They told me there’d be lots of palm trees in Northern California. And hibiscus with these buzzing bee-like birds. And of course, beaches. But no one ever warned me about this poison oak business.
It was a fine Monday morning. The sun was beating down at Seidou Mission Academy, waves were lapping up at the beach beyond the parking lot, and fat seagulls were lurking about. I was at the principal’s office, currently conversing with Father Kataoka.
I tried to pay attention, I really did, but let me tell you: poison oak itches.
“You see, Miyuki-kun, as liaisons between the spiritual and human world, it is our sacred duty to help lost souls to get to where they’re supposed to be going. But when one’s spiritual liaison takes one’s head and slams it into a locker door… well, you can see how that kind of behaviour might not build the sort of trust we would like to establish with our troubled brothers and sisters.”
I looked up from the rash on my hands. Rash. It was like a fungus, an insidious growth that would consume every inch of my once smooth, unblemished skin, covering it with red scaly bumps. That oozed, by the way.
“Yeah, but if our troubled brothers and sisters are giving us a hard time, I don’t see why it’s such a crime if I just haul off and slug them―”
“That is why you are supposed to be helping to bring these troubles souls to spiritual fulfilment―”
I tucked my oozing hands out of sight. “Look, Father, I don’t know what kind of souls you’ve been dealing with, but the ones I’ve been running into are malevolent. These folks are going to heaven or hell, or they’re going on to their next life as caterpillar in Kathmandu, but sometimes they’re gonna need a little kick in the butt.”
Father Kataoka was back in school, but he was wearing a cast that went all the way down to his toes, and disappeared up his long black robe. He was getting pretty handy with those crutches, though.
“Miyuki-kun, you and I, for better or for worse, were born with an incredible gift―the ability to see and speak to the dead.”
“There you go again,” I rolled my eyes, “with the gift stuff. Frankly, Father, I don’t see it that way.”
How could I? Since the age of two years old, I’ve been pestered, plagued, and pounded on by restless spirits. For fourteen years, I’ve put up with their abuse, helping them when I could, punching them when I could not, always fearful of somebody finding out about my ability and expose me for it.
Only, Father Kataoka ― or should I call him Coach Kataoka now since he’s teaching me about proper mediation techniques? ― refuses to view our “gift” in the same light at me. For him, it’s a marvellous opportunity to help other’s in need.
Which is good for him, since he’s a priest. He’s not a sixteen-year-old who, hello, would like to have a social life.
“Miyuki-kun, we are mediators, not terminators. Our duty is to help the spirits to move on and we do that by gentle guidance and counselling, not by punching them in the face or doing a Brazilian voodoo exorcism.”
He raised his voice at the word exorcism, even though he knew perfectly that I’d only done it as a last resort. It’s not my fault that half the school fell down during it. It was technically Tanba’s fault for causing an earthquake that destroyed the breezeway.
“Okay, okay already.” I held up both hands in surrender. “Can I go back to class now?”
“Not yet. How was your weekend?”
“Swell.” I held up my oozing hands. “See?”
“Good heavens, what is that?” he asked.
“Poison oak. Nobody told me it grows all over the place.”
“It only grows in wooded areas. Were you in wooded areas this weekend?” then his eyes widened behind his black glasses. “Miyuki-kun, you did not go to the cemetery, did you? I know you believe yourself to be indomitable, but it isn’t safe at all for a young man to go sneaking around cemeteries!”
“I didn’t catch this in any cemetery. I got this at Yoshikawa Haruno’s pool party.”
“Yoshikawa’s pool party? How could you have encountered poison oak there?” Father Kataoka looked confused.
I realized I probably should have kept my mouth shut. Too late now. How was I gonna explain―to the school principal, who was a priest―about how a rumor had gone midway through the party that my stepbrother Zono and this girl named Umemoto Sachiko were going at it in the pool house.
I had denied the possibility, for Zono had been grounded by his mother for calling a friend of mine a fag. So when rumor went floating around that Zono and Umemoto were having sex in the pool house, I was pretty sure everyone was mistaken.
But then someone said, “Go take a look for yourself”, and I made this mistake of doing so, tiptoeing up to the small window they’d indicated, and peering through it. I had never particularly cared to see any of my stepbrothers in the buff. Not that they are bad looking or anything.
Satoru, the oldest one, is actually considered by most girls in Seidou (where he is a senior and I am a sophomore) something of a hottie. But that doesn’t mean that I have any desire to see him strutting around in the house without his boxers.
As for Zono… well, I particularly never wanted to see Zono in his altogether. In fact, Zono is just about the last person on Earth I’d ever wish to see naked. But as it is, I’m pretty sure that the downfall of humans can be completely attributed to their curiosity.
