Nick looked up and down the road. He found himself in Kyoto, bathed in florescent-white street light. He remembered telling Tom he planned to go back for a visit. Though that would have taken a lot more money than he could get his hands on at the moment. Bullet trains are expensive. Regular trains were often out of his reach as well.
Yet, here he was.
Nick saw the fox with no eyes standing next to him.
“Didn’t I shoot you in the head?”
“Indeed you did,” the homeless creature said. His wounds continued to weep a thick, clear liquid. Whatever healing power the fox possessed did not apply to his eyes.
“You should be dead,” Nick reached for his pack of cigarettes.
“Such a relative term.”
“Relative to what?” The lighter in Nick’s hand clicked again and again. He was having trouble getting it to catch. The fox only smiled and offered Nick a book of matches. He turned it over in his hand but there was no logo to be found. Only blank white paper.
“Notice anything different?”
Grilled smoke poured out of a pipe set in the nearby alleyway. A greasy odor snaked its way on to the main street. The scent of charred chicken meat spilling over the street is the best free advertising. An effective use of what is just a waste product as well. For a restaurant in the crowded marketplace of an average drinking conclave, any advantage helps. Nick was certain that these restaurants got a kickback from local dry cleaning shops because of it. The odor of blackened poultry doesn’t fade from a suit jacket through wishful thinking. He had to admit, however, he was getting hungry.
“I see a rather basic Kyoto street.”
The fox pointed across the way to a side alley where two men were relieving themselves against the wall. Nick paused to light his cigarette. The two men against the wall began trying to splash each other’s shoes with their own piss. A spark of recognition flared in Nick’s head. One of the public urinators danced away from his friend almost crashing into another man trying to slip past.
“You Charles Dickens copying motherfucker.” Nick’s cigarette dangled from his lip threatening to fall.
A much younger and thinner Nick dodged out of the way of the stumbling piss bandit. He grumbled some words which were completely ignored by the two drunks and hustled past the pair before they could douse him too. The younger version of himself turned down the road and started heading away in the direction of a pink-light district. Nick started to trail after himself out of instinct. He stopped short and looked back at the fox, his question obvious.
“Don’t worry,” the fox said, staring back up at Nick with his mangled eyes. “No one can see you. Just like in Dickens.”
“So you’re the ghost of drunken weekends past?”
“You don’t remember which night this is yet, do you?”
Nick glanced back down the street, his other self had almost disappeared in the crowd. He jogged forward trying to catch up. At first he dodged the other pedestrians as usual, until he couldn’t avoid crashing into an old woman. She came to a full stop with little warning and he bowled right through her. Luckily she had all the resistance of a particularly detailed fog bank.
After that it became easy going.
Kyoto vibrated at a different frequency to Tokyo. The old capital lived as a regular city rather than a vast urban savannah like the new. Tokyo sprawls as a bloom of vomit on the sidewalk. Kyoto stays neat and contained in its valley. The trees are different too. Tokyo has trees, of course, but they’re lonely things, caged in concrete. Even the sprawling parks feel like an arboreal zoo, planted amongst the buildings as an obligation. City planners read how shade makes people happy and bless a few major streets with a block or two of sad trunks strung along in a row. Tokyo officials have little concept of or motivation for taking care of grass.
Kyoto has a different relationship with nature. At the least, they are still on speaking terms. Many temples and holy places are surrounded by forest. Kyoto is at least fifty percent historical artifact, including the residents. That’s not much of an exaggeration either as the population of Yokai in the city is slowly reaching majority. An Oni even ran for mayor in the previous election. He lost but had a good campaign.
The Yokai are drawn to the shrines and temples, which has given the humans living there not quite an open acceptance but a friendlier tolerance for certain. Also, since the shrines are most of Kyoto’s tourist economy there is a greater number of easy jobs for yokai willing to trade pride for a living wage. Nick especially liked Kyoto for the trees. The city’s relationship with the surrounding forest reminded him of home.
Also, when he first arrived, Kyoto was where people were willing to pay real money for his cross-cultural skills.
