And a five, six, seven, eight….
The building he grew up in was decidedly cheerful. Situated on the edges of the Yamanote line, it rattled contentedly with the movement of trains, the closed windows tinkling in merriment. At night the sounds gentled to a pleased murmur, allowing the hum of the insects to take center stage. No rooms were ever left empty of noise for long; opening a window meant inviting a neighbor’s life into your kitchen, their laughter served up on the dinner table. All around was the smug certainty of a young house that possessed no gruesome history, no skeletons, and a definitive shortage of closet space –his mother had decreed that Father would just have to find a different hobby; golf clubs were impossible –no room for anything that went bump in the night.
So Reino was surprised when a ghost consented to visit. Her old-lady frame looked odd against the suits crammed into the hall closet, but she pronounced herself quite satisfied. The floating hem of her kimono just drifted over the linoleum of the kitchen as she directed him to make tea properly, “Not like these newfangled misses who think adding dirt to hot water is good enough. There needs to be forethought, contemplation, direct action.”
Before making her final bow, hovering over the collection of shoes in the entryway, she said, “Boy. You’ll forget this, but consider it the eccentricity of an old lady that I shall say it anyhow: Not all ghosts are dead people, like myself. You have that unhappy talent to see the whole range of nasties. Some ghosts are no more than the echo of an emotion, a throwaway bit of a person’s soul. Go ahead and listen, child. But don’t forget more than you can help; don’t risk being trapped in that vibration. Listen to granny’s advice and keep your eyes clearly open.”
When Mother returned from her errand to the market, her eyes lingered on the tea things, squinting as though looking into the sun. At dinner, Father laughed off the events of Reino’s afternoon with a loud, “Our boy’s quite the storyteller, isn’t he? As though ghosts would take notice of a little thing like him, if they existed at all. What a story, indeed.” Mother responded in a calm, measured tone, “Of course it’s all childhood fancy, dear.” But not before Reino wondered at the faint line between her eyebrows, the flash of trickery under her lashes.
Understanding came a moment later; Reino had learned to recognize reality long before.
The inn at Kyoto was beautiful, deliberately so. Its traditional wood blended into the trees covering the mountain, and the lake lapping at the supports was a mirror reflecting this pristine postcard-perfect image. When the sun was in the right position, the shadow of the mountain extended over the property, a jealous behemoth hoarding his treasure. The wind carried with it the tang of sulphur from the hot springs –a smell that led the guests unerringly to the waters, inviting them to bathe and drink from a natural source of history.
Shoutarou never tired of looking at the painted scrolls that decorated the rooms of the inn. He preferred the ones with famous devils on them: dragons, demons, warriors so fierce they died only after being pierced by 400 arrows (and even then, standing up, sword in hand), kings of the sea making their wrath known. His home had the other kind, too. Beautiful ladies gathering fireflies in the evening; music parties held by moonlight; seductions effected through poetry. Those weren’t as fun to play-act, though.
Kyoko played with him, of course. But he never let her pick what to play; experience had taught him that she would either pick something he liked, making him feel annoyingly grateful, or would want to play at fairy tales. As far as Shoutarou was concerned, the only good one was the story where the wolf ate people. All the rest had way too many frills and princesses. And fairy princes who struggled to live up to the family honor.
Being expected to continue the family business made him squirm worse than Kyoko’s storybooks. He felt constricted; the weight of traditions and histories hemmed him in. Music, he sensed, was his way out. When he played the guitar, (most unexceptional –it prepared the user to play the more acceptable string instruments), he felt the notes flying in the air, dissipating into the night. Sometimes he swore he would hear them return, waking from dreams smelling the clean air, free from the familiar taint, and hearing a half-remembered melody dance across the breeze.
When Sho arrived in Tokyo, he braced himself with a deep breath, and exhaled, smiling. Any bitterness in the air was completely new, unfamiliar, exhilirating.
Music makes him feel less like an alien. No one can actually see music or identify its shape or color. Everyone agrees that music exists, that it is beautiful, expressive, and potentially lucrative, but not one person can define why. They might all as well be groping around in the dark, hunting for ghosts.
This thought is the one that keeps a smile on Reino’s face through auditions. His fellow hopefuls are by turn friendly, competitive, taciturn, and helpful. So far though, the only ghost they share in common is music.
