“You do want to go up on the roof, don’t you?”
Emi hurried after me.
I climbed the stairs and, copying Emi’s technique, unraveled the chain. When I opened the hatch, once again the sky stretched out as far as I could see. It seemed as though the school had been flung into the sky.
I marched over to the wooden crates and Emi sat down across from me. She looked like she wanted to ask me something.
“My mother seems to have taken a real liking to you. She talks about you all the time. All of a sudden she’ll just say, ‘That old lady’s a fraud but the girl—she’s the real thing.’ That kind of stuff.”
“How wonderful.” I muttered wryly, before I could stop myself.
“Oh . . . Sorry. I thought you might feel that way. After we talked about the money the other day, it started to bother me. I started thinking that maybe she’s exploiting you.”
Emi seemed genuinely concerned. Suddenly I found myself thinking that I could tell her the whole story—tell her absolutely everything—but I managed to restrain myself.
“She’s not exploiting me. It’s nothing like that,” I said simply.
I pulled the wrapper off my sandwich and started eating. Emi opened her own lunch.
Our shadows snaked along the uneven concrete at our feet. As I ate, I slid down off my crate and traced the shadows with my finger. The concrete felt gritty against the skin of my fingertip. I stood and examined the roof. A network of cracks stretched out like a web. Wouldn’t all these cracks make the roof leak?
“I was wondering . . .” Emi said quietly, her eyes still fixed on the roof. “My house . . . was there something there?”
“I mean, I know that the poltergeist was just my brother. Other than that. Were there any . . . spirits or anything?” Her voice quavered slightly.
“My grandmother used to live with us, a long time age—before the house was rebuilt. She died back when I was in primary school. Anyway, she used to sit in front of the Buddhist altar every day and recite sutras for the spirit of my grandfather. There was a small hand mirror in one of the drawers of the altar. My grandfather had given it to her—years and years ago. I don’t know if it was lacquerware or what, but anyway, it had a really pretty picture painted on the back, in gold and silver on a lacquered background. She loved that mirror, especially after my grandfather died. She never even let me touch it.”
“You know, to be honest, I never really liked her very much. She was so strict and was constantly criticizing my mother. She caused a lot of fights between my parents. Still, I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t mean to, I just . . . broke the mirror. Everyone had gone out and I was home by myself. I only wanted to take a closer look.”
“She must have noticed it right away but she never said a word. I was too scared to say anything myself. Then, only a month later, she was dead. She just collapsed in the hallway and that was it. I thought it was my fault.”
“How was it your fault?”
“Because she always used to say that the mirror was more precious than life itself.”
Emi let out a long sigh and gazed out beyond the fence. That is, she gazed out at the only thing beyond the fence—sky and more sky.
So here’s another one, I thought. Another one who’s terrified that she’s the reason someone died.
“When my mother told me that she was bringing a medium over, honestly I was scared stiff. I mean, what if Grandmother came? I knew I was being ridiculous but still, when I saw you sitting there in the living room with your eyes closed like that, I knew you were for real.”
Emi broke off. The shadow of a cloud passed over her before being swept away. I did feel sorry for her but, at the same time, it hadn’t occurred to me to try to comfort or console her. Yet, despite that, the words were out of my mouth before I knew it.
“There’s nobody in that house. Nobody but the living.”
I regretted the words the instant I saw the relief on Emi’s face. I had no right to say that. They were just empty, random words with nothing to back them up.
I jumped to my feet. The crate toppled over with a loud clatter but I didn’t care. I practically fled back to the classroom.
Though I was only five minutes early Yoko’s car wasn’t in its usual spot in the driveway.
Masatoshi was the only one there. He stepped outside, dressed in oversized jeans and a baggy T-shirt. He was running his hand through long hair that he’d dyed brown. From the neck down he looked just like any of the boys from my class.
“Yoko just went out to get some gas and wash the car. She’ll be back in a few minutes. You can wait inside.”
“No. Here is fine.”
“No need to be so formal,” Masatoshi said, continuing to hold the door wide open. I gave in and stepped inside. I had no intention of going all the way inside, though. I put my bag on the floor by my feet and turned to face the door, ready to leave the second Yoko got back.
“Why so frightened?” Masatoshi asked mockingly.
I started to say that I wasn’t when I felt his warm breath washing over the back of my neck. At the same time he reached around from behind me with one arm, encircling my shoulders. I was so surprised I couldn’t make a sound. When I tried to pull his arm off he just stroked the back of my hand lightly with the tip of a finger. My hair stood on end.
“You can tell a woman’s age right here,” he whispered into my ear. His arm wouldn’t budge so much as an inch. “The skin is so smooth and soft. There’s nothing like a high school girl. Yuki, you should team up with me. Instead of Yoko.