And I was curious enough to see whether this rumor about Zono’s alleged scandal is correct.
Fortunately, when I looked through that window, I saw that the hearsays of my stepbrother’s state of undress, as well as his sexual prowess, had been greatly exaggerated. He and Umemoto were only making out. But I was still completely repulsed.
I’m not exactly proud that Zono had been tongue wrestling with the second stupidest person in our class, after himself. I looked away immediately ― I wasn’t about to stand there gawking while Zono engaged in it. As for Umemoto, she can’t afford to lose any more brain cells than she already has, what with her brains being sucked out of her mouth.
As I was staggering away with disgust from the pool house window, which was situated above a small gravel path, I felt light-headed from the horror of what I’d just seen ― you know, tongues and all ― so I sort of lost my balance.
The plants I grabbed onto were all that saved me from the ignominy of collapsing on Yoshikawa Haruno’s redwood pool deck. I didn’t tell Father Kataoka the whole story, of course. I just told him that I staggered into some poison oak as I was getting out of the pool.
“Well, some hydrocortisone ought to clear that up. You should see the nurse after this. Be careful not to scratch on it, or it will spread.” Father Kataoka seemed to accept my abridged version of the story.
“Yeah, thanks. I’ll be sure not to breathe, either. That’ll probably be just as easy.” Father Kataoka just ignored my sarcasm.
“Aside from the poison oak, is there anything else going on in your life that I should know about?”
Well, a boy I didn’t know asked me to slow dance at Haruno’s pool party. I only said yes because Haruno screamed at me after I turned him down the first time he asked. Apparently, this boy was someone she’d had a crush on for a while. How my slow dancing with him was supposed to get him to like Haruno, I don’t know.
“You ruined my party!” she informed me with actual tears.
“Ruined your party?” I was genuinely surprised. I’ve only been living in California for a week and I managed to make myself a social pariah in such a short period of time.
Yoshikawa was really mad at me because I invited my friends Mochi and Ryou, whom she and most of our sophomore class considered freaks, to her party. Now I had apparently added insult to injury by not agreeing to dance with some boy I didn’t even know.
“Jesus, he’s a junior at Inashiro Jitsugyo, okay? He’s the star shortstop on their team. He’s got fast legs and superb batting skills, and he’s the second hottest guy in the Valley after Takigawa Chris. Kaz, if you don’t dance with him, I swear I’ll never speak to you again.”
“If you want fast legs, there’s ‘Mochi―”
“Oh my God don’t talk about that freak.” she visibly shuddered. “I just want everything to go well. I’ve had my eye on this guy for a while now―”
“Getting me to dance with him is sure to make him like you.” I pointed out the fallacy.
“Just do it.” she hissed. I’m not scared of her, but really, who needs the grief?
So I went back outside and stood there in my khaki shorts and white button down polo which I’d unfastened the first two buttons, not knowing I’d just stumbled into a bunch of poison oak, while Haruno went over to her dream date and asked him to dance with me.
He sauntered up a few minutes later, wearing a serious expression, a pair of white chinos, and black silk shirt. “Do you want to dance?” he asked in this really soft voice, softer than Chris’.
“Look, I don’t even know your name.” I said, putting down my Diet Coke.
“It’s Yuki.” He said.
And without another word, he put his arm around my waist, pulled me up to him, and started swaying in time to the music. With the exception of the time I threw myself up at Chris to knock him out of the way when a ghost tried to crush his skull with a large chunk of wood, this was as close to the body of boy I had ever been.
Well, being a baseball catcher, you’d suppose I get tackled a lot. You’re wrong. Who’s gonna tackle me if they all ended up tagged out to second by my strong throwing arm? And I generally avoid the sweaty bodies of my teammates at bath.
Let me tell you, I closed my eyes, put my arms around Yuki’s neck, and swayed with him for two of the longest, most blissful minutes of my life. And then the song ended.
“Thank you,” Yuki said in the same soft voice he’d used before, and let go of me. And for the rest of the party, Yuki avoided me. He didn’t dance with anybody else, but he didn’t speak to me again.
But I didn’t think Father Kataoka wanted to hear about my dating travails. So I said “Nope, nada, zero.”
“Hmm, I thought there’s be some paranormal activity―”
“Oh, you mean ghost stuff?”
“Well, of course, Miyuki-kun.” He said, taking off his glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose, like he had a headache all of a sudden. “Of course that’s what I mean. Why, has something happened? I mean, since that unfortunate incident that resulted in the destruction of the school?”