He followed his younger self down the street and began to wonder where it had all gone wrong. Staring into this mirror of the past he became starkly aware of the extra twenty kilos of paunch he put on over the years.
The way his double was as cool and suave on the outside as he had been in his head. Now with each cigarette he became a prisoner shackled to nothing, so well conditioned that he never thought to escape.
The capital city clearly has a way of getting in your blood like a virus. Nick’s younger self was a stark reminder of the effects of the Tokyo disease. After some twenty years only fools think anyone can escape the effects of age. Nick was certain now that the river of time flows rougher in Tokyo. With plenty of jagged rocks lurking beneath the surface. Unfortunately he had been exposed for too long to the concrete nightmare to ever want to leave. As dangerous for your health as Tokyo was, a metropolis is good at making a man feel alive.
Nick dropped his spent cigarette to the ground. The fox with no eyes coughed to show his disapproval.
“Terrible habit you’ve got there,” the fox said.
“I have worse,” Nick said, his attention still locked on the specter of his youth in front of him.
More than half the time, he remembered to throw away his cigarettes in the proper place. Maybe it was less than half. The rate dropped when he was distracted and couldn’t be bothered to bring a pocket ashtray.
A bar vented its grill smoke outside to pour along the road. Young Nick paused to finish his own cigarette before heading in. His last puff of tobacco smoke mixed with the thin cloud of burned chicken roiling past the door. The apparition had the decency to use a portable ashtray rather than flinging the spent butt to the ground. Somewhere in the years to follow Nick had lost that level of dedication. Nick’s ghost disappeared into the bar leaving him behind with the fox.
“Aren’t you going inside?” the blind fox asked after Nick hesitated.
“I remember what night this is now.”
“Then you’d better get in there or you’re going to miss it.”
Inside the bar’s decor attempted to invoke “old-fashioned log cabin”. Rounded humps of wood covered the walls in soft tan. The facade was clearly bolted on to a standard concrete wall but the attempt had a pleasing enough effect. Long tables of rough hewn cedar filled the common area with a camping in the woods ambiance. Across every free surface customers had scratched, drawn, or otherwise marked messages commemorating their visit. The bar left a few cheap ball-point pens scattered about the room for exactly this reason. The signatures created jagged breaks in the the glow of the wood, each one marking someone’s existence. Nick stumbled across this shop shortly after he arrived in Kyoto. Each time he came back, he tried to catch up with the bar as he might with an old friend, if he had any. A friend who didn’t keep in touch too much otherwise.
For all Nick knew, the place could have closed years ago. The realization stabbed him right in the appendix.
Nothing at all had changed.
After a quick scan of the room he spotted his younger self doing the same, searching for a place to sit. Old Nick wanted to see if his first scratchings in his favorite table still remained, a whole host of other memories tied up in those marks. A group of loud businessmen had already claimed that spot. Young Nick passed by the table without a second glance. Current Nick figured he hadn’t wanted to raise a fuss. Nick’s youthful mirage instead settled into a smaller booth away from the entrance.
Nick followed, unsure how to let this play out. Part of him screamed that he was intruding. Any moment his younger self would spot him and fall into an existential crisis. The fox removed that fear by sitting down directly across from the phantom Nick. His younger self ordered a bottle of beer with three glasses and several skewers of roast chicken and green onions. Salt only of course, nothing fancy. He lit another cigarette and settled in to wait, as nonchalant as someone born and raised in this town. Old Nick joined the fox and wrestled with the mental disconnect involved in looking into a time mirror.
“You want something to drink?” the fox turned his head in Nick’s direction.
“How would that work exactly?” The fox only smiled and waited for the server to come with Young Nick’s first bottle. When she did the blind fox pulled the beer towards him leaving behind an exact duplicate. He did the same thing with two of the glasses and proceeded to pour a healthy dose into each. Nick picked up the foaming glass of beer. It seemed real enough. Tasted just as he remembered as well.
The fox said nothing and simply sipped his own drink. Young Nick took zero notice and was already pouring his second glassful.
