Streets are wet. Did it rain while I was inside? Pavement was dry an hour ago. How much changed in that hour? Everything. Nothing more to think about. Nothing left to do but survive.
My shoes pounded through filthy puddles as my legs carried me away from my pursuers. I could hear them behind me, the slapping sounds of their heavy footsteps drawing closer. My mind was in fight or flight mode, quickly trying to calculate possible outcomes. I was not an athlete. The only running I ever did was to catch the train or chase a date after saying something horrible. After the chain-smoking my pursuers had done inside, it was safe to assume they weren’t exactly gold medalists. Observations aside, they were clearly gaining on me. I put my chances of a successful flight at about one in ten.
I was also not a brawler. I had only been in three fights in my life, one with a girl in preschool, one with a frat boy in college, and one with a tree; I lost all three. My pursuers, on the other hand, made their livings threatening and carrying out acts of violence. Based on who employed their services, I could only assume that they were pretty good at it. I couldn’t be sure what kind of weapons they were carrying. Guns were hard to come by in this country, even on the black market, but it wasn’t impossible. If anyone could get their hands on them, they could. Knives were more likely. It would still put them at a distinct advantage since all I was carrying was a plastic comb, my passport and nearly empty wallet, an amber pendant necklace, a homemade bracelet, an omamori amulet and a pocket journal stuffed with loose papers and letters. The comb was unbreakable, but I put my chances of victory at about one in 10,000, which was probably pretty generous.
Keep running. After everything, I couldn’t let it end here; traveling 7,000 miles, reconnecting with long lost friends, searching for my missing pieces, self-destructing, losing my companion, learning the truth about my father, and finally finding…Kaori and Misa, my Misa. I had to see it all through to the end.
I turned a sharp corner and lost my footing on the wet asphalt, landing hard on my hip and immediately springing back to my feet. The pain in my hip radiated down my leg with each step and my running became lopsided. I couldn’t bring myself to turn and see how much ground my pursuers had gained. I had to press on, eyes forward and teeth clinched. I was moving faster than I had ever done before in my life, motivated by the weight of my pursuits and what it would mean if I failed to see them through. I pushed through groups of people out for a night of drinking and dining while I fled for my life. I envied their carefree circumstances. More than that, I hated them. How dare they enjoy their lives when mine is falling apart. From a young age, I convinced myself that when I suffered, the rest of the world suffered as well. It was part of the lonely and egocentric existence I had carved out for myself. Now, these fleeting moments of childish outrage were all that remained of that life. It had come to me very slowly, but I finally learned that suffering is something we all do alone.
I briefly considered hiding as a possible option, but this part of the city was too well lit. My knowledge of the city was my one and only source of confidence in the chase. I was in familiar territory. I had lived here for several years in what now seemed like ancient history and I had made getting to know the city a priority. I never thought I would be using that knowledge in a situation like this, but even at the time it felt important.
I kept to the alleys and side streets. I had to keep moving no matter what. This being my first life or death chase, I wasn’t sure if I should avoid crowds or try to draw attention to myself. Neither option was without risk. My instincts seemed to prefer the alleys. Who was I to argue with evolution? I knew of a police box nearby. I couldn’t be sure that they would help me since my pursuers operated under a fragile truce with the police. There were lines that neither side would cross in order to maintain the mutually beneficial arrangement, but I had no idea where those lines were. If helping someone in my situation went beyond the parameters of the agreement, the cops would simply throw me to the wolves and look the other way. Then again, the cops in this country usually wanted even less to do with foreigners than the criminal organizations. I was no expert on the subject, but at this point all I’d been left with was educated guessing. Suddenly, the word “educated” struck me as funny; a lot of good my liberal arts degree was doing me now.
I was getting tired quickly and my pursuers were practically on top of me. I didn’t have any options left. I ran out into a covered shopping arcade from a narrow alley at full speed. I tried to make the full turn without losing speed, but I slammed into a metal storefront shutter with a clattering thud and nearly lost my balance. I pushed myself off of the wall and accelerated down the street. All of the storefronts were closed and covered by large metal shutters. The street was almost completely deserted and the asphalt was dry. The odds were beginning to stack up in my favor. I looked down the street to get my bearings. It had been so long since I’d been here, I panicked at the thought that the police box I was heading toward was actually in a different arcade; this part of the city was full of them.