The first time she showed up, it was about an hour after I came home from the pool party, around 3 am. and what she did was, she stood by my bed and started screaming. Really screaming. Really loud. She woke me out of a dead sleep.
I had been lying there, dreaming about Takigawa Chris Yuu, and in my dream we were cruising around Seventeen Mile Drive in this red convertible. Chris’ soft brown hair was blowing in the wind, with the sun sinking into the sea, and A Thousand Miles playing in the stereo.
And then this woman started wailing practically in my ear.
Of course I sat up right away, completely wide awake. I sat there blinking because my vision is blurred, and my room was totally dark because it was night-time. You know, when normal people are asleep. But I’m not normal, and we spiritual liaisons have to be available 24/7, 365.
She was standing in this skinny patch of moonlight peeking from my opened bay windows, wearing gray sweatshirt, capri pants, and white Keds. Her hair was short and black, and with all the crying and wailing, it was hard to tell if she was young or old.
But I kinda figured she was Hanako-san’s―my new stepmother and the adoptive mother of all three of my stepbrothers, who, by the way, weren’t related to each other at all―age. Which was why I didn’t get out of bed and punch her right there and then.
And of course, I was raised in a household that upholds respect for women. My mom and dad would be very disappointed if they knew I went around hitting women. But that didn’t mean unruly female ghosts are exempted.
After a while, I guess she noticed I was awake because she stopped screaming. She wiped her eyes, which were overflowing with tears. She was crying really hard.
“I’m sorry.” She said.
“Yeah, well, you got my attention. Now, what do you want?”
“I need you,” she started sniffling. “I need you to tell him it wasn’t his fault. He didn’t kill me.”
This was sort of a new one. I raised my eyebrows. “Tell him he didn’t kill you?” she nodded. She was pretty, but sort of waifish. You can tell she didn’t eat enough when she was alive.
“You’ll tell him? Promise?” she asked me eagerly.
“Sure, I’ll tell him. Only, who am I telling?” she then looked at me funny.
“Red, of course.”
Red? Was she kidding? But it was too late now, she was gone. Why me, really? To be interrupted while having a dream about Chris just because some woman wanted a guy named Red to know he didn’t kill her…
I swear my whole life is written as a comical skit. Except, my life isn’t really funny. I especially wasn’t laughing when, the minute I was about to close my eyes and go back to sleep, somebody else showed up in the sliver of moonlight in the middle of my room.
“What?” I asked in this pretty rude voice.
“You didn’t even ask her name.” he was shaking his head.
I leaned up on both elbows. It was because of this guy that I’d taken to wearing t-shirts and pyjama pants to bed. I can’t exactly sleep around only in my boxers with this guy materializing whenever he wanted to.
“Like she gave me the chance.”
“You could have asked.” Sawamura folded his arms across his chest. “But you didn’t bother.”
“Excuse me? This is my bedroom. I will treat spectral visitors any way I want to, thank you.”
“Kazuya…” Sawamura had the softest voice imaginable, softer even than that Yuki guy or Chris. It was like silk. It was really hard to be mean to a guy with a voice like that.
But the thing was, I had to be mean. Because even in the moonlight, I could make out the breadth of his strong shoulders, the vee where his old-fashioned white shirt fell open, smooth chest, and just about the best-defined abs you’ve ever seen.
Yoshikawa Haruno was wrong. Takigawa Chris was not the hottest guy in Carmel. Sawamura was.
And if I wasn’t mean to him, I knew I’d find myself inadvertently falling in love with him. And the problem with that, you see, is that he’s dead.
“If you’re going to do this, Kazuya, don’t do it halfway.” he said in that silky voice.
“Look, Sawamura.” my voice wasn’t silky, it was hard as rock. “I’ve been doing this a long time without any help from you, okay?”
“She was obviously in a great emotional need, you―”
“What about you? You two live in the same astral plane. Why don’t you get her rank and serial number?” I demanded.
Sawamura looked confused. Let me tell you, confused looked good. Everything looks good on him.
“Rank and what?” he said.
Sometimes, I forgot that Sawamura died fifty or so years ago. He’s not exactly up to the lingo of the twenty-first century, if you know what I mean.
“Her name. Why didn’t you get her name?”
“It doesn’t work that way.” he shook his head.
Sawamura is always saying cryptic stuff about the spirit world that I
being not a spirit am still somehow expected to understand. Between that and the Spanish―which I don’t speak and which he spouts occasionally when he’s mad―I have no idea what Sawamura was saying about a third of the time.
Which is way irritating.
