the cat, tore open the corner carefully, and made the motion of tilting it to pour milk into his mouth. “It’s drinkable,” he told the cat.
It only stared at the already in the bowl, then at him again.
Taking a deep breath, Shigeo tilted the milk carton into his mouth again. Statics were picking up in his unplugged headphones as the taste washed over his tongue. He swallowed. His stomach didn’t seem to agree with what he just did.
The cat looked at him again, then jumped off the window sill into the night, leaving him standing there with an opened carton of milk in hand. For a moment the wind seemed to pick it up, but before he could register that sight, it was already gone.
He left the milk carton on the window sill. The bowl was empty by morning, and the carton nowhere to be seen.
“I heard statics again last night,” Ritsu told him on their way to school.
“I did too,” Shigeo said.
“Do you have any idea where it can come from? It’s just weird for it to happen like that in the middle of the night.”
Shigeo almost answered the urban legend by default, but then he thought twice about that and replied, “No idea, sorry, Ritsu.”
Kurata was quiet today.
Shigeo didn’t like it, but his will wasn’t much to this show anyway.
Inugawa told him while Kurata scrolled furiously down the blog opened on her phone, “Some sick assholes harmed a cat to set up for fake evidence on Half Cat. They’re all cuffed and hauled back to the police station by now, but President was still upset. Understandable, really. Who would even do that?”
Shigeo couldn’t say anything, even though he had the answer.
“At least they can’t do it again,” Inugawa said thougthfully. “There aren’t many stray cats on the street anymore. I haven’t seen one in a while. I don’t know where they’ve gone to, but if it means those kinda people can’t get their hands on them, I say good for them.”
After their first venture in a while, Shigeo found himself across the table from his Master, a half-eaten okonomiyaki in front of them. The TV of the store was on; the current show sounded like a period drama.
The store wasn’t as quiet as he thought it to be.
“You should sleep more, Mob,” Master Reigen said through his mouthful, pointing the chopsticks in his hand at him. “It’s important for someone your age.”
“I’ll try,” he replied.
The cook turned the TV off, and everything fell off his memory along with the sounds.
The cat didn’t drink the milk.
Shigeo drank it instead.
“Somebody in my office got into an accident,” Dad told them during dinner. “They were chasing after Half Cat. I think the thing doesn’t wanna be found.”
Shigeo soon found himself looking down that the mess his twisted spoon make, and Ritsu doing the same.
At this point of the months, Shigeo welcomed any kind of change.
His first dream without the headphones in a long while went like this:
He woke up. Alone. Statics filled the air. The streets buzzed with a jagged beat. The punches and kicks landed, and statics bursted out every time they collided with his body. Laughters blended into the background noises so well, they could almost be mistaken one for the other. Soon he found himself on the ground, and a knife in hand, and it weighed down on his hand like statics did on his mind. And he swung it.
And then he woke up. Alone. Statics roared in his ears.
The cat stayed just long enough for him to look at it, then it dragged the milk carton off the window sill and into the night.
He didn’t know if he slept any more that night or not. He couldn’t tell.
He came by a cat laying on the ground near a lamppost on his way home from the Office. Its fur was splattered with something like white paint and fluorescent powder. The tail was clipped short in a crude manner.
He stayed to look at it until it could stand up and walk away.
He didn’t dare putting the headphones on again.
Master Reigen let him sleep for a while on the Office’s couch. Or, to better recap the situation, he nodded off while listening to the music sounding from the speakers and Master Reigen let him be.
“You can’t be of any help like this,” he said when Shigeo woke up, startled by a burst of statics. “Go home, have some sleep. We have a big case tomorrow.”
What he wanted was to stay here, in this music, where there was noise - the right kind of noise - but, his wants… they weren’t much. They really weren’t.
“Go, before this music grates on your mind like it’s grating on mine right now,” Master Reigen said. Shigeo knew he was right. “They play these kinds of crap on the radio nowadays. A high trafficked road would sound better than this.”
Ritsu came by his room late into the night. Neither of them wanted to sleep.
“The statics didn’t come tonight,” Ritsu said. Shigeo didn’t really have anything to say to that.
When they both had settled against the wall near Shigeo’s desk, Ritsu pulled out his own phone to put on a podcast. It was one of the pro-wrestler league’s. Shigeo heard the mentioned wrestler’s name for the first time in… as long as he could remember.