My moment of panic shattered with a glass bottle that exploded on the pavement in front of me. It was quickly followed by another that whizzed past my head. My pursuers had obviously adopted a new strategy. Bottle after bottle crashed down all around me like mortar fire as I tried to avoid the pieces of glass that each produced on the ground beneath my feet. At least I could be reasonably sure that they weren’t carrying guns. Considering the racket they were making with the bottles, they wouldn’t have hesitated to fire off a few rounds. The bottles stopped and I turned my head to see if I had gained any ground in the attack. They had abandoned their ammunition source, a crate of empty liter beer bottles in front of a liquor store, and had resumed their foot pursuit each with one more bottle in hand. The gap between us had expanded quite a bit and I felt a rush of confidence. The red light of a police box came into view a few blocks ahead. I dropped my head and ran as fast as I could, assuming the thugs behind me had seen it as well.
As I neared the police box, I could see that it was occupied. There were two cops inside, one standing and one sitting at a desk doing paperwork. There was a large group of young men in business suits approaching from the opposite end of the shopping street. They were laughing and shouting loudly with their neckties loosened around their collars and their shirts unbuttoned or untucked. I slowed my pace to a stroll as I arrived in front of the police box and turned to see if my pursuers had done the same. They had crossed to the other side of the street and lit up a couple of cigarettes, leaning against a storefront from which they could survey the situation. I knelt down to tie my shoelace, which had come undone during the chase. Fueled by the false confidence of intoxication and excited to use their limited English on a foreigner, the passing group of young professionals shouted various greetings and inappropriate phrases at me, laughing at my responses. One of the cops stepped out of the police box to quiet the boisterous group and send them on their way. I flashed a look of distress at the cop before he went back inside, but he reacted with only a stoic nod. He clearly wanted nothing to do with me.
As I stood up, I began retracing my steps and tried to figure out how I had arrived exactly here. I steered my mind back to reality; this was not the time for introspection. I alone had set these events in motion and, despite my impressive capacity for mental gymnastics, I couldn’t convince myself otherwise. It was too late for all that anyway. I had to figure out my next move. I had to figure out how to stay alive.
My pursuers were keeping a comfortable distance from the police box. It was obvious that they weren’t confident about dealing with the cops either. For the moment, I was safe. They were each still carrying an empty beer bottle, but it wouldn’t draw any attention from the police since drinking in public was legal here. I had to find some other way to get the cops inside to take an interest in them. I could’ve explained that they were carrying weapons, but it was a risk. Police here always took the word of a national over a foreigner’s. If I was caught in a false accusation on top of that, my pursuers could make up any story they liked about me.
I couldn’t see any way out of my current circumstances and, like the flip of a switch, I accepted my fate. I decided that I was going to enjoy my brief reprieve before the end. I stepped over to a row of vending machines next to the police box and bought a hot can of Boss Black coffee. I leaned against the front of the police box as I popped open the can and inhaled the smell of the dark liquid. It tasted burnt and bitter with a hint of earthy sweetness. Music was playing on the speakers hanging from the rafters of the covered shopping street. It was one of Utada Hikaru’s English-language songs, a dancy R&B track that I had heard many times before. “Make the night go on and on…” she repeated over and over on the hook. The irony of the lyrics slapped me in the face and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.
I moved to the next vending machine to buy a pack of cigarettes. I was merely an off-and-on smoker, but I wanted to have that last moment of cool that Hollywood tough guys exuded before the inevitable turn of fate that would establish them as the martyr, a rough and tumble antihero with a heart of gold. I wasn’t a hero and if it ended here no one would remember me, but the cigarette had become an iconic accessory to complement the downtrodden and unfortunate in the midst of their plight. I considered this last act of self-destruction a big middle finger to the universe for a lifetime of getting screwed. The truth was the universe couldn’t care less and, speaking as a self-appointed representative of the downtrodden and unfortunate, most of the time we were the ones screwing ourselves. The universe was just a convenient place to point your finger. If I was being honest, I just felt like having a smoke. My coins came tumbling down into the change tray accompanied by a loud beeping. I couldn’t read the message flashing on the small LED screen, but a small pad under the screen was also flashing. It was one of the new cigarette machines meant to keep kids from smoking. You had to prove your age and apply for a magnetic card that you could swipe across the pad to operate it. I sighed and halfheartedly kicked the machine. I leaned my back against the outside wall of the police box and slid down to the asphalt.