I have to share a room with the guy because it was in this room that he got shot back when it was a hotel for cowboys―or in his case, a baseball superstar who was supposed to be marrying his beautiful, rich cousin, but was tragically murdered on the way to the ceremony.
At least, that’s what happened. Not that Sawamura told me that, or anything. No, I had to figure that out on my own… though my stepbrother Nabe helped. It isn’t something that Sawamura seems much interested in discussing.
Which was sort of weird because in my experience, all the dead ever want is to talk about how they died. Not Sawamura though. All he ever wants to talk about is how much I sucked at my job. Maybe he had a point, though.
I mean, according to Father Kataoka, I was supposed to be serving as a spiritual link between the land of the living and the land of the dead. But mostly, all I was doing was complaining because nobody was letting me get any sleep.
“Look, I fully intend to help that woman. Just not now, okay? I really need to get some sleep. I’m totally wrecked.”
“Wrecked?” he echoed.
“Yeah, wrecked.” sometimes, I suspect Sawamura doesn’t understand a third of what I’m saying either, though at least I’m speaking in both Japanese and English. “Whacked, beat, all tuckered out. Tired.”
“Oh…” he stood there for a minute, looking at me with those gold, sad eyes.
Sawamura had those kind of eyes some guys have, the kind of sad eyes that make you think you wanna do everything to make them not so sad. That’s why I have to make a point of being so mean to him.
“Good night then, Kazuya.” He said in that silky voice of his.
“Good night.” My voice isn’t deep or silky, in fact it came out kinda squeaky.
Great. The only time I want to sound sexy and I come out sounding squeaky. It usually does that when I’m talking to Sawamura. Nobody else. Just Sawamura.
I rolled over, bringing the covers up over my face, feeling the heat creep up my neck and cheeks. When I peeked out from underneath them a minute later, I saw that he was gone. He shows up when I least expect it, and disappears when I least want him to. He could have at least waited for me to fall asleep before dematerializing.
That’s how ghosts operate. Take my mom for example. She’s been paying these totally random social calls on me since she died a decade ago. Does she show up when I need her? Like when I moved out to a totally different continent and I didn’t know anyone and I was totally lonely?
Hell, no. No sign of good ol’ mom. She was kinda pretty irresponsible, but I’d really thought that one time I needed her…
But I couldn’t exactly accuse Sawamura of being irresponsible. If anything, he was a little too responsible. I’ve only known him for a week, and he saved my life twice. I guess I could say I owed him one.
So when Father Kataoka asked me whether or not any ghost stuff went on, I lied and said no. I guess it’s a sin to lie, especially to a priest. But here’s the thing: I never really told Father Kataoka about Sawamura.
I just thought that Father Kataoka would be upset at me, to hear that there was a dead guy in my bedroom, and it’s our job to help ghosts figure out why he’s stuck in the astral plane. And once we take care of it, the ghost would move on.
But sometimes, I think Sawamura doesn’t even know why he’s sticking around. He doesn’t have the slightest idea. So you see, I couldn’t tell Father Kataoka about Sawamura and about the lady, because she doesn’t deserve to get kicked in the ass.
I was also kind of scared I felt this way, because I really didn’t want to do anything about it. I liked having the guy around. And if I told Father Kataoka, he’d be hot and bothered to help him get to the other side.
But what good would it do me? Then I’d never get to see Sawamura again. Was it selfish of me?
“Nope, nothing to report, Father. Supernatural or otherwise.” I sort of lied.
Was it my imagination, or Father Kataoka looked a little disappointed? To tell you the truth, I think he liked it when I wrecked the school. It certainly gave him something to be excited with.
“Well, alright then. Here’s your hall pass. And try to remember what we discussed, Miyuki-kun. We help others resolve conflicts, not kick them in the face.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” I said, smiling at him. And I would too, after I’d kicked Red’s ass. Whoever he was.
Generally, tracking a person’s whereabouts is not easy. I won’t even tell you about the number of phone books I’ve scoured, or the hours I spent on the internet. This one was easy though. All I had to do was ask at lunch if they knew someone named Red.
“Anybody knew a guy named Red?” I asked the crowd I started eating lunch with.
“Sure,” Mochi answered, eating a family-sized Cheetos. “Last name’s Tide, right? Enjoys killing harmless sea otters and other aquatic creatures?”
“Not that Red. This one’s a human being. Probably adult, probably local.”
“Shirakawa.” Ryou answered. He was eating pudding from a plastic cup. “Shirakawa Katsuyuki Senior is a real estate developer. His friends call him ‘Red’. Don’t ask me why, since he doesn’t have red hair. Why do you wanna know anyway?”
