He has me, as I enter my hotel room with my keycard. The cold steel of a blade presses against my throat.

Furniture lays on its back, like dead flies. Pillows are gutted, ripped apart. What a mess!

I bolt. But he yanks me back. Hard.

No chance to reach the door. I catch myself by falling to one knee. Who the hell is this guy? His fist digs into my ponytail and drags me back.

“OW!” He pulls me to the furthermost corner of the room. My back hurts. His grip in my hair is angry iron! “STOP!”

Why is he so incredibly fast and strong? I don’t even see him move! How is this even possible? As if I have no weight at all.

Gomen nasai!” I stammer. My apology has no effect. Why is this happening to me? Where are my things?

My suitcase is closed. Neatly folded on the floor, there are several plastic bags with bright red markings. My watch, my keys, the torn sleeve of my blouse? How did he get my stuff?

What do I do?

First thing: talk and bond.

I try to talk to him. I think I say something German, then English. I don’t know, maybe even Hungarian. I know, desperate times. He doesn’t answer. Perhaps he only speaks Japanese. Crap!

My Japanese is as good as my Swahili. I only learn some useful phrases, three months ago. My mind is blank, for once. I just remember ‘itadakimasu,’ meaning: Bon appetite. Of course, this happens to me! Gosh, my bad-luck-powers are back!

A lunatic Asian man holds me hostage, in my hotel room! What is it with this hellish week? Two days ago, I have my almost-car-crash, then the metro stops for four hours, for no apparent reason, and now this! I have wasted enough of my life with mentally unstable people. Another opportunity to clean me out, eh? Well, guess what! I have nothing more to give. Fuck you, leeches. Fuck you very much.

He points to the floor. “Sit!” Thank God, at least he understands me! Under the window are some grocery bags. He must have brought those with him. I obey and plant my butt into a corner of the room, back against the wall.

“What do you want?” I bark the question.”Why won’t you let me go?” Silence. Oh. It’s dark outside. Already? His silhouette looms over me. As if for the first time, he looks at me. His pale face shines, like the teeth of a withered skull. Why is his face so familiar? I have seen him before. He looks so sad. Instantly, I feel sympathy for him. How weird…

Wait. Maybe not so weird after all. Behold the Stockholm Syndrome. I have to be careful, I need a clear head, not a mesmerized potato on my neck.

“Because…” He speaks gently and carefully. “You are possessing.”

“I-WHAT? Are you crazy?” I slap both hands on my mouth. Where is my mind? I shouldn’t say that to my captor. I continue a little wary of the consequences. “Possession? There’s no such thing.” I wait for the glint of rage in his dark eyes. I wait. No blaze of anger. Huh?

He looks much younger than I thought! Barely a grown up, he is not fitting his clothes. His jeans and the knitted pullover hang on him like they would hang on a hook. His too big leather jacket has seen better days. It’s patched on the elbows and the shoulders.

Where do I know him from? From the inner pocket of his jacket, he pulls out three folded paper cranes. Balancing them on his palm, he shows them to me. The cranes arrange themselves, shifting into place, with their beaks pointing at me. That’s — strange… “How do you do that?”

“You do.” He observes the movements for himself. “Not me.” I do? That’s impossible! The young man pulls out more of them and places them on the floor, the bed and on the carpet around me. They look identical. Origami cranes, made of cheap copy-paper. They balance themselves, wherever they are put, and peek at me. I swallow, and it hurts. How do they move on their own? My tongue sticks to my palate. Thermal waves pulse through my guts, I feel them in my cheeks too. The bottom of my stomach falls out. “Try to stay calm. This won’t make it any easier for you.”

He says easier for me? I stare down those white paper birds. What on Earth does he mean? From another pocket, he pulls a pen with a brush on the tip. He paints something on his palm and shows it to me. “I can’t read that. I can’t read Kanji.”  He paints his other palm too. After holding it to my face, I shake my head. “No idea.”

“This is bad. I wasn’t expecting, that you can’t read.” He scratches his chin. “We’ll do it like in the old days.”

“I can read!” I tell him offended.

“That’s no good. I can’t write Romaji.” He sighs. “Not good enough. The symbolism of your world is not what I’m used to. And a mistake is not an option.” He sits down on my bed, not facing me directly. “It is too much at stake.” What’s that even got to do with me? Romaji and Kanji, with me; being held hostage? This man is bonkers!

I will die here.

No! This is not how this goes down. How can I escape? Running is no use. He’s faster. Stronger.

“You know, there are three things I must know before I let you go.” All ears! Maybe there’s a way out, after all. “Form. Truth. And regret.” He continues. “What do you remember? Any strange events lately?” I nod. What were those things he wanted? Do I have to discuss philosophy with him? Truth? What does he mean with regret? “So? Please tell me.” He asks most interested.

