The first time she saw him on the subway, she thought he must be one of the hopping corpses that the Monkey King had told her about. He stood, clutching an overhead handhold, his body rocking forward and back with the motion of the train, while his eyes stared at nothing in the space between his feet and the muscles of his face were slack. She had not believed the Monkey King when he told her of the hopping corpses - deceased bodies with souls still trapped inside them that roamed across China. Certainly she had never seen such a thing in Japan, but if there was such a thing perhaps it would look like this.
She was shorter than him, and even standing on her tiptoes her playfully spiked black hair came up only as far as his chin. She started to walk past him, then let herself fall against him when the train rocked again. He didn't move to catch her, so she placed a hand against his chest to stop her fall.
"Sumimasen - I'm sorry," she said, turning her face up to his to watch for signs of life behind his eyes.
"It's okay," he said, pointing his eyes at hers. His face hardened into a slight frown with almost no effort. She watched him, looking at the shape of her - the surface - but not seeing past it. Then she righted herself and walked away down the subway car.
When he left the subway, she followed him to his apartment. Two minutes after he had gone in, she rang the doorbell. When he answered it, he saw only what she wanted him to see: an eager looking young man in kaki slacks and a dress shirt.
"Good evening sir. I'm with Discount Music Dot Com. We're offering any three music CDs free to people willing to answer a few survey questions for us. Would you be interested in helping us out?"
The man blinked, but showed no other reaction.
"I don't really listen to music. You'll have to try someone else," he said and closed the door.
She walked away across the street then turned back to regard his apartment. She scratched her ear absently as she considered the problem. Then she dropped to all fours, and where there had been a young Asian woman a moment before there was now a fox that raced off along the sidewalk.
Another day over, the man thought as he walked home the following evening. Most of the people he worked with were excited to be heading home at the end of the day, but he just couldn't bring himself to care. As he walked, he thought about work. It was hard not to. There were always things left unfinished - things that he needed to remember for tomorrow. None of it is urgent, he thought, and as he did so he felt an emptiness opening up in his middle, like a bottomless void inside of him."Hey! That's mine! Drop that! Drop it!"
For some reason he found himself thinking of the question that the man at his door had asked him yesterday. He could remember a time when he had listened to music constantly, but over the last ten years he had listened less and less until now he couldn't even remember what the last song he had heard was. He didn't really miss it, though. It was just an appetite that he no longer had.
He was halfway between the subway exit and his apartment when he felt someone bump up against his back. He turned and saw a fox eying him from a few feet away with a black wallet clutched in its mouth. He stared in confusion, and then patted his now empty pocket.
The fox trotted past him. He tried to grab it, but it darted just out of his reach. He tried again, lunging toward it, but it took off down a side street at a fast walk. He started after it, wanting to run but worried that if he ran the fox would run too, and then he would never catch it.
Ahead of him, the fox darted across the street and into a parking lot. The man followed, jogging between the vehicles and straining to keep the fox in sight.
But then something odd happened. When the man looked up from the pavement he found that he could see nothing but cars - endless cars parked in each direction. He turned around slowly, rubbed his eyes with his hands, and looked again, but nothing changed. Vehicles of all shapes and sizes were parked 360 degrees to the horizon.
He reached out and touched one. It felt solid and a little hot still from the afternoon sun.
Then he heard something - a pounding noise like a drum. He turned his head to the side and listened. A moment later, he heard it again. It was two beats and then a pause.Ba-Doom.........Ba-Doom.........Ba-Doom......... Ba-Doom.........
It wasn't one durm - it was a whole group of drums playing together. He couldn't figure out which direction it was coming from.Ba-Doom.........Ba-Doom.........Ba-Doom......... Ba-Doom.........
Then the silence in between the beats began to fill up.
Something small and hard hit him just above his right ear. His head stung, and he held one hand against it as he looked down at the marble-sized rock by his feet.
From his right side he heard a roar as loud and feral as the roars of the gorillas he had seen on TV. He turned and saw something twice the height of a man standing between a van and an old compact. It's body was wrapped in tiger skins; its arms and head were covered in thick dark red hair, and two short straight horns stood up from its forehead. It roared again, showing him a mouthful of sharp teeth and a purple tongue, and hurled something through the air towards him.The man turned and ran in the opposite direction. Something whistled past his head. Behind him he heard a crashing noise, like a car being shoved aside. The drums beat louder.
As he raced between the parked vehicles he could hear great, lumbering footsteps following behind him punctuated by angry growls. Fear flooded through him in a rush that started in his stomach and spread out through his limbs. His head hurt, and his heart began to pound. It had been so long since he had felt anything this intense that he wondered for a moment if he was going to have a heart attack, but their was none of the sharp pain in his left arm and chest that he had read about.All the while the drums kept pace with him, pounding fast the rhythm of the chase.
Suddenly a woman appeared in the space between two cars on his left. She was dressed like the pictures he had seen of Japanese geisha, her dark hair folded atop her head and her slender body wrapped in a blue and green kimono.