This was always the tricky part, the why-do-you-want-to-know part. Because the fact is, except for Father Kataoka, no one knows I can converse with the dead. Not Mochi, not Ryou, not even my dad. Nabe, my youngest stepbrother, suspects, but he doesn’t know.
“Oh, just someone I heard on TV.” It wasn’t so hard lying to friends.
“Wasn’t that the name of that guy you danced with at Yoshikawa’s?” Mochi asked. “You know, Kaz. Yuki, the hunchback with missing teeth and terrible body odor? You came up to me afterwards and threw your arms around me and begged me to marry you so you’d be protected from him for the rest of your life.”
“Oh, yeah. Him.”
“That’s his father. Shirakawa Katsuyuki Jr. is Shirakawa Red’s only child.” Ryou knows everything because he’s vice editor-in-chief―and publisher, chief photographer―of Seidou News, the school’s newspaper.
“Aha!” I said. It made a little more sense, then, that the dead woman came to me. She obviously felt a connection to Red through his son.
“What aha?” Ryou looked at me, interested. Ryou always looked interested, what with gathering data and blackmail materials, “Don’t tell me you’ve got it bad for that tool of a kid? I’ve always hated his shrewd attitude when playing.”
“I’ve heard things about Shirakawa Yuki.” Said Mochi, shaking his head. “I mean, besides the fact that he’s carrying around his undigested twin in his bowels. And that said twin was a basilisk, so you know where the snake-like attitude comes from―”
“What’s Mrs. Shirakawa like?” I asked.
“There’s no Mrs. Shirakawa.” Ryou answered.
“Product of divorce.” Mochi sighed. “Poor Yuki, no wonder he has such issues about commitment. I’ve heard he sees usually three, four girls at a time. But that might be on the account of sexual addiction.”
Ryou ignored him. “I think she died a few years ago.”
“Oh?” could the ghost who’d shown up in my bedroom have been Shirakawa Sr.’s deceased wife? “Anybody got a penny?”
“Why?” Mochi wanted to know.
“I need to make a call.”
Four people in our lunch crowd handed me a cell phone. I selected the one with the least intimidating number of buttons, then dialled information, and asked a listing for Shirakawa Katsuyuki Sr. The operator connected me to Shirakawa Industries.
“Shirakawa Industries, how may I help you?” the overly cheery receptionist asked, and I said I needed to speak to Shirakawa-san.
“Who may I say is calling please?”
“Miyuki Kazuya.” Initially, I had wanted to say ‘someone who knows what really happened to his wife’, but I suspected that the dead woman was lying. What if Red really killed her? I might be uncovering a case of homicide here.
Sure enough, the receptionist took me off to hold a second later, and said “Shirakawa-san is on another call at the moment. May I take a message?”
“Uhh… yeah, umm… tell him I’m calling from Seidou Mission Academy Newsletter. I’m a reporter and we’re doing a story on the… on the ten most influential people in Salinas County.” I said, thinking fast and giving her my home number, telling her to tell him not to call until after three since I had school.
When the receptionist knew I was a kid, she got even nicer. “Sure thing, sweetheart. I’ll let Shirakawa-san know. Buh-bye.”
But the thing was, Shirakawa “Red” Katsuyuki Sr. hadn’t even bothered calling back. I guess if you’re a gazillionaire, being named one of the most influential people by a school paper wasn’t such a big deal.
I didn’t know why I thought it’d be so easy. I guess I’d been lulled into a false sense of security by that fact that I’d gotten his name so easily. I was sitting in my room, admiring my poison oak in the dying rays, when my dad called me for dinner.
Dinner in this household was a very big deal. Basically, my dad had already informed me he’d kill me if I missed dinner unless I arranged my absence in advance with him. Dinner had been, and I quote, something ‘Hanako-san had prepared with all her heart and soul so you need to eat it!’
“There he is.” My dad said, when I came shuffling into the kitchen in ripped-up jeans, black tee, and motorcycle boots. It’s outfits like these that caused my stepbrothers to suspect that I am in a gang, despite my strenuous denials.
My dad made this big production of coming over and ruffling my hair fondly. This is because ever since he met my stepmother, Hanako-san, married her, and forced me to leave Tokyo to live with her and her three sons, he’d been incredibly, disgustingly happy.
“Hey, kiddo. How’d your day go?” he asked, smushing my hair all around.
“Oh, great.” he didn’t hear the sarcasm in my voice. Sarcasm has been completely wasted on my father ever since he met Hanako-san.
“And how’s the student government meeting?” dad wanted to know.
“Bitchin’.” that was Zono, trying to imitate my voice.