“You must be bored to death of Yoko’s clients—a bunch of old people. Anyway, it’s really the younger kids that are into psychics and mediums and all that stuff. We should call you a ‘spiritualist’ or something instead of a medium. Different name, go for a more upbeat image and we’ll get a totally different, much bigger pool of clients.”
I heard the sound of a car coming to a stop outside. Masatoshi sniggered as he took his arm away.
“They say that virgins make the best mediums so you don’t need to worry about me.”
He slipped around me and opened the door. I heard him call out to Yoko, telling her that I was already here.
It would be bad if Yoko found out about this. Bad for me, that is. I didn’t care about Masatoshi. I took several deep breaths to calm myself and stepped outside.
We got dragged into a mess at the client’s house. Though the summoning itself went off without a hitch, the relatives got into a big argument. One of the men from the head household started shouting that the haunting was because people didn’t take proper care of the graves and neglected all the rituals. Someone else said it had nothing to do with that and others jumped in on one side or the other. It went around and around and never actually got anywhere. It seemed like the argument would go on forever. Then, suddenly we found ourselves the object of attack.
“And how do we know you’re not just making it all up anyway?” The man who’d started the argument jabbed his finger toward us, demanding that we prove we weren’t frauds.
“There is no proof,” Yoko said coldly.
“So it’s all a pack of lies and you’re just here to cheat us, then?”
“We do not ‘cheat’ anyone. Neither the child nor I is dead so we cannot know all there is to know about the world of the spirits. We cannot arbitrarily say that something absolutely is or is not so. We were told that this household was experiencing difficulties and was searching for a solution. We merely endeavored to help as best we could. We have never once suggested that everything we say is absolutely accurate.”
“And I suppose you think it’s OK to take people’s money for that kind of rubbish?”
“We never demand money. However, since we did come all the way out here at your request it is only reasonable to be compensated for travel expenses.”
“Take this, then!” The man threw a five hundred yen coin to the floor in front of Yoko. The others cried out in protest.
Without so much as blinking, Yoko picked up the coin.
“I see. I will take this, then, as a token of your regard. Yuki, let’s go.”
Yoko stood, drawing herself up to her full height, and walked calmly to the entrance hall. I hurried after her. She was starting the engine as I climbed into the car. I saw the client run outside, trying to stop us but Yoko simply bowed her head to her and drove off.
Yoko didn’t seem angry but it was hard to tell what she was thinking.
“Is it all right? To leave like that?”
“It went on far too long. It was time to go. You know, it’s exactly this kind of thing that makes me hate men. They’re so crude. That man—he was terrified, you know. I saw his hand shaking when he threw the coin at me.”
“But won’t we get blamed if something bad happens?”
Yoko sniffed at that. “Never. If anyone gets blamed, it’ll be him. He’s the one who behaved so rudely and ignored those who give voice to the spirits. Anyway, the client will come by to apologize later. Nobody wants angry spirits, right? You shouldn’t let little things like this bother you, Yuki, or you’ll never get anywhere. You’ve got all sorts of different experiences to look forward to.”
That last sentence stuck in my mind. It had the same ominous ring as Masatoshi’s “You should team up with me.”
Each month there were a few days when Yoko had other plans and couldn’t fit in any appointments. When that happened I went straight home after school. I didn’t like being at home but there was no place else for me to go.
I looked over from the living room and saw my mother, her back to me, in the adjoining room. She was sitting in front of the altar today too.
I had no idea what she wanted. Maybe it was important to comfort the souls of the dead but it seemed to me that living people ought to have other things to do as well. I was in no mood to tell her that, though. Wordlessly, I was starting up the stairs when she called out to me.
“Yuki, guess what! I’ve started to hear your sister’s voice, little by little. It’s true! When I did as she said I found two New Year’s cards for your father. Both were from women—one of them must be from his lover. I don’t have to wait for her to show up in dreams any more. Your sister, she wants you to work really hard, Yuki. And . . . Now, don’t be upset, but she told me the real reason she died. It was for you, Yuki. She died for you. She said that you were supposed to die when you were one but she took your place. She saved your life. She says that, if you keep working really hard just a bit longer then I might get better. And your father might have a change of heart and come back, too. So I told her, I said you’re grateful for all she did and you’ll definitely do your best.”
I had no idea what to say to this. I just looked at Mother as she smiled happily. This would’ve been in poor taste even if it had been a joke. Yet I knew she was serious. I have no idea how she came up with the story but there was no question that she believed every single word of it, no matter how ridiculous.
I looked away as she started her sutras and climbed the stairs to the second floor. Sitting on my bed, I went over everything she’d just said. In the end what it all came down to was that everything was on me. My sister’s death, my mother’s illness and—real or no—my father’s cheating.