That doesn’t preclude them being haunted, of course. The bassist sitting in the corner is accompanied by a floating little girl. The guy wearing an alarming amount of glitter is almost hand-in-hand with a one-eyed monk. There are more ghosts in the hall, but those two are the most solid, the most mature. Reino makes an effort not to stare too fixedly –winning this audition will land him an introduction to a record deal and the last thing he wants is to cultivate an aura of wide-eyed idiocy.
Already people look at him askance. They’re trying to pinpoint what’s wrong, exactly, but they won’t be able to tell. Most people can’t, until he tells them. Usually then they stop talking to him.
Miroku’s there too, of course. Miroku was the one who introduced him to music and its possibilities. Introduced him to a profession where eccentricities are waved away as artistry and vision. Reino’s gratitude for this is an alive thing; if Miroku could see, it would be embarrassingly written sky-high in the way his aura reaches out in happiness toward Miroku. Miroku who comfortably cannot see or hear anything uncanny, and who has never once thought there were monsters under his bed.
Reino doesn’t bother to correct this blind spot. He can be aware enough for both of them.
He hears the commotion spread through the air, heading their way.
He can’t wait.
“So, why don’t we talk about Fuwa Sho.” The man sitting behind a deliberately imposing desk looks up from the files he’d been going through earlier. Reino sees his picture tacked on one of the folders; he notices one of the other guys sitting with him trying to crane his head to look at the desk. A cat-spirit sits on his head with the ease of long practice and bats at dust. Momentarily distracted by thoughts of ghostly dust particles and why cats-spirits are so much more common than dogs, Reino goes through the list of creatures he has seen often –cats, cicadas, owls, dragons, frogs –and then realizes that the agency executive has continued talking.
“Given Fuwa’s popularity with all age levels, it’s imperative we break his hold on some of the market. I’m sure none of you would object to forming a small group, some dancing, some singing, nothing you’re not used to. We’ll start setting up the campaign now. Compensation will be on the regular scale until the competition figures come in and then we’ll talk some more.” He pauses here for breath and asks if there are any questions in a tone that suggests he won’t be clarifying any point of his bewildering speech.
After a beat, in which the other three guys in the room silently attempt to make their confusion inconspicuous and Miroku raises an eyebrow, the man smiles for the first time. “Excellent. Thank you for your hard work. The secretary will see you next door.”
They shuffle off, and Reino hangs back to take a good look at the selected members of his –project? coterie? experiment? –and thinks that there is probably some sort of innocent explanation for all this. He hopes so, but he doesn’t invest too much in that. He does know better.
If this is going where he thinks it is… well, at least he’s not the shortest one there.
The secretary turns out to be a bubbly, thirty-something lady in a bright teal suit. Reino guesses this is a failed attempt to attract attention away from the fact that she never stops talking.
“—And since studies have shown that high-school girls typically have friendship groups of four or five other girls, five is the perfect number for this sort of thing! Why, what’s one handsome teenager compared to a whole performing group of them! You guys will blow him out of the running with our plan. You’ll be the hottest –“ and Reino honestly wishes he were imaginative enough to believe that the sinking feeling in his chest was heartburn, and not the giggly ghost mouthing the words along with the secretary.
The dead have long since learned the value of comedic timing.
“—the hottest boyband in all of Japan!”
And really, it’s just as well they’ll pay him to hate Fuwa Sho, because it turns out Reino would have been doing it for free.
After all those hours analyzing Fuwa’s every move, song, fashion accessory, and personality traits, Reino is disgusted when they meet him in person. There’s just nothing there. The attitude, the serious mask, even the clothes are a lie. Fuwa’s aura is the same as any other talent he’s met. Bland, overproduced, attention-starved.
All this effort to topple a run-of-the-mill hack off the music charts?
Even the famed charisma is lacking. He’d thought there might be something –a hint of great pain, a dead aunt –after they’d watched the Prisoner music video, but apparently his vision’s slipping. The Nipponet Music Scoop interview will be the perfect place to confirm Fuwa’s mediocrity.
He hears the giggly ghost following him as his feet lead him to a door marked ‘KYOKO’.
What happens next is materially unimportant.
He really only remembers flashes of Karuizawa. It doesn’t matter. He remembers enough.
The heady shiver of Kyoko’s soul rising to anger. The utterly intoxicating vision of her murderous intent, her competitive spirit, her delicious rage.
He’d been unable to see anything else since the moment one of her soul-specters had broached the edges of his awareness. Even now, lying on the uncomfortable forest ground, he can’t think about anything but that intriguing aura. Like a song stuck in his head.