“What do you mean, bitching?” Hana-chan, over at the stove, flipping quesadillas that were sizzling on the griddle she set over the burners. “What was bitching about it?”
“Yeah, Zono-chan. What was bitching about it? Were you and Sachiko-chan playing footsie underneath your desks or something?”
Zono got all red in the face. Mochi said he’s a first baseman, but it looked to me like he’s a wrestler because his neck is as thick as my thigh. When his face gets red, his neck gets even redder. It’s a joy to see.
“Don’t call me ‘chan’. What are you even talking about?” Zono demanded. “I don’t like Umemoto Sachiko.”
“Sure, you don’t. That’s why you sat next to her at lunch today.” Zono’s neck turned the color of blood.
“Hisashi! Satoru! Get a move on, you two. Soup’s on.” Hana-chan suddenly started yelling her head off. Which shocked me, since―being an anchor-woman of Monterey’s morning news―her voice is her primary source of livelihood.
Her other two sons, Satoru and Nabe, came shuffling in. Well, Satoru shuffled, Nabe bounded. Nabe is a really smart kid, and in him I saw a lot of potential help with my homework, even if I was three grades ahead of him.
Satoru, on the other hand, is of no use to me whatsoever, except as a guy I ride with to and from school. At eighteen, Satoru is in full possession of both his license and a vehicle, but you’re taking your life into your hands riding with him since he was hardly ever awake due to his part-time night job as pizza delivery boy.
“She sat by me. I don’t like Umemoto Sachiko!” Zono bellowed.
“Surrender the fantasy.” I advised him as I sidled past him. Then I whispered into his ear as I went by, “I just hope that you two practised safe sex that night at Yoshikawa’s pool party. I’m not ready to be a step-uncle yet.”
“Shut up!” he yelled at me. “You… you… fungus hands!”
I placed one of my fungus hands over my heart and pretended like he’d stabbed me there.
“You wound me, Kenta-chan. Gosh, that really hurts. Making fun of people’s allergic reactions is so incredibly incisive and witty.”
“Yeah, dork. What about you and cat dander, huh?” Satoru said to Zono as he sat down.
Zono, in out of his depth, began to look desperate. “Umemoto Sachiko,” he yelled, “And I are not having sex!”
I saw my dad and Hana-chan exchange a quick, bewildered glance.
“I should certainly hope not,” Nabe said as he breezed past us. “But if you are, Ken-chan, I hope you’re using condoms. While a good-quality latex condom has a failure rate of 2% when used as directed, typically failure rate averages closer to 12%. That makes them only about 85% effective against preventing pregnancy.
“If used with a spermicide, the effectiveness improves dramatically. And condoms are our best defense―though not as good as abstinence―against STDs, including HIV.”
Everyone in the kitchen―me, my father, Hana-chan, Satoru, and Zono―stared at Nabe, who is (I think I’ve mentioned before) fourteen.
“You have way too much time in your hands.” I said.
“It helps to be informed. While I myself am not sexually active at the current time, I hope to become so in the near future.” Nabe shrugged. “Mom, your quesadillas are on fire.”
While my father jumped to help put out the cheese fire, my stepmother stood there, apparently, for the first time in her life, at a loss for words.
“I―oh. My.” she said.
Zono wasn’t about to let Nabe have the last word. “For the last time, I am not having sex with―”
“Aw, Kenta. Put a sock on it, will ya?” Satoru said.
Zono, of course, wasn’t lying. I had seen myself that they’d only been playing tonsil hockey. After all, Zono and Sachiko’s fiery passion was the reason why I’d been slathering cortisone cream in my hands.
But what was the fun of having a stepbrother if you couldn’t torture them?
Not that I was going to tell anyone what I’d seen. I am many things, but not a snitch. I would have liked Zono to have gotten caught sneaking out while he was grounded. I don’t think he’d learned his lesson. He would still probably refer to my friends as fag.
But I wasn’t going to be the one to turn him in. It’s just not classy, you know?
“And did you,” my stepmother asked me, putting the salad bowl in the table, “find the student government bitching?”
“Yeah, it was.” I took a sip of my water.
“What was decided at the meeting?” dad asked.
“I made a motion to cancel the spring dance. Sorry Zono-chan, I know how much you were counting on escorting Sachiko-chan to it.”
Zono shot me a dirty look from across the table.
The dog, Max, came snuffing along and put his head in my lap. Although I’d lived here less than a month, Max had already figured out that I’m the person most likely to have leftovers on my plate (which I secretly snuck to Zono’s plate when he wasn’t looking).