I felt almost no surprise. Probably because I didn’t believe a word of it. I suppose that the burden had grown too heavy and too painful for her. She wanted to pass it on to someone else and just happened to pick me. Without considering how I might feel about it.
To top it off, it wasn’t even Mother who did it—it was my sister. Without a second’s thought, my mother had made the dead responsible for putting the burden on me. How can I argue with someone who doesn’t even exist?
I was thinking about how unfair it was when it occurred to me. This was exactly what I did in my summonings. What’s more, Yoko and I were the ones who taught my mother this trick.
For a while I just sat there, perfectly still, staring at my hands. Enough. I wanted to quit. How to do it? If I quit now I was sure that my mother would throw another fit. If I pretended to be sick I’d have to skip school too.
I got up and unlocked one of the desk drawers. I took out my cell phone. I had my father buy it for me just before my brother left for Tokyo. The bill was automatically paid from his account. Mother didn’t know about it—she was against me having a phone.
I turned it on. My father and my brother were the only people in the contacts list. I turned it off again. How could he help me when he had no idea what was going on? I couldn’t ask him what to do about my work as a medium. He’d just think I’d gone mad too.
Besides the phone, there was an ATM card and a bankbook in the drawer. I’d been saving all my New Year’s money since I was a kid and had about 200,000 yen now.
If I ran away I wouldn’t have to do any more summonings. So long as I had my phone and the ATM card I could always get away. However, that was only a last resort. If I ran away and went to stay with my brother and father it still wouldn’t solve everything. Mother would still be here, all alone.
The sun seemed to grow stronger with the new month. It was three-thirty in the afternoon already but the sun’s rays still seemed to burn into my skin.
The weather-worn crates seemed even more fragile than the other day. I chose one and it gave a disquieting creak when I dropped onto it.
I’d always followed Emi’s advice to keep away from the fence and stayed near the middle of the roof. Today, though, I didn’t really care if anyone saw me. Even so, I went to the back of the building on the north side. Away from the playing fields.
Close up, I realized that the fence was a lot higher than it looked. I couldn’t reach the top of the inward-curving fence even if I stood on the tips of my toes. I wondered if it was true. Had the fence really been built to stop people from jumping?
I could see the side of the mountain beyond the fence. Just below the summit there was a small, square building. It looked like some kind of research facility but there didn’t seem to be anyone there. The trees made a dense carpet of leaves and branches and the building seemed on the verge of being swallowed whole by the ferocious overgrowth. The landscape didn’t particularly interest me and the aggressive vitality of the woods frightened me.
I was turning to go back to the crate when the hatch opened. Emi. She looked up and saw me by the fence.
“What’s wrong? You’re not gonna jump, are you?”
“Don’t be silly.”
I wouldn’t kill myself. If I did that then Yoko and my mother would be able to make up whatever stories they wanted about me. To suit their needs. Just like I had been doing.
“So you like it up here after all?”
Of course I didn’t like it. But I had to kill time before my appointment with Yoko and there was more space here than in the classroom. I’d learned my lesson about showing up early at Yoko’s house. I knew what awaited me there.
Emi sat down on a crate and beckoned me over. When I sat down she thanked me. I knew it was for her grandmother but I pretended not to hear.
“I almost never come up here after classes. Today I just felt like it, though. I was climbing the stairs and was surprised when I saw the chain undone.”
“Oh?” I said. I looked at my watch. Still too early to leave.
“Say, where do you think dead people go?”
I scuffed my shoes against the concrete. Emi looked at me, surprised.
“You’re not allowed to say?”
“No. I just don’t know, that’s all.” I didn’t know anything. Not about spirits, not about that world. It never occurred to me to try to find out.
“Is it . . . You don’t like doing it? Being a medium?”
“But you do it anyway?”
“That’s right.” I couldn’t bother trying to pretend. “I don’t want to do it but I do it anyway. If I could, I’d have quit a long time ago.”
“Hmm . . . I think it’d be great to have a special power and be able to do things other people can’t.”
Anyone could fake it. But even I couldn’t say that out loud. Special powers? What a joke. I couldn’t even help myself.
I looked out at the sky beyond the fence. I wished that all borders were like this fence. Safety on the inside and danger if you go outside. Simple. And you can see what’s waiting outside. If everything were like that we wouldn’t need to worry.
Where were the dead? That was Emi’s question. Where exactly was my sister’s spirit? If I really could talk to the dead could I find out what she wanted?
“Tamaoroshi” published by Bungeishunju Ltd, Tokyo. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2013 by Mark Gibeau. All rights reserved.
This story will be serialized over several issues. Click here for Part V.