Fuwa Sho had been more interesting than expected, but his aura had always retained that same blandness. Even his threats, while certainly menacing, hadn’t made Reino’s senses twitch. But compared to the flagrant call to arms of Kyoko’s aura….maybe nothing would ever reach his higher standards again.
From far away he hears a voice calling don’t risk being trapped like a prayer, and he has enough irony left in his bones to appreciate the sentiment as he lowers himself into his coffin.
He feels the difference as a sudden shock, on the flight to New York. It’s as though he’s weightless, and the feeling confuses him until he realizes: some ghosts can’t cross water.
He takes a perverse satisfaction in keeping his eyes open the whole way over the Pacific, thinking is this what normal people see all the time? All this empty space?
All told, he’s relieved to be back on the ground, back with ghosts and spirits and auras. Though the ghosts are different here –they have feet. After a lifetime of floating, wafting, drifting ghosts, it is slightly disconcerting to see them firmly attached to the ground, wearing shoes, walking with the same determined steps of the living. It’s like they don’t acknowledge that other options might work just as well. At the very least, he would stop confusing the living and the dead.
He adds a few more animal-spirits to his list: crocodiles, turtles, rats, and oddly enough, pigeons. Someday he’ll figure out why these animals like to stick around.
Time passes smoothly in New York.
In New York, he can acknowledge that Fuwa played them well at Woodstick Studios. Who knew there was guile under all that … ordinariness. Reino grows rather fond of Fuwa’s joke: it’s just the sort of thing that he would like to pull himself, if he would ever waste the energy. Perhaps his vision had been too overwhelmed with Kyoko if he was missing something as obvious as a sense of humor.
It will be St. Valentine’s Day soon. They’re going back to Japan.
All together now….
“So, how’d you enjoy your chocolates?” Fuwa is leaning against the door in ultimate casual style.
“They were delicious. Especially the one with a heart on it-’’
“You actually ate that one?!”
“The hate embedded in it was so potent. It was comforting to know it could be defeated like any other chocolate.”
Fuwa snorted, an oddly rhythmic sound. “Didn’t you think they might be poisoned? Seeing as you’re a dog and dogs aren’t supposed to have chocolate, you know.”
Reino just looked at him. Nothing in Fuwa’s aura suggested insanity; he starts to wonder just what was going on here. He decides to wait it out. A fairy-light chooses that moment to settle on Fuwa’s hair. Shiny.
Unnerved by his regard, Fuwa continues, “It was something Kyoko came up with when she heard about you guys. She’s convinced the band name is ‘Beagle.”’
Without even meaning to, Reino laughs. The fairy-light is startled enough to come investigate his coat pockets, and even as he wraps his arms around his aching stomach, he takes care not to smash her. Dog poison. The thought of it sends him into fresh gales of laughter.
Once he calms down enough, he meets Fuwa’s startled eyes and says, “Don’t worry, once I consume enough of her soul she won’t be able to want to destroy me. She’d have better things to do. I’ll have better things to do.”
“I won’t let you.” Their eyes lock, and Reino feels the weight of the statement not in Fuwa’s static aura, but in the crackle of the air around them. No, this wasn’t a crackle. This was a full-on bass line, a melody, a dirge. There was Music in the room.
And abruptly Reino forgets that music is invisible, something impossible, something democratically blind. He opens his eyes and for the first time, makes an effort to see clearly.
There are riots of color, horrible clashing indescribable things right between them. He reaches for words but there is nothing. Just beautiful, ugly, attracting, repelling music. It surrounds Fuwa, is wrapped around him like a shield; it allows nothing through. Reino has to say something. But he’s fixated on music, the hum invading his mind, making words farther away. He can’t blink and through the music he sees Fuwa’s face, sees behind the screen and it’s too much, music is making Fuwa alien, otherworldy, ghostly even though there is no way-
The fairy-light floats up into his vision. As if seeing her sets a focus, instantly the music is gone, tuned out. All that is left is the usual.
The hairs on the back of his neck are still standing up.
He has to say something.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll have time to destroy you too.” It’s lame, but it’s all Reino’s capable of right then.
The moment’s broken. “Hmmph. Don’t be cocky, Beagle.” Fuwa says over his shoulder as he exits the room.
Reino pauses for just a moment. Then he uses the most potent soul-secret he has in his arsenal.
“Sure thing, Shoutarou.”
Hearing the distinctive squeak of leather boots sliding unexpectedly on tile, Reino smiles.
It was good to know he still had it.