Dinnertime was the only time that Max ever paid attention to me. Most of the time, he avoided me and my room like the plague. Like most of the animals, dogs are very perceptive to paranormal activities, and Max sensed Sawamura.
“Well, what are you going to do with your class funds instead?”
I shrugged. “We have to raise money to replace that statue of the founder before the Archbishop visits next month.”
“Oh, of course. That statue was vandalized.”
Of course, that’s what everyone was going around saying. But the statue had not been vandalized. What happened was, Tanba’s ghost tried to kill me by using the severed statue’s head as bowling ball.
And I was supposed to be the pin.
When dad came back with a plate full of quesadillas, chaos ensued. When it was over, my plate and Hana-chan’s plate were still empty. She put her fork down and scolded her sons, who had the gall to look sheepish.
“Kaz, I’m going to make you the cheesiest quesadilla you’ve ever―”
“You know what, don’t bother. I’ll just have some cereal, it’s okay.” I stood up before Hanako could get out from her chair.
“Kaz, it’s no trouble.” She looked hurt.
“But I’m making more, anyway.” She looked so pathetic.
“Well, I’ll try one. But for now, finish what’s on your plate and I’ll just go get some cereal.”
As I was talking, I’d been backing out of the room. Max was at my heels, he was no dummy. He knew he wasn’t going to get a crumb out of those guys there. I was Max’s ticket to people food. Once I was safely in the kitchen, I got out a box of cereal and a bowl, then opened the fridge to get some milk.
Max suddenly slinked away from the kitchen with his tail between his legs to know that I was in the presence of another member of the Undead. That was when I heard a soft voice behind me whisper.
“Geez, Mom! I told you not to do that.” I said, slamming the fridge door close. I nearly jumped out of my skin.
My mother―or the ghost of my mother―was leaning against the kitchen counter, her arms at her hips. She looked so smug. She always looked smug when she manages to materialize behind my back and scare the bejesus out of me.
“So,” she said, as casually as if we’ve been talking over lattes in a coffee shop. “How’s it going, kiddo?”
I glared at her. My mother looked exactly like she always had back when she used to make her surprise visits to our house back in Tokyo. She was wearing that same outfit she’d been in when she died.
“Mom, where have you been? And what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be haunting the new occupants of our house back in Tokyo?”
“Meh, they’re boring. Couple of your dad’s old workmates. Steel is all they talk about. Besides, I wanted to see how you and your dad are doing.”
She was peering out of the pass-through dad had put in when he was trying to update the kitchen from the 1850s-style décor that had existed when he and Hanako-san bought the house.
“That her?” my mom wanted to know. “Lady with the―what is that anyway?”
“It’s a quesadilla. And yes, that’s her.” I grabbed mom’s arm and dragged her to the center island so she couldn’t see them. I had to talk to a whisper to make sure no one overheard me. “Is that why you’re here? To spy on Dad and his new wife?”
“No,” mom looked indignant. “I have news for you, but I’ll admit I did want to drop by and check out the lay of the land, make sure she’s good enough for him. This Hanako-san, I mean.”
“Mom, I thought we’ve been through this already? You were supposed to move on, remember?”
“I tried, Kazu. I tried, but I can’t.” she shook her head, trying for her sad puppy-dog face, thinking it might make me back down.
“Why, Mom? What’s holding you back? Dad’s happy, I swear he is. It’s enough to make you puke. And I’m doing fine, I really am.”
“You say you’re fine, Kazu, but you’re not happy.”
“Oh gods, not that again. You know what would make me happy? If you’d move on. You can’t spend your afterlife following and worrying about me.”
“Because you’re gonna drive me crazy.” I hissed through gritted teeth.
“You don’t love me anymore, is that it kiddo? Alright, I can take a hint. I’ll just go haunt Grandma for a while. She’s not as much fun because she can’t see me, but I’ll rattle some doors―”
“Mom!” I glanced over my shoulder to make sure no one’s listening. “Look, what’s the message?”
“Message?” she blinked, and then went, “Oh yeah. The message. I understand you tried to contact a man today.”
I narrowed my eye at her suspiciously. “Shirakawa Red. Yeah, what about it?”
“This is not a guy you want to be messing around with, Kazu.”
“Uh-huh, and why not?”
“I can’t tell you why. Just be careful.”
“Thanks for the enigmatic warning, Mom. That really helps.”
“I’m sorry, Kazu, I really am. But you know how this stuff works. I don’t get the whole story, just… feelings. And my feeling on this Shirakawa guy is that you should stay away. Far, far away.”
“Well, I can’t do that. Besides, I’m not alone. I’ve got―”
I hesitated. Sawamura, I’d almost said.