Without saying a word, my pursuers walked casually over to me. They stood over me for a moment and then squatted down in front of me, setting the empty beer bottles on the asphalt just behind them. One of them had bleached blonde hair that hung down in his face. I would call him Blondie if the need for names came up. He was wearing a brown leather jacket over a T-shirt with some inexplicable English written on it and tight black jeans above black combat boots. He was as skinny as a light post and taller than me. The other had a short military cut and wore a black suit with no necktie. He was shorter and much bulkier than his counterpart and sported an unkempt beard. He looked like a Russian cage-fighter, despite his Asian features. This one was Boris. Blondie held out a soft pack of Marlboro menthols. I reached in and took one with a scoffing snort. I placed it between my lips and he lit it for me. I drew the first breath of cool mint-flavored smoke into my mouth only and held it there for a moment, still clinging to the hope that I would somehow avoid the impending consequences. I let go of hope and took the next breath deep into my lungs. I leaned my head back against the wall of the police box and took another sip of coffee.
The next moments that passed silently one after another seemed like something out of a noir detective novel. I was sitting outside of a police station in a foreign country, drinking coffee and sharing a casual smoke with my soon-to-be executioners. There was an immediacy to my situation that made me feel uneasy. And yet, at the same time, I felt disconnected from my body as if I was watching it all happen from some outside perspective. It was all too weird to be real, which meant it absolutely was.
Suddenly, the flimsy metal door of the police box slid open with a loud scraping sound and the two police officers emerged carrying small duffel bags. They each exchanged their uniform hats for helmets and mounted small white scooters, carrying on about the day’s affairs. They noticed us on the way out, but offered only a silent nod of acknowledgment. That was it; my reprieve was over. The noise of the tiny motors revving up sent a physical chill through my body. I knew what was coming. I wasn’t sure how things would unfold, but I knew how it would all end. As the two cops sped away, I felt a rush of adrenaline tingling in my chest and shoulders. I ignored it. My body was too stupid to realize that the time for instinct had passed. I didn’t leap to my feet for a heroic attack. I didn’t spit a mouthful of coffee in the faces of the thugs to give myself a head start in the chase. I sighed and hung my head down between my knees. It would all end here in this dirty and abandoned shopping arcade. I would never find what was missing. I would never have a chance to make things right.
Blondie and Boris rose slowly to their feet as the cops disappeared down the street. They wore tired expressions on their faces as if the violence they were about to perpetrate was merely a routine part of their tedious job. Picking up dry cleaning, making coffee, cold-blooded murder, it was all the same to them. It was just a job. Maybe they even resented it, but it wasn’t going to stop them. In their organization, the consequences of not doing your job were almost certainly worse than those of doing it.
I didn’t want to die on my ass, so I stood up. I bent over and set the nearly empty can of coffee on the asphalt next to me. Then, I took one final drag on the cigarette and gestured a “thank you” with it before flicking it off into the street. The three of us stood in a silent triangle, waiting for someone to make the first move. I wondered if waiting for me to strike first would lessen their guilt. Then again, maybe it was just protocol, a unwritten rule of courtesy. I just wanted it all over and done with. As they picked up the large empty beer bottles, another rush of adrenaline stabbed at my chest and limbs. This time, my body leapt into action without first consulting my brain and tackled Blondie, slamming him to the pavement and forcing the bottle from his hand. Almost immediately, I felt the blunt force of a shoe hit me between the shoulder blades knocking me on to the asphalt. I rolled and jumped back to my feet accompanied by an intense pain in my back that forced me into a hunch. I picked up the empty beer bottle and waved it around in front of me like an idiot. My brandishing probably conveyed fear more than threat. I was breathing heavily and my whole body was buzzing like a neon light. My back was throbbing and every movement I made seemed to echo a sharp pain between my shoulders.