He was running too fast and she had appeared too suddenly for him to stop. He flew past her, turning his head to the left and seeing the calm, curious expression on her face as she watched him run by.
From behind them he heard the beast roar again, and the woman screamed in fear. He skidded to a halt and turned to look back. The woman was just standing there, frozen while the huge thing charged towards her."Run!" he shouted, but she only fell to her knees and screamed again.
The drumming stopped.
It's going to kill her, he thought. Another feeling rose up from his gut. This time it was a burning that spread like a shock wave through his body, and with it came a realization. He didn't have to think about it - for the first time in a decade he was clear of doubts. Good and evil - right and wrong - he might never be faced with a choice this simple again in his life, but in this moment he knew what he should do.
He leapt back the way that he had come, racing toward them. Around him the drums started up again, faster than they had played before.Doom-Doom-Doom-Doom-Doom-Doom-Doom-Doom-
Ahead of him the thing had almost reached the kneeling woman. It had a thick iron club in its right hand that it lifted up high over its head.
He was almost to them now. He poured on speed that he didn't know he had, tucking his head down.Doom-Ba-Doom-Ba-Ba-Doom-Doom-Clack-Doom-Doom
He passed the screaming woman and leapt the last few feet, trying to throw his body into the charging thing, knowing that it wouldn't stop it, but hoping that it might slow it long enough for the woman to come to her senses and run-
He fell out of the parking lot and onto the street from where he had entered. The drums had gone silent. He looked up. The woman, the huge beast, and the endless cars were all gone. He stood, once again staring around him in disbelief. His heart was still pounding, and his shirt was sticky with sweat. The woman - had he saved her? Was it real?
A car came around the corner, and he was forced to move. He hurried across the street and away from the parking lot.
Just get home, he told himself. Get home first, then think. He started walking towards his apartment.A block later, he heard it again.
He stopped and listened. This time, he could hear a direction. Across the street, drifting out of the mouth of that store - that's where it was coming from.
He jogged across the street, drawing a harsh look from a driver. He could feel his blood pumping again. He burst through the doorway-
-and stopped. The inside of the store was small and a little dark. There was a counter on the left near the door and the rest was taken up with waist-high shelves full of CDs. A young man in his early twenties was staring at him from where he sat on the edge of the counter.Doom-Doom...
He cocked his head to the side to listen. The drumming was playing through the speakers of the music store."It's you," said the store clerk with a look of surprise on his face.
"What?" he said.
"Man, it's your lucky day," the clerk said, smiling. He reached one hand down under the counter and pulled out a wallet.
"Loose something?" the clerk asked. He opened the wallet and set it on the counter. The man stared down at his driver's license."Where did you get that?" he asked.
"A lady brought it in here about five minutes ago. She said she thought you might stop by looking for it. I'd never seen your picture before, though, so I didn't think it very likely.""A lady? What did she look like?"
"She was probably about, uh... Actually, I'm not sure how old she was, but she was about this high, and I'm pretty sure she was Japanese.""What makes you say that?"
"She asked me if I had any CDs by the band that you hear playing. It's a Japanese group that plays the Taiko drums. I didn't think we had it, but she sent me back to check anyway. Turns out we had one that I'd never noticed. That's why I'm playing it right now." The clerk pointed to a CD case on the counter next to a hand-written sign that read "now playing." The man picked it up and studied it. There was a picture on the cover of a fox dressed like a woman in a kimono standing between two statues outside of a temple. He stared hard at the statues. They were twice a man's size with a mouthful of sharp teeth and two small horns sticking up from their foreheads.
"The fox woman is called a Kitsune," said the clerk. "They're some kind of Japanese mythical trickster. The lady was telling me about them. She said that in Japan, the Kitsune would use illusion to play tricks on people.""Why?" he asked.
"Supposedly, to teach people a lesson."
He thought about that. Had he just been taught a lesson? If so, he wasn't sure what it was supposed to be."Did she say anything about these statues?" he asked.
"Those are Oni, Japanese demons that punished the dead in hell. They used to put statues of them up as guardians outside the temple gates." The clerk peered down at the CD cover.
"They look pretty fierce. I'm not sure what I'd do if I saw one. Of course, I guess you'd have to be dead for that to happen."The man looked up at him, and a slow smile spread across his face.
"Can I buy this?" he asked.
"Of course! You can buy anything in the store. If you like world music, we've got some really good Celtic stuff, and we just got in some new Brazilian dance music."
"Just this today, but maybe I'll come back and check those out sometime," he said.
"Sure. We're open seven days a week," the clerk said.
The man took his purchase and walked slowly back out onto the street. He blinked a little in the light, took in a big lungful of air, and started walking towards his apartment, humming under his breath.Ba-Doom-Doom-Ba-Ba-Doom-Doom...
The girl watched him leave the record shop. There was a swing in his step now, and she could see his eyes looking all around him as he walked, taking in everything as if it were new. It made her want to laugh with pleasure.You don't look like a hopping corpse anymore, she thought.
And where she had stood a moment ago, there was only a fox that darted down an alley and was gone.