You would think my mom knew about Sawamura. She knew about Shirakawa Red, so why didn’t she know about Sawamura? But apparently, she doesn’t. Because if she did, you could bet I would have heard about it.
“Look, I’ve got Father Kataoka.”
“No, this one’s not for him either.”
“Hey… how do you know about Father Kataoka? Mom, have you been spying on me?” I glared at her.
My mom looked sheepish. “The word spying has such negative connotations. I was just checking up on you. Can you blame me for wanting to check on my little boy?”
“Check up on me. Mom, how much checking up on me have you done?”
“Well… I am not exactly thrilled about this Sawamura character.”
“What? What do you want me to say? This guy’s practically living with you. I mean, you’re a young boy.”
“Mom, the guy’s deceased. It’s not like my virtue is in any danger. Besides, I don’t even like guys! And even if I did, I doubt Sawamura does―”
“Oh, c’mon. I have seen plenty of times that poster of a handsome baseball player on your wall, not to mention the fleeting looks of those guys you call teammate. I wasn’t exactly happy about you living in the dorms―”
“I mean it, Kazuya.” When my mom calls me Kazuya, she means business.
“Alright, Mom. But please don’t say anything to Sawamura. He’s kind of had it tough, you know? I mean, he pretty much died before he ever had a chance to live.”
“Hey, have I ever let you down before, sweetie?” my mom gave me her big, innocent smile.
Yes, I wanted to say. Where was she when last month, I was so nervous on moving to the US, starting new school, living with a bunch of people I barely knew? Where was she when I was nearly killed by a malevolent, jealous ghost of a teenage boy last week? When I stumbled on that poison oak?
But I didn’t say what I wanted to. Instead, I said what I felt like I had to. This is what you do with family members.
“No, Mom. You never let me down.”
She gave me a big hug then disappeared as abruptly as she had shown up. I was calmly pouring cereal in my bowl when dad came into the kitchen and switched on the overhead light.
“Kaz? You alright?” he said, looking concerned.
“Sure, Dad. Why?” I shovelled some dry cereal into my mouth.
“I thought…” my father peered at me curiously. “I thought I heard you say, um… well, I thought I heard you talking to… did you say mom?”
I was totally used to this kind of thing. “Well, I was just wondering what Hanako-san would say if I called her mom? I mean, the boys already call you dad, so…”
My father looked immensely relieved. The thing is, he caught me talking to Mom more times than I can count. He probably thought I was a mental case. I had to feel sorry for dad. He’s a nice guy and doesn’t deserve a freak like me for a son.
When I was fourteen, he got me a phone, thinking so many girls would be calling me. You can imagine how disappointed he was when I always turned my phone on. And even then, only he was calling me. Any unknown number is automatically blocked.
When you’re busy with trying to survive baseball practice and spend hours of studying gameplays, you’d kinda want to avoid random girls calling you, wanting to meet you to confess. I’m not being an egoist, just practical. Who needs the grief, anyways?
Later, after dinner, with quesadilla congealing in my stomach, I decided to tackle the Red problem once more, despite my mother’s warning. I had gotten Yuki Shirakawa’s home phone number in the most devious way possible: through Haruno’s phone which I borrowed during the meeting.
Haruno’s phone had an address book function, and I’d snagged Yuki’s phone number from it before handing it back to her. Hey, it’s a dirty job but somebody’s gotta do it. Of course, I had forgotten the fact that Yuki, and not his father, would pick up the phone.
“Hello?” he said.
I recognized his voice instantly. It was the same soft voice that had stroked my cheek at the pool party. I’ll admit, I panicked. I did what anyone had to do to survive that ordeal: I hung up. Of course I didn’t realized he had caller ID.
So when the phone rang a few minutes later, thinking it was Ryou, who’d promised to call with the answers to our geometry homework (I’d fallen behind from all the mediating I’m doing), I picked up.
“Hello? Did you just call me?” he said in that same soft voice.
“Uh, by mistake. Sorry.” I said a bunch of swear words real fast in my head.
“Wait. You sound familiar. Do I know you? My name is Yuki. Shirakawa Katsuyuki.”
“Nope. Doesn’t ring a bell. Gotta go, sorry.”
I hung up and said a bunch more swear words, this time out loud. Why, when I’d had him on the phone, hadn’t I asked to speak to his father? Why was such I a loser? Father Kataoka was right. I was a failure as a spiritual liaison. A big-time failure.
I could exorcise evil spirits, no problem. But when it came to the living, I was the world’s biggest flop. This fact was drilled into my head even harder, when hours later, I was awakened again with blood-curdling shriek.