The looks on their faces suggested that they weren’t expecting me to put up a fight and I worried that I had inadvertently made their work easier for them. We had almost been friendly with each other a moment earlier. I had given them cause for retaliation. Now it was just business as usual. I stepped forward and swung the bottle at Blondie, but my arm sailed through the air recklessly, connecting with nothing. As my waist reached full rotation under the momentum of my attack, the blow of a fist came down across my cheekbone and sent me reeling back. The force of the impact was incredible. I could feel the flesh around my cheek become intensely hot almost immediately. My head was swirling as I tried to recover from the hit and stop myself from dropping to the pavement again. I was jerking my body around from the waist trying to regain balance when Boris swung the bottle just over my head. I ducked the attack in a move of pure happenstance. I hazarded another swing with the bottle and met with the side of Boris’s knee. I expected the bottle to shatter like in a Hollywood bar fight, but the only shattering sound came from his knee. He cried out through a clinched jaw with a growl, a spray of saliva erupting from between his teeth. He fell on to his other knee and clutched at the damaged one with both hands.
The entire right side of my face had gone numb and felt swollen and heavy, hanging from my skull. Blondie grabbed my wrist and twisted the bottle from my hand, spinning me around in the process. It felt like he was ripping my arm clean off from the shoulder. I stepped up on the outer wall of the police box with one leg and kicked as hard as I could, stumbling back with my attacker still holding my wrist around my back. He lost his footing and fell pulling me down on top of him. I tried to land on him as hard as I could. The impact freed my wrist and I jumped up quickly to put the toe of my Doc Martens into his ribs. I kicked him over and over with all the force I could muster. He grabbed my leg and threw me to the ground next to him, rolling on top of me. He punched the swollen side of my face and the pain felt like a hot poker. He hit me again and again, sandwiching my head between his fist and the asphalt underneath me. I flailed my arms around trying to deflect a few hits when my hand came in contact with something smooth and hard. Blondie’s eyes went to the same spot and we both reached for the bottle. I got there first and pulled the bottle under me as I rolled, throwing him from his position on top of me. I raised the bottle, preparing to bring it down on his head. Time seemed to slow down as it dropped toward his face. Am I about to kill this man? Is this another waking dream moment or am I really about to do this? I changed direction with only a split second to spare and crushed the bottle into his shoulder. The resulting scream that erupted from his mouth was ear shattering.
I was hit with a dizzy spell as I tried to get back to my feet and fell back to all fours. My whole head was throbbing with waves of intense pain and my back had seized up like a motor out of oil. My shoulders would only move in giant Frankenstein motions. I patted my face to see if I was bleeding; I was, a lot.
My hand exploded with a thousand sharp pains and a dozen cracking sounds. Still crawling around on the ground, Boris had smashed my hand between his bottle and the one I was holding. I dropped it and rose to my feet cradling my ruined hand around my stomach. Another blow caught me behind the knee and forced me back to the asphalt. The next hit me in the flesh just above my hipbone and sent a lightning bolt through my gut, resonating in my testicles. The pain was so sharp it made me want to vomit, but I only coughed up a mouthful of rust-flavored bile. My hand was useless. I jammed my elbow backwards haphazardly and landed it right in his left eye socket. He immediately clutched at his eye and dropped his head down to avoid more attacks.
“Okay! Wait a minute! Wait! Time out,” I shouted, half in their native tongue and half in my own. I hobbled to my feet and hopped away from the two of them. Boris picked up his bottle and started toward me again. “No Godammit! Break! Let’s take a fucking break.”
Boris, still blinking rapidly, shot a look to Blondie seeking approval for the temporary truce. Blondie sat up with a pained expressed on his face and nodded, clutching his shoulder tightly as if his arm would simply fall off if he let go.
The two of them simultaneously let out a long sigh and Blondie lay back down on the asphalt. I hopped over to the row of vending machines and wiped my bloody face on my black Clash t-shirt. I pulled out my wallet and searched for change to get a drink. The coffee had left me feeling parched and I was dripping with sweat from the fight. My wallet was empty. I had literally spent the last of my money on the coffee, certain it would be my last purchase on this Earth.
