Yokai (yō’kī) n. A term used to describe a class of supernatural being in Japan, ranging from the malicious to the mischievous, or even those who offer knowledge or luck. They can boast animal features, look mostly human, resemble inanimate objects or have no apparent physical form, but exhibit some form of supernatural power. This umbrella term can include virtually any monster or supernatural being.
As the sun set, shadows bled over the landscape. Ordinary objects, harmless items by day, became sinister as darkness infected them. Secrets hid in shadows. Nightmares were born from them. The night depleted courage, corroded bravado like an acid, eating away at it as the shadows deepened, suffocating the warmth and safety of light.
And monsters took advantage of man’s wavering confidence.
“This will be your room.”
Seven-year-old Yumiko Sato looked beyond the small sparsely-furnished room to the window, which was open, allowing in a slight breeze that stirred the red curtains. Beyond was darkness. She’d seen what walked the streets at night, and she didn’t dare leave the safety of this house until the sun climbed the horizon again. So this would be her prison during the night.
She glanced at the bed on the floor, then at the small dresser with a mirror hanging beside it, just over a trashcan. That was the extent of what the room had to offer.
“We’ll buy you some clothes, and other things, of course,” her aunt said reassuringly.
Yumiko turned and bowed to her. “Thank you for all that you’ve done for me.”
Her aunt looked away. “Well, it’s the least I could do. You’re family, after all. When your mother…well, you must be tired. It’s been a long day. The bathroom is just next door, to the right. I’m at the end of the hall, if you need anything.”
Yumiko bowed again, low so that she wouldn’t have to look her aunt in the face.
“Well, then. Good night, Yumiko.”
When she heard the door slide shut, she finally looked up, and watched as the light switched off in the hallway.
Yumiko couldn’t stop a few tears from spilling from her eyes, and wiped them away angrily. Her mother hadn’t abandoned her. They had it all wrong.
She dropped her backpack and suitcase to the floor and walked over to the window, where she leaned against the casing. Nothing looked out of the ordinary at the moment. That, or the night hid things too well.
“I’ll get you back, Mother,” she whispered to the night. “I promise I will.” She shivered as the night answered in the form of a sudden gust of wind that chilled her skin and sent her hair back over her shoulders. She reached out and pulled the window closed.
With a sigh, she turned back to regard her room. She bent over and unlatched the clasps of her suitcase, throwing it open with little ceremony. She grabbed two t-shirts and walked them over to the dresser, refolding them as she went. She pulled open the top drawer and shoved the shirts inside, closing it with more force than was necessary. She suddenly felt angry. It was so unfair. She hadn’t asked for any of this. She just wanted things to go back to how they used to be.
She blinked over at the mirror and issued a snarl before she swatted it from its hook on the wall. It fell a few feet away from the trashcan, shattering into several large jagged pieces against the hardwood. Chest heaving, she stared down at the shards, her anger focused in her gaze, as if she were taking out all of her frustration on the reflective surfaces. Then, all at once, the anger faded from her, and a heavy sadness descended upon her.
She dropped to her knees and sobbed silently as she gathered the pieces of the mirror.
A bump overhead startled her and she looked up. The ceiling was featureless. There was no fan or vent above her, although there was a tile that most likely allowed for access to the crawlspace between the ceiling and the roof. She wiped her nose and returned to the task at hand, grunting when one shard sliced her finger. Blood bloomed over her pale skin and she immediately stuck her fingertip into her mouth, sucking at the wound.
She picked up the remaining pieces of the mirror carefully, sliding them into the trashcan with regret. She’d been rash and felt bad for breaking it. She hoped her aunt wouldn’t be too upset about it.
A scraping from the ceiling drew her attention and she frowned as she looked overhead once more. She cocked her head, waiting for the noise to return, but a minute later, all was still silent. She hoped her aunt didn’t have mice. Or bats. Yumiko shuddered.