I swallow. “W-Why is that important?” Time. All I need is time. Maybe someone notices that I’m in trouble. Clerk’s desk do your job! They call daily to ask when I want to be woken up. That’s it! The phone. I have to get on the phone. “Fine.” Dizziness creeps back into my head. My eyes hurt. Why is it so hard to focus on a thought? I feel like dreaming. Letters and shapes crawl away when I try to read or think. As if this man is my kryptonite. The longer I’m exposed, the weaker I get. Bullshit! I’m just tired. I stall for time and tell him what happened. “I had a near car crash the other day.” He’s keen on details. “Can I move around a bit? It helps to concentrate.” He gestures that I can.

I’m on my feet and start walking. First in small elliptical figures, near him, then in larger ones. I sneak towards the phone. Casually. Carefully. The paper beaks follow my every step. Must be magnetic weirdness…

“I was driving from Shibuya to Chiba. As always, that stretch of the highway was cramped. I’ve been shopping in Shibuya, for my sister. Artist supplies. It started raining half way. I knew it would, but I hoped I’d be home before it hit with full force.” He cocks his head, listening intently. “The traffic was slow. Not everybody was careful.” Nearly there now. “Street and other cars were barely visible in the torrent. The car behind me was tailgating.” Two more steps. “Two people sat in that vehicle, and the driver kept honking at me. I was so pissed.” What happened next? Why is this blurry? Ow, my head hurts. “Suddenly. A huge truck broke into my side of the flow of traffic. Like an angry bull horns a slow torero, it kept rolling over and pushing cars aside, like toys. One of them even exploded. I guess you saw that on the news.” He shakes his head.

I lunge at the phone. My fingertips connect with the speaker, and I only see an arc of light and sparks! Lightning shoots up my hand and arm. Fingers cramp into claws. The white flash of pain blocks out the room, my vision.

I hear a ringing in the darkness. Wait. Ringing? I hear the ringing of the phones. In the next room, to the left and the right, and down the hallway. Above this room too. They all ring in unison. How is this even-?

“-Please, don’t stop. We’re nearly there.” The man looks at me unfazed. I hold my hand to my chest. The ringing continues. I want to pick it up so badly, that I feel nauseous. I want to scream for help!

My heart gallops. I swear, he hears it. The whole hotel does. “I saw that the people in the car behind me were on the phone. Probably making the emergency calls. The truck hit traffic some several hundred meters before my car. It lay there, a crushed fat caterpillar on its side.” The phone keeps ringing. My temples burn. Stop it. “I… I had a first aid kit under the front passenger seat. I’m a doctor, you know.” My hand throbs and I can barely breathe. Stop it already! “Maybe I could help. I got out of the car and, and-” My throat tightens and my eyes blur and sting. “Then I saw it. The truck had gasoline loaded. The way the driver’s head… Uhm, he was dead.” The man comes closer, and all I can do is to stagger back. “It – It, uhm…” I swallow. “I looked for other people. Anyone, I could help.” My eyes water and the saliva in my mouth tastes like death. “There were SO many… and. It smelled like burnt hair and seared meat.”

*

Next thing I know, I’m on the floor. The wet touch of a finger on my cheek tracing figures of a hidden topography. I cringe. Air refuses to enter my lungs. I pull myself into a knot. It’s his pen, not his finger.

“Do you remember that?” He asks, pointing at my burnt hand. It looks like charcoal! OH, MY GOD! How can that be? I don’t understand. Why isn’t my hand moving? It’s been only a spark! No-

“No more.” Please. I’ve had enough. “Please. Don’t!”

“How did you get back here?”

“Metro.” The answer falls out of my mouth before I can stop it. I can only look at the paper crane on the man’s shoulder. Was that a frown? Pity? Sadness? Contempt? All of them? He sits down, legs crossed, an arm’s length away from me.

“Not by car?” His hand folds around the sheath of the dagger. Funny, why doesn’t that bother me anymore?

“Couldn’t find it.” That has been strange. “It was gone, someone must have driven it off.” I stare at my black hand. Now that I think of it. “Someone stole it. With my everything inside. Money, phone, ID, cards, keys… Everything!” I wave both of my good hand exasperated.

“Didn’t you lose something else too?” I look back at him, baffled. Something else? Before I enter the room, I know I miss something. It’s weird, and I remember thinking that I had to talk to my sister about it. “Was it your kage? I mean, your — shadow?” He pulls the blade out of the sheath. This time I recognize it. In his hand gleams the steel of a broken Japanese sword, a damaged katana. The edge of the blade glows in the darkness. It radiates warm and golden, like a lit candle.