They had little choice but to continue drinking. A hand-written sign stretched over the main room which summed up the management’s position on customer behavior. The banner read:
Order one two more bottle(s) of beer or get the fuck out!
Nick didn’t begrudge the place. He found the upfront sincerity refreshing. The small group finished off two more beers and several plates of grilled chicken before Young Nick got up from the table. Nick slumped down into his seat, almost sliding down on to the floor. The moment had finally arrived. The fox poked him in the shoulder, the boney jab surprisingly painful for a dream.
“Get up,” the fox said. “This is why we’re here.” Nick shuffled out of the booth and turned to look back at himself. He had his arms wrapped around her now in a welcoming hug. Lin turned, her arm still wrapped around his waist, and introduced Young Nick to her mother. This was back when Lin still loved him. He couldn’t be certain of it at the time. It might never have been true anyway. Still, it pained Nick to rewind this particular moment of lost happiness.
“Do we have to stay?” Nick downed another swallow of the phantom beer. Unfortunately the intoxication effects were as ephemeral as the drink itself. He felt as sober as a church mouse.
“This is why we came,” the blind fox repeated. “I won’t let you leave just yet.”
“Nice to meet you Nick,” Lin’s mother said. Young Nick guided the pair to the booth. He poured Lin’s mother a glass of his beer. Lin sat next to her mother but something in her eyes said that she wanted to be next to Nick. He only noticed it now, years later as he stood over the scene looking in from the outside. He was too wrapped up in himself back then to figure it out. That would come later. As they went through the opening banter he couldn’t help but wonder if he could have salvaged things if he’d had those extra years.
“Is there a fast-forward on this thing?” Nick asked, “We were here quite awhile if I remember things right.” The blind fox said nothing but the air shifted around him. The figures at the table melted into subtle new positions and the number of empty beer bottles grew.
“So why are you in Kyoto, Nick?” Lin’s mother said as she held up her half empty beer glass. Young Nick filled it dutifully.
“I have some troubles back in Tokyo. Your daughter convinced me you could help. The older fox smiled briefly and then sipped her beer.
“I hope it’s not financial,” she said. “Lin knows I live on a fixed income.” The old fox moved with the casual grace of a master of tea ceremony. The blind fox snorted at her last comment. Nick looked his way but his guide was not planning to explain his amusement.
“Of course not,” Young Nick said, “I’ve made something quite angry.” Lin’s mother drained her beer. She left her hand on her now empty glass, fingers wrapped around in a light embrace. The moment lingered until Young Nick got the hint and poured her some more. After finishing another half of her drink the older fox chose to speak.
“Indeed you have.”
Lin glanced between the pair of them before resting a paw on her mother’s arm. “Please mom? It’d mean a lot to me.” This was the point in Nick’s recollection where the two women began speaking in the Fox dialect.
“What are they saying?” Nick asked the blind fox.
“They’re talking about you,” he replied.
“I figured as much back then,” Nick said, “Anything more specific?”
“Nothing I’m willing to tell you. Some things are better left a mystery.”
“Blind asshole,” Nick lit a cigarette he stole from his younger self. Again, no one took any notice of the pair of watchers standing awkwardly by the side of the table.
Young Nick sat against the back of the booth, pretending to act casual. He held his glass of beer up to the light as though something more refined hid within. Lin and her mother finished up their conversation and Lin excused herself to the bathroom. Once her daughter was gone the matriarch leaned closer to Nick.
“So tell me Nick,” she lowered her voice, “What did you do to deserve this extra attention?”
Little came to Old Nick’s mind other than a series of painful episodes. In between he numbed the hurt with purified grain alcohol in some form or another. This cycle repeated itself quite often over the years and would continue right up to yesterday.
Today and tomorrow as well, he admitted to himself.
“I don’t know why I’m being hunted,” Nick said. The old fox raised one eyebrow but otherwise kept her expression flat.
“Are you certain?” Nick refilled both glasses. Avoiding her stare, he picked up a neglected skewer of chicken and tore off some of the now cold meat. He took the time to chew and swallow completely before speaking again. His mother had done that right at least in raising him.