She pulled her finger from her mouth and stared at her wound, which was still bleeding. It didn’t look deep, but she should probably find a bandage for it. She hesitated before reaching out for the door handle to the hall. She felt like she was a visitor, like she was intruding or trespassing. As she slid the door aside, she peaked out, hoping that she wouldn’t be disturbing her aunt. She didn’t want her regretting the decision to take her in. After all, Yumiko had nowhere else to go.
Tentatively, she stepped out into the hallway, skulking along the wall to the bathroom. Once inside, she closed the door and leaned against the door. After a moment, she turned the light switch on, blinking at the feminine colors. Pinks and pale purples. The towels, the shower curtain, the rugs, the wallpaper…even the pink bowl held lavender flowers, sharply fragrant. Back at Yumiko’s house, the bathroom had been sunny and warm. Bright and inviting, with yellow walls and rubber duckies, Totoros emblazoned across the shower curtain. The handle of her tooth brush had been the witch Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service. There would be no room for silly, welcoming touches like that in this house.
Yumiko ached for home, but before she was swept up in despair once more, she put her mind to finding a bandage, and rummaged through the cupboards until she found one. It didn’t have a cartoon character on it, but was a plain old Band-Aid. She wrapped it around her finger and quickly left the room, holding her breath until she reached her door, sliding it shut behind her silently.
When she turned to regard her room again, her eyes widened. The clothes from her suitcase had been thrown across the floor, her backpack opened, spilling its contents. The top dresser drawer, where she’d just placed her folded t-shirts had been pulled open, the clothing hanging over the edge haphazardly.
She looked back at the door. Her aunt…she wouldn’t have done this. Would she? She didn’t really know her aunt. Her aunt had been a woman who would come to her house on birthdays and given her a card with money. She had been nice to her, but not particularly warm. Yet Yumiko couldn’t see her going through her things. But if not her aunt, then who?
Yumiko swallowed hard and began to pick up her clothes. She took the time to fold them all and lay them in her dresser drawers with care, an uneasy feeling weighing in her stomach like a rock the entire time. She kept looking around, wondering if she was being watched. Her eyes were continually drawn to the window, but it was closed tight. Still, the monsters she’d seen wouldn’t all be kept out by a plane of glass. The yokai king who’d spirited her away could probably walk through it like tissue paper.
A thud sounded from overhead.
Yumiko paused in her folding, and placed a final shirt in her dresser before staring up at the ceiling, thinking. Could something be up there?
She’d barely finished the thought when the panel in the ceiling shifted, and then slid aside.
Yumiko took a step back, heart pounding as she stared up at the darkness that lived beyond the tile. Nothing happened after a moment, so Yumiko licked her lips. “Hello?” she called tentatively.
“You don’t scare me,” Yumiko added, a clear lie, as her voice shook as the words left her mouth. She clenched her hands into fists, digging her fingernails into her palms. She concentrated on the pain it produced, shoving aside her fear for the moment. She took a bold step toward the hole in the ceiling, and then another.
Something suddenly tumbled from the hole. An old woman with wild white hair. She laughed manically as she hung upside down out of the crawlspace. Her tongue was forked, like a snake’s, and slithered out of her withered lips in a disturbing way, as if testing the air. “I haven’t had anything to eat for so long,” the woman proclaimed, laughing some more.
Yumiko leapt back, screaming. She ran into the door and shook her head, as if denying the existence of this thing would make it go away.
“I’m going to chew on your pretty little face while you sleep!” the woman promised.
“Yumiko!” Her aunt burst into the room behind her, eyes wide, breathing hard. Her eyes swept the room quickly before rounding on Yumiko. She grabbed her by the shoulders. “What’s wrong, child?”
“The…the woman!” Yumiko stammered. She pointed at the ceiling, where the woman still hung, grinning ghoulishly.
Her aunt frowned and walked over to the woman. The woman made a halfhearted swipe at her aunt, but her aunt didn’t even seem to notice.
“Yumiko, there’s nothing there.”
Yumiko’s mouth fell open. “What…but she’s right there! She came out of the crawlspace! She’s going to eat me!”
Her aunt frowned and crossed her arms as she regarded Yumiko. The old woman crossed her arms mockingly behind her.