“I had this feeling of being lonelier than ever. Loneliest?” Is a superlative enough? I’m used to being alone. But these last few days were extreme. I exhale. Okay, there is a perfectly good reason for all of this. Easy. Logical. There has to be.

“Tell me.” His eyes lock on mine. “How does it feel to be a walking corpse?”

WHAT?!

Rustling fills the room. The origami birds move erratically. A hand full fly off, wings beating. He furrows his brows and watches the cranes. “What did you just say?” A walking corpse?

“How does it feel, to be a walking corpse?” He repeats and studies my face.

“I’M NOT DEAD!” The impact of his last sentence is too much! I think I’ll throw up. The room moves and shifts. I tilt too, and the hotel around me flickers. Or is it me who flickers? I can’t tell anymore.

“Prove it!” He demands.

How?

“Prove, that you’re alive, and we have no business. I let you go.” How? “When did you eat the last time?” I swallow. I can’t remember.

“Dunno… Not hungry! That doesn’t mean anything.”

“Your hand. Observe. You are a doctor, aren’t you? Look at that burnt hand of yours. Do you think a spark can do that?”

“– No.” That can’t be. No. He can’t be right! I stare at my black stiff fingers. I try to move them. Nothing. I’m not dead. I can’t!

“Did anyone talk to you, or answer you?” I shake my head, unable to open my mouth. Nobody looks at me, nobody has. I refuse to believe a word!

“This is Japan! People don’t LOOK at each other.” I push the words through my teeth. It isn’t polite to stare, or even to look at each other. A white wave of panic rolls over me. He’s making this up. Remember, he is my captor.

“You made the phones ring in every room. Every day. For the last three months.” He smiles at me. “After changing the phones, the cables, no technician knew what to do.” From another pocket, he pulls an old tiny oil lamp. “And your room was vandalized, every time someone slept in it.”  My room? “Finally, the concierge called for me. To find out.” He lights the lamp. “And I did find out. Took me a month to fold them. There are exactly a thousand.” The origami birds settle down. A thousand cranes, I heard that somewhere before.

“I’m not dead.”

“And there is the thing with your shadow.” I open my mouth to protest, but the words refuse to get out. “You lost yours.” They are stuck somewhere inside. I’m not dead. I feel my heart bulge. I want to cry. “I’m very sorry, for what happened to you. It wasn’t your fault. Nothing of this. I’m sorry you are stuck here. I will help you the best I can. I will help you to leave.”

“Where to? What about my sister? My stuff?” I point at my suitcase.

It’s gone! The furniture stands where it uses to stand. Everything’s all right!  The hotel room is just a hotel room. Nothing’s broken, nothing ripped or overturned. How can that be?

“My everything?” He shakes his head.

He points the dagger to his pinky. A blood drop clings to the tip of the steel. His face doesn’t betray pain. “Your form is obvious. You are a caregiver, wanting to protect, to nurture. It must have been hard to bear the frustration, the disappointment, as others ignored your needs, your boundaries. They used you, sucked the life out of you. I know people, like you, seldom receive the love and care they need so badly. It’s unjust.” A crane lands on the dagger sucking up the red. A crimson dot marks the breast of the paper bird. “Maybe you don’t remember, but it wasn’t the explosion, that killed you. Somebody ran you over. It isn’t possible to identify the culprit, at least for me. I suspect someone panicked and confused the brake with the gas pedal.” I’d give anything if he stops looking at me with that heartbroken expression.

Why is it so hard to remember? In a blink, all birds float. They buzz like a beehive. “If it helps, I don’t think it was on purpose. I talked to the firefighters, the police, and the paramedics. They could tell, you tried to help.” He avoids my eyes.

My chest feels like it’d burst open. Heavy thumps tore through my heart. Dread radiates from the paper mass in mid-air.

“It’s time for you to go.” Between his fingers, an airy sliver of grey paper moves in an unseen current of space. It catches fire. The man stands back.

I try to back away too. “I’m not dead.” The birds hum. But the tone reminds me of monks. Tibetan monks praying their mantras. It does sound like speaking in a very deep male voice. Someone talks, repeats words. Over and over.

The static charge grows. The hair on my neck stands on end.

The birds levitate in the shape of a ring. Only one bird, the one with the blood, moves to the center.

First, the white of the paper glows pearly, but then, as if the fire danced inside a paper lantern, it grows to a blinding white beam.

I’m not… I can’t! I’m not ready.

Stop it!

No!

 


pic: Ryo-no-onna, (meaning: a ghost of a woman) Noh-Mask    

Song title: “Do I wanna know?” by Arctic Monkeys

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