“Nothing more than my usual brand of depravity,” Nick said. “I haven’t been able to figure out what I did specifically yet.” He placed the empty wooden skewer back on the plate. Lin’s mother continued to drink her beer but made no move towards the food. She looked him up and down and maintained her silence. Young Nick moved to fill her glass again but she covered the top with her paw.
“I’ll help you out, Nick” Lin’s mother said. “But if you’ll allow me to play the concerned parent for a moment.” Young Nick chuckled and tried to appear even more casually disinterested. Current Nick wanted to grab him by the collar and slap some sense into himself.
“If you don’t fix the root of your problem,” Lin’s mother continued, “It’ll keep coming back time and time again.”
“Is this a gardening metaphor?”
“Only common sense advice.”
“My mother had a garden when I was growing up.”
“How nice,” Lin’s mother let the conversation wither until Lin came back a few moments later.
“So, did you two have a nice talk while I was gone?” Lin smiled at Nick. He avoided saying anything with a drink of his beer. Lin’s mother smiled at her daughter and patted her on the shoulder.
“Yes it was quite pleasant, dear,” the older fox said. Lin’s mother reached into her overstuffed bag and rummaged around for several moments.
“A gift to help your journey,” she said finally. She leaned forward to place a small package on the table. She then shifted back into the seat, as stoic as when she first sat down. The world shimmered in place similar to waves of heat rising off blacktop in summer. He looked over at the blind fox for explanation.
“What’s going on here?” Old Nick squinted trying to get a better look.
“The magic here is strong. It interferes with your mind and thus your memory of that day.”
Nick thought back to the original day but the memories were hazy at best and completely missing at worst. The scene continued to crackle and warp like a TV with a weak signal. An orb wrapped in paper sat and hummed softly at the edge of Nick’s hearing. Young Nick reached out for the object, his hand pulled along by a subtle magnetism. The cool weight of metal obvious even through the paper shell. He paused, looking at Lin’s mother for permission. A swift nod was the only cue given.
“Is this what I think it is?” Nick said after he peeled back the paper. Inside the wrapper, a round blob of red painted metal. Sketched on the front, a face with hollow white eyes staring out over an angry grin full of fangs. He ran his thumb over the surface of the doll surprised at the smoothness. On closer examination he understood the reason for a lack of texture. The coloring and design were part of the metal itself. Red ink flowed and mixed with the white at a glacial pace beneath the surface. It was almost as if something had been captured in a transparent sphere rather than crafted. The sharp smell of iron made that seem unlikely, however. The longer he looked into the object the more a force tugged on a hook lodged deep in his chest.
“It’s forming a link with you,” Lin’s mother said. Young Nick jerked his head up from the charm in his hand. He had forgotten he wasn’t alone. The world resolved itself a little more clearly.
“Is that a good thing?” Young Nick said. He smacked his lips, his throat had gone dry. He took up his beer with the other hand, not wanting to set the charm down. Nick watch took a sip from the glass. Something was off. The brew had a distinct metallic tang to it now, the same rustiness of blood. He put down his drink and pushed it away from him. Lin’s mother stood and placed a hand on her daughter’s shoulder.
“Time to go, dear.”
“Wait,” Nick said. The old fox looked back at him. “What about the eyes?”
“When you know for certain your goal, press a thumb against the eye on the left. If your conviction is strong enough the circle will darken, activating the power.”
“And the other one?” Lin’s mother paused to brush out a crease in her clothes before answering.
“Fill that one in when you succeed.” With that, the older fox left the restaurant. Lin looked back over her shoulder and mouthed “Call me” at Young Nick. He put the doll down and stared into the flat, blank eyes.
He lit a cigarette.
The memory dissolved into white, leaving Nick and the blind fox alone in a vast empty expanse.
“So I should find that doll?”
“Yes, that is why I brought you here. To remind you.”
“Seems like an awful lot of trouble. You could have just given me a call and explained it that way.”
The blind fox grinned. “Don’t worry, you won’t remember any of this and when you wake up you’ll think it was all your idea.”