“Can I get some change?” I asked with no idea what kind of response to expect.
Surprisingly, they both went into their wallets and pulled out some money. Blondie gave me a small bill and asked me to buy him a coke. Boris got up slowly and limped over to the vending machines with me. I was back in the detective noir, exchanging courtesies with killers. The throbbing in my head made it feel all the more surreal. Boris bought some kind of energy drink and half-collapsed into a sprawl on the pavement. I bought a bottle of water and a coke and took it over to Blondie, still lying on the ground trying to massage his shoulder with one hand.
“Thank you,” he said in surprisingly impeccable English.
I nodded my reply and slowly sat down on the ground next to him. I held the bottle gently against the swollen half of my face and a chill shot through me at the touch of the cold. The bottle of coke hissed as Blondie opened it and Boris let out a pain-stricken growl in an attempt to straighten his knee. The street was silent, devoid of life. Even the music had been turned off; I hadn’t noticed during the fight. I thought about my executioners, my companions, whatever they were at that particular moment. One minute we were trying to kill each other and the next we were sharing an almost comfortable silence like close friends. They weren’t evil men. They were human just like me, capable of both wonderful and terrible acts. The universe had thrown the three of us into this kill or be killed situation; it was nothing personal. And yet, despite all of this objectivity, I still felt sorry for myself.
I drank the frigid water too fast and suddenly felt sick to my stomach. I hobbled to my feet and tried to stretch, but my back was so tight that I could hardly stand up straight. I scanned the pavement for the loose items that had been in my pockets, locating each one by following the path of our brawl. I patted my right back pocket and took out the journal. Awed by the fact that the journal had fared far better in the fight than its courier, I removed the blunt pencil from between its pages and prepared to write. I wanted to say something to Kaori, anything. I wanted to explain everything and tell her how sorry I was, but there weren’t enough pages in the journal for such a message. I tore out a single page and pressed it up against the plastic face of the vending machine. I wrote her name at the top and my name at the bottom. That much was simple. The difficulty lay in the space between. The same was true of life, I thought. The beginning and end were pretty straightforward. It was all this mess in the middle I couldn’t figure out. “I’m sorry” didn’t say enough. “I love you” didn’t really matter now. I had no idea what to write.
“C’mon. I want to get this over with,” Blondie called out from behind me.
“I’m here,” I responded in English, writing the same words on the page.
That was what I wanted to tell her, “I’m here.” The words echoed in my head from what seemed like a forgotten dream, “you came back … you’re here.” It was the simple wisdom I’d received from a 17 year-old runaway at a diner in the middle of the night; it was just yesterday.
I folded the page and shoved it into my pocket, turning around to see Boris helping Blondie to his feet. The three of us stood in another triangle, bent, broken, and bleeding. Boris was still carrying a bottle and the other was lying on its side almost exactly between us. I went for it, but Blondie got there first and brought it up into my stomach in a sharp jab. It did little more than push me back on my heels and I took a wild swing at his face. I missed and hit the side of his throat, which sent him reeling and gasping for breath. I turned just in time to see Boris’s bottle as it connected with the left side of my head and shattered in a spectacular explosion of glass. I dropped lifelessly to the pavement and my limbs quivered as I tried to move them. My breath came and went in short, shallow huffs and my vision slowly dimmed as if someone was turning down a rheostat. I could smell something burning nearby. I pulled my arms under my chest and tried to push myself up with all my remaining strength. My body felt impossibly heavy. A second later, the other bottle crashed over the back of my head and I collapsed back to the asphalt. A warm feeling engulfed my head and spread over my body like being submerged in a hot bath. All the sounds around me were muffled as if under water.
Unconsciousness and death waited with anxious eyes like two athletes sitting on the bench waiting to see which one of them would be sent onto the field next. Death rubbed his hands together and licked his lips, physically excited at the chance to take my place. Unconsciousness stared at me listlessly with a disappointed look on his face as if he already knew he was going to remain a benchwarmer for the umpteenth time. Still, there was a hint of hope behind his stoic expression. The world around me turned blacker than black and seemed to suck the last drop of light from my eyes. I could faintly hear a voice that called to me, followed by the sensation of being carried. But who would take my place?
All dark …
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