“Now, young lady, I know it’s been a trying day, but you can’t let your imagination get the best of you. And you will certainly not act out in this house.”
“No buts. Get into bed. Now.”
Yumiko blinked back tears as she walked mechanically over to her bed and sat down on it, as ordered. Her aunt waited, gesturing for her to pull the covers over herself.
“Maybe you had a nightmare,” her aunt said, softly.
“It wasn’t a nightmare.”
Her aunt’s eyes flashed. “It’s those stories of your mothers. She always did love that superstitious nonsense. Yokai.” She scoffed. “Well, Yumiko, there are no such things. It would be best for everyone if you just emptied your mind of those stories.”
Yumiko bit down on her lip to keep it from trembling. She looked back at the ceiling tile, and saw that the woman had disappeared back into the crawlspace.
Her aunt followed her gaze and shook her head as she walked toward the door. “Goodnight, Yumiko.” She shut the light off. “Now, get some sleep.”
She shut the door.
Yumiko stared into the darkness around her, heart racing wildly in her chest. Would the woman attack her in the night, as she’d threatened to? Yumiko didn’t see why she wouldn’t. The woman was a demon. A monster. Yokai.
A scraping sound came from the ceiling directly overhead, and Yumiko squeezed her eyes shut against it. It sounded like nails being dragged over wood.
She would never be able to sleep, knowing that that monstrosity was in the room. But what could she do? Maybe she should leave. Run. But then what? There were monsters out there too. They thrived in the dark streets. They would eat her alive as surely as this woman would.
There was a shuffling sound from across the room, and then a thump.
Yumiko pulled the sheets up over her nose. Maybe her aunt was right. Maybe it wasn’t real. Maybe it was all in her head. That happened to people, right? Especially following a traumatic event.
“Yuuuuumiko,” a voice mocked from the dark corners of the room. “Are you ready to have your tender meat stripped from the bone?”
Yumiko covered her ears with her hands, but she couldn’t keep the monster’s voice out.
“I bet that your blood tastes like honey,” the creature whispered. “Perhaps I will keep you alive for a while and feast on you every night as you slowly lose your strength. Then, I will have a feast of your skin and fat when you can no longer put up a fight. When you can’t call out as your bones snap in my mouth like twigs.”
Yumiko opened her eyes to see the woman’s face directly overhead. Beyond her, Yumiko could see that her body was like a snake’s, covered in rags and stretching the length of the room so that she could hang suspended over Yumiko, poised to strike.
“Do it then,” Yumiko said, lifting her chin. She would have felt braver if her jaw hadn’t shaken. “I’m going to die anyway. Kagami is going to come for me when I turn eighteen. He will have me for his bride. I’m only delaying the inevitable. At least if you kill me now, I won’t have to suffer. I won’t have to live in torment, counting the days until he returns to devour me.”
The woman stilled, eyes widening. “Kagami, you say?”
Yumiko nodded once, and the woman considered her for a moment. “You lie to try to get me to spare your life.”
“No. Just do it. Kill me now. If you don’t, Kagami will.”
Something came over the woman’s face then, something like fear, or perhaps pity. She looked at Yumiko with new eyes. Or perhaps she was going to take Yumiko’s advice and kill her then and there, and was pondering what sort of sauce would go well with her flesh.
Yumiko closed her eyes, waiting for the woman to strike. She heard the creature shift and sigh. And then the window flew open, allowing a gust of wind to blow through the room, stirring the sheets and Yumiko’s hair.
Yumiko’s eyes snapped open to see that the woman had vanished. She glanced up at the window and spied a serpentine tail slip between the curtains and out into the cool night.
“What?” Yumiko blinked, then sat up. She went over to the window and looked out into the dead of night, but couldn’t see anything in the shadows. She closed the window tight and stood there, staring out at the dark streets, watching for signs of anything out of the ordinary.
But she saw nothing.
She looked up at the hole in the ceiling, noting that the tile had been replaced. It was like the woman had never even been there.
But Yumiko knew better.
She knew that things were out there, hiding in the shadows, stalking humanity. Terrible things. And most people wouldn’t even see them coming.
Unless they had a little help.