They didn’t have any sleep that night, but Shigeo didn’t forget it.
“A kid from Saruta’s class almost got his head crushed while trying to follow Half Cat to the back of the Salt Factory.” Inugawa said, flipping through his comic while Kurata tapped on the table agitatedly. “He’s in the hospital now. They say he’s gonna recover, but if you ask me, it’s kinda scary.”
Master Reigen’s case led them to the other side of the city.
They skidded to a halt when the spirit they were after took a sharp turn into an alleyway. Statics filled the air as Master Reigen bounced forward to follow it suit, but the look on Shigeo’s face probably was what held him back.
“What’s it, Mob?” He asked. “Wait, I hear statics.”
His voice blended into the buzz.
Shigeo went into the alleyway after a burst of statics. His vision almost fizzed along with the air. The light at the end of it flickered like a household light bulb, but slightly slower.
Their client’s treasured ring lay on the ground. Shigeo picked it up.
The light approached them before they came to it. Out of it walked the cat, paws looking too much like human hands firmly on the ground, mouth opened wide, showing the jagged jaws.
Master Reigen noticed the milk carton on the ground the same time Shigeo did. “Let’s get out of here,” he said to Shigeo, before statics drowned out everything else he said, and the steel balcony right above them creaked slightly. It didn’t fall until three days later, when someone else was under it to take a picture of the alleyway.
Shigeo drank his milk carton. He didn’t remember the dream he had in the morning, when he saw the bowl of milk still stand on the window sill, full to the brim.
Master Reigen brought back to the Office a cat bed covered with old rugs and tree barks and filled with milk cartons. “Can you feel anything from this thing?” He asked Shigeo.
There was nothing to feel. The cat bed was empty and silent. The sour milk smell was overwhelming.
Master Reigen found a way to burn it.
He wasn’t sleeping when the cat came into his room.
It was white under streetlight and moonlight, and even though there was nothing keeping its intestines inside, they stayed in their place perfectly. Its stomach buzzed with feeble light.
He was silent when it dragged the headphones to him. He was silent as he put them on and it jumped back onto the window sill, he was silent when he followed it into the night.
The street was quiet, even though statics buzzed in his headphones. His foot didn’t touch the ground - he shouldn’t soil his socks, they’d be hard to wash - as they moved deeper into the city.
They stopped at a bus stop. Shigeo could smell the spilled milk.
The cat looked around for a while, then sooner than he anticipated, it came back to him. It jumped on the bench, trying to get his groggy attention, and when it did, it opened its mouth to let a burst of statics out.
Shigeo remembered the cat bed. He almost couldn’t find the words to form the sentence he needed to say, but he did it in the end. “They’re… gone.”
The cat yelled a silent high-pitched mic noise. It hurted his ears.
“They’re… dead. They’re dead. There’s nothing…”
His voice was drowned out by the statics.
The cat nudged on his hand. It was shaking. It was vibrating with the lamenting buzz.
Please, he heard through the headphone. Someone tapped the imaginary mic. Please.
“I don’t want the other one to be all there’s left of you,” Shigeo said, not really sure where he got the words from. Statics flared up.
But of course…
The cat nudged on his hand again, and this time he rubbed what was left of its head. Like a zipper bag zipped open, light flowed out of it with his hand. When he took his hand off the tip of its tail, it had already dissolved completely.
The light from the lamppost flickered slowly.
He went home. The streets were quiet.
He woke up alone.
He left the headphones at the Office. Reigen put them away.
Ritsu came by his room again.
The Half Cat came by his window one more time, and this time there was a carton of milk waiting for it. He watched as it wrapped its hands around the carton and lifted it up, then threw him a dark look before running off.
People learned to stay away from the urban legend before long. Kurata’s enthusiasm dried up just as quickly. “Maybe it’s better for it to stay away from people,” she said one day, while reading something on her phone. “Can’t trust the welcoming open arms of some folks.”
Sounds returned slowly to him, and with them memories. He couldn’t remember his dreams anymore, but the rest he did. He could keep himself from spacing out again. Ritsu worried a bit less.
The stray cats returned to the streets when they didn’t pay attention. So did the pests. Dimple was happy.
He drank his milk again eventually.
The cat never came back./.